From across the river the view of Mare Island is dominated
by many antique cranes that used to lift the battleships and submarines
into the dry dock. The Navy is gone now, the shipyard deserted. Save
the cranes, they say, the people of Vallejo. (They don’t mean
the birds, they mean the machines.) They want to prevent them from
being removed because they’re used to seeing the huge old things
poking up along the skyline when they walk along the pathway between
the marina green and the Mare Island River. They’ve come to
love the cranes’ unnatural beauty. But the cranes sit idle,
their cables dangling uselessly, the empty operator compartments
(built like small A-frame houses) reflecting sunlight off their little
windows, 40 feet above the ground. The Navy pulled off the island
many years ago and left it all as it was—equipment, historic
industrial buildings, bomb shelters, elegant Victorian homes once
inhabited by officers—as if they’d forgotten why they
ever needed it.
are also those who want to save the sandhill cranes. The wetlands
by the river provide an excellent flyway for egrets and finches and
coots and yellow-rumped warblers. Developers always want to encroach.
Across the river from where the old battleship Tripoli is docked
is a neighborhood called Burnham Hill. There is a nest of egrets
in a large buckeye tree on Baxter Street. Most people don’t
notice these egrets because they fly in and out at dusk and at night.
winds its way up the hill, lined with cute but plain houses built
in the early 1940s for the low-ranking officers. A bird’s-eye
view reveals old junk in some of the backyards—dead washing
machines and old car engines, also some clothes drying on clotheslines.
A few nicely manicured gardens can be seen here and there, and even
a swimming pool or two, the water gleaming blue. There are crows
in the neighborhood now. There never used to be crows; they showed
up in the ’80s. There is a crow right now on the roof of 216
Baxter Street pecking at a dusty old one-legged teddy bear. A little
girl was throwing the bear up in the air one day to see if she could
make it fly. But she threw it up carelessly, and it landed on the
roof. She’s forgotten about it now. It can’t be seen
from the yard, so her stepfather hasn’t removed it yet. He
will notice it in the fall when he cleans the gutters to prepare
for the winter rains. He’ll throw it in the trash. But for
now the passive teddy bear bakes in the summer sun, allowing the
crow to pull out its stuffing there on the rooftop, where the black
shingles absorb the midday light.
house is painted a very practical shade of dull gray-blue and is
beginning to peel a little. Two crayon drawings are taped to the
front picture window, one of a Ferris wheel ridden by huge-headed
people, and the other with bold, jagged, brightly colored strokes,
perhaps an abstract. While the front yard is tidy, the lawn has been
allowed to brown in the hot, dry weather. Around the side of the
house, a small octagonal window looks into the living room, where
two brown-skinned girls are lounging around with drooping eyelids.
The eleven-year-old is sitting on the couch, reading a book of Snoopy
cartoons. Above her head is a painting of a sunset with a flock of
Canada geese flying above a lake in a “V” formation.
Her younger sister kneels on the carpeted floor, singing soft, steady
high notes directly into a portable fan. The fan is set on high speed.
She wants to hear her voice flutter off the spinning blades. It makes
her giggle. It’s the end of the heat wave, but in the house
it’s still 92 degrees. Soon the trusty fog, looking like a
blanket of cotton, will roll through the Golden Gate, and the cool
air will travel the 32 miles to Vallejo.
gonna get me a lime Popsicle,” sings the kneeling girl. Her
shiny black hair floats behind her in the artificial wind. Teresa
is her name, short for Teresita.
aren’t any lime Popsicles,” says the older sister, Lindsey. “There
aren’t any any kinda Popsicles. Ruben ate them all.”
sucks in a deep breath and screeches out a deafening high note. Lindsey
puts her hands over her ears and yells, “Stop!”
up in there, you kids,” their mother calls from the porch. “It’s
too hot for all that screaming.” She sits on an aluminum lawn
chair and peels a mound of potatoes, plopping them one by one in
a huge pot of water. Her hair is parted all the way down the back
of her head, the two halves bundled into twin ponytails. With bangs
in front, the hairstyle is oddly girlish; she is otherwise tall,
sturdy and womanly.
doesn’t make a person hotter,” Teresa proclaims as if
it were a scientifically proven fact.
sass me or I’ll come in there and whoop your butts.”
calls out, “I didn’t do anything.”
shut up then and go outside and play or something. Yeah—go
play in traffic.”
