Sunshine 320 Days a Year

Monday, July 5, 2010

Around dusk, Dad and I were crossing the Kansas plains in his borrowed 1953 Pontiac, windows open, shirts flapping, on our way to check out a ghost town high in the Colorado mountains where he said the sun shone 320 days of the year.

Dad tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, loudly singing a sailor ditty with words like “titty” and “bum” that made me laugh. I breathed in the rich smells of wheat and alfalfa as we sailed through golden fields of grain stretching in every direction as far as I could see. Dad hollered we were going as high as he could crank it—a hundred and five miles an hour. I saw the speedometer jump from 104 to 106. My hair whipped and tangled behind my head, and I became Annie Oakley urging on my horse, gaining on the bandits as I galloped after them with my flying hair.

We hadn’t seen any other cars or trucks on the two-lane highway for at least an hour, which gave me time for catching bad guys. But then I spotted a white car ahead of us, going in the same direction. My mouth got dry with a nervous Mom-kind-of-feeling that clenched me up inside. When it came to cars on the road in front of us, my dad never slowed down. He caught up and passed, no matter what. He was like that when he arm-wrestled, too—ready to die before he’d back off.

I clamped my mouth shut. I wasn’t Mom. I wouldn’t say a word.

We gained on the white car as the road dipped and began to rise in front of us.

We came up fast behind it.

He hardly paused before he pulled out into the oncoming lane.

“That’s a brand new 1955 Chevrolet,” he said, stepping hard on the gas.

I looked up the incline at a big blue car directly in front of us. It was speeding down from the other direction—blasting its horn like crazy, coming straight at us. We were parallel with the Chevy at that point, filling the lane that rightfully belonged to the car speeding toward us. No time to swerve. No way.

I shut my eyes, then opened them. If I was going to die, I wanted to watch it happen. I saw Dad’s jaw jut over to the side and his fists clutch the steering wheel. The driver on his side had his mouth stretched wide open, much like mine, in soundless screams. I heard loud shrieking from the car on our right.

Time held us all together in a suspended mechanical symphony as our three honking cars straddled two lanes. Dad and I were wedged in the middle, in Uncle Paul’s Pontiac, center position for the three big cars, tin cans on wheels, linked in a row, fused, moving yet standing perfectly still. In that moment of honking, screaming terror, buffeted by heavy winds, burning smells of rubber and metal filled the air.

We rocked and tilted.

Dad held us steady and we split the gap, sparks shooting, chrome trim flying.

We kept going.

Dad checked his rearview mirror and reported that both cars had gotten all their tires back on the blacktop. He lit a cigarette and pulled into the right lane. Blaring horns faded behind us. “Guess that stripped our paint job. Chevrolets and Saturday drivers ought to be banned. Damn road hogs think they own the world.”

He looked at me and knuckled my shoulder.

“Hey, you were stand-up back there. You didn’t even scream.”

I fell asleep with my head against the door.

I slept a long time. Every now and then passing lights or vibrations from trucks startled me, but I didn’t wake up until hours later, on a large dark parking slab where lines of huge trucks rested under dim lights. Dad turned off the engine and opened his door. “I’m ready for some food. How about you, tiger?”

We both got out and shook our legs and arms in the warm night air.

“Let’s hit it.” He took off toward the lit-up red and blue sign for Roy’s Truck Stop Bar & Grill as if it promised him some of the freedom he’d had as a kid hopping freight trains and sleeping in hobo camps.

I followed him, stretching my legs to match his stride. I swung my arms, too, catching the shiny rhythm of the way he walked when he was excited about something. I copied the bounce in his step. Even though I was just an eleven-year-old girl, I promised myself that I, too, would someday ride trains and sit around campfires listening to old hobos telling stories. Even if I had to dress like a man to do it, I wanted that kind of experience, even more than being a war nurse.

Before he got to the front door, I caught up. “Let’s play deaf again.”

“Okay, squirt.” He zippered his lips with his fingers. “Mum’s the word.”

My dad had learned sign language when he was sixteen from an old deaf hobo, and he had taught it to me when I was eight. One of the first times we were practicing in public, when I could only sign Hello, Thank you, I love you, and I’m hungry, we overheard somebody say, “Look at them deaf people.”

That started us pretending we were deaf. As Dad said, seeing how people reacted was a good lesson for me in human nature. “Just look around and watch what they do. It’ll show you how most people look at differences. Most people are yellow-bellied coyotes. Whether it’s deformities, speech impediments, or skin color, differences scare them. We live in a society of scaredy cats.”

