Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (13 page)

BOOK: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild
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I yelled into the phone, “Riana—it’s Dad!” I handed the phone to him.

“This is like an acid trip,” Dad said into the phone. “I have just had the most unbelievable seven days,” he told her, while looking me. His eyes were clear and bright. “I’ve seen everyone and every place that I loved. And now this—little
Novella here at the ranch, talking to you on the phone!” He seemed winded, like it was taking a lot out of him.

He handed me the phone. “I’ll talk to you later, OK, Riana?” I said.

Dad got out of his truck and we hugged. We walked over to where I had parked my car.

“You could write this as a film and people wouldn’t believe it,” Dad yelled. His voice echoed through the valley. He was right. The whole shit storm had come full circle to end right here at the ranch where it began.

He had already cried today, he told me, because he had been listening to a show on NPR in the truck about post-traumatic stress disorder. He thought he had it, from Korea. The war was officially over when he was there, but he still had been deployed as a gunner, dropped behind enemy lines, where he marched for miles and miles, sleeping in the snow. “It was brutal,” he whistled. “So cold, so unbearable. They say not everyone gets it,” he said. “But the ones most likely to come from families with no support structure. Like me.” I remembered his mom—ghostlike, barely alive, in her hospital bed. PTSD causes recurrent dreams of violence, social withdrawal. It makes having intimate relationships difficult.

I nodded.

He said it can spring up later, many years after the event that caused it. “We push it back, we don’t think about it. And then one day, it all comes blowing out. That’s what happened to me. I remember, I was clearing some land on the ranch—you were just a baby—and I was standing on a hill, and maybe a plane went by, and I just lost it. I went back into my mode. That was the first time.” He began to weep, and I hugged him.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” I said, like I was comforting a child.

He pulled away and stood on an old stump. I sat on the hood of the car. I suddenly felt exhausted. Thirty-seven years later, we had collided here.

He seemed so happy to see me. I wondered why he wasn’t pissed about my trespassing. “I’m sorry that I went into your house,” I said.

“You mean the one that burned down?” he looked confused. Then I realized he hadn’t been home yet, he was literally just arriving back to Idaho.

“No, the one where you live,” I confessed.

“What are you looking for?” he asked me. His brown eyes searched mine. It was the first time he had ever asked me a question about myself.

“I want to heal myself,” I told him. “And,” I said, sobbing, “I want someone to blame.”

“I’m empty, babes,” he said, and spread his hands out, then leaned against a tree. “I’m empty.” And he wept.

“I have been so angry and unreasonable,” he said. “I’ve been a terror and a madman. But I’m not doing any harm now.” He hocked a loogie.

“In 2001, I was going to blow my brains out,” he said. “So I checked into the loony bin. Those twenty-three days in Seattle, talking it out with other soldiers, helped me.”

Then the moment was over. I walked him back to his truck, hugged him, forgiving him as I did so. He pulled away, headed back to his cabin. I sat in the glade for a while, just breathing and thinking about what happened. Little Novella. My dad still thought of me as a small child. A mythological white-haired little girl there in that glade.

The next day I would see Dad one more time. He didn’t
mention our intense reunion. It seemed like he didn’t remember it at all. He also didn’t mention the mangled door to his cabin. Instead he told me a story about a guy he knew in Arizona. The man was eighty years old and he could still play tennis every day. I nodded, agreed that keeping fit was important.

A pause in the conversation came, and I cast around for how to tell him about my plan to get pregnant. I just didn’t know what to say.

“There’s an old guy in Arizona,” Dad started again. “He’s eighty, and he plays tennis every day.” I looked at him, searching his brown eyes. Did he know he was repeating himself? His eyes were bright with excitement, fresh with the tidbit he had just delivered. He wasn’t remembering things. It didn’t even matter if I told him. He was hollowed out.

•   •   •

That night I drove to Lewiston and returned Tom’s car. He took me to the airport. He stayed with me until my flight left. I told him about my encounter with Dad, and his fading mental state.

Tom’s eyes widened when I told him about breaking into Dad’s cabin. He probably thought that I was being a crazy bitch. And to some extent, I was. I had felt so wounded for all these years. To finally lash out, to attack, was crazy, but it felt right, it felt authentic.

As we talked, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had done the work I had needed to do. The past I had explored and dredged up was over. Sifting through it, element by element, helped me finally let it settle.

