BEWARE OF HEIGHTS - DESERT HEIGHTS . . . WHERE FAMILY SECRETS VANISH.
By Larry Richardson
Every so often a father’s good intentions end in disaster. Meet Sam Rockland, a gifted 39-year old architect, forced to move his family from Chicago to the high California desert to escape the consequences of a professional blunder that cost him his job and reputation. Hoping for a new start, he signs on with a high-profile development company, only to see that dark past return to haunt him, requiring a desperate choice one fateful night. In a daring scheme he frantically tries to rectify a deadly mistake, little realizing that it threatens to destroy his family and crush his good name forever. Illuminating life’s painful choices and aching regrets, Desert Heights explores the heart’s deepest longings – for love, forgiveness, and redemption.
Larry Richardson grew up in Los Angeles, where he earned his doctorate in Communication Arts & Sciences at the University of Southern California, and taught communication classes at both USC and Pacific Union College, just north of Napa, California. As a playwright, he wrote a play on the life of Martin Luther, the 16th century German reformer, which won him the Outstanding Playwright Award from the Inland Theatre League in Southern California. In 2015 he won the runner-up prize for the play “Second Chances” from the Chattanooga Theatre Center’s semi-annual competition. As a book author, he has published four western novels, and a guide to public speaking, called “The Cure for the Common Sermon”. He currently lives in Cleveland, Tennessee, with his wife Patricia.
Desert Heights Audio Sample
While Sam and Skip surveyed the Desert Heights site, Jenny rolled out of bed and wandered through the kitchen. Linda sat at the table filling out a grocery list.
“Glad you’re finally up. Get dressed. You’re coming with me.”
“Where are we going?” Jenny asked.
“We’re going grocery shopping for starters. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s nothing to eat here. When we’re done with that, we’re going to swim team practice. Julie asked if we could help. Who knows, you might even like it. So, bring a one-piece.” Jenny frowned.
“Do I have to?”
“There’s nothing to do here, and nothing to eat. So, let’s go check out Palmdale.”
The Palmdale Albertsons Grocery Store surprised both Linda and Jenny. It actually carried ginger root and capers. At the cash register the cover of People magazine offered a retrospect of the late Jackie Onassis.
“When Dad comes home, why don’t we all go see ‘The Lion King’ tonight?” Linda suggested. The city pool proved far more tantalizing than the Albertsons produce department for Jenny. She set her eyes on a hunk of a boy, with surfer blonde hair and a muscular build on full display in his swim suit. While Linda helped Julie corral the junior division girls, Jenny sat down with Terri.
“Who is that cute guy in the blue speedo?”
“That’s Wayne Stiles,” Terri said. “He’ll be a senior at Palmdale High – and he has a car.”
“Is he taken?” Jenny asked.
“He broke up with his girlfriend last month. Word is she wouldn’t put out.” Jenny studied Wayne’s swagger. He walked like the jock he was, on full parade.
“I’ve got to do laps,” Terri said. “Did you bring a suit?”
“Well, put it on and jump in.”
She left Jenny to her own devices. Linda already sported a whistle around her neck and a clipboard in hand, oblivious to Jenny’s machinations. When the junior girls completed their laps, Linda located Jenny sitting beside Wayne.
“Who’s that boy Jenny is sitting next to?” she asked Julie. Julie looked up for a moment.
“That’s Wayne Stiles,” she said with that mother-to-mother tone.
“Should I be worried?”
“He’s a fox in the henhouse. When he’s not doing laps, he’s checking out the girls in their speedos.” Linda walked over to Jenny.
“Are you going to get in the water?” she asked, mostly to break up this little “meet and greet”. Jenny rolled her eyes and turned to Wayne.
“See you later.” She went to the changing room and put on her one-piece – nothing special, but it got the job done. She found Terri and the two practiced the butterfly stroke.
On their way home, Jenny spoke up.
“I might like to join the swim team.”
“I thought you had no interest.”
“Well, you know, I could get to know people.”
“I’ll talk to Dad and we’ll see.”
Sam saw no harm, and lots of good, from a summer of swim team.
“I think she might be sweet on this kid on the team. I just hope she knows how to behave,” Linda said.
“How much trouble can they get into?” Sam said. They signed her up, bought her team swim suit, and shuttled her to the city pool for the next three weeks.
