The Long Sleep

bowling pin

The summer of the drought, we made a bowling alley in the wash. Just one lane, narrow and uneven, with the witchgrass and the mesquite rising up around us and the ground hard-packed and dusty, sloping down toward the city.

It was a bad idea, but Tyson Burke thought of it, so at the time, it mostly seemed like something to do. He was the king of bad ideas, and sometimes we went along with them for no other reason except that it was better than sitting at home watching reruns of Cops with the air-conditioner sweating fat, glossy beads of toxic water.

When we remember those afternoons, our recollection is a fractured one. The individual stories diverge. Lily talks about hot sandstone and the way the dust felt under her toes. Joe Healy says he’s forgotten nearly everything, that it only comes rushing back when he smells mesquite and desert lavender.

Alex Bell, who was always more somber than the rest of us, recalls something darker. When he closes his eyes at night, he says that he can still see the stark, graceful shape of Celia Webber, standing at the top of the embankment with a palm cupped to her ear, listening for thunder. Her hair looks pin-straight and brittle, so pale in the sun that it is almost white.

All our lives, our parents had warned us to be careful of the wash, to listen for the sound of storms. The ground was baked solid, so dry that if you hit it with a rock it cracked like tile and if the rain came, we knew it wouldn’t soak in, but only spill down through the narrow canyon and onto the road. Storms meant danger, but what is that to a bunch of kids? We didn’t believe in danger yet, and the sharp report of a thunder clap was too close to the sound the pins make when the ball hit them and they went crashing over, rolling idly in the dirt.

On nights when the temperature hangs in the triple digits and the winds blow down from the hills, we can still hear the sound of pins falling, like a dream we had once and keep having.

The ball was a cool, marbled blue. Jason van Doran found it lying in the weeds out by the freeway one day, like a giant turtle’s egg, almost buried in rabbit brush and Virginia creeper. Someone must have lost it, he said—left it behind like a dropped glove, a misplaced earring, a coin falling from someone’s pocket. But it was sleek and bright and heavy, too substantial to simply lose track of and none of us ever really believed it was lost, only abandoned.

The holes were big, too far apart for some of the girls to grip it, but they played anyway, using both hands, rolling it granny-style along the ground toward Ranch Road and the seven chipped pins that Dixie Carter found in the dumpster behind Mermaid Lanes.

The wash was our retreat, far from the sea of wire clotheslines and chain-link. It was that place in which you never feel uncertain or alone and your parents never come there, just look up vaguely from mowing the lawn and wave goodbye as walk your bike down the driveway. Maybe they take you aside sometimes, put a hand on your shoulder and tell you not to smoke or shoplift or talk to that Flannery boy from down the street, but they always let you go again. They never tell you the truth of the world is that it changes, never tell you that the warm, lazy dream you’re dreaming right now might end before school starts up again, before you even realize you’ve been sleeping, and that when you wake up, you will not recognize yourself.

We were lulled by the crash of the pins as they spilled away down the hard, cracked slope of the canyon and Vincent DeLuco’s little brother ran to retrieve them, skipping between tufts of dry grass in his dusty sneakers, ready to set them up in crooked rows and start the whole thing over. We spent hours, days, our whole careless lives, laughing in the wash.

Tyson was two years older and presided over the rest of us, smiling down benevolently. If we close our eyes, we can sometimes still see him, sitting at the top of the bank in one of the battered lawn chairs with his feet kicked up, drinking beer out of a plastic gas station cup, watching the girls argue over the bowling order and waiting for his turn to send the ball careening down the packed dirt to strike the pins, scattering them like tiny toppled buildings.

We should have known.

If you ask Alex Bell, he’ll tell you with a heavy certainty that we did know, but chose to ignore it. He may be right, but it has always seemed to the rest of us that the wash was a magnificent wasteland, a place without rule or law or time. It was impossible to know anything.

When the flood came down though the gap, it happened all at once, like an unchecked bullet, a blow to the head. We were caught with our knees scraped, our hands sticky with the juice of melted popsicles, unprepared for sorrow or catastrophe.

Some of us made it to higher ground, up the bank and into the scrub, arms and legs scratched, feet wet and mouths dry. Most of us, even. But not all.

Tyson floundered briefly and then disappeared. Celia went next, swept down under the weight of thousands of gallons of water. Her hair floated for instant, waving in the current like a flag, white and then brown, then gone.

The ones who were left stood on the top of the bank, too close to the crumbling edge, staring down with a noise like a cataract in our ears, and the wooden pins tumbled and rolled, carried along until they bobbed out of sight.

The wash is dry again, but full of silent ghosts and we don’t go there. It doesn’t matter. The flood has come with us, following us down through the slow parade of years. In the parking lots of 24-hour convenience stores, on nights when the city seems like nothing but miles of pavement, bare and hot and vacant, we drive in circles with the radio on and tell each other what we remember.

