For forty years, my grandfather ran a door factory with a puddle out back by the loading docks. When it still rained, the slick was a creek, but it doesn’t seem to rain much anymore in California. All you can say is things are changing or they aren’t. Everyone knew when they built these cities they were building in a desert. Americans have always been optimistic about the prospects of science and technology.
After we dropped the bomb, my grandfather stayed out here with all those engineers he worked with at Douglas. He was one of the hundred thousand or so laid off when the war ended. Some of them continued on in aerospace and came up with jet propulsion. Others went up to Silicon Valley or they built the aqueducts and rerouted the water to certain cities. San Francisco became Palo Alto, my grandfather always said, and Hollywood became Los Angeles, and it took San Diego another fifty years to become Los Angles too, in terms of traffic.
He bought some commercial space for cheap and set up the factory down near the border. His lot sat between the ocean and the Tijuana River and he said, even in his time, the land looked like it had been dusted with talc, except near the arroyo, which was hung with chaparral. He’d done enough modeling for wing profiles and fuselages in balsa that cutting and gluing up doors was an obvious transition. Everyone was building houses for all those guys coming back from the Pacific.
He told me once about how, when the puddle was still a creek, his Mexican guys would fish in it for catfish during their lunch breaks. If they were lucky, they’d wrap their catches in tin foil and cook them over these little propane stoves they had, which were mostly what they cooked on at home too, all throughout Tijuana.
Crossing over wasn’t what it is now, back then it was easy. A lot of them would cross everyday, until the border changed, after that morning in New York, with the planes and the towers.
They’d sit and eat their packed lunches and then sit and eat the fish, flaking the meat off the bones whole, out of the tinfoil, drinking beers or whatever. Then, if they weren’t laminating or gluing, they’d go back to the sawing-tables and try not to zip off their fingers.
On a full stomach, topped with Modelo, you get sleepy. I know, I had some of those wet lunches when I was seventeen and the factory was still open. The water in the arroyo was long gone by then so mostly we’d just sit in the dust and talk bullshit.
The contractors my grandfather sold to were old school and they were sons of bitches. If you hadn’t landed at Tarawa or something, you were living in their America. He’d left most of the engineers and the scientists behind, or they’d left him in the layoffs. I mean they still associated, but he was building doors, not spy planes, so there wasn’t much in common once the war ended.
Anyway, he got himself killed eventually when he was about eighty, though I guess, actually, he didn’t get himself killed, really, he just got into it with some shit bird who fucked up his pacemaker.
It was one of those construction foremen, not a vet, but this guy’s son, Walter Jr. He owed my grandfather some money, and when my grandfather drove out to collect, Walter Jr. met him with a fish bat and pulled my grandfather out of his station wagon. He hit him maybe six or seven times, in the back and the chest and the ribs—and on his arms, of course. Pop was curled on the ground trying to protect himself.
In the process Walter Jr. also knocked loose an electrode, then he busted out the windshield and tore the wiper blades off the Buick. I can’t figure his logic in that last move, but there’s not a lot of logic in these guys to begin with.
Pop should have known better but he had the math in front of him. He had his balance sheets and he knew who owed him what and I guess he still thought of Walter Jr. as a kid, glued to his old man at the build sites, dressed like the Lone Ranger.
It took Pop about two months to die and there never was any direct correlation between his end and the beating. He just went off in his sleep, from an embolism, except he really was never right, not after they had to go back in for that second surgery. He was pale and he stopped eating, and he kept saying he could feel his heart sitting crooked, like they’d unseated it when they fixed his pacemaker.
“If I didn’t know better,” he said, “I’d swear they’d sewn their fingers into a ventricle.”
“Try not to think about it, Pop,” I told him.
“Let’s see how you’d manage.”
Once you open anything up it really is hard to make it work the way it’s supposed to. I’ve driven that station wagon of his ever since I got my license and the wipers have never worked right either. We’ve had them fixed twice but they don’t lay flat against the glass for some reason. They leave streaks and this film I can’t quite see through. I only use them about five times a winter anyway, it doesn’t rain, I already said, maybe it never did, so it’s easy to ignore the issue. The engine is still good and it starts every time I turn the key in the ignition. Really, the other three hundred sixty days a year, I can’t tell anything’s different.
Alex Webb Wilson is a writer and editor based in California. His short stories have been published by the Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, and the University of New Mexico Press, among others. His nonfiction has received honorable mention from the Best American Travel Writing anthology and has appeared in Outside, Byliner, and the San Diego Union Tribune, among others. He is the recipient of a Carlisle Family Scholarship from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.