Stowaways

Fiction
Kimberley Idol


Catholic girls who fail their families learn to lie to their loved ones and tell the truth to strangers. My grandmother shared her secrets with cast offs and drifters who bunked at her place, pawned her knick-knacks, and forgot to let the dog out until it shit on the carpet. She lived in that kind of company because finding caretakers for aging addicts is a grueling chore. She would drink all day then drive through town in her big blue Thunderbird looking for spies or dead husbands or houses she no longer owned. If we hid the car she called the cops and blamed her minder. The cops didn’t respond, but the calls made them testy.

The last time we visited, Grandmother had not answered her phone for days. I tripped across a rocky surface to get to the light switch, and then had to sweep a passel of turds onto the porch. She was wizened and pale and had not washed for a while and she sat on the couch and talked about her father while Meg and I cleaned house. It took us three days and then we left promising nothing. Sobriety infused Grandmother with a stunning meanness and never lasted, so we didn’t bother. It wasn’t as if there was some great life waiting for her if she kicked. Protective Services forced us to put her in a home. The home dried her up and she died within the year, a babbling mess. My mother decided to bury her in the desert, which meant a long drive for Meg and me.

The night dropped in on us while we were in a store buying snacks and ChapStick. We coasted away from Baker towards Death Valley into pitch black. The stars were high and the moon was out but neither cast much light. Keeping tight to the white line, Meg shifted into fourth and revved to 80 miles-per-hour. Thanksgiving night was probably not one patrolmen would spend sitting on a dark desert road.

I had agreed to come because Meg asked, because I was supposed to help but I felt like a visitor rather than a relative. I reached for the chips in Meg’s lap. She moved faster than I did and tossed the bag out the window. I wedged the sodas behind my seat, where she would have to ask for help if she wanted another.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Somewhere in the back,” Meg said.

I rummaged through the bags in the back until I unearthed the urn that held grandmother’s ashes. It was slick and cold with the look, but not the feel, of pebble stone textures. Meg had picked it out and tried to dun me for half. I would have picked something cheaper. I posted her request “return to sender.”

“It doesn’t seem like much.” I shook the container.

“She weighed seventy pounds when she died,” Meg said. “That seems like more than it should be.”

“If we hucked it into the desert, no one would know,” I said.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Mom should be doing this.”

“Mom can’t.”

“What can Mom do?”

“Tell us to do it,” Meg said. “Bree, put it back.”

I sympathized with my mother’s impulse. Grandmother had been an enduring affliction. She was wild and witty when she was sober and younger but my good memories of her were clobbered by the bad ones and, in the end, I was sorry to have known her. I returned the urn to the footwell where it nestled among the groceries. I wished there were two other granddaughters who could bury it. Grandmother had grown up in a place much like Death Valley and had hated it. She would have despised our decision to bury her in the desert.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” I said.

“We’ll bury her, we’ll eat, read and drink, and we won’t talk about anything unpleasant,” Meg said. She pulled her sunglasses from her pocket and put them in the glove compartment.

I realized that I had forgotten to stow mine and felt around. “Like what?”

“Did you talk to Mom before we left?” she asked.

“I love the way the stars shine once you get out of the city,” I replied.

“You do get my drift.”

“Do you know—” I started to ask until I saw the remains of my glasses, black shards, at Meg’s feet. “Those were new,” I said.

She ignored me or could not hear my voice. She had the music turned up high. And even though it was freezing, we had rolled the windows down because we both liked the wind and didn’t mind knots in our hair.

“Girls like you two are the reason I sympathize with Medea,” my mother had said once. She kept our hair trimmed short. Meg hid whenever it was time to visit the barber. I just cried. Once we both got older, we grew our hair long and let it knot.

“Poor Mom,” I said.

“What?” Meg yelled.

“Do you still leave your drawers open just a little?” I asked.

“What?” She turned down the music.

“I still leave my closet door cracked,” I said.

She laughed. “I never put my things away.”

When my mother could not sleep, she roamed the house, righting all the household details she hadn’t the time to attend to during the day. I remember that she wore a velveteen dressing gown, walked in bare feet across cold hardwood floors and moved so quietly that she never woke us even if she entered our room to tidy what we would not.

“Why didn’t you make Mom come?” I asked.

“Why didn’t you speak to her before we left?”

“She makes me feel thoughtless.”

