Cyndra and L’il J.B. were in the front seat of J.B.’s King Cab. The air conditioner was blasting and Cyndra was squinting into the dashboard t.v. She could barely make out the picture because the King Cab was parked smack dab in the pure hell of the Mojave Desert. J.B. was not in sight, but Cyndra could hear the bad boy roar of his dirt bike, even though the windows were closed and she had her earbud in so she could listen to a duet between Faith Hill and Tim Mcgraw that was causing her to sob and drip tears on L’il J.B.’s tiny bald head.
She and L’il had been stuck in the King Cab for four hours. J.B. would zoom up every hour or so and say, “How ya doin’, baby? I’ll just do this one last run and we’ll head in for pizza and home and who knows what.”
As if. As if she could even stand for him to touch her. As if all she needed was another something nuzzling her boobs. The t.v. flickered and went black. The cell battery was dead due to her listening for two hours to her somewhat best friend bitch about how there was nothing to do in this totally boring place. Which meant there was really nothing to do. Nothing.
She had a pile of her mom’s magazines next to her on the seat because she had planned to leave them at her sister’s salon. She glanced down at the top one. "How to welcome your soldier hubby Home." Right. There would be---she didn't have to look---a recipe for The Most Outrageous Triple Chocolate Torte and two articles on how to lose weight. For your soldier hubby. Both of them so stupidly hopeless, the cake which J.B. would not eat because he would have slammed eight Dos Eq longnecks during dinner; and gorgeous skinny her if she was ever gorgeous skinny her again, because if J.B. did touch her, it would have everything to do with want, and nothing to do with respect.
Her sister's salon? Three stations and an ex-biker chick who called herself an asthatician coming in about once every six months to do some old lady’s toenails. Tyra herself was the sister from hell. No details thanks, except for how the bitch had managed to steal away Cyndra’s true love when they were teenage chicks. And, Cyndra all perfect boobs and butt and heart-shaped face and Tyra, the Tyrant ha ha, 250 lbs. with boobs that would be hanging to her knees by the time she was 23. Yeah, and now Cyndra was pushing 225.
Cyndra realized L’il’s mouth had fallen away from her breast. She set him on the magazines and pulled down her blouse. She was a mess. She was a slobby mess. Once she would have wiped off the milk and tucked herself into the nursing bra. Now she didn’t even wear the nursing bra. She looked down at her top and saw the tiny star of wet spreading out.
If it weren’t for the air-conditioner she would...what...she would who knows. The last time J.B. had cruised up to the truck he had smelled like a brewery. He'd taken a 12-pack out with him strapped to the back of the bike. He was drinking every day, sometimes he'd already popped a few on the drive back from the Marine Base. And it seemed like the only time he ever wanted to fool around was in the morning when he had a hang-over woodie. Cyndra could not figure out why guys had to give such ugly names to the act of love.
Suddenly she had one of those lousy memories, the ones that made her skin crawl, the ones that she thought had gone away when she was first in love with J.B. Back then when he put his arms around her, she knew she had escaped her past. Everything was new. Everything was magic. Like normal people. Like normal love. Not like her mom and dad. And there it was - the friggin' memory - her dad's voice in her ears, even louder than it had been back in the trailer. Her mom was crying, not mad crying, but pitiful crying. And her dad was saying those ugly words. Who puts a roof over your head? Who puts clothes on the god-damned kids? Who deserves a little pussy now and then – not twice a year?
Cyndra cranked the volume on the I-pod. There was a new voice. She had no idea who it was. She'd downloaded a mix from a website. It was a woman singing quietly, a sad guitar behind her. Cyndra had never heard it before, but the song was about making mistakes and running away and Cyndra wondered if it had been written for her.
She thought about just starting the truck and driving away, but she knew J.B. usually rode the damn bike till he was running on vapor. Pissed-off as she was, she didn't want to kill him, which is what pushing a dead dirt bike back to where he could hitch into Yucca Valley in ninety-eight degree heat would do. She checked the gas gauge in the truck. There was a good half tank left. But she turned down the air conditioning just to play it safe.