When Dad and I played deaf, we walked through the door speaking only in sign language. We got very good at it. Nothing could make us talk. If you clapped your hands right behind us or threw a chair, neither of us would jump. We were prepared. We practiced. My brothers took turns trying to catch us off guard. Dad and I stood, talking to each other in sign language, without looking around, and they snuck up and hollered, blew whistles, or banged two pot lids together. The idea was not to flinch. If you jumped or even moved a tiny bit, it cost you a nickel for the travel pot.

Inside Roy’s Truck Stop Bar & Grill, plastic poinsettias and red and green blinking lights draped from the ceiling in a Christmas-in-August décor. It was almost midnight, and the place was full of farmers and truckers and other men in overalls and baseball caps drinking, eating, smoking, and shooting pool around two big tables. I could hardly wait to eat. The deep-fried chicken, burgers, hot dogs, and fries wafting through the air smelled so good that I started shivering. Dad slid into a turquoise booth, and I moved into the middle of the plastic seat opposite him. He was smiling at a tall waitress with bright red hair walking over in an aqua blue uniform.

He looked at me and lifted an invisible glass to his lips. He signed, “What’ll it be, honey? Beer? Whiskey?”

“Cherry Coke,” I signed back.

Dad grinned at the waitress, held one hand out flat, wrote on it with an imaginary pen, and looked up at her expectantly.

“You want something to write on?”

Dad watched her lips closely and then nodded agreement, kissing his forefinger and blowing the kiss to her. She handed him her pad and pen, and he printed, “Cherry Coke. Scotch & Rocks.”

She tore off his order and held it in her hand. She wasn’t moving, but you could feel her breathing fill up the air in our booth. Dad had that effect on women. Women walked right up to him on the street and gave him their names, phone numbers, street addresses, and where they ate lunch. In coffee shops or bars, one waitress after the next found excuses to linger by our table and tell him something, anything, just to be near him.

Dad looked our waitress up and down, nodding his approval.

“On the rocks,” she said. “Cherry Coke. Coming right up!”

She walked away slowly swinging her hips. I could see the lines of her garter belt through the back of her uniform. As soon as she got behind the fountain, she leaned against another waitress and whispered, “Oh my god! Honey, he may be deaf, but you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to see that man.”

Dad beamed at me, his cheeks rounding into big walnuts. He signed, “You’re my favorite little deaf girl who’s now a woman.”

My face froze as I watched his hands talking. The thick white pad I was wearing doubled its size between my legs. Nobody else could see it, but I could feel it, and I wished he didn’t know. It was my fault he did. I’d been so excited about getting my first period that I blurted it out like a big news story in front of everybody, including my Grandma, my aunts, my mom, of course, and him. Now I felt stupid. I didn’t want everybody in the outside world to know. Especially not our waitress.

“Don’t tell her I’m a woman.”

“She can’t hear us,” he signed back.

“Of course!” I almost laughed out loud.

Dad grinned and tapped out a Lucky Strike. His fingers held his cigarette tenderly, as if he had rolled and packed it himself. I loved the way he struck the match, lit up, inhaled, and then slowly, leisurely, blew white smoke rings out into the air. Even being eleven and having my period, I still couldn’t resist trying to catch his circles of smoke. As soon as my fingers touched them, they lost their shape and dispersed.

Dad offered me a cigarette, but when I reached for it, he pulled back the pack, tucked it into the roll of his shirtsleeve, and drummed the tabletop with the palms of his large smooth hands.

The waitress brought our drinks and set them in front of us.

“Where you all headed for?”

Dad pointed at me to tell. She handed me her pad and pen.

“To a ghost town.” I wrote in my best cursive, slanted up to the right.

She squinted her eyes at me. “A ghost town? Why?”

I wrote, “The sun shines 320 days of the year.”

“You want to live there?”

Dad shrugged his shoulders, and I did, too.

“Wow.” She squinted her eyes again.

As she was leaving, she trailed her pinkie across the table in front of Dad. He caught it and locked his little finger with hers. She turned and smiled and they let go.

He picked up his glass and held it, weighing it in his palm, lovingly clasping his fingers around it. He shook it just enough to rotate the ice cubes. As he lifted the glass of scotch toward his lips, Dad’s jaw relaxed and skin smoothed out around his eyes. I saw how simply holding that glass and lifting the amber liquid to his lips set him free. The drinking that followed ensured his escape, unfastened the shackles that bound him to his father, his mother, his work, his wife, and his children, including me.

