I followed him anyway, afraid of his drunkenness but willing to take the chance for his love.
I knew when he got this way it was a toss-up- he could be caring, he could listen to a child’s small day of stories, or he could tell you to shut your mouth and get him another beer. He could be one, then the other, too, so being around him was balancing a plate on your head- an expensive plate, one someone else had paid for. The rocks crunched beneath army boots, and the heartbeat in my head muffled my own quiet footsteps. The hot desiccated desert radiated reflections of bare mountains around the little valley, bounced rays off the broken windshields of the junkyard. Green oxidized pieces of glass and rusted metal littered the pale silt dirt, dirt made dirtier with human shedding. This place was far as you could go down a dirt road, away from the people who hated my dad, away from the evils of society and the government and disease-ridden cities. He told us about the government, and how they’d screwed him in Vietnam. I heard vague references to Agent Orange, and how his bones hurt at night until he had to drink it away.
The man who owned this place weighed five hundred pounds- as much one of the half-ton trucks wrecked in piles on the yard. Jim would heave his mass out of the blue van with the lift on the side, and the specially-made seat so that he could press himself against the steering wheel and still drive. Everywhere he went a sour smell followed, the smell of sweat and milk and too many doughnuts. When he would come to check on us, maybe once a month, he would sit in one of the backseats we had pulled from one of the junked cars for him. His throne- with its broken seatbelts still dangling. Sometimes my brothers would dare each other to smell it after he had gone, collapsing in disgusted giggles when they discovered that the smell of his gargantuan ass lingered there, for hours. I smelled it once, and was sick in one of the creosote bushes. I imagined what it would be like to smell like that. Would you know it, or would it encroach on your senses slowly, so that you never knew? I guessed his wife didn’t care anymore.
Jim kept a travel trailer on the junkyard lot, a nice one with a generator and a TV. We were too far from anything to have running water, and we used kerosene lamps at night in our own small trailer, and propane for our stove and refrigerator. In the swelling heat, we marched the mile to Jim’s trailer. I felt the beads of sweat drop down my spine, pulling my hat low over my eyes to stop them from burning. I was silent, thinking maybe he had forgotten about me.
“You all right, kid?” He turned then, and I saw the sweat in his beard and behind his sunglasses. He hadn’t forgotten.
I nodded, and focused on my feet, one in front of the other, leaning in to the heat as if it was cotton. It was probably 120 degrees today, at least. You learned to take things only a second at a time, out here, because to think of more than one was unbearable. Exist, only exist, until the cool blessed sigh of night descended, with its myriad stars, the smells of the flowers that could only open at night. They just existed too.
Finally the trailer loomed above us, impossibly large to a little girl whose family of six lived in one half its size. It was unlocked, and we walked in to heat that felt twice as bad as outside, stifling and stale.
He came back and sat across from me, popping open a beer he’d pulled from the propane-powered fridge. “Nice, eh?” I nodded again at him, not wanting to talk and spoil his mood.
He sank back in his chair, taking off his hat and glasses, and we waited for the air to cool together, waited for things to be bearable.
“I’m gonna start the generator, and get the AC going. Turn on the radio.” He was always short with words, but I was thankful that he wasn’t yelling. I scooted delicately back into one of the plush La-Z- Boys, careful that my dirty pants didn’t soil the clean fabric. I turned the radio to the only station we could get out here, far from transmitters or repeaters. It was news all day; and sometimes old shows like The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger. When those came on, we sat around, rapt, the way kids in the 50s must have when those first came out. The generator flapped into life, and I momentarily thought of my mom and siblings listening to it in the heat, dreaming of air conditioning. Its first hot breath licked the side of my face, prurient and vile.
I watched him from the corner of my eye, and something struck me as I did. His face was unlined, boyish from a new haircut, aged only by the beard. His eyes flicked up to catch mine, and suddenly I was sorry for him.
Oregon in the summertime is how I imagine heaven must be. The lush life surrounding you seems like decadence after the bare bones of the desert. Up north, the rain covers the bones with green skin and fur and everything is softened and curved, like a woman’s body. We got books from the library on edible plants and berries to make sure we wouldn’t die. Wherever we traveled, the library was always on the list of places we needed to scope out. It was the library that taught me to use a computer, because neither of my parents knew how. I spent hours sometimes playing Oregon Trail, where someone always died on the way out West, or Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?—Carmen’s footsteps dark and pixelated across the screen as she somehow always evaded capture.