Seemed like that was all she ever did now - play it safe. Make sure J.B. and the kids ate more or less right. Try to watch her weight while she felt so empty all the time. Listen to her sister bitch about the salon - how Gennifer was a bitch and Margo was a bitch and D'wanne was nothing but a bitchy faggot - and never tell her sister what she really thought, that Tyra was the real bitch. And why couldn't she just tell her that? - because sometimes, if Cyndra was realllly understanding, Tyra would offer to babysit and Cyndra could take a long luke-warm shower, go out on the patio in her wet t-shirt dress and sit in peace while the hot air evaporated the water from the dress and her skin, and she could pretend it was March in Phoenix, Arizona where she and J.B. had gone for their honeymoon. The air had been perfect. Soft. Little night breezes. If she closed her eyes the evaporation felt like that kind of heaven - or maybe even J.B.'s fingers all delicate on her face.
What had happened to wild Cyndra? What had happened to the girl who didn't hardly drink or smoke pot, but who would walk away from the Luna Mesa Full Moon keggers on the BLM land, out into a silver desert where if she lined herself up just right with the big fat moon, her shadow would walk ahead of her? Or the girl who would run right out into the heart of a thunderstorm when one slammed in, like a miracle you could be terrified of and love how your heart pounded in your chest? What had happened to the girl who was going to be the first person in her family to go to college - right over at Copper Mountain College where she wasn't going to get some dumb girl degree, but major in computer programming?
Gone. Vanished in the instant it took for her to welcome J.B. into her body and whisper, "I'm going to drive you crazy, bad boy." Ten million years ago. L'il J.B. snorted, whimpered and clutched his tiny hands in the air. Cyndra pulled him up to her breast and plugged him in. She heard the giant mosquito whine of the dirt bike. There had better be something new pretty damn soon.
"So how long were you stuck out there?" Tyra said. She had her "snooping for gossip but pretending she really cared" tone in her voice.
"Six hours all told." Cyndra shrugged. "It wasn't a big deal. At least I had my music. And I could just think for a while without somebody nagging me about something or other."
"You need a break," Tyra said. She had her gossip so she could afford to be charitable. "I sure do," Cyndra said. She figured Tyra was going to offer to watch the kids for an hour so she could take her bath and sit on the patio.
"I've got a surprise," Tyra said. "Tell J.B., you and me are going down into Palm Springs to get some stuff at Target. Call him so he doesn't get shit-faced on the way home from work. He can watch the kids. He owes you. You deserve to have some fun."
Cyndra thought of the heat in Palm Springs and the old people who all looked like they had never made a mistake in their lives. Plus a hundred and fifty bucks had disappeared from their savings and she didn't want to spend money. "We're almost broke till the end of the month," she said.
Tyra laughed. "You don't need money, baby sister. I hit it big over at Morongo last night. I've got five hundred bucks free money and a postcard from one of those fancy Palm Springs casinos that's good for two buffets, free drinks and fifty dollars in free slot play. We're gonna get wild."
"Play it safe" was hovering in Cyndra's mind like Casper the Cauhious Ghost. It smiled it's cutesy-poo smile. She wanted to strangle it. Cyndra straightened her shoulders, looked her sister in the eye and said, "Pick me up at 7."
"You won't regret it," Tyra said. "I left out the best part. I got tickets for Tim McGraw. He's playing there tonight."
"Without Faith. It's some kind of benefit dealie. You put on that sparkly black dress, you know, the one cut down to your knees and we just might have to get ourselves in the front row and when you stand up to cheer, stick your chest out and he's gonna' tell Faith 'bye-bye, baby!'"
"Like I said, pick me up at 7."
"See you later, mamagator."
