Sunday, August 07, 2005

Farley's Treasure Map

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My dad knocked on the door to my motel room. The Santa Ana winds had died down, and the Palm Springs morning smelled like citrus fruits and roses. Dad and I had planned to drive up the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains and go to Big Bear. It was a warm day, but Big Bear would be quite chilly.

“Is it true that one of Atajo’s gold properties has buried treasure on it?” I asked Dad.

“I hope so,” he said, smiling for the first time since we had arrived in Palm Springs. This was not as easy for Dad as I had assumed. “The old Bradshaw Trail ran through here. It took people to one of the best passes through the San Bernardino Mountains.”

As we drove up the road, I looked down into the extensive valley. In the distance I could see the other towns near Palm Springs. I could see much of the Coachella Valley: Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Thousand Palms. Somewhere outside my view was Twenty-Nine Palms, the location of an extensive installation of the U.S. Marine Corps. As we continued to ascend, I could see more towns. The trace of the San Andreas fault was visible.

Palm Springs was in its prime back in the 1930s. It was a playground and a spa for the Hollywood rich and famous,” Dad continued. “The hotel we’re staying at used to be a film colony.”

“That explains the architecture and the d├ęcor,” I said. “I like it. It reminds me of a 1930s movie. I really like the pool and the citrus trees.”

After more driving, we arrived at the Big Bear Mountain ski lodge. Marcus was standing next to his dad and was staring vacantly into the distance. He was wearing jeans, a turtleneck, and a windbreaker. He brightened when he saw our Suburban pull up.

“Hey. What’s up?” Marcus grinned at me, and I smiled back. The trembling I’d been feeling did not have the ominous buzzing feeling, so I thought that perhaps this was just due to the chilly weather and nerves.

“You two have a good time – why don’t you take the ski lift up to the top?” suggested Dad.

“You mean the “Alpine Funiculaire”?” I ask. Marcus laughed. We both noticed the name, and the edelweiss motif everywhere. For some reason, it struck us both as very funny.

“Hey, I heard that they’re going to change the name to the ‘Scenic Sky Chair,’” said Marcus.

“Too bad. This one makes me want to burst into song. The hills are alive…” I held out my arms in the classic Julie Andrews pose.

Once at the top, we went into the restaurant. I ordered a hot chocolate. Marcus ordered a chocolate shake.

“How can you eat ice cream when it’s so cold?” I asked.

“Mom always asks me the same thing.” He looked out across the ski slopes. “There’s not really enough snow to do anything. It’s nice, though.”

“My mom’s always making me take vitamin supplements,” I said. “Mom bought a bunch of stuff – desiccated liver tablets, Tiger’s Milk, kelp, and organic vitamins. She buys it from a health food store that used to be run by a commune, before a guy from her church bought it.”

“Weird.” Marcus took a drink of his shake. I felt dizzy.

“My mom has some pretty weird ideas,” I said.

“Oh well – you think your mom’s crazy. You should spend some time with my mom! Mom has this insane idea that she has the ability to “speak” to maps and that they’ll tell her where treasure is buried. She said that the ghost of an old prospector is telling her where to go,” said Marcus.

“Yeah? That’s pretty radical,” I said. I thought of Dad’s obsession with treasure, and his huge collection of antique maps, geological studies, historical documents, and legends of treasure. He could get away with it because he was a geologist, I thought grimly. He could mask his treasure-hunting with mineral exploration.

“Something called Farley Kritzoff.”

“Weird.”

“Check it out. There’s a Pong game over there. Do you want to play?” asked Marcus.

“Sure. I’ve got a couple of dollar bills. I’ll get change.”

The afternoon went quickly. I was wearing a black wool sweater, with a red satin inlay and collar. There were flowers embroidered on the front, and wore dark pants. Although I was still trembling and my legs were sore, the fact that I was on the Sooner Swim Club back at home and often worked out twice a day made me aware that my idea of myself as an obese misfit was probably not too accurate. I was a misfit with large, hulking shoulders, I told myself.

