Naomi had planned to stop for a date shake that morning, at the turnoff to the high desert, before she journeyed on in the hope of adventure or a hamburger and a couple of beers, whichever came first. Still, she got sidetracked by the hand-painted sign: CAHUILLA GIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. A blood-red arrow pointed toward the San Gabriel Mountains. Naomi turned left abruptly and zipped past a stand of sage bushes with blue-purple flowers. She stained the blacktop with rubber tread marks.
A couple of miles down the road, a large tumbleweed rolled in front of her car; she veered to miss it and nearly hit a rabbit. Naomi slowed down fifty feet from the shop, a small faded pink stucco house. She parked her car on gritty dirt and went inside. She was greeted by a middle-aged Indian woman, dressed in jeans and a denim work shirt, a white streak tinged with vestiges of green dye shooting through her black hair. The woman wore three gold chains, one of which sported the name Linda, written in script.
The woman paused the old episode of Cheers she had been watching.
“May I help you?” she asked, smiling.
“I’m just looking,” Naomi said. There wasn’t much to look at — a few geodes, dust covering the amethysts and topaz and quartz, and some beaded bangle bracelets, a good supply of Concord grape-coloured bandanas, a couple of packaged tee shirts, also grape-coloured, and a reach-in refrigerated case filled with soda, beer, bottled water, and snack products. Naomi picked up a tee-shirt.
“Linda?” Naomi said, “Can I open this?” Naomi asked.
Linda, who had resumed watching her episode, looked down at her necklace and back up at Naomi. She waved her hand, sure, and turned back to her screen. It took Naomi two minutes and a broken fingernail to open the tightly-secured shrink-wrapped package.
“Shit,” she said, putting her finger in her mouth and biting off the rest of the nail. The Indian woman turned around.
“That’s a good colour for you with that yellow hair,” she said, pointing at the half-opened shirt package.
“Yeah, I just — Naomi stopped speaking as she shook the shirt out to view it. “Ooh. That’s pretty,” she said. “A dream catcher, right?”
Linda nodded. “It’s good luck,” she said, and she turned up the television.
Naomi pulled a credit card out from the depths of her Forever 21 plastic purse.
“Cash only,” Linda said.
“But I need the cash for — ” Naomi began. “Good luck?”
A few minutes later, Naomi walked out of the Cahuilla Gift Shoppe wearing her new tee shirt and three bangle bracelets and carrying two bottles of Budweiser and no cash. She had thought about the bologna and cheese snacks and the bottled water, but the bracelets were great, and she could buy food later, with her nearly maxed credit card. Besides, a drive like this one, an adventure, deserved some beer. She looked at the bracelets on her wrist and sighed with satisfaction.
Naomi drove on until she saw another sign: NO TRESPASSING. Since there was no immediate place to turn around, she ventured farther, hoping the used Toyota her folks gave her for her twentieth last year was up for the task. When the highway narrowed, and the shoulder disappeared, Naomi’s upper lip began to sweat, and she bit down hard on the lower one. Her back stiffened as the paved road ended without warning — now, there was no way to turn around without the risk of spinning her wheels in the desert sand. Naomi found herself driving over an almost barren field, fording a surprisingly robust stream — she was getting scared and feeling dizzy with the bounce of the ride. She hoped the Toyota wouldn’t roll over or get stuck. Then. Cows. Right there. Sweat-like bee stings in her eyes as she drove around them, as they ignored her, perhaps miraculously. Finally, a road, and it seemed to circle back in the right direction.
Just a couple more miles, she told herself. She picked up her phone to get the GPS happening, but there was no reception. How long had she been driving? She knew it was past noon because the sun had been high and seemed to be on the ebb. If only she had paid more attention at Girl Scout camp. Orienteering, they called it.
I need to calm down, she thought. Naomi pulled over to the side of the road. She put her head down on the wheel and counted to sixty before she twisted the cap off of the first bottle of beer.
“Oh god, what is that?”
The light was getting dusky, the sun going down. The beers had helped her nerves and given her the confidence to continue on. Still, after a half-hour of passing nothing but a couple of empty houses and an old Chevy parked by the side of the road, Naomi was shaking with anxiety. When she finally saw living, breathing people standing behind a two-foot-high stone wall, next to what appeared to be a church, she gasped with relief at the thought of help. As she pulled up next to the building, Naomi heard a drumbeat and chanting. She shut off the engine and got out of the car, faint with hunger and a vague need to pee. She took a step forward toward the gathering of people — maybe there were twenty — and lurched slightly to the side. She leaned against the car for a minute to get her equilibrium. When her breathing became steadier, and her eyes were able to focus through what she realized were tears, she saw one of the men in the group place a shovelful of dirt on the ground. No. On a grave. Naomi gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth to cover her shock, the bracelets adding to her distress with their jangling.
