The flash of light and then the booming thunder ushered in the rainstorm to Los Angeles’ beach cities as the sky turned dark. Jerry’s leg hurt from the change in the weather and his hand went to the scar across his hairline, both gifts from the Sandbox. It felt like a spike had been driven into his ankle and he rubbed it, wishing it would go away. It had been over a year, now, and he still was miserable from the pain as he rubbed one ankle over the other. The rain came down in the somewhat late winter, early spring.
Months earlier: “Your spine has been damaged along the L4-L5 area, causing you pain along your leg. The C2-3 area is also hurt and will cause you problems later, maybe not. We could operate but there’s no guarantee that it will help and could very well paralyze you so that you couldn’t walk at all.” The VA doctor pointed out where the damage was on the X-ray, showing Jerry why he was in so much pain. It didn’t look good and felt worse.
Outside, it was still raining, the late afternoon gloom filling his room. “Wow, it’s been awhile,” he said to himself as he opened his laptop and cue’d up the word program. Jerry hadn’t used the machine since it lost his master’s thesis, somehow sending it into computer heaven, never to be seen again as it froze up. Fortunately, he was able to retrieve an earlier version of it from a flash drive that had been hiding in the bottom of his desk drawer and he had rewritten it in time to turn in to the university.
“What’s this?” he asked himself as an errant email popped up onto the screen from someone named Crystal. He clicked on the document and was surprised to read that she was pregnant with his baby which was strange since he didn’t know who she was.
There was no contact information other than the return email address. He looked at the date… two weeks earlier. Hmmmm… it was bad enough that she was pregnant but no response for a couple of weeks must have made her feel the worst.
What to do?
He knew he had to answer, if just to tell her that she had reached the wrong guy. He rubbed his leg, wishing the pain away.
“Dear Crystal,” he began… “I’m sorry to say but you have reached the wrong email. I just now have read it and am writing you back. I’m sorry.”
He looked at it, wondering what else to say but what could he do? It wasn’t his baby and he didn’t even know who she was.
He pushed ‘send’ and away it went, although he didn’t know where. He went to the kitchen to fix lunch, leaning on his cane as he entered the room. He made a ham sandwich with some chips and a Coke.
Later that evening he got a very sad response. Crystal didn’t have another email address and whoever gave it to her was lost in the wind.
What to do?
He needed to think… it wasn’t his problem so why was he letting it bother him so much?
“Mom? There’s this girl…”
His mother thought it was a scam to get money but he didn’t think so. Crystal was so distraught in her writing, he was sure it was legitimate. He sat down and looked out the living room window to the street, watching the rain fall, tapping hard against the house as the sky got even darker, the thunder continuing to boom into the night.
The next day, Jerry looked at the screen, feeling uncertain as to what to do but also feeling he had to do something. He was sure that the girl was honest yet frightened. Even today a single mother had a hard time dealing with society’s attitudes.
“Dear Crystal,” it said… “what can I do to help you?” He stared at the short message, wishing he could say more but didn’t really know what to write. Jerry was sure that his mother would be angry but he couldn’t live with himself knowing he could have done more.
Later that evening she replied, asking more for friendship than any financial aid. After finding out she living nearby, he offered to take her to lunch at the diner on the boulevard, a simple place that offered good food. She quickly responded and he arranged to meet her later, weather permitting.
Jerry drove to her address, a tired nondescript older house in need of paint, what was there fading away to a light gray that quietly clashed with the unmown lawn. “Oh, boy,” he said to himself, looking at what was there.
He got out of his red SRT Hellcat Challenger, a gift to himself after inheriting from his grandfather. He slowly walked up the bricks, leaning heavily on his cane, to the front door and quietly knocked a couple of times. He heard footsteps inside and waited patiently while the sound of fingers moving the chain was brought to his attention. The door opened and he saw Crystal for the first time, a cute teenaged girl with dark brown hair that seemed to be about his height and about six or seven months pregnant. “Good morning,” he said with a smile, extending his hand in a friendly greeting, his cane in his left hand.
