1. 1. Food Trucks!
I held my breath the first time I saw a man die. It was December and I was 11 years old. The dead man was my uncle Harold, who never figured on reentering civilian life after Vietnam. He drifted from one gig to another—theater usher, high school janitor, security guard—and each gig had one thing in common: he could get away with drinking on the job. Bakersfield was a different place back then, you know.
He didn’t talk much. I never took us to be too close, but since I was his only nephew I guess we were. Sometimes he’d go on trips, never saying where to, and that made my mother sick with anxiety. But he’d always make it back, a little bit worse for wear, and always with a gift for me. Usually it was a new pocket knife, one of those tiny, sissy little Case knives. I’d whittle sticks with them and sometimes chop up earthworms, but usually they’d sit on my night stand and I’d look at the stained bone on them, which is the closest I ever got to appreciating jewelry.
One time uncle Harold come to see me when I was home alone. My old man was on the road, surveying an automobile wreck in Wasco that killed some dumb teenagers, and mother was off in Los Angeles, presumably buying those fancy patterned dresses my old man hated. She always told me to shut up about that.
He said he was just in from New Orleans and he’d brought me something different this time. He told me to wait while he went in the kitchen and got my present cleaned up. I heard the familiar sound of a whiskey bottle uncorking but didn’t think much of it. My grandpa said if you served the country you could drink as much rotgut whiskey as you damn wanted and no man had any business judging you for it.
Then the thud. I ran in the kitchen and I could see just by his eyes that he was dead. My present was one of those shrunken alligator heads. Not sure if it was the real thing but I suppose I don’t care to find out. As I ran to the phone, I held my breath. I don’t really know why. I guess I felt I couldn’t breathe. Like there was death in the air and maybe I would catch it. It was December and I was 11 years old.
2. 2. Live Music!
Some days, when summer rains down hell and even the dog crawls under the porch, I would get so lonely that I forgot there even was other people. I’d sit and listen to the radio. Most of the time they’d play Merle, but other times you’d hear an occasional Loretta Lynn number. I liked her best. She didn’t bullshit you, and I guess that’s what I used to idolize in a girl. In retrospect I don’t know if she was any good, but with where my head was at in those days, it didn’t particularly matter.
If the radio went too long without playing a Loretta Lynn number, I’d get it in my head to ride my bicycle to the Foster’s Freeze. I’d steal some money out of the change jar—I figured my old man owed it to me, for how much time I spent handing him tools in the garage—and set out on journeys to buy a Coca-Cola and marvel at the fact that other people, people not unlike me, saw fit to live in this flat little speck on the map, a million miles away from Los Angeles and what felt like even longer up to San Francisco.
It’d be 110, 115 degrees, but I’d be out there on that bike. Four miles in each direction. Not a bad ride, but I’m surprised I never got heat stroke.
One day, it was middle of August and it felt like the hottest day I’d ever witnessed. Halfway down the road, some kid with a baseball bat stopped me. We were both soaked with sweat. “Give me the fucking money and the fucking bike or I’ll waste you.” I decided to oblige him, and then I never rode to Foster’s Freeze again.
3. 3. The Most Beautiful Women (And Men!) ON EARTH!
There was a neighbor girl who I was friendly with. Anna. Her old man was a dentist or a chiropractor. Maybe he was a preacher. I never paid much attention to the day jobs of my elders, though looking back now I probably should have.
We would walk down to the canal together and throw dirt clods until our arms got tired. Then we’d race home. It was an uncomplicated relationship. We were both 10 and neither of us had the slightest notion of what “sex” was. That was a dirtier word than “fuck” in both our households besides. We just threw dirt into the water and raced home. She always won.
She moved away when I was about 14. Moved with her old man to Illinois. Every year or so, I drive back to that canal and throw rocks in it and think of her. Kind of a ritual. A sentimental sickness, projecting a poetry that simply never existed between us. But I still do it. Keeps me grounded on those really bad days.
4. 4. The Beach!
My grandpa had a place in Lake Isabella, and we’d drive up there when the air finally got too dirty, usually in June. We never did much there. My grandpa just liked to smoke cigarettes near water sometimes, and I liked playing Solitaire and drawing pencil sketches without having my patience punctuated by trucks going by. I was always surprised by how few people were out there, given what a nice view of the water it was and the crimson, smoky red of the sunsets.
My grandpa hated taking pictures—he always said the less proof he ever walked this planet, the better. But to this day I wish I’d brought a camera. I don’t remember much about those summers anymore.
5. 5. Improv Comedy!
It was always a good time, going out to the Indian reservation to buy cigarettes. I knew my grandpa would have that Buck Owens at Carnegie Hall album in the truck, and I knew we’d get to drive up some hills. I always liked hills. The longer you’re stuck walking on flat streets that stretch for countless miles, the more you want to stand on the top of a mountain and survey what’s beneath your feet.
One time, the truck broke down. I don’t remember what the problem was. “Goddam starter” is about the only thing I picked up while my grandpa ranted and smoked cigarette after cigarette the way an angry child might drink a bottle of Yoo-Hoo. There was an odd rebelliousness about it that I rarely saw in the man.
I was too young, too fat and altogether too stupid to help him in a meaningful way with fixing the truck, so he didn’t ask. I sat in the truck bed, on one of my aunt’s old blankets (pockmarked, as they all were, by cigarette burns). There wasn’t anything on the horizon, mostly dirt roads but a couple of paved ones. Just a radio tower blinking 3 red lights. As the sun got oranger and oranger, then redder and redder, I kept fixating on that tower. I’d see how long I could count the blinks. I fell asleep at 700.
Sometime later that night, my grandpa woke me up. The sky was pitch black. “Come on, get in the front, I got the thing working again.” I looked up at the rear view mirror and watched the light as it kept blinking.
6. 6. Careers In Social Media!
I left town about 7 years ago. But sometimes I go check on what’s still there. It’s good to know that things are still there. There’s something familiar about decay—it means you were too stubborn to just up and die. Sometimes I drive out by the Indian reservation and the old antenna, and sometimes I walk to the canal. But usually, I sit on my grandpa’s porch and watch the sun go down, watch the dirt knock the wind chimes back and forth. That tends to be enough.