by Melanie L. Henderson
My favorite restaurants have brick fireplaces, soft lighting, decanters of oil and vinegar on every table—and lots of white paper and crayons at my fingertips. It must have been a full-spectrum hospitality genius who first pulled heavy white butcher paper, tarp-like, over white table linens in grown-up restaurants; there’s something delightful about a jumble of crayons at the foot of a slim vase with one long stem. The paper is a simple acknowledgement that life can be messy—but that’s nothing to be ashamed of; truth and beauty are affirming twins, not adversaries. That grand expanse of wide-open paper is an invitation to run out and play, even if you get a little messy.
As we settle into our seats around the blank canvas table, somebody warns nobody in particular to keep those crayons away from me: She’ll drag you into one of her word games. But they’re already passing the crayons.
I didn’t invent the game. I borrowed it from a lesser-known game show for which (I have to think) a bored committee in a conference room somewhere chose the flashy and combustible title, Chain Reaction. In fairness, word games aren’t known for being action-packed, so for the sake of television, I understand forcing a little flair. But for the sake of dinner out with friends and family, I want to call it something better than “The Word Game.”
• • •
I reach for a green crayon while someone scoots the oil and vinegar aside.
K O S H E R
D __ __ __
C __ __ __ __ __ __
I __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Q U O T I E N T
It doesn’t matter how long or short I make the first puzzle; someone says it’s too long or too short or demands confirmation that none of the words are too obscure. Yes, I promise. You know all the words and I’m sure you know how to spell them. Someone offers Dill! and I reply, No, the “d” word isn’t “dill.” Or “diet.” They want a letter after “I.”
I N __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Hm . . . Now give us a letter after “D.” Then stop! They say. No more letters unless we ask.
D E __ __
I’m in the habit of playing this game by myself with found time. Waiting at a red light, standing in line at the grocery store, sitting in the dentist’s chair, I’ll start linking pairs in my mind.
candy bar / bar code / code red / red square / square root / root canal
Just about anything can serve as inspiration.
county jail / jail bait / bait shop [or maybe] greeting card / card shark / shark bite
But sometimes, random inspiration turns out to be inadvertently misleading:
G O L F
C __ __ __
S __ __ __ __ __ __ __
C O O K I E
If you see golf cart instead of golf club, you’ll never arrive at club sandwich. You might conclude that I miscounted the number of spaces, or that I’m misspelling something. (My ego, of course, is involved. No. I don’t misspell things.)
• • •
Over appetizers, the sequence filled in from top to bottom and bottom to top, but there was a hole in the middle:
K O S H E R
D E L I
C O __ __ __ __ __
I N T E L L I G E N C E
Q U O T I E N T
Sometimes I’ll tear the puzzle from the paper tarp and spin it around for the other side of the table to solve while our side eats. If they solve it, they’ll scratch out their own puzzle and send it back for my side to solve.
• • •
I don’t want to call it “Chain Reaction,” but so far, “The Word Game” is the best I’ve got. It’s a worthy game, and it deserves distinct and legitimate identification. So I rough up a few alternates and ask for some feedback:
- Think Link: Sounds too “math-y” or tech-industry = evokes numbers, not language = misleading.
- Crazy Chain: Sounds too close to “Crazy Train” = Ozzy Osbourne = too rowdy (also misleading).
- Pair Dare: Sounds like you’re mis-pronouncing something in French, mon amie. Non.
I don’t like any of my ideas, either, and this bothers me. A lot. Someone who can come up with clever word game sequences on the spot should be able to come up with one decent name.
• • •
My dinner companions are sure the absent word is “company” (though this makes little sense) until I fill in the spaces during dessert: C O U N T E R. Ahh . . . “deli counter,” “counter intelligence”! The men slap their foreheads. They should have known. . . . Tom Clancy books and all that.
Then a server from another table happens to notice the crayon scrawl at my elbow.
“Hey! Is that like a word game?” He picks up a blue crayon. “Awesome! I love this stuff! Mind if I try?”
We nod, but I offer no explanation or instruction. (I figure seven, maybe ten seconds before he admits he can’t make sense of it and has to ask how to play.) He studies the sequence for about five seconds.
K O S H E R
D E L I
C O U N T E R
I N T E L L I G E N C E
Q U O T I E N T
Then he leans in with his blue crayon and adds something at the bottom of the sequence, changing the ending.
Q U O T I E N T
G R A P H
Everyone else reads his addition out loud and smiles. They’re impressed. They congratulate the grinning boy, who drops the crayon and shrugs.
“I’m a math major. But that is a rockin’ lexicological mash-up!” The boy thanks us for letting him play and strides back to the kitchen.
And they all suddenly agree: The name of the game is officially “Lexicological Mash-up.” “Lex-Mash,” for short, they say. Or maybe just Mash-up.
We pay the check, empty our water glasses, complain that we ate too much. I find the math major’s intrusive G R A P H a little distracting, so I casually drape my napkin over it. I fidget; I scoop the crayons into a tidy pile. As everyone stands and shuffles toward the door, I linger. I push the napkin away. I reach for a red crayon.
