My father asks me the most important question of my life while we are parked in his truck outside of my mother’s home, on a fall Sunday when the Santa Ana winds dry my bathed orange hair through the open windows, and Derek’s murderers are still on the loose and bragging. It’s been four years since he was stabbed in the back twenty seven or thirty six times depending on the report, inside a abandoned Simi Valley house on Patricia Avenue, called by the killers, Chicken Ranch. The men who killed my father’s brother, his mentor, wanted to feel in their words that they had the power of life and death, man. Derek is called a drunken transient, alcoholic, the body by his murderers and the LA Times alike, and maybe it’s the sameness of the portrayal of someone my father loves, someone he can’t save, that makes him slip back to the old ways of drinking he once indulged along the Simi arroyo with Derek. When my father’s termination papers arrive from the Downtown Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a supervisor wishes his employee luck in the pursuit of sobriety after being found drunk on the line. Maybe it’s the murder of someone that’s one of us that makes my father ask the question that gives his power to me.
He has never been good at speaking, his mouth masked by a large red moustache and chewing on ice from a mason jar of gin or vodka. He sounds mostly like the sounds around him—clink, drip, glass on glass or teeth. But the possibility of his words fill the air to my pupil’s ears. I swear I hear him thinking even when I don’t want to, and I wake when he flies out of bed from another nightmare, screaming. Sparkling ice was once the kind of luxury that separated the drinking of men like Derek from my father, of passing out in an abandoned house versus one that is rented and paid for. But Derek’s dead now, and what is separate or not has been undone. The metallic noises around my father’s belt, in his pockets, tucked in his boots, are the sounds of being prepared to fight back if ambushed. My father, I know, could have saved Derek from three men who wanted to play violence. For that matter, I imagine, after the times I’ve allowed or prevented my mother from beating on my body, or my older cousin and the girl down the street from using my body, so could have I. I mean I would have tried to death. I mean that separation is a matter of one second. The responsibility of protection is each our own.
I’ve learned much about power by the time I’m nine, mostly that it is personal and must be taken, that being born a girl means I’ll have more chances to kill anyone who treats me as the body. Any number of dangers loom as we approach the millennium and a new age, the ATF and AIDS, gun restrictions and cocaine sentences, race wars spurred by the government, the great, dark sky of possible lifeforms and shaking platelets of a fast dawn come for the living along the fault line and in our blood, my father suggests with each lesson. Ignorance, at its best, is merely a comfort until it’s not. From our tight shoulders to our flat feet, our nightmares to our involuntary fists, we are not made in our DNA for comfort. But we are, in our shared love, made for the end. My eyes are weapons, my fear is a weapon. My love for my father and my capacity to learn from him are weapons.
Looking at my mother’s home before us, that feeling of family sweeps through me like a memory of bad dream, something without my permission, but far away, then gone. I try to bring the feeling closer into me to know where it ends and I begin, but it flashes away, like trying to hold the blotch in my eyes after sun-staring. The hairs on my calves seize up and I shudder. By the end of my exhale the fall winds are warm again as birch trees flutter on the top of the hill on Margarita Street in Thousand Oaks, California, the house before us mute, beige. Thousand Oaks on an early Sunday evening, families preparing for school and work and the new week of gliding in and out of the suburbs, hawks in a circle above and tossed aside bicycles on sidewalks, the safest city in America named many times over.
I have to go inside and sleep so I can get up in the morning for school. I practiced driving Chuck the Truck on the way over to this part of Thousand Oaks on my father’s lap so he could work the pedals while I steered. There are many things to learn. My compact hands are better at knots and shooting than long division and cursive, and of yet I have not learned to speak with dominion. When my mouth opens around others, it’s usually to put my fingertips inside, chew on wordless saliva until there’s pain, then hide my hands under my thighs until they are asleep and humming. In karate classes I’m sent to to do squats when I refuse to vocalize, and later in a self-defense course, I’m graded down for not screaming no when I yank the scrotum of a puffy, manufactured enemy.
