Posts Tagged With: California

Thunderstorms

I had a little time to do some actual writing in Maine while I was there. It felt good to exercise those muscles again.  And it also led to the writing of some vignettes, like the one here.

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A Maine thunderstorm is not like a thunderstorm in California.  In California, the gray clouds gather for hours before they begin to weep a misty drizzle that eventually might turn to more persistent streams.  The booming clouds are loud but faithless.  They roar a couple of times and then they turn back to the drizzle they were born of.

In Maine, a thunderstorm comes in.  The gray fluffy clouds roll across the blue, blue sky, groaning in warning.  In a matter of minutes the sky is all cloud, the wind chimes ring out their warning peal, the rain falls in a sheet.  The booms seem to echo in the sky around you, and the lights of the house flicker.  Sometimes the house lights go out and you are left grappling for your flashlight.  The clouds continue their persistent roll and roar even after the rain has passed.  A Maine thunderstorm means it.

I sat in the living room of my mom’s cottage with my husband and watched the storm come in over the ocean today, wondering if it would wake up my napping son in the room above.  And in the way of children and mothers, it pulled me into a different memory.

It was surely not my first thunderstorm in Maine. I have been a slightly legitimized summer person since I was born (since many of my family lives here full time). But it’s the first storm I really remember.  We were staying in the big cottage, the one Grampy’s father made for his mother (as opposed to the tiny cottage that Grampy himself had built – maybe 600 square feet?)  The black “Juanita” sign still hung in the living room in the big cottage amid the iron stove, the rag rugs, and the furniture from the 1970s with holes in all the upholstery, stuffing flying free – deftly covered by Juanita’s granny square afghans of many colors.  We were serviceable at the beach.  Despite the bucket of clean water at the door to wash your feet as you came in, there was a fine patina of sand on everything.

I slept next to my sister Cody under the eaves in a bedroom upstairs, white lace curtains at the window.  The noise woke me up and  I was frightened, but too old to admit it.  I couldn’t remember a storm that loud, even though I remembered Maine thunderstorms. My mother was up too.

“Case, can you help me close the windows?” she asked, flitting from room to room.  The sheet of rain had already started, and the window sill in the hall was already wet.  I shoved the pane down, and moved downstairs to the next.  A peal of thunder shook the house.

It took forever for the two of us to manage the window on the stairwell, too high to grip tight and slippery because of the rain.  But finally my mother managed it.  I was still scared, though the purpose of the moment had turned my adrenaline to excited.

“We did it,” said my mother as we turned to each other.  Another peal, and when the house shook I also shook.

“Mumma!” Cody called from the bedroom upstairs.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to sleep tonight,” said my mother.  “Have you ever watched a storm over the ocean?”

I shook my head.

She climbed the stairs to get Cody.  “Grab a blanket, and we’ll all watch together.”

We settled in on the couch, Cody on one side of my mom’s lap and me on the other, tucked under one of Juanita’s afghans.  My mom had pulled the couch over so the big picture windows were perfectly in front of us, like a TV.  The lightening danced over the dark waves of the ocean, sparking the clouds in purple and forking down to the water.  No two zig-zags alike.  The thunder shook us at intervals and it seemed like it all must be right on top of us.  Cozied in like that I felt safer, though.

“How far away is it?”  I asked.

“Count,” said my mother.  So my sister and I counted one-mississippis between light and sound,  and my mother did the math.

“About a mile away,” she said.

It felt more present than that.

“Could the lightening ever strike here?  Would it strike the rocks?”

“I don’t think it will tonight.  It’s very rare, but it could.  It has.”

“It has?”

“Yes, you know the hollow on the rock you were pretending to make seaweed stew in the other day?”

I nodded.  The rock was a larger than the footprint of the small cottage, an almost perfect 30-degree angle of dusky, weather-beaten granite that dipped toward the shore, ending in a collection of smaller rocks that created tidepools when the tide was out. At the top left of this rock was a perfectly round indentation, like a black melamine bowl.  This room was always our kitchen when we played house, because it already had a sink.

“That wasn’t there when I was a girl.  Lightning struck the rock, and created the hollow.”

In the world where we are both adults and we have talked about this again, I know my mother never saw the lightning strike happen.  It was winter, and no one was at the beach then.  They came next summer and the hollow was just there. But I could see it so vividly in my mind that I was certain she had for many years.

It would have been a night like this one, and maybe Aunt Nancy would have come to snuggle with her on the couch cushions.  I never could quite picture my mother with her mother, who died shortly after my mom’s marriage and whom I never knew.  And Grampy wasn’t a cuddle with the kids during a storm kind of guy.

The two of them, Kathy and Nancy, would be watching the storm, tucked under one of Juanita’s afghans, and the lightening would bolt down from the sky.  There would be a huge cracking sound as the electricity hit the rock, sparks flying, the rock burning for a time before the rain put the flames out.  And in the morning was our sink, too hot to touch for weeks.

