Salt n Sea
Walking the highway, night time, the lightless desert off to either side of no man’s land. From the distance headlights fire up the blackness of the road, approach slowly at first, calm and quiet, but coming closer, louder, faster. Fear taken up from my feet rises, blowing through the top of my head. The car whooshes past, pushing waves of space lost in a million directions, large and small. They hit my body with overwhelming confusion and light up the new road with yellow stripes so bright. Looking away from the oncoming vehicle I see the power lines off the road, the tan earth and the fuzzy dry bushes, whose black shadows dance a semicircle around them. I want to run and pull away, but the hand of grammy, softened and scented by Jergens lotion and counterbalanced by her large black purse in the other hand, can more than hold me back. “Nelson!” she snatches me and my mind snaps back….’and the Wichita Lineman is still on the line’.
‘My thumb goes up, a car goes by, oh won’t somebody stop to help a guy’, the narrow of the road has widened and we’ve crossed, now facing the oncoming cars. All I can think of is that hitchhiking song, how weird and wonderful and lonely hitching must be, but I’m under 10 and too young for that.
We’ve taken the dusty Greyhound out of LA across the desert to Salt n Sea, where a trailer sits off a lonely strip of highway, yellow-tan corrugated aluminum, like old Coors cans tossed from some giant’s car. I’m alone with grammy “I don’t hitchhike and I don’t take riders.” She said when I asked her about it. “Ah hate a Hippie!”
I know they smoke pot I can tell by the little red marks on their faces at the gas dock and in the market by the boat launch, I think. It’s plain as day, I can’t understand why the police don’t arrest them. I don’t like them either. One stole my change when I came out of Dale’s Market. He wanted to see my receipt, took it and my change out of my hand, looked at it for a minute, held it up to the light like you might check to see if a bill was fake or not, then handed it back to me with one dollar and kept the other five dollar bill. I said you have my Five. He went into an explanation designed to confuse a 6-year-old on his first trip to the market by himself. Another time daddy caught a hippy couple in our house and chased them off down Satsuma Drive where they disappeared into the night. A week later Sharon Tate was found dead.
Approaching now. The sun bleached cinder block cube, a sign said “Kon-Tiki” in neon colors, hung rakishly adorned with spider webs gossamer flutter in the imperceptibly hot breeze. Grammie’s white hair turns clown colored in the anticipation of something cool and wet for her and for me the colors are somehow vacant and promise much more.
Once inside, colors, small spots of them refract on glasses, dinging of pinball machines. I’m too young to play or be there for that matter, but I’m with grammy and the rules don’t apply to her. She’s from a time before any of that as Rob Roy and Roy Rogers appear. “Belly up!” she says. The stuff is sweet and cold with ice and there is a fancy straw to stick in between my teeth.
We’d come a long way, waiting on the fixed fiberglass chairs, white lanolin echoing floor, shiny, reflecting a smear of fluorescent light from above, a faint layer of dust moving across all, a precursor to what was to come, as if that Greyhound station, there on the edge of the desert, where we were changing buses to the one that never touch any place like Los Angeles, could come and go, the desert didn’t care. The Desert Line went to places like Death Valley, Vegas, Palm Springs, 29 Palms, Joshua Tree, hopefully oases on the treacherous edge. Communion with the desert was and still is some kind of strange attraction to the Angelino and as it is with the need to hoard water by having a swimming pool; the bodily knowledge that LA is a desert is a subliminal drive that governs all. But a lake in the desert, what could be better. At that time, Salton Sea, formed by some kind of farming disaster or water grab debacle, was being sold as the nearest and newest boating resort for Angelinos. It was quite popular. I walked barefoot on the hard dirt road between the market and the marina cracking salt crust with my toes, the sunlight coming in from over my shoulder like some western movie. Clint Eastwood in a poncho, humming the words “Tijuana Smalls, it’s new baby, for you maybe, you know who you are”
Dad talked about how they dumped old engine blocks into The Sea, that’s what we called it, to make fish grow like some kind of junk reef and mossy little pies rose up around me, dislodged from the bottom or having enough of those reef, found their way to the surface, blossoming muck like lily pads around me while I, in that warm, tried to learn to water ski. Dad has a pop-side trailer parked there on a lot alongside the main highway that dead ended into The Sea at an old yellow hotel, that looked to be from a western movie called Helen’s Salton Sea. Hell On The Sea as we called it, a mile or so further along; but somewhere between the pop-side and Hell-On’s was the Con Tiki. The Con was half a bar, half liquor store with a selection of magazines, playing cards, church keys on cardboard display, the pull tab, although already littering the beach and a serious concern for kids