1. Gravel Roads
He holds onto the car with his free hand. He fights his knees from buckling and the piss from hitting his shoes. His hand slips from the hood of the red Ford Galaxy. He staggers; he loses his standoff with gravity. It was never a fair fight. Soaked pant leg, gravel imbedded in his palm, he yells for help.
I peer with my ten-year-old eyes over the dash through the dusty windshield. In the darkness, from outside the reach of the headlights, I hear my name shouted. I look down, pick at the seam of my shirt, and catch a glimpse underneath the bench seat of the brown paper bag worn by the bottle. Another shout, this one a weaker, breathless howl of an exhausted animal in a trap.
He cannot rise. The rocks and sand beneath him, as on the back roads of his life, give way; a cabal, conspiring for his failure. Looking up toward the car, he cannot see the small figure he left behind in the passenger seat. The dome light appears and the door hinge lets out a slow, metallic yawn. Just beneath the rumble of the failing muffler, he can hear tiny steps barely disturbing the gravel.
I cannot see him in the darkness, only hear the struggle and moans. My steps are short and cautious for fear I will step off the edge of the earth. I reach my father leaning on his elbow, still sitting in the fresh mud. I pull his arm, but the weight is too great. He rolls to his knees and places a muddy hand on my shoulder, the pebbles digging into tender skin.
One foot digs into the ground, then the other. He rises and gravity goes for the knockout blow. Another stagger and fall, but now he’s saved by the same car hood that earlier failed him. Hand over hand he works his way around the Galaxy, the gravel in his palm scratching the red paint. Feeling the breeze, he fumbles with then disregards the zipper and falls through the open passenger door.
Alone on the road, I watch from the darkness. The shocks screech as his weight hits the front seat. After a moment to catch his breath, his tired voice calls out, “You’re driving.”
2. The Curator
Clenched teeth, sore jaw, seething eyes, twisted mouth. The sculptor molds my face. I can feel the sadist at work, but it’s too late. I unleash. I yell. I stand over my crouching child covering him in an indigo, velvet rage.
Beneath the fear on his face, I see the ancient backroad memories of my childhood. I can see the canvas stretched and ready. I stop. I breathe. I turn inward to the artist to deny him his vision and plead with him to dispatch his muse, to leave me be.
I cannot let this child see the toil of the artist. I cannot let this work be complete and forever placed in the museum of his young mind, with me the accidental curator of his memories.
3. Dolly Parton
1978, I think. My father pays for the concert tickets at the box office and we slide through an open door into the empty arena to see where we will sit next week. A little taste before my first concert. The janitor sweeping the stage drops his broom and holds out his cupped hands at arm’s length.
“If it rains, I hope you’re in the front row and ol’ Dolly will keep you dry.”
My father and the janitor laugh. It’s an indoor arena. I blush and laugh, too, and feel older to be part of this grown-up-childish joke.
We stop on the way home.
“Just a quick stop for a quick one,” he says as we pull up to roadside dive outside Rapid City. He promises to be right back.
Sprawled across the back seat—upside-down in the passenger seat, legs over the headrest—lying outside on the scratched Galaxy hood—killing time for the quick one. The sun sinks. I nervously walk into the cabin-themed honkytonk and see him through the forest of Budweiser bottles on the bar.
“Get the boy a Blue Dolphin,” he yells to the bartender and they both exhale a wheezing, unfiltered Lucky Strikes laugh.
Dolly comes on the jukebox pleading with Jolene not to take her man, and a blow-dried hairdo in a pearl-buttoned shirt sings along into a sweaty, longneck microphone. He sidles up to her and gives me a wink.
At closing time we are a block from the bar, stopped on the grass in the front yard of a small gingerbread cottage. His foot on the brake, head back, mouth open, and eyes closed. I reach over and slide the gear arm into park and silence the engine. Now, there is nothing but the throaty breath of unplanned sleep and fogging windows. I grab his jacket, climb into the back seat, and wonder if he’ll ever wake up, flirting with hope that he won’t.
