I lied when I called this story fiction and had it workshopped in grad school. This was my experience (save for a couple details I changed for readability). It was my truth and reflects the emotional space of constant lack I used to occupy.
Purging started during the writing process that began years ago, and for that I’m grateful. Now I’m over it – the need to carry this story in this way. So I’m letting it go by sending it out to you. Ritual is necessary.
After we switched to city buses, I searched the intersection of Boulder City Highway and Sunset, and because it was necessary, literally walked a circle due to three bus stops with the same number. The 402 ran three ways —one bus headed south, one north, and the other shortcut itself through the mountains going a direction hard to decipher. Jacob, my nine-year-old, opted for the latter choice, interested in knowing where it led, and my seven-year-old, Annie, pointed to one of the other stops yet soon changed her mind and stayed her brother’s decision. But that direction made me think of the weary loop of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Las Vegas I wanted out of, and there was no way we were heading back so soon, especially since we had just vibrated east for four and a half hours. Besides, along the way the wind turbines nestled in the dusty mountains seemed to churn a thousand words a minute and I swore they were talking to me, telling me to keep out of bounds.
We waited for the 402 heading towards Arizona. Once it arrived, a man secured his bike onto the rack at the front. He soon took a seat next to Jacob and Annie who sat across the aisle from me, since there wasn’t enough space on my side and I wanted a clear view of the road. He was in his mid-60s and the safari hat and athletic fanny pack strapped to his waist made it seem as if he knew something about the outdoors. Once he noticed our gear – a tent, a couple backpacks, and especially my son’s fishing pole he’d insisted that I purchase from a thrift store – I awaited his comments.
“Going fishing I see,” he said to Jacob. “What’s your name?”
“Jacob. She’s Annie,” he son told him, pointing a thumb towards his sister, and then he looked away.
The man turned to face me. “Where to?”
Right on cue, the hook jingled on its line as if to tell me to pay attention.
Interested in what he might know about the area, I told him. “Boulder City Campground. Lake Mead’s below it.” I had meticulously chosen this campground near the Hoover Dam. It was far enough away, and we’d be “going camping” so the children wouldn’t catch on. We could hide out in the open so I could think about what to do next. I took a deep breath.
Jacob looked at me the way he always does with a little intrigue and a little embarrassment when he’s wondering why I talk to strangers. Annie sat uninterested, tugging on one of her thick, restive ponytails. And the man pondered.
“You know how far that is?” he asked.
“About an hour from here. Then we’ll have to hike down,” I said, because while walking the circle at the intersection I asked around.
At that moment the man’s eyes glazed over. “It’s about seven miles total,” he retorted, with annoyance in his voice. “The first five are on a path. Once you get to the entrance you have to walk another two into the campground.”
I listened politely but knew this already.
The person who sat to my right, a woman, horned in offering “help,” the unsolicited, not real helpful kind that I had learned years ago to detect and tune out in an instant. I tried being polite to her also since she seemed so devastatingly preoccupied with the details of our journey. And I took that opportunity to practice not wearing my thoughts on my face, so it was time well spent. Smile slightly, I told myself. Soften my eyes and nod sometimes so she thinks I’m actually listening.
The woman started in excitedly. “There’s Sunset Lake just a few miles from here where you can fish,” she said, looking at the man for confirmation. At her shoulders, tight black ringlets leapt forward from the jerk of the bus.
“That’s right,” he professed.
She was dividing her attention between me and the man. “The area’s been completely redone,” she continued, “heard it looks good but I haven’t been down there in a while.” She looked to the man again. “Have you been there recently?” Not waiting for a response, she pointed a red lacquered nail in my direction. “People fish there all the time. It’s a pretty big lake and they restock the fish often.”
My eyebrows scrunched when I heard this. Something had always been off-putting about unnatural bodies of water and stocked fish, so I shifted to watch what was flying by outside the window. No matter how much I tried to concentrate on the streets and the gurgling, squeaking, and cracking sounds of the bus, I couldn’t drown out her next question. “You think she’ll need a fishing license?” And I heard the man flatly reply. “You need a fishing license anywhere you try to fish.”
