The day my father told me he was leaving for China he found me sitting on the back steps digging my toe into the dirt and playing with an errant stick I’d found far from whatever tree had rejected it. Twelve was my age. We were reading Johnny Tremain in school and dominating the Central Valley’s junior field hockey circuit. My instincts were on-target, my reflexes sharp. I smacked a pebble out of my toe’s path with the stick. My father was red-faced and flustered.
“Swing you in the tire swing, Skip?”
“Sure,” I said. “‘Off to ‘China’?”
“Don’t make fun.”
“You don’t know anybody there.”
“How do you know? Pishergeh.”
“What do you need to go for, anyway.”
“You know what, Heather-girl? You’re getting big and kicking balls all over the place and meeting the inevitable boys, which is another kettle of fish altogether. Each is a nothing person is what he is—but that’s neither here nor there, though even if it were both or either of those places it wouldn’t be as if you ever paid me any mind, so why bother? It’s fine, I’m old, what do I know? But still, what I say is ‘Don’t kid yourself that your dreams’ll be around for you, Heather. Five years I give it, tops, five big years, just long enough to utterly and completely ruin your life, and when you come crawling back on your hands and knees through the garbage-strewn streets of the slum you settled into for your squalid life, probably carrying your babies on your back like a poopoose or like a possum or suchlike, you know what? I’ll be gone: since your mother pooped out on the marriage, Fresno’s been a big rainy parade for me, and besides I have an old man’s increasing interest in a gentle climate, a few swaying palms, and a good healthy tan, and the maximum amount of contact I’ll want with a burdensome adult daughter, as these twilight years approach and overtake me and eventually conspire to put me in my grave, is a brief and loving and stress-free weekly telephone conversation.’ That’s what I say. Go ahead and tell me I’m crazy, I’m boring. Nice, very nice from a daughter to whom attention is paid and things are provided. But I’m open. Even now, a successful adult person like myself who influences the minds of the young is always looking for a little honest criticism, looking to you for that. So I’ll be seeing you.”
This was Dad’s valedictory address: He took off toward the Buick Somerset and the next I heard he’d cleaned out his office at Fresno State and gone AWOL.
I stayed for a while at the home of Cindy T. It was she who taught me the skill for which I’ve gained such backyard renown here in Southern California. We practiced on Mr. T’s rinsed out “long neck” deposit bottles in the shed behind her ranch house in Clovis. We climbed from her bedroom window down the drainpipe at night and went to the cowboy bars to stand in the parking lots and watch the men stagger out and fire up the engines of their awesome, dust-covered machines.
I was in no mood for trouble.
Mr. T taught gym. He wore a whistle. No, he wasn’t the pervert you’re hoping for, but he was, alas, a bore. He read aloud to us from Hemingway. Not even the short stories: Death in the Afternoon. “If he was one he should redeem, for the tribe, the prissy exhibitionistic, aunt-like, withered old maid moral arrogance of a Gide; the lazy, conceited debauchery of a Wilde who betrayed a generation; the nasty, sentimental pawing of humanity of a Whitman and all the mincing gentry. Viva El Greco El Rey de los Maricónes.”
“What’s that mean, Mr. T?”
“What it means is King of the Faggots, girls.”
“Not that. The old maid pawing stuff.”
“Oh. That. Um.”
Johnny Tremain underwent a painful operation and the book ended.
“There was NO ANESTHETIC back then, kids. That’s the significance,” said Mr. Walsh, our English teacher. “NO anesthetic. NONE. Johnny is going to have the tender flesh of his maimed hand separated from itself with his eyes WIDE OPEN. It will SMART. Who can tell me WHY he is doing this? WHY would he undergo this ordeal? WHY? Anybody?”
I visited our old house in the “faculty ghetto” to watch it fall into disrepair. The yard and grounds remained the same, having been cemented over some time before, and shone like mica in the heat, but the house itself began to fall apart. The mail brought no news from China. Then Mr. T died in one of the many tule fog accidents on 99 we accepted as a grim fact of life in Raisin Country. Mrs. T said she couldn’t afford another mouth to feed, and Cindy T had become kind of a bore anyway, so I packed my bag. No hard feelings. Mrs. T read at the funeral: “He lives in a country with as severe a climate as any that is farmed, but it is a very healthy country; he has food, wine, his wife and children, or he has had them, but he has no comfort, nor much capital, and these possessions are not ends in themselves; they are only a part of life and life is something that comes before death.” Wandering the air-conditioned aisles of APPLIANCE SUPERSAVINGS WORLD! after the funeral, it occurred to me that this was a message Fresno might not have received clearly. Then a man leaped out at me so suddenly his little acetate necktie actually moved, albeit stiffly.
“Pretty girl, hold this. Stand right by this display of motor oil with a smile on that fresh-from-the-farm face and hold this up with the label out.”
He was a Sales Manager and I was in no mood for trouble.
We began to read a new book in school. Since it was actually an Honors Class it was a contemporary book. It was called Plummer’s Crossing by Hannah Trost Beckhorn. “I know this: Vast as it is, that rolling plain isn’t big enough to hide one’s heart in.”
