“What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.” Ecclesiastes 1:15
When my husband was a kid, his father, KL, bought a discount above-ground pool. KL owned a decent plot of land—a California quarter-acre. The house was an off-kilter pile of shingles, but the land was well worth the price KL had paid. It was the kind of land that could’ve become just about anything. It could’ve been a mini-farm, all dung and chicken dander. It could’ve been a done-up tiki enclave. Or a family R-and-R spot: beach balls and flip-flops, technicolor drinks with plastic straws. It could’ve been all of those, actually: enough land for a man and his family to have everything.
Anyways, being discount, the pool came without a ladder. Other than that, it had everything a pool needed: all its aluminum slats, its rubber outer casing. The pool, discount or no, was a pool in Southern California, under the compliant blue sky. It should’ve been casting its magic chlorine molecules up to the palm trees; it should’ve been the site of sunburns and underwater somersaults. But that ladder: it was a problem. And a new pool ladder could run upwards of 50 smackers. KL might’ve had the money; by that time, he was retired from the Navy, working at Two Guys. But having money, for KL, didn’t mean he’d spend that money.
KL, who’d never been allergic to work, figured he could make the ladder for less. Glue some PVC piping, fill the contraption with sand so it wouldn’t float away. It was not a quick business. KL gathered the materials and calibrated weights and did the pre-puttering required for any project; meanwhile, the boys went up a grade.
KL did eventually make the ladder, and for a few weeks, the kids bopped each other in the head with plastic, inflatable sharks and got their sinuses anointed by chemicals and opened their eyes underwater to watch the undulating sun. KL’s wife, Bonnie, bought a new bikini just for this pool; she put her hair up like I Dream of Jeannie and just about everything seemed good. But the ladder wasn’t made from quite the right materials—the PVC too light, the sand too heavy—and the damn thing sunk too much. And then one of the boys (my husband, Stacey, maybe) did some kind of knuckleheaded jump onto or flip off of the ladder. All of a sudden, KL’s ingenious make-do contraption had gashed the rubber bottom of the pool.
And then: the glugging, the way it sounded like oh-no oh-no oh-no. The crazy mud sluice running through the garden, upending grass and flowers, loosening roots. Gallon after sickening gallon sinking through the tear. The blast of silt that burped into the bottom of the pool. The kids standing there in limp bathing suits, water swirling through their hands. For months after, no one really wanted to deal with that pool; it looked like something pitifully exposed, like a mouth turned inside out. The torn flap of the side flopped, bleached and marooned-looking, into the yard. Flies sizzled on the drying algae. Pool toys were left to ossify in the bottom, their plastic turning pocked and brittle.
Oh, old KL. Old Pop, as Stacey would say. How sincere the effort; how very consummate the waste.
In Lincoln Acres, California, I walk out the front door, running to the bodega for coffee or bread, and I’m struck in the eye with the bay’s blue. Far-off as it is—all the way down the hill—it’s still the first thing that I look for. I’m from back East, as Californians say, and so I’m dumbfounded by the slatted palm branches, the bougainvillea pouring out torrents of scarlet senselessness. Up the street, behind the bodega, the mountains shine tawny and ripple with light. Especially in the mornings: they look like badass cat’s-eye stones, all striated flicker. When I drink my coffee, I think, I’m drinking my coffee in California. I imagine how my friends back East might envy me, as they sit in those brick buildings, eating their breakfasts without any mountains down the street.
I’m amazed by this place, where America finally runs out of its incessant self. At night, the Coronado Bridge spans its diadem across the watery dark. I walk to the end of the garden at night, all the way to the far end, scuffing my feet so the skunk doesn’t startle. The ferns tick out their thousand tiny leaves. It’s a lot of land with a lot of sky above. The stars stipple that sky, and continue stippling farther out till the sky is the sky over Mexico, and the stars are Mexican stars.
KL’s dying now; it’s cancer, in his bones, threading darkly through his marrow. He sleeps: neck-pillow, humming morphine, gasp. But he’s worried. His fingers winnow the bedspread. He strains, tries to struggle. He looks like he’s trying to stop something. But then his skin sucks him back into the bed.
Is that auction gonna start up now? he asks. Do you hear it? Don’t you hear that auctioneer? Why didn’t they ask before they came on in here? The auctioneer, he’s a real bastard. Can’t mess him around, no sir.
