The Rio Linda Deep-Freeze
by Justin E. H. Smith
Herb and Harry were the names of our two steers, the one a Hereford, the other a Holstein. They did not do much but stand, bovine and stoic, from one day to the next. They sculpted strange rolling shapes into the salt lick with their fat blue tongues, and delighted, with minimal expression, in the delivery of fresh hay. My father liked to joke that they were ‘out standing in their field’, and they were. They excelled in matters of bovinity, one could not dream of surpassing them. That there was not much to do in the role of bovine did not diminish their excellence, and did not increase their strangeness. In fact, it made them so much more familiar, so much more like me. I was seven, and I did not do much either. I had no known talents, and it would be a long while yet before I would get the idea to try to write. I spent my time taking the world in, watching the animals, mostly. Sitting in the pasture as Herb and Harry grazed nearby, and calling them, in imagined conversations, by their names.
I do not remember when these two appeared, but I do recall, as if it were yesterday, the day the deep-freeze was delivered: a freezer, waist-high to an average adult, as long and as wide as a comfortable bed. It was a descendant of the old ice-boxes that had brought the miracle of long-term food storage to the sweltering Central Valley of California already in the 1920s. Fifty years later, every household in Rio Linda would have in its kitchen a vertical refrigerator with a small freezer compartment at the top, but only a special few would have a ground-dwelling vault, a shiny white tomb dedicated solely to the preservation of sweetmeats and tissues in an eternal solid state, installed with pride by toothless men with tool belts in a corner of the family garage.
We were of indeterminate class. We inhabited a defunct chicken farm, inherited from the Scandinavian grandparents of my mother’s side. My father, born in Southern California to a renegade Utah Mormon and an Arkansas dustbowl migrant, was exposed to big ideas and the hope of some upward mobility thanks to a naturally curious mind and also in part to a stint in naval intelligence (involving the transcription of Chinese and Russian radio signals) followed by the GI Bill and graduate study. My mother, born in Sacramento to Minnesota Lutherans (softened by the pseudomystical fun of Shrinerdom), went to law school by night, with the dream of eventually helping the poor white women of the trailer parks of Rio Linda escape their abusive relationships. When the JD in family law was finally earned, and nailed to the wall of the strip-mall office, she would discover that the local economy still functioned mostly by barter, and she would receive, in remuneration for her services, a 1978 AMC Pacer, home grown tomatoes, a vicious goat named Snowy (of whom we have not heard the last), and many a hand-scrawled misspelled Post-It note of gratitude.
There were some lean times in the Valley, and though San Francisco was only a two-hour drive away, though Michel Foucault was just down the road at Berkeley, where my own mother had been an undergraduate at the end of the 1960s, speaking of technologies of the self and the liberatory potential of pleasure, I recall a Central Californian childhood in which the cycles of drought and flood still played a role, in which the desperation of James Agee’s interbellum South had been translated Westward with little change. While my parents were not themselves peasants or ‘harvest gypsies’, to speak with John Steinbeck, the simple fact of their choice to settle in Rio Linda, California, was sufficient to pull us downward, classwise, and to ensure that in all of my subsequent motion through elite East Coast institutions and centers of metropolitan sophistication, I would never, for a second, be free of the singular thought: you are from Rio Linda. You are white trash.
A profile of that community in the Sacramento Bee, dated January 13, 1993, might help to impart a sense of what this brute fact means, and why it is so hard to be free of it. The article (which my mother sent to me as a ‘joke’ when I was an undergraduate studying in Moscow, and which I have carried with me, among a precious few possessions, to Paris), entitled “Greetings from Rio Linda,” is worth quoting at some length:
Rio Linda is the land of yard cars and roaming dogs, where chain-link fences are a status symbol and the local law is something the cops call ‘Okie justice’.
There is a story from a few years back about a man jailed for beating his wife; she supposedly carried on with a neighbor while he was away. One morning, soon after his release, the neighbor woke up in extreme pain. He’d been hit over the head with a beer bottle during the night — and castrated.
The article goes on in this vein. We are told that Rio Linda is “a place that still has bloody family feuds, witchcraft, biker gangs… and active methamphetamine labs. The Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses here” (acknowledging the Klan in the present tense would likely have drowned out the jocular tone of the article). The predominant crimes, we learn, “tend to be cattle rustling, horse-stealing and domestic violence.”
All the stereotypes exhaused, of dogs on chains and broken machines on front lawns, the article turns to history. “It started as a land swindle of sorts,” we are told. In 1919 “the Suburban Fruit Lands Co. in Minneapolis bought 12,500 acres of the Rancho Del Paso Grant and began selling parcels for commercial agriculture.” The problem was that the soil was too hard to raise citrus, as the Minnesota Scandinavians had dreamt of doing, and so they were forced to resort to the much less lucrative life of egg farming. The Company “had claimed the land would be worth $1500 to $3000 an acre within six months and that 10 or 20 acres was enough to grow commercial crops of nearly every fruit known in the United States.” After a lawsuit brought against them in the 1920s, “the land value dropped to $35 an acre.”
The historical excursus then concludes: “Some of the old coops are still standing today” (pictured above are my sister and I standing in front of our grandfather’s defunct coop, circa 1975).
