Mid-January is cold in California’s upper San Joaquin Valley. The land sits somnolent in catatonic stupor -- bleak, silent and immobile. Ice shatters on the ever-present puddles of mud and the sounds of birds long since vanished in the warmth of the September sun.
Mile upon mile of naked orchards stand deep in coma along Highway 99, casting ghastly wooden claws toward heaven -- sunworshipers, grotesquely reaching, piteously begging for the hot penetrating rays to touch their fibrous core. But the prayers of wooden things cannot be answered till the winds of March confront the tenacious tule fog that clings like gobs of soggy glue to their tortured branches. March winds that send stinging blasts of frigid air to rouse this clammy giant -- to blow its great mass of slate-colored wetness west over the emerging grass of the coast range into the turbulent water of the San Francisco Bay.
And it is so to this day in central California winter, as it was forty-some years ago in that time of deep depression on that January in 1933...
With no hint of winter’s chill, when the sluggish waters of the San Joaquin reflect sofly the indolence of the Delta summer, to this farm country she had come when it was all red and gold and heavy with harvest. Northwest across the middle coast range from the warm brown valleys and green hills of the Paso Robles country, carrying the seedlings she would plant on this 20-acres of black river bottom she would christen Valhalla.
Sturdy and formidable they grew, creaking and bending close to the old building, so she could live intoxicated by the sharp anticeptic smell of the eucalyptus -- to hear them whisper late at night of the sea, the hills, and her youth.
The old building, tottering precariously on rotted timbers, crowded Highway 99 where it shot the rickety drawbridge, eased itself gently down the levee then melted into lush plantings of grape and cantalope. Here Mom made her restaurant. In those large musty rooms facing 99 she raucously gorged with good country cooking a potpourri of river men, drifters, truck drivers and travelers. The weather-beaten barn out back she consigned to the wild pigeons -- puffing and cooing, darting and defecating.
This California wine country satiated with Italian immigrants included Pete Angelino -- old world craftsman -- new world sign maker. And he carved her eatery’s insignia. Large deep cuts in lavish baroque lettering, lovingly painted and sealed.
“You bet him sign stay along atime. Take amaybe when you ago Valhalla,” Pete joshed in fractured English.
Pop followed from Paso Robles. Weak and alcoholic, he hovered in the background washing dishes, peeling and frying potatoes. Like a shy puppy he dispensed homilies and country humor.
Here they raised four kids and the two redheaded waifs eight-year-old Bill had brought from school saying, “their folks don’t want ‘em.”
With her love these six hellions grew strong and independent and drifted away. Oh, they kept in touch -- a card would come, or sometimes in an eruption of whoops, hollering and tears they would arrive in their beat-up flivvers.
But when Pop left her, she cried loud racking sobs. “One day he’s here -- next day dead...”
She was never to be completely together after that. She got along, but concealed deep in her gut a clawing not wholly allowed to surface.
Mom Talbert’s nose, as broad and pugnacious as her grin, would snort her defiance of the “dirty bastards” in reference to the desperate people who dumped the starving hounds and frightened tabbies which she sheltered with vengence.
She tried to empty the State Hospital north of the levee, claiming it was wrong “to keep the poor things penned like animals.” she rescued one poor creature, a Scottish immigrant, and things went fine till duty called Mom to town one weekend.
In a fit of rage this spirited lass relieved herself in the middle of her benefactors bed. When Mom returned and cried, “My God! What’s that!” the twisted lassie blithely replied, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
For she had pulled each and every dresser drawer and deposited a bowel movement within.
So Mom, chuckling, would call up that old cliche about the “best laid plans of mice and men” and purchase in town for a two-bit piece a better world -- a galaxy of stars -- where handsome men and their ladies conquered all adversity and the divine right of happiness reigned supreme. For it was those matinees in the cool twilight of the old Princess theater that were the salvation of her soul.
-- -- -- -- -- --
Christmas came to the delta. A time of sadness. Grey benumbing days of early darkness.
Perplexity and hunger stalked the nation’s prairies.
Then they came from south of the high mountains, swarming onto Highway 99 like disoriented lemmings in search of the sea --spilling into the fields and valleys of the Promised Land saying, “No. We ain’t here fer no vittles. Just please, caint we have some water fer our youngins?”
Fruit of a bitter womb. Sullen emaciated fledglings peeping from canvas-covered jalopies like cautious prairie-dog pups contesting their first glimpse of blinding light.
In great convulsive waves they came, flooding into the Valhalla. Their tired, haunted eyes darting furtively from one to another, dropping sheepishly past the menu to bits of change held uneasily between gnarled fingers. Human surplus, rejected by the dying land they had left behind, deserted by an indifferent government.
