Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. These texts may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. These texts may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. A few of the texts we publish are in the public domain. For information on a specific text, contact Kalí Tal. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is dedicated to using electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.
I was three years old when my father ran away. He left, unexpectedly, vanished like a wisp of smoke, and I wasn't even sure who it was that stepped out of my life. I remember little about my father. My mother refused to discuss him. She could scarcely bring herself to speak his name. When he left, he never returned. It was as if he had simply disappeared from the face of the earth.
We--my mother and I--lived in a small mill town in northern California. It was a town of chuckholed streets, jungly lawns, and houses as bleak as the psyches of the terminally ill. Unemployment was endemic there. My mother was lucky enough to find work at a sawmill. It was her job to stand beside the board planer, feeding rough planks into the machine.
The work was hard and demanding, but it was not done in an effort to prove anything to anyone. It was simply what had to be done for a living. I remember her coming home dirty and so tired that she had to rest in a chair before she could even struggle to the shower. I didn't understand her complaints about the soreness in her arms or the small of her back. I didn't understand her tears.
Often my mother worked the night shift. On those evenings I was left to fend for myself. I whiled away most of my time in front of the television, watching programs like The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best. There were no problems in those families, no divorces. Everyone led happy lives. The children were good students, popular in school. They went to bed with kisses and woke to a cheerful breakfast and to a father sitting before his morning coffee. My own life was nothing like that. I hated school. My homework papers were stamped not by teachers' signatures and stars, but with patterns of mud in herringbone rows from the soles of my tennis shoes. I was a quiet boy. I never challenged anything or anyone. I believe that much of what was taken to be my soberness was simply a feeling of being on guard, of carefully watching life flame around me. Of trying not to be surprised at what might happen next.
What I remember most about those days, more vividly than anything my senses can summon up secondhand, was the embarrassment. I had no father. He had let us down. He had failed to do what a man was supposed to do if he was to call himself a man: work hard, pay his debts and stand by his family forever.
I was secretive about my home life. I never invited anyone to come over. I had an inexhaustible supply of excuses--our house was too small; there was no privacy; I had too many chores to do. I made up stories about my make-believe father. He was strong and he smoked cigars. He bought me a.22 rifle and we hunted rabbits together. He let me drink beer and he taught me to play football. Lies, big lies poured from my mouth like a thick syrup.
The numbers attached to the years slowly changed. During that time my mother and I never went anywhere. There were no vacations or weekend outings, no movies. There was little money in our house for such things. We passed from month to month, through the dips and peaks of every year, like a ship that was traveling the same circle where the view was always familiar. Then, one day, everything changed. A new man fell from the sky and landed at our dinner table. I was ten-years-old when it happened, but I remember it as though it were yesterday.
It was a winter morning, brittle with cold. There were plates of ice on the puddles. I was in bed when I heard a car pull into the driveway. I peeked out the window and there was a blue Chevy pickup, motor idling, vapors rising in the gelid air. A strange man sat behind the wheel, looking big and full of purpose. It was my new stepfather. I had been told he was coming. He had married my mother only a week before in Nevada. Now he was back from southern California, from the home of his previous wife, where he had gone to collect his tools and clothes. I was choked with excitement. What would he think of me? My hair wasn't combed and I hadn't brushed my teeth. I was taken with a terrible idea: what if he had seen me already? What if he thought: this kid is too weak-looking to make a decent son. A boy should be stronger and taller.
My mother called from the living room. I stuffed my shirttail into my pants, hollered "Yeah?" and straightened up erect, prepared to make the best manly impression possible. Then I opened my bedroom door and strode into the living room. There, in the flesh, was the father I had dreamed of in a thousand forms since I'd realized that other boys had a second parent, a parent who knew men's stuff and could pass it down to them.
He introduced himself. His name was Ernie--Ernest McKenzie. His voice was rough, yet caressing, like the lick of a tomcat's tongue. He had bare-looking green eyes, a gap between his top teeth and hair as black as wrought iron that was combed with force off his forehead. He smelled of cigarette smoke and Old Spice.
I rummaged for something to say. What should I say? "Hello Father? Dad? Sir? Hug or shake hands?
Oh why hadn't I combed my hair? He offered his hand and I shook it. His grip was meaty, muscular. He was, as I knew from a boy's curiosity and observation, unusually strong.
"How's the fishing around here?" he asked. I had no idea. I had never caught a fish in my life.
"I don't know," I murmured, hardly daring to raise my eyes to his.
