California’s Highway 395 is a road you’d use if you were on the lam. Or if you wanted to see Los Angeles raped and left for dead. I know desert, but this looks like a bomb’s aftermath got swept away by windstorms.
Hours ago I threw the few things I haven’t sold into my Hyundai with a plan of driving anywhere rather than facing my landlord. Instead of the stray cash I was hoping for in the glove compartment, I found a three-year-old wedding invitation from my best friend in high school. Dena and I both met our soul mates (or so I thought) when we came west for college, but she married hers and moved out in the country. She isn’t expecting me, but memories of their wedding—barefoot on the beach, passionate kisses as he carried her into the surf—make love seem so real and true. Witnessing that is just what I need.
What looked like sand from the highway is actually jagged white rock now stuck in my sandals as I make my way toward a ditch near the railroad tracks. Not so much as a twig of chaparral to hide behind when you gotta take a piss. I was gonna go in my Big Gulp cup, but it’s the only drinking ware I have.
I can’t use a restroom in a gas station without buying something. I just can’t.
Rising from the ditch, I see a rainbow glint from the other side of the tracks. Colored glass in the sun. Shards of it amidst rusted cans and wheels and unidentifiables, as if freight train engineers have dumped their trash right here for years. I should see if there’s anything worth selling or making art with, but the image of myself old and rusted and discarded by the tracks punches me in the stomach. I run back to the car.
It wasn’t like this ‘til recently. A couple of years ago, my boyfriend Ted and I had this idea for a children’s cartoon. We were so baked we were having shared visuals about a turkey we named Turkey Jane. The cartoon has become quite successful now, and I still say you couldn’t tease apart who had the original idea.
But Ted’s lawyer did.
My own lawyer was so busy bragging about how Ted was going to owe me for the rest of his life that he forgot I had no means to pay his bills unless I won the case. Which I didn’t.
More than wishing I’d won, though, I wish I didn’t still love Ted. I won’t discuss here the ways I tried to express this, but I will say that the restraining order was overkill.
No sign of civilization other than billboards advertising the World’s Best Beef Jerky for about fifty miles, so when I finally reach the little shack, I know how the ‘49ers felt. My protein has come entirely from peanut butter for the last several months.
Los Angeles is so devoid of rednecks, it actually feels like cultural diversity to see one behind the counter. The store has three walls devoted to jerky. Honey, garlic, sweet pickle, lime, curry, cotton candy. If it will stick to rawhide, this guy’s got it. Country music plays really loud, but the guy talks over it at me, asking if I’m going to Vegas.
I cover my shock at the price of jerky by tossing a bag on the counter in front of him. “Visiting a friend in Lone Pine. You know it?”
“’Course I do, but you’re going the wrong way.”
Impossible, there’s only one road and I know enough to know I’m going north, but I break my last twenty and open the bag in front of him like I’m totally cool with going the wrong way.
“You musta turned at the stoplight. Happens all the time. But you gotta go all the way back there to pick up 395.” His arm glides like I have to fly a plane all the way back there. I catch a glimpse of pit hair.
So I’m not even on 395.
Even if it happens all the time, he clearly gets a kick out of my mistake. I wish my hair was still long. Now it’s white and spiky—homemade chic—and useless at hiding my hot face as I make for the door.
Back to the scorched day. Back those fifty miles to the stoplight that made me wonder why the hell it was there.
I turn on the air in my little hatchback, hoping I can buy gas again before they cut off my Visa.
The thing my lawyer tried to prove was that the cartoon character Turkey Jane was based on me. Every episode, she started with a misunderstanding and led the other eye-rolling barnyard animals on a wild goose (or turkey) chase, but then miraculously and totally by accident, she’d make the right thing happen. The thing Turkey Jane needed to happen all along.
Only, unlike me, she didn’t feel sorry for herself. She’d just exchange the red comb on her head for the one that stood upright on her butt and walk off into the sunset, grooving to a bluesy tune.
. . . . .
Miles ahead and far away from the flat hot road, snow-covered Sierras rise like animated backgrounds. In sunset, they fade to huge purple shoulders I can feel even when it’s too dark to see them. The sign for Lone Pine flies by as I’m nodding off. Figuring it might be the only one, I careen into the first motel driveway I see.
