Turning left from the Skyway onto Oliver, late at night (or early in the morning) when deers eyes reflect from between the trees, another careful 10-and-2 drive home from Hanawalt’s two room shack in that alley in Chico where Skinny, the Hmong gang-banger and sushi chef, lived with all of his brothers. Or it wasn’t any one night, it was every night, every drunken drive up the hill from Hanawalt’s apartment, waiting for that light to turn.
Standing with Uncle Eric in a midnight driveway, killing all the beer. He’s showing me the lights he fixed to his tailgate to illuminate the license plate, so cops have no excuse to pull him over. Uncle Eric, the most forward-thinking drunk driver you will ever meet. This truck, he tells me, I’ve flipped this fucking truck upside down. I’ve rolled it down every fucking hill you can imagine. I fucking rolled it into Lott’s Lake. I’ve been shot at in this truck. Mike Wing had to help me dig this truck out of six feet of fucking mud. Look at it, he says. Look how good it still looks.
I look. It’s a grey Ford Ranger.
This dog, he tells me, pointing at Jake, his old shepherd mix, curled up in the gravel at his feet, This fucking dog is twenty-two years old. You know why? Cause he ate what I ate and I never cut his balls off. I ate steak, he ate steak. I ate hamburgers, he ate hamburgers. I ate steak, man, he ate fucking steak! Twenty-two years old, man, and he’ll chase a cat up a fucking tree and eat it for dinner.
And steak too? I ask.
Hell yeah, he says, he’ll eat a fucking cat and still have room for a porterhouse steak.
There’s moonlight, but nothing else. Gammy and Pa’s motor home, parked in the driveway, is dark. The house is dark. Everyone is asleep but me and Eric. My mom is asleep, but she hasn’t gone into her coma yet. During the day she stays in bed and there’s always a big group in her room and another in the living room, and out in the yard, and Rachel goes to Safeway every day and loads up on food, everyday a unique and endless banquet, and she’s teaching Caroline this recipe and that recipe, saying this is how you feed all these people, saying that all the food shapes the day. And my mom is aware of it all, my mom who always wanted to either be at the center of the party or left alone, who will talk to anyone and everyone in her room but also wants to know whats going on outside, who is here and what they’re doing, are they eating, are they having fun? And she can’t do anything now but lie in bed and wait. She’ll say nothing to me about staying up all night drinking with Eric, making all that noise, but tomorrow Gammy will say to everyone, No more drinking. Last night was terrible for your mother, she will say, sighing that gravelly sigh and saying nothing more. And Pa will sidle up next to me at some point early in the afternoon and say, There’s beer in the motor home, in the fridge. But don’t tell your uncle. Or your grandmother. And a few weeks later, on that Wednesday in July, after they carry my mom away, we will wait for the sun to rise and when it does we will sit in a circle on the lawn in the sun, in the early-morning crystal-blue heat, and Pa will say, I guess there’s nothing left to do but drink some beer. And tonight Eric is opening another beer and handing it to me, and when he does he just pulls me into his big musky chest and says, This is some serious fucking shit, buddy. Uncle Eric, that drunk, that bar-fighter, that truck-driving concrete-laying summer-tanned construction worker with his tall tales and two ex-wives and his needy, squeezing, little-boy hugs. When he steps away from me to grab himself a beer, he wipes at his eyes and flings down his hands as if he’s bouncing a gigantic rubber ball.
Waiting for that light to turn. Watching that red globe hanging in the empty dark. The empty streets. The empty sky. The last turn before reaching home. No one there, but waiting your turn. Waiting for your signal. There are so many stories beneath the surface. So many people waiting to be made bright and vivid against the monotone, to be heard above the cacophony. Hanawalt, and Skinny. So many feelings crashing up against one another, intertwined. The giddy transcendence of young men with the world spread open before them; the loneliness of leaving home forever; loss. You grab one, suss it out, pull it free and see who and what comes tumbling out with it. Sometimes it all falls into place. Sometimes it scatters on the wind and you grab what you can, realizing that its placement will never be exact. I would sit there waiting for my light. Behind me, events were already losing their shape, already losing order. The facts were melting into impressions. And before me? A left turn, then home.
The night after they discovered the cancer had spread to my mom’s brain. That day, even though I knew she had an appointment to go over the CAT scans, even though I knew she’d been throwing up, falling down, even though I knew that we all knew what the diagnosis was going to be, I left my phone at home and walked up Euclid to work, to UCSF-Mt.Zion on Divisadero in San Francisco. It was a grey morning. I was wearing sunglasses. I worked through the day, in silence, in the buzzing hum of a computer, the constant clicking of keys, and when I got home I had sixteen or seventeen missed calls, ten or twelve messages, all from my dad or from Gammy.
