Passing the Olympia Brewery to the right, Susan thanks even the lesser gods that her passenger will soon be gone. Kali yaks. Yak yak yak. About everything, nothing. Things she has learned from all that reading. Things about her sisters’ kids. Things about jail life. Indian life, as if it is all that different from any other kind of life. Her tales of neglect, betrayal, redemption do not strike Susan as being all that unique when compared against the inverted frame of her own married woman’s world.
“–sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t. I just go in and talk to the ones close to finishing their time. Let them know what it’s like out here, now. Things change, eh? I mean, when I got out, I got to see one of them cell phones, eh? Don’t know how they work, but I think that could be cool, having a cell phone. Kinda like the Jetsons, eh?”
Susan knows she should be watching for the exit, but a wide-load Winnebago in front of the Volvo blocks visibility. The dense traffic makes it impossible for her to maneuver around it.
The RV sports a little window in the back with its curtains drawn, and “The Klamath Falls Kowalniks” is painted above it in red script. Below, two mountain bikes are bungeed to the RV’s spare tire. Their tires spin like miniature Ferris wheels. Orange, red, white reflectors move in slow, smooth circles. Susan imagines the clickety-click of bike chains sent into motion, the way the spokes of the battened bicycles turn in the tailwind of traffic. It holds a mesmerizing effect, there in the late-day jam along this congested stretch of I-5. She wonders if the spinning might damage the gears, if the tires might rub against the wells and wear away in spots. Is it a good idea, letting the tires go on like that?
“–but then I told her to go back to her rez and get some help there. People take care of their own there, eh? I mean, it’s not all drunks and fireworks–”
A green highway sign flashes past the Winnebago, indicating exits for the Old Capitol Building, the Route 510 Junction.
“Damnit!” She has missed the turnoff after all.
Kerry begins to howl from the back seat. What instinct, that Kerry Berry, Susan thinks.
During the ten minutes it takes Susan to find a place to drop Kali, the toddler cries, screams, wails. Tears burst from her bulging eyes in a face as red as a ripe nectarine’s blush.
“God, what’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with her?” Kali looks over her shoulder at Kerry with big, concerned eyes. Susan knows the fuss is only Kerry’s war cry for fresh diapers; somewhere underneath all that padding, she’s sore, smelly, hot.
“Aren’t you gonna do something?” Kali begs.
Besides diapers, ointment, feeding, cuddling, toys, songs, baths and fresh-smelling clothes, Kerry always needs something more. Cry-baby, Susan used to think to herself. At first, she tossed off her daughter’s whiny inclination as genetic; after all, she had been quick to tears herself, a shy one until high school. But now, eighteen months into the fray of toddlerdom, Kerry still demands, or at least demands more, and much more loudly, than before. Instead of something as simple as mashed carrots, it is t.v. or swing time at the park or a trip to the beach. (“Beets! Beets!” Always in that whiny monotone.)
That Susan should feel grateful for Kerry’s expressive frustrations at this moment suddenly strikes her as being more useful than anything she has ever read in Mother’s Underground.
“Babies cry. It’s what they do.” To confirm, Kerry shrieks, her spittle mixing with her tears.
What fine revenge against this woman for her jabs at married life! Susan knows first-hand how marriage is really just slow, inevitable death. What does she want with reminders, especially from a pathetic ex-con, ex-addict missionary Indian chick whose only real burden is one she deserved all along?
They leave Kali at the steps of the state capitol. In a strange way, Susan thinks the act is fated, symbolic. Here. She’s your burden. Not mine.
From the rear-view mirror, Susan watches Kali walk away without looking back. Kerry Berry has successfully done her in, tantrum cries escalating in high-pitched staccato under the low ceiling of the Volvo. From the Indian woman, there is no good-bye wave to the cute little baby, not even a thank you for the ride.
The last leg to Hoodsport blows by in a blur of timber plantations, lengthening shadows and road signs hinting of towns off the main route, though Susan sees none of them through the dense roadside forest. Kerry has remained content snuggling baby Minnie and sucking on pretzels in the back seat since her diaper change at the Exxon just outside Olympia.
To pass the time, Susan plows through stations on the stereo and finds a pleasant trumpet line cutting cleanly into their shared space. College jazz radio. She smiles, looks in the rear-view, and spies Kerry rocking her head back and forth to the rhythm of the song. Miles Davis, “Kinda Blue.”
Signs announce the Skokomish Indian Reservation, which, Susan remembers from her trip eight years ago, means The Great Bend lingers just moments away. It’s a beautiful sight, the wide rounding basin of Hood Canal, a gleaming blue-gray avenue known as a fine site for summer picnics held by vacationing Seattlites and for beachcombing along a shoreline bedecked in faded whole scallop shells and sand dollars. She hopes it remains as she remembers it, though a sinking feeling suggests otherwise.
Route 101 curves northwest from the vista where she has stopped to check her map. The road traces its scenic way along the canal’s western shore. Just past the wayside exit sign, yet another sign tells her Hoodsport is five miles away.
