Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Songs from the Caldera
A soft wind lifts dust from dry fields and blows it around the setting sun, muting the evening light. Temperatures cool on the hard, flat belly of California’s Imperial Valley. Lizards and snakes crawl from their hideouts, searching for prey. Heat waves shimmer on the asphalt ahead of the car carrying Juana, Sandra and Maria to the rag-tag carnival set up on the edge of Calexico. It’s plopped in an uneven lot, rutted from trucks that wait to cross the Mexican border. The girls sing songs in low voices, giggling as they bump along in the back seat.
The day’s heat, 117 degrees in late July, has kept the sisters indoors, watching TV and playing board games in front of the air conditioner under their grandmother’s watchful eye. Tonight, after their father gets home from his meat cutting job at the Brawley beef packing plant, and the heat throttles down, the family ventures out.
When they get to Circus Chimera, their father finds other meatpackers who’ve brought their children to the traveling show, too. They sit and drink lemonade in broken green plastic chairs, set randomly beside a faded red and white food trailer, its torn awning limp in the breathless night. The children are turned loose as the hot vice of summer loosens it grip. An old thermometer hangs loosely from the side of the trailer. It has cooled to 107.
The sisters buy tickets from a battered booth and climb into the air-filled bounce house, slowly lifting and falling, sweaty legs stuck to blue plastic. Around them the rides whirl and flash. The air smells of axel grease and cotton candy. Knees bend. Ankles flex. Up and down. Up and down. Yellow and red shadows swirl around them. They bump against each other, fall in a jumble, giggle, roll. They pull sweaty shorts away from damp legs and loosen stuck panties. They jump again and again, mouths open, legs spread. Falling, falling. Giggling, giggling.
Carlos had struggled in the mid-day heat, a strip of torn T-shirt tied around his forehead to catch the sweat, to set up the children’s attraction, drinking beer, pumping hot air. Now he leans against the side of a trailer and watches the girls, light headed from the heat. Sweat pours from his armpits, stains his tank top, releases an oily beer odor as he lips a cigarette. He’d crossed the desert on a moonless night behind a coyote, tripping over a barrel cactus that embedded its spiney tips into his chest. He did not cry out. He’d fled Magdelena, when his neighbors, led by the priest, chased him from Mexico for touching a child. He’d floated down the sewage in the New River into America on a dime store inner tube, crawling, hiding by day, finding this work as a roustabout with Circus Chimera.
He watches the girls now, sees a flash of pink and a small brown belly. He sees even, white teeth, flashing brown eyes, long, black hair, loosened from barrettes, tousled. His tongue darts to his dry lips. He licks the salt of his own sweat and sees his chance. He fingers his crotch, lifts his long, black hair gathered loosely in a ponytail that, in the heat, hangs heavy on his neck. His eyelids drop to slits.
He comes to the edge of the jump house and calls to the girls through the mesh enclosure. They stop to listen. He calls again. Do you want candy? They ask what kind? Fresa. They come closer; shoulder each other to be in front. He pokes pink pieces through the mesh, calls them ninas bonitas. They laugh and bounce on their bottoms.
He says they should see the snakes in the trailer next door. It’s cool and dark inside, he says, and promises to lift them up to see the black widow spider. He says he will let all three of them in for a dollar. The girls, tired of the heat and the excitement of jumping, reach in their pockets, pool their change, give him seventy-five cents, go inside. It’s cool and black. They shiver, feel a little dizzy.
Carlos picks up Sandra before her eyes can adjust to the dark and quickly runs his hands over her hips, gauging her heft and sets the eight-year-old down. Then he picks up eleven-year-old Juana, he says so she can see better. Not meaning to, he pinches the skin in her armpits, making her squirm and hard to handle. With his right hand shoved down the back of her shorts, he feels from behind for what he needs – soft flesh; full vulva; deep, wet crack, he wiggles his fingers. Juana gives out a startled yelp and swings her elbow at his head. She bucks and kicks. Carlos holds her close, sets her down. The girls run from the trailer into the hot orange light of Circus Chimera, little Maria stumbling on the metal steps as they escape. The fathers hear them, push over the plastic chairs, grab the girls, charge the trailer.
Carlos welcomes what will happen next. Air-conditioned cell, color TV, guards lazed by the heat. For a moment he’s relived the pressure of picking up and laying down of his lust. In the dark, before he is beaten, the fathers breaking his nose and loosening a few teeth, and the Calexico police arrive, Carlos licks his dirty fingers, satisfied with the dainty taste. Later, he waits like a sissy for trial in the sweet, sticky honey pot of the ImperialCounty jail, bleeding from his ass like a girl, puncturing his arms with plastic forks just to feel the sizzling jolts of pain.
Something stirs in the Sonoran Desert. Then there is silence, shooting stars, flowers blooming in the dark and dying before first light, deer pointlessly butting chain-link fences along canals where they once could drink water. Lizards with long, black tongues lick crystallized piss from rocks where the desperate and hungry relieve themselves on their way north. Carnival freaks with greasy hands reach out from the shadows of the dime toss and Tilt-a-Whirl to sample local sweets and, in the heat, flick their tongues and don’t give a fuck.