“What about at Mead Lake?” she queried.
“Need one there too.”
“Where do you think she can get it?”
I saw him shrug out the corner of my eye, right before he reluctantly added, “She can get it at the entrance.”
The bottom of the woman’s brown polyester pants swayed as her wide body leaned slightly towards the man which showed she was even more invested than before. She went on. “Is there a faster route she can take to the entrance? Or another part of the lake closer to downtown where they can fish?”
I wanted the conversation to stop and wondered why I’d engaged in the first place, or why I didn’t sit at the far end of the bus. My instinct was to move and I got Jacob and Annie’s attention, wanting them to gather their stuff and get ready. I scanned the back, desperately peering around the heads of other passengers for open seats but my efforts were for nothing. All I could do was try to avoid eye contact.
The man took the lead, grumbling his advice and staring across the aisle at me. “She can just go to Sunset Lake,” he insisted.
A feeling of obligation surged. Help them understand, I thought, but this was futile and if I had of stopped for just a moment, I would’ve realized this. Instead, I quickly responded. “Fishing is a secondary thing,” I blurted out. “If the kids can fish, fine.” My hands waved in front of me as if declaring a quarterback safe in the end zone. “But if not, it’s okay. My main reason,” I emphasized the word main while trying to steady my quavering voice, “for going to the lake is to camp and figure out—” And then I cut myself off, remembering something only I needed to know – in this case, that it was none of their business what I had to do. Besides, I had worked through this already, thought I had learned not to expend energy unnecessarily helping people understand, especially when they probably wouldn’t, and that some people, comparable to these two, might never really know how to listen.
Then the man turned to face the front of the bus, and I was relieved.
But without hesitation, the woman started again. “Should she try getting to the Hacienda Hotel?” she pushed on, turning towards me before the man could answer. “You should try to get to the Hacienda. From there I think it would only be a mile to the lake.” She turned back towards the man who was anxiously unzipping and re-zipping his fanny pack. “Have you rode down there on your bike?” she asked him.
By then I’d noticed his shoes because they were so peculiarly clean on the soles and on the white fabric around the ankles. The N on the sides looked new, every minuscule stitch in its place. I compared his shoes to my shoes, which were rain, heat, and mud beaten. My orange suede Puma sign had long been darkened and slickened from abuse, and the white soles were now a yellow brown. When I put them on, I wiggled my toes, grateful for the tiny ventilation holes on the mesh fabric because many times I’ve gone without socks. His bike probably stays strapped to the front of the bus, I thought. But in this case, I was wrong.
“I’ve been down there,” he said with an arrogant nod. Demonstrating the curves with his hand, he added, “It’s a windy path.”
He continued to glare at me from across the aisle – a slow glare, up my jeans and torso, to my shoulders and eyes where I met his glare back. I knew what he was thinking because lately I’d been susceptible, open, and was learning to trust it. I watched him, noting how his eyes shifted across my body judging, most likely misreading and misinterpreting. He thinks I don’t know enough about what’s near the trail, I thought. Because of how I look – too inexperienced, maybe, too young, so I must also be naïve. I figured he was thinking that we would end up lost or prey to coyotes or other hungry creatures, and that same feeling that surged before did again. This time, I reminded myself that it was not for me to set straight, especially for a man in his 60s who had yet to learn there was no need to go out in the middle of nowhere to find those things.
A man entered and pushed his way through a handful of passengers exiting the bus through the side door, shuffling his way to the back without paying. He brought a foul, sour odor and the man with clean shoes didn’t even see him. At the next stop, Clean Shoes jumped up quickly, adjusted his safari hat, and stood near the money machine. Before exiting the bus, he breathlessly yelled out what I knew he had been thinking all along. I recognized his outburst – his jester, tone, and urgency – as a mirror effect to my outburst earlier. He exuded a fear that occupied me for just a second because looking at him directly in the eyes caused me to take it in. That feeling filled my chest, but as soon as I broke the stare, only to catch a glimpse of his shaking hand in my peripheral vision, the feeling receded and slithered back behind his pale, wrinkled face where it belonged only to him.