There was also something unexpected: seeing my dad and
breaking into his cabin had made me feel powerful. I didn’t share that sensation of power with Tom. He, like my dad, and like Lowell, Phil, Mom, and all the characters in my past, were growing weaker; they were diminishing and shrinking. I was the strong one left standing; I had the future to look forward to. This new knowledge made me giddy—I was the next generation—but it also made me feel a little scared too, with the responsibility it
carries.

My mom’s grandkid, a young goat at Ghost Town Farm, 2010.

Eleven

W
hen I returned to Oakland, I told the story of my reunion with Dad to everyone: to my sister, my mother, to Bill, to friends, trying to make sense of it. Riana thought it was somehow destiny, part of the prearranged path of our relationship. My mom declared that he was faking it, that he never showed any symptoms of PTSD when they were together, and he was just trying to blame the war for his own character faults. I looked up the medications he was taking. One for high blood pressure, one for the heart, and an antipsychotic. I’ll never know if his problems stemmed from abandonment, military service, or an aberrant gene. Whatever it was that was haunting him, I had moved on.

Having a baby suddenly gave me clarity of purpose. It was Bill and my chance to create something new and fresh out of so much damage. Maybe it was reckless—knowing what I knew about my genetic makeup—but I had come to the
understanding that I am a reckless person. Baby-making ensued with a reborn sense of urgency.

“What’s that big thing in Mexico?” Bill asked one morning, after a torrid night of baby-making, apropos of nothing.

“A sombrero?” I guessed.

“No,” Bill said, offering no more hints.

“A papaya?”

“Yeah! Let’s eat one of those tomorrow.” Then he wandered off, back to the bathtub, his favorite place of refuge before a long afternoon and evening wrenching cars. He hates mornings and often sleeps in a hot bath before heading to work around one. Then he takes another hot bath after work.

I padded into the kitchen, made some herbal tea, and sat down to my computer. I wondered if my ambivalence was preventing me from getting pregnant. Why was I still not knocked up? It was December 2010; we had been trying for over a year. I had started to question Bill’s fertility. “Have you
ever
gotten anyone pregnant,” I accused him one night over dinner. Bill had shrugged. “Not that I know of.” He wasn’t sweating it. He was enjoying his duties as procreator.

So it was finally down to this: I went to a baby website and clicked on the Tips for Getting Pregnant tab. Glancing through advice to avoid coffee and cigarettes, I thought,
didn’t everyone know this already?
Then I read the Get Him Ready, Too section, which I hadn’t researched yet. It said, “Men should make sure that their testes are not too hot as this can kill sperm. They should avoid hot baths, tight-fitting underwear and jeans, and using a portable computer balanced on the lap as all these things raise scrotal temperature.”

My glasses fogged up when I burst into the bathroom. Bill was dozing peacefully, his head buoyed by a blow-up neck
pillow. I perched my glasses on my head and surveyed naked Billy. He was almost completely submerged, the water licked the top of the tub, a few rivulets escaped when he sleepily shifted to fold his hands across his belly.

I cleared the books and newspapers off the toilet and sat down. Billy started to snore. The family jewels were floating in the hot bathwater, looking like fish balls in my favorite Cambodian soup. I stuck a finger in the water. Almost scalding. I let out a sigh. Survival of the fittest, I mumbled.

•   •   •

After troubleshooting the hot bath problem, I approached getting pregnant like my father had approached a log-clearing job, with a burning intensity. I scoured as many baby-making websites for secret tips to boost fertility as I could. I drastically changed my diet—I began sipping nettle tea, eating whole grains, no Chinese takeout—to nurture my womb. I jumped on Bill like a crazy monkey when I knew I was ovulating. I also turned to needles. Acupuncture needles.

There’s a Chinese Medicine place near my office in downtown Oakland, and a friend suggested that I go there. When I walked in, the clinic smelled of moxibustion smoke and herbs. At a little desk on the third floor, the receptionist smiled up at me.

I looked around, suddenly feeling skittish. “I want to get acupuncture to get pregnant,” I blurted. I hate going to the doctor—the vulnerability of being sick or broken often overwhelms me, and even during a routine exam, I tend to cry.

She nodded and handed me some forms to fill out. I was relieved that they weren’t standard hospital questions about my medical history; the Chinese doctors simply wanted to
know if my hands were cold, how many times a day I urinated, and how many hours of sleep did I get at night.

