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Dispatch 3: Road trip for New Mexico

To My Father & Hannah.
(from a novel-in-progress)

dispatch-3-photo2-620 Photo by Peter Behrens

1. I shall write this to you as if a letter. We are 10:30 pm Mountain Daylight Time in the beige Chevy in the parking lot at Wal-Mart in Great Falls, Montana. She is asleep in the backseat. I’m sitting in front. I guess we’re spending the night here. Had to get some distance in today. Mileage. Tomorrow I promised I will find a better place for spending the night. We’ll stop early, before dark. Maybe a nat’l park.  By a river someplace. I wonder where. Wyoming someplace, I guess. Then Colorado, then New Mex. It feels strange to be heading there. Not real, somehow. The atomic bomb was made in NM. Exploded in the desert July 16 1945 before they dropped one on Japan. We bought sleeping bags and flashlights in Wal-Mart. It’s open late. A whole section with a long counter just selling guns. I thought about buying one. A pistol. They’re expensive. $200-300. I drove us as far as I could today just to get in some distance. Great Falls. Very sleepy. Sleep now. Today was hell. Tomorrow’s another day.

2. There is a Paul Simon song, “when I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, It’s a wonder I can think at all!” The Convent wasn’t terrible and I would have told you I was happy there. I had a lot of significance. It seemed. I was somebody. Everyone supposed they knew me. With D I didn’t try to hide my feeling. Even with Mother Power herself I owned some control. But I wasn’t doing anything. Not making the progress in my true life. Festering. And I knew I wasn’t who I was supposed to be.

3. I have been wondering how you felt about the Jewish woman. You never said anything about her. Or I don’t remember. It’s funny the questions we don’t ask.

4. I took the exit to find us some water to sit alongside it’s quite a dry yellow country, Wyoming. Crackers and cheese for lunch. We sit by a creek in Northern Wyo. Just south of Sheridan. Take our shoes off. There are trout. I think. I sip a can of Budweiser, she has her Martinelli’s apple juice. When you travel like this--like us--what shakes loose? Should you expect to—feel more free? I have always wanted to get out of where I am was living. Get out of myself. So, were you the same way, when you lived in Germany? Was she? Wanting to get out of it and of yourselves? Then there you were in NM.

Hannah’s ok. Not bleeding at all anymore. Says it feels okay. Better than yesterday. When she slept all day almost. She wants us sleeping under the stars tonight and I can make that happen. Her spirits seem high. Maybe high spirits don’t last. I’m not afraid to tell her anything. Told her I was in love with DM and ought to have been a boy when I was a girl and still feel that way. Told her about Fisher. Inside. I’m not going to tell her our 1938 story because she is somewhat vulnerable, a little bare. Without much self-protection. Her defenses are weak. And all my instinct is now to take care of her. She’s the baby bird I’m the dad. You’d understand. I don’t know how to martial it marshall? my feelings. A lot of my feelings have always been runaway horses.  Speaking of which we need to get back on the highway, there aren’t choices, it’s the Interstate at least to Denver. I don’t know about Denver, feel not ready for a city but I guess we’ll pass through. I bought motor oil and fed it to the Chevy. Didn’t know the kind.  10w30 the gas station guy said, that’s your best  bet. Okay. I had no clue. See you later.

5.  Writing this at the Best Western, Sheridan Wyo. After we stopped for lunch the Chevy wouldn’t start, just a click-click & nothing. Bummer! Blue steel sky.  Asphalt quite hot and softisch. Plenty grasshoppers. There were some antelopes I think in the distance. I decided I must hitch-hike back to the town (Sheridan) to find a mechanic and see if it could be fixed. Then Hannah said no you shouldn’t ever hitchhike. Maybe not, I said, in principle. But this is one of the times when we have no choice. It would be 9 or 10 miles and if we walked it might take all afternoon + it’s probably over 90 degrees.

She sat down on the gravel of the shoulder and started to cry. Grasshoppers kept fluttering. She was really upset. Oh babe, it’s just a car, Hannah, we can handle this. Please just go back sit by the stream, take off your shoes  & put your feet in the water, wait here for me because I know I can certainly deal with this. You shouldn’t hitchhike! she yells. Someone bad will pick you up! Don’t you dare! A murderer. What happens next: a truck appears. Which we can see coming a long way off. It’s like that out here, you see things coming. See the weather miles away. If it’s raining you see it in a blue column and they call it ‘walking rain’. I’m trying to figure out what to do because I get she’s frightened and I know why. Still I’m not sure what else to do. The truck begins slowing down. They see us, becuase it’s Little House on the Prairie here, it’s Shane, that kind of open country, they too see us from afar. We should run, Hannah says, let’s run! I’m not even hitching, I’m standing beside the Chevy trying to decide what I can do because I don’t want to leave her here and she’s freaking out. And two minutes ago she was doing okay. She’s freaking because the truck is slowing down. She has lost all confidence. Are you in pain? I asked. She bled a lot yesterday and we bought her new underwear at the Walmart in Billings.  She should still be in the hospital or I should have brought her home no matter what she said. Maybe a road trip is just what I wanted.

