Driving into Coyote, it’s a straight shot between fields of dusty tomato plants, but the gold tower she’s aiming for is still miles away and the rattling pickup won’t go any faster.
“So forget your scheme. Turn the truck around, come back and do some real work.” She hears her dad jeering, sees her brothers nodding.
Off the freeway at last, she circles the block twice before finding the entrance to the Convention Centre and hotel parking lot. In case it’s for guests only, she leans out of the window and calls to the guy in the booth. “Can vendors park here?”
“Cost you five bucks.”
She pays, though every dollar she spends is another she’ll have to recoup. As she circles the lot, looking for a spot under a tree, she passes behind a ragged man gaping up at the hotel tower, head thrown back, arms outstretched. She parks in the shade nearby, wipes the sweat off her forehead and combs windblown hair.
“Little sister, can you help me?”
A weather-beaten face peers in the window. He’s standing right up against the truck. A skinny guy, with dirty gray-blond hair.
“This is all new to me.” He sounds put upon, persecuted. “How long has this been here?”
He strays away, then weaves back.
“I lived here. This tree”–he jabs a thumb up at the shaggy pepper tree–“was in front of my home. Over there was Chen’s market and over there… I don’t remember. The whole neighborhood’s gone.”
He wanders off again. When he’s out of sight, she climbs down from the truck, shakes loose the skirt sticking to her thighs and tugs down her t-shirt. Standing on one foot, then the other, she changes from flip-flops into high-heeled shoes. Finally, she hauls the handcart out of the back of the truck and loads her flats of vegetable starts, then wheels the cart across the parking lot, past a border of grass emerald green in the sun. At home, only the weeds over the septic tank’s leach lines grow green.
The place is as fancy as she imagined. As she rolls past the main entrance, she spies a patch of red carpet and an elevator with brass trim. Outside, a spurting fountain transports her to another place–San Francisco maybe–until a gust of hot central valley wind blows the stink of chlorine into her face.
Around the corner, she finds the Convention Centre door. A movie theater-style marquee reads:
City of Coyote welcomes the California Garden Club June 4-June 6
Friday: business meeting, welcome, brunch, seminars, vendor’s market all day
Inside the Convention Centre, she welcomes the air-conditioner’s kiss on her forehead. Passing an open door, she glimpses a big room with rows of empty chairs. At the next door, an old lady stands behind a table with a clipboard. She raises her eyebrows.
Her voice cracks when she gives her name. What if it’s not on the list? How could she prove that she mailed in her thirty bucks to reserve a spot?
“You’re late. Sign here.”
She signs beside her name, filling the last blank space on the page, and accepts her vendor’s badge. When she clips it to her t-shirt, the neckline sags.
“Next time, wear a shirt with a collar,” the old lady advises.
She rolls her cart through the door into a hubbub of voices and a kaleidoscope of moving color. The ballroom is high and deep. Just inside, a lady selling CDs sits on a stool singing along to her guitar while people bustle past. A cart offers popcorn and hot dogs, but she’s not going to fool away her profit on snacks.
The vendors nearest the door hawk antique seed packages, flowered aprons, garden gloves and books. Everything but plants. Or, not quite. Toward the end of the row, a blond lady in overalls and a straw hat sells herbs. “Certified Organic,” the sign says.
The table beside the herb lady’s should be hers, but a large-bottomed woman is bent over it, busily arranging dried flower greeting cards.
When she straightens up, she says, “Honey, do you know what time it is? I didn’t think you were showing, so I switched with you. You can have number four, over there.”
She finds number four in a dead-end row, away from the foot traffic. As she lines up her plastic pots, she worries that garden club ladies might not really garden. Besides the herb lady, no one’s selling plants.
You’re not going to sell a single one. Who’d pay a buck for a seedling?
The table looks good though, when she’s done. She pats the change in her skirt pocket and eyes the door. It’s nearly ten-thirty but no one’s coming in.
At the next table, two ladies in purple dresses sit behind piles of lavender sachets and clusters of little bottles.
“Where are all the garden club members?” she asks them.
“Don’t worry, their brunch is going late. Would you like to sample our hand cream?”
Everyone’s hustling something.