I reclaim The Word Game.
Q U O T I E N T
G R A P H
P A P E R
By Ryan Brown
“Michigan is shaped like an oven mitt and is about as exciting.” –Bill Bryson
Michigan’s geography is often the brunt of a lot of people’s jokes. Bill Bryson hits the subject pretty much on the nose; Michigan is shaped like an oven mitt. But I prefer mitten to oven mitt. It sounds warmer and reminds me of Christmas and white snow.
In Michigan, we are quite proud of our geographical heritage and we use it to streamline fourth-grade geography. You just invert your hand and point to the corresponding knuckle or vein line. “I’m from right here. Western Michigan. By the lake.” And when people flippantly remark, “Do that Michigan hand thing,” or “Where are you from in Michigan? . . . Oh, he’s doing that hand thing,” I just have to shrug and accept the facts. I’m from Michigan.
The odd thing is I can’t remember anybody ever sitting me down and explaining the whole hand technique to me. It must just be something you pick up, something in the well water. It’s probably not a genetic trait because I don’t technically have any claim to Michigan-ness. You see, I’m not a true Michigander.
Yep, people from Michigan are Michiganders. I know, it sounds like the masculine singular of goose: gander. But it’s probably the most original of all the state demonyms. By birth I’m an Iowan, but my father’s from a little place called Orem, Utah, and my mother’s from Falls Church, Virginia—just outside of D.C. They met at BYU and then moved to Iowa for chiropractic school.
By the age of two my father had graduated from chiropractic school and we moved north and east to rural Western Michigan, and I now call the small village of Shelby home. The sign at the edge of town reads, “Welcome to the Village of Shelby: Where the North Begins,” but there’s no demarcating line that I’ve ever seen. It’s a thriving metropolis of 1,800 people; mostly farmers and factory workers, but we’ve got a couple of librarians, school teachers, and bartenders thrown in the mix. It’s small, quirky, consistent, and it’s home.
Leaving Shelby to attend college was a bittersweet moment. The excitement came through when I stood up in the academic portion of our graduation ceremonies as colleges and scholarships were announced. There were one hundred and sixteen of us graduating. Besides me going to Utah, Megan Beckman was going the next furthest away to Notre Dame in Indiana. I’m sure I would have seen people staring—if not for the bright lights on the stage—when I stood up and the host announced that I would be attending Brigham Young University. They announced the names of my parents and then I sat down, knees shaking with fear from the crowd and the future, but sporting a giant smile. The excitement ate away at me from the moment I received my acceptance letter to BYU, until I stood with burning eyes, so determined not to cry, saying goodbye to my mom outside of my freshman dorm. Bittersweet.
Some of my graduating class attended Muskegon Community College, a thirty-minute drive, south on U.S. Highway 31. MCC offers degrees in paralegal studies, veterinarian services, business management, and some others, and it’s a great opportunity for a ton of kids. But somehow I always felt like it would just be high school all over again with the same social clicks and the same mentalities.
I knew people in my graduating class who had never been out of the state. We took a field trip to Chicago at the end of my eighth-grade year, and Dan, my friend and fellow greyhound seatmate, said that it was the furthest he’d been from home.
I’m sure that I paraded the fact that I was born in Iowa, and that I’d been to Utah, the Grand Canyon, and Washington D.C. on vacations with my family. But now, coming up on my senior year here at BYU, part of me wishes that I’d stayed in Michigan.
My best friend stayed. The guy who I competed with in everything. Warren ran faster than me in cross-country, but I got better scores than him in Biology. He got a better part than me in the school musical, but I had a better story than him in Creative Writing. After I got my acceptance letter we talked about how Warren would come to visit me during spring break. He would see how the campus was and maybe talk to somebody about transferring. He never did make it out, but we still go out to lunch when I’m home for the holidays. We go to the Brown Bear, the best of the three restaurants in town, and order Bear Burgers. We heft two-pound patties and talk about the good old days with streams of juice running down our chins. I ask about his wife, the run-down of who’s recently gotten married from our high school class, and how my old homecoming dates and high school crushes are doing. When we’re finished we’ll laugh and then slap each other on the back and part ways for another couple of months. It isn’t that I avoid Warren—it’s just that my life seems to be shifting from the Midwest to the West.
The dry, desert air is starting to feel natural, and when I visit home in the summer, Michigan’s sticky humidity feels unusually stifling. I skied a little in Michigan, but I’ve found out that Utah and its mountains may not be lying when they brag about the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” But what I’m falling in love with, even more than the skiing and the weather, are the forward progressions, the waiting opportunities, and encouraging vistas that I keep catching glimpses of. Chances for careers, money, travel, and change now imprint themselves on my conversations with my friend, Warren. When we talk I feel this yearning to stay in my town forever. But it’s coupled with a fear of regrets, of stagnancy, and of settling into a routine.