"How about the hunting?"
Hunting? Not in my wildest dreams had I gone hunting. I shrugged. He fixed a cigarette on his bottom lip, snapped a little no-nonsense stainless steel lighter under it, and returned the lighter to the chest pocket of his shirt. The smoke rose up the right side of his face so he narrowed that eye.
"Well, we're just gonna to have to find out," he said, and tipped me a wink. There had been a thrill in receiving that wink from him. It put the two of us in cahoots, it made us secret allies in a manly way. I chewed my lip and was silent for a moment. I was crazy with questions I wanted answered, but the idea of asking them embarrassed me, for to be so ignorant about such things seemed shameful.
My mother gave Ernie a tour of the house. I followed close behind. It didn't take long to show him around. Our house was small, it had the functional economy of a military barracks. There was a tiny kitchen, two cramped bedrooms and a bathroom. That was the extent of it.
When they were done, Ernie pulled me aside and said, "Say, I got a hell of an idea. How would you like to go fishing tomorrow?"
"S-sure," I stammered. But--"
"No buts about it," he said. "I'll wake you in the morning." Then he handed me a half dollar and asked me if I would run to the store for cigarettes. Camels were the brand he preferred.
Would I run to the store for cigarettes? I would have circled the globe if he had requested it. I was falling all over myself getting out the door. Already I liked everything about Ernie: the coarseness of his hair, his deep voice, his strength. His every gesture suggested a man of endless and exuberant energy. He seemed kind and caring too, the kind of man a boy needs around when he's growing up. If I was going to call any man my father, this would be a good man to choose. I was just pulling out of the driveway on my bicycle when Ernie poked his head out the door.
"Get yourself a candy bar with the change," he shouted. The man is a God, I remember thinking as I pedaled down the block toward to the corner store.
As Ernie promised, he woke me early the next morning to go fishing. It was dawn, an hour of the day I had never before witnessed.
On the porch I watched my first sunrise. A pearly band in the east gave way to a deepening flush of pink, and then rapidly brightening to a deep blue. Ernie gathered up our fishing gear from the garage and we headed out. Our destination that day was the Eel River. The river was within walking distance of our house. It dipped out of the mountains to the east and slid past our small town. It pooled in long, shadowed clefts beneath the shoulders of hills and dug its own small canyons. Ernie assured me there were trout, big speckled trout with bellies as red as cherry candy. We headed out, climbing over fences and crossing stubble fields, our shoes cracking against the dry barley stalks. Excited, I took steps twice my normal stride. I was thinking of promised fish. Ernie carried his excitement lightly, the way a hunter carries a loaded shotgun over a fence.
By the time we reached the river, the sun was up. Rays of light, as pretty as a drawing in a child's Sunday-school workbook, were shining through the trees and dappling the sand at our feet. The air was filled with the sweet, damp scent of water. Our fishing spot was downstream from a barely submerged waterfall. The reef of rock was about two feet under the water, so the whole river rose into one wave, shook itself into spray, then fell back and turned blue.
Ernie added sinkers and hooks to our poles. Then he threaded worms onto the hooks. A fish jumped from the blue water, flashing like quicksilver.
"See right there?" He pointed to the place where the trout had jumped. "Damn. She was a big one."
Ernie always called things she, but I couldn't tell how he knew. He said, "I guess she'll be a hot one today," or "It looks like she'll rain. Or when we were fishing, "Just skim the worm across the water and watch her jump." I drew back and made my cast.
"Did I get her in the right spot?" I asked.
"Just right," Ernie said.
The line tightened and the current carried the worm into sight at the end of the pool. I could feel the sinkers tap-tapping on the rocks. Suddenly, the tip of my pole dipped and the line straightened, taut as a wire. A bite! I reeled in and examined the hook. It was bare. I put another worm on and repeated my cast, exactly. The writhing pink worm vanished. Again the quick, hard pull. I jerked and reeled in quick. On the end of my line was a ten-inch speckled trout--my first trout. I kept cool until I tried to take the hook out of his mouth. He was lying covered with sand on the little bar where I had landed him. His gills opened with his penultimate sighs.
My hands were shaking, but finally I managed to pick him up and shout to Ernie: "Look! I got one!"
"Hey, that's a beauty," he said, launching a terrific smile. "And its the first catch of the day. You're turning out to be quite a fisherman." I preened inward, murmuring my thanks.
