The last news truck left about a week after impact. The driver waved and flashed a tremendous smile at Virgil Tayes and me as if the story had come together quite nicely and someone needed to be thanked with the last minute, magnanimous kindness on the way out of town. We must have completed the picture, the two of us, standing side-by-side there at the end of his gravel drive like true blue specimens of the finest kind. Virgil in his bleached-white goatee and his angled, browning teeth, his dilapidated ball cap and his usual pair of coveralls. Me in my lace-up leather boots, tight-rolled black jeans, and black tee-shirt. My shock of shortly cut purple hair. Never mind the how-could-you-miss-it backdrop of hellhole Americana--the bounty of desolation just beyond us pimpled with ramshackle dwellings and anodized aluminum trailers.
Behold the wonders that exist throughout the heartland! That was the tagline gleaming in the driver's bleached white teeth. What glories we have witnessed! Thank you for being you!
The driver's open-palmed wave contained within its one jabbering motion the triumph of an entire backwater town rallying around a fallen rock. In fact, it had been Broetius DuClaire, one of probably ten high school science teachers in all of Mojave County, his wife Tanya, and three or four googly-eyed septuagenarians armed with their personal histories who had done all the talking. A few others had rallied reluctantly on a Saturday afternoon to prop up the illusion. The cameras had focused on the enthused, the rapt, and the willing. You build a story of quaint joy blooming in the desert, against all odds-- which is the essence of what a meteor strike is--by cherry-picking the evidence you need.
Virgil and I had never spoken to one another before in our entire lives, so it didn't feel right to wave back as one. Or at all. We let the driver’s hand shine right through us. A respectable time after the van passed, we were still standing there, and Virgil spat into the dust. "There goes the circus."
"Fuck 'em," I replied.
He put a hand over his eyes to study the nothingness with a little less glare.
"You wanna' beer?"
"Yeah. So you wanna' beer or not?"
My face crinkled without warning and then my throat fluttered shut. For several days the realization that something was very wrong with me had been growing, and the thought of beer seemed to aggravate it.
"Maybe next time."
I looked over at him. He was grimacing at a saguaro that appeared to have suffered a lightning strike in the recent past, and as I beheld his careful study of the smoke cactus, I developed a swift and complete admiration for Virgil Tayes. He was sparse and hardened like the land around us. He was a lifetime of what you see is what you get.
He was my people.
I heard a high-pitched metallic squeak behind me then and turned to find a lazy windmill near the back of Virgil's fenced-in corral. It rose from a scattershot of sun-dried chicken shit and small engine carcasses to form a spinning commentary on the quantity of Budweiser that Virgil had come to enjoy over the years. Each blade was a montage of spot-welded, peeled-open cans. Cans from two or three different model years, mostly silver or white, plus a smattering of commemorative editions.
"You fixed our toilet once," I realized aloud. "That's how I know your name."
"Fixed a lotta’ toilets. Your daddy can't fix a toilet?"
"Probably. The thing about that--he's in the federal pen over in Tucson. Has been for quite some time."
Virgil looked up at the sky like it was a notepad he wrote something down on once. "You Leon's little girl?"
"You oughta’ know how to fix a toilet then. And you're Leon's alright."
I nodded. He wasn’t wrong, anyway. I pressed down hard on the ground with my foot and then moved it out of the way so I could see the pattern of my boot in the dust.
A jeep barreled past us then to the sweet, humming sound of oversized rubber tires filing down on hot asphalt. I saw Evan in the backseat hanging onto a strap. He saw me back and shot a look that begged a question about what in the hell I was doing in Virgil Tayes’ driveway, but with a smile on his face that hurt because it felt so good. I wanted to smile back, but I hadn’t told Evan everything I should have yet, so the smile wouldn’t take. While Evan shrank around the bend in the back of the jeep, the ghost of my arm reached for his face and my mouth tried to sneak out the secret I’d been whispering for days to the field of baby meteorites, but something between the idea of it and my lips intervened. My throat went dry and a moth flew out instead. One from my dream. It flew in circles around the peak of Virgil's house, looking for a tiny crevice of darkness to hide inside.
"Your momma' didn't take it too well, did she."