KL’s entire body is a craning; he’s looking for something that’s looming—where?—in the doorway of his bedroom, on the windowsill, in the corner where the ceiling meets the wall. Stacey and his mother are sleeping. They’ve been living in this narrow vigil for months now. They’ve seen the cancer thresh his bones, watched as he stopped asking for the pillows to be moved. They’ve listened for the oxygen pump’s hiss, watched his chest move. As for me, I’m here—from back East—for a few days. I’ve got three extra West Coast hours, and I don’t feel like sleeping anyway.
Where’s my Japanese wood saw? Who moved the pepper tree? Are they selling off the chickens? Are the lawn chairs going first? Why’s that auction starting up already? Couldn’t he wait till I was gone?
I look into his eyes: their opaque wideness, their movement frantic under dulling rheum. He squints like something’s falling on him, rushing toward him—or maybe like there’s someone there, ready to shake him, ready to wrest him away. He sees lots—narrates all he sees—but it’s morphine-seeing. The backyard spinning out and off, a cyclone of eucalyptus leaves and koi fish lifted from their little ponds; all the roses pulled off their vines. KL hears things too—parades, other-world cacophonies, Navy bru-ha-ha-ing. He hears that sound—half mandolin, half shaken sheets of foil—that he heard in the Pacific’s midst. All the other sailors mocked him but he still knows—knows now more than ever—that it certainly was mermaids.
The hours are measured in morphine doses. There’s a morning glory growing through a trestle of bones. There’s that girl from Hawaii—he would’ve married her—bringing him a sea urchin. And then there’s the auctioneer. The auctioneer’s the one that keeps on coming back.
What’s the starting price? Why so high? The old shed’s not worth anything—why’re you putting it up there on the block? And the sunflowers? Who’d want them? Can’t he hold off for just a while? I’m not even dead yet. That auctioneer’s gonna take every one of my tools. He’s gonna take all of Bonnie’s little tchotchkes. Don’t matter if it’s worth something or if it’s worth nothing.
I drink a Corona and then I drink another one. I think about the auctioneer, imagine his shadow spreading like headlight-glare across the room. Most of my imagining comes from my back-East stereotypes. The auctioneer is wearing a ten-gallon hat. He’s got an alligator-skin belt. He smokes—maybe cigarettes or, if we’re being extravagant—cigars. The smoking shows on his teeth. He’s got his cultivated rustications (the smoking; the hat; a worn suede jacket). But really he’s all SUV and SkyMall; the knife in his belt is custom-made by some company in Sweden. The auctioneer runs a toothpick between his pearly whites, excising the gunk. It’s his way of saying he could flick you out, too, with just a jab and pry.
KL sees the auctioneer, speaks of him constantly. Sure, KL also sees mama-cat coming through his wall, her tabby head knocking out the plaster. But he’s not afraid of mama-cat, and he’s not afraid of his dead sister, and he’s not afraid of the shark fins that coast along the carpet. The auctioneer, though, is a different story. When KL talks to the auctioneer—Why’re you putting it all on the block at once? Can’t you at least keep your paws off the washer-dryer?—his voice pushes from the wrecked stuff of his ribs. When he talks to the auctioneer, it’s really urgent. This urgency, despite KL’s shrunken-in lips, despite the woolen itchiness inside his throat. Sometimes KL recognizes me, and sometimes he doesn’t. But he always recognizes the auctioneer.
For lots of people, California is a destination: the aquamarine brink of their future. For KL, though, California was incidental; the Navy ended him up here was all. He grew up in Wyoming, but the fact was he didn’t care too much for those Wyoming winters. The cold got jabbed deep into his spongy bones, and he stayed cold for the rest of his days. He was cold as he sailed a ship across the equator; he was cold in San Diego August.
Some folks said that Wyoming was pretty. KL thought those famous Wyoming mountains weren’t worth a damn thing when you were in a snowstorm and couldn’t see two feet ahead of you. And who cared about the view when you had your parka hood closed up so there was nothing but fur in your eyes? Wyoming was nothing but sheep and snow, snow and sheep. All of it so white and gray, it made a person wonder whether he’d prefer going blind just so he wouldn’t have to look at it.
