Tracy looked back one more time as her youngest daughter, now grown, walked away with the other students, hoping that she would turn around and see the tears in her mommy’s eyes, but she did not turn around.
Tracy knew it didn’t matter. She knew her daughter knew how much she cared. At least she hoped she knew. After all, here was a mother who, one hour into a 13-hour journey, could barely conceal her sobs from the passenger seat of the family Subaru. Tracy knew that would happen, which is why she had decided against bringing any makeup with her on the trip. But out of feminine habit, or perhaps in a subconscious effort to catch as many glimpses of Abigail as she possibly could before she was gone, she kept checking for phantom mascara smears in the car’s sun visor mirror, tissue in hand. No black smudges, of course. Only her daughter’s sullen, lip-pierced face staring back at her. Tracy had smiled, through the tears, fully aware of how ridiculous she must have looked and sounded to her bored teenager, but when Abigail rolled her eyes, she just cried even more.
It was a sunny day in Santa Fe, and it seemed to Tracy that her husband, from behind the cover of his Maui Jim sunglasses, was more concerned with stealing surreptitious glances of the young, long legs and cleavage that surrounded him than watching his daughter disappear around the corner of a red-bricked administration building.
“Who do you think you’re fooling?” Tracy asked. It came out more as a statement of fact than a question.
“Dennis, it’s obvious.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can see you staring. At all of them. They’re practically children, for Christ’s sake. What’s wrong with you?”
“You think I’m… Are you serious, Trace?”
If Tracy wasn’t sure before, she was now. Dennis only ever called her that when he needed something or had been caught.
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” she said.
“Tracy, look. Let’s not do this right now. We have a long ride ahead of us, okay? Let’s not make it worse than it has to be. Please.”
Tracy and Dennis were three hours away from Santa Fe, their brief bathroom stop outside of Albuquerque long behind them. In that time, neither of them had said a word as they drove along Interstate 40. She, too mad to cry. He… Well, she just really didn’t know anymore. What was she even mad about? She couldn’t say for sure. Was it the ogling? His indifference? His apathy? Was it the fact that her daughter had chosen to go to school at the Santa Fe School of Design, a school that Tracy didn’t even know existed until Abigail brought it up one November morning not too long ago? Why Santa Fe? Why leave Carlsbad, Southern California, the West Coast in general? What was the appeal of this landlocked wasteland? Who was the young man that had captured her heart, leading her to believe that Santa Fe, New Mexico would be a good place to spend the next four years of her life? Was there even a boy? If there was, why hadn’t Abigail told her about him?
Tracy took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“I need a drink,” she said, breaking the silence.
Dennis looked over at her for a moment before looking back at the road ahead. When was the last time Tracy had asked for a drink? Five years at least. Not since she got what he liked to call “mostly sober.”
“It’s 2 p.m.,” he finally said.
“I know what time it is,” she said. “Besides, I have to pee. We have to stop at the next gas station anyway.”
“Alright,” he said.
It was a number of wordless miles later before a Shell station appeared in the distance. Aside from the occasional semi-trailer truck passing by on the highway, no one else was around.
Dennis pumped gas. Tracy used the bathroom and went inside.
“Afternoon,” said an old man with brown, leathery skin in jeans and a red flannel shirt behind the counter. His years were etched deep into his face, but his long, braided hair was black as night.
“Hi,” Tracy said as she walked toward the glass door refrigerators.
She made her way down the rows of canned soda to the beer section, crossed her arms, and looked at the choices before her. She thought about drinking a few cans in the car. Of having to pee because of that and asking Dennis to stop at the next rest stop or gas station. Worse, if she could not hold it, on the side of the highway.
“They’re all cold, if that’s what you’re worried about,” the old man called out.
Tracy walked back toward the old man.
“Do you guys have anything else?” she asked.
“We got some wine right over there. Red and white.”
“That sounds good.”
She went to the side of the store and grabbed a bottle of red wine. She walked down the candy aisle on the way back and picked up a PayDay. She was going to put it back, but the old man called out again.
“Those are good,” he said.
Tracy brought both items to the counter and set them down.
“What about your old man?”
“What about him?” Tracy asked.
“He don’t want nothin’?”
Tracy looked out at Dennis. The way he stood watching the highway, one hand on the gas pump, the other resting on the roof of the car, made her think of him as a young man. Of course, she had been young, too. They had been young together, once upon a time.
“How about these?” the old man said, pointing to a bag of David sunflower seeds on the counter. “Your old man like sunflower seeds?”
“Sure. Those are fine.”
“Let me grab you a couple Dixie cups from the water cooler in the back,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Tracy said, but he ignored her and went into the back room.
“You’ll need ‘em,” he said when he came back. “You for your drink, and him for his seeds.”
“Thanks,” Tracy said. “That’s real thoughtful of you.”
The old man waved the compliment away with his hand. He rang up the items.
“Fourteen dollars, eighty-nine cents,” he said.
Tracy produced a twenty-dollar bill from her pocket and gave it to the old man.
“Where ya guys headed?” the old man asked as he counted out Tracy’s change.
