Part IV: True West
Part IV: True West

The fourth of five chapters in “Rancho Recuerdos”

Sunday, November 21, 2005

“Well, I really think you should come.” Even over the phone, mom’s voice had a way of clenching my heart and filling it with guilt for not making her happy.

“Mom... It’s an eight-hour drive, and I really can’t afford the gas.” An easy excuse. Of course, the truth was that I couldn’t stand the idea of facing my mom’s family. My aunt was an orthopedic surgeon. My grandpa recently retired from practicing law. Among my cousins there were two Ph.D.s, an author and an MBA.

I had just withdrawn from my third semester of college.

“Gas!? That’s nothing, honey. I’ll give you some money to cover the gas after you get here,” Mom said.

“Well,” I sighed, “I need a lot more than gas money.”

“That’s fine, sweetie. Phil and I can help you with whatever you need. We’ll talk about it at Rancho.” Jesus Christ. I had almost forgotten about Phil, mom’s new boyfriend, the idiotic, bolo-tied, wannabe New Mexico native who was actually from a stupid rich Houston oil family.

“It’s just not the same without Dad.” Ever since my dad passed away two years before, being around family just emphasized his absence. Dad and I were a team. His wisdom, advice and fearless honesty resonated in a place deep inside me. It was like we had two copies of the same soul, each just grown during a different time. But almost as suddenly that bond was forged, he was gone. I hadn’t even imagined going back to Rancho without him.

“I know, but Phil really wants to get to know you. Why don’t you give him a chance? And I don’t know how many more of these Rancho Thanksgivings my dad will make it to.”

Fuck. That hit home. Hard. And what was I going to do all on my own here? Eat McDonald’s on Thanksgiving Day?

I heaved another sigh. “Okay. I’ll see you there.”

“Great! Love you, pumpkin!”

•••

Since leaving school in disgrace, I had no clue what to do with my life. But the painful truth was that I also hadn’t thought very hard about it. All I had really accomplished was decimating my portion of Dad’s life insurance policy, drinking far too much and sailing through life utterly rudderless.

The long, straight drive to Santa Fe gave me time to think.

 

 

After I passed Amarillo, I felt as if I was drying out like the arid, rocky vistas around me. I finally felt like I was beginning to see a way forward. In fact, I could see far, far ahead. Then it hit me: I was coming off the Texas caprock. I pulled onto the shoulder, and with semis buffeting by, I dug through the trunk, throwing aside socks, jumper cables and long-orphaned charging cables to get through the box from Dad’s car. There it was: his well-worn Aaron Copland CD with its cracked, falling-apart case, CD Warehouse price tag and all.

I hopped back into the car and slid the CD into my aging Camry’s CD player, turned up the volume and skipped to track 4 – “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Suddenly I was seven again, singing along to the horns with my dad in our old Ford Explorer on the path to New Mexico. I smiled, remembering his joy and complete lack of self-consciousness, throwing his entire being into belting out the harmonies. But before I knew what was happening, big, uncontrollable heaving sobs shook me. Then I was screaming. Yelling. Punching the steering wheel hard and fast. He’s gone. Gone. It wasn’t goddamn fair.

I needed his wisdom so badly in that moment. I would’ve given anything for one just one more talk.

The trucks flew by. I gripped the steering wheel hard, little drops of blood appearing from the scrapes on my whitening knuckles. I virtually ripped the tears off my face in self-pitying anger, the strains of Aaron Copland incongruously providing grandeur to an otherwise embarrassing, pathetic scene.

Why can’t he be here? Why can’t he give me some direction, some drive, some ambition, some agency?

The song ended. I punched the stereo off. In that moment, I hated it for transporting me in time, while failing to bring my father back. In the silence that followed, something clicked. The thread that wove us together was still there, though he wasn’t. And in that I began to find some reassurance. I couldn’t hear his voice, but I could feel his words, their intent, their meaning. It was undeniable. They were his words, spoken with my voice, as long as you follow that compass inside you, you’ll find your way.

I began to believe I might.

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