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Road boy -- When he was eleven, the author and his rogue of a father lit out for the west


It is 1959. My mother and father talk while I pilot my scooter along the cement paths that surround the New York State Capitol. Rising from the cracks in the pavement are puffy white dandelion balls, atomic bomb mushroom clouds, which I run over as part of my search-and-destroy mission to save the planet. It is late spring and the flowers and trees are in full dress. I am about to be transferred to the care of my father, and my mother is justifiably reluctant to consummate the exchange. This is the second try, and as before she makes my father promise that I will be properly fed and sheltered. "I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't so hard to make ends meet, you know. On my waitress pay I can hardly feed the girls, and the apartment is so small. Besides, he wants to be with you," she says, and pain and guilt are mingled in her defeated expression. The girls she refers to are my sisters, both slightly younger than me.

My mother lights a pencil-length Pall Mall off the tip of my father's half-spent Camel. Her fingers are bony and long, spiderlike, and they tremble when she is nervous. They are trembling now. When I breeze by on my scooter, my parents smile and wave solicitously. I may be eleven but I know the score. Boys should be with their father, and girls should be with their mother. A natural symmetry. I don't mind. In fact I love my father, even though I know he's kind of a bum. Besides, I am bored with the dull routine of life with my mother and sisters. Schoolwork and bed before sunset are just a couple of things I am not crazy about. Her obsession with cleanliness is another. So this is really my choice.

"You want to be with him, don't you?" observes my mother. Her frustration with my obvious lack of enthusiasm for the home life she works so hard to create is increasingly apparent. I seek the life of adventure, and with my father each day is certain to be different.

When I get within earshot I hear my mother's strained voice laying out the ground rules. For the first time she strikes me as almost pretty enough to be in the movies, but like me she is too skinny to have a real chance at stardom.

"Don't drink! If you start hitting the bottle again, I'll take him back. Bars are no place for a child. He needs to have a bath once a week and his clothes and underwear need to be washed. School is important. Make sure he goes every day. If there's a problem, just bring him back, okay?"

My father nods in agreement, although I know my mother's words are lost on him. She knows this too but clings to the hope that he will do right by me—for once own up to his responsibility and in doing so relieve her of the terrible burden she has borne since marrying him. He has never been any help to her or the kids because of his constant drinking, she is quick to tell anyone with a sympathetic ear.

"Don't worry. I'll take care of the kid. For Christ's sake, he's my son, too," says my father, feigning indignation by shaking his head and exhaling a glob of smoke from his broad nostrils.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I could afford to feed all three and give him someplace to sleep besides the sofa. He's too old to sleep in with his sisters. It wouldn't be right," says my mother, as if she were speaking to some invisible jury. "I swear to God, if you start boozing, I'll come and get him and that will be the end of it. You'll never have him again. Really, don't try anything. I'll call the cops. I mean it."

"Oh, pipe down, will you? You're not going to call anyone. You're full of crap! Jesus, I said I'd take care of him and I will! My back was killing me before. That's why I took a drink. To relieve the pain. It hasn't been right since the jeep accident. I got pills now. Let's not make a damn federal case out of it," responds my father as he lights a fresh cigarette with the stub of another.

My father's now almost mythical account of his army-related accident involves a jeep flipping over in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. This fabled mishap is responsible for his recurring back problems, he contends. My mother is skeptical about his whole account and at times tells him so.

"You weren't in the war. You never left the country. You typed supply reports at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Remember? That's what you told me once."

"Like hell I did! What do you know about it? You think you have all the details?" he counters, pulling his cherished discharge from his wallet and waving it in her face. "You think they just give these away for the hell of it? You have to earn an honorable discharge."

I am intrigued by another of my father's physical abnormalities. His right-hand index finger—another casualty of his alleged army accident—is slightly misshapen and on top of that it is turning yellow. Weeks earlier when I asked him why it had changed color, he explained that it meant he would soon find a suitcase full of sawbucks. When I inquired as to why it hadn't turned green instead, he shrugged his shoulders, lifted his left leg, and farted loudly.

In the old days in Paris a man became a cabaret star because he could string farts together into a patriotic tune, kind of like "Yankee Doodle Dandy," but in froggy, my father likes to say. Whenever I envision this, it makes me laugh, sometimes hysterically. So far my father's been able to do up to four notes of "Blue Gardenia," one of his favorite Nat King Cole songs.