“Where did your mom get the maps?” I asked.

“They were in an old desk in the office. It’s that old building. The old office. She says that the treasure is in two places – one is on the property my dad has screwed up and is about to sell. The other is somewhere in Nevada.”

“That’s pretty wild. What else does she say?” I asked.

“Not much. Mom has been acting really weird lately. She smokes all the time, won’t eat, and then gets totally smashed every night on vodka tonics. She didn’t used to be like this. I don’t know what do.”

I thought back to the dinner Dad and I had the first night we were in Palm Springs. I had met Mrs. Torrell, and my impression of her was of a very pretty older women. She seemed to be nervous, though. She chain-smoked and gulped her drink. I couldn’t imagine her as someone’s mother. I suddenly felt very sad.

“Hey, she’s not as weird as my mom. At least your mom is really pretty and she takes an interest in other people. My mom won’t get out of bed for days at a time. Of course, she’s got my dad fooled. A day before he gets back in town, she hires someone to clean the house, and then she starts wearing something besides a housecoat, pajamas, socks and slippers. Oh. I forgot the cloth she coats with mentholatum and puts over her head and around her neck.”

Marcus put another quarter in the machine to start new game of Pong. He took a drink of his Coke. “Don’t you want something to eat?” he asked.

“No. I’ll get another Diet Dr. Pepper, though,” I responded. We played a couple of games of Pong, then noticed our dads approaching us.

“That computer game looks like fun,” said Marcus’s dad. Marcus looked embarrassed.

“Marcus, would you like to ride with us?” asked Dad. “Your dad has to run a few errands on the way back to Palm Springs.”

We made the drive back to Palm Springs in silence. Marcus fell asleep. His leg flopped over and touched mine, making my heart pound and my belly turn to fire. I didn’t want to spoil the moment, so I sat very still and felt the energy from his body course through mine. Dad was listening to a call-in talk show where the host and the callers were discussing stagflation.

When we got to Palm Springs, there were no lights on at Marcus’ house.

“Will you be okay?” asked Dad.

“Yeah. I’ve got a key. Mom’s probably in the back watching television.” Marcus added something under his breath that I could hear, but Dad couldn’t. “Yes. Probably in the back getting smashed.

Later, we found out there was a different reason for the lights not being on. It turned out that Marcus’s mom died that morning, just after Marcus left with his dad to go to Big Bear Mountain.

Trap Door to Oblivion

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“So this is the ‘Cave of Whispers,’” I said to Stanton. His hand was on my arm, and he steadied me as we made our way through the dark opening of the cave, past the spider webs, and over the slippery, wet bushes and thorny grasses that grew outside. He handed me a small flashlight, and flipped on an identical one.

“We need more than flashlights if we’re going to go very far,” he said. I could feel the tension in his grip, the doubt in his voice. “I’m not sure that this is a very good idea.”

Still wet from my plunge into Three Horses River, I was starting to feel chilled. The sound of water became very loud as we made our way a few feet into the cave. It was a large cave, with room to stand up.

“This doesn’t seem too bad,” I said. “Is this a big cavern? Are there other caves?”

I started to move forward. Stanton’s large hand grasped me around the waist and he pulled me tight to him. Surprised at the urgency of his grip, I looked up into his face. Hard, chiseled jaw, firm lips, dark smoldering eyes met mine. He embraced me with a passion that made me lose my breath.

“You have no idea how much I treasure who and what you are,” he said to me.

Stanton,” I said, quietly. The water was loud, and I was not sure that he would be able to hear me. “I understand. When I look into your eyes, I see directly into your heart, your animating ideals, your past, your present… it rolls open like a scroll. I can read it.”

“Let’s not give up on each other,” he said. I nodded. “Not ever again.”

He held me tighter and pulled me back a half-step. “Look.”

Straight ahead, in a place that should have been the floor of the cave, was a dark void from which emanated the roaring sound of water rushing over rocks.

