||Setting the scene
Claire Gray, a renowned director, has
recently arrived in the Palm Springs area of California to head the theater
department of a newly built arts college. A week before classes are to
open, however, she and a fellow faculty member, sculptor Paul Huron, discover
the lifeless body of his wife, Jodie, the apparent victim of a home invasion.
Recalling that Jodie had gushed about having some car repairs done by
a marvelous mechanic, Claire has begun to wonder exactly what
sort of services one Tanner Griffin had performed to warrant such praise.
With his business card in hand, Claire drives to the body shop early one
morning to do a bit of investigating.
Excerpt from the text
of Desert Autumn
I had been expecting
some run-down garage with a gravel parking lot, where the rusty remains
of stripped and abandoned cars could momentarily snag the passing tumbleweeds.
To my chagrin, the establishment was slick, tidy, and invitingat
least to the extent that a body shop could be called inviting.
It was obvious that, decades earlier, the place had been a gas station.
A stylish renovation now alluded to the propertys automotive past
while luring a new clientele with neat landscaping, tasteful graphics,
and eye-catching accents of chrome and neon. Taken as a whole, the enterprise
conveyed an image of precision, cleanliness, and fussy attention to
detail. I could well understand why Jodie had been so impressed and
effusive. Anyonemyself includedwould have nary a qualm about
handing over their keys to Desert Detail.
As I crossed the intersection
and pulled into the driveway, I saw that the shop was just opening for
the day. An immaculate black Jeep (the smaller, open, military-looking
variety) was parked near the closed front door, where two rolled newspapers
leaned at the jamb. On the door of the Jeep, in pristine gold letters,
was the same Desert Detail logo that appeared on the business card.
The Jeeps driver had entered the building through one of the garage
doors, which gaped open, and I noticed lights blinking on indoors as
the proprietor made his way through the shop toward the front office.
Getting out of the Beetle,
I crossed the small parking lot toward the building. Through the glare
of the windows, I saw a figure in the office raising window shades,
switching on signs, but he made no move to unlock the front door, where
the unread newspapers still waited. Since he had entered through the
garage, it wasnt clear to me if the office door was meant to be
used, so I poked my head into the garage and gave a yoo-hoo.
Hearing no response,
I stepped a few paces inside, calling, Anybody home?
Can I help you?
I turned toward the
voicewhich sounded rich, resonant, and slightly amusedand
saw a young man backlit by the morning sun outside the garage. He held
the two rolled newspapers under one arm, a sizable ring of keys in his
hand. I was opening the shop, he explained, and thought
I heard someone. Then I saw the Beetle. He jerked his head over
his shoulder toward my car. Cute.
understatement, I mumbled as I stepped out of the shadows and
got a good look at him.
he asked, turning to me with a smile that made my knees weak.
I tried to answer, but choked on the word, covering my muddlement with
They were great
cars, with lots of character, he was saying, his voice clear and
pleasant, almost musical, though wonderfully masculine, but I
like the new ones even better.
For all I knew, he could
have been reciting the phone book or reading recipes. Hell, I wasnt
listening. I was looking at him, studying him, still agog.
Now and then, someone
comes along who personifies beauty or vulnerability or animal magnetism
or a charming personality, but rarely, if ever, does someone have all
those qualities rolled into one squeaky-clean, health-conscious, man-size
package. More rarely still, if ever, does such a person answer your
yoo-hoo, compliment your car, and pause to engage you in conversation.
If this was Jodies leering grease monkey, then her winking,
swooning allusion to a marvelous mechanic had been fully
justified, though her description didnt begin to paint a sufficient
picture of the man.
He was in his midtwenties,
not a kid, but his face, indeed his whole bearing, had not yet lost
its boyish appeal, its illusion of fresh innocence. He was of medium
height with a solid buildnot intimidating or brutish, just pleasingly
muscled. His body was displayed to great advantage that morning in loose-fitting,
olive-drab cargo shorts and a tight, spotless white T-shirt. His tan
work boots coordinated perfectly with his thick, sand-colored hairwas
he vain enough, or clever enough, to have chosen his utilitarian footwear
for that reason?
. . . but it looks
brand new, he was saying. It doesnt seem to be in
need of any repairs. So how can I help you? Again that smilefull
lips, perfect teeth, strong chin.
began to explain, Ive just recently moved to the desert,
and I understand that many drivers here get their car windows
he interrupted, youre Claire Gray. The smile. Arent
I was so flusteredand
flatteredby this unexpected recognition, I had to think which
way to respond. Yes, I said, sounding idiotically uncertain,
Wow, I cant
believe it! Pocketing his keys, he let the newspapers fall to
the ground, then clapped imagined grime from his palms, extending one
hand. What an honor, Miss Gray. And what a surpriseto find
you standing here.
With a weak laugh, I
shook his meaty hand, telling him, I was thinking much the same
you were joining the faculty at the new college, and I wondered if Id
ever run into you.
Flipping my hands, I
announced the obvious: And here I am.
And here you are,
he repeated, grinning. His tone grew serious when he added, Ive
admired your work for years. Youre simply the best. The collegethe
whole communityis lucky to have you here.
