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 #17: Army of Saviors

I try to give money to the Salvation Army whenever I can. It’s never enough, I always feel it should be more. There are a lot of so-called charities out there, but the Army is one of the few I feel use their money for helping people instead of padding the salaries of the mucky-mucks at the top. I’m biased, though, from listening to my parents when they talked about the easiest places to get free food or a shelter on a rainy night. The Salvation Army wouldn’t ram religion down your throat or anything, they would quietly help in whatever way they could without harshly passing judgment. They gave me clothes and Christmas presents, served me warm food on Thanksgiving. They had kind smiles, and you could feel they meant what they said when they said “You’re welcome.” When their shelters are full, they try to find you a motel room and that was always the best.

When the bored Santas stand ringing their bells on a streetcorner, I always search my purse for cash or write them a check that I can slip quietly into that red pot of hope. A little here, a little there, like a prayer of thanks.

Homeless shelters have a ranking system, from the good ones that gave you toys and games and a nice room with a door, to the ones that made you wish you were sleeping outdoors away from the smells, away from the old lady that sat in a plastic chair and stared at you as if you were a slice of pizza. Some of them would let you stay for a few weeks, especially a family with children, while they helped you find a job and while you pretended you wanted one. Most of them would close up in the middle of the day, providing a place to sleep and kicking you out into the world after breakfast. We would spend the days in parks, in Boise, Idaho, in Spokane, Washington, in Duluth or St. Cloud, Minnesota. I would pick grass, lying on my back staring at sky blue skies, a book open on my chest and a deep, satisfied sigh. I liked being out of the wilderness, around civilization. I liked having a real bed and a shower, even if it was shared by other people in a long hall that looked like old college dorms. There was always hope, that maybe we would stay here. Maybe I would go to a school with an art program, a library, with students and teachers and that imaginary “normal life.” The real yearning for that didn’t kick in until middle school age, when I got tastes of school and friends and society at different schools around the country. I was tired of just us, of our little insulated world away from everything else. The important stuff, I imagined.

Now that I have had all those things, I look back fondly and wonder what it would have been like if things had never changed. I would probably still be where I am, now, if they hadn’t, an escapee from freedom.

Roads on Her Face #12: Rowly’s Hurt!

Karl’s mobile home had a peculiar odor, of damp carpets scented with week-old macaroni and cheese, partially caused by the swamp cooler exhaling dank breaths into his dark trailer and partially caused by actual macaroni and cheese. It was an older trailer, with deep shag carpets made especially for smell retention. Whoever had it before Karl had been a smoker and the yellowed drapes and wood paneling both smelled of the ghost of smoke. But Karl had a shower, so Mom made it a point to be friends with him. I have a feeling he couldn’t believe his luck. We’d left Dad next to a smoking campfire somewhere in northern Arizona, with his SKS rifle and a bag of clothes. He’d told us to go ahead and leave him, get the fuck out. So we had. It was the first time we had really left him for longer than a day or two.

Already I was feeling the faint sense of escape, of hope. Mom had called Granny and told her we’d finally left Ed, and Granny was so relieved she loaned her the money to buy a trailer. A retired Canadian couple who were done with the open road sadly sold Mom their Airstream for $6,000. They were happy to be giving us a home, but they had cared for their trailer well and you could tell they had filled it with love. The man had cut little desert shapes from pieces of plywood and used it to decorate the overhead bins, the Airstream bins built like the ones over your seat in an airplane. The cactus was a little off, and the coyote was out of proportion, but he had spent time on his artwork and we never took them down. When the check came in the mail, Mom let each of us hold it. We looked at all the zeros after the dollar sign and held the paper reverently, knowing we would never see such a sight again.

In less than a month, Mom had gotten us a home, moved us into a trailer park in Needles, California, and enrolled Rowdy and me in public school. She stayed home with the two little ones, but she was looking for a job to augment the government support. We had lived in a car for long enough, with all six of us, and the freedom of the space in the trailer to stretch out at night, the electricity that gave us fans to use in the heat, all of it was almost too much. I was afraid to enjoy it, afraid every minute that it would all be snatched away and Dad would be back and sell it all and take us into the middle of nowhere again. I developed a Dad-crush on my 6th grade teacher, in the school that I could walk to from where we lived. We lived somewhere! I was going to school! At that age all I wanted was to be normal, to have friends, to stay in one place long enough to finish a whole grade. I knew we were not normal, and then there was everyone else. People with homes, and normal families, and parents with jobs, and kids with their own rooms. That was my biggest dream, a room where I could close the door and not have to smell my brothers’ farts and where I could hang my drawings on the wall. Where I might have a quiet place to read, and to write.

