The American Dream
Marcia Gilmore took the keys to her fifteen-year-old Ford Focus from the hook next to the front door of the studio apartment she shared with her granddaughter and turned to see Alicia coming out of the bathroom dressed as if she were a teen-age prostitute. Her too-small t-shirt, decorated with a picture of something that looked like a giant mouth eating a spider, revealed far too much of her feminine figure for Marcia’s taste. And her shorts displayed a ridiculous amount of her legs. She held her tongue because Alicia had just moved in the previous week and they weren’t used to each other yet. Alicia had graduated from high school in the spring and, after several physical altercations with her mother, who was Marcia’s oldest daughter, had been convinced to move in with Marca while she attended Los Angeles City College. So far it had seemed more like meeting a new prisoner who would share her cell than inviting her granddaughter into her home.
Alicia fluffed her bobbed blonde hair, which was the same straw-color Marcia’s had been when she was younger and the same length, but flaying randomly about her head, and said, “I don’t know why you want to drive me to school, like I was a child going to my first day of kindergarten. I could have taken the bus.”
They had discussed this several times leading up to this momentous event and Marcia had gotten the upper hand with her antiauthoritarian granddaughter only because Alicia liked her, whatever that meant to an eighteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles.
“As I’ve said before, you are the first person in our family to go to college and I’m excited to share this moment with you. In fact, I may be more excited than you.”
Alicia rolled her blue eyes in a way Marcia couldn’t imagine doing and said, “Okay, Marcia, just try not to get in an accident. The buses are very safe, you know.”
“Why do you insist on calling me Marcia?”
“I’m not going to call you grandmother and since we don’t have a unique ethnic vocabulary with great words like Ouma, Nainai, or Tutu, you’re stuck with your real name. I’m not going to speak to you as if I were a child; you are not Lala, Abba, or any of those other stupid names that people use these days. We’re roommates. Besides, don’t you like your name, Marcia?”
“Yes. I do, but I’m not accustomed to being called that by my children or grandchildren.” She tried to roll her eyes as she added, “I guess I’ll get used to it. Let’s go now.”
Alicia led the way out the door as Marcia locked it and followed her granddaughter down the concrete stairs to the parking lot behind the apartment building. She couldn’t help watching Alicia, who walked as if she were on top of the world, a feeling Marcia had lost a long time ago.
They found Marcia’s Ford still in the parking lot and headed out to introduce Alicia to her new world. After driving a couple of miles on the 101 freeway, Marcia noticed the engine temperature rising alarmingly. She was accustomed to minor inconveniences and immediately turned on her emergency flashers and looked for a safe place to pull over. Before the car had come to a complete stop on the wider pavement at the entrance to an offramp, she had called the tow company and the garage, where she was a regular customer. Alicia had been watching her do all of this with amazement on her face but, when they had come to a stop on the busy freeway, she expressed her concern.
“Why are we stopping, Marcia? Do you feel sick or old or something like that?”
Marica turned to her distraught granddaughter and said, “No. The car is overheating, and the mechanic told me that I should always pull over when that happens to avoid expensive repairs, which I can’t afford. The tow truck will be here in a few minutes. Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll get you to school on time.”
Alicia shook her head in disbelief as Marica added, “We should exit the vehicle and wait on the side of the highway until the tow truck arrives. Some idiot texting on their cellphone might run into us.” She smiled in a reassuring way and opened her door, after making certain there were no idiots approaching.
They got out of the car and stood along the guardrail, where they had a good view of oncoming traffic, before Alicia said, “Has this happened before?”
Marcia nodded and casually replied, “My car has a minor problem every couple of months. I can’t afford to have all the hoses and other small parts replaced at one time, so I pay my roadside assistance insurance and wait for the next breakdown. My mechanic said that my engine and transmission are good, and this baby will last many years, as long as I don’t push it too hard.” She patted the top of her Ford confidently.