The phone rang, waking Sam and Linda from their sleep. Sam squinted at the clock on the night stand – 2:30 a.m. He picked up the receiver and cleared his throat.
“Hello, this is Sergeant Tab Wilks with the Palmdale Police Department.” Suddenly Sam’s heart started pounding. “Is this Sam Rockland?”
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
“Do you have a daughter named Jenny?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you know where she is right now?”
“Of course. She’s downstairs in her bed asleep.”
“Are you sure?”
“Would you go down and take a look? I’ll hold.” Sam set the phone receiver down and got up.
“Who is that?” Linda asked.
“The police,” he replied as he walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs. He opened the door to Jenny’s bedroom and turned on the lights. The room was empty. Sam suddenly felt gut punched. He walked into the kitchen and picked up the wall phone.
“OK, she’s not here. Do you know where she is?”
“Yes, sir. She’s sitting right in the back of my squad car, along with three other yahoos.” Linda listened in from the bedroom extension.
“Is she OK?” Linda blurted.
“She’s fine. They’re all fine.”
“Have they committed any crimes or anything?” Sam asked.
“Nope. Far as I can tell they’re just a bunch of kids out for a joy ride.”
“You should just lock’em up for the night and really give them a scare,” Sam said.
“Just come get your daughter,” the sergeant said. “We’re at 20th Street across from the Palmdale High School.”
“I’ll be right there.”
The fifteen-minute drive gave Sam time to imagine what prompted his daughter’s walk on the wild side. He spotted the squad car a half-mile away, with its red and blue lights flashing in the night. He pulled up alongside the black and white unit and caught a glimpse of Jenny in the back seat weeping. The officer approached his car.
“Sam Rockland?” he said.
“I put the fear of God in them – juvee hall, fines, criminal records,” he smiled. “Your girl’s pretty shook up.” Sam smiled.
“What exactly happened?”
“There’s been a lot of juvenile cruising up and down 20th Street, so we set up a check point with orange cones funneling down traffic to one lane. We scooped these kids up in the net.”
“Thanks,” Sam sighed. Then he aimed his most searing gaze at Jenny as he opened the back door to the squad car. He could see she was scared to death. His eyes turned to the other juvenile offenders.
“Hi, Lindsay,” he said softly. “Who’s your friend?”
“Lonnie Jacobs.” Then he turned to Wayne Stiles.
“That your car, Wayne?”
“Yes, sir,” Wayne said. Sam held his gaze on Wayne for a beat, then turned back to Jenny.
“Get out of the car,” Sam ordered evenly.
“Am I going to jail?” she asked.
“When I’m through, you’ll wish you were.” She slid out of the back seat, and Sam stuck his head back in and glared at Wayne.
“Wayne, I don’t want to see your face within a mile of my house ever again. For the rest of your life. Are we clear?”
The silent ride home crushed Jenny. When they walked in the front door, Linda sat waiting. Sam turned to Jenny.
“Just go to bed. We’ll talk in the morning.” Jenny burst into tears and ran to her mother for any comfort she might offer – just a hug that said “I still love you.” She got it in spades, and the two walked arm-in-arm to Jenny’s bedroom.
The next morning a make-shift courtroom convened in the kitchen, where Jenny sat at the defendant’s table.
“How did you get out?” Sam began.
“Through my window.”
“What were you thinking?” Jenny pled diminished capacity.
“We weren’t thinking.”
“What were you even planning on doing?” Jenny shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t even know – just ride around.”
“At 2:30 in the morning?” Linda asked.
“I was going to be back in bed before anyone knew. What are the odds that the one and only night I ever did such a stupid thing the police would have a roadblock set up? I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, your mother and I talked it over. We considered a lot of punishments. We thought about withholding your allowance, but you don’t seem to care about money. We thought about grounding you, but we don’t believe you’d respect that, and we can’t be home in the afternoon to enforce it. So, we’re pulling you out of the swim league, so you don’t have to be tempted by Wayne anymore. We’re assigning you 100 hours of community service.”
“Doing what?” Jenny asked.
“We’ve made a few calls,” Linda said. “You’re going to be spending your afternoons at the Palmdale City Library doing volunteer work.”
