By Nina Schuyler
Greg's optimism was like a relightable birthday candle, which—no matter how hard Maeve tried to blow it out—sparked and sputtered and came back to life, a slender stick of magical fire. His motto was, "You can do anything!" and when he said it enough times, it rubbed against Maeve's dollop of oily optimism, tucked behind the muck and mulch of her, and something magical happened: she believed him.
Which was how she found herself with her husband and son—only twelve more hours to go—driving through the blazing hot Superstition Mountains to Mexico in July for Greg's great aunt's 92nd birthday party, which was tonight. Tonight! Sure they could make it! What a great time!
And for the first hour or so, it had been a fine time. But then suddenly Jacob began to cry, a steady beat, measured and determined.
"It sounds like the sleep cry," said Greg.
"No, this is the despair cry."
"No, it's the sleep cry. Can't you hear the whine in it?" said Greg, the hint of a smile always lurking around his mouth, as if he told himself a private joke, maybe the same one, over and over. "I'm sure we'll figure it out. This is part of the adventure. The big whoopla of the ride."
Oh, if only she were teaching the Greek tragedies. Just yesterday she'd finished teaching her summer course and already missed them. In a tragedy no one tried to have fun or an adventure. Humans were doomed and no one tried to pretend otherwise. In fact, in a tragedy, there would never be a character like Greg, who didn't have worry wrinkles on his forehead, who thought a crying baby was an adventure.
Jacob cried and hiccupped and Maeve stroked his arm. She climbed to the back seat and gave him his sippy cup of water, a bag of crackers, toys that sang, toys that didn't sing; she took his shirt off, read to him, gave him cheese, the cap of a Coke bottle, the loose thread on her cuff. Maeve stared at the one precious jug of water nestled in the front seat cup holder by Greg's knee. How could they have brought so little water? Was that why Jacob was crying? Was he worried about their water situation? What if they got stuck in the desert and had to survive for days? Humans couldn't live without water for very long. A day, maybe two at most. They'd have to ration the water, maybe eat a cactus.
"We need to buy more water," she said, her tone urgent and shrill.
"All right," said Greg, smiling.
Something was up ahead, blurry in the wavy heat. Maeve couldn't quite make it out. A pile of bones? A white 1950s Chevy flipped on its hood?
"There!" shouted Maeve. It was a gas station. "Stop."
Greg pulled into the station. She took Jacob by the hand, but he refused to go inside the gas station office and plunked down on the cement in the shade, still crying.
Maeve stepped inside and asked to buy ten bottles of water.
The gas attendant laughed a long time. He had a round red face and his thinning pale hair revealed a burnt, freckled scalp. "We've been sold out for weeks," he said, wiping his broad forehead with a red kerchief. Under each armpit rose a half moon. "Sold out of every liquid."
Maeve felt a panicked gurgle catch in her throat.
"People are hording, ma'am. Longest spell without rain." He said something about reservoirs dropping to record lows and tapped out aquifers. The whole state. New Mexico, too. Soon Nevada, probably California, Texas. He leaned over the counter and rested his big chin on a beefy palm. "You know what I think? I think this country is running out of water. That's what I think."
"What do you drink?" asked Maeve.
The man looked at her coyly. "Oh, this and that."
What did she know about the water situation? They lived in the Pacific Northwest where it rained so much bright green moss grew on lawn chairs. It thrived in the tread of her good running shoes. She had to use a knife to dig it out.
She took Jacob by the hand, tucked him into his car seat and solemnly told her husband the bad news.
"Oh, Maeve," he said, laughing. "It comes back to the saying, is the cup half empty or full. So that man views things as half empty."
Maeve studied the water jug and saw, indeed, it was half empty. Greg must have taken a drink while she was in the gas station.
Back on the road, Jacob was still crying, though it wasn't as high-pitched, or maybe Maeve was losing her hearing. It sounded like the cry of boredom. Or maybe fear. Maybe it was her fear. She'd read somewhere that babies were like sponges, sucking up whatever was around them. She took a deep breath and tried to cheer up, to rub shoulders with the bright side, make friends with a fun time. But then she heard a sputtering sound, as if an airplane propeller was winding down.
"What was that?" she asked, alarmed.
"There goes the air conditioner," said Greg, as if he were announcing which movies were playing at the theater.
Maeve sat up. "What will we do?"
"We'll roll down the windows."
A hot, cruel wind blew in the stench of a cattle slaughterhouse. Her legs glued to the plastic seat. Hours went by, or maybe it was minutes. The brown, dried out landscape rolled by. She turned to Jacob, but he refused to look at her. What was he looking at? Could a two-year-old find meaning in the brown mountains encircling them, trapping them in this insufferable pocket of heat?
"How much longer?" asked Maeve.
