When the heat arrived, the poppies were done for. They say a poppy “loves” the sun, but honestly, only so much until the baking waves of hotness start choking it out. Detracting entirely from its sense of life. Wrinkling the petals, sucking out the orange vibrancy until it becomes a paler version of itself, crinkly and parched. Begging for rain, like all the rest of the Californians who once claimed they were born for the sun… could absorb any amount of it and feel nothing. The denizens of the state had been so long conditioned to believe that the sun’s rays were meant to be their second skin, that to question it felt like some sort of Golden State sacrilege. At least to Poppy, who, yes, was named by her mother, Gretchen, after the state flower. They lived right near the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, where Gretchen would drive Poppy the twenty-five minutes it took to get there from Lancaster at least twice a week.
There, amid the lush, ever-blooming fields, Gretchen would wordlessly explain the reason for Poppy’s namesake. How these flowers meant the world to Gretchen, who found little beauty elsewhere in the County of Los Angeles. Perhaps this was, at least in part, because mama had to be a rollin’ stone in order to make ends meet. Her primary source of income these days had been at an “off the beaten path” strip club in Palmdale. Which Gretchen felt was far away enough from Lancaster (at about a fifteen-minute drive) to spare Poppy of any potential embarrassment should someone happen to see her. But anyone who saw her in Palmdale would themselves then have to explain why they were skulking around near a strip club called Henpeck’d.
Poppy never probed too much about her mother’s profession, but took her seriously when she told her to study as hard as she could. To get out of Lancaster and somewhere “fancier,” like Berkeley “or something.” The “sophisticates” might have laughed over hearing something like this, they with all their East Coast “superiority.” For Gretchen, however, leaving California was too far over the top, too extreme. She wanted Poppy to have a better life, but she still wanted her to have it in CA. Unlike Poppy, Gretchen wasn’t born here. Her own mother had taken her to Los Angeles at the age of five. The year was 1986 and all the Bret Easton Ellis tropes from Less Than Zero were still in full effect.
Gretchen’s mother, twenty-six, at the time, had arrived too late already. At least, by the standards of wanting to become a film actress. But once Gretchen’s father abandoned them for good, Debbie saw no reason to stick around in Ohio. She took the neglect as a sign to start all over again. And what was California if not the world capital of “starting over”? The veritable fetish porn example for turning yourself into whoever and whatever you wanted to be. When you’re this far out, who can question otherwise? Who can prove that the origin story you’re giving is nothing more than a lie? And who would want to, when everyone else is giving the same falsities for their own self-preservation? In Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, he describes what happens to those people who come out to California (specifically Hollywood) and never quite make it in the field they had been so determined to. In this way, West presaged Debbie’s fate with the lines, “Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on the corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred. At this time Tod knew very little about them except that they had come to California to die.”
So it was for Debbie. Gretchen found her mother dead in their apartment one lovely spring afternoon, having overdosed on pills. Even in death, she still had to be a cliché. Gretchen was sixteen at the time. And after she called the police, she ran. She didn’t want them getting involved in her own life; they would get child services in the mix, even though she had long ago stopped being a child. She ended up in Lancaster because that’s where the man who eventually got her pregnant lived. He offered to “take care” of her, but when he realized she was carrying his spawn, he got spooked and kicked her out.
At least he was “kind” enough to slip a few fistfuls of cash into her hands before doing so. That was around the time Gretchen realized that fistfuls of cash were also thrusted with relative ease in strip clubs. And so, a career was born—right around the same time as Poppy. And it was true, Gretchen had grown to love that flower, visiting the reserve with near religious reverence. She would even insist that’s where men should take her for a “date” (or just fuck her in some quiet, remote part of the field—rattlesnakes be damned). For whatever the reason, it was the only place that made her feel calm. Like she could forget about herself and everything else.
It seemed somewhat comical that the state flower should be a poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Comical in how “on the nose” it is for the average California hater’s perspective on the state: that it is a place where one goes to die. Not just because it is, finally, “the edge of the Earth.” And not just because the sun will make you stupid, anesthetize you until your brain is mush and you’re just another California vegetable (there’s a reason one of the many nicknames of the state is “The Salad Bowl of the World”). But also because poppies have long symbolized both numbness (what with the opium and all) and death. Even if California’s “cups of gold” did not possess the blood-red hue of other common poppies that earned the flower this “mark.” It’s possible that botanist Sara Plummer Lemmon, who angled the governor of California at the time, George Pardee, toward signing a bill into law that would make the poppy the state’s official flower, was unaware of the weightier meaning behind such an emblem. Or maybe she was all too aware, seeing as how she was one of countless ailing East Coastians who ended up on the other side of the U.S. simply because they were told the sun helped improve people’s health. If it didn’t, at least you were dying in a warm climate, instead of a cold, stodgy one.
That’s what Gretchen told herself as well. As she lay murdered in the field after being fucked, once again, in it. No money would change hands this time. The john was sure of that. Wanted to be real sure, in fact, that this “bitch” and her pimp (the strip club owner) would never come around trying to ask him for it. You can’t pay a dead body.
The poppies are all dried out these days. Poppy has been noticing. She’s starting to think it’s because her mother deserted them—left them high and dry, to use a pun. Through no fault of her own. Even though the poppies were made to thrive in this kind of climate, there’s only so much they can withstand. Their “bodies” were not built for this level of trauma. Neither is Poppy’s. But she doesn’t leave California, even though that might be the key to breaking what seems like the familial curse put upon the women in their family. Instead, she honors her mother by staying. By going to Berkeley. The poppies are in effect there, too. Even if to a slightly lesser extent.