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Memories of Dog Day Afternoons

Note: This column is the first of two parts. Part two will run on Thursday, Oct. 7.

September 16, 1993|T. JEFFERSON PARKER | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month

On the hottest day in Laguna Beach that I can remember, Sept. 4, 1988, I was married to Catherine Anne Bagley in the front yard of our little Laguna Canyon house. We had known each other for a year and a half or so, and were strongly in love. When she walked down the "aisle" with her father (actually, stepped from the house and across the patio toward the Rev. Peter Haynes, my brother Matt, and me) my heart seemed to grow larger.

Later, as we said our vows, there was a moment when I lost myself. For just a second or two, I had no idea who or where I was.

I had never experienced this before. I was without identity or gender, bereft of body or will, the freest of agents. It was a blissful little jaunt into the cosmos and back.

Re-entering the searing atmosphere of Sun Valley Drive, I made eye contact with Cat in time to say "I will" and mean it.

We escaped the unbearable heat the next morning, bound for the Cayman Islands and two weeks of diving, sunning and honeymooning. All things considered, those may have been the most enjoyable days of my life. I have pictures.

On the fifth day, however, Hurricane Gilbert cast his destructive eye upon Grand Cayman itself, and we were hastily evacuated by plane to Key West, where we sat out the rest of our honeymoon tracking Gilbert's path on TV, trying to dodge the heat and humidity, immersing ourselves in the rather rowdy night life.

If the heat and hurricane had been some warning of dire things to come in this marriage, we were certainly not aware of it. We soon returned to California and began to settle into the life we would have together. We got a bigger house, a couple of dogs, and began to talk family. The future was spread out before us like a banquet, and we were the guests of honor.

Two weeks ago, on the fifth anniversary of this wedding, I found myself on the outskirts of Yuma, standing along a row of greasewood trees, holding a shotgun, waiting for the sun to come up and the doves to start flying. We had driven all night to get here. Cat had passed away of cancer in the winter of 1992. The life we had envisioned was gone. One of the things that had remained from it was the dog she had given me for Christmas '88, Cassius, a brown Labrador, who paced anxiously around me.

Far out over the crisp silhouettes of the mountains, sunrise commenced with a minor orange glow. I watched the sky and muttered, "Happy anniversary, Cat," and wondered how five years of life can be so full of event and still go by so fast.

By 1 that afternoon, I was back in my motel room with the air conditioner raging, plopped out on the bed for some much-needed sleep. An exhausted Cassius was drinking his fill from the toilet.

The idea struck me that I was being married at exactly this time five years ago, in the unbelievable heat of Laguna Canyon. It got up to 103 degrees that day, the same temperature that now registered on the sign at the savings and loan across from our motel. I closed my eyes and plummeted deep into sleep.

Twenty minutes later, I awoke for no reason at all that I could understand, utterly lost again. I did not know where I was or who I was. I was unsure of my age, my sex, my appearance, my race. It was that old oddball zip into the ether again, the same one I'd experienced five years ago. Within 30 seconds, things were clear. I rolled over and went into something that felt like a coma.

The following evening, on the California side of the Colorado River, we found ourselves overlooking a fallow field and a wide irrigation canal, waiting for the dove to fly back to roost. The sky was perfectly clear, and you could see for miles in every direction.

Cassius swam in the canal, snorting, paddling. There weren't many birds, but the soul of the hunt is not in how much protein you can knock out of the sky. I imagined myself in Grand Cayman, eating dinner with Cat in one of the fine restaurants on the island. How had I gotten from there to here? Where was she now?

Suddenly the sky was perfectly unclear. To the east, a blur of tan had consumed the world, and a fierce wind began to blow. Five minutes later, we were in the middle of the sandstorm, lowering our heads to keep our eyes from filling with the powder-fine silt being ripped from the fields and shot into our faces.

I hunkered behind a bush, focusing on my dog's accusatory expression. Twenty minutes later, the storm had passed and the evening was still again. Massive thunderheads began to form over the mountains, looking very much like those clouds in Grand Cayman that had presaged Hurricane Gilbert's furious arrival half a decade ago. I couldn't take my eyes off them.

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