Novel excerpt by Enrique Freeque

The remembrance of that life is fraught with so much pain to me, with so much mental suffering and want of hope, that I have never had the courage even to examine how long I was doomed to lead it. Whether it lasted for a year, or more, or less, I do not know. I only know that it was, and ceased to be; and that I have written, and there I leave it.
--Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

The prison chaplain wanted me to open up about my life, about the events that led to the murder and my incarceration. He must've been frustrated after six months of mostly one word responses to his probing questions. He suggested, on one visit, I write something about my life instead. So I did. And do pardon me if my diving right in seems rather abrupt, I figure cut the bullshit, I've already wasted enough of my life as it is. Skip the unnecessary background build up and just get to the meat and bones of it, the basics, so here goes. And besides, I don't have enough paper in here to waste it on inconsequential details.

"The backyard of my youth,” I wrote, in long hand, on a yellow legal pad left for me by my public defender, “Was the High Sierra of California. My father and I would camp in the Sierras every other weekend, even in winter (we were nuts, or, my Dad was, I should say), and even when it snowed, the plowed roads on Friday nights in the high country slick with black ice, dangerous to drive (and boy did we encounter danger) especially when chains were required.

The main road up from San Bernardino ran like a back alley behind my backyard - 395 - mythic highway. While the alleys we inevitably lived on, in a neighborhood called "Muscoy": nothing but mountains of trashed mattresses. No Mount Whitneys here. Bald tires would magically appear overnight piled high against the crooked, about-to-fall-over wood fence lining the narrow, pot-holed, gravelly lanes. Junked husks of rusted trucks rotting in neighbor's yards, or sometimes ours, attracted graffiti and gangs. Not so sublime a view as the back alley of the High Sierra, these back alleys of the Inland Empire. Though 395 knew some decrepitude too.

We rode, Dad and I, over Cajon Pass, past nameless ramshackle hamlets. Through desert encampments scattered willy-nilly out in that vast acrid expanse as if blown about and deposited down indiscriminately by marauding dust devils. Intubated towns on life support, vitals not good, the life seemingly sucked out of them, all along 395, south of Lone Pine. I saw lots and lots of skeletal remains: Fire-gutted one-story buildings, entire walls missing, the front doors two-by-four’d, windows barred, roofs warped by the relentless sun and wind, if not caved in, nonetheless demanding: KEEP OUT. As if everyone who journeyed past the wreckage were just dying to break in. The Mojave Desert's dereliction of low rent, unkempt habitations, mocked the majesty of the High Sierras looming invisibly - like wind, like prayers - in the night due west. Abandoned school buses' faded gaudy yellows glowed in the starlit dark. Other odd, idiosyncratic structures, mostly businesses out of business, appeared intermittently, sparsely lit, if lit at all. They existed - survived somehow - looking as lonely and solitary as the deformed Joshua trees, clawing at us, lickety-split, in our headlights sudden glance, and gone. I don’t remember those ubiquitous habitations much - paintless, sandblasted trailers, outposts of mobile homes, dirt yards separated by chained-together flat-tire "fences" - emaciated residences shrivelled up by daily holocausts of heat and wind, I don't remember them much individually, I think, because they seemed little different than the home I lived in. Everything man-made that existed out there in the desert, besides the Los Angeles Aqueduct, existed in such a conglomerate of constant disrepair that, whether home or independent gas station or parked Volkswagon bug, might as well have served doubly as a Pick-a-Part. Such was the Mojave Desert's haphazard history of decay and indubitable drift. Demise was all around as we drove north every other Friday night up 395; demise as palpable to my eyes as the staggered road signs with ever decreasing mileages to Big Pine, Bishop, Bridgeport. Which is why I remember historic places like Manzanar mostly, just south of the town of Independence. Manzanar with its unsturdy looking sentry tower easily visible even at night from 395, constructed from once stately, centuries-old pines, felled and hauled out of the High Sierra to make lumber for a lookout.

"Very descriptive," he said, setting the paper down. "But what's this b.s. with all those big words?"

"I've been taking correspondence courses. Pursuing a degree in English. Putting my punishment to good use."

"Looks like you have. But that's not what I'm asking. What's with the writing?"

"You don't like it?"