“We used to call this the Trap Door, but there’s not really any kind of door. It’s a hole, and if you don’t see it, you’ll fall right in.”

“How terrifying,” I said. “A Trap Door to Oblivion. I would have been terrified.”

“With good reason. It is also very slippery, and easy to lose one’s grip. There is a small ledge on one side, but I don’t recommend trying to get around the hole by going on the ledge. What makes this a perfect hiding place is that if you have a couple of boards, you can make a bridge, which you can then remove behind yourself” he said.

“Did you ever do that?” I asked.

“No – I was a kid, and I didn’t have anything to hide, or any boards, for that matter. But, I remember talking about it with my dad.”

“That makes all the difference, doesn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes. It does.”

“We can come back later,” I said. “With boards.”

We turned and walked the few steps back to the cave entrance. As I stepped gingerly across the brush and a small prickly pear cactus, I noticed a shadow lean toward me.

I looked up, deeply startled. In front of us, just outside the opening of the cave, were two thin men in black pants, white short-sleeved cotton shirts with button-down collars, and black ties. They carried pocket New Testaments in their shirt pockets. One had a notepad in his hand.

“Can we help you?” asked the man with the notepad.

I looked at Stanton and then back at the two men. I had a sinking feeling.

Santa Ana Secrets

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December 30, 1973, Palm Springs. The California desert dawn was like a pink Polynesian pearl, filled with promise and calm, and yet my heart was suffused with grief. Dad was speaking to me, and I couldn’t believe he could be so heartless.

“We had to dissolve the partnership. It wasn’t easy, but it was something that had to be done. Otherwise it would fail and take down everyone. So, they are selling to us. It was a matter of survival.” Dad was talking about his company’s relation with Atajo Corporation, a small company that owned a number of gold properties in the mountains and foothills near Palm Springs.

We were driving to breakfast. My thighs were throbbing from the long horseback ride. The ride that would not have been so long and arduous if I had been able to control the large bay gelding they gave me. The horse sensed my insecurity and did what he wanted. We wandered around the periphery of the desert, and briefly into the canyon where a rather tricky trail took us to a series of waterfalls and an oasis. I wanted to forge ahead, past the palm trees, small willows, and flowering creosote that ringed the pool of water in the cool shadows of the arroyo.

Dratted horse. I didn’t blame him, though. It must have been fairly unbearable for the horse making his way through slippery rocks just so a restless teenager could kill a little time.

My heart sank at the thought of what was going on. Just yesterday, I had met Marcus, the 16-year-old son of the principle. Slender, with dark, longish curly hair and sensitive “teen idol” lips, I knew this would hit him hard, and, further, that his dad would be absolutely oblivious to what life upheavals did to teenagers.

I tried to picture Mr. Torrell, who would be selling his company this afternoon to Dad’s company. I knew it was what he wanted, but I could only think of the sense of loss he would feel and how adult angst almost always translated into emotional neglect or even abuse back at home.

Pushing the negative thoughts from my mind, I noted how Palm Springs’ decision to restrict signs to a small, discrete size added an element of elegance to the town.

I needed to talk to Dad. Things had been bothering me for a long time, and I needed to muster the courage to talk to him. However, as we pulled into the hotel, Dad announced that he was going to have to go to a meeting.

Before he left, he handed me a small stack of $20 bills. His tone was apologetic. “I’m not going to have much time to spend with you today. But, tomorrow we’ll go up to Big Bear Lake. Marcus will be there, too, so you’ll have someone to talk to.”

“What’s at Big Bear?” I asked. I felt my knees tremble at the thought of Marcus, but my stomach clenched at the idea of being alone this afternoon. Fighting back a surge of sudden tears, I looked at my leg, and noticed that the stirrups rubbed blisters near my ankles.

My younger brother accompanied Dad on many trips out west, primarily to Nevada, but also to other Arizona, Utah, California mining properties. In the fall, Dad would take him deer-hunting in Vermont. Filled with jealousy and feelings of rejection, I had developed a belief that something was profoundly defective about me.