“Come in,” she replied, taking his hand and then stepping back so that he could enter. He stepped inside, doing a quick once-over of the living room that was sparsely furnished with just a few pieces.
“Please, sit down.” She pointed to the old furniture.
“Thank you,” he answered and moved to the love seat near the front window, moving the newspaper from the cushion toward the small television.
“Did you have a problem finding the house?”
“No, it was easy, thank you. Have you lived here long?”
“No, I’ve only been here a couple of weeks. I’m sorry for the email. I really thought you were my old boyfriend but I guess not…” Her voice dropped off; he could feel the tension.
“Would you like to go now?” he asked, wanting to leave.
“Yes, please.” She moved to the chair and got her coat. He helped her put it on and went to the door.
They left the house and she locked the door. “Wow! That’s your car?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It was a gift.” He unlocked the car and helped her in, the muscle car low to the ground and not that easy to get into… especially for a pregnant woman.
The CD player began “Tears for Fears”.
The drive to the diner didn’t take that long and soon they were seated in a booth that overlooked the boulevard, watching the cars zip by on their way to the nearby beach.
“I’ll have the chicken, it that’s all right,” she said, putting down the menu, “and an ice tea, please.”
“Whatever you want,” he answered. “I’ll take the hamburger plate and a Coke.”
The server wrote it all down and walked to the kitchen, placing the order.
“What can I do to help you?” he asked, looking at her with sympathy in his eyes.
“I don’t know… I thought you were the baby’s father… but you’re not.” She started to cry, the tears flowing down her cheeks.
“Please don’t cry,” Jerry said, feeling very uncomfortable for the first time since being with her.
The food came and the served looked at him, wondering if he had made Crystal cry. She refilled the drinks before leaving them alone.
“I can help you… a little bit… you know… it you need something.” He was babbling along, not really sure what to say… never having to deal with a distraught pregnant woman before. He felt stupid. He realized he really wasn’t prepared for this and wondered if this had been the right idea but he had to do something.
He looked out the window watching the cars go by and then put his attention to his burger, the sauce dripping onto the plate.
“You’d do that for me?” she asked, not sure what his interest was in someone he just met. She looked at him closely.
“Sure, I can help some,” he replied, knowing full well that he had so many millions in the bank thanks to his grandfather’s will.
Crystal couldn’t believe her luck, finding someone that would help her when everyone had turned their back on her.
“You’re renting?” he asked, wondering what her housing arrangements were.
“Section eight housing, it’s all I can afford. I had to quit my job last month at Wal-Mart. I couldn’t continue.”
“I can help there and groceries, too. Is that OK?” He gave her a little smile.
“My God, I can’t believe you’re doing this for me. Thank you.”
By this time their food was finished and he asked if she wanted dessert. She said ‘no’, not wanting to gain more weight than necessary. He was going to ask if she wanted to see a movie but before he could, she said she wanted to go home. He put two twenties on the table and they left.
Jerry took her home and after walking her to the door, said ‘goodnight’ and left, unsure where this was going.
The next morning Jerry went to his bank to see about getting a loan for another home he was buying and planned on renting out. It would be the twentieth house since the shock of his grandfather’s death had left him unbelievably wealthy beyond his wildest imagination. He had never known how well off the old man was since he always lived frugally in the same house for the last sixty years. Aside from some donations to the Shriners, St. Jude Hospital and Wounded Warriors, it had all come to Jerry.
“Yes, Mr. Congers, what can we do for you today?” The Chinese woman was always gracious when he came in, especially since learning what his financial situation was. She stood up to shake his hand and offer him some coffee, self-consciously shaking her dark black hair that was parted down the middle while she pulled her skirt.
“Thank you,” he replied, “there’s another house I’d like to acquire. I have the realty papers here.”
She looked over the offered documents and smiled. “Have you thought of setting up a business to handle all of this. I could help you with it.”
Jerry thought for a moment, looking at her smile. She licked her lips, the baby pink lipstick shining. “I’ll let you know. Right now I’ve been able to watch it for myself.”
“Of course… just asking. How soon do you wish the funds?”
