Elmo Lum

What I Never Said

This was us: me and my father, my brother and my other brother, Franny who was the dog, and my mother before she passed on. This was back in our family days, in the years we were traveling. Back when us five drove crammed in a van, traveling state to state, every day a new place and a new camp.
      I was maybe eleven and my brothers both seventeen. That year we were in the West, which is how my mother called it. The season was spring and we were driving the desert states, solo on the road, orange with the morning. With my father at the wheel and my mother still dozing, us brothers still packing from when we broke camp.
      We were in the state of billboards. It was billboard after billboard along the length of the highway, advertising the highway west. They proclaimed gas, food, and souvenirs. They called for stopping and gave the miles away. Some read Authentic. Some read Mexican. All of them read Exit.
      “Don’t wake me, it’s garish,” my mother said.
      “I just need you to tell me how you feel,” said my father.
      “I’m sleepy.”
      “You know it’s important that you tell me how you feel.”
      “I’ll feel better if I can sleep.”
      “You’ve been sleeping all night. How much sleep can one person get?”
      “I won’t find out unless I sleep.”
      “Tassie. Tassie?”
      “Dean, stop it.”
      “This is important.”
      “I feel fine, all right? I feel fine. Now let me sleep.”
      The light was turning hard outside. The sky was sharp and the shadows were sharp on the mountains in the distance on either side. The desert was coloring. The sun was up, the morning turning warm.
      We were dusty. It was day three in the desert.
      Us brothers got the tent packed; up front our mother woke. She stretched, arching, yawning, holding a palm against the morning.
      She said, “You’d think they’d have stopped by now.”
      She meant the billboards.
      She said, “How are you boys back there?”
      We said we were fine.
      She said, “Is Franny drinking enough?”
      We said that she was. These were our orders when we were driving through the desert, to keep from dehydrating the dog.
      “God, I hate the desert,” my mother said.
      It turned an oven in the van. The windows were all open but the highway wind was hot. Which wasn’t much for changing the air we had in back. Us brothers were growing sticky. Franny was throbbing on the floor. My mother was mopping her face with her hands, then wiping her hands, then mopping her face again.
      “The desert was whose idea,” my mother said.
      “Try this in the summer, if you think this is bad,” said my father.
      “This is torture.”
      “This is the fastest way. You want to go see the coast, let’s go see the coast, but this is the fastest way.”
      “We could have driven a better way.”
      “There’s nothing but desert between us and Idaho. That’s a country away. Do you want to drive a country out of our way?”
      “This is torture.”
      “Boys, get some water up here for your mother.”
      We passed up a plastic jug.
      “Drink some water, Tassie.”
      My mother took the jug and tilted the water over her head.
      “Jesus, you’re getting the seat all wet.”
      “It’ll dry, Dean.”
      “Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”
      “I’ll be fine, Dean, all right?”
      “Drink some water.”
      “Dean, I’m fine.”
      “You made a promise, Tassie.”
      “You want me to drink the water? Will you stop if I drink the water? I’ll drink the water.” She upended the jug over her mouth and started swallowing. She swallowed, lips round, the water pouring down the corners, down her front, eyes wide on my father all the way.
      “Jesus, Tassie, the seat.”
      “The seat’ll be fine, Dean. Trust me.”
      Lunch was fast food when we stopped to fill up gas. We ate it out of paper sitting at a table that wouldn’t move. My father picked the table because it had a clear view of the van. We always ate in clear view of the van. The van was everything we had, my father said.
      It was easy in the restaurant to breathe. The air was cool and the seats were cool. We were drying off in there. I was cold. I was having myself a milkshake I almost couldn’t suck through the straw. My brothers were grinding ice in their teeth a table away. My father was dipping fries, twice at a time, in the ketchup on the paper on the tray. My mother held her eyes closed, her hamburger minus one bite. There was nobody else there in there.
      My father said, “Tassie, you should eat.”
      My mother said, “I don’t have the appetite.”
      “You’ve barely touched your food.”
      “You can have it, if you want it. Do you want it?”
      “Tassie, it’s your food. Eat your food.”
      “Be a good boy,” my mother said, “be a good boy and check on Franny.”