On cue, L'il J.B. hollered from his crib in the kids' room. Kelli raced in from the dusty patio and grabbed Cyndra around the legs. "Let me go, babygirl, I gotta feed your brother." Kelli clung tighter. Cyndra pried her away and crouched down next to her. "I'm sorry, sugar," she said. "Let's get you an ice cream and then you come help me get him up and you can sit next to me while I feed him and you can have your ice cream. L'il's gonna be all jealous of you."
Cyndra never knew if Kelli really understood what she was saying to her. She just tried to keep her voice all momsy and loving. Kelli reached up and patted her face. "O.k. then, good girl," Cyndra said, "let's get it going."
It was mid-afternoon by the time Cyndra got L'il back to sleep, the ice cream off Kelli and the couch, Kelli down for a nap and herself charged up enough to call J.B. He didn't answer. He'd always been like that - blah blah no woman's gonna be the boss of me blah blah. Cyndra dug through the back of the big walk-in closet and found the black dress. She hung it in the bathroom with the shower on to steam a few wrinkles out. When she tried it on, the zipper almost didn't close. She sucked in her breath till it hurt and felt the zipper close. There would be no more ice cream bars. None.
When J.B. finally called his voice was all puffed-up and important. "What's up? I got a minute." Cyndra rolled her eyes. She was so over almost everything about him. "Honey," she said, her words racing to get everything in before he could say no, "I was hoping you could come straight home tonight. Tyra's gotta see a doctor down in Palm Springs and she's scared. I told her I'd see if you'd be willing to watch the kids so I could keep her company...see that way, she owes us and maybe you and me can get a little alone time on the weekend while she watches the kids back as a favor. You know, we haven't had any alone time in too long."
J.B. laughed. His voice softened. "You mean special alone time? Real special my-girl knows-what-I like alone time?"
Cyndra grabbed an ice cream bar from the freezer. She did it so quiet he'd never know. "Uh huh," she said, "real real special alone time." She ripped the wrapper from the ice cream bar with her teeth.
"I can come right home," J.B. said. "You bet I can. You got yourself a deal."
Cyndra bit off the first inch of the ice cream bar and damn near swallowed it whole. "That's real sweet of you, baby," she said. "Bye bye."
She still couldn't believe it had been so easy. J.B. had screeched into the drive, shoved open the door and stopped dead in his tracks. "Damn," he'd said, "you look good. You look damn hot. You gotta promise me you'll wear that dress when we have our real special time alone." Cyndra hadn't said anything. She'd just walked up to him real slow, pressed up against him for a second, backed away and grinned. Tyra had pulled up, beeped the horn and Cyndra was gone gone gone.
And now, right this minute, she was sitting on the most comfortable chair she'd maybe ever sat in. It had a seat that seemed to be made just for her butt, a nice high back and it was exactly the right distance from the glowing rainbow screen of a Cleopatra slot machine. She'd just bet forty nickles and three golden tiger things had bounced down in front of her and there was music playing and a bunch of free spins about to happen at THREE TIMES THE NORMAL WIN and her damn sister was tugging on her sleeve, saying "Come on, we gotta get to the seafood buffet while the crab claws are still there...plus Tim's on in forty-five minutes. Come on!"
"Wait up," Cyndra said, "just give me two more minutes..."
It shoulda been easy. It looked easy when Cyndra did it. Taking care of two kids, a baby and a toddler, not like the seven kids in his family, plus he kinda liked both of them. But, L'il J.B. was yowling and Kelli was tugging on his t-shirt, whining dadeee dadeeee dadeeeeeeeee and it was about 100 and f--k degrees and he hadn't had a beer since the stashed one in his office at the Base. Which had been two hours ago, two hours that felt like two centuries. J.B. was not a happy boy.