And I knew, once again, I wasn’t afraid.
I scribbled my thoughts down in a note pad, as I’d done before. Sober writing. Impressions. The way the rented air in our house felt stifling, the way the potted succulence on the back porch began to shrivel in that damn heat. Hours of sorting and packing only what we could carry in our hands. Challenges of raising children alone, the jobs gone, the depleted funds. Incantations I tried before and deemed useless continued to come to mind. To relieve pain and renew hope: a black candle, Vetivert oil, Amethyst; a white candle, rose quartz. Was it Jasmine or Lotus oil? I couldn’t remember. One ritual at sunset, one at sunrise. One on the night of a full moon, one on the morning of a new moon. Poor the oil. Charge the candle. Visualize.
Sun-wrecked and dirty, I thought by writing the words, the memories raised like a snake at the mercy of a charmer’s flute would disappear. And the heat didn’t help. It seemed to wind up from the core of the earth that day. Translucent waves pervaded the weeping leaves of shoestring acacia and blanketed my face, stifled my breathing, and warmed my eyelids to a feverish degree. When I looked towards the nearby RV parking lot, I swore the asphalt was on fire. The multifarious, cankerous mountains even began to resemble reptilian heads of giant lizards ready to clear the desert of its tiny, tent-clad intruders with one flick of the tongue.
I tried to anchor myself by focusing on the campground – the structure used as a restroom no more than three yards from where we were; metal numbers tacked to posts sectioning off the square lots; spigots and water hoses strategically placed where the corners of four lots met.
My restless daughter stood nearby, overwhelmed by the dirt she perpetually brushed off her jeans, a despairing act. “Can you please walk over there to do that?” I asked her, pointing to a tree. She kept brushing. “Annie,” I called, “go over there.” But she lingered, tugging at her hair and asking about how many days we were staying. I tried to answer without alluding to anything, although I had already answered that question twice before – once when stuffing a backpack with clothes and once on the walk down from the bus stop, and I was starting to think she knew something was going on. Then I ignored her sass and erratic hands when she zipped herself inside the tent, whining about how I kept on saying “we’ll see.”
I looked down then and realized the symbols absentmindedly drawn in the margins of a page, ones I began to draw long before I knew their value: various triangles for the elements, a spiral, a U shape with a small circle on either end which meant to purify. Some things are just innate. I filled two more pages, checking over my shoulder for the Boulder City Campground security, hoping to run a conversation in a circle the way I did my first day there to avoid paying fees, because after buying the fishing pole I was down really low on my dollars. I wrote another page. Automatic.
Jacob folded paper airplanes with a pudgy, blond-haired, choleric child with unsteady feet who stayed in the lot next to ours. His stained red-striped shirt rode the front of his stomach, and the thread around the toes of his shoes was coming undone. I acknowledged Jacob’s excitement. “Mom, look how it lands,” he said, obviously content with his new friend and the airplanes. His hand was still extended and his left leg was kicked up behind him. I nodded and watched. “It’s called a Nakamura Lock,” he said. I conjured a smile for him.
The angle of Jacob’s body made me look beyond the boy’s lot where clothes and towels hung to dry and gently swayed in the hot breeze, as if he was not only leaning that way because he just threw an airplane but because he was directing my attention east. I looked out past the cat-claws at the scattered debris of multicolored tents spanning at least a mile on the dusty plane which formed a jagged tip at the vantage point. Their triangular tops pressed against the smudged blue-sky gradations and I breathed in deeply, comforted by the cloudlessness and the thought of being with so many others who also carried their homes in on their backs.
