Kemmerer

Wyoming.

        What comes to mind?

        Mining, ranches. Roughnecks and oil over near Rock Springs.

        Maybe Salt Lake City.  It  was close enough.

        “Where are we?” she asked.  She was frustrated.

        Dad drove past the sign that told us exactly where we were —  a welcome sign on the side of the two-lane highway, bigger than the road:   “Welcome to Wyoming.”

        I swear it was the first time I’d seen Dad breathe.  A giant exhale.

        “You’re gonna love it here, Joy,” he said.  “You’re just gonna love it.”

        Mom looked out the plastic window of the Land Cruiser.  She was in a Jeep.

        She did not belong in a Jeep.

        “Where’s the pretty part?” she asked.

        Dad’s smile did not fade.  He pointed straight ahead.  The prairie.  “Isn’t that gorgeous?”

        She didn’t look ahead.  She just kept looking out the Jeep window.

*

        We moved into the largest mobile-home in the best mobile-home park in Kemmerer.  Actually, just outside Kemmerer: down the hill into Diamondville, then up to Diamondville Hill.  Diamondville Hill was just down the road from another town called Opal (pronounced Oh-Pal).  We would eventually make friends with kids who once lived in Opal but now lived on Diamondville Hill,  as Oh-Pal was dying, or dead. Only old ranchers lived out there, and there was never any reason to go down the road seven miles to visit.

        Our double-wide mobile-home — not a trailer, mom dictated  — was late.  We spent the first month or so with my Uncle Ike and Aunt Bessie.  Her name was Eliza, but everyone called her Bessie.  Both were nice and had a motorhome in their driveway that stored all the Lemon-Lime pop we could drink.  Bessie cooked like a ranch-hand, which is what she’d been doing all her life.

        Ike was Ike.  Not quite bitter, but getting there.

        “Don’t go messing with anything in your room,” he said to my brother and me.  

        “Okay,” I said.  “We won’t.”

        He walked away.

        “What’s up with him?” Doug asked.

        Mom appeared from around the corner.  “Have you seen your room?”

        “No…”

        Something strange was going on.  Mom was standing in front of us, but she felt like she was not there at all.  Distant and conspiratorial.

        “Well, by all means, go in and look at where you are staying.”

        Now we were afraid of what we would find.

        “Go on.  It’s time the two of you grew up.”

        Doug and I looked at each other, knowing we were only seven and nine.

        “What’s in there?”

        She lost it.  “Get in your room.”   Her voice was raised.  It was an order.

        Doug looked like he was going to cry.  This didn’t stop mom.  She took a step forward, reaching for him.  

        He ducked.  Mom got me instead.

        “You’re the oldest.  Act like it.”

        I looked at Doug, who pleaded with me to go into the room first, and took the first steps.

        “It’s where she died,” she said.

        “Who died?” Doug shrieked. “Someone died in there?”

        “His daughter.”  She crossed her arms.

        “What did she die of?” I asked.

        Now she was irritated.  “I don’t know.  Just get in your room.”

        “Doug, it might be haunted.  Maybe…”

        “No fun and games!” she barked.

        But now Doug was interested.  He walked ahead of me into the room. It was left just as it was, maybe from the fifties.  It looked like an old movie.  The bed still had the same dull green-gray comforter, the dresser was immaculate. If Mom hadn’t told us it was Ike’s daughter’s, we would have thought it was an old lady’s room. But it was a museum.

        Now Ike made sense, a little more sense.  And I was amazed that Bessie could still cook when her daughter had died, even if it was before I was born.

        We were at dinner.  It was 4 PM.

        “Uncle Ike,” I asked.  “What did she die of?”

        Suddenly everybody was looking at everybody, and mom got up to drag me from the table.  “What did I tell you?” she kept asking as she pulled my arm.

        “What did I say?” I asked.  “I’m sorry.”

        “No you’re not!” she seethed.

