Uncle Drake would be proud of me now. Even if nobody else is, at least, he’d be. And that would make it all okay. Even if the rest of my family casts their eyes to the floor when I come through the door in tooled leather boots, a heavy chain linking my wallet to my belt loop, a silver cigarette case tucked snug in my back pocket. If he were still here to see me, he’d be proud.
I’ve taken most of my clues in life from his memory. Under the circumstances, and in this part of the country, his memory is what’s kept me going all these years. It’s never easy to be a dyke, but a mannish woman with mechanical inclinations doesn’t always excel in the social environment of a conservative religious neck of the woods. That’s where I live. It’s where my family is. It’s what I know. I’d be a sitting duck anywhere else, in a big city filled with a lot slick hucksters. Here, at least I know what to expect. And not everybody hates and resents me. Sometimes I think they do, but I know my mother’s brother, Uncle Drake, never would.
Drake was different. He was a trucker, a long-distance freelance hauler, who’d pull anything from livestock, to armaments parts, to those chopped-in-half prefab houses – so long as the trip was over 500 miles and it paid well. His rig was his pride and joy. She was brilliant cherry red, with carefully detailed midnight blue pin-striping that curled around the front grille and along the sides of the cab doors. He kept the chrome looking like new, the silver bulldog perched on the very tip of the hood shining like the sun. And he always had treats for his nephew and nieces stashed under the driver seat — souvenirs from a Canadian truck stop, or salt water taffy from Atlantic City. I remember how he would lift my sisters and me – four, six and nine years old – into the cab and let us pretend to drive, while he stood down in front of the truck, waving his arms, acting as though we’d drive over him. He showed me exactly how an engine works, inside and out, too — which didn’t hurt, years later, when neighbors started coming to me for help with their lawnmowers and small generators. I had Uncle Drake to thank for my knack at small engine repair.
He might have been proud to hear of my solid mechanical tendencies, never mind that I’m a woman. He never did give a good goddamn about propriety and manners, and he often said he wished he’d had a kid like me. To my nine-year-old ears, those were the sweetest words. But to others, his ways weren’t quite as savory. He was plainspoken, wild and exotic, with pointy-toed, tooled leather boots, a thin, waxed mustache, and the bitter cigarettes he smoked that nipped the insides of our noses and always made Ma hurry to pull out the ashtray she used only for company. He lived up to his name, with his bright black sheen of his greased-back hair curling up in a reversed widow’s peak, looking like a duck caught in a rain storm. He used rough language and his quirky mannerisms grated when he got too loud.
My little sisters were afraid and steered clear of him, but to me, he was an awesome presence. He did everything I couldn’t do in the same place where I lived, and he got away with it. Raised in remote, isolated farmland, my parents taught me to never swear, and my family rarely crossed the river an hour’s drive away because it was too far a ride to get to anything on the other side and make it back in time for dinner. I knew only as much of the world outside as I could glean from our three local t.v. stations, and Uncle Drake’s stories. Drake was different.
Uncle Drake was a man of the world, always smelling of something unfamiliar and faintly decadent – truck stops, diesel fuel, axle grease, and smoke. He was exotic. He was completely foreign to us, yet the other worlds he inhabited he shared freely. Whenever he came over, he would march into the living room, park himself in the middle of our sofa, light up one of his thin, stinky cigarettes, and begin to tell stories from the road. Cops harassing him just because he was a trucker… The shenanigans at the truck stops that made my dad (a vigilant, conscientious father of daughters) lift his hand to silence him halfway through… The traffic patterns and new interstate extensions under construction… I’d sit across the room from him, half afraid to go near him, half afraid to offend him by my distance, hovering and dodging the smoke he exhaled in a blue cloud that hung in the air till long after he’d left for the night. We nodded our heads through the stories, never knowing just what to believe. My dad never dared call him a liar, but he cautioned us after Drake left for the evening to believe only half of his tall tales. Which half, he never said.
I didn’t care if Drake was a liar. He was different, and that’s what mattered to me. In his stories, he took us to places that we’d never gone on our own. Not other parts of the country, so much as different parts of the same area – places we were strictly forbidden to go. Truck stops, bars, trashy movie theaters, cheap motels with saggy beds and magic fingers… rough-and-tumble places where people with tattoos swore and drank. It was a part of the world we never saw – were never permitted to see – when we were kids.
He lived in a little yellow trailer parked in the middle of a reclaimed cow pasture about ten miles down the road from our place. His home always seemed small and forlorn to me, a sallow box surrounded by tufts of unmowed alfalfa left over from past days, the corrugated roof rusting at the edges, the thin black railing running up the side of the four steps to the flimsy front door reminding me of his mustache. But the curvey-edged wooden sign out front that had his name burned into it in coarse, rustic letters couldn’t give it the look of a home.
All that mattered to him, he told me, was that there was room enough in the back lot for a steel tool shed. And the driveway had ample space for him to park his car and let him dismantle his truck. He was rarely home, anyway. His trips kept him away. Always his trips… I missed him when he was away, but the rest of my family seemed relieved. Every time Drake came into our lives, whether it was for one day or the weekend, everything would change for me. A whole new world opened up. Whenever he was around…
Uncle Drake was on the road, 300 days out of the year for the next ten years. As time passed, and we saw less and less of him, his stories revealed less and less of what he’d experienced — he seemed to tell them to obscure more than to enlighten. Mom and Dad exchanged glances over dinner, while he dodged my father’s innocently direct questions about his travels, and I heard my parents talking later about Uncle Drake being in trouble. Just what kind of trouble, they didn’t say. They just knew something was wrong. I overheard them discussing something with him one evening after supper, and I could hear him declining their help over and over and over again. He had his pride, and no matter how often my mother assured him we all loved and supported him, no matter what, his answer was always the same. He didn’t need their help.
