Exposure

The story felt so intimate, strangely as if it were none of her business. The narrator’s voice cracked on certain syllables, grew raspy sometimes just like the singer’s on the backing track, as if it cost her too much to tell it. But Rose knew that now she had no choice; she clicked the right-facing arrow and the story went on:

Jenny was my father’s younger sister. He remembers her as shy and small; my dad is six feet tall, but Jenny only ever reached five foot five. She wore her ash-blond hair long, straight, parted in the middle. Were her eyes blue, that see-through blue of my dad’s eyes and mine? That I don’t know.

Before Jenny went missing, she lived with her parents, Charles and Edith, in Claremont, on the hill called Claraboya in the big house with ice blue carpet and a great smog viewof the Pomona Valley, on the eastern edge of L.A. County. Charles ended up owning a few small checkerboard squares on that dry, tilting floodplain: the disused lemon-packing house by the tracks; the old grove house and barns made out of fieldstones (the tumbled granite that would wash down out of the canyons in great, rumbling floods of mud and trees and rock, before all the catchment basins were built); the ramshackle one-bedroom house on Twelfth Street where I lived, for a time, with my mother and father.

The family had moved from Shawnee, Oklahoma, to California in 1965, when my father was eighteen and Jenny was twelve. The reason put forward for the move was that my dad could obtain California residency and save on tuition at UCLA; but Dad remembers the Pottawatomie County sheriff repossessing one of the family cars as they left Shawnee, so the reason for leaving may have been both more pressing and more immediate.

Dad lived in the dorm at UCLA and Jenny had her own room in the house on the hill, with Fifties Colonial hardwood furniture painted tasteful antique white and gray. She had a portable manual typewriter and a writing desk. She had a gold-filigree jewelry box that played music when you wound it with a golden key.

Jenny loved the Beatles. Dad took her to see them at the Hollywood Bowl the summer that they moved. She was thrilled, but before the concert started, she told him she had to go to the bathroom. He took her toward the only bathrooms, which were located behind the shell of the Bowl. A guard stopped them and told them the area was off-limits. No bathrooms available. Dad was angry. He told Jenny he would stand guard while she peed in the bushes, but she couldn’t do it, was too embarrassed. So there they were, corralled behind the moat with thousands of screaming girls, and Jenny had to pee the whole time. You couldn’t even hear the music for all that screaming. I can see them both sitting there, uncomfortable, not quite in the groove of the place, Jenny because she had to go and my dad because he couldn’t help her.

I know that story,and I know that Jenny died, when she was eighteen and I was two, “of exposure.” Other than that, there’s not much I know, except that now I’m older than she’ll ever be. I live in California. I have my own car, and a mobile phone, and if I break down on the highway I can always call Triple A. I’ve lived with Jenny’s story since before I can remember, and I’ve always accepted the details offered by my family. Those details were our community property—fenced off, neglected and overgrown.

This is when Rose realized she could turn the volume up and let the story echo throughout the tiled rooms as she worked. And that made her feel even more like a ghost.

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