We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.
On the way to the wedding in Los Angeles, they ran out of gas. They were a couple, a man and a woman. The woman was driving them down from San Francisco, where they had spent a few days—it was their first time in California, and they were both from somewhere else.
The man promised they would make it to the gas station. “How could you know that?” she asked. He didn’t answer.
The car was a rental, and it was shitty, and the woman had to press the gas pedal all the way to the floor to make it up and over each mountainous slope. Soon the odometer began its inevitable decline, the needle wilting towards zero, and the woman felt a similar inward wilting, a sinking feeling of coming trouble. […]
In the afternoon, I was usually lying in the hammock reading Don Quixote while avocados fell on the roof and the grapefruit tree blew its scent around the yard. Bougainvillea and jasmine grew on all the walls, and several varieties of palm snaked up in the sky. The medians were a riot of rosemary. I remember oleander and trumpet vines and sidewalks littered with jacaranda blooms. Hibiscus and giant agaves. Bella donna. There was a tree that made wooden flowers; I have one still, years later. […]
We smelled smoke and, out the window, embers rose in the night.
We got out of bed and pulled the red alarm box in the hallway and went outside.
From across the street, we watched fire destroy our apartment building. The woman who lived down the hall from us wore a nightgown and fanned herself with a magazine and shook her head. We found a motel nearby, mostly used by military girlfriends and wives. Then we walked to the beach.
This was Oxnard, a coastal city in Southern California near Port Hueneme and in a severe drought. Dry sugar beet farms stretched out from two military bases and the Kavli Foundation that supports the advancement of science. […]
In his first story collection, Benjamin Hale introduces us to characters who inhabit the margins of society: an expat outlaw revolutionary trying to find her way home, a dominatrix confronting a new possible role as mother, a performance artists eating himself towards death. What at first may read as absurd becomes meaningful and then moving through Hale’s skillful and playful storytelling. […]
All of this is occasioned by a telephone call from my dad:
I sit down on the couch, flip on the tube, and descend the cable channels to the low double-digits, where I find the red-jowled faces of men trapped inside too-tight sport coats going on at length about this player or that, and I know I’ve landed on the run-up to a baseball game. I have an immediate gut reaction to these men because, as it happens, I’m under imminent threat of getting my face slammed into my own locker by letterman-wearing jocks who, no doubt, will become less successful versions of the men I’m watching here on the tube. […]