On the I
[ fiction - may 07 ]
At a trade area behind the pumps, she mills around one of the horse trailers. Its back doors are open wide, framing two freckled redheads in cut-offs and halter-tops, their faces flushed from the heat. Empty banana boxes are piled up behind them like clouds ready to rain, and below on a couple frayed blue tarps stretch today's wares. A longhair in a dirty white seed cap hands them some cash for a little Sawzall, then lugs it back to an F-250 crammed with a savings account of copper pipe. He unlocks the truck box and stashes his newfound helper in with a collection of firearms.
Beyond are more horse trailers bursting with junk and pickups toting furniture, tanks of propane and crushed aluminum cans, even poultry stacked four high in box cages. At the opposite side of the lot, a dusty tangle of blackberry bushes creeps in on the hot asphalt where eighteen wheelers idle for breath and two cinderblock outhouses take in a steady stream of visitors. Horses? A gorgeous white stallion gallops across a billboard, kicking up a spray of snow, and four Clydesdales endorse their favorite beer on the sweaty peaks of tits. Other than that, no, no horses. And no kids, except for my little hitchhiker, who's discovered a pile of jeans for sale. Like she might discover some forgotten green, she folds and unfolds each pair, my heart turning somersaults at the thought of her taking a ride from someone else.
From Sac-North to Shasta, she stared at me through tiger-striped sunglasses, her short hair light and dancing with the wind. The s-curve of holes in her ears were completely stripped bare, and her cracked lips made it look like she'd been waiting by the on-ramp all morning. But what had she done before that? And where had the arrogant expression come from? What a joke, looking down her nose at me, while paperclips held together the broken hinges of her shades. She sat like a child queen, and from under the dress that looked more like a man's shirt, her long legs stuck up bare in the front seat next to me. They opened and closed, opened and closed, two careless knees tapping together with the melody of her story. She was sixteen and a half, headed nowhere and a Cat. "You can believe me or not!" she said.
Few would have stopped for Marynel, and the ones that had might have pulled onto the shoulder right then and there and told her to beat it. "You're not getting me mixed up with no god-damned detention center!" they'd curse. Giving a ride to a runaway could get you in trouble, or at the least, a warrant search. My foot eased off the gas, but with semis front and rear there was no stopping. Nothing to do but enjoy her awhile. "I'm so scared, Kitty-Kitty!"
Marynel surprised me with a grownup's tired laugh. Stretching her arm out the window and wrestling the hard current with a cupped hand, she said, "You don't believe me." She sat still for a while, but the great Cat fantasy kept oozing out of her very being: How she'd claw me for little more than a pair of soft leather mittens, red, green or goldfish-style, and she reached out her thin arm, sleeve rolled past her elbow, flexing bent up fingers in front of my nose as if she were springing and retracting claws.
When a sign for Wendy's came into view, she wrinkled her nose. What she wanted was an icy syrup, an amber nectar in real crystal glass, like fresh cut chrysanthemums, a bed full of them! Dramatically, she began undoing her buttons, first showing me a knobby shoulder, then a tiny breast. When she got to her panties, she teased, "But first, try some of my catnip." From under the elastic, she pulled a little mouse-shaped toy that tinkled when she shook it. "Show your teeth, everybody has them!"
From the East came a flock of herons then, enormous, exotic, white and graceful. They worked the air in slow wing beats, slower than seemed possible. As they neared the mirror of the marsh water, they and their bright reflections seemed to touch over and over like the hands of shy lovers. Suddenly, their great wings caught the air like parachutes, their long, trailing legs splayed forward, and each bird transformed from a majestic angel to a clumsy marionette, heavy enough to land with an awkward splash. Marynel said to herself, "It's like salt when you've had too much sugar." The way she stared at them made it clear that her talk wasn't for me. Wasn't for anybody but herself.
"What do you know about us?" she asked, suddenly turning on me.
"What do you know about Cats, driver?" she snapped.
"I ask the questions!" she snapped foolishly. When my loud laugh boomed off the windshield, she screamed, "Don't laugh at me!"
As she grabbed for the little pack at her feet, my hand swung across the seat and caught her shoulder. "For God's sake, re-laaaax, Hon." Her thin body shook with a seriousness that scared me, but you can't ever let kids know you're scared. "So you're good and mad! Nothing wrong with that. We all get that way sometimes."
"What way?" she half-pouted, half-dared me to answer.
"Selfish. Greedy. Well, that's their curse, isn't it? To Hell with them. You can't be like that, so why try? One day you'll wake up and realize you don't even want to be." My words were drowned out by a quickbird shrieking loud overhead. They shoot across the sky day and night, shaking up your insides, slicing through your nerves, and sometimes they light up pictures: How you were once attached and roads wound to a goal, not round and round like a drain. The wall you know damn well is there, just dares you to hit it. That's when your stomach goes off.
