My young life begins in the last dregs of a darkness. Deep wood walls and ugly shag carpet, snowy Portland in winter sun that at its best can only be called bleary. Yellow, brown, yellow gray, yellow, blue, brown and gray. A tall man, dark as an Arab, stirring instant coffee. The kitchen table I don’t remember, so it has disappeared. He is making his coffee in the air. It is late in the afternoon and he is going to work somewhere. A department store, maybe a prison.
He looks through me, at the phone on the wall. It has a cord that could stretch across the street.
“Never answer the phone,” he tells me in his strange accent. Like a Midwesterner trying to sound Irish. “It’s always a pain in the ass.”
My father is at least three types in one: a Kesey-esque McMurphy in denim and watch cap with shoebox-sized transistor radio; nappy dresser who shines his dress shoes like a poet; and beaten driver, unshaved, hair in a Brando mess, chain smoking on a used sofa watching a television that isn’t turned on.
Fishing out in the rocks, foam blowing thirty feet into the air, all this talk of catching spot and croaker.
“I had a dream that scared me,” I tell him in the wet pebbly sand as he silently, angrily, sorts his tackle back into these boxes that are as neatly kept as a jeweler’s. No fish today.
“Don’t be afraid of nightmares,” he tells me when he lights a cigarette artfully, gazing at the Pacific with fading anger. “Life is what’s going to kill you, son.”
Dodge City, magic and dust. More yellows, like there is no end to them. My brothers wear striped pants and mirrored sunglasses. My mother takes a long time in the gift shop bathroom. My oldest brother can spit through his front teeth.
My father is laughing with a man in a giant cattleman’s hat. The mustachioed man leans in and whispers and my father’s dark eyes dart around. They shake hands like businessmen.
“What’s a lasso for?” I ask as we stand beside our hubcap-less station wagon and eat pimento cheese sandwiches. (The picnic tables are overrun with ants. Big orange ants with antennae like I’ve seen in cartoons.)
My father goes over and borrows one from a stand of tourists who are drinking bottled Cokes. The beehive hairdos are glowing in the Kansas sun. He spins the rope around a bit, his face growing serious, and when he tries to throw it out it whaps the back of our wagon and breaks the radio antenna. He curses and glares at the other tourists.
We see an alligator farm in Florida. I fall in love with Marty Robbins’ song about El Paso. Wicked Felina. I think Felina is a food they eat in Texas. I have a stomach ache and sit in the back of the wagon and watch the wildest white and silver clouds I have ever seen blowing across the Everglades.
We stop at a roadside diner run by Greeks and my father jokes so much about robbing the owners with his pistol that we are told to leave. My stomach aches that much more.
Christmas and the lights on the tree are off. Second night in a row with the lights not on. It snows in a North Carolina tobacco town, but does not stick. We all have that empty feeling. Nobody has seen my dog in four days.
“When are we hanging our stockings?” I ask my mother.
My father must be drinking because he is not at home and he is out of work. It is night, snow melting as soon as it hits, and my mother cannot hear anything I say. She goes upstairs and cuts on the bathroom light and closes the door.
Somebody is listening to “Time in a Bottle” downstairs. Nobody sleeps down here now that my oldest brother has run away from home. His room was right off the kitchen. I knock on his door – his poster of Steve McQueen still hangs on the front, torn at the bottom – and watch the knob. It locks.
“Go away,” my father’s voice says. “Leave me alone, for Christ’s sakes.”
I plug in the lights and watch the tree blink away. The bulbs are as big as ping pong balls. My mother comes down the stairs, blowing her nose.
“Hey, that’s pretty,” she smiles. She sits in a chair and looks at the stockings on the coffee table. She picks up the one with my oldest brother’s name on it and folds it, takes it up to the hall closet and puts it away.
My father had a nightmare and spent all morning in a chair by the window, clicking the safety off and on of his chrome .357. He peeps through the edge of the heavy curtains using his fingertips, like they do in movies.
There is always somebody out on the walkway, going to his or her apartment. It is never totally quiet in Miami. Sirens, yelling, squalling tires, breaking glass, a baby crying. My father has a black eye.
“Nobody likes me here,” I tell him. All my toys were left back in North Carolina. I’ve been drawing pictures in the phone book, in ads that don’t use all their boxes.
He looks at me, does not blink, then pushes ever so slightly the edge of the heavy curtain from the window. Now my father cannot hear me. There are weeks when nobody seems to hear me. My dog is still in North Carolina, waiting for me to find him. We moved in the middle of the night just before Christmas and all our stockings were hanging empty on a mantel over a fireplace that didn’t work. The tree lights were left on and I remember seeing them through the windows as we pulled away, squalling tires in the middle of the night.
My father jerks away from the window and cocks the hammer of his pistol.
“I’ll kill that sorry motherfucker if he knocks on our door,” he hisses, his jaw set hard and the muscles in his arm twitching.
I go ahead and just go to my room, close the door and open the phone book. Ned’s Tires and Radiator has a half-page ad with lots of room at the bottom. I draw my first Spider-Man. The legs are too short, but he is always flying around on his web. It will be okay because I have done a good job with the arms and the head.
My father never shoots this man. Not everyone will be so lucky.
When you use pants and sweaters for pillows, you get these headaches that pilfer all sweetness from your dreams. I am convinced this is where nightmares come from. I watch nuns filter out of a convent and march into my school next door. I find a walnut the size of my fist in the dirt and throw it at somebody.
My father picks me up from school. He tells me to put my rosary away. Praying like that won’t help, he says. He owns a switchblade and I take it to school but am too afraid to show it to anyone. I have dandruff in my comb. The nuns teach us to read so that we can study the apostles. This is what we have to look forward to in life, they say.
He wraps a tie around his neck and flips his collar down, tugs at the knot as though he has been challenged to do it perfectly, with the precision of the Michelangelo. I imagine that he stops off at Rosa’s cantina every time he is on the way home from somewhere. He must eat there, because I never see him eat here.
“My stomach hurts,” I tell the only nun who smiles.
She asks if I have worries. Worries at home or with friends.
“Nobody likes me here,” I tell her.
“Worries at home, then.”
My father says nuns don’t know anything. He hands me a holster with a toy gun, a pistol revolver that is as long as my arm. It pops these paper caps and poofs a tiny cloud of acrid smoke whenever I shoot an imaginary Indian. I am part Indian, so I fear I may be killing off my ancestors. They are his family, dark-eyed and curious, quiet as stones and calculating in mannerisms and deeds.
He rides his motorcycle off in the rain, a winter night as black as it gets. He wears a gold-flecked helmet without a shield. He squints, wearing those McMurphy denims, the alter ego that I fear most. I stand on the porch and pop my pistol at something behind him, something that is chasing him, hoping I can stop it for him.
The single red taillight veers right and his engine whines as he leaves this new tobacco town. My stomach aches. It is almost midnight and my mother has finally gotten dinner ready. I tell her what the nun said as I watch the crackers sink into my soup.
“Take out your rosary,” she says, “and let’s go over the beads.”
We say these quiet prayers, which remind me of the song of Felina and the man she loves who is dying. Every so often there is a sputter, much like the whine of a two-stroke engine which ferries a man with a pistol tucked in the back of his pants, looking for someone. Always on the prowl for some comfort in this life.
Causes Sean Jackson Supports
PFLAG, Amnesty International, AA, Catholic Social Services