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.

Roads on Her Face #8: The DTs

I was reading, as usual, lost somewhere in stories of dragons and princesses who were cared for by handsome princes, whose lives were filled with mystery and drama and excitement. Our camp was set up in one of the busier parts of the Quartzsite desert, out behind the Main Event swapmeet where the less anti-social desert rats parked so they could walk in to trade and bullshit with the vendors. We were anti-social, but Mom needed to walk to work.

This time we were in a station wagon, our last trailer disappearing in some trade because Dad needed cash. I was 8, an age I remember clearly because it was the year I had my first job where someone gave me money and not promises. I’d had the unpaid job of helping  mom with the other kids from the time each was born, though they’d argue that if you asked them. Babies don’t remember who changed their diapers, or dressed them, or spent their time preventing them from swallowing crayons. And they are never grateful.

My job consisted of shoveling horse crap behind the stagecoach that tourists paid to ride around the swapmeet, like in the real Old West. The driver, Ron, was a drunk, with a big red nose and a dirty black cowboy hat. He only tolerated me at first, but gradually grew to trust me and even let me drive the horses sometimes when they weren’t acting up. They got tired of standing all day in the sun, sometimes, and once the stagecoach ran away with customers inside and me sitting on the top clutching the railing and praying that the top-heavy thing didn’t pitch over and kill us all. I liked working for Ron, being close to the horses I’d always loved from the stories I read, like Black Beauty. I liked settling the pale tourists inside and closing the latch on the door after them, then hopping up on top of the coach and watching the dusty town from a vantage point above all the cheap Chinese toys and ugly southwestern potteries, above the tables creaking with the weight of rocks and the rusted tools that were still worth money because they were Snap-Ons. I liked wearing cowboy boots and the leather hair cuff with a horseshoe nail through the center that the leather vendor gave me, that he said was free as long as I told everyone where they could get them. Lots of vendors knew me, as they watched us circle lazily all day around the packed dirt roads, clop, clop, clop. Mom worked scooping ice cream at the general store, her right forearm and bicep bulging after long days scooping the frozen-hard 10 flavors for fat kids and fatter grannies. She would proudly flex her arm, saying “Look at how buff I am!” to make us laugh. Jesse, an old Indian man who wore turquoise and a long grey braid down his back, worked at the store as a cashier. He gave me things, too, usually when Mom wasn’t around. I would come home with pockets full of candy, necklaces and rings and small toy soldiers. He gave me anything I looked at in the store, even things I didn’t want. I became more selective, only picking up the things I really wanted so I could hear him say “Hey, take that why don’t you. That’s for you, you can have it.” He always watched me, solemnly, out of dark shiny eyes.

One day he told me that he thought things, about kissing, and not to tell anyone. Confused by that, I asked Mom later. She didn’t say anything, but I wasn’t allowed in the store without her anymore. I never thought about why that might be, or connected it to Jesse, but I wonder what happened behind the scenes. If Dad had known, it would have been ugly.

As I turned the pages, lost in my fantasy world, I heard a strange choked cry that brought me directly back to the reality of how life really was, the life that was ours, that still held drama but very little romance. All of us froze, staring at the station wagon where Dad had been taking a nap. His beard had grown long and grey, and he hadn’t cut his hair in months so it was nearly long enough to wear in a ponytail. He wore his Army fatigues, and a dingy old T-shirt. His eyes were staring and glazed, and he looked out at the sky.

“Get down!” he shrieked. “Get the fuck down!” His head disappeared behind the back door of the car. None of us moved, looking at each other and wondering if we should run away or stay put. Gurgling and agonized cries came from his hiding spot, and that spurred mom into action. She ran to his side, holding him while he tossed and moaned about helicopters and commanded that she get his gun.

“Penny, come here,” she waved at me, frantic. “Listen to me. You know where Jan works. I need you to go to her, as fast as you can, and ask her to call the ambulance, ok? Dad needs to see a doctor.” Jan worked across the highway at a gas station. We saw her and Bear whenever we came to Quartzsite. They were one of our regular stops, the way we had stops all over the country with people who offered us a place to park for the night, and let us use their showers, and gave us gifts at Christmas or hid Easter eggs for us if we were there in springtime.

I felt like the most important person in the world, higher even than when I rode around over people’s heads on the stagecoach. I took off directly, running and not stopping even when the pain in my side threatened to double me over. Those afternoons that I spent tearing around makeshift tracks, packed down by my feet around sagebrush and creosote that marked the circle, paid off. Dad always said I was born to be a runner. Adrenaline carried me most of the way, but it felt endless. I didn’t see anyone else, but they may have seen me tearing across the highway as I gasped and thought about what I would say to Jan. She would know what to do.

