It’s Only a Snake Needs to Change His Skin

Dorsey tries to conceal his smile as he watches the tractor-trailer churning up his grandparents’ gravel driveway. This summer, he’s finally twelve; this summer, his daddy is going to let him go with him on his runs. This summer, he will not be awakened at 3 am, because Mamaw wants to rearrange the living room furniture. Last summer, it happened 4 nights in a row, and while his little sister slept, he pushed the brown and orange plaid sofa, and the green recliner, its seat cushion being held together with duct tape, into endless configurations, carried the TV from one scratched up surface to another, got whacked on the head with a House Beautiful magazine when he let the rabbit ears fall to the floor.

The truck comes to a stop beside the carport and his daddy hops out, his long, skinny legs clad in dark blue jeans and cowboy boots. He is tan and his moustache is longer. Dorsey has not seen him in weeks. He barely lifts the red brim of his Winston Cup Series ball cap in Mamaw’s direction.

“Gerry Lynn. Don’t look like you changed none.”

Mamaw’s arms are crossed over her large breasts. She is wearing her lavender flowered housecoat. The stitching is coming loose in one of the armpits and also on the pocket where she stashes her Salems. She is frowning, harder than the time she came back from the tent revival and tore up all of his and Jess’ cassette tapes, then made them get down on their knees and pray for forgiveness for listening to the devil’s music. “It’s only a snake needs to change his skin.” She hocks a big lugie and spits it inches away from the toes of his daddy’s shiny boots. “Ephraim!” she yells over her shoulder. “The trash is here!”

Jess comes bounding through the torn screen door, her stringy blond hair blazing behind her. “Daddy!” she says as she leaps into his arms, all bony knees and elbows.

“Hey there, Jessie Sue. How’s my baby girl?”

“Can I go, too, Daddy?” Jess loops her arms around his neck and leans back so he can see her make her sad eyes. Sometimes, they help her avoid the belt when Mamaw is on the warpath.

His daddy smiles and cups her cheek. His hand is big against her small face. “Naw, baby. This is me and Dorsey’s thing. The road ain’t no place for a little girl.”

“The road ain’t no place for no young’un,” Mamaw says. She stoops and straightens one of her yard gnomes. It’s the one she bought for $1.50 at a yard sale in Dolan Hollar and painted green and blue. She struggles back up to her feet, her black eyes honing in on Daddy. “I swear to God, Harlan Cunningham, if you’re drinking and whoring with this boy along for the ride, I’ll…”

“Aw, Gerry Lynn, what?” his daddy scowls, letting Jess slide gently to her feet. “You gonna do some of that Indian mumbo jumbo shit of yourn on me? Don’t you worry about me and Dorsey. Just take care of my little girl.”

Mamaw’s hands ball into fists just as Papaw sidles out the door. “Hi there, Harlan, how are you, son?” he says, putting out his hand to shake Daddy’s, but Mamaw throws her arm over his.

“Don’t you ‘how are you, son’ this no good piece of shit, Ephraim! He’s fixing to take Dorsey off to God knows where!”

Papaw pats her gently. The Parkinson’s is bothering him today. His fingers quake against her flabby flesh. “Gerry Lynn, now, you knowed this was happening. Lura done give her blessing for him to be with his daddy.” He turns stiffly. “Dorsey, go on, now, you’n’s get on out of here.”

Dorsey grabs his duffel bag and follows his daddy to the cab of the truck. The inside is all red cloth and vinyl and imitation wood, the entire dashboard a series of switches and dials. The CB microphone cord dangles between the oversized steering wheel and the rearview mirror, the intermittent gravelly voices transmitting through the speakers providing a dependable background noise. Behind the driver’s seat is a cramped closet with a couple of his daddy’s shirts and a pair of jeans hanging on a thin metal rod. Bags of Fritos, Doritos, Sweet Sixteen powdered donuts, a box of Cocoa Puffs, and several six-packs of Mountain Dew and Bud Light are spilling out of the compartment below it. An American flag is tacked to the back wall of the sleeper, above the cot where Dorsey will rest. Dorsey lifts the console between the seats. Wedged in with the logbook and a carton of Marlboro’s is a plastic bag of round multicolored pills, but his daddy slams the console back down before he can take note of anything else.

“Stay out of there, you hear?” he says, and Dorsey nods vigorously. It’s the same warning he gives anytime he takes a gun out of his gun case, or puts one back in.

Jess chases the rig down the driveway as they back out, alternating between blowing kisses at Daddy and sticking her tongue out at Dorsey. Dorsey makes a fist against his mouth and then lifts his middle finger slowly, keeping the tip of the finger on the tip of his nose so Daddy doesn’t see him flipping her the bird.

When they get on I-40, Daddy reaches under his seat and tosses a thin brown bag into Dorsey’s lap. The tops of two comic books peek over the perforated edge, and Dorsey lifts them out. One is Spider-Man Vs. Wolverine, a Marvel 25th Anniversary edition, and the other is Superman: The Mark of the Krypton Man. On the cover, Superman’s face is marred with boils, smoke seething from his skin; Krypton Man’s black gloved hands have rendered him powerless in their grip.

“You ain’t read them two yet, have you?” He glances over, the look in his eyes hopeful.

“Naw. Thanks, Daddy.”

The corner of a bright orange package is sticking out of the bag, too, and Dorsey slides the King Size package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups into his palm.

“Ain’t that your favorite?”

Dorsey smiles wide. “Uh-huh.” He tears them open and pops one into his mouth.

Daddy chuckles. “Here, give me one of them things,” he says. He tousles Dorsey’s auburn hair before he takes the candy.

After the Reese’s Cups are gone, Dorsey rifles through his duffel bag for the Moon travel guidebook he found for a quarter at a yard sale Mamaw dragged him to last week. “I’ll be on the company’s clock getting out there, but we don’t got to be in such a rush on the way back,” Daddy had said when he called to tell him he was bringing him along on this haul. “Maybe we could see the Grand Canyon.” A “maybe” from Daddy is the hook Dorsey’s always been willing to hang his hopes on. “Your daddy ain’t going to show you no Grand Canyon,” Mamaw said when Dorsey told her. “Unless it’s the one in his pitch-black soul.” But Papaw brought a map of the United States to his room a little while later. “Just don’t let your Mamaw see it,” he said, holding the trifold out to him, the earthquake in his limbs just a tremor that night. The map would have been enough for Dorsey, but after he found the guidebook, he spent every free minute he had planning the trip. He charted out every possible tourist stop they could visit along the way, starting with the Joshua Tree National Park and ending with Graceland. He flips the book open to the California page he’s tucked the map into.

“Hey, Daddy,” he says, “Did you know them Cabazon Dinosaurs have a combined weight of 250 tons?” He figures after Joshua Tree, they can head down Interstate 10 and see the concrete monstrosities on their way to Santa Monica and the west coast beginning of Route 66.

“Do what?” Daddy squints over at the page, but the picture of Dinny and Mr. Rex is too small for him to see.

“Claude Bell, the guy who done a bunch of the sculptures at Knott’s Berry Farm? Well, he put these gigantic dinosaurs out in the middle of nowhere. Says here you can see ’em for miles! Ain’t that kind of cool?”

Daddy leans back and tugs on his ear. “Reckon so,” he says, but he looks puzzled.

Dorsey tells him how the Hollywood sign is 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide, that the “Heaven Dogs” on the Chinese Theatre were once part of a Ming dynasty temple, and that Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart are among the celebrities buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

“And The Munchkins got their own star on the Walk of Fame!” Dorsey continues. “Mama’d like that,” he adds, then immediately wishes he could take it back. A darkness passes over his father’s features.

“Why don’t you put that up for now and look at them comics in the sleeper a while?” Daddy says and Dorsey chucks the travel book in the duffel without hesitation, clamoring over his seat and rolling onto the cot.

It was a mistake to mention Mama; especially in connection to anything Wizard of Oz. She’s been collecting paraphernalia from the movie since she was a girl. During their last fight, Daddy swept his arm across the kitchen table and sent her Ruby Slippers cookie jar crashing to the floor. Mama’s hands and knees were all bloody from the shards that got stuck in her skin as she scrambled to scoop up the bigger pieces, tried to fit them back together.

Dorsey stacks a couple of pillows under his head and tries to read his comic books, but he dozes off before he even gets to the showdown between Spider-Man and Wolverine. When he wakes up, it’s almost dark outside.

“Breaker 1-9, this is Eight Ball,” Daddy’s saying into his CB microphone. “Radio check.”

“You got Night Crawler, Eight Ball. Coming in loud and proud.”

“Copy that, Night Crawler. Hey, you know a choke and puke near West Memphis ain’t full of lot lizards? I got my boy with me.”

Night Crawler lets out a long whistle. “That’s a tall order, Eight Ball. Anybody on the radio got anything?”

A few more voices chime in, but nobody knows any truck stops that don’t have at least a small prostitute presence. The conversation shifts to whether a weigh station on I-85 outside of Atlanta is open or closed, and then to a speed trap on 95 near the Virginia border.

Dorsey moves back up to the front with his daddy. “Where we at?” he asks.

Daddy pushes his cap back from his forehead and rolls the toothpick hanging out of his mouth from one side to the other. “Almost to Arkansas. You done slept all the way through Tennessee,” he says, swatting him playfully in the gut. If he was upset about him bringing up Mama before, he doesn’t seem to be now, and Dorsey’s relieved.

