The Ladies Temperance Club's Farewell Tour.
1st book in Fish Fishbein's Adventures in La-La Land series
“Hey, I don’t know about anybody else, but my butt and my bladder could both use a break. Look, the Ontario Mills Mall’s gonna be comin’ up in a couple of minutes. You wanna stop?”
“Sure, I guess,” Kay answered, happy to go along with the flow. Normally, she would have automatically agreed with Louise, or whoever was calling the shots, thereby avoiding any tension or rocking the boat.
But the Ontario Mills Mall? Heck, they were already about a hundred miles from the Temperance Club’s home turf, and this was one outlet center she had never experienced.
“Besides, I could stand to freshen up, too.”
“Why don’t you just come out and say it, honey?” Louise let out a loud guffaw. “You gotta take a giant leak. Y’know, pee like a big dog.”
She looked up at the rear view mirror and spotted Vonda, seated on the couch and staring out the picture window on the opposite side of the coach.
“What about you, sweetie? You wanna stretch your legs, powder your nose or take a leak, or something?”
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” Vonda answered without taking her eyes off the passing countryside. “Don’t know what the big deal is. We got a john right in the back.”
Louise followed the other traffic into the parking lot of the Ontario Mills Mall, stopping in a huge section full of RV’s, large converted vans, fifth wheels and trailers.
“Jesus girls,” she announced as she took in the scenery through her window. “Welcome to Redneck Heaven.”
All three took turns in the small bathroom at the rear of the vehicle, then they headed for the mall’s nearest entrance.
And from the number of furrows that had cropped up between Kay’s eyebrows and their depth, Louise could see that something was bothering her friend.
“Something on your mind?”
“Well, it’s just that…you think Vonda’s RV will be OK out there with nobody watching it?”
“No sweat. It’s locked up good and tight, and it’s surrounded by lotsa families in their units. And there’s plenty of security. Just relax and enjoy the place.”
“OK, if you say so.”
“Besides, honey. Jack can keep an eye on things ‘till we get back.”
The Ontario Mills Mall was the largest, roundest building any of the Temperance Clubbers had ever seen, let alone visited.
Roughly shaped like a donut laid on its back, the outlet center was the better part of a quarter of a mile in diameter. And at its center was a gargantuan food court, a veritable United Nations of high-fat, low fiber, fried and sugar-glazed delicacies and goodies to graze, gobble down and nosh upon. Every ethnic group and nationality on the planet was represented, from Mexico, China and Italy to Greece, Poland and France.
Even foot-long sandwiches from the Republic of Togo.
All of which was carried, brandished and dropped on the floor by hordes of loud and uncontrolled children.
But even with all the noise, all the tumult and confusion that dozens of sugar-buzzed kids can create, the Ontario Mills Mall was still a pretty exciting place in which to stretch one’s legs.
Granted, it featured the same brands and manufacturer’s outlets that were available just ten minutes from their homes, in Camarillo.
But with the time and distance involved in getting to the place, somehow the stuff at the Ontario Mills Mall seemed that much more interesting and exotic -- more imported.
Louise changed the downward trajectory of her foot just in time to avoid stepping on a half-eaten Whopper with cheese, deposited on the mall’s carpeting a few seconds earlier by a little kid so plump his eyes looked like they had disappeared into the folds of his cheeks.
“Guys,” she watched as the little kid tugged on the hem of a pair of black Spandex bicycle shorts belonging to a woman large and wide enough for him to hide behind. “Look, none of us has had anything to eat since lunch yesterday. I’m tired, my head hurts and I just want to sit down for a while and be waited on. How about we get something real to eat?”
All three quickly changed direction, headed for a section of the mall where the ambient noise level was considerably lower and the quality of the food somewhat higher than the food court.
The Ladies’ Temperance Club would be lunching in Theme Restaurant Land.
More specifically, they would be sitting down to their midday meal in the middle of a faithfully reproduced animatronic rain forest.
Bathed in artificial sunlight, filtered through an ersatz jungle tree canopy and colored lighting gels.
Surrounded by mechanical lemurs, sloths, jaguars and geckos.
And serenaded by the recorded sounds of both the rustle of unseen insects and rodents and the unbearable din of a troop of digitally sampled howler monkeys.
