Roads on Her Face #15: Empty Desert Days

I’m from “the road.” It is less a place than it is a feeling, a feeling of shiftlessness, of moorings being loosened and of floating away down a river of concrete, headlights bouncing back at you from the reaching hands of trees and the bones of bushes in stark relief. It is resting your face against the cool glass of a window in the hot of night in the desert, of seeing endless stars float silently above the backs of dark, sullen mountains, the whir of the tires and the warm sleepy feeling in the base of you, where your seat meets the car. It is not knowing where tomorrow is, nor caring when it arrives. But Arizona will do, when I need a place to write in the blank spot on forms that asks for “Place of  Birth.” Lake Havasu City, AZ, I write, and try to recall something about the town. It hides low between hills, cradling the precious water that flows into the big man-made lake as if trying to keep it from the greedy sun. Spring-breakers know it as a good place to get naked and drunk and fall off cliffs, and the guys with the boats far too big for inland lakes like to come and beat up a good wake to make it harder for the water-skiers and wake boarders to have a good time. It’s hot, hotter than death, like the rest of Sonoran Desert. If you go in the summer you’ll want to move directly from your air conditioned car into the bathwater of the Colorado-turned-Lake Havasu. The shores will be lined with people bobbing apple-like and red in the middle of truck tire tubes with cans of beer held just above the water. The tourists will be out snapping pictures of the London Bridge, moved stone-by-stone from London and rebuilt here as a tourist attraction.

That, and my first friend Jacci lives there now with her beautiful family. There’s a Wal-mart and some tourist shops, and lots of trailer parks for the snowbirds. That’s all I know about the place I’m officially from.

We often took the route through here, depending on where exactly we were going at the time, because there aren’t a lot of north-south highways in Arizona. You can take 93 south through Wickenburg toward Phoenix, and there’s 17 south from Flagstaff- a better option but farther east and hills that would suck gas and slow us down especially if we were towing a trailer. If we were headed south it was usually 95, south from Vegas or Needles or Kingman. All of these towns we knew well, where we could park without being bothered, where we could take a shower and where the parks were so we could get out and play and stretch our legs. We spent a lot of time at city parks, making picnics, taking naps in the grass, scaring the town kids.

We also took that route if we were headed out to Jim’s Place. My dad had some kind of deal with Jim, who was just happy to have someone parked out on his place and didn’t care too much who it was. He didn’t need someone to show up on time to work, he just needed some people to keep out the drifters or those who might like some car parts for free. So much the better if the people he had parked out there were armed and didn’t like strangers. Jim had a towing business in Parker, AZ which you can find on Google Maps if you scroll down along the river south of Lake Havasu. He had some property out in the middle of the desert where he took his extra wrecked vehicles, and where he liked keep a trailer for himself and his wife Bobbi-Jo to get some peace and quiet once in a while. Follow 95 south of Parker, and where it splits into 72 follow 72 to Bouse. You’ll miss it if you don’t zoom in far enough, all that’s there is a post office and a general store, and some hardy desert rat souls who’ve scraped out some sort of living away from anything. Now scroll out farther, and farther, following 40 miles or so of the dirt roads snaking seemingly pointless across the brown flat desert. Jim’s Place is out there, and so were we. Zoom in farther, and you’ll see the tank tracks and the spots where people have parked scarred into the earth’s crust. You’ll see the washes, the creosote, and the cactus, you will see the strangely flattened (by satellite imagery) humanoid suspension towers that carried the high-voltage lines along Powerline Road.

I had a particular feeling of dread when we were headed out there, moving there for the winter or sometimes, oh holy Jesus no, for the summer. It wouldn’t have been so bad, summer, if we had had electricity for air conditioning, or running water. When the little digital thermometer stuck to dad’s metal and wood ramada read 110 degrees in the shade, you knew it had to be at least 120 in the sun.

I dreaded the isolation, the long weeks or months with no one and nothing around as far as you could see. We got to where we could hear vehicles coming from hours away, where we could feel the slight change in the atmosphere as an engine grew closer until we could hear it with our ears. We got to where any slight change in the days provoked great excitement, like Mom’s going to town today!! Or Jim is coming next week sometime! Or, it’s fill-up-the-water-truck day!

But there is something about the desert, yes. There is something that digs its claws into your soul, and makes you forever its possession. There are the brilliant skies, the countless stars, the way the day-hidden life awakens as the sun slips away for the day, the day the monsoons come and everything blooms for a week before it dies. There is the season for the ocotillos to bloom, the time for hummingbirds, the migration of geese far overhead. There is great beauty out there. There is beauty in your surroundings, and there is beauty in the inner calm and understanding you gain when it’s just you, your family, and the desert.

Roads on Her Face #11: The Shitty Parts of California

Barstow Railyard Photo by Randy Murphy

To find most of the places we’ve lived, drive to the most deserted and destitute area of whatever state you’re in, locate a dirt road, and drive out until you can’t see any buildings and you hear no traffic from the road. Park the car, shut off the engine, and listen. If all you hear is the moan of the wind and the pissed-off machinelike crank of cicadas, you’re there.