“You make yourself feel selfish,” Meg said. “She doesn’t say a word.”

“She can’t stay in a room with me alone,” I said.

“You make decisions for us without permission.”

“Neither of you make any decisions at all.”

We let the conversation die.

Dead ends are easy to spot, harder to avoid. Meg fiddled with the tuner. I searched for a sweater. When enough time had passed, we tried again.

“I bought a copy of Omega Man the other day,” Meg said. It was her third copy. Meg lost DVDs and CDs like other people lost socks and pens.

“Instead of Road Warrior?”

“I like Omega Man better. In the end, he dies a hero,” she said.

“I prefer Road Warrior,” I replied.

“Why?”

“In the end, he has no family.”

The staff called me when Grandmother arrested. Mom was in Ireland and Meg had aborted the DNR order. I resurrected it and Grandmother died. It was not the first time she had nearly expired. My grandmother had lived her life carelessly. Neither Meg nor Mom agreed with my decision. If there was a right or wrong to these things, I didn’t know what it was. I managed my grandmother’s details but I never visited. Meg visited but never made decisions. Two parts of one person created a kind of grandchild for the crazy old broad who had endless insatiable needs. It wasn’t the booze that made my grandmother crazy, it was enduring selfishness that made her a bitch and cut her loose from the rest of us. You can’t save what you can’t succor. She craved attention but insisted on privacy. She phoned at all hours then vanished for days. She wanted a servant, not a caretaker. She could not see well but wanted a car, not a driver. She wished we would visit, but made a scene when we did. She flirted with our dates, fought with our friends, and only phoned when she was drunk. She lied when she was sick and told her friends we didn’t care and every Christmas she threatened to kill herself usually just as company was arriving for dinner. She also gave odd gifts that we stowed in closets so we could display them when she asked.

She adored her father until he evicted her. After that, I am not certain she loved anyone again. I saw him once, a mean bundle of bones clustered under hospital sheets in a white room. Snotty men sometimes raise ratty daughters. Grandmother cared for him in his declining years. She also cleaned out his bank accounts on cruises to Mexico before anyone noticed that there was no money left to pay his bills. I think that was the first time I saw my mother cry and I recognized the same fragile mindset staking its claim on the next generation. If it was as easy as changing your name, I think I would have liked to have been an astronaut. I would pass overhead in a speeding shuttle and watch my family cope and never touch ground.

“Grandmother left you the jade,” Meg said.

From time to time, Grandmother would tell us about the things we would inherit when she died. She’d make a list and ask us which items we wanted. I refused to play. Shiny things were Meg’s purview.

“Did she have any left?” I asked. “I thought we spent everything on the hospice.”

“She kept the jade. She wanted you to have it.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Then I want you to give it to me.”

“No.” I replied on instinct, not knowing why. In theory, Grandmother had owned a heavy jade necklace with matching earrings. No one had ever seen them except in pictures. Shapeless and pale, the pieces were ungainly lumps. Grandmother said she wanted us to have them. Her offerings angered me.

“I need you to give it to me,” Meg said.

I heard her but pretended that I didn’t.

“I need,” she said, louder.

I waved my hand at her to indicate that I understood. As we raced through the vast dark space I could imagine infinity for a moment. I was feeling edgy; infinity seemed a comforting thought, like a weightless place where the past anchored no one to the ground.

Grit pelted the windscreen and skittered away. Too late to save ourselves from the burst of debris cast by a wind devil, we rolled up the windows. Meg palmed a pack of cigarettes and shook one out into her lap.

“Don’t,” I said.

“Cause you say so?” She felt around for her lighter.

“Cause it’s shitty for you,” I replied.

She laughed. When she did, she turned her head so I could see the scar on her chin. Seven stitches closed the wound.

“I believe I told you that bouncing downhill on a Hippity Hop was a shitty idea, too.”

“I remember thinking that you don’t get to tell me what to do.” She crushed the cigarette and let the pieces drop to her feet by my glasses.

“You giggled when they sewed you up.”

“You belted Kitten Lawrence with a stick when she tried to tease me afterwards.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Maybe I made it up.” She loaded Rick James into the stereo and then lit up. We had sixty miles to cover before we would arrive at the road that cut from the highway into the desert. There was another forty minutes to go after that before we crossed onto another dirt track that led to the house, if the trail hadn’t been washed away by winter rains.

