I hadn’t killed us yet. My dad fidgeted next to me, exhaling loudly every few moments. Always a sensitive kid, I guess I was something of a Doppler radar of other’s emotions and my father’s nerves were transmitting microwave signals to my own. DNA to DNA—pinging from him to the truck’s ceiling to me—a continuous triangle of tension. It had been that way for most of my life.
“God dammit, don’t go so fast!” he said, his hairy knuckles gripping the oh-shit handle above him.
“I’m not,” I shot back. “I’m only going thirty. Leave me alone.” My arms were out in front of me and the way my twiggy wrists bent in awkward angles on the steering wheel reminded me of how small I was, and sometimes I felt beyond small, nothing more than a series of stupid ideas, water, and bones. My dad’s eyes were always upon me, waiting for me to fuck-up. Being judged this way drove me to panic. I became so self-conscious I couldn’t make a decision on my own. And even when my dad wasn’t there, he was still there. You know that voice inside of us that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong—God, the angel on our shoulder, the narrator of our story, intuition, whatever you want to call it? That voice was my father’s. His voice burrowed under the soft, meaty pleats of my brain.
I shot him a quick glance. Sweat pooled in the deep lines of his forehead, his wine colored glasses fogged over, mustached top lip curled over his top teeth, strained muscles in his neck and behind the beard his jaw was vice-tight. I palmed the knob and shifted the truck from second to third. My left foot hovered over the pedals. “Keep your foot off the clutch until you need it,” he said. “You’ll burn it out. Unless you want to pay for a new one, and I know you don’t have the money for that because you’re too lazy to get a job. Did I ever tell you how grandpa made me get a job when I was thirteen? What are you going to drive when you get your license? You’re going to have to buy your own car. What about insurance, plates, gas? I can’t afford to help you.”
“I know. You’ve told me. And I have been looking for a job,” I lied, the afternoon sun slanted partly through the windshield, partly through the passenger side window across his face, leaving a red silhouette and dust motes orbiting that red silhouette.
“No you haven’t Jason. Don’t lie to me. And stop looking over here, watch the road.” He flipped down the visor and pointed right with his thumb. “Turn up here on Cleveland. And slow down god dammit. Ease it into second.”
The sun was in my eyes. I didn’t realize how soon the turn was, I think that’s what I told him later.
“Right god dammit! Right!”
I yanked the wheel right.
“Downshift! Downshift! God dammit Jason!”
I didn’t downshift. Fuck. There was too much going on. I took the corner in third. The tachometer needle swung into the red. It produced the whining sound that made car-guys wince and everyone in Wyoming was a car-guy, someone was wincing somewhere, besides me and my dad I mean. Then the clutch caught and the truck pony-hopped forward. The seat springs underneath us yelped. My dad extended his arm to brace himself against the dash.
But there were no other cars on the road. I wasn’t up on the curb. I didn’t roll it. Didn’t hit anything. We were fine. I pulled it together and kept it moving down Cleveland past the old Mini Mart. It was eerily silent for about five seconds, until his fist connected with the right side of my face. Then things went black.
It was another five seconds when the color and sound came roaring back. And I was still driving. “…dumb motherfucker! You never listen to me,” he said. “Pull over god dammit. You’re not ready for this. I’m driving.”
I didn’t say anything as I steered the truck to the shoulder of the road. I put it in neutral and pushed the emergency brake in.
It wasn’t a full blown punch. He could’ve rearranged my face if he wanted to. I was only five foot six, 125 pounds, small even for my age. He outweighed me by almost a hundred pounds. I was pissed off, but also sad, embarrassed, hurt, and in a weird way I was grateful. Grateful that he never had gone full bore on me. My cheek, where he connected, throbbed each time my stupid heart pumped. Again, I noticed my wrists. It was always my wrists that reminded me. Kids at school would wrap their forefinger and thumb around my wrist and marvel at how much space was left. “Look everybody, I can almost wrap my fingers around Hardon’s wrist twice!”
And I would just sit there laughing at myself with them. “You should see how skinny my ankles are,” I’d say.
I was so small. Such a wuss. The shame hurt more than physical pain, I felt the wave building—the hot tears that would embarrass me more than I already was. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. Sixteen-year-old boys didn’t cry, except for me. Real men didn’t cry, they fought back. I wanted to believe that this was tough love, dad’s backwards way of teaching me to fight back. If it was, it wasn’t working. It made me hate him, but more than that, it made me hate myself.