I was the only kid born in Arizona. The rest were born in California. I think they say they’re from New Mexico now, but before we had a place they could consider home they would usually just mention the spot they were born as the place they came from. Where else do you choose? The more honest answer would be “I’m from the road” but that leads to bothersome questions and looks of confusion or an accusatory look like “Why you fucking with me?” California sounds like a nice place to be from. The ocean, movie stars, wilderness areas with ski resorts and massive red trees. If you’re living on the road, though, it’s hard to find a safe place to park a station wagon in L.A., especially if you’ll have all your gear outside on the roof and plan to cook on a camp stove with the back door shielding the flame from the ocean breeze. Instead of beautiful California, most of our time in the state was spent in the ugliest and loneliest areas Dad could find. If you’re taking a road trip, say from Vegas to San Diego, you’ll see some little shitsplat towns at the intersections of highways out in the middle of the most godforsaken desert you’ve ever seen. You might wonder to yourself, “What do these people do out here?” and you might shudder as you crank up the A/C and press just a little harder on the gas pedal. I went to fourth grade in Barstow, while we lived in a trailer park over near the railroad tracks that brought people to that hellhole in the first place, sometime in the 1800s when the mines were running full steam, and the immigrants crawled out of their boxcars to see the promised land, only to be met with Steinbeck’s crowded camps and the heat of the desert. At night the long, mournful howl of the train lulled me to sleep, something in my soul stirring in response to it. It was comforting, somehow, and wild at the same time. Dad told us stories of when he was a kid, hopping trains and riding from town to town. I always thought of him out there when I heard the train.

Barstow had a Tastee-Freeze, so sometimes we walked there to get ice cream. I liked going to school, and I didn’t feel out of place because just about everyone lived in trailer parks with drunk-ass dads. We all paid for groceries with food stamps. Mom was big and pregnant, as big as she ever got. She usually looked like a tiny woman smuggling a basketball in her stretched-out T-shirt, gaining no weight but the baby itself. Both of the boys were still tow-headed, the downy blond tufts of their hair like chick’s feathers. Dad was gone often while we were in Barstow, to the swapmeets in Victorville where he could make some money or get some new guns. The state probably supported the rest of us. We got WIC since the kids were still young enough, and California may have thrown us money for our trailer space rental. Us kids always liked it when we “holed up” somewhere. Dad was probably putting some gas money aside to make it to whatever our next destination was, plus Mom was about to have a new baby so it was nice to have running water and electricity. I don’t think the shower or toilet worked in our old trailer, but they had showers and bathrooms on site at the trailer park so we were happy to walk over and use them. Mom and Dad got a little TV and VCR, so they would curtain off the living room and we would watch movies sometimes. Other times, they kicked us out and we heard moaning coming from the TV, followed by the trailer rocking back and forth. We’d try to get away when that happened, because it was gross.

There were a lot of Mexicans in our trailer park, so there were a lot of kids. We were allowed to play with them when Dad felt like it or he wasn’t around, and I had a pink Huffy bike with streamers on the handlebars and a banana seat so there were always girls that wanted to play with me. Dad didn’t like Mexicans much, though, so depending on his mood he might tell me to stay away from them, then rudely shoo them off and glare at their parents. One time a man came by asking for something, and Mom tried really hard to understand the Spanish questions. She did what she could, but in the end she had to find another Mexican to help the guy. I think he wanted a shower.

Mom made another friend a few trailers down, a bored and lonely young woman named Amy. Her man was gone a lot too, which I figured was just the normal way of things.

One day in March, before it was regularly over 100 degrees, Mom got a strange look on her face and both of her hands went to her belly. Dad had decided to go to the swapmeet that day, even though he had a feeling that the time was almost here for the baby’s arrival.

“Honey, can you go over and get Amy? Can you tell her to hurry?” She was very calm, her gaze directed inward. When I told her mom needed her right away, Amy dropped what she was doing and ran out her door, forgetting to close it behind her. Her husband was home, too, and he ran after her. “I think she’s having the baby,” I called after them. I guessed they already knew.

“I need you to watch the boys,” Mom told me. “Make sure they stay out of trouble and they stay outside.” Amy was bustling around heating water and making the bed, which was the dining table that converted into a bed. She looked stressed out. I checked on my brothers, and they were so focused on the quiet groans coming from the house and the knowledge that Mom might be in trouble that they were perfectly well-behaved. I hung over the railing on one side of the table/bed and watched. Mom didn’t cry. She just got herself positioned, and as soon as my sister’s head crowned in all its dark and slimy glory, I decided that was good and I’d just get out of the way. There were people there to catch the newborn, and I could tell I wasn’t needed. I went back outside and waited for everything to calm down. I also wondered why in the hell anyone would ever want to have a baby.

Sophie didn’t have a name for a while, while Mom and Dad decided what to call her. She was just “Baby” until they settled on Sophie. A couple of weeks later a nurse came by to give Mom the baby’s birth certificate, to prove that she’d been born.