We called it the ranch. Jo and Harry, my mother’s friends, raised Arabians there until Harry died, then Jo let the place rot, which happens in a heartbeat in the high desert, where the constant elemental battering weathers everything to a wizened remainder. Mom leased an acre of sand from Harry and set a mobile home there when Meg and I were kids. It became a refuge, a place to be happy, sad, angry and scared, out of sight of the rest of the world. It was a place where you could sit and reflect without having that reflection cast back at you.

“Super Freak” blared from the speakers and filled the car with a masculine shriek. To me, it was one of those songs you endure, but I knew someone somewhere found it melodic.

“You don’t like it?” Meg asked.

“Love it,” I replied. I had a CD of bagpipe music in my bag. Stolen from an old boyfriend who had been taking lessons, I kept it to remind me that there were things about my lost love that I could do without. Meg and I would be listening to it later. I hated it, but so did Meg. Every win is a tradeoff. A pair of high beams dimmed on the road up ahead. Meg flicked ours off in kind. Travelers leaving Vegas sometimes preferred this route instead of Interstate 15. I thought of them as interlopers on our road. This highway was the way to our home. Rabbits drawn to the lights but wary of the noise skittered along the edges of the road. One or two crossed the road in an uncertain, skippy fashion. It had been a rainy season, and both the rabbit and snake populations had blossomed. The insects had flourished too. Our window screen was smeared with a hatch pattern of broken wings and smashed bug bodies.

The China Ranch Date Farm whipped by on our right. It marked a halfway point between our ranch and Baker. Presaged by a stand of palms, the orchard remained hidden from the road but signs indicating the wealth of souvenirs for sale lined the driveway. The logo for the farm was three trees. They looked like oaks to me. Oaks don’t grow in Death Valley.

“I only poisoned five trees between my condo and the bay.” Meg said.

The sign of the trees put us both on the same track.

“Did your neighbors ever sue?” I asked. The story had hit the papers and Meg was famous for a few weeks.

“You’d have thought that I’d been peddling children.”

“You actually killed the trees?” I had an image of her in a terrycloth robe and pink mules spraying the tree trunks with a machine gun. Wind whipping through her hair and a cigar chomped between her teeth while she considered her new view.

“Drilled holes in them and injected pesticide with a turkey baster,” she said. “They threw dog shit and rocks at my windows afterwards. And I had to fucking buy five new fucking trees.”

“Why do it, though?”

“I want what I want, and I wanted to be able to see the bay from my balcony.”

We spun into the first turn off and bucked off the asphalt. The car canted to the right. We fishtailed then dropped into a wash. The road, covered with a fine sandy finish, was still passable. Dropping into the wash cut us off from the skylights and I realized that we had not been traveling in the dark at all by comparison. The only view we had now was narrowed to the scope of the headlights and that light was a dimming glow in the wafting dusty way ahead of us. Shades of shadows and a grey, filtered landscape sped by. Scrub and cactus scraped paint off the car. Meg’s Scout loved this kind of terrain, dug this kind of abuse. She did not slow much once we dove into the wash. I jammed my feet against the floor board and wedged my elbow against the door.

“We should bury Grandmother by her husband,” I said.

“Which husband, there were five.” She took wide swings from one side of the wash and the other, trying to avoid boulders and ditches. An awkward spin slid the back of the car against a loose wall of sand and ignited a silted spray.

“Ted,” I replied. I felt around for my pills. Paxil, one a day. I took it with a huge swallow of Coke because the car jounced when I pulled from the bottle. Then I capped the soda and set it in the bag next to Meg’s vodka. The bag rolled over my gun case in which the gun traveled that was not supposed to be loaded but was.

“Number five was Ted, the trumpet player,” Meg said. “He sat on the porch and shot squirrels and stray dogs with a BB gun.”

“Shot at, he was a piss poor shot.” I had been horrified, but was too intimidated by the blowsy old man to say so. The man he might once have been had been scrubbed away by a lot of back road travel and poorly paid gigs by the time I knew him. What was left settled on a porch step with a can of soda when it was warm outside. At night, he watched T.V. and argued with his wife about histories neither of them could remember clearly.

“He told me that a snapping turtle lived in the water barrel out back,” Meg said.

“What’d you do about it?”

“Stood outside with a stick and tried to stab the thing.”

“You should have asked Ted for his BB gun.”