Suddenly they’re flowing in, the ladies, mostly fat, mostly in flowered dresses or even flowered slacks. Not all the ladies make it back to table four, but plenty do. Tags on their huge boobs read Bakersfield, Manteca, Ceres, Livermore.
Touching her own neck, she feels nothing. Panic floods her guts. Without her name tag, she can’t prove she belongs at the convention. Finally, she spots the white card on the floor, kicked under the table.
When she comes back up, a tall, freckled lady is standing there with her wallet out.
“I’ll take five tomatoes.”
The other vendors have receipt books, some take credit cards. Luckily, the freckly lady has cash and doesn’t ask for a receipt.
All in a rush, she sells cucumbers, more tomatoes, sweet peppers and hot peppers. No one wants corn or squash, though. She’s doing okay, not great.
Around noon, a man in a white apron strolls through the ballroom handing out fliers for the hotel’s restaurant. He’s cute, with a baby’s pink cheeks and clean pale hands, an indoor look to him.
“Good morning ladies, enjoying your stay? Stop by later, we have a special offer for garden club members.”
“A go-getter,” one of the lavender ladies says when he’s gone.
The other lady looks at the flier and scoffs. “Takes gall to charge these prices around here.”
At noon, a siren starts low and rises to a heart-stopping pitch. She bolts up out of her slouch expecting a fire or even terrorists. Maybe she’s a fool to stick herself in the tallest building in Coyote during the biggest convention the city’s ever seen. In the street outside a fire engine goes by, not very fast, considering, followed by girls playing bagpipes. Then convertibles with people waving. She sits back, smooths her skirt over her knees.
The garden club ladies go out to view the parade held in their honor. While they’re gone she eats the bag of chips she’s brought from home, though she feels self-conscious nibbling in public. The lavender ladies have spread out a whole picnic on their table with deviled eggs, sandwiches and lemonade.
After the parade, a lady with a ponytail comes in pulling a wheelbarrow full of fake flowers with a coke bottle planted in the middle. She goes slowly from table to table, pausing at the jewelry display across the aisle.
“Were you in the parade?” the vendor asks.
“Yeah, the mayor was there with the president of the Better Business Bureau. They’re set on making a go of this place.”
She plucks out the coke bottle and drinks from it.
“It’s brought in jobs,” the jewelry vendor says.
“But the hotel rooms mostly sit empty. That’s what I’ve heard.”
The pony-tailed lady with the wheelbarrow buys a bracelet for thirty dollars. That’s the whole vendor’s fee made up right there in one sale.
All around her, vendors are smiling and talking and taking in big money. Meanwhile, she’s collecting dollar bills. She decides that even if she doesn’t make a good profit today she’ll lie to her dad and brothers and say she did.
In the afternoon, the room empties as the ladies splinter off to various seminars. Though some people come in off the street, they mostly gawk.
“I read about this in the paper,” a burly young man in a wife-beater tells her. “Had to check it out.”
After the seminars, she sells more tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. The wad of money in her pocket feels thick, but it’s mostly ones. She rocks back and forth on her sore butt and rubs her lower back.
“I’m interested in edible landscaping. Which of these would be attractive in my front yard, along with herbs and edible flowers?”
“Peppers are pretty.”
“I’ll take two and put them in planters on my deck.”
As she hands the lady the two plastic pots, she sees long lines of dusty pepper plants growing plunk plunk plunk in the dead-white earth while the Mexicans’ curved backs move slowly between the rows. That’s where she’ll be tomorrow, back on the farm, with not much to show for her day in town.
A frizzy-haired woman in yet another flowered ensemble picks up a tomato plant.
“Are these vegetables organic? I only buy organic.”
She doesn’t want this sale to walk away. Under the table, she crosses her fingers.
“Yes, they are.” If the lady wants organic, she can have organic.
In fact, all the ladies can. Why not? They’ll have to pay for it though. After the woman ambles away with her plants, she takes her pen and draws an L-shaped mark, changing the $1 to a $4, then writes, “Certified Organic” on the sign. Maybe she has a chance to make some real money after all. Within minutes, a lady in a baseball hat stops to read the sign.
“Are your organic tomatoes heirloom varieties?”
“Yes, they are.” They’re what ever the lady wants them to be.
