The New Phoenix

We decided that we’d cross into California before stopping for lunch, putting almost six hours of the freeway drive behind us. Pulling into Yreka, I rolled the window down and let the California summer pour into the convertible cab of my Camaro. Within it was an aridity, a heat so fundamental that it was hard to imagine winter ever having much presence there.

Even in early August, the air I left in Vancouver had already begun to snap in the morning. As I drove away from the home I grew up in, watching in the mirror my mom wave and wipe her tears, I remember the heater blowing on my legs, the faint mist trapped near the ground beading up and streaming over the hood. Summer seemed to leave in a hurry that year, and the space it made was damp and cool and greying. Beneath the shade of trees, where just a month before I took respite from the sun, a touch of fall now pricked my spine. The evenings smelled like rain.

But I was headed off to warmer pastures. To the south, where even winter agreed to tan my pasty northwest skin. Where precipitation didn’t jail me for all but one season of the year—and an ever-shrinking season that was, too. No more ashen ceiling. No more sopping pant legs dragging on the clammy ground.

“But Arizona?” my mother parried. “It’s so hot, and far.” The distance was the real stab. She’d already seen one child off to Canada, now her last was moving to a wasteland twice as far away. My mom hadn’t ventured far from home, ever really, and it always seemed a mystery to her that a child should want to wander off. Her clear, blue eyes would turn glossy if the conversation turned to my moving out. Although, she’s always had a knack for brisk and careless subject changes should a topic threaten to make her cry. “I saw Tommy’s mother at Safeway today. She looks terrible.”

Yreka was open and exposed, as though the little town had been planted in the middle of a gravel parking lot where nothing really grew outside of pots. At the slight elevation from which we descended, I could look down onto it like map—all the streets, the buildings, the parks, the traffic, the whole place clearly laid out over the flat and unwooded terrain. Glassy waves of heat rose from the ground in the distance, rippling the breezeless landscape and enriching the unreality which I already felt. It was the outer edge of an enigmatic dessert, a foreign world into which I was heading deeper still.

Phoenix was our ultimate destination. I had applied and been accepted to an expensive automotive trade school there, and, since it would take some time to find an apartment and then move into it, my dad and I went down a month before classes began. We rented a large truck, which he drove, to carry all my things. I followed in my own car. To communicate with one another we bought two way radios, which seemed to turn our meager pair into something of a convoy.

Descending into the barren town, whose truck stops spilled from edge to edge staining the dessert with semis and chain-link fencing, my dad came across the radio to ask what I might want to eat. Fast food signs jutted up above the roofs like trees, most of them the same familiar places that we had in Vancouver. We hadn’t traveled far south enough to find the In-N-Outs and Arctic Circles.

“I’ll follow you,” I said into the palm-sized walkie-talkie, hoping that he would see the Dairy Queen standing at the end of what appeared the main artery through Yreka.

“Look at that,” the sandy voice on the other end replied. “An omen.”

Stuck between a Loves diesel station and a Burger King, with just a small sign no taller than the van in front of me, the hut-like building’s orange stucco walls burned against the brown land around it. “The New Phoenix Brewery,” read a plywood board above its door, on which a hand-painted bird of brilliant purple and red was soaring out from inside a whirl of flames. The building consumed at most an eighth of the sprawling gravel lot on which it stood, the rest taken by a small metropolis of tractor-trailers, some still idling in the heat as their drivers slept or ate. Our U-Haul seemed inane and puny parked amongst them.

I unfolded and stretched my bulky frame from the Camaro, my thighs catching fire as they awoke, and walked to meet my dad while he did the very same. I looked up and let the vacant sky wash my face, let the lucidity anoint my lips with a little taste of the freedom I saw in it, a little sip of the dread that lingered in its deepness. The heat was light and intense, searing the skin of everything it touched but not penetrating deep enough to heat it through. Mountains towered not too far away. Greenness still exuded from the woods abroad and lent the slightest drafts of itself to the California dessert. Inside the New Phoenix, the air was fake and chilly.

It took little time at all for me to make up my mind. I didn’t think that a university would be a proper fit; I liked cars a lot—building, driving, and trading them; I was mechanically inclined and didn’t shy away from difficult labor; and by the end of high school, scars already graced most of my knuckles from the wrenching that I’d done. They seemed almost to map out a future for me. So when the local admissions officer from Universal Technical Institute came to interview me, he met an easy sell.

A round man with glasses and soft hands, a leather briefcase and khaki slacks, he seemed an ill-fitting surrogate for a trade school boasting graduates on national Indy racing teams. He spoke mostly to my parents, in a nasal voice, as the four of us sat around the kitchen table, our English sheepdog garnering more attention from me than the tri-fold brochure which I was handed.