Ernie took a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it. Smoke shot through his nose into the air. Then he picked up his pole and waded out knee-deep into the river. On his first cast he caught a fish. Then another. He wasted no time catching a full of trout.
When we had enough trout for supper, Ernie cleaned them in the riffles, letting water spill into their slit, flapping bellies, swirling about their pink gills and filling them up to their high springy breastbones. After cleaning the fish, he arranged them in a basket between layers of grass and wild mint. That evening, my mother wrapped the trout in bread crumbs, sprinkled on butter and lemon rind, and cooked them. If I had ever tasted a better food, I don't know what it is.
The next time Ernie took me fishing it was at night, with a flashlight and a pitchfork. This kind of fishing was called gaffing and it always took place right after the first good rains of winter, when the steelhead moved upstream to spawn. Gaffing was against the law, but it was something I never questioned. Life in our little town was simple and sometimes perilously close to impoverished and, as Ernie pointed out, food was food. A man with a pitchfork could easily kill a steelhead during spawning season and have enough for his family to eat for several days. That evening we drove to the mouth of the Eel river, to where the steelhead congregated just before their long journey upstream. The mouth of the river, Ernie said, was the best spot to get fish.
It was midnight, the stars were scattered like spilled salt across the sky. We drove for what seemed miles, out of town and through the lonely redwoods, past swamps full of frogs that piped shrilly and, confused by the headlights, hopped giddily onto the road and got squashed beneath the wheels.
"Are you nervous?" Ernie asked, as we pulled off onto a dirt road.
"No, sir," I said, trying hard to conceal the excitement in my voice. I was gripping the pitchfork so tightly in my hands I feared I would break it. "Do you think we'll get anything tonight?"
"It'll be a miracle if we don't," he said.
We parked under a grove of trees. Ernie switched the motor off and we got out. The chilly night air carried on its sleek back the sounds of nightbirds and the creaking of the trees above us. At the river we came to a pond at an open place, a gravel beach. Then, despite the darkness, we dropped into a crouch. Ernie was peering into the water in front of us, and when I looked, I saw what had taken him so. In the shallows I could see the black backs of fish sticking out. Steelhead. Fresh from the ocean. One big fish rolled. Another shot through a riffle, finning upstream against the current.
Ernie signaled and I moved into the water. I was shaking, so excited I could barely hold onto the pitchfork. The steelhead came right at me. It tried to turn at the last second, but it was too late. I thrust the pitchfork into the water and felt it hit flesh.
"I got her! I got her!" I threw the steelhead on the bank, flopping and twisting. I had never seen anything so big. It's body was solid. The flesh felt hard as rock. It's teeth, when I ran a finger along them, felt as sharp as a new saw blade. I was wet and shivering. Ernie was laughing.
"That's one hell of a big fish," he said, laughing. "I think I saw the water level drop a foot when you pulled her out." I started laughing too. When our mirth had chuckled itself down into a kind of ruminative quiet, Ernie took the pitchfork and waded back out into the water. As he fished, I sat on the bank, looking at the steelhead and thinking how I wanted to remember that moment for the rest of my life.
It didn't take long for me to begin to think of Ernie as a father. He was not a blind, bullish anti-intellectual, as some working men become when they are denied the level of learning that they may have been capable of. Ernie was hard in a different kind of way, like a baseball is hard under the scuffed leather. I enjoyed being near him. I liked how he treated me. He never treated me as though I didn't exist, as other grown-ups did. He noticed me. He acted like I might be somebody good to have around, somebody who could help a man with a job.
Ernie was a carpenter, a good one. He had a big tool box filled with lovely woodworking tools. He cherished those tools and took excellent care of them. Just after he moved in, he set to work remodeling our house. It was something to watch Ernie plane a piece of wood and watch the grain coming better and with more shape with every peeling that curled from the blade. Sometimes I would help him when he asked me to hold a board or bring him a tool. I learned a lot from Ernie in the matter of putting joints instead of nails and screws, and nails and screws where they are not to be seen.
"Wood is different from anything else," he told me. "It requires care and respect. Wood has soul and it's not at the mercy of triflers. One slip of the saw, one shave too many with the plane, and your work is ruined. Fit only for burning." Ernie wasn't proud or smug about his craft, but when he said he was going to make something you believed him. When Ernie took a saw to a piece of wood, something inexplicably lucky happened. Cuts were ruler straight. Ends mated up. When he joined two pieces of wood together they always fit perfect. Ernie could make a door that stood up plumb, he could get a window so the sash would slide up and down smooth as butter.
