Sam Shepard’s Sad San Gabriel River

January 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepard, paperback published by Vintage Books, 1997

Here’s a passage from Sam Shepard’s short story Cruising Paradise in the book of the same name (published 1996) – a book I rediscovered recently and I recommend. This passage, I am pretty sure, is describing the concrete San Gabriel River, though he refers to it as an aqueduct. Two friends are disposing of a partially burned mattress:

We took off with the mattress flopping on the roof and headed west past the Irwindale rock quarry, following the old Baseline Road through lemon groves and vineyards. The honeyed smell of lemon blossoms seemed confusing right then. The strange fear I was carrying didn’t seem to mix with the surrounding nature: a mockingbird in full raucous song; the pulsing mist of irrigated rain. The loud headers on the flathead Merc rumbled through the floorboards, out into the immaculate aisles of lemon trees and oranges. I had a definite sense of somehow being a passenger in an evil vehicle cruising through Paradise. I had no idea how I’d come to be there. A coyote ducked off between the trees and headed for a deep ditch: a beautiful red coyote with a big ruff. He turned toward us and stopped a second, taking in the chopped and channeled Mercury with a burnt mattress flapping on the roof, then slipped away between the smudge pots and rain birds.

We turned off at Fish Canyon and drove up a gravel washboard road toward the Flood Control Aqueduct – a huge concrete serpent that swooped down from the San Gabriels and made its way to the desert. I’d never seen more than a trickle of water in it. The only flood I’d seen was in pictures of Alabama. I’d heard the main function of the aqueduct these days was as a dumping ground for murder victims from L.A., but I never saw a body in it either. Crewlaw pulled the Merc right up to the edge of the concrete canyon and jumped out. He paced a little up and down the edge of the aqueduct, staring out across the manzanita and yucca brush then lit a Lucky Strike and turned back to me. “Let’s get this thing done,” he said, and went straight to the mattress and started unwinding the wire, as his cigarette bopped up and down between his lips. I helped him without asking what he had in mind.

We slid the mattress off the car roof and sent it flying end over end down the steep embankment. Maybe fifty feet it kicked and lurched, until it hit bottom and came to rest by a busted-up old washing machine – the kind with the rollers on the top and a crank handle for squeezing the water out of the clothes. Crewlaw stood there at the edge, staring down at it for a while as though to make sure it had completely stopped moving. As though it might have some life left in it. He flicked his Lucky Strike down the wall, then went straight to the trunk of his car and hauled out an orange gas can with a silver spout. He suddenly sprinted for the edge of the aqueduct and took a leap, disappearing like a suicide out a window. I followed him over the side and saw him galloping down the concrete face toward the mattress, with the gas can held high above his head. When we finally hit the flat bottom, both of us stopped and just stared at the mattress, panting for breath. The bottom smelled of dead fish and green algae.

A long time ago I sent a copy of this story to Lewis MacAdams, who incorporated a couple phrases of it into his Los Angeles River poem To Artesia – poem 29 in MacAdams’s second volume of The River poetry.

But today… the story’s sort of senseless destruction, bleakness, concrete and death is making me think of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works recent blind destruction of the oak woodlands on the Santa Anita Wash in the city of Arcadia.

I had a definite sense of somehow being a passenger in an evil vehicle cruising through Paradise.


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