Crossroads of America

In our green Plymouth station wagon, we crisscrossed the map. My mother let me choose our destinations. “Any state but Georgia” was Eve’s rule, though I still memorized the Georgia motto: Wisdom, Justice, Moderation. 

Her other rule: we couldn’t stay more than a month in any place. We had to keep on moving to avoid the traps. It usually took a week or so for Eve to make a little money, stock our bins with canned soup and macaroni, set aside some laundry quarters, stuff the glove box full of crumpled ones and fives to pay for gas. A few weeks, tops. Then she’d unfurl the Rand McNally and I’d point to our next state. I chose the ones with interesting mottos, colorful state birds. Any state but Georgia (state bird: the brown thrasher). Georgia was my mother’s home state, the place she was born and raised.

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Oregon. She Flies with Her Own Wings. Deep in the woods, I picked azaleas for my mother. The ferns were tall as me. The birds were rioting.

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Indiana. Crossroads of America. My own reflection in a rest-stop bathroom mirror, outside Bloomington. I was wearing my blue dress so I wouldn’t be mistaken for a boy. Short, bristly hair, a gap between my teeth. Eve had shaved my head two weeks before, when we were still in Oregon.

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Nevada. All for Our Country. Five days in a campground with a rusty swing set and a metal slide, too hot to touch. One swing was broken, dangling by a chain, so I swung on the other one all afternoon. Once in a while, a car went past. I saw a coyote, trotting down the road.

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Arizona. God Enriches. My tenth birthday at the Dew Drop Inn Motel on Interstate 15. I closed my eyes, pretending that the roar of traffic was the ocean. Eve was at her latest new job, washing dishes in a truck-stop restaurant. When she returned, long after dark, she brought a birthday present: an old book. A musty hardcover called A Child’s Book of Myths. The infant god Apollo drove a chariot across the cover, pulled by two giant swans. Inside the cover, in a careful hand: For My Melvina, 1924.

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North Dakota. One Sows for the Benefit of Another Age. I knew enough, although I didn’t go to school. I knew about the war that ended, just two years before my birth, in Vietnam. I knew about the napalmed children. I had heard of Watergate. I knew the current president had starred in cowboy movies. I knew about the Holocaust, the Great Depression, Rosa Parks and Emmett Till, all thanks to Eve. My mother lectured me while we were on the road. She collected facts at highway markers and roadside museums, tidbits of information about pioneers, the Civil War, Lewis and Clark, the Trail of Tears. 

Geography was my true passion, though. I spent hours studying the atlas, and with each state boundary we crossed I’d recite that state’s official motto and the state bird, the state flower, and the year it joined the union. I could do this with my eyes shut, one of many ways I was superior to normal children, those who stayed put and conformed and went to school. 

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Idaho. Let It Be Perpetual. A waffle restaurant at midnight. The soft amber glow of wagon-wheel chandeliers. I filled my pockets up with foil-wrapped squares of butter and forgot about them for three days, until the next time I was wearing the same jeans. Then I felt the butter trickling down my leg, oozing out onto the Plymouth’s Naugahyde seat, and we weren’t anyplace where I could bathe for two more days. My mother shook her head when I complained. “Well, let that be a lesson, then,” she said. 

Wisconsin: Forward. Sometimes we played games. “I Spy” and “Punch Buggy,” the license plate game and a game I thought I’d made up where through the car windows you had to spot something that starts with every letter of the alphabet: Raven. Sycamore. Taxi cab. Umbrella. 

Days when Eve was silent, in no mood for fun, I read the atlas. Or I counted fence posts. Either one.

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Arkansas. The People Rule. A church basement in Little Rock. The ladies there were handing out free crayons and coloring books so I waited, while Eve waited in a different line to get free food. The kid behind me was a liar, telling everyone about his silver ten-speed and his pony and his private swimming pool, back home. His hair was dirty and his pants were too short, same as mine. 

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Connecticut. He Who is Transplanted Still Sustains. An urban laundromat. My hair had almost reached my chin. I was flipping through a gossip magazine while Eve read a novel from the local library. I held up the magazine, showing her a photo of some tv actor’s house. “This?” I asked her. “Was your Georgia house like this?” 

She shrugged and told me her house had a nicer porch. 

