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This time it didn't take nearly so long to run out of gas. An hour out of town the road cleared a hill, swept to one side then disappeared into a wall of rain. The knocking noise up under the hood grew to a roar, and then everything cut out. Riva watched rain pelt the windshield. The wipers straggled as best they could, jerking back and forth. She refused to look over at her mother stomping on the dead gas pedal or swiping at the windshield as if that would give them gas. At times like this it was best not to even look at her mother. Experience had taught her to stare straight ahead and try out her tricks. She had any number of them. She could turn the night into day. Even with her eyes open. Especially with her eyes open. It was a trick she remembered from being just a girl, making things what they were not. If they had ham and grapes for lunch, she could make it apricots and cheese. If it was night, she could make it day. She worked on nudging that red needle back up off E so that they weren't doing this: hurtling toward her mother's idea of a vacation, racing to see the Great American Sights on empty, in the dark.
Her mother let the car coast down the hill. They picked up speed and flew around a bend. A huddle of lights appeared beneath them.
"See you always find what you're looking for," Mallory crowed. "This is it. Isn't this just it? You know, it's going to all turn out. I just have this feeling we're on our way. And when I get that feeling, I just know." She sighed and unsnapped her top pants button. "It's a gift, my instinct."
With her mother it was always instinct. Just the word put Riva's teeth on edge. The last time Mallory talked about her gift, she took off to Seattle for a year to improve herself. She was always improving herself, and it was a real job. She'd been doing it as long as Riva could remember. They'd been through Buddhism and had a brush with Mormonism. They'd done sweat lodges, the Course of Miracles, and some kind of Mud Woman Shamanism that Riva never fully understood. Now, her mother wanted to understand her, and there they were, out of gas.
Flashes of sheet lightning threw open a shocked expanse around them, then slammed them back into their small shell of night. The car listed to one side as it picked up speed. A huge billboard cut out in an enormous shape of a rearing horse loomed up at them. The rider waved and his cowboy hat flapped in the wind. The hat said:
DON'T MISS OUR
Riva tried to think about something else. Mallory whooped, jammed on the high beams and yelped for another beer. The car had picked up some speed coasting down and around the bend. It was a short matter of time before it would slow and drift to a stop.
Riva fixed the beer the way her mother liked them, cloudy with lime. She had no desire to be a part of her mother's vacation. If they wanted to see the sights, all they had to do was look out a window. It didn't matter that she had been born and lived her entire life out west, what mattered was that Mallory had never recovered from the fact that she was from Ohio. Every so often Mallory raced around trying to take in all that she could of places where she'd never belong. Riva just wanted to stay home and be normal, maybe make some money baby sitting or learn sign language or CPR, something useful. She dreaded the Great American Sights. She had been on that trip before.
"Oh," her mother bit her lower lip, "how about the Grand Canyon? Should we do the Grand Canyon first? Oh, I just love it there."
"We went to the Grand Canyon, mom."
"The tarantulas were migrating. They crossed the street in front of us in a herd. We stayed in that little cement teepee and watched MTV. The canyon was big. I felt small. End of story."
Mallory pushed herself back in the seat and adjusted a bracelet, "Well, I don't remember that." She licked her lips and squirmed, "Do you remember, darling, don't you remember that summer we traveled and traveled and took in the sights? Don't you remember? This could be like that. Again."
Riva certainly did remember. When she was eight, maybe nine, they drove and drove across entire reservations, state parks, the eight northern pueblos, the Rio Grande, Acoma the sky city, west to the Painted Desert, Arches, all the way to Zion. They saw it all, the great southwest, and they saw it along with everyone else, right through the car window. Of course next came the part that always happened: the vacation suddenly cut short because they ran out of money. Mallory ended up coasting down as many hills as she could, over-extending gas cards just to get them back home.
And here they were again, coasting in the dark. They swept toward a blinking traffic light. Mallory kicked the engine over and fluttered the gas pedal. The road snaked off, vanished in the dark. Several low buildings huddled around the some gas pumps. A broken down car with a cracked window had a runny spray painted sign on the windshield that said BEWARE OF DOG. A German Shepherd sat alert in the front seat. A closed sign sat in the store front window.
"Oh, they just don't make them like this anymore." Mallory coasted by the gas pumps and pulled into a big empty lot out back.
Between buffeting waves of water Riva tried to make out where they were. A branch hit the car, then blew on. A can bounced across the hood.
