We never did cocaine on weekdays, only on weekends, and Dave always made us stop by eight o’clock on Sunday, right after Sixty Minutes, because otherwise he was a mess at work the next day. One Sunday, we didn’t stop until two in the morning, just before the last guests left. The minute they drove out of sight, Dave turned from the door and threw a punch that landed on the side of my mouth and slid down along my chin. It wasn’t the first punch he’d ever thrown, but because I hadn’t been expecting it, it probably hit the hardest. He said it was my fault the guests hadn’t gone home earlier, that I had tried to keep them there, just to annoy him. Then he went off to take a shower. I called Howard.
Actually, I was calling my mom in Colorado, but Howard answered the phone. He listened patiently as I cried and whispered, snorted and cried some more, trying like hell to breathe. A friend of Dave’s had given us a whole zip-lock bag full of synthetic coke for the holidays. He’d cooked it up in his lab, and we’d been doing it since Friday. Crying, breathing, and talking all at the same time was really difficult. Howard just listened and sighed and occasionally said, “It’s OK,” or, “OK, honey, OK.” When I was finished, there was a long silence, and then Howard said, “Give us about fourteen hours to get there, but you get out of there now. Call the machine and tell us where you’ve gone. We ’ll find you. Go on and get out of there.”
When I got off the phone, Dave was still in the shower. In a minute he ’d come out of the bathroom feeling guilty and wanting to make love. But then afterward he wouldn’t fall asleep, I knew, because we’d done too much coke, and he wouldn’t take a sleeping pill because he could never wake up the next day when he took them. Instead, he would take three or four Excedrin P.M. and not sleep a wink. By six, the sun would start to rise and Dave would realize he was going to have a terrible day, and he would start in on me again.
I threw some things into a grocery bag and went to stay with my friend Marlinda, who’d only just started doing coke and had a little house near the beach. Best of all, Dave didn’t know where she lived. Marlinda was sweet and sat with me in her kitchen, drinking coffee and making me hold orange popsicles to my lips while I cried about Dave and our marriage and my life and everything. Marlinda had once had a girlfriend who would beat her up and then go out and steal designer clothes and jewelry for her, to make amends.
“How’d you get away?” I asked.
“She finally died. Breast cancer.” Marlinda exhaled a long puff of smoke that hit the window and bounced back toward us.
Sometime after sunrise, I called my mom’s machine and got her instead. She said Howard was coming to help me. I gave her Marlinda’s address. I’d never thought he would come. I’d figured he would get a hundred miles or so down the road and then turn back.
Later, I found out that Howard had gone into my mother’s room and told her she had ten minutes to get in the truck. My mother hadn’t met the deadline, so, fourteen hours later, it was Howard, all alone in his black cowboy hat, smelling of Jack Daniels and Old Spice, who stood in Marlinda’s front door.
“Is he here?” Howard asked, looking behind me into the house, his chest all puffed out like an old cock who’s scared he’ll have to fight a young cock.
“No,” I said, and Howard softened and took me into his big, warm arms.
When Howard decided, in 1978, to park his sun yellow camper permanently at my mother’s trailer park, I admit I didn’t think it was for the best. He was shellshocked twice over, drank too much, and seemed only to promise more of what other men had offered her — grief.
But Howard was different. Eating tree roots in WWII, he used to say, had given him an appreciation for the simple things in life, like a pot roast or a peach pie, or sitting in the sun with a Louis L’Amour novel in one hand and a sweet lady beside him.
My mom was sweet for about two years, but then the bitterness that had started the day my father left returned.
My father had promised to redefine my mother’s life in a way she’d never imagined possible, and when he left her, the devastation was irreversible. She’d been a girl with good looks but no money and no education. My father, who had an English accent and looked like Tyrone Power, had arrived in Sidney, Montana, like a rain shower after a long drought. Once she set eyes on him, she vowed never to look away. With his charm, his college education, and his three languages, he took her everywhere she wanted to go.
Then he met a younger woman named Barb and went off “to make a new round of babies,” as my mother put it. “I did everything he ever asked,” she would say.
After that, my mother lived with about three different men in ten years — uneducated losers and drunks with streaks of either bad luck or meanness. Howard was the only decent one.
In Marlinda’s doorway, Howard hugged me for a long time, then asked, “Dave do that to you?”
I didn’t answer. Like everything else about him, Dave’s aim had been lazy; his fist had caught only my lower lip and chin, but with so much strength that the whole right side of my jaw was bruised and tender. He’d broken the skin, of course, and my face looked like an old tomato, all ripped and rotten. It didn’t help that Marlinda had spread tooth medication — which she’d bought in Tijuana and, she swore, contained a prescription dose of Novocain — over the cut.
