Brief Reflections On The Abortion Upon the Publication of Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan (Counterpoint, 2012), Which I Have Not Yet Read
I was born into a fiercely literate and theatrical family. My little sister and I were read to animatedly—even after we had learned to read for ourselves.
In the first grade of the Carden school I attended in Pacific Palisades, California—where some parents of students, mothers of my sister’s and my friends, worked in the office and taught—each student in my class received, to read from, shiny-new little illustrated Beatrix Potter books, featuring Peter Rabbit, Flopsy Bunnies, and those very Bad Mice. At Cali-Camp and Sycamore camp in the Santa Monica Mountains, I combined and related in my mind the natural worlds and adventures I encountered, involving insects and pollywogs, frogs, turtles, creeks, rivers, ponds, lizards, horses, rowboats, canoes, go-carts, trampolines, arts and crafts, to the worlds and adventures of Potter’s characters; plus to those of Kenneth Grahame’s Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger in Wind in the Willows—I had more than one illustrated edition in my mind’s imaginative repertoire.
A byproduct of my family’s dramatic nature—my father and mother and her mother having been active in Cleveland, Ohio community theatre; my dad and mom doing summer stock; Mom attending New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre; moving in 1960 to Los Angeles and Dad’s transformation from playwright to script writer—was that I also grew up watching a lot of TV. After my parents divorced in 1968, Dad was doing well enough, writing for network television shows like Daniel Boone, High Chaparral, and Here Come the Brides, to gift me and my sister each at Christmastime with our own black-and-white portable TV. Yet, at the same time as I was learning to fall asleep to bedside television in place of books at night, I was also fascinated to overhear Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or Desmond Morriss’s The Naked Ape or Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby being passionately discussed and debated, in my father’s living room, or in my mother’s, by the grownups; also of subject were the many literary texts going to screen—like Levin’s Baby, Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus—and when Oliver Twist was reincarnated anew as Oliver!, I fell in love with Oliver, Mark Lester (a year my senior) and with the Artful Dodger, Jack Wild (an older boy who played young, and who I later ogled in person on the set of H.R. Pufnstuf, shooting on the same lot as Chaparral). For us, my family, and for so many of our friends, our awareness of movies and television was that they, too, were, began, in writing. We lived with—from—the concept and reality, the necessity, of scripts. We knew that even, or especially, when a novel was made into a film the story needed a script. We lived in a world where reading and writing were primary; they were livelihood.
Both my parents were city people, from Cleveland originally, then lived like poor folk in Manhattan, where I was born, and from there we moved to Hollywood. When Dad graduated from writing for modern shows like Doctor Kildare, Peyton Place, and Run For Your Life in the mid-to-late ‘60s, he moved on to the stories of rugged frontiersmen, Arizona ranchers, and northwest-coast lumberjacks. I suppose he was primed for these shows since experiencing a visionary, solitary, Ralph-Waldo-Emersonian moment involving tumbleweed and limitless expanses on his drive west from New York to California in the family car packed with our stuff (I, a baby, and Mom pregnant with my sister, had flown). Mom went Western, too. When she’d recovered from the birth of my sister and we (fourteen months apart) were old enough to be left together in the care of others, she learned to ride in a Western saddle and was soon exploring the Hollywood Hills, the furthest eastern dribbles of the Santa Monica range, solo on horseback. She later put me and my sister on ponies, then on horses. By eight, my allowance had afforded me a model-horse collection rivaling any working-class girl’s, and I was holding down an exceedingly rewarding, unpaid job, after school and on weekends, of regularly exercising three polo “ponies” at Will Rogers State Historic Park above Sunset Boulevard in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains (where Rogers had lived and played), just a few miles inland from Will Rogers State Beach, south of where Sunset ends at the coast highway. Riding along the arid eucalyptus- and sagebrush-lined trails between Rustic and Temescal canyons, I fancied myself on my own horse one day, living on a lush, grassy and forested Colorado ranch—riding for miles in any direction without coming to a single traffic signal.
