Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways. Dogs lay belly-up and heaving in the shade. It was cooler in the hills, where Marion’s family lived. Everyone who stayed at their ranch was some relative, Marion said, blood or otherwise, and she called everyone brother or sister.
The main house jutted up from the ranchland, as serene and solitary as a ship, crusted with delicate Victorian detailing that gathered dirt in its cornices and spirals. The first owner had been a date heiress, Marion told me, adored and indulged, and her girlish fancies were evident in the oval windows that opened inward, the drained pond that had once been thick with water lilies and exotic fish. Palm fronds fell crisped from the trees that flanked the house’s exterior. All the landscaping was now like an afterimage, long grown over but visible in the heights of grass, in the lines of trees that extended a path to the front door, bordered by white plaster columns.
We spent most of our time in the airy rooms of the main house. We watched the babies there, cradled them and sang, dangled glass beads on strings over their damp faces. We put together whatever puzzles were around, baroque castles or glossy kittens in baskets, starting over as soon as we had finished. I found a book on massage, with foldout graphs of pressure points, and we practiced: Marion lying on her stomach, her shirt pushed up, me straddling her and moving my hands across her back in firm circles, my palms slick and yellowed with oil. Marion had just turned thirteen. I was eleven.
My mother was going through a phase then, having night sweats and blackouts. She paid people to touch her: her naturopath, who placed warm fingers on her neck, her breast; the Chinese acupuncturist, who scraped her naked body with a plane of polished wood. I ended up at Marion’s for weeks at a time, my clothes mixed in with hers, her half brother stealing small bills from me, her father, Bobby, kissing Marion and me good night square on the mouth.
One afternoon, we sat on the front steps of the main house, sharing a root beer and watching her father dig pits in the yard. Later, he would line them with leaves and fill them with apples.
“I need cigarettes,” Marion moaned, passing me the bottle. I sipped the root beer with adult weariness. “Let’s ask Jack for some,” she said, not looking at me. Jack was Bobby’s friend, visiting from Portland. He was rangy, the pale hairs on his arms neon against his tanned skin. He had been staying in the barn with his girlfriend Grady, who wore long skirts and ribbons around her ponytail. At dinner, when Grady lifted her arms to retie her bow, I saw dark hair under her arms and averted my eyes.
“It’s not like it’s a big deal. He’ll share,” Marion said, pinching a thread from the hem of her cutoffs. Marion was wearing her shorts over her favorite bright orange bikini, nubby fabric stretched tight across her breasts, her shoulders shining from sunscreen. I was wearing a swimsuit top, too, borrowed from Marion, and all day I had felt an anxious thrill from the strange feeling of air on my chest and my stomach. Marion raised her eyebrows at me when I didn’t answer. “We’re wearing these ’cause it’s hot, okay? Don’t worry so much.”
Marion knew she was something pretty in that suit. Men stared at her, and she liked it. When Jack first came for dinner at the ranch, he would follow Marion with his eyes when she got up from the table. That day, when Jack watched Marion in the barn as he rolled a cigarette for her, I felt a flint of heat in my insides. When he glanced at me, I turned and hunched my shoulders, trying to relieve the strain of my breasts against the borrowed fabric. I never went out in that swimsuit again.
None of us knew then that bark beetles were tunneling in the trees, laying millions of eggs that would wipe out millions of trees. Bobby was warning of an attack so great that the United States would fold in on itself like a fist. It was the men’s job to protect the women. Everyone who lived at the ranch was storing things, freezing food in huge, unbelievable quantities and clearing brush out of old Indian caves and caching water there in jugs. Bobby wanted to build a stone tower, forty feet high and circular, on top of a hill where the energy was paramagnetic and auspicious. They circled the site with silk flags and burning oils before they started construction. Marion and I watched from the hillside, slapping the mosquitoes on our legs. He was storing arms, Bobby said, for the wars, and we never quite knew if he was joking or not. Marion rolled her eyes at him all the time, but swallowed the foul-tasting Coptis tincture he gave us each morning for regular bowel movements and thick hair. “Like a pony’s,” he said, and twisted Marion’s braid around his wrist.
Her family staked their marijuana plants on south-facing hillsides and planted them with sage and basil. They told their friends they had thirty plants, but they had five times that many, hidden all over the ranch. They sold to a dispensary in Los Angeles, and sometimes, if my mother was away for the weekend on an extreme juice fast, Marion and I were allowed to drive down with Bobby when he dropped it off. Marion’s mother, Dinah, taught us to use a vacuum sealer on the plastic around the dope.
“Put on gloves,” Dinah said, tossing me an old gardening pair. “If you guys get pulled over they’ll sniff your fingernails for resin.”
We triple-bagged the weed and packed it into backpacks. Dinah put the backpacks into big duffel bags and covered them with beach towels, swimsuits, folding chairs, and a crate of overripe pears to hide whatever smell was left. Marion and I piled into the backseat, holding hands, our bare thighs sticking and skidding on the leather seats. We drove along the winding coastal roads, through shantytowns and orchards that drooped in the heat, past dry hills and that distant purple ridge, the cows standing motionless in the middle of a field.