"No no, don't get me wrong; I'm glad you wrote it, it's good I guess, but where are you in these trips? And what exactly does "ubick," he pointed at the word on the paper and showed me.

"That's ubiquitous," I said.

"And what the hell does that mean?"

"It means-"

"And this word right here too: "indoobytable"? What's that about?"

"Indubitable," I correctly, and pridefully pronounced. "It means 'unwavering, unyielding, persistent, always there'".

"Well then say 'persistent' and stop showing off. Shit. I understand 'persistent'".

"I chose the word 'indubitable' because the 'd' sound fits nicely with the next word, 'drift'. That's called 'alliteration," -- 'indubitable drift,' -- you hear that?"

"I hear someone with way too much time on their hands. This isn't creative writing class, Greg. I was just asking for you, since you've had such a difficult time talking about it with me, you know, face to face, to maybe try and put pen to paper and tell me something about your self that way. Those fancy-schmancy words don't really tell me anything, except that you're trying to show off your vocabulary or something. You're still avoiding revealing yourself. You're still hiding, Greg, which is your choice, I guess, but then why am I spending my time here when I could be somewhere else with someone who wants to talk to me. It's been six months, Greg. Open up. That's all I'm saying. Shit, just write your story, pretending no one will ever read it, if that'll help you not be so flowery. And then if after you've written it, you still don't want me to read it, that's fine. Just get this shit out of you. The important thing is that you get whatever shit you got inside you out, or you'll just stay stuck forever. And it doesn't seem like that's what you want."

"So you want me to strip the prose down some?"

"The prose? See, that's part of the problem, in my opinion, you looking at your life like it were prose rather than like it was your life. This is your life you're writing about it, right?"

"No, I'm writing about the Buddha's life. Jesus Christ, man, of course I'm writing about my life. Maybe you need to let me set the stage of my life some!"

"O-kay o-kay. It's just you say 'prose' and that word makes me think creative writing class: fiction. We all know the imagination you've got, Greg, some of the strange shit you've pulled here in prison. I just want to make sure that what you're writing is you and not more make-believe."

"It's my life, Chaplain. My memoir. An autobiography. You're going to have to trust me on that."

"Me? Trust you?" The Chaplian chuckled. "Tell you what, Greg, you write me something real, something not all hoity-toity and pretentious, and then maybe I'll trust you that you're bein' on the up-and-up with me. Giving me your life on the page, and not more of your bullshit. How's that sound?"


"All right then. Lose the sarcasm. But keep writing. It's good, don't get me wrong. Very descriptive. Maybe too descriptive. I mean, too much impertinent details about a road. What do I care about what's out there on that road-"

"That road is hugely important to me, man, and just because you wouldn't know a decent bit of writing if it bit you in the ass; and of the struggle that a writer must go to..."

"Oh ... so you're a writer now. And I'm the Pope, Greg. Or wait, no, I'm the Apostle Paul."
"I'm just saying it's a struggle to write, to try and be a writer. Whether I'm a real writer in your book is irrelevant. I'm just saying it's hard to write this shit, and maybe you need to be a little more patient with me. 'Love is patient,' right?"

"Fair enough. I love it when you throw the Bible at me! That's good. You do seem, I'll grant you, seem to communicate much better on paper than you do in person. Were you aware of that?"

"No," I almost smiled.

"Well, good then. This is progress. You're learning something good about yourself. So keep writing, okay? Shoot, even if it's pretentious. Just not pretend, okay? I'm not ragging on your writing. Just bring it down to earth some so an idiot like me can understand it, is all. Know what I mean?"

"I think so."

"And if you must describe stuff in great detail, then describe stuff about you or your life in great detail. Okay? That's your homework for this week."

"Okay," I said. "I'll try. But I may not let you read it."

"Fine by me. This process has got to be for you, Greg, anyway, not for me. I'm just a change agent, tryin' to help you grow and get along better inside this shit hole, and for when you leave this shit hole. See you next time." He stood up.

"Next time." I watched him leave.


