Dante could hear the small truck laboring up the slight grade of Baseline Avenue. He heard the clattering as it turned onto the long dirt-covered road leading north toward his street. He recognized the shitty engine and the cargo in the bed. Meth heads. They’d come past his house last night, checking out the cell towers at the short dead end of Minerva Court.

He hadn’t thought they’d come back so fast. It was 2 a.m. No other vehicles around, just the long whine and then the downshift of semi-trucks heading down the Cajon Pass into San Bernardino, coming from Vegas. When he was little, listening in bed, he imagined the trucks like dinosaurs farting their way down the grade.

Tonight was supposed to be better than last night for the show of stars, so Dante had settled down after midnight wearing his hoodie, holding the binoculars. Utter darkness wasn’t possible, but he left his phone inside so even that blue light wouldn’t show. Behind the house were only black acres of sandy field and the old corral. Then the arroyo and the freeway.

He turned the binoculars on his house – thirty feet away down the long cement path bordered with river rock, past the old plow and stone water trough. The ancient redwood shingles on the house had darkened to tight black scales. The first time his best friend Manny’s father picked up Dante for baseball practice, he said to Dante’s father, ‘Damn – these shingles aren’t even painted, homes!’

Dante’s father said, ‘Linseed oil and turpentine. 1889. Sinks in permanent.’

‘I already had to repaint my stucco, man, after a year.’

‘You got a new house,’ his father had laughed. ‘Me – I relax. Watch Saturday Night Fever. Wizard of Oz. Whatever my wife wants to see.’

Manny Jr waited until they were hitting grounders to say, ‘Your dad watches some weird shit. My dad just watches sports.’

Dante said, ‘He met my mom when they were freshmen in theater class. He built a whole graveyard on stage just so he could watch her sing.’

His father’s name was Grief, after some guy who came out from Mississippi with his father’s great-grandmother, Lily. His mother’s name was Larette, after her grandmother back in Louisiana. Larette had painted the two pillars of river rock holding up the porch roof. Fat white pearls in the dark. The front window’s original glass was all wavery – like black Saran Wrap. Dante’s phone was filed in his mother’s coupon box: under P, with Procter & Gamble. He missed her so much he looked at the coupons every day, even though that was babyish.

Strange to have no white moths or the golden beetles his mother used to call candlebeasts. Because there were no streetlights anymore. The copper wiring had been stolen from all of them six months ago. Dante’s father had put up a solar porch light, but Dante had covered it tonight, even though his father never wanted it completely dark. ‘There’s only us left on the block,’ his father said. ‘My grandpa said Lily used to talk about how one fire tamed the wild. We got one light bulb here.’

Lily came out to San Bernardino with the Mormons in their wagons. Not because she wanted to. They had campfires and kerosene lanterns. The same stars shooting across the sky as right now, and Lily had been up listening for horse thieves. Cattle rustlers. She was out here in absolute darkness.

Now it was the Wild Wild West again. These two guys in the raggedy white Ford Ranger were copper rustlers. Dante heard the engine wheezing around the corner, sounding like asthmatic Manny on his way to third base. The truck came slow down Minerva Court, headlights off. If only they wanted to make sure the stars were bright. But they were hunting.

Dante had seen their truck bed last night. Torn-off freeway guardrails stacked like dirty gray rib bones. Brass fittings from irrigation systems, poking up like beaked bird heads. They’d driven on the soft sand at the edges of the narrow asphalt road, all the way into the bushes that hid the fence around the cell tower substation. They’d gotten out, tools clanking.

‘No room tonight, dude,’ the taller man had said. ‘Not for that much wire.’ They got back in the truck and reversed, lights off, all the way down the road.

‘Fake-ass palm trees,’ his father had said about the three cell towers they’d been eyeing back in January. ‘How you gonna put up something so expensive and advertise it to thieves?’

How big was a catalytic converter? Manny’s father and Tyrone had both been pissed off last week because someone stole the catalytic converters off seven trucks, right in the driveways of their houses. Guys went out in the morning for work and their trucks wouldn’t start. They lived up in Oak Creek Ranch. The creek was covered over with cement and hollow fake boulders, but ducks still hung out there. Short steep white driveways like pull tabs in front of each house.

His father laughed at Manny Sr. ‘You got a two-car garage! Why wasn’t your truck in there?’

Manny Sr said, ‘Already got it full of stuff, homes.’

Every day, Dante’s father parked his truck on the sandy shoulder of Minerva Court, and in summer, Dante sat in the bed to watch the sky. He told Manny and Montrell they could race tumbleweeds out here. Saddle ’em up and bet on ’em, they were so big.

‘Tumbleweeds are the edelweiss of our cul-de-sac,’ his mother used to joke, last year.

‘Mormons didn’t speak German or French,’ his father used to say.

‘Cul-de-sac. Like culo. Spanish for ass. We’re at the ass end of the road and the city doesn’t give a damn the streetlights have been out for months,’ his father had told Montrell last week.

August. The time of the Perseids never varied. That was why Dante’s mother had taught him the stars. Must be ninety degrees even now, at 2 a.m. Hundred and twelve today. No coyotes. No rabbits. Nothing moved but the Ranger, creeping toward the cell towers.

They must have come back to strip them out. Shit. Dante didn’t want to go inside. They weren’t predators. They were vermin. Scavengers. They’d be fast. It was so dark they’d never notice him. And he didn’t want to miss the meteors.

He lowered his upper body down onto the metal grooves of his father’s truck bed, between the two toolboxes bolted in on each side. Now he could see only what he’d come out here to see: the sky.


Darling
Root and Branch