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.

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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.