Santa Ana Winds - Uncharted

Santa Ana Winds

By Faith Merino

September 13, 1969

They come from the desert: two girls and a boy driving south through the belly of Los Angeles at midnight. They sit in a silent, Benzedrine focus as they pass through reds and oranges—taillights streaking Highway 101; the corona of a car fire in Benedict Canyon; their faces blanching as they pass under the sodium lights lining Hollywood Boulevard, Western Avenue, Sunset Boulevard. Outside, palm trees thrash, and ficuses roll in the hot Santa Ana winds that sweep out of the desert and funnel through the canyons every year as summer draws to an end. The winds are shockingly, incomprehensibly violent, blowing children off their feet and ripping telephone poles out of the concrete. They make the air snap with electricity and set teeth on edge in anticipation of the rising whine and the sudden, concussing impact. The winds spread disorder and scramble neural networks, turning sweet dogs mean and spinning birds into windows—and just when it seems that the city can’t withstand any more viciousness, the winds simmer away, and the air becomes impossibly still once more.

The boy and the two girls were told to go to a house in Los Feliz. They didn’t know who was inside, but they were told to kill them all. As bloody and brutal as possible—make it mean, make it gruesome—total destruction.

They don’t know why, but they obey the one who sent them: their desert father, who has unmade and reconstituted them in his image, who has taught them to pick through dumpsters for food, make love in the sun, and love the darkness in their own hearts—their protector in the war they didn’t know they’ve been fighting their whole lives.

In the years to come, their bloody crimes will horrify the world. Headlines will point to LSD, unwed mothers, rock music, the breakdown of the nuclear family, flagging church attendance, collapsing social order. The two girls and the boy sitting in the car right now will know the truth: they are obedient children.

But the house that they’re driving toward is empty because two hours ago, Mrs. Redfield snuck a cookie out of the pantry, and Mr. Redfield shook his head and said, “So much for that diet.” Mrs. Redfield put the cookie back and closed the pantry, thinking about her high school science teacher, Mr. Fillmore, who was always wiping the lenses of his taped glasses because they were scratched, so he cleaned them obsessively. She thought about the day he took his glasses off and rubbed the lenses with his handkerchief as he said quietly, “time is the universal movement toward entropy. It’s the ignition of heat that spreads chaos in that which was formerly ordered.” He put his glasses back on and said, “But what is the source of the ignition?”

It was the same day that Mr. Redfield proposed to her in the field behind the school—September 18, 1937. She was sixteen. He was eighteen. They sat under a dogwood tree and smelled the coming of autumn in the Ozark foothills. He’d left school three years earlier to go to work and take care of his mother and three younger brothers after his father—a drunk—abandoned them for the fourth and final time. The three other times, the family had sold their chickens, cow, furniture, the tires on their car, and finally the car itself, and still, the children learned to sleep on their bellies to keep the hunger pangs away, so she knew that he came by his distrust of the world naturally. He was prickly and bitter, but he reserved his secret smiles for her alone, and she loved him for it. So when he proposed, she said yes, and his smile was the dazzle of a winter sunrise.

She left school, and they were married the following spring. Their neighbors, who were just as poor as they were, gave them what they could to get their home started. Mrs. Czasnoij gave them a pot without a lid. Mrs. Truly gave them two plates, two forks, and two knives. Mrs. MacGregor gave them a used bed sheet and a small woody apple to remind them of Eve’s sin and Adam’s duty.

They lived with his mother and brothers, and he enlisted in the army because it paid more than ringing up canned goods at Holland’s Grocery down the road. By 1942, she was pregnant, and he was shipped off to the Philippines, coming home a year later with a limp and a gun taken from a dead Japanese soldier that bore the chrysanthemum stamp of the emperor. Gone were the secret smiles. The last of his wonder had vaporized in the atomic shockwave that turned people into scorch marks in the dirt. He never talked about what he saw, but when she lit the candles on their son’s first birthday cake, he stared at the flames and said, “They tied his arms and legs and set his vehicle on fire, and we all watched him burn,” before taking a sip of beer.

 He’d only been home for two months when she told him she was pregnant again, and he told her they were moving to California. “We need to get a fresh start,” he said.

Her mouth bobbed open in surprise, and she heard herself stammer: “But your mother,” when what she meant was my mother. She was 22 years old and couldn’t bear the thought of giving birth without her mother’s cool hand on her forehead—of Christmases without her mother’s bourbon pecan pie—of life with a hard man without her mother there to squeeze her hand and remind her, “Women are stronger than men, and your job is to hold him up so he can stay on his feet.”

