Purple Blossoms

Jacaranda breathed in the scent of her namesake tree. It was in its rare second bloom, just in time for the start of school and the long slide into Los Angeles fall. In Grandpa’s day, the second bloom was a regular occurrence.

“But the greedy bastardos have ruined our water and the air. The trees only bloom once a year now.”

Except for his tree. The one in front of the tidy, two story Craftsman bungalow in the heart of old LA.

The heavy front door of Purple Blossom B&B was open, letting in an errant breeze, tinged with diesel exhaust from the 101. Jacaranda looked up from her work to watch cascade of flower petals, falling to the sidewalk out front, where they would be crushed to purple smears by every footfall of people heading to the panederias, the butchers, and all the other, brightly painted shops of Olvera Street, or heading down to the Chinese American Museum.

She loved the history of the neighborhood. She just hoped her little slice of it could be saved. Nothing in Los Angeles was cheap anymore, and investors sniffed around every few months or so. So far, Jacaranda couldn’t bear to sell. Besides, someone had to take care of the tree. Right?

The scent of the tree had been her grandfather’s favorite smell in all the world. And she was his favorite grand daughter.

“I am your only nieta!” She would shout the words at him, and he would laugh and laugh, the vibrations rumbling in his chest, shaking his ample belly beneath the short-sleeved plaid shirts that were his staple.

“Of course you are! But you can be my only and my favorita, too, no?”

“No, Grandpa!”

“Si!”

A car backfired outside, startling Jacaranda from the memory. She returned to polishing the amber whorls of the rich mahogany reception desk. It was quite a find. Wandering into the old warehouse on the far edge of El Monte, it was just as her cousin Berto had described. Scratched, and covered in a decade’s worth of old grease, dirt, and grime, but solid.

The year after her grandfather died, leaving her a small inheritance of money, and this bungalow with its classic bones, she had returned home from San Francisco, a marriage that ended with a whimper, and a career she cared nothing about.

She had needed something solid. Something with history. Something that might not change the world but who cares? Something that might become a small offering to the community she’d grown up in, and that Grandpa had tended in his own small ways for years.

Grandpa always told her to dream big, but make sure her roots were planted in solid ground. Giving the reception desk one more polish with the lemon scented oil, Jacaranda smiled. She had never really wanted to dream larger than the small town in the middle of the sprawling metropolis that was her neighborhood. She had because of other people’s words.

“You’re so smart!” Everybody told her. “You should do something with your life.” And so she’d signed on as a translator to a big transnational corporation. It was fun for awhile, but she had never really wanted the fancy career, or a fancy flat, or to jet around the world.

By the time Grandpa died, corporate translators weren’t in as big demand as before. AI language programs had gotten too good. Too cheap. So she took a very nice severance package in exchange for leaving quietly to be replaced by a machine, packed up the few belongings worth holding onto into her jelly bean of a Fiat, and moved back to LA.

Her one regret was that, while she had the money, she’d never taken a trip to Oaxaca to see the famous Zapotec weavers who had made the fine rug that was one of Grandpa’s prized possessions.

“We should have gone together, Grandpa,” she said, staring at the rug that now hung on the wall across from the reception desk. It was tightly woven, around two by three feet, with alternating stripes of white and golden yellow. In the center of the weaving was a human figure with a triangular headdress, arms outstretched over a triangular skirt, feet planted on a yellow stripe of earth.

Her ancestors had come from there, once upon a time, before heading north to raise cattle in what was northern Mexico at the time and was now part of the Los Angeles basin of California, USA. Originally inhabited by the Tongva peoples, it was invaded and settled by Spaniards, and reclaimed by Mexico after the War of Independence. In those early years, there was an influx of Chinese immigrants to the neighborhood, and then more Mexicans, once California was seized by the United States.

Maybe if the B&B failed, she’d go back to school. Study history.

