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Still Life with Family
by Mary Bachran
The board with the protruding nail snickered as the tire spewed it onto the side of the road. In an explosion of compressed air, the tire surrendered and slowly flapped to a halt.
“Goddammit!” A paunchy man in Dockers and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt vaulted from the driver’s side of the Suburban. He balled his hands on his hips and looked at the damage. Resisting an urge to kick the tire, he surveyed the undulating miles of open desert. A scar of asphalt bisected it to a range of mountains, wavering in the distance like sculpted fog. The sun licked the skin beginning to peek through his hair and sucked a bead of sweat from his forehead. “Where the hell did that board come from? I’ll bet you there’s not a service station within a hundred miles.”
“Charles, don’t swear in front of the children.” Tugging a sun hat low on her forehead, a pudgy woman crawled out the opposite door. She trudged around the vehicle to stare at the mutilated tire. “Why don’t you use the cell to call someone?”
“Because the goddamn cell’s been in a no service area for the past fifty miles, that’s why.”
The back door of the SUV burst open and a blonde headed girl in Hello Kitty shorts, a matching shirt and sunglasses erupted from it. “Daddy said a swear word. Twice!”
“Cheyenne,” her mother chided.
“If he can swear, why can’t I?” An adolescent boy, his bulk stretching the Guess t-shirt tightly across his belly, glowered in the doorway, a PSP dangling from his hands. “Why don’t you tell him to shut up? Huh, Mom?”
The man rounded the front of the SUV, his mouth set in a grim line. “Don’t you speak to your mother in that tone of voice.”
“Charles, calm down.” The woman laid a hand on his arm. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. Did you, Jason?”
The boy studied his feet. “Naw.” A smirk flashed across his lips.
“See? Now why don’t we just take a minute and figure out what we’re going to do.” She patted her husband’s arm.
“I don’t see as I have a lot of choices except to change the tire myself.” Bitterness tinged his voice as he wiped the sweat from his brow. He sighed. “Some goddamn vacation in the goddamn desert. Jason, get over here and help me.”
“Mom? Do I hafta? I’m hot and tired.”
“Charles, you know he’d probably just be in the way.”
The man’s face flushed and one hand drew into a fist. For an instant he seemed to teeter on the edge of violence, then, shoulders slumping into surrender, he spun. The Suburban shuddered as the back hatch slammed open.
“Come, kids. Let’s give your father some space.” She ushered the two children onto the spindly grass and sage dotting the side of the road. Searching the ground, she located a rock and perched herself on it. The ancient, pitted lava prodded her, thrust its sharp edges into the thin fabric of her shorts like claws snatching at a snoozing rabbit. The woman shifted, then shifted again. “Humph.” She stood, then strode to the SUV and rummaged in the back. A few minutes later she returned to the rock with a pillow in her hand and a book tucked under her arm. She smothered the rock’s crags, sat, adjusted her sunglasses, and opened her book.
Jason shuffled by the side of the road, grumbling, while a lizard darted in and out of his shadow. Sandy soil jumped into the air around his feet, clung to his calves, crawled under the straps of his sandals. Settling in, it scraped his skin with mica fingernails. He sank to the earth with a snort, removed his sandals and brushed the grit away. It slumped back to the ground, dusting the lizard’s tail. Turning his back to the sun, Jason flicked on the PSP.
Cheyenne circled her mother and brother, hands held over her sunglasses. “Oh, this is so cool. I can see my own eyes.” Sage tugged at her socks and pricked her legs, while grasses tickled the back of her knees. Momentarily dropping her hands from her reflection, she kicked the vegetation.
The man bent to his work. With tire iron and jack, he hefted the Suburban onto three wheels and fought lug nuts. The sun and breeze played tag with the skin of his head and neck. Taking turns, they cooked and cooled him, teased and taunted. He worked steadily, concentrating on the task at hand.
Overhead, two crows conspired in loud voices. Pirouetting around the Suburban, they played target practice with their droppings. The landscape, dressed in its finest colors, danced with shimmers of heat. Bugs crept out of their holes to stamp hieroglyphics in the dirt, flies clotted into intricate tangles, dust devils chased each other over the hills. Clouds puffed into extravagant shapes, told misted stories of ancient people and mysterious gods while sage perfumed the air.
Finally the man released the Suburban back onto its wheels. “Come on, let’s get going. I hope we can make Flagstaff by nightfall.”
“It’s about time.” Jason crawled to his feet and shuffled back into the vehicle. His sister skipped after him.
The woman carefully marked her place in the book. Pillow stuffed under one arm, she climbed aboard. “Next time we head west, honey, let’s fly. It’s so boring in the desert.”
The engine purred to life, then pulled the Suburban back onto the strip of asphalt. Within seconds, its shadow melted into the horizon.
The grass drooped, crows landed, breeze died, sage wilted, clouds evaporated, lizards and bugs retreated to their holes. Only the sun kept to its post. And the board, with its nail scratching the pavement, inched back into the middle of the road.
Ironspider - Nice short. Some good characterisation despite the brevity. Where next for the board one wonders!
I loved the board. Fabulous writing, too!
Excellent! I loved the twist at the end. Very good.
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