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Dry. Dry. Nothing. Tumbleweed. Roadkill. I stared out the bird doo covered window and considered my situation. Of all of the wonderful plans I had dreamed up for the summer before senior year - none of them included driving down to the middle of nowhere to spend thirty days with an aunt I had never met.
My parents had pleaded, begging me to accept that this was for the best. I refused to give in to their desperate attempts to reconcile. How could anyone with any amount of love in their beings ship an innocent daughter off to some unknown relatives house for the last summer of her high school years? Then again, how could anyone who loved their daughter give her a stupid name like “Mona Leigh”?
I stared down at the two-year-old luggage tag on my duffle bag and sighed. Love, a funny thing. My parents were always talking about it.
“We love you, we’re for you.”
I could just hear them saying it for the seventeen-millionth time. I was their only child; parenting was a serious issue. I remember the first time I broke into their secret stash of child-rearing books. I must of been twelve or thirteen, astounded to find out that practically all their favorite lines came from the pages under “how to deal with a socially awkward teen.”
After that I took it upon myself to read every parenting book we owned. My parents could never surprise me, practically everything they said (aside from “what’s for dinner”) quoted one book or another.
It must have been tough, seeing as I enjoyed deliberately flabbergasting them with behavior polar opposite from what they had read or come to expect. Maybe that was the reason they we’re sending me to spend my last summer vacation with an aunt I had never met in a town smack dab in the middle of nowhere, the town my mother had fled from when she was sixteen.
Was this a punishment? I didn’t think so. My parents we’re never big into consequential discipline. Okay, so I knew why I was going, but a thick mental wall barred any such thoughts from entering my conciousness. My parents needed time alone to “work things out,” in other words: get a divorce. It didn’t surprise me - on the contrary I couldn’t believe that everything had lasted so long. I expected they had stayed together for me.
Although even after making these horrid assumptions some jigsaw pieces still didn’t fit; none of the parenting books talked about sending your sixteen year old daughter to an infamous and unknown relative for the summer if you wanted to get a divorce. I sighed, maybe my parents had finally given up on those silly books.
“Beautiful isn’t it.” My mom was re-attempting to converse. I stared harder out the window. Either my mom was going insane or we were seeing two very different worlds. Beautiful is definitely not the word I’d use to describe the Texas desert.
“The sky here is so amazing. Do you see the sun beginning to set? Looks exactly the way it did when I left!” she sighed with that distinct back-in-the-good-o’le-days kind of tone we all know too well.
“Correction," I said. My voice sounded flat and unnatural. It was the first time I had spoken in exactly 247 miles. “You didn’t just leave this place; you ran away.” Silence for five miles.
I turned my back to the window to continue my newfound pastime - gloating in misery. Next time my parents would think twice before sending me somewhere I didn’t want to go.
“We’re Here!” My mom exclaimed in a voice far too enthusiastic to be genuine, I closed my book and looked up. A tiny weather beaten sign exclaimed to the world that we had indeed arrived in “Mor antown - Pop l a tion 2,0 0”.
A single gas station welconed us. The evening light had faded and stars were popping into place. Big red letters boldly declared: “SHELL STATION.” An unnecessary stoplight imprisoned us at the intersection for what seemed like eternity. As the light turned green and the car moved onward, the S on Shell flickered and died.
“How are you supposed to prepare for a month in hell?” I thought to myself, not caring wether or not I spoke aloud. We passed down a main street filled with crumbling buildings. Graffiti and an occasional passerby were the only signs of life. It was one cement dump after another, and after driving the length of three streets I still hadn’t found a single place suitable for calling home.
“I think your aunt’s house is closer to the good part of town “ Mother commented in a slightly concerned tone. Eventually we reached the famous relatives' dwelling. The impeccably clean white washed boards of “Roda’s Amazing Mexican Restaurant” looked more then out of place amongst the rest of the disintegrating infastructure.
“Roda’s House isn’t in the good part of town, it is the good part of town” I mumbled.
“What's that?” Mother turned to me with a look of sadness in her eyes, and since it was parting time I decided to keep my last observation to myself.