I couldn’t wait to leave, even though I knew what would probably happen.  It's hard to explain how I could look forward to the trips knowing what would probably happen eventually on the trips, but there were enough times when, nothing did happen, so I was somehow able to look forward to each trip, forgetful of the previous trip -- assuming it had been a bad one -- as only a resilient, hopeful child could be. The never ending hours spent in elementary school the days before each trip seemed to last for years. The clocks in Mrs. Mulholland’s, Mr. Hollis’, Mr. Maeda’s, and Mrs. Webb’s class, too, wouldn’t move quick enough. The teachers often noticed my impatience, my fidgeting, my hurry-up-already glances at the clock, and enjoyed embarrassing me in front of the entire class. Mrs. Webb, especially, liked saying: “Do you see something up there that the rest of us are perhaps blind to, Greg?”

I turned (too late!) from the clock and looked down at my desk. Someone had carved “F-U-C-K” atop it. Might’ve been me. I blushed, almost smiled, grimaced.

“Look at me, Greg!”

I looked at her. Not quite as beautiful as Mom. Tied her brown, graying hair in a knot in the back. She wore thick rimmed, pointed glasses too. Her head looked so tight, tense – like a ball of twine. I imagined it might explode, out pop a hideous monster, like in The Alien, but unfortunately, her head just remained another head.

“What do you see up there?” she persisted.

The other kids in class joined Mrs. Webb, egging me on, pestering, “Yeah, Greg-eee,” they said, dragging out the “e” sound like their vocal cords were stuck. “What’s up there?”

“A clock.”

“That’s so very perceptive of you, Greg,” Mrs. Webb, who I imagined held a broomstick, said.

All the other kids laughed, none of which were my friends. The other kid’s laughter hurt my ears. Gave me a headache. Then that Webber-Bread (yeah, she’d eaten lots of loaves by the looks of her) asked the class if they saw a clock up there on the wall above the door out to the hallway too? Snickers, giggles.

“Yes, Missus Webb,” they replied in unison, like wind-up dolls.

“So, Closs,” she sounded English when she said “class,” “If we’re all already well aware that there is a clock up there,” she pointed, “on the wall, do we constantly need to look at it?”

“No, Missus Webb.”

“I did not hear your voice Gregory.” She knew I hated being called Gregory. She knew that.

“Yeah, Gregeee, speak up!”


“What did I say?!” She said.

“That we don’t need to look at the clock!” I said, though I wanted to tell her, yell at her, that we didn't need to look at the goddamn clock, and get sent to the principal's office pronto, get suspended and get to stay home from this - another shitty school - but I wanted to go camping worse.

“Oh good!” she clapped her hands. “We’re all so proud of you for coming to this conclusion on your own. Aren’t we, Closs”.

“Yes, Missus Webb”.

“Now please, resume your reading.”

To spite her, I gazed at the clock whenever she wasn’t looking, not caring if anybody snitched, and tried telepathically inching the clock forward to 3:00pm. Sometimes it worked, the school bell would ring but I’d still have to wait impatiently for the stupid teacher to dismiss us. I don’t know, teachers back then had a weird thing about making the “closs” wait until we sat up straight with our arms folded on our desks, fingers intertwined like we were praying, and a sweet smile plastered on our faces.

“Teaches discipline,” Webber Bread said.

By the time she was finished “teaching discipline” it was practically tomorrow and I figured I might as well spend the night in class. Not really. I ran all the way home – sweating, wheezing, coughing, hocking loogies - anticipating the long drive into the High Sierras.

When my father got home from work near dark, I’d hear him pull his truck into the driveway and jet out of my room to meet him at the front door. We had a flimsy screen door in those days, a good foot of metal threads torn open in the top corner, that let in insects during summer, that Mom always wanted Dad to fix. “Fix it yourself,” he’d invariably tell her, “I fix things all day at work. Might do you good fixing something besides dinner around here.”

Talk like that made Mom mad. They’d argue about that screen a lot – and about other things too. I don’t recall a day they didn’t raise their voices. I’d just turn up the TV when they did, and watch reruns, unless Laura, my older sister, was around, and then I'd have to watch one of her dumb shows, like The Joker's Wild or The $20,000 Pyramid, but at least she never made me watch Lawrence Welk or Hee Haw like my Gramma and Grampa did, when I'd spend the night over at their house. Sometimes, though, even if I turned the TV up full blast, it wasn't loud enough to drown out the perpetual parental roar. Or the TV screen would get smashed in (we went through a ton of TVs back then, black-and-whites mostly, Mom's favorite retaliatory target that'd send Dad into a tizzy) or something else would shatter - an ashtray or a picture frame - and I'd look at Laura, or she at me, and though we rarely spoke during these tirades, I could tell by Laura's look - a tooth grinding determined look, communicating, "Stay calm, Little Bro, the chaos will soon be over. Everything will be okay." I held on to Laura's eyes for protection, and ducked when I had to. Of course, the drama rarely ended soon, and Mom and Dad's marriage didn't turn out okay. But that's another story.