Once Annie joined Jacob and his friend, I saw the boy’s mother nearby and noticed a familiar expression on her face. She looked in the distance away from everything else: folding chairs, a mini library, a portable shower connected to a water hose, a large cooler, tea kettles, coffee mugs, cutlery, a counter top stove, and tin pots and pans like Mary Austin’s Pocket Hunter carried across Shoshone land while he searched the canyons for rich ore. Her hair was an unnatural red. Her nose and cheeks echoed the color of the pink enclaves and her eyes scrunched against the sun. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t know for sure, that perhaps I was just projecting, but if I had to bet, I’d say she saw numbers and factors careening down the sides of the mountains because she was counting how many days had passed and how many more there were to go. Then I looked away, wondering how she was going to pack up all that shit when the time came. There must be someone else here to help her, I thought. Not that you need much help to live in a campground between imaginary walls.
For lunch, we ate rice and bean burritos. They were frozen solid and wrapped in tinfoil before we left California, but all I could do at the campground was keep them in the shade to slow them from spoiling. In between bites, we talked about going to the lake, what it might look like, how hot the water might be. And, I continued to watch the woman’s face shift from being scrunched to appearing in shock. Her eyebrows arched and her jaw went slack; something surprising was happening that only she could see.
The pudgy child leaned against the trunk of a tree in a quiet, indolent stupor, and I looked at Annie and Jacob choking down bland mushy bits of rice and flour tortilla that had absorbed all the juice of the beans and for just a moment, I felt sorry children had to follow women like the two of us.
After lunch, I gathered my pages, a lighter, and the kids and headed for the lake. There was a narrow dirt path carved out by vehicles which led to the rocks, sharp gray rocks that stretched the length of the shore. Jacob carried his fishing pole and the leftover pieces of his lunch as bait, eager to see if anything would bite. Annie gripped the side of my thin, blue dress, complaining at almost every step about the rocks jabbing up through the soles of her shoes. “These rocks hurt my feet,” she exclaimed. I wanted to hold her hand but she insisted on holding my dress, and I sighed in annoyance at being weighted down. I tried to steady my tone when reminding her that she had a choice at the thrift store when choosing those sandals. “You got to protect your feet,” I had told her. But she loved the pink sequins running along the sides, the two white straps across the bridge and the one around the ankle and had followed me up and down the aisles clutching those sandals to her chest until I gave in. “Well,” I said now more sharply than intended, which signaled the I-told-you-so sitting at the back of my throat. Then she released the side of my dress she held with the veracity in which she once held those sandals, and I watched her continue to clash against the landscape while she struggled with the rocks in silence.
Without a license, Jacob threw his fishing line into the green-blue lake. He had already taken off his high top sneakers and white socks and stepped in. The murky water made it hard to see past a few feet out. “Stay where you are,” I told him. “Don’t go any farther.” He looked at me with big eyes, ones that said I was being too cautious. “Alright, look for yourself, Jay,” I said.
He took fast, large steps out into the water but then abruptly stopped. His head darted around from one side to the other, examining the lake. “I think I see a hook,” he said, not bothering to look back to see if we were paying attention. He took another step, but then stopped again. “What is that?” he asked quietly, while looking in another direction. Then he turned his body slightly towards us. “I don’t know where to step!” he said and shook his head. And without a word from me, he began to ease himself back towards the shore where the water was only ankle deep.
I wrestled with my papers a little. First, I thought to cast them out the way Jacob did his fishing line but the direction of the wind was bringing things back: bottle tops, wrappers, a foam ball. I crouched down to pin the papers between two rocks and pulled out my lighter to watch the looping words burn. When Annie asked what I was doing, I lied. Instead of explaining that I was attempting to burn away my thoughts, that although it hadn’t really worked in the past I was trying again, I told her we had to see how easy it was to start a fire for when her brother caught a fish.
“But we’re not supposed to start fires here,” she told me. “I saw a sign.”
“It’s okay here,” I assured her. “We’re right at the water.” Then I took her small hand and showed her how to cup the flame from the wind.
The papers finally ignited after three tries and they burned down to the tops of the rocks. I wanted to believe in it, to feel a relief, the shedding of dead skin, the passing of a stone in my chest, pressure released from a valve opening the heart, metal gear by metal gear. But ash rose and spiraled up, blowing away in the hot wind, and I just felt cheated somehow.
