Aberdeen, California, 1941
There’s a place between the desert, the chiseled mountains of America’s jaw, the sharp break of the Pacific as it cuts into a star-studded state of lost dreamers. Where the rivers run wild with ancient gold, the tell-tale traveler pitches his post into white sand. Where fresh rain never dares to fall, streets are flooded in wealth, in joy and good fortune.
California layers herself firstly in geographic pride. She proceeds with promises to pursuants, ambitious hordes of young cavaliers eager to galvanize their own destinies and seize opportunity. California is a con-artist. Where a drought lasts forever, the ocean-side expanse is drenched in illusion. The rivers are illuminated not with metal but free foaming rapids. The traveler abroad pitches a plot of cement, a liter of petroleum, a ram-shackled old house in a waste-land called Aberdeen.
Most mornings, I sit by the porch of such a house to watch the sun, a neon yolk at the cusp of a measuring bowl, pour into the sky and fill it with light. Today, I haven’t made it down the stairs. I’m hinged at a mattress’s edge; quilt folded arms on my late mother’s radio, I listen while I still can. “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire -”
“Jerry, turn that shit off during work hours! We’re runnin’ a business here!” Never is there apology about my father’s voice. Never will there be while his intended career in journalism is sacrificed for a life pumping gas. Hair flies down the stairs in a tangle of sleep. It floats on a humidity unknown to such arid regions of the world. Nonchalantly, I nod towards a man without patience.
“Say, isn’t Jerry a guy's name?” My eyes follow the song of a stranger’s voice to a jade-colored Pontiac Streamliner, to a checkered lapel and a smile; the pride of Western dentistry. His eccentricity seems to glow against the unusually dark shade of the sky, a rare desert fog that settles and re-settles in its coalescent moisture. He’s heading anywhere North to South on Route Three-Ninety Five, a million places I can never be.
“It’s Geraldine.” My father interjects. “Always Geraldine when other fellas are around.” His brows are crossed in a friendly sort of superstition as he tastes morning dew on a heavy noontime breeze. Hesitating in bewilderment, he no sooner beckons me along to the stranger’s car and I am fetching the pump while they settle into casual small-talk.
I’m knees set into gravel, clutching the pump towards a gleaming coat on the Pontiac while watching pictographs of overseas battles pass my mind and the coarse speech of Franklin Roosevelt. News that once rolled like a tumbleweed towards my mother still drifts home to me; an ambush at Hawaiian Pearl Harbor will pull our nation into the currents of war. Yet all there is to be felt here is the current of time. “I’ll be havin’ that, Geraldine.”
The velvet leather of oxford shoes brushes against the rough of my palms, paused in labor. A stranger hovers eerily close. How solemnly I regret the clean cut edge of my mother’s lighter, still whispering the fragrance of smoke about endless plains from its perch in my pocket. I could walk under the light of a dozen desert stars. I could join them in holding a flame of my own to the sky - a woman walking dead of pneumonia close beside me. An unknown client of privilege can step against my hands, can take what he wants in his ignorance because living against nothing, I am faded. Thunder crashes in the distance.
“Well, go on, let him borrow it.” A man without patience - I’m lost in revived embitterment when my father interjects. “You have to excuse her, sometimes. The lady folk are really not meant for this kind of work and it takes a toll.” His mutters are fiercely pronounced.
I smooth the silver of the lighter’s surface before I watch his fingers move swiftly around it, sparking fire under our humid surroundings and dipping a cigarette into the light. The air fastens to our skin, our pores; we crave any sense of dry heat yet only one of us holds it in the luxury of smoke.
Strangers arrive and fade against the road; he clambers into his car while his eyes frown at my absent mind.
“Thanks for stopping by.” My father’s courtesy is unreturned, only echoed by the emptiness of flat land ever expanding around us. Then, before his final departure, he spits squarely onto the gravel of our property and a mess of saliva is left plaster onto our emotions. The drop is felt off beyond the mountains and the sky explodes with rain.
His ignorance at his actions, the world beyond his own sphere - this ignorance enshrouds him in a halo of smog as he disappears south. Somewhere, my mother’s lighter is tossed towards the back of his car like a relic of no worth. Somewhere, a thousand sink in red Hawaii.
But on the road, most are unaware.