Six years after my father left us, in the summer of 1977, my mother, my younger brother, and I were living in a single-wide trailer in the desert of Wildomar, California. My mother’s sister Anne and Anne’s husband, Gerick, lived with their boys in a double-wide on the same property, ten acres of scrubland my wealthy grandparents had bought as an investment. We must have resembled squatters, but we were there legally. I was ten and would enter the fifth grade that fall.
In my father’s absence Gerick had stepped into the role of principal adult male in my life. He taught me that survival is a competition, and the competition started right there among my cousins and me. He presided over Big Wheel races down steep, winding tracks on a dusty hillside. (The surest path to victory was to sideswipe the other guy off the track.) He had us dig trenches for elaborate forts, and he built a wooden ramp and held bicycle-jumping contests that often ended in injury but never in tears. The one inexcusable crime, in Gerick’s mind, was to complain or cry. His biggest boy, Nils, was a year younger than I was, and Gerick encouraged a rivalry between us. Being older, I was expected to win and usually did, but the victories were hollow, as Nils never seemed to try his hardest, and so I played just hard enough not to lose.
Gerick often took us on long hikes into the desert or the mountains. One morning that summer he led Nils, two of Nils’s brothers, and me across the lone paved road beside our dusty property and into the rolling chaparral, a mix of sage, manzanita, and scrub brush. Where we were heading, my cousins and I did not know.
At midmorning we approached a large weeping willow standing alone in a field of brown grass beside a dried-up pond, its bed now a jigsaw puzzle of cracked dirt. Gerick led us through the curtain of hanging branches into the cool, quiet space under the tree. He slung off his pack and scratched his back against the trunk like some large beast. We stood in a semicircle around him, adjusting to the darkness and breathing in the earthy smell. Gerick’s hair, parted in the middle and tucked behind his ears, was the color of hay; his thick mustache was orange; and his face was red. A bandanna was tied loosely around his neck. He had a knack for finding places like this, little chambers fit for elves and ogres or maybe aliens from outer space. From his pack he produced an army canteen. He looked us over like a judge while we waited silently for his verdict.
“Eeny, meeny, miney, moe,” he said, ticking us off with a thick, freckled finger. Then he abandoned the rhyme and announced that the tallest (me) would drink first. I wasn’t very thirsty, but I accepted the canteen. You couldn’t turn down anything Gerick offered, or he’d act offended and never offer it again. I unscrewed the cap, took a drink, and spit the sour liquid onto the dirt, certain I’d been made the butt of one of Gerick’s jokes.
“What’s the matter with you?” Gerick asked, snatching the canteen back.
“That tastes like crap!” I shouted, tired of the minor humiliations to which he subjected us.
He sniffed the mouth of the canteen with a frown, took a sip, swished it around, and swallowed. Then he turned up the canteen and drank deeply. Feeling queasy, I watched his Adam’s apple bob along his neck. If the water was actually good and I’d only imagined the sour taste, there would be retribution.
Gerick proclaimed the water delicious and explained that he’d added some apple-cider vinegar — to cleanse the liver.
“It’s gross,” I said.
“ ‘It’s gross,’ ” he repeated in a high, girlish voice.
Gerick handed the canteen to Nils, who drank and passed the water to his twin, Ivan, the runt of the brood. Gerick was proud of his Swedish heritage and had named his sons accordingly. Odin, the blondest and toughest, drank last. His father loved him the best and made no attempt to hide his favoritism. Not being related to Gerick by blood, I occupied my own category as an outsider, which had its benefits. For example, when it came time for the boys to stand in line, drop their pants, and take their whippings, I didn’t have to join them unless my mother was there to sanction it. Gerick made up for this special dispensation with constant belittlement.
Gerick had been around for as long as I could remember. He played, for instance, a starring role in one of my earliest memories — of my third birthday.
The setting was a campground in Santa Barbara, California, where I was living with my parents in an old delivery van that my dad had retrofitted into a camper. My brother hadn’t been born yet. Gerick, Anne, and the twins were there, too, in their own camper van. I remember only Gerick that day, however, and the bike. I had received it as an extra-special birthday present from my grandparents. It was sparkly metallic green with plastic streamers flowing from the handlebar grips. Brand-new and smelling of fresh rubber, it stood propped up by training wheels. I’d seen the other campground kids riding around on bikes, and I longed to ride myself, a skill that seemed akin to flying.