"Oh, this is so romantic," her mother said. "This is just what I would be doing if I were your age, out in the night, traveling places. Adventures." She drained her beer, "Let's sleep right here." Her eyes had that glazed, hopeful look.
"We can't. We'll get a ticket," Riva spoke as grimly as she could.
"Oh, we will not. Besides, we're out of gas. They're closed. We’ll tank up in the morning."
Water dripped on Riva's foot where a leak dripped through the glove compartment. "Come on, let's go. I don't want to stay."
Mallory propped her foot up on the dash and leaned back. "Make yourself comfortable."
The windshield started to fog over and Riva tried not to smell her mother. A row of scraggly trees hemmed in the lot, lashed back and forth against the sky. Riva crawled into the back seat, balled a towel up under her head for a pillow and decided that she was going to remember this moment. She pressed her fingers into the backs of her eyes, pushing it all into her: Mallory marveling at a parking lot, the bedraggled trees, the lights of town barely faded behind them, a stupid horse sign in the middle of nowhere. Only her mother would pack everything up, drive an hour down the road, run out of gas, then call it a vacation.
In the distance, the mountains blazed up once, twice, erupting at the top into a pattern of clenched gold teeth.
"I don't believe this." Mallory used her wondering voice, the voice that Riva knew to not listen to, the one that warned her to think about something else quickly because she wouldn't want to hear what was going to come next.
"I slept here once, a hundred years ago," Mallory talked to the windshield.
Riva kept one eye shut so Mallory would think she was asleep.
"I know it's hard to believe but I was here once with your father. Oh my God! I don't believe this." She leaned closer to the blurred over windshield. Even with her eyes shut, Riva knew the windshield was steamed over, that it was impossible to see. She heard her mother give a frantic little swipe with her hand, the squeak of flesh on glass then the push back in her seat as if she just received some kind of shock.
"It was right here. We were right here. In this very lot..." Her voice fell into a sharp little slurp of beer. Riva twisted herself into a more comfortable position.
"We did. Riva, we... well, we slept here." She pointed her bottle at the row of struggling cottonwood trees. "Twice."
Riva gave a feeble little snore in the back of her throat.
"We did. And stop that. I know you're awake. You need to hear this. He was something, your father."
Mallory never went back any further than that. She always started right in just as he was leaving. He left them a hundred different ways. That was all Riva had of him, the man her mother built over and over again, always leaving them behind in different places, sometimes vanishing in a taxi, a bus station, once at a booth in a busy restaurant during a lunch rush. Riva had very little left of any of it, other than the vague sense of her father who was perfectly featureless, a blank where his face should have been. The storm rumbled further off into the distance. Random drops pelted the roof; water gurgled all around them, soaking back into the ground with a quiet hiss.
"I don't remember much else, but I remember we slept out on the hood when we were done, just stretched right out, belly up to the sky. And in the morning we got up and ate a huge breakfast. A fantastic breakfast. Lord, that man could eat. There was a table piled high with food, tortillas and beans and biscuits and gravy and fresh fruit and coffee, eggs and chile. And ham."
Then came the food, always the food. Her father had been a man with a gargantuan appetite. Riva might not know what her father looked like but she knew ridiculous details about his appetite, how he ate ribs, starting in on one end and not letting up until he teased the last sweet piece of flesh from the bone, grease running right off his face. During a long road trip, he could roast a chicken to a turn, nestling it down in the engine of his car, wrapped in a little tin foil, some shallots, a splash of red wine. He crimped pies shut with just his knuckle and forefinger, making pie crust so flaky and golden, it shattered beneath the fork.
Mallory cracked her window and let in the rumble of distant thunder and the pissy smell of greasewood. "Oh, he was a handsome one, I can tell you. With the biggest hands, he'd place one of those hands on top of me and I felt like I was just being swallowed up. Swallowed alive. I remember now, Riva, I do. That trip we drove all through here. We only needed an iron skillet, a knife and some matches. We ate what he found. Honestly, he could catch a fish, smack it on the head with a rock, gut it and then cook it over a fire with just a green stick. He called it Fish On A Twig..."
That was it. If it was going to be the fish story again Riva had had it. They always pulled the same goddamn fish out of the river and bashed it over the head with a rock, cooked it on a stick then ate it with just their hands and their mouths. She'd heard it before, all her life, the man made out of words just beyond them in the wet night, cooking a fish on a twig.
