The Salton Sea

 
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Brendan Schallert

Art by Brad Stumpf

 

One day I looked up and there was Amber, standing in the doorway of my apartment, holding an enormous suitcase.

How did she get in? Where was she going?

“I got our baby back,” she said. Her pupils were the size of pancakes. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to stop being a drug addict when she was pregnant. I wondered if she’d saved any for me.

“What’s all this?” she said, looking around the room.

“I redecorated some when you left.”

Amber had missed the Kristy phase, when my jungle art adorned the walls. Now, palm fronds, one in each corner, arched gracefully from the floor up to the ceiling, where their tips tickled the red cardboard frame surrounding the Xmas card photo of my parents. In it, my mother looked elsewhere, my father was always watching me.

The television was on, Miss May in her video centerfold.

“I can’t find the remote control,” I said.

Amber put the suitcase on the futon. It was the kind that when somebody says “suitcase” that is what you picture, but not the kind anybody actually owns. Miss May’s breasts were like that too.

“I didn’t even order the Playboy Channel,” I said. I did not want Amber to think I was a pervert.

She popped open the suitcase.

There was a baby inside!

“Whoa, that’s a small little baby,” I said, not wanting to insult it. Actually, it was a very ugly baby.

Or was it simply not alive? It didn’t look very living. What kind of suitcase was this? But Amber unbuckled the clothing seatbelts and the baby came loose and opened its eyes. She picked it up and inspected it, made kissy noises. The baby started crying.

It was a very loud baby and, though I’d seen it only once, the morning it was born, when I went to get snacks, I recognized it. Amber spoke to it but I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then she was coming at me, holding the baby in her outstretched arms. The baby squirmed a lot and his head looked too small. I backed up into the corner, nearly stepping on the scale model condominium complex I was constructing from empty rolling tobacco and cereal boxes. I was looking for a window to jump out of.

“Where’d you get it?” I asked. This stopped her.

“It’s ours,” she said. Her face grew distorted, whether with sadness or anger I wasn’t sure.

But this did not answer my question. Hospital officials had said, No, you can’t take the baby, you’re too unstable to be parents, and they had proof from the state of California!

 
 

Amber herself had called me a few days after the birth to give me this news. “You infected me with your insanity, then you abandoned me. Now you’ve stolen the gift of motherhood from me!” she had yelled.

And the next day I’d gotten a call from her father, warning me not to contact his daughter, announcing that his grandchild had been placed in the care of those better able to deal with a living thing.

“Can you be certain the child is yours?” my father had asked when I described the situation.

“How do I make another inquiry?” I had asked him repeatedly, so much did his voice sound like one of the computers which gives banking records over the phone.

I’d seen Amber only once after the birth, maybe a month later when she came looking for money for drugs.

“So are you ready?” she asked.

Her body was thin and tight from speed but still she was bigger than me.

“Ready for what?” I said. Miss May looked like she was saying something important and I listened hard. “. . . bubble baths and puppies, still the destroyer will come . . .”

“It’s time you fulfilled your duties,” Amber interrupted, “but we need to leave now.” What duties? I worried.

“I didn’t think you were allowed to see it,” I said.

The baby wouldn’t shut up. She looked at him, her eyes squinting. “I just fed you,” she said. “What the fuck do you want now, hah, baby?”

“Hold on,” I said, and picked up the remote control. I’d had to get a new one after Amber beat me with the first one, this about a month before the baby was born. I pointed it at the baby and pressed the volume down button.

It worked!

“Oh, you’ll be a wonderful father!” she said. Her voice sounded dangerous. She went to put the baby back in the suitcase.

“Maybe we don’t need that,” I said. I knew the word “we” changed everything, but still I used it.

“But he doesn’t cry in there,” she said. “And that way nobody will know he’s with us.” There were many questions to ask, but I could not make my mind up which one to ask first.

“Let’s put some things in there instead,” I said, and we did.

 
 

In the car were Amber, the baby, and myself.

I was not to be trusted with driving a vehicle, we all knew that. Amber said we could be thrown in jail for not having a baby car seat but I refused to put him in the suitcase and so held him the way holding babies is commonly depicted.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I said. We were on the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway headed east.

“I’ve saved that for you,” she said. “What is his name?”

I thought about it. I’d only named dogs and one hamster.

“Bean,” I mumbled.

“What?” she said.

Because he looked like a bean.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“How about after you?” she said.

But wouldn’t that be bad luck?

“How about we call him Bean until we think of something else,” I said.