She put her hand on the door handle of the Toyota, ready to get back in and drive away, to take a chance on finding a way out of this maze.
The drumbeat stopped, the chanting stopped. The man with the shovel looked up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. An old woman with fire in her eyes said something to him, visibly spraying spit. The man handed the shovel to the woman and took long strides to the cemetery gate. He opened it and continued over to where the little car was parked.
Naomi closed her eyes and bowed her head — the dream catcher appeared on the inside of her lids.
The man spoke in a soft voice. “Do you know what it is you are interrupting?” he asked.
Naomi shook her head no without lifting her eyes. She could see the cuffs of the man’s black church suit and his polished black shoes.
“Yes,” she said.
The man said nothing.
“I — I am lost,” she said, too quietly for him to hear.
As the man looked over at the group, Naomi raised her head and looked at them, too, the mourners. The women wore circular skirts and turquoise jewelry. The man with the drum wore feathers and beads.
“It was my grandfather,” the man said. He spoke in a near whisper. “He was respected. The old woman looked up, displaying a face carved with lines of grief and anger. “That’s my grandma,” the man said, gesturing with a nod toward the woman, who was exhaling storm clouds. He turned to face Naomi directly.
Naomi let out a single sob, a sound that had been jailed and came limping, strangling, to freedom.
Before she could think of what to say, a simple question, how do I get away from here? The man pulled Naomi’s passenger door open.
“Get in,” he said.
She did, a numb reflex, and before she could logic together that she was no longer in charge here, the man got in on the driver’s side, revved up the engine and sped off.
“Where are we going?” Naomi asked.
“I’m getting you out of here.”
The tears slowed, and Naomi hiccupped for breath. The fears of the day washed over her. She had wanted an adventure. She hadn’t wanted to die. She took a ragged breath and turned to her new chauffeur.
“Thank you,” she said, with adrenalin-fueled self-assurance.
The man said nothing.
Naomi remembered the Swiss army knife she carried at all times, the knife she used to show her friends how cool she was, how prepared she was — she had learned that much in Girl Scouts — how she could always cut open a package or open a bottle of wine. Especially that, open a bottle of wine. She was so thirsty.
“I’m going to get a cigarette out of my purse,” Naomi said to the man. She was sure he didn’t want any false moves, that he wanted to see her hands at all times.
“I thought it smelled a little smoky in here,” the man said. He laughed. “May I have one too?”
There was only one Marlborough Light left, and she knew it. Naomi dug in her bag and found the cigarette pack and the knife, pulled them out together, palming the knife so that her captor couldn’t see it. “Oh,” she said, “there’s only one. I guess you could have it.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m Red Feather. You smoke it.”
“Naomi?” she said, with a little girl question mark.
Naomi looked at Red Feather’s face, only turning her eyes. He had large, sharp features and a deep dimple on his chin. She couldn’t read his expression. “I’ll put my window down,” she said, and as she searched for her Bic lighter, she thought about dropping the knife back into her bag. She didn’t, though — she kept it palmed as she pulled the lighter out. She lifted up one butt cheek and put the Swiss Army knife beneath her thigh, lit the cigarette. At the first inhale, she had a little coughing fit.
“You good?” Red Feather asked.
Naomi nodded through her cough, and when it subsided, she said, “Yeah,” and she tried again. “Where are we going?”
Red Feather didn’t say anything for a good minute. They were still on dirt, no pavement to be seen ahead, and as they went over a bump and the knife dug into Naomi’s buttock, Red Feather said, “My Grandpappy.” He shook his head. “He would have liked you.”
Naomi didn’t know how to take that. “I’m thirsty,” she said.
Red Feather laughed. “When we get to Yucaipa, I’ll buy you a Coke.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said, sitting up straighter. She could feel the oblong knife shape. “How far is it?” she asked.
“Coupla miles,” he said.
Naomi licked dry lips. “But where? Where are you taking me?”
“Away from the Rez,” he said. Nothing more.
