border town

by Amy B. Wright

My stepfather’s upper body rounds when we sit, and he rests his forearms on the table.  He wears a white cotton windbreaker the same shade as his hair, which has been white since I have known him.

The waitress has appeared.  “Drinks?”

He says, “I’ll have a Tequila Daisy. Don’t have that? How about a Bearded Lady?” He looks at me mischievously. He is unshaven, white stubble on flushed skin.    My mother also looks at me. “The new normal,” she says.  On our mantel is a picture of my stepfather that was taken in Juárez, Mexico.  He narrows his eyes just enough for the viewer to summon a comparison with James Dean. A cigarette dangles from the very ends of his lips.  A tarnished silver bowie knife is also on our mantel, its sheath made from two pieces of dried, battered leather that are held together with tacks.   The bowie knife is inscribed, the letters formed from swirled hot liquid metal that lies atop the blade:  “Me gusta dormir con luz aunque se apague la vela. I like to sleep with light even when the candle is not lit.

“What is a Tequila Daisy?” I ask.  

“Something he had in Juárez sixty years ago,” my mother replies.

My stepfather moved in shortly after my father moved out.  I was first taken by his size; his frame fully occupied the doorway to our townhouse.  He had braces on his teeth and snow-white hair, and wore V-neck collared shirts that showed his suntan, and the medallion of a Rolls Royce grill on a gold chain around his neck. My father moved out when I was four.  When my mother and I first lived alone, I would enter her bedroom upon waking, and get into bed beside her. My stepfather started showing up in the mornings with a brown paper bag of bagels tucked underneath his arm, actually having spent the previous night and then woken early and gone out.  On those mornings, I would notice her underwear on the carpet of her bedroom when I went inside, and she so still in bed, her naked legs visible above the sheets. I would stand at the foot of the bed, and then leave the room. My father had a queen size mattress on the floor of his new apartment.  He wore a rust-colored bathrobe the same color as our suede couch that had gaping holes in the armpits, the fabric run in horizontal lines like stockings do, but he held onto it.   He called me every evening and said Hey babe, how are you, and in truth I did not know who he was during the first few phone calls. When I understood the voice to be my father’s, I looked forward to his call. When he and my mother fought, yelling loudly while facing off in the kitchen of our townhouse, I watched television.

Once, shortly after my stepfather moved in, my father came by to pick me up.  My mother stood at the top of the staircase with her bathrobe cinched around her waist.  She protested something, and he looked around moodily and then suddenly charged up the stairs. He breathed audibly, like a runner might at the end of a sprint. They both ordered me downstairs, where my eventual stepfather sat at the end of our couch, his forearm on the armrest and one leg crossed over the other. The end table next to the couch was black, but cracked with putty colored canyons and smaller gorges of red. It’s good, he said. They need to talk. He put his arm around me, and continued watching a recording of a Fleetwood Mac concert. The camera panned directly below Mick Fleetwood’s face as his drumming intensified and sweat poured from his forehead down his cheeks and soaked his white dress shirt. Mick looked to the camera and bared his teeth and opened his mouth like a man in a cage roaring.

Juárez was Boys Town. We went there for “R and R” when I was stationed in Roswell. Everything was very cheap. You could get mixed drinks for fifteen cents, a bottle of beer a quarter. Juarez Avenue was nothing but honky-tonks and whorehouses. Of course, the guys frequented them. You could buy sex very cheap, it was three dollars.  They gave you a prophylactic kit.  I had my favorite spot, on a back street, not on Juarez Avenue.  It was a clean place, and sometimes they had a three- piece band.

From Roswell, it was a two hundred mile drive, all in desert.  The closest town in any direction was two hundred miles. El Paso was two hundred miles.  Santa Fe was two hundred miles. We parked in El Paso and walked across a bridge over the Rio Grande.      Kids, little Mexican kids, would be in the river begging for money. The Rio Grande was dried up–too thick to drink and too thin to farm.   When you went into Mexico they didn’t even ask you to show identification.

You had to be back over the border by eleven o’clock on Sunday night.  If you couldn’t make it you’d stay in Juarez.  It happened to a friend of mine. Four guys showed up at the car in El Paso and he was missing. We had to leave him. We went back to Roswell and covered for him. Monday morning they had a head count, in formation.  I went to the first sergeant before that and said, “Hey, we got a problem.” They flew us down to Biggs Air Force Base and we got a couple of air police. We went down across the border and found him.  He was in jail.  He’d been drinking pretty heavily.  He caused a commotion and the local gendarmes called him off. You should have seen that jail.  There was no toilet.  There was just a trough and you squat over it.  We flew back to Roswell and nothing was ever said.

