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AFTERWORID I BY WADE WILLIAMS The 2nd Biggest Mesquite Tree in Texas 0 r 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 summonedand 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 Nelsonnot 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 thatthe 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 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 26, 2007