Naomi snuffed out her cigarette in the car’s ashtray. Neither Red Feather nor Naomi said anything else until they got to a small white aluminum-sided building with gas pumps out front and a sign that said EAT/TRY OUR FAMOUS PEANUT BUTTER PIE. Red Feather pulled the car up in front of the pumps. “You’re out of gas,” he said, turning around and walking into the building.
Naomi climbed over the divider and got in the driver’s seat, the knife falling to the floor. She turned the key and hit the gas, then looked at the empty gauge. She turned the car off and got out, grabbed her credit card and inserted the nozzle into the neck of the gas tank. The tank was full when Red Feather came out of the place, carrying a can of Coca-Cola.
“Here,” he said, “Now get in your car and go back to L.A.”
Naomi raised her eyebrows. “San Diego.”
“I was close, wasn’t I?”
“Off by a hundred miles and a lot of bullshit,” she said.
Naomi turned the key, and the car started. They looked at each other again. She turned the key the other way.
Red Feather and Naomi walked into a bar.
The white building was a truck stop, really, not a bar, no alcohol served — The Trading Post, it was called, and it was frequented by both locals and tourists.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Red Feather said. He waved to the waitress and a skinny old man sitting at the counter and led Naomi to a booth.
She didn’t sit down.
“Where’s the —‘’
The waitress pointed to the back of the place, and Naomi walked quickly to the restroom and went inside. I’m crazy, she thought, but she was really hungry and really thirsty, and here she was. She peed, washed her hands, and checked a pale image in the warped metal that served as a mirror. When she came out, Red Feather and the waitress were talking.
“It’s a crying shame he’s gone,” the waitress said, and she wiped a tear.
Red Feather nodded. He turned to look at Naomi.
“Naomi, right?” he said. “This is Little Pammy.” Little Pammy was not little. “I’ve known her since I was little.”
“And since I was,” Little Pammy said, and she laughed, her chin like Jello.
“I think you’re beautiful,” Red Feather said.
Little Pammy snorted. She looked Naomi in the eye and said, “He didn’t think that when he and his drunken buddies raised hell in here last week,” she said. “I told them to go back to their government-owned land.”
“That was harsh,” Red Feather said.
“You know we don’t allow no booze in here,” Pammy said. She winked and walked away.
Red Feather called out to her back, “Two peanut butter pies, please.”
Pammy turned and eyeballed Red Feather, dressed in his funeral suit, raised one of her pencilled eyebrows and blew a rusty red corkscrew of a curl from in front of her face up to her hairline, where it somehow managed to stay. Red Feather shifted in his seat, took off his tie, shrugged small, mouth twitching to smile.
Naomi dug into that pie the second she got it, a hungry wolf pup. She had gulped half the piece before Red Feather picked up his napkin and dabbed at the corner of his mouth, eyebrows raised to indicate that there was something at the corner of her mouth – Naomi lifted her napkin and wiped pie goop away, and some whipped cream. She crumpled the napkin and threw it down on her pie slice.
“This place doesn’t even sell beer?” she said to Red Feather.
Red Feather stood up, seeming to wrestle with his demons. “Wait here,” he said and went out the door. Naomi watched him talking on his cell phone, not sure what to do. She took out her wallet — she would pay for the pie and get out of here. She looked up and saw what seemed to be her destiny — a CASH ONLY sign; she was beginning to rummage in the plastic purse for loose change when Red Feather took the phone away from his ear and came back inside.
“Um, this is awkward,” Naomi said to him, “but I can’t pay for anything. I don’t have any cash. I call myself ‘cashless wonder.’ I don’t carry it because when I have it, I spend it, but I better go, I better get back home, I better — ‘’
“I can pay for your pie, don’t worry,” Red Feather said. “My — he raised his hands and made air quotes — drunken buddies gave me a bunch of cash this morning because I let them borrow my truck.”
“I owe you,” Naomi said. “I feel like I owe you.” She screwed up her mouth.
As they spoke, a young guy in a Lakers jersey and baggy pants placed a white paper bag on the lunch counter next to a toothpick holder, turned and smiled at nobody in particular, and left. Red Feather strolled over casually, took a toothpick, put the little stick in his mouth and picked up the paper bag with his other hand.
“You’re not in my debt,” Red Feather said, back at the table and opening the bag. He pulled Styrofoam soda cups, lidded and full of beer, out of the sack. “I was thirsty too.”
“Oh god, what is that?” Naomi said, feeling the saliva come into her mouth, like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
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Another paper bag came a half-hour later, and then another.