My mother calls out to me as I'm about to eradicate another row of radioactive weeds secretly planted by the Commies. It is time to conclude the deal and make our official farewells. She kisses me on the cheek and I rocket away as quickly as I can. Something inside causes me to withhold affection from her, and this will not change until we are both much older and I am a lot wiser. For much of our relationship there will be a point beyond which I will not go with her. A hug but not a kiss. An exchange of verbal affection that leaves her unfulfilled and wanting because I will not return her gestures of love. Maybe it is because I feel she is giving me away.

The huge weeping willow trees on the capitol lawn are absolutely still. Their drooping limbs remind me of the hanging cattle rustlers I saw in an episode of Wagon Train.

"Head 'em out," I whisper as my mother extends her sinewy arm in my direction.

"Love you, Michael!" she blurts out, nearly choking on a gulp of wind that has suddenly swooped down like a winged predator from the cold gray parapets of the capitol edifice and into her gaping mouth.

"Love yo—!"

My father returns to Pearl's in midafternoon looking haggard and spent. He says that he has worked the morning addressing envelopes for a racing magazine and that he can get in a few more hours doing the same thing tomorrow. There is something about his manner that makes me suspect he has been drinking. I move as close to him as possible to see if I can detect the scent of liquor on his breath, but he knows what I am up to and backs away.

"What's the matter with you?" he asks defensively, and I give him a look that says his secret is out of the bag. "You worry too much. You're like your old lady. Always smelling smoke where there's no fire," he counters, keeping his distance from me.

I scan his trouser pockets for the telltale bulge of a bottle, but there is none. To divert my attention he extends the top plate of his false teeth from his mouth, which at least covers his three remaining and decaying bottom teeth. He then crosses his eyes and tilts his head from side to side. He has done this a dozen times to get a rise out of me, but I am not buying it this time.

"You're a damn sourpuss," he says, sucking his uppers back into his mouth and flopping onto the bed.

While he dozes I gaze out the window at the field behind the boarding house and see Squirt playing alone in the tall grass. Loneliness comes barreling in on me, and an intense longing for my sisters brings a lump to my throat. When I try to swallow, tears fill my eyes and the view outside the window becomes a prism of distorted trees and clouds. I miss Claudia and Pamela but not enough to give up my dream of going out west. How grand it would be if we could all be taking the trip together as do families who are more fortunate.

After we have a supper of meat loaf, roasted potatoes, and iced tea, Ben regales Squirt and me with accounts of his life as a truck driver while we sit on the front porch. Until now I have not noticed that his left eye is two different colors. Three-quarters of it is blue, with the balance consisting of a triangular wedge of brown. This intrigues me and I study it for as long as I can without being caught.

With great dramatic effect he recalls the time his brakes gave out as he was driving down a steep slope in the Great Smoky Mountains, but just as he is about to reach the story's exciting finale, he falls silent. We are upset by this and demand that he tell us what happened. Following another carefully timed pause, he says that he was killed. Before we have a chance to digest this statement, he laughs, and we realize that we have been duped.

Next he tells me that he can remove a hair from my head without my feeling it. That is impossible, I respond, and he asks if I would like to make a little wager. He removes a dollar bill from the pocket of his dungarees and says it is mine if I feel the hair being plucked from my scalp. Although I cannot match his dollar with one of my own, I agree, believing this to be a sure thing.

Squirt is all eyes as Ben selects a strand of hair to remove from my head. On the count of three he says that he will perform this painless surgery, and I brace myself for the yanking sensation that is certain to follow.

Ben begins the count, and a split second later I feel a hand come down hard on the top of my head. This catches me completely by surprise and I do not know how to react. The pain from the blow dissipates faster than my humiliation and anger.

"Bet you didn't feel this come out of your bean, did you?" asks Ben, proudly exhibiting the single strand of brown hair he has extracted.

I protest that he did not play fair, and he counters by stating that he did exactly what he said he would, that is, remove a hair without my feeling the hair being removed.

"Did you feel this being pulled out, young'n?" he inquires, the eyebrow above his multicolored eyeball arching quizzically.

"Well, not exactly," I admit. "But I sure felt you whack me," I add, letting the matter drop, figuring that if I persist he will want to collect the dollar he won.

Squirt requests that a hair be taken from his head too and Ben is more than willing to oblige. Tears well up in Squirt's eyes after being slapped, but in the same instant he begins to giggle and rub his head. It is obvious that he is no stranger to this kind of treatment.

We ask Ben to tell us another trucking story and he recounts the time he picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be a vampire just like the ones in those Vincent Price movies. Squirt clutches his genitals as Ben describes in graphic detail how he had to drive a spike through the bloodsucker's heart.

As if on cue, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside the house. Pearl is yelling for help. Ben leaps to his feet and we follow him through the screen door and into the house.

