There are things in this world that try to push through but their voices are too small, too fragile, too thin and transparent to ever be heard by anything but the most sensitive of ears. The sound of the rain drummed against the roof of the camper van, beating hard time on the metal and reverberating around her brain. The space between the leaking ceiling and the vinyl flooring seemed to mirror the space between her skin and bone. There is noise, and then there is the sound of an October Washington rain on the roof of a camper van packed with three other people.
The water tumbled through the Walmart parking lot. It was not the family home she had envisioned for her little brood. Hoss held his head in his hands as he stared at the rivers of rain through the windscreen. He was one of those fragile things. The space in his skull was already full of war and whiskey, loss and inadequacy. It had no room for the sound of rain on the tin roof of a twenty-six foot camper van, parked in a Walmart parking lot during the first fall storm of the year.
“Ma! Ma! It’s cold!” The children’s cries over the drumming of the storm formed a high melody, a torturous arietta, highlighting her failures and all the dangers that survival brought their way. She took off her own jacket and pushed another blanket towards the children. If someone was going to die of exposure it was not going to be the children; one way or another it appeared as if the world was intent on killing her, and if not managing that, punishing her for not complying with disaster would do for the time being. It was so cold that she was scared for them all to go to sleep. She feared that none of them would wake up the next morning but was too exhausted and too cold to do anything about it.
She sometimes got these feelings. They couldn’t quite be called premonitions, nor dismissed as paranoia. They were a little more than a sinking feeling in her gut and a lump in her throat, more a repulsion, a warning to run that came from somewhere without her. She blamed her ancestors. They must be throwing rain at her to tell her it was time to get out of Aberdeen, or at least be watching down on her disapprovingly wondering when she was going to make everything better. “I am not superwoman, nor am I a magician!” she said to the wind and the rain, and the children and Hoss. “I can no more make it not rain, than I can make this campervan sprout wings and fly to Mexico.”
This was not what everyone expected. This was not her job. Her job was to look on the bright side, to cheerlead the troops, to summon all her courage and fix every problem that floated their way on the wind and the rain that threw everything they had at them. Her job was to be ok and make them be ok too: her job was to make everything alright. The truth was that the fury of the sound of the storm was no more bearable to her than it was to anyone else. She too went to bed cold and woke up soaked from rain and condensation, her bed sloshing around the van refusing to believe in the sanctity of sleeping on dry land.
Running away was never going to be the easy option. The man had a license to kill in that place she had run from. Not everywhere was the USA, she found much to her naive shock and chagrin. His maleness in a world set up to protect him and condemn her; his money, her vulnerability, his belonging and her exile and otherness, her foreignness made surviving more or less illegal for her, and ending her life one way or another, almost inevitable for him. Taking the children out of there, out of their court-ordained ‘habitual residence’ was illegal, punishable by long years in jail which would leave her children languishing with the man who used to be her husband her ever-present tormentor. No, it was much easier to allow disaster to fall like the rain – naturally and inevitably, than it was to buck Fate, Chance and the systems of Kings than be that desperate woman who ran, trailing her children at her side, using herself as an umbrella to protect others from disaster. Still, that was exactly what she had done, and now was paying the price in wind and rain and a leaky van with a shaky old ‘Nam vet who had been the only friend just about crazy enough to try and help her.
Night had fallen in the parking lot, and she could hear the river roaring as the water caused its banks to swell. A river runs through Aberdeen, carrying hopes away from the town and bringing desolation to sit under its bridges and around its muddy banks. There was always a place for life’s losers by the Hoquiam river. The outside world put her in that neat little category, boxing her in, labelling her efforts to survive as inadequate, sending her mind into constant streams of self-hatred at the lack of everything that the children needed and she failed to give them. Still, it was hard to think of herself in those terms. She was alive, if a little ragged round the edges, and the children were safe and with her. She had lost some battles, for sure, lost all her stability, her normality, but who needs those stagnant things when they have become poisoned pools? The water had started to form swells and rivulets around the wheels of the van. The parking lot was on the verge of becoming flooded and the rain showed no signs of slowing. The wind was whipping the fallen water into a fine spray and streams of tan colored water had started to run down the inside walls in a few vulnerable places.
The battery and generator had stopped working six months or so ago, burning out in an acrid smoke that sent them outside to the tent. Cheap flashlights and the light from a dying cell-phone illuminated the desperate situation. Hoss turned on the engine. There was half a tank of gas left in her. He ran the heaters to try and warm it up a little. The children’s faces shone pallid in the moon and the thin artificial light. There was no internet, nothing except a torn old map of the USA stuck together from pages of a campgrounds of America brochure, and the start of yet another impossible idea.
“Let’s drive south. All the way down that 101, and keep going until we find somewhere where it is not raining.” She produced a hidden hundred dollar bill from inside her backpack. “I saved this for a rainy day from when I was cleaning those hotel rooms.” Hoss chuckled at her attempt at joking. “Well, is this day rainy enough for ya?” he asked, pulling a quizzical face at the children.