“Bean,” she said.

Amber was a lucky driver. She didn’t pay attention until the moment she needed to and this made for an entertaining ride. I hadn’t been in anything but a bus for a long time, though at night, sometimes, I watched midget cars race around a dirt track on cable TV, hoping for a crash.

 

I grew nervous watching the road and looked down at the baby. His expression said many things, among them, “Are you my father?” I held out the stuffed-cloth hamburger man we’d received with our drive-thru family dinner. The baby looked confused: How can a man be a hamburger? he seemed to say. These were things a father would have to know. How was I to explain these things to him?

Then there was a loud rumbling, the baby began vibrating.

“Oh my God, I think he’s having an earthquake!” I cried. I tried to hold him in place, then it stopped.

“That was him shitting,” Amber said.

I looked at him and was filled with wonder.

After a while, he looked and acted unhappy.

“He is full of needs,” Amber said, “and now he needs changing.” But I liked him the way he was. “The diapers are in the back seat,” she said. “You can change him there.”

“I get carsick riding in back,” I said.

I tried not to kick Amber’s head while I climbed over the seat, smiling down at Bean who I’d placed on the floor in back.

Headlights of a truck behind us filled the car with an eerie light. I encountered the pink legs of my son, his penis which looked like a Franklin Mint miniature replica of mine, his shit that looked like a milkshake and did not stink. I was afraid of breaking something, but I took his tiny feet in my hand. The little toes and toenails, the tops of his feet, everything was there! I touched the tight belly, a little drum stretched too thin, I folded the old diaper in on itself and sealed it with tape that had ducks on it and wiped him with the kind of moist towelettes you get with Kentucky Fried Chicken.

While wiping him, a stream of water came shooting in my face. What was this? Where did it come from? And then I knew: Bean was peeing on me, and laughing too! “Hey, dad,” he seemed to be saying, “you’re all right with me!” Dad? I worried, but laughed along with him.

 
 

Sometime later, with the seat reclined and Bean sleeping against my chest, held secure by the shoulder harness, we came upon the strangeness of the desert, a dark sea of sand and underground plants and animals, the light of the moon unable to make any difference here, so far beneath the surface. I felt like a person who is trying but for some reason unable to wake up from a dream.

“Are we going somewhere?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said.

“I mean somewhere specific,” I said.

“Very specific,” she said. “It’s a place from when I was little, where you can float without trying. Even Bean will be able to float there, I know it. My father would give me handfuls of crystals and laugh when I touched my tongue to them. Hundreds of feet under the sea.” Didn’t she know her voice was so gentle she could’ve stopped Bean’s crying with it whenever she wanted?

Now I saw my own father’s face smiling down at me. Warm water lapped at me as I sank into it, the freedom of floating quickly turning to terror, only to be caught in his big hands, always there to save me. And then, years later, he was floating next to me, the water sprinkled black and white from ashes, the taste of sticky black rubber snorkel in my mouth, the mask pressed tight against my face, the bottom of the pool turning blacker and blacker as I kept reaching out my hand to touch my father even as I started to feel sleepy and let my legs float up behind me and hang there, and I felt myself falling asleep, even with the helicopters, the sirens and the crackling timber of the neighborhood burning down around us, the pool heating up and me floating there, more peaceful than I’ve ever known.

Sometime later, my eyes opened onto a vast, motionless body of water. The sun was low in the sky, the car smelled of ketchup. Next to me, Amber was reclined in the driver’s seat, her breasts hanging down, a baby in her arms, both of them asleep. A can marked Simulac, an empty baby bottle, and half a bottle of water were scattered between our seats and on the floor. I remembered the sound of a baby screaming. I remembered wanting to put him back in the suitcase.

 
 

I secretly got out of the car. Outside it smelled of dying things. I thought, this must be the place the world comes to an end. I looked down a little dirt slope. Water licked at the shore, leaving behind a thin coating of white crystals. Enormous silver beer cans, tossed from speeding vehicles, lay on their sides, dotting the landscape to my right. But someone stepped out of one! A trick of perspective. These were trailers, and people lived in them. Up on the road, there came one now, a trailer resident.

I said, “Where are we?”

He was wearing a Walkman and a maroon velour warm-up suit. I waved at him and grabbed at my ears. He stopped and lifted the plastic circles off his.

“Hello there,” I shouted. His face looked like a piece of dried fruit but he was well-preserved, and I wondered if this is why he’d chosen to live here, if somehow the dryness of the desert helped keep him. Before he turned it off, I heard a voice speaking to him through his headphones.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Salton Sea,” he said.

