This lawless, irretrievable, scar-inducing event occurred near the end of my father’s Barter Years. I didn’t know about his unplanned and unfortunate annulment with cash until later, and I’m not sure even my father understood how his wallet molded from disuse. He’d traded an aluminum canoe for a 1970s Fisher model metal detector. He’d gotten the canoe for a tandem bicycle, and this whole bartering system took place, I’m guessing, because my mother took off to live with “my great aunt Virginia, who’s in need of some help not falling.” Without her, he needed no bicycle built for two. He’d gotten that unsafe and archaic two-wheeler in trade for some masonry work he completed at one of the rich people’s houses up above the mill village. I learned later that those people didn’t need a tandem bicycle, what with their new ponies. When I learned the entire story years later, I wondered how my father held back—how he didn’t blame my mother’s absence on the pony-people, somehow, and didn’t sneak on their property and, out of vengeance, open their stalls and gates.
During that last Barter Year, we lived about the best we’d ever lived: in a rental house in a mill village, surrounded by neighbors about to die at age fifty from brown lung, or unemployable after the cotton mill’s demise seeing as they held ninth grade educations. This was before crack epidemics, before crystal meth and heroin and fentanyl. I couldn’t imagine living in this particular mill village now. I’m talking 1990. Before the Barter Year, my father worked steady at a number of things: brick layer, house painter, lawncare specialist, small engine repair mechanic. At one point he delivered newspapers until he figured out that the cost of gasoline was more than he could make monthly, back in 1979 during the Oil Embargo, when I could barely tie my shoes.
Sometimes I ask people about their first memories. Most involve Christmas, or a vacation at Myrtle Beach, or a tracheotomy victim blowing balloons out of his neck-hole. Me, I remember going off on a pre-dawn adventure with my father, following his old seventy-mile morning paper route, though we never delivered the morning news.
I turned fifteen toward the beginning of the Barter Year. There, in the back yard, my father sweeping the metal detector around the yard, he said, “Always respect the Law, Renfro.” I stood there with a little shovel in my hand. “The Law, but not the laws. There’s a difference. If you get pulled over by the Law, say ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’ Do what they ask of you. But don’t respect the laws. Do you hear me?”
I pointed at an old beer tab in the grass, a pull-tab. I said, “Don’t step on that,” because my father walked around barefoot.
My father handed over his beer and told me I could drink the rest of it. He lit a cigarette, took a few puffs without taking it out of his mouth, then handed it over to me. He said, “Against the law for you to drink and smoke. But do you see the world stopping on its axles? Do you see birds flying north for the winter?” He went on and on. My father had some good ones. I figured that he’d been brooding over things for some time. He said, “Is Hell in the sky and Heaven in the middle of the Earth?”
I said, “What are the chances we’ll find something worthwhile in our yard, Dad? Why don’t we take this detector out to, I don’t know, a place where maybe people dropped money. Like at the fairgrounds, or a parking lot?”
At the time I didn’t know that he searched for his wedding band. I didn’t know that my mother accused him of cheating on her—that he’d taken off his wedding band at some bar, because he wanted to appear single—at Smiley’s, Ronnie’s, Godfrey’s, the Spinning Room, the Ramada Inn bar two towns away, wherever. I didn’t know that my mom left to “take care of Great Aunt Virginia” only because she’d had enough. How could a fifteen-year-old know his mother’s hopes and dreams? She wanted to attend the local technical college, study hard, and become a phlebotomist. What good son understands his mother’s infatuation with bloodletting at a regular hospital or free clinic?
“I’m getting a good beep right here,” my father said, waving the wand over a patch of dead grass. “I don’t remember ever standing right here, but maybe it’s it.”
I dug into the grassless soil and pulled out a roofing nail. I said, “Come on, man, tell me something.”
My father swiped sweat off his forehead with a forearm that looked more and more like a butter knife. He’d not been taking care of himself. This is when I learned the truth: “We’re looking for my wedding ring. Goddamn. If I can find this thing, your mother will come back.”
I tried not to look up at the neighbors on four sides, plinking their cheap Venetian blinds to see what we did. “Where’s the septic tank? Maybe your wedding band fell off when you washed your hands,” I said. I think I had seen a TV movie where this happened.
