Sometimes, it can feel like everything you love is disappearing.
A horrible observation: love increases with distance.
If I believed in miracles, I might say that one day my dad would turn up. I’d agree that it was possible that we could move back into the apartment in Memphis and life could go on like before. But I don’t believe in miracles, so if you asked me, I’d tell you that I’ll probably live with my grandparents until graduation and I probably won’t go to college. Don’t feel pity for me. I understand that this is how it is, and I’ve learned to cope with it.
I would never tell you that Dean and I were in love back in Memphis. I would probably tell you that we were in lust, if you cared to ask. But it would be a lie to tell you that I didn’t cry sometimes at night, thinking about him. Maybe love is like a rip tide, and the harder you try to escape its draw, the more you get sucked under.
For a while, we thought about trying to make it work. But my grandparents refused to let me have a cell phone and nobody could know about our relationship, so we were pretty much out of options.
So it was that I came to live in an eight-by-ten room in a house with my grandparents. Besides a twin bed with a white comforter and a small desk in the corner of the room, the bedroom that was to be mine was empty. I tossed my suitcase, which contained a small wardrobe of clothes, on the bed, along with a worn copy of my favorite book, Searching for Hawaii, which was penned by my favorite author, Don White. I had every intention of reading it many more times while I lived with my grandparents. I figured I’d probably need to pass the time in some way. In a way, I was right.
Something that you should know, though, is that my grandparents were great people. The living situation was simply not ideal. They didn’t need to be taking care of me in their age, for one thing, but also, it’s really tough to go from life in Memphis to life in Pleasanton, Kansas. I knew that it would take some adjusting. I simply did not know how well I would be able to adjust.
It turned out that the process of adjusting would include a few new friends, an old couch, and many a smoked cigarette.
How I Got There
As you have probably realized by now, I am parentless. The word orphan could be used to describe me, I guess, but that’s not what it feels like. Let me explain it to you.
My mother died when I was seven in a car accident. I remember bits and pieces of conversations she and my father would have. A how was your day? here, a peck on the cheek there. I think they really loved each other. I hope so. But I don’t remember much about her specifically.
I do remember sitting in a metal chair at her funeral. A strange man with a long beard took the chair next to me. His smell was laced with cigarettes and cologne, and I had never seen him before. After the service, when my cheeks were streaked with rapidly drying rivers of tears, he leaned over and whispered to me.
“You know, it is possible that most of the stars we see have already burned out and the light just takes so much time to reach us that we can’t tell.”
I didn’t know why he told me this. I simply knew that it depressed me very much. That night when I tried to sleep, I couldn’t stop going over to my window and looking up at the stars, wondering which ones were actually still there and which ones weren’t.
“I knew your mother well,” the strange man had said, standing up from his seat.
The next thing happened when I was thirteen.
It was the first night of spring break, so I was staying at Dean’s house when I got the news. “Christopher, something’s happened,” his father said, walking into the dimly lit room. He didn’t say there had been an accident, which maybe should have concerned me. We were all confused, and that dust wouldn’t entirely clear up for another four years.
Dean and his father and I piled into the cramped cab of a rusty old pickup truck. We ended up at my father’s apartment, where a couple of police cars were congregated. As small mysteries were solved, larger ones began to appear.
“Your father’s car was found wrecked into a tree north of Memphis,” a short, pudgy police officer informed me. “Only the passenger side was damaged.”
“So what about my father?” I asked. “How is he?”
The officer’s face sank. It was the unanswerable question, the one that he had been dreading, avoiding, even. He stuttered out a small answer. “See, uh, that’s the thing. We don’t actually, uh, know.”
Dean’s father set his hand on my back. It was strong, warm. Dean sat on the curb beside me and drew circles on his knee with his skinny finger.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I prodded. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
It turned out that my father was not in the car at all. It took me a while to understand, but my father had, in fact, run away. He had purposely slammed his car into a tree and then disappeared without a trace. He didn’t leave a note or any hint of where he had gone. He simply vanished. Poof.
