Authors: Novella Carpenter
“Got foulbrood,” he said and shook his wooly head. American foulbrood is a contagious bacterial infection that germinates in the bee larvae, eventually dooming the hive. There is no cure. “Had to burn all my hives.” He paused, laughing at the memory, “So of course I had a party, a bonfire. You can’t believe the colors those hives let off. Must’ve been the different kinds of pollen, but it was like Fourth of July.”
He looked sad, but it wasn’t because of the bees: He and his second wife were getting a divorce. Things had just not worked out. He was fighting for custody of his daughters.
“They seem sweet,” I said. They looked so different from the Oakland teens with their tight skirts and giant dangling earrings. And from me and my sister as teenagers in the 1980s, when we were into clothes and had big hair.
I remembered that at that age I was especially embarrassed about our house, which looked nothing like the mansion of my dreams. It was more of a hippie den. Mom’s boyfriend Tom sent artifacts from his soil science research trips to Mali and Indonesia: batik fabrics, carved wooden statues, and masks of African faces. Mom hung the masks from the wall and covered the stairwells with the fabric. She made us listen to world music too, when all we wanted to hear was Duran Duran.
Wearing her Jesse Jackson for President T-shirt, digging around in her garden, Mom regarded our mall-rat behavior with concern. She didn’t know it, but I had taken up drinking by the time I was fourteen. Peach-flavored California Coolers were my poison, provided by friends’ older brothers. Remembering my big hair and California Cooler days in Shelton, I wondered what teenagers in rural areas were into these days.
“They are good kids,” Lowell nodded. “And if I have to pay for them, I want to actually see them.”
I felt a pang of envy. My dad hadn’t wanted to do either—pay for us, or see us. Child support was a big battle between my mom and dad. He only started making regular child support payments while I was in high school—from 1986 to 1991. The height of my materialist years. I never thought about where the money came from that my dad sent, I just deposited the folded bills into my bank account and looked forward to going shopping. But now I knew: cord-wood money, scrapped and gleaned, sweat-soaked bills.
Every once in a while my mom would mutter something about how my sister and I were too materialistic, but we would roll our eyes. My sister and I had her outnumbered. My mom’s hippie era of free love and student protests had fallen away, replaced by the greed-is-good eighties. She held out, though, kind of like Lowell had, in her own way. She put up solar water-heating panels on the house, grew a vegetable garden on the side of the house. It was all about small gestures of rebellion.
“Hey, Lowell,” I said after the tour was over. “Is this going to be Sunset Acres?” My mom and her hippie friends had had a retirement scheme: as they grew older, they would buy land together and hire a nurse to take care of everyone until they kicked the bucket. This plan was hatched while they were still too young and healthy to really know what it would be like later on in their lives—the cancers and the pain, the operations and the general decay of their once healthy bodies. It seemed like a joke back then, growing old.
Driving back to town, Lowell took a different route. He paused at one particularly scenic point. Somehow there was a wheat field high up in the Orofino hills. “It’s the last of the
Palouse,” he said, pointing west. The Palouse is the huge wheat growing area that covers eastern Washington and creeps into Idaho. It doesn’t get far into Idaho though, because it becomes too mountainous, too wild for cultivating wheat.
I looked at Lowell and remembered something his friend Phil had told me about what it had been like to be young and living in the woods at Farm Out. They felt invincible, he said, free and big, and they made good money and got roaring drunk and smoked cigs and arm wrestled and people respected them because they worked in the woods. Now Lowell was driving the school bus and slowing down.
“The last of the Palouse,” Lowell said and sighed, and drove us back to our campground.
• • •
Bill’s and my first night at Pink House Hole Campground was pleasant. We discovered, from the drunken campground host, that the site may have been where Lewis and Clark had spent a long cold winter. The Nez Percé Indians helped the poor guys build five canoes and redirected them westward. After Lewis and Clark came the miners, then the homesteaders, and then the hippies. In fact, my parents had camped right along these shores forty years ago, when they were looking to buy property in Orofino.
The closer I looked at my parents’ past, the better I was able to see the parallels in my own life. It was starting to freak me out.
In 2001, Bill and I were living in Seattle. We both had good jobs—I worked for a travel-book publishing company, he had become an auto mechanic and worked on taxicabs. Then 9/11 hit; I lost my job a few days after the Twin Towers
fell. A week later, Bill came home with all his tools: No one was taking cabs anymore, and they laid him off. We had money saved, and I had a severance, so we decided to go to Europe. Remembering my parents and their good times in Formentera, we bought plane tickets to Spain.
