Authors: Norman Ollestad
Y MOM’S VW
Squareback climbed the Topanga Beach access road. The hard gray suitcase rattled in the back. We darted across the Pacific Coast Highway, turned up the canyon, then into my dad’s dirt driveway. Suddenly a guy on a motorcycle was coming right at us, a plume of dust around him. My mom slammed on the brakes and the bike swerved around us and I glimpsed Sandra’s silky hair. Her arms were around the guy’s stomach.
Sandra and I locked eyes for an instant. She looked angry and her mouth tightened.
Hey I don’t even want to go, called my inner voice. You go. You go!
Then Sandra was whisked into the dirt cloud.
My God, said my mom. They almost ran right into us.
Where is she going? I said.
I have no idea, she said.
That’s how it always was with Sandra, a mystery. She just appeared one day with my dad down at Barrow’s and it was understood that she was his new girlfriend. Beer-Can Larry called her a
feisty little honey
. Her skin would tan a dark caramel brown—except for her pink lips, thick compared to her otherwise delicate face—and her wide-set chocolate eyes blended in with her skin when she got really tan. Barrow said he was sure she was from a poor neighborhood in Scotland, even poorer than his and Dad’s old neighborhood. After fighting with my dad she would always come shrinking back. Once when they were broken up she came by my dad’s office and asked for money, desperate, and he gave her some. He even signed something so that she could extend her visa. He seemed to feel sorry for her, wanting to protect her all the time. Nonetheless Sandra hated that I always came first, her eyes flaring at me when Dad had to take me to hockey practice or away skiing.
When we got in the pickup truck the seats were already sticky. My dad wedged his guitar case behind the seat bench and tuned in a country station that was playing his favorite, Willie Nelson. It was dusk when we hit the Tijuana border. A fat man in a uniform and hat approached us. He circled around the truck bed, eyeing the tarped washing machine and our two surfboards rainbowing over the edge. He waddled to my dad’s window.
, said my dad.
The man nodded and asked in Spanish for something. My dad reached in the glove compartment and handed the man the Sears receipt. The man inspected it for a long time. Then he said a number—I knew this because I had learned some Spanish while visiting my grandparents last summer.
My dad grumbled and said a different number.
The man smiled and flashed his gold teeth. Before the man spoke again my dad handed him some pesos. The man counted them. As he did my dad put the truck in gear and rolled forward. The man looked around before stuffing the money in his pocket, and my dad hit the gas.
Why’d you have to pay him?
They call it a tax. But it’s a bribe.
Isn’t that against the law?
Sure is. But he is the law.
He’s the police?
If the police break the law then who arrests them?
I don’t know. Good question, Ollestad.
He let me stew over the paradoxes for a while. Then he spoke.
In a poor country like Mexico people try to get money any way they can. They even do it in a rich country like America. It’s not right. But sometimes—like with that guy—you play along because you understand the circumstances.
He checked on me a couple of times as we wound out of Tijuana and back along the coast. It was black outside. A few lights scattered around in the distance.
He’s a liar then, right? I said.
The border guard?
Uh-huh. That’s right.
I wanted to blurt out that I had lied too, about skateboarding, about where I got my scrapes. I pressed my forehead against the passenger’s window. I could feel my dad’s eyes on my back. I flashed on Nixon, his saggy jowls and hunched shoulders, and the policeman’s gold teeth, and him sitting in his box all night and him taking money from people and stuffing it in his pocket.
Take it easy on that window, Ollestad, said my dad.
You want to rest your head in my lap?
I swiveled around and put my cheek across his thigh and my bent knees up on the seat so my feet could fit against the door.
Sunlight poured in the truck’s window onto my head. I sat up and wiped my forehead with my T-shirt.
, said my dad.
I noticed the creases under my dad’s eyes—they were lined in an olive yellow, standing out against his smooth honey-brown skin. He looked older and more tired than I had ever seen him look. He drank coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.
