The wind had started up at 3 a.m., the same way it had for hundreds of years, the same way I used to hear the blowing so hard around our little house in Fuego Canyon that the loose windowsills sounded like harmonicas. The old metal weather stripping played like the gods pressed their mouths around the screens in the living room, where I slept when I was growing up.
But now that I was back on shift at 3 p.m., the Harley was pushing hard against the biggest gusts, the Santa Anas blowing crazier than ever, the way they did in the afternoons. Fierce from the nap. Pepper trees, the ones that grew in every vacant lot or frontage road area along the freeways, had those long branches like ferns or seaweed, and when the wind blew them sideways like skirts I could see homeless encampments underneath.
A Thursday in October. Santa Ana winds, 94 degrees. Fire weather. People were three layers of pissed off. Everyone hated Thursday. Wednesday was hump day, but Thursday was when people drove like they wanted to kill each other. Today everyone was thinking of Halloween—the women wondering what sexy costume to wear for parties now that grown-ups had taken over the holiday, the kids dreaming about candy. Then the wind. Every few minutes, dust and trash flew across the lanes.
But fall winds always made me think of my mother, holding me tight in the old redwood chair my father had tied to the porch railing. My first memory—her talking to me before dawn, gusts so strong it felt like our house would go rolling down the canyon like a tumbleweed, the horses snorting in the barn, and my father down in the orange groves, making sure the trees didn’t dry out. “Nothing else is for sure but the wind,” she’d say while the eucalyptus leaves and bark flew past us. “We’re gonna look out for smoke, but right now, mira, it’s like we’re in the ocean.”
Today I was looking at one box truck that had blown over near Corona, an overturned big rig near the Chino Hills. The famous wind named for right here, where I drove every day, the Santa Ana Canyon carved out by the river through mountains all along Southern California. I kicked up the motorcycle and moved down the fast lane past the Katella exit. The old way to get to Disneyland. The Harley humming under me in the lane, and I never stopped thinking of it like a horse. Almost 20 years on the job and I still tensed up my right thigh when I was shifting the bike to change lanes—like my father taught me on my first horse when I was eight. “Let Mano feel where you want him to go. You have to love him that much and he has to love you, so he moves and you didn’t even open your mouth.” I was 39 years old now and I saw my father almost every day—if I rode up to the ranch today on my 5 p.m. break, he’d laugh watching the cloud of dust the motorcycle would leave near the barn, and say, “Elegiré un palomino cualquier día. Preferiría cultivar heno que comprar gasolina.”
But under his laughter his eyes would be serious. My father raised me to know we could die on a horse, a tractor, in a 1964 Chevy Impala if someone shot at the car, and definitely, I could die on that California Highway Patrol motorcycle, since nobody in the world was happy to see me ride up unless they’d been in an accident and were scared of dying if I didn’t get them out of the car.
On my first solo patrols, I worked graveyard shift. That summer, in Santiago Canyon, I found the body of a young Cambodian girl, only 20, whose car had hit a deer leaping across the toll road at 3 a.m. She and the deer lay 50 feet apart. The old Volkswagen Bug her surfer friends had restored had flown off the freeway and landed in the arroyo, and she was ejected. I shined the flashlight into her face and almost passed out. Her eyes. I put my fingers on her neck. Nothing. I called in the accident, and I sat next to the girl. The deer was making terrible noises from the brush. It had managed to crawl a ways, but I was afraid to shoot it with my service weapon until my sergeant got there. The sage and brittlebush smelled peppery. The blood left her with no sound.
She had a necklace made of dimes with holes punched in them, braided with red and gold thread. When I went to notify her father, Samana Som, at the apartment where he lived next to his doughnut shop in Santa Ana, he sat on the two cement steps. Put his head down, put his hands inside his black hair like two starfish. That’s what I remember.
He lifted his head and said, “She have a necklace. You don’t let someone take?”
“Dimes?” I said. “I’ll make sure you get it.”
“She grandmother make that when we come from Cambodia. We come from the killing field. That dime for break fever, and my daughter, she have fever all the time when she small. She wear that every day good luck.” He looked up at me. His eyes the same black as my own father’s. He said, “She grow up in the shop, always have to work, and now she want be a surfer, so we get up the same time. Two a.m. I start the doughnut and she surf for four hour and she come back to work.”
So every single day, every single dime I ever saw, every time I drove past Santiago Canyon on patrol, where people were flying down the toll road never looking at the deep ravines filled with sage and brittlebush, I thought about that deer leaping up out of the canyon, and that girl whose grandmother came from a place where no deer lived, where Samana Som had told me a story about surviving a tiger attack in the jungle, the tiger crouching on a branch above the grandmother when she was a girl and walking down a path to get water.
Then I’d light up a brand-new Mercedes S-Class, going 85 in the second lane, weaving around people, someone coming from the beach back toward the real world.
I drove past at least 20 canyons every day, could name each one. Black Star, Santiago, Silverado, Coal, Gypsum. But my dad’s words were always in my head—Johnny, there’s bones buried in every canyon in California. Algo muerto. Vacas, linces, perros. Coyotes, conejos, chavalos.
Then he always stopped. Took out his bandanna and wiped his forehead. Thought about the ranch cemetery further up the canyon. Where my mother was buried, in a metal casket that had been invisible under roses and lilies and bougainvillea blossoms. Next to two baby girls who had lived only hours. My sisters.
Then my father would say, Johnny. Don’t end as bones. Cause you’re all I got.
And every day, when I rode past Bee Canyon, I thought about the human I buried there, back when I was 21. I’d never told anyone what happened in Bee Canyon. Not even my father, who might be the only one who would understand.•
Excerpted from Mecca. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux March 15, 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Susan Straight. All rights reserved.