The summer of the drought, we made a bowling alley in the wash. Just one lane, narrow and uneven, with the witchgrass and the mesquite rising up around us and the ground hard-packed and dusty, sloping down toward the city.
It was a bad idea, but Tyson Burke thought of it, so at the time, it mostly seemed like something to do. He was the king of bad ideas, and sometimes we went along with them for no other reason except that it was better than sitting at home watching reruns of Cops with the air-conditioner sweating fat, glossy beads of toxic water.
When we remember those afternoons, our recollection is a fractured one. The individual stories diverge. Lily talks about hot sandstone and the way the dust felt under her toes. Joe Healy says he’s forgotten nearly everything, that it only comes rushing back when he smells mesquite and desert lavender.
Alex Bell, who was always more somber than the rest of us, recalls something darker. When he closes his eyes at night, he says that he can still see the stark, graceful shape of Celia Webber, standing at the top of the embankment with a palm cupped to her ear, listening for thunder. Her hair looks pin-straight and brittle, so pale in the sun that it is almost white.
All our lives, our parents had warned us to be careful of the wash, to listen for the sound of storms. The ground was baked solid, so dry that if you hit it with a rock it cracked like tile and if the rain came, we knew it wouldn’t soak in, but only spill down through the narrow canyon and onto the road. Storms meant danger, but what is that to a bunch of kids? We didn’t believe in danger yet, and the sharp report of a thunder clap was too close to the sound the pins make when the ball hit them and they went crashing over, rolling idly in the dirt.
On nights when the temperature hangs in the triple digits and the winds blow down from the hills, we can still hear the sound of pins falling, like a dream we had once and keep having.
The ball was a cool, marbled blue. Jason van Doran found it lying in the weeds out by the freeway one day, like a giant turtle’s egg, almost buried in rabbit brush and Virginia creeper. Someone must have lost it, he said—left it behind like a dropped glove, a misplaced earring, a coin falling from someone’s pocket. But it was sleek and bright and heavy, too substantial to simply lose track of and none of us ever really believed it was lost, only abandoned.
The holes were big, too far apart for some of the girls to grip it, but they played anyway, using both hands, rolling it granny-style along the ground toward Ranch Road and the seven chipped pins that Dixie Carter found in the dumpster behind Mermaid Lanes.
The wash was our retreat, far from the sea of wire clotheslines and chain-link. It was that place in which you never feel uncertain or alone and your parents never come there, just look up vaguely from mowing the lawn and wave goodbye as walk your bike down the driveway. Maybe they take you aside sometimes, put a hand on your shoulder and tell you not to smoke or shoplift or talk to that Flannery boy from down the street, but they always let you go again. They never tell you the truth of the world is that it changes, never tell you that the warm, lazy dream you’re dreaming right now might end before school starts up again, before you even realize you’ve been sleeping, and that when you wake up, you will not recognize yourself.
We were lulled by the crash of the pins as they spilled away down the hard, cracked slope of the canyon and Vincent DeLuco’s little brother ran to retrieve them, skipping between tufts of dry grass in his dusty sneakers, ready to set them up in crooked rows and start the whole thing over. We spent hours, days, our whole careless lives, laughing in the wash.
Tyson was two years older and presided over the rest of us, smiling down benevolently. If we close our eyes, we can sometimes still see him, sitting at the top of the bank in one of the battered lawn chairs with his feet kicked up, drinking beer out of a plastic gas station cup, watching the girls argue over the bowling order and waiting for his turn to send the ball careening down the packed dirt to strike the pins, scattering them like tiny toppled buildings.
We should have known.
If you ask Alex Bell, he’ll tell you with a heavy certainty that we did know, but chose to ignore it. He may be right, but it has always seemed to the rest of us that the wash was a magnificent wasteland, a place without rule or law or time. It was impossible to know anything.
When the flood came down though the gap, it happened all at once, like an unchecked bullet, a blow to the head. We were caught with our knees scraped, our hands sticky with the juice of melted popsicles, unprepared for sorrow or catastrophe.
Some of us made it to higher ground, up the bank and into the scrub, arms and legs scratched, feet wet and mouths dry. Most of us, even. But not all.
Tyson floundered briefly and then disappeared. Celia went next, swept down under the weight of thousands of gallons of water. Her hair floated for instant, waving in the current like a flag, white and then brown, then gone.
The ones who were left stood on the top of the bank, too close to the crumbling edge, staring down with a noise like a cataract in our ears, and the wooden pins tumbled and rolled, carried along until they bobbed out of sight.
The wash is dry again, but full of silent ghosts and we don’t go there. It doesn’t matter. The flood has come with us, following us down through the slow parade of years. In the parking lots of 24-hour convenience stores, on nights when the city seems like nothing but miles of pavement, bare and hot and vacant, we drive in circles with the radio on and tell each other what we remember.
None of us recall it in quite the same way, but it doesn’t matter. We can still see the outlines of our former selves, see each other as we were. No one else does. To the greater world, the flood consumes us. It is as though grief is a permanent condition, transformative. Our parents look at us like strangers.
We went to sleep children and woke up grown, baptized in heat and dust, anointed with dark gritty water. Now, when we are together, that sleep is almost tangible. It seems to be the only real thing, and the years since then have taken on the cast of make-believe. We sit together on the curb, in a yellow circle of streetlight and know that this is not the real thing and we are simply sharing one long, sprawling dream we never seem to wake up from.
Photo by John Saxon