JUNE 17, 1994
Brenda can’t decide what is worse, watching her husband drive like a maniac or worrying about some idiot on the San Diego Freeway crashing into his brand-new truck. Everyone is driving too fast, following too closely, and changing lanes without signaling. At least the traffic is moving, she tells herself, somewhat of a miracle on a getaway Friday. And then for no apparent reason, all the brake lights go red and every vehicle in all eight lanes across the freeway comes to a dead stop. She braces her hand on the dashboard as her foot instinctively reaches for the nonexistent brake pedal.
“Will you stop that?” Frank says.
“You should have taken surface streets.”
“Surface streets would have been worse.” Frank drums his fingertips on the steering wheel. “Jesus Christ. What the hell is going on?”
“It’s Friday night. What did you expect?” Brenda wonders again why he’s so intent on going to a housewarming party in Torrance just because some woman he works with at the post office bought herself a condo. It doesn’t seem much to celebrate, but Frank changed into his best Hawaiian shirt and a new pair of shorts as soon as he came home from work.
“I could have at least made my seven-layer dip. I wish you’d given me a little more notice.” She never goes to parties emptyhanded. She’s famous for her dip, her guacamole, and her double fudge Bundt cake. “Why would you take the girls and not me?”
“I told you, you didn’t have to come. There must be an accident ahead.”
She flips down the visor to check her hair. The new style is very blond and very short, with loose spiral curls gelled away from her face. Her hairdresser copied it from a magazine photo of Drew Barrymore, which her daughters find ridiculous, their ancient mother imitating an actress their age. Frank either hasn’t noticed or has chosen not to comment. His red hair is flecked with gray and there are tiny lines etched around his green eyes, but (luckily or unfortunately, lately she can’t decide which is more accurate) he’s still the best-looking man she knows.
Peggy and Allison laugh together in the back seat about something. She glances at them as she touches up her lipstick. Her daughters are barely ten months apart in age but could not be more different in temperament or appearance. Peggy’s a pretty girl, a somewhat sturdier version of herself. They are both brown-eyed blonds, although Peggy’s hair is more of a dishwater color and her eyes are always too serious. If only she’d wear something more flattering than that flannel shirt and those overalls. Allison’s especially adorable today in her slip dress over a plain white T-shirt. Her youngest is suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, tall, redheaded, green-eyed, impatient, and easily irritated with her all the time, just like Frank is.
“Who is this woman again?” Brenda asks.
“You’ve met Linda before at Bill’s barbeque on Memorial Day. She transferred here from Denver.”
She vaguely remembers Linda now. Single, older, with big horsey teeth. “I don’t understand a woman buying a place on her own.”
“Me either,” Allison says. “Has she just given up on ever getting married?”
“God,” Peggy says. “Women can buy houses on their own, you know. You are aware it’s almost a new century.” “That’s my girl,” Frank says.
“I know women can do whatever they want,” Brenda says, noting Peggy’s satisfied grin at Frank’s praise. “But I don’t understand why anyone would buy a condo in Torrance.”
“Don’t even think about it, asshole,” Frank says as a green Corolla tries to cut in in front of them. “Linda wanted to live closer to her mother.”
“Condos don’t appreciate like houses do. Especially in Torrance. She’ll never get her investment back.”
Now the Corolla is blocking both lanes and Frank blasts his horn.
“Let’s just get off at the next exit and go out to dinner,” Brenda says. “I saw a Cheesecake Factory a few miles back.”
“I can’t get off the freeway right now,” Frank says. “I’m locked in.”
“Why are all those people standing on the overpass?” Allison asks.
Brenda looks up and indeed, there are dozens of people on the overpass, staring intently through the chain-link fence at the freeway below. A few of them hold signs. HONK IF YOU LOVE THE JUICE! RUN O. J. RUN! The man driving the green Corolla shuts off his engine and gets out of his car.
Frank rolls down his window. “What are you doing?”
“O. J.’s making a run for it,” the man says. “He’s behind us now, in a white Bronco, heading this way.”
“Who’s O. J.?” Allison asks.
“Some guy whose wife was murdered,” Peggy says.
“He’s not just some guy,” Frank says. “He’s the greatest athlete of our time.”
“Remember those commercials,” Brenda says, “where he jumped over suitcases at the airport?”
“The Juice is loose,” a woman getting out of a car behind them yells. The crowd is giddy with the exhilaration of standing on the normally forbidden freeway. On the southbound side, cars are parked in the carpool lane, and their passengers lean over the center divider as if they are joining a neighborhood barbecue.
“This is crazy,” Brenda says.
“Let’s get out.” Frank turns off the engine and jumps out of the truck, both girls right behind him.
“Be careful!” She says as he reaches for Allison’s hand and glances over his shoulder, waiting for Peggy. She smiles. He may not be a faithful husband or a forgiving man, but he’s always been a good father. She gets out too and leans against the hood of Frank’s truck. It’s a beautiful metallic blue color, a nice contrast to her white midriff top.
