Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Devils of Bakersfield - A new Jack Liffey Novel

Decent Folk

Spin around, he thought, then open your eyes. Maybe the actors have changed, the flats depict a different scene, the props are newer, older, more chic. Context is everything. You learned your lines but you may now be Hamlet declaiming to Falstaff in a pub. Mother Courage talking to Willy Loman.

It was just a moment of alienation, really. He had them, even when he was with his daughter who tended to keep him grounded. Maybe it was the spectacle.

Powerful underwater lamps lit the steep-tumbling whitewater of the Kaweah River right below the restaurant and he could tell that a bit later on, when the last sunlight was gone, the inner-lit rapids would be a magnificent if weirdly artificial display. Now in the dusk you could still look north and make out the broken terrain of the Sierra foothills. The western slope was a gradual meandery rise to the really high peaks that were out of sight, a lot less impressive than the abrupt wall of the eastern cascade that he loved.

"Those hills out there," Maeve said, nursing her Shirley Temple or whatever they called it these days. He didn't play at pseudo cocktails himself, just asked for a ginger ale. "They look like white elephants."

Uh-oh, Jack Liffey thought. That was straight from the famously oblique Hemingway story where the dread word abortion was never mentioned. Maeve was back on task.

"I get it. But I'm not pushing you, hon," he said.

"I know," she said glumly. "You've never even stated a preference, though I know what it is."

Right then they would have been settled into a campground amid giant sequoias, having this nice father-daughter chat around a campfire, except some fatuous guru, unknown to both of them, had declared this weekend and Sequoia National Park the very date and site of a multiple harmonic convergence, whatever the hell that was, and every aging hippie on earth had flocked in to claim the camping spots and then to chant and dance and practice some fairly unmentionable behaviors. Jack Liffey and his daughter had retreated to the town of Three Rivers at the park entrance only to find that booked up, too.

"Have some Anis del Toro," Jack Liffey said. "It tastes like licorice. Everything tastes like licorice." That was from the story, too. At one point in his life he had nearly worshipped Hemingway, but like most men he had eventually backed away from all that hard-edge male sentimentality, that steeping in laconic strength, Gary Cooper on steroids.

"No fair," she said. "I didn't really want to talk about Hemingway."

"Okay. We can talk about the baby if you want."

"Baby? I'm only six weeks gone."

"Fetus then. It sounds so clinical. I just--"

The waiter came up to interrupt as waiters always did, this one slim and handsome and about 18, and Jack Liffey could see that Maeve was truly in a distracted state because she didn't even stare at the boy. She'd really been in love with the feckless gangbanger who'd got her pregnant, and Jack Liffey kept reminding himself that a teenager's first loves and losses were every bit as dire and consequential as his own tenth loves, maybe more so. And the pregnancy quadrupled it all.

"How do you make these horrible decisions?" she said. "I know I should go ahead and have . . . the operation, but it's going to wipe me out emotionally. I know it will. I'm always going to wonder what the kid would have been like. Or be like. I sound like I've decided but I haven't."
A hundred platitudes crowded his brain and he managed not to let any of them out. "Have you talked to your mom about it?"

She gave him a dismissive look with her face bunched up like a prune. "She wants to kill Beto. With a thumbtack so it would take a really long time. You know exactly what she'd say."
"Did she tell you about hers?" he asked.

Maeve looked thunderstruck. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen her jaw drop open quite like that, though she was a volatile young woman.


"Are you serious, dad?"

That was a cat that Kathy should have let out of her own bag, but it was too late now. Another lapse his ex could hold against him. He was astonished that Kathy had never told Maeve. "It was before we were married and I was in graduate school. She learned she was pregnant and made her decision without telling me a thing. It was a different time. She thought she was being brave and I think it was considered mildly gallant of me to pay for the abortion after the fact, but to be honest I wouldn't have tried to talk her out of it. We weren't ready."

"Was it an ex-older brother or sister?"

"Hon, that's like asking the shape of the asteroid that didn't hit the earth. The fetus probably still had a tail and gills when its development stopped."

"Interesting euphemism," Maeve said.

"When we bumped it off. I'm not afraid of words. Or acts. I stood by her and would have if she'd wanted to keep it. But I probably would have resented it a bit. It seemed so important to get my master's, but as it turned out a master's in lit--as they say, with that and three bucks you can get a Starbucks." In fact, after a long career as a technical writer and the final layoffs during the collapse of aerospace in L.A., he'd ever since been making himself only about half a living as a finder of missing children, his savings dwindling away.

