Edendale, Chapter 14

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January 1, 2012 · Posted in Edendale by Phyl M. Noir 

The view from Barnsdale, 1906--Los Angeles Public Library

Over the Grapevine

 By Phyl M. Noir

Hiro smelled water and pines.  Small boats gathered next to houses on the edge of Clearlake.  Beyond them was the expanse of the lake — larger in his imagination than it really was because of the fog.  He parked across the street from a wood house set on posts in the water.

Cyd Bissell wore a turquoise dress.  She came out of the house through a screen door, turned on the porch light, looked down the road for a moment and went back inside the house.   She hadn’t looked across the street: the fog had softened the sound of his van’s engine when he arrived.

Hiro had a limp from the polio he had when he was four years old.  It took him a few minutes to swing his legs out of the van and slide his feet to the pavement.  He pulled the package from the seat next to him and tucked it under his arm.  He walked down the wooden ramp, stood on the porch in front of the door and waited.

Through the screen door he saw Cyd Bissell sitting on a chair inside the house.   She looked up and saw him.

Hiro had been married to Patria.  Cyd’s Aunt Barbara had been her good friend.  In 1980, Patria had two strokes.  Her heart gave out.

Hiro took care of Aunt Barbara after she became confined to a wheelchair and lost her eyesight.  He had executed her will and organized the memorial service for her when she died.

“Hiro!  Why didn’t you ring the bell?  You half startled me standing there in the fog.” Cyd said.

She got to her feet and opened the screen door. He came inside.  He saw packing boxes open on the floor.

“I was waiting for you.” She said.

He put the package on the table.

“Sit,” she said.  “Take a load off your feet.”  He found a chair.

“I was afraid I’d lose you.”  He said.  On a bookshelf behind her stood a small alligator carved from white wood, a Florida license plate and her old California license plate.

“Well.  You won’t lose me.  Could I get you something?  You must be tired.”

“I’m tired.”  He didn’t want anything to eat or drink.

The fog outside darkened the inside of the house on Clearlake. Cyd put the package on the table and turned on the lamp.

A large blue jay passed in a diagonal flight across one of the windows casting a shadow inside the room.

He unwrapped the package and removed an old brown leather album.

She took it and opened it.   Inside were little paper triangles glued on the pages and photographs inserted into the triangles and also a parchment document.

The first picture showed Dr. and Mrs. Bissell riding in a surrey on a road in the Viennese countryside.

The second showed them on their steamship voyage to Vienna in 1906.   In the photograph, they wore a great many clothes and sat on the deck of a ship and smiled and held up the baby Franklin.

Other photographs were of pictures of young people in the 1920s in a long canoe on Clearlake.  Her aunt Barbara was a dark-haired girl with eyeglasses.  Cyd didn’t know any of the people but she saw some of them again in other photographs walking in the distance toward the Berkeley campanile.

Hiro poked loose photographs from the album with one finger.  “I should have looked at these,” he said.  “I didn’t know there was a picture of you.”

In one photograph, Cyd and her cousin Laurie stood arm in arm in front of Aunt Barbara’s Rambler American up at the Kern River near Bakersfield.  That had been a remarkable day: their aunt almost drowned them.

She asked them to jump in the river, which ended just out of sight in white rapids sliding over rocks.  Cyd refused.  Laurie jumped in.   Laurie was just a little kid maybe six years old. Her red hair floated on the water’s surface. Cyd jumped in after her to save her life but Cyd was only eight and was going to drown, too.   She saw gold flecks in the water.

She pulled her head out of the water.   Aunt Barbara galumphed towards the river’s edge carrying a tire with a long rope tied to it.  She threw the tire out to the little girls, and they caught it and she pulled them safely into shore.

On the way down the mountain back to Route 99, Laurie said to stop.  She got out of the car and threw up on the road.   Aunt Barbara said, “She’s just car sick.  She’s not scared.  Laurie always goes first.”

Cyd remembered that the mountains had been ahead of them when they got down on 99: mineral walls like mountains on Mars. Heat clouds had risen behind the mountains: vaporous white landscapes of crenellated castles, a crumbling pillar of salt, a sick child’s counterpane, and dubious giant soldiers fighting in snow.

Her aunt’s Nash had joined a line of cars going slowly towards the Grapevine Grade, which went through the Tejon Pass.   Night had begun before they reached the Grapevine.  Laurie’s wet hair fell over the back of the car seat in the front but in the darkness it looked blue like the flame on a gas stove.

