The road unfurls at 80 miles per hour (don’t lie, 90) across west Texas. The stars begin to fall, one after another, and the half-eaten moon hangs low and sullen, yellow as government cheese.
After Marfa and the 100 potholes on U.S. 90 beating my tires to death I can see the vivid flashes of lightning in the belly of a massive beast of a storm ahead over Van Horn, billowing unfettered into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. In the inky velveteen blackness I fly past the Prada store and its ironic greenish light stretching toward the empty highway. Consumerism, duly mocked.
I think that, didn’t’ I tell you I met your dad in 78. Then we traveled a little bit and ended up living in Tucson a few months. SO the summer of 79 I just realized is when we went to Alaska, so we talked about that. And that was probably September. We had a little bit of money so I think we backpacked around, we must have ended up somewhere in the southern part of the states, probably southwest because it was warmer.
Did you hitchhike?
Yeah, we did hitchhike some. Took the train, couple of places, Amtrak, I don’t think we ever took the bus. It’s kind of all blurry then but I remember somehow we ended up in Lee Vining, were there for a while with this older couple Blanche and Frank, I forget their last names. And we got hired on in Mammoth Lakes at the Motel 6. And that’s, I was pregnant with you already. So it was just a little village back then, I’m sure it’s grown quite a bit since then, it’s become a big resort town. But it was nice, we had a room and a hot plate we cooked our meals on, I craved hot fudge sundaes. There was a little ice cream bar across the street.
I love ice cream, so it must have been me.
Laughs. There were a couple of nice girls there, one was an Indian girl we became pretty good friends. She was working there too.
Indian from India?
No Native American. And of course that job ended, I got tired easily and I was starting to show by then I think. And I don’t know where we went from there, I have no idea.
Well you ended up in Lake Havasu.
Yeah, and we ended up living in a bus. So I think we probably went to Quartzsite from there, because I think that’s where we acquired the bus.
Had dad been there before, was he circling around to all these places like Quartzsite, or…
I think he had already traveled that route. Course they had big swap meets there in the winter and you can live on nothing.
How did he figure out this lifestyle? It’s not something his dad did so..?
No definitely not. I don’t know he was a drifter when I met him.
And that was after the war, right, Vietnam?
Yeah he just couldn’t, stay in one place for long, couldn’t settle down, things would get a little too tough with responsibilities or schedules and he’d just take off and go somewhere else.
The lighting and mood couldn’t be any more perfect. I’m not sure what they did, but it’s right on the tracks and in ag country. Maybe they loaded up bold cows…
I took photos of the same place years ago and gave canvas prints of them as gifts. I think I like this one better.
Lighting strikes over Alpine, Texas during monsoon season
I’ve been at a writer’s retreat in the Big Bend area this week…here’s a little something I worked on as an assignment.
The assignment was to write a non-fiction scene, in the style of a journalism long-form story. This was chosen as a stand out piece of writing to be presented to all attendees and instructors at a reading at the close of the retreat.
Freddy drops a quarter into the parking meter in front of the TV, turns the knob and you can hear it drop and clink with its fellows. The meter is an old-style one with a little gold plate that says “Police Officers Will Not Turn the Knob,” meaning maybe that it was from the day when actual cops had anything to do with parking tickets and people expected that cops should be there to help instead of hinder. The flag inside the glass bulb drops, and Freddy has two hours.
“It’s for Cowboys games, when he tries to come in here and camp out all day,” Harry said in his thick German accent, rolling his eyes. “Nobody wants to hear him going off like that; at least he can pay for it if we have to.” He grins toward Freddy, and you can tell it’s a subject that’s come up through the years over and over. Like the same long Texas evening, like when you step inside this place with the cow bones all over the porch roof, the same day just keeps replaying. Where the fun never stops.
