I lay on my backpack, denying to myself that my arm was broken. The moon had made me think it was light enough to gambol down a mountain. The waterfall meadow, the tissue-paper leaves, the iceberg clouds and diamond rocks, the moon a puddle of dead frogs: looking down from the front steps, I had seen the world in shades of white. But it was black, a soft mix of hairlike grass and crumbly dirt that held me aloft, poised between Earth’s molten core and outer space, while I ran my ﬁngers up and down my arm.
I sat upright. A smear of moonlight led to the Isle of Avalon. But there was no island, and my arm was ﬁne. The more I kept probing around, the more okay it felt.
The night was warm. I took off my backpack and leaned back on my hands, looking up and out at the torn black ﬁrmament strewn with airplanes. The wind picked up and long grass tickled my face. I wondered whether my car would start. I heard a big dog snuffling, and Peter’s voice saying, “Whoa, slow down, Rabelais!”
He was coming closer. He had something more to say to me.
He stopped about ten feet behind me. I could hear by the scrabbling that he was holding the dog by its collar. He waited, but I could not look at him.
Softly he said, “Guess what? She called ﬁrst and told me to go to hell.” He paused. “What a fucking disaster. I don’t know who told her, but now there’s nothing . . .” He paused. “Nothing to keep us apart but this damn dog.”
The stars blurred with inexpressible happiness. Why would they do that? Is there any possible ethical justiﬁcation?
Avalon means “place with apples,” the healthy food that grows on trees. If you take good care of apples, they stay fresh all year. That’s why Arthur was taken to Avalon to heal his wounds.
On Easter Sunday 2005, when I was in fourth grade, my mother and common-law stepfather, Doug, took me there with my common-law stepbrother, Axel. The passenger ferry sailed from Long Beach, California, south of L.A. Whoever named the tourist-trap town on Santa Catalina Island “Avalon” presumably hoped to beneﬁt from the marketing cachet of King Arthur while evoking such additional mythical Western island paradises as Tír na nÓg, Emain Ablach, and Atlantis. “Avalon’s where Arthur lives,” my mother shouted, pointing at it and adding, “He’s not real.” Her world had a real-life king, the Dalai Lama. The ship plowed through low swells, steady as a train. Tormented seagulls tormented my ears with cries of torment, demanding French fries I did not have and would not have wanted to give up. Walleyed, impassive ﬂying ﬁsh spoke their silent greetings—patently magical beings, stiff and papery as they outpaced the ship, Arthur’s scaly heralds.
In Avalon, we rode in a glass-bottomed boat and saw wild goldﬁsh. Then we ate burgers from an open-air stand. I was having a phase where I only wanted the patty with nothing on it, so Axel ate my bun. Catalina also has bison and antelopes, but we never set foot past the harbor.
Not long after our trip, my mother moved to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, leaving me alone with Doug and his family. I still have the books she left behind: The Once and Future King. The Crystal Cave. The High King. She also left a bunch of Tolkien, but Doug sold it.
I have trouble recounting my childhood in chronological order. It appears in fragments, like a cored and sectioned apple. Put it back together, and the interior disappears. My earliest ﬁrsthand memory is of the soft feel of the long rectangle of dust behind an inch-thick steel plate—the kind they use to cover holes during road construction, about four feet on a side, with two round holes so a crane can pick it up— that leans against the cinder-block wall of a fertilizer shed at Bourdon Farms. The strange hush back there, the oblique light, the sharp odor. Under my pinkish-yellowish right hand, the littering of cement and rust untouched by irrigation or rain. I know I was almost a baby, because the steel plate is still there and the space behind it is tiny. Was I playing, or hiding, or both? I have no idea. The preponderance of my information is secondhand.
The Hendersons of Torrance, California, run a business that has been passed down through generations. Their house is ﬁlled with clan memorabilia, and so is the yard. A historic freezer, door still attached, contains a mildewed baseball bat decorated with Aztec temple scenes in a combination of wood-burning and enamel paint. A shallow well run dry contains a broken rocking chair with a handworked needlepoint seat. Doug once tried to use it as a sled on mud after a rain. It worked enough to try once, he told me, and then he threw it in the well. In childhood I turned the crisp black pages of green photo albums, recognizing our front porch behind a white-haired man at the wheel of a familiar 1920 Model T Ford. Long decommissioned, it stank of chickenshit. There had been no chickens in my lifetime.
The property is six-plus acres under the high-tension lines that run from La Fresa down to Redondo Beach. It stretches from road to ravine to road, with fences maintained by the power company, the perimeter traced by a dirt-bike trail where Grandpa Larry once ran races with his biker-barﬂy best friends. The business is a plant nursery specializing in exotic imports and topiary. In 1978, California Proposition 13 limited local property taxes to one percent of a home’s 1976 assessment. Moves, additions, and new construction triggered punishing reassessments. To maintain conspicuous consumption while living in the same modest houses for ﬁfty years, rich people took up gardening. That was where Bourdon Farms came in.
