Here’s the thing about going on a road trip across America alone with your dog. She can vouch for nothing. When I say, “Hey Lib, remember that herd of big horn sheep in Colorado that were really close to the highway?” she just looks at me with this blank puppy-dog stare.
I’ve been engaging in this a lot lately, this one-sided reminiscing. As other duties, like raking up the the 9,000 pounds of autumn confetti littering my yard, now supplanted by the terror of Christmas, and the painful, yet necessary return to being on someone’s payroll, have conspired to impinge on my writing time, and with each day that passes makes me a little more anxious that this book will never get done, I find myself deliberately steering my memory back to some inspiring landscape when the sun was high and the road was mine.
This makes me happy. It brings me a quiet, revered, extremely intimate and deeply held joy. I loved being out there. I just need to stop and tell you right now: I loved being out there. Sometimes, as I rolled toward the outskirts of town, after I’d slowed down to let Libby stick her head out the window, or stopped to get some lunch or gasoline, I’d really open it up, getting back on on the highway. That’s the joy of a manual transmission; shifting gears, first, second, third, fourth, and then I’d really let it wind out before I shifted into overdrive. There’s something about putting a car through its paces that makes the driver feel closer to the engine. I felt powerful. I felt as fucking powerful as my car. I was moving forward with a surge of speed, purpose and freedom. The car was like my lover – generous, responsive, cradling me and thrilling me at the same time.
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In recent days, when the cold drip of December has rained its ugly Midwestern gloom on me, I have felt like I’ve stalled, run out of gas, broken down, all the appropriate and low hanging fruit, hackneyed phrases that one might use when writing a road story. Part of the problem is waiting for a verdict from an agent. Lord knows I’ve been pitchin’ them and I get these glowing comments and then silence on the other end of cyber space. It’s not like I’m not doing anything, I’m writing every day, but I sure would love to hear, “We love you!!! We want you!! We can’t wait to represent you!”
It’s enough to make a girl go postal. But then, something ( well, three things) snap in my head.
- Off the Leash has always been about not asking for permission. (Okay, I did ask for some money.)
- If not for the miserable, cold, drippy spring of last year, which inspired me to get my sorry ass out of town, I might have never gone.
- And I would not be writing Chapter Six today, which takes me back to the Texas highway including a brief dip into the deep vault, with a story about one Charles Lee Coates.
I have always had a penchant for getting into trouble with rascally, blue-eyed boys. Charles Lee was a tow-head, skinny, rag-tag kid I played with when I was a very little girl in Texas. Ft. Worth was a thirteen-year pitstop on the highway of my life (so far) and one of the towns on the Off the Leash tour this past summer, which is now inspiring a devilish chapter of epic proportions. Charles Lee had all the signs of being a death row inmate even at the tender age of six. He was two years older than me. We played “Army.” I was always the damn nurse, my specialty, mustard and mayonnaise sandwiches.
When we got bored digging tunnels to hide from the enemy, and running around talking on walkie-talkies made out of beer cans, we’d hang out in Charles Lee’s garage, digging around through spider-ridden, musty smelling junk. One day, Charles Lee and I set the place on fire. It wasn’t my fault. It was one of those little detached one-bedroom garage-type apartments and the place was absolutely chock full of decades worth of Look magazines and Ft. Worth Star Telegrams stacked in bundles four-foot high.
Charles Lee, who possessed some kind of mature-beyond-his-years ability to influence women to do completely illogical things, talked me into playing with matches and everybody knows the cliche: If you play with fire you’re going to get burned. I did. So I threw down the lit match and the whole damn place ignited. It’s a miracle the house didn’t blow up, what with gas cans and paint thinner and all manner of combustible materials scattered about.
Anyhow, I still remember the sound of the fire trucks rumbling down the alley, lights and sirens blaring and me hightailing it down the alley ahead of them, through the gate of our cyclone-fenced back yard, and straight into my room where I was so scared, I promptly fell asleep. I recall waking up to the sound of adult voices in the living room. It was my parents sounding defensive with his. I bet all four of them were smoking cigarettes at the time, people did things like that back then, especially when hackles were raised.