We had the old Airstream, the one now parked and rusting behind my mother’s house in New Mexico. It was the newest, nicest trailer we ever owned, sold for cheap by an older Canadian couple whose wandering days were over. Mom had bought it, the time before the time that Dad was gone for good. She could have seen then that she was capable on her own, that she had the wits and the strength to do much better on her own than she ever did with him. He was holding her back, maybe because her success would highlight his failure as a parent or as a human being. But she didn’t, and our hiatus from the inexorable pull of his angry gravity wasn’t long enough.
I forget how we came to hear about the job. Dad must have met someone when we were camped out at Jim’s Place, 40 miles on a dirt road out in the desert outside of Bouse, Arizona. That was a place we returned more than once, another repetitive rest stop when the rest of our options had worn thin or fallen through for one reason or another – usually, “another” with my father’s stamp on it. We didn’t have computers or a phone, much less electricity, so the only way to contact us was usually to send mail addressed “General Delivery” to the approximate location where we had last been heard from. I wonder belatedly how many letters disappeared into the realm of unread mail, followed us just a little too slowly. And if any of those letters could have changed the road we were on. Because anything could change the road, at any time. The road was constantly in a state of flux, a rapidly rolling path littered with side streets, pitfalls, and supposed shortcuts. You never knew what was around that next hairpin curve, and that right there was much of the draw. One thing I learned quickly, is that you just never know anything.
The job was perfect for us, really. Mom and Dad were campground hosts at a forested campground on the Clackamas River outside of Estacada, in the northern part of the state just southeast of Portland. They had to stay for the summer, that was the deal. There were a few campground sites they were supposed to collect fees for, clean up, keep the bathrooms in working order, and in return we had beautiful riverside spot to park the trailer, forests full of trails, all the strawberries and thimbleberries you could eat. There was sour grass, blackberries, salads made from dandelion greens, blueberries, gooseberries, nettle tea. With all this food right out the back door, who needed to buy groceries? We had the usual food stamps, of course, but us kids would come home regularly stained berry-colored from our foraging. It wasn’t that we were hungry, we delighted in the abundance and imagined we could live out in the forest on our own forever. In the desert, you would most likely die. And the water! Our dry eyes and bodies soaked up the sight and feel of the cold, clear Clackamas. If we waded in our legs would immediately go numb, but we road inner tubes down to the whirlpool-bend in the river where it smacked up against a sheer rock face. If you climbed the face, you could look down into the crystalline flow and make out the shadowy shapes of giant catfish, reminders of an age when there were things out there that would eat you.
I think my brothers and I all fell in love that summer, falling for city girls and boys camping for the weekend and running with the “wild kids.” We must have seemed so strange to them, those pink-scrubbed kids with dads with jobs and moms who had a washing machine and conveniences like babysitters.
I fell in love with Randy, who must have been 19 or 20. I was probably 11. I never had time for the childish boys, who always seemed so…childish. I am a watcher, a watcher of people and their actions and an observer and cataloger. Randy reminded me of a Montana boy in a book I’d read, who wore Wranglers and a ball cap and worked on ranches in the summer. He smelled of cologne and he made my heart flutter. I never talked to him, but I yearned for some imaginary future with him in rolling fields surrounded by horses and log cabins. I watched him talking with my parents out by the campfire for a few nights, and I hid behind the screen of the Airstream and thought about what it would be like to have a real life. So this was love, this constant pang in your chest for something you could never have. This growing, this expanding into lobes of your body you hadn’t known existed. I brushed my waist-length hair at night and thought of him. He was gone in a few days, but I never forgot him. That summer marked a quiet shift in me, one where I began slowly emerging from my close little shell, from the place behind my eyes where I only watched. I started to feel the presence of the people around me, to dream of things I had only read about.
D’Avina was feeing Doritos to the kitten. The kitten looked at her like she was batshit, but she daintily picked them up and crunch, crunch, crunch. The kitten’s face was orange but she was supposed to be grey.
“You like Kitty don’t you sweetie? Well maybe when you’re big like me and you have a big strong man like Darrel he might buy you one for your birthday like Darrel did me. He’s just so sweet.” D’Avina popped her gum and got that faraway look in her eye. Wait, that was already there. Never mind.
Darrel was a big, ugly thug of a truck driver. He wore a belt buckle the size of Texas and had hair like a black fir tree. He wore a plaid shirt most of the time, and he had a mean look in his eye that made me avoid him the way I did my aunt that smelled like throw-up, but only when she was drinking sherry. Her name was Sherry.
“Oh, there he is now!” D’Avina smiled her sticky lipgloss smile and showed her missing tooth. I always wondered what happened to it. Maybe a cavity.