When Dad would pull up, I'd hide behind the front screen; one of those screens that made you near-invisible to anyone who might peer in from outside. I liked that. Seeming invisible to people on the outside. I could stand behind the screen and watch neighbors pass by, without their ever knowing I spied on them, like on I Spy.

Dad would lumber up the cracked walkway in his Levis, boots, and blue t-shirt, pick at his nose, spit, but he didn't know I was there, behind the screen, observing him. I really really liked that, watching my Dad when he thought he wasn’t being seen. It was like watching the Truth, capital "T".

I knew to get out of his way when he walked in, smelling of smoke, sweat, and sawdust. I could see he’d been working hard by the dark blue patches under his armpits. My Dad stank a rich humid wood smoke smell, but I sure did love him no matter how bad he smelled, and would’ve hugged him, stink or no stink, but knew not to. He’d give me an elbow ambling past, and I’d play-punch him in the gut. “Oh,” he’d say, “You got me good,” and I’d laugh as he play-boxed me back, our bodies careening toward the kitchen.

He’d set his tool belt and steel-sided toolbox on the kitchen table with a thunk, kiss Mom, if she’d let him, since he stank so bad (he’d sweat an awful lot, especially in summer), and she’d shoo him off, “later, later,” she’d say, turning her face from his, if he stank real bad, telling him to go hit the showers "Jim, and then you can kiss me”.

Usually, it took Dad about an hour or so to get cleaned up and dressed and fed and ready to leave. After showering, he’d shave. Trim his mustache and goatee, comb flat his bushy black sideburns. Sometimes he’d let me watch him. I'd pretend to shave with him with the black comb I kept in my back pocket. Then he’d change into some clean jeans, a clean t-shirt - his favorite, a Union Jack that said "The Who" - and put his boots back on. He’d then watch a bit of the news, watching for the weather mainly, seeing if we might need chains, assuming it were that time of year, which could run as late as Memorial Day Weekend in the High Sierras.

By now Mom would’ve made dinner. Country fried steak that smelled better than it tasted, along with the usual mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn. We’d sit on our big L-shaped couch, covered with hand-knit afghans Mom had made to hide the holes and eternal stains, in front of the TV, instead of at the kitchen table, on these Friday nights just before leaving, so that Dad could keep watching the news. Laura would bring us our dinner on paper plates, and then she'd sit on her and Mom's side of the couch, against the wall, pick at her plate in her lap, and soon pout. Mom would enter next and hand Dad a Coors. He’d indent the can with his grip in one hand everytime, and chow down with the other, his right. Mom would say to me, "almost forgot," and hand me my blue and yellow LA Rams plastic cup of milk. That was our dinner ritual before a trip.

“Let’s get this par-tay started,” Dad would say, during a commercial, between bites, or after taking a long swig of Coors. “Are you ready for some good times, Greg? Are you?”

“I’ve been ready, Dad!”

“How come I never get to go,” Laura’d inevitably complain.

I tried explaining it to her one time, but Dad said that what I'd said was untrue, and that I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. But I knew what the hell I was talking about all right, since Dad had told me. He just didn't want Laura to know what he thought of her. Laura would repeat "why can't I go" over and over, sometimes, I think, just to piss Dad off, while Dad ignored her, for awhile, at least, studying the news, stuffing his mouth full of steak and nearly liquid mashed potatoes, making these weird humming sounds while he ate.

“It’s not fair I never get to go.”

Dad didn't like "it's-not-fair" talk, and he'd explode. He'd yell at Laura, "Life's a bitch," and add that if she didn’t shut the fuck up "right now," then she might as well be a bitch too. Laura would throw her dinner at him but usually miss.
“Jim you talk nice to her,” Mom warned, stepping between Dad and Laura. Mom always warned Dad about everything seemed like, as if she were his mother instead of his wife.

