by Keely Hendricks
Artwork, “Lion Walking” by Alexa Gaffaney
Funny, how the world really is. They said I’d never see it. Leroy, Ella May, the nasty parole officer with whiskey breath, the pastor with two wives, the boy who kissed me once with too much tongue— they all said that Sylvan Park was my universe, and I “ain’t no cosmonaut.” But Sylvan Park is full of dismal galaxies. Plastic lawn chairs, rusting cars, and dirty Fisher Price playsets litter the ground like mangled stars. There’s asteroid belts of crab-grass and crushed beer cans and used condoms, all the things you have to avoid when you’re traversing through space. Half-naked babies and their sixteen year -old mothers orbit around their trailers, unable to go much place else. The rest is loose dust, which sneaks in your socks and bra-line like I imagine only dark matter could.
Funny, I think to myself, as I’m watching the world pass by. I’m in Colorado now. What would Leroy, Ella May, the nasty parole officer, the pastor, and too-much-tongue boy think of that? Call me Neil Armstrong, I’d say. I leave a piece of chewed gum in each state we cross, like an American flag on the moon. Spearmint in Tennessee, Juicy Fruit in Arkansas, Big League Chew in Oklahoma, Double Bubble in Kansas. And here I am, chewing up a storm on my Big Red, making a big slobbery wad for Colorado to remember me by. I left nothing for North Carolina. I left that state plenty of souvenirs.
“How about this, huh? What a state. God Bless America.” Phil doesn’t look at me when he talks. Safety precaution, he told me, case I got offended. He has to keep his eyes on the road. That’s his one and only job: keep his eyes on that grey stretch of infinity.
“I’ve never seen mountains before,” I admit. Here, the rocks rise out of the Earth like dragon spines. They reach taller than heaven. I used to think that Sylvan Park could fit in God’s palm like a little snow globe, but he’d need his own set of park rangers to cover this much ground. The battalions of pine trees and dramatic bluffs and glittering brooks fill the horizon until they lose shape and become colors spilled on the sky. I get dizzy, so I rest my forehead on the cool glass and stare at the Hardees cup on the floorboard, the ketchup stains on my elbow rest.
“Oh, just you wait. The mountains only get bigger and bigger out West.” Phil keeps looking ahead, but he smiles anyways.
Phil’s a good guy. He drives for Long Haul Trucks, transporting kitchen appliances and vegetables and you name what else across the country. Right now, he’s driving an 18-wheel flatbed loaded with West Virginia lumber. His final stop is Idaho, which is home for him.
He’s for sure the nicest of all the truck drivers I’ve met, and I’ve met my fair share. When I first lit out, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I should have watched more movies. I stood on the side of the highway with my things rolled into a canvas bag: two t-shirts, one extra pair of jeans, toothbrush and toothpaste, two bags of beef jerky, and hiking socks with fifty bucks stuffed in them. I also brought a library copy of “The Catcher and the Rye” that I stole and a pocket Bible that had somehow managed to fit all of Genesis onto one page. I figured the Bible was full of fluff anyhow, no way anyone could read the whole thing. For good measure, I had a knife in my back pocket. I stole that, too.
I stood on the side of Highway 100, bag slung across my shoulder, right thumb out, left hand shading my eyes from the sun’s glare on chrome fenders. That part at least I knew. I wasn’t disheveled quite yet, since I had woken up that morning like any other. Took a shower, ate my Life cereal, checked in on Ella May. Most days, I’d wake her up, make sure she at least got out of bed. On good days, I’d make her get dressed. But not that day— I left her sleeping in that dark back room, snuggled against the Leroy’s hairy back. Sometimes it’s nice, not having anyone particularly care where you are or what you’re doing. I hopped out the trailer, kicked over our pink plastic flamingoes, and skipped in the opposite direction of school. Just like that.
The first car to pick me up was a beat-up blue pick-up with hay bales in the back. The driver was a farmer with a long leather face and John Deere hat. He pulled over and cranked down the crusty window. “Where you wantin’ to go to, girl?” West, I told him. He gestured for me to jump in the truck bed, where I snuggled myself behind two hay bales. That’s the last time I remember smelling North Carolina, between the hay and warm pavement and roadside honeysuckles.
I drove with him until he stopped for gas, where I hopped out and tried my luck again. And again. And again. All farmers, mostly, going into gas stations for fill-ups or the greasy patty melts served behind fertilizer and PVC pipes. I’d hang out by the gas pumps, twisting my dirty blonde hair and chewing gum. I’d pitch myself to anyone who didn’t look like a rapist or serial killer. “Hi, sir, think you could help me? I’m trying to get to my real mother in California. Can I hitch a ride? I’m not missing school for long, I swear.”
