I’m in the back seat with everything I own. Not that I have that much. I am bringing my canteen though, and I wore my cowboy boots. I have packed myself and all my stuff in the Nash. I couldn’t put any of it in the trunk; that’s where my Grandmother’s dogs ride. I believe I will be here for a spell. For now I just sit here waiting to go; sweating, and wishing I could smoke a cigarette.
The back seat splits in two and each half folds down and you can crawl right into the trunk if you want or out of the trunk if you want. If it wasn’t for me in half of the back seat, my Grandfather could recline his drivers seat all the way back and sleep there, right in the car every night. If it wasn’t for the dogs, so could my Grandmother.
That’s what’s special about the Nash. What’s special about me is I’m always in trouble. For standing up for my rights. For protecting my Mom from her husband. For telling the truth about falling in love with an older woman. It’s what got me here in the backseat. If Ellen was 16 and I was 18, instead of the other way around like it is, then I guess you could say I deserved it. Mom’s looking at me from the porch with that sad “why can’t you behave” look.
Behaving to her is me letting a bastard like Edgar run my life. Behaving to her is letting him smack her around for having too much lipstick on or for telling the TV repair guy he could come over in the afternoon and look the old TV that doesn’t work. The next time after that when he came for her, I laid him out.
Edgar leans in the front window looks back at me and says “Son, you will have to learn that in this life that there are consequences for your behaviors. To live under my roof you have to play by my rules.”
I am not his son. But he is my Mom’s husband and I guess she loves him more than me, even with his hollering and slapping. Because they have decided that I ride with my Grandparents all the way from Stockton to Pierre South Dakota in the back seat of the Nash, and be left there with my Grandfather’s brother and his family “for a season or two”. They say they have a ranch, but it sounds a lot more like a farm to me.
Now I am lying on my back across my half of the back seat and play fighting with Riley. He is pulling on an old rag and growling. Tippy is looking out from the trunk trying to decide if she should join the action.
“Dean can’t you be still, boy!” my Grandmother says.
The back windows of the Nash do not roll up or down; they open a little bit at the back with a kind of snap is all. We are having a good time. Riley is pulling so hard that I have to brace my feet against the window and the snap opens. I see my Grandfather’s eyes in the rear view.
“Get your boots off the window, boy.” he says from behind the wheel. Then he says, “Like havin’ a goddam colt in the back seat.” He thought I couldn’t hear that but I could.
I might have told him that being a colt was better than being a worn out old bull, but I didn’t. He worked thirty years for the Railway Postal Service after he hurt his back busting broncs and riding rodeo while his brother worked their farm outside Pierre.
One time he told me, “Orville got the ranch and I got a pension.”
He also got a .45 ACP Colt 1911 from the RPS that he keeps in a holster in the glove box of the Nash. He doesn’t think I know about that, but I do.
I sit up and lean on the back of the front seat close to my Grandmother. She is slicing a yellow apple with a little wooden handled knife. I let her put a piece in my teeth. She smells like lilacs. I think she is at least fifty but still kind of pretty. Her hair is pulled up and I can see her sweat in the creases on the back of her neck. I want to wipe her neck off with the rag Riley and I were playing with but I realize she would not cotton to that.
“Open your window more if you’re hot, Gramma.” I say.
“Oh, I’m fine Dean.” She says.
Then, “There’ll be lots of girls your age there. They have dances on Saturdays.”
Like I care about dances, I might have said. I’m being sent away from the most beautiful women ever and you think that squaring up with some heifers at an American Legion hall dance will make it better?
“Will they be pretty as you, Gramma?” I say.
A truck in front of us slows down to 30 as we go around a curve.
“Son of a bitch.” my Grandfather says.
Going up the Sierras toward Tahoe, the Nash keeps overheating. My Grandfather says that we get the other side of Tahoe, it’s all downhill to Carson. We’ll have to worry about the brakes then. But for now we have to pull over every hour or so, let her cool off, and top off the radiator. We got a little routine down. My Grandfather hollers at me “Water Boy!”, and I holler back “Right, Pops!”
I push the latch on the back of his seat and roll out his door to get the jerry can of water off the back bumper while he goes to the front of the Nash and opens the hood. It’s like a drill; a game with us.
Taking a rag in his hand, he’ll slowly open the radiator cap to release the pressure. I’ll hand him the tin funnel and he’ll nod at me to pick up the 6 gallon jerry can and pour the water in.
“How much water we got left, boy?”
“About half, Pops.”
We’re at a little roadside rest stop. My Grandmother is sitting in the shade at a beat up old picnic table with the dogs at her knees. She is feeding them little chunks of milk bone. She is always feeding something or somebody. There is a well head with an iron hand pump a couple yards from the table.
“Better get us some more water, boy. We can’t be without water. You remember that. Being without water out here can get a man in real trouble, real quick.”