“Like he would have trusted me with a gun, look at what I did with sticks.”

We bashed into something spiky and mashed it in passing.

“Why not let me have the jewelry?” Meg asked.

“It doesn’t exist.”

“She would’ve kept the jade. She wanted you to have it.”

“You imagine I had a relationship with Grandmother that didn’t exist. I don’t have the jewelry.”

“It wasn’t in the house, I looked.”

“Then it was never there.” I replied.

Meg swung us around a bend at a fierce pace and, as the rear wheels spewed sand, it occurred to me that she was driving too fast.

“I need it,” Meg said.

I heard her but pretended that I didn’t.

“I need it,” she said, louder.

I ignored her again.

We rolled up the path that led to the house. Shut down for months, it was a dark shell. A hallway ran the length of it. With the bedroom doors open, you could see straight through to the windows on the opposite side. The house seemed more like a passage than a place to stay. The wind was picking up but we were sheltered between the house and a stand of trees my mother had nurtured for years.

“You said we wouldn’t discuss unpleasant things.” I remembered that the hard part about raising these trees was the fact that, out here, trees tended to bush.

“I lied.”

“I didn’t believe you in the first place,” I said. You had to keep pruning the trees to keep the branches growing from a single trunk instead of into multiple smaller shoots.

“Did you know Mom’s been feeding the coyotes out here?” Meg asked.

“That doesn’t sound wise.” I looked for figures but was as successful as the times when I look for shark fins on the ocean’s surface. Even when I did not see danger, I sought it out. My mother never woke us, but the next morning, evidence that she had been in my room unsettled me. What had she taken, what had she moved? What would I miss now that she had come? Rabbits along the highway reminded me of bobcats, mice reminded me of snakes. There was always some hunter bigger than you wandering the planet. I tried to keep focused on the real. Like my mother, I have spent many of my nights wandering from room to room, fixing things that did not matter in order to feel better about the things I could not fix.

“She wants a dog,” Meg said. She had not pulled the keys from the ignition.

“She could buy a dog.” I tried to open the door but Meg hit the auto lock.

“She can’t care for a dog.”

My mother had a penchant for collecting pets but no talent for keeping them fit. She had a boa constrictor that died in its own urine. Apparently reptiles are susceptible to infections. One cat was lost in the desert, one was dumped when it couldn’t be housebroken, and two died when we fumigated the house. Of course, my mom couldn’t buy a dog. She could keep inanimate objects in their places but the care of living things was a cipher to her. Except for plants. My mother was good with plants.

“I’m tired,” I said. The wind skipped little things across the landscape.

“I didn’t want to worry about Grandmother anymore so I told them to keep her alive. It was the easiest choice,” Meg said.

“If you don’t want to make the decisions,” I said, “then I don’t think you get to win the prizes.” I had my hand on the door handle that I was not going to be allowed to use until she was done. I pulled at it anyway.

“I had to sell my home. I now have a home with no view. I’m living with Mom.”

“You live indoors, buck up.”

“Do you remember when Grandmother locked us in the attic because I spilled a glass of milk?”

“Wasn’t no Flowers in the Attic. It was a fully furnished bedroom.”

“She called a priest when I said I was scared of mirrors in the dark. She took us to confession when she found out you were left handed. She was a nut.”

“Much like her granddaughter. They find my frozen body here in the car, my hands will be, in my last living act, wrapped around your throat.”

“You liked her. Maybe that’s why she gave you the jade.”

“Like is a strong word.” I liked learning to play poker. It made me feel like a grown-up. I liked watching old movies and making penny bets. I liked smelling her cigars on my clothes late at night. I stopped talking to her at sloppy drinking scene number one thousand and one.

“Grandmother liked you better,” Meg said. “And I don’t like living at home with Mom.”

“Do you like it here inside the house? I’ll turn all the mirrors to the walls.”

“If we bury grandmother here, she will always be here,” Meg said. “And I’ll still be living with Mom so she’ll make me come here with her and I won’t like coming here anymore. So I want to leave. I want to take the jewelry and leave.”

“You’re asking a lot from a handful of jade.”

“You can care for Mom. She’s feeding coyotes because I won’t let her have pets. You take care of her. You’re better at it. It’s making me nuts.”