We were outside time in that moment, those two girls and my sister and I. Parallel. Same house, same sky, same blanket, even to some extent the same sisterly love.  I have had so many Maine moments that run parallel that perhaps I can be excused for believing in this one for so long.

I still live in California, where I grew up.  Despite what they tell you, there is history there.  It just isn’t your history.  I live next to an orange grove that was planted and picked by someone else forever ago, to my south an irrigation ditch dug in the 1820s by local rancheros.  The local church has done a Las Posadas every Christmas for a hundred years, the 4th Of July Band plays Sousa all summer long, and the epithet “without vision a people perish” has presided over concerts in the park since the 1920s.  I can even visit Teddy Roosevelt’s chair at the Mission Inn, if I want to.  The tradition is there, but it doesn’t pull in the same way.  It doesn’t belong.

History in Maine is rooted, sweeping you into the past like the rolling of the clouds over the ocean, dropping rain sheets of the lives of others over your modern veneer.  In a moment it doesn’t matter what year you are in, and time moves in a circle like it does in theoretical physics.  You are tangled with the generations before you, whether you like it or not.  Mostly it’s comforting, that sense of being both outside of time and inside a memory.  In Maine, history means it.

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Because It’s Important:

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I’m writing again today to talk to you about something VERY important, and that’s your vote.  Wait – don’t click away yet.  I’m not gonna launch into any spiels about the presidential candidates.  At this point, I think you’ve probably made up your mind about those two folks.  I’m hearing from a lot of people, though, that because both Clinton and Trump are terrible, they’re just not going to vote at all.  That’s what I’d like to talk about today.

Don’t do it!  Show up!

Here’s why: Elections are SO important, and arguably it’s the stuff happening in your state that is way more important to your daily life than whoever is currently shouting mean things on the TV about Washington.  I can’t speak for other states, but California is electing a new congresswoman for the first time in almost 25 years; the legislature is asking if they should pursue a repeal of Citizen’s United; and there are three (or more, if you want to count the legalization of marijuana one in there) propositions that will decide what our penal systems look like for the next decade or more.  That stuff is something you should weigh in on, that will impact you directly.

And, guess what?  You don’t have to vote for or against everything on your ballot.  Don’t like Hilary and don’t like Trump?  Leave the presidential question blank and vote wholeheartedly and gleefully for your senate candidate.  Don’t care at all about plastic bags?  Leave that one blank too.  It’s okay to vote for some things and not other things.

For example (I don’t want to tell you who to vote for or anything, but…) I’m a HUGE fan of Pete Aguilar, my state congressman.  He runs job fairs all over the place, supports Planned Parenthood, has written a lot of laws that help small local businesses, and sent me a very nice letter after I contacted him about gun control.  I mean, his mom helps him campaign.  I can fill the dot in next to his name without doom and gloom feelings that I’m picking the lesser of two evils.  I genuinely am so glad that man represents me.

There’s something to be excited about in this election.  Maybe it’s not the top of the ticket, but it’s not buried that far down.  I promise.

You still have the whole weekend to look at everything and make a decision on how you feel.  I urge you to at least give it a trial.  League of Women Voters and NPR both have non-partisan information on propositions and candidates if you just put in your address, which I always find is a good place to start.  Your work is required to give you time off to get to a polling place near you.  You can do this.  I believe in you.

And thank you.  This whole ‘having a democratic country’ thing works much better when all of us are participating.

That’s my two cents.

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Maine vs California, and Some Pictures

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I am back from Maine.  It has been almost five years since Brian and I have been together, and it was lovely to have a partner in crime.  It’s always so funny coming home again, though.  I fly into Boston and am deposited into a whole different world, and then I fly out again and am deposited in my own life in California.  There is no transition, and no in-between.  Just one dichotomy and then the other

Maine was gorgeously green this time.  The humidity clung to us, but there was a light breeze most times that if you could catch it would blow the mugginess away.  The mosquitos bit, but I did not get munched by a green-headed fly even once.  That is a victory.  We hiked on forest trails that suddenly rounded a bend and became a secluded bay; trees and calm waters stretching as far as you could see.  Maine is a place to eat your weight in halibut and lobster, watch the fisherman chug through the Gut on their boats, and watch the brilliant stars in the sky.  Life trickles by like a stream.

Back in California, I went to work on Monday morning in a dry heat.  The drought has made things so brown out here.  I raced freight trains to work in a sea of concrete and other cars, and then I went into my air conditioned building and froze. I came home to a cuddly black cat in the window, dinner made from my home-grown tomatoes, and a very handsome husband burning sweet incense in the back room (for his weekly meditation).  The streetlights are so bright they drown out all but the most persistent constellations.  My four-poster bed is the perfect combination of soft and firm.