I subscribed to Western Horseman magazine. And at the back of every issue, available property in states that interested me, like Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, was advertised. I sent away for real estate brochures. At the age of nine I devised a presentation for my mom and her new husband—and when I made it to them they didn’t laugh. We each had reasons for wanting to leave L.A. In 1969 we spent a good chunk of the summer traveling the U. S. via stationwagon, introducing Mom’s husband and his two (no-longer-motherless) baby girls to family Back East and friends around the country, looking at property in Western states along the way; the result being that by the next winter verging on spring of 1970, we were actually moving onto a Montana ranch—perfect place for a ten-year-old girl who’d been breathing through the pages of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew stories.
When we arrived at the ranch that winter, my sister and I climbed into the loft of the red-roofed barn via the wall-mounted ladder, pushed the loose old hay and straw left by the previous owners from the outer loft door until we’d built up a mountain on the white ground below, then took turns leaping into it from above. Our barn showed off a fresh addition of two new stalls, making four in all, and soon we had as many horses—two Appaloosas, a Quarter Horse, and a buckskin mutt we saved from neighbors who couldn’t afford to feed him (protective of animals—we had made the move with our dog, three cats, rabbit, guinea pig, and eleven rats—Mom insisted on writing a five-dollar check to make our rights on behalf of the horse official). Our tack room consisted of raised, wooden, former goat-milking stalls. I loved to scale the lodgepole corral fence at a back corner of the barn, hoist myself up, and lay my belly against the warm, gritty, red roof, propping my elbows over its peak, the woods rising at my back, and I could gaze out past the house to the bay at the far end of our hay field across the road. I reveled in exploring all the mysteries of a property homesteaded in 1896 and thrilled whenever stumbling upon artifacts from horse-drawn days that emerged from buried states in the soil of our ninety-nine acres of land. At first we had to haul water to the house from an old well. Outbuildings consisted of the barn with its surrounding corrals, the old well house, a sway-backed one-room cabin with double barn doors and pot-bellied stove, an old creamery and cannery shed (sweet little structure), and the outhouse. Here we had come from leading-edge modernity and were now living much like the characters in Dad’s Boones and Chaparrals and many of the books I’d been reading. In a letter to my father, Mom wrote, “It’s a funny area, a combination of old-time rural Montanans and young people who have looked all around for a beautiful place to live and chosen this, many of them like us coming from a city to live in the country for the first time and buy a lot of land and really liv[e] like ranchers while making a living at something else.” 1970 was still the ‘60s.
Mom, who’d made a living as an actress and bookkeeper in L.A., opened a pre-school her stepdaughters could attend in our small local town a couple miles away, and she co-founded a theatre company in the nearest big town with (a capital “T”); an M.D. in L.A., her husband became in Town a so-called psychotherapist (but that’s another story). In our immediate small town, especially—population 1100, including the Air Force radar base on its outskirts—we were considered “hippies.” Mom had arrived wearing a floppy rough-out leather hat with braided band, embroidered jeans, moccasins; her husband’s hair was long enough to hide his ears when it wasn’t tucked behind them. And, though we did at first hand-haul our water from a well house, poop in a shingle-roofed hole, and share a party-line with our closest neighbors outside a town so small we only had to dial the last four digits of local numbers, we did not fall behind times in Montana. Mom reported in her first Dear-Everyone letter that in Town, the students at the community college were “wearing their hair long,” the theatre department had just finished staging a production of The Physicists by Dürrenmatt, and the “five negro guys” on the college basketball team were “begrudgingly the heros of the town”; we could purchase “very modern clothes” in the stores, and there was “even one kind-of-hippie shop.” Plus, the theatres boasted the same first-run films still playing in Westwood Village when we left L.A.—we saw The Sterile Cuckoo (its script adapted from the John Nichols book) soon after arriving—Midnight Cowboy (adapted from the book by J. L. Herlihy) had already come and gone. I remember, in our first year as Montanans, seeing Woodstock, plus (Mario Puzo’s) The Godfather, and (Erich Segal’s) Love Story there.
