An excerpt from
The Road to Me
I should be preparing for the show that could be the rocket fuel to propel my small business to the big time. Instead, I’m picking up my jail-break grandmother in the desert in back-of-beyond, Arizona.
It turns out, to get to this Show Low place in less than two days, I had to fly from Seattle to Phoenix, rent a car, and drive a hundred eighty miles. And the earliest flight I could get arrived here at two.
I spent the last hour driving, worrying about how much all this is costing me. I had to withdraw funds from my safety net for the plane ticket, and none of this was in the budget. No helping it, though. No one can accuse me of not taking care of my grandmother. When she broke her hip, falling out of a chair in geriatric yoga class, I had her seen by the most prominent orthopedist. He didn’t take Medicare, so I paid the bill myself. If Nellie’d been in charge, she’d have had a native shaman. The rehab center is the best in the desert, but they’re not used to patients trying to get away. Especially ones with fresh pins in their hip.
A deputy called last night to tell me they found her. They did a raid on a charlatan doing “sweats” in the desert. They arrested the leader, but most of the followers scattered. Nellie couldn’t make a clean getaway, what with her walker. And the fact that, except for several strands of Mardi Gras beads, she was naked.
I tried to talk him into putting her on a plane, but he said he’d only release her to next-of-kin. She’d told him there was a conspiracy at the facility to sell her into sexual slavery. He didn’t buy it, and he wanted a family member to come take charge.
That’s me. The last of the line. I’m a failed third-generation hippie. I know where the second generation is—under a marble slab at Long Rest Cemetery. It’s the first generation who’s gone AWOL. Again.
I’m pretty good at controlling myself. But my grandmother? Might as well try to herd dinosaurs. My guts roil in a stew of impatience, irritation and the premonition of chaos. And under it all, the fury of a child forced to take care of yet one more adult. My mother couldn’t help it—she had zero control over herself, or the booze. But my grandmother visited our succession of rattier apartments. Saw the squalor, my mother’s helplessness, my desperation. And after a day or two she’d tuck me in, tell me she loved me, and in the morning, was gone.
I don’t know if I resent her more for leaving, or myself, for believing every time, that this time would be different.
Nellie was probably headed for a convention on, “Saving the Universe Through Toe Massage,” or something. She was New- Age long before it was new, trying every religion, every weird philosophy out there. Hampering her enlightenment is the fact that she has the intellectual depth of a kiddie pool, and the attention span of a caffeinated gnat.
Too harsh? No doubt. But my grandmother earned it.
Fifty miles ago, the rocks and saguaro rushing by the car window gave way to dusty evergreens and rocky hillsides with scrub grass. Being an artist, I know Leo would love this landscape. I’d text him a photo, if I hadn’t just told him we are over. He’s a great guy, and I really enjoyed our time together but I learned a long time ago, it’s easier to end it now before he could really matter.
The temperature is better than the blast furnace I remember, but I can feel my skin parching and I miss green already. I drive past tiny towns with boarded-up stores and gas stations that, from the prices on their weathered signs, pumped their last gallon in the fifties. What would cause a person to wash up here, in the middle of nowhere? I shudder, as if my body wants to shake off the possibility of that fate.
The sign for Show Low blows by, announcing a population of a little over ten thousand. Larger than I imagined, not as big as I’d hoped. It doesn’t matter. With luck, I’m in and out in an hour.
The nav system guides me onto Deuce of Clubs Avenue. I turn at a handsome split-level building, pull into a parking spot and turn off the key. I sit, trying to slow my heartbeat.
Why? The question appears out of the murk like one of those old Eight-Ball prophesies. Nellie claimed to love me. Her visits made clear she loved my mother, because Nellie took over porcelain-god duty, holding my drunken mother’s hair, hugging her and wiping her face with a wet cloth while she cried. And, I remember my grandmother’s smile when she’d rock me in her bony lap, reading me a book.
Which made it hurt even more when she abandoned me. My balloon of hope lost a bit of lift each time, until it was a wrinkly little thing I kicked to the back of my closet.