He'd fed L'il J.B. He'd settled Kelli in front of the t.v. with a bowl of spaghetti-O's which was one of the three things she would eat. He'd even nuked the bowl of tuna casserole Cyndra had left in the fridge and made himself eat it. He wasn't used to solid food this early in the evening. He'd usually go for the three basic Food Groups: beer, beer and more beer. J.B. thought about putting the kids in their car seats and heading into Ranch Foods in 29 for a case of Food Group, but it was 100 and f--k and he couldn't figure out what he'd do with the kids while he ran into the store. He wasn't scared of much, but thinking of kids cooking in a car in the Mojave heat made him want to go back to being a hard-shell Baptist.
J.B. picked up L'il J.B. and held him close to his chest with the kid's head on his shoulder. He'd seen Cyndra do that. "Hey, Mini-me," J.B. said. "Give us one of those bad boy belches." L'il kept yowling. There was a stink in the air. J.B. patted his baby's butt. Yep. J.B. sank down onto the couch, hollered and jumped up. He'd landed on one of Kelli's friggin' Barbie Dolls - and a half-eaten bag of pork rinds. He held L'il out in front of him. "O.k., you little booger, I know what we'll do. We'll call mom!"
Kelli hadn't let go of J.B.'s shirt the whole time he'd been standing and sitting and jumping up. "Momeeeeee," she whined, "I want my momeeeeee."
"You and me both," J.B. said. That instant he saw Cyndra's cell phone lying on the kitchen countertop. "What the f--k! You dumb b---h. Sorry, Kelli, daddy said a bad word - make that two bad words." He swiped the Barbie doll onto the floor. Kelli shrieked. J.B. dropped down onto the couch with his daughter attached to his shirt. He tried to think of how hot Cyndra had looked as she went out the door. All it did was piss him off. That's how she'd hooked him. That's how he'd landed in Marine housing in the middle of hell, drier than the sand around him, with a piss-stinking baby and a sobbing little girl for company. "I'll never have sex again," he said to his kids. They just kept stinking and sobbing.
Cyndra vaguely remembered something about Tim McGraw and crab legs and Girls Night Out. It seemed like a dream she'd had a million years ago. Her life seemed like a nightmare she'd been living even longer. If sitting in front of a friendly slot machine drinking from a bottomless glass of diet pop and vodka was self-destruction, it suited her just fine. Tyra appeared at her side now and then. Each time they were both more loaded. The last time she'd showed up she'd just laughed and plunked herself down next to Cyndra. "Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
She shoved a twenty into her machine. "Look," she said, "it's all cool and spiritual." Cyndra glanced over. There were Aztec pyramids and heathen gods. Tyra drove her nuts with all her back-dated New Age bullshit. And then, two moons and three suns popped up on the screen, Tyra shrieked, they both watched the credits rocketing up and Cyndra figured maybe there was something to the machine's ancient powers.
"I just love this," she said. She and Tyra watched the bonus round spin gloriously. "You know," Tyra said, "when you get the little thingies that say you hit the Bonus round, it's just like the seconds right before a guy you want to kiss comes forward to kiss you. You just know all you gotta do is sit back and EN-joy!"
The three golden lions dropped into place on Cyndra's screen. Bonus round! She remembered the first time J.B. had kissed her and watched the memory wash away in a rising flood of credits - at a nickle a credit! "I don't ever want to go home," she said. "This is the most fun I've ever had."
Tyra stared at her slot screen. "That says a lot for romance, doesn't it?"
Cyndra didn't even bother to answer.
It had to stop. It flat out had to stop. Yes, the kids were finally asleep. Yes, J.B. had logged into his favorite Girls Gone Wild site. Yes, he'd had two nice intimate experiences with the girls. Yes, for once Cyndra wasn't nagging him about something. But...but...but he'd started watching the clock. It was 1:30 a.m. and no Cyndra. He hadn't had a drink since the last hit of Nyquil, which had finished off the bottle. The crappy supermarket stopped selling booze at 2 a.m., meaning that if Cyndra didn't get her butt home in the next ten minutes, there was no time to head into town for a beer or twelve.
