Theresa Kelsay–The Dirt Maze
June rode her bike through the motel parking lot, looking for the dark blue Lincoln Continental. If it was there, that meant it was true. Her father was there in one of those rooms with his 44 Magnum and probably a case of beer.
The motel was built on what had once been an overgrown field. Over the years, kids from the neighborhood had scratched out a maze of dirt paths in that field with their bikes. The first time June went in with a group of kids, she fell in love with being swallowed by the jungle labyrinth that was just beyond the break in the fence in the open lot next to the house of the weird people that home-schooled their kids.
The first time she saw a snake was in that field. She had been surprised to find it perfectly coiled, hissing at her as if she had walked in on it doing something private. It was also where she had busted open her knee, resulting in seven stitches across her knee cap.
“You don’t ride a ten-speed on a dirt trail!” her mom had yelled. Her mom was always making the things she did sound ridiculous.
And it was where Chad Wilson had kissed her and felt her up under her shirt. She had wanted Marcus Niles to kiss her. The way he never looked at her made her want him to. She would ride her bike in front of his house and pretend he was watching her from inside. But it was Chad who had kissed her with his weird lips that weren’t really defined, but instead just kind of faded into his face. Plus, he was mean to her, called her thunder-thighs.
She didn’t mind his grabby hand up her shirt, though. It felt like he needed to touch her there, needed to squeeze something out of her until he didn’t need to anymore. For some reason, she liked knowing that.
After the field was cleared and the motel was built, they would sneak into the pool, until the manager realized they weren’t guests. Sometimes they would just walk up and down the balconies of rooms, talking. It was like walking in a new place, where strangers exiting the highway converged to rest or do whatever people did in a motel that was only twenty-nine dollars a night, inspired June and whatever friends from the neighborhood (not Marcus Niles) to talk more, to need each other more.
When she came around the back of the motel, she saw the long rear-end of the Lincoln sticking out past all the other cars. She stopped and froze. It was like seeing her dad’s sullen face, the way she always saw it in the hall, him passing, not saying anything to her. The way it was when he wasn’t terrorizing the whole house with his anger or hyena-laughing while drinking with his buddies in the driveway.
Her mom’s friend, Carol, had told her.
“Your dad’s at the motel. He took his gun with him.”
She had just come over and was on her way into June’s parents’ room. Her mother had not come out all day. June knew her mom would not want Carol to tell June about the motel and the gun. She also knew Carol was there to bring her mom some speed. She had been smoking pot in her room all day. Now she would want something to get her up.
June stared at the Lincoln. Her dad was somewhere in the motel, probably holding his gun. She couldn’t help him. Even if she knew what room he was in, she couldn’t go to his room and say, Please don’t kill yourself, Dad. It wasn’t what they did. Her family ignored. They didn’t walk and talk together in the dirt trail jungles or on the motel balconies and get chased off together by managers. They ignored each other, behind closed doors, until her father blew up, came home piss-ass drunk, knocking her mother around the house, passing out in a pool of urine on the living room floor. Or got annihilated at a Fourth of July picnic at their cousin’s farm and beat the side of the truck in after her mother had locked herself, June and her little brother inside. They drove home that night and slept together in fear he would somehow find his way home.
And at the same time, that he would not.
When he had left that morning with his bag (his gun must have been somewhere inside), he had said to June as he walked out the door, “You’ll be better off without me.”
Even though it was true, even though she hated him, she wanted the pretend ignorance back. He could coil up and hiss at her, he could squeeze whatever he needed from her and the rest of the family. We will always ride our ten-speeds on dirt trails and like boys who don’t pay attention to us and find comfort roaming over grimy places filled with strangers. And have our mother’s druggy friend, happy to tell us about our suicidal fathers. These were the discomforts that gave her that ugly little restless joy in being alive.
June prayed while pedaling home: Please don’t kill yourself.
When she got home, her mother was in front of the stove, fixing dinner with jittery energy.
“Where have you been?” she asked, not really listening for an answer.