“Want to go back to Colorado with me?” Howard asked.
I shook my head.
“Well, what do you want, then?” he said.
Howard had a big, dimpled chin and clean white dentures that didn’t quite fit his mouth. From under an awning of bushy eyebrows, his blue eyes looked down at me patiently, and his hand gently patted my back. I didn’t know what to say; I just kept sniffling. My nose ached from the fake coke and my lips were buzzing from the Novocain. I could have stayed with Marlinda, but since Howard had come all this way, I felt obligated to let him help me.
“What do you think we should do?” I said.
“Tell you what,” Howard said. “I’m going to take you to the prettiest place on God’s green earth.”
I shrugged and tried to smile. I didn’t care where we went. Howard threw my bags into the camper while I said goodbye to Marlinda, who gave me a tight hug and pressed a joint and the tube of tooth medicine into my hands.
“Do you want to go back to your house and get your things?” Howard asked.
“There’s nothing there I want,” I said.
Howard nodded, looking straight ahead, then reached under his seat for a bottle of Jack Daniels, let out the parking brake, and set us in motion.
I fell asleep, and it was dark when we got to our destination, wherever that was. Exhausted, I crawled into the camper and took the loft bed over the cab. Someone — my mom, maybe — had thrown three sleeping bags up there, including the dark blue one with the flannel lining that had always been my favorite.
I met Dave in a sleeping bag, or so I liked to say. We had been doing drugs at a mutual friend’s house for the better part of a night, but I’d hardly noticed him. In the morning, I woke up in a sleeping bag under the friend’s baby-grand piano. When I opened my eyes, Dave was standing at a wall of windows, looking at a red five o’clock sky. We stared at each other, then he crawled into my sleeping bag and we made love. We napped under the piano until the others started wandering into the room, coffee cups held tightly in shaking fists.
When I found out that Dave taught accounting at San Diego State University, where I was getting a degree in education, there was no doubt whatsoever that I wanted to be with him. To my twenty-one-year-old mind, a man who taught at a university had to be a good thing.
The next morning in the camper, as I threw my legs over the edge of the loft to jump down, the first thing I saw was Howard sleeping down below in the bed that doubled as a kitchen table during the day. It was no more than five feet long, and his legs were draped over the seat and across the tiny sink. He’d fallen asleep with his boots and ski jacket on, holding a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other.
I was surprised to see Howard still asleep. On the handful of occasions I’d visited my mother, he’d always awakened before us, taking long walks that sometimes began at five and ended at nine. That’s how he kept in shape; his body was still lean and muscled, except for the small potbelly that threatened to hang over his silver belt buckle.
I managed to get out of the loft without waking him and opened the door to find myself, just as he had predicted, in the prettiest place on earth — or close to it. The camper was parked next to a field of tall mustard plants, bright green and yellow, that ended where the blue ocean began. The truck sat on a slight incline so that when I opened the door it felt as if I might roll right out of it, down the hill, and into the water. I turned to say something to Howard, but he was still sleeping.
Although it was early December, the air was warm and promised to become hot. Except for the occasional sound of a passing truck on a nearby highway, it was quiet as a cave. I wrapped my arms around myself and started circling the truck, wondering what the hell I was doing in the middle of nowhere in my stepfather’s yellow camper. My first inclination was to wake Howard and ask him to drive me back to Dave. Then I thought about walking to a phone.
I’d tried to leave Dave twice before, but it had always felt less and less right as the hours wore on, and both times I’d found myself back at our house in Rancho San Diego before nightfall the next day. Dave would move mountains and snatch down clouds to show me how sorry he was. Both times, he had hired his mother’s maid to come clean the house so that when I returned all the windows shone and it smelled sweet and looked only remotely like the house I’d run away from. Both times, there were roses in the kitchen and a bottle of some perfume I’d once mentioned offhand. Somebody somewhere had taught Dave that women love a man who listens, because he’d learned to do it well.
On what must have been my tenth turn around the truck, Howard opened up the door and whistled for me the way he might for a dog.
“Yes, sir?” I said, coming around to him.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You want to walk to Oceanside?”
“Is that where we are?”
“We’re at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. Civilians like yourself could never come here alone.” He smiled. “Come on, let’s walk to Oceanside for breakfast. It’s only a couple of miles.”
God knows why, but I agreed, and off we went, Howard in his bluejeans and boots, his black cowboy hat pushed way back to let the sun hit his face, and me in the black silk pantsuit Dave had bought me for the holidays and an old pair of white tennis shoes Marlinda had loaned me. Though I’d managed to grab enough underwear for weeks, I hadn’t remembered a single change of clothes.