The lady smiles. “Great.”
She smiles back. She just sold a tomato start for about as much as her dad would’ve made if he’d planted it, watered it, sprayed it, harvested it and sold the it to the cannery. Let him sweat and wear himself out for pennies while she stands in an air-conditioned ballroom collecting dollar bills by the fistful.
For the next couple hours, money comes fast. Outside, the light looks different. It’s evening, at last. The low thud of a synthesizer echoes in another ballroom. Groups of dressed up teens pass by the door and some of them peer into the room.
“You say these are organic vegetables?”
It’s the straw hat and overalls lady, her blue eyes bright in her tanned face.
“Sure,” she answers. “All of them.”
She waves her hand, knocking over a pot. Dry soil trickles out and she chases it around the table with her fingers, while the lady peppers her with questions.
“What do you use for fertilizer?”
She uses fertilizer. Duh.
“Compost?” The lady prompts her. “Manure? You look blank. Fish emulsion?”
“Do you use French intensive methods?”
French what? “Sure, sometimes.”
“What do you do about mildew on your cucumbers?”
This one, she knows. “Dust them with fungicide.”
The blond lady with bright eyes keeps looking at her. Something’s wrong. Did that lady trap her? Is that what just happened?
“I thought so.” The lady makes a tsk-tsk sound with her tongue. “Unless you can show me your certificate, I suggest you change that sign.”
The herb lady backs away, shaking her head.
Bitch. She slouches in her seat. With her dirty index finger, she draws the pen toward her on the table, thinking that her dad and brothers would get a hoot out of all this; how she made herself out to be a fancy organic farmer, then got caught because of her ignorance. Blowing out air between her lips she picks up her pen, reaches for the sign, and writes $1 on the clean side of the cardboard.
By closing time, she’s sold out of tomatoes, with just a few peppers and cucumbers left. After she packs up the squash and corn and other remaining plants, she rolls out of the ballroom, ignoring the lavender ladies when they call out goodbyes to her. In the hallway, she points her cart back the way she entered, and then—why not?—she wheels it around toward the lobby.
The hall floor changes from concrete to shiny brown tile as she steps from the Convention Centre into the hotel. A girl behind the front desk glances at her, as do the half dozen garden club ladies sitting on puffy sofas before an empty fireplace. The gladiolas in the vase on the coffee table are fake. Still, with her heels tapping on the floor, she crosses the lobby feeling sexy, her chin raised, daring anyone to stop her. For a few seconds, she could be a model or TV actress.
The gold and glass doors slide open for her. Outside, in the hot wind, she passes the fountain, now illuminated. Straight ahead, developers have carved a whole new street of shops leading down from the hotel, a cul-de-sac lined with places like Starbucks, Walden Books, and Ross all lit up in the night. On the other side of these new shops, the real Coyote lies hidden and dark, the places selling used tires, bags of fertilizer, cheap Mexican food; the houses and apartments where people like that guy who used to have a house by the pepper tree still live.
She crosses the parking lot quietly, in case the bum’s sleeping in the bushes there. She doesn’t see him though.
Smiling, she unlocks the cab door. She’s glad she lied, proud, even; glad and proud she made some real money before she got caught. That herb lady had no right to get judgey. She should see herself, straw hat bobbing as she chats up the customers, obviously imagining that wearing a farmer’s costume, complete with red bandanna, helps her sell more herbs. Yeah, she’s a phony, too.
Inside the cab, she rolls down the window to let out the stale, hot air. While she changes out of her high-heeled shoes, she looks up at the tall tower, narrower higher up, outlined in gold lights, singing against the blue-black sky, crazy beautiful, like a piece of Vegas, or maybe an alien starship dropped down in the middle of Coyote. Even though those rooms mostly sit empty, like the wheelbarrow lady said, so what? The hotel’s a big fuck-you finger rising out of the flat, depressed, depressing valley floor.
She backs out of the parking place, her smile tightening. When she gets home, she’ll ease the hard-packed bills out of her pocket and fluff them up on the counter in front of her dad and the boys, a big old haystack of money that’ll make their jaws drop. She won’t mention that she pretended to be something she wasn’t. Why should she? She’ll just say, “I was a big success, see?”