Roads On Her Face #44: People

I imagine it’s like being raised in a commune. Your little network of interactions is so specific and well-known. The outcomes of disagreements are easily predicted; no matter what happens you will stay friends or family, because you have to when your network is only six people deep.

Stepping out into the world of other new and strange people is a different ball game. Relationships are begun, destroyed, fall apart as easily as speaking your mind too bluntly. My second real job was in Glenwood, washing dishes in the institute of a cafe known as the Blue Front (now, sadly closed as many businesses in Glenwood have). I think I was too young to legally work, but the owners’ kids worked there too and besides, nobody cared.  Everyone in town worked here or had worked here in the past. There aren’t a lot of options in a town of 500. Being in the back at first was good for me, since I was shy around people and would often freeze when faced with a question. I talked plenty once you got to know me, though. I had and have a lot of opinions, kinda known for that. I might tell you even if you don’t ask, now, though that’s something I’m trying to work on. I’ve discovered people often don’t want to hear what you think, even if they do ask.

The Blue Front started the granting of my freedom, by providing me with a little bit of money and a small group of mostly ladies that at least pretended to listen to me and maybe felt sorry for me. I credit them with the first lessons in relating to “normal” people who hadn’t lived in cars and buses their entire lives before this town.

I began to learn how to be in one place, what it meant to not always walk away from an issue or something I disliked. I’d never had to learn that before. Before, I’d known that it wouldn’t be long and the problem would be a distant memory.

Roads On Her Face #41: Melba

Melba had a little sewing and quilting shop on the main drag of
Glenwood, across from the Crab Apple Cabins and next to the creek that
bubbled under the highway. We’d walk through town as kids and stop at
the creek in the shade, to pretend there was a troll under the bridge
or to watch the kids in the summer in town with their parents for
vacation. The strangers in town were always tourists or hunters. The
teenage girls knew when the Forest Service would bring in the Hot
Shots to fight fires in the mountains. As the season got drier and the
heat began, so would the hormones heat up in town. Tan muscled guys
who’d been spending weeks in the mountains would come rolling into
town and the smell of sweat and desire was rank.

Melba gave me another job in exchange for sewing lessons. I helped her
in the shop, and gave her massages after work. Pressing her doughy
flesh as she sighed in her room, I decided I didn’t want to be a
massage therapist.

Our first Christmas I was the charity case for the women’s quilting
group. I imagine the meeting they had as they picked their deserving
recipient.

“That little homeless girl in the trailer, Mary’s daughter? You know
she’d just love a quilt, ladies. Let’s stitch her a new life made of
goodwill and tiny stitched dolls wearing flowered dresses.”

It was a sweet gesture. I wished I hadn’t had to give her massages,
though. I made sure I was as busy as I could be so I could tell her I
didn’t have time anymore for sewing. I never made clothing that fit me
quite right, anyway.

I participated in everything. I went to the ladies’ oil painting group
and painted colorful quick paintings, two to a month, while the older
ladies had been working on the same thing for a year. I livened up
their day and made them laugh.

Lynn took me under her artist’s wing, because I loved to paint so
much. She’d come in with her brush and refine my splashes and swirls,
add color and depth when I didn’t take the time. She could tell I
needed a little refinement.

People started asking me to babysit their kids, and I still didn’t
know how to say no yet so I did. After one last overnight with a
couple of little boys who wanted to sleep in the bed with me and tried
to run roughshod, I realized I didn’t have to do this anymore. I was
making enough money at my other jobs…

Windstalker hired me to tie the hundreds of pottery chile ristras they
hung at the door, their best sellers to folks looking for a New
Mexican souvenir. My fingers were raw and bled as I knotted the cords
together and burned the ends with a lighter to prevent them
unraveling.

We spent days at the Catwalk in the cold water of the canyons,
exploring under the rocks and back away from the trail. We swam in the
deep dark swimming holes beneath giant boulders, climbed barefoot up
the cliffsides and swung from trees like monkeys. One of my best friends Adele and I parked with boys in the parking lot of the picnic grounds late at night, watching the stars, and I sighed and was bored as she made out in the backseat. I still looked
like a little girl with zits  who didn’t know how to dress, and her
curves and breasts had been womanly for years already. When would I be
desirable? I was in such a hurry and the time was so close. I felt
like I had so many years to catch up on, not realizing the length of
the years before me. I always knew I would want to slow down time,
though, and it’s been a recurring theme in my journals since I started them at 8 years old.

