My stepfather Des got famous, eventually. Fame of a particular stripe—for writing a handful of the most soul-throttling country songs of the seventies and eighties, for a drinking habit so dedicated that it verged on religious solemnity, and for the time my mother left him handcuffed to a tree, alone, for twenty-six hours.
The story of that ordeal was what mattered most. I heard Des tell it over and over—the heat of the day collapsing his throat, the sun moving across the sky, then the moon, then the sun again. At last the bending of sky and trees, ushering the visitation of fearsome beasts, heavenly creatures come to chasten and guide him.
If my mother were within earshot at this point in the story, she’d shrug off all the majesty: “It was the DTs.”
People ate that shit up. The story grew so widespread that sometimes strangers in crowds at the bars he played shouted out requests for the story rather than a song. Des never did write a song about being chained to the tree, or maybe that piece of lore wormed its way into all the songs. There’s no question it crawled deep inside his own notion of the man he was. Everybody who knew him believed they knew how that tree had changed him—how it made him surrender to his true virtuosic gift, which was not music but lying. After he got loose from that tree, they loved to say he worked in lies like oil paints. He offered them to you like a healer restoring your sight. The more he lied, the more innocent he seemed to feel. Anything and everything occasioned a lie—how he got those bruises, where he’d been the past few days, what he ate for dinner, which famous people he’d stumbled into while crossing the desert on foot. He seemed to grow lies like crops. He nurtured and harvested them, so that he could share his bounty with you.
But before the tree, during those first few years, nearly everything he told me checked out. Most often the craziest stuff was the truest. When my mother first brought Des around, he looked to be full of it. During that time, she waited tables at this repulsive south Nashville dive and sang backup for lots of their regular acts. I loved watching her onstage. To me, she stole the whole room, even if she was just singing backup in her short skirts, halter tops, and shiny white boots that came up over her knees. I thought no one else in the world could have boots like those. Then, one of the rare nights I was allowed to come along, she was swaying and clapping behind a Stax-obsessed skinny white guy who came and went after a summer of moneymaking shows. I sat in my usual spot—a small table in the back, wedged between one end of the bar and the ladies room door. I could overhear two other cocktail waitresses gossiping behind the bar. They were laughing at her boots. Nobody wore Go-Go boots anymore, they said, not for years, and what the hell could Marla be thinking. It never occurred to me before that she might not be perfect, might not be everything at once—Wonder Woman, Florence Nightingale, Olivia Newton-John, and anyone else you might ever need.
She met Des while he was playing a string of gigs at that bar. Right off, she invited him over for dinner so he and I could meet. Everything about the apartment we were renting then looked drab and musty. Des lumbered in wearing electric blue—broad-shouldered but skinny, like he was forcing himself, through rough habits of living, into a different shape from the one he was meant to have. He slunk down on the opposite end of the couch from me and asked how old I was. When I said I was almost nine, he told me that when he was almost nine, he lived with Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, wore silver rings on every finger. He said he preached every night as the opening act for his daddy, who’d made a name for himself out west before they moved cross-country when Des was thirteen, chasing the fancier but tougher preaching circuit in Georgia.
“My daddy liked a challenge,” Des said, unfurling his lanky arm across the back of the couch. He was settling in to talk for a long time. “I liked one too, see? So when I hit fifteen, I took off for the ocean. South Carolina. But the swamps got me first. Big swamp forests around the Congaree, thick muck and loblollies. You know what I mean?”
I shook my head No.
“I found work off this old rich dude—a weird dude. He owned these miles of muck. He wanted wooden trails all through it. A boardwalk. Hardest work I ever did, or ever heard of, nearly. I was too young and stupid to know how dangerous that place was. Up to my chest in muck, driving support posts into God knows what down there. But it was beautiful sometimes, when light comes through those loblollies. Beautiful. And horrible. Sometimes you’d drudge up handfuls of muck with something else inside there, too, small and tough, maybe gristly. Like it was living, or trying to. I kept thinking these clumps, clods, whatever they were, grew arms down, down into the lowest muck, maybe into the heart that pumps through the whole swamp, making it live. Or could be, they grew into gnarly beasts and clawed their way up. You know, I saw a beast like that out there. Nothing never scared me more. A hog thing. A wild hog, but not. More. I don’t pretend to know, or understand, but that hog had horns. Not just those big tusk teeth—I mean antlers. A full rack spread wide, like a ten-point buck.”
