Welcome to My City:
The air here is as stagnant as the people who call Stockton home. Breathing it in weighs down your lungs with hot, muggy oxygen, perfumed with the smell of the Delta scum. The Delta stank is a special combination of farm water run-off, fish, and whatever remains of the poor soul some local gang has disposed of recently. Growing up here, it’s no secret what lurks in the waterways that intersect our streets and homes. Whenever a girl goes missing from the local university the first thing the police do is ready the dragnets and scuba gear. I’ve never heard of a missing girl being found alive here.
Stockton, California is the 8th most dangerous city in America; growing up here you learn real quick which parts of town to avoid. At least once a month the news will show reports of a body being found at a local playground, park, or neighborhood. If you manage to make it through high school without knowing someone who got pregnant, joined a gang, or got friendly with some rocks or a needle, then you are either lucky, or your family is from one of the two nice neighborhoods. A man once explained to me that most cities are made up of good, friendly places, with sparse pockets of bad areas that drag down the whole city’s reputation. He told me, “Stockton is not one of those places; you need to look very hard to find a nice place around here.”
After the housing market took a bad turn in the early 2000s, Stockton was the largest city to ever declare bankruptcy, until 2013 when Detroit stole that title from us. We are home to over 70 gangs that push the drugs on our streets and put the bullets in our storefronts and homes. I’ve heard stories that our city was once a thriving metropolis—home to a major port, booming businesses, and miles of farmland that supplied the world with fresh produce. If you search hard enough, you can see remnants of that time: an abandoned military base, long empty skyscrapers downtown; they stand tall, serving as the brick and steel headstones for our brief age of industry. Under some of the older homes and buildings lie dormant bomb shelters. Relics from the Red Scare when, as a city, we were considered important enough to be obliterated.
The port bottomed out around the late 50s, but a few of the farms are still here. In the summers, my friends and I would run amok in the fields; we weren’t allowed to play in our front yards for fear of being gunned down or hit by the street racers. Crushing the heads of ripe tomatoes under our faded kicks, we would set off towards adventure: catching lizards, climbing hay bales, and playing hide and seek in the wavy green corn fields. We wouldn’t return home until the sun began to sink low over the top of Mt. Diablo. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that by making your way around one rickety old fence, you could find yourself so far removed from the grime that seemed to be imbedded in the city. Stockton isn’t like most cities where kids are free to safely enjoy their youth. Growing up we had to carve our own lush, safe, little pocket in an otherwise grim concrete existence…
Though the fields served as our safe haven, there were still spaces within its rich expanses where we dared not venture. To the far south was an abandoned barn covered in graffiti, which belonged to the Norteños; they were the reason why we had to come home before sunset. Somewhere in the north was an abandoned water treatment plant, whose cracked concrete structure and surrounding lot had been overrun with camps of homeless drifters. Along the main channel of the Delta, in the far west, a long line of caravans, trailers, and busses snaked along the water’s edge like a stalled train. Inside each, behind boarded up windows, junkies would cook meth over propane stoves. This was years before “Breaking Bad” would make it cool. Over the course of our adolescence, my friends and I would have run-ins with each of these colorful groups of characters, but none of these experiences would compare to the terror we felt on the day we set out to uncover the mystery of the missing Mr. Cashmere.
My father is a businessman—that fact stands out clearly from the moment you meet him. He is vibrant and affable, drawing you into inescapable conversation, I don’t think he could be quiet to save his life. My mother and I made up a game for whenever he walks into a room. We begin a countdown to see how long it takes him to begin speaking; so far, he has yet to make it past 12 seconds. Because of his friendly demeanor, he knew everyone in our neighborhood, and consequently, all of their dirty laundry. My father could gossip with the best of them, and his favorite partner in crime was our neighbor from across the street, Julie. She looked a bit like a walking stick bug, tall and thin with large eyes, magnified by her red, cat-eye glasses. Julie lived for the neighborhood gossip; she was the perfect stereotype of a lonely housewife, and when she wasn’t hitting on all of her married neighbors’ husbands, she was sniffing out their secrets. For hours, my father and Julie would cluck away about who was getting divorced, gawk upon learning of home foreclosures, and complain about someone’s delinquent children and whatever trouble they were up to that week. Julie and my father were as thick as thieves, their love of slander and scandal cementing their friendship.
One evening over dinner, my father casually mentioned that the father of one of his clients had gone missing, passing the comment as casually as he would the mashed potatoes. His lack of details piqued my interest, and I immediately began digging for more information. Sensing a captive audience, my old man delivered a story that would set into motion one of the most traumatic moments of my childhood.
The tale he told me goes like this:
One chilly fall evening, one of our neighbors—we’ll call him Mr. Cashmere—a stout Arabic man, decided to take an evening stroll along the Delta. He had been advised by his doctors to start exercising each day to help treat a heart condition. Donning a windbreaker to ward off the frigid air, as well as a brand-new pair of orthopedic shoes, he had set off on the first walk of his new healthy lifestyle. His family said he left an hour or so before sunset, giving him plenty of time to walk from his house to the fields and back well before the night rolled in. After an hour had passed without his return, his family began to worry. When two hours had gone by, they called the police. Once the cops became involved, the cogs in the neighborhood gossip machine began to whirr.
Soon missing persons’ posters plastered the neighborhood; Mr. Cashmere’s cherubic smiling face peered out from every brick wall and telephone pole. Members of his family went door to door giving out his description, hoping for any information over his whereabouts. Rumors began to flow from the mouths of gossipy, panic-stricken housewives over garden fences and at “book club” meetings.
“I heard he was a drunk. He’s probably passed out in some bar downtown.”
