It was a shrunken head that brought Claire to Jewell Scoggins' door.
The head, actually a decaying peach in a Ziploc bag, had landed on Claire's desk at the Citrus Cove Agricultural Field Research Station with a bad case of what looked like leprosy but wasn't. Claire had a bad case of what felt like San Joaquin Valley Summer Burnout and was.
But here she was, chasing down the peach in the hottest, bleakest pocket of the San Joaquin, generally a pretty hot, bleak trough that runs down the middle of California. In deference to the calendar, which said September 24, the thermometer had leveled off at a mere 93. In high summer down here in southern Kern County it would be 110, easy.
She turned west. Off to her left three mountain ranges converged-from the east, the Sierras; from the west, the Temblors; along the south, the Tehachapis-cinching the bottom of the Central Valley like a drawstring. The land they contained was flat, hard, and white, dotted with saltbush and jimsonweed and tumbleweed when left alone, coaxed into a sullen, productive green when irrigated. A complicated system ran like intravenous lines from river to canals to ditches to furrows to the crops, which were, more often than not, squat cotton plants. An occasional vivid green field of alfalfa, a bit of corn now that the feed lots were moving in.
But no peach orchards.
A green roadsign told Claire she was approaching Taft, which, she suspected, was not where she wanted to be. She looked at the scribbled directions that Ramón Covarrubias, the County Small Farm adviser, had handed her along with the peach. She looked at her map.
She was lost.
Well, not exactly lost, not when the mountains flashed compass points at her from the horizon, but separated from her object. Which was the orchard of Mr. Erasmo Campos, who had produced the afflicted peach, variety Autumn Gem, diagnosis monilinia fructicola, aka brown rot. Already she had overshot her target once, going too far west into scrubby hills where swarms of oil pumps rocked and sucked, a maze of pipes running busily among them, with bright silver ducting for steam injection taking periodic serpentine loops alongside the road.
Now, a quarter-mile ahead a line of brush indicated, implausibly, flowing water. Ramón had said something about the north bank of the Kern River, so she turned onto a packed dirt road, nearly broke an axle in the first six feet, and rocked to a halt next to a sun-blistered sign. KERN WILLOWS TRAILER PARK, it said, and she started walking, figuring she'd ask someone where the hell she was, only more politely.
A moment later she heard it, a tune that Sam used to sing, "You Don't Have Very Far to Go." A gritty contralto, Kitty Wells or some old Nashville gal, she thought at first, but even though the voice itself was strong and sure, it was a capella-no whiny pedal steel, no bored boom-thwack of bass drum and snare-and Claire realized it must be live. The first evidence of vertebrate life she had encountered in many miles, so she followed it.
She rounded a clump of mulefat and suddenly there was this woman in the middle of the road-sixty-something, hard miles on her, skinny bird legs dangerously over-balanced by shelf of a bust. She had her head thrown back and was just wailing. When Claire joined in with a fifth-above harmony, she never even opened her eyes.
But when the song ended she looked at Claire and grinned, showing big teeth like Chiclets.
"I always do hear that part in my head," she said, Okie twang making haid of head. "Tune makes more sense with it. You know any more of Red's songs?"
Claire, who had learned this stuff entirely against her
will, said "I thought it was a Merle Haggard song." A Merle
Haggard song that had once stopped her dead in her tracks in Harvard Square
and then sent her back across a continent. To stay.
"One thirty-second?" The Cherokee Rose nodded and Claire just managed not to smile. Every Dustbowl migrant seemed to lay claim to one thirty-second part Cherokee, enough to be romantic but not inconvenient. "How about `It's Not Love, But It's Not Bad,'" Claire said, and they launched into another duet, Claire trying out a high part on the verse that made her voice crack. I should do more singing, she thought, defaulting to unison. I should do more laughing. I should do more dancing, I should do more loving, I should decorate my house, I should eat at decent restaurants, I should get out of this place?
Whoops! The song was over. "You sound great," she told Jewell.
"Yep," Jewell said with satisfaction, "the looks give out, the legs is goin' and the ticker don't work like she useter, but I reckon God's done give me the voice for life. You do much singin'?" Sangin'.
"Just in the car." Suddenly Claire remembered what she did do. "Actually, I'm looking for a man named Erasmo Campos. He has a peach orchard around here. You know him?"
"He in the Court?"
Claire had a brief vision of Mr. Campos in judicial, or possibly royal, robes.
