My backroad memorial

My favorite memories of my brother are of him in the driver's seat, tearing down dirt roads. So on nights when I miss him more than I can bear, I just turn up the radio, roll down the windows, and speed.

Published April 9, 2007 11:17AM (EDT)

About 10 times a year, I get completely airborne in my vehicle while speeding over the railroad tracks just past my daughters' elementary school a mile from our house.

The feeling of the van leaving the asphalt and the metal rails perpendicular to the tires, the whole body suspended for a moment -- and then, in my imagination gathering itself like an animal underneath me, legs curving while flying, and slamming back down on the other side -- is something I cannot give up, even though I am a single mother with three girls who lives a near-saintly daily existence of work and school runs and practice and laundry.

The fact that my car is an 11-year-old green Mercury Villager van, with honor roll bumper stickers, and dents put in the body by hit-and-run idiots, doesn't negate the fact that my car has enough power to fly up over those tracks, to fly around curves on desert highways and orange grove dirt roads.

I speed up when I see the tracks, when it's late at night and I'm alone in the van after dropping someone off for a sleepover, or picking up something near midnight at the grocery store, when I feel so lonely for my old, sometimes-wild life and my gone brother that I have no other choice but to turn the radio to Van Halen or AC/DC and pretend he and I are still driving together and not giving a damn about safety or sanity or anything but the pounding music and blur outside our open windows.

The windows have to be open. Because that's how it always was.

My brother, three years younger than me, was the only person in the world with my exact genetic heritage. I have half-brothers and -sisters, stepbrothers and -sisters, foster brothers and sisters. But when my brother's thick blond hair hung to his waist, as it did for more than 10 years, even our grandmother mistook us for each other from behind.

All my best memories of my brother are in vehicles, speeding, predatory or celebratory. We were just made to drive. For the last 12 years of his life, he lived as caretaker of an orange grove. There, on 18 acres, my brother collected cars and trucks and motorcycles. He raced around with my daughters and me in a golf cart. He tied our old dishwasher and a refrigerator to junk cars named Gumby and Monkey and had demolition derbies in the vacant land near his well. When he drove alone with me in one of his trucks, taking me to see a hundred-year-old citrus grove, we clattered down washboard dirt roads and flew over ditches. Our backbones rattled and I felt an unmatchable exhilaration.

When he came down "to the city" to see us, to kill a skunk or gopher for me, or to deliver oranges to us and his other, true cash crop to others, people who waited all year for him, my brother always had a dog on the front seat, and we could hear him blocks before he arrived. Van Halen or AC/DC screaming from the cab, his tires screaming around our corner, and once he was driving down the wrong lane, hollering, "I changed my mind -- I want this side now!"

He and I drove together across the country in 1983 -- 24 years ago and I remember it every day -- when he came to help me with the long journey home from graduate school in Massachusetts . He arrived by plane, and I didn't know he was carrying at least a pound of homegrown. I was 22, and he was 19. I didn't know why the three guys next door to my apartment were looped for days, until my brother and I packed up my Honda and I heard their pained laments at his departure.

We drove to Pennsylvania, stayed with a good friend, and my brother charmed everyone in her tough city by distributing a bit more smoky happiness. He had money. He bought gas. And I left my intellectual and very safe life behind, watching my brother take in the landscape without fear. We headed through West Virginia, and he rolled his own while I drove 90 down the interstate like I didn't care about college and my fiancC) or cops, and he played Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive" and Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower."

We rolled into Sandusky, Ohio, and then straight through to the dryland high plains of Colorado, where our father was born. We raced down miles of country dirt road through wheat fields. We met our father's father for the first time, and spent days painting a relative's eaves. My brother smoked at night under a huge moose head in the den, brazenly, never afraid, until we got restless and sped off one morning and went straight through Utah and Nevada, Las Vegas and then home to Southern California.

Nothing has ever felt that way to me again. Not driving with my husband, or my daughters, or alone.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Our father loved to race cars. As a teenager, left on his own by neglectful parents, he was desperate to survive, but when he had money, he customized mufflers on old cars, adding sewer pipes and glass packs for maximum sound effect, and he street-raced. My mother and father split up when I was three and my brother was still in the womb.

He moved 30 miles away, and later, he actually worked in the pit for the Fontana Motor Speedway. I remember him reverently mentioning Richard Petty and Mario Andretti -- their rhyming names like magic. My father taught me to drive, when I was 16 and visited him once a month. He had spent his life on the road, as a salesman for everything from cigarettes to hardware. He'd sold things to people along routes that took him through the deserts of California and Arizona and Nevada, and all along the freeways of Los Angeles and Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. He taught me well, knowing those asphalt trails and currents better than he knew most people. Between his house and my mother's, we drove in his white 1970 restored Mustang down endless gray lines of road between abandoned vineyards. He taught me never to swerve for an animal, always to stay away from the right side of trucks, and to respect the speed of the car and the traffic and not drive too slowly, which would make good drivers hate me.

