By Peter Steinfeld
We’d gotten everything: cake, flowers, presents, balloons… The cards somehow had slipped my mind. I searched before going to bed. We always had backups for this kind of thing. We’re card people. Except this time. We’d done a big spring-cleaning months before, making that decision we hadn’t wanted to make, turning the place into a rental unit. Vince, our realty agent, called it “de-personalizing.” Removing photographs and kid art—erasing traces. I didn’t like the idea of strangers sitting in our chairs, sleeping in our beds, eating our porridge.
Lisa and the baby were asleep when I strapped Jo into her car seat and jumped behind the wheel. “I look like Mommy and I act like you,” said Jo. In ten years, she’ll be real happy it wasn’t the other way around. Music, coffee, sippy cup, and we were off. I’ve thought about this moment a million times. Did I see the old woman in Pool #31 as we made a left on the Avenida, past Don Miguel Circle, and out the North Gate toward Albertsons? She’d gone for a Mother’s Day swim. Sometime around 7:00 a.m. That’s what Ted across the street told me later. I must have seen her. I mean, the pool was right there. You couldn’t miss it. Then again, with two kids under the age of four, being up with the baby half the night, the other half praying for the condo I didn’t want to rent to be finally rented… Or maybe I didn’t see her because by then it was too late.
The parking lot at the Albertsons on the corner of Country Club and Monterey was a retiree’s wet dream: generous, wide-open spaces, multiple easy-access entrances, pristine carts as far as the eye could see. Joni Mitchell would’ve approved. Inside it just got better. Think what a supermarket might’ve looked like in Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life. Bright. Beautiful. Abundant. But then Jo and I hit the card aisle on Mother’s Day morning, and it was here the dream died. Like we’d clicked the remote, channel-surfed past the bounteousness that was Defending Your Life, and somehow landed on Private Ryan and company stumbling into what was left of the village of Ramelle.
Empty envelopes, like rubble, were strewn across a dusty, decimated aisle; card-rack carcasses savagely stripped bare. Sons, fathers, husbands—eyes glazed, thousand-yard stares—picked through card-stock remains like disappointed coyotes late for the kill. “Hello, my baby / Hello, my honey / Hello, my ragtime gal.” I looked over to see Jo holding one of those musical greeting cards. She’d somehow managed to find the last remaining functional card in this Hallmark hellscape. She kept opening it, over and over, the song abruptly starting and stopping like some sadistic version of musical chairs that no one wanted to play. I decided in that moment that if Hell had a theme song, it would be the Andrews Sisters’ “Hello, My Baby” playing on an unrelenting loop.
Nearby, some hollow-eyed dad numbly sang along to Jo’s card as he reached for another that read: “¡Feliz Día de la Madre, Abuela!” I wanted that card with every fiber of my being but remained neutral, casual, comfortably numb. When he put it back, I pounced. We hadn’t had much to laugh about lately, and I thought it would be funny if Lisa, who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, got a card that said: “Happy Mother’s Day, Grandma!” in Spanish. We found one more card that would be from the baby. And a Bat Mitzvah money-holder from our long-haired Chihuahua-Pomeranian mixes, Cookie and Ginger. Even our dogs were card people.
A quick “King of the World” cruise on the shopping cart through the paved paradise parking lot, and we were back on the road. I was awake now. AC blasting. It was already ungodly hot. Expected to hit triple digits by noon. July weather in mid-May. The Coachella Valley would be a microwave in the coming months: a bad omen. People didn’t exactly line up to rent a converted three-bedroom, sun-adjacent condo during the Apocalypse. We were supposed to visit my sister and her family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that summer, but we needed the condo-rent money to pay for our flights. I wasn’t looking forward to making that call. “Hello, my baby / Hello, my honey / Hello, my ragtime gal.”
“Someone’s having a bad day,” said Jo from her car seat as we made our way through the homeowners’ gate. Sometime in the past few months, she’d started saying this whenever an ambulance Doppler-ed by. Palm Desert was essentially a retirement community. She’d been saying that a lot lately. In the rearview, I saw her gazing out toward the second fairway. The dreaded East Course Hole #2: a narrow par four, lined on both sides by condos, dotted with palm trees and intermittent white-sugar sand traps. It was a straight shot, a seeming no-brainer for anyone familiar with the business end of a 5-wood. Until you found yourself chipping from your neighbor’s lanai. At which point, you had triple-bogeyed, you were seven over par, and it was only Hole #2.
