750words March 23 2015 ~ Sol y Mar = Sun and Sea

A few days ago I talked a neighbor into going over to the place where I’ll be living in about five weeks. The address is Sol y Mar #3001.

Sol y Mar = Sun and Sea. It’s all that.

The current tenant, floppy curls windblown every once in a while to dance over his eyes, was friendly enough as he answered questions and pushed gray-streaked ringlets away from his line of vision.

I asked about the path to the playa below the house. “You think a woman my age can handle it?”

A middle-aged surfer, he said, “Do this,” and lowered himself to squat, arms extended.

I was down in a heartbeat, arms extended.

“Yeah. You can handle it,” he said, turning toward the arched door separating his place and the neighbors on the south. Lucky for me—his quick turn away from my squatted response to his directive—because some serious wobbles took place as I stood to follow him through the gate. Rather than offering a hand, my neighbor smirked as I wobbled, then seemed a little surprised I made it up without using my hands to push off the flagstone.

“How’s surfing here?” I asked. I’d already mentioned kids and grandkids who surfed.

“For long boarders, it’s a little piece of heaven. K38 is probably better for short boards, guys who really know their stuff.”

Then we were through the gate, passing between the neighbor’s back patio area and the edge of the bluff above the ocean, stopping at a low fence built from wrought iron window-guard scraps and broken plywood. Maybe a bit over two feet tall, and lower on the bluff edge end—the fence was haphazard at best.

“There are two ways to cross. Some of us step over here—were the fence is low,” he said, standing at the edge of the bluff. He demonstrated. On that end the fence was only fourteen or fifteen inches high; between where he stood and a free-fall of a hundred feet or more (probably more) to the playa below—there wasn’t much room for error. A wobble, coupled with a toe tripped up by the fencing, would not be a good thing.

Maybe he noticed the tilt of my head, the doubtful squint of an examining eye, or the smile I wore—one of those smiles that said, “Not a bluebird’s chance in hell.” Whatever the cause, he moved away from the edge toward the opposite end of the fence and said, “Or, you can pull this open here, and wedge through.”

“Here” was nine or twelve feet away from the fence’s low end (and the precipice). “Here” pieces of ironwork and plywood leaned against a post and could be heaved away, allowing sideways (if not frontal) passage. We sidestepped through, walked on barren ground, and approached an outdoor “living” area replete with two easy chairs scavenged from the side of the road or left near a dumpster for anyone who might find them of continued value. Random surfers frequent this spot; one said “Hi, folks” from the open side doors of his van as we passed. He looked as if he’d been napping, sleeping bag hanging loose from the van’s cargo area to kiss the ground. I pictured him kicked back in one of the easy chairs, feet planted on an overturned bucket used as an ottoman, wood blazing in the makeshift fire pit, gazing toward the horizon, watching the sets come in from this high bluff at the edge of the sea.

From there, we stepped sideways down a slopping trail to steeper terrain with shallow steps cut into the earth, curved right and came to a drop where three steps had been chiseled from the shale, dropped to our fannies to reach footing on the highest cut-in step, and continued to the sandy bottom with the next two steps.

The tenant, already several yards ahead, said something along the lines of, “Little piece of heaven,” and I said something like, “Big piece of heaven if you ask me.” Looking north or south, I found nothing but beauty. Beautiful boulders, shimmering water, stretches of clean sand without a single footprint other than those left by the birds.

Cinnamon colored long-legged birds with long needle-like beaks high-stepped through low-tide shallows, seagulls soared air currents overhead, anemones lined the faces of tide pools, and sand-stone formations offered nature-sculpted places to sit and take it all in.

“From here,” the tenant said, “at low tide you can walk as far north as Las Gaviotas or south as far as Puerto Nuevo.”

I looked at my neighbor. “Las Gaviotas? That means I can walk to Rancho Santini by cutting up from the beach there. If low tide’s early enough, I can still walk to Jo’s for morning coffee!” He gave me the smile, the one that says, “Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen.”

