J. B. Hogan, Living Behind Time
Living Behind Time
Publisher: Liffey Press, 2014
Cover Design: Casey Cowan,
Oghma Creative Design
Length: 329 pp.
It got hotter and hotter as Frank Mason dropped down out of the mountains from San Diego, past Plaster City, on into the smoldering Imperial Valley. Downhill, he kept the Toyota between sixty and sixty-five, leaving the air conditioning off to keep the engine from overheating.
He loved driving through the desert in the summer. He wasn’t sure why, but it was a good thing he did, because there was going to be plenty of it. Beyond the Imperial Valley was Yuma, then another two hundred and fifty miles to Tucson. After that was more desert. And after that, he wasn’t sure just yet.
With the wind blasting the side of his face, he dismissed the trip that lay before him and tried to remember living here in the valley. Here among the glaring sand, the cotton and lettuce fields, the scorched adobe transient worker shacks. The heat like an oven always hitting you right at nose level. He found he couldn’t imagine anyone living here. Reaching into a small cooler on the seat beside him, he extracted a chilled, nearly empty bottle of grape juice. He took a quick swig, put the bottle between his legs, and cranked the radio up a notch.
“Eight miles to El Centro,” he announced to himself over the plaintive whine of George Jones.
He downed the rest of the juice and pitched the bottle into a paper sack on the floorboard. Despite the overpowering heat, the farther he got from San Diego, the better he felt. Every mile snapped another link in the chain that bound him there. He felt the first sensations of freedom, of incipient peace of mind - happiness would be way too much to expect. He knew better than that.
It was too long, too long since he’d made a clean break from anywhere, anything; he instinctively distrusted emotional highs. Depression was the flip side of elation, and the swings between the two were often quicker, more powerful than he could comfortably manage. He drove on, feeling pretty good, but cautious, watching for signs of the unwanted but unsurprising reverse side to land.
“Stop worrying about it,” he chastised himself, “don’t whine. There’s nothing or nobody to blame but yourself. You made the choices. Live with them.”
He gave himself a self-conscious smile in the rear view mirror and laughed. Getting weird, talking to himself. Must be a stage he was going through.
“Idiot,” he declared, raising the window a little to block out some of the searing wind, “you think too much.”
Letting his abstract ramblings give way to a concrete need for gasoline - leaving San Diego as he had, he’d forgotten to fill the tank up - he swerved the Toyota off I-8 onto the first El Centro exit. Highway 86 North. Imperial, Brawley. It must be a hundred and fifteen in the shade.
Dust whirled across the bubbling asphalt lot of the self-service station. The sky was deep blue, but hazy; what baseball players call a high sky. It was so bright along the horizon you could barely look at it. For an instant he missed the cool breeze of Pacific Beach, the green shade of rich La Jolla. Just for an instant. With a swipe at the sweat trickling down his forehead, he let
San Diego go.
“Twelve seventy-five,” he told the toothy station attendant. The kid looked all of seventeen, maybe.
“Anything else we can do for you?” The attendant smiled.
“No.” Frank eyed a pack of Marlboros.
For some reason the cigarettes appealed to him just then. He tried to force himself to remember the coughing, the burning chest pain - the reasons why he’d quit in the first place. You always get those urges no matter how long after you give something up. He had to laugh to himself about that one. He was pretty sure he knew about giving things up. He’d done a lot of that in the last ten years or so. San Diego was merely the latest thing to go.
“Marlboros,” he said, disbelieving his own voice.
“Soft or box?” the attendant asked.
“Fourteen ninety-five all together.”
With a whistle, Frank handed the attendant a ten and a five.
“’Bout shoots that all to hell, don’t it?” The attendant gave him the nickel change. Frank tried to smile.
“Going to San Diego?” the attendant asked.
“Uh, no . . . no, just came.”
“Plenty hot here, huh?”
“Well, have a good day, sir.”
“Uhmp,” Frank grunted, waving his right index finger in goodbye.
Walking back to the car, he squinted into the heat waves rising from the asphalt to see a woman emerge from behind a road sign at the curb and head toward him. He looked away and picked up his pace.
“Sir,” the woman beckoned, cutting him off by the right fender. “Sir, excuse me.”
He hated to be called sir. By anybody. It reminded him of the service and of his age. He didn’t like to think of either.
“Yes,” he said coolly, looking her over.
She wore a light maroon peasant skirt over black body tights. Her breasts showed full and firm through the thin material. She wore no makeup and was good looking enough if not pretty.
She was somewhere in her early twenties.
“Excuse me, can I ask which way you are going?”
“I was sorta heading east,” he said, more indecisively than he felt and than the situation required. The girl jumped at the opening.
“Oh, please. I have friends that’ll pay for the gas.”
“Sure, they’re expecting me. They’ll be glad to help with the gas.”
“Where,” he asked, not much wanting to hear the answer, “where you going?”
“Indio,” she said. “I’m supposed to meet my friends there.”
“How did you get here to El Centro?”
“A ride. Some insurance guy. He was a hassle. Tried to touch me all the time. He dumped me here. I’ve been here for hours. Couldn’t you give me a ride, mister? Please.”
