An occasionally fictional piece written for Redbud Writing Project's Braided Prose Class (8-2023)
The road that brings you to Ely is a long one and was once called, is sometimes still called, the Lincoln Highway. There used to be a lot of named roads, before numbering and organization got the better of them, and us. Many of these names and the places they represent were eaten alive, slowly, consumed by copper, gold, and land rushes. Bureaucracy’s addiction to organization finished off what was left, leaving a pile of ashes with some bits of charred bone and gold fillings next to one of the few obelisk markers left by the roadside. How the snake got that far up into the shaggy pine tree in the front yard I’ll never understand. I was a good enough shot with the air pistol, but maybe my memory of a single try to make the snake limp and sag to the ground is a false imprint of mine blinded by summer sun. Hit the gas; still 103 miles to Ely. Hit the thing. Boy Scouts spread out along the Lincoln Highway for over 2,100 miles (well short of the full length of the road, so perhaps they ran out of Boy Scouts somewhere in the sparse middle), spaced one mile apart. Each boy was responsible (along with his parents, presumably) for inserting a hexagonal stone marker into the ground. The markers all had the letter “L” on them and were finished with a pointy top, like a miniature of the Washington Memorial obelisk that looks down at a troubled Lincoln. For his part, Lincoln seems to steadfastly ignore his predecessor’s taller tribute, choosing instead to stare down morosely into the reflecting pool at his feet, like he’s wondering what the hell he’s going to do next. But the National Mall is a long way from here; but even on the Lincoln Highway in Ely, Nevada Number 16 can’t completely get away from Number 1’s little obelisks.
What a world war and cancer and divorce and children and customers couldn’t do an aluminum walker did to my father. It put him on the ground. His legs, creped sticks, were tangled and confused with the gunmetal gray legs of the walker. When I came to him he looked up at me from the ground, like, “See what happened? Whose fault is this…yours? Mine?”
The landscape around Ely, around the middle of this country, warps and woofs around desolation and desperation. This is the place that time hasn’t forgotten; this is the place that time uses as a warning for scared urbanites that only hear about the bad parts. It’s the place where first Jesus, then mining or drilling, then Oxycontin, then Trump, then Jesus again, was the great off-white hope for a people. It’s really about whoever actually sees them, who speaks to them, a seduction with a power that shouldn’t be underestimated when you’ve only been ignored. Everyone pretty much knows everyone else here, for good or bad. When you’re born here people come to look at you; when you live here people wave at you, lifting a single finger off the steering wheel and nodding, ever so slightly, as you pass; when you die here people come to look at you again (and bring potato salad for your bereaved).
Eventually you’ll turn on the radio hoping that there’s a station, or even one song, you like within the invisible blanket of coverage you’re driving through. Like an audio mirage, the Who rises up out of the radio and the dirt and Townsend windmills and Daltrey screams his defense of an indefensible infatuation knowing full well it won’t last because nothing does, because the road may be long but there is most definitely an end and an ocean on the west coast waiting for you with terrifying patience (“I’d pay any price just to get you…”).
I don’t think any of us know much about his first wife. We do have a half-relationship with our half-brother who lives north of Atlanta. We’ve all been divorced; I’m an overachiever and had two. He doesn’t communicate with us much, another family trait that reappears in our genetic code from time to time. There’s a half-sister, too. We never knew her, have no way of knowing what became of her or if she knows her father is gone.
Ely should have a better present. US 50 (also known as the Lincoln Highway) goes right through it, as do US Highways 6 and 9. But those big-name connections don’t matter when there isn’t a lot to get to once you’re there. The population is stuck at 4,000 people, and there isn’t much of a chance that it will get any larger. I think when they build the second Family Dollar store in your town you know the place has probably run its course, like a writer that can’t find anything to say that isn’t about writing. (“…Surrender my good life for bad….”)
I realized later that he had a strange relationship with guns, having grown up in a part of the country where they were sometimes used to procure food. Dad’s relationship status to guns would have read, “it’s complicated.” He became a good shot with a rifle when he was a kid, a skill that later translated into a lot of war-earned medals. I helped him recover these medals by writing to the government, the originals having been consumed by a fire when he was a younger man, maybe during his first marriage.
Mom told us once that she had to make biscuits three times a day when she was a girl. I’m not really sure how she did that and kept her sanity intact, and I’m even less sure about why she was willing to keep making biscuits for our family. Although it wasn’t three times a day, mostly just on the weekends (“I'd work all my life and I will….”). Once she was bringing a large bowl of hot sausage gravy to the table and I came around the corner and she dumped that gravy bowl down the front of my chest. I cried, in part because it hurt like hell, the thick goo clinging to your body as it burned like I imagined napalm would. Mostly though because I really wanted that gravy and biscuits and now that wasn’t going to happen. She cried, because I was crying and she had hurt me. She was so much more than the sum of her visible parts.
