I had rented a pickup; we’d loaded up at 4:00 AM and were on the road to Santa Barbara. It’s not a bad time to be on the freeway in LA, especially if you’ve had plenty of coffee, which I had.
My youngest was moving into an apartment for the first time, and we cut the darkness of the cab with easy conversation, or rather with a monologue that was triggered by “Do you remember your first apartment, Dad?”
Did. I. Ever.
The Village Glen on Burton Drive, off of Riverside. Then one semester later an apartment across from the HEB up on Red River. Then two semesters at the Villa Orleans on 34th. Then a little place on Duval, not too far from Speedway. Then employee housing at Keystone, in Dillon, a long way from Texas. Then back in Austin on a couch in Joey Orr’s place, across from the tennis courts on 24th and Lamar. Then a room in Jeff and Sue’s place on Pearwood Place.
Each one of those places brought back a menagerie of faces and a circus of events, selectively recounted to a son who seemed to be listening.
Somewhere way past Ventura I ran out of apartment stories and he switched on what I would have called the radio but was in reality a playlist. That’s the first time I’ve ever written “playlist.” I had to think for a minute what it was called … you know, the radio.
The first lick was “Hard Travelin’,” and it was a Woody Guthrie album, which is kind of appropriate since my son’s name is in fact Woodrow. Those were the same songs I played on my CD player when he was tiny and we were living in the Panhandle; early imprinting. They were the same songs my dad played on our record player at our house in Galveston back in the late 60’s. Three generations of imprinting, you might say.
When it came to “Boll Weevil Blues” I asked him if he knew what a boll weevil was. He didn’t. I guess you had to have read a lot about the Great Depression or sharecropping or have grown up in the South, but as I told him what a boll weevil was and what Woody meant when he sang that the boll weevil would “get your Cadillac 8” I reflected that words we don’t know are a deep insight into our lives.
Kind of like the day a couple of weeks ago when I was in the bike shop. A pale overweight guy came in with his pale overweight kid and handed the bike to the mechanic. “Flat tire,” the dad said, without even a howdoyoudo. This is how grown-ups speak to each other now, I guess.
It occurred to me that a grown man who couldn’t fix a flat was unthinkable when I was a kid. You had bikes so you had flats. And nobody “fixed” them for you. You peeled off the tire with a screwdriver, you filled a bucket with water, you pumped some air into the tube to find the hole, you dried the tube and you patched it. Then you stuffed it back in, flipped the bead back onto the rim with the screwdriver, aired it up and went on about your business, which generally involved ramps and scrapes and direct blows to the head and no helmets or gloves and often no shoes.
But the mechanic wasn’t surprised at all. He popped off the front wheel and looked at the tire. “Here it is,” he said. “You got a thorn.”
The kid, who was fifteen at least, deadpanned. “What’s a thorn?”
I got ready to laugh at the joke when I noticed the dad wasn’t smiling. The mechanic paused for a second. This was new, even for him. “You know,” he said. “A thorn.” It was as if the kid had said “What’s a head?” and the mechanic had said, “You know, your head. That thing on top of your neck.”
“What’s a thorn?” repeated the kid, who was pretty much almost a grown man.
I waited for the father to turn red from embarrassment, or to leap into the breach and do the fatherly job of explaining, but he stood there as if the state of his son’s mind was someone else’s job, certainly not his. The mechanic pulled out the thorn and held it up for the young adult to see, the young adult who had reached puberty and was almost old enough to vote and join the army and kill people, without ever having met Mr. Thorn. “This is a thorn. It grows on plants. Then it dies and falls off. It’s real sharp. See?” He gently poked his own finger with it. “It’ll go through your skin. Or a tire. So try not to ride over them if you can avoid it, which you sometimes can’t.”
The kid looked with mild interest at this incredible discovery and the even more complex explanation, and nodded. “Wow,” he said. I figured the mechanic would save the mysteries of the inner tube for another time.
As I rode home I reverse engineered the life of a kid who didn’t know what a thorn was. He’d never run barefoot in a field, that’s for sure. He’d never howled in pain, flopped on the grass, and jerked his foot up to dig out a stickerburr, which is what we called them in Texas. He might have never even sniffed his own stinky feet. He’d never spent June hopping and yelling over hot tar and asphalt only to walk calmly over it in August after a summer spent building up calluses tougher than any shoe leather. I figured there were probably a lot of other things he hadn’t done.
He’d never walked along the railroad tracks picking dewberries and blackberries and eating them fresh off the vine, that’s for sure. If he had, he’d be more intimate with thorns than that mechanic was with flat tires. He’d never handled a rose, let alone had to trim a rose bush, which meant he’d never had his nose shoved up against one of the sweetest smells on earth, free for the breathing.
He’d never gardened with his hands covered in dirt, pushing moist soil over the shallow indentation that housed a freshly planted seed, and he’d certainly never watched it grow into a cucumber or a radish or a strawberry, then picked it before it was ready to eat out of excitement. He’d probably never thrown rocks at a nest of yellow jackets, played with a garter snake, filled up a styrofoam cup with night crawlers to use for fishing, stuck his hand down a dark, dank post hole to rummage for toads, cut his finger trimming his nails with a blunt pocketknife, made firefly lanterns, been stung by a scorpion, or watched to see how long it would take a doodle bug to unroll. I doubt he had ever caught a lizard, filled a jar up with ladybugs, chased and caught a butterfly, or been bitten after learning the hard way that you never try to take a bone out of a dog’s mouth, even if it’s your dog. He’d probably never stepped in dog shit in his new sneakers and had to dig the shit out of the treads with a stick. He’d probably never played Truth or Dare in the woods, been scared by an owl’s hoot, or tossed a lit firecracker off a bridge.
Suddenly it was silent in the pickup as the last song ended. “Well, we’re here, I guess,” I said.
I moved him in. It took fifteen minutes. We hugged. “Thanks, Dad,” he said, and he backed it up with one of those strong hugs you ache for. I pointed the car onto the highway but didn’t bother turning on the radio.
The passenger seat in the cab was empty now, but actually, it wasn’t.
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PS: Don’t forget the Wanky’s. As if you could.