Wednesday, April 11, 2012


A desert short story ...

    Katie sits on her rock, west of town, watching a long gray dust trail winding its way to the bottom of the valley. She picks at a hangnail on her dirty little finger, I'm gonna be ten years old today, she tells the sand beneath her feet. Her chest swells under the tight yellow dress. A dusty trail rises out of the desert floor: it's payday and miners are racing to cash their checks and wet their tongues at the Water Hole.

    At the two-room school, today, the teacher brought pink punch and cookies and the kids wished Katie a "happy birthday", she liked that, just as she liked the other kids' special days. Now she is looking for her daddy. She has waited for two whole weeks. She taps her almost new shoes against the rock, wrings a lock of clean blond hair, confused. Happy thoughts collide with waves of fear.

    "It's payday and Mama said that she'd make a special dinner as soon as she had some money for groceries," Katie tells the wind. " I'll bet she'll make me a cake too, it's supposed to be a surprise!" she frowns "But what if Daddy doesn't come down from the mine, and what if he disappears again?" She tilts her head to shake away her anxiety, as if to convince herself. "No. I guess not: I heard Mama tell him it would be my birthday! I just can't wait!" her jaw set hard against the sun, she nods.

    The little girl suddenly realizes that she is squealing with anticipated delight, she looks around furtively and blushes. There is no one on the paved road yet: during the heat of the afternoon the miner's wives nap groggily or play cards in the trailers and old shacks of the small town. Cheap wine and dry whiskey make life more bearable for most of them.

    Katie had watched her mom struggle with headaches, time after time. On school-day mornings, the familiar throaty voice would groan from the backroom, with a few curses added and a clang for good effect. Katie would know it was time to get dressed and look for food in the cluttered cupboards (cold leftovers or dry cereal, if anything) her mother's snores would become loud again. That's about the only time she could feel safe.

    At three o'clock Katie would return from school. The trailer' d usually be empty and reek of a mix of stale beer and sour wine, beds not made, cigarette butts, bottles and cans strewn about carelessly as in a purposeful movie set.

    Katie had never liked that. Before she could sit at the foldout table to finish her homework, she'd clean the mess quickly and ever so efficiently. Soon, laughter would rise out of one or another of the trailers. Sometimes, cursing and yelling would resonate in the crowded park and she'd resign herself to another party and another lonely evening.

    But today was different! Today was her day. Ten years old, she was a big girl now. The trailer would be tidied up, Mama was supposed to have had her hair curled by a neighbor; she'd be all pretty and clean - yep! Today was pretty special!

    The voices of men could be heard over engine roars, and a few jeeps and old pickup trucks appeared at the Death Valley junction in a cloud of alkali dust. A couple of old diggers saw the little girl in her yellow dress and waved as they passed by the entrance to the trailer park. When she spotted her father among the can-holding bunch in the second jeep, she began to run after it.

    By the time she breathlessly arrived at the general store, she saw him, arm-in-arm with his buddies, heading for the bar across the street; so she slowed down and hid behind a mesquite bush to catch her breath. "It's no use..." she thought, " use, he forgot!" (big tears slowly streaked the dust on her cheeks. She angrily wiped them with her arm, smudging a muddy mess around her red eyes. She kicked a rock with her good shoes, half hoping to ruin them. Chin set hard and jaw clenched she muttered to herself "Everything's rotten anyway . . . so?"

    Darkness had come and it was a little cooler by then. Katie sneaked across the road and to the back window of the bar; she'd spent many a night there, watching the men get drunk and play pool. Too wise for her years, she had quietly observed life in the small towns and mining camps of the southwestern desert. Here in Death Valley the aggression was more concentrated than in many mining areas.

    Every other Friday the shopkeeper and the bartender got ready for the five o'clock invasion: the miners were coming down from the talc mines in the arid mountains. After two weeks underground the rowdy, thirsty horde was ripe for diversion, but what they called relaxation was strictly a matter of opinion.

    Tension was ever high in the subterranean tunnels and chambers. There was danger from explosions caused by careless powdermen, cave-ins from weak timbers, hard rocks loosened by the vibrations of the huge Wagners that carry the ore out of the mines. There were no women or children to absorb or release tense days and nights of work underground: they were considered distractions. Some said that women bring bad luck and weaken men; kids are a nuisance, fall in shafts and rile a good man.

    Katie knew the code of the mines; she lived by the miner's ethics and stayed out of the way. She didn't judge or question her father's way of life (those who were too curious or unhappy always ended up in a bad way.) She'd seen the wives leave their men, the children being sent to a grandmother or, worse yet, to foster homes in bigger towns.

    Katie just could not bear being away from Mama, and who would watch after Daddy when he was sick? Who would make the coffee to sober up her Mama? Her half-brothers were grown and long gone to the city. One was in jail. Someone had said the other had gone to Alaska to make big money and would never come back. They didn't write - they didn't care!

    The slender girl climbed on crates behind the bar and took up her secret position: from there she could observe all without being seen. Hands cupped like blinders she peeked in through the partially obscured glass and saw her father downing his usual shot of cheap rum at the rail. A pain cinched her stomach as she remembered his last promise: she had unwittingly witnessed the scene in the tiny hall; he had knelt before Mama and had tenderly vowed that, after that last ulcer attack, he wouldn't drink ever again.

    "Baby, honey bunch, I promise you I'll never touch a drop of hard liquor in this life"

    He had cooked a whole meal that weekend, Katie had found them giggling behind the open refrigerator door, she'd seen his hand slide under mama's dress too. For awhile Daddy had followed the doctor's orders. Mama's face had been sweet, almost pretty and the whole trailer had been filled with lightness for a time.