He gestured with his hands spread outward from his forehead, then paused to search my face. “Sweetie, I know your momma told me, but what’s your name again?”
My real name is Vanessa, but soon enough Des started calling me Nessie, which stuck. The Salty Dog songwriters and sidemen always hanging around him seemed to think my nickname was funny. I didn’t know why until this one guy, a ripe-smelling picker fixated on the supply of good blondes in Montgomery, Alabama, let it slip. Nessie was already a well-known nickname—not short for Vanessa, but instead for the Loch Ness Monster. For a few days, I sulked around Des and avoided talking to him, until he finally wheedled the truth out of me. He grimaced and leaned down close to my face.
Des said, “You think it’s an insult? That beast is a legend. She’s world-famous, and nobody even knows if she’s alive or dead. Christ, it don’t even matter if she’s alive or dead, or ever was. What could be better than that?”
A year later, Des took us to New Mexico, the place he’d never recovered from loving as a boy. We could live on nothing for a couple of years, he said, and make money off tourists by dealing jewelry. Two painter friends of his had a couple rooms tacked to the side of their studios, where we lived for free. In the dirt yard outside the studios, my mother cooked our food in a beehive-shaped horno, but she never got the hang of it. Watching her fail was how Des and I became friends. From where we peeked at the windows, we’d get tickled while she shoved coals into the back of the adobe oven before putting supper in to cook, muttering curses at that godforsaken hole every time she caught an ember or two on her forearms. Our rooms were heated by a woodstove, which we never lit once. At night, I piled on sweaters and fell asleep to the sounds of Des and my mother through the wall, singing to each other and laughing.
I didn’t go to school in New Mexico. My mother taught me stuff, but Des was the one always sticking books in my hands. “This’ll get you two hundred pages ahead of the unwashed masses. Enjoy.”
Sometimes Des grew impatient with all the things I didn’t know, or else didn’t know how to figure out. Other times, he listened to me intently, convinced that children had everything to teach him. He quoted poets at me, saying kids came trailing clouds of glory. But I could see I had become different from other kids my age. Somewhere I had veered off the path they were on. I didn’t play what they played. I was worlds ahead in reading and history. I knew how to haggle—both sides of the haggle—but I had never heard the term Long Division. The science I knew was the science of myths and monsters, and it was measured in the beats and bars of song.
Afternoons, I would walk along the border of the Pueblo reservation. Sometimes I’d stray off the main road and down rough gravel paths through wide flat stretches of sage-covered land below the mountains. The same three Pueblo boys rode past me on their bikes most days. One of them had a smooth, open face, and he always smiled at me if his friends weren’t looking. One day, as they were riding past me, the wind picked up sharply. The wide black sunhat I wore blew off my head, skidding across the white sage and bee balm. That boy curved away from his friends and rode his bike straight into the desert, chasing after my hat. The hat kept skipping out of his hands just as he reached for it. His friends, who’d stopped up the road a ways, almost fell off their bikes from laughing at him. I wrote my first song about that boy, a terrible song, and I’ve never stopped trying to get it right.
Des always counseled me that if I wanted to write songs, I had to believe that every single thing I imagined I could make happen, for real. If I only answered him back with a glazed-over kid stare, smacking my gum, he might jump to his feet and assume the big bucks pose from his boy preacher days. I could almost see it then, how he must have looked on those revival stages—back arched, head thrown back, ropy neck strained and face skyward, all his ringed fingers wrapped tightly around the mic: “Belieeeeve! Won’t you, pleeeease?” It never failed to crack me up, and if his buddies were around, they’d start yelling out Holiness whoops.
But while they were hooting and laughing, Des might lean down and say to me, almost in a whisper, “See? Even they don’t get it. The one thing you got to believe is the one thing they won’t tell you. Every thing up there”—and he’d tap his finger against my forehead—“every beautiful dream, every monster—all real.”
