Golden States


  This spring David Stark will cross the boundary from youth to manhood. Like Huckleberry Finn’s coming of age, David’s passage captures, for one golden moment, a time (the 1980s), a place (Southern California), and a way of seeing the world that exemplifies America itself—as it is now, as it is changing, and as it will become.

  The Stark family is beset by a barrage of domes-tic crises. A flood has lured coyotes out of the hills and into their backyard, where the animals rummage nightly through the garbage cans. David’s older sister, Janet, a refugee from a broken engage-ment, has returned home on the verge of emotional collapse. His younger sister, Lizzie, is sliding fur-ther and further into a childlike eccentricity that borders on real craziness. And David’s widowed mother, the wise and witty mainstay of the family, has grown ashen; her clothes seem three sizes too large and her wedding ring keeps slipping from her shrinking finger. At night, as David looks down from his bedroom window into the dark backyard where Janet—trying desperately to tire herself enough to fall asleep—swims endless laps in the pool, he sees something (a coyote? a man?) moving through the bushes.

  And so David, a boy feisty and perceptive enough to see how a Burger King can look “pretty” in the light of dawn and who has renamed the con-stellations (Great Waldo, the Fat Lady of Fargo), takes upon himself the burden of protecting the women in his life. When Janet decides—wrongly, David feels—to return to her fiance in San Fran-cisco, David heroically takes off in the middle of the night, an unloaded gun in his knapsack, to bring her back home. On his quixotic journey north he encounters an intriguingly attractive young man, Warren, who guides him across the threshold of sexuality.

  Here is the story of a man whose courage, wonder, and love for his family represent all of us at our best. Here is an American family that—in its vul-nerability and endurance—is all our families. And here is a startlingly fine first novel that celebrates all that is good and interesting about this country and its people.

  Michael Cunningham has published short stories in Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review. His nonfiction has appeared in Es-quire, and he has held Michener and Bread Loaf fellowships and was in residence at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center. He lives in New York City.

  Jacket painting by David Hockney

  Gregory in the Pool

  Pressed paper pulp

  32 x 50 inches

  © David Hockney 1978




  Copyright © 1984 by Michael Cunningham

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  Published by Crown Publishers, Inc., One Park Avenue, New York, New York 10016, and simultaneously in Canada by General Publishing Company Limited Manufactured in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Cunningham, Michael, 1952—

  Golden states.

  I. Title.

  PS3553.U484G6 1984 813’.54 83-25248

  ISBN 0-517-55279-5

  Book design by Camilla Filancia

  10 987654321

  First Edition

  This book is for my family.

  The author would like to thank the Copernicus Society for a James A. Michener Fellowship, and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown.

  Particular thanks must also be extended to Sarah Metcalf, whose help in shaping this book began with a midnight reading of the first chapter by long-distance telephone; to Gail Hochman, Barbara Grossman, David Groff, Darrah Cloud, an Francis O’Shea.

  Coyotes were sneaking into the neighborhood like unwanted guests at a party. They lapped water from swimming pools and devoured every cat that had learned to think of dogs as playmates or harmless nuisances. Los Angeles had been dry for months, and as the drought continued coyotes ventured farther and farther into town. Their baying kept people awake at night. In the newspaper, a night watchman said he’d seen a pair of them at a shopping center after midnight, slinking around the Burger King. He said he shouted at them and they took off, but with a peevish attitude, as if they’d been unfairly put upon.

  The rain when it came fell miraculously out of a blank white sky. It started as isolated drops blossoming on the dusty streets and quickly gathered weight, drawing rainbows of oil up out of the asphalt.

