Lakeside City

  "I feel like a lakeside city."

She said this as she lay under the worn sheets of my bed and stared out the window. It was hot and if you were still and watched closely, you could see the pavement melt outside. Telephone wires crisscrossed the pale blue sky, the sun was high, and splotches of shade staggered around on the sidewalk.

She told me she felt like a lakeside city as though she were telling me she was thirsty, and I should get her a glass of water. But she did not tell me she was thirsty, she told me she felt like a lakeside city and, as is often the case, I did not understand her. Still, there was something about the way she said it that made me feel a little sick.

We lay on the bed beside each other, separate, not intertwined. Only the sheet covered us and a soft breeze from the open window touched us gently. I stared at the ceiling and remembered something from long ago.

When I was twelve, my aunt and uncle invited me along on their summer vacation with the two of them and my cousin. I think they figured I’d provide company to my cousin, whose brothers and sisters had all grown up and moved away. But also, I think they thought I was missing out on something quintessentially American, and that the result could only be bad: I might become a college professor or, worse yet, a writer.

This is because my family’s vacations mostly involved riding around in an old, white International Harvester pickup out on the reservation, or along bumpy dirt roads or through the sand in dry washes in southern Utah. My brother and I always sat in the back with all of the camping gear, our bowl cut, dirty hair tangling in the wind. Billowing clouds of blue smoke spewed from the truck’s exhaust pipe, and every sixty miles or so, my dad pulled over, popped up the big hood and fed the engine another quart of oil. When it rained, my brother and I pulled a tarp up over us and huddled up under the sleeping bags. I know what you’re thinking, but it really wasn’t child abuse because the cab’s truck had a huge leak in the roof, too, so it wouldn’t have mattered if our parents let us ride inside. We saw a lot of country this way, but to my aunt and uncle, who were Christians and had a big television, it didn’t seem quite right.

So they took me along with them on their annual journey, this one through the Southwest. We went first to Phoenix, floating along the highways in their red Chrysler K car, my cousin and I in the back seat playing license plate games or reading comic books or just looking out the window as the desert zipped by. For just about every meal, we stopped at Denny’s, Seasons, Sambos, or some other “family dining” establishment. They had matching color schemes and those carpeted floors that somehow dampen the sounds and keep everything feeling very calm and quiet, even when the guy next to you is drunk and hollering obscenities at the waitress. We ate a lot of pancakes and hamburgers and french fries, served by kind but tired-looking waitresses in dining rooms adorned with paintings of Indians leading horses past saguaros to the edge of mesas. I looked forward to each meal, and it always made me happy to be seated in those big booths, the same combination of food arriving on the same big white plate that I had eaten off of in another booth hundreds of miles away the day before.

When my family stopped somewhere for a meal while traveling, it usually meant pulling the truck over by the side of the road, opening up a can of sardines and a box of crackers and washing it all down with Fanta orange soda while my dad said something about the geology of the mesa in the distance. He always liked to remind us that we were sitting on the edge, or even bottom of what was once a great sea. But that was millions of years before, and it didn’t really seem too important, at the time.

With my aunt and uncle and cousin, though, it was different. We stopped to buy little trinkets, or shot glasses that said Grand Canyon on them, even though I’m fairly certain my aunt and uncle didn’t drink. When we were in cities or towns, and people driving non-Chrysler K Cars ran a yellow light, or turned without signaling, or sported a bumper sticker that was not an American Flag, my uncle would yell at them. If they happened to be driving a Volkswagen or other small, foreign car, he’d mutter, under his breath: "Fucking Hippy.” That made my cousin and me giggle.

From Phoenix we drove West through the desert. We went through Yuma, and crossed the American Canal, which is actually the Colorado River in a long, straight concrete trough. I had never seen anything like that before. We crossed into California and then to the Imperial Valley and stopped in El Centro. We stayed there with some people in a little house there on the edge of town. They were relatives of some sort, but I didn’t bother figuring out whether they were cousins or second-cousins or what. They had a ping-pong table, a mirrored wall with gold flecks in it, and thick, brown carpet. That was good enough for me.