The ritual of ‘throwing things round the back’ began, semi-safely stowing anything that could fly around once the van was moving on the road. The old thing shook, rattled and rolled like it was about to break apart as soon as it set voyage, even down the smoothest of roads. The children made their way to their seats and music was chosen. There was a certain rhythm to moving the van and life down yet another highway to who knows where, to sleep heaven knows where, to stop and live someplace unplanned and unknown. To have the freedom to move in that way was a huge luxury, even in the midst of huge deprivation.
The balding tires squeaked through the semi-flooded parking lot, as headlights flashed off the water and the slick black road surface. The camper van lurched wildly as Hoss swung it around. His face was set in an expression of intense determination. He was not happy again, at least not yet, but he had come alive once more, and was not collapsing in on himself, letting the rain drum a hard tattoo on his tender psychic wounds. The children settled back in their chairs. They were used to moving around, and no one could bear sitting in a flooded parking lot in Aberdeen for a moment longer…no one except Ma. She could accept just about anything as long as it kept her family together. There are some needs stronger than any discomfort. Her entire existence revolved around keeping the three of them happy, at whatever the cost, at keeping them together, at almost any cost. She paid in increments of health, getting smaller and thinner, more exhausted and more transparent by the minute.
“Which way!” Hoss shouted at her, taking out all his frustrations and fears on her, the person that seemingly could take any punishment, be the whipping boy for any temper tantrum, just as long as they were together and safe and away from the days where she was being beaten and violated every single moment she breathed. She could do anything as long as she woke up to the smiles of her children, safe and sound and with her.
It was not that she didn’t crumble occasionally. Her hand felt for her cheap denim bag, no more than a few scraps of material, lined in shiny blue polyester, and the space between fabrics that hid her little zip lock baggie of pills and her slim pint bottle of rum. Even the indestructible had their soft spots, their weak points. Even those that seemingly can take just about any abuse and carry on smiling for everyone else, sometimes cannot take the pain, whichever kind of pain it might happen to manifest as, without a little something to deaden its sting.
“South. I mean right, just here. Down the 101. Signs for Astoria, I guess.”
“You guess? Or do you know?” Hoss’s voice had a mean edge to it.
“Yes, go right. Correct.” He had trained her out of saying ‘right’ when she meant that was correct. It was all ship shape on board the good ship Hoss. He didn’t intend to be unkind, he was just weak and she was the human equivalent of a wall to punch. He rarely hurt her, unless he was drunk and lost his mind. Hoss and alcohol did not mix. He might shove her, or push her around, but he never beat her. Not like the man she was running from.
He swung the twenty six foot of camper van right like he was manhandling a Super Sport or Camaro, not a Ford engine stuck in a barely roadworthy tug, formed out of hope and plywood. The camper van was shaking all over, wheels threatening to hydroplane and put this latest little adventure to bed before it was even started.
“Hey…Let’s make it there in one, piece, ok?” She smiled at Hoss, putting a hand on his arm gently. He softened and stared down the 101, whilst fumbling next to the seat looking for a CD. She hated it when he did this, not looking at the black and wet road, but instead angrily risking everyone by acting recklessly once again. “What do you want to listen to? I’ll find it.”
“Ian Hunter.” This was how she reckoned. She never got to listen to things she wanted to hear without him sulking. It was a steady diet of ‘70s glam rock and roll that made her brain want to escape her skull. With the dated sounds of a man who was never cool to start with ringing around the cabin, and the children bickering under their breath, and the night air blowing in cold through the cracked window she was suddenly awake. A red rising tide of anger burnt in her chest. Hoss was not even trying, he was not even close to making an effort to be kind or decent or supportive. He just took and demanded and felt like because he had helped her save the children, and donated his time and his van, that he could behave however badly he wanted to. If there was any spare food money, he would ask for candy and chocolate, instead of offering it to her or the children. He never put into the pot more than he absolutely had to and instead just took all the love, all the sweetness and felt as if he was due it anyhow. The children loved him. He was as silly and fun and goofy as any child. This was not a good thing in a man in his 60s. He was not so much Peter Pan as a large overgrown baby who demanded candy apples and treating as if he were made of the thinnest most fragile glass that was ever blown into existence.
The 101 is not the safest road to drive along, even at the best of times. It is crumbling at the edges and falls apart at the sides. It is narrow and winding, with only one lane either way. The cliffs overhang on the inside lane, dangerous to any tall vehicle like the camper van, but that is somehow preferable to the other side of the road where there are rarely any guard rails, and quite often there are hairpin turns and cataclysmic drops. It is the kind of road that invites you to fall off it, even on a summer’s day, driving a four-wheel drive car with good tires. On a winter’s night, in the unbalanced van with bald tires and a man angry at life driving it, it was something akin to suicide. It was more than a danger sport, it was almost a reason to take up prayer and beg for forgiveness, or at least for the loan of a few angels to pin you to the road and stop you crashing into the waves below.