"It's Mr. Waller," shouts Pearl from the far end of the hall. "I think something's the matter," she cries, waving Ben on.

We are close behind as he dashes to the scene but we stop just inside the door to Mr. Waller's room as Ben approaches the still form on the bed. An arm is hanging limply to within inches of the floor, its chubby hand clutching the wrapper of a Big Boy burger. Pearl backs up to where we are huddled and gives out a faint whimper as she pulls us to her sides.

"Dead as they get," pronounces Ben, looking under Mr. Waller's drooping eyelids.

Squirt frees himself from Pearl and runs from the scene, clutching his pants.

"Looks like the poor bastard ate his last meal. Bet he drowned from the weight of his own body fat. Heard that can happen when you're as big as he was," adds Ben, moving the sheet over Mr. Waller's rigid face.

A half hour later two ambulance attendants strain to get the body through the front door. When they inquire about a more spacious exit, Pearl informs them that all the doors in the house are the same size and then warns them not to damage her late husband's stained glass. This inspires unhappy mumblings from the frustrated medics.

By exerting extraordinary effort they manage to shift the corpse sideways enough to squeeze it out onto the porch. Ben says he would gladly lend a hand were it not for his hernia, and my father, who has finally returned from a trip to the store for a pack of cigarettes, hangs in the shadows, unwilling to get involved in the fiasco.

The attendants succeed in getting the body partway down the porch steps before one of them loses his grip on the stretcher, sending Mr. Waller plunging to the ground. They stand there looking like Laurel and Hardy as Pearl collapses into her rocking chair.

"Well, you got him down the stairs, fellas. The rest shouldn't be that hard. Maybe you can just roll him the rest of the way," says Ben sarcastically, while Pearl fans her flushed face with the hem of her apron.

The whole gruesome spectacle has taken a toll on my stomach and I cannot get the smell of the Big Boy super cheeseburger deluxe out of my nostrils. The thought crosses my mind that it may have been the very burger that I delivered to Mr. Waller that killed him. Will I be a suspect in his death? I wonder. Later I will overhear Pearl telling a policeman that Mr. Waller ate every bit of the meat loaf dinner she had given him that evening, and I will feel somewhat exonerated.

"They got Mr. Walrus in the meat wagon," reports Ben, who is sternly scolded by Pearl for his callous disregard for the recently departed, as she puts it.

"How would you like to spend the last years of your life unable to get out of bed?" she adds.

"If I could get the kind of service he did, I'd say fine," responds Ben at a volume only we can hear.

My father escorts me to our room on the second floor and positions me at the sink in case my nausea gets the better of me, but by now the quaking in my abdomen has subsided and I can actually detect the return of my appetite.

We are soon at our designated launching site, following a repast of undercooked boiled eggs and instant coffee that my father doles out sparingly because he claims that caffeine is not good for kids. We retain the keys to the apartment in the event that we have to return, a possibility I block from my thoughts.

"If we get a ride, we'll mail the keys back to the priest," says my father, but I know that is unlikely.

It is another brilliantly clear day and not as cold as yesterday morning, although the air has a frosty edge to it. Approximately 50 yards from the opposite side of the highway are railroad tracks, and a couple of times a day a long freight train passes us heading east. It moves so slowly that I calculate it would be easy to hop, and there are many cars with open doors. My father enumerates the dangers of doing this. We could fall under the wheels, get locked inside a refrigerated car, be arrested by railroad dicks, run into hostile hoboes, and so forth, he says, so he doesn't want any part of my scheme.

Later in the morning a train rolls by and I make a pitch for jumping on board. "We can do it easy. Maybe it's going all the way to New York. We could be stuck here forever," I say, but my father is adamant, saying there is no way he's going to lose his legs or life to get a few lousy miles. Then he tells me about an old photograph in a National Geographic he once saw of a Sioux Indian whose severed body lay across a track after he'd tried to jump onto a passing train.

"His eyes were still open and they looked like they were staring back at his cutoff ass and legs," he says, pausing for added emphasis. "Besides, that damn freight train is probably only going as far as the next hick town," he continues, and I point out that several of its cars are marked CHESAPEAKE LINE, which I know is the name of a place back east.

Around noon we go back to the apartment for a drink and something to eat. Back at our spot on the road my father hints at quitting for the day.

"We're getting too much sun and that's probably not good. Besides, someone might see us who knows the priest or landlady, and that would cause trouble," he says.

Beyond the railroad tracks a convincing mirage transforms the desert into a great, inviting lake. In the middle of the undulating illusion I discern a busy city street filled with people and traffic.

