Chapter Six, Anna

Around the time that Jessica met with her faculty advisor, Zachary ran the Fire Trail, and old Father Nate fed his cats, Anna Novak Aguilar, fifty-seven and trim, but not as trim as she wanted to be, settled herself in the driver’s seat of her old Volvo and headed for her three-times-a-week Curves workout on Claremont Avenue. She had kept to her usual slimming breakfast: low-fat yogurt with protein powder, a whole wheat English muffin (oh-so-lightly buttered), half a grapefruit, and Earl Grey tea with a dollop of milk and a drop of honey.

As Anna drove through her sweet Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley, she thought, as she often did, how charming the houses were, as though each home had its own personality. Many were shingled like her own two-story she inherited from her grandmother, but there were stucco cottages and colonials as well. The houses seemed grander as Elmwood merged into Claremont Canyon, where the neighborhood fanned down the hill from from the historic white hotel, which Anna called the palace, and which was nearly a century old.

Anna glanced at the cut roses on the seat next to her. They appeared to be okay, banded in a wet paper towel and plastic bag, nesting in the woven straw planter she used for transport. Her three crops of roses had been excellent this year, giving her a third blooming, but this would be the last before winter, when she would need to prune the stalks back. Comerford’s roses didn’t produce nearly as well this year. She thought there was too much shade from the intruding forest. She would speak to Father Nate about that.

Anna often thought that life was like a rose garden, that people were all roses growing in the garden of the world, different colors, varied markings and qualities, each one special. Some people were thorny, some smooth. Some were beautiful and some were plain. Her own roses needed the forced discipline of pruning just like people did. If they weren’t pruned, they didn’t flower, which, Anna concluded, was true of both roses and people.

Anna wouldn’t have said she was religious, or even spiritual, but as she turned down Claremont Avenue she counted her blessings, just as her devout mother Marta had trained her to do, and the counting usually lightened her mood. One blessing was her workouts on the circuit machines, the gentle push and pull of her muscles, her Monday-Wednesday-Friday prunings. She knew she needed pruning a few years ago, when she was a tad too heavy. Let’s face it, she often said to herself, she was fat, maybe not obese, but fat. Now she needn’t worry about fat anymore, not with Curves. The roses taught her about pruning, and Sue, her neighbor, told her about Curves where she soon learned how to prune herself and have fun at the same time, even make friends. Her own curves were smaller now; the hip bulges fell away like magic. Once size 16, now size 10! And she loved chatting with the ladies as they moved from machine to machine on the circuit, for her life was somewhat solitary since her ex, Luke, had left. With the music – fifties, sixties, seventies songs with an easy upbeat – the circuit was like a dance, both a dance of the body and a dance of friendship. She loved her Curves sisters. She would do anything for them… in a heartbeat.

As she parked and fed the meter, cradling the roses for Connie, their circuit coach, she wished Luke could see her now, admire her new slimness, in her black spandex and purple jacket. When the fat melted from her face, her classic bones emerged and her brown hair, now cut in short feathery layers, set off her startling brown eyes, which now seemed larger. Her father had called them Slavic eyes, Croatian for sure, he had said with a proud nod. Anna wished her Luke could see her now, but it was too late for that. He wasn’t her Luke anymore. He belonged to that Rosalind, half his age, and half as pudgy, well, maybe a quarter as pudgy. She was probably a size 2.

At one time Luke had needed fat-pruning too. Still, he saw to it long before she did. He lost the weight, running down to the bay and back after work, and he played tennis with Zachary, their son, and Zachary lost his weight too. Not for the first time, regret rushed over and through her and gave her that awful sinking feeling in her stomach. Such a loss. How she had loved Luke, and still did, she would admit when she was honest with herself. How she wished she had seen it all back then, had pruned herself in time, but she didn’t, just didn’t see it. And, as her mother often said, no use crying over spilled milk. It was water under the bridge, she would say. No use beating a dead horse.

Today, Anna concluded as she entered the workout room, Luke needed sexual pruning, having run off to Lake Tahoe like that. She often wondered if Zachary saw the signs, the cracks in their marriage, but he had been out of the house for years. Probably not.

Anna handed the roses to Connie who manned the reception desk. "Congratulations on your new granddaughter! How’re mother and baby doing?"

Connie looked up with a smile, her eyes alight with pride. "They’re both fine, coming home today. Thank you, Anna. These are lovely. I’ll get a vase."

Anna held her bar code tag under the mini-scanner corded to the computer. A red line flashed on the tag and she heard the familiar beep as her name popped onto the screen. She placed her handbag in a wicker basket along the wall and turned to the circle. She could see that about half the circuit was humming with movement and chatter. She grinned her greetings to her lady friends and they grinned back as We are family… played through the room.

* * *

There were twenty four stations. Twelve were circuit machines, each one strengthening a different muscle set, with two-foot square recovery pads in-between, where members stepped in time to the music, keeping their heart rate elevated, but resting their muscles. Anna knew that every thirty seconds, a voice recording would remind her to "Change stations now." It was a line dance, a workout, and a coffee klatch all rolled into thirty minutes. She would make two circuits in that thirty minutes, gently increase her circulation, and she would be done, a little lighter, a little fitter, and a whole lot happier.