I can see some of the side-effects of staying when I look at my friend. He’s got a bit of a gut, a beat-up SUV, and has started cheering for the Lions. He can exercise and burn off the gut, and the SUV is almost a necessity in Michigan when the snow falls. But becoming a Lions fan? If we were living through the 90’s and Barry Sanders was still playing for the Lions (Barry Sanders, voted the #1 most elusive running back in the NFL) I could maybe understand his loyalty. But Barry has left us, and even in Michigan you know you’re pretty far gone when you start rooting for the Lions.
Sometimes I worry that if I move back I’ll become stagnant too. I guess when I think about moving home—getting a factory job, finding a wife, buying a house, having kids—what scares me the most is the thought of missed opportunities and lingering regrets.
That fear is countered by the small-town familiarity, knowing everyone on your street, their extended family, and their in-laws. That warm familiarity that surrounds everything in my town. Belonging is such a satisfying concept. When you belong you always have a place to be, someone you know, something you can do. It’s like a pond I remember on the old gravel and tar road that led to the house where I grew up. The pale-green water filled with leaping bullfrogs and dragon flies paused and hovering in flight, frozen above the surface. We used to ride our bikes down the road to catch frogs and play around the stream that fed the pond. Once, we saw a blue racer. The snake sped into the grass before we could cut off its path, as if it knew the life of captivity we had destined for it. That’s how I feel. I’m the blue racer down by the green pond: at once drawn to the warmth of the water, the silence of the unmarred surface, and again scared away by the thought of being captured.
When we lived in the old farmhouse down the road from the pond, we were about seven minutes from Lake Michigan’s beach. During the summer we’d wait until Dad got home from work and then we’d pile into our van and spend the evening swimming, building sandcastles, and watching the sun set over the waves. Western Michigan’s sunsets are truly amazing, disappearing over the water and shooting out golden rays that streak across the horizon.
Lately, the only time I’ve spent at the beach are the couple of days between whatever summer work I’ve chosen and the start of a new fall semester. It never feels like enough, and I always leave the beach wanting to stay just a few hours longer.
But I guess it’s a good thing that I still feel like that. I can visit Utah, with its huge mountains, and still remember the stillness and the sunsets of Michigan.
Writing this makes we want to return to that little town, and it’s just about time for another visit. I’ll drive up the highway after a late night flight and watch as the lights of cities and neighborhoods disappear in my rearview mirror. I’ll turn off U.S. 31 by the abandoned gas station and crest the hill overlooking the town—my town. It’s a small place, not very big, special, or accepting to change. But I can’t seem to get away, because—well, because it’s home.
by Tara T. Boyce
I went to Meridian, Idaho last weekend to visit my family. Meridian, where my parents and three younger siblings are now living, is a flat, suburban town with lots of cookie-cutter houses and sidewalks and traffic. Last year my family moved to Idaho from Central Oregon, into a small brown and red house with windows that face the neighbor’s fence. Let’s just say we’re all getting used to the view, and that we miss Oregon’s juniper trees and pine trees and mountains that frame the sky.
Last Sunday evening I sat with my family in their family room, the windows open revealing the fence and a dark blue sky just after sundown. We all sat scattered around the floor and couches, except for my sister Lissa, a senior in high school, who sat cross-legged in a chair near the window. She was wearing her gray sweat pants, working on an application she planned to submit to BYU. She began reading to us from the extracurricular activities check-off section.
“Have you ever . . .” Lissa read to us:
“Received a national award or talent scholarship for artwork?
Received a national math/science/computer science award or scholarship?
Held a management position for two or more years supervising five or more people?
Served as a student body president of the entire school?
Placed in the top three in a state-wide individual speech/debate contest?
Placed in the top three in a state-wide individual writing contest?”
The list went on and on and on.
I watched my kid sister become all overwhelmed at her lack of check marks. She continued reading: “Served as chief editor for the school newspaper?” She laughed, then said, “I worked on the school newspaper once, but my article never got published. Does that count?”
We told her no, that does not count.
Between our no’s and her laughs, Lissa shook her head and occasionally scratched her foot. Which makes sense: Though she spends her week days studying her books and her weekends working at Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza to pay for what she hopes will be a university education, my sister knows that she can only check off so many check marks without running into school-wide or national attention.
I’m thinking of my little sister now, small as she is, weighing barely over a hundred pounds. I think of her moving from Oregon to Idaho in the middle of her junior year of high school. Of her new tennis coach asking the first week of practice if anyone wanted to challenge a spot on the team and how she raised her hand, even though no one knew who she was. She raised her hand and when her coach asked who she would like to challenge, my little 5’1 sister said, “The number one single.” She won, perhaps solely on gut.
After the economy crashed, after our dad lost his income and his savings and eventually our Oregon home, Lissa learned to make homemade bread and wear sweats instead of turning up the heat. After the boating accident, when our older brother Dane nearly died on the other side of the country, Lissa stayed at home with her two little siblings and a working dad, while our mom stayed with Dane in the hospital for over a month. Occasionally I’d call Lissa from Utah to check up on her, to say, “How are you doing?” She’d respond, “I’m okay. How are you?” But her voice was tired and serious from cooking meals and folding laundry and cleaning bathrooms and running errands and worrying and praying even when her heart and lungs and throat hurt.
