IT WAS A SILVER AIRSTREAM, the Queen Anne--silver aluminum trailer, gold painted bumper, body and a half wide, four or five bodies long. Or that's what Thurlo said. One night before he'd stopped drinking, Thurlo had measured the Queen by lying back flat on the dirt alongside the silver body. When he stood up, his back was orangey brown from the dirt, and his front was gray T-shirt with the picture of a cartoon red robot and the words "Atomic Robot" in bloody horror movie letters stretched out by the bulge of his stomach.
____It was Thurlo, Edith, me, all of us on the road, driving in the green and white Ford truck that pulled the Queen through the central part of Kansas, the hills part, with rocks in patterns and wheat that just wouldn't give up and lie down even though the rain had been gone for weeks.
____Edith's finger had a lighter part across the brown where the sun hadn't been since June, since she'd taken off the ring Thurlo had given her. I'd seen Thurlo tossing the ring in the air and then putting it back in his pocket. It was a cheap thing, but when the sun hit it, it looked like more. Other than that, we were the same: the three of us, traveling for the fourth week in a row, on a roundabout route out to the edges of the state and back again. The light through the windshield sometimes made triangles on our arms.
____"Fucking prairie," Edith said and then rolled an open bottle of warm cream soda between the palms of her hands so that some of the sticky light brown carried in drops through the air and landed on my leg and the windshield.
____Thurlo and I just nodded, and Edith sighed.
____The road was snakey and difficult. In the rearview mirror, I watched the glint of the Queen shaking over into the margins of the road and lugging back into line. Abandoned houses, gray with time and weather, looked out at nothing: grass, rocks, an occasional cottonwood tree arcing into sky.
____At gas stations, Thurlo kneeled and kissed the Queen's gold bumper and wiped the dust from the windows. We washed hands, arms, hair in bathrooms where mold grew around the edges of tilt-out frosted glass windows. We started driving again and counted trees and talked about the Surgery Channel and the way a leg cut into looked like a wax cast full of stewed tomatoes. I didn't think a thing about time passing.
* * *
EDITH'S HAIR WAS the color of something underground. Sometimes she wore a hot pink wig over it like a shower cap, the brown spilling down from under the manufactured pink. Her real hair went down her back and beyond what I could see. Maybe she was sitting on it. I couldn't tell.
____She was from Arizona, and all her family was still there in a one-story house a few miles from what once had been a nuclear test site. She told me her sisters lived in the back bedrooms with their children, all of them lined up at night and sleeping under bright blankets. In the hallway they had a dartboard onto which they'd taped a magazine photo of a famous dead president, and when all the tips broke off the darts they started throwing dried beans instead of darts, until the spot under the board was heaped with a small mountain of pintos. "My mother was born in Brooklyn," Edith said and then showed me a picture of her mother in a swirled mini-dress on the steps outside of a brownstone. "God knows how she ended up out there," Edith said, but I could tell there was a story she didn't want to tell. "But I'm not going back there," she said "No fucking way," and then she pulled her pink wig off and snapped it into the glove box.
____She had beaded suede moccasins that laced up over her knees that she kept wrapped inside felt and a trash bag. We weren't allowed to go near them. Most of the time she wore an Oscar the Grouch T-shirt and men's workpants, a chain hanging between front and back pockets, and about a million turquoise bracelets all the way up her arms.
____At night we slept lined up in sleeping bags in the back of the Queen, and sometimes I'd wake up and stare at the mural the former owners had painted in crazy children's tempera fluorescents on the long aluminum side wall: animals meant to look friendly had ended up with frightening toothy smiles and whiplash tails. The old owners had craft glued about twenty plaster owls to the counter behind the now defunct sink. The owls were meticulously coated in tiny glued-on shells.
____Sometimes we pulled one of the owls from its spot, set it up on a on a camp ground tree stump and threw rocks at it until it fell and shattered into the dirt. Sometimes we sat in the Queen and made joking hooting sounds at each other until we fell asleep, Edith with her Oscar T-shirt pulled up haphazardly to show her ribs, Thurlo asleep with his mouth open, and dust flying through the rectangle of light from the moon that came in through the back window, and me in the same long frayed black shorts with a surplus backpack full of notebooks and nothing else that mattered.
____Before the Queen, I'd bagged groceries, taken a few pointless philosophy classes, had fallen for a girl who ditched me for a hairdresser who wore snap-pocket western shirts and who gelled his hair into an annoying 50s-ish high hedge. My sister sent me magazine articles about anything I'd ever mentioned even once. "You said you were interested in coal mining...well, here's something you'll want to read," scrawled over a clip-out about a company that had chiseled away mountains, eaten into the land until it was full of nothing but air and dripping water.