In my memory Gerick crouched down and examined my bike, nearly as excited about the gift as I was. “You don’t need these,” he said, yanking the gold and white streamers from the grips. “They’re for sissies.”
So, it turned out, were the training wheels, which he removed using a wrench from his big red toolbox.
The bike now ready, he held it upright while I mounted it. Gripping one handle and the back of the seat, Gerick pushed me along the gravel path that wound through the campground, then picked up speed and shoved me forward. I immediately fell to one side.
He advised me to pedal the next time.
I climbed back on. He pushed. I toppled. This sequence was repeated as we moved farther down the pathway from home. After a while I decided that riding a bike wasn’t so important after all, and I shared this insight with Gerick, but he didn’t listen. I looked back with longing at the two brightly colored vans, standing among the pale RVs like presents among cardboard boxes. Gerick told me to get back on the bike.
By now tears of rage and frustration streamed from my eyes, and blood beaded on my scraped knees, elbows, and palms. The next time Gerick let go, I jerked the handlebars to one side in a fit of rebellion, hurling myself to the ground.
Picking up the bike, he informed me that I wouldn’t get far that way.
Then I discovered that if I pedaled backward, the rear tire would brake, so I did. The tire plowed a trench into the dirt as he shoved me violently forward anyway, and I fell.
“Get off your ass,” he growled, towering over me.
I rose, scared but satisfied that I’d finally gotten through to him. It was cold out, and turning dark. I had accepted that I would never ride a bike, and I no longer wanted to, but Gerick was persistent. He would never quit; I would never learn. Thus we would proceed along this circular path through the pines forever.
I climbed back on the bike, numb inside. “Pedal,” he said, pushing me yet again, and I did, robotically, hopelessly. He jogged alongside, holding the handlebar and the back of the seat. After ten feet he let go. I waited to fall but did not. I rode.
The fact dawned on me slowly. Gerick cried out, leaping along beside me as I pedaled. The path curved gently, and I recall no one on it but Gerick and me. Gravel crunched under the bike’s tires as I looped around the campground and back to our campsite. Gerick had brought out Anne and my parents, and they all cheered me on. I kept riding until night fell. They had to pry me off that bike.
We left the shade of the willow and marched on. An hour later thirst began to nag at my thoughts and dry out my lips. We were climbing some hills, the sun growing stronger. Gerick called for a water break. He drank and passed the canteen to Ivan. Three swallows each, he said. This was all the water we had until we reached the spring at the top.
The boys took their turns, and Gerick capped the canteen without looking at me. I wasn’t surprised. If by some fluke he had offered, I would have refused. Mention of the spring had given me hope. He couldn’t keep me from drinking water that came from the ground.
We came to a column of boulders like the exposed bones of the hill. Gerick hopped from rock to rock, and I stuck by his heels, determined to show that even without water I was faster and more nimble than the others. I urged myself on with thoughts of the cold, bubbling spring and plotted to sprint past Gerick as soon as it came into view, plunging my head into the clear water. First one there would drink first. That was Gerick’s rule, and even he couldn’t break it. Meanwhile the thirst had become like a rock in my throat that I couldn’t swallow. I felt faintly sick.
As we climbed, the boulders grew larger, then were replaced by hard dirt and scrub where the hillside leveled out on top. We wandered aimlessly, and I dropped back to walk beside my cousins, having lost faith in Gerick, who kept stopping and looking around. The canteen had been empty for some time, and even the other boys were thirsty. It occurred to me that there probably had never been any spring. It had been another of Gerick’s lies.
At the summit he scampered onto a large boulder and stood, arms crossed, to gaze at the blue and lavender hills in the distance.
“Spring must have dried up,” he concluded. “Too bad. We’d better turn back.”
We groaned loudly, and Gerick laughed at our misery, then sat down on the boulder and pulled a tall can of Coors from his pack. He yanked the tab, chucked it into the bushes, and drank the way he always did, tipping the can up three inches from his open mouth and letting the golden liquid cascade down. He smacked his lips. “Too bad you kids can’t drink beer,” he said, “or else I’d give you some. But it’s against the law, you know.”
This excuse was nonsense, of course. Gerick hated the law. He also hated doctors, policemen, soldiers, politicians, journalists, pastors, security guards, cashiers — anyone with authority.
He belched, and we set off back down the hill. The boys began to whimper — it was the closest they could come to complaining without getting a whipping — but their distress seemed only to cheer Gerick. He began to hum a melody and soon was singing the words that accompanied it: Water. Cool, clear water.