The Rambler descended through dark hills. The only lights had been the cars’ lights: red ahead of them, white in the Rambler’s mirrors and white on the oncoming cars on the other side of the divider.

Behind the stars were more stars and there were skeins of stars much smaller like knots on thread.   Los Angeles was laid out in a tartan of lights ahead of them on the road.

Hiro sat in the house on Clearlake and said nothing.

He closed his eyes.  It became night.

They heard the high-pitched voices of small frogs calling from the edge of the lake.  Crickets sawed love songs on their hind legs.

Hiro took Cyd dinner at a restaurant called Pantyhose Junction. It had a real name but he couldn’t remember what it was even after he looked at the sign when he came through the door.   He sat down at a table and opened the menu but he didn’t remember to look for the name.

In the 1960s, the young waitresses had worn very short skirts because that was the fashion.   Now the waitresses were elderly and bulky. They wore short skirts but also wore thick support pantyhose.

The menu promised food like their mothers made.   Hiro’s mother was a picture bride from Japan.  She never once prepared meatloaf, mashed potatoes, boiled cubes of carrot and tiny spheres of canned peas and she was 104.  There was, however, still time.

After they ate Hiro got up and paid at the register and Cyd waited with him.  Behind the register was a glass case.  In it were enormous pies: peacock turquoise, royal blue, and lemon.    The yellow pie was yellow in a way no lemon had ever been; perhaps canaries were that color.  Perhaps it was a canary pie.  White meringue topped the canary pie.  A placard on the counter invited customers to buy the restaurant’s World Famous Pies.

“In Paris, in Varna, in Tajikistan,” Cyd said, “men and women discuss Pantyhose Junction pies.”   Hiro crinkled his eyes to indicate amusement.

They went out into the parking lot.  A duck crossed the lot between the cars.

Before Hiro left to go to a hotel for the night he left a typed page with Cyd, which was the last poem he had written about Patria.

She read from the sheet of paper:

“Viridian and Phtalo green, chrome green,

cobalt green, chartreuse.  Green, we were drunk on green

the first year — olive green, sea green, oxide green, and moss.


“Cadmium orange fruit and lemons grew in languor in our garden the following year.  There was a small clear red place there, where my wife’s heart beat against mine.


“Green, drunken green in my our garden the last year: wintergreen,

Homer’s green, bright light green, evergreen and Verde Permanente.”


Hiro drove along 20 through the low mountain range from Clearlake.  Fog concealed much of the road.  He concentrated on the center dividing line and kept to the right of it.

A cow came out of the fog walking slowly to a field on the other side of the road.   Hiro turned sharply and the van went over the dividing lane and back into his lane.  Sidney Bissell in a white naval uniform drove towards him. His van spun into a grass verge and stopped. Through the passenger side window Hiro saw a deep decline through brush and trees.

He turned the key in the ignition and realized his hands were trembling.  He waited until he was calm again.

Hiro drove along the length of the valley floor through which the government had cut two highways: Highway 99 and Interstate 5.

The cities Joan Didion described as the M towns, Merced, Modesto and Madera – Mercy, Modest and Wood — stood around 99.   Fresno, the name of which meant an ash tree that grew along the river, and Bakersfield were on 99. The smell of cow dung and ammonia signaled Hanford.

It was hard to stay awake when he drove 5.   He saw what his city eyes identified as nothing, two trees, nothing, cows and nothing.  He felt he had overslept and was dreaming long, boring and repetitive sequences.

He thought about what John Muir had written about the Central Valley long before it sank from overdraws on the water table.

“Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flowerbed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the iris spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.”

Hiro’s reverie came up suddenly against the wall in his perspective: a painted highway and painted cars moving along that highway.   He felt terror.  He had no idea where he was.

He continued to drive.  There was not much else he could do.  If he were on a real road he reasoned and if he were to stop real cars would hit him.

The road became real.  It had not been in a painting.  He had chosen well.    He turned on the car radio.  American radio announcers were awful: people with loud voices and optimism.  Mexican radio announcers were terrible in a different way. They spoke fast with an insinuating boisterous meanness.

It was hard to calibrate he decided.   The American and Mexican announcers fell in two such different camps of obnoxiousness that it was not entirely possible to say one was worse than the other.