“I don’t want no hassles, either.”
“I won’t be trouble to you, really. All I want is a ride. It would be really wonderful of you.”
“I was kind of going to Arizona,” he protested meekly.
She smiled sweetly and gave him a down and out look. He felt a twinge in the groin.
He sighed. “Oh, what the hell. I’m in no hurry to get anywhere.”
He climbed into the Toyota, pitched the Marlboros on the dash, moved the cooler and trash sack to the back seat, and opened the rider’s side for the girl. She ran to get in, pulling the door shut after her. He took his gaze off her breasts and started the engine. Still a bit apprehensive, he pulled out of the station and headed north on Highway 86. They drove all the way through El Centro without talking.
“What do you do?” the girl finally asked as they passed the city limits sign on the way north to Imperial. She had extracted a handkerchief from her large canvas bag purse and mopped the sweat off the back of her neck.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Nothing at all? I would have never guessed that. You look so distinguished.”
He glanced at his thinning gray hair in the mirror and scratched his beard.
“I would have thought you were a businessman or a professor. Something like that.”
“Something like that,” he said, “but was. Past tense.”
“Maybe you don’t want to talk about it?”
“Oh, no, it’s okay. I just lately dropped out, that’s all.”
“Can I have one of your cigarettes?” The girl pointed to the box of Marlboros.
“Sure. Help yourself.”
“No, I don’t smoke.”
“Why do you have a pack of cigarettes then?” the girl laughed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “A weird impulse, I suppose.”
“You don’t mind if I do?” She opened the pack and took out a cigarette.
“No. But a young, pretty girl like you shouldn’t smoke. Let stupid old men do it and die.”
The girl laughed again. “I bet from looking at you that you smoke hemp though, huh?”
“Hemp.” He smiled. “Haven’t heard that one in a while.”
The girl lit her cigarette with the car lighter, neatly knocking some paper and tobacco residue into the seldom used ashtray.
“Yes, I smoke hemp. For longer than you’ve probably been alive.”
“You’re not that old,” she said.
“Damn near it,” he said. The girl wiped the back of her neck again. “Sorry it’s so hot,” he apologized. “The air conditioner does work, but I never use it in the desert on long trips. Afraid of overheating.”
“That’s all right.” She blew smoke out the window. “I don’t mind. But I do want to know what you did do. That’s a fair trade, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been a bunch of things,” he told her. “Mostly in computers over the past ten years or so.” He wanted to pull that little bit of information back in as soon as he said it, but it didn’t seem to faze the girl.
“Really,” she said, “that must be interesting.”
“Hardly,” he said.
The girl shrugged her shoulders, and they both fell silent. It was dumb to be giving this girl a ride all the way to Indio, at least 80 miles out of his way. When he saw the Brawley city limit sign, he considered telling the girl he’d changed his mind, but what he said was: “You know, I used to live around here.”
“Really,” she said, “in this poor little burnt-out place?”
“Yep. It was a long time ago.”
“Here in this town?”
“No, the next one. And actually the one after that, too.”
“I can’t imagine anyone living here. I bet you must’ve been really bored.”
“Not really. It was a different time then, you know.”
“Right,” the girl said.
“And, besides, there’s the Salton Sea and the sand dunes.”
“The sand dunes?” She sized him up in profile. He acted like he didn’t notice.
“Well, they’re called sand hills, but they look like sand dunes to me. Long time ago they made a couple of movies out there, and legend has it that some crazy dudes tried to haul a big ship, a schooner or something, across there in the 1800s sometime.”
“They didn’t make it. Supposedly the remains are exposed every now and then by the sand shifting around so much. Exotic story. Probably untrue.”
“Will we go by them?” the girl asked.
“Not right by them, but you’ll be able to see them from a distance,” he said.
“Could we go to them? I mean just for a while?”
“We’ll have to walk a ways,” he said. “The car’d get stuck in the sand.”
“Oh, let’s do,” she said. “Please? It would be great.”
“It will be hot,” he said. “Very hot.”
Imperial Valley - 1961
The Imperial Valley at the beginning of summer was as different from the Ozarks as you can possibly imagine. Instead of rolling hills covered in beautiful green trees, there were long, flat vistas of low desert scrub and sand. Instead of building heat and humidity, there were oven-like temperatures, dry and sweat-absorbing. Frank immediately loved his new world.
Outside his little hometown in the north of the Valley, huge sand dunes ran east of the city limits some forty miles, north to south. Beyond the dunes, in the distance to the north and east were the dark, rocky Chocolate Mountains - some twenty miles away but in the pristine air of the Valley, appearing to be within arm’s reach.
On an early Saturday morning, soon after his arrival, Frank’s Uncle Alvin took him out to the dunes. Light brown sand, rising up in tall, long waves, beckoned. Frank leaped from his uncle’s Jeep and ran down the dune on which they’d stopped. With a whoop and a yell, Frank scurried through the sand, rushing down, then starting up the next dune beyond. It was only ten a.m. but the temperature was pushing one hundred already and Frank had no idea what desert heat was like - nor how tall the dunes really were.