“You’re going to punch in and out so we know you were there. I figure two hours a day, five days a week for ten weeks will just about do it,” Sam said. “And if you put in a few extra hours a week, you’ll be done before school starts in the fall.”
Jenny rolled her eyes. “Better than pulling weeds on the side of the highway, I guess,” she thought.
The Palmdale City Library sat seven blocks from the high school, an easy hike on foot for students. The modest two-story structure drew from the heritage of the region with stucco exterior, Spanish tile roof, and Joshua tree landscaping. Alice Vanarsdale had run the library for the past ten years. In her early fifties, she was trim, with neck-length brown hair, reading glasses hanging from her neck with a gold chain, and a gentle manner. Her husband was the professor of English Literature at Antelope Valley College, and the two loved a good-natured debate over the superiority of British vs. American authors.
Linda dropped Jenny in the parking lot at 3:00 p.m. “I’ll be at swim practice. I’ll pick you up at 5:00,” she said. Jenny closed the car door and went inside. The sudden cool air sent goose pimples up her arms. The room was quiet as a church and almost devoid of people. She suddenly realized she had never been in a library before – book stores, but not a library. They seemed oddly similar.
“Are you Jenny?” Alice said. Jenny turned around to the checkout desk.
“Yes. I’m supposed to meet a Miss Vanarsdale.”
Alice smiled. “That’s me. Come on over. Let’s get acquainted.” She waved Jenny over to a side table.
“I’m the library director. Alice Vanarsdale. You can call me Miss Vanarsdale. And you are Jenny Rockland?”
“That’s right,” Jenny said.
“You’re new to Palmdale?” Alice asked.
“And where did you live before?”
“My, that’s quite a change. Well, I’m glad you’re here. I understand you are wanting to volunteer for the next month or two before school starts, and I think that’s admirable.”
“It’s actually a punishment my parents cooked up,” Jenny confessed.
“Oh, I see. What was the crime, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night and went joy riding with some friends,” Jenny confessed freely. She didn’t care what this strange lady thought of her.
“I like you already,” Alice smiled. “You’ve got spunk.” Jenny smiled back, surprised at Alice’s reaction.
“Oh, yes, indeed. This library is full of books about women just like you. Full of spunk. Ever read anything from Louisa May Alcott?”
“I’ll tell you what. I understand you can give me two hours a day. So, I’ll have you restacking books. There’ll be enough each day to take you about two hours. But if you hurry and get your job done sooner, I’ll not punch your time card if you’ll spend the rest of your time here reading.”
“Reading what?” Alice rose to her feet and lifted her finger, as if to say “Wait right there.” She walked behind her checkout desk and flipped through some hardcovers, then selected a book and brought it back to the table, placing it in front of Jenny.
“Pride and Prejudice?” said Jenny.
“Exactly. By Jane Austen – female author. Do we have a deal?” she said, extending her hand.
“I would have never picked up a book with a title like this,” she frowned.
“I think you’ll like it.”
Jenny could hardly refuse working off her community service time by reading a book in air-conditioned comfort. She shook hands.
“All right, then. Let’s get started.”
The two made a tour of the library. Alice pointed out the various reading rooms, offices, bathrooms, and employee break rooms. On the second floor, they walked by a wing of the stacks in total disarray. The bookshelves were dismantled and the books stacked on the floor along the wall.
“We are replacing all these old wooden bookshelves with new metal ones,” she explained. Jenny made a brief note of the young fellow installing the new shelves. He was nineteen years old, with long wavy brown hair, not quite to his shoulders, but well groomed.
“Does he work here?” Jenny asked.
“Mark Jansen?” Alice glanced over at Mark. “He’s on loan from the city work crew. He’s helping our maintenance man with some projects here. You’ll see him around probably for the rest of the summer.”
That night at bedtime Linda stuck her head into Jenny’s room.
“I just wanted to say good night,” Linda said.
“Mom,” Jenny replied. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” Linda said. It wasn’t often these days that Jenny actually wanted a conversation. Linda sat down beside her. “What’s up?”
“I know you were a book editor back in Chicago, but I never really understood exactly what you did.”
“Oh. Well, I was in charge of taking manuscripts that the publisher was interested in and polishing them up to get ready for printing.”
“What does that mean – polishing?”