“Jesse is the same age I was when I went to work. He can take care of her,” he said, waving a hand at nothing.

She said, “But—” and he cut her off.

“I’ve made my decision.”

He built a trailer that they jokingly called Methuselah, and they stacked their meager belongings into it and set off for California, passing through the same town where one of their would-be killers—the taller but less pretty of the two brunette girls—would go to school to become a nun.

It will be one of the more baffling details of the story; writers and biographers and documentarians wondering for decades how the girl could have gone from nearly taking orders to ritual murderer. The girl, herself, will never be able to fully explain it. She will say that she’d always liked the structural sameness of mass, the peacefulness of it, but after three semesters, she knew it wasn’t the life she wanted. She wanted something new. She wanted to start over. She will tell those who ask that one morning, she simply packed a bag and got on a bus to Los Angeles, and the very first time she walked on the sandy beach, she came upon a group of teenagers sitting in a circle around a strange little wide-eyed man playing guitar.

She won’t be able to say why she ultimately did what she did, or why she sang in the courtroom as the judge read out her sentence, or why she shouted her undying love and loyalty to the little man—her desert father—even as she was led away in handcuffs to a prison cell where she would remain for the rest of her life as recompense for the bloody crimes she committed. She will only say that she liked the song he was playing, so she followed him to the desert.

But at the time that the Redfields passed through the town, that girl, who now sits in the backseat of the car on her way to kill Mr. and Mrs. Redfield, wouldn’t be born for another seven years.

They stayed in Lynwood with Mrs. Redfield’s Aunt Helen, who, despite being only eight years her senior, Mrs. Redfield remembered as a round-faced, matronly woman with tight, hot-roller curls and wide hips, even though she’d never given birth.

So she was surprised when the door opened and a woman in red lipstick and oversized sunglasses appeared in the doorway, dyed red hair piled on top of her head as she fanned her damp neck with red-painted nails. She was wearing a sundress that showed so much of her glowing chest and shoulders that Mr. Redfield frowned and looked away, neck flushing pink.

Aunt Helen had followed her husband to Los Angeles a decade earlier, and when Mrs. Redfield asked where he was, Aunt Helen said only, “Dead,” and ashed her cigarette in a ceramic dish on the kitchen table. She didn’t say anything more about him, and Mrs. Redfield didn’t ask.

The guest bedroom had one twin mattress that Mr. and Mrs. Redfield shared while the baby slept on the floor, but the closeness of their bodies made the room stifling on those airless summer nights, and she would get out of bed and go outside barefoot in her thin, sleeveless nightgown, breathing in the warm night air and listening to the silence—the crickets singing in the azaleas, the frogs croaking in the neighbors’ damp grass, the coyotes yodeling in the hills above them. The traffic on the boulevard stilled on weeknights after eleven, and she could imagine she was the only person alive at that moment, and she could do anything. She could start fresh—be someone new.

On one such night, in the second week of September, she stepped outside and sensed a change in the air: an every-which-way restlessness. She heard the trembling whine, heard the trees worrying in the darkness, and then the wind slammed her into the house. She screamed and ran inside, and Aunt Helen burst out of her room, tying the belt of a short, silk kimono around her waist.

“Tornado!” Mrs. Redfield cried.

Aunt Helen blinked a few times and then laughed. “Santa Ana winds.”

Aunt Helen taught Mrs. Redfield how to shop in a grocery store, because Mrs. Redfield had grown up killing and gutting chickens from the yard for dinner, retrieving preserves and potatoes from the root cellar. She’d never bought a bottle of milk before, and she felt like a child as Aunt Helen put money in her hand and taught her how to pay the cashier.

Mr. Redfield got a job as an electrician and they moved into their own house in Los Feliz right before she gave birth to their second son, followed ten months later by a third.

Mr. Redfield’s mood became blacker with each birth. The children were too loud. Their laughter was too high-pitched. Their shrieks of joy jangled his nerves and made him start when he was drinking his coffee at the kitchen table. He roared at them until they cried, and then he accused Mrs. Redfield of coddling them, trying to make their boys into girlish cowards. He pointed a finger in her face and said, “You’re ruining them,” which spread a tingling numbness throughout her body as he left and slammed the front door, only to return an hour later with a bar of chocolate and a card that he handed to her with a shy smile. Inside the card, he’d written: I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

She collected many such cards over the next 30 years of their marriage, one of which came after she gave birth on the kitchen floor by surprise to a fourth baby that she didn’t even know she was carrying, and Mr. Redfield saw her on the floor, spraddle-legged in a puddle of blood, clutching the slimy purple baby girl to her chest, and he put his hands in his hair and blinked his wet eyes rapidly for several minutes.