The week passes and the night of my first concert arrives. I shower, tuck in my new western shirt with the cavalry bib, climb the stairs out of my grandma’s basement, and sit on the back porch to wait for the sound of the Galaxy’s tires hitting the gravel of the alley. But I only hear the creak of the screen door opening behind me and the shotgun blast of it slamming shut. Grandma sits next to me.
She says, “A man his age has certain needs, Steven.”
“No,” she says, “I don’t know her name.”
4. Denial of Air
I look at my son and the love promises to feed me, but the need to touch, the need to absorb him is impossible to fulfill. Overt love is not the want of a son. A touch of the hair is given a quick smile as he pulls away. An arm over the shoulder is not disregarded immediately, but ultimately.
What is rebuffed is the impossible: the attempt to re-swaddle the child and bring him to your chest, into your heart, to span the growing divide between what you want to be and what you are.
It is an unwitting denial of air.
A daughter will accept the love. A daughter will seek a father’s hand, his arm. A daughter will lay her head on a father’s shoulder and allow the connection to throw open the gates of love and your reason.
She will give you oxygen.
5. Summer Vacation
A June night in my early teens, my eyes are opened by the smell of bourbon-soaked breath. He is sitting on the edge of my bed. He’s too close. Too long he sits silently. It’s dark, I’m scared. I cannot see his face, but I can hear him breathing. Angry breathing. I hear him begin to cry.
He says, “I’m sick, Steven.”
He says, “I’m hurting.”
I widen my eyes to see in the dark. He is looking at me. I close my eyes tight, hoping in my blindness he will disappear, or I will. August, and home, feels impossibly far away. He doesn’t speak again. He slides to the floor and sleeps. Eventually, I sleep. We awake in the morning and he sends me to the corner for a Pepsi. He misses work again.
6. The Trail
We hike in silence, except for our shoes scuffing the dirt of the trail. I bring my son high into the New Mexico mountains for a clearer view. I lift him up to the sun to backlight any hairline fractures forming in this soul I tend. I gently shake him and hold him to my ear to listen for loose pieces. The wicked fear of what I might find forces the sweat from my palms and sends my confidence skittering off the path and into the cholla and prickly pear.
I’m a clipped-wing bird ejected from the nest. Flap, goddamn it, flap. A short ugly flight to the nearest piñon branch to rest. Then another.
7. Measure Twice, Cut Once
“Use carriage bolts, not screws, when you need strength,” he tells me.
“Cedar is best to fix the fence because it won’t rot.”
“Measure twice, cut once,” he says.
My father gives me advice and teaches me things as we build the picnic table, put a roof over my Grandma’s porch, and replace the door of her pump house.
“I’m a man who can fix things,” he says and he smiles wide enough for me to see that rare, gold-capped molar.
He hands me his old hammer and I slide it into my empty belt loop, my imaginary tool belt to match his. He’s sober now. Momentary calm. He lets me up on the ladder. I go three rungs up for a new vantage point and a new purpose in his world. Repairs are made, but for how long? I look at him and know my happiness is held together with screws, patched for now. Another measure before I cut.
8. Gravel Roads, Part 2
Slowly, carefully, down twisted gravel roads we drive. At the end of the road, still miles away, is Cabazon Peak, a magma plug sticking out of the scrub brush and desert sand like the giant, sunbaked skull of a volcano gone missing.
With the map in his lap, the son guides the father. Our dueling index fingers on the radio create a frenzied soundtrack to our day. He laughs at my jokes, I laugh at his laughter.
We leave the gravel for an unmaintained dirt road. It has become rutty and muddy from the rare high-desert rains. We stop and both silently consider the worst. Stuck. High-centered. Miles from anywhere, alone with no one to find us.
“What do you think?” I ask.
“Let’s do it,” he says with an explosive, crooked-toothed smile.
I slide the gear arm into drive, take my foot off the brake, and slowly move forward, picking the high spots, straddling the ruts, playing slopes, carefully navigating the way.