Government Cheese Moon

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.

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We Don’t Rent Pigs

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.”

Blocked Artist

It’s always our own fault, isn’t it? We have good intentions but the “not creating” takes over faster than any other kind of lethargy. I let myself get too busy, my days too full, my nights too short.

My sister got “The Artist’s Way” for Christmas, and flipping through I appreciated the advice to nurture the inner artist child. She’s sensitive, and needs encouragement. Dedication is just something you create by being persistent. I’ve fallen victim too often to the thought that you have to “be in the mood” to write, when it’s actually that you make a date with yourself daily and make it happen.

Hello, 2015. I just transcribed the next hour of Mom Speaks. I’m making new dates with myself right now. And the gym, also the gym.

I had a lot of friends – Mom speaks

He was a good guy.

Yeah. He was a good man, my dad.

Did he treat you any differently, as a southern only daughter?

Oh yeah. I was probably spoiled rotten. Daddy’s little girl, I mean he took me everywhere with him. Going to town, to Monticello, because he was a very sociable person. So he’d go and visit his friends, Mr. Glover at the furniture store, and at the barber shop Billy Ray Tyler, he’d go see him and I’d go with him. Just, all around town and he’d take me with i\him.

How big was Monticello?

Probably no more than 30,000.

It is a very southern little Georgian town. What did you think about the community, how did you feel about the people?

Uh, I had a lot of friends. It seemed like I knew most everyone in town. I liked growing up in that little town. I liked leaving there.

Just a pretty blonde little southern Monticello girl. Prom queen, homecoming queen?

No. I wasn’t any of that, but I was in the clique. The popular clique.

A lot of boyfriends?

Mmm…no/

How about friends?

Yeah, I had a LOT of friends.

Journal Entry- August 28th, 2011 Fallon, NV

Describing the drive across the Nevada emptiness – something you feel more than think. The comparative busyness of Arizona with its big highways and changeable scenery starts to fade east of Vegas. The bones of the land rise stealthily, underground stone serpents slithering just out of reach of your notice. The shadows become more blue, the sage and scrub brush more pervasive. There are no more trees, as if their entire race was obliterated here. Wait, no, a lonely pair of young cottonwoods have been planted as the wilting guards on either side of the burnt gash of a road leading to the blood-reds and pus-yellows of yet another strip mine. The earth bleeds and cries freely here and there is nothing and no one to comfort her. When there is an end-time, it will mirror this and we can say we saw the portents. Clouds stay high above the flatland, streaming down from a mile overhead, sometimes the rain reaches the ground to be blown violently across the road and fill the washes. The old-timer at the Hard Luck Store in Mina called these “gullywashers.” “We don’t want it to rain too much, not now,” he responded to my “But isn’t this nice?” His bleary blue eyes rolled over me to glare out at the thin freshly-washed strip of blacktop.

The smell of the rain is the smell of the dusty breath of the sagebrush, held for months in anticipation of this brief half-assed blessing. The colors and the light are like nowhere else. It’s as if, in death, the land deserves this heavenly illumination. As if the sky feels sorry for the stones it exposed, and drenches them in forgiving saturated color. If there is a place for the hills to have eyes, it is here. You can feel them on you all the time. You just hope the engine keeps running, and the air conditioner doesn’t give up.

4 p.m.

We just got invited to  a shotgun wedding in the park. She’s about 9 months along, 16 or 17 at the most. I say hell yeah!

Roads on Her Face #21: How School Happened

It’s more fun to tell stories than to talk about logistics, but the logistics of “how stuff happened” are always the parts people want to know more about. How did you eat? (Mostly with our mouths). Where did money come from? (It grew on trees). How did you get so smart? (I didn’t go to public school, much).

School the way most kids did school wasn’t really a viable option, given Dad’s penchant for pissing people off, landing in jail, or general anti-social tendencies. It’s hard to catch the bus when you’re 40 miles on a dirt road from the nearest bus stop. School officials tend to ask questions that no one is prepared to answer, such as “Where are your school records? Do you have an address or a phone number?” Somehow, we were accepted at many schools all across the country, mostly I imagine because we brought in extra cash to the district as low income little desk-occupiers. No one ever followed us when we left after a few weeks or a month, and I wonder if anyone ever noticed. I didn’t get too close to most of my school acquaintances, who were usually of the lonely outsider type anyway. They were just glad to have someone to sit with at lunch, and I was glad not to have to try to talk to a group of kids at once. I was much better one on one. I didn’t particularly want them to come over to play in our trailer or car, and I wouldn’t have known what to tell them when they started asking questions. I was savvy enough to know that I was vaguely ashamed of us, but also proud that we could make it living this way when I knew most of the people we met hadn’t the vaguest idea how we survived. I liked the idea of being self-sufficient, and still do, though now I realize how heavily we relied on government aid most of the time.

