What the Heart Wants
“The Heart wants what it wants—"
--Emily Dickinson, 1862
"What if I told you I'm incapable of tolerating my own heart?"
--Virginia Woolf, 1919
It’s not an easy call to make, to accuse my only living grandparent of deception. And it’s not exactly deception, nor an accusation, really. But it sounds that way in my head. No matter how many times I’ve rehearsed it, every time I say, “I did a DNA test and found my biological grandfather,” I lose my breath, my ribs contract, begin to strangle my heart. To reveal my blood-kin is to let surface my grandmother’s secret. A secret that has pulled our family under for over sixty years. I’m tired of drowning. I pick up the phone and try to control my voice.
Freda is giddy after I tell her. Her laugh and “Oh my!” flow into my lungs like ice water, not what I expected. She makes no denial of the past, gives no quick revisionist history. Freda does not sound like the woman who, for the last twenty years, has tried to get me to read the K.J.V. Bible, The Secret, The Purpose Driven Life. She sounds like the woman she suddenly became at her husband’s funeral. "Who the hell is she?" my sister and I asked each other after we'd been pulled out of our adult lives to become girls again in their home. We were sharing a bedroom and helping Freda sort the arrangements for the man we knew as our grandfather. Three days into his death, and she was giving away their lifetime together—the snow blower, his pickup, his collection of Stetsons, belts, and cowboy boots. It was a cold shock when she announced she'd given his rifle, the one he'd used to teach me to shoot quail, to her own brother. "When you come and visit us in Missouri, you can get it," she said. This was her way of revealing she was selling up and moving out of Raton, New Mexico, returning to her childhood hometown.
Then she foisted our grandfather’s ashes on us, a white cardboard box. Not knowing what else to do, my sister took them home. She put the box on a shelf in her closet, and after a week called me to say, "My closet keeps making noises. Grandpa is haunting me. Why didn't Granny want his ashes?" I muttered something about grief, but somehow knew it wasn't right. "We've got to get rid of him. He's not happy with me," she said. A few months later, we returned to New Mexico, just before the house sold, and scattered his ashes inside Capulin Volcano. Freda didn't come with us.
We asked our mother about Freda's behavior. Her response was so prompt it was as if she'd been waiting years to tell it. "I never got the impression he really loved her," she said. "She probably fell out of love with him years ago."
"What? How can you say that? They were married, like, forever," I said.
"Yeah, because he adopted Terry, and Freda didn't want to be on her own. Did you ever hear him tell her he loved her? He worked hard and never let her buy a thing. He socked away nearly every penny, like a miser. He made her work, even when she wanted to stay home with your father. He made your father work like a man from the time he was adopted. He was a cold man, you know."
I'd never heard my grandfather mention the word love with anyone. When I entered college, he sent me newspaper and magazine articles about saving money and planning for my future career, the type of advice no one else in my family seemed to follow. Most of them had declared bankruptcy at least once. He called me, sent birthday checks and cards. He took me to restaurants when I visited them, walked the rim of Capulin Volcano, went sight-seeing on long drives upon the mesas. If I needed something, he bought it or sent me the money for it. I got the feeling he loved me. That had been enough. My mother, though, knew it hadn't been for Freda. "He never let her forget that she needed him," she said.
My grandfather willed Freda a small fortune when he died. I remember this as I'm listening to her reaction about a man she'd known only long enough to conceive my father sometime in the spring of 1951. That man, with whom I share DNA, was nearly useless. He was a notorious philanderer, though he was married. All he'd given his wife was a hard time and a string of children. When I tell Freda about his cheating, she says, "Yes, I knew that." Her words are clipped and heavy, normal again. For a moment I wish my sister was with me, could hear Freda admit she'd slept with a married man. But then she says, "I didn't know it until after I was pregnant with your father, though. I found out when I was at my sister's. Eleanor and I were sitting at her kitchen table and I'd just told her I was pregnant. Before she could say anything about it, her neighbor came in the back door and was talking about a red-haired man with a red truck who worked with the state’s bridge-building crew and how a man who worked with him told his wife he was running around. 'He's been going around with some girl and he's got four kids of his own at home. The oldest boy is big enough to know now.' That's how she said it. She didn't know it was me. Eleanor didn't know it either. But I knew it was him. We rode around in that red truck all over St. Louis. He'd pick me up from the diner where I waited tables, where I met him. He came in with some other men on the crew, sat at my table, and winked. Told me he loved my dark hair. After that, he’d pick me up after work and that's what we'd do, ride around all over the hills."
