Me & Jeni

It was hot.  Miserably hot.  So much so that I could barely keep focused on the blade of the knife as stinging sweat poured into my eyes. I kept having to stop and wipe my brow, blink tears away.  On top of the sweltering heat, my nerves were destroying me and I was shaking.  In view of the fact that I had never purposefully cut into another person before, the shaking was appropriate.  Rarely appropriate, on the other hand, was a perfect description of the person I was cutting into.  Jeni.  Jeni didn’t really have time for things like being appropriate or conforming to etiquette.

“Oh my Jesus Christ, would you stop jerking around?”  Jeni spoke into the wind as she sat hunched on the hood of her Datsun 210.  “For fuck’s sake, Amber, it’s only a tiny patch! Just cut it out and let’s go!”  We were hungry and this little patch of skin on the back of her shoulder had to be taken care of before she would allow us to do anything else.

I can honestly say that I’d have demanded the same had I found that there was a decapitated tick head just under a patch of skin on my own shoulder. Even now it makes me gag a little.  She’d picked up a tick somewhere in Missouri.  We hadn’t caught it for a couple of days; it was minute in comparison to the Montana ticks we were used to and by the time she found it, it had embedded itself on the back of her left shoulder.  Of course, she swiped at it immediately, which had dislodged it.  She’d made me look at it closely to see if I could determine whether it’s head had come with it. Apparently my affirmative answer had been wrong.  Now, we were pulled over in some desolate parking lot, and I was trying to focus on cutting a patch of her skin out.

Now, before you get all reasonable and start asking stuff like “Hey, why not a doctor or medical clinic?” or “Why, just why?” or “Do you have a dead heart?” I should fill you in on a thing or two:

1.     We were 19

2.     We had just left our home state of Montana

3.      Neither of us had really ever traveled

4.      We were driving across the United States in a less than safe vehicle

5.      We had very little money

6.      We were so, so dumb

7.      We did not care about how dumb we were; we didn’t have a clue

8.      We had begun with two missions and already suffered one failure

9.      We had gone too far to turn back, almost in every way possible

10.    There was no force on Earth that could keep me from him and she knew it.

I was surprised when the blade popped through the surface of her skin.  Immediately, blood welled up around the incision and she yelled out, “Holy shit!” while jerking her body forward.

“Jeni, dammit, I had just got the guts up.  Now you’re just bleeding everywhere.”  Jeni had jumped off the hood of the car and was running in small circles, droplets of blood oozing through her fingers and splattering the ground in a swirl.

“Fuck, fuck fuckfuckfuck!” She was bending over while she screamed now. The blood droplets were finding their way into her mess of black hair, a few splashed against the white tips of her Converse shoes.  “Fuck!” She stood up straight as a board, threw her head back and started laughing like a maniac, tears streaming down the sides of her face.  Luckily, I was used to this action on her part.  It was her way of facing circumstances that were scary to her.  She chose to laugh like a crazy person and push through.

“Shit, we better do this,” she said “We’ve used up all the time we have for a brown person to be standing on the side of road with a knife. Fucking Feds will be rolling along any second now.  You’re ass is grass if we don’t hurry.” She turned her back on me and bit her lip.  I made two more cuts and scooped a triangle shaped chunk of her shoulder out.  Then we drove to the roadside diner down the road and ordered chicken fried steaks.

My memory of that diner is that everything seemed to be trapped in a time warp, cast under an orange glow and languishing under a thick layer of cigarette smoke.  The entries on the menu were numbered and foreign sounding, but there were some old familiars.  Jeni and I smoked our cigarettes boldly and drank coffee amidst tables full of elderly people who must have wondered a lot about the two of us.  We were not concerned with them at all.  I’d be willing to bet any of the biddies who eavesdropped on our conversation went home and blessed their own ears for having listened to the way Jeni and I used words.

