Between the ages of four and nine I lived in a California desert community called Anza, a gathering of burnouts, hermits, and rejects where I had come with my mom and little brother, Eli, after my parents’ divorce.
One sunny morning, in the summer after third grade, I came out onto our stoop and saw a man sitting on Nose Rock. I called the great boulder that because it rose from the dirt like the nose of a giant who’d been buried faceup in a shallow grave. That rock was mine: I’d climbed it, I’d named it, and now here was this adult, sitting cross-legged on it with his back to me, gazing out at Tahquitz Peak.
Nothing ever happened in Anza, and so a man on my rock had to be investigated. Across the hard-packed dirt I went, under the slack barbed-wire fence and into the head-high scrub brush, scuttling along coyote trails, keeping out of sight, a spy or, better yet, a detective out to solve a mystery.
I pressed my back to the warm granite base of the rock, wondering what to do next. I couldn’t see the man on top, which meant he couldn’t see me. I had two options: go up or go home. So I swallowed hard, scampered like a lizard along the ridge of the nose, and crouched behind the intruder. He sat still, as if he didn’t sense me behind him, though of course he did. I wasn’t afraid. I’d seen that denim jacket a hundred times, the white threads like spider webs around the collar. I recognized the slope of the shoulders, the fine black hair fluttering in the breeze. I must have known all along it was my father; I just hadn’t known that I’d known.
Without a word I sat down beside him, my feet resting in the basin on top of the rock, where rainwater collected and evaporated, leaving rings in various shades of rust.
“How’s it been treating you, son?” he asked, his voice reedy and bright.
“How’s what been treating me?”
He looked to the sky, and so did I. Not a hawk or wisp of cloud.
“It,” he said, and he shrugged, cracking the barest smile.
This is how he usually talked, in cryptic fragments that forced me to try to guess his meaning. When Mom, Eli, and I had moved to Anza, he had stayed at the beach, where he lived with his parents and spent his days surfing and playing guitar. A couple of times a year he’d appear without warning and take me with him for a few days. He didn’t work much, shaping surfboards in a friend’s shop, helping another friend with a construction job, but mostly selling pot and pills on the beach, which left him free to visit whenever he liked.
“I see they’ve got you in shoes,” he said.
“The ground hurts my feet if I don’t wear them now.”
“That’s how it starts.”
“How what starts?”
“What they’re going to do to you for the rest of your life.”
We sat for a while, looking at Tahquitz.
“What are you doing here?” I finally asked.
“I thought you might like to go to the beach,” he replied.
“OK,” I said without hesitation. I loved the beach, and I loved my father. It was as simple as that. “Should we tell Mom?” I asked.
“Your mother knows I’m here. What do you say? Ready to hit the road?”
We climbed down the rock, through a neighbor’s land, and onto Bautista Canyon Road. Dad pulled an Army-style backpack and a guitar case almost entirely covered in duct tape from the brush beside the smooth gravel strip. A mile later we turned left onto the highway. It had recently been repaved, and the blackness seemed artificial, like a line drawn across the landscape with a marker. An old pickup came rattling from behind us. I put out my thumb.
“Local,” Dad muttered, not bothering to stick out his own thumb as the truck passed. “He’s not going anywhere. Come on. Better to walk than wait.”
We hoofed it for a good while, until the brush thinned out, the land turned hilly, and the stick-men cactuses became plentiful. We hadn’t even gotten our first ride, and the romance of the road was already over for me. Dad walked fast, as if he wanted to ditch me, though I understood he was only trying to get where we needed to go.
We passed the “reptile museum,” a low building featuring a plaster statue of a dinosaur on its flat roof. It was, as always, closed. A stench of rotten eggs settled over us. “Sulfur,” Dad explained without slowing. The highway descended into a pass, through a big V between two mountains. That’s when a van pulled to the side.
The driver had long, straight hair and wore sunglasses. “I’m turning off a couple of miles before Lake Elsinore,” he said.
“That’ll do,” Dad replied.