My father dropped his metal detector. He took off the headphones. He grabbed me by both biceps and kissed me on the lips for the first time. I could taste gin, bourbon, beer, and vodka, all at once.
My father became a certified brick mason, then house painter, only because he could buy a jointer trowel, block brush, brick tongs, nylon mason’s line, and so on. Roller, drop cloth, six-inch brush, caulk gun. He’d taken courses in the high school’s vocational studies program only because he hated math, science, English, and social studies. He took woodworking, masonry, elementary electricity, and whatever those other classes were. I’m going to go ahead—this is embarrassing—and mention how I, for whatever reason, somehow, fucking aced every class and, even though I made no real friends what with my station in life, graduated high school salutatorian. I still don’t understand all the Nature v. Nurture stuff, or DNA, or genetics, or “generation skipping” theories, but I hailed from a phlebotomist-wishful mother and a scam-daddy.
My first memory went like this: “Come on, Renfro.”
“You are not taking Renfro with you,” my mother said.
“Goddamn right I am,” my father said. “We ain’t got no dog no more. You drunk and wanting to drive around? You take a dog. No good cop comes between a man and his riding retriever. You sober and don’t want to get caught by the Law? You take a toddler. No deputy stops a man going off to buy Pampers.”
“You ain’t right,” my mother said, but she laughed. She said, “Where y’all going?”
My father said, “To the going-place. You don’t worry none.”
Oh, if only I knew grammar back then—I could’ve pointed out a number of double-negatives, of missing verbs, of verb tense shifts.
This may or may not’ve been a time before child seats, about laws that babies and toddlers needed to be in back somewhere, faced away from the front of the car. I don’t know. But I remember having to stand in the front seat of my father’s cool F-150 Ford truck, kind of a forest green/pale green motif, and reaching into people’s mailboxes, looking for envelopes.
“Good boy, Renfro,” my father said when I found one and handed it over. “We get back home, I’mo make a waffle for you for breakfast,” he said. “You like ice cream? I’mo put ice cream on your waffle.”
This memory came back to me without the aid of a psychologist. My father, from his ex-newspaper-delivering days, remembered that people—especially country people—still put out their monthly newspaper dues in the mailbox, without threat or worry. Back then, the monthly seven-days-a-week paper cost something like nine-fifty a month. I might be wrong by a dollar or two, either way. I just know this: Where we lived, in the middle of nowhere, people didn’t put their monthly subscriptions on a credit card, and they didn’t mail in checks to either the deliverer or the newspaper itself. They walked out to their mailboxes, slung up the red flag to let the newspaper deliverer know another month’s been paid, and forgot about it. Where we lived, most people didn’t pay in check. Sometimes I pulled out an envelope so heavy in nickels the gummed innards strained. It didn’t matter. My father turned on the truck’s inside lights and said, “Count it, boy,” and I’d go, “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty….”
Then he’d turn off the inside light and look into the rearview mirror because, I figured out later, he didn’t want the real newspaper deliverer, the one who took over after my father quit, throwing papers and checking mailboxes—and thinking I guess these people will all pay tomorrow—catching up behind us.
This entire episode ended up with my father gathering his stolen money, then going down to Snoddy’s Lumber and Supply, and paying, in cash, for all the handyman accouterments he’d need to start a business. I stood there at the cash register when Mr. Ellis Snoddy himself said, “You come into some money or something, Chesley? You drive over to one them other states and win the lottery?”
My father stared a hole through the man. Even as a little kid I felt uncomfortable with the silence. He said, “Yeah. Me and Renfro just come back from Indiana.” I can’t know for certain now, but I bet that prolonged silence took place because my father tried to think of another state that wasn’t South Carolina, and one that Mr. Snoddy’d not visited and wouldn’t know if a lottery took place there.
“Indiana,” the man said. “I hear it’s nice there. Flat.”
“It surely was,” my father said. “Especially around all them shorelines.” It took me a few years to understand that my father had Indiana confused with Michigan.
