you and i
TO MEET my father, you’d have to go for a bit of a drive.
The town I live in is not exactly the epicenter of the known universe. I can’t even say it’s on the outskirts. You know that type of place that you drive through on a road trip to more exciting places, the kind that you have to scour the map for just to find out where you’re at? You pass a worn sign on a highway (that you don’t know how you ended up on and you can’t seem to find a way off)—Roseland, Oregon Pop. 876. Established 1851. Elevation 2345 ft. Gateway to the Cascades!
Exit 235A will be up on your right, almost buried behind pine trees. If you don’t know it’s there, chances are you might just drive right on by, never the wiser of the town that lies a mile to the north.
From 235A, you’ll hit the only road into Roseland—Poplar Street. You’ll probably notice that the road feels a bit bumpy under the tires of your car. It hasn’t been repaved in God knows how long. The city council has said year after year that it’s just not in the town’s budget to have Poplar Street resurfaced. It’s more important that we keep the town afloat in these trying times. It’s hard to argue against covering pot holes as opposed to closing the library. In that, the council is always right.
“Council” makes it sound a lot more important than it actually is; really, it’s just Mayor Walken and Sheriff Griggs making the decisions. And by that, I mean it’s Sheriff Griggs; Walken hasn’t had an original thought since 1994, when it was said he decided to quit chewing tobacco and take up smoking instead, because it was a healthier choice, especially if you smoked the ultralights. Now, the cigarette companies can’t call cigarettes lights or ultralights anymore, as it seems they all still cause your lungs to turn black.
I TRIED a cigarette once, after asking my Aunt Christie for one when I was seventeen. She told me to take it around the back of the house so I wouldn’t get caught. She slipped her bejeweled lighter into my hand with a smile and a wink. I hightailed it around to the back, put that cigarette between my lips filter first, and lit up, taking in the deepest drag I could. I swallowed the smoke with the intention of making it come back up and out my nose (because it would look so cool). But it only took a moment where my throat worked to push it down into my lungs, where the smoke hit my lungs, that I realized I was not destined to be addicted to nicotine. I started coughing painfully, smoke pouring out of my mouth in gray bursts. My eyes watered as I started to gag. I dropped the cigarette onto the grass with the intention of grinding it out with my heel, but my body had other plans, retribution for the poison I had put in me.
I threw up all over my shoes. The cigarette went out with a hiss.
Great gales of laughter poured down from above me.
I spit onto the ground, trying to rid my mouth of the excess saliva flooding my teeth. I wiped my face with my sleeve and turned to look at the cackling loons above me. In the window, staring down, were four faces, all so very similar, lit up with delight. What was different was the way they laughed. Aunt Christie shook her head as she snorted, her curly blond hair hanging down in her face. Hers was a low, throaty chuckle. On her left were two of her sisters, the youngest of the group, my other aunts Nina and Mary. Theirs was a high-pitched giggle, a sound that should grate the ears and cause the skin to prickle. But it never did, instead reminding me of bells. They shook their heads as tears sprang from their eyes.
They are the Trio, and they are mine.
But it was the last woman who was laughing at me that meant the most. The last woman, who I had not heard laugh in what felt like ages. Hers was a loud thing, a big thing. She laughed big for a woman her size. It was almost hard to believe that such a great noise could come from someone so small. It was wondrous to behold, like finding a treasure once thought lost.
Her name is Lola Green and she is my mother.
So I rolled my eyes up at them as they hooted down at me, asking me if I felt like such a big man now standing in a pool of my own cooling vomit. They asked if I had learned my lesson. They asked if I would ever do something like that again.
I didn’t tell them but I told myself: yes. I would do it again. If it meant they would laugh, then yes. If it meant I could hear my mother laugh like nothing in the world mattered but that moment, then yes. Of course, yes. I would do anything just to hear her laugh like that.