It was a lot like the old jungle river ride at Disneyland, but without the menacing fiberglass hippo.
“Hi, I’m like, Jennifer. Like, your server...?”
In her khaki shorts and safari shirt, their server looked every inch the grizzled, teenage jungle explorer/treasure hunter. Toss in the rumpled brown fedora on her head and the bullwhip attached to her belt, and the illusion was complete. Standing in front of their booth and ready to take their order was Indiana Jones – in a C cup.
Kay ordered the Drums of the Orinoco Chinese Chicken Salad and a glass of Chardonnay. Louise opted for the Amazon River Delta Tuna Melt and a glass of Chablis. And Vonda decided on the Argentine Pampas Burger with cheese, cooked very rare, along with a glass of Merlot.
“Awesome, ladies. I’ll be, like, right back with your drinks..?”
It didn’t matter whether she was prospecting for information or uttering a statement of fact, just about every phrase that left Jennifer/Indie’s mouth came out framed as a question.
Their grizzled teenage jungle guide and hunter took her bullwhip, fedora and boobs, and headed off to the kitchen, returning within a few minutes carrying their liquid refreshments on a tray.
Each order of wine was sloshing around in a tumbler that looked like a shot glass that had been Crazy Glued to the top of a traditional wine stem -- one of the smallest glasses Vonda had ever seen. And between her years in the overly friendly skies and half a decade or so with The Ladies’ Temperance Club, Vonda had seen a lot of glassware.
“Excuse me, miss. What is this?”
“Uh, that’s, like, your glass of Merlot…?”
“Dear, this isn’t a glass of anything. A proper glass of wine should be between five and seven ounces. I ought to know, because I spent twenty years pouring the stupid things at thirty five thousand feet. And if this is glass of yours is more than three ounces, I’ll eat the goddam thing.”
“Oh, I’m totally sorry, M’am! Would you like like, another glass of Merlot? That way, you would have--“ Jennifer/Indie stopped to figure a complex calculation on the back of her order pad. “…I dunno, something like seven ounces of wine. Or maybe even, like, nine..?”
“And for the additional Merlot it would take to turn this into a real glass of wine, you would charge me …”
“Oh, totally no problem, M’am.” Jennifer/Indie breathed a huge sigh of relief and smiled. “It’s only like, another seven ninety five..?”
“So, an ordinary six or seven ounce glass of wine is going to end up running me almost sixteen bucks?”
“Wulll, I guess..?” Jennifer/Indie had completely missed the irony.
“Tell you what, dear. Forget the extra Merlot. Just bring me the manager.”
In less than a minute an older, pudgier Indiana Jones -- decked out in the same great white hunter drag -- joined them at their booth.
But unlike Jennifer/Indie, Manager/Indie was also packing a pair of tired looking eyes; thinning, carrot-red hair beneath his fedora and across his upper lip; a raging case of eczema and a name tag that read, “Hi, my name is Sherm.”
“So, ladies…what seems to be the problem?”
“The problem,” Vonda answered, “is these stupid glasses of yours. Y’see, my friends and I don’t mind paying a little extra when a restaurant’s worth it.”
“But c’mon,” Louise jumped in. “Eight bucks for this?”
She held up her shot glass sized serving of white wine.
“Hey, I gargle with more than this.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Manager/Indie absently scratched at a patch of bright red rash on his forearm. “But the corporation sets all the prices and serving standards, and those drinks are right out of the company manual.”
He switched to the patch of rash on his other arm.
“Tell you what. How about if we send you ladies an extra basket of our famous Nazca rustic peasant bread, fresh and piping hot from the oven. On the house, of course.”
“OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. You want to trade us twenty-four bucks worth of wine for a three dollar basket of bread?“ Louise chuckled for a second while she squinted at his nametag.
“Tell you what, Sherm. Yeah, there might be a blonde or two in this booth.” She downed her entire serving of wine in one swallow. “But we’re nowhere near as dumb as you think.”
After a few more minutes of negotiation, they arrived at a solution to which all parties could agree.
Manager/Indie agreed to waive the complimentary basket of fresh Peruvian-style baked goods, take back Vonda’s and Kay’s wine orders, only charge them for the wine consumed by Louise and bring everyone glasses of water.
