Roads on Her Face #12: Rowly’s Hurt!

Karl’s mobile home had a peculiar odor, of damp carpets scented with week-old macaroni and cheese, partially caused by the swamp cooler exhaling dank breaths into his dark trailer and partially caused by actual macaroni and cheese. It was an older trailer, with deep shag carpets made especially for smell retention. Whoever had it before Karl had been a smoker and the yellowed drapes and wood paneling both smelled of the ghost of smoke. But Karl had a shower, so Mom made it a point to be friends with him. I have a feeling he couldn’t believe his luck. We’d left Dad next to a smoking campfire somewhere in northern Arizona, with his SKS rifle and a bag of clothes. He’d told us to go ahead and leave him, get the fuck out. So we had. It was the first time we had really left him for longer than a day or two.

Already I was feeling the faint sense of escape, of hope. Mom had called Granny and told her we’d finally left Ed, and Granny was so relieved she loaned her the money to buy a trailer. A retired Canadian couple who were done with the open road sadly sold Mom their Airstream for $6,000. They were happy to be giving us a home, but they had cared for their trailer well and you could tell they had filled it with love. The man had cut little desert shapes from pieces of plywood and used it to decorate the overhead bins, the Airstream bins built like the ones over your seat in an airplane. The cactus was a little off, and the coyote was out of proportion, but he had spent time on his artwork and we never took them down. When the check came in the mail, Mom let each of us hold it. We looked at all the zeros after the dollar sign and held the paper reverently, knowing we would never see such a sight again.

In less than a month, Mom had gotten us a home, moved us into a trailer park in Needles, California, and enrolled Rowdy and me in public school. She stayed home with the two little ones, but she was looking for a job to augment the government support. We had lived in a car for long enough, with all six of us, and the freedom of the space in the trailer to stretch out at night, the electricity that gave us fans to use in the heat, all of it was almost too much. I was afraid to enjoy it, afraid every minute that it would all be snatched away and Dad would be back and sell it all and take us into the middle of nowhere again. I developed a Dad-crush on my 6th grade teacher, in the school that I could walk to from where we lived. We lived somewhere! I was going to school! At that age all I wanted was to be normal, to have friends, to stay in one place long enough to finish a whole grade. I knew we were not normal, and then there was everyone else. People with homes, and normal families, and parents with jobs, and kids with their own rooms. That was my biggest dream, a room where I could close the door and not have to smell my brothers’ farts and where I could hang my drawings on the wall. Where I might have a quiet place to read, and to write.

My homeroom teacher, Mr. Kincaid, was so kind, and he talked to us like we were human instead of bugs bothering him, the way conversations with Dad had gotten to be. Dad must have been itching to get away from us, the responsibility and the daily nagging concerns of this big family in this small space crumbling his self-control. It showed in his snappishness, his anger, his escalating drinking. He was accusing Mom of wanting to cheat on him, of wanting other guys, of looking at other people, though she was always with us and he was the one who came home late from the bar or never came home at all, showing up in the morning with red lipstick stains on his collar and laughing when Mom asked him about it.

Mr. Kincaid was smiley, and had a short well-groomed dark beard. He looked like a kind of man I didn’t know, a new kind of man and it was a revelation to see how he treated people. All men were not mean. It didn’t have to not be manly to be kind. Until then I had taken for granted that men were gruff, and hard, and stern, and men did what they wanted when they wanted and didn’t take no shit from nobody. Mr. Kincaid seemed like he might take some shit, and then he might sit you down to talk about it instead of beating your ass with a leather belt. I wasn’t sure that this would work with boys, who everyone knew could get out of control, but I thought it was a novel approach and might work with girls.

I made a friend, too, a strange gawky girl named Annie who was a Mormon and who lived in the trailer park next to ours. They lived in a nice trailer, one that was mounted to the ground and had a patio outside and that didn’t even look like a trailer. It could have been a house. Plus, she had her own room.

All I knew about Mormons was that they had a weird religion, and that there were a lot of them in Utah. I knew they hired retarded people, because we would go through Salt Lake City sometimes and all the stores had people working in them with Down’s syndrome or crippled legs. I knew they were nice, because they gave Dad a job last time we had gone through, and then they let us go into their huge store filled with food and new clothes and we got to pick what we wanted. There were big semi transport trailers outside that said “Deseret Industries” which I thought was fitting. We were from the desert, and they were helping us to start a new life, they said. I think Dad lasted a week there, and my hopes for that new life faded, the way I was used to hope fading. Quick, as if it had never been.