MY AUNTS—Nina, Mary, and Christie—moved in the day after my father left. I was sixteen when they pulled up in Christie’s big, loud SUV. They descended on our home, buried in grief at the sudden loss of Big Eddie, scooping up the pieces of me and my mother that had shattered to the floor. They tried to put us back together, holding the pieces in place until the glue they had placed upon us had hardened. But we were fragile still. My mother’s sisters knew once something is shattered, it can never be put back together in its original shape. Undoubtedly some pieces are lost or fit into incorrect places. The whole will never be as strong as it was once before.
So they never left.
THE road is bumpy on Poplar, as I said. You’ll see storefronts, lit up in the gathering dusk, and see a few people walking on the sidewalk, some glancing at your unfamiliar car as it bounces down the road. You’ll think that Roseland looks like a place that time has forgotten, and you won’t be wrong. I wouldn’t call us stuck per se; I just think the rest of the world tends to move a bit faster. We’re not forgotten. We’re just behind.
I don’t think I want it any other way.
As you enter the main drag, you’ll see a banner across the road announcing the “Jump into Summer Festival” and think how quaint it looks, how fitting for a little place such as this. You might feel like going for a drive. You want to ignore how a passenger in your car snorts with laughter, joking about how creepy the sign is, that it’s probably just a way for the town to get unsuspecting outsiders in to sacrifice them to the local god. You want to ignore it, but it is kind of funny, so you don’t. You chuckle and continue on, the banner disappearing overhead.
Driving down Poplar Street will eventually take you past a gas station with a single gas pump at the front. In Oregon, you’re not allowed to pump your own gas, so a thin black cord stretches out next to the pump, causing a bell to ring every time it’s driven over. Inside the store, there are a couple aisles of chips and Twinkies. Suntan lotion, hot dogs rotating on a silver cooker. Coolers with beer and soda. Ice cream, if the mood should strike. There is a garage next door that can handle small repairs like oil changes and windshield-wiper replacement. And there is a sign that spins above the station slowly, one that lights up when darkness falls—Big Eddie’s Gas And Convenience.
My father. Big Eddie.
But he’s not here at the station. Not this spring eve. Not anymore.
If you continue up Poplar Street, past the old mill that sits crumbling like a giant who left behind its playthings, past the empty fields that used to belong to the Abel family before the bank foreclosed on their house, over the Tennyson Bridge, the Umpqua River roaring underneath, and hang a left onto Memorial Lane, you’ll find my father.
You’ll pass under an old stone arch emblazoned with the legend LOST HILL MEMORIAL. No one can tell me how this name came to be. There are no hills here; it could be said that they are lost, although no one can say where they went.
You’ll travel past the Old Yard section of the cemetery, where the stones are crumbling, their markings faded and illegible. Some dates stick out still, reminders of impossible times—1852, 1864, 1876, 1902. But if you continue past those, you’ll see a form that sticks out above other stones. If you stop your car, get out, and walk toward the west end of the cemetery, the form comes into sharper focus. It’s as tall as a normal man, but much smaller than the man it’s supposed to represent. Nothing in this world could be as tall as him.
Stone wings surround a form that always causes me to ache. Gray hands reaching out. Head slightly bowed, the eyes cast down. Gray hair, falling in waves onto smooth shoulders, forever frozen. An angel, you see. An angel watching the ground beneath her. She’s beautiful, even if she is made of stone. If you lean down, you’ll see words below her perfect feet, carved in fine, clear writing. Here, finally, in this place, is where you will find my father:
EDWARD BENJAMIN GREEN
BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER
MAY 27 1960—MAY 31 2007
Fifteen words. Fifteen words is all there is to describe the man who was my father. Fifteen words are all that is left of him. Fifteen words that do nothing. They do nothing to show what kind of man he was. They do nothing to show how when he was happy, his green eyes lit up like fireworks. They do nothing to show how heavy his arm felt when he’d drop it on my shoulder as we walked. They do nothing to show the lines that would form on his forehead when he concentrated. They do nothing to show the immensity of his heart. The vastness that was his soul. Those fifteen words say nothing.
