The road unfurls at 80 miles per hour (don’t lie, 90) across west Texas. The stars begin to fall, one after another, and the half-eaten moon hangs low and sullen, yellow as government cheese.
After Marfa and the 100 potholes on U.S. 90 beating my tires to death I can see the vivid flashes of lightning in the belly of a massive beast of a storm ahead over Van Horn, billowing unfettered into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. In the inky velveteen blackness I fly past the Prada store and its ironic greenish light stretching toward the empty highway. Consumerism, duly mocked.
I’ve been at a writer’s retreat in the Big Bend area this week…here’s a little something I worked on as an assignment.
The assignment was to write a non-fiction scene, in the style of a journalism long-form story. This was chosen as a stand out piece of writing to be presented to all attendees and instructors at a reading at the close of the retreat.
Freddy drops a quarter into the parking meter in front of the TV, turns the knob and you can hear it drop and clink with its fellows. The meter is an old-style one with a little gold plate that says “Police Officers Will Not Turn the Knob,” meaning maybe that it was from the day when actual cops had anything to do with parking tickets and people expected that cops should be there to help instead of hinder. The flag inside the glass bulb drops, and Freddy has two hours.
“It’s for Cowboys games, when he tries to come in here and camp out all day,” Harry said in his thick German accent, rolling his eyes. “Nobody wants to hear him going off like that; at least he can pay for it if we have to.” He grins toward Freddy, and you can tell it’s a subject that’s come up through the years over and over. Like the same long Texas evening, like when you step inside this place with the cow bones all over the porch roof, the same day just keeps replaying. Where the fun never stops.
It’s hot and sticky inside even with the swamp cooler and all of the fans blowing at once, kind of like sitting inside someone’s beer-scented mouth while they’re panting and sighing. Outside, a few locals are strumming guitars and a mandolin, taking turns singing and passing the same couple of women around. One has tattoos above her lady business, and cut off shorts and tube top to make sure you can see them – the other wears sweats and no makeup, with tough eyebrows like the cholas I knew in high school. She doesn’t smile.
“It’s 3 to one men to women out here,” the cute brown-skinned female bartender smiles. “I just stopped dating when I moved to Alpine for school.” She flips her short dark bob as she turns to serve another icy Lone Star – (Estrella Sola! The man she’s serving asks her, and she looks at him like he’s asking for Courvoisier. He explains it means the same thing as what she’d been handing him all night, just only in Spanish this time) – Harry leans in and says she does hav e a boyfriend who she doesn’t call her boyfriend. She disappears a little later with the non-boyfriend. 3 to one odds you’ll end up with one of those out here, I figure.
The guy with the gas pipeline company has been kicked out at least once today, but he comes back in and buys the whole bar a round, so they let him stay this time. He’s good and drunk, having a hard time focusing on anything and sweating all the way through his Stetson. He has small eyes, fat pink lips and I don’t like him, partly because he stands with his sweaty arm against me when there’s a whole bar to his left, partly because I’ve heard him talk about the female bartender who threw him out, repeatedly calling her a bitch and whining to anyone he buys a beer for that “she hates me.” I figure she knows him well enough to judge, since Freddy and Harry both say he’s a good guy. You can’t trust what they say, since they’re drinking the beers he just bought. Miller High Life and Natural Light, respectively.
“I raise pheasants, and let ‘em go out here,” says Freddy conversationally. “I just let 20 go in Ft. Davis. I put an ad in the paper in up there to let people know not to shoot them ‘til December. I want to reintroduce them to this part of Texas. Gotta keep the rednecks and Mexicans from shooting them all, though! At least for a while, give ‘em time to breed,” he laughs, rubbing his big belly. “I put the ad in Spanish and English.” He’s Hispanic – about 45, greying, with the body of a long-haul truck driver. He says he’s not bitter about his wife leaving him with their two daughters. But that was 12 years ago and he hasn’t dated much.
“Freddy’s probably the smartest guy in town, even though it doesn’t seem like it,” Harry says to me, keeping up his revelatory side conversation. “He’s just acting dumb.” I’m not sure why Harry’s giving me the inside scoop, maybe to set himself up as the guy who knows everything about everyone. If I lived here, I don’t think I’d tell Harry anything unless I had a reason for piping information into the gossip mill. Just like when someone tells you “Don’t trust so-and-so,” I make it a rule never to trust the speaker of those words.
