Excerpt from Song of the Earth

‘If this is God’s work, He’s gone stark raving mad! Crazy, that’s what it is. He’s gone crazy. These wicked storms rise out of the darkness like nightmares drowning people all around me.’ Jessie clenched her fist tight, squeezing the steering wheel, still an hour away from home. ‘The storms are early, nobody’s prepared for this. There will be people stranded everywhere, dying. Damn! I feel so fucking helpless out here. I should be home trying to help. Doing something, anything,’ but Jessie knew as the thoughts ran through her head, no matter what any of them did, nothing would change the outcome. People die every day on this border.

She had come as a writer. Just record the stories of the people as they cross the border, Ian had said. This caring side of it wasn’t discussed. Jessie had built a wall of protection around her through the years, but now the emotion was beginning to seep through the cracks in that wall, like English ivy as it begins its assault on an old brick building. Jessie’s deep voice trembled as the words slipped from her lips – 'Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, dada da da dada.' Her left foot tapped against the wet floor board, the pounding rain unleashing a rage she had never encountered before. 'I once was lost, but now I’m found…dada da da dada.'

Jessie’s voice faltered as she searched for the words. ‘Why can’t I remember? I thought those words were ingrained in me forever. God, my grandmother would be angry.’ That was all she could think of, the immigrants stranded in the desert and her grandmother. Never in her wildest dreams would the two of them be linked in thought. Her voice quivered. Jessie’s nerves rode the edge of the jagged lightning bolts as they cut through her words, carving their way across the sky. Thunder crashed overhead. “Oh well, Grandmother, I guess nothing is forever,” Jessie whispered. “Not even Amazing Grace.”

The earth was full, saturated. No room for anymore water. Now it was carving out rivers as it flushed down into the barrow ditches next to the highway. ‘I can’t remember it raining this hard, ever in my whole life.’ Her thoughts ran wild. She couldn’t rein them in. ‘I have to get off this damn Interstate before something awful happens.’ Jessie talked to herself, but the storm washed the words away as they left her mouth. Her poor old yellow Jeep with its rag-top was no match for this storm. Just an hour ago, as she was leaving Tucson, she wanted to get out and dance in those big fat delicious drops that splattered against the windshield. It had been dry for so long. Now the heavens and earth buckled beneath the weight of the water. She glanced toward the clock on the dash, the green light a blur. Her eyes struggled, finally pulling it together. 10:09 PM.

The storm pounded Jessie. Eighteen-wheelers raced by, leaving her in their wake. The water slammed up on her. The Jeep wavered. The wipers flipped back and forth at full speed, but the water came faster. The water, oh God, so much water … 'Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, dada da da dada.' The tires grabbed the highway again. Jessie’s arms held against the pull of the wheel. The grille of another eighteen-wheeler was barreling down on her in the rear-view mirror. Her tall, white insulated tea cup with bamboo sketched across it and the word ‘peace’ nestled in among the leaves sat in the console next to an open can of trail mix, but she didn’t dare take her hands from the wheel to reach for them. She licked her lips thinking of the hot, Darjeeling tea. “Not now,” she said as her eyes searched the darkness.

‘There it is! The sign, finally,’ she thought, as a blurred object materialized just for a second. Benson, Tombstone and Douglas. Highway 80 – one mile. She couldn’t really read the sign through the rain, but she knew that’s what it said. It should be a safer road tonight, anything to get away from these trucks, she thought. Jessie didn’t take this road much anymore. There was always so much traffic on the way to Tombstone, but she knew she couldn’t stand another ten miles on this freeway. The other sign, the one the Chamber of Commerce put up, lifted out of the wetness. Her headlights caught it for just a second. It was a delight to the eyes, all those gorgeous men who played in the movie Tombstone, all dressed in black and so handsome. There was a ruggedness about it all, the guns and the lathered horses as they rode hell-bent for leather across the valley floor. One mile to the turn off.