“In a couple of weeks, no rush, just wanting to get my ducks in a row, you know?” He smiled at her, hoping for a good impression every time he came into the bank. He liked her and found her very attractive.
“Is there anything else?” She returned his smile.
“No,” he said, standing up. They shook hands and he left her office, she wondering how she could get him interested in her.
Jerry left the bank, slowly walking back to his car, then changing his mind and going to the Denny’s down the street for lunch. He sat in the booth by himself and ordered the chicken and an ice tea. He wondered what he was going to do with Crystal. She didn’t have a job anymore and the house she was living in wasn’t good for a child, especially a newborn. Maybe he would offer her the house he was buying. Maybe the loan officer was right and he needed a business to control all the property he was acquiring over the last few months. It was something to think about. His food arrived and he began to eat quickly, now that he had an idea to worry about. His mother probably wondered where he was since he really didn’t tell her where he was going. He was 34, after all, and a retired officer from the Army.
He left a twenty to cover his tip and walked back to his car then changed his mind and went back into the bank, looking for the pretty loan officer.
“I’d like to talk to you about what you said about setting up a business to watch over these properties.” He sat down and waited for her to say something, leaning his cane against her desk.
Over the course of the next hour the woman outlined her ideas about how to set up a holding company for his investments. He liked what she was saying and asked many questions about this and that until he was satisfied.
“So,” he asked, laughing, “do you want the job?”
“Yes,” she answered, “when do you want to start?”
“Today,” he said and offered her what was twice her salary at the bank along with a generous benefits package. “I’m thinking of an assistant for you… she’d have to be trained, of course.”
They exchanged cell information and made plans to look at office buildings the next day, he saying he would pick her up at nine in the morning from her apartment.
Susan was amazed at how her life had changed in just the space of a few hours and realized she would have to tell the branch manager she was leaving. She had been there ten years and it was going to be hard to say ‘goodbye’ to everyone although she expected to come back to meet her replacement for new loans.
Jerry left the bank and drove over to Crystal’s house to offer her a job with his new business. She heard him arrive, the Challenger’s Hemi rattling the windows of her house as he gunned the engine, loving the sound of the horsepower, knowing full well he paid for it in the gasoline tax penalty. Opening the door for him, she waited as he walked up the bricks, leaning on his cane, step by step.
“Good afternoon,” he said, reaching for the screen door. “I’ve come to make you an offer.” Entering the house and sitting down, he explained what he wanted to do and how it would affect her, offering her a job with good medical benefits, something he knew she would need with a baby coming soon.
The next day, Jerry and Susan drove around the city looking for a suitable location until it was time for lunch. He drove the two of them down to the Redondo pier to Tony’s and they walked to the restaurant and got a table overlooking the ocean waves that rushed to the beach, bringing with them the surfers.
“You know, I was thinking,” she started, “rather than rent office space somewhere, why not use the last house you plan on buying. It’s big enough and Crystal could stay there and take care of it instead of where she is now.”
“That’s a great idea! I like it. You have a property management licence. We’re set as far as that goes. Later, Crystal can take classes and get her licence, too.”
They shook hands over the table and decided to do just that. He ordered the halibut and she had the salmon. Putting three sugars into his ice tea, he stirred the glass and tasted it, glad that things were moving along nicely.
When the food came, he put salt and pepper onto his baked potato and mashed it up, watching Susan to see what she was doing. She had ordered fries and was dipping them into tartar sauce and then cutting into the salmon.
“Do you want dessert?” he asked, looking at another table where the diners were eating chocolate cake.
“No, thank you,” she said. Even though she knew he had money, she still was in the frame of mind not to spend money.
Leaving the restaurant, they went to Crystal’s house and apprised her of what they had decided, asking her if she would like to change houses. Crystal took one look around the tired old home she was living in and smiled. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, hugging Jerry and Susan carefully.
The next two hours were spent getting to know each other, Crystal explaining how she thought her boyfriend really loved her and then he just disappeared in the wind, leaving her and the coming baby alone.