But there are no check marks for what you do not and cannot anticipate, plan for, or work toward. There are no congratulations for that which you cannot quantify, whatever that is—fearing, hoping, doing what has to be done every single day because you have to—into an achievement, into an accomplishment, into a little pencil box as if to say, “There, done.”
There is a small box of awards from over the years, a few certificates and plaques and ribbons beginning to collect dust in the back corner of my parents’ garage. Some of these awards are from my sister’s tennis seasons, others from basketball, or gymnastics seasons, which she did as a child. There are a few participation certificates from piano recitals, in which she never did stand out much, though she still plays us Christmas hymns in the winter. She tried volleyball; she tried track, but there are no ribbons for her trying. Neither are there any awards for her unpublished articles in the school newspaper or for non-participation in a district math contest, even though math is her best subject.
There are, however, a few rough sketches of Oregon flowers and trees in a book on her nightstand beside the Bible she reads every night. I know this because my sister offered me her room while I visited. I flipped through her sketches before I went to bed. Her flowers and trees and mountains and rivers were tentatively drawn with pastel-colored pencils, as if in an act of reverence my sister refused to force her hand into God’s. As if in between all her recent months and years she learned how not to.
And I wondered then, How do you check off this: a girl with a pastel-colored pencil in her hand, who spends her weekends making pizzas, making bread, making ends meet, making a bed for her older sister to sleep in? She will sleep on the ground, where she will also kneel before she falls asleep, whispering thank you for the new house, for the brother that’s alive, and for knowing she’ll be okay with or without the check marks.
An Early Blush Apricot tree eked out its existence on the north east side of our property by bracing itself close against the fence. For a fruit tree I expected it to have more leaves than it did, but having not seen many others by the time I reached eleven, I really had nothing to compare it to; ‘less of course you count the pictures in books, or the images on TV. So in my relative ignorance, I determined my impression of the plant by its demeanor. It wasn’t much in the way of foliage; the few leaves that did grow seemed too thin and too dark. They attached to skinny branches that jutted out of a lumpy winding root-of-a-trunk with narrow strips of bark. The trunk cleaved into hard desert earth splitting, rather than digging, as far as it could. The roots would hit a rock and crawl around it, again, and again pinning for water. They did as best they could, but the elements were not in their favor. Thus afflicted, the plant struggled.
It bore fruit. Lord only knows why that seemed a good idea. Why a plant half-dying all the time would still blossom. Don’t make sense when you’re half dead to go on making things that you ain’t gonna take care of anyhow, but it did. It gave luscious apricots: thick skinned, round, plump fruits. It would hit that short California spring and forget where it was. It would blossom, and pretend to be in a valley. Rain would come, and wet the dirt, packing it all together. The days would pass and then the heat would come. The heat would weigh down the clouds till they hit the dirt. The heat would seep into the earth and melt the low-falling clouds. The heat would take the dew that was left and tease the plants in the morning, making them think it would be a wet day, but, using that dew as a magnifying glass, it would burn holes in leaves. The heat burned the grass, and made the trees turn brown. The heat evaporated the small pools of water and left us all dry.
I would get chapped lips at this time of the year. I must not have been too different from that tree. We both eked out an existence in the hot days of failing spring. I thought about that sometimes, but it was too hot to do nothin’ to change anything. We was all sufferin’ in the heat.
Before the heat, in the still of winter, the bugs would disappear. A bear could hibernate in a cave, a rabbit could hide in a hole, but where did the wasps hide in the dead of winter? Did they cut off their wings and bury their nests like ants? I often wondered where they went, but I never hunted them out: I knew they would be back. Sure enough, spring would find them in the air, flying around as if they had never been gone. It is a singular thing to watch a wasp work. They don’t do nothing particularly useful, but they’re always coming and going like they got something to get doing.
About this time our Early Blush Apricot tree would make fruit. They were miniature golf-ball sized apricots, but they were juicy. They’d hit the ground like big fat raindrops in a thunderstorm. Smack. They were good. Me and my brothers saw them growing on the tree, and when the heat came we knew it was time to reap ere summer slew. We went out with straw wide-brimmed hats, and a montage of gloves: thick leather riding gloves, grease stained auto repair gloves, and one pair of clean thin gardening gloves. We didn’t want to get the juices all over our hands if the apricots were too ripe. I wore a ragged pair of jeans that mama had cut into shorts and a sky blue t-shirt with tattered sleeves. My brothers were in like attire. I waited for my brothers to lead the way, and out we went to pick from the Early Blush.
I have two brothers. The tall gangly one in front that walks like a spider is named Tim. He’s three years older than me. He likes to talk slow, probably on account of his never having much to say. He ain’t stupid, just takes his time with things. My other brother that walks like a soldier is named Ian. He has measured, determined steps and plows a straight line wherever he’s headed. He ain’t so tall, but I can’t see over his head, so I think he’s alright. He goes places like he’s going to take command. Sometimes he argues with Tim about things he can do better, but today we’re picking apricots so he just walks in line.
