As my mother so delicately put it, our ragtag little family came together because of “a beautiful, drunken mistake.”
I know what she means. My parents were barely out of their teens when their casual relationship resulted in yours truly. The year surrounding my birth is a story in and of itself, involving wacky misunderstandings, dramatic reveals, bar brawls, and a vengeful ex-girlfriend, but it’s not my story to tell. Somehow they managed to scrape together whatever bits of maturity they had and make a home, but it’s a hardscrabble sort of life for two overgrown kids with a baby. There was never enough money, never enough time to catch up. They did what they could to keep the plates spinning.
When I was seven, our tiny tin-roofed trailer took in a boarder. Craig was the guitarist in my dad’s band and a professional couch nomad. He explained to me once that he didn’t have a permanent address and just floated around wherever he felt like it. I asked him once if he was like The Littlest Hobo.
“Well, shit,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess I am that fuckin’ dog. Just goin’ around the road and shit. Except I guess I never saved someone from no goddamn train car or whatever it is he fuckin’ does. I just kill the locals with sick guitar solos and fuck off out of it.”
He always talked like that. He didn’t mean anything by it, but his speech was peppered with as many “fuck”s and “shit”s as there were nouns. Every sentence was a work of art in the medium of sheer profanity. My mother furrowed her brow at the way he spoke, but studiously ignored it in exchange for rent and the fact that he was willing to engage me in rambling conversation so she could get dinner on the table.
Once you got past the language, Craig had a strange way with children. At a somewhat brainy seven, I was used to being condescended to or treated as an adorable sideshow, but he treated me like a well-admired peer who just happened to be really short and obsessed with ponies.
“Whatcha readin’ today, li’l mama?”
I looked up from the ancient copy of National Geographic. “I’m learning about Burkina Faso.”
“You know most girlies your age are readin’ about unicorns and magic fuckin’ kittens and shit? That’s pretty supremely fuckin’ cool. Who the shit is Burkina Faso?”
“It’s a country,” I said. “Not a person.”
“That’s good enough for me. I bet you can tell me all the fuck about it now, so let’s hear it.”
And so it went. I’d go off excitedly about whatever new information I’d just picked up, and he’d actually listen. I don’t think he retained any of it, just like I forgot all the chords he tried to show me, but like any two people who aren’t used to being heard, we had an understanding.
“I tell you, mama, you’re fuckin’ goin’ places.” He’d say this all the time, but on this particular day, there was a note of melancholy in it. I peered owlishly at him through my glasses as he pulled a cigarette from behind his ear and lit it.
After a beat, he spoke again. “You listen to me, kiddo. You’re special. A real diamond. Don’t become no cocksuckin’ washout like me.”
“You’re not a washout.” I said it because I believed it rather than out of any sense of loyalty. Craig played a bluesy Lohengrin on his electric guitar for my Barbie weddings. Sometimes he would play it with his teeth and play it well. How could he not be magic?
“Li’l mama, I sleep on your fuckin’ couch and play guitar for a living. That ain’t nothin’ anyone needs to be proud of.”
“Dad does that. I’m proud of my dad.”
He puffed on his cigarette. “That’s different. For one, your daddy don’t sleep on no couch, he sleeps in a bed with one of the hottest pieces of ass I’ve ever seen, if you’ll excuse me saying so about your mom.”
I nodded, mostly because I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Second of all, that ain’t all your daddy is. He does it for you. He loves his tunes, but he loves you more. Me, I do this shit because there’s fuckall else I wanna do, which ain’t no way to live your life. You listen to me. You gotta have something to do it for.”
“Anything. Fuckin’ anything. You make goddamn sure you have a reason.”
He moved out that Sunday.
It’s been a lot of years since that trailer and a whole lot of life since that little girl. I haven’t gone to any of the places in National Geographic or the ones I was supposed to go in Craig’s head. Lately, I’ve been having a crisis of wondering why I bother with writing. I fall asleep on my own couch after hours of trying to produce something readable and it’s so, so frustrating. I don’t know that I’ll ever do much of anything with it, but it’s enough to have a reason. See, I finally decided that I’m going to push on with it regardless in search of maybe someday finding and making something special.
A real fuckin’ diamond.