These are the badlands said my mother, pointing to the ridges in the sand. See how they’re formed? The dry earth in front of us was striped red and tan, varying shades of deposits stacked on top of one another, each solidifying its own layer in time.
It was the summer after fifth grade and we weren’t running away, my mother told me. We were just running. A couple of weeks after the semester ended, my mother packed me into her white Volkswagen Jetta and drove us the two hours and forty-five minutes from Los Angeles down to Borrego Springs. She had caught a desert fever, and said she needed us to go there for a bit.
In Borrego Springs, we hiked to the only natural oasis I had ever seen, and I was reminded of Arabian Nights as we walked out towards it. A grove of palm trees jutting up between the rocky desert hills, a lush river running through like a mirage. The flowers bloomed ferociously, late this season, the beige hills flecked yellow and purple. The air was fragranced with indigo bush, sweet and heady. There was a Super Bloom out in Death Valley that only happens every ten years.
This is a special time to be in the desert my mother said to me. Super Blooms are sacred. They’re good luck. Just like owls.
We stayed a week in Borrego Springs, in a motel that looked like a 1950’s film set. Kitschy buildings labeled Saloon and Post Office that were too small and too brightly colored. There was a thick, woven Mexican runner on each bed, and a black and white photograph of Joshua Trees blown up on a canvas, resting on the wall between our beds. In the mornings, we’d go out on the little balcony and watch the woman clean the pool, then go inside and make the prepackaged coffee and eat the cinnamon cookies that came with the room. This was when my mother started to let me drink coffee.
That’s where we’re going next. My mother pointed to the canvas on the wall. Joshua Trees aren’t actually trees, she taught me. They’re desert lilies, yucca brevifolia, with big white flowers that look like aliens. The Mormons that settled the land over a hundred years ago named it the Joshua Tree because it reminded them of the biblical Joshua raising his arms in prayer.
We drove North through the Mojave. She pointed out the window to a glass house wedged between two red canyons and said You see that house? They had a Vogue party there. I imagined beautiful people standing with their cocktails by the pool, like a Slim Aarons photograph. My mother kept a Slim Aarons coffee table book in the backseat of the car, a big sky-blue cover with white writing titled Once Upon A Time. She was addicted to the pictures of blonde women standing next to their beautiful children on some coastal property somewhere, outside of their mansions, looking like royalty. Often times, they were royalty. Her favorite photos were dog-eared. When I was bored on the drive, I’d flip through, lingering on the dog-eared pages, my mother’s addiction becoming my own.
On Route 66, my mother turned up the volume so we could listen to Nancy Sinatra croon to us about heartbroken boys in California. On the cover of the CD, Nancy was a perfect blonde dressed in a hot pink bikini. I’d examine my mother’s bleached hair from the passenger seat, her brown roots creeping down an inch from her head, but I knew better than to say anything.
My mother had just finished school, but not her thesis. She’d drop me off for school in the mornings and drive to her graduate classes in Geology at Cal State Long Beach. Then she’d pick me up from school, thirty minutes after all the other kids were picked up, and we’d sing Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes on the drive home. It was difficult to be mad at her when those drives were the most important part of my day. She’d make me dinner using fresh basil or blue Japanese eggplant, and when I’d wake up in the middle of the night to pee, I’d see her crouched under a small desk lamp in the living room, papers scattered across the floor.
I could be a petroleum engineer she’d tell me. I’m qualified. But who wants to work for the Devil?
One night at a motel in Landers, California we sat on the stiff bedspread watching television. My mother was rolling a cigarette next to me, the smell of tobacco thick in my nose, little pencil-shaving curls of dark tobacco scattered all around her. She fumbled with the roller as she slid the cigarette paper in (her hands would go numb and tingly sometimes; my hands would go numb and tingly sometimes).
We had come to Landers to see the Integratron, a white wooden dome-shaped building built in the 1950’s by George Van Tassel, an ex aerospace engineer, who had moved to the desert for spiritual reasons late in his life. It was the only perfectly acoustic building in the U.S., and rumor had it that an alien from Venus had given George the knowledge to build it. It was financed by Howard Hughes, my mother told me with delight, as if this made it a satellite fixture of Los Angeles. Los Angeles owed a lot to Howard Hughes, according to my mother.
Holly and Kit on a love-drunk murder spree through the vast terrain of Montana played across the television screen.
Listen, Holly. You want to take a walk with me?
Badlands my mother said, nudging my arm Remember the badlands? Then she added, That could be you.
Maybe I said, thinking about the Vogue party between the two red canyons. What for? asked Holly.
Well said Kit I got some stuff to say. Guess I’m kind of lucky that way. Most people don’t have anything on their minds, do they?
I thought my mother was referring to the one time I acted, when I was six years old. I don’t remember how I got the part in the movie, just that I did. I played the daughter of a famous actress. She got pregnant during the filming and because my mother was on set with me all day and they had gotten close, this actress confided in my mother. One day in the set trailer, I came out from the bathroom and the actress was lying on the floor while my mother pushed down on her stomach, her fingers finding pressure points below the actress’s skin.
