Runaways

Interstate 82 out of Ellensburg

I come from a family of runners. My grandfather to California, my father north to Washington, a great-grandmother west from Virginia, my mother south to Hood River. We steal away to other towns, take on other names. But always, we run.

My Grandpa Ellis and I both learned to slip out the back door. Quiet as a shadow. Carrying away the part of ourselves we most wanted to keep alive. But in the end sometimes, the fight has been too long, and you lose it anyway.

Or maybe, what is more terrifying yet for the runaway, love happens. You run straight into it.

And bam.

Game over.

It goes back at least to my great-grandfather. I don’t know his name. My father never knew him. But the story goes that he should never have had children: he took them into the cellar and belted them until the welts rose, until the skin blistered and broke and gave blood. I picture a man in suspenders and grimy undershirt in the glare of a single bulb. Downstairs, in a root cellar.

His eldest son was the first to leave. “Lit out for the territory” during the Depression. Rode the rails.

Grandpa Ellis wasn’t any older than 14.

I imagine him on frostbitten nights, dim with blue starlight, his ragged shoes dangling from the top of a boxcar. Some tow-headed kid in faded, too-short khakis, bony and freckled like his son would one day be. Hollow-eyed with hunger. But the fight still in him.

Always.

He saw more of the country than his relatives ever had. The train clacking over the tracks, running through cornfields and small towns. Laundry billowing on the wash line. Other children playing beside the tracks and stopping to stare, as he stared back at the life he’d forever left behind—children washed and fed and cared for.

He ended up in California. Grew up out there, earning his way, keeping to himself.

He never talked much with my father about that time. He never talked much at all. He’d come into his own in the quiet of the rails, and he’d learned it well.

And then he met this broken-hearted widow, 28 years old and running too. Trailing two children from a dead husband who had been the love of her life.

A woman on the run in the 1950s. Running straight out of the home her husband had left her in Utah. Away from the small town where she’d grown up, the apple of her father’s eye, the youngest of her siblings. Her older sister Eleanor always close by and watchful.

But out in California, she’d made her own way. Buxom and blue eyed, a head of blonde curls, she became the favorite of the men. Went to dance halls.

Why not? No one was there to know.

Ellis and Thelma met in a dance hall. I don’t know if it was love at first sight. I don’t know if it was love at all. But I’ll bet good money they recognized something of themselves in each other. She took one look and knew. Here was Ellis, this quiet hard-luck man running from his demons. A man with blue eyes and old heartbreak set deep as flame in the iris.

They took up with each other, as the language of the day went. Carried on together.

And then Thelma got pregnant.

It wasn’t such fun after that.

Ellis married her.

Maybe they married because it was what was done. Maybe because Ellis had a sense of responsibility and chivalrous honor. I’ll never be sure. Neither the dead nor the living are speaking to me.

What I do know is my father was an accident. Born six months after the wedding. An accident, at least, on someone’s part. As I was an accident.

And Ellis became what he’d set himself against ever being: a father.

So he went on running the rest of his days. Leaving the house for days on end. Disappearing. Sullen when he was there. A silent presence in my father’s childhood.

He fled fatherhood, and it broke my own father’s heart. His mother neglectful of her unwanted son, sometimes forgetting to feed him.

Much later, my father said he understood. Ellis had simply been afraid of hurting his own children the way he had been hurt. Safer for everyone if he kept clear of the house and out of their lives.

And then I understood, too. Five years ago, tutoring children in an after-school learning center, the same question pulsated behind my eyes—what if it’s in me to do the same? Sweaty palms. My fear of what feels like a family curse.

Ellis had tried to keep himself from passing it on. As if abuse were a virus, a contagion that spread through human contact and could never be treated.

But he hadn’t realized that neglect can do the job almost as well as brutal beatings. And my father became infected anyway.

Yet Grandpa Ellis had tried. For that, I feel a tender sadness for him. Affection, even.

He wasn’t a man built for life with three children and a wife, yet he tried. It couldn’t have been easy.

In the one photo of us together taken a few months after I was born, the story seems to begin again. Another chapter for the next generation of Eastons opens with the same first act—an accidental and unwanted child.

He stared straight into the camera lens from the davenport of a Kennewick ranch house, his blue eyes round and frozen behind his glasses. And me, swaddled in blankets, laid precariously on his forearms stretched stiff as a forklift. A kind of blank astonishment on his face. He sat straight-backed and frail and uneasy.

He died shortly after the photograph was taken.

I have every reason to think he never loved me. We didn’t have time to get to know one another.

But I wonder if he might have loved my father. I hope he did. For my father loved him. Desperately. Abundantly.

Hopelessly.

The kind of love I understand. The kind of love the runaway is looking for.

But hopes to never find.

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