It’s hot and sticky inside even with the swamp cooler and all of the fans blowing at once, kind of like sitting inside someone’s beer-scented mouth while they’re panting and sighing. Outside, a few locals are strumming guitars and a mandolin, taking turns singing and passing the same couple of women around. One has tattoos above her lady business, and cut off shorts and tube top to make sure you can see them – the other wears sweats and no makeup, with tough eyebrows like the cholas I knew in high school. She doesn’t smile.
“It’s 3 to one men to women out here,” the cute brown-skinned female bartender smiles. “I just stopped dating when I moved to Alpine for school.” She flips her short dark bob as she turns to serve another icy Lone Star – (Estrella Sola! The man she’s serving asks her, and she looks at him like he’s asking for Courvoisier. He explains it means the same thing as what she’d been handing him all night, just only in Spanish this time) – Harry leans in and says she does hav e a boyfriend who she doesn’t call her boyfriend. She disappears a little later with the non-boyfriend. 3 to one odds you’ll end up with one of those out here, I figure.
The guy with the gas pipeline company has been kicked out at least once today, but he comes back in and buys the whole bar a round, so they let him stay this time. He’s good and drunk, having a hard time focusing on anything and sweating all the way through his Stetson. He has small eyes, fat pink lips and I don’t like him, partly because he stands with his sweaty arm against me when there’s a whole bar to his left, partly because I’ve heard him talk about the female bartender who threw him out, repeatedly calling her a bitch and whining to anyone he buys a beer for that “she hates me.” I figure she knows him well enough to judge, since Freddy and Harry both say he’s a good guy. You can’t trust what they say, since they’re drinking the beers he just bought. Miller High Life and Natural Light, respectively.
“I raise pheasants, and let ‘em go out here,” says Freddy conversationally. “I just let 20 go in Ft. Davis. I put an ad in the paper in up there to let people know not to shoot them ‘til December. I want to reintroduce them to this part of Texas. Gotta keep the rednecks and Mexicans from shooting them all, though! At least for a while, give ‘em time to breed,” he laughs, rubbing his big belly. “I put the ad in Spanish and English.” He’s Hispanic – about 45, greying, with the body of a long-haul truck driver. He says he’s not bitter about his wife leaving him with their two daughters. But that was 12 years ago and he hasn’t dated much.
“Freddy’s probably the smartest guy in town, even though it doesn’t seem like it,” Harry says to me, keeping up his revelatory side conversation. “He’s just acting dumb.” I’m not sure why Harry’s giving me the inside scoop, maybe to set himself up as the guy who knows everything about everyone. If I lived here, I don’t think I’d tell Harry anything unless I had a reason for piping information into the gossip mill. Just like when someone tells you “Don’t trust so-and-so,” I make it a rule never to trust the speaker of those words.
Scott the pipeline guy oozes back inside to lean against a bar stool next to mine – too much cologne, undertone of sweat, liquor and ready-to-hump. “It’s so dang hot! I can’t stand it,” he complains, trying to get someone to talk to him. He pulls out his phone and sloppily tries to text. I glimpse the screen and two words in his conversation before he makes a “How Dare You” face and slaps it against his chest so I can’t see it. He pouts his lips, playing coy, like, I can’t believe you peeked!
“She fucks,” the text says. Over the bar, a sign says “We Don’t Rent Pigs.”
You could count the passing of the days in the trickle of sweat down spines, the tss tss of the spray bottles we used as air conditioning constant as the slow torpid buzzing of flies. The ebb and flow of time in the middle of nowhere follows the seasons; slower in the misery of summer and too-quick in the cool of winter.
Days were spent lying in the small shade of palo verdes and mesquite waiting for the eye of the sun to finally drop away. The mercury registered 120 in Phoenix one summer we spent out in the desert without electricity or running water. Sometimes it was too hot to read, too hot to breathe. We crawled under the silver mirage of the trailer like dogs, panting with tongues lolling in the blessed sand. The water we wet ourselves with evaporated in minutes, leaving behind the memory of being cool. We dreamed of popsicles and the cold clear waters of the Northwest; imagined green cool light filtering through leaves of plants that did not have spines and were soft to the touch; imagined the lives of people not brutalized by the elements. When I could read, I chose books about the Arctic, vampire novels set in northern countries, stories of polar bears.