Jessie slowed down, almost too slow. The headlights from behind and beside her filled her Jeep, crowding her out. Then a left blinker started flashing as the driver pulled out and around her, squeezing into the fast lane between the other trucks. The big tires threw more water onto the Jeep. The running lights of a Peterbilt closed in behind Jessie, pushing her down the road. Headlights inside, outside, coming up beside her, flashing yellows, blinkers. Her head hurt. Her eyes hurt. More headlights coming up beside her wavering in the water. Jessie put on her right blinker and touched the brakes, once, then again. Her bright brake lights lit up the grille of the truck behind her. She shifted from third gear down to second and crept down the off-ramp. The Peterbilt came too, but then immediately the driver pulled off into a clearing and shut it down. He was done.

Her headlights illuminated the stop sign as the sheets of rain washed across it. Jessie slowed to a stop. The storm had sucked the juice right out of the overhead power lines and left them dangling from broken poles, leaving the town burrowed into blackness like a large mask had slipped over it. With flashing lights all around, emergency crews waded through the dark, murky water.

‘Oh God, I just want to get to a safe place, that’s all,’ she reminded herself. ‘I would stop right here, but there’s a better place down the road.’ Her friends from Douglas said they usually hung out there when the water was high. Jessie slipped the Jeep into first and pulled out onto the road that would take her through town. ‘Just another fourteen miles to the pullout.’ She paid close attention to the level of the water as it swirled beneath the Jeep.

A dampness rose on her cheeks. ‘Tears? Jesus, Jessie.’ She let them absorb into the moisture all around her. ‘This isn’t the time for tears, like I’m feeling sorry for myself.’ She wondered about all of it. Somehow she found the whole idea disgusting, considering where she was, with Mexicans, El Salvadorans, Hondurans, and so many others undoubtedly stranded all over the desert.

Jessie searched her memory for another song to sing, one she could remember. She ramped up her voice to America and the Star Spangled Banner, but still wondered where the hell those words to Amazing Grace went. They were just gone, like her parents were ‘just gone’ when she was fourteen. One day they were there, going to a country dance while Jessie and her friend, Jana, had a slumber party at Jana’s house next door. The next thing she remembered was Jana’s dad coming in and waking her up, asking her to come into the living room for a minute.

Jessie stumbled into the living room, wrapped in her bright red Christmas pajamas with white furry snowflakes falling at random across the flannel. Jana was right on her heels. The town deputy was standing inside the door, ice and snow dripping from his heavy coat, his boots packed with mud and snow. He had lifted the ear-flaps on his cap, his face red from the cold. The wind was howling, blowing the snow and ice like razors cutting through the air. It was the first day of January in Wyoming. Jessie and Jana had stayed up late to watch the ball drop at Time Square. They celebrated with hot chocolate in bright red and white Santa Claus mugs, with marshmallows floating in the bubbly foam, and danced to country music until Jana’s parents came in and made them turn it off.

“Jessie, honey, come sit beside us,” Jana’s dad said, his hand patting a place on the couch for her. He was wearing long johns and had slipped his Levi’s on over them. He had on wool socks. His hair was messed up. Jana’s mom was in the kitchen making coffee. Jessie knew something was drastically wrong. No one was going to get up until noon. She walked slowly over to the couch and sat down. The deputy sat down beside her. Jana’s mother came in from the other room wearing her new lavender bathrobe. It was too silky for this weather, Jessie remembered thinking as Jana’s mom slipped her hand across Jessie’s trembling shoulders.

“What’s the matter, Dad?” Jana asked. Her father just shook his head.

“Jessie,” the deputy started, “there’s been an accident.”

Jessie looked up at the deputy, her wild red hair falling in curls all around her and hanging down the middle of her back. “My mom and dad? Where are they?” she asked quietly.

The deputy shook his head. “Honey, your mom and dad are gone.”

“Dead?” she asked, her hands trembling, her eyes searching Jana’s parents’ eyes. Jana’s mom was crying. Her dad dropped his head into his hands. His body was shaking. Tears filled Jessie’s eyes. “Are you sure – both of them?” she asked.

“Yes, honey,” the deputy had his arm around her.

Jana, two years younger than Jessie, moved over towards the wood burning stove, searching for comfort. How could something like this happen? Jana fought back tears, but it was no use. She forced herself to cross the room and fell at Jessie’s knees crying.

“What happened?” Jessie whispered, between deep, throaty sobs.

“They were on their way home from the dance when a drunk driver came down the wrong side of the road and hit them head-on. It looked like they tried to get out of the way, but the road was too slick.”

“Who hit them?” Jana’s mom asked.