My eardrums are banging so loudly, I'm sure Freda can hear them through the phone line. This is more than anyone—except maybe Eleanor, who is dead—has ever known about my father's father. And it all came out rehearsed, like a stale monologue, sixty years past its expiration date. "I didn't even know his real name," she continues. "I just called him Red because of his hair. I didn't know it until I looked in his glovebox. He'd left me in the truck and gone in a store for something," her voice fades. Somehow I know that he'd gone into the store for liquor, something Freda now demonizes. "I opened the glove box and there was his registration. As soon as I knew his name, I remembered rumors some of the other woman around town had going about him. But I didn't think much of gossip like that. I probably should have done. But when you're young, you just don't think of those things," she says. "He didn't know I was pregnant. He never saw me again after that day I was at Eleanor's. I quit the diner. But he saw me on the street after Terry was born, and that's how he found out. He knew just by looking at him that he was his son. He saw your father a couple of times. Brought him a present for his second birthday."
I need to ask her why this has to be such a dark secret. Why she never bothered to tell my father any of this when he was a child and begged her for answers. Why she insisted on keeping such a small thing as an affair a secret. Why she's letting him continue to pine. But I can't quiet my heart, now thrumming so fast and loud I’ve broken into a sweat. Anything I say will come out as accusatory, like I’m blaming her while she’s in the witness box. That’s why I’d practiced so long before picking up the phone.
I force a breath into my chest, and feel my heart move, then I say, "He had other kids. He and his wife had other kids after Terry was born. They lived on a chicken farm. And he had another family. Another woman who was like his wife in another town. They had at least one kid, maybe more. His real wife even knew about her. He'd go there when he was in the dog house. He'd just go off and leave his wife with their six or seven kids."
"But she wouldn't divorce him,” Freda says, sounding like someone who's been living too long by a stranger's rules. "She was religious. They didn't do that. He told me she'd tried to, but the judge told her they had too many kids and she had to uphold her vow. 'For better or worse.'"
I get the impression that Freda is lying about breaking it off with Red. I suddenly imagine an
argument between my pregnant grandmother and Red. She’s screaming at the man who's charmed his way into her bed, who won't leave his wife and children. Or maybe she was screaming when he showed up with presents for my father. Maybe it wasn't until then that she realized Red would never leave the chicken farm. And then I'm hit with a faint memory, something whispered that I'd overheard when I was a child. Eleanor was supposed to adopt my father because she and her husband weren't able to have children. At the very last minute, though, Freda had changed her mind. My brain clicks, tumblers fall, and I see my grandmother with her married lover, his plea for her to keep the child so they can make a life together. I see her believing him. And suddenly, Freda and my father are the other family Red kept, the one he ran to over the next three years every time an argument with his wife got heated. Before I can test this theory, Freda asks, "Is he still in Missouri?"
My heart drums in my ears. I manage to swallow and squeeze out the answer. "He's dead. He died when Terry was eight. Heart failure. He was only forty-seven. He left his wife with nothing but kids. They lost their farm and had to sleep on couches of relatives and friends. The oldest boy turned out okay. The younger ones, though..." I can't say any more, can't tell her the little I've uncovered about my half-aunts and -uncles. I wait for her to offer some condolence, something obligatory. My receiver-holding hand sweats and I try to eke out another sentence. Nothing comes. Freda's silence causes my face to burn.
My father's half-siblings fared poorly after Red's death. They were homeless and split up. One or two, along with their mother, would be taken in for days at a time by a friend or neighbor, but there was never enough room for all of them. The older kids were forced into an early adulthood and bore the weight of constantly feeling out of place. Several of them died just before I got my DNA results. But the oldest son, my father's oldest half-brother, twelve years his senior, went to college and managed to rise from the stink of the chicken farm, the perpetual life of poverty, and make a man of himself. Even before Red’s death, he knew his father was everything he didn’t want to become. When Red fell ill, my half-uncle hadn't seen him in four years. Red spent the last two months of his life in a VA hospital, suffering from congestive heart failure. By the time his oldest son visited him, he'd been reduced to a shell. His father had loomed so large, always had a twinkle in his eye, had served in World War II, and played on a semi-professional baseball team. But his hands and feet were like ice. He died shortly after the visit.
