Streets of Bakersfield

Nonfiction by Kelly Shire

BakersfieldAfter years of tending bar my dad is ready for a new career, so in the summer of 1979 my family moves two hours north from Los Angeles county, over the steep mountain pass called the Grapevine down into the southern edge of the Central Valley. I’m entering fifth grade, my sister Katie is not yet two. Dad is from Ohio, and we’ve moved before, but my mother has never lived more than fifteen minutes away from her family, from my grandparents and aunts and uncles, from every familiar street and storefront.

Weeks before, Dad had driven up alone to finalize plans and find us a place to live. The day we move is the first time I see our new house. It’s brand-new; our family its first renters. The wall-to-wall carpeting is plush and tan, the sliding closet doors are mirrored. The backyard hasn’t been landscaped, a long patch of dirt with a concrete slab for a patio. The air smells of something sharp, which I’ll later learn is from the acres of onion fields a few miles away. But back inside there is central air-conditioning, required in a town where summer days usually top one hundred degrees.

This move is supposed to be permanent, a fresh start. In fact, our stay will last barely nine months, but it will be long enough for another life to begin, for a new normal to take root and last through the rest of my childhood, my parents’ marriage, their lives. Of course, nobody knows this when we pack everything into a U-Haul and drive up Interstate 5, least of all me, a chubby girl whose chief pastimes are reading, standing in my room belting out show tunes, and twisting my stomach into knots over worries real and imagined.

*

Though it’s weeks away, I worry about the first day of school. I imagine myself, magically twenty pounds slimmer, sitting with the two most popular girls in class. After school, they’ll invite me to their homes to eat cookies and gossip about everyone else. They’ll be dying to hear about how I used to live near Hollywood. They don’t need to know that though it was only a short hop across the freeways, I’ve never been any closer to Hollywood and movie stars than they have. Except my dad was in a commercial once, or so the story goes.

Whenever I ask about it, my mom smiles and says it’s true, repeating the story of a cigarette ad, the camera zooming in on Dad and the TV actor Chad Everett, buddies at a football game. Once, as she talked, I watched as over her shoulder, my uncle, her youngest brother, rolled his eyes in skepticism. But I’ve heard the story so often that I’m sure I can remember the commercial. The images are vivid: two handsome men on crowded bleachers, their dark hair cut into early-70s-style long sideburns. But cigarette commercials aren’t on TV anymore, and Dad is no longer hoping to make it in Hollywood. Now he’s trying to make it big in solar energy, which is how we all ended up here in this sunbaked oil town.

Dad is going to be a salesman, selling solar energy systems to companies and families, working for his younger brother, an entrepreneur who’s already set up shop further north in Fresno. Mom, who’s always worked in an office, will stay home with me and my sister and keep house, cleaning and vacuuming up all the dust that accumulates overnight onto every surface.

*

It didn’t occur to me over the summer that my subdivision is so new, nearly every kid from the neighborhood would also be new to Van Horn Elementary, even, like me, new in town. For the first time in my school life, I ride the bus. Sheldon, a boy who lives around the corner, is also on the bus. With his expressive face and wrinkled t-shirts, he’s not the type of friend I was hoping to make, yet he waves at me like we’re old pals. Terrific, I think, as we lumber away from our tract. Terrific, in the same dry voice as my dad, a word he mutters when life turns anything but.

Sheldon isn’t in Mrs. Rodin’s class, and I’m a little disappointed. Mrs. Rodin is gray-haired and stern, the type to take half points off homework and Friday quizzes. “Mrs. Rodan,” my dad calls her, laughing at his joke and explaining that Rodan is a monster from the Godzilla movies.

Good grades have always come easily, and so far, spelling is a breeze. One evening, sitting at the kitchen table with a worksheet of words to define, I muse aloud over “crowbar.” From the couch, Dad quips, “a place where birds go to drink.” This is hilarious, and I quietly decide to print his answer in the blank space. It’s worth a few lost points to show off for Mrs. Rodin, to make her see how my dad’s irreverence so easily trumps her boring rules and routines.