El Centro’s right in the middle of a huge valley where lettuce fields stretch all the way to the treeless mountains in the distance. One day, we drove to Calexico, which is a pretty clever name for a town, when you think about it. We crossed the border to Mexicali. I can still envision how the big red-tiled-roof houses sat on the hilltops, and how the low spaces in between the hills were filled with little chicken coop-like boxes where people actually lived. There were kids there with big brown eyes and dirty hair. We saw a woman with no legs sitting in the gutter, her eyes cloudy and white, her hands stretched out asking for money. Only I had left all my change back at the house because I was saving it for the video games in Las Vegas, and my aunt just turned away silently.

We stayed in El Centro for a few days, and took other little trips. But our big journey from El Centro was to the north, to the Salton Sea. That morning we found it on the map, a big blue dot near Palm Springs. And there, on its white sandy beaches, cooled by the breeze off the aqua-blue waters, sat the bustling Salton City, our destination. We didn’t pack a lunch because we figured we could find a Dennys there in the city. I sat silent during the entire drive, watching the lettuce and then the desert race by outside. Never before had I seen the ocean; the Salton Sea seemed like it would be a good warm-up for when we went further West to the coast – it would prepare me for the vastness and the blueness and the crashing waves. I closed my eyes and pictured Salton City: Its palm trees, big houses, sunshine and pretty girls in bathing suits splashing in the warm water. In my mind it looked something like the suburbs of Phoenix where we had stayed, only on the shore of a deep blue ocean.

After a long drive, and field after field of light green lettuce, we passed the Salton City town limit sign. After cruising through the outskirts of town, we pulled into the football-field-sized parking lot of the Salton City Shopping Center. My uncle stopped the car to get his bearings. Way on the other side of the vast, paved expanse, sat a building with nothing but darkness visible through the broken windows and, beside that, a tiny store with a sign that said "SAVE GAS BEER." My aunt rolled down her window to ask for directions, but there was no one there.

So we just drove in the direction that my uncle thought the beach would be, passing right through the residential neighborhoods of town. The streets meandered around pleasantly among solid curbs and cul-de-sacs and nice, smooth sidewalks for bike riding and skateboarding. Big white letters on rectangular, green street signs said things like “Imperial Drive” and “Palm Circle.” There were fire hydrants and telephone poles and little places where kids could wait for the school bus. My uncle drove slowly; he was worried that a kid might run out into the street, chasing a baseball. My cousin and I listened attentively for the drunken melody of the ice cream truck, our minds filled with visions of fudgesickles and bomb pops.

But there was no ice cream truck and there were no kids playing ball. There were no houses at all, in fact, just the streets, the wind, and that smell.

We finally reached the shoreline. There were no palm trees, and no sand. The beach was gravel, and the water had a strange yellow tint to it. The wind blew my aunt's hat off and I chased it and caught it and gave it back to her. Nobody said anything. It was silent except for the wind. Dead, dried out fish lay scattered across the shoreline and the places where their eyes once were glared up at the steel grey sky.

"Fucking Hippy," I yelled out at the dead trees and the shallow water, thinking it would make my uncle happy. Nobody laughed or smiled, though. Everyone just stood there for a while, one hand on their hats, the other wondering where to go. After a while, my uncle turned around and walked back to the car. The rest of us followed.

The next day, back in El Centro, we got up really early, drove to the edge of town and ate breakfast at an International House of Pancakes restaurant. The original plan was to go to San Diego next and play at the beach, and we always stuck to the plan. But my uncle said he had changed his mind.

“We’re going to Disneyland, damnit,” he said in the same voice he used to yell at hippies, his fork digging into a big pile of pancakes. “And we’ll make it today if it kills me.”

We did make it to Disneyland, and then even made it to Las Vegas, where I spent all my change. But I don’t really remember much about that. I do remember the Salton Sea, though, and the feeling that washed over me as I stood looking out across the water that day.

My reverie was washed away by the look on the face of the woman by my side, who was still gazing out the window at the melting pavement. I wanted to tell her something comforting, wanted to let her know I could somehow fill those empty spaces. But I knew she wouldn’t believe me.

So, instead, I crawled out from under the sheet, walked into the kitchen and filled a jelly jar with water. I took a sip, then handed it to her. She did not take a drink, but her lips moved a little bit as if she, too, were thinking about that lakeside city next to that dying sea that I had visited so long ago.

The author is the magazine's editor.
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