        Dad intervened.  “Joy, it’s okay.  They’re okay.”  He pointed at Ike and Bessie, who were looking at mom like she was off her rocker.

        “It’s rude,” she stammered.  “I’m sorry.  He’ll be punished.”

        Bessie spoke.  She would always be the one who spoke.  “Now sit down, Joy.  Sit down.”

        I couldn’t believe it.  Mom let go of my arm without any meanness, no pinches or grabs, and sat down.

        “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just so rude.”

        Bessie spoke again.  “We don’t have anyone to tell the story to, Joy.  Everyone here has heard it, or lived through it.”  She turned to me.  “She had cancer.  She died of cancer.  She was beautiful, the most beautiful girl in the world, and she died of cancer.”

        “She was 31,” Ike said. “1961, October the third.”

        “Her husband never let her go,” Bessie said.   “Still calls us mom and dad, even though he’s married again and all.  Sweet girl.  It was good for him to move on, you know, find someone he could love.”

        “Never had any  kids,” Ike said.

        “That’s why it’s so nice to have you two around,” Bessie said.  “That’s why we wanted you to have her room.  You can play with anything.  She never would’ve minded.”

        Dad pulled us aside after dinner.  “Don’t play with her things.”

        “We weren’t going to,” I said.

        “It was good that you asked.”  Dad stopped for a moment, trying to decide.  “Yeah, things are going to be okay.  Things are going to work out.”

        We heard him coughing the next morning like he was going to throw up.

        “It’s the clean air.  Lungs don’t know what to do with it,” we heard him say to mom.

        There was a pause.  Doug and I went back to ignoring each other.

        “You know,” mom said, “LA wasn’t all bad. You keep acting like we escaped, but it wasn’t all bad.”

        “I know.  I’ll stop.”

        Then silence until Bessie announced breakfast was ready.  She made muffins.  You couldn’t smell anything, and then all of a sudden, the house exploded with blueberries.  I’d never smelled anything so good.  Still haven’t.

        Our double-wide mobile home arrived.  The movers put it together quickly, Space #3, Dory’s Mobile-Home Park, Diamondville Hill, Wyoming.  Our furniture arrived.  The couch made mom feel better.  She said she always did love that couch, that it made her feel like she was at home.

        She became philosophical.  “Home is where the couch is.”  We agreed, lost in toys we didn’t remember packing.

*

        “I’m behind everyone else,” I said as I got off the school bus.  “We were barely doing multiplication tables back home.”

        Doug was more interested in throwing rocks across the chasm that separated Dory’s from the rest of Diamondville Hill.  A thin road connected the two, raised about ten feet from sagebrush below.  In winter, cars would drive off this land-bridge, but it wasn’t winter.  

        It was the first days of Fall.

        “They’re already past fractions.  I don’t think they do fractions back home until the sixth grade.”

        “Why do you keep saying back home?  It’s stupid.”

        “You like it here?”

        He threw another rock, aiming for a prairie dog.  “Yeah.  It’s fun.”

        “Stop throwing them at the prairie dogs.”

        “Uncle Ike said to.  He said they’re dangerous for the horses.”

        “That’s dumb.”

        Doug then broke into a run, screaming behind that he was going to tell. If he was smart, he’d tell mom.  She was always looking for something to be angry about.  If he was stupid, he would tell dad.  Dad wanted everything to work out, and when it wasn’t, he’d just get sad.  Either way, I’d deny it;  Doug’d get furious, start to yell, and we’d get stuck in the corner.  

        Mom would just keep things going.

        I walked in the door and heard mom talking on the phone.  She pointed me to my room,  still listening to whoever was on the phone, so I went to Doug’s.  It was closer and we could hear.

        “You tell?”

        “No.  She’s on the phone with Grandma.”

        “Anything bad?”

        “Who cares?””

        We sat, the two of us, not caring as we sat on the carpet not reading and not playing.  We were listening.

        I was hoping we’d go home.  Doug was hoping we’d stay.

        “She’s causing all of this,” he said

        “Shhh!  No she’s not.”

