Leaving Los Angeles was very frightening to me. Mr Charming had basically kept me under house arrest for years. My world consisted of my apartment, to the local grocery store, out to a park, or for a walk to a local shopping area, and back again. Billy was kind, the children adored him, and there was no shouting, no cruelty, no upset. We had spent a few days in a hotel in Anaheim, just trying to adjust, eating pancakes and ice cream, and walking round the disney shopping village with the kids. It was safe. The RV was parked outside in the motel parking lot, a mess of bags, and pans, and supplies. The kids chose seats, my son decided to take the table, and my daughter the armchair behind my passenger side copilot berth. We cleared away the camping pots and pans Billy had thrown into a box, fishing lines, and tackle boxes, hunting knives and Indian bows. The cupboard was inspected and found to contain more coffee than any man could drink, tea bags, cereal boxes and poptarts. Gallon jugs of water were jammed into the stair well, flimsy white slatted blinds at every window. Up above the drivers cabin there was a bunk bed, with white curtains and a thin mattress. The table broke down to make another bed. There was a propane stove with an oven that didn’t work, and a microwave that did work if we were plugged in. Under the stairs there was a battery bank that seemed to power only lights. A small chemical toilet that flushed, and had a holding tank, a small wash basin and a shower unit that was stuffed full of boxes and things. The back bedroom was full of guitars. My old Martin slid back to its original owner in its plush green velvet lined case, joining Billy’s Seagull and a battered old Norman. The back room consisted of a bed. Any space to either side was taken up by boxes which contained notebooks, guitar strings, picks, more hunting knives, assorted screwdrivers and small tools, various sets of spectacles, none of which were his current prescription, and spools of wire. Books were jammed in everywhere else. The top cupboards were stuffed full of everything from Karl Marx to photobooks documenting the punk scene in the UK. As I surveyed the enormity of the task getting the camper into a livable state, I got lost in a tattered book of Dylan’s lyrics, and came back into the world around me to find the boy holding a small bow, and a large arrow, and my girl fiddling with a tiny personal radio. Christmas in May. After disarming my son, and finding him a working radio amongst all the hoarded stuff in boxes, him exclaiming that it was amazing what you can find in boxes in Uncle Billy’s truck, and being warned that boxes were out of bounds until we could make sure that they were safe. He was only 7, bright eyed, and nervous. My son had been made into an anxious wreck due to his father’s violence. He spoke quietly, deferred to his big sister, and remained shyly attached to me. Billy sat him down, pulling out a good pocket knife. “I don’t think you are ready for one of these, yet, Jamie, but we will sit down and Ill show you how to whittle safely, would you like that?” Jamie beamed.
We decided to set off down the road early, the kids nursing bottles of Mexican cola and picking at their boxed lunches of bologna and bread, and me and Billy, sitting there, up front with coffee and granola bars. I loved Billy then. I loved him so deeply, so dearly, so immensely that I thought my heart would break. I loved his shaved balding head, his dented cheekbone, his watery blue eyes with touches of robin’s egg like some eternal painter had decided to add touches of highlight into that endless pale sea. I loved his effortless cool. Many years had passed since we had last seen each other. We had taken very different paths. From the last time I saw him on the bridge above a freeway, balancing crazily on the handrail, his leather duster billowing behind him, as he drunkenly played chicken with death, he had calmed down immensely. In the 18 months of conversation it had taken to get me and the children out, he had shown himself to be totally sober, kind, sweet, and the man he always should have been. He cared. He was now 62 years old or so, if I am calculating correctly, but still immensely strong, fit and ridiculously athletic. Billy reached out for my hand over the expanse of space between his drivers seat, and my passenger chair, and squeezed it tightly. I had vertigo. Everything was too big, too open, too alien, there was too much space and all of it unfamiliar. The sky was too large, the rocks in the southern Californian landscape, too alien. I might as well have been on Mars. Billy drove carefully out of L.A. the kids mesmerized by the view out of the windows.
Though Billy had been in and out of jail as a younger man, he was only into petty crime. Mainly things linked to his drinking, small time theft to fuel his habits, a little actual bodily harm when fighting while drunk. I tried to explain how I felt. Like the weight of the enormity of the world was crushing me with its gravity. I needed some walls. Some constraint. I needed to feel less tiny, less fragile. He nodded his head sagely, “yeah, it kinda goes like that when you get out of jail, it gets better. Ill try and remember you haven’t been out too much in a while.” I looked over. He didn’t really understand at all. How could he? How could he know what it was like to be trapped by in a country that failed to protect you, despite it being common knowledge you were being tortured, that refused you a divorce with any kind of financial settlement that would allow you to leave, in fact refused to let you take your children to safety and refused full stop to let you leave with them and a legal permanent separation. Mr Charming would regularly tell me that he would never divorce me. Not ever. He would tell me that I belonged to him. How could he understand walking streets for hours with two children in the small hours of Tokyo mornings? How could he get how it was to fall asleep with one child under each arm, one eye open, protective, never quite falling asleep knowing you were open to a man-sized-bomb’s whims and psychotic rages? How could he know the fear of not being allowed to be where you were? How could he know what it was like for your world to contract so totally, into a pin prick of dense black hole of all consuming disaster, and then explode into a never ending white lines of the freeway, the open road and the infinite sky. My hands were shaking, my breath ragged in my chest. To my left I was mesmerized by the sandrock faces, and to me right the sandy concrete palm treed bleached to the bone picture postcard ever changing landscape mural of California. The California of the movies, of the vast catalogue of westerns and crime movies, of serial killers and Hollywood stars, of ATV’s coming over the horizon, and the lazy heads of horses chewing the sparse grass while yard dogs barked their alarms. How could anyone understand? Why would I even want them to?
