I’m on the phone one night with my older sister, Linda, and somehow we end up commiserating about the shotgun vacations we took with the strange men our mother dated.
You know these places.
It’s not like where I live now, where everything is just right.
You’ve been. You know. Everything was cockeyed. That was something people used to say.
Up the coast you’d go. Gold Rush towns. Evergreens. Ponds with no fish, but you’d try to fish.
Down the coast. Into Santa Barbara. Ojai. All the way to San Diego. Into Mexico. Cabo, before Sammy Hagar got there, back when it was safe to leave the hotel. Back before the cartels and all that. But still, it was also places with not enough materials in the roof, places where you could see bits of sky.
Or maybe that was Catalina? You were young.
You know these places. Ghosts towns. Diagonal parking. Saltwater taffy. Corn dogs called Pronto Pups. Hotel room keys with postage embossed onto them. Drop the key anywhere, it will find its way back to the Royal Plaza Inn. And there, lucidly, is the memory of an old childhood nightmare: a man collecting all of those keys, unlocking all of those doors, waiting in the dark for me. In my memory of the nightmare, he’s this man Mark my mother dated. I look him up online while Linda and I talk. He’s dead. Good, I think.
It’s a thing Linda and I do sometimes. We’ll get to talking and some minor horror will pop up and one of us will check to see where that monster might be, if he (or she) lives nearby, if there’s some shade of the past that might show up behind us at the cleaners. After our mother died, my three siblings and I went through all of the photos she’d left behind, separating them into stacks: Family. Friends. Men. She had a kind: men with perms who sold real estate, old Hollywood stars, minor-league crime bosses, men who ran pyramid schemes, alcoholics, journalists with secret wives, men with yachts, men who left one button too many unbuttoned. They always had names that had been shortened.
A murder of Jims.
“Why did she date such assholes?” I asked.
“She was probably lonely,” Linda said.
It’s 1981 and we’re on vacation with a man named Hank and his daughter, Alex. It’s my mother, Linda, and me. My two eldest siblings, Lee and Karen, are away at college. We’re staying at a rented beach house at Pajaro Dunes, a resort just south of Santa Cruz, and not too far from the beach house our mother and father owned in Capitola. I have one memory of that beach house: I’m sitting in front of the television set and my father comes and picks me up, takes me over to the kitchen, sets me down in a high chair. That’s it. The strange thing about this memory is that my parents divorced when I was three, so now I’m not sure if I actually remember this happening or if it’s a combination of old pictures from the beach house scrapbooks, since by the time I was capable of real memories, the beach house was just a thing that used to be, but not a thing I ever actually knew. I have no memory, at all, of my parents being my parents, just my mother and my father as separate, distant, binary units.
Linda and I are playing in the sand with Alex, building castles. There’s a picture of this, but I remember it vividly, because at the time the story was that Hank and Alex just so happened to be staying at a condo at Pajaro, too. But this was not true, of course, as we learned over the course of many weekends of our lives, when we’d suddenly find ourselves on vacations with strange men and, occasionally, their children.
“My dad went to prison,” Alex told us.
“For what?” Linda asked.
“He robbed a bank,” Alex said.
He had a daughter but wasn’t allowed to see her, because his ex-wife was a real piece of work.
He had you convinced “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was a true story.
He played in the NFL.
It’s 1986. Or maybe it’s 1987. I’m in a hotel in Winnemucca, Nevada, with my mother and her childhood friend, a good man named Charlie, who for many years was her best friend, and then for a few years in the late ’80s and periodically in the early ’90s, they became romantic, though probably not as romantic as Charlie would have liked. My mother would say how much she loved him, how kind he was, but that she couldn’t take him out in public because “he murdered the English language.” So instead she ended up with a man named Dave, who owned a suit store in downtown Palm Springs that never seemed to do any business, but who looked nice in one of his own custom-made tuxedos. Or that guy Tony, who said he was muscle for Frank Sinatra, but probably wasn’t, because one gets the sense that people who were the muscle for Frank Sinatra didn’t go around telling people about their dirty little jobs, but who knows. This was before the Internet. Maybe he was who said he was.
But this is Charlie, in this shit hotel in Nevada. We’re on a road trip that will end in Walla Walla, Washington, where he and my mother were raised. Charlie was a large man — well over six feet, probably 300 pounds at this point in his life — but he was the kindest man I’ve ever known; his size made you want to hug him, made you feel safe in a way that I’ve not encountered since. He had children of his own — sons — and I don’t know what his relationship was like with them. I hope it was good. I suppose it’s never that simple.
