We were living in a station wagon again, all six of us. I must have been around 9 or ten. We’d rolled into Quartzsite, Arizona late the night before after a few weeks out in the desert. Quartzsite is like a yard sale on crack, crammed with what seems like miles of old snowbirds selling shit, and tables creaking under the weight of rocks. They sell a lot of rocks out there, also whirly-gig wind-catchers, plastic Chinese toys, and badly-painted southwestern ceramics. People with 1/18 Navajo blood from an ancestor in the 1800s who raped an Indian sell jewelry as “authentic Native American” for ten times what it’s worth. The place has a pall over it, a dust-colored veil that smells of desperation. Casual visitors can’t see it, instead seeing a place full of great deals and gems, but we were hardly casual visitors. It was a winter deal-making place for Dad, a place to rest and make some money selling guns, working for a month for someone, or wheeling and dealing the way he did. He wasn’t particularly outgoing, but he had a quiet powerful way of making people do what he wanted them to do. It wasn’t the smooth salesman gig, something darker like maybe he’d rough you up if you didn’t pay him what he wanted. We went to school in Quartzsite, once. The school had just opened and was full of desert rats like us, and maybe some of the grandkids of snowbirds. We weren’t the only ones getting the free lunch, this time, or the only ones with worn clothing and messy hair. They fed us that vile peanut butter pre-mixed with grape jam on limp white bread every day, until we finally couldn’t choke it down any longer and just went hungry at lunchtime.
We were all sitting and waiting for Dad, as usual, in the dirt parking lot of some junk salesman. He had a lot of cars parked around a trailer with clapboard wings added on. Us kids cracked the door to the station wagon and tried not to move, sweating and sticking to the seats anyway. The sun beat down already, though it was early in spring. The heat would soon drive the snowbirds north, scattering them toward the coast or back to whatever cool hole they burrowed into up north. I stared up into the pale blue sky, powdered with the heat and the reflection of the barren dirt below. The only escape from the forced closeness of our little nuclear family (nuclear, because we as electrons were always rubbing too close, too close and explosions were so near the surface) was to mentally distance oneself. I almost always put a book between myself and our too-real reality. Thousands of books later, I would sometimes confuse what I had been reading with what had actually occurred at certain times in the past. When we were stranded on the side of the road because our latest rust-heap had broken down, I was actually riding a dragon over some far misty mountain, or was deep in the drama playing out between Nancy Drew and her totally hetero female friend George.
I was daydreaming, projecting far out into the hemisphere as near to cold space as I dared, so I missed the actual final transaction. I saw instead, Dad coming back to the car with a grin beneath his beard and jangling keys in his hand.
“Load up, kids. Let’s get everything out of this piece and put it in our new van,” he said, waving over his shoulder to the stocky bald guy behind him who was sighting down the barrel of a big handgun, one Dad had recently had tucked into his waistband. Behind the guy was a blue and white-striped Dodge van, the kind with the big white fiberglass bubble on top circa maybe 1970. It didn’t look like much, but it looked like it had a hell of a lot more room than the station wagon. And it looked like it could pull a trailer, so we could only hope that the next wheeling-dealing result would be a trailer with a stove, beds, and maybe even room to haul some bikes.
Dad was almost gleeful, coming off his deal high. “You should have heard that fucker,” he was telling Mom. He mimicked the guy’s heavy Boston accent, which we had heard snippets of as the two men had talked. “I offered him the car and 600 bucks for the van, which is worth twice that. He was like, ‘whut, the cah, 800, and whut? You ain’t foolin’ me.’ So I threw in the Smith and Wesson.” He grinned because that had been his plan all along.
As soon as my brothers heard this, they collapsed into giggles, gleeful too as they pulled all of our belongings out of the car and began piling them together. The van was something new, and maybe it meant something good. Plus, none of us had ever heard a Boston accent that we could remember. “The cah, 800, and whut?” Rowdy laughed as he poked Reno, who took up the refrain. “And whut? And whut?” Dad cuffed his boys on the back of their tow-heads. “That’s right, boys, who’s the man huh? Your dad knows what he’s doing.”
Off near the chain-link fence, the Boston guy scratched his head and watched us move. Transferring our belongings took 20 minutes, at the most, because we were good. He stood and watched us as we rolled away, never looking back.