A chill Northern California rain moistens my tongue – like a dried-out sponge expanding – and soaks up all my memories from years ago and miles away.
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I remember driving my Bug-Eye Sprite from Gilroy over Donner Pass, two to three inches of snow on the road after the rain had stopped, as we inched higher and just before chains were required, to Stateline, Nevada, three of us: my best friend Ben and my seventeen-year-old wife Esther and I, crowded into two bucket-seats, and the rag top of the Healey leaking like a colander. Ben and I had found a five-dollar chip from one of the casinos in Ben’s garage when we were looking for parts to fix his own Austin Healey 3000. (It was almost as if we had formed a car club, although Ben and his brother, Walt, who also owned a Sprite, and I had all acquired our cars independently.)
On the spur of the moment Ben and I decided to drive to Stateline and bet the chip, hiding twenty dollars under the driver’s seat, buried in the underside of the seat cushion springs, in case we went bust and needed gas to get home. We did go bust but only after a winning streak at the craps table, although we played until dawn running the five-dollar chip up and down several times only to flush the final winnings down a toilet playing Keno as we ate breakfast. And we did need the twenty for gas, but back then, with gas about twenty-three cents a gallon, it was no problem. We never got carded for I.D. It must have been a really slow, weekday night, but that part of my memory has been squeezed out and dripped away. – 1965
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I remember another rainy Northern California day, hitchhiking out of Oregon over the Siskiyous from Ashland, Oregon. I had been picked finally up by a young guy, not much older than me, on his way to fetch his girlfriend in the next town down Interstate 5. A light, cold drizzle couldn’t dampen his spirits and in my chilled mind, drunk from his heater running on high, I fancied the two were eloping. After he picked up his girlfriend – what?, thirteen? fifteen? – they dropped me off on the south side of the next town, a bit out of their way as they were going back north, and an apology into the bargain. No apology necessary; thanks, and good luck; have a happy whatever.
A ride with two out-of-work carnies came next: co-workers, buddies, perhaps lovers? Who cared at seventeen, warm in the back seat with their cigarette smoke wafting over from the front, and blasted by the heater and the radio and the tire noise on wet asphalt, all at full throttle. Country corn, gospel choirs, and farm reports lulling me, I kept falling off, dozing, until they pulled off to get some coffee and burgers. Too wary, I refused their offer and moved on, back out to the edge of the freeway, but away from the windblast and sheets of water driven horizontally. One or maybe two hours in the rain without a ride and the carnies, now fed and their car gassed up, picked me up again. Evoking warm memories instead of suspicion and in a far greater need to thaw out and warm up, I promptly hopped in and greedily fell asleep in the back seat until Sacramento. – 1963.
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If Northern California is anything from Santa Barbara on up, at least as far as Santa Barbarians believe, then I recall another night of Northern California rain. Dropped off way north of the city limits by the brother of a friend, driving me up from Balboa Island in exchange for my beat up ‘52 Olds. It needed work, but was probably worth the hundred-mile ride north and the .38 caliber revolver, loaded, rolled up in my sleeping bag. What good it was there, I still can’t fathom. I waited about an hour, drenched with darkness and rain, until a lone driver pulled over with a need for conversation to replace a broken radio and push back sleep. We swapped small stories and big lies all the way into Buellton and the hottest bowl of pea soup and softest bread ever baked at Andersen’s, a Central California, I mean Northern California, landmark. The guy paid for the meal, probably less than a buck, and adolescent suspicion started to rise until the stink of caution drove him to drop me off in Santa Maria. He had some business there to attend to in the morning, or so he said. The rain had dried up by then, as do the memories of the rest of that trip north back to Gilroy. – 1964.
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Coming into Fortuna, at 3:45 p.m., pussy willows bent in the breeze along the side of the road, each signaling the direction of least resistance. White filament banners of rain streaming off them; forlorn pinions of a march forward to the sea; sandblasted in the dazzling sunshine as the rain lifts, while the knife edge of the afternoon onshore breeze slices through my wind breaker, entering deeply into my marrow.
I’ve momentarily lost Sally again, a subsequent wife, but then some of her moments are almost as long as some of my hours. We both visit with others, I to take note in what one of our sons refers to as my diary, she to take and give life histories orally. Beware of all those in a hurry, we are not any longer.
Earlier this day I’d watched an old lady get out of her van in Nevada City, in the rain, but also not in a hurry, probably used to it, the rain. She left behind the clayey red mud on the sidewalls of her tires and her bloodhound in the driver’s seat of the van, eyeing her suspiciously as she left him behind. Then, as she turned the corner through the door into Rite Aid, the dog raised a mournful howl, protesting her departure, and slathered the window with the dew of his saliva. I remember thinking at the time that he, or she, was the kind of hound that wouldn’t mind the rain at all. – 2002.
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What is it about Northern California rains that so enamor me? There are: the chill, and the salt tang in the air along the coast; the crystalline snap of approaching snow in the East; and, the wonderful hills and mountains, the pines and the redwoods, and the mariposas. I have in mind a recollection of visiting . . . the past. I take another swig from the brown bag, sips of yesterday, and pass it over to Phil. I think his name’s Phil. We met last night in the bus depot here in Crescent City, pooled our coins, bought a box of wine, plain wrap, and settled here under the bridge of Highway 1 leading north out of the city. I tug the fatigue jacket tightly across my chest – the zipper’s broken – and settle down on my side, swallowing another Northern California rain as it caresses my memories. – Present.
Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school (remember the hormonally-challenged?) English teacher living in Moreno Valley, California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather be still tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.