I remember this: sitting in the bedroom in that brown leather wing-back I found on the street years ago, calling my dad, getting the news, and crying, and Caroline holding me, and hanging up and Caroline saying We need to go up there, and how she went and reserved a car and we went to the corner to catch a bus, and how the sky was getting dark, and how it wasn’t dark yet, how the glassy clouds funneled down Geary to the ocean, how they were all faded turquoise and around them were orange splashes and pink smears and how above us was the purplish blue of night crawling over us from the east. And how I couldn’t handle it, standing there like that, waiting, feeling all nervy and exposed and wet, and how we finally hailed a cab, even though I didn’t want to, I wanted to ride the bus like normal, I wanted to use my bus pass, I wanted to save the money, I wanted to ride the bus like normal, and how the cab finally pulled up, a Yellow Cab, and the silent ride down Geary. I don’t remember the drive up to Paradise, though I remember that Caroline drove.
And I remember pulling into the driveway, the crunching gravel. The porch-light was on, reflecting off the living room windows. It was dark inside but I could see the white faces of my dad and sister floating back and forth, fluttering towards the window and then retreating. Their round pale cheeks and dilated eyes. They came out and stood on the porch and became negative images of what they were in the house: their faces obscured in shadow, their bodies silhouetted in the light. We shut off the car and got out. They had been waiting for me. I don’t remember the three, four hours it took to drive up to Paradise. I don’t remember what I did that day at work, if it was anything unique. That day for me is really just these two moments: that phone call, sitting in the brown leather chair, and getting out of the car and seeing my dad and sister hovering in the porch light. But for them, that day was one long wait. Waiting in the doctor’s office. Waiting for the future as they had imagined it to return. Waiting for me. Waiting for me to do what? Maybe, because I hadn’t been there, I would bring something, some hope, some word, from some other world, that other world where the cancer didn’t metastasize in her brain. Or maybe I would be able to take them all back there. We could just leave this world behind and forget that it exists. But if that other world does exist, I had left it behind. There was some other me walking its streets, breathing its air, waking in its clear warm mornings.
Side by side, they came slowly out to the driveway without touching the ground or making any noise. They were conjoined, had collapsed into a single being over these hours of waiting, and they fluttered like a newly hatched moth. I was still between worlds. I had not been here for this day, this terrible day living every second with the diagnosis, walking through the hot white halls of the house, the tension of not knowing where to go, what to say, having to deal with the business of phone calls, waiting for someone, like your son or your brother or your grandson, to call you back; how lonely it must have been, all of them together on some kind of slowly spinning moon, revolving in place while the rest of the universe continues in another direction. And I was still in San Francisco, and I always will be, will always be walking to work without my phone knowing that the calls will be coming, one way or another, trying to pretend as if it was just another in a string of unremarkable days, trying to retain for a few hours more this particular orbit. And so I will always be watching through some long brass telescope and they will always be that single creature with its face in the dark and its body in the light.
We held each other, saying goodbye to the people we used to be, saying goodbye to the world we used to live in, groping through the star-scattered night for anchor.
I got into an accident. Writing for the Butte College newspaper, The Roadrunner, my last semester before transferring to San Francisco, still trying to decide who I was—still thinking I could—driving down the highway, from campus to our office in that otherwise abandoned building in an empty field. It was raining. Maybe I was tired. It was a black, grey day. Highway 99 runs right through Chico, everyone uses it like Main Street, and though its mostly a freeway there is one spot, just inside the city limits, where there’s a string of traffic lights. Entler Avenue. The lights turned red, but I didn’t see them, or wasn’t thinking about them—wasn’t prepared for them, had forgotten they existed—and at the last minute I saw the taillights of the car ahead of me growing huge in my windshield. I slammed on the brakes, hydroplaned, sailed into the back of the car. My hood crinkled up towards me. My seat-belt held me back. My CD player kept playing The White Stripes. I sat listening to my heart and the music, breathing, looking at the steering wheel, thinking about how I should get off the road. I tried to drive, but the car wouldn’t go. The rain came down and steam rose from my engine. I tried to start the car. It wouldn’t start. I put it in Park and turned the key and it started, coughed and rattled, and I steered it off the road, into the muddy median, and got out.
The woman I hit had pulled her car off the road, too. She was standing in the rain. She looked like a professor, like one of those slightly middle-aged Chico State professors who ride their bikes to the Thursday Night Farmer’s Market and who see every movie playing at the Pageant Theater, who in a few years would all invest in the Prius. Her hair was short and spiky with blond highlights and she was wearing a shawl. She asked if I was okay. I thought so. She was okay. Her car, a nifty little neon-green hatchback, was okay. Not even a scratch. I looked at my car, my beige Ford Taurus that I bought for nine-hundred dollars. It was totaled. Cars passed by, people turned their heads, the rain came down, the stop lights cycled through their colors, police arrived, a tow truck. Everyone said how lucky I was, but I was twenty years old and on my way out of this town, and I didn’t feel lucky. I felt tragic. I wanted it to be a story about a young man not catching his breaks, or working so hard he can’t see stop lights, or being at the center of some cosmic plan where experiences are fraught with meaning and lessons and which are heightened and special, matters of destiny. But it was just an accident, they happen every day, and in this one, no one was hurt.
