Roads on Her Face #27: Nevada’s Not for Pussies

By nate2b
Nevada roads  by nate2b 

There are two memories tied inextricably together in my mind, by tenuous flashing synapses deep within my cerebral cortex somewhere. I never think of one without the other, though I don’t know if they were chronologically close. It doesn’t matter, because the place the past lives is in our memory among the grey matter. There is no time besides now.

Elko is a little town hidden between the bare rocky breasts of the Ruby Mountains, way up Interstate 80 before you cross the flat white plains of the Great Salt Lake, if you’re traveling East. There’s a casino, because it’s Nevada, and some hard mountain people who may or may not be currently running from the law.

Dad got a job there as a tow truck driver, and we lived in our trailer on the tow lot just off the main drag through town. I don’t know how long we lived in Elko; it felt like forever and no time at all. Eventually, Dad would have pissed off whoever hired him and we hit the road, not looking back. While we were there, it felt like a precious gift that could be snatched away in a second. The mountains were brutal, to drivers who didn’t know them, and they killed with abandon, shaking cars off their ridges and becoming so black at night that people would just drive right off the interstate. The tow truck was busy, and the bounty that came with the cars towed in from the dark felt like the dreams I have now where I am shopping for hours, picking up treasure after treasure and loading myself down. I’m sad when I wake up, all that work and searching for nothing, for these empty arms. When people wreck, the detritus of their lives floats in a sea of sad, and they never come back for it. They don’t want the memories that seeing their car and the things they were traveling with would bring. We would find suitcases full of clothing, money under the seats, purses splashed with blood. Toys children had dropped as the car spun in slow circles before the terrible finality of impact. I would sit in cars smelling of their occupants’ perfume and stare at the starred windshield in front of me, imagine the blonde head that struck the glass and left two hairs. I would feel the car crumple, hear the shrieking of metal and smell burning rubber. I would be careful not to touch the bloodstains when they were present. A few times I asked Dad if the people had died, but mostly I didn’t want to know. I was happy to keep their things, and I didn’t feel a shred of moral ambiguity. We had learned right off the bat not to question gifts from the sky. When much of your time is spent on the road, you find things that have fallen from vehicles with exciting regularity. If we spied something that looked interesting, Dad would say “Hang on! Put your seatbelts on!” and swerve off at the next wide shoulder so he could jump out and run back to retrieve it. Sometimes it turned out to be trash. Other times it was a box from FedEx, or a wallet. We found a duffel bag once, with clothing and toothpaste, shoes and money. I carried with me an image of someone’s trip turning shitty when they arrived at their destination and realized they had nothing, and I wished I could give their things back to them.

Elko was quiet, and possessed the kind of communal geniality peculiar to many small towns. If you left people alone, they left you alone. I’m sure they talked about us, the travelers living at the junkyard. But we didn’t stand out in towns like that. There were others like us, traveling the back roads and staying until their time was up. Some of the wayward would settle in places like this, away from the big cities and welcoming the quiet accommodation, welcoming being left alone. Either you assimilated or you did not, and the town went on about its business.

Like most former gold-rush towns, Elko has little festivals and whatever they can throw together that might bring in tourists. There’s not much to do out there for work, unless you’re a hooker or a miner. I was reading in the trailer when Mom came in and grabbed my hand. “Come on, honey, they’re having a race! You need to run in the race!”

“But, Mom, I have my boots on!” I said, confused, startled, staring at my black cowboy boots as I was hustled across the street to where a festival was going on. Sure enough, there was the race line and there was a small crowd watching. Dad was standing there, looking back for me expectantly. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, because I only remember Rowdy then. Reno had to have been a baby, or hadn’t come along yet.

It had to have been Dad who sent Mom to get me. He had this image of me growing up to be a runner, and he would send me out to run laps around creosote bush courses that we mapped out beforehand. I would go and go, never getting tired. I was a fast little shit, too, until I got lazy and stopped running, preferring only to read somewhere as far away from my family as I could get. These days, I run because I like it and people think I’m crazy. Maybe Dad had something right.

