- E.R. Anderson reading from novel in progress, Paradise Park, at the 2011 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer’s Retreat Reading.
- Paradise Park, Chapter One, Graciela 1974
Graciela rarely asks for rides: men offer, sometimes plead, and she weighs their kindness against their desperation. She is not foolish enough to believe that the kind men are so different from the unkind, she simply understands that the kind ones will take longer than the unkind to reveal their desires through a desperate act. It is a word problem from her middle school algebra book: “If two men are traveling at X rate of speed from Point Y to Point Z who will arrive at point D (for danger) first?” She is always solving for X.
County Road 129 hasn’t been repaved in forty years but that doesn’t keep the humid asphalt from gripping the spike of her heel with each step as if begging her to stay. When cars approach she merges to the side of the road, calf-high weeds clinging to her hose and covering her with briars. She’s walked two miles if she’s walked an inch, so the park the waitress promised can’t be far now. Less than a mile she guesses. If a ride came now she wouldn’t even entertain it. She’s close enough that it’s not worth the risk. She will pick the seeds from her stockings and check her foundation in her compact at the edge of the property before she comes in sight of anyone who matters. She is not a woman who perspires easily; she will dab her handkerchief at her temples and upper lip, but she will leave a sheen across her clavicles because she knows that despite the gold cross resting squarely in the middle of her chest, a little sweat reminds men of what they hope is possible. When she is satisfied with her face she will take the handkerchief and dust her heels so they will shine against the dull red dirt.
She’s already picturing it. The smile she’ll give. The story she’ll tell. He will say they don’t need a fortuneteller so she will tell his fortune. She’ll paint the crowds for him, the nervous young woman hoping for an engagement (Graciela will know by the way she twists her ring finger), the old man needing a second chance with his high school love (she’ll hear the tremor in his voice when he says he’s happy to be alone), the ten-year-olds who want to know what they will be when they grow up (she will crown them actress, war hero, basketball star because their vanity will exceed their skepticism) and “You sir,” she will say to the man who is already poised to hire her, “You, sir, will be a very rich man.”
By the time she sees the first of the machines (a coaster, she guesses) rising above the pines she has refined her pitch to its sharpest point. She is coming from the back way, she knows, so the driveway she chooses after refreshing her makeup and shining her shoes is the road to the employee parking lot and the administration buildings. This is where the managerial man will be: a soft, sweaty man in a stained white short sleeved dress shirt with polyester brown pants and a burnt orange and brown tie. He will be in his mid-forties, married once with one child, a girl, who since she turned eleven he barely knows how to talk to anymore, and an ex-wife with a new, better looking husband in a better luck town. Mr. Manager won’t own the park or have any real money in it, but he will think of it as his and he will imagine the money Graciela will bring in as his, even as he makes deposits in another man’s name. All of this will help her, she knows, and it is with this image in her mind that she pauses in front of the cinderblock trailer steps, tugs at the top of each breast to fluff it in her bra, smooths her skirt for wrinkles, and prepares her face with a smile.
The trailer door is aluminum and lighter than it looks so she opens it with more gusto than grace. A wall of dusty air-conditioning slaps her face and blows her hair askew. A bar of sun shines through the broken Venetian blinds and causes her to squint towards the desk at the back of the office.
“Hello,” she says in her best exotic, but non-threatening, foreigner voice. Already Mr. Manager is falling in love with her. She hopes he is not handsy. She hopes she can start today.
“Can I help you with something Senorita?” The voice in the shadows is a woman. Not Mr. Manager at all. As Graciela approaches, the woman hunches over the desk like a toad on a lily pad. The nameplate (cheap, faux brass) reads Mr. Ronald Denton.
“Yes. I’m here to speak with Mr. Denton, please.” She stands up straight, clasps her hands together and lets them hang low in front of her like a supplicant.
“Afraid not.” The toad woman says, giving her a lingering once over before turning back to her paperwork.
“I’m sorry, whatever do you mean? I’m sure he’s expecting me.” Sometimes Graciela says things in such a way that even she believes them to be true.
“It’s impossible.” The woman says, without looking up. For a moment Graciela wonders if she’s made a terrible mistake and Mr. Denton was fired this morning or hit by a truck on his way home from work last night.
“Why’s that ma’am?” She hazards a question, figuring if he’s gone the deal’s blown anyway.
“Because Mr. Denton tells me everything and he definitely did not tell me about you. So if that’s all…” Graciela can’t read the toad woman. Is she in love with the man or the job? Threatened by Graciela or disgusted by her? In the split second she ponders her next move she notices a pair of eyes peeping through the broken blinds.
“Who’s that?” She asks, pointing at the peeper.
Toad lady’s eyes swing in unison, one solid beam, like a flashlight in a dark room, around and up to where the intruding eyes have now widened, preemptively chastened.
“Madeline. Who’s old enough to know better,” She says as she grabs the first object that comes to her hand, a stapler, and hurls it at the spy. No wonder the blinds are broken. Her attention is borrowed only for a second but it is all the time Graciela needs to sneak a look at the open appointment book on the desk and see that Mr. Denton has an eleven o’clock meeting with the Coca-Cola supply man at the main concession stand.
“Well, ma’am it’s clear you’re a busy woman. I don’t want to keep you. You have a nice one, okay?” Graciela turns on her heels and glides out of the office before the toad woman can ask her name.
When she sees Mr. Denton, red faced and frustrated in his conversation with his supplier, Graciela feels redeemed. White dress shirt, check. Brown polyester pants, check. Wide-striped tie, check. The only thing she gets wrong there is the color, it’s royal blue and tan, no orange. Both men stop their dickering and stare as she approaches. She won’t be but a minute she says, and can she just have a quick word. It’s even easier than she expected since Mr. Denton wants to look like a big man in front of the Coca-Cola rep. She barely has to paint the scene for him before he bites the hook so hard he’s practically choking on it. By the time they walk back to the trailer to draw up the paperwork, which stipulates Graciela be allowed to stay on the property in her own small house for the duration of her contract and can accept tips and gifts in addition to 40% of her day’s take, they are such old friends that Mr. Denton almost believes he is telling the truth when he says to Mrs. Turner that of course he was expecting Graciela.
- “Terminus,” short story, 3rd place winner in Creative Loafing’s Fiction Contest.