Steam was rising from the front of the sedan as Alicia exclaimed, “You have got to be kidding! You’ve been driving this piece of shit for years, and then you got me into it for my first day of college! What were you thinking? You’re just as bad as mom…I’ll probably end up a failure…just like you and her.” She was practically crying with frustration as she finished.
Marcia patted her arm and said, “This is life, Alicia. Things don’t always go the way we planned. That’s why we have to be prepared for the unexpected.” She paused to think about Alicia’s statement before adding, “I don’t feel like a failure and I certainly don’t think your mother is one either. Why did you say that?”
Alicia stared at the disabled car as she answered. “You were born in the golden age of America and yet here you are living in a studio apartment and driving a piece of shit car. Mom and Dad aren’t doing much better, in case you haven’t noticed. I was accepted to UCLA and even USC, but mom and dad couldn’t afford the tuition. That’s why I’m going to LACC.” She turned to Marcia with tears in her eyes and added, “What the hell went wrong? My entire family is a bunch of losers.”
Marcia had stopped thinking about that years ago, so she didn’t have an answer for Alicia’s simple question; instead of addressing the economics of working class people, she responded to her granddaughter’s original statement.
“What are you talking about, Alicia? What golden age are you referring to?”
Alicia looked at her uncertainly and replied, “That’s what we learned in school. Baby Boomers like you had it made and you screwed it all up, with your greed and hedonistic behavior…”
Marcia watched the traffic going by and timed her response for when it was a little quieter. “That was the sixties, Alicia. I was your age in the seventies. Things had changed a lot by then.”
Alicia stared at the concrete beneath their feet for a minute before looking at Marcia and asking, “What was it like when you graduated from high school?”
Marcia had to think, to put herself in Alicia’s shoes. It wasn’t a very pleasant memory. When she had gotten a rough image of being eighteen in her mind, she responded. “I worked at a boutique selling flowers, framed photos, and stuff like that. It was a part-time job, which I loved as a high school student. I had no plans to go to college and, in fact, I had no real plans at all. I thought I would get a permanent job with my high school diploma…”
Alicia looked at her steadfastly and said, “What happened after you graduated?”
Marcia didn’t like remembering that. “I couldn’t find a job. In fact, I saw storefronts closing everywhere but I was too young to understand what was happening.” She breathed heavily and continued, “I stayed at my part-time job until the store went out of business…”
“What happened?” Alicia asked incredulously.
Marcia didn’t like sounding as if she were complaining about her life, but Alicia had asked, and they weren’t going anywhere for a few minutes. She looked at her granddaughter uncertainly and shrugged before hesitantly responding.
“Well…I don’t know exactly but, looking back, it seems that the whole world fell apart. It wasn’t a depression or anything like that, but it was a very bad time, at least for me and most of the people I went to high school with. It was the end of the Vietnam war, which we were losing, and there was the whole Watergate thing with Nixon—”
“I learned about that in my Civics class. All the President’s Men was a movie about Nixon and his cronies who spied on the Democrats. He even had people break into a psychiatrist’s office to get medical records showing that a whistle blower was crazy, or something like that.”
Marcia suddenly remembered the name. “Daniel Ellsberg. That was his name, but he wasn’t a whistleblower. People who reported wrongdoing weren’t protected by law back then, so he leaked secret Pentagon documents about the Vietnam war to the press but, because of illegal actions taken against him by Nixon and others, his trial for espionage was dismissed.”
Alicia’s response was partly drowned out by a passing tractor-trailer rig. “…compared it to the whole Trump impeachment thing, but he concluded that Nixon’s behavior was much worse than President Trump’s. What do you think?”
Marcia was certain that Alicia had been paraphrasing her Civics teacher, so she reluctantly shared her memories. “I think he’s right about that. I mean…Nixon wasn’t even impeached because the evidence against him was so strong, after Justice Department and public congressional hearings, that he resigned. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives were dominated by the Democratic party, but it was the Republican leader of the Senate that convinced Nixon to resign before the impeachment could begin. His own party had abandoned him.”
