The last time I saw my biological father, he took me on his version of a midnight joyride. What frightened me first were his hands. I remember one arm was splayed over his thigh, the left hand choke-holding a brown-bagged bottle damp with sweat, the right clenched in a white-knuckled grip on the leather steering wheel as he swerved onto Airline Highway—his car shrieking past a sagging motel and speeding to a stop in front of a church—the only building illuminated by a neon Bible on a vacant street lined with litter. This light signified nothing to me, who never needed salvation until that moment—and yet, I could only stare into its lurid glow and pretend I was at home clutching my mama’s hands instead of a stained, leather seat situated above streams of cellophane wrappers, oily rags, and crushed cans, their left-over insides spilling out on the soiled carpet. I didn’t know why my father’s eyes were glassy with all the veins visible and blood- red or why his breath reeked with an unfamiliar fume that poisoned the air as he cursed. I couldn’t understand anything that night but this—that fear was the churning in the pit of my stomach and the odor of fuel, its unforgiving taste burning my tongue and sealing itself there—as if memory were licking shut an envelope with my father’s picture hidden within. I thought he must have tasted it then, too—along with his liquor—because he had to pull the car over to retch, just as I wanted to do and finally did—making a mess that pooled into darkness.
(Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Digital Library)