That morning, I took my father’s watch from the top of the dresser where my mother kept it, stuffed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my jacket pocket and ran away. We lived near Sunset Park and before he died, my father and I used to take walks together, pretending to be Dorothy and the Scarecrow, lost in the saltbush and mesquite, asking strangers and pigeons for directions. Though my father probably was not pretending. He was always getting lost. Driving around the city, he kept the Stratosphere in sight and panicked if he couldn’t see it. “Minna,” he’d shout, “where’s the spaceship?” pulling the car over and sometimes hoisting me onto the roof. My father was the center of a crowd of musicians and artists, an organizer of events, flash mobs, protests, an investor and business owner. His desk and floor were piled with bills and books, paper towels, pages torn from magazines. He left bite marks in the cheese. He left the stove on all day. He made messes. He made noise. After he died, our house was silent. My mother spent all of her time with lawyers and bankers. When she was home she sat on the couch and stared out the window. I imagined she was becoming a cat.
She was already gone when I woke up that morning. It was Saturday and I was bored. I was ten years old. I wanted to have an adventure, to follow a road, to find my father. I let myself out the front door and ran across the wide street alone for the first time.
It had rained the night before and the dirt was still wet under my shoes. A nervous family of quail crossed my path and I took it as a sign, their bobbing head feathers pointing a direction. I followed them to the playground, and watched them march under the slide. I’d never seen the park this empty. The merry-go-round was moving by itself in the wind, emitting a slow, squeaking noise that scared me, and I continued on to the lake. There the birds were awake, preening and chattering. An old couple I’d met before were watching them, the man tossing the crumbs of a dried baguette into the water, his wife standing a few feet away gazing through binoculars. I sat behind them on a bench and looked at my father’s watch. The band still smelled like his cologne. I tried to wind it, the way I’d seen my mother do every morning. Standing in front of the dresser in her pink robe, she’d turn the knob, as I listened to the small click, click, click, and watched her face in the mirror.
“Give the girl a crust, Al,” the woman shouted. “You want to feed the babies?” I looked to where she was pointing, a line of nine or ten yellow ducklings swimming towards us. Her husband handed her a grocery bag. “We watched them hatch,” she said. She was dressed like a park ranger, in a vest with large pockets, hiking boots and green pants. She handed me a piece of bread and I hurled it at the birds. “What an arm!” She said. And then she started talking about a trip they’d taken, birds they’d seen, egrets and hawks, and herons. Her face reminded me of an apple doll; her cheeks looked painted pink. She pulled a book from one of her pockets and opened it to show me a picture, a loose photograph of a green blur against the sky. “Parrots!” she said.
Her husband squawked.
“Al,” she said, then turned to me. “You’re all alone today,” she said. The last time we’d met her, my father had nicknamed her “babbling Bertha.” I shrugged and she went on to tell me that there was a family, a human family sleeping in a tent on the other side of the park. “We almost walked right over them,” she said.
“Are they hobos?” I asked her.
“Are they hobos, Al?” she said.
The man tilted his head. “Red-winged blackbird,” he said.
The woman focused her binoculars on a tree across the pond. “Look at you,” she said to the bird. And while she and her husband admired it, I snuck away.
When you make your own path, walking straight through the desert, you have to walk carefully, one foot in front of the other, like you are walking a tightrope. This way you don’t fall into cacti, or step in squirrel burrows. This is how I was walking in search of hobos. I was thinking about my mother, and how I should have left a note, and how she only made food out of cans and boxes now, things I used to beg to eat, Spaghetti-O’s and frozen pizzas, things my parents only ate when they were drunk or tired. I was thinking about our substitute teacher. She was there when I came back after the funeral, this new woman, sitting in my teacher’s desk wearing cat-eye glasses and smeared lipstick. She gave me a box of crayons and said I should draw my feelings. “You’ll always be broken-hearted,” she told me. I wondered if the other teacher had ever existed, or if I’d imagined her. I thought about Dorothy – was Oz more real than Kansas? My parents and I once made a plan to walk across America in a straight line from Las Vegas to the Atlantic. We would walk through people’s yards and houses and chicken coops, in and out the front and back doors of grocery stores and bars, restaurants and malls, across freeways. We would grow potatoes in our backpacks and sleep in open fields, forget our old life, our apartments, the cities we’d lived in. Hobos move on because they want to, my father said.
