Monday, January 14, 2013

#64: "The Summer of Ham" by M.E. Parker

~This story previously appeared in The Briar Cliff Review (2006).
                      
          Fried chicken, cantaloupe, fresh squash, the moment she smelled her grandma’s kitchen marked the official start of summer. Since her mom never cooked anything that didn’t come from a box, bag, or frozen tray, Diane spent the two months at her grandma’s house every year as a bear, fattening in the weeks before hibernation.
          Even the old standbys, bacon and eggs, a simple slice of toast, tasted better there, but it was more than just flavor, it was the experience, doughnuts and pancakes for dinner, steaks for breakfast. The memory of every summer was a food--a feeling that set it apart from every other time in her life. Watermelon, between the second and third grades, invoked the smell of chlorine and musty towels, fried okra, the cracks in the ground on the back end of a two-year drought the following year. After sixth grade it was ham, a ham on Sundays and any succulent variation of leftovers in between. 
          If the summer she turned twelve were a ham sandwich, it would taste the way leather smells, licorice and wet grass, cigarette smoke and thunderstorms, and to wash it down, a tall glass of root beer, which would always be the wind outside her grandma’s window, the soothing howl of a gust of air skimming across the glass.
          It wasn’t the summer of her first boyfriend. That happened the year before, asparagus and cobbler, when she and Bobby kissed in the abandoned shack on the other side of County Road 80. It wasn’t the summer she became a woman either. That was four years later, and not during a visit to her grandma’s house. Ham hadn’t pulled her hair out of its ponytail or swapped out her boots for a pair of espadrilles. Ham had taken her to California. 
 

          Diane thought she knew all the summer kids, the ones who visited grandparents every year, but she didn’t ever remember seeing Scott.
           “My parents usually drop me off on their way to Europe or the Caribbean,” Scott said. “I won’t stay long.”
          “That explains it. So where ya from, Scott?”
           “San Diego.”
          “California?”
           “Yep.”
          California was an abstract notion, a place where movies were made and beautiful people played volleyball on the beach, not a place where a fourteen-year-old boy named Scott lived. It wasn’t a place that a kid left for the summer. It was a final destination, a nirvana that ordinary people held in the back of their minds when they needed a dream.
           “I’ve never seen you before. Where do your grandparents live?” Diane didn’t remember ever seeing a house in town that a Californian might live in.
          He pointed to a narrow bridge that spanned the dry Canadian River bed joining a dirt street with a partially washed out road. “Over there. But we can’t go. My aunt doesn’t like anyone coming over.”  
          Scott kicked a rock between the county highway marker and a tall weed. He held his hands in the air, scoring a goal.
          “What’s the ocean like?”
          “It’s a lot like that, I guess. Only water.” He pointed to an expanse of flat land on the other side of the road. “Like a lake, but you can’t see the other side.”
           “I’ll bet you go to the beach a lot. I’d be there every day.”
            He laughed. “Yeah, I go a lot. I’m a surfer.”
          Diane tried to contain her awe, not wanting her next words to dribble from her mouth. He was a fourteen-year-old and a surfer. He probably had girlfriends lined up around the block, girls in bikinis with long blonde hair.  
          They turned off the road onto a worn path through a mesquite thicket banking the creek bed. “This is the closest thing we have to a beach here, but I guess it’s pretty cool.” Diane ducked under a branch. “Sometimes there’s water, especially after it rains.”
          “Looks more like a desert?” Scott kicked off his shoes.
          “Yeah, I guess so. But it rained some in June.” Her shoes bounced off a rock as she jogged after him already winding his way down the river of sand that snaked through the draw. 
                                                            
          “Diane, dinnertime.”
          Her grandma’s voice and the smell of biscuits were inextricably woven together. Diane flew through the door and pulled up a chair between a bowl of mashed potatoes and a plate of biscuits, directly across from the ham.
           “Wash your hands, dear. Heaven knows what’s on ‘em from that creek down there.”
          “Grandma, have you ever been to California?” Diane asked, heading for the kitchen sink.
          “California? No, but I’ve been to Arizona.”
          “I wonder what it’s like.”
          “Those folks have a different way of thinkin’ over there than we do, I’m afraid.”
          “What do you mean?”
          “Oh, I don’t know, come eat your dinner, dear.”