“Some manuscripts needed revisions, maybe changing words, tightening up the narrative, even deleting passages that were unnecessary, or repetitious, making the final draft crisp and engaging. That kind of stuff.”
“Did you ever want to write a book?” That was the most grown-up question Linda could ever remember Jenny asking. It called for sharing vulnerabilities.
“Yes, I’ve thought about it.”
“Why haven’t you?”
Linda shrugged. “I guess I never thought I had a story to tell.” Then Jenny shifted gears abruptly.
“Do you think I have spunk?” Jenny asked.
“Spunk?” Linda squinted a bit. “Where did that come from?”
“I don’t know.”
Linda had to think about that. “Yeah, I’d say you’re full of it. And I mean that in a good way,” she added with a wink.
While Jenny settled into her community service, Sam began dismantling all the development log jams holding up the final approvals for Desert Heights – and there were several. First, objections from adjoining property owners. No councilman wants to irritate nearby owners if a proposed project might have a detrimental impact on their property. One major objection came from Luke Sutter, whose alfalfa fields benefited from the storm water run-off coming from the vacant land along Desert Heights. “I may lose natural irrigation water that comes from that land if somebody comes along and covers it all up with asphalt and concrete,” he complained in a recent zoning hearing.
Sam sat down with Luke and offered to create a series of retention ponds to capture any storm water run-off, with canals that would channel all that water into Luke’s irrigation ponds. Problem solved. Other home owners along the street leading to the entrance of Desert Heights worried that this massive development would create a traffic nightmare along that single-lane street and pose a danger to children walking along the unpaved shoulder of the road. Sam agreed to widen the street to four lanes at his expense, and install street lights and sidewalks for a mile from the development entrance. The neighbors could hardly object to these civic improvements and the clear benefit to their home values. Problem solved.
The city itself pointed out a snag in the zoning laws that forbade playgrounds from being built in a residential zone. “You’re just going to have to forget about that playground,” the Zoning Director informed Sam.
“No, I can’t do that. That playground is going to be like New York’s Central Park for all those homeowners and their kids.”
“Not my problem,” the Director said.
“I’ve driven around town,” Sam replied, “and I don’t see anywhere a memorial park honoring our fallen soldiers. I think that’s a shame. Don’t you? Keller Development would be willing to donate the funds needed to erect a monument to our fallen soldiers from all previous conflicts, and we’ll convert the playground into a memorial park, which is a permitted use in a residential zone.” He handed the Zoning Director a petition signed by hundreds of members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, supporting Sam’s plan for a memorial park.
“And there is nothing in the zoning laws preventing memorial parks from having playground equipment,” Sam explained. Checkmate. The Zoning Director did not expect Sam to come so well armed for this stand-off. He surrendered.
“Can I count on your support for our memorial park at the next zoning meeting?” Sam asked. The Director shook Sam’s hand.
The last hurdle required some creativity with the Utility Department. Water and sewer lines did not extend to the Desert Heights property line, which currently fell outside the city limits. The city balked at the expense, demanding that the County of Los Angeles pay for it. The County denied the request, expecting Palmdale to pony up the money. The dispute descended into an ego match between city and county bureaucrats, with Keller Development stuck in the middle, and the stalemate was now into its second year.
“Why don’t you just annex the development into the city?” Sam suggested. “Just take it away from the county. The property taxes alone you stand to gain will pay for it. And that will give you jurisdiction and the right to tell the county to kiss off.”
“We just don’t have the budget,” the Director of Water and Power confessed. “Maybe next year.” Sam could not let the project languish for another twelve months.
“Oh, hell, if you’ll cover the labor, I’ll pay for the materials,” Sam offered.
“I think we could swing that,” the director said. Done and done.
Skip stopped by Sam’s office late one afternoon.
“I just read your memo. That’s a helluva a lot of goodies you gave away to clear up all our roadblocks. How did you think you were going to pay for all of it?”
“I noticed early on your home sites are all a third of an acre. That’s a lot of back yard. Nobody wants to cut that much grass. I know I wouldn’t. So, I took the liberty of redrawing lot lines and shrinking all those back yards just a touch. You used to have 200 home sites – now you’ve got 210. We’re going to pay for all those goodies with those ten extra homes.” Skip grinned broadly.
“You are one crafty son of a bitch,” he chuckled.
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