*

Most days after school, I hang out with Sheldon and some other boys from the neighborhood. We ride bikes in the undeveloped lot across the street from my house, a larger version of my backyard. The bikes bump over dry foxtail weeds and hard packed dirt, and the boys craft hills and ramps from dirt and scraps of lumber, even a tiny lean-to shack that can hold one person at a time.

Sometimes we stalk through the dead yard and peer into the windows of the empty house beside mine. A family with three little kids had lived there when we’d moved in, their only vehicle an old school bus, painted white. During the summer, their teenage babysitter and I sat in a shady patch of driveway, listening to station K-E-R-N on my radio while the kids pounded up and down the concrete with their little bare feet, faces and hands smeary with grime and Popsicles.

But then the family disappeared, though it took several days for my parents and other neighbors to realize it was for good. The bus, the children, their broken trikes are gone, along with any scrap of evidence they were ever there. This is fascinating to me, lover of mystery novels and anything giving off a whiff of secrets. Immediately in their place, stories come to inhabit the empty house. There was a murder! A dead child! It was an accident! There was a gun, no, a knife! We know these facts by osmosis, without needing to hear them uttered.

One afternoon, after squeezing through the side gate into their backyard, Sheldon and I find the sliding glass door unlocked. We gape at each other, then push it open and step inside. The cream walls and tan carpet, the same as my own house, are bare, yet the rooms are cluttered with wads of used paper towels and cleaning supplies. There are mysterious black streaks across many of the door jambs and counter-tops. “Those are from where the cops came and dusted for prints,” Sheldon whispers, and I’m struck by how much sense this makes, how smart he is beneath his quirks. We tiptoe through the house, certain any moment we’ll be caught, that someone will come walking in the front door. I duck my head into the bedrooms, moving fast but trying to stealthy, and spy a dirty sock on a closet floor. This is so fun, this danger and my heart pounding and Sheldon beside me like a partner, like a Bobbsey Twin, and all I need is a flashlight or a magnifying glass and life would be perfect, right here in this weird empty house with my tennies crunching over debris on the bathroom’s linoleum floor. When we leave, Sheldon babbles about how we’ll come back with the other boys and bring supplies for making a real clubhouse, not the tiny lean-to of splintered planks in the dirt lot.

After school the next day, all of us squeeze again into the yard, but the sliding door is locked, the vertical blinds pulled tight. The boys groan and swear Sheldon and I lied about getting inside, but the two of us lock eyes and smile. After a few more weeks, I forget about the house, which stays empty for months. I miss the babysitter, though, and wonder how I might call or visit with her again.

*

Despite her tiny frame and white-blonde hair, my new friend Dana is feisty and funny, defending me when other kids fling fat jokes across the lunch table. She invites me over to her house in a more established neighborhood. In her bedroom, she slides open the closet door, revealing that half the floor is devoted to a tall doll with the same flaxen hair as Dana’s. The doll has a ruffled canopy bed, a sofa and a wooden armoire filled with clothes. I’ve always been more of a Barbie girl, and think fifth grade is a little old for this, but am flooded with lust. I’ve been asking for a 10-speed bike for Christmas, but the doll’s set-up makes me reconsider.

Dana’s mom also provokes a hard tug of want: like a TV mom, she sticks her head into the bedroom offering snacks, promising I can return another day to swim in their (solar?) heated pool. She wears slacks and a sweet expression when she asks how I’m liking my new school.

Unlike Dana’s earnest mother, my parents seem to take their deepest pleasure from sarcastic, barbed jousts of conversation. They laugh at one-liners and private jokes that when flung my way, leave me alternately baffled or wounded. “Don’t be so sensitive,” they say, or “Keep up!” Keeping up is exhausting, despite an occasional rush of triumph when I manage to volley back a fast retort. And sometimes my efforts circle back to smack me down; when my spelling worksheet is returned with a red slash through Dad’s definition of crowbar, my parents are angry and embarrassed – the joke about birds in a bar like the airing of family laundry.