"You want to know about Cats? That's Cats!" I shouted, eyes shooting up to the torn roof of my estate. "Arrogance, ease, entitlement and heaven! Table to table the audacious felines jump, while all of us down here crawl along on the I with little hope of anything better."
Blowing up probably did us both some good, but silence followed for a long while. Slowly though, word by word, she worked herself up again. This time her love of all things Cat became a loathing for the privileged and a desperate need not to need it. Oh, that life was just baggage to her, she confided with a flick of her wrist. That world was nothing but jealous rivalry and a prison, "a fucking hateful prison!" she hissed, then rocked forward like she was going to cough up a hairball.
Leaning her elbow on the dash and slowly pulling down her shades with a stiff middle finger, her watery green eyes looked long at me. Dropping the Cat-and-Mouse game, she spoke with a new earnestness, "We're all surrounded by a storm, Lockye. Inside or out, it doesn't matter where you're born or what cards you hold. We're from opposite sides, you and me, but we both see it right." Then her voice got loud again as if she wanted everyone in sight to hear. "What is freedom, anyhow, but to holler your head off with no result, to fail and let fail, to experience aimlessness and routine like a waterfall, to sleep when you get tired, bedding down on a ribbon of go-go-go in real dirt that runs deep?" She drew her eyes back to me and grabbed the wheel growling, "sleeping on a ribbon and waking up with wolves."
"No, no," she stuttered, instantly letting go, looking horrified.
From Arbuckle to Williams she sat red-faced, but as the road turned straight north, she tried a third time to make herself different so the line between us would seem like something to cross. Like a man who boasts of having killed, she began bragging of pranks that proved her independence and cheap transgressions that nevertheless kept her going. Pausing to fish something from her bag, she surfaced with an inch-long ampul which she held like a jewel over the dash in front of me.
"It's mercaptan. The chemical they add to gas to make it smell. Works way better than stink bombs. Why use a gun when you can get this just as easy? You'll see. We'll use it later," she promised, returning the glass capsule carefully to its place. By then, she was completely caught up in herself, reliving the goose bumps of her escape. She even pulled a knife and waved its point around to emphasize the risks she'd taken. How many nights had she rehearsed her one-way journey out from the island?
"You mean Juvie."
"Juvie!?" she stopped dead, then exploded, laying the knife next to her and doubling over in hysterics. Laughing, she appeared so likeable, but just as fast, she discarded the whimsical smile, folded her knife, and slid it against my ribs, saying, "Instincts can be revived, Lockye."
"What about horses? Can they be revived?"
"Horses?" she said, caught off guard. "Yeah, they run in circles all day long where the Cats play. Don't worry. I'll show you." She wanted me to believe her, believe that she could take me there, wanted to take me, and it was an offer hard to resist, because when lines turn liquid, beauty rains down on our ugliness.
But she wasn't different. She couldn't offer me anything but more trouble. Cutting through Willows, all her pretensions and self-absorption finally ruined my attraction, that and the sky cop clocking us from overhead. "Raise yourself above me, but who's the joke on? Just watch what you say, Marynel, or someone'll do something to you, you won't much like." She got the message, stopped her flirting and quietly slid to her side of the bench seat. "Settle down and play a game," was my advice. Marynel flashed me a look but reluctantly reached into the box for a handset. After slamming her seat back and putting her dirty sneakers on the dash, my dreamer floated away into the roof screen and took her disappointment out on fuzzy flashing priests and cops.
Explosions and gunfire articulated her pretend war, guitars screamed off my edge, and seventy-five mile-an-hour winds scraped through the missing windows, numbing both our skins. The sun had risen huge, red, and ready for combat this morning. Was it worse than yesterday? Then it came back to me like a dream: the morning's eerie light, swirling dark red around shrub, truck, sign and building as if a tiny fire were in each molecule of air. Our world vibrated in a dot matrix of burning ash and not one shadow touched down.
Rushing traffic and the sound of wind hadn't gone away. I had. The music was played out, my hitchhiker had dozed off, and the enemies above her hovered in sleep mode. Stretching my arm to switch off the game, my hand touched hers. She was cool and smooth, and it was impossible to ignore that our colors were many shades apart. My hand stayed with hers long enough to feel something small and hard right there under the surface of her skin.
Just then my truck rocked like a rowboat as a beat-up Chevy compact, overloaded with people and dogs, shot up the fast lane doing a hundred and ten. Later we passed it pulled off the road, one of the passengers, doubled over, stuff coming up from his stomach in blasts. Not far beyond that in the median strip lay three dead cows, bloated, legs stiff.
