Photo by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash

“Hey, you remember the Fort drive-in?”

My brother, Bryant, cracked open a beer after his boys had gone to bed and continued the grown-up version of “Storytime,” a bedtime tradition he had begun both for my benefit and for theirs.

“Sure, that place was awesome.” I immediately remembered the crisp salt tang smell of popcorn. We had spent many a summer at the Fort, with its options of indoor or outdoor Hollywood fare and its dark, seductive, neon arcade.

“Did you know that there was a porno screen back in the woods there that whole time? A PORNO drive-in!!”

Bryant laughed his genuine, full-bellied (no small thing, at nearly 300 pounds) infectious giggle that had remained the same since we were kids. Imagine a six-year-old’s giggle bubbling up from his gut, gaining resonance in his throatal area, spilling forth uncontrollably, and infecting the air and room around him with joy.

Now imagine that same six-year-old’s giggle coming from a 40-year-old country boy with a mullet and goatee.

That’s Bryant.

I laughed despite myself at the thought of a hidden porno drive-in just feet from where we spent the most innocent of summers, buried behind two hundred year-old oaks in the Virginia forests of my childhood. All the assumed innocence of life suddenly called into question.

Bryant chugged his beer and headed to the kitchen for another. “You want?”

I looked at my bottle; it was still nearly full. “Nope, I’m good. How did you find out that there was a porno at the Fort?”

That giggle-laugh again. “You remember Brian Adam-zack-em?”

“Of course!”
“Ran into him a few months back. Got to reminiscing.” Another aluminum pop-top crack.

“Getting to be a habit for you, isn’t it — all this reminiscing? First Storytime for the boys, and now the suspicious parts of our childhoods.” I was teasing… and not.

Bryant chugged his beer again. “Yeah, I guess so. It’s good, though. Don’t you think?”

I did. It had been something I’d wanted our family to do for years. Come clean, expose the secrets that bound us. Bryant was thinking more along the lines of telling the boys how he broke his arm on his bike when he was 9. Or how the dog fell into the pond at the parkway while chasing a butterflies. How Mom told us that they hired people to spit in the stamp sponges at the post office when she got annoyed at him for sticking his fingers in them. Things that were ridiculous and hilarious to us now — things we wanted to remember.

And it’s a good thing he did, obviously. Because the things that stand out so vividly in my memory are not the things we tell the boys for Storytime. How our father struggled with schizophrenia, and with addiction. How those things have genetic components. How he was abusive. How our mom ignored so much then, and still did now. And how I’ve been working my entire adult life to unpack these things, to not unfairly stigmatize those with mental illness but still feeling righteously indignant about abuse. Realizing that those two topics were completely unrelated, mutually exclusive.

I left Virginia and headed for the desert right after college, about 5 years after my father died and provided me the guiltiest relief of my lifetime. I needed the wide open spaces of western America to make sense of it all, to have room for the realizations that only come from distance, from time, introspection, reflection, and experience.

I noticed immediately that the sun is brighter in the desert than anywhere else on earth. I guess that seems obvious to say, but you never fully appreciate how green leaves, lush lawns that never need external watering, and unrelenting shade trees guard you from the blinding glare of the sun until you’re stripped of them all, earth-naked in a sand-colored and red rock world, sensitive blue eyes burning, Scotch-Irish skin freckling. Alone with only your thoughts, your memories, your meditations and dry reflections to turn to. When you finally tap into this source of power, that’s when you realize: This is a world where people behave badly, and there’s absolutely no reason or explanation for it. We hide our true selves in the dark and the shaded places. In the parts of the world where we can get away with it. Where we can indulge our weaknesses and deeply human natures. In the woods, and in our hearts, every day, where no one else can see.

In the desert, free from those trees, that’s where you realize that it’s no one’s fault. And that none of us is free from guilt, or from pain, or from suffering.

That you are responsible for your own success. That you can’t let outside forces or circumstances beyond your control determine your day-to-day actions. That you decide every day that you are going to be successful, and at what, and what that success looks like. Then you do that.

That you take the good with the bad, and that’s the best any of us can ever hope for.

“Hey, you remember that trip to Myrtle Beach with Sis and Dawn and Hallie?”

“Oh my god, how could I forget. My feet on top of their luggage in the backseat for 6 hours straight…”

“And then the flat tire!”

“Not a single mechanic open in all of North Carolina on a Sunday…”

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