           “Have you ever been to the beach?” Diane plopped a spoonful of mashed potatoes on top of a slice of ham.
          “When I was a girl, about your age, we used to go down to Galveston. We always had a wonderful time, but that was before the motorcycle gangs took over, of course.”
          Diane dug an impression in her potatoes with her spoon and poured in the gravy. She stared at her plate, thinking about what her grandma said before she broke the dam on her gravy lake and watched it spill down onto the ham.
          The next day, Diane found Scott in almost the same place she first saw him the day before, leaning against the front of the Stop ‘N’ Shop, legs crossed, eying everyone who walked by as though they better check with him first if they wanted to go inside.                       
          “Want a smoke?” Scott slid out a cigarette and tossed it into his mouth, holding one for Diane.
          “Oh, I don’t think so. My mom says they stunt your growth.”
           “Hadn’t stunted my growth.”
           “How do you know?”
           “I’ve always been tall for my age.” He went through four matches before he finally lit the cigarette in the wind.
          Diane watched him pull the smoke into his mouth, and then he leaned his head back, pushing the gray cloud above his head. “Do most kids smoke in California?”
          The cigarette seemed to hang from his lip by nothing more than a thread as he spoke, the smoke billowing from his mouth. “Yeah, sure. I guess.”
          Diane’s eyes widened. “Okay, I’ll give it a try.”
           He lit her cigarette with the smoldering end of the one he’d been smoking and handed it to Diane.
            “That’s terrible,” she gasped trying to stop coughing, “How do you do that?”
Scott cocked his head and smiled. “It takes practice.”
          They stopped at the intersection of the two most traveled roads in town, Diane flagging down two girls trying to inch past a pack of dogs that could somehow smell their fear. A German Shepard, a schnauzer, and what looked like a comical cross between the two, chased a collie with a paper sack stuck to its foot through a vacant lot beside the only store in town.
          “Suzie.”
          “Hey, Di.”
          Scott hurled a rock at the German Shepard.
          “Don’t, you’ll make ‘em mad,” Suzie yelled.
          “Those dumb dogs won’t hurt you.”
          “Scott’s from California.”
          Suzie looked at Diane as though she had just proclaimed that a Martian had landed, offering to give them a tour of the galaxy.
          “Do you know any movie stars?” Suzie’s younger friend asked with her eye still on the dogs that circled them only feet away.
          “I’ve seen some.”
          “Me and Scott are gonna have a beach party, like those they have in California.”
           “A beach party, around here?”
          “What’s a beach party?”
          “Down on the river bed. It’s sandy there, just like the beach. Tell everybody you see. Get your swim suits on and meet us on the other side of the old Rock Island Bridge.”
            Diane had chosen for her party the stretch of creek bed to the north of the washed out bridge because it often had puddles of water, knee deep in places, and in between them, a stretch of yellow sand almost thirty feet wide. North of the bridge, in the clay, Diane had seen snakes and even hogs, and they might run into Jimmy Spence and his brother shooting rabbits or taping fire crackers to turtles.
            “I’ve packed you a lunch, dear. I hate to think of you kids down there all day without anything to eat,” Diane’s grandma said, handing her an ice chest.
            Scott waited in the street, an unpaved road that intersected two other dirt roads with the school on one end and the senior center on the other. Diane dropped the ice chest in a wheelbarrow by the garden shed and met Scott, already walking toward the alley on the other side of the street.
            After the last tornado, some people didn’t rebuild. They just disappeared, over the mesa, leaving a trail of rubble in their wake, leaning sheds chocked full of the artifacts of broken lives, yards piled high with unrecognizable junk, things that had evolved from their original purpose, now serving the needs of kids on the prowl for anything that might bring their dreams to life.
          “My grandma says people in California think different.”
          Scott gave her a nervous laugh. “I guess so.” He fumbled with a cigarette, still holding an arm load of tarp they found in an abandoned shed.
          Diane lifted a sheet of metal, an upside down hood from a late-fifties Studebaker, and peered inside a barrel underneath it.
            “Have you ever seen a motorcycle gang?” she asked, twisting a bent strip of aluminum out of the barrel.
           Scott dragged on his cigarette. He blew the smoke over Diane’s head in a thin stream, “Sure.”
           “Well, what do they look like?”
          “I don’t know. A bunch of guys on motorcycles, what do you think?”
