The Rivers Wander and Then Converge
During the years that Dennis and his family developed the original Riley’s Farm, he built a log cabin with lodge-like ceilings and then a barn for hosting square dances and selling farm produce. Dennis, my sister Susan and I had left the Mormon fold and we found some affinity in comparing our stories. This and the “farm bragging rights” reality kept me in friendly orbit around Dennis and his family for several years, but, at that stage of our history, I didn’t see a future for the rest of us Rileys on Denny’s twelve acres. It wasn’t even a proposal anywhere on the horizon.
In my teen years, I saw my future, variously, and in this order as: professional golfer, President of the United States, college professor, writer. I wanted it to be something lawyerly and academic and “gentry.” Dad may have imparted this to me by telegraphing his assumption about the social order. In our little suburban village full of doctors, dentists, lawyers, and academics, “salesman” was something like towel boy at the country club. One of Dad’s church friends called us “shanty Irish,” and although it was a joke, I could see a forced joviality in the way dad responded to it. Most American church culture, on the surface, preaches a brand of spiritual egalitarianism. Theoretically, the man who works the customer service counter at Sears stands before God’s throne with the same gravity as the Cal Tech chemistry professor who just won the Priestly Medal, but one of them is far more likely to be invited to share their stories up at the pulpit. My mother, who did a little fashion modeling in college, and who didn’t really value beauty, because she didn’t really have to think about it, taught the church charity line with real heart: seek out the shy, the plain, the blemished – and make them feel loved. We all believed this on Sunday morning, but on Saturday nights, it simply was what it was: beauty knows no pain. The pretty girls danced. If Donny Osmond had popped in on one of our church parties, the sheer social reckoning, the powerful revelation of undeniable hierarchy, would have given us boys vertigo. Love everyone, but rest assured: there is a pecking order around here.
“To be a professional golfer,” Art Oronoz told me, marking the spot his drive landed on the 17th fairway, “you have to remember, it’s a God-given gift. Absolutely a God-given gift, Jimmy.”
He repeated “God given” in a way that was intended to let me know I was not Johnny Miller, nor was there any chance in the whole wide universe I ever would be.
It annoyed me. I had spent the summer at Billy Casper’s Golf Camp, and I was getting better, but only in the way that anyone gets better at something if they do the same thing every day for 18 weeks. As though to spite Art, I drove the ball 325 yards straight down the fairway, but I would never hit the ball that far again. Art was right. I would never be a professional golfer, although this violated one of my core beliefs: anyone can do anything they want if they really want it badly enough.
Like “love everyone,” “you can be anything you want” encounters the rigid steel and cement walls of the real world. I can remember arguing with Johnny Ballard about this conviction of mine. John’s Dad had been a quarterback for UCLA in the fifties and John took to all sports without any training. I had been snow-skiing for several years and John took one run down the slope and proved himself more accomplished in five minutes than five years had proven for me. John was a little league star, and I was the guy they put in left field for two innings – unable to master the skill of blocking the setting sun with my glove, long enough to snag the easy pop-ups. I could be counted on to sacrifice two or three runs per inning.
“Okay,” I told John, “so I know I’m horrible at baseball now, but if I spent 14 hours a day training, if anyone did that, they could be as good as anyone on that field.”
“No. Not possible.”
“You ever heard of Pete Gray?” I asked. “Pete Gray played professional baseball with one arm.”
“Pete Gray was a natural athlete.”
“So even if Pete Gray had no arms, he would still be better at baseball than you are.”