Alicia nodded thoughtfully and said, “Mr. Brandywine said that the political situation has become more divisive since then and that no Republican would convict Trump, no matter what. He had a really bad opinion of politics in general.”
Marcia hadn’t realized that Alicia was so politically aware. They hadn’t talked about these things much. She was about to comment on how mature her granddaughter was when Alicia continued, “But being involved in a bad war that America was losing and discovering that we had a criminal in the White House shouldn’t have impacted your personal life. What’s the rest of the story?” She was gazing at Marcia expectantly.
Marcia shook her head quickly. “You don’t understand, Alicia. I didn’t plan to be waiting on tables when I was sixty-four. I guess I thought I would work in an office, like your mother does, or maybe in a factory making something…”
“So?” was the skeptical response from her granddaughter.
Marcia struggled to remember what she had thought and done forty-six years earlier. She would patch it together and convince Alicia, and herself, that she wasn’t a loser. “When I started driving, which was limited to occasional use of my parents’ car, gasoline cost thirty-eight-cents a gallon and it was everywhere. Before you say how cheap that is, I was earning less than two-dollars an hour and only working twenty hours per week. My senior year in high school, the Arab oil embargo occurred, and the price jumped to fifty-five-cents per gallon and there wasn’t enough to go around. Gas was rationed—”
Alicia interjected, “Oh sure, I remember reading about that. There were long lines at the gas stations and a national speed limit of 55 mph was enacted in 1974. Still, I don’t know how that would have affected you; after all, I was working for minimum wage in high school, which was eleven-dollars per hour, and paying four-dollars per gallon for gas. I drove mom’s car just like you did, but I paid a lot more of my income for fuel than you…” She glared at Marcia triumphantly.
Marcia was waiting for the implications of her statement to dawn on Alicia, and they did. Suddenly, she grimaced and exclaimed, “Oh my god, Marcia! How can you live on less than two-thousand dollars per month?”
“I get tips too, although those are shared with other workers.” She smiled at Alicia and said, “You know how I get by, sweetheart. I live in a studio apartment and drive a piece of shit car and I don’t go to the movies or to restaurants or on vacations.”
The young woman nodded understandingly as several big rigs in a row passed them, making conversation impossible. Just as Alicia was about to respond, a Styrofoam cup was thrown from a passing truck, which looked as old as Marcia’s Ford, and struck her car, sending ice cubes flying through the air to hit the two women.
“Goddamnit!” exclaimed Alicia as she jumped and swiped at her tight-fitting t-shirt.
Marcia wiped the caramel-colored ice from her own blouse and calmly said, “People can be such jerks sometimes.”
Alicia wasn’t going to be deterred from her interrogation of Marcia. Her countenance hardened, probably from realizing that the sticky residue now staining her t-shirt would make her look like white trash on her first day of college, as she faced her grandmother and continued, “You didn’t answer my question, Marcia.”
“What question? In all the excitement, I forgot what you asked me.” She hoped that would change the subject of their conversation. It didn’t.
“How did you manage to make your financial situation worse at your age than it was when you were my age?”
That was the question Marcia didn’t want to answer because she didn’t understand it herself. Where had she gone wrong? She couldn’t put her finger on a single event that had led to her current situation. It must have been her marriage to Ronald Gilmore, who had seemed like a reliable young man when they had dated, which led to an unplanned pregnancy, a seemingly happy marriage, and three children, before he had abandoned her and their children and moved to Ohio, or someplace like that. At any rate, she had never gotten alimony or child support from him. She had recently learned that she couldn’t even get social security from their marriage because it had only lasted eight years, which was two-years short of the minimum to get benefits for having been a homemaker. She didn’t want to share the unavoidable conclusion from this tragedy with her granddaughter. Her reflection was interrupted by Alicia’s impatient voice.
“Didn’t you even try and get a better job?”