“Just sit back down, shut up, and clean up your goddamn dinner, Lore, without bein' such a baby about it for chrissakes. Fuck.”

Laura stood staring him down, arms folded, fuming.

"Don't you use that kind of language around the kids, Jim - I've told you that. And that's the last time I'll be telling you!". Or, probably the next-to-last time, maybe.

Laura would shout something like, "I hate this fucking family" and storm off to her room. The next significant sound would be that of her door slamming. Sometimes she'd slam it twice, or three times, like she was furious at her bedroom door, trying to knock some sense into it. Mom would rush after her - too late, as usual. Then Dad and I would hear Mom knocking on Laura's door harder and harder, asking to be let in, warning her of the consequences if she refused. Tired of knocking, Mom would come back to the couch and try reasoning with Dad - like trying to reason with a grizzly bear - reminding him he’d promised her just last night to try and be nicer to Laura, since he tended not to be nice to her, because, as only I knew, he didn't consider her his "real daughter" (and I guess, technically, she really wasn't) - or at least that’s how Dad explained it to me the few times talk of Laura would come up on our camping trips.

“I am being nice, Janet. Now you be nice too and go grab me another beer.”

Mom took her time returning from the fridge, tidying up the kitchen, and when she returned and handed him another beer she said "that was it, no more!" Because we had plenty of driving before us tonight. She'd say she wasn't going to be privy, "oh no," to any more drinking-and-driving fiascos, or any of Dad’s nonsense or schenanigans.

"You got it, Mister," she'd point at him, scolding him like a little boy, and then reiterate that she wasn't going to tolerate it anymore. Dad's misbehavior.

“Yeah yeah,” Dad would say. Then he’d belch. Or fart. And even though the timing of Dad's belch or fart made Mom mad, it was still hard not to laugh. She'd call Dad a pig and then stomp off in a huff back to Laura's door and, by now, Laura would probably let her in.

“All right, Greg, let’s go.”

"Aren't we gonna say goodbye to Mom and Lore?"

"Lore's crying, and your Mom's probably crying with her too. Wah wah wah. Screw 'em. That's what women do. Wah wah wah. Let's just get the fuck - after I go grab me another beer - and we'll be cruisin' on outta here. What's wrong," he'd say, since he could see by my expression I wanted to say goodbye to Mom and my sister. "Nut it up a notch, Sonny Boy...Look...we'll call 'em from a payphone when we get to Lone Pine, when we get gas, okay?"

"Lone Pine's a long ways away."

"Greg! Okay?! Deal?!"

"Deal," I knew to say. And smiled the best I could.

And he'd say, "done".

We’d take the 215 to the 15 and head up the long slow grade over Cajon Pass in the dark. Near the summit, as the distant lights of Victorville appeared, Dad would always say something like: “Damn, gotta go back!” At first I’d ask why but since Dad said the same thing on every trip, I knew it was a joke.

“I forgot my comb,” he’d say. “How are we gonna survive in the Sierras without my comb!” He’d crack up and I’d laugh along too.

Dad would be in a very good mood by now, having drunk more beer I’d poured out of the Coors cans into a Styrofoam cup for him. I tried telling him maybe he shouldn’t do that, since it was illegal to have an open container – or a cup – of alcohol in a moving vehicle (and we were definitely moving, Dad drove like a NASCAR racer, or Speed Racer, like he was being chased); a fact I’d learned firsthand the last time Dad got pulled over:

“Did you know you were weaving, Sir?”

“I was reaving?” Dad slurred.

“I hope that’s not alcohol in that cup, Sir. Sir, please step out of the car.”

Boy was Mom mad when the California Highway Patrol dropped me off at home the next morning. I was sort of excited being transported by the C.H.P. since CHiPs was one of my favorite shows. Mom seemed mad at me at first (like the whole Dad thing was my fault, and maybe part of her was mad at me), but she was mostly just mad at Dad. Incensed, is more like it! Tramping through the house, saying, "that was it, we’re outta here,” hurriedly tossing clothes out of the closet, packing our suitcases to go.

To go where, though? Where?

So we’d always end up unpacking, Laura, Mom, and me, and having to put our belongings, mostly clothes, and my three-ring album of baseball cards, back in place. Mom always insisted we never speak a word about nearly leaving Dad to Dad. And we didn't.

