|Jan/Feb 2020 Poetry Special Feature|
We got cowboy hats for the long car trip and belts with holsters
that hung low on our little-girl hips. We were headed for California
so Mom could see her only brother, Uncle Chet, in the hospital.
We aimed our plastic pistols straight at one another's chests, aimed
to be the quickest draw in the west. I always won or at least
convinced my sister to fall, slo-mo, hand on heart, into the dirt.
On the road, my mother made white bread and bologna sandwiches
in the front seat. We washed them down with warm water from a gallon
jug. There was no soda, not even any Kool-Aid. And no dessert.
We didn't stay at Roy's Motel because money didn't grow on trees.
Nights, my father found a churchyard and slept on the lawn. No believer
in any Almighty, he still believed no mortal would dare disturb him there.
So my mother curled up in the front and pretended to sleep.
We sisters shared the back. The bawl-baby got the whole seat
to herself and I got the hard and dusty-smelling floor, hump and all.
The hump kept me restless. Lying awake, I watched the moon
sail the dark river of sky. An unblinking eye, all-seeing as my mother,
it spied, pried into my thoughts, reminded me to say my prayers.
I spent whole days scouting the horizon for smoke, scanning every ridge
for Indians on the warpath, for Jim Bowie and Wyatt Earp, singing
their TV theme songs over and over until my Dad said to hush up.
By fall, I was in second grade. The news had beat us home. Uncle Chet
was dead. I told my friends I'd seen the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest,
that I'd met Gorgeous George in his purple cape and shook his hand.
I told them I'd gotten a Davy Crockett hat with a real raccoon tail.
I don't remember if those things were true. All I know for sure is what I glean
from a handful of photos, curling at the edges, faded black and white:
Our old Chevy parked on a dusty road, nothing to see for miles
but sand and cactus, two little girls with bad haircuts, cotton shirts stuck
to our skin, my mother trying her best to smile into the harsh white light.