I’m thinkin’ it will. I’m thinkin’ “Fooled you when I stood up without using my hands. That walk’s gonna happen.” All I have to do is get past those easy chairs up on the bluff before I sit myself down and put my feet up to take it all in …

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Bill and Opal – Supper Time

(Retrieved from “Short Sketches” collection, circa 2011)

My father is there, at the table. It’s a chrome table with a gray Formica surface patterned like fractured ice that’s refrozen to leave an idea of lines. The padded chairs are upholstered with plastic to match the tabletop. Where the piping has worn through or pulled away, Mom’s applied duct tape and where the duct tape has curled up along some edges the adhesive residue is dark as fingernail dirt. I imagine Walter Cronkite is offering the six o’clock news in the background. We can’t see the blond television set from the table, but once Daddy comes in the front door from the fields the t.v.’s turned on. After dinner, boots off, his 5’11” height will stretch long on the Montgomery Ward brown plastic-that-looks-like-leather sleeper sofa.

When Mom said, “Supper’s ready, Bill,” he came to the table. And when Mom clears away the serving bowls and dinner plates, all except his, he lingers with his iced tea and cigarette. Even when Mom brings an ashtray and places it next to his used dinner plate, Daddy still uses the plate for an ashtray. “No use in dirtying that, Opal,” he says. “This’ll do fine.” Sometimes he doesn’t say, “This’ll do,” and only gives her a look with the words.

It’s a kind look. His eyes are a clear blue and the sort of shape that is open and unsuspecting, plus they carry dark lashes and brows which seem to communicate a tender heart. His voice is, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, gentle, patient, coaxing.

Mom’s returned look is more often than not, vexed. She could grab his plate up and insist he use the ashtray. I’m fourteen and can’t recall she ever has. She’s not the insisting type. Nor is he.

By the time Daddy leaves the table, there might be three butts stubbed out in the creases of gravy left on his plate. It’s not pretty.

I’m in the kitchen washing dishes by then unless my homework load is heavy. Mom always asks. I’m always honest. When it is, I’ve claimed an end of the table the moment the dishes are cleared. The light’s the best there for homework and the fractured-ice surface is smooth which helps my handwritten papers in the area of legibility.

I get good grades. I make the Honor Roll every quarter and semester. I’m a cheerleader at Jurupa Junior High School. I jointly hold the freshman class office of Activities. I am 5’8” and long-limbed like Daddy. I love to dance, like Mom.

Mom and I play at swing-dancing in the kitchen when I take a break from study and she takes a break from toweling dry and putting away dishes. Sometimes I teach her the moves my best friend, Bonnie, and I have practiced after watching American Bandstand. We do The Stroll to Fats Domino’s Walking to New Orelans; we do the Peppermint Twist. There are dances at the Y and there are school dances—but the boys are all still growing boys and who among them wants to ask a string bean like me? Not many, for sure. And not often. So it’s kitchen-time dancing between cups and saucers finding their shelves and algebraic equations puzzling the gray fractures of a smooth tabletop while Daddy, finally removed from the chrome dining chair, changes the channel to Ward Bond and Wagon Train, props his head on his arm and stacks his stocking feet on the sofa end. After a little while, I hear him snore. And after a little while longer, the pink cinderblock house on Etiwanda closes its lights and nods off.

750words Tuesday, 1-27-2015 — Going Steady

The coffee is on. It grumbles. Slow cranky pot. One day the rusting burner plate may spring a leak which could cause an electrical reaction—blow a fuse, start a fire, create chaos and havoc as my morning elixir spits and sizzles onto the burner while I pour the first half cup of the day. I’m impatient. Not always a Safety First kind of girl. People should know this about me—for their own protection.

No segue to what follows. Well, maybe a tiny one because as I walked downstairs to fill the pot with tap water and start the first brew of the day, I was thinking about Going Steady. About rings. About Ronnie Fore, and sixth grade graduation at Mission Bell Elementary School. I could see the hardwood floors in the classroom—narrow wood strips stained dark and scuffed over with marks from moving desks, desks all pushed closer together allowing more room around the periphery. Girls, huddled in circles of four and five, giggled and talked about the boys in their respective groups, those boys with their shoulders leaned against the walls or blackboards.

We must’ve been in waiting mode. Waiting for our names to be called, to line up and appear in the small indoor gym to receive a slip of paper stating we’d successfully made it through the sixth grade. We wouldn’t be returning to Mission Bell, wouldn’t sit at those desks again in the basement room with ground-level windows along one long wall, wouldn’t stand at the blackboards with chalk in our hands, Mr. Knesek’s gentle voice guiding our movements.

