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MEMORY: BAKERSFIELD, CALIFORNIA, 1964
The Hall of Justice that summer morning was sticky hot. A sluggish wooden fan whirled above, and flyspecks dotted the large light globes like acne. Everyone in the office seemed rushed and uncomfortable.
I stood in suit and tie next to Yvonne Trumaine, the pregnant girl I would marry, and glanced about warily. I didn't want my buddies to see me with her. Only Travis and Juanita Plumley, who barely knew Yvonne, and Jess and Marge Soto, who didn't know her at all, were there, along with one of my bride's roommates.
My parents stood behind us—Pop, tall and weathered, unflinching in his lone white shirt with an inexpertly knotted tie at his neck; Mom in a dull pink dress, damp-eyed and leaning on his shoulder. Yvonne's father wore a cheap suit with a dark shirt and light tie, his pencil-thin mustache twitched into a smirk. His wife had red henna hair, her eyebrows appearing to have been drawn by the same pencil that produced her husband's mustache; she snapped chewing gum and seemed totally disinterested. I had told only Pop why I was marrying Yvonne.
My father was nothing if not a realist. "Your momma's gonna give you more grief than a little bit, but you do what you need to," he had counseled me when I told him our plans. Then he added something: "I bought me plenty a beer off of Yvonne's momma at the bar where she works, and I know her good. I know the old man too. He's a prick. You can bet them two never give her too good a start in life. You can bet that girl's had a tough row tohoe."
I started to turn away, but he grasped one of my arms and added, "And, Leroy, don't go into this with no stars in your eyes. Ever'body's been fuckin' somebody—just you remember that. Ever'body." That comment jolted me like a punch; he knew about her. "If you and her can get along," he added, "get to be pardners, that's what matters. You can start buildin' somethin' together."
Despite his words, I remained embarrassed to care about this girl, embarrassed even to be here with her, embarrassed that I didn't know if I was really the father of her baby. But I was relieved that she was pregnant, because that allowed me to tell my old pals if asked that I'd been forced to marry her. They could accept that and so could I: nobody would marry a whore unless he had to ("... there's plenty guys coulda knocked that honey up, but ol' Leroy got nailed").
But it wasn't true. I couldn't discard her and live with myself, and I could no longer stand sharing her. Increasingly, our sex was becoming an intimacy I felt in my heart as well as my genitals. I couldn't fathom this, but I couldn't deny it either.
I couldn't let her go.
The sweating justice of the peace hurried through the ceremony—several other awkward-looking couples were waiting in the next room—and his words rushed past me. Yvonne's hand was damp in mine, and her face was innocent and hopeful. I scanned the room as the magistrate spoke, gazed out a window at a hot sky faded to the color of Swiss cheese, and pretended I was someone else somewhere else ... watching this like a movie.
But I managed to focus long enough to hear the justice mumble, "... for better or for worse, till death do you part?"
Then I said, "I do," but I wasn't sure I did.
BAKERSFIELD, CALIFORNIA, 1989
A thick, balding man slips through the French doors onto the deck, then lights a cigarette, smoke obscuring his face for a moment. His remaining gray hair is burred into a neat flattop, and like me, he wears pressed jeans, polished boots, and a pearl-buttoned western shirt. When he notices me, his face jolts.
So does mine.
After a moment of hesitation, he manages a rough smile and slowly approaches. "Hey, Leroy," he nods. "I shoulda figured you to be here. You still coachin'?"
"Hello, Floyd." My body is alert, fists suddenly clenched.
We both quiet, standing three feet apart. He holds his cigarette between his teeth, lips parted, and nods at the house. "Ol' Trav's sure done good, hadn't he? This place must be worth a mint."
An antique rage has risen in me, and I can only croak, "We can't both stay here, Floyd, you know that."
Silence hangs between us like fresh tripe. What can we say?
"I see ol' J.D. ever' oncet 'n awhile," Floyd ventures. "Me and him, we get to talkin' sometimes 'bout some of the ol' shit us guys used to do. He'd be here today himself but he's a-workin' daylights. He's a grandpa now, ya know."
"Floyd ...," I choke, and he at last seems to realize how close he is to being hit. We see each other rarely, so perhaps he's forgotten.
Our eyes meet, and I notice that his face, like mine, is filigreed by tiny creases: too much sun too young. Then his lips seem to tug slightly at their corners as he says, "About all that stuff between us way back when—me and you and your wife, I mean—I surely wisht it never happened. I know I shouldn't've said what I did, but we all talked about that stuff then ... you too. I never meant to hurt nobody any more than you did, you know that. Besides, how could I know you'd marry her someday?" His voice deepens. "I surely wisht it'd never happened. I'd give anything to take it all back, Roy"—the name only my closest pals use. "Me and you been buddies a long, long time."