There’s a long enough wait that I begin to think the neon vacancy sign is just artwork. Finally, a lady with stark red hair buzzes me in through the glass office door. Her fitted tan blouse is misbuttoned, revealing a lacy turquoise bra. Clearly, I’ve interrupted something, though her lizard-skin cleavage makes me wonder who’s interested.
“How long will you be staying?” Even her voice sounds leathery.
“Um. A day or two.” My mascara like epoxy as I squint under the light.
I heave my backpack higher. “Three.”
The clerk leans over the desk to pass the key, but won’t let go of it ’til I meet her eye. “Keep it clean. Don’t take anything. We’ve had trouble with your type.”
My type—the tatted type? Broke folk? I head back to the car trying to keep in mind her directions around the motel where my room is waiting.
As I’m driving the path from asphalt to gravel to dirt, it’s clear I’ve gone too far. The headlights catch an orange diamond-shaped sign that reads—I kid you not—Dead Animal Pit, but what appears next is a very live animal. A large dog or a small horse. I hope it’s not a wolf, or a giant coyote. He blinks in my direction and I think he can’t be wild. Finally, he ambles along as if he knew I’d hit the brakes. Large testicles swing beneath his upturned tail.
. . . . .
Late sun filters through the dirt-splattered window. There’s mooing outside. My teeth could have fallen out, I slept so soundly. This may be the first time since court.
The invitation’s return address is 203 Manzanar Street. Manzanar was a Japanese internment camp a few miles north of Lone Pine in a town called Independence. That much I remember from eighth grade.
The room has no phone. I terminated my cell contract to pay a legal bill and sold the GPS on Craigslist, so finding the street presents a challenge. Beyond the motel, the highway narrows to a strip of gift shops, forced-quaint galleries, and restaurants offering local steer. For breakfast, I order a waffle cone at an ice cream shop where the sign says they can’t “except” any bill larger than $20. A cute moonfaced Indian girl hands me the cone and directs me to Dena’s street.
“Why do you want to go out there? That’s in the sticks. Go away! Sorry—not you,” she says as I step backwards. “Him.”
I follow her finger to what I swear is the same dog I saw last night. He must be a Great Dane. Huge, slobbery, Scooby-Dooish in daylight.
“Some tourist dumped him on us. Don’t stand too still. He’ll hump you.”
. . . . .
Willow branches drape the clapboard house. It has a tin roof and a wraparound porch. A small gray pickup truck out front. Dena’s in the yard, hanging laundry. I honk the horn and hop out to meet the lithe woman with the wavy brown hair. Same as when we graduated ten years ago.
There’s that knockout smile as she drops her laundry basket. Gathering her skirt (a breezy cotton pastel versus my all-black skintight attire), she crosses the wildflower-strewn lot.
“Syl! How on earth?—I like your hair.”
We hug. We giggle. She whirls me inside to see her homemade calico curtains, her rare and native plants. A few years ago, I poked fun at people like this. Now I see this is how it’s done—love and life. A black and white portrait of Darby hangs on the den wall. His hair dark and curly, his eyes deep and sincere.
Dena pours us tea.
“Aren’t you working on the Roadrunner or something?”
I can’t tell her all that’s happened over the lemongrass tea in her handmade pottery mugs. Instead, I tell her what a success Turkey Jane has become. She’s been picked up by a big network, although, legally, I have nothing to do with that.
“Turkeys, hmm?” Dena grunts into her mug. “Turkeys are threatening my marriage.” She flings open the kitchen door. Acrid feed and dusty feathers thicken the breeze. Four rust-colored birds with lolling red necks strut around the dirt yard. One comes clucking up to the door, as if for food. Dena slams it in the bird’s face.
“Bourbon reds.” She flips on the overhead fan and dumps out her tea. “Observing them carry out their ‘natural life cycle’ was supposed to help assuage my desire for a baby.”
The irony is that the turkeys seem disinterested.
“They never even screw,” Dena twirls her hair behind her ear and squeezes a laugh. She offers a glass of wine, saying the nature center’s closed on Wednesdays and Darby is at a water rights hearing.