“It’s not your average community college shop class,” he said condescendingly, as if questioning my capacity to join his ranks. “We work with all the major auto manufacturers, race teams throughout the country—heck, we’ve even got an office at the Porsche proving grounds in Florida,” he said. “It’s not a correspondence course. He’ll be in class five days a week, eight hours each day. Not to mention the financial commitment.”

“Do you offer financing?” my father asked. “Twenty thousand seems out of the question for most families to pony up.”

“We do,” the man replied, pulling out a laminated chart from beneath a mess of papers. “Our interest rates are fixed, and teared in such a way that families with lower incomes receive more favorable rates. My I ask what your gross household income is, Tim?”

When my dad told him, the man slid his chair nearer and put the chart between them on the table. Tracing across it with his stout finger, the hair on each knuckle uniformly smooth as if he’d combed it, he pointed to a row of figures well above the middle column.

“Thirteen percent?” my dad protested, shifting his own chair away, its legs squealing as they gouged the linoleum. “That’s ridiculous. That’s what you think middle-class families can afford?”

“Mr. Erickson, I don’t decide the rates. Most higher-income families opt for outside financing. Or else they pay cash.”

“Cash,” my dad laughed, looking at my mother, who shook her head and looked at me.

I really didn’t listen too much. Racing teams and Porsches were all I heard about, and even those were rather superfluous. Stacks of hot rod magazines littered my bedroom, hand-built remote control cars filled a corner of the garage. I was the only student at my school whose car set off alarms as it idled though a parking lot. My grades were never very good, but my valve covers shone like mirrors. I was made for a career of tools and grease, of carburetors and pass-through exhaust.

It was raining heavy when the man came to our house, the winter not yet fully giving way to spring. Water fell in heavy drops that tapped against the siding as the wind pushed them sideways. The air still held a whisper of the piney smell that filled it in the months before.

“It sure is hot in Phoenix,” the man said, changing the subject and addressing me as he sifted through his case for more material. “It’s all I can do to stay a few days down there. Big kid like you? It’d be quite an adjustment.”

“Grandpa Paul used to keep a motorhome in Parker, Arizona years ago,” my dad remembered over his half-eaten burger—no cheese—and a plate of salty fries. With his elbows resting on either side of the white oval plate, his hands above it almost as if he were going to pray, he rolled a French fry between his thumb and fore finger. A shower of coarse salt danced like rain as it landed on the greasy plate.

“He was down there with Grandma when he got sick. She couldn’t drive it, so she called me to come down and get them. I wasn’t about to do it by myself. I wasn’t even sure that it would make the trip. So I called your uncle Peter.

“Uncle Pete and I hadn’t talked for years. I really didn’t think he’d go. But, shit, it was his dad too, and I didn’t want to drive that piece of crap all the way to Long Beach. He didn’t even argue when I called him. He just asked what time I was leaving. When we flew into Nevada it was the end of summer, and hotter than hell. The motorhome was musty and needed tires. And dad wouldn’t let us run the air conditioning because it used so much gas.

“It took three days just to get to northern California because dad couldn’t take the movement and the heat. Plus the motorhome could barely make the hills. He complained about our driving so much that we had to tell the old bastard to shut up almost every minute. Then, coming out of the Redwoods, it started to snow. It wasn’t even October, and it was snowing like a damn blizzard in the mountains.

“The poor motorhome’s brakes kept heating up as we came down the mountain, and I was white-knuckled the whole way because the road was a solid sheet of ice. Grandpa Paul couldn’t stand Pete driving. ‘Don’t you let him touch that wheel,’ he told me and grandma. So we had to wait until he fell asleep to switch, then switch back if he started moving again.

“Once we got to Oregon, I said ‘that’s it, we’re not stopping until we’re home,’ and I pushed that thing as fast as it would go all the way to Long Beach. We used about a case and a half of oil in five days. I didn’t want to see my dad again for ages. That was right before he went into the hospital. I don’t think grandma said a word the whole time we drove—just sat in back with dad.”

He took the last bite of his burger and unfolded a map. My BLT was just a memory by then, the Coke sweating in front of me, a thin, brown liquid encasing blocks of shrinking ice.

“I think we can make it to Barstow by dark,” he said. “We’ll get a hotel there.”

By the time we stepped outside, a few gauzy clouds had gathered, sleeping loftily within the bucolic sky, frozen in the afternoon like milky ribbons curled forever in a marble. They looked so different from the clouds I knew, so high and thin. Something told me that no matter how many of them collected, the rain that they promised would never really fall. They were just the vaporous exhalations of some distant mountain woods, there to break monotony, to hover up above and cast the specter of the shady trees they’d left behind.