Where are we? I said.
Just pulling out of Ensenada.
One eye was still blurry and I looked out the windshield. The sun cut across the sagebrush and the sage climbed the hills, spotting them with dull greens. It reminded me of Malibu. I looked west out the passenger’s window beyond the bald headland cliffs, and the Pacific Ocean spread as far as my eye could see, the water tinted peach in the morning light.
My dad yawned.
Did you sleep? I said.
Yeah. I pulled off to the side of the road in Rosarito and took a nap.
Why didn’t Sandra come?
His smile drained away like water seeping into sand. He stared out along the highway and his eyes narrowed.
She was pissed off at me about something, Ollestad.
Did you fight?
Yeah. But that’s not why she’s mad.
Why’s she mad?
Nick’s brother. You know Vincent, right?
Yeah well he thought it was funny to take Sandra’s bird.
He took her little parrot?
To play a joke, he said shaking his head.
What kind of joke?
He pretended to be a birdnapper I guess. We even left money in that phone booth by George’s Market. We didn’t know it was him until he showed up with the bird.
My dad moved his puckered mouth from one side to the other just like Grandpa did sometimes.
Sandra wanted me to call the cops, he said.
So she left?
Yeah. She gave me an ultimatum.
Like you better or else?
Who was the guy on the motorcycle?
I don’t know. Some friend of hers.
His eyes were soft and the hook-shaped bone of his brow was less pronounced. There was no sign of that raw animal in there.
Why didn’t you call the cops? I said.
Vincent is a friend of mine.
I had seen my dad and Vincent play poker together at Barrow’s house on the beach and I had always thought it was weird
that my dad was friendly with my mom’s boyfriend’s brother. But I didn’t say anything about that.
Was what he did against the law?
My dad nodded.
Then why didn’t you call the cops?
It was just a stupid prank.
If you were still in the FBI would you have arrested him?
No. We went after real bad guys, not pranksters.
I stared out the window at the road. I had heard about my dad’s one-year FBI stint, stationed in Miami from 1960 to 1961. About the book he wrote exposing J. Edgar Hoover’s hypocrisies, one of the first of its kind.
Dad joined the FBI at age twenty-five. It was a coveted job, demanding a graduate degree, preferably in law. Before joining he read every book he could find about J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, wanting to familiarize himself with the man who was considered the greatest crime fighter in American history.
In the first weeks of FBI training school Dad was shocked to find so many cracks in the facade. The instructors boasted to his class that no president would ever fire Hoover and that Congress never dared challenge the great director’s assertions about anything. Dad was surprised when he took his first exam and the instructors gave everyone in the class the answers—ensuring the success of Hoover’s policy that all FBI agents get A’s on the exams. The only real test was the final one, when he met the director himself. Hoover either gave you his blessing or dismissed you as unfit. If you caught his eye then you were thrown out. If he didn’t like your physical appearance, such as a pinhead-shaped skull, you were dismissed.
On Dad’s first day as an agent he couldn’t understand why
all the veteran agents picked the most beat-up FBI cars from the garage, even though they were unreliable in a chase and the radios didn’t work. He learned that Hoover’s policy stated that if any agent damaged an FBI vehicle in any way, even in a chase, he would have to pay for it out of his own pocket. Hoover’s policy kept insurance costs way down and allowed Hoover to brag to the congressional Ways and Means Committee that he was saving tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars. A few weeks later Dad realized that Hoover was assigning a disproportionate amount of agents to finding stolen cars. He figured out that Hoover did this to inflate the FBI’s statistics, counting retrieved stolen cars—without actually apprehending a suspect—as
another crime solved by the FBI
The hypocrisy and inefficiency drove my dad crazy—What about catching criminals? he kept protesting. After ten months he was completely disillusioned with the FBI. Two incidents amplified his frustration. He found out that there were agents in each of the fifty-two field offices across the United States whose only job was to sit around and watch TV, listen to the radio and read the newspapers looking for any mention of Hoover, which was then immediately reported to Hoover’s loyal lieutenants, who investigated the perpetrators. This discovery coincided with the firing of Agent Carter. Carter was caught alone with a girl, which was against FBI policy—regardless of the fact that the girl in question was Carter’s fiancée. Then two of Carter’s colleagues were fired for failing to report Carter’s improper relations with his fiancée. Dad concluded that fighting crime was not as important to Hoover as imposing his personal views on the agents that worked for him, so he resigned.
