Harvesting crews are working around the clock in the Valley these days, diesel engines humming and halogen lights burning in the vineyards as well as the headlamps in pot gardens. Apparently the wine grapes are at peak quality in the wee hours. Through the “grapevine” I hear rumors of amigos rising to harvest grapes at two in the morning, cutting the clusters of pinot noir until three or so in the afternoon when they hang up the sticky hook blade knives in favor of the Fiskar snippers and commence to trim buds until they pass out from exhaustion in the evenings.
With so much seasonal gainful employment to be had, odd jobs are flowing in the path of my teenager who wields his own chainsaw along with an assortment of hand tools. Because he is naturally immune to poison oak, the latest offer was for him to clear a property of the vine/bush, manually. I told him he ought to charge at least thirty an hour for such work, and he agreed, but then decided it didn't matter that much since poison oak is no different from grape vines to him. Anyway he'll probably get the same job next year because you can't chop out the tenacious perennial like that.
The youngest boys spend their weekends with me now that their mom has moved them to the coastal village of Mendocino. The seven year-old is working his lasso, chasing our dogs and roping them round the neck, while the four year-old has me on this rigorous basketball regime. “Dad, wanna play basketball?” he asks at like seven in the morning.
“It's too cold. Wait'll the sun comes out.” I put off playing because once we get started the little guy won't quit. All he does is rebound. He's only four. He races for every rebound, tackles the ball, and fires a pass to me while I shoot around. You'd think he'd get bored, but no. I get bored. I never knew a person could get sore arms from shooting baskets. “Swoosh,” he says, when I sink one, or “brick,” when it bongs off the rim, or “airball,” if the ball smacks nothing but the riding lawn mower parked behind the goal, which it tends to do more often after about an hour of practice in the slanted October rays.
The boys and I have had a heck of a time hooking up properly with my ex for the exchange, lately. One morning I'll be drinking coffee at the Mosswood Market, enjoying a dismal conversation about how every possible aspect of the global economy is on a railroad to hell, and I'll see this enticing reflection emerging in the glass of the big windows. Who could that be, I wonder, and the moment my eyebrows go up in anticipation there is my ex barging in with a 20 gauge pump shotgun blasting away.
“I was waiting for twenty minutes at the General Store!”
“Oh?” I said, to the delight of the crowd. Entertainment. “Were we supposed to meet there?”
“I told you I had an appointment to get my car looked at in Ukiah! Don't you remember?”
Ignoring the raucous catcalls of the coffee crowd, I followed her out to the car, where the boys and I presumably watched their mom proceed to drive off, except that after she'd started the car she couldn't resist opening the door, standing up, and repeating what a loser I was for forgetting we were supposed to meet at 8am instead of the usual 9, that I was at the wrong coffee shop and what would she have done had so and so not told her where I was… Going on about it until it must have dawned on her that she was late for the car appointment, and later by the minute.
In and around the coffee shops the stories I get from people my age who are basically in the same boat, renting homes and having young children and/or ex to worry about ring similar themes — none of us know how the hell we're going to make it through this winter. Rent is the number one killer here in this valley for genuine working people. Men and women who would have been my classmates had I grown up out here — genuine locals — are considering living in Ukiah for cheaper rent and commuting to work in Anderson Valley for the life they want for their kids. The percentage of valley land and homes owned by absentee landlords is sort of like a wet handkerchief over your mouth and nose and pulled tight, and anybody trying to raise children and paying over a grand a month for a kindling redwood box that's uninsulated is constantly on the lookout for something better, in that respect no different from a resident of some inner city ghetto. “We have the open spaces,” my friends all agree. “That's where we're lucky.”
Sunday morning I thought the boys and I were supposed to meet the ex at the General Store, downtown Boonville, so the boys wolfed down pancakes while I sipped coffee and commiserated with my peers about the gloomy rent prospects. I thought we had it right, this time, until seeing my ex go down 128 in her sedan and turn right on Lambert Lane, towards the farm. We'd blown it, again. Nothing to do but finish the pancakes and coffee. “Mom's gonna be pissed,” the boys said, and I agreed. Maybe half an hour later she finally pulled up to the curb, and it wasn't only the coffee that caused my fingers to tremble and armpits to sweat rivers.
Rather than angry, she appeared inappropriately amiable, I thought.
I couldn't even meet her eyes. I just hadn't been prepared to find her in such a good mood. It wasn't right.
“What's the matter with you?” she said.
Just as they were all pulling away, a jeep roared up to the curb and its occupants were clearly seeking my attention. It was our neighbors from across the creek. “You got a goat missing?”
“I don't have any goats.”
“There's this black goat thing out there chasing our cows. We'll have to shoot it if something isn't done.”
“Goat chasing cows?” I hustled down Lambert Lane, mostly curious. At the ranch one fellow handy with a lasso had roped the “goat,” actually a Navaho Chero sheep with thick black wool that had somehow gotten lost overnight, apparently, and had been attempting all morning to join the small herd of cows who were sweating with their tongues hanging out and mouths foaming. The poor cows must have thought the wooly black sheep was a dog. We all got a good laugh once the critter was on a tether and speculated why it had fled its kin flock. Saturday night had been especially noisy at the fairgrounds with a band booming until past midnight; maybe the animals were disoriented. I wasn't sure if this particular sheep belonged to the flock that I'm sort of tending for a friend whose landlord changed his mind about her keeping livestock, but sure enough when we finally returned to the farm the black sheep made a beeline to rejoin his buddies.