Mom pushed me into the line of other kids. All of them towered over me. I was the littlest one out there. And I had on boots! I couldn’t run on cement with these boots on!

But BANG went the gun, and off we went. All I could see was the chalk finish line and a blur as I focused in front of me. I ran as fast as I could run, faster than I had ever run. My boots flew, I barely touched the ground. And then I was there, and I turned around. The only one there! The other kids were far behind me. I heard cheers, and a man handed me a silver dollar. “You win, girl,” he smiled at me. “Speed racer.”

The other memory is of swim class. Mom has always been a good swimmer, easily swimming laps with her strong little body moving like a seal. She wanted us to be, too, but we were rarely near water. I have always been the edge-swimmer, holding on to the side after dog-paddling for four breathless strokes.

I think we were in Fallon. Nevada again. We weren’t there long, because I only got to go to a few classes. Rowdy was there, too. Mom would drop us off for an hour at the pool, and two brave women would try to teach a group of little kids how to swim. I was on a kickboard, kicking along, and then I wasn’t. I stopped moving completely as I sank slowly to the bottom. Looking up, the light filtered through the water like blue stained glass, twinkling warmly. I didn’t know why I wasn’t trying to swim. It was so peaceful under there, so quiet with the sounds of the other swimmers dulled to whispers. I had held my breath, and wasn’t choking, so when strong arms reached down and pulled me away from the quiet I was angry. The woman threw me out of the water and another grabbed me, pounding my back. My breath was gone, so I couldn’t yell at them that I was fine, I was fine, there wasn’t any water in my lungs! I wished I was back there, back at the quiet bottom.

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Neighbor

There are turtles swimming beneath the trees

She smokes, flame-red hair curled tight to her skull, a cap of chemicals

“Come close,” she breathes, and a rose tattoo bleeds from wrinkled tits

The old ones within wait for death, she waits with them.

“I wanted it where everyone could see it,” she rasps, turns, the tattoo climbs her neck

Wraps its thorns, its leaves, its deathly petals, nothing to see here.

Every morning in the stolid summer she walks near-naked, watching, waiting.

Roads on Her Face #26: Animal Instincts

As I listen to my mom pull her story out of herself piece by piece, matter-of-factly but as if it were a struggle, realizations come to me unbidden. She talks about the people my parents would stay with, here and there, everywhere, and for the first time I think that maybe those people didn’t look forward to these visits. For the first time I see my dad as a mooch, as not so self-sufficient, as not so strong. I think about those kind people who helped, and maybe grew tired of helping, and I feel ashamed.

As a kid I thought of our visits to family and friends with excitement, and never thought that we might not be welcome. I never considered that we might need them, that his drinking had left us nothing and that we needed charity or a safe place to rest. We are so oblivious, in our little insulated child-worlds, even when we have seen the straight of things, the ugly, the dirt swept beneath the couch.

My own sense of strength and personal ability, even in the face of the ugly, comes from the deep feeling of self-sufficiency our little family instilled in each of us, whatever false basis it may have had. When you look closely, we were not alone. We were supported by welfare and food stamps, generous churches or “friends,” family who didn’t want to see my parents together but were swayed by the sweet (and dirty) faces of children. My dad could wheel and deal and spin nothing into cash, old cars into new trailers, empty pockets into dinner. We could live in the desert for weeks with no interaction with the outside. But we had crutches too, and I just now am wondering if I am too self-assured with too little reason.

What option was there, really? The road is no place for weaklings. If your skin is not thick enough the judgment of others will hurt. If you cry, they will pounce and devour you. If you put yourself in a situation, you might deserve what comes to you. You must be prepared for every aspect of the human condition, the animal condition too. Killers and thieves walk among us, and the herd must stay close and circle, ever watchful, around the young ones in the center.

Don’t talk to people you don’t know.

