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Sticky Blue Popsicles
The summer I turned sixteen, my father decided on a whim that the four of us—me, my mom, my brother and himself—needed to take a family road trip. He announced suddenly at breakfast one Friday in August that we would go for the weekend. “A family trip really is long past due,” he said excitedly, leaning over the edge our kitchen table, the collar of his polo practically dipping into the puddle of syrup on his plate.
I looked up from my food and spoke seriously with my mouth full of waffles. “You haff gah to be kidding me!” From across the table, my brother little brother Matt snickered at my sad attempt to look serious while speaking with syrup dripping from my lips and half-chewed breakfast rolling around in my mouth. I shot him my look that says “don’t mess,” but he just opened up his mouth and showed me the soggy yellow contents on his tongue. I ignored him, swallowed my food, and turned my attention back to my father.
“Dad, please, you know this is the weekend of the county concert. All my friends and I already planned out the weekend from, like, start to finish!” My dad didn’t seem to hear me. He looked up at my mother, who stood at the sink washing dishes in the sun that came through the little window over the counter top.
“Kate, dear, think about it. We could finally spend some time together as a family…” She looked up from the sudsy plates in the sink.
“I think it’s a great idea. It’s been so long since we’ve done anything as a family.” I looked back and forth between my parents madly.
“Hello! County! Concert! This! Weekend! Am I the only one who sees a problem here?” My mom went back to scrubbing as she spoke to me.
“Anna, Hon, our family is more important. I’m sorry but you’re just going to have to take one for the team this time.”
“This is so unfair!” I looked across the table at my dad, but I could see he was already lost in his own thoughts, planning, mapping, scheduling our entire journey. Who knew what Godforsaken place he was planning to drag us to, but I had no intention of finding out.
“I am NOT GOING.”
“Are we there yet?” Matt had asked that question at least fifteen times already. I wanted to scream into his rosy little prepubescent face, “NO, for the thousandth time we ARE NOT there yet! Not that I would ever know when that was because the crazy man behind the wheel will not tell us where we’re going. So even if we were close, I couldn’t say, because I wouldn’t know our destination if I saw it! But seeing as how the car is still in motion, I would say it’s safe to assume that NO, we are DEFINITELY NOT THERE YET!”
But I didn’t say any of this. I hadn’t said a word the entire two and a half hours we’d been driving and I certainly didn’t want to give anyone in my family the satisfaction of blowing my record. So I just sat in the back seat with Matt, sulking, and staring out the window. I listened to the rickety hum of our station wagon and focused on the monotonous sandscape that whizzed by. I rested my head back on the head cushion and blanketed myself in the sunlight that streamed through the dusty window, watching the passing desert. There wasn’t a man-made structure in sight, and it certainly didn’t look like her suburban home town of Flagstaff. It was just endless sand—a baked, barren, yellow ocean that was only broken by the occasional passing cactus, or even rarer, a tree that looked so brown and thirsty it was hard to believe it hadn’t yet turned to dust and blown away. Watching this scene pass by, I read the highway signs. I counted the number of cactuses that we passed. I counted the number of rocks bigger than Matt’s head that we passed. Then I figured the ratio of cactuses to rocks bigger than Matt’s head. I daydreamed about what my friends were up to right this very moment, and wished I could be with them. I made shapes in the clouds.
Then, without warning, sleep took me.
“Anna banana, fee, fiy, fo fanna, Annnnnna!” Matt was singing my name. He always did this to cheer me up, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to resist reciting my part of the bit. It was our thing.
I opened my eyes and, sure enough, saw Matt looking down at me from outside my car door. The car was parked. I looked up at Matt, and couldn’t help it. I cracked a smile and sang the second verse, like always. “Mathew bo bathew, fee, fiy, fo fathew, Matheeeewwww!” He smiled at me, and I smiled back.
I got up slowly and squinted in the bright sun. Arizona was known for sun, of course, but at least in Flagstaff, it was bearable. Here, in this unknown wasteland, it was like God was holding a magnifying glass over all of us humans, watching us squirm in the scorching heat. I could see the heat surfacing of the gravel, rising up from the ground in reflective ripples. It looked like water; but, alas, it wasn’t.