Karl was a strange bird. He might have been in love with Mom, too. I hadn’t noticed how many men loved Mom until Dan in Oregon. Dan had loved Mom so much Theresa and him had broken up. I thought it was strange. I had not paid much attention to the relationship between men and women, knowing I was not attractive and that it would be years before I had to worry about it. I read enough adult literature to know about it secondhand, and had no wish to complicate my life prematurely. But my mother’s attractiveness had escaped my notice. I saw a tired woman who wore no makeup and had worn thrift store clothes like the rest of us. I didn’t see the blonde, birdlike beauty who gave off the scent of “needing protection” though she had powered through life and come out stronger than most of the men who loved her.

One day Rowdy was riding his new-ish bike one-handed, a paper airplane tied on a string trailing next to him in the hot breeze of Needles. He was prone to focus on things to the point of forgetting everything else, even simple things like “Look where you’re going.” He looked up just in time to watch himself crash over the handlebars into a wooden post, the ones that told you what number your space was in the trailer park.

“Rowly!! Rowly! Mary, come quick Rowly is hurt!” We heard Karl howling outside, and Mom rushed out to find her oldest son with blood gushing down the side of his face. It wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst. Karl held his soft hands to the sides of his head, shaking it like a befuddled dog. His long hair and beard were tangled, because he didn’t have a woman to tell him to brush it. Mom could have told him, but that might have been too much like a relationship.

Rowly eventually stopped bleeding, and we didn’t go to the hospital because that cost too much money. Rowdy still remembers this, and will tell the story occasionally. “Mom, remember Rowly’s Hurt?” he will ask. And we will all laugh, and nod, and we will all say “Rowly.”

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Roads on Her Face #11: The Shitty Parts of California

Barstow Railyard Photo by Randy Murphy

To find most of the places we’ve lived, drive to the most deserted and destitute area of whatever state you’re in, locate a dirt road, and drive out until you can’t see any buildings and you hear no traffic from the road. Park the car, shut off the engine, and listen. If all you hear is the moan of the wind and the pissed-off machinelike crank of cicadas, you’re there.

I was the only kid born in Arizona. The rest were born in California. I think they say they’re from New Mexico now, but before we had a place they could consider home they would usually just mention the spot they were born as the place they came from. Where else do you choose? The more honest answer would be “I’m from the road” but that leads to bothersome questions and looks of confusion or an accusatory look like “Why you fucking with me?” California sounds like a nice place to be from. The ocean, movie stars, wilderness areas with ski resorts and massive red trees. If you’re living on the road, though, it’s hard to find a safe place to park a station wagon in L.A., especially if you’ll have all your gear outside on the roof and plan to cook on a camp stove with the back door shielding the flame from the ocean breeze. Instead of beautiful California, most of our time in the state was spent in the ugliest and loneliest areas Dad could find. If you’re taking a road trip, say from Vegas to San Diego, you’ll see some little shitsplat towns at the intersections of highways out in the middle of the most godforsaken desert you’ve ever seen. You might wonder to yourself, “What do these people do out here?” and you might shudder as you crank up the A/C and press just a little harder on the gas pedal. I went to fourth grade in Barstow, while we lived in a trailer park over near the railroad tracks that brought people to that hellhole in the first place, sometime in the 1800s when the mines were running full steam, and the immigrants crawled out of their boxcars to see the promised land, only to be met with Steinbeck’s crowded camps and the heat of the desert. At night the long, mournful howl of the train lulled me to sleep, something in my soul stirring in response to it. It was comforting, somehow, and wild at the same time. Dad told us stories of when he was a kid, hopping trains and riding from town to town. I always thought of him out there when I heard the train.