Susan told how she had earned an accounting degree and then joined the bank, working in the loan department, never finding the time to have a romance. She looked at Jerry as she said that, wondering, hoping that he would be interested. Even though she was in her early thirties, she thought she was still attractive, smart and had a lot to offer.
Jerry described the eight years he had dedicated to the Army after college and now finishing a Master’s degree in Ecology, originally planning on working at the nearby wetlands. With the death of his grandfather that had all changed. He believed in getting loans for the properties he was acquiring, keeping his capital in the bank while the loan interest rates were so low. He didn’t mention his occasional nightmares that woke him in the middle of the night, reliving the night the helicopter crashed due to engine failure and the long walk back to friendly lines, fighting all the way. He didn’t mention his Purple Heart or Silver Star, either. He could still hear the thump-thump-thump of the helicopter in his mind when it was quiet at night and the smell of smoke from his rifle. He had left the Army promoted to Major with a medical discharge.
By that time, it had gotten to be dinner time and Jerry suggested ordering in a pizza or two and he let Crystal do the call.
Over the next two weeks, they met at Jerry’s house getting the paperwork in order and had a AAA map laminated on cork board with small pushpins locating each property. Jerry had tried to stay in one neighborhood as much as possible since the houses were originally built by the same contractor to three floor plans in the early Fifties.
They took Susan’s Malibu to tour the properties since his Challenger wasn’t a good idea for Crystal or Susan to sit in the back seat, such as it was.
Two of the houses were empty, currently being painted and waiting for the next tenants. “Come on,” he said, “let’s take a look inside.”
He led the two women into the house, opening the door with a key from the group he had on an identifying board in his briefcase. The house had a friendly living room with windows on each side that allowed an ocean breeze, three bedrooms, a dining area and kitchen and two bathrooms. “This is similar to the house we’re going to set up for our business.”
The two women walked through the home, liking what they saw and seeing the potential the place had for their new business.
“Let’s use this one,” Susan said. Crystal chose a back bedroom for herself along with its attached bathroom.
“I’m getting all new furnishings for the house as well as office fixtures for one of the bedrooms. That should work.” Jerry smiled, satisfied with the progress they were making.
Two weeks later the paperwork was finished and Crystal was moved into her new home. She and Susan worked well together, the younger woman learning quickly what needed to be done. The tasks weren’t hard for either one, just keeping track of the rents, repairs and driving by the houses once a week as well as finding the best tax situations for the properties. They were going to keep each calendar year separate financially for tax purposes.
Jerry’s plan of keeping the houses close together made it simple and the driving was accomplished in less than half an hour. Several of the homes had elderly tenants and there was a landscaping crew keeping the yards in shape.
Susan decided to step up her game with Jerry, inviting him to her apartment for dinner. Jerry arrived at seven that night with a five pound box of See’s candies and walked up to the well-kept apartment, ringing the bell and hearing Tony Bennett sing about San Francisco. He smiled. He loved that city and had gone there many times with his parents as a child.
“Welcome,” she greeted, stepping aside as he walked in. “I hope you’re hungry and like French.”
“It smells delicious. Is that Onion Soup?”
“Yes, it is and we’re having choucroute garnie.”
He could almost taste the pork shoulder and sauerkraut warming in the kitchen and his mouth watered. She led him to the dining table and poured some white wine into two glasses and handed him one. “Best wishes,” she said.
They talked about their college days, strangely enough both attending UCLA at the same time but never running across one another. Susan went into banking while Jerry joined the Army ROTC, then spending most of his time in the Middle East, advancing in the ranks until the helicopter crash.
When it was time for him to leave, she surprised him with a kiss on the cheek and he looked back as he slowly walked to his car, touching his face.
In the mornings, Jerry exercised, keeping himself in as good a shape as he could, lifting weights and using the exercise bike. Several weeks passed with Crystal entering information into the computer and backups while Jerry and Susan scouted the neighborhood for new homes to buy before the eventual upturn in property prices made it difficult. He was listening to Bob Seger while she looked up information about each listing as they parked on the street in front of each home. Jerry preferred to stay with one model of home as it was designed better, at least to him, than the other two.