There was no transition from the hot breath of the Upper Sonoran Desert to the coastal plains. Not for me or my brother or my sister. One moment, my parents were married and living west of Palm Springs. The next they were not, and one was in Santa Barbara.
My parents’ battles and divorce had been dramatic. But to be plunked down down in Santa Barbara for a six-week summer visit, however full of emotional undercurrents, was still a relief. An arid land by the sea is a different thing. From my mother’s house, we stared down the slopes at gray whales spouting along their migratory highway, the Santa Barbara Channel. Islands, San Miguel, Anacapa and Santa Cruz, reared from the mists. Kelp cutters slid by, harvesting seaweed for the likes of salad dressing, a practice no longer allowed.
In the higher moments, I rode a bicycle down a steep curving road into the center of Santa Barbara. Where there were museums. Multiple, that is to say many individual, movie theaters. Concert halls and playhouses. All in a provincial town that couldn’t classify as a city. Faux Spanish colonial architecture quickly assembled and reassembled after an earthquake leveled the place in the 1920s, created real charm. As did the palm trees. And the bougainvillea. And California’s largest figtree, one of Santa Barbara’s proud curiosities.
We, the desert visitors, quickly settled into a routine. My brother and I went to the beach daily. In the afternoons my sister and I played tetherball. There was frequent pizza. Many things were cool, let us say. Let us not say too much, on this occasion, about the summer when a living room dispute about putting boys’ feet on a coffee table precipitated a painful and sudden return to the desert. No, we’re talking about another, better time.
This was the time that I was dispatched on a mission. At 13 years old, I was ready for serious adult work. Home life had prepared me for this. Successful completion of a sortie could pay off handsomely in terms of respect, regard, and maybe even love. Or so I calculated. Which is why I listened attentively to my father’s instructions. My mother had some property that did not belong to her. It was his, really. My mission: retrieve it. Capture the booty and return it to its rightful owner.
Even then, in early adolescence, I understood the dubious moral underpinnings of my father’s request. The parents’ divorce, never really settled, was re-fought several times in court over the years. Their settlement, quite simple in legal terms, obsessed my father, and I knew far too much about it. Nevertheless, I got used to being an agent of one parent or the other. There seemed no choice in the matter of object retrieval. I was living with my father, after all. His camp was my camp. His mission was my mission.
I knew the booty in question. Crystal goblets, colored glass on top, clear stems below. They were probably German. And they were probably from my father’s parents. They were also probably covered in the divorce agreement as being household property, the latter being divided however it was divided. Why else ask a 13-year-old boy to sneak into your ex-wife’s garage and steal them?
Which I did. I’m not sure why my mother had things like this stored in her garage. Perhaps there wasn’t room in the house. Perhaps she didn’t want them. Perhaps they had bad memories. I suspect it was something fairly practical. She had moved from a big house to a smaller one. So some of her goods sat in boxes. And the goblets? The crystal cups with their jewel-like patterns? I had seen them. Sitting in some carton. I knew where they were.
So it really wasn’t much of a chore to enter the garage one day when my mother wasn’t home, grab them, and spirit them away. Thing is, I can’t recall where I packed them. Presumably in my suitcase. But wouldn’t my mother see these when I packed to go home? I can’t recall this either.
If there was a hitch, it was simply this. The goblets were just big enough to require several trips. I knew that breaking them was unthinkable. So I took them, one at a time. For added stealth, I spaced my thefts over several days.
My mother’s pet cat was an extremely independent being. It came and went. And unlike my childhood dog, it did not respond to calls. Nor did it seem to want to be petted. So I never developed much of a relationship with it. The cat was mostly outside, Santa Barbara being a paradise for any mammal. And except for the occasional disappearance of cat food in the kitchen or the back porch, the existence of this pet might seem dubious.
This cat – you can see that I can’t recall its name – must have been missing a couple of days. I recall that my mother was concerned. But the cat had a habit of wandering off for periods. In fact, the cat was not much on my mind when I made my third or fourth daylight robbery in the garage. And I saw it, lying on its side, rigid and immobile. Was it the cat’s open eyes that spoke of death? How did I know that it was not sleeping? Perhaps I didn’t. I prodded the cat with something, perhaps a broom. It was not only rigid, but stiffened into the concrete floor. Something had to be done.
What happened next may be bound up in the theft of the goblets. But actually I doubt this. The carton from which the crystal disappeared was out of reach, not to mention out of sight. Nothing about a dead cat would send my mother on a hunt for goblets. No, I made this decision on my own. Something had to be done. And why this something had to be done by me…well, it just isn’t clear.
I took it upon myself to remove the dead cat. I did have the thought of burying it. But with my boy’s strength, digging in Santa Barbara’s clay soil, the stuff used to build adobe bricks for the Spanish colonial mission…just wasn’t feasible. Still, I knew that burying was the right thing. The wrong thing was to take a shovel, scoop the carcass off the concrete garage floor, and place it in the trash. This is what I did.
It remains a mystery, this whole episode. After all, if I was paranoid about the goblets, why not move the cat to the back yard? I could have “discovered” the body there. Anywhere. And everyone could have been included in the experience. And I could have been freed from something of a burden. Handling a death, a small part of the family, but a part…on my own. That I was handling so much on my own seems clear today. Too much, of course. And did I ever tell my mother about th dead cat? No, I think not.
Shortly before my parents’ divorce, my mother was backing her car down our gravel drive and ran over a small puppy. Our puppy had been sleeping behind the tire. I remember her crying, the puppy’s body on the front seat of her Chevrolet. I also remember my father telling me she had done it deliberately. Who could be trusted, who knew the truth, where death came from…all of these questions weighed me down like a convict’s chains. A couple of years later, my brother’s newly acquired puppy wandered into some bamboo behind my father’s office…and never emerged. Puppies got lost. Love objects came and went. I can remember my brother crying.
In Santa Barbara, we spent the days, almost all of them, at a beach state park. There was lots of life. Once or twice I saw a stingray flapping beneath me in the surf. One summer, I found a sand crab the size of my fist. Of course, it was a boy’s fist. Still, it was big enough.