  The sky settled slowly down onto the rooftops, a low green belly still white at the horizon, and for three weeks rain fell straight and heavy as nails, as if to drive the coyotes into the ground. Sulfur-colored water pooled around the foundations of houses, eating away the sandy soil. Some of the fancier homes,on hillsides, had to be sandbagged, and one slid down into a canyon gracefully as a riverboat. It was on the six o’clock news. Two days later a man stood trembling before the camera and told how a roaring wall of mud had taken away his kitchen, including his maid. At night people slept to the steady penetrating thrum of raindrops. A man in Garden Grove told a reporter that he had built an ark in his garage, and when the time came, all he’d have to do was chop the garage roof away. A woman jogger in Tarzana said she saw a coyote swimming across a flood-control channel with something furry in its mouth. She said she’d had no idea they were such good swimmers.

  David Stark, age twelve, knew the rain had stopped before he came fully awake. The air in his room was lighter, as if a lid had been lifted off of it. He went to the window in his pajamas. The sky was a clear high silver. Mom stood in the backyard, skimming leaves off the pool. She wore her white robe and carried a long-handled net which splashed like a tossed coin each time she dipped it into the water. The pool was wedged around an old dying tree. Mom refused to have the tree cut down, although it wept parchment-colored leaves into the water and studded the coping with blobs of yellow sap. It kept her busy, clearing the water of leaves.

  Janet came into the backyard, carrying two steaming mugs of coffee. The sight of her made David’s blood jump. He still couldn’t believe she was home again. She gave one of the mugs to Mom and the two women stood close together, saying something David couldn’t hear. They held their mugs cupped in both hands, guarding them from the wind. Twin threads of steam rose into the bright air.

  David took off his pajamas and put on jeans and a T-shirtembossed with a picture of Stevie Wonder. It was his favorite shirt, and he wore it so much Stevie’s face had faded from chocolate to blue. Before going downstairs he checked his hair in the mirror and tried out different angles of chin, looking for a right way to hold his head. It had recently been pointed out to him that he walked strangely, as if his head was being pulled along slightly too fast for his feet. He tucked his jaw in, reminding himself to just lie back and wait for things to reach him in their own time.

  When he got down to the kitchen Janet was there, sitting with her coffee in the breakfast nook. “Morning, Stevie Wonder,” she said.

  “Hi,” he said. He had expected her to stay in the yard longer. Finding her here in the kitchen threw his timing off and invalidated the remark he’d planned about how nice it was to be outside again.

  “Rain’s stopped,” she said.

  “Uh-huh.” He went to his own chair at the table and patted the backrest, for reasons he didn’t quite understand. He’d meant to sit down. Instead of sitting he walked to the refrigerator and took a magnet shaped like a pineapple off the smooth white surface.

  “You want some breakfast?” she asked.

  “No thanks.” He took the magnet and sat in Mom’s chair instead of his own. “Can I have a sip of your coffee?” he said.

  “Since when
do you drink coffee?”

  “Well, I like coffee.”

  Smiling, she slid the mug over to him. It was yellow, decorated with an orange sun, steaming with a black adult life of its own. He sniffed at it, raised it to his lips, and let a drop strain through his teeth.

  “Ahh,” he said, returning the mug to Janet.

  “Good, huh?” she said. He nodded and ran his thumb over the warty surface of the little plastic pineapple. Janet had longdark hair, which she tied into a loose knot at the back of her head. Stray wisps brushed her shoulders. She was not much bigger at twenty-three than David was at twelve, and he thought she looked like him, an idealized female version. She was his half sister, the daughter of Mom’s first husband, Ray. Ray had gotten run down along with three other people in a crosswalk in Van Nuys, by a girl driving a Ford van. The girl had felt a spider crawling up her leg and bent down in a panic to brush it off. One of Ray’s shoes had been found balanced atop a mailbox two hundred yards away.

  “What are you going to do today?” Janet asked.

  “Hang out,” he said. “What are you going to do?”

  “I’m going to sit here in the kitchen all day. I’m going to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and stay out of trouble.” “Are you still getting married?”