1:31.59. 1:32. 1:32.01. J.B. logged off and checked on the kids. They were both sound asleep. He considered the deep crap he'd be in if he left to buy some beer and Tyra brought Cyndra back and they both walked in to find the kids alone. It wasn't like he'd never been in deep crap before. But Tyra had a voice like a chainsaw and as ragged as his last nerve was, he didn't need to hear that.
He stepped out into the backyard. He loved that damn Mojave sky. He hated all the rest of the friggin' desert, but he loved the big bad black above him, the way the stars looked like diamonds, the way the flares from the bombing runs to the north burst like alien spaceships. Without thinking, he locked the back and front doors, climbed in the truck and headed into town. The kids would be o.k. He'd be 15 hot minutes to the store, five minutes grabbing a couple six packs and 15 hot minutes driving back. No way any tragedy would happen. Especially since he'd busted his ass at the job all day and been a real sweetheart about Cyndra taking off.
Cyndra slid the card into the ATM. The message flashed. "Funds unavailable." Tyra looked over her shoulder. "You hit your daily limit, sistuh. What is it?"
"Five hundred bucks," Cyndra said. She stared down at the card. "WTF do I do now?"
"You borrow a few bucks from me," Tyra said cheerfully. "And we just hunker down for a little longer."
“But, what if…?”
“No “what if”, you been losing so long on that machine, it’s gotta hit.”
The beer run had gone smooth. Market open, the cute Philippina chick at the register. J.B. popped a brew as soon as he'd cleared town. That big bad sky was grinning down at him. Desert wind poured through the truck windows. He slid a Merle Haggard CD in the player and cranked it up. Life was sweet again. Then he saw the flashing red and blue lights.
J.B. checked his speed. A mile under the limit. He grabbed a rag off the seat, shoved it into the beer and dropped the can on the floor. He saw the future like you were supposed to do when you were drowning. The cop's face in the window. The faint whiff of brew in the air. The bust. Cyndra and Tyra storming into the house. The end of his life - as crummy as it too often was. Merle was singing The way I am don't fit my shackles. WTF, J.B. hissed, what do I do now?
“I’m going out to the car.” Tyra looked up. Her eyes were like Night of the Living Dead. “Huh?” she said. Cyndra slowly stood up. Her feet were numb, her legs shaky and there was a hot-cold lump in her stomach. “I’m going out to the car. I don’t have any credits left and I think I might have died in front of that machine and this is hell.”
“Whoa,” Tyra said. “You are such a Drama Queen. Take this.” She handed Cyndra a handful of twenties. “Sit down! You’re not leaving me here. Besides, it’s still body temperature out there and if you open the windows, the midges from the pool will eat you alive.”
Cyndra couldn’t remember the last time Tyra, or anybody else, had given a flying f—k about her comfort. “O.k.,” she said, “but it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t feel my legs and I think I gotta pee, so I’m going to go to the john. Save my machine.” Tyra tilted Cyndra’s chair up against the machine. “Woo hoo,” she said, “I just hit another bonus."
There was nobody in the Ladies’. Cyndra sat in the Handicapped stall. She felt handicapped and all of a sudden she’d felt like she never wanted to be closed in anywhere. She rested her head against the tile wall. It felt sweetly cool and when she peed, she decided that peeing when you were about to explode was possibly the best feeling in the world – except maybe seeing the five gold pyramids drop into place on the slot screen. Which they had. About six hundred bucks ago.
“I’m dead meat.” J.B. realized he’d said it out loud. Who the f—k was he talking to? The sky? His pal, the open 12-pack on the seat? It sure wasn’t god, not the god of his childhood, not the god he’d stopped talking to when the IED took out Jackson and Martinez and Mr. Strak, Christopher Morgan Benson, the Third, himself.
Something was listening. The blue-red dazzle zoomed by. He watched the cop’s tail-lights fade into the dark. He wondered if you could have a heart attack at 23 even if you were nothing but muscle and beer. “Thanks,” he said to the god he didn’t believe in and headed home.
Episode 8: marysojourner.com