Barstow had a Tastee-Freeze, so sometimes we walked there to get ice cream. I liked going to school, and I didn’t feel out of place because just about everyone lived in trailer parks with drunk-ass dads. We all paid for groceries with food stamps. Mom was big and pregnant, as big as she ever got. She usually looked like a tiny woman smuggling a basketball in her stretched-out T-shirt, gaining no weight but the baby itself. Both of the boys were still tow-headed, the downy blond tufts of their hair like chick’s feathers. Dad was gone often while we were in Barstow, to the swapmeets in Victorville where he could make some money or get some new guns. The state probably supported the rest of us. We got WIC since the kids were still young enough, and California may have thrown us money for our trailer space rental. Us kids always liked it when we “holed up” somewhere. Dad was probably putting some gas money aside to make it to whatever our next destination was, plus Mom was about to have a new baby so it was nice to have running water and electricity. I don’t think the shower or toilet worked in our old trailer, but they had showers and bathrooms on site at the trailer park so we were happy to walk over and use them. Mom and Dad got a little TV and VCR, so they would curtain off the living room and we would watch movies sometimes. Other times, they kicked us out and we heard moaning coming from the TV, followed by the trailer rocking back and forth. We’d try to get away when that happened, because it was gross.

There were a lot of Mexicans in our trailer park, so there were a lot of kids. We were allowed to play with them when Dad felt like it or he wasn’t around, and I had a pink Huffy bike with streamers on the handlebars and a banana seat so there were always girls that wanted to play with me. Dad didn’t like Mexicans much, though, so depending on his mood he might tell me to stay away from them, then rudely shoo them off and glare at their parents. One time a man came by asking for something, and Mom tried really hard to understand the Spanish questions. She did what she could, but in the end she had to find another Mexican to help the guy. I think he wanted a shower.

Mom made another friend a few trailers down, a bored and lonely young woman named Amy. Her man was gone a lot too, which I figured was just the normal way of things.

One day in March, before it was regularly over 100 degrees, Mom got a strange look on her face and both of her hands went to her belly. Dad had decided to go to the swapmeet that day, even though he had a feeling that the time was almost here for the baby’s arrival.

“Honey, can you go over and get Amy? Can you tell her to hurry?” She was very calm, her gaze directed inward. When I told her mom needed her right away, Amy dropped what she was doing and ran out her door, forgetting to close it behind her. Her husband was home, too, and he ran after her. “I think she’s having the baby,” I called after them. I guessed they already knew.

“I need you to watch the boys,” Mom told me. “Make sure they stay out of trouble and they stay outside.” Amy was bustling around heating water and making the bed, which was the dining table that converted into a bed. She looked stressed out. I checked on my brothers, and they were so focused on the quiet groans coming from the house and the knowledge that Mom might be in trouble that they were perfectly well-behaved. I hung over the railing on one side of the table/bed and watched. Mom didn’t cry. She just got herself positioned, and as soon as my sister’s head crowned in all its dark and slimy glory, I decided that was good and I’d just get out of the way. There were people there to catch the newborn, and I could tell I wasn’t needed. I went back outside and waited for everything to calm down. I also wondered why in the hell anyone would ever want to have a baby.

Sophie didn’t have a name for a while, while Mom and Dad decided what to call her. She was just “Baby” until they settled on Sophie. A couple of weeks later a nurse came by to give Mom the baby’s birth certificate, to prove that she’d been born.

Roads on Her Face #10: The Boondocks

I didn’t live in a real city until I was an adult. I also didn’t live anywhere longer than a couple of years before my mom settled with us in New Mexico in 1995. I was born in Lake Havasu City, that desert town wrapped around a lake and a strip of tourist-trap shops, the real London bridge carted over stone by stone to its final resting place in a place as far from England as it could have imagined. A few days later we were gone, I hear, packed up in our brown UPS truck with our new family of three. We lived in small towns for a few days, empty stretches of desert for weeks, a homeless shelter in Boise, Idaho for a month. We went to school sometimes, in Williams, Arizona, in Needles, California, in Quartzsite. When I was old enough I schooled myself, “attending” a mail-in satellite school paid for with money my mom’s dad, Papa, had put away for me when I grew up. I needed it before I grew up, for school, and so my mom withdrew it. I don’t know if it all went to pay for school, or if it was filtered away to fund my dad’s various ventures, the way birthday money would disappear from cards from family and a six-pack would appear in the fridge.

My mother’s story is hers to tell, and I will help her tell it soon. I’ve been recording interviews with her, which I’ll publish together with these stories of mine, one of these days. The roads on her face have spread, their tracks now lightly marking my own skin. We are bound together by all of the miles, by the shared joys and pain and the wanderlust that burns brightly in my blood and has dimmed mostly to memories in hers.