And the Ladies’ Temperance Club agreed not to go off in search of another themed restaurant in which to have lunch.
Jennifer/Indie silently scooped up all their wine glasses and scampered off for the kitchen, while Manager/Indie returned to his station at the restaurant’s jungle trading post and souvenir shop, fiercely scratching at both arms as he crossed the room.
Kay breathed a sigh of relief.
“Glad that’s over with. Be right back.”
Unfortunately, the plumbing in the room behind the door marked “Amazons” was out of commission, forcing Kay back out into the mall to hunt down a public restroom.
And while she was roaming the donut shaped building in search of a suitable alternative, Jennifer/Indie delivered the Temperance Club’s lunch to their booth.
Which was the cue for some high-level jungle hi-jinx to kick into gear, starting with Vonda cutting into her order and discovering that the rare Argentine Pampas Burger she ordered had been broiled to a perfect, light pinkish medium-well.
“God damn it.”
“What’s wrong?” Louise asked, through a mouthful of tuna melt.
“OK, so it’s a little overcooked. So what?”
“So, it’s not what I ordered.”
“Hey, life is full of little disappointments, honey.” Louise shook her head. “Deal with it.”
“But I hate this.”
“Well, you can hate it all you want, babe.” Louise chuckled. “But, you want to kill the rest of the day waiting for these clowns to get your order right?”
“Then, put on your big girl panties and suck it up, Vonda. Just eat the damn thing, so we can get back on the road, OK?”
Vonda grumbled under her breath as she slowly reached for one of the halves of her burger.
At that moment, more than fifteen feet above her in the artificial jungle canopy, a life size and accurate reproduction of a Theraphosa blondi - a Goliath Bird Eating Spider - was motionlessly studying the room.
By life size, we’re talking just about a foot from the tip of one hairy leg to the other, the largest tarantula species on the planet and a resident of the Central and South American jungles, known to regularly catch and chow down on birds, mice, frogs and the occasional wildlife photographer who ignores the Do Not Feed the Spiders signs.
Its body and legs were molded from the same rubber compound fishing lure manufacturers employ to produce artificial, hook-embedded worms so lifelike they can fool a wary Walleye.
Add the true-to-life coloring and a pair of nasty looking fangs up front, and this was one arachnid no one was ever going to try and chase down with a handful of wadded up toilet paper.
And if timing is everything in life, the gob of hot-melt glue that held the make-believe spider in place for the past five years couldn’t have picked a more opportune moment to decide to take a breather.
The glue relaxed its grip and the gigantic spider plummeted earthward, landing squarely on top of Vonda’s slightly overcooked burger and taking up the entire plate, with all eight of its hairy, tiger-striped legs shuddering in a very lifelike and convincing manner.
She finally glanced in the direction her fingers were heading and her eyes locked onto her burger’s humongous, eight-legged rubber garnish, sitting there with its two forelegs raised in a pre-molded aggressive posture, its fangs pointed in her direction and its whole attitude daring her to go ahead and make its day.
Vonda let out a scream that brought all noise in the room to an immediate halt, and she and Louise quickly scrambled up on top of their booth’s upholstered backrest.
Kay walked back in from the mall a couple of minutes later, and looking across the restaurant, she could instantly tell there was trouble in paradise.
Jennifer/Indie was standing about ten feet from their booth, looking perplexed and helpless.
Manager/Indie was standing next to her, scratching at both arms and his neck while he talked to the two security guards standing on his other side.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Vonda had made landfall in the middle of the simulated jungle. She was standing on the booth’s imitation Python patterned upholstery, wildly waving her arms, yelling at Manager/Indie at the top of her lungs and even drowning out the recorded howler monkeys.
And the gigantic rubber tarantula was still perched on top of her burger, but now it was pinned to the overcooked entrée by the fork Louise had used to run it through.
“I DON’T GIVE A CRAP WHAT YOUR GODDAM POLICY IS! THIS ISN’T WHAT I ORDERED AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT!”
She picked up her plate and heaved both the Argentine Pampas Burger with cheese and the Goliath Bird Eating Spider kabob in Manager/Indie’s direction.
This marked the second time in twenty-four hours that Vonda had ceded all control to her inner Tasmanian Devil. But at least this time, Louise and Kay were in a position to try and head it off.