I would never drive with him again. I got out, went around the truck bed and just kept walking. “Nothing happened though. We aren’t hurt, the truck isn’t broken,” I said in passing. Once out of ear range I sobbed uncontrollably.
He climbed up in the driver’s seat, flipped a U-turn towards home and the FORD on the tailgate dipped into the eastern horizon. I walked and I bawled and the Wyoming wind blew in one ear and out the other. My head was held down in case one of my friends who already had a license drove by and saw me, such a pitiful excuse, a whiny little shit who couldn’t drive or take a punch like a real man.
It Runs in the Blood
The future was frightening for many reasons, but what if my dad’s anger metastasized in my cells some day? Or was it already there, just waiting to burn out the pure and righteous parts of me like some dirty black cancer? In hindsight, I’m able to see that my father’s rage wasn’t on account of me taking a turn too fast, or not doing the dishes, or not looking for a job. He had been laid-off from the railroad, a good paying job with benefits, especially for Cheyenne where career opportunities were few. And he was approaching middle-age, a high school drop-out, unemployed, he was feeding, clothing, and housing two teenage sons by himself. He had to feel so impoverished, so alone.
Since my parent’s divorce it seemed I had become his catalyst, not my brother, but me. My brother was brave, confident and outgoing while I was scared of the world, sensitive, quiet. My dad could look at me and twenty other things that were nagging him would come to his mind. My mom and I looked alike, perhaps that had something to do with it, but more than that, I believe it was because he saw not her, but himself in me. A part of himself he wished he could go back and change, a weakness he didn’t want me to be stuck with like he had been. Perhaps his anger was selfless. He wanted more for me. That’s what I tell myself anyway.
On this particular morning, I must’ve been seventeen. I got up, dressed for school. I was in the bathroom combing down my cowlick when I heard the low moan of an orca coming from the living room. I went to check it out. On the other side of the couch was my dad, face down on the carpet, wearing only underwear. The sour odor of alcohol seeping from his pores filled the room. There were round, purple marks on his back. Next to him on the floor were his glasses, broken in half. And when I saw those glasses, that’s when the worry hit me.
“Hey bud, you’re gonna’ have to find a ride to school. I can’t take you,” he said, his voice muffled by the carpet. He rolled over on his side. “Hand me that pitcher.” A couple feet away on the bricks of the hearth was a pitcher. I handed it to him, wondering what he wanted a half-empty pitcher for. He pulled his dick out and began pissing in it. When he finished, he didn’t say anything, he just groaned and held it up for me to take. I put it back on the fireplace. He rolled over, now I could see his face: swollen lips, a green-violet mark on the bridge of his nose where his glasses were smashed into his face, one eye puffed and swollen shut. I could tell it hurt to breathe, broken ribs possibly. For the first time I saw my dad as weak. This feeling startled me. I asked what happened and all he said was that he got in a fight at the bar.
In Wyoming bar fights weren’t unusual, seeing my dad beat up was. My protector wouldn’t always be able to protect me, and in the same vein, my bully wouldn’t always be able to bully me. He wasn’t invincible. One day I would be able to beat his ass and something inside me grieved over that.
Violence breeds more violence. I wanted to hunt down the guy who did it and hurt him like he hurt my dad. No matter what, I loved my dad. I felt a fierce loyalty to him. He raised me and my brother by himself. And maybe he messed up sometimes, but he never gave up on us. My dad, my brother and me were a tribe. We had been through so much, the three of us. And he wasn’t always punching me because I took a corner too fast. Sometimes he was playing basketball with me in the driveway, or letting me shag fly balls with his softball team, or taking us on drives down the back roads of southern Wyoming and once in a while he went to the grocery store and cooked us breakfast on Sunday mornings. I never forgot how he took custody of me and my brother after the divorce. Only twenty-six years old raising two boys on his own. It was rare for any father to take on that responsibility, especially back then, 1980, in close-minded, old-west, conservative Wyoming where the women raised the kids while the men worked some back-breaking job.
The bad parts of him were the bad parts of me. The anger in his father was the anger that showed up in him, was the same anger showing up in me. Anger and trauma passed from one generation to the next like it was a family heirloom.
