Roads on Her Face #33: Nighttime Escape

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.

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Roads on Her Face #26: Animal Instincts

As I listen to my mom pull her story out of herself piece by piece, matter-of-factly but as if it were a struggle, realizations come to me unbidden. She talks about the people my parents would stay with, here and there, everywhere, and for the first time I think that maybe those people didn’t look forward to these visits. For the first time I see my dad as a mooch, as not so self-sufficient, as not so strong. I think about those kind people who helped, and maybe grew tired of helping, and I feel ashamed.

As a kid I thought of our visits to family and friends with excitement, and never thought that we might not be welcome. I never considered that we might need them, that his drinking had left us nothing and that we needed charity or a safe place to rest. We are so oblivious, in our little insulated child-worlds, even when we have seen the straight of things, the ugly, the dirt swept beneath the couch.

My own sense of strength and personal ability, even in the face of the ugly, comes from the deep feeling of self-sufficiency our little family instilled in each of us, whatever false basis it may have had. When you look closely, we were not alone. We were supported by welfare and food stamps, generous churches or “friends,” family who didn’t want to see my parents together but were swayed by the sweet (and dirty) faces of children. My dad could wheel and deal and spin nothing into cash, old cars into new trailers, empty pockets into dinner. We could live in the desert for weeks with no interaction with the outside. But we had crutches too, and I just now am wondering if I am too self-assured with too little reason.

What option was there, really? The road is no place for weaklings. If your skin is not thick enough the judgment of others will hurt. If you cry, they will pounce and devour you. If you put yourself in a situation, you might deserve what comes to you. You must be prepared for every aspect of the human condition, the animal condition too. Killers and thieves walk among us, and the herd must stay close and circle, ever watchful, around the young ones in the center.

Don’t talk to people you don’t know.

Don’t tell anyone anything, ever. Keep your mouth shut.

Don’t believe what they tell you. They’re out to get you, every one of them.

Cops and the government are ripping us off!!

If they ask you questions at school, don’t answer them.

Stay put, don’t whimper, little foxes. The den is the only safe place.

Pussy On Fire

D’Avina was feeing Doritos to the kitten. The kitten looked at her like she was batshit, but she daintily picked them up and crunch, crunch, crunch. The kitten’s face was orange but she was supposed to be grey.

“I always just feed her chips, ya know, like, cuz she like likes them,” D’Avina was twirling her greasy blonde hair vacuously round and round her hot pink manicure. She popped her gum like a champ. I was 9 years old and I knew this one would always be one shat short of a full pantsload. She must have been about 20, which seemed pretty old to me to be feeding chips to cats. I mean, I’d never had a cat but I was pretty sure I’d seen cat food at the store and it wasn’t in the same aisle as the chips.
Kitty Kitty finished her dinner and came to sit in my lap. She was a pretty smart kitty. I petted her and she purred and went to sleep. She had a tiny perfect face like a stuffed cat I’d had a few years back. That was before my brother had used it in the reenactment of a fiery car crash he’d seen on Dukes of Hazzard. (Not the General Lee, it never burned).

“You like Kitty don’t you sweetie? Well maybe when you’re big like me and you have a big strong man like Darrel he might buy you one for your birthday like Darrel did me. He’s just so sweet.” D’Avina popped her gum and got that faraway look in her eye. Wait, that was already there. Never mind.

Darrel was a big, ugly thug of a truck driver. He wore a belt buckle the size of Texas and had hair like a black fir tree. He wore a plaid shirt most of the time, and he had a mean look in his eye that made me avoid him the way I did my aunt that smelled like throw-up, but only when she was drinking sherry. Her name was Sherry.

“Uh huh,” I said because I’d been taught not to backtalk grown-ups unless I wanted a swift kick. Who wants one of those? All I knew was I hoped I never had a Darrel.

“Oh, there he is now!” D’Avina smiled her sticky lipgloss smile and showed her missing tooth. I always wondered what happened to it. Maybe a cavity.

I took Darrel’s big roaring truck noise outside as my cue to skedaddle. I’d be back that night to see if I could coax Kitty Kitty into coming outside to play with me. I had a ball of hair she might be interested in. My brother wasn’t anymore after I’d tied it to his shoe and told him to run because a spider was chasing him. I had about 3 good days of belly laughs out of that particular game. I still giggle every now and then when I remember the sheer terror in his round bulging eyes as that hair spider stayed exactly 5 inches away from him no matter how fast he ran. Man, I guess I was an asshole at 9.

About 10 pm when it was dark I snuck out of our Airstream trailer and slid through the dark like a ninja in pajamas. Darrel and D’Avina had a fire outside, and before I even got close enough to see them I heard Darrel yelling. He always sounded like a bullhorn, especially after he’d pounded enough Schlitz.
“You fuckin’ lil bitch!” He said, and tossed a beer can into the dark almost on my head. It was close enough to smell the piss-smell of the cheap brew. D’Avina wasn’t smiling now. She was turned mostly away from him and was staring out into the night. She did a lot of staring with those big blue cow-eyes. Kitty Kitty wasn’t into the yelling, I could tell. She cowered under D’Avina’s camp chair. She glared at Darrel like she wanted to kill him. I got to know her well over the next 18 years so I can safely say if she’d had a knife she’d have slit him dickhair to armpit in a second. If that cat had thumbs she would have ruled the world.”You listen to me you little CUNT!” Darrel spit, stumbling toward D’Avina. I didn’t move a muscle. I was good at ninja-ing and the nighttime never scared me. As long as it was dark I was safe.

