I did go visit him partly for self-serving purposes, partly because I might could write him onto a page and feel as if I understand him better, give him a more real place in my life and in my story. One visit won’t do that, of course, and so I will go visit him again. He’s 90, living now in a tiny town near the Arizona/Mexico border, a town with one restaurant and a fast-food joint and a whole hour from his VA hospital. I can easily imagine myself in his shoes, all alone and waiting to see which year of the next 10 will be his last. Which of these breaths will suddenly stop? I know how quickly I will be there looking back. I hope someone will visit me then, and I partly go to build up stock in my karma bank for when I’m old too.
But visiting him was a wealth of surprises and feelings, stories I’d never heard and someone else’s explanations for things that were wrong. The more explanations I hear the more I feel as if I could draw a thread out of all of them that would be closest to the true beginning of the cloth, the one true explanation woven of pieces of all explanations.
I remembered him as a smiling presence, a husky soft laugh like my dad’s, vague memories of him taking out his false teeth and clacking them at me, liquor on his breath and that ha, ha, ha; Grandma with her louder cackling laugh and smell of cigarettes, all of them laughing at these teeth and me looking at him with no expression the way I often did. I always liked him well enough.
I decided to visit Grandpa since I’m living close to him again, for a few years signed on to the ebb and flow of the desert, the way it brings me closer to the younger me, to the family we had that passed for nuclear, to the traveling and the moving of my dreams each night. To the empty howl of a train, the night sounds of crickets and whippoorwhils and the dark silhouettes of saguaros against brilliant jewel-toned Arizona sunsets. To what passes for home.
I called him once and got the answering machine, leaving him a message that I’d call him after work. “This is- this is your granddaughter. James’s daughter,” I said, picturing him knitting his brows on the other end and trying to pick out which of his 50 grandchildren this could be. When I called later that afternoon, he picked it up right away as if he’d been sitting beside it staring at it, willing his hearing aide to work.
So, ahem, yeah- what happened to this little blog of mine? I guess I have to get my ass in gear, kinda.
For your viewing pleasure is the actual photo from Roads on Her Face: The Safari Photo. Her very nice note on the back indicates that any of suspicions I had about her were most likely wrong. I mean, I AM usually the one making things up about other people.
Mom let me take it and scan it, barely- I think it’s one of her favorites. Note: Me, perpetually with a book in hand- and Soph with a fistful of dollars from somewhere.
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.
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.