Eight years later I had graduated from high school and left home, but I didn’t have a place to stay. I was couch-surfing around the city of Redlands, California, where Nils’s and my families had moved after Anne — who now wanted to be called Annie — had finally divorced Gerick. He had since taken up with another woman and brought Odin and Ivan to live with her and her kids on a compound in the desert.
I stopped by Annie’s apartment one morning, hoping to scrounge a meal. Nils opened the door, and I stepped into an atmosphere of anxiety.
“I knew it,” Annie muttered, pacing around her living room, manically tidying up. “I knew he’d do something wacko like this.”
The word wacko seemed to bounce around the room like one of those rubber balls sold in vending machines. Nils stood frowning at his shoes. I asked what had happened.
Annie fixed me with an angry look that verged on wild laughter. She’d just learned that Gerick had been arrested for sexually molesting a young girl. Shocked, I looked at Nils, wondering what it felt like to be him at that moment: the sorrow, the guilt, the anger, the confusion. As for me, I’d always held myself apart from Gerick, an observer and now an eager witness to his downfall.
Nils and I drove with Annie to the courthouse in San Diego for the sentencing. She would take custody of Ivan and Odin. For years we’d been hearing stories about Gerick: of child abuse, run-ins with the law, drugs and alcohol, and bizarre behavior. One anecdote concerned a stray kitten that had appeared on his land and hung around, eating scraps. When the cat scratched one of Gerick’s stepkids, he sealed the animal in an empty paint can and smashed it flat with a sledgehammer.
The courthouse building was modern, and the lobby had the air of a shopping mall, with an angled glass ceiling and palms in enormous white planters. After checking my appearance in a wall of mirrors, I began to scout for girls. That day I wore white jeans, a sleeveless turquoise T-shirt, a skull necklace, and an extravagance of silver and leather bangles on my wrists. I’d constantly sweep back my long brown hair, allowing the bracelets to slide down my forearms. Across the sunny lobby Nils spotted his paternal grandmother, a fragile, white-haired former beauty who’d never lost her Swedish accent. He went off to talk to her, leaving me to cruise alone. I was beginning to admit to myself that this was neither the time nor the place to meet girls when a male voice called my name. I turned, and there he was, hustling toward me.
“Hey, Gerick,” I said.
At the sight of him I suddenly felt ashamed of how I’d trash-talked him for years. He’d changed. The rangy giant had grown flabby, his bloated face framed by a messianic beard and stringy hair. His eyes still burned, though, under white brows, and his grin and loose body language implied that this whole court thing was a big joke, a prank he’d orchestrated to rile everyone up. I reached out a hand, but he ignored it and wrapped his arms around me, pinning my other arm to my side. Then he pushed me back and examined me from top to bottom.
I was as tall as he was, but I could tell from his sly grin that this didn’t change how he saw me: as a pansy, a fruit, a sissy. I avoided his eyes and resisted the urge to sweep back my hair.
“You didn’t turn out crazy like your dad,” he said, frowning.
I searched for a rebuttal, but the mention of my father — a fugitive from justice at that time, which is another story altogether — had disarmed me.
I told Gerick I was in a band. This was both true and not true; my so-called band could barely get through three songs. I thought about disclosing the many ways in which I’d screwed up of late — the drugs and alcohol and temporary homelessness and unemployment — to prove that I was crazy after all. But before I could form the words, a man in a suit called Gerick away, and he embraced me one last time.
I skipped the sentencing, but I know he served several years for his crime.
On the climb down from the hills, Gerick continued humming his tune and riffing lyrics on the theme of water, sweet, refreshing water.
Finally we came again to the willow, and Gerick held the branches open for my cousins and me. Inside, he sat with his back against the trunk, unlaced his yellow leather work boots, and pulled one off and then the other.
“Oh, boy,” he said. “This feels good.”
He peeled off his socks, too. Then he took another beer from the pack and cracked it open with a sound like a snapped branch. He drank deeply and rested his head against the tree, eyes closed, lips humming the now-familiar song.
“Wait a minute,” he said abruptly, opening his eyes again. “Are you guys thirsty?”
“Yes!” cried his boys. They were used to Gerick’s games and knew that, after some teasing, they’d get what they wanted.