People ask, “Was your father in the military?” and I will say yes if I want the story to be over, which depends on my interest in story-telling or whether I am trying to impress the asker. Because he was in the Army, it is an easy half-truth to say we were Army brats. He went to Vietnam for some amount of time, and he may or may not have seen combat, and he may or may not have been dishonorably discharged. I tried to request his DD-214 from the National Archives, but the next-of-kin can request it only when the discharged veteran is deceased. I don’t think my father is deceased, but I probably wouldn’t hear about it right away if he was. Last I heard, he was living in a cave in the Arizona mountains. I drove by the range in a rainstorm, and wondered if he was dry up there. I imagined him in his Army fatigues, maybe a fire burning at the mouth of the cave, the scent of the wet creosote drifting up to him like a prayer. He probably gazed out over the valley, his territory, and either reveled in his solitude or pitied himself. My aunt tells me he has taken to calling himself “Sarge.” He was never a sergeant.

The reason for our wandering was him. Mom had a wandering spirit, too, a product of her father’s life as a travelling fabric salesman, when there were such creatures before you could order samples online or before everything began shipping from a third-world country where barefoot children run the looms. Papa drove around the East coast, his briefcase full of samples for the clothing manufacturers and the upholsterers, and sometimes Mom would ride along with him. After her first love and marriage ended, and before she finished college, she packed up her things in her yellow VW bug, left Georgia and headed west on her own. She made it as far as Alpine, Arizona and then she picked up a handsome stranger hitch-hiking. They spent 18 years and had four kids together. I never pick up hitch-hikers.

Those 18 years were spent out in the boondocks. Maybe it was the 14 other kids my dad grew up with that made him want to run away, out into the middle of nowhere. I can understand that. Six people in a station wagon or sleeping together in a tent made me want to do the same. I can’t imagine 15 kids plus Grandma and Grandpa, in their little farmhouse in Minnesota.

Maybe he wanted the distance from society because he’d lost his faith in the government, the way other Vietnam vets had. The way they were treated when they returned, the way they were lied to before and during service. He turned to conspiracy theory to explain the “whys” to himself, or made up his own explanations. Later, he turned to drinking. I remember that at least me and my next oldest brother, Rowdy, were there when I asked him why he was drinking beer. I hadn’t known this dad, the one who sat in a folding chair and stared morosely out into the desert. I asked mom first, why he was drinking, and she looked at the ground and told me to ask him. I remember crying when he yelled at me. It may have been the first time he had yelled that way, voice cracking and face reddening, but it was not the last. Before that, I had been his little angel.

No one can know all of someone elses’ reasons for anything. You may know what they tell you, or you may hear what others tell you, but you can never really know. Sometimes I feel myself in his shoes, rage building over something small, or the urge to drop everything and leave so strong that I can barely contain it. The difference between him and I, is that I am either stronger than the urge or too chickenshit to give in to it. I have a nagging responsibility that wears me down, that makes me want to finish things I’ve started. If he had the same nag, it could have been so strong that he couldn’t stand it. He left another family, before us, two kids and a wife. That wife never remarried and remained broken enough that her daughter wanted nothing to do with me when I reached out to her as a teenager. Responsibility can be a bitch.

Roads on Her Face #9- Dan, Dan

Crazy George lived in a van, moving around from campground to campground. He was an old grizzled drunk, like my dad, so they didn’t get along. They would, however, drink together, because a drunk never likes to be the only one. Dad had an old beat-up chessboard that folded in on itself, each of the pieces glued to a magnet so they stuck to the board when the games were played in parking lots, or bars. He and George would stare at the board for hours, sitting on folding chairs around a small camp table. Someone would move a piece, both would drink. Someone wouldn’t move a piece, and both would drink. Mom was probably off scrubbing toilets or collecting money from campers. Sometimes some of us kids would stand around and watch, but we grew bored quickly and would wander off into the forest or down to the river.