      I took my father’s keys. It was searing outside. I let Franny out and got her bowl from inside. It was dry. I filled it from a jug and left it on the asphalt, on the side where the van had some shade. Franny was already there, panting. She lapped from the bowl. I sucked from my milkshake. The cup was going wet and soft in my hand.
      My mother came out, her palms against her head. My father came out after, saying, “You made a promise.”
      My mother said, “God, not now.”
      “Listen, Tassie. You made a promise.”
      “Don’t remind me.” She pulled open the van door and climbed inside the van. She cranked the window down and slammed the door.
      My brothers each came out, their cups topless in their hands.
      “Get in the van,” my father said. “And get that dog in.”
      The van was worse for sitting still. The air was a fever, worse even than outside. I felt dull. Franny lay on the floor and my brothers both sprawled in back. I sat up front, close up for the air, hot as it was, and the view, such as it was. Where a desert lake shimmered, then disappeared, then shimmered on the desert again.
      “My kingdom for a lake,” my mother said.
      The country was turned to cholla. They spread clustered and blond down the slope of the hills. They covered the flats in furry clumps. Up against the highway fence they crowded through the wire, growing from the shoulder in sprouts. Here and there, at the edge of the asphalt, lay a dry one run over, grown too near.
      The slopes grew closer. On the side with the sun they grew brighter and paler, on the shaded side steeper with rocks. I spotted over the top the day’s first clouds. They were wisps and streaks, milky and thin, but clouds in the marble blue sky.
      My mother was sopping. She was wiping her face with her shirt already soaked. She wiped her arms and craned her neck to wipe her throat. She rolled her sleeves up past her shoulders. She was bright. The sun through the windshield had my mother squinting.
      “This is torture,” my mother said.
      “Going to the coast was your idea.”
      “If I thought going to the coast was torture I would have told you something else.”
      My mother nudged my arm; it was with the water jug. I took it and uncapped it and drank straight from it. The water was warm. It tasted salty from the corners of my mouth. I capped it back. I lay back. The van was loud. The engine was thrumming and the wind was roaring through the windows. It was dim or seemed dim down on the floor where I was.
      I grew asleep or close to sleep in the heat. Lying on the van floor, dreaming of the restaurant. Which was such pure silence against the noise of highway driving. Where I’d heard my father chew. Where I’d heard Spanish behind the counter. Where when the man came by, pushing the mop against the tile, I’d heard that, too.
      Franny had her eyes closed, running in her dreams. My brothers sat in back, playing cards. I drank some more warm water. My mother’s hand hung asleep. I felt a turn to the van and sat up. My brothers both looked up. We were turning off the road, onto a solitary overpass, one building standing there.
      “Van overheating,” my father said.
      The sun was pounding. Franny dropped to her spot down under the shade of the van. My father pushed the hood up holding towels against the heat. Waves blurred off the engine.
      “Let’s go inside,” my mother said. “Dean, we’ll be inside.”
      The door tinkled when we went in. Before us the room was cool and dim. From the back of the store I heard a television. A woman appeared there, coming from a doorway. She called out, “How are you all folks today?”
      “Fine,” my mother said. “Little van trouble.”
      “You got trouble with your van? I’ll get Tom to take a look. Tom!”
      “It’s nothing, it’s just that it’s hot. The engine’s overheated, that’s all.”
      “We’ll get you some water. Tom!”
      A man came from the door, bald and red. “What’s this about car trouble?”
      “They got their engine overheated.”
      “I’ll get some water.”
      “It’s a scorcher,” the woman said.
      I watched bald Tom through the window, hauling a jug. He and my father shook hands at the van. They ducked down together, bent into the engine, poking down inside, bald Tom shaking his head. He pointed to the store. He and my father rang the bell through the front.
      “Still too hot,” said bald Tom.
      My mother leaned and pointed down the counter to the jewelry. I walked past the rocks, the amethyst and quartz. My father studied the postcards, my brothers the rattlesnake molts. My mother tried a bracelet, silver, and pointed to a necklace of turquoise.
      “You all thirsty?” the woman asked. “We got water, and soda for the boys.”
      “I think we’re fine,” my mother said.
      “You change your mind, you let me know.”
      My mother crumpled.
      “Oh my Lord,” the woman said.
      “Tassie. Tassie, get up,” my father said.
      “It’s fine,” my mother said, “I’m fine.”