His drinking made me a little anxious. It also made me glad I was on my own with him right then. For this, I didn’t want my mom along. I didn’t want to notice her chin quiver when Dad ordered his first scotch, or his second with a chaser. I didn’t want the tears to rise in her green eyes and spill over, one at a time, as he ogled other women and exchanged flirts as they walked by. I didn’t want to watch his gaze turn from crystal to flint when he stared my mother down, quieted her unspoken complaints with the same evil eye that bullies in westerns used when somebody stood in their way.

Without her worried watchfulness, my father played like a teenager.

After a while, Dad tapped his empty glass to signal for another scotch, and Doris, our waitress—who by then had written her name for us and asked for ours—got it and stood with her pad at the ready. I pointed to a baloney sandwich on the menu, with mayo and tomato. Dad put his finger on “House Cheeseburger and French Fries.” Then he showed me “Onions Rings” and lifted his eyebrows in question.

I nodded yes, and signed “Joy!” vigorously.

Doris stood for a long time taking our order and smiling at Dad. When she left, he lit another cigarette and began animated signing to praise what a good job we were doing.

When Doris came back with our food, she leaned over our table and her little gold cross dangled above the onion rings. She opened her mouth and said, “Hot, hot, hot,” pronouncing the word clearly, like you would say it to a baby, as she pointed to the onion rings, waved her hand over her mouth and shook her breasts around a little more.

When she stood up, Dad lifted the pad and pen out of her apron pocket and wrote, “Coffee for 2. Thank you, dear.”

He showed it to me, then handed it to her.

They grinned at each other.

“Hey look,” a man at the counter said. “The kid don’t talk neither.”

“She don’t even look deaf.”

If I was deaf, stupid, I wouldn’t look any different than I do now!

  Dad tucked Doris’s pad back in her apron. She blew him a kiss.

We ate in silence. I was starving. I chewed each bite a long time to make it last. When we were finished, Doris came back with the coffee pot and filled our cups. She was very slow, looking at Dad. Then, as if she just happened to notice that I was there, too, she smiled and wrote “How old R U?” on her pad.

Not that I thought she really cared, but I held up ten fingers and then one more.

“You’re eleven!”

I hated her. She didn’t even wait to see the answer. She had already turned back to Dad. I saw her fold a piece of paper, place it under her palm, and slip it toward Dad. He picked it up and opened it.

I couldn’t see what it said, but Dad looked up, his eyes on hers, and solemnly nodded his head.

“Oh yes!” She held up two fingers and mouthed, “Two minutes. Follow me.”

I felt heat fill my head. Dad sipped his coffee, slid out of the booth, and stood.

He signed, “I’ll be right back. Order yourself some ice cream.”

My whole face got hot. Where was he going? I didn’t want him to go. He tapped his fingers on the table, and he walked away. I couldn’t say anything. I watched him go through a back door. He was gone. I gazed at my bare arms and saw how pale and bony they looked in the big plastic booth by myself. I held very still. I sniffed the air and got a whiff of my own body. I was still supposed to be deaf, so I couldn’t talk to anyone. I hoped my shiny white bra strap didn’t show, but I didn’t want to look. It was new, my first, white cotton, with a little pink satin rose that Aunt Rose said was necessary only for making some manufacturer millions of dollars.

I looked around. The main colors in this truck stop were white, black, and turquoise. The turquoise walls behind the Christmas decorations matched Doris’s uniform. I tallied up twenty-eight men and three women—including Doris, who wasn’t there, but I added her anyway. I didn’t count me. I wished I had brought in Little Women, so I could read what happened after Jo cut off her hair, but Dad had locked the car and I didn’t have keys, plus I didn’t want to walk out alone. Next time I would remember my book. I’d carry it with me wherever I went.

            Under the table, I drummed my fingers on my knees and soundlessly tapped my toes in rhythm with Patti Page singing on the jukebox, “Cross over the bridge, cross over the bridge. Change your reckless way of livin’, cross over the bridge...” I imagined myself on stage, with a turned-up nose and curly red-blond hair, standing on a green bridge, singing with my arms outstretched, palms up, the way real singers did it.

All of a sudden, a chill ran down my back. I started trembling the way I had at home one night when I was reading Black Beauty and something creepy had started swinging right next to my face. At first I had thought maybe a bat had whizzed by, but it had stayed. It moved slowly back and forth, back and forth. I was so scared, I broke out in goose bumps. Finally, I had glanced up. When I did, I saw my brother dangling a mouse by a string in the air beside me, its little feet running next to my eyes. 

            Right beside me at this moment was something much bigger than a mouse. It was a billy club, and it was swaying back and forth in front of somebody’s giant legs in dark blue trousers. He wore a black leather belt with a holster and a big silver gun.