Then I was shown into a room painted light green with white trim. There was an examination bed, covered with paper, in the middle of the room. A student doctor went over my records. Then a tiny woman named Dr. Ye came into the room, wearing a pink scarf. She sat down across from me and had me stick out my tongue. She had gentle brown eyes, but she furrowed her eyebrows when she felt my pulse and examined my hands. The two of them looked at me for a while. I smiled and felt like an animal at the zoo, but I also had a tremendous feeling of well-being. They began a negotiation about whether I had a wooden spleen or a blocked liver. They looked at me again and asked me to stick out my tongue again. I felt myself giggling, glad to be part of this mystery to be solved. Why couldn’t I get pregnant?

In the end, we settled on Ren 6, 4, 2; some chi-building and smoothing out of my liver. Whatever that meant. I closed my eyes when they got out the needles and didn’t open them again until they had adjusted the heat lamps over me and shut the door. I could hear the rain on the window in the little room. “Twenty minutes,” Dr. Ye said.

I could feel the needles only in this weird pulling of energy. Strings of energy. It felt great just to rest, sprawled out on the table, breathing. As I meditated, I could feel the old pain from my foot, from my bike accident. I had never gone to the doctor after my accident—no money or insurance—but I’m sure I had broken my foot. Now I was finally letting that go. The mistakes that couldn’t be righted, the regret for what was but will never be again. Inevitably things go astray, roads are taken that lead nowhere. But now I was on a new
path. I had never done anything like this—nurturing myself—before. It felt wildly luxurious, and it felt right.

•   •   •

While I turned to needles, Bill told me he would be driving to Arizona.

“What for?” I asked.

“To return the skull.”

“What skull?”

“The one we took from the Indian land.” He pointed at a cow skull that I had hung on our living room wall. I had never properly cleaned it, so it was always dropping a film of dust and it smelled weird. But it did look cool, like some Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

“Huh?” I said. “We found that on the ground.” It was a find from the road trip we took after leaving Seattle for good.

“Native ground,” he said. He was worried the theft had jinxed us. That it hadn’t been a scrotal temperature problem this whole time, but one of bad juju. He went on to say he had been reading a book,
Coyote Medicine: Lessons from Native American Healing
, that suggested that unknown psychic spirits can affect your life.

I raised an eyebrow. Bill’s usually so pragmatic; this sounded like a bunch of woo-woo BS. “Billy,” I said. “You sound like my dad. Crazy.”

He shrugged. But then again, I was having needles inserted into my body in a bid to get stronger baby-making chi. So who’s more crazy?

A week later he and his friend Julie drove to Arizona and deposited the skull to its rightful place on the reservation. They also did mushrooms at Big Sur.

During his absence, I had cooked up my bag of Chinese fertility-enhancing herbs. Roots and berries that I slow cooked in water for twelve hours in a ceramic crock, which gave off an acrid stench and turned the water black. Once it cooled, I took a dose: it tasted like burned coffee with sour berry; the aftertaste was pure dirt.

Bill got back, mission accomplished. He said, in his mushroom haze that left him giggly and with a perma-smile, that the trees were the answer. They knew so much. I just nodded my head. I looked at the empty wall where the skull had hung, and I swear, I felt a renewed sense of hope and energy. I sipped some more of my herb brew. There had been a time in our lives when Bill and I had actively made fun of crystal-charging nut balls. But now, here we were: nut balls.

•   •   •

In March I still wasn’t pregnant. My goat Bebe had kidded in October and was in heat again. That’s how long it was taking me to get pregnant. I was getting lapped by a goat.

One day she escaped. I heard her calls near the front of the house and went running downstairs to find her in the street. I called her name, I pleaded, but I couldn’t catch her. Then she headed toward Martin Luther King Jr. Way. She seemed to have a plan, her eyes were so focused, and she was letting out small cries while her hooved feet clattered on the pavement. When she reached the busy intersection, without looking, she began to cross the street, just as a bright orange lowrider displaying twenty-two-inch wheels passed by. Their encounter played out in slow-mo for me: my goat’s spotted body out in the middle of the street; the driver, with his windows down, stereo up. He didn’t have time to even look surprised, he just used one cool hand to glide the car out of the goat’s path.

Safely across the street, Bebe looked kind of bored, like a teenager at an all-ages show. Suddenly, a punk girl dressed in black emerged out of nowhere and collared Bebe. The girl waited for me to run up, breathless, to reclaim my errant, horny goat. I noticed the girl was wearing a tattered sweatshirt with a patch that read “Courage” in death metal script.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you, thank you! She’s in heat,” I explained. The girl scowled. Damn breeders.

