California, already, does not have a grand reputation for being filled with an intelligent population. Sure, they get occasionally ogled (that is, eye fucked) by the rest of the U.S. for their avant-garde liberalism (though that might shift from its epicenter in San Francisco to Phoenix, thanks to an exodus of “pinkos” from the former city, much to the dismay of Republican Arizona). But rarely are they regarded for anything like “razor sharp” cognizance, instead forever lampooned and stereotyped as the braindead surfer trope (Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Baywatch and Saved By the Bell didn’t do much to curb this image in the 90s). Perhaps this is why Anthony and Ella Eldridge seemed so “smart” to their friends. It didn’t take much to seem that way in a landscape of this nature.
For instance, anytime Anthony and Ella had one of their increasingly “famous” dinner parties, their bookshelf spanning the length of an entire wall always seemed to be “just on the verge” of being entirely full each new time their friends showed up. Of course, it was hard to fill it when the specific motif they were trying to go for was “California authors.” Or at least authors who wrote about California extensively. This really only left John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and Bret Easton Ellis. “We don’t understand it. California is such a beautiful, inspiring place,” Ella said in an apologetic fashion. “Maybe it’s too beautiful, you know? There’s just, like, not much else to say about it,” offered Tilly, the stay-at-home wife of Bob, who worked in IT at CSU San Bernardino.
In fact, most of the people the Eldridges knew were a byproduct of Anthony teaching at CSUSB. As for Ella, well, she was being “allowed” the time to work more seriously and extensively on her collaging. Anthony genuinely wanted her art to take off. “She’s gonna make us both rich someday with that tortured mind of hers.” Eric and Abby blinked at Anthony, possibly flashing to some of the “work” they had seen of Ella’s, which featured a lot of magazine clippings of cats. She probably figured, Everyone loves cats. They don’t.
But there was another reason, of course, for why Ella might choose to focus on “art” instead of the pursuit of a “real job” (Anthony could have landed her an admin position anytime at CSUSB), and that was because of her full-time job getting fucked a.k.a. trying to conceive. Anthony had always wanted a child, even more than Ella. And, obviously, a boy was the most desirable gender to him. Ella wanted to make certain that she was pregnant before getting his hopes up and that, once she did confirm it, she would be sure to keep the gender a secret from Anthony until they unveiled it to everyone else. It was the best approach, she felt, for it could only help sustain his hope of having a boy for longer even if they weren’t going to have one; and if they were, the surprise would be all the sweeter.
So it was that about a week after their latest dinner party, she was at last doubly certain that she was “with child.” She shared the good news with Anthony over a specially prepared meal. Prepared, that is, by the “chef” (read: line cook) at Anthony’s favorite restaurant, Le Rendezvous Cafe (“fine dining express,” if you will). Rather than taking him there, however, she wanted to bring the food to their home so that they could revel in the idea of their spawn in a more intimate setting. Anthony couldn’t have been more elated, whirring with the excitement of making plans for the baby’s room, what schools he would attend, what future he would pursue (and yes, Anthony was already referring to him as a “he”–so it’s not as though the child had much choice about their identity, not that any child does–least of all in the matter of being born).
Ella herself was abuzz with the planning of the parties that would take place before the birth. Indeed, in the weeks that followed, she set about the process of determining a “venue” for the big reveal, calling upon Tilly to come over to the house and basically sit there (the way she did at her own house anyway) for moral support. In short, to be a yes woman. Quite excited by the potential for fanfare in announcing she was having a boy (for she knew that’s what all of her friends secretly wished they had, but were instead saddled with more expensive, less successful girls), she exclaimed to Tilly, “Let’s use a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device.” “Do you mean a firecracker?” her friend replied. Ella glared at her.
Tilly rubbed her chin and stared absently at the bookshelf. Her eyes rested on the title Where I Was From. Tilly snapped out of her daze briefly to offer a suggestion for a location where a firecracker might be put to “safe” use. On the edge of San Bernardino National Forest, El Dorado Ranch Park would be the perfect spot. Ella reckoned, for once, Tilly seemed to have something going on upstairs and immediately tailored her plans for the festivities to occur in the “outdoor oasis” of the park. Specifically for Labor Day. One of the park’s busiest times of the year. And during the hottest month in California on record, to boot. But that surely would disappear on Ella’s special day, right? Because it was her special day. Oh yeah, and Anthony’s too. Mustn’t forget that Anthony played a part. Even though she knew full well she would be raising this baby on her own while Anthony continued fucking his little student whores. Where did that come from? She shook the thought from her head and plastered a fresh smile on for Tilly.
When finally the day of the gender reveal arrived, Ella was an absolute frazzled wreck. She knew she must be feeling even more frantic than a chicken running around with its head cut off. Which she always thought was a rather macabre analogy. Rushing to the park about an hour before the guests were slated to arrive, Anthony stayed behind at the house to wait for the rest of the pre-made appetizers to come out of the oven, promising to follow behind as soon as possible to help her set up the “pyrotechnic device” that the seller assured would spell out “IT’S A BOY” upon being lit and unleashed into the sky.
But Anthony was late, and that unnerved Ella. She got the strange impression he was using it as an opportunity to cheat on her. Try as she might not to let this suspicion taint her thoughts while she tended to her guests by offering more refreshments and refilling drinks, it was there, coloring her mood. What’s more, it was blistering hot, adding to her irritability. For there is nothing worse than an already naturally irritable pregnant woman–except one that is rained down upon with searing heat.
As the minutes ticked by, further marking Anthony’s lateness, Ella considered lighting the firecracker herself. She didn’t want to make the guests stick around any longer than they had to. It was cruel and unusual punishment in this kind of weather, and she already knew they rather hated her guts for making them come out in it. But many of them didn’t want to risk offending Anthony, who held quite a bit of clout in his department at CSUSB. So they showed. Wanting to assure they gave a shit. Ella could tell, suddenly, that they didn’t. They were slack-jawed dolts that she despised. Then again, how intelligent could she have been not to see Anthony’s infidelity all this time?
Muttering to herself as another ream of sweat poured down her body, she announced, “Anthony is having trouble accessing the park. Why don’t we go ahead and get this party really started?” Before anyone could pretend to protest and tell her to wait for Anthony, she angrily proceeded to ignite the “pyrotechnic device.” But something was amiss. She didn’t know if it was her timing or her method of lighting it, but it simply wouldn’t activate. In a huff, she placed it on the ground, right near the grassy field that was about to be set ablaze, courtesy of Ella’s carelessness. Nay, her stupidity. The thing about stupidity, of course, is that it so often goes hand in hand with selfishness, as though one quality feeds upon the other. And there were no more selfish people than the Californians. Assuming that the land they had stolen over the centuries was immune to the effects of their plundering. It was bad enough the state had to contend with its natural forms of apparent spontaneous combustion, but now its increasingly dim-witted denizens were proving the well-deserved adage, “Only stupid people are breeding” (therefore, only stupid people are having gender reveal parties).
That, incidentally, was what was written on the sign Anthony had stopped to pick up on the way to the park from the party store. It wasn’t supposed to say that, clearly, but the proprietor had taken a shine of late to fucking with his customers. He didn’t care anymore if he got in trouble for his “shenanigans.” He was ready to pack up his business and leave the state anyway.
As the fire roved through roughly 7,000 acres of the land, it became apparent to Ella that Anthony was never going to make it inside the park. Which was probably just as well, for if Ella had seen him unroll the sign in front of her and her friends, she might have gone into cardiac rest. Instead, she burned. That was part of being Californian now, in addition to being written off as a blockhead.