Not long before our life out west began to fray, Des told me about the Penitentes way out in the deserts—the gruesome lengths to which they’d go during Passion Week. Mostly, those customs had died out long before his time. But Des swore that he saw them once when he was around my age, then eleven or twelve, way out in the arroyo, in the dry yellow dirt, where the sky stayed busy with clouds, thanks to the mountains’ pull. An early thaw had come to the mountains that year. He was thrilled to walk straight into the wilds again, even if the day was blustery and the sun, though hard and bright, couldn’t spare the desert blasts of cold wind. He said that he just happened upon the Penitentes—three men on crosses, half a dozen people knelt below them murmuring prayers into the dust. Two of the men were tied to the crosses with rope, but one man’s hands and feet were driven with nails.
“I thought it was fake until I got closer. But I got scared. A couple men by the crosses saw me. They sized me up like I was a threat, or I thought they did. So I ran. But what did I know, stupid Anglo kid pissing his pants?”
“But I don’t get it,” I said. “Why would they do that to themselves?”
“Belief is a burden, Nessie. You suffer.” He narrowed his brow, gauging my comprehension of his meaning. “That don’t make the burden bad or wrong. Just true. I reckon those men wanted to find out about themselves. Sort out true and false in their belief.”
A belief of some kind did seem to be calling Des out—sacred or profane, I don’t know. He started fucking things up—small fissures and lapses at first, but then a wider rift began to open inside him. He stopped writing. We were selling jewelry itinerantly in town squares, festivals, and beside the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, where I once fainted from the heat. Des’s trouble started as a dispute with an elderly woman from Taos, another jewelry dealer. They squabbled over a necklace—heavy red coral strands—for which he supposedly paid $400. Nobody believed him, though he claimed he had documentation. He wouldn’t let it go. I could see it embarrassed my mother to hear him rave on and on to the kind ladies who ran jewelry counters all over Taos. They listened to him politely but wouldn’t give him any ground. My mother smoothed things over. Next time around, they wouldn’t do any more business with him. The law got involved. Then came the tense night when Des’s painter friends asked us to move out. They didn’t want to do it and even tried to keep the peace by offering him some good peyote. Des told them they could shove their sell-out visions up their sell-out asses.
Failure quenched something deep inside Des the way success never could. When things were unraveling, his eyes would sparkle again, now that he could start shedding the complications he saw in paid bills, good nights’ sleep, and normal life. While we headed east, I could almost feel the new songs arriving through his fingers as they worried the steering wheel.
Our car broke down when we stopped for lunch by the banks of Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma. The summer was harsh by then, dry and unyielding. The trees were green, but weak looking, and all the grass and undergrowth was wilted and brown.
The lake water was bright red, blood red. I’d never seen a lake look that way. I sat by the bank on a ledge of rock and dipped my feet into the water. Close up, it reminded me of tomato soup. I missed the days before Des, when life was just my mother and I. Late Saturday nights when she got home from the bar, if she’d had a good night of tips, sometimes she woke me up. She’d always say she shouldn’t have, that she should have let me sleep, but I was thrilled. She’d open a can of tomato soup and make grilled cheese. We’d sit close together at the kitchen table, two spoons in the same soup bowl. She’d tell me everything about the acts that had played the bar that night: what they sang and how they looked, and what the bar patrons did in response—whether they nodded their heads in time, got up and danced, or maybe sat quiet and still, glancing away from one another. I looked up from the red lake and tried to bring to mind that vibrant woman, but she was nowhere I could see.
My mother trailed behind Des as he paced the banks. She was squinting into the sun, trying to calm Des by telling him that Eufaula had only turned red from the river silt flowing into it, but that explanation could not console him. All Des could see was a lake of fire. While we waited for the tow truck, he paced back and forth, rubbing his hands against his sides. My mother followed him across the bank. Each time she passed by me, sunlight flashed along new glimpses of her scalp, where her hair had begun to thin.
She was getting older, faster. Loving Des had come with a price—she was paying with her own good years. A new thought broke through me then, that if her years were growing shorter, then so were mine. The time I had left to love her was drying up. I shoved my feet deeper into the murk.
When we landed back in Tennessee, an hour south of Nashville, I was almost thirteen. We were squatting in a shack on a spread of semi-cleared land owned by one of Des’s friends. Bare acres lay closest to the road, where land was tilled for crops but never planted. Down the dirt drive, you passed another acre or two of thinned out trees and brush littered with abandoned, rusting equipment. Beyond that was the end of the drive, a wide dirt circle where our house stood, surrounded by thick groves of trees.
