Four Vignettes: No Place, No Body
by Bruce Patterson, January 13, 2011
A while back I found myself alone in a room with four elderly female ex-hippies. A friend of mine had come out with a picture book about Mendocino County’s old dog hole seaports, and I was showing it around. One of the women, you could call her an alpha she wolf if you wanted to, opened the book and got to staring at a 19th Century postcard picture of two young buck lumberjacks standing up on springboards and showing off the smiling facecut they’d sawed and axed into the butt of a giant standing redwood tree. A third fellah was laying down inside the facecut, his legs crossed and head resting in his elbow just as languid as could be. After getting an eyeful, the woman looked up from the picture and said, “I’ve never understood how anybody could kill anything so beautiful.”
“Ouch,” I thought to myself. Has she forgotten that I’m a professional tree killer? Is she out to get my goat? “Felling redwoods doesn’t kill them,” I pointed out. “By chopping them down you’re just giving their roots a haircut is all. Right here within walking distance I can show you redwood stump shoots not 150 years old that are already six-foot-through and pushing 200 feet tall.”
Well the woman stared at me as if wondering what that had to do with anything. Had she still been a suburban teenybopper, I do believe she would have clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes.
Resisting the temptation to point out that we were luxuriating in a handsome building made entirely of redwood lumber, I sealed my lips.
* * *
Some years ago my wife and I journeyed to Laughlin, Nevada, to see the desert bloom. The Mojave was coming out of its wettest winter in recent memory, and wildflower seeds that had been lying dormant for decades were springing into life and decorating the naked mountains with carpets of living colors. Laughlin is a “Gambler’s Mecca” located on the Colorado River downstream from the Grand Canyon, and it consists of maybe a half dozen high-rise, riverfront hotel/casino/RV parks with a little air-conditioned tourist town hanging on their coattails. Laughlin appeals to vacationers partial to speedboats, water skies, jet skies, ice chests, sandy beaches, suntans and, of course, all-night nightlife. We’d chosen it as our base camp for its cheap gas, food and lodging, it’s centrally located remoteness, the diversity of the surrounding terrain and, not the least, because we’d never been there before.
Now when you pull into a small town and need directions, it’s best to see a gas station attendant. But if you’re out to find some fun, talk to a bartender. So, after we’d settled into our hotel room, we rode the elevator down and bellied up to the nearest bar. Nowadays most all casino bars are inlaid with video poker games and, so long as you half-ass feed them and leave the barkeep generous tips, drinks are plentiful and free. While video poker is only slightly more exciting than playing solitary, it’s a relatively cheap form of casino entertainment and, besides, they had tables, chairs and waitresses for the deadbeats who wanted to drink but not play. Since not sitting at the bar seems to defeat the whole purpose of walking into a bar — you can get a drink at Denny’s — I liked playing.
By and by I asked the barkeep where we might go to soak in the desert bloom and, seeing his incomprehension, I clarified by calling it a wildflower show. He grinned, shook his head and admitted that, seeing how he was new in town, he hadn’t gotten the chance to do any sightseeing yet. When I asked him how long he’d been here, he said two months.
I looked around at my bar mates and, half for the fun of it, I asked them where we might go. Those that lifted their eyes from their video screens batted them, turned their mouths upside down, shook their heads once or twice and then went back to their games, their illuminated faces like polished stones. Others cringed — “doesn’t this hippy-talking, scraggly-looking weirdo know I’m working on a Full House?” — and I left them alone. There’s a reason why serious gamblers are called degenerates: whether they’re in Vegas, Atlantic City, Monte Carlo or Hong Kong, the game is always the same. If ever there was the polar opposite of a sightseer, it’d be a degenerate gambler. Either that or a TV junky.