For graduation, I wore a shell pink dress with cap sleeves. Piping trimmed the neckline and waist. The skirt was pleated, a little longer than knee-length. When I picture myself, I see a pretty dress on an awkward girl. Second tallest girl of Mr. Knesek’s class. Third tallest student because Eddie, the only boy with any height, was taller than Susan Tarpei (who always took first on Spelling Bees) and she was an inch or two taller than me.

I felt especially awkward because Susan had breasts. And Bonnie Jean. Most of the girls had breasts while I really didn’t. Mama, to remedy this, bought me a bra when she purchased the dress at the JC Penney store in Ontario. It had padding. Wearing that bra, I had bumps on my chest—bumps to fill out the bodice of that lovely fragile pink dress. I kept my back to the boys on the far side of the room. How could I explain bumps when only the day before there hadn’t been any?

At some point I heard one of them say, Lynn’s wearing a bra! and snigger. I whispered to Bonnie or Susan or whoever stood nearest in our girl circle, How can he tell? She answered, They can see the bra straps through the material.

I was mortified, crimson red with embarrassment. I never wanted breasts, still didn’t have them, not really, but was strapped with appearing to have them and looking like a fake woman-girl.

I can’t recall the exact sequence of how the ceremony proceeded. Most things are a blank. We must’ve gone through it, were back in the classroom, easier with ourselves and less nervous, the Boy/Girl territories of floor and wall space somehow less rigid. Looking back, I see us as puddles of young people which, as the ease continued to flow, gradually ebbed toward one another.

Then Ronnie Fore was there, an arm’s reach away, hair the color of pale yellow flowers, eyes as blue as the bluest blue sky, and he said, Want this?
A piece of Double Bubble sat in the palm of his hand.

I nodded, extended my hand. We didn’t touch as he dropped that paper-wrapped pinkness into my palm. I never knew until then: You don’t have to touch when you know you’re in love. And we were. It was bliss!

The summer passed. We never saw one another. Never talked on the phone. A gift arrived from Ronnie: a ceramic dog. A black cocker spaniel whose head lifted off at the collar so that mysterious treasures could be stored in his body. Lost buttons? Loose pennies? It was a curious, wonderfully cute little dog. I thought my heart would burst!

Seventh grade. Students by the hundreds. Lockers on corridor walls. Shared showers with all kinds of girls who mostly had breasts while I began to have actual bumps on my chest. Buses lined up outside the school to carry us to our respective neighborhoods. Crazy foot traffic as we made our way in one direction or another. Then, a few weeks into the new school year, Ronnie called out, Hey! Lynn! Wanna go steady? He was swinging a chain in circles around his index finger. A ring weighted the chain.

Well, yeah! I answered (or maybe I just nodded), and the chain with the ring left his finger and flew through the air to my hands. I slipped the chain over my head, fingered the ring, looked at that beautiful boy and smiled. He blushed the most incredible blush—absolutely as red as my own.

I wore his ring for four months. Our lockers were side by side. I was careful never to approach mine if he was there and I think he did the same. Sometimes I’d see him seeing me, looking away, looking back. We gave the word Shy new meaning. Never held hands. Never had a conversation.

Eventually a note came my way. He wanted his ring back. (Sigh.) Sometimes love is that way.

Fifty-five years later, with all this accumulated wisdom, I still say, Sometimes love is that way. Beautifully that way. A touch, without touching. A gift.

Six Reflections Put to Paper (wd count 1993)

“Pretty Mama”

I was conceived on Grandpa and Grandma Ivy’s front porch.  Mama’s brother, Conway, disagrees.  He’s 83 and says the front of the house on Smith Street in Mira Loma never had a screened front porch.  There was a screened room at the back, he says.  Only a concrete stoop with two steps in front.  He is adamant about this.

I don’t doubt Uncle’s memory.  On the other hand, Mama never lied.  “There was a cot where your daddy and I slept on the front porch and that’s where you were conceived.”  If I am misremembering, the error’s been with me too long.  It’s become my truth.

I was an only child until my brother arrived four years later.  He smiled a lot.  He was chubby.  His eyes were very blue.  I’d been a January baby; Randy came in December.  Our birth months are bookends on various years; what falls between those months are harvests, hard work, becoming what we’ll become, Mama’s tender care.

Uncle Con says Mama kept me too clean, high-top toddler shoes too white, blond hair always beribboned.  He says I was spoiled.

Mama said I wasn’t.  She said I obeyed and didn’t whine.

