The Highway Kind
I was waiting with my bike by the mailbox. Nancy lived about a mile away plus the length of her driveway, which was about a half a mile long. I could see her in the distance riding in the middle of the highway with a rope tied to her handlebars, so that she could steer her bike by the reins—like a horse. The heat was shimmerin’ off her bike’s silver handles. She looked like a mirage in the desert.
Nancy learned to ride her bike like a horse from me. We liked to ride ‘em up to the top of the big ol’ highway hill, get going fast and drop our feet from the pedals. Giddy up! Giddy up! We’d yell and whoop, kicking the air with our heels. We liked using whips made from twigs. I preferred to wear my cowgirl hat.
Nancy pulled up next to the mailbox and laid her bike in the gravel next to mine. She was dressed in denim cut-offs and I could tell that she had been into her sister’s make-up again.
I like your lip gloss, I told her.
It tastes like strawberries, she replied.
We both turned our heads to the top of the highway hill and squinted.
I think I hear one now, I told her.
Me too, she said, with her hand over her eyes to block the sun.
The ground was shaking. The birds in the ditches stopped singing.
We stood our tallest and made our biceps flex—pulling down the horn in the air above our heads. HONK—HONK! I yelled as the big-rig swooshed by us with a deep and long Hoooonk-Hooonnkkkkkk. Our hearts raced.
We screamed and jumped—He did it! He did it!
Then there was nothing on the horizon except a yellow line disappearing off into the field of corn.
Nancy slapped her calf—Damn mosquitos, she said.
Hey—you wanna go let the bull out?
Me and Tawny and Ernie Lopez—we liked to sit in the park at night under the Arizona sky. Our favorite place was up on the monkey bars, mostly because we were afraid of tarantulas and rattlers, but also because it put us right there in the stars. Tawny was a restless red headed girl who drew us in with her deep Southern drawl. I could listen to her talk for hours, and I did, as we shared a barracks room and a longing for our boyfriends back home. Ernie Lopez was a skinny beat-up boy from a ghost town in Texas. Everybody else in our platoon called him “Mad Dog” because this was what he liked to drink out of a paper bag. On Friday nights, he’d sit on the floor in the corner of the club and watch us dance. “Ernie—come on! It’s the Electric Slide!” we would shout and pull his hand, but Ernie Lopez would just give us his buck-toothed grin and slowly shake his head; he was always too drunk to stand up. Ernie Lopez didn’t talk to nobody else but Tawny and me. In the park at night, Tawny knew all of the names of the stars and would take her sweet Southern time pointing them out. Ernie Lopez and I would listen to Tawny’s starry lullaby, “Now, you see over there? Well, that’s Cassiopeia. I just love the Milky Way.” We gazed in pure wonderment. It was as if we could almost leap right into the Big Dipper from up there on the monkey bars. The platoon sergeant didn’t seem to like Ernie Lopez very much. I thought it was because Ernie Lopez was so skinny and he couldn’t do as many push-ups as the rest of the boys. They all made fun of Ernie Lopez when he got orders to be sent off to Alaska. The morning he left, Tawny and I woke early to wait with Ernie Lopez at the shuttle bus stop. He gave us each a yellow rose and a letter. The desert morning was cold; we all stood and cried together wrapped in Tawny’s green wool blanket. I read my letter right there, as soon as that bus was gone. Ernie Lopez said that he used to wander the streets of Texas for days on end, and that sometimes his vocal cords would hurt from never-ever talking to no one.
He told her he liked the way the sunlight made her hair sparkle. They were sitting in his mother’s pink and turquoise kitchen. There were pink roses on everything—the curtains, the chair cushions, the napkin holder—even the toaster and blender sat draped in rose printed covers. The man said he wanted to take her photo because of the way the sunlight was hitting her hair—it was just perfect—and he liked how it covered one of her eyes. The man left the room to get his camera and the girl smoothed her long blonde hair.
Outside there was nothing but new snow piled on top of old snow—the weight of it all brought a heavy quiet to the afternoon. The furnace kicked in again, and the girl thought of how the man’s mother would sit on the living room floor in front of the heating vent. Every morning the man’s mother sat there, curled like a house cat, reading her Bible. Sometimes, the distant sound of his mother’s sobbing low-crawled slowly up the heat duct into the upstairs bedroom where the girl slept, filling the room with the saddest chill. It had been almost two months since the man’s father had collapsed over the back of his desk chair, his hand to his heart. He had been fresh from his bath, wearing his plaid flannel bathrobe—his best suit waiting on the bed. The girl remembered that night, after they had returned from the hospital with nothing more to say, the man’s mother had vacuumed the carpets before the pastor arrived.
The man was standing before her now, head down and fumbling with his camera lens—”Can you put your hair back over one eye?”