The only time my mother and I ever really quarreled in our lives, with any heat behind it, was deciding what his marker would say. She wanted it to be simple, to the point, like the man himself. He wouldn’t want the superfluous, she told me. He didn’t need more.
I railed against her for this, anger consuming me like fire. How dare you! I shouted. How dare she keep it so short? How could she not make it go on and on and on until those who made such markers would have to harvest an entire mountain for there to be enough room to say what he was, what my father had stood for in his life, all that he had accomplished? How could anyone understand the measure of a man when those fifteen words said nothing about him?
She watched me with an angry hurt that I tried to ignore. My throat felt raw, my heart pounding in my chest. My blood roared in my ears. My eyes were wet. My hands clenched at my sides. Never before had I felt such anger. Such betrayal.
The measure of a man, she said finally, is not the words that mark his end, but everything he’s done since his beginning.
She walked out of the room and we never discussed it again.
But she knows. Those fifteen words?
They do nothing.
The angel who watches over him must feel this is enough, though, because she never has anything to add. She just stands there over him. Watching. Waiting.
Sometimes I wonder what she is waiting for.
MOST out-of-towners who pull into Big Eddie’s Gas And Convenience will probably expect a man with a name such as Big Eddie to walk out, larger than life, a massive presence that cannot be ignored.
They can’t know that Big Eddie died when his truck ran off the road and flipped into the Umpqua. What they’ll find instead is a short man, just recently twenty-one years of age. Most people in Roseland have a problem believing I came from Big Eddie’s loins, given my size. I was small for my age as a kid, and I’m small for my age now. But any words to the contrary about who I came from were always put to rest when people saw my eyes. Big Eddie’s eyes, they always said. Emeralds. Bright, like fireworks. There is no question I am my father’s son, even if physically the rest of me takes after my mother. I’m small, like her. Our coloring is the same—light skin, brown hair that curls when it gets too long. And my hair was always long before Big Eddie became trapped in his truck, most likely knocked unconscious when his head hit the window as the cab of his truck began to fill with water. It was always long before he died, and he died not because of the impact caused by someone who then fled the scene and has never been found, but because of the water that rose, filling up the cab where my father lay, still strapped in by his seat belt. My hair was always long before my father drowned.
Big Eddie liked to shave his hair short, until there was just scratchy stubble covering his scalp. I can still remember how it felt under my fingers when I was a child, how it prickled against my fingers, how it felt when I rubbed it against my cheek.
Four days after he died, and one day before I fought with my mother over fifteen words, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, Big Eddie’s clippers in my hand, his towel around my shoulders. I didn’t flinch when I turned on the clippers. My hands did not shake. My lips did not tremble. I did not shy away from the sight of myself—shadowed, hollowed-out eyes, skin devoid of color. I didn’t flinch as I brought the clippers up to the left side of my head and pressed them against my skin. It only took minutes before I was shorn and there could be no doubt that I was my father’s son.
Green eyes like fireworks. Hair that prickled against my fingertips. Sometimes, I let it grow back until it starts to curl. Then I shave it down again.
My mother and my aunts didn’t say a thing when they saw what I’d done that first time.
I love my mother. I love the Trio.
But I am my father’s son.
SO IF some spring evening you were to pull into the station, this is what you would see:
Perhaps you’re lost, and needing to fill your tank before finding your way back to I-10. Perhaps you’re visiting relatives in town, or in the next county over and just driving through. Perhaps you know me, though I doubt it.
You pull up to the pump, causing the bell to ring from somewhere inside the store. The door to the convenience store opens. You see me, young, and you laugh quietly to yourself. Is this supposed to be Big Eddie? you wonder. Talk about misrepresentation!
You roll down the window. “Fill it up?” I ask, my voice low. Quiet. It’s not rude, you think. Just reserved. I look shy. I look tired. I look distant.
