Roads on Her Face #34: Valentine’s Needles

Needles. Before we were there without Dad, it had been a place of howling wind and desolate desert days camped far outside of what town exists there. It was a sentence, a penance, and for extra pain we were often in Needles during the Santa Ana winds in the fall. That time of year is like Iraq with fewer bombings, the heat so dry that your face felt like it was peeling off in one long strip of dust mask. The sand would sting your skin if you ventured outside, but it was too hot to be inside the natural oven of a metal trailer. It meant suffering was inevitable. If there had been a hole to crawl into, I would have been there with the clever snakes.

We had left Dad farther north, where it was cold enough at night that he told us later for sympathy that he had burned the stock of his carbine rifle for warmth (I wondered, Why didn’t your drunk ass look for firewood?). It was fall again, and we headed for Needles because Mom didn’t have any other plans. She called her southern belle mother and asked her for money, using the ace-in-the hole “I left him, mama. We’re through.” The great joy Granny felt resulted in more cash than we had ever seen at once, and consequently our pretty blemish-free Airstream.

This finally felt like what I imagined real life must feel like. We would walk to school from the trailer park with the other trailer trash kids in the morning sunshine, like normal kids are supposed to do. We had bookbags, and running water at home. Mom was smiling more often. Life was beautiful.

We had come from the wilderness like a lost tribe, wondering at civilization. Here there were people, there were wide streets and lights at nighttime with the flick of a switch. We got a TV and VCR and watched rented movies. It felt posh, pampered, summertime and the living was so easy. We didn’t have a shower, but Karl was hot for Mom and we used his shower weekly. The in-between days were spongebath days.

Shyness in my case was only the result of limited interactions with people, especially boys who were not my brothers. A garrulous social butterfly was fluttering about my insides, unsure how to escape from the quiet me-caterpillar. I set my sights on a boy that I didn’t plan to talk to, just admire. My first memory of liking the softer, gentler boys– as far away from my father’s anger and harshness as I could get– was Stephen with a “ph.” He was slower than most at reading aloud, his written letters more painfully formed. When the teacher was impatient with him, if she asked him why he wasn’t on the right page, Stephen would cry publicly, right there in class. My heart went out to this gentle boy who never said a mean word to anyone. He was pretty, almost like a girl, with long thick lashes and soft camel-colored hair. I liked the most feminine boy because I had never seen one up close. He was different. I knew that he must be nice, that if we spent time together I might even fall in love. Valentine’s Day came, and as it was before the fateful day when some bureaucrat decided that no child should feel left out and we should do away with activities that could cause a girl to feel left out, or a boy to know he was not as popular as the jocks, we gave each other Valentine’s Day cards. Everyone was to place their cards in handmade heart-shaped mailboxes that we made from colored paper and cardboard and hung at the front of our desks. I bought one box of pre-made cards and carefully selected all of the students I would give one to. I was gratified to see the stack of cards in my box the next day, after we had all sneaked back into the classroom after lunch and delivered our mail. I looked at each cartoon cat with hearts and silly elephant with flowers, reading who they came from and feeling popular and liked. At the bottom, I found Stephen’s card to me. With his pencil he had painfully and painstakingly drawn two penciled hearts under my name, pressing so hard that they showed through on the other side of the cardstock. I glanced at him, and he blushed and looked away. That was enough for me.

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Roads on Her Face #30: And There Were Four

First there was me, brought forth in the Lake Havasu City hospital with my mom there all alone while Dad cleaned the bus from top to bottom. Mom said it smelled like bleach and Pine Sol and that not a trace of dust could be found. I like to imagine him worrying, waiting, with no phone and no way for anyone to contact him – for him that was a loving statement and it made Mom smile. But that mental picture is always erased by the one of my mother having a baby alone, with nurses whom she said looked at her like she was trash. Great, another woman here to have a baby for free, great, a homeless little hussy who will go straight out and sign up for welfare. I didn’t know the whole story until recently, now that Mom and I have gotten to that point in the interviewing process. A doctor with liquor on his breath pulled me out with forceps and tore her tender skin. The next day they wheeled her outside and Dad pulled up in the bus and loaded us in, and off we went toward California.