Greg sighed and pointed to the brown mountains in the distance. "We've got to get over those. It will take skill, determination and brute strength, but we'll do it!"
She knew they were ill prepared to become parents. What did they know, really? Greg had studied documentary films in school and worked as a 3-D animator, creating big-chested men who fought off wild things. She'd majored in Greek myths with a specialty in tragedies. But soon her friends, and even people she didn't know, were having babies. And she'd thought, if they could do it, she could too. "That's the spirit," said Greg, egging her on. "You're great. I'm great. We'll make a great kid!"
But if they were so great, shouldn't they have packed towels to drape over the seats so their legs weren't singed by hot plastic? Brought some tapes other than Kitty Dances and Potty Talk? Opened the hood and checked the air conditioning?Shouldn't they have known about the water problem-- who would have thought they needed to pack water? Water was the liquid of life, and not long ago, it was free. Free! Dip a tin cup in a stream. What kind of world did she bring her baby into if she couldn't buy a bottle of water at a crummy gas station?
Greg raised the jug of water in the air, as if he were waving a white flag of surrender. "Oh, come on, Maeve. Lighten up."
"How can you drink at a time like this?" Her eyes narrowed and flashed. As he swallowed, she watched his Adam's apple dance.
For months, Greg had looked forward to making this pilgrimage to see his great aunt. "She was like a mother to me," Greg had told Maeve. After his father's dental practice went bankrupt, Great Aunt Betsy financed his college education. "All of it," he'd said, with emphasis. "Besides, Betsy's a kick."
Great Aunt Betsy had drawn her own birthday invitation, a havalena skull with pink flowered border. Hope you can make it! It may be my last! 92 big ones! Bring the kiddo, too! I'll show him my collection of dried bones! Maeve had marveled at all the exclamation points, until she'd read it out loud and realized it sounded like her husband.
"She's a reminder you can be young forever," he had said.
"But you can't," said Maeve.
Greg stopped washing the dishes and tapped his temple with a soapy hand. A small dab of white suds nestled near his eyebrow. "In the mind, Maeve. Young in the mind."
Now Maeve studied the bottle of water—more than half empty—and closed her eyes. She felt her body wilting. Her head lolled around on her neck. When she opened her eyes, she saw Greg was gripping the steering wheel. The crying sound was burrowing into his bone marrow, too, undoing and fraying nerves. She smiled faintly, secretly relieved that Jacob's crying was an equal opportunity burrower.
"What about those little toastie things? said Greg.
"What little toastie things?"
"Those toasts Jacob loves. Zweewacks? Zuswabs?"
Maeve found the yellow box with the happy baby boy face on it. The happy baby was chewing on a small toast, his blonde hair neatly combed, his clothes crumbless, a twinkle in his blue eyes. What optimism! She handed Jacob a toast. He put it in his eye, then threw it against the back window, and wailed.
She leaned over the front seat, grabbed the water jug, and took a big gulp. Out the window, brown, barren land stretched all the way to the brown mountains. Nothing there, except billboards.
"‘Ostriches and Ostrich Products for Sale!' ‘In the Market for a Deer?'" She was beginning to feel car feverish. "Would you like a deer?" she asked Jacob. "We could put it in the trunk."
"'For sale: 350 acres of pure desert.'"
"'RV Resort: There's room for you.'" She looked at him, hoping he would at least consider it. Maybe she should consider it. She could live in a little RV, cook soup over a stove, send postcards to Greg and Jacob, "Everything's just fine!"
Cry cry cry.
A Navigator drove by with a couple and two children in car seats quietly reading books. Their windows were rolled up. They must have air conditioning, she thought, and water. There was another wavy white blob up ahead.
"I see it!" Greg shouted back. "I see it for God's sake!" He looked tense and limp at the same time. How was this possible?
Her husband squealed into the gas station. They sat still a moment, delirious in the waves of crying and the heat. Inside the office, they spotted a teenage boy wearing a gray uniform. Greg leaped out of the car, as if escaping a raging wild fire. His blue shirt clung flat to his back. While he pumped the gas, she pulled Jacob out of the car. His cries now sounded exhausted and spent. Despair, thought Maeve, coupled with gloom.
Inside the office, an oscillating fan lifted the brown bangs of the boy and sent surges of stale bubblegum toward her and Jacob. The teenage boy glanced up from his TV show. A cowboy was walking around bow legged.
She asked if he had any bottled water.
He shook his head no. "Women's restroom." He turned back to the TV. The cowboy was in a bleak desert, firing at someone hiding behind a cactus.
She forgave him for his short, curt reply. The heat, she thought. It sucked the life out of everyone.
She picked up Jacob and walked into the bathroom. Stench, and toilet paper on the floor, a stopped up toilet, the sink was brown from brown water dripping from the faucet. She gagged and Jacob sobbed. The men's bathroom was worse. She stormed into the office, clutching Jacob to her side. "When did you sell your last bottle of water, just tell me that!" The fan blew at her, causing her hair to fly around, wildly.