I cried when a clay elephant I’d painted yellow in kindergarten came back from the kiln with no trunk and only one ear.  I remember how it looked and I remember my tears.  I’ve never been very good with disappointments, but did this make me a spoiled child? Mama said I was tender-hearted, like Daddy.

Mama was ivory-skinned, ginger freckles across a small nose, hazel-eyed, auburn-haired, slim and taller than most kindergarten mamas.  Daddy’s tender heart was often hidden by the exhaustion of farm work.  Mama’s was worn in the open, reflected in the contours of her heart-shaped face, the way her fingers whispered across my forehead after prayers and before sleep.

“Daddy and Daughter”

Mothers feed families and fathers feed calves.  This is the order in our house.  I should be taught cooking, but I go out with Daddy when the day is still purple as a bruise.  I ride his shoulder to the calf barn and break eggs into a powdered milk mix.

What he is doing is removing me from Mama’s care because Randy is smiling and new and in need of Mama’s full attentions.  My hands are small, yet he can set me down on a stainless steel counter with a flat of eggs and trust me to empty their contents into a stainless-steel pot deep enough that, if I were naughty, I could hide inside it.

Between cleaning stalls, he checks the milk mix for bits of shell; I am mortified when he finds any.  The great fear is not of him but of failing to do the job right.  If he smiles and winks at me with a tiny fleck of shell on his fingertip fished from the pot, I don’t see the easy forgiveness he offers—only the fragment of a mishandled egg, the flaw, the error I’ve made.  If he shows any misgivings, they are not about the eggshell—they are about me, about why my eyes fill with tears over such a small thing, almost nothing.

He must have told Mama, because Mama tells me, People who never make a mistake are people who do nothing. Still, it is not easy to see mistakes.  It’s hard to keep doing a job the best you know how and the best you know how might have a jagged little piece of something that ought not be there.

Daddy is easy to smile, hard to make laugh out loud or talk about many things other than calves or the fields.  He smells of Old Spice and fresh wood chips from the new sawdust lining stalls in the barn where calves stay from day one through day seven—if they make it that long.  Most do.  Some don’t.  He does the best job he knows how to do.  He never cries out loud, just wet lines on his face each time a new calf dies.  I hug him when he cries.

“Brother and Sister”

My brother’s imagination should have made him a writer.  His eyes are as blue as Daddy’s, his hair as naturally curly, and his complexion as brightly ruddy when he’s exerted or bursting with something new to tell.  My uncles, Earl and Gerald, say he tells the best stories to get around trouble.  Earl and Gerald are identical twins and very knowledgeable about all things mischievous;  in their opinion, Randy doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.  I’m like Mama—a little white lie is as black as any other.

My brother once painted an “X” on the maple veneer of Mama’s new dresser with nail polish.  There was red polish on his hands, on his bronc-buster pajamas.  Yet the story Randy told got him off with a few head shakes.  I wish I could remember the story.

Truth is, I may not have even heard it.  We didn’t play together.  He pulled my dolls’ bodies away from their heads.  I buried a toy saw that came with his little-kid tool box to get even.  I buried it in loose gravel alongside the driveway.  I was ordered to retrieve his stupid saw.  Randy was never ordered to make any dismembered doll whole again.  I was angry and shoveled my arm into the wrong mound of gravel.  A red ant hill.  Screaming into the house, ants inside and outside my clothes, I was stripped and bathed, ant bites everywhere.  Nothing was said.  It was a case of two wrongs don’t make a right. Some lessons come in stings.

I bossed Randy around as if his mini-mama.  By the time we were fourteen and ten, Mama had delivered Debbie in March of 1961 and Donnita in December of ’62.  I punched Randy when he sassed back or didn’t mind what I said.  When I was sixteen and he was twelve, he pinned me to the floor.  “Enough,” he said.  And it was.

He was nearly six foot tall, perpetually in some small trouble or other, eternally on restriction, unable to tell the truth, and not to be believed when he did.  We’d never played together—yet there was something. One way or another it seemed unfair.  I was free to go as I pleased once chores were done, while Randy, ornery as he was, was stuck home, sometimes with welts from a belt whipping by Daddy.  Not often, but sometimes, I found myself halfway to Genie’s house and turning back for home.  Randy’s troubles were almost always because of some lie or another, some story—stories that if he were still a little boy who went red with excitement—would’ve brought no more than head shakes.

