A miner’s shack, expanded by our father before he was our father with whatever materials he could find. A Mojave valley, a wash, crumbly clay hills beyond. To the north a mound of ore with cacti and sage and horny toads all through it, so that it might be mistaken for a hill. Beyond the ore a plateau, a cemetery. At the pleat of plateau and ore, a spring: flaking iron water tank and a grove of bamboo. A garden, a parachute for shade, tented by a creosote-greased telephone pole. One planter box surrendered to any lizards or tortoises we caught, fed iceberg lettuce until they escaped. Horny toads we tagged with nailpolish and cataloged in your diary that locked until our mom said they breathe through their skin and you’re killing them. In fall mom would open the front door and the back so randy tarantulas could migrate through. Green linoleum in the kitchen and once, a toddler, you practiced shaving with our dad’s razor. I remember them holding you down, lots of red-black blood on the green floor. You remember me walking on a wall in front of the post office, playing Olympics. Calif. had just become CA but –lif. was still sunstamped on the block wall. I slipped and caught my chin. My blood red-orange in the noon sun. Later you watched them sew me up, nine black stitches ants along my jaw, makes my smile look sarcastic. A swamp cooler, Raggedy Ann and Andy bedding bought on layaway. You and me, naked, leaders of a small pack of dogs—Barry, Spike, and Garfield. A larger pack of coyotes beyond the near ridge, yippng, cackling, waiting. They got Garfield, then Barry, but not Spike and not us, not yet. Rattlesnakes came out at dawn and dusk, a bobcat in the bamboo up by the spring.
THE TRAILER SCHOOL
A single-wide, grades K through six in one room, seven through twelve in the other. In between: two bathrooms and a drinking fountain. The only girl in my grade, but can that be true? Four of us, me, two white boys, and a Shoshoni. Something had happened to one of the white boys as a baby and it made him slow, made his front top teeth four silver ingots, made his voice always hoarse. I had a bad singing voice too. For this reason he and I were put in a closet whenever the class sang. There, a seam of light allowed us to hear the music and me to stare privately at his teeth. I wanted them.
The first boy I ever loved lived in a fifth wheel his father had parked on a friend’s property. An accordion door, cupboards that latched. K’s bed was also the dinner table. He wore poverty like a fashion statement: ripped jeans, wallet chains, boots with soles flapping open like laughter. He worked at KFC, his Dickies velvety with vegetable oil, smell of sweet batter when I pulled them down.
Somersaults in a busted hot tub filled with water from a hose at a guest house in Trancas Canyon. Half-drained swimming pool a pit of frogs. A neighbor’s house a giant barrel, another’s a geodesic dome, flowers called birds of paradise that looked just like them, snails—their shells crunching, salt shrinking—the beach. Where our father went to die and did, while I was in the busted hot tub doing underwater somersaults and you were counting them.
In the back office at our mother’s rock shop and museum, making banners from dot matrix printer paper, making bird’s nest crowns with the shred bin, coloring with highlighters, picking pomegranates from the tree outside, walking back into the wash, alkali soil crunch, a river that was sometimes there and sometimes not, “come on baby make it hurt so good / sometimes love don’t feel like it should.” Parents scolding their kids and our mother nicer to them than she often was to us, gave them TV rock or pyrite, which she never called fool’s gold. It seemed we were alone forever, the three of us. Then suddenly we were not, you and I not allowed in her bed anymore, not allowed to drink the Mountain Dew not ours in the fridge, a hulking Igloo lunchbox on top.
Now I live in a movie about college written by a high schooler. There are actual letter jackets, actual cheerleaders, actual frats. There is an actual quad flung with Frisbees and an actual grove strung with hammocks. In the fall the leaves are blown into actual piles, though I never jump in. All the things we grew up thinking were real only on TV are real in the Midwest: rain pouring down windows and making the house a submarine; leaves turning gold, maroon, purple; raccoons; mailmen strolling the sidewalk with satchels; snow enough for igloos. When you come to visit you point and say, Look! A squirrel!
She wasn’t cruel but she made her decisions quickly. She said we three had the same hands, artist hands. She taught me painting and you photography. Even though we looked exactly alike she said you got her Dutch parts, her Indian parts. I got dad’s fun Irish, the mean English. She said we both got the crazy because it came from both sides. Confirmed, years later, when I told a psychiatrist a severely abridged version of our family history and he said, “You’re the reason they should do mental health screenings before marriage.” Or years earlier, when you overheard your guidance counselor ask her colleague, “What kind of sixth grader knows she is a lithium responder?”
Some rules: We could not call someone stupid. We could not say shut up. We could not answer the phone during dinner and never if the caller ID said UNKNOWN. If a person came to the door we were to sic the dogs on them.
In her trailer when they found her: dozens of try-me eyeglasses from Wal-Mart, the anti-theft sensors still on. A pack of six mail-order self-help cassettes called Depression and You, tape number two missing, found later in the boom box in the bathroom. Books I had read in college and passed along, thinking they would heal her. (House on Mango Street, Love Medicine.) Every episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation on VHS. Every episode of The X-Files. A coin stamped PAUL LOVES MARTHA, Disneyland, 1989. An answering machine with neither of our voices on it.