Out of the corner of her eye, Susan sees two teenage boys walking in the rushes next to the road. They aren’t walking with a particular sense of purpose, but meandering with their attention focused in the grass, their dark ponytails swishing down their backs. Magpies cluster along the telephone lines above them. One kid finally reaches down and pulls up a plant by the roots. He carefully places it inside the pack on his shoulders. They’re foraging, she realizes. For what, she cannot imagine.
There’s movement in the rear-view mirror. Kerry fidgets, and pretzel crumbs scatter to the far reaches of her back seat galaxy.
“Oh, Kerry Berry,” Susan sighs and reaches back to brush clean the open seats.
Kerry reaches forward and touches Susan on the nose. “Mommy.” Her voice is soft and sure. Susan cannot resist the temptation to tickle her child just then. For all the hours they have spent together in this car, she realizes they have spent none of it together.
After a few minutes, she leaves Kerry to wind down from her giggle fits. Susan picks The Oyster Shell off the passenger floormat where Kali left it.
A small map on the inside back cover gives directions to the colony. Just past the hatchery, the map text advises her to look for an unmarked gravel road which winds away from 101. A sign a quarter-mile down will tell her it’s Oystershell Road.
“Follow to the Y, veer left and go across the bridge. Colony buildings will appear on both sides of Oystershell Road. The visitor’s center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The colony staff meets annually between July 1 and–”
“July?” Her own voice surprises her. “July?!”
After all the driving, the diaper rash, the aggravation over hitchhikers, the road-hogging Winnebago… After all this, and the goddamn colony’s closed?
Her lucky watch reads well after six.
With a flick of her wrist, Susan sends the magazine flying across the passenger side of the car. It flutters like a spooked pigeon before settling into a tent shape, its pages fanning under a stiff glued spine. Kerry stops gurgling.
The teenagers look up from the rushes, frozen like deer in headlights. For a moment Susan wonders, heart knocking against her chest, whether Kali knows them, whether she has sisters at Skokomish. Sisters birthing sisters, and these sisters, bearing even more sisters, an infinite perpetuation which would make today both the past and the future, and within it, the redundant memory of crying babies, pretzel crumbs and dead ends.
Susan looks away from the teenagers to find, instead, a woman’s stoic face in black-and-white staring back at her from the cover of The Oyster Shell. Susan wants it to be her reflection, but the pages are not glossy enough for that.
–Monday, July 1, 8:00 p.m.–
Kerry takes pleasure in French fries, a hot dog cut into quartered circles and a wedge of cherry pie. The food has cooled a bit since they bought it from that I-25 oasis outside Chugwater, but as far as Susan’s daughter is concerned, it’s perfect mouth temperature now. Kerry mmmms and chews, showing bits of a.b.c. hot dog as her tiny pink mouth opens for a bite of pie.
“Eezee? Eezee? Mo’?”
“Road food, Kerry Berry! Who’da thunk you’d go for road food?”
They dine at the side of the road as the dusk deepens along the broad Wyoming horizon. Twenty feet in front of them, a green sign informs Susan that Cheyenne will appear as lights in roughly forty-five minutes. She knows they will likely land themselves in a hotel with a neon sign, some of its letters shorted out. Buzz buzz buzz. Kerry Berry will like that part of it, Susan thinks. There will be a vacancy as always. HBO? Never.
Kerry may be asleep by then, Susan knows, though a late-night check-in cannot hurt her sleep patterns any worse than the time zone changes already have.
It doesn’t matter. Kerry is a delight to be around these days. The need to distract her child seems to have disappeared steadily from Susan’s life like the road under the Volvo’s steady tour.
If Susan could have it her way, she would drive all night. She would go out of their way for tunnels in hillsides, bridges over great canyons, scenic byways and old farm roads defined only by dusty tire treds embedded in fields of vagabond wheat.
She has been wired for days, and not from ginseng or little chocolate cookies shaped like cartwheels, though she’s had those, too. Somewhere in Idaho, Susan caught The Drift and decided to secure it anonymously through the pawning of fourteen karats of a life she didn’t want encircling her finger anymore.
There isn’t a building or car in sight, only an expanse of dust bowl littered with the shadowy shapes of tumbleweeds, a knot of cattle in the culvert below and a wind-torn barbed-wire fence which gives a pair of magpies a place to light.
It strikes Susan that this resting place resembles Crater Lake in reverse: dry, brown and shallow, unlike the vibrant, beautiful paradise they had seen just two days ago. Whereas Kerry had delighted then in the spectacle of friendly chipmunks at a popular road-side vista above the deep blue lake of Susan’s childhood, they are hard-pressed to interact with anything smaller than a prairie dog on this lonely plain tonight.
Susan pops French fries into her mouth, then notices when something moves in the blue-brown dusk. Antelope, graceful and thin, feed from the sage along a distant spur. Mothers. Babies.
