Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world

Stories

the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

Estrella Avenue // Wednesday, 9.30am

The moon over the ridge last night was thin, wide, dull orange, ominous as the marquee in front of Zion Avenue Community Church. "There is Someone You Need to Forgive." It's been there for more than two weeks, and each time I pass my brain struggles in desperate contrition to supply a name. It's the same way I feel when a cop car appears in my rearview--I struggle to explain why I did what I did, before wondering what I did.

Two churches on the same corner seems like a lot for such a quiet neighborhood as this. The night is no different from the day here; tidy yards fronting orderly rows of what we used to call crackerboxes, before I knew what cracker meant. Maybe my parents started to feel bad about calling them that, or maybe it's just irrelevant now that we don't live south of the 163 anymore.

(It occurs to me to wonder whether I'll ever stop saying "we" and "our" about my parents' house, in which I've spent only Christmas holidays for the past eleven years.)

Before she got earthy, my mom used to buy nylon stockings that came in a plastic egg, which she would carefully preserve in her lingerie drawer. Each day that I wake up here is like cracking open one of those eggs, the hours inside big and roomy and forgiving. The hours are marked by blocks of sunlight that travel across the floor only as fast as they have to.

There's a lemon tree in the backyard and a cat that makes his own schedule and doesn't shed. And there's a windowseat.

The first morning I was here, I woke up at 7am with no alarm. It had rained the day before, so the sky was shiny clean and the sun was warming a square of the windowseat as considerately as a hot guy in a bathrobe cooking eggs.

I had a moment of self-conscious distraction, as I took the place it offered. But then an elderly lady in white knit separates and a racetrack-worthy black straw hat walked by with a standard Scotty dog on a leash in front of her. And I thought, there's not another moment to waste.

---

The mission is nearby; I ran past it the other day, a Saturday, when evening mass was convening. The stadium parking lot was full of tailgaters, with a section left free where children were skateboarding. I ran past in my skinny-ass shorts, and felt that guilty pleasure of providing guilty pleasure to the old brothers smoking weed at the edge of the lot, while the women in men's hoodies stood in a ring fixing drinks and hot dogs.

Who knows why things get placed where they do?

The house where my parents live now is still the longest I've lived in any one place, even if you don't count my college years. But this neighborhood feels more like family, even though I grew up a good 20 minutes west of here. (In southern California, we measure distance in minutes, not miles.) With its rows of three-bedroom/one-and-a-half-bath houses built in the late 70s, remodeled in the late 90s. I remember readjusting my conception of those people, the ones we knew, who remodeled--apparently, they had become rich, or perhaps always secretly were.

Which is strange, now that I actually think about it. We--meaning my parents--never remodeled, but instead moved to better neighborhoods, but I never thought of us as rich, until I went to college and began to learn for myself what things cost.

---

The streets here are festooned with powerlines, punctuated by torrey pines and queen palm trees. They smell like star jasmine in the late afternoon, except when the smell of cheap laundry detergent overpowers. There are things about them unexplainable, noticeable only if you're on foot. Abalone shells embedded in someone's stucco wall. Two popsicle sticks encompassed by innumerable colored rubber bands, hanging from a window. On one porch, a plush black Labrador, the size of a healthy ten-year-old, wearing a green visor and holding a hand of cards, a fuzzy cigar protruding from his muzzle.

Parked on the tidy streets are a number of well-kept vintage cars, as well as RVs of ample size and obscure manufacture--"Jamboree," "Voyager," and "Apollo." This is the only reason I can think of for the term "crackerbox," if indeed it's a socio-economically-charged term. Did crackers at one time come in boxes textured like stucco?

In the front yard, there's a pepperberry tree, the kind with the clusters of pinhead-sizes berries that we used to love crushing in our fingers, to feel the pop of the papery skin around the kernel. And the embankments are full of sourgrass, the kind we used to gather in bouquets after Sunday school was over, and then chew the stems before we could deliver them to our mothers as we intended.

---

They told me the neighbors are friendly; the couple next door has a new baby, and a Tahoe blue '65 Mustang in the garage, which I've seen occasionally while writing on the windowseat. They told me the neighbor on the other side is an old Italian fisherman who won't shut up once you get him talking. I have yet to see him.

So far, I've met the neighbors only through windows.

An older lady with large square glasses, drinking from a bottle of flavored seltzer water, whose defensive gaze is framed by the knickknacks in her greenhouse box window.

A man is sitting at a desk in an upstairs office; I can see him even from a distance, because his window is plate glass, nearly as wide as the wall, and lofted above the street in a two-story cube painted nautical blue, attached to a crackerbox that was once painted dark brown.

Most of the remodels are like this--modernized (meaning economized) suggestions of Mission architecture that stand in sheepish periphery to the houses they are meant to amend.

I pass a tall, gaunt lady in high-waisted, peg-leg jeans and a red turtleneck, scraping the decorative gravel back into her yard from the driveway. She's being helped by her son, a tow-headed kid with glasses and a Hanes t-shirt under his tucked-in basketball jersey. If that lady left and came back with her hair straightened and cut in a U-bang, the effect would be like the rooftop deck sitting on top of the house just above the church, with its brushed steel railings and recycled wooden boxes planted with succulents, sitting on walls of faded terra cotta stucco.

Like a college graduate returned home for the summer, they are cute but apologetic.

I wonder what they think of me, these neighbors, the girl who huffs past in skinny-ass red shorts with her mouth open and her eyes staring like a fish, or else pausing to take pictures of cars in driveways and empty side streets with her headphones that leak a tenor's shout of Puccini.

---

Today I got up early enough to see a strange thing--blazing sunlight that threw a violet-hued shadow off the General against the blushing pink of the garage door. On the ridge where the moon hovered the other day, there hangs a heavy brow of periwinkle fog.

It occurs to me that perhaps I should be worried. That the uninterruptedness of days, the ease with which my fingers crank out words, should suggest some ominous truth.

But then it occus to me that I am just not used to this level of order and follow-through. I'm not used to the privileges of being alone.

These include:

  • Biting my nails with impunity.
  • Taking a nap in the sunlight on the floor, and not worry about who might get home early.
  • Having what I eat or don't eat be my own business...forgetting to eat and neither worry nor hope that someone will notice.
  • Crossing the room, braless, in my skinny-ass shorts.
  • Having, as the reward for a great day of work, or the consolation of a terrible day, more work.

It occurs to me, standing here in the sunlight in my skinny-ass shorts and unaware of what day it is and only dimly aware of what time it is, the days running like wet ink into the nights, all composed of fingers typing and jazz playing, that I am living the dream. And it makes me feel so good inside that I want to...I don't know...bake something.

But that's not part of the dream. I cook eggs, instead.