The first time my own rage really got me in trouble I was twenty. And when I think back to that night I can still see the clouds, the way the moon cradled them in its soft glow, the bottoms silver and how they floated above us. There was no wind. It was a calm that I hadn’t felt before, I thought of no future, no past, the present didn’t seem real. And I remember light and the absence of it. There was a circle of the streetlight shining down on the asphalt and this guy, Nathan, was inside of it. I walked towards him, my brother on one side of me and my friend Lazaro on the other. Nathan didn’t seem all that surprised to see us, he knew I would track him down sooner or later.
Surrounding Nathan in the middle of the street were guys in baggy pants and ball caps holding red plastic cups. The strutted from one lowrider to the next, thirty or forty people in total. We had found Nathan at a party for Low Vision, the car club he was a member of. The closer we got, the deeper the bass thumped from the speakers in the trunks. In my waistband was a pistol, a .38 Special we stole from Lazaro’s dad. I pulled it from my pants, hoisted it in the air, traced a rainbow with the barrel, then lowered it in Nathan’s direction. Lazaro brought a BB gun and when he saw me pull the pistol, he did the same with the BB gun.
Let me backtrack. This “beef” or whatever it was with Nathan had been going back and forth for two years. It started the night Nathan pulled a cattle prod on me at the skatepark because he thought I was laughing at him. I was laughing at everything, I was on LSD. He walked towards me zapping this little rod with lightning on the end. I ran to my truck, grabbed a baseball bat from behind the seat and chased him off. He ruined my trip. During the next few days he went around town telling whoever would listen, that I was scared of him and that he was going to kick my ass when he saw me. This was before social media, but gossip in small-town America travels fast. When you are young and male, in a place like Wyoming—small population, miles of land—you can’t let anybody tarnish your good name. It’s all you have. It’s similar to a culture of honor in the south, I guess. In a small town your reputation is everything and if people see you as a pushover they will try to take advantage of you any time they can.
So one day a mutual friend of Nathan and I tipped me off. He was picking Nathan up to go skate. He’d bring him to the skatepark. The park was fenced in with one way out. I’d show up. It would seem like a coincidence. And that’s where I caught him, like a rat in a trap. He tried to run but I put the boots to him, sent him to the hospital for the night. News traveled that I beat Nathan’s ass. I was a sudden celebrity. I was one of the tough guys, instead of the shy, skinny kid with small wrists. Physically hurting another human being gave me a confidence I didn’t have before. I learned that this rage could be used to control people and situations, whether they liked it or not.
I didn’t hear or see Nathan that whole winter. Then I moved away to Omaha. Didn’t even think about him while I was gone. Nine months later, like most people who tried to leave, Cheyenne, the black hole that it was, pulled me back in. I was twenty years old living in my dad’s basement again.
And it was like I never left. A week after I moved back home, I was on the couch watching YO MTV Raps! when my brother pulled up in his Bug. He came in, his eyes were red, swollen and wet. He told me how Nathan ran up on him at the grocery store. He didn’t say anything, just pulled out a can of pepper spray and sprayed my brother in the face with it. When my brother told me this, a rage like never before washed over me. My adrenal gland flooded my brain in white heat. All of my multitudes boiled down to one primal instinct—revenge. I thought back to my dad and how I wasn’t able to help him when he got beat up. I was able now.
So we’re walking up the street waving guns. The crowd scattered, behind trees, bushes, some got in their cars. Their tires chirped as they split. Nathan ran inside the house. A girl yelled, “I just called the cops!” The three of us took off running to my brother’s car which was parked a few blocks away. What seemed like mere seconds later, sirens could be heard off in the distance. First just background noise, then louder, closer and closer, wailing into the cool September night. There was no doubt that they were coming for us.
Lazaro dropped the BB gun, turned back to get it. “Just leave it,” I said. We got to the car. I jumped in the back seat and unloaded the .38, tossing the bullets, then the weapon itself under the seat. The sirens were screaming. They were right behind us and they were multiplying, the consequences lay in the darkness on the other side of the red and blue lights. It was then I knew there was no getting out of this, we were going to jail. This was real.