"If you mean my dad's incarceration for drug trafficking, then no, she did not take it very well."
"Hard thing," Virgil replied. He turned back towards the house and grunted at the rooster who had sidled up to us for an inspection. The creature was appraising us with beady-eyed suspicion, fixing us in a singular glare of disapproval. We were interlopers, all of us.
"You got anything in there besides beer?" I asked.
"What do you want? Green tea?"
He mumbled something and trundled for the porch, and I followed after him.
I didn’t use to have dreams, but now I do. The meteor brought them on. In one a menagerie of winged creatures and the contents of an old shoebox fly out of my chest to fill the sky. The contents swirl all around me. A faded stamp curls past and catch my eye, and I notice the girl. I am wearing a soft cotton dress and twirling my arms in a picturesque scene of knee-high grass and cerulean blue flowers, and I am smiling. I have hair down to my shoulders. The stamp artist has painted a very credible likeness, except I don't wear dresses, go twirling about daily in the fields, or have hair down to my shoulders, and I wasn't even alive when the cost of a first-class stamp was just three cents. I conclude there are parts of myself I haven’t met yet, or that I have somehow left behind. What I know is only one bead on a whole strand of beads.
I take comfort in the knowledge I extend beyond the limits of my sight.
It is that point in the night when the day seems wholly implausible like it exists only in myth, or in memory. Inside of that night, I am howling across the desert at speeds that put my mother’s car into heavy labor. A shimmy waxes inside of it like the symptom of the real disease, like some sort of mechanical indigestion, and then it wanes. There are demons dragging from the undercarriage. I’m afraid to stop since speed seems like the glue that’s holding us both together.
The car is a twelve-year-old Dodge Neon with mix-matched front fenders and a cross painted on the hood to guide us through life's inevitable betrayals. There are a handgun and a Bible in the glove compartment. My mother drives thirty miles each way to her shift at the convenience store, sells handmade woolen floor mats on the Internet that she weaves at night, and spends the rest of her time dragging me to church so we can atone in perpetuity for my dad's very obvious failure to find a life in Christ. Somewhere along the way, my own pending failure became more or less apparent, and that’s when we settled into our détente of weary inconvenience.
Though I have failed my mother, and I have stolen her only car, I still feel it is within my right to instruct the cross to sustain the vehicle until the trip is completed. The nature of a cross is not to be choosy. If you're going to be a cross painted on a hood, the least you could do is act like one.
I stifle my vision of smoking wreckage along the roadside by turning my attention to the events preceding the meteor. After weeks of careful study I have concluded that meteors exert an invisible influence on the space ahead of them akin to the exploratory sonar field of a bat--only it affects humans directly. It’s like an astrological trip wire.
My mother's new boyfriend was hit by the psyche-acoustic pulse of the meteor first. In hindsight it is obvious when this event occurred: when he called my mother a fortnight before the meteor arrived, just a few minutes after he was due to take her out for a steak dinner, to cancel. There was a lot of letting down gently, but no raincheck. I watched her hang up the phone, sigh, and fling her earring into an open canister of flour on the counter.
Then my cell phone rang, and it was him.
He told me he was sorry but he couldn't do it.
He chuckled at my reply and told me he didn't even like rodeos. (They’d recently been to two of them.) Hearing all the town gossip made him itch all over and he didn't like the way he was starting to make his life so neat and trim around the edges, but he thought I was really a great kid and he was sorry he probably wouldn't see me again. He wanted me to know something else he couldn't quite state clearly for the record, but I surmised what he meant.
I was his people.
"I'll miss you, too," I said.
When I hung up the phone my mother was glaring at me from the kitchen with her arms folded. Her lips were swollen and one leg was pointed out in front of the other like you're supposed to stand when you're in line at a beauty pageant. "Who was that?"
"Steed. Saying good-bye, I guess."
"You guess? And pray tell, dearie, why would he feel so compelled to say good-bye to you?"
“Why wouldn't he want to say goodbye to me, Mom?”
"I swear, Amelia, if I find out you--"
"What? Huh? If I what--?"