gets up from the couch and goes out on the porch. “What if
we really did go out and play in traffic? What if we got hit by a
you’re not really going to do it, are you? You’re not
about Teresa? She might.”
smart as a whip and you know it.”
it could happen. Teresa could go out and get run over, and a tire
could roll over her and crush her skull into a big mush and—”
enough of that kind of talk.”
about your kind of talk?”
for Pete’s sake—Teresa, come out here.”
trots out to where her mom is sitting and, for a moment, watches
her busy hands, wet from the potatoes and with pieces of potato skin
stuck to her fingers. Teresa has the urge to feel those hands around
her shoulders. Instead, she settles for cozying up next to her mom
and pushes against the side of her, feeling her firm, fleshy warmth.
Barbara turns in her chair and stares at her, first looking down
her nose and then cocking her head with a little frown, as if trying
to get a better sense of her youngest daughter. She wipes her hands
on the towel draped over her shoulder and then puts her palm under
Teresa’s chin and squeezes her pink, round cheeks until her
you going to run out into traffic on account of what I said?”
twists her head out of her mother’s grasp with an incredulous
turns to Lindsey. “See? This kid knows the difference between
serious and kidding around. Maybe she even has more sense than you.”
out of Popsicles,” Teresa complains.
pulls two dollars from her jeans pocket. “Go down the Food
Mart and get yourself one.”
grabs the bills and skips down the walkway to the sidewalk as Lindsey
turns to go back in the house.
calls after Lindsey. “Hold on there, little missy. Where you
think you’re going?”
read my book.”
you’re not. You’re taking your little sister to the store.
What do you think—she’s going by herself?”
Baxter Street is straight, it goes up and down like a roller coaster.
On one of the crests, the hazy silhouette of Mount Tamalpais is visible
far away in Marin County. As the two sisters walk down into one of
the little dips in the road, they pass by a rust-stained yellow house
with a gutter hanging down. Lindsey looks warily at the front steps
to see if a certain man is sitting there. She doesn’t like
it when he’s there. He’s a big Mexican with a droopy
double chin, and he always watches her, following her movements through
slit eyes as she walks by. She knows that he thinks they are Mexicans
too, and she’d like to set him straight. Yes, their name is
Rosales, but they’re only a quarter Mexican.
time he called out to her, “Hey you!” but she ran past
him. She ran all the way to the top of the next crest before she
looked back. But he hadn’t followed her. That night, as she
tried to fall asleep, she imagined what might happen the next time
she went past him. As she lay there with her eyes closed, she saw
herself walking along past that house. It’s very quiet. She’s
minding her own business … when all of a sudden, the Mexican
lunges for her before she can get past. He grabs her skinny arms
so tight she can’t get loose. And then he pushes her down on
the ground and sits on her to keep her still. And his awful body
is so fat she can’t move and all her breath is gone. Then he
gets up and lifts her up like a sack of potatoes and carries her
into the house where there’s hardly any light and the walls
are dripping with rusty water. And his old grandma sits in the corner
with big, blind eyes all milked over and useless, and she wants to
know what’s going on, hearing Lindsey screaming and all. Then
he puts her down in a kitchen chair, and he ties her up tight and
makes her watch him as he squashes cockroaches on the kitchen table
and then sprinkles them on a plate of spaghetti. Then he eats the
spaghetti, sucking up the long pasta into his mouth with red sauce
splattering all around. “What now?” his grandma keeps
saying, and he has to explain everything as he goes along: “Now
I’m tying her up. Now I’m making her watch me eat roach
spaghetti. Now I’m smearing grease on her hair.” And
the grandma cackles like a haggy old witch …
today, as she and her sister walk along the shimmering hot street,
the man isn’t there. Lindsey lets herself relax a little. She
looks over and watches Teresa goofily swinging her arms as she walks,
not a care in the world.
about to head down Hitchborn Street toward the river when they see
their stepdad’s car turn the corner toward them. Ruben is propped
up in his child seat in the back and has a big white bandage on his
forehead. Carl slows to around three miles an hour and rolls down
the window. He rests his elbow on the door, leans his head out the
window, gives each girl a questioning smile. “What’s
a mostly unruffleable man, his thinning, dark-blond hair combed back
and slicked down. On the rare occasion when he does get mad, his
ears turn pink.
girls are walking backward on tiptoe, trying to get a better look
at Ruben’s white bandage. He looks sleepy but perks up at the
sight of his sisters.
