Chapter 19 - Screwing With the Narrative
Mrs. Barbara Heely, my ninth grade English teacher, taught me the most about understanding fiction. The first thing she taught was that there were three elements which needed to be explained in the first part of the story: character, conflict, and setting. Mrs. Heely would have given me no more than a D minus for the way I've told the story so far.
It was kind of her fault though. She assigned William Faukner's As I Lay Dying as my freshman reading project. I thought at the time that Faukner must have been eating some of those magic mushrooms when he wrote it. It was about some old crazy lady dying and was a hard story to follow.
Then a year out of high school, in my first, and, so far, only year of college, I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road and realized that the books were kind of similar in that they spoke in a flow of consciousness that defied traditional plot structure. The difference was that the sense of urgency revealed in On the Road was fueled by intellectualism, coffee, and drugs whereas the urgency in Faukner's work was fueled by crooked DNA and illiteracy. Whenever I write down a story, I am fueled by a desire to escape my setting into a world a little less cynical and where life wasn't so predicated on living between the poles of languor on one hand and mean survival on the other.
I have done a pretty crappy job of revealing the setting of my story. Mrs. Heely had pointed out that time and place were as important as the other two elements and sometimes even more important. Setting sets the parameters of the story and helps explain who and what the characters really are, it is the foundation of the conflicts the characters face, and also limits the character's choice of actions.
The south side of Concord clearly defined both Dean and I. The air we breathed; our scars, fears, and our anxieties; and even our hopes and dreams were both prescribed and limited by Southside concerns and boundaries. Our skin and bones were created out of the mud formed by leaky outdoor faucets found at any one of the hundred or so houses south of Barnum Avenue.
Our neighborhood school, a K-6, would never be mistaken for an elite private school, but I actually learned a lot there. The teachers, for the most part, were women, many of them aging spinsters. From Kindergarten to fifth grade, I had the good fortune of being taught by six of the classiest ladies that I have ever known. Jackie O couldn't have carried their housecoats. I admired them all so greatly and no words could ever express how much I owe them.
Dean went to school there too, but he was in my younger brother's class, so we didn't socialize that much in school but were inseparable when school was out. Most of my other neighborhood pals were either the children of Dust Bowl Okies or Mexican Migrant workers. Our families shared a history in the labor camps, and we were all the first generation of native born Californians in our respective families.
Even though we were born in California becoming a Californian was a process. The schools represented a factory system of sorts, dedicated to knocking out the last hints of hillbilly twang and Mexican accents out of us. I briefly went to speech therapist to learn pronounce hard Rs like a native son.
They taught us the history of California but usually left out most of the shady parts that included forcing the indigenous natives onto parcels of land where they didn't necessarily want to be. In the fifties, everything was orange juice and sunshine, the memory of the Exodus was starting to fade.
I was more than a little confused. I would go to school in the day and read stories about ancient Greeks and Founding Fathers and memorize and recite stirring poems in proper English, and, then go home and listen to nostalgic stories that my mom told when she was feeling lost, I'd listen to my dad and his brother talk about getting sprayed with skunk scent when they were trying to raise money by selling animal furs. When I would lapse into Okie talk at school, I'd be hit with a ruler, metaphorically at least.
Listening to my Dad and his brother and sisters talk was like a hearing a foreign language. It was a softer language used to knock the corners off of trouble times. The lilting sounds of the hymns they sang in church, sounds that echoed in the bottom of a belly often found their way into our common speech. My people spoke in prepositional phrases and descriptive idioms that didn't seem to make sense unless you were chasing through the Ozarks trying to convince a possum to run up a tree.
I thought they were in some kind of secret society, and they were sharing some secret information about how to overthrow the power structure. In reality, they were letting off stream and remembering the green hills where they were born. I was quick to note that men talked like that every time that they drank beer or shared a bottle of Four Roses. I didn't realize till later that I was listening to the sounds of a dull but very painful ache that could only be soothed by the alcoholic erasing of history.
