Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine

It was a quick trip—two or three days in Phoenix and three or four in Santa Fe—and now I’m back in S.F., already at loose ends and itchy and staying up late and so on, which is just about where I left off. The trip itself was tedious and rushed but only fitfully as stressful as it might’ve been. I promised myself beforehand I wasn’t going to have any eruptions or meltdowns no matter how aggravating or claustrophobic things got, and I kept my word. It wasn’t always easy.

Dad’s how I remember him, more or less—a busted-down rake, but bony now, with silvered hair and skin that’s been trashed by the Arizona sun. He’s basically a handsome version of me, but if I ever needed serious proof that he’s my dad, I’d have it every time he opens his mouth. This genetics stuff is some serious shit, people: not only does his voice sound exactly like mine, we both favor certain speech patterns and even particular figures of speech, while sharing a delayed, dryly sarcastic reaction to the world around us—all this from two guys who’ve spent less than a week of waking time around each other in the last fifty years. But he’s a strange guy, a kind of sexual recidivist. He gets it that he committed a fundamental wrong against his wife and kids—he brings it up almost too much at this point—but he still has a gristly streak of 1950s-vintage misogyny running through his veins. At one point I mentioned an annoying habit that an old girlfriend of mine had, and he took an absurd amount of pleasure from my Girl Problems, as if they were proof-positive that women, when you get right down to it, are mostly a pain in the ass. And when he told me the woman who lives next door is only a month younger than he is and I joked that he ought to ask her out, he shot back, “Just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I’m starving.” I didn’t argue with him about any of this stuff—I wasn’t there to fight the old dog for its bone—and in any case I’m hardly the best candidate to highlight the sexism in another man’s remarks. He’s pretty accessible considering everything he’s been and done, but twice he choked up and had to stop talking—both times while discussing the flinty, frosty woman who raised him. (At one point he said he’d never seen his mother smile—not once in his lifetime—a notion which certainly jibes with my memory of Nanny.) He did his best to answer the five or six or seven big questions I’ve been toting around for years, and finally being able to scratch them off my tattered mental checklist and put that shit to bed for good…well, that was a savory little process.

I was glad to get out of there but it wasn’t because of Dad. Phoenix, or at least the part of north Phoenix that I was in, sucks in extremis. I’m a desert man to the core of my being, and even the landscape left me unmoved. There was exactly one moment when I saw anything that might be taken for beautiful: sitting on Dad’s back patio on my first evening there, I looked across the miles of nothingness to a distant mountain, and silhouetted by the fading sun the line of trees marching over its peak looked like a Mohawk haircut. That’s it. Otherwise I saw a wasteland of K-Marts and strip-mall karate schools, discouraged looking people standing on street corners and spinning giant handheld arrows advertising barber schools and brake specialists, and ugly RVs and low-riders grinding out loud obnoxious music. I couldn’t even find a decent cup of coffee. At least I timed the trip right, because my dad and I were just starting to snap at each other my last night at his place. That was when we got onto politics, and he told me that Obama was the first Democrat he’s voted for since Truman, a fact which lost a lot of its coolness quotient once the discussion moved to Vietnam—my bright idea—and we began acting out one of Archie and Meathead’s lost routines.

New Mexico is for real, though—God’s backyard if ever it existed. My sister picked me up at the Albuquerque airport and took me back to Santa Fe via a winding route through the mountains, pausing for lunch in Madrid (accent on the first syllable), an old mining town now taken over by latter-day freaks, giving the place the most genuine longhair atmosphere I’ve seen since Austin in the early ’70s. Then a slow descent until the salmon-colored pueblo homes and neo-colonial buildings started popping up…

When we reached Santa Fe I checked into my motel and, needing a little downtime, I went out on my own that first night, heading directly over to the Plaza—the old center of town. It’s where the Santa Fe Trail ended, and what with the Governor’s Palace and a handful of cathedrals dating back to the early 1600s all nearby, the stench of history is enough to make your eyes water. A band on the stage was playing ranchera music and the Plaza was filling up with people, mostly tourists and Indian souvenir vendors, but also about a score of guys in Bandido jackets and their skinny girlfriends, each of ’em sporting a bad shag haircut. A long row of second-story windows in an office building overlooking the length of the square suddenly came to life, lighting up first over here and now down there with rear-projected images of actors reading the words of long-dead pioneers, their amplified voices competing directly with the music and people’s conversations so that every corner of the plaza was buzzing with noise. Every vacation has that one pure moment that justifies the cost and hassle of the whole experience—that moment when the world of hapless jackass cares and woes falls away from your shoulders, when you know no one on the face of the earth can find you for this one second, and your entire body relaxes. This here was that moment, with twilight just slipping into darkness, Venus and a crescent moon shining overhead, and me sitting on one of the square’s wrought-iron benches, smoking a butt with my legs stretched out and my hands clasped behind my head, checking out the band and the German tourists and the nutty woman who was dancing around by herself in front of the amps and the even nuttier kid who tried to join in the merriment by banging his head against a tree. Eventually I drifted a couple of blocks away, to the old De Vargas Hotel. It’s been all spiffed up and goes by a different name today, but in ’73 its style was what might best be called Gothic Colonial, and I spent a night there sprawled across one of its faded old bedspreads reading Faulkner’s “The Bear”—one of the best reading experiences any man will ever have. After that I kept poking around downtown until 11 or so, when I finally found the type of divey little bar I like to do my drinking in. There was a three-man band playing indie rock and their first number was a killer but it was the only decent thing in their set—their other stuff was a bunch of monotonous yowling glop. I didn’t care. I sat back, put away three or four margaritas, and forgot about everything.

Sunday I went down to Old Fort Sumner, where Garrett shot Billy the Kid, and where the Kid lies buried in a common grave with his playmates Charles Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard. (Or Charles Martin Smith and Rudy Wurlitzer, if that makes it easier for you.) Except for the historic plaques nothing’s left of the fort or Pete Maxwell’s house, where the shooting occurred, but I’d totally forgotten that the garrison was stationed there to keep an eye on the 8,000 Navajo who’d been force-marched to their new home from the Canyon de Chelly. Unsurprisingly, I guess, Bosque Redondo is in the one ugly corner of New Mexico that I saw: flat, hot and dusty, with the only available water source—the Pecos—swimming in disease and given to flooding. The road back to Santa Fe goes through Santa Rosa, a ghostly little town that looks like a leftover set from an Irwin Allen movie. It sits on a highway juncture so it does see traffic, just nowhere near enough of it. I have no idea what the hell happened there but it couldn’t have been good; I’ve never seen such a high percentage of closed and abandoned businesses anywhere in the world, and while some of them look like they went down in the recession, most of them look like they’ve been vegetating by the roadside for decades. Whatever the case, the decay and dilapidation were almost spectacularly picturesque: I first noticed it in the ochre motel sitting atop a series of ravaged terraces and a drained swimming pool, and then the package liquor store looking dignified despite the plywood sheets covering its windows and at least a score of gas stations crumbling luxuriously away. Of course, it didn’t hurt anything that Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour was on the air at that moment, or that the show’s theme that day was road songs, or that the particular song playing just then was “Lost Highway”…

My sister and I got along like dykes and dogs. On Monday we drove to Taos and compared a lot of notes about the folks. Since she was the one who stayed in Houston after Dad rematerialized in ’83, she got to tell me what it was my mom said when she laid eyes on him for the first time since he skipped out on her 20 years earlier. Mom came out with a question that sounds prepared as all hell but given the circumstances is still pretty damn funny: “Alan! Where the hell have you been?

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