“California?” I asked.

He took a minute, then nodded.

“So is that the Salton Sea?” I asked.

“Are you looking for someone?” he said.

I took this to mean yes. “No,” I said. “Thank you.”

He looked like he wanted to know more, but thought better of it and put on his headphones, then moved in a way that for him might’ve been running.

“It was a salt-covered depression known as Salton Sink until it got flooded in nineteen-o-five.”

This was Amber who nearly scared the shit out of me. It was too bright for Bean, who she carried in her arms, and I shaded his eyes with my hand.

“What is this?” I asked, indicating everything.

“Well it’s our home, of course.”

“Hah!” I exclaimed. “Only people who are ready to die or who have broken laws would come here to live,” I said, unsure whether we fell into only one or both categories.

A scary smile froze on her face, her eyes opened wide. “I told you last night,” she said, “I was happy here, Bean will be happy here. We’ll all be happy here.”

Her voice sounded the same as when she said she was moving in, the same as when she stayed on top of me, my arms pinned down, her shouting “Plant your seed!”

“At least come and see our home,” she said, very friendly.

 
 

That morning we moved into one of the silver cans, the one Amber had rented for us. Through a window in the one across from us I saw the man in the warm-up suit and a woman who looked strangely familiar. I thought I saw her nodding at me.

Aluminum must be a good conductor of heat because the trailer got very hot that day. I got very thirsty, and the only thing cold to drink were the seven beers in the cooler left over from the case Amber had started with. Being an alcoholic means I want to drink alcohol every minute, but now I was also a father, and when I looked at Amber lying in her underwear on the itchy-looking carpet-upholstered sofa which came with the rental and my son lying in his suitcase which I’d propped open with a stiff, carpeted pillow, I did not want even one sip.

The people in Alcoholics Anonymous would say this was God doing for me what I could not do for myself. Maybe they would be right.

Over the course of that long, hot day, many things happened.

I watched Amber spill the last of the baby bottle on my son’s face (the nipple was not screwed on) and he cried until I dried him with the inside of my shirt. Later on she said, “You just make sure you call social security and get your checks sent to the P.O. Box number I told you.” For some drunk reason this was about the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

Sometime later she moaned, “Teach the fuckers to steal my baby!”

Finally, when the baby started crying for what seemed like the millionth time, she said it was time to feed him. I suddenly had an idea, and spoke like a Japanese person right in his face and he quieted down for a minute but then started back up. Amber pulled the top of her bathing suit down.

“Wait,” I said. “It didn’t work last night, right? You had to use that canned stuff. It’s probably all the speed you’ve been doing or something, and anyway, when you feed a baby it gets whatever you have inside you.” I remembered this fact from a program on the women’s cable channel.

“It gets milk,” she said. Her nipples were big and dark.

“Yeah, and what’s in the milk is whatever’s inside you. It’s not fair. Where’s another bottle?”

She grew flustered but couldn’t get up from her reclined position. “You’ll be sorry if you ever try to leave us!”

I rummaged through the Hefty bag of things she’d brought in from the car and found the can of powdered formula and the baby bottle, but there was no water left. In the kitchen there was nothing, just a hot plate and a sink with a faucet that gave brown water.

Amber’s eyes were shut and the baby was wailing. I unscrewed the rubber tip of an empty bottle in the bag and let him suck on it while I took off his diaper. It was heavy with wetness and his uncovered skin was red. I took a tube of something called Balm-X from the plastic bag and squeezed some onto my fingers. It felt cool and creamy and I spread it all over the redness.

“I hope that feels better,” I said. He reached for me while I put a new diaper on him. “Don’t forget about the food,” his expression seemed to say, and he began crying again. I wanted him to know that he didn’t have to cry, that he never had to cry because I would always give him what he needed. But then I remembered the night before, how I’d wanted to put him in his suitcase, and now I couldn’t even feed him.

All at once I heard a tinny crash and felt hot pain. The back of my head had been struck. I lurched over my son who stopped crying, stunned by my sudden movement. While still crouched I turned my head and saw the empty beer can which had hit me, and Amber’s trembling arm draped over the sofa, her right breast hanging down her side, her lips parted in a grin, her breathing troubled.

Was she aiming for me, or Bean? I wasn’t sure of anything but my anger. I left Bean there and looked for something heavy. I picked up an unopened can of beer. It felt good in my hand. I walked over to her and stood above her, ready to bring the can down on her head.

