A excerpt from
The Devils of Bakersfield
A Jack Liffey Novel
by John Shannon
You don't know me but you don't like me
You say you care less how I feel
How many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
I'm rollin' out of Bakersfield
My own private hell on wheels
But this time I'm gone for good
And I've never gone this far before
Beyond the slammin' of the back screen door
I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, you know you always have the
Lord by your side
And I was so pleased to be informed of this that I ran
Twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord
Well since I left California baby, things have gotten worse
Seems the land of opportunity for me it's just a curse
Tell that judge in Bakersfield my trial'll have to wait
.......Spin around, he thought, then open your eyes. Maybe the actors have changed, the flats depict a different scene, the props are newer, older, more chic. Context is everything. You learned your lines but you may now be Hamlet declaiming to Falstaff in a pub. Mother Courage talking to Willy Loman.
.......It was just a moment of alienation, really. He had them, even when he was with his daughter who tended to keep him grounded. Maybe it was the spectacle.
.......Powerful underwater lamps lit the steep-tumbling whitewater of the Kaweah River right below the restaurant and he could tell that a bit later on, when the last sunlight was gone, the inner-lit rapids would be a magnificent if weirdly artificial display. Now in the dusk you could still look north and make out the broken terrain of the Sierra foothills. The western slope was a gradual meandery rise to the really high peaks that were out of sight, a lot less impressive than the abrupt wall of the eastern cascade that he loved.
......."Those hills out there," Maeve said, nursing her Shirley Temple or whatever they called it these days. He didn't play at pseudo cocktails himself, just asked for a ginger ale. "They look like white elephants."
.......Uh-oh, Jack Liffey thought. That was straight from the famously oblique Hemingway story where the dread word abortion was never mentioned. Maeve was back on task.
......."I get it. But I'm not pushing you, hon," he said.
......."I know," she said glumly. "You've never even stated a preference, though I know what it is."
.......Right then they would have been settled into a campground amid giant sequoias, having this nice father-daughter chat around a campfire, except some fatuous guru, unknown to both of them, had declared this weekend and Sequoia National Park the very date and site of a multiple harmonic convergence, whatever the hell that was, and every aging hippie on earth had flocked in to claim the camping spots and then to chant and dance and practice some fairly unmentionable behaviors. Jack Liffey and his daughter had retreated to the town of Three Rivers at the park entrance only to find that booked up, too.
......."Have some Anis del Toro," Jack Liffey said. "It tastes like licorice. Everything tastes like licorice." That was from the story, too. At one point in his life he had nearly worshipped Hemingway, but like most men he had eventually backed away from all that hard-edge male sentimentality, that steeping in laconic strength, Gary Cooper on steroids.
......."No fair," she said. "I didn't really want to talk about Hemingway."
......."Okay. We can talk about the baby if you want."
......."Baby? I'm only six weeks gone."
......."Fetus then. It sounds so clinical. I just--"
.......The waiter came up to interrupt as waiters always did, this one slim and handsome and about 18, and Jack Liffey could see that Maeve was truly in a distracted state because she didn't even stare at the boy. She'd really been in love with the feckless gangbanger who'd got her pregnant, and Jack Liffey kept reminding himself that a teenager's first loves and losses were every bit as dire and consequential as his own tenth loves, maybe more so. And the pregnancy quadrupled it all.
......."How do you make these horrible decisions?" she said. "I know I should go ahead and have . . . the operation, but it's going to wipe me out emotionally. I know it will. I'm always going to wonder what the kid would have been like. Or be like. I sound like I've decided but I haven't."
.......A hundred platitudes crowded his brain and he managed not to let any of them out.
......."Have you talked to your mom about it?"
.......She gave him a dismissive look with her face bunched up like a prune. "She wants to kill Beto. With a thumbtack so it would take a really long time. You know exactly what she'd say."
......."Did she tell you about hers?" he asked.
.......Maeve looked thunderstruck. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen her jaw drop open quite like that, though she was a volatile young woman.
......."Are you serious, dad?"
.......That was a cat that Kathy should have let out of her own bag, but it was too late now. Another lapse his ex could hold against him. He was astonished that Kathy had never told Maeve. "It was before we were married and I was in graduate school. She learned she was pregnant and made her decision without telling me a thing. It was a different time. She thought she was being brave and I think it was considered mildly gallant of me to pay for the abortion after the fact, but to be honest I wouldn't have tried to talk her out of it. We weren't ready."
......."Was it an ex-older brother or sister?"
......."Hon, that's like asking the shape of the asteroid that didn't hit the earth. The fetus probably still had a tail and gills when its development stopped."
......."Interesting euphemism," Maeve said.
......."When we bumped it off. I'm not afraid of words. Or acts. I stood by her and would have if she'd wanted to keep it. But I probably would have resented it a bit. It seemed so important to get my master's, but as it turned out a master's in lit--as they say, with that and three bucks you can get a Starbucks." In fact, after a long career as a technical writer and the final layoffs during the collapse of aerospace in L.A., he'd ever since been making himself only about half a living as a finder of missing children, his savings dwindling away.