Roads on Her Face #10: The Boondocks

I didn’t live in a real city until I was an adult. I also didn’t live anywhere longer than a couple of years before my mom settled with us in New Mexico in 1995. I was born in Lake Havasu City, that desert town wrapped around a lake and a strip of tourist-trap shops, the real London bridge carted over stone by stone to its final resting place in a place as far from England as it could have imagined. A few days later we were gone, I hear, packed up in our brown UPS truck with our new family of three. We lived in small towns for a few days, empty stretches of desert for weeks, a homeless shelter in Boise, Idaho for a month. We went to school sometimes, in Williams, Arizona, in Needles, California, in Quartzsite. When I was old enough I schooled myself, “attending” a mail-in satellite school paid for with money my mom’s dad, Papa, had put away for me when I grew up. I needed it before I grew up, for school, and so my mom withdrew it. I don’t know if it all went to pay for school, or if it was filtered away to fund my dad’s various ventures, the way birthday money would disappear from cards from family and a six-pack would appear in the fridge.

My mother’s story is hers to tell, and I will help her tell it soon. I’ve been recording interviews with her, which I’ll publish together with these stories of mine, one of these days. The roads on her face have spread, their tracks now lightly marking my own skin. We are bound together by all of the miles, by the shared joys and pain and the wanderlust that burns brightly in my blood and has dimmed mostly to memories in hers.

People ask, “Was your father in the military?” and I will say yes if I want the story to be over, which depends on my interest in story-telling or whether I am trying to impress the asker. Because he was in the Army, it is an easy half-truth to say we were Army brats. He went to Vietnam for some amount of time, and he may or may not have seen combat, and he may or may not have been dishonorably discharged. I tried to request his DD-214 from the National Archives, but the next-of-kin can request it only when the discharged veteran is deceased. I don’t think my father is deceased, but I probably wouldn’t hear about it right away if he was. Last I heard, he was living in a cave in the Arizona mountains. I drove by the range in a rainstorm, and wondered if he was dry up there. I imagined him in his Army fatigues, maybe a fire burning at the mouth of the cave, the scent of the wet creosote drifting up to him like a prayer. He probably gazed out over the valley, his territory, and either reveled in his solitude or pitied himself. My aunt tells me he has taken to calling himself “Sarge.” He was never a sergeant.

The reason for our wandering was him. Mom had a wandering spirit, too, a product of her father’s life as a travelling fabric salesman, when there were such creatures before you could order samples online or before everything began shipping from a third-world country where barefoot children run the looms. Papa drove around the East coast, his briefcase full of samples for the clothing manufacturers and the upholsterers, and sometimes Mom would ride along with him. After her first love and marriage ended, and before she finished college, she packed up her things in her yellow VW bug, left Georgia and headed west on her own. She made it as far as Alpine, Arizona and then she picked up a handsome stranger hitch-hiking. They spent 18 years and had four kids together. I never pick up hitch-hikers.

Those 18 years were spent out in the boondocks. Maybe it was the 14 other kids my dad grew up with that made him want to run away, out into the middle of nowhere. I can understand that. Six people in a station wagon or sleeping together in a tent made me want to do the same. I can’t imagine 15 kids plus Grandma and Grandpa, in their little farmhouse in Minnesota.

Maybe he wanted the distance from society because he’d lost his faith in the government, the way other Vietnam vets had. The way they were treated when they returned, the way they were lied to before and during service. He turned to conspiracy theory to explain the “whys” to himself, or made up his own explanations. Later, he turned to drinking. I remember that at least me and my next oldest brother, Rowdy, were there when I asked him why he was drinking beer. I hadn’t known this dad, the one who sat in a folding chair and stared morosely out into the desert. I asked mom first, why he was drinking, and she looked at the ground and told me to ask him. I remember crying when he yelled at me. It may have been the first time he had yelled that way, voice cracking and face reddening, but it was not the last. Before that, I had been his little angel.

No one can know all of someone elses’ reasons for anything. You may know what they tell you, or you may hear what others tell you, but you can never really know. Sometimes I feel myself in his shoes, rage building over something small, or the urge to drop everything and leave so strong that I can barely contain it. The difference between him and I, is that I am either stronger than the urge or too chickenshit to give in to it. I have a nagging responsibility that wears me down, that makes me want to finish things I’ve started. If he had the same nag, it could have been so strong that he couldn’t stand it. He left another family, before us, two kids and a wife. That wife never remarried and remained broken enough that her daughter wanted nothing to do with me when I reached out to her as a teenager. Responsibility can be a bitch.

Roads on Her Face #8: The DTs

I was reading, as usual, lost somewhere in stories of dragons and princesses who were cared for by handsome princes, whose lives were filled with mystery and drama and excitement. Our camp was set up in one of the busier parts of the Quartzsite desert, out behind the Main Event swapmeet where the less anti-social desert rats parked so they could walk in to trade and bullshit with the vendors. We were anti-social, but Mom needed to walk to work.

This time we were in a station wagon, our last trailer disappearing in some trade because Dad needed cash. I was 8, an age I remember clearly because it was the year I had my first job where someone gave me money and not promises. I’d had the unpaid job of helping  mom with the other kids from the time each was born, though they’d argue that if you asked them. Babies don’t remember who changed their diapers, or dressed them, or spent their time preventing them from swallowing crayons. And they are never grateful.