Mom said he was so disappointed by the way Hoover ran the FBI that he didn’t care what would happen to him if he wrote
the book. It was before Watergate, she said. Most people didn’t believe that Hoover could be bad. After
Inside the FBI
was published they tapped our phones, printed false newspaper articles about your dad, basically tried to ruin his reputation, said Mom. The book came out the year you were born. It was pretty scary, wondering if Norm was going to get arrested on some made-up charge, or put in jail for being a Communist or something. He was harassed not only by Hoover himself but by a famous TV personality named Joe Pine, who invited Dad onto his nationally acclaimed show. During the show Joe Pine accused my dad of being a KGB agent, and brought an alleged KGB double agent onto the stage. The agent, big and burly, confronted my dad, which nearly ended in a brawl between them outside the studio. Mom said that Hoover was completely stunned by my dad’s audacity—how could this nobody challenge Hoover’s integrity when even the president of the United States and Congress wouldn’t dare? So Hoover hit him hard.
I studied my dad driving the truck. I thought about his notorious FBI informant Murph the Surf, who used to meet my dad out in the warm Miami surf to exchange information, and years later was busted for stealing the Star of India sapphire. Murph introduced Dad to a beautiful girl that he really fell for. But she was the daughter of a high-ranking mafioso, and when the FBI found out that Dad was sleeping with her, and not
just doing surveillance
like he had claimed, he had to let her go.
Dad’s fingers tapped the steering wheel. I imagined him hanging out with ruthless criminals, sleeping with a mafioso’s daughter, then defying Hoover and enduring the assault that followed—dangerous shit. It seemed odd that nobody on Topanga Beach was all that impressed by it. And I realized that no matter who you were, or what extraordinary accomplishments you made, Topanga Beach was always bigger than you. All that mat
tered there was surfing. It was the great equalizer. I think Dad loved the purity and simplicity of that.
Up ahead there were pastel-colored buildings and my dad announced that we were entering the town of San Vicente.
We ate lunch at a restaurant off the highway. He looked sad and I wondered if it was because of Sandra. The porch faced the dirt road where we had parked the truck. We ate under a trellis and during the entire lunch my dad’s face was sliced in two by the shadow of one of the overhead slats. One of his eyes was lit and the other was dark. It was the first time that he ever seemed guarded, secretive to me. There was no way to know what he was thinking or feeling. I wondered if that’s what had bothered my mom so much.
Let’s go, I said, wanting to get him into the full light of day again.
The blacktop quivered in the heat and the world was dead and dried out all around us. We drank mineral water and ate peanuts and tossed the shells out the window. Our only jubilant moments came when we had a farting contest. My dad won. Later we squatted and shit in the sagebrush and my dad told me to watch out for rattlesnakes, and then I couldn’t go and I was doubled over with a stomachache until we stopped at some town by the water and I used a restaurant bathroom.
After relieving myself I found my dad on the beach playing guitar and singing
Heart of Gold
to three Mexican girls. They were dressed for winter, I thought, and one of them walked right into the ocean with all her clothes on and took a swim. They did that in Vallarta too and I wondered why they didn’t wear bathing suits.
A couple of mean-looking guys came out of the bar and stared
at my dad and the girls. My dad played on like they weren’t there staring at him. One of the guys with a sunburn over his brown skin called out to my dad in Spanish and I recognized the word
and my dad glanced over at him, his eye bone hooking around and setting his eyeball deep in the socket.