On the way to the pump I reach in the back seat to get my canteen and head over to the shade with that and the jerry can. The mouth of the jerry can is nice and wide, so I set it under the spigot of the pump and start working the handle. It’s squeaking and making sucking noises but nothing is happening.
My Grandmother looks over. “You’ve got to prime it Darlin’. You’ve got to pour some water in the top first, just there; that’s right.”
I pour water from my canteen in the hole at the top of the pump and start working the handle. It spits out rusty red water and reminds me of what Edgar looked like after I took him to school; then it begins to gush out clear as it pulls through the head. It is too much flow to go right into the jerry can and it splashes all over. At first I worry that I’m wasting water. I look over at my Grandfather. He is on the passenger side of the Nash now, doing something with the battery, it looks like. Probably checking the cables. Just making sure everything is OK. He looks up from under the hood when he hears the squeaking of the pump handle and now he sees that I am getting good water. He waves his approval with the back of his hand, like ‘carry on’.
I’m lugging the full jerry can back to the Nash when I see them. Three guys in an old pickup truck with Nevada plates go past down grade real slow and look us over. I wave with my free hand, but none of them wave back. My Grandfather is still under the hood and I don’t know if he’s seen them or not. I’m about 50 feet from the Nash when I see them coming back and turn in to the gravel cut where we are. The driver stops and the other two guys get out. They are a raggedy-ass looking pair; not like the cowboy types we saw around at the fuel stop. One of them takes something out of the bed of the pickup and holds it behind his back. The other one, a skinny, mean looking guy with a brown hat mashed low over his eyes has got a tire iron. They start walking toward my Grandfather; the pickup creeping slowly behind them, tires crunching on the gravel as they roll up on the Nash. It takes me a couple seconds to realize that they do not mean us well.
I drop the jerry can and holler “Pops!” I did not think he saw them, but he did. In one move he reaches in the open passenger window and pulls the 1911 out of the glove box.
“Far enough, boys!” He has pulled back the slide, cocked the gun, chambered a round, and is holding it steady on them over the passenger door, before I can get three steps. “Drop the toys!” he hollers at them. Then to me, “Go pick that stuff up Dean.”
The bigger of the two starts to head toward me. The 1911 barks and a round kicks up dirt and gravel at his feet. An empty shell casing pings off the hood of the Nash. The skinny guy has already dropped his tire iron and now the big guy drops what I can see is a baseball bat. Grinding gears from reverse to first the driver is trying to turn around. Skinny is in the cab just quicker than hell. The other guy? What is all of a sudden about 250 pounds of chicken shit is trying to get about and into the bed of the moving truck. He grabs the side and tries to jump over into the bed but the truck fishtails in the gravel. How he hangs on is a miracle, but I guess the thought of the next round from that 1911 going up into his big ass gives him what he needs and he finally makes it, landing on a roll of barbwire coiled up in the back of the truck. The old truck disappears down the highway and around a curve. I never hear it come out of first gear.
“You OK, boy?” my Grandfather asks.
“Pick up the brass, Dean.” Then to my Grandmother, “Come on Shirl. We should get moving.”
She is already gathering up her sketchbooks and putting the pups in the trunk. Riley jumps right in but Tip can’t jump, she is so old.
“I got her Gramma.” I say. I’m holding the still warm shell casing in one hand and hand it to my Grandfather. He puts it with a dozen others in a cigar box that was under his seat, to reload. Tippy whines a little bit when I scoop her up and put her in the trunk.
Edgar hated dogs. Especially old dogs like Tippy. He would never say anything when my grandparents were around, but before they would come to visit he would bitch at Mom something awful.
“Them goddam dogs ain’t coming in the house. You make sure they stay out of my way, Marie. I am not shitting you one little bit. I will beat the living shit out of either one of them if they get in my way.”
Mom would come up to him and shush shush him, putting her finger on his stupid looking trout lips; looking up at him like he was just a big baby who needed a little comforting. I will never understand why she just didn’t tell him, “Those dogs have been in the family longer than you, Edgar Johnson. You will not touch them.” But I suppose if she wouldn’t tell him that for me she sure as hell wouldn’t stick up for the dogs.
We never seen the guys in the pick-up again. When we made grade and were rolling downhill I pulled out some postcards I had bought in Placerville. I wanted to write one to my Mom and one to Ellen, but mostly Ellen. I wanted to explain to her why I left her the way I did, and ask her to keep an eye on Mom. I knew anything I wrote to Mom, Edgar would read. I picked one for Ellen that had a cowboy on a white horse with a big brand on its flank. He was leading a mule with gear on behind him and the card said “Cowboy Looking for a Job”. I thought it might have reminded Ellen a little of me. We used to talk about how if I could find a job this summer, I could quit school, being sixteen now and we could elope and be together. No need for a fancy wedding or anything.
Mom and Edgar sure didn’t have one. Him and Mom just showed up one day after a trip to Vegas. Mom gave me a picture of them in a cardboard folder. He was in a tie and Mom had her real pretty blue dress on and a big flower pinned to it. She looked real happy. He looked like his regular dumb ass self.
