Roads on Her Face #34: Valentine’s Needles

Needles. Before we were there without Dad, it had been a place of howling wind and desolate desert days camped far outside of what town exists there. It was a sentence, a penance, and for extra pain we were often in Needles during the Santa Ana winds in the fall. That time of year is like Iraq with fewer bombings, the heat so dry that your face felt like it was peeling off in one long strip of dust mask. The sand would sting your skin if you ventured outside, but it was too hot to be inside the natural oven of a metal trailer. It meant suffering was inevitable. If there had been a hole to crawl into, I would have been there with the clever snakes.

We had left Dad farther north, where it was cold enough at night that he told us later for sympathy that he had burned the stock of his carbine rifle for warmth (I wondered, Why didn’t your drunk ass look for firewood?). It was fall again, and we headed for Needles because Mom didn’t have any other plans. She called her southern belle mother and asked her for money, using the ace-in-the hole “I left him, mama. We’re through.” The great joy Granny felt resulted in more cash than we had ever seen at once, and consequently our pretty blemish-free Airstream.

This finally felt like what I imagined real life must feel like. We would walk to school from the trailer park with the other trailer trash kids in the morning sunshine, like normal kids are supposed to do. We had bookbags, and running water at home. Mom was smiling more often. Life was beautiful.

We had come from the wilderness like a lost tribe, wondering at civilization. Here there were people, there were wide streets and lights at nighttime with the flick of a switch. We got a TV and VCR and watched rented movies. It felt posh, pampered, summertime and the living was so easy. We didn’t have a shower, but Karl was hot for Mom and we used his shower weekly. The in-between days were spongebath days.

Shyness in my case was only the result of limited interactions with people, especially boys who were not my brothers. A garrulous social butterfly was fluttering about my insides, unsure how to escape from the quiet me-caterpillar. I set my sights on a boy that I didn’t plan to talk to, just admire. My first memory of liking the softer, gentler boys– as far away from my father’s anger and harshness as I could get– was Stephen with a “ph.” He was slower than most at reading aloud, his written letters more painfully formed. When the teacher was impatient with him, if she asked him why he wasn’t on the right page, Stephen would cry publicly, right there in class. My heart went out to this gentle boy who never said a mean word to anyone. He was pretty, almost like a girl, with long thick lashes and soft camel-colored hair. I liked the most feminine boy because I had never seen one up close. He was different. I knew that he must be nice, that if we spent time together I might even fall in love. Valentine’s Day came, and as it was before the fateful day when some bureaucrat decided that no child should feel left out and we should do away with activities that could cause a girl to feel left out, or a boy to know he was not as popular as the jocks, we gave each other Valentine’s Day cards. Everyone was to place their cards in handmade heart-shaped mailboxes that we made from colored paper and cardboard and hung at the front of our desks. I bought one box of pre-made cards and carefully selected all of the students I would give one to. I was gratified to see the stack of cards in my box the next day, after we had all sneaked back into the classroom after lunch and delivered our mail. I looked at each cartoon cat with hearts and silly elephant with flowers, reading who they came from and feeling popular and liked. At the bottom, I found Stephen’s card to me. With his pencil he had painfully and painstakingly drawn two penciled hearts under my name, pressing so hard that they showed through on the other side of the cardstock. I glanced at him, and he blushed and looked away. That was enough for me.

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Roads on Her Face #30: And There Were Four

First there was me, brought forth in the Lake Havasu City hospital with my mom there all alone while Dad cleaned the bus from top to bottom. Mom said it smelled like bleach and Pine Sol and that not a trace of dust could be found. I like to imagine him worrying, waiting, with no phone and no way for anyone to contact him – for him that was a loving statement and it made Mom smile. But that mental picture is always erased by the one of my mother having a baby alone, with nurses whom she said looked at her like she was trash. Great, another woman here to have a baby for free, great, a homeless little hussy who will go straight out and sign up for welfare. I didn’t know the whole story until recently, now that Mom and I have gotten to that point in the interviewing process. A doctor with liquor on his breath pulled me out with forceps and tore her tender skin. The next day they wheeled her outside and Dad pulled up in the bus and loaded us in, and off we went toward California.