Nancy, Carol, and Jeannie were discussing movies playing on the big screen as Anna warmed up on a recovery pad nearby, stepping in place to the beat. Anna had given her friends association labels to help remember their names, a trick she had learned as a docent at Comerford House.

"I don’t know, but it seemed like soft porn to me," Carol said, glancing at the others and powering her legs forward on the leg press, then releasing slowly. A former teacher, she spoke with a quiet authority. "I wish there could be better role models for the children."

Anna admired her, and not just because Anna had also once been a teacher. Carol was the Carer. She cared about everyone – animals, the sick, the lonely, the homeless. She volunteered at the local hospital and sometimes came to workouts in her smock. Anna had never worked in a hospital. It took a special kind of caring, she thought, to deal with the sick and the dying. There was old Father Nate at Comerford, but somehow he helped her more than she helped him. She rarely thought about his face and the fire. And then there was his brother, whom she simply admired for his cheery temperament in spite of his paralysis. She had learned so much from both of them.

The ladies nodded their agreement to Carol. "There’s always sex and violence," Nancy said, as she pushed the Pec Dec with her forearms. "It seems nothing sells unless there’s sex and violence." Nancy was the Novelist, and she was religious too. She went to church. But she didn’t talk about her faith, and Anna sometimes wondered if that was a good idea. It was as if she were afraid. There seemed to be an unspoken ban on politics and religion. Perhaps it was for the best.

Jeannie looked up. "But you got published, didn’t you? And you don’t have that stuff in your books." Jeannie was the Jogger. Instead of resting on the pads, stepping lightly, she jogged in place, rotating outstretched arms to add to her workout. Jeannie was one of their younger members, probably late thirties, so she could increase her pace. She was a stay-at-home mom with a working husband. She, Anna thought, was one of the lucky ones, who took care of herself before it was too late.

Nancy laughed, loving to admit her small victory. "I did, but I was lucky. My publisher was the only one that would take a chance on me." She raised her brows.

Anna considered herself a librarian, now that she worked at Comerford and had filled two upstairs bedrooms with children’s books. She slipped onto the seat of the Biceps/Triceps machine, placed her arms between the cushioned rollers, and began an up and down movement. "Young adult literature today is full of sex and violence and worse. Really dark stuff. I have to reject lots of books donated to Comerford. Even prize-winners."

"Any recommendations?" Jeannie asked, now on the Shoulder Press/Lat Pull, raising and lowering the handles vigorously. "My kids are hitting that age pretty soon."

Pleased to be asked and keen on sharing knowledge, Anna replied, "Well, anything in my library. Come and see. Honor system, no fees, no cards!"

"I should visit. I’d like that." Jeannie meant it, Anna could tell, as she nodded thoughtfully.

"I’m a pretty tough gatekeeper in terms of titles, some say," Anna added, stepping in time now to Living it easy... "I like to think of Comerford Children’s Library as the last refuge of civilization."

Carol glanced at her. "How did that tussle with the free speech people work out? I was rooting for you, Anna. I read about it in the paper. I thought it was just awful the way they made you into some kind of censor."

Anna frowned, choosing her words carefully. "Free speech is important, so I have to say the accusations of book banning really hurt. But porn is porn. And children are children. Adults are adults and should teach children the way, protect them, should show them standards of behavior, not empathize with vampires and the living dead. You can’t let darkness take over children’s minds." Had she said too much? There was a sudden silence among them, and Anna threw more fuel into her fire. This was her mission, and she couldn’t stop. "Kidnapping and pederasty and incest and beatings. Real brutality!"

"I know," Carol said. "Even when I was teaching junior high – today it’s called middle school I suppose – stories celebrated the underdog. We were told it was good to experience the underworld. I remember Go Ask Alice. I refused to recommend it… rape, drug addiction, prostitution, overdose. But I didn’t have to deal with banning it, just avoiding it."

"It’s worse today," Anna said. "Trust me. Mutilation and blood, vampires and sex, ghouls – the undead. Some say these characters reflect real life, but I say please, give me a break. Children are children. So today we have generations of adults that have been raised on this misery, with no heroes, no role models." Anna told herself to quiet down. She was getting carried away. And then there were the child beauty pageants…

Nancy was jubilant. "Well said, Anna. Good for you." She fingered the gold cross around her neck, "I must have missed that news coverage. If I ever write a Young Adult novel, I’ll be sure and let you know, but for now I’m more interested in the grown-ups, such as they are."

"What are you working on now?" Carol asked.

"It’s a mystery and a quest, set in Rome…"

As Nancy chatted about her novel-in-progress, Anna recalled the free speech issue of last year, how upset she had been when she had seen her name in the newspapers, but how, in the end, the Board of Comerford Foundation had supported her book choices. But for how long? It was a scary world, sometimes, when rights were silenced and wrongs lauded. Where was it all leading?

