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Route 66 Revisited

Route 66 Revisited
                            God created man in his own image. 
                Genesis 1:27
1.  Sheila

Nobody should have to go off on a road trip in the middle of the perfect date, certainly not this road trip.  If only he'd turned off his cell.
Dean Weatherington gazed across the table on a café balcony overlooking Venice Beach and smiled at the woman taking the last bite of dessert.   Her green eyes, slightly impish nose and smooth cheeks looked soft even in the hard midday sun bouncing off the Pacific.  Sheila didn't need mood lighting to look great.
He liked the way she'd stepped into his Cadillac XLR Roadster and run a delicate hand across the leather interior without having to get gushy about a hot car.
He liked her fearlessness in ordering the chocolate fudge cake.
And he especially liked the fact that Sheila had shown an interest in his work without begging him to take her picture.
"So you're the Animated Stills guy," she'd said as they were seated.  "I hear all the studios are after you to do their A list.  It’s amazing how you combine a series of portraits into one animated image on a video screen.  How’d you come up with the idea?"
He waved a hand.  "Just flipping through some mug shots, I guess." 
Her eyes held his steadily, cheerfully.  She leaned forward.  "The Times said this is how Picasso would have painted, if he'd actually liked women."
"I'm no painter."
"Some people say you capture people's souls.  Like this is the new Mona Lisa smile."
"That's nice to hear.  But it's a stretch, believe me."
Sheila Brooks described herself as a travel agent who did a lot of tours through the Midwest.  She also mentioned something about rehab.
“But it’s not the usual thing, like drugs or alcohol.  It’s a special program.”
He nodded, not wanting to pry.  True, some sadness lingered about the woman’s eyes.  But she seemed to carry it lightly.  There at the table, she broke open a piece of French bread as if it held a great secret.  Bits of crust lay on the plate by her dark red nails.  Dean didn't usually notice stuff like that.  Things were slowing down. 
"I'm sorry but you're breaking all the rules here," he said quietly.
"How's that?"
"My sister asked me to call you.  Women your sister recommends . . ."  He shook his head.  "They're not supposed to be anything like you." 
She smiled.  "I think that's a compliment."
"It would be more like gushing.  But I'll try to tone it down."  
His halibut came with tomatillo and cilantro.  Her salmon came with orange vinaigrette.  Yes, he told himself, this was slowing down.  This was what life could be like, putting some real distance between himself and his crazy family, between himself and his ex-wife, Dr. Amanda Pierce.
But she came up in the conversation.
"So what was it like being married to a famous shrink, if I may ask?"
Dean smiled, "Well, you don't win many arguments."
"Yea?"  Sheila's tone invited more comment.
Dean shrugged.  "She was shrinking people.  I was shooting people.  We went our separate ways."  He didn't want to dissect his ex with this lovely woman.
"OK."  She wasn't going to push it.
But staring at those incandescent eyes, Dean wanted to say something.  "Too driven, intense for me.  That’s the sound-bite version.” 
Sheila nodded, then looked out the window.  “Speaking of intense,” she chuckled, pointing to the steady stream of weekend eccentrics parading by the shops below.  Venice Beach had a reputation to maintain.  An elderly man in a leopard leotard juggled kitchen utensils.  Androgynous twins walked by, painted like the Tin Man.  An entire family wielded Star Trek accessories. 
 “What do you see down there?" Sheila asked, smiling at the sidewalk. 
He took it all in and thought a moment.  "OK.  How about Venice Beach is the place where people are deposited that even Hollywood can't find roles for.  It's the end-of-the-line where the saying ‘persistence pays off’ finally breaks down." 
She lifted her eyebrows and studied her companion.  Dean Weatherington was a sandy-haired, square-jawed man in his early thirties, with lips and nose drawn finely enough for women to take a second look, even if they didn't know he'd given a whole new meaning to the term "glamour shot."
He leaned forward and asked, "Ok what do you see?" 
“The Fountain of Personality," she answered matter-of-factly. 
    “Fountain of what?”
    “The Fountain of Personality.  All the people streaming by---try to get your head around the variety—not just the stuff on the outside, but the stuff that makes them tick.  There’s a sense of humor over there a shade different from anybody else’s.  There’s a dream going off in someone’s head, firing away like no one else’s.  There’s a knack for encouragement popping up where you least expect it.  There are, like, infinite ways of being quiet, countless ways of being up-front.  There are all kinds of blues, all kinds of brights.” 
    Dean nodded, clueless and intrigued.
    “And it’s all here!  Passing by us,” she continued with growing enthusiasm.  “The genes and chromosomes handed down from parents and grandparents combining into all this people stuff!  I mean, personalities, bottom line, that’s what makes life interesting, right?  And that's what you Mr. Photographer try to capture.”
Dean nodded more vigorously, but only slightly less clueless.
“Well how about this.” She continued.  “Take the personalities back through time.  All these traits and quirks and qualities that shape us.  Follow the gene pool back all the way, back to the source.  And what have you got?”
Dean wasn't sure.
“You’ve got the Fountain of Personality!  All these personalities that are so fascinating, the fantastic variety; they flow from a source.  And try to imagine how much richness has to lie in that source!  It would take us years to take in the stuff from just a few seconds here at the beach, a dozen people passing by.  Imagine taking a sip from that fountain!”
Sheila obviously had quite an imagination.  OK, so maybe the woman was a bit flighty.  She had enough lovely to make up for it.  Dean wasn't going to let that bother him.  He was going to have a perfect date. 
But then his cell rang.  It kept ringing as he kept taking Sheila in until he had to excuse himself from the table. 
It was his mother.  Lisa Weatherington sounded frantic.  "Dean your sister has been taken by a cult.  You're going to have to bring her back."
Dean took a deep breath.  His sister.  One more episode.  "What do you mean bring her back Mom?  She's twenty-seven."
"And you're her older brother."
"What kind of a cult?"
"Some Route 66 thing.  She's gone off to find God in the most tacky way you can imagine."
Dean wondered what classic cars, 50s diners and decaying blacktops had to do with the Almighty.  He didn't ask.  He didn't want to know.  His mother had been on a  religious journey herself for several years.  It was reflected in a string of brass plaques across her bedroom wall---her name emblazoned above words of recognition from some of the finest churches in Los Angeles, none of them tacky.  Lisa Weatherington volunteered.  Lisa raised money.  She even had a few buildings named after her.  Dean had come to believe his mother conquered denominations like some women conquer ailing billionaires.
"Mom she's a big girl."
"They've kidnapped her!"
"So why don't you go get her?"
Lisa gasped.  "Dean they're prepping me for surgery!"
Oh yea, surgery.  "Another mole Mom?"
"They say it could be cancerous." 
Lisa always used moles as a reason to get a face-lift.  This would be her fourth.  She needed to keep up appearances with her Episcopalian "brunch buddies" who dropped in on the best stores in Fashion Island every Saturday morning and then took their name brand bags to Newport Beach cafes overlooking the ocean. 
"Mom does this have anything to do with . . ."  Dean stopped himself.  He was about to mention his father, a forbidden subject.  Some years back, Dad’s frequent absences from home had ended in a fatal car accident.  Dean wondered if daughter was following in father’s bloody footsteps.  But he couldn't talk about that.  "Did you and Lillian have a fight?"
"We haven't spoken in a while Dean.  You know that.  But she'll listen to you."
Dean put the cell down for a moment.  Why couldn't this conversation just disappear?  Why couldn't he just give up on his sister?
Then he asked, grudgingly, "Where is she?"
"Needles!" Dean yelled.  "She's not in LA?!  Mom I've got a business in case you haven't noticed."
"Dean calm down.  This is an emergency."
Yea his sister had been an emergency since she was 15.  "Animated Stills are really taking off now.  I can't just leave."  
"You know she'll die if she's out there on her own, if these cult people get control of her."
Dean wished he could say his mother was exaggerating.  But he knew she was right.  Lillian had come close several times before.  The word neither one of them wanted to say out loud was “anorexia.”
"Where in Needles?"
"I'll call you on the road.  You better get going."
Dean sat back down at the table slowly.  Sheila's green eyes still glowed.  It was agony.  She was going to be his first.  His first after really getting over Amanda.  
He lingered a moment and began idly talking about his new XLR Roadster, just to savor her presence.  “Love the car, got to admit it.  My sweet revenge really.  Amanda always got the nice things.  Now it’s my turn.” 
A little later, Dean would conclude he went on about the XLR specs a little too long.  So much so that he felt compelled to say, “I’m not materialistic or anything.”

