Thursday, December 9, 2010

Barbi Beckett: Tom Mays

I lied a lot growing up. I lied to avoid getting in trouble. I lied to get my way ("If the kitten goes, I go!" -- I wouldn’t have gone anywhere), and I lied to get attention.

Me: Hey mom, this professional singer came to school today and he liked my voice -- he asked if there were singers in my family!

Her: Well, did you tell him your mother’s a singer?

Me: (deflating, forgetting all those Shirley Temples at the piano bar, feeling stupid for not thinking of a lie she could find no connection to) no, i forgot.

Her: Well, you should have. Your brother sings too.

But, that was when she was around to try and impress with lies. Later, she and her third husband moved to Greenland to work for some technologies company in the tundra; it was impossible to make an impression from that distance. There were no phone calls and letters took weeks to reach her. She was gone.

Things felt bleak but I had nothing on Karlia and Tony Garcia across the street. Their single mom, Cheryl, worked (or something) a lot. When they first moved in, she had a boyfriend that took a particular interest in Karlia. And then another. The boyfriends didn’t tend to have jobs and were around more than Cheryl -- unfortunately for Karlia. Little Tony’s lot was not better. Cheryl HATED him -- something to do with his resemblance to his father. Karlia was nice enough to Tony when Cheryl was gone but when their mom was around, she hopped right on the torture Tony train.

I recently read something Lynda Barry wrote about how even crummy childhoods don’t seem all bad at the time. It’s true, we did have fun. My dad worked an hour away so we had a lot of freedom. That freedom mixed with responsibility could be tough though. Having to go to school, for example, with no one there to watch, created the constant struggle of trying to figure out how to ditch without getting caught. Getting caught was very bad. My dad let me know it was particularly bad for me because, he said, if certain authorities were to find out, I could be taken away from him. So there were stakes.

It would have been much easier to have a grown-up around so ditching wouldn’t always seem like an option. When we did ditch, it was fun, at least before lunch. We’d lip sync to Neil Diamond and put on shows. As the afternoon crept on, things got heavier and uneasy. I’d go home and dread hearing my dad’s car pull into the driveway around 5:30. He’d always heard from the school.

So, one day after school, Karlia, Tony and I got to talking. We weren’t happy with things as they were and decided to make a change. We got out some paper to write plans on. I drew a butterfly while we waited for the first action point to come to us. We knew we were leaving but we weren’t sure where we’d go. We lived about three miles from the foot of the Franklin mountain range -- desertous mountains, sloping down toward an elevated freeway, a long stretch of flat desert and then, our neighborhood. On the other side of the mountains, with a road running through them, was Tom Mays State Park. It was really just more desert but in the "park" the mountain face had caves. Shelter. So, the plan was to go live in a cave in the desert. On some level, I did think I could make it all the way to Greenland. But first, I needed to get to the other side of town.

We wrote out the plan and what we’d need to take: cans of tuna, bologna, blankets, clothes, diary. We were careful to crumple up the plans paper and throw it away so we couldn’t be tracked.

I went home and packed my bag before my dad got home from work. I used my laundry sack, which was like a long canvas army bag with a drawstring except mine had pink, yellow, white and orange flowers. It was stuffed full, half my size and heavy.

You know that feeling that’s the difference between talking about doing something big and knowing you’re really going to do it? My dad came home from work and we went about our evening, me hoping he wouldn’t notice that my heart was beating louder and my nerves were all atwitter. He didn’t. I went to bed and the next morning at 6:00AM when his car pulled out of the driveway, I got up, ate some Frosted Shredded Wheat, then tossed my duffle bag out the tiny window-within-a-window in our dining room and awkwardly crawled out after it. Now, it may seem like gilding the lily to crawl out the window but there was a sleeping older brother, you see, and the thing with our front door was you had to slam it ridiculously hard for it to lock and it had already slammed once that morning. Sneaking out was necessary strategy.

I must have wondered if Karlia and Tony would follow through. I wonder if I was hoping they wouldn’t be standing there with their laundry bags, ready to cross the craggy wilds. But they were. It was nerve-wracking and surreal to be walking up our quiet block at that early hour. If anyone were to see us, it would look very suspicious. We had some ideas about what we’d say if questioned but, still. We climbed the rock wall at the end of our street and were relieved to be safely in the desert for a while. We trudged along, shifting our poorly conceived packing from shoulder to shoulder, until we came to an area where we could be seen by passing cars in what was becoming rush hour traffic. Again, we felt unnerved and self-conscious. There was no way drivers weren’t spotting us, three 9 to 11 year-old kids, walking nowhere near a school at school time. It was a busy road with no traffic lights, though, and we got all the way past the freeway and safely into the open desert again.

Things were less familiar now. This wasn’t our backyard desert anymore. It was vast and starting to climb toward the mountain. We were all getting tired when Tony got stuck by a prickly pear cactus. Apparently, he was allergic because his calf turned red and swelled up. He started to cry and that’s when I remember getting scared. Karlia and I took turns carrying his bag and supporting him while we pushed on. I was just hoping it would go away and, eventually, it did.

