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Spring/Summer 2004, Volume 21.3

Essay

 

Andrew WingfieldPhoto of Andrew Wingfield.

Fire and Water

 

Andrew Wingfield is Writer in Residence at New Century College, the integrative studies program at George Mason University, where his courses form part of the core curriculum in Conservation Studies. His work has appeared in ISLE, Wild Earth, Pleiades, Western American Literature, and other magazines.

 

The Radies were not exactly our neighbors, but they lived on the hilltop next to ours. A bird flying from our roof to the Radies' roof would have passed above our swimming pool, my father's big vegetable garden, a line of old almond trees, a brushy fencerow that marked the edge of our property, and then the sea of star thistle that filled the shallow saddle between the hill's two tops. This bird would take off from a two-story house that was old and secluded and charming; it would land on the tar shingles of a shack whose dusty clapboard sides had long before been painted light green, the color of duck eggs.

The Radies were poor, ragged, and to me completely wonderful. The oldest of the Radie kids was a boy named Jackie whom I liked to follow around. At this time I cussed only silently, to myself, but Jackie cussed outloud. The first time I strayed all the way over to the Radies' place I stepped in a fresh guano pie left behind by one of the ducks that waddled around the dirt yard. Jackie's mother saw me scraping my sole on a board and asked what happened. I told her I'd stepped in duck stuff.

She lifted her hands to her hips. "In what?"

"Duck shit," I answered, glancing off toward my house.

Jackie and his mother got a kick out of that.

Once I talked Jackie into making me a slingshot like the one he had. He helped me find a Y-shaped tree limb and cut it off and attach strong rubber bands to each tip of the Y. We needed a small piece of tough material to connect the two strands of rubber bands; in this I would pinch the rock or walnut I wanted to shoot as I pulled it back and got ready to let fly. We described to my mother what we needed and she reluctantly offered a small patch of leather that was perfect. She never said so, but I knew she wished I wouldn't play so much with Jackie. She had grown up among people like the Radies—I'd met some of them on trips to Missouri—and she didn't think they were all that wonderful.

She was probably relieved when the Radies disappeared—just abandoned their place. We didn't know where they went, but my parents said it had something to do with the new Safeway coming in. It was summertime in the Sacramento Valley. On the hottest nights my sisters and I would make a nest for ourselves out on the cabana by the pool. One night sirens woke us. We went to the poolside and looked across to the next hilltop and saw the Radies' shack ablaze. The fire was as broad as their home's frail skeleton and three times as tall. Those flames have stayed with me, and so has the sight of my sisters and my parents facing the fire in a row, their fronts brightly lit and their backs dark. My father picked up my little sister, and in my terror I also wished he'd hold me.

 

We never heard from the Radies, never found out what happened to them. But some time after their house burned, before the earthmovers rolled in, my father and I set off through the star thistle on the path Jackie Radie and I had tramped out. We went over to the patch of scorched ground where their home had stood, just to nose around. Tire tracks and boot tracks crisscrossed the soot. We had brought the wheelbarrow along in case we found anything. What we found was a six-foot-long crosscut saw that made Dad wonder if there had been a Mr. Radie living there at one time. He was excited about this old-fashioned saw. He said we'd replace the missing handle and use it, together, in the fall.

One of the almond trees near the edge of our property was dying. Dad and I spent most of a fall afternoon cutting down that tree. It was chilly out; the blond sawdust fell like light snow on the almond's black bark. When Dad saw me
sweating, he told me in a voice he didn't use often that sawyers get double heat out of the wood—during the cutting and the burning.

Sawyers. Everything about this moment—the time of day and year, the job we were sharing, the nostalgia in his voice—told me this was a word to keep. It wasn't with his arms, but with his words that my father held me.

And holds me still. Dad had an uncommon vocabulary for our part of the country. Some of the words and expressions that furnish my lexicon are heirlooms he brought with him out of Missouri.

To express mild surprise he'd say, "Thunder turtles!"

A more acute surprise might provoke a, "Shit fire and save the matches!"

"I believe I'll lope my pony," was what he said when he had to pee.

A frequent and artful cusser, Dad worked with the same palette of foul language as everyone else, but used more imagination in putting expletives together. He learned the craft of cussing at the knee of his grandfather, whose Missouri farm was a formative place for Dad in a host of ways. There he spent long stretches of his boyhood, exiled from his parents but also insulated from their harsh melodramas. Life on the Wingfield farm was long on chores and short on affection. But this farm did offer fertile ground to a boy with an ear for language. Besides his grandpa's colorful cussing, Dad listened to the more elevated conversation of Aunt Anna Margaret and Uncle Marvin, both avid readers. Anna Margaret taught elementary school and kept Dad well supplied with books—not just the titles she knowingly gave him but also the racy romance novels he'd lift from her bedside table. For entertainment the family gathered round the radio each night.