I got up, sleepily shuffling out to the living room, where I threw in with my team. I completely rolled over on that blond little bastard, with the cowlicks all over his buzz-cut head because he had threatened to pull down my pants! He told me he’d pull down my pants if I didn’t strike a match! Tough spot. Pants down or house on fire? I struck the match, but as I recall, the whole book caught fire, I tossed it down and the “one room garage apartment in the back” burned to the ground.
I don’t recall if his attempt to cut off my thumb occurred before or after the house fire incident. We were playing Army in the vacant lot. Must have been time for me to fetch some more mustard and mayonnaise sandwiches and maybe I wanted to be the gunner for awhile, I can’t be sure. I am sure that the skinny, Satan’s spawn, who never wore a shirt from May until September, did hand me a piece of red glass; a big chunk of jagged red glass from a broken tail light off a car.
We had such pristine playgrounds. Maybe I accidentally cut myself on the razor-sharp edge, maybe he took a swipe at me. (If you read this, Charles Lee, and you can get a letter out of prison, let me know.) All I do know is that it was bleeding like a son of a gun. Lots o’ blood. I ran screaming next door to find my mama. She just about fainted when she saw the blood. She wrapped a towel around my left hand and we ran like the wind to the car, me climbing up into the seat of our Mercury sedan, the kind with the fold-down seats. My mom told me to keep applying pressure, she couldn’t do it cause the Mercury was a stick.
They whisked us right through the waiting room, into the examining room at Dr. McCarroll’s office. He did everything for our family, from delivering my two little brothers to getting my big brother Garrett into rehab. I remember like it was yesterday the nurse saying to me, in a sweet Texas drawl, smelling like Aqua Net hairspray as she unwrapped the bloody towel to see the deep gash at the thumb joint.
“Now, Jeannie, I’m gonna need you step up here on this stool so we can wash that cut out. There’s a lot of dirt in there and you’re gonna have to let me clean it out.”
The water was running in the sink. There was a little red wooden stool for children to step up on. My mom looked pale.
“I’ll do it myself,” I said and stepped up on the stool and stuck my bloody hand under the warm water. The nurse was mildly surprised. My mom started crying and turned her head. I recall distinctly, beyond the shadow of any doubt, thinking it was better to take care of business my own self.
This is something I have tried to instill in my own children, with relative degrees of success, if not through an unconventional example. There’s a scene in the movie, The Last Detail, in which sailors Jack Nicholson and Otis Young are escorting a young, dopey, ill-fated Randy Quaid to the brig. He’s being sent to prison for seven years after stealing $40 from the donation box at the polio fundraiser on the Navy base, the pet charity of the Naval Commander’s wife.
Nicholson and Young, MPs, (military police) are assigned the task of taking the young lad from New York to the Navy prison in Portsmouth, VA. The kid has never had a fun day in his life and Nicholson sees this as a cause célèbre; an opportunity to show the kid a good time before he gets locked up, prostitutes and smoking dope included. Otis is the reluctant accomplice. The three of them are in a rough bar in New York City, with Nicholson trying to show the kid how to hustle a bunch of guys, when a bar room brawl breaks out.
The bartender shouts, “If you three don’t get out of here, I’m calling the shore patrol.”
Nicholson slams his fist down on the bar and then grabs the bartender by the collar, yanking him up to his face, “I am the mother fuckin’ shore patrol.”
I’ll do it myself. This is the power I have over my own book. With self-publishing and social media and friends and supporters like you, I don’t need to ask for permission, for approval, for legitimacy. I don’t need some other gatekeeper to open the gate because I’ll do it myself. This is the authority that we all have, to not abdicate our lives, our futures, our happiness or well being to other things or other people. We are the authorities.
I am the mother fuckin’ shore patrol.
Now, say it to yourself. This is, after all, the season of giving.