This is why, when my father gently sets me down off his lap and, after staring at the steering wheel before him, inhales and turns to me with rare eye contact, blue on blue, pink nose to pink nose tip, I am nauseous because he looks at me as though I’m a human being who in practice and not theory can speak to something, anything. I am as uncomfortable as when adults who have minivans or go to church or wear collared shirts approach me and place a hand barely on my shoulder, then cheerfully, slowly, say, if you ever need a place to go, if you need help… and I smile to elsewhere, the air of no discourse, away from a collared shirt that says whoever this person is, he isn’t going to be able to help me if it comes down to a time when we all need to survive. Oh, and it will.
Do you want to leave, just you and me? my father asks me, and swallows. Leave to the woods just you and me and live? No one would ever know where we are. Your mother would never find us.
We could survive and be happy, my father adds, eyes across from me on an inanimate face. I look back, suction cup my upper lip to my nose, a nervous habit of stopping my breathing.
I love living in Thousand Oaks. There are times I feel rich. My friends and I hike on full moons into Wildwood, run up the Santa Monica Mountains into the fog. Malibu is near enough to be ours whenever we choose. As we grow into teenagers we have a wild world apart from our parents, who are addicts or poor or struggling to pay property taxes on an inherited home while on disability, in jail for domestic violence or incest or another DUI. On Hillcrest Drive where my father and I wait in line for bread, the women are kind. There’s always pound cake inside the room called Manna off Thousand Oaks Boulevard that is set up to look like a grocery store for families to practice purchasing items from the world’s operations. I’m not allowed to get the pound cake, but something about its presence excites me—some kid is getting it for free, the mouthful all the better.
In the knolls along the 101 freeway, I catch snakes, then hang them in pillowcases on meat hooks set on our Irving Drive porch, and after the snakes sleep, I put them in his underwear drawer, only to invariably take them out before he returns because I never want to truly scare him. He hides it but I know after Derek dies that my father dreams of snakes. Coyotes parade down the streets from the hills, their yips one of the first sounds to soothe me. Deer tracks press paths into the tall spring grass, then the tall grass sings a dry song through summer. Atop Mt. Boney there’s the perfect glimpse of the Pacific from a deep green seat. I spend weekends on the back of a motorcycle with my drunk father to Neptune’s Net, a dirt driveway with bikers and fried seafood baskets where a homeless man and his son, Willy, live part of the time. If they are in their back booth, we pick them up in a car and bring them home for the weekend, as my father would do for Derek when he still lived. Willy teaches me to play the Beatles song, “Blackbird,” on my father’s guitar under the valley oaks of our backyard while our fathers whisper over bowls of stew about what’s coming. On Irving Drive, where my father cools our flat roof with the hose by the cactus and loquat trees, I slide down into the gully where the wild lilies bloom. I walk through the moss when the water is low, wriggle through a manhole where Irving hits Hodencamp, and arrive in a creek lined with what I’m sure are my very own blackberry bushes. When the water is high in the gully, I slide down the concrete on my belly, dirty and pleased.
As I get older, I pick the blackberries gone until there’s nothing good there, for it’s in the gulley where the Rapanak boys throw cats, including one of our own while she is pregnant. Another neighbor, Mandy, sees the Rapanaks up to their violence, and lowers a rope for our Manx cat, Patches, who latches on and is pulled out before she dies. As I get older, all our Manx cats, bobtailed warriors from the Isle of Man known as solid camping companions with a fierce love of battle and a doglike loyalty to their humans, get shot, kicked, or disappear one by one. And as I get older, my father takes a gun to neighbors who play Ranchera music too long and loud on Sundays because in neighborhoods there are many powers. And as I get old enough to question my father, we spend less time out of town with the guns, preparing away from the LA basin, and more time in terror apart from each other, him on his living room bed shaking by a bottle, and me in my bedroom, hungry and waiting.