Now, I want a homestead off the grid somewhere in the hill country in Texas. I want chickens, and maybe mini-goats, an art studio, and a big spread that I can fence off and hide in. I’ll fit right in in Texas.

So, school- my mom’s daddy, Papa, had put some money aside in a savings account for me when I was born. Instead of having it for college, it got tapped into much earlier to enroll me into an expensive Christian satellite school program- well, expensive for homeless folks. I think it may have been between $200 – $500 for the whole school year, very cheap especially considering the quality of the education (even with all the Bible parables sprinkled in). I’m guessing some of the rest of that money went to food, and probably beer. We were able to get the student and teacher books, the tests, study guides, and lesson plans. I would do school in the morning and have the rest of the day off. When a dedicated kid sits down and completes all the schoolwork typical in a normal public school day, she should be done before noon. So much time is wasted in timekillers, recess, and babysitting that it’s no wonder kids are so under-educated. By the time I surpassed my mom’s math education, I was easily schooling myself and honestly grading my own work. The other kids were young enough that reading and some math and coloring were good enough, and by the time we settled in one spot and enrolled them in public school for the rest of their school years, they only had a few missing years of education and still easily tested into their respective grades. They went to a small New Mexico school that also needed more desk-warmers, and the accompanying grant money.

I went to two full years of public school my last two years of high school, where I got the requisite sexual and partying education every teenager needs. I didn’t even go to some of my classes and still got straight As. I helped the overloaded teachers by explaining geometry to a few of the other students, and they overlooked my occasional truancy and low-cut blouses. I got a full ride to college, too.

Roads on Her Face #20: Push Came to Shove

There are things I’m still pissed off about years and years after they happened. I wish I could let them go, but even if I laugh them off now they still hang on to the edges of my psyche. The school zone ticket I got after school hours, and the small-town asshole judge that talked with the offending officer about their upcoming fishing trip, after the “trial.” The fat woman who loudly asked what was wrong with my brother’s face, when he got out of the hospital after being wounded in Iraq. The old bag who threatened to call the police in a park somewhere in Idaho, who was sure the ragged little kids on the swing set had to be good-for-nothings.

You have to take a break now and then after hours on the road with kids, and public parks across the states are a quiet place to rest and let them out to run off some energy. Parking lots and rest areas do in a pinch, but green grass, shade, and jungle gyms do a lot to tame the wild beasts.

It was a cloudy day, almost chilly. We must have been headed south, skittering like leaves before a winter storm. We were trying to park overnight, so we had to keep a low profile and not look like we were planning to do what we were planning to do. The kitty was beside the car with her cotton rope leash tied to the side mirror. She lay quietly in the grass, being a smart kitty.

Mom was reading in the car, and Dad was listening to the radio. Sophie was sleeping quietly, and Reno was driving a Matchbox car through the Sahara-like dunes of the sandbox on one side of the playground. Rowdy and I were over by the swings. “Push me!” he called, swinging his legs and looking back at me. From out of nowhere a fat kid with cheeks like biscuits arrived on the scene. He made a beeline for my brother and announced “I wanna swing!” I looked around, and didn’t see any parents.

Shit! I hated confrontation, mostly, though I didn’t avoid or mind the shot of adrenaline that came when you knew you’d have to do something soon. The fatty was way bigger than Rowdy, who was staring up at him in blue-eyed shock. We weren’t used to people arriving on the scene. We didn’t have to talk to other people, and most of the time we weren’t supposed to.  Fatty unceremoniously shoved Rowdy off the swing. OK, time to do something.

I was a lot taller than fatty. You could tell he didn’t often talk to girls, mostly by the cheeks and the small piggy eyes. They glared at me out of his reddening face as I walked right up to him.

“Get away from my brother!” I said, picking Rowdy up and grabbing the swing. “We were here first, go play somewhere else.”

From behind me I heard the war-shriek of Grandma. “You get away from my grandson, I’m going to call the police!”

“Shut up, lady,” I said, the adrenaline showing up. I was talking back to a grownup I didn’t know, and that was a new feeling. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned to face her. “You can’t do anything about it.” I wanted to tell her how her grandson was fat, and she should make him exercise. Also he was a bully, and that he needed to get his ass kicked. I wanted to tell her that neither she nor he nor anyone else had the right to push us around, but “Shut up” was going to have to do.

