The distant lights of Bennett, Colo., grow fuzzy and indistinct as if drawn behind a veil. Seconds later snow whips through the headlights in a blinding cloud. Lori scrambles to find a forecast or road report as I swear and fret and grip the wheel tightly and ask rhetorically why am I here, but I know why, it’s because of the kids and the grandkids and the places you find yourself because of them, places you never thought you’d be, or wanted to for that matter. As the road disappears behind a white wall I drop my speed and think of the 500 miles separating us from home and how her smile would melt glaciers, how her fingers were so tiny they could not fit around mine.
Her name is Hailey Madison Parker, born Dec. 9, 2007, to our firstborn, Joel Matthew, and his lovely wife Michelle. Hailey’s a little thing, with a scruff of reddish hair fine as silk, chipmunk cheeks, expressive blue eyes that take in everything and eyelashes heartbreakingly long. We met her in Colorado on one of those rapidfire trips where we were gone practically before we arrived.
If it had been up to me I would have waited to go until warmer weather. Being the impatient grandmotherly type she is, my wife insisted we go at once. Storms prevented our departure several times and the weather this time didn’t look so promising, either. I reasoned with her that the longer we waited the more there would be of Hailey to love, but Lori refused to listen. For her part, she bribed me with promises of La Loma, the second-best Mexican food restaurant in the known universe. Thirty-three years of marriage have educated me in the fine art of losing out to a wife’s persistence. We went.
Babies are something of a mystery to me. When we were dating, Lori’s friends warned that I’d be a lousy father. Such dire predictions were based not on any inside knowledge but due to my unwillingness to coo and goggle over their brats. I didn’t care one whit about their kids and made no bones about it.
My kids were different. I loved them and cared for them and when they moved on I returned my full attention to my wife. It seemed the natural order of things though at some level I suspected I was failing somehow. When our first granddaughter was born I don’t remember being there for her.
Deep down in we want to better ourselves. When we walked through Joel and Michelle’s door and Hailey looked at me there wasn’t enough air to fill my lungs.
That evening we crossed town to see our other son, Benjamin, a tattoo artist. As we drove up East Colfax I pointed out places from my past, as if anybody cared other than me. There was the strip club where the stripper took me by the hand and tried taking me down the back stairs—me terrified at her plans, and the owner suspicious too, who ordered her back to the stage for some bump and grind. It was the first strip club I’d ever been in, having been treated by coworkers for my 21st birthday.
The McDonald’s was still there and just as grungy as I remembered, and the Moroccan and Ethiopian restaurants. We passed druggies, junkies, streetwalkers and men walking hand in hand, and the alleys branching off were dark and menacing. Colfax hadn’t changed a bit. Despite a minor cosmetic facelift it was nothing that a little napalm wouldn’t improve, or a lot, considering its length. Not only is it the longest commercial street in the nation, according to urban legend, but Playboy magazine once called it “the longest, wickedest street in America.”
We turned into an alley and parked in a small fenced lot. The dim light barely contained the shadows. I hung back, studying them for movement. Perhaps I was too paranoid but this had once been my life, and now was the world our youngest son inhabits.
Hailey seemed especially entranced at the non-child-friendly posters stapled to the ceiling of the tattoo parlor. As we were talking a scruffy black man entered and began stripping off his shirt. His pants, perched precariously on his skeletal hipbones, didn’t have far to go before they fell off as well. “Oh, man, here I am taking my clothes off in front of everybody,” he said, suddenly aware of the women in the room. He wanted Ben to correct a crude jailhouse tattoo on his arm and shoulder, and also embellish his entire back. He was carrying a six-pack of Corona. I wondered if he’d share.
The next day we drove back to Capitol Hill to see our daughter-in-law, Marcee, and our other granddaughter, Sage Nicole, a vivacious seven-year-old suddenly grown into a beautiful, shy young lady. I wasn’t sure my heart could take the strain.
And then, almost without realizing it, we were gone. The road whitened and disappeared behind a blank nothingness but life never gives us a chance to turn around. There was nothing else to do but go on, unseeing, blind, hauling our memories and failed dreams and idealistic hopes for a better tomorrow, and did I mention that her smile would melt glaciers, that her fingers were so tiny they would not fit around mine.