In this, the third entry from Songs and Letters, my “uncharted book of poetry and prose,” I write about my growing-up place the way it was — or, perhaps more accurately, the way I was, and am, except for a thousand changes mean and profound, down to the sound of my voice and the rhythm of my worn out shoes.
Highway 99, San Joaquin Valley, California
In the old times, before roads and barns and dams and ditches, a giant Sequoia wandered alone by the river, calling for his mate. In a century his call was answered and the two were bride and groom. The whole valley shook when the two trees sighed. And when they returned to their home in the high Sierra, thunder echoed down the granite face.
There is a fire in the hills, a wire fence on Bear Mountain.
There are iron rails and crucified timbers choked by dead weeds,
and derelict porches of sunbleached boards
where deranged lizards soak up the sun
like besotted small town mayors.
Here a drop of water is a jewel that seeks remembrance upon a woman’s neck.
Against her hot brown skin, it gains the potency and sting of rattlesnake venom.
When they built the long road, the 99, it was already too late.
But the doctors operated anyway. The bleeding never stopped.
“To save the patient,” they said, “we must murder her.”
And the people liked the death they saw, and claimed it as their own.
I knew an Okie who said the valley was a garden. I knew a Mexican who said the land was rightfully his. I knew a Tule Indian who walked naked to a Spanish mission where the friars gave him clothes. I knew a white man from St. Louis, who knew a fisherman in Maine, who one day killed a Chinese man, then calmly went insane. The truth is, I knew just about everyone everywhere at one time or another. I knew them on the train West, I knew them in saloons. I knew them in the red brick banks, and in upstairs hotel rooms. I knew them as bartenders, horse thieves, grave diggers, assayers, harmonica players, Sunday school teachers, butchers, and engine men. I knew the preacher who saved the farmer’s daughter. I knew the judge and jury who arranged for the innocent man’s slaughter. I knew the man before he was hung, and the man who did the hanging. We went out back and had a drink, and I learned he knew him too. A few months later, when the child was born, he looked like the devil himself. Sad how things work out sometimes.
When they built the long road, the 99, they killed two million horned toads and a symphony of crickets. The squirrels climbed the power poles and the gophers gave out tickets. Then, in the name of Beauty, the highway department planted oleanders.
Nixon used the road once, back in 1960. He was impressed by the oleanders.
“A man could go to the toilet in there if he had to,” he said, “and not be seen.”
When they drove though a massive cloud of gnats and dragonflies,
he asked the chauffeur if they were expecting rain.
“Not for about ten years now,” the chauffeur said and smiled,
though he knew a drop did slip through from time to time.
March 20, 2005