Whether anything other than tropical plants ever arrives in those shipping containers bound to the port of Long Beach, and whether the Hendersons’ motorcycling friends have anything to do with distributing it, I do not know. I was never considered a member of the family unless they wanted something from me.
As with many family businesses, the key to the enterprise’s viability is unpaid labor by women, children, and recent immigrants in need of a place to lie down. At best, gray market; more likely, black. But revenuers do not fuck with the Hendersons. It would take the FBI, and it would take years. A simple search would turn up nothing. Nobody keeps the books or deposits money in the bank. They would apologize to the feds for knowing nothing (they reject federal authority on principle) and refer them to their imaginary absentee employer, Mr. Bourdon.
The land is on California’s statewide property inventory. I know that much. I ﬁgured it out using the internet at my high school—that the land belongs to the state. I asked Doug about it. He told me that Great-Great-Grandpa Allan’s ranch stretched for miles, all the way to the Madrona wetlands, where he watered his cattle. The state condemned it by eminent domain to build the city of Torrance, compensating his heirs with an exemption from all applicable law in perpetuity. “That’s why we ﬂy the ﬂag of the California Republic,” he explained, refer-ring to the state ﬂag with its grizzly bear and red star. “It’s the one place left where a man can stand tall.”
The house is an Appalachian-style Cape Cod with vinyl siding and a tin roof, hunched on brick pillars over a low crawl space. Except for the TVs, which are always state-of-the-art, the furniture is an unchanging assortment of beat-up antiques, compounding the difficulty of sorting memories into epochs without using my own size as a reference.
Grandpa Larry occupied the master bedroom. At age two and a half I switched from sharing an upstairs room with Mom and Doug to sharing one with Axel. When I was six, I took over the unheated lean-to, which reeked of mice, outside what was once the back door. The lean-to had been added before the vinyl siding was put on, so my walls were made of pine and I could use thumbtacks to post pictures cut out of magazines. I had two doors and a tiny window that could not be opened.
The bikers maintained a clubhouse on the property, over which the California bear and a black POW/MIA ﬂag ﬂew day and night. When they were drunkest, they would sing “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” They consciously maximized eating and smoking, equating size and rugged looks with masculinity. I am certain that in their minds no real man was ever naked. Identity was a question of tools, machines, leathers, and weapons. They were trans-human cyborgs.
I started work at age three, gathering snails in a bucket and lugging them to West 190th Street to be run over. This was because my mother wanted Bourdon Farms to stop using snail bait. She liked cats. The strays she fed were constantly dying of metaldehyde poisoning. They were replaced by new strays, which also died horribly. The management, however, saw my work as complementary to snail bait, not as a substitute.
Mom was never allowed up on the backhoe or the forklift, but by the time she left, she could repot, wrap root balls, and prune. On Sundays, our day of rest, she would strap me into the passenger seat of Doug’s truck and drive the PCH (the Paciﬁc Coast Highway that ran near our house) north past Will Rogers Beach to cut back via Sunset Boulevard, always detouring to a street in Brentwood that was lined with banyans. She would roll slowly through the arcade of columnar prop roots, gazing admiringly on the wealth represented by big trees that crowded the road like a jungle straining at the leash. Then we would sit for a while under the gigantic Moreton Bay ﬁg (my suspicion is that it started life—I mean Mom’s inner life—as Yggdrasil and become the Bodhi tree) at a Presbyterian church near Palms and Sepulveda, waiting for the service to end so we could scam food and beverages from their buffet before taking the freeway home.
When I try to remember best what she was like, I think of her on the long drive back to Torrance, wordlessly and willfully happy, with the window down and her hair tousled by the wind. Which is strange and kind of sad, because I was there the whole time—her own child, staring in parallel with her out the windshield, afraid to break her concentration.
There was a Buddhist center in Paciﬁc Palisades that was the prettiest house on Sunset. Maybe that was what did it. It might have been the traffic. We would be trapped somewhere, barely moving, and she would tell me to pretend this moment was the only thing that had ever happened and would ever happen in my life and that it was eternal, and to ask myself whether life would still be worth living. She started buying magazines with pictures of all different lamas and bodhisattvas in them and sneaking away to meditate. After nine years with Doug, she took off to a Buddhist center in the Sierras, with whopping trees galore, and became a nun.