You have no idea how heavy something like that can make you feel.
After I became, for all intents and purposes, an orphan, I moved around a lot. It started with my uncle, who took me under his wing for about a year and a half. He ended up moving in with a girl who lived in Kentucky, and it was decided that the best thing for me was to move in with my mom’s sister, who also lived in Memphis. That arrangement was doomed from the start. She had no time for me because she had kids of her own, and besides that, my cousins and I didn’t really get along. I ended up telling her that I knew she didn’t need the stress of me and asking if there was anything else we could do. She decided that it would be a good idea to move me in with my grandparents, where I could start all over again. They adopted me, and that was that. I moved to Pleasanton, Kansas seven days after my sixteenth birthday.
I landed at the Kansas City airport in the morning. My grandfather, who I had met but did not know well, stood outside the gates. We spanned the two hour drive from the airport, which is on the far north side of Kansas City, to Pleasanton, which is in southeast Kansas. We made small talk. But we did not really talk. After a while, I flipped to the first page of Searching for Hawaii, where the main character describes why he has to leave home. I wanted to shake him, to tell him that I would give anything to go back home. Not to the apartment with my father. Home. Where my father and my mother and I lived together. As if nothing had ever happened.
The house was made of dark bricks. There was a big window on the front of the house, and a covered porch. I could see through the window as we stepped onto the porch, see my grandmother sitting in one of those La-Z-Boy recliners that lean forward for old people to stand up. Rough, wooden floors. White walls. As we opened the door and entered the house I could see a picture of my father standing with a hand perched on my mother’s shoulder displayed in a small wooden frame on the mantel of the brick fireplace.
Later that night, I would flip the picture frame around to face the wall.
The First Day
The smells of French toast and coffee wafted into my room as my grandfather shoved the door open. That was enough to wake me up, but he still sauntered over to the bed to shake me. I could tell that I’d be waking up to an alarm here, because he was not good at waking you up gently.
The green glow of the digital clock told me that it was only 7:15 in the morning. And it was summer. This is not going to work, I thought.
“Do we have to be up so early?” I groaned, rolling onto my stomach.
“Early?” my grandfather snorted. “I let you sleep in!”
I sighed, rolling back over and planting my feet on the ground. “Okay. It’s fine. I’m up.”
Ten minutes later, after I’d had a chance to shower and get dressed, I met my grandparents in the dining area for breakfast. While I scratched at the grain in the table with my fingernail, my grandfather set a plate of French toast and a mug of coffee, black, in front of me. I never liked French toast. I always found it way too rich for me. Even the thought of it made me want to gag. I hoped that it was more than a treat for them than a regular meal. Also, I would never drink coffee black. It’s way too bitter that way. But I got the feeling that asking for sugar and creamer would have been a joke to them.
Living there, I learned how to take my coffee black.
I tried to eat the French toast without tasting it, moving it directly to the back of my mouth and swallowing quick, but nothing worked. I still got the taste of the rich, syrupy bread on my tongue each time I put a bite into my mouth, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. I washed the flavor out of my mouth with the overpoweringly bitter coffee.
My grandmother, while we ate, asked a few questions.
“How did you sleep?”
“How was your plane trip over?”
“All right. I slept.”
“Are you excited to start school here next month?”
“Sort of. Not really.”
She was not an easy woman to make conversation with. Because most of her questions could be answered in a few short words, I spent most of my time at the table looking out the back window of the house at the giant, decrepit barn in the next field over. This was not Memphis.
My grandfather, on the other hand, made easy conversation. He liked to joke and tease quite a bit, and I soon found out that if you asked a local if they knew the man, they’d laugh and reply with a, “Oh, you’re Vince Murdock’s grandson? He’s just downright ornery.” I repeat: This was not Memphis.
“Rita here and I need to head down to Fort Scott today for her checkup,” he said, rubbing his lips together and nodding at his white-haired wife. “You can come with us if you want. We could get us some Wendy’s or KFC or something.”
