Roads on Her Face #43: Mom Speaks

I think that, didn’t’ I tell you I met your dad in 78. Then we traveled a little bit and ended up living in Tucson a few months. SO the summer of 79 I just realized is when we went to Alaska, so we talked about that. And that was probably September. We had a little bit of money so I think we backpacked around, we must have ended up somewhere in the southern part of the states, probably southwest because it was warmer.

Did you hitchhike?

Yeah, we did hitchhike some. Took the train, couple of places, Amtrak, I don’t think we ever took the bus. It’s kind of all blurry then but I remember somehow we ended up in Lee Vining, were there for a while with this older couple Blanche and Frank, I forget their last names. And we got hired on in Mammoth Lakes at the Motel 6. And that’s, I was pregnant with you already. So it was just a little village back then, I’m sure it’s grown quite a bit since then, it’s become a big resort town. But it was nice, we had a room and a hot plate we cooked our meals on, I craved hot fudge sundaes. There was a little ice cream bar across the street.

I love ice cream, so it must have been me.

Laughs. There were a couple of nice girls there, one was an Indian girl we became pretty good friends. She was working there too.

Indian from India?

No Native American. And of course that job ended, I got tired easily and I was starting to show by then I think. And I don’t know where we went from there, I have no idea.

Well you ended up in Lake Havasu.

Yeah, and we ended up living in a bus. So I think we probably went to Quartzsite from there, because I think that’s where we acquired the bus.

Had dad been there before, was he circling around to all these places like Quartzsite, or…

I think he had already traveled that route. Course they had big swap meets there in the winter and you can live on nothing.

How did he figure out this lifestyle? It’s not something his dad did so..?

No definitely not. I don’t know he was a drifter when I met him.

And that was after the war, right, Vietnam?

Yeah he just couldn’t, stay in one place for long, couldn’t settle down, things would get a little too tough with responsibilities or schedules and he’d just take off and go somewhere else.

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Roads On Her Face #40: All I Ever Wanted Was Room

My diary tells me all I wanted was my own room. A place that didn’t move. People who knew me, boys who looked at me and wanted me and asked for my number. Only I’d never had a number. The only telephones we used were pay phones, at a corner behind the casino in Winnemucca while the dust blew by and the clouds settled in, while Dad played cards and drank somewhere inside and we sat outside and tried to be still and patient, tempers growing thin and us fidgeting, hungry. In front of a Bashas’ grocery store in Parker, Arizona, from the safety of a grocery trip that got Mom and I away from the desert on our own for a whole day to civilization, ice cream, the library. She’d check in on Granny, call her friend back in Georgia. Let them know we were still alive – did they wonder how long? But she’d made her own choices, they’d say, shaking well-coiffed Southern heads and not even trying to understand. She always was a little wild, that Mary. I didn’t know the wild Mary existed. All I’d ever seen was a sweet cowed woman that loved us more than anything.

Kids don’t know any better. They’re programmed to want to conform, to fit in, to survive in the herd and not be noticed. If I’d continued on the road as a teenager, if we’d kept going while I decided who I was going to be I would never have been able to stop. I know it in my bones. They say “You’d still be on the road, baby. You’d be somewhere in South America by now. On your way to China.” And I ache to be that person that I might have been. The person that I am feels hollow, too light to pull myself free from the clay of the earth and the roots growing round my feet. I imagine the flutter of leaves breaking free from branches, the flight of each one flashes of tiny freedoms and bursts of joy.

Roads on Her Face #37: A State of Being

Does it make any sense to speak of the road as a place, as a state of being? Long-haul truckers will recognize the feeling. Bus drivers recognize their office. The vagrants and vagabonds of the world know. It is a constant state of flux, of change passing outside the windows of your sealed-off little universe. It is the thrum of tires underneath you, the ticking of miles rolling through the odometer. The smell of gasoline, French fries, dirty clothes. A stiff, sore butt. It is the feeling that any second you can get back in the car and drive, to anywhere, for as long as you want. It is unmoored, exciting, and frightening. I feel complete ease only when driving somewhere, anywhere, my thoughts at their clearest and my emotions at their most known.

As a kid all you want is to be like everybody else, desperate to fit in and be accepted. I would imagine other families, my face pressed close to the glass of a car window as we passed some evening, the red sun sinking behind skylines of cities that we wouldn’t remember.

