Every Friday night we feature a short story, essay, personal narrative, poem,
spoken word, or short film for your enjoyment.
Tonight’s nonfiction essay is from Kym Cunningham
Rain hangs silent in a blackened sky; I can see neither the horizon nor the precipitation. They exist just beyond my perception, hallucinations that if I look hard enough, I can barely distinguish before my vision blurs and the drought returns.
The yard of my duplex is un-mowed, ravenous patches of unruly California clover and tall thin weeds that remind me of the Midwest. They assert dominance over the artificially inseminated grass, planted by landlords to resemble uniform suburbs of the American Dream. But grass does not grow in California. It must be rolled in from other places, maintained. It must never look dirty.
My grass is the color of dust, not dirt. Dirt implies nature, implies life, implies California water exists somewhere outside of constructed reservoirs, underground pipes, and business fountains.
“But it’s recycled water,” patrons and owners—the moneyed—say, programming their elaborate sprinkler systems. Wasted water runs off emerald spines, collecting in oil spots on concrete.
“Look, a rainbow!” a girl exclaims, pointing at the ground. She’s too young to have seen one in the sky.
By June of 2015, California had been dry for four years. In an effort to alleviate the drought, the state water board implemented its first-ever mandatory urban water limitations, requiring each county to work toward a percentage of water conservation tailored to fit its consumption.
In San José, two-day-a-week watering practices were implemented, home car-washing and the filling of private swimming pools was banned. The city was in a state of uproar, with the government pointing at homeowners, homeowners pointing at businesses, and businesses pretending to inspect some very interesting cracks on either the floor or the ceiling. No one was happy, and no one wanted to accept that they were at fault.
My landlords seemed especially concerned that I conserve the water they paid for, so concerned, in fact, that they showed up, unannounced, to make certain I understood the fiscal consequences. The tiny wife, a hawk-nosed Russian nesting doll, jabbed at me with her clawed hand. “We are in drought, so only use water if you need, yeah? You use too much, we will be fined. Okay?”
Her warning came two years after I had moved in, but I nodded enthusiastically nonetheless. “Yeah, I’ve been trying to be really careful about watering the lawn and washing my clothes.”
This was bullshit and I knew it; I was using environmentalism as an excuse for the un-mowed weeds of my otherwise brown lawn and the piles of laundry collecting in heaps on sofas and my bedroom’s slatted wooden floors. The Lorax or The Wump World were no excuse for the dishes piled up in my sink and on my nightstand. I still took thirty-minute showers and had a kill-on-sight policy for spiders.
The wife squinted at me, bagged eyes shaded in eyeliner and foundation that has covered her face for longer than I’ve been alive. I could see she knew that I was lying, that I, like the rest of my generation, am lazy, that I make us excuses. She could tell I only pretended care.
“Okay, so uh, have a good day.” She nodded brusquely, which did nothing to alter the unnatural fan of her hair, and a purse of Grand Canyon lips.
When I first moved to San José, I noticed a poster for water usage reduction at the local climbing gym, one of many in a California-based chain. CALIFORNIA IS IN A DROUGHT! it said, with a picture of the state—a blue teardrop in the South, underneath where California’s left eye should have been. The poster gave Touchstone Climbing-sponsored ways of promoting water consumption AT HOME:
Turn off water when not in use.
Take shorter showers.
Use leftover ice to water pets and plants.
If it’s brown, flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow.
I had never heard the last phrase until I came to California.
Growing up in the Midwest, it was hard to understand the concept of a drought. The smell I remember most from my childhood was the curl of warm rain as it hit hot cement, the feel of it like taking a warm shower fully-clothed. Water was omni-present in the suburbs outside of St. Louis: it flowed through creeks behind houses, it gurgled down sloped streets into sewers beneath our feet. We shot it at one another in neighborhood Super Soaker fights; we smashed balloons of it against cars, houses, against each other. In the nineties, our feet were always slimy with mud.
Even when I lived in the Arizonian desert in the early 2000s, no one seemed concerned about water consumption. Sure, it only rained once a year in Mesa, but the singular flash flood was enough to close schools. When it rained, we didn’t leave the house, afraid we might be swept away by the six-foot swell that rushed through dipped streets, covering roadside yardsticks designed to show water level. Even in the desert, my childhood saturated the earth.