 

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Introducing Clare

Cat opened the door to her house and paused to listen for a moment before proceeding.  She could hear the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon and she knew her mother had at least had a peaceful evening.  After a moment, Cat moved forward into the house and closed the door softly behind her.  A haze of cigarette smoke hung in the living room and Cat waived her hands around her head as if to clear a space to breathe through as she moved towards the stereo. She knew better than to turn the music all the way off, but she rolled the volume dial back a few clicks.  Her mother lay on the couch, near the entrance to the kitchen. Cat moved quietly to the foot of the couch and removed her mother’s slippers.  Pulling a blanket from the back of the couch, she took care to make sure that it draped over her mother’s body from toe to neck.  Lastly, Cat gathered up the pile of pills that had spilled from the mouth of the pill bottle whose descent had brought it to a bouncing halt onto the floor.  She stuffed the pills back into the bottle and tossed it on the floor, watched as it rolled under the couch.  “Good.” She thought, and she didn’t feel bad about the vision of her beautiful mother, bent over and scratching through dust to retrieve her precious prescription, her weakness exposed in the light of the morning sun.

The next morning, Cat rose early and sat dutifully near the phone.  When 9:30 came and went, Cat made some eggs and tried to the fill the hole in the morning with food.  Her grandmother’s calls had gradually ceased, but Cat still waited every Saturday.  “You never know,” she thought to herself, but as she stared out at the apple tree she knew. As surely as she knew how it felt to fall from the highest branches of that tree and lay on the ground trying to suck wind back into an uncooperative rib cage, that talking to mom hurt Grandma in pretty much the same way.  As she sat alone at the table, Cat let her mind wander around her dad’s house for a moment.  Loud and busy, her brothers rushed about, the little ones all crazy and messy and playful, the older one always pensive and perpetually distracted.  She stopped her mind from wandering when it came to the image of her father, sitting at the kitchen table and staring out the window, wondering what he did to make his daughter forsake him.  Cat got up, washed her dishes and filled a glass with ice water. She knelt in front of her mother’s body on the couch and lightly shook her awake. Clare’s eyes were ringed with red, bloodshot and grateful.  She reached a thin hand out and stroked Cat’s cheek after taking several deep gulps.

“Thank you, my girl, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”  Clare’s beautiful white teeth flashed as she gave Cat a quick smile.  Cat wondered if her father would understand why Cat had to stay with her mother if only Clare had shared more of those smiles with him.  Clare’s jet black hair spilled forward onto the floor as she suddenly jerked forward.  Her hands flew to her chest, patting out a desperate search that ended in her lap. Then her eyes turned into dark clouds.  “Where are my pills, Cat, what did you do with them?”  Clare moved more quickly than Cat had thought she’d be able to and she snapped up her daughter’s scrawny upper arm with one hand, her nails digging painfully into the tender skin near Cat’s armpit.

“Jesus Christ, Clare, you probably dropped the god damned things.”  Cat jerked her arm away, wincing as Clare’s nails dug long strips of raw skin that wrapped quickly in a red glow around her arm.  The raw strips on Cat’s soul wrapped a little more slowly, the burn significantly worse.  Cat stood up and looked down at her mother.  “You should get up and eat something.  Maybe take a shower, huh Clare? I’m going to go see what Tony is doing.”   Cat could hear her mother’s knees hit the floor as she opened the door, but she didn’t really care to see the vision she’d imagined the night before, so she just stepped forward into the sunshine on the porch and closed the door behind her.

Poor Man’s Camper

My dad used to tell me and my brothers that patience is a virtue.  As an adult, I have come to view this saying as a both a truth and a tactic.  It’s no coincidence that he would impart this nugget of wisdom on us during times when HE needed patience to deal with our antics, I just didn’t notice that as a child.

Looking back, I know that he lived by this saying for a number of reasons.  It’s a good mantra for people who are poor or struggling.  And for most of his life, my dad has been poor or struggling or both.  Sometimes people get offended by the use of the word “poor”.  Trust me, it is not a description that my father would hesitate to use for himself.  Ever ridden in a Poor Man’s Camper? Not a recognizable term?  Probably because it is one of those things that my father invented out of desperation.