The blue and white Arkansas state sign is visible up ahead when his daddy says, “You hungry?” He’s already switching lanes and keeping his blinker on for the exit they’re approaching, so Dorsey says that he could eat.

Dorsey’s hoping they’ll stop at a barbeque joint since Papaw’s friend, Smitty Jones, who used to drive rigs cross country like Daddy, wouldn’t shut up about Memphis barbeque after he found out Dorsey was going with his daddy. “Tastiest damn thing you’ll ever eat in your life,” he’d say from the rocking chair he occupied every afternoon, while Papaw, who used to make the barbeque at the VFW hut for their annual pig picking until the Parkinson’s made his hands too shaky, would holler from the other rocking chair, “Heretic! Get the hell off my porch!” Every day, Smitty would be back though, and they would carry on as if nothing had happened.

But when they get to the end of the exit ramp, there’s nothing there but a couple of ramshackle houses, an Exxon station, and a McDonald’s, the golden arches high and enormous over everything else in sight, like a florescent sun levitating in the night sky. “Mickey D’s it is, I guess,” Daddy says, and a few minutes later, Dorsey’s whetting his taste for rivalry barbeque with a Big Mac and thinking it’s probably for the best. Papaw would smell the betrayal on him the second he got back home.

He doesn’t like to think of Mamaw’s and Papaw’s as home, but it has been for the past two months, since that last bad fight. One thing Dorsey knows for sure is that he will never hit a woman, even if she hits him first, even if she hits him a lot of times, like Mama does Daddy. This last time, after he hit her, Daddy told her she was “crazy like her mama” and he was “done with her shit for good”. Mama’s cheek was already swollen and blue before his truck was out of the driveway. And that was the last Dorsey and Jess heard from Daddy until last week. Uncle Vaughn, Mama’s brother, who hauls for W&L, too, told them he asked after them every time he saw him, and he sometimes sent Fruit Stripe gum for them through Vaughn. The day after Daddy left, Mamaw was waiting at their house when they got off the bus. Her Buick was loaded with garbage bags full of their stuff and Mama was gone. She called a few days later and said she was in Roan Mountain, at Aunt Geneva’s, and she’d be home soon, but she hasn’t come back yet.

Dorsey’s not worried that she won’t come back. She’s done this before, and not just because of a fight with Daddy. She did it last summer and the summer before that, too. One winter, she said she wasn’t living through the “Godforsaken snow” again and went down to Florida to wait tables in a Waffle House. Mamaw calls them her “episodes”, and they always pass. The only thing Dorsey’s worried about is that Mama will come back with the idea to move them off somewhere and he’ll have to start junior high at a new school. She did that once before, too; Dorsey spent part of 2nd grade in Kentucky. It’s hard enough being the scrawny redheaded kid on free lunch, but at least he’s not the new kid. At least the bullies are all assholes he knows. At least he’s already shown Jeff Hopkins and his gang of shitheads he can throw a mean punch. That he knows how to bust a lip, bloody a nose. He’s had a front row seat for years; he’s been taught well.
 

The sun is a white orb climbing a pale sky above the dusty prairie lands below, its streaks of pink and violet lending the only color to this stark landscape, so different from the vibrant evergreens and indigo mountain ridges Dorsey’s used to. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and yawns.

“Morning, sunshine,” his daddy calls, lifting his coffee thermos up and nodding to him in the rearview mirror.

“We drive through the night?” Dorsey asks, sitting up and stretching, but he already knows the answer. The baggie he saw in the console yesterday is sunk into the soft leather of the gearshift, and there are noticeably fewer pills in it than there had been.

“I’ll stop next exit, let you take a piss, get you some breakfast. We’ll be in Amarillo before lunch,” his daddy says.

“Amarillo?” Dorsey grabs his sneakers and reclaims his seat up front. “That’s where them Cadillacs are! The ones sunk nose first into the ground?” He grabs out the guidebook and flips furiously, trying to find the place where he’d read about it.

“I don’t want to see none of that art shit,” Daddy says before he can find the page. “Fellas ruint some perfectly good automobiles, way I see it.”

Dorsey lets the book slap closed. He doesn’t bother telling Daddy that the large majority of the Caddies they used were headed for the junkyard; Daddy thinks any car can be salvaged, especially the classics. Dorsey’s mouth is so dry; he can’t run his tongue along the roof of it without it sticking. That can of Mountain Dew he downed in the night when he woke up thirsty was a bad idea; he’s more parched than ever, his teeth feel fuzzy, and his bladder’s about to explode. He can’t figure out how Daddy does it, drinking coffee all day and night long. Then he catches sight of the jug of dark yellow liquid in the pocket of the driver’s side door.

He bites his lip and turns his attention to the beat-up white pickup in the other lane, one of the few vehicles sharing this lonely stretch of highway so early in the morning. A Hispanic woman is driving. Her arm is propped in the open window, the air blowing her dark ponytail in every direction at once. Beside her, a little boy, no more than three or four, sits on his knees, one pudgy hand resting on the woman’s shoulder. A big-bellied man with graying hair sleeps in the passenger seat, his straw hat resting on his chest. The woman flashes Dorsey a smile and he jerks his eyes back into the confines of the cab.

“Breaker One-Niner, Breaker One-Nine…This is Pale Rider. Hey, there’s a Checkpoint Charlie right outside of Elk City on I-40…couple of baby bears running it…total shitshow…but they’re checking comic books, too…Eight-Ball, ain’t you heading that way?”

Daddy turns the volume up on the radio and grabs his mic. “That’s a 10-4, Pale Rider. Thanks for the heads up, good neighbor.”

“Comic books?” Dorsey wrenches around in his seat and tries to lay eyes on the sleek covers of Superman and Spider-Man. One is lying open-faced on the floor, the other only partially visible under the blanket of the sleeper.

Daddy’s brow furrows for a second, then a huge smile spreads under his bushy mustache and he cackles. “They’re talking about my logbook, son. They don’t want nothing with your comics,” he says, still laughing. He cuffs Dorsey in the ear.

Dorsey sits forward, out of his daddy’s reach, his cheeks burning. He knows some CB talk, but he’s never heard logbooks called a comic before. Now he feels stupid, and his daddy is the one person he’s desperate to impress. He still needs to take a piss, he’s still thirsty, and they’ve blown past the white pickup carrying the Hispanic lady; the truck is only visible in the side mirror. All he can see as the distance between them grows is a few wisps of her black hair being buffeted by the wind before she slips out of view completely.
 

Amarillo is flat and brown, and the dry heat that engulfs Dorsey when he steps from the cab takes his breath away. The truck stop is teeming with big rigs and plenty of car patrons, too. His daddy’s filling up the tank and talking to the trucker at the next pump, appropriately named Popeye. The strap of the black eye patch he wears looks like it’s cutting into his meaty forehead. He laughs at something Daddy says and brown spittle from the tobacco crammed into his bottom lip drips into his white beard.

Dorsey turns his head and focuses instead on a woman at the regular pumps, putting gas into a station wagon while three little kids and a German Shepherd hang their heads out of every window. The little girl with the stringy blond hair reminds him of Jess. She gives him a wry smile and then makes a pig face, her thumbs stretching her nostrils upward. Her mother catches sight of her. “Sarah Kate, you stop that right now!” she scolds, swiping her sweat-plastered hair away from her face and lunging towards Sarah Kate’s window. Sarah Kate ducks safely away from her mother’s hand, and doesn’t resurface until her mother goes inside. This time she crosses her eyes and waggles her tongue from side to side. Her sister screams, “Mama’s coming!” and she snaps her tongue and eyes back into place. As they pull away, Sarah Kate pops back up and gives him a shy wave. He grins and waves back.

“Who you waving at?” Daddy says, finally through filling up.

Dorsey shrugs and kicks at a weed growing through a crack in the cement.

Popeye’s finished too, and he’s back in his Freightliner, the engine rumbling. “Threes and eights,” he calls to Daddy, as the rig lumbers toward an exit.

“Come on, let’s get some grub,” Daddy says, leading the way to a food truck parked in front of the building, close to the main road. “Camion Taco de Pedro” is spray-painted on a crude piece of plywood propped against one of the front tires. “Let me get six of the beef tacos,” Daddy tells the teenage boy at the window.

They sit on the bench outside the storefront and eat their lunch. Dorsey savors each soft, grease-filled bite, refried beans and melted cheese dripping onto the foil wrapping they’d spread across their laps.

“Ain’t no Mexican food tastes like this in Beech Mountain, is there?” his daddy says, nudging his elbow.

“Sure ain’t.” Dorsey crams half a taco into his mouth, and his daddy chuckles.

“Before we get back on the road, let’s us take showers, change these clothes,” Daddy says, stuffing his trash in the receptacle beside him and taking his cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket. “I don’t know about you, but I think I’m getting pretty ripe.”

Dorsey would rather ride the rest of the way to California on the hood of Daddy’s rig than brave the truck stop showers. He’s sure it’ll be like gym class, except worse, because it’s full-grown men, with huge ball sacks and hairy armpits and he’ll look like the little pussy Jeff Hopkins has always accused him of being, well, until he smashed his face in right before summer break. But Daddy’s already gone back to the truck; he’s already stepping down with a duffel slung over each shoulder. He strolls back to the bench, looking every bit the Marlboro Man, sun sizzling behind him, cigarette dangling from his lip. Only thing missing is the cowboy hat and the horse.