For some time, we stood at the mouth of a giant, metal irrigation tunnel, looking through at a dot of light at the end. We finally stepped in. It was long, dark and echoey. We were anxious to come out the other side and curious to see where it would land us. After navigating up the steep gully we’d been deposited in, we were surprised to find ourselves on Transmountain Road. That was the goal, so we were happy at first, but after walking on the road a few minutes, we got sad. It was brutally windy and sand was stinging our faces, pushing us back. After an hour or so, we were desperate for a break so when we saw a light blue VW van parked in a turn-out we all agreed to check it out.

I’d been in less sketchy situations, sure. But it wasn’t even noon and we were beaten. We had no other option than to learn if the owner of that van was a benevolent being. I was elected to knock on the side. No answer. We stood silently until a thin, somewhat scruffy-looking, bearded guy came walking toward us. We told him our story about how we were just three kids with really cool parents who let us go hiking and spend the night in the mountains on school nights. Nodding. Silence. "Cool. You wanna get in?" Did we ever!

Want to know how I determined Ray was trustworthy? It came up that his birthday was February 7th. Same as mine, so = good guy.

It was decided that we would spend the night in Ray’s van. Phew. That was a relief. He even drove us to the secluded Tom May’s Park where the four of us hopped out to see what cave we might sleep in -- at that point, we still thought the cave was integral to the plan. At first, the climb up wasn’t so bad but the ground became dustier and slippery. We were filthy, I could barely see through my glasses, and I was having trouble breathing. This is when I started to cry muddy tears; I was afraid and stressed out of my gourd. We made it to a cave but, surprise, it too was dusty and BATTY. Pass. Down the hill we slid.

As the afternoon waned on, I grew more aware of the sun and the time. School was out. Dad was driving home. Dad was home. Dad was looking for me.

Night fell. I lay inside the van with my diary, as Karlia, Tony and Ray laughed and roasted bologna over a trash barrel outside. There was a dim yellow light and a tiny black-and-white TV was on without sound. I wrote about my grandma. I missed her and from what I was writing, you’da thought I hadn’t seen her for months. My heart was breaking over all the future nights I wouldn’t be sleeping at her cozy, hazy-from-Kools house. No more hot breakfasts (mini toaster doughnuts) and cutting out Family Circus to glue into the scrapbook she gave me for collecting the round cartoon.

I was alone in the van, but at least I had my Garfield diary.

We slept. I don’t remember it being a bad night’s sleep. We were exhausted as never before.

The next morning, Ray, Karlia and Tony putzed around outside. I don’t remember ever leaving the van once we returned from the cave. I guess I was hiding. Suddenly, Karlia and Tony popped inside, "It’s the police." Sure enough, two officers were approaching the van as Ray slowly walked toward them. They all stood talking. The three of them came to the van and Ray opened the door. We all stepped out, with our bags. I looked at Ray but he was looking away, disappointed in us. Maybe Ray DID have "really cool" parents. Maybe he believed us. I can’t imagine.

That was it for old Ray and us though. He stood there and watched as my cohorts and I were loaded into the back of the squad car and it pulled away. Off we went, back over the mountain with our duffle bags on our laps. Quiet. Dirty.

On the walk over to the police car, I’d noticed one of the cops was holding a crumpled sheet of wide-ruled notebook paper with a butterfly on it. So, if our parents hadn’t told them our names, they would have gotten them from the plans, along with a crude map of how to get to Tom May’s Park from our house.

About halfway over the mountain, one of the officers asked, "Why did you all run away?" Karlia and Tony both mumbled, "I don’t know." ‘Cause, how do you say the Truth?

"I was looking for my mom," I blurted. Dork. Lie. I knew where my mom was.

The cop didn’t say anything. We pulled up at my house before 8AM on a work day but my dad’s car was home. One of the cops walked Karlia and Tony across the street while the other walked me to my door and into the house. My dad stood up from his chair in the living room and walked over to me. I stood frozen until he pulled me into his arms and sobbed.

I was embarrassed when the cop told my dad, "She said she was looking for her mother." God, I shouldn’t have told him anything.

No one was mad at me. After the cops left, my dad and I sat on the couch and talked. He told me how worried he was and asked if I wanted to take a bath. After my bath, I was standing in my room brushing my hair when my older brother came in and gave me a hug. "Don’t you ever do that to us again," he said. And then he noted, "You went out the window so you wouldn’t have to slam the door. Smart."

For years after that, I would sometimes fantasize about running into Ray in a K-Mart or some place. I don’t know if he was questioned or bothered by the police at all. He seemed like a pretty nice guy and I felt bad for lying to him. My biggest regret about Ray, though, is that I left my Garfield diary in his van.


  1. Ach, Barbi, I love your stories so much. Keep 'em coming.

  2. Now that's some scary adventure; all the things that could have gone wrong!

  3. I've got to quit reading your things at work. I hate having to explain to people why I'm tearing up.

  4. Book book book book book book book book. Book. Don't stop until you have a book.

  5. Wow, again. Thank you. Find another way to post these or perhaps it's book time.