Olvera Street, the Avila Adobe, and Our Lady Queen of Angels church anchored the neighborhood, along with the Chinese American Museum and the Plaza. It was a tourist trap now, yes, but the old neighborhood feeling still beat at the heart of it all.

“Enough, Jacaranda. You still have work to do.” Folding the polishing cloth, she rang the elaborate brass reception bell, cast with whorls of flowers that twined all around the base, before climbing the fat round dome of the bell itself. It had been her Grandmother’s, a woman Jacaranda barely knew before she died. From her, Jacaranda had inherited wide hips, a wider smile, a love of pan dulce, and this bell. Her grandma Magdalena had worked at a fancy hotel in downtown Los Angeles in the 1940s. When the old building was slated to be torn down, Grandpa went down to the site and rescued the reception bell, paying one of the workers setting up usable goods for auction to look the other way.

“I paid a pretty penny for that bell,” he would say, “but it was worth it for the look on Magdalena’s face when she saw it.”

Jacaranda could see the appeal. Her grandmother had been a housekeeper at that hotel and had polished wood in the grand reception area on a desk like this one. And every time she was finished, she rang the bell. “For luck,” Grandpa told Jacaranda. “And she was lucky, wasn’t she?”

“Why, Grandpa?” Jacaranda always asked the question, though she’d heard the answer one hundred times.

“She married me, didn’t she?”

Then he would laugh and laugh.

***

Jacaranda stripped the sheets from the bed in the back of the house. Its broad window overlooked a small courtyard with a birdbath and a white painted wrought iron table and four chairs. The perfect place for her guests to drink morning coffee and eat the pan dulce delivered from Olvera Street each morning.

She balled the sheets up into the big plastic laundry basket, and started fitting the fresh sheet to the mattress, drawing the elastic edges tight before moving to the next corner. Though tucking flat sheets around mattresses was hotel standard, Jacaranda used fitted sheets at the bed and breakfast. She’d always been a restless sleeper, and no matter how precisely a hotel housekeeper had tucked the sheets in around a bed, whenever Jacaranda stayed in a hotel, the sheets were a tangled mess around her legs by morning.

So, fitted sheets for her bed and breakfast she had decided, once the project was underway.

She’d spent her inheritance and severance package adding extra bathrooms, upgrading the kitchen, and fitting out her own bed and en suite bath with a little sitting area of her own. Paying guests used the old parlor to read or listen to music in the evenings, when they weren’t out wandering the glittering streets of LA.

“Your home away from home,” was the B&B motto. Not original, but in a place like Los Angeles? It telegraphed simplicity, comfort, and warmth, instead of glamour and glitz. It attracted the people it needed to that way. For the past two years, business had been steady enough to keep Jacaranda and her business afloat, and that was all she cared about.

As long as the brass bell still rang, she and the B&B would be okay. She hoped.

The heavy walnut front door opened downstairs, letting in some street noise. Footsteps on the carpet runner. The thump of a suitcase. She listened…And there it was, her favorite sound, the bright single peel of the reception bell.

Jacaranda smiled, then hurried down the dark wood staircase, sneakers light on the red carpet runner beneath her jeans. In the light of the windows casing the front door, stood a brown haired man with pockmarked cheeks and sad looking, dark eyes.

His scarred face lit up with the most beautiful smile Jacaranda had seen.

“Timoteo Vargas?” she asked.

“That would be me,” he replied. His voice was light, lilting. Like the voice of a singer, or a poet.

“My sister Patricia told me you ran the best B&B near Olvera Street.”

“I believe I run the only B&B near Olvera Street.”

“Well then,” he spread his hands, “must be the best.”

“And you sound like you’re related to my abuelo, but I don’t think that’s the case!”

“Must’ve been a smart man.”

Smiling, she took her place behind the registration desk, and woke up the tablet secured to a sleek metal stand. He looked around the foyer, sad eyes skimming the large, cased opening to the parlor before lighting on Grandpa’s rug. “My parents had one of those Zapotec weavings. I always wanted to go there. See the masters at work.”

