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  • Writer's pictureJordan Heinrich

Manna from Heaven. For Linda and Hazel.


Linda Robertson had a great sense of humor! I never saw her take herself too seriously. If you are making a list of qualities to strive for put that one right up there with patience and compassion. Linda had those, too.


We worked together at the upstart University of California Merced campus in the late 2000s. When we first got acquainted it was in a cluster of adjoining student housing suites that served as the onsite office for the construction management group.


She was a project coordinator in her mid-50s. I was the new guy in my mid/late-20s. We looked alike in a small but noticeable way. We both had round noses with the nostrils turned up and flared out. Hers maybe a little more than mine. Linda's face could open up instantly and flash you with a grin, close down for a perfectly-timed eye roll, or go intentionally slack with her eyes fixing on you to silently say, You're full of shit.


We became fast friends.


*****


I had worked at UC Merced a few years earlier for a general contractor from West Sacramento. The company rented a house about three miles from campus for itinerant staff lodging. It was a decent set-up. This time around I was on my own dime for housing. And I preferred to be closer to downtown and what little entertainment there was after work. I rented a one-bedroom apartment at the historic Hotel Tioga on the corner of West Main and N Street.


Years later at a family party I mentioned to a guest that I once lived in the Tioga. He grew up in Merced. He lowered his glass and said, You lived in that place? I thought it was condemned.


During that time my personal and professional life were adrift. A lot of loose ends. Forks in the road. To be frank, Merced, CA seemed like a place to hide out from week to week, make a good temporary living, and wait for the next thing to either bring or send me back home.


There weren't many things I enjoyed about the work I was doing. The projects always seemed behind schedule, teetering on fiscal disaster. A contractor was trying to screw the University, or the University was trying to screw a contractor. Take your pick. Somebody felt screwed. Conflict was the Soup Du Jour.


The one consistent bright spot after solitary weeknights of staying up too late and rising with the sun was every morning Linda was there in the office with a grin and a knowing, Tsk, Tsk. We always had a joke running. Some would string over an entire week. We couldn't let things permanently dent our spirits.


Linda was better at it than I was. I took everything personally.


One morning in the office she asked me what I was doing for dinner that night. The truth is I pretty much lived on Raley's Deli Sandwiches and six-packs. I'm sure she could guess that. I told her I didn't have a plan.


Okay, then. You are coming to the house for dinner with me and my Mom, she said. Linda and her widowed mother, Hazel, lived together.


Oh, thanks, I said. I really appreciate it. But tonight's no good. Maybe a raincheck? I remember squirming under Linda's disapproving stare. How about Thursday? I said, picking the day furthest from today to give me time for more excuses.


Thursday it is then, Linda smiled. I can't wait to tell Mom.


By the time Thursday rolled around Linda was beaming. Me and Mom haven't had any gentleman callers lately, she said, goofing and winking. I didn't have any excuses.


Around 5pm I pulled into their residential neighborhood. I remember parking my truck a few doors down from the address. I checked myself out in the rearview mirror. I needed a haircut. My shirt and pants were in pretty decent shape. I felt a little nervous. Like a kid.


Linda was a long-divorced 50-something. Hazel was a widow closer to 80 years-old than 70.


Who wouldn't have butterflies?


*****


They lived on a curved tree-lined street of homes built in the 1980s. I recalled that Linda told me they rented from long-time family friends who had retired to the foothill community of Mariposa.


I knocked on the door, waited a couple beats. Linda swung the door open wide with a smile. Come on in, Jordan! We are so glad you came.


The house was cozy and nicely furnished. The dining room was to the left of the entryway. Linda lead me to the kitchen where her Mom was stirring a drink in a tall plastic tumbler.


Mom, this is Jordan. Jordan, this is my Mom, Hazel. I went to extend my hand but somehow just then realized I was carrying a bouquet of flowers and a six-pack of Scrimshaw beer. Oh, let me take those, Linda said. They are beautiful!


I took Hazel's hand. Very pleased to meet you, I said.


So good to finally meet you, she said. Linda has told me so much about you. Hazel looked like she was fresh from the local beauty parlor of another era. Her ensemble was loose fitting on her medium-sized frame. Comfortable for warm climates.


Let me find a bottle opener, Linda said. You two can go sit out on the patio while I get a vase for these flowers. Dinner won't be long. I hope you are hungry.


I was hungry.


