It hadn’t taken very long to locate Roman’s truck after that. I maybe cruised a dozen different roads before finding it parked in the dirt driveway of a small adobe house with nothing but open desert stretching away from it into the night. If I had any chance of seizing the advantage, if there even was one to seize, I needed my arrival to be totally unexpected.
I must have been really losing my touch. Roman had been sitting in a wooden rocker on the crumbling concrete pad that served as a front porch when I arrived.
“This one here is your daddy and me when he was maybe eight and I was ten.” Roman pointed at one of roughly fifty framed pictures tacked to the cracked adobe wall. We were in a narrow hallway that separated the two bedrooms from the main living area, which itself was little more than an extension of the kitchen. In a way, the tiny house reminded me of every family housing unit on every Air Force base around the world. “That was the day I taught him how to shoot my twenty gauge.”
I stared at the two young boys, one who had grown up to be my father, the other a complete stranger. It was obvious the children were related, but looking at the man beside me now, I had a hard time believing my father would have looked anything like him. This man was old, for starters. A quick mental calculation placed him in the neighborhood of sixty. The father from my memory had never aged beyond his early thirties.
There were pictures of the boys everywhere. Some were in black and white, others in faded color. The clothes looked mostly homemade and both boys had worn their hair long clear up until the point when they’d been able to braid their locks back over their shoulders. I don’t think I ever saw my father with hair more than half an inch long. I found myself smiling at the boys, who always smiled right back. They were happy children. Their smiles reached their eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder what possibly could have happened to drive a wedge between them.
And then we passed from the pictures of the boys to those of their parents and the seemingly countless generations of theirs. These were people who didn’t smile for the camera and appeared largely annoyed by its mere presence. I won’t say the wives looked fearful of their husbands, but they certainly weren’t overjoyed to be in such close proximity, especially as the timeline went further and further back. The most recent portraits were something of an enigma though. There were plenty of inconsistencies from one to the next, perhaps as the nature of their relationship changed. The man made every effort to appear hardened, but I could tell it was merely a suit of armor he wore. The woman’s eyes twinkled with life until, abruptly, whatever spark animated them fizzled.
“Those are your grandparents. Our parents. It really is too bad you never got to meet them. And they never got to meet you.”
“They didn’t even know I existed.”
Roman turned and looked at me long and hard. His expression was one of contempt. At first, anyway. And then it softened to one of sympathy.
“I want to show you something.”
He led me down the hallway and ducked into the room on the right. It was obviously the master, and it was a room in transition. The bed and coverings must have belonged to my deceased grandparents. As had the majority of the furniture. The clothes in the antique wardrobe and the majority of the prints and tapestries hanging on the walls reflected tastes I attributed to my uncle, who had moved into this house after his parents had been committed to a kind of assisted living arrangement that sounded more like a hospice to me. He stopped before a tapestry with the logo of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“I always wanted to play pro ball,” he said, as if that explained anything, then yanked on the decoration, sending pushpins flying. “I didn’t have the heart to take these down.”
I managed not to gasp, but just barely. There was no hiding the surprise on my face, though.
There were pictures thumb-tacked to the wall.
Pictures of me.
Most of the pictures had been clipped from newspapers I immediately recognized. Others were actual photographs snapped from afar.
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t even seem to remember how to breathe.
All of them were of me. My picture in the Rocky Mountain News when I won the science fair in eighth grade. Another from the Denver Post during my hockey days in high school. My commencement photo. An interview I did for the college paper. And there were snapshots. Everything from my high school to my college to my academy graduation. Pictures of me smiling and laughing with my friends and grandparents, entirely oblivious to the ones who had journeyed all the way from this reservation so as not to miss my special moments.
“Why didn’t they ever say anything to me? I would have—”
“Would have what?”
“I don’t know. I never had the chance to find out.”
“It was a sore spot between my parents. My mother was the one who took the pictures. My father never approved.” I recalled the pictures of my grandparents, of the grandmother whose eyes were alight with joy and the grandfather whose eyes reflected his love for her, but at the same time, a solemn commitment to his duty. And, later, the physical toll their emotions had inflicted upon each other. “He and your daddy didn’t part ways on the best of terms.”
“Because Rafael committed the one sin for which my father couldn’t forgive him.”
I scoffed. My father couldn’t have sinned at gunpoint.
“What could he possibly have done that was so bad?”
Roman shrugged and turned away. I caught a glimpse of the anger and the hurt on his face before he did. Everything may have transpired a lifetime ago for me, but the wounds were still fresh for him.
His boots clomped on the floor as he walked back out into the hallway. I turned to follow him and stopped when I saw the framed pictures sitting on the dresser. They were of a woman who wasn’t in any of the portraits in the hallway. She was a beautiful woman, the kind who maintained her natural beauty as she grew old. Time had aged the portraits but not the woman herself, stranding the colors and the clothing in an era so long ago I couldn’t even recall it.
I looked up when Roman leaned around the doorway.
His eyes flared with fire. Quickly. So fast I could have blinked and missed it. And then it was gone as though it had never existed.
“Those aren’t for your eyes,” he said, and ushered me from the bedroom.
I didn’t force the issue. I had seen the woman’s physical expression in Ban. My cousin. He had her mouth and her nose. These people were strangers to me. Whatever might have transpired between Roman and her was none of my concern.
I studied the pictures of the family I’d never known on my way back into the main living area. I tried to commit them to memory, because I wouldn’t be coming back. There was nothing for me here. I took comfort from the fact that despite whatever may have happened, my paternal grandparents had cared for me, if only from a distance. This world might have been a part of my heritage and, to some degree, my past, but it wasn’t my future. We all have our ghosts, and my father had left his here. I had no intention of making them my own.
“Offer you one for the road?” Roman said. He closed the refrigerator door with a single bottle in his hand before I even replied.