Roads on Her Face #33: Nighttime Escape

When I look at the stars at night, I can teleport instantly back into the velvet blackness of the Mojave desert of Arizona. Just as the sun began to drop behind the darkened purple mountains, no longer the faded colors of old bleached clothes that they and the sky were in full day, the life that had been hiding and gasping in shade that never cooled off enough to allow full breaths would stretch, shake off the dust, and emerge. Birds cheeped hesitantly and then broke into song, the coyotes scuttled in around the creosote with pink tongues lolling. As it grew too dark to see the ground, we would kick off our shoes if we wore any, and get up on something to avoid the snakes, scorpions and spiders that were now free to walk on rocks and sand that had recently been the temperature of a pan just snatched from the oven. Out at Jim’s Place, there were always vehicles scattered around our homesite, little boats in a night ocean. If we could, we would jump from one to the other and let the cooling metal creak and pop underneath us as the heat rose in waves. On cue, the breeze that the sun released would begin to stir through the low washes, tickling hair and bringing the scent of flowers too delicate for the day.

The only light was from our kerosene lantern in the trailer, and the brilliance of the stars. The depth of them out there is incredible, with no light pollution and endless hours to watch them. If you lay flat long enough and stare into the sky, gravity appears to flip-flop and you feel as if you could suddenly fall downward into their depths instead of floating upward. Rowdy and I would often sleep on top of the big white Army truck, an old box-type truck with a broad flat top just right for sleeping bags and with no slant to encourage rolling off. High up there the breeze could become almost chilly, and snakes and bugs could never reach us. My parents might sleep on the hood of the station wagon, and the little ones with them or inside where there was no fear of a fall from car-height in the middle of the night.

We would all be spread over vehicles in the morning when the sun greyed the eastern sky, like refugees stranded on tiny islands after a shipwreck. At the first sign of light we would scatter to do our business and get anything done that needed to happen before the sun arrived, resigned to what was coming.

No one went straight to bed in the summer, taking time instead to enjoy the blessed cool and the absence of the angry sun. Dad would sit on one of the cars or the front of the Army truck, his radio tuned to NPR or story time from the 40s or 50s. I would feel my soul grow to fill the night sky, happiness and a whole-body gratitude for the night. I’m a night kind of girl. I feel safe in the quiet dim light, I think better thoughts, and magic doesn’t sound far-fetched.

We would all gather around and point out the stars, familiar constellations above us taking the place of other families’ TVs. We could all find the North Star, the dippers, Orion. We would pick up star books from the library and sit out with them and a flashlight, pinpointing the red star Arcturus or lesser-known constellations Cassiopeia or the Northern Cross. The flash of battery-powered light would be enough to kill your night vision for a moment, and eyes closed we would wait to for it to return, watching brilliant colors dance across our closed lids.

Sometimes late at night Mom and I would huddle in a circle in the trailer with our books placed flat, sharing  the flickering round circle of light cast by the lamp. We would read until our eyes were too tired, enveloped in the peace of being the only ones awake. She would smile bigger then, no one watching her, no voice commanding her. She would sneak a cheese ball covered in almond slivers out of the refrigerator we were never allowed to open because we had to conserve propane. Stifling giggles like little girls, we would open a box of crackers, trying not to rustle the wrapper and awaken anyone who might have disturbed our peace. Luckily, the boys who slept on the floor in the front of the trailer lay like stones.

It was her only escape, out there. I know that now. I’m glad she let me escape with her.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sipapu

Roads on Her Face #23: Spraying Bullets

Boom! I started awake to the sound in the middle of the dark Arizona night. We were living out at Jim’s place again, this time with a pretend-permanency that included chickens, two dogs, and a goat named Mary. Dad had been drinking more than usual, so he took one of the discarded camper shells out of the junkyard and moved it with the wrecker to the other side of the wash. Our trailer was parked under the metal ramada Dad had built, the one I kept calling the armada. Two words, one meaning shelter and the other army, but so easily mixed up.

Dad was living in the camper most of the time because he and Mom fought so much when he wasn’t. The camper had a bed, but of course no plumbing or electricity unless he took our little gas-powered generator over so he could have lights for a while to read his Slocums or the latest war histories. Gas was precious, and we had to drive 40 miles on a dirt road to get it. We generally used kerosene lanterns, flashlights, and battery-powered radios. Our outdoor refrigerator was powered by propane, and it was never opened unless absolutely necessary.

The radio was always on. Dad liked to listen to Stephanie Miller, some bitchy LA radio talk show host that his silver Magnavox could pick up as the sun started to go down. It was different to hear him talk about a woman in a positive way, to hear him say she was funny or just to watch him drink beer and stare off into space as he listened quietly to a female voice. Mostly what he would say about women was encompassed in common phrases like “She must be on the rag,” or “Somebody should tell that cunt to keep her trap shut.” He liked Stephanie, though, and she may have been the first woman in the public eye, besides Linda Rondstadt, that I’d heard him say he liked.

We all usually hung out in listening distance when Dad listened to the radio, because it was habit for all of us to orbit around each other like tiny planets. We didn’t even notice we were doing it, it was just the way things were. When you are your own tribe, that’s what you do.

One night Stephanie Miller was talking about peeing. She giggled in her husky voice, and said that sometimes when she has to pee, she had to tickle herself “down there” to make the pee come. I wouldn’t have thought much about it, except that Dad almost choked on his beer.

