Roads on Her Face #34: Valentine’s Needles

Needles. Before we were there without Dad, it had been a place of howling wind and desolate desert days camped far outside of what town exists there. It was a sentence, a penance, and for extra pain we were often in Needles during the Santa Ana winds in the fall. That time of year is like Iraq with fewer bombings, the heat so dry that your face felt like it was peeling off in one long strip of dust mask. The sand would sting your skin if you ventured outside, but it was too hot to be inside the natural oven of a metal trailer. It meant suffering was inevitable. If there had been a hole to crawl into, I would have been there with the clever snakes.

We had left Dad farther north, where it was cold enough at night that he told us later for sympathy that he had burned the stock of his carbine rifle for warmth (I wondered, Why didn’t your drunk ass look for firewood?). It was fall again, and we headed for Needles because Mom didn’t have any other plans. She called her southern belle mother and asked her for money, using the ace-in-the hole “I left him, mama. We’re through.” The great joy Granny felt resulted in more cash than we had ever seen at once, and consequently our pretty blemish-free Airstream.

This finally felt like what I imagined real life must feel like. We would walk to school from the trailer park with the other trailer trash kids in the morning sunshine, like normal kids are supposed to do. We had bookbags, and running water at home. Mom was smiling more often. Life was beautiful.

We had come from the wilderness like a lost tribe, wondering at civilization. Here there were people, there were wide streets and lights at nighttime with the flick of a switch. We got a TV and VCR and watched rented movies. It felt posh, pampered, summertime and the living was so easy. We didn’t have a shower, but Karl was hot for Mom and we used his shower weekly. The in-between days were spongebath days.

Shyness in my case was only the result of limited interactions with people, especially boys who were not my brothers. A garrulous social butterfly was fluttering about my insides, unsure how to escape from the quiet me-caterpillar. I set my sights on a boy that I didn’t plan to talk to, just admire. My first memory of liking the softer, gentler boys– as far away from my father’s anger and harshness as I could get– was Stephen with a “ph.” He was slower than most at reading aloud, his written letters more painfully formed. When the teacher was impatient with him, if she asked him why he wasn’t on the right page, Stephen would cry publicly, right there in class. My heart went out to this gentle boy who never said a mean word to anyone. He was pretty, almost like a girl, with long thick lashes and soft camel-colored hair. I liked the most feminine boy because I had never seen one up close. He was different. I knew that he must be nice, that if we spent time together I might even fall in love. Valentine’s Day came, and as it was before the fateful day when some bureaucrat decided that no child should feel left out and we should do away with activities that could cause a girl to feel left out, or a boy to know he was not as popular as the jocks, we gave each other Valentine’s Day cards. Everyone was to place their cards in handmade heart-shaped mailboxes that we made from colored paper and cardboard and hung at the front of our desks. I bought one box of pre-made cards and carefully selected all of the students I would give one to. I was gratified to see the stack of cards in my box the next day, after we had all sneaked back into the classroom after lunch and delivered our mail. I looked at each cartoon cat with hearts and silly elephant with flowers, reading who they came from and feeling popular and liked. At the bottom, I found Stephen’s card to me. With his pencil he had painfully and painstakingly drawn two penciled hearts under my name, pressing so hard that they showed through on the other side of the cardstock. I glanced at him, and he blushed and looked away. That was enough for me.

Roads on Her Face #33: Nighttime Escape

When I look at the stars at night, I can teleport instantly back into the velvet blackness of the Mojave desert of Arizona. Just as the sun began to drop behind the darkened purple mountains, no longer the faded colors of old bleached clothes that they and the sky were in full day, the life that had been hiding and gasping in shade that never cooled off enough to allow full breaths would stretch, shake off the dust, and emerge. Birds cheeped hesitantly and then broke into song, the coyotes scuttled in around the creosote with pink tongues lolling. As it grew too dark to see the ground, we would kick off our shoes if we wore any, and get up on something to avoid the snakes, scorpions and spiders that were now free to walk on rocks and sand that had recently been the temperature of a pan just snatched from the oven. Out at Jim’s Place, there were always vehicles scattered around our homesite, little boats in a night ocean. If we could, we would jump from one to the other and let the cooling metal creak and pop underneath us as the heat rose in waves. On cue, the breeze that the sun released would begin to stir through the low washes, tickling hair and bringing the scent of flowers too delicate for the day.

