So, ahem, yeah- what happened to this little blog of mine? I guess I have to get my ass in gear, kinda.
For your viewing pleasure is the actual photo from Roads on Her Face: The Safari Photo. Her very nice note on the back indicates that any of suspicions I had about her were most likely wrong. I mean, I AM usually the one making things up about other people.
Mom let me take it and scan it, barely- I think it’s one of her favorites. Note: Me, perpetually with a book in hand- and Soph with a fistful of dollars from somewhere.
To the Mountzes, if you’re out there- I hope you don’t mind me putting your name on the interwebs.
When I look at the stars at night, I can teleport instantly back into the velvet blackness of the Mojave desert of Arizona. Just as the sun began to drop behind the darkened purple mountains, no longer the faded colors of old bleached clothes that they and the sky were in full day, the life that had been hiding and gasping in shade that never cooled off enough to allow full breaths would stretch, shake off the dust, and emerge. Birds cheeped hesitantly and then broke into song, the coyotes scuttled in around the creosote with pink tongues lolling. As it grew too dark to see the ground, we would kick off our shoes if we wore any, and get up on something to avoid the snakes, scorpions and spiders that were now free to walk on rocks and sand that had recently been the temperature of a pan just snatched from the oven. Out at Jim’s Place, there were always vehicles scattered around our homesite, little boats in a night ocean. If we could, we would jump from one to the other and let the cooling metal creak and pop underneath us as the heat rose in waves. On cue, the breeze that the sun released would begin to stir through the low washes, tickling hair and bringing the scent of flowers too delicate for the day.
The only light was from our kerosene lantern in the trailer, and the brilliance of the stars. The depth of them out there is incredible, with no light pollution and endless hours to watch them. If you lay flat long enough and stare into the sky, gravity appears to flip-flop and you feel as if you could suddenly fall downward into their depths instead of floating upward. Rowdy and I would often sleep on top of the big white Army truck, an old box-type truck with a broad flat top just right for sleeping bags and with no slant to encourage rolling off. High up there the breeze could become almost chilly, and snakes and bugs could never reach us. My parents might sleep on the hood of the station wagon, and the little ones with them or inside where there was no fear of a fall from car-height in the middle of the night.
We would all be spread over vehicles in the morning when the sun greyed the eastern sky, like refugees stranded on tiny islands after a shipwreck. At the first sign of light we would scatter to do our business and get anything done that needed to happen before the sun arrived, resigned to what was coming.
No one went straight to bed in the summer, taking time instead to enjoy the blessed cool and the absence of the angry sun. Dad would sit on one of the cars or the front of the Army truck, his radio tuned to NPR or story time from the 40s or 50s. I would feel my soul grow to fill the night sky, happiness and a whole-body gratitude for the night. I’m a night kind of girl. I feel safe in the quiet dim light, I think better thoughts, and magic doesn’t sound far-fetched.
We would all gather around and point out the stars, familiar constellations above us taking the place of other families’ TVs. We could all find the North Star, the dippers, Orion. We would pick up star books from the library and sit out with them and a flashlight, pinpointing the red star Arcturus or lesser-known constellations Cassiopeia or the Northern Cross. The flash of battery-powered light would be enough to kill your night vision for a moment, and eyes closed we would wait to for it to return, watching brilliant colors dance across our closed lids.
Sometimes late at night Mom and I would huddle in a circle in the trailer with our books placed flat, sharing the flickering round circle of light cast by the lamp. We would read until our eyes were too tired, enveloped in the peace of being the only ones awake. She would smile bigger then, no one watching her, no voice commanding her. She would sneak a cheese ball covered in almond slivers out of the refrigerator we were never allowed to open because we had to conserve propane. Stifling giggles like little girls, we would open a box of crackers, trying not to rustle the wrapper and awaken anyone who might have disturbed our peace. Luckily, the boys who slept on the floor in the front of the trailer lay like stones.
It was her only escape, out there. I know that now. I’m glad she let me escape with her.
We made balloons and costumes out of paper bags, then put on a parade….of sad, pathetic poor little children. My siblings were lucky to have me around to come up with these ideas and keep them amused…I can only imagine how hard it was for my parents not to laugh as the 4-person parade marched by throwing candy…
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.
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.
There are things I’m still pissed off about years and years after they happened. I wish I could let them go, but even if I laugh them off now they still hang on to the edges of my psyche. The school zone ticket I got after school hours, and the small-town asshole judge that talked with the offending officer about their upcoming fishing trip, after the “trial.” The fat woman who loudly asked what was wrong with my brother’s face, when he got out of the hospital after being wounded in Iraq. The old bag who threatened to call the police in a park somewhere in Idaho, who was sure the ragged little kids on the swing set had to be good-for-nothings.
You have to take a break now and then after hours on the road with kids, and public parks across the states are a quiet place to rest and let them out to run off some energy. Parking lots and rest areas do in a pinch, but green grass, shade, and jungle gyms do a lot to tame the wild beasts.
It was a cloudy day, almost chilly. We must have been headed south, skittering like leaves before a winter storm. We were trying to park overnight, so we had to keep a low profile and not look like we were planning to do what we were planning to do. The kitty was beside the car with her cotton rope leash tied to the side mirror. She lay quietly in the grass, being a smart kitty.
Mom was reading in the car, and Dad was listening to the radio. Sophie was sleeping quietly, and Reno was driving a Matchbox car through the Sahara-like dunes of the sandbox on one side of the playground. Rowdy and I were over by the swings. “Push me!” he called, swinging his legs and looking back at me. From out of nowhere a fat kid with cheeks like biscuits arrived on the scene. He made a beeline for my brother and announced “I wanna swing!” I looked around, and didn’t see any parents.
Shit! I hated confrontation, mostly, though I didn’t avoid or mind the shot of adrenaline that came when you knew you’d have to do something soon. The fatty was way bigger than Rowdy, who was staring up at him in blue-eyed shock. We weren’t used to people arriving on the scene. We didn’t have to talk to other people, and most of the time we weren’t supposed to. Fatty unceremoniously shoved Rowdy off the swing. OK, time to do something.
I was a lot taller than fatty. You could tell he didn’t often talk to girls, mostly by the cheeks and the small piggy eyes. They glared at me out of his reddening face as I walked right up to him.
“Get away from my brother!” I said, picking Rowdy up and grabbing the swing. “We were here first, go play somewhere else.”
From behind me I heard the war-shriek of Grandma. “You get away from my grandson, I’m going to call the police!”
“Shut up, lady,” I said, the adrenaline showing up. I was talking back to a grownup I didn’t know, and that was a new feeling. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned to face her. “You can’t do anything about it.” I wanted to tell her how her grandson was fat, and she should make him exercise. Also he was a bully, and that he needed to get his ass kicked. I wanted to tell her that neither she nor he nor anyone else had the right to push us around, but “Shut up” was going to have to do.
Her mouth hung open, and I could see the family resemblance clearly, though she probably hadn’t had as much food as this kid, being raised in the Depression. She hadn’t been spoiled, so she made sure her grandpiggy was. Also I decided it was time to get back, because she had said “police” and Dad would not have taken kindly to anything involving police. Us three little ragamuffins scurried quietly back to the car, flying under the parental radar. My heartbeat slowed, but I never forgot. It was easier to tell people to fuck off after that.