Okay, so I’ve edited this historical novel of mine about a million times. Where I think I’m shaving off thousands and thousands of words I’ve barely skimmed two thousand. The book as it stands right now is too long and I know I have to cut – a lot. I have about fifteen more chapters to go in this round of rewriting before I can sit down with line edits, fine-tuning, make some corrections, and so on. I also have an amazing beta reader who is tackling one chapter at a time and providing me with spot-on edits.
willingly normally share my work. I remember editing a newspaper piece I wrote once so many times that the editor told me he didn’t even have to touch it. Of course, that piece took me two weeks to get “just right” and a lengthy review of my old college journalism books. Perfection is a problem with me and so sharing my work makes me a little jumpy. Because are the words ever perfect enough?
Right above my desk is a white board and a quote from the writer, Sean Platt, “Perfection is the enemy of done.”
I read that damn quote every single day to remind myself to stop fiddling with this novel that has been with me now for several years. Oh sure I’ve written several books since this one but I keep coming back to it to rewrite…there is something about this book – a historical novel set in Los Angeles during WWII – that holds my heart.
But it can’t be my own personal baby forever. I must let it fly and go out into the world one of these days. I certainly can’t coddle it forever.
So here goes.
The Prologue to my historical novel. Perfect, not perfect, pathetic, awesome, lovely, horrible. Whatever it ends up being.
One more thing: the formatting may be a little wonky when I copied it over.
The screams could be heard from miles away.
It was 1959 and Sophia stood back and watched the horror unfold as the Los Angeles police drove their Ford Fairlane’s into Chavez Ravine with their sirens blaring and officers slamming doors with such force it felt like the earth was shaking. In an instant a woman was screaming and yelling and cursing in Spanish that Sophia could only guess what was being said. The bulldozers were ready to tear down the only houses left in what now looked like a giant hill filled with debris and dirt mounds. The sounds of crushing glass, wood crumbling to the ground, and cement cracking as easily as toothpicks filled the air of this once-tight community and left only hatred and anger behind in its wake.
The thin, dark-haired woman that Sophia remembers playing cards with and eating her homemade tamales was being roughly carried out of her home by the Los Angeles police, who held her by both her arms and legs like a rag doll. The more the woman struggled the tighter the police held onto her. Her black and white polka dot dress blowing in the mild summer afternoon as if she were sitting carefree on a beach chair instead of being forcibly evacuated from the only home she knew.
Her screams made Sophia shiver and even after almost six decades, Sophia still shivered when she thought of it.
Most people left Chavez Ravine broken and depressed but only the woman with the black and white polka dot dress, along with a mere handful of residents, refused and had to be taken out by force.
The media cameras captured all the horror and across Los Angeles people read with disgust what levels the residents of Chavez Ravine had sunk to. The image of the screaming woman being dragged out of her home would remain the sole image of Chavez Ravine used over and over for years to come.
Sophia stood on the hill, quite different from what she remembered, but in her mind the memories were as clear today, despite the smog that covered Los Angeles like a thin blanket, as they were over sixty years ago.
Looking around Sophia could still make out where Palo Verde elementary school once stood and if she closed her eyes she could see her four boys all playing on the playground and hear the laughter of young children. Of course, the elementary school has long since been buried underground, filled in with dirt and replaced by a cement jungle of blue and white.
This will always be home, Sophia thought as she stood lost in memories of the past.
Chavez Ravine. Her home. Her heart.
A place where Sophia and Joe Giacalone raised four boys and built their home on Davis Street overlooking the lights of downtown in a community that was wedged in a ravine surrounded by hills.
Sophia took pride in her home and loved decorating her living room with photos and light blue curtains. She embroidered towels for the bathrooms, hung shelves above her washing machine, and grew parsley in galvanized pots on the windowsill. The same windows that she had to close, even in the heat of summer, when the Arroyo Seco Parkway was under construction and the pounding noise made her crazed with the sounds of drills and hammers and sheets of concrete being laid into place. She didn’t care that this new stretch of highway was creating a faster passage from downtown to the suburbs of Los Angeles, Sophia hated the constant noise that lasted for two long years.