I didn’t really want to actually test my proposition on the baseball field anyway, so I moved on to something a little more manageable – seeking the presidency of the United States. To accomplish this, however, I would have to win the office of Junior Senator at Arcadia High School. I actually got my mother to sew a great red cloth banner, about twenty feet wide, with gold letters on it – “Riley for Senator.” I can remember Jeff Stokes’ mother approaching it, fingering the machine stitching and saying, “somebody’s mom was hard at it. I think we got out-classed.” At that point, Mrs. Stokes had forgotten she knew my mother, that Jeff and I were grammar school friends, and I guess that made my victory over Jeff a little easier, but it also served as an introduction to a reality I’ve encountered over and over in life — that of “bittersweet intervals.” Our relationships can be so regular and so intense on the short term that, as time goes by and friendships decay in imperceptibly small increments, we can suddenly find ourselves across the sidewalk from a stranger, who was once our best friend. We can see a woman in the grocery store, vaguely recognize her, and then remember we spent nearly a whole summer together. We can see a worried looking father taking his children out of a mini-van and remember this distant, tense father was once our own happy little boy.
After winning Junior Senator, in my senior year I ran for student body president and won. For the preceding several years, having been unsentimentally disabused of the notion that baseball and golf were in my future, I decided I would take the route of a nerdy grind headed for Harvard, by virtue of excellent grades, good college board scores and plenty of leadership credentials. I even endured state speech competitions, giving a powerful indictment of the Teamsters union that seemed to be very well received by even the union school teachers who judged it. I knew it was a pretty good speech when, at one state competition, an attractive older girl tried to derail my presentation by bitterly frowning at me between paragraphs. It worked. I was rattled by what appeared to be fangs-out, competitive blood-lust in a young woman. I never saw the Exorcist, but this girl was doing her version of it – just to nudge me towards failure.
Looking back, I think I’ve struggled to reconcile my mother Bea’s cheerful “love thy neighbor” assumptions about the world with the brutal playground reality that actually prevails. Whenever I hear parents overwrought about their children’s school wardrobe, or their popularity with the other kids, I think back to a mother who regarded that sort of worry as spiritually superficial. “If they like you for your clothing are you really friends?” She actually believed people were making an attempt to measure our hearts, that the whole world actually cared about the Sermon on the Mount. There’s a certain kind of realist parent capable of telling their kids, “look if you wear those shoes, the older kids will hang you over the toilet and give you a swirly.” They coach children for junior high as though they were getting them ready for the penitentiary. Mom wasn’t one of them. I’m not sure if her natural beauty, or her sunny disposition kept adolescent cruelty off her horizon, but she didn’t assume it, and she certainly didn’t go out of her way to prepare us for it. In her world, you didn’t report bullies. You felt sorry for them, or prayed for them.
I got the sense, against this potential cruelty mom ignored, and the broader cruelty of knowing that the world, on virtually every front, was painfully ranked and vertical, that I had to find some mountain I could claim as my own. I was so dreadfully skinny I couldn’t gain weight even if I consumed stacks of grilled cheese sandwiches, ten rows high. One of the girls in church let it slip that she liked me but that my fingers were too skinny. In the mid Seventies, even conservative young men in church grew out their hair, and mine was such a wild brown clown’s wig that a girl in my dorm, at Stanford, noticed how similar it was to someone with a condition known as surplus riboflavin. She pointed to an abnormal biology photo of fly-away circus hair, and I earned the nick name “Riboflavin” or “Ribo.” Against this massive inventory of perceived deficiency, I felt I needed to gain admission to some Emerald City everyone would reverence, and I noticed that even some of the most witless and superficial kids understood the gravity of terms like “Harvard,” “Princeton” and “Yale.” I let it be known I was going there.
Something like my encounters with Art Oronoz and Johnny Ballard, one of the high school counselors let it be known I should more or less expect failure on this front. I was one of those kids who actually read the student handbook cover to cover, taking in the names of the various scholarships, making note of when you could take the ACT and SAT tests, always fearful I would miss some deadline – or worse, be unaware of some unpublished program reserved for insiders.
“So, what is this Telluride Scholarship?” I asked.
Mrs. Gayle, a concert pianist, nearly snorted, as though I were a chimp lunging at the fine dinnerware.