My father says that he read somewhere that mirages are really reflections of other places far away created by gases in the atmosphere, and then he lets out a resounding fart and tells me I should now be able to see a few more streets.

We stay put for a couple more hours, but not long after he has smoked his last cigarette my father insists we go back into town. Back at our lodgings, after counting his change my father despairs over being a few pennies shy of a pack of cigarettes. By now he is having withdrawal symptoms and wondering how he might persuade the grocery store to bend its silly rules on this one occasion.

He tries to bargain with the store manager, telling him that as soon as the money arrives in the mail he will reimburse him, but nothing convinces the man to modify his position.

"Sorry, but cigarettes are classified as a luxury item, like nylons or cosmetics, and we just don't allow people on church accounts to charge such goods," says the aproned grocer, whose very shoulder is inches from the cigarette display case mounted above the cash register.

"The bastard! You'd think I was asking for caviar," my father complains bitterly when we're outside.

On Barstow's main street he scans the sidewalks for partially smoked cigarettes and pretends to be tying his shoelace when bending to scoop them up. I do likewise and listen to him as he condemns people who smoke filter-tipped cigarettes.

"Jerks smoke them right down to the filters so there's nothing left. How can that be better for you? You're actually smoking more than with regular cigarettes."

We continue to troll the pavement until our pockets are filled with used butts. Just as he is about to light the longest of the bunch, he notices lipstick on it, so he puts the burned end between his lips for sanitary purposes, I assume.

As usual the first drag raises his spirits and he suggests we check to see if there's an AA in town. It turns out there is a listing in the phone book, so my father dials the number and arranges for someone to take us to a meeting held that night at an air force base outside Barstow.

"Kill some time anyway, Butch. Better than staring out the stupid window at idiots who wouldn't give God himself a ride."

For our evening meal we have a concoction consisting of badly scrambled eggs and sardines in mustard sauce that my father refers to as a seafood omelette, and at about six o'clock the ride to our evening's entertainment arrives.

When my father peeks out the window in response to the honking of a horn, he lets out a loud groan. Parked in front is a pickup truck that looks as if it has been unearthed by a team of archaeologists.

We head south across the desert with a guy named Gunther Purdue to the AA meeting held at a remote military base.

"Call me Gun. Not as hoity-toity as Gunther. My mom named me after some duke or lord she read about in a dime novel. Never fancied it much, but Gun I can live with," he says, and then proceeds to tell us his life story as we bounce along an occasionally paved but mostly gravel road.

He has been sober for more than a year, he reports, adjusting his cap so that its frayed and discolored visor nearly touches his nose, forcing him to tip his head back to see the road. "The longest I been dry since I was 16, and I'm 29 now," he tells us.

It is about 30 miles down the patchy road to the base, which rises from the empty horizon like a small city on the moon. Gunther tells us that there are mostly civilians at these meetings. "Folks as far away as Amboy and Kelso come over. Mostly ranchers. Think all this desert out here gives a person a mighty thirst. Can't help wanting something to drink all the time. Some of these fellas live where there's not another soul within 50 miles, so the bottle becomes their best friend."

Before the meeting gets under way the person running it, a senior airman, E-4, Gun tells us, gets the idea that it would be amusing if I got up in front of the group and told about my addiction to soda pop. I agree to go along with the joke, and when he introduces me I ad-lib a story about being hooked on root beer and how it made me lose all my toys and flunk math. The crowd is entertained by my performance, and my father has a smug look on his face. I get the biggest applause of the night and he tells me not to let it go to my head.

"A real little ham," he tells Gun, who shakes my hand enthusiastically when I return to my seat.

A woman about my mother's age and build is introduced next and moves to the front of the room. She is clearly quite apprehensive and uncomfortable being in the spotlight and when she takes a sip of water from a glass on the podium, it goes down the wrong way, causing her to choke. When she regains her composure she begins her sad tale.

"Well, my name is Gloria and I'm an alcoholic," she says, adding that she has been sober for one year, four months, and 11 days.

Her drinking, she says, caused her to lose her family and do things that no self-respecting woman would ever do.

Two more AA members tell equally compelling stories about their lives under the destructive influence of alcohol, but my father appears preoccupied and bored. Later, as usual, he distances himself from the people at the meeting as if their drinking problems have nothing to do with his life. In fact he heartily denies having a drinking problem, let alone being an alcoholic.

When the subject comes up back in the apartment, he repeats his claim that he is a social drinker, admitting that he may overdo it at times.

"I can stop whenever I want, though, and I always have," he boasts, and I am frustrated by this absolutely absurd statement.