My job consisted of shoveling horse crap behind the stagecoach that tourists paid to ride around the swapmeet, like in the real Old West. The driver, Ron, was a drunk, with a big red nose and a dirty black cowboy hat. He only tolerated me at first, but gradually grew to trust me and even let me drive the horses sometimes when they weren’t acting up. They got tired of standing all day in the sun, sometimes, and once the stagecoach ran away with customers inside and me sitting on the top clutching the railing and praying that the top-heavy thing didn’t pitch over and kill us all. I liked working for Ron, being close to the horses I’d always loved from the stories I read, like Black Beauty. I liked settling the pale tourists inside and closing the latch on the door after them, then hopping up on top of the coach and watching the dusty town from a vantage point above all the cheap Chinese toys and ugly southwestern potteries, above the tables creaking with the weight of rocks and the rusted tools that were still worth money because they were Snap-Ons. I liked wearing cowboy boots and the leather hair cuff with a horseshoe nail through the center that the leather vendor gave me, that he said was free as long as I told everyone where they could get them. Lots of vendors knew me, as they watched us circle lazily all day around the packed dirt roads, clop, clop, clop. Mom worked scooping ice cream at the general store, her right forearm and bicep bulging after long days scooping the frozen-hard 10 flavors for fat kids and fatter grannies. She would proudly flex her arm, saying “Look at how buff I am!” to make us laugh. Jesse, an old Indian man who wore turquoise and a long grey braid down his back, worked at the store as a cashier. He gave me things, too, usually when Mom wasn’t around. I would come home with pockets full of candy, necklaces and rings and small toy soldiers. He gave me anything I looked at in the store, even things I didn’t want. I became more selective, only picking up the things I really wanted so I could hear him say “Hey, take that why don’t you. That’s for you, you can have it.” He always watched me, solemnly, out of dark shiny eyes.

One day he told me that he thought things, about kissing, and not to tell anyone. Confused by that, I asked Mom later. She didn’t say anything, but I wasn’t allowed in the store without her anymore. I never thought about why that might be, or connected it to Jesse, but I wonder what happened behind the scenes. If Dad had known, it would have been ugly.

As I turned the pages, lost in my fantasy world, I heard a strange choked cry that brought me directly back to the reality of how life really was, the life that was ours, that still held drama but very little romance. All of us froze, staring at the station wagon where Dad had been taking a nap. His beard had grown long and grey, and he hadn’t cut his hair in months so it was nearly long enough to wear in a ponytail. He wore his Army fatigues, and a dingy old T-shirt. His eyes were staring and glazed, and he looked out at the sky.

“Get down!” he shrieked. “Get the fuck down!” His head disappeared behind the back door of the car. None of us moved, looking at each other and wondering if we should run away or stay put. Gurgling and agonized cries came from his hiding spot, and that spurred mom into action. She ran to his side, holding him while he tossed and moaned about helicopters and commanded that she get his gun.

“Penny, come here,” she waved at me, frantic. “Listen to me. You know where Jan works. I need you to go to her, as fast as you can, and ask her to call the ambulance, ok? Dad needs to see a doctor.” Jan worked across the highway at a gas station. We saw her and Bear whenever we came to Quartzsite. They were one of our regular stops, the way we had stops all over the country with people who offered us a place to park for the night, and let us use their showers, and gave us gifts at Christmas or hid Easter eggs for us if we were there in springtime.

I felt like the most important person in the world, higher even than when I rode around over people’s heads on the stagecoach. I took off directly, running and not stopping even when the pain in my side threatened to double me over. Those afternoons that I spent tearing around makeshift tracks, packed down by my feet around sagebrush and creosote that marked the circle, paid off. Dad always said I was born to be a runner. Adrenaline carried me most of the way, but it felt endless. I didn’t see anyone else, but they may have seen me tearing across the highway as I gasped and thought about what I would say to Jan. She would know what to do.

Her face froze as I burst into her store, and it took only seconds for me to spit out “Hospital” and “Dad.” I stayed with her as she made the phone call and drove me back to where we were camped. We were there in time to see him loaded into the back of an ambulance, thrashing and being held down by some big EMTs. He wasn’t gone very long, but we left Quartzsite soon after. Something about that event made it time to hit the road.

Mom had been proud of him, not drinking for months. He had bought her a silver bracelet with hearts, but she was mad at him at the time and he gave it to me instead. I thought her cold-hearted, and gave him a hug because he seemed so sad. I still have the bracelet. It always reminds me of the DTs.

Roads on her Face #6: Jim’s Place

I followed him anyway, afraid of his drunkenness but willing to take the chance for his love.