A couple dressed like refugees from Woodstock were arguing at the door with the headwaiter who was obviously insisting that the restaurant was booked up even though a couple of tables were empty.

"How did mom take it? I mean after."

"I won't lie to you. It surprised her how much the emotion walloped her. She thought she was a toughie. But she got over it."

"Meaning, I will, too."

"Sure, you're a toughie. But you just say you've got to go through with it and I'll stand by you all the way to hell and back. I mean it, hon. I'll go to LeMaze with you and hold your hand while you're learning to pant."

She touched his hand. "Thanks, dad. I appreciate the thought but I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer a big nudge in the other direction."

He smiled. "That's honest. Responsibility is a sonofabitch, isn't it?"

A Mexican server showed up with his fish and her vegetarian delight and set the platter on a folding trestle that he snapped open with a flourish. This one she looked at, maybe out of loyalty.
"Where are we going to sleep tonight?" Maeve asked.

"There's no real problem. Bakersfield is only an hour and a half down the road and they're a pretty big town. There'll be motels galore. We'll be there in time to watch Leno if you want."
"Is he the one with the chin?"


Artifact 1877
If it please the court, and the gentlemen of the jury, of all the low, miserable, depraved scoundrels that I have ever come in contact with, these defendants, without any grounds for defense, are the most ornery rascals that I have ever met, and I think the best thing we could do is take them out and hang them as soon as possible.

--The defense counsel, 1877 Bakersfield trial of alleged horse thieves. They were hanged only minutes later.1


Maeve was dozing as Highway 99 approached the surprising sprawl of Bakersfield. Just outside town was a billboard all in black letters on white and overrun with underlinings and exclamation marks like a teen's love note: Jesus says Impeach! all Those who support Satan's One World Goverment!!! He liked the fact that the n in government was missing. Someone had actually taken credit for the sign but he was past before he could read the smaller print.

He split off on business 99 and went quite a way before he eventually picked out a likely neon sign, neither a big overpriced chain of "suites" nor one of those gone-to-seed Kozy Kabins, just something middling and hopefully free of roaches. The desk clerk who answered the bell on the counter seemed to be Vietnamese. It was the first time he had seen that. Usually it was East Indian.

Maeve was wide awake now and clutched his arm ostentatiously. "Oh, Humbert, can we have a really big soft bed?" she said flirtatiously.

He glared at her for a moment but the clerk didn't seem to notice one way or another.

"A daughter who's almost 18 deserves the privacy of her own room," he said, enunciating 'daughter' and 'own room.' "Two rooms, please. Single beds will be fine."

"Please, Humbert, at least have them close together." She leaned into him and gave a stage whisper: "I'll sneak over later."

"Could you put one of us here and the other in Fresno?" Jack Liffey said. It only confused the clerk and he waved his remark away. "Anything. This is embarrass-dad night."

Maeve calmed down and fingered her way through the rack of tourist brochures as he dealt with the clerk.

"What was all that?" he said outside, as they retrieved their camping bags from the pickup.
She held his arm again fiercely. "Humbert, don't you know all daughters are in love with their dads?"

"Okay," he said. "You can't get any more pregnant so we may as well make love, just so Freud is happy."

He could feel her stiffen and let go. "Dad!"

"You started it. Don't you know the gods have burdened fathers with a kind of automated self-loathing about incest? I can't even think it. I'd be struck by lightning and turned to a cinder where I stand."

"You know that's not true of all dads," she said.

"Yeah, I do." He'd run across the dispiriting aftermath of incest often enough in his career.

"Anyway, I'm very happy, thank you, with Gloria, as you know."

Sgt. Gloria Ramirez was the LAPD officer he lived with in East L.A., though, for unstated reasons of her own, she would not marry him. He was crazy about her strength of character and her sense of independence. He wasn't quite as crazy about the confused sense of self she'd been saddled with by foster parents who had brought her up to despise the fact that she was a full-blood Paiute Indian.

"Can we do something tomorrow to make up for this fiasco?" Maeve said.

"We could visit where Cesar Chavez used to live, or we could go to the remains of a black farming village called Allensworth that was founded by Civil War veterans . . ."