Sophia took a deep breath and was filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee as she waited for her best friend and neighbor, Blanca, to stop by for a quick game of gin-rummy and catch up on all the latest news in their tiny, shabby community.
Of course, Sophia never thought her quaint town was shabby. To her the dirt was love and the smiles of neighbors were golden. The tinny sounds of music that filled the streets on weekends, the friendly wave of a neighbor, and the fragrances of sweet peas and bread baking in hot kitchens was what her life was about then.
Chavez Ravine was never considered a desirable place to live by those that didn’t live there. There were no mansions and well-manicured lawns. In fact, no one even had lawns. Instead, their front yards were filled with large fruit trees, grape vines, colorful flowers, and lawn chairs to sit and enjoy the wonderful southern California sunshine, some with bottles of beer, others with a jug of wine, sipping from plain, stubby glasses.
There was nothing fancy about life in Chavez Ravine in the 1940s. Many homes had peeling paint and were supported by stacks of cinder blocks. But, when you walked inside the homes, they were filled with scents of chili peppers roasting in the oven and tomatoes cooking on the stove. The tiny kitchens, barely enough room for one woman, was a bustling thoroughfare of activity. Women baked breads and cookies every afternoon while they waited for the laundry to dry on the line outside. If a rabbit happened to hop within reach, it was often caught and cooked into a cacciatore for dinner.
A place where a B-rated actor, Crispy Martin, lived on Reposa Street and often threw parties for his neighbors which was a highlight every summer when everyone was given an invitation that was hand delivered and tied with a gold ribbon. In a time when most actors chose to live in places like Pasadena or Beverly Hills, Martin picked the closed-knit community of Chavez Ravine, giving his neighbors plenty of bragging rights.
The children of Chavez Ravine played make-shift baseball in the open fields and chased each other in the middle of Gabriel Avenue or Bishops Road where only a few cars ever traveled. Sometimes the children would roll down the large hills of Davis Street and Shoreland Drive and tramp through mud puddles on their way to the dime store to buy a few pieces of hard candy.
Chavez Ravine somehow escaped the trappings of life in a big city. The small valley in the middle of Los Angeles felt immune to the harsh realities of the city. In Chavez Ravine neighbors were also friends. They talked on the corner and housewives walked to Marbetta Market for their weekly groceries. They shared life stories after Sunday mass or over a game of cards. They had dreams and hopes for their small community. And, they watched and prayed as the country began sending their boys off to war.
For a while, not one boy from Chavez Ravine had been sent to fight in Europe. Of course, that wouldn’t always be the case but even war couldn’t break up the rhythm of Chavez Ravine and the beating heart of its residents.
One can always look back on a life spent and think of only the good, the idyllic, and the special. But, there were bad days in Chavez Ravine too.
Kids would get ahold of their parent’s liquor and break windows and tear down trees with saws. The Great Depression took the livelihoods of many men in the community and left poverty in its wake. When Dr. Wood, a famed Los Angeles surgeon, was killed on the streets just outside Chavez Ravine after a house call, the authorities automatically assumed the killer lived there. It took three years to finally free the innocent man who was wrongly accused. By then, however, a dark cloud had begun to hang over Chavez Ravine.
Sophia closed her damp tear-filled eyes when she recognized Effie Street below them and could still see where her family’s grocery store once stood off Boylston and Shoreland Streets. The one story green building with, “Marbetta Markets #5” printed in block white lettering above the double doors and painted signs offering quarts of milk for fourteen cents and five pounds of potatoes for a nickel.
Her mind went back to women wearing bright floral-patterned dresses and comfortable shoes carrying small baskets through the dirt parking lot as their children ran towards the doors of the grocery store. Inside the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing in the background as women squeezed oranges and smelled melons before buying them. The women carried their loot back home, walking because many had never learned, or been permitted to learn, to drive, humming “I’ve got the world on a string” and wonder why that song was stuck in their head?