“You ready?” he says, taking one last drag off his smoke before he flicks it to the ground.

Dorsey gives him a reluctant nod and trails him to the locker room.
 

“Now, ain’t that better?” Daddy says. They’re standing at the row of sinks across from the urinals. Only a few other men are in the brown-tiled bathroom with them. A skinny guy with a buzz cut is taking a shower, one with tattoos of naked women is taking a piss, and a bald guy is shaving a few sinks down. Daddy’s running a comb through his black hair. The Winston Cup ball cap is wedged into an outer pocket of his duffel, and he’s wearing one of his nicer shirts.

“Yeah,” Dorsey says, though he was content in the pair of Jams and white Vans T-shirt he’d had on.

His daddy stops combing and cuts his eyes at him in the mirror. “What is that on your shirt? Skateboard shit? Do you even know how to ride one?”

This shirt is one of Dorsey’s prized possessions. It’s a Powell Peralta, a hand-me-down from his cousin, Jared. Uncle Vaughn brought a bag of his outgrown things over to Mamaw a couple of weeks ago. This one, with the skeleton appearing to pop through the wearer’s chest, is his favorite. But under his father’s scrutiny, the shirt no longer feels like it fits him.

He shrugs. “Yeah, kinda.” The truth is, he only gets to practice when Jared brings his over to their grandparents’ house, which isn’t often. Uncle Vaughn’s wife, Sharon, and Mamaw don’t get along. Mama promised him the last time she called that she’s going to buy him whatever skateboard he wants when she gets back.

Daddy’s lips turn up in a smirk. “Well, you’ll fit right in with them crazy Californians,” he says.
 

Dorsey’s confused when Daddy steers the rig toward town instead of taking the exit back to 40.

“Ain’t that the way we was supposed to go?” he asks, pointing at the ramp they’re rumbling past.

“I got a stop I need to make first,” Daddy tells him.

The stop turns out to be a squat white house on Louisiana Street. The 18-wheeler takes up half the block when Daddy parks it. A woman in a thin black bathrobe is waiting at the door for them. She has blonde hair feathered like Farrah Fawcett’s. She’s wearing heavy eyeliner and mascara. A boy and girl poke their heads under the billowy sleeves of her bathrobe and stare at Dorsey. They’re both younger than him. The boy looks about seven and the girl is a toddler. She is wearing a diaper and a pink shirt. The boy lunges over the threshold and pops a few caps off on his toy pistol. Daddy pretends to be hit and staggers backward, like he used to do with Dorsey.

“You got me, bud,” he tells the kid, ruffling his dark hair as he climbs the concrete steps to the porch stoop.

“‘Bout time you got here, Mister,” the woman says in a husky voice. “I been waiting all day.”

Daddy makes a low growling sound. “I’ll bet you have.” He swoops the little girl into his arms and blows a raspberry on her belly. She screeches happily. Then he glances back at Dorsey, who’s shifting his weight from foot to foot, like he used to when he was little, and about to piss himself. “This here’s Dorsey,” he tells them.

“Hey, Dorsey,” the woman says. “I’m Lisa. That’s Jason, and this is Pammy.” She takes the little girl back into her arms and sets her inside the door. “Y’all come on in. It’s hot as blazes out here.” She fans herself with red fingernails.

She takes them into the tiny kitchen in the back of the house and starts pouring glasses of lemonade. The two kids impatiently grab for them, sloshing the yellow liquid around in the cups. “Dorsey, you like lemonade?” she says, her bathrobe shifting to the side and revealing the soft curve of one breast.

“Yes, ma’am,” he mutters, unable to meet her eyes, horrified at the stirring he feels in his shorts. He thought only Jennifer Starnes, his across the street neighbor, was capable of giving him a boner. She’s been wielding this power over him since last summer, when she was a lifeguard at the community pool, sashaying around in her barely there red bikini. Even when she was in a full snowsuit, helping her dad shovel the sidewalk, he could barely even glance at her without all the blood in his body rushing to the same place.

“Harlan, can you…” Lisa stands on her tiptoes to reach a package of Chips Ahoy! in a top cabinet, then looks over her shoulder at Daddy, “Help me…move that dresser I told you about?” She hands the cookie package to Dorsey and wipes at the sheen of sweat on her collarbone with a dishtowel. Dorsey takes a couple of cookies and passes them to Jason.

“Sure can.” His daddy’s looking at this woman like a dog would a steak. The cookie Dorsey’s chewing tastes like cardboard and he has to struggle to swallow. “Dorsey, this’ll take us a minute. Sit here with the young’un’s,” he tells him, and they leave. A few seconds later, a door closes.

Pammy whimpers. “Mama.”

Dorsey puts his head in his hands and squeezes his eyes shut.

“Hey,” Jason whispers, “Wanna play Pac-Man? I got an Atari.”

Dorsey looks up, shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t have an Atari; the only time he gets to play video games is when Aunt Sharon takes him along with Jared and her other two boys to Pizza Hut. “What about her?”

Pammy’s climbed down from her chair and is heading for the room Daddy and Lisa went in. Jason clomps over in his cowboy boots and stops her. “Uh-uh, Pammy. Mama’s busy,” he tells her gently, lifting her under her arms. She kicks her chubby legs and wails in protest, but Jason manages to lug her into the den. “Look here, Pammy,” he says, grabbing her See-n-Say off the sofa and yanking the string. “The cow says…Moooo!” blows through the tiny speaker as the arrow winds back to the bottom and the string coils back inside.

“Me do!” Pammy says, snatching it from him and squatting on the floor. “The rooster says…Cock-a-doodle-doo!” She squeals and claps her hands.

A rhythmic bump against the other side of the den wall starts up. Jason turns the volume dial higher on the TV, but the white noise of the static does very little to muffle it. He shoves the Pac-Man cartridge into the Atari console, and the game’s upbeat theme song takes its turn at trying to drown out the reverberations coming from the other room.

“The horse says…neiiiiiigh.”

Jason holds a joystick out to Dorsey. He’d rather just go sit in the truck. It’d be easy enough, to just ignore the kid’s gesture, walk out to the cab, scan the CB stations and find one to sandbag, until his daddy was ready to go. Maybe he could even find another stop in the guidebook.

“The pig says…oink oink oink.”

The thuds against the wall get faster, and a canvas portrait of Lisa and Jason before Pammy gets dislodged from its nail and smacks against the linoleum floor.

“Oh…God…Harlan…ohhhh!”

Pammy starts to cry and call for her mama again. Jason drops the joystick and goes to his sister. Dorsey plays the first two levels of Pac-Man before Daddy comes out, tucking his shirt back into his jeans, his hair looking like it needs another combing.

“Head ’em up and move ’em out,” he says to Dorsey, hitching a thumb at the door.

Pac-Man has just eaten a power pellet and is closing in on Blinky and Pinky. He’s got to eat them before they start flashing.

“Boy, I said move your ass!”

Dorsey jerks his eyes to his father, who’s already standing on the porch stoop, checking all his pockets for his pack of cigs. He’s been puffing like a smoke stack all day. Pac-Man’s death sound effect forces him back to the game, and there’s that bastard Pinky, hovering over the spot where Pac-Man was before he killed him. The other ghosts join him to gloat while the neon blue “Game Over” flashes on the screen.

Jason’s trying to restrain a squirming Pammy on his lap. They look like an octopus, all 8 limbs moving in opposite directions. It’s been such a struggle that Jason’s lost his cowboy boots. One’s under the sofa, the other one slumped over beside a stack of TV Guide magazines.

“Thanks for letting me play,” he mumbles as he steps around the kids on his way to the door.

Lisa follows him and his daddy out to the truck, clutching her bathrobe around her. “I thought y’all was going to stay a little longer,” Lisa says. Her hair has fallen and her mascara is smeared. She’s barefoot and she has to keep stepping off the scorching pavement and onto the patches of dried up grass in her yard to cool the soles of her feet.

“Can’t. Got to have this load to Twenty-Nine Palms by daybreak tomorrow,” Daddy says over his shoulder while he rummages through the cab.

Dorsey knows that isn’t true. His daddy has done this run every month for the last 3 years. They’re hauling Broyhill to the same furniture store in Yucca Valley it’s always been, and the load doesn’t have to be delivered until Sunday night.

“Oh.” Lisa’s face falls like her hair for a second, but she pushes it back up with a toothy grin. “You coming back through Monday or Tuesday?”

“Nah, not this time. Getting a load in LA has to be delivered to Buffalo by Wednesday.” Dorsey’s throat constricts. That can’t be true, either. On the way back, he and his daddy have plans. They start at Joshua Tree National Park and end at Graceland. The only part of what Daddy said Dorsey hopes is true is that they’re not coming back through Amarillo. Dorsey’s even willing to mark the Alamo Village Vacationland off the list of must-dos if it means they won’t come anywhere near Lisa’s. If they could bypass Texas all together, that’d by A-OK with him. Daddy emerges with his logbook and leans against the tractor, scribbling down how long he “rested”.

