CCW Finalist, Fiction
Dad and Dawn get the idea that a road trip would be fun. Dawn likes to travel. Dad likes Dawn. It’s perfect, they tell me.
Only one problem: if Dawn goes, Mona needs to go. Mona’s fourteen. She can spend a few days alone but even Dawn’s independent spirit doesn’t allow for leaving her daughter unattended for three weeks. So, if Dawn goes, Mona goes. And Mona will be poisonously bored unless she has company. Possibly even if she does. That’s the way Mona is.
Dad buys a long white Oldsmobile 98 for the occasion, a sort of rich-old-lady-in-Pomona-Beach car. The kind of car you expect to see a coiffed toy poodle in, riding along on the shelf behind the back seat or poking its pink-ribboned top-knot up to peer out of the passenger-side window.
Dad loves buying new toys—cameras, shavers, even kitchen appliances if they have a lot of chrome on them. Once he bought a miniature vacuum cleaner that was supposed to clean the fleas off of his cat. The cat clawed him bloody trying to escape and the contraption ended up at the Salvation Army drop-off bin. Now he raves about “the Olds”—how much room it has inside, side to side. “You’ll be able to stretch out full length,” he says, nudging me for a response.
“Great, Dad.” I’m fifteen. I enjoy the game of knocking down his volleys of over-wrought enthusiasm.
“The suspension is so good, it’s like floating down the highway.” He demonstrates an air-mattress-like ride with one hand in the air.
“That’s nice,” I say, flatly.
“Come on,” he nudges me again. “It’ll be fun. Will you come?”
I agree to come. In spite of my non-plussed demeanor, I think it sounds like fun. Dad says we’ll go past the Great Salt Lake then veer north to Yellowstone and into Canada. I’ve never been to Canada. I imagine dense forests full of bears and moose. Finally we’ll end up in Massachusetts where Dawn’s sister lives.
* * *
The first three days are flat. The San Joaquin Valley is flat. Nevada is flat. Utah is flat. The unbroken level goes on and on in all directions. The inside of the car is tongue red. Outside, everything is a muted shade of khaki, dry and still.
We stop to float in the Great Salt Lake. A row of telephone poles along the road stick up out of what looks like snow and lean at odd angles. Dad says the salt corrodes their bases, gnawing them off at the ankle. Heat shimmers on the horizon. We get out of the car and put on our bathing suits.
The water is lukewarm and thick, like spit, against my calves. Mona says, “Gross!” which she says a lot on this trip, with great vehemence. Unlike the rest of us, Mona hates new things in general, preferring the expected, the known. She likes her own ratty bedroom best, her splayed toothbrush, her Count Chocula for breakfast; national chains like Howard Johnson’s or Denny’s come a close second.
Dawn laughs at Mona’s sourness but it’s not a real laugh. She wades in. I wade in behind her. Even Mona gives it a try. I sit back to float like the people in the postcards that say the salt content is so high you can’t sink. I sink. I have to tread to stay afloat. The people in the postcards smile. I can’t figure out what makes them so happy, except probably that they’re getting paid for modeling.
The air smells swampy, of rotting things. The heat makes my face sweat and the water’s not cool enough to appease it, even if I did consider putting my head under, which I definitely don’t.
A lot of pale people in ill-fitting shorts and t-shirts mill about on the shore. They, like us, have come to see this phenomenon—the Great Salt Lake—and seem to, like us, find themselves at a loss, waiting for the revelation, for some great joy that doesn’t show up for its appointment.
Mona grumbles as she drags herself out of the water and stands, dripping, shoulders sagging, on the shore. “I don’t see what’s so fucking great about it.”
* * *
Yellowstone is better. We pass buffalo, grazing like cattle by the sides of the road in.
Dad books us into the old lodge as a treat. It’s a strange cavernous building, a log cabin with serious delusions of grandeur. A Lincoln Log palace. I stand in the middle of the main lobby and look up—three? four ?—stories overhead. The ceiling is an inverted basket of criss-crossing logs. The beams look too heavy and rudimentary to hold up a ceiling. They look patched together by some pioneer who had seen a picture of a cathedral but had no engineering training. It strikes me as likely that it will come clattering down on my head. I avoid the main lobby after that, skirting it at the edges when I have to go through.