Fast-forward a decade and a half: I am no longer a child, and I live in California. I can see the ocean if I drive thirty miles to Santa Cruz, and yet everywhere—in cafés, on the freeway—I am cautioned: Save water! We are in a drought! The signs are as prevalent as adolescent rain, and just as easy to dismiss. But drive away from the cities, drive into the broken hills and sun-dried valleys, and California’s drought becomes impossible to ignore.
Yosemite, the crown jewel of America’s National Parks, bakes in the California sun, parched rocks gasping for snow that has long since melted away. Rivers that once swelled barely trickle a foot above the ground. The earth is dust-dry and the grass seems liable to catch fire at any moment. Wood for campfires is easy to find.
This is not the Yosemite my San José born-and-raised partner wants to show me, sensing my doubt as the earth cracks beneath my feet. Growing up, I had woods in my backyard that were more impressive than this, teeming with coyote dens, forests so green they hurt my eyes. Here, the dust makes it hard to see anything other than itself.
He takes me to Yosemite Falls, the park’s three-tiered, 2,500-foot major attraction, thinking that this show of nature’s thunderous force will turn me into a believer. We park his ‘94 Toyota pickup in the shade, following signs as brown as the ground itself. I can almost taste his excitement as we walk towards a break in the trees; he is picking up his pace, trying through a sheer force of will to push my plodding faster, wait and see, wait and see.
We reach the break, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a handful of other tourists. There is no thunder, no crash of water plunging into the pool at the rock-cliff’s base. There is nothing but the rock itself. I can feel his disappointment hanging in the air where water should have been. And so I look up, eyes straining through hundreds of gray feet, and I can see it: the sheen of a fine mist over the edge of the cliff.
Ignoring the unenthused grumbles of other tourists around me, I concentrate on the misted undulations. Over and away, over and away, I feel the tug of wind against gravity. In California, even Nature battles itself for water. Staring at the interplay, I begin to notice a tint in the waves; as it leaves the rock, the water evaporates in rainbows. The color spectrum dances faintly in the light. If I blink, I miss it. I have never seen water like this before.
In California, it is the scarcity of water that makes it beautiful, that makes us want to be near it. We encroach upon the water, building our houses closer and closer. We would live on top of it if we could; we would have it surround us, swallow us whole. There is something Biblical about the relationship Californians have with water: there are those who are conscientious of their consumption—the chosen ones, the saved; and then there are the fallen, the wanton, the wasteful.
Driving down I-5 through the Central Valley, we can see the righteous anger of the chosen:
CONGRESS CREATED THE DUSTBOWL
NO WATER = NO JOBS
Is Growing FOOD Wasting Water?
DAMS or TRAINS Build Water Storage NOW
Signs pepper the highway like freckles. They do not fade in the sun but become stronger, more apparent, the light that blinds passersby to the unilaterally brown fields reflects off otherwise plain-colored poster board. The sun forces us to acknowledge them, forces us to look around at the cracked earth and barren fields for even just a square patch of green.
But the green that we want does not exist in California farmlands anymore. The strawberries and cherries don’t taste like they used to, like how we remembered them when we were younger and juicier ourselves.
When we lived in the Midwest, fruit came from California or Chile, places of wonder where oranges and grapes thrived even when we were covered in a foot of snow. Californian Avocados were a delicacy, expensive, not to be frittered away on our daily bread, only to be eaten on special occasions. We didn’t know the proper way to cut them—in gridlocked crisscrosses, halves still in the skin—until we came to California.
But now, when we stop at roadside fruit stands, we can taste the lack of water. The cherries and grapes feel dull and fibrous, sponges drying up the backs of our mouths, and the strawberries taste ever so slightly like feet, the same way that blue cheese finishes chalky against our teeth.
As we drive with the dust of fruit in our throats, we can feel the sun leeching nutrients from the earth, from the plants, from the air around us. We can feel it stealing our precious bodily fluids like fluoride. When we drive past Coalinga, we can smell it in the cow shit baking under corrugated metal awnings. When we drive past Soledad, we can sense its prisoners baking in their cells. We start to feel as though we, too, are imprisoned: femurs crunched beneath the steering wheel, spine curled inward so we don’t stick to our seats—so thirsty, so thirsty—we become raisins of ourselves. Our hands crack against the steering wheel, even though our faces feel covered with the sheen of oil and exhaust. We don’t retain any moisture; there isn’t enough lotion in the world to make up for the lack of water.