The teacher at the country school got Dad hooked on learning the local birds, an activity that helped him pass the long days in the fields. Before long he could place any bird without looking up from his work: he saw them in their songs. A sometime orphan, Dad used his good ear to make himself at home outdoors, following the genial conversations of cardinals and robins, attending to the zealous performances of mocking birds, minding the shifts in squirrel chatter and the faint skitterings of smaller mammals through the hedgerows.

Later on, Dad's ear would become one of the marvels of my own childhood. Sitting with him on a mountainside was like listening to a symphony with an experienced conductor—no noise passed without notice and explication. In human settings the man could be a kind of verbal chameleon when he wished, his feel for situational languages heightened by his nomadic childhood and the upward social trajectory of his adult life. Once in a while I got to go with Dad on a sampling trip to a remote mountain trout hatchery. All the way up I'd listen to him discussing fish viruses and biopolitics with one of his colleagues, but as soon as we stepped out of the truck he'd transform completely, joking and sparring with the coarse men who toiled in the ponds.

"Wing" was Dad's boyhood nickname and he fondly bestowed it on me. He'd call me Wing, Wingy, Wingus, Wingfield Andrew, or Winghis Khan. A
gifted raconteur and joketeller, he could always lure me close with one of his baited opening lines. But in his sullen stretches he would wield words to cut the connection between us, keeping me at arm's length. On the old Wingfield farm Uncle Marvin, a hypochondriac and loafer who felt shown up by Dad's eager diligence, would exact revenge on his unprotected nephew through frequent volleys of vicious teasing and scorn. Like most mistreated children, Dad grew up to subject his kids to what he'd suffered himself. His jabs struck quickly and traveled deep.

"Get out of here!" he'd snarl at me if I moped too close during one of his black moods. "I'm tired of looking at you."

I cringe to write those words even now. A fierce flame of hurt and protest overpowers the affectionate warmth his words kindled at other times. These aren't the two kinds of heat Dad meant when he talked about the sawyer's reward. Not exactly. But in the Old English time, closer to the core of our mother tongue, sawyers and sayers answered to the same name. That's why a saying is also a saw. And why saying is to me like sawing—work that can wound or warm, depending on the care you take.

 

Not long after the Radies' place burned the earthmovers rolled in and started clawing at their part of the hill. Where once a shallow saddle connected the hill's two tops, soon a sharp slope angled down from our brushy fencerow to the asphalt plate of the Safeway parking lot. But Safeway and its lot didn't appear overnight. There was a several-month grace period, between the scraping and the paving, when a frisky little stream wandered across that scarred square of land. I couldn't keep clear of this stream.

Every day after school, as I was heading out to meet my friends, my mother would send me away with a stern admonition to stay dry. Every day I'd come home soaked. It was true I couldn't resist the stream's jaunty riffles. But even more enticing was the chance to misbehave and be forgiven by my indulgent mother. These little rituals of transgression and absolution were all the sweeter for being carried out in secret, without my father knowing.

Dad's knowledge of boys and boyhood led him to assume that I was up to no good much of the time. That was fine, as long as I took my whipping willingly when caught. He had no patience for excuses, backtalk, tears, deflections of blame onto other parties. To compensate for his harshness, Mom generally allowed herself to be swayed. I suspect this gentle impulse toward me arose at least in part from hard feelings she harbored for my father. Indirection was just her way. She pursued a definite agenda without ever issuing commands. She had a yen for conflict, yet she quailed at the slightest hint of confrontation. I can't recall a single instance when she openly defied Dad on my behalf. Still, she made it her business to cultivate qualities of mine that he brooked with silent awkwardness or active disdain.

Parked on the side of the road, helping Mom cut thistle flowers for one of her dried arrangements, I might mouth one of my sisters' songs of impatient protest. But the fact was I loved my mother's arrangements, I loved driving the back roads with her when she was out hunting for materials to use, or when she was just soaking in the beauty of blooming almond orchards, the late-day sun throwing a gold wash over white petals, black bark and young green grass.

And I loved to watch my mother work. She had an attractive way of holding herself, shoulders out, chin high. She had thick sandy hair, rich skin, a pleasant, open face. While building one of her arrangements she would lose herself so thoroughly that she seemed unassailable, complete. One hand would turn the vase or jug or basket while the other poked flowers and foliage into the various openings. Now and then she would rock back, eyeing the work, humming, or singing part of a song. She would turn the vessel round and round. Suddenly she would see what it needed and lean back in to deliver the finishing touches.

