Here's the first section of "Desert Land", again. If you want to compare it to the first version I posted, that's on April 9th.
I hate El Paso the moment I see it. Bleak dusty haze filters hovels of clay and tile under early morning light. Mountains dance around each other like wary partners. Nothing but brown in shades barely varied. All framed by streaks of grime and shattered bugs on the windshield.
“There’s no green.” My first words after hours of silence.
Beside me, mother pops her gum. “Can’t do much about it.”
Shite, hits my brain but stops. She scratches her left wrist with her right fingernails, so I know better than to speak.
I’m behind the wheel. Mid-60’s Texas let me have a hardship license. Let me aim the old Dodge wagon down a highway half-constructed and travel all night to avoid daytime’s heat. Let me if an adult rides shotgun. Mother qualifies even though she cannot drive but only chew gum the whole way as my brother and sister sleep in the back, suitcases for pillows and as partitions.
Passing through the city gathers more dust from deep holes dug for the highway to come. Heat drowns the cool night. I can bake or roll down a window and cough. Warmth makes me weary so I choose the latter, but mother snaps, “I’ll get asthma,” and wields her inhaler as proof.
We stop at a light. I wait till her eyes grow sharp before I grip the window’s handle and an ancient woman in black sneaks a withered hand inside to touch my hair and whisper, “Ay, qué lindo, por dios,” before vanishing. I’m used to these attacks. Nana said “those people” think a redheaded child means good luck. We lived in San Antonio, then, and it happened every time I went downtown with her. I asked if that meant stepchildren, too. She laughed but did not answer, and I was moved to England a month later. She died soon after.
“That’s why you keep the windows up,” mother snaps then inhales her fake breath. My brother and sister wake to whimper, “I’m hungry,” and mother replies, “We’re almost home.”
Home? Here? Never. I grow so, so tired, but I drive on.
We locate the airbase despite her husband’s directions. I show a wary guard my driver’s permit and Dependent ID to prove I am who I am.
“Key-rice,” he says. “Tesas le’s babies dri’e cahs!” His accent reminds me of London. I almost weep.
He puts a sticker on the windshield and tells me to follow the road to a parallel street facing the runway.
We find the house. White stone blocks with black-trim-windows. Barely-green grass and trees desperately trying to take hold. A mirage of normal life. Other houses are its twin, each with a fenced backyard, each with a sad air cooler atop the nothing roof. Wide strips of space sit between them.
I park. The key mailed to us unlocks the front door. No one greets us. Her husband is on duty.
Mother sighs. More stone walls in white. Linoleum floors. Furniture shoved about and boxes everywhere. A small kitchen boasts a noisy refrigerator. A hallway leads to four bedrooms. Once officers’ quarters, now worn out and soon to be given away, so the Air Force can feel generous to non-com families.
I look in the first room on the right. Not big but my bed, dresser, desk and art table fit. How did he know this one’s mine? Because the bathroom’s across the hall? Or the windows face trashcans? Probably the latter. I look at the bed. I don’t need a sheet to sleep.
“We need milk!”
I go to the kitchen. Mother slams cupboards and sneers at the fridge. It holds bread, cheese and beer.
“Have you money?” I ask.
“When your father gets home.”
No, your HUSBAND. Unspoken, again. She slams more empty cabinets and scratches her wrist. I leave the house.
I remember passing a tiny base exchange on a corner of this fake oasis, available for snacks, beer and cigarettes. I walk past a half-dozen homes to hunt and gather since her husband didn’t. And to keep from falling asleep. My one true survival skill.
Milk, eggs, Frosted Flakes, jam and peanut butter take the last of my allowance, less a dime. I hope she pays me back.
By the door, I notice a magazine rack with “Hunter’s Digest”, “Popular Mechanics”, “Gold Key Comics” -- and a small physique photo pamphlet. I first saw one at a news kiosk in Piccadilly. I set down the bag, grab a comic book and use it to hide the pamphlet. Inside are strong, beautiful men. A tiny cloth covers their privates. My heart quickens but no one screams, “’Ere, shove orf, yer buggerin’ lit’le bast’d.” The clerk is busy so I slip the pamphlet in the bag and buy the comic with my last dime. Outside, I slide the pamphlet into the comic and put it in my back pocket. It’s my reward for safely bringing my family to this hideous place.