Dotting our trajectory on both sides of the I, were men tending gardens. Little plots bordered by pieces of fence, dead tires, old fenders or mangled car doors, and almost always in the middle stood their lean-tos, constructed of what looked like simply rope and pieces of cargo tarp. Going by so fast, the desperate homesteaders looked frozen in time, hunched over, pawing at the soil, oblivious of law, fed up with the rushing the rest of us can't seem to stop. Who are they? Why doesn't anybody run them off? Are they crazy?
A big rig pushing eighty inched its nose past me. A plain black and white bumper sticker smaller than a rolled up newspaper might have grumbled ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE, but hundreds of them plastered the guy's entire cab and sleeper, affixed in overlapping patterns not unlike the rags of a mummy. Our relative speeds were so in synch that his 12-foot wall of "roads to nowheres" lingered almost motionless within a few feet of my elbow, creating a momentary eclipse. The coolness of his shadow was godly and my foot would have kept us hiding right there beside him had the tanker in front been going faster. But it's impossible for two anythings to cruise the same speed forever.
Coming into the heat again, Marynel's sleepy voice asked, "Que hora es?"
Now, taking my attention off her to pick through a box of games, she suddenly disappears, and both redheads lock their dead blue eyes on me. They talk in whispers, too soft for me to defend myself, if that's what they're doing, raising suspicions about me and the girl.
Finally, the one with long beaded earrings calls, "Don't see what you're lookin' for? We got more stuff packed up inside."
"Lookin' for that crazy kid of mine. Short hair, long white shirt. She was going through your jeans a little while ago. Did you see where in Hell she ran off to?"
"That your kid?" the other asks.
"Yeah," is my lie, putting the box down, trying to laugh. "Looks like her dad."
Both women eyeball each other, then turn their stares my way. Would they drop a dime on me for harboring a minor?
"Have a smoke!" is my best attempt at diplomacy, and damn! Like children reaching up for candy, they both stretch out their painted fingers. After taking a few long drags, the more gregarious of the two starts up, "You don't think we know, but we do. Yeah," she exhales loudly. "It's getting harder and harder. My sister's boys are all overseas, but mine," and she stops to take another drag. "Mine's locked up."
"Vera!" the other says under her breath.
"Why not tell it?" she complains with a cloud of smoke. "Are we supposed to be ashamed or something? Everybody's kids're in detention these days! It's like some kind of conspiracy. Both of John's girls and one of Lizabeth's, Todd Small, that boy who used to date Erin, Madeline's kid who had seemed so good, and Danny, Ted's boy."
"Danny ain't in detention."
"He is." And they whisper angrily. Then she remembers me and raises her cigarette, "Honest to God, there was no controlling that girl. She got herself doped up on all kinds of things. Things even new to me," she laughs, showing a missing front tooth. "But cutting herself? That's a no-no. Then she got hold of a gun. Musta stold it. Her behavior got so damned scary that we just had to turn her in." The woman stops. "My name's Vera, and this is my sister Willie," she says extending a hand to me.
"Lockye. That's an unusual name. Spare another cigarette?" Taking it from my pack, she lights it off the old one, which she tosses away with a snap of her wrist, then continues, "They got her now so she can sit down and have a normal conversation when we visit." She pauses when we all notice Marynel slinking out from behind the outhouse with some guy. "Uh-oh, looks like trouble!" she half laughs.
"Better get that girl." And, "God bless," is what they probably want to hear, so why not say it.
Marynel plants a big smacker on the guy's mouth, then power-walks straight toward my Dodge. She's wearing a pair of jeans.
"How'd you get those?" is my stop-right-there question.
She turns, smiles, pulls up the tail of her shirt, which until now was her only visible protection, and shows me the empty hole in her bellybutton.
"Another ring? What happens when you run out?"
She steps so close that our breasts touch. Standing a little taller than me, she looks down into my eyes as she unhooks the keys from my belt loop, whispering, "Cats take what they want," then opens the driver's side door and gets in. Right in front of my eyes, the door slams, the car starts, my heart jumps.
But we both know you've got to keep moving. It's all around us the aimless wandering. Some people call it adventure, some, avoidance, but when your clothes are on fire it's hard to remember to drop and roll. Everything is crunched by the desire to get away. You can see it in the horse trailers that aren't hauling horses and the pickups full of mattresses stacked like a fallen house of cards.
My eyes, so used to staring straight ahead at the road, computing distance, speed, flares, are now free to look, just look, and they take in Marynel, peaceful at the wheel. The line of her nose and bulge of her forehead appear almost black against the huge red ball playing on the western mountains. All day the sun's rays have whipped me faster and faster. Now, as the pressure of today turns to go, the smoldering giant hurls its last brilliance upon Earth, dark red and everywhere. Truckers shift into high, the uprooted disappear like birds at dusk, and our desolate landscape suddenly glows like Venus, gloved in its beautiful carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid clouds.