“The Telluride is a scholarship reserved for extremely gifted students. Extremely gifted students. I believe we’ve had one qualify in the last ten years.”
“Well,” I said. “Who knows.”
“It says here,” Mrs. Gayle went on, “you want to try for the Ivy League. Are you a legacy?”
“Did your father or mother attend any of the Ivys?”
“Perhaps a grandfather or a relative?”
She appeared to be enjoying this keeping of boundaries and lowering of expectations.
“My grandfather went to Berkely.”
“That’s something,” she said, touching her pearl necklace. “I suppose.”
A few years later, when I earned a 5 on my AP History exam, Mrs. Gayle actually began cozying up to me and taking credit for my academic success. When I received community scholarships, she was transformed into some radiant, wet-eyed, celebrating grandmother – as though she had believed in me all along, against all odds. I guess I don’t really blame her. I’m not terribly bright, as in fast-thinking. I’m a grind. I’m the tortoise against the hare in the fable, so I don’t really blame her for being skeptical. Nothing worthwhile looks remotely possible at first.
I had two alumni interviews for Harvard and they were unmitigated disasters. One fellow visited the house wearing a hat that seems, in memory, like a brown bowler, but I’m sure I’m inventing that for effect. He was tweedy, vested, layered, old, and elegant and I knew from the moment he sat down in the living room I was going to disappoint him. I did. The other fellow was an executive at Santa Anita Race Track and I momentarily lapsed into asking only questions about the track, and gambling, in a way that probably made me look like a kid who was going to ask a grown-up to place a bet for him.
I didn’t get into Harvard, but I was admitted to Stanford and a few other liberal art schools. I pretty much knew when the fat envelope came from Stanford, that’s where I would be going, even though BYU gave me an academic scholarship. Dad was both proud and disappointed, pleased I had been admitted to Stanford but not terribly happy about the burden this was going to represent, and scratching his head at a kid who automatically, within 24 hours, said no to BYU.
Even before I left the Mormon church, I resented the life-calendar Mormon teenagers were assigned. Boys will serve a two year mission at nineteen. Girls will stay home, date, go to dances, and get married. It all seemed horribly unfair, expecting young men to embrace third world plumbing, scrupulous celibacy, and semi-poverty while Laurie, Julie, Polly, Leslie, and Janette slow danced with the older guys. I suppose there is some social utility in toughening up the young bucks before they take on family obligations, and the church – since then — has broadened the mission obligation to both sexes, but my real problem is that I couldn’t see myself on a porch somewhere pitching the Book of Mormon. I had not yet come to see Joseph Smith’s work as fiction, but I didn’t have any confirmation, from God, that it was true enough to sell in the passionate way the church wanted it sold. Contrary to the basic admonition of most orthodox Christian missionaries – ask God for faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ – Mormons place an emphasis on church members asking God if the church is true. The church, the church, the church. I fell asleep on my knees offering up this prayer, and I never received an answer.
As a young Mormon, this leaves you in a kind of spiritually despondent state. You attend fast and testimony meetings where six year old children stand up and passionately affirm, “I know this church is true.” You see your teenage friends weeping tears of what look like real conviction making the same affirmation – and you wonder, “why can’t I say that?”
At about this time, a friend of mine, who would later become a romantic interest, expressed interest in joining the church. Her name was Young Jin. Her parents had immigrated from South Korea and she was going off to Berkeley the next year. When she began taking the missionary lessons, a number of evangelical high school friends challenged her, and me, to sit down with a Baptist woman in town who had a ministry to Mormons.
In truth, the meeting annoyed me. Even though Mormons claim to be the only true church on earth, (and perhaps because of that contention), they recoil at being told they aren’t Christians. I learned critical differences, at that meeting, between the historic doctrine of the trinity and the Mormon version of Jesus. I was reminded that Jesus was God in the flesh, that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and not the product of a human sexual encounter between God and Mary. I was introduced to some of the Joseph Smith scandals. It was difficult for me to believe, given this litany of difficult truth, that the women in question had anything but contempt for me, but she turned to me, directly, and asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.”