Marcia didn’t want to deceive Alicia, who she felt was old enough to understand how complex real life was, so she scrunched up her mouth and looked into her granddaughter’s sky-blue eyes and said, “You need to understand that I am very happy with my life, sweetheart, and, if I could do it all over, I wouldn’t do anything differently because I have you and your brother, and your cousins. I love you all so much.”
Alicia looked at her questioningly until Marcia continued, “As I said, I couldn’t find a job when I graduated high school. You must know that an average unemployment rate of eight percent, which is what it was soon after I left home, means that young people with no skills, people like me then and you now, have very little chance of finding a career job. And inflation was more than twelve percent and my meager salary couldn’t keep up.”
Then, she remembered something else. “President Nixon had imposed wage and price controls a couple of years before I graduated, which led to a further decrease in job opportunities and no chance of wage increases. I was close to becoming homeless when I met your grandfather. We dated a while and I married him because I was pregnant, and he seemed like a very stable provider at the time, which he was for eight years. We don’t talk about it in the family because it was a long time ago, but you should know since we’re…roommates.”
Alicia stared at Marcia for several moments before responding. “Are you saying that my existence is the result of a choice you made when you were my age, at a time in your life when you had no options and saw no future for yourself, other than marrying someone who had a good job? Did you at least love him?”
Marcia nodded. “Of course. I wouldn’t have married Ronald Gilmore if I hadn’t been in love with him, but I learned that romantic love is a temporary thing. Our love didn’t grow into fondness, however, at least not for him.” She shrugged to indicate her uncertainty about what comes after romantic love. She had never remarried.
Alicia started to answer, but then a flatbed tow truck slowed down and pulled over in front of the stricken car. Marcia checked the time on her wristwatch and sighed with relief because it had only been twenty minutes. She could still get Alicia to school on time for her first class.
The driver was a big man who looked older than her, with a bald head and a beard and wearing jeans and a blue shirt with his name on it. His name was Jerry, and she could see that he was competent because it only took five minutes for him to get her car on his truck and, after Alicia and she had climbed into the cab, with Alicia sitting in the middle, they were on their way. Jerry never took his eyes off the road and seemed unaware of their presence in the truck’s tight cab, so Alicia quickly relaxed enough to continue their conversation.
“I think I understand, Marcia. Even though you had no personal dreams of the future, you discovered that you didn’t have control of your life and you had a sense of disappointment at how things turned out. This feeling of loss has haunted you all your life and prevented you from getting over Ronald Gilmore’s abandoning you with three young children. Why didn’t you—”
Alicia turned quickly to Jerry and said, “What did you say?”
Without taking his eyes off the road, Jerry, who had probably had this conversation many times with a captive audience, was more than happy to continue, “When I graduated from high school in 1971, I had no plans at all, just like Marcia, but then I got a letter from the draft board informing me that I was to report for active duty in the U.S. Army. I was as young as you, Miss, when I found myself sitting in the wide-open door of a helicopter with a thirty-caliber machine gun and a fifty-pound cast-iron plate strapped to my chest, and Charlie trying their best to kill me and everyone else on board.”
Marcia gasped at his words and stammered, for no particular reason, “Were you ever shot?”
Traffic came to a standstill at the exit that led to the garage as he answered, “I got scratched half a dozen times, in my arms, head, and legs, but I never got no Purple Heart medal.” He paused and laughed, never taking his eyes off traffic, and continued, “But you ought to see that cast-iron plate. I have it hanging on the wall in my living room. It’s got more than a dozen dents and a couple of Russian AK-47 rounds still stuck in it. My wife treats it as if it were a religious symbol.”
He laughed and added, “I became disillusioned after my tour in Vietnam.”
Marcia was aghast. She had thought her life had been difficult, but Jerry’s story sounded supernatural.
Alicia had taken an interest and now she shared her thoughts with Jerry. “Did you become disillusioned with war?”