The van smelled like grease and smoke. Gummy black car parts filled the rear, so I sat up front on a blanket draped over the engine housing, my bad feelings of a moment before gone. Dad rolled a joint, the engine hummed warmly under my butt, and the van appeared to swallow the center line as if slurping a strand of spaghetti. I served as relay for the joint, passing it left and right, gripping it expertly, the way Dad had shown me how to do. Sweet smoke filled the air, and the driver told a story: He’d invited a lady he’d met at a party to check out a natural hot springs full of healing minerals and good vibes. She was into it, he said, so they drove a few miles to the edge of the reservation. He hadn’t told her the springs were on Indian land and that they’d have to climb a fence and walk half a mile to get there. She was pretty uptight about the whole deal, the man went on, until they arrived, got naked, and slid into the water. Then she mellowed out fast. He smiled at Dad.
I listened carefully, alert for clues. Grown-ups, I had learned over the years, spoke in riddles and rarely told the whole story.
Dad opened his battered guitar case. The instrument inside was pristine, its reddish-brown finish polished to a shine.
“The devil song, the devil song,” I begged.
Dad shrugged and looked at the driver. “That’s the only one he ever wants to hear,” he said, strumming and tuning. Then he launched into the tune, always faster than it was on the record.
The song got my blood moving, though the lyrics confused me. A “friend of the devil”? Friends were good. The devil was bad. And why was the band that played it called the Grateful Dead? Who would be glad they had died? The singer said he had one wife in Chino and another in Cherokee. How could anyone have two wives? It made no sense. The Bible stories I knew, like the Good Samaritan or David and Goliath, had lessons in them, but that’s not how the Grateful Dead told a story. I couldn’t tell good from bad because the song didn’t let on.
“Play it again,” I said when he’d reached the end.
“You mind?” Dad asked the driver.
“Play away,” the man said.
We were heading to my grandparents’ house. We’d stayed there once for about a year, when I was three or four and my parents were in their early twenties. This was after the commune in Hawaii, where we’d lived in a treehouse and bathed under a waterfall, and before the delivery van that my father had converted into a mobile home of sorts.
One day, on the beach behind his parents’ house, my father tried to teach me to surf. He lifted me from the sand, where I was playing beside my mother, and he grabbed his board and waded knee-deep into the ocean. Then he dropped the board in the water and set me belly down on its deck, up front near the nose. The board bobbed and dipped in the unruly tide. My father slid on behind me, and we rocked from side to side as he paddled us out with his arms. The tip of the board cleaved the ocean’s surface just under my chin. A wave approached, smooth and terrible. From shore the waves had appeared puny, but this was a mountain, coming fast, rising high. I was too scared to cry out. The board sliced into the base of the wave, and cold water washed around my sides. Then we glided down the other side. But here came another wave, even bigger than the first, topped by a white crest. My father’s arms pulled harder at the water, eager to meet it. “Hold on,” he said. The nose of the board pierced the wave’s face, and the water enveloped us. I emerged on the other side sputtering, blinking, and coughing.
Now we were out in deep water, a gently rolling infinity. There was silence except for my heavy breathing. Without the breaking waves to distract me, I had time to consider that only a rocking surfboard separated us from the cold blue depths that went on forever. I began panting. My father told me to calm down, that it was OK, but I would not be consoled. He seemed frightened, too — not of the water, where he was more comfortable than on land, but of his son’s panic. He turned the board around, bringing into view the beach and my mother on a towel reading a paperback. Then he dragged his arms through the surf, propelling us back to shore, where I belonged.
I still enjoyed the beach after that, but I never wanted to surf again.