Back at the oasis, Susan had called home on the pay phone. Not that she wanted to talk to Kyle. But it occurred to her that she hadn’t left him a note.
The last three days of her life–what she now considers the first three days–have been the most interesting she has lived in years. Chore free, scenic, stimulating. Talking to him would be like ending a great technicolor dream on purpose.
When the tape beeped, she hung up, speechless. Not home yet. She thinks about the socks and underwear she left on their bed. Would it be enough of a message, she wonders?
Anyway, he’s probably at Karen Storke’s house, she thinks, admiring her liveliness. Susan almost wishes it were true. His infidelity, which was assumed of all married men in Salish by all their childrearing wives, would make her leave-taking all the more defensible.
“Mo’?” Kerry sports dimples. It has taken a weekend of peering into the rear-view for Susan to notice them. Flat square teeth–stained red with pie filling–compose the rest of her baby’s cherub grin, which glows in the peachy illumination of a sun long set.
What a trooper. Sleeping in the play pen at night. Napping in her car seat during the day. Breaking at Big Boy restaurants and county parks, rest areas and truck stops.
And not a single question about Daddy.
“You’re starting to look more like me all the time,” Susan quips, admiring her own dimples in the driver’s side mirror. Seven hours a day they had driven, relishing all that was new. For Kerry, newness had grown to mean roaring trains and clanging bells at rural railroad crossings. Red felt cowboy hats bought at convenience stores masquerading as trading posts in the American West. Gummy, sugary cherry pie eaten along the interstate’s pebbled edge.
For Susan, newness has become the art of living outside the limits of time.
Last night at a chain motor-hotel, Susan relegated the rest of her Mothers Underground–a dozen issues she had packed in Kerry’s diaper bag–to the hotel’s Dumpster. In one issue, PaulineK opined about the snotty, self-absorption of working moms. Hen-n-Chix made a comic event of blissful motherhoods. And in the last issue, Susan saw her final contribution. The title “Time-Saving Errand Strategies” gleamed from the first page. Rereading her own words, she could not help but wonder: “Saving time for what?”
In the bin they went, pages and pages of pigeon-holed ideas. And when she clamped the heavy blue lid shut, she thought she could hear Kerry giggling, and then the statement in her baby’s voice:
Afterward, Susan checked on Kerry’s sleeping form–face down with round cheeks pressed into the play pen’s colorful pad–then turned to The Oyster Shell. It was a bit dog-eared from her toss across the car a few days before, and sported grease stains where she had held it with one hand and eaten a burger with the other. Her place was held by a new bookmark, the label off a spent round of bottle rockets. Howling Windigos, the purple neon words screamed, and behind them on the label illustration loomed the glow-in-the-dark shape of a frightening Indian-style wraith woman with hollow black eyes and blood dripping from its snaggly fangs. It had blown brightly past her during a picnic lunch with Kerry Berry. It reminded her, oddly, of Kali.
She read another story, this one detailing the insidious emergence of a curse which had befallen a nomadic divorcee during a trip through the Black Hills during the days of the rush. Folding the magazine closed for the night, Susan renegotiated the image of Frieda Domini’s smileless face, the thick wrinkles which surrounded the corners of her mouth. Then Susan tucked the digest into her glovebox for safekeeping. She thought she heard voices in the shadows of dusk, but only saw the flurry of blue-black wings as magpies moved on.
Kerry squeezes pie crust with both hands; pink-tan bits of pastry ooze from between the tiny webs of her fingers.
“Cheyenne? Can you say ‘Cheyenne,’ Kerry Berry?”
They are out of napkins, so Susan sucks her daughter’s fingers of every last sweet smudge of pie while her daughter wriggles and coos. It takes some minor acrobatics to squeeze Kerry into her cozy car seat with its growing collection of sightseeing relics.
“Sseepa?” Kerry yawns while Susan packs their dinner things inside a paper bag in the front passenger’s seat. Blazing headlights from an oncoming semi arouse Susan’s protective essence. She turns and smiles at her drowsy, happy child.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star…” She revs the engine, flicks on the headlights and puts her foot to the brake so that her rear reds indicate her road-side presence to the approaching semi. “How I wonder what you are…”
The truck roars past them, rocking the car and the watch, its face turned, now, toward the windshield.
She flipped it the night she left Hoodsport, on a dare to herself. After a weekend of resistance, now understands what “watch” really means. If the piece hadn’t been a gift from her hard-working grandmother, she would have thrown it and its curse out the window somewhere in western Montana.
Instead, it swings, faceless and unread, a pendant souvenir from another time.
“Up above the world so high…” Susan clicks on the turn signal and pulls the Volvo onto Interstate 25, tires crunching through gravel.
Ahead of her, the highway sign: Cheyenne–40.
“Like a diamond in the sky…” She thrusts her head through the open driver’s-side window, not only to check behind her for traffic, but to try to recognize where she has been.
The Drift originally appeared in Outsider Ink (Summer 2003).