Roads on her Face #38: Grandpa

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.

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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 #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?

We are all looking for ou…

We are all looking for our fathers in some way, hunting the man in black across the empty plains. Whether we seek God, or answers, we think if we could just find him he might tell us that everything will be OK.

We are all looking for our fathers in some way, hunting the man in black across the empty plains. Whether we seek God, or answers, we think if we could just find him he might tell us that everything will be OK.

Roads on her Face #6: Jim’s Place

I followed him anyway, afraid of his drunkenness but willing to take the chance for his love.

I knew when he got this way it was a toss-up- he could be caring, he could listen to a child’s small day of stories, or he could tell you to shut your mouth and get him another beer. He could be one, then the other, too, so being around him was balancing a plate on your head- an expensive plate, one someone else had paid for. The rocks crunched beneath army boots, and the heartbeat in my head muffled my own quiet footsteps. The hot desiccated desert radiated reflections of bare mountains around the little valley, bounced rays off the broken windshields of the junkyard. Green oxidized pieces of glass and rusted metal littered the pale silt dirt, dirt made dirtier with human shedding. This place was far as you could go down a dirt road, away from the people who hated my dad, away from the evils of society and the government and disease-ridden cities. He told us about the government, and how they’d screwed him in Vietnam. I heard vague references to Agent Orange, and how his bones hurt at night until he had to drink it away.

The man who owned this place weighed five hundred pounds- as much one of the half-ton trucks wrecked in piles on the yard.  Jim would heave his mass out of the blue van with the lift on the side, and the specially-made seat so that he could press himself against the steering wheel and still drive. Everywhere he went a sour smell followed, the smell of sweat and milk and too many doughnuts. When he would come to check on us, maybe once a month, he would sit in one of the backseats we had pulled from one of the junked cars for him. His throne- with its broken seatbelts still dangling. Sometimes my brothers would dare each other to smell it after he had gone, collapsing in disgusted giggles when they discovered that the smell of his gargantuan ass lingered there, for hours. I smelled it once, and was sick in one of the creosote bushes. I imagined what it would be like to smell like that. Would you know it, or would it encroach on your senses slowly, so that you never knew? I guessed his wife didn’t care anymore.

Jim kept a travel trailer on the junkyard lot, a nice one with a generator and a TV. We were too far from anything to have running water, and we used kerosene lamps at night in our own small trailer, and propane for our stove and refrigerator. In the swelling heat, we marched the mile to Jim’s trailer. I felt the beads of sweat drop down my spine, pulling my hat low over my eyes to stop them from burning. I was silent, thinking maybe he had forgotten about me.

“You all right, kid?” He turned then, and I saw the sweat in his beard and behind his sunglasses. He hadn’t forgotten.

I nodded, and focused on my feet, one in front of the other, leaning in to the heat as if it was cotton. It was probably 120 degrees today, at least. You learned to take things only a second at a time, out here, because to think of more than one was unbearable. Exist, only exist, until the cool blessed sigh of night descended, with its myriad stars, the smells of the flowers that could only open at night. They just existed too.

Finally the trailer loomed above us, impossibly large to a little girl whose family of six lived in one half its size. It was unlocked, and we walked in to heat that felt twice as bad as outside, stifling and stale.

He came back and sat across from me, popping open a beer he’d pulled from the propane-powered fridge.  “Nice, eh?” I nodded again at him, not wanting to talk and spoil his mood.

He sank back in his chair, taking off his hat and glasses, and we waited for the air to cool together, waited for things to be bearable.

“I’m gonna start the generator, and get the AC going. Turn on the radio.” He was always short with words, but I was thankful that he wasn’t yelling. I scooted delicately back into one of the plush La-Z- Boys, careful that my dirty pants didn’t soil the clean fabric. I turned the radio to the only station we could get out here, far from transmitters or repeaters. It was news all day; and sometimes old shows like The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger. When those came on, we sat around, rapt, the way kids in the 50s must have when those first came out. The generator flapped into life, and I momentarily thought of my mom and siblings listening to it in the heat, dreaming of air conditioning. Its first hot breath licked the side of my face, prurient and vile.

I watched him from the corner of my eye, and something struck me as I did. His face was unlined, boyish from a new haircut, aged only by the beard. His eyes flicked up to catch mine, and suddenly I was sorry for him.

Roads on Her Face #3 – The Unwriteable Dad Part #1

I wouldn’t call him a bad guy. He’d describe himself as mysterious, the cocky little bastard. He’s that kind of guy. Black Ray-Bans, rockstar hair. Too cool to care. It would make him happy if you said, “Now that Ed, he’s an enigma. Can’t figure him out.” But it doesn’t take that long to figure him out, though his motives might never be clear. He loves Clint Eastwood, DeNiro, all the paragons of cool. He likes big guns, and loud trucks, and women. He’s smooth, like the rest of his brothers. When a bunch of Roethles get together, the panties drop. Panties just can’t withstand the onslaught of so much testosterone in those little rooster-like men, the swaggering, hard-partying German/Irish with a taste for action and those sharp cheekbones and thick dark wavy hair. They’re all either criminals or cops. Grandpa had 15 kids with his tiny Irish bride, one after the other falling out like clowns from a two-seater car. Grandpa taught his boys well, with his quick temper and hard-line rules. I never saw him then, only knew him as a benevolent patriarch who would preside at family gatherings with a glass of vodka and the propensity to pop out his teeth in an attempt to scare little me. It didn’t work, teeth don’t scare me even if they’re not in their proper mouth.

I heard stories of the brothers terrorizing the nuns in Catholic school, something about peanut butter pressed into organ keys, and imagine those boys running roughshod over old ladies armed only with rulers and sharp tongues. From what I understand they had it tough at home, poor enough to consider bread and gravy dinner and never to be quite warm enough in the Minnesota winters. I’ve seen a few old sepia-toned photos of the family then; tall, handsome, angular Grandpa next to his tiny wife, the twinkle in his eyes reflected in the mischief shining from three little boys’ faces, their mother’s look of calm detachment mirrored by one sister. Behind them you can make out a small farmhouse, and then the background fades. The boys all wear hats with fuzzy flaps, my aunt who was the lone girl in the photo noting that they all had terrible earaches when they were young. Hmm, me too.

I wish I knew more about all of them. Most of what I’ve gleaned has been second-hand, through stories circulated among relatives, passed to me in the few instances I’ve gotten to spend time with my extended family. When you grow up place-less you’re always looking for roots, I think. It’s hard to know where you come from when you’ve never seen it. Neither of my parents know much about their own families, beyond two generations. Something in both of them seemed to want to detach, to start fresh on their own. You can’t ever escape family, though, whether it be the earaches passed down through blood or the specter of alcoholism.

I avoided the alcoholism, so far. Lucky, I guess. I vaguely remember my dad before he was drinking, straight white teeth and the little prickly hairs on his chest where I would take naps, the sweat melding my cheek with his skin.  I don’t remember him yelling, or angry, though the earliest dream I remember featured a soft feminine face with soothing words, on a black background, over me as if I was in a crib, then suddenly a howling evil man face would appear. It is the most terrifying dream I’ve ever had. I wonder if there was more strife than I remember consciously.