My stepfather is going to be eighty-four years old.  I see that his fingernails are dry, almost brittle.  The nails look small, embedded in the thicker skin of the cuticles.   In his bathroom, separate from my mother’s, are several bottles of cologne.

He and my mother met in June of 1979, when I was three and a half years old and he was forty-nine. She was a real estate agent, and thirty-one years old.  They met when she showed him apartments. He had just separated from his wife of twenty-four years. He called my mother at her office and said, We ordered a few extra cheesesteaks for lunch.  Can I bring you one? Cheesesteaks are a Philadelphia delicacy—beef scraped and fried with onions and served on a hoagie roll and slathered with melted cheese. I was smitten.  I was unhappy in my other life.  I saw a chance to be happy and I took it. His first wife, he said, lost confidence in him. He was laid off from his work as a typesetter and proofreader before he could be vested for a pension.

My stepfather was born on Penway Street, in Philadelphia, in 1930.  When the Depression hit, his father lost his job as a printer.  He had just bought a house but he had to walk away from it because he was underwater. His father and uncle rented a house in the Neshaminy Valley, outside of Philadelphia, for their two families for thirty-six dollars a month.  In 1934 they moved back to north Philadelphia, to a rented house in Strawberry Mansion. They moved again in 1937, and then again, to a bigger house in South Philadelphia, where they lived until 1940, when they moved one more time. And by that time my father was working.

On our suede couch, I lay inside his arm while he watched television.  He left for work late in the evening, still working in printing and typesetting, but one evening did not leave and said I got laid off, I am not going in, and stayed on our couch. He squeezed me quite tightly, more often and with more kindness than my mother did.  His sadness was constrained; it never made itself apparent in subsequent action, it just drained into our couch. He made coffee in a silver percolating urn for himself and my mother to have at night—a dark roast mixed with a flavored coffee, cinnamon or hazelnut.  We have the best coffee here, he would say.

We took two vacations a year, my mother, stepfather, their son Jonathan, and I. After leaving the Air Force, my stepfather developed an aversion to flying. Every vacation was a road trip. We had a GMC van, with a little bed in the back.  In the long stretches of the night when my stepfather wanted to push through—to Florida, to Canada—I would put on my headphones and listen to mixed cassette tapes that he had made. His handwriting, which labeled the tapes, fell cumbersomely to one side. 80’s hits!, Thriller!, Donna Summer.  When I opened my eyes, hours of my life had gone by. When the sun was bright and the day began decidedly, the car trip would be almost over. Didn’t you get tired, I would ask, and he would reply, That drive is easy.

My stepfather can tell you every car that he has owned since he was sixteen. A ‘38 Packard.  A ’35 Studebaker that I bought for a hundred bucks. My best friend and I drove it to Quebec City and I junked it for twelve dollars when we got homeI bought a ‘36 Oldsmobile. A ‘47 Hudson convertible. A ‘48 Hudson, then a ‘51 Hudson Hornet convertible, a 1955 Buick convertible. A ‘63 Caddy, a sedan De Ville.  We drove to Acapulco in that car.

He is carrying precious cargo, my dad said. My father protested these trips, because he did not want me in a van, on a road, in the middle of the night.

*

The server is absent for twenty-minute intervals. I ask about the status of our drinks when she passes by.  She doesn’t look at us unless I wave my hand.  My mother leans towards me and says, “Now if I had said something you would have been embarrassed.  Why is that?”  There is a difference.  Jonathan, my brother, is on stage.  His voice is of the comedian’s but he begins his standup routine with, “You know how, in a relationship, you can really lose yourself.” When Jonathan was in high school, he would take off his shirt when he came home from school. At the table, he would place two small bowls in front of him, one for peanuts and the other for shells.  In his bed at night, he would lie still, on his side, and I could see his face in profile, in the flicker of light from his television, in the pop of light when color returns from the black screen of a commercial break.

Jonathan invites me to go to another bar in Philadelphia after the show, to sing karaoke.  His friend Matt is driving, so we say goodbye to my mother and stepfather, and I leave my car at the comedy club. The sign for the karaoke bar is not lit.  The owner is standing on the sidewalk, and he shakes our hands and asks our names. His face is creased and scarred, as if he might have once been burned. We ride the elevator up one floor and arrive at the rear of a collection of hot bodies.  Song lyrics scroll in English and Japanese on television screens above the bar. We inch towards the far end of the bar where there is a square table.

“What are you drinking,” my brother screams.

“I guess white wine, that is what I had before.” He asks me what I want to sing and I reply, “Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler, but I am not singing so don’t worry about it.”

