Canyon Sketches

Excerpts from a longer work:

The Canyon Sketches
(An Irreverent History)


The community where I grew up (Harbison Canyon) was very small: about 150 families and less than 500 people. Though situated just 25 miles from the West Coast of California and, perhaps, 20 miles from the Mexican border as the crow flies, it contained most of the elements that make American rural life so enduring: family, friends and neighbors – even if “family” was nothing more binding than being friends and neighbors to each other. These sketches are remembrances of a time when “all-the-world” (limited to my inexperience,) was new and fresh, and when life held infinite possibilities. It was the only point in my life that even Time itself grew sweeter by the day while bitterness was measured by the mere moment.
I was one of those children slow to begin reading. But once I got the hang of it, I streaked ten and more years ahead of my age group. I don’t know if this is reflective of the work that follows, but like the tale of “The Hare and the Tortuous,” I fear I may now be years or decades behind my college graduated, more educated peers.
During the middle grades of my elementary education, “Dick and Jane” were left far in the past as Cervantes, Cooper, Dickens, Dumas, Hawthorn, Hugo, Irving, Kipling, Shakespeare, Stevenson, Tennyson, and Twain split equal times with Mad magazine.
I hope this work approaches the standards of the latter.

Introduction: The Community where I Grew up
Prolog: It’s so Sad about Pathos
1: Forgotten Birthdays
2: All the Things that Nibbles Ate
3: Jesus Christ on a Tote Goat
4: Donkey Balls
5: The Goat Lady
6: The Thing that Ate Nibbles
7: Cut Corners
8: Auntie with the White Hair
9: Sink or Swim
10: Charlie “Butt Lips” Schneider
11: Animal Veiney (Anna Mulvaney)
12: The Gardener
13: One Little Indian
14: We’re Depressed
15: Dogs (and Pussies,) Galore
16: You ain’t Bad -- just Criminal
17: Daddy got paid to Cuss!
Epilog: They’re only Words


It’s so Sad about Pathos

My daddy died when I was quite young; and most of what I saw is remembered through the eyes of a child learning colors, shapes, numbers, letters, reading, basic arithmetic, the difference between the black and white keys on our upright piano, all the books of the Bible (in order,) how to tie my shoes and work my buttons and zippers and, later, how to work the machine that helped him breathe.
Too, I found out which pills Daddy couldn’t have at the same time while Mama was at the store – even if he yelled at me to “get in here you god-damned little bastard.” Sometimes, while Mama was at the store or down to the church at quilting bee, I think Daddy wanted me to bring both pills to him because he wanted to die.
I loved my daddy (and I still do,) but lots of times, back then, he frightened me.
At about age eight or nine, Mama showed me how to shoot Daddy in the ass. During his bad times at the end, I sometimes shot him three or four times in the same day. I learned to boil and sterilize with alcohol the equipment, and how to inject the same amount of air into the inverted bottle as the amount of drugs that were supposed to come out. He would climb from bed and stand with his right hand braced against the wall, and then he’d lean forward. He’d cover his forehead with his left forearm, and the hand on that arm, after it pulled down the back of his shorts, would form and reform a silent fist.
But the worst times, he retched too, wordless, as I double-thumb-pushed a near full glass syringe of red Vitamin B-12 deep into the muscle of his bottom. Dumb tears slid and fell from his cheeks. After, I cried also. I knew I’d hurt my Daddy badly. I could tell he was ashamed, and I was ashamed too, both of us forced to tears. I learned from watching him – I never cried at or after his funeral -- men don’t cry out loud.
When I’d given him his shot, he’d hug me and tell me I was “a brave little man” and that someday, when he was “better,” he’d take me fishing and camping and to see the midget racers (dirt-track racecars), along with anything else my juvenile brain saw the other daddies of my friends do. I think, now, he thought it best if Mama and me could just get on with the rest of our lives. He felt guilty for being sick and I didn’t, yet, have the social skills to ease his burden. He was frightened: an angry and shamed, unhappy invalid.

