Describing the drive across the Nevada emptiness – something you feel more than think. The comparative busyness of Arizona with its big highways and changeable scenery starts to fade east of Vegas. The bones of the land rise stealthily, underground stone serpents slithering just out of reach of your notice. The shadows become more blue, the sage and scrub brush more pervasive. There are no more trees, as if their entire race was obliterated here. Wait, no, a lonely pair of young cottonwoods have been planted as the wilting guards on either side of the burnt gash of a road leading to the blood-reds and pus-yellows of yet another strip mine. The earth bleeds and cries freely here and there is nothing and no one to comfort her. When there is an end-time, it will mirror this and we can say we saw the portents. Clouds stay high above the flatland, streaming down from a mile overhead, sometimes the rain reaches the ground to be blown violently across the road and fill the washes. The old-timer at the Hard Luck Store in Mina called these “gullywashers.” “We don’t want it to rain too much, not now,” he responded to my “But isn’t this nice?” His bleary blue eyes rolled over me to glare out at the thin freshly-washed strip of blacktop.
The smell of the rain is the smell of the dusty breath of the sagebrush, held for months in anticipation of this brief half-assed blessing. The colors and the light are like nowhere else. It’s as if, in death, the land deserves this heavenly illumination. As if the sky feels sorry for the stones it exposed, and drenches them in forgiving saturated color. If there is a place for the hills to have eyes, it is here. You can feel them on you all the time. You just hope the engine keeps running, and the air conditioner doesn’t give up.
We just got invited to a shotgun wedding in the park. She’s about 9 months along, 16 or 17 at the most. I say hell yeah!
There are two memories tied inextricably together in my mind, by tenuous flashing synapses deep within my cerebral cortex somewhere. I never think of one without the other, though I don’t know if they were chronologically close. It doesn’t matter, because the place the past lives is in our memory among the grey matter. There is no time besides now.
Elko is a little town hidden between the bare rocky breasts of the Ruby Mountains, way up Interstate 80 before you cross the flat white plains of the Great Salt Lake, if you’re traveling East. There’s a casino, because it’s Nevada, and some hard mountain people who may or may not be currently running from the law.
Dad got a job there as a tow truck driver, and we lived in our trailer on the tow lot just off the main drag through town. I don’t know how long we lived in Elko; it felt like forever and no time at all. Eventually, Dad would have pissed off whoever hired him and we hit the road, not looking back. While we were there, it felt like a precious gift that could be snatched away in a second. The mountains were brutal, to drivers who didn’t know them, and they killed with abandon, shaking cars off their ridges and becoming so black at night that people would just drive right off the interstate. The tow truck was busy, and the bounty that came with the cars towed in from the dark felt like the dreams I have now where I am shopping for hours, picking up treasure after treasure and loading myself down. I’m sad when I wake up, all that work and searching for nothing, for these empty arms. When people wreck, the detritus of their lives floats in a sea of sad, and they never come back for it. They don’t want the memories that seeing their car and the things they were traveling with would bring. We would find suitcases full of clothing, money under the seats, purses splashed with blood. Toys children had dropped as the car spun in slow circles before the terrible finality of impact. I would sit in cars smelling of their occupants’ perfume and stare at the starred windshield in front of me, imagine the blonde head that struck the glass and left two hairs. I would feel the car crumple, hear the shrieking of metal and smell burning rubber. I would be careful not to touch the bloodstains when they were present. A few times I asked Dad if the people had died, but mostly I didn’t want to know. I was happy to keep their things, and I didn’t feel a shred of moral ambiguity. We had learned right off the bat not to question gifts from the sky. When much of your time is spent on the road, you find things that have fallen from vehicles with exciting regularity. If we spied something that looked interesting, Dad would say “Hang on! Put your seatbelts on!” and swerve off at the next wide shoulder so he could jump out and run back to retrieve it. Sometimes it turned out to be trash. Other times it was a box from FedEx, or a wallet. We found a duffel bag once, with clothing and toothpaste, shoes and money. I carried with me an image of someone’s trip turning shitty when they arrived at their destination and realized they had nothing, and I wished I could give their things back to them.
Elko was quiet, and possessed the kind of communal geniality peculiar to many small towns. If you left people alone, they left you alone. I’m sure they talked about us, the travelers living at the junkyard. But we didn’t stand out in towns like that. There were others like us, traveling the back roads and staying until their time was up. Some of the wayward would settle in places like this, away from the big cities and welcoming the quiet accommodation, welcoming being left alone. Either you assimilated or you did not, and the town went on about its business.
Like most former gold-rush towns, Elko has little festivals and whatever they can throw together that might bring in tourists. There’s not much to do out there for work, unless you’re a hooker or a miner. I was reading in the trailer when Mom came in and grabbed my hand. “Come on, honey, they’re having a race! You need to run in the race!”
“But, Mom, I have my boots on!” I said, confused, startled, staring at my black cowboy boots as I was hustled across the street to where a festival was going on. Sure enough, there was the race line and there was a small crowd watching. Dad was standing there, looking back for me expectantly. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, because I only remember Rowdy then. Reno had to have been a baby, or hadn’t come along yet.
It had to have been Dad who sent Mom to get me. He had this image of me growing up to be a runner, and he would send me out to run laps around creosote bush courses that we mapped out beforehand. I would go and go, never getting tired. I was a fast little shit, too, until I got lazy and stopped running, preferring only to read somewhere as far away from my family as I could get. These days, I run because I like it and people think I’m crazy. Maybe Dad had something right.
Mom pushed me into the line of other kids. All of them towered over me. I was the littlest one out there. And I had on boots! I couldn’t run on cement with these boots on!
But BANG went the gun, and off we went. All I could see was the chalk finish line and a blur as I focused in front of me. I ran as fast as I could run, faster than I had ever run. My boots flew, I barely touched the ground. And then I was there, and I turned around. The only one there! The other kids were far behind me. I heard cheers, and a man handed me a silver dollar. “You win, girl,” he smiled at me. “Speed racer.”
The other memory is of swim class. Mom has always been a good swimmer, easily swimming laps with her strong little body moving like a seal. She wanted us to be, too, but we were rarely near water. I have always been the edge-swimmer, holding on to the side after dog-paddling for four breathless strokes.
I think we were in Fallon. Nevada again. We weren’t there long, because I only got to go to a few classes. Rowdy was there, too. Mom would drop us off for an hour at the pool, and two brave women would try to teach a group of little kids how to swim. I was on a kickboard, kicking along, and then I wasn’t. I stopped moving completely as I sank slowly to the bottom. Looking up, the light filtered through the water like blue stained glass, twinkling warmly. I didn’t know why I wasn’t trying to swim. It was so peaceful under there, so quiet with the sounds of the other swimmers dulled to whispers. I had held my breath, and wasn’t choking, so when strong arms reached down and pulled me away from the quiet I was angry. The woman threw me out of the water and another grabbed me, pounding my back. My breath was gone, so I couldn’t yell at them that I was fine, I was fine, there wasn’t any water in my lungs! I wished I was back there, back at the quiet bottom.