“Oh, that ain’t our real prices! That’s Sundays menu,” Mom would say, swooping to retrieve the printed sheets of paper, -- pushing aside foolish excuses of why they’d changed their minds and couldn’t stay to eat.
Moving gingerly on the fringe of the great Okie migration were the humiliated blacks who stopped to articulate in muted and halting manner, “Does ya-all allow coloreds heah?”
Mom, stunned with embarrassment and indignation, snapping, “Don’t you talk like that in my place -- you come on in! Everybody’s welcome here!”
And so they were. But without money to pay, Mom wondered how to feed these people and those she knew were yet to come.
-- -- -- -- --
Mattie entered the kitchen. The heady aroma of perking coffee swelled in her nostrils. She stared blankly at Mom vigorously working a hundred-pound sack of flour into a large kettle of mashed potatoes.
“To stretch ‘em. Well! For God’s sake, help me!”
Mom caught the sack as it fell from its perch on the drainboard. Her voice pulsating with anger, “What the hell ya gonna do? Let ‘em starve? My God. Look at those damn skinny kids! Let ‘em starve -- that’s what that damn fool in the White House is doing...”
Mattie, intimidated, fled to the security of the sleeping quarters.
To Mattie Jackson, Mississippi-reared black woman, the name “Mom” sat uncomfortably on the tongue. So it was “Mama” -- from that day two weeks earlier when Mom had confronted Mattie as she traveled dirty and disheveled down Highway 99, dragging a torn burlap sack filled with “earthly possessions” and leading old Blind Henery.
“Gwine ta Valley Jo,” she had said. “I gots a sista deah.”
Towering above the two derelicts Mom demanded, “Are you hungry?”
The wind off the delta was cruel. Mattie’s aging cotton dress and Blind Henery’s worn overalls spoke of southern cottonfields and the hot Mississippi sun.
Mom managed a “Please, you need help...”
Mattie fixed her eyes anxiously on the wet asphalt.
“Naw mam, we needs naw help. I gots a sista in Valley Jo.”
Impatience assumed prominence over protocol. In voice and attitude befitting a riverboat captain, Mom barked her orders, “You come with me! You’re gonna eat something and you’re gonna get out of this cold!”
With that official dictum she shooed them, fussing and protesting like two wayward geese, across the highway into the steamy confines of the Valhalla. Mattie and Blind Henery’s grateful lungs drew deep the down-home smells of bacon grease, fresh baked biscuits, and decay.
-- -- -- -- --
California was singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” and reeling with laughter at its latest “in” joke:
“Ya know how to tell a rich Okie?”
“He’s the one with two mattresses on top his truck!”
They were America’s 20th century reincarnation of the prairie schooner -- these boiling and wheezing chariots riding their rims to glory and getting as far in that direction as Mom’s Valhalla. In her gravel-strewn driveway, striving those last few feet, heaving for the gas pumps -- the lopsided, sagging Hupmobiles, Fords, and Essexes would gasp, sputter and expire.
Unable to send these wretched charioteers on their way, she filled the barn and soon tents appeared on the black soil reaching hungrily for the levee.
With visions of orchards to prune, the men searched vainly for work and trapped the wary pigeons. While their women -- swollen with fetus -- suffering ruptured genitalia and crazed minds, drained their meager energies over tubs of dirty overhalls and hulking aluminum kettles fragrant with the staples Mom provided.
Sometimes silent in her bed she would brood -- suddenly sick for her family. Sometimes she thought fretfully about the cost of the food. But these people needed her. That eased her mind and she felt not quite so alone.
Mattie preferred helping Mom and held herself aloof from what she called “all de hubabub” but her powers of observation were keen and when she informed Mom in hushed tones, “Miz Bunney, dat Texas woman -- she sleepin wif three mens”, Mom quipped, “That old fool Burney must like a wet deck!”
Mattie relished these titillating exchanges and waited with pleasurable
expectation Mom’s high-pitched rocking laughter.
But the Burney’s consumptive little girl, Rose Violet, was no joke to Mom. She favored her and slipped the pallid child bites of her treasured prize-winning pink-hued quince jelly.
Mom insisted Mattie and Blind Henery sit and eat with the other folks, not off by themselves. Said it wasn’t American. Mattie, drawing on her own recollection of Americana, sat with trepidation. And the fat woman from Arkansas, ogling disdainfully the seating arrangement, assured herself in loud, ripe, rolling twang, “Ah ain’t nevah befoah sit with niggers!”
Sickly little Rose Violet’s cavernous gaze landed quizzically on the Mississippi blacks and every head turned in their direction.
Discomposed and sticking out like two threatened crows stranded in a barnyard alive with ruffled leghorns, Mattie and old Henery retreated behind conditioned response. Her dark face froze, while Henery, sunken eyes staring vacantly up into his forehead, bestowed on a stilled flock the benevolent smile of the simpleton.
