It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.

None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.

The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.

When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.

I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.

After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.

I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.

After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.

Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.

I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.

“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.

Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.


(Photo: Dolls found in mortuary mansion closet)

Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.

When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.

The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.

I think I might have worked off an entire cup of coffee in that lone jog,” he later said, grateful he came to Bakersfield and broke bread with a host of tireless poets.


7.  Our dog Pierre, a black French poodle, came to us from a wealthy acquaintance of my father ( we learned a little later, Dad had also borrowed money from him). He was well behaved and groomed in the shape of an hourglass but after only a few months he resembled a bushy sheep. From empty fields we trekked through he got thistles and thorns and fleas. Every few months we’d dump some laundry detergent on him and hose him down for a shower. When we camped out in the backyard in the summer, Pierre slept between us, a kid brother. My brother and I would fight over who loved him best: He’s my dog, I’d tell him; He’s my dog, he’d tell me.

 

A year after we got Pierre, my dad told us that the owner wanted him back; “The bastard,” my father muttered, “over a few lousy bucks.” The next evening, the man rolled up in a big car. My dad slipped a finger beneath Pierre’s collar and dragged him outside. I heard the two men exchange words. Then my dad walked back in the house with Pierre.

“He’s yours for keeps.”

We cheered, and jumped on Pierre: “Thanks Dad!”

My mom came out from the bedroom, where the shame of our family debt had sent her.

“What’s happening?”

“I’ll be frank with you all. The guy took one look and kinda choked; I guess ol’ Pierre is so shabby looking he don’t want no part of him anymore.”

 

We must’ve had Pierre two three years before he got sick. His poop was the color of charcoal and the back porch was crisscrossed with bloody skid marks. His stopped eating his dog food.   Lying there on his side he’d take us in with an eye and sigh. He seemed to be saying, “Help.” At night he howled. So that he wouldn’t wake the neighbors, it got so that we had to shove him in the garage at night, what we’d nicknamed “the dungeon.” Come morning we’d run out to fetch him from “the dungeon.” Pierre, Pierre, we’d sadly sing. He’d meet us at the door, his tail wagging barely, shivering all over.

 

It was a Saturday morning when we found him dead in “the dungeon.” My dad came out of the house to make sure. We cried~~our world would never be the same without Pierre. We grabbed a couple of shovels, and start digging next to the fig tree. We planned to go six feet, but stopped at three, plenty deep, it seemed. Now we had to get Pierre, still in the dungeon into the hole. My brother said he’d do it.  I was relieved because I didn’t know if I had what it took to carry his corpse. When he stepped out of the garage with dead Pierre in his arms, I was in awe of my brother’s courage. He dropped Pierre in and we start shoveling. When the dirt reached our feet, we packed it all down with the shovel’s flat side, and out of two sticks and twine, we made a cross and drove it into the ground.

I asked our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Chamichian, where animals go after they die.

“Since they have no souls,” she said; “nowhere.”

“Even dogs?” I asked.

“Yes.”

Did this mean that I’d never see Pierre again?

“No. But you will see your grandparents, and uncles and aunts.”

When we got home, my brother and I yanked out the cross above Pierre’s grave. Since he had no soul we were afraid it was a sin to leave it there.  After the winter rain, I thought, after all the earth gets churned, there will be no spotting Pierre’s grave. The seasons will erase his resting place. After we are gone, nobody will know he is there. All we’ll be able tell the next set of kids is, “Pierre, our dog, is buried beneath the fig tree.” But who knows whether they’ll believe us, no matter what we say, what matter what history we leave behind. Who knows whether they’ll even care?

 

8.  Around age ten, we got real guns for Christmas; a revolutionary addition to our arsenal, which up until then was confined to slingshots. From a small cylindrical carton we’d pour BBs into the barrel’s spout and with just a few ratchets of the handle the gun would get pregnant with enough pressure to kill.  Its like we were sorcerers, the guns our magic wands, and the bb’s our evil spells.  We would strike things down from a world away.

 

Sparrows were all over the yard. From one branch to the next we’d watch them hop, their tidy little bodies turning this way, then that. The first one I shot fell from the tree and hit the ground like an overripe peach. We hardly found a mark on the bird; only a bead of blood swelled from its breast. I was disappointed: I expected something more dramatic. It hardly seemed worth it. Outside of its twiggy legs, politely folded up against its chest, it was unremarkable, common looking as the dirt upon which it lay. After turning it over and studying it’s every feature, we buried the sparrow. Above us, in the trees, dozens of its fellows were busy doing whatever it was that birds do. Strange how they hardly noticed when one of their own was gone.