Her eyes were closed. She looked just like Bean when he was asleep. It had never occurred to me that Amber had once been a baby. And now she was Bean’s mother. I felt sorry for her, I felt sorry for Bean. I knelt down and pressed the cool can against her cheeks. She did not move.

 

“The inside of the trailer made me nostalgic for LSD. The walls were mirror, streaked with gold and copper paint, like the decorative Kleenex boxes my mother had once collected, before all her time was occupied by worrying over her troubled son.”

 

I went to my son. I wrapped him in the blue blanket, took the can of formula, the baby bottle, and walked outside. The Salton Sea was still there, but it felt good to breathe fresh air, salty though it was, the sky the color of blood oranges with setting sun. I walked to the trailer across from us and knocked on the door.

After a minute the door opened. It was the man in the maroon velour warm-up suit I’d spoken to that morning, but he wasn’t wearing the jacket. And he was sporting the remains of a woody under his colorful pants! His bumpy chest was sagging and he looked out of breath.

“Do you know anything about babies?” I asked and displayed my crying son and the bottle and the can all at once. He waited for a moment, then disappeared behind a door.

The inside of the trailer made me nostalgic for LSD. The walls were mirror, streaked with gold and copper paint, like the decorative Kleenex boxes my mother had once collected, before all her time was occupied by worrying over her troubled son. The carpeting was bright blue, the drapes vibrant green, the furniture black leather. Porcelain animals were everywhere.

The lady of the trailer greeted me. She was as old as my mother but wore a leopard rumba ensemble.

“Well look at this,” she said. She held a finger up to my son. “You’re a hungry one, aren’t you?” she asked. She acknowledged me, then took the bottle and can from me and led us into the kitchen.

She spoke as she set to work. “I knew she was trouble when she rented the place,” she told me. “Looks like you know that first-hand though, am I right?” I nodded. I felt comfortable inside this trailer, like I’d been abducted by friendly aliens.

She measured powder while the man dispensed water from a cooler, GLUG, GLUG, big bubbles that caught Bean’s attention.

“I’m Estelle by the way, and one thing for sure,” she said, mixing powder and water while us three males watched, “that baby is yours, you don’t have to worry about that. Can see that in the eyes right off.”

Had she spoken to my father about his doubts as to my paternity? She called at the man:

“Nuke it for one minute, half power,” she said. He tried to put the bottle in the microwave but couldn’t get it to stand upright. I realized how helpless we men are.

 
 

“So what kind of engineer are you?” Estelle asked as she placed the bottle so it fit. I felt my face flush. During our time together Amber had constructed a late-night-infomercial fantasy in which I graduated from DeVry Technical Institute and landed a middle-management job in the aerospace industry.

“Right now I’m not doing any engineering,” I said. The microwave beeped.

Estelle nodded, then squirted milk on her wrist. I wanted to lick it off. She held out the bottle to me.

“I’ve never done it,” I said, but with Estelle’s urging I fed my son. He stared at me, his mouth contracting, stroking my arm with his hand, and I envied women and their breasts, I could see why God had made them that way, and why children were different with their mothers than their fathers.

“It can be nice to have a song you sing to him,” she explained. “A signature song that one day he can remember you by. Routine is very important for babies.”

Instead of feeling put on the spot, I liked this idea, and for some reason a song came to me which seemed like an appropriate one and I began to sing, and I wondered if this was like a secret audition to see if I could be Bean’s father.

“Oh baby baby it’s a wild world, it’s hard to get by just upon a smile . . .”

I kept singing, then Bean’s eyes began to flutter shut, and before the bottle was empty he had fallen asleep. Estelle showed me how to burp him and we made a bed for him of a colorful cotton throw depicting a buck with a doe.

While Bean slept I told stories on myself and Amber, for instance how we met in teenage rehab and would go off-grounds, naked, into the desert at dusk with a three-gallon tub of rainbow sherbet to paint each other with. And then later, after I quit being an Alateen and left college to start drinking beers in a refrigerator box next to the poisonous ocean, and Amber would come to visit, the low rumble of her drug dealer boyfriend’s van conversion titled “Dust in the Wind” drowning out her tears as she handed me donut hole and malt liquor care packages, she told him I was her long-lost brother. And whether I visited board-and-cares, jails, hospitals, or my own apartment, and even when I left her and my son at the hospital, Amber was always with me, the yearly Santa Ana winds her whisper, reminding me we would be together again.