I knew when he got this way it was a toss-up- he could be caring, he could listen to a child’s small day of stories, or he could tell you to shut your mouth and get him another beer. He could be one, then the other, too, so being around him was balancing a plate on your head- an expensive plate, one someone else had paid for. The rocks crunched beneath army boots, and the heartbeat in my head muffled my own quiet footsteps. The hot desiccated desert radiated reflections of bare mountains around the little valley, bounced rays off the broken windshields of the junkyard. Green oxidized pieces of glass and rusted metal littered the pale silt dirt, dirt made dirtier with human shedding. This place was far as you could go down a dirt road, away from the people who hated my dad, away from the evils of society and the government and disease-ridden cities. He told us about the government, and how they’d screwed him in Vietnam. I heard vague references to Agent Orange, and how his bones hurt at night until he had to drink it away.

The man who owned this place weighed five hundred pounds- as much one of the half-ton trucks wrecked in piles on the yard.  Jim would heave his mass out of the blue van with the lift on the side, and the specially-made seat so that he could press himself against the steering wheel and still drive. Everywhere he went a sour smell followed, the smell of sweat and milk and too many doughnuts. When he would come to check on us, maybe once a month, he would sit in one of the backseats we had pulled from one of the junked cars for him. His throne- with its broken seatbelts still dangling. Sometimes my brothers would dare each other to smell it after he had gone, collapsing in disgusted giggles when they discovered that the smell of his gargantuan ass lingered there, for hours. I smelled it once, and was sick in one of the creosote bushes. I imagined what it would be like to smell like that. Would you know it, or would it encroach on your senses slowly, so that you never knew? I guessed his wife didn’t care anymore.

Jim kept a travel trailer on the junkyard lot, a nice one with a generator and a TV. We were too far from anything to have running water, and we used kerosene lamps at night in our own small trailer, and propane for our stove and refrigerator. In the swelling heat, we marched the mile to Jim’s trailer. I felt the beads of sweat drop down my spine, pulling my hat low over my eyes to stop them from burning. I was silent, thinking maybe he had forgotten about me.

“You all right, kid?” He turned then, and I saw the sweat in his beard and behind his sunglasses. He hadn’t forgotten.

I nodded, and focused on my feet, one in front of the other, leaning in to the heat as if it was cotton. It was probably 120 degrees today, at least. You learned to take things only a second at a time, out here, because to think of more than one was unbearable. Exist, only exist, until the cool blessed sigh of night descended, with its myriad stars, the smells of the flowers that could only open at night. They just existed too.

Finally the trailer loomed above us, impossibly large to a little girl whose family of six lived in one half its size. It was unlocked, and we walked in to heat that felt twice as bad as outside, stifling and stale.

He came back and sat across from me, popping open a beer he’d pulled from the propane-powered fridge.  “Nice, eh?” I nodded again at him, not wanting to talk and spoil his mood.

He sank back in his chair, taking off his hat and glasses, and we waited for the air to cool together, waited for things to be bearable.

“I’m gonna start the generator, and get the AC going. Turn on the radio.” He was always short with words, but I was thankful that he wasn’t yelling. I scooted delicately back into one of the plush La-Z- Boys, careful that my dirty pants didn’t soil the clean fabric. I turned the radio to the only station we could get out here, far from transmitters or repeaters. It was news all day; and sometimes old shows like The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger. When those came on, we sat around, rapt, the way kids in the 50s must have when those first came out. The generator flapped into life, and I momentarily thought of my mom and siblings listening to it in the heat, dreaming of air conditioning. Its first hot breath licked the side of my face, prurient and vile.

I watched him from the corner of my eye, and something struck me as I did. His face was unlined, boyish from a new haircut, aged only by the beard. His eyes flicked up to catch mine, and suddenly I was sorry for him.

Roads on Her Face #5: The Cah, 800, and Whut?

We were living in a station wagon again, all six of us. I must have been around 9 or ten. We’d rolled into Quartzsite, Arizona late the night before after a few weeks out in the desert. Quartzsite is like a yard sale on crack, crammed with what seems like miles of old snowbirds selling shit, and tables creaking under the weight of rocks. They sell a lot of rocks out there, also whirly-gig wind-catchers, plastic Chinese toys, and badly-painted southwestern ceramics. People with 1/18 Navajo blood from an ancestor in the 1800s who raped an Indian sell jewelry as “authentic Native American” for ten times what it’s worth. The place has a pall over it, a dust-colored veil that smells of desperation. Casual visitors can’t see it, instead seeing a place full of great deals and gems, but we were hardly casual visitors. It was a winter deal-making place for Dad, a place to rest and make some money selling guns, working for a month for someone, or wheeling and dealing the way he did. He wasn’t particularly outgoing, but he had a quiet powerful way of making people do what he wanted them to do. It wasn’t the smooth salesman gig, something darker like maybe he’d rough you up if you didn’t pay him what he wanted. We went to school in Quartzsite, once. The school had just opened and was full of desert rats like us, and maybe some of the grandkids of snowbirds. We weren’t the only ones getting the free lunch, this time, or the only ones with worn clothing and messy hair. They fed us that vile peanut butter pre-mixed with grape jam on limp white bread every day, until we finally couldn’t choke it down any longer and just went hungry at lunchtime.