I have always known I’ll be looking back in 10 years, then  20 (if luck favors the bold), wondering where did the time go?

Roads on Her Face #31: A.D. 1 After Dad

Glenwood was a microcosm of the whole world, in which it was relatively safe to try out this thing called normal life. With Dad out of the picture, it took a while for family dynamics to fall into a new routine. We fought, and postured, and Mom always looked exhausted. I think she wondered if she had done the right thing, but there was no doubt in my mind. It had been time to chase him off, and when the cop showed up that day to pick him up Dad nearly spat in her face as he hissed “This is the last time you’ll see me, Mary” as if that were a threat that might hurt. I didn’t see him get in the car, or drive away. I didn’t think of him in jail that night, or know if he had been locked up. I tried to feel some sadness because I thought I should. I loved him, right? He was my dad, right? But there were precious few feelings left in my heart for him. The years with his anger and abuse had systematically pulled each feeling out and ground it into the dirt with their endless heels.

I felt, most of all, a lightening of the weight on my shoulders. For the first time in my life my attention began to focus outward, away from the eternal internal. I’d spent all my time thus far in deep inner reflection and boundless imaginary worlds, and I had learned enough about myself to trust in my feelings and intuition. I didn’t quite have the verbal expression down yet, but I grew braver every day. I got a job washing dishes at the Blue Front Bar and Café, the greasy restaurant built over a ditch in the middle of town and owned by the ever-present Luthers, of course. I started to get to know people in town, and made my first girlfriends there who eventually pulled me into public school for my last two years in high school. Mom worked at the Blue Front, as well as another restaurant, Maxine’s, up the hill that’s since become a goat-milk soap shop. She found a boyfriend in no time at all, a cook in Maxine’s kitchen who was looking for a mommy.

I’d made my closest high school friend when Dad had still been in town. She was tall, skinny and pretty, the daughter of one of the big rancher families that lived north of town. She said I reminded her of an elf, with my ears poking from behind my braid. Early in our nascent friendship, I asked Mom if I could go to the ranch with Jen. We spent the day giggling in her room, messing with each other’s hair, the typical budding teen stuff. Her mom drove me home late in the afternoon for dinner, and when I walked into the trailer Mom didn’t look up at me from the dinner she was preparing. Something was off, and I immediately made myself scarce–which in the trailer meant hiding in the back “room.”

“Where the fuck was she all day?” My dad asked my mom, beer and sarcasm dripping from his voice.

“She was with her friend,” Mom said quietly.

Somehow Dad had discovered that Jennifer had an older brother– who we had seen for a couple of minutes on his way to his room that day. “Don’t you know what can happen?” Dad’s rage boiled over. “Hanging out with fucking boys all day, do you know what can happen? Don’t you fucking think, Mary, doesn’t this shit cross your pea brain?” He slammed the rest of a beer. “She is not to ever go over there again. They only think about one thing, getting their hands into panties, don’t you know what they’re like? Do you want a slut as a daughter? You’d probably like that, wouldn’t you Mary?”

I felt the familiar sick rising in my stomach, the twisted knots caused by the knowledge that I was not to be trusted, a slutty girl, that he would never release this iron grip he had on all of us. I gave up the idea that I could have a friend, could try to have a normal life, could someday even have a boy who would be interested in wanting things to happen with me. I knew I was too quiet, too weird, too poor, to awkward. And Dad made sure I knew it, when he wasn’t telling me how fat my ass was. It took me years before I realized I was one of the thinnest people I knew.

Roads on Her Face #28: And Then Came a Settling

An hour later and Dad was gone. And this time, he stayed gone. You never bring the cops into the picture, ok Mary? Didn’t you ever learn?

I started out thinking I would only write about my childhood, the interesting part of my life so far. Then I realized that wouldn’t be the whole truth. I am trying to tell the truth, and it’s easier to tell the far-away truth of your childhood than the truth that comes closer to your present life, the time when you should have no excuses and should “know better.” The whole gallivanting around the country thing stopped when I was 12, when we settled in a little New Mexican mountain town called Glenwood. It has its share of interesting characters, stories, and beauty, and I’d be remiss not to include them lovingly – and sometimes not so much – in this accounting.

