by Mickey Revenaugh
We rolled into Bakersfield in 1968 the way the Okies did in The Grapes of Wrath—with everything we possessed packed into a creaking car and trailer, kids stacked on top of each other, and no place yet to call home.
Following a dust-devil down Highway 99, leaving my dad and his other wife at the Sacramento end of the Central Valley, my mom strangled the steering wheel of the Belvedere wagon until it and the U-Haul came to rest, hot and ticking, beneath the cement awning of the Capri Motel. Piling out, we could see the yellow arch across Union Avenue spelling out Bakersfield in bold black letters. Tall desert palms spindled the endless, empty sidewalk while sun-spotted traffic coursed by the motels and take-out shops and liquor stores. It was May and already close to one hundred degrees.
We didn’t know it yet, but Union Avenue was on its way down, sidelined by a newer, faster Highway 99 spur to the west. Not so long after we splashed in the pool and ate takeout fried chicken on the Magic Fingers-powered beds, the Capri Motel would be best known around Bakersfield for the hookers who posed in the doorways whenever a car pulled into the parched parking lot.
Mom’s new social work job—the one she’d taken the civil service exam for near the state capitol and then traveled down here alone on the Greyhound to win—would start on Monday, so we had five days to find a place big enough for a family with five kids. The oldest was Adrian, named after the college where my parents met and therefore spelled wrong for a girl; she had just turned fifteen when we got to Bakersfield, already accustomed to being a backup adult. Then there was me, age 10; twin sisters Merry and Melody, fraternally light and dark in both coloring and spirit, about to turn nine in a couple of weeks; and our golden-haired little brother Matthew, age four. Older brother Mark had enlisted in the Navy three years earlier and was out in the Pacific somewhere manning a destroyer and falling in love with bar girls he met on leave. He’d perhaps intentionally missed this period in which our parents’ marriage, always intermittently explosive, had finally flamed out like a Fourth of July gone awry.
We’d already moved three times since the fireworks started. This was the farthest we’d gotten, though, and there was something final about the set of my mother’s jaw as she read through the house for rent ads in the Bakersfield Californian over a cup of the Capri’s vending machine coffee.
My mom was great on the phone. She’d worked as a switchboard operator during college and later as a reporter and publisher, erasing any trace of the dirt-poor, awkward bookworm from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula she’d once been. Smooth and precise, her telephone voice was now deployed to reassure anxious landlords that they weren’t dealing with an almost penniless single mom with a passel of kids sweating it out in some Union Avenue dive, but instead a professional woman in orderly transition to the next phase in her career, whatever that might be in pre–women’s lib central California. “We’d be delighted to view the house this afternoon. What time would be convenient for you? Certainly, you may call back to confirm. It’s—” (quick squint at the motel phone atop the shiny floral bedspread) “—327-3577, ask for extension 211. Yes, that’s R-E-V as in Victor…”
We must have looked at half a dozen nearly identical ranch-style houses, all beige in my memory, with balding front lawns and chain-link backyards, before we pulled up in front of 321 Oleander Avenue. It was an Arts and Crafts cottage on a street of what realtors called “gracious older homes.” 321 had a double peaked roof and wraparound multi-paned windows in the front, a backyard with a pecan and an apricot tree, odd 1950s touches like a ceiling-wide plaster living room light fixture and island kitchen counter, three bedrooms, one bathroom, and no air conditioning.
Standing on the slide-like front porch banisters, we could see that there was a big park catty-corner from us with a swimming pool and tennis courts and bandshell. Down the block in the other direction, two kids rode Big Wheels round and round a circular driveway, the scrape of rubber on gravel making its own sullen rhythm. The beautiful, poisonous flowers for which the street was named glowed pink and white against their dusty green foliage at the end of our sidewalk.