Another problem that arose from Dad drinking so much beer, besides it being illegal to do so while driving, was that it made Dad have to pull over and pee a lot. But sometimes there wasn’t a good spot on the highway to pull over and pee.

“Hold the cup for me – hurry!” Dad would say, and while driving, he’d unzip with one hand and steer with the other, his member, I mean, since he could use his knees to steer the steering wheel. He'd aim his stream into the cup I held beneath him. When he finished peeing, and Dad wasn’t exactly accurate in his aim while peeing, and my hand would get damp, I’d carefully transport the full cup, hoping Dad wouldn’t hit a pothole or rut in the road while I did so and cause all that piss to slosh over the sides - disgusting! - toward the passenger window, roll down the window as fast as I could, and be mindful not to make the same mistake as last time when I emptied the cup in a manner that caused a blowback in my face – yuk - a fate far worse than spitting into the wind. Learned that lesson the hard way a couple times. Contents emptied, I’d roll up the window, drop the cup by my feet, and dry off my hands on my jeans.

By the time we’d merged off the 15 onto 395, Dad would start smoking what I considered then, at the time, his "homemade cigarettes" I’d seen him roll in the gas station bathroom all by himself. How many Dads could do that? One trip, he taught me.

“These are called ‘buds’,” he said, removing what looked like parsley from a little rolled up plastic baggy. “But all you need to know, Sonny Boy, is it’s some really good shit.”

I certainly thought it smelled like shit. A pungent whiff, even unlit, made me want to cough. Then Dad removed from his pocket another plastic baggy containing a lighter, some tweezers, and something that looked sort of like Grampa’s tobacco pipe, only shorter and stouter and stinkier, and some rectangle white papers he called “Zigzags”.

“What’cha do is, Greg, you listnin’ to me? This is important.”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

“Now watch close, I don't want to have to explain this to you again."

I bent forward, hands on my knees, my face practically in the sink, eyes squinting at Dad's hands.

"What’cha do is,” he set some papers on the gas station bathroom sink, showing me how it was done. Dad liked showning me how things were done. “You put just enough of the buds like so (don’t put too much ‘cos that’s just being indulgent and this shit ain’t cheap, believe me…) just fold the ends over like so, see, so that none a the buds can slide out, and slowly…slowly…roll it closed like this, like a twist-tie. See.”

I nodded.

“And then when you’re just about outta paper to roll, give it a good lick, back and forth with your tongue like so,” Dad licked it, back and forth, back and forth, “see? Volia,” he said, licking his lips, “that seals the deal! You ready to wheel and deal, Greg?"

"I guess."

"Okay, here, you try it.” I took the Zigzags and the buds - rolled, twisted, licked - and learned how to roll my first homemade cigarette.

The farther north we drove, the more Dad laughed at everything I said. He’d laugh even when what I said wasn’t intentionally funny, stuff like, “what time is it?” or, “how much longer till we get there?,” or “I thought we were going to call Mom and Lore in Lone Pine?”.

He’d laugh and laugh. He smiled a lot too, for no apparent reason, just glance over at me, grinning.

He'd stop grinning when we passed Manzanar. He'd nearly tear up, shake his head like he couldn't believe it, say what a terrible blight Manzanar was on American History. How he couldn't understand how Americans could be so cold hearted, so paranoid, so unjust, and falsely imprison so many innocent people just because they were Japanese. "Japanese Americans," he'd say. "Not right, not right". Dad's best friend, about his only friend, was Japanese, and everytime Dad's Japanese friend came over Dad always enjoyed kidding him, saying in a fake Japanese voice, "Remembuh Pewl Hawbuh". Dad's Japanese friend would laugh.

Sometimes Dad would cross the double yellow lines on 395 even if he wasn’t trying to pass anybody, at least not any cars I could see. I’d lean over and sock him in the shoulder. He’d jerk his head up, startled, and steer the truck back into our lane. I had to watch him constantly late at night on these trips, to make sure his head wouldn’t dip down. I had to watch him closely at all times, studying him for the slightest sleep signs, always ready to snap him to attention, especially as we began the long, precipitous ascent of Sherwin Summit, out of the Owens Valley, into the high country, where blackened snow banks lined the road.