My grandfather, too, died of congestive heart failure. He’d survived Scarlet Fever as a child, but it had damaged part of his heart muscle. He spent his life working hard—as a boy on a ranch, then as a man for Pacific Bell and an apartment complex owner. He had to take doctor-prescribed naps in the middle of the day to care for his weak heart. He and Freda bought a central California hilltop ranch and raised chinchillas, taught me to hunt rabbits and small birds. He still napped, even when we visited. Then, after he’d retired and they moved to New Mexico, a standard operation to remove cancerous tumors from his prostate damaged his kidneys. Rather than endure a transplant, he chose a port in his chest and a machine to filter his blood three times a week for the next eleven years. I never heard him complain about the dialysis until the year before he died. “I should’ve taken the transplant,” he said, voice laced not with self-pity but with the lament of having made the wrong decision. By then his body had shriveled. Two days before his death, he’d been admitted to the ICU to drain fluid from around his heart. Freda spent thirty-six hours with him, and when he was feeling better he told her to go home and change clothes, to bring him some clean pants for the ride home they’d make soon. He died alone, shortly after Freda had left his side.
A fairly common heart condition killed both men. One had swayed Freda with a sweet tongue, took her driving on cool Missouri nights, and did nothing to help her raise their child. The other man married her, gave his name to a boy not his own, worked to provide for them both, but never expressed love. It’s clear Freda regrets the choices she's made, especially when it came to the well-being of my father. She blames herself for his behavior, mental incapacities, and eventual incarceration, wonders where she went wrong. Her turn toward religion has helped absolve her a little, but the sorrow and shame linger. Still, the heart wants what it wants. If given a choice between passion and stability, the heart jumps into Red’s truck every time.
My father bore the pull of his absent father through his childhood. He begged her for information and, at first, was met with a stern reprisal. More questions earned him a smack. When he got older and the questions became accusations, he got a belt lashing from my grandfather. He continued to ask, even after he was told, "You're lucky to have a father at all." There is some dispute over who said this to him. My mother insists it was my grandfather, while Freda has told me she said as much to him a handful of times. But his heart was tethered to a man he imagined loved him and wanted to be with him. He thought his life could've been better. He still believes this even though he's over sixty years old and has made his own choices.
In spite of everything, here's what completely hollows my chest, creates a sucking pressure in my heart: my unknowing eight-, nine-, ten-year-old fatherless father, begging for information about a father he wished would suddenly arrive and love him. His life was hollow somehow, but he tried to hide it by excelling in sports, as if he'd been mentored by a man to hit a baseball, catch a football, jump a hurdle. At school, he was teased and bullied, but even the principal told him he had to bear his powerlessness. He couldn’t stop what others did. The principal told him to pray. Pray for strength. Loneliness kept him awake at night in his Los Angeles apartment, so he sat in a nearly-bare bedroom, gazing out a wide window at a starless sky, pleading to the dark, his cheeks wet, his nose dripping snot. He begged for his father to come. He didn’t know Red was already dust, moldering in a Missouri graveyard. He made promises—he'd quit fighting in school, even when the boys called him a bastard; he'd stop showing off on the baseball field; he'd do every chore his step-father asked, even if it meant blisters and scrapes and bruises. As long as his father came to the door, puts his arms out, hugged him the way his mother used to before she married, he would do all of these things, and more. If his father came now.
His little ears strained to hear a knock at the door.
Each time he heard nothing, his little heart beat once, stopped, beat again, stopped. His chest sank.
At some point, his prayers turned to anger. By the time he was a young man, he'd been accused by his step-father's tenants of being a peeping Tom and of stealing jewelry from their apartments. Once, on the street, he’d grabbed a woman’s breasts and been called before a judge, who sentenced him to a psychiatric evaluation. In his twenties, he lost a meter-reading job with Southern California Gas Company because he'd walked into a sleeping woman’s bedroom, claiming he smelled a gas leak in her house. Again, he was court-ordered to see a psychiatrist. Years later, he was arrested, tried for violence against eight women, and sentenced to 101 years in prison. Until then, he’d managed to keep the violent nature in his heart a secret from his parents and my mother.