“Beach Boys”

The surfers at San Clemente beach—Oh, my!  Short boys and tall boys with long boards and triangles of zinc oxide like white Yield signs on every nose.  For us girls, sun-bathing was a sport.  It was a game of perfect indifference, of eyes watching every move any male—except our cousins and brothers—between 13 and 30 made.  We spied from behind dark shades, from under hat brims, while seemingly absorbed with Seventeen or Vogue. Sometimes we remembered to turn a page.  Sometimes we slathered a mix of baby oil and cocoa butter on each other’s backs, one of us saying, Is he walking this way?  Is he going in?  Does he have his board? With Uh-uhs or Uh-huhs in answer, no visible movements of interest.

We wore zinc oxide on our bottom lips.  It was an art, the application.  To somehow look beach savvy and sexy, glistening under a sun that ate us up everyday and came back the next for more.  The ultimate challenge came when the shadow of one of them crossed our towel and stayed, sun-browned feet caked with sand on the very edge of our towel-island worlds.  To speak? Look up? Turn another unread page in our books?

“A Trio of Babies by Twenty-five”

I start early with babies.  It’s Bonnie Jean’s fault.  Or Angela Christine’s.  Bonnie’s Angela is perfection.  Perfection to hold, to cuddle, to rock.  Not just me.  Al can hardly keep his hands off Bonnie’s sweet gift from Wayne either.  She’s tiny.  She’s pink.  She is something of an addiction and we, Al and I, decide birth control might not be the most healthy thing in the weeks that follow Angela’s birth.

“Rhythm” is more natural.  We read books about “the rhythm method” of birth control between catch-up sex every chance we get.  After all, he’s been thirteen months in Vietnam and several more in rehab learning the right way to swing out a new half leg.  There is considerable catching up to attend to.  Our “family plan” is to wait until we both earn college degrees.  It’s sensible; it’s the right thing to do.

A year and week after we hold Angela, Donald Lewis is born.  It’s November 1968.  He is perfect, even when he pees a fountain to hit Al or me in the face.

“Rhythm” has its faults—like saying No when you don’t want to say No or saying Pull out when you want him to stay.  I have an IUD (Intra-Uterine Device) installed.  No pills, no problem—except I get to thinking how Randy and I had never been close and too many years between us seems like part of the cause.

I have the IUD removed.  Danielle Renee arrives in late March 1971.

A new IUD goes in.  No pills, no problem—except—the IUD slips.  A year and four days after Dani, Aimee Marie arrives.

I can’t have three children, can I?  Yet I do.  I do. Two in diapers.  One riding a trike.  One who’s learned how to run but not how to stop; one who has “learn to roll over” still unchecked on her To Do list; one who reads along with the story books, making up words as he goes; one who eats the pages in the books; one who smiles at the books because she smiles at everything, anything that moves.

Bonnie Jean says, “You surprise me.  Your patience.  You never seemed the type.  Well, for one—maybe.  But three?  I never pictured you as this kind of a mom.”

Perhaps I answer, “It gets easier; one’s almost the same as two.  And three is only three, practically two.”  Maybe I add, “There’s a rhythm to it; we’ve learned the dance.”  Maybe I smile and say nothing.

~

The past is a long time gone when a first-born is forty-one.  There was a rhythm, and we learned the dance, Al and I.  Occasionally, toes got stepped on.  But all in all—It. Was. A. Blast.

“Life”

What’s been said or unsaid is like the moon.  There’s a fingernail sliver recollected out of the whole, or a whole conversation remembered with such exactness it must be an accumulation of fictions, stories thought to be truths, a rounding out of moments and glimpses through memory, so lovely the glow can’t be stayed, nor shadows erased from the valleys.  What will I be to them, to my children, grandchildren, friends?  A sliver, a half, a whole?  What is Al to us now, gone these decades to a blood clot brought on by a missing foot and shrapnel fragments so long at home in his tissue and blood?

Today he is the Man in the Moon, a configuration of shadows forming a shape standing at the helm of a blue jet boat on a river cutting a valley, one arm lifting a toast to all the poor suckers who can’t be where he is.

Tomorrow he may be gone round to the dark side, unknowable, cold, an unreachable part of a changeable past.  That I knew him is only a half truth.  That I know myself is no truth at all—but I watch for what I may find.  It’s not all bad, this waxing and waning, these tides of altered truths.

