Roads on Her Face #16: Yellow-Bellied Whip-Dogs

There were people we saw in what passed for regularly. We would be around the same place at around the same time on certain years, and we would be camped next to other wanderers that had a pattern that followed the seasons as ours did. Call it happenstance, or just people being people and needing some kind of routine. One of these families of regulars was the Millers, a bunch of redneck Okies that fit any stereotype you could come up with for Okies. They had thick accents that we thought meant they were dumb, and they were pretty dumb, which we thought meant they were Okies. Not having much to compare them to, we listened to my dad when he said they were all like that. He put them somewhere in the same categorical area as Mexicans. The old Millers, Mr. and Mrs., Dad had met through their son Junebug, a scruffy, skinny guy who always wore trucker hats and had one eye that always looked off to the left, on its own. They had probably run into each other at a bar in Lake Havasu, since there wasn’t one in Vidal Junction. It really was just a junction, with a post office. If you took the first 95 south from Needles, instead of crossing the river into Arizona and taking the 95 that led to Lake Havasu, you’d be driving through empty desert for miles on an old highway crisscrossed with repair lines and bleached dove-grey by the summers. When you hit 62, you’re there. 62 takes you right on into Parker by way of Earp. Parker was our “town” when we lived in Vidal Junction, the place we went into to get groceries. The food stamp check would come General Delivery to the Vidal post office, and then it would be time for a trip of such bounty that we could barely think about it without getting shivers of joy. We’d load up on books at the Parker library, and food that would last for weeks. We might get ice cream which had to be eaten right away, and maybe real store milk instead of the thin excuse for milk, powdered milk, that Mom bought because it kept without a refrigerator. We would be away from Dad for a whole day, a day where we were all lighter and freer than any other time. We didn’t have to worry about laughing too loud, giving him a headache, or talking to strangers. Mom smiled more, too, when we went to town, and all of us loved to see her smile. She even had a friend in Parker, Jacci’s mom, who was also homeschooling her kids and who provided a welcome refuge when Mom was able to get away from the desert for the day.

Mrs. Miller had a particular way of talking, a combination of a gasp and her Oklahoma accent, and she would cut off the ends of words in a way that made mocking her particularly fun. Blythe wasn’t too far, and sometimes Dad would make a trip to the Blythe swampmeets from Vidal. Mrs. Miller called it “Blyyyyy..” and so did we. “Is Dad going to Blyyyyyy today?” we’d croak, laughing, and Mom would say it back “Blyyyyyyy” with her tongue sticking out and her upside-down smile.

Once, we ran into the Millers in a parking lot outside of Lake Havasu. We were each spending the night there on our way to other places. Dad came back from visiting with them late into the night, his breath smelling of their beer and a twisted smile on his face.

“You shoulda heard her, Mary,” he said, laughing. “I guess Mr. left Mrs. sometime this year, but he’s back now. They were sitting around telling the story to me, him glaring at her over his beer. She just looked straight at him, and said ‘Yeah, he left, but he come crawlin’ back like a yella-belly whip-dog.’ A yellow-bellied whipped dog!” Dad laughed and laughed, and of course we laughed too. It was one of those phrases that stuck deep in our family vocabulary.

We were living in Vidal when Dad traded something at the Bly swapmeet, probably a gun, for a four-seater dune buggy with an American eagle on the roof and an engine that was failing rapidly. It broke down far out in the desert often enough that it stopped being fun and Dad traded on up for an old station wagon. It was mom’s car, and that was good that she had one, but it was bad because it meant we could always leave in it and our trailer could be traded away. I got nervous when things started to trade hands, hoping that our world wouldn’t be reduced in size yet again.

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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.