Right up until Tim Engel’s BBQ grill got installed wrong, Lake Havasu was a mythical place. A far away shimmering body of water where I was supposed to have lost my virginity or something of equal value.
My friends and I had planned to go there for Spring Break our senior year of high school. We were all straight-laced honor-class types, and overdue for some wildness. Dunking ourselves into the scene at Lake Havasu would save us from having a totally chaste high school experience and deliver us back to our peers as sinners, equals. But my parents said no at the last minute, so I never made it to the holy land of vodka and Gatorade on speedboats. My friends did, and they came back a little more mysterious.
Probably only because I was deprived of going, the idea that I was supposed to party it up at Lake Havasu got firmly lodged in my mind. Forget that I had long ago discovered I hate loud music and crowds, that I’d outgrown juking and puking in public, that I had business cards in my back pocket and that it was January. I drove into Lake Havasu thinking, I’m finally going on spring break.
The Engels lived in xeriscaped suburbia, in a desert mega mansion they’d been building when their BBQ grill set their other home on fire. Their new place was guarded from the arid wasteland by two concrete lions and had the behemoth loneliness of a model home. It shined and squeaked, and mass-produced sculpture art sat perfectly off-center. Tim led me past a dining room table that was already set for dinner to a couch where his wife, Melinda, sat behind a bowl of faux fruit.
The usually long and arduous process of getting clients to remember every item that burned out of existence went by fairly quickly for two reasons: Tim Engel’s distrust of everybody had resulted in his making a comprehensive list of their belongings and Tim didn’t let his wife talk much. I went through his 30-page list, asking clarifying questions. When Melinda spoke up, Tim would cut her off. “Let me handle this, Mel,” he’d say, as if she were too fragile to say whether their toaster had been two-slot or four. And perhaps she was. When Tim went to the kitchen to get another unnaturally blue energy drink, Melinda turned to me, eyes pooled with tears, and said, “Do you know what it’s like to think you could’ve died in your own house in a fire?”
“No,” I said a little too brusquely, completely stunned by the realness of the moment. I wanted to gently touch her freckled arm, but I found myself reaching to fondle an artificial peach. This was possibly how a person got by in this household: circumlocuting the real by rearranging the real-looking.
By the end of our meeting I had learned that Tim, Melinda and their teenaged son had been “totally screwed by their insurance company” and “you can’t trust anybody;” that Tim owned five Tasers, 12 shotguns, six cans of pepper spray; and that the whole family gets up at 4:15 am. Only the last bit troubled me.
“Why so early?” I asked.
Melinda began to say what I think was “to beat the heat,” but she was wrong, and had been apparently getting up for another reason. Tim clarified, “To get a head start before everyone else, right Mel?” Melinda nodded, and I realized it might be their relationship that was the model home—a showcase of good living without the clutter of living freely. Well, Tim perhaps was living freely. I made plans to meet with them later in the month to finalize their claim. On my way out the door, I passed an aloe vera plant, and just to be sure, flicked it. Plastic.
Determined to scrape up some Spring Break before leaving the following morning, I headed across my hotel’s parking lot to Javalina Cantina. The place looked like it’d be a blast—in the spring and summer of your 18th or even 24th year. It had a large deck with great views of the river, but the patio furniture was hibernating under a tarp, so I went inside and bellied up to the bar. The plan was to get drunk and do something bad. I wasn’t sure what I meant by bad, but I knew how to lay the foundation for its many possibilities. I ordered a double margarita and turned to look for my potential partners in off-season crime. Only one person came in. She was about my age, so I smiled at her conspiratorially, but then her husband or boyfriend followed with an infant and she flopped out a fun bag so it could suckle, and I went back to my hotel room and raided the mini-bar. I wanted to get a good fuzz going while watching TV then head out into town, but I passed out on myself. It was a tame slip into unconsciousness. The last thing I remembered was that Iron Chef Cat Cora seemed to be taking an early lead in Battle Cheddar.
I didn’t meet with the Engels later that month. Their insurance company offered them a rarity: to settle the claim for “policy limits”—the maximum amount they could recoup for damage to their house. But Tim was threatening to sue them for “bad faith” probably because “you can’t trust anybody” and most likely because he wanted money, money, money. His insurance company, looking to protect their interests, demanded that I do a joint inventory with Bruce, one of their inventory specialists. Bruce could only meet in the middle of March, during Spring Break. He was sorry. I said no problem. What was this, luck?
I was going to do Spring Break right this time. I painted my toenails the color “Zippy” and booked a room at the waterfront Heat Hotel which promised to be “still hot as ever.” Then I impulsively invited Laura, the woman I had just started dating. Laura’s 11 years older than me, and the last time she was on Spring Break was right around when the Challenger exploded.
Practically strangers, we set out on a five-hour drive through the Mojave Desert toward Heat Hotel. All that we had in common at this point was a desire to know whether the Sonoran Desert was part of the Mojave or a different desert entirely. This was easily googleable, or answered by fifth-graders, but we wanted to find the answers in each other. So, we arrived at Heat Hotel clueless.