We were all sitting and waiting for Dad, as usual, in the dirt parking lot of some junk salesman. He had a lot of cars parked around a trailer with clapboard wings added on. Us kids cracked the door to the station wagon and tried not to move, sweating and sticking to the seats anyway. The sun beat down already, though it was early in spring. The heat would soon drive the snowbirds north, scattering them toward the coast or back to whatever cool hole they burrowed into up north. I stared up into the pale blue sky, powdered with the heat and the reflection of the barren dirt below. The only escape from the forced closeness of our little nuclear family (nuclear, because we as electrons were always rubbing too close, too close and explosions were so near the surface) was to mentally distance oneself. I almost always put a book between myself and our too-real reality. Thousands of books later, I would sometimes confuse what I had been reading with what had actually occurred at certain times in the past. When we were stranded on the side of the road because our latest rust-heap had broken down, I was actually riding a dragon over some far misty mountain, or was deep in the drama playing out between Nancy Drew and her totally hetero female friend George.

I was daydreaming, projecting far out into the hemisphere as near to cold space as I dared, so I missed the actual final transaction. I saw instead, Dad coming back to the car with a grin beneath his beard and jangling keys in his hand.

“Load up, kids. Let’s get everything out of this piece and put it in our new van,” he said, waving over his shoulder to the stocky bald guy behind him who was sighting down the barrel of a big handgun, one Dad had recently had tucked into his waistband. Behind the guy was a blue and white-striped Dodge van, the kind with the big white fiberglass bubble on top circa maybe 1970. It didn’t look like much, but it looked like it had a hell of a lot more room than the station wagon. And it looked like it could pull a trailer, so we could only hope that the next wheeling-dealing result would be a trailer with a stove, beds, and maybe even room to haul some bikes.

Dad was almost gleeful, coming off his deal high. “You should have heard that fucker,” he was telling Mom. He mimicked the guy’s heavy Boston accent, which we had heard snippets of as the two men had talked. “I offered him the car and 600 bucks for the van, which is worth twice that. He was like, ‘whut, the cah, 800, and whut? You ain’t foolin’ me.’ So I threw in the Smith and Wesson.” He grinned because that had been his plan all along.

As soon as my brothers heard this, they collapsed into giggles, gleeful too as they pulled all of our belongings out of the car and began piling them together. The van was something new, and maybe it meant something good. Plus, none of us had ever heard a Boston accent that we could remember. “The cah, 800, and whut?” Rowdy laughed as he poked Reno, who took up the refrain. “And whut? And whut?” Dad cuffed his boys on the back of their tow-heads. “That’s right, boys, who’s the man huh? Your dad knows what he’s doing.”

Off near the chain-link fence, the Boston guy scratched his head and watched us move. Transferring our belongings took 20 minutes, at the most, because we were good. He stood and watched us as we rolled away, never looking back.

Roads on Her Face #4 Blowtorch

A photo made the email rounds at work today, and in a place where we have weekly safety meetings people laugh, shake their heads. “It was a different time!” they said. Not so long ago, I think, but then again maybe it’s just me. The photo is a grainy one, and it depicts a tiny pigtailed girl perched atop a 100-gallon propane tank. Next to her, her dad leans in with a big grin on his face and a lit cigarette in his mouth.

I thought for a second about why it looked so familiar. Later that night, almost dozing, an image came to me out of the dark of the past. We are living out in the desert somewhere, most likely Arizona because it often was.  It was dark, and Ed was drunk. He’d been tying one on for hours already, and he was at the loud stage accompanied by a slight lack of coordination and a hair trigger. I sat in the dark, watching him, in his chair by the flickering fire. Everyone was quiet, except for him. At his feet was a hunk of twisted metal, rusted by age. He liked to go on walks during the day, accompanied by a handgun of some kind and sometimes one of the kids. The desert we frequented had been used as training grounds for “Old Blood and Guts,” General Patton in the World War II era. We often found rusted spent shells or even live rounds, we found the old milky glass Coke bottles the soldiers had tossed aside, and the tank tracks from their play-wars still scarred the desert. You could see them if you climbed a rise and looked out across the desert. This time, Dad had found a large artillery round of some kind. The kind with fins and a payload, really more a missile than an artillery round.

He crushed the empty beer can and tossed it behind him. He picked the missile up, turning it over in his hands.

“Let’s see if we can light this baby up,” he said. I moved farther back into the darkness, to what I hoped was a safe distance. Mom did her best to ignore him, and the boys huddled close behind Dad’s chair. This was something they wanted front seats for. The pipe-bomb burnt-eyelashes gene runs strong in the male side of the family. In the female side, a little, but mostly our common sense will overrule the need for explosions.

Ed dug around in his crate of tools for a hammer. I must have been 10 or 11, I remember being incredulous but not surprised. I knew my father well. This wouldn’t be the craziest, or stupidest, thing I’d ever seen him do. I wondered if he’d kill himself, and the detached part of me that always seemed to float just above and behind my head tried to find an emotion related to that possibility. Nope, none there. Just a sense of expectancy.

The boys were giggling, shoving each other, eyes big and round and faces shining. Dad being a 10-year-old boy was their favorite kind of dad. This was exactly what they would do with a missile if one ever fell into their grimy little hands.