I was helping her my mother told me later, when I was ten years old. I was giving her an abortion. I knew when she told me that I should think this was sick, but I didn’t. I imagined the day I’d be close enough with someone that they would ask me to do something like this for them, pressure points and induced bleeding.
At the Integratron we signed in with a young man. He looked at us with dopey eyes and a pretty smile and curly hair that had probably been golden once but was now caked with dust. Then we lay down in hammocks attached to a tree, shading us from the unbearable sun. It was 123° F. When we were told to come inside, we lay down again, this time on Mexican blankets that looked like the bed runners in our Borrego Springs motel, and listened to women with soft voices play music from quartz bowls. Quartz bowls have healing powers, apparently, and we were supposed to be meditating. Instead, I watched the barren blue sky out the window of the wooden dome building and listened to my mother’s slow breathing, lying next to me.
When the meditation was over, we were allowed to go stand in the middle of the room, where a circle of roof was cut out above, a hole leading to the sky. One of the women with the soft voices told me to talk and promised no one would be able to hear me.
Mom can you hear me? I shouted in her direction. And she looked at me with blank eyes, smiling.
That night we stopped at a music venue in the middle of the desert, twenty minutes outside Joshua Tree. An empty landscape with a single ranch building, the backyard staked with wooden fence posts. The Doors used to play here back in the 60’s my mother told me. Everyone used to play here.
She had a crush on Jim Morrison. We had a calendar hanging in the kitchen at home with only pictures of Jim Morrison. She bought it from a small bookstore somewhere. Her favorite picture was April, which was also my birthday month. My mother had marked the date with a red sharpie, an ambiguously drawn heart resting between my birthday and the image of Jim Morrison. It was a black and white picture of him, shirtless, a beaded necklace that looked like a California king snake draped around his neck. His arms were stretched out and upwards on either side so that his lean, emaciated torso looked jarring in the hyper-contrast of the gray-scale, like Jesus being crucified.
Some folk band began to play on stage as my mother bought herself a whiskey ginger at the bar and got us a little table to the right of the stage. Can I have a sip? I asked, surprising myself.
No she said. But then she tipped the little red straw in my direction and pretended not to look. I sipped, and it was so sweet that I couldn’t even taste the alcohol.
After a few songs, a man with a faded denim shirt and dark stringy hair and tanned hands came up to our small table. He grabbed himself a chair and swung it around, and sat down on it the wrong way, so that the backrest was facing forwards. He leaned his chin on top of the scuffed wood of the backrest and smiled, exposing a chipped tooth where his canine should have been. His dry lips stretched around his smile.
Ladies he said, first to my mother, and then to me. Get off it my mother told him.
He put his palms up in joking surrender and fixed his black gaze on me. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot. I looked down and focused my eyes on the little red straw and saw my mother’s hands gripped around the empty whiskey glass.
All I’m saying is you’re a pretty couple of girls. It’s not like that.
She’s twelve my mother snapped at him, her eyes like quicksilver. He got up and left after that, but his bloodshot eyes were on her for the rest of the show.
Back at the motel that night, I sat on the bed and watched my mother out the window, smoking her hand-rolled cigarette under the flickering halogen light. I watched a black pick-up truck pull up and a shadowy man get out and walk towards her. She talked to him. I heard her laugh. I ducked down and crawled to the window, pulling my body into a ball with my arms and peering up at the shapes outside. The man was close to my mother now. When she bent down to snub her cigarette on the ground, the light hit the man and I recognized him as the man from the bar. He moved towards my mother drunkenly, his body one big slur, and put a rough hand right on her hip. She laughed and clawed it away, but when he did it again she didn’t stop him.
I crawled back to bed and pretended to sleep until I did. I woke up when I heard the door open and close and my mother crawled in next to me, wrapping her arm around my center. She smelled of smoke and salt and sweat. The sky was already beginning to lighten, turning purple.
When I woke up again, my mother’s face was standing over me, smeared with chalky green paste. She took me into the motel bathroom and smeared the same green paste onto my face, working it into my cheeks, painting my eyebrows. Calcium bentonite clay my mother told me. Women ate this clay when they were nutrient deficient. She mixed the clay with a bottle of apple cider vinegar she had found at the nearby gas station. “From the mother” read the label, referring to the culture used in fermentation.
Calcium bentonite is only found around volcanic activity. You see how precious minerals are?
When my mother left the bathroom I stuck my finger in the paste on my cheek and scooped some into my mouth. It tasted awful, like sour dirt, but I wanted more and more. I kept scraping off fingerfulls and sucking on them until the clay dried and caked over completely and it was no longer possible.