“Hey! Anna! You’re awake!” My dad’s enthusiasm was as intense as it had been this morning. I often wondered where he got his energy from, and sometimes wished I could borrow some of it. Like now, for example, when going back to sleep on the worn, velvety seat cushion sounded more appealing than facing the sun and heat. But I blinked, adjusted my eyes, and stepped out of the car. We appeared to be parked in a sandy lot that was actually the peak of a tall red cliff. I walked over to the wooden fence that edged the cliff and looked out. The scene before me was like a painting done in only warm colors. Red mountains, orange plants, yellow sun, brown trees. A whole red world that stretched out as far as my eyes could see. The only thing that broke this scheme was the boundless blue sky. There wasn’t even the hope of a cloud within my entire view. It was, in a word, magnificent.
I gazed out at the scene before me, and Matt came up beside me to look too. Our shoulder’s touched as we leaned forward on the fence, taking it in, together.
Beneath the mountains and the sky, there was a town that seemed to be not too far off. I turned back to my parents, who were standing by the car looking at a map. They didn’t look up at me. “Where are we?” I finally asked, giving into my curiosity and breaking my silent treatment. My mom looked up and smiled at me, but it was my dad who answered.
“We, kiddo, are on Vulture’s Peak, and that town down there is called Wickenburg.”
“That’s right! We’ll be down there shortly. Your mother and I just want to find the safest rout down.”
I nodded, and then looked back to Matt. He was still leaning up against the fence, staring out at the scenic splendor. I came up behind him and said, “Hey, Matt, you know why they call this Vulture’s Peak?” He turned around and looked at me curiously. “Because of all the vultures that like to poke the eyes out of little boys like you!” Then he laughed and resisted as I poked him on the tummy, and when he turned his back to me, on the butt. My poking turned into full-on tickling, and I laughed along with him and started to chase him when he ran. This was one thing we did best together: being kids.
Eventually, we made it down to the “town” called Wickenburg (population 6,340). This little community took pride in the fact that it was about 150 years out of date. In any way possible, it added to the Wild West feel that they were supposedly “famous for.” For example, there were painted, life-like statues all around the downtown area, if you can even all it that. These statues were made to look like the citizens of a true western town. There was a woman leaning against the wood-paneled wall outside a saloon wearing a flamboyant red dress and too much makeup. There was a cowboy on a street corner holding a silver pistol in a “draw!” sort of pose. There was a dark-skinned man standing outside a novelty shop who was accompanied by a statue donkey. These figures were cheesy, yes, but fun in this guiltless cheesiness. We took silly pictures. Matt put his finger up the nose of the saloon woman, and I planted a kiss on the donkey’s cheek. We pretended to fall back fatally in the fire of the cowboy’s gun.
The four of us wandered up and down the streets of Wickenburg, we strayed in and out of family-owned shops and had lunch at a little restaurant called Nana’s. My dad bought the Matt and I blue freeze pops, and as we ate them, sticky blue juice ran down our mouths. We sat together, Matt and I, on the curb while we ate. And at one point, my dad called to us from behind and told us to stick out our tongues. We both turned around, our faces a mess of sugary blue coating, with our blue tongues hanging out. At that moment, my mom snapped a picture.
Today, my two daughters, my husband and I are taking the trip down to Wickenburg. My oldest, Lia, is sixteen as I was on my first trip down. Of course, Lia and her sister Sara are reluctant to give up their precious weekend, but I make them come along regardless.
As we wander around town, Lia spots the battered donkey statue, and runs up to it in amusement. “Ha! This is so ridiculous! I love it!” She strikes a silly pose beside the donkey and asks her father to take a picture. I watch her from behind the camera and smile.
When we pull into the garage of our suburban split-level, it’s dark and the girls have fallen asleep together in the back seat. My husband and I carry them up to bed. After everyone else is asleep, as I lay in bed, I take the framed photo from my night stand and tilt it into the moonlight from the bedroom window. Then, in the 5 by 7 frame, Matt comes alive again. I look at this picture, and remember him how he was before hospital rooms, and IVs, and sunken eyes—the elements of death that overtook his life at an age too young. In the silver moonlight, I can see him on the curb, twelve, sitting next to me, sixteen. In the snapshot, we both have our mouths open, proudly bearing two wet blue tongues. We are not posing, or smiling, or even looking at the camera, because we didn’t know the picture was being taken. This is why I love it best of all the pictures I have of Matt. We are just us; brother and sister, Matt and Anna, faces blue, holding our sticky blue popsicles.