Anyway, all those masonry and painting tools came to about a dime below what my father and I had stolen from people’s mailboxes. I’m not sure how he accumulated money to afford photocopied fliers to put in the very same mailboxes, advertising “Ware House Improvement.” Not “Ware’s.” I would bet that half of his prospective customers threw away their fliers thinking they didn’t need to improve a warehouse.
My mother, I didn’t know at the time, had taken a job at her friend’s cousin’s motel on the outskirts of I-26, some sixty miles away. She didn’t even have a Great Aunt Virginia, prone to imbalance. My mother took a job cleaning rooms, got free rent/shower/electricity/color TV and in-room phone, plus maybe fifteen dollars a day paid under the table. She called home twice a week, always at a time when my father was out. She said things like, “Aunt Virginia’s holding on the best she can,” and “I have to help her in and out of the tub.” She said, “Are y’all eating okay?” and “Are you getting your school work done?” She asked, “Is your father going out every night to one of his bars?”
I gave honest answers, or at least deflected. “I love cube steak,” I said once, which was true, though we’d not come close to eating even Hamburger Helper since my mother’s absence. I said, “American history is more interesting than I thought it would be,” though our idiot teacher found it necessary that we all memorize the forty-six counties of South Carolina, something I’d already done in seventh grade for, of all things, a class called South Carolina History.
One time I said, “Is Great Aunt Virginia going to die?” I wanted to tell her about my passing the written part of the driver’s exam.
My mom laughed. “Everyone’s going to die, Ren. There’s just nobody else on my side of the family to help out.”
There’d always be some buzzing in the background, which I learned later to be the window air conditioning unit. I’d say, “What’s that noise?” Sometimes cars honked in the near-background and I’d say, “Does she live close to an intersection or something?” I’d hear people yelling in the background, a pounding noise, someone screaming about an ice machine. “Where are you, again? I forget.”
“Indiana,” my mother said.
I’d passed the thirty questions of the driver’s test, and practiced, most days after school, with my father in the passenger side of that same green-and-green Ford truck. My mother had taken our other car—a 1980 two-door Buick Skylark that, I bet by now, is one of the hottest low-riders east of the Mississippi, somewhere. All of this is to say, I would have to drive my father’s junker truck to pass the test. While my mother was gone our days went like this: My father said he had a job somewhere, doing something, which ended up not being so true. I took a school bus to high school. I came home. We messed with the metal detector for a couple hours. And then my dad would say, “Hey, it might be a good idea for you to practice that parallel parking again.”
It just so happened that his favorite liquor store had parallel parking out front. Normally my father came up with this idea twenty minutes before seven, and in South Carolina it’s the law—the bad kind of law—for package stores to close at seven o’clock. So we didn’t get to spend a lot of time, I don’t know, taking left turns, or passing other cars, or taking right turns, or figuring out etiquette at a four-way stop. I didn’t practice those arm signals that South Carolina required everyone to exhibit—for left turn, right turn, slowing down—even though no one ever demonstrated such, outside of grown men on bicycles, some years later, wearing Spandex, plus the occasional moped victim. Mostly I knew how to turn on the headlights returning from the liquor store, seeing as it got dark by then. Sometimes I got to click on the high beams.
“When are you going to let me take the test?” I asked my father more than once.
“We need to find that wedding band,” he always said.
“I can pass. Everyone I know at school has taken it and passed,” I said. “It’s kind of embarrassing riding the bus to school.”
“You ain’t got no car. I need the truck for work. Your momma’s got the Buick. Why you need to drive so bad?”
“‘Ain’t got no car’ is a double negative,” I’d say, then brace myself for his punch. I learned how to drive a truck while getting punched in the right arm hard. That should’ve been on the actual test. The driver’s exam bureaucrat from the Department of Motor Vehicles should’ve figured out a way to flat-out punch the driver mid-road test, seeing as, at some point, it would happen to most drivers in South Carolina.
“If I get my real license, I can take you to work, drive myself to school, come pick you up when I get out, take you to a number of bars so you don’t get another DUI, get you back home,” I said.
“I know your mother’s been calling you,” he said. “You ain’t been telling her nothing, have you?”
I said, “That’s another…” and then stopped. I couldn’t take another bruise. I said, “Well.”