“I do,” I said, still annoyed. I thought the answer should have been obvious.
She put her arms on my shoulders and said, “then I claim you in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The gesture felt contrived for some reason. This woman didn’t have a multi-billion dollar endowment, or big temples all over the world, or a university system, or twelve men who claimed to be modern day apostles – and here she was “claiming” me in the name of Christ.
Young Jin and I went home in silence. I didn’t know how to contend with the other side of the argument, but the next day, she asked me something…
“After she did that, after she put her hands on our shoulders, did you feel something? I’ve felt peaceful ever since that happened.”
I was having trouble admitting it, and I’m not sure if I did out loud, but I did too.
At this point in our story, Young Jin went off to Berkeley. I went to Stanford. Dennis moved his family to Oak Glen. I still didn’t see the farm, or Oak Glen, as part of my future. On breaks from school, I took friends there. We took pleasurable note of the apple trees, and the horses, and the fiddles, and the vocals, and we engaged in wide-ranging discussions, sometimes debates, about politics and religion and culture. Dennis was a wildly good conversationalist, and a contrarian on most topics. It was like a strong and necessary dose of “anti-Stanford” tea.
It would take me a few years to understand this completely, but everyone either finds God or invents one – even atheists. I’ve put it another way since then: “we’re all in a cult. It’s just that some cults are more successful than others.” I came to enjoy the pleasant differences between the way Dennis looked at the world and the way Stanford defined the world, because even before political correctness and cancel culture, Stanford – and all major universities – have always operated very much like large religious institutions. There are orthodoxies you simply do not question. Species-generating evolution sprang into action after an ex nihilo big bang, and THAT IS THE EXPLANATION for the universe. Got it? The ultra baroque DNA strand really did evolve, by accident, from a little methane and carbon and hydrogen. The Bible IS a fairy tale. Human morality is a fluid construct. The broad-headed, big-boned biology professor who has now transitioned to being female really is female, (you bigot). And, yes, Marxism killed a lot more people than traditional religion, but we just haven’t gotten it right yet. The science is settled, people.
I remember an insufferable freshman laying down the law for me the first month of school. “The American dream is a myth – a destructive myth.”
“But,” I said, “I’m here because of it. My dad weeded onion fields as a kid, and he’s paying my tuition now.”
My insufferably conventional dorm friend didn’t have an answer then and he wouldn’t today. These are religious dogmas, not ideas.
The debates at Denny’s house, in other words, were a lot more honest, far-ranging, and accountable than anything I experienced at Stanford. Stanford likely had more attention to detail. The topics, and the reading material, were a little more granular, but it felt something like studying the Mona Lisa by analyzing its paint strokes under a microscope. If you backed up to consider her smile, or her faith, or her civilization, you had to be very careful about your conclusions.
I considered, for a time, becoming an academic historian. I became the ultra grind in our first small group colloquium on the Bay Colony, reading and re-reading the assigned historians, Larzer Ziff, Perry Miller, Edmund Morgan. Like most disciplines with their own vocabulary, it cracks open slowly. The first text is difficult. The second gets easier, and by the third or fourth, you begin to understand the cross-referencing, the guild’s language, but it winds up not being quite as interesting as the primary material itself – Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Adams. Moreover, you find out that most people learn history by simply accepting what academic historians have said about history, and not history itself. It eventually felt tedious, and, at times, dishonest. (See Howard Zinn). I wanted something that would allow me to paint in bolder, truer strokes.
Junior year, in a short story writing workshop, I discovered Flannery O’Connor. I actually nearly fell over in my chair after finishing a story of hers entitled “Greenleaf.” The word “mystical” came back to mind. I still can’t claim to interpret her work, but I could sense its enormous power, and I wanted some of that. It felt like true religion.