After a couple hours, three casino bars and maybe 40 bucks chalked up to cheap entertainment, we were still none the wiser about where to do to see the show. Deciding we’d do better prospecting the town, we bravely exited through the slick sliding glass doors of the high-rise and ventured outside into the desert glare, our eyes shriveling like raisins.Across the boulevard was a curio shop decked out like a street corner Tijuana zebra, no doubt it was owned by a local merchant intent on drawing the curious, and I figured that’d be a good place to start our quest. We entered the shop and behind the counter was a teenaged girl with spiked orange hair and a gold ring hanging from her eyebrow that was decked out like Betty Boop except with a lurid tattoo climbing up her neck. She seemed friendly enough and so, while I was paying for the tee shirt I’d bought, I popped the question.
“I never go out there,” she let me know.
“Never?” I chuckled.
“Never,” she affirmed, although I could tell that wasn’t entirely true.
“How long you lived here?”
“I was born here.”
* * *
When I got out of the army and my new lover and I moved west out of North Carolina, the last place we wanted to land was El Lay. But things hadn’t panned out in Taos, our combined life savings had disappeared like tumbleweeds blown away in a ravine-ripping sandstorm, and poverty is the mother of all invention. In El Lay I had a union job awaiting me if I wanted it, and bringing in that sort of full time wage would heal us financially real quick, especially considering how, in our own ways, we’d both learned how to live close to the bone. With her waitressing, me busting tires and getting the GI Bill, we could live decent enough, go to junior college (she was determined to finish school) and still have enough free time and money to go camping a few times a year to clear our heads. If and when living in the car-crazed mega-city became intolerable, at least we’d be able to leave with a decent nest egg this time. If I played it smart at work by keeping my nose to the grind, in a few months I could even get transferred anyplace out west we wanted. Imagine the two of us ragamuffins arriving at someplace new with a job waiting for me and money in our pockets — how sweet would that be? Bottom line: we had to start somewhere.
When I was a little boy my grandparents lived in the San Fernando Valley and going out there to see them every Sunday was like going to church (Irishmen are shameless mama’s boys and my dad was no different). My grandparent’s house was set into one of the very first “postwar” corporate/state subdivisions cut out of the valley’s orange groves, and while growing up I’d watched the area’s agriculture getting paved under by blocks of apartment buildings, sprawling tract homes, freeways, shopping centers, parking lots and mega-boulevards sprouting like concrete mushrooms. Then I went away for three years plus change and — whoa! — now there was a population explosion of automobiles. It used to be that one of the best things about living in El Lay was how easy it was to jump in your car and get out of there, but now I was getting stuck in traffic jams inside parking lots. And when I finally reached the exit and it was my turn to merge into traffic, I was taking my life into my hands.
One day I was driving way west in Chatsworth and I came upon a sight I’ll never forget. I didn’t carry a camera back then, but I wished I had. I parked in a gas station anyway just so I could take in the sight. Kitty-corner across the boulevard, stretching into the distance behind a giant commercial billboard, stood an orange grove with the green crowns of its trees chain-sawed off and hauled away, leaving twisted, naked arms seemingly beseeching the sky like Joshua trees. The billboard was advertising the spot as the future site of this thing or that — something big and shiny — and somebody had spray painted across its face in bold black cursive, “Death to the Earth Rapists!”
While I wasn’t about to say “death” to anybody anymore, the notion that the earth could be raped — I flashed back to flying over defoliated rice paddies pot marked with water filled bomb craters — struck me. The intersection was clogged with cars stopping and going in endless ranks and files, the solitary people inside belted and blinkered equipment operators daydreaming, the afternoon sky was smog red, the noise relentless and I realized I’d had it with this place. Whatever this thing growing in all directions was, it wasn’t home.
* * *
Just before Christmas I was driving a buddy home after a day of working in the woods. After we crossed the Greenwood Bridge we saw an old friend climbing up the riverbank and we waved. The next day I saw the fellah in town and asked him if he’d seen any fish.
“Not’ta one,” he said, his voice a mix of anguish and exasperation. “When I was a kid, at this time of year after so much rain, the river was twice as high and full of fish. They’re sucking the river dry.”
Unable to think of anything to add, I dropped my eyes, sighed, slowly shook my head and said, by way of farewell, “Stay warm.