I was living in Hesperia right up the street from the California Aqueduct which served as my recreation. For the five months I lived there I’d run the paths that ran along side the dark water. I put miles on those paths glancing at the Mariana Mountains—running passed bugs and lizards and the tiny green ripples that were slowly making their way to L.A.
After my run I’d spend time sitting under the Cottonwood Bridge reading or watching the water roll passed me. Sure, it wasn’t the salty view of the Pacific Ocean or feeling the rush of the ice-cold mountain water that made up the Merced River, but it was water nonetheless. Memories flooded my head pulling me through the years as I watched the swirling pools; the ripping desert wind that picked up the water and turned it white; the crows caw, caw, caw towards Rancho Cucamonga.
At the time I was reading Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. The original owner of the book fell into a quasi-depression halfway into it, had enough whining and bitching, and gave it to me not knowing in the past I had a serious bout of depression that crippled me under the neon lights of Las Vegas. I opened up the book and read the chapters. The prologue read I Hate Myself and Want to Die. One chapter was titled Love Kills. Another read Black Wave. Another read Woke Up This Morning Afraid I Was Gonna Live. Great, I thought, another brooding writer. But I figured my dreary I-hate-myself-and-want-to-die days were so far behind me I’d be safe cracking open the book and reading about someone else’s misery.
I took the book under the bridge and started reading.
When I was a kid my dad would take me down to the L.A. River. This was his recreation along with smoking pot, selling pot, and drinking Budweiser. Him and my equally fucked up uncle and his three smudged kids and me would climb high into the tiny black widow and rat infested sewers and come sliding down into its nasty piss and shit water. They would scream with glee as they slipped to the bottom where they howled in celebration. This was supposed to be fun. I protested telling my stoned father that I didn’t want to go. But he didn’t listen to me—something that would be thematic throughout our decaying relationship. Almost every Friday night after my father and uncle finally peaked on beer and weed we’d make the trek down Monterey Road through Arroyo Seco Park to the river and do it all over again.
The aqueduct is full of life. Fish. Lizards. Bugs. Snakes. Squirrels. But the main attraction is the birds. Packs of various types of ducks waddle up and down the water. Mallard ducks with their gorgeous green heads scoot over the water, dip their heads in the water for food, crane their necks 180 degrees and pinch at their backs. There are these small crane-like birds that usually sit high on the wires that are draped along and across the aqueduct. Then they glide down into the water and land like an airplane. When they lift off they fly just over the water at a perfectly measured high speed. It’s quite a sight. But my favorite is this brown duck whose head is graced with wild wispy rust-orange feathers that make it the craziest looking bird in the aqueduct. And it’s the loudest. Every time I saw this duck it was making noise. It’s crazy-looking and loud.
A feathered Sandra Bernhard.
And then you have the crows. They come in the hundreds and litter the landscape in black. Always pecking at the dirt. Always hopping around. Always looking off in the distance for some action. Always in the air hovering, swooping, and landing. Always, always, always. Caw, caw, caw. They’re tenacious, they’re beautiful, and the desert is theirs.
Fish and Whiskey
The fishermen showed up early in the morning. They usually drove trucks or SUVs. I’d watch them as they methodically took out their fishing gear, cigarettes burning and dangling from their mouths, sunglasses, vests infested with pockets. They’d come in all sizes, all ages. Skinny ones. Fat ones. Young ones with baseball caps and old ones in tattered bucket hats stabbed with hooks and lures. I saw many of the same ones day after day, week after week. Some of them I saw from the time I moved in to the time I packed up and left for Los Angeles. They usually had a regular spot, parking their gear where they did the day before and the day before that. They’d set up camp just as methodically as they did when they unloaded their gear. Blanket. Poles. Tackle box. Cooler. Some even set up overhead tents sheltering them from the white desert heat.
There was one fisherman that fished right down from where I used to read. After a few friendly hellos I learned his name to be Gene. Gene was somewhere in his sixties and came from Oklahoma. Tall. Big feet. Bony. Nervous rattling hands and deep blue-gray eyes. He was a Vietnam vet—had stickers telling you this fact plastered all over the back of his scuffed Ford Ranger. One day after he refilled his flask he asked me what I was reading. I told him.