It drove me nearly mad to follow a U-Haul van for so many miles, some horrible little device restricting it to sixty, a mere screw to stop the butterfly valve from taking bigger breaths, a deliberate short thrown into its convoluted circuitry that damned the flow of fuel. How I craved the throttle on those forsaken desert roads. How I lusted for the throaty rip of eight cylinders drinking greedily the heated air. But I didn’t know the way to Barstow. Before my father mentioned it I hadn’t even known Barstow existed.

Clearly larger than Yreka, and quite a distance from I-5, Barstow had a permanence about it. Men in cowboy hats, driving trucks with California plates and dirty tires, nodded at one another while they drove. It was late on a Friday evening, and the parking lots of Mexican restaurants were alive with families out for a meal. The air was relaxed and casual beneath the huge moon, which lit the wide streets far brighter than the lamps that flickered over them.

Crickets louder than I’d ever heard before sang at the edges of the hotel parking lot. Somewhere close by, a dog barked out incessantly–not the barks of stress, but as if children teased them out of him from behind their fenced in yards. I remembered my English sheepdog, Millie. Her fur and girth would have been a hindrance in that heat, but I wished her there nonetheless. Missing her then turned my mind to my mother.

She and I decided one day to drive two and a half hours north to look at an English sheepdog pup. We had been looking through the paper and visiting the pound. We even went to a dog show in search of that particular breed, really knowing nothing about it other than they are adorable puppies and they remain as cute throughout their lives as they are when they are young. At the show we met a woman who ran a kennel in Renton, near Seattle.

Mrs. Cotswald’s kennel looked like a farm where, in place of cattle, fuzzy white and grey dogs loafed around in the grass. They seemed like wild animals the way they rolled and bounced into each other one minute, then in a flash bore teeth and growled. A dog trainer whom we spoke with back at home had mentioned that she knew the Cotswald line. Most of them, she said, were show blood, but some were sold as pets. “They’ve got a vicious streak,” she warned us when we said we were interested. “Look at Mrs. Cotswald’s hands.”

Mrs. Cotswald’s home was large and clean. I remember it was a split level, with a raised deck that looked over at most an acre’s lawn. Beneath the deck a maze of temporary chain link fences portioned of the dogs’ quarters. Mrs. Cotswald herself was friendly enough, if a little stern. I imagine that to keep so many dogs in line, one needed to be a touch fierce, capable of dominance at least. Her hands were webbed with scars, her fingers blunt and grooved with labor.

We had the choice of two dogs, one two years old, the other four months. Had my mother and I not been able to practice the tiny scrap of restraint we did, we would have come home with both. The elder was house trained, already near one hundred pounds, with an overbite that, while unnoticeable to me, barred it from competition. She seemed well trained. Certainly she was friendly. But she didn’t seem as new and exciting as the puppy.

Also with an overbite that held it from pageantry, the youngest was a sphere of grey and white cottony fur with thick and trunkish legs that scurried towards us. When I reached down to pet it, the nervous dog peed all over, soaking her own legs and letting the puddle run underneath her feet. When she’d gotten rid of the nerves she started jumping up at me, trying in a playful way to bite my mouth. My mom is a sucker for little kids and large dogs, so all the portentous commotion of that rotund sheepdog pup really only secured its place at home with us.

On the way back we named her Millie, a rather old name, I think, for such a youthful animal. Several times we stopped so that Millie could pee on the grass at rest areas and read the scents of all the other dogs before her. Every time she did, my mother had to wipe her legs with paper towel. She had grown so fond of our SUV by the time we got home, the first one in which she’d ever ridden, that she refused to leave it. My mother reached in to grab her, but Millie snarled, bearing teeth and looking suddenly unlike the soft puppy that we’d bought for very near a thousand dollars.

“She’s just a little nervous,” said my mom, backing away in fear for her small and unscarred fingers. “It’ll take time for her to adjust. Let’s just leave her alone.”

We did, and eventually Millie left the vehicle on her own. But after that it was forever hers. It was always a chore to coax her from the car. Often we let her stay in it, deciding for herself when she would join the family in the house. She was possessive, too, of her food, her toys, her sleep, most everything.

My mom discovered early that even stepping near her when she ate elicited a growl. Like a sleuth, my small, blonde mother would creep up behind Millie while she ate. Without lifting her face from the bowl, Millie’d let loose a threatening grumble, sometimes a curt bark, then wolf her remaining kibble as though she were famished. My mom found this hilarious—as did I.

Millie sulked for weeks when I left for Phoenix, refusing to eat until her pangs forced it on her. More than once my mother took her for long and aimless rides to cheer her up. I think it helped them both.