The circus atmosphere around her, however, is unsettling. This morning’s newspaper said O. J.’s two young children slept through the attack on their mother and that the entranceway to Nicole’s pink stucco house was slick with blood. Brenda hasn’t been able to get the images out of her head.
She feels a rumbling sound overhead as a swarm of helicopters hovers above the freeway. The blades stir the warm mid-June evening air into a dusty cloud of cigarette butts, drink straws, and fast-food wrappers. Lights flash from the tops of at least twenty police cars and half a dozen motorcycle cops. The noise from the crowd intensifies as people cheer. “Go, O. J., go!” Frank pumps his fist in the air and Allison waves her hands overhead. Even the hard-to-impress Peggy is smiling, her face flushed with excitement.
Brenda’s heart beats faster as a white Bronco with dark-tinted windows approaches, barely going twenty miles an hour. She doesn’t recognize the man hunched over the steering wheel, but she’s seen the larger man in the back seat before. He came into the steak house where she worked years ago, before she was married. O. J. Simpson, staring right at her, right now with big brown eyes. He doesn’t look like a murderer. He looks like a grieving man with a dead wife and two motherless children. She raises her right hand and waves. He nods slightly as the Bronco passes, followed by more police cars and motorcycles.
They all climb back in the truck.
“That was pretty exciting,” Allison says.
“We’ll probably be on the news,” Peggy says.
“O. J. Looked right at me,” Brenda says. “I think he recognized me.”
Frank snorts. “From where?”
“He came into the steak house once. I told you that.”
“You actually met him?” Allison asks.
“Well, he sat in a different section. But I must have made an impression.”
“It’s been twenty years since you worked there,” Frank says. “There’s no way he’d remember you. Although you are his type.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She knows from the newspapers Nicole Simpson was also tall, tanned, and Orange County raised, but Nicole had a huge chin, which took away from her prettiness. Brenda’s chin is nowhere near that large.
“Blond and beautiful, of course.” It doesn’t sound like a compliment and Frank’s smile is cold as he turns to the back seat. “Aren’t you guys glad you decided to come with me tonight?”
“They’re going to be bored to death,” Brenda says. “No one brings their kids to work parties anymore.”
“Linda’s place isn’t far,” he says. “We can still make the party.”
“Lucky us,” Brenda says.
“DID you think any more about Orchard Hills?” She asks once traffic is moving again. She’d left a flyer next to his side of the bed about a new housing development going up near one of the best high schools in one of Orange County’s nicest neighborhoods. Frank doesn’t like to discuss money in front of the girls, but now she’s in the mood for a fight.
They’d made a huge mistake buying into their housing tract, not realizing the school districts would be remapped. Instead of attending Huntington Beach High School like they’d planned, the girls were stuck at Ocean View. The name itself is ridiculous. There’s no view of the ocean, just a strong scent of garbage from the city dump down the street. Peggy’s apparently happy about attending Cal State Long Beach this fall, but Brenda had hoped for a college with more prestige, especially considering Peggy’s almost all As. She doubts Allison’s barely C average will get her into a decent art school. If she’s serious about being an interior designer, Allison’s going to need connections, which means meeting a better class of people.
“How much could we get for our place?” There’s not much more they can do to their two-story Colonial. They’ve replaced the aluminum windows with double-paned vinyl, scraped off the cottage cheese ceilings, added crown moldings, remodeled both bathrooms and the kitchen, and relandscaped the front and back yards. It’s primed to sell.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now.” Frank nods his head toward the back seat. “And we can’t afford Orchard Hills anyway.”
“Am I still going to be able to live in the dorm?” Peggy asks.
“I’m not changing schools my senior year,” Allison says.
“Of course, you’re going to live in the dorm. Your father’s overreacting as usual.” She turns to Frank. “You’re the one who just spent all that money on your boat.”
“I just put money in our boat so we can sell it.”
“This is so typical of you. You have no vision.”
“I make decent money. Which you don’t seem to have any trouble spending.”
“I just want a better life for our girls. And it would be nice to live someplace with a view. I’m sick of all the cinderblock walls.”
“It’s called suburbia. You don’t think people should have walls around their property?”
“It’s ugly. I’d like some open space around me. And some trees.”
Frank’s lips tighten, and he turns up the radio. Classic rock, as usual. She’d give anything to hear something with a little soul, something from this decade at least.
“If Bill’s at this party, I’m asking him about New Orleans.”
This is something else Frank won’t want to discuss right now. He’d announced over breakfast he was going to Louisiana in July to look at some new kind of mail-sorting machine, which sounded like another boondoggle, and she expected to tag along, as she’d done before on his trips to Washington, DC, and San Francisco. It’s the only way she ever gets to go anywhere.
“I already told you, the district manager specifically said, no spouses.”
“New Orleans is the one place in the world I’ve always wanted to visit. You know that.”
“There’s nothing I can do. Bill says they’re concerned about how it might look to the auditors.”