Folding Lines, September 1960

After school I bring the laundry in off the lines.  But first I have to get home.  The bus drops us off at the corner of Marlatt and Limonite.  We string out along Limonite for a long country block, then Eddie and David and Barry turn right up a road to their houses.  At the next corner, Penny goes left down a dirt road separating civilization from Santa Ana River bottomland.  Wayne and Bonnie Jean and I continue on for another long block, Wayne kicking rocks into the road behind us – sometimes kicking them into the backs of our legs.  We are seventh graders, wear pencil skirts with kick pleats, white anklet socks and black flats.  We wear shirts that tuck inside our skirts and cardigan sweaters if the weather is cool and carcoats with toggle buttons if the weather is cooler yet.  Wayne wears a shirt tucked into his pants; and a belt.  The pebbles he kicks up sting when they hit.

They hit me more often than Bonnie.

She ignores him.

I spit names at him.  “Stop it, Stupid!  I’m telling your mom.  Swear to God, I will.”

Then Mann Street is there and Bonnie and I go down it while Wayne continues along Limonite.  It’s one more block to Etiwanda.  Wayne’s address and mine are on Etiwanda Avenue.  His stepdad is a milker for River Ranch Dairy Company.  The house he lives in is in front of mine; our mailboxes are side by side.  He’s taking the long way, not cutting any corners.  Whenever possible, Wayne and I take different paths.

On Mann Street, Bonnie’s house is the third one on the left.  Arms full of books, we say, “See you tomorrow,” and “See you tomorrow.”

Bonnie’s block is paved; the next two are gravel.  Where the gravel ends, I cut diagonally across a plowed field.  It’s the shortcut and always choked with weeds except for the narrow path Bonnie and I gradually make by passing to and fro.  When it’s not choked with weeds, it’s plowed; clods of earth as big as footballs eventually give way to our repeated trespasses.  The shortcut brings me to a gap in the field fencing and the gap leads into our small backyard.

Our backyard, which isn’t ours but owned by the River Ranch Dairy Company, is shaped like an American flag.  Where the stars sit on a field of blue is occupied by our detached garage – pink cinderblocks like the house.  Where red and white stripes run out from the field of stars on a flag, there is Bermuda grass struggling to hold on and anchored on either end of its stretch by the T-posts of Mama’s clothesline.  The area that would be other red and white stripes on the width of a flag are more grass – a little thicker, a little greener, a little less trodden down by hanging out and bringing in laundry off the lines.  Beyond the garage there’s a sometimes-garden plot, sometimes-corral for raising either vegetables or meat for the table.

I’m home once I step through that gap in the fencing and find a break between pillowcases or washrags and dip under the clotheslines.  Blue-cloth covered binder and textbooks go on the washer lid just inside our back door, clothespin apron goes around my waist, and I’m back outside while there’s still afternoon.

Each line holds cloth diapers, bath towels and muslin tea towels, thin cotton workshirts hung by their tails, blue jeans hung inside out.  The lines are high enough to walk under when they’re empty; loaded, the pins are at eye-level and I lever the wood open on each clothespin spring and loose the item from the line to drape over my arm until my arm is full.  The clothespins drop into the apron, and the empty apron pockets fill.  I take the fresh laundry into the sofa and pile them near the end.  There are always two lines of wash, sometimes eight, and the days of September are shorter than June’s.  On lucky days, a breeze has snapped all the stiffness out of the terry and denim.  It’s the best then, like everything’s been blown fuller with life.

Not that it stays so for long.  Soon enough the gauzy-white diapers are folded into truncated triangles for Debbie, long edges of terry towels are folded in by a third from each side, then in half lengthwise and in half again to make a neat square.  I reach through the waist and down the long legs of Daddy’s and Uncle Gerald’s denims jeans, down the shorter legs of Randy’s, and grab the hemmed bottom edge of each pant leg and pull the leg right-side-out.  Mama says the turning softens the weave once the pants are dry; Mama says the pockets dry faster, too, when turned to the outside for hanging on the lines.  I know my arms, when they’re bare, get chafed from going inside the legs to find the cuff edges on those days when the breezes don’t come.  It’s hard to say how much pleasure there is in finding the lines without Levi’s to fold or items in need of ironing.

And yet this is the way I earn my place in the pink cinderblock house behind Wayne’s on Etiwanda.  These columns of freshly stacked diapers and towels, a loose pile of snap-button, plaid western shirts, handkerchiefs, pillowcases, dresser scarves, Debbie’s ruffled toddler dresses – all to be sprinkled for ironing – are signs of what keeps the wheel of our family turning.  I’m one spoke.  Daddy’s another.  And Uncle Gerald and Randy and Debbie are others.  Mama’s the hub.