So. Dena wanted a baby and Darby didn’t (“Why bring in more polluters?”). Instead he brought home turkeys, showing his, as she sees it, disregard for her feelings. Their rift grew and in a moment of weakness she let herself get pregnant. She was convinced she could change his mind. Shortly after she told him, she miscarried. He hasn’t forgiven her dishonesty.
Dena pours another glass. We have a history of clandestine drinking. “I wonder if we had had kids, would he dump all the responsibilities on me? That’s what he’s trying with the turkeys.”
The eyes in his portrait look forgiving. The lips edible. Why can’t these people just be in love for my benefit?
“Why don’t you set the turkeys free, or give them away?”
“I think he keeps them out of spite for my little trick.” She blinks her thick lashes. “I used to love everything about him, Syl, and forgive everything I couldn’t.”
I get up to look at her problems (and avoid trivializing them).
The hens roll their eyes toward me, but their bodies stay glued to where they’re picking at the ground. As soon as I step out the door, the tom rushes the back of my knee. I squeal, but he only nuzzles my pants leg. I pet his ugly head and he doesn’t shy away. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a real turkey before. He’s copper and white, with a tail that folds down like a regular bird’s. Turkey Jane is brown with big eyes and those interchangeable red combs.
Two of the hens approach. Only half the size of their man.
“They like you,” Dena giggles from the doorway.
. . . . .
For dinner I grab a Coke and Fritos from the motel’s vending machine to accompany my jerky. Hot dust blows as if from a broken vacuum cleaner bag. Once dusk comes it’s cooler outside than in, so I take a stroll toward the cows. It’s still light enough—and the moon bright enough—that I can see there are two ways to turn at the Dead Animal Pit sign. I go the other way. Past aspen trees that line the fence, there’s a shitload of junked cars. There are mattresses, a toilet, a rusted fridge. A person who’s about to be homeless could probably use some of this, or sell it. I lift a twisted brass lamp from its box-spring trap, and as I’m doing that, I notice one of the cars is moving.
Not like running moving. Swaying moving. When I take a step closer a naked girl pops up from the backseat. Her face is familiar. The Indian girl who sold me ice cream. She flashes a shy smile and dives back down.
Leaning against the fence, I realize most of the junked out cars are moving. Making an ocean of reflecting metal under the moon. When I hold my own breath, I hear others breathing, grunting.
There’s a wet warmth on the exposed skin on my back. I jump. The dog. His moist whiskers tickling. On all fours he’s more than half my height. He might outweigh me by thirty pounds.
He licks my hand with a hot tongue. The jerky, I realize. Then he’s off and headed toward the pit.
Later, lying back on the bed—a stone tablet covered with a saddle blanket—I twist the fake diamond in my navel and drift off to sleep.
. . . . .
In the morning—well, afternoon—I discover the TV doesn’t work. So I’m looking through the room’s reading material when I see a flier for the Owens Valley Nature Center. That’s Dena’s and her hubby’s place.
It nestles in a dormant pasture down a deeply-rutted drive. My Hyundai skids on its weedy median. I guess not many tourists or hikers come out of their way to visit.
Dena’s little pickup and a mountain bike are under the shade of an immense oak. A square of gravel suggests a parking lot and I stand in it for a moment in complete silence. Even the hot wind is on siesta. Then, as I crack open the metal door of the building, cool grayness transports me back to school field trips. Buzzing fluorescent lights and the smell of pinecones and dusty books and maps.
The place seems empty, but I hear mumbling in the office across from the main room. A pleading baritone followed by Dena’s high whine. I slip off my sandals and, carrying them, pad across the floor.
I would’ve thought they’d have heard my car. Slinking until I can put one eyeball to the crack of the door, I hold my breath. Sunlight filters in a window of the cramped office, the couple’s shadow visible on the far wall. Darby kneels, hugging Dena’s waist.
He’s feeding her platitudes: we can’t go on like this; I need you in my life.
I strain to hear over my heartbeat.
Dena crosses her arms as if she doesn’t care. Is that what makes men like you? I’ve forgotten.