I went back to school. Every time the bus dropped me off, I walked down the drive, past the empty fields and patches of thin oaks, rusted shovels and buckets. This place looked like civilization had given up halfway through taming the wild. Society had been hard to make, it turned out. I walked past that failed attempt, headed for the darker, rougher place back yonder, knowing that was exactly where we belonged now.
Just before my birthday, Des’s friends welcomed us back with a bonfire in one of the cleared fields. That night was way too hot for a bonfire, but we all sat close to it anyway, guitars strumming, men and women laughing and coughing, and later, a few bottles tossed into the flames. I did what I liked best during nights like those—making myself small in the grass, listening to them, and watching. I knew how good I was at making them forget I was there. They said funny and scary things, always, and I wanted to know everything they knew. That night, I soaked up more stories of failed record deals, wrecked boats, and cocktease waitresses. I listened while lying on my back and staring into the stars. Just as I was so warm and tired that I began to drift off, Des leaned into my line of sight, his grinning face lit by the fire. He plopped onto the grass beside me, his elbows set on his bent knees.
He popped a Budweiser and asked, “What do you want for your birthday?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thirteen. That’s a holy age. At least it is to some.” I didn’t say anything. He sipped the foam off the top of his can. “Let’s see. You aren’t Jewish. You aren’t a boy. So we can’t bar Mitzvah you. Guess you’d better take this then.”
He offered me his Budweiser. I sat up and took it from him, shocked by how cold the can was in the heat. Before standing up, he locked eyes with me. “Your mom sees this, that’s your problem. Got me?”
In years to come, the story of my mother chaining Des to the tree would be split in two. The first version, the brash and funny one, he’d perform for other songwriters, onstage to crowds, and to tweak my mother in front of their friends. The second version would only come late at night, over drinks, or when he’d been deep into new songs, hours bent over his guitar and notepad or tape recorder. This would be the version he told his sister Nance, the only family he had left. Every time they saw each other until her death, he’d end up telling her, visiting his memory of the tree in a soft, wondering voice, as if it were the memory of a hometown he’d left for war. This would become the story that held him together.
“Big sister,” I’d overhear him one night when I was a teenager. “I saw things you would not believe. A being of fire came to me, demanded death for life. That’s how she put it. You don’t ignore sacred shit when it comes calling. You think one day she’ll come to collect?”
Nance was no mystic—she was a bookkeeper in Atlanta. She would scold him to quit his worn-out lies and get clean.
But you know how it is, to do that impossible thing he was trying to do, the same thing I’m trying to do now. We can’t just shove our pasts into the front end of a story and expect them to come out golden and crisp. Events seldom rise the way we predict they will. But we go on shoving them into that coal-fired hole. Of course we do. Hunger always comes around again, and no matter how badly we botch the recipe, or how many embers we catch on our arms, we usually do end up eating whatever it is we’ve cooked.
For three days straight, after the bonfire night, Des talked about nothing but drying out. By the day it happened, he had gone out and borrowed handcuffs from some picker friend of his whose barn was lined with stashes of ammunition and pilfered military gear. Des kept saying he was going to have to chain himself up to get through the DTs. Two whole days, he sat on their bed, one hand on the curved iron bedframe and the other holding a quart of Wild Turkey. He told anyone who came over the story of the Penitentes on their desert crosses. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he started begging her: “Marla, please. Marla, come on. Come on, please.” By the next morning, while my mother tried to shove me out the door to catch the school bus, all his other words were gone. He was simply repeating her name, over and over, as a chant.
I wasn’t there, but I know now the way it went down, or at least this version I believe because my mother and Des both always told it the same way. He’d been pleading with her all morning, but when she said she might need to sleep some in her own bed too, he started talking about the tree. Outside, at the far end of the dirt circle, there was an ancient oak with low branches arcing wide in every direction. Across its broad trunk crisscrossing scars in the bark marked the times Des slammed into the tree with his truck, too drunk to park right.