Later, back at the barn ‘neath the nebulous glow of a kerosene lantern, old Mrs. McGrover, eyebrows arched in disapproval, told a group squatted around a fire-spitting oil drum, “I surhly would’ve like to’v slapped that woman good!”
-- -- -- -- --
The winter grew progressively cutting and more and more of the ragged transients found their way to Mom’s acreage. Then the pots that had bulged with beans and the pans that had oozed with hot pigeon stew stood empty. The flour-littered boards of the storage shack were bare.
Mom knew what she must do. Snuggly wrapped in a long wool scarf, her outdated finery draped at random, she urged Pop’s creeping old model-T through a curtain of blinding fog.
Slipping the brown envelope beneath the teller’s iron frame, she exchanged greetings with bank president, Andrew Kerns.
“Oh, I’m fine Mom. Just fine!”
“I’ll have it all, please.”
Changing expressions with the agility of a circus clown, Andy assumed the dour demeanor he affected as proprietor of Kern’s Mortuary, Inc. -- “The Haven of Heavenly Repose.”
“You shouldn’t be doing this, Stella. These are hard times -- mighty hard times.”
-- -- -- -- --
Fleeting shafts of yellow haze shimmered on the dirty window.
Mattie stirred. Rising to attend old Henery, she stared out toward the levee. Startled, she pressed close against the dingy pane, whirled and rushed into the Valhalla crying, “Mama! Mama! Deahs mens on da lebbie wif guns!”
What Mom had feared now seemed a reality. The News Herald had headlined stories of citizen raids on migrant camps throughout the state.
Bending beneath the counter she ran her hand the length of the old 10-gauge, letting it come to rest fitfully on the worn and pitted stock.
Moisture hung heavy on the air that January morning and Mom pushed the fleece of her sheepskin flush around her ears, -- skirted the barn so as not to alarm her campers and hurried to the levee. Terrified, Mattie, teeth clattering from cold, slipped along behind, muttering apprehensively about white men with guns.
Reminiscent of a toy brigade molded of pewter and lead, the townsmen stood in the faint light of morning silhouetted against a melancholy sky. Reacting as the proverbial cat caught with its paws in the cream, they milled about in embarrassment as Mom and Mattie came within talking distance.
“Can I help you, sheriff?”
Somehow for Sheriff Bud Collens the situation was not proceeding as had been anticipated, and he meekly explained, “Mom, these here men and me -- we’ve come to say ya gotta run these people off. There’s rumblin’ in town about burning ‘em out!”
“Sheriff! You go tell anyone that’s rumblin’ I’ve got an old 10-gauge double barrel that can do some rumblin’ too!”
Uncertain, the men followed the movement of the cumbersome twin-chambered breechloader she lifted to her waist.
“And I’ll blow their Goddamned heads off if anyone puts a torch to my place! If you all done what was right you’d be here with me ‘stead of out on this Godforsaken levee.” She spat the word contemptuously, “Rumblin’”.
Picking their way back down the levee, Mattie told Mom she’d heard the sheriff refer to her as “dat ol scah crow woman!” And Mom laughed that equine shriek that so annoyed the proper ladies in town. For the specter that was Stella Talbert -- greyheaded feisty visage sitting like chiseled granite atop a gaunt bowlegged frame -- had not for one moment escaped her appraisal of herself.
-- -- -- -- --
She slept through the explosion but awakened to the shadowy manifestation of a wild-eyed, apparently deranged black woman flailing the air above her.
“Lawd! Lawd! Lawd! Oh Mama -- Mama!”
“Mattie, for Christ sake! What the hell is wrong with you!”
“Oh Lawd, Mama -- Oh Lawd! The lebbies comin’ down!”
“My God!” Mattie’s anguished message sprang in focus and Mom heard the ominous drone of plunging water. Throwing the bed covers aside she jumped and caught Mattie’s shoulder. Her voice was firm, her words exact and measured, “Mattie, go get old Henery. Get to a high spot on the levee. It’s only a break. I’ll get the others. Now you hurry!”
Having shoved Mattie toward the door, she grabbed the flashlight from the table. Hiking her flannel nightgown up around her waist, she pitched herself knee-deep into the rampant flow of icy water shouting, “Run for the levee! Run for the levee!”
Mom found the barn convulsing in the swirling torrent -- floundering like a chicken coup caught in the eye of the storm.
Her light split the darkness, imprisoning the frenzied migrants in its beam. She thought of ants obsessed with rescuing their young from the mire of an unexpected rain as they hauled and bounced their families into the loft.
“No! No! Not up there!”
Mom’s voice slid above the roar. The mindless scramble to the loft continued and her words rose in volume.