“What’cha doing here by yourself, kiddo?” His words bounced like rubber, but I was supposed to be deaf, so I looked up from his gun to his face, as if I were trying to read his lips. He was a cop. I was sure he knew I could hear.

A dark-haired waitress walked up. “She’s deaf. She’s with her dad.”

“Where’s he?”

  “Out back probably. Want me to get him?”

“It can wait. Give me a Schlitz.”

  “You bet. Fries?”

“Yeah, fries.”

The cop looked at me. The last policeman I’d seen this close took our dog away when we lived in the little house behind my grandma’s. I had looked at his bluish-white skin stretched over a skinny skeleton face as he tied a rope around Blackie’s neck. I had kept yelling, “What are you doing?” He said, “Your dog’s a public nuisance,” and dragged Blackie away with that noose around his neck. I chased them, but the policeman told me to stop and I did, and I never saw my dog again.

This cop at Roy’s Truck Stop, twice as big as the old cop, bent his giant pink face toward me and patted my shoulder. He started to slide into Dad’s seat across from me but then stopped, stood, and moved back toward my side again.

“We’ll save that there seat for your dad.”

He smelled of burning metal.

As he sat down beside me, I scooted away, toward the inside of the booth.

“You don’t have to go so far. I won’t bite.”

I looked at him as if I was listening by watching his mouth move, but I was making him get smaller and smaller until I got him far, far away from me. This was a trick I could do with my eyes. I had discovered it one evening when Dad was shouting at Mom. I shrunk him. It didn’t always work, but it was working on the cop. His head was the size of a dime by the time the dark-haired waitress came back.

She set his beer down in front of him. Then she leaned toward me, straight on and friendly, and patted her chest with each word: “I am Ann Marie.”

I watched her mouth the way Dad did it. This was hard by myself. I smiled at her.

The cop kept staring at me, making caterpillar feet crawl up my neck. I breathed through my nose and counted each breath as he turned away. 

I made myself relax, and even though I was half surprised at the sound of his loud, shrill whistle, I kept my eyes on Ann Marie. My ears blew their sockets. But I didn’t flinch. I didn’t blink. Dad would be proud of me.

“I guess she is deaf,” he said.

“That’s what I said. Her and her dad both.”

The cop swigged his beer.

Ann Marie looked at me again and mouthed, “Coke?” I opened my eyes wider. She pointed to my glass, lifted her hand, and tilted it to show filling it up. “More?”

I nodded yes and smiled. She walked away, and I thought I liked her a lot more than Doris. I wished Dad would come back.

I felt something heavy hover above my leg and drop onto it. The cop’s hand. His huge palm and fingers spread around my thigh and squeezed it, picking it up, handling it as a slab of meat, determining the weight, quality, and cut. I didn’t know what to do.

“Strong little legs. You an athlete?”

I stared at the tabletop.

He tapped my shoulder. “Hey, little dummy, look at me.”

I kept my head down. I was shaking and trying to breathe. He grabbed my arm in his other grimy hand and pulled me toward him. Everything slowed inside me. I couldn’t move. Everything was buzzing. I couldn’t think.

Then I heard Doris giggle.

I never would have thought I’d be so happy to hear Doris’s voice again or to see her sashay back into the room, smoothing her uniform over her legs. My dad sauntered behind her in his wet shirt and slicked-back hair, his eyes focused on her hips as he watched her walk. I was so glad to see him that I felt only half mad when he reached out and stroked her rump, and she stopped, turned, and lifted her fingers to touch his cheek. “Want some ice cream?” She held an imaginary cone in her hand and licked ice cream off the top of it.

Dad smiled and nodded yes. As she started to turn, he touched her shoulder and made a check mark in the air. She nodded and strutted off, beaming her smile at everyone but me. Dad put his hand into his shirtsleeve to get his cigarettes as he watched her walk through the swinging door into the kitchen.

Then he looked up as if he had just remembered me, and glanced over to the booth. His face moved through a bunch of changes when he saw the cop sitting next to me. I don’t know if he saw the cop’s hand on my leg, or how close we were sitting, or if he noticed my fear. Whatever he saw, Dad sensed something wasn’t right. His eyes got cloudy and he started flexing the muscles in his arms as he opened and closed his fists.

Dad glowered at the cop. Trying to figure it out, he looked at me, at Ann Marie, and then at the cop again. He lifted his arm and pointed his finger at the cop and held it there. I felt Dad’s temper rising the way it did when he was all fired up, flaming within, his body quaking and his fingers shaking. I felt boulders and mountains beneath the surface of the earth begin to split and crack open, stirring ancient underground fires in me as his blazes rose and sparked, and I found refuge in the air somewhere.