The only light was from our kerosene lantern in the trailer, and the brilliance of the stars. The depth of them out there is incredible, with no light pollution and endless hours to watch them. If you lay flat long enough and stare into the sky, gravity appears to flip-flop and you feel as if you could suddenly fall downward into their depths instead of floating upward. Rowdy and I would often sleep on top of the big white Army truck, an old box-type truck with a broad flat top just right for sleeping bags and with no slant to encourage rolling off. High up there the breeze could become almost chilly, and snakes and bugs could never reach us. My parents might sleep on the hood of the station wagon, and the little ones with them or inside where there was no fear of a fall from car-height in the middle of the night.

We would all be spread over vehicles in the morning when the sun greyed the eastern sky, like refugees stranded on tiny islands after a shipwreck. At the first sign of light we would scatter to do our business and get anything done that needed to happen before the sun arrived, resigned to what was coming.

No one went straight to bed in the summer, taking time instead to enjoy the blessed cool and the absence of the angry sun. Dad would sit on one of the cars or the front of the Army truck, his radio tuned to NPR or story time from the 40s or 50s. I would feel my soul grow to fill the night sky, happiness and a whole-body gratitude for the night. I’m a night kind of girl. I feel safe in the quiet dim light, I think better thoughts, and magic doesn’t sound far-fetched.

We would all gather around and point out the stars, familiar constellations above us taking the place of other families’ TVs. We could all find the North Star, the dippers, Orion. We would pick up star books from the library and sit out with them and a flashlight, pinpointing the red star Arcturus or lesser-known constellations Cassiopeia or the Northern Cross. The flash of battery-powered light would be enough to kill your night vision for a moment, and eyes closed we would wait to for it to return, watching brilliant colors dance across our closed lids.

Sometimes late at night Mom and I would huddle in a circle in the trailer with our books placed flat, sharing  the flickering round circle of light cast by the lamp. We would read until our eyes were too tired, enveloped in the peace of being the only ones awake. She would smile bigger then, no one watching her, no voice commanding her. She would sneak a cheese ball covered in almond slivers out of the refrigerator we were never allowed to open because we had to conserve propane. Stifling giggles like little girls, we would open a box of crackers, trying not to rustle the wrapper and awaken anyone who might have disturbed our peace. Luckily, the boys who slept on the floor in the front of the trailer lay like stones.

It was her only escape, out there. I know that now. I’m glad she let me escape with her.

Roads on Her Face: Parade time

Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2007

We made balloons and costumes out of paper bags, then put on a parade….of sad, pathetic poor little children. My siblings were lucky to have me around to come up with these ideas and keep them amused…I can only imagine how hard it was for my parents not to laugh as the 4-person parade marched by throwing candy…

Roads on Her Face #31: A.D. 1 After Dad

Glenwood was a microcosm of the whole world, in which it was relatively safe to try out this thing called normal life. With Dad out of the picture, it took a while for family dynamics to fall into a new routine. We fought, and postured, and Mom always looked exhausted. I think she wondered if she had done the right thing, but there was no doubt in my mind. It had been time to chase him off, and when the cop showed up that day to pick him up Dad nearly spat in her face as he hissed “This is the last time you’ll see me, Mary” as if that were a threat that might hurt. I didn’t see him get in the car, or drive away. I didn’t think of him in jail that night, or know if he had been locked up. I tried to feel some sadness because I thought I should. I loved him, right? He was my dad, right? But there were precious few feelings left in my heart for him. The years with his anger and abuse had systematically pulled each feeling out and ground it into the dirt with their endless heels.

