The heat of summer had already settled into the Central Valley of California by May. Coming down from Oregon, Neil McCrae felt it as soon as he dropped down out of the mountains, even though it was still early morning. By the time he reached Redding, sweat was collecting between his back and the car seat. The wind coming in through the window made the heat bearable, but the air was viscid.
Rolling southward, he passed the sentinel towers of Sutter Buttes. On his right, the coast range lay dry and golden; on his left and further away, the Sierras were lost in heat haze. All around him the valley was tabletop flat and impossibly green. Sacramento drew up, became a brief nightmare of traffic, noise, and ozone, then receded behind him. He changed freeways and the quality of the land changed as well. It was still green and alive, but the coast range had receded into the distance. The flatness seemed to go on forever, and now the valley was heavily peopled. The land along the highway was dotted with houses and farms, small towns and wineries. There was a used-up look to the land near the freeway. Neil could see hardscrabble apartment houses with dirt lawns and abandoned cars, a blown down drive-in theater, and a canal bridge made from an old railroad flatcar. Out beyond the highway fringe, the land was deeply green; dull and uninteresting to the long view, but vital and alive close up. Everywhere there were flowers. The oleanders which had been planted in a continuous hedgerow down the center of the divided highway were in full pink, red, and white bloom.
Neil McCrae drove southward through the hot, thick air, through a tunnel of flowers, into a new and hostile country, leaving behind him all he had known.
At Salida, he took an exit onto Kiernan Road. Now he was surrounded by orchards. Orderly, man made forests stretched away on both sides of the road, narrowing his view and hiding the flatness of the valley. The dust beneath the orchards was dappled heavily with sunlight and shade.
Three miles further east, Neil tuned into the parking lot of Kiernan School. He stood beside his car, letting the wind dry his back, then slipped on his sport coat and crossed the tarmac. The surface had been renewed recently; it stuck to his feet as he crossed and sent waves of heat all the way to his knees. He entered the blessed coolness of an air conditioned office
Two children were waiting for the secretary’s attention. Neil watched them as he waited his turn. They were both about ten. One was a dark girl who stood quietly, gripping the edge of the countertop with tense fingers. She spoke a few words too softly for Neil to hear, received a scrawled note, and slipped outside, walking wide around Neil as she went out the door. The other child was a boy with dirty blonde hair, skinny and pale, with heavy glasses too large for his face. He stood twisting his hands together and squirming in place until the secretary got time to talk to him. He wanted to call his mother. The secretary asked his reasons, refused him, then had to argue with him sharply before he left. He slammed the door as he went out. There had been a rehearsed quality about the exchange, as if the boy had known that he would be refused.
When it was Neil’s turn, he said, “I’m Neil McCrae. I have an appointment with Mr. Campbell about a teaching position.”
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William Campbell was a short, spare man with graying hair. When he rose from behind his desk to shake hands, there was no welcome in his face. more next week