I was just shy of my eighth birthday when the press dubbed my father “The Nine-Fingered Rapist.” Before then we were an unassuming, church-going family. But, by the time I turned nine we’d been dragged under the tidal wave he created. I was told again and again that I'd never see him again and I'd be better off telling people he was dead. I was not allowed to write to him in prison. No one shied away from telling me the details—I knew what rape was before I knew about menstruation and breasts. His case was followed by a gaggle of reporters, the gory details of his burglaries and violence is the stuff of television melodrama. My mother was eventually shunned. I was bullied. Our neighbors read the papers. We cut out the articles and squirrelled them away with the half-dozen letters he wrote to us from jail. He condemned my mother for going through with a divorce, assuring her that his children would never forget their father because he’d never forgotten his. He wrote to my mother in an early letter, “The girls will never forget their father. I never did!” Among the vitriol he extolled toward her, his lawyer, his accusers, he seemed to pass along a certain legacy—that fatherlessness would be our curse, our ruin, as it had been his. I’m not sure why we kept the newspaper articles or letters. They were didactic and ethnographic, and constantly squeezed my heart.
It was hinted that, had my father not been caught, he would've eventually moved on to his own daughters. I doubt it. His victims were all in their early or mid-thirties, of a certain height and weight, had dark hair, and all lived alone. One detective said they probably would have caught him sooner had they simply warned women who fit the demographic. But they were hesitant to pin him down as a serial, or even accuse one man of the 60-80 cases that all revealed the same pattern, the same profile: someone who seemed to both desire and need to exert power over middle-aged brunettes. He longed too long for blood-kin. Though I was raised to believe his sins would haunt me, that I had to walk the straight and narrow or I'd be just like him somehow, that he’d break out of prison and crawl through my window in the middle of the night, I never thought he’d harm me. Instead, I hoped he would come. So I slept little and listened to the sounds of the night, the loudest was the beat of my own heart. I knew it was wrong to wish him home, but for years I couldn't shut my heart. Though I longed for my father, I lived with continual thoughts that I would eventually do something that would land me in prison just like him. Already, when I looked in the mirror I saw my father lurking around the edges of my reflection. I’d learned over the years that children with incarcerated parents feel guilt and shame over their parents' crimes, and were seventy percent more likely to commit crimes that result in prison or jail time. I kept myself awake at night, worrying when my father’s blood would it would rise, flood my world, drown me.
Just after I turned thirty, I decided to write to him. My heart wanted him to be more than the vengeful man he'd been in the yellowing newspaper clippings. I wanted to know about his childhood, his love for the Dodgers, and if he'd ever known happiness. From his letters, it’s clear he’s mentally unstable. He has a brain deficiency he has never wanted to treat, though his lawyers and the parole board have encouraged it. He chooses to pray, to lead prayer groups, and to lift weights. I quickly realized that no matter how much I wrote to him, no matter how many questions I asked, he would write to me as if I was still a little girl. He remained tight-lipped about the rapes and burglaries. The refrain in every letter was a plea for me to get his mother to write to him. He wanted to write to her. He still wanted to know the identity of his biological father.
I call Freda a few weeks after telling her about the DNA results, after she's had time to consider what I'd discovered, time to think about anything else she might tell me. I ask her why she never told, still refuses to tell, my father about her long-dead lover. She says, "Maybe I should. I don't know what to say."
"How about just tell him what happened? That's what he wanted as a kid." Though weeks have passed since our last call, I am still struggling to speak without sounding like a criminal prosecutor. She lets out a sigh, then is silent for so long I think she may be angry. I wonder if I sound like my father had, so many years ago when he was a little boy asking about his father. I wonder if she is remembering how she refused him, and in doing so created a rift that grew to become a gulf that drown him, buoyed him to confusion and anger. She blames herself, but has never said why specifically, only that she wishes she'd helped him more. Her word: help.
I can't get myself to talk. My chest is heavy, my heart thudding against my constricting ribcage. Finally, Freda sighs again and says, "I don't understand why any of it matters to him. It was a long time ago. It’s over."
It's clear to me she won't tell my father anything. I get the feeling that, though I've given her all of my father's contact information, she isn't gong to write to him at all. She's scared. Not of him, of what he might say or do, that he might, somehow, get out of prison and find her, but of herself, what she might write
I say, "Granny, I'm gonna tell him his dad died. He needs to know."
"I think that's good," she says. "But, I can't write to him about that."