“I think I got something,” Jacob said excitedly, and the wet smell of a dog’s mouth hit my nose when I turned away from what remained of the ash. My hopeful feet staggered a few rocks toward where he stood, tugging on the curved fishing rod and leaning back as he had seen others do. “Mom, he caught a fish,” Annie said enthusiastically. But the bend of the rod quickly released and he brought his line up clean, without fish or bait, letting the anticipatory folds around his mouth disappear.
All three of us nearly sighed in unison.
They stared me, wanting to be told what to do next and I watched their faces twitch and contort from the heat, and the rock-strewn shore became too much, too uncertain. “Let’s go,” I said, and flicked my wrist. But Jacob needed time to secure the line first and put back on his shoes and socks. Annie began her tedious slow-walk closer to me and I waited, crouched again, and stuck my hand in a tiny puddle near my feet. I lazily let my head swing in the hollow of my arm resting on my knees. I longed for a glimmer of hope, a fleeting forbearance to my ritual gone awry. I needed something to tell me where we could go next, who wouldn’t mind us imposing for a while.
I pulled up a piece of the earth, a smooth, charcoal gray rock. While I harnessed it tightly in my palm, I pivoted my body a little, just enough to see what we climbed over to get to the water, all the rocks we had to climb over again to get back to the road. The amount of rocks seemed uncanny, like residuals of a land clearing that indicate some things are never really cleared. Maybe me and the kids were permanent imprints to the loop and my thoughts, permanent fixtures.
The rocks groaned and slid beneath our feet as we started the climb. When Jacob let the handle of the pole slip, it tapped against them and something felt out of sorts. The sky seemed to crack from a temperature over 100 degrees and I’m almost certain I heard a grumble in the mountains like the empty stomachs of the lizards. I could’ve used a rescue then, a moment of safety. Someone or something to gag the disappointment of the afternoon, of the season, and the growing homily of sounds ricocheting the canyon.
By the time we were nearly halfway to the road, I let the rock slip from my hand, and that day felt as if it was just another day for coming up short. Then I heard a low roll of a motor in the otherwise mute waters. I turned around to see the culprit of the noise and the water came alive, sun-illuminated white and dancing behind a boat. I shouted with excitement. “Hey, look at that!” The kids waved and called to the boat, while it bounced on the water and a woman’s dark hair became enraptured by the wind. We giggled at being surprised, startled really, at the motion of the boat streaking across our view just seconds before disappearing behind a mountain. It seemed wild, purposeful, and completely out of nowhere, and I wanted it so badly to be the foretelling of something good.
We stayed the nights in a two-man tent borrowed from a friend who had offered it in the event of “just in case.” Jacob was fine, but I knew my legs would eventually get sore from lying on the hard ground and Annie’s skin was already in a rash from the cottonwood trees.
When the children were asleep, I crawled from between them, stepped into the night air, and sat on top of the picnic table – an attempt to keep my feet from wind scorpions and crab spiders. Take in the moonlight, I told myself. It was seen clearly from that place in the desert. Since the big and little dipper were easy to spot, I traced the constellations before closing my eyes. Then I imagined I was pulling the light through the soles of my feet, up through my pelvis and the top of my head. I worked the light, breathing it in and trying to breathe out all the fetor: swift changes stored in the cartilage of your knees; injury trapped beneath my breastplate; tendons besieged with fear; ideas lost in the bottom of my voice box, stewed to a murmur; and a faint ache in my liver waiting for a flood.
Even when I couldn’t see the light anymore or when my ankle felt a pinch from a biting insect at the malleolus or when a nearby generator began to tremble the darkness, I kept my eyes closed a little longer. I focused on the sounds around me, calibrated the frequencies, and assembled a codex – the crickets, the rustle in the bushes near the table, an electric can opener from the RV about six yards away, wooden tongs dropped into a metal bowl. Then I envisioned what was beyond the picnic table: shadows of night owls adjusting themselves inside their tents, leaning closer to one another or away, blurred and askew. Sharp angles of an elbow, a bent knee, a flashlight turning. I pictured the lives of campers jutting in every direction from the campground, crawling out from the center of the canyon like black lines etched in the earth by bolts of electricity. I wondered what brought them out there, saying to myself, Surely, they all couldn’t be like me.
