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Deconstructing Paradise

By Deanne Stillman

Several years ago at dusk, I was coming home from a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. I was turning left at the corner of Rose and Hampton, a well-travelled Venice intersection that, in addition to the usual street traffic, features people on their way to Gold’s Gym for a work-out or the Rose Café for a snack. As I completed the turn, I heard a blood-curdling scream. I looked to my left as I hit the brakes. A rusted-out old Pontiac — ’70s I knew right away — was making a right turn, heading east on Rose, from where I had just come. A girl, in her twenties, was hanging on to the rear passenger door which was wide open. “My babies,” she screamed. “My babies!” A few spectators watched. Heavy metal blasted from the radio — Foreigner? Boston? I wasn’t sure. The girl kept calling for her babies. The man in the driver’s seat — goatee, long hair — gunned the engine, tossing something from the car. It hit the curb. The girl lost her grasp and fell to the pavement. The Pontiac quickly headed east — “East,” it registered in my bones, “into the desert. East, towards Twentynine Palms.”

I got out of my car to help the girl. On a good day she would be pretty — she was willowy, had long brown hair, model looks. But today, and I figured, most days, were not good. Her hair was stringy, dirty. Her jeans and T-shirt were dirty and torn, not so different from some of the spectators who looked on except that their dirt and tatters were a function of beach-town noblesse oblige. She had just about stopped crying as she turned to me and said thanks. One eye was black-and-blue and she was pretty roughed up. I helped her to the curb. She bent down and picked up what had been thrown from the car, a filthy teddy bear which bled stuffing, clutching it her chest and crying. I asked her what happened. She said that her husband had beaten her up and kidnapped her babies. “Where’s he going?” I asked. She confirmed my instinct and said that he was probably going back to Joshua Tree where they lived. Joshua Tree is a town short of Twentynine Palms, both stops on a picturesque desert highway which feeds into an interstate leading to and from Los Angeles, both portals into Joshua Tree National Park, and both on either side of the world’s largest Marine base.

I had been a regular in that area for a long time and knew a local when I saw one. Almost as soon as I arrived in Los Angeles fifteen years ago, I began heading east toward wide open space, east toward freak show plants and rocks, east into quiet and breath. As I shed Los Angeles, I found comfort under the at-once frenzied and ever-still arms of the Joshua tree, identified with its misfit character. The quieter it got, the more I heard: there was the blood coursing through my body, the messages carried on the whispering sands, and then one day, the first few tones of a strange, sad, and oddly beautiful story that took over my life and told me to write it.

It seems I’ve always been writing. My father taught me when I was a little girl. Our family lived in an upper middle-class home in a suburb of Cleveland. The house had a fireplace in every bedroom, eight bathrooms, lots of chandeliers and marble. My sister and I wore tailor-made clothing, had horseback riding lessons in the afternoon, and filet mignon and cherries jubilee for dinner. My father and I would sit in his library and he would read aloud from the classics, and we would make up our own characters and plays and stories and often I would write them down. Then one day, it all vanished. My parents got divorced and my mother, sister, and I moved to a tough neighborhood where large families lived in small houses and shared a single bathroom. Over time, I came to know quite well the children of the working class, kids whose parents worked in tool-and-die plants, and hoped that the plants lasted long enough so their kids could work there some day too. My old world had disappeared, but I could see all too well that this new one counted for little to those on the outside: even some of my friends and relatives began acting as if my mother, sister, and I were suddenly small.

Years later, I wandered into the story of Amanda Scott and Rosalie Ortega. Shortly after the Gulf War, I heard one day in a desert bar, the two girls had been murdered, sliced up by a Marine who left his bloody palm print on the wall. He had been in jail for a few months in San Bernardino County, awaiting trial. The girls’ nicknames sounded an echo deep in my past — I could have grown up with “Mandi” and “Rosie;” I knew lots of girls with cute names who were always in trouble, always running against the truth of what the fates had in mind for them, all the while taking care of each other and their friends and their boyfriends and their bone-tired parents. Countless communities around the country were held together by girls like this and now, two were gone. I had to find out what happened, tell what happened to two girls whose names everyone would know had they been wealthy or famous and grown up with a fireplace in their own bedroom. I asked around and began to pick up shards of information about the girls — they “partied too much,” they “liked to dance,‘ they “shouldn’t have hung around with Marines.”