KL called himself a regular old Okie. He remembered being a little kid and watching the dust storms blow past. Him being little made the dust swells that much bigger. Those storms were like a giant’s tent. KL’s people weren’t farmers, though, so they made it through all right. Or, rather, when the black grit blew across, they were doing about as bad as they’d always been doing. KL’s pop ran the auto shop and made a man’s promise to KL and his brother: he’d give them the shop once they were of age, he himself having moved on to operating a sundries market. But soon KL saw the pattern: these promises occurred only when his mama hid his pop’s liquor. Those were the better days, days when the whole house felt like an open window. They all sat around the table and everyone—mama, pop, KL, Wally— was slotted into their right spot. KL’s pop spoke about engine grease and opportunity, about legacy and how to change a flat.
But apparently legacy didn’t taste as good as whiskey. KL’s pop started swilling the awful stuff again. This time, not even hiding bottles could stop him. He not only forgot his promise to his sons, he more or less forgot that he had sons. But that was all the same, KL supposed, as his pop also forgot he had a business. That liquor was the color of a dangerous gem, a bright gift accompanied by bad magic. It gleamed and sloshed and eventually burned over everything they had—business, house, everything. By that time, though, KL had gotten himself in the service and away from his pop’s quenchless dipsomania.
When KL was a boy in Wyoming, the sea was a thing like God. It was out there, or maybe it wasn’t, but in any event, it wasn’t really his concern. In KL’s estimation, the sea was just fine; it had its treacheries but so did land and so did just about everything else. Even after they moved out to California, KL never could see why people got themselves so besotted with the sea, the beach. For KL, California was only a dock, a place where the sea finished up. In the same way, a beach was where the work was winding down. It was a strip of land and when you saw it that meant rivets had to be loosened, boilers had to be adjusted, ropes and hoses put back into place.
Back when my husband’s parents arrived in San Diego, a person—an actual person, like KL—could buy a house right on the beach. Ocean Beach was just a swath of sand. Imperial Beach was nothing more than flotsam, jetsam, and a bunch of junkies. But for Okies like my in-laws, Lincoln Acres—the Acres, they were called—seemed like a good enough place to raise some kids. Up in the Acres, it was a different sort of California: cowboy boots, mangy goats. Sure, the blue, blue bay was way below them, and sure, they were surrounded by uncanny geometric cacti. But up in the Acres, it was all squinty, old homesteaders and worn-down leather saddles and busted anachronistic farm equipment. Plus, Bonnie and KL had boys, and everyone knew they’d require space for knocking around and running and kicking down things that didn’t really need to be kicked.
The Acres are lovely in their way, but my husband still wonders about his folks’ decision. What kind of people move to California, could buy just about anywhere, and expressly avoid the beach? Stacey imagines the beachfront properties, the way he would’ve grown up surfing, saying words like Catamaran and Brunch Menu. He imagines walking barefoot in the living room, a nexus of glass and Pacific, Pacific and glass. In some small way, he feels like his folks squandered San Diego—its once-infinite coastline, its stretch of azure opportunity.
When I’m up here, in the Acres, I walk the property at least once a day. I brush the lavender with my palms, stir up its purple scent. Pear blossoms shimmer, translucent against the sky’s blue. I try to surprise the big bullfrog on his favorite paving stone. I walk through the dingy arcade of outdoor tents; the feral cats are hammocked, resentful but sleepy, in the tattered plastic right above my head.
I want to count it all. I want to touch every rumpled poppy, every blackberry pending on its bush. I’ve never been in a place with so very much of everything. Wal-Mart lawn chairs and chimineas bought down in TJ ages ago. Wind chimes wrapped in cobwebs and doo-dads that I have no immediate name for. Pieces of useless trellis and half-built chicken coops. Rusted hunks of that long-ago, inglorious, above-ground pool. Bonnie once asked some lady—someone coming through for a lily bulb or fresh-laid eggs—Have you ever seen so many tchotchkes? The woman replied, judiciously, No, not in one place.
I want to keep it, all of it. I want to bind it up in sunlight’s mesh and keep it here—the way it is right now, in the late afternoon. When I walk that stretch of land, I’m mostly trying to make sense of it: how such a place could possibly exist. And also: how it will be when such a place no longer exists.
I suppose, all in all, California will keep its frenetic pink and yellow blooming—hollyhocks, orchids, roses—right on going. And I suppose, all in all, America will do just fine.
In his better days, KL sat on the couch and watched Rural Farm Television. Sometimes, I watched it with him. He’d explain the intricacies of the equipment; when this happened I’d mostly space out. Everything on that screen was repetitive and lulling—the accents, the dink-dink guitar music, the moseying animals. Cows undulated across the screen—brown and muscly, an endless insistent mooing. Tractors did their circular or back-and-forth thing. Youth were interviewed about how farming saved them from a life of crime.