Now I have to drive slowly every day, as we all do in Southern California, where the constant congestion of traffic is like nothing my father ever saw. And now I have a van full of girls, my own and other girls -- neighbors and basketball players and friends. Sometimes, my mother rides in the passenger seat, worrying aloud about every lane change and, always, that I am driving way too fast.

Driving fearlessly and pharmaceutically fueled, my brother wrecked eight cars in his lifetime -- one of mine, one of my then-husband's, one of our stepfather's, and the rest all his own. He died when his truck plowed into a palm tree at the Jack in the Box near my house, in February 2003.

It was purposeful. He was fleeing police who wanted to question him about a crime his best friend had committed. He didn't want to betray his friend. In every other accident, he had escaped without more than scratches.

When I miss him more than I can stand, there is nothing to do but drive to the desert, where I can move the van at speeds up to 85 or so, playing "Running With the Devil" while the gold sand and smoke trees stand still in the distance near the dunes, while the other cars on the freeway are only blurry shapes around me.

Everything about it is wrong. The music is bad for my hearing. The speed is foolish. Even writing about it feels dangerous, as if I'll be paid back, and I'm afraid even as I type. I am the sole support for three children. I am a good mother and neighbor and daughter and friend and basketball team fundraiser and teacher and aunt.

It's been embarrassing for the girls sometimes. When my youngest was in kindergarten, an especially self-righteous group of mothers would gather at the playground fence before school let out, and they'd glare and gossip when I pulled up at the curb, "Highway to Hell" blasting from the open windows.

The first time the van went into the air my girls were with me. We were late for basketball, when we played in a Sunday-morning league, and I wasn't paying attention to the recent repairs on the railroad tracks near the school, and we hit the new bump and flew and they gasped and thought it was fun but it gave my oldest girl a headache that lasted for hours. "I'm sorry," I told her, over and over, when we were at the gym. "I didn't realize I was going so fast."

But she knew I'd gotten a thrill from the feeling of flying, and she grinned. All her life, her father had been telling her stories of my wild driving.

I'm not reckless, or mean, when I'm driving all those girls to basketball games or study sessions or school shopping. I'm extremely efficient. I'm famous for my politesse on city streets.

So I will only get airborne then, when no one else is around. I will only drive really, really fast in the orange groves, or on desert stretches near Cabazon and Whitewater.

I just like to feel my car curve sharply on desert roads, to move my own body with the vehicle's force, to get airborne and slam down and feel the tires catch and grip and scream just a little before I have to come back to earth and responsibility and the red light on the street that leads to my house, where I will sit on the porch and love my daughters and my yard and miss my brother and our youth. I just want to remember that life, that reckless freedom, that wind speed whipping my hair into my neck, that guitar and my brother's singing.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I hadn't driven the groves since last spring. That's when the white blossoms cover the trees like stars, and the heavy smell of orange blossoms fills the air for miles, and the dirt roads are my favorite place to rush past and let loud music and the perfume and my tears be my memorial to my brother.

My ex-husband lives nearer to here, and he'd told me the groves were being bulldozed for offices and warehouses, but I hadn't known the ghost house would be gone. It was nothing but a river-rock wall and foundation, a chimney and hearth, on top of a small boulder-strewn hill overlooking miles of orange groves and facing east. My brother and I played there all of our childhoods, walked along the canals to the old foundation and imagined it was ours, that we'd rebuild it someday.

The grove was gone, and I expected that, but the whole hill had nearly disappeared. Bulldozers had demolished the wall of the river rocks, which stood in a pile nearby, and now were carving at the hill itself, striations and scrape marks on the earth, which stood like a half-eaten cupcake.

I didn't cry.

I sped through the signs that read "Construction zone" and "No entry" and raced along the old dirt road past the bulldozers and piles of rubble, my van scraping into gullies and getting airborne over these old railroad tracks, too. My brother and I had always ridden our bikes here, and later, raced cars. One of his friends had died on his motorcycle, hitting the train that ran this crossing. I drove until I was inside my own cloud of dust, like a giant brown dandelion around me. My brother and I had seen a dead rattlesnake here once, and beehives and jackrabbits and coyotes. The van fishtailed a few times on the dirt, and I jounced up the washboard road to the edge of the Box Springs Mountains, where our childhood home was on the other side, and skidded to a stop at the dead end.

On either side of me were new office buildings, for sale or rent, empty, their walls of glass windows in those two unnaturally fluorescent shades of green and blue. It was 1:02, a Saturday morning, and the whole place was silent except for the sprinklers on the grass, which edged the burnt-tumbleweed vacant lot. My dust cloud settled around me, not magical but ordinary, like cake flour on my windshield. Then a roadrunner stepped out of the tumbleweeds and twitched his tail, again and again, and he headed for the sprinkler. My engine clicked, and he cocked his head at me, and I put my arm on the hot window frame and laid my head there and watched him. I never turned down the music: "Sympathy for the Devil." And he raced past me as if he didn't mind.

By Susan Straight

Susan Straight is the author of "A Million Nightingales," "Take One Candle Light a Room," and "Between Heaven and Here."

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