My homeroom teacher, Mr. Kincaid, was so kind, and he talked to us like we were human instead of bugs bothering him, the way conversations with Dad had gotten to be. Dad must have been itching to get away from us, the responsibility and the daily nagging concerns of this big family in this small space crumbling his self-control. It showed in his snappishness, his anger, his escalating drinking. He was accusing Mom of wanting to cheat on him, of wanting other guys, of looking at other people, though she was always with us and he was the one who came home late from the bar or never came home at all, showing up in the morning with red lipstick stains on his collar and laughing when Mom asked him about it.

Mr. Kincaid was smiley, and had a short well-groomed dark beard. He looked like a kind of man I didn’t know, a new kind of man and it was a revelation to see how he treated people. All men were not mean. It didn’t have to not be manly to be kind. Until then I had taken for granted that men were gruff, and hard, and stern, and men did what they wanted when they wanted and didn’t take no shit from nobody. Mr. Kincaid seemed like he might take some shit, and then he might sit you down to talk about it instead of beating your ass with a leather belt. I wasn’t sure that this would work with boys, who everyone knew could get out of control, but I thought it was a novel approach and might work with girls.

I made a friend, too, a strange gawky girl named Annie who was a Mormon and who lived in the trailer park next to ours. They lived in a nice trailer, one that was mounted to the ground and had a patio outside and that didn’t even look like a trailer. It could have been a house. Plus, she had her own room.

All I knew about Mormons was that they had a weird religion, and that there were a lot of them in Utah. I knew they hired retarded people, because we would go through Salt Lake City sometimes and all the stores had people working in them with Down’s syndrome or crippled legs. I knew they were nice, because they gave Dad a job last time we had gone through, and then they let us go into their huge store filled with food and new clothes and we got to pick what we wanted. There were big semi transport trailers outside that said “Deseret Industries” which I thought was fitting. We were from the desert, and they were helping us to start a new life, they said. I think Dad lasted a week there, and my hopes for that new life faded, the way I was used to hope fading. Quick, as if it had never been.

Karl was a strange bird. He might have been in love with Mom, too. I hadn’t noticed how many men loved Mom until Dan in Oregon. Dan had loved Mom so much Theresa and him had broken up. I thought it was strange. I had not paid much attention to the relationship between men and women, knowing I was not attractive and that it would be years before I had to worry about it. I read enough adult literature to know about it secondhand, and had no wish to complicate my life prematurely. But my mother’s attractiveness had escaped my notice. I saw a tired woman who wore no makeup and had worn thrift store clothes like the rest of us. I didn’t see the blonde, birdlike beauty who gave off the scent of “needing protection” though she had powered through life and come out stronger than most of the men who loved her.

One day Rowdy was riding his new-ish bike one-handed, a paper airplane tied on a string trailing next to him in the hot breeze of Needles. He was prone to focus on things to the point of forgetting everything else, even simple things like “Look where you’re going.” He looked up just in time to watch himself crash over the handlebars into a wooden post, the ones that told you what number your space was in the trailer park.

“Rowly!! Rowly! Mary, come quick Rowly is hurt!” We heard Karl howling outside, and Mom rushed out to find her oldest son with blood gushing down the side of his face. It wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst. Karl held his soft hands to the sides of his head, shaking it like a befuddled dog. His long hair and beard were tangled, because he didn’t have a woman to tell him to brush it. Mom could have told him, but that might have been too much like a relationship.

Rowly eventually stopped bleeding, and we didn’t go to the hospital because that cost too much money. Rowdy still remembers this, and will tell the story occasionally. “Mom, remember Rowly’s Hurt?” he will ask. And we will all laugh, and nod, and we will all say “Rowly.”

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.