Now, years after both our parents are gone, a boy who’d been in the grade above us at the trailer school messages me online. No one is living in your house anymore, he says. E moved out. E, once our babysitter, had been paying our mother $100 a month to live in the Tecopa house, money mom spent on cigarettes and ice cream and methadone. After mom died, we said E could live in the Tecopa house for free, since you were in San Francisco and I was in the Midwest, moving every year, always in August, to another apartment or another college in another city or to live with a different man. Neither of us had much of an address. E herself had no phone, no internet, no email, so after mom died we told someone to tell her that she could live in the Tecopa house as long as she liked, on the condition that we could come and visit the garden, where our pet tortoises had once lived, where our mother had scattered our father’s ashes and where we had scattered hers. But this messenger person was not very reliable, we knew even then, and there is a good chance that E never got the message and kept sending checks. But to where? And who would they be made out to? I wanted E to live in the Tecopa house for years and years, rent-free, until she died a peaceful, painless death, and we’d be some kind of filial for once, bring some sort of serenity to someone, if only when it was too late. (E’s husband had already swallowed a shotgun in the shed, which had been our father’s workshop.) I realize I want all this only when I receive my former classmate’s message online. I’d never seen a deed or a mortgage or any other paperwork for the miner’s shack, which my classmate generously called “the Watkins Ranch.” Family yarns had my father squatting there, hiding from his past lives. My mother joined him, had us, we four trespassing on BLM land. Last summer I visited a friend of my parents and he told me this was more or less true. I tell the boy from the trailer school that the house does not belong to us, has never belonged to us, is public land and that in my opinion my parents would have been honored to have it preserved and protected. “I think my parents would have been happy to see the property restored as public land and thereby contribute to the preservation of that beautiful desert.” I say this despite that fact that my mother considered the Desert Protection Act a land grab, Diane Feinstein a carpetbagger. I say this though my former classmate needs a place to live and I could easily say, Go for it. I said this because at the time some rednecks were hunkered down at yet another nature reserve, stroking their guns, trying to steal something that belongs to no one, and I thought maybe my former classmate sympathized with them, though I had no reason to believe this except that he’d stayed. In fact I knew nothing about him, had long ago erased him from my feed because the yowls from his difficult life interfered slightly with me enjoying my comfortable one. I never did get skeptical of the authority bestowed me by being born first.
It’s possible that one day we will go back and it will have been bulldozed. Sometimes I wish for this. The shack or house or ranch, the screened porch, the parachute, the telephone pole and courtyard, all mangled, splintered in a dusty scrap pile. The spring run dry, the bamboo dead, the garden scraped away. Inevitably someone would come and throw tires and other garbage on the heap, maybe they’d spray paint it, shoot it up, burn it. People do these things to desert ruins, you’ll notice. Still, they tug us.
Where we had, for a time, two pet donkeys. Mine was called Buckwheat, yours was called Spark. We kept them in the dog run, fed them sheaths of alfalfa from the farm at the end of the road. We got them one day when we were driving through the desert and we passed a house that mom knew to be foreclosed, which she mentioned as we drove by. Behind the house we saw a pen, and in it two donkeys: one iconic brown, black cross of Bethlehem on its back, bristly Mohawk mane, the other entirely white. An albino. I didn’t even know the word foreclosed, didn’t even notice their ribs or the empty trough turned over in the pen, but you started howling and didn’t stop until we brought them home. Then the brown one—Buckwheat—we took out for a ride. (The white one, not yet named, was skittish and mistrustful, would not tolerate mounting.) We walked Buckwheat into the desert and back again, a strange sound echoing over the hills as we walked. We returned and the sound had a source, the white donkey calling for her sister. When she saw Buckwheat, Spark leapt the fence. Atrophy and fear did not allow her grace—her hooves flinting the iron. And so she had her name. Everything of our childhood seems an allegory, you clamoring over an invisible fence after me, but it was also real. Real hooves, real sparks.
Each of us became immediately unhappy in that house and there were times when I considered it cursed. Everything seemed to change for the worse the moment we moved in. It was the first stick-built house we ever lived in, the first big house, a two-story, the style mom described as Cape Cod. No insulation, instead a pigeon infestation. The sound of pigeons fucking day and night. Our stepfather an ex-felon, not permitted to have guns in the house, so mom bought a pellet gun, sat in a lawn chair in the evenings, picked them off. You couldn’t sleep there, had lava dreams, watched a lot of VH1. Our grandma bought you a porcelain doll and you were too gracious about it so she kept buying them, bought you more and more, one for every occasion, so your room filled with them—smooth glass heads, curls painted on, those drowsy eyelashes. I got into feng shui, broke the bad news: our front and back doors were perfectly aligned, inviting the worst kind of energy. The stairs were positioned in such a way that they shot all our blessings right out the front door. Open space upstairs but sound couldn’t move through it. No one could hear anyone, ever, so by the time you got someone’s attention you were already screaming.