We could stay out here all year long, like summer field, but for forever my mother said as we drove back West, in the direction of the ocean. We had been in the desert for five weeks, and were heading home. I watched the Route 66 signs blur into three 6’s as we passed. The mark of the beast. I didn’t tell her that the previous summer, when she did summer field, was the worst summer of my life. My mother would leave me for weeks at a time with her depressed sister, who cried too long and too often, as she studied rock formations with other graduate students in the desert.
You wouldn’t like it anyway my mother would tell me. It’s hot as hell and there are potato bugs everywhere. I nodded at the time and stayed quiet, but I would rather have been with her during those long days, watching her take samples from the earth and jot down research, even if there were huge predatory insects lurking in the heat.
The AC on the drive home made the car smell old and stuffy and vaguely like rubber. I wondered what happened to the sweat that left my thighs and was sucked up by the leather seat. Did it stay in there forever?
This thought disgusted me.
I flipped open Once Upon A Time to one of the dog-eared pages. It was a woman with hair like dried honey, feline eyes, and a boney arm draped in gold. She looked older than she probably was, her skin too tan and her face blotchy. I closed the book and tossed it in the backseat, decided to watch the Route 66 signs blur by instead.
Sixth grade began a couple of weeks after we got back to Los Angeles, and the jacaranda lining my school were full and purple, leaving little flowers all over the black asphalt.
They weren’t indigo bush, but they were better than nothing. The classes were split up, a different teacher for each subject, which wasn’t the case in fifth grade. Now the days were marked with rotation, English and Science and Math and Social Studies. My mother bought me a new dress to wear on the first day of school, a pale yellow. The color of the sun as it filtered into the kitchen in the mornings, as my mother would place two ceramic mugs on the table and we would drink our morning coffee. I’d finish my own quickly and if she wasn’t looking I’d sneak a gulp of hers, too.
I took a job my mother told me one day in late August as she drove me home from school, turning down the music. We’re going to have to move.
Where? I asked.
Texas she said as she rolled down the window and lit her cigarette. Paradise Lost, but at least there will be money. You want more new dresses, don’t you? She tugged at my yellow sleeve and winked.
Maybe I said, thinking about the dog-eared pages.
Don’t be sad about it she snapped.
I wasn’t. I played back the familiar scene from so many movies in my head: The parent delivering the bad news of moving, the child throwing a tantrum. I even tried to muster anger, but that didn’t work. Instead, I imagined my mother and I renting a U-Haul and driving it across the Southwest, through New Mexico’s Guadalupe Mountains to see the bats hanging in caves. Bats love lemon trees she’d tell me, squeezing lemon into her hot water, throwing in a pinch of pink salt. Through Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, stretching across the red earth like a gaping wound. Passing by endless ghost towns with a single gas station, memorizing the tattoos on bearded men with motorcycles outside road-stops. I thought of Holly and Kit driving across Montana, Kit in the driver’s seat and Holly in the passenger, riding shotgun. I couldn’t drive yet so I imagined my mother as Kit, smoking her cigarette like him, wearing an ill-fitting jean jacket. Holly would always be next to him reading her magazines, the same way I would read Slim Aarons, and I decided I’d ask my mother for a dress like Holly’s red and white one, the pretty folkloric print that she twirled around in with her arms in the air.
You want to take a walk with me?
I told my teachers about Texas the next day, and each one looked at me strangely, as if that wasn’t how it was supposed to be done. One of the boys in my grade came up to me between classes. I like your dress he told me, pushing his long golden hair out of his eyes and playing with the nylon strap that dangled from his backpack. He nodded at the pale yellow fabric stretched tight across my chest.
I looked straight into his eyes, wishing his light blue gaze would suddenly darken. I wished that the green lawn surrounding us would turn to dust. That this boy would reach out and grab onto me, push his body up to mine, clash our mouths together. That he would spell something warm and secret with his tongue.
Get off it I said to him, jutting out my hip a little and placing my hand on it like Nancy Sinatra did when she tugged at her neon pink bikini. The boy looked confused, then offended, so I offered him a smile, letting my lips curve up in the manner of my mother. I was careful as I smiled not to destroy my pout, conscious of the facial muscles working my orifice. He gave his nylon strap a hard yank and almost turned away but stopped.
You’re a bitch he said between clenched teeth, his expression going hazy with hatred.
My lips twitched but I smiled wider. I could hardly see the boy in front of me now, the world around me a blurry sea of desert, sienna and purple and yellow. I pictured the man from the bar in the middle of the Mojave and his lusty, chipped-tooth grin, his chapped lips, his belligerent eyes, his hand up my mother’s skirt, making grooves in the velvet over the flat expanse of her thigh.
These are the badlands. See how they’re formed?
Erin Deason received her MFA from Columbia University. Her fiction has appeared in Momaya Press' Short Story Review 2017: Utopia Dystopia. She wrote the forthcoming Oculus-funded virtual reality series Playback, and is currently at work on her first novel.