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 #32: It Wasn’t All Bad

Things I admire about my dad (he’s still kicking around, but the man I knew is probably different from the one today, hence the past tense):

  • He didn’t give a shit about you, or me, or anyone, if it didn’t suit his fancy.
  • He was a stylin’ dude. Black snakeskin boots, shades, slicked-back hair and muscles. I might have picked him up on the side of the road, too, if he’d had his thumb out and I wasn’t his daughter.
  • No one dared to give him shit. He thought he was a hard ass, and so did everyone else. He wasn’t scared of you, your mom, or your big Russian mobster brother. He somehow managed to portray a personality larger than life, bigger than his problems, much stronger than himself and all of his 5-foot-6-inches.
  • He ruled by fear with a fist of absolute power. We can all aspire to such heights of total dictatorship.
  • No matter where we were or what we were doing, he could handle it. He could fix any engine, patch together any broken thing, talk himself into a job, or ask someone for money. His minions had complete faith in his abilities and never doubted him, except when he was drunk or in jail.
  • He didn’t need much. He could live just fine with a backpack of odds and ends and a .44 in his jeans. He taught us all how to live sparely.
  • He’s got amazing genetics. His whole family is beautiful, high cheekbones, dark hair, strong bone structure.
  • Somehow, he learned the survivalist skills of Bear Grylls and could take off into the desert for weeks living off the land. Maybe it was growing up with 14 siblings that made him closer to our caveman roots. Grabbing food when you can, working your butt off, just surviving, surrounded by the needy mouths of your pack.
  • He’s a well-educated guy without ever going to college. He read constantly, Updike and conspiracy theory and Slocum and Rolling Stone and the Bible.
  • He is somehow able to go through life without taking responsibility for any of the things he causes, genuinely believing that none of it is his fault. It must be easy to live like that. Or maybe he’s a good faker.
  • He’s a virile little shit. Like the rest of his family, he spreads his seed like wildfire and his offspring pop up in his wake as if sprung from the dirt. There is no fear that his family tree will fall in the foreseeable future.
  • People follow him as if he were a disciple. He has strong ideas expressed with such utter belief in the truth of his words that it is difficult to doubt him. He could easily convince droves to drink his Kool-aid if he wanted to.
  • He always has done what he wanted, when he wanted, and never let anything stand in the way of that. I find myself often doing things I don’t want to do these days, and then I think of him. I wonder- has he ever been happy? Has living this way made him happy? I think not. I think he would say he has never chased being happy. But then what the hell has his life been for? What are any of our lives for?
  • He loves strongly, even if that means he runs away from it. I never doubted that he loved me. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t matter and it is not enough.

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 #23: Spraying Bullets

Boom! I started awake to the sound in the middle of the dark Arizona night. We were living out at Jim’s place again, this time with a pretend-permanency that included chickens, two dogs, and a goat named Mary. Dad had been drinking more than usual, so he took one of the discarded camper shells out of the junkyard and moved it with the wrecker to the other side of the wash. Our trailer was parked under the metal ramada Dad had built, the one I kept calling the armada. Two words, one meaning shelter and the other army, but so easily mixed up.

Dad was living in the camper most of the time because he and Mom fought so much when he wasn’t. The camper had a bed, but of course no plumbing or electricity unless he took our little gas-powered generator over so he could have lights for a while to read his Slocums or the latest war histories. Gas was precious, and we had to drive 40 miles on a dirt road to get it. We generally used kerosene lanterns, flashlights, and battery-powered radios. Our outdoor refrigerator was powered by propane, and it was never opened unless absolutely necessary.

The radio was always on. Dad liked to listen to Stephanie Miller, some bitchy LA radio talk show host that his silver Magnavox could pick up as the sun started to go down. It was different to hear him talk about a woman in a positive way, to hear him say she was funny or just to watch him drink beer and stare off into space as he listened quietly to a female voice. Mostly what he would say about women was encompassed in common phrases like “She must be on the rag,” or “Somebody should tell that cunt to keep her trap shut.” He liked Stephanie, though, and she may have been the first woman in the public eye, besides Linda Rondstadt, that I’d heard him say he liked.