The first thing I noticed was the foursome on the tee box just standing on the burned grass carpet, their eyes trained on whatever Jo was watching, not teeing off. Then I started watching, too. Three men in uniform—two of them paramedics, the other a Deputy from the PDPD—were pulling a woman from the pool with the same sense of urgency as if an umbrella had blown into the deep end. No frantic attempts at CPR. No mad-scramble lifesaving heroics. Just three men trying to stay dry as they struggled to lift the lifeless old woman over the coping. “Hello my, baby / Hello, my honey.”
Her bathing cap started to slip off. The deputy acted fast to keep it from falling. It was something I didn’t judge in the moment. I don’t think you can judge those kinds of things in the moment. I thought about it that night though. And since. What would it matter if the old woman’s bathing cap came off? Why did the deputy have that instinct? Maybe he did it out of habit. Maybe he was trying to preserve what was left of her dignity. Or maybe, like the rest of us watching on, he just felt helpless.
A car behind me honked, and I realized I was still sitting in the homeowners’ gate. I pulled forward past the ambulance as the paramedics and the deputy laid the old woman on a lounge chair facing the pool. That was the lounge chair you hoped you’d get at Pool #31. Western views. Bright pink, purple, and red bougainvillea spilled over the retaining wall. Beyond that, the cinnamon Santa Rosa foothills cowered beneath the San Jacinto Mountains, usually snowcapped this time of year, but it was already too damn hot.
“Is that grandma okay?” said Jo as we rolled slowly past Don Miguel Circle toward Serena. Why was I driving so slow?
“Yeah, sweetie. I’m sure she’s just tired.”
One of the paramedics placed a pool towel over the old woman’s body. Jo wanted to know how come they were covering her face. Could she breathe? I think I said something about making sure the grandma didn’t get sunburned on Mother’s Day. “I’m sure she can breathe just fine,” I said, a little too upbeat.
As we turned off the Avenida onto Serena, about twenty yards down on the right, I caught a last glimpse between condos. The two paramedics were exiting the pool area, the deputy now sitting alongside the grandma under the morning sun. It looked like he was reading a book. A pleasant enough setting if it weren’t for his companion. I wondered where he had gotten the book. If he had brought it with him knowing it might take a while for the Riverside County coroner to show up. Then it occurred to me: it was the grandma’s. She’d probably planned a quick dip followed by a few chapters while the sun dried her off on the lounge chair with the western view of the pink, red, purple bougainvillea, and the cinnamon Santa Rosa foothills.
My phone buzzed. It was Vince from the rental office. “Don’t ask me how I did it, but I did it.” Turned out Vince went out drinking the night before with a couple who’d just come down from Calgary. They needed a place starting June 1st. A two-month rental at full price. It was the call I thought we’d never get. The one at 4:00 a.m. that morning (and every morning) I prayed would come. I could hear him light a cigarette on the other end. “Not a bad way to start Mother’s Day,” he said, laughing on the exhale. Jo could hear him on the speakerphone. She did a laughing-exhale impression of Vince. Not bad. The kid had a future.
A minute later we were inside the condo. Lisa and the baby were already up. I gave them both a kiss, told Lisa the good news, and wished her a Happy Mother’s Day. The plan was to pack up the car and hit the park for a picnic brunch. Lisa was good at noticing things and would’ve definitely caught the literate poolside deputy and the old woman’s feet sticking out from under the pool towel. (It had been the only part of her that showed.) So I took the “scenic route” out the Gran Via South Gate. Lisa noticed that, too, and looked surprised. I smiled and squeezed her hand.
At the park, Jo couldn’t wait to give Mommy her card. Lisa conjured up the right amount of amazement which made Jo know she really nailed it on this one. The four of us lay back on the blanket, stared at the cloudless sky, and dreamt about the summer we’d spend in the Outer Banks. Far from Pool #31, the ambulance sirens, and the cinnamon Santa Rosa foothills. “Hello, my baby / Hello, my honey / Hello, my ragtime gal.”
Peter Steinfeld is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles with his wife and two teen daughters. Originally from New Jersey, he got his break in 2000 with the indie dark comedy Drowning Mona starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler. Other film credits include the comedy Analyze That starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal; Be Cool starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and The Rock; and the M.I.T. card-counting drama 21 starring Kevin Spacey, Jim Sturgess, and Kate Bosworth. Recently, he wrote The Legend of Cocaine Island for Will Ferrell at Neflix. His latest project, Insane, is a limited series for Warner Bros Television based on the life of 1980s New York consumer electronics kingpin-securities fraudster Crazy Eddie Antar, which he’s producing with DeShawn Schneider, who is his wife and partner, and Greg Berlanti.