Carl. “He doesn’t care. I saw the whole thing happen
and he barely cried—what a kid!”
the girls have turned around and are running to keep up with the
car as Carl slowly accelerates.
what happened?” asks Lindsey.
glances at the road in front of him, then turns back to his stepdaughters. “Got
kicked in the head at soccer practice.” He chuckles at them
as he hits the gas. Ruben cranes his neck to see them through the
and Teresa stop running and stare at the car until it disappears
beyond the ridge.
Sadiki from Pakistan owns the Food Mart. He only has a few strands
of black hair left on top of his head, but his remaining hair is
always shaggy because he hates to pay the barber. And his gold-rimmed
glasses are very old and always a little crooked. One of his employees
is a huge guy named Jessie with a dragon tattooed on the side of
his shaved head. He belongs to a Harley motorcycle club called the
Moon Riders. They look like Hells Angels, but Kamal heard about how
the club sponsors a toy collection drive for needy kids every December
at the Harley-Davidson dealership. Kamal thinks Jessie is a tough-looking
character. He hired him in hopes that robbers would think twice.
though, Jessie has taken the day off to go to a wedding, so Kamal
is behind the counter when the two girls walk in.
Mood Fart,” is Teresa’s greeting as they pass the counter.
Food Mart!” Kamal admonishes, waving his fist at them. “Not
Mood Fart!” His scowl is convincing, but the girls know he
is playing along with the joke.
they study the bubble gum selection, Kamal goes to organize some
cereal boxes. A man with a ponytail and a thin moustache that looks
like eyeliner comes through the door. He immediately walks behind
the counter and grabs a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. Kamal looks
up just in time.
What are you doing? You can’t go behind there.”
man comes out as Kamal runs over and says, “That bottle is
$9.99.” He returns to his position behind the counter.
bucks?” says the man. “I ain’t paying ten bucks.”
me the bottle back,” Kamal demands and holds out his hand.
stealing it.” The man holds it up out of Kamal’s reach.
it back.” The sweat is beginning to drip down his cheek.
man stuffs the half-pint bottle into his pants and puts his hands
on the counter. “What are you gonna to do about it?”
two girls peer over the top of the candy aisle to see what’s
happening. Lindsey is beginning to feel the hair tingle on her scalp.
tries to stare the man down, but it doesn’t work.
know you have a gun behind that counter. You gonna pull it out? Huh?
Let’s go, man. I’ll pull mine out too.”
image of the man shooting her and her little sister flashes in Lindsey’s
mind. She desperately wants to run out the door, but that would mean
going by the counter. She grabs Teresa by the arm and pulls her behind.
Walking backward, they slowly move to the far corner of the store
where the beer is lined up in a refrigerator. They crouch down and
pull it out?”
studies him for a moment. Then he suddenly reaches down and pulls
out a bat. He waves it around, his eyes popping like a baseball-playing
smash your head! Give me that bottle or I kill you!” His English
man backs away slightly and laughs. “No gun, huh? Here’s
your bottle.” He pulls it out and lets it drop on the floor
and shatter. Then he walks out. Kamal goes to the door, still waving
come in my store again, I kill you! I kill you!”
girls slowly venture back up the aisle and peer around the corner.
The man is gone, and Kamal, still holding the bat, is staring down
at the broken bottle. When he sees the girls’ frightened faces
peering out, he gasps.
“OK! Everything fine, you see?” His eyes,
however, are darting around nervously, and his hands are shaking. “Kamal
take care of it. No problem. You come to my store, you not be afraid.
Unconvinced, they walk past him, stepping around the
reeking spilled liquor. At the doorway they see another man standing
outside, looking in. Lindsey recognizes the fat Mexican from the
rusty house. She and Teresa eye him warily and give him a wide berth
as they exit. In turn, he offers them each a menacing grin.
Lindsey wonders if the Mexican is friends with the
robber guy. She’s worried they will try to rob her and Teresa
on the way home. Does he really have a gun? If he tries to shoot
us, will we be able to duck behind a car so the bullets ricochet
off it? Will we be able to escape? Do they know where we live?
The girls run out of the parking lot, past a dirty
cellophane wrapper on the asphalt that flies up into the air in a
circle and then floats slowly back to the ground. A seagull walks
over to it and pecks at the leftover sugar. As the wind picks up,
it means the cool air from the Golden Gate is finding its way to