When there wasn't enough carpentry work to keep him busy, Ernie worked at the sawmill. His job was on the green chain. He would yank the heavy freshly-cut lumber from the chain and stack it in units. The green chain was a backbreaking job, and often the lumber coming off of it--four-by-fours, eight-by-eights--weighed in excess of two-hundred pounds. Ernie would come home from work covered with sweat, and trailing the smell of pitch. There would be sawdust in the cuffs of his pants. He never complained about the work, even though the pay was minimal and his back gave him problems. And he was always generous with the money he labored so hard to make.
One Saturday I worked collecting pop bottles to get twenty-five cents to go to the movies. I later found out that the movie cost fifty cents. I ran all the way home, angry, kicking things.
Ernie had just arrived home from work. He asked me what was wrong. When I told him, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of sawdust and came up with a quarter. His fingers were blistered and cut open from the unfinished lumber he worked with all day. He handed me the quarter. It was probably the last one he had. I ran all the way back to the movie: The Blob.
When I came home that evening Ernie was already in bed. There was work early the next morning. I sneaked into his room and watched him sleeping. I never woke him up to thank him. I just wanted to look at him and think about the kind of dad I had.
The good memories far outweigh the painful ones. But some memories of Ernie huddle in a grainy light. They lodge in the mind like an old wound that never entirely healed. Ernie had a weakness for alcohol. He drank compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. And whenever he drank there was always trouble. Usually, it was on the weekends. He would start early Saturday morning and by the time evening rolled around he would be passed out in his recliner, an alcoholic darkness covering him with a black sheet. All evening, until my bedtime, I would tiptoe past him, as past a snoring dragon. Then I curled fearfully in my sheets, listening, because eventually he would wake up and the fighting would begin. My mother would sling accusations at him. Ernie would snarl back. She would yell. Their voices clashed. Before long, she would retreat to their bedroom, sobbing, not from the blows of fists, for he never struck her, but from the force of his words.
Left alone, Ernie would prowl the house, thumping into furniture, rummaging in the kitchen and slamming doors. I would lie there hating him, loving him, fearing him, knowing I had failed him. I told myself he needed alcohol to ease the ache gnawing at his belly, the ache I must have caused by disappointing him somehow.
Sometimes, Ernie would stop for a few drinks on the way home from work. When he got carried away, he would go on a binge that would last for days and cause great problems. I remember one such time in particular.
It was a gray autumn afternoon. The leaves were off the trees and the mountains to the east of town were obscured by a low sky. I came home from school and immediately knew something was wrong. I could sense it as soon as I stepped onto the porch. You can smell trouble, feel it against your skin. My mother met me at the door. She looked uneasy, like all messengers with bad news.
"Ernie's been arrested," she said. And then she pulled her housecoat together because there was a cold vein in the air, a part of the cold that would be on us for awhile. "He was picked up for driving under the influence." Ernie was in big trouble; it was his second drunk driving offense.
This time he was going to jail for a month. On the day he was to be sentenced, my mother and I were there. Outside the courtroom we were allowed a few minutes with him. Ernie looked bad. He had several nights' growth of beard, matted hair, and bloodshot eyes. His face was grey from fatigue and epic drinking.
Ernie shook my hand. "You'll be the man of the house for awhile," he said. "I want you to take care of everything."
"Yes, sir." I said. My throat tightened and tears came to my eyes. I didn't want to cry in front of him and to check myself I pushed at the gap between my front teeth with my tongue as he looked at me.
"Don't let me down now, hear?" He smiled, but it looked manufactured. As he was escorted away by a policeman, I told myself I would never let him down, no matter what.
Time moved slowly, sluggishly. A month without Ernie seemed like an eternity. For the first few weeks my mother was utterly cast down. She slept late, something she had never done before, and when I came home from school I sometimes found her still in her bathrobe, sitting at the kitchen table and staring dazedly out the window. In the silence of the house, my mother battled her depression, moving beneath its weight like a fish sluggish and misshapen at the bottom of the sea. I tried to keep busy by immersing myself in schoolwork and chores. It was the only way I could escape being drawn deeper into my own unhappiness.
Somehow we made it through that month, and after Ernie's release from jail there was peace for a time. He went back to work at the mil, and on weekends he kept himself busy around the house. For a time, he even tried to stop drinking. But for Ernie it was like trying to plug the holes in a poorly constructed earthen dam: as soon as you got one leak stopped, a new one sprung someplace else. It was not the end of our troubles. It was only the beginning of more hard times.