“I don’t…How could you…” he stammered as he looked wild-eyed at her, at the walls penning them all in, at the ceiling, at the door.

And then he was gone.

She thought he was going to get help, but when he didn’t return after 30 minutes, she crawled to the phone, umbilical cord still taut between her legs, and called Aunt Helen to take her to the hospital. There, she was wheeled back to a delivery room where one nurse cut and knotted the cord while another pushed on her belly so hard that Mrs. Redfield coughed and pushed out the placenta.  

Three doors down on the maternity ward, another young housewife had just given birth to her first child: a baby girl with enormous eyes that would eventually burnish to a coppery green color—her loveliness evident even then, as a baby jaundiced orange in the nursery. Decades later, her beauty would be described by all who knew her as entrancing, hypnotic, spellbinding. Like something from another world, her eyes sparked with galaxies full of stars, and when you looked into them, you felt like you were standing on the edge of human understanding. Her beauty would catch the attention of the little man with the wild smile because he liked to collect beautiful things, and when she sat near him on the beach to listen to him talk to a crowd about love and God and music, he would spot her and drop to his knees in the sand to kiss her dirty bare feet before rising to push a tab of acid into her mouth. Later, he would pull her by the neck and tell her to suck his cock, and she would do so obediently, thinking about the night she got the church choir to come to the same hospital where she was born, stand on the grass under the room where her mother lay dying, and sing Christmas carols.

Now, the girl sits in the back seat of the car, staring out at the colors of a windy summer night, on her way to kill Mr. and Mrs. Redfield. She has been motherless for six years.

Mr. Redfield didn’t come back to the house for four days, and when he returned, Mrs. Redfield could see his shame pulsating in his skin like nuclear fallout.

Aunt Helen stood between them with her hands on her hips, teeth set and one bare foot tapping on the floor as she said, “You’ve got a lot of nerve.”

He didn’t look either of them in the eye as he reached past Aunt Helen to hand Mrs. Redfield a card, in which he’d written a long message about his love for her, how he didn’t deserve her, how she was too good for him. He ended the message with the words: Please don’t leave me. I can’t live without you.

She hadn’t planned on leaving him. The thought hadn’t occurred to her until she read it there in the card, and she tried to imagine a life without him. She couldn’t. She didn’t have a job. Who would look after the children? Her name wasn’t even on their bank account. She bought groceries with the allowance he gave her every week.

But there was also love. She loved his shy gaze, the way he seemed almost afraid to look her in the eye when he spoke to her as if she were too bright and hot to look at directly. She loved how his body moved through a room, back straight, shoulders high. The back of his neck was beautiful. His ribcage reminded her of the inside of a French cathedral she’d seen in an encyclopedia once.

So she accepted his apology with a kiss on the cheek, put the card in her underwear drawer with all the others, and pushed the stroller to the pharmacy the next day to get a prescription for Miltown tablets, which her doctor said would calm her nerves.

She’d told Aunt Helen the night before that it was the war, it was his father, it was the meanness of the town they grew up in, it was hunger, it was the War, and Aunt Helen pressed her lips, crushed her cigarette out, and then lit another one.

When she got home from the pharmacy, Aunt Helen was gone, and Mr. Redfield said, “I don’t want you spending any more time with Helen. She’s a bad influence.” And she did as told because when Pastor McMartin asked her if she promised to honor and obey, she said, “I do.”

At that same moment, the boy who is now driving the car on his way to kill the Redfields, sat in a church in Texas, large-eyed, snub-nosed, hair parted and combed carefully by his mother at home so that his scalp still throbbed where she’d dragged the sharp end of the comb along his skull. He sat quietly and listened to a pastor say, “Honor and obey,” and though he didn’t yet know what the word “honor” meant as a verb, he would go on to become an honor student in school, editor of the high school newspaper, captain of the football team. He would set a state record for low hurdles. He would graduate “with honors.” He would go to college and join a fraternity. And later, in 1967, after graduation, he would follow a fraternity brother to Los Angeles, where he would try acid on the beach for the first time while a small, bearded man in buckskins played guitar in the sand, and the boy would open his eyes to the warp and weft of light and realize this was his chance to leave his old self behind forever—to start over. When the man stopped playing, he looked up with his deranged smile and cupped the boy’s neck, eyes like shining beetles through his tangled hair as he said, “Brother, your soul is trying to break free, but it’s stuck in the past.”