          “My grandma said they took over Galveston.”
          “Look at that.” Scott dropped the tarp and jerked the remnants of a net from a pile of thread-bare tires. “Ever heard of beach volleyball?”
          Scott and Diane maneuvered a wheelbarrow and a vintage vegetable cart full of beach necessities down the shoulder of County Road 80 and through a thicket of wild plums. A few yards shy of the old Rock Island bridge the wheel on the cart snapped off and the wheel barrow, mired in wet sand, tumbled over. They had arrived, at last, to the beach.
          Suzie, in a pink two-piece, Kim with her dad’s shirt over a pair of cut-off shorts, and Bobby, already waiting on the other side of the bridge, ran to meet Diane and her new mysterious friend who had promised them a beach party.
          Kim carried her mother’s pink umbrella. Suzie brought a lawn chair and three towels, and Bobby had a cardboard box full of cups and bowls that he claimed would make the perfect sand castles. Bobby’s golden retriever, Max, trotted behind them with a red bandanna around his neck.
          Bobby ran straight for a long piece of wood sticking out from the wheelbarrow and threw it into the ankle-deep water. Jumping on it almost before it hit the water, he assumed his best surfer position and began an off-key rendition of the Hawaii Five-O theme, the coolest show on television.
          “You’re not doin’ it right,” Scott said with a scowl. “Bend your knees. Like this.” He demonstrated the proper surfer position to his four students who watched as though he had stepped down from Mt. Olympus to bestow his secret knowledge to the mere mortals in his care.
          “Don’t your legs get tired?” Suzie asked.
          “Nah, you get used to it.” Scott gazed to the horizon, still in surfer position, surfing across the sand, through the mesquite thicket, now palms, fluttering on a sea breeze instead of a hot wind through the draw.
          Jen appeared, walking down the riverbed through the screen of wavy air that forms during the heat of the afternoon. “Hey, guys.” She tossed a Frisbee into the wheelbarrow. Max the retriever instinctively ran for it.
          Following an hour of construction, the six beach goers stepped back to get a good look. They had shade under a blue tarp with three lawn chairs, an old milk can, and a crate. They could play volleyball with Kim’s half-inflated soccer ball and a net tied to mesquite branches that spanned the creek bed at its narrowest point. Suzie had also brought her battery-powered cassette recorder that played a somewhat distorted version of  the Beach Boys, and to complete the party, an ice chest full of ham sandwiches that Diane’s grandma packed with a half dozen bottles of root beer as a bonus.
          Almost every day, they added something new until they transformed a dry river bed into California. They even had seagulls, a flock of grackles that combed the ground for bits of ham sandwich and potato chips.
          Diane’s beach party raged on for nearly two weeks before Jimmy Spence and his brother finally showed up with their .22 caliber rifles and an endless amount of blackjacks. They pulled down the beach volleyball net and wrapped it around a mesquite tree. Suzie’s umbrella they used as a parachute for a bludgeoned armadillo thrown off the bridge. They had even used the portable tape recorder, with a Beach Boys cassette still lodged in the housing, for target practice.
Diane ran up to a board sticking up from the sand. In writing scrawled out in chalk, it read, ‘Keep Out.’
          “Looks like the party’s over.”
          “Those assholes are gonna pay.” Diane’s face turned red as she imagined her grandma’s reaction to what she had just said, but the Spence brothers had destroyed California.
          Scott strolled down the riverbed, surveying the damage. He picked up the steering column that held up the tarp and hurled it into a mesquite tree. “It doesn’t really matter anyway. This place stinks.” He kicked one of the lawn chairs into a puddle of red water.
          Diane’s world fell at Scott’s pronouncement. What did he mean, this place stinks? They had reconstructed California, right down to the details. She had even worn a two-piece swim suit.
          “We can build it back. All the stuff’s still here.”
          “What’s the point? It’s just a bunch of junk.” Scott disappeared into the mesquite.
          Diane ran after him, but he was already gone, running up County Road 80.
          The Spence brothers might be able to destroy California, but they could never take away the smell of her grandma’s kitchen coming through the screen door on the back porch. Just seeing the table covered in bowls and plates, steam rising, her grandfather already sitting at the end with a glass of prune juice, took her mind off the destruction down at the creek.
