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“Wendover”

He sat, calmly, rocking. Back and forth; to and fro. The horse underneath him wore four wooden shoes mounted on two curved pieces of pine that let the horse canter. The little light brown suede saddle rested on a green felt saddle pad and the horse himself had a mane made of mangled brown yarn. The boy wore jeans and a black long sleeve even though the playa had heat waves rolling up off of it. His sneakers had faded from white to grey. The boy had been starring off into the distance, rocking, for the past twenty minutes.

Wendover, Utah had been home for the boy’s entire life. The Bonneville Salt Flats were his playground. His dad sold gas at the only Chevron station in town and his mom was a maid at the Super 8. On Wednesday’s they had Taco Bell. The salt flats were both beautiful and ugly, at once. Even when he stood on his tip toes, all the boy could see was nothing. A flat expanse of heat waves and silence. The air was too hot and too dry for most animals, though a few bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and the occasional mountain lion could be found if you wandered far enough out of town. The sky held a blue so bright and vast that the boy would sometimes lie on his back on the flats and feel as if he was drowning. He’d never seen the ocean, though, of course. He imagined it would be something similar. If he lay on the salt for long enough it would begin to itch and tingle against his skin, leaving faint red traces that could only be solved with a shower, lots of lotion, and a nap.

It hadn’t rained in Wendover for over a month. This was all the boy’s parents talked about at the dinner table, though it didn’t matter much to their line of work. With Interstate 80 passing right through, thousands of people stopped every week for gas or a cheap night’s rest on their way from wherever to somewhere. The boy couldn’t imagine a world different than his own, though the pictures in the books on the shelves in his kindergarten classroom at West Wendover Elementary School made him believe.

“Dylan,” His mother said to the boy in her absentminded way, “Will you please clear the table?” The boy always tried to obey his mother, though sometimes he became overcome with excitement or simply forgot what she told him to do. In times like these he would wail as his mother brought her hand down on his rump until it glowed a healthy red. So the boy listened to his mother and did as he was asked, though it meant he had to stand on tip toes to pile the dishes into the kitchen sink that had been prepared with warm water and a dollop of dish soap.

The boy didn’t often disobey, but that didn’t stop his daddy’s hand from flying. His daddy had been a drinker, long before his mother, Margaret, had gotten to know him. Margaret had met Robert at the Nugget Casino one night about six years prior. His daddy was local. His mother was just passing through town on her way from Des Moines to Sacramento. The two had shared a few drinks, had a few smokes, and won a few bucks. Two months later they were engaged after the pregnancy test came back positive.

The boy knew about accidents. One afternoon he was watching his daddy paint a sign on the lawn for a yard sale they were planning to have. The giant sheet of plywood had been painted white earlier in the day and the time, date, and location of the sale was being painted on it in red. The boy was playing with a ball his mom had bought for him out of the ball bin at Walmart. He was rolling the ball to the garage wall and then catching it in the V he made with his legs. One time he passed the ball at an angle and the ball rolled away from his body and down the slight hill of their driveway, gaining speed as it went. He watched the ball as it smashed into the paint can, spilling red all over the plywood and across sidewalk. The boy’s daddy left him quite a few bruises after that.

In the morning after the boy had woken up he sat on the worn down sofa,  listening to the news and eating Kix. The short, round faced newswoman had been talking about the weather, again, predicting no rain at all on the ten day forecast. His mother watched, chewing on her fingernails and mhm-ing at her mom on the other end of the telephone line. The boy’s daddy had already left for work, taking the 7am shift. The boy’s mother was wearing long fake nails with pink glitter and a French tip. Her hair was up in curlers, the soft pink sponges surrounded by hair and held in place by their plastic frame. Her makeup was already done. Thick eyeliner, thick mascara, and thick eye shadow made her look older than she was. The reason she moved out West was the same reason everyone did it during the Gold Rush; she was hoping to strike it rich. Technology was booming in California and she’d hoped to apply her business degree at one of the corporations in the city. Instead, she wound up with a dead end job, an alcoholic husband, and a son she wasn’t prepared to have. “Mama,” she said, despite her age she’d never outgrown calling her that, “I hafta go. Gotta get Dylan to school. Kisses.” A pause. “Love you too,” another pause, “mhm,” another, “Okay, bye now. Buh-bye.” She hung the off-white phone up in its cradle.

The boy rinsed his dish and put it in the sink, grabbed his bag off the back of the chair, and headed out the front door into the late August heat. The boy hadn’t been in school long, and a few weeks beforehand his mother had taken him back-to-school shopping at Saver’s in town. The rows of color categorized shirts, shorts, and jeans had seemed almost like a game of Candy Land to the boy, each color fading in order from deep red to soft pink, to bright orange to rust, golden to baby yellow, and down to a lavender purple at the end of the rack. He tried on a dozen pairs of jeans, about as many shirts, and a few pairs of shorts, though only a few fit right. Some of the clothing was added to the reject pile because of bleach stains or gum that had gotten stuck on the inside of a pocket by a previous owner. The clothing the boy kept had the smell of industrial laundry, bleach, and moth balls.

