Wednesday, February 2, 1994
Religious quotations cover the walls; open Bibles appear on every table. I'm here to install a drop-down ladder to the attic and then add a few lights.
I better watch my mouth, I'm thinking. No cussing today. So first thing, I drop an 8 foot ladder which bangs my shin and puts a dent in her oak floor, and I shout: "FUCKING SHIT!"
I'm hopping on one foot, holding my shin with both hands, as Dottie rushes into the hallway. "Are you all right?"
Dottie is a perky blonde, cute, chipmunk cheeks. Her chunky black eyeglasses combined with a bit of extra body weight almost disguise the fact that she is still a great-looking woman. I've known her for years — 14 years, in fact, since our kids were in a playgroup together in La Honda. She and her husband recently moved to Palo Alto. This is my first time inside her house.
"I'm not broken," I say, still hopping, "but it hurts like, um, heck and now there's a dent in the floor. Sorry about the cussing."
"Forget the floor," Dottie says. "Let me look at your leg."
I stop hopping. She leans close. Already a bruise is visible. To my amazement, she leans even closer and kisses the bruise.
She stands up straight. "Did that hurt? Or help? It always worked on my kids."
"It helped." I'm not kidding. Awesome, the amazing healing power of lips and spit. Temporary pain relief, at least.
"My kids didn't have so much hair," Dottie says, wiping her mouth.
"Sorry," I say.
"You can't help it if you're a grown-up," Dottie says.
The conversation has taken an odd turn, and we both know it. Dottie walks to another part of the house. I return to work.
Dottie's impulsive. She plunges into things, and it's usually for the best. She's the one who started a preschool playgroup in La Honda, which is how I met her. It was quickly obvious to me — and everyone else — that she had no idea how to run a playgroup, so other parents soon took charge, and Dottie bowed out. You could say she failed as a leader, but in fact she created a group that became a La Honda institution.
My second involvement with Dottie came when I volunteered to supervise the La Honda swimming pool. Dottie had been running it for the last 6 years and was delighted to hand it over. "Do you know anything about swimming pools?" she asked.
"Me neither. But somebody has to do it. You'll find yourself making decisions you are totally incompetent to make. You'll look to the sky and say, 'Why me, Lord?' but nobody will help and you'll just have to decide."
She was absolutely right. I ended up taking charge of remodeling the entire pool and rebuilding the filter plant because it simply had to be done.
Both Dottie and I served on the Board of Directors, which was La Honda's town government. At one point I wanted to allow kids from the Glenwood Camp to swim in the town pool as a reward for their help in cleaning the place up. To my surprise, the Board of Directors was opposed to the idea. La Honda was always an outlaw town, former headquarters of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, frequent gathering spot for Hells Angels, and long ago a hideout for the Jesse James gang — but in 1983 La Honda was run by a conservative group of old farts. "We don't want those kids in our town," they said. "Those kids," of course, were juvenile delinquents and — worse — most of them were nonwhite.
"I know those kids," I said. "I grew up among people like that. There but for fortune go you or I."
"Amen," Dottie said.
We were outvoted, 7 to 2. (That was the last gasp of the old guard.)
Somebody told me that Dottie and her husband, both devout Christians, had experimented with wife-swapping in the 1970's. I didn't know what to make of that, and I wasn't going to ask.
Dottie told me that she had met her husband doing missionary work in Africa. Her husband was Chinese, not African. He was on a medical mission; she was founding schools. "We didn't preach or anything," she explained. "We led by example."
I'm installing the ladder in a hallway that connects two sides of the house with a sort of vestibule/laundry room in between. In the vestibule are a hot tub, washer, and dryer. Now with the ladder installed, I have to keep going up and down as I run wires in the attic for new lighting.
Near the end of the day, I come down the ladder to find a young man squatting naked, stuffing his clothes into the washing machine. It's Ben, Dottie's son, who played soccer with my son back in the day. Now Ben is a college student. We nod hello to each other, and then Ben climbs into the hot tub. Ben, like most Asian-American hybrids, is a gorgeous human being.
After another trip to the attic, I find Jack, Dottie's husband, also naked, standing in the hot tub with his son. Jack is a surgeon at Stanford Hospital. He's smoking a joint. Jack and I nod hello, and then Jack holds out the joint to me.
"No thanks," I say. "I'm working."
"Good for you," Jack says. "I take it for my arthritis. I hope you don't have that problem yet." (This is 1994, long before medical marijuana has been legalized or even entered mainstream discussion.)
Jack does not share the joint with his son, nor does Ben seem interested.
After an extended trip to the attic I come down the ladder to find that Dottie has joined husband and son in the tub. She's wearing a bikini bottom, no top. She's unpinned her hair, and it drapes down her chest. Her fair flesh is mottled red from the heat. Without eyeglasses, she squints. "Are you about done?" she asks.
"All done," I say.
Jack isn't sharing the joint with Dottie, either. Apparently it is purely medicinal.
"I'll write you a check," Dottie says, and she climbs out of the tub. Shrugging into a bathrobe, she pads into the living room and finds the checkbook in her purse. Dripping onto the carpet, squinting, she says, "I hope we don't shock you. Over the years we've found the hot tub is the best place to talk family matters with the kids. I'd rather it was at the dinner table, but you have to grab these moments. And," she laughs, "everybody's more honest when they're naked. Ben wants to drop out of college and do missionary work in Mississippi setting up health clinics. We support his ideals but we wish he'd finish school first. Don't you think?"
"I'd better not take sides on this," I say.
"You're so smart. You've always been smart. It was always so great to work with you. Sometimes I —" She breaks off.
top flap of her bathrobe is hanging open. I can't help but notice. Her breasts are literally steaming. A small silver cross nestles above them. There's the scent of chlorine as the water evaporates.
For a moment, she squints at me.
Then she hands me the check. "There but for fortune." She flashes a smile.
Maybe I should say, "Amen." But I don't. I like her; she admires me; but we're separated by the Christian thing, and anyway neither of us is looking for adventure of that kind. I think. I'll never know.
Dottie walks back toward the hot tub. "Thanks for the good work," she says.
I came out of the Sixties: pot-smoking war protester, hairy hippy, no church. Dottie the devout makes me feel straight.
A few months later a friend tells me that Dottie and Jack have sold their house. With the inflated price of Palo Alto real estate, they could retire. Instead, they've put all their possessions in storage and gone to some South Pacific island to do missionary work: Jack the surgeon with arthritis, Dottie who will start schools and then not know how to run them. They'll do more good than harm, guided by their love and their God.