“Home,” Tracy said. “San Diego. You ever been?”
“Nah,” he said.
The old man counted Tracy’s change again and set it on the counter. She picked it up and stuffed it in her pocket.
“You from around here?” she asked.
“Where else would I be from?” he asked, smiling.
“Well, I don’t know,” Tracy said. “People move around.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But this is where I’m from.”
“It’s a beautiful place.”
The old man nodded.
“Well, you have a good day, now,” he said.
“Thanks,” Tracy said. “You too.”
As she walked back to the car, Tracy wondered if she meant what she had said. Was this a beautiful place, or did it just look good from the passenger seat of a car? Boring, dead, depressing. Those were some words that came into her mind. Breathtaking, awesome, wondrous. Those were the others.
In the car, Dennis had asked Tracy if she wanted to listen to music. She didn’t, so he scanned the AM stations instead. Tracy hated the fact that Dennis could control the radio from the comfort of his steering wheel, which basically meant him keeping his thumb pressed on the scan button, cycling through every station, over and over again.
“Stop it, would ya? Just leave it on something already,” Tracy said.
Dennis took his thumb off the button. A man’s voice on the radio:
…and so that’s when it finally occurred to me, when it all made sense. And I know I must have told this story a thousand times on this show before, because it’s a true one. One that I feel is just so important for all of my listeners to hear, because this was the turning point for me. This vision, this is what set me on the path that I am on now, it’s what has given me the motivation to pursue what I know is right and just. So, let me just get down to it. About 10 years ago, when I was lobbying for the ADFA - that’s the American Dairy Farmers Association for those of you that don’t know - I had a revelation. A prophecy…
Tracy unscrewed the cap of her cheap bottle of wine and poured herself a drink. She took a sip. Had it really been five years?
Really, what it was was divine insight. And as I am sure you all know, it’s no secret that I was an aimless drunk in those days, lost in the world without the guidance from above that I now have today. Well, as usual, one evening I went out drinking for a night of debauchery with some of the other lobbyists on Capitol Hill, and let me tell you, some of those guys can DRINK. Anyway, I woke up bright and early the next morning behind a port-a-potty somewhere behind the Lincoln Memorial, with the sun beating down on my face. And as I started to look around, wondering where in the world I was, a young man approached. Now, I don’t know how I know, but I know it was Jesus. Don’t ask me how or why, it just was.
Dennis laughed. So did Tracy.
Except he didn’t look like your typical liberal vision of Jesus. My Jesus wasn’t a long hair, he didn’t wear funny lookin’ sandals, and he wasn’t in a white robe. No, sir. My Jesus wore Larry Mahan leather boots, Lee jeans, a denim jacket and a Stetson hat. And by God, he was drinking a Coca-Cola. And this wasn’t any gentle Cowboy Jesus, I can tell you that. He kicked me right in the ribs, and I’ll tell you what he said.
“Gus, look at yourself! You’re a disgrace.”
Now, like I said, don’t ask me how I know, but at the time, I knew this wasn’t just some lost cowboy. This was our Lord and Savior, so I spoke to him with respect. Otherwise, I would have knocked his teeth out for kicking me so hard.
“Lord, how can I do what is right?”
And he said:
“Do I really have to spell it out for you? Can’t you see? You need to lead the fight and take back this country! Don’t you know what’s going on around you?”
“Well, I don’t know, Lord. All I’m good at in this life is milk and liquor. Maybe if someone, someone like you, could help me and give me a hand, I’d know what to do.”
“No! That is exactly what’s wrong with this country! You want a handout. You want something for free and you don’t have any problem with keeping your eyes closed to what is really going on around you.
“This is great,” Dennis said.
Look at me. Do you think I got to where I am today by begging for quarters and sticking my head in the sand?”
“Well, no, Jesus. But I just thought…”
And then He cut me off and said:
“You don’t think! That’s the problem. Don’t you know that while you throw your life away, Project Pacifier is in full swing?”
“I’ve never heard of…”
“Of course you haven’t, because you’re too busy waiting for a freebie. And you’re too blind to see that this country is falling prey to terrorists and illegal immigrants! If you don’t shape up, the only star spangled banner that flies over this great country is going to belong to communist red China! That’s if the Russians don’t get here first!”
He yelled back:
“Yes! Project Pacifier is a liberal American conspiracy to keep men like you dumb, down and desolate! Project Pacifier is liberal America’s final push for total control of your country, and it is being led by bra-burning lesbians, immigrants, and those who demand an open, transparent government. Those immigrants are stealing your jobs and foreign spies are plotting with the Democrats to turn this country into a Bolshevik state! And unless you do something, they are going to win!”
“Nooo!” I yelled.
Ladies and gentlemen... My faithful listeners… After that, Jesus was gone. And as you all know, the rest is history. Which brings us to today’s topic, which is how you and me and all of white, Christian America, the native people of this land, are in danger of becoming history ourselves. You see, God gave us this land for a reason, and it is our mission to –
Tracy smacked the radio’s power button with the palm of her hand.
“I can’t listen to this shit,” she said.