Thinking we could make more of a connection to Spanish culture, we signed up as WOOFers—Willing Workers on Organic Farms. The deal was we would work on a farm for four hours a day, and the farm would give us a place to stay and feed us. I hoped I could learn something about farming—we had been dabbling with beekeeping and had chickens and a vegetable garden in our Seattle backyard—and I wanted to learn more. Instead of learning how to farm, though, we ended up washing dishes at a “farmer’s” restaurant. At another “farm” we were employed by British expats to clean up a house that had been infested with rats while the owner was on vacation. Poison had been put out; our job was to clean up the resulting carnage. We found dead rats in drawers, kitchen cabinets, in the knitting basket. We burned everything. Not really farming, I thought, throwing another rat corpse in the burn barrel.
We ended up buying bicycles and biked along the Spanish coast. Some areas were beautiful: We would pull over next to the perfectly blue Mediterranean and go skinny dipping. We bought homebrewed wine from gnarled old guys and put the bottles in our bikes’ water bottle holders. We had fun but I kept comparing Spain in the early aughts to the Spain of 1970, of my parents’ experience. Instead of rustic, cheap living, we kept running up against touristy paella restaurants and Flamenco dancer postcards. The island of Formentera, once pristine, had become a high-end tourist destination.
After Spain, our next plan involved moving to the Bay
Area. We were sick of the rain, and all our friends were settling down, buying houses, and having kids. We still wanted to have some adventures. Oakland seemed like the perfect place to do that. It was relatively cheap and had a funky sensibility that made me feel at home. We packed our van full of our possessions—mostly vinyl records and our cat, Sparkles—and drove south. In Oakland we eventually rented a falling-down duplex off of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Only later I realized that my mom had, in her Berkeley days, lived on MLK back when it was called Grove Street, and Dad had lived in West Oakland, by the port, with some other musicians—making my apartment roughly halfway between their former houses. A few years later, I would attend UC Berkeley: just like my parents had.
Sometimes when I look back on past events like these, I recognize certain characteristics that seem to resurface from my parents’ past to my own. We share wanderlust, a DIY spirit, and a tendency for romanticizing poverty. Characters reappear too. Some of my close friends remind me of the people I met as a kid at Farm Out. The longer I’m alive, the present starts to look like an anagram of the past. It’s a different pattern using the same elements. There’s a Mark Twain quote that captures the same idea: “The past doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.”
Bill and I snuggled up in the tent, a vicious wind blowing in up the river. What a day. Back then, when my parents had camped along this very river, poised to buy the ranch, my mom had been pregnant with Riana. Would I get pregnant here in Orofino, like my mom got pregnant with me, setting in motion the next generation? I wondered if the salmon ever felt like this when they returned from the ocean, snuffling around the river rocks, smelling around for home, looking for
a place to lay their eggs. Was I capable of reproducing? I was beginning to wonder.
• • •
Bill and I spent the next day at the Orofino library, checking our e-mail and reading books. The librarians were excruciatingly kind to us. As I was catching up with a few days’ worth of e-mail, I realized that the carrel—there was only one—I was sitting in was exactly where my dad sat and wrote his e-mail missives to me. There was a world political map poster tacked to the wall of the carrel, and I wondered if Dad daydreamed looking at it, remembering Spain and Mexico and France. As I imagined him sitting there, I found that my anger toward him had cooled. But it was replaced with confusion. Why was he so broken? What had happened to him?
In my inbox was a forwarded message from my sister from Dad, probably written that morning at this same computer terminal while Bill and I slept in the Hole. It said that he was worried about me; he wrote that “she tore into me like a cur dog” and that I seemed to be in an emotional nosedive.
As I read the e-mail, my hackles rose again—I didn’t attack him!
Or did I?
The truth was, I had been caught by surprise by my dad and his circumstances. I had always assumed that my father had been absent from my life because he had chosen the higher ground; that he was living the righteous life of a mountain man hermit. It was true that his main source of income came from the forest—but from scavenging trees left over from big logging operations. He didn’t live a heroic life full of communing with nature. His life was brutal; he was just scraping by, barely surviving. This glimpse of him in his cabin
made me realize that he had been hiding something from me for all these years, and it raised a new possibility. I wrote back to my sister, “My latest fear is that Dad is, and has always been, mentally ill.” I’ll admit it: I wasn’t just concerned for Dad. I was concerned for myself, and for my future children.