He laughed, and wiped the suds from his whiskers. Loud enough so my mom would hear, he said “Damn, she must have one tight ass. Has to tickle herself to pee.” He chuckled, his smile-hiding beard radiating amusement.

Mom must have grinned halfheartedly and gone back to cooking dinner, and they probably forgot about it in the next ten minutes. Somehow it stuck with me. Was it good to be tight? What does a tight ass mean? Is it hard to poop, too? I tried tickling myself to pee, and it did seem to help. Later I figured out he’d meant it in a sexual way and felt stupid. Of course, of course.

When I awoke to the sound of the .357 Magnum, because that’s the only thing that night-shattering sound could have been, I felt the rest of my family breathlessly awake and listening too. The nights out in the desert are so quiet that any unusual sound would disturb your slumber, from mice rustling to far-away screams of a mountain lion.

“Maybe he shot himself,” Mom whispered, and half-laughed. I thought about this for a second. I didn’t feel much about it either way, and I rolled back over and went to sleep. We all did. There was no point in walking out in the dark, stumbling over cactus to see what had happened. We would know in the morning.

He hadn’t shot himself, but almost. He told us all the story when he came back over to the ramada for breakfast. “I must have been asleep, and I reached over and grabbed my gun and pointed it at my face and pulled the trigger,” he said, incredulous, laughing, another near-miss and here he was still standing, his heart still beating. What he said made sense because it was the middle of summer, and so hellishly hot that we kept household spray bottles filled with water next to our beds at night. If we woke up, our bodies dry and motionless from the heat, we would spray precious water toward the roof of the trailer and let tiny cool kisses of water mist down and allow us to fall asleep again. To a beer- and sleep-addled brain, spray bottle trigger and gun trigger might well have seemed analogous.

He’d thought he was just spraying his face with water, but the bullet missed his head, blew a golf-ball-sized splintered hole in the camper wall and only made the ringing in his ears louder.

We are all looking for ou…

We are all looking for our fathers in some way, hunting the man in black across the empty plains. Whether we seek God, or answers, we think if we could just find him he might tell us that everything will be OK.

We are all looking for our fathers in some way, hunting the man in black across the empty plains. Whether we seek God, or answers, we think if we could just find him he might tell us that everything will be OK.

Roads on Her Face #3 – The Unwriteable Dad Part #1

I wouldn’t call him a bad guy. He’d describe himself as mysterious, the cocky little bastard. He’s that kind of guy. Black Ray-Bans, rockstar hair. Too cool to care. It would make him happy if you said, “Now that Ed, he’s an enigma. Can’t figure him out.” But it doesn’t take that long to figure him out, though his motives might never be clear. He loves Clint Eastwood, DeNiro, all the paragons of cool. He likes big guns, and loud trucks, and women. He’s smooth, like the rest of his brothers. When a bunch of Roethles get together, the panties drop. Panties just can’t withstand the onslaught of so much testosterone in those little rooster-like men, the swaggering, hard-partying German/Irish with a taste for action and those sharp cheekbones and thick dark wavy hair. They’re all either criminals or cops. Grandpa had 15 kids with his tiny Irish bride, one after the other falling out like clowns from a two-seater car. Grandpa taught his boys well, with his quick temper and hard-line rules. I never saw him then, only knew him as a benevolent patriarch who would preside at family gatherings with a glass of vodka and the propensity to pop out his teeth in an attempt to scare little me. It didn’t work, teeth don’t scare me even if they’re not in their proper mouth.

I heard stories of the brothers terrorizing the nuns in Catholic school, something about peanut butter pressed into organ keys, and imagine those boys running roughshod over old ladies armed only with rulers and sharp tongues. From what I understand they had it tough at home, poor enough to consider bread and gravy dinner and never to be quite warm enough in the Minnesota winters. I’ve seen a few old sepia-toned photos of the family then; tall, handsome, angular Grandpa next to his tiny wife, the twinkle in his eyes reflected in the mischief shining from three little boys’ faces, their mother’s look of calm detachment mirrored by one sister. Behind them you can make out a small farmhouse, and then the background fades. The boys all wear hats with fuzzy flaps, my aunt who was the lone girl in the photo noting that they all had terrible earaches when they were young. Hmm, me too.

I wish I knew more about all of them. Most of what I’ve gleaned has been second-hand, through stories circulated among relatives, passed to me in the few instances I’ve gotten to spend time with my extended family. When you grow up place-less you’re always looking for roots, I think. It’s hard to know where you come from when you’ve never seen it. Neither of my parents know much about their own families, beyond two generations. Something in both of them seemed to want to detach, to start fresh on their own. You can’t ever escape family, though, whether it be the earaches passed down through blood or the specter of alcoholism.

I avoided the alcoholism, so far. Lucky, I guess. I vaguely remember my dad before he was drinking, straight white teeth and the little prickly hairs on his chest where I would take naps, the sweat melding my cheek with his skin.  I don’t remember him yelling, or angry, though the earliest dream I remember featured a soft feminine face with soothing words, on a black background, over me as if I was in a crib, then suddenly a howling evil man face would appear. It is the most terrifying dream I’ve ever had. I wonder if there was more strife than I remember consciously.