“Me, too. That was my grandfather’s. He always meant to take me, but you know. Life.”

“There never seems to be time, does there?”

“Well, I hope you take some time while you’re visiting. Relax. Enjoy our courtyard. And frankly, even though it’s a little kitschy, Olvera Street is one of my favorite places in the world.”

He stepped to the desk and took out white metal card. His fingers were tapered, though Jacaranda noticed his right pinky finger looked like it had been broken and badly set once upon a time.

Their fingers brushed as the heavy credit card changed hands. What was it about this man? Why was he so damn compelling? Jacaranda shoved the card into the chip reader and cleared her throat.

“So, if you’re Patricia’s brother, how come I’ve never met you before?” It really was strange. The neighborhood was a pretty small village, with everyone all up in everyone else’s business. Granted, Patricia and her family had only moved here a few years ago, but still.

“I’m a college professor, and the only tenure track position I could find was in South Carolina.” He paused, as if waiting for a response. Jacaranda didn’t know what to say. The pause got slightly awkward, until it was his turn to clear his throat. “And you know…it’s, well…the racism. Not so great.”

“It’s everywhere, isn’t it? But I can only imagine.” And she could, of course, but the first rule of inn keeping was don’t discuss heavy social issues with guests who just want to check in and get to their rooms to rest.

“Let’s get you to your room. It’s just down the hallway toward the back and looks out on the courtyard. It’s quiet. I think you’ll like it.”

She stepped out from behind the reception desk and moved toward his suitcase.

He put his hand on her arm. “You don’t have to do that. I may be a scrawny professor, but I’m strong enough to handle my own suitcase.”

Jacaranda liked his laugh. It made her feel the way sun warm stones felt on your feet after a cool morning.

Stop with your flights of fancy, Jacaranda.

“Alright then,” she said. “It’s just down this way.”

She paused in front of one of the twin gleaming, five panel wooden doors set across the hallway from each other. The opposite door was hers.

Unlocking the guest room with one of the key cards she’d insisted on paying extra for, even though her family told her to make do with regular locks, she swung the door open on a lovely, sun warmed room, and held the door for him.

“Thank you. I’ll be seeing my sister for dinner this evening, but is there a place you recommend for lunch? I’ve been up since I don’t want to talk about it and could use some food.”

“The taqueria two blocks away is the best. Tell them I sent you. And their jamaica is sweetened just right, if you like hibiscus juice.”

“I like all sorts of flowers,” he said.

***

He closed the door, wheeled his suitcase into the simple room with very nice heavy, Mission Style furniture. A queen-sized bed with matching dresser. A chair with leather cushions and a side table. Two other five panel wood doors. He assumed one led to the promised en suite and the other to a closet.

“I like all sorts of flowers,” he muttered. “What a pendejo.”

He’d never been a ladies’ man, though he’d dated his share. His last relationship had ended a year and a half ago. She was too young, too volatile, and he was buried in his publish-or-perish research to pad his tenure track faculty file. She needed someone to pay better attention to her, and he needed someone who had more of their own life.

Leaving his suitcase, Timoteo walked to the window. The inn keeper was right. The courtyard was charming. Two sparrows splashed in a concrete bowl set on a carved pedestal. Hot pink bougainvillea clambered up the back fence, and a small tree with feathery green leaves shaded the back corner, where a table and chairs were in residence, along with a calico cat.

Jacaranda. He liked the way her name rolled over his tongue. And she was as beautiful as the tree itself, though she smelled of lemon polish with a slight hint of bleach.

He hadn’t come to Los Angeles for love, though he wasn’t against it. He had returned because being a Mexican American professor in South Carolina? Even tenure track wasn’t worth that bullshit. Sure, Jacaranda was right, racism was everywhere, but being mistaken for wait staff, or a field hand, or any of the rest of it grew old really quickly. His first day of class, one of the students told him the trash can needed to be emptied. He told her to take a seat and he did not grade on a curve.

She didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.

And the faculty were worse, because they pretended there were no barbed words they spoke through white teeth. He must be mistaken! No offense was meant, so why should any be taken?

So now he had to figure out what the hell he was going to do. His family was disappointed—they liked bragging about having a professor for a son—but it was a disappointment tinged with decades of putting up with nonsense, and with “failures” that really weren’t their fault at all.

His stomach growled. He really needed to get some food, then maybe a nap.

He went into the small bathroom to wash his hands before leaving. He spoke to his reflection in the mirror above the white porcelain sink, “She’s too beautiful for you, my man. And you’re too messed up right now.”

“Give it time,” his mother always told him, no matter what the problem was.

Well, that was where his whole life was, wasn’t it? May as well add a lush-hipped innkeeper named Jacaranda to the list of things he might be waiting on.

But he was tired of waiting. Impatient.

When would it be his time?

***

Jacaranda scowled at the computer screen. The bedrooms were all made up for the guests coming on Saturday, the bathrooms sparkled, the wood gleamed, the carpets were vacuumed, her current guest was off enjoying lunch…and all of that meant she could no longer put off her favorite part of running a business.

Bookkeeping. Oh, she should just hire someone, but could not yet justify the expense. She raked her hands through her hair, dropped the stylus on the counter, and stretched.

She loved the neighborhood, loved Grandpa’s house, and enjoyed running the B&B well enough, but she really needed more cash flow. Her cousin Benny wanted her to offer wedding packages for people who wanted to get married at Our Lady Queen of Angels. She could do that, sure, but that required money for advertising, hiring photographers, and some know-how that Jacaranda seemed to be missing but was necessary to making the whole thing work.

Jacaranda rubbed her eyes. She should take a break. Make some tea. The numbers had turned into squiggles anyway.

Trouble was, that was what she always said, and that’s why so far, the B&B was barely making do.

She stared at the door, willing it to open. Wishing the new guest would return, take her mind off the numbers. Smile at her. Drink her tea.

There was something about his pockmarked face and sad eyes that she liked. Something about his tall, lanky frame. They could talk together. She just knew it. Discuss books. History. Poetry.

She snorted.

Yeah, and maybe the Goddess Tonantzin herself would ring the brass reception bell.

***

The taqueria looked as if it had been in this spot since 1953. The tile floors were cracked in the corners. The wood was scarred from years of toddler’s shoes, banging on the benches. The smells of chilis, corn flour, and roasting meat had probably permeated the walls. The tacos al pastor were delicious. Mouthwatering steak. Salsa verde. Tortillas made fresh by hand that morning. And the beans! Made with fresh sprigs of epazote! God, he’d missed Mexican food. While he was no slouch in the kitchen, finding the right ingredients in South Carolina wasn’t always easy. They had never heard of epazote there, that was for sure.

Maybe he could have put up with the rest of the bullshit if he’d been able to get some decent food.

He hadn’t exactly lied to Jacaranda. The racism of South Carolina had driven him back to California. That, and petty academic politics that made just doing his job harder. Too bad, because Timoteo loved teaching the three students in every class who were actually interested in the material. He’d had such dreams and fancy visions for himself. Excited exchanges with students. Coffee with colleagues. Broadening horizons. Teaching critical thinking and philosophy in a world that didn’t care about such things anymore. Reality was, the university didn’t care about such things anymore, either. All they cared about were sports and the bottom line.

And it was that, more than the racism, that finally ground his spirit down. Because Jacaranda was right, the racism was everywhere, and always had been. But his dreams? He’d hoped they would find a place to live.

At this point though, he wasn’t sure exactly what his dreams were. What place was there in the world for a freelance philosopher in this day and age?