The last two years at Stanford, I gave up any thought of applying for law school, or pursuing higher credentials in my academic major–history. I did very little but write, and party. They seemed to go together. The older writers in the English department took me under their wing and I was allowed to sit in on the graduate writing workshop my senior year. I wrote about growing up Mormon and this seemed exotic, and iconoclastic enough, to keep their attention, even if I only earned polite, if detailed, rejection letters from the New Yorker and the Atlantic. I applied for graduate school at Stanford, Columbia, Syracuse and Iowa, and received graduate fellowships from all of them. The best offer was from Iowa, where Flannery O’Connor had attended graduate school, and they made me fiction editor at the Iowa Review.
I don’t know if much has changed since 1983, but the life of an academic literary writer is both precarious and subsidized. Unlike commercial fiction writers, who need to appeal to wide markets and sell books, most “literary” writers make their way getting academic grants, teaching positions, and selling the odd short story or novel. A few, like John Irving, John Cheever, Margaret Atwood, John Updike – also enjoy commercial success, but the vast majority end up helming some small writing program at some small state university, if they are even that fortunate. Most of them get very temporary teaching assignments and short term stays at writing colonies. A few of the cowboy literary types at Stanford thought it better to get a job building houses, and write on the side, since the academic literary world was so insulated and fragile. Still, I was ready to throw myself into this mix, both because I loved fiction and I loved the people trying to compose it. This world, moreover, seemed to be embracing me. My work was generally accepted, if not always applauded. In those days, I didn’t carelessly stomp on any post-modern sacred cows. I cherished the idea of finding some small university town, and some Craftsman bungalow, and then enjoying, loosely, the title of “professor” and “novelist.” It didn’t matter how minor a place I took in this constellation. It seemed to be a worthy calling.
After driving three days across the country, on my final approach to Iowa City, I watched a crop-duster fly low over a corn field, disappear behind the earthen ramp of a bridge crossing the highway, ascend high above my lane of traffic, descend, and then wobble its wings, as though stalling, mid air – as though it were about to crash right into me. It was something straight out of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Doing at least seventy, I locked up the brakes on the highway and watched the plane bank left, sharply – roaring back over the next row of crops. To this day, I don’t know if it was a real incident, or if the pilot was playing me chicken, but it proved a kind of bad omen for Iowa.
Iowa City itself, mind you, was beautiful and I came to like Midwesterners. I told Ethan Canin, a friend from Stanford in his second year of the program, that I thought the woman who cut my hair liked me. “This is Iowa,” Ethan responded. “Don’t be too optimistic. Everyone is friendly.”
That was true – with the possible exception of the young writers assembled there to study fiction and poetry. Writing workshops can be vicious, soul-crushing experiences. Having a story analyzed sentence by sentence, word by word, can be something like being murdered via sewing needle. If you follow the standard advice – “write about what you know” – if you populate your stories with different versions of yourself and your relatives, then it can be particularly vicious. At Stanford, a woman I knew well enough to have recognized as the protagonist of her own story, watched fifteen graduate students rip into her main character with assessments like “is it just me or is this woman a total hag-bitch?” followed by grunts of approval and then more comments of the sort, “she’s like the very soul of evil.” The character take-down was so complete that my friend, silent and pale for 45 minutes, stood up, walked toward a window of the second floor classroom on the Stanford Quad, unlatched it, and then threw up, violently, out over the sandstone.
At Iowa, this trend seemed to intensify, and it came to be summed up by one successful, second year MFA student who had his novel published while still in the program. After a few weeks, he wasn’t happy just having been published. He concluded, “in the long run, it is not enough that I should succeed. Others must fail.” He was joking, sorta, but in a subsidized world of limited resources – only so many teaching spots, only so many spots at Yaddo and Provincetown – it could be hard to tell who was genuinely helping you find holes in your fiction and who was trying to burn it all up, and you along with it.