____And then suddenly I didn't have an address, didn't have a job, didn't have an apartment. I'd hoped to find something in all the driving around, some kind of purpose or direction, something to take me out of bar life, college town life, the student worker meetings, food not bombs gatherings in the park with the gazebo at its center; rich kids in VW busses wearing "workers of the world unite" T-shirts and taking their laundry home to their mothers. Something to take me away from Bea, the girl who left me for the hairdresser, faux moody, sitting on the tops of buildings at 2 AM and recording the sounds of people leaving bars on a hand-held tape recorder. Bea of the hooded sweatshirt: too-big, black, zip-front, hood hanging down over uneven blonde bangs at night, kohl eyes, painted-on mole, fishnet tights under mailman shorts--and sometimes, cowboy boots. She carried a picture in her wallet of herself as a child, floating in an inner tube, her hair white from sun and in wet streams on her shoulders, with the shadow of the person taking the picture hanging over her. "This says everything about my life," she told me before she dropped me, pointing at the shadow heavy over the little girl her. I didn't know what she meant, but I still spent too many days missing her.
____The wavery snapshot of my Queen life would have looked like this: Thurlo lying on the flat hot hood of the green and white Ford with his shirt off and a few plaster owls sitting on his chest, trying to make his chest tan in some odd pattern of circles and Edith crouched low in front of the truck's grill flailing around with sticks in both hands, as if she were conducting the music of some punk orchestra, and me just at the periphery, a pale leg, light brown hair over the eyes, all three of us looking away instead of forward. I didn't know it then, but really that would be the most purposeful time in my life, the forward motion of air making meaning of each day, but I just couldn't see it. All I could see was the boundarylessness of a life without calendars, the wide-open sad feeling that came from being with people but alone.
* * *
ON THE TWENTY-SEVENTH day of dragging the Queen around, Thurlo wasn't talking. In Cottonwood Falls, just after our second pass by the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, on our way back to the town we'd started in, he'd made a vow of silence, feigning a gulping motion, like he was dropping a key down his throat.
____"Next time you hear from me, we'll be in goddamned Nebraska. Wait a minute. Let me rephrase. We'll be in Canada, somewhere cold and with bears. Somewhere where you can pick berries off of bushes and eat those things for days. I know it's not in the plan, but it's what we should do. Fuck Kansas. Let's go somewhere with a decent campground and no more river snakes and religious freaks enacting the fucking second coming in a bunch of bed sheets."
____"When is the not talking part going to kick in?" Edith looked over at me, and then Thurlo went quiet. All we could hear was the sheer of tire on road, the hard crease of wind through open windows. Edith elbowed me, and we both looked at the ceiling to keep from laughing.
____I'd felt her up once, hand under the tight knit of a white shirt through which I could see the sharp outline of a twisted bra strap, almost gray with need for washing. And then Thurlo had come back from the river by which we'd been camping, and Edith had pulled her shirt completely over her head.
____"You want to see. Here," she'd said and pulled the white fabric until hair, head, and arms were masked by fabric, and just her torso was showing. And then she turned away and pulled the shirt back over her back and started walking away from the fire.
____"Drama queen," Thurlo yelled and dropped a full beer onto a rock so that the glass flipped out in tooth-like pieces visible for just a moment, flying in the firelight. Thurlo had stopped drinking, but he still picked up the bottles, realized, and then cast them out of his hand.
____"When I was a kid, I was obsessed with this Egyptian sun god," he'd told me on one of our first days of driving. We were in the truck, and I wasn't used to the heavy pull of the trailer on the back. All I could think of was the silver trailer crossing over the line and twisting headfirst into a semi and turning all of us dead before we had time to think about what it would mean to die. I was strangely a little in love with both of them, though, with how much they were unlike me, unlike Bea and maybe everyone I had known, with the real direction their aimlessness had taken, and, with nothing else pulling me, was willing to go wherever they said.
____"Really, man, I was so into this sun god," Thurlo said and adjusted the side mirror. "I can't even remember his name now. Isn't that pathetic? Most important thing in my life, and now it's gone from my brain. Gone completely. But, seriously, that sun god was everything. I wish I could remember."
____I didn't know who he was talking about, so I couldn't help him. But I pictured something that made the whole sky yellow and took the blue somewhere else altogether.