        “Like the store yesterday?”

        “Shut up.”

        We’d walked into JC Penneys, the very first JC Penney in the whole United States.  It wasn’t like the ones in Los Angeles.  Those were big department stores with elevators and escalators. The first store, it had stairs going up to a second level that was more like a ring around the main floor.  They kept bedding up there, and you could watch people shop from the first floor.

        That’s where we were, buying new boots.  The ones we got in California were already not warm enough, and our feet froze whenever we walked outside.  So mom took us to Penneys, and that’s when it happened.

        At first, it just sounded like two women talking one aisle over.  But then mom shushed us, and started to listen intently.

        I could barely make out the words.  “San Francisco” was one, then “California” and “thinks she’s a princess.”  

        But that wasn’t all.  Suddenly, “phone bill” and “expensive” — “forty-five minutes,” repeated with exclamation points, and a “how does he live with that?”

        We were told to stay there in the tone of voice backed up by a possible spanking.  Mom went around the corner of the aisle.  We heard her clear her throat.  The other women’s voices went up, saying hello.  

        “Don’t hello me. You work for the phone company?”

        “No, as a matter of fact I do not.”

        “Then how do you know about my phone bill?”

        The women laughed, high-pitch.  “Who said we were talking about your phone bill?”

        “Minolli, right?  That’s your last name?  I saw you at the school meeting.  Minolli, Min-something, I don’t know, and I don’t care.  Get your own life.”

        She reappeared around the aisle, red and angry.  The other women laughed and mocked.  “Hello, the moon?  I’ve got to waste some more money.”

        At that, mom spun around, took the boots out of my hand, walked around the corner, and threw them at the other women.  The first one missed and hit the shelf, but the women screamed anyway.  The second one must’ve found its mark because there was a thud, then a loud crash, and more screaming.

        “Somebody get a doctor!  Her head’s bleeding!” we heard the other woman yell.

        The store manager and somebody else came running.  I expected mom to come running around the corner, grab us, and get the hell out of the store.  But she stayed where she was.  

        “What happened?” asked the manager.

        Screaming from the two women:  “She threw those boots at us.”

        We heard the manager laugh shortly.  “What?”

        They repeated.  And then mom said, “They were talking about my phone bill.  How’d they know how long I talk with my family?  How’d they know?”

        “Ellen?  What did you do, Ellen?”

        “None of your goddamn business, Tom.  My head’s bleeding!”

        “Did you open her mail?”

        “Open my mail?” Mom said.  “You work for the post office?  Yes, that’s where I’ve seen you before.”

        “Ellen, you’d better say you’re sorry.”

        “Me?  That woman just hit me in your store!”

        “You go through people’s mail?”  Mom was about to boil over.  “That’s it!”

        Now the manager tried to calm her down.  “Mrs. Beck, please…you took care of this.  No reason to make things worse.”

        There was silence.  Suddenly, mom appeared around the corner.  She took the boots out of Doug’s hands, threw them to the ground, and ripped us out of the store. She didn’t talk all the way home. When dad came home, he seemed to know already what had happened.

        “She’ll be reprimanded, if you want.”

        “What do you mean if I want?  Is everybody in this town looney?  She’s reading people’s mail.”

        “I know,” Dad said.  “I know.  But did you have to throw the boots at her?  She’s needed stitches.”

        “Serves her right.”

        “Joy, come on.  You never hit anybody in your life.”

        Doug and I, hearing this, looked at each other.  We almost laughed

        “They were making fun of me.”  And she burst into tears.  “I want to go home,” she sobbed.  “I hate it here.”

        “I know, I know….”

        “But I don’t hate you,” Mom said.

        There was silence.  It was peaceful.  And then mom said:  “Is that alcohol on your breath?”

