Roads on Her Face #4 Blowtorch

A photo made the email rounds at work today, and in a place where we have weekly safety meetings people laugh, shake their heads. “It was a different time!” they said. Not so long ago, I think, but then again maybe it’s just me. The photo is a grainy one, and it depicts a tiny pigtailed girl perched atop a 100-gallon propane tank. Next to her, her dad leans in with a big grin on his face and a lit cigarette in his mouth.

I thought for a second about why it looked so familiar. Later that night, almost dozing, an image came to me out of the dark of the past. We are living out in the desert somewhere, most likely Arizona because it often was.  It was dark, and Ed was drunk. He’d been tying one on for hours already, and he was at the loud stage accompanied by a slight lack of coordination and a hair trigger. I sat in the dark, watching him, in his chair by the flickering fire. Everyone was quiet, except for him. At his feet was a hunk of twisted metal, rusted by age. He liked to go on walks during the day, accompanied by a handgun of some kind and sometimes one of the kids. The desert we frequented had been used as training grounds for “Old Blood and Guts,” General Patton in the World War II era. We often found rusted spent shells or even live rounds, we found the old milky glass Coke bottles the soldiers had tossed aside, and the tank tracks from their play-wars still scarred the desert. You could see them if you climbed a rise and looked out across the desert. This time, Dad had found a large artillery round of some kind. The kind with fins and a payload, really more a missile than an artillery round.

He crushed the empty beer can and tossed it behind him. He picked the missile up, turning it over in his hands.

“Let’s see if we can light this baby up,” he said. I moved farther back into the darkness, to what I hoped was a safe distance. Mom did her best to ignore him, and the boys huddled close behind Dad’s chair. This was something they wanted front seats for. The pipe-bomb burnt-eyelashes gene runs strong in the male side of the family. In the female side, a little, but mostly our common sense will overrule the need for explosions.

Ed dug around in his crate of tools for a hammer. I must have been 10 or 11, I remember being incredulous but not surprised. I knew my father well. This wouldn’t be the craziest, or stupidest, thing I’d ever seen him do. I wondered if he’d kill himself, and the detached part of me that always seemed to float just above and behind my head tried to find an emotion related to that possibility. Nope, none there. Just a sense of expectancy.

The boys were giggling, shoving each other, eyes big and round and faces shining. Dad being a 10-year-old boy was their favorite kind of dad. This was exactly what they would do with a missile if one ever fell into their grimy little hands.

“Watch out kids, this thing could blow!” Dad tapped the missile lightly below its head. Nothing. A harder swing, and the metal bent. He jumped back, nervous, then shook it off and laughed and smacked it good. The body of the thing detached from its payload, and black powder poured out on the ground.

“All right!” That was what he was hoping for. I let out the breath I hadn’t known I was holding. The boys huddled over the mass. Behind them the flames flickered bright.

“OK boys,” Dad said to his captive audience. “Back up now, I’m going to see if this thing will light.”

His shining eyes matched his sons’. He pulled a burning stick from the fire, dropped it on the powder, and took off like a shot behind the tree. His head and my brothers’ two towheads popped out on opposite sides of the tree, like something from a cartoon. The stick fizzled, and burnt out. “Awwwww!” The men ventured back out to the disappointing missile.

“I know,” Dad said. “Watch this.”

“Ed, be careful.” Mom finally made an appearance. She twisted her hands in front of her, her mouth tight as she looked at her boys. She didn’t dare say too much, not when he had made up his mind already.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m an expert. Don’t worry about it,” he said. He gave her a kiss in passing, and came back from a box under the trailer with a blowtorch. “This is how it’s gonna work.” He directed the boys to pour a line of black powder a little out from the tree, then to pile the rest of it at the end of the powder “fuse.” Eagerly they scooped the powder up in their hands, setting the explosion up exactly as dictated.