         “Hey, Di, what’s happening?” her cousin Jessie, who came every other week to mow the yard, said as he slid into a chair, reaching for the mashed potatoes at the same time.
          “Hi, Jes. I’m glad you’re here. Somebody needs to find that Jimmy Spence and kick his butt.”
          “Diane,” her grandma shouted as she lowered a plate full of biscuits onto the table. “I won’t have that kind of talk at this table, missy. Do you understand me? Ladies do not speak that way.” Grandma eyed the trail of mud that led from the door to the table. “And what have I told you about takin’ off you shoes after you’ve been down at the creek?”
          “I’m sorry, Grandma.” Diane lowered her head, eyes still on the biscuits.
          “What’d they do this time?” Jessie asked with a mouthful of potatoes.
          “Don’t talk with your mouth full, Jessie.” Grandma wagged her finger.
          Grandpa sighed between gulps of prune juice. “What’s gotten into you kids? Where do you get ideas like that? Too much TV, that’s where.”
          “They tore up our beach party.”
          “Beach party?” Jessie laughed. “Out here?”
          “Scott’s from California.”
          “Scott Rogers?” Grandma asked.
          “Yeah, I think so, but I don’t think I ever asked his last name.”
          “That poor boy.” She shook her head.
          “What do you mean?”
          “Is that Mabel’s nephew?” Grandpa asked through a forkful of peas.
          “No wonder kids don’t have any manners, Grandpa. Talking with your mouthful.” Grandma waved her hand. “Yeah, he’s Mabel’s. You be nice to that boy, Diane. He’s been through a lot.”
           “I can’t imagine what he must be going through,” Grandma said again.
          “His parents are in Europe,” Diane said.
           Grandma looked at Grandpa. He chewed until he swallowed what was left in his mouth, to avoid Grandma’s admonition a second time, and wiped his face. “That boy’s parents died in a car accident a month or two ago, Diane.”
          “His Aunt Mabel moved here last year. She keeps books down at the school and cleans the church.”
          In her twelve long years on this planet, nine of which she remembered well, Diane never recalled anyone ever moving to town. These people were institutions, born with the town, and when they died or moved away, there would be no one left.  Old people outnumbered kids nearly ten to one most of the year, though during the summer, kids made up significant ground, but even then, there were never any new ones. “His parents died?”
          “That poor boy didn’t have anyone else, so his aunt took him in.”
          “Did they die in California?” Diane asked, trying to glue the broken pieces of her summer back together.
          “Oh, I don’t think so, dear.”
          “They were farmers,” Grandpa added. “Owned a place over in Bridgeport. Car went over an embankment. Killed everyone but Scott.”
          “That’s terrible.” Diane watched in her mind as her image of California mutated into the vision of a fiery crash.  She imagined not having her parents anymore, not even grandparents, living with an Aunt Mabel who kept books and cleaned the church. She probably didn’t even cook, not like his grandma would have. “So he’s not from California?”
          “Pass the ham,” Jessie said, extending an arm across Grandma’s plate.
          Diane left the table in a fog, marching up the stairs as a pallbearer for the glorious two weeks that had just died. She took a bath and sat on her bed with the lights out, the sun falling over the mesa behind her grandma’s house. Her curtains whipped through the window by her bed, and the creak of the oil well on the hill, an iron grasshopper rocking back and forth, kept time with the wind. She looked hard out the window to see the giant endless lake and to feel the mist of the ocean as waves crashed on the shore. She could hear the music over the waves, girls in bikinis on blankets, watching a bon fire roar as the sun set behind them, each smoking a cigarette.
          It took Diane nearly three days to finally return to the site of her wrecked beach party. The deserted stretch of riverbed reminded her again that the closest she would ever get to California came from the stories of an imposter. Still thinking about her unflappable friend who had learned to surf and smoke from movies, the same way she had, Diane turned the town upside down to find him and somehow let him know that it was okay. She made her way down County Road 80, across to the old ball field, a leftover from the oil days when the town had a school big enough for a football team. She circled back through the yard of Finley’s House, a haunted three-story pile of rubble, ravaged by the last tornado, and combed through the junkyard. After that, she checked out the tunnel connecting the church basement to a secret door under the front steps. The last place she could think of looking was his house, the house no one was supposed to visit.