He knew my mother wasn’t right for him, knew that whatever was going on between them was probably destined to fail. He lived in a small town in Eastern Washington and, in the summer, he’d drive down to Palm Springs and take us places. Sometimes that meant we just went out to dinner every night for two weeks, usually to Hamburger Hamlet or the Charthouse or Sorrentino’s or Coco’s for pie, or Baker’s Square for pie, or anywhere else that served pie.
So we’re in the coffee shop of this hotel, eating pie, and I look like I should be playing keyboard in The Cure, and my mother has just screamed at a waitress for something and is now pacing out in front of the window of the restaurant, smoking, because she was the kind of person who liked to make a scene and then stay around to watch the wreckage.
“Your mother,” Charlie said, “she’s tough. Boy.”
“Why do you come to visit her every year?” I asked.
“To give you a break,” he said.
“You should marry her.”
“That would be a good deal. And I’d like to, if she’d have me, but, you know,” he said. “All these men she dates.” He shook his head. “Your grandfather, goddamit, would be shocked. He wouldn’t believe it.” My grandfather was dead by the time we made this trip. I remember my grandfather as the solid kind of man my mother never dated for long. I keep a photo of him on a bookshelf in my office and sometimes, when I’m sitting around trying to remember things, like I am right now, I turn and look at him. He’s been dead so much longer than the years I knew him. When Charlie’s own father died, my grandfather helped Charlie’s mother out with the bills. This was all a million years ago.
Charlie looked outside. It was dark out, we’d been driving all day, and I suspect he was pretty tired of everything, since after this trip he and my mother would stop their (periodic) romance for a few years. “You know what? We should get another piece of pie. Goddammit, why not? We’re on vacation.”
He was carob and coconut oil and convertible.
A country inn outside Paso Robles with a man named Ed. He owned a ranch. He cooked us tri-tip and pulled burs from my socks.
The El Encanto in Santa Barbara with an artist named Malcolm, his exquisite bronze statues fill my house now, one a football player frozen in pain on the ground, another a Dust Bowl farmer staring off in quiet contemplation. My sister is now the owner of a painting of Malcolm’s. On the back, a secret message to our mother. When you inherit things from the dead, sometimes they come with too much information.
Another weekend in Santa Barbara, this time with Artie. Our mother explains that he was a famous bandleader, that he could be our new father, that we might move to Oberlin with him, become a family, except he really doesn’t like children, so we need to be quiet when he’s around.
A houseboat for a weekend in the San Francisco Bay, with a man named Jim, hair permed just so, who told stories of flying patrols in the Korean War, always a drink in his hand.
Tahoe with John.
Tahoe with Bob.
Tahoe with Jack, before he went crazy and showed up at our house in a rain slicker and clutching a yellow legal pad. On one page, he’d written, in block letters, REASONS TO LIVE. On another, REASONS TO DIE. This is an image that I’ve held with me for 35 years now. He sat down at our kitchen table and demanded a pen. My mother gave him a Bic and he sat there for hours, chain-smoking and scribbling.
I can see the slant of his handwriting so perfectly, can see the blue ink smeared on his wrist, can see the mountain of ash he left in the crystal ashtray my mother always kept on the table. Can see him sitting there, sweating, crying, muttering and writing. What has haunted me, what I can’t shake, is that he left all of his notes on the kitchen table and walked out, back into the rain, after my mother told him maybe it would be best if he stayed at the motor lodge downtown.
He had listed only one reason to live: Scared of dying.
He was a lawyer.
He was in MENSA.
He was convinced sensory deprivation tanks could open up doors into past lives.
Back to the bank robber.
It’s later that same day and we’re all eating dinner together. Hank isn’t wearing a shirt. He’s teasing my mother about being seven years younger than her, so this means he’s 37 and my mother, she’s 44, my age now. There is such an easy familiarity to them that it’s obvious to me now that they’d been together for a good bit, already at that phase where they have jokes.
“Alex told us you went to prison,” I said.
“That’s right,” Hank said.
Hank and my mother shared a look then.
“She said you robbed a bank,” I said.
“I did,” he said. Hank had blue eyes, the kind that make people uncomfortable because they’re too clear. “But that’s over with now. I’m not a bad person. Just someone who made a mistake.” He put an arm around my mother’s waist then and pulled her close. “We’re all going to be spending a lot more time together.”
We never saw Hank and Alex again.
He was a spy.
He was an amazing chef.
He believed he could teach anyone how to do astral projection.