“Watch out kids, this thing could blow!” Dad tapped the missile lightly below its head. Nothing. A harder swing, and the metal bent. He jumped back, nervous, then shook it off and laughed and smacked it good. The body of the thing detached from its payload, and black powder poured out on the ground.

“All right!” That was what he was hoping for. I let out the breath I hadn’t known I was holding. The boys huddled over the mass. Behind them the flames flickered bright.

“OK boys,” Dad said to his captive audience. “Back up now, I’m going to see if this thing will light.”

His shining eyes matched his sons’. He pulled a burning stick from the fire, dropped it on the powder, and took off like a shot behind the tree. His head and my brothers’ two towheads popped out on opposite sides of the tree, like something from a cartoon. The stick fizzled, and burnt out. “Awwwww!” The men ventured back out to the disappointing missile.

“I know,” Dad said. “Watch this.”

“Ed, be careful.” Mom finally made an appearance. She twisted her hands in front of her, her mouth tight as she looked at her boys. She didn’t dare say too much, not when he had made up his mind already.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m an expert. Don’t worry about it,” he said. He gave her a kiss in passing, and came back from a box under the trailer with a blowtorch. “This is how it’s gonna work.” He directed the boys to pour a line of black powder a little out from the tree, then to pile the rest of it at the end of the powder “fuse.” Eagerly they scooped the powder up in their hands, setting the explosion up exactly as dictated.

I huddled closer to the trailer, hoping its metal shell would protect me from shrapnel if the shit hit the fan. The next thing I saw was the unearthly green of the palo verde tree lit from below by a bright flash of light. There was a brief shhhing sound like tearing fabric or a bottle rocket just before it launched. I saw my dad dancing, dancing near the fire as he swatted the flames from his clothing, maybe from his hair, did I smell the acrid smell of burnt beard? Then, laughter.

*

The Best Date

It was the best date I’d ever had, the best date I could ever imagine having. I’d met him in the dark of downtown Tucson, surrounded by ghouls and demons and massive paper machè  heads with unblinking eyes. The Day of the Dead celebration had stopped in a vacant lot to burn this huge ball of everyone’s dreams and demons from the year, and people milled about everywhere, faces glowing in the half-light, skulls peeking from behind hoods and children’s heads and T-shirts. I found the highest point, as I usually do, watching the lights of the city behind this pagan ancient celebration, being celebrated by soccer moms and random white people, but feeling the authenticity of it, the real, something bigger than the participants. The pulse of it, behind my eyes and pounding in my chest, and I welcomed all the passed souls back to earth. Off to my right, then, I felt him. Standing there, looking out over the crowd from the dirt dike, maybe 20 feet away. He looked out from the brim of his ball cap, shoulders hunched over, grey sweatshirt. His friend was more my usual type, brawny and Hispanic, but I barely saw him. He felt me look at him, and turned, his head ducking in embarrassment as he caught me catching him. His friend elbowed him, stating the obvious.

I didn’t wait long, I put my camera back in its bag and strolled up to him, while he pretended he didn’t see me coming. The brawny Hispanic guy grinned at me over his head. Up close, I could see I was almost taller than he was. In heels I would loom. “Hi,” I said.

He smiled, and my heart caught. Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous smile. Blue eyes, short-cropped hair, the neck of a boxer. His shoulders swelled under the sweatshirt, and I could see he was built like a smaller version of his friend. Older than I’d thought from a distance, with his ball-cap and college-dude clothes. “I’m Zac,” he said. Zac, I said in my mind. Zac. It sounded perfect.

He was perfect. He picked me up that Saturday in his big shiny black Ford, his hands full of roses and his cologne the perfect scent, clean and manly. So that’s what swooning felt like. I couldn’t say I’d ever swooned before. Butterflies trapped in my chest beat their wings, my head felt light. I smoothed my little black dress down, I touched my hair, I practically purred. He took me to dinner at the nicest Mexican place in town, the one with four-course meals pre-planned by the chef, the one with walls hung in modern art and tables inlayed with mosaics by some talented white guy. He held my hand, he met my eyes. The conversation was easy. Because I was there to be easy. I forget what the food was like, but I imagine it was perfect. He told me about his work. He owned a boxing gym, of course he did! He trained daily. He was 12 years older than me. I told him about my single life, about the heavy bag hanging behind my apartment and my love of martial arts, hoping I didn’t sound full of shit. I did love to spar, I loved the classes, I loved the power I could feel growing in my body with training. The smell of sweat, the movements like a dance. Telling this guy, though, it sounded like I was trying to be what he wanted and I hated that. Though I wanted to be anything he wanted. I wanted to take anything he could give me.

Looking out the window, he told me about a guy he’d punched in the face outside this very restaurant, some night a while back. How he hurried away before the cops showed up, how it had been to protect some girl whose boyfriend was being rough with her. I relaxed then, he was trying to impress me too. It was silly and juvenile, what he did, and how I felt about it. If I’d had a dick it would have been hard as a rock right then.