“Yeah,” you say. “Unleaded. Regular. Thank you.”
I nod as you lean forward and hit the latch, releasing the cover to the gas tank. “He’s cute,” one of your passengers might say as soon as I am out of earshot.
“He’s creepy,” another one says, shuddering. “This is so going to be one of those horror movies in the direct-to-DVD bin. He’ll ask us if you want him to look under the hood and he’ll break something and we’ll be stuck in this town. Ninety minutes later, all of us will be dead except for one, and that person will be chased into an abandoned meat-packing plant while the gas jockey chases you with a chainsaw and a hook hand.”
The people in your car try to muffle their laughter. You don’t say anything. But if you did, there are only a few words you think of when you look at me. There’s only a few things that you could possibly think. So, while your friends laugh, you think sad. You think depressed. You think blue.
But, most of all, you think lonely.
And you’d be right.
The tank fills. “That’ll be $32.11,” I tell you when I come back to the window. You hand me your card and I take it inside to run it. It’s almost full-on dark now. Bugs are buzzing near the neon sign. You hear birds off in the trees. A breeze ruffles your hair. Somewhere, a dog barks. Another joins in, and another. Suddenly, they stop.
Do you feel it?
There’s something else. Something, just out of reach.
Gooseflesh tickles its way up your arms. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Lightning flashes down your spine in low arcs. There’s something else, isn’t there? Something else in the air. Something else carried on the wind. Something… unexpected. Something… different. Something is coming, you know, though how you know is a question you cannot answer.
I don’t feel it. Not really. Not yet enough to name it. I’m still buried in grief. Lost in myself.
I walk back to you and hand you your card. Our fingers touch for a moment, and you feel like you should say something, anything. I smile quietly at you as I tell you to have a good night, and I’m about to turn and walk away when you stop me.
“What’s your name?” you ask, your voice coming out in a rush.
I appear startled at this. Hesitant. Something flashes behind my eyes and again you think lonely. You think blue, but it’s the color, not the emotion, and you don’t know why. Everything is blue.
I tell you my name. Slowly.
“Big Eddie?” you ask faintly, wondering why you are saying anything at all. Your passengers listen raptly, as they feel it too now, though later none of you will admit it to each other.
I glance up at the neon sign circling above us. And I smile. You see much in that smile, illuminated by the light. There seems to be a measure of peace there, if only for a moment. There is strength, you think. Hiding somewhere under all that sadness.
And expectation. Like I’m waiting for something. Something to finally happen. Something to come along and say you are still alive, you are still whole. There is no reason for you to be alone because I am here with you.
Then the moment passes. “That was my father,” I say. “Have a good night.”
“Let’s get out of here,” one of your passengers whispers. “I found a way back with the GPS on my phone.”
You nod again and watch as I go back inside and sit down behind the counter on a stool. I’m watching my hands when you finally pull away.
YEARS from now on a very ordinary day, something you see triggers a memory of a time you stopped in Roseland, Oregon. You’ll think of me for the first time in years. You remember my name, but only just. You’ll wonder, as your heart starts to thud in your chest, if something finally happened. If things changed for me. If that look of longing, of waiting, led to something more. You’ll think on this fiercely, a slight ringing in your ears that you won’t be able to ignore. But then you’ll be distracted by something mundane and I will slip from your mind. An hour later, you’ll have forgotten that racing of your heart, the sweat under your arms. You’ll have forgotten the little things you saw, that feeling of knowing, knowing something was about to occur.
But I have not forgotten.
My name is Benjamin Edward Green, after my father, our first and middle names transposed. People call me Benji. Big Eddie wanted me to carry his name, but felt I should have my own identity, hence the switch. I never minded, knowing it bound us further. It was a gift from him. Because of him, and everything that is about to follow, my time of waiting is almost over. Events have been set in motion, and once started, they will not stop until it is finished.
This is at once a beginning and an end.
This is the story of my love for two men.
One is my father.
The other is a man who fell from the sky.