A year ago, we were promised El Niño. “The drought is over!” Meteorologists predicted, divining rods in hand, and the people of California rejoiced. We went back to spraying down sidewalks to get rid of cigarette butts, back to car washes, back to watering our long-dead lawns five times a week. We ran clean water through fountains, got rid of the dry crust coating the surface of our state.
We started buying almonds again, by the pound. Someone had told us, courtesy of Internet-second-hand, that it took over a gallon of water to grow a single almond. We never bothered to double-check the statistics or we would have found the farmers’ protestations. “Those figures are misleading,” they claimed. “Everything you eat takes water.” No one paid attention. We were already almond-shamed.
But then the drought was over, as mysteriously as it had appeared, and we went back to shoving almonds in cakes and chicken salad, in trail mixes and granola, anywhere they might go. “They’re so good for you,” we congratulated each other with our mouths full. “Cruelty-free protein, the natural way.” We couldn’t have been prouder of ourselves.
But with our mouths stuffed with almonds, we neglected to notice that our shins were still dusty, our mouths as dry as before. The rains had not yet come.
“Soon,” the meteorologists promised, now sweating ever so slightly. They glanced at one another, found strength in the conviction of others. “El Niño will be here soon.”
When the sky darkened, tumescent with clouds, we would point towards the heavens and nod solemnly. “El Niño,” we said, by way of greeting. We moved our cars from garages, uncovered them, thinking the rain would finally wash away two years of dust. Outside, our children stood beside us, faces upturned, ready for baptism, ready to receive the gift of faith. The world began in a flood; we thought that it’d end in one too—the ice caps melting, the Pacific reaching up to swallow us whole, the new beachfront properties of Las Vegas, then Boulder, until only Kansas City is left.
Too late, we realized Noah’s prophesy came from voices arguing in his head, the boat that had taken him years to build was just several pieces of sheet metal and cardboard duct-taped together. We’d been stuffing ourselves full of hydrogenated fats and silicon, coating our bodies in tar and California Standard Oil. Our flood insurance promised we would survive El Niño, if only the rains would come.
But the heavens sneered, spitting on us. Here, they said, this is what you deserve, saliva evaporating in vindictive laughter before it touched the ground. We would have wept but could not find any tears.
And so we wait, pretending, in true California fashion, that everything is fine. We man-make oases that should not exist—desert golf tournaments, outdoor swimming pools—believing we can have the American Dream without winter. After all, this is California where dreams are made. All anyone has to do is ask.
But we are not playing Legos; we are not building castles in towns of make-believe. Rather, we build Porter Ranches on highly-flammable methane deposits, then complain when the smell leaks into our foyers. We are a state of spoiled children, of adults who never grew up. We are not used to hearing the word no. We are realizing, too late, that water can’t be spun from Hollywood gold, that money and oil are not the ends, but the means, fuel for the inevitable fire.
Down the I-5, Santa Ana’s blazes have already begun. They are early this year, an additional sentence from the angered heavens. On July 1, 2016, headlines read: Firefighters Contain 45-Acre Brush Fire. Another fire erupts a little over two weeks later—July 16th—then ten days—July 26th—then less than a week—August 1st. Even up north, four hundred miles away, we can feel the temperatures rising, the dryness catching in the back of our throats, the air that chokes us when we step outside. By August 10th, firefighters are battling 3 major wildfires. We know it’s just a matter of time before the flames snake up freeways, jump across concrete, burn California to the ground. Canyons will be engulfed; fire will spew from the mouth of Yosemite Falls as we choke on the Armageddon we created. We will be baptized, not in the sanctity of water but in hell-fire; we will drown in sulfuric smoke, dehydrated ruins that crumble to the earth as penance for our sins.
I can see the fire on the horizon, next to the hallucination of rain. It’s the same orange as the electronic billboards that blink with ETAs and phone numbers for reporting drunk drivers.
There’s a billboard off the 710, outside Long Beach, informing passersby that the drought is not over, that we must still work at conservation, that we must limit outside watering. It explains this to us in pixels, digital information the only way it thinks that we can understand. We have been in cars too long to see past highways; we have been in air-conditioning too long to feel the doom in the air.
We have been too comfortable in this stolen state. It is only a matter of time before our apathy allows Nature to reclaim it.
Previously published in The Boiler
Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San Jose State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry. She acted as the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi. She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The 3288 Review, Drunk Monkeys, and Reed.