  “Looks like not,” she said. “The bride has flown the coop.” “Oh.” The phrase carried an image with it: a woman in a long white dress soaring like a kite, arms out straight, wind whipping her stiff white veil. David felt his head creeping forward and pulled it back.

  Mom came in from the backyard with an unlit cigarette clamped between her lips. “Morning, troops,” she said from the side of her mouth.

  “Morning,” David said. Mom was small like the rest of the family, and she seemed to be shrinking inside her skin, which stayed the same size, hanging empty under her chin.

  She poured herself more coffee at the stove. “That rain made mincemeat out of the yard,” she said. “The birds of paradise look like they’ve been beaten down with sticks.”

  “Well, you were right to hold out on buying an umbrella,” Janet said. “It only rained for three weeks.”

  “This is Southern California,” Mom said. “I don’t even know where they sell umbrellas.”

  “You need a light?” Janet asked.

  “Nope. I’m going to try just holding them in my mouth for a while. Maybe I can cut down that way. Is Rob calling this morning?”

  “He said he was going to.”

  “Do you want to talk to him?” The cigarette waggled in her mouth when she spoke. Her beige hair was crisp with its new permanent.

  “No. But I will,” Janet said.

  “If you don’t want to talk to him,” Mom said, “I can tell him you’re out.”

  “Maybe you could tell him I’ve died. Tell him I was sitting here at the breakfast table one minute and the next minute I’d burst into flames.”

  Mom took the cigarette out of her mouth to sip her coffee. “I had the locks changed after Frank moved out. Not that he ever tried to get back in. I just felt better knowing he wasn’t walking around out there with the key to our front door.” Frank was David’s father, Mom’s second husband. He lived in Spokane now.

  David said, “I could stay home and answer the phone today, if you want me to.”

  “No thanks, friend,” Janet said. “I’ll have to talk to him sooner or later anyway.”

  “Reagan’s all over the front page this morning,” Mom said. “He wants to spend another umpteen billion dollars on bombs. Lord, I don’t know what’s going on.”

  “The men have all lost their minds,” Janet said. “Present company excepted.”

  “Better watch out for this one in a couple more years,” Mom said.

  “David? Oh no, David’s going to be the first male feminist. He’s going to help save us all.”

  David grinned and stroked the pineapple.

  “I’m going to smoke this cigarette after all,” Mom said. “Have you got a match, Janet?”

  Janet lit a match for her and held it at arm’s length. Mom bent over, the cigarette held between puckered lips.

  “Thank you,” she said. She sucked the smoke down and expelled brown-gray tendrils of it slowly through her nose. Janet lit a cigarette too. Her smoke meshed with Mom’s and made a floating cobweb over the table. David pictured himself flying, with Janet in one arm and Mom in the other, while men with weapons closed in on the house below.

  Lizzie came into the kitchen in the nightgown she had just gotten for her tenth birthday. It was pale blue, with wilting blue satin bows over the buttons.

  “Morning, Sparkle,” Mom said. Janet said good morning too.

  David could tell from the set of Lizzie’s chin that she was upset about being the last one up. She was always afraid of missing out on something.

  “Good afternoon, Lizzie dear,” he said.

  “Good morning, asshole,” she said.

  “That’s enough of that,” Mom said.

  Lizzie sat at the table, holding her head carefully erect. She had inherited Dad’s wild red hair, and she wore it like an extravagant hat.

  “I heard coyotes last night,” she said.

  “I didn’t hear anything,” Mom said.

  “They were howling under my window.”

  “Singing love songs,” Janet said.

  “They ate the Munsons’ cat,” Lizzie said in a tone of hushed respect.

  “They’re going to eat you,” David said.

  Lizzie looked at him nervously. She was afraid of coyotes. “They don’t eat people,” she said.

  “That’s why you’re the only one around here they’d eat.”

  “You beat off every night,” Lizzie told him. “I can hear you.”

  “What lovely children,” Mom said.

  “I have to go,” David said.

  “What about breakfast?” Mom asked.