“Get rid of the turkeys,” she growls.
His sigh deflates him lower still. “Do you really think that’s our only problem?”
Please say yes, I’m thinking.
“I’ve apologized,” she says. “You say you forgive, but it feels like you’re still punishing me.”
He mumbles something into the folds of her skirt and his hands crawl up and down her back. Her own hands drop to his shoulders.
Just as they melt together, there’s a clattering noise. Suddenly they’re at the door and in my face.
I realize I dropped my sandals.
Dena’s eyes are red and puffy. Darby’s far from understanding. I bend to pick up my shoes and wipe my brow like I’ve just walked in from the heat.
“Honey, you remember my friend Sylvie.”
“Where are you staying?” From zero to one hundred percent gruff, this guy.
“There’s a motel—”
“You two have a nice visit.” He edges past me. “I have to feed the turkeys.”
“Darby, will you forget the turkeys for five minutes?”
“Can’t just let them starve ’til we figure out what to do with them.”
“You two.” I raise my voice. “You need more time together. I’ll feed the turkeys.”
. . . . .
It is physically impossible for them to peck me to death. I’m fairly certain. As I open the gate all four of them come grooving up to me with the same rhythm as Turkey Jane, their grisly necks like engorged genitalia.
They are not like dogs, looking up to see if you agree. They’re more like people, busy with their own agendas, but aware that you are there in case you might help them in any way.
We walk toward the shed where I open the latch and am blind until my eyes adjust. As Dena described, there’s a bag with a few pungent pellets. I wonder how they keep rodents out of it.
I toss the last of the stinky things around the yard. Four lolling necks follow the motion, but they are too hot to be hungry. You’d need air conditioning to eat this time of day.
Speaking of which, my black vest, although cotton, feels burdensome. The birds are watching me like they hope I’ve got something better. I flap the lapels like wings and stomp around in the dirt.
The tom cocks his head, then thrusts his beak to peck at my toe rings. The hens follow suit, crowding to get to my toes and the shiny décor on my sandals. All this is freaking me out so I step back. But the turkeys flap forward and catch me.
I’m not scared of you, I tell them. We can play this game. For a second, I consider opening the fence and leading them down the road. People here would cook them and D & D could get on with their lives. But the turkeys seem friendlier than D & D at the moment and I hate the image of some cowboy gnawing on a giant drumstick. So I run in tight circles. The hens clamber over one another to chase me. Like Turkey Jane, I flap and groove round and round the yard. The sun swells with midday heat.
I work our way under a live oak and lie on my back. The birds investigate my eyebrows. I have never been this close to any animal. They seem more like my brother’s pet iguana than songbirds. Their pecks are gentle and, though they seem interested in my hay-like hair, they don’t eat it. I close my eyes and there’s a dizziness like falling asleep. It’s so peaceful. D & D should try this.
I open my eyes to catch the tom diddling my jacket buttons in his beak. Cautiously lifting my top I let him investigate my nipples. I don’t want cartoons. I want real turkeys. Real love. It’s scary to watch. He starts in like he’s plucking a worm, but when he hits pink flesh, he’s gentle. It stings just enough to make me wet so I nudge him away and rub myself. I don’t get anywhere with it, just remembering I’m alive despite everyone’s best efforts.
Moments later the birds have lost interest in me. I roll onto my stomach, pulling impaled dry leaves off my hair spikes. Under the shade of a pine tree close to the house, two hens are clucking around their one lucky sister whom the big tom has mounted.
I want to jump, but I’m afraid I’ll destroy the magic.
. . . . .
I’ve lost track of time when I finally leave the turkeys. They are sleeping in the shade by the feed shed.
A woman across the street is shooing the stray Great Dane. They both look up at my passing car. Though she seems no older than me, the lady has no teeth. Meth, I’m guessing.
I drive back to town and wander among the touristy shops.
One of them, called The Spinning Wheel, ropes me in with its charm. The store is narrow and I’m vaguely aware of the gray proprietor couple bustling behind a counter to my right. I turn left to find myself in maze of quaint objects—a wooden coffee grinder, a butter churn, bellows. Not that I know anything about antiques, but these things don’t seem particularly rustic. They are all similar blocky shapes with matching metal works.