      “No, you’re not, honey, you’re worse off than you think. Tom!”
      “Boys, help me with your mother.”
      My father got an arm under my mother and my brother the other side. Together my father and brother helped my mother out the front. I ran to get the van door and they lifted my mother in.
      The woman came running. “Sir? Sir, I’m calling emergency.”
      My father dropped the hood shut and got in the driver’s side.
      “I’m fine, really,” my mother called.
      “Franny,” called my brother. “Come on, Franny, inside.”
      Bald Tom came out as my father pulled away. He and the woman watched us turn down the ramp. Bald Tom had a hand to his head. We turned, my brothers and me, and watched them watch us leave.
      My father was intent and speeding. The speed shook the van, skipping the van with the bumps, with the speed, the van bumping with the asphalt. My father drove faster, putting the engine in a whine. We began shaking. The fence smeared faster and blurred.
      My mother screamed over the engine running high, “Dean!”
      My father, leaned over at the wheel, ignored her. He kept his foot down, pressed flat to the floor. We sped faster. The chassis was rocking, the engine ran pitched. My mother pushed both hands to the dash. Franny held stiff, four legs to the floor. I stopped being able to see.
      My mother screamed, “The boys!”
      My father nailed the brakes and my brothers fell forward, and I fell forward, and Franny fell up front. We skidded, wheels locked, the van’s tires off the road. Us going over the shoulder, gravel clattering the underside. Banging when a wheel drove down a ditch. My mother screamed and crossed her arms. A cactus slapped the hood. The van rocked and pitched and lurched still.
      “You’re crazy!” my mother screamed. “You’re born crazy!”
      My father pushed the door against the slope of the shoulder. He pulled himself out and wrenched the hood up. Us brothers jumped out from the back. My father was pacing. He was pacing, checking his watch, looking out around. We were the only human thing for miles. There was the highway, pinched in the distance, and beside it the tumbleweed fence. Beyond that grew the teeming cholla and clusters of creosote scrub.
      My brothers each flung hubcaps. They kicked the same stone, a broken box, a tire peel. One brother slapped the other and the other slapped him back. They pulled off their shirts and tied them to their heads. They shrank down the road, bent with heat.
      A dust devil swirled in. It swirled through the fence, over the shoulder, across the blacktop. Where it disappeared over the blacktop, and reappeared on the far shoulder, curling up dust, bent, harder to see, and gone. My brothers were gone.
      My father swore. He was down on his knees, head under the bumper, his shirt stained green with antifreeze. He called, “Come here. Come see if you can get this cap.”
      “Dean?” my mother called. “Dean, are you all right? Boys, is your father all right?”
      “I’m fine.” He spat. “I can see it but I can’t reach it.”
      I crawled down under and it was dripping down on me. I got the cap up and my father was back with a jug. He drained it down the mouth of the radiator. “Go ahead and cap it,” he said.
I held the cap in a towel and turned the cap tight. My father checked the cap and dropped the hood.
      “Dean, where are the boys?”
      “The boys are fine.”
      “Dean, where are they?”
      “They’re fine.”
      “You let them wander off?”
      “They’re old enough. Where are they going to go to? This is the desert.”
      “Dean. You let them wander off.”
      “Is Franny in?”
      “I can’t believe you didn’t watch your own boys.”
      I said that she was.
      We drove down slow along the shoulder to my brothers. They pulled loose their shirt turbans and climbed back inside.
      “Don’t do that to me again,” my mother said. “Do you know what you’re doing to me?”
The billboards were gone. The cholla was gone, replaced by prickly pear. A town replaced the desert which replaced the town again. The sun was coming down. The glare grew wide; the desert turned rose.
      “Camp soon,” my father said.
      He drove off on a dirt track cutting from the highway. It led straight to the hills and I couldn’t see after that. My father slowed, riding the ruts, leaning forward and pointing. “How about there?”
      “I’m sure it’s fine,” my mother said.
      We pulled off into a gap between the cacti. My brothers grabbed the tent out and I grabbed our camp stove. My father gave a hand with the tent.
      My mother called, “Don’t let her into the cactus.”
      I followed Franny up the road. She zigzagged, lopsided, her tail not aligned with her nose. She stopped and smelled, smelled and stopped, grew stiff and alert with a noise. The desert was all noise. Everywhere, every direction, buzzed.