It was the same with our Mexican neighbors across the street who shared in my parent's nostalgia for a lost paradise that wasn't really very much of a paradise. They would long for the days of their youth while drinking beer and talking of the past while sitting on their lawns and watching the sun slip below the western horizon.
Yet, at the same time, all the men in the neighborhood would exhibit great pride in their ownership of the little pile of dirt they had wrested control of from a universe which demanded back breaking labor, sweat, and endless patience in return. Their struggles to reach this time and place taught them never to panic when the mudslides came but to stay calm, to roll up their pant's legs and to find a way around.
To see these men after a hard day's work in their undershirts, spraying their yards with a long green water hose in one hand and an ice cold beer in the other was to see pride in simplest and most honest form, not a pride that creates anger or destroys nations, but a pride that forms friendships and build nations from the bottom up. To watch the women smell the roses cut from the bushes they had carefully transplanted was the same as seeing hope and desire in its rawest, most archetypal form.
Most of what Dean and I learned when we were kids, we learned in the backyards and back alleys on the south side of Concord. We learned more about sex in Big Poppa's Candy Store than we ever learned from our dads. It was topic of extreme importance too, and it made us want to hang out all the more in case any new information came in.
We were sleeping out one night, and one of our friends yanked his business out, rolled over beneath his blankets and started pulling on it like he was trying to start a lawn motor, explaining the whole time that that was how he DID it. The rest of us gave each other a puzzled look which plainly asked, "Did fucking what?"
We tried to go to sleep with that strange image pushing its way into our dreams like a crazy hobo breaking into a boxcar. It was hard to fall asleep because the rest of us were thinking what if he suddenly took a notion to do IT in another way. I was covered up on my cot with one leg cocked and ready to run, and, in the moonlight, I could see one of Dean's eyes peaking out from under his blankets, and that eye was clearly saying, "Push come to shove, your ass better come help me." I raised my blanket just a bit and showed him my cocked leg which told his frightened eye, "You're welcome to utilize my slipstream if you like, but don't count on my coming back to help." His eye winked back, "Fine. Be that way."
It was at church the following Sunday that I learned "how he DID it" would not only lead to blindness and slow witted thinking; it would also get you a first class seat on God's own barbecue pit. I had burned the bottom of my feet on a floor heater once and didn't much think I would too much appreciate getting never ending grill marks on my ass. I didn't think there was enough aloe vera in the world to deal with that kind of pain.
I walked to the store pretty much everyday to buy my mom cigarettes and always lingered to read the comic books in the green rack by the door. The store had a butcher in the back, and sometimes, I would watch as he cut and wrapped the meet in thick white paper, tie it with a white string, and mark it with a marker pen, so the clerk in the front would know what to charge. While I waited, I would walk up and down the aisles looking at the different colored cans.
The playing fields at the schoolhouse were where we learned the most. Those football games, whiffle ball games, and basketball contests were where all my early friendships were formed and where I learned to appreciate a person by how much effort he gave for the sake of the team. It's where I first met Dean. I liked him right off because of his willingness to play center, a position no one wanted, and his ability to deliver the ball in an accurate and timely manner.
I was sitting outside in the shade in a lawn chair smoking a joint and thinking of Mrs. Healy and the role of setting in a fictional story when Dean rolled up on his Harley.
When he turned off the bike, he yelled, "What the hell you sitting out here thinking about?"
"I was thinking about how hard I'm working just trying to pull my head out of my own ass."
He dismounted and made his way over to where I was sitting. I tossed him a cold beer.
"Go ahead and say it?"
"Finish your thought. I know you're thinking something like as opposed to, or in comparison to."
His ability to read my thoughts made me laugh," Well, as a matter of fact I was thinking that while I'm always trying to pull my head out of my ass, but in comparison, you only seem to care about creating a more comfortable fit."
I know he wanted to laugh but instead bit the inside of his cheek to not laugh, "Ha fucking ha. I bet you been waiting to say that all day. Sides, if all I ever see around here is shit, makes no sense being uncomfortable too."
He was right. I had thought of the statement earlier that morning, and had sat there most of the day waiting to use it.