          The narrow road that led from the Stop ‘N Shop gravel parking lot to Scott’s aunt’s house was fraught with obstacles, most immediately, Sebastian, Jimmy Spence’s rottweiler. Sometimes he shot from under the porch, leading with his teeth, foam at the corners of his mouth, until a chain snapped him back into the yard. Other times, he roamed freely, stalking the Spence property line, daring someone to come within striking distance.
          Diane grabbed a stick. She closed her eyes and ran down the dirt road, and as she expected, Sebastian flew from his lair under the Spence porch with malice. She held her breath. The chain jerked the dog back, barking, gnashing his teeth.
          “Stupid dog.” Diane threw the stick at him as she walked by, inches beyond the length of the extended chain.
          Old lady McAllister came next in the Chapel Road gauntlet. If she could make it past her without a request for help with an imaginary problem or a rant about “no-good kids runnin’ around like they own the place,” all that she would have left to face would be the Spence brothers’ club house.
          “Oh, look. It’s the little surfer girl.” Jimmy Spence appeared from behind a tall stack of tires.
          “Shut up--ass face.” Diane surprised herself. She held her head high, walking straight through enemy territory without so much as a flinch.
          “Listen to that,” Johnny, the youngest of the Spence brothers hurled a dirt clod at Diane, missing her by almost two feet.
          “Grow up,” she yelled, rolling her eyes.
          “Where ya going, to visit your wimpy boyfriend?”
          She looked straight ahead, walking faster, trying not to say another word until she arrived at Mabel Roger’s house, a place, three days ago, she might have expected to resemble a mission-style stucco home with a pair of palm trees overhanging a swimming pool. She certainly hadn’t imagined what she saw. Diane couldn’t tell at first where the junk ended and the house began. The wheels peeking through a picnic table covered with engine parts gave it away, a trailer house, and Diane knew immediately why Scott hadn’t ever wanted to go to his aunt’s house.
It wasn’t a mobile home in the traditional sense, but a trailer, a silver bullet with a hitch on one end and a row of round windows on the other. Two sets of tires held up the back with a stack of cinder blocks under the hitch bar keeping the front somewhat level.
          She stopped short of the driveway, a dirt path with a line of weeds up the middle that led to an old green Buick with a flat tire and a rusted Chevy on blocks. Diane took a deep breath. She heard sounds coming from behind the trailer, strange noises, a clank, a bang, and what sounded like an airplane, a jet. Still deciding, Diane watched an overweight woman with a cigarette hanging from her mouth step onto the porch, which was nothing more than a piece of plywood with crates for steps.
          Mabel? But she keeps books at the school, and cleans the church.
          “Scott, come on in and have some supper.” The woman on the porch yelled.
          The noise from behind the trailer continued.
          “Scott. I’m not gonna tell you again.”
          He sulked around the corner and into the house. Diane, rather than interrupting suppertime, sneaked around back to have at look at what Scott was up to. Between a rusted fifty-gallon drum and a stack of iron rods, was a faded International Harvester pick-up truck. The wheels looked good, but everything else needed serious attention. It was missing both doors and the hood. It had a steering wheel but no seat, only a make-shift bench, and in the bed, a set of tanks with a hose that led to a nozzle, and a long pole sticking out behind it. On the ground beside the truck, several old quilts spread across a solitary patch of weedless ground. 
          Diane stepped up into the cab and sat on the bench, still thinking about Scott, parentless, California pretender, poor. It was hard to imagine what life without her parents, without her grandparents, would be like. Just thinking about it, an empty blackness filled her head. It would be life without life as she knew it.
          “Hey, get outta there.”
          Diane jumped as Scott’s face appeared through the passenger side of the truck. “Hey, what’s up?”
          “What are you doing here? I told you not to come to my house, you little bitch.” His cheeks turned pink.
          “Fine.” Diane hopped down. “I didn’t know if you were still around.”
          “Well, I am. Now git.”
          “What are you doin’?” She slapped the side of the truck, inspecting his handy work.
          “None of your business.”
          “I know you’re not really from California.”
           Scott vaulted into the bed of the truck. “Who told you that? Oh, it doesn’t really matter where I’m from, just where I’m going.”
          “Where are you going?”
            “California.”
          Suddenly Scott repositioned himself as the mid-summer mystery man, adventurous and smoky, like the wandering cowboy in the movies. He was no longer a poor boy whose parents had died, leaving him in the clutches of his aunt, but a man in charge of his own destiny, a fourteen-year-old, a would-be Californian. “How you gonna do that?”