My childhood memories have faded from technicolor to sepia over the years, and I’ve relegated them to a drawer in my mind. But I haven’t had as much success with the why. How could my grandmother profess to love me, yet leave me, a child, as the only adult in the house? I’ve began the trip to the desert several times, determined to finally ask. It would be such a relief to know. And just as many times, I stopped before my car left the parking lot. Because it’s dangerous to ask a question if you don’t know you’ll survive the answer.
I listen to the tick of the cooling engine. I shouldn’t feel bad. I haven’t been to see her, but my not being there made zero difference. But hey, if she wants to throw that in my face, fine. She can learn to live with disappointment. I tighten my stomach muscles to take a blow and head inside for the Show Low Showdown.
I walk in and am smacked by the institutional smell of pine deodorizer, sweat and floor wax. When I tell the bald officer at the front desk why I’m here, his pudgy face lights up. “Ah, Nellie. She’s a kick in the pants.” Then he puts on his official state employee face. “Could I see some I.D.?”
“Please tell me you don’t have her locked up.” I pull my wallet and show him my driver’s license.
“Not hardly. We’ve got a cot in the office behind the day room. She’s been bunking there. And entertaining us with her stories.”
“Nellie’s got stories, all right.” Most of them exaggeration or outright fabrication. “Do you mind retrieving her for me? We’ve got a flight out of Phoenix tonight.”
He cocks his head like a quizzical dog. “You don’t want to be driving back after dark. Lots of critters on the roads.”
I hold my sigh. “I’ll take it under advisement.”
He looks like he wants to say more, but just shakes his head and clomps to the door on the back wall.
I try not to stare at the few ragged people sitting in plastic chairs that line the walls. They have no such compunction. But to be fair, in a skirt, low heels and pantyhose, I’m the one who doesn’t fit in. They tend toward overalls and flannel.
The officer steps back through the door and holds it open. He’s carrying a lumpy pillowcase—Nellie’s clothes, I assume. My grandmother shuffles in. She is a new-age explosion, from her chartreuse and black-striped walker adorned with bells and leather bags of rocks she calls “crystals,” to her oversize tie-dyed T-shirt and black tights, sagging on stick legs. Her wrinkles lift to a sunny grin. “Jack! You came! See, Easy? I told you she’d come.”
Easy is G’ma’s imaginary friend. I remember her talking to him when I was little.
I want to argue that she gave me no choice. I want to tell her to lose my number. I want to bolt for the door.
But I spent fifteen years being a dutiful daughter. I can stand five hours acting the dutiful granddaughter. Even if it makes my teeth grind. “Are you ready to go?”
“I’m in. Where are we going?” The walker wheels squeak their way around the desk.
The cop hovers, as if he can help by making supportive hand gestures. “You take care now, Nellie. And you come back and see us when you’re in our neck of the woods, ya hear?” He hands me the dirty prison-break pillowcase.
She stops to pat his pudgy cheek. “I will, Roscoe. In the meantime, you keep these miscreants in line.”
Red spreads up his neck to suffuse his entire head. “And you stay away from charlatans.”
She wags a bird-claw finger at him. “Now, don’t you go judging by looks. You never know who’s going to give you that last piece to the puzzle.” She pushes her way over to me, her dusty Converse high tops squeaking in time with the walker wheels.
When I step outside, the smell of exhaust and hot tar hit with a vengeance. I hold the door open. “Come on, Nellie, we’ve got a long way to go tonight.” The sun is barely gone, leaving a spectacular golden orange-red horizon. It hits me that the colors would make a beautiful perfume bottle label. I snap a photo on my phone, then get her settled in the passenger seat of the car, stowing her walker and pillowcase behind the seat.
I slide in and crank the engine.
“I’m so very happy to see you, Jack. You look poised, polished, and pretty as ever.” Her sparrow eyes dart over me and she sobers. “But something’s wrong in your life. What is it?” I check the mirror. The same waif as always stares back.
