A few weeks after my thirty-first birthday, I’d gone broke, thirty-four dollars and twelve cents to my name. My sister, Sonia, bought me a one-way ticket to live with them at their dusty summer ranch in the Central Coast. Pine Needle they call it. For a month we’ve been together here, two Punjabi-Mexican mutts and her husband, Jeremy, living together in what most would consider a cell.
A field of cabbage and a dusty wide road is all that sets them apart from a migrant worker colony, a hundred studio apartments in an old refurbished school building, each room housing a family of six. From the top step of the creaky narrow porch, I watch a lorry pull away with a bin full of cabbage heads. A cloud of diesel hangs over the farmers peeling off white cloth hats and long sleeve shirts, looking like a band of Chicano mummies undressing.
Sonia’s already settled into her rocking chair. Soon she’ll get to stitching quilts. Her hair is turning gray and there’s a long lock of white, a witch lock, right over the side of her face. She’s gained some weight, looking more like Ma did, except that she’s wearing a dry fit athletic tee shirt and Ecco leather sandals.
“Not even wifi, really? We’re not off the grid here,” I say.
“It’s our summer tradition. Rahul. The kids did well because of it. Now they go off to camps on their own.”
“They’re Jeremy’s kids. They don’t even know what to do with me, their uncle,” I say,
“They’ve never spent much time with you,” she says.
“You never brought them to visit in Yuba,” I say.
“Ma came once a year to stay with us for a week, here. Besides, you’ve been in trouble with the law.” Then she adds hastily, “Until now.”
I shrug and find myself making a sputtering horse sound. Then I turn silent and stare back out at the funnels of dust running along the fields. The blazing sun beats down on the rows of green irrigated crops. The few remaining workers wait for their rides, teetering like wilted saplings at the edges of the fields.
I think back to just a few months ago, when I drove truck six days of the week. The permanent smell of exhaust in my nose, my hands blackened with grease stains, and my pockets lined with green. Then, a couple minor domestic disturbances, a DUI, and slam, bang, one and done, I’m a fucking lowlife clawing my way back to decency. It’s when you turn poor that the predators step in, and the law turned out to be the badest predator of them all.
“Don’t go back to Yuba, whatever you do. There’s nothing left for you there, since Ma died,” Sonia says.
“I’m not planning on it. Anyway, what happened to the junkyard dog?”
Looking up from her quilt, her right eyebrow raises into a triangle.
“From junkyard dog to a happy sheep, who would have thought?” I say.
“Don’t get testy, Rahul. You get testy when other people are in the right. Everybody needs help picking up after a disaster,” she says.
“Ma did too,” I say.
She turns quiet. “I can’t change what happened to Ma.”
“I was there for years trying to hold that house together after dad split.”
“You did good, Rahul, but the house is gone, now. Ma is gone,” she says. “You’ve got to put it behind you.”
“That advice has gotten me nowhere,” I say.
“It takes a while to filter out the noise. This is an important time for you,” she yells after me as I round the corner to the other side of the wrap-around porch.
Sonia cut her ties to our hometown when she started college up near Chico. She waitressed at the local Mexican joint, the type of place that students brought their parents for graduations, old-time Mexican village murals on the walls and fifteen-dollar taco plates. That’s where Jeremy Collins, the historian, first saw her.
He got himself some enchiladas smothered in red sauce, noticed her wearing a tight skirt, then came back the next day. He saw her at the restaurant, then in the classroom. He pegged her in the first week. She didn’t come home for the holidays like all the other freshmen. She went to her professor’s summer home, Pine Needle. Since then, twenty years have gone by and she’s living like royalty out here in the dustbowl.
To the West of their particleboard estate, the real gardens starts to unfold, rich rolling golf courses, an aquarium with the budget of all of Yuba City, then the custom built mansions rolling on green hills and blue seaside. And, on the other side, low-income housing, fruit stands, cabbage fields, a dirty sky, and long and winding roads that lead to corrugated sheds.
The birds here are the only ones that sail between sides, chirping, clawing, and generally making good on their wings. Around the lot, every time I look up a vicious one-eyed bluejay patrols the fence. The king of the bluejays, I call him. A good pellet gun, a king no longer.