While all this adulation
was gratifying (I could think of far worse ways to start a Monday morning),
it was also a bit weird. Even back in Manhattan, where Id lived
for decades and established my career, my claim to fame, I was never
once recognized by a stranger on the street. After all, my role in the
theatrical world was behind the scenes, and though Id been interviewed
in print many times over the years, neither my face nor my name was
known much beyond Broadway. Now here I stood, three thousand miles away,
in the parking lot of a body shop in the middle of the desert, with
a hot young fantasy hunk (I was old enough to be his mother) gushing
over me as if he were starstruck. What was I missing?
I thanked him for his
kind words, then asked, Uh, have we perhaps met?
He shook his head. Never.
Well, now we have. He offered his hand again. My
names Tanner Griffin.
I thought so.
Gladly, I indulged in his redundant handshake.
It was now he who seemed
perplexed. Have we met?
laughedsomeone gave me your card. Desert Detail comes highly
recommended. From the lilt of my voice, anyone would have gotten
the ridiculous impression that I was flirting. With a casual primp,
I asked, Youre the owner?
Not exactly. Not
yet. Im sort of a junior partnerwith plenty of sweat equity.
The real owner is quite a bit older. He retired from another job in
the Midwest a few years ago, then moved out here and had this notion
to start a body shop. That was about the time I finished college; Id
just moved here from LA and was looking for work. We got to know each
other, he hired me, and I set up the business, hired the crew, made
it happen. Im basically in charge. He laughed. Which
simply means that Im first to arrive in the morning.
And last to leave
Yeah, most of
the time. Picking up the papers hed dropped, he said, Come
on inside. Its cooler in the office. Lets talk about that
Following him (Lord,
what a sight, just watching him walk), I wondered aloud, When
you were in college, is this what you thought youd end up doing?
He turned quizzically, and I added at once, Dont get me
wrongyouve got a great deal to be proud of here. What I
meant was, did you always have a dream to start up a business?
We stepped inside the
office, and he sat on a stool, placing the papers on the counter, resting
his arm there. His orotund voice was colored with wistfulness as he
told me, No, Miss Gray, though I was a business major in college,
it was never my dream to found a body-shop empire. My dreamthe
pause, the smilewas to act.
I beaded him with a
sly stare. Now why doesnt this surprise me?
I laughed. God,
Tanneryour voice, your presence. Whats the story? Waiting
to be discovered?
I dont think
so. He shook his head, chuckling.
Then I remembered that
hed been a business major. Sitting on the stool next to his, I
said, Pardon an old snoop, but if acting was your dream, why didnt
you pursue it?
He gently raised a hand
in admonishment. First, you are not old.
as gracious as you are handsome. Again, anyone would have reached
the preposterous conclusion that I was flirting.
Second, you may
be snooping, but considering the nature of your query, Im flattered
that youd ask. Why didnt I pursue acting? In a word: parents.
the year Id spent teaching at Evans College, to say nothing of
the four years Id studied there, Id rarely met parents of
a theater major who were totally comfortable with the career being pursued
by their progenymy mother certainly wasnt. Objections ranged
from too iffy for the girls to too effeminate
for the boys. Granted, theater is a chancy vocation at best, so its
difficult to blame parents for being wary of dreams spun by children
who simply dont have the maturity to distinguish between the curtain-call
rewards of a high-school drama guild and the probable disappointments
of a dead-ended career. Still, some of us do weather the transition,
beat the odds, and know the supreme privilege of truly loving our work.
I asked Tanner, They threatened to cut you off?
At the knees.
I wanted to study theater in college, but they wouldnt hear of
it. Its a wonderful hobby, they told me, but
were not spending tens of thousands of dollars just so you can
wait tables for the rest of your lifeor words to that effect.
I nodded. Id heard
it all before.
So I majored in
business. They called that sensible. I called it job
training, a wasted education. So after I graduated, I moved out
herethe classic quest to find myself. Took a few odd jobs, menial
stuff. Ive always sort of enjoyed real labor. Its kept me
Yes, I observed
dryly, it has.
Then Desert Detail
happened. Things just fell together for me. Im happy with itreasonably.
need to convince me, Tanner.
With a soft laugh, he
agreed, Sometimes I need to convince myself that I havent
wasted a gift.
then? My tone was businesslike and matter-of-fact. I was asking
for an objective assessment of his acting skills.
bullshit. People said I was goodnot just friends,
but directors in both high school and college. I usually played leading
roles, even in college, and thats really something, since I wasnt
a theater major. I heard that the good roles almost always went to majors
so they could build their résumés.
I affirmed, Thats
how it works. You must be good.
just say that I was. Havent done much lately.
A few. But its
just that . . . well, Ive never studied theater. My acting
has been essentially intuitive. Theres a lot I dont know.
Before I could weigh
the implications of what I was saying, I heard the words slip out of
me: Have you ever considered going back to school?
He paused before answering,
Yes, Ive often thought of it.
A long silence followed,
as neither of us felt prepared to discuss the next step. The topic of
his returning to school had seemingly bubbled up out of nowhere, backing
us into an awkward corner.