When We Are Going to Be There
By Chris Colin
Listen to Chris read this story at the Big Ugly Review #7 release party:
If I have a son I will not name him Robert Redford and if I have a daughter I will not name her Dolly Parton. These are good names, but they're taken. I will not buy at TV, either, when I have children, though I will also discourage the development of certain "alternative" hobbies, particularly those that could be said to fall under the unfortunate "circus" rubric: juggling, unicycling, balloon-animal tying, and ringside announcing. Pratfalls are fine if realistic/funny.
Also: no spanking, firearms, curfews, honor roll bumper stickers, conspicuous consumption, "European-style" utensil use, gift certificates, bumper stickers that make fun of honor roll bumper stickers, smooth jazz, insensitivity, sensitivity, trench coats, mediocrity, or snack packs. I don't have children or a wife, but one day I might have both. I've taken to planning.
The clearest plan, the elaborate one with the fringed sash, is a car trip. I see it in 3-D, can describe it with the most suggestive of adjectives. The premise is simple: Outside the San Francisco Bay area, we drive and drive. (This trip, I should mention, is just the two kids and me — my wife, tired from performing all that brain surgery, will stay home for some R&R. We will miss her but will face the road robustly, shiningly.)
We'll leave at dusk. My kids, once they exist, will pack sweatshirts and toothbrushes and milk jugs full of water. We'll put sandwiches in a bag, and take care not to put the bag under the milk jugs.
Our drive takes us along Route 80, mostly. It's brief scratch on the map east of San Francisco. We'll drive, say, a little past Reno, then head back. We will head back wiser, better, taller.
It's a boiler when we leave, our own sweaty Oakland sticking all over itself. We'll put towels on the car seats and keep wiping our foreheads with out T-shirts. Which we'll soon throw way in the back. Which will hold not only a spare tire but a flashlight and flares, because by this point in my life I'll be responsible. Our lives will be built on a foundation of adventure, uncertainty, and well-maintained, frequently tested safety devices.
Route 80 pokes out from Oakland like a fuse. Through a wiring of crisscrossed freeways, wide hot avenues, and great empty blocks, past metal fabrication plants, skinny hot-dog huts, and cold-storage facilities, one drives and drives and then one is simply among fields.
As with the leaving of any city, we'll feel free and a little empty. We will not be people who don't look back. Our excitement, like all excitement, will contain a kernel of regret. Where are we going? Will we ever go back? Why did we leave?
But we will not stop. Moving east from the Bay Area, past Vallejo, past Sacramento, brings one to acres of grass. It's flat. Back along the coast, it's not flat. The feeling that accompanies the drive inland is that of stepping of a Ferris wheel, this new steady ground just a little unsettling. Anything can happen when the ground's flat.
Here is something crucial to our outing: These kids come, originally, from the East Coast. It will be arranged in their lives so that the West is (1) new and (2) seen against the East. To begin in the West and migrate the other way is like stating with the Concorde and then moving to the stagecoach. No sense in raising backwards children.
Having begun their lives thus, I will point confidently to the wide open of inland California and they'll think, Oooh. It's not the wide open of, say, Nebraska or Arizona. Those places look similar enough, but one understands them differently. They are the in-between; California is the finish. Who, in matters of rope or snakes, cares about the middle? One gathers up the ends. So this is ordinary, pretty wide open, yes, but just beyond is a cliff and then simply sea, at one time gotten to tremendously via horse, starvation, confusion, death, and curiosity.
We'll listen to music and like how it organizes the sights around us. That passing tree makes sense with those violins, etc. We'll note the difference between day and night driving. One is visual, the other moody, both boring after a while. I'll tell them stories about hobos or pioneers. We'll talk about school, friends, pets. (I will also take occasional breaks from warmth and affection just so they don't get too comfortable — they'll thank me later when they realize an occasionally distant father helped them develop a useful rebellious streak.) We'll turn off the music and tell fart jokes.
Did I mention my kids are little? These are no teenagers — this is a trip for youngsters, who still get amazed by streetlights and who are too young to suspect their father of micromanaging their early impressions. I will coordinate their experiences like a tyrant and they will happily chew their sandwiches.