***

Two weeks went on, and Timoteo stayed. He seemed content with the room. Content with visiting his sister and her kids. He’d rented a car, and drove around Los Angeles, but never with any destination that Jacaranda could discern.

All she knew was, some mornings, when she didn’t have other guests to attend to, they seemed to end up in the courtyard together, over coffee and the remains of pan dulce. Or he would offer to walk with her to the market to pick up fruit for the mixed salad she prepared each morning.

And she liked it. She liked the way his sad eyes lit up when he saw her. And she liked the way he moved his hands when he spoke, his crooked pinkie finger sailing half a beat behind the rest of his hand, often pointing the opposite direction of whatever point he was making at the time.

“You know your pinkie disagrees, don’t you?”

He paused, hand in midair, confusion racing across his face.

They were in the parlor that Wednesday evening, having a glass of Merlot with some cheese and crackers. Neither of them was very hungry, but they both seemed to want company, so…

“What? My pinkie?”

She pointed. “Your crooked finger. Every time you try to make a point, it points the other way.”

“Bastardo,” he said, staring at his hand. “How long have you betrayed me?”

He dropped his hand, train of thought broken, and picked up his wine.

Jacaranda followed suit.

“How’d you break it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

He looked into the dark swirl of wine in his glass for a moment. “I used to tell people I fell off a horse, when I was younger. Or a skateboard, when I got a little older, and skateboards seemed more cool.”

“But?”

“But really? My father broke it. He was so angry at me one day, he grabbed my hand and twisted it.”

“He did that intentionally?” Jacaranda felt her stomach tense. The wine tasted sour on her tongue.

“He didn’t mean to break my finger, but it wasn’t the only time he grabbed me that hard.” Timoteo shrugged. “He’s dead now, and I’m a grown man. I’ve lived with this crooked finger for most of my life.”

“Isn’t that the way?” she said, swirling her own wine in her glass. She pulled a leather hassock toward her cozy leather chair, using only her stockinged feet, which she plopped on the footrest with a sigh. “I mean, we never know what’s going to have an effect on our lives, and what isn’t. And we never know where we’re going to end up either, do we?”

He shook his head. “That’s for sure.”

They sat in silence for awhile, listening to the occasional car outside. A cat yowling. She could smell the wine, and the night blooming jasmine in her neighbor’s yard. The jacaranda blossoms were gone now, but that didn’t mean the neighborhood wasn’t still alive with flowers.

“What do you think you want to do?” she finally asked.

He drank more wine, then looked at her, as if seeking the answer to some question only he knew. She went still inside, like an animal awaiting a storm.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” he said. “And I’d like to start with dating you.”

A quick laugh burst from her lips on a breath.

“You think I’m kidding?”

“No! I mean…here I was, asking what your future plans are. Like, what does the philosopher want to do with his life? What are your career plans? Are you even staying in Los Angeles? And your answer to all of that is that you want to date me?”

He smiled that beautiful smile at her, sad eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Look. You’re a gorgeous woman. You’re smart. You run your own business. I like spending time with you and…”

“And what?” She waved her hands as if to erase the question. “Wait. Wait. I think I need more wine for the turn this conversation is taking. What do you think, pinkie? More wine?”

Timoteo just shook his head, but leaned forward with the bottle anyway, tipping it over her glass. She watched the cascade of purplish red, looking up to find his eyes trained on her face.

“Watch it!” she said. He jerked the wine bottle up, stopping the flow.

She was nervous now, and realized she wanted to kiss him. And she didn’t think that was her glass of wine talking. She realized she had wanted to kiss him since that first moment she saw him from the stairs, with his pockmarked face and his sad, sad, poet’s eyes.

“The thing is, Jacaranda, I may be at loose ends right now, but the only thing I’m sure I want is you.”

“I can’t be enough.”

“Of course not,” he replied. “Just like I can’t be enough for you. None of us can be enough. Ever. That’s what life is all about. That’s what life is for. Figuring out what fills us up, and what empties us out. What gives us joy and stabs our heart. And right now, there are only two things I can think of that give me some joy.” He took another drink of wine. She watched his throat move as he swallowed. Waiting.

