Monday, May 21, 2012

An incident in Indio

Dad with Brother Eric and I at my cousin Terry's wedding
Someone had thrown garbage in the swimming pool.  A bottle of bleach.  Half-eaten food.  Soggy newspapers.  All floating on the water, above the dazzling patterns that played on the brilliant white floor; patterns drawn by the refracted light of the oppressive Coachella Valley sun, mid-summer.

Work was done for the day.  We'd been up in the early hours, arriving in the grape fields in the dirty brown light that foretold the dawn.  In the Coachella Valley, in mid-summer, outdoor work ended by noon.  It was too hot to work beyond that.  It was hard work.  We clipped bunches of Thompsons and Pearlettes and packed them in boxes for delivery to produce departments of grocery stores across the country.  That is what we did during our summer vacations in the 70s.

That day, we'd come back to the apartment in Indio, a one-bedroom box with a kitchenette, and napped for an hour or so.  Dad and Jeanne had the bedroom.  Eric, Paige, and I, and one or two of our cousins, Danny or Deona or Inez, in the living room.  We kids were small enough that we could sleep two to a sofa, of which there were two.  Plus, there was the big chocolate beanbag that we kept in front of the television.  In the later afternoon, we arose and ran out to the swimming pool in the middle of the complex, as we did every day.  The pool was where we spent our leisure time, splashing and playing until supper.

But that day, we stood at the side of the pool in the brutal heat and stared at the garbage floating in the water.  When Dad saw it he swore.  He found the pool net and fished out the garbage.  "Alright, kids," he said.  "Go ahead."  We hesitated.  When Dad swore like that it was time to watch your step.  But we sensed that his rage was directed outward, away from us.  So we jumped in.

While we swam, Dad and Jeanne sat in the pool chairs and watched us play.  Dad cast sharp glances at the anonymous doors of the other apartments that surrounded the pool. None of those people ever came to the pool.  We didn't know them.  They didn't speak to us.  They kept behind their closed doors with the curtains drawn.  Against the heat, as we thought.  At first.

Only once had we shared the pool with any of the other residents.  Brother Eric, Cousin Danny and I came out once to find a woman, wearing the scowl of the perpetually unhappy, in the pool with a toddler girl.  She was obese and appeared very white when contrasted with us, the Filipino-Mexican boys who were every day out in the sun.  Out of respect for her and the young child, we kept our splashing to a minimum, but she was not satisfied.  "You boys don't belong here," she said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.  "We live right there, in Apartment 4."  I pointed to the door of our apartment where Dad, Jeanne, and Paige were inside.

Her lip curled to a sneer.  "How many of you live in there?" she asked.  But she did not expect an answer.  I was flummoxed and distressed.  Soon enough she took the child out of the water, dried off and retreated to her apartment.

When I told Dad about the incident with the fat woman, he brushed it off.  But when we found the garbage in the pool, something changed about him.  I could tell by the way Jeanne, always the most attuned to Dad's shifting moods, became uneasy.

That night proceeded normally.  There was no work the next day, so we were up late watching Creature Feature.  Eventually, Dad and Jeanne retired to the bedroom, while Eric, Paige, Cousins Danny and Deona, and I found places to sleep on the sofas or in the huge beanbag.  We were just settling in when a heavy thud, a smashing sound, disturbed our calm.  The door to the apartment jumped, as if someone were trying to force his way in.  Then silence.

"Who's hurt?" Dad called from the bedroom.  "What happened?" 

"Something hit the door!" I called.

Dad came out.  The door was knocked ajar by the force of impact.  Dad opened it and swore.  A smashed egg ran down the door face.  Dad peered out into the night.  "Who's there?" he called.

I heard voices mumbling from outside.  Dad swore again.  "Who did this?  'Cause I'll kick the f*ck out of 'em."  Jeanne emerged from the bedroom.  Her careful advance, her mincing footsteps, were caution to us all.  We held our breath.  There were more voices outside.

Dad rushed back to the bedroom.  I heard him slide open the door to the closet.  Then he was back.  He gripped his shotgun in his right hand, barrel pointed toward the floor.  He stepped out the door and stood on the walkway.  From where I lay, he was a lone figure, in shorts and tee-shirt, against the darkness outside.  "You tell whoever did this that if I find him, I'll kick the f*ck out of him," he said.  His voice was aflame with rage and menace.

More voices from outside, but whoever was out there was dispersing.  The tones were sullen and fearful.

Dad came back in and shut the door behind him.  He spoke to Jeanne.  "It's those punks.  The teenagers.  They say they didn't do it, but they cleared out fast enough."  He leaned the shotgun against the wall, by the door.

"Ross--" Jeanne said, but she let it linger.  There was no reasoning with him at times like that.

"If I find out who did that, I'll kill the f*cker," he said.  He went back into the bedroom and Jeanne followed him.  The shotgun stood, butt down, against the door frame.  Eventually, I slept.

It took me years to understand that night, to understand all the forces and emotions at work.  In retrospect, it is all so obvious.  A low-rent apartment building in Indio, California.  An apartment full of dark-skinned Mexican-Filipino children who every day splashed and shouted in the swimming pool.  A scowling, angry woman who objected to our being.

But I was a child back then.  I didn't know.  It was Dad that knew.  Dad and Jeanne.  From then on, Dad insisted that we go to the pool every day, even if we didn't want to.  I suppose he felt we had to show the flag.

But I remember the shotgun propped against the wall.  I remember Dad's words:  "I'll kick the f*ck out of 'em."


Stacey Singh said...

So obvious huh? Thanks for sharing the story cousin. xoxo 

Roger Buck said...

Whew ... Never experienced such a thing.   And yet so terribly, terribly, terribly typical of our fallen condition ...

Tired, late here in Liverpool. Poorly said  ... (Unlike your words