The front desk doubled as a bar, and after the manager made a couple Mai Tais, she showed us to our room, Inferno 6. I had to rise early to go meet some guy named Bruce, but I couldn’t go to bed yet. I was with a woman whose mere glance or touch tugged something deep in my chest and put it on a swing. I was also standing in an 800-square-foot room with lights that changed from purple to pink to green to blue, a California King bed, a Jacuzzi, turquoise soaps and a 60-square-foot glass cage, which the manager called “a party shower.” Like being 18 and on Spring Break, the possibilities seemed endless.
Laura and I weren’t at the “party shower” stage yet, so we opened a bottle of wine and sat on opposite ends of the couch, talking about gender and whether birds should be pets. After a half hour, our feet touched. Heel to heel, toe to toe. Outside, bass boomed and some guy yelled, “Yo, Spring Break b-a-a-b-y!”
At 3 a.m. I called the front desk to complain about the noise. I called two more times, then I called the police. The police sounded sympathetic, but they didn’t show up until the next day at 3 p.m. when I was in Tim’s garage counting sooty golf balls with paunchy middle-aged Bruce.
“Hello…” the officer yelled, looking into the dark garage, visoring his hand above his eyes.
Bruce said he’d handle it and walked over saying what you say to police, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”
I hung back by pile of crispy pool noodles. Moments later a white SUV pulled up and parked, and out of it stepped Melinda and her son. For a moment, I actually thought Melinda was here to clear up the confusion. Then Bruce began yelling, and I realized she’d called the police on us after we’d spent all day meticulously inventorying her family’s every last button, battery and ounce of canned soup. The worst crime we’d committed was making fun of them for having a Flowbee.
“He’s not supposed to be here,” Melinda shrieked while stabbing at her Blackberry. “This asshole is not supposed to be in our garage! Touching my husbands things!”
“Hey!” Bruce said, stepping forward. “Don’t call me that!” The police officer’s firm hand stopped Bruce gently in the middle of his squishy chest. Bruce’s mechanical pencil fell from behind his ear onto the pavement.
“Dude! Shit’s going down…” The son said into his cell phone. A tangle of fake gold chains hung around his skinny white suburban neck.
“What should I do?” Melinda asked, also speaking into her phone. “OK. Yes, she’s here.” She turned away from everyone. “Right. OK.” Melinda shoved her phone into her pocket, then firmly stated that because they were in the process of filing a lawsuit against their insurance company, no one was to be on the property and… Melinda didn’t seem to remember what she was supposed to say next.
I wasn’t going into this empty-handed. I reached into the burnt husk of a speedboat and pulled out a cardboard ring box full of her son’s baby teeth.
“Hi Melinda, I’ve set aside some sentimental items,” I said. She looked at me like I’d betrayed her, the police officer looked bored, Bruce was pissed, and her son seemed to be in the middle of deciding whether his parents were cool or lame for calling the cops.
“Here,” I said handing her the little box. She opened the lid and everyone except Bruce peered in. When Melinda looked up her eyes were glossed with tears, and she seemed thankful. Still, the asshole and I were ordered to leave. We were only about ten plastic storage containers away from being done, our signatures needed on the completed inventory list. It was ridiculous to leave now. So completely ridiculous that maybe it was party shower time.
Young people were bumping and grinding and chugging on the Heat Hotel deck. A group of them gathered around girls wiggling in string bikinis and chanted “Booty! Booty! Booty!” There was no skirting Spring Break right now, not if I wanted to get to Inferno 6. The lobby/bar was connected to the deck, and it, too, was clogged with people supposedly having the time of their lives. I put my head down and began to plow straight through. I bumped into a wet T-shirt contest, got slapped in the face with some Mardi Gras beads, but I wasn’t stopped until a sweaty shoulder slammed into mine.
“Whoa, sorry,” the shirtless guy said. Then he pointed at me with his red Dixi cup, “Hey, where you goin’?” I was wearing a corporate work shirt and was pretty sure I had ash smudges on my face. I always get dirty on jobs, more dirty than anyone else. Getting dirtier than the average person has been a theme of my life. Give everyone a wine glass, mine will end up with the most finger and lip prints. Laura would find this out soon. I hoped.
“I’m going to go to bed,” I said. “Already been in trouble with the cops.”
The shirtless guy scrunched his face, studying me for a moment. “Nuh-uh…” he said.
“Yuh-uh. Breaking and entering,” I said turning around and walking away so I might always remain a mystery to him. And when I got to the bottom of some steps, I realized I’d just passed through the great mystery that I missed out on in high school. And when I got to the door of Inferno 6, I realized that, at this point in my life, all the mystery was maybe behind this one door. I wondered what color the lights would be inside and if the woman in there was reading a book on the couch or if she was trying to think of ways to let me down gently or to throw me down hard. Was she smarter than me? Smarter in different ways? Someone a little ways off shouted, “Go baby go baby go!” and I knocked.