Nonfiction

Bodega Bay, CA

By Isabella Welch

Isabella Welch reads from "Bodega Bay"

00:00 / 02:41

           Around here, there are signs on the side of the road that say things like, “Protected Forever,” and the roads are called things like “Redwood Highway” or “Bohemian Highway.” Because I’m moody, or perhaps because I’m so often alone these days, I take the time to consider the road literature and nomenclature more than I typically might. I glance at each phrase a bit sardonically. Nothing can be protected forever, and what makes us think we could protect anything at all? Us, with our roads scoring this countryside, our actions blistering the geography. Us, with our band-aids, our hybrid cars, rarely considering our natural place in the natural places we both regard and don’t regard. I pass a herd of lazy cattle, luxuriating in a pocket of sun, the grass breathing clearly after the week’s stint of rain. I curb my cynicism as three turkey vultures wobble slightly like paragliders at the center-right of my windshield. Birders have a system of abbreviations for the avian species they watch; a turkey vulture is referred to coolly, casually as “T.V.” I’m not a birder, but I know this fact. I feel the calmness of recognition and focus back on the road, considering how well the farmhouses settle into the surrounding hills.

         I don’t know where I am specifically, not in the sense that I could navigate another person here, but I know where I am in the sense that if I rope around these two-lane roads a time or two again, go left instead of straight, turn generally southward instead of northward, I will find my way home. I’m looking for Bodega Bay, and my phone gave up assisting me after its third attempt to reroute. The silent farmland, the charged air signaling the nearby sea, all of it is characteristic of Northern California winter, this manic combination of weather fronts reliable in the way they are unreliable—the way you must dress for everything and dull your expectations. A few more miles pass by and I see an old phone booth with shattered glass, the figure of a woman inside. Her grayish-green skirt suit strikes a particular chord of recognition. I think to myself, Is that supposed to be Tippi Hedren in The Birds? And then I think, Are you stupid? Of course it is, you’re here.

            Bodega Bay lies in Sonoma County on the bleeding edge of the North American Plate. The San Andreas fault bisects the coastline here at Bodega Head, lending it an air of precariousness, eeriness, as if it needed any help. Alfred Hitchcock chose this town as the backdrop of his famous thriller, word has it, for the outstandingly vacant skyline, the surrounding hills devoid of trees. That characteristic gloom is in full effect today, chambray sky above me as I park in front of Tippi. Inside the antique gift shop, a fast-talking local argues with the man working the counter, and I clock them clocking me as I work through the aisles, killing time. The linoleum floors are flat, lusterless; the air smells of dust and iodine, and perhaps asbestos, though maybe I made that up. The shelves are lined with murky old Coke bottles, secondhand books, pathetic nostalgia, and one massive plastic bin of old family photographs, on sale for fifty cents apiece. I sift through the prints, and one catches my attention: a little boy in a puffer jacket sneezes in front of an old diner. Per the clothing, I suspect the 1950s.  I am amazed at how all these nameless memories were severed from their corresponding lives and landed here, in Bodega Bay, for perpetual sale—though I doubt anyone will buy them. I consider purchasing Little Puffer Boy, but somehow that seems more sinister than just leaving him be—in limbo at the antique store.  This place resembles the sudden end of an amputated limb, or an open wound, a location of failed healing. I wonder, what decade is it? Can anyone even tell me? Could the cashier, if I pressed him, be sure it’s February of 2021? It seems this year, so futuristic and impossible, was never supposed to reach this strip of Bodega Bay. The little red post office across the street tells me it knows nothing of 5G, nothing of electric cars. It elected to stop aging, like Tippi in the shattered phone booth, somewhere around 1963, the world churning future-wards without it.