Safe from Suffering
Playing in the garage, my father sweeping.
My kitten playing in boxes, chasing string.
Fog gushes in from the bay, mixes with
eucalyptus oil, swirls into a stew of
odors the summer I turned seven.
My father smells like Old Spice aftershave.
He’s not drunk today.
He found the kitten, small and gray,
in a box outside the grocery store and
brought it home to me. I keep it in my room,
at the end of my bed and call him Smoke.
He follows me, won’t go away.
The calm of chores and making nice.
A summer lull.
The lawn is mowed. The grass is raked.
My mother stays inside. Vacuumed air.
Lemon oil. Laundry soap. Bay leaves boiling in a pot.
My father whistles, swats cobwebs.
I ask questions he’s not always there answer.
Marguerite daisies by our front door push their
faces to the light. I pick them, go inside.
My mother scolds that flowers are for
looks. To show the neighbors. They make
pleasantness on the street. If they’re picked,
they die. Besides, she says, they’re not
mine to take, anyway.
Next door, the Colemans come out,
try to start their car. They greet my father,
who smiles his funny, tight-lipped grin.
He squints, pulls his spirit closer. I see it dart
back inside. They get out, raise the car’s hood.
I go get the screw driver. Stand aside.
My father leans in, tinkers, says it’s the idle.
The hum goes smoother. I put the tool away.
The Colemans get back inside, gun the engine.
The car begins to roll, slow, pulling out,
Mr. Coleman looking the other way.
My father waves. I see the cat.
I yell. I run. The crunch under the wheel convulses me.
I fall, skid on fresh-clipped grass.
The Colemans stop and he gets out. My Kitten
skitters down the gutter, dragging his hind legs
My father, calm and quick, goes into the garage, gets a
hammer, hits Smoke in the head, he says So he won’t suffer.
He says it’s for the best, and guileless, prepares me
for his own future. Empty bottle, broken neck.
My father grabs my kitten’s smashed hind legs,
carries his dangling body into our briefly tidy garage.
Potato Salad Sisters
I should have known when you told me.
Fifty pounds of potato salad is more
than you can make in your tiny, greasy kitchen,
with its tomato-red counter tops,
out of date since 1950.
I should have known that since I inherited Mom’s big,
heavy pots, that I’ve taken care of all these years –
made turkey dressing in, beans for baseball barbecues –
that I would be the one to do the salad job.
All those years you drank and dated dangerous men,
while I took care of business.
When you came struggling through my front door
with your sacks of onion, celery and potatoes,
I should have known, smelled the salty
San Francisco air, should have remembered
I’m the big sister, and it’s still like
we’re little girls again, sharing a room,
fighting over paper dolls.
I should have known we’d soon
be stirring the resentment pot.
I should have known you would deny secretly
soothing the salad dressing with sour cream,
that you would buy cheap mustard and beg
tang from the horseradish in mine, that you would turn
away, squeamish, while I sprinkled raspberry
vinegar on boiled, naked spuds.
You put your hands in Mom’s big pot and mushed
as I spooned dressing. You said you wanted it wet
as your tight pussy and wiped a mayonnaise-coated
hand across your fat tit. I scraped the bowl
and licked the spoon. You cracked a shell and said
you love my hard-boiled-egg farts. I frowned.
All those years I raised our sons while you ran wild.
We swatted flies on my back patio, talked about our
grandchildren, diced sweet pickles, warty little puds.
You said all men really want is meat.
I said yours is tough and stringy, even if it’s free.
We laughed, you choked and I should have known.
Tomorrow, the men at work will rave about your salad, you said.
I said nothing, but should have known that you’d take
all the credit and I’d end up delivering it.
Sam’s stomach lifted and shifted as he came over the rise in County Road 32A. He traveled the road, cracks shaped like alligator skin, to and from work every day. Way up ahead he saw a car pulled to the side with the trunk open. He noticed because strange vehicles were rare on the back roads around Courtland, a delta farming town south of Sacramento. A summer breakdown, with no wind or shade or water, meant a quick case of heat stroke. Like everybody, he automatically stopped to see if he could help.
Courtland, with its tidy cottages, crumbling post office and trailer park where Mexican field workers and their families live, was a hazy outline far off in the distance. The is town nestled along the levee, below the level of the Sacramento River that flows lazy in late summer, riffled by an occasional jet ski or an otter plunging in to cool off. Fruit ripens on backyard pear trees and chickens cluck deep in their throats as the afternoon warmth builds in their ramshackle coops.
Through the heat shimmers rising from the asphalt Sam watched a figure look into the open car trunk. He mentally calculated how long it would take to help change a flat. Maybe 20 minutes, a half hour. His hands were dirty anyway from working in the vineyards. He’d spent most of the day running the irrigation crews near Lodi – checking sprinklers, adjusting drip lines. This won’t take long, he thought. Worst case, he’d give the driver a lift into town.
As if flying a plane, he glided down the road in his new pickup, a sensible white F-150 with a utility box bolted across the bed, shovels rattling. The stranded car got bigger, its outline sharper. With the sun in his eyes and the wheat swaying in the hot puffs of Delta breeze, Sam didn’t really know what color the car was, much less the make or model, didn’t care. The temperature was topping 104 degrees and pushing higher in the late afternoon. The car’s details didn’t matter. A cold beer did.