My father pounded the dashboard. “She’s been calling you? How’s she know when I’m not around?” He’d say, “She ain’t called me. Listen, Renfro, I have never cheated on your mother, and I can prove it. Next time you talk to her, tell her she needs to talk to me. I might have to use some notes, but I got it all down, explaining.”
I said, “Well.”
“Goddamn it to hell,” my father said, during that last little father-son practice drive. “Get us back home and I’ll prove it.”
We were already in the ten-yard driveway, next to the clapboard house. I said, “We’re here, Dad.”
He got out of the truck. He stomped—holding a brown bag with one of the cheaper bourbons—out back. My father turned to me—I’d turned off the ignition, but forgotten to turn off the headlights—and said, “Meet me on the back porch.”
How did my father hide the fact that he owned a pawn shop acoustic guitar, a Martin, no less? What kind of Honor Roll child was I who never snooped around to find such an instrument in our house? When did guitar playing become one of the prerequisites of a vocational school education, along with woodworking and masonry?
I got out of the truck, and locked it for some reason. Of course I locked the keys in the ignition. I followed my father, who had gone through the back door of the house, and emerged with his six-string and a Blue Horse spiral notebook. He sat down on an old wooden spool that most of our neighbors used for outdoor tables, one of those things that once held cable. I walked up and said, “What are you doing?”
He’d traded his spare tire—I didn’t know this at the time—for the guitar. He’d quit looking for handyman jobs, and practiced playing from eight until three. My father said, “I might not be the smartest man, but I learned that I can still do this.”
And then he started playing. I’m talking he picked that guitar in a way that would’ve made an angel weep. He stared down at his shoe the entire time. Me, I reached over, grabbed that brown paper bag, and uncapped a bottle of Kentucky Gentleman, took two swigs, and tapped my foot. My father didn’t stop me. I could’ve pulled out a hypodermic needle and shot up heroin at this point. My father took off on some kind of instrumental collusion that could’ve stopped the ocean’s tides had we lived closer to the beach. Then out of nowhere he eased into “Lost Highway” by Hank Williams. I didn’t know the song at the time—me, I’d somehow learned about punk music—but I understood my father’s ability and significance. And soul. As much as my missing mother wanted to be a phlebotomist, my father wanted to be a country singer, and by god, he deserved it.
He said, “Listen to this song I wrote by myself, Renfro,” and I felt myself cringe.
I said, “If I get my driver’s license, then I can take you down to the grocery store and we can get some good cube steak, and more of those boxes of macaroni and cheese. Spam.”
I didn’t pay attention enough to my father’s lyrics, though I swear he sang out in a way that would’ve made any National Anthem soloist proud. I think it went like this: “You tell me I can’t go to the bar no more/You say heaven ain’t going to glitter down manna/When’s the last time I slept on the floor?/When’s the last time I left for Indiana?”
Oh, the song went on, a real narrative, something about a man hoodwinked and accused, about a man misunderstood and pitiful. I stood there watching my father, there in the mill village where his wedding band may or may not have hidden itself in a way to prod my mother elsewhere.
As it ended up, we did get out shovels and dig down into the septic tank. It would’ve been easier to call up a Rotor-rooter-like company, and have them do whatever they do, but my father got down to the coffin lid, pulled it out, then said, “I learned this little thing in high school. It might have to do with either physics or aqueducts.”
My father turned the garden hose on full blast and stuck it down into the septic tank. He let it go for two minutes straight. I stood there while he counted out to 120. I’m not sure why that was the magic number. Then he turned off the spigot, unwrenched the hose, and set it down on the ground, pointed toward our neighbors to the west. I stood there—if I ever write a memoir it’s going to be titled I Stood There—and watched as our bodily fluids chugged a seeping path to the neighbor’s yard, then behind toward their backyard neighbor’s yard. I imagined our septic tank’s contents eventually making its way to a creek, then that creek carrying it to a major river going to a town with a real water supply instead of a plague of wells. Don’t ask me how toilet paper didn’t clog up the hose. Don’t ask me about the smell.
“If the ring comes out, it’ll just set itself right here near the mouth of the hose pipe,” my father said. “You can stay out here if you want. I need to go inside and practice.”
To make sure he knew what I meant, I said, “This whole malodorous escapade is not going to get us into untroubled circumstances.”