That familiar family word. I had read about people who died not because they were shot, but because they had believed they were fatally shot. I had read about survivors who endured bad places for hours then died once they were safe because they gave up once they were rescued. Their minds killed them once they let go. Madness made what could not be true, real. I was tired of catering to madmen. I no longer pitied them. A large shadow detached itself from others and then wafted back in place. The wind blowing the tress apart no doubt.

“I’ve never seen any jade jewelry in Grandmother’s possession,” I said. “Why do you believe it exists?” It took Meg a moment to answer because she decided to fish for the sodas, much to my relief, as I had the feeling she was looking for the vodka.

“I know she had them. She said one of her rich husbands gave it to her.”

Rabbits with huge ears shot from bush to bush, keeping to the darkest shadows. Somewhere in the same scrub were predators but, for some reason, the bigger animals are harder to pick out at night.

“Will you give it to me if I don’t shoot you?” Meg asked. I looked over to see my gun lying in her lap. It was a .44 Magnum, a gift from the man of the bagpipe music.

“If you shoot that thing in here, you’re gonna end up deaf and blind.” Once the fool has the gun, you have to decide whether showing fear will save or hurt you and commit to the decision.

“Think so?” She was not holding the gun, she simply cradled it in her lap.

“You remember the things Grandmother said better than I do,” I said. “But you’re making up the jade. It never existed.”

“I was paying attention. You were playing cards and learning to smoke.” Meg was the girl sitting in the corner at parties, the one sitting in the back seats. She never participated but never missed a thing. Like a librarian who does nothing else with life but read books and live indoors, Meg collected data about the human race without putting it to good use. She didn’t share, she didn’t write, she didn’t learn about the people she studied. She did not connect the dead trees with their effect on her neighbors, she did not connect a gun with the consequences. She wanted something, that’s all she knew, much like my grandmother.

“Fucking trees,” Meg said. “I’ve always hated Mom’s goddamn trees.”

“I think the trees you assassinated know that.” She grasped the gun butt but did not touch the trigger. She did not aim it at me, instead, she hefted it and set it on the seat between us.

“You won’t help me.”

“I can’t help you. As usual, I don’t know what you or Mom or Grandmother were, or are, or will be talking about in your private ghost language, about the things in the world that don’t exist.”

“Shit, then.” She put the gun back in its place and took the keys from the ignition. “Sorry about your sunglasses,” she said, unlocking the doors.

“If the stones existed,” I said. “I would throw them into the Pacific Ocean before I gave them to you.” Outside, the wind had stopped. Mountains have regular afternoon rains. The ocean has tides. The desert wind has a schedule of its own. It blows until it’s done and, since the gusts are not accompanied by storms, there is no telling what that schedule is nor how hard the storming will last. But if you stand long enough in the sand, you begin to see patterns others miss. Weather is easier to read than people. The sky was dark and crisply outlined in stars and, if you paid strict attention to the horizon, you could see the lights of the towns 60 miles away. I stared at them until Meg had taken her things and gone inside. Meg went straight to sleep. I put away the groceries, stowed my things, replaced the linens on my bed, then sat in the living room at a sagging dining table my mother used to set for guests with pewter candlestick holders and napkin rings and lots of forks. I set the urn in the center of the table, displacing a mirrored plate. Then I pulled the stones out of their pouch. I have no idea why my grandmother was so attached to her ugly pieces of jade.

“You’ll just sell them if I give them to you,” she used to say.

“I don’t care about jewelry,” I would reply. “I’d rather take the money and go on a trip.”

“You’ll be sorry when you don’t have anything to remember me by. Why would you do that to me?”

“Give them to someone who wants them. Give them to Mom. Give them to Meg.”

“They are mine I can give them to anyone I want. You should want them.”

I pulled the stones out of their pouch and hefted them. Apple green lumps shot through with white, headstones for the grave of a woman who lived her life always bathed in the harshest light. The pieces belonged to my mother who couldn’t come to bury her mother. They belonged to me and I didn’t want them. They didn’t belong to Meg who never earned a thing in her life.

Weighted with a history of lost causes, they were as ugly within as without.

They didn’t remind me of anything good.

I put them in the urn and went to bed.
pencil

Kimberley Idol is a graduate student matriculating at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She has been published in The Portland Review, Danse Macabre, and will be included in Jarrett Keene’s upcoming anthology out of Stephen’s Press. Her work has also been selected by her department for submission to the Kulka Best American Voices anthology. E-mail: writtenword6[at]gmail.com

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