*

        Things might have calmed down at home.  But mom and dad didn’t have to go to school, and they weren’t in the same class as Mrs. Minolli’s kid Roger.  Of all the people I felt dumber than, at least I was smarter than Roger.  He had a kind of spiteful stupidity, as if he distrusted anybody who could think.  Roger would look at you squinty-eyed until he determined you, too, had nothing to offer, and then he’d remember you as his friend.

        I would never be his friend.   And now that my mom was responsible for his mom’s trip to the hospital, he turned hostile.

        “Your mom’s a bitch!” he yelled as I walked into Mr. Lindy’s classroom.

        I looked up at Mr. Lindy.  He continued grading math problems.  “Language,” he said.

        “Sorry, Mr. Lindy,” Roger said.  But under his breath he whispered “stupid bitch.”

        “No she’s not!”

        He smiled.  He’d gotten to me.  But then his smile dropped as he looked over my shoulder.

        “No she’s not what?” asked Carla.  She just showed up out of nowhere, all sixth-grade tough-sides of her.

        It’s important to understand that Carla was one of the many cousins I discovered once we moved to Kemmerer.  I probably always knew we’d have family — Dad spent his summers there, when Grammy was trying to keep him from burning down the junior high school gym.  Even before, Dad had gone to Wyoming, to Uncle Ike and Aunt Bessie’s ranch, since before he could remember, learning how to shoot and fish and stay out of the trouble he was getting into in Los Angeles.  

        But it’s one thing to think I had cousins, and another to go to a birthday party at a split-level house in “the good part” of Kemmerer and find out I was related to every single person there.  I’d gone from having no real cousins (well, one: a red-haired teenage boy who popped his zits every time we drove out to Huntington Beach) to having a reunion every time we went anywhere.

        I thought Roger was a jackass, so I told Carla the truth.  She was two years older than me.  She’d understand.

        “He called my mom a bitch.”

        Without warning, without blinking, no hesitation, Carla punched Roger right in the stomach.  He doubled over.  Carla was watching Mr. Lindy closely the whole time;  he didn’t move.  She dragged Roger out to the class by his hair and said something to him right by the door.  I could hear words, but not what the words were.

        Roger didn’t speak to me for a week after that.  Too long, really, because when he wasn’t speaking to me, he was talking to Mike Lopez, and that would eventually erupt into the biggest fight of my life.

        But Roger was neutralized by my cousin.  I was proud of this girl I didn’t really know but who seemed to care about me, and began to think maybe this family situation might be good.  I’d always been the oldest, always the defender.  It would be nice.

        Carla walked back in the room.  She told me that if he caused me any more problems, I should tell her and she’d take care of him.

        “But your mom is crazy.”

        “What?”

        “Your mom is crazy.  She threw boots at Mrs. Minolli.  That’s pretty crazy.”

        “She was reading our mail.”

        The minute I said “our,” Carla took a step backward.  I could see her trying to weigh my sanity.  “She should have just beat her up then.  Not thrown things.”

        Oh, they didn’t know my mother.  But rather than correct Carla, I made a good move —  or at least a temporarily good move.  “I know,” I said.  “It was pretty weird.”

        Carla decided I was sane.  She stepped forward again, and said, “She probably didn’t mean it.  I mean, it must’ve been weird to hear someone talking about what kind of magazines you’re getting at your house.”

        Once again, I was about to correct her.  But then I figured the more distance between mom and me, the less I would have to defend her.

        I was right, but I was also wrong.

        I didn’t have to defend my mom.

        I had to fight what she’d already put in motion.  And that fight would bring me face to face with a young boy who, years later, would eventually go to prison for murder.

        Who says children don’t have to pay for the sins of their parents?

*

        Doug found a bottle of Jim Beam underneath the kitchen cabinet.

        He’d been scraping food off dishes into the trash when the cabinet flooring went sideways, scattering garbage under the sink.

        “Great. Just great.”

        “Get it cleaned up,” I said.  “They’re going to be home soon.”

        “No duh.”

        He started, then stopped.

        “Trevor, look at this.”

        I looked.  It was an empty bottle hidden under the sink.

