An Excerpt from Into the Darkness of Daylight:
My Childhood Home, 1959
It was Corn Flakes for breakfast again. Mom always had me eat Corn-Flakes. No matter
how much I bitched and moaned about all my fourth-grade friends getting to eat hotcakes with
potatoes and sausage before school, it was always those boring flakes. I'd had it with breakfast
boredom that day and decided to do something about it. The obvious answer in my undeveloped
brain was to heave my cereal bowl discus-style toward the sink. The obvious result of that was a
shattered bowl, and Mom being splattered with milk. Soggy flakes were clinging to her hair and
sticking on that old red-checked apron she always wore.
My friends' mothers would have all laid their asses bare and took the switch to them for that,
but not my mom. She just turned around to bore those icy dead eyes into my skull with that typical
look that conveyed to me that she just did not understand why I did anything. With nary an
admonishing word, she untied the strings on her apron and folded it with practiced precision. She
set it just so on the counter so it was square and glided over to that scarred-up pine table that
dominated our sunny kitchen. The room darkened as her slender torso blocked the incoming light,
and I knew I was in for some big punishment.
Mom grabbed me roughly by the wrist, and she yanked me up out of my chair, and onto my
feet. Being so tense on the edge of this punishment, I jumped and flinched as the flimsy metal chair
clattered to the linoleum. Limply, I let her guide me to the back door, across the yard and out to the
rutted driveway where she'd last parked her half rusted-out International Harvester pickup. That
semi-reliable heap was the only sure remnant of my father.
She calmly but forcefully half-tore the passenger door off of what was left of its hinges and
rag-dolled me up onto the cracked vinyl bench seat. I stifled a wince and resisted the urge to rub
the feel of her mighty grip off my wrist. She never seemed to be able to tell when she was
hurting me or even comprehend what pain meant.
I inhaled the scent of burnt motor oil spiked with long-ago extinguished cigarettes. When I
imagined my dad, he was never a person, just a faded ghost of indeterminate form made up solely
of stale Marlboros and abused Pennzoil. He stands as a shadowy vapor on the shimmering edge of
the horizon boring his eyes out from under a ten-gallon hat. He's John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and all
the other dime store comic book cowboys that were ever scrawled as a cartoon on magazine.
"We're going to go visit your father," Mom notified me.
As the starter whirred and engine sputtered and caught, I cowered and sucked my thumb for
the first time since kindergarten. Mom swerved out onto the dirt road, showering gravel onto the
fence post of the barbed-wire fence whose flimsy wire gate she'd just severed with the bumper. My
head smacked against the door, and I bit into the meaty flesh of my thumb. We sped off up the
county road toward the shadowy buttes of a ranch that had been abandoned since the Great
Depression. All my friends knew the Matthews' ranch was haunted; so how come my Mom refused
to understand the obvious?
Grasshoppers clicked and fled in four-foot leaps as my sneakers shuffled along an arid trail
that I doubted had been walked on by anybody in the last several decades. An agitated buzz rang in
my ears, and I froze in my tracks. Mom didn't seem to be frighted in the least by the rattlesnake in
front of us and flicked it off the side of the trail with a long stick. She apparently wasn't having a
vision of poison pumping through her until she exploded in a shower of venom that left her skeleton
to bleach for future archeology students. I couldn't help seeing that vision in my head – one of my
friends' brother swore that if you got bitten by a rattler that this very thing would happen to you.
My pants felt a little wet and a little warmer now.
Just as I was noticing how parched my mouth felt, the shadows of the butte
swallowed me up. I licked my lips, feeling them begin to chap and crack as a cruel chill
clawed its way up my spine and pulled the hairs straight up on my arms. To this day I
remember the temperature dropping ten degrees, not because of shade swallowing me up,
but because of what I was about to learn.
Mom dropped to her knees behind some sagebrush and surveyed the rock wall that stretched
in front of her. She got up and dusted off her carefully patched blue jeans and led me to a crack in
the stone that had been obscured by the curvature of the cliff. She rummaged in her pockets,
producing a battered steel lighter. Flicking the lighter, she pulled me into the shadowy void.
We picked our way carefully through the cave, Mom scrutinizing a pile of boulders
that appeared to have fallen from the ceiling. It looked like she'd been here before, but the
fallen rocks hadn't. She turned to me and muttered, "Those must have been from that big
quake last year. You've slept with the light on ever since."
I didn't have the heart to remind her that I'd slept with the light on for a lot longer than that.
Mom would read me some boring kids story in that monotone of hers, and I'd shut my eyes and drift
off into peace. I'd vaguely hear the floorboards creak, and the door settle into its frame, and I'd
grope frantically for the switch on my Mickey Mouse lamp. The light helped me tune out the
insistent static of the Ranchers as their plans and directives rolled on a crackly wave between my
"Come along, son; it's only a little further."
I stumbled, and she glided further into the still depths. She flicked the lighter shut. Velvet
darkness poured over me as I trembled and listened to my ragged breaths echo back at me for me to
"Jimmy, your dad is very close to where you stand. I'm going to give you the choice
of whether or not you really want to see him. He's been here since before you were born,
and he won't be able to speak to you. I'm not going to lie to you and tell you he loved you;
he never even knew about you. He's not up on some cloud playing gilded harps with angels
like Mrs. Montague tells you. The truth is that there are no angels, and when your
neighbors preach to you about souls, they're just talking about formless energy without
awareness or memory."
Jimmy, you've got to understand that despite all the Bible-thumping nonsense you
get fed on a daily basis, there is no afterlife, and it doesn't matter to some bearded man in a
shiny robe whether or not you were good or bad. When you're dead, it's over for you as you
know it. Happiness and sadness, loathing and love, fear and courage, these are all things
that are unique relics of this place you call Earth. The rest of that "big picture" they talk
about has moved beyond such petty matters. They're out there, and they're the real
enlightened ones. They are the builders of vast kingdoms, the architects of interstellar
trade, and the keepers of all there is to know or become known."
Mom was scaring me, but I needed light desperately. The Ranchers were telling me things
that scared me far more than anything I thought I'd see in that cave. I was sure in that moment that
the only reason she'd ignite that butane again was if I agreed to see my father. "Mom? I can handle
it. Show me Dad."
The flame illuminated her grave features, and she bade me to follow. "Close your
eyes, just for now, Jim."