The boy would commit crimes that would wake him in the night for the rest of his life. He would do things for which God would never forgive him. But in that moment on the beach, colors ultra-saturated and pulsating as the little man grinned and held him by the neck, the boy blinked and saw a new self. This new self would obey the strange, bright-eyed man and do as he was told.

At the same moment that the little man was cupping the boy’s neck in 1967, on the other side of Los Angeles, Mrs. Redfield was opening her front door to find Mr. Redfield’s father on the front porch: eyes rooted red, hair long and greasy, and missing his left foot.

By then, both of their mothers had died, first hers and then his. They didn’t return to their small town in the Ozark foothills to attend their funerals because Mr. Redfield, who’d received an award from work in 1962 for perfect attendance, didn’t want to take the time off, and he said it was too dangerous for Mrs. Redfield to go alone.

All four of their children had moved out by then—even the youngest, who was only seventeen—and she knew that it was because they wanted to get away from their father. They didn’t come home for dinner on Sundays or on their birthdays, and Mrs. Redfield knew that they resented her for skipping their football games because Mr. Redfield didn’t want to go. For not standing up for them when Mr. Redfield said they were rotten, spoiled, ungrateful. For closing the bedroom door when, Mr. Redfield took off his belt and told one of them to stand against the wall.

And there was Mr. Redfield’s father, scowling at her on her own porch, leaning on his crutch and refusing to meet her eye as he said, “Where is my son?”

Mr. Redfield’s father was sick—dying. The stump of his leg stank, the linen bandages pocked with dried black blood, and the smell filled their kitchen as he sat at the table and grunted when Mrs. Redfield asked him if he wanted coffee. Mr. Redfield smiled for the first time in years, face blotchy, wiping away joyful tears at seeing his father again.

“I don’t have long,” his father said. “A few months or so. Maybe a year. I got nowhere to live, and I can’t get around on my own.”

Mr. Redfield told his father he could live with them, that they had plenty of room, and he didn’t ask where he’d been, what he’d done, or why he left.

Nor did he seem to have any concerns about how Mrs. Redfield was going to take care of his father and work at the same time. 

Mrs. Redfield had been managing the switchboard for Pacific Bell for six years. Mr. Redfield had grumbled at first when she told him she wanted to work, but he reluctantly agreed to it as long as she was home in time to make dinner and signed her paycheck over to him to deposit into the bank account that her name was still not on, because there still needed to be one head of the household.

The truth, she knew, was that Mr. Redfield didn’t like being alone in the house, couldn’t stand the roaring silence of an empty room, wanted her nearby in case he needed her—sometimes calling home from work in the middle of the day just to sit silently on the phone and listen to her talk about her trip to the grocery store before cutting her off to say he had to get back to work as if she had called him.

But now, with his father in need of looking after, Mr. Redfield said they had no choice: she had to quit her job and stay home again.

So she did. Every day, she changed her father-in-law’s bandages and cleaned his stinking wounds with antiseptic. She helped him in and out of the bath and didn’t look as he bathed himself, even though he kept his Hanes on for modesty’s sake. She got up early and made the coffee and pancakes with sugar-free syrup for his diabetes.

And he complained: the coffee was scorched, the sugar-free syrup had an aftertaste, the bathwater was too hot, the antiseptic burned. He shouted at her, called her an “empty-headed girl” even though she was 46 years old and far from girlish.

And there was the familiar loneliness—the ache of having no one to talk to. She’d forgotten how it could open a fissure inside you that, given enough time and pressure, would split open and swallow up the whole world.

After two months, she told Mr. Redfield that she couldn’t stand it anymore—couldn’t take another minute of his father’s complaints—and why should she when he abandoned the family 35 years ago?

And Mr. Redfield scoffed bitterly and said, “And you call yourself a Christian? Honor thy father and mother.”

She wanted to say, what about your mother? What about my mother? We left them behind, and they died.

But she didn’t say any of it.

Every day, she swallowed one of the Miltown tablets that she kept hidden in a box of feminine napkins and went on caring for his father until the old man died in July of 1969, two full years after he showed up on their doorstep. She found him gray and lifeless in his bed, and she laughed in relief and then slapped him in the face because she could—because no one would ever know.

Now, she knew, was their chance to start fresh. Now was the time to start anew.