my age for having been foot cut more than once, was not universal and some hold out beers still came in tin cans, not aluminum, and required these devices to open them. There you could also buy block ice for your cooler, bottled Coke, RC, Orange Crush, Bubble Up, Beer, just the American kinds, Big Sticks, frozen candy bars, Beer Nuts, Slim Jim’s and Snappy Tom, along with a low metal isle with assorted and sundry items. Since grammie and I had no car ,”Ah hate a freeway” she’d say when asked later why we had to take the surface streets clear across the valley to school. “I’ve driven across the country. Many times! I drove big cars, I like a Buick Road Masta, the biggest! And Ah neva put a pinscrarch on it”. There was somehow an incident on the Al-Can when I was a baby up in Alaska where I was from, when she drove their “Vee-Dubya” off the permafrost Highway and into a snowbank and sat there. “That’s it I’m never driving the highway again and Ah hate a tiny car”. Daddy dug it out and she never again drove a highway again. Hell on The Sea was too far to walk to in the heat as the wind was blowing. We went back that first morning to the Con to get some Jergen’s. Grammie’s hands were dry from the desert, a few treats, a TV guide. We had no TV in the pop-side, there wasn’t any reception there anyway and besides as dad said, we were there for the peace and quiet and we didn’t need no squawking idiot box. A kid crossword activity book and a girly magazine, She bought me a big stick popsicle, the kind daddy likes. We headed back along that highway to the pop-side. No one else was there yet. Uncle Harry who snored so loud it shook the whole Trailer. In my sleep I imagined it breathing like a big iron lung in this case aluminum. Cousin Ed who was older than me and had a real Honda Trail 70, red orange with the white step in flairs, no mini bike like I had. Alvin, who could climb up the inside of the door like a spider, made lizard catchers out of an old fishing rod and a nose of wire. There were other trailers along the road spaced out in uneven increments. The one next to us was dark green with a pile of wood along its side, where we looked for lizards. Someone said look out for Copperheads they hide in the boards. I imagined a snake made wholly out of pennies and thought of course you could see them coming. Daddy said there were no Copperheads in California, but there were ants, red ants that swarmed our trash. Afraid of them I would not take out the trash. Daddy showed me how to do it. He held the can out away from his body, clinched his chin like he was lifting weights and walked fast but stiff legged, not a run, while they bit him, all the way out to where the cans and the propane tank was. “Put it down IN the can” they’d tell me and place the tin lid back on it. There was a selection of rocks there by the cans that you could put on the lid or into the empty can so that they did not blow away.
The rest of my family were to come another day with my Kit Kraft go-kart with off road knobby tires that were great for the sand dunes off to the back of the pop-side, on top of a small plateau where trails carved by dirt bikes that now no one rode and there under my helmet for the first time I felt totally free. They would all be coming later in the week or the next night or some far off time in the future. Time goes slow when there is nothing to do.
“Ah can’t go outside. The wind is blowin’!” Grammy said and wouldn’t let me go out either.
I didn’t want to look at nude girls with her so I went into the spare room where the fishing poles clanked against the ancient water skis, warped from the heat with a dry splintered finish, to look into the army bullet box from Alaska, where I was born, from the time daddy was a captain. I imagined that it was a very strange ship that he sailed in the frozen darkness of Fairbanks. The banks of that sea although frozen were fair, not quite good. I had no actual memory of Alaska, just the images from the stories that my folks told and the knowledge that I was different than everyone and from somewhere else, where they carved little happy faces into the tusks of walrus and it was cold all the time. They lived in a trailer there, maybe even this one. In that green heavy metal box that once opened I could not close, were the fluorescent eggs of fish in a jar, two sizes, green and crusty dry and orange pink. Hypnotized by the rainbow sheen of oil I had to taste them. Yuck! That was bad! I wouldn’t try the man made worms or the little funny wooden fish things that were painted to look almost real, with a triton of hook prongs coming out of their bottoms. There were the little balls of soft metal I wedged my fingernails into and the red and white plastic balls that were called floaters, that bounced so strangely across the floor and under the bed, not to be found again.
The wind torqued the mobile home like a can that was about to be squished. Like a triple bent beer can as Daddy would do as a show of strength. So bored, I went back out to the pop out living room, nothing but the air conditioner sound blowing tiny strings straight out attached to the leavers, as if that were the only way you could tell it was on. Deaf people must use that, I thought. I thought a lot of the deaf and the blind, they were different too and how they got on.