Dan and Theresa also lived in a van. They stayed for a while at one of the campgrounds my parents were managing in Clackamas, that magical summer from which each memory is imprinted on my mind the way a flash from a camera imprints briefly on your vision, after you’ve closed your eyes. I am sure they got a special deal, because Dan liked to drink too and he would bring beer by, and Theresa. She had a great big long-haired dog named Woofus, who would sit down behind you and groom you on command, his teeth rubbing against you in little nibbles like fishbites. It tickled, and we would laugh and squirm while he did it. I had never seen mom with a friend before, a friend who was a real girlfriend and not just the wife of one of my dad’s “associates.” They laughed, and laughed, and laughed until they rolled on the ground. They drank beer together, and hid behind trees whispering about boys. I crowded them, wanting to be a friend too. They always let me hang out, never getting annoyed. I liked this mom, one who wasn’t cowed and tired and who acted like a 12-year-old girl. Like me. We set up a dome tent behind the trailer, and we had girls’ campouts where we could watch the campfire die down through the thin grey screen of the tent’s door. Theresa gave me a journal, which she inscribed with her name and the date in a loopy, flowing script. Theresa Sheffield, June 1994. “Don’t stop writing,” she said. “You are going to be famous one of these days.” At that point, I might have believed her. I searched for her years later, finding maybe 10 women of the same name who were still in the area. I called them all, but no one knew the slight blonde who had been called T-Bird in high school, who had a penchant for loser men, who had a dog who thought everyone needed to be cleaner. I wanted my mom’s friend back. I wanted her to have a friend from then, from when we were still a family and when adventure was the only way we knew how to live. I wanted to see if she had changed. I wanted to capture that summer and never let it go.

One night Dan got wasted around our campfire and decided he wanted to pierce his nose. I went to bed, and the next morning he was sitting at our wooden picnic table holding his face.

“What did you do, Dan? What’s wrong?” I thought he had a hangover. He did, but it was worse than that.

Mom’s lips were stretched tight across her teeth, her mouth a thin straight line. She might have been trying not to laugh. Dad was somewhere, taking a walk in the woods or having his quiet time alone. He needed space, especially after a bender of a night. We always welcomed the reprieve, our shoulders floating upward as some hidden weight was taken away.

Mom gently pried Dan’s fingers apart and exposed his nose, his big beak-like nose. He had somehow jammed a large safety pin right through the center of theseptum. She barely brushed against it and he cried out in pain, tears springing to his eyes. The whole area was a furious red.

“What in the heck did you do that for?” Mom asked him, pushing his hands away from his face again, as they had sprung back up in a protective gesture. She grinned over his bald head at me, then looked down again with nothing but concern on her face. Dan was in love with Mom, and everybody knew it. “Where’s Theresa?”

“Sleeping,” he moaned. “Please, get it out, please just take it out.”

Mom cleaned it with alcohol and yanked it out in one smooth move. Dan’s yell echoed through the valley. He disappeared quickly, into the tent behind our trailer. Bearlike retching sounds came from behind the vinyl walls all day, punctuated with “Fuck you, get outta here! Leave me alone!”  Every now and then the zipper would open and his head would pop out, spewing the clam chowder he’d had for dinner last night.

We had a chant, after that, “Dan, Dan, the drinking man, he lives in a van. He whips up chowder as fast as he can, and his nose is as big as a beer can!” We ran around laughing hysterically, rolling our eyes and punching each other to punctuate the singsong chant.

Dan didn’t like it, at all, and we had to whisper it when he was around.

After a few months, Dan and Theresa went their separate ways, Dan off in his van and Theresa back to her family. Their short relationship didn’t hold up after Dan fell in love with Mom. She said he needed a mommy. After they left the summer had a strange feel, as if it were curling up and browning at its edges, as if it or we had crossed a threshold. A few weeks later the clouds rolled in, and the days grew darker. Things began to mold, and slugs crawled out of their holes to leave slime trails like silken threads over everything. We were stuck in the trailer together, the musty smell of us overwhelming. Not many campers showed up.

On one increasingly rare sunny day, Dad drove us in the van to George’s camping spot. He was sloppy drunk when we got there, and it somehow quickly degraded into a shouting match. “I’m going to kill you you motherfucker!!” We heard George screaming, and then Dad got into the van with his set and joyous face, the way he looked right before there was trouble. “Come get me, prick,” he said calmly out the window, and then he drove us back to our campground. George waved a big machete at us as we left him at his van.

The rest of the day we waited breathlessly for the blood. George was coming to kill Dad! What would we do? Was someone going to die? It’s all we could talk about out of the earshot of the grownups.

Crazy George had a knife! But Dad had a gun. We thought we knew who would win. A few days later, with no George appearing, we packed up and headed south to escape the rains.

– Edited July 23rd after using some helpful memories shared by my younger siblings.