Pamela Balluck

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.