We all usually hung out in listening distance when Dad listened to the radio, because it was habit for all of us to orbit around each other like tiny planets. We didn’t even notice we were doing it, it was just the way things were. When you are your own tribe, that’s what you do.

One night Stephanie Miller was talking about peeing. She giggled in her husky voice, and said that sometimes when she has to pee, she had to tickle herself “down there” to make the pee come. I wouldn’t have thought much about it, except that Dad almost choked on his beer.

He laughed, and wiped the suds from his whiskers. Loud enough so my mom would hear, he said “Damn, she must have one tight ass. Has to tickle herself to pee.” He chuckled, his smile-hiding beard radiating amusement.

Mom must have grinned halfheartedly and gone back to cooking dinner, and they probably forgot about it in the next ten minutes. Somehow it stuck with me. Was it good to be tight? What does a tight ass mean? Is it hard to poop, too? I tried tickling myself to pee, and it did seem to help. Later I figured out he’d meant it in a sexual way and felt stupid. Of course, of course.

When I awoke to the sound of the .357 Magnum, because that’s the only thing that night-shattering sound could have been, I felt the rest of my family breathlessly awake and listening too. The nights out in the desert are so quiet that any unusual sound would disturb your slumber, from mice rustling to far-away screams of a mountain lion.

“Maybe he shot himself,” Mom whispered, and half-laughed. I thought about this for a second. I didn’t feel much about it either way, and I rolled back over and went to sleep. We all did. There was no point in walking out in the dark, stumbling over cactus to see what had happened. We would know in the morning.

He hadn’t shot himself, but almost. He told us all the story when he came back over to the ramada for breakfast. “I must have been asleep, and I reached over and grabbed my gun and pointed it at my face and pulled the trigger,” he said, incredulous, laughing, another near-miss and here he was still standing, his heart still beating. What he said made sense because it was the middle of summer, and so hellishly hot that we kept household spray bottles filled with water next to our beds at night. If we woke up, our bodies dry and motionless from the heat, we would spray precious water toward the roof of the trailer and let tiny cool kisses of water mist down and allow us to fall asleep again. To a beer- and sleep-addled brain, spray bottle trigger and gun trigger might well have seemed analogous.

He’d thought he was just spraying his face with water, but the bullet missed his head, blew a golf-ball-sized splintered hole in the camper wall and only made the ringing in his ears louder.

Roads on Her Face #22: Town Kids

There was a big difference between town kids and us. A gaping chasm, in fact, if you asked us. Town kids were afraid to get dirty. Us, we jumped in mud puddles with both bare feet. Town kids were soft, and ate too much candy. We were hard, with leather soles able to run through patches of goathead stickers with abandon. We ate beans and rice. Town kids sat lazy butts in front of the TV all day, while we roamed wild through the desert or forest or on lucky occasions, near the ocean. Town kids needed someone to entertain them, they lacked imagination. While we, when Dad said “Go amuse yourselves,” we had hours and days of complicated games and storylines – we were horses and cowboys, we built entire cities where certain trees and rocks were buildings (the jail, the store, our houses), we had clubs and threw parades and were the heads of armies. In the desert, we built swirling labyrinths delineated by stones and walked through them as if we could not see their outcomes without walls. We had friends in the trees and magical beings all around us.

Yes, I am the oldest, and much of the wild imagination came from the overload of books I’d consumed already. The other kids followed me because they had no other friends, and because my age and the fact I often had to watch them made me default leader. When they were older and off with their own crowds, other boys, I missed them though I might not have realized it at the time. My little sister doesn’t remember most of those wild free times, being the baby and not included in the complicated little hierarchy we had established in those road-days. She was 4 or 5 when we settled in New Mexico. I think she feels like she missed out, in a way, and maybe she did.

When we wanted to insult each other, we might call each other town kids, or maybe dweeb or dork, because those weren’t on the list of forbidden insults that might get a swipe from the belt around Dad’s waist. We came up with some of our own names, like “weed” or filthy little wretch, and those were worst and stung the most. We had fistfights, for a while, until we stopped. We shot each other with BB guns and stabbed each other accidentally with knives, and decided not to rat each other out to the grownups. Rowdy and I ganged up on Reno, and he and Rowdy ganged up on me. Sophie was the baby, the outcast that we didn’t want to have tag along. She turned out to be one of the coolest of us, though, tough and self-assured. She has us and the trickledown meanness of our clan to thank for that.