I will be back to some semblance of a regular blogging schedule ASAP, but I have had to play massive amounts of catch-up at work (to the point where all I want to do at the end of the day is collapse).  In lieu of a full post, please accept this collection of photos from the trip.  Bookishness will recommence next week.  And incidentally, if you are ever in Damariscotta, their bookshop is full of wonderful.  They don’t have the biggest inventory, but they have everything I’ve been drooling over online for months (Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography, anyone?), and local stuff that is hard to find (Maine historical atlases).  I wanted to stay for months and spend a fortune.  You should go.

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Summer Garden

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Oh the summer weather.  And I don’t mean that in a good way.  It’s been HOT here.  And weird.  Brian managed to get some fancy drought-tolerant plants at a local fair, and we did some minor gardening this weekend.  It was already 89 degrees out at 8:00 am when we went out there to dig in the dirt for a while and make sure everything had a decent soaking.  About 10:00 am, a huge cloud rolled in.  Along with an atmosphere of mugginess not usually experienced in Southern California.

I don’t know why it’s so much different in Redlands.  It’s only 30 miles away from Claremont.  But when the summer clouds come up, the whole world smells like the sweet molasses of desert rain.  It didn’t drop anything on us, but it stayed hazy and dusk-like until late in the afternoon, making the mountains that surround us like a bowl look purple in the distance.  Like someone had ripped them out of construction paper, and not like they were real mountains at all.

I feel like such a Californian in Redlands amid the eucalyptus, the orange groves, the palms, the trains and the hills.We planted California Poppies this weekend.  You know, just for extra good California goodness.  Unless we started keeping quail, we can’t get more representative.

The tomatoes are insanely huge now.  I bought the big tomato cages, and they have outgrown even those.  The Roger’s Red grapevine is taller than the house.  We’ve been slowly adding drought-tolerant things to the front yard, and trying to nurse through the things that are already there in the heat.  The roses are burning before they even have a chance to bloom.  The lawn is brownish.  But the Roger’s Red seems to be thriving with just a very little bit of hose help, and has sprouted volunteers all over the front planter.  I’m thrilled, since gophers ate both of the plants I had in the back yard.  Come fall when the weather is cooler, I’ll re-plant them in back again.  This time in gopher-proof chicken wire pots.  California natives for the win, I guess.

Now if we can just get all the plants through September, I shall be a happy camper.  Cross your fingers for them.  They’re going to need it.

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Summer Rains

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Things are settling at home. There is still a heap of boxes in the garage filled with unimportant things, like the tarot cards that I don’t quite dare throw away from the drawer in my bedside table. I have thrust so many of my high school hopes and dreams into them that if they were not full of mysticism before they must certainly be filled with some enigmatic thing now. Most of the walls have pictures leaned against them, upside down, waiting for nail and hammer. Due to the many incompetencies of the only provider in town, we don’t have internet. But we are mostly moved in to our new house. I can make tea on my stove with the vibrant blue insides. I have mowed the lawn, feeling the machine vibrate all the way up my arms and breathing in the green as I push the mower over the tufts. There are teal curtains in my bedroom, and my lavender office is my favorite room of the house.

I have been homesick for Claremont, though. I am in town every day for work, and yet it seems so distant. Perhaps it is the waffling Brian and I do at dinner time.

“Do you want to go out to eat?” I ask.

“Where?”

“I don’t know. I guess we could wander around downtown until something looks good…”

In Claremont, I could say “Sacca’s,” or “How about Dr. Grubbs?” or “Pizza n’ Such?”

In Redlands it is all foreign, and it has gone from feeling like vacation to not quite feeling like home.

Until this weekend, I thought the reason that it doesn’t quite feel like home because it is so hot in Redlands. Brian and I used to wander through the neighborhood to the Claremont Village for ice cream some nights. I was looking forward to moonlit strolls through the orange groves near our house in Redlands, but a wall of hair-frizzing heat attacks anyone brave enough to open the door, even in the evenings.

There were summer rainstorms this weekend and it made the world a lot cooler. The first was a hot sprinkling of alligator drops that brought a sweet maple-syrup smell to the air. Like when Brian used to visit his grandparents in Arizona and it would rain on the desert, he told me. I threw on my grandmother’s raincoat, Brian wore a black coat and carried a black umbrella, and we walked across campus, the hot drops still falling from the sky. There are so many nooks and crannies that I know we didn’t get into even half of them. Still, we rounded the corner of the art building to see a rusted abstract man standing amid the branches of a gray, leafy bush. There was a ceramic elephant holding a red canvas umbrella near the faculty offices. There is a building where the red shingles look like scales and Athena’s owl looks down from the middle of the porch.

Our Saturday walk was so wonderful that we decided to go again on Sunday. A black cloud loomed in the distance, but I didn’t care. A drenching and a lamppost are the only barriers between my Gene Kelly impersonation, and sometimes not even both are necessary. I love being drenched as long as I don’t have to sit in the damp clothes for hours afterward.

“We aren’t going that far,” I said.

“Let’s go to that park two blocks over,” said Brian. “The one with the big slides.”