Travel is useful to children. It engages the senses, leaves its little scenes unpackaged, and, most important, shows what the road from Oakland to Nevada looks like. The long gray asphalt line will stick itself in their pea brains, revealing its heart years later when appropriate.
Travel is useful to children, and consequently mine will resist its virtue until they are blue. But it's smooth sailing after that, and then the noticing begins: rabbits on hills, a silo, two brown houses, hay, a person walking, a hat blowing off. Skies with clouds, skies without clouds, skies that have birds that have field mice. Then the inside landscape, just as prominent: the rattle of the steering wheel, the receipt on the floor, the stained seat, the carrot rolling around in the back.
We'll have the hang of the road and travel with rhythm. If there's a bag in a tree we'll see if it looks pretty. A fallen bird's nest, with orphans, along the road will receive help and whispered tendernesses. A rodeo in Sacramento? Too late, we already saw the one in Hayward.
"What is it all about?" Child Number 1 will ask. He/she is the precocious one. "What makes the flies fly and the dreams dream?"
At this I will produce a rock from my pocket. Quartz, milky and river-smoothed. They will examine it, hold its clearness up to the sun, lose it in the seat or toss it out the window. The question about life will have been ignored. Suckers. My future children are great suckers, and they are glad.
And this: We are not sissies. We might even shout that, dangerously, when people least expect it. To prove it to ourselves I'll teach them the smashing of bottles after dark, Bas Seed-style, for when the bruisers want to mix it up. I'll tell them about the twist you give as you bring it against the car fender, so that the crack doesn't shoot toward the neck and cut the hand. I'll offer some lines — "what some of this?" (indicate bottle) or "Hey you! Want some of this?" (bottle) — but let them know they're free to come up with their own.
More driving. Driving and driving. Not always talking. More questions than answers. Depth! Reverence, irreverence. The sun setting, dirtying everything in thick yellows. Then the moon. A shooting star alter. Pulling over onto the shoulder, kids peeing ditches , Dear God please nobody hit our car from behind. Back on the road. Questions about peeing, about ditches.
"What's that?" they'll ask later, before the road to Carson City. They'll be looking at the blinking tower two hundred yards off the freeway. Only it will be too dark to see the tower, so they'll just be looking at the blinking. This is my favorite part of this road. It is reason enough to have kids and take them for a long drive. This tower, in my mind, is somehow about travel.
"I don't know what it is," I'll say, because I don't. We'll watch the white-blue lights pulse — they come on slow and intense, the brightness of lightning with the torpor of cold — and consider their revision of the flats. The flats, every three seconds, spread from blackness to a glowing sweep, then go black again.
We will appreciate most the lack of coercion so rare in spectacle: This is not commerce — the tower advertises no company, suffers no product association. It is not art — it doesn't beg us to hypothesize, does not claim any creative dominion over the evening. It's a thing to see, if we want.
In Reno we'll stop because it's Reno — flashing of a different kind here. We will be astonished to find a city about luck, and one that appears to have none. At midnight, the grocery stores and gas stations are not empty. They bing and rattle, slot machines on every wall in every retail spot on every block. People who should be tired hunch over the lemons and cherries and sometimes break even. We will witness the occasional will — $200? $400? — and feel the winners' thrill, even though they themselves regard it with the blankness of paper.
Are my kids brats? I hope not, but they're allowed. Late in the drive, they can say, This sucks, we're bored, Mom buys us hot dogs. I'll buy them hot dogs. Someone will sit in mustard by Verdi. In Nixon, forty-five minutes beyond Reno, our course run, we'll most likely turn around. We'll have dangled out aimlessly a while, but now we'll point home decidedly.
Travel is hard. With any luck we'll lead the kind of lives that parlay the meat of travel into the stillest of days: Sitting at home on the radiator watching the guy mow his lawn across the street can be travel. We'll take our hard-earned information home. We'll remember why getting home is good.
Because our wife-mother is a brain surgeon, and because the future is bright and flashing.