The long-haired driver let us off a couple of miles from the city of Lake Elsinore, and the walk into town killed the high spirits I’d developed in the van. I began to lag behind, sulking as we made our way along a broken sidewalk fronting a strip mall. In the parking lot three men stood around the open hood of an old car. High above, a sign that read CASINO revolved slowly. I was hot, hungry, and thirsty, and my feet ached up to my knees. I didn’t want to hitchhike anymore. This was how adventures with Dad always went, I recalled: slow descents into disappointment. The last time he’d appeared in Anza, he’d taken me to a bluegrass festival in Idyllwild. I didn’t even like bluegrass. I think I would have done all right, though, if a wasp hadn’t stung me in the face. Dad had tried to soothe the pain with a cool beer bottle, but I’d demanded to be taken home. We’d hitched our way back in silence, and he’d left me at the door of the cabin without saying goodbye.
“Hang in there,” Dad called to me now, thumb out and walking backward, the tape on his guitar case flashing in the sunlight. I didn’t put my thumb out. Passing drivers ignored him. A small car sped by, horn wailing, and the passenger yelled something out the window. They probably thought Dad was a bum, but I knew he wasn’t. His parents had money and a big house. So why did he have to look like a bum? Why did he have to wear jeans with knee holes the size of pineapples? Why did he have to use so much tape on his guitar case? Why not ask his mother to buy him a new one? She’d have done it in an instant, no questions asked. Why did we have to beg rides in the blazing sun, subject to the jeers of passing teenagers? I wanted to be in a car, preferably one with air conditioning. I halted right there, thinking, Leave me. I’ll just die here, and then will you feel bad.
He put his thumb down and glared at me for a couple of beats. “Come on,” he growled. “Get your shit together, right now.”
I stopped pouting and ran to catch up. Though he never once spanked me or physically hurt me in any way, Dad could scare me with his voice. Mom was the spanker, with her wooden spoon and sometimes a belt, but I didn’t fear her until it was too late. It was as if I couldn’t believe Mom would actually do it, whereas I always believed Dad would, and I was wrong on both counts.
I walked behind my father, thinking hateful thoughts but soldiering on. We entered a neighborhood of square houses, each fronted by a dry yellow lawn surrounded by a chain-link fence. The lake lay to our left, gray, smelling of muck, and slashed by the wake lines of motorboats. Dad sat down on the weedy grass of a house with a Century 21 sign out front, his back against the mailbox post. He took two green apples and a cloth-covered canteen from his satchel, and we munched the fruit and drank the cool water. The buzz of a speedboat echoed off the face of the Elsinore mountain range, which separated us from the coast. I felt better, though my feet still throbbed in my thin-soled sneakers.
“You’re doing all right, son,” Dad said. “Not much farther now.”
I smiled and set my apple core on the grass beside me.
“My one regret,” he said, squinting down at me, “is that I’m not around for you and your brother as much as I’d like.” He looked back toward the lake. “It’s just your mother was so set on that little cabin in the desert. I couldn’t talk her out of it.”
I knew this story from both sides. Mom often told me that she and Dad had made a deal: she’d follow him anywhere he wanted to go until I started school; then they would find a house and stay put. When Dad talked about their split, he never mentioned this part. I figured he forgot.
“I sure tried,” he said, smiling at me. “You know that, don’t you?”
I nodded, fiddling with the wet apple core.
“I tried to convince her to keep going. Once you stop, you get caught up in all this crap.” He swept his arm, indicating everything around us. “I wanted to go to Mexico, stake out some property in Baja. We could fish for food. Maybe breed some horses. Your mom always liked horses. Set up a little surf camp, just a few palapas and hammocks, boards for rent. Anything but sticking around this place. Pretty soon — you’ll see — there won’t be a single stretch of beach in California that isn’t surrounded by mansions.”
Mansions were big houses, like the one his parents lived in. The one he lived in. If he hated them so much, why did he stay there? Why not just move to Mexico himself?
He chucked his apple core, and it hit the Century 21 sign, which gonged dully and swung on its hinges. “Sometimes I wonder if we even should have left Hawaii,” he said. Then he stood, reached down, and gave me a hand up.