She glances over at the woman alone behind the wheel in the car next to them and tries to imagine being on her own. What a relief not to have to argue about everything, to make her own decisions about where to live and travel and what to listen to on the radio. They might as well sell the boat and make some room in the driveway. They haven’t gone to the river in years.
Frank is always working or traveling for work.
Back in the day, before he’d started finagling his way through the maze of post office politics, they’d caravanned with friends out to the Colorado River for long weekends. They both had more stamina then, fueled by youth, alcohol, and occasional lines of cocaine. Frank had the biggest boat, and she was the only woman who could drink as much as the men did. She was fun. At night, they’d leave their girls asleep in the tent and take the boat across the river to the bars on the Arizona side. They’d dance on a deck under the stars until it was almost dawn, cruise back across the river, nap for a few hours, and then drive back to Huntington Beach in time for Frank to make it to work. She misses those days. She can still be fun.
When Frank parks in front of what must be Linda’s building, Brenda half wonders if he’s been there before since he doesn’t seem to have any written directions, but she can’t imagine how or why he would know this neighborhood. The building is a beige concrete box on a street lined with identical concrete boxes, one right after another. It’s the kind of place where people who don’t have any choices would live.
Frank dangles the keys in her face. “You’re driving home. It’s my turn to drink.”
“I can drive,” Peggy says. “I need the practice.”
“You drive like an old lady,” Allison says. “It’ll take forever to get home.”
“So what?” Peggy says. “It took us forever to get here.”
Frank is already heading across the brown grass toward what must be Linda’s building. Brenda puts the keys in her purse. “Peggy can drive us home as long as we leave before it gets too dark.”
Inside the condo, the usual crowd is huddled around the television set, the other postal couples they’ve known forever: Julie and Rick, Bill and Sue. It’s an incestuous job. Julie sells stamps, Rick supervises custodians, Sue is a mail carrier, and Bill (much to everyone’s surprise and Frank’s obvious jealousy) has just been promoted to plant manager, which technically makes him Frank’s boss. A half dozen other familiar faces sit or stand around Linda’s tiny living room. Brenda recognizes Phyllis, from accounting, and her husband, both heavy-set, both wearing not exactly clean cowboy boots. They live out in Riverside and raise chickens. Ginny, Frank’s secretary with the big fake boobs, and her latest husband, whose name Brenda can never remember, sit on the love seat next to the couch. They all stare at the screen, watching police cars follow O. J.’s white Bronco. No one else has brought their kids.
“We just saw O. J. On the freeway! He looked right at me.” Everyone seems suitably impressed, so she goes on. “He came into my restaurant once, a long time ago.” “Your restaurant?” Franks laughs.
Linda gets up from one of the couches. “They say he’s heading to his mother’s house to turn himself in.”
Linda could not possibly have chosen a less attractive outfit. The elastic waist on her skirt bunches across her stomach. The paisley-printed tunic doesn’t go with the turquoise earrings or the clunky brown sandals. Her eyes are a nondescript color, and her lashes and eyebrows are almost invisible. She doesn’t color her hair and she should. The woman needs a makeover.
“Let me get you a beer,” Linda says.
“Nothing for me,” Brenda says as Frank follows Linda out of the living room past the dining room table loaded with gift bags and cards. She could have easily put a housewarming gift together. Gift bags are her strong point. “I didn’t realize there was a party tonight. Frank didn’t give me enough time to change.” She knows it doesn’t matter what she wears to these things since no one gets dressed up. Sue and Julie still have on their uniforms.
Still, she believes in making an effort. She glances down at her wide-legged jeans and midriff top, which suddenly feels a little too slinky, the way it gapes open above her cleavage. She adjusts the neckline and tries to ignore her daughters’ expressions across the room. They don’t think she should wear midriffs anymore. They’d rather she dressed like a nun.
Bill raises the glass of scotch in his hand in salute from where he’s leaning against the wall of the dining room, untucked shirt, loosened tie, face slightly flushed. He’s a softer and slouchier version of Frank with the same Irish coloring, nearly handsome with a tendency to be obnoxiously extroverted. “You always look glamorous, Brenda.”
“You’re definitely our fashion plate.” Sue’s tone borders on sarcasm, but Brenda lets it slide.
“We missed you at step class last night,” Brenda says. “We learned a new routine.”
Sue says she couldn’t talk herself into going. “It was Pennysaver day. I was beat when I got home.”
The postal uniform doesn’t do Sue any favors. She’s slim and trim above her waist with narrow shoulders and small breasts but look out below. Her hips, ass, and thighs are enormous. Pennysaver or not, Sue needs the exercise.
“You should have seen Brenda,” Julie says. “Up in front of the class with all the twenty-year-olds.”
“You were working hard too,” Brenda says.
Julie is skinny with ridiculously sized double-D-cup breasts, a hawklike nose, and thin hair that she wears in an unattractive bun. Last night she was in the back of the class, talking more than moving, but everyone needs a little encouragement.
“You know what I just realized, Brenda?” Bill says. “You look a lot like Nicole Simpson. No wonder O. J. Was staring at you. He probably thought he was seeing a ghost.”