The night I talked to my mom for the last time. Another late Friday night drive up to Paradise. Another gravel crunching arrival, again being greeted by my dad on the porch, but this time Gammy and Pa have parked their motor home in the driveway, this time Gammy steps out onto the steps of the motor home in her nightgown and says, Oh, good, you’re here. Oh good. This time we will all wait, this time we will all wait together. We bring our stuff in and I go into my parents room, where my mom is lying in the curved bed with the thin railings the hospice brought over. The lights are off in the room but a long, narrow triangle of light from the hallway falls in across her bed, across her face, and I go to stand next to her and am surprised to find her awake.
Her left eye is half closed, and her right eye seems unfocused. Her face is long, it’s pale and yellowish, but sometimes I think her face was green and wonder if there was an alarm clock in the room. I don’t think there was any kind of monitor. She had chosen to die at home and to go as quickly and easily as possible. There wasn’t any need for a monitor. But sometimes I think her face was green and sometimes I think it was yellow but always I think it was longer than it used to be, and slack. It used to be round and soft, she used to give us Eskimo Kisses and we’d giggle, return the kisses, and now those cheeks are just skin and those eyelashes droop and her whole face seems long but also tiny, and her hair is slick and fragile and thinned out. It is summer and her skin has a sweaty sheen.
It was late June, and the heat was already oppressive. It was weather made for going to the river, eating popsicles, running the swamp cooler all day. My mom loved to swim. Every summer we would set up the cheap, above-ground pool; but the only place where we could put the pool never got enough sunlight and stayed winter-cold all summer, biting and frigid, taking your breath when you got in it and making your legs pale and flecked with red. But there she’d be. Going in bit by bit, circling, holding on to the edge until her legs got used to the cold, splashing her face in preparation, her old blue muumuu swirling around her legs, and then, with a great and gasping whoosh, she’d dive in, stay under as long as she could, come rising up sputtering and stricken on the other side, saying Ooh, oohh, that’s cold! But she’d stay in. Circling and circling, making a little whirlpool, and when she was under she turned with the traffic she’d created with just a slight lowering or raising of a shoulder, and that muumuu all splayed around her, rising and falling, fluttering in the waves, a blue deeper than the blue of the water, carrying in its folds immense depths: it was not just holding my mother inside of it, it was reflecting out something expansive and shifting, boundless, chameleonic, the brilliant, neon-colored and wavering robes of a delighted cuttlefish in the great rainbow gardens of a coral kingdom.
A hot June night, the last time I talk to her. She is lying in bed. I am standing beside her. Her eyes: one droops, one flutters. I say something. Something, I don’t remember what. I say something; maybe: Hi Mom, me and Caroline are here. She says something; maybe: Oh, good. But what I do remember her saying is: Is your brother here? Her voice slurs. Her eyes bounce. I say, It’s me, Mom, its Dud. It’s Dustin. Where is your brother? she says. Are you guys going fishing? I look at her. I put a hand on her shoulder. Yes, I say. Yeah, we’re going fishing in the morning. Oh, good, she says. That’s going to be fun. Yeah, I say. Well, goodnight. And I turn and walk out of the room, into the hallway with its uneven floorboards. I turn off the light and linger there for a second. When I turn the corner into the living room, I want to be calm. I want to be blank. I hold my breath until I can control myself, until I can move myself as I would a puppet on dangling strings. From high above myself or from deep, deep within, I walk out of the hallway. Caroline is waiting in the living room.
Was she awake? she asks.
No, I say.
Sometime in the night, while we sleep in the back bedroom, or sometime early in the morning, while we’re standing around the coffee pot, my mom’s sleep will become a coma. She will never speak again, except for an occasional murmur of pain, a whimper that will cause my dad to jump up with a syringe of morphine. She never speaks again. I will talk to her countless times, three in particular: once in my mind in a crowded room; once aloud when I was alone with her; and once the morning she died. In these moments words will pour from my mouth or tumble in my mind like a river cascading over boulders and then running in reverse, the white-caps and spume sucking back into themselves, holding for a moment, one moment, the river placid and clear, slick green rock, and then rushing again, around the boulders, and the sound will be deafening, but the words themselves are mine. We hold vigil over her for just under a week.
