I walk outside my in-laws' house in small-town Oregon and look at heat wobbles on the street, the perfect blue tent of the sky, a morose ex-Marine with a crewcut staring into his lawnmower, the brown clover field stretching to the trees, and I know this is paradise. I've lived all over the world, seen a lot of good and bad, and I can tell you: this is it.
In summer, slowness hangs over everything. The locals seem crystallized in it like a fairy tale slumber. A bored high-school beauty queen works the register at the local market. There's an Independent Order of Odd Fellows having a rummage sale on its back lot, a dusty three-block downtown, and pickups so brown and streaked with bird shit that they look like a species of ancient reptile. It's good, all of it. This isn't the sort of place you mock or criticize. This is the place you want to end up. It's what you attain after years of diligent work if you're lucky, this slowness.
Walking through town, listening to the wind in the trees, I imagine this is what the good life must be, one vision of it at least, where you can still afford to look away or inward without worrying that a momentary lapse of attention, of vigilance, will lead to screaming autopsy with the house on fire. There are still a few quiet places left in this country where you can listen to the trees. And this is a good one, I think.
I'm staying here for a few weeks, as a transition point on my way back to Europe, and the outside world has begun to seem hazy, unreal and insubstantial. There's a hurricane in Texas with 125 mph winds; Kim's missiles keep flying; nine sailors are still missing in the ocean near Singapore; and my friend, James, is dying up in the Yukon. Can any of it exist in the same world as this quiet place? When I ask such questions, I feel a little crazy. Then I feel a little sad.
I have two friends who are terminally ill. This breaks my heart, but what can I do besides let it break? I think about both of them every day. I feel like there's something I should be doing, some duty I should perform, but I can't see what it is. It's always like this. For friends and family who live on, death resembles a game of Jenga—pull out a stick and maybe the whole structure tilts. More likely, it collapses. Then it's game over and look at all the silly little fools piled up in a heap. Death changes everything. You're never ready in spite of all your big talk.
So I've been lighting candles and burning sticks of Jyoti Temple Incense on the back patio, observing moments of silence every day in which I watch the smoke curl around the flame. The flame in the wind. The wind on the dead clover field outside the house. The trees. The quiet lassitude that stands between this place and every other part of the world that might be burning and collapsing. Lighting a candle is one small thing I can do. I also write a lot, but it doesn't seem to help.
The trip I took to get here was brutal. It involved driving north through central California to visit my mother's grave and the storage unit where the last fragments of my childhood still sit, piled in about 40 cardboard boxes. I planned to bring the boxes up to Oregon with me, but it didn't work out like that. Instead, I almost died.
When I rolled up the corrugated metal door to the unit, the heat hit me like a jet of focused steam. It was about 10 degrees hotter than the air outside, meaning probably around 130 degrees. The interior of the unit smelled like the life I'd left behind had been stewing in there, swelling, concentrating its deadly negativity until the day I returned. The heat hated me. It burst out of the unit with the full force of everything I'd tried to escape five years ago when I packed away my family heirlooms and fled to England. I got heat stroke trying in vain to clear the unit out. I had apocalyptic nightmares for a week. At one point, I came close to cardiac arrest. Heat stroke is a horrible experience that you will not understand unless you go through it. Most people know about the dehydration, the dry fever, the organ dysfunction, the nausea and delirium. But nobody talks about the dreams.
The dreams are the worst. Dreams of my mother in her coffin. Dreams of a highway on fire. Dreams of whips and murder and eels swimming through flooded streets. Sheets of rain. A pastiche of all the dystopian science fiction I've read as my brain simmered in its fluids. I lay on my back in a dark hotel room across from the Fresno airport, sobbing and mumbling, wracked with chest pain, the ice packs on my crotch and under my arms melted in the sheets. That was how I spent my summer vacation. And I won't be returning to the San Joaquin Valley. Ever.
Fresno is an octopus. Have family there and you'll get pulled back into it again and again. I've come to expect it. But the heat stroke felt intentional somehow, the way a sense of bad blood lingers in an attic or basement. You avoid the place not for being old and dusty but because it holds family resentment and ill will like a fucked-up time capsule. Open it and you get to experience a potent condensed version of that nastiness all over again. When I left, there was no love lost between my father and me. There still isn't. Now he lives in Texas, married to a trash fire of a woman and Hurricane Harvey's rolling in.
Since 1980, 70 tropical cyclones have hit the state of Texas. Hurricane Ike, in 2008, did the most damage at $37.6 billion and 84 documented deaths, but Hurricane Allen, in 1980, might’ve been the most intense. The biggest hurricanes are not necessarily the deadliest and last night Harvey was downgraded from category four to category one in spite of the high winds and 40 inches of rain so far. Would you believe me if I said I dreamed about it while incapacitated?