Here’s the ironic thing: It’s this book exactly that’s been adapted for the movie they’ve “tentatively” cast me in. It’s a lame book, but I know all the girls from school will probably run out to see the movie because we read it way back when. I’m supposed to play the part of Jane. Here’s the story: Three sisters, Kate, Anne, and Jane Plummer, are reunited on the family farm in the hamlet of Plummer’s Crossing when their father, Conroy, falls off a ladder. In the hospital for the ladder business he’s diagnosed as having had a stroke and he lies there blinking yes or no to everything with the one good eye on his crooked face (“the texture and quality of old putty. . .”). Mom’s history, incidentally. Kate has moved to Chicago where she’s become an options hustler. She’s very strong-willed and is always pulling out a cellular phone. No farming for her. Anne stayed on the farm, which she works in addition to the land owned by her drunk husband, Kevin. Bitter is her middle name. Creditors and patched dresses. I, Jane, the baby, am studying in New York to be a writer. My boyfriend the law student (glasses, Jewish-looking) shows up in the beginning and asks Jeez, Kiddo, What Do You Want To Go Back To The Sticks For? and I know it’s all over between us. I sort of cry as my United flight taxis from the jetway, then I resolutely put on my funky downtown glasses and open my fat book. All sorts of things happen, we fight constantly, reveal unknown things about ourselves, and then there’s a big rainstorm. The crops get washed right out of their furrows and the cows all drown, except old Floss. “Well,” says Anne, pulling on her gumboots, “that’s a start.” Anyway, principal photography on this great American saga begins in Toronto later this year.
I had myself declared an emancipated minor and moved into Mrs. Falajian’s Boarding House. After school I worked for Mr. Phrifter (the Sales Manager) at APPLIANCE SUPERSAVINGS WORLD!
“Hold it higher, honey. That’s right, right next to your budding geniuses there. When those boys come up with that moony zit-faced look they have just sell yourself and the product will follow.”
I thought of myself as Orphan Annie, that cryptic figure of self-reliance, displacing Death from his familiar place in the world’s shadows and ditches, under its eaves. “Daddy” placed me in the care of Punjab and the Asp and we somehow just got separated. “Leapin’ lizards, Mr. Phrifter, we sold out th’ whole warehouse!” “Arf!”
One day, I received a postcard at Mrs. Falajian’s. The picture was of the main street of Porterville, taken long ago judging from the dress of the pedestrians and the style of the cars parked by the curb, and it had been postmarked there as well. It read:
China is great. More here than I knew. Plate depicts old Shinto garden where rhymes still beloved by children were composed with the most delicate care. China’s my soul mate! Yours, Daddy.
He had drawn a little yin-yang symbol next to his signature.
I thought about the postcard for a long time after that. It didn’t stop me in my tracks, or anything. Porterville was of course the home of the Tulare County General Hospital, but it was also a pleasant enough town in which to establish one’s own China in a pinch. Then, one night, I was reading one of my favorite books in bed: the Time-Life Library’s Spies and Spying. It had been a rough day at the trade shows—I’d since moved on in my career to Valley Thresher, Inc.—midterms were past, and I just wanted to relax with a little esoterica about miniature cameras, pistols concealed in gloves, dead men floating off the coast of Spain carrying written wishes for sardines, and the like. Suddenly, I came across the section on cryptography and its anecdote of a postcard, sent from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, written in null code: the recipient in such instances is to disregard, according to a pattern, certain of the letters or words in the message to read its true meaning. In a thrill of understanding, I removed my father’s postcard from the bulletin board over my bed and laid the edge of the book over it, moving the book slowly to the right.
What was I going to do with that? It sounded like a line from a jumprope song.
Very few individuals ever actually buy a combine. They mutely witness it sitting in its latent splendor, much in the way that Muscovites must have watched the subtle displays of absolute power put on for their benefit during May Day parades. What happens at a combine exhibition is that the equipment is transported to some fairgrounds someplace, and then over the course of a weekend thousands of farmers, their wives, and their children travel there to imagine it chewing up crops. There are usually other diversions as well: a tractor pull or demolition derby, a ferris wheel, concession booths serving that sort of American tempura that rebels in your stomach for days, and strange events that play themselves out using the region’s natural abundance of food: One deadly hot day dozens of migrant workers labored to tear thousands of heads of lettuce apart and throw the leaves into an empty above-ground pool that had been brought to the exhibition. After the pool had been filled, helicopters carrying tubs of vinaigrette hovered overhead and dumped their payloads into it. The newspapers and local television gleefully reported the construction of the World’s Largest Salad, and the story attracted national attention. The salad wilted in the sun.
But the combines are the main attraction. I would circle the combine, slowly, telling my (its) audience stories about it, like a docent. I tried for that, anyway. I didn’t want it to sound like I was rattling off facts, but revealing studied opinions. Other times, I’d pose on one of its gigantic tires, usually in a swimsuit, submitting to hundreds of photographs. People would come up and ask me if they could touch it—that is, the combine. I felt as if I’d unlocked the emotional power of the machine. My peroration: “Without it, there’s no bread on the nation’s tables. There’s no grain for the hungry of the world.” That was when I began to think about acting.
If you’re from a small town and interested in getting out you’ll understand the allure of “China.” You’ll understand if you have watched people on a Saturday night getting dressed to go to the cocktail lounge at the Visalia Holiday Inn.
“Sure are some nice folks there, Sandy. But I guess we’ll have t’be movin’ along.”