“Why would you think something is wrong?”
The lines between her brows deepen. “Your aura is between lemon and dark yellow, with tiny tinges of brown.”
“I’ll talk to my hairdresser. Maybe a weave?”
“Jack, do not make light of this.” Her halo of white frizz tilts as she leans in. “Your aura tells me that in your pressure to do well, you have forgotten to live. Also, you have a fear of loss.”
Tell me something I don’t know. But this day has been too long to go down that rabbit hole. I reverse out of the parking space and pull to the edge of the road.
“Do you think we could get a bite of dinner?” She puts her hand below her skinny ribcage. “I’m really hungry.”
“We need to get—”
A loud stomach growl comes from the passenger seat. Can she do that at will? “All right. But somewhere quick.”
“Oh good.” She puts her palms on the dash and beams like a kid that just heard the words, “Happy Meal.” “The cops rave about a place just up the road, Wally’s. Good solid food, fast service.”
Maybe they have a drive-through.
Of course, they don’t. I park diagonally in front of an old brick building in the middle of downtown. Interior lights reveal a ’50s style soda bar and red vinyl booths marching down the opposite side. It takes forever to get the walker, extricate Nellie from the car, and set her on her tottering way to the door. How could this woman have moved fast enough to escape the rehab facility?
But that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is getting her back there. I hold the door.
“Can we take that booth there?” She points to the back of the room, though there are empty ones, closer.
I look up from checking work emails on my phone. “Whatever. Just go.”
“This place reminds me of the time I went to town with Moonbeam. We’d been on the commune for six months and couldn’t do vegetarian one more minute.” She pulls in a deep lungful of the scent of grease. “Best danged cheeseburger I ever ate.”
There’s that Nellie commitment. She picks up and discards beliefs like a toddler in a toy store. She sits, and I move the walker to the corner, brush off the cracked seat, then sit opposite her in the booth.
Nellie pulls two plastic-clad menus from behind the napkin dispenser and slides one in front of me. It’s covered in smeared fingerprints and what looks like ketchup.
A high school-aged girl walks over. She’s wearing tight lowrider jeans and a T-shirt featuring a llama with sunglasses, flashing a peace sign. “What can I get you ladies?”
“Love your T-shirt.” Nellie smiles up at her. “Can you tell me if there’s anywhere in this town I can score some hash?”
“Nellie!” My head swivels, making sure no one heard that.
“Sorry, Ma’am. My mother’d switch me if I admitted . . .” She flicks a glance around. “But I’ve heard—”
“Nellie.” My tone is a radiation level warning. “Either you order—food—or we’re leaving.” I sneak one more peek around. “Now.”
Nellie smiles at the little delinquent. “Don’t mind her, her underwear’s always been too tight. I’ll have a bacon burger with cheese, fries, and a chocolate milkshake.”
My grandmother’s skin sags off her bones. She can’t weigh ninety pounds. No way she’ll eat all that, but she sure can use the calories.
“Are any of your salads romaine?” I asked.
The waitress drops a hand on her hip. “We’re not total hicksters out here, you know. Our Cobb has some dandelion greens in it. Locally grown.”
The smell of grilling meat is heavenly, but my pants are tight already, and clothes sure don’t rate a safety fund raid. “Um, thanks. I’ll just have coffee.”
She huffs off, and I’m left with Nellie’s worried-sparrow stare. “It’s the business, isn’t it? I worried it would come to this when you took what you loved and made it a capitalist venture.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous.” But her words hit my skin, burn through to my core and explode in a shower of sparks, singeing everything they touch. Could she be right? Just because it’s Nellie, it doesn’t mean she’s always wrong.
I check my phone. It won’t do to let Nellie know she can hurt me.
After working my way through my chemistry degree on three jobs, small scholarships and Top Ramen Noodles, Heart’s Note was born in my kitchen in stolen hours after the grind of a day job. I rushed home every evening, anxious to discover a new, unique scent.