*

On Christmas morning, I wake to find a new bike parked beside the tree, a burgundy 10-speed. The tires are skinnier than the fat ones of my old pink cruiser, the seat black instead of white. I’m tall for my age, but need to stand on tiptoe to straddle the seat when I pose for the camera, my flowered Lanz nightgown hiked up around my thighs. It’s a grown-up bike, so fast and sleek that maybe I’ll finally become sleek myself riding it through the streets.

Before the rest of the morning proceeds, I know to wait for my parents’ coffee to finish brewing, their mugs filled and Dad’s first cigarette lit: we unwrap our many presents, coo over Katie’s new dolls and plastic toys. A few weeks later it’s let slip, not quite by accident, that the money for my new ride was provided by my aunt and uncle. It is a “donation,” like the fancy nightgown handed down by another aunt who shops and purges her closets every season. As I’m reminded often, I am well taken care of, and usually manage to get what I want.

*

There comes a day in late winter when everything changes. Perhaps the day began like any other, but I can’t say for sure. Likely I woke with the usual worries flopping inside my belly about the day ahead: who to sit with on the bus, or another recess game like the round of hide-and-go-seek played on the back field, when I finally opened my eyes to find everyone vanished. I’d walked into class late, my classmates seated at their desks, giggling at my sweaty face.

Or maybe I felt a lift of anticipation, to see Dana, to get called out of class for chorus practice, where I’d stand on metal risers belting out another round of “The Erie Canal.” I’d joined the Girl Scouts recently; maybe there was a meeting in the city rec room, standing in a circle holding hands and singing about making new friends but keeping the old.

Either way, it’s coming. I urge my fifth-grade self to drag my feet, find another route home, board the wrong bus, linger at the rear of the school field under the row of shade trees, the setting of fantasies of being alone with a boy. Be anywhere but in front of the tall double doors of my house in this town that I’ve started to kind of love. Through the doors is a border, the line marking the very definite end of what I had always considered a happy childhood, despite my worries, despite the moving, despite the sometimes bitter whispers overheard at night.

Open the door. The walls of my house are nearly stripped of this memory, but let’s say my mother is sitting at the kitchen table. Or she walks out of her bedroom and down the hall at the sound of the front door shutting behind me. Wherever she is, her eyes glance across but barely take me in, barely see Katie greeting me with a hug around my knees, shouting Ditta!, her toddler version of sister! Mom does not sit me down, does not soften the blow, has never, not once in my whole life made a scene, and she doesn’t start now.

She has something to tell me.

Everything else that happens to me in this life will be in the after.

*

On only two occasions are adults other than family members invited into our house on Murphy’s Lane. The first is early in my family’s move to town, when a woman from the Welcome Wagon column of the newspaper perched on the love seat, interviewing my mom. The item appeared later that week in the Californian, announcing our family’s arrival and listing us by name. Except there’s a typo, and I’m listed as “daughter Telly, 10.” Telly, like the bald actor from TV. This is so typical I can’t even drum up outrage, only mimic Dad’s cocked eyebrow as Mom laughs and clips out the blurb.

The second time strangers come over is when the police arrive. There are two cops, and like the perky reporter, they sit in the living room interviewing Mom. The police loom in their uniforms, creaking in their black shoes and belts, a dark mass against the tawny furniture. The interview is brief because my mom knows almost nothing.

The cops are here to turn Dad into an official Missing Person. It’s the day after I came home from school and found my mother with her blank eyes, had absorbed into my bones her few sentences informing me that Dad hadn’t come home, wasn’t going to be coming home. There are clothes missing from their bedroom closet. Work has called looking for him; he didn’t show up. This is how Mom learns that Dad hasn’t been a solar salesman for weeks; instead he has been driving out to a golf course and working the afternoon shift behind the club bar. She tells the police that my dad took the turquoise Ford Pinto, took everything from their bank account. He has left his unreliable pick-up truck at the curb, left his dress clothes, and of course, his family.