It began to rain as we stepped onto the grass in the park. The rain was colder, coming in gusts, and the languid quality of the drops was gone.

“It’s raining!” I yelled, and I did bell kicks up the path. My shoulders became speckled darker with wet.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. And then the sky rumbled.

We took refuge in a tower above a violent yellow twisty slide. The roof leaked. The sky opened up as soon as we sat down, and showered buckets. The sky flashed.

“Did you see it? Count!” I said.

So we sat by the slide and counted how far the storm was.

“It’s getting closer,” said Brian.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to be letting up. We’re only a couple of blocks from home.”

We climbed back down the playground equipment. I was wet through before my feet had even left the metal ladder to touch the sand below. The paths were all now rivulets of water flowing down to the wash at the base of the park. My breath steamed up my glasses, so I took them off and saw the rushing water and the puddles like an impressionist painting. It was tough work, picking a path through the rushing streams of mud and froth that ran across our path every few feet. There was no avoiding them, and so I waded through. The stairs near the Greek Theater became a waterfall, and they poured water up to my knees. We were just deciding if it was a good idea to attempt to cross the bridge over the wash when public safety pulled up in a white SUV.

“Want a ride?” the gentleman with cop mustache and graying temples asked.

“Yes please!” we said.

So we piled into the back of his car, trying unsuccessfully not to pool water on everything, and he drove us the last two blocks home.

We changed into dry clothes and cuddled up on the couch, listening to the rain still falling behind the windows. I realized that, although Redlands doesn’t yet feel like home, at no other time in my life has the California landscape been so present. Vibrant, graffiti covered freight trains race me down the freeway on my way to work every morning.   I round the bend to exit my neighborhood and there is a row of palms sheltering the orange grove that we traipsed through the other day. In the distance on three sides, brown hills recede to purple lumps beneath the sky. The sharp smell of eucalyptus is in the air. Roses bloom outside my front door.

“You know,” I said to Brian. “As stressful as this moving stuff has been, the living in Redlands part has been pretty magical.”

“Yes it has,” he agreed.

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Rainy Day

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It’s such a dreary and drizzly day here.  And Californians freak out in the rain.  They turn from reasoned (if aggressive) commuters into slippery slidey old folks, creeping along at tiny speeds and following too close.  I spent the morning driving in this travesty, only to learn from the radio that a big-rig had overturned ahead and was blocking all but one lane of traffic.  The heavy traffic turned into stopped gridlock as the sky poured buckets on my little white car.  It took us almost fifteen minutes to move a mile down the road.  I clocked in with just seconds to spare before I was penalized for being late.  Brian had to drop me off first, which meant he had to also spend his lunch hour picking me up so I could get to job 2 on time.   He’s such a good guy sometimes.  Okay, oftentimes.

I had been looking forward to this rain.  I wasn’t factoring in the commute thing.  I pulled my grandmother’s old raincoat out of my closet and wore it to work today.  I never realized that it was reversible when she wore it, but it is.  Violent green on one side and navy on the other, with pocket flaps on each side of the coat.  It was the first real chance I’ve had since my grandfather handed it to me the day he cleaned out the coat closet.  I felt like all I really needed was a wide hat and a pair of tap shoes with bows on the ankles, and then I could be Debbie Reynolds.  Unfortunately, I’m no Debbie Reynolds.  After this morning, I won’t be singing nor will I be dancing in the rain.  We still have to drive home after work, still raining, in the deepening dark.

I’m still looking forward to tomorrow, though.  I worked Sunday, so I get to have Friday off as a consolation prize.  I’ll be able to sit in my warm, four poster bed and listen to the rain fall outside the window.  I’ll have time to make myself a pot of Imperial Earl Gray.  I won’t have to deal with a bevy of commuters in the rain.  That should be much better, right?

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Noir

Posting more fiction, because why not?  Also a candidate for inclusion in the Grad portfolio, but who knows.

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White Envelope:

He was waiting outside for me in a pool of streetlight as I walked out of the Times building: a tall drink of water in a pinstriped suit, fedora perched cockeyed across his forehead.  He stepped out of the light toward me.  The pool of yellow slid off his shoulders like water, and I felt that there was something so familiar about this man.

“You’re Joyce Cummings,” he said.

“I’m tired, is what I am,” I said.  I tucked my purse under my shoulder, pulled on my gloves and tried not to feel the weariness of the press conference this morning; the mayor in behind the podium, teetering in the heat until he collapsed on the stage.  The feedback of the microphone as it fell.  The frantic hours afterward on the phone to the hospital, begging for news.

“Well I’m Glenn Baker, and I’m a fan.” He stuck out his hand, “The work you did on the ‘32 Summer Olympics was art.”

I placed my gloved hand in his, and we shook.  “Thank you very much,” I said, and smiled.

“Let me take you for a drink?” he asked.

I tipped my head back to look at him and realized that, even in heels, the top of my curled coif only came to his chin.  His eyes were deep as a glass of whiskey, and the pinstripes of his pants hugged him well.

