I drove past the old SunBlesst packinghouse today. Nothing left of it. Not one stick. Now there's a bedroom store, a pet emporium, and a supermarket. Big and new. Moms and dads and kids everywhere. Pretty people, especially the moms. Young, with time to dream, wake up, and dream again.
I still have a piece of the flooring I tore off the SunBlesst packinghouse back in sixty-eight. When I was young. When I thought that what had happened there shouldn't ever happen anywhere. When I thought it was up to me to put things right.
I'm made of that place -- of the old wood and the rusted conveyors and the pigeons in the eaves and the sunlight slanting through the cracks. Of Janelle Vonn. Of everything that went down, there in October, 1968. Even made of the wind that blew that month, dry and hot off the desert, huffing across Orange County to the sea.
I have a piece of the picket fence from the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza, too. And a piece of rock that came not far from where Mercury 1 lifted off. And one of Charlie Manson's guitar picks.
But those are different stories.
Later I met my brother Andy at the Fisherman's Restaurant down in San Clemente. Late August. The day was bright as a brushfire, no clouds, sun flashing off the waves and tabletops. Andy looked at me like someone had hit him in the stomach.
"It's about Janelle," he said.
Janelle Vonn in the SunBlesst orange packinghouse in Tustin.
Thirty-six years ago, two brothers who didn't look much alike, staring down at her and across at each other while the pigeons cooed and the wind blew through the old slats.
A different world then, different world now.
Same brothers. Andy stayed thin and wiry. Tough as a boiled owl. Me, I've filled out some, though I can still shiver the heavy bag in the sheriff 's gym.
San Clemente, and you have to think Nixon. The western White House, right up the road. I picture him walking down the beach with the Secret Service guys ahead and behind. Too many secrets and nobody but the seagulls to tell them to. Andy's newspaper ran a cartoon of him once, after he'd been chased out of office, and the cartoon showed him walking the beach with a metal detector, looking for coins. Thought thatwas a funny one. I kind of liked Dick Nixon. Grewup just over the hill from us. He was tight with my old man and his Bircher friends for awhile, used to come to the house back in the fiftieswhen he was vice president and in the early sixties when he'd lost for governor. They'd sit around, drink scotch, make plans. Nixon had a way of making you feel important. It's an old pol's trick, I know. I even knewit then. In fifty-six I graduated from the L.A. Sheriff 's Academy and Dick Nixon sent me a note. The vice president. Nice handwriting. It's still in my collection of things.
But that's a different story, too.
"You don't look so good, Andy," I said.
Brothers and we still don't look much alike. An old cop and an old re-porter. There used to be four of us Becker boys. Raised some hell. Just three now.
I looked at Andy and I could see something different in his face.
"What gives?" I asked.
Listen to me, Nick. Everything we thought about Janelle Vonn was wrong."California Girl. Copyright © by T. Parker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker
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