“Well,” Lisa says, still sounding cheerful, “When will I see you again?” She’s standing in the yard across the street, where there are actually a few blades of green grass she can soothe her scorched feet on.

“I don’t know, Sugar.” Daddy snaps the logbook closed and gets into the cab. “But I’ll give you a call.”

“Harlan, this ain’t right, this way you treat me…treat us,” she says, her bravado finally crumbling. She hobbles over the asphalt on the sides of her feet, her soles already burned up. Daddy slams his door closed, but she jumps on the running board and hoists herself up by grabbing onto the side mirror. She smacks the window with her open palm. “Harlan!” she screams through the glass as he starts the engine.

Daddy cracks the window slightly. “Get off, woman!”

“I ain’t going nowhere until you talk to me outside the bedroom, Harlan Cunningham!” she counters, tightening her grip on the mirror.

Pammy comes out on the stoop wailing, Jason doggedly trying to keep her back. “Mama, I can’t hold her no more!” he says, starting to cry, too.

The look of defeat that passes across Lisa’s face makes Dorsey cast his eyes away. She releases her hold on the truck like it was a life preserver that was keeping her afloat, and sinks to the ground.

Another thing Dorsey knows for sure is that if he ever gets married, he is never going to cheat on his wife. One woman at a time should be enough for any man; it will be enough for him. The children are clinging to their mother’s limp arms while Lisa stands between them on the porch stoop, looking like the breath’s been forced out of her. Daddy pulls away from the curb.
 

Dorsey’s been in the sleeper since they left Lisa’s house and hasn’t said a word to his daddy. He’s wanted to; he wanted to ask what Big Money meant when he told Sidewinder to watch out for the angry kangaroo on his donkey or why a bunch of truckers started asking for mile markers on I-90 when Howler broadcast that there was a seat cover in a red Porsche they ought to get a look at. He didn’t even tell him that there’s a town in Arizona called Oatman, and it looks like it’s straight out of a Western movie set. They have mock gunfights on the streets and burros that’ll eat hay right out of your hand, they’re so tame. Dorsey’d really like to know what a burro’s snout feels like against his palm. He needs to take a leak again, and though he felt stuffed after he polished off the last of the Doritos, the gnaw that’s persisted in his stomach for the last couple of hours claims he’s hungry again, too. But he refuses to be the one to end this impasse; his daddy might be stubborn, but so is his mama, and he’s got both their blood running in his veins.

Since they split on Lisa and her kids, all Dorsey can think of is the good things about his mama; how pretty she looks when she wears that yellow dress with the blue flowers, how soft her dark red curls feel on his face as she leans to kiss him goodnight, how delicious her spaghetti and meatballs tastes, not like Mamaw’s, who uses too much ketchup. Even Mama’s “episodes” he’s willing to forgive; Mamaw used to have them, too, and Mama, being the oldest, had to take care of her little brothers and sister. Dorsey knows it’s tough for her. Always having to be the one to hold it all together.

“What’s stuck up your ass?” Daddy finally says when they’re not far from Albuquerque.

Dorsey meets his father’s eye in the rearview mirror. “Nothing.”

“Don’t give me that shit! You been pouting since we left Amarillo.” He takes the mangled straw he’s been chewing on out of his mouth and shoves it into the Big Gulp cup in his console. “Let me guess. You ain’t fond of the pit stop we made there.”

Dorsey shrugs. “It’s your run. You choose the stops.”

His daddy slams his hand down on the steering wheel. “Damn right, I do! And don’t go squealing to your mama about ’em, neither.”

“What do you care? Thought you and her was done.”

The look on his father’s face is murderous as he reaches one arm into the sleeper and gropes around for Dorsey. The truck veers over the white line and comes close to bending the guardrail before Daddy gives up on laying hands on him, and swings the rig back into the lane. Angry cars zoom past, blowing their horns. His daddy takes a big breath. “Boy, you just wait till we ain’t on the road,” he says through gritted teeth. A tumble-down diner called Jet’s comes into view a few miles west, and Daddy pulls in. “Get your ass out,” he says once he’s maneuvered the rig into park behind the building, but Dorsey’s barely off the sleeper before his daddy’s jerking him through the passenger side door. He shoves Dorsey’s cheek into the surface of the truck, twisting both arms behind his back. Dorsey yelps as the hot pain rips up both shoulders, paralyzing his neck. “Ain’t so tough now, are you?” Daddy hisses into his ear. His breath has a chemical smell to it that overpowers even the coffee and cigarettes.

“Let me go,” Dorsey whimpers. He despises how weak he sounds. He can see his mama pinned just like this, face down on the kitchen floor, strands of her hair rising and falling with each smothered plea for him to turn her loose, Daddy’s knee in the small of her back. He can’t remember what they were fighting about, but it was either money or a woman; it was almost always either money or a woman.

Daddy pushes the tangle of his arms higher up his back and he lets out a strangled cry. “You gonna tell your mama about Lisa and them young’un’s?” Dorsey shakes his head as best he can, his chin knocking against the trailer. “That’s what I thought,” he says, and releases Dorsey with a disgusted fling.

Dorsey’s arms ache, but he won’t rub them while his father can see. Daddy retreats to a lamppost a few feet away and lights a cigarette as if nothing much has happened. Other truckers are milling about, some staring at Dorsey, but no one says anything if they saw. Dorsey slumps against the trailer. The cool metal feels good on his tingling skin.

Later, after they’re back on the road, after the burn in his muscles has at least subsided, and there’s nothing around except flat land, bleak mountains and darkness, Dorsey sees four glowing lights in the sky, too low and too bright to be stars. They aren’t anywhere close to Roswell; there’s a McDonald’s there that’s in the shape of a UFO Dorsey was dying to go to, but he checked the distance, and it’s a couple hundred miles off course from both I-40 and Route 66. But here these lights are, looking very otherworldly, and it is New Mexico. The lights hover for a moment, and then start circling, as if filing into a formation. A bright, pulsating light splits the night. Three of the orbs disappear, but one remains, coasting along the atmosphere, until it dips out of sight among the mountains.

Dorsey looks over at his father, but he knows it’s useless to ask if he saw the lights, too. The fatigue is really starting to show on his face; the pills he pops can’t keep the wrinkles from settling into his forehead, or the droop of his eyelids. He pinches the bridge of his nose, chokes up on the wheel, as if that’ll take away his body’s demand for him to close his eyes. Dorsey props his forehead against the window and stares up at the sky. Maybe somewhere in that black monotony, Krypton is real, and those shimmering lights he saw were Superman come to rid the world of big evil like Lex Luthor and General Zod, but also little evil, like his father’s temper, his need for other women, those pills in the console. Maybe Superman could use his X-ray vision to burn all that meanness and addiction right out of his daddy. He turns up the volume on the CB to see if any truckers nearby mention the lights, but it’s just the usual; weigh station closings, alternate routes to avoid wrecks, state trooper traps. The last thing he hears before he drifts off is a trucker named Wishful Thinkin’ talking about a prostitute named Destiny he has to see every time he rolls through Kansas City. “She’s my kryptonite,” he says.
 

Dorsey jerks awake at the sound of a shotgun firing. He’s still in the front seat, and he’s got a monster of a crick in his neck from sleeping with his head slumped over for the last few hours. The whole truck shimmies, and then there’s clinking below the undercarriage.

“Aw hell,” Daddy says, glancing in his side mirror. “Damn back tire’s blowed out.”

Dorsey looks in his side mirror, too. The night is lifting, and the world is bathed in a purplish-blue, a hint of red barely visible on the eastern horizon. Shreds of black rubber litter the highway, and vehicles coming up behind them swerve to avoid this unintentional trail of tire debris marking their path for the last tenth of a mile.

Daddy pulls onto the shoulder and throws his hazards on. “Of all the damn things…” he mutters. He grabs the CB mic and switches the frequency to the W&L Company channel. “Hey, this is Eight-Ball, I got one, possibly two tandems flat. I have a hydraulic jack, but could use an assist.”

“Copy Eight-Ball, what’s your 20?”

The topography has been flat and brown since Texas, but now it’s gnarly rock formations dotting stark desert, twisted trees with prickly spheres of green. There’s a cactus not far off the road that’s as big around as the hundreds-year-old oak trees down by Grassy Gap Creek, where he goes trout fishing with Papaw. Dorsey wishes he could be there with him, now, wading in the clear, cool water, their pants rolled up to their knees, casting out their lures.

Daddy signs off after he gives dispatch the closest mile marker and gets the jack and a huge wrench out of the tuff box he keeps under the cot in the sleeper. “Stay in the cab, you hear me?” he tells Dorsey, and he nods. He can feel the shudder of the traffic sailing past them when his daddy opens the door.

The wind picks up, tossing sand into small swirls that quickly lose their momentum and disperse. Far out, on one of the craggy elevations, Dorsey thinks he sees a coyote, but it’s gone before he can get a closer look. The colorless calm of the landscape makes him anxious somehow, and he’s just pulled the guidebook off the sleeper when he hears rubber screeching against pavement and feels the smash of metal crushing metal.