We were escalating for no reason, battering one another with our misplaced resentments. And in the end, neither one of us could say it because we both knew it wasn't true. But something was, and I had to stick up for it. My weapon of choice--the only weapon at my disposal--was disobedience. I stalked across the kitchen right past her, careening in open mutiny towards the night. I pressed through her screen of barbed acoustic foliage, letting it cut my face, my chest and my arms. Outside, I hardly touched the steps. I flung myself onto the bike and in my haste, I nearly yanked myself into the mailbox. I floundered in the dust; my knee began to throb like it was trying to leap out of me. When I pried myself off the ground I was shaking a little. My mother had already shut the door and turned off the porch light.
I pedaled six miles down the road to the middle school, thinking only with my arms, my legs, and my lungs. My body dodged holes in the road it knew by heart. In case I was surprised by a cattle guard I kept my teeth grit, which was easy because they'd been grit for years.
At the school, I sought the solace of those over-sized rubber tires that rise from the playground like the vertebrae of ancient industrial serpents. I climbed on top of one and let my edges grow numb with abstract disaffection until it seemed possible I could bleed away into nothing at all. I could reduce to a memory that lived only in the wholeness of the night itself. Then I spun around to see the silhouette of Evan standing in the crow's nest of a jungle gym, on the other side of the playground, smoking a cigarette. I blinked because Evan wasn't like that. There was aloneness dripping from him I recognized but had never seen him before. He was our census district's most prized possession--our shining star, our best pitcher, our tallest cowboy. Our most American.
I hopped off the tire and walked over to him. "What are you doing out here?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
I climbed up the ladder and leaned beside him on the railing.
"You got another one of those?"
He handed me the pack and a lighter, and we smoked together in silence for a while, watching streaks of hot ash drift underneath us on the wind. They glowed like the fragments of meteors burning up in the atmosphere, their secrets intermingling.
"You wanna' go for a ride?" he said.
He made sure to open the passenger side door for me. I failed to comprehend this gesture until I watched him fish a crumpled Playboy off the seat and sink it into the oblivion of the back of the cab. At the same time, he made a show of launching a half dozen Coke bottles in the same direction. He looked like he was trying to tunnel down to the dinosaurs through a recycling bin. When he finally stepped back I made sure he knew I had spent the whole time studying the laundry bag full of scuffed-up baseball bats stowed in the bed of his truck.
He drove us up the road little ways, then turned off into the desert.
"What were you doing at the school?" he said.
"I asked you first, remember?"
As we lurched across a meandering scar in the land he told me his dad drives truck. "He has this fantasy of what life is really like that gets a few embellishments while he's away, and gets bruised-up fresh when he pulls in the driveway. He wants to hear about how I hit the home run that won the ball game, and he wants my mother to smile at him a lot and set the table for a three-course dinner."
"Instead, my mother touched him on the shoulder once when she went flying past with the phone pressed up against her cheek. She was renegotiating a payment plan with the hospital for a surgery she had last year on her broken foot and cooking frozen hamburger patties on the stove. The pre-formed ones that come in a box and are always freezer burnt. When he asked about fries she pointed at the oven and made a face that means it's fucked up and it won't go."
"What about you?"
"I pitched a shitty game on Tuesday and if I don't pitch some good ones, then... I don't know. The way ahead gets dim."
I thought of my mother behind her closed bedroom door, sitting up in bed with the lamp on, staring wide-eyed at the television while the roofing above her bed the day's captured heat back into the night. That was dim.
"So what happened?"
"He told me if I didn't pick it up soon I could forget about baseball, get a job and grow up. Then he looked at my mother for a minute with his jaw unhinged a little, like he was daring her to say a word, and left. On his way out he slammed the screen door so hard it bent into the small part of a really big circle."
Evan’s eyes were glassy and hardly moving. Concentration poured down his arms, through the steering wheel he was chasing back and forth, into the front wheels of the truck and into the hard earth. He was feeling the presence of the ground beneath us, feeling it push back, and I was too. We pressed across crenellations of dirt until we were both turned back to something primitive.
He finally decided the spot we were in was as good as any and killed the engine. We got out and hopped up onto the hood to listen to desert noises and say what we dared beneath the Milky Way’s subtle glow. A silence slipped in around us, the staggering type in which all growth is rooted.