I could see the tent from a distance, and the man in front of it, shoving things into bags. He was blonde and skinny, his dirty jeans sagging as he darted about, humming to himself. There wasn’t anything to hide behind, so I stood there watching. It was a nice tent, blue and shiny and wet with rain, but it seemed too small for a family. He pulled off the rain flap and hung it over a bush and as he turned, he noticed me. “What do you want?” he said. I started to walk away. “Wait,” he said. He rifled through a backpack he’d picked up and held out a piece of string cheese wrapped in plastic. I shook my head. “Car stalled out,” he said. “No living in vehicles, sir. No sir.” He knelt and started pulling out a tent stake. “We’re on our way,” he said. “Scrounging up the dough.” I noticed a Barbie doll sprawled in the dirt and wondered where his kids were. He stood and looked at me. “You all alone?” he asked. I didn’t like his smile.
A moment with Aurora Brackett
Where did this story come from? The story started as an exercise. I was looking at a photograph by Vivian Maier of a tough-looking little girl in a striped shirt with a very large watch on her wrist. How has living in Las Vegas influenced your writing? I’ve had an obsession with birds since I moved to Vegas, and I can’t stop writing birds into my stories. It reminds me of that Portlandia sketch “Put a bird on it.” I’ve also started writing more humorous fiction. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with Vegas, but probably it does. There’s a level of absurdity here — the way artifice and the tourist-contrived culture interact with ordinary life — that definitely lends itself to humor.
“With my dad,” I said.
“Where’s he at?” He took a few steps closer.
“He’s coming,” I said.
“You’re lying,” he said, grinning at me. I heard a shout and turned to see a little girl racing up the path, a woman behind her. “Keep her quiet,” the man shouted.
“No one’s around, Pete,” the woman said.
“Cops around,” the man said.
“Who’s she?” the girl asked. She was probably five years old, her hair wet in pigtails. She approached me slowly.
“We gotta hustle,” the man said, throwing one of the bags at the woman, who was sitting in the dirt, pulling a rock from her shoe.
“Give me a fucking minute,” the woman said.
“Who’s she?” the girl repeated.
“Some kid. Thinks we’re zoo animals.” He pulled a monkey face at me.
“Pete,” the woman said.
“Get off your ass,” the man shouted.
“Where’s your house?” the girl asked me. Her parents were taking down the tent. I pointed in the direction of where I lived. “Are you coming with us?” she asked. Her mother glanced at me.
“She’s lost,” the man said.
“No I’m not,” I said.
“Waiting for her daddy,” the man said.
“Where is he?” the girl asked.
“He’s coming,” I said. And I pictured him behind me in his bright yellow rain jacket, sipping a cup of coffee, listing off the names of plants. Burrobrush, brittlebush, rabbitbrush.
“Where did he go?” the girl asked.
“Nowhere,” I said.
“Where?” she repeated.
“Baby, leave her alone,” the woman said. “Go with daddy to the car.” I watched the man scoop the girl up with one arm, carrying the tent in the other.
The woman stood in front of me. “You’re just going to stand here all day?” she said. That was what we did when we got lost, my father and I, stood in one place until we knew which way to go. “He leave you in this spot?” she asked. I shook my head. “Where?” she said. I couldn’t answer. “Jesus, what’s your problem?” she said. I started to cry. “Alright,” she said, and she took my hand and pulled me along behind her back to the lake and sat me on a bench. “You see him anywhere?” I looked at the murky water, at the trees. There was a fisherman sitting motionless in a folding chair, tinny music playing from his radio. A young couple, holding hands, stopped and asked her to take their picture and I watched them smile, frozen against the sky, everything still and quiet. It felt like a dream. I could hear cars on the road. A cormorant vanished under the surface of the water.
“Where did you see him last?” she asked. “What’s he wearing?”
In one of the Oz books, a witch transforms Dorothy’s friends into objects — vases, rocks, statues — and she has to walk through a room, cluttered with things, and figure out which is the Tin Man, which is Toto. After we read this, my father and I made up a game. Walking through a store, he’d touch a one-eyed plastic doll. “Minna!” he’d say. I’d touch a head of cabbage. “Daddy!” After he was gone, I imagined him everywhere. My father the spoon. My father the spider plant. My father the cat that followed me through the yard. My father the wadded up piece of bubble gum. But Dorothy only had three chances. If she guessed wrong, the scarecrow would be stuck forever as an ashtray or a can of soup. So I never guessed.
“Stay here,” the woman said. She stood to go. I stared at the lake. “You were my kid, I’d look for you here.”
Aurora Brackett is a Ph.D. fellow at the Black Mountain Institute. Her fiction has appeared in Nimrod Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, The Portland Review, Fourteen Hills and other magazines.