“Burt Jackson,” the deputy answered. “He’s gone, too.”

Jana looked up at her mother. “That’s Jodi’s dad, isn’t it?”

“Yes, honey.” Her mother came around from the back of the couch. She wanted to hold both of the girls. She thought of Jodi and her mother, sitting in their own living room, crying.

Jessie had collapsed into the deputy’s chest, his arms holding her tight, trying to control her uncontrollable shaking. One hand smoothing down her hair, kissing the top of her head, tears rolling down his face, he thought of his own daughter home in bed. He didn’t want her to ever have to go through this. He wanted to hurry home and tell his family he loved them.

Just gone. Jessie gripped the steering wheel, her tears blended in with the rain, so strong. She felt the need to stop, to finally fall apart, but there was no safe place to stop yet. Had she ever really faced this before? She wondered. Had she been running all along? Was she still running? Was everything she was running from still following her in her shadows? Holding just a few inches, a few feet back, but clinging to her every fiber. “Mom, Dad, I did what I thought you would have wanted me to do.” Jessie was sobbing, her desperate voice feeding into the steady rhythm of the rain. Now she wondered if she got it all wrong. Whatever she faced, she hit it head on without ever looking back, like a machine, a robot. ‘But then my walls started crumbling inside of me and I realized how alone I really was.’

Her thoughts carried her through her loneliness. ‘I ran from a husband I despised and a career I loved and planted my feet in the Mexican sand of the Baja to face my demons. That’s what I did, Mom and Dad. Did it work? Who knows? I still have my demons, only I’ve dressed them so they aren’t so ragged looking anymore.’ The tears had stopped and now a more philosophical mood washed over her. ‘It’s been a slow process,’ she admitted to herself. ‘I guess my demons are buried under layers and layers of denial. Things, people, relationships, they are all just so damn fleeting.’

Jessie’s eyes darted to the corner where the door and windshield came together. 'America, America, God shed his grace on thee' … As the words slipped out, water seeped in. Water lay in the hollow of the rag-top above Jessie’s head as well. The heaviness was real. She twisted with uneasiness. It could drown me, just like all these demons, just pull me under. She didn’t dare take her hands off the wheel, but she knew if she touched the canvas top the water would start streaming down and could swallow her up. It might take more than what the roof could hold, she admitted, but anything’s possible.

Everything was sagging and wet. What a mess. It wasn’t just the roof that was drooping anymore. All the edges were gone, form had dissolved into nothingness. The crisp, clear lines of the highway and the mountains against the sky dissolved. Jessie’s black linen skirt and top both were rag limp, her heavy breasts, everything left to hang in disorder. Only Jessie’s hair seemed to have form as the massiveness of her curls clustered even tighter in the wetness. About an inch of water had accumulated on the floorboard. The hem of Jessie’s skirt flirted with the mini-waves. Like their first trip to the ocean, she remembered, when she was about nine. She and her mom and dad had rolled up their pant legs and walked into the surf, the water inching its way up their calves, seeping into the cloth of their pants, and before long they were lying in the sand, the water washing over them, laughing. Jessie smiled. ‘I love memories, but the lack of time we were given to create them makes me sad all over again.’

Her bare feet settled in the dampness, her sandals on the passenger seat next to her backpack. Water gurgled through the bottom of the door as she maneuvered through the high water in the last cross street on her way out to Highway 80. The water swirled beneath her. Jessie’s skirt clung to her legs as it soaked up the wetness. The streets in town had turned to creeks, but as she left town, the water levels started to recede.

St. David lay in front of her somewhere in the next five or six miles. She looked off into the blackness and thought of that tiny town with its Catholic monastery and Mormon inhabitants, wondering if God was hanging out there tonight, hiding from all the chaos that He had surely created just past that edge, out in the abyss. ‘Man, it’s black out here,’ she thought, like driving through a horror film with the rain and thunder thumping down. What will happen next? The people have just faded out of existence. Gone. Was there something larger than their individual organized religions, something more all-encompassing holding this little town together?

Jessie passed through the town, cutting through a moment of quiet that hung in the shadows of the storm’s wildness. She thought the rain would stop. The old timers told her the monsoons would come in full force, usually by the first week of July, and they would be rough, but short-lived. It was only June.