She knew what she wanted.
Unlike the other objects, the turkey baster had been new. She'd brought it with them precisely because they hadn't had one in L.A.; it was something different, a simple object to mark a before and an after. She had liked the idea of using it at Thanksgiving, although she hadn't been sure they'd celebrate that anymore. She didn't think there would be turkeys here, and she'd been right.
Thanksgiving. That holiday was so quaint in her memory it felt like something from a storybook: Once upon a time, Goldilocks ate herself silly.
Frida couldn't hold herself back any longer and pulled the baster out of the briefcase. It was stored in old Christmas wrapping paper, printed with gingerbread men and mistletoe, and she unwrapped it slowly. She had last looked at the baster a few weeks ago, and she had taken care to put it back properly. It could not be damaged.
At the store, Frida had so much fun playing with the turkey baster, squeezing its plastic bulb so that the air farted out the glass tip. Frida had wondered if they might use it to try to get pregnant someday: their own ad hoc fertility treatment. It was funny how that had been on her mind even then.
But, no, Frida thought now, she wasn't pregnant. Couldn't be. She'd stop thinking about it.
The baster had been on sale. The store, like so many others, was going out of business. When the first of them perished, it had seemed impossible. "A chain like that!" people had said. When she was younger, Frida used to go there with her friends to marvel at all the useless necessities: the soy sauce receptacles, the tiny mother-of-pearl spoons, the glass pitchers. Even then, she didn't know anyone who could afford such things. When she turned thirteen, she spent all of her birthday money on a single cloth napkin. Her mother would have killed her had she known; things weren't dire then, not yet, but times were tough, and Frida could imagine her mother decrying such waste. Frida had stored the napkin in the pocket of a coat she never wore.
But on her last visit, at twenty-six, she was no longer that same stupid little girl, or so she told herself. The place had been ransacked. Frida still remembered the starkness of the floodlights; they ran on a generator in the corner, illuminating the remaining coves of products, which were jumbled together in plastic bins. The register was by the entrance, and the girl who worked there accepted gold only, and not jewelryit had to be melted down already.
Frida couldn't conjure the girl's face anymore, but she did remember her eyeliner. How had she gotten her hands on eyeliner? Perhaps it was an old stick of her mother's, gone to crayon at the back of the medicine cabinet. She could have sold it, if she wanted to, but she hadn't. The girl was barely eighteen, more likely sixteen. The place shut down a week later, didn't even make it to Christmas.
By the following spring, Frida was celebrating her twenty-seventh birthday in an empty apartment, their belongings packed and ready by the door. She'd wanted to spend one more in L.A.; she'd been born there, after all. Cal couldn't argue with that.
Frida held the baster by its plastic bulb, lifting it above her head. She imagined the store had probably gone feral soon after they left, like the rest of the businesses at that stupid outdoor mall. The Grove, it was called. Maybe in these two years it had sprouted some trees, finally earned its name. The famous trolley, rusted, its bell looted. The fountain, which had once lured tourists and toddlers to its edge, was probably dry; that, or sludgy with poison.
But what about the girl? Maybe she had been brave and stupid enough to head for the wilderness with only a bag full of tiny sherry glasses and cloth napkins to keep her company. Maybe a turkey baster, too.
Back in L.A., Frida had kept the baster a secret from Cal because she'd spent gold on it, gold they were saving for their journey. They'd saved for almost a year to get enough money for gas and other supplies. She had purchased something frivolous, and she knew it. She was still that same little girl, hoarding her treasure. She hadn't changed at all.
Excerpted from California by Edan Lepucki. Copyright © 2014 by Edan Lepucki. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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