 

9.  On TV, the Vietnam was on. It was part of our lives, like the San Francisco Giants, except the war respected no season. They showed bodies lying in a field, or in a ditch. It was always raining, and looked very far away.

“What a shame,” my Dad said.

When they posted that day’s score, it was never close: we always killed twice as many as they killed. I kept waiting for the Americans to win. In any game I played, either time ran out or there were no more pieces on the board. How else did you decide when the game is over?

 

10.  Up from our house the miser Madame Hovanessian, who handed out walnuts for Halloween, lived. Her stockings, the color of rubber bands, gathered in rings round fat ankles, and she had several wiry whiskers sprouting from her chin. Three stubby palm trees where pigeons, plump as cantaloupes, roosted ran alongside her driveway, and even though you couldn’t see them, the whole crown of the tree boiled with their voices. We’d gather rocks on our way home from school and from the alleyway we’d sling them into the fronds. After a week of trying, not only had we failed to kill a pigeon, not a single one even flew away in fright. Only their warbling suddenly stopped. One second the air was full of their voices, and the next second it was dead quiet, just like when a teacher suddenly hollers at a classroom of kids. After a while, we couldn’t care less if we killed the pigeons. This was another kind of game. Silencing them.

 

 


1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.

2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.

3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.

I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.

4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.

5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.

6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.

Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.

Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.

Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.

Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).

Execute: when someone shocks you to death

Suicide: when you kill yourself.

And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.

It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.

“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.

Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you.  Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”

I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it.  My dad said it always went that way.

“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”

He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”

Just like America, I thought.

Performing is always tough for writers. I mean, we’re not typically stage-trained theatre experts amped up on auditory performance steroids when reading our prose. The reality is, most writers are just average Joes like me. We stumble, stutter, are monotone, and really are quite boring when we get up in front of people and open our mouths. I don’t know why this is, and have been guilty of it for years. I’ve droned on like a pontificating robot. I’ve blathered, buzzed, and really was in need of a good oiling of my vocal joints.

“I don’t have to tell you the contradiction,” Rik says about the phallic name of the place as we walk in.

Pho Hung, a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Las Vegas, has three statues and a waterfall just inside the front door. We slip past the sounds of dripping water and find a twelve-foot-tall fertility-inspired centerpiece covered in fruits and vegetables. It towers above rows of tables and chairs.

We sit near the end of a table and stare at the giant plastic garden before some butterflies across the room catch our attention. They’re on a wall in what looks like a framed poster. It’s at least six feet across. “Are those butterflies real?” I ask.

Rik jumps up and heads to the glass-encased frame. “It is!” he says. His voice is naturally dramatic. He’s a DJ. But he could easily be a radio actor, or the softly evil voice of the strawberry-scented bear in Toy Story 3.

We haven’t even ordered yet. But I walk over too and see that it isn’t a poster. Inside the glass frame, dozens of butterflies, every color imaginable, lie frozen in time. The center column is filled with moths. Not little moths, but huge moths. Gargantuan moths. The kind that could terrify a kid on a jungle night if one were to flitter in front of the moon.

“Let me tell you about an iridescent blue butterfly I saw at a Darwin exhibit on the Berkeley campus last year,” I say. I search the rows for a blue glowing butterfly. “It was neon come to life. It was a sky. Or an ocean. Never seen anything like it.”

Outside, Chinatown in Las Vegas is booming. Spring Mountain Road is filled with endless Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Strip malls are decked out in Asian décor. There’s a tattoo parlor next to an Asian food restaurant next to a Boba shop. You can get an apple slushy, grab some goodies from a Korean grocery store, then swing by the Asia-themed Starbucks on your way to a casino with spinning slot videos based on the movie Jaws.

Everywhere you can get a foot massage. $19 for thirty minutes. Their “open” signs flash. Their neon signs beckon. Near a donut shop there’s a handwritten note on an empty storefront. At least one strip mall owner is sick of the local foot fetish. NO FOOT MASSAGE. NO HAIR SALON.

Rik’s been in Las Vegas ten years now. His hair is graying like mine on the sides. He has a beard but no moustache. He’s soft spoken; a big guy. He wears a GUINNESS shirt a lot.