I sensed great strength in my mother's skillful making, yet my own weakness for visual beauty I experienced as just that—a weakness. To begin with, my hands lacked the finesse that enabled Mom's fingers to fashion fine things. Then there was my father, who couldn't conceal the discomfort he felt when he'd find me parked at the kitchen table, raptly watching Mom as she wove her visual magic.

It's no wonder, considering all of this, that sixth grade turned out to be my watershed year. My teacher, Mr. Dallam, was a retired Air Force officer and a published poet, a strict man who melted like butter when warmed by a good metaphor. Each morning he drilled us in meter, form, figurative language. Some afternoons, he'd recite favorite stanzas in a dramatic baritone that rises to my mind's ear even now, as if the man himself were climbing the stairs outside my writing room. Mr. Dallam subscribed to all kinds of magazines and kept the back issues in boxes at the rear of the classroom. Every week he would order us to clip out a photograph we liked and write a poem to go with it. Wild landscapes were my particular muse. Nothing I had done before consumed me like crafting couplets that sang the beauties of pristine places.

I flourished under Mr. Dallam's watch, with poetry as my primary discipline.

 

One spring when I was in my mid-twenties, I took time out from my literary studies to travel to Missouri with my father. Dad's aunt, Anna Margaret, had died a few weeks before, and we went to look in on eighty-five-year-old Uncle Marvin. One afternoon, on the way back to our motel, we crossed the railroad tracks and took a shortcut through Sedalia's "Colored Town." Dad pointed out a small, dingy shack toward the back of a lot where a larger house also stood. His mother had rented the shack at one time. She was on her own then, waitressing at the Pacific Café near the train depot. She had left Dad's father some time before. Their divorce had come as a relief to Dad, even though his mother started shipping him out of town for extended periods as a result, off to the farm where he could be under the influence of the other Wingfield men. What Dad welcomed was an end to the ugly dealings he'd witnessed between his parents. His mother was a provocative person who couldn't always shield her kids from the trouble she courted. One night Dad watched her boyfriend brawl with his father in a Sedalia street. Another time he huddled in a closet with his mother and two sisters, staring into the snake eyes of a double-barreled shotgun wielded by his drunk, raging father.

The sight of this house struck me like a 12 gauge's kick. Its location on the wrong side of the tracks, its ignoble position on the lot, the cramped size and grim look of the place brought Dad's entire childhood sharply into focus. It also brought the Radies to mind, made me wonder what it might have meant for Dad, who'd come so far from his Missouri beginnings, to look up from his California garden, gaze over to the next hilltop, and see the shack that housed that haggard woman and her ratty kids. I'm pretty sure the Radies' presence pleased him, as much as it vexed my mother.

Mom's family lived on Sedalia's Gasoline Alley when she met Dad, in the apartment above their café and filling station. Before that her family ran a roadhouse and a dairy farm. Before that they followed the gas pipeline her father was helping to lay across several Midwestern states. While her home life had been more stable than Dad's, her working class credentials—smalltown and rural—were every bit as authentic. And her desire to slough off the grimy husk of her early life, to do a major social metamorphosis and fly away from her hatching ground, was at least as keen as his. Dad's human capital consisted of science smarts and a keen conversational wit; Mom brought beauty and social grace into the bargain. In the Smith-Cotton High School yearbooks from the middle `50s she appears frequently, begowned and beaming, the queen of homecoming or spring or some other occasion, surrounded by several lesser beauties.

Through the first decade of their marriage Mom and Dad collaborated in crossing the hurdles that stood between him and his string of degrees. A promising student in her own right, Mom gave up college after a year in order to support her man. She bore and tended to my older sisters, kept house, typed thesis chapters and worked part time in offices to keep the family solvent. Once Dad had his doctorate in the bag, they moved to Sacramento so he could start the state job he would hold for thirty-five years. Mom set up their new bank account and Dad pitched a fit the first time he opened the checkbook and saw the name printed there: Dr. & Mrs. William Wingfield.

Dad's dislike of pretense ran deep. He might reject the individual villains of his childhood—my sisters and I never met his father—but he took pains to keep his hostile feelings for family members from extending to the family's kind. Maybe he would have felt free to burn his bridges entirely if he hadn't carried the social climber's doubts about entitlement. He passed just fine among more established denizens of the professional class, but he was never so at home among these people that he felt free to forget where he came from. Mom denied her shaky social footing by pretending to fit, but Dad often reacted to awkwardness by playing up the coarser parts of his character—pretending not to give a damn whether he fit or not.

