The moments that existed between the lights being turned off and the walk to bed were his to own for the briefest of times.
They were an echo from the edge of a life; one that was now long gone. There had been a time when all he needed to think about was his own selfish needs but now he had the wife and kids.
They were his life now, his total life.
He doused the fire and closed the window against the night air. He could smell the rain coming from the west and he knew, for certain, that tomorrow would be a good day.
He went to his grandfather’s old tobacco box and took out the creased photo. It was safe in there – the box was on top of a cupboard and the kids never touched it. His wife knew that was his safe place and never looked in.
He couldn’t remember when he first seen it, I mean really seen it – probably in some old magazine which smelled of damp and sat on a wonky table in the dentist’s surgery. He hadn’t really known who Hockney was, just some painter from the Yorkshire coast and anyway art was for other people, certainly not for the likes of him.
People talked on the television about paintings and photos in words that his grandfather would have called ‘flowery’. There was no place for flowery in his life thank you very much, that was for those and such as those – although he never really understood what that meant.
But this one work of Hockney’s really got to him. It was called the Pearblossom Highway and for whatever crazy reason the universe had as a purpose, it genuinely sang to him.
It floated his boat and that was a much a surprise to him as it was to anyone. I mean, apart from his lovely family, the only other thing that made him happy was football. He knew who played for whom and who scored what, just like his grandfather had taught him (as would have his father if he’d lived long enough to get to know him).
So in the twilight, he sat looking at the photo and seeing himself standing by the side of the road and for no reason other than he could, he wished to himself that he was there right there in the Californian heat.
By the morning his secret life was shut away in the box and he was back to taking the family dog, Rufus, for his morning pee, ruffling the kids’ hair, kissing his darling wife and fighting for a place on the road into town.
He wasn’t unhappy and no one could say that about him and think it was the truth, but his dream of standing on Pearblossom Highway propped up his struggles against sadness when it came to visit.
Sometimes he didn’t bother with the photo, like the days when they’d take the family to the beach – among all the screaming and shouting, he’d close his eyes and feel the warm winds blowing along the Highway and the smell of the desert air. Okay, it wasn’t real desert but it was a lot more desert than he could see at home.
One day he’d found a book about the Pearblossom Highway and it seems it was called the death road. Some of the good folks from LA would use it as an alternative route to the Inland Empire and then they’d drive as if they’d been set free from unseen restraint, speeding and hollering all the way home. And as he read the words, in his mind he was driving along the road with the top down, music on the radio and the biggest goddamn smile on his lips.
He found his life was a hungry beast and never satisfied. It ate up time when he was busy, it devoured seconds, hours, days and weeks as he was looking somewhere else. Even in his quiet time, life sucked up every spare second. Before he knew it, the kids had grown, his belly had grown, he and the wife had grown in opposite directions and he was no nearer getting to the Highway.
So he did something he would never have considered a few years earlier. He kept some of his wages back from the family. Not much but enough. He stuck it in the box that sat on top of the cupboard and he called it the emergency fund but he knew it was never going to be used in an emergency. It’s just that he couldn’t admit that to himself right at that moment.
When the boss offered him more work but on the other side of the county, his guilt made him take the offer; the kids needed new clothes and none of them had a holiday in several years. His eldest daughter was getting interested in boys and she wanted the latest fashions. So every Sunday evening he would pack the car and head off, returning on a Friday night when the rest of the family was asleep. But it wasn’t just his daughter who was dressing up, he noticed new dresses turning up in his wife’s closet. She wasn’t wearing them for him at the weekend, so who?
He started to put a little extra money every week in the box on top of the cupboard. He reckoned it was up to a few hundred by the start of the summer. One day when the time was right he was going to use some of the emergency fund and it was going to take him all the way to Pearblossom Highway.
One Friday evening in mid July when he got back home, the house was in its usual darkness, yet given the warmth in the air the windows were tight shut. He didn’t bother turning on the lights, instead he took down the box to look at the photo and that’s all there was – the photo and a note.
He turned the lamp on and read the letter.
‘I’ve taking the kids and the money you thought I didn’t know about. I’ll be in touch.’
Now that he was on his own most of the week, life didn’t seem that hungry any more – there was always time kick around somewhere, unused. Sure he got to see the kids every second weekend but it meant a five hundred mile round trip and yes, they were always happy to see each other. Over a burger they’d talk about how their mother had a new daddy, Eric.
Yeah they liked, Eric he was a good guy apparently.
So he decided the only way to use up the time was to work seven days a week, which, when he thought about it was a good thing. It meant he could send a few hundred more for the kids and still put some money in the emergency box.
He worked the winter, saw the kids from time to time (but not like before) and worked some more. Come the spring, he got a call from his ex-wife. She was getting married and although she would like to invite him, she didn’t think it was on the cards but she wondered if he could send some more money kids to buy clothes for the wedding.
So took the money from the emergency box and sent it to his ex-wife.
Apart from the odd woman he’d pick up in bar from time to time, his nights and his bed were cold and lonely. It worried him that he’d be hitting forty soon and he’s still not seen much of the world.
One Saturday morning, he took his truck to a garage in town and sold it for a couple of thousand and then went straight to the agents and booked a flight to Los Angeles in the great state of California.
As you’re reading this, he’s standing next to the Pearblossom Highway and feeling the warm air in his hair and wearing a smile that may just crack his face.
bobby stevenson 2016
painting: Pearblossom Highway – David Hockney.
(…and just in case you’re thinking about going)