Our landing at LAX, engines cut back, little descents I felt on occasion in my privates, commenced somewhere over Las Vegas and ended with a smooth glide in. Five and a half hours was a long time for me to sit anywhere then. At the terminal, August in Los Angeles was August in Boston. But standing with our bags at the curb, waiting for my California aunt to arrive, taxis idling close by, I’d soon see the difference.
My father was a dealer, a used-car dealer, back in New Bedford. He’d built a place of business from the cellar of a Clarks Cove house and small yard. The cellar, just a hole in the ground after the hurricane of ’38, my father had filled, shovel by shovelful, with dirt he’d hauled from the dump. He’d blacktopped the “lot,” as we called it, and had installed, on cinder blocks, a shack he’d bought from a Cove clammer named Manny. My father had put that shack on cinder blocks so there could be an “entrance,” he said. For ten years, he’d made enough to keep my mother and me, and for this trip now to California.
I’d grown up around cars. I knew every model of every ’50s car built by Chrysler, Ford, GM. I could, for instance, distinguish between a ’49 and ’50 Chevy — the different chevron on the trunk and the hubcaps — or the ’52 and ’53 Caddy — the ’53 had a chrome plate there, with a gold company insignia.
But there was one car, one Caddy to be exact, I’d never seen. That was the Eldorado. The Cadillac Eldorado. I remember when I first heard the name, I’d looked up the word. “Eldorado: An imaginary place in South America, full of gold.” Well, that’s what I saw down from us, from my father and me, there by the curb at LAX. It was a gold 1957 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, of course top down. A man my size, crewcut and blond too, shuffled back past the trunk, touching it the way, to calm her, you’d touch the rump of a horse. A woman with luggage waited by the open passenger door. Devoted fans of Wanted: Dead or Alive, my father and I recognized Steve McQueen.
By the time my aunt picked us up, my vision of Steve McQueen had dimmed into the fuzz of fatigue that, by 8:00 p.m., we carried with our baggage. My aunt Elizabeth was full of excuses. But it was too late for excuses, and my father barely kissed her on the cheek. I remember the nighttime ride up the highway — cliffs on the right and, on the left, the sound of big waves. I sat in the back seat of that ’59 Ford Fairlaine. This aunt of mine had money, and the Ford, at least in the back seat, smelled new.
I still don’t know where Oxnard is. Seventy miles north sticks in my mind. Those were long, dark miles. I remember the choice my father had to make that night. My aunt suggested we sleep in either her trailer — she owned a big trailer park with two swimming pools — or in a room she had vacant at their “on property” motel. God, I wanted that privacy. I mean, of the motel room. But my father accommodated his sister. (She, of course, wanted the money from renting out that room.) We bedded down in her trailer — the “parlor” section — on a fold-down bed. My father smoked a Chesterfield, quickly, drawing hard. I remember his boxer shorts and his sleeveless T-shirt. Then, after the snap-out lamp, his too-soon snoring. Christ, I thought, and lay there, fingers twined behind my head, elbows up, looking into the trailer ceiling, hearing the toilet flush down toward a light.
There was a truism back East that California wasn’t as swell as advertised. No one I knew had ever been to California. But everyone knew someone who had. Invariably, that someone had been disappointed. Sure, the money’s okay, so the story would go — the someone had always left the East for a big assembly-line salary in the aircraft factories — but who wants to live in a place with no seasons, where the weather’s monotonous, sunny day after sunny day?
Well, I remember that first morning, first sunrise, me kneeling on my pillow, arms spread on the little sill beneath the trailer’s rear window. I’d never seen a sky like that in my life. I couldn’t see the horizon, and the sun had yet to clear a warehouse named Venox. But already the sky over Venox was rose, actually rose colored, and above a clear line of demarcation, still the nighttime blue. Just beyond my aunt’s Ford lay a swimming pool, shaped like a kidney, pink-bottomed with layer-cake stairs. My father rested easy, over on his side, toward the wall. This was California, right? I’d go for a swim.
In my New Bedford city-issue lifeguard trunks, black nylon, styled on boxer shorts, about the size of my heavyweight father’s underwear, I ambled out of the trailer. The Senior Lifesaving Red Cross badge my mother had sewn onto the left thigh had looked impressive when I’d packed. Now, under this strange and beautiful sky, it mattered hardly at all.
I eased myself into the chilly pool. The steps were slimy, sure, and the skimmers, either clogged or turned off, had left a smelly film. But pushing off toward the deep end, I used a side stroke I wouldn’t be caught dead doing in public — can you imagine a lifeguard not swimming the crawl? Over my summer-tan shoulder, I watched the light blue water skim by. Then I floated, arms spread, palms turned up the way you’re supposed to, and looked up and wondered.
My father was not a big man. Nor did he photograph well. And now, looking at the photos my aunt took of us that morning, I can see why. My father grew up in the ’20s, was young in the Depression, worked as a loom fixer with a wife and kid all during the war. All his life, my father wished he could laugh out with ease, embrace the shoulders of a friend, enjoy himself hugged roughly. My father tried, all his life, to delight in what he’d paid for, to relish good luck, to go nuts at bad. He had an appetite, my father. But only at home, with my mother and me at the kitchen table. There he’d eat his codfish soup, his top round stew, my Polish mother’s specialties: gaumkies (stuffed cabbages), pirogues (cheese pillows, deep fried). But in a restaurant, he ate silently. A cigarette always going, his utensils placed with care, his lips pinched chewing even pudding. Under the pressure of the camera, my father couldn’t smile. He could sneer, grimace, say cheese. But his blue eyes, so deep set that for years I thought they were brown, seemed always out of focus.