He writes the song on a slip of paper.  I am not finished with my wine but another glass appears, along with a plate of sushi and skewers of smoked meat.  I am offered food and I keep saying no, but before my wine glass is cleared I pour what is left of the old one into the second one.  The song is on the screen, fourth on the playlist. Jonathan does not think he turned in the slip, and he says someone else must have picked the same song. I tell him that two people would not choose Total Eclipse of the Heart within moments of each other. A man brings a microphone to our table. I see that my brother is looking around. He is looking for a girlfriend.  A woman with red curly hair joins me. “Best song ever,” she says, “and I am singing with you.” The rendition comes easefully—the bar is dark, swirling with dim, ambivalent shades of purple and green, and here I can sing as if I am alone—if I close my eyes, it is as if I am alone. My awareness of shifting attachments and allegiances, an inescapable preoccupation, is briefly displaced.  For a moment, I am my own place.

“Are you ready to get out of here?” Jonathan asks, when the song concludes.

In the backseat of Matt’s car my stomach is upset.  I am torn about sharing this information and I hiccup and throw up a little on my hand.

“I am not feeling so well,” I say.

“We are almost there,” Matt says, and parks the car at Geno’s Steaks, at 9th and Passyunk, which is open twenty-four hours a day.  They order cheesesteaks.

“I am going to be ill,” I say, though I am not sure to whom. We walk toward turquoise picnic tables that have been permanently installed in the concrete. I walk to the lip of the pavement. I feel Matt’s arm around me as I throw up in the street. He rubs my upper arm and says It’s okay.  I hear a woman say, “I’ll bet you feel a lot better now.”  I look at her and nod.  “You are right. I do.”

Matt drops us off at the comedy club.  I apologize as he re-hangs his dry cleaning on the hook in the back seat.   “Do you need to stay over?” Jonathan asks.  “Do you want to stay at Mom’s?  What is your plan?”

“I think I am going to go home,” I say ambiguously.  Home could be her house or my house. “Okay,” he nods. He really knows his way around Philadelphia. I drive toward the highway.

My uncle gave me my first car, a 1933 Dodge.  I was sixteen years old. One night my foot slipped off the clutch and I broke an axle. I had to call my father.  He came out and towed me home. One Saturday afternoon my buddy Harry, who was a mechanic, said, ‘Let’s put an axle in the Dodge.’ So we went to a junkyard and put an axle in and got the car running—but the only problem was that my father had transferred the license plates—so I had no plates on the car. But, after we got the car running, we wanted to drive around. So we got a hunk of cardboard and put a license on the car and drove around all night—finally at one o’clock in the morning we stopped to get a Sunday paper and I felt a tap on the shoulder.  It’s a cop, and he’s holding the cardboard in his hand and he says ‘What the hell is this?’ He took us to the police station at 55th and Pine.  My father was pissed.  He came down and gave the cops five bucks and they let it go.

In 1950 my buddy and I took a month off from work and drove to Guatemala on the Pan-American Highway in my ’47 Hudson. We crossed the border at Brownsville, Texas. We had a tent, we slept outside. We showered every few days in a motel. I was nineteen.  We bought a big stalk of bananas for a peso.  So, we ate bananas for a while.  I bought that silver knife in Mexico City, in a souvenir shop. I first picked up a switchblade, but the Bowie had the inscription.  What is it?  I sleep with light even when the candle is not lit? At that time the Pan-American Highway only went as far as Guatemala.  We drove until the paved road ended.  And then we turned around and came back.

On our way back, the Korean War broke out. The North Koreans came over the 38th parallel, the line between North and South Korea.  And all the communists in Mexico started rioting to show strength. They were running around in trucks with guns and clubs and we just drove all night to get the hell out of Mexico.

A wave is poised to crest and surge inland.  The water is a gray-green swaying contour, peaking and lolling before gathering the strength to roll inward, to the shoreline.  The pull from beneath is absolute, and I high step to the left to realign with the lifeguard.   My father taught me how to swim in the ocean, during annual weeklong vacations that he and I took to the beaches of New Jersey—Stone Harbor, Avalon, Margate.  He held my hand when the waves were quite forceful, and checked our position frequently.  He would say, We’re drifting, babe, and I would turn to look at the lifeguard, noting how far we were from where we had started.

We stood where the waves broke and thundered into the shoreline. Getting knocked down became its own amusement—which waves would uproot me and which would I withstand. Once, I was felled and I could not immediately stand back up. I opened my eyes under the water involuntarily, in the moment that I felt the pressure holding off my recovery. I saw water rippling upward in spheres as if fleeing a deep space of compression. I knew the water was shallow and that I would eventually emerge, but in the split second of unknowing, I had the freedom to imagine the worst—that I had drifted.

