Her mother thought the water they had bought in town would see them through. Beth had never seen water sold before. The water was probably why the Rambler's springs had given out. In case she thought otherwise, Charlie told her that a cubic foot of water weighed 64 pounds.
She woke up confused in Harry's truck, her brain lost in the heat.
"Who's that groggy little girl over there?" Harry asked.
"Almost there, sweetie." A smack as her mother's wet arm separated from hers. They were high enough so that they could see the town below them, the whole town, all of it, how it wasn't round, circling out from a dense center, but went off like a Hershey bar between two ranges and then just stopped, one end of the town bitten off and irregular, the other end smooth. The road they were on was still a dirt road, but now there were ragged signs of life. Shacks and half-buried cars and squatter camps. Not a single person.
Closer to town the road was paved. Fences had been erected and their fields within were beaten with housing trailers. Monthly Rates, read one sign. Two children stood by the road, arms hanging dead, and stared at them as they drove by. The town had a big church, a bank, a post office, a bus station that was part of a restaurant. A banner strewn across the downtown street advertised a $14.99 bus ride to an A-bomb test site, barbecue included!
Harry turned down a side street and then into the empty parking lot. The motel's sign, Stagecoach Oasis, was turned off. Beth could see a swimming pool. The door to the motel office was thrown open and held by a brick. Through the screen door Beth heard radio music. Once I Had a Secret Love. A sad song but leaping with happy static. Her grandmother loved that song and always said turn it up at the exact moment that her mother said turn it down.
"Hello there!" Harry called.
"Hello, Harry," mumbled the lady in the motel office. She didn't look up. She was bent over her desk with a bottle of glue. A red pipe cleaner, clenched like a rose between her teeth, explained her muzzled voice. She wore bib overalls and a pink sleeveless shirt with an upturned collar. Her naked arms were thickly freckled and were on that border between looking strong and looking heavy. The fan in her office was turned off. The thing she was working on was laid out on a cooking sheet, tiny white shells and colored mostly turquoise fishbowl stones and colored mostly fuchsia strings, all of which she was arranging Hawaii-like inside a picture frame.
"Got a couple of uraniumaires for you," Harry said.
"Do you now." The lady looked up and Beth could see the surprise on her face to be locking eyes with a little girl -- a little girl of her talent and good looks, she might add, which would further the surprise. Right away Beth guessed this lady was the kind of person who liked protecting her deeper feelings. The lady suddenly aimed a big smile directly at Beth as if she had read Beth's thoughts and was protecting her reaction with amusement. She plucked the pipe cleaner from her mouth and put it on the cooking sheet with the rest of the stuff and told Harry to turn on the fan. She let the fan rotate around the room, dodging with the cooking sheet the fan's shifting aim until she found a spot where the wind wouldn't disturb the pattern of colored stones and shells. "Are these your friends?" she asked. Her hair was long and extra thick and she grabbed it up in a ponytail to let the fan's air hit her bared neck.
"They're staying up near Swing Line Wash."
"Good lord," the lady started to say before lifting her hand to alert them. That sad but happy song on the radio was nearing its end and it leaped into full static and the lady leaped with it: Now I shouted from the highest hills. Even told the golden daffodils. The radio's crunching took over and she switched it off. She sighed with disgust. "If that radio was a Geiger counter, I'd be rich. And I'd have a better radio." She looked at Beth's mother. "You going to stay the night, honey?"
From Lucky Strike by Nancy Zafris, pages 26-37 of the hardcover edition. Copyright Nancy Zafris 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Unbridled Books.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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