Excellent commentary by writer Roxanne Gay on the big “Twilight for adults” kink erotica Fifty Shades of Grey series- THIS is why I didn’t like them, THIS is the problem with these control-centered heroes of “romantic fantasy” genre books:
Have you read any of the three books in this series? What did you think of the way BDSM was portrayed? How did you feel about the male lead, Christian Grey? What does this say about our current views on sexuality, if anything?
We were living in a station wagon again, all six of us. I must have been around 9 or ten. We’d rolled into Quartzsite, Arizona late the night before after a few weeks out in the desert. Quartzsite is like a yard sale on crack, crammed with what seems like miles of old snowbirds selling shit, and tables creaking under the weight of rocks. They sell a lot of rocks out there, also whirly-gig wind-catchers, plastic Chinese toys, and badly-painted southwestern ceramics. People with 1/18 Navajo blood from an ancestor in the 1800s who raped an Indian sell jewelry as “authentic Native American” for ten times what it’s worth. The place has a pall over it, a dust-colored veil that smells of desperation. Casual visitors can’t see it, instead seeing a place full of great deals and gems, but we were hardly casual visitors. It was a winter deal-making place for Dad, a place to rest and make some money selling guns, working for a month for someone, or wheeling and dealing the way he did. He wasn’t particularly outgoing, but he had a quiet powerful way of making people do what he wanted them to do. It wasn’t the smooth salesman gig, something darker like maybe he’d rough you up if you didn’t pay him what he wanted. We went to school in Quartzsite, once. The school had just opened and was full of desert rats like us, and maybe some of the grandkids of snowbirds. We weren’t the only ones getting the free lunch, this time, or the only ones with worn clothing and messy hair. They fed us that vile peanut butter pre-mixed with grape jam on limp white bread every day, until we finally couldn’t choke it down any longer and just went hungry at lunchtime.
We were all sitting and waiting for Dad, as usual, in the dirt parking lot of some junk salesman. He had a lot of cars parked around a trailer with clapboard wings added on. Us kids cracked the door to the station wagon and tried not to move, sweating and sticking to the seats anyway. The sun beat down already, though it was early in spring. The heat would soon drive the snowbirds north, scattering them toward the coast or back to whatever cool hole they burrowed into up north. I stared up into the pale blue sky, powdered with the heat and the reflection of the barren dirt below. The only escape from the forced closeness of our little nuclear family (nuclear, because we as electrons were always rubbing too close, too close and explosions were so near the surface) was to mentally distance oneself. I almost always put a book between myself and our too-real reality. Thousands of books later, I would sometimes confuse what I had been reading with what had actually occurred at certain times in the past. When we were stranded on the side of the road because our latest rust-heap had broken down, I was actually riding a dragon over some far misty mountain, or was deep in the drama playing out between Nancy Drew and her totally hetero female friend George.
I was daydreaming, projecting far out into the hemisphere as near to cold space as I dared, so I missed the actual final transaction. I saw instead, Dad coming back to the car with a grin beneath his beard and jangling keys in his hand.
“Load up, kids. Let’s get everything out of this piece and put it in our new van,” he said, waving over his shoulder to the stocky bald guy behind him who was sighting down the barrel of a big handgun, one Dad had recently had tucked into his waistband. Behind the guy was a blue and white-striped Dodge van, the kind with the big white fiberglass bubble on top circa maybe 1970. It didn’t look like much, but it looked like it had a hell of a lot more room than the station wagon. And it looked like it could pull a trailer, so we could only hope that the next wheeling-dealing result would be a trailer with a stove, beds, and maybe even room to haul some bikes.
Dad was almost gleeful, coming off his deal high. “You should have heard that fucker,” he was telling Mom. He mimicked the guy’s heavy Boston accent, which we had heard snippets of as the two men had talked. “I offered him the car and 600 bucks for the van, which is worth twice that. He was like, ‘whut, the cah, 800, and whut? You ain’t foolin’ me.’ So I threw in the Smith and Wesson.” He grinned because that had been his plan all along.
As soon as my brothers heard this, they collapsed into giggles, gleeful too as they pulled all of our belongings out of the car and began piling them together. The van was something new, and maybe it meant something good. Plus, none of us had ever heard a Boston accent that we could remember. “The cah, 800, and whut?” Rowdy laughed as he poked Reno, who took up the refrain. “And whut? And whut?” Dad cuffed his boys on the back of their tow-heads. “That’s right, boys, who’s the man huh? Your dad knows what he’s doing.”
Off near the chain-link fence, the Boston guy scratched his head and watched us move. Transferring our belongings took 20 minutes, at the most, because we were good. He stood and watched us as we rolled away, never looking back.