Back home at the Golden Mall there was a blind couple that wore dark sunglasses and played music with a jar for you to put money into. Their white canes feeling the earth as they lumber along leaning into one another. Neither seemed to be in charge of direction. The two of them, unusual in the difference in their size. He was a massive wrestler type whose head had been squished into an odd expression of monster wonderment and dressed for a long past funeral. And she was pretty, tiny, wore wide pleats in her skirt that pinched in at her waist and went out wide and down toward her knees. Tanless both of them, like they spent most of their time in the dark. She wore the hairstyle of a much older lady and both seemed to be groomed long ago and were kept in cold storage. I didn’t want to look at them, but they had this light shining down on them like they were actors on stage and I could not look away. While they were playing their strange and haunting music, Jimmy said they were fakers, so I looked into the side of their dark glasses and in fact they did have their eyes open. He had big balls that swum around without a fixed direction and she had one little slit that was notched out, like some doctor tried to cut them open for her. Jimmy waved his hand in front of them without a flinch. The whole thing made me feel terrible and confused. “These people have a very hard time, you must show them some compassion, be kind to them. Could you imagine going through life not being able to see or hear anything? You are very lucky to have all your senses. They wear the glasses so the sun doesn’t hurt their eyes and that they might not like how they look to others so they cover them.” Is what Daddy said about it when I asked if they were fakers like Jimmy had said. These things always came to mind as they did looking at the air conditioner, the rattling tin foil that covered the other part of the window where the unit sat. The wall made of bleached wood paneling, the western kitchen chair covered with a pattern of measuring cups, spoons, a skittle, a place setting and an odd chicken printed into vinyl naugahyde on the seat and strangely cinched into a stiff dress that hung over its wavy stubby legs, fat old cowboy lady chairs. Everywhere faded to the color of dust and little whistles came from the almost airtight door. Grammie stretched up to fasten something up along the window, her big butt right in front of me and I was tempted again to sink my teeth into it. “He bit an absolute plug out of my fanny!” She held her hand up, fingers an inch or so apart, to describe the dimension of the wound that caused her to turn and backhand the child and with its blow a tooth went sailing never to be found. No evidence I had to verify my claim. Grammy was mean, tough and a liar. Knocked my tooth out and made like I was making it up. But I loved her. It was not the only time that what I said was not to be trusted, she’d snatch my little arm up and drag me out of the back room at the market, where I had been wandering through the big wheels and fan belts of the immense air conditioning system. “Ssshutup! or I’m gonna knock the stew out of ya!” I resisted the urge to bite or maybe I had, “learned my lesson”. I did not trust grammie all that much. She was from a time when it was normal to back slap a kid if he was out of line and I was the kind of kid who wasn’t bad but just got a little daydreamy, like the time, sitting under the tree staring into the dapple spots of sunlit ground, plucking one by one the teeth from the antique ivory comb that was given to my father by a friend who had traveled to China and how I cried when he chose the new wind up cable car, that he’d given me from his trip to San Francisco, to destroy in front of me like he’d triple bent a beer can. Powell and Mason.
The wind picked up. There was going to be a storm and the rest of the people were coming, daddy in his Eldorado, Uncle Harry in his silver Coupe deVille.
We must have had a radio, but I don’t remember how it looked. It must have had a silver face with a black and sparkles screen over the speaker, a big knob on the side for tuning, a red line that marked the stations, a handle attached to the side of the box and could flip up so you could carry it easily. Some station from Modesto or 29 Palms or Barstow or some other desert outpost of a town warned of high winds, 70 miles per hour, maybe more. Stay where you are, the highways are closed and we’ll play more of the hits you want to hear. Dragging aline, dragon a line, I feel fine, talking ‘bout a pizza mine, I’m gonna take my time. I’m having a good time. Dragon a line. Dragin’ a line.
“I hope Uncle Harry doesn’t try to come through the wind.” I said to grammie.
“Uncle Harry nothing! Your daddy’s a plum fool! He’ll try to come out. They got that baby in the car.” Pow-Wow wasn’t really a baby anymore, even though she had taken him up and moved him into her house that was next door. “Me and my grammie we got a good thing going” she’d trained him to say and everyone would laugh. It was like something out of a commercial or a hit song at the time. I kind of did hope they’d come though, four days alone with grammie and now this wind, she wouldn’t let me out the pop-side. It’d be good to have another kid around.