        “Don’t tell mom.”

*

        It happened nine days after Carla took care of Roger. A Wednesday.  I knew there was something up;  people I didn’t know were being really nice to me, too nice, for days.  At first I thought it was because they were afraid of Carla, but then I realized that some kind of game was on.

        Jamie Cappelan let me know I was right.

        “Don’t give him any money.”

        “What?”

        “Just go ahead with the fight.  I won’t let him kick your butt too much.”  He could see I was confused.  “Mike?  Mike Lopez is going to kick your ass today after school.  Unless you give him money.”

        “Mike?  Why?”

        “Roger said you punched him in the stomach.”

        Didn’t want everyone knowing it was Carla, I guessed.  “It wasn’t me.”

        “Doesn’t matter.  He wants to kick your ass.  The whole school is going to watch.”

        “I don’t want to fight him.”

        Jamie looked much older now.  “Doesn’t matter.  He’s going to fight you.”

        Mike Lopez stared at me for the rest of the day.  While Mr. Lindy was talking, during the film strip, during free reading, Mike stared.  I could feel his eyes on me, toying, smiling.  He knew I was scared.  Avoiding his eyes told him so.  

        Fat, sloppy fat, with no neck and no fear.  Carla couldn’t take care of this, even though I began to think she had caused it by decking Roger Minolli.  When Mike rolled past my desk, the one I shared with Jamie Cappelan, he’d snort, do something that called my attention to him, made me aware of him.  Jamie would stare at him the entire time, and Mike would look away from him to me.  

        Why couldn’t I just stare him down?

        The last time Mike walked past, he put a note on my desk.  I didn’t want to open it, but Jamie took it, read it, and said, “Don’t give him any money.  It’ll just make you look like a wimp.”

        But as Jamie spoke, I saw that many kids in the class were watching us. They knew what was going on.  They knew.  

        “I’ll beat him up,” Jamie said.

        I thanked him, but inside I was crashing.  All this was caused by mom throwing her boot at Mrs. Minolli.  She had no idea what she’d caused — she throws a boot, and I get beat up at school.

        “Don’t tell Mr. Lindy?” Jamie asked.  He knew I couldn’t win a fight.

        I knew enough about the teacher to know he didn’t care.  He thought boys should be boys, and if that meant one kid beating up another kid who’d done nothing, so be it.  He didn’t have to say it for me to know it.  

        I was on my own.

        Jamie got up.  He was going over to Mike.  I said no, quietly, but all eyes were on him.  On the way over, he turned to a girl watching him with wide eyes.  “What’re you staring at, rolly-polly?”

        She looked down.  Jamie was afraid of nothing.  He walked over to Mike’s desk, leaned over, and said something that caused Mike to stand straight up and try to grab Jamie. But he was too fat and too slow.  Jamie moved to the side, laughed, and walked back to our desk.

        He sat down and didn’t say anything. But he was smiling.

        “What did you say?”  I asked.

        “I told him his mother was a wet-back and his father was a dog.”

        I learned later Mike’s father had run off, and that his mother cleaned houses to make ends meet.

        I left class that day trying to walk fast out of the school.  I couldn’t get to the bus.  Big Joe Campbell shadowed me, would not let me move left or right, just walking straight.

        Jamie was nowhere to be found.

        There was a crowd.  Girls and boys pushed me toward the front doors, then outside.  Then I was turned down a hill, the one that led to St. Patrick’s.  Halfway there, I saw Mike standing by the road that separated the high school from the church.  I tried to turn back, but the crowd pushed me forward.  They were a wall, forcing me to walk forward.  

        I began to cry.  They said,  “Look at the cry-baby.”  I wanted to run, but where?  We got closer and closer.  I thought I was going to get killed, that all of these people would watch and laugh as I got killed.  I couldn’t see, there were tears in my eyes.  