We head out the back door walking east towards the sun. It’s been up for a while but it ain’t noon yet. We wanted to get out earlier, but the heat took away our ambition, and so we was glad to just be going at all. The dew was gone and the air was drying up. We passed the grape plant. “How long’s this gonna take?” Ian asked. I’d of said something only I didn’t know, so instead we listened to the grass crinkle underneath our worn sneakers.
Tim stretched his long arms up to the heavens, “I don’t know, but we gotta get it done, so we’ll find out.” Sure enough we did find out.
We made it to the apricot tree, and could see what seemed like hundreds of apricots clinging to the branches, weighing them down. I was glad of that. It meant I could reach them easier. It might even make the work faster. I dropped my empty washed out Sherwin Williams paint bucket on the ground. Thud. That noise must have been what waked them up. First we saw two, then five. The Chinese beetles zipped out from behind the leaves moving about trying to figure what was going on.
We called them Chinese beetles. I don’t think that’s the real name of them. I saw a picture of one in an encyclopedia once, but don’t matter what they called them; to me, they were green-black-Chinese beetles. They were the size of chestnuts and looked like small pieces of jewelry when on the ground. I’d almost call them pretty, but when they fly off the ground, things get ugly. They pop open their shell and unsheathe long coal-black wings. Then they begin to buzz, a loud threatening buzz like the roar of a miniature hoodless car engine revving to life. They buzz around seeming twice as big as they really are. They have spiked legs, and worst of all they eat apricots.
We hadn’t seen them out flying around the tree earlier in the season or we would’ve come sooner, but as it was, we were unprepared. The five quickly became 20 or more little spiked engines flying at us. I turned tail to run back to the house. Ian flailed his bucket in the air, hoping to hit them. Tim paused, picked up my bucket, and then lengthily strode back to the house. “Come on Ian,” he yelled over his shoulder. Ian stayed a moment longer finally nailing one that buzzed like a Ferrari. It smacked into the bucket with a sound like a baseball thrown against a bat. “Yes!” But, by now he realized he was alone. More and more of the beetles came buzzing out of the tree. He dropped his bucket and double-timed his way back to the house.
We made it inside in time to see the swarm in full, flying around the backyard in all directions. There must have been more than a hundred of them. My eyes were darting around, trying to follow them as they flew. “What are we gonna do?” I asked.
Ian looked at Tim, but he stood scratching his chin and said nothing. “We gotta get rid of ‘em before they eat all the apricots,” said Ian.
Tim nodded steadily and said: “How we know they ain’t done that already?” Ian looked at his gloves for a second.
“Well, I saw at least five that looked good right in front of me when we was out there,” I said.
“Yeah me too,” piped in Ian.
So, it was decided. We would save the early blush apricots.
We stood there for a second. “What are we gonna do to get rid of ‘em?” I asked. Honestly, I didn’t know what would work. Ian smiled and said, “I hit one of ‘em with the bucket. Betting he’s dead now.” Tim nodded and replied: “But, that was only one. We gotta work out a plan to get more than just one.” They began to build a plan. Ian started with an idea:
“We could get out the baseball bats?”
“They’re too small. You had a bucket and only hit one, a bat ain’t gonna be no better.”
“What about a broom then?”
“That’s too long; it’d wear you out fast moving that around in the air all that time.”
“Well, what you got in mind?”
“How about using them tennis racquets in the garage?”
“But they got holes in ‘em.”
“Yeah, it makes ‘em lighter. They’re only small holes and the racquets are really wide. We won’t have to aim at nothing, just swing.”
I wasn’t much at baseball and the less I had to aim, the more I thought I could be useful. “Plus them bugs are big anyway, probably get caught in the netting,” I said. Ian nodded. So, we prepared to bring war to the Chinese beetles. They had come into our backyard and we were not going to give it up without a fight. I got out a red and white bandana to cover my face; Tim got an old black hockey mask, and Ian went without cover. We grabbed the Dunlop rackets from the garage and approached the back door. The enemy had mostly returned to their base.
Tim was looking out the window when he deduced our approach of attack. “Ian, why don’t you go first and head to the left side of the tree. I’ll go to the middle and Bryan, you can head to the right.” We cracked open the door and charged out fast as infantryman. I slammed the door closed as soon as I was through so they couldn’t get in the house, and then rushed to my position.
The enemy heard us more than saw us as we moved towards them. The few stragglers that remained as scouts met with an enemy whose supreme technological advantages meant annihilation. Tim was first to confront one of these scouts. The beetle had turned its course and veered directly at him. He gripped the handle with the kind of confidence Andre Agassi hopes he has when playing the U.S. Open. Thrashing into the air in one forceful push, Tim connected with the beetle. Strangely, or at least to my perspective, it seemed that Tim didn’t stop once he connected. His swing followed through in a complete rotation and I almost thought he had missed after all: that was until the sliced sections of green-black innards smash with vigor into my shirt.
The sections cemented themselves to my shirt with green goo. They bled green goo! I made out fragments of the shell, and a leg here or there, but more than the fragments I saw the large green streaks that began to seep into my shirt, dying the fabric an ugly brown. I wiped off the guts best I could and continued towards my post.
