The Mission Lands

Devyn Defoe


While we wait Molly explains to me from the backseat the secret history of San Francisco.

There didn’t used to be hills, she says.  That’s what they said at school.  It used to all be just water from where the bay is now.  That used to go on for more, where the ground is, and you couldn’t walk anywhere because there was nothing to stand on.  People didn’t walk here or drive, because there weren’t any cars back then either.  Ships would sometimes come though because it was all water, and that’s what started San Francisco, the ships.  They’d come sometimes because there were lots of fish, because there was lots of water, and so they’d come for the fish because it was fresh, straight from the water.  And they’d clump around where all the best fish were, the ships.  Lots and lots of fish out in the water, that’s why there’s so many seals because that’s what seals eat.  The seals were around so that’s how the ships knew where the fish were.  They’d go to where the seals were or close to where the seals were, where there were still fish that hadn’t been eaten yet.  And the ships liked it there near the seals because the weather was better than it was in Alaska. Oh yeah, that’s where the ships came from in the first place, I forgot to mention that.  They came from Alaska, and it’s cold there.  So they started liking where the fish were because it was hotter, and it was green, and they decided to stay and build ground so they could walk.  Ships are so rocky, it’s hard to walk because they’re always moving so much.  So the people from the ships put paving on everything so it would be ground, but they didn’t move the ships first, and so they just paved over all of them.  That’s why there’s so many hills.  They’re the ships stuck under the pavement.

I ask Molly who told her this, and she says Becca Cauldey, who read it in a book about whales.  Why did a book about whales mention San Francisco, I ask,  and she says that it wasn’t actually a book about whales but a book about San Francisco narrated by a whale.  His name is Elton, she says, of the whale.

I ask Molly when her mom gets home from work and she says usually seven, but we’re supposed to buy groceries before that.  I know, I tell her; I have the list.  Why aren’t we buying groceries, she asks, and I tell her that the lesson of today is delayed gratification, and that putting off our tasks until they’re pertinent makes them all the more satisfying, and anyway the produce will be fresher if it waits in the store and not in the car.  What does pertinent mean, Molly asks.  I tell her it’s why you wait to harvest crops until they’re ripe, but Molly doesn’t know about agriculture and thinks that whales can talk.  Why are we waiting in this car and we’re not close to Trader Joe’s, she asks, and her voice lilts like that’s an uncle instead of a grocery store.  We’re waiting because your mom’s gone, I say, and don’t you want to see her.  I do, Molly says.  Those are the crops, I say, and Molly doesn’t understand.

We’re on an incline that Molly thinks is a ship and I watch the boys bomb down on longboards, some of them colliding at the bottom.  I flash my lights and ask Molly when was the last time she got something she didn’t want.  Last week, she says, I got a B on my spelling test when I wanted an A.  That doesn’t count, I say.  What’s a thing you got that you didn’t want, like a toy or something.  That’s hard, Molly says. I usually want things. Try harder, I say.

Molly sniffs, like her nose is stuffed.  Last week I wanted a book but my mom got me a different book instead.  Why didn’t she get you the book you wanted, I ask.  It had swear words in it, Molly says.  The guy who has my pot knocks on the window.

What’s that, Molly asks, and I roll up the window.  My groceries, I tell her.  Those aren’t groceries, she says, you just bought drugs. What was I telling you before about delayed gratification, I say.  I wasn’t listening because it was boring.

I turn around.  Molly’s the kid who loves her mother so much she’d crawl back up inside her.  Where would you want to be, I ask, in a body.  Huh?  Now that you’re out of the womb, you could be anywhere in your mother’s body, I say.  Lungs? The heart?  My brother had a doll named Molly when he was your age, I tell her.  An expensive doll.  He saved up for it because he really wanted it, and my parents wouldn’t buy it for him because he was a boy.  They probably thought he was gay.  So he saved all his money for it and bought it himself.  I remember seeing him with the catalogs, before he had enough money saved.  Looking at her face.  I remember him kissing her every night, before he’d go to sleep.


Devyn Defoe is pursuing her MFA in fiction at Columbia University.  This past summer she attended the Tin House Writer’s Workshop.  She’s currently working on her first novel, about a family of grifters and psychics in Northern California.