.......A couple dressed like refugees from Woodstock were arguing at the door with the headwaiter who was obviously insisting that the restaurant was booked up even though a couple of tables were empty.
......."How did mom take it? I mean after."
......."I won't lie to you. It surprised her how much the emotion walloped her. She thought she was a toughie. But she got over it."
......."Meaning, I will, too."
......."Sure, you're a toughie. But you just say you've got to go through with it and I'll stand by you all the way to hell and back. I mean it, hon. I'll go to LeMaze with you and hold your hand while you're learning to pant."
.......She touched his hand. "Thanks, dad. I appreciate the thought but I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer a big nudge in the other direction."
.......He smiled. "That's honest. Responsibility is a sonofabitch, isn't it?"
.......A Mexican server showed up with his fish and her vegetarian delight and set the platter on a folding trestle that he snapped open with a flourish. This one she looked at, maybe out of loyalty.
......."Where are we going to sleep tonight?" Maeve asked.
......."There's no real problem. Bakersfield is only an hour and a half down the road and they're a pretty big town. There'll be motels galore. We'll be there in time to watch Leno if you want."
......."Is he the one with the chin?"
* * * * *
If it please the court, and the gentlemen of the jury, of all the low, miserable, depraved scoundrels that I have ever come in contact with, these defendants, without any grounds for defense, are the most ornery rascals that I have ever met, and I think the best thing we could do is take them out and hang them as soon as possible.
--The defense counsel, 1877 Bakersfield trial of alleged horse thieves. They were hanged only minutes later.
.......Maeve was dozing as Highway 99 approached the surprising sprawl of Bakersfield. Just outside town was a billboard all in black letters on white and overrun with underlinings and exclamation marks like a teen's love note: Jesus says Impeach! all Those who support Satan's One World Goverment!!! He liked the fact that the n in government was missing. Someone had actually taken credit for the sign but he was past before he could read the smaller print.
.......He split off on business 99 and went quite a way before he eventually picked out a likely neon sign, neither a big overpriced chain of "suites" nor one of those gone-to-seed Kozy Kabins, just something middling and hopefully free of roaches. The desk clerk who answered the bell on the counter seemed to be Vietnamese. It was the first time he had seen that. Usually it was East Indian.
.......Maeve was wide awake now and clutched his arm ostentatiously. "Oh, Humbert, can we have a really big soft bed?" she said flirtatiously.
.......He glared at her for a moment but the clerk didn't seem to notice one way or another.
......."A daughter who's almost 18 deserves the privacy of her own room," he said, enunciating 'daughter' and 'own room.' "Two rooms, please. Single beds will be fine."
......."Please, Humbert, at least have them close together." She leaned into him and gave a stage whisper: "I'll sneak over later."
......."Could you put one of us here and the other in Fresno?" Jack Liffey said. It only confused the clerk and he waved his remark away. "Anything. This is embarrass-dad night."
.......Maeve calmed down and fingered her way through the rack of tourist brochures as he dealt with the clerk.
......."What was all that?" he said outside, as they retrieved their camping bags from the pickup.
.......She held his arm again fiercely. "Humbert, don't you know all daughters are in love with their dads?"
......."Okay," he said. "You can't get any more pregnant so we may as well make love, just so Freud is happy."
.......He could feel her stiffen and let go. "Dad!"
......."You started it. Don't you know the gods have burdened fathers with a kind of automated self-loathing about incest? I can't even think it. I'd be struck by lightning and turned to a cinder where I stand."
......."You know that's not true of all dads," she said.
......."Yeah, I do." He'd run across the dispiriting aftermath of incest often enough in his career. "Anyway, I'm very happy, thank you, with Gloria, as you know."
.......Sgt. Gloria Ramirez was the LAPD officer he lived with in East L.A., though, for unstated reasons of her own, she would not marry him. He was crazy about her strength of character and her sense of independence. He wasn't quite as crazy about the confused sense of self she'd been saddled with by foster parents who had brought her up to despise the fact that she was a full-blood Paiute Indian.
......."Can we do something tomorrow to make up for this fiasco?" Maeve said.
......."We could visit where Cesar Chavez used to live, or we could go to the remains of a black farming village called Allensworth that was founded by Civil War veterans..."
......."That doesn't quite cut it."
......."We could even go back and chant to the big trees with all those converging harmonicas."
......."We got our walk through the sequoias," she said. "That was enough to recharge my nature batteries for a while. They really are amazing trees."
......."Yeah. It's good to be overwhelmed once in a while by Mother Nature. Here's your key for 108."
.......The key was actually a plastic card with a mag stripe like most motels these days. He was in 114 three doors down. He resisted the urge to go into her room first and look under the bed and into the bathroom to make sure she was safe from whatever.