"'Cause I don't know nobody 'round here don't live in the Court," Jewell was saying. "I ain't lived out here but a year. Moved down from Oildale when Chet died. But maybe there's somebody else here can help you out."
She led Claire past the sign and into The Court, a dozen dilapidated trailers with a settled look to them, strung out along one dry strand of the braided Kern River. Among them were a few as-advertised willows, stunted and demoralized, trying to hang on until another wet year-an unlikely event, with the Lake Isabella dam upstream. Jewell stopped at the last trailer, double-wide and new. Too new for this dump.
Claire wondered why, of all the trailer parks in all the world, Jewell had wandered into this one.
"How did you find this place?" she blurted. At least she had managed "how" instead of "why," but Jewell looked at her as if she knew exactly what she was thinking.
"Most of the folks is here because they can't afford noplace else," she said, "but Chet left me pretty well fixed. I just always been partial to this part of the river." She pushed open the door and said, maybe ironically, "Home sweet home."
Claire had learned from a few years in the field never to pass up a bathroom. She made inquiry, then walked purposefully down the hall, slowing as she passed a wallful of photographs. Jewell's family in conventional poses, one multi-generational portrait of matriarch (Jewell in a maroon dress) and patriarch (Chet, had she said?) at the center, and around them a whole . . . passel, a passel of kinfolk. Claire would have to save `passel' for Ramón, who in a previous life had taught English to college freshmen, and liked words. ("`Oh peach, thou art sick,'" he had scrawled on the bag containing the peach, along with variety, date and place of collection. Claire, who had the remnants of a good liberal arts education buried under the science, had managed to catch the scrambled reference and laugh.)
But beyond the portraits, which could have been of anyone's family-well, not Claire's; too many children and not enough L.L.Bean-was a full-color promotional portrait of the Texas Tumbleweeds, taken in the early 50's. The Weeds-three dark-haired guys in spectacular green and pink satin shirts-flanked the Rose, who wore a gold and green shirt. Claire regarded the young Jewell. Big features: high (Cherokee?) cheekbones, wide mouth, sharp nose. Not classically beautiful but vivid, like an Okie Sophia Loren. There were more pictures of the band: Jewell and a Weed waving gaily from a pastel car ("On the road," someone had written underneath); performing in a dark club, with couples dancing in the foreground, leaning in toward each other, faces solemn, skirts twirling ("The Lucky Spot"); several head shots of Jewell herself ("The Cherokee Rose"); more nightclubs ("The Blackboard"; "The Four Queens"); and the band outdoors at night, with lanterns strung overhead ("Buttonwillow Barn Dance").
What a lot of fun she must have had, thought Claire with vague envy, as she continued to the bathroom.
On the way back she lost herself, semi-deliberately, turning into the living room and then the bedroom . . . cramped, flimsy rooms into which a whole long life had been downloaded. On Jewell's nightstand was another photograph. It was clearly not a public picture, but nevertheless Claire moved to examine it, telling herself that as a photographer herself she had a professional interest, though in fact she was simply nosy.
Two heads, close, as in a wedding picture, but the subjects wore casual clothes, and the black-and-white photo had the grainy look of a snapshot that had been enlarged. That was certainly a young Jewell in the halter top, showing smooth shoulders. But who was this dark young man with the strong nose and the faint smile and the startling eyes? A memorable, symmetrical face that should have been sketched in a few apt words or deft lines. Could that be Chet? Chet, whom life had somehow transmogrified into that elderly gent with the seamed face out in the hall?
Back in the kitchen Jewell had made instant iced tea for both of them, lit a Camel, and was fanning herself with a copy of The Bakersfield Californian.
"I was enjoying your photos," Claire said. "Of you and the band, I mean," she added guiltily.
"Oh, honey, I got a whole scrapbook of pitchers and clippings," Jewell said, rising eagerly. "And a whole memory full of stories."
Claire glanced at her watch. "Tell me one," she said. "Tell me about?" about the man by your bed, she wanted to say, but didn't. "About your costumes," she finished lamely.
Jewell laughed, a throaty smoker's rasp. "Them things," she said. "Them gaudy things. Got me into a deal of trouble. I remember my momma..."
"Momma, please, I cain't be late, tonight's our first gig at the Lucky Spot, I need my costume!" Jewell darted toward the "closet," a rope strung across a corner and hung with clothes. But big as her mother was, she could move fast when the mood was on her, and now she lurched to the right so that she was blocking Jewell's way like a buffalo in a muumuu.