“Well, three, if I count my sister and her kids.”

“So, what are the two?”

“I want to date you, Jacaranda, like I said. I want to get to know you better. A lot better.”

She suddenly didn’t want her wine anymore. “And the other?”

Now it was his turn to laugh. “I think I want to open a bookstore. That’s what I’ve been doing, driving around. Looking at spaces and talking to banks.”

“You’re kidding!”

He grinned like a boy with a giant sack of candy. “I know, it’s crazy, right? A failed philosophy professor opening a business that may as well be a coelacanth on the bottom of the ocean.”

She grinned back. “Well, it’s not that bad. No worse than running a B&B on a sleepy street in downtown Los Angeles instead of selling out to some boutique hotel for a million dollars.”

He set his wine glass down on a side table.

“You’re serious?”

“I get a new offer once a month.”

“But you’re not selling.”

“I… can’t. Maybe it’s stupid, but… this is my grandfather’s house, and this is the neighborhood of my people, you know? The history means something, and I can’t just let them take it all away.”

He looked at her as if she was the best thing he’d ever seen.

“Does that sound crazy?” she asked.

“No. It may be the sanest thing I’ve heard in a while.”

They both picked up their wine glasses again. Took another sip.

***

“So here we are,” Timoteo said after a while, “two dreamers, who happen to want small things. I like it.”

He stared at the beautiful, surprising woman across from him. He felt as if he could sit in this parlor talking with her for the rest of his life. They could read books, maybe have a kid or two—or not. She could run her business, and he could run his. And…

“Maybe we can help each other,” he said.

“How?”

“I don’t exactly know yet, but sharing ideas is my stock in trade, and maybe that could be a start.”

She nodded, dark hair falling across her face. She pushed it back with one hand, revealing those liquid eyes and a mouth broad enough to hold what was becoming his favorite smile.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from studying philosophy, its that no one has all the answers, but sometimes it’s the questions that help the most. So, we can ask the right questions of each other.”

“I don’t know exactly what you mean, but…”

“But what?”

“But I want you to ask your earlier question again.”

Timoteo searched back through the conversation, then smiled again.

“I didn’t ask you properly anyway,” he said. “Jacaranda, would you go on a date with me? One to start, but I’m hoping for several dates in succession.”

“Timoteo, I will go on a date with you. And probably several more.”

She smiled at him, and he thought his heart would burst out from his chest, and how ridiculous was that? Ridiculous and wonderful, too.

***

Jacaranda sat in Grandpa’s parlor, across from a beautiful, pockmarked man. She still needed a bookkeeper, and needed to follow up with her cousin about his wedding package plan…but for right now? She felt happy. The house felt happy. The Purple Blossom B&B was just the sort of place her grandfather would have enjoyed. And he would have liked Timoteo, too.

It was good to dream, with roots in the ground, just like Grandpa said.

Jacaranda raised her glass. Timoteo did too, pinkie firmly anchored to the ring finger this time. Everything acting in one accord.

“To dreamers,” she said.

“To dreamers,” he replied. They clinked glasses and drank their wine. And then Jacaranda set her glass down, kicked the hassock away, then stood and crossed to Timoteo’s chair. He sat, glass of wine in hand, staring up at her with a smile spread across his face.

“Yes?” he asked.

“You want a date?”

“Yes. We agreed to that, I thought.”

“Well, I want a kiss.”

His smile grew wider. He set his glass down and opened his arms. Jacaranda leaned down toward him, feeling his arms wrap around her.

And she kissed him, with lips that tasted like California wine. He kissed her back, lips fitting to hers just right.

Jacaranda relaxed into his embrace, curling on the floor next to his chair, and kissed him some more.

From the foyer next to the parlor, the brass bell rang.

One single chime. 

 

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