Rowdy came next, in a hospital in Needles three years later. He was a hideous baby, a little gremlin. I was happy to have a brother and annoyed by his extreme attachment to me. Reno arrived about two and a half years later, at the same Needles hospital, a squalling red-faced ruffian who could turn in a second to a sweet huggy little guy (he’s still exactly the same). I haven’t yet asked Mom if they planned where she would have the babies, but I imagine they did. Finally, 8 years after me came Sophie, at home in our trailer park in Barstow. All little dead towns in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve always been glad to be the sole Arizonan. I feel at home with the people, the desert, the little outpost towns. I can see myself settling there when I’m old, becoming a snowbird.

We’re not as close now as we used to be, spread geographically apart and not in touch with the others’ daily lives. I know many families lament that spreading, but there’s no way to prevent it unless you all live on a couple of blocks of property right next to each other the way many of my dad’s family members still do. Three of those siblings have even settled on a piece of land with their partners, retiring together. I want to start a compound and have my family build their own houses near mine. I know our relationships would be different now, less bickering and more understanding. I’m sure we’d still throw down occasionally but that is the way family operates.

We had a complicated hierarchy in those traveling years, with me at the top because of birth order and the forced caretaker role I often had to take. It wasn’t fun, because as a sibling you don’t get the respect or thanks a parent gets but are still trying to enforce the same rules. It’s an ugly place to put a child. That meant I was most often a tyrant, still feeling the competition that thrummed between us like a guitar string, still not mature enough to step back and let things be. Always a control freak, sometimes a bitch. Rowdy and Reno were gunning for the second spot, depending on who was getting along at the time, or sometimes teaming up when I wasn’t allied with either of them. Sophie got the shortest stick, the youngest and the easy one to pick on. Though she was so much younger than I, age mattered less because we were our only friends and playmates. I taught her to tie her shoes and the ABCs, and also to hate me. I talk to her now the most often, maybe because we are the females and have that communication chromosome.

But then, there were the times when it was us against the world. No one else knew what our lives were like, the things we’d seen. All of our jokes were inside jokes. We all have the same dry sarcastic sense of humor, and when we get together we laugh until our heads might explode. Mom will laugh so hard the tears flow freely, tears of happiness and gratefulness for her family. If nothing else, from those 18 long years with Ed, she prizes the results of their union and we would collapse without her.

Roads on Her Face #12: Rowly’s Hurt!

Karl’s mobile home had a peculiar odor, of damp carpets scented with week-old macaroni and cheese, partially caused by the swamp cooler exhaling dank breaths into his dark trailer and partially caused by actual macaroni and cheese. It was an older trailer, with deep shag carpets made especially for smell retention. Whoever had it before Karl had been a smoker and the yellowed drapes and wood paneling both smelled of the ghost of smoke. But Karl had a shower, so Mom made it a point to be friends with him. I have a feeling he couldn’t believe his luck. We’d left Dad next to a smoking campfire somewhere in northern Arizona, with his SKS rifle and a bag of clothes. He’d told us to go ahead and leave him, get the fuck out. So we had. It was the first time we had really left him for longer than a day or two.

Already I was feeling the faint sense of escape, of hope. Mom had called Granny and told her we’d finally left Ed, and Granny was so relieved she loaned her the money to buy a trailer. A retired Canadian couple who were done with the open road sadly sold Mom their Airstream for $6,000. They were happy to be giving us a home, but they had cared for their trailer well and you could tell they had filled it with love. The man had cut little desert shapes from pieces of plywood and used it to decorate the overhead bins, the Airstream bins built like the ones over your seat in an airplane. The cactus was a little off, and the coyote was out of proportion, but he had spent time on his artwork and we never took them down. When the check came in the mail, Mom let each of us hold it. We looked at all the zeros after the dollar sign and held the paper reverently, knowing we would never see such a sight again.