"You look like a damn whore in them things," she roared, and then Jewell knew she was really drunk, because her momma had never used to cuss. Or drink, for that matter. Drinking and cussing had been her daddy's strong points, that and a quick right hand.
I never saw no whore in a fringed skirt and cowboy boots, Jewell started to say, but she'd tried that one before. "Momma, the band has got to look good tonight, we need this gig. We need the money, you and Alvin and me. With Daddy gone..." she trailed off cunningly, and watched her mother's angry red eyes dim with tears and her bulk slump under her dress like a circus tent deflating.
"Give his life for his country," Momma sniffled. "He were a good provider, your daddy..."
Jewell grabbed her stage clothes and ran, not waiting to hear the end of this.
Good provider. He'd drunk away whatever any of them made picking cotton, and when he got himself a better-paying job out at the oil fields, he'd still been too cheap to give his wife money for groceries. Cheap to the end, he'd only sprung for the minimum life insurance the Army'd made him buy before they shipped him overseas. A few dollars more and they could have collected ten thousand; they could have moved out of their converted boxcar in Oildale into one of the new suburbs of Bakersfield that were rising up out of the cotton fields. One thousand had barely covered his debts.
Lefty's '42 Ford was pulled up to the curb and he looked like he'd been waiting a long time. He was already wearing the satin cowboy shirt Jewell had made for everybody in the band-theirs, green and pink; hers, pale gold, with pink roses appliqued over the breast pockets. She'd had to send to LA for the fabric.
"You're late," he snarled as she scrambled into the car.
"Momma," she said breathlessly. "She laid into me over the clothes again."
"You're too old to have yer momma a'bossin' you,"
he said, and he was right. But her momma was about as much like other
people's mommas as Hitler was like . . . like Lefty. "She's right,
though," Lefty was saying. "Goddamn waste of money, these monkey
suits." They swung out into traffic, heading south on Chester. "Hot
as hell, too. I'm already sweatin' like a coon." The slick sleeves
of his shirt fell away from his wrists, revealing long fine black hairs
sprouting from the fish-belly white of his forearm. Jewell looked away
in mild revulsion. Fine as froghair, folks'd say, and "froghair"
always made her think of Lefty.
"Lefty, let's not be draggin' through this again. People like a band to look sharp. Look what fancy clothes done for the Maddox Brothers and Rose?"
"You and yer highfalutin ideas!" he was saying at the same time, and she shut up because that was the problem, she knew. Not the clothes-the boys in the band liked the clothes-but the fact that they had been her idea. She picked the clothes, same as she picked the songs. Well, after all, she was the one singing the songs, but that was a sore point, too. When Lefty'd let her into the band, it had been as a favor. His idea was that she'd come out for a number or two, then fade back into the woodwork.
But Jewell had had her first highfalutin idea. Right then a few girls were starting to front for bands-Rose Maddox up in Modesto had been the first, now there was Rosalie Maphis right here in Bakersfield-and Jewell'd figured, why not her too? She was the one with the strong, pure voice people couldn't forget; she was the one people came to see. She was The Cherokee Rose.
"Just want to show off yer laigs," Lefty was mumbling as they passed the Coca-Cola sign at 18th. "Thirst Knows No Season," it said, and then, above that, today's weather: "Fair."
"...always did seem to be 'fair;'" Jewell said, coughing and bringing Claire back to the present, to Jewell's grimy little kitchen. "Might be a hundred and ten, or winter tule fog thick as tapioca, and it would still be "fair" on top of Kimball's Drugs. Maybe old man Kimball didn't like to climb up and change the sign. Or maybe Coca-Cola didn't allow no weather but `Fair.'"
Claire looked at her watch. "Oh, shi-oot-" (managing to shift vowels in mid-word)-- "you've been too entertaining." She scrambled to her feet. "I've got to find this guy's orchard." She dug into her pocket for a card:
CLAIRE SHARPLES, PHD
Jewell painstakingly wrote down her own name and phone number with arthritis-swollen fingers. "Come by again," she said, handing Claire the scrap of paper. "I'm most always here."
"I will," she said, almost meaning it. What would it be like to be always here, in this desolate outpost of rusting trailers? She paused at the door. "I bet Chet was a looker as a young man."
"Chet?" Jewell repeated, startled. "He
weren't never nothin' to look at. Not Chet." She paused. "Good-hearted
man, though. A real good-hearted man."
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