"That doesn't quite cut it."

"We could even go back and chant to the big trees with all those converging harmonicas."

"We got our walk through the sequoias," she said. "That was enough to recharge my nature batteries for a while. They really are amazing trees."

"Yeah. It's good to be overwhelmed once in a while by Mother Nature. Here's your key for 108."

The key was actually a plastic card with a mag stripe like most motels these days. He was in 114 three doors down. He resisted the urge to go into her room first and look under the bed and into the bathroom to make sure she was safe from whatever.

"How about I call your room about 8 tomorrow morning?" he said.

"I'll try to have my face on by then."

"I'm really sorry the camping didn't work out, hon. Maybe we'll find something better to do."


"Sure. Or rationalization. They're about the same."

The motel room hadn't gone ratty yet but it was just waiting for someone to look away for a minute. There were ruffled flounces on the beds that were a different shade of bilious green from the spread and a framed print of a shaggy highland cow the like of which he hadn't seen in years. He sank wearily into an easy chair with knotty pine wings and a man's voice boomed at him, startling him upright.

"God holds them over the pit of hell, just as we would hold a spider or a loathsome snake, and He abhors them. He is dreadfully provoked…."

Slowly an image gathered out of the void on the old TV and Jack Liffey realized he must have sat on the remote. A handsome man with severely raked-back silver hair, sort of an aging Pat Riley, was pacing in front of a giant wood cross wearing a navy blue robe that swirled at his legs like a great flightless bird.

"His wrath will burn them like fire; they are worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fiery abyss. He cannot bear to have them in his sight, they are so vile, they are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than--"

Finally he found the device under him and the first button he hit in a panicky stab was the mute. He watched the minister pace back the way he'd come, his mouth chewing away angrily in blissful silence. He wondered if the tirade were live somewhere in the Pacific Time Zone, a midnight service for those needing a little pick-me-up of hellfire. More likely it was taped. He popped the mute on-off on-off.

"--venomous serpent--"

"--God has held you up--"

"--Nev-er would you dare--

He tired of the game and shut the set off. The picture irised down slowly to a spot before expiring. The idea of hell annoyed him immeasurably. For some reason he thought of Loco, his slightly naughty half-coyote of a dog that Maeve's love was beginning to tame into domesticity. If Loco doesn't get to go to heaven, he thought, I want to go where he goes.

Artifact 1910s
Allensworth, California
The small town of Allensworth was founded in 1908 by Col. Allen Allensworth, a former slave who had fought in the Civil War. As elected leader of a group of former slaves from the Los Angeles area he purchased 800 acres, 30 miles north of Bakersfield, in a promising area of abundant wells, artesian springs and a small river called Deer Creek. The colonel led the pioneers to the area, and the town they founded became the only all-African American farming community in California.

At its peak the town held 300 families, and contained a hotel, school, library, post office, bakery, machine shop, and many other businesses serving the surrounding farms that raised alfalfa, sugar beets and livestock.

The town became a railroad transfer point for the Santa Fe, and a bustling African-American center grew up offering concerts, plays and club meetings. A small black college on the order of Tuskegee Institute was planned. Unfortunately the town was surrounded by powerful corporate farms that used upstream diversion and massive groundwater pumping to meet their water needs. Deer Creek was mysteriously diverted. The Pacific Farming Company, who had sold Col. Allensworth the land, did not deliver on its promise to continue providing water.

As agribusiness all around Allensworth prospered, the black town and farms were starved of water. Col Allensworth died in a traffic accident, then the railroad was diverted, businesses folded and the town gradually died.

--Tourist brochure2


He must have been buried under several slabs of sleep exhaustion because when the unfamiliar phone burred somewhere in space-time his eyes came open like a speared cat but he had no idea where he was. His hand found the phone before he was quite ready for it.


"Is that you, Jack? Your voice sounds funny."

"Funny." His mouth tried the word a few ways, as if chewing it over. "I don't think so. Is this Gloria?"

His eyes danced over the murky room and a sense of orientation gathered. Not his own bed. Motel. Bakersfield.

"Slap yourself a couple of times," she said.

"I don't think so. I'm almost touching down. There it is. Three-point landing. Taxiing now. I'll be at the gate soon." He picked up his wristwatch and squinted to make out that it was just before 4. "Are you okay, Glor?"