Rowdy came next, in a hospital in Needles three years later. He was a hideous baby, a little gremlin. I was happy to have a brother and annoyed by his extreme attachment to me. Reno arrived about two and a half years later, at the same Needles hospital, a squalling red-faced ruffian who could turn in a second to a sweet huggy little guy (he’s still exactly the same). I haven’t yet asked Mom if they planned where she would have the babies, but I imagine they did. Finally, 8 years after me came Sophie, at home in our trailer park in Barstow. All little dead towns in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve always been glad to be the sole Arizonan. I feel at home with the people, the desert, the little outpost towns. I can see myself settling there when I’m old, becoming a snowbird.

We’re not as close now as we used to be, spread geographically apart and not in touch with the others’ daily lives. I know many families lament that spreading, but there’s no way to prevent it unless you all live on a couple of blocks of property right next to each other the way many of my dad’s family members still do. Three of those siblings have even settled on a piece of land with their partners, retiring together. I want to start a compound and have my family build their own houses near mine. I know our relationships would be different now, less bickering and more understanding. I’m sure we’d still throw down occasionally but that is the way family operates.

We had a complicated hierarchy in those traveling years, with me at the top because of birth order and the forced caretaker role I often had to take. It wasn’t fun, because as a sibling you don’t get the respect or thanks a parent gets but are still trying to enforce the same rules. It’s an ugly place to put a child. That meant I was most often a tyrant, still feeling the competition that thrummed between us like a guitar string, still not mature enough to step back and let things be. Always a control freak, sometimes a bitch. Rowdy and Reno were gunning for the second spot, depending on who was getting along at the time, or sometimes teaming up when I wasn’t allied with either of them. Sophie got the shortest stick, the youngest and the easy one to pick on. Though she was so much younger than I, age mattered less because we were our only friends and playmates. I taught her to tie her shoes and the ABCs, and also to hate me. I talk to her now the most often, maybe because we are the females and have that communication chromosome.

But then, there were the times when it was us against the world. No one else knew what our lives were like, the things we’d seen. All of our jokes were inside jokes. We all have the same dry sarcastic sense of humor, and when we get together we laugh until our heads might explode. Mom will laugh so hard the tears flow freely, tears of happiness and gratefulness for her family. If nothing else, from those 18 long years with Ed, she prizes the results of their union and we would collapse without her.

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 #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.

Roads on Her Face #12: Rowly’s Hurt!

Karl’s mobile home had a peculiar odor, of damp carpets scented with week-old macaroni and cheese, partially caused by the swamp cooler exhaling dank breaths into his dark trailer and partially caused by actual macaroni and cheese. It was an older trailer, with deep shag carpets made especially for smell retention. Whoever had it before Karl had been a smoker and the yellowed drapes and wood paneling both smelled of the ghost of smoke. But Karl had a shower, so Mom made it a point to be friends with him. I have a feeling he couldn’t believe his luck. We’d left Dad next to a smoking campfire somewhere in northern Arizona, with his SKS rifle and a bag of clothes. He’d told us to go ahead and leave him, get the fuck out. So we had. It was the first time we had really left him for longer than a day or two.

Already I was feeling the faint sense of escape, of hope. Mom had called Granny and told her we’d finally left Ed, and Granny was so relieved she loaned her the money to buy a trailer. A retired Canadian couple who were done with the open road sadly sold Mom their Airstream for $6,000. They were happy to be giving us a home, but they had cared for their trailer well and you could tell they had filled it with love. The man had cut little desert shapes from pieces of plywood and used it to decorate the overhead bins, the Airstream bins built like the ones over your seat in an airplane. The cactus was a little off, and the coyote was out of proportion, but he had spent time on his artwork and we never took them down. When the check came in the mail, Mom let each of us hold it. We looked at all the zeros after the dollar sign and held the paper reverently, knowing we would never see such a sight again.

