Thursday, June 21, 2007

Meditations from the back seat

Afterwards bits and pieces filtered back to me in unexpected places, the restaurant where we ate the finest Mexican food ever to pass these lips, in bed wakeful as the night bled away to dawn, in the back yard watching my father feed raw hamburger to one of the wild desert tortoises that call the place home. Nothing was clear. Snatches of conversation, my father talking of our old house on Palomas Street, my brothers joining in, and me dozing fitfully in the back seat of the car, Chaco behind, the night starless and absolute, as if the world had passed away leaving only a thin ribbon of blacktop flashing by in the headlights and an eternal void beyond.

Here was contentment enough for a lifetime, a murmur of familiar voices and familiar events, an annotated history of our collective childhood condensed into a few hours. The lights of Cuba came and went, and as I watched the town soundlessly recede I thought how welcome a cold beer would be, or a cup of coffee, but the opportunity passed and the night engulfed us.

I remember the time I ran that girl over with my bicycle.

Yes, and she deserved it. She kept running in front of you and you’d had enough. The big knobby tires rolled crotch to crown and she came up screaming like she was dying. Some lessons are necessarily painful. And she was a hard learner.

In the darkness it was easy to drift off while they talked of our boyhoods, of the neighbors, many of whom I remembered at least in name if not by face—and those fading fast—and of cats and kittens, of Fuzzy taking on the German shepherd and kicking its butt to protect her litter, one of many for she was nothing if not prolific.

I was reminded of the photos on my mom’s computer, how they held us mesmerized one evening while we were checking our e-mail. Wes and my father had scanned every slide my parents had taken and collected them on a series of DVDs, and as the screensaver began flashing these images conversation faltered and died, only to explode again in laughter and jests. There was Wes looking so studious with his thick-rimmed glasses, and me with a BB gun slung over a shoulder, and Reece in diapers. In one I was dressed in a lime green shirt and scarlet socks, which could explain why school bullies seemed to gravitate toward me. I dressed like that? And here we were at it again, dredging the past with stories rather than photographs.

Will we ever do this again? Time spent with family is time redeemed. This must happen again, I vowed, each year, every year, no matter the mileage, the price of gas, the difficulty of arrangements, the expense. I was blind not to know this, to think these things unnecessary or somehow able to be delayed.

Some stories weren’t told, or remembered, but arrived belatedly. In fifth grade the school bully took offense at something I’d done—possibly that garish costume—and challenged me to a fight on such-and-such a date. There was no way out, calling in sick would have only postponed the inevitable, and though young I instinctively knew this. The day crawled by agonizingly slow, and then we were face to face on the playground, a ring of excited kids goading us on. My brother and a friend stepped through the throng and everything came to a halt. “Let’s take off his pants,” Wes said, and the bully bolted like a jackrabbit.

Later it was my turn. I arrived on the playground just as an adolescent thug was assaulting my younger brother, and I grabbed the back of his shirt and hurled him sideways and he hit the dirt and ate gravel. Everyone was surprised when he came up spitting blood and went for my brother. What, you didn’t learn the first time? He managed to get one hand on Reece before I repeated my action. Behind us his mother leaned on the car horn and shouted obscenities at us but we ignored her. When he finally limped off his clothes were torn and bloody. He learned.

Were those paybacks or the price we willingly paid as brothers? I wondered. And it came to me that though we forget those moments they remain a part of us, somehow encapsulated within our DNA or bone marrow or bloodstream. Our entwined histories an unseverable bond. And such instances as these, time-stepping backwards in the night, somehow brought together again, the years melting away and us young again, sharing laughter, and joy, and communion, an unforgettable, seminal event. Wes was in the front seat, my father driving, and Reece beside me in back. The sacred tribal lands of the Zias and Jemez passed in the darkness, and the Sandias rose unseen from the Rio Grande Valley, and the lights of Albuquerque spread like a glittering carpet across the broad plains. The stories told were ours alone. Palomas Street was where we began, where we learned life. Palomas in Spanish means “dove.” Dove, the emblem of peace.

Headlights illuminated the house. We climbed from the car and evacuated the trunk of cameras, tripods and water bottles. Wes drove off. I popped a beer and slammed it down, and slipped into the bedroom as quietly as I could. Lori stirred and mumbled something. “We’re back,” I said.

“Did you have fun?” she asked.

“Yes.” And more than that. For all my life, through all my journeys, no matter what comes, I will forever be in that car.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful piece, Tom. Thought-provoking, well-written, and universal - I'm sure it took every reader back to family and childhood and school.

And you certainly have a way of putting things ... "Some lessons are necessarily painful. And she was a hard learner."