Ian had already reached his shelter-less bunker and braced his legs apart as he prepared to volley left to right smashing the Chinese beetle into fragments. Tim also was standing in his post.
Unprepared, we had been no match for the fierce first strike of these invaders, but decked in our infantry garments and bearing our weapons of war, we were carriers of death. The Beetle, even with its frightening open-engine-buzz was no match for our unprecedented display of technological sophistication. They came in loud angry swarms, fleet, after fleet. They vacated the apricot tree and sought to stake a superior claim to our apricots, but swing by swing, they were undone. We brought to the Chinese Beetle what the atomic bomb brought to Hiroshima. We waged war in earnest. Green goo coated the rackets. From time to time I was forced to stop and pull out large chunks of innards that stuck to my weapon. Almost instantly, the beetles would dive upon me. They zipped by my head. Each time, I ducked and jogged in circles till at last my restored weapon brought ruin to my enemy. I swung at my persecutors with such vigor that the green goo rained down on my head.
How many Beetles were there?
Again and again they came, but it mattered little. We would win the apricots.
A particularly large beetle headed towards me. He bore down roaring like a diesel. I swung at him, but he moved just in time to escape certain death. He came round a second time. I would not miss my chance again. I watched as he drew close, closer than I would have liked, and then I jumped back, flailing my racket so quickly it made a high zipping noise of its own. Swoosh. I flew through the Chinese-Diesel-Beetle and heard a high pitched shriek from behind me.
I turned to look back and saw Heather, my eight year old sister, cringing in the back doorway. A civilian! Green goo and innards were all over her face. She waved her hands in the air and ran inside the house.
She left the door open! Was she crazy! The beetles would get inside!
I rushed to the door and slammed it shut just as I passed into the house. My sister was at the kitchen sink, washing her face and grumbling loudly. I pulled down my bandana and leaned forward.
“What’d ya come outside for?”
She spit into the sink. “Well ya’ll are making so much noise I just wanted to come see what youwere breaking. Why didn’t you tell me your makin’ a mess of things? I would have stayed inside!”
“Nobody told you to come out! We was doing just fine. You OK?”
“Yeah I’ll be alright. Why you out there killing them bugs anyway?”
“Oh, we’re not out there killing bugs, we’re picking apricots.”
She rolled her eyes at me and went back to cleaning up, this time picking out chunks of beetle shell from her hair. I don’t reckon she believed me about the apricots till that night when the war was over and we brought in a bucket full of them.
The Chinese Beetles were strewn in pieces all over the backyard for many days. When I would go out to look at the plants I would sometimes see the sun reflect on the ground and find that it was only shinning back from the shell of a disembodied beetle. I had won the war. Sometimes, when I went out, I would even eat an apricot. I would bite through its supple skin, feeling its nectar ooze down my chin as I stood amid the desert and the memory of destruction.
The rhythm shook my bones until I was numb at the joints. I struggled to keep hold of the jackhammer’s rubber handles. I called it a jackhammer anyway. That’s what it looked like to me. Daniel called it a Pionjar.
I tried to keep a firm grip and guide its butting head into the shelves of sandstone. Shards crumbled onto the floor of the dirt trench. Dust churned in the hot air, choking my lungs and making my mouth dry and gritty. The drill head ate through the last of the soft sandstone and hit hard bedrock. My right hand slipped momentarily from the handle and the pounding metal drill jumped from the sandstone towards my feet, nipping at the edge of my boot. I let go of the gas and the Pionjar sputtered to a stop. I wiggled my toes, trying to count each one that moved. Ten. Good, they were all still there. I half smiled. Not bad for a girl.
I wiped muddy sweat from my face. The morning air was already hot and oppressive. Snakes of sweat slithered down my back and stomach. As the dust settled, a swarm of gnats attacked my head. Swatting was useless, I knew, but I batted them away with my hand anyway. I hadn’t imagined a summer job at the national park being so miserable. I’d woken up that morning with my ears swollen and my eyes red and puffy from gnat bites from the past few days. Since when could gnats bite anyway?
I grabbed my water bottle from the edge of the trench and leaned against the warm dirt, staring at the Pionjar resting against the opposite wall. My arms ached looking at it. Sometimes the Pionjar reminded me of a big horn sheep—like the ones I’d seen on the nature shows on TV—always butting its head, only the Pionjar butted against the earth and not against the head of another sheep. It sure didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. My morning’s work had only produced a small depression in the rock. The progress seemed so insignificant. I surveyed the remaining few yards of sandstone and bedrock I still had to drill through. Today would be a long day.
The park had finally gotten enough money spattered together to dig a new sewer line for the campgrounds. Jess, the park superintendent, put the maintenance crew in charge of the project. I had never dug a trench or installed piping, but I quickly learned it was an art form. The trench slope had to be at a specific angle—not too steep, because everything would flow too quickly and cause a clog, and not too shallow, because everything would move too slowly and cause a clog. Greg, our safety supervisor, came to check the slope every few hours. Some days we shoveled out dirt like crazed badgers. Others days we had to pour the dirt right back in.