The weight of the cop’s beefy hand lingered on my leg after he lifted it off and slid out of the booth. He stood up slowly. As he straightened, I saw him shift his legs and unsnap the strap holding his gun in its holster. I saw bullets in his gun belt.

I watched his hand travel toward his gun, toward the polished steel police revolver in the shiny black leather holster strapped on his hip.

His revolver was loaded. I saw what he was doing. He was going to shoot my dad.

Heat rose up and filled my head as my dad, a cyclone of fuming, angry smoke, glided toward the policeman. I had to do something. Right then.

I had to save my father.

I leaped out of the booth and screamed bloody murder, “STOP, Daddy, STOP! He’s got a GUN!”

My dad dove past me and shoved the cop hard in the chest.

The cop staggered back and lifted his hands in surrender.

His gun was still in its holster.

The shock of my own voice ringing in my ears amazed me, as if I’d lost the memory of sound while pretending to be deaf. Now the big room was perfectly quiet. Everybody stood stock-still. Staring at me.

They were all looking. Even the cop. Customers at the counter turned around on their stools. Other people stood up where they were and craned their necks to see what was happening. Ann Marie, the nice waitress, was gawking at me like she couldn’t believe her eyes. I wondered what she saw.

I couldn’t see myself, but I felt myself in my body standing there. Me, the deaf-mute girl, who had just yelled in a huge, loud voice. I had drowned out the jukebox, fries sizzling in oil, voices calling, pool balls knocking, water running, dishes clattering.

No one knew what to make of it. They had witnessed the impossible: I had not only spoken, I had shouted. A loud wave of silence hung in the air.

Then Ann Marie’s face scrunched up, appearing about to cry. Instead, she started to laugh. It was funny just to hear her. Somebody else burst out laughing, too, which made her laugh harder. All of a sudden, I heard my dad chuckle. Ann Marie slung her arm over my shoulders, and I laughed, too, so much that my face hurt, and I had to hold my stomach.

The hilarity was contagious. Even the horrible cop began laughing. The whole truck stop erupted in crazy, bubbling hoots, snorts, chuckles, chortles, and howls. Looking back on that moment later, I would see all of us pulling off our masks together in freedom and relief.

When we slowed down laughing a little bit, Ann Marie caught her breath and wiped tears from her eyes. “You sound real good, honey. You sound like a regular girl.”

“Deaf girls are regular girls, too,” I said, barely above a whisper.

“You know what I mean. Take it. A girl’s gotta learn how to take a compliment.”

Dad was still quietly chuckling when he turned to the cop and offered his hand. The cop paused a second, and then shook it. Dad said, “Sorry, officer. I jumped to conclusions back there. Sorry about that.”

“No hard feelings.”

Just then Doris came hurrying out of the back with two tall ice-cream dishes in one hand and a check in the other, looking around for the source of the commotion. When she saw Dad talking to the cop, her big eyes widened. She stood still, her mouth open, as dark red blotches climbed her neck and cheeks. Her nostrils swelled and flapped, a fish trying to breathe out of water.

“You bastard!” she said. “You’re not deaf!”

Dad turned toward her as she dashed forward and hurled both dishes at him, splashing ice cream and whipped cream on his face and shirt. Glass crashed on the floor, but she didn’t seem to care. She flung herself on Dad, slapping and scratching.

He lifted his arms to protect his face.

“You fake! You impostor!”

The cop pulled Doris off Dad. “OK, OK. Look at it as a little fun.”

“You like making a fool of people!”

The cop held Doris tight around the middle as she struggled to get out of his grip.

Dad mopped whipped cream off his face with a paper napkin. He looked surprised and a little hurt. Vanilla ice cream dripped down his neck. He brushed off a gob, picked up a pitcher from the counter, splashed a little water on his hands and wiped his neck with another napkin. He gazed at Doris and sadly shook his head. “I didn’t mean to be unkind.”

“Son of a bitch!”

“I’d hit the road,” the cop said, still holding Doris. “This one’s on me, buddy.”

“Thanks, pal.”

Dad pulled a two-dollar bill from his pocket, laid it on the table and blew Doris a kiss. “Here’s for good luck, sweet Doris. Blessings on you.”

“Keep your damned blessings, you fake lying son of a bitch! I’ll bet you didn’t tell me one true thing!”

“Baby, I didn’t speak in words. So consider whatever I said true.”

He took my hand, and we walked out.

He was whistling, “Thanks for the Memories.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010