A fence of splintered wooden spears runs along the crescent driveway to the main road where the trees start to clear. Jeremy pulls into the driveway in his gold Toyota sedan with small tires.
He steps out with a crate filled with paper bags. His thin forearms bulge above the square joints of his sizeable hands. When he’s not working on fabricating history, he’s not bad with his hands. He enjoys his carpentry classes and every week he brings home some weird naturalist sculpture of a shrub, or a wave, or a mountain that all collect on the porch. He hasn’t learned how to make something useful like a bench or a clock. But I suppose what’s useful for him is different than the things I need: money, a job, an apartment, a woman, but really, just money.
“Hey Jeremy,” I say giving him a fist bump and chin nod. He just smiles and walks towards the house, lanky and stooped like an old bird. He pauses at the top of the steps, glancing back like I’m loitering on a street corner.
“You ever look into night classes at the college?”
“I have a job. I’m a truck driver.”
“Rahul, you can’t drive for a year or more after a DUI. You might never drive again. I’m not saying you need a degree, but skills, brother, you need skills.”
“What’s the point of a degree? In the hole for fifty G and nothing to show for it.”
“Skilled labor pays good,” Jeremy says.
“So does being a history professor,” I say.
His black eyes widen to the point that I can almost make out my reflection over the glossy moist surface. His dimpled stubbly chin tilts up. He holds this position for a few seconds and says, “It sure does.”
He’s got nothing to prove. The fact that he owns a dilapidated estate and that I’m a manservant at his dilapidated estate is proof enough. That thought is a real knife in the gut.
Jeremy pays me cheaper than contract farmhands to fix up his porch, fix up the yard, chop down the dead drought trees, and smooth the gravel for paving the driveway. He actually watches me put away one-half into the bank for savings. He’s giving me free rent and a place to stay so it’s tough to argue with him. After slaving for the week, I’ve got just enough in pocket change to buy Fat Debbie dinner and a couple beers.
A few words about Fat Debbie. I met Debbie at the Cactus Diner when I first moved out here. “You work here a lot. I suppose there’s not much else to do,” was the first thing I said to her.
She told me that she works hard to take care of her two girls. I offered to watch them, when she’s working overtime.
“That’s real sweet, but I don’t know you well enough to watch my darlings,” she said.
I bought her beer and a burger after work, and we chatted, the way that men do when they’re trying to get into a woman’s panties, basically asking about her uneventful life. At the bottom of the third beer, I told her I was lonely and that I wanted company.
The first night she invited me over, we built a fire and the kids eyed me, real suspicious, like I was some sort of hairy squat barbarian. But I started to blow circles of smoke that floated above my head and acted goofy, and, like most kids, they warmed up.
A few nights later I tried to get with Debbie and she said no, again, and I told her she was worried because her pussy was too big, and that made her laugh.
It took another few days helping clean up her little patch of trailer park and babysitting for free, and she finally let me in. The feeling was like falling into a soft cream puff.
I say all that to say that I’ve earned my keep with Debbie.
I’m considering paying Debbie a visit at the diner, when I hear whispers from inside. I put my ear to the screen door to catch what Sonia and Jeremy are saying, but nothing more than mumbles escape down the hallway. They’re likely planning to get me to clear the debris out of their half-acre, or worse yet, to help the neighbors with their yard, or worst of all to get me to process.
The bluejay king chirps on my shoulder, grating and urgent, the only sound that’s gotten me anywhere in life. For my own good, I step away from the door and walk to the edge of a showy porch probably extending twenty feet off the house.
The sun sets over the field of cabbage. Days go by and the Chicanos toss cabbage heads into the rusted steel basin. When the sun catches the pale green, the heads look like scalps wilting under a punishing sun. The other Indians did that shit. Brutal motherfuckers.
Our neighbor rounds the corner of his rotting tiny porch with three filled canvas bags. He’s a big guy with a big gut and black hair shooting up his chest like a beard in reverse. The foot traffic in and out of his house has been steady, and it occurs to me that he might be in on some action.
“Hey, Kaz, what’s the word?” I yell out to him.
He pretends to ignore me.
“What the hell you doing over there?” I decide to emphasize just in case he didn’t catch me the first time.
He pauses and looks up like a bull in heat. Then without warning he waves me off, like he’s waving off a beggar.