Jerry put the truck in gear and crept forward fifty feet before answering. “I never believed in war to begin with, Miss. I was drafted to serve my country and I did the best I could…no…I became disillusioned with life. I had faced death and seen men die around me so many times that I had some serious behavioral problems when I got home. The psychologists at the VA hospital told me that disillusionment is part of the process of recognizing that our dreams, whether we are aware of them or not, don’t usually turn out the way we expect. They warned me about sinking into cynicism or, worse yet, nihilism, which is not believing in anything and…well, it’s like anarchy of the mind. Those VA doctors were telling me the truth, and I don’t feel angry or abused by the government anymore and I accept life at face value. It is what it is. That’s what they told me.”
Traffic surged forward and Jerry kept up his monologue as he inched towards the garage, only a couple hundred yards ahead. “I’m not driving this tow truck because I couldn’t find a better job. No ma’am. I like helping people like you ladies, getting you out of a jam and putting your lives back on track. I know what it’s like to be left stranded—that’s another story from when my chopper went down—and I enjoy getting people out of a bad situation, and LA freeways are always dangerous.”
Jerry seemed to have nothing else to say, and Alicia and Marcia were speechless after his story, and so they drove in silence to the garage. Marcia didn’t think she would ever get his evocative description of dead men and their blood and body parts scattered about his helicopter out of her mind, but she understood his story. She wished she could have spoken to the VA psychologists, as they arrived and climbed down from the cab of the tow truck at the garage.
When Jerry had unloaded Marcia’s broken Ford and was about to leave, Alicia suddenly hugged him and said, “Thank you for picking us up and sharing your story with us. I’ll never forget you, Jerry.”
Suddenly embarrassed at her rash words, she pulled back from him and started to apologize, but he cut her off.
“It was my pleasure, Miss, but you should remember what the VA doctors told me. Disillusionment is the door that leads to understanding, which leads to acceptance, and therein lies salvation.”
With those last words, he got back into his tow truck and left them, never to be seen again.
The mechanic didn’t spend very long finding the problem with Marcia’s car. A radiator hose had split and lost the coolant; he could replace all of the original hoses for a minimal cost above replacing only the one that had failed. She agreed and they were on their way in only fifteen minutes. They wouldn’t have time to stop for coffee, but Alicia would get to school in time for her first class.
Marcia was about to call a taxi on her phone when Alicia announced that she had called Uber and their driver would arrive in ten minutes.
The wait for the driver wasn’t spent in silence because Alicia immediately continued the conversation they’d had with Jerry. “Have you ever felt disillusioned about life, Marcia? I mean the way Jerry described it, after his visits to the VA psychologists.”
Marcia had never thought about it that way. In fact, she’d never thought about disillusionment as applicable to her. That was something that happened to people who were homeless, drug addicts, or ex-soldiers like Jerry but, after hearing about his experiences in Vietnam immediately after graduating from high school, she wasn’t so certain. He may have been making it all up, but she didn’t think so because he’d hadn’t sounded like someone looking for sympathy, but more like a man who knew his place in the scheme of things. Jerry had spoken like the person Marcia would like to be, even though she couldn’t relate his story of combat and facing death to her own life; they seemed to be worlds apart, but were they really? It was too much to try and understand in such a short time.
“Well?” her granddaughter asked impatiently.
It caused Marcia a great deal of discomfort to answer, “I’m not as smart as you and Jerry. I’ve never thought about any of the things that he spoke of and I don’t know that my life is like his; after all, he was in a war whereas I was just a naïve young woman who married the first man who was willing to support her. I feel so stupid, Alicia, when I meet people like him…or you.”
Alicia put her arm around Marcia’s waist and leaned against her as she replied, “You aren’t stupid. If you were, you would be homeless and not in a position to have a roommate. You are a caring person, which is why I love you more than my own parents. You make decisions based on feelings rather than cost-benefit analyses, and your approach to life has created the life you wanted, even if without the financial security you would have liked. You have a family that loves you and a granddaughter for a roommate; I can’t believe that I have his opportunity to be living with someone like you.”