I’d never liked working with my hands. The only experience I had for the job was projects done with my family. I built a lopsided birdhouse with my little sister Julie once and last spring I helped my grandma wrap chicken wire around her garden to keep the rabbits out. I took the job because I needed money to put away for college.
I wanted to be a history teacher and I needed a degree to be one. Most kids my age think history is boring, but history was always my favorite. It’s safe. You already know everything about it—no surprises. Anyway, I only wanted to go to the local community college, but money was tight at home. My parents were still paying off Lizzie’s medical bills.
Lizzie was my sister. She was supposed to start high school this fall. She was supposed to be working at the Snow Shack making snow cones this summer and going swimming with me and Julie and reading books on the back porch. She’s buried in the City Park Cemetery instead. She died last winter.
She wasn’t supposed to die. She went up to the mountains with some family friends to go sledding and snowmobiling. She’d been sledding up there a thousand times. There was an accident and Lizzie’s sled collided with a tree. She was life-flighted to St. Luke’s hospital with some bad head injuries and was in a coma for a few days. She never woke up.
“Ready for another job?” Daniel came up, shovel in hand. I shook my head. I didn’t like thinking about Lizzie too much.
“I can finish this up in a minute. I’m just taking a breather.” The last thing I wanted was for him to think I was too wimpy for this job. Deep down, I knew I was only hired because the government required a certain number of female employees working in the park. I filled the quota.
“Too bad. Greg radioed in. He wants us to drive to the east side. Someone called to report a dead animal on the road near Double Falls. We’ll check it out and clean up the mess.”
The mess? Would I be sweeping guts off the side of the road? My stomach churned as I climbed out of the trench, pulling the Pionjar out with me. Daniel slung it in the bed of the truck. I slid into the passenger seat. I wasn’t allowed to drive the park vehicles yet.
The engine gurgled contentedly as we pulled out of the campground. The drive to the east side of the park took about half an hour. I rolled down the window, my fingers playing with the breeze outside. Driving around was my favorite part of the job. I think it was everyone’s favorite part. I kept my eyes on the red rocks and sweeping canyons blowing past my window. I’d promised my little sister Julie that I’d report any wildlife I spotted during work. She’d informed me of all the animals living within the park—mountain lions, squirrels, lizards, desert bighorn, mule deer, coyotes, and a pair of golden eagles. I doubted I’d see anything. If I were an animal, I’d stay as far away from this noisy roadway as possible. With thousands of acres in the park, I could think of lots of places to hang out besides the side of the road.
My sister Julie was nuts. She wanted to be a zookeeper. While most kids came home from school and flipped on the TV to cartoons, she turned on recorded episodes of Emergency Vets and decade-old videos of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America. She was only eight but I was convinced that she was on her way to being a crazy cat lady. She kept a wad of her cat Muffi’s musty fur in her sock drawer. And last Christmas she knit Muffi a vest. That was the first time I felt like that cat and I had anything in common because Julie knit me a matching scarf with the leftover yarn. I knew she really made the scarf for Lizzie, but she gave it to me instead.
“Good work handling the Pionjar today. It’s not an easy job,” Daniel said.
“Thanks. It’s definitely not as easy as it looks.”
Daniel huffed out a laugh. “That’s for sure.”
“So what’s the difference between a jackhammer and a Pionjar? They look the same to me.”
“They’re spelled differently.” He looked at me and raised his bushy eyebrows.
“Why even have two names then?”
He shrugged. “Dunno. That’s just what it’s called up here.”
“What kind of animal did Greg say was on the road?”
“Sounded like a mule deer. A car of German tourists called in, and I guess they had heavy accents, and Greg’s been half deaf in his right ear for years. We’ll find out for sure when we get there.”
Pictures of all the dead rabbits I’d seen on the road by my house floated into my mind. They were all pretty flattened; you’d have to use a putty knife to scrape them off. We didn’t bring any putty knives with us. I hoped we didn’t need them.
We passed the sign marking the Double Falls turnoff. About fifty feet further was a brown smudge on the side of the road. We pulled up behind it. I didn’t want to breathe when we stepped out of the truck. The air smelled slightly rank, of meat just beginning to rot. The animal was sprawled against the blue asphalt, its slender legs awkwardly angled beneath its body. It wasn’t a mule deer.
Daniel swore. I tried to remember what Julie has said about the herd of desert bighorn sheep that lived in the park. They lived on the west side. What was this one doing all the way out here? Daniel pulled out his radio.
“Greg, its Dan.”
Greg’s voice came out of the radio, loud and full of static.
“Did you find the deer?”
“Its no deer. Someone hit one of the bighorn ewes, one of the two-year-olds by the looks of it.”
I took a step closer to the dead sheep. My boot nearly touched its bloody hind leg. I knew enough to realize how important the herd was to the park. It was one of the last native herds left in the state. These sheep had been born in these canyons and had wandered through the juniper groves for who knows how long. Generations of Native Americans, settlers, and tourists had heard the clack of their hooves as they bounced up a rock face. This ewe was a part of this park.