Something bright catapults into the darkness, a white-hot ball that lights up everything in sight before the sky explodes, raining fire and steel and flesh. A smashed air dam and a woman’s arm, a rose tattoo running the length of her forearm, land on the dotted white lane divider just ahead of the cab before a burning 18-wheeler plows over them, finally coming to a stop a few yards ahead. The heat from the fire incinerating the trailer engulfs Dorsey before the flames burst through the sleeper, dissolving the American flag on the wall with one lick, its myriad of tongues thirsty for more destruction.

“Dorsey!” His daddy’s voice carries over the snarling blaze, over the groan of rending metal, the screams coming from outside, the screams coming from him. “Dorsey! Open the door, son!” He bangs desperately on the side of the truck.

Dorsey yanks the handle violently, but it won’t budge. “Daddy! I can’t get it!” The scorching air swallows up his tears before they even leave his eyes. “Daddy!” he shrieks.

“It’s okay, son, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Daddy babbles. “Um…try rolling the window down!”

The handle on the crank has already melted into a seething glob of plastic. “It’s burnt up!” Dorsey wails. “Daddy, I ain’t going to make it!”

“The hell you ain’t!” Daddy yells, raising the wrench that was for the busted tire. “Put your head between your knees!”

The next thing Dorsey knows is he’s going through the window Dukes of Hazzard style, bits of shattered glass snagging on his clothes, one piece gutting his shin pretty good, but he barely processes it, even when it starts gushing blood. All he knows is his daddy pulled him out of that fiery doom, and his arms are still around him now. The heat is almost as overwhelming outside as it was while he was trapped inside the cab with the fire, but it’s the smell that makes Dorsey puke, doubling him over not more than a foot or two from the truck now completely ablaze. It’s something like rotten eggs and wet pennies and overripe bananas mashed together; it’s almost a taste. Dorsey chokes, heaves again. His eyes are watering so bad from the force of the vomit, or maybe it’s the smoke, but he looks like he’s crying as he straightens, wipes his mouth on his sleeve. Maybe he is; he can’t tell. The distant wail of sirens is getting closer.

 A couple of semis are pulled off behind the wreckage, but the drivers aren’t behind the wheel in either: probably helping the occupants of the other truck who have to be worse off than him and Daddy. The image of that woman’s arm in the road floods Dorsey’s mind and he almost throws up again.

When the firefighters get the blaze contained, all that’s left of the two tractor-trailers is a couple of twisted up piles of charred steel and melted rubber. Incinerated roadside brush stretching a quarter-mile. Dorsey watches the sunrise from the backseat of a California Highway Patrolman’s car. Officer Pettigrew doesn’t look anything like Ponch or Jon. He’s older, Papaw’s age, maybe, and when he draped a warm blanket around Dorsey’s shoulders and put his arm around him, Dorsey had to fight hard against the tears that welled in his eyes. He’s been checked over by the EMTs; 2nd degree burns on his face and hands, eyebrows singed off that’ll take a few weeks to grow back. Cindy, the pretty blonde one, gave him an antibiotic cream to put on the burns and said not to pop the blisters when they form; to let them burst on their own. She bandaged his shin up and told him to go to the ER if the site gets swollen or red or he starts running a fever.

Daddy’s busy giving his statement to a pair of officers, a woman with a tight brown bun at the nape of her neck and a tall black man wearing sunglasses. The other trucker is sitting in the back of their patrol car now, but a little while ago they had him trying to walk a straight line, which he couldn’t do. He kept stumbling around in his thin white boxer shorts and shouting, “I need my fucking pants!”

Dorsey didn’t see the woman whose arm had been in the road, but the coroner’s office van is here, and they’ve been combing the wreckage of the other truck since the fire was put out. And he heard the important parts of what Officer Pettigrew told Daddy: “Doped out of his mind…getting his knob polished…didn’t see your semi…hooker got decapitated by the steering wheel…her head probably kept him from losing his legs…should’ve lost his pecker…poor working girl’s clocked her last job…”

It’s the “working girl” reference that makes him think of Mama, and the time she and Daddy got in a fight while they were driving down 194 near Elk Valley. Mama made him stop the car so she could get out, made Dorsey and Jess get out, too. Daddy tried to sweet-talk her back into the car, but she wasn’t having any of it, and after a few minutes, he got fed up and sped off. Mama got plenty of whistles out car windows while they walked, even with Jess on her hip. But the man in the VW Bus didn’t just whistle. He slowed the car to a crawl beside them, reached one of his muscled-up arms out the passenger side window to grab at Mama. “Hey, Darlin’,” he said, “You giving rides for a ride? Or you a cash only kind of working girl?” “Ain’t no working girl, mister,” Mama said, real tough, but her voice was quivering. “Aw, you think I can’t tell what you are ’cause you got them young’un’s with you?” The man laughed. “I know a hooker when I see one,” he said, and grabbed again, this time making contact with Mama’s behind. Mama snatched up his fingers and bent them backward so fast, she lost her hold on Jess, who slid wordlessly to the ground and clutched Dorsey’s leg. “Bitch! Whore! Turn me loose!” the man hollered. “I told you I ain’t no working girl, mister,” Mama repeated, not letting go of him, his fingers almost flush with the back of his hand. “All right…you ain’t no working girl…you crazy, red-headed cunt!” he screamed. She released him and he peeled off like he’d come face to face with the devil. Wasn’t long before Daddy circled back around with a new string of apologies, and Mama accepted.

Daddy’s moving toward the patrol car now. He’s walking with his head down, his usual swagger missing. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up past his elbows and there’s white bandaging on both forearms that wraps around his palms. He gets in the front, reaches inside his shirt and tosses something over the seatback. The guidebook thuds onto the seat beside Dorsey, its corners singed, but still readable. Dorsey looks up at his Daddy, incredulous.

“You was holding it when I pulled you out,” he explains, “But you dropped it when you was puking. Good thing I picked it up; it’d be burnt to hell, like everything else within 10 foot.”

And then there’s no question of whether he’s crying or not. He doesn’t even care that his daddy can see. “Only little pussies cry,” Daddy told him the only other time Dorsey cried in front of him. He was five and had gotten one of his front teeth knocked out when he came off the four-wheeler they were riding at Uncle Vaughn’s. He leans his forehead on the seatback between them and bawls so hard, he can barely breathe. The tears come even faster when he feels his daddy’s hand sink onto his head, his fingers stroking his hair.
 

The office at El Casa Dolores Motel smells like bleach and tortilla chips. The A/C window unit drips into a puddle on the terra cotta floor. An elderly Hispanic woman sits behind the counter. The only part of her wizened face that’s not wrinkly is the straight line she’s got her mouth set in until she opens it and says, “No Vacancy,” in a heavy accent.

Daddy stops in his tracks and peers out at the tall white sign outside where a cartoon man sleeps against a cactus, his face covered with a sombrero. “Well, that ain’t what your sign says, Señora,” he counters.

The old lady stands up, her joints creaking. She points an arthritic finger at Daddy. “No Vacancy for you, una serpiente en la hierba!” she says, her black eyes fixed on him. Dorsey waits for his daddy to start clucking like a chicken, or his eyes to bug out, or for him to piss himself. Whatever she said sounded like a curse.

But Daddy just laughs. “Well, ain’t you just a Mexican Gerry Lynn cup of sunshine,” he says, leaning against the counter. She immediately grabs a can of Lysol and sprays it in his direction.

Daddy gets a mouthful of disinfectant. “Whoa, fuck, whoa!” Daddy yelps, jumping back and rubbing his face against his shoulder.

A young woman comes running in from a door behind the counter, a stack of freshly folded towels in her arms. “¡Abuela! ¿Qué hiciste?” She drops the towels onto a straight back chair. “¡No asustes a los clients! ¡Ir a la parte posterior!” She takes the old lady by the shoulders and guides her toward the door she just came through.

But Abuela’s not finished with Daddy yet. She fixes him with another death stare. “Hueles a muerte, hijo de las mil putas!” she says, and shakes her fist.

The girl pushes her the rest of the way in and shuts the door behind her. She takes a deep breath and tosses her long black hair over her shoulders. “Sir, I am so sorry. Please forgive my grandmother. She has dementia.”

“Aw, it ain’t nothing,” Daddy says. “We got one just like her back home, don’t we, Dorsey?”

Dorsey’s been glued to the door, ready to make a quick getaway if Daddy said the word, though where they would go he can’t imagine: Officer Pettigrew didn’t wait around after he dropped them off here, and there’s nothing else in sight but desert and mountains. But now he steps forward, nods eagerly. The girl is wearing her name on her white blouse: Juanita. Her eyes are a beautiful caramel, a shade or two darker than her skin, and they dance when she smiles.

“How may I help you gentlemen? I’m guessing it’s been a long day already and you need a room?” she gestures to Daddy’s arms, takes a furtive glance at Dorsey’s face. For a moment, he forgot how badly the burns sting, how awful he must look.

This time, when Daddy leans on the counter, the woman behind it doesn’t attack him. “Darlin’,” he says, “Like you wouldn’t believe.”
 

They take a taxi into Twenty-Nine Palms proper. Their driver, Musa, tells them he’s from Sudan. He fled after losing his wife and three children during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He keeps a picture of them taped beside the meter. Dorsey wants to tell him about the woman’s arm he saw in the road this morning. He thinks Musa would understand the stink in his nose that won’t go away, the screaming in his ears that he can still hear, but he’s afraid of what Daddy will say if he does. Musa drops them in front of a Kmart. “Salaam alaikum,” he tells them while Daddy pays the fare.