Marcia didn’t know how to respond to such an outflowing of sentiment from her granddaughter. She had never suspected that Alicia cared for her so much because her mother, who was Marcia’s oldest daughter, had always treated Marcia as an embarrassment to the family. Her son, the eldest of her three children, never returned her calls except on holidays, and her youngest daughter only asked if she needed anything, probably thinking that Marcia couldn’t get to the store to buy food. She sometimes felt as if her children had abandoned her and, now, she had found a granddaughter who accepted her and loved her openly. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
She was spared from appearing stupid when a red Nissan drove up with an “Uber” sign on the windshield. After checking the license plate number, Alicia took Marcia’s hand and led her to the car before opening the passenger door for her and getting in the back seat for the next leg of their journey to Los Angeles City College.
The driver began talking before they were out of the parking lot. “I’m Janine. How are you ladies doing this morning? Another glorious L.A. day.”
Marcia had never ridden with an Uber driver before, but she had taken taxis several times. There must be something about sitting in a car all day that made people want to talk, like Jerry. She had recovered from her disturbing conversation with Alicia and was her normal cheerful self as she responded.
“I’m Marcia and this is my granddaughter, Alicia. We had a little car trouble, but I don’t think it ruined our day—”
Alicia interrupted from the back seat, “Not at all, Marcia. In fact, this is turning into a wonderful day. How about you, Janine?”
“Couldn’t be better, but my day is about to end. I’ve been working since midnight. You wouldn’t believe how many people need a ride in the early morning hours, and they’re not just party goers. Los Angeles is a city that runs twenty-four hours a day.”
Marcia nodded her agreement because she had worked the night shift several times over the years and had never seen the streets empty or a lack of customers in the diners and bakeries where she’d worked. She noticed that Janine looked to be about forty, which prompted her to ask, “Is this a part-time job, Janine? I’ve worked the night shift before, and it isn’t something I’d want to do permanently…” She stopped, realizing she’d was probably prying into Janine’s private life.
Janine was the opposite of Jerry. She turned to Marcia as she maneuvered her way through heavy traffic and said, “I’m divorced but my kids are in high school, so I don’t need to be there at night. I see them every afternoon when they get home from school, which is when I get up. I have black-out curtains on the window in my room and so I sleep very well. We have dinner together and that’s plenty of time to talk to teenagers, if you know what I mean.” She laughed and Alicia joined her from the back seat. Marcia wasn’t sure if Janine was laughing with sincerity or because she was used to it.
Alicia spoke up from the back seat. “Marcia raised my mom and her brother and sister by herself after she got divorced. She’s a great grandmother, but she doesn’t have much money. She has to wait on tables to earn a living because she got screwed by her ex-husband and social security. Are you saving a lot for your retirement?”
Marcia was appalled and wanted to apologize for Alicia’s forward behavior, but Janine didn’t give her a chance. She looked into the mirror to see Alicia as she responded.
“I got lucky because I was married fifteen years, so those years when I stayed at home and took care of the household and raised our children weren’t wasted, with respect to social security. However, my husband left the state and I don’t get any child support or alimony, so Marcia and I share that problem. That’s why I drive for Uber. I had no skills and the only thing I could have done at my age was do exactly what Marcia did, until Uber came along and offered me a chance to make money from driving and meeting people. It’s not great but it’s a living, and I really like what I do, even if I have to work at night. There’s a lot of money to be made on the night shift and most people don’t want to do it.”
She shifted her gaze to Marcia and continued, “Still, I don’t have any extra money for retirement although, as a private contractor, I do pay my social security tax, so I’ll have that in addition to whatever I’ll get from my homemaker years.” She didn’t seem disappointed by her situation, which surprised Marcia.