That night neither of us slept, the radio was on and a light on in the kitchen. Grammie couldn’t sleep without the TV on Channel 4 was all she’d watch. “Cut-it on Fowr! My pro-gram is on!” she’d say. She had a small, red, black and white where we’d watch Huntley and Brinkley flicker across the screen, a little grey line floated up the picture, then it’d start again over and over, never fully keeping in tune. Floating off until it was unwatchable and you’d have to adjust the knob to bring them back into focus. That lasted only a few minutes till the line started up again. “My next TV’s gonna be a Magna-Vox! “ she’d say at the crappy reception. But that was back home, here in the desert there was no reception at all, that made it impossible for grammie to sleep. Now that I’m Grammie’s age, older, I understand. I can’t sleep without a picture to drown out the thoughts in my head, maybe that’s what she had. The pop-side lurched and twisted, creaking and pulling at the moorings.
Reflections quiver and bulge like a carnival mirror in the sliding glass door, as a gust at once sucked the glass out then back in, like the trailer was a big aluminum lung.
We heard a rustle outside, a can blew over and rolled like a tumble weed out towards the highway, then daddy and Pow Wow appeared all blown about behind glass. They were knocking like they had to wake us up. For safety, grammie had locked us in from the inside, as if that would help. I banged up against the sliding glass door to open it to a flurry of excitement while grammie cursed with worry. They came in and my moms hair up in a scarf and green eyes rolling wild from the trip.
“Nah, you got bat-shit for brains, Al, you really do! Taking a baby out in that wind”, grammie said, but daddy gave it no mind. Pow-Wow was at least five and was on his way to becoming the epic kid he would be. He was still a little chubby, not having yet begun his swimming career and become svelte by hours of training. But to grammie he was her baby, she had taken him away to live with her at her house in the back of the nursery school that my mom owned. Our house was next door and connected by a fence and a trail that led past a chin-up bar, where my father would pull off 25 at a go. I had famously said “daddy is strong as a bull”, and I thought about it a little, “and smart as one too”.
Grammie, the voice of reason, went on while Daddy described how he was pulled off the highway by the CHPs road block. Even then the wind blew the desert dust across the black asphalt strip, only the yellow line was faintly visible. The CHP pointed back along the Highway to a Motel 6 or a Travel Inn with the sleepwalking bear with a nightcap on. “You’ll have to stay there for the night, we’ve closed the road in either direction, we’re expecting 100 mile per hour winds and it’s unsafe to drive.”
“Well ok then” my daddy said to him with no intention of stopping. He headed off, flipped around and got on the oncoming on-ramp. The copper penny colored 73 Eldo hunkered down and cut through the gale, while Pow Wow slept stretched out on the maroon leather back seats, where no armrest was down to divide up no man’s land, separating he and I from beating at each other. And daddy didn’t once have to swat at the seat to get us to hush. The Eldo was the only car on the road, so he turned on the brights and drove right over the double yellow line. “Cause that was the only thing I could see”, the desert had reclaimed everything else. 80 miles an hour felt safe enough, he had to make good time because the storm was just getting worse.
The trailer lurched and buckled as the story went on. It was as if by opening the door and letting them in we had also let in too much air and the pressure from the inside out was at an imbalance. It felt like the inside of my head was going to come out of my ears, but I kept listening. Pow Wow slept through the whole thing and my mom cried out, “Oh Al we are going off the road” but the most streamlined of Cadillacs hugged its giant carcass to the road as it knifed through waves of sand and rumble weeds. “We were the only ones that got through”, daddy said, proud of his accomplishments.
“You really need to have your head examined”, was Grammie’s conclusion.
After all that excitement we were sent to bed while the grownups sat around the country styled kitchen table on the plastic covered chairs, drinking beer from pull top cans and Harvey Wallbangers. I remember the toothpaste had shrunk and hardened in the tube. And the feel of dust as I walked across textured linoleum, bleached tan and sanded down by the constant desert grit, as I walked to our room. There were two old twin beds in our room that came from some old house where we used to live before. I couldn’t remember, but they were familiar, the way the springs creaked till you settled in. There was also a sliding door closet made of the same paneling as the rest of the pop-out. And inside it stored an old dusty army coat, heat warped water skis and ancient fishing poles, bakelite tackle boxes of green and gray and a big green 50 caliber army bullet box, now demoted to holding jars of day-glow fish eggs and oily plastic worms.
The next evening uncle Harry, aunt Ingred, Ed and Alvin all arrived, complete with Ed’s Honda and Alvin’s lizard catcher. And that night Harry drank scotch and snored so loud that it turned the pop-side into a giant iron lung.
Nelson Loskamp 2019