He’s from Mendota in California’s Great Central Valley. It’s further north than Bakersfield, a town that now boasts nearly 10,000 inhabitants and nearly 40-percent unemployment. That was his childhood playland—the cantaloupe center of the world—until he was in his early teens.

Before Vegas, his family moved from Mendota and lived in Fresno, once home to Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist/novelist William Saroyan. Many people, myself included, have been taught to believe that John Steinbeck was the big Central California writer because he lived in the Salinas Valley and wrote Grapes of Wrath. But Saroyan preceded him as king. He wrote the short tale, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, (1934), which was taken from the 19th Century song of the same name. He also wrote The Human Comedy, (1943) and won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, among many other writings.

*     *     *     *     *

Rik’s eyes search the restaurant from behind dark-rimmed glasses. “Have I told you my William Saroyan story?” he asks.

Then, suddenly, the conversation shifts.  We get caught in small talk. It’s several minutes before we get back on the topic.

“I told Bonnie my Saroyan story,” he says. He’s talking about our mutual mentor, Bonnie Hearn Hill. She just released Taurus Eyes (2010), the second book in the Star Crossed Series. He gets on the subject of her husband, Larry Hill, whose short story collection, Saroyan’s Bookee was published in 2008 on Mark Arax’ imprint. Arax recently wrote the widely popular nonfiction work West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (2009). But that’s another story.

Larry, who is in his late 70s, is a wonderful writer. Don’t believe me? He recently won the 2010 Bellevue Literary Review Prize for Fiction for his work, Cocido, which I hear is online, but I have been having a hell of a time finding it.

I tell Rik I met Larry in an art gallery in Fresno. I explain that the entire room was filled with his paintings. A masterful abstract expressionist painter, Hill’s eye for beauty ties a peculiar modernism to lost generations of abstract artists. Splashes of color you might see in your mind but would never think to recreate, Hill can put to canvas.

Meet him and he’s quiet at first. But you immediately get the sense that he’s lived. I mean really lived. I’ve seen it in his paintings and in his eyes. “He’s an inner artist,” Bonnie says later in a telephone call.

She tells me she’s the opposite. An outer artist. Gabby. (Like me at times. I guess I capture a little of both worlds.)  She tells me that around fifty years ago Larry Hill was at Jackson Jones Liquor Store in Fresno. She said he and Saroyan reached for a bottle of wine at the same time. A magical moment. “He worshipped Saroyan,” Bonnie said.

At Pho Hung, Rik recommends Hill’s story “Tranquillity” that’s set in the Central Valley town of the same name. He points out the strangeness of the two L’s. I later get a glimpse of the book and start thumbing through a few pages. But Rik winds up taking it back.

I later write to Larry Hill and ask him if he’ll tell me his William Saroyan story. Apparently, he and Saroyan were both avid gamblers (as was my dad), and they shared the same bookee. But more important was Hill’s adoration for Saroyan, and the strange liquor store experience.

He writes back within a few days:

Hi, Nick.

It’s 1963. I’ve quit my teaching job ($4,000 a year) at Fresno High to try working full time as a commercial artist. Got a new home (Trend Homes by Spano, $12,000). Decide my birthday party needs a bottle of red wine (about a half gallon of Gallo Chianti, the kind in a husk basket because I think it will look good with my books on their plank and cinderblock book case.

I drive a couple blocks to Jackson Jones Liquor on the corner of Shields and West, park an old gray Chevy sedan I’ve named Moby, walk in, head straight for the wine display. Wow. Only one left down there on the bottom shelf. Just about to grab its dusty neck, when a huge hairy-knuckled hand beats me to it. Really it’s a tie, but I give in.

“All yours,” I say, “Mr. Saroyan.” For I’m looking straight into the fire and ashes of the legend’s face. First encounter with the man I’ve chased, spotted and missed in the Mecca Pool Hall, Blackstone Billiards, Ryan’s Arena, The Fresno Public Library. At The Big Fresno Fair, the Stockton, Pleasanton and Del Mar Race Tracks. Duke’s Place, Janofsky’s Pub, The Old Fresno, Duggan’s Yack and Snack, Darby’s Tavern, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the Bike Shop on Shields and Wishon, The Fresno YMCA (the day Abe Davidian was shot to death down the block), and twice in San Francisco on what proved to be bogus  leads.