*

I remember the walk into our basement, the smell of damp concrete.  The shelves on the wall along the stairwell are planks of dark wood.  There is a pine-green box of tea flavored with peach, Pop Tarts, Triscuits, and Graham crackers. I often opened the door to see what was there, though it rarely changed.  My stepfather built a wooden table for a train set in the basement that would occupy him for many hours. It took more than a minute for the toy trains to complete the circuit. I remember noticing when he never looked at it again, the hot glue gun and small plastic bags of storefronts and brushy trees sat on the table exactly where left after their final use.

Last night I had a dream that I was on the phone with my mother and she was telling me about her day. I was in a basement and she was at a desk surrounded by blinking lights. I could see many of our things falling but held in space—Lladro statuettes, crystal perfume bottles, reading lamps and hard-bound books wrapped in plastic from the library, two caricature paintings of her by a watercolorist at the mall, a clay gorilla with green plastic eyes. She was telling me a story about how my stepfather embarrassed her by being drunk, which is inaccurate because he doesn’t really drink, but he does embarrass her by being somnolent and removed, his penchant for escape now met in stillness.   

There were three movie theaters in Roswell—The Plains, the Chief, and the Yucca. And a couple of drive-ins. The Jingabob and the Ball o’ Jack.  The Chief is a flying-saucer museum now.  Once I had the top down and I saw a formation of seven triangular red lights above my windshield, and above the screen of the drive in theater.   We were outside of Walker Air Force Base but it couldn’t have been an airplane because airplanes don’t stand still in midair.

In 1954 I was on leave, heading for Juarez.  We stopped at a café in Oro Grande, about halfway.  At the time I smoked, a lot, and I went back out to the car to retrieve my cigarettes.   I looked across the road and I saw this bright light.  At first I thought it was a helicopter. I ran inside of the café and I called my two buddies out. We stood and watched this bright light and after a certain amount of time it ascended.  It accelerated at a terrific rate of speed, and took off.  It seemed like we were looking at it for maybe five minutes. And I looked at my watch, and a half an hour went by.  At that time in Roswell, people were sighting UFO’s.

When we got back from Juarez, I reported both incidents. My clearance for classified material was only restricted anyway, because my father was born in Russia.  They lived in Cominitz Podolsk in Russia, in a shtetl, until Kossacks caused a lot of trouble for the Jews and it became intolerable. My grandfather came to Philadelphia alone in 1907, to establish himself.  He was a tailor.  He got himself a room and made maybe eight or nine dollars a week, which at that time was a living wage.  He walked to work, four miles a day.  Two miles there and two miles back. And every week he put away about a dollar with a travel agency to bring his wife and three kids over. And eventually, in 1911, they got on a wagon, with everything they could carry, and they got to the next town, which was Kiev, and took a train to Bremen, Germany where they caught a ship to Philadelphia.  For the four of them, that whole trip was $128 in 1911.  My father would be 107 years old. He died from emphysema.  His lungs gave out.  He smoked and he drank and he got around. He loved to drive, my father. He was physically strong. Built like a fireplug. When I was ten years old, he took us in the car to Rochester, and then Minnesota.

The white dashes disappear underneath the car.  I might be sick again, and I shouldn’t be driving, now I know. I pull off of the highway at the next rest stop.  I pull into a parking spot, recline my seat, and fall asleep.

At the karaoke bar, before the second glass of wine came, my brother said, “This has been a great night.  I had a great time.”  I concurred.  We have done very little together, socially. He forgot to invite me to the plays he performed in throughout college, and even to his graduation from college.  The borders of attachment and belonging can be transient and obscure.  On the glass coffee table of my mother and stepfather’s home is a set of coasters that my brother made for them at a craft fair.  The images on the coasters are from Dr. Seuss’ book, Go, Dog, Go! The dog on the cover is driving a yellow car and wearing a scarf around its neck, as well as a burgundy beret and driving glasses like the goggles that an old racecar driver might have worn.  There is another set of beige terracotta coasters on the table that someone has been playing with and stacked like an archway and another set of four glass coasters that can hold photographs.  One is of Jonathan and me in a hotel room in Quebec, when I was eleven and he was three.  I am in my nightgown and hugging him and kissing his cheek.

When I wake, I am closer to my mother’s house than my own, but still I continue north, amazed at how few miles I have traveled and how long I have been on this journey. The sky is blue satin. I park in front of my apartment building, open my car door, and stare at the sky.  I am watching a day emerge.  The color is luminous, changing smoothly from the quiet of night, from a sky that nears blackness, to the unpeeling of a day.  Aperture, metallic water, mercury, satin.   I walk into my apartment and turn on my computer and I have one new message, from the word-a-day website.  Today’s word is “mitigate.”


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