____"But then I started caring only about fucking Scooby Doo. Talk about downward mobility. I ran around saying dumb-ass things like 'Where's Raggy,' until my mom would hit me and make me sleep in the snow for an hour, just to know what cold and alone really felt like."
____That day Edith had been sleeping, her head hunched in an odd comma over Thurlo's shoulder, and not a single bump or pothole managed to wake her. The sky was all purple and gray clouds that meant serious weather, and we kept going forward, Thurlo talking, the sky darkening, until the rain drove us under the shelter of an overpass where we stopped and all slept unburdened through dawn. Later, I'd read in some local newspaper that the underside of an overpass was the worst place to be in a storm, that the wind of a storm would turn more violent under the hard overhang of concrete, but for a few hours then it seemed like the safest place in the world.
* * *
I'D MET THURLO and Edith at the co-op where I bagged groceries, Thurlo stocked shelves, and Edith made sandwiches until she said the sight of sprouts would send her leaping from a high floor of a building. But there weren't any tall buildings in that town. There were two-story storefronts that housed jewelry stores, barber shops, a diner where old farmers ate soggy grilled cheeses and dill pickles off of paper plates. There were big old houses cracking on all sides and howling too late every night with the keg parties of frat boys. There were the co-op hippies, smoking pot in Vanagons, living in group homes. There were the black boot punk rock kids hanging out in front of the Game Over, drinking Pabst from cans and taking turns shaving designs into each others' heads late at night when everyone else was sleeping. There were the new people from the city, people with money who thought small town life was something in a book and bought the old houses and redid them in bright colors and planted flowers in ordered clumps around a brick walkway. There was the homeless fire eater with the Elvis Costello glasses who set himself on fire in the park by the gazebo, and that's when Edith decided it was time to go, and I just happened to be hanging around the apartment she shared with Thurlo, playing a cheater's game of Scrabble where everything counted, slang, other languages, made-up words, whatever we felt like.
____Edith threw a penny at a ripped wall map.
____"I've lived here for five years and I've never even been to the middle of the state. I don't even know what's out there. Let's drive all the way across and then back. Let's see everything."
____So we all pooled our money. We figured we had enough for two months. Thurlo revamped the Queen, spent a few weeks on it, and then we were on the road.
* * *
THURLO AND EDITH had been engaged, Edith wearing a thrift shop fake diamond, and Thurlo with a braided band around his wrist that was supposed to mean they were tied together in some way that mattered. The band had snapped a week before at a truck stop where Thurlo bought a clipboard.
____"I'm writing down all the reasons why my life is a shithole," he said once they were back at a campground, illegally parked out in the tent camping section, the Queen hooked up to nothing, and dumping everything in tent camping trashcans or in the river. I tried to close my eyes and think about what had been my apartment bedroom: cot by the wall; army blanket; three cheap Stella guitars lined up in the corner, two without strings, a few textbooks on a bookcase from the Salvation Army.
____"Okay, so, here I go," Thurlo pulled the metal part of the clipboard up and let it snap back down on the wood and then realized he'd bought the board but no paper. He kicked a rock. "I just want to have one thing go right. Just one thing," he said.
____It was late day, still hot, dead yellow grass in sheets over ground. A biplane dipped down over a cloud and then shot up again, leaving a soft-edged stream of white smoke on an otherwise clear pane of sky.
____I took a notebook from my backpack and positioned it on the clipboard. Edith pulled the husks off of corn they'd taken right out of a farm field. She twisted the husks into a light green braid and then tore them into strips. She was wearing her pink wig, in spite of the heat, with her brown hair tucked up underneath so she was just dark skin, fake pink head, brown eyes under the wig fringe.
____"Number one: I'm an idiot." Thurlo took his time in writing it down: big letters, all over the page, outlined, and encircled in stars.
____Edith snorted out a laugh.
____"That's a nicer term than the one I would use, but of course you're free to go with it. Go wherever you want with it."
____We were living off of organic food store remains, whatever we'd taken from the co-op, just before pushing out of town. A whole crate of mangoes now whittled down to one moldy gray oval that sat like a dead mouse in a milk crate. A super-sized plastic tub of ground peanut butter, no sugar, no preservatives, almost empty. Plastic overstocked bags of dried papaya spears that no one liked. And of course the huge box of marinated tofu, Italian herb style. We'd eaten it raw, cooked on sticks over a fire, cut up and mixed in with mangoes, on bread with peanut butter, and then we'd had to stop eating it.