In the morning, the tail shaft arrived at Village Auto. It took Bill two hours to put in the replacement part. When we tried to pay Dan, he said, “It’s been taken care of.” My dad.
Then we were back on the road, headed to Bill’s family reunion in West Virginia. Rosie belched along, miraculous as ever. As Orofino disappeared into the rearview mirror I felt a rush of relief, glad to be done with my father—if our pattern held—for at least another few
My parents at the infamous A-frame in Crescent, Oregon. Mom five months pregnant, 1971.
e were on the road, headed East from Orofino, to visit friends and go to Bill’s family reunion. As we drove, my ovary erupted, releasing an egg, increasing my mucous levels, spiking my internal body temperature. After a year of trying, I had started observing and charting such data. I alerted Bill. We were somewhere in eastern Montana. We turned off the main road, sped across a dirt track, past newly cut alfalfa fields, past a sign that read
WATCH OUT FOR BUGGIES
. The hills were sprinkled with trees and pink-striped outcroppings.
After seeing my dad, I wasn’t so sure I should be reproducing. He seemed to have some mental issues that could be inheritable. As Bill and I drove, ominous warning signs—literal signs—started to crop up. First, an official, brown governmental-looking road sign that read
CHIEF DULL KNIFE COLLEGE
. That had to be a joke. Then we passed another sign:
CRAZY HEAD LAKE
, with an arrow. My dad was certainly crazy, I thought. Why am I rolling the dice?
Before long we found a private, slow-moving river. It was called, oddly, The Tongue. After a picnic bankside, we settled into the soft sand at the water’s edge. Compared to the Clearwater, this river just didn’t seem right. It was murky and slow moving. We stripped off our clothes and tried to make a baby. A frog hopped by us. As we were wrapping up, a storm started brewing. Rain drops pelted our naked bodies. The sky got dark and mosquitoes closed in on us. We threw on our clothes and made a dash for the car.
Then the storm really unleashed. Lightning struck the fields right near our car, and we heard the thunder follow immediately. Huge raindrops hit our windshield. The sky turned a strange blue color.
“Do you think we made the gods angry?” I asked Bill as he started the car and pulled away from the river.
He laughed his little cough-laugh. Up ahead on the dirt road, we saw a black horse pulling a black carriage. It looked demonic. A black tarp whipped fiercely over the roof of the buggy. Another bolt of lightning struck a nearby field, lighting up the dark sky.
“Should I honk?” Bill asked, always the smart ass, while we passed the horse-drawn buggy. The horse was a deep chestnut color and wore blinders. Its mane was damp with rain.
“It’s kind of evil looking,” I said, and turned to see what was inside the tarp-enshrouded buggy. Seated behind the horse was a deathly thin, pale-faced woman clutching the reins with skeletal hands. She looked like the female version of the grim reaper. Her eyes met mine and she scowled. I gasped and looked back at the road, filled with dread: we were going to have a demon baby.
• • •
Bill and I arrived back to Oakland in September, dirty and exhausted. We had been on the road for over three weeks. I opened the front door and schlepped the valuables upstairs to our apartment. It was early in the morning; we had driven all night so we could sleep in our own bed.
When I scanned our long-forgotten apartment, I saw a pile of sticky bee frames in one corner of the living room; in another, Bill’s car parts spilled over on a precariously built table. The front deck was aquiver with rabbits, the back porch was loaded with goat poo. Our house was squalid and insane seeming.
Instead of dealing with it, I collapsed into our rumpled bed and fell into a deep sleep. The next morning, I purged the house. Why was I clinging to these bucket lids and such a huge collection of stained towels? When I opened up the freezer, I encountered some rabbit hides that I had been collecting for years. I had always meant to learn how to tan those hides—like my dad had done back on the ranch. Bill and I joked about them, called them skinsicles, but now they seemed creepy, Jeffrey Dahmer–like.
While I hung laundry out to dry on the line outside, I caught a glimpse of our backyard outhouse. We had it built for ecological reasons—a couple years ago I had read a book called
that argued that it was insane to void our wastes into perfectly clean water. With that in mind, we tacked up a simple wooden structure, threw a thirty-five-gallon container underneath a crudely attached toilet seat, and voilà: an outhouse. Unfortunately, it had been a failed experiment, as both Bill and I were too lazy to go outside to use the toilet when we had a perfectly functional one in the house.