The landlady with the hard blonde hair was giving Mom the lay of the land, waving her walnut-tanned arms for emphasis. This is still mostly a good area, she was saying. The elementary school over that way a few blocks is not bad, but Bakersfield High up the street? “That’s pretty mixed these days,” she said. “Being a grass widow and all, you can’t be too careful where you put your kids.”
She lit another Virginia Slim off the one burning low between her fingers. She looked at the five of us arrayed by size on the stairs, at my mom’s careful clipboard of houses to see, at our packed station wagon and U-Haul snug against the curb. She dropped the butt of her spent cigarette, mashed it under her white sandal, and brushed it into the street in one single, smooth move.
“You start work at the welfare department on Monday, huh? Jesus bless you for helping those people,” she said, pocketing my mom’s check for first, last, and security. “Just don’t expect me to come running whenever something breaks.”
Within weeks, our gray tabby cat Nicholas got run over crossing Oleander. Matt broke his collarbone hurrying down from the treehouse at daycare when he saw mom’s station wagon approaching. Merry hammered curtain rods into the old plaster walls so she could have her own space, creating a fresco of cracks and dust instead. Melody snapped her toe on the cement front steps on her birthday. All of us middle kids got lice—possibly from the beds left behind by the last tenants, possibly from our new school—and spent our evenings with foreheads on the kitchen table, our long, straight hair spread out under the bright hanging lamp while Mom and Adrian hunted nits with a fine-tooth comb and malathion.
Summer came. All day, every day, it was back and forth to the park. The big swimming pool was twenty-five cents, the wading pool was free. There was a recreation program—for underprivileged kids, I now know—complete with crafts and games, lanyards and checkers and chess on the cement tables with permanent boards tiled in. A tall rocket ship structure marked the playground: You could climb up inside to the top and see the whole park through the cage-like bars, and then ride the long slide to the sand below. A little refreshment stand sold snow cones and sodas, but we rarely had money for outside snacks. We also never wore shoes. It was a point of pride to be able to walk the blazing hot sidewalks full-footed and cross the street without sinking into the melting asphalt. By July, our soles were burned black and hard as hooves.
Adrian discovered a crowd of kids her age who hung out on the hill on the far side of the bandshell, recreating their own little Summer of Love less than five miles from where Merle Haggard was writing “Okie from Muskogee.” She’d deposit us at the pool or the rec area and then go find her cross-legged quadrant in the mass of long-haired bodies, swaying to Big Brother in a haze of pot and incense. She fell in love with a tall, muscled black kid who wanted to be Jimi Hendrix as much as his parents wanted him to be Jim Brown. We’d end the days all together on our porch, Ade and Fred, Merry and Melody and their two-by-two pals from the scruffy nearby streets, me with my sixth-grade bestie, whose size thirty-six bust was a source of wonder and envy, Matt with his golden locks now nearly down to his shoulders.
One evening after everyone had gone inside but me, two brothers from the Tara mansion down the block rolled their bikes over our grass and bump-stopped at the bottom step of the porch. Like me, they were closing in on junior high—or so I guessed. They went to the Catholic school and were rumored to have started late and been held back to reach maximum size for football. They both had crew cuts and flat blue eyes.
“Y’all are nothing but a bunch of hippies,” the younger one said. I think his name was Patrick.
“And nigger lovers,” his brother Sean added.
“Dirty, nigger-loving hippies,” Patrick nodded.
I stood up slowly on the stairs. I could see their pink scalps through their hair. Patrick had a stitches scar on the top border of his forehead.
“You all should go back where you came from,” Sean continued. “My dad says.”
I’d seen their father swerve his long white Cadillac into their circular drive most nights long after dark, his shirt sweat-stuck to his back as he swayed toward the columned porch. I would have liked to have seen him now.
Instead the door swung open behind me, and my mom walked out onto the porch. I backed up one step to close the space between us.
“How nice of you boys to come visit, but you’ll have to say goodbye now,” she said in her social worker voice. “It’s dinnertime for us and I’m sure your mom is expecting you home too.”