I felt, most of all, a lightening of the weight on my shoulders. For the first time in my life my attention began to focus outward, away from the eternal internal. I’d spent all my time thus far in deep inner reflection and boundless imaginary worlds, and I had learned enough about myself to trust in my feelings and intuition. I didn’t quite have the verbal expression down yet, but I grew braver every day. I got a job washing dishes at the Blue Front Bar and Café, the greasy restaurant built over a ditch in the middle of town and owned by the ever-present Luthers, of course. I started to get to know people in town, and made my first girlfriends there who eventually pulled me into public school for my last two years in high school. Mom worked at the Blue Front, as well as another restaurant, Maxine’s, up the hill that’s since become a goat-milk soap shop. She found a boyfriend in no time at all, a cook in Maxine’s kitchen who was looking for a mommy.

I’d made my closest high school friend when Dad had still been in town. She was tall, skinny and pretty, the daughter of one of the big rancher families that lived north of town. She said I reminded her of an elf, with my ears poking from behind my braid. Early in our nascent friendship, I asked Mom if I could go to the ranch with Jen. We spent the day giggling in her room, messing with each other’s hair, the typical budding teen stuff. Her mom drove me home late in the afternoon for dinner, and when I walked into the trailer Mom didn’t look up at me from the dinner she was preparing. Something was off, and I immediately made myself scarce–which in the trailer meant hiding in the back “room.”

“Where the fuck was she all day?” My dad asked my mom, beer and sarcasm dripping from his voice.

“She was with her friend,” Mom said quietly.

Somehow Dad had discovered that Jennifer had an older brother– who we had seen for a couple of minutes on his way to his room that day. “Don’t you know what can happen?” Dad’s rage boiled over. “Hanging out with fucking boys all day, do you know what can happen? Don’t you fucking think, Mary, doesn’t this shit cross your pea brain?” He slammed the rest of a beer. “She is not to ever go over there again. They only think about one thing, getting their hands into panties, don’t you know what they’re like? Do you want a slut as a daughter? You’d probably like that, wouldn’t you Mary?”

I felt the familiar sick rising in my stomach, the twisted knots caused by the knowledge that I was not to be trusted, a slutty girl, that he would never release this iron grip he had on all of us. I gave up the idea that I could have a friend, could try to have a normal life, could someday even have a boy who would be interested in wanting things to happen with me. I knew I was too quiet, too weird, too poor, to awkward. And Dad made sure I knew it, when he wasn’t telling me how fat my ass was. It took me years before I realized I was one of the thinnest people I knew.

Roads on Her Face #30: And There Were Four

First there was me, brought forth in the Lake Havasu City hospital with my mom there all alone while Dad cleaned the bus from top to bottom. Mom said it smelled like bleach and Pine Sol and that not a trace of dust could be found. I like to imagine him worrying, waiting, with no phone and no way for anyone to contact him – for him that was a loving statement and it made Mom smile. But that mental picture is always erased by the one of my mother having a baby alone, with nurses whom she said looked at her like she was trash. Great, another woman here to have a baby for free, great, a homeless little hussy who will go straight out and sign up for welfare. I didn’t know the whole story until recently, now that Mom and I have gotten to that point in the interviewing process. A doctor with liquor on his breath pulled me out with forceps and tore her tender skin. The next day they wheeled her outside and Dad pulled up in the bus and loaded us in, and off we went toward California.

Rowdy came next, in a hospital in Needles three years later. He was a hideous baby, a little gremlin. I was happy to have a brother and annoyed by his extreme attachment to me. Reno arrived about two and a half years later, at the same Needles hospital, a squalling red-faced ruffian who could turn in a second to a sweet huggy little guy (he’s still exactly the same). I haven’t yet asked Mom if they planned where she would have the babies, but I imagine they did. Finally, 8 years after me came Sophie, at home in our trailer park in Barstow. All little dead towns in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve always been glad to be the sole Arizonan. I feel at home with the people, the desert, the little outpost towns. I can see myself settling there when I’m old, becoming a snowbird.