“Uh-huh. Have a nice day,” Daddy mumbles as they slide out.

Kmart doesn’t sell Jams or skate paraphernalia. Dorsey settles for a couple of pairs of jogging shorts and a package each of white T-shirts, underwear, and tube socks. He reminds his daddy that the motel has a pool and he lets him throw a set of trunks in.

“How long we going to be here?” Dorsey finally asks while they wait for another cab in front of the Jack in the Box even though he knows Daddy only got as far as the receptionist when he called W&L headquarters from their motel room.

Daddy smirks around the cigarette perched on his lip, the Kmart bags dangling from the crook of one elbow, the brown bottles from the ABC store cradled against his chest. “I don’t know, son. You that anxious to get back to your grandmaw? You ain’t had enough of her crazy bullshit to last you awhile?”

Dorsey thinks about what he’d be doing if he were at Mamaw’s right now. She’d probably have him washing out her pantyhose or helping her plant plastic flowers all over the yard. “I was just wondering is all,” he says. “I ain’t in no hurry.”

“All right, then,” his daddy says, and Dorsey pretends to be interested in a flyer posted to a nearby lamppost advertising a punk band called Gang Green until the cab arrives.

By the time they get back to the motel, Daddy’s already drunk a third of the Jack Daniels. He fumbles with the key at their door, somehow managing to keep a hold on the bottles even when he drops everything else in his hands. He mutters a slew of curses as he stoops to collect it all.

Inside, Daddy collapses face first onto the Aztec-patterned bedspread after he dumps everything except the Jack on the Formica table by the door. He’s still holding it, the bottle pressed, almost lovingly, against his thigh.

Dorsey shuts himself in the bathroom. His face has been stinging all day and when he looks in the mirror he knows why. His flesh is red and fuming, already bubbling in spots on his cheeks and forehead. His eyebrows and eyelashes are gone, and he looks like Selena Browning, a girl in his 4th grade class who had leukemia. Even his hair got singed up past the hairline, creating a receding frame around his bald, mottled face. Jeff Hopkins will have a field day cracking jokes if he sees the way Dorsey looks. He won’t have a chance in hell with Jennifer Starnes, or any other girl. Freak, that’s what they’ll say, fucking burnt-up, no-hair-having freak. Only thing worse than having red hair is no hair at all.

At least you’ve got a head, Dorsey swears he hears somebody say, and he jerks around so fast, he trips over the toilet and lands on the side of the tub, damn near taking out the shower curtain. He squeezes his eyes shut, positive if he opens them, he’s going to see the hooker, her head and arm gone, her body contorted and bloody. She’s going to be reaching for him with the one hand she has left if he looks, fingernails all broken and bent to hell, reaching for his help or his head, Dorsey’s not sure which.

The bathroom door busts in and his eyes fly open. Daddy staggers in and barely gets the toilet seat up in time to catch the vomit. The bathroom’s so cramped, Dorsey’s pinned in place by his father’s torso. He feels it every time Daddy’s side constricts through a heave. When he has nothing left to throw up, he hits the flusher and groans, resting his cheek along the rim of the toilet.

After a couple of minutes, Daddy cracks an eye open and takes stock of Dorsey. “What the hell you doing in here?”

“Huh? Nothing,” Dorsey says, too quickly, and scrambles out to the bedroom when Daddy shifts his weight. He sinks onto his bed and listens to his father gargle water. When he comes out, he says, “Want to go to the pool?”

Daddy cackles. “Hell no. I feel like shit.”

Dorsey watches him take a long drink of the Jack and then flop into roughly the same spot he’d been in before the urge to puke. “Can I go?”

Daddy raises his head. “To the pool? Hell, I don’t care.” He lays his head back down and covers his face with a pillow. “Make sure you take the key. I don’t want you banging on the door to get in.”

Dorsey nods and gets his trunks out of their Kmart bag. Normally, he’d change in the bathroom, but after feeling that dead hooker in there, he’s probably going to have to go the office every time he has to take a piss.

“And wear a damn hat,” Daddy’s muffled voice comes from under the pillow again. “Your face don’t need no more cooking.”
 

The pool is kidney-shaped and a sandy sludge has gathered at the base of the steps on the shallow end. Dorsey bobs nearby, not going deeper than his chest. If he lets the water come even near his face, the chlorine sears into the raw skin and he feels like he’s burning again.

He watches Juanita, who’s adding clean pool towels to the wobbly shelving unit at the far end. When she bends over he can see the outline of her panties through the thin material of her khakis and his trunks get tight in the crotch. A little girl with a purple dinosaur float splashes down the pool steps and leaps toward him, his hard-on mercifully deflating with the very real possibility of her brushing up against him.

He treads deeper, away from the little girl and closer to Juanita. She’s moved on to repositioning lounge chairs. Her hair keeps spilling over her shoulders every time she pops a chair back upright until she finally twists it into a loose bun on top of her head, exposing the curve of her jaw, her slender neck.

When he’s sure the bulge in his shorts is completely gone, Dorsey hoists himself out of the pool and goes to get one of Juanita’s freshly stocked towels. She’s watering the hanging baskets of flowers now. Her shirt’s come untucked and he can see a band of brown skin as she reaches over her head for that last basket of geraniums. Dorsey feels himself hardening again, and scrambles to get the towel wrapped around his waist.

There’s only one set of lounge chairs that are in the shade, and Dorsey made sure to put his stuff there first thing, although no one out here seems interested in shielding themselves from the sun. The man in the Speedo is slathering baby oil over his hairy body, his skin already tanned to a crisp. The mother of dinosaur float girl is sitting on the side of the pool, her feet swirling in the water. Even her underarms are tan. Dorsey’s convinced there are no white people in California. They’re all some shade of orange. He towels off, eases onto a chair, the vinyl slats creaking under his weight. He reaches for the guidebook, opens it for the first time since the wreck. The corners of the pages disintegrate into ash when he turns them, but the pictures of all the places he wants to go are still clear, the descriptions of them still filling him with an emptiness he can’t explain.

“Did you know it’s haunted?”

Dorsey nearly tips the lounge chair over when he wrenches around. Juanita’s behind him, looking over his shoulder at the guidebook. It’s on the page about the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia.

“Huh?” The girl who gives him a boner upon sight is now standing so close he can feel her breath on his ear. A few strands of hair have fallen out of her makeshift bun and brush across his neck. He holds the guidebook tight against his lap and wills himself to think of gross things; Mamaw’s bunions, the wads of wax tangled in the hair growing out of Papaw’s ears, the severed arm of the hooker on the road this morning…

“There’s a room in the basement where the portal is.” Juanita shimmies through the small space separating the lounge chairs and then perches on the side of the other one, her knees almost touching his thigh. “Workers have heard all kinds of noises down there; a dog growling, children’s laughter, angry voices, a woman crying, people having sex.” Juanita draws those last three words out and brings her eyes up to meet Dorsey’s.

He clamps the book down harder on the stirring in his trunks. “It don’t mention none of that in here,” Dorsey says, hoping she doesn’t notice how hard he’s bending the spine backwards. “How do you know?”

Juanita gives him a conspiratorial smile. “My tia used to work there. She’s a medium. All the women on my father’s side have the sixth sense, but Abuela’s is the strongest.”

Dorsey sneers. “Did she ‘sense’ something about my daddy and me? Was that what she got all fired up about when we checked in?”

Juanita tucks the loose plastic of a broken slat around the chair frame of her lounge chair, but it springs free, drags back across the concrete below it. “Only your father,” she finally says.

“Well, what the hell did she see?”

“What happened to your face?” Juanita says.

Dorsey tugs his daddy’s Winston Cup hat as far over his missing eyebrows as he can get it, the stitching of the brim rubbing painfully against the tender area. “Ain’t psychics supposed to know shit like that without being told?”

“I don’t have the sight. It doesn’t carry through the male members of the family.” She scratches her fingernail into a small brown stain on her khakis. “And it doesn’t work like that anyway. You can’t choose what you see.”

Dorsey scoffs. “Sounds like a convenient way to cover up your bullshit to me.”

“Can you complete a sentence without cursing?” Juanita asks, fixing him with a glare.

He glares back at her. “Fire,” he finally says. “What happened to my face. There. You happy?”

“Hueles a muerte,” she whispers.

“Huh?”

“Abuela said, ‘You smell like death.'”

Dorsey’s lip curls. “Yeah, well, I can’t fucking help it, so…”

“Not you. Una serpiente en la hierba.”

“Look, I get you can speak two languages, but I can’t, so…”

“The snake in the grass. Your father.”

Dorsey remembers the old lady shouting a bunch of Spanish words he didn’t understand, her spraying Lysol on Daddy. “He ain’t even burned!” he tells Juanita. “The bandages on his arms are from him getting all cut to hell on the window he broke to get me out!”

Juanita stares at him. “You think the smell of death is from today? Abuela said it has been with him long before today.”

Dorsey snaps the guidebook shut. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re fucking crazy, you know that?” He gets up, throws his wet pool towel at her feet. “You and your abuela.”

She lashes him with a string of angry Spanish and launches the wet towel back at him, but he’s halfway to the gate already, and the towel lands with a sloppy thwack just a few feet away from her.