Mona and I get our own room. That’s the way it works at all the motels on this trip. We prefer it that way and our parents sure as hell do.
Mona has brought along a baggie of pot her friend Lisa gave her as a going-away present. Lisa is mad at me for going. She thinks that, if I’d refused, Dad and Dawn would have paid for her to come. It’s probably true—anything to keep Mona occupied. Lisa isn’t so much miffed to miss the cultural adventure of a drive across the country as she is convinced that I’m “stealing” Mona from her. I’m not sure what to think of this. It sounds as if Mona and I are going out. I’m also not sure I want Mona, at least as her sole proprietor. She’s a pain in the ass. I can usually only take her in limited doses. I don’t tell Mona or Lisa this, though. I enjoy having what someone else wants.
I write to my boyfriend Don every day. It’s not that I miss him so passionately but I have a lot of time on my hands. Plus I like to write and I’m hoping that I can get a copy of my letters from him when I get home so I can make a trip journal.
I do miss him too. Kind of. Before we left I was spending all of my free time with him. I’ve been telling him daily that I love him, because he tells me he loves me and I have to say something. So I think of him a lot. I keep poking into my feelings, testing what I do feel. Do I miss him? I decide that I sort of do, especially when Mona is in a mood and won’t speak to me. Am I, as my friend Nadja likes to say, “horny”? I want to be. I know it’s cool to be horny if you’re a girl. It means you’re liberated and tough and adventurous. The strongest desire I can work up, though, is a fondness for the way it feels when Don lies on top of me, that pressure down on my body. I like the way it’s hard to breathe in all the way and the sense of being held, of belonging firmly in one place.
Mona and I get stoned in our room in the lodge. The room smells of wood and clean sheets. I like that about it. It’s dark in there, with the walls and floors all made of unpainted wood.
“Now what should we do?” I ask. I sit cross-legged on my single bed. Mona’s over on hers.
“I dunno,” she says in her pretend dumb voice, “What you wanta do?” It’s a routine we do when she’s in a good mood. It’s from the two vultures in a movie who sit on a dead branch in the swamp and go back and forth: What you want to do? I dunno, what you want to do? We saw the movie together a while ago.
“I know,” she says. “Let’s take a bath.”
We saw the tub earlier while exploring the lodge, looking for cute boys. It’s in a separate room down the hall. There’s no toilet in there, just a big claw-foot tub. Everyone on the hall shares it.
A bath sounds good to me. The air outside has a sharp edge to it. Its chill even seeps through our bedroom window.
We gather bleached lodge towels, small bars of soap wrapped in paper, our razors, shampoo, and slippers. When she’s stoned, Mona gets much more agreeable, like now. Her sharp edges go fuzzy. As I open the door a crack, she presses into me from behind. We both peer out. It seems very important that we not see anyone on our way to the tub room. We look left. No one. Right. No one. We look at each other and dissolve into laughter.
We make it to the tub room undetected. We bolt the door and settle in. There’s one chair, a wooden, straight-backed one that Mona claims. I pile my things on the floor.
We turn the taps on full. Hot water pounds into the deep enamel tub. Steam rises. Mona pours in some of her shampoo which makes great dollops of bubbles. We both undress and stand, naked, waiting. When we look at each other, we double over, laughing.
After what seems like a long time, standing there naked, the tub fills. We climb in.
It’s a vast tub or maybe being stoned makes it seem so. Mona’s head lies acres away, past many white frothy hills. My legs stretch out and never brush her skin. We dodge side-to-side to see each other around the bubbles. I show Mona how my hands turn into brontosauruses, craning above the foam hills. Her hands take shape—two more inquisitive heads, turning one way then the other. Eventually the four of them get into a battle for territory.
Someone knocks. Mona calls out, “Occupied.” She says it in three distinct syllables—ock-you-pied—and then cracks up.
I don’t know how long we’re in there. The bubbles go flat. My fingers wrinkle into little old lady apple-doll faces. Another knock sounds. Mona is delighted. She shouts out again, “Occ-u-pied!” Footsteps go away down the hall.
It could be hours. Puddles cover the floor. The water in the tub goes lukewarm. We add more water to heat it up, even let some drain out to give room for more but we’re losing ground.
“Brr,” Mona says.
“Let’s get out.”