In the woods, I could be away from my mother. This is a fantasy of a radical blessing. Her skin is pock-marked and molten from genetics, an adoration of the tanning salon, or simply drugs. Her teeth have mostly rotted away but grow back into her mouth as if by magic, perhaps the dental work the county paid for after a cellmate beats her face in. Her hair has maintained a dated quality in color and style, for she’s one of these white women who’s been loyal to frosting since the 80s, a color not quite brown, blond, grey, or white, yet in total falling feral like a tumbleweed around her, thick and brittle as her mouth that protrudes from the red line she had a friend tattoo on her bottom lip. The women with our genetics don’t have obvious lip lines, thus have had an odd relationship with lipstick—a friend who, despite her best efforts, always disappoints. When my mother wears makeup she looks like a clown—magenta blush, that old chunky mascara from a green and pink tube, scarred skin leveled out with dust, and a playful gloss pricked from a drugstore’s preteen section. Her power for ugliness is the birth of her natural beauty, something a woman must dedicate herself to rejecting, or having never known she possessed it in the first place, ravage her body with hatred. Her marbled eyes set in the yellowing white. That impossibly sized 0 waist aged into distention. A round, lifted ass and broad thighs refusing any names besides wild—even with her exaggerated limp when she comes upon people, even with the sandals or bare feet she prefers to shoes at any occasion, for example, a funeral. Midriff blouse, jean shorts cut to labia, silver earrings hanging from each torn lobe—adorned for turning her back to the world. To look upon her disinterested face is what I imagine a global warming film on fast forward will look like, a pile of wreckage that people stare at in public because she looks like your world, undone faster than you imagined. It is so easy to cast a woman by her proximity to some goal look that we might not just see that some women, whether by mind or substance or indifference, will look feral no matter, and it is through this capacity that I see my mother, and as I age, myself. I can never collect all my hair in a rubber band. I cannot smile in a way that registers happiness. My thigh muscles from the time I’m a toddler refuse to fit into jeans, and my nest of eyelashes turn into my ducts and form gound that I wipe away for the entirety of a day. My father and I plan for the end of the world in the 1980s and 90s, and my mother, LuAnn, needs no preparation. Am I prepared, or am I after such ability is my question.
What an easy contrast to say that my father is a beautiful man. That’s what they tell me, the brown and white women of the Americas, smoking their long, thin cigarettes, feathers in their hair always parted right down the middle or piled high in poofs, hard nipples through pastel tank tops the height of my eyes, talking about God and being ready and energy, man as peacocks cry at the children beating drums and Charlie Manson flutters a guitar through the speakers, inside this or that other community in the canyons. Your daddy looks like Paul Newman. A young Charlton Heston. They’re named Loretta with the pink convertible who’s never been pleased as much as from a woman, or Sue who eats the steak fat from others’ plates, or Charlene who slaps me then gives me gum, and they’re star struck because my daddy, I hear, takes such good care of a little girl, teaches her how to defend herself from the niggers and ‘Mesicans and good ol’ boys like all their daddies who forgot about God, men of the Americans with their clammy fingers and whiskey breath, the same story over and over from every woman here, but my daddy won’t let that happen to me, has that movie sheen. Have I heard Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Seen Room 8 where Gram died? Been at the Inn of the Seventh Ray since my parents married there? Or been hugged by some person everyone knows carries healing who hangs out at the rock bar in the canyon, working on chain mail. For these women, my father is a hero for not molesting me, and because he loves me enough to give me a gun for my own body, I guess he’s mine, too.