Holy fuck! Did he just do that? I hold up my hands and yell something at him, something about him wanting trouble. I yell with both my hands cupping my mouth like a blow horn. Inside his house, I know he can hear me yelling. He’s drinking coffee and chain smoking and probably putting on the Al-Jazeera nightly news. He doesn’t have the courtesy to even answer. There’s no reason for that level of offensiveness. We’re all neighbors after all.
I storm back inside, heading straight for the icebox, right past my sister who’s standing in the doorway trying to figure out why the fuck I’m yelling. It occurs to me that her newly discovered role as mediator and guide really does suit her. That’s what she needed to be when we were kids, to survive the neighborhood, to survive our parents. I suppose the only difference now is what she mediates, mainly her household, is like handling fighting rabbits.
Inside the icebox are a few non-alcoholic beers, bottles of non-fermented reek. I decide, for the second time tonight, I need to tap fat Debbie. Debbie is easy. Debbie is predictable. She makes enough to pay for her trailer and get some shoes and clothes and school supplies for her girls. Lord knows they get enough to eat in that house. And if I’m nice to her, she lets me tap her. That’s reliability. Debbie has a lot of good qualities.
I pop into Jeremy’s room to tell him that I’m stepping out. He’s hunched over a little safe. “We’ll bolt it into the floor later. You can give me a hand,” he says.
The crate’s been emptied. Crumpled paper bags litter the floor like dried up carnations.
“I can see it’s a safe. What are you putting in there?”
“Just a few things,” he says.
What kind of answer is that? A few things could be scalps or baby pictures.
When he notices me staring at him, he says firmly, “It’s for personal safety. This is my house. I’ve got a right to a safe.”
Whoa is all I can think, but instead of breaking his jaw, I say, graciously, “That’s con-front-a-tion-al.”
“What does that mean, Rahul?”
“You’re the fucking professor. You know what con-front-a-tion-al means.”
“It’s just a safe for our cash and valuables.”
What he’s doing doesn’t add up. Jeremy doesn’t have long hair and he doesn’t smoke weed, but he is a peace-lover and a nature lover. Those attributes are hippie-esque. He believes that people are fundamentally good, that they won’t steal and lie and cheat and knife. He never had a safe where he grew up. He’s never needed a safe here before.
“I understand why you got that safe,” I say.
He looks relieved. “The lake’s changing a bit. More riff-raff in town without enough work. I’m getting a top bolt on the doors, too. I want to make sure that Sonia’s safe, if I’m not here.”
It’s amazing that he can be so stupid for being a history professor. We all know he only teaches at a community college, but still that’s got to mean something as far as having some smarts.
Right now, his face has become two big owl eyes; he’s starting to get it. He’s making excuses, all of his big words jumbling up fast.
Sonia turns the corner looking like she’s going to find a murder scene. “Rahul, calm down, we need to talk about what is happening here.”
“I am perfectly calm. Jeremy is the one who thinks of me as riff-raff.”
He gives her a bewildered look, and she says to me, “This isn’t Yuba. This is a home. We are your family.”
She always seems to know better. She knew better when she left Yuba. She knew to stay away from all the beating and yelling and clawing. Then, she left Ma with me, until Ma keeled over in the garden.
“I invite you into my house and this is how you return the favor. Rahul, what’s gotten into you?” Jeremy says.
Jesus, the guy is yelling at me now. What is this? Some sort of free for all. Yell at Rahul until you can’t yell no more. I walk over to him and see what’s in the bags. The paper rips up on the floor.
Cash. Check. Passports. Check. Mortgage papers. Check. Gentleman Jack. Gentleman Jack!
“You hiding good booze from your brother-in-law. Is that how you treat family?”
The adhesive around the cap breaks like dry straw and the spice and syrup whiff fills my head. I tilt back the whole bottle of his top-shelf Jack. The mouthful takes a long hot shape and slips into my gut like a boiled eel.
Jeremy’s collecting his papers and cash strew all over the floor. He shakes his head in total disgust.
“Treating family like this, seriously, this aint right,” I say.
My sister punches me in the jaw, but most of her fist lands on my thick neck.
“Why’d you go and do that?” I ask.
An exceptional sense of calm descends over me. Within seconds the booze seems to have hit my bloodstream. The mild withdrawal quiets down to a simmer, and my knotted thoughts begin to straighten out.