Around noon, she got fed up hearing him beg. She grabbed him by the hair and tugged him outside and across the drive. With all her strength, she shoved him against the trunk of the tree and grabbed the cuffs from him. She clamped one of his wrists into the cuffs. She flung one arm up to a sturdy enough branch that started at the height of his shoulder. With the cuffs’ chain over the branch, and his other wrist locked up, she backed away from him and stood with her hands on her hips, in the center of the drive, noon sun throwing shadows of leaves across her arms and legs.
She told him, “You want to suffer so much? Go right ahead.” She ran inside to grab her purse and then practically threw herself into the cab of the truck. She hit one pulse of gas, stopping inches away from Des where he was chained against all the scars he’d made in the tree himself. She stopped short and stayed there, refusing to hit reverse until he would look up at her, look her square in the eye. Then she peeled out, raising a cloud of dust behind her. They both swore that he never said a word, never tried to back out.
Years later, my mother would shake her head and say, “I never seen him look so little and helpless.” Then she’d laugh in long, raspy pulls. “I got him bad that time.”
That night I was supposed to sleep at my classmate Sarah’s house. My mother had arranged it on the phone the night before. But when Sarah’s mom drove up in her station wagon outside the school to pick us up, I knew what to do. I gave them both some excuse for my not coming. I made sure to be as polite as possible. I said Ma’am twice. Once the station wagon was out of sight, I un-velcroed my wallet and counted my loose change. I had enough for the public bus, but I’d still have to walk a couple of miles back home. I decided this was worth it. Something was going to happen, something they thought I couldn’t handle. If I could be there, and if I could take it, that would show them they were wrong. I’ll admit now that I also thought Des might die, and I didn’t want to miss that.
When I reached our place, I walked slowly through the cleared fields. I tried to imagine the wet September heat thinning, drying, into the cleaner warmth of desert sun. I tried to make the Pueblo boys ride their bikes out of the pines. But I couldn’t do what Des had always preached. I couldn’t turn this world into something it wasn’t. I ducked into the grove of trees around the house. No one knew I was back, and I was prepared to do my spying right. But I wasn’t prepared to find Des chained to a tree, the truck gone. I dropped behind a felled trunk and took a good look at him.
His body was beginning its revolt. He was sweating profusely. His breath came in heavy drops of his chest. The sun was starting to go down. I wondered whether he was worried about being alone in the dark. I kept expecting my mother to come barreling down the drive any second, but she never did. The night sky came on, a full, rich blue-black, masses of stars surrounding a slivered moon. That sight was beautiful, but even now, I can’t look at a night of bright stars without hearing the sounds that began to come from Des. Delirium was taking him over now, and he was scared by his confusion. I don’t know if he knew where he was. At some point in the night, I couldn’t stand it. I decided I didn’t care if I got caught. I went inside and tried to lie down on my bed. All I could see were the stars, and all I could hear was fear coming from someone I loved. I got up and paced the house, sneaking looks out the window. Finally I forced myself back outside, sitting on the ground with my back propped against a tree, where I stayed until dawn.
I watched him shake. I watched him retch and piss himself. His hands trembled. His clothes were drenched. You might think he would sing to get through it all. He never did, not that I heard. But he did talk. He cursed for a long while, until that lost its usefulness. Then the prayers started up. At least they seemed like prayers—but not to the God of his preaching youth. He was addressing the stuff of his dreams and nightmares.
At first his voice was low and regretful, like the way he sounded when telling my mother he was sorry he’d ruined something she liked. Then, when the volume of his voice started to rise, he spoke of different things—of how hard he had tried, of all that he had done right, of how it must have added up to something. The regret fell away from him then, replaced by certainty, making his voice grow fuller and sharper. By the time the sun had begun to rise—pale pink light spilling over the tops of the trees—he was shouting at a sky full of things I couldn’t see. Shouting exultant praise for beasts with the heads of lions and bodies of crows, for choruses of devils, for the honeyed pussies of angels. At full dawn, under the white morning sun, he finally went hoarse, as he praised endless showers of black stars rushing overhead, trailing across the sky like slicks of oil, like streaks of mascara down my mother’s cheeks.