            My uncle used to live a couple of towns over, so I spent time here as a child. A lot of time. For a while, he and my father owned a small cluster of beach condos close by, with little pebble patios and sleek modern interiors. I remember staying in them just once—they were always rented out, but my uncle briefly kept one for himself and his partner, for whenever they had the random itch to leave their vineyard home for the coast. They kept spare Patagonia puffer jackets in the closets, and the entire place was outfitted with stainless steel and white sheets, a Bose sound system that nobody but them could figure out how to use. It was a bleak beach community to me as a kid, the way you had to wear two pairs of socks to survive an evening bonfire, and my parents kept me away from the water out of fear of sleeper waves. Back then, my uncle was a steady, almost aristocratic force. I recognized a strange, codependent jealousy between him and my father, and sometimes when they were both in a room I confused one for the other, these Irish twins alike in face, in confidence, in their mercurial nature. My uncle’s full-time house in Sonoma sat on a small plot of vineyard, which he named after his dog, and the house was constructed of some strange mud or stone or clay, designed so that on quaking hot days the inside of the house was cool and shaded, the matte floors temperate beneath your feet. I used to run around the yard without shoes on, my padded feet immune to the sharp rocks lining the driveway. He’d pick me up and call me Indian Feet, which I used to be quite proud of, understanding then that the nickname denoted toughness, adventure. Before I came to understand the appropriative quality it held, the way it made history its plaything.

            I buy nothing at the country store, scared that to participate in the economy will break the spell, or implicate me in its stunted nature. I navigate for the coast, still killing time, hoping the sky will hold long enough for the hike I’m supposed to be endeavoring with a friend at two p.m., but he’s running late and I’m running out of memory lane, and something about this town is unraveling me. I’m overcome with the urge to visit my uncle, to sit on his patio, make coffee in his kitchen, watch the rain inevitably fall over the vineyard, dribbling into the pool, quenching the lavender and weighing down the wings of the bees. I am overcome with the need for that solace of family, that aspect of it I’ve always taken for granted—I grew up with the ability to drive any direction from San Francisco and find a blood relative waiting for me. But that house is long gone and so is that exact man. He now wears different faces, finds new preoccupations. The combinations and permutations of his life, the pool overlooking the vines, the row of condos on the coast, the tender look of his longtime partner—none of that could stopper all the want in him. And I pretend I don’t know that feeling, pretend I couldn’t draw its exact shape. In the off chance I see him now, he stares like he can’t quite place me. I’m just the daughter of a brother, another dark-haired rivet in our folkloric family, a family that storms like a tempest and spits out love and marriages, good intentions and also the very, very worst ones. Somewhere, someone taught him to put phases of life in separate boxes, never look at them, sell them for fifty cents apiece. Pray that they will not haunt you. This is no one’s fault, I suspect, not his and not mine. But still, I want to remind him about the sharp rocks, the old patio, the way he’d pay me in old unminted nickels to pull suckers off the vines in the summer—how I’d sweat under California sun refracted in dust light, how I’d wish the nickels were worth more, how I wanted us all to live our lives returning to that house. The rest of the day this unsettles me, the way the people are removed from the place but the aura of those old realities lingers. And I haven’t thought of those condos or the little vineyard or the sharp rocks under my feet in years, but under this Hitchcockian sky the story repaints itself for me. I let it, I watch each familiar stroke, knowing it will never be improved upon, or made worse. Like the little boy in the puffer jacket on sale for fifty cents, this memory is all images, stainless steel and clay walls. And all of it, a little obsolete.  On my way back out of town I nod at Tippi, read the highway signs in reverse, gaze upon this landscape of many promises. Here, melancholy shakes hands with nostalgia, and offers a glimpse of the sight of the road back there, long before it forked.

July 2022

Welch_Headshot.JPG
Isabella Welch
San Francisco, CA, USA

“The landscape of California, along with the many contradictions of its character, has served as a source of endless inspiration for me. Personally speaking, it’s a place of constant rediscovery. To have been raised here is to repeatedly run into younger versions of myself, or my family at large, even as I build a new life on top of the past one. This particular trip to Bodega Bay was a reflective experience, with all the old ghosts crawling out for a chat. I got this idea in my head that promises look like a lot of different things—roadside signs, antique stores, marriages, the very houses we live in. And all these promises can’t possibly be kept, yet even as they’re broken, there’s this bittersweet aura that lingers. What do we do with it? How will it live with us even after everything has changed?”

 

Isabella Welch is a writer and editor based in Northern California. Her work has been featured in Phoebe, Invisible City, and Bob Cut Mag, among others. She is a Tin House Summer Workshop alum, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in Writing from University of San Francisco.

Website

isabella-welch.com