ID 1B xxxxxx
I’d called it Poca-hell-hole before I’d known that if you disparaged where you’re from enough, people who’d never even been there would say it back to you. Each time they did I felt a little spite rise like bile, as I choked back a mean glare.
But it was still Poca-hell-hole in my head. It was a city without a soul. Before Eastern Idaho got beautiful underneath the Tetons, but past where farmland had the kind of swell that could pull you under its rhythmic bliss as you drove through it. Westbound on I-86 passing through American Falls, I felt something like a hole open up in my stomach, draining the life out of me.
ID 2C xxxxxx
There wasn’t much left when I finally arrived. I’d been holed up in a hotel room for two days before I could get myself out there. I filled a paper cup with coffee from the lobby before I stepped out and faced the wind sweeping across the parking lot.
The trailer was dim and vacant as I stepped in. Light cut in beneath the half-closed blinds, revealing thick dust that sat like a skin on top of every surface. I turned on the lights and took a moment to take it all in.
My father had never been a tidy man, so it was not a surprise to see the boxes stacked three high along the hallway, or the piles of Bowhunter on the coffee table, or the taxidermy stacked against the wall. I walked through the double-wide to try to get a picture of the work ahead of me.
The bedroom had a small bed, camouflage sheets bundled by the foot, and a nightstand table piled three high and two deep with Clive Cussler paperbacks. The kitchen cabinets were empty, with every bit of food and each plate scattered instead on the crowded counter. The bathroom was spackled in shaving cream, toothpaste, and soap scum so thick, I could barely make out my face in the mirror.
Only the living room was relatively clean. One lamp per table, couch cushions tucked in, blankets folded, even pillows in the crooks of the couch arms. I wondered if this was where he had spent his time, or if someone had come and done this for him. I made up a little picture in my mind so sweet that I had to step outside, letting the sweeping air take the feeling off somewhere else.
ID N xxxxxx
The grass was always greener somewhere else. Someplace with a better job, with better schools and better people. We had gone with him the first five or six times, but then Mom put her foot down. She said if she kept having to uproot, she’d have no roots left at all. Dad backed off until he didn’t, and then Mom took me back to Pocatello where the rest of her family was.
But Dad kept moving, if anything speeding up the pace at which he did. Mom stopped writing his phone number in pen in our address book and instead his entry became a mess of half-erased cities and zip codes.
Visiting him was a vacation in and of itself. Each one was a trip to a new place, usually completely disparate from the last, tucked into one of the infinite corners of the huge state. Each home was a hotel room. Each time I left, a knowing feeling I wouldn’t be back in them.
ID 1L xxxxxx
I started in the bedroom and moved through ruthlessly. I thought of myself less like a son and more like the clean-up crew that had been hired by a family who couldn’t handle it themselves. I made two piles, giveaways and throwaways, sorting them like a thresher.
Piles started in the living room, then moved to the front yard when they got too big. I kept heavy music in my ears to keep me moving as fast as I could. When I got hungry, I grabbed taquitos, a soda, and a spud bar from the gas station down the road, then ate them on the drive and got right back to it.
The summer day stretched out around me as I moved through it. There was an actual cleaning crew coming through over the weekend, so my work was to make it look empty, not nice. Everyone else had come before me to get anything they’d wanted, so I wasn’t dealing with televisions and appliances, but the thousand little things it takes to live. Laundry detergent, trash cans, microwave-safe plastic bowls. Cracked George Straight CDs, old Chilton repair manuals, fly-tying kits, boot brushes with bristles warped and peeling open. Boxes upon boxes he hadn’t even gotten to unpack.
ID 6C xxxxxx
We’d talked about it before I left. We stood in the kitchen as we checked the Seattle to Boise flight prices online. He asked if I wanted him to come. I took a drink from my wine glass, so thin I had only just started to believe it wouldn’t break in my hand. I took a long breath.
“I’m there if you want me,” he said.
I nodded. Of course he would be. He was a kind of sweet that took me a while to trust. We’d only been together a few months before I started on the long, sad journey that is watching someone die slowly from afar.
“Does everyone know?”
I stepped back from the laptop and stared up into the spider web hovering in the corner above us. My parents’ families were so big that I knew there was little chance all of them did. Even fifteen years after I first came out, I still hated it and had mostly just relied on others to gossip about it behind my back, spreading the news like salt on the tilled land.