At school, there was a small gang of thugs who got their kicks beating up on other kids. Tony Albers was their self-proclaimed leader. He wore a leather jacket and a flat-top cut so close to the crown that you could see the top of his scalp, pale as a potato. They loitered in the bathrooms and made fun of other boys and held them over the toilet bowls by their ankles. I was one of their favorite victims. Encounters with Tony and his gang usually began with a slighting remark and ended with a flurry of fists. They would pull on my shirt until the seams ripped and spit on me. When they were feeling especially mean-spirited they would work me over good. One Friday I came home with a bloody nose. After Ernie had finished supper he looked my nose to feel if it was broken, but there was nothing wrong except swelling.
"Put some ice on it and it'll be okay," he said. Then he took me outside. He was going to teach me to fight. How to be tough.
"Leave him alone," my mother said. "Don't you think he's had enough for one day?"
"He's never been taught to fight," Ernie said. "He's got to learn to defend himself or they'll always be boys coming at him, and he'll never have anything to give back." Ernie believed that it was a man's place in life to take punishment and give back more than he took. Wasn't that what a father had to teach his son?
So I learned to fight.
That evening I was instructed to tighten my fists hard. To strike out straight from the shoulder and never punch backing up. Ernie showed me how to stand, how to cut a jab by snapping my fist inward, how to guard myself and keep my chin low. He taught me how to give and to slip a punch. How to be tough.
"Fly all over your man," he said. "A good fighter is one who will slip under a punch and give two in return. When a man makes you take off your coat, you've got to teach him a lesson. One he won't forget."
"Will I be able to defend myself tomorrow?" I asked.
"Only if you're tough," he said.
The following day at school, during lunch break, Tony Albers came up behind me and pushed me to the ground. I went full-length on the pavement. I got up and shoved him back. He started to laugh, it was almost a giggle. Then he turned suddenly angry.
"That was stupid," he said. "Really stupid. Now I'm gonna have to beat the living shit out you."
This time I was ready for him. I slipped under his fist and delivered a right to his nose. There was a lifetime of injustice behind my punch. Bone crunched. Blood streamed from Tony's nostrils into his cupped hands. His face filled with stunned surprise.
"Son of a bitch!" he cried, flailing his fists. "I'll kill you for that!"
"Knock his brains out," yelled one of his friends. A knot of onlookers closed around us. Tony rushed at me, arms flailing, fists raining on my shoulders. I surprised us both by landing one on his eye. He stopped and roared. The eye was already closing up, his face gone scarlet, his nostrils streaming blood. Tony, not used to having anybody fight back, was showing his weakness; he was throwing wild punches, and he was so tired he was stumbling like a drunkard. I danced in and out, making him strike air again and again.
"Stand still!" he gasped. "Stand still, you little pussy queer." Tony charged me. I feinted to the left, just as Ernie had showed me. When he shifted to meet the feint, I put everything I had into a haymaker that caught Tony's chin and snapped his head around. Fire bloomed in my knuckles.
Tony made no noise. Not even a whimper. His legs buckled and he dropped to the pavement. When he got back up, he was crying. Hard, angry tears.
Nobody offered to help him. Not even his friends. Somebody laughed. Somebody else sneered, "Go home crybaby. Go home to mama!"
That was the last time I was ever bothered by Tony Albers.
One Saturday, about a week later, Ernie told me that he wanted to take me hunting. He was prepared to give me the baptism of fire of a real deer hunt. But my mother made a face as though she had bitten into a green apple, then gave a brusque shake of the head. She didn't want me to go. The kind of hunting Ernie planned to do was called poaching. It was done at night, in secret, with a gun and a flashlight. Poaching, like gaffing, was a crime and the law could get you for it. I could have cared less. I didn't care about anything except the adrenaline rush that would come with seeing a deer and shooting it.
For the rest of the day I moped about the yard, waiting impatiently for my mother to change her mind, injecting a "please" one moment, and a "why not?" the next, hoping beyond hope to wear her down. Finally, her face flamed with anger. She slammed a frying pan down onto the counter. Utensils slid to the floor. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she put a hand over how mouth to hold back a cry of anguish.
"Go on, then!" she said, her hand dropping to the collar of her sweater and fiddling there, as if often did when she was upset. "Go, I don't care. No one around here ever listens to me anyway." Then she went into her bedroom and shut the door. It was the only place in the house where she could get away from men and their talk of guns and hunting.