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Sep 132011
 

 

by Nels Hanson

 

A jutting rectangle to make a modern kitchen (with a window for red amaryllis), the small wing of shingles for a solarium with potted ferns, a screened sleeping porch built before swamp coolers tapped the icy water pumped from the ground—

The Rhodes Place has been added onto for over 80 years, but still retains the high square look of an old-fashioned saltshaker; its stolidity offset by a graceful green roof whose steep pitch angles nearly horizontal just above the eaves, so the house appears to lift, like a Chinese pagoda.

 

Drinking light through a break in the elm branches, big-faced yellow roses climb a trellis up the west wall, between two tall bedroom windows that look out across the vineyards toward the Coast Range.

 

Not ghosts, but vague, animated shadows haunt the upstairs screens, dim sentinels like fading x-rays burnt on the air by the heat of living presences long since departed. Dark cutouts flit about, in a blur complete the same task over and over, their unchanging rituals a kind of hectic, unconscious waiting.

Ford Rhodes, veteran of the Civil War and the Grand Army of the Potomac, husband and widower of the Tioga Indian princess Fall Moon, stands at the sill with a Masonic apron at his waist, opening, reading, closing, and reopening a large book bound in redwood bark.

“Now it’s time to go to sleep.”

Age 89, Ford died in bed one September evening in 1931, as the wind blew and a storm threatened the harvest, the black clouds quickly advancing across the vineyards of picked grapes spread out on the ground to dry.

In another year, to the right of the roses, by lamplight Florence Rhodes sews with thimble and thread a boy jockey’s flashing silks for the big fall Raisin Day Race, and a head stocking, two big holes for the eyes, for a lightning sorrel mare called Ride Away.

And later, in long, khaki-colored, afternoon light, the window open and the air laden with the fresh scent of blooming roses, a young Sergeant First Class Delmus Rhodes with bandaged arm and in his good left hand a Paiute necklace of blue stones stretches out to nap, to rest from nightmares of war and burning planes and cities. He sleeps, now wakes, bolting upright, scanning the Valley sky for flak or the light-spitting dots of Japanese Zeros.

Or perhaps there is no one, only the movement of the air and the shifting shade of leaves.

“Times goes by—”

A radio is playing.

“Right on by,” Roy Orbison ironically, jauntily announces to the balmy evening from the Fresno “oldies” channel, from a record 25 years old.

“You walked away, / The pain began—”

Past the elm leaves and the specters at the shadowed screen, a 17-year-old girl with reddish-brown hair, ivory skin, green eyes, and a faint scar along her jaw lies on an unmade bed.

Like a fulsome, restless Bathsheba, she stares up at a water stain on the ceiling, while a yellow swallowtail butterfly clings to a rose stem in the Mason jar on the night table.

I knew I’d never, / Love again.”

The rust-edged spot from the rain is the prow of a sailing ship, or George Washington in profile if she closes one eye.

Eddie’ll call, he won’t—

The phone beside the clock radio peers blindly at its pale reflection in the wood and doesn’t ring, useless as the butterfly and the open book that lies facedown on the wrinkled sheet. On the black and scarlet cover in dramatic silhouette, wearing boots and gloves and a rakish hat with a plume, a large-nosed swordsman makes a daring thrust:

A kiss, when all is said, what is it? A rosy dot placed on the ‘I’ in loving; Tis a secret told to the mouth instead of to the ear.”

In the warm light Kate dreams on her back in a t-shirt and gauze skirt, watching Eddie Dodge stepping quickly from an old Cadillac, striding through moonlight and cottonwood shadows toward the moving Kings River, something dark in his hand.

“Seems to me, / I felt this way / Yesterday—”

Across the bank of roses, behind the lowered window, a striking emerald-eyed silver-haired woman of uncertain age sits up in bed with pillows propped behind her, in one palm the end of a long cotton string as she gazes nervously across the green vineyards at the open evening sky.

Fine beads of perspiration trace her shapely, wing-like brows graceful as Kate’s. The network of crossed lines lies lightly as a veil across her high-boned cheeks—at any moment, the fan’s breeze will lift the faint web and reveal a breathtaking girl of 20. The fan on the dresser swings back and forth, disturbing her thick hair spread across the pillowcase, fluttering the many newspaper clippings of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro tacked to the wall above her head.

The air is hot, almost stifling, stale, and heavy sweet with the mixed scent of Wild Turkey bourbon and Upton’s Orange Blossom perfume but still she wears the close fitting blue dressing gown, the high Chinese collar of polished silk embroidered with a swarm of red and gold butterflies.

Given honored place like some dyed exotic pelt, perhaps an ancient queen’s sumptuous purple stole, a bejeweled but fading velvet evening dress shines spread at her feet.

Now the wind picks up, the vine leaves waving and turning over in a swath toward the house, and Dolly Mable leans forward into the falling sun, imagining night and a black-caped rider, Zorro or the bandit Joaquin Murrietta urging his white stallion toward her darkened trellis.