We’re not as close now as we used to be, spread geographically apart and not in touch with the others’ daily lives. I know many families lament that spreading, but there’s no way to prevent it unless you all live on a couple of blocks of property right next to each other the way many of my dad’s family members still do. Three of those siblings have even settled on a piece of land with their partners, retiring together. I want to start a compound and have my family build their own houses near mine. I know our relationships would be different now, less bickering and more understanding. I’m sure we’d still throw down occasionally but that is the way family operates.

We had a complicated hierarchy in those traveling years, with me at the top because of birth order and the forced caretaker role I often had to take. It wasn’t fun, because as a sibling you don’t get the respect or thanks a parent gets but are still trying to enforce the same rules. It’s an ugly place to put a child. That meant I was most often a tyrant, still feeling the competition that thrummed between us like a guitar string, still not mature enough to step back and let things be. Always a control freak, sometimes a bitch. Rowdy and Reno were gunning for the second spot, depending on who was getting along at the time, or sometimes teaming up when I wasn’t allied with either of them. Sophie got the shortest stick, the youngest and the easy one to pick on. Though she was so much younger than I, age mattered less because we were our only friends and playmates. I taught her to tie her shoes and the ABCs, and also to hate me. I talk to her now the most often, maybe because we are the females and have that communication chromosome.

But then, there were the times when it was us against the world. No one else knew what our lives were like, the things we’d seen. All of our jokes were inside jokes. We all have the same dry sarcastic sense of humor, and when we get together we laugh until our heads might explode. Mom will laugh so hard the tears flow freely, tears of happiness and gratefulness for her family. If nothing else, from those 18 long years with Ed, she prizes the results of their union and we would collapse without her.

Roads on Her Face #29: Stifled

When you’re told to be quiet, you learn to be quiet. My brain works quickly, but my tongue does not. I argue in my head, and can write beautiful speeches, but often I trip over or mispronounce words. I prefer to be quiet in a large group of people I don’t know. I would rather text than call. My oldest-younger brother Rowdy (Rowdy, Rowdy Piper, bim-boom-bam) manifested our stifling in the most noticeable and physical way, but we all suffer from stunted speaking skills. My sister speaks in monotone, Reno doesn’t speak much, my mother has to work to talk about herself. He stuttered so hard his face would flush like wine added to water, tears springing to his eyes, his neck muscles bulging with the effort of setting his words free. “Duh-duh-duh-duh ddddddon’t!!” But by then it was too late and the don’t had been did. “Spit it out, boy!” My dad would yell in his face, close enough for his eye-beams to spark a fire in the beautiful feathery blond hair of my brother. I would step in and tell people what he wanted to say so often that Dad would look at me and say, “What the fuck is he saying?” I translated for him whenever I could. He didn’t stutter as much when it was just he and I, it was the pressure and the anger of my father that would set him off into paroxysms of the mouth. I understood how he felt, and the seething rage beneath my quiet face grew every time I saw Dad push Rowdy to his edge.

After Dad was gone, the stuttering gradually subsided until Rowdy came back from boot camp, muscled and calm and looking nothing like the brother I remembered trying to shelter. He spoke, and the words came smoothly underlain with something new. Confidence. I haven’t heard him stutter since.

Reno, and he will hate it if he sees this (sorry, bro), pissed the bed for far longer than most kids do. Nothing Mom tried seemed to stop it, but I knew the reason and I imagine she did too. I feel bad that his private story is now part of my public one, but the effects of a tyrant in the home are felt by all. I almost wish I had physical effects myself, the snipping of the words coming from my mouth, the enuresis of the fear warming my bed at night. Now I am left to wonder what my effects are, what hidden reactions lie in my emotions or body waiting to break free. Am I an angry person? Selfish? Do I hold myself too aloof? What black things hide in my soul?

Roads on Her Face #28: And Then Came a Settling

An hour later and Dad was gone. And this time, he stayed gone. You never bring the cops into the picture, ok Mary? Didn’t you ever learn?

I started out thinking I would only write about my childhood, the interesting part of my life so far. Then I realized that wouldn’t be the whole truth. I am trying to tell the truth, and it’s easier to tell the far-away truth of your childhood than the truth that comes closer to your present life, the time when you should have no excuses and should “know better.” The whole gallivanting around the country thing stopped when I was 12, when we settled in a little New Mexican mountain town called Glenwood. It has its share of interesting characters, stories, and beauty, and I’d be remiss not to include them lovingly – and sometimes not so much – in this accounting.