Her face froze as I burst into her store, and it took only seconds for me to spit out “Hospital” and “Dad.” I stayed with her as she made the phone call and drove me back to where we were camped. We were there in time to see him loaded into the back of an ambulance, thrashing and being held down by some big EMTs. He wasn’t gone very long, but we left Quartzsite soon after. Something about that event made it time to hit the road.

Mom had been proud of him, not drinking for months. He had bought her a silver bracelet with hearts, but she was mad at him at the time and he gave it to me instead. I thought her cold-hearted, and gave him a hug because he seemed so sad. I still have the bracelet. It always reminds me of the DTs.

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 #7: Love in Heaven

Oregon in the summertime is how I imagine heaven must be. The lush life surrounding you seems like decadence after the bare bones of the desert. Up north, the rain covers the bones with green skin and fur and everything is softened and curved, like a woman’s body. We got books from the library on edible plants and berries to make sure we wouldn’t die. Wherever we traveled, the library was always on the list of places we needed to scope out. It was the library that taught me to use a computer, because neither of my parents knew how. I spent hours sometimes playing Oregon Trail, where someone always died on the way out West, or Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?—Carmen’s footsteps dark and pixelated across the screen as she somehow always evaded capture.

We had the old Airstream, the one now parked and rusting behind my mother’s house in New Mexico. It was the newest, nicest trailer we ever owned, sold for cheap by an older Canadian couple whose wandering days were over. Mom had bought it, the time before the time that Dad was gone for good. She could have seen then that she was capable on her own, that she had the wits and the strength to do much better on her own than she ever did with him. He was holding her back, maybe because her success would highlight his failure as a parent or as a human being. But she didn’t, and our hiatus from the inexorable pull of his angry gravity wasn’t long enough.

I forget how we came to hear about the job. Dad must have met someone when we were camped out at Jim’s Place, 40 miles on a dirt road out in the desert outside of Bouse, Arizona. That was a place we returned more than once, another repetitive rest stop when the rest of our options had worn thin or fallen through for one reason or another – usually, “another” with my father’s stamp on it. We didn’t have computers or a phone, much less electricity, so the only way to contact us was usually to send mail addressed “General Delivery” to the approximate location where we had last been heard from. I wonder belatedly how many letters disappeared into the realm of unread mail, followed us just a little too slowly. And if any of those letters could have changed the road we were on. Because anything could change the road, at any time. The road was constantly in a state of flux, a rapidly rolling path littered with side streets, pitfalls, and supposed shortcuts. You never knew what was around that next hairpin curve, and that right there was much of the draw. One thing I learned quickly, is that you just never know anything.

The job was perfect for us, really. Mom and Dad were campground hosts at a forested campground on the Clackamas River outside of Estacada, in the northern part of the state just southeast of Portland. They had to stay for the summer, that was the deal. There were a few campground sites they were supposed to collect fees for, clean up, keep the bathrooms in working order, and in return we had beautiful riverside spot to park the trailer, forests full of trails, all the strawberries and thimbleberries you could eat. There was sour grass, blackberries, salads made from dandelion greens, blueberries, gooseberries, nettle tea. With all this food right out the back door, who needed to buy groceries? We had the usual food stamps, of course, but us kids would come home regularly stained berry-colored from our foraging. It wasn’t that we were hungry, we delighted in the abundance and imagined we could live out in the forest on our own forever. In the desert, you would most likely die. And the water! Our dry eyes and bodies soaked up the sight and feel of the cold, clear Clackamas. If we waded in our legs would immediately go numb, but we road inner tubes down to the whirlpool-bend in the river where it smacked up against a sheer rock face. If you climbed the face, you could look down into the crystalline flow and make out the shadowy shapes of giant catfish, reminders of an age when there were things out there that would eat you.

I think my brothers and I all fell in love that summer, falling for city girls and boys camping for the weekend and running with the “wild kids.” We must have seemed so strange to them, those pink-scrubbed kids with dads with jobs and moms who had a washing machine and conveniences like babysitters.

