I’ve heard my father’s one-hit wonder exactly twice since I’ve been on the road, both times while deep in the desert, in dead spots where one station comes in clear if I’m lucky, and the open highway is mine. The words are his but not the voice, and yet I hear the singer’s twang as his, pretend that I can remember my songwriter father’s soft croon, imagine that he didn’t die in a plane crash after holding his fleshy baby girl only once on a short trip to LA.
The royalty checks don’t amount to much, but my mother sends them along, assuring me that my father would have wanted it that way. A week ago, I heard his voice in my head more urgently than ever, telling me to go. My mother, too, thought a cross-country trip would do the trick for me and Matt. She didn’t know that we were over, had been for a long while and were just waiting for the right time to tell everyone. We’d already packed up our West Hollywood apartment, making sad, drunk dates out of it with take-out and too much wine. I dropped Matt off at his brother’s in the Valley and didn’t go in—said goodbye to him like I always do, with a quick peck on his flushed cheek.
I descend Nine Mile Hill into Albuquerque and watch the Sandia Mountains turn watermelon pink, true to their name, at dusk. Before I reach the city, I pull off the highway at a saloon with a lit-up sign in the window, red letters beckoning cocktails in all caps. Something feels natural about walking alone into a mostly empty bar just outside of town, like each time I’m unearthing the cowboy haunts of my father’s world. Quick glances bounce onto me and then off, though one man’s lingers and I’m at once aware of my tight jeans with the holes and my mother’s jet black hair reaching down to the curve of my sacrum. It was her hair, my mother says, that my father fell in love with, on a street corner in East LA. She sold him sweet navel oranges at her parents’ stand, and he spoke to her in broken English, assuming that she was naive, uneducated, alien.
I sit at the bar and order a drink from a man in a faded yellow t-shirt that says New Mexico: It ain’t new and it ain’t Mexico. I imagine the man smiling with a toothy grin in a souvenir shop, finding this cheeky. The misnomer reminds me of my own city of angels, how sometimes the name seems absurd and nonsensical, even ironic—because I see nothing ethereal in its mess of freeways, its relentless concrete, its building-sized digital ads. And I certainly don’t see anyone being saved.
The whiskey goes down in one fiery gulp, and I get up. A jukebox, in the corner. I’ve got to flip through, no matter who I’m with, no matter what cast off corner of the country I’m in. My fingers press down on the chunky square plastic buttons, and the song pages, thick like diner menus, flap over one by one. There, on the last page. I press the S, and then the 8. The first notes play, and I hear my father’s words for a third time since I’ve left home. I close my eyes, feel a warmth in my belly, and see endless sand dunes shadowed with the murky purples of a fading twilight. I think about not coming back west, about driving forever on this lonely desert highway, about lightning having to hurdle down from the gods for me to stop.
About the Author: Kristin Ito lives and writes in California. Her work has appeared in or will appear soon in The Los Angeles Review, Oblong, and Broad!
Story Song: “Desert Call” by Holly Miranda
Photo Credit: Leesa Cross-Smith