“Don’t! Stop it! You damned fools! The barn won’t stand!”
Flinging herself recklessly into the melee she tugged their soggy attire pleading, “Follow me! For Christ sake follow me! We can make the levee. The barn won’t stand!”
Some prayed. Some cursed God. And the women wept soft bitter tears.
The barn was awash in the path of the break and Mom indicated by jerking her torso in the desired direction that a retreat with the tide, back past the Valhalla was their only hope. Seemingly transformed by Mom’s dramatic presentation, they swiftly organized, yelling instructions to support the aged and carry the young. Herding the women in front and with Mom and her light in the lead, they splashed to their waits through the foaming deluge -- their bodies staggered by swells, their feet skidding in mud. And when Mom’s light locked on the slope of the levee, out of the fat woman from Arkansas burst the joyous benediction, “Blessed Loahd! Sweet baby Jesus -- we done made it!”
On the western bank, across from where the angry river ripped into the heart of Mom’s Valhalla, she pulled hard on her dripping gown, turning it tight against her body -- holding her breath as the artic water careened down against her buttocks, around her legs and in between her toes. Releasing the wadded flannel, she knelt to comfort an exhausted mutt wriggling with satisfaction at having swam the current. She stood suddenly upright. The Valhalla had tipped on its pilings, shuddered, then sank. Mom watched the circular design the old building left in its wake and to no one in particular she murmured, “It’s like when Pop left me. I...” she paused and the sentence dissolved in a whisper “just wasn’t ready to let it go...”
All that remained perceptible above the muddy water was the dusky outline of the eucalyptus and the point of the storage shack exposing themselves from out of the waning night.
Their water-soaked garments stiff with ice, the migrants huddled in resignation. Aching from cold, numb in spirit, they shushed their frightened children. Then as the proud village clock sounded its chimes in the dim isolation of dawn, they began to call each others names. Sharp and clear the roll call vibrated along the frozen levee and Mom heard Mattie squalling something off in the distance. Turning toward the commotion she growled, “For Christ sakes, shut up that blubbering. I’m coming.”
Old man Burney, wild with grief, was shuffling the length of the levee, loping past Mom in that tilted off-center gait, bellowing his wife and little girls’ name.
Mrs. Burney and Rose Violet were missing.
Shifting patterns of breaking light flickering through wisps of drifting fog illuminated the bizarre drama. Mom saw Mattie stooping in the silt, struggling to lift something above the flow of the brackish water -- Blind Henery’s body.
Mom approached and the shivering black woman lifted her face and whimpered, “He were de oneyiest thing I hab, Mama...”
-- -- -- -- --
The men testified they had heard the explosion, but the sheriff’s report was a terse contradiction and an indictment of the gophers and ground squirrels that proliferated in the levees:
“Break in south San Joaquin levee induced by rodent tunneling. Suggest if Okies resettle Talbert property, an investigation in reference to criminal implication be implemented.”
The county repaired the gaping hole and their pumps sucked the land dry.
Mom sought refuge in the storage shack.
The crowds fell away. Mattie moved on to her sister in Vallejo.
Then one crisp October day when the land gave up its warmth and the frost bit the yellow maize and pumpkin, clutching at the stiletto piercing her brain, she called, “Oh my God -- I’ve had a stroke!”
Like light transmitted through bits of loose-colored glass, her life tumbled away in a miasma of kaleidoscopic confusion.
-- -- -- -- --
They leaned into a cold wind and it stung their faces. The streets were alive, vibrant with sound. Rush-hour pandemonium had seized command while the Chronicle sat in its metal cages, bloated to its margins with Watergate.
The brittle clanging of the cable car trembled on the brisk countenance of this San Francisco morning as Kim and Karen Oblinsky laughingly rode their way to the “Hunk of Junk” on upper Grant Avenue, where the ludicrous carnival dummy “Laughing Annie” held court -- twisting and cackling, fat hips swaying.
Luxuriating among the garish bric-a-brac and serendipity, Karen found and gleefully hugged a tattered Shirley Temple doll. It’s battered exterior reflected the faded years when no one had cared. No matter. The dimples were there and the blond curls still clung haphazardly, framing its happy face.
Kim was aglow. “Christ! Look at this old sign. Valhalla! Christ -- you know what that means?”
Karen nodded in ignorance as Kim, grinning, answered his own question.
“It’s Norse mythology, stupid!”
Striking a grandiose pose he pronounced with stilted and studied rhetoric: “Valhalla: Valhalla is the grand hall of immortality in which the souls of warriors slain heroically were received and enshrined.”
Karen screamed her delight. “That’s cool! That’s groovy! It’d be fantastic over the door to the John!”
Laughing Annie continued her St. Vitus dance and hurled from her painted lips a shrill jocular sound -- definitively equine in timbre.