“I won’t be mad if you don’t want me to.”
Shame turned in my gut. I dropped my head down, held my arms out against the countertop. He rubbed small circles between my shoulder blades.
“Sometimes, there are no good choices. Just a bunch of bad ones.”
ID 9B xxxxxx
Dad had always wanted to live in a house with a garage. He said he’d wanted to make the kind of display he saw in other people’s garages, license plates tacked up on a wall, telling a story better than he ever could. So, when I got to the third box down in the corner between the front door and the kitchen, and heard the tinny sound of metal sliding around, I already knew what was inside.
When I lived with him, our cars collected all the snow, dust, pine sap, and bird shit of the outdoors, as they slept on the lawn or dirt near the house we’d rent, so he’d just pack the license plates along with everything else and bring them to the next place.
I picked up the box and walked to the couch, setting it down on the coffee table. I stared at it, taking a second to breathe from my breakneck pace, and whatever had been left on low all day finally boiled over. I cried in open-mouth sobs and wished I had made the other bad choice in the kitchen the week before.
ID K xxxxxx
After I left Idaho, first to Missoula for school then to Seattle for work, I missed the license plates. It was one of the few things I did.
The first letter, and number before it if there is one, is a code. Knowing it is a useless kind of skill that keeps you busy on the long interstate stretches. Of course, you can tell yourself, the asshole speeding by in a Tesla is from 1A. Of course, the Prius with the artsy stickers going five under the speed limit in the right-hand lane is from IL. Of course, the truck nuts are from 7B and the Land Rover is from 5B.
Washington plates, with their pale outlines of Mount Rainier etched in baby blue along the white background, were one of the little griefs about a place you try to make home. I knew I either had to learn to deal with them, or they’d be little scabs I kept picking at, never fully letting heal.
ID 1B xxxxxx
When I finally opened the box, I pulled out the license plates like I was an archaeologist about to dust a thousand years of dirt off a clay pot. I grabbed one at a time and held each by its edges, then laid it out on the coffee table. By the time I was done, the plates covered the entire surface, even a few needing to be laid out on the couch cushions to fit them all.
Seeing them all there, I felt a kind of impressed that I hadn’t felt before. It was like an art form. A kind that lives alongside the artist, a kind the artist has sacrificed for or has gotten for their sacrifices, a kind that takes a whole life to make.
I looked out the window and saw how quickly day was ending and felt a panic settle into my bones. I grabbed an empty notebook from the giveaway pile outside and took frantic notes on everything I could. The county the plate was issued in, the last year it was registered, whether the letters were embossed or printed directly onto the metal, any dents or bends in the metal. Then, any stories or details I could remember about them. How the camper van he had bought had looked, burnt yellow and pine bark brown, with rust eating its way up from the wheel well, in its reflection on Payette Lake. How he had frowned but didn’t get angry when I told him it was too cold to swim.
I worked until I couldn’t see the page in front of me, even squinting, and turned on the lamp next to me. As my eyes adjusted, I looked back over my notes and realized what a mess they were. First apartment in Pocatello? Nice neighbor at the trailer park in Nampa. Does Lewiston still smell awful?
They would make no sense to anyone but me, and they wouldn’t even make sense to me without the plates there for context. I thought about the throwaway pile in the front yard, the bulldozers and tractors smashing and compacting it all at the transfer site before it’d be taken away to its thousand-year wait towards decomposition in a landfill somewhere. When I pictured it all, the hole in my stomach opened back up, threatening to take the rest of me down with it.
I walked over to where I’d thrown the cardboard box. It was an old produce box that had gotten wet and dried so many times that the cardboard flaked and peeled like dead skin. I’d need to buy a new one. The Post Office would be open at eight the next morning and I was sure I’d seen packing tape somewhere.
The plan fell piece by piece, assembling into a seamless line in my head. I didn’t know how I would explain it to the man I’d left in our kitchen back home, but let out a little prayer that his understanding and compassion wouldn’t give now.
I felt the work of the day catch up in my muscles as I scooped up the plates and shoved their box into the back of the rental car. Looking out over the front yard, piles of the half-used bottles of cooking oil, dish soap, and old board games up to my hip, I let out an exhausted sigh. A gust of summer wind warmed me like a hand rubbing small circles on my back.