I fell in love with Randy, who must have been 19 or 20. I was probably 11. I never had time for the childish boys, who always seemed so…childish. I am a watcher, a watcher of people and their actions and an observer and cataloger. Randy reminded me of a Montana boy in a book I’d read, who wore Wranglers and a ball cap and worked on ranches in the summer. He smelled of cologne and he made my heart flutter. I never talked to him, but I yearned for some imaginary future with him in rolling fields surrounded by horses and log cabins. I watched him talking with my parents out by the campfire for a few nights, and I hid behind the screen of the Airstream and thought about what it would be like to have a real life. So this was love, this constant pang in your chest for something you could never have. This growing, this expanding into lobes of your body you hadn’t known existed. I brushed my waist-length hair at night and thought of him. He was gone in a few days, but I never forgot him. That summer marked a quiet shift in me, one where I began slowly emerging from my close little shell, from the place behind my eyes where I only watched. I started to feel the presence of the people around me, to dream of things I had only read about.

Pussy On Fire

D’Avina was feeing Doritos to the kitten. The kitten looked at her like she was batshit, but she daintily picked them up and crunch, crunch, crunch. The kitten’s face was orange but she was supposed to be grey.

“I always just feed her chips, ya know, like, cuz she like likes them,” D’Avina was twirling her greasy blonde hair vacuously round and round her hot pink manicure. She popped her gum like a champ. I was 9 years old and I knew this one would always be one shat short of a full pantsload. She must have been about 20, which seemed pretty old to me to be feeding chips to cats. I mean, I’d never had a cat but I was pretty sure I’d seen cat food at the store and it wasn’t in the same aisle as the chips.
Kitty Kitty finished her dinner and came to sit in my lap. She was a pretty smart kitty. I petted her and she purred and went to sleep. She had a tiny perfect face like a stuffed cat I’d had a few years back. That was before my brother had used it in the reenactment of a fiery car crash he’d seen on Dukes of Hazzard. (Not the General Lee, it never burned).

“You like Kitty don’t you sweetie? Well maybe when you’re big like me and you have a big strong man like Darrel he might buy you one for your birthday like Darrel did me. He’s just so sweet.” D’Avina popped her gum and got that faraway look in her eye. Wait, that was already there. Never mind.

Darrel was a big, ugly thug of a truck driver. He wore a belt buckle the size of Texas and had hair like a black fir tree. He wore a plaid shirt most of the time, and he had a mean look in his eye that made me avoid him the way I did my aunt that smelled like throw-up, but only when she was drinking sherry. Her name was Sherry.

“Uh huh,” I said because I’d been taught not to backtalk grown-ups unless I wanted a swift kick. Who wants one of those? All I knew was I hoped I never had a Darrel.

“Oh, there he is now!” D’Avina smiled her sticky lipgloss smile and showed her missing tooth. I always wondered what happened to it. Maybe a cavity.

I took Darrel’s big roaring truck noise outside as my cue to skedaddle. I’d be back that night to see if I could coax Kitty Kitty into coming outside to play with me. I had a ball of hair she might be interested in. My brother wasn’t anymore after I’d tied it to his shoe and told him to run because a spider was chasing him. I had about 3 good days of belly laughs out of that particular game. I still giggle every now and then when I remember the sheer terror in his round bulging eyes as that hair spider stayed exactly 5 inches away from him no matter how fast he ran. Man, I guess I was an asshole at 9.

About 10 pm when it was dark I snuck out of our Airstream trailer and slid through the dark like a ninja in pajamas. Darrel and D’Avina had a fire outside, and before I even got close enough to see them I heard Darrel yelling. He always sounded like a bullhorn, especially after he’d pounded enough Schlitz.
“You fuckin’ lil bitch!” He said, and tossed a beer can into the dark almost on my head. It was close enough to smell the piss-smell of the cheap brew. D’Avina wasn’t smiling now. She was turned mostly away from him and was staring out into the night. She did a lot of staring with those big blue cow-eyes. Kitty Kitty wasn’t into the yelling, I could tell. She cowered under D’Avina’s camp chair. She glared at Darrel like she wanted to kill him. I got to know her well over the next 18 years so I can safely say if she’d had a knife she’d have slit him dickhair to armpit in a second. If that cat had thumbs she would have ruled the world.”You listen to me you little CUNT!” Darrel spit, stumbling toward D’Avina. I didn’t move a muscle. I was good at ninja-ing and the nighttime never scared me. As long as it was dark I was safe.