He stopped on his way to the house. My father stomped his boots. “That’d almost make a good song-line,” he said. “Work on it.” Then he looked up at the sky. I could tell he worked his brain, conjuring rhymes for “circumstances.”
“Evidently it takes only one dog hanging himself by accident to understand, from that point forward, to measure out a chain and make sure the dog can’t still jump the fence tied up.” My father used to say that. When I was younger I’d say things like “Did you have a dog that accidentally hanged himself?” or “What was your dog’s name?” or “How tall was the fence?” As I got older–maybe ten to twelve—I said, “Dogs shouldn’t be on chains in the first place,” or “Is that what happened to Roger, and you wouldn’t tell me?,” Roger being the dog that disappeared overnight. And then—right when my father admitted to, then displayed, his dream of becoming a musician–I realized that he was talking about himself. All along my father said the thing about the hanging dog because he’d done something wrong, and my mother made it a point to disallow another misadventure.
He owned variations. On a couple occasions, after performing a less-than-stellar parallel parking maneuver in front of Shupee’s Party Shop, I walked in with my dad and, without any kind of prompt or recognizable segue, he’d blurt out, “It ain’t so much I’m on a short leash. She let me circle the stob until I got all twisted right facedown to the ground.” No one at the liquor story felt confused by the non sequitur. Other times my father might walk up to a complete stranger and say, “Don’t ever pee in your empty water bowl, my man, thinking it’s better off filled with anything available.”
Then—and I learned later in life this isn’t a normal financial transaction—my father argued back and forth until he offered a Craftsman circular saw for, I don’t know, two half-gallons of lower-shelf bourbon. One time he traded a crescent wrench for a half-pint of Schnapps.
The septic tank drained. I stayed out there for a while. My father locked himself in his bedroom and strummed his guitar. I wish I’d’ve owned a tape recorder back then so I could prove to anyone—maybe my wife now—this song that started off with his crooning, “I had a horse, I named it Homer/I owned a cow, whose name was Peg/I loved my mule, that went by Gomer/I miss my pig—I ate its leg.” It went off for another ten or twelve verses, a regular barnyard elegy. Or eulogy.
Understand that this was a time before Caller ID and cell phones. I still thought my mother lived in Indiana, taking care of Great Aunt Virginia. So I did the only thing I could do at the time, and that was to get down on my knees and pray to God, the other gods, and Electricity Itself that my mother would call at this point. I concentrated. I started off with “Dear Lord” and “I don’t know your name, but you’re the one with eight arms,” and “Dear Thomas Alva Edison, in connection with Southern Bell.”
I could barely concentrate over the noise outside, made up of people yelling out, “Goddamn, what’s that smell?” and “Somebody’s septic’s done overflowed,” and “What’s them people’s names rented that house a while ago?” meaning us.
Then the phone rang. I got off the floor in such a way it probably looked like I had starting blocks, from track, to help my initial surge. I picked up the receiver after less than one ring and said, “Hello?” quietly. In the background, my father sang about a goat named Sam that ended up tasting like Underwood Deviled Ham.
My mother said, “Are you alone, Renfro?”
I shook my head No.
She said, “Are you shaking your head either up or down, or sideways? I can’t see you, you know. Are you alone?”
I told my mother about Dad in the bedroom. I whispered everything about his looking for his wedding ring in the septic tank, like how it might’ve fallen off when he washed his hands or wiped himself. I said, “He can play the guitar. Did you know this?” There was a lot of silence on the other end. I said, “I can’t see you nodding or shaking your head.”
My mother said, “I guess I might’ve made things worse.”
“He’s not that bad,” I said. I said, “I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a connoisseur of any kind of music, seeing as we don’t have much of a record player or album collection, but his voice comes out in pleasant tones.”
That’s what I said: “pleasant tones,” like some kind of pussy. I can hear it in my head now. Not to mention “connoisseur.”
My mother said, “Yes.” On her end of the line I could hear someone yelling about a pool being more of a cesspool. I heard, “We’re from Michigan, so it ain’t too cold for us, but this pool you got here is disgusting.”
