Her teenage son shouted from the driveway, ‘Troglodyte! Get the fuck out here!’.
Connie bellowed out the dormer, ’You don’t know the meaning of that word!’ She knew what she was – an old drunk, hiding away from the rising heat – but she wouldn’t have him saying so.
The window rattled in its casement, its dehydrated putty dropping to the sill in nuggets. Having replaced three packs of Marlboro Menthols with one pack of nicotine gum, she stuck chunks on the window ledge to re-chew later. Since breaking a tooth, she’d never mistake a hunk of putty for gum again. Her mouth, like her window, was sucked dry by the awful change in the weather. At fifty-one, she was pickled: the outcome of gin and spleen.
She stared out the cyclopic dormer. The dusty arroyo snaked to the west like a grave dug for a giant rattler. She shook her head at her ugly metaphors, her mind corroded by late-night tv while books lined her walls as makeshift insulation against the increasing heat. She saw beside the empty riverbed a line of cottonwoods – dead – and the garden that grew sage brush and smokethorn.
The brush fires had bypassed her hundred acres, but the real estate agents hadn’t. They salivated around her boundary markers like dogs round the dumpsters behind the Higgly Piggly. She liked to say that – Higgly Piggly – but she didn’t like to go there. From her home, she could just see the valley subdivisions where water, pumped from the sputtering Colorado River, continued to fill Jacuzzis though nothing grew anymore. Not even winter rye. Not even blue corn. She used to keep pigs and sheep and laying chicken, but in the end slaughtered every one of them. The farm was hardly a farm anymore. Her children were hardly children.
‘Fucking fuck, are you coming?!’ Her son’s deep voice shot through the dormer window.
Connie shot back, ‘Keep your pants on, boy! I’m coming!’ and disappeared into the darkness where she screwed up her hair with bobby pins and plopped an over-sized sun hat on her head.
‘Fuck Connie! Fuck! Motherfuck!’
Her son hadn’t called her mother. Both her children had called her by her first name since the day they could speak, as if she had no greater distinction than being the tallest amongst them. But while they grew fast as suckers on a willow tree, Connie got shorter every year. She was squat, square, with a shoddy thyroid. Shrivelled up by the blasted god of California: sunshine.
Tom was pounding the hood of the car. Her car. With his backpack on, he cast the same hunchback shadow that his father had. His utopian father had filled her with seed, then hightailed it out of town, so that by the time Connie gave birth, utopia and the father were gone.
‘Hold your horses!’ she screamed into the yard.
The bobby pins jabbed at her scalp. She leaned against the wall, wondering why on earth she was going to all this trouble for the no good boy. The boy was no good, and the walls could testify. His fist had slugged holes in the horsehair plaster that read like coupon punch cards in the wall. She should stay in her house, in her four safe walls; she should turn him over to the cops, sit back in her armchair and turn up the tv and wait for the kid in a Slurpy-stained smock to deliver her groceries to the door. But Tom was her boy. (The first birth was a boy. Two years later, a girl, by some other father, under the same California sky.)
’Tom’s going to kill you if you don’t get down there,’ her daughter said, suddenly appearing in the door frame, a rifle in one hand and a ceramic piggy bank in the other.
‘Girl, god damn, you scared me!’
.Her daughter wore a stained frock with big pockets. Big boned, long-armed and long-legged, her sleeves too short for her strong wrists, and the hem of her dress riding above her dirty knees. Over her large breasts, the dress dropped straight down like a waterfall, though no one had seen a waterfall in years. And the man who spawned that child? A man with a handlebar moustache and soiled boxers who’d snuck down the stairs one morning and left through the screen door –[?] a wet spot of oil on the gravel where his Oldsmobile stood all night, and a puddle on the Encyclopaedia Britannica where Tom took out his small boy’s penis and peed on Connie’s books.
Tom was always protective of Tam, even before she was born. Though Connie looked sourly at the two of them – Tam in the doorway with a rifle, Tom pounding on the car in the driveway –[?] brother and sister were fiercely loyal, at least to each other. Loyal for shameful reasons, but loyal all the same. She had to give them that.
Having put on the sun hat, she yanked it off, grabbed the piggybank from her daughter’s hand and dropped it into the hat. “Hit it with the butt of the rifle,” she ordered, and her daughter did as she was told. Now the faces of Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson and the shards of a broken pig filled the sun hat.
‘Lend me another hat,’ Connie said.
‘What hat?’ asked Tammy.
‘Any damn hat. That sun out there’s going to kill me.’
‘I don’t got one,’ said Tammy, who was forever out in the hard pan of lizards and stalky weeds she called a garden without a hat. She would have looked sun-bronzed if it weren’t for the dust, and though the sun had bleached her blond hair white, unwashed, it darkened up again.
‘Well get me a bottle of gin, girl!’
Tammy obeyed, but Connie knew better than to think she was a good girl.