In less than a month, Mom had gotten us a home, moved us into a trailer park in Needles, California, and enrolled Rowdy and me in public school. She stayed home with the two little ones, but she was looking for a job to augment the government support. We had lived in a car for long enough, with all six of us, and the freedom of the space in the trailer to stretch out at night, the electricity that gave us fans to use in the heat, all of it was almost too much. I was afraid to enjoy it, afraid every minute that it would all be snatched away and Dad would be back and sell it all and take us into the middle of nowhere again. I developed a Dad-crush on my 6th grade teacher, in the school that I could walk to from where we lived. We lived somewhere! I was going to school! At that age all I wanted was to be normal, to have friends, to stay in one place long enough to finish a whole grade. I knew we were not normal, and then there was everyone else. People with homes, and normal families, and parents with jobs, and kids with their own rooms. That was my biggest dream, a room where I could close the door and not have to smell my brothers’ farts and where I could hang my drawings on the wall. Where I might have a quiet place to read, and to write.

My homeroom teacher, Mr. Kincaid, was so kind, and he talked to us like we were human instead of bugs bothering him, the way conversations with Dad had gotten to be. Dad must have been itching to get away from us, the responsibility and the daily nagging concerns of this big family in this small space crumbling his self-control. It showed in his snappishness, his anger, his escalating drinking. He was accusing Mom of wanting to cheat on him, of wanting other guys, of looking at other people, though she was always with us and he was the one who came home late from the bar or never came home at all, showing up in the morning with red lipstick stains on his collar and laughing when Mom asked him about it.

Mr. Kincaid was smiley, and had a short well-groomed dark beard. He looked like a kind of man I didn’t know, a new kind of man and it was a revelation to see how he treated people. All men were not mean. It didn’t have to not be manly to be kind. Until then I had taken for granted that men were gruff, and hard, and stern, and men did what they wanted when they wanted and didn’t take no shit from nobody. Mr. Kincaid seemed like he might take some shit, and then he might sit you down to talk about it instead of beating your ass with a leather belt. I wasn’t sure that this would work with boys, who everyone knew could get out of control, but I thought it was a novel approach and might work with girls.

I made a friend, too, a strange gawky girl named Annie who was a Mormon and who lived in the trailer park next to ours. They lived in a nice trailer, one that was mounted to the ground and had a patio outside and that didn’t even look like a trailer. It could have been a house. Plus, she had her own room.

All I knew about Mormons was that they had a weird religion, and that there were a lot of them in Utah. I knew they hired retarded people, because we would go through Salt Lake City sometimes and all the stores had people working in them with Down’s syndrome or crippled legs. I knew they were nice, because they gave Dad a job last time we had gone through, and then they let us go into their huge store filled with food and new clothes and we got to pick what we wanted. There were big semi transport trailers outside that said “Deseret Industries” which I thought was fitting. We were from the desert, and they were helping us to start a new life, they said. I think Dad lasted a week there, and my hopes for that new life faded, the way I was used to hope fading. Quick, as if it had never been.

Karl was a strange bird. He might have been in love with Mom, too. I hadn’t noticed how many men loved Mom until Dan in Oregon. Dan had loved Mom so much Theresa and him had broken up. I thought it was strange. I had not paid much attention to the relationship between men and women, knowing I was not attractive and that it would be years before I had to worry about it. I read enough adult literature to know about it secondhand, and had no wish to complicate my life prematurely. But my mother’s attractiveness had escaped my notice. I saw a tired woman who wore no makeup and had worn thrift store clothes like the rest of us. I didn’t see the blonde, birdlike beauty who gave off the scent of “needing protection” though she had powered through life and come out stronger than most of the men who loved her.

One day Rowdy was riding his new-ish bike one-handed, a paper airplane tied on a string trailing next to him in the hot breeze of Needles. He was prone to focus on things to the point of forgetting everything else, even simple things like “Look where you’re going.” He looked up just in time to watch himself crash over the handlebars into a wooden post, the ones that told you what number your space was in the trailer park.

“Rowly!! Rowly! Mary, come quick Rowly is hurt!” We heard Karl howling outside, and Mom rushed out to find her oldest son with blood gushing down the side of his face. It wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst. Karl held his soft hands to the sides of his head, shaking it like a befuddled dog. His long hair and beard were tangled, because he didn’t have a woman to tell him to brush it. Mom could have told him, but that might have been too much like a relationship.

Rowly eventually stopped bleeding, and we didn’t go to the hospital because that cost too much money. Rowdy still remembers this, and will tell the story occasionally. “Mom, remember Rowly’s Hurt?” he will ask. And we will all laugh, and nod, and we will all say “Rowly.”

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.