The road has a way of pulling you forward, but the rain kept on chasing and the van kept on lurching southwards. There were times that driving 25 miles down the road was too much to ask of Hoss. He would stall and make excuses. There were other times that he wanted to leave somewhere, and instead set his sights on his goals, and drove like there was a devil on his tail. Generally, these times involved going south to Oregon, but not all the way south to the warmth and safety of California. He was one of those people: the California haters. The kind of Americans that hate sunshine, sea sides and success also detest the sunshine state. They start to stutter and tremble as soon as they get close to that golden state and her gentle borders. Something deep inside them is deeply jealous of a place that only the boldest made it in. California! Goldrush mama! Home.
Yes, California will eat you up if you didn’t have the chutzpah or the doh ray mi to make it in. She started singing an old Woody Guthrie song to pass the time. “Better go back to Colorado, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee!” The music drifting out of the speakers of the van was something akin to torture in solid four time with screaming guitars and an affected accent. It was all glitz and glamor and poodle hair ahoy. Heading back down to Oregon made her cry. Angry furious tears rolled down her face. Oregon was nothing and no one. The people were mean and small-minded and the landscape dull at best, and dustily barren at worst. At least Washington was green, and not the Mississippi of the far western coast. The weather started to dry up as they crossed the vast bridge into Astoria. It was strange how it seemed to be so far away going north, but headed south, towards Oregon, everything seemed to go quicker as if he was drawn towards that cursed place as if the two were magnetized for each other. It was as if an invisible force was drawing Hoss back to Oregon, while ever mile north or south or east of that cursed state slowed him down, like driving through molasses. A trip that took a week north, took a mere night going back, heading all the way south, only stopping for gas, Hoss’s foot on the pedal headed back to where he wanted to be the whole time anyway, and fuck what was best for the three people he was supposedly helping.
A nighttime the Astoria bridge looks as if it will tip you straight into the sea. Large sections of the bridge are unlit, and the water either side of it can be heard splashing and lapping against the steel girders of the bridge. It feels impermanent, as if it does not want to be there at all. Washington has no desire for an easy short cut patchwork join of it’s coastline, to that of Oregon. It wants you to take the long way round, the hard way north. The bridge seemed to sway in the wind, rocking with the motion of nature. The van creaked noisily, resisting the forward motion, rumbling and shaking as if it was going to shake right off its chassis. The slip road off the bridge heading south, loomed up ahead, with the small town of Astoria lit up just beyond it. Welcome to Oregon, once again, but this place was never going to be home.
The children slept in their seats as Hoss continued to head south. There was nowhere to park in Astoria. Not a friendly parking lot, not a campground cheap or otherwise, not a rest area south of Washington’s Dismal Nitch. Nothing. Her eyes started to close and her head loll against the passenger window. She shook herself awake, and tapped Hoss on the arm. He had opened his window to let the cold air hit him and keep him trucking. He was starting to drift as he drove. It felt dangerous and her legs were like lead in her boots. She pointed out a grocery store just up ahead. “Let’s park up there, Hoss. Just till the sun rises, get a little sleep. No one is around. If they move us on, they move us on, but we have to stop.” Hoss said nothing, just aggressively swung the big beast of a van around into the parking lot, turned off the engine, and hung a blanket over the window, then slunk off to the back of the van, lay on the bed, boots and all, and shut his eyes.
She grabbed blankets and draped them over the children, unclipping their seatbelts, for all the good like they looked they would do….then kissing them both on the cheek and telling them she loved them, she stood and stared at the reason for her attempt to survive. It was there right there before her. Two precious children alive and well and with her. There was no rain. No hammering on the roof. Just Oregon and hopelessness and desolation, but amidst it all, there was one more day together, and that was just about enough to make it all worth it. The boy woke up, opening one eye and moving his feet up onto the bench. “Don’t go, Ma. Please stay.”
“I’ll be right here, right next to you.” she replied, drawing her coat around her shoulders against the cold and the draught from the open driver’s window. “Let me just close that window.” But Hoss had the keys and without electric, she couldn’t do it. She did not dare wake him up. So she took her coat off and hung it over the driver’s window, to block out the cold air as best she could. The girl slept scowling in her chair. Ma was not sure she was really asleep, but it was best to leave her be. So Ma sat, staring out the windows at the cold Oregonian night. She stared at her children and their wavy dark brown hair as it fell over their faces. She stared over at Hoss, wondering how she could make him reasonable once again. She stared into the past, but there was nothing but darkness there too. The breathing of the two children had slowed into a sleepy gentle breeze. Hoss snored like a man possessed. She got up, found a place to curl up at the back of the van, and passed out, frozen cold and determined. This was survival. This was life on the road, and there really was no better option.
And the sun rose on an Astorian morning as a security guard pounded on the door and demanded they get out of the parking lot and get on their way anywhere but where they were. Didn’t they realize that people can’t just disappear? That they have to ‘be’ somewhere? That feet need to stop, that people need to rest and that perpetual motion on the road is an impossibility. Did they not get the memo that people sleep? Did they not understand that the four people in that van were humans who breathed, slept, ate and excreted like every other human on the planet. They didn’t care. Just as long as they didn’t do it there. Or there. Or there…ad infinitum. Not anywhere.