The more concern my parents expressed, the shadier a figure Uncle Drake became, as the months and years passed. He’d stop by only a few times a year and, in his unguarded moments, we’d hear him swearing under his breath in language that seemed rough, even for him. When I reached behind his seat to look for treats one time, he snapped at me to get away. Once, I felt a cold metal object under the oily rags on the floor. I never asked him about it, and we never pressed him about his moods, though. We didn’t dare. My parents had long since given up asking him if they could help. And my Uncle Drake had long since gone missing. Even when he was around, he just wasn’t — there.
Then, one summer day when I was 12, it was suddenly over. We kids were playing tag in the street on a Saturday morning, when my mother got the call. Without so much as a word she closed the front door firmly behind her and locked it. Now, our house had no air conditioning, and we always left the front door open in summertime. But that day, in 90-degree heat and oppressive humidity, my mother appeared briefly to ask us kids to stay out of the way for the rest of the day, locked all the doors and drew all the curtains. She said she’d bring us sandwiches at lunchtime.
Not that we minded — the day was warm and clear and it was just the start of summer vacation. Any reason to be outside suited us. But we knew something was amiss. Something awful had happened — something grave and final and deeply disturbing. It had to be serious.
We snuck around and peeked through what uncurtained windows we could find; there was my mother, pale and drawn and talking on the phone, grim and tight-lipped. We watched her for a few moments, till our wondering started to bother us, then went off to resume our play.
At the end of the day, Ma unlocked the doors and let us back inside. We were called to supper and, when my father got home later, about nine, we were told that Uncle Drake’s truck had crashed. He’d been hauling some highly flammable chemical, jackknifed his rig on a deserted New Mexico highway, plunged over an embankment, and burned to death. The coroner suspected he’d been dead of a broken neck before the fire burned his body, but still… how horrible. I shivered for weeks, thinking about it. And at the funeral, with the casket closed, I could only speculate at how the body looked. Horrible. Just horrible.
My mother was composed throughout the whole ceremony, staid and stoic, for weeks on end. “I’ll be alright,” she insisted. “I’m really alright.” We wondered, until our wondering started to get to us.
I let his memory go as best I could, while word started to spread that I could fix a lawnmower motor for a decent price. Hedge trimmers, too. I enrolled in vocational school and my instructors picked up where Uncle Drake had left off. But it wasn’t the same, working with goggles and safety gear. It wasn’t the same as crawling under the hood of an 18-wheeler. It just wasn’t the same.
My parents never talked much about Drake after that. I knew better than to bring it up. It was bad enough, he was dead, without having to remind everyone of it and prompt one of my parents’ “understanding death” discussions with me and my sisters. But I knew my parents still discussed him. At night, I’d hear whispers coming from their room. Words like New Mexico and arrangements leaked under the door, as I tossed fitfully, images of flames licking at my arms and legs dancing behind my closed eyelids.
One night, years after Uncle Drake had passed, I pressed my ear to their door, to hear what they were saying. Trouble… corpse… Police…
We buried somebody…
…but it wasn’t Drake.
The body we buried —
— it had all his jewelry
it didn’t have his teeth.
I tiptoed back to bed, unable to rest, my mind whirling with the possibilities. Was it true? Was Uncle Drake’s death uncon-firmed? My mother’s brother had been buried in a closed casket, surrounded by weeping extended family. I thought he burned to a crisp somewhere in the New Mexico wilderness.
But if what my parents whispered were true, the story wasn’t over. Each night before I slept, I fleshed out the myth of my Uncle, piecing together what information I could glean from the hushed murmurings behind a closed door… Somewhere along the line, my uncle had gotten into trouble. And somehow, through some connection, he’d located a body that resembled him, dressed it in his clothes, put it behind the wheel of his 18-wheeler, and sent the whole rig to a fiery grave. Somehow, somewhere, my uncle had taken care of his own troubles in his own way, and he might still be out there.
In the back of my mind, I congratulated Uncle Drake for pulling off the impossible getting out of a tough spot by any means necessary — on his own terms, in his own time, in his own way. It seemed the only fitting way for him to do it. Uncle Drake could be out there somewhere… With one family in South Texas and one in Nebraska… Or just roaming wild and free on the highways and byways of life. He could still be out there…
Maybe I could find him, sometimes I think, and ask him how he did it — how much it had cost him — if he’d killed the man who’d burned in his place, or if he’d saved up and bought the stiff — or if he’d done a favor for a buddy who’d gotten himself in trouble in a drunken brawl, and that buddy had repaid him with the corpse… the possibilities are endless, and my mind wanders through the Southwest, following the imagined trail of my prodigal uncle. The prodigal who isn’t coming back. As I dream myself to sleep, a smile creeps across my face.
In my waking mind, too, I still follow his footsteps sometimes. When I’m dismantling a generator in my driveway, beside my car, the smell of gas, oil and lubricant thick in my nose, and the pool of grease gathering on the blacktop at my feet. I hoist my wrench, test its weight in my hand, and turn the nuts and bolts Uncle Drake taught me to love. I see myself getting into a tight spot, finding a connection with some underground boss, and faking my own death. When things get too drab, when the people around me become too uncomfortable with a mannish woman who has strong mechanical inclinations, when I think my life has become too predictable, too safe, I envision myself hanging from the side of a tractor trailer cab, watching the embankment rush towards me, a dead man in the driver seat, and my freedom rushing by me on the ground below.
Instead, I fix my neighbors’ small engines and look for a woman who’ll choose to live her life with me. Uncle Drake would be as proud of me, as I am of him. He’d like these new boots I just got. Genuine snakeskin from the Southwest.