  “I had some of Janet’s coffee.”

  “Oh, you grew up in your sleep. How nice.”

  “David has never drunk coffee in his life,” Lizzie said to Janet.

  “Lizzie farts in the bathtub,” David said, and he made what he thought was a fair imitation of a fart bubbling up from under water.

  “Enough,” Mom said. “Both of you.”

  “Bye.” David got up and ran for the front door. As he left Mom called to him, “I’m going to give you your breakfast for lunch. And your lunch too. So get hungry.”

  Then he was out, free. He saw the neighbor’s black Labrador, nosing around the trash cans. He shooed it away, but instead of leaving, it trotted up to him, lolling a pink tongue that looked too big to fit inside its mouth. David patted its head, then whacked it on the rump to make it go away. It went good-naturedly back to rooting in the trash.

  He walked through the silvered streets to the meeting place, at the border of a patch of plowed land which would eventually sport a new tract. David’s tract was expanding, and several years earlier the great rumbling yellow bulldozers leveled what had been a wild sloping field of sage and yucca. Something went wrong with the money, though, and for now the ground stood naked, stakes and dirty string still indicating the future locations of streets, yards, houses. Behind it rose the ancient hills, shaggy and brown. It had taken on a feeling of enormous age, as if the weathered pegs with their occasional scraps of soiled orange plastic demarked a dead civilization under excavation rather than a new one waiting to be built.

  David arrived before Billy did. The tract had turned into a shallow lake, mirroring the pale sky, pegs protruding. He stood on the sidewalk, at the water’s edge, and peered over at his rippled reflection against the brown-tinted sky. He was always surprised by the sight of his own face. It didn’t look like him. He nudged the water with the toe of his sneaker, to break it up. Mud sucked at his shoe and he pulled it quickly back out. His face reassembled itself, and he cautiously toed it away again.

  Billy came from the opposite direction, the far side of the tract. David could see
him walking across the water, kicking up a spume with his high black boots. Billy dressed like a soldier, in camouflage pants and a fatigue jacket. He was small for twelve, even smaller than David, but more squat, his head hunkered down on his heavy rounded shoulders. The first few brown hairs of a mustache rode his upper lip, and you could see ideas quiver in his eyes like minnows trapped behind the pupils.

  David had been Billy’s best friend since they were both on tricycles. Billy’s father left years ago to work on the Alaska pipeline and never came back. Next year, in the seventh grade, Billy would ride a bus to a different school, because he lived on the other side of the district line. David would go to the junior high in the neighborhood, a sleek new building with a white roof like a nun’s hat, and no windows at all.

  “What ho,” Billy called.

  “Pip pip,” David replied. “Howd’ja do, old bean?”

  “Bit of a wet out here,” Billy said. He sloshed up to David, walking in his eager, hunched-forward way. Sometimes when he saw Billy, David felt a high, dreamy rising in his belly, and any little thing—the white hairs on Billy’s arms, or his quick, businesslike stride—stirred up a wave of pure feeling that immediately dropped down again into guilt and edginess that seemed to last for days. He could not remember just when he had started being so nervous around Billy.

  “Look here, old bean,” David said. “I’ve brought you something.” Lately he had taken to giving Billy presents. In the past two weeks he’d given him a petrified dinosaur turd from Nevada, a chip of tiger’s eye, and a rubber gorilla with fangs and black nipples. Though he’d liked the dinosaur turd and thetiger’s eye well enough, the gorilla had seemed to annoy and embarrass him, like a breach of a secret code.

  David reached into his pocket and pulled out a fossilized horseshoe crab.

  “What is it?” Billy asked.

  “A fossil.” David was careful not to use its fancier name.

  Billy hefted the crab in his palm and scrutinized it with one eye closed. David looked at it too. It was beautiful, a smooth pewter-colored stone with tiny blunt horns and two hooded indentations where, fifty thousand years ago, a pair of eyes had blinked.