To Mom's chagrin, Dad staunchly refused to dress the part of the gentleman gardener when he was working outside. She bought him straw hats, but he preferred his crusty old cap. She bought him denim overalls, but he never even tried them on. All of his gardening clothes came from Purple Heart, where the low prices freed him from being finicky in matters of size. A pair of stained suspenders enabled him to work in pants made for much fatter men. He was also flexible when it came to inseam. He didn't mind rolling up trousers that were more than a touch too long, and he couldn't have cared less if a pair of high-water pants exposed the stripes of his mismatched socks. Missing buttons, mangled zippers, busted snaps were nothing to him that a safety pin couldn't correct. An impish man, he relished every chance he got to mortify my older sisters by staying in his soiled hobo togs when he went to collect them from skating dates and birthday parties. It gave him even greater pleasure to pull such stunts with Mom. Once I was with him at the feedstore when Mom emerged from a Gypsy Traders function at the Community Clubhouse across the way. The Gypsy Traders were a group of stylish, craftsy women who got together regularly to hunt for antiques or exhange ideas about interior design. Dad had no real business with Mom that day—nothing that couldn't wait until she got home. But he made a great show of flagging her down, standing close beside her as the Gypsy Traders milled and chatted, his mangy presence polluting the image she worked so hard to project.

By this time we had moved from our starter home in one of Sacramento's near suburbs out to the fixer-upper farm house several miles up the American River, a few years beyond the pale of advancing sprawl. Like most of the parcels that ringed our new town's old village, this one had room enough for Dad to plant fruit trees, to keep bees and chickens and a pair of sheep, and to grow more vegetables than we could eat. From season to season he enacted the rural routines, working out the tangled feelings that tied him to his Missouri roots.

Rustic trappings were what charmed and occupied my mother. With its antique country furniture, its pretty print curtains, the pieces of weathered copper and cast iron she used for decoration, the home she created gestured with quiet triumph at her humble background, used those old elements as part of a sumptuous new arrangement.

Who could blame Mom for wishing the Radies weren't there to complicate the view from our poolyard? In her aspiring heart the Radies' sudden disappearance, and the dramatic conflagration that followed, must have felt like a powerful consummation. Considering the timing of their removal, Mom might well have fancied that when the wretched family vanished they took with them, once and for all, the cloud of want that had followed her all her life. Her childhood had been a story of repeated uprootings, the family swept from place to place by her parents' dogged quest to find a soft-spot in the economy. As a teenage prom queen the grease-monkey's daughter had gotten those teasing tastes of glamour and privilege, that sparkling handful of nights when she shone brighter than any of the girls who lived in the big houses that lined Broadway and drove the big cars that her father got paid to fix. Those tastes had whet her appetite for more—the more that justified all the sacrifices she'd made for Dad's advancement, the more that now, finally, seemed to be within her reach.

For aesthetic reasons, Mom would have preferred that the piece of land adjacent to ours remain open, or that a nice new house rise on the ashes of the Radies' shack. Safeway was not her first choice, but she could live with it. If a national chain had its eye on that weedy piece of hillside, it meant that Mom had gotten us in on the ground floor of a big thing about to happen.

 

What was it, then, that happened?

A family was pried out of its home, shooed off like a pack of nuisance dogs. A fire followed, a quick, deliberate torching that gave some punks their jollies and saved the property's handlers a more costly and prosaic demolition. And then came a great violence to the land, a deep and irreversible disfiguring. Trees toppled and turned to chips. Stumps plucked like so many molars. Brush piled and burned. Grasses mashed, thistles plowed under. Trails of people and possums erased. Nests of birds and rodents despoiled. Snakes' lairs violated. Ant hills leveled. Frogs flattened. Quail scattered and jackrabbits flushed toward traffic. Eons of alluvial riches bankrupted in a matter of days. Half our hill reduced to clods of dirt and trucked off to fill a hole somewhere. Another of Earth's comely curves stripped, gouged, scooped out and scraped flat. At the bottom of it all an ancient waterway, a stainless hidden stream,
uncovered and subjected to the rude light of American day, then shunted through a metal chute and unceremoniously buried. Next came the baking of the asphalt crust. And finally, the steel, concrete, and glass of our new grocery store, whose roof, I judged, didn't quite reach the level of the Radies' former floor.

My family's land teetered on the verge of this raw environment, where before it had rested snugly within the fabric of a rolling landscape. At least that's how I thought of our place—precarious, perched on the edge of the commercial pit that yawned on the other side of our fencerow. Or how I came to think of it, came to interpret it as I looked past the property line for the source of instabilities and threats that originated on our own plot of ground.