Marcia cleared her throat and garnered the temerity to ask, “Do you think you’re disillusioned, Janine? What I mean is…we spoke to the tow-truck driver about this and he said he was disillusioned with life after the time he spent in Viet Nam, but he seemed proud of having faced uncertainty and disappointment. He even went to psychologists to deal with…” She ran out of steam and sat silently, waiting to be corrected by both of her companions.
Alicia interjected, “Jerry said that he learned that disillusionment could lead to nihilism, which is like ultimate defeatism, but he found a way to understand and accept the uncertainty of life and now he feels like he has found salvation.”
Janine laughed nervously as she stopped suddenly when a shopping cart rolled into the street in front of them, followed without warning by a homeless man dressed in a dark blue overcoat and dirty tan pants. When the vagabond had recovered his possessions, never looking up to see the red car or its passengers, had gotten back onto the sidewalk, Janine turned to Marcia and, with a serious countenance, responded.
“My husband and I were both devout Christians when we met. We were going to live the life Jesus wanted us to live, and we did for ten years. We went to church twice a week; in fact, we spent all Sunday in church activities besides Wednesday bible study, and we raised our children to walk in Christ’s footsteps. But temptation was too great for Howard and he had an affair with a gorgeous blonde with a killer figure who sang in the choir. She left the church, which was probably no more than a passing fancy for her, but he confessed his transgression before the congregation and asked for forgiveness for his sin of adultery. I thought everything was fine for a while, but he had simply become better at hiding his innate behavior, so it took another four years for me to finally face reality. My husband was an unrepentant adulterer.”
Marcia was taken aback at Janine’s openness, but she managed to stammer, “Did you become disillusioned with the church after that?”
Swerving in and out of traffic, Janine answered, “No. I became disillusioned with life, just like the tow-truck driver Jerry said. I blamed myself, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and even God for doing this to me. However, I found the same path to salvation as Jerry but, rather than being helped by psychologists, I was shown how to see God’s plan for me by my pastor and congregation, who were nothing like my husband. Now I’m a deacon in my church and my faith in God is undiminished.” She was smiling proudly as she finished.
Marcia had been impressed by Janine’s story. She had to search for the words to express her feelings and finally found them. “That’s an inspirational story, Janine, and I won’t forget it. Thank you for sharing it with us.”
They pulled up to the main entrance of Los Angelos City College as Janine said, “It was my pleasure, Marcia. God’s will can be revealed to us in many ways. We only have to listen to hear his voice through the words of those we trust, just as Jerry listened to the psychologists and I took counsel from my congregation. That is the path to living together in harmony according to God’s plan.” She was beaming.
They exited the car and waved as Janine drove away to share her spiritual message with another captive audience, just like Jerry. They were both driving around Los Angelos spreading a message of hope, even if from vastly different perspectives.
Marcia insisted on accompanying Alicia to her first class because she had never been on a college campus before. Her granddaughter’s attitude had completely changed from earlier and she gladly took Marcia’s hand and led her through the labyrinth of hallways and courtyards to her first class as she expressed her concern about how Marcia might interpret the morning’s events.
“You aren’t going to become religious are you, Marcia?” she asked with uncertainty written on her face, as they approached the door of her first class.
“No. Even if I’m not very smart, I’m old enough to read between the lines. Jerry and Janine were telling the same story: They both found a way to follow the path from understanding the vagaries of life to moving on. Actually, I favor Jerry’s psychologists more than a random collection of people and a religious leader. It could easily have worked out differently for Janine. She was lucky, even though she remains committed to the same belief that got her in trouble to begin with.” She paused and giggled before adding, “I guess that applies to me too.”
Alicia kissed her cheek and opened the door to her future as she said, “I’ll see you in the morning, Marcia. I love you.” And then she was gone into the world of knowledge, leaving Marcia to contemplate what had happened that morning as she found her way home.