Between the movies and plays my parents allowed me to see and what I had seen of my mom’s cousins and friends in Southern and Northern California throughout the ‘60s, I had been exposed to adult sexuality and nakedness—a cousin’s boyfriend in Berkeley (my first personally-met naked and also black man); the same cousin and her new husband body-painted to play dream-sequence extras in a Sandra Dee horror flick shooting in Mendocino; skinny-dippers in our Palisades pool; the cast of the Hollywood stage production of Hair—but I was not particularly comfortable with my own nakedness and hadn’t much thought about my own sexuality, as such. My mother embarrassed me when she complained that even with chickenpox I was sexier than she was. Despite what I’d been exposed to, I didn’t really know what sexy meant, what its implications were. This kind of talk was innuendo, meant guesswork for me. I had an idea of what romantic love was supposed to be. But I was horrified by the sounds I heard coming through the closed door at the top of the stairs to the ranch house’s master loft bedroom. (Was he hurting her? Did she want him to? Her cries conveyed both.) What were they doing up there? As long as Mom came down in good condition, I didn’t ask to know; chose to pretend I didn’t notice.
The older I got, the more Mom had the tendency to embarrass me in public, so I had gone straight past needing a training bra to stealing a 34C out of her dresser drawer—having up until then preferred bouncing around on horses, competing in basketball and track, in big shirts, without a bra—instead of walking through the embarrassment of shopping for one with her. She even embarrassed me in private; when I started to menstruate, first she cried that I had become a woman and could now conceive children, then proceeded to demonstrate tampon use before I even clearly understood that, down there, I had more than one hole. My body was out of control, was outwardly developing ahead of its years. People were talking about it, showing disturbing interest. I conveyed a mature demeanor; but I didn’t really understand the kinds of contact the older boys were after. And what did men want with me—a friend’s leering father; a neighbor farmer trying to coax me into his truck; my mother’s married brother-in-law, who had moved after us to Montana with his family? I didn’t know, but I sensed their attentions—their intentions—toward me, the ways they went out of their way to be alone with me—were wrong. Why weren’t my friends afflicted in the same creepy ways?
In any case, the environment in which I was raised had set me up to feel cautiously comfortable asking Mom if I could read a book like Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. I had seen it lying around in various stages of being read by adults. I was intrigued by the word itself, abortion, which was scandalous, inflammatory, back-room, but there across the cover of a book lying face-up in our house for anyone to see. When I asked if I could take it on a winter road-trip, Mom said yes, and I read it in the back of our stationwagon on the way to Radium Hot Springs. I read it while we were there—though not publicly. And, I read it again on our way home. What came to interest me so much was not the abortion, nor the strange library the narrator mans (these days often compared with the World Wide Web), but it was Vida’s body, men’s reactions to Vida’s body, and Vida’s reaction to both that struck me and stuck with me. Her body is
fantastically full and developed […] to the most extreme of Western man’s desire in this century for women to look: the large breasts, the tiny waist, the large hips, the long Playboy furniture legs. […] so beautiful that the advertising people would have made her into a national park if they [c]ould have gotten their hands on her.
Her body “would have made the movie stars and beauty queens and showgirls bitterly ooze dead make-up in envy”; and Vida hates it. Her body has caused accidents, so distracting it is. Despite her covering herself, largely hiding herself in big clothes, the sight, the fact, of her has caused real harm to men who’ve glimpsed her. She has written a book, which she comes to deposit in the library:
“What’s it about?” I said, holding [it] in my hand, feeling almost a hatred coming from within [it].
“It’s about this,” she said and suddenly, almost hysterically, she unbuttoned her coat and flung it open as if it were a door to some horrible dungeon filled with torture instruments, pain and dynamic confession. […] “I hate it. It’s too big for me. It’s somebody else’s body. It’s not mine.”
What she meant, though, was, It’s not me. I knew this, instinctively, realizing at the same time that rather than relating my world to hers, I was relating her reality to the potential of mine. And I realized that just as I knew that Vida’s body was not Vida, the body I live in is not me, but it’s mine. Now I was at the beginnings, in my pre-teens, in the early ‘70s, of a whole new world, and a whole new way of reading.
Pamela Balluck’s creative writing has appeared in, among other publications, the Western Humanities Review, The Southeast Review, Quarter After Eight, Square Lake, Jabberwock Review, [PANK], Barrow Street, Night Train, Freight Stories, Avery Anthology, Prime Mincer, and The Ocean State Review. She has fiction forthcoming in Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories and in The Way We Sleep. She teaches writing at the University of Utah.