"Since kindergarten," I manage to say, ready to strike, not talk. Floyd, the great cocksman, has come to represent all the guys, all the stories, all the fears that I've never been able to escape.
Floyd slumps. "I surely wisht it never happened. We was best buds."
"Me too, Floyd. I wish it all hadn't happened." My eyes are warming as I speak. "If some guy was whipping you, he'd have me to whip too."
"I 'ppreciate that, Roy."
"But some things just don't heal."
He gazes beyond my shoulder for a moment, then sighs. "I appreciate that too."
My hands have begun to shake; I'm close to losing it, on a cusp of rage and tears, memories of one evening in particular bludgeoning me ...
Full of beer, the three of us were, of course, talking about our favorite subject.
J.D. raised his bottle like he was making a grand pronouncement, and said, "You guys know what I figured out. We don't screw women because of how we feel—that's always the same—we screw 'em because of how they act—that's always different." He raised his eyebrows fast like Groucho Marx, causing Floyd and me to chuckle.
Then J.D. added, "Take ol' Earlene. Whenever I first stuck it to her, she got all stiff and closed her eyes and just kinda panted. I mean she done that ever' time I fucked her, and, boys, I fucked her crossed-eyed." He closed his own eyes, stiffened, and panted, looking like a quavering fence post.
That broke Floyd and me up. When the wave of guffaws passed, I said, "How about good old Cherry, with all that `Ohhh, big boy! Gimme all you got!' stuff."
Floyd, who was also quite familiar with Cherry, was nodding and laughing when he said, "Yeah, she's somethin'. But I'll tell you guys the best one I ever got into is that Yvonne, the real pretty gal that works in the drugstore." He winked, then said, "When her mouth wasn't full"—J.D. and I burst into laughter and exchanged punches on the shoulder—"she kept carryin' on—`Ohhhhhh, lover! Ohhhhhh, God!'—buckin' like a damn bronco. She flat wore me out. I'll tell ya, boys, I never seen nothin' like it before. She even had me fuck her tits. You two oughta give that honey a try. I guarn-damn-tee she'll be game and plenty good ... not that any pussy's bad."
We all laughed again, then Floyd added, "I b'lieve ol' J.D.'s right for a change. It really is how they act that makes it fun. If it wasn't for that, I'd just buy me one of them jack-off vibrators. It'd be cheaper than payin' for dates and easier than sweet-talkin' gals." He raised his eyebrows then and added, "Except maybe for that Yvonne. Boy howdy! For that ride I'd pay and sweet-talk both any ol' time."
I am focused on injuring Floyd. "Don't make me say it again: We can't both stay today."
"As long as it's straight between us, I can leave, Roy. I know you and your wife come a long ways to be here, and I live just over yonder. I can see Travis any ol' day."
He extends his right hand, but I ignore it, saying, "Go, Floyd," needing to jerk him close and to pound, to pound, to pound him until bad memories burst like boils.
It's far too late in our lives to build friendships like the one we once had, but it's also far too late to reconcile: I'll never forget and I'll never forgive. We can never be pals again.
Floyd turns and slumps away, but his cigarette smoke hangs in front of me, blue in the heavy air.
And I think, then, of J.D., who had teased shortly after learning I would marry Yvonne, "Looks like maybe ol' Floyd put that dough in the oven, and you're gonna end up payin' for the biscuit." He had still been grinning when that punch bounced off his jaw.
As J.D. had staggered away that day, he'd threatened, "You big bastard, I'll get you back someday."
"Stay away from me ... from us," was all I'd said then. And for twenty-five years he has wisely done that. But the possibility he mentioned hasn't stayed away, not in my deepest dreams or memories, though I've never talked about it. I guess J.D. really won the fight.
All I want now is for the past to stay away. Yvonne and I have built a life for ourselves far away from here, both of us better together than we had ever been separately. We return only selectively, and if I have to threaten or even injure old friends to protect us from the past, I will; they know I'm not kidding. For every moment of psychological pain they cause my wife or me, I'll return physical damage ... and probably be sorry afterwards, but I'll whip them from asshole to appetite. There will be no winners if anyone starts that.
My hands are still shaking when I grasp the deck's railing, my face is unsteady, tears nearly spilling. I raise my eyes, gasp for breath, and gaze into the past. To the north below this slope trickles what's left of the Kern River. Beyond it, low beige hills—barely more than mounds—waver and bulge in light bent by heat. The land itself appears to sweat—hot, so hot. Those brown California hills, creased and rounded like supine hips, sprout not trees but wealth: oil pipes, oil pumps, oil wells, and strands of metallic pipes like luminous linguine. Plumes of steam erupt over there as though hell has sprung a leak, vapors escaping from an elaborate mechanism that dissolves the dense petroleum deep beneath those slopes: a simmering, vaporous scene that appears unreal to non-natives. To me, however, born and blooded here, it is as genuine as breath.