Then, too, I was beginning to think about the place, and the experience, and what it would do to me long term. Writers are intensely aware of their own experiences, their own world, even their own dialogue because they are busy trying to take it all to the bank with a good story. A few of the cowboy-writers inspired by Ron Hansen worried that you would never write a good literary western if you spent too much time among tenure-hungry metrosexuals. For better or worse, that usually meant a little manly time at the bar, comparing notes. One legend of John Cheever’s time at Iowa – a dry state – included the memory of a graduate student driving him to the state liquor store, only to see John open the car door and put his feet out sideways, at the ready position, before the car came to a stop. What kind of fiction would you write if all of your time was spent with neurotic, slightly well to do people, whose parents had enough money to send them off to an MFA program? John Cheever, for all of his weirdness, had at least returned from the war, enjoyed New England summer homes, and knew his way around a dinner party. He wasn’t even remotely the product of a writer’s workshop.
One night at Iowa, a friend who later became a successful journalist, sat next to me in the grandstands of a brew bub and watched a dumpy, homely poetry professor–one of those women who defiantly gave up on trying to look her best a few decades before. She was slow dancing with a young, beautiful blonde coed, who couldn’t have been much more than nineteen. She was holding the blonde coed’s head to her knap-snarled sweater-chest as they turned to the music. My friend turned to me and said, “That girl? The blonde? She’s thinking: ‘Is this ‘A’ in Lit Crit really worth it?’”
A few weeks later, not knowing a thing about poetry, I attended a reading in what was once a Christian chapel on the University of Iowa campus. The featured poet was a young fellow who read a few pieces about moths and butterflies violently losing their wings, followed by fish having their tails bit off–their wide, red eyes anticipating death by virtue of a bigger fish’s next lunge. This poet seemed to be going through a violent critter-death phase that was weirdly precise, as though he might have tortured pets as a little boy, but then he moved on to human love poems and I couldn’t help noticing that he was tearfully reading them to someone in the audience. This, at least, felt sane, but then I looked at the object of his love – a big, rubbery-nosed dude with an eraserhead haircut. The room began to feel like a nightmare populated with a cast of hideous clowns. The fact that I was the only one repulsed by it deepened my dread at having to face a career full of obligations like this one.
I think I may have made the decision to leave all this weirdness behind sometime that night, but I had an assignment to fulfill that was intended to be an honor but that likely would have ended my academic career, if I had even decided to pursue it. The director of the writer’s program chose me to moderate a workshop featuring the first chapter of his novel. I remember reading it the first time, then the second time, then the third time (in case I was just being dumb) and concluding, “this is competent, but very dull.”
I asked my friend Ethan Canin about it. Ethan was on his way to Harvard medical school and some literary success, with a collection of published short stories and, eventually, a story made into a major feature film with Kevin Kline.
“Uh,” he said. “If I were you, I’d get excited about it.”
“But.. it’s a little tedious, isn’t it?”
“Like I said..”
I decided to let most of the students do the talking, but I resolved to at least register some of my concerns about the pace and the tension, and when I did so, I was totally left to float out into the big shark tank all by myself. No one echoed my comments. No one nodded. No one even cut me off as I gave a long, boring talk about the director’s novel being boring.
In the stiff, glassy aftermath of that disaster, I knew I was pretty much done. After only five or six months in Iowa, I made arrangements to drive home in the winter, across the frozen Midwest, past weird stretches of dead deer in Utah, across the Barstow desert and back home to Arcadia, California. I was twenty-four years old with no real career and no real plans for any more formal education.
