Part 84: The Hayride
In 1979, the summer before I started high school, my family moved from Southern California to a small town in the San Joaquin Valley called Porterville. At first, my parents claimed we had to move because of the crime rate, but it turns out, my mother had her sights set on Northern California, but we simply ran out of money halfway there, somewhere in between Bakersfield and Fresno. Oil pumps on dried out foothills–– a highway exit with a restaurant attached to a gas station, beside a sad motel, all wrapped in a Paul Bunyan theme. We passed orange tree groves, leading us to wide streets lined on both sides with strip malls. If heat had a smell, it was here, tinged with manure.
My father worked his magic, he found an elderly couple hoping to rent their ranch style house to good tenants who’d take care of their prized rose bushes and walnut trees. Looking back, I’m astonished by my late father’s talents, how he won people’s trust so quickly. We’d literally arrived that day, having moved over a dozen times, and this couple handed over the keys without a second thought.
I began unpacking, my mother set up her art supplies, Dad went off in his loud and hideous Oldsmobile to get groceries. The car was loud because it either had no muffler, or a badly damaged one, so it sounded like a Harley-Davidson roaring down the street––hideous because the outside looked like a moldy grape. Once it must’ve been purple, but by the time it came to us, it looked like someone threw acid filled balloons against the body, making the paint job patchy like a molting snake. In my teenage mind, the look and sound of this car was made to humiliate me, and I hoped Dad would find a mechanic in town to fix the muffler, but it was unlikely.
I dug through a few boxes trying to find something cool to wear, found an old t-shirt and lighter weight pants. I held up the pants, which had stains on the front. I hesitated, but realized the stains didn’t matter, since there was no one to notice. The high school I would attend in the fall was walkable, so I decided to venture out. I passed sand-colored houses surrounded by a low cement wall, all with freshly mowed lawns, one after the other, the kind you can’t tell apart, the kind of development you could get lost in.
The high school had a sign out front with a cartoon of a smiling Indian with a huge nose, war paint slashed across the cartoon cheeks, braids, a headband with a feather sticking up. Later, I’d learn that the mascot was a random student dressed as a “marauder,” a caricature of a Native American. I thought about wandering around the campus, but after standing in the empty parking lot for a moment, I turned around and headed back to the house.
Dad arrived just after I did.
“Well, I got the lay of the land, met some Porterville folks,” he said.
He talked up the town enthusiastically, telling me he’d met the mayor, and someone willing to rent him an office space. He always had some project going, and the fact that his projects almost always failed didn’t stop him from insisting on renting an office. Before I was born, he’d apparently managed to make a living in the music business.
“Some kids are meeting and going on an organized hayride tomorrow,” he pulled a coffee maker out of a box and plugged it in. “You can meet some people your own age.”
“Where does it go?”
“Nearby,” he said, opening a can of Folgers. “There’s farms all around here.”
I imagined horses pulling a cart, a small-town activity. Even though hayrides seemed like something for children, my father assured me it was for high school age kids, so I agreed to go.
The next afternoon, Dad said it was time to get going. I began wishing we could arrive in another car, dreading being seen in ours.
Whenever he dropped me off at junior high in Oxnard, I’d duck down in my seat if we passed a group of kids from my class. “Are you embarrassed?” he asked, and I knew I was caught. I admitted I hated the Oldsmobile, and he teased me about it, laughing it off. “You know, a lot of famous people ride around in old cars so no one will recognize them. Katherine Hepburn rode around in an old junker.”
There would be no fresh start in Porterville with the Crapmobile.
Dad slowed down, the engine growling like an asthmatic dragon. I looked around, confused. I thought we’d be driving out to a farm for the hayride, but Dad pulled into a strip mall parking lot in front of a K-mart, engine rumbling, and that’s when I saw the situation for what it was. The “hayride” was a small group of kids around my age in a white pick-up truck sitting on hay bales. I took a deep breath, reminding myself not to look nervous.
We pulled close.
“I’ll be here to pick you up, but you have the new phone number, right?” Dad said, handing me a pile of change for the phone booth. I nodded and put the coins in my purse. The engine was still rumbling, so I thought he’d drop me and drive off.