My last precious memory of my daddy was during his last spring. It was the one before my 10th birthday. Mama was gone to the store to get groceries, and I think Daddy knew his time was short: he’d be dead in less than a week. Still, he managed, while Mama was gone, to have the only father-son talk I remember in full. With my help, he sat up in bed and dressed himself. I brought him his clothes and tied his shoes for him. Then, with his hand on my shoulder and with frequent stops for him to catch his breath, we went for a walk. Mr. and Mrs. Berkabile – surprised to see Daddy out of the house -- rushed from their kitchen in greetings. They lived directly across the lane.
Mrs. Birkabile plied me with a root beer and stepped me away from Daddy while, at the same time, Mr. Birkabile gently slid his arm around Daddy and supported him all the way down to the end of our little street. Mrs. Berkabile had a beer for Daddy too, but his beer was a “Burgie” that she opened with the same church key that she’d helped me to use on my root beer. (In our neighborhood, among the adults, a “Burgermiester” was a classy beer.) They were both ice cold and foamy.
When we reached the dead end of the road, and continued on, entering our neighbor’s property, the grey haired Berkabiles walked back to their house, hand in hand. Daddy and me sat down on bench under a huge pine tree in the Robinson’s front yard.
The Robinsons were middle-aged-twin bachelor tuna fishermen, and they lived in their parent’s old house. The Widow Robinson had died a couple of years before then, so the house spent a lot of time uninhabited while the boys spent weeks at sea. After we were seated, Daddy tasted my root beer and he let me taste the bitter, (mostly foam,) of his “Burgie.” I promised to “not tell Mama.”
Then, Daddy began to talk, and what he told me is quite alike the advice given by the grandfather in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”: that too good teaser to Invisible Man. Daddy told me I’d have to deal with turds my entire life, and that I should learn to let them be turds if that was what they wanted to be. “But,” he said, I needed learn how to not be a turd, even when provoked to anger. He told me to take two or three breaths before I said a word; and then, if I couldn’t think of a single nice to say so that I could walk away feeling good inside, at least I’d have time during that third breath to get my nastiness organized. I would have time to call the turds, “Turds!” in such a way they would see themselves for what they were. He told me that if I could learn to take those “three little breaths,” just as his daddy taught him, then no one would ever answer back or rebut what I said.
Immediately, I began to blurt out a question, but Daddy softly hushed my mouth with his fingers and asked, “Did you remember?”
This time, I thought a few seconds longer, trying to put aside my question. Daddy smiled and held up three fingers, one at a time, and then I knew. So I took three exaggerated breaths and asked, with trepidation (hoping that I wouldn’t be spanked), what a “turd” really was. Daddy could cuss, and Mama too if she was really angry, but for me, it was forbidden. Daddy looked at me seriously for just a moment, then he quietly explained, “Son, a turd is just a little ball of shit.”

Chapter 1

Forgotten Birthdays

Chapter 2:
All the Things that Nibbles Ate

Chapter 13:

The garden was out of place, a cool splash of green in the middle of a semiarid scrub brush and decomposed granite community. It seemed to be heaven-on-earth, like something from a bible story or fairy tale. Mario lived there. He lacked a first, or maybe, it was a last name, unless they were “Old-man Mario” as the children called him. Their parents just called him “Mario" a touch of disdain or contempt in their voices. The garden was Mario’s; Mario was the garden’s. They were one.
He was born in Italy; an old world pagan transplanted to America when Mussolini came to power. He claimed to have been a soldier in the Italian Army. A cavalryman, back when the cavalry still rode horses. And he did know his way around a horse. He was known to have stopped a runaway, more than once, with just a motion and a gently spoken word. The horse’s terrified and under-aged rider rescued from bumps and bruises at the very least. It must have hurt him when, after the excitement was over, the children ran away. “Old-man Mario” yelled over their shoulders.

Parents tried to teach their children to fear him, probably because he ran around his property naked, garden-hose in one hand, wine bottle in the other; singing “O Sole Mio” while his peacock and money screeched and jabbered an accompaniment. He had two pets: a peacock for beauty, and a spider monkey to pick the fruit he couldn’t reach for himself. His yard was full of fruit trees. Not only regular fruit trees – it had those of course – but it had figs, persimmons, pomegranates, and star fruit, too. It had olive trees to go with the oranges, lemons, tangerines, limes and grapefruit. There were peaches, plums and a favorite: nectarines. There were grapes.