Scott the pipeline guy oozes back inside to lean against a bar stool next to mine – too much cologne, undertone of sweat, liquor and ready-to-hump. “It’s so dang hot! I can’t stand it,” he complains, trying to get someone to talk to him. He pulls out his phone and sloppily tries to text. I glimpse the screen and two words in his conversation before he makes a “How Dare You” face and slaps it against his chest so I can’t see it. He pouts his lips, playing coy, like, I can’t believe you peeked!
“She fucks,” the text says. Over the bar, a sign says “We Don’t Rent Pigs.”
My name is Mary Ramsey….Roethle.
Why the pause in your name?
Chuckles. I wanted to make sure Ramsey got in there cuz that’s really who I am. Roethle is you guys’ name.
Why did you take that name?
Cuz I wanted to have the same name you guys had.
Did you ever legally take that name?
Uhh..no. Not really. Kind of. Laughs. Right after I met your dad and he wanted to get married…we just kind of had our own little ceremony. So I took my Ramsey driver’s license…we were living in Prescott, Arizona. And.I was young, and I was….pretty and there was a man in there that was the DMV officer, and I told him that I had just gotten married and I wanted to get a new driver’s license. And he didn’t ask to see any proof. Laughs.
What year was this, do you think?
Let’s see…met your dad in 78. It was probably around 1980 maybe.
So what was your ceremony like?
Laughs. We were in Las Vegas. We were standing out in front of Circus Circus hotel, just out in front there. And we said a little ceremony to each other, and that was it.
I always hated Circus Circus.
It was a creepy place.
Why did you decide to get married?
Because I loved your dad. I was in love with him. And I was perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life with him. So I thought. At the time.
Things change, huh?
So how old were you, and how old was he?
I met him when I was 20, I was just getting ready to turn 21. And he was 28 or 29.
You guys were young. That’s a lot of years together.
Describing the drive across the Nevada emptiness – something you feel more than think. The comparative busyness of Arizona with its big highways and changeable scenery starts to fade east of Vegas. The bones of the land rise stealthily, underground stone serpents slithering just out of reach of your notice. The shadows become more blue, the sage and scrub brush more pervasive. There are no more trees, as if their entire race was obliterated here. Wait, no, a lonely pair of young cottonwoods have been planted as the wilting guards on either side of the burnt gash of a road leading to the blood-reds and pus-yellows of yet another strip mine. The earth bleeds and cries freely here and there is nothing and no one to comfort her. When there is an end-time, it will mirror this and we can say we saw the portents. Clouds stay high above the flatland, streaming down from a mile overhead, sometimes the rain reaches the ground to be blown violently across the road and fill the washes. The old-timer at the Hard Luck Store in Mina called these “gullywashers.” “We don’t want it to rain too much, not now,” he responded to my “But isn’t this nice?” His bleary blue eyes rolled over me to glare out at the thin freshly-washed strip of blacktop.
The smell of the rain is the smell of the dusty breath of the sagebrush, held for months in anticipation of this brief half-assed blessing. The colors and the light are like nowhere else. It’s as if, in death, the land deserves this heavenly illumination. As if the sky feels sorry for the stones it exposed, and drenches them in forgiving saturated color. If there is a place for the hills to have eyes, it is here. You can feel them on you all the time. You just hope the engine keeps running, and the air conditioner doesn’t give up.
We just got invited to a shotgun wedding in the park. She’s about 9 months along, 16 or 17 at the most. I say hell yeah!
Wow, a whole year working on this project! That’s a record for me, and it means there’s something here. I’ve started and let go of a couple of blogs, mostly because they didn’t feel right. I’m not a travel writer, I just love to travel. I only write erotica because it’s easy to publish. My heart wasn’t in those stories because this is the story I’m supposed to be writing now. Finally- it’s been getting in the way of my other projects for so long.
It’s as if we have to get our story out first, our real story, before we can write the made-up stories or the parts of our real stories that turn into fiction. It’s like a small insistent voice at the back of my mind that I was never quite ready to tackle. “Here I am,” it whispers. “Time to tell, time to tell.” Is it like that for you, other writers? Do you have to get things out before other things can start? I’m interested to hear from you.
I am finally ready.
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.