Under a boat, age six.
The other day, driving into Flagstaff, I saw a worn out brown easy chair, riding solo in the back of a big old pick-up. I thought then of a summer road trip over forty years ago, with my dad and his best friend Steve Harvey: hours I spent in an easy chair, solo, under the shelter of a row boat, in the back of Steve’s pale yellow Chevy truck.
I try to recall the highway, wide and black in new cut mountains. The snow markers by the side of the road made me wonder at how deep the snow could get. I had to ask what they were for. Orange and white they must show depth, mark the way for a snow plow. They seemed ten feet high.
The only road I know like that is the CA 395, up from Bishop behind Mammoth, towards Nevada, still some of my favorite driving. In the back of the pick-up, age six, curled up in my kid’s body, before I even knew how to whistle. I must have daydreamed. I looked and looked at the land. My mind wandered and imagined. I felt free. I felt the men in the cab, safety in that: in their being there and not with me, at them behind the wheel. In the big yellow truck cutting clean and smooth, roaring, gears shifting, a lurch then. But I remember this as us streaking quiet around long wide turns, with the mountain-side stripped bare above us.
I remember it rained briefly. The boat kept the wet off of me. One of the men looked back to see I was okay. What time of year was it? I assume it was a summer rain. I have to think they would not have put me in the back of a truck if it were too cold. Memory is funny like that.
There was freedom and empowerment in that slight neglect, a toughness came in me from that. My dad made me do things that seemed scary. He pushed me over the limits. I thought I couldn’t, but I could. He was right. I was always let to be wild. I was part dog. Forever, I would lean my cheek out of the window, let my hair whip back, like ears.
I cannot imagine trusting a six-year-old today to ride alone in the back of a truck. When I brought this up to a friend she said, I rode in the back of my dad’s truck too. In the seventies and eighties, kids always rode in the back of the truck. No one doubted we would stay in and hold on, perched on the wheel wells. I miss those days.
Later, after my parents divorced and my sister and I visited him in southern Humboldt, my dad had a series of hand me down cars. They all had a smell to them, a funk. A homey, hippy, armpit smell. An oily, broken down seat foam smell. Some were pick-up trucks. Sometimes there was no room in the cab and we would come into town from the boonies with our long hair blown into a greasy tangle. As teenagers, my sister and I hated this: the small town girls made us feel rough and grungy. It was a finely nuanced hierarchy of poverty in those towns. The ranks were jealously guarded. Dirty kids were brutally teased. I knew to be clean and to have fresh breath. Gay already, this was a part of my armor: I would get up to shower and brush my teeth, even before basketball practice at 7 am. I still always chew gum. My body could not invade or call attention, could not offend. It was not safe to have a body or to express desire.
The decade of secrecy and unspoken, unrequited, disavowed loves, amazes me, the solitude of the child I was, that I knew not to say at age ten. When I was six, there were already beautiful intriguing girls. And secrets.
I tried for a long time to forget how wise I was in my childish and peaceful solitude.
When I saw that easy chair in the back of that pick-up driving into Flagstaff, I was overcome with that rush of beautiful memory and with sorrow, at that long lost dad. I had a very childish thought then, like, “it’s not fair.”
How alcoholism takes a father from his child. What must be unforgivable and cannot be lived with, not conscious. That I cannot have him back. That my brown body, my hands, the manner in which I sometimes laugh, all of the things I know how to do. That I can fix. That I can follow deer trails. How I learned to build a fire. My wildness, my wolf pup dog self. So much that I love about me, that road trip.
I do have these.