“Lets see what we’ve got ourselves?” My mother's sister's second husband was trying to introduce himself whilst biting his sooty fingernails. I was standing in the middle of a huge living room akwardly attempting to hold on to my bags and my temper.
The room was decorated in true ranch fashion with cowhides, leather couches, and cattle horns speckling the walls and furniture. “Ooh. Looky.” The huge man noted “Your a purty lil thing.” Our relationship couldn’t possibly drop lower from there.
Thankfully the impending conversation with “Uncle Ross” was cut short by a rattling double door and admittance of an enormous woman into the room. “Howw’s the drive?” She was almost as huge as her husband, maybe bigger. Sweat drizzled down her friendly but too large face, and fell onto a disgustingly stained apron. This was my mothers sister. I quickly decided that I would dismiss the formalities of “Aunt such-and-such” and call her “Roda”.
“Lets make these introductions quick” Roda was saying, “You oughta know who I am, your mothers sister. This is my husband Ross. I hope you enjoy your stay with us, but you will be expected to work your keep. Now if you’ll excuse me, dinner rush is coming on.” And with that she headed back into the kitchen. I sat alone again with a loud, nosy, not-quite-an-uncle.
“See any wildlife on the trip?” Ross asked. Roda was a little less intrusive, and I thought that maybe just maybe I could learn to overlook her greasy triple x large apron. Ross on the other hand acted as if every detail of my life was of major importance to him; obviously we could never get along.
“The only wildlife we saw was roadkill.” I stated in my most matter-of-fact tone. Resisting the urge to smirk I added, "my mom thought she saw a roadrunner... but it is kind of hard to tell, I though it might have been a jack rabbit.”
To my displeasure, Ross found this tidbit to be extremely hilarious. His belly puffed out into a walloping wheezing spree, and then (eyes still squinted from laughing way to hard) he declared: “Well Haaaruuumph, I’m liking you already. Why didn’t we invite your niece over earlier?” He shouted over to Roda in the kitchen. “Its been over twenty years since your sister ran off.” Roda, busy flipping tortilla’s, didn’t answer. Apparently Ross had no sense of discretion when it came to cold-don’t-talk-about subjects. I pulled out my calendar and recounted the days until I could go home.
Bright light shone madly through the guest room’s one and only window. I growled and rolled over on my side, trying desperately to find my way back to dream land. “Strategy for survival number one” I began a mental list: “sleep as much as humanely possible”.
Ten minutes later I was half way dressed and in the kitchen, no one could possible sleep in such lighting. Roda stood, back facing me, diligently chopping away at some fresh cuts of what looked like celery. I watched the back of her shoulders heaving up and down with each slice as she began barking instructions. It took me a second to realize that the orders were aimed at me.
“Pull an apron on, we open in ten minutes, the lunch rush starts at 12:09.” I stared dumbfounded back at her, unfortunately she didn’t seem to have eyes in the back of her bulk. She spoke as if stating the most reasonable thing on earth. “Travelings tough” she continued, “but in the future I expect you to rise a bit earlier.” I stood there holding an apron in one hand and staring into nothingness. Did Roda really expect me to cook for her restaurant?
Suddenly Ross was in the kitchen, and taking in the scene, he seemed to find it his duty to enlighten everybody with the going ons. “Your parents asked us to teach you some cooking, you don’t look so happy about that, but you’ll have to do it anyways hun.”
Great. I’d been here less then a day and already I was being put to work and being called “hun”. How in the world was I to survive? Ross laughed as he mozzied out of the kitchen. What did he do all day? Sleep? Watch T.V.? Shoot Cactus?
I applied the apron and pulled my hair into a low pony-tail. I was a stubborn girl, fully capable of disobeying just about anyone, but Roda wasn’t the kind of person you felt like disobeying.
Five minutes later with the help of Roda, I was the newest expert in the field of washing, drying, and cutting lettuce, and when the restaurant opened I was set to quick work.
I rested my hand against the hard counter of “Roda’s Amazing Mexican Restaurant” and then continued chopping. Day four in hell, and I’m still chopping lettuce. Learning to cook and learning to deal with lettuce seemed like two entirely different things to me, but apparently not to Roda. Day after day I had been set to work in the kitchen, about a hundred heads of lettuce set in front of me. “Chop until your done,” were my instructions. I meant to ask Roda one of these days if she meant to teach me anything beyond lettuce, or if I was doomed to a summer of salad slavery. But Roda wasn’t the easiest person to talk to, and I never got around to it.