Filling those shelves at the end of the hall with clean linens is a reward, much the same as turning in homework at school.  There, papers are handed up from the back of the class, mine added in with the rest, with  no acknowledgement other than a new assignment and due date.  It’s much the same here:  the sun-browned men of my family pull snow-white ironed hankies from their hip pockets when they’re in the fields, and the pinafore ruffles on Debbie’s small dress make perfect undulations.  Could there be any greater waste of time and energy than a wink and a nod every time Daddy blows his nose?  Maybe.  But I’d be hard-pressed to find it.  The pink cinderblocks belong to the River Ranch, but what’s inside belongs to us, though there may be thin patches in the terry towels and darned toes at the south end of white-ribbed work socks.

If you live behind Wayne’s house, you get used to hearing him shout out “Yes, sir.  Here, sir,” to his stepdad, though you may never hear James Hill call out to Wayne.  It’s as if one voice will be heard even if no more than a growl, and the answering voice must be heard at all costs.  You begin to feel sorry for your arch enemy, your nemesis in the neighborhood, who would as soon ambush you with dirt clods if you pass along the driveway to get out to Etiwanda Avenue as breathe – because, when Wayne answers, there is more fear than respect in his voice, and no matter how singed or scorched you might have ironed a dresser scarf, no growls are ever heard in your house.  It translates across the sometimes-vegetable garden, sometimes-pen for a pig or a steer, as alarm, and hairs stand up on your arms, not exactly fear, but the guilt of not knowing like apprehensions.  It becomes a seal of sorts, this guilt.  It disallows ever telling on him for pebbles kicked to sting on the road home.

Recently, morning fog was so thick I couldn’t see the gap in the field fence from our back door.  I left earlier than normal, felt my way across the grass, ducked when the empty clothesline wires sagged into view, and angled between what seemed shrouded ghosts of posts.  I heard cows in the bottomland where River Ranch management allows heifers or other non-producing members of the dairy herd to roam.  I heard clods of earth give way under my feet when I stepped a little bit from the beaten path.  I heard my breathing and believed I could hear the beats of my heart.  Near where I know the plowed field must end and the gravel surface of Mann Street begins, I heard the pinch of gravel underfoot – not my feet.  Then the low hum of a wordless song I couldn’t identify.  I looked harder into the gray.  Wayne was a ghost on the road ahead.  His hum turned into a broken-tuned whistle, very low and brief notes, as if he were making up his own song as he walked.  When my tread found the gravel, he turned his head half around as if to check for friend or enemy, then turned forward again and picked up his pace.  His song, not quite music, but something that wanted to be – ended.  The momentary crisp whiteness of his long-sleeved white shirt against the enveloping gray vanished into the mist.  And the dark silhouette of his half-turned head was swallowed.  There was only the crunch of my steps and half-songs offered by cows and blocks of blind walking to catch the bus.  And time.

Tuesday Tumbleweeds, Rosarito

I’ve taken to watching for tumbleweeds.  Here, in the long pause between lashing rain,  one careens down the center rut of the road, a tumbleweed with no wheels, big as an SUV, steering cable cut, the color of mildewed dust.  It came from further up—higher on the hill—places I haven’t walked.  I know wind tears them from the saturated slopes, pummels them to action one by one.  If I’d crossed the road without looking, stepped into its hell-bent-for-leather path in the brokelight of a January storm, I’d have been tumbled too, left the road and its ruts until some far fence penned us from going further.  Or the wind let up.

Fences.  Wind.  Tumbleweeds.  The pig-tail days of twelve, striped tees and jeans.  The dirt-clod field where the Dodd’s and Nelson’s, Tingle’s and Due’s hit long fly balls and grounders.  High ground above the river; Etiwanda Avenue; our backstop, a line of eucalyptus trees, trees that stopped nothing.  Thud and crack of ash bat to hardball, showing the boys I could hit, catch line drives they couldn’t.  And up in the rainbow-curls of eucalyptus bark, the youngest Dodd boy, slow-witted or bored, blew great foamy gobs of spit.  Cackles from his monkey face and hoots of derision when he hit.  Not easy to watch the pitch, impossible focus when concentration is split.