Of course, those phrases were all code for something much more complicated and awful. To me, it wasn’t enough for Mandi and Rosie to be remembered that way; there was a lot of heartache and heroism behind those phrases and I wanted the world to know. For the next ten years, the story told me where to go; I dropped everything except for a few money-making writing gigs and followed this trail of tears deep into the nooks and crannies of the American Dreamtime. The girls’ lives were urgent, I learned. In 1991, at the time of the murders, one in five children in San Bernardino County was living in extreme poverty (almost twice the national average); a year after the murders, nineteen students in the Twentynine Palms school system were pregnant, and there were seven teenage mothers. The area was rife with gang activity — Crips, Bloods, bikers, all manner of latter-day tribes, all forming allegiances to deal with the Marine Corps presence in town, everyone vying for girls and turf. It took months to reach the key players. I called the accused killer’s lawyer. He said his client didn’t want to talk about it. I tracked down the mother of one of the murder victims. She didn’t want to talk. I read the autopsy reports, the court records. A few months later, I received a call.

It was Debie, Mandi’s mother. She wanted me to visit her where she tended bar, talk about a few things. I spent hours, days at the bar. I got to know Mandi’s friends, a tight circle Debie had called The Lunch Box Gang. I visited shacks in the middle of nowhere and met kids who were so shell-shocked by life that they rarely laughed or cried. One dwelling would lead to the next phone booth which in turn would lead to a crash pad. A week later phones would be disconnected, sources would be in jail, some just disappeared. I would start all over again, walking new paths, retracing the old, circumscribing a web of evil that left nothing and no one out. Everyone I met — adult and child alike — had a terrible tale of woe. Each tale involved violence, abuse, parental neglect, time in rehab, strange run-ins with veterans of various wars. There was something really awful afoot in the promised land and it was not on “Sixty Minutes.”

One day, after following the trail for a few years, I had had enough. Although by now I had contracted with a publisher to write about Mandi and Rosie, I could listen to this fetid heart of darkness no longer. I began to ignore phone calls from Twentynine Palms. I lived in Los Angeles after all, near the beach, and did not have to have this — this gnarly and funky stuff which played out at the fringes of civilization — in my world; here the violence was merely social — unreturned phone calls, being snubbed at cocktail parties — more insidious in certain ways, but certainly not life-threatening, not the inevitable result of cycles of family violence and just plain bad luck which went back for generations. Anyway, it was easy for me to imagine the desert now; if I got really still, from three counties and four mountain ranges away, I could hear the sweet song of a cactus wren just above the vines of bougainvillea on my patio, see the tortoise hatchlings skitter across a dune. I would stay in LA, I resolved, I had to get away from the desert town with the romantic name, away from the desert itself with its endlessly warm and open arms. The human story had obliterated nature’s prayer.

And that’s when the girl with the black eye was thrown out of her car. I called the cops on my cell phone. The spectators began to drift off and by the time the cops got there, they were gone. The cops took the girl’s report. They said that her husband would probably be charged with child kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon — in this case, his car. I would be called as a witness. A few months later I answered my subpoena and arrived in court to testify. I had learned that the defendant had a history of felony arrests, some convictions. He had been in custody since the incident but his wife — the chief witness against him — had failed to show up. He was awaiting trial on another charge as well, the lawyers said, and so would be held for the next hearing. I could go ahead and testify if I wanted to, they said, but it looked like the guy would be stranded in the prison system for a while anyway. I was relieved and left the courthouse.

But the message was clear: Twentynine Palms had called me many times and in many ways. Now, try as I might to escape the tale of Amanda Lee Scott and Rosalie Ortega and what happened to them in the desert, I could not. Once again, I headed east, away from the sea, and picked up the trail.

Appeared in the LA Times Magazine, April 7, 2001

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