"My mother accused me of sleeping with her boyfriend," I said finally. "That would be the boyfriend who just moments prior had informed her that he was her ex-boyfriend. She accused me of this even though she makes it a point at least once a week to tell me she is sad I go to such lengths to mask the beauty God gave me."
"You and your mom just have different ideas of beauty,” he said.
I nodded and felt the moon rise inside of me. My feelings were a carpet of tiny flowers spreading out across the desert to open in the darkness.
I noticed the threadbare knee of the left leg of his jeans then--the shadow, the corona of short denim, the scars underneath. He had boyish hands and a frame that was too stretched out for him, with legs that would never be comfortable in coach. He had short hair and a sun-bleached ball cap that smelled of smoke and I wanted him to pull me to him on the hood of his truck so I could taste him. I wanted the whole desert to wrap around us like a blanket.
"What happened to Crystal?" I muttered.
"She never really liked me, I guess,” he said. “Just the idea of me: me turning double-plays, me yelling like a bobcat from the dugout, me driving her down the highway way too fast. Then she figured out a little too much about me--like sometimes I get freaked out, that I’m normal--and that was that."
"You liked her, though?"
He squirmed a little on the hood. His silence was wobbling.
"You liked her shape maybe?"
He turned to me then with eyes that were moist and hungry--eyes that were angry about what they’d seen, what they’d witnessed, and what they’d fallen for. Eyes that needed to know they could still discern the presence of something good. Eyes like mine. The arm I was leaning on began to tremble a little, so I eased myself down onto the warm sheet metal skin of the truck. As I slid backward he fell into the movement with me, encircling me, enveloping me in the taste and scent of smoke.
Up above, the meteor was tunneling through space, speeding right for us.
The night the meteor hit was the second night we made love. I snuck out while my mother lay dozing in an electromagnetic field of yammering preachers, then rode my bike to a quiet spot on the road where he had picked me up. We kissed for an hour before and after, exploring questions that could only be answered together in the language of limbs, pressure, touch and tongues. We teased each other, wondered if we could have built a life together had we met in the Stone Ages, gave each other nicknames and clung to the moment like it was a charter bus on its way out of town.
We were lying in his truck beneath a blanket when the sky nearly caught on fire. There was a hot bath of daylight for a full second as if the gods had thrown a flare into the Mojave sky, and then the shutters of night flicked closed again. We imagined the rabbits, the snakes, and the turtles all turning their heads at once in a circadian confusion.
Ten minutes later a kit fox darted past us, still running.
At school, we hardly talked, hardly brushed past one another in the halls. We had roles to play and there was something about playing them when they no longer even mattered that was glorious. We were one another’s secret. Evan started dealing strikes and getting his last name in the papers because, why not? It was fun and who gave a shit, anyway--and I got detention for twirling gum around my finger and staring out the window in anatomy class instead of sketching the structure of the human eye in my notepad.
One night my mother drove me an hour down the road in the Rolling Emblem of Christ to a casino--the sinner's den--because I loved the buffet there, and because she wanted to be a good mother. A good mother made sacrifices.
I wasn't even weird with her that night.
We had a nice conversation until the grace of the moment welled up in me like a new brand of hope and I told her I had a boyfriend.
"For how long, sweetie?"
"Okay...?" she replied. She let the word drag out through space and elevate steadily in a tone so that it carried three or four meanings at once. Suddenly she was wiping her mouth back and forth with her napkin and hemming herself into a knot. Then she was back in the buffet line tapping her toes to the music. But I had this ace up my sleeve, so what did it matter. I let her roil between her love for Christ and her love for me, and I let it be okay. At least she was fighting.
On the ride back, for dessert, I asked if we could visit my father.
"Sweetie, you know how far that is, and I have to work the weekends. Maybe later in the summer. Have you written him lately?"
I never knew what to say. Every time I sat down to write I was nine years old again and I got stuck wondering how a man with both his arms chained behind his back was ever going to read a letter.
Virgil's kitchen had obnoxious flower-patterned wallpaper, speckled plastic countertops and a bank vault of a refrigerator that probably consumed half the power in the county.