____"Tofu mother fuckers. Organic dumb shits." Edith kicked at the tofu box that Thurlo had turned over and made into a table. She threw the corn onto the ground and walked away from the campsite.
____Thurlo looked at her back.
____"I should follow her, right, something romantic like that. No way, man. I'm not going to fall for that. She's done that to me too many times. Let's play checkers." But I could tell he really wanted to go with her. He watched her back, and the place between his eyebrows twitched a little, and then he looked away and scratched out a checkers board in the ground, getting all the numbers of squares and rows just right. He had turned an antenna from a junked car we'd passed into a kind of modified walking stick slash all-purpose tool. His face was scarred on one side, and his black hair was almost spiky over his forehead. He'd lost two brothers in a car wreck: car bouncing over train tracks at a drunk hour of early morning, people coming back from a bar.
____At that point, I hadn't lost anyone really, and all I could do was tell him about Bea in the fizzy light of early morning, pulling boots up over black stockings and leaving without saying anything or about my mother who had tripped on a landing in a department store, hit her head and ended up in an assisted living center where my sister spent every day by her bed, neither one of them talking to anyone but staring at the window or at the tv, which was always on. I wanted to do something for her, but every time I tried, I walked away thinking I'd made things worse.
____"That's really rough," Thurlo said and hit my upper arm with his hand. His arm had a chief's head tattooed into the bicep. The campground was empty except for a few tents full of families at the other end with a camp site picnic table loaded down with discount Townhouse crackers and cinnamon Pop Tarts, everything bulk and in triplicate and a big man wearing a confederate flag bandana on his head, frizzy fried-out hair sticking out from under the cloth, sitting guard on a rock.
____"So, hey," Thurlo whistled. "Let's play."
____In checkers, I was sticks, and Thurlo was rocks, and he always won. I was too distracted by the shadowy moon, the changes in its surface as clouds skidded over white and back onto the blue-gray of coming night. Or the sounds of animals in the trees, watching.
____"I'm going back to South Dakota," Thurlo said and scratched his foot with the antennae. "That's where I'm going. I'm sick of this shit-ass heat."
____A flashlight made swoops of light on the path to the bathrooms. Two kids wearing long T-shirts walked with their mother, a pale fat woman. The two girls stopped right by the Queen, and one of them knocked on the gold bumper.
____The mother yelled at them to keep going, and the flashlight bobbed over rocks and made inroads into gatherings of trees. At that point, I couldn't imagine going home, couldn't imagine being in a room alone, with doors, with one window and dirty blinds keeping the night out.
____I moved a stick and jumped one of Thurlo's rocks. I thought South Dakota would be gray-brown, tufts of tundra-ish low grass, cowboy cities where men ate big steaks for restaurant prizes and polished belt buckles before going to bed, and poor towns where people sat on steps and scratched their legs with rocks and didn't go inside even in bad weather. I was ready for a new state, a new place, somewhere where I could possibly be someone else altogether, a person who carried an old-fashioned lunch pail and worked in a factory and maybe didn't care about things in a way that would hurt him, or a person who lived in a ranch house and never stopped while walking to look through a tree at the sky. But I didn't know if that really happened. I didn't know if you could ditch the things you didn't like and add new things to who you were, or if you were just stuck with all of it forever.
____The etched-in checkers board was sloppy by then, borders blended, and the fire was dying out, so we could barely see. When I looked up again, Thurlo had fallen asleep, eyes down, a bright spot on his face from the light of the smoldering fire, but still sitting up, his right leg out in front of him and twitching through some dream.
* * *
WHEN EDITH CAME back late that night, she carried a brown paper bag. She overturned it onto what was left of the dirt checkers board. It was full of zingers and two-for-a-dollar bags of candy: hot tamales, orange slices, gummy worms.
____"If I do nothing else, I'm going to eat these until I seriously have to vomit. Just carry me to the river when it gets to that point."
____Thurlo woke up and without saying anything shot his hand out, and Edith filled it with multi-colored candy worms. I put a candy orange slice in my mouth and felt the quiet shock of pure sugar.
____The river was a small scar, only a little water in a drought month, moving by in slow starts, but movement near us while we slept and into the morning when we would, I thought, wake up and again start driving back toward the town we had left a month before.