The outhouse was filled with cobwebs, not humanure. Still, it wasn’t lost on me—I had an outhouse. Just like my dad.
After purging, I read my mail. There was a letter from John Garrick waiting in our mail pile. It was written on yellow lined paper, in neat handwriting. About my dad, he wrote:
He was like a butterfly, here today, gone tomorrow type of guy. He was a dreamer, of doing great things, and not afraid to try! Some friends I forget over the years, sometimes I even forget their names. Then there are those friends you carry the friendship in the heart, there you never forget them and want the best for them. I read once—a friend is one who overlooks your broken fence and admires the flowers in your garden. I guess that about describes George and my friendship. He overlooked my faults and I overlooked his. We understood each other and so it is!!
As I reread the letter, touched that John had written me, I wished that I could have similar Hallmark card–like feelings about my dad. But after our reunion, I was ready to forget about him completely—to overlook both the broken fence and whatever stupid flowers he had growing. What kind of relationship had I hoped to build with him after so many years of neglect, I wasn’t sure. Too many years had passed, too many broken promises and missed connections had transpired, I realized, to mend our relationship in just one visit. I had been nurturing an unrealistic and romantic vision of what our reunion would be like, all fly-fishing and catching up on the years that had long passed. Of course it had been a failure. I was ready to give up and stop trying to make a connection that had withered when I was just a little girl.
I blamed my dad, mostly. For his messy, haphazard life. In fact, in purging the house, I felt like I was purging Dad’s characteristics out of me.
I sat back and looked out at our squat lot garden from the living room window. The tomato plants had gone feral in our absence and had toppled the rickety tomato cages I had rigged up to support them. The squash plants were rambling across the open areas. A thicket of wild radish had infested the potato patch and was in full, pink bloom.
So far the owner of the property had not stopped us from squat gardening, but I knew one day this would happen and they would build condos. And when that happened, would I then fall to my knees and yell, “This is a desecration!” as my dad had at the sight of that clear-cut? My dad—he logged wood on land that wasn’t his, and I raised vegetables and animals on land that wasn’t mine either. I cruised for street tree branches, he collected guitar wood. We weren’t so different.
Feeling uneasy, I called Mom. She wanted details about Orofino, and my dad. I told her about his cluttered cabin, the paranoid stories.
“It’s really sad,” she said. “He was so talented.”
I asked if he ever seemed crazy.
“He was always moody,” she said. “He would have these ups and downs.”
“What would he do?” I asked. “When he was down, what would he do?”
“Just sulk and play his guitar,” she said. “But he never seemed really crazy. Course my psychologist friend diagnosed him as manic-depressive, but I’m not sure.
“I think I went a little crazy just being with him,” she confessed. “I tried to burn the house down once. Well, just theatrics, I got dramatic, I didn’t really start a big fire . . .” I
remembered my dad telling me at his cabin that he had wanted to burn down the house after he found my mom with the cretin at the Rough House. And my twelve-year-old pyrotechnics. We were a family of pyromaniacs.
She went on: “But I was so frustrated that he wouldn’t help finish the house.”
They had lived in a trailer for years while they built the Rough House next door, one shingle at a time. Once the house was semi-habitable, they moved in, but it was never quite finished. My mom imagined that life in the big house would be like domestic bliss. Maybe that’s why my dad, undomesticated guy that he is, balked at finishing.
After a pause she said, “You know, your dad scared me.” Then she told me that when they were living in the A-frame in Crescent, newly together after their courtship in Mexico, he had tried to kill her cat.
He had come home from hunting with his prize: a few ducks. He hung them outside to ripen before plucking them. Somehow, my mom’s cat had snatched one of the ducks and dragged it under the house. Dad became so furious, he got his gun out and shot the cat.
“He hit the flap under her arm,” she explained, “so he didn’t kill her—if he had, I would’ve left him. But I was so upset. I remember going to the back of the house and crying and crying. I was going to leave. But he convinced me not to.”
“It’s weird to think,” I said after a while, not knowing what to say to my mom on the phone. “That if Dad was a better shot, I wouldn’t even exist.”
The violence against animals was just a precursor, she told me. “He would just suddenly punch me for no reason,” she said. “I had to watch what I said around him. Then one time I woke up in the middle of the night and he had a knife to my
throat.” And then there was the time he chased her with a shotgun. . . .