Her mouth hung open, and I could see the family resemblance clearly, though she probably hadn’t had as much food as this kid, being raised in the Depression. She hadn’t been spoiled, so she made sure her grandpiggy was. Also I decided it was time to get back, because she had said “police” and Dad would not have taken kindly to anything involving police. Us three little ragamuffins scurried quietly back to the car, flying under the parental radar. My heartbeat slowed, but I never forgot. It was easier to tell people to fuck off after that.

Roads on Her Face #19 : First-rate Forest Service

When you mention you’ve lived in Mammoth Lakes, California, people naturally assume you are a wealthy brat whose parents have a ski lodge in the mountains, built especially for escapes a few times a year from the sprawl of L.A. We didn’t live there in the winter, though, as we would head south to the blessedly warm desert before the first hints of snow. Living in a car limits your environment, seasonally.

I remember the sweet smell of pine sap and the soft needles underfoot that let you creep up on unsuspecting brothers, the glistening black carpenter ants that hurried up the superhighways of the ponderosas which seemed plain as lighted roadways to the ants, the highways that you could strain your eyes and imagine you too could see. I remember the hush and sighs of the forest, the caws of crows and the yammering blue jays, the tap-tap-tap of the brilliant woodpeckers. I remember how a short walk would take you into the woods, away from anyone. I would settle down beneath a tree and read or write in my journal, cushioned by bark or perched on lichened-softened rocks, I would revel in the protection of the forest. After empty deserts, I felt so protected, so hidden, between the trees.

We were living in the car, then, either sleeping in the back or the tent. It was dry that summer, so we didn’t bother packing everything up into the car each day. Just our food, to keep it from bears. We were out miles from the edge of Mammoth, tucked into a quiet pocket of the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra Nevadas. Years later, I picked up a photograph of an eagle at a yard sale. John Muir’s signature is penciled across the back- I don’t know if it is a fake but I knew who he was because of his name on the wilderness signs.

Occasionally we would see rangers, but they left us alone. We weren’t littering, and we kept the campsite straightened up so it didn’t look like we’d been there for weeks. I think they felt sorry for us kids, and didn’t want to make things harder for us. They weren’t hard, though, that’s the part no one ever realized. We were happy being kids, and the forest was a playground made just for us.

My book supply was stocked by the bookmobile, driven by Miss Heidi and parked weekly not far from where we were camped, providing “forest service” to outlying homes and the occasional itinerants. She was warm and friendly, and loved books almost as much as I did. Right away she got me a library card, and handed me the first list for the summer reading program so I could get started.

“You’ll have to work to catch up to the other kids, they have a few weeks’ head start,” she said. “Do you want some help picking out books?” I shook my head, and in minutes had a stack that took Mom and me two trips to load into the car. We had library bags with the string top, so we had to hold the bags to our chests so the books didn’t break free from the cheap plastic material. I was back each week, with every single book in those bags on my “read” list, even the little kids’ books we picked out for the younger ones. I gave Heidi one-page book reports so she would know I’d read them. After the first week, the amazement on her face changed to a welcoming smile. She wrote me letters for years General Delivery or to P.O. Boxes in Nevada or Oregon or Arizona, telling me about her husband, sons, and her dog. Another touchstone, and a very grateful little girl.

Roads on Her Face #17: Army of Saviors

I try to give money to the Salvation Army whenever I can. It’s never enough, I always feel it should be more. There are a lot of so-called charities out there, but the Army is one of the few I feel use their money for helping people instead of padding the salaries of the mucky-mucks at the top. I’m biased, though, from listening to my parents when they talked about the easiest places to get free food or a shelter on a rainy night. The Salvation Army wouldn’t ram religion down your throat or anything, they would quietly help in whatever way they could without harshly passing judgment. They gave me clothes and Christmas presents, served me warm food on Thanksgiving. They had kind smiles, and you could feel they meant what they said when they said “You’re welcome.” When their shelters are full, they try to find you a motel room and that was always the best.

When the bored Santas stand ringing their bells on a streetcorner, I always search my purse for cash or write them a check that I can slip quietly into that red pot of hope. A little here, a little there, like a prayer of thanks.