      The stars were starting to grow with the evening. The desert grew darker, the cacti’s black lobes chopping across the flats. She was invisible. There was a smear of light from the last of the dusk, then there was no light because there wasn’t a moon. It was all invisible.
I called, “Franny.”
      The road was blank and still. It was loud; I couldn’t hear. Ahead grew a blur, then bright dog eyes, then Franny running. I turned and there was light. I followed and Franny ran. My brothers were pulling sleeping bags, my mother was at the stove. My father was flat, pulling on one knee, straightening his leg, then pulling the other.
      My mother sat shivering. She was stirring and shivering, holding herself with her free hand, shivering and stirring the pot. “I can do this,” she was saying, “I can do this,” gripping her spoon. “I’m not cold,” she said, when my father brought a blanket.
      This was dinner: canned soup over rice. My mother didn’t take a plate.
      “Tassie, please,” my father said.
      My mother said, “Dean, please believe me when I say I can’t eat.”
      After eating we broke the jackets out. We didn’t keep a fire and the night was turning cold.       My mother took the blanket from my father. She stood up, draped, and walked into the dark. My father followed, calling, “Tassie.” He disappeared. “Tassie?” He came back, leading my mother, my mother hunched and shivering, clutching at the blanket and my father’s arm.
      We turned in early. It was us brothers to the tent and my parents to the van. Franny, because it was cold, slept with us. We lay in the tent dark, all sleeping bag noise, each of us calling Franny for warmth.
      She was up first. Her nose was wet and I unzipped the flap. She bounded out; it was ice outside. One of my brothers said, “Zip the flap, stupid.”
      I crawled into my clothes and shoes. The ground outside was visibly frosty. My father was squatted over the starting of a fire. He was striking a match and snapping the match head.             “Your mother is,” he said. “I better get your brothers up.”
      I struck a match from the matches my father left. I poked it lit into my father’s tinder cone. I breathed; it flared; I began feeding twigs. The twigs caught and I put on branches. The creosote crackled, hot at my face. I pushed on a log from the firewood we kept.
      My brothers were crowding the fire. My father was away, calling, “Franny.” My brothers kept pressing on logs, covering the flames. My father said, “Boys, it’s your mother.”
      She was lying in the van and blue.
      We drove my mother farther up the hills, out off the track into the cacti. My father steered, dodging puncture from the spines. In a cleft in the hills where the shade was still dark and the frost still edged everything, he stopped and unstrapped the shovel. He dug in the shade, us three brothers watching, shivering, then taking turns digging one at a time. The others watching and not talking, the desert quiet and cold except the rasp of the shovel.
      We dragged my mother by the feet from the van. It was my father to the legs, my brothers to the head. Together carrying my mother to the grave. She was too long. My father grabbed the shovel, hacking again, pebbles ringing, the shade shortening, the sky lightening, turning orange. Then my father and my brother laid my mother in. We took turns shoveling dirt over, pouring the soil over her feet and her body and her clothes.
      “Her clothes,” my father said.
      We ransacked the van for everything that was my mother: her clothes, her shoes, her socks, her sandals, her hat, the ties for her hair, her hairbrush, her comb, her toothbrush, her jewelry, her journal and sketchbook, and her mysteries. We dropped it all on my mother, half-covered, and buried her together. My father stalked the spot, spreading pebbles with his shoes. He dragged over a run-over cactus.
At camp the fire was dead. We packed up the tent, our bags, and our things and drove down back toward the highway.
      “We have to agree,” my father said, “on the story. We have to do this sooner rather than later. I’m telling you this because you’re old enough now, all of you, and you have a part in this, too. You’re a part of this, too. So we have to agree on the story.”
      I began crying.
      “Listen to me. I want you to listen to me. We have to pull together for this. This is important. This is very important. We have to have our story together. Will you try to pull together for this? I know this is hard. This is hard for me, too. But, listen, we have to agree.”
      “He’s eleven,” my brother said. “Leave him alone, he’s eleven.”
      “Just trust me. Will you trust me?”
      “Dad, leave him alone.”
      “But the story. We need to agree on the story.”
      “Just leave him alone,” my brother said. “He’s eleven and the story can wait.”