Someone played a radio with the volume turned up and songs echoed across the campground. While something twangy, soulful, and yearning blared, I thought of what I would’ve told another adult if they had been there with me – things I couldn’t tell children. Maybe I would’ve shared what I wrote on those pages before setting them afire, spin it a different direction: “That was just the end of another shitty job for me, better things are coming.” Or maybe I would’ve talked to them about that man and woman on the bus, or told them taking care of the children alone had been easier sometimes than I thought it could be, and that maybe living without money didn’t have to be that hard all the time either. I might’ve even asked them what they thought I should do next, if they thought I should stay at the campground, and I wished for a hand extended in my direction that would rest on my knee.
Inevitably, a coyote howled in the black distance, someone applauded and cheered once the radio was turned off, and I looked in the direction of where that someone with their hand on my knee might’ve been sitting if they were really there, and I laughed into the darkness. For a moment, that place, a cleft of strangers in the earth, some carting similar idiosyncrasies, was just as good of a place as any to call home.
Most of our food was nearly gone, save for the saltines and Cheese Wiz I bought from the snack shop on the other side of the RVs, so I was delighted when the red-faced woman and her chubby child invited us for a hotdog dinner. When the food was almost ready, the woman’s husband and brother pulled up in a pickup truck, back from work at a mechanic’s shop. She was adamant about sitting the kids at one bench while the adults sat at another. “Where you from?” I asked, trying to place the gesture. She responded with a state name such as Nebraska or Kansas, maybe even Wyoming, somewhere I thought of wide, undeveloped land and more lax dinner etiquette when she said it. “How long you been here?”
Her response fell from her lips quickly as if she had been waiting to tell someone. “Five months and seventeen days,” she said. “We move into an apartment on the 1st.”
I made the men nervous, my family sitting at their designated benches and eating their food from their portable stove. The brother’s brown eyes shifted from the kids, to the woman, and then back to his plate. He takes care of his brother, I thought. I had already noted his neatly tucked shirt, his oily hair parted on the left side and secured behind his ears, his crooked nose that was probably broken years ago and never reset. He sat next to me, uncomfortably crossing and uncrossing his skinny legs beneath the table. I wasn’t able to ask what I really wanted to, questions about where their new apartment was, what made them leave the state they were in, and why they chose there of all the places in the world. So I made it a point to talk only about how well the children seemed to get along, how hard it was to climb over the rocks at the lake, and no I didn’t like ketchup but I’d take some mustard.
The husband warmed up slowly. “There’s something weird about a man-made lake,” he said.
I looked up from picking at my hotdog bun to see his chipped tooth glinting in the sun. His face is fuller than his brother’s, I thought, same hair except cleaner, but his eyes aren’t as honest. “What, Lake Mead?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he responded. “They stock it up with trout.”
I thought of Jacob fishing and was glad his line reeled up clean. My eyebrows scrunched again at the thought of restocked fish. Then I remembered how the lake appeared – perfectly contained between the mountains. “They must have dynamited right through,” I said. “Guess that explains the rocks.”
The brother turned in for bed as soon as he swallowed but reemerged we went to our lot. Before that, I hinted to the woman that we might need a ride the seven miles back to the bus stop. A decision to leave was made that morning when Annie woke up with swollen eyes. “It burns when I open them!” she cried over and over. Besides, we’d need food soon, and my legs ached from sleeping on the ground. Jacob, for the most part, had adapted, trustful that it was just a trip, although he wouldn’t stop reciting lines of a cat named Gumball, his way of saying he missed TV.
I had been mulling over options anyhow and an arrow pointed to an aunt in Texas, one of the only people I knew who wouldn’t mind that we showed up hungry and without calling first.