He’s off to another display. No smile or thank you. Off before I can thank him for his body of work. Off before I can share a story about one of the bookies we have shared. One who’d cheated us. One we busted. One like Papa Joe who forgave us the juice when we were busted. God knows I’ve been told the stories. But, man, it would be great to hear one from him.

No such luck. I choose another bottle of wine. Unadorned. Probably not even a cork. Fuck it. I don’t care any more.

“Can I see some I.D.?”

It’s a new girl behind the counter, checking me out.

“You’re kidding, right?” I spread my wallet out in front of her. “I’m thirty-one, for Christ’s sake.” I hold the proof up for her and a few gawking patrons. “Five. Five. Thirty-two.”

From one of the people in line waiting behind me. Big voice. Like thunder. “Cinco de Mayo.”

I find him easy. “Right,” I say, “Cinco de Mayo, Mr. Saroyan.”

“Happy birthday,” he says.

Driving Moby back home, I must have been thinking how I would tell about meeting the Big One someday. I must have put a hundred strokes to it, giving it a little English here, a little follow-through there. Making sure I didn’t scratch. No worry though. I can pass for younger than I am. Saroyan’s so strong he’s scary. No one can kill us.

Larry

*     *     *     *     *

The food arrives. In front of Rik there’s a bowl of steaming seafood soup. I get eggrolls and a plate of lemon grass chicken and vegetables. The eggrolls are already sectioned. Each bite melts on my tongue. It’s my first time in a Vietnamese restaurant. This is my communion. I half expect butterflies to shatter glass, flit about the room, land on my glasses or Rik’s.

“When I was in seventh grade, a teacher gave me a book Saroyan wrote,” he says. “Every two weeks the library would get new books and I would flip through them finding everything Saroyan. I was obsessed with him. It wasn’t normal.” He says his teacher told him years later in a chance meeting that she wasn’t in class on a few occasions because she went to hear Saroyan give talks. She felt bad for not inviting him and carried the guilt for years.

Rik speaks slowly. The words roll off his tongue, bounce into the desert restaurant unveiling a mind’s eye cinematic view of California’s Great Central Valley. Mendota version. Dusty town. Smell of cantaloupes in the air. I can see the dirty purple sunsets along imaginary agri-rows. Melons and vineyards; Rik wandering down Mendota’s sidewalks. Old men riding bikes downtown. Baptist churches with their big-haired polyester preachers of the late 1970s. Every farm town and city is an imaginary dust devil away from the next.

He talks about Fresno next. I imagine drive-thru dairies. Milk in bottles and factory smokestacks. Grape vineyards surrounding a city like barbed wire.

“When I moved to Fresno I lived downtown,” Rik says. “It was 1981. I was sixteen. I had a 1965 Chevy Stepside that my dad got me. Then Saroyan died. I was devastated.”

I half expect Rik to choke up.

He goes on. He picks at his soup. It wafts in swirls of steam like spirit-filled incense. “I knew where Saroyan lived. After he died I drove past his home.  What was amazing was there were boxes of trash outside of Saroyan’s house along the street. All of a sudden I found myself parked next to the curb throwing the boxes into the back of my pick-up.

“And it wasn’t just any trash. It was every Christmas card, postcard and letter ever written to Saroyan,” Rik says. “There were articles too. I took them home and over the next few months I locked myself in my room and read every single one.”

I’m in shock. When I think about this moment in our conversation I imagine my jaw unhinging, bouncing on the table, then onto the floor and up the fertility statue. It gets lost among plastic tomatoes. “What did you do with it all?” I ask.

“I began giving away Saroyan’s postcards. All of it. I gave them to teachers, to friends, to anyone I knew who loved Saroyan.”

“Imagine what the family would do if they had that back. I can’t believe anyone would throw all of that away,” I say.

“Really said something about that family to me at the time,” Rik whispers. His eyes squint nearly shut.

“Do you have any left?”

“Maybe in a box. Probably not. You just lose stuff over the years,” he says.

A few days later I’m in his garage. I see piles of boxes. I want to tear through them, unearth an archive of lost literary history. But I just pass through. The door behind me closes. In my mind I claw at the wood to get in.

 

 

Take a look at this detailed photo of North America taken from outer space. Look at California. What do you see?

You don’t see San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego. You don’t see Disneyland or a giant sequoia named General Sherman. You see a big bowl. A trough, really.