I’d try turning up the tape deck, whatever 8-track Dad had going at the time – Hendrix, Eagles, The Doors, Manfred Mann, Grand Funk, Foghat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, whomever - roll down the window and let the smoke out (and the brisk air in) anything I could think of to help him stay awake. I’d take off my seat belt too so that I could slide over closer to him across the squeaky vinyl bench seat - squeaked like a fake fart sound - and sit with my knees underneath me so my legs wouldn’t interfere when Dad moved the long stick shift directly ahead. The sleepier Dad got, almost nodding off, the more I’d punch or even pinch him. Yell at him. "Dad! Wake up!" Shake him from his sleep. The pine trees in the headlights alongside the road – there and gone, there and gone - looked huge, hard, and I didn’t want us to hit one.

I’d shiver uncontrollably inside the cab, the passenger window still opened, practically hugging on Dad, but being freezing cold seemed better than crashing – or worse! The cold combined with sitting in so much smoke for so long would cause my asthma to come on strong – good thing I always remembered my inhaler. I’d take a puff, inhale as deep as I could, sort of like how Dad inhaled his homemade cigarettes, and there, almost instantly, I could breathe. Dad’s smoke gave me a headache too, but at least the headache helped me stay awake so that we would remain on the road. Talk about a backseat driver! Try front seat driver!
After Dad had smoked maybe four or five of what I’d rolled for him in my lap, drank maybe a six pack of Coors on top of what he’d drunk at home, and played probably ten 8-tracks, we’d be at our turnoff to Convict Lake. I couldn’t really see the mountains as we pulled into the campground, just a dark ill-defined outline, separating solid earth from night. Straight overhead, though – whoa! – stars, gazillions of them, like gold fireworks frozen in space. Immobilized, but glittering, bright pockmarks splattered across the night's ceiling. Like neon acne, though a much worse case of it than what my sister Laura often had.

Since we had a built-in fridge in the camper, I’d have to jump outside, open up the back door, duck inside, open the fridge, check the level thingamajig affixed to one of the interior horizontal grates, to see if the air bubble was bulls eyed in the red circle; doing all that (as Dad had taught me) because we had to be “level” (or at least the fridge had to be “level”) in order for it to operate right and keep everything cold. Mostly Coors. Invariably, the fridge wouldn’t be level and so I’d reach around the wheel well where Dad secured the wood boards whose ends he’d cut at angles to make little mini-ramps so that the tires, whichever side of the truck wasn’t level, could pull up or back up onto more easily. Dad was always smart and practical with stuff like that. But Dad being drunk didn’t help us any getting the fridge level, whether the ends of the wood boards were cut conveniently or not. He’d regularly inch up the boards but not stop in time even though my hands were up, palms out, in the headlights, shoutingStop Stop, but he’d drive right over the length of board, the tire bob off with a bounce, and a couple times he'd nearly run me over. I’d secure the boards back in place, and we’d repeat the process over and over, until Dad's reflexes finally got it right, perhaps having sobered up some by then.

Once we’d gotten level, I felt elated. We made it! Though my elation would be short-lived, since I knew, seeing Dad up and not passed out in the driver’s seat, that the worst, most likely, was yet to come.

From inside the camper, I’d turn on the light above the kitchenette and could hear Dad throwing up outside. Awful sound. I’d cover my ears. I'd turn on the space heater and then hop up into the bunk above the cab and unroll Dad’s sleeping bag for him before he came inside. Then I’d plop down from the bunk, disregard the short ladder, and unroll my sleeping bag. I’d have Dad’s aspirins ready for him along with a Dixie cup of water. Sometimes he’d want Pepto Bismol too, so I’d have the pink bottle out for him as well. I’d set everything out on the little table we had, cramped next to the fridge and mini-sink. The table would unlatch from the wall and fold down and become a makeshift bed supported on each side by small, fifties- style red booths Dad had built in – the same booths him and Mom got into a huge argument over – something about the camper having nicer stuff than our home. This is where I’d sleep, atop the fold-down table, once we’d folded it down, assuming Dad didn’t snore; otherwise, if it was above freezing, I’d take my sleeping bag and pillow outside.

Dad would knock on the door to the camper. I’d jump up from the storage bench opposite our table : “It’s open, Dad”.

“Open the fucking door.”

I’d open the door and back up quickly out of his way as he stumbled and tripped inside, being careful myself as I walked backwards not to trip over the space heater.