“I’m gonna call you Little Paper Poppy, ” said Red Feather. “Because you don’t have money, like those kids that sell those poppies.”
“No, seriously,” said Naomi, “I cry when I get those, you know, those little beaded things in the mail. And the pictures of the kids, the poor kids who don’t get enough to eat, the — ” She stopped, blew her nose on a napkin.
“Like I said a few minutes ago. It’s not your fault. And for the hundredth time, the ceremony was almost over. Grandpappy is okay with us having pie.”
The last few sips of beer had taken Naomi visibly over the line into wasted drunk territory. She moved her foot under the table, so it touched Red Feather’s foot.
“Whoa, I’ve got to use the facilities,” he said, getting up so fast he knocked over a ketchup bottle.
When he returned, Little Pammy was sitting at the table, holding Naomi’s hand. Naomi was crying. Little Pammy looked at Red Feather. “Did you want your check?”
Red Feather stood up. “Yes,” he said. “Please.”
“At least let me —” Naomi reached for her bag, then remembered the no-money thing.
Red Feather put his finger to his lips. “Shhhh,” he said.
She wanted to kiss him, she wanted to — she wasn’t sure what.
Red Feather threw a twenty on the table, put an arm around Naomi, and guided her outside, lifted her into the car.
Naomi passed out as soon as they started moving, and when they got to the reservation, Red Feather parked the Toyota in his truck’s space — and left the kid in her stupor. He covered her with a blanket, dropped her knife into her plastic purse, which he placed on the other seat, and cracked a window.
“It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed.”
“Little Poppy.” Red Feather was shaking Naomi awake. It was almost dawn. She lay under a blanket in the passenger seat of her car. A light rain was falling, rare in this part of the world. “You had best get your sweet self out of here.” Red Feather fished her keys out of the crevice between the car seats.
Naomi felt a cosmic disconnect as she took the car keys out of his hand. Her brain was packed in bubble wrap, and she was afraid if she made the wrong move, the bubbles would begin popping and cause her head to explode. Naomi once again climbed into the driver’s seat in a trance, pushing the purse to the side, and started her car. Red Feather pointed. “That way,” he said, “straight, all the way. Up over that hill.”
She saw where he was pointing and understood his urgency, although the reasons did not come to mind. She smelled beer; her stomach was slush. Her bladder felt like a football. Vomit rose like lava – she gulped it back. Head pounding, vision skewed, Naomi tried to speak. Thank you? Is that what was required? Words did not come.
Naomi started the car. It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed. She straightened the wheel just short of driving off the shoulder and lurched away. She tried to lift her leaden hand to wave. Body not working. She made a peace sign on her thigh, where nobody saw it. When Naomi crested the hill, Red Feather turned around and walked home.
“Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering.”
In a parallel universe, Redfeather’s drunken buddies had been matching Naomi’s beer consumption. One of them, Big Al, had been ranting most of the night about the blonde that fucked up Red Feather’s grandpappy’s funeral. When they saw the little Toyota, Big Al revved up the engine of Red Feather’s truck, skidded and squealed out after it. Dogs began to bark.
When Naomi heard the truck roaring behind her, the barking, when she glimpsed the men in the truck in her rearview, when she heard them shouting and laughing, her cobwebbed brain became a little clearer. She pressed her foot down on the gas pedal, and the little Japanese car jumped and began to go as fast as it could — the speedometer read ninety.
“White WOMAN!” one of the guys shouted. “Get your white ass off my land!”
“Gonna rip you up, honey!” someone else yelled. Laughing.
She squinted to keep from seeing it double, the sign up ahead — CAHUILLA GIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. Linda. Linda had been so nice. Another minute to get there, and then to the main road. Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering. Fear had her right where it wanted her. Maybe she didn’t deserve to get to the road. Maybe she had to pay for the sin of trespassing. And for interrupting the sacred — Jesus, God.
Naomi’s mouth was dry; her lips were stuck together; her tongue was thick and covered with moss; bile rose in her throat; she was about to wet her pants. She said a prayer, not even sure what prayer it was, maybe the one the alcoholics say, the serenity one. She fingered the dream catcher on the front of her shirt. It was for luck, good luck, perhaps the thing she had started out to find.
She was so thirsty.
Isabel Wolfe-Frischman’s fiction has been published in The Listening Eye, Paterson Review, and others. Her photographs have appeared in Trajectory and Olentangy Review. She has fiction upcoming in the fall issue of Fugue and a personal essay in a winter edition of Streetlight.