and pork rinds
. in fact, he's the reason I associate Suburbans
or any large, lunchbox-like vehicle
with the smells that I do, with the old west
he read Louis L'Amour books. as far as I can remember, that's all he ever read, but that's not fair, because I don't remember so much about him in the first place. when I think of him, I think in associations. I think of scenes, comical and strangely sad, and I don't call these memories.
I am eight years old, on a houseboat on the Sacramento River
. Before the trip, we buy an AM radio, jug wine, bait
. I remember one line from the four country songs we heard: We're gonna ride like the one-eyed Jack of Diamonds with the devil close behind
. It is on this trip that I get over my fear of putting worms on hooks. It is on this trip that I pretend to be groggy as he softly hums Johnny Cash
tunes while I pretend to sleep, waking up just at the last second to keep him singing his only form of lullaby
. It is on this trip that I have my first glass, a plastic tumbler, of thick red wine
. I do not get drunk, insofar as I can remember. I will not have another drink for ten years.
We fish off the roof of the boat, because the excitement was greater when we actually caught something. One night, we keep a fish under the limit so we could eat. We didn't keep anything else we caught.
Age six, we are on Cow Mountain
at a hunting camp. We are behind some trees that are just at the edge of a meadow
. He has me look down the barrel of his rifle
, through the sights
, line them up at a buck at the other end of the field. He hits it in one shot -- he really was an excellent shot -- and the buck
folds like a poker player with a bum hand. We walk forward, he takes out his hunting knife
and slices the animal from neck to crotch in a practiced motion. He is explaining: the bullet went through the shoulder and into the heart. he didn't feel a thing, and died instantly. this is the stomach. these are the intestines. we need to take these out before we take the deer back to camp. and this -- shit
. There were really only a couple of times when he'd swear in front of me -- while drinking and while driving -- so it was always amusing when there was an exception. What? I ask. Nothing, I -- I just popped the piss bag.
There are pictures from this trip of he and I urinating into a ditch. My mom thought these were very amusing, but now they are nowhere to be found.
The cook at the camp is called Cookie, which today I would find very rustically charming. I show him my Garfield books, have him explain some of the jokes I might not have gotten. Cookie is a pleasant man, but he cooks like the school cafeteria. I look back today and think that that's exactly how I'd want it to be.
The big surprise at the end of the trip was that dad was giving me a puppy, a fox terrier who later become a holy terror. This was not cleared with my mother. We stop at a payphone near Susanville so I can tell her. She thinks I am talking about a stuffed animal, and is infuriated that he actually got me a real dog, especially since he then gets to go back home to Lake Tahoe and not deal with the minor things, like housebreaking the damn animal.
The first time I realize he is mortal, that he isn't some ageless legend, is when I see his catheter
. I am fourteen years old. It isn't the morphine conversations
, the eyes cloudy and out of focus. It isn't the platelet
counts or the way I fearlessly ask him if his cancer is genetic
. It is the nurse, changing his catheter, and his penis (which I haven't seen or even thought about since I was about three years old at a neighboring urinal)
lying limp on his thigh, reducing him in status from the world's last cowboy
The last days are nothing one would etch in a memory. He is living on a borrowed ranch in Gardnerville. There is an eight year old horse who does nothing but bite me when I feed her, so I leave her alone and ride around the land on an ATV. There is going through grandma's video collection with him and my sister, which is the first time I see The Breakfast Club. There is oooh'ing-and-aaah'ing over his high-tech hospital bed, the white noise generator nearby to drown out the sound of the bed's air pump. There is the woman who is looking after him who will eventually excommunicate him from the majority of his offspring: only I am spared, but I'm sure she was working on me when he finally did die. There is her daughter, who is four years younger than I and thought Free Willy was the best movie ever. There are bookshelves full of Louis L'Amour books. There are dinners with his business friends, good family men. There is a reluctant lesson on shaving, a gift of an electric razor.
A couple of months later, I am fifteen and he is dead. I find a photograph of him, still miraculously overweight but now using a cane to get around, showing me how to use the ATV, how to shift with my foot, just like a motorcycle. When my sister was eleven, he taught her how to drive one of the many large Suburbans in his life. This is what I get.
Twelve years old, one of his larger houses in Lake Tahoe
. I would find out about five years later that the main reason he kept moving so often was because he stayed on the property of friends until kindness and grace were no longer acceptable forms of payment
. I think this one was in Zephyr Cove
, maybe Round Hill
. I sleep on a hide-a-bed in the basement when I visit. I am up with a couple of friends, all of us are in awe of the fiber optics fireworks display
that he somehow got ahold of through work. We played mock poker on the game tables. This was the high life
Ages five through fifteen. He drives down from Lake Tahoe
to pick me up for the weekend, one weekend every one or two months, more often in the summer. He is building the casino another hotel, or renovating the arcade, or orchestrating the plans for casinos on indian reservations across the country, or getting his foot in the door on the Hard Rock Hotel
project. This is what he does. So he picks me up, we get home and breathe for a bit, and then he tells me he has to go to work. He brings me along, hands me two rolls of quarters, and points me towards the arcade. I become proficient in skee ball
, a crack shot at shooting galleries
. I grow fond of shooters, learn to hate Street Fighter
at an early age, at its first release when you could really only choose Ryu
and it was impossible to move the characters on the damn screen. A couple hours later, I'm out of quarters and he tracks me down. I can never remember what we actually do at home: he cooks steak, I guess
, and we play cards -- cribbage
mainly -- probably. He drinks Crown Royal
, fills the bags with coins and distributes them at a later date to my sister and I.
I am nine years old, we are on a ranch between Reno
. It takes most people about an hour and a half to follow the route we are, but it takes my dad about three days. He has too many friends, people he's sold tractors to or had drinks with or any other number of things. I am envious of his relations with other human beings
, but I can't put that envy into words like that at my age. I know the names of every dinosaur that ever existed, but out in the desert, he is trying to teach me constellations, to fill my head with fatherly information
At night, I wake up and have to use the bathroom. I remember it is outdoors, so I take a flashlight, find my shoes, and slip out the kitchen door. I cross through the sagebrush and don't even need to use the light through the full moon's grace. There are two buildings, both about the same size. I take a guess and chose the structure closest to the ranch house.
A skinned coyote stares back at me, swaying in the moonlight. I am speechless, I am sick. I no longer need to use the bathroom. Behind me in the dust there are footsteps. I don't look up, but I know he his there. He picks me up on his shoulders and carries me back to the ranch.
He was married three times, my sister and I were the products of the third. He was divorced three times, with three children. Neither my sister or I get along all that well with our half-brother, who drinks Budweiser
and shoots pool and has a wife and two kids and is an engineer for a major oil company.
He was better at being a person than he was at being a father. These are my stories. There are more, of course, but these are the most graphic, the ones that paint my picture of the man. One more go around, doing exactly the same things, I would've remembered exactly the same things. These are not memories. They are stories that smell like tobacco and dusty seat covers and horses.