"I might ask the same. Bakersfield PD woke me a few minutes ago to ask me about one Maeve Margaret Liffey--as they said--and then they handed her the phone. Only time I've heard the middle name is when you or your ex are chewing her out."

"It's the way cops deal with driver's licenses, as you well know. As far as I know she's three doors down in this motel fast asleep."

He was going to add something snide about assassins always having three names on the news but it was penetrating his haze that something relating to Maeve was badly wrong. "What the hell did she say?"

"She's not in your motel, Jack. Get a grip. They've arrested her for prostitution."


"You heard. They've got her at the main sheriff's station which is in some place called Oildale but they're going to be taking her to the Central Receiving Facility in downtown Bakersfield for booking."


"Jack, please stop shouting random words that I tell you. I guess this was her rights call and she phoned me because she didn't know how to get the motel and she was afraid they'd cut her off if one call was to Information. She remembered the name of the place though and I got it from the operator. Do you want me to come up?"

He rested his forehead on his palm. "It's got to be a mistake. I'll let you know if I need you. Did she say anything else?"

"She sounded a bit cocky and not very worried."

"Great. Your cop pals love that attitude. Thanks a lot, Glor. I'll put some clothes on and take care of this."

"Nice picture to leave me with."

"I miss you, too."


He woke up the young night clerk, who had a plastic nameplate on his shirt that said Slick, and was grizzled and skinny and wasn't Vietnamese for sure. He was young but looked a lot like someone who'd be found carrying a Will Work For Food sign at a freeway offramp. It took some convincing to get him to run off a new cardkey for Maeve's room 108. Her Gore-tex bag was zipped open on the made bed but he didn't see anything obvious gone. He felt slightly guilty poking around the bag but not guilty enough to stop. At least there were none of the hooker-look clothes from her binge only a month or so back when she'd been running with the bangers. Gloria had shown him the red bra and shorty spaghetti top and what even Gloria called Fuck-Me Pumps with four inch heels. They'd never had a full debriefing on all that because he'd been out of town then, exorcising his own devils, and right now dealing with the pregnancy had to be first up on the hit parade, which was what this father-daughter junket was supposed to have been all about.

Jack Liffey walked out of the motel past the Rancho Bakersfield sign that creaked a little in the wind high above Union Avenue, and just on general principles he walked in the direction that looked like it led toward town. A little fog hung on the air and the pools of deep shadow amongst the second-rate motels were not very inviting. One shadow seemed to stir and flex with the retreat of a human shape.

He was fairly sure that Maeve had probably gone out for a walk. You could never teach her prudence.

Before long a tall young woman with hair blasted white by chemicals came out of a bus shelter wearing a short skirt and a tube top. She looked up the road as if for a bus. "Want a date?" she asked languidly in a gravelly voice.

"I think the prom is over," Jack Liffey said.

"Are you lost?" There was an almost genuine concern in her voice.

"How about I give you some money and you answer a few questions."

"Depends. You want some nice French?"

"Mais, non. My daughter is missing. I wonder what the cops are like around here. I know there's no-go zones. Would the cops tend to arrest a girl just for being out at night in this area?"

"You mentioned money, amigo."

He took out a twenty, which didn't seem princely but he wasn't exactly flush after blowing a lot of his cash on the rapids-enhanced dinner, and he handed it to her. She took it the way she might a used-up bus pass.

"This is the row," she said. "Actually you're in the hotspot for boys. Rough trade and all that."

She grabbed at her crotch like Michael Jackson and there seemed to be something there so he guessed all at once that he was probably talking to a pre-op transsexual. They were getting a lot better at faking it.

"The local cops hot to trot?" Jack Liffey said.

"Don't you know?"

"Know what?"

She whistled once on a descending note. "Twenty bucks don't buy that, amigo. But I were you I'd get my daughter and just book out of this place. I can tell you're probably L.A."

"Are you saying the cops are dirty here?"

She laughed, with genuine humor. "Even god is dirty in this town." Then she turned her back and hurried away from the road along a path worn through the weeds that aimed between motels.
"Thanks," he called. "I think you like your job too much."

She paused in her fleeing stride just for an instant. "Life is all the same shitbag when you ain't got a choice, amigo."


The central jail was a low structure wearing big horizontal louvers and cowering down behind the tall glass courthouse downtown like a baby seal behind its vigilant mother. The fog had thickened a little and he remembered warnings about the valley's tule fog that could go to whiteout in the late fall so Highway 99 saw fifty- and hundred-car pileups. But this fog was mostly ribbons and wisps from the cloudbank overhead carved free by streetlight poles and a light breeze. There was a false sense of impending dawn, probably just city lights making the cloud incandesce. A handful of beat-up cars disturbed the eery silence as they carried early risers to whatever crummy jobs demanded them this early.

He parked on a dead-end street between dozens of bail bond shops and nobody inside the jail had ever heard of a Maeve Liffey.

"Could it be because she's still going through booking?"

The woman cocked her thumb over an ample shoulder to a glass door that offered a clear view of a big empty room with a long counter and several unoccupied desks.

"That's booking, sir. You see anybody in there?"

"I got a call relayed from the Sheriff's office in Oildale."

She pursed her lips as if deciding whether he was worth taking the trouble, but sometimes the stars were aligned right. She went back to the one-piece computer that had notes taped all around the edges and typed for a few moments.

"Okay, there was a girl out there--was she wearing a long-sleeve blue workshirt?"

He nodded.

"She's not there no more."

"Could they be on their way here?"

She shook her head. "That was hours ago."

"Can I have the arresting deputy's name?"

"You got to go to Oildale for that."

"Look, pretend it's your daughter and you're on vacation in a very pleasant faraway town full of nice people and your daughter's gone missing and you get a call that she's been arrested but she's not at the jail when you try to find her. What would you do?"

"I'd probably scream bloody murder until somebody found her, but I don't recommend that, sir."

"What do you recommend?" He did his best to hold back a gathering rage.

"She's okay, I'm sure. Don't you worry. This is a very law-and-order-times-ten kind of town. They don't let nobody get out of line here, not even the neeg-rahs and the Mexes. Why don't you go home and wait for a call, sir."

"I had my call," Jack Liffey said patiently. "Could you tell me how to get to Oildale."

"That's up Chester just across the river."

She gave him directions and it was an easy trip, three miles through a bit of town that got pretty rough-looking just across the mudflats and stream that passed for a river. The Kern County sheriff's headquarters was a big flat campus of buildings under cottonwoods at the edge of a shuttered airport, but Maeve wasn't there either, and he started to get frantic in front of another puzzled receptionist who'd just come on duty.


Just the usual screw-up, he thought when the sun was finally coming up on the solution to the mystery. They'd already let her have her call at the sheriff's station when they'd discovered she was under 18, and they'd driven her to Juvenile Hall out in East Bakersfield instead of the jail.
He caught the night social worker or whatever they called her coming off duty in the parking lot. She must have weighed 300 pounds and gave him the fish-eye from within a hooded sweatshirt thrown over commodious green scrubs.

"Give me a break here," he said. "I'm a father and we just dropped off the highway to grab a motel to sleep."

"Well, she'll be asleep now. Let her snooze it off."

"Can you just clue me in to what went down?"

"They caught her cruising the row on foot. That's a bad place. The deputies might not have hit her for the 647b--that's prostitution--but they found three quarter-bags of crystal meth in her shirt. We're not a town that winks at that, I'm afraid."

"My daughter did not have meth on her. Believe it."

The big woman looked him over. "I wouldn't take that attitude, sir, if I was you. Maybe it's somebody else's shirt. That might work. Maybe it's your shirt."

"I don't even drink but if I were going to ingest something it wouldn't be a trailer park drug." He regretted it as soon as he said it but in his defense, he thought, he was very tired.

"I'm from proud Okie stock, mister. They's a lot us here and we come up in the world a lot."

"Bless you, ma'am. Forgive me if I insulted anyone at all, truly. But my little girl is a paragon of virtue. There must be a mistake."

The woman unlocked the door of an old Ford Escort that was too small for her and then slowly wedged herself behind the wheel. "I don't care what sort of polygon she is. You both better straighten up and fly right. People that buck the morals of decent folk go down hard here, and that sure goes for smart-ass hippies."

1Quoted in Edward Humes, Mean Justice, Simon and Schuster, 1999.
2Slightly adapted and condensed from several sources.

Copyright © John Shannon 2008. All rights reserved.

Powered by Blogger