The music was upbeat but the words of the songs were about angels, pain, beating hearts and cascading moonlight.  He preferred Mexican music to be without words.

He drove past grapevines that grew on crosses planted in horizontal lines facing I-5.   Hiro didn’t see how the Grapevine looked anything like a real grapevine.

Vertical posts strung with horizontal wire, telephone poles and transmission lines, rhomboid fields, fruit and nut trees planted in parallel lines sunk in rectangles of dark water and shadow, square boxes, silos, gas and water tanks, rectangle orange hotel roofs, triangle restaurant roofs, round creosote, square road signs. You had to have a geometric aesthetic to like the Central Valley.  You had to like premises and proofs.  You needed to appreciate the area of a rectangle as the base multiplied by the width and that the volume of a cylinder was pi times the radius squared times the height and that parallel lines met in infinity.

He drove through the Kern River alluvial fan in the great sedimentary trough of the Central Valley. Five million years ago the Great Central Valley was part of the Pacific Ocean.  Ground undulated at the bases of the surrounding mountain ranges.

The tops of the ranges were once islands; the hills at the bases of the mountains were descents into the sea from the islands; and the valley had been covered with warm water.

He pictured himself driving along the ancient sea bottom in a submarine: periwinkles, conches, whelks, a gastropod with a long flattened foot and raspy tongue passed languorously. Dolphins and whales broke the surface of the brilliant water.

Dun grasses covered the sides of the slopes along the first part of the Grapevine.   Blue oak, scrub oak and valley oak grew for miles after that.   The fire burning on the other side of the Tehachapis glowed at the edge of the sky.

This is not how it looked when I was sick, he thought.

A Caucasian neighbor had driven him down the mountain to the hospital in Bakersfield but the hospital wouldn’t accept him because the nurses thought he was an Indian.  If they had known he was Japanese they still wouldn’t have allowed him into the hospital.   That was how things were in 1925.

The neighbor then drove little Hiro shaking with fever down to Los Angeles.  There were marshes and water birds up to where the Grapevine began.  Blue flowers had grown in the wet pools and little flowers the color of butter had grown in the dry flatland.   He saw trees in the darkening sky.

The doctors had kept him in the hospital for a year.  When the year was over his sister was old enough to drive. She drove their parents over the Grapevine in their neighbor’s car.

“He forgot how to talk,” his father said when he saw him in the hospital in Los Angeles.

Hiro had still understood Japanese but talked only in English.  His father didn’t speak English.

“It’s all shabui,” his father had said in Japanese although he believed his little boy no longer understood him.  “Everything is wonderful.  Everything is flawed.”

Hiro saw to the east the Antelope Valley city lights. He came to the colored lights describing the curves of the amusement rides at Magic Mountain and passed the cities of Valencia and Newhall.

The Sylmar fire stopped at the 5.  It didn’t jump across.  Santa Ana winds sucked moisture from the air and burned trees fell.   Hiro’s lips cracked in the heat.

He drove down the long incline to the 210 and down the 2 and saw the cross on the roof of the mausoleum in Forest Lawn Memorial Park.   The old Van de Kamp bakery looked like a dismantled movie set.

On his car radio a woman complained that Obama was going to take her husband’s firearms so she was not going to vote for him.

Fire arms!  Hiro thought.

He got off at Riverside Drive and drove into the Edendale hills.  Darkness covered the bottom half of the moon because of the smoke from the fires.   The fire’s soot on his windshield looked gold when headlight beams struck it.

He opened the van door and slid from the seat and limped to his empty house pulling his wheeled suitcase behind him.

He closed the door to his house.  He took his clothes from the suitcase and hung them in the bathroom on the shower curtain pole so the wrinkles would fall out with steam. He washed himself and brushed his teeth.   He put on clean red pajamas.

His reflection in the window glass was a ghost over the city lights that were clustered more intensely along Hollywood Boulevard.

Hiro sat in front of the window at his desk and took out a sheet of blue paper from one of the drawers.  He got up again and removed Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite from its cardboard sleeve and fit it on the phonograph, lifted the phonograph arm and placed it so that the needle touched the last raised circle on the record. Thus began the slow chromatic descent as the main character Ivan enters the garden and sees through music the lonely bird so isolated by its great gift.

Hiro wrote on blue paper that he danced. The path of his body in space — both of his fire arms in gesturing and of his whole fire body in locomotion — was cursive like the poet bird’s meandering tail along the blue page.




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