It's useless for me to tell Freda that mental health professionals now acknowledge that talking to children about their relatives and ancestors—immediate or distant—makes them more emotionally stable and empathetic to others. Not only because my father is no longer a child, but because when she was raising him, in the idyllic age of the 1950's and 60's, self-righteousness reigned, social status was derived from perceived normalcy, and pasts like Freda's were swept under the rug. It would be unnatural for her to do anything other than keep silent. What I somehow know, however, as the ache in my chest blooms, is that there is more to her silence. She can't admit that she'd fallen in love with Red, a man she could never have for herself. That perhaps for the whole of her adult life, even as she was married to my grandfather, she still loved Red. Perhaps some part of her believed, as her son hoped, that he would one day walk back into her life the way he'd walked into that Missouri diner and winked at her. She remained silent not to keep a secret from her son, but to protect her own crushed heart. I can hear the mourning in her voice, laced with regret. It's a sound only those who've felt it can hear.
I wrote to my father and told him everything I'd found out about Red. I wish I could say that something profound happened after I sent that long letter. But this isn't the movies, it's not even poetic. When I finally heard back from him, he reacted by asking me, again, if I could get his mother to write to him.
I’ve quietly started to acknowledge a birthright over which I have no control. And I think of my father in the same way I do about others: there are many versions of ourselves over our lifetimes, and the person we are today is not the one we'll be in a decade, or that we were two decades ago. I choose to think of him not as a predator but as the small boy who pined for a father, tethered like a tiny boat to an unimaginable anchor. I choose this version of him because it is most like my own experience, it is a reality that allows me a measure of emotional connection to a father that was so prominently absent that he was an overwhelming force in my life. And I choose to love that little boy because it is the least I can do for myself. Still, I often retreat—out of habit, out of ritual, out of heart-sickness—into the thought that we all hang on to things that can eventually drown us. I think of Virginia Woolf, who, on her stroll near the Ouse River, stopped intermittently to fill her pockets with the stones that would weigh her down.
The red Tehachapi and the purple San Gabriel Mountains form a horseshoe around California's high-desert Antelope Valley. The only way out, it seems, is to snake through a descending pass. My father moved us there, to the tiny hamlet of Littlerock, in the winter of 1983. Though it was one of the oldest settlements in the state, by the time we arrived the only notable landmark was the cavernous mine quarry. Miles of Joshua trees, tumbleweeds, and prehistoric yucca—flat surfaces that were used to depict the Wild West or sandy Mexican outposts in Hollywood silent films—were consumed by cranes, whose dinosaur-like necks sprouted from the canyons they’d cut. Dump trucks were loaded, then rumbled onto the highway and spat detritus onto car windows. Littlerock was little more than a whistle stop for Los Angelinos on their way to Las Vegas.
One-hundred years earlier, it was a vibrant community of Piute Indians and almond farmers. The town grew in size during the Industrial Revolution, when the desert was ripped open for irrigation and Midwesterners invested in pear orchards, and took up residence at the Palmer Boarding House—one of the state’s oldest buildings. In the 1960’s Neil Armstrong lived nearby while he trained for his space mission. Aldous Huxley was once a resident. By the eighties, though, Littlerock was exploited by the mining companies that seemingly ignored the San Andreas Fault nearby and the instability their digging created. Just as no one connected the complete re-routing and damming of the Little Rock Creek to the Valley’s profound demise, they ignored the quarry's contribution to the possibility of an earthquake.
Our new house was less than a mile from the fault's crest, and my Prohibition-era school was even closer. In preparation for The Big One, teachers taught that the best places to hide were away from windows and under a steel-framed desk, or, at home, under a bed or table. Possible catastrophic seismic events couldn’t be predicted and it was better for us to drill weekly than be smashed by a falling wall or roof.
I was six. Old enough to know no one should live that close to a fault, but young enough to forget it. I was proud to finally be living in a real house rather than a North Hollywood apartment on a congested street of a dirty city that had caused my baby sister’s lungs to repeatedly fill with goo. The desert was part of her prescription. I thought the desert—its Santa Ana winds and cold bright nights—was heaven. And in the spring, when my parents took us to the Antelope Valley PoppyThe Wizard of Oz. I like to think that my parents were altruistic and felt some sadness toward the shrinking beauty of our new hometown. But these many decades later, their motives remain their own. My mother likes a controlled garden. And my father hasn’t been out in the open in nearly thirty years.