Riva did what she always did at these moments: she erased herself slowly and worked on building a newer, more improved version of herself. She started with the one breast that had sprouted out bigger than the other. Silently, with just her mind, she worked on pushing it back in. She willed the little hairline scar by her lip to flame a little more red. She broke herself down piece by piece, and rose right above her mother, above even the fish with its crispy fins, done to a delicate crunch.
Eyes. Riva closed her eyes and concentrated on giving them a little more mystery, so they weren't such squinty hazel slits. Nothing could be done about her blotchy skin or mousy hair. It would always hang in a straight little line just below her jaw. And she couldn't change the fact that she was rail-thin and hadn't grown in over a year, not since she turned fourteen.
But her arms were easy. She let them shoot right out, white and slender, reaching all the way out up into the sky. Her legs could run her back up those mountains and home. She pressed her face further into the damp pillow and tried not to listen while her father ate the whole peeled onion like an apple with every meal. Her mother never slept there, not with her father, not with anyone, not there. None of it was true, not running out of gas or being on vacation stranded in a parking lot, a leak dripping on one foot. She let herself drift out into the rain, beyond where water disappeared into the sand with a little hiss. She floated up into the night sky with a high hard storm passing through, unfolding herself piece by piece, returning herself to where she belonged.
Even though the sun beat into the back of her head, Riva didn't move. She kept studying the place where her mother's car was supposed to be, gassed up and ready to go, but there was no car, only a glossy black puddle, a melted wad of chewing gum, and the gas pumps lined up, all their hoses in place. Riva stared hard; the pumps stared back. She turned in a slow circle, trying to put things back into place, the ice machine, the store, a sun bleached sign for bread. Everything was where it belonged, even the rubber hose that snaked right over to her feet waiting to shrill out, alerting the man inside that there was someone out there to pump gas. But no one was there, not her mother or their car, just the highway, stretching out empty in both directions.
It made her sick to think about the highway scrolling off, vanishing in dips and then bending out of sight, heading straight out into the desert where her mother sat at the wheel holding an early morning beer peering at what was coming up next, whistling softly through her teeth, not looking in the back seat where she assumed Riva was curled up, catching up on her sleep.
A red armchair leaned onto the soda machine, and Riva knew just what to do. She walked in a straight line, careful not to step on the hose, and sat in the chair like she was waiting for a bus, leaning back in an early morning shadow as if enjoying the morning. She ran her finger over the small brass tacks, counting them.
Earlier, she had counted her mother's deep, sucking sighs that went on forever until Mallory snorted and jerked awake. She quietly opened a beer. Riva sank deeper into her pillow in the back seat and pretended to be asleep. She didn't even make the fake groan when her mother softly called her name. Riva kept a jacket up over her face, and stayed down while her mother pumped a tank of gas and went in to pay for it. Eight cars started out as a distant hum, then grew to a roar, rocketed passed them and still Mallory didn't come back. Riva sat up and listened. She could hear her mother's tinkly, flirty laugh, then voices fading. A door opened and closed.
Riva read the signs hanging on the front of the shop. Twice. A large P filled in the blanks in front of all the other words so that they looked broken, meaning something else:
She wanted to see that, a petting zoo, and she wasn't going to sit around and wait all day while her mother made small talk with some man in a rock shop/ gas station. She slammed the car door loudly, then walked back around the side of the building and followed the arrow to the zoo.
Out back she picked her way through cages and pens, broken boards, and open patches of straw and manure. A little girl with a mud streaked face, wild black hair and an elaborately stitched dress sat in the first pen. Her streaked feet dangled down into a large hole. Next to her perched another child, not quite a baby, not quite a boy. He wore a diaper and a ratty T-shirt. His thistle hair stood up on one side and he was pointing with his stick down into the hole. They raised their eyes and studied Riva. No one moved. Then the boy slowly lifted his stick and pointed it at Riva.Riva didn't speak. The girl cocked her head to one side, then daintily lifted a spoon up to her mouth, a spoon full of earth. She stared at Riva, and then carefully fit the entire spoon into her mouth. She chewed slowly, working her tongue and her cheeks, savoring every bite. Then she wiped the corner of her mouth and stuck the spoon back into the earth for more.
Riva backed away, and tripped over a small cage and into a boarded pen. A large body shuffled on the other side. Through the cracks in the boards, brownish red fur slid and paced. A nostril swayed in at her eye, folded itself up, then blew hot air at her.Riva held her breath, then turned to walk quickly back to the car, toward her back seat. That was when she found only the pumps, smooth and surprised and absolutely empty.