‘Fuck, it’s about fucking time,’ Tom said as Connie came out on the porch.
A fresh piece of gum in her mouth, shielding her eyes with her puffy hand, she blinked back at the one-eyed house whose sanctuary she was leaving for the first time in years. ‘Tom-fool robs the Higgley Piggley on foot in the light of day! I’ll be damned if I’m playing chauffeur now!’ She chucked her son the car keys. They landed like buckshot in the dirt. ‘Nothing even to show for your effort! ‘ She had superior diction, and she used it to triumph over her foul-mouthed son. ‘Dropped your loot in the parking lot and ran! She stuck out her nicotine gum between her smoker’s yellow teeth.
‘Stay in your hole if you want to, Con,’ said Tom, ‘I’ll drive my god-damn self, and I’ll keep your fucking car! Don’t expect me home till Hell freezes over!’
Water hadn’t frozen in winter for years.
She never drove the damn thing anyway, but it was her car. Her son. Connie plunked her hat of coins on the rear by Tommy’s duffel.
‘What’s that?!’ he asked’
‘Get-away money, what do you think, boy?!”
She climbed into the driver’s seat and sniffed at the black ashtray that hung from its hinges and stank. She plucked the gum from her mouth and stuck it against the tray.
‘I’m taking you as far as the Rio Grande. Then you’re on your own‘
‘Where’s my gin?’ she cried out the window at Tammy fighting with the front door. Tammy held up a gallon bottle. Despite her big tallness, she had the look of a little girl who had never quite got born. Born misplaced, Connie thought, born backwards actually. Connie remembered the pain of it with a shudder.
‘The door won’t lock,’ said Tammy.
‘Why are you locking the door?!’ Connie shouted. ‘You aren’t coming with us! Tom,’ she turned on her son, ‘Your sister has no reason to come! She’s not her brother’s keeper!’
Tammy climbed into the back, beside the sun hat of petty cash. She put the rifle next to the gearshift and the bottle on her mother’s lap.
Tom said, ‘I want her.’
A native man on the car radio recounted his tribe’s origin story.
‘There were many worlds. Our people came up through the worlds. The first world was red. Red ants lived here. Black beetles lived here. The world was small and dry and bad and spinning fast. People who lived here were dizzy. So our people climbed up through the hole in the sky.
The second world was blue. Blue birds and blue tinted swallows lived here. It was a bad small dry world. The world spun fast and made the people dizzy, like drunks. There were no plants, no rivers or mountains. So our people climbed up through the hole in the sky.
The third world was a yellow world. Yellow grasshopper people lived here. The land was bare and made of cliffs. The rivers were dry and thin as spider’s fingers. The spinning made the people dizzy and angry. They fought with each other because the world was small and dry and bad. Then they crawled up through the hole in the sky.
The fourth world was every color. Red, blue, yellow, and black and white, but no sun or moon or stars. First Man and First Woman were born here. Here there was water, but too much water. Floods came, and our people crawled up through the hole in the sky.
This is the fifth world. The last. Here there is light and darkness. The Hero Twins were born here. Children of the sun, they traveled to the sun’s house. They rid the world of monsters. You can still see dead monsters lying on the ground. Maybe you think that they are mountains. You can climb the mountains and feel very near the sky. But there are no more worlds. We are ordinary people and cannot get to the sky.’
On the transcontinental highway heading south, the car shook as the speedometer hit sixty. Connie grabbed for the gear shift to move into fourth but caught hold of the rifle instead. The coins jangled and the chassis rattled like an earthquake had begun, which would be a fit ending for Tom. Connie remembered too well how she’d shoved him out of her with the china breaking all around her twenty years ago. Now she edged the car up to sixty-one, afraid the sides of the vehicle would suddenly drop away. Though the blinker light was missing on the left, she couldn’t accelerate high enough anyway to pass another car. She could have passed a tractor if there were any farmers.
‘Never thought you’d leave, Tom.’ Connie said, ‘thought you were like the rats under the floorboards: here to stay. You know what you sound like with your fuck fuck fucks?’
‘An outlaw,’ said Tammy from the backseat.
“Don’t I know that!” cried Connie, ‘One child an outlaw, one an outcast! Your youth has gone to waste, and mine gone in your making!’
As a patrol car slowed beside them, Tom slumped into his seat and buried his face behind his muscular arm ringed with black tattoos. Connie shunted the liquor bottle underneath her legs, turned off the highway and veered down the lonely eastern side of a salt lake that had seeped away from its edges to reveal aluminium cans and tires. Under it lay Indian land and a flooded frontier town (flooded in the days of the dams and hydroelectric dreams) and the dormant monster, the San Andreas fault. On its far edges could be seen the water mains that, though they no longer irrigated suburban lawns, still drained the Colorado. Now the Desert Beach golf course painted its dead grass green. Connie turned again, this time down an unnumbered road. Red sand off the basalt mountains drifted across the faded yellow lines.