On the drive to the preserve, my baby sister, April, sat on my mother’s lap in the passenger seat of our silver Ford sedan. My other sister, Deidre, and I were quiet and tense in the back seat, cramped against the cooler that held our lunches inside. My father drove in silence. After what seemed like hours, but what couldn’t have been more than a half-hour drive, our car bounced into the graveled lot, slants of light pin-wheeling from its silver hood. On the hills, the bright orange petals seemed proud, as if standing in resistance to the quarry cranes and noise of bulldozers some miles away. They created a mosaic of oranges and yellows against a field of green prairie grass. Across the mounds, railroad ties outlined jagged paths that looked like open sores. Part of me was beginning to understand the beauty and silence of my new hometown.
When my father parked, I grabbed Deidre’s hand, violently pulling her onto the floorboard and across to my side. She whined that I’d skinned her knees, but we raced onto the nearest path, passing the white ticket booth where my father would hand over a few dollars for the Valley’s beauty. A dust of camel-colored dirt rose as we ran. It collected in the creases of our cheap read sneakers. I wore my white T-shirt tucked into my jeans, my hair bundled beneath my Dodger’s cap. Deidre wore her personalized “Daddy’s Girl” jersey (flawed because my father had transposed the "ei"). By the time we topped the largest hill, sweat and grit had nearly glued our palms together. We were panting, lungs afire, standing among the brilliant flowers, our back to our parents, turned away from a future too strange to understand at the time, perhaps even too strange for any time since.
Deidre raised her free hand and said, “That’s a snake.”
Five yards ahead, a baby rattler, its head raised from the ground, hissed and writhed.
I pulled her toward it. “Come on.”
She jerked away and took a few steps back. “You’re nuts.” She was only five, but already she sounded just like our mother.
Snakes, foxes, coyotes, cottontails. These were animals I'd only ever seen in Richard Scary books. But when we moved to the desert, they became part of our daily conversations— we'd seen a coyote from the window of the school bus, a snake had coiled itself into the trashcan at Martin Park. Keeping animals out of the house was a real concern. Keeping people out, though, didn't occur to us until a year after we'd moved in. On a crisp spring evening in 1984, with the windows of our house open wide to the calm wind and darkening sky, my parents gathered around the kitchen table to play Gin with a few of our neighbors. The younger kids and my sisters tinkered in the back bedroom, while I played Atari with the older kids. The adults sat behind us, smacking cards on the table as they played, and laughed at something one of them had said in a low voice.
“I’ve got to use the bathroom,” one of the women said. She'd become my mother’s best friend. She, her husband, and son lived at the end of our block. They kept horses and were building their own house, but the progress was slow and they were living in a cramped two-bedroom trailer behind the framing. She wore tight jeans and cowboy boots and let her long dark hair trail behind her like a horse’s mane. Her husband was a short man with thick glasses and a pointy nose. Their son, Garret, a year younger than me, had a head abnormally large for his shoulders.
She passed us saying, “Looks like a good game.”
We smiled but didn’t look away from the television. My father’s newest gadget was the only one on the street. “You’re being careful, Joyce, right?” he said.
I nodded, still not looking away from the television.
The woman went into the bathroom. The light was on and threw a shaft of orange into my bedroom which was directly across the hall. Instead of closing the door when she entered she said, “What the hell? Terry! Mickey!” All the adults were on their feet. The panic was that of a woman who'd found a live rattler in the sink.
There was a muddy trail on the floor from the bathroom to my room. It followed along the carpet to my open window where mud continued up the short wall. My bedroom screen, we’d later find, was in the yard. A man stood on the other side of the gaping window, my bedside lamp illuminating a small portion of our yard and his face and torso. He was older than my father, wore a dirty white polo shirt with a yellowed collar. His eyes were wide and dark.
My father yelled, “What the hell are you doing?” and the intruder took off.
The men gathered together in the foyer, briefly searching for flashlights in the hall closet before they headed out after the dark-eyed man. Because it had rained earlier in the day, they were able to follow his muddy footprints for two blocks, and just as the police were heading down the dirt road with flashers blazing, they found him in the fenced front yard of another house.