As if they had a lot of choice.
For one thing, there was a whole restaurant full of witnesses, all of whom had ceased their talking, sipping, chewing and swallowing to stare in silence at the tableau playing itself out in booth number twenty-seven.
For another, there was Jack, who was still out in the parking lot, sitting quietly by himself in the freezer.
If Vonda’s current little fit of pique panicked anyone into calling the authorities, he could instantly change from the late Jack Thibideau to People’s Exhibit #1. And everyone connected with the RV would most likely go directly to jail without passing “Go” or collecting two hundred dollars.
Kay hustled over to Manager/Indie, just in time to catch the exchange between him and one of the security guards, who was eagerly resting his hand on the canister of pepper spray clipped to his utility belt.
“You want I should mace her down?”
“No, let’s see if she calms down on her own,” Manager/Indie answered. “Worse comes to worse,” He unhitched the cellular phone from its holster on his belt. “We just let the cops handle it.”
As Vonda continued to rant and rave at full volume, Kay pulled Manager/Indie aside to find out what triggered the whole episode.
“Don’t really know,” he shrugged. "Jennifer brought out her order and she totally lost it. Just because it was medium well instead of rare.”
“And then there was that like, that totally gi-normous spider that fell from the ceiling..?” Jennifer/Indie offered, trying to be helpful as she pointed to the plate on her serving tray, holding the remains of Vonda’s burger and the imitation South American überspider.
Resisting her impulse to let fly with an outraged “Ewwwww!” Kay asked, “Well, why wasn’t it cooked the way she ordered?”
“Corporate policy against undercooked beef, Ma’m. Mad Cow Disease, and all.”
“Then, how come nobody said anything about it when we ordered?”
“They should have. It’s corporate policy.”
Manager/Indie suddenly ducked and one of Vonda’s dinner rolls whistled harmlessly over his head. But as he stood back up, a cherry tomato Vonda had fished out of Louise’s salad caught him in the chest.
“Uh, how ‘bout now, Sherm? You want I should mace her down now?”
The security guard made a move toward the booth and Vonda quickly yanked one of the skinny Peruvian baguettes out of the breadbasket, brandishing it in his direction.
“C’MON! C’MON, YOU SON OF A BITCH! I ALREADY BURIED ONE MAN THIS WEEK. ANOTHER ONE WON’T MAKE A WHOLE LOT OF DIFFERENCE!”
Kay’s stomach slid all the way down into her other pair of pink new Keds.
In her mind’s eye she could already see the TV news promo, with its insistent, staccato music and voice-of-doom announcer intoning, “Southland shopper goes berserk at southern California outlet mall, charged with assault with baked goods.Film at eleven!”
Somebody had to do something, and fast.
She pulled Manager/Indie aside.
“Look, you have to understand about Vonda.”
“I understand your friend’s out of her freakin’ mind, I’ll give you that.”
“She’s not nuts!” Kay hissed at the eczematic big game hunter.
Then she softened, realizing that this might not be the best time to be antagonizing the help.
“She’s just…well, she’s kind of in shock.”
Kay fought hard to come up with something to say to help defuse the situation.
“You see…Vonda uh, just suffered a major loss and she’s, well – she’s just not herself.”
“What was it, a death in the family?”
Kay nodded, adding a long, wistful sigh for effect. “Her boyfriend of more than twenty years.”
“Was it, like, totally sudden?” Jennifer/Indie asked, wiping away a tear that was slowly making its way down her cheek. “Or was he sick for like, a long time?”
Kay sadly shook her head.
“Jack’s death came as a complete shock to all of us. Believe me, no one was expecting it.”
“Wow,” Jennifer/Indie sniffled. “That’s, like, sooooo harsh..?”
Manager/Indie concurred. “That poor woman.”
He turned to briefly say something to the security guards, who nodded and unhappily shuffled out of the room. Then he turned back to Kay.
“They must have been pretty close, your friend and her boyfriend.”
Kay shook her head and sighed again. “You don’t want to know.”
Despite everything spelled out in the company manual, Manager/Indie was hit with an overwhelming attack of good breeding and empathy.