A policeman writes these facts in a slim notebook. The cops stand and aren’t unfriendly, but they don’t smile, either. One shakes my mother’s hand, says he’ll file the report back at the station. We never see the policemen again.

*

And so I walked in to the news that everything had changed, was already changing while I’d been concerned with other things, was peering into some other family’s windows. The shock I felt was not the same as my mother’s, she who knew the score, who’d chosen to marry a young man who had already left town on sudden whims to ramble the country, barely remembering to send a postcard. (Or so her stories go.) My mother didn’t raise a scene because on some level she knew what was coming, knew the experiment of new town and new job wasn’t going well, she who was left in the house every day with only a toddler and time to think and think. She may not have helped him pack, couldn’t have guessed he’d go to such extremes, but she was canny, and played out the rope keeping my dad tethered to a domestic life of family and a spacious rental house, selling a product many considered a novelty of dubious necessity. She gave Dad just enough rope to eventually tangle and trip himself up with, even as with each day I became more tightly bound to my new life.

*

I peer in, adjust my focus to see past my own reflection. Squint to see the shadows play against bare walls. Artwork is coming down off nails, vases and ashtrays and dinner plates boxed away. My grandparents arrive to rescue us, to take us home to live with them back in L.A. County. My aunt and uncle must be there, too; two men are required to load all that furniture into a U-Haul. Inside Dad’s Ford pick-up, Grandpa opens the glove compartment to find a stash of unpaid bills and overdraft notices.

The fate of that pick-up itself is lost to time. Left at the curb, towed, sold? I don’t remember anyone driving it back over the Grapevine, don’t remember it sitting parked for months on my grandparent’s street. That doesn’t mean that didn’t happen, only that the pick-up is gone, the vehicle that had once carried a camper shell on its bed, carried our family on road trips over the length and breadth of the state. Like so many other facts and details of the coming months, I simply lost track of it.

*

Unlike the neighbors, we do not abscond under cover of night. There’s time to extract ourselves, to inform the landlord, the school office, and Mrs. Rodin. I attend a last meeting with the Girl Scout troop, no badges earned to sew on my green sash. I exchange addresses with Dana, hers for the house with the plush doll’s closet, mine for my grandparents’, where the closets have been cleared to make room for our clothes.

The day we leave Bakersfield is sunny. The adults have spent the morning packing and loading boxes, wiping down counters and sweeping the floors. I’ve stayed inside, keeping Katie out of their hair. When it’s finally time to go, we climb into the backseat of Grandpa’s Monte Carlo, my sister in the middle between me and Mom.

My grandpa starts the car, clears his throat the way he does when he’s about to speak. Final words are said, something mildly ironic and kind. Suddenly there’s a loud thump against the rear driver’s side. The adults grunt, gasp, as we all turn and see Sheldon straddling his bike, his rubbery face smiling up close through the rear window, his hand splayed against the glass. Behind him are two of his friends (my friends), also on their bikes.

I smile and wave while my grandpa puts the car in gear and pulls away from the curb. The boys pump their pedals and follow the car, waving back. The car speeds up and I keep waving goodbye like it’s just something to do, waving goodbye like I’d laugh about it with Sheldon the next day, how crazy he was to chase after the car like that, as if I were ever going to talk to him, as if I were ever going to see any of those people again.

 

Photo credit

About Kelly Shire

Kelly Shire is a native of Southern California and received her MFA from Cal State Long Beach. Recent work has been published by Full Grown People, Hippocampus, and Angels Flight/Literary West, and was included in the 2014 Seal Press anthology SPENT: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping. When not working on a memoir-in-essays collection, she works at a public school library and enjoys hiking, road trips, and hanging with her husband and two adolescent children.

Kelly Shire

Kelly Shire is online at