The kids were staring at us, at least a couple covering their mouths to hide their laughter. Flush with shame, for a moment I thought about telling him I’d changed my mind, or that I didn’t feel well, but Dad shut off the engine and got out of the car. I got out, too, but time slowed down, every move I made was painfully awkward, I wanted to roll up in a ball like a pill bug and hide. I knew he’d be in his own world, talking too loudly, bragging, smoking his smelly cigar, not realizing or caring what people thought of us.
Dad started talking to a man named Joshua, who seemed to be the guy in charge. Looking at my father and his off-white cowboy hat, gesturing with his hands while he talked, I tried to see what other people saw when they looked at him. To me, he looked like he was wearing a costume––he wasn’t a cowboy, far from it.
Privately, my father talked about religious people like they were sheep and brainwashed fools, but here in the parking lot, he quoted the bible and talked about how he’d made a religious album with Dana Andrews, like anyone knew who that was. As they spoke, Joshua rested his thumbs in his belt loops, listening and nodding, his face and neck looked like they’d been sunburned every single day of his life.
Joshua told me to join the others in the back of the truck. I took a seat on the square hay bale in the back with five other kids. The straw poked my legs through my pants, the impossibly hot afternoon sun bore down from a cloudless sky.
Dad waved at me before he got back into the Shitmobile. It was my last chance to run after him, but I sat frozen. He started up the engine, like kicking that old dragon awake, and drove off.
“What’s wrong with your car?” a pale boy asked me, his sweaty upper lip forming a sneer. Everyone looked at me.
“We’re going to have it fixed,” I lied, knowing we’d never have enough money to fix that car.
I was relieved when a girl brought up a summer camp she and the pale boy had attended, their attention turned to something else. The girl next to me, Sarah, seemed to know everyone and was a bit of a know-it-all. She was a year older, but something about her looked like a giant baby, her puffy cheeks pink from the heat, her eyes tucked back into her fleshy head, her light brown hair cut short, curling around her skull.
Sarah went to the high school I was headed for in the fall, the one by my house.“Monache,” named after a group of six Northern Uto-Aztecan peoples, also known as Mono or Western Mono, but I didn’t learn about that until years later. That day in the truck a boy said, “It means fly larva in Indian.”
We kids sat in the truck bed, waiting for stragglers. It became obvious they all knew each other. We’d moved so many times before we ended up here, and there was no way to keep connections with the kids I’d met along the way.
In the treeless parking lot, our white skin was quickly turning red. If it had been horses drawing a cart like I’d thought, I would’ve felt sorry for the creatures. Sitting on the musty hay bales, flushed and sweaty, we waited to take off, to who knows where. The air smelled like gasoline, dried grass, and mold.
Joshua said, “Keep your arms inside the truck, no standing.” He took one last look around for late comers, and he and an older man with a plaid western shirt got in the cab. The engine started and we drove down Henderson Avenue, a wide road in the commercial district. We passed a stream of franchises: Wendy’s, 7-11, Winchell’s Donuts, another donut shop, at least two pizza chains, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King.
The other kids compared favorite pizza joints; a debate broke out about toppings. We passed a furniture store on the edge of town, then a lone fruit stand with a hand-made sign, a persimmon tree grove, a labor camp, then farmhouses and barns. We rode on and on. I wanted to ask where we were going, but it seemed uncool to not be in the know, so I stayed quiet.
The brightness began to dim with a hazy, orange hue as the sun sank lower in the sky.
The truck finally turned into a church parking lot. All the other kids jumped out of the back, hay sticking to their clothes. They seemed to know exactly where they were headed. I hesitated, watching them run across a field to a bonfire burning in the distance. No one in my house was religious, so when I saw this was church property, I worried that I was going to have to pretend to pray with these strangers.
“Come on,” Joshua said, taking a cardboard box out of the cab and walking towards the others. The man in the passenger seat carried a second box. I could see the silhouettes of a few adults and older kids near the fire, flames sending black smoke into the sunset. Why was the fire so intense and smokey? It felt a bit cooler now that the sun was setting, maybe they were roasting marshmallows like we used to do on the beach in Southern California. Even though it was a hot night for roasting snacks, my mouth watered at the thought of it.
I hurried to catch up but was overwhelmed by a strong smell. The back of my throat and eyes burned. I could see people tossing things from the boxes into the fire. Lightheaded, I stepped in with the group, the flames sending off a thick wave of heat.
This was not a marshmallow roast.