We weren’t going to settle. We had never settled before. It shouldn’t have been any different than the thousand other times we’d stayed somewhere for a while. Except that this time it was.

When you roll down the hill on 180 into the little green valley around Whitewater Creek and the Gila River, you pass a tiny campground on your right just a second before you roll right on through town in approximately 3 minutes, 2 if you’re speeding. I don’t recommend speeding, because there’s always a local cop who doesn’t have anything better to do waiting just after the bridge over the creek. You’re welcome. Big Horn Campground has maybe 10 spaces crammed into a parking-lot-size area near the wash that splits the parkland from private property. The private property across the creek is owned by one of the couple of families that own Glenwood, and have for many years. Likely since their ancestors settled here and homesteaded, but I never cared enough to do the research. They’ll make sure you know they’ve been here forever, goshdangit, so don’t you worry about how long exactly.

Like most Forest Service campgrounds, you could stay in this one for free. Though most people would stay for the weekend, we were definitely going to take advantage of the two weeks. And we did, plus maybe three weeks, until a nice ranger told us it was about time we moved on. I think Mom was struggling to put some roots down quickly. She had always loved this little town, and so had Dad. They’d dreamed and talked about staying here through the years, so close to where she’d picked him up hitchhiking in her little yellow Bug. She probably knew by then that those were just dreams, that she’d tied her life to a man that could never settle down and didn’t know much about roots.

The old patriarch of the family in town- I’ll call them the Luthers, and him Coy, just in case they’re out there Googling around (I used an online List of Redneck Names to name these people from my recent past, I hope they will forgive me)- had watched my mom come in to the general store/gas station that he owned with us kids for a while. Coy had watched Dad, too, I’m sure, stumbling back up the campground after drinking at the bar Coy owned. He probably sat in his house next to the old hotel that he owned, too, and thought about what he could do to help her out. That pretty little blonde thing with all them kids and a drunk-ass husband. Mom’s always been good at getting help without looking for it. I don’t know if she was asking around for a job, but in no time at all she had one bookkeeping for Coy and we had moved the trailer onto the private property just on the other side of the wash from the campground. We had electric hook-ups and running water! It was a goddamn windfall. Knowing that little town as well as I do now, I can just imagine the rumors and hearsay spreading scarlet-letter style through the grapevine, which had tendrils pushed into every house in a 10-mile radius. It didn’t come back to our insulated little family, and we kids were happily oblivious. What we knew was that we had a nice quiet place with water. We had lights that worked, and Dad set up an outdoor shower. We had met some  kids that lived on the other half of the land, in a house butted up against the hill that separated our little haven from the rest of town. Cole, Coy’s son, and his wife Lynne lived there with their three kids. Mom was even talking about enrolling us in school. Then Dad started drinking harder, and a pall hung over all of us. We could see the dark clouds gathering, and inside I resigned myself to moving on again soon. I hadn’t seen the hard light glittering in Mom’s eyes, though, or counted on the set of her jaw.

He was sitting in a camp chair behind the trailer, and the sun had just dropped behind the hill. Long shadows touched my feet. Mom was cooking dinner inside. He stood up and stomped on a beer can, the sound one I hear often when I think of him. Stomp, crush, stomp, crush. He hacked a loogie, another sound I hear because my brother takes after him.

Slightly off-balance, he pulled himself up the trailer steps and joined Mom in the kitchen. I didn’t go inside, but I could tell she wouldn’t be looking at him.

“Tomorrow, we need to pack all this shit up and get out of here,” he said. “It’s time to head back toward Arizona.” She didn’t say anything for a minute.

“I think this is a good place to stay for a while, don’t you? The kids like it here,” she said, quietly.

“We do what I say,” he said, his voice rising. “I don’t think I asked you what you thought.” The trailer rocked with the building anger.