They shifted on their bikes.
“Or maybe I should call her to check?” my mom said.
Patrick tilted his head toward home and they began pedaling off across the lawns. Without looking back, Sean lifted his hand in a peace sign, then curved his index finger down so only the middle one remained. I wasn’t sure if my mom saw it—she was leading me back inside.
“I guess ignorance doesn’t skip a generation,” she sighed.
My mom spent her days driving the county car out to the farm towns of Shafter and Buttonwillow, Wasco and Weedpatch, checking up on families who counted on public assistance to keep the tin roofs over their heads and arroz or grits on the table. Her caseload included sixteen-year-olds about to have their second babies and grandmothers herding multiple toddlers inside whenever the crop-dusters flew over. She saw women whose black eyes were always fresh on Monday mornings but faded along with their resolve by Friday.
Once she showed up for a scheduled visit at a house near the railroad tracks in Oildale and saw no car in the dirt drive, got no answer to her knock. Just as she was writing up her Reminder! Mandatory Home Visit card to slip under the door, she saw the bedsheet over the front picture window move and a small round face appear in the corner. “Is your mommy home?” my mother asked, leaning down so the child could see her lips move. The little girl shook her head. Mom looked around the porch and saw the mailbox was stuffed with bills and fliers, two or three tossed circulars near the mat. She walked back to her white Pinto with the Kern County insignia on the door and pulled her sack lunch out of the glove compartment, then returned to the porch, the girl watching her every move. Mom slowly sat down on the concrete in her poly-blend, lime green A-line shift and pantyhose, opened the lunch bag, and pulled out the cheese sandwich and celery sticks she had packed herself early that morning. She flattened the bag on the porch beside her and laid out the food picnic style, then remembered the Snickers bar in her purse and added that too. She took the sandwich out of its flip top baggie, broke off half of a half and took a bite, grinning toward the girl whose nose was now flat against the glass. Mom chewed each bite very slowly, feeling the stucco of the porch pillar scratching the back of her neck below the chignon she wrestled her hair into for these long, boiling days in the field, watching a line of ants work their way up past her outstretched feet in their sensible tan pumps. She pitched a tiny piece of crust to the far corner of the porch to divert the ant train away from the main course.
The face in the window disappeared. The front door knob jiggled a few times, and the door inched open. My mom patted the concrete on the other side of the picnic sack and held out half the cheese sandwich. Dressed only in pajama bottoms and holding a bald Barbie, the little girl crouched down and snatched the sandwich from Mom’s hand, gulping down the white bread and orange cheese. Mom passed her the untouched half of her half, which also disappeared in a few bites. “Sorry I only have coffee,” my mom said, holding up her thermos, then noticed the girl was transfixed by the candy bar. “Let me peel that for you.” The child sank down next to Mom, sucking on the Snickers like a popsicle. Mom waited until she was finished and then used the paper towel she’d stuck in the lunch bag as a napkin to wipe the chocolate smears off the child’s face, now softening into sleep. Mom ate all the celery sticks, finished her coffee, and waited another hour by her Timex before carrying the sleeping child to the county car.
On the way to Shelter Care, she must have passed the towering, pastel-bubbled “Sun Fun Stay Play” sign marking the northern boundary of Bakersfield on Highway 99. There was another sign just like it south of the city line, cajoling travelers headed north. The city boosters had erected both with great fanfare the year we came to town. Across the bottom, the tagline read: “The Sign of a Progressive Community.”
Mickey Revenaugh is a Bakersfield-bred, Brooklyn-based writer whose work appears (or will soon) in Chautauqua, Catapult, Lunch Ticket, The Thing Itself, Louisiana Literature, and LA Review of Books, among others. She was recently named finalist for the 2017 Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University and the 2017 Penelope Niven Award for Nonfiction at the Center for Women Writers. Mickey has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington, an MBA from NYU, and a BA in American Studies from Yale.
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