The Town Named For My Dad
(Thanks to the REDLANDS REVIEW where this story originally appeared in 2006)
Aaronville, Idaho. It was named for him, but not by him. His father, Arthur LeGrand Burton, bought the land when my father was a baby. He, the Senior Burton, envisioned a fortune in logging-related industries: fine pine furnishings, telephone poles, wood pulp for paper and for use in a primitive form of particle board for which he was seeking a patent. Later on, well-meaning folks stressed that they could have set him straight about the wood up there. It wasn’t suited for furniture; it was situated on federal land and the entanglements were crippling; his patent claim would never succeed. In fact, it wasn’t, they were, and it didn’t. His vision proved to be so gross a miscalculation that he was forced to flee back to a two-bedroom house at the far end of his parents’ farm near Ogden, Utah. The following fall, he slipped in the field and punctured his gut with the prong of a bailing machine. The infection began in his liver and spread. He was dead before Thanksgiving.
My father had five sisters. He was the last of the brood. It tells me all I need to know about my grandfather’s priorities to learn that he had decided to name his prospective new town after his tiny son rather than any of his five hearty daughters. Their names were to be given to streets—Ethel, Helen, Constance, Lorraine, and Mildred—in a precise pattern with the future state highway a potential sixth line in the grid. He never got around to naming anything after his wife, although I like to think that, given time, he would have sketched in a Clovis Park or Clovis Reservoir—something tranquil she could decorate with geraniums and roses.
In any event, the unpaved farm road at the center of his property never got bumped up to state highway status, and Helen Avenue, Lorraine Drive, and the rest were surveyed and staked but never laid. After Arthur LeGrand Burton Inc. collapsed, the land was seized by the loan company and later resold. When the farm industries and various homeowners in the neighborhood decided to incorporate a few decades later, they found the name Aaronville still in the registry, and they lacked either the initiative or the imagination to make a change.
The town named for my dad rose again.
We went there, went through there, once when I was a kid. My father ran a carpet and floor-cleaning company that he had inherited from his father-in-law, and he almost never took time off for vacation. But that summer for some reason, the three of us had borrowed Aunt Mildred’s station wagon for a road trip to Yellowstone.
We were somewhere, after miles and miles of potato fields, in the heart of the southeastern corner of the state. I hadn’t been paying attention, but my mom half-turned in the passenger seat and thrust her fingers into my space, the rear seat. “Look, Trev! It’s your dad’s town!”
My father grumbled from behind the wheel. “Not my town.”
“I mean it’s the town named after your dad.”
I sat up, the stack of Swamp Thing comics sliding from my lap, in time to catch a glimpse of the green-backed, white-lettered road sign. AARONVILLE. And some tiny numerals that may have been population, may have been elevation.
My mother tried to plead with Dad. “Let’s stop. I’m sure Trev would like to stop.”
“We don’t need gas yet,” my father said.
“Well, I’d like to use the ladies’ room.” Neither my father nor I believed her. But that was her best and last attempt. We didn’t stop.
The tractor store, the gas station, a café, and a grocery approached us, slid past the side windows, and receded. And what would have been the point, for my father, of stopping and looking? None of these structures or people had been present when he lived here as an infant. The town had all been in his dad’s head. And now, perhaps, it lived only in his.
Twenty years later I passed through Aaronville again with my boyfriend of four years. Same destination: Yellowstone. Joe wanted to see where I grew up. We had already wandered through all the boroughs of New York, his neighborhoods. For people like us—educated, artsy—his hometown was a respectable spawning ground. But what was there to say about Ogden? Seventh largest city in the state of Utah? And why go all the way there to say it? I had added-on Yellowstone because at least then the trip would have natural wonders. And maybe Aaronville had been in the back of my head as well; it would make a good story.
Joe and I stopped at the new all-in-one gas station/supermarket on the edge of town. Gleaming white with glass and chrome like a spacecraft recently landed. I filled the tank while Joe slipped off for a piss. Across the pump island, other tourists stared bored from a monster SUV. At the air machine, a local mom with three teenagers walked around a Buick. “Clayton, are you gonna make your mother fill the tires?” The woman spoke in weary tones, already resigned. “What kind of son is that?” She dragged the hose along the pavement and bent down to unscrew the cap on the front left’s air stem.
Joe returned and leaned against the trunk of our rental while I finished pumping and completed my Aaronville narrative.
He grinned at me. The big, toothy style that had sold me the first time I met him. Now, I thought he might be mocking me. He did sometimes. “That’s so sweet. When we’re rich and famous, we can come back here and put up a plaque.”
Whatever it was, it wasn’t sweet. I must have frowned while I hung up the nozzle, because Joe reached a hand around my neck and pulled me in for a kiss.
“Stop it.” My eyes darted from the tourists to the family to the door of the station. I tugged away from him and reached back for my wallet.
“What? We can’t kiss in Idaho?” Joe followed me towards the cashier. “Or just in this town?”
I didn’t respond, just pushed inside for the change. When I came out, Joe was standing, big arms folded, by the rack of oil cans. “What-the-fuck kind of number did your dad play on your head, dude?”
In fact, my father never said much of anything. I came home from college at midterm to tell them I was gay. Sat them down in the kitchen. And my father got up from the table, dumped his iced tea into the sink, and left the house. I spoke to my mother about it later, years later, and she said it was all about grandchildren. I was an only child, and Dad was disappointed there would never be any. I said, Who’s to say there won’t be? And Mom said nothing. Silence on the line.
Dad died the year after I met Joe. Prostate cancer. He hated the doctor and didn’t go until it was too late. My mother lived from then on, neatly and safely, alone in their house. She transferred recipes from magazines and websites onto colored index cards. Red for entrees, green for desserts, etc. She wrote them out in her neat script. Or later, more often, cut the actual recipes out of the page and pasted them down. Because of the shake in her hand. I noticed this shift because the ones she didn’t keep she mailed to me. Three-Bean Salad. Empress Potatoes. Cilantro Pesto.
Another day, my mother spoke of grandchildren as if abstractly, as if the topic did not involve me. She told me again that my father had always wanted a grandchild. Because, she said, and chuckled, I think he wanted to somehow live forever.
I didn’t care about forever. I just wanted to get out of his town. Joe and I returned to the car and climbed in. Saying nothing, we drove down the main drag. Tractor store. Café. Houses. Outside the last house was a rotted wooden sign offering two-step lessons.
Joe pushed in the lighter. “You ever square dance?”
I watched the meadow narrow on either side of the road as the stands of trees closed in. “Open the window.”
“Will there be bars in West Yellowstone? Saloons. Or is it a dry town?”
Joe started up his cigarette, and I studied Aaronville, diminished in the rearview. And where was my dad now? Where had he ever been?