It took about 15 minutes for the screaming and shouting to start. Five minutes after that Mom was rushing outside and grabbing my arm.

“Listen to me, ok?” Her blue eyes were rimmed in red, the pressure of all those unshed tears. “I need you to run down to Cole and Lynne’s house and ask her to call the police, ok?” I nodded and took off, the way I always did when she asked me to run. All the running practice made a difference at times like this.

An hour later and Dad was gone. And this time, he stayed gone. You never bring the cops into the picture, ok Mary? Didn’t you ever learn?

Roads on Her Face #27: Nevada’s Not for Pussies

By nate2b
Nevada roads  by nate2b 

There are two memories tied inextricably together in my mind, by tenuous flashing synapses deep within my cerebral cortex somewhere. I never think of one without the other, though I don’t know if they were chronologically close. It doesn’t matter, because the place the past lives is in our memory among the grey matter. There is no time besides now.

Elko is a little town hidden between the bare rocky breasts of the Ruby Mountains, way up Interstate 80 before you cross the flat white plains of the Great Salt Lake, if you’re traveling East. There’s a casino, because it’s Nevada, and some hard mountain people who may or may not be currently running from the law.

Dad got a job there as a tow truck driver, and we lived in our trailer on the tow lot just off the main drag through town. I don’t know how long we lived in Elko; it felt like forever and no time at all. Eventually, Dad would have pissed off whoever hired him and we hit the road, not looking back. While we were there, it felt like a precious gift that could be snatched away in a second. The mountains were brutal, to drivers who didn’t know them, and they killed with abandon, shaking cars off their ridges and becoming so black at night that people would just drive right off the interstate. The tow truck was busy, and the bounty that came with the cars towed in from the dark felt like the dreams I have now where I am shopping for hours, picking up treasure after treasure and loading myself down. I’m sad when I wake up, all that work and searching for nothing, for these empty arms. When people wreck, the detritus of their lives floats in a sea of sad, and they never come back for it. They don’t want the memories that seeing their car and the things they were traveling with would bring. We would find suitcases full of clothing, money under the seats, purses splashed with blood. Toys children had dropped as the car spun in slow circles before the terrible finality of impact. I would sit in cars smelling of their occupants’ perfume and stare at the starred windshield in front of me, imagine the blonde head that struck the glass and left two hairs. I would feel the car crumple, hear the shrieking of metal and smell burning rubber. I would be careful not to touch the bloodstains when they were present. A few times I asked Dad if the people had died, but mostly I didn’t want to know. I was happy to keep their things, and I didn’t feel a shred of moral ambiguity. We had learned right off the bat not to question gifts from the sky. When much of your time is spent on the road, you find things that have fallen from vehicles with exciting regularity. If we spied something that looked interesting, Dad would say “Hang on! Put your seatbelts on!” and swerve off at the next wide shoulder so he could jump out and run back to retrieve it. Sometimes it turned out to be trash. Other times it was a box from FedEx, or a wallet. We found a duffel bag once, with clothing and toothpaste, shoes and money. I carried with me an image of someone’s trip turning shitty when they arrived at their destination and realized they had nothing, and I wished I could give their things back to them.

Elko was quiet, and possessed the kind of communal geniality peculiar to many small towns. If you left people alone, they left you alone. I’m sure they talked about us, the travelers living at the junkyard. But we didn’t stand out in towns like that. There were others like us, traveling the back roads and staying until their time was up. Some of the wayward would settle in places like this, away from the big cities and welcoming the quiet accommodation, welcoming being left alone. Either you assimilated or you did not, and the town went on about its business.

Like most former gold-rush towns, Elko has little festivals and whatever they can throw together that might bring in tourists. There’s not much to do out there for work, unless you’re a hooker or a miner. I was reading in the trailer when Mom came in and grabbed my hand. “Come on, honey, they’re having a race! You need to run in the race!”

“But, Mom, I have my boots on!” I said, confused, startled, staring at my black cowboy boots as I was hustled across the street to where a festival was going on. Sure enough, there was the race line and there was a small crowd watching. Dad was standing there, looking back for me expectantly. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, because I only remember Rowdy then. Reno had to have been a baby, or hadn’t come along yet.

