- In the Shadow of a Mountain
When I was seven, my father’s heart stalled in afternoon traffic. The stoplight turned green; his truck didn’t move. Someone called 911. Someone gave him CPR. I do not know whether he died in the cab of his pickup or on a stretcher, in the back of an ambulance, a paramedic pumping at his chest.
A few years later, my mother met my stepfather at church. He was divorced, also with two kids. There were the growing pains of blended family: my stepfather was electricity and I was the water that conducted his lightning-quick temper. My mother tried to will peace upon her household. She scheduled counseling sessions for us. When these efforts failed, she drove me three hours away from our home on the coast to stay with my grandparents for the summer.
Much of my mother’s big Catholic family still lives in Odell, Oregon, at the base of Mt. Hood, surrounded by pear orchards. Downtown is a single street, punctuated by a little supermarket, two taquerias, a video rental, and a wood-paneled barbershop where I received lopsided haircuts from an aging barber, dead at least a decade now. My grandfather opened a service station on this little strip in 1946 using the money he’d made working on a minesweeper on the Pacific Front. Back then, he’d had bulky forearms with pale, protruding blue veins, his bottom lip pregnant with menthol Copenhagen. In black-and-white photographs, he is young, virile, grease up to his elbows, half under a four-door, finned Chevy. He pumped gas and patched tires, pledged allegiance to Chevrolet-everything for the next 50 years.
Since the mid-80s, the Chevron has been run by my uncle Butch, the youngest of three sons, a man born with forearms and a first name to match [End Page 63] his father. My mother may have hoped her younger brother would become some approximation of a father figure to me that summer I spent working for him. I might have hoped that too—I liked Butch. He was the uncle who made cherry milkshakes, who drove us in the Fourth of July parade when we were little, my cousins and I perched throwing candy from the back of his World War II Jeep.
Butch was not at all like my stepfather—a man simmering just below his boiling point. He was the opposite. My uncle didn’t show much emotion at all, and barely spoke unless you engaged him in a conversation about Buddy Holly or Chevys. This was not the makeup of a man who might step into the role of surrogate father for his grieving nephew. I didn’t know anything about cars—the common ground he had with other nephews who worked for him, kids who grew up in the valley, stooped under the hoods of their father’s pickup trucks. Butch spoke in tongues, trying to show me how to patch a tire, to check and change oil at least half a dozen times to no avail. I was relegated to pumping gas, to washing windshields, to spritzing the ancient bathroom with bleach at the end of each day.
After work, my grandmother made dinner—some sautéed zucchini from her garden, a piece of venison she’d defrosted from the freezer. One night, after we ate, my grandfather called me into his den. “Why can’t you get along with your stepfather?” he demanded. “Why are you making your mother’s life so hard? She’s been through so much, God damn it.”
I opened my mouth but said nothing, afraid that if I spoke, my voice would fray. Any allusion to my father’s death was enough to crack me open.
My grandfather folded his arms. He had lost his thumb in the 1960s when a hoist at the Chevron malfunctioned. I still believed the story he’d told me when I was little, that a bear had bit it off, the narrative plausible, he an avid hunter and prolific taxidermist, evidenced by the meticulously staged menagerie in his den: a mountain lion pelt with...