“Why don’t you take me out for a drink,” I said. Maybe if he hadn’t had that Hollywood smile I wouldn’t have said it.

“I know a place just down the street from here.”

“Then lead the way, Mr. Baker.”

The sign out front said The Florentine, and it was swanky inside.  A bar full of glass bottles lined the left wall and tiny, leather booths the right.  Chandeliers hung over each table, their light reflected in the mirrored walls behind them.  Gold drapes swished over every door, and clouds of cigarette smoke billowed. The place was packed with men in suits. A few women in tight dresses and too much makeup speckled the crowd, giggling over their drinks.  In the dim light, a jazz combo began to play something slow.

“I’m underdressed,” I said over the noise, looking down at my brown tweed skirt.

“You’re perfect,” he said.  “There’s a table in the back, follow me.”

We picked our way through the crowd to a booth in the corner.  It was quieter there.  I tucked my purse and hat next to my feet.  When I looked up, a girl in a low cut cocktail dress appeared at the edge of our table.

“What can I get you, Mr. – ” she said.

“– I’ll have a Gibson,” he broke in, “and the lady will have…”

“The lady will have the same,” I said.

Baker raised his eyebrow.

“I’ve been tossing them back with the newspaper boys for longer than you’d imagine,” I said.  “I’m used to being the only skirt in a room full of pants.  Now let’s cut to it.  Why did you really ask me out tonight?”

“I told you, I’m a fan,” he said.

I shook my head. “Nobody’s just a fan.  Maybe you liked my picture too.  Or maybe you think I have information about something and you want it.  Sure, you’re a fan.  But regular fans don’t show up at the office and ask to take a girl out.”

“So I’m not a regular fan,” he said.

“Then what kind of a fan are you?”

“The needy kind, I guess.” He rubbed the back of his neck.  “Listen, Miss Cummings, you’re right.  I like your work, but I’m also in trouble.  You seemed like the kind of woman who would be willing to help a guy.”

“I’m better at getting myself into trouble than getting others out of it,” I said.

“Look, I didn’t want to do things this way.  Let’s have a nice night, and then you can come back to my place and I’ll explain it all.”

I looked at the concerned crease between his eyes, and at his broad shoulders.  I leaned forward.  “I believe the standard currency for coming back to your place is dinner and a movie.  We can have a nice night, but you’d better tell me here.”

“I didn’t mean…” he said.

“Of course you didn’t, you just weren’t thinking.” I put my hand on his.  “Listen, don’t worry Mr. Baker.  Just tell me, what is it you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know.  I guess let’s talk about you.”

I laughed “I’m not very interesting I’m afraid.  Been wedded to work for years.  I don’t do anything unless there’s a story involved. Men don’t like that very much, so I assume you’re the same.”

“Where did you grow up?” he asked.

“Boring little town thirty miles east of here.  Nothing but orange groves and packing houses for miles,” I said.  “I left as soon as I could, and there’s no story there.  New subject.  Where did you grow up?”

“I guess I’d rather not talk about it,” he said.

The waitress arrived with our drinks.  She placed two martini glasses on the table, and winked at Baker. “You all just let me know if you need anything else!” she said as she turned on her heels and disappeared back into the crowd.

“Look Mr. Baker,” I said, “It’s loud in here.  The sooner you tell me what’s on your mind, the sooner you can stop worrying.  No one will overhear in this din.”

Baker grasped the base of his glass twice, and then raised it to his lips and drank.  The glass wobbled as he set it back on the table.  “I hardly know where to start,” he said.

“Wherever you’d like,” I replied.  The sweet aroma of a good story hung thick in the air. I could taste it.

“I guess it all started with Ida,” he said, “or rather, it started when Ida and I ended, and I found out how many debts she had racked up.” He took another sip from his drink.  “She had to have that mink coat, y’know, and the fancy dinners all over town.  And the gilded hotel rooms she visited with other men.  I thought we were in love, but she just up and left me with the bills one morning and it was then I saw who she was.  Pretty clear.  But by then I was up to my neck. I borrowed the money to pay the debts from people I shouldn’t have. It was the worst mistake of my life.”

I waited, watching the condensation gather on my glass.

“I have money now, plenty of it,” he continued, “but they won’t let me pay.  I’ve been performing little tasks for them for years.  Acquiring things. You know what I’m saying?”

“And where do I come in?” I said.

“You have my final payment.  At least, that’s what they said.  I don’t know how they would know.  A little white envelope the Mayor handed you this afternoon.”

A shot of adrenaline rushed through my veins like iced gin.  The sweltering heat of the afternoon; the Mayor collapsing on the hot pavement, foam gurgling from his mouth.  In the chaos, I was sure no one had seen me tuck the white envelope into my own jacket.  I didn’t tell anyone I had it.  I learned a long time ago not to let anyone know what you’ve got until the story is written.  They’ll just pat you on the head, call you darling, and suggest that it’s too dangerous.  Billy should take it from here.  I don’t know how Baker knew anything about the envelope.

