Bill Parker, driving back to his office from a meeting at the Sacramento airport, was in a foul mood. There were several reasons for this. First and foremost, his wife Amy had gone on a shopping spree the day before, buying half a dozen expensive dresses he couldn’t see that she needed and topping it off with three pairs of expensive shoes from Nordstrom’s.
Parker was by nature a conservative person. That was one reason why he worked for the State, trading the possibility of a higher salary for the security of a government job. He was in his forties and his aim was to retire as early as possible after their daughter Ellen had finished college, or maybe grad school as her latest ambition was to be a marine biologist. To that end, he was putting every dollar he could in what was called “Deferred Compensation,” the State’s equivalent of a 401K. He also tried to keep the family expenses down to a reasonable level. He’d known Amy was kind of a spendthrift when he’d married her but over the years he’d managed to temper her buying habits. Maybe yesterday’s spree was an eruption after being kept in check, like an oil well after being capped.
Outside it was a typical summer day in Sacramento, hot and getting hotter. By late afternoon it would be over 100 degrees again. The air was gray with the foul-looking dirty smog that hung over the valley. The air conditioner in his car was on and doing its best, but he still felt hot and smothered. Parker had always thought that the summer heat in Sacramento made every bad thing that happened ten times worse, which was the way he now felt about his wife.
Parker was now in downtown traffic, only a block away from State Building 9, where he worked. Suddenly, his car stopped and all the lights on the dashboard came on. He pressed down on the gas pedal but nothing happened. The car was dead. Already the cars behind him were honking their horns. He got out and was immediately hit by the hot air, like stepping into a furnace. He waved the honking cars to go around him, then sprinted to his office building. Luckily, his two analysts, both young, athletic guys, were there. He quickly explained his predicament and they took the elevator down to the street, ran over to the moribund car and managed to get it over to the curb.
Parker’s mechanic, a Japanese man named Harry Matsui, had his shop only a few blocks away. Parker walked there as quickly as he could in the heat. “No problem,” said Harry. “I’ll get tow truck over and we’ll fix.” Parker handed over his keys and Harry said he’d call him later. That took care of the car, at least for the time being.
Parker had a quick bite in the building cafeteria, an egg salad sandwich. He didn’t have much appetite. Back in his office, he called Amy but got the answering machine and left a message to call him back. He wondered where his wife had gone off to. Parker was head of a small unit in the State’s giant Health Department that did various statistical studies on request. The airport meeting that morning had been with members of the Department’s Los Angeles office, whose data system had always been different from the rest of the State’s and therefore inaccessible. The Los Angeles people saw no reason for change, they’d “always done it that way,” and the meeting had ended with vague plans for another meeting. It reminded Parker of why he’d like to retire as early as possible. This in turn reminded him of Amy’s shopping spree. He called her again but she still wasn’t home. Where was she?
Parker looked through the phone messages that had accumulated in the morning. One from Dr. Anderson, who always wanted some obscure piece of data that took days to dig up. Even worse, one from a legislative aide wanting information about teenage births. Anything from the Legislature was of course top priority. He called and listened to the aide’s request, or rather demand, for ten years worth of statistics, to be delivered by the next day. He managed to convince the aide that this was impossible and got an extension to the end of the week. He then summoned his two analysts and assigned them the job.
In this way, the afternoon passed quickly. Around 4 PM Harry called about his car. The bad news was that it needed a new timing belt, cost $300. Parker inwardly groaned, but he had no choice; he told Harry to go ahead. Harry said he could pick up the car after 6 PM. Parker called Amy once again, to let her know he’d be home late. Once again, she wasn’t there. Where the hell could she have gone? He left a message on the answering machine.
* * *
By the time Parker got onto the freeway he was right in the middle of the evening commute. His car, with its expensive new timing belt, inched along to the Arden curve. In the Sacramento Valley, summer temperatures peaked at just about this hour. Even with the air-conditioner on, he felt hot. The air around him was dirty and smelled of carbon monoxide from car exhausts. Finally, when he got past the curve, traffic eased slightly and he was able to move ahead, although very slowly. It would be well after seven when he reached home. He wondered where Amy had been all afternoon, not out shopping again, he hoped. With the $300 timing belt bill he could forget about having any money left over at the end of the month. The motorist behind him honked his horn. What did he expect Parker to do, slam into the car in front of him. Idiot! Parker was mad, but he kept his eyes in front of him. Incidents of road rage soared during the Sacramento summer. That was all he needed today.
Finally, he reached his house. He paused for a minute and took a deep breath. He felt wrung out. Then there was Amy to deal with. She wasn’t in the kitchen. He called out and she came down the stairs. “You’re late,” she said.
“The car went dead right in the middle of downtown traffic. It was the timing belt, $300. Luckily, Harry got it replaced this afternoon, but late. I tried to call you. Didn’t you get my messages? Where’ve you been?”
“At the mall.”
“What? You …”
“I brought back all the stuff I bought yesterday; well, almost all of it.” I kept one pair of shoes. I really needed a new pair.”
“You brought back the new dresses and everything?”
“Yes. I don’t know what got into me. It was the heat, I think. It makes you a little crazy.”
“I know. But it’s a dry heat.” This was a family joke; it was what everyone had told them when they’d first moved to Sacramento right in the middle of the summer. As if that made the heat any better. When the temperature went up to 100 degrees, it didn’t matter how dry it was.
“I made you a salad,” said Amy. “I thought you might like something cold. It’s supposed to be over 100 again tomorrow.”
“Great. Why don’t we go to San Francisco this weekend.”
“Can we afford it?”
“I don’t know, but let’s go anyway. Just don’t go on any more shopping sprees.”