Her unblinking eyes reflected the world like two small globes. I thought I could see my silhouette moving in the black of her iris. Her horns were small, dainty. They didn’t look strong enough to withstand the powerful head butts her breed was famous for. Maybe females didn’t head butt like the males did. Or maybe she was too young to take part. I wondered if two years was much in the life of a bighorn. Then I saw the blood draining from beneath her rump. Her hind flank was strangely flat and sagged against the asphalt. I wanted to gag. The car must have crushed her hipbones, knocking them into jumbled pieces and tearing into her tender flesh. I tried to imagine what it felt like to be hit so hard that all my bones shattered. I felt my bones drifting into my innards. I caught my breath. It was a familiar feeling. I took a deep breath as my vision blurred. That was how Lizzie died. That was how I felt when Lizzie died.
I wanted to pull the ewe away from the road and dig her a grave. I felt she deserved as much. The hole would have to be big. My uncle made the mistake once of digging a hole too small for his old dog Tank. He spent four hours digging it only to find that Tank had stiffened up and wouldn’t fit. So Tank was buried in pieces. I didn’t want to learn how to use a chainsaw today. I nudged her hind hoof. It hardly budged. Daniel was still on the radio with Greg.
“The body? In good condition. The hind legs are broken but the head is still decent. Yeah, I think maybe they could use it at the visitor’s center. We’ll bring it back to headquarters and you can have a look.”
“We’re taking her back to headquarters?” I glanced at Daniel, then back to her. He nodded.
“Greg figures we can use the head at the visitor’s center.”
“We’ll have it stuffed and they’ll probably hang it on the wall in the animal exhibit. It’d be a shame to waste what’s left of her.” He motioned to the ewe.
We pulled on our thick leather gloves and unfolded the plastic tarp on the ground next to the body. As Daniel instructed, I took hold of the head. The flesh was no longer soft and supple. It was like I was gripping something wooden and cold. Like it hadn’t been living at all. I took a deep breath. I tried not to think of Lizzie. How cold and stiff her hands felt before they closed her casket. As Daniel and I picked the ewe’s body up and transferred it to the truck bed next to the Pionjar, the body didn’t sag with gravity’s pull. It was stiff, as if we were carrying a piece of furniture. I shook my head. But it wasn’t a piece of furniture. She had existed. She was more than the stiff body, lying so still.
We got into the truck again and started back towards maintenance headquarters. I stared into the passing wilderness, my eyes searching for anything that moved. Julie would ask what animals I’d seen today. I wanted to find something living to report to her. I didn’t want to tell her about a dead sheep. Thinking about the ewe, her body broken, her brown eyes staring at me, I kept seeing Lizzie’s bruised body, wrapped in a hospital gown, her eyes closed. She had looked peaceful. Like she was asleep. But the ewe died with her eyes wide open.
Suddenly Daniel pulled off to the side of the road. He pointed out over the canyon.
“Look—on that overhang just to the right—you see them?” he said. I followed the direction of his finger. “That’s our pair of golden eagles.”
It took a moment before my eyes found them: two giant birds perched in the gnarled branches of a juniper tree rooted precariously on the cliff’s edge. The sun glinted off the eagles’ brown feathers. I squinted. The light made my eyes water. I blinked a few times, and then looked away. I had found something living to tell Julie about. But all I could think of was the ewe, warm in the bed of the truck. She had brown eyes, like Lizzie did. She was young. Lizzie was too. I looked back at the eagles once more.
“They’re beautiful,” I said, nodding to Daniel.
Daniel pulled back onto the road. The roar of the engine disrupted the silence of the canyon. “This canyon is their favorite place in the park. It’s the only place I’ve ever spotted them,” he said. I looked back briefly. I could still see the eagles, two lone black specks against the desert sky.
“Greg can help me with the sheep. Are you up to finishing off that sheet of sandstone today?” Daniel asked. He slowed the truck as we passed the visitors center and turned off towards the campgrounds.
“Good. Greg’ll be over in an hour or so to see how the slope’s coming along. I’d say try to go about six inches deeper. The bottom of the trench is all bedrock, so it might take you awhile to cut through it.”
He dropped me off at the trench site. I leaned against the side-door. I tried not to look in the bed of the truck. Dan pulled the Pionjar out from next to the dead ewe. She was beginning to smell. He handed me the Pionjar. I didn’t want to touch it. I wanted to wipe it down, to clean it. But I took it from him anyway.
The metal casing burned my leg through my work pants. I glanced once more at the still body in the truck bed before turning and trudging to the trench, dragging the drill behind me and sliding down into the hot dirt. I could feel the heat seeping through my work gloves. I found the spot where I’d stopped drilling hours before, the same small insignificant indentation in the rock. I had a long way to go. I wasn’t worried. The Pionjar roared to life, butting its head into the red rock. Sweat rolled down my face like tears. Or maybe they were just tears. I couldn’t tell. They both taste salty to me.