When the men returned, my mother's girlfriends listened, nearly bored, as their husbands told my parents about the Town Looney, who snuck into homes looking for anything he could snort, swallow, or inject. He’d been in Vietnam at some point and had come back addicted to pain killers. His parents moved away from Littlerock after they'd sold the family orchard that had been theirs for over one-hundred years. He lived in a small cinder-block shed on the edge of town and had been there alone for nearly fifteen years. The quarry was slowly buying out the people around him. He'd been found passed out inside of unfinished houses. He’d been arrested hundreds of times, but no one ever pressed charges because he never stole anything other than food, beer, aspirin, or prescriptions. They endured him out of communal dignity, giving him food on occasion.
“In L.A. they shoot intruders,” my mother said. “That guy’s lucky.”
Before that muddy spring evening, no one in our house had ever thought twice about sleeping with the windows open. In fact, we often cracked them in the evenings instead of running the air conditioner. But after that introduction, my father fastened every window with a ventilation latch. He drilled small holes along the bottom metal frame of each window, and through those he threaded thumb screws, which he showed us how to use. When in place, each window would only slide four inches. Before we went to bed, we were to check that the screws were properly positioned. If the weather was warm at night, we were only allowed to keep the window open as far as the screw allowed. In this way, my father kept his family safe from intruders.
I tip-toed toward the snake sunning itself in the lane of the Poppy Preserve. It hissed again, this time raising its head a bit higher from the dirt path. Fine silt stuck to its underbelly. The grey jagged stripes undulated. It had eaten something recently—there was a lump only inches from its mouth. “You’re not gonna hurt us,” I said. “You’re just a little one anyway.” The snake rattled its translucent tail. I wasn’t stupid. The snake could kill me or, at least, poison me. In my gut I felt if that happened, my father would hesitate before he took me to the hospital. It would teach me not to play with snakes if I died from a bite.
“Stop it, Joyce,” Deidre said, rubbing her hands on her jeans. “Stop it.”
I cut my eyes at her, took a deep breath, and jumped, picturing myself flying high and looking down at the snake. I’d leave Deidre on the other side and keep on going. But before I even got off the ground there was, behind me, a heavy crunch of sneakers on grit and I felt myself being pulled backward. My father held me against him, then spun me away. Deidre blinked at me, at our father, then turned and ran along a railroad tie toward where our mother held April on her hip and was watching us, her hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun.
The snake made its way between two crossties and disappeared. Without looking from the snake-marked earth, my father said, “You know that was a rattler.”
“Just a little one. I know.”
“It could’ve bit you.”
My lip curled.
He knelt next to the edge of the path, rested one knee on a railroad tie. “We wouldn’t make it to the hospital.” A heavy weight fell where my heart was steady-beating. That weight would come and go for most of my life, anytime my gut instinct was proven right.
My father studied the snake’s trail and plucked a handful of owl’s clover, goldfield, and cream cups. “You’re not supposed to pick the poppies,” he said. He caressed the petals with his fingertips. They were crisscrossed with hairline cuts, some crusted with blood. A large bruise marked his forearm, just below the cuff of his T-shirt. I wouldn’t know until years later what they meant or who might've put them there. “Eighteen-ninety, I think," he said, "is when they voted for it. So you can’t pick them now. It’s illegal. Do you know what that means?”
“It means you go to jail for it.”
“Not exactly.” My father fingered through a tuft of prairie grass and green hair-like stalks to expose a few orange faces to the spring sun. “You have to pay a fine.” He watched the horizon where the crystal blue sky met the blotches of orange. Then he said, “This poppy can do some neat things. Come here.”
I didn’t move. Our mother doctored our wounds, held us when we cried, tucked us in at night. Our father watched these things transpire, as if offering help might cut him open. It was rare that he'd teach me anything, so I feared him—this tall man, with a presence that seemed to take up the space around him, pushing whoever was near to the fringes. Everything I did seemed to keep him angry, and jumping the snake would be no exception. I was going to get it.
But whatever ire my father carried, he kept it at arm’s length. "Come here,” he said again.
Letting out a deep sigh, I came to his side and I kneeled. My muscles clinched, I ground my teeth, and waited for punishment. But my father didn't raise his hand, didn't yell. Instead he said, “You take your hands and put them like this.” He cupped his hands together but left a thin opening at the bottom. “Then you reach down and cover the poppy.” Without touching a petal, he covered a single flower. He put his eye to the small hole at his thumbs and smiled, then he raised his face and resumed his distant gaze. He said, “Now. You do it.”
I cupped my hands and mimicked what he'd done. The petals grazed my palms. When I peered into my hands, saw a spiral of orange instead of a large happy face. The poppy had closed.