It’s the 1970s and, for a brief time, the strange man in the hotel is our father. What I mean by this is that for a couple of years in the ’70s, our father actually had visitation rights that he used, except that it was never all four of us at once. My older siblings would fly out to Portland or Seattle for a few days and then, a couple weeks later, Linda and I would go. Except, usually, what would happen is that our father would drive us to Seaside and dump us off with his parents. He’d show up one afternoon, smacking mint gum, and we’d go to Astoria. He’d buy us rock candy and tell us about his new wife’s children and then we’d spend the night at the Royal Plaza Inn, my sister and me in one room, our father through the connecting door, cracked open just enough that we could see the blue glow of the TV. Linda and I would stay up all night, whispering in our secret language, sand in the sheets, peanut butter cup wrappers on the floor, the stranger in the other room snoring to the 11 o’clock news.
In the morning, we’d get breakfast at a little café.
You’ve been there.
There’s diagonal parking.
There’s a candy store selling saltwater taffy a couple doors down.
There’s a gallery, where you can buy a sunset painted on driftwood, across the way.
There’s a guy playing acoustic guitar, singing “Fire & Rain” like he doesn’t know it’s a song about a plane crash, like he thinks it’s a song people want to hear while they stroll on a summer morning.
“Get your mom a postcard,” our dad would tell us and we would, but he’d never take us to a mailbox. A week later, we’d just hand our mother a postcard from a place she used to visit with her husband, way back before we existed. Or we’d write notes to each other on the cards, our childhood handwriting all block letters, falling off the edge, as if there were never enough space to contain our enthusiasm for this absurdity: HI! I’M NEXT TO YOU!
There’s a cantilevered bridge in Astoria that spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. It sits flat on the water for most of the expanse, before it rises sharply up, up and up on either side. In my memory, the bridge is 30 miles long and rises hundreds of stories, though in truth it’s only four miles wide and a relatively tame 20 stories high from the water. Still, at the time, it used to horrify me. “Here comes the dinosaur,” my father would say, and it’s true, I see now online, the bridge looks like a stegosaurus. He’d smile at us in his rearview mirror, thick mustache, aviator glasses, Three Dog Night on the eight-track, “Joy to the World” playing, summer all around us.
The last time I remember being on the bridge, I remember nearly dying.
My dad was in the front seat, Linda and I in the back, we’re heading over the bridge, and then something happens and the car is spinning in a circle, other cars are swerving around us, the water keeps coming into view and I’m thinking that any second now we’ll be in it, we’ll be underwater, we’ll be trapped, dead underneath the dinosaur. Linda is screaming. I am screaming. Jeremiah the bullfrog keeps telling his tale … and then the car stops, flush in the middle of the bridge, and we’re alive. “Let’s have some gum,” our father tells us, and so we do. We chew some mint gum and drive off on our way, as though we didn’t just die, which is maybe how you convince small children that life and death are inexorably linked and never too far apart. Either that or you pretend it never happened.
He sold protein powder on the side.
He was working on a novel.
He was brilliant.
This is true.
This might be a ghost story.
But it’s true.
My wife, Wendy, and I are staying in a bed and breakfast in Torrey, Utah.
We’re on a road trip through the West, stopping in little towns, seeing the sights, hitting the national parks, taking photos of the traces of history that have been left on the land, touching erosion. We’ll end up in Colorado, for my best friend’s wedding. It’s the sort of landmark you don’t think about having in the middle of your life — weddings seem to be the things you end up spending a lot of time going to in your 20s — but love is unpredictable, and so it seems right to be taking this trip en route to my friend’s big day, finding proof along the way that some things you might otherwise consider ephemeral are, in fact, pretty durable.
Yesterday, we went to a museum in St. George, Utah, for instance, that was filled with dinosaur footprints. They’d been there for 200 million years, stuck in the sediment, a snapshot of a moment in time, a moment the dinosaur probably found no significance in whatsoever, but here they are, a cast of steps. For an hour, we walked through this museum and stared at the impressions an animal made in the ground on the way to somewhere else, always somewhere else.
But now we’re in this B&B. We’re tired from driving in what turns out to be one of the worst storms in the history of Utah and Colorado, though somehow we’ve managed to constantly be just on the edge of it the entire time, always a few miles to the west, so that we’re hit by terrible rain, but we drive through the remnants of floods, not the floods themselves. The B&B is an old schoolhouse, lovingly restored, and we’re staying in the Arithmetic Room. Tomorrow, we’ll be in a Best Western in Grand Junction, Colorado, and the day after that we’ll be in a Ritz-Carlton just outside Vail. And then we’ll circle back through all that we missed, Moab to Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon to men with mullets running their Sea-Doos under London Bridge in Lake Havasu, to the long stretch of desert between Arizona and California, truck-stop towns with nothing more than a bar called The Lamplighter and a giant, white satellite dish. And then back to the guard gate in front of our community, back into our house, back into our phones to examine the evidence of where we’ve been, the photos that have captured erosion, the weird idea now that our phones don’t just send words back and forth that then disappear, but, instead, capture everything, every grain of sand we’ve traversed now a digital footprint.