“Here’s a napkin for you.”

Dad would take the napkin I gave him and wipe off the throw-up that had attached in goopy strings to his goatee and mustache. Even some on his sideburns. His throw-up stank worse than his sweat walking in the door fresh home from work. He’d clear his throat, deposit what he’d cleared from his throat into the napkin, and then hand the napkin back to me. I’d open the cupboard beneath the sink and drop the napkin into the trash.

“Shit,” Dad would say, and bolt as best he could, wobbly (Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, unless they’re Dad), back out the door, if he could make it to the door in time, and throw up again outside. Then back into the camper he’d come; back outside to hurl: this regurgitation ritual might last half an hour or so, well past midnight, the wind blowing, a full moon out sometimes.

I’d shut the small window curtains on both sides of the camper, and place the piece of rectangular cardboard we’d cut just right so it would completely cover the cab window separating the cab from the camper. I’d do this all because in case somebody was up late at night in the camp ground, walking around with a flashlight to go pee or something, I didn’t want them to see what Dad might do next.

I’d open the door again for Dad when he’d finally finish his throwing up. He’d wipe his mouth with the back of his hand and shoo my napkin away. He’d wipe the back of his hand on his right pant leg. He’d look over at me sitting on the built-in storage bench. I’d look down at my Adidas. He’d grab a beer from the fridge, pop it open, and take a sip. He’d use his hand to sweep the aspirin off the edge of the table and catch it with his other hand, his left, though he usually dropped the tablets and in bending over to pick them up off the orange shag floor, would often lose his balance and fall forward on his face. Sometimes he’d pass out right there on the floor, but not always. If he could stand back up, sort of ducking so as not to hit his head on the ceiling, he might take a slug of Pepto too, and wash it down with some Coors. He’d set the beer down on the counter surrounding the sink. He’d belch long and loud. I’d laugh. But I wouldn’t be laughing for long.
“You okay, Dad?”
He wouldn’t answer, not at first, just stare at me all dazed and glossy-eyed. I knew that look, hated that look, and looked away. But to where? Not much place to look without looking at him inside the cramped camper - the dimly lit and cluttered confines not much larger than a prison cell.

Dad would instruct me to put the table down, make the bed (which meant moving my sleeping bag off the storage bench over to the makeshift bed, and grabbing a pillow too) and then sit on the bed.

“Take off your clothes too,” he’d say.

I might hear another camper like ours, or something larger, a motor home maybe, perhaps the very make Dad hoped to buy someday; I’d hear it drive past our spot, just outside, within reach, it’s lights briefly casting muted glows through the curtains, pulling in late on a Friday night like us into the camp ground for some fun times fishing and hiking and exploring in the High Sierras.

I took off my shirt first. Then I removed my shoes and socks, then my brown corduroys. Dad would let me keep my boxers on. By now he’d have removed his own shirt. He had a hairy chest – a jungle! – I’d sometimes call him an ape as he stood before me, but he didn’t like that.

“Unbutton my pants,” he’d say. I’d place my fingers on the denim and carefully slipped each brass button (four in all) out of each individual slot…intently, methodically, like lighting the candelabras at Sunday Mass, trembling.

When I finished, he’d let his Levis drop to the floor, step out of them, and kick them out of the way, now wearing only white boxer shorts, Nikes, and white socks with three blue stripes each. Dad also had hairy legs; not quite as hairy as his chest, but they were still pretty hairy.

He’d then tell me what he wanted done and that he wanted it done right. He’d notice my hesitation and say what he always said: “You love me, don’t you, Son?”

I’d slowly nod yes, as my eyes got big, watery.

“Then don’t disobey me. You know what the Bible says don’t you? – it says, ‘Children, obey your parents.’ The last thing I want to do is to have to hurt you.”

I nodded again, and did my best to believe him. The residual scent of Dad’s homemade cigarettes reminded me of Mom’s burning incense.

“I’m only doing this for your own good. It teaches discipline, and the Bible also says, ‘Parents, discipline your children.’ And you don’t want to be disobeying God do you?”

I nodded no, vehemently, and said, “Okay, Dad. I trust you.”

Everything my father instructed me to do, I did. Like a good little boy.

Outside, the wind howled and moaned; as I did, quietly, on the inside.