I thought of the septic outside. People still yelled out there. My father dropped his original tune and started singing that song about the lonesome whipporwill. I said, “Please come home. I might never get my drivers license if we don’t have two cars here.”
She said, “I have your daddy’s wedding band, Renfro. I needed some time off, and took it off the bedstand so he wouldn’t go pawn it off for more booze. Or trade it for a nail gun. It ain’t much of a ring in terms of bartering abilities.” I don’t know why she thought it the perfect time to admit her ruse, and offer me perfect instructions to find Two Pines Motel, straight up I-26 north of us, then a couple miles to the left after the second North Carolina exit. I could hear her exhale a cigarette. “I got his ring on a chain around my neck, for some reason. I guess so people around this motel think I’m a widow.”
I said, “Well.” I said, “I’m no professional critic, but he’s good. I wish you’d come home and listen to him.”
My mother said, “There are dogs that’ll scratch a spot raw, even after the fleas been gone, Renfro. They’ll scratch and scratch themselves until they bleed.” She said, “Your daddy promised me he’d quit his music dream, after it got him in so much trouble. But I guess maybe I should’ve never,” and then we got cut off.
Never what? Gave him a chance? Cared? Should’ve made some ultimatums long ago, then left years later? Never understood the nuances of songwriting?
My father, in the background, over the neighbors yelling, went into another original, I guessed. He even said to himself, “Here’s a little song I wrote,” as if talking to an audience, then began a song that involved end-lines that rhymed cube steak/birthday cake/streak-of-lean/Patsy Jean. I could tell my father wished to write a traditional love song.
Patsy Jean was my momma’s name.
I woke up the next morning to find my father gone. This was a Saturday. The truck stood in the driveway, but he wasn’t around. I looked out the window to see if he worried the garden hose. The inside of the house smelled septic. Finally, around eight o’clock, I went outside to find a note beneath the windshield wiper. My father’d taken off, too. He’d packed a suitcase, grabbed his guitar, and hitchhiked to Nashville. He wrote, “I know it’s both inconsiderate and irresponsible to leave you alone. If you call your momma, or she calls you again, tell her I’m gone, and that I’ll stay gone until I’ve made it big enough for us to buy our own house. She’ll come home, I know, if I’m not there.”
Listen, I didn’t care about his being inconsiderate and irresponsible, but there for a good ten minutes I felt sorry for myself. I wondered what I did to drive both parents out of the home.
He continued with, “Stay by the telephone all day, just in case she calls. Or me. Also, because I had this all planned out, there are two cans of Lysol spray beneath the sink. Please go spray the back yard.”
I’ll probably be judged by this if there’s an afterlife. I know that I should’ve never told my wife this story, all these years later, after both my parents had died. I didn’t go sit back down by the phone, waiting for the phone call from an errant parent, a mother and father with broken dreams, et cetera. First, I thought, I will never end up like the Ware side of my family. Then I went into my father’s bedroom, found a half bottle of bourbon, took it out to the truck, loaded up the metal detector, figured out how to use a wire hanger to pull up the door lock (which should be part of the driver’s test, if you ask me), and drove off, illegally, of course, to all of the poorer churches’ parking lots—I’m talking Pentecostal and Baptist—because I had a feeling that those congregants probably had holes in their pockets and lost spare change on regular Sundays. Boy, was I right. Then I went beneath the stands of the high school football field. Bingo. I drove to the town of Inman, where there was a Hardees and McDonalds, parked, meandered over to the drive-through windows and got more than a dollar at both places.
In between, I played this little game with myself to take a swig of whiskey for every dollar I found, which meant four swigs in about two hours. I found enough change—I didn’t know this at age fifteen, seeing as we didn’t have to take an economics course in high school—to pay for the gas used up by that truck.
This particular incident, as it ends up, caused me to write that one song, recorded by you-know-who, that made me enough money to quit songwriting altogether, back in the day, before I got all caught up starting the non-profit to give free blue tarps to bad-roofed people. Anyway, I returned home, feeling good about myself.
The phone rang. I picked up and probably slurred out, “What you want now?”
It was my father. He said, “I’m so sorry, Renfro.”
I looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. I didn’t know when he left, but I doubted he made it all the way to Nashville by this point. I said, “I found your wedding ring!” like that.