As the shoppers came and went below us, Dad carried on with his tillage and husbandry, while Mom kept up her crusade to beautify the house. On the surface their activities appeared to mesh. But deeper down, like seeds whose sprouting weather had arrived, my parents' conflicting tendencies were finding favorable conditions in the lush life they'd worked so long to secure. Dad's tightness had made some sense when money was scarce, but his stingy ways grated more on Mom when spending became a matter of discretion. She could never convince Dad to buy into the competition that went on among the women in her set. The improvements Mom wanted to make had to happen on a shoestring budget. That's how she got so good at spotting diamonds in the flea market rough. When I was eight or nine she opened an antique store, but that was a break-even business at best. Eventually she went back to office work. With the money she earned typing and filing she got our kitchen redone. She paid to have a second bathroom built. She won big points with my sisters and me when she replaced our ancient black and white TV with a smart new color set.

I was watching that color TV the Sunday night Mom and Dad called everyone to the kitchen table and told us they were separating. This announcement caught me completely off guard, blindsided me as nothing had since the Radies' surprise disappearance a few years before. I learned after the Radies abandoned their place that this event was not as arbitrary as it seemed, that their leaving was part of a larger story, the latest and most obvious in a sequence of happenings that up to then had taken place offstage. The same was of course true of my parents' separation. And this was not the only link that fused these two experiences so tightly together in my imagination. The fire that consumed the Radie family's frail shack couldn't have corresponded better with the flames of rage that threatened to devour me now. Their mauled land looked like a map of what I'd foolishly held in trust.

Sixth grade was coming to a close that spring when my parents separated. The Monday after their announcement I fell apart in class, fishing for some reassurance from the teacher I loved. But Mr. Dallam, who worked best with feelings stitched into sonnets and sestinas, could only gape at such a naked show of emotion. I hardly blame him. What more could I ask of him, after all? He had already handed me the keys to the kingdom of language, the best gift a teacher ever gave me.

 

In the bad years that followed I never used Mr. Dallam's gift but clutched it close, trusting that one day, when the conditions were right, those keys would spring me from a world whose sordidness reduced me to silence. Gradually it came out that Mom had instigated the split with Dad, to free herself up for the public relations man whose office she'd managed the last year or so. This move was to be a big step up for her. The PR man—his name was Art—had promised to lose his wife and set Mom up in a spiffy house in one of the newer neighborhoods. But Mom's new life with Art never materialized. He was mortally attached to his money, couldn't face the prospect of dividing it with the wife.

A year of false starts and experimental arrangements passed before we settled into our post-divorce pattern. Dad took advantage of Mom's guilt to outduel her badly in the settlement. He withdrew to the house he'd bought for himself and began to cultivate his sour grapes. Mom stayed with my sisters and me on the hill, using her artistic talents to put food on the table. For a while she did displays at a high-end housewares store. Later on she carved out a niche doing eye-catching color in the flower beds around model homes. The development storm forecast by Safeway's arrival had hit our area full force. Neighbors subdivided their pastures and garden plots and all our favorite orchards got the ax. Ranchers in the region sold vast swaths of winter range to developers plotting tracts. Mom was so busy helping the housing moguls move product that our own place foundered from neglect. As the area grew richer, we lived more and more poorly.

In the beginning the Radies had been the yardstick by which we measured how far we'd come. Now their story seemed to hold the secret of our own appalling destiny. What were we, after all, but a fatherless, fiscally vulnerable clan clinging to what was left of a hill already half-devoured by a rapacious economy. What was I but a boy silenced by the powerful and secretive forces that acted upon me, so vulnerable, so ungrounded, so voiceless that one day I too might disappear as suddenly and completely as the Radies had.

In reality, of course, I was never nearly as vulnerable as the Radies. We maintained a mortgage on our land, while they'd been tenants on theirs. Though we didn't see my father much, he did live up to the letter of his obligations. But what I'm unpacking here are a child's emotions, feelings I trust for the kernel of truth that fed them. I was not socially voiceless like the Radies, but a different sort of muteness made me see myself in them. It's no wonder, then, that ever since I took to writing I've known I would come to this in time—back to tease out the strands of memory that entwine the fates of two families and the hill that held them both for a while. As if by coming back, I might manage to quell the towering flames that have prevented me from seeing my parents in the mitigating light of the worlds that shaped them—my mother whose frustrated desires forced her to so many hollow choices, my father whose unhealed wounds spurred him to such meanness.

Against the flames of anger, I've found that words work best—words that soothe in the saying, welling like water from an underground stream.


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