Not a proper baseball field.  A five-acre lot.  A far fence stuck with blown tumbleweeds.  The Santa Ana River below.  Cows roaming the basin.  Black and white Holsteins.  Ginger Brahmas with eye-liner’d eyes, drapey neck wattles, shoulder humps.  A dangerous breed.  The bulls for no reason.  The cows if we got between them and their calves.  A pawed cloven hoof.   A snort not heard but read like the deaf read lips.  A riffle in the chest and a basin tree’s low fork I could climb.

That was then.  Then, when Santa Ana winds piled tumbleweeds into long walls.  When the walls became ladders, more tumblers rolled over them as if doughboys rising out of World War I trenches.  When domestic herds roamed the freedom of river and flood plain.   There was Wayne Tingle and his army of Dodd boys.  There was the clearing they’d commandeered and the guerilla war they would embark upon if the dirty, Red Commies or Cubans invaded.  There were red Manzanita limbs for M-16’s.  There were hand-stretched strings on willowy bows.  There were twiggery arrows.  Lethal as a boy’s imagination allows.

Down the Californias—U.S. and Mexican—miles from old homes, I watch.  Though the dusty mint green is long spent, I see them.  Fuzzy burs of beginning, a blossoming of scratchy stems, leaves.  Onion shapes of airy abrasiveness, and they are present in memories or present in what will come.

Vietnam, real guns: the delta of the Mekong and real boys, gone.  I can’t see the jungle, only the narrow trunks of Santa Ana river bottom trees.  Then the olive complexion of Wayne whose cheek barely knew a razor: missing in action some days before a black bag zipped shut.  Parts and tags.  Tags and parts.  Where was his look-out?  Who was on point?  Did he listen for snapped twigs or does anything crunch in a jungle?   I see myself launching dirt clods at him in a war between tumbleweed forts in a field where fly balls hit mitts and mines were only those dug with our short shovels bought at the Army-Navy surplus store.  Where the only no-man’s land was in front of a Brahma bull or a cow separated from her son.

Forty-three years and the full, round weeds end their cycles at fencelines or borders of oleander and bougainvillea, trapped, until their bodies pile up.  Then, with the debris of what’s stopped before, the next is air borne.  Winds shift.  Weather settles.  And wars:  fractionally, seasonally, cancerously in remission.

The long look loses focus—a conjured Dodd boy in a tree is not something you can see, his spit has missed you, your eyes have not darted to that long string of drool daring you to glance back for the pitch, daring you to watch Wayne’s long-armed windup and release of a fast ball you know will cross in the strike zone—between your scabbed knees and the newspaper-green rubber bands your mother has bound off your braids with.  Home plate is a pillowcase filled with some dirt and folded to shape with a point toward the mound.

The rutted road is empty.  I am safe, but at such a cost.

wc 756

The If Factor of Who

If my father had never been the second son
Of a brick-red man with a red-tick hound, 
            I would be someone strange to me  —

If there’d only been the one red-tick, no blues,
No black-and-tans, a better house than an oil lease,
            I would not be who I seem to be  —

If the clapboard house on the oil lease had even floors —
If there’d been room for a dozen children born,
            I would be made out of different genes  —

If the young man my father was hadn’t left home at fifteen
To work for a wage to save for the oldest son’s college,

Or if he had been less a good son, a poorer brother
And saved for his own selfish needs and future plans
            I would not be me  —

If he had not left Texas for California at eighteen
Because it was 1923 and West seemed a pleasant direction,

Or if, when he knew the wine he taste-tested at a vineyard
Addled his body and brain, he hadn’t stopped,
            It wouldn’t be me writing this  —

If his best friend’s sister had not been a freckled girl
With auburn hair and a shyness borne out of Arkansas,

Or if the shy girl’s family had followed the pickers out
Of California after harvest into god knows where,
            I would not be here, not this me, not this way  —

If the young woman had said No instead of Yes
So that no Justice was needed at City Hall,

If my father had not been equally shy and flushed as red
As my mother’s turned-paler shades of white,

Or if when the Justice glanced up at them
He had found cause to waylay their wedding,
            I wouldn’t be who I am  —

If that time my father left never to come back,
If he had kept his angry word and not returned,

Or if my mother had refused to let him in,
Had never given him the chance to make it up,
            I would not be writing these lines  —           

            I would not be writing  —
If I were not the child of my father,
If I were not my mother’s own  —
            Not these lines.  Not these.

[After reading Stanley Burnshaw’s  House in St. Petersburg]