If any of them appeared to call the cops, I’d take off running. I’d learned to outrun them in elementary school.
I guess I am afraid of one cop coming after me. Leroy’s parole officer is an oily, drunk, son of a bitch, and he’ll know I’m missing before Ella May, most likely. I’m hoping his alcoholic tendencies will override his vehemence for law and order, but I could never be too safe.
A week before I lit out, he was checking up on Leroy, going through our trailer with Barney Fife diligence. He took a whole thirty minutes to finish his inspection, no matter we only have two rooms, a bathroom the size of a coffin, and a kitchen that doubles as a living room, which doubles as a hallway. I stayed in the living room/kitchen/hallway, staring at the stained carpet, while he most likely went through my drawers and ran his hands through my underwear.
He came out, hands planted on his buckle, which you could barely see below his beer belly. He came towards my spot near the door, until I could smell the whiskey. “Well, girl, your father’s good for the month. You keep watch and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid, else I’ll have to take him away from you again.”
He was so close that if I turned to look him in the eyes, his rabid ferret of a moustache would have attacked my face. I kept my chin turned stiffly to the right. “That’s mighty kind of you, Officer.” Thing is, I didn’t sound too grateful.
The officer’s big belly rubbed against me, and he grabbed my arm. The whiskey blew in my face like car fumes. “Careful, girl. He did it all to himself. I can’t help it that some daddies like their fix more than they like their daughters.”
I bit my lips bloodless and shut my eyes. The officer pinned me closer against the wall. “Ella May!” I called her name, not really expecting any heroics. But maybe one day, she would snap out of it and walk out of her room, find the officer breathing booze down my neck, and shed her victimhood to be my champion, my valiant mother. “Hey!” She’d say. “Get the hell off my daughter, you creep!”
‘Course, that was just fanciful thinking on my part. The officer decided he was finished for the day, anyway. He pinched my thigh and laughed. “Give my best to your mother back there watching Teletubbies.” He laughed so hard he wheezed, then he left, shaking the whole trailer in his heavy-footed departure.
I waited until I heard the cop car speeding out of Sylvan Park before I slid down the wall into a tiny ball and near broke my spine, making myself small as I could.
But that’s just the parole officer. Other than that, I’m not afraid of much. Once, I got picked up by this seedy fellow with long black hair and a grease-stained wife-beater that gave me a full view of his nipples. Normally, this would be a deal-breaker. Plus, the car smelled faintly of weed and pretty noxiously of cats. But I was in a fix—some lady had seen me loitering around a 7-Eleven, looking like a starving tramp, and her WASPy, suburbanite impulses told her, “Save the runaway from a life of prostitution and bring that poor child back to her mother.” I saw her dialing a 3-digit number on her phone, then glancing my way with big eyes and clasped hands.
So I had to get out, fast. I picked the first car I could, and Nip Slip to the rescue it was.
About two hours in our drive, he pulled off the main highway and started going down a dirt road, even though he’d promised to drop me off at some McGinn Trading Post off I-40. I felt a flurry of nerves in the pit of my stomach as the woods around us thickened.
I started doubling over my seat belt, grasping my stomach, making vomit noises. “Don’t you dare throw up in my car, girl,” he said, glancing sideways at me with disgust. As if he cared about how his car smelled.
I kept dry heaving, each time with more theatrical flair. “Can you at least slow down so I can vomit out the door, sir?” As soon as he let up on the gas, I opened the door and rolled out. Lightheaded with the skin burned clear off my kneecaps, I took off running towards the cover of pines. I spent a whole day walking back to the interstate through those woods, swatting away gnats and dwindling my jerky supply to nothing.
There’s been a few more of those creepy types; the ones who think I’m a rest-stop prostitute, the ones who sling back booze at the wheel, the ones who have pistols or bleeding deer heads or fifty Books of Mormon in the backseat. I keep my knife between my thumb and my pointer finger at all times, rubbing it like a skipping stone, just in case I need to stab a finger or open a jugular with it.
I haven’t, though. Funny, that I learned it all wrong in Sylvan Park. There are a lot of good people, blending in with the bad. No way you can tell which is which from botched tattoos or aggressive facial hair. Some folks listen to NPR too loud, and some ask invasive questions that don’t make no sense, but they open their doors, and that’s enough. Some give me money or Twix bars or Jesus pamphlets, and that’s more than I ever expected from the world.
Phil’s one of the good ones. He found me when I was right outside Nashville, Tennessee, in a roadside meat-and-three. It was my first sit-down meal since I’d hit the road. I ordered a cheeseburger with extra pickles and bathed it bloody with Heinz. I also got a side of fries and a Coke, no matter the fact that I was down to my last three dollars. I could always eat and run.