With our cold drinks in hand Hazel and I stepped out onto a large covered patio with three chairs and a low table. I had been in Merced for a couple years and never even considered that people lived in such quiet comfort. The yard backed up to a steep flowing creek lushly overgrown. It was Summer, which is hell in the Central Valley. Yet it seemed cool there in the shade. Hazel lowered herself into one of the patio chairs and offered me the one next to her.


This is very nice, I said.


She took a slow drink. Thank-you, very much. Yes, it is, she said. We are so fortunate to call this home.


We visited easily. She asked about my job at the University. About my folks back home. She was charming. I told her I was unaccustomed to her accent. It's quite a blend to tell you the truth, she said. She and her husband had lived many years in the Central Valley, in Alaska before Statehood, in Arkansas. Then they decided to return to California to be closer to family. Only a year after their return her husband passed away.


Linda came out to the patio as Hazel was having a laugh and taking another long slow sip. Now Mom, remember what I said? She turned to me. It's her second cocktail of the afternoon.


Mind your own business, Hazel smiled. We have a guest.


Well, we might also have a hungry guest. So if you still want to make the gravy it's time to get it going.


*****


Back inside the kitchen Linda opened me another beer and insisted I pull up a stool at the breakfast bar while she and her Mom got everything together for dinner. Linda was stacking pan-fried pork chops onto a serving platter in batches while she got the fixings for the gravy laid out for Hazel. There is also a green salad to prepare, Linda remembered aloud. Or we can have canned corn, instead? Do you have a preference, Jordan?


Corn is fine by me, I said.


It was nice sitting in that kitchen watching the two of them shoulder to shoulder at the stove top. Hazel was an old woman, but she could still work the flour, fat, and butter into a toasted roux with one hand tied behind her back. Or a glass of gin and tonic, in this case.


Careful now, Mom. Don't run that burner up so high before you add the milk, Linda cautioned.


Oh, hush, Hazel said, giving me a wink. That wink definitely ran deep in their blood.


I was being unhelpful just sitting there so I asked Linda where I could find the canned corn and an opener. Thankfully she had her hands full at the moment so she had to let me help. In the cupboard to your left, she said. The can opener is in that drawer over there. A serving dish just down below.


Got it, I said.


*****

I hadn't noticed when I came in, but Linda had set the dining room table for dinner. Three settings. Cloth placemats and napkins. A chilled white wine. And the bouquet of flowers I brought.


I guess we don't need the salad plates, Hazel quipped.


Linda gave her the deadpan.


It's for the corn, I said.


Yes. Thank-you, Jordan. It's for the corn, Mom.


Hazel and I took our seats while Linda went back to the kitchen for the food. A moment later she returned with a large steaming platter of floured pan-fried pork chops. There must have been 10 chops piled high. Wow, I said.


Next was the dish of corn and a corkscrew. Do you mind opening the wine? she asked.


As I was loosening the cork Linda came back into the dining room a little unsteady. With two pot-holders she presented the largest, deepest frying pan brimming with peppered white gravy. I took a long pull of my beer. It was beautiful.


I poured the wine and Linda filled each plate. Hazel started with a single chop, full ladle of gravy, and corn right there on the same plate. Linda followed suit. When it came my turn Linda doubled everything. Double chops. Double gravy. Double corn. I kept my mouth shut.


We a raised a toast to family and friends. Then we dug in.


I remember the conversation trailing back to days when Hazel was a young woman, to her beloved husband they both still missed everyday. To Alaska when it was a frontier. To folks from Arkansas who had come to California in the 20s. Some who stayed. Some who went back home. I told them about my family in Montana. How my Mom and Dad were the only ones to leave for California. About how many of my memories are tied to those people and that place. We drank the wine and nodded.


You better have seconds, Jordan, Hazel insisted. Eat up. If you're saving room for desert, we don't have any.


I feigned a hand-wave signaling that I was finished. Linda wasn't buying it. Before my hand was back in my lap she dropped two more chops on the plate.


No, no. I said. It's too much.


At that very moment Hazel pushed back her chair, stood up slowly, lifted the frying pan of gravy by the handle with both hands, and tipped it over my plate. Time stood still. Then the peppered gravy crested the lip of the pan and started flowing!


Like the Merced River herself.


Like silver dollars from an old-time slot machine.


Like mythical Manna from Heaven.


*****


Bone-in Pork Chop. Peppered White Gravy. Beans and Corn. No Salad Plates.








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