Nothing much ever happens on this road, he thought. An occasional bale of hay got bucked from a truckload or a farmer got to driving too fast while talking on his cell phone and drifted into a ditch. Sometimes the guy died. Depended. The sheriff never came out this way, no dip-stick ambulance driver could find this place. It was no man’s land, he thought as he blasted down the country road in the dog days of summer.
She stepped from the back of her car to the edge of the road like an explosion, bursting through the whites and beiges and sun-baked yellows of the simmering afternoon in a dress the color of ripe Bing cherries. The breeze billowed her skirt.
He downshifted in an automatic reaction, almost whistled, and pulled in behind her car, sending hot gravel flying. Before he could turn off the engine, she was at the driver’s side window, leaning toward him, smelling of vanilla, brown hair shining like cinnamon and spun sugar in the sunlight. He cut the engine, pushed the hazard button.
“Can you help me?” she asked and Sam nodded not knowing what he was agreeing to. “It’s my dog, Freckles. She’s having puppies. Come and look.”
Sam grabbed the door handle and pushed out, leaving the keys in the ignition. She was hanging onto the window frame and he almost knocked her over. He stepped down and started to move around her, glancing at her feet. Little, he thought, and in white sandals with bows on the toes, not from around here.
“What are you doing out here on this tractor road?”
“I’m trying to get to the vet in Courtland. It’s Saturday and my regular vet in Elk Grove isn’t open,” she said, puffing a little in the heat. “The girl on the phone in Courtland told me to bring Freckles right in. She said take Road E2 off of Highway 99 and go west. I’m lost.”
“You sure are,” Sam said. “This is the back way.”
“She said the vet would wait for me,” the girl said, craning her neck, looking away. “I put Freckles in the back seat, but she stopped breathing. I pulled over and rubbed cold water on her. She started breathing again, but now she’s whimpering like she’s really hurt. She’s in the back seat.”
Sam and the girl took the few steps to the car and looked in.
“That’s a big dog,” Sam said, marveling at the size of the pit bull stretched out across the back seat. “I’m surprised you could lift her in there.”
“Oh, my God,” the girl said, recoiling. “The puppy’s half out. It’s dead. I know its dead. It’s dead!”
Sam put his hand on the woman’s shoulder and felt the sun’s heat on her skin, the closeness of her bones. She started sniffling and stepped away from the car, back toward the truck, as if to protect herself from the sight.
Sam leaned in, stretching across the seat, hitting his knees against the car’s frame, teetering on his toes as he reached for the dog. He talked softly. “Nice girl, good girl. Pretty Freckles, pretty girl.” Then he pulled the limp puppy from between its mother’s legs. The dog turned the instant the pup was removed and clamped her jaws full force onto Sam’s hand. He dropped the puppy.
The pain from the bite buckled his knees. He hollered like he was falling from a cliff, the sound echoing in his ears, riffling the wheat in the field beside the car. With its jaws firmly locked on Sam’s hand, Freckles died. He turned to look for the girl behind him but she wasn’t there.
She sprayed gravel as she peeled out in Sam’s new truck, fishtailing as she drove down the lumpy road, waving goodbye out the window with her slender hand and blood-red fingernails. He looked over the car’s front seat and saw wires dangling below the ignition. There were no keys. The horn was beyond reach. It hit him that the car was stolen, probably the dog too. Looking back at his hand clamped in the locked jaws of the dead dog, he saw four bold letters stamped in gold on its thick leather collar.
Just before he passed out, Sam saw there wasn’t much blood seeping from the punctures, although his hand was swelling, and it occurred to him he might not make it to work tomorrow. When he fainted, Sam fell across the car’s backseat on top of the dog, his dirt caked work boots hanging out the passenger side door.
In the dark he felt their hands, moving over his body. The smell of stale beer and body odor brought him to his senses. They spoke Spanish. Sam understood some of what they said from his work in the fields. The men felt in his pockets and took his wallet. They rolled him over and found Sam’s hand in the dog’s mouth. They reached over Sam’s body and hit the animal’s jaw with a tire iron. It sprang open like a trap. The men pulled Sam out of the car by the belt loops on his pants, cradling his head as they gently lowered him to the ground, saying hurry up. Darse prisa! Darse prisa!
Sam looked at the ring of brown faces above him. His head was lifted, water was forced to his lips. Someone carefully placed his wallet on his chest.
“Como te llamo, Senor?”
Sam choked, cleared his throat, and whispered, “Bitch’s name is Rita.”
California writer Kate Campbell is a journalist and photographer who has been working in fiction and poetry for the past several years. As a journalist, her writing has appeared in major daily newspapers and regional magazines. In addition, her photography has also been widely published, while her first short story appears in American River Review’s 2007 issue. Campbell, who grew up in San Francisco, now lives in Sacramento, where she is grudgingly coming to grips with the heavy clay soil in her garden and the ever-present dust on her furniture. She’s currently at work on a full-length novel.