I try to really see him as they do. Like my mother, he doesn’t know what it is to look upon him. Faded denim blue eyes, evocative of work and the Western states. A redheaded child grown up and aged into a dusty blond, standing sturdy and useful in his boots. Never in his life does he look proud, and this is the difference between an enemy and savior outside of the abstract ideas that mean nothing one on one. People often guess his height is inches above what it is, something that happens to me when I grow up, too. I understand from when we sit on pillows at the communities that this is what is called grace, and I smile when the women tell me I have it even though there will be times we must try to have nothing to lessen the blows. Try to be nothing and age into womanhood with your own cloud. He grows an unruly crimson beard and vacillates between a braid and short, layered locks. As a teenager he’s quiet but not shy, closes his mouth to observe and quantify his surroundings, opens his mouth after long silences to make statements more loaded than they need to be. He survives his childhood, which is something of value. He learns everything about mechanics and it sets into his untamed eyebrows. In his 20s he becomes a lineman at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the work sets into his back. Then when I’m five, Derek is murdered. My father’s features tighten until they don’t, which means every muscle drops as he passes out, except his fists, which cross his chest. I understand the way he strides as an attempt to arrive somewhere useful. Build a narrative. By his early 30s, his clenched shoulders look like they could turn tightly this way, or another. The front of my father, on the verge of reaching for something he can never quite grasp, and the large back of him, covered in cotton or flannel, somehow peaceful like a sleeping baby, a man who will never turn bad as long as he stays in his skin. His fingers, blunt and ready, open up a deer like peeling back a page while his lips press together under that red beard and moustache. His is not a narrative of words. My father, Trevor, looks most restful with blood pooling in his hands, as he plops a fresh liver in my mouth so I grow strong. My father will help me survive my childhood, too.
The woods my father speaks about could be Ojai, the mountains of Santa Barbara, or closer even, as Thousand Oaks rests alongside the Santa Monica Mountains, where we climb Mt. Boney and run down Sycamore Canyon to Malibu and Neptune’s Net for fried fish. But Sycamore Canyon has so many visitors. We visit the swimming hole in Ojai, and it’s also no secret. We spend the most time camping and training in the mountains above Santa Barbara, near the dam where turtles float and a legendary Water Moccasin terrorizes campers year after year. Here is where we cover ourselves in mud from a hot spring, and shoot the AKs, the 22s, pull dead oak trees from the roots out of the earth with a tow bar, and chain them up to live trees to burn away the bugs. Sunrise the smell of wet sage, sunset the cold collapse of shadows into a darkness that cradles us. Past the signs that say no entrance, past the gate locks my father breaks, where the moths flutter in the periphery of fire smoke and snakes tumble down a hill around noon to sunbathe, here is where his silence is less busy, and I don’t wonder what he’s thinking one minute to the next. And here is where I learn how to survive as an adult, as well as play, away from my parents’ failures, like a child. But there, too, we run into people. More like us, to and from the Anarchist or Rainbow Gathering, maybe desert compounds, or simply attempting to find the precise place industry ends on the grid, but they come. My father is telling me he will take me somewhere I haven’t been, and there I will be away from a road that can guide me back to civilization, just as people who make their homes in civilization will be without a map that could find the place we are. Perhaps there will be a separatist community already there as he has longed for, or perhaps he means for us to start our own. I’d like to ignore that he speaks only about we two. I don’t know if I can be alone with him forever for I hear and feel every shift of his presence in the gut of me. After Derek’s death he has grown to a shadow in front of me, but even then, I cannot stop him from getting in. Looking back at him in Chuck the Truck, while the famed Conejo Valley rabbits dart this way and that on my mother’s lawn, the year’s first geese migrate above, and a barely audible breath hovers halfway down my lungs, I don’t recall before this moment ever being asked a real question by my father.
I don’t think mom would like that, Dad, I say to him and smile, laugh a little. This is obviously a funny hoax my father has played on me, I put on. We’re like a family on television that plays practical jokes. I open the truck door and slip down to the curb and spy him in a blink of my eye. His hands are tight and his face is blank but open in the wind. I start the walk up the asphalt drive and around to the front door when I hear the driver truck door close, and wait for him while I jiggle the broken door knob open and tip toe inside to avoid the exposed staples where the carpet meets the foray. I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know what I want. So I pretend to be an innocent, unaware of the stakes.