It made landfall twice last night at Corpus Christi and northeast of Copano Bay. So far, there are no reported deaths (as this is being written): though many farm animals have grown anxious, the roof of a retirement home has fallen in, and Trump is still president. So let's not get ahead of ourselves. The current public advisory at the National Hurricane Center suggests that “catastrophic flooding” is the primary danger as Harvey moves slowly over Texas. Flooding is no joke; though it doesn't have as much disaster movie of the week appeal on CNN.
Hurricanes never hit Oregon. I understand there was a lively windstorm here in 1882 that did some crop damage. And a storm with the unfortunate name, “The Olympic Blowdown of 1921,” came near hurricane force and knocked over a lot of potential lumber. But that's about it. As last year's Nobel laureate in literature once said about having dreams of WWIII, “I wouldn’t worry ’bout it none, though/They were my own dreams and they’re only in my head.” Good advice on more than one front.
Two days before I got the heat stroke, I visited my mother's grave at Saint Peter's Catholic Cemetery in south Fresno. It was 120 degrees in the afternoon, no shade, the air choked with dust and agricultural pollution from the surrounding orchards. My mother's grave was covered with dirt, and it was pretty clear that no one in my family had visited it recently, maybe not once in the years I'd been living in England.
After her death in 2009, everyone got ugly. And those who'd managed to summon up the bare minimum of effort to attend her funeral fled back to their bolt-holes, to booze and their provincial San Joaquin Valley racism and to the petty obsessions that keep them distracted as time goes by.
It's a simple granite slab, my mom's full name chiseled in beside a minimalist crucifix. I cleaned her flat headstone, left some pale yellow flowers and a jade Feng Shui circlet bound in red twine. For a while, the circlet could rest on her grave. It seemed like a good thing, something she'd like. I had no doubt that someone would eventually steal it, the flowers, too—maybe some kid wandering around while his family had a graveyard picnic. They do that on weekends in Fresno.
They also have car washes to pay for funerals and the local Costco has a kiosk where you can buy lowrider-shaped coffins. The Industrial Growth Society told us we were going to live forever at Walmart and Costco. Now your kid wants a new phone you can get it all done in one trip. Put grandpa in the Cadillac coffin made in Madera from cast-off VW parts. He didn't drive a Cadillac, but whatever. These are days of miracle and wonder, and a little hurricane blows in everybody's heart.
There's a plot beside her for my dad but he may have chosen to forget all about that. He's doing his best to forget my mother ever existed. The same way he left her paintings out in the rain. The same way he rewrote the history of our sad beleaguered family after she died, presenting himself in the best possible light as the grand benefactor who saved everyone. Except nobody got saved but him.
Like my friend, James, my mother was a serious artist. I preserved a few of her paintings, put them in the storage unit along with the family photos that would’ve gone to the dump if my wife and I hadn't run a stealthy rescue operation during one of the saddest weeks of my life.
Before the heat stroke got its claws fully in, I managed to remove a few of those things from the storage unit. Among them were items James once taught me how to preserve when we sat in an all-night diner in Austin, talking about art and life, wolves, and why he'd quit being a chef. I remember that conversation the way I remember a good novel, because it mattered to me then and still does. Last week, I wrote him an email, probably the last one I'll write.
So this must be paradise. If it's anywhere, isn't it here? Then again, it seems that paradise must never be where you are. I worry that it must always be on the horizon, always just out of reach. If you think you've found it, you're probably mistaken. You're not paying attention or you're lost, dreaming, already dead. Lately, I've been asking myself whether I'm any of these, whether I really did die back in Fresno when I opened up the family storage unit and felt death pass by.
My in-laws, the nicest people I've ever met, feed me and make coffee. They're interested in my writing and sympathetic to my state of perpetual freelancing and underemployment. They tell me I can stay as long as I like. But a death's head rises over the landscape of my dreams, and I know I don't belong in Oregon.
Yogi and lucid dream expert, Tony Crisp, writes that a hurricane dream “can indicate many things; approaching danger, frenzied emotions; feeling as if all power has been taken from you and you are tossed around by forces you have no control over; an overwrought and tormented mind; or even excitement at some passionate and exciting experience.” That sounds about right.
I sense friends, relatives, my entire history slipping back down the coast toward the inferno of Fresno, which means “ash tree” in Spanish or just “ash.” I feel toxic, radioactive, like I don't deserve the simple kindness of my wife's family, like my nightmares, my bad memories, the heat-stroke waves still coming out of my body, might ignite in my sleep and burn the house down. These feelings aren't going away. It's hurricane season. And maybe this isn't paradise after all.