Painting by William Herbert Dunton “Vivian on Pet”
I see my life stretched out behind me, a meandering and muddy river—clear enough in some places to see to the bottom. Slow, then hurried. Would you like me to tell you part of it? I can’t tell you everything, I’m not finished yet. And the early years…well, they were typical. You’ll hear only what matters. The truth is I was good at being young. It wasn’t until my youth began to fade I began to suffer. Mostly from the awareness I was not young anymore. Nothing new in that. But I’ll tell you. It’s good to tell a story. That’s how you know you’re alive and that you are really here. Not just dreaming and suffering, back and forth, for no reason. Because no one is just going to come up to you and tell you your reason—you have to watch for it. The universe is noisy, always shouting about this or that, but the mind is noisy, too. If you get very quiet, you will notice signs all around, talking to you. But you’ve got to push your arrogance out of the way first. You’ve got to crack yourself open and let yourself out so you can see. A story will root you. A story will show you what you never noticed because you were too busy looking the other way. Even if it isn’t your story—even if you think it isn’t yours. Every story is about me and you, together. That’s why we all want to be told.
The meandering river. That’s the story. I see it now mostly in pictures. Moving pictures. I’ve been to the movie show—my niece took me to see Star Wars last weekend, that movie with the space cowboys and the princess. I enjoyed it. I did. My movie is in contained here on earth, though, and the voices are distinct. I see myself standing by a seed wagon on a grassy slope. Behind me is a small log house. I hold a bucket in my hand and my strawberry hair has lost its Marcel wave beneath a beat up straw hat with fraying ribbons. Men drive up over the ridge in an old Model T, about a mile away. I see them approach from across the pasture, still green in early spring. It’s a hot afternoon and I’ve already begun to freckle from the sun. I am 34 years old. No child, though still slim as I was at 14. Even then I felt undeserving of my grownup age, such as it was. I’ve advanced far beyond it now! But it seemed to me then that I’d done nothing to earn my years. I’d been married only a year. Not long after the wedding, Nate, my husband, left to earn some money. He was a federal agent—any able-bodied man in the territories could be back then, it seemed like. He’d gone off after some crook in Nevada. I’d wanted to go with him, but of course that was not a consideration he would take seriously. “There’s bound to be shooting,” he told me before he drove off.
I was alone. My mother was back east in New York, having returned to the way of life she knew before my father moved us to California in 1910. Like so many other men, he was sure he could make it here, land of golden dreams. He envisioned himself in a mansion on a hill. In the end, though, he settled for a small hacienda on land that used to be Spanish, my mother dictating the necessary changes to the kitchen and the bedrooms before she would agree to live there. I never knew the difference. Mansion or not, I was happy. Like I said, I was good at being young. No semblance of a fence contained the chaparral around our Southern California homestead but for a ring of creosote. Its scent loosed by the early morning damp and the dewy coolness that drifted down from the mountains after sunset. It was home, if a scent could be. There was a stubborn fern on the porch, a creak in one of the floorboards, and a tipped bucket no one ever took the time to right. A barn stood sheltered behind three ancient oak trees. To me, it was luxury.
On Sundays we’d go downtown in our finest clothes–mother was attentive to that sort of thing. She ordered all our finery from the shops she was familiar with in New York City. She did not think that Los Angeles was good enough when it came to quality. We would go to dinner at Cole’s and then to the Bijou, a nickelodeon on Main Street afterward to see shows like The Fatal Hand or The Great Lion Hunt. My father died of Spanish flu when I was 19; Mother saw no reason then to remain in the West. She went back to her beloved New York City and the Fifth Avenue brownstone she inherited from my grandparents. She wanted me to come back with her, but I refused. All I recalled of my visits back East were the rain and the cold and the very tall buildings that blocked out the sun. Besides, I told her, I loved my home. Mother let me stay at the ranch in the end because Aunt Sophie, Father’s widowed sister, agreed to live there with me. Otherwise, she would have sold the place and that would have broken my heart.
I had a good time after she left. At that time, my friends from school were not yet married. Some were flappers–I wasn’t. But I did bob my hair and I did like to dance. No smoking though, and no running in any fast crowds. We girls socialized [add background & description — what did young ladies do in L.A.then?] Inevitably, of course, everything changed. Even for the wild girls. One by one I watched my friends say “I do”–all the while wondering when I’d want to do the same. I wasn’t in a hurry, to be honest. Though love, or the idea of it, was an obsession. I won’t lie about that. Though what did I know of love? Rudolph Valentino movies? Harold Lloyd wooing Bebe Daniels and risking his life hanging onto the second hand of giant clock 100 feet above Main Street? I didn’t know much. And marriage…well, that’s a different proposition, isn’t it? Love is easy to dive into. In a marriage you have to actually swim. So I was sort of waiting on him, whoever that him might be, but I wasn’t in any hurry for the fellow to appear. I liked dreaming about it—I’ve always liked dreaming. It’s the best part of a good thing. The getting somewhere, rather than the being there. My friends, on the other hand, seemed all in a hurry to be settled. Maybe that was because their mothers did not leave them with a ranch and enough money to live comfortably. I didn’t need to be married.