“Better go easy, boy,” Uncle Alvin called out. Frank just waved and kept running.
He started up the next dune, jogging like he was running the bases in a ball game. About a quarter of the way up the dune, the deep sand began to exact its toll. Frank’s pace slowed. He began to labor. Halfway up, he was barely moving and by three-quarters of the way, he was done. Completely out of breath and energy. Easily beaten by the desert sun and the sand that made his legs feel like they were made of sticks instead of bone and flesh.
He stopped in his ascent to breath and rest. Across the way, Uncle Alvin clicked a photo of Frank. Frank panted and puffed, trying to catch his breath and regain the energy needed to get to the top of the big dune. Uncle Alvin waved at him and shouted something out but Frank couldn’t hear him for his own loud breathing.
“Wh...at,” came out his joked reply.
Uncle Alvin waved again and pointed at something in his hand. Frank couldn’t tell what it was. He turned to look up at the top of the dune. There was no way he could make it up the rest of the way.
When he had caught his breath finally, Frank retraced his steps - easily seen in the sand - but did so at a much slower pace. He could feel his heart still pounding and he had a little bit of a
headache from the exertion. Maybe he’s underestimated how tall the dunes were and how hard it was to run in the sand.
“Not so easy running in the sand, is it?” Uncle Alvin laughed when Frank at last made it back to the Jeep.
“That dune was way taller than I thought it was, Uncle Alvin,” Frank said, still not having fully caught his breath. Uncle Alvin laughed.
“Lot different than back home, huh?”
“You’ll get used to it,” Uncle Alvin assured Frank. “It’s a dry heat.”
“Sure is hot,” Frank allowed.
“Will get a lot hotter soon,” Uncle Alvin laughed.
“What were you holding up for me to see when I was on the dune, Uncle Alvin?” Frank asked, when he was about breathing normally again.
“This,” Uncle Alvin said, holding up a small camera. “But I imagine you’ll look pretty small on that dune when we get the film developed.”
“I bet,” Frank said.
“Next weekend we’ll go fishing on the Salton Sea,” Uncle Alvin said, tossing the little camera in the back of the Jeep, “if you want to that is.”
“Heck, yeah,” Frank said, finally regaining his regular breathing. “That sounds like a blast.”
“I don’t know about a blast,” Uncle Alvin kidded, “but we should have a good time. Got big Corvina out there. Big fish. Hard to bring in.”
“We’ll see when you actually hook one,” Uncle Alvin smiled.
After his little jog on the dunes, Frank was happy to spend the rest of their time just riding in the Jeep. It was a lot less strenuous. And Uncle Alvin really knew how to maneuver around. Up and down the dunes, over the sides, shooting over the tops. Frank had never done anything like that in his life.
With a couple of new friends already made in his new little hometown, with his mom and family and Uncle Alvin and Aunt Jean, after just a few weeks, Frank was settling into his new life pretty well.
“I’m likin’ it out here, Uncle Alvin,” Frank said on their way back into town.
“Well, that’s good son,” Uncle Alvin replied. “We’re glad to have you.”
“Yeah,” Frank said, shaking his head. “I think I can get used to this place just fine. It’s going to be alright.”
“That’s the spirit, boy,” Uncle Alvin cheered his nephew. “The Valley’s not a bad place. You’ll get used to it quick and before you know it, it’ll feel just like home.”
“I imagine I will,” Frank said, “but how did you and Aunt Belle come to live out here in the first place?”
“Oh, that’s a long story,” Uncle Alvin answered.
“Was it a long time ago?”
“Well, yes it was,” Uncle Alvin explained. “Me and the old woman, your Aunt Belle I mean, and my brother Bob and his wife Sally come out here right before the war, right at the end of the Great Depression.”
“You left back home then and came out here? What did you all do?”
“We worked in the fields mostly. Until the war.”
“What happened then?”
“We got lucky,” Uncle Alvin went on, “they built an army camp on the northeast side of
North Shore, that’s the next little town up to the north of us. Me and Bob got jobs there that took us through most of the war.”
“After that, it was this job and that, until I got my job at the water company. That’s been steady now for some years.”
“Boy,” Frank commented, “I bet things were different out here then, huh?”
“I’d say. A lot of the roads were still made out of wood planks so’s you could get across the desert.”
“Were the canals in for the all the farm fields back then?”
“They did have some canals then, but the big one, the All-American, came in right at the beginning of the war. That’s when the Valley really began to be like it is today.”
“Well, now it’s your home, too. What do you think of it so far?”
“I’m likin’ it.”
“That’s good, son. Me and the old woman hope you and your family will do alright out here.”
“Thanks, Uncle Alvin,” Frank said, “it’s going be great out here. I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it just fine.”
Nodding his head, as if he had convinced himself of the truth of his own words, Frank leaned back in the Jeep and let the hot Imperial Valley wind blow on his face and through his hair. Yes, this place would be just be fine. It would be a great new home.
Copyright © 2015 by J. B. Hogan