The items are inexpensive—not that I want to steal from this place since I won’t be paying my Visa bill—but I’ve got that sense that I’ve been in here too long not to buy something.
I’m about to ask for help when I notice that all motion at the opposite end of the shop has ceased. I glance at them through the spokes of a spinning wheel.
The woman is stout with feathered short hair and square glasses. Her biscuity arm rests in her husband’s lap. Her smile is one of frozen shock. I have to see what’s going on. Grabbing a wooden handled mirror, I look at half of my face and angle the mirror to the old man’s smile. His is more drunken than shocked. Moving the mirror slightly south, I can see that his jeans are unzipped.
Blushing, I stomp out like a prude.
Late sunlight shines between me and my sunglasses no matter where I look.
. . . . .
At the edge of the tourist block, the sidewalk graduates from planks to concrete to dust. Businesses dot the other side of the street, but to my right is all residential. Every house has laundry hanging from lines. Rusted trucks parked on dry weeds. A poppy or two.
Dena’s pickup is outside a feed store. A middle-aged couple is passing, and as I cross, the woman grabs my arm, her hand a leathery claw. “When did you say you’re leaving?” she asks.
It’s the motel clerk in a powder blue cowboy hat and denim skirt-suit. On her other arm is a handsome, craggy man. By their outfits, they are headed out to dinner.
“I thought I’d stay an extra day.”
She shakes her head as if even the sight of me causes her problems. The gentleman offers a tight smile. As they pass, he fits his big hand comfortably in the small of her prim denim back.
Even the motel clerk has a suitor. With loneliness like a sharp object in my ribs, I open the door of the feed store to find Dena dragging a big flat plastic bag of Turkey Starter A Crumbles onto a dolly. There’s hay dust on the floor that makes me sneeze, but I help my old buddy haul her burden to the register. Then I help her drag it to the bed of the pickup.
When I hop inside next to her, Dena’s head is on the steering wheel.
“Why are you crying now?” I ask her.
“Because I wanted things to be different. He’s still the man I love, but I’m tired of feeling guilty.” Her long hair hangs like a curtain around the driver’s seat.
Every other couple in Lone Pine, except Dena and Darby, is getting it on. Even the turkeys. Another cosmic joke on old Sylvie here. “Do they have any bars in Lone Pine? You need to tie one on.”
“It’s called the Lonely B and I’ve never been in there, but yeah.”
I spend the next two hours listening to Dena cry in this cowboy bar while we drink the most killer martinis I have ever had. The bartender is a fellow you might call Doc by his beard and glasses and the detached way he hands you yet another drink. The clientele is purposeful on a late afternoon. The only movement is a young couple playing shuffleboard along the back wall. The jukebox plays Johnny Cash and there are no TVs. Dena drones on about all the mistakes in her life, but it seems to me the only consequence has been turkeys.
I guzzle. I’m the one who needs to tie one on.
When my head is completely swimming, Darby enters and I swear it is just like some old Western. Everybody, even the shuffleboard couple now necking in the corner, looks up as he hits the door open. Light blasts into the barroom and I watch Dena’s face sag. Darby cuts his eyes at us and walks up to Doc for a beer. As his handsome little butt hits the stool next to us, the music seems to start again.
“You two need a date,” I tell them. I grab Darby’s arm. “What needs to happen at home? I’ll do it. You two go have dinner and talk it through. Please.”
Me, giving relationship advice.
But they’re not making any noises to the contrary so I tell them I saw a sign in the window of the steakhouse saying they serve local steer. Darby will go for that.
His eyebrows soften ever so subtly. He thanks me. Then he gets Dena a glass of water and kisses her hair. I follow him outside and he drives us in Dena’s pickup to my car. On the way, he explains how to put the turkeys up to roost. Even with the martini buffer, I’m glad to avoid an awkward silence between us. We load the turkey feed into my hatchback.
He gives me the stiffest hug I have ever had and drives back toward the Lonely B and Dena.
It hits me they’ll be picking up the tab.
. . . . .