          “You’ll see.” Scott began stringing a line from the end of the long pole in the truck bed.
          “What’s that?” Diane walked around the end of the pole and stood in front of the truck, peering into the empty space where a motor should have been.
          “Well, the highway’s about thirty miles from here. I figured I could hitch-hike my way to California. The only problem is getting to the highway. My aunt’s cars are trashed, and I tried to hitch a ride to the main road, but everyone around here already knows me.” He concentrated on the base of the pole. “Last year, my friend’s Uncle Rodney taught me how to sail. What better way to get to California than by sailing?”
          “Sailing? Around here?”
          “This old truck doesn’t have an engine, but its got wheels and a chassis, and I can steer it.”
          Diane watched in awe as Scott pulled the pole upright in the bed of the pick-up. He set it up on bolts, fastened from the underside, and spun on the nuts, his face turning red. Diane jumped up to help him hold the mast for an International Harvester dream ship with its sights on the West Coast. “Why not just walk?”
          “I tried that. My aunt had the Sheriff after me before I got to the top of Bird Mesa. They think I’m acting out, after what happened and all. I don’t really give a shit what they think. All I know is, I have to get out of here.”
          Her heart raced. “I want to go, too.”
          Scott laughed.
          As the sun reached dinnertime, time for Grandma to pull the ham out of the oven, Diane glanced back down the road, at the gauntlet. “When are you going?”
          “Tomorrow night, after my aunt goes to bed. If I get a good wind, I’ll make it to the highway before anyone misses me.”
          “I’ll be here.” Diane tore past the Spence club house, looking straight ahead, ham on the brain. By the time she reached Sebastian, she had already passed him before he made a run for the end of the chain. She reached her grandma’s kitchen in record time.
          Diane shoved a biscuit in her mouth, savoring every bite. Would this be her last slice of Grandma’s ham? Tomorrow, she would leave for California, the real beach, the one she had seen in the movies, not the one east of County Road 80. Her stomach fluttered just thinking about hoisting the sail on Scott’s pick-up, flying down the road with the wind in her hair, destination the sea.
         “Slow down, dear. We’re not going to run out of food,” her Grandma said.
          Grandpa laughed. “She’s a growing girl. This time next year she’ll be busted out all over.”
          “May I be excused?” Diane grabbed three biscuits and a slice of ham and slid out of her chair before her grandma answered.
          “Where are you going?”
          Diane wanted to tell her the truth, that she was going to pack, to gather a suitcase full of things one might need in California, but she knew Grandma wouldn’t understand. Because they think differently over there. “I’m going up to read a magazine. Not feelin’ very good.” She grabbed her stomach.
          “I told you not to eat so fast.”
          The magazine was boring, the evening dragged into night with morning not far behind, as one scene after another paraded through her dreams: bon fires, waves, surfing, boys. She walked through the next day in a haze, spending time with her grandma, helping Grandpa burn trash. Who knew when she would be back.
          The evening their ship would sail, Diane stared out the window at the disappearing orange strips on the horizon. A cloud of dust swirled through the backyard. Night came early in the form of dark clouds from the northeast. Lightning lit up the sky. A storm brewed in her stomach, wondering how the weather would affect their maiden voyage. “Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning, red sky at night sailor’s delight,” she whispered with a smile.
          With a duffle bag in her hand, Diane slipped down the stairs. She stopped at the end of the hall and had a peek into her grandparents’ room.
          The front door creaked. The wind whipped into the house as Diane pushed the door closed. Thunder racked the sky. The smell of electricity tickled her nose. The sky lit up again, a light show that cracked the northern horizon preceded a clap that shook the glass in her grandma’s house. She jogged down the street, looking back, then ahead. Sebastian, the Spence brothers, even Old Lady McAllister would be asleep. All she had to do was get to the pickup before Scott sailed into the unknown.
          Around the corner of Scott’s trailer, a gust plucked her red ball cap. Scott and the truck were gone. Diane turned and ran for County Road 80 when she saw the mast of Scott’s pickup, a boat on wheels swaying in the wind with a bundle of quilts at the bottom.
          “Scott, wait.” She ran down the ditch, wind at her back.