The experience, however, confirmed my obsession with writing. I knew that whatever else I did, I had settled on writing as the craft that seemed most worthy of my time and my life. Now you nimble thinkers out there might find this odd because as of this writing, in my sixty-second year of life, I’ve never really published anything but vanity blogs and not-for-pay political essays and my own self-produced episodic TV. I had lunch with Ben Shapiro once, pitching my television show, “Courage, New Hampshire.” He knew I had written and produced the first episode when he remarked, “when are you going to hire a writer?” (Ben is brilliant, but he’s a bit of an ass.) A few of my own children, to make it worse, detest the kind of confession, and personal revelation, that comes with writing. I embarrass them. They begged their mother, unsuccessfully, to nudge me off social media and blogging. My left of center customers here on the farm wish I would stick to apple farming, since my perspective, in their view, is incompatible with stewardship over rural beauty, and history. (I pray for them; they aren’t too bright.) I’m also haunted by the wisdom of my hero. Flannery O’Connor was once asked if writing workshops discouraged young writers. She responded, “not nearly enough of them.”
She very well might have been referring to people like me, but I don’t think so. I have read enough manuscripts, as a fiction editor, to know that most people have absolutely no business writing. I know I’m a good writer even if the audience might not be ready for me, or if my audience is extremely small. I write because I love writing. I write to talk to God. I write because it’s my most honest prayer.
When I came home from Iowa, I knew I was needed in my father’s business, and I thought I could do something real – run a big brick warehouse, go on trade trips to the Palmer House in Chicago, study the lifeways of the men who set a leather bag down on a buyer’s desk, zipped it open and announced, with great high purpose: “This! This is the new Super Man action figure toy line. It’s ours. We’re the very first licensees. Clark Kent and Lois Lane can be on YOUR shelves tomorrow. Huge margin, skipper. Huge. We have three containers on the dock now at Long Beach. What can I put you down for?”
I thought I could observe that world, collect its stories, fictionalize them, and find some way to pay for my very unpopular habit. I began by recruiting my little brother, Scott, into pitching dad for help on a down payment on a little Spanish Colonial Revival bungalow in Naples, California. It had two bedrooms, hardwood floors, and a garage with a roof that actually sagged when you walked on it, but it was less than 200 feet from the ocean and Naples Bay.
My dad was annoyed with the proposition, but he had a weakness for real estate acquisition. I had finished Stanford and Scott had returned from his mission in Venezuela. We had made him at least a little proud, and he knew we were hard workers. I was putting in 16 hour days, programming computers at his warehouse in the first big rush of small business computer automation. It was 1984. The first PC was being announced. Bill Gates was still answering the phones up there in Seattle.
“You don’t even know if you can take the fog down here,” Dad said.
We were standing out in front of the little house on Via Di Roma.
“The Fog?” I asked.
“It gets really foggy down here by the water.”
Dad, being a really good salesman, knew this wasn’t a very good pitch, but it was the only thing he had – a memory of another child having asthma problems in Inglewood. He knew I would have no health problems in Long Beach. The very air was conspiring against him on this. If the band “Looking Glass” had broken into a live performance of “Brandy” it could not have been more perfect. It was a bright, clear day in the early summer. Ruby red bracts of Bougainvillea were rustling on the porch steps. A palm tree rattled pleasantly overhead. Sea gulls were floating up and down over the yachts in the distance. A young woman in a navy blue wetsuit rode by on her bike, spiking the air with something honey-like.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Dad said.
He appeared half grumpy, half amused by the blessings of youth. Later in the afternoon, he startled the real estate agent by making an all cash offer. She wasn’t used to ignoring the loan contingencies.
Scott and I settled into Long Beach life with the realization that there really is no such thing as “Long Beach life” or “New York life” or even “Paris life” for that matter. Your geography on this dear old planet only serves to describe art direction and population density. Both, to be certain, are important, but young people move from one powerfully dense social matrix to the next without knowing how difficult it really is to create that social matrix in the first place. The taxpayers set up Mrs. McMullin, in first grade, with thirty other suburban kids you would come to love, or hate, and the memory of Norm Halajian being dragged into class the first day – by his arm, by his mother, screaming. Leland Stanford built the quadrangle, and Memorial Church, and peopled it with professors, and history, and other students, and you got dropped in among the other sheep, who were warm and comforting and assigned the same life.