None of us recall it in quite the same way, but it doesn’t matter. We can still see the outlines of our former selves, see each other as we were. No one else does. To the greater world, the flood consumes us. It is as though grief is a permanent condition, transformative. Our parents look at us like strangers.

We went to sleep children and woke up grown, baptized in heat and dust, anointed with dark gritty water. Now, when we are together, that sleep is almost tangible. It seems to be the only real thing, and the years since then have taken on the cast of make-believe. We sit together on the curb, in a yellow circle of streetlight and know that this is not the real thing and we are simply sharing one long, sprawling dream we never seem to wake up from.

Photo by John Saxon

29 thoughts on “The Long Sleep

  1. i love this line:

    We went to sleep children and woke up grown, baptized in heat and dust, anointed with dark gritty water.

    this story is one of my new favorites, a great way to bring in the new year:)

    -Polkadotiful

  2. Wow… I had no idea the flood was coming. Not to say I didn’t expect something totally surprising coming from YOU but… Wonderfully done! Even if it was, well, KINDA depressing…

  3. I love this voice. And the details. It made me think of those brilliant essays you hear on NPR. 😀

  4. I used to play in the wash, and remember the feel of the dust between my toes. This story is eerily reminiscent of my childhood. Thanks for the memories… and the fear.

  5. Thanks—I’m glad you liked it! (I realized I hadn’t done a drowning one in a while, so . . . )

  6. I used to, too. We never had a flood or bowling, though—mostly it was just riding bikes. But I’ve never forgotten the dust!

  7. This somehow became the voicey-voice story to end all voice stories—and there isn’t even a real narrator!

  8. I’m somehow incapable of writing about water without making it depressing or scary—maybe that will be my new assignment: a happy water story!

  9. Somehow my childhood nostalgia always turns out sad, which is weird, because actually thinking about hot, dry summers and dust makes me really happy!

  10. I blame that bowling pin photo—I was browsing them and when I saw it, I knew it was the one! And also, strangely upsetting . . .

  11. This tastes of my childhood. There’s something about a hot night in the desert, with kids whose names you didn’t even really know. The dust between your toes and the sting of every beat up excuse for a plant cutting into the pads of your feet. Still… we never bothered to put shoes on.

    Really lovely. And sad. Those always seem to go hand and hand.

  12. I felt a little detached from the story, which is unusual, because I love your writing so much. I knew someone was going to drown at “it was a bad idea.” I felt like I was reading one line and seeing the mext immediately. A little crazy today. I hope you’re great and had a wonderful holiday season. Happy New Year.

  13. So part of my challenge this year is the short story business y’all make seem so easy:) I really REALLY appreciate what you can do with so few words and no actual dialog. I.hate.thinking.of.dialog. Thank you, lady! I read much of your description as well-couched poetry.

  14. lovely. And sad. Those always seem to go hand and hand.

    I find that a lot too—there’s something about the contrast that just makes both things seem stronger once they’re together . . .

  15. I have a hard time with dialogue, too. If I’m in the right mood, it can be a snap, but if I’m in the wrong mood, I don’t even understand how a conversation works!

  16. I actually know just what you mean—I don’t think I’ve ever tried a collective narrator before and the experience was . . . strange, to say the least. One of my favorite things about Merry Fates, though, is the fact that there’s a perfect place for me to try a collective narrator!

  17. …never tell you that the warm, lazy dream you’re dreaming right now might end before school starts up again, before you even realize you’ve been sleeping, and that when you wake up, you will not recognize yourself and Now, when we are together, that sleep is almost tangible. It seems to be the only real thing, and the years since then have taken on the cast of make-believe is my favorite part of this, I think. I think we all feel that the vague and visionary memories of our childhoods are the most palpable. Excellent story. Definitely a new favorite!

  18. I’m glad you liked it! Looking back, I definitely think that first line especially could be applied to all kinds of other facets of being a teenager—all the transformation that happens while you don’t know it’s happening . . .

  19. “We sit together on the curb, in a yellow circle of streetlight and know that this is not the real thing and we are simply sharing one long, sprawling dream we never seem to wake up from.”

    *Shiver*

    I aboslutely love this! I love the collective narration. It makes it different, in a good way.

    P.S… I just started “The Replacement”. LOVE!!

  20. Collective narrators are such a strange, interesting idea—I love the idea of shared experience, and it’s really fun to be able to play around with the crazy stuff and see how it shakes out.

    (Glad you’re liking The Replacement!)

  21. I couldn’t shake this nagging thing as I read this. Not in a bad way though. But this reminded me of the childhood bits from IT…sans child eating clown/spider of course 😀

    Childhood is a bizarre thing anyways and then you throw in some shared tragedy and it all goes a bit wrong. Wrong in a really pretty way though.

    Also…it gave me goosebumps. Seriously.

  22. Childhood is strange, because people get really nostalgic about it, but so much of the unsupervised parts contain an element of danger. Or maybe that was just mine 🙂

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