“The poppy goes to sleep in the dark. It closes up to protect itself,” my father said.
He stood and brushed off his jeans. Without looking at me, he walked back down the path. I opened my hands and the poppy burst open, its orange face glowing in the desert sun. I practiced the poppy trick over and over until it seemed I’d made every flower in the entire field protect itself.
We left the preserve just as the sun began to set, and the flowers started to quiver and close on their own. The mountains around us purpled, and the shadows shifted the field from vibrant orange to mottled green. The San Andreas Fault would be falling asleep just beyond the ridge, and I hoped it would stay that way—silent, ancient, in no rush to crumble the world around me. The highway dipped into the outskirts of Littlerock, and we passed the vicious quarry. At night, I could hear the cranes pulling and scraping, their compulsive digging continually carving wounds into the earth. Tall bright lights illuminated the excavation while I tried to sleep. Even though the evenings were warm, I kept my window closed against the violent noise. I secured the screws the way my father taught me, to keep our home safe. And make it a place where I could curl up and rest against a world that was becoming larger and larger the older I got.
Decades later, I moved far from the quarry, the incessant digging, the fault that threatened to swallow me whole. I moved away from the father I hadn't seen since my childhood, a man who, during our third winter in the Valley, was caught, tried, and convicted of serial rape. He would write to me, from a California State Prison where he was serving his 101 year sentence, and say that shortly after we'd moved to Littlerock, he'd begun to lose himself and give in to urges he'd previously been able to repress. He was powerless, he said, to keep from hurting strangers. He'd felt so upset and guilty, he'd wanted to kill himself a few different times, wanted to drive his car off the road and into the deep canyons cut by the mining.
The police have a different story. At least forty files, spanning a decade, report a pattern of burglary and rape. My father was still commuting to Los Angeles for work even though we'd relocated to the desert, so my mother never knew when he'd be home. He began telling her he was working overtime, but he'd leave work on time, drive to a Hollywood or Burbank neighborhood, and park his car. He'd sit and watch apartment complexes until he found a woman who lived alone in a ground-floor apartment. Once he'd chosen, he'd make his way around the building until he found her half-open bedroom window. He'd return the next afternoon before she arrived, jimmy the screen, and crawl inside. He'd open her drawers, jewelry box. Eventually, he'd leave through the front door, as if he lived there. No one in the buildings ever suspected him—he was good-looking, white, and wearing cover-alls. He looked like he'd been repairing a faucet.
Perhaps he stole money and jewelry as a way to control his darker urges. But it wasn't enough, and these many years later I know that at least one time, after his pre-inspection burglary, an apartment manager installed bars on all of the ground-level apartment windows. Rather than stop himself, my father came back another day, and in the pre-dawn light he donned his white batting gloves, grabbed his socket wrench, and worked quietly in the dark, removing the bars. When he climbed inside, he still hadn’t managed to wake the woman in the bed. She didn’t move until he was atop her, covering her face with his hands and threatening to kill her if she didn't roll over and let him have her.
After eighteen months, police finally began a manhunt. They had plain-clothes officers staked out in various neighborhoods and urged anyone with information to come forward. They warned women living alone to close windows and lock doors. The rapes became more frequent, more brutal. Detectives called in an FBI profiler who erroneously described him as a single male, living at home with his mother, and unemployed. For the first eighteen months that we lived in the desert, he took us to the Poppy Reserve and a picnic at Devil's Punchbowl. He arranged a visit to Santa's Village. He smiled in photos taken at birthday parties, Easter, Christmas. We took regular drives along the dippy-doo highway next to the quarry, and spent early evenings at MacAdam Park where he played softball. For eighteen months he pinned women to their beds, holding them down and threatening them with a screwdriver—he told them it was a knife. But it was the same screwdriver he used to remove the training wheels from my BMX.
But I didn't know any of this on the day we visited the Reserve. All I knew was that my father had finally taught me a lesson that I'd remember for the rest of my life. My eyes grew heavy. I cupped my hands in my lap and pretended to put more flowers to sleep. I rode home that way. I watched to see if my father’s eyes would appear in the rearview mirror. When they didn’t, I leaned my head against the window. The blurs of the Valley dissolved into the dark. In my cupped hands, I imagined a brilliant poppy, protecting itself from the dark and the cold. Then I shut my eyes. I was safe, even with my father so close.