“Who are ‘they’?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  If I knew, maybe I’d be outta this mess.”

“And what’s in the envelope?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” he said.

“Presuming I have it.”

“Well, yes.  Presuming you have it.”

“And presuming I’ve opened it, too.”

He cleared his throat.  “Well yes, that too.”

“I can’t help you,” I said.

He downed the rest of his drink in a single gulp and winced. “Yes, I thought you might say that.  I’m afraid I don’t have anything clever worked out in response.  Look, Miss Cummings, it’s a matter of life and death for me.  These guys don’t play around, and if I don’t cough up the envelope they’ll take it out of my flesh instead.  I’m not asking you to hand over the envelope this second.  I’m not even asking if you have it.  I’m just asking you not to refuse me help until you’ve thought it over.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Baker, you seem like a nice enough fellow,” I said.  I swirled the straw around in my drink. “But I can’t help you unless you help me.”

“Help you how?” he said.

I leaned forward. “The envelope is in code; a jumble of nonsense words.  I can’t read it.  I need a scoop to bring to the boys at the office.  I haven’t had a juicy one in months.  You get me the code, the letter is yours.”

A faint clapping filled the bar as the jazz combo switched to a new song.  I watched the surge of people moving through the bar.  Men breathed plumes of smoke into the air.  One held cigarette and high ball in the same hand, to wrap the other around a girl’s waist and whisper in her ear.  Serving girls distributed sloshing glasses of alcohol throughout the room.  Light glinted off the saxophone as the performers swayed to their music.

“Pardon, then.  I should have known,” he said.

“Known what?” I asked.

“I recognized that look in your eye right away, the cold behind your baby blues. As soon as you get what you need from me, you’ll leave me twisting, Doll.”

“I’m sorry Mr. Baker,” I shrugged.

“You’re not sorry,” he hissed.  “Lies don’t become you, Miss Cummings.”

I took a gulp of my drink.  It was sour as it trickled down my throat.

He laughed, dry and mirthless.  “You have me trapped just where you want me.  But I’ll be damned before I just hand it over.  If I get you the code, you produce the letter, and we translate it together.”

I took another sip from the martini glass before I reached into my purse and pulled out a slender cigarette.  I brought it to my lips.  He found a lighter in his pocket, and held the flame.  I pulled the smoke into my lungs and let it out in a slim, curling tendril.

I thought of the envelope tucked into the front of my jacket pocket. It would be so easy to lift it out and hand it to him, to forget I ever saw it.  He sat slumped in the booth beside me, lines creasing his handsome face, staring into the distance.  He swallowed hard.

I stabbed the end of the cigarette into my drink, and picked up my purse and hat.  “I should be going.  Walk me out?”

“Whatever you say, Miss Cummings,” he said.  He dropped some money on the table and we picked our way out of the crowded bar.  The night had turned cool, a crisp breeze pushing aside the heat of the day.

“Look,” he said, “Don’t go home angry.  I got a little hot in there, I’m a heel.” He grabbed my hand and I let him take it.

“You are most definitely a heel,” I said, “and you were probably right. About all of it.”

We walked a ways down the street to a row of apartments. It was quiet and the moon was bright.  A car drove past, and the headlights made the world of shadows spin around us.  We stopped walking.

“You’re beautiful, Joyce, you know that?” he whispered, pushing a curl away from my cheek.  He kissed my cheek, and his lips were soft.  The blood rushed in my ears.  My heart hammered.  I was alive.

It seemed like ages had passed when he pulled away, but it was only seconds.  He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck.  “I shouldn’t have…”

“Let’s stop with the apologies,” I said.  “You know what I want from you .  Code for letter.  Best of luck, Mr. Baker.”  I walked away, feeling the light of the streetlight slip over my shoulders this time.  I knew that if I had been a different girl, that kiss might have melted me.   Still, something in me wanted to grip that letter tighter than the mayor had.

#

            He looked better than I remembered when he slid out of the shadows again later that week, and that air of deep familiarity struck me again.  There was a cut across his cheekbone now, and it gave him a rakish air that fit with his easy manner.

I smiled.  “I presume this means…”

“I have what you asked me for,” he said.

“Mr. Baker, you are my hero,” I said.  He had delivered on his promise.

“And if you have the letter with you, then you’re mine.  I don’t think I have much time and I might have been followed.  We can’t go back to the bar.  We have to go somewhere else, somewhere not public.  I know you said you wouldn’t come back to my place…” he trailed off.

I couldn’t invite him into the news room.  Not until I had the story wrapped up, with my name on the byline.  “We’ll go to my apartment,” I said.

We strode over the sidewalk together, headlights of cars wheeling past and casting circling shadows through the night.   I turned the key on the wooden door as he waited in the palm tree covered courtyard.  We stepped into my stark living room; only a bookshelf, a yellow floral couch, and a bare wooden table to break up the white stucco walls.  I tossed my things on the table and turned to Baker.