My mind was the only thing that occupied me during all those hours of chopping. I would think about everything and everyone that passed by. I admit they weren’t always nice thoughts: “Roda’s right, lunch rush starts at exactly 12:09 everyday with that old man Rodriguez scurrying into the store. This place seems to be perfectly on schedule every moment. Am I the only one that finds it strange that Roda (who happens to be about as white as bedsheets) owns a mexican restaurant in a town where everyone else happens to be of that very nationality? Texas sized food portions make Texas sized people, I’m so sick of texas I could vomit Texas sized beetles. 26 more days. Won’t mom and dad be proud of their daughter, master in the skills of salad preparing? Mom’s going to get a lecture long enough to fill the time from Morgantown to Austin."
On the fifth morning, having finished my obsequious duties slightly early, I found time to explore the world outside “Roda’s Amazing Mexican.” Sauntering about the streets of Morgantown was not the most exciting of entertainments, but my back ached, and anything beat standing in the kitchen. I stepped outside the city limits, climbed over a pathetic cow fence and found myself in a field of prickly pears. Still the rocky landscape was better then the kitchen, and feeling absolutely exhausted I lay down on a bare patch of dry rocky ground.
“Oouchy” I screamed, as a speckled brown creature slithered away from my throbbing calf bone. “OOOOUCH.” As the dry landscape splish splashed about. I noted a tall figure haunched over beside me, the world blurred and I wasn’t sure what was happening. I felt the cool of someone's lips covering my skin, I screamed louder then I ever had befor. I could feel blackness gliding in and under my eyelids.
As things began to clear, what I saw almost threw me back into delirium. A boy about my age, with bright orange hair and one blue eye-one one green eye was removing his lips from my calf and spitting onto the desert floor.
“Get away from me” I bawled. My mind was still hazy and I tried desperately to piece things together, but it wasn’t working.
“My name is Travis, Travis Fisher”, was all he said as he offered a hand to help me off my desert resting place. Thats when I noticed that my leg ached terribly. I looked back at this Travis man, and then again at my leg, then back to Travis.
“Are you... a vampire?” I asked, it sounded so stupid I could barely believe it had come from my own two lips. He didn’t even laugh, just replied sensibly.
“No, you got bit by a snake, I just sucked out the venom out, maybe saved your life.” Everything Travis said was matter-of-fact, I’d learn that later, for now I took the hand he was flailing in my face. Once I was on my feet again I realized how bad I hurt - that leg was really throbbing. For the first time in my entire life I longed to be standing inside “Roda’s Amazing Mexican” cutting lettuce.
“What are you doing here?” I asked this boy who claimed to have saved my life. Then I thrust a piece of my plain brown hair behind my ear and swept the dust off my jeans in a desperate attempt to look respectable - not an easy thing to do after screaming at a random boy and accusing him of vampire-ness. I was determined to prove him guilty of something or another.
“The real question is: what are you doing? This is my land” he stated. I felt my face turning red, and then screamed back at him. He had embarrassed me, now I was desperate to find a reason to hate him.
“Well I’m sorry, maybe you should keep your fence up better. Everything in this whole town is measly and gross and I hate it here.” I don’t normally lose my temper, and I barely believed what I had said. It didn’t help things that Travis’s green eye flashed at me and I thought he looked mad enough to leave me stranded in the desert forever.
Half a second later he was standing there calm and collected, helping me limp back to my aunts. We walked in an unpleasant silence. “I’m sorry.” I said eventually, I didn’t know for what. I hated the way that all I had said so far painted me as some wimpy, whiney, teenage girl. Then again, that is what I was wasn’t it? But that is not what I felt like, and not what I wanted to be.
After a miserably long walk we stood at the door of “Roda’s Amazing Mexican Restaurant” and Travis was saying something directly at me, his blue eye flashed in a way that seemed almost friendly. “Your new here, I know your aunt. Keep that leg up, it should be okay in a couple of days. See you.”
