New Mexico Nap

By Beth Newcomer

 

rustedchairsIt’s the middle of August, and I’m eight-and-a-half years old.

We’ve driven the blue Chevrolet sedan across the country, from the Midwest to the Southwest, with Mom and Dad in the front seat, and me and Davy in the back. We are still a half-day’s drive from our destination—my grandpa’s mobile home by the little church where he serves as the minister for some Indians. It’s late afternoon, and we have checked into a motel for the night, a few miles outside Gallup, New Mexico.

It’s not a well-known motel chain, but some family-owned joint, way off the beaten track, as if there was a beaten track out here in the desert. We’re staying in one of the eight ramshackle cottages strewn around a sagging main house.

Mom hates this place. She likes the sameness of the Holiday Inns and Best Westerns we have stayed in each night on our way here from Illinois; the hard, identical beds; the short-nap carpet; the toilet seats with their paper wrappers; the blackout curtains; the icy blast of air conditioning. This place is hot and full of odd angles with lumpy, used furniture and paint-by-numbers pictures of woodland scenes hanging on the wall. Hand-sewn curtains flutter in the open windows. She doesn’t trust the shower, a small, dark stall set back in a wall near the toilet, with a sheet of flowered plastic hanging from metal wire clips and barely covering the opening.

It’s so quiet that the bark of a dog in the gas station a quarter mile away sounds like it’s coming from right next door. It smells like something is frying in the main house. I love the funny lamp on the beat up end table by the oversized upholstered chair; it’s got a ceramic base in the shape of two bear cubs playing on a tree stump, with a shade that looks like a homemade quilt. Mom would say it was tacky. I wish I could take it home and put it in my room.

Mom and my little brother, Davy, are out getting something for dinner, while Dad and I nap on one of the two double beds, taking a rest after the long day of driving. I snuggle up close to him, against his warm, white t-shirt, and he tucks his legs up behind mine so we are spooning. The late-afternoon sun is laying soft golden squares on the wooden floor. I wish Mom and Davy would never come back from the store—at least not for a long while—so I can keep smelling Dad’s smell and keep feeling the rhythm of his breath on my shoulders.

It’s dark when I wake up. The heat and the long sweaty nap make me feel thick and lazy. A single, yellow light bulb outside casts weird shadows around the room. It’s still warm inside, but a cool evening breeze is coming in through the screens of the open windows. Dad is up, sitting in the upholstered chair, smoking a cigarette. He likes to smoke in the dark. I don’t move a muscle, just lie there for a long time, watching him take slow drags, watching the glowing orange dot make its rounds, back and forth, soft grey rings of smoke slowly dissipating in the evening breeze.

Then, with a sweep of headlights around the room, Mom and Davy are back. Dad and I hear the sound of tires on gravel, and in a flash Dad is out of his chair and into the bathroom. He shuts the door and flushes the cigarette down the toilet before Mom enters.

She switches on the overhead light and destroys the magical atmosphere. “Steve?’ she calls to him, “were you smoking in here? For crying out loud.” She fans her hand in front of her nose and makes an angry, sour face, then heads back to the car for the groceries.

Four-year-old Davy runs in, happy to be back, happy to be anywhere. He leaps up onto the nearest bed and goes into trampoline mode, jumping, jumping, jumping. His thick glasses bounce up and down on his sweaty face until they fly off, ricochet off the night stand, and land on the floor, just under the bed where I am lying.

Oh no. He’s in Dutch, and he knows it. He sinks down onto the bed, Indian-style, and puts one pudgy fist to his mouth, fighting tears. And there is Dad, standing in the doorway to the bathroom, looking down at his moccasins, also in big trouble with Mom. Two down, one to go. I’m next.

I think I can save the day. I scootch to the edge of the bed and stretch as far as I can, just barely touching the glasses with my finger, but as I make a grab for them, I accidentally push them farther under the bed. So I roll off and onto the floor and slide headfirst under the bed, reaching for the glasses, trying to save Davy’s life.

Poor kid. The screen door slams again. Too late. Here comes Mom.

“Where. Are. Your. Glasses. Young Man?” she demands to know.

“I’ve got ’em, Mom,” I call cheerfully from under the bed. “Don’t worry. Everything is OK,” I add, doubting it.

“What is the matter with you, young lady?” she says. “It’s absolutely filthy under there. You’re bound to catch something.” Then she turns her angry eyes toward Dad. “In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ve all become infected with some kind of disease staying in this god-forsaken, flea-infested dive.”

I wriggle my way out from under the bed, holding the glasses out to Davy who quickly puts them on. But the damage is evident: The frames are bent and they sit at a foolish angle on his little face. He’s still holding back his tears when Dad comes over, sits down next to him, puts an arm around him, says, “It’s OK, Buddy. Just glasses,” and he touches the tip of Davy’s nose with his index finger.

Mom looks at them and harrumphs her disapproval, then switches on the bear cub lamp. She looks over at me and says, “I despise that overhead light,” and I hurry over as fast as I can to snap it off at the wall switch.

Two grocery bags sit on the small round table by the door. She takes from one a loaf of white bread, a tiny jar of Miracle Whip, a package of boloney, and a bag of potato chips.

She sighs. “Looks like it’s lunch for dinner tonight, folks. I couldn’t find a decent takeout place anywhere from here to Gallup and back again.” She begins to list the horrors of her recent errand: Twenty miles to the nearest payphone safe to use. Dirt under the nails of the cashier of a general store where they stopped for directions. The whole place smelled like sour milk. A fat Indian woman touching Davy’s blond curls without asking. Mud houses with no curtains in the windows. A dead dog covered with flies lying by the road, and half-naked children playing in dirty puddles, but not one single McDonald’s or Shakey’s Pizza the whole way.

She makes it all seem funny. As she exaggerates the facts and highlights the irony, she cracks us up—and herself, right along with us. That’s the good thing about Mom: We love hearing her stories as much as she loves telling them. She’s cheering up now, and it’s OK to relax. We all joke around, while she prepares the sandwiches using Dad’s pocketknife, and serves them up on paper towels from the gas station washroom.

Dad reaches into the other bag and pulls out two tiny bottles of Coke for us, a Fresca for Mom, and a Miller High Life for himself. He snaps them open using the bottle opener screwed to the doorjamb. Davy scrambles for the bottle caps—more for his collection.

Dad smiles, says, “Let’s all go out on the porch and enjoy this lovely feast al fresco. We might see a meteor.”

Mom says, “That’s OK. You all go ahead. I’m not really hungry.” She settles into the upholstered chair, takes a sip of Fresca, opens her thick paperback book, and, in the golden light of the bear cub lamp, becomes completely absorbed in a fictional world.

Dad and Davy and I go outside. We sit on rusty, metal chairs in the twilight. We eat our boloney sandwiches and chips, and sip our drinks under the big sky. We count the shooting stars out loud as we spot them, but we keep the wishes we make to ourselves.

……………………….

About Beth Newcomer

Beth Escott Newcomer is a Pushcart-prize nominee. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in many literary publications. She grew up on Normal Avenue in Normal, Illinois, but now lives in Fallbrook, California. To support her writing habit, she manages the Southern California-based graphic design firm she founded and helps promote her family’s cacti and succulent nursery.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholson via a Creative Commons license.