“Honey, we’re man and wife now; me and Edgar.” She said.
“Yep. Justice of the peace.” Edgar stood there looking at me like, what are you gonna do about that now, Sonnywax?
It took me a minute to understand what they were telling me. I had just come back from Ellen’s house. We had spent the afternoon watching TV and making out. I had a serious case of blue balls and was thinking of jerking off. You might say I was not in the mood for an announcement like that.
“You’re married?” I said.
“That’s what ‘man and wife’ means, Dean. Look it up. Man and wife. Wife and man. The twain shall become as one.” Getting all Biblical and shit on me.
He held up Moms left hand and waved it in my face, like he was giving me the finger. She had on about the skinniest gold ring I had ever seen.
“Isn’t it pretty?” my Mom said.
I sat there in the Nash for the longest time with that postcard in my lap and a stubby little pencil in my fingers. Between bumps in the road I wrote “Dear Ellen. Will write more later. We are almost to Carson City. My Grandfather shot at two bandits today. Would you please tell my Mom I am OK. I still love you. Dean.”
I was going to say “with all my heart”, but I don’t believe I do.
“Dean, darlin’. Who are you writing that card to?”
My Grandmother has turned around to check on the dogs who have made their entrance into the back seat from the trunk. She is feeding Tippy the little in-between sections of a navel orange she has peeled.
“Mom, Gramma.” I say.
“Liar.”, I hear in my head. I do not think of myself as a liar, but I just told one. And that’s what liars do.
The week before we left for Pierre, I nearly added murder to my sins. I thought I killed my stepfather. He was lying on the kitchen floor just twitching a little bit and his left arm was flopping back and forth like he was trying to pull something off his nose, which I was pretty sure I broke. Uncle Mark, my real dad’s brother had been in the US Army over in Germany. He killed a German soldier he surprised one day who was just sitting around eating lunch. The story goes that Uncle Mark came up on him and said the only German words he knew, “Mach Schnell” or something like that, the German soldier went for his pistol and Uncle Mark shot him twice in the chest with his Garand. He still has that guy’s helmet. It has “Wolf” scratched inside the back neck protector that the Kraut helmets had. He told me the way you can tell that a guy is dead is if he is twitching. Wounded guys just lay there real still. But I guess he was wrong about that because pretty soon Edgar started to moan and swear.
“Goddam you Dean. Youdun it dis time. You definadly craught the line. You will regret dis til da day you die.”
As he talked bubbles of blood and snot were coming out of his nose, and I could taste the blood in my own mouth where he had caught me with a windmill just as he was going down. I know it was pretty much dumb luck that I connected that hard with a good left
jab after Edgar took his first swing at me. I’m really not much of a fighter, but after Gary Schneider kicked my ass on the last day of my freshman year I pretty much decided that
wasn’t going to happen again. I did study up on it some. Edgar was on his elbow, trying to get up. My Mom heard us crashing around and came running in.
“Edgar! Dean, what have you done! Daddy! Mother! Oh, Edgar!”
It was like she didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. Finally she went to the fridge and cracked open a tray of ice cubes and wrapped a dish towel around them. I just stood there to make sure that Edgar didn’t have any more fight left in him, which he didn’t.
By now the whole family was there. My grandmother was already wiping up the blood spatters on the floor and the kitchen cabinets. Mom knelt down next to Edgar and was holding the ice on his nose, saying “Oh my baby, my poor baby.”
“Looks like a murder happened here. My Lord.” was all my Grandmother said.
My Grandfather was standing in the door, just looking things over. With two fingers on his right hand he motioned for me to come over to him. I did.
“I think a strategic retreat is in order here, boy. Make yourself scarce.”
“Right, Pops.” I said.
I knew what he meant, but just the same I kind of resented it. Ever since Edgar moved in with us and especially since my Mom married him, I’ve been getting scarcer and scarcer. I had told my Grandfather about the time Edgar slapped Mom and how he hollered at her all the time. About what he said at the table the night of their first anniversary.
My Mom had made a cake and cooked a meatloaf. As she was cutting the cake, Edgar held up a glass of beer and said “Here’s to one year of marriage and two years of great sex.” That just isn’t something you say in front of your wife’s son. The thought made my stomach turn.
“It’s none of our business, boy. Your Mom has got a good head on her shoulders. She’s just a little love struck right now. She’ll straighten him out.” is all he said. But I told Edgar that if he ever touched my Mother again or said a mean word to her, I’d whip his ass or die trying. He just laughed at me, but he’s laughing out of the other side of his face now.
I didn’t know it then, as I walked over to Ellen’s house, but pretty soon I would be so scarce it would be like I never existed in her life at all. Now who would have thought that would be possible? I saw pictures in my science book last year of the night sky that there were just rivers of stars in and Mr. Delamater said that each of those little pinpoints of light were whole galaxies. So I guess if that’s possible, anything is.