Robin (the Reporter) had joined the group and was warming up on a recovery pad, stepping slowly.

"Any developments on the People’s Park case, Robin?" Anna asked.

"Just that it wasn’t ‘stranger rape’." She shook her head.

"Stranger rape?"

"Meaning that the man and woman knew each other. It’s a term the police use to clarify rape when the two do not know each other, are strangers, as opposed to when they know each other but aren’t on a date. When does no mean yes? If it happens at a party, not a date, is it date rape? As the law stands now, if the woman is intoxicated, the act is considered rape no matter what she said at the time, that is, if she is pressing a case. Of course, many women don’t press charges at all."

Carol shook her head. "Crime is up everywhere, I hear." She was working the Dip Shrug, standing up straight, grasping the horizontal bar, pulling it up and pushing it down, like a railroad engineer.

They waited for Robin’s analysis, their inside peek at the news media. Robin was too thin, Anna thought, glancing at her. She had worked out so often and dieted so strictly that, now in her late sixties, she looked like a prison camp refugee. Nevertheless, she was agile, and most likely strong, and she wore her blue spandex with style, her silver hair braided on top of her head, her aquiline features alert and confident. Anna figured that Robin didn’t need pruning. She needed a vacation somewhere tropical with no machines in sight and lots of tempting food, tortellini maybe, like her mother Marta used to make.

Robin turned to Carol. "Crime’s up, all right. Did you see how one of our photographers was robbed at gunpoint yesterday morning in West Oakland?Two men with guns ran up to him and grabbed his gear."

"Were they caught?" someone asked.

"Not yet. Had a getaway car."

The ladies shook their heads and mumbled. It was not an unusual story, Anna knew, but the reaction was always the same. Disbelief. Then denial. Then wanting to forget.

"And," Robin added, moving onto the Squat Tip, "you’ve heard about the Fire Trail murder on Wednesday? Broad daylight!" She positioned her shoulders under the padded bars and bent her knees, squatting, working her back leg muscles, pulling with her arms, pushing up with her legs.

"A murder?" Anna asked, concerned. "I work near the Fire Trail. It runs up behind Comerford House. I didn’t hear about it." But she had heard sirens Wednesday afternoon, she recalled, and had wondered.

"A girl was raped and murdered. They say the suspect is average height, thin, dark hair, scar running from ear to mouth. Caucasian. Will you let me know if you hear anything?"

"Sure," Anna said. She shuddered. A murder so close by. Was Comerford House safe? Was the trail safe? Her Zachary ran that trail. Did he know about the murder?

"Gads," Jeannie said, stepping off her recovery pad and doing cool-down stretches. "I worry about my kids. I thought they would go to Cal, but it might be better to send them away, somewhere safe, some small town."

Anna nodded. "Maybe so, but Cal is a great university, and you live here."

Coach Connie, her thick red hair swinging around her shoulders, stepped into the center of the circle. "My grandson would have been glad to get into Cal. But he never could discipline himself. His parents coddled him, wanted to be friends instead of parents." Her tone was edged with disappointment.

"You mean he didn’t study enough in high school?" Anna asked sympathetically.

"Exactly. Just wanted to party all the time. He’s a bright boy too, such a shame. Now he’s on meds for depression. Can’t seem to find a job or his place in life. George and I feel so helpless." She showed Anna how to better position her hands on her machine.

"That’s just it," Carol said, "kids should be held accountable, held responsible for their actions. What happened to standards? Adults are afraid, it seems to me. Afraid of the kids. So the kids expect to slide through life with all this feel-good stuff, demanding positive self-esteem."

Connie lifted open palms. "I think our new grandbaby will be raised differently… my daughter has a clearer idea of the whole problem. Parents are getting wise."

"I hope so," Anna said, thinking of Zachary. At twenty-six, was he drifting too? Going for his doctorate in English Literature? But he worked at Naomi’s Fine Books full time, loading, unloading, shipping, even making deliveries, writing book descriptions for the website. He was self-supporting. He paid his own way – rent, food, tuition. Maybe she and Luke had done something right after all. And Luke, in spite of his philandering, had worked hard as a grocery clerk, always brought home a paycheck. He took care of them. He made it possible for Anna to stay home and be a mom. For that she would always be grateful. Of course, Anna had inherited her grandmother’s house and that had helped with the budget.

Carol waved as she left the circuit, heading for her wicker basket. "Bye ladies! Have a good one… see you next time!"

As she left, Terri (the Tiny) stepped in, fiddling with her bar code tag. Terri reminded Anna of a water sprite, always surprised, always happy.

Anna moved to the Ab machine, tightening her stomach muscles, raising the weights and lowering them in time to the tune of I can’t get no satisfaction…

"Seen any good movies?" Terri asked the group hopefully. "I saw a fabulous one last weekend… the best love story… the cast was so so so good… It was called Hana-lani and it took place on Maui…"

Ten minutes later Anna left Curves. She checked her watch. The pageant protest would be starting soon, and she didn’t want to be late. They were depending on her for the signs she had crammed into the back of her Volvo.

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