Roads on Her Face #2 Paper Dolls

The places all run together, mostly, the roads and buildings and signs all merging in my dreams into one patchwork quilt of place. Not the people, though, the faces and voices stand out in my memory like my own personal signposts. I don’t know the name of the town where we picked my dad up from jail in the morning, after some kindly local cop had thrown him in the drunk tank to sober up. I don’t remember where we were when I first went to public school. I remember my friend Jacci, the first real friend I ever had and who I wrote to most of my childhood, from wherever we had roamed. I remember vividly the old woman who lived in a camper out in the desert, not far from our own spot where our trailer was parked and where people mostly didn’t bother us. The woman cut pictures from magazines, mostly those disturbing porcelain dolls that a certain type of woman tends to collect – the type of woman who never had children or who never got over that emptiness when her children left her to begin their own lives. Mom would make me go visit her, and her husband would give me chocolate-covered cherries while she showed me the doll pictures she’d collected that day, and told me in exhaustive detail why she’d chosen each one, and how pretty they were, and if she had a house where it would go. I ate the sickeningly sweet candy and tried not to fidget. Her trailer was dark, fetid, the yellowed curtains pulled tight to block out the glaring Arizona sun. Her husband was scruffy, unwashed but kindly with sharp blue eyes. I don’t remember their faces, just their voices and mainly the pictures of the dolls. I don’t remember their names. They must have been in their 60s or 70s, because I thought they were ancient. I think now she must have thought of me as one of those dolls, with my long braided hair and pink cheeks. Then, I tried my best to escape the visits but the husband would show up knocking with candy for the other kids and Mom would nod at me, and give me the look that meant I should go with him.

He must not have known what to do with her. What do you do with a woman so lost? Do you find her a doll to play with? Do you let her fill your camper with strange images of dolls that she might could have if she didn’t live in the desert, with no one else to see them and no room to display them? Pictures of dolls which are images of children…like looking through two different windows stacked one on top of the other, in front of the thing she really wanted. Was she too afraid to want the real thing? Was it just that it was too late and it hurt too much to think about? I wonder if the two of them were sad. I can’t imagine that they were happy. Did they have children of their own, somewhere, who either didn’t know where they were or didn’t care? Were they running from something, that same unknown something that always seemed to be right behind us, too? I never saw them again, when we left the place we were camped that time. I do remember the place, since we lived there more than once. The desert outside of Vidal Junction, California had miles of Sonoran Desert that were mostly unpatrolled by the Bureau of Land Management. It was free to live there for 14 days, if you got a permit, but we never had a permit. The rangers would find us, eventually, and then we had two more weeks to live in the spot we were parked. Sometimes when that was up, we just drove further out into the desert where we might not be found for months.
I remember the inspection station, where they asked if you were bringing fruit into California if you were coming from the Arizona side. We would have to eat it quickly before we got there.

“Those bastards are going to take our fruit, kids. Eat it or hide it,” Ed would say. I remember the aching feeling I got when we turned off into the desert, knowing we would be in isolation for a long time. Knowing that I would become intimate with the rocks, the creosotes, the secret hidden places I could discover to be away from the rest of my family. A place for some quiet, where I could read. Reading was the only escape. Dolls had never been my thing.

Update: He called himself the Colonel, and he called his wife Bubba.

Roads on Her Face #1 Shots Fired

“Get down, everyone, get down!” Mom was calm, at least outwardly. The baby was calm, looking around with her wise-owl eyes. She had been born to expect things like this.

http://www.allthesky.com/nightscapes/forest2.html
© T. Credner & S. Kohle, AlltheSky.com

The night was still, quiet, scented with the pungent odor of fresh pines and the musty smell from the station wagon’s lived-in interior.Squeezed into a corner of the “bed” that magically appeared by laying the seats back, I could make out the sky if I pressed my face against the plastic siding of the car. The stars peeked through the trees, the sky darkened to the almost-purple of a bruise. My brother moved in the front seat, rustling, getting comfortable. All six of us could sleep in the car, somehow, laid down like sardines in a wheeled can, a feat I marvel out now from my life of king-size beds and life in houses with more rooms than I use. No-one could move, but we were used to that. You pressed your arms down by your side to claim your space, and you were very still. You didn’t want to piss dad off, and for anyone to sleep we all had to be still.