Her hands began to shake there. One Christmas I waited for K to come pick me up (was it K?) and she said nonsense things to me, silly things she seemed to know were funny though not why, which amused me. I suppose she must have been in a great deal of pain—even now I cannot simply say: she was hurting. Cannot say: she was sick. She certainly was, but the question is with what? Addiction is one of those concepts I cannot recall learning. A notion I seem to have been born knowing. Others are depression, wife-beating, molestation, the names for all the parts of my body. She taught us these because no one had taught them to her. She’d had to learn for herself, and told us when and where and how she’d learned, was learning. I knew addiction a disease, cureless, though secretly I believed her cured, since she’d not had a drink—not even bananas flambéed in liqueur at the nice restaurant on Mother’s Day—since I was maybe four years old. She was careful to never say she used to be an alcoholic. I always wanted her to—the present tense frightened me. I’d heard stories about when she drank, things she’d done to us when we were little, you protecting me, me protecting you, things neither of us remembered but which she confessed to anyway. For ten years she had cigarettes, coffee, work, gardening, petty fraud, making jewelry, making dinner. She was never still. She never played. I asked how come if people replaced one addiction with another like she said she couldn’t just get addicted to playing with us? That’s not how it works, she said. You can’t get addicted to anything that’s good for you.
Then suddenly she was very still. Hurting all over, she said, though no one could say why, meaning we waited too long. No one believed her, she said, and she was right. Lyme. Perhaps by then she was already her own doctor? (Most of it was out of pocket anyway.) She quit the museum or was fired, no one knew. The Navajo house filled with rocks, bared down on us, stick-built with a brick-and-mortar mortgage. Our stepfather had been feeding his paychecks into slot machines, I learned when I asked him to fill out his portion of the FAFSA. The spring my classmates spent dropping out to have their babies and you spent raising our half sister I spent over-exercising, baffled on the treadmill at how his tax returns said $100,000 per year and yet every day at lunch one of my girlfriends loaned me two dollars so I could buy three Pizza Hut breadsticks or a seven-layer burrito. All the mail went into one massive drawer, unopened, envelopes white then yellow then pink. The phone rang and rang, we did not answer—the caller ID always said UNKNOWN. Soon there were morphine patches and a mortar and pestle so she could grind up her Oxy and snort it. Soon all the blankets and cushions had cigarette burns in them. She watched TV—Star Trek: The Next Generation, X-Files, Law & Order—and we watched her fall asleep with a cigarette smoking between her fingers, caught the cigarette at the fabric’s first singe but not before, for if she woke she’d accuse us of overreacting, of nagging, and we’d have no evidence to the contrary. Many mornings she did not wake up and on some of those she could not wake up. Often there were so many pills she still had some on her tongue in various stages of dissolve. We took turns waiting for the ambulance. We got to know the EMTs. One was a few years older than me, a friend of a friend, and did me the dignity of never acknowledging that we knew each other. I sometimes saw him at parties, sitting on old tires or tailgates, he and I the only ones not chugging Robotussin. He never let on that he’d carried my mother naked on a stretcher down our stairs on more than one occasion. And now I wonder and am often asked how many occasions were there? So many that the emergency wore off. We called the ambulance and then argued who would wait for it, who had a test in first period, who had too many absences, whose teacher was more lenient and whose was a hard ass. My first period was Drama 2. Yours was something hard, something you probably failed. Drama 2, Anatomy & Physiology, Civics, AP English. Volleyball and plays, answering the phones at Domino’s Pizza, lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons in the summer. She called her overdoses accidents. I believed her and you didn’t, though you weren’t unkind with your knowledge, allowed me some denial. So many years ago, when our father was dying, you’d been the one to tell me what dying meant. You’d explained permanence gently but exhaustively in the busted hot tub when I came up for air. So perhaps you thought you needn’t explain it again. Still, it’s a concept I struggle with.
One way to say all this is, Our mother was an addict and she overdosed.
Another way is, Our mother was suicidal and she killed herself.
Another way is, Our mother was poor and ignored and dismissed for years by doctors who put her on legal and extremely profitable heroin, which eventually killed her.
Another way is, Our mother needed help and no one, including us, gave it to her.
And yet you and I have loved each other and her and been loved by each other and by her in all these houses, through all these memories which were once moments, real and felt even if forgotten. We have loved and been loved despite the fissures and losses, violence, cruelty, smallness, timing, deficits in money and attention, despite the betrayals and indifferences, the distance and weather. Despite developing different definitions of certain words. Death, expensive, cold. Why, I wonder, or how? Because the little one was kind, pliant with forgiveness, because you absorbed my failings and defects, made them your grace. There was not enough to go around. Such a handy phrase to describe such mean circumstances. Here is another:
I was born at a good time.
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now. This essay originally appears in Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation.