UNITED STATES—Reed Parker got hold of a mystery a few years ago on one of his trips. As a lawyer who ascertained the ownership of properties of interest to those who drilled for oil, or had already drilled for it eons ago and let the machinery rust, he retraced the same steps of many a childhood trip to Almond Springs. Nielsen’s Almond Springs Resort consisted of a large beveled wood tavern, with several roomy mansards sticking out of richly slanting roof. The lodge was surrounded by lawns and leafy elms in whose shade were metal lawn chairs. A playground was nearby where kids let off their post-prandial bliss and could ride on a merry-go-round.
The mystery manifest when Reed became aware that there were no more kids to speak of and the rocking chairs on the hotel veranda were mostly empty at this place that was a formerly revered Parker family tradition. His father had introduced him to the fading resort—famous for its almond chowder and almond-apricot pie. Beyond the boundaries of the immaculately tended grass, the lodge with the changeless tan and green color scheme—there was nothing else there save the merciless sub-Mojave desert.
Posited around the roadways leading up to it were signs of the cartoon gold prospector using his teeth to chaw open an almond shell; Squeaky the almond was screaming and Fester moaned that he’d better see a dentist. The signs were strategically placed along the various highways that could lead to Nielsen’s Resort. Over the years they fell into disrepair, the paint freckling off and becoming targets for hunters’ rifles, left thus perforated.
The resort hit its stride in the early 1960s. It had hammered copper counters in the coffee shop, horseshoe shaped. The main highway hadn’t yet avoided it, and there was a steady trickle of Hollywood people looking to get lost or lick emotional wounds out of the limelight. Reed’s dad saw the great DiMaggio seated at the counter across from him. Dad Parker gawked and was thrilled to never cross the stage line: Reed’s dad had been a very nice man, a genus seriously underappreciated nowadays and that Reed himself was starting to value as the years mellowed him.
“This is wonderful,” Reed said to himself. “It never changes.”
In the atmosphere mingled the smells of pleasant cleaning solution, and cooking smells, from the world-famous almond chowder. (It was still world-famous, only the world got smaller and its devotees fewer). Once there had been the pleasant murmur of scores of travelers; now it was quiet. He liked that after being around all the assholes in the city, and even people who disliked him just because he drove a nice German car. There was a big stone fireplace that was fired up on cold nights, and it got really cold in the winters months, and there was the rack of scoops of almost cheese and crackers. (It harked back to college trips when Reed could score a meal for free, on Nielsen’s hospitality).
Still the same manager presided, the pudgy, pink-faced man who was a ringer for a Presbyterian deacon resided with his tonsure of dark hair around his pink pate, and gestured widely to all the seats and booths available. Reed, when he traveled alone, took the place approximately where his dad sat. The friendly yet slightly unctuous voice belonging to the manager greeted him. It still made Reese feel good and special, even if he didn’t mean it. Also, he knew some of the waitresses by name, Diedre and Vivian. They came all the way from places like Buttonwillow, Taft and McKitrick to be here. Oddly, those were Reed’s destinations when he stopped here for lunch.
When Reese was between marriages he took a room upstairs in the side wing. For a couple days he rediscovered what is was to be alone again. And 15 years later he walked around the ground and he was horrified to see the room drenched in dusty sunlight. A lampshade was in tatters, the door wasn’t even locked. Spraypaint scarred one of the walls and a mattress had been knifed, the stuffing burst out.
It caused a kerfuffle when he brought it up to the manager, who answered with a defensive, “We’re under renovation. Next time you’d see a whole new Nielsen’s Almond Springs.”
Of course, the next visit it wasn’t a “whole new” Nielsen’s. It was still the same and raised the question how they could be surviving if they were dying on the vine?