Rural Farm Television advertised a lot of crap: fake rodeo bandanas and corny belt buckles and special bovine-themed checkbooks. It even advertised itself, reminding us that RFT: Rural Farm Television was made possible by viewers like us. There were also lots of ads for America. Stars and Stripes ballpoint pens. Special collector American flag pins. Decorative license plates meant to defend our American rights.
KL, I’m sure, has seen plenty of auctions. He’s seen tractor auctions and car auctions, seen unknown hunks of metal rattled off the block and hoisted to the highest bidder. He’s seen land hacked off and sold like it was a hunk of bacon. He took the boys—Stacey and his brother—to their 4-H shows at the San Diego County Fair. Stacey’s best fleecy sheep went right up on the block; his favorite chicken cowered in its cage and got gaveled away. KL told his California farm boys not to cry over their animals, told them to focus on their prizes—starchy ribbons that never quite seemed to compensate. KL might’ve figured it was good for his boys: that early-learned habit of losing loved things.
KL watched Rural Farm Television’s epic, droning auctions: hours of them. After a while, the auctioneer’s voice put him to sleep. I’d walk by, headed for the bodega or the backyard. His head rested on the back of the couch, askew in a way that looked painful. I wondered whether the static of the auctioneer’s voice transmuted in his sleep. Maybe, instead of the hem-hem-pause-haw-haw nonsense I was hearing, KL was hearing something else. I liked to think it was a Wyoming stream: a spot where, as a boy, he could go all day and not be found. Or maybe it was the sound of the Pacific against his ship. Not that KL had ever spoken sentimentally about such things. I suppose that was just me, wishing him good dreams. Wishing for him something other than the drag of auctioneer-jabber, the dim of his curtains drawn against the California sun.
I think that Rural Farm Television was maybe where KL got the idea. Like I said: there were lots of advertisements. Chicken feed and plaster statues of Native Americans on horses and limited edition American flag collector’s plates (only 2,000 released from the Franklin Mint! Serial number on the back! Special certificate of ownership!). The voiceovers were always talking about the amazing heritage planted in this proud American land and our beautiful nation and all the freedom that it yields. Even when RFT wasn’t selling anything, the station was basically selling America. Everything was metonymy for the country: growing grain somehow stood for our boys overseas; lowing cattle got analogized into gun rights.
It was on one of these dozy RFT afternoons, I believe, that the auctioneer first appeared. An ad came on, and it went like this: Are you an older American? Are you worried that you won’t be able to live comfortably on your retirement income? Now you can receive thousands of dollars more per month… and still stay in your own home! KL, awake or asleep, must’ve invited the auctioneer in. KL couldn’t get a clear glimpse of him, but what he could see looked all right. The auctioneer seemed old-timey, all-American, like someone KL might’ve known as a boy in Wyoming. Hundreds of older Americans have benefited from reverse mortgages and are currently enjoying the luxury of extra cash flow! Representatives are standing by, so call today. The auctioneer doffed his cap like a gentleman and spoke in a voice that seemed right. KL knew to trust him the way he knew that a plane was perfectly level; it was something he didn’t have to think about at all. So KL said yes. So KL invited the auctioneer on in.
After we got married, a childhood friend of Stacey’s wanted to take all of us—Stacey and I, KL and Bonnie—out to eat at Café La Maze, a snazzy steakhouse down the hill in National City. The friend had a big-time job back East in Washington, DC. She’d grown up running happily amok, a neighborhood kid amongst neighborhood kids, in KL’s yard.
National City isn’t much—a Holiday Inn and a wide main street and the station where a person can still board a trolley headed south to Mexico. It’s a little odd or sad or something that National City—known primarily for the Mile of Cars, which is pretty much what it sounds like, an entire mile of chrome-y used car dealerships—is the “real place” most adjacent to the Acres. Café La Maze, though, is a splash of unexpected decadence amongst the Urgent Cares and Rite Aids. The steakhouse got set up in 1940 as a last stateside cavort before stars—real Hollywood Golden Age ones—crossed over to Tijuana. Bing Crosby and Clark Gable downed gin and tonics in La Maze’s curtained dark. The place still had that aura, done up in gold tassels and crimson walls, which—to those of us who don’t always encounter such things—had the texture of really nice department store wrapping paper.
So the plan was all well and good, except old KL never could see a reason to be restaurant-going. This had nothing to do with the swank of the particular establishment; it was a general principle.