"I got sun tea," he said. "Or water."
He opened the refrigerator, pulled out a one-gallon glass jar of tea, and poured some into a smaller jar. The chair he offered me had a seat cushion of sliced-up vinyl that clearly had done time as a dart board. I sat down. He did the same, then popped open his Budweiser.
"What do you know about your daddy?"
"His parents were Mexican immigrants, he had a job in law enforcement that paid squat, and he got caught running drugs."
"That's what I thought," Virgil replied. "Jack shit."
"How's that exactly?" I was looking through a chalk-crusted sliding door at a condominium complex of aluminum birdhouses. Somewhere beyond the avian slums was the coulee I had explored that morning, after visiting the meteorite field.
"Your daddy and his associates were makin' a bust down south, part of some task force. Shuttin' down some illegals. They were ‘sposed to just put their hands on their holsters and flash their badges and turn ‘em back, but it turned out one of 'em was a sick boy. One, two years old maybe. Had a fever. That boy was sick an' close to dyin'. They turned 'em all back but that boy and his parents. Turned out that sick boy's daddy had a couple o' diapers full o' hard-packed white powder, a' your daddy's partner knew 'bout it the whole time."
Virgil's words rattled oddly around the empty barrel of my mind on their way to the bottom. Once down there they formed a teeter-totter stack of rocks that wouldn’t compute and crowded out the light.
"He didn't know? He knew, Virgil. He set the whole thing up."
Virgil shook his head. "The hell he did. That’s just what they made you think. The lawyers had their fancy charts an’ all, provin’ that boy was your daddy’s distant Mexican relation. The fact was they knew more 'bout your daddy than he did. All's your daddy knew was you, and your mama."
My chest was getting tight. I needed to sit down on the cool, dark earth underneath the porch. I wanted to look the rooster in the eye and get square with things, let his piercing gaze cut straight through me.
"All hell broke loose an' the Feds needed a clean house, an' your daddy couldn't get loose of 'em. It was over 'fore it started." Virgil finished his beer and threw the can into a bin. "Fuckers."
Virgil's kitchen had that empty feeling places get when you see straight through them and they don't add up to the total. They don't even try to make excuses. They just sit there and let the light hit and bounce right off.
"How do I not know this?"
"You remember anyone gettin' sent up to Tucson 'sides your daddy?"
"I was nine, Virgil. But no."
"Well nobody else did. Your daddy was a good man, but they pinned it to him good. He kept you and your mama safe, though. He kept his mouth shut."
I could only understand it one piece at a time, like the story of evolution. The links in the chain were random, but somehow they added up. You just had to trust the momentum of it all.
Outside the sliding door, past the beer can condominiums, hellhole Americana lay silent and naked, waiting to welcome me back with a leering smile of distant hills and a thousand glinting eyes made out of dust. I thanked Virgil for the tea and stumbled back into its grip.
The night I stole the Rolling Emblem of Christ began at the meteorite field. I was sitting on a blanket watching Dr. Laurentini tag fragments of a once great space rock when Evan called.
"Hi," I said.
"What are you up to?"
"Tagging stones with the Doc."
I could hear him tapping on his desk. He had a desk in his bedroom made out of particle board that he'd had since middle school. The sides were held together by an exoskeleton of glittery metal flake stickers. When he talked on the phone he looked out his window at a small herd of propane tanks and tapped away aimlessly.
"You wanna' go out later?"
I felt wooden again like my body was filibustering. I said I couldn’t, but I paused too long.
"I don't understand what's going on, Ame. "
"Me either. But shit clouds blow over, right? Give me a day or two?"
The tapping stopped.
"Okay, but just for the record, I love you to the point where I'm probably gonna' throw a hundred and ten miles an hour fastball tomorrow night, and get offered a baseball scholarship in the middle of the second inning. They're gonna' stop the game just so I can sign the papers."
"Good. Call me afterward."
"Where do you think you might be?"
"I don’t know. Evan, if I got grounded until I was eighteen, and I was forced to live in the church basement on a diet of surplus baked beans and day-old doughnuts, you'd wait for me wouldn't you?"
