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.