“You’re standing smack in the middle of the rose capital of the world, how does it smell?” Yolie, my local host on a misadventure to Wasco, California, beamed.
“Fragrant,” I stifled a sneeze with my finger and rubbed my watery eyes. I couldn’t confess my plant allergies to Yolie, but my sadistic boss Ted knew my dilemma when he tabbed me to judge the beauty pageant for the annual Rose Festival in this central California town lost in the San Joaquin Valley amid 50 million rose bushes.
The sweltering heat slathered on another coat of misery. I vowed Medieval revenge on Ted if I survived the inglorious weekend. Upping the ante, Ted admonished me not to return to my marketing job working for him at an LA area theme park unless I showed proof of getting laid.
“I’m living vicariously through you,” Ted, a ruddy Englishman who sported a white Santa beard and belly to match, teased me. “You’re young, single, and presumably horny, so this bizarre invitation from Wasco is a perfect assignment for you, Eric. With all the debutantes parading their wares for your vote, surely even you will get lucky. I want a full report Monday morning.”
Aside from having an asthma attack and collapsing in the mud between furrows of blooming rose bushes, a living rainbow, I had little reconnaissance to share at that point and certainly no spent condoms.
In the small nondescript farming town dotted with roses and churches, I counted three farm equipment dealers, two barber shops and at least three liquor stores plus a tavern, a welcome refuge.
Yolie plunked me on a chair at the bar, patted the back of my suit hard with his dirt encrusted hand and blissfully disappeared. But fate didn’t abandon me.
A middle-aged woman two seats away studied me keenly but not like a cougar eager to pounce on a lovelorn youth. Rather, she had a worldly countenance. Her hazel eyes penetrated my soul like a polygraph test.
“You look like you landed on Mars,” she smiled and took a confident step toward me brandishing two bottles of Bud. I noticed she was wearing pearls, an odd accoutrement for her checkered cowboy shirt, faded jeans and snakeskin boots. A reporter’s notebook peeked from her back pocket.
“I’m Jane, the local newspaper editor,” she shook my hand with a grip that could beat Yolie at arm wrestling. “And you must be Eric, Ted’s protégé.”
“You know Ted?”
“He helped me with a feature at Pleasure Beach Resort in Blackpool, UK, when I worked for Associated Press. I won’t tell you how long ago but Ted and I stayed in touch. He emigrated to the States. I gallivanted around the world covering the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, human trafficking in Thailand, the first Gulf War then a stint in New York and Washington before jumping off the treadmill. I was hoping Ted would drive up.”
Jane intrigued me.
“So how did you end up in Wasco, California, in the middle of nowhere?”
The correspondent’s jaw grew taut. She took a swig of beer, but her eyes never strayed from mine until I winced.
“Maybe nowhere is where I wanted to end up, Eric. And what’s your story? Have you traveled much?”
“Does Tijuana, Mexico count?” I sheepishly gulped my beer, letting my eyes stray to the other late morning denizens of the bar including an elderly rancher doing the Texas Two-Step with a smiling older woman, a Catholic priest chowing down on a burger, a youth playing chess by himself, a prim woman sipping tea with her pinkie extended, the female Vietnamese bartender and a couple stray workers from the fields.
Jane gave me a wry grin but held her peace. She scribbled some notes in her pad.
“My job’s intense,” I feebly explained my lack of wanderlust. “Ted’s a taskmaster.”
“And a letch,” Jane laughed.
“Your words, Jane, not mine. Don’t quote me. Ted will read it and then my life really will be hell.”
Jane drained her beer without giving me an ounce of sympathy. Still, I pressed.
“All I do is run around at work; I can’t even collect my thoughts. And then I go home and my roommates want to party like we’re still in college. Figure tonight I’ll finally get some sleep cuz the sidewalks here probably roll up at sundown. And then I get dispatched to –“
“Hicksville,” Jane completed my sentence punctuated with disdain. She stuffed her notebook back in her jeans.
“Eric, I hope you’re more open-minded for the pageant judging. Of course, it’s always the vapid blonde bombshell that gets crowned. Plain Jane with talent never gets picked.”
I studied Jane’s comely looks. “I take it, Jane, you never competed.”
“Too old,” Jane took the compliment in stride and stayed on point.
“Humor me, Eric, look around the bar. What do you see?”
I gazed around absently and shrugged. “The heart and soul of America.”
Jane chewed on my words then spit them out like the shell of a sunflower seed.
“That old dude dancing with his wife is a billionaire, the son of an Okie. He owns a good chunk of the cotton fields in Kern County. The priest gets gang members out of jail to work making tortillas and stay alive. The kid playing chess with dragons and other pieces that resemble characters from Lord of the Rings carved them from a pine tree he chopped down. He’s been invited to join an ancient French wood carving order. Lila, pouring beer, escaped the terror of Vietnam and put her three children through college.” Jane reached for my hand, and I didn’t retreat.
“Know what they have in common? They’re all happy, Eric,” Jane let her words filter through my arrogant veneer then poured some more. “You asked how I ended up nowhere. Maybe Wasco is where the real stories are, maybe it’s in unlikely places like this where people discover themselves including you, my friend.”
The rest of the day was a blur spent interviewing two dozen teenage girls at a matron’s home and joining seemingly the entire town at the high school auditorium for the talent show. I shared judging honors with a drunken television reporter from nearby Bakersfield and a former model, now obese, who ran a local charm school. We asked the would-be queens what they would say about roses to promote the festival.
“They’re nice to receive,” the pretty blonde pronounced.
For the record I voted for the freckled redhead with the parrot beak who competed as a gifted ventriloquist but Jane’s prediction came true. Likewise, her words resonated with me late that night after I returned to my motel room.
I tossed the pack of condoms Ted had jokingly stuffed in my Rose Festival brochure in the trash and jerked open the window. Then I flicked off the light and collapsed on the stiff bed in my mud stained suit. The humming of the ceiling fan dueled with the droning vehicles rushing past on the Interstate anxious to bypass the dry backwater town. I found the sound soothing. Perfumed air from the fields wafted into the room, yet I didn’t sneeze. I breathed deeply and reveled in the calm, alone with my gathering thoughts, a smile dancing the Two-Step across my callow face beckoning me to be happy wherever I am.