Counting the Miles

The reception was fading in and out as we crossed the desert in a rented car with no tape player, only the radio. Terrence had brought nearly three dozen tapes along, but as they did him no good, he slept in the back seat most of the trip. It was already a long trip, and he made it longer with his customary unwillingness to accept setbacks. When we picked the car up in South Florida, he took one look at the stereo and fell into a funk that hadn't lifted, days later, as we crossed from New Mexico into Arizona. The signal I was trying to catch sounded weak and distant, no announcers, just records that sounded at least eighty years old-- Terrence would have loved it. The sun set and I struggled to make out the slowly dying sound of Robert Johnson as the sky turned from blue to pink to orange to black. Since I hoped to get this trip out of the way as soon as possible, I had been driving more or less non-stop all day, except for bathroom breaks and the time I stopped to use all of our film taking pictures of an old, destroyed bridge. We meant to get new pictures of everyone, for dad. The truth though, is this: no one likes having their pictures taken at a funeral, especially not for the benefit of our father. The whole family felt he was sick in the head, and who was I to argue? My position officially was, if a dying old man makes a simple request, we should make an effort to accommodate him. Confidentially, though, I couldn't see what difference it was going to make to him if he had a few pictures of people he didn't like and who didn't like him. He never kept pictures of any of us around-- and he was going to be dead soon, anyway.

I had been trying to avoid this line of thought for several hours when Terrence woke up and asked "How did you find this station and why didn't you wake me up?"

I didn't answer because I didn't want to get into the fact that he is like a two-year-old when woken up-- waking up in a bad mood is one thing, but a grown man actually crying? I lied and told him that I had tried to rouse him.

"We should take some time and see the Grand Canyon," he said. I told him the same thing I had told him when he wanted to go to Disney world, The Alamo, and Bourbon Street; I had to get home and back to work because I had responsibilities.

"A responsibility is an obligation, a burden, in other words: something you don't have a choice in--not that you would understand that, Terrence."

His answer: "You're turning into Dad. You talk like him, you drive like him, and sometimes, you even look like him. This started me fuming and I doubt that I spoke another two words for the next two hours, while Terrence got very excited by some song on the radio.

"I can't believe they have a station that plays all this great Delta Blues this far west."

I haven't mentioned his magazine. Terrence, with the help of some like-minded, unemployed young men, publishes a magazine about American folk music before 1940; "publish" in this case meaning photocopy on the sly whenever he demeans himself enough to take a temp job. They write about obscure records, old dusty records, scratchy, warped records, and lost, out-of-print records that may never have existed. Half the time, you have no idea what they're talking about, but that doesn't matter, because no one reads it. What does he get out of it? The one time our father read one, his only reaction was that no one would ever pay him to write about music you can't even find anywhere. Our mother, on the other hand, loves them and constantly sends him little gifts of money, to cover "expenses," though he lives rent-free with our aunt in Michigan. I should have said that she loved them and sent him money because she is gone (it was her funeral we were leaving).

She was the sole subscriber to "Soul Music of the Century" who was not a regularly submitting contributor. She never listened to anything but Herb Alpert or Frank Sinatra, but she never missed an issue. What she did with them, I never thought to ask. It was not lost on me that now that he is old enough and should be providing for himself, she tries to support him, but as a kid he had to be in the emergency room to get her attention. And he often was, too -- he was small and easily broken. Okay, so maybe I'm not being fair to her -- Terrence says I'm too harsh with her. What I mean is, I was too harsh with her. It's not easy getting used to saying that. Why is it hard to adjust to someone being gone who wasn't around? It's so final. I think Terrence and I sort of expected that even if we didn't see her this year, there was always next year or the year after that.

Maybe I should back up, though, so you don't think I have -- had -- something against her. She really did try to be there for us, she would just forget things. Her children, for example. After the third time mall security guards had to call the police to get us home, our aunts started getting together to discuss what would become of us. The fire in the apartment was the last straw for her sisters, and frankly, I think it scared her too. She didn't fight for us, and after the first year or so, we didn't see all that much of her.

Now she was gone, and the old man was slowly dying in a hospital in Vegas, so we would be orphans. We were being orphaned at thirty-eight and thirty-one, and we might as well have been orphans since we were sent to live with our aunt, but now this was permanent. Our folks had divorced bitterly when I was just about seven and Terrence was somewhere around nine months old, and we lived with Aunt Rita in Lansing, Michigan from then until I seized the opportunity to leave and never looked back. I really mean it when I say I never looked back-- I went to Boston for a little while, worked in telephone sales, migrated to Southern California for a few years and eventually settled in Chicago-- and put my family and my childhood out of my mind. It takes a lot to get ahead in the world, I did what I could. I never avoided anybody--whatever they may say-- not intentionally anyway--I never refused an invitation, for example-- but you can't dwell on these things forever.

Being there, though, with all her friends and relatives, seeing her, for the first time in eight years, was not the experience that it was supposed to be. First of all, I thought they were going to feed us all, but they only had a sickly little vegetable tray and some flat ginger ale. And they all asked so many questions: Does he still--? Did you ever--? When will you come back? I went to see her and touched her hand, but I could hardly recognize her--she hadn't been blonde when she moved to Florida, and she had gotten so old. Things got uncomfortable when I mentioned Dad's name and his wish to have pictures of the family, all these years later they can't bring themselves to forgive him. I'm not saying that I am cool with the whole thing, but he is family and you can't let these things run your life. But with her relatives, if you just mention his name, you're just as bad as he was.

Because Terrence wanted a chance to say his goodbyes to the old man before it was too late, I agreed to fund this road trip, entirely for him. Our father, you see, will most likely be dead in less than a year, and our parents, who haven't done anything together in almost thirty years, will be committing this one final act, almost in unison. Only a continent separating them--the closest any of us have been in years. I can't imagine that it's going to be easy for Terrence to see the old man after all this time. I keep watching him to see if his attitude changes as we get nearer the "confrontation." He just keeps up this disinterested/optimistic front, though. No anger or fear--he seems more concerned with the music on the radio. It would be sort of ironic if he's forgiven Dad, because he's got the best case against him.

I've inherited the responsibility for Dad now, to the surprise of no one. I would defy anyone to find a situation where I've ever shied away from responsibility. My reward? I'm the one they always call on when they don't want to deal with something. Now I get to share my tiny apartment with the pickiest eater over the age of seven. I get god-awful talk radio all damn day and all night and the stink of generic menthol cigarettes in the morning. Do I get a free trip to Vegas?

But we are going to deal with whatever happens. What choice is there? For now though, I am trying to figure out how to convince him that seven rolls of film were ruined in the sun, while across town I am having several shots of that bridge enlarged and framed. I want to be able to remind myself that even bridges fall down, sometimes.

About the author:

Rick Larsen lives and breathes in the wildest part of deep, dark Arizona. He is usually friendly and frequently makes his own salsa.