We caught a ride in the bed of a truck, up the mountain face, switching back sharply as the earth dropped away. I looked over the edge and saw hundreds of feet straight down. The lake appeared dark blue, and its ugliness and stink were washed away by the distance. At the top we entered a hardwood forest. Three loud motorcycles gathered behind the pickup and then made their move to pass — wham! wham! wham! — leaving us alone on the sun-dappled highway.
Thirty minutes later we got out in a suburb of identical red-roofed houses. Two rides and a couple of miles of walking put us on the Pacific Coast Highway as night fell, at the southern city limits of Corona del Mar. I could smell and hear the nearby ocean, could feel the cool damp of it. Palms rose eighty feet high on thin, curving trunks like enormous dandelions. I was bone tired and famished but happy. Dad had been right all along: the hard journey had been worth it. A stone sign reading CAMEO SHORES rose from a flower bed in the center of the road that led toward the ocean. Down we went, a cliff on the left and ranch houses on the right.
At the bottom of the hill we came to my grandparents’ home. Columns rose outside double doors high enough to admit a giant. The manicured lawn was lit by red and blue spotlights. We entered through a side door into a kitchen as big as the living room of the cabin back in Anza. The refrigerator and pantry opened like vaults and were packed with everything anyone could ever want: Chips and cookies and cereal that turned milk pink and purple and blue. Paper-thin slices of bloody roast beef. Avocados with flesh like butter. Oranges and apples and cherries by the drawerful. Grandpa, who was actually Dad’s stepfather, was a Great Depression survivor whose purpose in life had become to keep the larder full for himself and his family: Three kinds of bread. Buckets of ice cream. Chilled cans of soda. Dad and I took huge sandwiches, chips, Cokes, and blood-red plums to the dining room, where I was always scared the crystal chandelier would fall on me. We hunched over our food like dogs and chowed down.
A high voice called from the hallway, “I thought I heard some mice nibbling my cheese.” And there stood the nighttime version of my grandmother: an old woman in a robe, puffy slippers on her feet and a scarf around her head. She glided toward me. I could see the purple veins in her eyelids before her arms circled me and held tight. Grandpa, I knew, was sleeping. He woke before us to drive to work at his produce-distribution company in downtown Los Angeles. The only time I ever saw him was during dinner.
Nighttime Grandma smelled of cold cream. She kissed me and called me a wild beast. “My word,” she said, “what are they doing with you out there in the desert?” She gave Dad an exaggerated frown. “Please don’t tell me you hitchhiked with this poor thing. Don’t you know what kind of sick people there are out there?”
Dad was chewing, not looking at her. “No,” he said, “but I know plenty of sick people in here.”
He stood and clapped my shoulder. “See you mañana, son. Don’t let her fatten you up too much.” Then he went off to the same room he’d slept in as a child.
Nighttime Grandma propped me on the couch near the picture window overlooking the cliff, where the waves bashed the rocks. Did I have enough to eat at home? she asked. What did they feed me? Were we still vegetarians? My answers confirmed her worst fears. “My word!” she said again and again, while I supplied as many outrages as I could think of. It was like a game, and I warmed to it fast. I even began to share her shock and dismay: What were they doing to me in that place?
Grandma ran a bath and oversaw the brushing of my teeth. She always had an extra toothbrush, a fresh pair of pajamas, and packages of boys’ underwear and socks. “Beddy-bye,” she said as she tucked me in.
The bedroom was spooky without my brother: Two single beds with a nightstand in between. A dresser. Striped wallpaper. A Mickey Mouse night light. It felt like a movie set where the fake walls might fall away and reveal the real world outside. Cars drove by every few minutes, and their headlights crawled from one side of the room to the other. On the wall between the beds hung a painting of half-naked men dancing and drumming around a fire. One of them held a curved knife. Their rags were colorful, their faces twisted in ecstasy or rage, eyes and teeth bright, muscle and sinews taut beneath sweat-glistening skin. The grandfather clock sang its mournful song — ding-dong-dong-dong, the slow, deep counting of the hours.
