“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