Poor Man’s Camper defined:  A refrigerator box in the back of a pickup truck, filled with kids and about to travel a few hundred miles on MT roads so that transport of the entire family would be possible in the one vehicle we owned.  Also known as a box of potential death or, to my brother, Sonny, the box of torture where he was forced to lick chicken Mcnugget sweet & sour sauce off the cardboard walls. Forced by me. Because he spilled it and I didn’t want it to get in my hair.  It was fine, he could see the gross spots with no struggle; we were child geniuses and had poked holes through the cardboard for light.

My father is a highly talented sculptor.  He can paint and draw too, but he loved sculpting.  His sculptures are breathtaking- and not in the “I can kind of relate to what the artist is doing on subconscious level” way… more in the “holy &%$&^, that is so beautiful I can’t believe you made it” way.  I truly believe that if he had more administrative skills and less children, his career would have been much different.  He never gave up with his work, even though it meant months of travelling, going to art shows all over the US and long stretches of having no money at all.  My childhood memories are riddled with waxballs, foundry tailings, paint specks and art pencils.  He believed in following his dreams, he wanted all of us to believe in our following our own dreams too.  My mom tried not to give up, she really did- but years of near isolation and being almost solely responsible for the daily tasks of raising four kids eventually took their toll.
Of course when the marriage ended, I blamed her- because I was 12 and dumb. Romance and dreams just don’t feed, clothe or diaper children and you can’t stay in love with someone who is always gone. He was running around the country as a hip, starving artist (ok, he probably would say that is not as glorious as it sounds, and I know it wasn’t). She was the “welfare mom” dragging 4 kids around Montana towns where she knew no one without a car. I can understand this now that I’m almost 40 and a little less dumb.  Mom only had to wait for about 10 years for me to come to my senses and cut her some slack.

Still, my brothers and I idolized our dad.  Remember how when taking a solemn vow as a kid, you used to say “I swear to God” because you really, really meant it?  It seemed that the consequences of having lied in an oath including God’s name were bad beyond imagination.  Well…my brothers and I used to ask each other “You swear in Dad’s Name?” to ascertain whether the truth was being told.  I know.  It’s hilarious and sad and we’re all cool with that because sad is always easier with a little bit of humor.  Those who have done some real suffering in life know that this is a truth of surviving tragedy and hardship.   The divorce between my parents was long, truth be told, it pretty much consumed my life after the age of 12. By the time I was 16, I was thoroughly convinced that my parents would hate each other forever and I would never be allowed the privilege of planning an event with my future husband and kids that wouldn’t include having to keep my parents separate.

That was true for a few years, but thankfully, patience is a virtue and grand-kids change everything. I think the reason for that is because grand-kids mean your kids are full grown and you KNOW how fast it happened.  You realize that time with them while they are little really should be a high priority and you’re willing to work through your own personal issues in order to soak up that time. By the time my parents came up for air from their custody battle, two of their kids were old enough to decide who they wanted to live with.   These days, my parents easily hang out with eachother at family functions and, actually, my brothers and I get totally creeped out if they spend any amount of time alone. No, Mom & Dad, you can’t go outside and share a smoke, we’ve had enough of your antics, thank you.

Another Beginning

“Hey Cat?” Tony turned his blue eyes to the sky, leaning his head back, blonde hair shuffling and falling over his ear and cheekbone.  They were sitting on the picnic table in his backyard; an after school ritual.  Cat was perched on the table top with her legs crossed. Tony sat on the bench, reclined with his back against the top of the table, his legs stretched out in front of him.  Over the years, that table had served as many a different setting in their games as they grew.  When they were eight, it was often a pirate ship, or a space ship, a car, a covered wagon.  Last year for awhile it had been their stage during their lip-synced air guitar performances as a rock and roll band.  They’d gotten in trouble for playing the radio too loud and so… the band had to quit, man.  This year they’d both turned thirteen, and so far, the table had only been used as a table.  The tree it sat under, of course, was a different story.