In the fire I saw burning random books and albums, book titles my mother had inside our unpacked boxes at home, Isaak Asimov and Ray Bradbury, as well as records we’d saved up for––The Beatles, James Brown, The Rolling Stones. One of the adults took a paperback book, ripped it in two, and tore the pages out one by one, crushing the paper and tossing the balls into the flames, the fire crackling and spitting, the sparks flying around us, ashes landing on our clothes.
“I heard this guy’s an idiot,” someone said, tossing another random book into the fire.
A feeling of dread began rising in my chest. I looked at the people, some smiling, others laughing, the dancing flames reflecting on their pale skin. Looking down at a slowly melting album, I wondered why? Why were they burning books and albums?
I couldn’t leave, we were in the middle of nowhere, so I had to wait for the hay-riders to finish their bizarre task. Why burn things that cost money? It was painful to see albums and books wasted.
Was there a face in the crowd that looked as disturbed as I felt? They all seemed to be enjoying the experience, like it was a fun evening activity––something they’d done before and looked forward to.
Dad couldn’t have known the hayride was going to end up at a book burning, but I was mad at him anyway for being so clueless.
Sarah looked gleeful as she tossed the White Album into the fire. I loved that one because it included all four head shots of Paul, George, John, and my first crush, Ringo.
“Why are you burning these?” I asked her, my voice shaking, fear turning into anger and self-righteous indignation.
“Because one of them Beatles said they were better than Jesus. No one’s better than Jesus.” I’ll never forget the tone of her voice, the smug, know-it-all look on her face.
“No," I said, my voice shaking. "They didn’t say that.”
“Oh yes they did. And they’re gonna burn in Hell just like this,” she pointed her finger towards a blob of black, melting goo.
After the fire business was over, we were told to go inside the church for snacks. There were bowls of M & M’s, a sheet cake, Chips Ahoy cookies, Mountain Dew, Hawaiian Punch from a can, and Rice Krispy treats. I asked a few kids when we were going back, but no one seemed to know. I ate a piece of cake and a pile of cookies, and within a few minutes, I felt queasy.
When Joshua finally said it was time to leave, I was the first to run outside and hop in the back of the truck. We drove down the same roads, the lights from the labor camps dimly glowing through tiny windows, a pair of ravens flew overhead, gurgling out their throaty call.
Back at the K-mart parking lot, all the others had rides waiting for them, but Dad wasn’t there. I fumbled for coins while heading over to the phone booth. I held up the paper with our new phone number and carefully dialed. After two rings, someone picked up…I heard a voice with a strange Japanese accent, like the terrible one Micky Rooney used in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” only I knew it was Dad.
He garbled out the strange dialect. “Dad?” I repeated.
He hung up.
I took a deep breath and braced myself. It was him. There was no mistaking it. I plugged the phone again, my hands shaking, knowing I would be out of coins if this didn’t work. I didn’t want to be left alone in the dark parking lot. I dialed the number. The phone rang.
Again, Dad answered with the fake accent.
“Dad! Dad! Don’t hang up.”
“Oh, it’s you,” he said, back to his normal voice.
“You said to call,” I said. “Why were you talking like that?”
“That accent? Didn’t you know I was calling for a ride? Like, you told me to call. You hung up on me!”
“I thought you were someone else.”
“Ok, come and get me then,” I said. “Like, everyone else has a ride home.”
I leaned against the wall, trying to be invisible, listening for the sound of his car.
Finally, I heard rumbling, then headlights cutting through the dark. Dad pulled up, rolled down the window and said, “Did you have fun?”
I got in, slamming the door hard.
“Watch out for that door,” he said. “You make any friends?”
I glared at him, but he stared straight ahead, oblivious, his big hands on the steering wheel. He’d been using Grecian Formula to darken his gray hair, and he’d nicked himself with his razor. There was a small piece of toilet paper soaking up blood, poking out of his jaw like an S.O.S flag. “I hate it here. Like, hate it.”
“Take it easy, we just arrived, and stop saying like all the time,” Dad said, shaking his cigar into the ashtray. “One day you won’t have to worry about anything. This is temporary, you’ll see. You’re getting all my song royalties, then you can live wherever you want. Everything will turn out.”
I twisted my body away from him and looked out the window. Cruising down the road, Dad’s car scaring birds and small children, I was secretly relieved to be where I was, sitting next to my father and his cheap cigars, the smoke washing away the stink of melting vinyl and burning paper.