I walked inside and sat down, still practically un-conscious of what had taken place. Eventually I calmed myself down, comforting myself in the fact that I had been and probably still was delirious.
Two days past a week later (the day after my leg had finally quit screaming at me from the inside every time I tried to move it ) I stood flabbergasted when Travis, without knocking, hustled through the back door of my Aunts restaurant. “I’m here” he proclaimed, as if no one would have noticed. Aunt Roda didn’t look up from the grill where she was flipping tortilla’s, but she did say “alright girl, your excused.” I wiped down the knife and glanced with a feeling of satisfaction at the huge pile of lettuce on my counter.
Sooner then possible I was hobbling down the street next to the strange quiet boy, who seemed uneasy as I chit chatted our way through the crumbly buildings of Morgantown. Eventually I grew tired of trying to sustain conversations that neither of us were interested in - it’s hard to talk when you feel no one is listening, it is even harder to talk when you feel your audience is silently contemplating and analyzing each word without a response. As we turned another crumbling corner I finally gave up on my jabbering and the walk turned silent and awkard. It was the boy who finally broke the silence.
“You never did tell me what your name was.”
I caught myself before proclaiming: "He speaks! The boy actually speaks!" We had been walking for over ten minutes before he had said anything - now he was asking me my name. I thought of a million haughty responses, “why did he even think he deserved to know my name? I sure never asked for this tour”. Eventually I decided none of my witty remarks would do any good and just broke out with it “My name is Mona Leigh.” I hadn’t hesitated to introduce myself properly since the second grade, when I stopped caring what people thought about me.
Now Travis looked off into the distance, his blue eye sparked in its sing songy way, his lips climbed to the right in a crooked smile.
“This is it.”
I looked up from the ground I had been staring so intently at. We were standing in the middle of a tiny street; one beautiful house stood in front of us, whitewashed and almost as clean as “Roda’s amazing Mexican Restaurant.” On the left side stood a crumbling movie rental store, and across the street stood a beautifully fashioned firehouse. A boarded up movie theatre with an almost falling-in roof stood at the right of the little house.
“Where are we?” It was rather strange seeing two charming buildings standing amidst the horrific ones.
“Morgantown, Texas.” A flash of pride swept through the boy’s face as he looked up at the firehouse.
“This doesn’t look like Morgantown.” I said, and he understood. I didn’t feel to ask what his point was, or why we were here, or why everything looked so blotchy, but I felt if I was patient enough I would get some sort of an answer; a Travis style answer, since that’s all you get with him.
He strode towards the decaying theatre and I followed. As we got closer I noted a rusty “for sale” sign pushed haphazardly into the lawn. Travis plucked it out of the ground and threw it to the wayside, “I bought it for fifty bucks.”
What was he talking about? He pointed straight at the old theatre. I turned to stare again at the intimidating piece of falling apart building, and made a feeble attempt to keep my mouth shut, but it ended up coming out anyways. "Why?” At least I had zipped up before adding “why in the world, why in heavens name, what is your thought process if you have one, and why are you showing me?.” We left it with the simple why - an unanswered question that lingered in the air as we approached the building, broke open the door (yes, literally broke it off ), and stepped inside.
Conditions seemed worse on the inside, if that is possible. The obvious signs of a hobo hut hung in one corner. Everywhere else was covered in spiderwebs, rust and scarily old fashioned furniture. Most of it was barely recognizable as humanely made, and looked more like moss covered, moth eaten, dirt beds. Travis picked up a small wooden piece, and gently reattached it to the frame of an dirty albeit elegant chair. “Oh great”, I thought, “the place looks eons better now”.
“It’s gonna need a little work.” He said, with an expression that looked almost challenging. “Understatement of the century”, I grumbled.
Soon Travis had pushed over a black sheet, revealing a small ladder, two buckets of paint, a broom, a bucket of water, and a few rags. He grabbed the broom and started dusting the corners of ceilings, carefully so as not to break any of the loose wall engravings. I stood not knowing what to do. Did he expect me to work? No. Did he want me to? Probably. Cutting lettuce and cleaning hopelessly dead buildings, such fun. But it felt like the least I could do. And so without thinking and without wanting to, I was following Travis around the dangerously shaky palace with a wet rag, deep cleaning wherever he had dusted.