When he gets back to the room, Daddy’s on the phone again. “I told you, I don’t want no plane ticket. I want another rig…what do you mean I ain’t cleared to drive again yet? You’re shitting me…all the years I worked for you and…Frank?” Daddy slams the phone down on its cradle and stacks his hands behind his head.

“Daddy? Everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, boy!” Daddy snaps. His eyes have that hateful look they get when he drinks. He reaches in his pocket, digs out his billfold. “There’s a vending machine outside the office. Go get some supper.”

Dorsey’s worried he’ll run into Juanita or her grandmother, but more afraid to disobey Daddy. He dons dry clothes, changes his ball cap, hoping to at least throw Juanita off if she happens to spot him.

The vending machine looks like it hasn’t been replenished in a while. Cheez-Its, plain M&M’s, and Ruffles potato chips are among the few options. Abuela’s back at the front desk. He can feel her penetrating gaze on him as he feeds quarters into the slot and makes selections.

He’s about to head back to the room when Abuela comes to the door and motions him over. She has something in her hand. Dorsey dumps his loot in a pile and goes over to her.

She hands him a small aloe plant with red strings tied to each of its leaves. “Keep you safe,” she tells him.

“From what?”

Her bony hand latches onto his arm, her black stare searing what’s left of the flesh on his face. “¡Del hedor de la muerte!” she shouts. “¡Ay dios mios!” She makes the sign of the cross several times. “¡Despierta, chico! The dead! All around!”

Dorsey’s mouth goes dry. “You seen her? You seen the hooker?” He wants to know if Abuela sees her how she looked before, or if she’s the headless, armless corpse he imagines, if she’s angry, blames him and Daddy somehow, but he can’t bring himself to ask. The vortex swirling inside Abuela’s pupils has him in a chokehold.

She breaks eye contact and he sucks air in ravenous gulps. “Keep you safe,” she says, patting the wrist she was clutching, then ducks back into the office, closes the door, leaves him standing there, begging for breath.

The room smells like Brut aftershave and Daddy’s in a fresh shirt. He weaves back and forth as he combs his hair. The half-empty bottle of Jack is on the small stand between the beds.

“I got them Toast Chee crackers you like,” Dorsey says, tossing the package on Daddy’s bed.

Daddy glances over his shoulder. “You eat them. I’m going out for a little bit.”

“Where to?”

He stops combing for a second, glances over his shoulder again. “Don’t know. Town, probably.”

“Why can’t I come?” Dorsey pops open the bag of Ruffles, stuffs a couple in his mouth.

Daddy puts the comb down, starts adjusting his belt. There’s a guilty look on his face. “Town ain’t no place for a boy.”

Dorsey pulls back the curtain. There’s a taxi idling in front of their door. “I was there a few hours ago.”

“Boy, do I need to take this belt to you before I go?” Daddy says, undoing the buckle. If he was feeling a little remorse about leaving Dorsey before, he’s not now. Dorsey cowers onto the bed, pushes himself against the headboard. Daddy sighs, slides the belt back through the buckle. “Eat your snacks. I’ll be back after awhile.”
 

The Smokey and the Bandit trilogy is playing on HBO. Dorsey doesn’t feel as lonely or scared so long as Bandit and Snowman are on the TV screen. He’s avoided the bathroom all day, but when he can’t stand the pressure on his bladder any longer, he takes the aloe plant with him to piss. He doesn’t feel the hooker in there as long as he keeps that thing close. He’s eaten everything he got from the vending machine, including Daddy’s Toast Chees, and he’s still hungry, but Daddy didn’t leave him any more money. He doubts he’d have the balls to go back to the machine anyway; it’s dark now, and the only people he’s seen walking around since Daddy left are members of a motorcycle gang who pulled up on their bikes just before dark, their leather cuts and tattooed arms, knives strapped to their thighs, giving Dorsey the impression that there might be men even tougher and scarier than his daddy right outside his door.

Just before he falls asleep he looks back over Graceland in the guidebook. Dorsey planned it to be their last stop, not just because it’s the closest to home, but because it’ll be Daddy’s favorite. Daddy grew up listening to Elvis, wanting to be Elvis. When they go through those music gates, and Daddy sees that Jungle Room with its indoor waterfall, and the stained glass peacocks on the walls of the music room, the racquetball court and the kidney-shaped swimming pool, Daddy’s smile is going to stretch farther than a mountain range. He’ll have to remember to tell Daddy there’s a buzzer under the dining room table that Elvis used to summon the kitchen staff when he needed salt or forgot a fork. He’ll like that; a poor man who got so rich he could pay people to do things for him he could easily do himself.
 

It’s her giggle when she stumbles into the table near the door that wakes him up. Daddy’s close behind her; Dorsey can make out two silhouettes in the streetlamp light that glares through the window even with the curtain drawn. They collapse onto the bed in a heap of arms and legs, the mattress springs creaking as they struggle to free themselves from their clothes. Before his eyes adjust to the darkness, before he’s able to see that the woman is another blonde with bulbous breasts, he can hear the slap of skin against skin, the guttural noises they both make, too drunk and high to even try to be quiet.

Another thing Dorsey knows for sure is that he is never going to drink or pop pills like Daddy. It makes people mean and stupid, makes them do things maybe they wouldn’t if their minds weren’t altered. Mamaw is right about alcohol and drugs being of the devil. Right now, Daddy and his woman look like some demonic conjoined beast, thrusting against itself. He turns toward the wall and shuts his eyes.

The A/C kicks off and the room feels sticky, smells salty as the grunting finally stops. They peel away from each other and lie plastered to the bed, no longer fluid. Turned to stone. Dorsey can’t go back to sleep. His face stings, needs more ointment, but he doesn’t want to move. He waits, hoping the woman will get up and leave, but the light from the streetlamp disappears into the sunrise, and she’s still there.

“Housekeeping!” a woman shouts, pounding her fist on the door, startling Dorsey into an upright position. He must’ve dozed off shortly after daybreak. Daddy and the woman are passed out so hard they don’t stir, even when the maid keeps banging.

“We don’t need nothing,” Dorsey calls out, but she doesn’t hear him and the door swings open. Juanita stands in the threshold, not in her usual khakis and blouse, but in a blue smock top and matching pants. She takes in the naked people sprawled on the bed, uncovered, with clear disgust.

“Ay dios mios,” she says.

“W-We don’t need no housekeeping, I said!” Dorsey squints into the blinding rectangle of light behind her, trying to cover the fact he’s only in boxers himself with a pillow. “So…so you can just leave.”

She sets her caddy of cleaning supplies outside the door and leans against the doorframe. “Get dressed. We’re going to the office. Abuela made conchas.”

He wrinkles his nose. “What the hell is conchas?” But he gets out of bed, slips a shirt gingerly over his head, reaches for a pair of shorts and tugs them on, trying to keep his back to Juanita.

If Juanita was still angry about their argument before she opened the door, she isn’t now. She pities him, he knows that, but it doesn’t embarrass him like the smile Miss Edna the lunch lady gives him does when he approaches the cash register with his free lunch pass. Juanita’s holding out her hand to him, and for the first time in hours, the burns on his face aren’t throbbing. He curls his fingers around hers and lets her lead him out of the darkness of the room.
 

“We’re taking a bus back home,” Daddy tells Dorsey. They’re eating Jack in the Box burgers on their respective beds. “Frank sent the tickets to the office this morning.”

Dorsey chokes on the huge bite he’s just taken. He spits chunks of it out on the wrapper. “What?”

“You heard me. Leaves at 3:12 this afternoon.”

Dorsey looks at the alarm clock on the nightstand. “That’s only two hours from now!”

“Uh-huh. So finish eating and get your shit together.” Daddy’s chowing down on his cheeseburger and thumbing through a Motor Trend magazine like nothing’s unusual.

“You said you was holding out for another rig and we’d stay here till W&L come through. You said you didn’t give a shit what Frank says!” Dorsey can feel his throat tightening, knows he’s about to cry.

Daddy looks up from the page he’s on. It’s a two-page spread of a 1969 blue Corvette Stingray. Daddy had one just like it when he met Mama except his was red. He sold it to pay for medical treatment for their first baby, a premature boy, who died in NICU 36 hours later. “I know what I said, son. It ain’t happening. Now go on, finish up. We ain’t got much time.” He leans over and nudges Dorsey’s leg.

Dorsey stares down at the partially masticated meat and bun he strangled on, the strands of saliva still connecting it. “Why can’t we get a car? Drive ourselves back?”

Daddy cocks his head toward the brown bag sitting by the TV. There’s a fifth of some cheap-ass, unknown name liquor in there. He’s spent so much money on booze and pills in the week they’ve been in Twenty-Nine Palms, he can’t afford Jack anymore. “Because I ain’t in the mood to be sober.”

“Well, when’s that ever stopped you from getting behind the wheel?” Dorsey knows he’s stepped in quicksand, but he keeps treading.

He’s flat on the bed with his father’s arm pressed against his windpipe before he can take another breath. “Boy, I will hit you so hard you won’t wake up till I drop you off at Gerry Lynn’s doorstep,” he hisses, flecks of spit landing on Dorsey’s face. “That what you want?”