That was when I saw how hard it had become for him to swallow. His knees were buckling. I couldn’t take it anymore. I slipped into the kitchen and grabbed one of the gallon jugs of water my mother filled night and day from the outdoor tap. I took a couple of deep breaths and walked out into the open for the first time. He looked straight at me, but with no recognition. His eyes were bloodshot, so hollowed and scared that I almost lost my nerve. He wiped his face on his sleeve.
I asked him, “Do you know who I am?”
He shook his head, terrified, and I knew there were no lies between us.
He asked in broken whispers, “Is this the Tree of Life?”
“No,” I said. “It’s a tree they never told you about. It isn’t found in any book.”
His eyes screwed tight and his face twisted with grief. He gestured with his head toward the jug I held. “Can I?”
“You stole something from me.” I saw the future stretched out, saw her older and smaller, farther and farther away from me. “Years.”
“What do you want?”
“Death, that’s what.” I held the jug up in front of him. “Death for life.”
He blinked the sweat from his eyes. “Who the fuck?”
“My name is Eufaula. You made me. You wore her out, so I rose up from the fiery lake. You made me come here.”
I never had more nerve than that, not once in my life. My hands never shook—not while I lifted the jug up to let him sip from it, not while I walked away as he bellowed promises for the future, and not while I slipped on my backpack, planted myself out into the trees, and waited. Somehow I knew that my mother would come back soon. When she did, she didn’t say a word to him. She simply unlocked the cuffs and stood back. I wasn’t scared when Des fell to his knees, or when he managed to scramble up again immediately, dive into the truck cab, and squeal off for the liquor store at the state road. When my mother disappeared into the house, I counted off three full minutes. Then I sneaked through the trees, just far enough up the drive, and walked home. I had never lied to her before. She never doubted where I’d been. Instead, she offered me lunch. At the kitchen table, I ate my grilled cheese alone, flushed with a dark new thrill.
Everyone in my parents’ world seemed certain Des would die, that an early wasteful death was the only ending his kind of story would accept. But my mother was the one to go. Something botched past hope, after surgery for cancer. I was away. I spent that summer in L.A., 22 years old, toting around a backpack stuffed with demo tapes nobody liked, including me. I am not a great songwriter or singer. I am an exceptional bartender.
From time to time, Des falls into some deep gulley of his own making. I help him out. The royalty checks are never right, but we can cover most of what he needs. This week, that means eyeglasses, a purchase he has been avoiding for decades. We stand in the empty store while the clerk is in the backroom, retrieving the frames we’d ordered.
I like eyeglass shops, all these displays arranged under warm light. With its plush carpets, curved walls, and endless rows of shelves, this shop is all soft white and glass. When the clerk emerges from the back, I notice how prim she looks in her poufy mauve suit. She’s dressed to complement the room. From where Des and I stand on the far side of the store, I steal a glimpse of us in a mirror. We make a conspicuous pair. Des looks sprung from the clutches of a wasteland, so haggard that he appears singed with ashes. I’m dressed for my Friday night shift—black, some beaten leather, and the red coral bracelets I always wear.
Des sits down at a table lit by a vanity mirror, and the clerk fits his new glasses snug against his face. The frames are huge ovals, the lenses absurdly thick. The glasses look hideous, and I worry he’ll never consent to wear them.
Des turns my direction. His eyes are magnified in the lenses, making him fish-eyed, and my own smile stares back, warped and doubled. Des takes in, for the first time, how I look now. I’ve never seen him look so innocent. I would keep him that way if I could, blinking fresh amazement at the sharpness of the world.
He smacks his hands together and rushes toward the front of the shop. He thumps his fingers against the window and watches the cars passing back and forth outside on the road.
He says, “We keep forgetting it’s real.”
The clerk shoots me a smile soaked with maternal toleration. Times like these, I remember my true age. Fact is, by now I could be the one with the motherly look. But I’m not.
I try to return the woman’s smile. From the window, Des mumbles something about the kaleidoscope goggle business he ran with Dennis Hopper during a brief shining springtime of beforehand. The clerk jumps up and asks “Really?” in a way that means I now have some time to kill.
I step away from them. I need to still a familiar urge—the one that reminds me how much Des needs his story of atonement, and how easily I can snatch it from him. How effortless it would be on a day like this one, with him tottering around a room of glass. But the story is a thing we both hold, a thing to show us who we are. So for now I stand back, and browse the available frames.