“But it’s so far,” my mom objected when we talked about my going off to school. “Doesn’t Clark have an automotive program?”

The local community college did indeed have an auto course. A diesel program, too. But I told her they were vastly inferior to Universal Technical Institute, which was dedicated solely to mechanics. Truthfully, I never even looked into Clark. Once I saw the television commercials for U.T.I.—funny-cars and exotic imports smoking tires and striping the asphalt black as they tore from sight, tuned port injection cutaways illustrating the copious amounts of fuel that they consumed, burning it through polished heads and belching the waste from chrome exhausts—I never considered the local options. Community college was for those who wrenched on minivans and wagons, who kept the grocery-getter’s air filter clean and tires at proper inflation. I didn’t work with base models.

“It’s not like I’m moving away forever,” I would tell her. But I could see her eyes already reddening with tears months before I’d have to go. “I can’t live at home for the rest of my life.”

“Yes you can,” she’d say, her voice shaky. “There’s nothing wrong with staying home. A lot of people live with their parents all their lives.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know, Bill. A lot of people.”

Somewhere in the Mohave Desert we stopped for gas. Not a soul except the clerk was anywhere to be seen. Our vehicles were the only ones there, which led me to believe that the dark-skinned man behind the counter lived there, waking up when he heard the sandy ground crackle under tires and falling back to sleep when the engine noise faded into the waves of heat curling the horizon.

Fumes roiled visibly from the tanks as we filled them and fell to the ground like heavy, translucent smoke. My dad paid for the gas, the bags of chips and bottles of soda, a couple packs of Camel lights, and we poured back into the viscous air.

Just barely cutting through the bottom tip of Nevada, we drove toward Phoenix from the north. We passed a racetrack in Laughlin. A crowd of motorcycles shrieked around the oval, clustering like wasps and sending plumes of dust high above the barren earth. We took highway sixty-eight from there, through Golden Valley, where the only gold was that which radiated in the sky and baked the moisture from the porous ground beneath it. In Kingman, we changed to the ninety-three, heading south through a town called Nothing. “Entering Nothing,” read the shot-up sign, but nothing after that convinced me that a town was there.

Outside of Wittman there was a rest area, really just a belly in the shoulder of the road with a picnic bench and outhouse. Perhaps twenty feet from the fog-line, a low-slung wire fence, held by wooden posts that looked like the stumps of wasted trees, held a small, metal sign bearing pictures of a snake and a scorpion. Below them a stick-figure man walked inside a crossed out circle, I suppose toward his impending misfortune. Nothing more needed to be said. Beyond the meager barricade, great Sequoias stood like sentinels of the uninhabitable land.

Far in the distance, a dome of murky yellow drowned the desert stars. But all around it the evening swirled with clear blue air, so warm and thin that I felt almost weightless standing in it. A spark inside me lit, a source of fuel that had not been tapped before. Soon my dad would be on a plane without me. Soon I’d unlock the door to a place where I alone would sleep at night.

Another fifty miles, and we entered Phoenix. The city rejected the cool desert air, and well after the sun had left, its sweltering heat lagged idle amid the concrete and stucco buildings. We got a room at the La Quinta Inn not a hundred feet from the freeway. All night it droned with traffic, honking and reverberating in the heat. In the morning I called my mom and told her we’d made it safely, told her about the rest stop warning that I’d seen the night before.

“I don’t even want to hear it,” she said. “It’s too far away. Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Mom,” I leveled with her, “I’m already here. It’s a little late now.”

Before the heat grew too much to bear, my dad and I drove by the campus of Universal Technical Institute. It was hard to distinguish from among the diesel repair shops and fleet auto dealers congested into the industrial area. Parking, to get a better look, I saw a long row of bays with hydraulic lifts. Most of them were empty, it being Saturday and the campus closed. But in the very last opening of the blue and red concrete building, a man was working below a vehicle. He wore a shirt that matched the school’s paint, and black slacks. Above him on the lift, a late model minivan—a Chrysler, I remember, with a Clinton ’96 sticker on its white bumper—was receiving what looked to be a fresh exchange of oil. The man walked to each tire and checked its pressure as I watched, then went back to work underneath.

That’s just his daily driver, I thought. They probably keep the hot-rods and the Porsches locked away. After all, it didn’t look like the friendliest neighborhood. Across the street as we pulled away, a Rottweiler barked and snapped behind a tall fence topped with coils of razor wire, his teeth gnashing at the steel mesh, his eyes trained on us. Heaps of decimated cars stood beyond him, oozing their black blood into the gravel as they rusted. I breathed the dingy air and understood why the school recruiter couldn’t stay there. I wondered if my mom was taking Millie for a ride.

by Bill Erickson

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