          “Hey, Di, I didn’t think you were coming. This is perfect.” He held his hand up in the face of the strong wind. “I’m glad you’re here. In this wind, I’ll need someone to keep this thing on the road while I work the sail.”
          She threw her duffle bag under the bench and jumped into the truck. A feeling of excitement unlike anything she had ever felt almost overwhelmed her. He must have found a battery. The headlights in the old truck were on. Diane waited for instructions from her captain.
          “When I hoist the sail,” he had to yell over the wind.
          “What?”
          He cupped his hands together and screamed. “Pull the emergency brake when I tell you to and use the steering wheel to keep the car on the road.”
          Lightning streaked across the sky ahead of a twisting cloud of dirt. All Diane could see was an image of herself, herself as a sixteen-year-old maybe, wearing a yellow bikini, and boys stumbling over themselves just to get a look at her.
          A rush of wind and the mast in the truck bed creaked. “Pull the brake.”
          “Now?”
          “Now.”
          Diane reached for the emergency brake, her hands trembling. She grabbed the steering wheel. The truck inched forward. The mast creaked again as wind rushed into the sail. Diane craned her neck trying to see Scott and the sail made out of sheets and quilts flying from a oil derrick girder he’d welded into the pickup bed.
          “Stay on the road.”
          “Sorry.”
         The truck picked up speed. She could hear him behind her, laughing. He was cheering as the speedometer registered fifteen miles an hour.
          “Go west, young man,” he yelled.
          Diane looked back again, and this time she caught his face. The boy who had lost his parents, the poser, the new kid who never stopped smoking long enough to smile, had a smile stretched across the width of his face. He sat on the side of the bed pulling a rope, holding the sail--and grinning from ear to ear.
          “What do I do?” Diane panicked when they reached the junction of Collins Road and County Road 80, a sharp turn with a stop sign.
          “Just stay on the road.”
          “What?”
          “Just drive normally. I’ll work the sail.”
          “I don’t know how to drive.”
          “Okay, hit the brakes and slow down, but don’t stop as you turn the corner.” The sail fell into a line along the pole. Rain began in a slow drip until it fell in horizontal sheets.
          “What about the stop sign?”
          “It’s the middle of the night.”
          The truck eased onto the main road as the sail whipped up again in a different place. The wind gusted from the north, then the northwest, shaking the mast. The truck inched forward again, ten miles and hour, then twenty.
          “What do I do now?” The curve ahead came quickly.
            “Huh?”
            A gust of wind pulled the truck sideways as they entered a curve. The mast cracked, falling in the direction opposite the wind as the faded red International Harvester sail boat bound for California tipped over mid-turn on County Road 80 and slid into a ravine.
                                                           
          Diane spent the rest of the summer with a cast on her leg, eating her mother’s frozen dinners and watching TV, and the rest of the year wondering what happened to Scott, whether he tried it again, whether he ever made it to California. She anticipated summer more that year than she ever had, tasting, smelling her grandma’s cooking every time she saw a picture of the beach, or a TV show about California.
          The next year, the summer of corn on the cob, her last summer to spend at her grandma’s house, Scott wasn’t there. She looked for him, but his aunt Mabel had also left, taking with her two months worth of tithes from the First Methodist Church. Diane imagined her friend, without a family, all alone, sailing that ’57 International all the way to California, and it made her last summer as a kid a little more bearable. 

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Food is so often an anchor for memories, especially those faraway places in childhood that are almost inaccessible through any other means. Sometimes I conjure general segments of memories in life by what I enjoyed eating at the time, whether it was the ham sandwiches and Rice-a-Roni of my youth or humus binges and ghost pepper salsa of my adulthood. The setting for this story is inspired by a town in the Texas Panhandle built for oil field workers during the boom and left for dead when the wells stopped pumping in the 60’s. Unpaved streets stayed unpaved. Houses were abandoned and, since there were no jobs to speak of, most people who stayed were retirees who had grown up there, whose grandchildren visited for magical summers of sifting through abandoned tornado wreckage and traipsing along the dry river bed.

 *****

ABOUT M.E. PARKER

M.E. Parker has recently added ample amounts of ghost pepper to much of what he eats, momentarily distracting him in his quest for the fieriest food. He is the founding editor of Camera Obscura Journal of Literature & Photography. Find him at www.meparker.com

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