Worse, things had started to happen to me, and I didn’t understand what they were or what was going on.

Did this happen to all 15-year-olds? I couldn’t ask Mother. She would just put me on a diet. I felt anxiety and something else rise up inside me. Dreadfully familiar by now, the only defense I had was to snuff them out with exercise, binge eating, or pain. I couldn’t bear these feelings. They felt like grief and loss, and something darker and infinitely more dangerous. It made no sense. I had not lost anything. Nor did I have anything to grieve about. My life was a dream. I was the embodiment of the American dream.

Nevertheless, sometimes I simply did not want to exist. Whatever it was that submerged me at unexpected times was too painful.

I was left to my own devices for the afternoon, so I walked to the Safeway store on the corner down the street from the hotel. Feeling the warm, desert sun on my bare arms and legs, I welcomed the opportunity to let my legs loosen up a bit. A stiff breeze, precursor of the Santa Ana winds, began to rustle the leaves of the grapefruit and orange trees lining the street. I stayed on the sidewalk and looked at the low palm trees whose fronds were beginning to sway.

I started to feel a bit better physically, but emotionally, I was sinking fast. In Safeway, I bought a bag of Fritos, a couple of packs of Twinkies, a can of SPAM, a couple of cans of cocktail sausages, cans of root beer-flavored diet soda. I also bought a pack of plastic silverware, a spiral notebook, a couple of Bic pens, and a comic book. I spent about $16 of the almost $200 that Dad had given me so far on the trip.

Once back in the hotel room, I dug into the disgusting array of junk food and processed meat. I craved the salt of the Fritos, the sweet sponginess of the Twinkies. I opened all the containers and laid them out in a row in front of me on the round hotel table that faced the television. I created equal portions of each by carefully cutting and slicing each item into small cubes. Each small portion contained about an eighth of a cup of volume. I made a small pile of Fritos, about a quarter of a cup. Then I neatly resealed the food packages and placed them back in the Safeway bag. I placed the big bag next to the front door. Then, I methodically began to eat each pile of food. As I did so, I made sketches in the spiral notebook – of whatever came to mind, or to my hand. After each pile of food, I took several swallows of diet root beer.

By the time I had worked through the small cubes of SPAM, the thin slices of cocktail sausages, the small cubes of Twinkies, my emotions were starting to release themselves. After eating the Fritos, tears flowed down my cheeks. I finished the food, sat staring at the sketches I had drawn. I was sobbing.

Moments passed. I got up slowly, went to the bathroom, washed my face with cool tap water, looked out on the patio. The grapefruit tree rustled in the stiff breeze. A few grapefruit had dropped to the patio.

Feeling somewhat better, I grabbed up the Safeway bag and headed to the hotel office. The desk clerk looked at me impassively.

“Hi. Got a little sun? Nice day for it.” He noticed my face and arms, sunburned the other day from my excursion with the horse.

“Yes,” I replied. I held up the bag. “My dad and I were going to go on a picnic, but he can’t. There is food and picnic stuff, if you know any kids who might like them. They’re fresh.”

Just then, a middle-aged Mexican woman wearing a housekeeper’s uniform came through the door.

“Rosario, do you think your grandkids would like picnic stuff?” asked the desk clerk. I smiled and held out the bag.

“Well, sure, they’d like that,” she said, looking a bit uncertain.

“Es que compramos mas que podemos comer, mi papa y yo. Todo esta todavia bueno; lo compre todo hoy dia,” I said, using the Spanish I learned at summer camp and in class. “It’s just that we bought more than we can eat, my dad and I. It’s all still good. I bought it today.”

“Ay, que sorpresa. Si, y muchas gracias. Eres una chica muy bonita,” she said. “My, what a surprise! Yes, and thank you very much. You’re a very pretty girl.”

“Thank you,” I said. I walked back to the room. The Santa Ana winds were picking up, and I felt grit in the air. As I walked, the tears began to flow again.