“Hey what?” Cat was quiet these days, her dark eyes often glinting in a way that Tony didn’t recognize.  When she’d first moved into the house next door, she officially became the only girl on the block. The very first day she was there, she’d caught him lurking in the lilac bushes that separated their front yards.  He’d been spying as she helped carry boxes and bags into the house.  Truthfully, he’d been staring because he couldn’t believe how much she could carry considering how skinny she was.  He’d been lost enough in his thoughts about the subject he hadn’t even registered that she’d seen him and made a turn in his direction.  He’d almost jumped out of his skin when he realized that suddenly, she was standing right in front of him, holding a box of clay. She’d dropped the box and put her hands on her hips.  Then, seeing the look on his face, she laughed, reached through bushes, tapped his shoulder and exclaimed, “You’re it!”.  That game of tag had lasted six years so far.

“I haven’t seen Dane for a couple weeks.  Where is he?”  Tony liked Cat’s older brother; he was mysterious.  Dane had always seemed like he was only half present in everything, like part of him was wandering somewhere else.

“He’s in Great Falls with Dad.”  Cat tossed her head back and jumped up, latching on to a bottom branch of the tree with both hands.  In two fluid motions, she hauled her body up and curved it around the branch, coming to a rest in a sitting position on the skinny limb.

“Monkey.”  Tony said as he raised his body from the table and hefted himself up the trunk.  “I have to get on a bigger branch.  That one’s gonna break if I sit on it.”  Cat began to climb to the top of the tree, living up to her name.  She was a fast climber, fearless in that tree, always moving like if she fell, she’d land on her feet for sure.  Tony had gotten less adept at climbing. By the time he reached their spot at the top of the tree, she’d been gazing at the sunset for four minutes.

“Old guy,”  Cat said with a smirk.  He smiled and looked at her, as he’d done hundreds of times since they’d been friends.  Her long black hair always floated around her face as if there was a breeze even if there wasn’t.  Tonight, though, as the sun cast brazen colors into their tree top vantage before fading into a starlit evening, Cat seemed to be shadowed.  Tony quietly sat beside her, wondering what the secret could be.

A Beginning

Dane leaned his forehead carefully against the window of the passenger back seat, the dry summer plains passing before his tired eyes in a yellow-brown blur.  His face throbbed with pain, and his mind ached with regret.  Why hadn’t he just kept his mouth shut and walked out of that bar?  Great Falls hicks’,  he thought.  That town sucks.

His father smoked cigarette after cigarette in the front seat as he drove.  Every once in awhile, the car threatened to die, lagging or jumping a little.  Each time it did, Dane just prayed that he and his father wouldn’t find themselves on the side of the road.  Dane had already suffered almost 48 hours of mind-numbing pain.  If the car died, he figured he might just try to join it.  At this point, he resented his dad for insisting on driving to the Indian hospital in Bozeman almost as much as he resented the hicks who jumped him outside the bar and shattered his lower jaw.  The people at the Indian hospital had refused to accept him, and for whatever administrative reason that his pain-addled brain could not comprehend, they had sent him back to Great Falls without any treatment.

He sighed, leaned back and pretended that he wasn’t where he was. He pretended that his brown skin and long hair hadn’t contributed to the situation at all.  He pretended that he was the one smoking cigarettes and driving, not the one broken and out of control.  As the miles passed, his mind grew calm.  The smell of cigarette smoke began to smell more like burning sage.  He kept his eyes closed and fell into a dream of days when buffalo crossed these plains.  Behind his worn eyelids, he watched the sun drop out of sight as he sat atop his horse, 150 years in the past.  In his dream, he was whole and strong. He felt the lack of nothing.