“Look, your friend’s already been through enough. The heck with corporate policy, M’am. Lunch is on us. And if she wants a rare Argentine Pampas Burger with cheese, then by God, that’s what she’s going to have.”
“Thank you,” Kay smiled bravely. “You’re very kind.”
“Don’t be silly. You and your friends just enjoy your lunch, OK? And please pass along our condolences.”
“Fer sure..?” Jennifer/Indie made certain that her feelings were also known. “I mean, totally.”
“In fact…” Sherm was suddenly struck by both a brainstorm and a decidedly un-corporate urge to do the right thing. He quickly walked over to booth twenty-seven, sporting his most sympathetic smile and absently raking his nails over a patch of rash on his right arm.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, M’am. It’s all taken care of. Our apologies. Here…”
He held his hand out to Vonda to help her climb down.
“And I just want to say how sorry we all are, to hear about your recent loss.”
Reaching out to take the man’s hand, Vonda shot a confused look at Louise, who shrugged and smiled.
With Manager/Indie’s help, Vonda climbed down from her perch to a round of applause from the entire house.
Then everyone went back to chewing, swallowing and talking.
The digitally sampled howler monkeys went back to howling.
And Vonda, Kay and Louise settled in to patiently wait for the replacement of the Argentine Pampas Burger with cheese.
This time, it was delivered blood rare.
And the cooks wisely decided to hold the eight-legged rubber side dish.
* * *
“My loss?!” Vonda whispered to Kay as soon as they were outside the restaurant’s bamboo-framed double doors. “Sweetie, what the hell did you tell them in there?”
Kay told her and Louise everything that had transpired.
About the security guard who was just itching to mace Vonda down.
About Vonda being in shock over the very recent loss of her boyfriend of twenty years.
About his death being so sudden and such a surprise.
“A surprise?” Louise was laughing so hard tears were rolling down both cheeks. She plopped herself down on a bench while she fought to regain her composure.
“Sudden, huh?” Still fighting back the laughter and tears, Louise reached out and took Kay’s hand. “Honey, I had no idea you had it in you.”
“To tell you the truth,” Kay shrugged. “Neither did I.”
“You two…” Vonda’s lower lip was quivering and tears were beginning to well up in her eyes. “I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for friends like you.”
She hugged both of them.
“More like accessories after the fact,” Louise returned her hug. “Now, let’s get back to the bus and figure out where we go from here.”
Walking out through the exit doors closest to the Redneck Heaven section of the parking lot, Vonda suddenly froze.
“Ohmigod, the dogs! What about the dogs?!”
“No problem,” Louise smiled at Vonda. “I took care of it while we were driving through Pasadena and you two were out like a light.”
“How? What did you do?”
“Hell, I called the county animal control people, told them I was you and that I had been called out of town on a family emergency. And I had these eight dying dogs I had rescued, and could they take care of them for a few days?”
“And they agreed?” Vonda had been down this road with the county animal people before, and they hadn’t been all that anxious to please. “Just like that?”
“Well, not exactly. Not at first.”
The curiosity was eating at Kay.
“So, how did you get them to come and pick up the dogs?”
Louise chuckled and put an arm around Vonda’s shoulder.
“Honey, let’s just say that when we get back to Newbury Park…well, Vonda here owes some guy named Benicio a --”
She pantomimed sliding a make-believe popsicle in and out of her mouth.
Vonda laughed and shook her head, while Kay’s blank expression indicated she didn’t get it.
Then the light bulb went on over her head.
“Oh my Lord, that’s disgusting!” Kay was a long way from seeing the humor in Louise’s imaginary Good Humor bar. “That’s awful, Louise! How could you obligate Vonda to do something like that with a man she’s never even met?!”
“C’mon Sweetie,” Vonda chuckled, trying to calm her friend down. “Who said I’m obligated to do anything?”
“Hey, it’s simple.” Louise picked up the ball and ran with it. “The first rule of understanding male motivation. Any woman can get any man on the planet to do anything she wants -- anything at all. You just offer to play a solo on his skin flute. Christ, a guy will move a freakin’ mountain if he thinks that’s what’s waiting for him at the top.”
“Uh huh, and what happens when they’re done moving that mountain for you?” Kay demanded. “Then what?”
"Hell," Vonda laughed. "Then they're usually to embarassed to bring it up."