“Sure,” I replied, not wanting to come off as rude. A car ride was just about the most unappealing thing that I could think of at that moment, though.
“Okay. Will you be ready in fifteen minutes?” he asked.
“I can be.”
The drive to Fort Scott took a surprisingly brief fifteen minutes. Mercy Hospital, a long, skinny brick building with a green metal roof, was on the other side of the small town. My grandfather and I walked my grandmother through the sliding glass doors and down a carpeted hallway. They didn’t have to ask for help; they knew where to go exactly.
“Well, Chris,” my grandfather said, putting a wooden door between my grandmother’s check-up and us. “We’ve got a good forty-five minutes, and I’ve got some stuff to get at The Wal-Marts.” That’s how he said it. The Wal-Marts.
“It’s Christopher,” I corrected him. More on that later. “And that sounds fine.”
We piled back into the long, ugly car and drove out of the hospital parking lot. “The Wal-Marts” ended up being right by the hospital entrance on the highway, with only a bank separating the two.
When we entered the building, my grandfather grabbed a cart and walked straight down the long aisle to the back of the store, past kitchen supplies, past electronics. The toy section, to be exact. I didn’t know what to expect. Did this man, my grandfather, honestly think that I needed toys to be entertained? I was sixteen, for God’s sake. Instead, he led me to the very back of the first aisle and picked up a deck of cards off the wall, causing my face to burn red. It wasn’t a fancy deck, just the kind that they have in navy blue and red. He held up the deck. “Entertainment,” he said, chuckling to himself.
By the time we were ready to check out, the bottom of the shopping cart had been covered by a bag of uncooked fish filets, a bag of whole coffee beans, and milk. “You don’t need anything, do you?” he asked me in a way that tells me if I did need anything, I could ask and he wouldn’t be offended. I shook my head in dissent, so he aimed the cart toward the checkout lane with cigarettes on the other side of the counter.
“I always tried to quit,” my grandfather told me, having asked for his cigarettes. “But since I made it all this way smoking, I figure, you know, what’s the point?”
I grinned at his joke, and the cashier handed over the pack of Marlboros.
Rain fell to the ground in streams when we exited the store, plastic bags wrapped around my hands. But despite the weather, I couldn’t help thinking that this might not be so bad after all. Granted, it was only the first day of our new arrangement, but I was finding myself enjoying my grandfather’s presence more than I had enjoyed my uncle’s, or more recently, my aunt’s.
Later, our stomachs filled with Wendy’s cheeseburgers as we drove down I-69, I found myself setting Searching for Hawaii aside more and more and actually making conversation with my grandparents.
Thoughts from Bed
Sometimes, when I was lying in bed trying not to…well, we’ll get to that…I thought about my father and how he disappeared. That night, the second night I spent in the bed, I cracked open the window next to my face and let the rain gently splash on my cheek. This is the way that I imagined it that night:<
He was driving home from a gig at a bar. That was one of the things I always admired about my father: he never gave up on his dream. Even when it was obvious that he would never become a famous musician, he still tried.
He sang along to the radio, and the song reminded him of my mother. He remembered how she used to sing to me when I was a baby, the vanilla perfume she liked to wear… He closed his eyes, remembering.
The next thing he knew, a woman was stooped over him. There was something about this woman. It wasn’t her beautiful blue eyes. It wasn’t her lengthy brunette hair. Those things were great, but it was something else about her that caught his attention. He took a breath, and that was when he realized it: her perfume. It was the same vanilla perfume that his wife, my mother, had worn.
She delicately wiped his hair out of his eyes. Drooping his arm over her shoulder, she helped him into her passenger seat. He wasn’t injured, she could tell. Just shocked.
“Do you ever wish you didn’t have to go back?” she asked. “Just leave. Never go back to anything or anybody.”
He looked at her, into her blue eyes, and his lips curved into the tiniest smile. “Yeah,” he said, almost a whisper. “Sometimes I do.”
I fell asleep with the vaguely salty taste of rain on my lips that night.