The teenage boy squinted at her, as if unable to determine if she was part of the Western. "About an hour ago."
"To whom? Who bought it?"
"Uh, some lady." He looked at her, then snuck a glance at the TV. "We'll have more around 4:00 when the delivery truck comes. But you can drive to town about ten miles away and get water."
She didn't want water ten miles away. She wanted to hear about this gas station. What were its water resources? Why were they depleted? And what was the name of the woman who bought the last bottle? "So more water is coming? Here? Right here?"
She was going crazy. The heat! The heat!
He turned his full attention to Maeve and with raised eyebrows said, "Yeah."
"Would you sign your name to a document stating that?" She clenched her hands into fists and leaned toward the boy's face. "Would you take a blood oath?"
He was about to answer, but a noisy shoot out suddenly blared from the TV. Cowboys ran around with big hefty Colt 45s, and in the background a black train spewed black smoke.
She carried Jacob outside and stood in the lifeless air. The ground was sandy brown with prickly dried out bushes. A lizard scurried by and ran for shade from a nearby rock. She pointed to the lizard. Jacob seemed to cry at a lower decibel level. Next to the lizard was a dried dead bird. Its body was flattened, like a piece of cardboard with feathers glued on it. It may have once been a wren. Probably died of dehydration. The sun beat down on her scalp, on her pale arms covered for so many months by a raincoat. She couldn't tell if Jacob was looking at the dead bird or the lizard. She set Jacob on the ground. He whimpered, then suddenly stopped crying.
Maeve didn't move. Slowly, she glanced at Greg. He was still pumping gas, but the silence must have made him look over. He gave her a bewildered look, then a thumbs up sign. Jacob's face was red and blotchy and snot ran from his nose. She got down on her knees and stroked his sweaty back. He rested his head on her shoulder and sighed.
So she'd been wrong about the water. But still. How did she ever think they could do this? Drive endless hours in blazing heat? She must have been blinded by Greg's optimism; it could be so bright, like sunlight bouncing off a white appliance. It blurred the natural contours of the landscape, the limits of what you could do. And there were limits! They were humans, after all, with tragic flaws, hiccups and burps, and bad breath in the morning.
Greg walked over with the water jug. She picked up Jacob and they all stood silently in the blazing sun staring at the dead bird.
"We can't go on," she said. She couldn't keep driving, not today, she wouldn't do it, she mustn't, they mustn't, her small human family must stop.
"Maeve, we haven't even driven three hours."
But she heard in his voice something supplicating, as if the verve had dried up. He seemed to be waiting for her to say more, to make a strong argument that he could subscribe to.
"Jacob has had enough," she said.
He let out a slow exhale. "This isn't about your conspiracy theory about water, is it?"
"We can make it," he said, his voice weak.
"I've had enough. You've had enough."
Greg made a puckering sound. He placed his hand on top of Jacob's head.
What they all needed was to find a hotel and rest. They needed to drink water. Maybe swim in a pool. Lie down on cool white sheets. Watch a bad movie in their room and let Jacob run up and down the hallways, waving his pudgy milk-ladened arms in delight. They needed buckets of ice and small bars of soap to unwrap. Needed to peer into the mini bar and crack open a $4 Coke.
"If we stop here, we'll miss the big birthday bash tonight," he said. Greg's lips drooped in a forlorn way and his shoulders slumped. He looked so glum, so hopeless.
"We'll figure something out," she said, trying to sound cheerful and upbeat. She handed Jacob to Greg and strode into the gas station office, as if she knew what she was doing.
The teenage boy was eating potato chips and watching cartoons. She roamed around the store and eventually found a small box of pink birthday candles. She asked the boy if he might have some matches. In fact, he did. She walked over to Greg and Jacob. They stood in the quiet emptiness of the dry desert, and Maeve felt the blazing sun burn the pale part in her hair. She looked at her unhappy husband, at Jacob, with his red, tear-streaked face, grabbing Greg's ear lobes. Then she looked behind Jacob to the barrel cacti, sagebrush, the saguaro raising their prickly arms overhead, pleading with the hot white sky for rain. There were the far away brown mountains, and then she saw it—was Jacob looking at this all along?-- the jagged horizon of the mountains busy mapping mother earth's heart beat, tragically erratic and weary.
She could have pointed this out. Instead, she dug the candle into the sand. Striking a match, she lit the candle, put her arm around Greg's waist and cleared her throat.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you," she sang loudly. "Come on, you can do it!" she said, pulling on Greg's arm until he gave her a faint smile and joined in. "Happy birthday dear Great Aunt Betsy, happy birthday to you!"
Jacob laughed and clapped. "Do it again!" he said.
And so they did.