My brother pulled the car over in a bar/liquor store parking lot. A wall of cop cars surrounded the Volkswagen. Watching through the side mirror I could see them getting out with guns in hand, hiding behind their open car doors. A red laser traced the back of my brother’s head. All of the aggressive lights, the chaos, the sirens of ten cop cars groaning like dying elephants just beyond the light and now people were coming out of the bar to see what the commotion was. A cop on a loudspeaker directed us to one by one to put our hands out the window, get out and walk back slowly, hands on our head. When we reached them they threw us on the ground and shoved a shotgun barrel into our skull, put their knees into our back and handcuffed us. Lazaro was on the ground next to me. “We aren’t going home tonight, are we?” He asked.
“I don’t think we’re going home for a while,” I answered.
I never planned on shooting Nathan. I didn’t plan at all, I guess. I just wanted to show him I wasn’t playing around anymore. I wanted to end the stupid beef once and for all. To me, I was just a dumb twenty-year-old kid who made a mistake, nobody got hurt. But to the law, and once again, in hindsight, can see why, I was an adult who was going to kill a bunch of people.
Early in the morning they let my mom come pick up my brother at the station. He was still a minor. All he did was drive. Me and Lazaro though, were both charged with carrying a concealed weapon and a violent and tumultuous act. Both of us got the same sentence, ninety days, eighty of those suspended. I spent ten days in jail. If I hadn’t unloaded the gun we would have been charged with assault with a deadly weapon or worse, attempted murder, that’s what the judge told me anyway.
In the Land
Bad genes, ideas, and trauma are passed down from generation to generation, each layer of this dust eventually buries history. We trample over the same problems until there is a rock-hard path through the wilderness. The next generation arrives and doesn’t think twice about how the path got there, they blindly follow it. We forget where we came from. Place factors into who we are just as much as the blood in our veins. My entire childhood and a huge chunk of my adult life happened in southern Wyoming. My dad and his dad before that lived their whole lives in Cheyenne also.
Wyoming. Wind-swept, desolate, pre-historic, arid, tenderhearted big square of suck. Where the weather isn’t something outside of you, but something you become a part of. You roll like a raindrop in a thunderstorm. The itch of soil in the back of your throat, your breath—the earthy scent of rain falling on dust and sagebrush. Where your bones ache and livestock run for the lone tree on the plains when the barometric pressure drops. Where water and wood are scarce. You are that lone tree. The leaves are your bronchioles, the trunk is your windpipe. The agitation inside you is amplified by an outside wind; a constant screaming in your ear, huge invisible hands knocking you off balance, as if it’s taunting, “what are you gonna’ do about it?”
Wyoming and other western states with low populations have the highest suicide rates in the country. In 2016 Wyoming had the fourth highest, behind: Montana, Alaska, and New Mexico. We are taught to cowboy up, quit being a pussy, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It correlates with the masculine archetype of the old-west man. The women stay home, take care of the kids, cook, clean, shave sheep, knit sweaters, run to Wal-Mart real quick. While the men with their guns protect their land, their family, their cars, their favorite football team, and livestock from the weather, thieves, predators or the government. They pretend they can’t be hurt. They don’t cry. In Wyoming men are taught to beat the shit out of each other, then they hug it out. Wyoming is a state of extremes, it equals myself and I hate it for that reason.
I’d tell Jenny that I loved her. I didn’t know what love was. For weeks she had warned me that I needed to get my life together. She was a single mom, the mother of a two-year-old girl. Jenny wanted to be a soccer mom and needed a partner who was on board. I was twenty-five and still going out to party every night while she was at home raising her kid. I’d show up at her place after the bar, so drunk, so loving, and in the morning so hungover and so worthless. Her daughter would climb all over me, wanting me to play with her. I’d put a pillow over my head and ignore her until she left me alone. I wasn’t ready to be a father. I gained a lot of respect for my dad. He was about the same age as I was then and he was raising me and my brother, working full time, and on top of all that he still found the time to get shit-faced with his friends.
I didn’t take Jenny’s threats of leaving me seriously. Then after one hangover too many she finally dumped me. And it wasn’t long before I ran into her at the Albany, a bar in Cheyenne. The Albany was my place, I was a regular. She knew I’d be there and how dare she look so beautiful. It wasn’t just her either, she was with a bunch of guys and in my drunken stupor I was positive that she was there just to rub her beauty in my face. And why couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut? I was regular size now, still, I showed what a small little man I really was. My anger and insecurity got the best of me. I took a place next to her group at the bar and loud enough for all to hear, I said to the bartender, “Don’t serve these stupid motherfuckers.”