“Depressed woman, huh? Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve been married twice and have been around the world as least six times. They’re all depressed,” he said, looking over the water.
This got a laugh out of me.
“You like that? Well, I have more where that comes from.”
Over the weeks we got to know each other. He usually showed up high on booze and continued to get high with his luckless pole in his hands. Despite the fact that Gene had an abundance of nice shiny gear and brand new fishing clothes he rarely caught anything. He always had a bucket full of water to hold his catches. I’d always peek in the bucket to see what the day brought. After hearing me comment one too many times that he hadn’t caught anything he’d just give me the update as soon as I walked up.
“No need to look in that fuckin’ bucket, Reno. All the fish are in that goddamn water.”
“Bucket’s empty. Like our government.”
One day there were two fish in the bucket. I walked up.
“Well, go on. Take a look,” he slurred, jutting his chin towards the bucket. “Look and weep, buster. It’s dinner time.”
I looked in the bucket and saw two little green fish. They didn’t look like they’d make one taco. But I didn’t want to piss on the party.
“All right, man! Cook those dudes up.”
Around the same time I finished the book Gene was leaving for a couple of months traveling around the country and then heading back home to Oklahoma to visit his family. He had a tumultuous relationship with his family and this visit was going to serve as the last, that he wasn’t ever going to go back, that he was going to try and bury the ghosts that hovered over his folks and his siblings and come back to California clean. It was the last time I would ever see Gene again.
“It’s time,” he said, taking a hit from his flask. “It’s time.”
The legend of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is a story of a grieving woman who is found lurking around a body of water mourning and wailing the loss of her drowned children. Like many legends there are different versions of La Llorona whose origins can be linked to La Malinche the Indian interpreter and lover to Cortes. In the La Malinche version of La Llorona she drowns her children because Cortes abandons her for a high-bred Spanish woman. In another version she drowns her children so she could pursue another lover. In some versions she dies of old age. In other versions she commits suicide after drowning her children.
Growing up in East Los Angeles the L.A. River served as the stage for La Llorona. It was in the L.A. River where she drowned her kids and where she cried for them walking up and down its concrete banks. The version I was told served as a cautionary tale. I was told that if I misbehaved she was going to come in the middle of the night and take me away. As a kid I was petrified of this ghostly woman, cloaked in a flowing white gown, cold hands, cold eyes, and who wanted nothing better than to take me down to the river and drown me.
Ophelia died in water. So did Narcissus. Either by negligence or by accident, the California Aqueduct has served as a final resting place for some. Workers have died building or maintaining it. People have fallen in the aqueduct only to be swept away by its deceptive speed. Cars have spilled into it. Some have committed suicide in the aqueduct. The body of my high school track coach was found in the aqueduct. Mr. Byers was a good man and when I heard the news of his death I was devastated. He was my coach for two years.
“You know, Romero,” he told me after our last track meet of the season. “You were always my favorite on the relay team. Man, you owned that bend. I loved watching you run.”
Those were the last words he would ever say to me.
I don’t know if Mr. Byers took his life. There were rumors that he did. I don’t know. There were many times I sat under the bridge and wondered what happened to him on that sad day. The water knows. But it’s not saying a word.
I was sitting under the bridge finishing the last few pages of Prozac Nation when a grasshopper landed on the concrete in front of me. It wasn’t the typical beige grasshopper that buzzes over the desert’s hard dirt. This one was fully winged and electric-green. I lowered the book and watched him for a while and then went back to the book figuring that it would soon fly away. But it didn’t. It stayed there stretching out its legs. After a few minutes it climbed on my backpack and sat there for a while. I was reading when I heard it zip off and land in the water. I was confused. Do they do this for a reason? Could it easily take flight when it wanted to? Then I saw it struggling to get out of the water. It twisted in the water. Its back legs kicked feverishly. Then: snap. It was gone.
The aqueduct took another life.