Dad soaked his t-shirt constantly in a bucket of water that he never threw out or changed; I didn’t know water could rot and smell quite that bad but it didn’t seem to bother him though he often bragged about his sense of smell. He smelled like death, and being near him made me gag. He laughed at us when we turned up our noses. Was it a point of pride to stink like that?
Mom did not complain, never complained. We carried flyswatters to combat the few flies brave enough to fly through the heat to look for water, we made paper fans to keep the air circulating. In the evening when the rays of the sun grew long we, along with the animals, cautiously began to move limbs and talk, smiling with the relief of the night. The dichotomy of the desert is the amazing night, that no matter how hot it is during the day the heat would rush toward the heavens when the sun-god disappeared. Like the moon, the day and night temperatures would be so far apart that it was almost worth the suffering. The night is still my favorite time, the stars the best part of the sky.
Melba had a little sewing and quilting shop on the main drag of
Glenwood, across from the Crab Apple Cabins and next to the creek that
bubbled under the highway. We’d walk through town as kids and stop at
the creek in the shade, to pretend there was a troll under the bridge
or to watch the kids in the summer in town with their parents for
vacation. The strangers in town were always tourists or hunters. The
teenage girls knew when the Forest Service would bring in the Hot
Shots to fight fires in the mountains. As the season got drier and the
heat began, so would the hormones heat up in town. Tan muscled guys
who’d been spending weeks in the mountains would come rolling into
town and the smell of sweat and desire was rank.
Melba gave me another job in exchange for sewing lessons. I helped her
in the shop, and gave her massages after work. Pressing her doughy
flesh as she sighed in her room, I decided I didn’t want to be a
Our first Christmas I was the charity case for the women’s quilting
group. I imagine the meeting they had as they picked their deserving
“That little homeless girl in the trailer, Mary’s daughter? You know
she’d just love a quilt, ladies. Let’s stitch her a new life made of
goodwill and tiny stitched dolls wearing flowered dresses.”
It was a sweet gesture. I wished I hadn’t had to give her massages,
though. I made sure I was as busy as I could be so I could tell her I
didn’t have time anymore for sewing. I never made clothing that fit me
quite right, anyway.
I participated in everything. I went to the ladies’ oil painting group
and painted colorful quick paintings, two to a month, while the older
ladies had been working on the same thing for a year. I livened up
their day and made them laugh.
Lynn took me under her artist’s wing, because I loved to paint so
much. She’d come in with her brush and refine my splashes and swirls,
add color and depth when I didn’t take the time. She could tell I
needed a little refinement.
People started asking me to babysit their kids, and I still didn’t
know how to say no yet so I did. After one last overnight with a
couple of little boys who wanted to sleep in the bed with me and tried
to run roughshod, I realized I didn’t have to do this anymore. I was
making enough money at my other jobs…
Windstalker hired me to tie the hundreds of pottery chile ristras they
hung at the door, their best sellers to folks looking for a New
Mexican souvenir. My fingers were raw and bled as I knotted the cords
together and burned the ends with a lighter to prevent them
We spent days at the Catwalk in the cold water of the canyons,
exploring under the rocks and back away from the trail. We swam in the
deep dark swimming holes beneath giant boulders, climbed barefoot up
the cliffsides and swung from trees like monkeys. One of my best friends Adele and I parked with boys in the parking lot of the picnic grounds late at night, watching the stars, and I sighed and was bored as she made out in the backseat. I still looked
like a little girl with zits who didn’t know how to dress, and her
curves and breasts had been womanly for years already. When would I be
desirable? I was in such a hurry and the time was so close. I felt
like I had so many years to catch up on, not realizing the length of
the years before me. I always knew I would want to slow down time,
though, and it’s been a recurring theme in my journals since I started them at 8 years old.
I have always known I’ll be looking back in 10 years, then 20 (if luck favors the bold), wondering where did the time go?