She beats against my arm and Jeremy is trying to pull her off. At least now I know, these peace-lovers will snap when things don’t go their way.
She gives me a yank. That pushes me into Jeremy. Jeremy slaps and swats like a little girl. He manages to rake me pretty good just under my eye, and he doesn’t stop when I ask him to. I push him onto the floor, to defend myself.
It couldn’t have hurt that bad, but Sonia screams. She always screams when she’s mad or scared, even scary movies and growling dogs. I move her aside just enough that I can get out the doorway. Then there she is sprawled on the floor. I nudge her with my boot and say, “Get up.”
“Leave, would you just leave!” she yells.
“What’s up with you both? We get into an argument and you’re all getting, hostile”
She screams even louder. It’s like fucking pandemonium.
As I’m packing, it occurs to me that money would certainly be useful. I walk back into their room, where they’re both on the bed holding each other like they’ve just been through the holocaust. They don’t nod back when I say my goodbyes.
Their whole attitude about life is nothing but hypocrisy. You tuck yourself away in the country, surrounded by a bunch of Chicanos scalping cabbages. But you don’t feel safe around these people, even though you married one of them, even though Sonia used to be one of them, then you act all holy and earthy like you’re above all the shit that’s built off their backs.
To them, I’m no different than the riff-raff. To be in the same space as them, breathing the same molecules, I’ve got to make myself different, elevate, just like Sonia did, which isn’t something that I’m capable or inclined to do.
I don’t take all the cash. I wouldn’t do that to them. About three hundred bucks is all, enough to get me back to Yuba. I take the Gentleman Jack, too.
I get outside and stumble down the porch and land hard on my knee. Needles shoot through my leg. The backpack’s a good bit heavier than expected, and I’m clanking around like a walrus on land, up the gravel road to the one-lane highway.
After a few minutes the exhaustion sets in and I take a seat on the side of the road. The smell of rotten cabbage rises around me like some corporeal garden funk from the Earth. The cool night air slips under my sweaty shirt and the invitation of sinking into the ground becomes hard to resist. But I peel my face off the dirt, my bones aching and head throbbing, and walk to town under the grimy night sky that feels like it might collapse right on top of the dustbowl.
All these people out here, living like savages, acting out some sort of fantasy life, I start to thinking that maybe I’m better off hanging around with fat Debbie. She and her girls can come with me to Yuba, and we can drink and smoke and eat and work, when and where we want. That’d give me a chance to start over, find a new sort of life.
My footsteps fall on the pavement, uneven, like a man stumbling in chains. Debbie’s only a couple long miles away and she’s always feeling generous.
The bottle of Gentleman Jack is gone by the time I reach her trailer park. I can’t feel my jaw or my feet, and my face feels like a cold deflated balloon. But I howl like a lone wolf when the little one-log fire near her trailer comes into view.
A few boulders rise over the gentle upslope towards the trailer park. I strike out around them, but collapse before making it to her. My groans whisper along the rocks. The smell of smoke penetrates the sharp night air, as the faint light of stars reveal themselves through patches of dark cloud. It’s a good spot that I’ve found myself in.
It’s the same sort of spot Ma found herself a couple years ago, when I went on the road and she was out working in the garden, planting gourds, an hour later collapsing, then laying still. When I got back in the morning and touched her face, it was as cold as winter stone.
After a few quiet minutes, I pick myself up and Debbie notices me weaving through patches of bunch grass. I yell out to the girls. To her, to my Debbie.
The girls perk up when they see me, and I wave. They wave back, but Debbie gets up ferociously quick from the lawn chair and sends them to the trailer. It’s too dark to see their faces peering at me from just inside the locked door.
Finally, I reach her chicken fence perimeter around her trailer plot. “I’ve made it,” I say.
She smiles her dim smile, and then she says the funniest thing. She tells me that I need to get myself back home. The thing is, that’s exactly where I thought I was going all along.
Rajeev Prasad is a physician, and writer, and dad at work on short stories and a novel. He lives, works, and plays in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in Sliver of Stone, MendaCity Review, Aphelion, and Expanded Horizons, and is forthcoming in innumerable fictitious enterprises. He can be reached at email@example.com.