Already the before school program was asking about the boy’s bruises. Miss Abby, the friendly woman who normally did paperwork quietly in the corner, was the one who approached his mother. The boy held his mother’s hand, silently listening to Miss Abby question her. When she’d asked if there was any chance of abuse in the family, perhaps having noticed that Margaret herself had come in once with a swollen lip and always seemed to be wearing long sleeves, Margaret had told the woman he was a young boy. “Boys play rough,” She said, “He rides a bike, plays baseball with his father, and is practicing soccer as well. Sometimes he falls down.” She acted miffed, but mostly she was scared. The boy’s mother pulled him aside once they were done talking. “Dylan,” she said, “You can’t tell Daddy about this. Not ever, okay? If you’re good and keep it secret we can get ice cream, okay?” The boy nodded. Margaret left and went to work. While there, she spilt a bottle of bleach on her uniform. She’d have to buy herself a new one.

The boy liked school. He liked learning his letters and numbers and could already count by two’s and five’s up to 20. His two favorite parts of school were the pet butterflies they had, sleeping cozily in their cocoons, and the white stuffed bunny named Peter that was a shared stuffed toy. Every weekend Peter went home with a different student and on Monday that student would talk in front of the class about what they did over the weekend with the rabbit. The boy was fond of reading with his mother at night, too. They’d sit together eating beanies and weanies and reading over Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Margaret was always unbelievably patient with him, even though the smell of bleach and bathroom still clung to the insides of her nostrils. The news was always on in the background, droning on about drought.

The boy’s daddy was teaching him how to play baseball at night, after he had finished his homework and Robert had showered and had his first beer of the night. Robert first taught the boy to play catch, tossing the ball at him, gently — always underhand — so that he could catch it. The boy would then throw it back, trying to master the art of a proper pitch. The boy wanted to be just like his daddy when he grew up. He saw his daddy as good at everything, a pro baseball player, a fantastic gas station attendant, and a great TV sports fan. Robert loved the boy.

Robert had a pretty chaotic work schedule, but he’d never missed a soccer game. In fact, through the summer months the boy’s daddy even taught a soccer day camp for kids aged 4-6. He worked the night shift so that he could coach the boy in the afternoons. He’d started teaching when the boy had expressed interest in the sport one afternoon while the two of them were watching the World Cup together. Robert watched sports every night; whatever game was on was the one he watched. Whatever team was winning was the one he cheered for. When the boy had said, “Daddy, I wanna do that!” Robert had gone online and order himself a copy of The Baffled Parent’s Guide to Teaching Youth Soccer by Bobby Clark. The boy was a strong player, paid close attention to instructions, and willingly spent hours in the yard practicing each night. Robert spent hours with the boy, lining his foot up just right with the curve of the ball, practicing sprints, and doing dribble drills through a series of cones.

Perhaps if Robert’s own father hadn’t ever hit him, Robert wouldn’t have laid a hand on his son, but Robert didn’t see it as abuse so much as shaping. The first time Margaret had intervened, begging Robert to stop, Robert had told her he wasn’t out to hurt his son — just teach him right from wrong. He told her not to disrespect him, and taught her that speaking up like she had was wrong. The boy sat on the floor watching as his daddy hit his mother, his own knees tucked up under his chin. When he couldn’t watch anymore he tipped his head down and instead began counting tiles on the kitchen floor. Tiny squares in black and white lined the linoleum flooring. The boy counted 47 black tiles and 48 white before his daddy stormed out of the kitchen. After that, his mother kept her mouth shut and helped take care of the boy only once his daddy was done with him.

One afternoon after school let out the boy was sitting in the kitchen eating a stack of Ritz, a string cheese stick, and a slice of turkey. He was watching Dora the Explorer on the small TV set on the counter when his daddy came in, slamming the front door behind him. Robert came in cursing, sputtering about being let go, throwing his Chevron baseball cap to the floor. The boy didn’t say anything. Instead, he watched quietly from the barstool at the counter. His daddy had frozen in one corner of the kitchen, his fingers knotted up tight in his short, thinning hair. He kept muttering under his breath words the boy had been told not to repeat. When the boy finished his snack, he picked up his plate and glass to carry them over to the sink. He set both down in the empty basin making a clatter.

Suddenly, his daddy was shouting at him, throwing punches. The boy sunk down to the floor and threw his arms up over his face, letting his wrists take the brunt of the beating. “Don’t you ever make that much noise again, you hear me, Boy? Kids are meant to be seen and not heard. Don’t you dare go disrespecting your Daddy like that, you hear?” Robert slammed one fist down and then the other. The boy was wailing for his mother. Margaret walked into the kitchen, fretful and anxious. Robert wasn’t stopping. Soon there was blood and more screaming.

Margaret put a hand on Robert’s back, “Bobbie, honey, what’s going on?” Instead of reasoning with her, Robert flung his fists at her, shouting at her that she ought to have learned her lesson the first time, screaming that he was just teaching the boy a lesson. The boy didn’t move from his spot on the floor. His crumpled sobs were muffled behind his arms and his mother’s own crying. A clap of thunder echoed in the sky, the heat finally bursting into a storm. When the thunder finished rumbling, a police siren sped down their street. Nobody heard the knock on the door over the commotion in the room and the commotion in the sky. When the police walked into the kitchen, the boy ran out to the front porch. He sat on the steps feeling the warm rain mix with the warm tears and warm blood. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, smearing blood across his upper lip.

The land speed record was broken at the Bonneville Speedway, not far from home for the boy. The car was black, mean looking, with a point at the front to cut into the air in front of it. In October of 1997 the ThrustSSC sped down the track at 763 miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier. The tires would have spun so fast that you could see it pass you before you heard it coming.

The boy climbed onto his wooden horse and started rocking. Back and forth; to and fro.

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