And when the gossip of a baseball team moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was on the minds of everyone in Chavez Ravine people would ask one another, “Could one man buy an entire town and turn it completely upside-down?”
Ultimately the answer would be yes and their world, as they knew it, would never be the same again.
Chavez Ravine proved it was not immune to the imperfections of life.
“Nana? Are we going to stay on this hill forever? I’m starving and my feet hurt,” Sophia’s granddaughter, Pippa, nudged Sophia out of her trance down memory lane.
Sophia looked at the box she was still holding onto and somehow it felt heavier now.
“Is this where we’re gonna to do it?” Pippa asked. For a young girl Pippa was more aware of life and death than Sophia remembered being at that age.
Sophia placed the heavy box on a bench at the top of the Lilac Terrace, a hill that still exists in Chavez Ravine, “Yes, this is the spot. This was where Papa and I lived and the place he truly loved more than anywhere else,” Sophia struggled with the sights around her. The trees that all looked too big now, the hills that no longer created a ravine, and the buildings of downtown Los Angeles that seemed much taller.
And now Dodger stadium occupied the space where her life had felt meaningful and rich.
Pippa had long parted her hand from her grandmother’s and began fumbling with her Sony Walkman trying to find her favorite song, “This very spot?” Pippa said not looking up from her Walkman.
“Yep. Of course, we lived here before Dodger stadium was built. And I think the hill got steeper because I don’t remember it being quite that difficult to climb,” Sophia chuckled to herself.
Sophia opened the box that was filled with Joe’s ashes.
His final wish, he had said in a note.
Actually, Joe had left Sophia with three final wishes, like a genie in a bottle Sophia laughed through her tears when she first read the note in the days following Joe’s funeral.
And she was about to take care of the first one.
Together they stood on top of the hill with the hum of people filling Dodger stadium and the distant horns honking in downtown Los Angeles and neither of them speaking for a couple of minutes. Pippa was thinking about hot dogs and peanuts and Sophia couldn’t seem to stop the mental walk down memory lane. But, since her granddaughter was growing more impatient by the minute, Sophia tried to stay focused on what she was here to do.
Sophia opened the box and scattered her husband’s ashes over what used to be Chavez Ravine.
The smog filled Sophia’s lungs as her eyes began to water.
For several minutes Sophia and Pippa watched as the ashes swirled and blew in different directions around them, floating finally down the hill and nestling among overgrown shrubs and weeds.
Now Sophia had to face Joe’s second and third wish.
One that she had been dreading from the minute she had read the last note her husband had ever penned, days before his death.
Pippa was hopping on one foot, restless, “Can we go now?”
Sophia nodded as she closed the box and gave one last glance around.
Sophia and Pippa waited in the long line and handed the woman in a blue t-shirt with matching cap, two tickets. Beside her, Pippa was excited to be at a baseball game, her favorite sport, and where Joe had taken her many times from the time she was five.
As they walked into the stadium, Sophia felt her heart began to race, “I never in a million years thought I would ever step foot in this place.”
Sophia shook her head.
“It’s too bad that Papa had to die just before the game,” Pippa said.
“I didn’t even know he had tickets to Dodger games,” Sophia said quietly.
“Ohhh, Papa kept a secret! Papa kept a secret!” Pippa giggled as she chanted and Sophia couldn’t help but giggle too.
Joe had indeed kept a secret. He had season tickets to Dodger home games for the last twenty years, a gift, his final note said.
Sophia felt her heart race.
A gift she was about to meet.
Sophia and Pippa found their seats and nibbled on peanuts and drank soda. “Pippa, see where third base is?”
“Yeah,” Pippa nodded as she threw her shells on the ground.
“That was the spot where our house was. Where your father grew up.”
“Really? That’s cool, Nana. How can you be sure, though?”
“Well, I remember being able to see the police academy from our front door of our house and if you look out just beyond third base you can still see the academy.”
“Is that the same police academy when you used to live here?”
Sophia nodded slowly, “That’s all that has remained of Chavez Ravine, Pippa.”