I flew into San Francisco quickly. Not that the plane flew all pell-mell, just that I was asked there quickly, made the decision quickly, bought the ticket quickly. And before I knew it, I had left San Diego once again, landed on the long runway up north, and was walking through the sun-drenched SFO airport to wait for my ride.
“I’m in a bright blue truck,” he said.
“He,” as in, I still can’t remember “his” name.
I realized once I got into the car, that maybe it’s time to start being a little more careful about who I work for. I didn’t even know these guys. Kyle texted me a few days earlier—hadn’t even called to ask if I could come up north for a while.
“When do they need me?” I texted back.
“As soon as possible. They’re ready to harvest.”
The thought that immediately came through my head was, Oh shit, they must be desperate.
But then again, so was I. Desperate for money.
After getting lost in the six-story parking lot, I found my way idiotically onto the street. My driver finally pulls up—bright blue truck, as promised.
“So you live in Santa Cruz?” I ask, pulling the front seat forward and stuffing my bag into the back.
“Uh, no,” he pauses, and laughs. “We live in Calaveras County. Didn’t Kyle tell you?”
As my driver and I chit chat briefly, I search the map on his phone to find Calaveras. Stretching out, east, east, east, past Stockton, and nearing the Sierras, I text my location to my roommate, and to my brother.
“Just in case.” I write at the end of the text. As in, just in case this was a horrible idea and I don't get reception at this random cabin in the middle of absolutely no-where-county. If the young girl in the woods screams and no one hears it, does she exist?
We drive out of the Bay Area and onto the highway, passing stretches of yellow hills, tumbling and falling over each other like ripples in a lake. My driver and I make pleasant conversation. In his Dickie pants and skater t-shirt, he reminds me of my friends from high-school.
“Oh, I love this song,” he changes the position of his hands on the steering wheel and looks over at me and smiles. I turn up the volume on the radio.
“Mason Jennings is perfect for a day like this,” he says. “I once saw him live in Santa Cruz, but the problem was everyone in the crowd was a couple. Except me, of course. The guys all stood behind their girlfriends with their arms around their waists, stroking and kissing.”
“Oh, god, I hate that,” I say.
He nods his head.
“All I wanted to do was smoke pot, but I figured I’d get kicked out,” he laughs and pauses to sing along to the chorus-line. “But this song,” he points his finger at the dash. “This song is when I gave up and lit one.”
“Really?” I stare out the window at my hand, cutting through the air like a hot knife through butter. I loosen my fingers and let them flap in the wind behind the rear-view mirror.
“Yeah, I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I lit up a joint and the moment I did, Mason looked up and said, ‘Smells good in here, Santa Cruz.’ That was the best concert I’ve ever heard.”
On the way to the house we stop at Rinaldi’s Market, a local grocer just outside of Calaveras, where, as my driver says, “People are always nice.”
“Do you expect people to be mean?” I ask.
“Well no, but,” he stops to get pull a cart from the stack by the sliding door, “Let’s just say there are other stores we don’t go into.”
Stores we don’t go into? Where am I? I feel like I really am headed back in time—back into Mark Twain’s stomping grounds. This is where he wrote his Jumping Frog about a hundred years ago, literally the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and, let me just say, I vaguely remember something in Huckleberry Finn about rivalries and family feuds. Is this what we’re talking about? A little Shepherdsons versus the Grangerfords?
“Why can’t you go into certain places?” I ask. We’re walking along the ailes now—he picks out pepperoni slices, cheese, and beer. I pick out apples and bell peppers, but who am I kidding? I’ll be juggling a meal of beer and cheese in about a half hour.
“This is a very small part of town,” he says. “Everyone here knows everyone else, so when I or one of the other guys goes into one of those family owned markets, they have no idea who we are and start asking questions. They suspect us of something.”
I don't ask what.
We pile our things into the back of the truck and point our front wheels into the hills, winding through bumps in the road. He takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up. I breathe in the smell deeply.
“Oh, sorry, you want one?” he holds the pack out to me, and for a second I think I’m going to say no, but suddenly my hand reaches forward and takes one. He stretches his arm across the center seat to light me, an act I’ve always found mildly romantic.
“I don’t know how this happened,” I laugh.
“How what happened?” He keeps his eyes on the road.
“This!” I hold the cigarette out between my two fingers, eyeing it suspiciously like I don’t know how it got there.
“What, don’t you usually smoke?”
“Not really!” I feel defensive, but also mildly stupid. Like I don’t smoke. Here I am, in a strangers’ truck, with my window rolled down, blowing smoke into the air. If that’s not smoking, I don’t know what is.
“Eh, it’s alright.” He rubs his forehead with the back of his hand. “Just enjoy yourself.”
I sigh, and turn my face into the setting sun to watch the hills roll by. Their backs arched towards the sky, they remind me of big yellow elephants.
During the day we take breaks and load up the Bebe gun for target practice. I push the butt of the gun into my shoulder, right at the point where my arm meets my body, a little trick I learned while hunting in Virginia.
A piece of metal scrap hangs up in the trees, and as I aim, point, and shoot, a loud ding echoes into the forest.
“You hit it!” the boys shout.
They seem impressed, which makes me smile. When I’m the one girl in a group of five boys, I feel I have to prove my worth. Boys are easy. Somehow hitting a piece of metal with a gun is all it takes to become one. I pull down on the barrel to reload, push a Bebe into the hole, and snap up on the handle to cock the gun.
“So what’s next?” I say, propping the gun on the railing.
“We have some turkeys on the property,” one of the guys says.
“Give me just one minute,” I say, walking around the side of the porch to the front of the house.
I pull on one of the guys’ boots, which are a little big, but at the same time embarrassingly not. Tying the laces up high on my calves below my skirt, I throw the gun over my shoulder, and motion for the guys to follow.
“Let’s go get us some dinner.”
Later that evening, I slip outside onto the wood porch overlooking the Sierras. Leaning on the rickety railing, the bars shift slightly under my weight. I crane my neck back and stare up at the stars, hundreds of them, popped into the deep night drapery like holes in the fabric. I can suddenly feel God’s presence and how truly close I am to Him, and how I need this moment more than ever to acknowledge that fact and ask for help and guidance.
Give me the ability to let go of destructiveness, I prayed. And please, please, if possible, prepare me for what's next.
Finally, with a mild sense of guilt, I whispered, “And show me a sign that you’re really here.”
I stared hard into the stars, half expecting a shooting light or a meteor or even an airplane, but only a bat flew by, its small wings flapping into the darkness. I went and sat at the wooden table, picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and read a chapter about accepting pain and acknowledging that with time, everything will pass.