“We’d better hurry, we’re going to a show,” he said, grinning that perfect white grin and pulling me close to him. I’d let him plan it all, I hadn’t asked a single question. He complimented my dress, he told me I was beautiful. Coming from him it sounded so special, so unlike the myriad empty compliments the myriad empty guys before had given. I knew that this was a fantasy I was playing out, that somehow it wasn’t all real, but I needed it at this point in my life and so I let myself fall hard into the playing of this game.

In his truck, smelling of leather and cologne and roses, the margaritas I’d had with dinner made his touch on my hand light my nerves. I could feel where our skin merged, I felt the pulse of some fate-like pull between us. I kissed him in the parking lot, and it was perfect. The perfect length, the smell of him making my desire grow, his lips soft and inviting. He hadn’t bought tickets to the show, but as we floated up in this pretend glowing aura of new love (because that’s what it was, it had been love at first sight and I let it take me) someone had a pair of tickets for us, extra tickets no problem! Couples behind and before us in line looked at us enviously as we wrapped our arms around each other and gazed at each other with stupid cow grins. Old couples nodded knowingly and squeezed their partners’ hands. This, this was obviously real new love. How could it not be?

The seats were right up in front, because of course they were. I’d never felt so high without assistance. I shut my mind away in an iron box and let my body and soul free. John Legend came on stage and sang just to me as I loved the man beside me without knowing him at all. We swayed to the music of the endless night, our bodies merged at hip and chest. I closed my eyes and smiled so hard I thought my face would break.

A week later, after I’d called his empty home a bachelor pad and he angrily said it wasn’t, as he had been married,  he lit candles anyway to lead me to his bedroom. After, he turned over and pretended I wasn’t there. A text message the next day let me know he was done with me. My little dream came falling from the sky, slowly like snow, white as ash from the burning. I brushed it off my upturned face, because I still loved him, and instead of turning that emotion to hate I carried that little perfect imaginary world with me in my pocket. It was ok. I didn’t have to understand why. I took what he gave me, and I forgave what he took.

Roads on Her Face #2 Paper Dolls

The places all run together, mostly, the roads and buildings and signs all merging in my dreams into one patchwork quilt of place. Not the people, though, the faces and voices stand out in my memory like my own personal signposts. I don’t know the name of the town where we picked my dad up from jail in the morning, after some kindly local cop had thrown him in the drunk tank to sober up. I don’t remember where we were when I first went to public school. I remember my friend Jacci, the first real friend I ever had and who I wrote to most of my childhood, from wherever we had roamed. I remember vividly the old woman who lived in a camper out in the desert, not far from our own spot where our trailer was parked and where people mostly didn’t bother us. The woman cut pictures from magazines, mostly those disturbing porcelain dolls that a certain type of woman tends to collect – the type of woman who never had children or who never got over that emptiness when her children left her to begin their own lives. Mom would make me go visit her, and her husband would give me chocolate-covered cherries while she showed me the doll pictures she’d collected that day, and told me in exhaustive detail why she’d chosen each one, and how pretty they were, and if she had a house where it would go. I ate the sickeningly sweet candy and tried not to fidget. Her trailer was dark, fetid, the yellowed curtains pulled tight to block out the glaring Arizona sun. Her husband was scruffy, unwashed but kindly with sharp blue eyes. I don’t remember their faces, just their voices and mainly the pictures of the dolls. I don’t remember their names. They must have been in their 60s or 70s, because I thought they were ancient. I think now she must have thought of me as one of those dolls, with my long braided hair and pink cheeks. Then, I tried my best to escape the visits but the husband would show up knocking with candy for the other kids and Mom would nod at me, and give me the look that meant I should go with him.

He must not have known what to do with her. What do you do with a woman so lost? Do you find her a doll to play with? Do you let her fill your camper with strange images of dolls that she might could have if she didn’t live in the desert, with no one else to see them and no room to display them? Pictures of dolls which are images of children…like looking through two different windows stacked one on top of the other, in front of the thing she really wanted. Was she too afraid to want the real thing? Was it just that it was too late and it hurt too much to think about? I wonder if the two of them were sad. I can’t imagine that they were happy. Did they have children of their own, somewhere, who either didn’t know where they were or didn’t care? Were they running from something, that same unknown something that always seemed to be right behind us, too? I never saw them again, when we left the place we were camped that time. I do remember the place, since we lived there more than once. The desert outside of Vidal Junction, California had miles of Sonoran Desert that were mostly unpatrolled by the Bureau of Land Management. It was free to live there for 14 days, if you got a permit, but we never had a permit. The rangers would find us, eventually, and then we had two more weeks to live in the spot we were parked. Sometimes when that was up, we just drove further out into the desert where we might not be found for months.
I remember the inspection station, where they asked if you were bringing fruit into California if you were coming from the Arizona side. We would have to eat it quickly before we got there.

“Those bastards are going to take our fruit, kids. Eat it or hide it,” Ed would say. I remember the aching feeling I got when we turned off into the desert, knowing we would be in isolation for a long time. Knowing that I would become intimate with the rocks, the creosotes, the secret hidden places I could discover to be away from the rest of my family. A place for some quiet, where I could read. Reading was the only escape. Dolls had never been my thing.

Update: He called himself the Colonel, and he called his wife Bubba.