Death on Consignment

By Galia Berry

©1998 All Rights Reserved

 

Palm Springs is yet another one of those California places that could exist nowhere else but California. It's a cross between artificial oasis and virtual mirage. This is geriatric Disneyland, where there are more golf courses and swimming pools per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. Whereas there is talk of water rationing in Los Angeles a mere 120 miles away, here in the 125 degree summer heat of the lower desert, sprinklers at country clubs saturate the greens at full fury come high noon.

Lying in the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs is a mix of dirt too dry and devoid of nutrients to be thought of as soil, but too rough to qualify as sand; tumbleweeds; rattlesnakes; an occasional sandstorm whipped by late afternoon winds; and periodic flash floods. Except for mighty, jaw-dropping 10,000 foot mountains (that look eerily similar to Mt. Sinai in Egypt) surrounding its edges, the desert floor might be considered ugly, were it not for its Fantasyland of artifice. The faux adobe (stucco sprayed onto drywall and painted in earthtones of sunset aglow), imported saguaro cactus, and transplanted date palms all contribute to that illusion, and mostly succeeds. Bike paths that in L.A. would be overtaken with rollerblading yuppies are instead crowded with electric scooters and golf carts and three-wheeled bikes pedaled by tanned, leathery, and shriveled legs belonging to retirees who come to winter under its many palms.

The quest for warmth seems insatiable. Upon takeoff from St. Louis on the way here, the hundred or so winter-weary senior passengers aboard my flight cheer with wild abandon, clinking glasses of prune juice and vodka in salutation, when the pilot announces our destination as Palm Springs. When the 72 degree temperature is proclaimed over the loudspeaker as we land that evening, the deafening hurrahs, clapping of arthritic hands and pounding of stooped backs rival that of any college football game.

But for those who live here year 'round, prima facie evidence indicates that the arrival of winter and the disappearance of the plodding heat are incompatible with sustaining life. Thermostats are set at 80 degrees to ward off the 55 degree night chill. At midday, the thermometer at the swimming pool reads 92 degrees in the fully heated pool. And a columnist for the local newspaper prints suggestions on What To Do If Your Child Has Cabin Fever.

The population of Palm Springs consists mainly of four groups: the elderly, who retire or winter here in deluxe trailer parks and condominiums; Hispanics who work as gardeners and housekeepers; (very) old movie stars (there are streets named after denizens Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby , Bob Hope and Buddy Rogers), and homosexual men.

The gay population in Palm Springs was until recent years its worst-kept secret, until "outing" became de rigeur. In the old days, gay men worked as houseboys for retired movie stars and dependable escorts for lonely, wealthy post-menopausal women. Mostly, though, they settled here because they were less interested in asserting political rights as an oppressed minority; rather, they are understandably eager to enjoy professional successes in all facets of everyday life in an expanding community of easy-going affluence. Today, however, their presence is felt in a more sinister, sad, and tragic way: via state-of-the-art treatment centers for terminal AIDS patients, which has created yet another whole new gay "industry."

And so I found myself driving my mother-in-law's dyspeptic '89 Ford Taurus on a shortcut boulevard commonly used as an antidote to Palm Springs road traffic, when I came upon a stretch of stores labeled "Resale Row." Never one to pass up a possible bargain, I stopped the car abruptly (much to the annoyance of the poor lout tailgating me from behind) and parked in front of a rather neglected-looking thrift store. Its painted name on the plate glass window was faded from the merciless torments of desert sunshine, but hand-printed signs on Day-Glo posterboard announced that all profits went towards AIDS research.

The store was neat and clean, but there was something strange about it - - nothing I could easily identify, just a weird discomfort. As I pawed the merchandise hanging on various racks, I wondered why I couldn't find women's clothes other than those suitable for ancient matrons - - what my children would have called "little old lady clothes." I ventured into the next room, which consisted of small appliances, but this room's collection, too, was strangely incomplete. There were nearly twenty coffee makers on display, along with a depressing assortment of home health-care aids: bedpans, heating pads, bed tables and supportive pillows. My discomfort grew, as this bargain-hunting session was far from the fun adventure I had envisioned.

My unease peaked when I entered yet another room, this one holding only men's clothes. But there was no article of clothing even remotely close in size to that of my husband's medium frame: pants were limited to size 28, 29, and a rare 30-inch waistlilne. All shirts had necklines marked 14 and 15. Sweaters were size small.

That's when I realized that there were no bargains here; there was only death.

The clothing here reflected the strange symbiosis between mothers and sons: elderly women taking care of their boys, all dying of AIDS; gay men taking care of their aging mothers. The men's clothes from their days of robust good health had long since been distributed to assorted friends years before. What remained was their final wardrobe: meager belongings to fit bodies wasted and ravaged and diseased by AIDS. But sometimes, the mothers preceded their sons . . . hence the proliferation of beaded handbags, lilac polyester pantsuits, lace handkerchiefs, and chiffon dresses, donated by their loyal sons to the local AIDS consignment store to further The Cause. The forlorn merchandise in that store, with its haphazard price tags, told stories of love and blood, recklessness and loneliness. They held no evidence of a father's presence, not now, not ever.

Suddenly a man with an eye patch approached, asking if I needed assistance. He walked with a cane, and seemed very tired. He was thin, painfully so. I knew he wouldn't be working at the store much longer - - my head, pounding now, was a giant time bomb waiting to go off in my skull.

I left, shaken; sadness engulfed me. I wanted to get away from that house of death and dying. I stopped at other places - - a market, a furniture store, a car dealer - - but every clerk, every customer seemed to be a pitifully thin, ravaged man, mocking me, haunting me, following me. It was a bad joke in Dante's Hell, but I saw no escape. Running now, the theme song from Twilight Zone playing relentlessly in my brain, I returned to my car, gunned the engine, and sped back to the gated mobile home park where the elderly residents talked of little but constipation and arthritis. I passed the swimming pool, where a thin woman in her late seventies sported a string bikini; her leathery, scaly skin succumbing to the forces of gravity and time. She seemed blissfully unaware.

Clammy and ashen-faced and nearly suffocating, that damned Twilight Zone music still sounding in my head, I turned the key in the lock and entered the trailer, crowded with its mother-of-pearl inlaid Chinese furniture and souvenir plates and tzchatchkes thicker than dust. My husband's 94-year-old grandmother was immersed in a TV soap opera that her deaf ears could not hear, and she belched and sweated.

My mother-in-law looked up at me as her toy poodle yapped at my intrusion. Smiling sweetly, she asked in her thickly accented English, "Did you have a nice time, dear?"

The world was full of death on consignment. There was no sales receipt, and therefore no returns.

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