For years, she'd known what her mother might do. She studied the low rambling adobe rising up behind the trees. A blaring sign announced these were the last accommodations for 57 miles. Maybe Mallory was already there, parked in their lot, trying to make arrangements for a room.An old man let himself out of the store. His hair was silver and stuck to his head with deep comb marks. A pipe rode between his teeth but he smelled of mint.
"Looks like a hot one."
Riva nodded, shifted into a better position.
"You with the Falcon?"
She forced a strained little smile, and nodded again.
"Elijah," he dropped his name down between them quietly then squared his legs and studied the highway.Nothing moved.
"She have business back in town?" He finally asked quietly, not looking at her but nodding back toward where they came, back toward the mountains.Riva fingered a tack. Said nothing. She studied the road but she knew she wasn't going to see the blue car boiling back up the road for her. In her mind a road map unfolded, a map of the United States. On it, her mother headed in the wrong direction, crossing borders, entire states before she realized Riva wasn't in the car.
"We forgot something. She went to get it." That was partly true.
Elijah nodded slowly, staring down the road, not looking at her. "Well, I'm sure she didn't go too far. We've got to feed some animals, you want to come take a look?"
The inside of the shop didn't look anything like she expected. It wasn't just a gas station, it was more like someone's house turned into a cafe. By the door a long wooden counter stretched out with stools pulled up to it. A glass container held some muffins and cookies. A coffee pot. A menu. An old-fashioned wooden display held packs of cigarettes, chewing gum, lollipops and chocolate bars. Elijah bit down on his pipe then spoke around it so that it didn't move.
He turned the keys in the register. "Hey Robie," he called and tossed the keys to a man with long black hair and sleepy eyes. The man was playing air drums on the table, Padum, Padum, Padum, Kish, and on the kish he snapped his hand in the air and caught the keys. He had a long gold fingernail. He winked at Riva and she felt her face stiffen. She looked away, around the room. In the back where aisles stacked with boxes of rocks, boots and blankets. In the corner a stuffed bear rose up onto its hind legs, snarling at the air.
"Go ahead," the old man tossed his chin toward the back door. "Feeding time at the zoo. You got time."
When she did glance back over, the man really did have a gold fingernail. He still played drums but now stood up, tossed his chin at her, hitched his pants and went out the back door.
Outside, toys scattered across the back yard down to where small explosions of chicken wire and collapsed pens leaned and sprawled. They stopped in front of a narrow green cage with a door.
"This is where people will start." Robie carefully swung open the door to the cage. Inside was an enormous egg, an ostrich egg, pale yellow, and serene, resting in a homemade nest of spindly twigs, a bristling network of Ironwood.
They stared at the egg.
"An egg is like a promise," he said, and then he closed the box back up, shrugged. "That's where it starts."
A warped door rested on two sawhorses. Lined up neatly on it were some old cracked aquariums with an assortment of lizards and snakes and spiders. Two red tarantulas squared off, front legs raised in a sinister greeting. A gallon jar housed scorpions, mostly dead. In a pink plastic wading pool, an armadillo shuffled about, his hair stiff and sticking out from under his shell. A desert tortoise slumbered in a milk crate. An ostrich held its wings out from its sides and cocked its head at her, its beak open in a pant. A shabby, spotted horse stood motionless in the center of a corral.
Riva lingered over an empty cage that said Sparky the Roadrunner. On a bed of straw was an empty rusty dish, a dried-up pomegranate and a chicken bone. The cage had a ramp and a door that hung open, framing a small square of sprawling desert, the neat purple line of horizon.
Robie stooped down and looked in Sparky's cage. "It's been a while," he said. He left a handful of scratch piled up in the center of the cage.
He walked over to a large pen covered in chicken wire. Next to the pen sat the little girl in her muddy dress and the boy with the stick. The sign on the cage said Boa. Robie smiled and stopped, "You're in luck. We only feed the snake every couple weeks. It's your lucky day." He raised his voice, "Ready, Olive?" The girl looked at them solemnly, then put earth in her mouth and chewed slowly. Robie rested his hand on Olive's head. "She eats dirt. We don't know why." Riva nodded and soberly said hello.
The little boy toddled over to Robie and silently raised his arms. Robie picked him up roughly and set him on his hip, wiped snot from the child's cheek with his thumb.