The tom sees me coming and waddles up. He gives my pants a tug when I bend to pat his head. The roost, which looks like an elaborately constructed ladder with a roof on top, is tucked in a fenced nook at the back of the house. I’m guessing Darby made this himself. Would a cradle have been that much harder? They can probably hear the turkeys from their bedroom. That was a mistake.
The birds don’t seem quite ready to go to bed. I sit in the dust and watch them. One hen chases another, vying for the tom’s attention. The sky has a single purple edge, not unlike my buzz from the Lazy B.
How can you possibly know all the big things about another person when you fall in love? There’s a point, I guess, where principles, or ambition, or whatever, prove more important than that other person.
I don’t want Dena and Darby to be there yet. They should look around themselves. All the other people here are happy as clams.
How happy are clams, I ask the tom, giving his head a scratch. What have I had to eat today? The Lazy B experience would be greatly improved with some complementary nuts. The tom’s hungry too. I wonder if that stuff Dena bought is any more appetizing than the lunch pellets, so I tell him to hold on while I go get the new food.
My fingers are on the car’s handle when I realize all four turkeys are right behind me. The damn gate!
Darby said when it’s getting dark, they don’t want to be anywhere but the safety of their roost. Ha!
I close the trunk and try to scoot them back into the yard, but the tom runs ahead, leading his ladies up the road. Darby said wild turkeys roost in trees. What if they are running for a taller tree somewhere? Part of me says, maybe this is the best thing. But another part of me pictures Darby’s pissed eyes when he thinks that Dena manipulated her friend into doing this.
The dog comes from the side. The tom is in his jaws before the hens and I can react.
Two shakes and my pal is a pile of feathers blowing in the road.
By that point, I’m running, yelling, flapping, but the hens just stand there watching as the dog swoops them up and shakes them one by one. The last gives him a small circle of a chase, but it’s over before I can get to her.
I collapse on my butt in the middle of the curb-less street while the dog begins feasting on the tom. I want to make him stop, but I realize how hungry he must be. As my hands come to my face, I see the toothless lady, the only neighbor who’s close enough to see us, slam her door.
Now it’s just me and the frenzied killer. He looks up from his meal with a bloody muzzle, his lips swaying to a stop as he catches my eyes. Some Scooby-Doo.
Then he does a very strange thing. He lifts the floppy feathered body, flicks it up to grip it in a gruesome, gut-slinging, feather-tossing move, and carries it to plop down beside me in the road. Then he turns and does the same thing with the three hens. I choke up at the pile of bodies next to me.
The dog is behind me and I’m wondering if he plans to make me part of the pile when he turns a circle and rests his back against mine.
Like we’re in this together? Like, honey, I’m home and I brought dinner?
I don’t know, but his back is warm and soft, his breathing heavy. I can sense when he opens his mouth to pant.
A full-size pickup turns onto the street, going slow. As it approaches, the man driving—a painter by his clothes—slows down even further, eyeing me silently. The dog stands and I turn to watch him. A mix of threat and question in his posture. The painter keeps driving.
We have to clean up.
Pulling the Hyundai close to the carcasses, I figure I can fit at least some of the bodies—maybe their gooier parts—on top of the feed bag to keep my car from being ruined. The hens are not that messy, but I kick the poor tom toward the dog.
“Go on, you bastard, the least you can do is make him a little smaller.”
I look away. By the time the monster seems satiated, I’ve got the poor girls tucked in on top of what would have been their dinner. Wrapping what I can of the tom in a stray grocery bag, I lift crumbling chunks of him onto his harem.
There’s no closing the hatch, but the Dead Animal Pit isn’t far. Then inside my room to wash these hands, take my last shower before who knows how long. But I gotta grab my stuff and scram before the cowgirl comes back from her date.
All this is rushing through my head as I turn the car toward town. The dog stands in front of me like he’s gonna take on the Hyundai. I flip on the lights. His eyes go sad and moist.
A sigh heaves out every bit of air inside me as I lean over to open the passenger door.
About the Author: Mandy Campbell Moore holds an MFA from Antioch, and has recently published in ink&coda, Word Riot, and Calyx. Her first novel is ready to dive in with the sharks.