Following the meeting there is coffee and doughnuts—one of our reasons for coming. The cigarettes my father has managed to bum from several people are the other. In record time I gulp down two cream-filled doughnuts and one covered with a bright orange glaze. By the time we leave, my stomach feels like a cement block.

We make the trip back to Barstow in total darkness, and when I remark about this, Gun turns off the headlights to demonstrate just how dark it really is. Before he puts them back on there is a series of thumping and crunching sounds from under the truck.

"Jackalopes," says Gun, and when he restores the headlights the road before us is covered with large rabbits, which appear frozen in their tracks by the two bright shafts of light coming from the truck.

"Hypnotizes 'em," he explains, and I'm astonished and horrified that he doesn't stop or even slow down. "Nothin' you can do but run 'em over. So darn many of 'em and stubborn as all get-out. Won't get out of the way if you do stop. Unless you want to be stuck out here till sunrise, you just gotta flatten the poor critters."

The noise of the rabbits being crushed by the truck's tires makes my guts churn and I feel like heaving up. My father's demeanor reveals that he is not enjoying the massacre either.

When I announce that I'm on the verge of puking, Gun suggests that I ride in back of the pickup, where I can hang off and throw up as much as I want. When he stops the truck and I climb out to make the switch, my feet touch the carcass of a freshly mangled rabbit and all the doughnuts in my stomach fly past my lips. Unfortunately most of what gushes from me lands on the door of the truck. This doesn't faze Gun, who says that it will blow off on the way back to town.

For the balance of the ride I huddle in the open bed of the pickup with my hands pressed hard against my ears to keep from hearing the slaughter, although I can feel the lethal vibrations as the animals are mowed down. When my eyes fully adjust to the night, I can all-too-vividly discern the carnage left on the road. Dozens of mangled bodies, many still fluttering in the final moments of life, form a grotesque scene. I shift my gaze skyward and do all I can to concentrate on the grimacing face in the full moon.

Last night's experience has left its imprint on us, and we are more determined than ever to get out of this place, so before seven o'clock we are out on the highway. However, it isn't long before our sense of hopelessness returns. What few cars there are at this hour pass us as though we were invisible.

"Maybe this spot is jinxed," said my father, and we move down the road a few hundred feet.

I regard this as a sign of commitment on his part to stay put until someone gives us a ride, and when he says this is the day our luck is going to change I believe him. But a few hours later when not a single car has so much as slowed down when it passes us, I remind myself that believing what he says is foolish business.

About the time the sun is nearly directly above us, the city in the mirage reappears in the desert lake, and upon close scrutiny I determine that it is different from yesterday's. The buildings and people are of another place.

A woman dashing down the street looks very familiar to me and when I say that I think it is my mother, my father says I am batty from the sun and that there is no way a reflection of Albany, New York, could reach this far. Still, I'm convinced of what I see and I strain my eyes to follow her thin figure until it melts into the pulsating trough that edges the scene. When she has evaporated I closely scan the street in the hope that she will reappear, but all I see are strangers.

My father has packed a small container of Bluebird grapefruit juice and two hard-boiled eggs into our canvas bag so that we don't have to return to the apartment until absolutely necessary. With a dollar and change from Gun he buys a couple of packs of Camels and a Hershey's bar, which is warm goo when he later removes it from his pants pocket.

We sit on a stone marker that is engraved with letters that don't form any word we know and have our lunch as a vulture circles overhead.

"It's just a crow," contends my father, but I have seen enough vultures in the movies to know the difference.

Later the vulture is joined by another and my father chucks a stone at the sky. The stone lands with a clank on the trailer portion of a passing truck, yet not even that gets us noticed.

As the afternoon deepens it seems we are doomed to return to our borrowed home back in Barstow, but in the middle of my father's gloomy rendition of Tony Bennett's hit song "Because of You," a tune I figure he associates with my mother, and my own umpteenth performance of "Be My Love," a car stops and offers us a ride to Las Vegas.

Michael C. Keith is an adjunct associate professor of communication at BC. This excerpt is taken from The Next Better Place: A Father and Son on the Road (2003), by arrangement with Algonquin Books. Copyright © by Michael C. Keith.

Photos (from top):

A young Michael Keith poses in Albany, where his journey began. Courtesy of Michael C. Keith

Keith's father, Curt, c. 1975. Courtesy of Michael C. Keith

Fourteen-year-old Michael Keith, Miami, Florida, 1963. Courtesy of Michael C. Keith

Keith stands on U.S. Route 1, a road much traveled with his father. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

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