We didn’t speak about our parents much when we were off alone. It was unspoken that Dad was in charge, and that Mom got picked on the way Sophie did. When they fought, more often in the latter days, we merely made ourselves scarce and kept quiet, not wanting to draw any of the overflowing cauldron of ire our way. We protected each other from outsiders, knowing what it felt like to be broken from the herd and left alone to face strangers, the way antelope are picked by lions from the outskirts of their crowds of brethren.

The road and the way of life left lasting scars and opened minds (it calls me insistently, all the time). I like the person it made me, the inner toughness it left, the appreciation for everything it instilled. I hope my brothers remember it always, and I hope they’ve gained some of what I did from the experience. I thank my dad for that, if nothing else. He gave us a start in this life that most people never dream of.

I still think we’re better than the town kids.

Roads on Her Face #18 Touchstones

People can be touchstones, as well as places. There are those who, when you reach out for them, are anchors in this constantly changing sea of time and place.

People can be touchstones, as well as places. There are those who, when you reach out for them, are anchors in this constantly changing sea of time and place. As the type of girl who always had my nose buried in a book, my preferred method of contact was writing letters. Besides not having a phone with which to just give people a call, it was always easier to express myself with time to think and a pen and paper in front of me, ideas coming more freely and no awkward half-formed social skills to rely on. It makes me sad that no one writes letters anymore, only because they meant so much to me through the years. There were people who wrote back to me, who stood as touchstones and took the time to make me feel as if I did have friends, as if I were not so alone, as if I were not strange. There was Heidi, the bookmobile lady in Mammoth Lakes, California, who was floored when this little wood-nymph child from the campground read every single summer program book on her list and wrote book reports for her to be proudly presented each time she parked the long white bus in its weekly spot. There was Jacci, my oldest and first friend and the only one my age. There were Wes and Elaine, the couple with their little ranch in the foothills of Nevada. They may have looked at me with pity, but they also had hopes for me. I know they knew that I would have to make my own chances in life, that starting out in life homeless too often leads to drug addiction, or jail, or hopeless-to-useless-to-nothing. I think they wondered what would happen to me, and that they wished they could help me succeed. They did, even if they don’t know it.

Driving to Burning Man for the first time on my own, I stopped at the Stagecoach casino off Highway 95 next to the gas station with an old photo of a little boy on its sign. As I entered the dark, smoke-scented bowels of the casino I saw my dad for a second with a beer in his hand, leaning against the bar in front of the ex-prostitute bartender with only a few teeth and none of her dignity left. I remembered the hopeful feeling I’d get when we rolled into Beatty after a long stint on the road, or after money had gotten tight and we needed a place where Dad could work for a while. Wes always gave him a job doing something on the ranch. He loved me, and he’d let me tag along to the chicken coop or would take me out to the greenhouse where I could pick fresh tomatoes warm from the vine. One time he bought me a purple Huffy mountain bike that I somehow held on to for years, across miles and states and while we had a place to stash it in the trailer. At some point, it was left when the trailer was left.

Wes and Elaine were right next door to a brothel with a crashed plane as a signpost. I’d always peer down the dirt road to the red building hidden in the trees and try to catch a glimpse of a whore. What was it like for those women? What would it be like to sell yourself all day?

I walked slowly through the casino, a dizzying sense of déjà-vu slowing my usually fast pace. A flash of me getting caught beneath a rickety merry-go-round and being dragged in a circle while the flesh tore from my thigh, the faint memory of Wes filming us kids playing in his front yard, my dad soaking in the hot springs at the Beatty trailer park. All of the letters through the years, the cow Wes named after me, the glances I would catch Elaine giving me that almost looked like jealousy. He had his own kids, but they were gone.

I sat in the café in the back of the Stagecoach and had coffee, listening to the servers chat about town gossip and stare at the tourists. I didn’t see much that had changed, but when I drove by the ranch I remembered Wes had died and Elaine had moved away. The place looked the same, the strong old cottonwoods rustling their coin-leaves over a bright spot in my childhood, over the earthy smell of the chickens and the peace I would feel there.

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.