We weren’t going to settle. We had never settled before. It shouldn’t have been any different than the thousand other times we’d stayed somewhere for a while. Except that this time it was.

When you roll down the hill on 180 into the little green valley around Whitewater Creek and the Gila River, you pass a tiny campground on your right just a second before you roll right on through town in approximately 3 minutes, 2 if you’re speeding. I don’t recommend speeding, because there’s always a local cop who doesn’t have anything better to do waiting just after the bridge over the creek. You’re welcome. Big Horn Campground has maybe 10 spaces crammed into a parking-lot-size area near the wash that splits the parkland from private property. The private property across the creek is owned by one of the couple of families that own Glenwood, and have for many years. Likely since their ancestors settled here and homesteaded, but I never cared enough to do the research. They’ll make sure you know they’ve been here forever, goshdangit, so don’t you worry about how long exactly.

Like most Forest Service campgrounds, you could stay in this one for free. Though most people would stay for the weekend, we were definitely going to take advantage of the two weeks. And we did, plus maybe three weeks, until a nice ranger told us it was about time we moved on. I think Mom was struggling to put some roots down quickly. She had always loved this little town, and so had Dad. They’d dreamed and talked about staying here through the years, so close to where she’d picked him up hitchhiking in her little yellow Bug. She probably knew by then that those were just dreams, that she’d tied her life to a man that could never settle down and didn’t know much about roots.

The old patriarch of the family in town- I’ll call them the Luthers, and him Coy, just in case they’re out there Googling around (I used an online List of Redneck Names to name these people from my recent past, I hope they will forgive me)- had watched my mom come in to the general store/gas station that he owned with us kids for a while. Coy had watched Dad, too, I’m sure, stumbling back up the campground after drinking at the bar Coy owned. He probably sat in his house next to the old hotel that he owned, too, and thought about what he could do to help her out. That pretty little blonde thing with all them kids and a drunk-ass husband. Mom’s always been good at getting help without looking for it. I don’t know if she was asking around for a job, but in no time at all she had one bookkeeping for Coy and we had moved the trailer onto the private property just on the other side of the wash from the campground. We had electric hook-ups and running water! It was a goddamn windfall. Knowing that little town as well as I do now, I can just imagine the rumors and hearsay spreading scarlet-letter style through the grapevine, which had tendrils pushed into every house in a 10-mile radius. It didn’t come back to our insulated little family, and we kids were happily oblivious. What we knew was that we had a nice quiet place with water. We had lights that worked, and Dad set up an outdoor shower. We had met some  kids that lived on the other half of the land, in a house butted up against the hill that separated our little haven from the rest of town. Cole, Coy’s son, and his wife Lynne lived there with their three kids. Mom was even talking about enrolling us in school. Then Dad started drinking harder, and a pall hung over all of us. We could see the dark clouds gathering, and inside I resigned myself to moving on again soon. I hadn’t seen the hard light glittering in Mom’s eyes, though, or counted on the set of her jaw.

He was sitting in a camp chair behind the trailer, and the sun had just dropped behind the hill. Long shadows touched my feet. Mom was cooking dinner inside. He stood up and stomped on a beer can, the sound one I hear often when I think of him. Stomp, crush, stomp, crush. He hacked a loogie, another sound I hear because my brother takes after him.

Slightly off-balance, he pulled himself up the trailer steps and joined Mom in the kitchen. I didn’t go inside, but I could tell she wouldn’t be looking at him.

“Tomorrow, we need to pack all this shit up and get out of here,” he said. “It’s time to head back toward Arizona.” She didn’t say anything for a minute.

“I think this is a good place to stay for a while, don’t you? The kids like it here,” she said, quietly.

“We do what I say,” he said, his voice rising. “I don’t think I asked you what you thought.” The trailer rocked with the building anger.

It took about 15 minutes for the screaming and shouting to start. Five minutes after that Mom was rushing outside and grabbing my arm.

“Listen to me, ok?” Her blue eyes were rimmed in red, the pressure of all those unshed tears. “I need you to run down to Cole and Lynne’s house and ask her to call the police, ok?” I nodded and took off, the way I always did when she asked me to run. All the running practice made a difference at times like this.

An hour later and Dad was gone. And this time, he stayed gone. You never bring the cops into the picture, ok Mary? Didn’t you ever learn?