Dorsey shakes his head and Daddy lays off. They sit together on the side of the bed, silent for the moment, Dorsey coughing and rubbing his throat, Daddy tapping out a cigarette. The rejected gobs of burger are strewn across the comforter, the wrapper somewhere on the floor.

“What’s got you so riled up?” Daddy asks around his cigarette as he lights it. “Why do you give a shit how we get home?”

Dorsey grabs the guidebook and drops it in his daddy’s lap, swipes at tears he can’t keep from forming. “You said we didn’t have to hurry on the way back. You said we’d see the Grand Canyon. You said…” He opens the book, flips to the place where he’s got the map and list of must-sees tucked. “I got it all planned out, right here,” Dorsey says.

Daddy scans the list, the cigarette burning slow between his fingers. “Son, we weren’t never going to do none of this. This is stuff rich people does. Trips across the USA, shit. That ain’t for us.”

“But you said…” Dorsey whispers.

“Aw, ‘you said, you said’…you’re a broken record!” Daddy shoves the list and guidebook away, takes a long drag. “I say a lot of shit! Don’t mean I’m ever going to do none of it!” He grabs the duffel bag that was among their Kmart purchases and slings it at Dorsey. “Start packing.”

Dorsey puts the few items of clothing he has in beside Daddy’s. “Ain’t Darla going to be looking for you later?” The woman Daddy came home with the other night has a room 5 doors down.

Daddy scoffs, crushes the butt of his cigarette into the ashtray. “Darla. Forget Darla. I don’t owe her nothing.”

“You check out already?” Dorsey asks as he zips up the duffel. He wants to tell Juanita, and even Abuela, bye, but he doesn’t want Daddy to know it. He doesn’t want Daddy to know they’ve been feeding him breakfast every morning while he’s sleeping off a bender, either. “You don’t need nobody feeling sorry for you,” he’d say.

“Frank took care of it already. The room’s paid for till morning. Come on.”
 

Daddy fingers the red strings hanging from the aloe plant while they wait in line to board at the Transit Station. “What the hell is this?” he says.

“The old lady gave it to me.”

“What for?”

Dorsey shrugs. He isn’t about to tell him that Abuela and Juanita think Daddy might be el Diablo himself or that the aloe plant is protecting him from a dead hooker. “Think it’s for safe travels or something.”

Daddy smirks. “Safe travels. Well, you look like a damn sissy carrying a plant around. Give me that thing.” He sits it on top of a trash receptacle they pass by and forces Dorsey’s arms back to his sides when he tries to reach for it.

Daddy heads straight for the back of the bus, but Dorsey slides into a seat a few rows up. They have their pick; only other people on the bus are a handful of young Marines in BDUs, their high and tights so fresh, Dorsey can see the razor bumps on the sides of their heads. A couple of them sit together, but mostly they’re alone.

Daddy’s fooling with the duffel bag in the overhead compartment, and Dorsey doesn’t have to wait until he quits shuffling to know what he’s getting. He could pick out the crinkle of a brown bag in a noisy room. But on this bus, there are no other noises, except for the drone of the engine idling, waiting for departure, the tinkling of music the headphones can’t silence from the Walkman of the Marine closest to him, the gentle ribbing coming from the Marines sitting together. The crumpling of that bag in his father’s hands slices into his ears; draws blood. He’s surprised he doesn’t go deaf from the din of it.

The doors are already closing when a skinny brunette sprints up the steps, but she manages to slide in. She is used-to-be pretty; now lines crease her forehead and the skin around her lips and mouth, and the heavy makeup she wears intensifies the wrinkles rather than masking them. Her body can still deny her age though; she’s wearing a tight black skirt and pink bustier and her midsection is as tight and toned as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader’s.

Dorsey expects at least one of the Marines to leer at her as she makes her way down the aisle, but they don’t seem to even notice her. She takes the seat across from Dorsey, gives him a little smile as she scoots in. Her eyes are an arresting Carolina blue, and a pang of homesickness punches Dorsey in the gut. He looks back to see if Daddy’s checking her out; she’s definitely his type, but he’s so focused on consuming what’s in his brown bag, he doesn’t acknowledge her either.

When they pull into the station in Blythe, the driver announces that this is its final stop before its return trip to Twenty-Nine Palms. The passengers gather their things; even Daddy rouses himself from his stupor and moves toward the exit. He’s probably jonesing something awful for a cigarette.

The only traveler not preparing to disembark is the brunette. She’s not smiling now when she looks at Dorsey. She looks pained, maybe even scared. She lifts her hand to wave goodbye, and that’s when he sees it: the rose tattoo on her forearm.

“Daddy, wait up!” he calls, and runs to catch up to him.
 

This new bus stops every half-hour. It transports the lonely, the forgotten, the homeless, their stench swathing the whole bus, regardless of where they sit. It doesn’t matter who gets on and who gets off, they all have the same weary look in their eyes. Life has not been kind. Dorsey can’t believe that there’s any place where he and daddy are the privileged ones, but on this bus they are. Their clothes and bodies are clean and Daddy has at least enough money in his wallet for them to eat.

It’s not until they’re well into Arizona that Dorsey gets up the courage to ask Daddy if he saw the brunette sitting across from him.

“What brunette?” he says.

Dorsey tells himself Daddy’s just too drunk to remember her.

When the frequency of the stops really starts to wear on him, and he can’t look into the eyes of another forlorn soul sharing the misfortune of this journey or Daddy’s slack jaw, drool seeping out one corner of his mouth, he gets out the guidebook.

Another thing Dorsey knows for sure is that if he ever has a kid, he’ll be careful what he says to it. He won’t just spout off stuff he has no intention of doing. He’ll keep his word. And he’ll take his kid on a real cross country trip one day. The fun facts and accompanying pictures just aren’t the same when there’s no chance of actually going there, and eventually, Dorsey slaps the guidebook shut.

The truck stop they pull into in Las Cruces, NM, has a 24-hour diner called Mert’s attached to it. Nothing else is around for miles. The driver, Chuck, a good-natured grandpa of 4 who’s been with them since they changed drivers in Tucson, tells them to take advantage of this hour stop. It’ll be the last one until they get to Van Horn, TX.

Dorsey jostles his daddy’s arm to wake him, but he barely opens his eyes.

“Daddy, they got a diner at this stop. Let’s eat. I’m starving.” The meatball sub he got at the bus station in Phoenix was hours ago.

“Aw, hell, boy, can’t you see I’m sleeping?” he grumbles, but pulls out his wallet and hands Dorsey a ten.

The diner’s decked out in all things pertaining to Las Cruces; there’s pictures of Old Mesilla Village, Billy the Kid and the jail cell that once held him, paleontologists standing around with a bunch of fossils they found. There’s even a newspaper article about how Las Cruces got its name. It says that during the 18th century, some members of the Mexican Army, a bishop, a priest, and some choirboys were attacked here, with only one boy surviving. Crosses were erected in their honor and the place was from then on known as El Pueblo del Jardin de Las Cruces, the City of the Garden of Crosses.

A waitress sees him looking at the article. “If it makes you feel any better, most Las Crucens say that story’s just a legend,” she says. She has a kind smile and red hair the shade of Mama’s. The name Minnie is stitched into her uniform. “More than likely, the name’s just the Spanish translation for ‘crossroads’.” She hands him a menu. “Sit anywhere you like.”
 

After he’s filled his belly with pancakes and left Minnie a four-dollar tip, he heads to the bus, even though it won’t leave for another 20 minutes. Daddy’s standing in the parking lot of the gas station, smoking and talking shop with a couple of truckers. He probably feels like an athlete who’s been benched for the season without his rig, but telling stories about the road maybe eases the pull a little.

Dorsey finds that Las Cruces was allotted only a small paragraph in Moon’s guidebook. Not enough attractions to garner more than that. He definitely didn’t have it on his list, either, but he adds it now. He’d like to see Old Mesilla, and where Billy the Kid got sentenced to hang. When he’s got it added, he tucks the list behind the front cover along with the map and gets back off the bus.

He locates a bench off to the side of Mert’s that’s facing toward the mountains and places the guidebook on it. It’s a scenic spot, so maybe somebody that cares about sunsets and spotting wildlife and stuff like that will find it. Maybe it’ll be a kid about his age, maybe that kid can actually use his list, actually go to all those cool places.

Daddy nudges Dorsey’s knee with his as they’re pulling back onto the highway. “Hey,” he says. “You okay?”

Dorsey nods, keeps his face turned to the window, watches the vast nothingness of desert going by. In the moonlight, the sand almost looks like snow. The only month to date that it’s never snowed on Beech Mountain is August. Dorsey learned that at school last year. But it hasn’t happened in June since he’s been alive.

Maybe it will this June; maybe it’ll snow several inches, a couple of feet even, one for the records. He’d like that. Instead of wearing shorts, everybody will have to bundle up and he can wear a ski mask so nobody sees that his eyebrows are still missing and his burns are still healing. Instead of everybody talking about going to Myrtle Beach with their families, they’ll get their sleds out and go flying down the switchbacks like the bootleggers used to do.

Who cares about going to Myrtle Beach anyway? Dorsey has seen enough sand this summer, this year, this lifetime.

Beth Garland holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Military Spouse, O-Dark-Thirty, Germ Magazine, Ariel Chart, and is forthcoming in East by Northeast Literary Magazine. She lives in coastal North Carolina with her husband and three children.

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