I climb into my car, head south down the mighty 405, drive to Torrance again, to my old neighborhood, start to relive my childhood shit. I see in my mind the little mudman I unearthed from a corner of the backyard in my lonely afternoon of the living childhood imagination—realler than life, talking to myself as I moved Matchbox cars around a tiny mud and rock freeway system. The little mudman talked to me about bad things in life that I don’t want to hear about, about a bad man who pulled down his pants at the girls, and about the nasty neighbors over the high wall who we saw swimming naked in their pool, about a bad boy who stole money from the convent and hopped the wire fence but gashed open his armpit on the steely barbs at the top of the fence, and about being a little mudman who screams when people pull him from the ground, who squirms and dies in little boys’ hands when they yank him from the ground, who dies and dissolves back into the earth. And later on my big brothers had brought home 4 orange crawdads from Alondra Park lake and let them loose in the back yard—the dogs got them. Then alone at night in my room I could see the bright red flare from the Torrance Union Carbide chemical plant and refinery. It beamed bright orange right into my room every night.
I asked my dad one day what it was. He told me that’s where they make napalm.
“It’s a chemical they make, which when it lands on your skin burns and burns and nothing can make it stop burning.”
Then I would look at the refinery flare every night and think about people burning and never being able to stop the burning, and nothing can stop the burning, not all the water in the world can stop the burning on your skin and it burns right through your skin and keeps burning, and the refinery flare burns and burns from the refinery, which is like a condensed city with all those lit-up platforms and tiers and towers, and there are all those different refineries scattered around Torrance and Carson and Compton and Long Beach and San Pedro and they are all like distant orange Ozs seen from the freeway coming home late Sunday night from old Aunt’s and Uncle’s houses, scary in the night in the back of the ’64 Ford Ranch Wagon on the freeway, looking up at the ceiling and seeing the lights and shadows arc and blend on the ceiling of the car as it zooms under streetlamps and bridges.
Last year I asked my dad about the napalm refinery flare and he denied the whole thing, that they ever made napalm there, that he ever told me they did, that he ever told me how it burned and wouldn’t stop burning—he denied it all. Maybe he just wiped it from his mind. Maybe he didn’t want to admit that he ever told his young son such a horrible thing. Maybe it wasn’t my dad.
“What’s napalm?” is excerpted from Jack Skelley’s novel Fear of Kathy Acker, to be published next year by a major independent press (announcement soon). His new chapbook Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press) has been featured in recent reviews and podcasts, including KCRW’s Bookworm. Jack’s psychedelic surf band Lawndale is completing a new album this year. twitter.com/JackSkelley instagram.com/helterskelley