Tears and Tequila

By Linda Schreyer and Jo-Ann Lautman


Tears&Tequila_3D_mainAll she could see was the emptiness.

No flowers bloomed beside the gray stones. No weeping willows reached down to caress the ground. The trees were bare. The sky was gray. The air held a mix of cold and snow.

From the back of a taxi, Joey Lerner’s eyes took in the endless lines of gravestones snaking out over the brown winter grass of Pinelawn Cemetery on Long Island.

She toyed with a balsawood plane while the taxi flew past a sign: GRAVE SITES #750–#1249. She checked the slip of paper in her hand and yelled, “Stop!” The taxi screeched to a halt. “Over there,” she said, pointing to another street. The driver put the taxi in reverse and drove, stopping at another sign: GRAVE SITES #1250–#1749.

“Be right back,” Joey said, untangling her long legs. “Then JFK, please.”

The driver flicked the meter to “waiting.” Joey stormed across the graveyard in a green winter jacket, purple scarf, jeans, and red cowboy boots. The wind whipped her long, dark hair across her face as she walked over a gravestone poking up from the grass. “Oops,” she said. There was another one next to it and another in front of her.

“Sorry,” Joey said to one of the stones as she tripped over it, barely righted herself and began to hopscotch over some of the graves, walking on others set in the grass like stepping stones, until she was standing on a new, plain gray stone in the family plot, bearing her grandmother’s name: Josephine Lerner 1929–2011 Beloved Mother and Grandmother. The words sent a flush of warmth through Joey’s body. She stepped aside.

“Death is not sexy, Nonna,” Joey said. “Take it from me. Death is a four-letter word. Right, Dad? Grandpa?” She looked around at her father’s and grandfather’s markers before sitting in a heap in the family plot. “So,” she said, “you’re all in here. And I’m out here. And we all agree, don’t we? Death sucks.” She stopped, her throat suddenly tight with emotion.

“Dad,” Joey said to her father’s stone. “You always said I should find a job worthy of my talents. And you,” she said to her grandfather’s stone, “told me I need to become who I am.” Turning back to her grandmother’s marker, she said “And you always said life begins at the end of your comfort zone, Nonna. So that’s what I’m doing. Taking a flying leap into the unknown. Sure, I’ll probably land on my ass. But when I do, I hope you’ll be there to catch me.”

Her voice caught. Every cell in her body remembered how many times she’d been there. But today she needed to pretend, to act as if she didn’t feel the crushing sorrow that engulfed her.

Her fingers traced the letters of her grandmother’s name one last time. “I miss you. More than I can ever say.”

Joey stood and pulled the homemade balsawood glider out of her purse. Josephine Lerner was written across the wings in red nail polish. “This one’s for you, Nonna,” Joey said in a wobbly voice as she tossed the glider into the air.

She watched as the glider soared higher and higher above the graveyard until it seemed to merge with a plane winging its way across the sky and the sound of the engine filled Joey’s ears. She didn’t notice the tears falling on her cheeks until the cold air hit them.

Hours later, Joey was tucked into seat 32-C, the last row in Coach on AA flight #32 to LAX, her hands white-knuckled as she sat amidst a topsy-turvy scene of turbulence.

“We’ve begun our descent into L.A.,” the captain said over the intercom, “and this is just a Santa Ana condition, folks. No cause for alarm.”

Joeysat erect, her mouth in a tight line, looking out the window at the landscape below. Her first sight of Los Angeles was a brown layer of smog above a flat valley of strip malls surrounded by mountains. Houses made of ticky-tacky. No real towns, just one big sprawl. It was a landscape as foreign to her as the moon.

As turbulence hit again she squeezed her eyes shut until the plane landed safely.Joey slung her heavy carry-on over her shoulder and rushed to the women’s room, elbowing past deplaning passengers.

“Sorry,” she said. “Late for an interview.”

She ducked into a stall and pulled a change of clothes out of her carry-on. Wedged into the stall she managed to take off her winter clothes without dropping something into the toilet. She put on a sleeveless white shirt, a short denim skirt, and platforms that made her long legs seem even longer. She walked out of the stall and checked the washroom mirror, patting down the top of her long curly hair, a mane that looked different every day. Today it had a bad case of the frizzies as if it too were nervous about what she was doing. She looked into her slightly desperate eyes through her new pink-tinted sunglasses.