I leapt out to pay cash at a gas station. A disinterested girl was chewing gum as she twirled her hair at the guys ahead of me, who were vaguely flirting with her in that lazy male redneck way, taking a chance that some female might be desperate or dumb enough to take them in for a night or two. I had no idea what I was doing there. “What pump?” she asked. “uh…oh…I don’t know,” I replied panicked. Then came the question that I would have to tolerate time and time again. “Where are you from, anyway?”. I said the first country that came to mind, “Poland,” I replied. “I’m in the RV, the big white one, out there.” I ran out, found the pump number, ran back, passed the girl fifty bucks, picked up some cans of soda and candy bars, and paid her as quickly as I could. “Enjoy your vacation!” she called out after me. For some reason, it irritated me immensely. This was no pleasure trip, no vacation. This was life and death. This was a prison break, an escape from death, it was my grand-play for freedom.
I hopped back to Billy, giving him the receipt, he was pumping the gas into the Beastie’s vast side, struggling with the pump and the gas cap in one hand. None of us were in our element, just yet. I felt an overwhelming rush of love for him, and jumped up, kissing him on the cheek. He smiled shyly. He looked so young again, for a second. So very young. The L.A. heat was beating down on me, and I ran back to my passenger side door, opened it to find the kids listening to their respective radios, the boy’s a clear green, hers a solid red. My daughter was singing along to some new country song about county lines and tail gates, or some other nonsense, while her brother rolled his eyes. ‘It’s All Beany’, he explained, tutting and huffing. ‘He is ridiculous.” She snapped to attention, as many girls had before her to defend the subject of their crushes, “Jason is NOT ridiculous,” she pouted. “Not at all!”. They seemed more animated, more relaxed. The threat of violence gone, peace and hope and a future overtook the usual drag of fear that trips usually came with. No one was about to strand us on the side of the road.
We had a brand new KOA directory, which had very basic maps of the United States, we were headed out to Castiac Lake. It was 45 miles, but it seemed like a thousand miles. Pointing the RV eastwards, we rolled into the tiny town of Castiac, and into the parking lot of a Jack in the Box. Billy and I shared a burger, the kids ordered fries and burgers and shakes, and we sat there eating in the fast food joint. “Uncle Billy, how old is that pineapple in the cupboard? Jamie ate some of it, and I don’t think that was a very good idea,” my girl was already taking charge of the cupboards, the one above her seat was her domain and all that sailed in it belonged to her. No one wanted to take away her fun, and went along with her, smiling and giggling. “Sweetheart, it is superbly aged, like a fine wine, a delicacy. It is at least 150 years old, and at it’s absolute peak. Jamie will be absolutely fine, in fact it might put some hairs on his chest!” Billy, ruffled Jamie’s hair affectionately. Jamie didn’t flinch. Rosie went back to dissecting her hamburger and fries, sorting them by length, pulling out the tomato from her burger and throwing it on my tray like she was removing a slug from a shoe. Taking a plastic spoon, she proceeded to scrape mayo and tomato sauce from her burger and splat it again on my tray. This was pretty normal for Rosie. I cut my burger in two, Billy made a big show of eating the discarded salad from Rosie’s burger, making her giggle quietly.
We made our way back out to the RV, fast food hangover kicking in fast, I felt like I could sleep for a thousand years, and rolled into Castiac Lake campground. It was a dusty, dry, gravelly campground, no green, no foliage separating the sites. I could imagine Clint himself setting up a dutch oven to cook some beans and bacon and boil water for chicory coffee, whilst his horse stood hobbled next to him, and danger gathered around. The lake was blue and large, with a steep bank leading down to it. We chose a site, paid in cash, putting the tags on our windscreen and started to set up so we could relax. The kids asked to go outside. I nervously agreed, telling them not to touch scorpions, or wildlife, and to yell if anyone said anything to them, and come right back in if they were scared at all. This was way out of my comfort zone. We were the only campers in there, it was empty apart from us, and perhaps one host trailer at the entrance. Reader, at this point, I was sorta scared. A bit intimidated by its apparent remoteness. It felt wild. It felt dangerous. I was out of my element. The kids had found sticks, and were drawing in the sand. Billy made me a cup of tea and poured it into a blue ceramic camp cup, helped me haul out the Martin, and I sat there tuning it quietly.
I had put the Dylan book under my pillow on top of the sleeping bag in the back bedroom of the trailer, pulling it out, I opened it up to Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s easter time too,” I sang. Billy joined in, singing low and slow. “tell her thanks a lot,’ we sang together. The kids came in and sat and listened. When we finished the song, Rosie pushed a piece of paper into my hands. She had sketched Billy and I with guitars in our hands, singing together, with a tree entwining round our arms and legs. Under it she had written the words ‘family is love’. She hopped back outside. Billy had tears running down his cheeks. “Hey, hey, Lets go and see that lake, see if we can find a snake.” We locked up the camper, and headed to the lake. It was late afternoon, and no snakes, just an old coyote taking a drink from the water. We stood silently watching him, as he lifted his grizzled head, regarded us, and stalked off moodily.