Three hours later we had rinsed our rags and stood outside dusting dirt off our arms. I looked around, after what seemed like an eternity of hard work, the place still looked more jungle than theatre. There was an overwhelmingly huge amount of things that still needed to be worked on; our dent was barely visible to the naked eye. “It looks great” Travis was saying. I nodded slightly; If you looked closely you might be able to appreciate the spider free rafters and polished furniture, not to mention that many odds and ends here and there had been swept away and a tad less junk remained.
“Thanks” Travis said at the end of our silent walk back to the whitewashed door of Ross and Roda’s. I stopped, smiled, tried to think of something to say, and walked inside, giving myself a hardy mental punch.
I swept my hand over a sweaty forehead and shrugged, Texas heat can make any girl sweat like a man. I kept running, concentrating on breathing techniques to alleviate the pain coming from my side. Only two miles and I felt like I was dying. This summer I was gonna have to work on my running skills. For now I just wanted to stop.
My tongue wriggled about my mouth, trying to plaster the piece of cinnamon gum from after this mornings breakfast to the roof of my mouth. “Mental note” I panted aloud, “never chew gum while running or exercising.” What was I supposed to do with the red gum jiggling about my tired jaws? As I ran down the dirty path I looked about the desert prairie for an answer. Nothingness stared me back in the face. Eventually I gave up, grabbing the gum from my mouth I swung my arm up to throw it onto the dusty ground and stopped mid-throw; that would be littering, something Ross does: I must avoid it at all costs. Without thinking I wrapped the red candy around my right index finger and attempted to forget about it. Gross, but I had gotten pretty good about blocking things out of my head as of late; For example Travis.
I had managed to avoid him literally and mentally for the past two weeks. Chopping with mad speed at any piece of lettuce I could get my hands on, sometimes stealing some of Roda’s veggie piles to chop as well. I had officially waged war on any greenery. The dry heat was killing me as I ran on, distracting myself with any thought I could think of. Lettuce cutting was all that ran through my head. I imagined myself as a senior in high school, running home from the troubles of school, grabbing some lettuce from the cooler and furiously chopping away all my troubles. Not a good idea I decided, the thought of this summer changing me in anyway was horrible.
“I am numb and inapproachable” I thought with fury, as beads of sweat poured down my head, “when I arrive at home, this horrible place shall pass from memory forever - That is, if I ever make it out alive.” I stopped running and began the walk back to Roda’s, Morgantown had beat me again.
As I stumbled back into town I found myself on the wrong block, staring directly at the horrible mass that made up the old theatre. I had been so absolutely wonderful at blocking it from my head that I stood in awe, something was different. The roof didn’t sag, and four men were repainting the front wall a dazzling gold. I turned away and quickly headed home, running again, even though my body was exhausted.
I heard a voice behind me and stopped: big mistake. Turning, I saw Travis striding towards me, not running, not even walking fast, just striding forward in a manner that could’ve easily caught up with my wimpy jogging. The perfect view of his tousled hair, paint stained t-shirt, and flashing blue eye opened my mind where I had closed it so well. All the duck tape and bolt locks were tossed aside in an instant. Guilt flooding in for avoiding the innocent boy, for sneaking back to the despised section of town when no one was looking, for when Roda explained that I was free to cut as much or as little lettuce as possible, and that I was free to help out in “the center of town.” I remembered my sneaky unconcerned way of getting more information out of Ross; that is what he is good for, stealing information that you really shouldn’t know. I remembered being completely untouched when told that Travis was the “poor little boy” who was trying to fix up the town by hand, piece by piece.
Now as Travis stood before me, holding out a hand, guilt and anger and a bit of relief flooded through me. I shook the hand. Mental note: never in any circumstance wrap cinnamon gum around your finger. As my hand dropped back to my side, I noticed a thin red line tracing the space between me and him. Horror of horrors: this would cause some explanation.
Sun shone through the dramatic windows and lightened the gold walls of the old theatre. I stood up and gazed around the half-finished dining lounge - “amazing” I murmured under my breath. I couldn’t keep things in any longer. After six straight hours of moving furniture, cleaning rafters and painting, every muscle in my body groaned painfully and I’d never been so happy.