In front of the Boys & Girls Club, where the Skyway does a gentle curve towards true north, the town of Paradise painted a bright crosswalk and put up two traffic lights, two tiny little lights on white poles six-feet tall, and they put them at the sides of the street rather than over it. During the day, you can’t see them at all; they blend into the sidewalk, blend in with the parking meters and American flags and lamp-posts. At night, they blink a dull orange blink that melts into the lights of the streetlamps and storefronts, and when someone tries to cross the street, they turn an even duller red; it’s like trying to spot Mars with your naked eye. And though you can’t see them, they can see you: each of the poles has a tiny camera fixed under the light, snapping pictures at a hundred frames per second when the lights turn red. If you don’t stop, you end up at home, at a party, a funeral, wherever it is you’re going; you reach your destination and go on with your life—you go grocery shopping, you fight with your lover, you go to the movies—and then, weeks later, you get an envelope in the mail with a letter and a fine and a picture of yourself driving through the lights, singing along to the radio, looking at your passenger, trying to stay awake, trying to appear sober, unaware of the light at the periphery of the world, unaware of the clicking, secret aperture through which you are caught and held, like a decorative figurine inside a glass bubble.
The night my mom died. Three a.m. To be accurate, it was the morning she died. But we’re talking about a period of time wrapped in darkness, a long blind stretch between the sputtering end of one day and the uncertain beginning of another. It is night, it is morning, it is everything. It’s the years to come. It’s walking home from a party with Caroline—the first party I’d gone to in this new world, this new world rising from the blackened clay, this new world waiting for dawn—carrying an empty glass pan crusted with brownie edges, and having to stop, having to sit down, and wailing into her shoulder, sitting in some darkened bus-stop on Fulton long after the busses have stopped running and crying as the traffic lights cycle through red and green and yellow and red for cars that aren’t even there.
I was sleeping in the back bedroom the night my mom died. I want to say that I was dreaming, that I walked through some green, alien hills, that in my sleep I was in a place of color and penetrating light, but I just slept, slept in the dark, on a squeaking air mattress under a thin sheet in the July heat. And then I was awake. My dad was standing in the doorway. His naked back in the hall light and his face and chest in the darkness of my room. He said, Your mother stopped breathing.
What does that mean? I said.
She’s not breathing, he said, and I got out of bed and we went with stuttering steps numb and asleep through the house to their bedroom, filled with light. Golden. Hot white at the edges. My eyes hurt, they tried to shut themselves; the light was so unbearable it was as if my sight itself were trying to retreat, to return to the empty dark of the back bedroom where there was no ceiling or walls or bodies, there were only permeable shadows, a borderless universe. I felt like I had to sneeze. All of the lamps were on. The ceiling light hummed and flickered. The bedside lamp was warm and soft. There must have been more lamps. There was so much light there must have been more than those two lamps; it was so bright I couldn’t see the edges of the room, I couldn’t see the window or my dad’s bed or his dresser, I could only see my mom lying on that hospice bed in light so bright and hot I couldn’t breathe. There must have been more lamps. Must have been more than the naked ceiling bulb and that cheap squat bedside lamp, but I can’t think of any. I can’t see them, except when I close my eyes. I close my eyes and the light presses down on me and my eyelids are red and warm and lined with snaking veins.
My sister was there. Was she there already, or did she come later? At some point, she was there, standing at our mother’s bedside. At some point we were all there, Gammy too, and Pa in the doorway. She’s gone, said Gammy. We all stood there, around her. Later, Gammy will say Close those blinds, we can’t watch this, as they wheel my mother past the window, wrapped in a body-bag, laid on a gurney, and later still Gammy will say, It’s good that you didn’t hear the death rattle. That’s so hard. It’s so . . . hard . . . to hear that. But for now she just says: I’ll call the hospice. And she leaves and Pa leaves and I think I’m alone with my mom, with her body, but I can’t be sure. I can’t remember if there is anyone else there or not, but I remember that I put my hand on her chest, on her yellow chest mottled with tiny purple bruises. I put my hand on her chest and it is cold and hollow like a tight drum.
In a little while everyone is there, Gammy and Pa and Uncle Eric, the cousins, the great uncles, we’re all there in the living room, on the couches, before the dawn, with the windows drawn, holding, holding, holding each other. The sun is coming up in the east. If we went outside we would see a cool grey morning rising, we would hear the birds ruffling awake in their nests, feel the summer heat gathering at the edges of the light. But we are in the enclosed dark, together.
The light turns. They say, if you drive a certain speed, just above the limit, and time it just right, you will hit every light right when it turns green. You can drive in an endless loop through Chico and up into Paradise and back down again without ever stopping, without ever waiting. But its not practical. Everyone has to wait. The light changes, and its your turn. Or it changes just before you arrive, catching you, and you watch the other cars move on, slowly, to wherever it is they’re going.