“Well, maybe we can break the law just this once, since no one can see us in here anyway. Let’s see. What’s the price of a good, long drink of cool, delicious beer?” He looked at his bare feet. “All you have to do,” he said, “is kiss my toes.” He wiggled them, as white as grubs and each topped with a pelt of wiry red hair. The boys, accustomed to this kind of debasement, dipped their heads one after the other and pressed their clamped lips against Gerick’s feet. After they’d finished, they wiped their mouths to show that this was not something they’d enjoyed. My cousins stood waiting for me to follow along. Come on, their expressions said. It’s just one of Gerick’s pranks. It doesn’t mean anything.
“There’s plenty of beer for everyone,” Gerick said, gazing around the musty shade of the willow as if for someone he expected. “Nobody else?” he asked, clenching and unclenching his toes.
I wavered, able to smell the bitter scent of the beer. Just a sip, I thought, enough to get me home, and then I’d continue hating Gerick. I saw myself giving in, shrugging and smiling like Nils so frequently did, and Gerick would chuckle quietly; kindly, even. I’d kneel, and touch my dry lips to the top of his foot. The boys would laugh, and I would, too. We’d all be in it together and would never have to tell anyone. We’d drink and burp and walk home as a group, instead of everyone else together and me lagging behind. But I couldn’t do it. I’d gone without water for so long that to give in now would have rendered the day’s suffering pointless. Gerick couldn’t boss me around; he wasn’t my father. I wasn’t going to let him best me.
“OK,” Gerick said, in a tone of regret. He pulled two cans from the pack, handed one to Nils, and told him and his brothers to finish it, since nobody else wanted any.
As Nils popped the top and began to guzzle, I took off toward home. I began to jog, and the harder I ran, the more energy I found, a vast reservoir of spite driving me on. The thirst had moved from my mouth down into the center of me. The pain began to feel good somehow, as if to hurt myself were to hurt Gerick. Everything in my vision grew blurry except for the ground beneath my feet. The air rushed in and out of my lungs. My throat might as well have been a tube made of metal. Then my feet hit pavement, and it felt as if no time had passed since I’d begun to run. I sprinted across our property. Instead of making for my family’s trailer, I entered Gerick and Anne’s. Nobody was home. In the kitchen I drank, cupping my hands under the faucet, throwing the water into my mouth and onto my face. My body seemed to expand like a sponge. I gulped until I felt like throwing up, then rested and drank again. Finally I filled a large cup with ice cubes and water. A bottle of apple-cider vinegar stood on the counter. I put it in the cupboard.
A half-hour later I heard Gerick singing outside: Water. Cool, clear water. As I’d planned, I lay on the couch with a comic book, head propped on a pillow, glass sweating on the end table beside me. I assumed Gerick would punish me for showing him up like this, but I’d decided it would be worth the satisfaction.
“What took you so long?” I asked as they burst in and made for the kitchen.
Gerick stood over me, hands on his hips, scowling. Then he broke into a grin and laughed. Shaking his head, he joined the boys in the kitchen.
Not many members of the family wept when Gerick died in 1999 at the age of fifty-three, a few years after he’d completed his prison sentence. We sure talked about how it had happened, though.
One chilly night, the story went, after a fight with his common-law wife, Gerick had retired to sleep off his drunk in one of several makeshift tents on his land. To keep warm, he lit a propane heater before falling asleep. At some point the fuel line came loose and sent a jet of flame against the nylon tent, which collapsed, wrapping Gerick in a fiery shroud. Severely burned, he managed to stumble a hundred yards to the house of his nearest neighbor, who called an ambulance. Gerick slipped into a coma before he reached the hospital. He would never awaken.
Nils and Odin visited their father in the hospital while he was still in a coma. Nils told me later that bandages had enveloped Gerick’s entire body except for the big toe of one foot. A respirator kept his chest rising. The burns had caused his body to bloat horribly, requiring two deep incisions from armpits to thighs to allow fluid to drain into a steel pan beneath him.
Ivan, who’d endured the worst of Gerick’s beatings, had declined to visit that day.
Years after Gerick’s death, I recounted the episode of the dried-up spring — if there really had been one — to my mother, and she smiled.
“I know,” she said. “He told everybody that story. I must have heard it three times.”
“Why?” I asked, surprised that he’d cared enough about our little hike to speak of it, and also annoyed at the thought of Gerick telling a story that I considered to be mine. I was sure he’d twisted it to make himself look good and me bad, as if still trying to win, even from beyond the grave.
“He was proud of you,” she said.