My father follows me into the foray of my mother’s house and kneels down so I can hug him and tell him good night. His arms are the God’s that enshroud me. I have not come to worship by choice, there is no option for me but to be prostrate before his journey. No matter how quiet my father is, his inconsolability is something that hangs all about him, heavier than the gun or knife or cuffs. I am most ashamed when his cheeks flush with pain and I pretend I cannot tell, because I don’t know what to say to this man who seems to carry the devastation of reality, past and imagined, for us both.
My arms loosen around my father’s neck when I hear Rich, my mother’s boyfriend, in the living room, cracking his toes. My mother must be passed out in their bedroom already. I turn away from my father and walk the brown carpet plank to my bedroom, where I will pretend to sleep, and our days will continue like they always have, which means school is my constant until my father makes a new decision for us, without my say. I look into my mother’s bedroom. She’s mute on the waterbed, a rock tipped over into the sea. I exhale and turn to my bedroom, my little place where I lie all night staring out to the bright hallway, waiting for a danger I’m always sure will come. By each morning, I battle exhaustion while I make a sandwich for school, brush my hair, consider another night ahead of me waiting in my bush of blankets.
From my bed, I roll around my father’s question over and over behind my eyes. If we went where my father wanted, I would sleep, away from people and the harm they cause, like Rich when he’s angry, like my mother when she’s awake. And the nights I wake at my father’s to find that he’s gone would be over, or if I did at least we would still share the same roof, a sky around my canvas tent, and I wouldn’t wake from the weight of feeling like the only meat in a quiet, bright box. My first fear in saying no is what fate I have tempted.
I wait for the rhythmic roar of Chuck the Truck to pull away from Margarita Street, a happy lion’s purr that I know a mile away and makes me sigh along with Chuck, knowing something for the moment is about to change—he has come for me, or, until next time. Instead, I hear my father’s boots turn on their heels in the wood foray as the door knob jiggles into a shut position while he remains, inside my mother’s house, where he isn’t supposed to be. For seconds all is still in the way of bright boxes, but then I hear the slow step of my father’s boots across the terra cotta kitchen, heel then toe as if he’s tracking, and silence again as he must have reached the living room carpet, by Rich. Both their voices start small, then rise, my father’s sure, onenote timbre against Rich’s cadence rolling like a wave. I can hear Rich’s lanky body from my bedroom even when he crosses his legs or lifts off his back and then the flick of his lighter, so I hear when he goes at my father then, knee cracks and stomps and jeans. In my bones I hear this sequence many times as Rich runs after my mother, LuAnn, and if she makes it to my room, throwing herself in a belly flop onto my bed, he stops at the door frame as if something will happen if he enters. The room in which I wait to die every night has some magic line that forbids him. Maybe this magic is my father. Maybe the magic comes from my perpetual silence that makes the words I could speak unknowable, and therefore dangerous.
I jump out of bed and run through the hall with my arms like a jogger’s, leap over the exposed staples and explode into the living room. The men face each other, Rich looking down a foot taller, and my father looking up, hands against his belt, eyes locked upward. My words come from my forearms, a hard-lapping wave that crashes into my throat. My words will not be how I protect my own body, but I learn in this moment they will be the start of what I’m willing to risk for the person I love. Do I lose some of the power of my silence against Rich and my mother in this moment? I care not what I risk in my outburst for my father. I scream, don’t hurt my dad, leave my dad alone! with my fists raised, nine years old and believing any moment is good enough to die. Why not now, why not with this family, why not with my father against the larger Rich whose eyes shrink and darken when he goes after my mother until she howls? The men fall silent as I look back and forth between them. No one looks toward me but I know they feel me, I know Rich’s explosions become confused when performed in front of a child. I had a kitten that disappeared one day and when I asked them my mother stepped in front of Rich, said it must have run out of the house and got hit by a car. But I saw Rich’s eyes shake in his puzzled skull. He looked down and his head rolled over and over, trying to stay away from a memory of what he did, probably stepped on it or threw it against my mother.