* * *
AWEEK LATER, we were in Minnesota, at a wide lake heavy with mosquitoes and brimming with leeches, on a roundabout route to South Dakota. It hadn't taken much to talk us into going. It hadn't been much of a decision at all. "Let's not go back," Thurlo had said that morning while we ate leftover candy out of a torn cellophane bag. "Why bother?" he said, and Edith looked up at him and then past him, smiling toward the water. "I'm in," she said and ripped a leaf to shreds in between her two tennis shoes. "You?" Thurlo asked me and pulled on his dirty Atomic Robot shirt. I couldn't tell if they wanted me to go, but I couldn't stand that thought of going back to nothing, going back and having to pretend to like staying still while everything changed around me. I nodded, and then we were all back in the truck, Edith telling us about roadkill squads that came out when someone hit a moose in Alaska, came with saws and knives and picked the moose clean of meat enough to feed whole families for all the months of winter.
____In the Minnesota morning, Edith put her feet in the water and pulled them out, covered with the thin black ribbons of leeches. She looked at them for a few minutes before pulling them off.
____"That's how some people used to get cured of things," Thurlo said from in front of a fire he'd built before the day really started. "Suck the sickness out of them with those guys. Fucking scary, if you ask me."
____Edith pulled at the leeches, one at a time, and dropped each one back in the water.
____The night before, we'd spotted a tent by the water. One nylon wall was slashed open, and animals had rattled through the inside, leaving pieces of plastic grocery bags and smashed cans in a tangle of leaves and mud outside the tent's opening.
____"Let's go check out that tent," Thurlo said and scratched under his sweatshirt.
____We'd bought matching NASCAR sweatshirts for $3.99 each off of a sale shelf at a truck stop at the Minnesota border. The old man behind the counter hadn't moved his cigarette out of his mouth throughout the whole transaction, and a long piece of ash had dropped into the bag we carried out of the store with us. The sticky heat of Kansas was over. The grass in the median between the highways was green, and the ground was almost black with moisture. Each lake we passed looked the same. Thurlo stole a disposable camera from a convenience store and took Edith's picture in front of a building-sized statue of Paul Bunyan.
____I hadn't washed my hair in a week, the last time with pump soap under a gas station faucet. Edith had her brown hair in braids, and Thurlo had shaved his head with a pink plastic razor a few days before. People looked at us and looked away quickly.
____That morning--with the low clouds hanging over the lake--it felt like one of those border days that seemed like it would either be the end of something or the beginning, but not a day to blend in and simply be forgotten.
____Thurlo walked over to the tent and took his antennae pointer and lifted the ripped gold nylon over to one side.
____"Can't mess with other people's stuff," Edith said and smacked a mosquito off her forearm. I could see pink welts on her hands, in between fingers even.
____"You and your sacred bullshit," Thurlo said and leaned over and started scratching Edith's hand for her. I didn't know what was going on between them. We all still slept in sleeping bags, lined up, no contact, but I could tell something was different.
____I looked at the lake. I wouldn't have been surprised to see fish flying above the water in synchronized patterns, but instead the lake was quiet except for a few fishermen in a metal boat, late in coming in off the water.
____Next to the tent, I saw a box with Sharpie writing and masking tape across the rumpled cardboard top. It read, "Souvenir: Stockholm" and shook like bones when rattled.
____I went over and ripped off the masking tape.
____Edith and Thurlo sat next to the tent, and Thurlo started tapping Edith's head with the antennae, and she started laughing.
____"See, we're looking into someone's stuff, and we're still okay," he said. "No one is getting zapped into another world or anything like that."
____"You never fucking know what's going to happen," Edith said, but she wasn't mad. She was laughing.
____Inside the box, there were about fifty little finger-sized wooden dolls, all exactly the same with painted-on faces and yellow painted hair. They wore tiny blue and white checked dresses, and their arms and legs actually moved.
____My sister had once had something similar: small dolls from other places: the island doll with a patchwork turban, the hula doll with a grass skirt, the Indian doll with a suede backpack inside of which was a fingernail sized plastic baby, all of which my mother had given to her, had collected from each vacation she'd ever taken. They sat on a shelf in her room, all in a row, and once after an argument I'd swept them into a trash can that I'd hid under the bathroom sink for weeks while everyone looked for them. It was one of the few times I'd been intentionally mean to anyone, and maybe later I wished I could take it back. But at the time, there was something satisfying about the clean sweep of it, about the secret of hiding small things someone cared about too much.
____That day by the queen, we lined the Swedish dolls up on the bumper and then Thurlo walked all the way to the town to a hardware store and bought super glue and came back and glued them onto the back wall of the Queen, just resting on the bumper. This is a sign, I thought. Something good will happen. By the time we reached South Dakota, they were all still there.
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