A Memoir Short
The crisp clean scent of creosote was drifting through the open picture windows of my bedroom. It always reminded me of the smell of rain in the dessert. Which is an odd sort of thought, since it just didn’t rain in that particular dessert very often. El Paso was a dessert city. It butted up against the very end of the Rocky Mountains and stretched out wide, rather than reaching higher into the open sky with skyscrapers. Everything was the color of old terracotta and I constantly had grit in my teeth from the wind blowing around the sand. But it was home and I was happy.
I had been put to bed ages ago, but the neighbor was having a party and my curious eight-year-old brain found it impossible to tune out the mix of mariachi and laughter. Nearly forty years later I can close my eyes and comfortably navigate the familiar shadows of my childhood bedroom. Memories are peculiar things, full of vibrant recollection, yet still seen through a distorted lens, much like an influencer with a favorite filter. One thing was certain though. In all this time since, even with the demons of alcoholism lurking behind every recollection and grief that can still bring me to my knees at the loss of my father, that house on McKinley Avenue was the last place I remember being comfortable in my own skin, something I’ve been working hard to remedy.
My dad was the sweetest disaster. I wish you could’ve met him. He was tall and handsome, with broad shoulders, and a ruddy complexion from a lifetime spent working in the sun. His brilliant blue eyes actually sparkled when he smiled. He cared about everything, too much. He cared about what his greedy family thought of him, always conspiring to declare which of them was the most influential. None of them were. He cared about the leeches he called friends, all of whom were also alcoholics. I often wonder if any of them are still alive.
Throughout his short life, the two relationships he struggled with most were with his own father and God. My relationship with God is complicated and messy. My daddy issues are rooted in my childhood memories of my dad. The night of that party stands out among them. I always look back at my dad’s insanity on full display and felt the familiar warmth of happiness. There is a kind of fondness in my memory for those moments when our family dysfunction was out for everyone to see, that is until I became a parent. I would be horrified if one of my daughter’s favorite memories of me was of me in an out-of-control drunk tirade at a gathering of my neighbors.
The cool hardwood floors greeted my toes when I crawled out of bed to investigate the commotion outside. Down the short hallway and the phone tucked into its little cubby with the fifty-foot cord. Cordless phones were only a luxury for the wealthy and we most certainly weren’t wealthy. Peering around the corner, I saw my mom standing at the front door. The heavy wood door was open and the rod iron screen door was the only thing between her and the night outside.
Her back was to me, but I could feel the tension in her posture. Whatever she was watching wasn’t making her happy. There was a difference between the way my parents got angry. When my mom was angry, she was likely to drop the occasional PG-rated profanity, stomp her feet, and sigh. Daddy was different. His anger manifested differently depending on if he was sober or not. My mom’s spine was stiff, but I could feel the sigh from across the room.
“Bartlett,” she scolded, “you get inside this house right this second,” it was strange to hear her mom chastise daddy like he was just a kid, but in hindsight, it made sense. I approached her silently and stood there, staring outside into the night. I couldn’t see much, but some headlights approaching cast daddy in a peculiar silhouette. He looked strange, I remember that.
“Have it your way!” Daddy bellowed. He stomped up the sidewalk. His head hung lower than usual, almost as though the weight of his rage was pulling him down. Daddy approached the door and mom just pushed me back out of the way. She was very protective of me, always trying to shield me from the worst of his temper. She didn’t open the door for him, which was telling at just how mad she was.
I wasn’t quite sure what to worry about first; the fact that my parents were having another fight, or that my dad had just from outside and was only wearing underwear. It was the mid-eighties, so whitey tidies were the norm.
“Assholes are gonna pay for what they’ve done!” He grumbled as he walked past.
“Don’t do anything stupid, for heaven’s sake,” mom yelled back at him. How much more stupid could you get after walking around in nothing but your underwear for everyone to see? I wasn’t usually embarrassed by daddy. I’d grown up only knowing the alcoholic, so everything horrific was simply normal, but even I was embarrassed by him in his underwear. The only problem was that it got worse from there.
BANG! SLAM! The sounds of daddy throwing heavy objects around made me jump. I looked up at my mom’s face hoping to find reassurance that everything was alright, but those moments, in a household with an alcoholic and a chronic conflict avoided, were rare. Daddy burst out of the hallway carrying our enormous olive green Hoover vacuum cleaner as if it were weightless, tucked under his arm like a football.
“Don’t you dare!” Mom said, to herself mostly. She pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. I was fascinated. What could he have been planning to do? My young brain just couldn’t put the pieces together and there was no way to stop the inevitable social train wreck. Out the front and across the patchy lawn he went, carrying the vacuum under his arm. Mom and I followed him out.
The party next door was spilling out the front door of the neighbor’s house. There weren’t a lot of lights along our street and I can’t recall if there was a moon shining down on us that night, but the faces were familiar. The branching family and friends of our Hispanic neighbor were always around. They were like another set of parents to me. It was hard to misbehave when so many people kept watch over you. There were a few startled faces, but they seemed more amused than anything.
The amusement didn’t last long. Apparently, someone from the party had thrown a rock and it had landed directly through the windshield of daddy’s truck windshield. This wasn’t going to end well. There was nothing else to do but watch the show unfold. Daddy, still only in his bright white briefs, stomped out across the lawn, raised the vacuum up, and began the most outrageous display of unbridled rage I had seen in my young life. He braced his feet wide and swung the vacuum up, and then began barking out machine gun sounds. GA-KA-KA-KA-KA! The vacuum lurched in his arms like recoil as he aimed invisible bullets at the party goers spread out on the neighbor’s front lawn.
The music stopped. Mouths fell open. And my mom buried her face in her hands in absolute embarrassment. Everything played out in slow motion like an action scene from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Daddy’s body shook with every pretend round escaping his makeshift fully automatic assault vacuum. I can still remember my confusion and amusement. I wanted to jump up and down with joy. I wanted to laugh. Instead, I just stood rooted to my mother’s side. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t right. Our neighbor, Mario, stood in the middle of his front lawn, his expression drawn and angry. His friends and family spread out behind him, prepared to do whatever was necessary to get the crazed madman away from him.
The strangest part was that the incident resolved itself as quickly as it had bubbled up. Daddy dropped the business end of the vacuum to the ground. A small cloud of dust rose up around it reminiscent of the smoke curling out of the barrel of a gun. He turned around and dragged the vacuum behind him, slouched back into the house. Everyone else was left standing there dumbly, wondering what we had all just witnessed.
It’s such a strange notion that some memories can fade with time, while others are vibrant as the moment they happened. The memory of my first kiss has faded. It was unremarkable anyway. But my body melts into the full sensory immersion of this bizarre moment from my childhood, full of the fresh scent of creosote in the dessert and mariachi in my ears.