Perfumes nowadays are exotic, designer-vogue. I was looking for a scent for the girl next door, the soccer mom, the hip forty-something. Something to make them feel special, yet still themselves. I knew if I could capture that, the women would come. It took a year and a half of late nights and take-out weekends before I had them—Adam and Eve, my signature scents. I rented a storefront in downtown Seattle two years ago. Heart’s Note is doing okay, but I won’t be able to relax until we hit the big time—the retail chains.
“Please don’t take me back there,” she whispers.
The lightning quick subject change takes me a breath to catch up. “Where, Paradise? Of course I’m taking you back. You need therapy. You need—”
“I need to live free.”
“Oh nonsense. You make it sound like I’m putting you in a zoo. Village Breeze is the premier retirement community. It has exercise classes and crafts, and—”
“Spare me the lecture. I live there, remember?” Her eye roll would make our waitress proud.
“Well, I saw the brochure, and I think it’s lovely. They even have a bridge club.”
“Great. You live there.” She folds her arms across her bony chest.
“Now you sound like a petulant child.”
“Look at me, Jack.” She spreads her spindly arms, and the beads on her wrists rattle. But her eyes . . . they’re haunted.
“Do I look like I belong in one of those places?”
“You’re safe there. That is, when you’re not running away and putting yourself in crazy situations.”
“Oh please. I’m not addled yet.”
“They found you in a tipi in the desert, naked, inhaling smoke and God knows what else. You could have gotten dehydrated. You could have had a stroke. You could have died.” She shrugs. “We’re all bound to die, Jack. When it comes, I’m ready. But I’m planning on living right up to that moment.” She lifts a skeletal, knobby-jointed finger. “And I might add, I broke my hip in your old fart warehouse.”
I sigh. “We’ve been over this before. The judge put me in charge of your care—”
“You have to admit, he had reason to question your judgment with that ‘Wisdom Gathering’ at your house. Four hundred people in a nine hundred square foot house on a postage stamp lot? Even Woodstock had more than one bathroom.”
Her smile is smug. And a bit proud. “I had no way of knowing that the word would spread. It just proves that people are seeking answers.”
“In a housing development outside Palm Springs?”
“Why not? Your Jesus was born in a manger.”
“Not my Jesus. I stopped believing in him and Santa about the same time.” I learned early and well no savior would be coming.
Her wrinkles deepen. “Jack, your mother—”
“Don’t.” I hold up a hand. My stomach shrivels to a dried lemon, and I’m suddenly positive I do not want the answer to the why. I’ll give up a precious day of my life. I’ll be civil to the woman who stands for everything I distain. But I refuse to dig through my childhood with the one person who could have rescued me from the shitpile and didn’t.
But still, there’s the three-letter word that I can’t get past. Why?
Thankfully, our waitress arrives with a gloppy cheeseburger to distract Nellie.
More than an hour later, we’re only two miles out of town, on a road that is blacker than the inside of a bear. I’m used to strip mall lights, headlights, streetlights—in a word, civilization. The road curves as if trying to squirm away from the headlights. Seconds tick by in my head, disappearing as fast as the odds of my making the red-eye to Seattle. I depress the accelerator another micron, my fingers shining like white claws in the dashboard’s glow.
Nellie’s eyes are closed, but she’s chanting under her breath and shaking a little rattle covered in some kind of hide. The monotonous drone is circling the inside of my skull like a manic earworm, but if I ask her to stop, she’ll want to chat. I flick a glance to the console to find the radio. Can I even get a signal in this God forsaken—
A massive deer flashes in the headlights, vaulting the hood of the car. I cut the wheel to the right, and there’s a click of the hooves against the windshield. Then it’s gone.
My seat belt snaps tight as we bump off the road. The headlights spotlight the trunk of a tree, getting bigger. I slam the brakes, and the car fishtails in the grass.
Nellie’s chant gets louder, bouncing off the windows.
The car slows.
Just as I’m sure we’re going to stop in time, the sedan’s back end passes us and slams into the tree with a jerk and a screech of metal.