Now that Floyd has departed, I can't seem to stop memories from sweeping me. The high bluff on which I stand was itself once treeless, but now it is lush and landscaped, property of the wealthy who have colonized it. Here at the southern end of the state's Great Central Valley, I stand on the deck of Travis and Juanita Plumley's luxurious residence. Below me, the dammed and diminished river is still marked by the remains of a riparian forest, a thin lane of green winding from a distant slash in those brown hills.
For more than forty years, my father had toiled among the oil pumps on those beige mounds. As a young buck I had too, and hunted rabbits there, and rutted with girlfriends. Later, on visits to my folks, I'd driven my own children there to seek trapdoor spiders or to enjoy the brief splendor of spring wildflowers. I exhale deeply, take a sip from the beer I'm holding, then someone squeezes my left biceps and a breast is suddenly soft against it.
"Remember when we used to park over there, Roy?" sighs Yvonne.
"Sure." I can't manage a smile, because I remember too much. My wife and I had indeed parked there together, as well as with others, folded our tan and youthful bodies as the hills still fold ... with those others as with one another. This place where we both came of age still troubles and excites me. I can't seem to let go of events that occurred here so long ago, although we have lived elsewhere for nearly a quarter century.
We stand silently, her breast warm against me, a breast Floyd had once touched, once tasted, once titillated with his engorged penis, and I hear behind us the mingled voices of other guests clustering in the air-conditioned comfort of our old friends' large home.
After gazing at me for a moment, Yvonne kisses my cheek and asks, "What's wrong, hon'? Worried about your dad?"
I nod. It's easier than explaining who I saw and why I'm tense.
Yvonne's voice is pleasant: "He had a lot of good times over there with his cronies." She nods toward the section of town where we were both raised.
"Yeah," I agree, "Pop has some tales to tell."
"Don't be low." She squeezes my arm again, kisses my cheek, and I immediately wish we were alone over there on those hot slopes sweating together in bold daylight as we did many times before our marriage, then she says, "I'm going to go help Juanita and Marge with the hors d'oeuvres."
She kisses me again and departs, and I once more sip at my beer, flat and flavorless now. We are celebrating Travis and Juanita's silver wedding anniversary, so we are back in Bakersfield among old chums and some new ones.
By leaning around the pear tree that shades the western edge of the deck, I can study the panorama of my old neighborhood: it is below where I now stand, a distant sprawl of houses surrounded by those oil pumps, by those steam plumes, and by bright metallic tank farms—what Pop called "the oil patch." Somehow, it looks drier than the other sections of town visible from here.
"Aren't you hot?"
I turn and face a young woman I don't know. "A little," I reply.
"I'm Dolores Patterson," she extends her right hand and I shake it. "My husband works for Travis. So you're Leroy. I just met your wife—she's so cute."
"Thanks," I mumble, thinking, Beautiful, yes. Cute, no.
"You're one of the old boys, I hear."
"Getting older all the time."
"And you live where?"
"Oh, really! Right at Mount Tamalpais. Bob—that's my husband—Bob and I went up there for the Harmonic Convergence. It's a real mystical power point, don't you think? You can just feel the psychic energy there."
I suppress a smile. "Some of us used to do a little harmonic converging right down there by the river."
"Ask Travis and Juanita if they ever converged down there."
She catches on, chuckles perfunctorily but appears unamused. "Juanita mentioned that your parents are living up north with you and that your father is ... ah ... failing."
I keep my tone neutral when I respond, "We're taking care of things."
"Was your family dysfunctional?"
What business is this of hers? "It was imperfect, but it worked fine."
"How do you feel about that? Have you gotten in touch with your anger? You have to take care of yourself, you know."
She is about to get in touch with my anger, but doesn't seem to realize it. Her right hand reaches like a tentative lover's, then lightly rests on my left one, where I so long ago tattooed L-O-V-E at the base of each finger, the letters childish and fading today.
"Isn't that interesting, the woman remarks. Then she continues, "We were at Esalen just last weekend for an aging-and-dying workshop. Death is beautiful," she confides.
Her eyes blink, and she quickly removes that intimate hand from L-O-V-E. "It's a natural thing," she asserts, her chin thrust slightly forward.
This time she flinches, stares at my unsmiling face, then sputters, "I've got to help Juanita," and is gone.
Posted May 27, 2001
Gerald Haslam never disappoints, but the University of Nevada Press sometimes does. Hats off to both. This novel finds the very heart of contemporary family life and the very essence of California living. Haslam always brings off regional writing at its best, and here he is at the top of is game. Could this story have unfolded elsewhere in the U.S.? Unlikely. And isn't that what regional writing is all about?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.