California Poppy

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 Poppy
Preserve, I was sure I’d walked right into a scene from The 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.

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