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.