We had pulled off the road somewhere in the forest, between towns and out of the reach of city lights. It was a dirt road, the only good kind to pull off on. Dirt meant it probably wasn’t used that often, it meant cops weren’t cruising and looking for vagrants. You can get lost easily in the trees, behind the brush. I don’t know where we were, other than in the forest. It could have been California somewhere, but more likely was northern Arizona or maybe somewhere in Utah. It was hard to keep track, when the road was where you lived. Places blurred together and the only things that stood out were people. You remembered faces from a place, or a restaurant, or a camp spot where we almost lost the cat. Not so much the names of places, or states. When we were done driving for the day, we stopped, Mom cooked dinner on the Coleman camp stove, and then we went to sleep when the sun went down. There were no lights to read by, there was no TV. No-one called to talk on a phone that wasn’t there. Nighttime was bedtime, or sleeptime since there was also no bed. We let the cat out to hunt, confident that she would appear on the hood of the car in the morning, knowing it was time to hit the road.

I was nearing sleep, my body relaxing, the stars blurring in my vision, when I heard the noise. POP! Zinggggggggg. All of us jerked awake. POP! Zingggggg. The pop was familiar, the zing more like the sound a telephone wire would make if you strummed it. I didn’t recognize it. I was puzzling over this sound, but dad knew what it was immediately. Vietnam and a lifetime around guns had made the sound second-nature to him.

“Goddamit! Some fuck is shooting at us!” He was half-dressed, scrambling for shoes lost somewhere at the back of the car where my youngest brother was hurrying to get out of his way. His tiny bed-space had disintegrated when my father’s feet moved. Dad didn’t have a shirt, but he had his rifle. He got his shoes on, lifted the back door of the wagon, and was gone into the night. We were all awake then, blazingly awake, our eyes glued open.

“Get down, everyone, get down!” Mom was calm, at least outwardly. The baby was calm, looking around with her wise-owl eyes. She had been born to expect things like this. The boys were excited, whispering, both diving to the floorboards in the front of the car. Adventure! Just when they thought they’d been stuck with going to sleep, here was adventure. It often arrived that way, in the middle of the night, the adventure of dad coming home drunk and us figuring out how to stay out of his sight, or the adventure of being on the run, finding a new place because something in dad’s mind had clicked. Something that said it was time to go, no matter if it was midnight. Sometimes it was just time to go.

I flattened on my stomach, Mom pressed beside me with her arms around the baby. We all held our breath. POP! Zinggggg, again. Now, an answering thunder from the 30-ought-6 dad had held in his hands as he slipped into the trees. No zing this time, the bullet was not flying over our heads now. At the time I thought someone really was shooting at us, that someone was after us, but now I imagine the shock on some redneck’s face as he shot randomly into the forest and then heard a zing as a bullet flew over his head. Or did the bullet hit his truck, shattering the windshield? There was a pause, then an excited POP! POP! Zinnnggggg! Zinggg!! Someone was definitely shooting at us now. Boom! Boom! The bigger gun answered, then there was a roar in the distance as a truck started up and sped down the road. Someone had gotten the picture.

Minutes later, panting, Ed arrived shirtless, the gleam of his eyes reflecting the stars, the sweat beading his forehead belying the cool mountain air.

“He got the picture,” he said. “Mary, get our shit, let’s get out of here before he comes back or the cops show up. Let’s go kids, roll up the sleeping bags.” A flurry as we pushed the seats up, arranged ourselves into our traveling formation, got the baby in the car seat. Our few crates of belongings on the top of the car were settled, and before panic could set in the cat was there. She knew. We all knew he would leave her in a second if she wasn’t there on time. I breathed relief, cuddling her in my arms as we coasted out of the forest with our lights off. No-one on the road. It was as empty as it had been when we drove in to find our spot. Huddled together in the back, us kids looked at each other with our wide gleaming eyes and finally breathed.

“Why was that guy shooting at us?” Rowdy whispered, no hint of a stutter when he talked to me, his fuzzy hair sticking up in clumps.

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. Reno grinned from the front seat between mom and dad, sitting back and not moving, not making a sound, not waking the beast. The baby in her car seat was relaxed, watching us, never opening her mouth.

After that, there was a gas station. I remember eating a tiny ice cream cup before bed, such a treat! We never got ice cream! I remember the dark swallowing us up again as the road hummed under the tires. I don’t know where we slept, maybe they drove and we slept on the road. The important thing was that the miles unfurled beneath our tires, marking time between us and them.