The seat belt knocks my breath out in a whoosh.
Silence. For five seconds. Then Nellie starts chanting again.
“Are you all right?” It comes out a pant.
She just nods and, eyes closed, keeps chanting.
The engine is still running. Maybe I can get us out of here. I press the gas. The wheels spin, but we’re not moving. I try again, slower this time. When the smell of hot rubber laces the air, I jam the car into park and reach to Nellie’s fragile wrist. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, my chant averted sure disaster.” Her eyes are still closed, her face calm in the dash lights.
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I release the seat belt and scramble out. My heels sink in the grass. Holding onto the car, I flounder my way around to assess the damage.
The car is up to the chassis in wet sandy mud, and on the impact side, the metal is crumpled into the smoking tire. I look up the slope to the dark void where the road must be. “I so do not have time for this.” Except I do, because there’s now a zero percent chance of making our flight. My heels make a sucking sound as I make my way back to call a tow truck, and I add a pair of shoes to the list of things this day has cost me.
Two hours later, we’re back in Show Low. The wrecker dropped us off at a cinderblock hotel with paint faded to Pepto Bismol pink. Nellie’s soft snores drift in through the door between our rooms. I should be exhausted, but the restlessness buried by my busy day surfaces. I pace the threadbare shag carpet. I know from experience it won’t go away.
Dammit, I hate these nights—like when you lie in bed knowing you’re going to be sick and putting it off as long as possible by telling yourself it won’t happen. But it always does. I need to move. I can outrun the antsiness, given enough miles. Glad I thought to pack them, I change to sweats and tennis shoes. Making sure the plastic key fob is in my pocket, I step into the night.
The slight breeze is cool on my hot face. It carries the hint of many dinners: curry, grilling meat, and is that pumpkin bread? I follow my nose to the dark hulks of houses rising from a subdivision across the street.
The hollow cavern opens in my chest. Hello darkness, my old friend.
I take off at a good pace, my heels hitting the sidewalk to the cadence of my heart. I wonder if anyone ever looks out their window to wonder why a young woman is haunting their neighborhood at night.
Haunting. A good term. I’m like a lonely ghost, on the outside of the life these houses contain.
I pass the picture window of a brick home, faces revealed in the blue-white television light: a mother, father and two little ones. A few houses later, a woman washes dishes. The light over the sink spills onto her hair, chunks of curls falling from a workday updo. A man steps behind her to wrap his arms around her waist. She leans her head against his, her smile pure contentment.
The cavern in my chest fills with an ancient longing. I don’t envy her the man. This is much deeper and Neanderthal than that. It’s knowing you’re not alone when the wind howls and the dark presses in the windows. It’s that someone chooses to stand beside you to face the night. It’s the safety of fellowship. Chosen kinship.
I walk on. In the next house, an overhead light reveals a bedroom—a child’s from the comic border around the top. I can’t see the bed, but a woman with storybook in hand, sinks out of sight.
I fall to a walk, breathing hard. This is what I do. I don’t want to—it hurts to do it, and I know it’s not normal. Every time, I say it won’t happen again. But then I find myself in places like this, haunting neighborhoods like a wistful ghost, taking in the dioramas of everyday family life.
I learned long ago, the distance from the sidewalk to the front door is the closest I’ll ever get to this. It’s not surprising, I guess. How do you know a good relationship if you’ve never seen one? I can’t count the “boyfriends” Mom brought home. Some wanted to save her, some wanted to party with her. Some wanted to party with me. None stayed. I never got close enough to classmates to see their parents’ marriages. Once they met my mother, their invitations to visit dried up like weeds in Vegas.
There was a time I still believed forever love possible. The kind of love I observe in these nighttime dioramas. But I’m a dismal “picker,” and that college disaster almost took me down.
Like they say, know better, do better.
I know better.
Yet here I am, at the mercy of a need that won’t be suppressed. It’s a sharp, uncomfortable place, but it’s strong.
I hate the crack in me that won’t heal.