Don’t tell anyone anything, ever. Keep your mouth shut.

Don’t believe what they tell you. They’re out to get you, every one of them.

Cops and the government are ripping us off!!

If they ask you questions at school, don’t answer them.

Stay put, don’t whimper, little foxes. The den is the only safe place.

Roads on Her Face #25: Ghosts, Premonitions and Sipapus

It was something about the immense longing in my soul, something to do with the constant waking dreams and the time for deep thoughts that brought them on. The quiet time, without nagging cell phones and the interminable media flow we’re subjected to in these modern, better times. Dreams and premonitions would come filled with people I thought I knew, and places I was sure I’d seen. Sometimes they would be places that I wouldn’t know until much later in life. I dreamed the little white house we settled in in New Mexico, many years before we ever saw it. I saw a quiet town with friendly mountain people, and lo, it came to pass. I dreamed of an airplane circling for hours above a busy airport unable to put its wheels down, then saw it the next day on the news. I dreamed a vivid movie-length dream that I can still remember each piece of, of running through a brilliant fantasy land and finally diving over cliffs into the ocean to swim out to a tropical island. The dream had a soundtrack, and each piece of sand or plant was vivid in details.

Hours spent in silence in the desert create the weighty hush of a cathedral. The longer you sit making no noise the harder it is to break the quiet. If Dad was hung over we were forbidden to make noise. If you didn’t want to be found you didn’t make noise. If you were tired of the closeness of the people around you, you walked out into the mesquite and then you didn’t make noise.

Once I fell asleep behind a creosote bush in a place I liked to visit to get away. The campsite was somewhere in the California desert, a place we knew and always stayed for a while when we were passing by. I could wedge myself between two bushes and the branches would sway over me, creating a perfect hiding spot. The sand was finely ground and soft as a pillow. Gradually I fell asleep. I woke to a sound. I kept my eyes shut tightly, feeling as if even the movement of opening them would draw attention. I heard soft padding in the sand, and then panting like a dog. I froze. It must be a coyote! I wasn’t scared of them, but they were unpredictable and what if it had rabies? The sound paused, as if the creature had sensed something. I opened my eyes as quietly as I could. Nothing. I slid slowly out from my hiding place, making no sounds. (Desert kids learn this skill). Nothing. The smooth sand held no trace of pawprints besides my own. A dog ghost, then.

The most recent dream I remember feeling like a premonition or a message was a few years ago, before I started living such a grounded “default” life, as burners term it. This life full of reality and 9 to 5 and boring people, stock happiness with everything I need and little I want. I try not to feel ungrateful, to tell myself this is what everyone wants. It’s hard to convince that little desert rat gypsy soul who lives inside me.

I was walking in the desert as the sun went down. The light reflected from cliffs with a warm golden glow, the shadows lengthening toward me. I stooped and picked up a few rocks, rolling them in my palm as I often do when hiking. I felt their roughness, watched the dust drift down from them. People say when you’re dreaming to look for details, to pick up a leaf and try to see its veins, to look at your hand and see if the lines are there. Dreams supposedly can’t hold this level of detail, and you will know you are dreaming. Every detail I looked for was there, this time.

I kept walking and over a rise spotted the ruins of a hogan among the boulders. It was the same color as the desert around it, and hard to see. When I walked down the hill and found the low-risen door on the other side, I bent and went inside. On a rock looking up at the hole in the roof was an old Native man, a feather in his hair. He work blue jeans and work boots and a barely-there mysterious smile.

“Look,” he said. “They’re everywhere.” He reached out his hand and stuck it through the solid rock wall of the ruin. His arm disappeared up to the elbow, then he was gone. I believed, in an instant, and stuck my head through the wall to follow him. I glimpsed a world of all grey with diffuse light and an empty plain before I started awake in wonder. I looked up the word the next morning. “Sipapu” is a Hopi or Navajo word for a small hole Pueblo people would build in the floor of their kivas, to symbolize the portal their ancestors entered this world through, from the destroyed underworld.