"When’s your birthday, again?"
"No. Absolutely not."
When I got off the phone the presence of Evan wore off, and I became a mist that was spreading apart and blowing away. Dr. Laurentini glanced up at me. Before I even knew I had done it, I had climbed inside of his eyes and curled into a ball. Then I looked away like he’d caught me doing something I shouldn’t have.
He stood up.
I was wearing one of those smiles that mean you are decidedly unhappy and on the verge of shaking at your critical frequency until you pass out. My arms were wrapped all the way around each other to the other side.
"I think I'm with child, Doc.”
I waited for the world to crack in half and drift off into space without me, but it didn’t. Instead, Dr. Laurentini just nodded and came over to sit on the blanket beside me so we could explore this revelation together. "Who else knows, Amelia?"
"The brain trust presently consists of yours truly, all the baby meteorites who may have overheard us talking, and you."
"And how do you know this?"
"Because I was making love very surreptitiously with my boyfriend one night when a certain meteor nearly blew us up. As if that wasn't enough, I haven't had my period in six weeks. But I should have had my period. And the other day when Virgil Tayes offered me a beer I got a feeling like I was going to go to hell if I drank it."
"The data is suggestive, but not conclusive."
"Last night I dreamt a butterfly was flying around in my womb. Also, I did one of those tests and it made a blue sign of the cross at me."
"Scientifically speaking, there is a very good chance you are pregnant."
A ray of happiness hit me and glanced off into the sky.
"I'm seventeen, Doc. I keep having these visions of the next twenty years that involve a lot of bloodshot eyes and anemic panhandling. But, hey! If there's one way to get back at your teachers, it's to rise up and claim your seat at the table for parent-teacher conferences. So look out, Beth Matheson!"
"A way will open, Amelia. You will have help from the people you love. You will see."
"You will have to tell my mother, Doc because I don't want to scare the baby. My mother will become catatonic when you do. You should have a cool compress ready. She will sit in bed for days afterward praying for guidance and you will have to force-feed her through an IV. And adjust the rabbit ears periodically on the set so she can hear the preachers."
"She will come around I think."
"You've never met her."
"She is a woman, too, Amelia. She just has to get over the shock."
I liked how the Doc insinuated I was a woman, not some self-destructing desert progeny. The way he said it, the image of my mother tickling a baby seemed the most natural thing in the world, and for an instant, I saw this life--this other life of mine--in which I was okay.
"Doc--whatever happens--I want you to know you were the best astrophysicist I ever worked with."
An hour later on the front porch when my mother said she didn't think it was a good idea for me to drive her car to Tucson to see my father, I nodded and made a counteroffer directly to her Christian soul, which was accepted. Without knowledge of that clandestine transaction, third parties such as the local law enforcement and my own mother would likely have interpreted my driving the car out of the driveway that night as an act of theft.
Which it was.
When I finally arrive at the prison a few hours after dawn, the Rolling Emblem of Christ and I are both down to a quarter tank. I give the holy hood a love tap. She has done well.
Inside the vestibule there is a locked door whose banality masks the built-in ability to withstand a prolonged beating from a Saxon battering ram, along with a floor mat that is maintained by a local cleaning service, seven black-eyed cameras, a picture of the prison warden stylized to look like an oil painting, and a button next to a hexagonal configuration of perforations in a metal plate. When I press the button I am invited to announce myself. Afterward the perforations all bark at once with instructions about coming back during visiting hours. The face of the warden is smiling down upon me. The voice of his institution is tiny and hypnotic.
"I brought the Rolling Emblem of Christ," I say, depressing the button again.
"Ma'am, could you repeat that please?"
"Never mind. Thank you."
It is time to give my interview, for the cameras. I am ready.
Folks let me tell you, that meteor was true--truly! --the most amazing thing that could have ever happened to a town like ours. Just scintillating. Can you believe it? After seeing that miracle I just know, right here--(I pat my chest)--that nothing will ever be the same ever again.