Two young bachelors working hard to pay a mortgage, (albeit to their dad), and find a way onto those twelve meter yachts docked around Naples harbor felt like a different proposition. No one was using those boats in the first place. There were bay front homes, as well, that seemed empty for weeks on end. That young woman in the deep blue wet suit, who helped make the sale? That one? She disappeared entirely. Scott and I were having trouble connecting, to put it mildly, and our efforts seemed comic and forlorn. In nearby Belmont Shore, there was a retro 1950s diner with a waitress who seemed to be a more wholesome version of the actress Elizabeth Perkins. After eating there stag, at least twelve times, the best I managed was a lunch break she took at my table, only to be concluded by the arrival of her boyfriend – who made a kind of “nice try” clicking sound for me, cowboy style, before whisking her away forever.
This was the era of dance bars playing endless-loop hang-gliding videos or MTV on twelve different screens across the darkness. The Cars. Phil Collins. Sting. I can remember one evening, desperately lonely and taking in Dire Straight’s “Money for Nothing” for the twelfth or nineteenth time or twenty-ninth time. A trio of beauties walked onto the rim of the dance floor and the other lonely young men seemed to mirror my own misery at seeing them. The sentiment was “yes, God, they are gorgeous, but they wouldn’t have anything to do with me.” No one asked them to dance. They stood there, a kind of divine gift, mocking our cowardice.
I think I had a “to hell with it” moment. I walked out of the bar, put on a kind of tough-guy jacket I had left in the car, and I took a different route back into the bar, nearer the dance floor. The trio was there still. I had made up my mind to look a little contemptuous and uber-confident, as though no woman in the room was worthy of me. I actually made a point of looking over the trio’s head, as though there was some great truth out there, beyond the moment, that only I could see.
The absurd, stupid thing? It worked. The woman at the center of the trio – the “Ur-Mary” – the dark haired beauty with sparkling eyes who would come to prefigure my eventual wife, turned around and asked me to dance. I held her close, and she actually hinted at me leaving with her, but nothing happened that night, except what actually did happen: love, and even desire, is a kind of miracle. You shouldn’t mess with it, carelessly. I can’t remember precisely, but I think I returned her to the trio. No one should be claimed on the basis of an experiment, even though, weirdly, some of that experiment is necessary in the infuriating mating game. My father told me as much when I was eight years old. “Jim, remember this. Women want what they can’t have.”
Eventually work, and family, and even “Long Beach life” came to establish a kind of normalcy in my life. I was able to both work and enjoy the company of friends, the affection of women, and the cherished hope that I could build my dad’s business into something bigger, better, grander. All was going well, except that it wasn’t. My younger brother, Scott, was restless, lonely, and unhappy. Dennis was asking dad to buy a much larger piece of farm land next to his twelve acre farm – an old orchard that comprised 226 acres.
Scott, my brother and real estate partner, was bolting. He wanted to live on a farm, not a beach house. He wanted dad to buy this vast stretch of apple trees ninety miles away, and I couldn’t help but wondering: so what happens to this life here? The one in Naples? The one that doesn’t seem to be working anyway?
A few weeks into that dilemma, I had dinner in Naples with a girlfriend. She drove off to Orange County and I was standing in a parking lot next to the restaurant.
Memory sometimes fails, but I can’t deny this memory. Just behind me a man was talking to his wife. I distinctly heard these words…
“There’s a place up in Oak Glen where you can pick apples right off the trees. I think they call it Riley’s.”
A Note From the Author: It looks like I’m at about 13,600 words and I’m shooting for about 90,000, so I’m about 15% finished. I won’t be publishing any more of this here in the blog, so if you’re interested in a copy of the finished product, leave a comment below. Thanks!
Tags: Farm History
Categorised in: Farm Journal
This post was written by Jim Riley