Howard and I walked slowly along the service road near the highway. Marines jogging by nodded or uttered a breathless “Morning” as they passed. I looked away to hide my face. Only one, a tall, skinny blond with bad skin, stopped to talk with us.
“Where you folks from?” he said, jogging in place.
“Here,” Howard said, pointing to me, “and there,” pointing to himself.
“I’m from Yuma,” the marine said. “Yuma, Arizona. Best place in the world to be from.”
“Good for you, son,” Howard said, and the marine kept jogging.
Howard laughed. “People are just getting dumber and dumber,” he said.
A little farther down the road, Howard asked if this was the first time Dave had hit me. I said no. Howard simply nodded and took a sip from the flask of Jack he always carried in his back pocket. Then, because I was ashamed of it, I added something ridiculous: I told Howard that what I’d meant was it wasn’t the first time he’d tried, but it was the first time his punch had actually landed; all the other times, he’d hit walls.
“Must pay a lot in carpenter bills,” Howard said, and he lit a cigarette. We walked a long way in silence.
“Well, your mom’s doing fine,” he said. “She wanted to come.” As to why she hadn’t made it, no explanation was necessary. Somewhere along the way, I’d realized my mother was wrestling with too many bad memories to be of much help to me.
I didn’t know how to talk to Howard, having spent no more than two days around him at any one time, mostly on holidays. Only once, on a summer visit, had I been alone with him. He’d taken me horseback riding, and we hadn’t talked much, just ridden. His quietness unnerved me a little. But then, almost everything in my life unnerved me.
“How was your drive out here?” I asked.
“Fine,” he said. “Peaceful. Needed it. You know how your mother can get.”
I did. I wanted to ask Howard why he’d come all the way out to California for me, but I didn’t have the energy.
We didn’t get too far that first day, only to the edge of the camp, where the khaki-colored barracks had just become visible, and in front of them large groups of marines, also khaki colored, doing jumping jacks and looking like small windmills. I stopped walking. I hated to do it to Howard, but I was exhausted. My nose was still completely stuffed, my sinuses ached in my forehead, and my mouth felt as if it were full of the hair from Dave’s knuckles.
“Howard, I’m tired,” I said. “And I can’t bear to pass another jar-head.”
He laughed, threw his cigarette on the ground, smashed it with the tip of his boot, and pulled his hat forward. Just then, I thought, He’s a real cowboy, a tall, sexy cowboy.
We went back for the truck and drove to a supermarket in Oceanside, where I followed Howard around as he picked up toilet paper, doughnuts, bottled water, and bananas.
“Steaks for dinner?” he asked, standing next to the refrigerated meat case, three styrofoam trays in his big hand.
“Dinner?” I said.
“I’ll have two,” he said. “You can eat a whole one, can’t you?”
I didn’t answer right away, so Howard just put the steaks in the cart and said that if we didn’t eat them that night, he’d stop and barbecue them on the way home. Maybe in Yuma, Arizona.
“I hear it’s nice there,” he said.
I didn’t know exactly what synthetic coke was made of, but the way my nose and sinuses ached, I was certain that, whatever it was, it was about to kill me. I’d never been a fiend about anything before I discovered coke. Friday to Sunday it was with us, no matter where we were or who we were with. If we were around people who didn’t do coke, we’d find a way to sneak it — in a broom closet or a garage. The coke brought us together, like a baby, a special treat we both shared.
In the afternoon I took a nap in the camper and didn’t wake up again until six o’clock in the evening, when it was dark out. I awoke confused, not knowing for a minute where I was. After I got my bearings, I remembered a New Year’s Eve party when I was five, before my parents split up. I’d been allowed to drink champagne and had to be put to bed in the host’s bedroom. I awoke in the dark in a strange bed, surrounded by fur coats, which to my five-year-old fingertips felt like real animals. I screamed and cried hysterically until suddenly my father appeared in the doorway wearing a tuxedo and a red party hat, the light switch between his fingers. He smiled at me, put me on his lap, and held me tight. “Happy New Year, little one,” he said, and kissed my forehead over and over.
“Your father never frowned,” my mother used to say. “His smile only got dimmer or brighter, depending on how much he thought you loved him.”
As I grew up, that was the image I tried to hold on to of my father, but it was awfully hard, living in a trailer the way we did, waiting for him to come back.
In Howard’s camper, I pulled back the tiny curtain covering the window behind my head and saw Howard sitting in a folding chair in front of a fire, with an empty folding chair beside him.