It had to have been Dad who sent Mom to get me. He had this image of me growing up to be a runner, and he would send me out to run laps around creosote bush courses that we mapped out beforehand. I would go and go, never getting tired. I was a fast little shit, too, until I got lazy and stopped running, preferring only to read somewhere as far away from my family as I could get. These days, I run because I like it and people think I’m crazy. Maybe Dad had something right.

Mom pushed me into the line of other kids. All of them towered over me. I was the littlest one out there. And I had on boots! I couldn’t run on cement with these boots on!

But BANG went the gun, and off we went. All I could see was the chalk finish line and a blur as I focused in front of me. I ran as fast as I could run, faster than I had ever run. My boots flew, I barely touched the ground. And then I was there, and I turned around. The only one there! The other kids were far behind me. I heard cheers, and a man handed me a silver dollar. “You win, girl,” he smiled at me. “Speed racer.”

The other memory is of swim class. Mom has always been a good swimmer, easily swimming laps with her strong little body moving like a seal. She wanted us to be, too, but we were rarely near water. I have always been the edge-swimmer, holding on to the side after dog-paddling for four breathless strokes.

I think we were in Fallon. Nevada again. We weren’t there long, because I only got to go to a few classes. Rowdy was there, too. Mom would drop us off for an hour at the pool, and two brave women would try to teach a group of little kids how to swim. I was on a kickboard, kicking along, and then I wasn’t. I stopped moving completely as I sank slowly to the bottom. Looking up, the light filtered through the water like blue stained glass, twinkling warmly. I didn’t know why I wasn’t trying to swim. It was so peaceful under there, so quiet with the sounds of the other swimmers dulled to whispers. I had held my breath, and wasn’t choking, so when strong arms reached down and pulled me away from the quiet I was angry. The woman threw me out of the water and another grabbed me, pounding my back. My breath was gone, so I couldn’t yell at them that I was fine, I was fine, there wasn’t any water in my lungs! I wished I was back there, back at the quiet bottom.

Roads on Her Face #26: Animal Instincts

As I listen to my mom pull her story out of herself piece by piece, matter-of-factly but as if it were a struggle, realizations come to me unbidden. She talks about the people my parents would stay with, here and there, everywhere, and for the first time I think that maybe those people didn’t look forward to these visits. For the first time I see my dad as a mooch, as not so self-sufficient, as not so strong. I think about those kind people who helped, and maybe grew tired of helping, and I feel ashamed.

As a kid I thought of our visits to family and friends with excitement, and never thought that we might not be welcome. I never considered that we might need them, that his drinking had left us nothing and that we needed charity or a safe place to rest. We are so oblivious, in our little insulated child-worlds, even when we have seen the straight of things, the ugly, the dirt swept beneath the couch.

My own sense of strength and personal ability, even in the face of the ugly, comes from the deep feeling of self-sufficiency our little family instilled in each of us, whatever false basis it may have had. When you look closely, we were not alone. We were supported by welfare and food stamps, generous churches or “friends,” family who didn’t want to see my parents together but were swayed by the sweet (and dirty) faces of children. My dad could wheel and deal and spin nothing into cash, old cars into new trailers, empty pockets into dinner. We could live in the desert for weeks with no interaction with the outside. But we had crutches too, and I just now am wondering if I am too self-assured with too little reason.

What option was there, really? The road is no place for weaklings. If your skin is not thick enough the judgment of others will hurt. If you cry, they will pounce and devour you. If you put yourself in a situation, you might deserve what comes to you. You must be prepared for every aspect of the human condition, the animal condition too. Killers and thieves walk among us, and the herd must stay close and circle, ever watchful, around the young ones in the center.

Don’t talk to people you don’t know.

Don’t tell anyone anything, ever. Keep your mouth shut.

Don’t believe what they tell you. They’re out to get you, every one of them.

Cops and the government are ripping us off!!

If they ask you questions at school, don’t answer them.

Stay put, don’t whimper, little foxes. The den is the only safe place.