Kitty Kitty hissed from under the chair, and D’Avina just cowered into a little ball like she knew what was coming. I don’t think she did this time, though, and Darrel snatched Kitty Kitty from under the chair and just chucked her right into the fire. I was already frozen but my breath stopped as she shrieked. She jumped so high she might have been a bird flying off into the night. D’Avina started sobbing and ran into their trailer, slamming the screen door after her, and Darrel took off after her like a drunk raging bull.Kitty Kitty found me in the dark, because cats can see better even than me. She had a couple of burns and no whiskers, but she was mostly ok. She was pissed off, though, and she growled her little growl the whole time as I cradled her in my arms and took her home with me. She slept with me that night, and next day Darrel and D’Avina were goners. They’d packed up and taken off in the night, and nothing could have made me happier. Me and Kitty Kitty always growled at dudes like that, from that point on.

Roads on Her Face #4 Blowtorch

A photo made the email rounds at work today, and in a place where we have weekly safety meetings people laugh, shake their heads. “It was a different time!” they said. Not so long ago, I think, but then again maybe it’s just me. The photo is a grainy one, and it depicts a tiny pigtailed girl perched atop a 100-gallon propane tank. Next to her, her dad leans in with a big grin on his face and a lit cigarette in his mouth.

I thought for a second about why it looked so familiar. Later that night, almost dozing, an image came to me out of the dark of the past. We are living out in the desert somewhere, most likely Arizona because it often was.  It was dark, and Ed was drunk. He’d been tying one on for hours already, and he was at the loud stage accompanied by a slight lack of coordination and a hair trigger. I sat in the dark, watching him, in his chair by the flickering fire. Everyone was quiet, except for him. At his feet was a hunk of twisted metal, rusted by age. He liked to go on walks during the day, accompanied by a handgun of some kind and sometimes one of the kids. The desert we frequented had been used as training grounds for “Old Blood and Guts,” General Patton in the World War II era. We often found rusted spent shells or even live rounds, we found the old milky glass Coke bottles the soldiers had tossed aside, and the tank tracks from their play-wars still scarred the desert. You could see them if you climbed a rise and looked out across the desert. This time, Dad had found a large artillery round of some kind. The kind with fins and a payload, really more a missile than an artillery round.

He crushed the empty beer can and tossed it behind him. He picked the missile up, turning it over in his hands.

“Let’s see if we can light this baby up,” he said. I moved farther back into the darkness, to what I hoped was a safe distance. Mom did her best to ignore him, and the boys huddled close behind Dad’s chair. This was something they wanted front seats for. The pipe-bomb burnt-eyelashes gene runs strong in the male side of the family. In the female side, a little, but mostly our common sense will overrule the need for explosions.

Ed dug around in his crate of tools for a hammer. I must have been 10 or 11, I remember being incredulous but not surprised. I knew my father well. This wouldn’t be the craziest, or stupidest, thing I’d ever seen him do. I wondered if he’d kill himself, and the detached part of me that always seemed to float just above and behind my head tried to find an emotion related to that possibility. Nope, none there. Just a sense of expectancy.

The boys were giggling, shoving each other, eyes big and round and faces shining. Dad being a 10-year-old boy was their favorite kind of dad. This was exactly what they would do with a missile if one ever fell into their grimy little hands.

“Watch out kids, this thing could blow!” Dad tapped the missile lightly below its head. Nothing. A harder swing, and the metal bent. He jumped back, nervous, then shook it off and laughed and smacked it good. The body of the thing detached from its payload, and black powder poured out on the ground.

“All right!” That was what he was hoping for. I let out the breath I hadn’t known I was holding. The boys huddled over the mass. Behind them the flames flickered bright.

“OK boys,” Dad said to his captive audience. “Back up now, I’m going to see if this thing will light.”

His shining eyes matched his sons’. He pulled a burning stick from the fire, dropped it on the powder, and took off like a shot behind the tree. His head and my brothers’ two towheads popped out on opposite sides of the tree, like something from a cartoon. The stick fizzled, and burnt out. “Awwwww!” The men ventured back out to the disappointing missile.

“I know,” Dad said. “Watch this.”

“Ed, be careful.” Mom finally made an appearance. She twisted her hands in front of her, her mouth tight as she looked at her boys. She didn’t dare say too much, not when he had made up his mind already.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m an expert. Don’t worry about it,” he said. He gave her a kiss in passing, and came back from a box under the trailer with a blowtorch. “This is how it’s gonna work.” He directed the boys to pour a line of black powder a little out from the tree, then to pile the rest of it at the end of the powder “fuse.” Eagerly they scooped the powder up in their hands, setting the explosion up exactly as dictated.

I huddled closer to the trailer, hoping its metal shell would protect me from shrapnel if the shit hit the fan. The next thing I saw was the unearthly green of the palo verde tree lit from below by a bright flash of light. There was a brief shhhing sound like tearing fabric or a bottle rocket just before it launched. I saw my dad dancing, dancing near the fire as he swatted the flames from his clothing, maybe from his hair, did I smell the acrid smell of burnt beard? Then, laughter.

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