The people in those families, pulling up chairs around a dinner table, everyone’s rooms waiting for them after they ate. These unknown people with their normal lives, with friends and phones and parents with a plan. My parents’ planning involved maybe knowing where we would stop for the night, and a rough sketch for the next couple of days. The man with the plan, had a plan to have no plan. Planning was for dipshits, for all these sheep. He wanted to be the wolf among them. Momma’s plan was to take care of her children, to keep them fed and hope they might have some kind of life when all of this was done. Because she knew, somewhere down the line, it would be done.

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.

Roads on Her Face #24: Low-Rollers in Vegas

We used to roll in late at night, us kids pressed to the windows and staring at the beautiful lights, the Venus-fly-trap city surrounded by real life and the destitute.

I’d been to Vegas many times before I turned 21. I didn’t know the Vegas of the movies or the late-night sinners, though. I knew the Vegas of dark empty parking lots, seedy outskirts and Circus Circus.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I get disembarking from a plane in the airport there, with the omnipresent ching-ching-ching of the slots, the red-eyed smoking grannies tugging quilted bags full of lost hope, the weekend strippers in Juicy sweatpants and too much makeup. It’s a high, knowing I’ll have a story to tell when I leave, a bad-ass party weekend where I cut to the front of lines, floating around on youth and short skirts. But underneath that lies the knowledge that behind the shiny façade of the strip are the back-alleys off Fremont Street, and farther back in the city away from the tourist traps are the steak-house strip clubs open all night, where the fat old girls that can’t make money at the Spearmint Rhino play slots until 1 a.m.  and barely look up when the front door creaks open. Behind the knowledge of my present youth lies the knowledge that it won’t last much longer.

The homeless shelters are packed full here, and most of the bums sleep in deserted buildings or behind the truck stop. We used to roll in late at night, us kids pressed to the windows and staring at the beautiful lights, the Venus-fly-trap city surrounded by real life and the destitute. We would park in truck stops or far back in the dark parking lots of the old hotels and casinos, the ones that no longer paid a security guard to kick out anyone who wasn’t spending. When we came in with a nice trailer, maybe the Airstream and a presentable-looking van, they left us alone anyway because we might be retirees traveling the country and even now inside the too-cold casinos, preserving minutes of what was left of our lives with whiskey and video poker.

Dad would disappear when we got there, maybe for a day or only for several hours if his luck didn’t hold. Now I know you get free drinks sitting at a blackjack table, though then I didn’t even think about what he was doing. What money did he use? Was that our welfare check reduced to shiny chips on the plush green table? But we didn’t think about that, not then. We thought about how hot it was waiting in a van, how the day dragged by punctuated by flies or hopefully a walk to the gas station for something cold to drink. Mom never wanted to leave the trailer, knowing he could walk back out and want to leave in a second, pissed off and taking the anger out on her if she wasn’t ready to go. Furious if she wasn’t there to watch our shit.

But sometimes, sometimes he was lucky and he came out smelling of a good cigar with a wide grin on his tanned face. He’d have on his nice clothes and just-shined boots, and a wad of money in his pocket. He’d say “Come on kids, we’re staying here tonight,” and joy! That meant a room with real beds, a TV, a shower! We’d haunt the hallways of Circus Circus, the garish colors and clowns everywhere, giant lollipops the size of your head- how do you eat those anyway? I remember the motorcycle spinning in the cage, I was sure there was no way the daredevil would stay on it, no way he would be able to slow down. I remember the trapeze artists high above our heads, remember wondering if that flimsy little net would keep them from dying broken among the crowds of upturned faces. And in the morning we would leave early, before it was hot, the day dawning sullen and the future not as bright as the one we’d just left behind.

I went into Circus Circus a few years ago with a girlfriend. The carpet smelled of old milk and too many years of cigarettes to be a place meant for kids. And it never was, of course – like anything in Vegas, a trap. A place to lose your money and drink, smoke and whore – this one was just decorated with childlike things. Looking over the railing in the center arena where the circus performers were, I saw piles of cigarette butts, inches of dirt and popcorn and probably vomit. The paint was peeling, the cocktail waitresses wore masked smiles but their eyes were full of hell. It was Fear and Loathing, and all I wanted were drugs to make it bearable.

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.