Or maybe it was the country or even the world. I don’t remember, and what good would it do to look it up now?
Sometimes my father, inexplicably, would pick me up from school. The dirty oil-field pickup would pull to the curb in front of Crestview Elementary, and my 9-year-old heart would leap.
I remember the walk past the other country kids in the bus line, feeling their uncomprehending eyes as I left their ranks, feeling like I was lifting off—reprieved and summoned—and how I would open the door of the pickup slowly, careful not to let the empty Bud cans roll out. I remember the blast of frigid air across my face as I climbed into the air-conditioned cab. I closed the door and never looked back, but tomorrow I’d be back among them, and none of this would matter again.
We didn’t go anywhere. I mean, there was no destination. There was no point to the drives other than that my father had finished a job early and didn’t want to go home to my mother, whom he didn’t love, and didn’t want to be alone. He just wanted to drive.
We kept to the dirt roads, the two-lane blacktops. Sometimes we drove with the windows down. Smell of wheat, smell of cedar, smell of dust and asphalt and beer and oil.
He drank beer and drove, and Willie Nelson played on the eight-track, which was a new thing, a remarkable thing. We listened to Yesterday’s Wine, Phases and Stages, the incomparably sublime Red Headed Stranger. When the stranger shot the yellow-haired lady after she reached for his dead wife’s horse I was, every time … astonished, mesmerized, satisfied but not satisfied. I wanted to know more. I wanted not just to know why, but to understand why. The tape looped back to the beginning:
It was the time of the preacher, when the story began. …
“I’ll show you something,” my father said one day.
This was in early fall, when the days were still hot but their ends had that smokiness, that haziness. We were driving down by the river, where the river became the lake, where the sand, rock, and mesquite gave way to lime rock and cedar, and the flat fields and pastures grew gnarled and corrugated. The roads were narrower and twisted, water seeped through mossy green crevices in the bluffs the highway cut through, and sometimes you crossed a creek, and the road would dip suddenly, and the temperature, just for a few yards, plummeted 20 degrees. We were out where the sky stepped back and left you alone.
To me, this was unfamiliar territory and marked the beginning of the rest of the world. I didn’t know the roads, couldn’t keep up with the turns. I always sat up on the edge of the seat when we went that far. Here there be dragons, the ancient maps said. To know what I mean, you must go there someday.
Toward dusk one day, my father pulled to the side of a very quiet county road and parked and killed the engine. Immediately the sound of insects in the trees filled up the world. A breeze ruffled the short grasses in the small field across the road. It was a feeling like we’d reached the place we’d been trying to get to all this time, though I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old. The sun was going down fast, and the fringed edges of the trees below the sky were flaming, but the trees were dark and without substance.
I saw the sign first: “Second biggest mesquite tree in …” Then I saw the tree. How could I have missed it? It was enormous.
We got out of the pickup. My father pissed at the edge of the road. I walked down to the tree and looked at it. Part of looking at the tree was knowing that somewhere there was one bigger.
My father came and stood beside me. “Two people can’t reach their arms around it,” he said. Of course we tried. Of course he was right.
I grew up and went away. Several years later, one summer, I came back to see if this place I thought of as home really was home in the sense that I wanted the word to mean. I’d come back because, at 27, I didn’t know what else to do or where else to go. I’d run into a wall where I hadn’t expected one to be. I’d come back to the one place where there were no dragons.
I got a job working in the oil field, and I spent a lot of time that summer driving around on some of the same roads my father and I had driven, drinking beer, listening to Willie Nelson—not because I was looking to recapture anything from my youth or understand what my father was going through when I was a boy, but simply because, like him I suppose, I liked driving, drinking beer, and listening to Willie Nelson. Anyway, I couldn’t have recaptured any of that—the roads were all much too familiar to me now. Those memories of driving them with my father, the feeling of exploration, of being surprised by something around every turn, could not be replicated. The stronger memories were of driving these roads with high-school buddies, listening to the Steve Miller Band and throwing beer bottles at the road signs. If I was feeling at all nostalgic, it was not for my childhood but for my adolescence, those days and nights of Schaeffer and Bud in an ice chest in my buddy’s mother’s van, back when we owned everything we could see.
On some of the drives I had a companion. She was the younger sister of one of my oldest friends, home that summer, too, fleeing a bad marriage in Washington state. I’d known her almost her whole life, but she’d always been my friend’s little sister, the cute, funny one, and when I saw a pretty girl at the post office one afternoon, I remember being briefly embarrassed by my casual attraction when she turned and I saw who it was—it felt incestuous. “I heard you were in,” she said.
I played Blood on the Tracks for her, read her a story I’d written about a man who comes back to search through a pasture for a grave he remembers having found as a child. He never found it, in the story or in real life. One night coming back from eating Mexican food in Wichita Falls, we saw the most intense and theatrical lightning storm I’d ever experienced. It filled up the entire sky, 360 degrees, and it played the entire hour and a half it took to drive down to the lake, and it never did rain. One night we stayed up until dawn, sitting on the boat dock of her parents’ lake house, watching a feeding frenzy of sand bass under the halogen light at the end of the dock.
“Do you think you’ll go back to him?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. She was only 24.
One afternoon we were driving down by the lake. “I’ll show you something,” I said.
We didn’t become lovers. I suppose we thought about it. I’d held her hand tightly while we watched that lightning storm, but nothing else. In all, I probably wasn’t back home for more than a couple of months, and our little flirtation couldn’t have lasted more than five or six weeks, though I wouldn’t be surprised to be confronted with evidence that it was only half that.
I don’t get back home very often now, and in the 10 years since that summer I’ve probably seen her only two or three times—her sister’s wedding, maybe at her parents’ house at Christmas, down at the family lake cabin when I was passing through and dropped in to see her brother, who’d come back to run the family enterprises—and never for more than a few minutes, never alone, always in passing. Those few times I’ve seen her since then, she was, as before, an old friend’s youngest sister.
But I remember the feeling of the bark rough against my skin that summer as I lay my cheek against the tree, stretching my arms tight around the trunk, reaching for her fingers, and my utter faith that, on the other side of the tree, she was reaching just as urgently for mine.
Wade Williams, a former James A. Michener Fellow at the Texas Center for Writers, lives in Houston.