Flakes

· Winner of the 2013 Essay Contest ·

March 15, 2014

My dad picked me up from my English class yesterday, and we drove towards the mountains. We talked. I told him about my teacher who sounds like Kermit. He told me about the flooding in Omaha. Out the car window, I watched the houses turn to fields and the fields to canyons as we approached the mountains. We talked about insurance and levees and argued ourselves dizzy over capital punishment and marijuana. We talked about mountains and how they feed our souls and which trails we’d be backpacking this summer. We talked about my younger brothers, how Morgan works like a man, how Seth loves comedy. He told me about the marathon he’s running in October. We talked about everything except my mother.

Then we rolled into the resort. Music was playing somewhere in the sea of tents and camp trailers. The breeze smelled like pine and dirt, and I could feel the sun bake the top of my head. We remembered that we forgot camp chairs. I teased him about being too old to sit on the ground. He scoffed. Vendors’ canopies made a tiny village of granola people selling organic hippie wear. We didn’t buy anything. I came with my dad because I didn’t want him to leave. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I love music and I love mountains, but I wasn’t here for them. Over the past year, the glossy painting of my parents’ marriage had cracked and peeled—worn by long separations, blistered by muffled conversations behind a bedroom door. I could still make out the figures, but they were silently flaking away, exposing an uglier picture under the thin paint. I naïvely assumed that I could fill the gaps of the painting with brush strokes of my shared interest in music and mountains, restoring its original gloss.

Food vendors had their own village. Thai food smelled the best, so we both got green curry. We sat on the grass in the sun and compared our white legs. He won. The sun highlighted our features and cast sharp shadows onto the grass. My dad’s visor shaded his eyes and straight nose, leaving his chin with its gray soul patch exposed. Tufts of hair poked out around his ears. My mom always cut his hair, but it’d been a while. I forgot to bring a hat; I could feel my face burning. I’d come straight from school, and I looked too clean, too fresh to be here. I stood out. But nobody cared. They were all here for the music.

The first band started playing. I lay down in the grass and felt the sun and the music. I watched people. There were old people in straw hats and khaki shorts, hicks in Wranglers and vests, kids without shirts, girls without shoes or bras, hairy hairy hairy people, miniskirts and cowboy boots, and Chacos—lots of Chacos. People walked around and talked and listened and drank and got sunburned. I rehearsed a conversation in my head: So, when are you going to move back in? I miss you. Why did you leave? Why? I sat up and turned to my dad. My mouth opened and I asked, “Wh . . . ere is the bathroom?”

After the opening bands finished, my dad said, “Come on, let’s go stand at the front.” We walked to the front, right up to the low black fence that kept the crowd ten feet from the edge of the stage. A few other people stood with us, even though Grace Potter wouldn’t step on stage for another thirty minutes. We chatted with a nice older couple wearing flowered shirts, khaki shorts, and Chacos. They held red Solo cups and wore over-twenty-one wristbands but were just relaxed. Their son walked up and greeted us just a little too loudly when introduced. He carried a bottle in each hand and elbowed my dad playfully. “Here, have some. It’s about to start.” My dad reached out as my hand immediately gripped his arm. His hand stiffened and jerked back. “No, no, I can’t. I’m here with my daughter.” He smiled a little too hard and hugged me stiffly with one arm. The guy shrugged and turned, yelling to a friend ten yards away and careening towards him. My dad continued chatting with the couple while I smiled and nodded numbly. Invisible paint flakes peeled and landed around our feet.

The sun was setting when Grace Potter and the Nocturnals came on. The audience swayed drunkenly to a heavy bass rhythm. A stuffed tiger was on the stage and a full moon was in the sky. Grace was all legs and hair and voice. About twenty minutes in, a youngish guy next to me with ripped jeans and a Timberland shirt lit up something. It billowed thick, sweet smoke. I gagged and my head pounded. I looked over at my dad—he was cheering and pumping fists with the rest of them. I yanked on his sleeve then covered my ears, mouthing that it was too loud. He leaned his ear next to my face, and I shouted that I was going to find somewhere to sit. “I’ll text you when it’s over,” he shouted back. I left him, pushed through the swaying crowd, and moved up the hill until I stopped in front of the Thai food booth. It still had a light on.

I sat on the grass and sucked in clean mountain air until my head cleared. Grace Potter played and played and played. I absently listened and watched the stars from the booth’s dim circle of light. I wished I wasn’t alone. Between songs, Grace said, “I look at you guys and I realize that most of you know each other. You are a small town, but you come together and make something incredible.” Then she wanted everyone to make a pact to come next year and bring a friend. The audience cheered. It’s easy to make drunk people promise things.

The mountains got cold at night, and I shivered. The light in the Thai booth flicked off. It was 11:58 and Grace was still swishing her blonde hair and screaming in a microphone. I texted my dad and waited ten minutes. He didn’t reply, so I left. I found the car in the dark parking lot. The keys were on top of the wheel, where he always hid them. I unlocked the car and waited. My effort plastered onto the canvas was a sloppy finger painting. And in my clumsiness, I’d knocked off more flakes.

The trees swayed and the people swayed and the music carried into the mountains.

March 15, 2014

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