I was beginning to plan my escape when the waitress came by with a paid bill. “Sir over there’s paid for yer meal, honey. He says you can get another burger, if you want.” I glanced in the direction of her pudgy finger. There was a man in a white t-shirt and jeans, the top of his bald head still fuzzy like a baby bird. He waved and gave me a smile that somehow made me smile back. I knew soon as I gave him that little sliver of tooth, I’d messed up. He picked up his bowl of chili and sat right across from me.
“I look that homeless, huh.”
“It’s pretty convincing, that hobo bag of yours. You look like you haven’t had a good meal in a coon’s age.”
“I never ate good at home anyways. I’m the instant-rice kind of chef.”
He laughed hard at that, which made me feel pretty good.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“Rawlins, I’m Phil. You got any folks looking for you back home?”
“I’m going home. Out West.”
“Need a ride?”
And that was that, with Phil. He’s warm and fatherly and tells bad jokes, which I make fun of him for. We’ve been traveling for about eight days now. He gets bored on those long hauls, so he’s had me read “The Catcher and the Rye” out loud. We’re on our second time through it, which is more reading than I’ve done my whole life.
I’ve talked a whole life’s worth with Phil, too. I’ve told him more stuff than I’ve told anyone else, and it’s the true stuff. I told him about Leroy, that he was in jail for seven years when I was a kid because the meth lab caught on fire. By the time he got out, he wasn’t really my dad. He was the tenant who slept in the back and liked red pasta for dinner. He tries to do things right, I told Phil, but seven years is a long time to think you don’t have a father. Lost time isn’t a wound to be healed, it’s a leg you’ve cut off. There isn’t much piecing back to do, when there’s that much missing.
“And your mother?” he asked. They always wonder about the mother, wondering if she’s back home worried sick and dying of a broken heart. Mine’s dying of a broken mind, and she’s been doing it for a while.
“Ella May doesn’t like to leave the trailer park. Or her room, really. Sometimes she watches the TV even when it’s off.” I wonder what Phil thought of that. It sounded pretty sad to me, put into words.
You can tell he’s been lonely for a while. He talks about his son, who’s 21 and studying acoustic engineering in some fancy university. He’ll talk about Wesley for so long that he doesn’t notice I’ve fallen asleep against the window. Wesley is the song that puts me to sleep each night, lyrics against the engine’s music.
Wesley won the Pinewood derby when he was a kid, made his champion car with my brother while I was in Alaska… Wesley’s never fallen in love, at least I don’t think…Wesley loved his mother’s Shepherd’s Pie, always used to fuss when he was eating at my house…Wesley doesn’t call much these days, but he’s busy taking tests and drawing blueprints, you know…Wesley said I was never…Wesley…
We’re in Colorado now, and I’ve been falling asleep to Wesley for eight nights. I still can’t believe the mountains, that they’re this big and toothy. Phil looks away from the road, which makes me pay attention to what he’s about to say. He’s never broken eye contact with the grey infinity in front of him.
“You know Rawlins, I’m so happy I paid for that hamburger.”
“Yeah, me too, Phil. Best hamburger I ever had, actually.”
“I’ve been thinking. Where you really heading? Not just West, where do you really wanna go?”
I hadn’t actually really decided this yet. I guess I thought I’d go far West as I could, till my big toe was wet in the Pacific and the whole country lay behind me like a shadow. But I didn’t know where I’d go from there. In the back of my mind, I never thought I’d get that far. I’d only packed fifty bucks and two bags of jerky, after all.
“I’ll figure that out when I get there.”
Phil looks back at me, big blue eyes popping out of his moon face. “Idaho’s not really home when Wesley ain’t there, and Trish”—that’s his ex-wife— “she doesn’t care any which way. I guess what I’m trying to say is, let’s make my house a pit-stop. Let’s get us some fresh clothes, then let’s keep driving. I just want to see you end up somewhere safe and sound.”
I press on my eyes, trying to push the tears back in their reservoirs. I don’t want to smile, or say thank you, because that would just be opening the dam.
“Can we pick up a new book while we’re at it? I think we know what happens to Holden by now.”
He laughs, which makes his taut t-shirt belly rub against the steering wheel. “We can start working on your pocket Bible, we’d finish Psalms before Nevada. What do you think?”
I think I’d like that, I say. I’ve gotten through Genesis, the whole page of it, and I know that it must be true, because I’d seen the world now. The leathery farmers, the toothy mountains, the rivers that run like tears. The gas attendants, the grey stretches of infinity, a truck driver named Phil.
And I saw that it was good, too.