In the Arithmetic Room, we unpack our overnight bags in silence. Too many hours on the road with nothing but gray skies and time, listening to an audiobook about a murder in England, has made me ruminative and slightly depressed. The summer is over here, but I’m still on it in my mind, school not starting for another couple of weeks.
There’s something about the idea of B&Bs that I find less uncomfortable than regular hotels, where I always have a terrible time sleeping, particularly if I’m traveling alone.
There’s a man with the keys, you see.
I check the lock on a hotel room door repeatedly.
I latch and re-latch the safety bar.
I worry that there will be a fire and I’ll be in one of those rooms where the windows don’t open, or that if I’m alone in a hotel, I’ll have a stroke or a heart attack or embolism and that I’ll be one of those people found dead in a hotel, which makes me wonder how many people have died in the room. I run the scenarios through my mind over and over again, while I’m trying to fall asleep: the man with the keys, fire, stroke, death.
Maybe it’s knowing that someone actually lives in the B&B that somehow makes me less paranoid, less inclined to believe that whoever is making my food or cleaning my room isn’t also spitting in my food and rifling through my possessions, looking for something to steal, which is what I figure is going on at every hotel I’ve ever stayed in, particularly since, as a teenager, I worked at resort hotels in Palm Springs.
All of them, at the time, pink and filled with Nagel prints.
My job was to hand out towels by the pool, sell suntan lotion, that sort of thing. I worked for a person who called himself Tan Man. He ran a cash operation, which is to say at the end of every week, he handed us cash, except for when he disappeared at the end of the season, owing all of us our final cuts. It was a minor indiscretion, really, since we’d spent the spring defrauding people at his behest, selling tourists what they thought were bottles of mink oil for 15 bucks a pop, but that were actually bottles of baby oil. When we weren’t doing that, we were stealing tourists’ Vuarnets, lifting Walkmen, that sort of thing. Petty, stupid shit. Except there was one kid who liked to break into rooms, steal purses and snatch car keys. Then he’d walk around the parking lot, trying to unlock cars.
The kind of thing I’m always looking to catch someone doing to me. That’s the problem with having led a somewhat interesting life. You know what’s possible, what’s easy. So even at the B&B, I’m wondering if there’s some con. Why does someone own a B&B in a small town in Utah? Who makes that choice? What are they running from? I mean, really, unless your last name is Hilton, who wants to wash someone else’s linens?
But then, from the room above us, a man begins to sing. At first, he’s a capella, and his voice lilts into our room in different places, and I realize he’s walking around his room, finding a sweet spot in this old building. And then his guitar comes in and fills our room with music. I don’t recognize the songs, but they sound like traditionals: at first haunting and sad, praising a God I don’t believe in, and then filled with overwhelming joy and pain. And then in come the blues and the country and the folk. I don’t know any of these songs. I feel like I’ve known them my entire life.
Wendy and I stand in our room, stare at the ceiling, and listen. Eventually, we walk upstairs, to the renovated attic of the schoolhouse, thinking maybe there’s an actual show going on and we’re being rude for not taking part in some essential part of this B&B’s experience, but no. Behind the door of the Chinle Room, we can hear the man singing, walking, singing, walking.
I wonder who this man is, what kind of life he’s led, what kind of woman he falls in love with, and it occurs to me that he’s in that room alone, and is there anything more upsetting than staying in a B&B by yourself? But then the man begins to sing a song I actually recognize — “I Walk The Line” by Johnny Cash — and I decide, no, no, this is a man in love with the acoustics of this old schoolhouse, that he comes here every year to hear these songs in perfect harmony, that this is his most joyful time, that if he could leave a footprint in the dirt, it would be the impression of the gentle stomping of his boot in time with the music.
The next morning, at breakfast, we meet everyone who is staying at the B&B. There’s a nice Indian couple from London and two other couples, already a little drunk, traveling together in a motorhome. Not a guitar between them. “Did you hear that wonderful singer last night?” I ask, and am met with blankness.
“We made music,” one of the drunk men says and everyone laughs. The walls are thin at the B&B. What they made wasn’t even a pop song.