“Well that sure beats A Current Affair,” Estelle said when I was done, and planted her hands down flat on her thighs.

“So, what do you plan on doing about your son?” she asked.

This was the sort of thing my father enjoyed saying, and suddenly I realized Estelle reminded me of my father if he dressed in drag! I looked into her eyes. They seemed to say, I wish it were not so but you make me very sad. These were my father’s eyes, and they told me what he would do. The room suddenly filled with the hazy purple light that comes between day and night. I imagined my son felt safe for the first time in a long time.

 
 

“May I use your phone?” I said.

“There’s one in the bedroom,” the man said, and pointed.

I found a half-squeezed tube of KY Jelly next to the phone on the bedside table. When I returned, they were admiring Bean.

“I called the hospital where he was born, it’s part of a university,” I said, my hands trembling. “They’re waiting for him. I wouldn’t tell them where I was, but I said I’d get him there.”

Estelle’s face lit up. “Well now Walt just loves a good drive, don’t you, Walt?” Walt looked up from watching Bean like he’d been waiting for this all night.

They led me to the door. “I’d like a few minutes with my son alone, outside,” I said. I tried not to feel like I was asking permission.

“I need to check the oil on the Cutlass before we go anywhere,” Walt said. He kissed Estelle and went out.

“What about her?” Estelle asked.

“I’ll take care of that” I said. I held Bean out so she could kiss him. “Thanks. From both of us,” I said. She kissed me too.

I stood on the shore of the Salton Sea with my son in my arms. The moon was already up, its big face looking down on us. I lay Bean’s blanket on the sand and put him on it, then untaped his diaper. He was happy to be naked in the warm night air and I wanted to join him, so I stripped myself of clothes and shoes. I stepped into the water, which was almost as warm as the air. I reached for Bean and held him up to the moon, then lowered him to the water’s surface, letting his tiny perfect feet dip into it. I lay him back, my hands under his head and legs, his arms reaching up, hands displayed so that I recognized them as my own, he had my hands, just as I had my father’s. I dipped him into the water, which was even more buoyant than I’d hoped. Bean giggled as the water touched him. I let go of him slowly, until he was afloat. An enormous smile overtook his face.

“What are you doing to my baby?” The voice was hoarse, scared. I remained still, and drew my hands from the water. Bean looked sturdy like a tugboat.

“What are you doing,” Amber said, this time like she might cry.

“It’s all right,” I said, still watching Bean. My voice sounded very calm. “Come down here.”

She edged down the gentle dirty slope. I turned around for a second and could see she’d been very sick. The moonlight made her look like a ghost. I looked down: Bean’s arms were at his sides. He wasn’t moving, and he looked very surprised.

“What are you doing to him?” she asked.

“Giving him something to remember me by,” I said. “I think someday he’ll remember this, the feeling of floating, a big face smiling down at him.” He smiled back. She reeked of alcohol and chemicals and stomach juice.

“I called the hospital,” I said, “I’m taking him back.”

She exhaled hard. “I’m his mother,” she said. She sounded very tired.

“And I’m his father,” I said, “and that’s the problem. I’ll drown him right here and now before I let us keep him.” I was just letting her know.

She came at me suddenly, with more strength than I’d expected, but I held her back, away from Bean, and soon she tired, and was able only to make the noise an animal makes when it has lost its young.

And then the water was rippling with tears from her eyes.

“If I could cry,” I said, “it would be because this is the happiest and most peaceful I’ll be in my entire life, and it’s all because of him.” I could even believe that my own father had felt like this once.

A car horn honked.

I looked at my son. I said, “He’ll never forget.”

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Brendan Schallert

Brendan Schallert is a third-generation Los Angelean and has been a public-school educator and school leader in the east Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights for thirty years. His students’ work is published yearly in book form by 826LA, a nonprofit organization founded by Dave Eggers. He has stories forthcoming in The Dry River Magazine, published by Crybaby Press in Los Angeles, and samfiftyfour, both from the same story cycle as The Salton Sea. His first, unpublished novel was nominated for a Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award by Michael Pietsch, who was then an editor at Little, Brown.



Brad Stumpf

Brad Stumpf is a Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA in 2015. Stumpf’s works are painted from observation, oftentimes depicting handmade objects organized atop his bedside table. They function as miniature stage sets, an open door to a quiet room or a still made halfway through a play. They attempt to capture real and imaginary events in his life—the purity and stillness of an idle moment spent alongside his wife, or the mental gymnastics required to navigate mortality and familial loss. 



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