In less than a month, Mom had gotten us a home, moved us into a trailer park in Needles, California, and enrolled Rowdy and me in public school. She stayed home with the two little ones, but she was looking for a job to augment the government support. We had lived in a car for long enough, with all six of us, and the freedom of the space in the trailer to stretch out at night, the electricity that gave us fans to use in the heat, all of it was almost too much. I was afraid to enjoy it, afraid every minute that it would all be snatched away and Dad would be back and sell it all and take us into the middle of nowhere again. I developed a Dad-crush on my 6th grade teacher, in the school that I could walk to from where we lived. We lived somewhere! I was going to school! At that age all I wanted was to be normal, to have friends, to stay in one place long enough to finish a whole grade. I knew we were not normal, and then there was everyone else. People with homes, and normal families, and parents with jobs, and kids with their own rooms. That was my biggest dream, a room where I could close the door and not have to smell my brothers’ farts and where I could hang my drawings on the wall. Where I might have a quiet place to read, and to write.

My homeroom teacher, Mr. Kincaid, was so kind, and he talked to us like we were human instead of bugs bothering him, the way conversations with Dad had gotten to be. Dad must have been itching to get away from us, the responsibility and the daily nagging concerns of this big family in this small space crumbling his self-control. It showed in his snappishness, his anger, his escalating drinking. He was accusing Mom of wanting to cheat on him, of wanting other guys, of looking at other people, though she was always with us and he was the one who came home late from the bar or never came home at all, showing up in the morning with red lipstick stains on his collar and laughing when Mom asked him about it.

Mr. Kincaid was smiley, and had a short well-groomed dark beard. He looked like a kind of man I didn’t know, a new kind of man and it was a revelation to see how he treated people. All men were not mean. It didn’t have to not be manly to be kind. Until then I had taken for granted that men were gruff, and hard, and stern, and men did what they wanted when they wanted and didn’t take no shit from nobody. Mr. Kincaid seemed like he might take some shit, and then he might sit you down to talk about it instead of beating your ass with a leather belt. I wasn’t sure that this would work with boys, who everyone knew could get out of control, but I thought it was a novel approach and might work with girls.

I made a friend, too, a strange gawky girl named Annie who was a Mormon and who lived in the trailer park next to ours. They lived in a nice trailer, one that was mounted to the ground and had a patio outside and that didn’t even look like a trailer. It could have been a house. Plus, she had her own room.

All I knew about Mormons was that they had a weird religion, and that there were a lot of them in Utah. I knew they hired retarded people, because we would go through Salt Lake City sometimes and all the stores had people working in them with Down’s syndrome or crippled legs. I knew they were nice, because they gave Dad a job last time we had gone through, and then they let us go into their huge store filled with food and new clothes and we got to pick what we wanted. There were big semi transport trailers outside that said “Deseret Industries” which I thought was fitting. We were from the desert, and they were helping us to start a new life, they said. I think Dad lasted a week there, and my hopes for that new life faded, the way I was used to hope fading. Quick, as if it had never been.

Karl was a strange bird. He might have been in love with Mom, too. I hadn’t noticed how many men loved Mom until Dan in Oregon. Dan had loved Mom so much Theresa and him had broken up. I thought it was strange. I had not paid much attention to the relationship between men and women, knowing I was not attractive and that it would be years before I had to worry about it. I read enough adult literature to know about it secondhand, and had no wish to complicate my life prematurely. But my mother’s attractiveness had escaped my notice. I saw a tired woman who wore no makeup and had worn thrift store clothes like the rest of us. I didn’t see the blonde, birdlike beauty who gave off the scent of “needing protection” though she had powered through life and come out stronger than most of the men who loved her.

One day Rowdy was riding his new-ish bike one-handed, a paper airplane tied on a string trailing next to him in the hot breeze of Needles. He was prone to focus on things to the point of forgetting everything else, even simple things like “Look where you’re going.” He looked up just in time to watch himself crash over the handlebars into a wooden post, the ones that told you what number your space was in the trailer park.

“Rowly!! Rowly! Mary, come quick Rowly is hurt!” We heard Karl howling outside, and Mom rushed out to find her oldest son with blood gushing down the side of his face. It wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst. Karl held his soft hands to the sides of his head, shaking it like a befuddled dog. His long hair and beard were tangled, because he didn’t have a woman to tell him to brush it. Mom could have told him, but that might have been too much like a relationship.

Rowly eventually stopped bleeding, and we didn’t go to the hospital because that cost too much money. Rowdy still remembers this, and will tell the story occasionally. “Mom, remember Rowly’s Hurt?” he will ask. And we will all laugh, and nod, and we will all say “Rowly.”