What strikes me immediately, viewing his photo, is that, at even seven years old, he is already irredeemable. He sits under the Christmas tree, having wrapped himself up – swaddled himself, really – in a red bathrobe. He is hunched over his crossed legs and studying something. The openness and wide eyes expected of a child at Christmas are conspicuously absent. He is disappointing everyone by his inwardness. He has already had too much, and wants to hide: he hides inside his robe, inside his pajamas, inside his body. The way he hunches includes whatever he is poring over – it's almost certainly a book – decisively excludes everything else. He will spend his life finding, or building, protected spaces to inhabit.
And yet, on the contrary, as a corrective, or a corollary, he loves the wind and the open spaces, at least when he's alone. He doesn't learn to be afraid of heights until young adulthood. He turns around, having climbed up to a ledge on Oregon's Mt Washington, and the land hundreds of feet below swoops and turns bizarrely. He is fascinated and horrified. Now he knows what ordinary people feel like, why they're so silly and cautious on cliffs and bridges and rooftops. But he also knows that he'll never be fearless again: and he never is.
He is in the first grade, and he is in love with a little blonde girl named Susan. He watches her gravely. He never bothers her. He looks her up in the phone book and finds her address. Then he looks up the address on the city map and thinks he could find it, maybe. He sets out one afternoon. No plan in mind: he just wants to see her house. He is so normally unenterprising that when his father, driving home from work, discovers him, a few blocks from home, he's astonished. He pulls over. The boy climbs into the car, defeated.
“What are you doing here?” asks his father.
“Walking,” says the boy. He never says more than that. His father drives him home, and he never tries it again. But he longs for Susan, with an intensity that never really makes sense. He never tries to make it make sense. He's learned, by now, that all the really important things can't be made sense of and can't be spoken.
Not aloud. But there's one secret exception: there are books and maps. No living person can tell him anything he wants to know. There's no way to talk about Susan, or about the wind, so that anyone will understand it. But there are hints, sometimes, in books. And there are maps of places he has never been, with names he can read, but can't say. He searches maps obsessively, preparing as best he can for the voyages he may have to make, and any book in a language he can't read transfixes him. When he finally gets to take a language class – it's not till he's eight or nine – he devours it. The truth about Susan and the wind might be written down in Spanish: there's no telling. Wherever it is, it will be in someplace odd and neglected. He studies codes and ciphers and secret writing.
Susan has vanished: she's replaced by Julie in the second grade, and then Dottie in the third. He and Dottie actually sit on the swings together and talk, talk about all the things they read about. He wants to give Dottie a ring. He wants to write to her in some secret writing, some cipher. But she vanishes too, when he moves to Springfield, and acquires a no-nonsense stepfather. Everything is a jumble and a mess, after that. Some orderly progression was interrupted there, and never resumed.
He stands at the freeway entrance from Moses Lake, Washington, his patched jeans faded to a pale blue, his long blond hair blowing in the desert wind. Billy sits dejectedly among the packs. When a car goes by, they both stick their arms out, thumbs poking up. Billy thinks it doesn't matter if they stand up or not, and they've been there four hours already. But Dale will only sit down if there's no car in sight.
A knock on the door of the Mexican hotel room. They both giggle. It's her friend, the dancer, the one who reportedly goes on to make blue movies a few years later.
“Are you guys okay in there?”
“We're fine,” chirrups the girl.
“We don't want any pregnancies here,” warns her friend, who believes in getting down to brass tacks.
“We're being careful,” says the girl. And they are. They're just touching each other. He's amazed and grateful. He's far too young for her. His heart is skidding like a jet ski over choppy water. It's twilight.
She knows Spanish. When the Mexican guys croon dirty things to the tourist girl who won't understand it, she spits, “chinga tu madre,” and they veer off, startled. He knows she won't want to know him when they get back to the States. And anyway, she'll be hundreds of miles away. She's tipsy now: and she's just had a soft spot for the chuckleheaded little brother of her friend's friend from the start, and she's been amused by his obvious, undemanding crush on her. And they're leaving Guadalajara tomorrow, going their separate ways. What the hell.
The wallpaper is a dim blue-green, and he'll remember the deep peace of that room, the peace of being accepted, the pulsing warmth welcoming his fingers, forever.
Up on the ridge, where we are now, at least a few stars win out over the ambient light of Portland: Vega has been appearing in the early evening, against all odds, falling westward, telling me that I have not blown all my chances, that I'm still, somehow, blessed; that it's still my job to carry the chalice to the stone. This business of bearing sacred blood becomes more mysterious, not less, as time goes on. Whatever it depends on, it's not anything I'm accustomed to calling “me.”