I don’t know why Uvalde, over 1,400 miles to the south and east, stays with me still or why it hit me the way that it did when it happened. Maybe it was the image of hundreds of trained people milling around outside helplessly with lots of guns one day while a single sweaty, desperate person had their way with children inside, and the juxtapositional insanity of hearing the refrain onlygoodguyswithgunscanstopbadguyswithguns before and after, and after, and after, and after. Their hypocrisy gibbers at you from under the cool off-white sink, a thin trail of drool sliding out of a corner of the smirking, sinking mouth. Sagging to the ground. You could say it’s a complicated relationship. (“I’d gladly give up all I’ve got….”)
At the White Pine Public Museum you can become a member of the Cave Bear Club: $50 for singles, $85 if you’re lucky enough to be a couple, and $125 for families (no luck required) and see the most complete fossilized skeleton of a prehistoric short-faced cave bear ever found in Ely, or anywhere else. The stone skeleton looks like it wants to tell you something, or to shake hands.
It wasn’t the snake but the songbird later on in the summer that landed the little air rifle in the closet for good. I was alone with the long summer that day, the friends that had supported me in the snake hunt must have been busy doing something else. Its bright left eye was replaced with a dull, wet grey of a pellet. I recall that I really didn’t think I was good enough to hit the thing just before I did. Hit the thing. It reminded me of the time I kept dropping mom’s little clown statue on the floor from successively higher altitudes to see if it would break. It finally broke of course, and even dad’s surgery with glue couldn’t remove some of the cracks visible in its surface. Send in the clowns, that was her song.
No one tells you that one day you might find yourself wiping shit off of your parent’s ass. On that day you learn a new thing about the nature of time, about how it hovers just out of sight, usually, waiting in the dark wings of the empty, sand-and-dust filled theater in Ely. You want to make something important out of it, something that breaks through the frozen rime of ice shellacking your everyday, every day.
People weren’t supposed to live this long. Our internal parts were designed to hum along until we hit 40 or so, a rare enough event when you live in a time of saber tooths, giant crocodiles, and cave bears. After that we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves and mid-life crises abound. Some buy a convertible, a motorcycle, a night or two; some learn a new language or music; others take up writing or travel because they can and no one cares where they go now. Distractions that keep you from looking too long in the rearview mirror. Hit the thing. The objects are all closer than they appear, and gaining ground. (“And I’m looking for that free ride to me….”)
Bouncing along the Lincoln Highway I'm not sure what old Abe would have to say about the condition of his road were he still around to experience it. The stuttering pavement generates a semi-conscious state produced by the low-frequency vibrations from the tires on the hot asphalt, semi-irregular bumps in the road, and the unrelenting landscape. California is someplace up ahead, invisible and unlikely. Someone else is behind you, her past, present, and future irrelevant to you now. The low mountains never seem to get here, always paper mâché’-pasted against the gunmetal blue sky.
He sometimes wrote poetry. Simple, sweet, not-good poetry, the kind that is deeply concerned about rhyming with regularity more than any other notional attribute. Poetry without nuance, communicating with you regardless of what you think or feel at the time of reading it. I wish I had kept it, especially the one that ended with “no charge,” a summing up of what he felt I would owe him at the end.
After Uvalde, if you’re fortunate enough to have an after, a man constructed coffins for each of the children. Some coffins were decorated with race cars, some with dolls, reflecting what the children had liked when they were alive a few hours ago. He had help, and the caskets weren’t very big, but that must have required days of non-stop work. No one sees them now though, and they are covered with dirt inside and out. (“I’d gladly lose me to find you….”)
What people do when they are young, bored, out of options. It’s a matter of chance, of what happens to catch your attention or simply catches you unaware. A guy that I used to work with who had done a tour in an American green zone overseas someplace told me about another guy that had been walking across the compound one day and caught a rocket-propelled grenade with his chest. Death is random there, was how he finished that story.
Whose fault is this? Mine? Yours? Maybe no one at all. People find lots of ways to die. On a mountain one mile up. Under the ocean one mile down. Laughing intake of a quiet virus. In a bed that isn’t their own. In a car on a long, lethargic road. Sitting in a third-grade classroom. Taking a walk. (“I’d call that a bargain…the best I ever had!”)
I don’t like writing about my parents or talking about them. But I can’t escape it, either. A satellite best seen from peripheral vision, I’m a brittle point, a period, a dot in a darkened sky locked in geosynchronous orbit over their memory.
The road out of Ely is long, too, but not as long as the one you took to get there. The summers here are actually not that bad: “desert” only means that it doesn’t rain much, not that it’s necessarily hot all the time. People like drawing associations from disparate pieces of information. It’s a secret to our success, and also why we are so ready to believe conspiracies that make us angry, insane, or miserable. But in Ely it gets really cold in the winter, the kind of cold that lasts too long and doesn’t offer the pretense of relief from itself, especially when you’re already so very deep into January.