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Oregon. She Flies with Her Own Wings. We passed a string of hitchhikers on Highway 101. “The kids all want to be in California nowadays,” said Eve. “Good riddance.” We liked Oregon, the land of forests and free camping. Wild mushrooms grew there, and wild berries, but you had to pick them with the utmost care because the wrong ones could be deadly. At our forest campsite, Eve made morel omelets, morel stew, morels with noodles, all of which I wouldn’t eat. I didn’t trust her mushroom-picking skills. 

The other families living in the woods would gather near our fire at night to play guitars and sing in Spanish. They brought gifts of orchard fruit and I played tag with dark-haired, barefoot children, dodging trees. I took my shoes off, wanting to belong, but the ground was strewn with pine cones and sharp rocks that cut my feet. 

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New Hampshire. Live Free or Die. Another town, another laundromat. Eve was arguing with the proprietor because we’d lost one of our quarters in the dryer, and while no one was looking I removed a pair of frilly ankle socks from someone else’s basket of clean clothes. This was the first time I had ever stolen anything and I knew I should feel guilty but I couldn’t. My own socks all had holes. 

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South Carolina. While I Breathe, I Hope. I gave Eve a piece of driftwood from the beach, the best piece I had ever found, with star-shaped shells in its crevices. Somewhere between Charleston and Baton Rouge, the driftwood vanished. I didn’t ask. I knew we had no room for extra stuff inside our car. Stuff was how they snared you, Eve said. It was how they lured you to their traps.

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Michigan. If You Seek a Pleasant Peninsula, Look about You. Each night, before she tucked me in, Eve read aloud a Greek myth from my book. 

My book had vivid color illustrations and each illustration had a caption. Hercules returned, carrying the body of the great beast. I loved the captions more than the bright pictures, even. More than the stories, more than anything. 

The four daughters of Celeus, running and leaping like young gazelles, came to fill their pitchers at the well. I memorized them all. Sometimes, curled up in my sleeping bag inside the station wagon, I’d whisper them aloud. 

A long dark cloak hid the brightness of Ceres’ hair.

What have you to do with warlike weapons, saucy boy? 

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West Virginia. Mountaineers Are Always Free. I was begging for a hamster, once again. “I’ll take good care of it. I’ll feed it every day.” 

“Be quiet,” said Eve. She was studying the map.

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New York. Ever Upward. “How about a goldfish, then?” 

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Texas. Friendship. Digging tunnels in the sandbox with a nine-year-old boy at the KOA. I bent his fingers back until he cried because he told me it was free to go to school. This was a lie. School cost money, more than Eve made working short stints as a truck-stop waitress, dishwasher, or motel maid. No one had told me this, but I was certain it was true. Besides, school was a trap, though I knew better than to say this to the boy. 

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New Mexico. It Grows as It Goes. My hair had almost reached my shoulders by the time our left front tire went flat in Taos. At the service station there, I stole two pieces of Bazooka gum and a roll of Life Savers I wouldn’t eat. I didn’t like sweets. 

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Maine. I Lead. Taxi cab, umbrella, Volkswagen. A red Volkswagen beetle passed us, so I slugged Eve in the arm. “Red punch-buggy!” When we passed another beetle, broken down beside the road, I pretended not to see it so that Eve could punch me first. I liked it when she laughed. “So, Eve”—I was feeling bold that day—“why did you leave your home in Georgia?” She didn’t answer. I had not expected that she would. 

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Minnesota. Star of the North. Sometimes we packed up in the middle of the night. Sometimes Eve woke me in the small hours and she didn’t have to speak, I understood that it was time to leave. At these times, we avoided interstates. Eve grew distrustful of all other cars and drivers, so we’d creep along some graveled back road, under stars. Orion, Pegasus, Cassiopeia. Thanks to my book of myths, I knew how all the constellations got their names. 

On the first page of my book, there was a letter to the reader. Do not say these stories are too beautiful to be true, it began. Let them persuade you that you and all about you, home and school and out-of-doors, the lives you live and the world in which you live them, are made up of beauty and marvel and splendor. The only thing that does not exist is the commonplace.

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Montana. Gold and Silver. Christmas morning. Eve gave me a copper bracelet engraved with a trout design. “Much easier to care for than a real fish,” she said. “Do you like it?”

“Yes.” 

She always knew when I was lying. 

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Kansas. To the Stars through Difficulty. Eve was shaving off my hair again. “Don’t squirm,” she told me, and I didn’t. I stood motionless as salt Eurydice and I didn’t cry. 