In any case I’ve already acknowledged that somehow, within the microcosm of my own family, the endless generations of desperation gave way to higher hopes, which is to say to aspiration toward a slightly higher status. By the time I came along there was no longer any possibility of clinging to the pride of the silent dirt-farmer, the solidarity of the truly poor. We were, notwithstanding the newsletters that still arrived from the local Grange, lower-bourgeois Bohemian dabblers. My parents had desk jobs, and even if the tuition often went unpaid my sister and I were brought up through the Montessori system, and habituated to its ethos of freedom and self-determination. Yet at the end of each day we children put down our construction paper art projects and our Marlo Thomas records, and our parents put down their grown-up work files, and we returned to the land, and to the animals that ranged upon it, as if back to some primordial necessity.
At various times there were chickens, goats, horses (kept but not owned), ponies (owned), steer, two demonic llamas, a German shepherd named Flicka who had 13 puppies, 12 of which soon fell ill and died before they could open their eyes. There was an Irish setter named Rose, who snuck into the neighbor’s yard one night, and dragged back the mortal remains of 78 prize turkeys, their necks snapped by her strong jaw. She had laid them out across the front lawn to show them to us, with evident pride, before animal control came and took her away later that morning. There were cats roving in and out, cats who’d lost eyes in unimaginable fights, cats to whom it hardly made any sense to give names. There was Snowy the goat, whom I often saw in dreams walking upright with calm evil. And there were Herb and Harry, who had no trace of evil in them at all, who did not respond when you called them but who nonetheless seemed eminently worthy of their names: their names that, by simple alliteration with their breeds, seemed to pick out their very essences, just as, so it is said, the names given by Adam to the beasts were not just arbitrary sounds, but true names, names identical to the beings they name.
Herb and Harry, and the deep-freeze, their destiny. When the day arrived I was bursting with giddy anticipation. I rushed around the playground at our Montessori (the backyard of a converted home), reporting to teachers and kids alike that I would be leaving school early that afternoon, to watch my two steers, Herb and Harry, get butchered. If I was pressed for further explanation of my excitement, I would explain that this is simply the natural cycle of things: the animals are raised up to be eaten by the humans. The animals are raised up to be put in the deep-freeze. You can’t fight it. You can’t change the way things are.
Our grandfather, my mother’s father, the retired Norwegian chicken farmer, picked us up at noon, and we made our usual course away from the modest center of Sacramento, out past the air force base, past the Country Comfort Lounge, toward the feed lots and the ramshackle Baptist churches of Rio Linda. Toward home. He seemed sullen. Who knows how many chickens he’d killed in his lifetime, how many defective runts discarded that could make no economic sense? He never made a spectacle of it.
I do not recall whose idea it was to pull us out of school that day to teach us a lesson about the natural cycle of things. I do not recall whose idea it was to name Herb and Harry, but the lesson that I drew from that day, a lesson that gestated long before coming to my consciousness and that stays with me still, is that you cannot have it both ways: naming breaks the natural cycle of things. It turns a brute beast into a fellow creature.
When we arrived my mother and father were already in the pasture, standing with a man who had pulled in with his pick-up truck covered in a camper shell. He may have been Hank, the man with the turkeys who lived next-door, and who sometimes came over and with truckloads of hay bails, which he could throw great distances. Or he may have been someone else, and my memory has created a composite. He had, I think, thick black hair, greased back, reptilian, like Ronald Reagan, and he was wearing a leather smock, a torturer’s smock. He pulled a shotgun out of the truck bed and manipulated it with expertise. Herb, or Harry, stood 10 yards or so away, grazing, outstanding. His partner was being kept in the other pasture, away, for now, from the impending carnage.
Hank lifted the shotgun, it cracked, and Herb, or Harry, fell. Hank walked swiftly, purposively over, and slit the steer’s throat. Blood poured out in waves, mixed with the grasses, and steamed just like all the half-digested pats of hay and manure on frosty autumn mornings that Herb and Harry had deposited and left for me to stare at with wonder. The heat and mystery of life! When the beast had been thoroughly bled and the steam had ascended like a soul to the sky, Hank cut open the stomach, and all its terrible unthinkable viscera poured out. There was nothing to wonder at here, but only a surfeit of escaping life, indecent to behold. I think it is at this point that I turned my eyes away, that I had had enough. You can’t fight it, but if you are still a boy you can be whisked away from that hard world of men acting in accordance with necessity, men named Hank with guns and knives, and taken indoors by your dear indulgent mother, to rediscover a world of diverting storybooks where animals talk, and have names and human intrigues of their own.
The deep-freeze was full for years to come, of the parts of Herb and Harry, wrapped in thick white paper, stained here and there with brown blood. They survived divorce, floods, the deaths of grandparents, and so much more yet of the unending flow of human life. Parts still remained when we finally sold the farm land in 1987 and moved into a condominium in a proper suburb of Sacramento, bringing to a definitive end the vestigial agrarianism that had come down to us from the millennia. There was a small orange light that glowed on top of the white vault, which was intended to signal that the device was properly plugged in, and that the current was flowing, but to me it always remained a faint sign of life, like the steam that once rose from manure, a sign that our glistening appliance had been imbued with the souls, now blended together, of my two loved ones.
I did not rebel that day, I did not demand that the farce of false necessity be called off. Up to a certain point I delighted in it, and I had faith in the adults’ insistence on its legitimacy. But the seed (to remain with safe vegetal metaphors) of an idea was planted: that it is a lie adults tell themselves, which keeps the animals cordoned off from us as mere brutes, which refuses to recognize our community with them…
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website