I was often a bridesmaid during those years, and it wasn’t long before I was left with nothing to do of an evening but sit with Aunt Sophie, listening to the Waldorf Astoria orchestra and episodes of The Goldbergs while she embroidered pillowcases and darned petticoats like it was 1843. I didn’t take to it. Not even a little bit. I nearly went crazy. I did go crazy. Quietly. In my own way. My mind was never in the present, but somewhere in the future or the past. Where things were ideal, I believed. The present is never ideal–there’s always something you pine after. I grew bitter and forgot that the house I’d always loved was still a place of ease, and that the friends I now rarely saw meant something to me. Despite the company of my aunt and the fairly constant letters and phone calls from my mother, I was convinced I was alone in the world. I felt unmoored. And then my aunt died.
We weren’t close but we were companionable. She was a sort of hollowed-out person, her surface warm and pleasant but her inside barren of anything like imagination or even hope. She did her duty and she lay down at night and slept. At times I wished I could be like that. It just seemed easier. Though I realize now there were most likely aspects of her I never saw, that she never showed me. I was young, she was in her twilight. Typical of youth, when she died I was sadder for myself than for her. I imagined that I had no choice but to move to New York and live in the brownstone with my mother. I began to regret my neglect of planning, my dating young men and never dreaming of making their attentions permanent. Going down the list of beaus I’d collected, not one of them seemed right. Not because they weren’t nice or attractive or ambitious–all the men I knew had plans to get somewhere. They just weren’t that interesting. No sparks flew, only warmth for a few hours as I listened to their hopes and dreams, all of which sounded exactly alike. A marriage without passion seemed like death to me. In my world, though, I was sad and nervous and terrified of the death I assumed would come for me sooner than I ever expected. Aunt Sophie was only 42 when she passed. Was that my fate, too?
I sat on the porch and thought of families. Big, jumbled families of brothers and uncles and older sisters in crepe de chene going out on a Saturday evening. Looking out at the yard, I imagined them running to their boyfriends who waited in glistening convertibles, ragtops down. Handsome boys, the kind that could dance, hold you firmly at the small of your back and twirl you around…then I saw the children running up the porch steps to where someone was making ice cream—it was a summer evening—churning it, the ice grinding against the wood as it mixed with the saltpeter. I wasn’t the dark, romantic kind to swoon over a misty winter night or a dusky autumn noon. I’d take the summer, always, and the sound of birds, the land like a paint set you could dip your brush into. Hot and still.
The telephone rang. It filled the house with a loud, rude ringing, like someone interrupting; it echoed down the hallway and bounced off the glass in the picture frames. It rang eight times, and then it stopped. It was my mother, I knew. Wanting to discuss the future. I did not want to talk to her. My friends had faded further into background, having children and disappearing, blissfully, into someone else’s dream. Birthday parties, church on Sundays. I didn’t blame them. I often thought it wouldn’t be so bad if I did it myself. Love. I’d loved only once. A boy sitting behind her in a ninth grade classroom. When he walked into that room, fourteen years old, I said to myself, I will marry him. I didn’t. He died of Spanish flu in the epidemic. But I had yet to find anyone whose dream was inviting enough to make me forget my own.
Despite my state of mind, I still had many dreams. Some loomed near, in the realm of possibility. Some were long past their prime. I’d hoped to be a dancer. Onstage in a diaphanous costume, the shimmer of sweat on my skin. So alive I’d forget that life was life. The glare of lights and scattered flowers—like kissing a stranger at a party, it lifted me out of myself. Well, it just wasn’t meant to be, that was all. Moving into the house as the sun set, I sat down in Sophie’s old wingback chair. I looked around the room. It was unkempt, which I didn’t like. I’ll put things away today, I thought. The box of letters, the beaded evening bag, the dry, stale scent. The phone rang again. At the third ring, I rose and followed the sound, echoing down the hallway. In the foyer, I stood beside the phone, watching it as it rang six times more. I lifted the receiver. “Hello?” Click. Oh, well, I thought. I tried. A cup of tea first. An hour in the morning sun. Then I might be ready for talking in the afternoon.
I never did answer the phone. One morning I woke up unable to push away the veil of despair hanging around me. I was tired, so tired. From what, I couldn’t have said at the time; now, though, I’ve come to believe—to know—a soul can get tired. Of trying and hoping and waiting. Of being afraid. Of being lonely. I was all those things (though I didn’t have to be). But my world had become very small. Very small. And when I looked beyond the boundaries of the cramped, threatening existence I’d let myself fall into, I saw a world I had no connection to. A foreign place where everyone else had it figured out. I was outside of it all. I woke up so tired it was a kind of sadness. Then all I could think of was escaping. The house no longer felt like home, but a place where I wasn’t me anymore. It was a memory, lingering only to haunt me. That’s what it felt like.
It was early June when I decided to make my stand. I packed the bare essentials in my biggest suitcase, including one or two nice things to remind me of my mother and father, and threw it into the back of my Ford Model B. The year was 1932. I drove. I drove and rode, through the trees and down the lanes, the shadows of boughs falling across my path, the warm wind whooshing through my ears and lifting my hair. I stopped when I felt like it. I met people. A widow in Santa Maria on her way to Oregon. We had lunch together three days in a row at a Basque restaurant. I met a man, half-Comanche, with his granddaughter at a diner in Atascadero. He’d driven all the way from Texas—he had a brother in San Diego waiting for their arrival. And, finally, in Paso Robles, I met Nate. I’d taken a room in the little town because I liked it. The weather was hot, sure, but the air was fresh and the scenery pretty–plus I got a kick out of the story I’d heard about Jesse James visiting his Uncle Drury James at the Paso Robles Inn, which Drury once owned. Who knows if the story was true. It hardly mattered anyway. All that mattered was the idea had brought me there, and there was where I was supposed to be.
Next week: Chapter 2 – Meeting