I huddled closer to the trailer, hoping its metal shell would protect me from shrapnel if the shit hit the fan. The next thing I saw was the unearthly green of the palo verde tree lit from below by a bright flash of light. There was a brief shhhing sound like tearing fabric or a bottle rocket just before it launched. I saw my dad dancing, dancing near the fire as he swatted the flames from his clothing, maybe from his hair, did I smell the acrid smell of burnt beard? Then, laughter.

*

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The Howling Wind

Could not find artist for this lovely image

Knock, knock, knock on the windowpane

Insistent fingers, tapping and clawing shhhhhh don’t wake the baby

The oak beside the window creaks, moans and the moon

Peers down haughtily from behind veils of sand

Tendrils of dust below the doorjamb you can’t see me

Voices babbling among the trees, crying, clamorous

Sermonizing in some unknown and angry tongue

Dark is deepening, shadows creeping you’re not alone

Thoughts’ edges fray, scatter night-howling away

Fingers becoming wrathful fists, raining pounding fists

You can’t stop me, you can’t breathe, I’m not leaving.

Roads on Her Face #3 – The Unwriteable Dad Part #1

I wouldn’t call him a bad guy. He’d describe himself as mysterious, the cocky little bastard. He’s that kind of guy. Black Ray-Bans, rockstar hair. Too cool to care. It would make him happy if you said, “Now that Ed, he’s an enigma. Can’t figure him out.” But it doesn’t take that long to figure him out, though his motives might never be clear. He loves Clint Eastwood, DeNiro, all the paragons of cool. He likes big guns, and loud trucks, and women. He’s smooth, like the rest of his brothers. When a bunch of Roethles get together, the panties drop. Panties just can’t withstand the onslaught of so much testosterone in those little rooster-like men, the swaggering, hard-partying German/Irish with a taste for action and those sharp cheekbones and thick dark wavy hair. They’re all either criminals or cops. Grandpa had 15 kids with his tiny Irish bride, one after the other falling out like clowns from a two-seater car. Grandpa taught his boys well, with his quick temper and hard-line rules. I never saw him then, only knew him as a benevolent patriarch who would preside at family gatherings with a glass of vodka and the propensity to pop out his teeth in an attempt to scare little me. It didn’t work, teeth don’t scare me even if they’re not in their proper mouth.

I heard stories of the brothers terrorizing the nuns in Catholic school, something about peanut butter pressed into organ keys, and imagine those boys running roughshod over old ladies armed only with rulers and sharp tongues. From what I understand they had it tough at home, poor enough to consider bread and gravy dinner and never to be quite warm enough in the Minnesota winters. I’ve seen a few old sepia-toned photos of the family then; tall, handsome, angular Grandpa next to his tiny wife, the twinkle in his eyes reflected in the mischief shining from three little boys’ faces, their mother’s look of calm detachment mirrored by one sister. Behind them you can make out a small farmhouse, and then the background fades. The boys all wear hats with fuzzy flaps, my aunt who was the lone girl in the photo noting that they all had terrible earaches when they were young. Hmm, me too.

I wish I knew more about all of them. Most of what I’ve gleaned has been second-hand, through stories circulated among relatives, passed to me in the few instances I’ve gotten to spend time with my extended family. When you grow up place-less you’re always looking for roots, I think. It’s hard to know where you come from when you’ve never seen it. Neither of my parents know much about their own families, beyond two generations. Something in both of them seemed to want to detach, to start fresh on their own. You can’t ever escape family, though, whether it be the earaches passed down through blood or the specter of alcoholism.

I avoided the alcoholism, so far. Lucky, I guess. I vaguely remember my dad before he was drinking, straight white teeth and the little prickly hairs on his chest where I would take naps, the sweat melding my cheek with his skin.  I don’t remember him yelling, or angry, though the earliest dream I remember featured a soft feminine face with soothing words, on a black background, over me as if I was in a crib, then suddenly a howling evil man face would appear. It is the most terrifying dream I’ve ever had. I wonder if there was more strife than I remember consciously.