There are other knocks. No one says anything. They just go away again and it’s difficult, in the steamy warmth of the tub room, to really believe anyone else exists. Other people are an unlikely theory that no one has yet proven.
Mona and I wrap our towels around our bodies. We bunch our belongings in bundles; mine are wet. Again we peer out a crack in the door. The hall is as empty as it was when we came. Did we imagine the knocks? We rush out and down the hall, laughing and tripping on each other’s feet. We leave behind us the dripping tub room, a quarter of an inch deep in cooling water.
* * *
The next morning, we all wake early. Dad and Dawn ask us into their room. I expect them to lecture us about hogging the tub but they don’t.
“Come with us to the geysers,” Dawn says. “You want to?”
I want to. Mona says she’s seen geysers. They’re boring. And they stink.
Dawn laughs. She wraps her arms around Mona. They’re both standing up. Dawn rocks. She rocks Mona back and forth like a metronome. “Come on,” she chides. “Come out and play, little Mona.”
Mona fights back a smile. When Dawn tries to kiss her cheek, Mona leans away but she relaxes into the circle of her mother’s arms, going so soft she looks as if she’ll melt onto the floor. “Okay, okay,” Mona says, feigning distaste. “I’ll come with you. Now let me go.”
It’s Mona’s idea. We’re all in Dad’s and Dawn’s room, getting ready to go outside, and Mona says, “Can we get stoned?” She means together, before we go to the geysers.
I’m stunned. Mona and I have worked so hard on this trip and before to sneak around when we get high. We hide our matches, our butts. We chew mint gum afterward.
Dawn’s eyebrows arch up. “Mona-pie!” she says. “My goodness.” As usual, Dawn’s tone is ironic. She’s joking and serious at the same time about being shocked. It’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. She looks over at my dad for his reaction.
He blusters. “Well, I don’t know.”
“Come on.” Mona’s tone is scathing. “We know you guys do it. You know we do.”
Dawn shakes a finger at Mona. “Is that where all my weed has been going? You little hamster, you.” Again, it’s a game. I think Dawn must have known all along. Or, if she didn’t, she doesn’t seem too worried.
Mona flushes. “Mom!” she says.
Dawn draws in a breath and sits straighter. “Well,” she says. She looks to Dad again. “I guess it would be all right. A family outing, as it were. What do you think?”
Dad says, “Sure,” but he doesn’t sound sure.
Dawn pulls a stone pipe out of her hand bag. She lights a bowl of pot, tokes, passes the bowl to Mona.
* * *
The four of us take the little geyser nature walk through the fields that surround the lodge. It’s a mile, two at the most, all of it on a boardwalk with slats silvered by the elements. It’s the sort of trail that old people who can’t walk well take or people in wheelchairs or parents with toddlers. It’s tame and usually crowded but this morning, with our early start, we’ve gotten out of the lodge by eight. The air is chill and the other tourists must still be in the dining hall, having their coffee and hot chocolate.
The trail leads behind small stands of pines until we can no longer see the lodge. There are signs giving the names of trees in Latin and the history of the buffalo herd.
“Hey, look!” Mona points to one side of the trail. There’s a bubbling puddle of mud. Further on is another one, in livid yellow, and farther on a red one.
“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” Dawn says. She makes witchy fingers at Mona.
Mona pushes her away. “Mom, stop. You’re scaring me.”
One of the cauldrons burps. Dad says, “Oh, pardon me.” Dawn laughs. Suddenly hot mud explodes upward. Mona stumbles into me. Dawn whoops. We all grab onto each other as the air fills with sulfurous steam. Another geyser erupts and another. Each time Dawn whoops.
Steam obscures the meadows, nearby trees, even the boardwalk itself everywhere but directly underfoot. The four of us are enveloped in a white cave. It’s like being in the tub room again, the air wet around us and no other people in all the world.
Dawn links arms with me and with Mona. She says, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”
Mona laughs, a genuine laugh with no bitter undertones for once.
I grab Dad’s arm on the other side and pull him to me. Together Mona and Dawn sing, “Follow, follow, follow, follow . . . follow the Yellow Brick Road.” They start to skip down the boardwalk, jerking me and Dad along. We fall into step, synchronizing our skips so the four of us zig-zag down the rickety wood path through the clouds of steam. Back and forth, back and forth, we go enthusiastically as if we have no idea which way we’re headed but at least we belong together.