I had been down south before, but my mother and I had driven on I-5, not the back roads. My mother would never have stopped at the rock shop, where Bobby let us each buy a piece of agate, or the date farm, where an old man made the three of us milkshakes. They were thick and I sucked at the straw until my mouth ached. Marion finished hers first, then rattled the straw around in her empty cup. She rolled down the window, got my attention, and let the cup tip and fall out of the car. When I looked back, the cup was bouncing silently into the weeds.
“Hey,” Bobby said, turning half around in his seat. He swatted at Marion, but she swung her legs out of reach. “Don’t do that,” he said. I was smiling, like Marion, but when Bobby’s voice rose, I stopped. “Don’t toss shit out of the car when it’s full of pot,” he bellowed, slapping his hand toward Marion. His hand glanced off her bare thigh and I saw it redden. “You wanna get us pulled over for something stupid?” he said, turning back to the road.
“God,” Marion cried, rubbing her leg. “That hurt.”
Bobby wiped his hands on the steering wheel. He glanced back at me in the rearview and I looked away.
“They just love to get you for stupid shit like that.”
I smiled when Marion looked at me. She wrinkled up her face, jokey again, but I saw her grip her agate.
I held my own agate up to the light of the car window. It was smooth, a pale blue, banded with delicate threads of white. The woman at the rock shop said it was for grace, for flight. “Good for protection,” she said, when I brought it to the counter. “Blue lace agate can help you call on angels. Also heal eczema, you know, if you get dry skin.”
The agate Marion picked out wasn’t smooth. It was jagged and bright. Flame agate, the woman called it. “See?” she said, lifting it, turning it in her fingers. “Looks like a coal, huh? Like a hot coal.”
“What’s it gonna do for me?” Marion asked, reaching out to touch it.
“Well, it’s good for night vision,” the woman said. “Addiction, too, but you’re young for that. You know what?” she said, looking at Marion. “It’s just a good earth stone. For power.”
“They’re all like that,” Marion said. “All-protective, all-powerful, blah.” She grinned at the woman. “Are there any bad stones?” she said. “Like, that give you weakness or stupidness or something?”
“Yeah, or cancer,” I ventured, rewarded by Marion’s quick snort.
The woman shook her head. She looked at me as if she was disappointed, and I looked away. The woman handed Marion and me little silk pouches. “Don’t leave them in direct sunlight,” she’d said as we left. “Drains their power.”
When we stopped to get gas, I watched Bobby at the pump, pulling uncomfortably at his waistband. I realized that it was one of the first times I’d seen him wearing clothes that looked like what other adults wore: instead of his jeans he wore with no shirt, now he was dressed in athletic pants made of a shiny material, and borrowed sneakers. He stood stiffly, arms crossed over the sports logo on his T-shirt.
In the backseat Marion was tossing her agate from palm to palm. “Sorry Dad yelled,” she said. “It’s just tense. The drive.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Really. I don’t care.”
“He can be a jerk.” Marion shrugged, and concentrated hard on catching the agate.
Marion stopped. “He’s really great, too,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “He’s a really great father,” she said. We both looked up: Bobby snapped the wipers out of the way and started dragging a squeegee wetly on the windshield. Through the water and soap, the road beyond was blurry and far-off.
“I don’t think he’s a jerk.” I lowered my voice. Bobby was bunching up paper towels. “I would never think that.”
We heard the high squeak of glass. Bobby had scraped the last of the water away, and the world outside the car was clear again: the clapboard of the small convenience store, the propane tanks, the highway, near and empty and without end.
Bobby dropped the weed off at a Japanese temple in Burbank. While the men did business, Marion and I flicked murky water at each other and watched the goldfish in the driveway fountain gape and flash in the sun.
“There are no rules,” Jack said, back at the ranch. He showed us anything we wanted in the barn, let us pick up mouse bones, old tops. Potted garlands of bulbed plants, sweet succulents we pierced with our fingernails.
“Don’t feel like you have to ask to touch anything,” he said. He let us look through pulpy books with black-and-white photographs of dead bodies, of bloody sheets.
“Oof. That’s Manson,” he said, twirling his fingers. “I knew Beau before he hooked up with them. He wrote poems. Sweet, bad poems.”
From Jack we learned about runes, about the Ku Klux Klan. About Roman Polanski. That men who wore rings on their thumbs were liars. When Jack excused himself to the outhouse, Marion rummaged through Grady’s underwear in the bureau.
“Don’t look through her stuff,” I said. I liked Grady.
“He said we could touch anything,” Marion said. “Whoa,” she crowed, holding up a pair of black lace underwear. She stuck her fingers through a slit in the crotch and wriggled them. “Crotchless panties,” she laughed, and flung them at me.
“Gross,” I said. When I tossed the underwear back to Marion, I saw her shove them deep into her back pocket. She looked at me, daring me to say something, then moved on to the Playboys, turning each page, discussing the women.
“This one’s real skinny, but her tits are big. Like me. Men love that.”
Another page, a tawny woman with an Indian cast to her face. Then the cartoons, somehow more lurid than the photographs: the bursting shirts and rounded rears, the unzipped fly.