Things were eerily silent for about five seconds until a fist connected with the right side of my face. Then things went black.
It was another five seconds when the color and sound came roaring back. One of the guys she was with had punched me in the face. I would’ve punched me too. Too many people were watching, I couldn’t back down. I had a reputation to uphold. I punched back. Others got involved and it became a huge brawl. The cops were called and the cop that showed up, I knew him from other run-ins. Officer White was his name and he told me if I left he wouldn’t take me to jail and then he asked my friends if one of them would take me home.
Cheyenne, the constant fighting and the drama, the anger I had towards everyone and everything, I just couldn’t take it anymore. It felt as if some sort of wire in my head shorted, it was brilliant, it was blue, and it was taking me down. When I got home (my dad’s basement) I howled and screamed: Why was I like this? Why couldn’t I just walk away? Why was I so full of rage all the time? You stupid motherfucker! You’re worthless. Nobody will ever love you. You don’t deserve love. It hurt so bad and the worst part was the feeling of it being inescapable. I paced back and forth, thought of ways I could kill myself. I bawled, punched things, threw my television into the wall.
My dad was sleeping in his room above me. In a lull of my destruction, I heard his bed squeak followed by very heavy, very quick footsteps, down the hall, then down the stairs. I was sure that he was coming to kick my ass for waking him up, for breaking things in his house. I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut, we’d have our first physical fight, both as adults. I stood in the middle of the room, fists clenched, bracing myself for what was about to come.
His face was full of worry, not the anger I was expecting. “You alright bud?” He grabbed me, held me in his arms. I wasn’t ready for compassion. Love shocked my system. “No, I’m not alright,” I said, My tears and snot ran down his hairy back.
“Let’s go for a drive,” he said. “When you were little you loved going for drives with me. It always calmed you down.”
It was three a.m. He had to get up for work at seven. We got in his truck and took off. My forehead bounced against the cold window, streetlights all flashed on red. I was too embarrassed to look at him. He drove east on Old Lincoln Highway, into the high plains out there. More stars appeared as the city lights waned. He turned off of the old two-lane onto a dirt road. The truck rocked. We drove like that for a while. I slid to the floor of the cab, folded myself into a fetus. I could feel each rock bang off the undercarriage through the floor. This was the ground I grew into a weed from.
Then my dad said, “I’m always here for you bud. I’d do anything for you and your brother. I hope you know that. Break-ups are hard. You’ll be happy again.”
He rolled down my window. The cool air blew through the thistles on the back of my neck. “I’ve never been happy,” I said. It was the first time I said this out loud.
“That breaks my heart. I know I wasn’t the best dad growing up. I had no idea what I was doing, still don’t. I know the divorce affected you way more than it did your brother. You’re more sensitive than him, and that’s okay. We can get you help. If you want to talk to a therapist, we can do that. After me and your mom divorced you’d sit on the couch for hours, just stare at the wall, not talking. We took you to a therapist. Do you remember that? You were only six.”
I looked up at him. “Barely,” I said. A meadowlark whistled and some other birds did too. In Wyoming you can just keep going. The land goes on and the sky goes on. And it will long after we are gone. And for once, my dad’s voice wasn’t inside me, but on the outside and it was real. I fell asleep on the cab floor. I woke up as we pulled into our driveway. The sun was in the sky. He had to get ready for work.
Some Things Never Change, and Some Change Slowly
During my forty-five years there were many times I moved to a new city, all in the west, and all those times I failed and crawled back to Cheyenne and my dad. Fifteen years ago I finally got out. I moved down to Fort Collins, Colorado. Just forty-five minutes south of Cheyenne. I realized that a change of state won’t always change the mental state you’re in. And that my dad didn’t have to be without flaws to be my dad. I could still respect him if he wasn’t perfect. Maybe he did pass his rage down to me. It doesn’t matter. It’s mine now and I can choose how to handle it. The years went by, just ticking off one by one like seconds on a clock, years of therapy, anti-depressants, anger management classes, rehab, hospitals, court, jail, meditation, yoga and of violence. And I’m still angry. But I’ve also learned that anger doesn’t have to be my go-to emotion when things get hard. I’ve learned to let myself be sad, find joy, be disappointed and relieved, be excited, show love and receive love, and mostly, to forgive.