She made her way back through the tiled hallways lined with pictures of things she would never understand until she got to where she had begun her brief foray into the halls of learning. She went to the bus stop across the street and studied the map to find her way home from this unfamiliar terrain. Finally discovering the buses that would take her to her destination, she waited as her mind pored over the idea of disillusionment. She sat down on the bench to wait for her bus and then a man her age, dressed in cargo pants and a t-shirt took a seat next to her. Marcia felt emboldened after the conversations she’d had that morning, so she turned to the stranger to ask his opinion.
She cleared her throat to get his attention, which was focused on his smart phone, and said, “Excuse me sir, but have you ever been disillusioned with life?”
He slowly turned to her and, with a confused expression, replied, “What the hell are you talking about lady?”
She drew a deep breath and continued, “You know what I mean…at your age, you must have been disillusioned with something at some time. Have you ever wondered what it’s all about?” She motioned with her arms to make her point.
She had his attention now. His gaze followed her waving limbs and then he scoffed, “Are you one of those Beverly Hills matrons who got lost while slumming it with the rest of us?”
“No, sir. I’m a waitress at a restaurant. I’ve had an enlightening morning with my granddaughter, and I thought I’d try and find out what other people thought…I’m sorry for interrupting your wait for the bus.”
He put his phone down and turned to her, his attention entirely focused on her presence on the bench next to him. He studied her for a few moments before responding.
“I had it all before the tech bubble burst in 2000. I was a multimillionaire, but then I lost most of it, and then I learned to accept that I’d had my shot and had to live with the consequences of my decisions. Yeah. You could say I’ve faced disillusionment in my life. I was fortunate, although not as lucky as those who got out of the market before me; I even contemplated suicide at one time, when my wife left me because she saw me as a failure.”
Marcia gulped and said, “What got you through that difficult time in your life?”
The stranger thought a moment before answering. “I’m not a quitter. I didn’t go back to trading because I had made enough to live a new life, even if I wasn’t a multimillionaire anymore.” He glanced down at his casual dress and continued, “Don’t let the informal attire fool you, lady. I’m very comfortable financially, but I don’t care what anyone thinks about me these days. I keep myself busy with my family and charities, which took on a new appeal after I retired from a life of taking advantage of everyone. Now, I’m giving back a little of what I took.” He grinned at her and added, “By the way, my name is Leon.”
She shook her head to clear her mind and replied, “I’m Marcia. It’s good to meet you, Leon. Thank you for being so honest.” She shook her head again and added, “I think I’ve been disillusioned all my life and was too stupid to recognize it. I never made a million dollars, and I don’t think I would know what to do with that much money.”
He looked at her thoughtfully before saying, “No one does; that’s why we have the wealthy starting wars and fomenting discontent around the world. It’s like a hobby with them. They’re as disillusioned as you and me, but they’re too rich to see life for what it is. Life is a day-to-day experience until we die; nothing more and nothing less.”
Marcia had to ask, “Do you think it’s possible to be disillusioned with life and not know it?”
Leon thought a moment and then said, “You’re living proof of that, Marcia. By our age, if we are wise, we’ve learned to accept the unknown and some of us, like you, don’t even have to think about it. I envy you for your ability to take life a day at a time without resorting to complicated explanations.” He smiled at her as the bus that would take her on the first leg of her journey home pulled up to the bus stop.
She stood up and he did too. They shook hands and then, as she started towards the bus, he took a business card out of his pocket and offered it to her. “I just got off the night shift at the homeless shelter.” He shrugged uncertainly and continued, “I’m kind of like the night watchman, to keep the drug addicts in line and prevent the riffraff from stealing from people who have nothing of value. Maybe you would like to come down and check it out some time.”
Marcia turned he card over and saw his name, Leon Blanton, hand-written on the back in a tight printed script. She nodded quickly as she stepped onto the bus and said, “I’ll do that, Leon, because I’ve learned a lot today. And, by the way, it was very nice to meet you. I hope to see you again.” She quickly stepped onto the bus as she smiled at him. He was smiling back.