The truck comes to a stop without even bothering pulling over because there’s like no other cars or trucks--for miles. Two guys dressed like cowboys. Everything okay? They get out  and it’s awful to see her just crying and crying in the gravel shoulder. Your friend seems to be having some trouble one of the guys says, anything we can do to help. There is a hospital in Sheridan. I can’t say tell them what the story is. I can’t say rape. I say Banff I say New Mexico I say road trip. One of the cowboys--they are  veterinarians, the sign on their truck says Powder River Veterinary Hospital & Supply, P.C., Kaycee, Wy---hunkers down beside her. Not too close. I see him consider putting his hand on her shoulder then decide against it, wrong move, would only make things worse. He speaks to her in the most gentle voice. How you feeling miss? Would you like a drink of water, I suppose you could use some, this weather is pretty fierce. The other guy fetches a Thermos and the older one pours a cup of water,  talking in a very calm voice saying did you see the antelope, they are a dime a dozen this year. They come and go so close to the mountains but this summer we have seen plenty, more than usual. After a while she sips some water and I hope it going to be all right and we are not doing the wrong thing, coming out here, traveling. He asks her name, where she lives and what day it is. He helps her to her feet  and I walk her back to the little creek while they open the Chevy’s hood, one gets down on the road, rolls underneath. I’m so ashamed, she says. I say don’t be. They say it could be the solenoid. Maybe. They have chain in the truck that can pull the Chevy to town, otherwise would have to wait for a wrecker, maybe take a while. They hook us up. One of them drives the truck, the other steers the Chevy because it’s tricky steering a dead car, meaning with no power steering or brakes unless you are used to doing so. All right, fine. Thank you, be my guest. We ride in the truck. Hannah is all right. Not freaking out. Shaky. At the gas station --new solenoid plus new battery. Fifty-two bucks total. I decide not to drive further and spend the night. Motel Six or the Best Western which cost more, but has a swimming pool. Where we are. I’m on a plastic chaise to watch her swim laps. She’s a very good swimmer. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. The evening light is long and pink. The sky is much wider now we’re out of the Rocky mountains. The Big Horns are to the West. Good night.

6. We passed Pike’s Peak with snow on the top. And she climbed over from the backseat into the front for the first time.

How are you feeling?

Like in a spaceship she says, you’re the astronaut. I’m the space monkey. 

Colorado Springs we discover is an army town. Fort Carson. The exit road spills into a boulevard hectic with gun stores, used cars and whatnot. I wonder what are we doing here? Is this the right thing? Shouldn’t we both be going home? A life is like animal. Requires taking care of. I have to absolve myself of mistakes. Open country is the answer. Really? I imagine the sort of haircut I wish I had. Tight on the neck and the sides. The freedom of such things. Don’t be mannish be a man. Be yourself Frances. In the third grade when I asked them to call me Frank. Power summoned Mum and I found her sitting in Power’s harsh office. Frances is your name they pointed out. As if that was all I needed to be told. It’s not, it’s a fairy name, it’s too light for me, might as well call me Tinkerbelle. Frank Frank Frank like a piece of steel.

Fuggedaboudit.

We went into a store and I bought three army surplus t-shirts, olive color puis un Swiss Army knife. Outside monster traffic,  the tattoo parlors, the gun stores, the used cars. Hannah says: When there is too much noise and rush around me I can’t be me. In high school this was a problem. You wouldn’t think Pincher Creek would be a noisy place, she says, but our high school was. At Alberta Bible College people seemed quieter at first they were wary at first and I guess frightened of being in the big city of Calgary however they got gabby. At ABC many of us the majority I would say are farm and ranch kids.

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7. Trinidad, Colorado. Daddy you had pain and sorrow and disinheritance  in your refugee life, nazi Germany, you lost several countries and lived past it. I hope Hannah will too.  She is quite a lot stronger than she seems at first. I don’t know what to do really. We’re putting in the miles. It’s blue sky and windows cranked down most of the time and steady sixty/sixty-five on the interstate. Where are you going? who goes with you? and what do you want?

8. Motel Six, Raton NM. Some miles after Walsenburg CO she switched the heater on and it worked fine. At the top of the Raton pass we entered New Mexico. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything powerful by getting us here, how difficult is it to steer a Chevy one thousand miles across a state line? Not very. I experienced a feeling of detachment, rather. Raton is high in elevation and cold. The Jewish woman died in NM, 1938, and I wonder where exactly. It’s a big state. Where is she buried? It’s funny, everybody knows and nobody knows.

