From Here On: Four Sunday Drives
Part III: Corn Camp Road
By Don Thompson - Buttonwillow, California, USA - 15 May 2016
You know what to expect from the sun,
already so vehement
early in the morning early in August
it can singe hair
on the cracked-leather back of your neck.
Otherwise, old man, your crepe skin
has been so thinned by meds
that a scratch bleeds like a gash.
Only literally thin-skinned, though,
you're neither on edge
nor easily offended anymore,
whose passions have turned to gristle;
whose thoughts have been fully rendered
this late in life,
left so long in so many summer fires
that only perseverance remains
to scrape burnt to a crust
This month tests us all.
Nietzschean will shimmers in the heat,
priests curse their collars,
and beer brawls break out in the park.
Every August staunch widows die
when their A/C goes down.
Sirens chafe us all night;
and at dawn, cops come home exhausted
to wives who want a divorce.
Therefore, hold on,
even though nothing you need
remains within reach.
Persist without an assigned task,
wear down your weariness
and abide; wait it out;
stand firm: endure:
endure to the end:
hic salvus erit.
West on decrepit Main Street
past empty storefronts suffering
from dementia, glass
cataract-blurred by dirt
and fingerprints from decades ago;
ghost signs so faded on brick walls
no one can guess
what they keep trying to say.
On out of town and past
the post-war, classic California ranch houses
(low and wide with deep eaves
obfuscating shuttered windows)
built by arriviste Italian immigrant farmers
during cotton's long dominion;
houses where their wives survived
speaking no more English than the cats,
and somehow wound down
at less than the speed of time, diehards
cloistered in their shadowy solariums.
And then west another mile or so
before turning onto Corn Camp Road
where one field has been abandoned,
overgrown with desiccated scrub—
unexpectedly handsome in gamboge,
burnt umber and khaki weeds,
or undecided between gray and brown
like mourning doves.
Even the leaves
of the lean mesquite, its branches
a snarl of galvanized wire,
are more gray than green.
But the next field, privileged
with costly, imported water,
flourishes, knee-deep in alfalfa
mowed and baled less than a month ago.
Hundreds of jittery moths
celebrate its eudemonia
just across the ditch from desert.
And above both fields
-- both alive --
you notice a thin cloud
of vultures: witnesses
rather than scavengers,
looking down on moths, on doves
with their vox humana,
on us, and on the blackbirds,
just as troubled as we are,
packed into their own cumulonimbus.
Legends ignore time -- or try to,
although nothing discourages it in the least,
as if with case-hardened, glinting chisels
to chip more and more plaster
from these walls...
The Burnt School provides no dark niche
for ghosts to shelter in
all the interminable day:
The sun would salt them like slugs.
And even on moonlit nights
when moths working the graveyard shift
glimmer above the fields
like ignes fatui,
these three walls cast no shadows
deep enough to hide them.
Therefore the ghosts haunt your mind,
now and then drifting out
into peripheral vision
where you can almost see them,
unless you look.
But the dead are too quick.
And the actual fire?
Maybe a pot-bellied stove
seduced a curtain;
or it could have been ignited
by the custodian's foolish inner child
juggling hot coals;
by an unrepentant third grader
in the closet, obsessed
with proto-erotic match flame;
by a Basque sheepherder,
whispering French smut
into the teacher's ear after school,
who flicked a butt in the wastebasket;
or by the wind, possibly,
complicit in so much malfeasance,
tipping over a candle
lit to commemorate Santa Lucia.
Silence accumulates in these ruins,
so intense it precludes
even written words,
keeping vandals at a distance,
intimidated: no graffiti.
But purple thistle, relentless,
scribbles along the margins of the road
an ill-tempered gloss,
its usual prickly disrespect
for anyone who passes by.
Spinas et tribulas germinabit tibi.
Roads around here stick to business,
strictly north-south, east-west,
as if laid out on the earth
with a straight edge --
no nuance, no nonsense
about following contours:
Our pioneers imposed their will,
convinced that civilization
exists only on a grid.
But this road, Main Drain, maunders --
an exception, intersecting
Corn Camp at an impromptu angle
and then looping back north,
aimless and serpentine,
acceding to the eccentricities
of an old canal
that traces its ancestry
back to an aboriginal slough.
This road turns two, easy crow miles
into ten, all curves.
Something about that offends us,
and a few stubborn drivers
have died here, refusing
to slow down
for mountain switchbacks
on such level land.
West again at a country store,
ramshackle survivor of oil gluts
and plow-down crop prices,
its walls crusted with beer posters
Fieldhands and roustabouts still stop
for black sunrise coffee,
for an afternoon Bud.
But in less than a mile,
you shirk the quotidian,
turn south onto a dirt track,
and let dust cloud behind you
like angry wasps.
Buena Vista Slough drains the overflow
of one nonexistent lake
up the Valley to another --
beyond Lost Hills
where someone (but who?)
left Maria alone
and dead in its grubby thickets.
Here you see only desolation:
mummified willows that might
or might not come back to life
when rain finally breaks the curse;
tule reeds drier than raffia hair
on African devil masks.
Arid wetland, enduring
four dry seasons again this year,
hope withering in its roots,
nevertheless the slough knows how
to wait --
an almost lost art.
So you stop, willing to learn,
shut off the engine,
and listen to insects hum largo
the most placid tune you'll ever hear
while sunlight bears down,
determined to stifle them,
and not far off, running
parallel to this anachronism,
the deep, concrete California Aqueduct,
brimful of captive water,
flows the last hundred miles
south to Babylon...
All at once from the brush,
clattering in brittle grass
behind a gray, recumbent trunk,
an egret ascends -- slowly,
as if weighed down
by our burdens,
glistering the pure whiteness
all other whites in this world
an ordinary bird transfigured,
vestimenta sunt alba sicut nix.
Holding your breath,
astonished and blessed
by its impossible, awkward grace,
you want to grab those dangled legs
and rise with it...
The track narrows from here on.
You straddle axle-cracking ruts
and hear branches screech: fingernails
reaching out to scratch paint
and lacerate nerves.
But slow down, be patient,
and their animus will become a harsh caress
that urges you on until
you jolt back to the asphalt again,
just beyond Corn Camp,
a few unhindered miles from home.