“Well,” he said, “you said you had it.”

“You first.”

He pulled a receipt from his hip pocket.  Black scrawl covered the back of it.

I reached into the inside of my coat.  The white envelope glowed in the darkness between us.  The letter crinkled as I unfolded it.  I spread it on the kitchen table and began to translate.

“Evidence that Franco Bianchi’s gang is blackmailing the city council is taped to the bottom drawer in my office.  Don’t tell the police, they’re on his side.” it said.

I closed my notebook and stood.  This was bigger than anything I’d ever had before, and the filing deadline for the paper was early.  I grabbed my hat and gloves absently, and walked toward the door.

“I have to get back to the office,” I said.

“Miss Cummings,” Baker said, and I turned.  “My envelope?”

I held it out to him.  My thumb and finger gripped it where the prints of the mayor had crinkled the corner.

He took the envelope from my hand as if it would shatter at the slightest touch.  A slow smile spread across his face.  The creases in his forehead smoothed.  He tucked it into the inner pocket of his own jacket.

When he removed his hand from the pocket, it was not empty.  Something glinted silver in the moonlight, and I saw that it was a small pistol with a wooden handle.

“Mr. Baker,” I said.  I grabbed the back of one of the ladder back chairs, moving my body behind the thin rails.  It would be no shield at all, I realized.

“If I’m going to kill you, we should be on a first name basis.  Don’t you think, Joyce?”

The silence filled my apartment.  My mouth was dry and I swallowed.  The back door was behind him.  The front door was too far to outrun a practiced trigger finger and a slick silver bullet.  I stood, still and tall.

“Fine, Glenn,” I said.  I willed my voice not to waver.

“Most people call me Franco,” he said.

In that instant in my living room I realized where I knew him; in the dim light, I saw his face as it appeared in the black and white pages of the paper.

“Franco Bianchi,” I whispered.

“You really are beautiful, Doll,” he said, “but I can’t have any witnesses, especially not witnesses from the press.  And I can’t let you write that story about the mayor.”

He pushed down the brim of his hat and fired.  The world spun, and my back hit the slick wood of the apartment floor.  I thought of the mayor and the way he toppled from the podium.  There was no one to rush to my side here, no one I could give a small white envelope.  The story would die with me.  I had been a fool, too eager for a byline and too trusting of familiarity.  Something warm, dark, and sticky seeped through my tweed jacket and into my hair.  I had tried to be the hard boiled reporter, and in the end I was still nothing but an easy mark.  The sound of the lock clicked and I realized I was alone.  I stared at the pattern of swirling stucco on the ceiling, watching the pattern fade and focus, and then fade out again.

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Fire

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There was a fire on the way home last night.  We could see the fluffy, spiral plume of smoke for miles as we drove home on the freeway.  It was a sickly yellow, sort of cream and brown as well.  It rose off the hillside of dead grass and into the blue sky.  I watched it as we sped along, trying to see red flame beneath the yellow, but I couldn’t.  I watched, noting that the plume up top was large; immovable, but that smoke rolled off the hills beneath, curling to join the rest.   The sunset made the cloud a deathly red.

KPCC, our local public radio station, is calling it the Azusa fire.  Evacuations from last night have been lifted and the fire burned a few hundred acres.  This is all the technical information I have about it.  Azusa is close to us.  I used to go to school at Citrus College in Azusa and my friend Emily works there still.  It’s not the proximity of the fire, that I care about.  I have been closer to fires.  It is fire in general.

I can’t see a plume of smoke coming from a low hill without thinking about Vesuvius, and wondering if the people of Pompeii also watched a curling cloud of ash rise from the hills as unconcernedly as I always do.  I even watch with a sense of wonder.  I thought this during the Claremont fire, over ten years ago now, as well, about the vacationers in Rome on their last days on earth.  Gray ash rained down from the heavens for two days and the world smelled like camp.  The light was eerie, like a foggy day only the fog had no substance; no dewed weight.  It was dry, made of filaments, and warm.  My clothes were smeared with white and black bits clung to my hair.  My lungs felt heavy.  the night was especially black.

I was bussing tables at the local dinner theater during the Claremont fire, and still living in my mother’s house.  During the first act of the show, our break, some of the staff climbed to the top of the hotel next door.  Just past the high school we could see the glow in the darkness.  The flames crawled nearer.  We watched them spread toward civilization, flickering and gaining hold on the burning grasses faster than an incoming tide.  One of the waiters got a phone call from his mom.  He had been evacuated, and he couldn’t go home that night.  Even I had packed a box and put it in my back seat, not wanting to tempt fate.

It’s strange how a plume in the sky turns into something real as it creeps toward us.  Instead of being something to watch with fascination it becomes something to run from as it crawls across the dead hills.  Is this fascination why few in Pompeii got out? Is the distance why I tend not to pay attention to reports of fires during California’s long fire season?  I don’t know.  But I know that natural disaster has always plagued humanity, and that it always will.