“Ah, Ramon,” she whispers, remembering the white car at noon with the chrome rearing horse on its hood. “Domingo.”

Downstairs wait a high-ceilinged kitchen facing east, a spacious living room, a sunroom for succulents and ferns, a master bedroom, and a parlor with a locked, oval-glassed front door. At the back of the house, off the kitchen and screened service porch, wooden steps with a railing descend to the shadowed green lawn. Across the dirt driveway, beyond the farthest reach of the elm, past a 70-year-old Black Mission fig that makes its own inky shade, a wife stands beside her husband sitting at a grindstone under a flowering catalpa tree.

“Skrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—shssssssssssss—skrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr—”

The middle-aged woman with gray-streaked auburn hair wears a washed-out blue duster and pink tennis shoes and leans on a bamboo rake just inside the tree’s shadow, looking west at the sun-bright Thompson Seedless vineyard, blinking now at the grinder’s shrill grate.

Kyla Rhodes’ face is the near-ghost of pretty, soft but strong-boned, with a slightly crescent, well-modeled nose and full lips. The creases at the corner of mouth and eye are etched by summer glare off implements and tin roofs and the dazzle of ditch water and sparkling disked sand, spring hail and hard April freezes, winter droughts and harvest rains, the sour glow of lamplight on the tall pages of ledgers, all the four seasons of money-worry.

She has curved freckled lashes, like a girl’s. Her eyes are weather-gray, the color of the clouded sky she woke to this morning with pounding heart.

Behind her, the long-limbed man in a baseball cap sharpens the knife at the foot-pedal sandstone grinder. An obscure double or twin, he resembles the comic actor in “Mr. Roberts” and “Good Neighbor Sam,” who was serious and silly, anxious and alert, his slender body stretched like a nerve. Deep laugh lines score his tanned cheeks; the blown hair at the edge of his cap has turned silver, as always his faded full-sleeved denim shirt is buttoned at the wrists.

Delmus wears a flickering, quizzical expression, his narrow face hair-triggered between grin and frown. His wiry, sturdy build has begun to melt and slip from its frame, but his sudden jerky movements are agile and precise, almost a dancer’s, as he works the grinder’s pedals like a unicycle and the heavy wheel turns under the knife.

“Shssssssssssssss,” says the stone as he lifts the blade, holding it toward the light.

A green tractor, an orange terracer, and an unhitched tandem disk rest to the east of the dairy barn with white peeling paint, where a chestnut horse with a blaze on its forehead bends to a trough in a square corral, next to a smaller pen and a black-and-white-striped pig.

Except for a young peach orchard northwest of the barn, and a block of plums just before a towering eucalyptus grove, all the land to the west is vineyard six feet high.

The only sounds are the freshening, unexpected wind, the scraping of the knife against the slow-turning wheel, the honk of a passing pickup or car along the road or the rumbling of a diesel with its heavy cargo for the dairies farther west—

It’s early evening, on the last Saturday in August, two days after Ronald Wilson Reagan’s re-nomination for President of the United States, a few hours before Geraldine Ferraro’s 49th birthday, five days before the early morning the Rhodeses’ raisin harvest will begin.

Everything looks worn out and dusty with the summer, leaves and tractor hoods and clothes left on the line wear a film of powdery dust like talcum. In the yard, the lavender blooms of the Rose of Sharon hang dry and crinkled as faded tissue paper. The shadowed two-foot bunches of sweet Thompson grapes burden the sea of exhausted, yellowing vines.

The air burns above the stovetop of the land, evaporating the scant moisture at your lip before you can breathe it, wilting the purple morning glory and the butter-colored black-eyed Susan along the flowing ditches—though the weather has slightly cooled from the last 40 blazing days of 100-plus-degree temperatures—

The intermittent, gusting breeze is veined with sea wind, lifting the tendrils of reddish hair at Kyla’s ear, disturbing the grape canes and scattered walnut saplings and the high stalks of Johnson grass that wave their glowing sprays of seed above the vines.

The sparrows and linnets know it, calling to one another from their perches in the rustling catalpa. The pig grunts and turns over in the mud. The horse neighs.

“It’s cooler,” Kyla says, looking out at the vineyard.

“I know,” Delmus says, lifting the knife.

“Fall’s coming,” Kyla says, watching the weeds and blowing vines.

“No,” says Delmus. “It’s here. Like Halloween—”

 

Again the knife cries against the stone, Kyla’s shoulders rise in the wind that last year and the year before brought freak September rains that drenched the picked grapes spread down the vine rows under the storming sky.

“I’m worried about Kate,” Kyla says, gripping the rake. “This Eddie Dodge—”

No answer, just the grinder and from the walnut trees across the road the white peacocks shrieking at another diesel’s roaring approach, the double trailers hauling last year’s crop to a dairy or the slaughterhouse feedlot south of Coalinga—the town named 100 years ago for Coaling Station A, near the desert creek where once Captain Harry Love rode down and murdered Joaquin Murrietta—