Homeless shelters have a ranking system, from the good ones that gave you toys and games and a nice room with a door, to the ones that made you wish you were sleeping outdoors away from the smells, away from the old lady that sat in a plastic chair and stared at you as if you were a slice of pizza. Some of them would let you stay for a few weeks, especially a family with children, while they helped you find a job and while you pretended you wanted one. Most of them would close up in the middle of the day, providing a place to sleep and kicking you out into the world after breakfast. We would spend the days in parks, in Boise, Idaho, in Spokane, Washington, in Duluth or St. Cloud, Minnesota. I would pick grass, lying on my back staring at sky blue skies, a book open on my chest and a deep, satisfied sigh. I liked being out of the wilderness, around civilization. I liked having a real bed and a shower, even if it was shared by other people in a long hall that looked like old college dorms. There was always hope, that maybe we would stay here. Maybe I would go to a school with an art program, a library, with students and teachers and that imaginary “normal life.” The real yearning for that didn’t kick in until middle school age, when I got tastes of school and friends and society at different schools around the country. I was tired of just us, of our little insulated world away from everything else. The important stuff, I imagined.

Now that I have had all those things, I look back fondly and wonder what it would have been like if things had never changed. I would probably still be where I am, now, if they hadn’t, an escapee from freedom.

Roads on Her Face #16: Yellow-Bellied Whip-Dogs

There were people we saw in what passed for regularly. We would be around the same place at around the same time on certain years, and we would be camped next to other wanderers that had a pattern that followed the seasons as ours did. Call it happenstance, or just people being people and needing some kind of routine. One of these families of regulars was the Millers, a bunch of redneck Okies that fit any stereotype you could come up with for Okies. They had thick accents that we thought meant they were dumb, and they were pretty dumb, which we thought meant they were Okies. Not having much to compare them to, we listened to my dad when he said they were all like that. He put them somewhere in the same categorical area as Mexicans. The old Millers, Mr. and Mrs., Dad had met through their son Junebug, a scruffy, skinny guy who always wore trucker hats and had one eye that always looked off to the left, on its own. They had probably run into each other at a bar in Lake Havasu, since there wasn’t one in Vidal Junction. It really was just a junction, with a post office. If you took the first 95 south from Needles, instead of crossing the river into Arizona and taking the 95 that led to Lake Havasu, you’d be driving through empty desert for miles on an old highway crisscrossed with repair lines and bleached dove-grey by the summers. When you hit 62, you’re there. 62 takes you right on into Parker by way of Earp. Parker was our “town” when we lived in Vidal Junction, the place we went into to get groceries. The food stamp check would come General Delivery to the Vidal post office, and then it would be time for a trip of such bounty that we could barely think about it without getting shivers of joy. We’d load up on books at the Parker library, and food that would last for weeks. We might get ice cream which had to be eaten right away, and maybe real store milk instead of the thin excuse for milk, powdered milk, that Mom bought because it kept without a refrigerator. We would be away from Dad for a whole day, a day where we were all lighter and freer than any other time. We didn’t have to worry about laughing too loud, giving him a headache, or talking to strangers. Mom smiled more, too, when we went to town, and all of us loved to see her smile. She even had a friend in Parker, Jacci’s mom, who was also homeschooling her kids and who provided a welcome refuge when Mom was able to get away from the desert for the day.

Mrs. Miller had a particular way of talking, a combination of a gasp and her Oklahoma accent, and she would cut off the ends of words in a way that made mocking her particularly fun. Blythe wasn’t too far, and sometimes Dad would make a trip to the Blythe swampmeets from Vidal. Mrs. Miller called it “Blyyyyy..” and so did we. “Is Dad going to Blyyyyyy today?” we’d croak, laughing, and Mom would say it back “Blyyyyyyy” with her tongue sticking out and her upside-down smile.

Once, we ran into the Millers in a parking lot outside of Lake Havasu. We were each spending the night there on our way to other places. Dad came back from visiting with them late into the night, his breath smelling of their beer and a twisted smile on his face.

“You shoulda heard her, Mary,” he said, laughing. “I guess Mr. left Mrs. sometime this year, but he’s back now. They were sitting around telling the story to me, him glaring at her over his beer. She just looked straight at him, and said ‘Yeah, he left, but he come crawlin’ back like a yella-belly whip-dog.’ A yellow-bellied whipped dog!” Dad laughed and laughed, and of course we laughed too. It was one of those phrases that stuck deep in our family vocabulary.

We were living in Vidal when Dad traded something at the Bly swapmeet, probably a gun, for a four-seater dune buggy with an American eagle on the roof and an engine that was failing rapidly. It broke down far out in the desert often enough that it stopped being fun and Dad traded on up for an old station wagon. It was mom’s car, and that was good that she had one, but it was bad because it meant we could always leave in it and our trailer could be traded away. I got nervous when things started to trade hands, hoping that our world wouldn’t be reduced in size yet again.