“Clover Patch Fields” by Erik Thurman
The heat from the late afternoon blows right through the open window of my Dodge as I'm driving down the country fields of Shoemake Avenue. I lean forward to free my back from the damp sweat that has fused me with the seat and drenched my body. The blinking gas pump light on my dashboard has discouraged me from running the air conditioning until I can find a place to fill up, though even if I was stranded out here it's not like I'd be too uncomfortable. The only unpleasant thing I can think of is the smell of manure and springtime allergens drifting in the lazy wind with its familiar and timeless aroma. Encompassing me is an ever expanding field of chlorophyll that transforms the bowl of the Central Valley into a beautiful Viridian tapestry gently stitched with irrigation ditches and imperfect almond trees. And while I've claimed San Jose as my hometown for quite some time, for better or for worse, Modesto is my home.
This bedrock community of 211,156 was one of the hardest places hit in America during the Great Recession of 2008, where workers suddenly found themselves with no way to pay their mortgages and consequentially lost everything. Old abandoned houses dot themselves along the road every quarter mile, signposts pointing to nowhere, as I make my way further into the country towards my destination. Hidden within some of these dimly lit houses lay older folks that never had the opportunity to leave the fields. Who find themselves counting the days till either their savings or their health run up dry, whichever comes first. Above these splinters of former residencies climb rusted steel girders of hay barns that stand erect like tombstones, remnants from the mid-90s when the dairy industry thrived in the area, flourished with bouquets of weeds around them. A defeated sun has slunk lazily behind the cemetery flat hills as I turn off the ignition at one of the tiny little houses in the middle of nowhere.
It was a good place to grow up during the first twelve years of my life.
The worn lettering of “Thurman Dairy” on the silo greets me as I step out onto the gravel and into a childhood long forgotten. The crunching of the road beneath my feet hasn't changed a bit from when I used to play out here in the evenings with my younger sister and dog Bruiser. I waste no time running off to the rusted gates where fields of clovers sprout from one length of the fence to the other. It’s hard to imagine that these same corrals held hundreds of cows back when the family was still in the milking business. A business that was passed down through the families for over a century before it finally tanked and went bankrupt a few years back.
I walk back towards the driveway to get away from potential wild snakes hungry for ankles in the grass and continue across the gravel to the barn. The window from where a break in took place several years back is still semi-shattered along the center and moss has overtaken the cracks of the stone walls.
Vapors of shit still linger as I make my way around the bend of the barn, acting almost as a guide to the larger corrals in the back and the stained wood pens that used to house the smaller calves. The floor of the big tin structure is still covered in dirty patches of old straw scattered about on the concrete, a detail that probably saved my life when I fell from a 30 foot haystack when I was a child. I can still remember the cuts from dragging myself across this gravel back to the house where I passed out for hours. It's still amazing that nothing was broken from the fall and that my body recovered on its own, but it took days before I could actually manage to get myself up and out of bed. When I walk closer to the site, the toads that were loudly proclaiming their presence shrink within their burrows to hide from the new stranger invading their territory.
I'm about to turn around and start heading back over towards the direction of my car when I notice a couple bright eyes staring in my direction, apparently a white Manx cat makes her home in the barn. She begins to howl loudly, slithering her way over to me in order to try to get a better glimpse at this human in her territory. The Manx cat can't make up her mind if she wants to be pet or to run away. When I move down to touch her, she scurries to shelter.
I end up walking back around to the small little house on the plot of land, my old house that had burnt to the ground when a water heater exploded a few years ago. The insurance money for the place kicked in and it's since been somewhat renovated into a more modern home, but it really lost something in the makeover, a bit of its soul I guess? My new friend, the damn cat, ends up following me up the trail to the house and won't stop with her whining till I finally bend over to pet her.
I press my shoulder into the front door of the home to jar it open and I'm instantly stunned at the refurbished living room. The newspapers and gun magazines that used to litter the floor, the Spider-man and Barbie sleeping bags sprawled out as a “rug”, the tiny model of the Christian manger that was missing one of the three wise men, they're all gone! Instead I'm faced with newly painted white walls and clean unstained furniture placed gracefully throughout the domain. The only bit of history left here is the streaks of soot and tar from the stone fireplace, one of the few things that wasn't actually replaced from the fire that brought the house down to its foundation.
My reminiscing is suddenly shaken when my dad noisily enters the room to welcome me to the new den and lets me know I should make be making myself comfortable. A small tour of the whole place ensues as he shows me across the grandeur of the new house. New furniture replaces the old smelly water bed and off-white shelves string along the perspective of my old bedroom. I still remember this window here where I would sneak through when my dad locked me out of the house when I was a kid, well before I got fat when I was a teenager and could no longer fit through it. It's unsettling being here being in this room; this couldn't be my same bedroom that felt so much bigger from my memories.
Our journey takes us through the back porch where I'm introduced to the damages that were done from a recent robbery of the house. The door frame leading outside sits splintered to its hinges from a forceful kick about three months ago, when thieves managed to steal a shotgun under the bed and some beer from the fridge during the latest intrusion. In the past three years the house has been robbed a total of five times, a testament to how unsafe the area has grown in the past decade. And a testiment on how active the police here pursue home invasions. Because of this, my dad keeps a rifle with him in his truck whenever he's out there, “just in case.”
The tour of the house stops in the kitchen, with its new slick black marble counter tops, modest tiled flooring, and porcelain white sink. Back when I was a kid I can still remember taking baths with my sister on opposite sides of the sink and looking out of the window at the fog covered fields of an early winter morning. Even the fridge is mostly empty aside from the few microwaveable goods that my dad keeps around, and the oven looks like it’s never been used. The thing that saddens me most about the kitchen is seeing that the doorway where my mom used to measure me and my sister was replaced after the fire. Before we end up leaving the house we go to the back room and turn up the radio and let “Free Bird” gently rock the walls.
By the time we make it outside and lock up the door darkness has spread across the valley floor obstructing vision of anything save for a red blinking light at the end of the road about a mile away. The cat is still running around the front yard like a white banshee howling for us to feed her, but aside from that the rest of the dairy, even the wind, is still. It feels like an eerie frozen snapshot that you would rather toss away and remember the good old times when the whole world seemed to have gleamed in sepia tones. A past that you'll never get back no matter how hard you wish it to be. For now, this is Modesto's new reality.
Tonight will be the last time I see this place for years as my future plans will take me halfway across the world and away from this lonely little spot in the fields that time has forgotten. As my dad gets in my car, I look back towards the back room with its dimly lit light and barely audible music illuminating into the otherwise silent night. The tires hum across the broken asphalt of Dunn Road as we leave behind the countryside and into town, a place that is just as much in shambles as the countryside here. A place that I would also like to leave behind now.