“Really?” Dennis asked. “I think ol’ Gus was onto something. Riveting stuff, really. I mean, how can you not trust a man who has Cowboy Jesus on his side?”
“Besides, it was just about to get good.” Dennis said.
“It’d be funny if it weren’t so goddamn… I don’t know. I can’t even find the right word,” Tracy said. “It’s sick. People actually listen to guys like him. They think he’s right! I mean… Fuck!”
Tracy looked out the window. Red soil and rock in the distance. Tablelands cut just so by what? The hand of God Himself, she thought. No other way.
“Isn’t it funny that we have to be subjected to that nonsense here and now?” she asked. “I mean, of all places. Here. What did he say, again? Native people of this land... Ha! As we drive through these reservations… I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.”
Her eyes were red and she wanted to cry. She was holding back tears now.
“Ah, Tracy. Don’t worry about it. He’s not real. It doesn’t mean anything. He’s just trying to get people who don’t know any better worked up.”
“It is real! And it does mean something! It’s not right, Dennis,” she said. “It’s just not right.”
“Of course it’s not right,” he said. “But that’s just the way it is.”
“Well, the way it is is fucked up.”
Tears fell down her cheeks. She took another sip. She stared at the steep cliffs and flat tops of the surrounding landscape. What was she really crying about? She was not sure.
“I can’t stop thinking about that man. The one at the gas station,” she said.
Dennis looked over at her.
“Remember our game?” he asked. “The people game?”
“I do,” she said.
Tracy stared into her cup.
“Okay,” she said at last. “He’s 74. Navajo. Father of four. Three boys and a girl. One son died years ago, and another one is missing. Drugs or alcohol. Probably both. One son is a cop on the reservation. His daughter is married with children. His wife… Uh… His wife…”
“Keep goin’,” Dennis said.
“Come on, you used to be really good at this game.”
“I just can’t. It doesn’t feel right. He’s a real person. Who am I to think I know anything about his life?”
“It’s just a game,” Dennis said.
“I don’t wanna play,” she said.
The two were quiet for a time. Dennis with his eyes fixed on the open road, save for a single car ahead in the distance, Tracy taking in the view of the open country and sky. She poured herself another drink.
“Look at those clouds,” she said.
“Like a picture,” Dennis said. “They don’t look real.”
“Cumulus,” she said. “Big, white and fluffy. Pieces of cotton in the sky.”
Tracy pressed herself against the door and window, her back to Dennis. She drank her wine.
“I was just a little girl when we learned all those words, but I still remember that one,” she said. “Cumulus.”
“It reminds me of a movie,” she said. “Those clouds. This place.”
“What movie?” Dennis asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I forget what it was called. Martin Sheen was in it. And that one redhead. The one from Carrie.”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s the one. Do you know what movie I’m talking about?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“We watched it together. Well, you watched half of it, I guess. You fell asleep.”
“Huh,” he said.
“They kill her father, remember? And they run away and live in a treehouse and kill a bunch of other people. Remember?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Yeah. Well, those clouds remind me of that movie. That scene where Martin Sheen is being chased by the police, and he decides to give up. Remember?”
Dennis shook his head.
“They’re chasing him and he stops for some reason and stands on the hood of that black car of his, waiting for them to come arrest him. Those clouds in the background. Big, fluffy white clouds against a blue sky. It was such a beautiful day. He did all these horrible things, but you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him,” she said.
Dennis nodded again.
“You looked like him today,” she said.
“Martin Sheen,” she said. “At the gas station.”
“He’s a lot older than me,” he said.
“Well, he was young in the movie. And handsome,” she said. “You’re older now than he was then.”
The two were quiet again.
Tracy thought of polishing off the bottle but decided against it. She could have done it easily if she wanted to, but those days were long behind her. Yet, here she was, drinking in a car. She pushed the thought away and considered her marriage. Her life. When did she start regretting? A decade ago? Possibly longer. When did she start wanting something more? Something else? Where was this overwhelming desire to run, escape, free herself coming from? It scared her to think that she was running out of time. Or was "running out of time" just a thing people said to scare themselves into doing something, anything? What would she do now? Dennis, more distant than ever. Abigail, grown and gone. She knew the days to follow would usher in an entirely new world of isolation, and she could not stand the thought of it. Why, then, did she feel like she was being smothered, suffocated? How long would she and Dennis continue to pretend to try? Until they died, probably. Unless she did something.
“I want a divorce,” she said, looking out the window.
He turned to her and smiled. There was compassion in his face. Love, even.
“Okay,” he said.
Dennis didn’t see the mule deer run into the road, nor did he see the brake lights of the car in front of him. By the time he heard the screeching tires and tried to swerve, it was too late. The front end of the Subaru had clipped the back bumper of the car ahead, catapulting it up, sideways and end over end in a furious flurry of crumpled metal and broken glass.
From the opposite side of the road, the mule deer stood statuesque, watching the tires of the overturned car spin slowly against the clouds of the afternoon sky, dumb in its ignorance of the mercy of a quick, violent death. When the Subaru finally caught fire, the mule deer trotted away, off toward a mesa in the distance.