As these new, dark stories unfurled, I felt a sinking, horrible sensation. My father was a monster. Why hadn’t she told me about this before, why hadn’t I noticed—or remembered these things when I was a little girl? Their fight with the lemonade, and Riana and me jumping on his legs. It’s one of my earliest memories, and now that I thought about it, a violent one. My early childhood seemed dangerous, suddenly, marked by violence and threats that came from Dad.
Of course Mom was looking for a way out. “I used to always be so worried he might get killed out there doing those thinning jobs,” she said. “But toward the end there, I started to hope a tree
fall on him.”
“Did he ever hit us?” I asked.
“No, not that I knew of,” she said. My mouth felt dry and my stomach churned.
That fight at Dad’s cabin. Maybe it was a good thing he wasn’t an apex predator anymore. But what had made him so violent?
“So, when you saw him, did he say bad things about me?” Mom asked.
“Yes, Mom,” I told her, “terrible things.” But I wouldn’t go into detail. Four years after punishment summer in 1988, when Dad and his girlfriend had broken up and he lost the Rough House, Mom had actually let Dad stay on the property until she could sell it. Because Dad had started paying child support by then, he and Mom had an uneasy truce.
But then, when I was sixteen and Riana was about to graduate from high school, Mom got wind that he was logging on the property. And not just any logs—big ones—the old-growth grove right next to the house. These trees had
been a selling point for my young parents. They were the trees I had sat under for hours as a little girl. I remember her angry voice on the phone, talking to lawyers about the illegal logging. She sent him an outraged letter. He sent the letter back to her, scrawling in the margins, spilling out his anger and hate. “Son of a bitch!” she yelled, tossing the letter onto the kitchen table. I snuck a look.
In it, he outlined that he hadn’t abused a single square inch of the ranch property. That he has lived without power, water, or a phone; and drove a beat-up truck so we could receive our child support money. He said he did this gladly because we are a product of a deep love, a love that my mom never felt. Then he called my mom a vindictive bitch. The letter became like an anti-talisman; my mom would reread it from time to time, replenishing her anger and hate, any time she started to feel sorry for Dad.
This letter, dated December 7, 1988, would mark the beginning of a disastrous year for Mom. One that she never quite recovered from. She and Tom, after a long-distance but long-term relationship, split up. Things had reached a breaking point. They had talked about moving in together, but my mom was adamant that she wouldn’t remarry. They broke up instead. My mom never dated anyone again. “Men—they are just too much trouble,” she said. Then her school, Hood Canal School, where she had taught for years, burned to the ground. Arson, though no one was charged. Even the outside political world seemed to be telling my political and environmentally minded Mom “fuck you”: George H. W. Bush was elected president; the Exxon Valdez crashed into some rocks in Alaska and caused the biggest oil spill in history. The natural world, the pristine Prince William Sound in Alaska, despoiled by a drunken man.
“What are you trying to find?” Mom finally asked. “Why are you trying to find your dad?”
“I guess I wanted to find the truth, why he hasn’t been part of my life,” I said.
“Why does it matter now?” she asked.
I had to tell her. I had wanted to keep my baby-making efforts a secret because I didn’t want to add any pressure on the process. I also secretly thought telling her might jinx our attempts. Mom had always joked that the goat kids would be the only grandchildren she would get out of me. But now I had to fess up: Even though I had sworn off having children for a million years, I told her, Bill and I were now trying to conceive. I stumbled over the words, and even as I told her about my plan, I had doubts. When I was done, there was a silence on the other line. “Hello?” I said.
“Oh, Novella!” she gushed. My mom was thrilled. After giving me some conception advice—legs up, feed Bill oysters—she asked when was the next time I was fertile. I hemmed and hawed before changing the subject to her golf game. I didn’t want to bring up the fact that I might be impregnated with a demon baby.
• • •
My sister called the next day for the dad report. My fear that I was carrying a demon baby had been relieved: That morning I had gotten my period. Now, examined rationally, my premonition seemed dangerously close to one of my dad’s paranoid visions. What did I have in mind—a Satan chipmunk baby with goat eyes?
As Riana and I talked, I worked in the garden, tearing up the old wood Bill and I had used to build the raised beds long ago. Time, mushrooms, and ants had started to break the
wood down; the screws had fallen out and the beds had split open, like overripe seed pods.