I got up and went to brush my teeth, but I couldn’t find the light switch and didn’t know where Howard kept the toothpaste. Just as well; my lip was still too swollen and messy to bring a toothbrush near it. I drank a few long gulps of water, combed my hair with my fingers, and went outside.
“Hey, hey,” Howard shouted, throwing up a hand with a bottle of Jack in it. “The sleeping beauty awakens.” The fire before him was strong and bright and beautiful.
“Hi, Howard,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“Making embers to broil some steaks.”
The sky was black but the moon was out, and I could see the ocean, silver and smooth, exactly like in the movies. I tried to inhale through my nose, but little air came up. It did seem as if I could smell something, though. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I smelled the fire.
“Hungry?” Howard asked.
“Starving,” I said.
He made me sit in front of the fire while he seasoned the steaks and turned four potatoes in tinfoil. I held his bottle of Jack, taking a few sips myself. Then I went back to the camper with a flashlight to find the joint Marlinda had given me. Howard and I smoked it, and he smiled as if he were happy to be here in California with me.
We ate quietly and drank pink Portuguese wine from the bottle. Then we smoked cigarettes and Howard talked to me more than ever before. He told me about World War II and all the Italian housewives he’d fallen in love with; about the good times with his buddies, passing out drunk in meadows; about the fearful times and the death. He also asked me a lot about Dave — specific questions, like how many kids there were in his family, did he cheat on me, and how had I met him. A lot of these questions not even my mother had asked me. Howard also asked why I had never gotten a job after finishing school. “You knew we were proud of you, right?” he said.
I recalled the card they’d sent, shaped like a diploma and covered in yellow felt. I remembered thinking that my mother had grabbed the first graduation card she’d seen, never mind that it was probably meant for a sixth-grader.
“Yeah,” I said, “I knew.”
“Why don’t you come back to Colorado with me?” Howard said.
I took a long sip from the bottle in my lap. “It might kill me.”
Howard laughed and shook his head. “She hasn’t killed me yet, and you’re younger, although not so strong from what I can see.”
I looked down at my chest, still clad in that black pantsuit, and saw that the coke and the life I was leading had sucked the breasts right off me. It was probably the pot and the wine, but I spent a good five minutes staring at my tits, amazed at how little of me there was in that black bra, how bony my chest had become. When I finally stopped staring, I told Howard about the synthetic coke.
“Natural’s always the way to go, if you have to go,” Howard said.
“We all have to go,” I said.
“That’s certainly true,” he said.
I didn’t expect what he said then. As casually as he might have mentioned that he was tired, Howard announced that my mom had met another man. “Some guy who runs a restaurant in Denver. Little place,” he said.
“That’s terrible,” I said.
Howard stared at the fire and tapped the side of his leg, as if to the rhythm of a song in his head. It seemed humiliating, the situation.
“What are you going to do?” I said.
“Ah, who knows? Too old to run away, too old to stay.” He took two quick sips of Jack and pulled his hat over his eyes. “Your mother’s a good woman,” he said, “but your father was a son of a bitch.”
I didn’t answer, didn’t know how in the world to answer such a thing. I felt awful for Howard, but also angry at him for saying that about my father. What did my father have to do with any of it? I felt emotions filling up my chest like water. What the hell would you know about my father? I wanted to say. What would you know about an educated, charming man who was loved by everybody who ever met him?
I wanted to say a lot of things, but I didn’t. Instead, I said, “I’m going to bed.”
Howard stayed just as he was, lying back in the chair, hat over his eyes, hands folded on his stomach. As I opened the camper door, I heard him say good night.
When I woke in the morning, Howard was already gone. I brushed my teeth as well as I could until the pain in my lip became so severe that I had to stop. I squeezed some ointment from the tube — a little too much — and spread it on thick, then closed my eyes and waited for the Novocain to take effect.
When I opened my eyes, I was staring at my hands gripping the counter, a perfect crescent of black dirt under every one of my French-manicured nails. This would be the third day since I’d left home, and I missed it. I missed my down pillows and my flannel sheets, my fancy soaps and thick rugs. I even missed Dave, the good Dave, who liked to wake up with my arms wrapped around him.
Howard came back before noon and knocked on the door. When I opened it, he was standing there in a white T-shirt and jeans, holding a grocery bag. “I brought you nose spray and Camphophenique,” he said. He had walked all the way to Oceanside for them, plus a few cans of cappuccino, a toothbrush, toothpaste, antiperspirant, and four air fresheners, the small, round kind that stick to surfaces.
“What’s with the stick-ups?” I asked him.