Smile, she instructed her reflection, even if she couldn’t help but notice the dark circles under her eyes. And she saw no point in thinking about waking at 3:00 AM and wondering why she was moving to a place where she knew exactly one person.

You need this job, she reminded herself, reaching into her purse for her cell phone. She read a text with a name and address, panicked when she saw the time, and raced through the airport, her carry-on slipping off her shoulder. She yanked a small canvas duffle and an oversized suitcase off the carousel and ran outside.

The warm Santa Ana wind blew her hair into her eyes. The temperature was in the high eighties. “Taxi,” Joey yelled, hailing the first cab she saw.

“Goddammit, that’s mine,” said a small, plump blonde who cursed at Joey in an Australian accent as she pushed a fully loaded luggage cart.

“Sorry,” said Joey, stepping out of the way before the cart ran over her foot.

As the woman streaked past, Joey noticed she wore long, turquoise feather earrings and a black sweater with a belt cinched a bit too tight, red leggings, and Ugg boots. She commanded the driver to load her bags into “the boot,” slammed the door, and the taxi pulled away.

Joey took the next one.

“Where to?” the driver asked, lugging Joey’s suitcase to his trunk.

Joey read off the text on her cell. “Oasis. And hurry, please. I’m late for an interview.”

“And where is Oasis?”

“Something Oaks,” she said, handing him her phone. “Thousand Oaks? Million Oaks? Quaker Oats?”

“Sherman Oaks, lady,” the driver said, handing it back as he pulled out of LAX. “Your first time in L.A.?”

“How’d you guess?” Joey settled into the seat as the driver took off for the 405 freeway north. She checked her phone. She was10 minutes late. She thought of calling, but decided to ignore the churning in her stomach and just show up.

On the way she passed the time looking out the window. Spindly palm trees were blowing in the wind; a pink neon sign read LIVE NUDES. There was a different gas station on every corner, low buildings and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Red or purple or white flowers bloomed in every front yard or in potson porches. No subway signs. Four lanes of traffic that crawled on the 405. Drivers with heads bent, texting while they drove or talking on cells. By the time the taxi got off the freeway and followed a sign to Ventura Boulevard, Joey felt like a stranger in a strange land.

“Are we almost there?” she asked the driver, checking her phone again. She was now 45 minutes late.

“Think so,” he said.

“Hope so,” she said. “I’m late.”

“Made it here in record time,” he said.

When they got caught at a traffic light, Joey glared at it, willing it to change, even though she didn’t know which way they were going. Impossibly, as she looked at the other side of the street, she saw a corner lot with towering pine trees and a sign: Oasis: An Adventure in Learning.

“Thank you,” she said to the job gods who had, for once, smiled down upon her.

“You’re welcome,” said the driver as he drove across Ventura Boulevard and pulled into a pothole-riddled dirt parking lot in front of an old bungalow court on a large property. A dozen brightly painted rundown cottages ringed the parking lot, with hand-lettered signs: Hummingbird, Nasturtium, Birds of Paradise, Pink Ladies, and more. Joey noticed that each bungalow also bore a painted mural: deep-sea corals swayed with the tide; lusty women danced in forest glades; jungle warriors leapt hand in hand with lions and tigers.

A group of teenagers played guitar beneath the pines. Women of various ages painted at easels. Men and women were drumming in a circle or fencing in pairs. A list of the day’s classes was scrawled on a chalkboard in neon-colored chalk; tie-dyed flags blew in the Santa Ana wind; spider plants hung from macramé holders.

Joey felt as if she’d landed at the Woodstock-1969 stop on a Disneyland ride.

She emerged from the taxi and drew herself up to her full height, imagining a string pulling her head skyward. She was picturing herself acing the interview when a tall man drove in on a Triumph Bonneville T100 motorcycle and parked next to the taxi. He smiled at Joey and pulled off his helmet, revealing a thick head of black hair with a streak of gray. She noticed he wore a motorcycle jacket, black jeans, and flip-flops.