    Now Katie could hear men brag about the events of the week. There were stories to startle the meek and curses to shock the pure, but she'd heard them all; her favorites were the rattlesnake myths. She'd miss a few words while the jukebox blared its cry-in-your-beer country tunes, but she already knew them all by heart through constant repetition, the songs and the tall tales.

    One of the diggers famous for his snake stories was named after the reptile; old Rattlesnake Pete. He always told the scariest tales, which even the youngest of children didn't always believe when they heard them. Pete lurched clumsily out of the back door of the bar, hand to his fly. Katie ducked beneath some cardboard. Suddenly the wiry little miner stumbled against the corner of a wooden beer-case, and before Katie had time to climb down from her perch he had toppled the whole stack, cursing heaven and hell for it and kicking bits of splintered wood right and left.

    Katie flapped her thin arms to scramble out of the boxes but could not regain her balance. Pete fussed with his pants where a long wet stain worked its way to his cowboy boots. Big Swede and Katie's father had come out to see what all the racket was about. The girl sat there amid the debris, eyes wide and mouth open, fearful and perplexed.

    "What in th' hell'r you doin' in there? That ol' bitch sent you to spy on me, din't she? You no good for nothing brat!" Her father was yelling as he awkwardly lunged after her, flinging trash out of his way. Katie's head swung from side to side as he hit her, hard.

    "No Daddy! No!" her elbow up above her forehead, she cowered.

    "You're no good, just like your mother - never been any damn good! Always wants money - is that what you here for, my money?"

    Katie sobbed miserably, "Nooo . . ." blond curls clung to tears.

    Her Daddy reached out to shake her, but Swede had regained his composure, and he and Pete yanked him up, Pete held him against the back door of the bar and danced around to avoid his pointy boots.

    "Go on, go on home." Swede turned his big head and softly urged the girl. "We'll bring him back soon as he's sobered up a bit - go on! Quick!" He, at least, was never mean. She suspected he was the father of some little girl, somewhere and that he missed that child very much. She'd heard many a gyppo tramp talk about an ex wife and a batch of kids who didn't take to the desolate life on the desert floor. By the third drink the photos came out of shredded wallets and bad wives became worse in the memories of the lonely.

    Katie climbed out of the wreckage and backed away into the darkness. She hesitated awhile and then dashed for the trailer park, fearing to look back.

    When she reached the gravel driveway Katie immediately sensed that something was wrong; there was more light than usual in the seedy rows of trailers. The tamarisks cast long shadows and the breeze brought clear bursts of loud voices speaking in urgent tones. The sheriff's car was parked in her family's row. All the women from the park were there and a couple of old miners stood around under the light from the pole lamp at the end of the dirt road. As she approached the crowd she realized they were all in front of her trailer. Yea, the green one, that's my home... "what are they doing?" she murmured to herself

    Katie slowed down. An ambulance drove by slowly and she closed her eyes when its headlights unkindly hit her face. Suddenly, she froze. Knees locked in rigid stance, she couldn't go on.

    There were kids out there, running in and out of the crowd; some hiding behind their mother's legs, there were women talking fast and the sheriff looked like a giant as he tried to quiet the curious. His big arms raised above heads, he silenced the odd group. People looked around as if searching for someone.

    Katie couldn't face all these people: they had always been strangers! They misunderstood her; to them she'd just been a weird kid. How could she look at them, now? How could she listen to them? They didn't like her looks or her ways. She peered down at her soiled yellow dress, she slapped dust from the pinafore and wiped the blood that congealed in angry stripes on her legs.

    She whispered "what a mess."

    It is early morning when she arises from the sheltering tamarisk. No one is around. The sky shines silent pink; a thrush makes a gargling sound nearby, nature is awakening as usual.

    Katie stumbles onto the dirt road toward the faded, decrepit trailer she calls home. In an involuntary gesture, she smooths her matted hair and removes the crinkled bow she had so proudly tied for the occasion. She takes the key out of an ore sample crucible by the steps, slowly turns it to open the battered door. Her face betrays no emotion as she gazes over the rumpled pillows on the saggy couch. She slowly passes her little hand over the still wet stains on the blue shag rug.

    Sadness a pale mask on her face, the girl strokes the wrinkles on her yellow dress. She automatically grabs a sponge and begins to clean the floor, the walls, the bits of dried matter in the fake fur throw; it isn't the first time she's had to do it, but now it is different somehow. She isn't angry or tired this time.

    She speaks softly, "Mama . . .oh, Mama . . ." and slumps on the one kitchen chair, elbows propped on the counter, she stares out of the window for a long time until the sun is aglow and scorching the lone olive tree out back.

    A strange car pulls in quietly, and Katie's father steps out of it, solemn. His eyes are puffy and moist.

    "Katie ..." he blurts out abruptly, "mama died last night." He swallows hard and smiles weakly. "Look, you know how it is, baby - she couldn't drink like that no more and besides she smoked way too much. She just went and choked herself to death, that's just what she done!"

    "I know, Daddy" says the ten year old. "I know."
They hold each other tightly for awhile, then pulling away she asks, her voice flat,

    "Daddy? You're not going to do that too, are you?"

    Her father kneels in front of her and announces tearfully, "Baby, honey bunch, I promise I'll never touch a drop of hard liquor as long as I live."

    Katie strokes her father's dusty hair and flattens her cheek against it to hide the stubborn wetness invading her eyes.