Her parents, Grandma Tessa and Grandpa Lamont, were fond of me, but they lacked resources. Grandpa Lamont had been diagnosed as mentally retarded in childhood and housed in state institutions until he was drafted and the army discovered that he had treatable petit mal epilepsy. Grandma Tessa had been a seamstress for Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth. They met at a Masonic convention in Chicago and moved together to Pasadena to set up a debt-powered business leasing copiers to storefronts, and when I was a child they were broke. As far as I know, their biggest extravagance was my annual trip to Knott’s Berry Farm, once a year from ages six to thirteen. Their poverty denied me the American Jerusalem (Disneyland—Disney World in Florida being the Mecca). They lived in a single-wide in a seniors-only mobile-home park. When Mom left, they took me in for eight days, from a Saturday to the following Sunday. No one under ﬁfty-ﬁve was allowed to stay there more than a week. They had to pay a ﬁfty-dollar ﬁne for keeping me an extra day.
The Hendersons were happy to keep me on. A ten-year-old stepchild represented circa eight years of unpaid labor and a potential twenty thousand dollars in earned income tax credits, if the IRS played along. From their perspective, my mother offered me to them in payment for her freedom.
Freedom from what? From raising me? From being around me? That was what I thought, because she never came to visit, or asked for me back. A monastery in Tibet would have taken a ten-year-old, and even in California it could have been passed off as home schooling, but her place was adults-only. It was old school Tantric—Nyingma—with red robes, a golden stupa, big statues, rock gardens, incense, prayer wheels, mantra chanting, sand paintings, whatever else, and the whole nine yards. The site was a former motel on the road from Fresno to Yosemite, hidden on an incline behind ﬁr trees. To the ﬁrst-time visitor it looked kind of amusing, because the lobby had been built in the shape of a wigwam.
Mom worked there in exchange for room and board, as she had at Bourdon Farms. But she got a better deal. The Buddhists did not pressure her to work hard or fast, and they gave her free time to meditate.
Their central practice was the cultivation of conscious awareness of every tiniest movement and nerve impulse, which could be combined with all kinds of unskilled labor, such as vacuuming the pool. A person who slows down enough will hallucinate a ghostly presence to take up the perceptual slack. In her case it was a blue orb behind her left shoulder.
Doug took me to see her twice, when I was twelve and ﬁfteen. Both times she never stopped smiling. The ﬁrst time, she was very thin. The second time, she looked so hungry that I gave her the hard-boiled eggs from my bag lunch. She was allowed to eat animals if someone else killed them, and the eggs had never lived, strictly speaking. She told me she was happy and how much she loved me, the recruits she trained, her fellow monks and nuns, and her Rinpoche.
When I lay in bed obsessing about her after my visits, the orb always bugged me. If the point was to cultivate minute consciousness awareness, how was it helping?
Later it turned out she had ovarian cancer the whole time. But when she wasn’t scrubbing toilets or raking pine needles with maximum mindfulness, she was silently meditating to take her mind off reality, so that nobody noticed until it metastasized to her back and she couldn’t work.
She died at the monastery with whatever palliative medicine Medicaid gives nuns. I cried with single-minded attention and felt her presence as a vague epiphenomenon to my rear, like the orb but yellow. Maybe because she had blond hair when I was little.
Then Doug took her back. He stormed up to Oakhurst in a hearse with an undertaker from Gardena to secure her valuables and save her remains from the heathens he claimed would have fed her to condors on a charnel ground. He had her cremated “like a normal person” and took me along to scatter the ashes in the duck pond at the park in Manhattan Beach where, he told me, they had shared their ﬁrst kiss after club sandwiches and coffee at the Kettle on a cloudy summer afternoon three years before my father’s emigration had prompted him to leave Axel’s mother for mine.
That was the ﬁrst I had heard of my father’s emigration. I was sixteen. I was like, “What?”
According to Doug, my father moved to Australia when I was eleven months old. My mother was still on maternity leave from her job at the yogurt factory where my father was a supervisor, because I screamed so much, ate so slowly, and had trouble keeping things down.
My father planned the move as a surprise. He sold his parents’ former home in Hollywood out from under us and leased a one-bedroom apartment on West 190th in Torrance. He paid a year’s rent up front and gave Mom enough cash to hold out for a year.
To my mom, Torrance was West BF, convenient to nothing unless you counted the tar-studded municipal beach where she ﬁrst saw Doug. Trash bags on hoops whipped emptily in the wind while seniors fought heart disease with wrist and ankle weights in the shade of chemical potties. The contrast had made Doug look good, but not good enough, which irritated him. For the remainder of her marriage, he gave her no peace.
Dad stayed at the Torrance apartment for two nights. Then he caught a plane to a place where he could realize his life’s dream. His life’s dream was to be single again, marry a faithful woman, have different children, pay us nothing, and ignore us, his parents, and his sister forever. After Dad left, Doug convinced Mom to give him the cash, sublet the apartment, and move to Bourdon Farms.
From AVALON by Nell Zink. Copyright © 2022 by Nell Zink. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.