“Well, I heard that she kicked him out, and to save face, the family is telling people he disappeared.”
Their petty chatter echoed throughout the neighborhood. Meanwhile, one block down, my neighbor and close friend grieved. The missing Mr. Cashmere had been a part of the tight-knit Arabic community in our neighborhood and was beloved by all who knew him. They all knew of his heart condition and surmised that he had gone out on his walk, had a heart attack, and had fallen into the Delta—a lone splash that would mark his final resting place among the algae as he sank into a cool, watery grave.
Of course, being the creepy children that we were, my friends and I saw Mr. Cashmere’s tragedy as an opportunity for adventure. We were ready and willing to form a search party to find the missing man dead, alive, or somewhere in between. We saw ourselves as the best people for the job; there was no one in Stockton who knew the fields and levees like we did. We had spent every summer day and autumn evening trekking through the fields seeking adventure. We had most of the land mapped out by the time we were 10, and at 14 the fields were more of a friend than a plot of land. An unofficial member of our group, present for each adventure, a lush, silent fixture in our lives.
We set out on a Saturday morning. It was fall and the world was coated in a fog of muted grey. The Delta cut a contrast with its sepia tone waters. Four of us made up the search party. Ashley had the looks of a 90s movie cheerleader with none of the pep or bubbly kindness. She carried the water and snacks for this particular trip in her trusty black and white JanSport. Crow, a boy who never in his life owned a pair of pants, but at the time was in possession of over 30 snakes, had brought along a Home Depot bucket in case we came across any reptiles in our travels. Marcus, wealthy beyond belief but stingy to the core, was sweet despite the aroma he gave off (the boy had a serious aversion to hygiene). He had brought along his walking stick and carried my first-aid kit. I completed the group, forever equipped with a camera and a compulsion to document our adventures for future nostalgia.
We gathered at Marcus’ house just three days after Mr. Cashmere had gone missing. We prepared for a day’s worth of hiking over rocks and through the barbed brambles that gather at the water’s edge in fall. In order to get to the miles of farmland and waterways, we would have to mountain goat our way down the side of the levee and climb onto a rickety, green metal fence two feet out over the water. At a glance, this seemed like a dangerous task; the rocks were never firmly in one place, one misstep could mean a rolled ankle, and crutches always put an end to our activities for the season. The fence had seen better days and was known to teeter back and forth beneath the weight of even the smallest member of our group. It would groan as it swayed, warning us that the iron’s mettle was being tested each time it supported our brave descent out over the water. Despite these hazards, we were never afraid. As a group we had made our way down and around the fence more times than it would be possible to count. But our descent that day would be different, and for the first time we would make the return climb with fear firmly settled in our guts. Our trek down the rocky slope had just begun when someone pointed out something floating in the muck alongside Marcus’ dock obscured by the reeds.
Off-white orthopedic soles were the first thing I could make out, bobbing in the timid ebb and flow of the water, sneaker tips pointed towards the heavens. While his shoes floated lightly in the water, my heart sank like a stone into the pit of my stomach. We scrambled back up the levee on nervous feet and raced toward the dock, our paces slowing as our rubber soles descended the ramp towards the body. I remember he was pale and bloated—his chest bulged out, pressing into his damp windbreaker in a way that signified he had been in the water for a long while. He looked nothing like the smiling face on the missing posters. His eyes had swollen shut and his lips were exaggeratedly puffed out, the little hair he had on his head was splayed out around his head swaying casually in the current of the murky water. We were paralyzed with a fearful respect; no one even attempted to touch the body and my camera remained in my backpack. This would be one experience that I would be glad to never have a photo reminder of. Our feet were stuck fast to the dock, each of us silently wondering what our next step should be. We had been so excited by the thrill of the chase that we never stopped to consider what we would do if we ever actually found a body.
It was Tim, Marcus’s spindly, archaic father who eventually set us into motion. He had come outside to yell at us for being on the dock. Tim wasn’t fond of any of us being on his property and preferred when we would go out into the fields, because it meant that we weren’t disturbing the museum—like quality of his home. He stormed out of his back door, across his manicured lawn, and up the back stairs to the levee, shouting obscenities at us the whole way. We were numb to his shouting, the shock of finding Mr. Cashmere like this had us dumbstruck and, despite his tone and volume, Tim’s shouting meant nothing to us. His raving became increasingly more spirited when he realized that we weren’t moving from the dock despite his shouted threats against our lives. Tim moved as quickly as his frail old bones could carry him. He was panting from exertion by the time he had reached the dock. When he finally came to stand beside us, he took a large gulp of air, presumably to continue his ranting, when he noticed the body. The shock swallowed whatever curses he had prepared; when he did finally speak, it was to calmly tell us to return home. He must have called the police to report the body, though he never told the cops it was we who had found the missing man. I like to think he did that to protect us from the police interviews and the neighborhood gossip that would have been sure to follow.
We never spoke of the event to each other, though the toll it took on each of us was obvious. That fall we walked around with deep black bags ever-present beneath our eyes. Our once beloved fields now set the stage for one of our most heinous nightmares. Each remaining missing persons’ poster we passed was a morbid reminder of a distorted face our eyes could never unsee. For months, my dreams were plagued by visions of Mr. Cashmere’s bloated face appearing in different settings. Sometimes a vision of his body would appear at swim practice, his figure racing horizontal beneath me as I cut through the water, unable to shake him. I once saw him in my bathtub in a tangled mess of Delta weeds. Eventually the dreams stopped. Spring brought color back to the fields and to our faces, and our misadventure drifted away into our subconsciousness, a dreaded memory of suburban obscurity.
Photos courtesy of Javier Padilla Reyes
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Placeholder.