If I asked, would you tell me so I could go to her grave. For what reason exactly? Because I don’t like to think of people being alone.  But I won’t  ask. Don’t worry. Maybe all we need to know we already know.  

All-you-can-eat smorgasbord at Denny’s, Raton NM.  $4.95.

9. The girl at the gas station says, Puerto de Luna? Nothing there. An old church. NM 91 then the county road, I guess.  Paved then not. Who goes there, nobody.

3rd St. running south out of Santa Rosa becomes NM 91 Outskirts, trailers, junked cars. Asphalt stops and it becomes a lonely-looking gravel road headed southeast, loneliest of our roads so far. Zero traffic coming or going. You’d call it a desert.

Thousand acres of this wouldn’t keep one single cow, Hannah says.

Can you drive, I ask, do you have your license, because I intend to get out and walk. There’s nothing here but I‘d like to feel how the land feels.

Drive? Of course I can! Grew up on a ranch!  I drove a tractor almost before I could walk. Turning windrows of july hay when I was seven!  At nine that was me steering our old John Deere 1030 with my brother standing on the baler, hooking and stooking.

Okay, I’m impressed.

Let me tell you, Frances, my dad allowed me drive our car to church on Sundays when I was ten. For practice. Our green Buick Wildcat. A cushion to sit on, my dad in the passenger seat, my mum and my brother in the back. We’d pick up my granny at Brocket. On a cattle ranch or a farm, Frances, kids just have to do things, be a part of the operation.

Got it.

So I pull over.

Don’t see any cars coming and nothing behind us and there are no trees.You can see for miles. I have always wanted something bigger than myself. I don’t mind to get my hands dirty.

Will you drive like three miles ahead then stop and wait for me?

If that’s what you want, Frances, I surely can.

I reach for her hand and she takes mine and squeezes it. Been afraid to touch her before. Mum and dad, you cannot know how much accomplishment I feel with every sentence I am now completing. Each one more truthful than anything I’ve ever been or done. I don’t want you letting go of me. I was another Scared Heart, not so different from my friends really, ask Oona. Strong tennis player, pretty good at golf, skier. I’m changing into someone different but don’t want to lose you or you to let go of me.

I said: I love you for what you are and who you’ll become.  If I were someone else, Hannah, I would ask you to marry me. I believe you honorable and strong and loving.  Were it in my power no one else would ever harm you, my dear.

(I was talking just like my dad. Weird. Hear his voice in mine.)

Me too, she says.

Awkward pause.

(I’m standing in the road—she’s slid over from her passenger side to sit behind the wheel.)

(The driver’s side door is open. A constant wind, warm, is blowing from the west.)

I love you too, Frances. I admire you. You’re my best and strongest friend. There is no one else I would have ever come down to this country with. No one I could trust the way I trusted you. I will never forget  what you’ve done for me. Without you bringing me away I would have drowned. When I get married I’m going to name my first daughter after you. Be safe on your walk. I’ll see you in five miles.

At that moment I understand how strong she actually is and that she’s going to be all right after all and that she actually does not need me. She has it in herself and doesn’t need me or all this country we have been swallowing. All this light, this sweet wide open, this empty beauty. And then I know, for certain, that once we have turned around and started heading north, when we are within a couple hours of the Canada border she will ask me to drive her straight home to her parents, to their ranch. And I will say, certainly. Because where else is there for us to go? And once we get there I’ll be invited to stay. She’ll introduce me to her grandmother, holy woman of the Peigan Rez. Hannah won’t tell her parents what happened at Banff but she’ll tell the old lady. We’ll do a smudge in her kitchen, the three of us, and afterwards Hannah will say already she feels better. Cleaner. And I’ll be glad to hear it. Of course I will. Glad she has all this magic to sustain her, glad for all she doesn’t need. And when I finally depart—have to return the Chevy up to Banff, catch a train or plane to Montreal—she will be crying as we say our goodbyes and will mention again the daughter that she swears someday she’s  going to name after me. And I believe her, Hannah never says anything that isn’t true. I believe in her unconceived Frances, long may you roam, girl, long may you roam. Next summer the grandmother will do another Sundance and I must come. But I won’t. I’ll never see Hannah again.

That day? She drove off and I started walking southeast along the dusty New Mexico road. Thinking of my dad, thinking of myself. Hanks of yellow grass in wide fields, cactus. Barbed wire fence on both sides of the road with tumbleweeds banked up.  After the Chevy had disappeared from sight, which took a while, the only sound was the whine of wind through fence wire. Maybe it was the prevailing wind, blowing from the exactly same place all summer, because nothing on the land was moving. All that could be blown away was long gone, stripped, pushed clear into Texas by then, leaving the country so perfectly still. Nothing moving. The wind wasn’t changing a thing.

End.

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