Kept awake by my aching legs, I thought again about the time Dad had picked me up in Anza, and we’d hitchhiked to the bluegrass festival. A single driver had taken us the whole way. Dad had given me credit for the ride, joking, “People like kids; why, I’ll never understand.”
“Good morning,” Daytime Grandma said. I opened my eyes to red-lipstick lips and eyelashes like peacock plumes. No purple veins now, just pale-green paint over the lids. A column of red hair rose from her head, and a heavy jade necklace dangled as she pulled the blanket back.
“How did you sleep, dear?”
“Good,” I said, my head resting against the soft pillow. She got me up, and soon I was eating fruity chocolate sugar puffs on the couch, engaged in my favorite activity in the entire world: watching cartoons. Road Runner was on. He raced along desert highways — much like the ones we’d traveled to get here — chased by Wile E. Coyote. We didn’t have a television in Anza. We subsisted on homemade granola, goat’s milk, boiled brown rice, lettuce from the garden, and zucchini covered in Shake ’N Bake breading. Occasionally there’d be grapes.
Dad walked in, and I tensed up.
“You ready, son?”
“You’re not taking him to the beach today, are you?” Grandma asked.
“What’s wrong with today?”
She looked out the window at the endless water. “It’s gray.”
She was right, but then, most days at the beach started in a gray fog that burned away by noon.
Dad snorted. “Come on,” he said to me. “Get into your trunks, and let’s go.”
Down came the anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s head — an anvil that he himself had purchased.
“Do I have to?” I whispered.
“Of course you don’t, dear,” Grandma said. She turned to Dad. “He needs a haircut, and he doesn’t have a stitch to wear.”
Dad looked at me as if to establish an alliance, to communicate something — that I should come with him, of course, but, even more important, that I should not stay with her. His look said: This is what happened to me. I don’t want it to happen to you.
Grandma was looking at me, too, but not projecting any silent plea. Her message was all around her, and it was persuasive.
“What would you rather do, dear?” she asked in a mild voice.
The truth was, I liked the beach fine. I could imagine it well: Dad would paddle into the surf, leaving me to explore the sand or gather shells or climb the cliffs — a perfectly good way to spend a day, although no competition for the Road Runner. On the other hand, I didn’t crave a haircut or want to be dragged from store to store, dressing and undressing over and over in tiny rooms. But then we’d have lunch at the Jolly Roger, where pirates would deliver plates of fried shrimp and plastic cups full of Coke and chipped ice.
“Can we go to the toy store after shopping?” I asked.
“Of course we can,” my grandmother said.
“OK,” I said, well aware of the trouble I was making. “I want to stay.”
“He can swim when we get home,” Grandma said to Dad. “You can let him float around on one of your surfboards in the pool. It’s heated.”
Dad looked from her to me, unable to disguise his disappointment. It was like the surfing lesson all over again, or the day I’d ruined his fun at the bluegrass festival, only this time I wasn’t just choosing to be on dry land or to go home. I was choosing to stay in his home. With his mother.
I didn’t care. I hated the beach. It smelled like dead fish. It was boring. The water was cold, the sand was itchy, and the whole place felt lonely. I would never learn to surf, and I didn’t want to. I pretended to stare at the television, though all I saw on it was a blur of color. Dad stomped out of the room, flicking his arms as if flinging mud from his hands.
Grandma fussed at her nose with a tissue. “You just watch your cartoons for a few more minutes,” she said, “and then we’ll get ready.”
She sat down beside me in front of the TV. On the screen a salesman rode a hippopotamus through a used-car lot, shouting about low prices. I knew the path my father was taking without me: into the garage for his board and wet suit, through the gate, down the cliff, and into the cove. Part of me wanted to be with him. Because I wasn’t, he’d be walking faster than usual, furious. After spending a few minutes waxing his board, he’d enter the water, and everything about him would change. The anger would leave his body the moment he pushed off, and he’d glide over the crests until he reached his spot, where he’d sit like a cowboy on his mount and watch the horizon for the next set of waves.