Kitty Kitty hissed from under the chair, and D’Avina just cowered into a little ball like she knew what was coming. I don’t think she did this time, though, and Darrel snatched Kitty Kitty from under the chair and just chucked her right into the fire. I was already frozen but my breath stopped as she shrieked. She jumped so high she might have been a bird flying off into the night. D’Avina started sobbing and ran into their trailer, slamming the screen door after her, and Darrel took off after her like a drunk raging bull.Kitty Kitty found me in the dark, because cats can see better even than me. She had a couple of burns and no whiskers, but she was mostly ok. She was pissed off, though, and she growled her little growl the whole time as I cradled her in my arms and took her home with me. She slept with me that night, and next day Darrel and D’Avina were goners. They’d packed up and taken off in the night, and nothing could have made me happier. Me and Kitty Kitty always growled at dudes like that, from that point on.

Roads on Her Face #5: The Cah, 800, and Whut?

We were living in a station wagon again, all six of us. I must have been around 9 or ten. We’d rolled into Quartzsite, Arizona late the night before after a few weeks out in the desert. Quartzsite is like a yard sale on crack, crammed with what seems like miles of old snowbirds selling shit, and tables creaking under the weight of rocks. They sell a lot of rocks out there, also whirly-gig wind-catchers, plastic Chinese toys, and badly-painted southwestern ceramics. People with 1/18 Navajo blood from an ancestor in the 1800s who raped an Indian sell jewelry as “authentic Native American” for ten times what it’s worth. The place has a pall over it, a dust-colored veil that smells of desperation. Casual visitors can’t see it, instead seeing a place full of great deals and gems, but we were hardly casual visitors. It was a winter deal-making place for Dad, a place to rest and make some money selling guns, working for a month for someone, or wheeling and dealing the way he did. He wasn’t particularly outgoing, but he had a quiet powerful way of making people do what he wanted them to do. It wasn’t the smooth salesman gig, something darker like maybe he’d rough you up if you didn’t pay him what he wanted. We went to school in Quartzsite, once. The school had just opened and was full of desert rats like us, and maybe some of the grandkids of snowbirds. We weren’t the only ones getting the free lunch, this time, or the only ones with worn clothing and messy hair. They fed us that vile peanut butter pre-mixed with grape jam on limp white bread every day, until we finally couldn’t choke it down any longer and just went hungry at lunchtime.

We were all sitting and waiting for Dad, as usual, in the dirt parking lot of some junk salesman. He had a lot of cars parked around a trailer with clapboard wings added on. Us kids cracked the door to the station wagon and tried not to move, sweating and sticking to the seats anyway. The sun beat down already, though it was early in spring. The heat would soon drive the snowbirds north, scattering them toward the coast or back to whatever cool hole they burrowed into up north. I stared up into the pale blue sky, powdered with the heat and the reflection of the barren dirt below. The only escape from the forced closeness of our little nuclear family (nuclear, because we as electrons were always rubbing too close, too close and explosions were so near the surface) was to mentally distance oneself. I almost always put a book between myself and our too-real reality. Thousands of books later, I would sometimes confuse what I had been reading with what had actually occurred at certain times in the past. When we were stranded on the side of the road because our latest rust-heap had broken down, I was actually riding a dragon over some far misty mountain, or was deep in the drama playing out between Nancy Drew and her totally hetero female friend George.

I was daydreaming, projecting far out into the hemisphere as near to cold space as I dared, so I missed the actual final transaction. I saw instead, Dad coming back to the car with a grin beneath his beard and jangling keys in his hand.

“Load up, kids. Let’s get everything out of this piece and put it in our new van,” he said, waving over his shoulder to the stocky bald guy behind him who was sighting down the barrel of a big handgun, one Dad had recently had tucked into his waistband. Behind the guy was a blue and white-striped Dodge van, the kind with the big white fiberglass bubble on top circa maybe 1970. It didn’t look like much, but it looked like it had a hell of a lot more room than the station wagon. And it looked like it could pull a trailer, so we could only hope that the next wheeling-dealing result would be a trailer with a stove, beds, and maybe even room to haul some bikes.

Dad was almost gleeful, coming off his deal high. “You should have heard that fucker,” he was telling Mom. He mimicked the guy’s heavy Boston accent, which we had heard snippets of as the two men had talked. “I offered him the car and 600 bucks for the van, which is worth twice that. He was like, ‘whut, the cah, 800, and whut? You ain’t foolin’ me.’ So I threw in the Smith and Wesson.” He grinned because that had been his plan all along.