“I called your mom,” he said. “She told me to try and make it nice for you.”
“Thanks, Howard,” I said. “You have. But I think I ’m ready to go home.”
“To Colorado?” he said.
“No,” I said, and laughed. “That’s not exactly my home, is it?”
“I guess not.”
Suddenly I realized I’d never had a home, except maybe the house in Montana that my parents had sold when they divorced.
Howard hoisted a leg up on the bumper and pushed his hat back. I could tell he’d been walking around with mustard-plant stems in his mouth because he had yellow stains on his lips.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “I’m an old-fashioned guy, and I can’t take you back to Dave.”
“Then I’ll hitchhike,” I said.
“Fine,” he said. “Maybe some psycho will kill you before he does.”
Howard was right, as were all the people who’d told me to leave Dave. The problem was Dave happened to love me. That was the one thing no one ever wanted to talk about when they told me to leave him — the fact that Dave loved me. And I loved him.
“It’s the holidays,” I said. “I can’t let him be alone.”
“What about me?” Howard said. “How about me spending the holidays alone?”
This threw me for a loop; I had assumed Howard was going back to Colorado.
“You don’t want to be with Mom?”
“She’s got company,” he said, and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll just take my little house here and park it somewhere nice, maybe across the street from your house, make sure Dave knows I’m watching.”
I was getting angry then; Howard was putting me in a bind. He’d come all the way from Colorado to help me, and there I was refusing to help him.
“Why don’t you come spend the holidays with us?” I said.
Howard laughed and shook his head. “You and your mama are a lost cause,” he said. And he turned around and walked away.
I stood at the back of the camper for a while, looking out at the ocean, where at least seven khaki-colored ships were engaged in some sort of exercise. I thought about what Howard had said about my father being a son of a bitch. Howard hated my father for what he’d done to my mother. I hated my father, too. And my mother, for letting him divorce her.
I thought about my father, living in Montana on a huge plot of land with three hills and a pond that every summer must have been filled with his new children. I imagined my father playing in the water with his kids, hoisting them effortlessly onto his shoulders until they dove, laughing and squealing, into the water.
I thought about my mother and how she looked in pictures taken the first Christmas after he left. She’d lost a lot of weight, and her skin was beginning to turn gray from the chain-smoking, but she still had a lot of beauty and some grace. One picture in particular had been sitting on her coffee table for years; in it, the two us sat on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, our legs folded demurely beside us, me in a red velvet dress and my mom in a charcoal gray wool skirt and jacket with her hair up in a French bun, like a Colorado Jackie O.
What would have happened if I had gone with my father? Would he have sent me to private school and to Europe, like his new kids? Would I ever have visited my mother in her pathetic trailer park? Would I have ended up with someone like Dave?
That night, Howard and I had chicken, corn, one of those bags of lettuce, and more pink Portuguese wine. I was sure this would be our last dinner, that tomorrow he would drive me home and go back to Colorado himself.
When the embers were worn to the size of beetles — bright orange and black — and we ’d run out of wine, Howard suggested we walk to a bathroom just outside the camp to take showers. He brought quarters for us both, and shampoo.
When I came out of the bathroom, my hair wet and my skin finally clean, Howard was standing outside, smoking a cigarette, his own wet hair combed into a ducktail.
“I smell something!” I yelled. “I smell the ocean. And cigarettes!”
“Well, all right!” Howard yelled back.
Every day that week, I woke up thinking about going back to Dave, just as I used to wake up thinking that I would leave him. And, just as I’d never worked up the courage to leave him, with Howard there I never worked up the courage to return. I snuck away and called Dave a lot, sometimes three or four times a day, to tell him I loved him and missed him, but somehow I never said, “Come get me.” Well, maybe I did. But I never told him where I was.
At first, I stayed with Howard because I felt sorry for him and didn’t want him to spend Christmas, then New Year’s, alone. Then I started thinking about my teaching degree and how the public schools needed teachers. Then I talked to a lawyer and found out it wouldn’t be that difficult to get out of the marriage, maybe even with a little money. Everything came together. I got lucky. When I went to stay with Marlinda, it just so happened that she’d recently met a nice woman who didn’t drink or do drugs, so I had to be on my best behavior. And around the end of January, when Howard was fairly sure I would be OK, he rolled out of San Diego, headed for Chesapeake Bay.
Every once in a while, when he missed her, Howard went back to my mom and let her hurt him for a while; then he drove off somewhere new. He always sent me a postcard after these visits, knowing that she wasn’t keeping in touch with me. His cards always started the same way: “Well, your mother is fine. And, as for me, I am just fine, too.”