And now, on this night, as the boy and the two girls drive through haloes of orange light glowing on the asphalt, silent and focused on their directives, the Redfields’ house still smells vaguely of necrotic flesh and antiseptic because Mrs. Redfield can’t seem to get the smell out no matter how hard she scrubs the floors and surfaces. It’s in the curtains and rugs. It’s in the upholstery.

The boy and the two girls smell it when they step inside: the cut of bleach overlaying an evil, bacterial odor.

But the house is dark. Empty. They search each room and can’t find anyone inside because three hours ago, Mr. Redfield said, “So much for that diet,” and Mrs. Redfield heard nothing but a thin, high-frequency whine that trembled in her ears for a full minute before the wind slammed the house. She blinked, gaping for words, and ended up blurting out—of all things—“Entropy!” But Mr. Redfield didn’t hear her—or ignored her—as he walked into the living room and dropped onto the couch without giving any of it another thought as if he’d already forgotten it. And she remembered the day he proposed, the day they married. She thought about how she moved halfway across the country, leaving everyone she loved and everything she knew behind. She thought about how she raised four children on her own and watched them all leave without a backward glance at her because she’d betrayed them—because she’d chosen him over them. She thought about how she stopped talking to Aunt Helen, who came to the house and banged on the door until Mr. Redfield opened it and said something in a voice so low and dark that Aunt Helen stumbled backward like she’d been struck. She thought about how she got a job, and for the first time in her adult life, she had a place to go and talk to other adults—she had friends—and she quit it because he told her to, and she was an obedient wife.

She’d been his helpmeet, the crutch holding him upright as the heavy uranium green sky pressed down on him. She’d been his succor and comfort, even as he so readily turned his hatred and bitterness for the world on her.

They’d been at war for 30 years, and somehow she’d slept through it all, even as she was steadily dismembered and deconstructed, and now she was blinking awake to find her parts scattered across a wide, scorched field. She had nothing. No friends, no family, no children. No job, no bank account, no credit card. She didn’t exist.

And there he was, sitting on the couch, staring grimly at the TV: the victor.

So she went into the bathroom and took the Miltown tablets out of the box of feminine napkins. She shook six tablets into her palm before thinking better of it and shaking out a seventh, carrying them back into the kitchen and chopping them into dust on the counter while Mr. Redfield watched Bonanza on TV.

The windows rattled in the hot gusts outside as she took a beer out of the icebox and popped the tab, using her cupped palm to funnel the Miltown dust into the can.

An hour later, he was snoring, and she heaved him to his feet, coaxing him to lean on her as she staggered with him out to the station wagon in the garage.   

Later, when it’s all over, witnesses will recall seeing a brown station wagon driving slowly through Benedict Canyon and turning onto a recently cleared road where several houses were under construction, but no one will know how the fire started or how long the car had been burning before they heard a woman screaming for help, running barefoot through the streets as the trees whipped and thrashed in the wind around her. They will see her, wild-eyed and raving, spitting, and they will be able to make out the words, “My husband!”

The woman will tell police that her car crashed into a ditch and burst into flames—that she was able to climb out through the window, but her husband was asleep in the passenger’s seat. She’ll be taken to the hospital to be sedated. When the fire burns out and police are able to peer inside the smoking black crater of the car’s interior, they’ll see a man’s charred remains curled up curiously, as though his arms and legs had been tied.

By then, the boy and the two girls will be gone, having turned their violence on the house next door. Grainy black-and-white pictures will darken the front pages of newspapers showing the word PIG dripping down the walls, written in the victims’ blood, and in another month’s time, the little man and his desert children will be arrested. The trial will shock families in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Birmingham, and Boston as they read the newspapers and question how on earth such vibrant, beautiful youths—singing girls, the captain of the football team—could be capable of such violence. They will wonder how anyone could contain such darkness, and they will secretly wonder what they, themselves, might be capable of, given enough time and pressure.

And no one will remember the car fire in Benedict Canyon.

Now, as Mrs. Redfield watches the flames snap against the night sky, she knows that in a few seconds, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds will come howling through the canyon pass and sweep the smoke out to the Pacific Ocean, and tomorrow, the air will settle and the world will be new.

About the Author

Faith Merino is the author of Cormorant Lake, which was longlisted for the 2021 Center For Fiction First Novel Award. Her short stories have appeared in Sundog Lit, Asimov's Science Fiction, F&SF, The Indiana Review, and more. She lives in California where she is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

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