Hard work had finally created some results: The theatre looked beautiful. Travis carefully set the paint roller back in its can and looked around. I knew better then to expect words from him, but his green eye flashed in that familiar cheeriness I had come to treasure, and that was enough for me.
“I think we deserve a celebration break” I called out. Travis assented by walking out of the building. I followed.
“I want to show you something” he said.
“I’m up for that” I replied, without knowing what I had gotten myself into.
Thirty minutes later we had climbed past the barb wire fence, around what seemed like thousands of cacti plants, up a steep dirt road, and were looking down from on top of a sort of hill. The long walk was silent, I had searched for things to say but every word evaporated into the Texas heat around us, and Travis never found the need to reply. By the time we reached our destination I was breathless and more exhausted then ever.
"Look “ Travis broke the silence. He didn’t point, but his eyes scanned the land around us and I followed his gaze. Miles upon miles of desert teeming with cactus and tumbleweed as far as the eye could see greeted us, dotted here and there by insignificant cities and towns. I stood back. The incoming sunset seemed to swallow up the rest of the landscape.
“The sky here is so big.” Seconds after the words escaped my mouth and were lingering in the silence I realized how stupid it sounded. Desperately trying to redeem myself I added: “I mean in other places the sky kinda sits on top of the land - but here it just encompasses everything...”
Travis smiled so wide that I decided my stupidity had been awarded: he understood. Still I resisted the urge to continue babbling. In all my exhaustion sappy thoughts couldn’t help but be strewn around my brain. Travis is a lot like the Texas sky somehow. Big and proud, but unexplainable.
The return trip was wordless, but I no longer felt the necessity of verbal communication. The silence was pleasant, we walked perfectly satisfied knowing that we both understood.
“Howw’s your day?” Ross asked in the all-too-loud way I’d grown accustomed to.
“Fine”. My heart was bursting, but Ross was the last person who was gonna know that.
“I just love what you kids are doing to the city, that old theatre is starting to look alive again.” I smiled despite myself, all that hard work needed to be recognized, even if that recognition did come from the likes of Uncle Ross.
As I tramped up the stairs to my comfortable little bedroom, Roda stepped out of the kitchen door. She wiped her brow and rubbed her hands against a large apron hanging nearby.
“Pack your bags kid, you leave tomorrow”. I couldn’t believe my own ears. I’d been counting each day hadn’t I? And yet with the theatre project, I’d stayed so busy. Shouldn’t Roda have warned me before? Of course not, Roda would never have spoken unnecessary words. Here it is, time to go home and I’m bummed because I’m gonna miss the grand opening of some ancient theatre in some crumbling town? Could I extend the time? No, of course not. I have things to do back at home. No more salad cutting, no more Texas heat, no more drooling Ross. I retreated to my room to sort things out.
“I can deal with this,” I thought to myself. I sat on bed, determined to be happy. I wasn’t going to let this vile idea plotted up by my unthoughtful parents effect me in any way. I wasn’t going to enjoy this trip and I wasn’t going to change, that is what I had decided at the beginning, and thats just the way it was going to have to be.
Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. I pushed the word through my mind over and over again to block out all the other thoughts . I watched the crumbling buildings pass by, one after another. I thought of how wonderful it would be to get out of this horrible place.
Mom was finally driving me home, and I was ecstatic, or at least that’s what I told myself. “I don’t ever have to come here again, I don’t ever have to chop up another piece of lettuce, and I don’t ever have to stub another toe on Texas dirt.” As I stared out the window for the last time I noted the half renovated theatre staring at me from the corner most folks referred to as “the center of town.”
Behind and around the little town lay the sky, the massive blue that seemed to be offering me a faceless smile. I waved back, because that was all that was there, and I felt like maybe He would understand.
I didn’t ever have to step inside Morgantown again, but I was pretty sure I would. At that moment relief flooded through me as I realized that everything was alright. I still hated Texas, I still hated the dirt, the rattle snakes and Ross’s drool. Nothing had changed except - I loved the sky; the sky and Travis Fisher.