While I helped the woman clear the paper plates and brush off their picnic table, I told her about the good-natured geocaching students that had brought us the last two miles into the campground that first night. And although I left it out the conversation, before meeting the students, I’d contemplated pitching our tent between the jagged hills on the trail, since our hopes had been deflated once we reached the rest stop and there was no running water to refill our bottles. “There’s no sinks in the bathrooms,” Annie wailed. Jacob had thrown down the tent, the one we later pitched on a lot I never paid to occupy. “I don’t want to sleep out here,” he roared in protest, right before he suggested looking for a path that cut through, a straight one that led us down to the campground instead of the windy path we had been on.
Annie was indifferent and only shrugged her shoulders at the thought. And I had stopped for just a moment to scope out that other trail, wanting what Jacob proposed to be possible. The man on the bus was right, I thought, because the path curved and curved, seeming far longer than five miles. It ducked behind chiseled rock and Joshua trees in bloom. It was a faultless place for the shuffle of cricket-like katydids. Thistledown velvet ants mimicked the seeds of creosote bushes and drank the nectar of the cacti’s flowers. I spotted dips in the land, little dirt cliffs, a barrier in the distance of rope or wire, something unidentifiable at a low point on the shoulder of the path, and a sleeping bag near a trove of prickly pear cacti which made me worry. But I didn’t point any of this out to the kids. Their tiredness, the falling sun, and the piercing silence when we stood still in what appeared to be just an endless, open section of desert seemed enough uncertainty for their small bodies to carry.
I thought it over while peeling two oranges pulled from one of the backpacks.
“It looks like we’re lost, Mom,” Annie said, wiping off her sandals. “I just see dirt…and rocks.”
“We’re not lost,” I responded quickly, trying to blot out my own suspicions that we might be. I handed her a piece of an orange and threw my head up, noting there was a little over an hour before nightfall. “But we’ll stay on the path.” While I fumbled with my doubts about making it to the campground before dark, I wondered if the man on the bus had been more right than I believed. We’re not lost, I repeated to myself. I tried to use the landscape to ensure that, at least, we didn’t walk in circles. Remember the curvature of the cliffs, I told myself. The sharpest points, the deepest folds and creases, the most vibrant colors. I ate a wedge of orange to wet my mouth since we were low on water, and then I pressed my spit-wet fingertips to the wind, always sure of which direction is back.
The deeper on the path we went, the more lured I was by it. The path cooled between two mountains and it felt like what I imagined entering a mouth might feel like. Small boulders sat lined up at the base as if they were teeth. The lines on the mountains resembled the veins on the inside of salient, fleshy jaws. I mentioned this to the kids, trying to help keep their minds occupied. “See how this looks like a mouth?” I asked them, optimistic about slipping into another pattern of human migration, one that started at the fold of Nevada and Arizona. That’s when Jacob took the tent, I grabbed Annie’s hand because she was lagging behind, and the red sun kept on falling.
So on our last night at the campground, I hinted to the woman that we needed a ride. “That was a serious trek,” I said, “I guess it won’t be too bad in the morning if we leave early, but it is uphill from here.”
Her eyes darted to the left the way psychologists say eyes shift when people recollect something, and she quickly took my cue. “I’ll tell my brother to take you,” she said. “They go to work around six.”
I thanked her, and the kids roasted marshmallows with her son over a fire close to our tent. The brother had been the one who played the radio from his truck, and he did it again that night. I listened, grateful to have found them , and I sat at the picnic table for the last time.
The following morning, the men gave us a ride in the bed of the pickup truck. A flock of black birds flew overhead, flapping their deltoid wings unencumbered. I let the warmth of the sun swell against my forehead and joined in the kids’ laughter, while they shielded their faces from the wind.
When we arrived at the bus stop, I thought again of Clean Shoes. Yelling, he had told me, “Take your children and go home! There are transients out there! You don’t know what you’re about to do!” If Clean Shoes had of bothered to look over my shoulder, the image of what scared him had already climbed onto the bus through the side door and sat a few feet away with stringy hair and dirty feet, asking for directions to a place in Arizona. And if Clean Shoes had really looked into my face, he would have seen that our home blew away in the heat, a wafting tumbleweed, nearly 250 miles back. I had finally responded, not telling him that my appearance was deceiving. “Yes,” I said, “transients everywhere.”
© 2016 Jessica Dewberry