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Missouri. The Welfare of the People Shall Be the Supreme Law. I made a friend in our motel swimming pool. Ten years old, like me. She was in love with Donny Osmond and her mom was not her real mom, but a fake. My new friend liked to talk about her old friends and her old school and her real mom. “I miss my home,” she sighed. “Don’t you?” 

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Oregon. She Flies with Her Own Wings. Chief Joseph’s grave, where we made offerings. Eve left a bunch of black-eyed Susans and our last two laundry quarters. I left more wildflowers and, unbeknownst to Eve, a pack of stolen bubble gum. I also left my copper bracelet there. No room for extra stuff inside the car. 

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North Carolina. To Be, Rather Than to Seem. Stranded. Our station wagon needed a new radiator. I was waiting in a restaurant with orange vinyl seats while Eve used the pay phone, calling about jobs. The stucco walls were draped with fishing nets and I could tell the gray-haired waitress had her eye on me. An hour went by. The waitress brought me pie and ice cream, on the house. 

“Where you from, child?” 

“Georgia.” My mouth was full of pie. “We have a big white house. Three stories and a wraparound verandah.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Her smile revealed a silver tooth. “You want to know a secret, child?” Up close, she smelled like potpourri and cigarettes. “My own girls never had no daddy, either. They turned out all right.” 

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California. Eureka! A whole bucket full of live bait. Small fry. Tiny mackerel was Eve’s guess. Someone had left the bucket on the pier. Most of them had turned their silver bellies up toward the hot sun, but two were still alive. My mother let me put the fish into a pickle jar with holes punched in the lid. I named one Perseus. The smaller one, Andromeda. I held the jar between my knees in the front seat, so it wouldn’t tip. 

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Iowa. Our Liberties We Prize. The third time Eve shaved off my hair, we also burned our bedding, to make sure the bugs were gone. We burned our clothes, too, all except the ones that we were wearing. “Lucky thing,” said Eve, “that it’s a mild October.”

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Three decades later, I still wake up in the middle of the night scratching my head. Imaginary legs trace ghostly patterns on my scalp. Once, years ago, a counselor told me I’m obsessed with cleanliness because of the strange way that I was raised. She said my childhood lacked predictability and rules, but she was wrong. Life on the road had rules, all kinds of rules: Don’t ask about her past. Don’t call her “Mom.” Don’t stay too long in one place and don’t get attached. Attachments are a trap. 

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Colorado. Nothing without Providence. The first hard frost. No jobs for Eve. No cash for a motel. I tried to keep my fish warm, cradling the pickle jar against my stomach in the backseat, but come morning Perseus and Andromeda were dead. I expected Eve to say, “Well, let that be a lesson,” but instead, she ran one hand over my stubbly scalp. “I’m sorry, kid.” 

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Oregon. She Flies with Her Own Wings. The men came in the middle of the night, with dogs. The other families fled on foot. They disappeared into the cold black woods, leaving their tents and everything they owned. The men handcuffed the ones they caught, including an old woman and a teenage boy and Javier, who’d been playing his guitar beside our campfire every night. Javier, the father of three girls. One of the men asked Eve for her ID. When she protested, he threatened arrest.

“For what offense?”

“For raising a white child among these people.”

I longed to ask her: are these men the ones? Are they the ones responsible for all the traps?

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Nebraska. Equality Before the Law. A Sinclair station on the outskirts of Omaha. The cashier saw me pocketing a keychain, shaped like half an ear of corn, and said that she was going to call the cops. Eve hustled me out to the car and we sped off, slinging gravel at the shrieking cashier, who was shouting curses in our dust-cloud wake. 

My mother didn’t speak to me again until that night, when she announced that she would take something away. What could she take? What did I own? Her eyes flicked over my white tennis shoes, my sleeping bag, then focused, finally, on my book. 

“No, no!” I screamed as she dangled The Child’s Book of Myths above the flames. 

She let it fall, but not into the fire. She dropped my birthday book onto the grass beside it, and walked away, howling with rage. I grabbed my book and held it close. The cover was still hot and the gilt corners had been singed. 

When my mother returned, late at night, she woke me up. She whispered, “They’ll take you away. Next time they catch you stealing, they’ll take you away from me. For good.”

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Oregon. She Flies with Her Own Wings. Do not say these stories are too beautiful to be true. 

Dana Fitz Gale won the Brighthorse Prize in Short Fiction for her debut story collection, Spells for Victory and Courage (Brighthorse Books, 2016), which was also a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Ohio State Book Prize. She has received numerous other awards for her fiction, which has recently appeared in the Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, and elsewhere.