I don’t remember the exact day my father lost his sanity. I don’t remember if I was at Winston Churchill Middle School or if I was playing baseball during the weekend. I don’t remember if I walked or rode my skateboard home to the news, nor do I remember if I was placed on psychiatric medication before or after this incident. What I do remember is packing up a duffel bag of clothes and watching my house disappear in the rearview mirror, my father white knuckling the steering wheel and I wondering if I’d ever see my dog again.
When I was in middle school my father was misdiagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. At the time, I only knew Lou as a baseball player on my older brother’s baseball cards, I didn’t know the famous Yankee had a disease named after him. Medically, this disease is known as ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a “progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.” It’s similar to Huntington’s disease except your cognitive function is usually unscathed. While your body deteriorates your mind is still sharp, trapped in a sinking vessel without the ability to keep it afloat. Both Stephen Hawking and Charles Mingus had ALS.
Doctors told my father he was going to die an inevitably slow and painful death. When he heard this, a chord in his brain snapped. The chord wasn’t taut to begin with though - my father is the prototypical American drugstore cowboy of the 60s and 70s. A life of abandonment, incarceration, drug dealing, speed freaking, and the list goes on and on. Trauma atop trauma. Deep seated unresolved adverse experiences never dealt with but instead shoved deep deep down in a chamber pot waiting for the spark to ignite. The misdiagnosis was that spark.
We didn’t live long in hotels, just a little over half a year (but this would fuel the beginning of my hotel life as an adult). My father became delusional and paranoid, causing schizophrenic and radical behavior. He believed the home we lived in was pestilential, the water was poisoned, the air was toxic and everything was harmful. We can’t stay here or we’ll die he would say.
We switched our routine from The DoubleTree to Red Lion to Motel 6. After a few days staying in one hotel, he would get paranoid again. A week was as long as we could stay before the voice in his head convinced him there was lead poisoning in the water pipes. All the motels we stayed at were within the perimeter of the failing mall outskirts of downtown Sacramento, which seemed to make the nightly news every week for drive-by shootings and grand theft autos. When I got older, I figured out why we stayed around there; easy freeway access. My father relapsed back on methamphetamine during this time and needed to venture all around the city - as any veteran speedfreak does.
The DoubleTree was my favorite place out of the hotels we lived in. It was the only one over two stories and the only one with a gym. There was a fountain when you walked into the lobby and a spiraling staircase leading to the second floor. It was very open in the middle and I could always look below from any floor I was on and see the fountain. Something about the movement of the water captivated me. When I would run into guests in the hallways or the lobby I would strike conversations, telling lies as if I was traveling with my important father, from far away, on business. I felt like I was in a Kerouac novel, in some prequel to a city grid subterranean storyline.
One night after picking me up from school, my father drove us the opposite direction of the hotel. He never really said anything when he picked me up. He mumbled constantly, like he was having a conversation with himself but he didn’t want anyone to know the words being exchanged. Sometimes I wish I knew what he was saying, it would have made me feel less alone. He had nervous ticks too. The one burned into my memory was his ceaseless need to adjust his shirt collar. It was never in the right place. I imagine he thought it felt like it was choking him, no matter the shirt he wore, even if it was a button up.
We must have circled around the city for a while because when we arrived at the secret destination it was nightfall. We were deep in North Highlands, in a rundown apartment complex. My grandmother’s last house was in this neighborhood before she died and my mother currently rents a room in the area. The first time I was ever shot at was down one of the side streets. North Highlands has a 65% greater crime rate than the rest of America. A comfortable place for hotel hoppers.
I didn’t ask why we were at the apartment complex. It didn’t matter. I was intrigued. Anything seedy, out-of-the-normal, or a potential-story-producing situation I was hungry for. Unlike most kids who learn their fathers were incarcerated, slammed dope in their neck, and knew Hell’s Angels, my first reaction was I would surpass his crazy antics. As soon as I was aware of who my father really was I wanted to out-do him. Thinking back now I’m probably the crazy one.
When we entered the apartment, my father left me and went straight down the hallway to the back bedroom. The kitchen was overfilled with dirty dishes, clothes were piled in corners, and an incense was burning but I couldn’t see where. I looked around the living room and started picking up little nick-nacks and figurines; a Ganesh, a rotund Buddha, and two promiscuous cats locked in a sexual position. On the coffee table surface there were little spoons and cotton balls. I moved a pile of clothes and sat down on the couch, wondering if I should walk down the hallway. Is this why my father brought me here? Was this some sort of coming-of-age ritual I was unaware of? As soon as I gathered the courage to get off the couch, I heard a baby crying. The whimpering froze my movements. A deep depression barreled through me and all I could think about was is this baby safe?
My father entered the living room and motioned we were leaving. I could no longer hear the baby and I never saw anyone else in the apartment. A light rain began to fall when we pulled onto the freeway and the high beams of cars coming from the opposite direction looked like flashing Christmas lights. I fell right asleep when we made it to the hotel. When I woke up in the middle of the night my father was nowhere to be seen.
It was near my 8th grade graduation when our hotel hopping lifestyle came to an end. A few weeks before my father disappeared and I moved in with my father’s older sister, I experienced a humiliation like no other. One weekday I was alone in our DoubleTree hotel room doing homework. I ran out of paper in my school notebook and the only medium I could find was a small complimentary hotel notepad in the bedside drawer. I thought nothing of it and proceeded to finish my homework. The next day in science class we all turned in our homework, like another day. I was always last since my last name started with a W, so when I was walking towards my desk every other student was waiting for lecture to begin. Before I could make it to my desk my teacher called out my name.
No one ever likes to hear their name called out loud. There is a troubling quality, always. I walked up to the front of the room, my teacher holding up my homework written on the DoubleTree notepad pages. What is this? He said it with such disgust it made my stomach curl. I began to redden and my palms moistened with sweat. I stuttered, it’s my homework. He held it for the entire class to see. But why isn’t it on normal line paper? How could a thirteen-year-old possibly answer this question? I panicked and stared at the floor, hoping this was a dream and I would wake up in my own bed, in my own house, with my dog nudging me awake to take him outside. I missed my mom. I missed hanging out with the few friends I had after school. Even though my parents were constantly fighting, I missed the familiarity of them yelling back and forth and slamming kitchen cabinets. When I finally raised my head and locked eyes with the DoubleTree lettering printed on the notepad, I realized I would never return to familiarity.
T.William Wallin-sato is a Japanese-American who works with formerly/currently incarcerated individuals in higher education. He is also a freelance journalist covering the criminal justice system through the lens of his own incarcerated experience as well as an MFA Creative Writing student at CSULB. He was the winner of the Jody Stultz Award for Poetry in the 2020 edition of Toyon Literary Magazine and had his first chapbook of poems, Hyouhakusha: Desolate Travels of a Junkie on the Road, published this summer through Cold River Press. Wallin-sato's work comes out of the periphery and supports the uplifting of voices usually spoken in the shadows. All he wants is to see his community's thoughts, ideas and emotions freely shared and expressed.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.