He said, “The world isn’t like it used to be.”
I said, “I’m just kidding. But I know where your wedding ring is. You didn’t lose it.”
My father said, “I’m on a pay phone so I might have to talk fast. Hey, if I call back collect later, be sure to accept the charges.”
In the background it sounded a lot like when I talked to my mother—cars and trucks honking, people yelling about stuff. I said, “Where are you?”
He said, “I made it as far as the other side of Asheville.”
“Nashville?” I said. “That’s pretty good for hitchhiking, right? How many times did you have to put your thumb out?”
He yelled into the receiver, “Asheville!” which wasn’t that far away at all. It was only an hour away, at most. I tried to do some math in my head, but that bourbon squelched my abilities, evidently.
I said, “Asheville, North Carolina? That’s it?”
“This truck driver picked me up, then had to let me out, and I kind of forgot my guitar. I have my suitcase, but I ain’t got my guitar,” he said. “It’s in that boy’s semi. You got to come pick me up.”
Well, well, well, I thought. I said, “Can’t do it, Dad. I ain’t got no driver’s license. You understand my predicament, right? I ain’t got no. I ain’t got no.” I said, “Now, I could’ve come to pick you up had you found time to take me over to the DMV at some point, after I got my learner’s permit. But I wouldn’t want to test the Law, you know. I don’t mind breaking laws, but what if I get pulled over by The Law? That could be an ugly sight and an indelible mark on my record.” I might’ve said some other things. I might’ve passed out a little in between, then awakened to continue the conversation.
“I’ll walk back home—it’ll take me three days—and kick your ass, boy, if you don’t come pick me up.”
I kind of sobered up quickly. Of all the bad things my father had said over the years, he’d never sounded so determined.
Still, I wasn’t so sober so as not to say, “Sing it, Dad. Sing me how to come reach you.”
My mill village rental house to my father’s spot at a Petro truck stop went like this: Take a left out of the driveway, drive a couple miles to the interstate, take a right, drive sixty miles, take a right, find Dad sitting there still next to the pay phone, on his haunches. I don’t want to say that I was a natural driver, but nothing happened, outside of a few people hitting their horns when I drifted from the right lane to the left. I still had the metal detector in the back of the truck, and for some reason I thought that if I got pulled over by The Law, I’d say something about how I was a gold miner, and so on.
“This life is turning out worse and worse,”my father said after he got in the cab.
I said, “You want to drive?”
He said, “Why? So I can drive both of us off a cliff? Goddamn I should’ve gone to college. I should’ve studied accounting, and gotten a good job with H&R Block.”
And then he leaned his head back and fell asleep immediately.
I put the truck in reverse and got out of the parking lot. You probably already see what’s going to happen, if you’ve paid attention to the geography and mathematics: I drove fifty miles south, then turned right at the next-to-last exit before the South Carolina line. I turned right, and drove straight to the Two Pines Motel, this time not drifting so much into the passing lane, but holding on tight to the steering wheel so as not to veer into the emergency lane.
He didn’t know—how could he have?—of my wish to reconcile my odd parents.
My father didn’t know this wasn’t Indiana.
I slowed down and took a left into the gravel parking lot. I hit the horn in an SOS fashion, because I’d learned Morse Code. My father awoke, sat up, and said, “Do we need gas?” and “Do we need to put some water in the radiator?”
My mother came out of room 11, looking withered. I turned toward my father in order to see his face and wondered if he’d go all wide-eyed There’s My Wife. I wondered if he’d turn to me and look You Bastard. My mom held some kind of dust rag. She appeared beautiful, beautiful.
She waved that rag at me and smiled. She said, “Hey! Hey! It worked. You learned how to drive!” She said, “Hold on,” and went back into one of the rooms.
My father looked around at the surrounding mountains. My mother returned, holding one suitcase, flashing that wedding band on a string around her neck. She pointed to the passenger-side front tire and said, “You got an almost-flat tire.”
My father asked how long he’d been asleep, then began humming what appeared to be a dirge. Some years later, in college, I learned that someone said all stories were either about a stranger coming to town, or a character going on a journey. When the professor mentioned this, I rose my hand.