To remedy the escaping horny goat problem, I brought home a stud goat named Mr. Lincoln from a farm up in Vacaville. He sat up front with me in my truck on the way to my house.

Mr. Lincoln enjoyed our farm. Plenty of good alfalfa, clean water, slightly cooler temperatures than Vacaville, which got infernally hot, even in March. As for the girls, they were avoiding him. Even though Bebe had been horny enough to escape, she suddenly didn’t seem interested. She and her daughter climbed up onto the back stairs while Lincoln waited at the bottom, lips curled out, trying to catch a whiff of them. He couldn’t climb very far up the stairs before he got scared and let out little cries until I came out of the house and rescued him. Mostly he seemed interested in eating.

Lincoln slept outside, under the stars, alone in a nest of discarded hay and sawdust because the does wouldn’t even let him bed down with them.
He better get busy
, I thought when I surveyed the dwindling hay barn (a “shed” made by setting up two pallets on end and placing a heavy piece of wood on top of them).

One day I rounded the corner to the backyard and saw only Mr. Lincoln’s back legs, moving forward and backward, forward and backward. Was he having sex? Finally! But as I got closer, I saw that no, he had just found the perfect spot to
rub his neck—on my bike pedal. He looked like he was in a trance, just rubbing and rubbing; he didn’t even look up at me when I stood over him. Meanwhile, the does sat up on the back porch, watching in disgust.

Bill took to making fun of Mr. L. He started talking in a quivering old man’s voice, pretending to be the goat: “Let’s see here, first I gotta get something to eat, and then I might just take a nap . . .” And though I laughed at Bill’s Mr. Lincoln impersonation, I will admit that I had started to look at Bill in the same light.

At my regular acupuncture appointment, I told the people needling me—two young Chinese guys—that I was feeling really stressed out. They grew silent. Then finally one of them said, in halting English: “Does your boyfriend beat you?” I don’t know if it was the way he said it, or me imagining the preposterous image of Bill hitting me, but I started laughing really hard. “No,” I said, tears rolling down my face, “he doesn’t beat me.” He maybe couldn’t get me pregnant, and I was slowly starting to accept that as a possibility. I started coming up with Plans B and C—perhaps we would go on a year-long bicycling trip; maybe we would move to Mexico. I came to see my future as plastic, flexible.

•   •   •

After a few weeks of hosting Mr. Lincoln with no action, I came upon a disturbing scene in the backyard. I smelled it first. Then I heard the yelling.

The does were making a high-pitched cry I had never heard before. Mr. Lincoln’s penis was out—pink and long, and it was somehow spraying urine out in a fine mist, not a steady stream, but in a fan-shape, like the mister setting on a garden hose.

Then he was up, riding the doe though she was much taller than him. His lips were curled up in a grimace. Both of them were making a strange calling noise—it stuttered and crested and sounded strangely like hearing someone talking excitedly behind a heavy door. Mr. Lincoln’s tongue was similar to Kiss guitarist Gene Simmons’s, and he was utilizing it in a similar, showman kind of way. This went on for two days in my backyard. Friends would come over for a visit, peek in at the goats, would say, “whoa,” and slowly back away. A real goat fuck.

How did I know the deed was done? The girls seemed really satisfied. Geriatric Mr. L got invited to sleep with them at night. And then I took him back to Vacaville. He sat up front with me like a pet dog in my farm truck—a rusty 1981 Datsun. I ate an orange and threw the peel on the floor of the truck. This truck, and its disarray of garbage and farm implements, mirrored my dad’s messy Ford.

Instead of trying to purge this behavior, I’d kind of embraced it. It dawned on me that yes, I’m the kind of person who throws the orange peels on the floor and plans to pick them up but never does, who drives thrashed cars with dome lights that don’t work, and will never work. I tend to be graceless, free-falling through life without saying excuse me.

While I was thinking this deep thought, I suddenly smelled goat poo. Mr. L had laid some hot goat berries directly where I buckled my seat belt. At Vacaville, Mr. L’s home farm, Lincoln clattered out of the truck, and I flicked the goat turds out of the seat without much concern.

•   •   •

Just as the goats got knocked up, I finally did too.

I knew I was pregnant when, one day, the goat milk tasted
funny. It had a barnyard flavor to it, like it had gone bad. But the milk was fresh and new. Just yesterday it had tasted fabulously creamy. I put the glass down. Later in the day, my stomach felt strange, like it was stretching and churning. I went to Rite Aid to buy a pregnancy test.

BOOK: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild
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