And I know my father—a man breaking piece by piece after Derek and at the tail end of an answer that he didn’t want to hear. In this world, at least our part in it, he feels there is no way forward without violence. I do not deny that seems to be true. This belief, as with the question he asked me, treats child and adult as equal in finding each their way. We will all have to sacrifice, we will all have to fight. We are all with some people, together, until survival means we are with no one. I scream at Rich again to stop even though no man is moving, and to stop my mind from a consideration that my father will tempt his own death over and over if I make him stay in civilization. I wonder if my father’s real question is asking me to help him stay alive in the only way he knows how, inebriated from the movement of society.
Rich stands back while my father loosens his shoulders and my mother sleeps through it all. Rich looks back to the television and backs down on his couch, done. Shuts off. I wonder if his violent switch was helpful in surviving his childhood. I grab my father’s hand, a child still in my palms and stature, pull him toward the front door as my feet slide back into him on the brown carpet. At first his feet won’t budge from the moment, the possibility of narrative tight in his toes. But soon he comes with me, careful to not step on my bare feet, his stride slow with resignation of being in but not of this world. At the front door, my father kneels so I can see his face, and I pull at the flannel all around his shoulders.
Dad, you have to get out of here now. Richard will kill you. You could get hurt. I don’t want you to get hurt. Please don’t go back in there, please go.
I believe we survive with another until we don’t, and as far as we’ve come, my father and I have made it only with the other. I don’t want him to leave, but I’d rather fear my own death another night and see Rich’s arms flail for my mother in the bright light than risk any more of my father’s compulsion to bring on an end from which we can’t return. My little legs are so taught that I’m standing as a ballerina would, before an audience in exaltation. And I feel exalted in my way, having stopped the men from acting before my father is hurt, having experienced the power of childhood. I embrace my father again, my head in his neck and my eyes closed. He says, I won’t, I won’t, okay? Good night and he rises to his feet, opens the door and looks out into the new night.
I can tell he doesn’t feel the fall or hear the birds, he has barred some delivery to his senses while I cannot stop the world and his presence from getting in. One day will I have to mute, as he does, or will I find a way to absorb feeling this close to everything, all the time? He pivots toward his truck, and I absorb his stumbling exit under my feet on the wood foray. Thump, thump. He pulses inside me even from the ground. Today he won’t die—today my father chooses me.
As I grow more desperate in my homes to breathe, Thousand Oaks keeps its hold on me. Winds from the Pacific find my lips, and at sunset, when the fog sets in, my lungs pull down a full sage as if from inside the earth, wet and deep, like coyote shit. With each walk across town, Calle Margarita north, and Irving Drive south, the red-tailed hawks above, the green Santa Monica Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Topatopas rising above the low clouds to the east, tangles of oak limbs that imprint my skin year after year as I climb, the southern descent into city lights and the northern descent into Camarillo where there’s the white-washed adobe mental hospital girls who cause trouble go, I feel a part of the place I’m born into, always a vantage for me on the hill tops. This feeling of belonging without trying, of being without being less than, keeps me from succumbing to the shudder that overtakes me when I think of the people to which I’m tied. Thousand Oaks, I roll around in my mouth as I press dandelion stems in my fingers until they bleed, Conejo Valley, I whisper when I take aim at the crows and fire, Ventura County, Los Angeles, I slide down my teeth as my left hand sharpens the knives, California I breathe out the window at night to the yips and the screeches. These words feel like home on my tongue when I speak them. These are good words.
Sarah Heston’s memoir, Daughter of Endtimes, is a true-crime, survivalist memoir that describes a daughter-father relationship built in an apocalyptic Los Angeles. Selections of Daughter have appeared in The Iowa Review, Entropy, American Literary Review, and Hotel Amerika. Heston’s critical work on redefining the history and aesthetic of memoir can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.
Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir, Daughter of Endtimes.