"This is Walter," he said and offered no other explanation. They looked nothing alike. "You ready boy-o? Snake day."
He set Walter down next to Olive. She grabbed the boy's hand and stood by the fence. Robie flipped open the door to a hutch and snagged a rabbit. Black and white patches writhed and struggled in his hands, but he grabbed a firm fistful of skin and twisted the feet under. "Ready kids?"
Olive pulled Walter closer to the fence, her face a mixture of fear and fascination.
Robie smiled. "She don't talk. Don’t know why."
Riva wasn't sure if he meant the rabbit or the girl, but it didn't matter. Already he was leaning into the pen, dangling the rabbit by its fat belly. The rabbit whistled in short blasts as the snake slowly slid to life, moving in a purposeful, intent line. Its black tongue shot out a couple of times, then the coils began to unwind more quickly, heading right for the struggle.
Riva felt frozen to the fence, unable to look away, not wanting to watch. Beside her she felt the two children stiffen, rigid fingers clutching the chicken wire. Together, they all held their breath until the last possible second when Riva closed her eyes.
From the way the cantaloupe was sliced into smiley faces with teeth, Riva knew they thought she was much younger than she really was. The old man made them tuna fish sandwiches and gave them each a warm orange soda and told them to go across the street to wait by the pool at the hotel. Riva did what she was told.
A long line of cars hemmed the lot, but her mother's wasn't there. In a small way, Riva was relieved. The whole hotel was just Mallory's style: an old funky adobe that sprawled in several different directions, promising more than it could possibly deliver. The thick walls rippled in places, already starting to sag back into the ground. A hitching post leaned into the wall; an old rusted plow marked the lobby. Riva already knew the kind of place it was with its cute little hand-painted signs in the shape of red arrows pointing down toward one end of the hotel, all of them saying HIST-O-RAMA THIS WAY. It was the kind of place where her mother would hole up for months.
Faded animals rippled across the bottom of the pool: a flat one-eyed fish, a yellow wavy octopus, a rusty rising sun. Olive set her plate and soda down carefully, pulled her dress up over her head and dropped it where she stood. She wore little boy underpants. Batman underpants. She slipped into the water, swam quickly out to a red rubber floaty-horse and pretended that Riva wasn't there.
Riva soaked her feet in the water. She could swim in her tank top and shorts, but she didn't really care for water. Riva had found better games to play. Back when she was just a child, she had played Drowned Girl. She arranged herself out on the desert floor as if her body had been laid to rest. When she lay on her back in the dirt and studied the bowl of sky, she was sure she was on the ocean floor, staring up at the water's surface, miles and miles away. She spent entire days waiting for rain, watching fish bone clouds drift by, high and indifferent. She spread her hair out all around her and clutched small flowers or stones to her breast, set adrift in her current, in a wide sandy wash, a dry river bed. Desert rivers carried no water, she knew that. A dry empty river bed carried only dust and stones, but that hadn't stopped her.
Of course, that was long ago. It might as well have been in another country. Olive scowled at her from the other side of the pool then slowly squeezed her red horse's neck, strangled it with one long, slow squeeze. Riva pictured Mallory, peering through the windshield, driving along without a thought in her head. She took a glum bite of sandwich. There were little bits of pickle and onion in the tuna salad, and she crunched them loudly while picturing the back of her mother's head. Across the bottom of the pool, Olive's body rippled underwater, streaking over the animals, flat and pale. In one swift motion, Riva stood up and walked right down the steps and into the pool, clothes and all. She pushed off the bottom and let the water swallow her whole, stretched out on the surface. She felt her clothes billow out around her. She put her ears underwater and let the sun burn into her. It was the same sun that blazed down on all of them, even her mother frantic behind the windshield roaring down the highway headed in one direction or the other. Riva floated and let the water hold her up on the invisible line between water and sky.
Olive rocked menacingly toward her on the horse, her face a mask of stone. She carefully licked all the tuna fish from her bread, then rode close to Riva, breaking off bits of bread and tossing them into the water, feeding one of her own. Riva closed her eyes, refusing to see this for what it was, a private feeding just for her...
by Diza Sauers
Welcome to HISTORAMA.|
Diza Sauer's debut novel is a brilliant thrill ride,
bringing the forces of legend and the fury of nature
to bear on one messed-up family's future.
Joy Williams offers high praise:
Sauers lives outside Tucson and teaches at the University of Arizona.
Portions of this book originally appeared in the very fine lit journal, Cutthroat.