The plume had dissipated this morning, but the sun rose through a milky gray haze that settled evenly over the horizon.  The evacuation order was lifted.  This fire is done.

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Venice Beach

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Brian’s sister is here from Virginia this week.  Julie is such a combination of boho hippie, crafty housewife, and real estate agent that it is hard to pinpoint her.  But it is easy to love her.  Everyone does.  She makes friends in a sentence.  She looks oddly like Brian, if he were somehow small and pretty.  She has a boisterous laugh.

The hippie portion of Julie used to live in Venice Beach, California, near the boardwalk.  She had a dog of chow red and black tongue whose short hair and square head suggested nothing of chow otherwise.  His name was Bear, and they would go to the beach drum circle together, or to the free feast at the Hare Krishna temple, or just wander the boardwalk.

We attempted to do the same last night, all three of us.  Bear passed away only a few months ago, but we thought of him and his red well-behaved ways.  None of us has been paying attention to the news over the weekend.  We hadn’t heard about the deaths Saturday night.  We arrived at the Hare Krishna temple, but there were no tables set out.  “We’re doing a huge thing on the beach.  There’s no feast here tonight,” the monk in peach robes said when Brian asked him.  So we drove to the beach and parked.

They were disassembling the feast.  Brilliant tents of primary colors made a warren of temporary streets, but most had nothing beneath them any longer except people stacking folding chairs or moving boxes around.  Two booths were handing out flimsy paper plates of whatever was left in their chafing dishes.  Above the canopy, people flew past on a zip line.  The acrid smell of marijuana floated past us from the skate park.

We ate cold and delicious food on a sandy patch of grass.  The fries were sweet, the pasta salad sharp with vinegar, but my favorite was the curry-breaded cauliflower.  Police cars were everywhere.  We watched the black and white SUV’s roll past on the sand.  The sun set behind the hills making black silhouettes of the palm trees.  We could see the drum circle in the distance, listened to the beat wafting on the air.

And then there were sirens.

The police broke up the drum circle.

“I wonder what’s happening,” I said.

“We should go over and find out,” said Julie.

“I don’t know,” said Brian.

“Are you out?” said Julie.  “Yeah, it’s probably better if we don’t go over there.”

“I’m in if you’re in,” I said.  “I’m kinda dying to know what’s happening.”

“Well, let’s get closer anyway,” she said.

There was nothing to see.  By the time we walked a few yards, the circle was gone, disbursed.

“No! I have to know!” I said.

We passed a man holding a drum over his shoulder, gesticulating to a lady near one of the stores.

“Shh!” said Julie.  “See if he says anything.” We laughed, but we all got quiet.  Nothing.

We passed t-shirt stores selling offensive graphics.  I stopped to take a picture of the Venice Beach Freak Show sign.  In a row of apartment buildings, someone had turned their living room into a palmistry boutique.  On the sidewalk, someone had painted a creepy clown face.  Harry Perry rode past on his rollerblades strumming his electric guitar, dreads streaming in the wind beneath his turban.  A man walked past with a dog of chow red.

“Must pat the redness!” said Julie.  So we stopped.

“Too bad about the drum circle, huh?” said the man.

“Yeah, what happened?” I said.  “Why did they break it up?”

“Oh, pot,” he said.  “They’re all over here now because of last night, you know?”

“Last night?” said Brian.

“Yeah, the deaths.  It was on the news, some guy jumped the barrier and killed a bunch of people by driving on the boardwalk.  There’s a vigil down by Rose, and a bunch of news vans.  You know where Rose is?”

“I know where Rose is,” said Julie.

The vigil was small, a five foot square piled with stacks of flowers, votive candles illuminating every spare inch.  Three or four people had lawn chairs out and were tending to the little flames.  Passers-by stopped with bowed heads.  We walked past.  The crowd had grown when we turned around to walk back to our car.  A reporter stood in front of the pile now, microphone in hand.  I thought about what this man would probably be like, intoxicated and confused.  Maybe hopped up on pot like those at the circle.  I felt bad for him, and regretted the choices he made.

NPR had the story on the radio this morning.  It was nothing like I had thought.  This man, although undeniably mentally ill, was not intoxicated with anything.  He drove around the barriers and aimed for pedestrians.  If it hadn’t been for the loud scraping sound of a bicycle his car was dragging in its wake, more people would have died two nights ago.  The man is in custody.  They’re just releasing the names of some of his victims.

According to my professor Tom Zoellner, good Non Fiction is supposed to make a point about something.  I have no points to offer, uness it is this:  Blame the crazy atmosphere that is Venice, blame the lack of barriers on some streets, blame whatever you wish.  “This incident would have been difficult to stop because the individual was determined to harm people,” said the cop on NPR this morning.   It was no one’s fault but the perpetrator.

I can also offer sadness.

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