He played horn in a cruise ship orchestra.
He fought in the war. Not that war. No, not that war. Not that war, either. It was a thing that happened in Borneo, for which the queen gave him a decoration.
He was a scratch golfer.
I live in a resort town.
My neighbors are snowbirds, swooping in from Canada and the Pacific Northwest and Minnesota. Or they drive in from L.A. for the day, the entire city their hotel, vacation always a kind of simulacra where you drink too much, wear clothes you’d never put on at home, are polite to service workers because, screw it, you’re on vacation. There’s a golf course in my backyard and, before dawn, gardeners appear to manicure the greens, so that when the snowbirds show up for their tee time, it’s immaculate, every blade of grass even.
The state is running out of water.
One day we get a letter telling us that someone snitched, told the water agency we ran our sprinklers at the wrong hour on the wrong day, once. There’s a vague threat.
A deadline for compliance.
Once, I tell you.
And yet, the golf course is emerald green. Middle of the night, I hear the sprinklers firing, and if there’s wind, I can stand on my patio and remember what rain felt like.
For a few weeks every year, where I live is home to Coachella and the city empties of snowbirds and fills with concert-goers. They change out the billboards on Interstate 10, replacing the smiling plastic surgeons who declare “Aging Is Optional!” with hipsters in motion, advertising … something. It’s hard to tell sometimes. The messaging gets lost on me now, aging not really optional, it turns out. But then the kids leave and the plastic surgeons get their signs back and the hotels hollow out for the summer and the streets are absent and maybe sometimes I’ll find myself driving through an old neighborhood where I used to live, where both sets of my grandparents lived, where my mother lived, where my father lived, none of us ever living all together, interestingly, and I’ll wonder why they all ran to this place, this paradise, each often dreading the idea that they ever might run into the other, wishing, surely, that the other one wasn’t here.
His favorite restaurant was that one that used to be a railroad dining car.
He sold pachinko machines, which are huge in Japan, and they’ll be huge here, too. Just you watch.
He has a vacation house in Pismo Beach but he can’t use it, but we could drive by it, but no, we can’t stop, we can’t ever go there, don’t mention it to him, pretend you don’t know.
The thing about living in a resort is that you run into yourself, too.
You’ve just moved back. It’s the middle of summer. Maybe it’s winter. It’s hard to keep such things straight.
You’re grabbing some lunch at that boutique hotel all the travel shows keeping talking about — it used to be a Howard Johnson’s, but then someone down-cycled it into a Royal Plaza Inn. It’s a trend. $400 a night for a time machine. Oh, it’s the spot. All kitsch and irony, ping-pong tables and lava lamps, Jim Croce on the jukebox singing about an operator, no one who has ever used an operator actually staying in the hotel, bingo hosted by a drag queen and played by talent agents in porkpie hats, yellow pants, blue Penguin shirts and white patent-leather shoes shined just so. What the hotel developers did was ingenious. They left everything the same. They just raised the prices and hired better-looking staff.
A 22-year-old probably named Dax, dressed like your grandfather in 1976, takes your order.
You know what it’s like:
The Monte Christo. The cheese is made right here. Our chef is a master cheesemaker.
And then he’s gone and you’re sitting there by yourself while your wife uses the restroom and you see a boy and girl, maybe 7 and 9, waiting with their mother. She’s got a cover-up on, shoulders exposed, sunburnt, straps from her bathing suit digging into her skin. The kids are drawing on their placemats with colored pencils. The woman is staring at the kids, chin on her knuckles. And then a guy slides in next to her, wearing a button-down dress shirt, except it’s completely unbuttoned, and shorts, sunglasses on, hair spiked up in front. You saw him through the window, standing outside on his phone, and you thought: This asshole. It’s a thought you have sometimes when people remind you of other people.
He’s a golf pro.
He’s a Toastmaster.
He’s a bank robber.
But here he is and he’s saying, Sorry, babe, sorry. But it’s cool. No one is mad. And the kids, they never even look up, they’re happy to be coloring, and the guy, he grabs one of the pencils and starts doodling, too. And then your wife comes back to the table, a sundress on, because it’s summer, it’s always summer now, and you ask her, Do you feel like you live here? And she says, We do live here.
Tod Goldberg is a New York Times-bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including the novels “The House of Secrets,” “Gangsterland” and “Living Dead Girl.” His essays, nonfiction and criticism have appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Best American Essays. He lives in Indio, CA, where he directs the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. His next book, “Gangster Nation,” will be released in fall 2017.
Feature photo: the author, with Pronto Pup
All photos courtesy of the author.