As soon as my brothers heard this, they collapsed into giggles, gleeful too as they pulled all of our belongings out of the car and began piling them together. The van was something new, and maybe it meant something good. Plus, none of us had ever heard a Boston accent that we could remember. “The cah, 800, and whut?” Rowdy laughed as he poked Reno, who took up the refrain. “And whut? And whut?” Dad cuffed his boys on the back of their tow-heads. “That’s right, boys, who’s the man huh? Your dad knows what he’s doing.”

Off near the chain-link fence, the Boston guy scratched his head and watched us move. Transferring our belongings took 20 minutes, at the most, because we were good. He stood and watched us as we rolled away, never looking back.

Vacate

And the first glimpse of Caribbean blue, the glassy-walled world of brilliant fishes,

She trailed tiny pink paper umbrellas, spewed grey clouds of exhaust above notice

From careless piña coladas, from carnival-bright aorta-painted smokestacks.

And the music blared over the quizzical sighs of dolphins as they tried to leap high enough

To peer through portholes at strange pink whales beached beside buffets of beef and beer.

In Mo’ Bay the natives glared from windowless shacks and broken porches

White faces pressed against sweaty taxi windows stared back shameless.

The jungle pressed close, the vines twisted up toward opportunity, and

Why-can’t-they-just-get-a-real-job. Why-can’t-they-just-go-away.

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.

Roads on Her Face #2 Paper Dolls

The places all run together, mostly, the roads and buildings and signs all merging in my dreams into one patchwork quilt of place. Not the people, though, the faces and voices stand out in my memory like my own personal signposts. I don’t know the name of the town where we picked my dad up from jail in the morning, after some kindly local cop had thrown him in the drunk tank to sober up. I don’t remember where we were when I first went to public school. I remember my friend Jacci, the first real friend I ever had and who I wrote to most of my childhood, from wherever we had roamed. I remember vividly the old woman who lived in a camper out in the desert, not far from our own spot where our trailer was parked and where people mostly didn’t bother us. The woman cut pictures from magazines, mostly those disturbing porcelain dolls that a certain type of woman tends to collect – the type of woman who never had children or who never got over that emptiness when her children left her to begin their own lives. Mom would make me go visit her, and her husband would give me chocolate-covered cherries while she showed me the doll pictures she’d collected that day, and told me in exhaustive detail why she’d chosen each one, and how pretty they were, and if she had a house where it would go. I ate the sickeningly sweet candy and tried not to fidget. Her trailer was dark, fetid, the yellowed curtains pulled tight to block out the glaring Arizona sun. Her husband was scruffy, unwashed but kindly with sharp blue eyes. I don’t remember their faces, just their voices and mainly the pictures of the dolls. I don’t remember their names. They must have been in their 60s or 70s, because I thought they were ancient. I think now she must have thought of me as one of those dolls, with my long braided hair and pink cheeks. Then, I tried my best to escape the visits but the husband would show up knocking with candy for the other kids and Mom would nod at me, and give me the look that meant I should go with him.

He must not have known what to do with her. What do you do with a woman so lost? Do you find her a doll to play with? Do you let her fill your camper with strange images of dolls that she might could have if she didn’t live in the desert, with no one else to see them and no room to display them? Pictures of dolls which are images of children…like looking through two different windows stacked one on top of the other, in front of the thing she really wanted. Was she too afraid to want the real thing? Was it just that it was too late and it hurt too much to think about? I wonder if the two of them were sad. I can’t imagine that they were happy. Did they have children of their own, somewhere, who either didn’t know where they were or didn’t care? Were they running from something, that same unknown something that always seemed to be right behind us, too? I never saw them again, when we left the place we were camped that time. I do remember the place, since we lived there more than once. The desert outside of Vidal Junction, California had miles of Sonoran Desert that were mostly unpatrolled by the Bureau of Land Management. It was free to live there for 14 days, if you got a permit, but we never had a permit. The rangers would find us, eventually, and then we had two more weeks to live in the spot we were parked. Sometimes when that was up, we just drove further out into the desert where we might not be found for months.
I remember the inspection station, where they asked if you were bringing fruit into California if you were coming from the Arizona side. We would have to eat it quickly before we got there.

“Those bastards are going to take our fruit, kids. Eat it or hide it,” Ed would say. I remember the aching feeling I got when we turned off into the desert, knowing we would be in isolation for a long time. Knowing that I would become intimate with the rocks, the creosotes, the secret hidden places I could discover to be away from the rest of my family. A place for some quiet, where I could read. Reading was the only escape. Dolls had never been my thing.

Update: He called himself the Colonel, and he called his wife Bubba.