To enter the garden, a visitor had to go through one of two massive wooden gates, anchored at their ends by ten-foot high telephone poles emerging from a crushed gravel driveway. The gates and posts were covered with reliefs: Greek and Roman gods, countryside villas, nudes, and other gardens from faraway places; all hand carved and pained by Mario.

Inside the gates, the garden seemed to draw one deeper with mosaic-tiled pathways that turned and bent to and fro. The garden itself would occasionally reach out and touch – with its youngest growth. His peacock and water ran everywhere. A two-tiered circular fountain flowed into a rock-line pool drained by channels or aqueducts that spread throughout the property, watering the trees and plants. Mario recycled everything, even water, long before it became popular. There was a house there, too, but it seemed unimportant – utilitarian – painted in murals of trees and plants, jungle growth. It was clear that Mario lived in his yard. There were hammocks, and round, tile-topped tables with loaves of crusty bread and cut wheels of cheese. Sometimes there was an easel and a palette-board of paints nearby, standing by. Fruit was only an arm’s-length or a monkey away from everywhere.

And then there was Mario: short and almost always shirtless. He wore leather sandals (when not barefoot) and knee length baggy shorts. A beret rested to the side of his white head which was fronted by moustache and beard, also white, like the grizzled thatch covering his chest and little potbelly. Possessing one glass eye that irritated its empty socket, he popped the eye out from time to time and rinsed it with the hose. Or he would put it in his mouth for lubrication, much to the delight and horror of children – and adults – torn between fascination and disgust.

He bought groceries in town once a month: the first Sunday after receiving a disability check from the army. Walking everywhere using a twisted carven stick and a camper’s rucksack on his back. He wore a shirt when he walked to the grocery store. A store manager had turned him away once by saying the health code required shirts and shoes (a lie). It was twelve miles each way – to town and back – twenty-four miles round trip; and it was over a hill. He smelled of goat colon, pungent and unforgettable. Every store manager knew of him, and probably thought of him, as a stinking, randy heathen amongst Sunday churches’ finest. United States Army service, as an interpreter and firefighter during World War Two, gained him American citizenship at the cost of an eye. His service had been in Italy, the county of his birth. He wasn’t permitted to carry a weapon.
Chianti straight from the bottle was his drink of choice (other than water or goat’s milk) and the bottles in use hung from branches of fruit trees by their braided basket covers. Occasionally the monkey drank wine, too, but the monkey had been hurt swinging by the tail when drunk. After that, the monkey didn’t drink so often.
In September of 1970, San Diego was scorched by major brush fires, the likes of which had never been seen – until recently. When his community was evacuated in 1970, Mario refused to go. The sheriff’s department was sent to remove him, and it took four officers and a dog to do the job. Arrested and charged with assault on a peace officer for something he did to the law-dog after it bit him, he made bail and walked back home, through the fire, to rescue his house, his bird, and his monkey. Also rescued were two horses, a donkey, and almost a dozen family pets left behind by their frantic owners. As a result of this, the charges against “Old-man Mario” were dropped. He used a gasoline powered generator to run a pump and sprinklers from the garden’s pool, then threw wide the garden gates so the smaller animals could run inside. The horses and donkey were led through the smoke with a gunnysack of fennel (smells and tastes like licorice) over their heads. A small time hero after that, he hated it. The privacy to run drunk and naked in his own yard was highly valued my Mario. Visitors stopping by to say “Thank you” while he was nude behind the singled trees heralded the sheriff showing up shortly thereafter. The fire had thinned the obscuring growth.

He died in the late seventies (his eighties), and by that time, the neighborhood children had grown to young adulthood; the gardener’s magic long forgotten in their quests to perform grownup acts in a grownup world. Three mourners attended his funeral: his son, a daughter, and a woman he had visited periodically after the death of his wife in the 1950’s. His neighbors never knew that he had been married.

There were other things no one had known. When his property was put up for sale, out of the garage attached to his house rolled two pristine vehicles: a 1940’s Willy's Jeep and a BMVV touring car. The Jeep had been driven occasionally; the touring car, purchased new at the close of the war, was never driven after his wife died.
The garden died a little every day after the property was sold. Within three or four years the land surrounding the house was indistinguishable from the land around the surrounding houses. The garden was Mario’s and Mario was the garden’s. They were one.


L D. Welch



Canyon Sketches

Reads like a journal. I like that dad and Mario.
May Your Light Forever Shine

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