We agonize over breakfast choices in the towering Ferry Building food market, then walk the piers eating flaky empanadas. But it’s cold and too windy, February, so we turn inland toward North Beach. Our cousin, a local, will meet us there for lunch. He’s suggested a tour of the neighborhood’s old Beat Generation haunts.
My twin sister and I are visiting San Francisco, ostensibly to see a concert but also just to see each other, since a year ago she moved away to the suburbs of Philadelphia. For the few short days we’re here, the West Coast experiences torrential rain. LA is flooding and the Bay Area is even drizzlier than usual. Becky and I are strategic—Saturday is going to be the driest day, and we want to see everything.
I think in words, not images, which I imagine is a form of dementia rarely studied by brain scientists—it’s a disadvantage when looking at a map or a set of architectural plans, and I have long believed it also to be a disadvantage when building the big complex geography of even the most pared-down fictional world.
What if I told you some of the most enlightened women I knew in youth took to the beach and spread oil across their shining décolletage in order to receive the divine? To place themselves in the present and in the path of nature, gazing for hours at an uninterrupted horizon?
Think of Buddhist monks in Tibet sitting cross-legged and naked in the wild, practicing g tummo, the art of inner fire, drying wet sheets on their bodies, melting snow with their minds. It is a matter of radiance and belief, harnessing the power of breath.
We all dreaded the Butterfly Haven, a greenhouse whose thermostat was set to an oppressive eighty degrees. We were tasked with ensuring the museum’s collection of exotic butterflies did not escape into other exhibits—Mysteries of the Marsh, Birds of Chicago, Wild Music—or suffer at the hands of visitors. The Butterfly Haven was a new addition, a garden under glass, the wild and fruit-bearing world reassembled. It was nature trimmed and mail-ordered, the gestation of life contained in a laboratory and maintained through ongoing shipments from Australia, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Butterflies died and were replaced in equal number.
When the drugs came, they hit all at once. It was the eighties, one in ten residents slipped into the deep of heroin addiction—bankers, university students, carpenters, socialites, miners—and Portugal fell into a panic.
After the mine fell quiet, the town slowly went to sleep. The barber changed his hours to Thursday and Friday, by request only. The bank hung a handwritten note to transfer accounts and securities by the end of the month. The last passenger bus pulled up to the curb and drove away.
The streets lie empty now, so quiet you can hear the leaves breaking from their branches. Ghosts on the baseball diamond, in the bowling alley, in the gymnasium. Long shadows across overgrown grass. The afternoon sun sinks early into the mountains.
My mother has found the book in her files, among the stacks of papers and paid bills rescued from the cabin. Though it doesn’t look like much now, in its drab brown cover with faded red lettering, it was the most treasured volume of my childhood. My grandmother, who loved a good fairytale, whose favorite book was Alice in Wonderland, read Prince Uno to me, and then I read it myself, entranced, curled uncomfortably in one of the green wicker chairs with the scratchy orange cushions—only a slight improvement over the impossibly hard couch.
Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.
Disney, the warship, captured the Star Wars universe, firing off in quick succession two movies: The Force Awakens, which continues the picking-over of the Skywalker family bones, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—that is, a side quest between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, which I paid sixty dollars to see, including four sets of black plastic 3-D glasses. Rogue One is proper Star Wars canon because Disney says so: The once-untold story of how the Rebel Alliance—scrappy and in disarray as ever, a true coalition seized by occasional rancor, debate, disagreement, and speeches—steals the schematics of the original Death Star from the Galactic Empire—decidedly more economical in its internal organization than the Rebels, as there is no debate who is Emperor and who is Lord. The Empire’s grip on the galaxy tightens as its weapon of mass planetary destruction nears full operation. The hardscrabble Senate, relic of the felled Republic, appears too busy dissecting its own demise to perhaps take a lesson or two from the other side, who plotted sedition, executed revolution, then brutalized the defeated.
We are barreling north out of Salt Lake City, and David is talking about the clouds. “They don’t look like the clouds in the East,” he says. “They’re uniform, but fuzzy.” Out the window, the topaz sky shimmers over the mountains. The snowy peaks echo the color of the fuzzy western clouds, which stretch across the air like floating bedsheets.