        Mike ran up the last part of the hill and wasted no time.  He started hitting me over and over in the stomach and then in the face.  I didn’t know how to fight.  I felt like I was going to throw up.  I fell down.  He started kicking me.  I screamed.  I saw some of the kids start to move away.  I sounded like a wounded animal.  I sounded different.  I sounded like a child.

        Suddenly the kids moved back like a bomb had gone off.  Mike kept kicking and punching me.  I didn’t fight back.  But all of a sudden I saw kids start to scream and fly. They were getting hit.  I could hear the crack of a board, maybe a 2X4, after it hit their backsides, their faces.  I looked up.  Mike was knocked off me, hit in the head so hard he flew.

        “Mike Lopez, go home,” yelled Fr. Thomas.  “And the rest of you, you’ll be getting it at home.”  He took in all  their faces.  Kenny Minolli’s, Big Joe Campbell’s.  Everybody’s.

        Some began to cry.  Everybody looked stunned.  

        “I’m gonna kill you,” Mike said to me.  His face was bleeding.

        Fr. Thomas moved with the board to hit him again.  He scrambled up and ran off.  Fr. Thomas stopped, turned to me, and went to pick me up.  I couldn’t move.  I said no.  He stopped.  

        “I’ll call your parents.”

        “No, please don’t.”

        He looked at me a long time.  Then he said, “You gotta learn how to fight.”  And left.

        I sat there.  There was blood all over my hand from where I’d wiped my face.  There was dirt on my face, in my hair.  I couldn’t breathe that well, my ribs hurt.  

        And then I looked up.  There, up the hill, there was Doug.  He just stood there for a while, looking down on me.  And then he ran down the hill.

        That’s when I really started to cry.

        He tried to get me up.  I couldn’t move.

        But then he somehow got me to walk, and got me up the hill to the school, and to the bathroom, and there he started washing off my face.

        “Don’t tell them.”

        He looked at me.  He asked how I was going to explain everything, the cuts, the weird walking.

        “I fell. Just tell them that.”

        Not one teacher leaving the school stopped to ask why a second grader was helping a badly limping fourth grader out of the bathroom.  It was the 70s, and no one asked those questions then.  Especially in Wyoming.

        Mom and dad seemed to believe the story.  Mom got me ice cream, and dad said he would talk to the school about the hill where I fell.  I didn’t hear them talking about it that night after we went to bed.  

        I figured it was over.  I was saved by a priest who beat the crap out of a bunch of kids.

        It was over. I fell asleep.

        The phone rang late at night.  Mom answered it.  She was very quiet.  I couldn’t make out any words.  When she went back to bed, she told my dad that Mrs. Minolli had called up to apologize.

        “Is that enough?” she asked.

        “No,” my dad answered.  “It’s not.”

        I expected to stay home the next day.  Mom said no, school was important.  Even Doug wanted to go.

        I looked around.  “Where’s dad?”

        “Early day at work.”

        I was suspicious of nothing.

        I hobbled into class.  Mr. Lindy did not look up.  Some of the kids had bruises on their arms, one on his head. They didn’t look at me.  They looked down at their desks.

        Mike Lopez was not in class.

        Jamie walked in and sat down.

        “Sorry you got beat up,” he said.  “My mom picked me up.”

        I couldn’t think of what to say, so I said, “That’s okay.”

        “I don’t think he’ll be bothering you anymore.”

        His mother probably got to him, I thought, after Fr. Thomas called.  But that didn’t mean anything.

        “No, he will,” I said.

        “Nobody will.  Didn’t you hear?”

        “Hear what?”

        “Someone shot his dog this morning and tied a note to its neck.”

        “What?”

        “Yeah, it said the next time it would be him.”

        “Who did it?” I asked.

        Jamie shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Nobody does.  But somebody killed his dog for you.”  He opened up his binder.  “Serves him right.  Stupid wet-back.”

        I met Doug after school.  He got in front of me to get on the bus.  Always the younger brother.

        I asked, “Did you hear?”

        He said, “No.”

        I knew.  And I never looked at my parents the same way again. Or my town.


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