......."How about I call your room about 8 tomorrow morning?" he said.
......."I'll try to have my face on by then."
......."I'm really sorry the camping didn't work out, hon. Maybe we'll find something better to do."
......."Sure. Or rationalization. They're about the same."
.......The motel room hadn't gone ratty yet but it was just waiting for someone to look away for a minute. There were ruffled flounces on the beds that were a different shade of bilious green from the spread and a framed print of a shaggy highland cow the like of which he hadn't seen in years. He sank wearily into an easy chair with knotty pine wings and a man's voice boomed at him, startling him upright.
......."God holds them over the pit of hell, just as we would hold a spider or a loathsome snake, and He abhors them. He is dreadfully provoked
.......Slowly an image gathered out of the void on the old TV and Jack Liffey realized he must have sat on the remote. A handsome man with severely raked-back silver hair, sort of an aging Pat Riley, was pacing in front of a giant wood cross wearing a navy blue robe that swirled at his legs like a great flightless bird.
......."His wrath will burn them like fire; they are worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fiery abyss. He cannot bear to have them in his sight, they are so vile, they are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than--"
.......Finally he found the device under him and the first button he hit in a panicky stab was the mute. He watched the minister pace back the way he'd come, his mouth chewing away angrily in blissful silence. He wondered if the tirade were live somewhere in the Pacific Time Zone, a midnight service for those needing a little pick-me-up of hellfire. More likely it was taped. He popped the mute on-off on-off.
......."--God has held you up--"
......."--Nev-er would you dare--"
.......He tired of the game and shut the set off. The picture irised down slowly to a spot before expiring. The idea of hell annoyed him immeasurably. For some reason he thought of Loco, his slightly naughty half-coyote of a dog that Maeve's love was beginning to tame into domesticity. If Loco doesn't get to go to heaven, he thought, I want to go where he goes.
The small town of Allensworth was founded in 1908 by Col. Allen Allensworth, a former slave who had fought in the Civil War. As elected leader of a group of former slaves from the Los Angeles area he purchased 800 acres, 30 miles north of Bakersfield, in a promising area of abundant wells, artesian springs and a small river called Deer Creek. The colonel led the pioneers to the area, and the town they founded became the only all-African American farming community in California.
At its peak the town held 300 families, and contained a hotel, school, library, post office, bakery, machine shop, and many other businesses serving the surrounding farms that raised alfalfa, sugar beets and livestock.
The town became a railroad transfer point for the Santa Fe, and a bustling African-American center grew up offering concerts, plays and club meetings. A small black college on the order of Tuskegee Institute was planned. Unfortunately the town was surrounded by powerful corporate farms that used upstream diversion and massive groundwater pumping to meet their water needs. Deer Creek was mysteriously diverted. The Pacific Farming Company, who had sold Col. Allensworth the land, did not deliver on its promise to continue providing water.
As agribusiness all around Allensworth prospered, the black town and farms were starved of water. Col Allensworth died in a traffic accident, then the railroad was diverted, businesses folded and the town gradually died.
He must have been buried under several slabs of sleep exhaustion because when the unfamiliar phone burred somewhere in space-time his eyes came open like a speared cat but he had no idea where he was. His hand found the phone before he was quite ready for it.
......."Is that you, Jack? Your voice sounds funny."
......."Funny." His mouth tried the word a few ways, as if chewing it over. "I don't think so. Is this Gloria?"
.......His eyes danced over the murky room and a sense of orientation gathered. Not his own bed. Motel. Bakersfield.
......."Slap yourself a couple of times," she said.
......."I don't think so. I'm almost touching down. There it is. Three-point landing. Taxiing now. I'll be at the gate soon." He picked up his wristwatch and squinted to make out that it was just before 4. "Are you okay, Glor?"
......."I might ask the same. Bakersfield PD woke me a few minutes ago to ask me about one Maeve Margaret Liffey--as they said--and then they handed her the phone. Only time I've heard the middle name is when you or your ex are chewing her out."
"It's the way cops deal with driver's licenses, as you well know. As far as I know she's three doors down in this motel fast asleep."
.......He was going to add something snide about assassins always having three names on the news but it was penetrating his haze that something relating to Maeve was badly wrong. "What the hell did she say?"
......."She's not in your motel, Jack. Get a grip. They've arrested her for prostitution."
Copyright (c) 2008 by John Shannon.
John Shannon grew up in San Pedro, California, "amidst the sons of radical longshoremen, shipyard workers and fishermen. They still called themselves Yugoslavs then, rather than Croats or Serbs. My friends were proud of the tale -- probably apocryphal -- that their fathers had once hidden in wait for the LAPD "Red Squad," and beat the shit out of them." He has worked as a journalist, technical writer, video producer, a school teacher in Africa and a political activist. Besides the Jack Liffey books, of which The Devils of Bakersfield is the tenth, he has published four other novels, including The Orphan, Courage and The Taking of the Waters, a multi-generational saga of the American Left.
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