Joey felt a tug of attraction. She shook it off as she slung her small duffle bag over her shoulder while the taxi driver wrestled her giant suitcase out of the trunk. She paid him, and he drove off. By the time she stepped onto the pothole-riddled parking lot the tall man was walking down a path through the trees. She took another step, only to be trampled by the tiny feet of a small gray lizard that used her shoe as a bridge to flowering red bushes beyond.


Joey’s ankle turned in her platforms. Her carry-on slipped off her shoulder. She went down, sunglasses flying off her nose, last shred of dignity gone.

“Are you okay?” someone called across the parking lot.

The inquisitive face of an older woman peered at her from behind an easel. Mortified, Joey called back. “I’m fine. A—… a lizard ran over my foot….” She picked up her belongings and set off again, pulling her enormous suitcase behind her.

“We’ve got a million of ‘em,” the woman said as Joey approached. “We even named a cottage in their honor. See?” She pointed with her paintbrush to a sign on one of the bungalows. Joey looked over: Leaping Lizards.

“Um. Cute,” she lied as she arrived at the painter’s easel, dusty and out of breath. “Can you tell me where the office is?”

“Over there.” The woman paintbrush-pointed to a small stucco building with a sagging clay tile roof.

“Thanks.” Joey was about to rush off, but the woman’s soft European accent reminded her of Nonna’s and the warmth in her voice was the most comforting sound Joey had heard in months. The woman’s pink shirt was dappled with drops of lavender paint. A small leaf had fallen into her upswept light brown hair. She looked as if she was in her eighties, but her skin was porcelain and, when she smiled, her face lit up. Then Joey caught a glimpse of the artist’s watercolor.

“Wow. I love the colors you’re using,” Joey said.

“It’s coming along. I’m Berta, by the way.”


“Are you here for the job?”

“Drama teacher? Yes.”

“It’s filled.”

“What? When did that happen?” Joey asked, shoulders sagging, all the air let out of her balloon of hope.

“About an hour ago, and it’s too bad, if you ask me. The woman they hired is a phony.”

“How do you know?” Joey asked.

“Because she also told me my painting was nice, but she didn’t mean it.”

“Then I might as well leave,” Joey said, reaching for her suitcase.

“What are you dragging around in that huge suitcase? A dead body?”

Joey laughed ruefully. “More like my old life.”

“Why not leave your life with me and go to that interview?”

“Because the job’s taken.”

“So? They have all kinds of classes and groups here. Go for an interview. If they don’t have a job for you, you can suggest one they should have.”

Joey hesitated.

“What do you have to lose? Go on,” Berta urged. “It’s right over there.” An image of her bank balance flashed before Joey’s eyes. “Leave that monster of a suitcase with me while you go see Daniel.”

“Daniel Wyndham?” Joey asked, checking the text on her cell. “The director?”

“The director and owner of Oasis.”

“Can you tell me anything about him?”

“Sure.” Berta painted a flamboyant line of turquoise watercolor across her paper. “He’s a triple threat. Smart. Sexy. Single. And he’s got a great ass.”

Joey laughed. “Too bad I’m not in the market.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve picked so many jerks,” Joey said, holding up her forefinger, “I decided my picker’s broken.”

“Nonsense. You’re too young to be an old maid,” Berta said, returning to her painting. “See you later.”

Joey left her suitcase next to Berta’s red cloth bag, which was decorated with a green appliquéd parrot. She headed to the office with her small canvas duffle slung over her shoulder, passing blue-and-white glass wind chimes that jingled in the Santa Ana wind. “Go get ‘em,” Berta called across the parking lot with a wave of her paintbrush, splattering paint drops into the air. Something about the woman’s enthusiasm gave Joey the courage to straighten her shoulders and rehearse what she would say: I’ve done so many different jobs, I can do anything.

Don’t tell him about all the jobs, she corrected as she climbed three rickety steps to a wooden porch. Or all the moves. And for God’s sake, don’t tell him Nonna said you have gypsy blood.

Joey took a deep breath and knocked on the paint-peeling front door.

Excerpted from Tears and Tequila, by Linda Schreyer and Jo-Ann Lautman (Prospecta Press, © 2014)

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