September 1, 2014 by The Citron Review
There are places with summers so stifling, rivers wilt to dust, and pocket change melts like mercury. Then there’s Hilliam, Arizona. Eskimos don’t need ice. We don’t need ovens. My little brother and I hide in the trailer during the day, swallowed within its flimsy aluminum shell. We huddle round the AC. Appliance rattling like a paint mixer set to warp speed. Cool mildewed breath bathing over our bodies. Skin the scent of sweat and wetnaps. He wears nothing but his Scooby-Doo print skivvies. Me – Pop’s faded “Alameda Valley Raceway” XL t-shirt. Hem grazing my scabby knees, braided pigtails grazing my shoulders.
Venturing outside isn’t an option, not while the sun cooks the rock. Through half-shuttered blinds, we can see the Dunes shimmer in the warped mirage air. Rusted propane tanks and satellite dishes sprout from infertile lawns. A copse of gnarled Joshua Trees surround the handful of trailers eroding in the desert wind. And Ms. Heliopolis’s daisy print bed sheets hang beside strands of dried red chilies. Our folks say if we ever find ourselves in a jam, Ms. Heliopolis’ll help. We’d never ask her for it. Her lazy eye creeps us out.
Our folks are gone. Been gone for days. Pops fired up the 249 Super Scout one morning, Mama slouched in the sidecar – pink curlers in her hair and a bottle of Grand Dad in her lap. Haven’t seen them since. Our Eggo waffle and orange soda supply’s down to one cupboard, but we aren’t scared. We’ve waited out longer droughts. I’d read about frogs burying themselves for years, blind and deaf, till some freak monsoon awakens them. Atrophied throats croaking in the rain, celebrating their couple days of liveliness before returning to slumber.
We spend our days shooting rubber bands at plastic soldiers and dozing off to the AC’s drone. Fall asleep atop the naugahyde cushion fort constructed atop the buckling linoleum. My little brother curls beneath the crook of my arm. He still sucks his thumb. He’s too old to suck his thumb, but I don’t stop him. Every hour or so we wake, drowsy and annoyed, as the trains cut through the Dunes. The whistle’s screech vibrates the trailer, causing dishes to clatter and empty salt shakers to tumble to the floor. I wipe my brother’s dried drool from my skin. He blinks and I tousle his shaggy red locks before passing out again. We snore together. Snore till the next train barrels through Hilliam on its way to God knows where.
The heat lingers, even after the sun’s set. But we can finally leave. Crack open the front door, stumble into the night, wade through its stale darkness. Burrowing owls’ muffled warbles flutter amongst the crickets’ chirrups as we make our way to the Dunes. Full moon guiding us toward the sand’s curved silhouette haloed in the pale light.
My little brother drags his metal bat across the gravel, oversized motorcycle helmet wobbling against his head, straps swaying beneath his freckled cheeks. I toss a baseball from palm to palm, cowhide and seams spray-painted fluorescent green. Rhythmic sound of ball slapping skin matching our half-time cadence. We drift past patches of prickly pear and creosote. Avoid the occasional ground water puddles pockmarking the earth. Damp spots are havens for scorpions and rattlers – anything that needs to drink water, really. Which just means they’re havens for anything alive.
We stumble barefooted the entire mile, feet treading over the fissured dirt till we reach the soft sand. Day’s warmth still radiating off the grains beneath our soles. My little brother snakes through the smoothed terrain, stopping in front of a wall of rotted tires at the Dune’s center. He takes a couple practice swings. I brush sand off a plastic trash can lid marking the mound. We can’t see our trailer, or Hilliam, or the train tracks. Just sand. Sand illuminated by the moon’s phosphorescent glow as far as the eye can see. When he’s ready, I whiz a pitch by him, ball thudding against the rubber barrier as he whiffs at the neon ball. It’s barely visible at first, but his eyes adjust. They always do. He tosses the baseball back and connects on the next pitch, hollow ping reverberating through the night. We follow the dribbler’s straight path carved across the ground. Green ball half-buried by the wind blown landscape. We return to our makeshift diamond and continue the routine – pitch, ping, fetch, pitch, ping, fetch. After warming up, my little brother gets a hold of a change up. Launches it, ball disappearing in the darkness. No trail to follow. While the rest of the world sleeps, we wander through the Dunes. Search by moonlight for a ball hidden in the sands, so we can find it and lose it again.
Nicholas Reali is a graduate candidate in the NEOMFA program at the University of Akron. His work has appeared in Gulf Stream and Rubbertop Review.