I told my mom this story, and she scoffed. She said we’d both read the word in a Tony Hillerman novel when I was a kid. I am still looking for sipapus.

sipapu

Roads on Her Face #24: Low-Rollers in Vegas

We used to roll in late at night, us kids pressed to the windows and staring at the beautiful lights, the Venus-fly-trap city surrounded by real life and the destitute.

I’d been to Vegas many times before I turned 21. I didn’t know the Vegas of the movies or the late-night sinners, though. I knew the Vegas of dark empty parking lots, seedy outskirts and Circus Circus.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I get disembarking from a plane in the airport there, with the omnipresent ching-ching-ching of the slots, the red-eyed smoking grannies tugging quilted bags full of lost hope, the weekend strippers in Juicy sweatpants and too much makeup. It’s a high, knowing I’ll have a story to tell when I leave, a bad-ass party weekend where I cut to the front of lines, floating around on youth and short skirts. But underneath that lies the knowledge that behind the shiny façade of the strip are the back-alleys off Fremont Street, and farther back in the city away from the tourist traps are the steak-house strip clubs open all night, where the fat old girls that can’t make money at the Spearmint Rhino play slots until 1 a.m.  and barely look up when the front door creaks open. Behind the knowledge of my present youth lies the knowledge that it won’t last much longer.

The homeless shelters are packed full here, and most of the bums sleep in deserted buildings or behind the truck stop. We used to roll in late at night, us kids pressed to the windows and staring at the beautiful lights, the Venus-fly-trap city surrounded by real life and the destitute. We would park in truck stops or far back in the dark parking lots of the old hotels and casinos, the ones that no longer paid a security guard to kick out anyone who wasn’t spending. When we came in with a nice trailer, maybe the Airstream and a presentable-looking van, they left us alone anyway because we might be retirees traveling the country and even now inside the too-cold casinos, preserving minutes of what was left of our lives with whiskey and video poker.

Dad would disappear when we got there, maybe for a day or only for several hours if his luck didn’t hold. Now I know you get free drinks sitting at a blackjack table, though then I didn’t even think about what he was doing. What money did he use? Was that our welfare check reduced to shiny chips on the plush green table? But we didn’t think about that, not then. We thought about how hot it was waiting in a van, how the day dragged by punctuated by flies or hopefully a walk to the gas station for something cold to drink. Mom never wanted to leave the trailer, knowing he could walk back out and want to leave in a second, pissed off and taking the anger out on her if she wasn’t ready to go. Furious if she wasn’t there to watch our shit.

But sometimes, sometimes he was lucky and he came out smelling of a good cigar with a wide grin on his tanned face. He’d have on his nice clothes and just-shined boots, and a wad of money in his pocket. He’d say “Come on kids, we’re staying here tonight,” and joy! That meant a room with real beds, a TV, a shower! We’d haunt the hallways of Circus Circus, the garish colors and clowns everywhere, giant lollipops the size of your head- how do you eat those anyway? I remember the motorcycle spinning in the cage, I was sure there was no way the daredevil would stay on it, no way he would be able to slow down. I remember the trapeze artists high above our heads, remember wondering if that flimsy little net would keep them from dying broken among the crowds of upturned faces. And in the morning we would leave early, before it was hot, the day dawning sullen and the future not as bright as the one we’d just left behind.

I went into Circus Circus a few years ago with a girlfriend. The carpet smelled of old milk and too many years of cigarettes to be a place meant for kids. And it never was, of course – like anything in Vegas, a trap. A place to lose your money and drink, smoke and whore – this one was just decorated with childlike things. Looking over the railing in the center arena where the circus performers were, I saw piles of cigarette butts, inches of dirt and popcorn and probably vomit. The paint was peeling, the cocktail waitresses wore masked smiles but their eyes were full of hell. It was Fear and Loathing, and all I wanted were drugs to make it bearable.