He dropped Sheila off at her apartment in Santa Monica after apologizing for the third time about having to chase down his crazy sister on some crazy Route 66 thing.  She put a hand on his arm.  Sweet, warm hand.  Yea, kiss that possibility good-by.  She also handed him a map from her purse.  It highlighted all the Route 66 points of interest. 
It wasn't until he got on the Santa Monica freeway that he began to wonder how Sheila could have been so well prepared---even if she was a travel agent.

Before Highway 15 began its ascent out of the LA basin, Dean stopped for gas.  A guy on the other side of the pump noticed him looking at his map. 
"You going to see the books too?" he asked.
Dean looked up, "What books?"
"Haven't you heard?  The books of the Bible?   Making appearances all along Route 66."
"What for?"
"I don't know.  Publicity maybe.  They're not selling like they used to."
Dean pondered this a second.  "Well you could go to any religious bookstore and get them right?"
"No, no, they're alive.  They're people."
"You mean like Isaiah or Paul?"
"Yea.  Only without the garments and stuff."  The man opened his car door.  "I'm telling you it's a phenomena."
Several miles north into the mountains, Dean looked down and noticed the heading on his map: Lester Lystrom's Route 66 Book Stop Tour.  Lystrom.  The name rang a bell.  Someone Amanda had once worked with.