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 #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.