My heart tries to flatline then, and each wall of the tiny vestibule takes one step towards me. My uncertainty is a gritty, burning sensation lined up like a row of pitchforks just outside of town, marching into formation. There is smoke on the horizon. I have enough clean air in the vestibule to breathe for several hours, and enough money to buy a tank of gas, but beyond that, I will have to sleep in the car and suffer the pangs of hunger for a day or two.
Then I realize I won't be the only one hungry tonight and my knees get weak. I drift back outside and call Evan. It goes to voicemail but he calls me back in a couple minutes.
"Where are you?" he whispers. He sounds like he is in the hallway, crumpled up in a secret compartment between the lockers, hiding out from a British Lit class.
"I'm in Tucson, at the prison."
"I can't leave until I see my father and I don't have any money to stay anywhere. But I have to tell you something, Evan. I have to tell you something a little important. I think I'm pregnant."
I hear his breath contract and a second later he punches the lockers. Then he is running.
Someone is calling to him in the background who sounds like Broetius DuClaire. Mr. DuClaire is speaking calmly but firmly to Evan, trying to hypnotize him with intense sagacity. He knows that kids raised their whole lives in the desert sometimes behave poorly and that what adults can offer is the perspective that comes from discovering the desert eventually swallows everyone whole. It’s no use fighting. But Evan isn’t listening. He hasn't stopped or even slowed.
In the phone I can hear his stride lengthening out, his shoes slapping the floor. I hear the crash bar at the end of the hall take a wallop. He is out in the sun now. He is breathless. His eyes are adjusting.
"Evan? What are you doing?"
"I'm coming to see you, Ame. In Tucson. Right now."
My mouth opens but Evan can't hear me because all my sounds are scratchy heat waves that collect in the hollow of my throat. They are not ready yet to fly on their own.
The truck starts roars to life, screeches, and moans under Evan's heavy-handed steering and his all-or-nothing throttle control. My dad, who is incarcerated for being caught up in it--caught up in all of it--is a hundred feet away, with no idea that I am here, and I am crouched beside the car on my heels, in a fetal position, listening quietly to the apocalypse of Evan gunning his truck across a distant parking lot. I am rocking back and forth, humming lullabies.
Eventually, we have both settled into a rhythm.
"What if I grew my hair out?"
He whistles the way contractors do when the homeowner starts wondering about using real mahogany for the deck--the way Virgil would if I told him how far I walked into the desert that one time last year when I didn’t have a plan for coming back--then goes quiet. He is making a show of thinking this through while I listen to the drone of truck tires gnawing on the raw highway. The blinker goes on, clicking in the background.
"No, Amelia,” he finally answers. “Absolutely not."
I smile and tilt my head to one side. My eyes throb with the pressure of a whole lifetime that wants out, out of this shell of me and into the open--that wants to run across the parking lot with its eyes closed and its arms spread wide, and swoop up into the sky just before it runs out of pavement. I have to put a hand down to keep from toppling over. That’s when I notice a prison guard walking towards me slowly across the otherwise empty lot, both hands on his belt, his brimmed head lowered gently, and I realize you can smile and frown at the same time if you don’t fight it. You can dissolve and rejoice all at once.
You catch a glimpse of yourself when that happens. You are not just one bad, but the whole strand of them. You see there are these parts of you actually out there somewhere--living--who know how to do this. They are trying to find you.
I watch the stamp flutter down from the sky and lay flat on the pavement. There is a woman twirling in high grass with a baby in her arms, whispering a secret in her baby’s ear. Behind us, the artist has painted a tiny windmill that appears to be constructed from an assortment of Budweiser cans, with a rooster standing on the top of it. The artist has created a scene in which no matter where you stand, the rooster's eyes are locked with your own. You cannot escape them. Inside the protective field of his gaze, I hold the baby aloft, close to my face. My nose nuzzles her nose and when she laughs it sounds like a squeak toy. This sound is inside of me somewhere. It has always been there.
I hear keys jingling, too, approaching. The guard is close now.
“Evan,” I whisper, “is your father. Evan is our people.”
Another story I wrote was recently awarded Honorable Mention in the 2016 New Letters Prize for Fiction. I live in Maine with my wife, believe in the power of goodness, and sometimes hear an owl in the trees beside our house. When I am not writing I work as an engineer designing small combined heat and power facilities.