By Judy Brackett
Keevin said, "I dreamed about Nebraska last night. There was cornfields and Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant. Ho, ho, ho."
He was belted into his booster chair in the backseat of their new Volvo wagon, rearranging his shoeboxes, one holding snacks—baggies with peanuts, raisins, M&Ms, and Cheez-its; one with treasures—two favorite rocks, a Matchbox tractor, a deck of Old Maid cards, crayons, pencils, a Snoopy drawing pad. Another box, for new treasures, souvenirs, was empty —they'd been on the road only three hours. He had also brought his raggedy red blanket and his long skinny black and yellow pillow with feet—his caterpillow. Keevin was almost six.
His father said, "I dreamed about Nebraska, too. It was like the Sahara desert, the hottest, flattest, driest part, but with wheat and dirt instead of sand." He looked over his shoulder at Keevin. "That's in Africa, K, north Africa. There are sandhills in Nebraska, yes?" Neither Keevin nor his father had ever been to Nebraska. Keevin's father John had been to the Sahara; Keevin and his mother Iris had not.
Iris said, "Sandhills, yes. Mostly in the western part, though." She glanced at Keevin in the rearview mirror—she was driving now—and said, "Gracie always says, 'Dreams are God talking.'"
Keevin grinned at her in the mirror. "Iris, are we there yet?"
They'd gotten up at three o'clock, having packed the car the night before. Iris said you always had to leave on a trip before dawn. She said when she was a kid and went on fishing trips with Macsen, when she and Gracie and Macsen and her Aunt Carys drove up to the Black Hills in the Woody station wagon, they always left in the middle of the night. Midnight, Gracie always said, though it was usually about three or four in the morning. Macsen said leaving early was good luck. Once, when they were getting ready to go to Des Moines, the car wouldn't start and by the time Macsen got it running, the sky was pink. Macsen stood looking east, his arms folded. Finally, he shook his head and said, "Well, let's just take off tomorrow." He made them unpack the car and wait until the next day.
Macsen was Iris's father; Gracie her mother. Iris always called them Macsen and Gracie.
As they started the climb into the foothills, the sky was beginning to lighten.
John yawned and said, "I read someplace that dreams are just neurological junk. Kind of like outtakes, or like snapshots where you accidentally trip the shutter—pictures of your blurry foot, a sideways tree, the dog's tail. A smell, a snatch of conversation, some misheard words. All jumbled around in whatever pocket of your brain stores that stuff."
He lowered his window partway and stuck out his hand. "Warming up out there. Thank God for air-conditioning." He patted the dashboard.
He said, "You know, till I was in the fifth grade, I pledged allegiance to Richard Stands. I could even picture him as I stood there, hand on heart. He was old, white-haired, and dignified, part George Washington, part Mary See, the candy lady." He chuckled. "Talk about outtakes! I don't know where that came from."
Iris said, "Gracie always said that about dreams. God talking. When I'd have a nightmare, she'd ask me about it, pulling all the details from me, her eyes bright, turning it into a fun and adventurous Where the Wild Things Are kind of movie. 'God means you're a brave girl. Tell that old monster you're Iris. Tell him to get on back to monster land. Chase him!' She'd clap her hands and laugh with me. Then she'd sit there until I'd gone to sleep, trying to dream the monster back again so I could chase him off."
His father said, "Hmmm. You know, there’s a tribe in Malaysia. Senoi, they’re called. They tell their dreams every morning and plan their day, their lives, around them. You dream about a tangle of snakes, you keep the children close and use your stick to sweep the paths. You dream about the clouds wrapping the mountaintop, you gather grain and water, pile up fire sticks, wait for the storm. But God talking? No, I don't think so. I’m inclined to buy the dreams-as-junk theory." He put the seat back and adjusted his pillow. "Wake me for breakfast," he said.
Keevin loved their talk, their stories floating around him, even if they didn’t always make sense. The snakes sounded scary, though; he hoped he wouldn’t have snake dreams. He liked Iris’s story better. He wondered if God looked like George Washington and Mary See.
Iris was humming, and Keevin watched the sky wake up, the pines grow taller, and great granite chunks appear along the roadside. Iris announced, "Now it's Nevada."
Iris had talked John into taking their time, taking some "blue highways." She'd said, "Let's see a little of the country." Keevin was watching for the blue highways; so far, they were just gray.
They were going to a reunion. He would see his grandmother Gracie, grandfather Macsen, and Aunt Carys for the first time ever. He'd seen pictures of them all, dark-haired, smiling Gracie; Macsen in plaid shirt, with white hair and mustache, tan; and Carys, her hair the same white as Macsen's.
Iris had told him that Macsen had only one hand, that he'd lost the other in an accident as a child. Keevin wondered why they didn't simply take him back to the spot where he'd lost it and look for it.
Breakfast time, two days later, John's turn to choose where to eat. He liked predictable: Denny's, Wendy's, and his favorite, Kountry Kitchen Kafe. He always ordered the Denver omelet for breakfast, BLT on wheat toast (light on the mayo) for lunch, and country fried steak for dinner. When it was her turn, Iris chose quaint, one-of-a-kind restaurants on side streets, warm and cozy-looking places with names like Rosie's. Keevin didn't choose; he didn't care. He was in his grilled-cheese-sandwich-and-chocolate-milk phase--breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
It was an hour since they'd left the motel. Keevin's souvenir box now held three tiny bars of motel soap. They were in Wyoming, rolling, dry, and windy, the Volvo rocking in the gusty stretches. John had given up on finding one of his favorite spots; they hadn't seen one Denny's, Wendy's, or Kountry Kitchen Kafe, not even a McDonald's, his fourth choice. He said to Iris, "All right, let's trade. I'll pick lunch and dinner."
Iris pulled off the highway at Ed's Place, a log cabin with a hitching post out front, a wooden horse tethered to the rail, its tail and mane curled to the side as if blown by the wind. Keevin draped his caterpillow around his neck as he got out of the car. John pulled it off and tossed it back onto the seat.
Keevin patted the horse's flank as they stepped onto the porch. His father said, "That's a Palomino."
Inside, the waitress—"Ed," her name badge read—led them to the corner booth. There were a half-dozen stools along the counter, perched on one was the only other customer, a gray-haired man hunched over a cup of coffee as if to keep warm, and a half-dozen whitewashed plywood and grass-green Formica booths. Hanging from the walls and ceiling were horseshoes, cowboy hats, cast iron frying pans, Dutch ovens, tea kettles. And dead animals and parts of dead animals. Rabbits' feet, deer antlers, hooves. And rabbits' heads--all with antlers. A stuffed creature, rabbit head and ears, antlers, long pony legs and a puff-white tail sat on the corner shelf behind the booth.
The waitress laid paper placemats and menus in front of them. She nodded at the creature and said, "Yep, a jackalope. Who wants coffee?"
Keevin was fascinated, and a little afraid. It was about the size of a big dog, but above him, its eyes watching the road out the window, its legs in mid-stride, it looked more ready to fly than to take off running. Keevin reached up to feel its short scratchy brown fur.
Iris was smiling. "What a beast!" she said. His father shook his head and rolled his eyes. He reached over, plucked off Keevin's baseball cap, and hung it from the creature's antler. "Let's order," he said. "I'm famished."
The waitress brought their breakfasts: toast and grapefruit for Iris, sausage and eggs for John, grilled cheese and chocolate milk for Keevin. They ate for a few minutes in silence. When the waitress brought coffee refills, Keevin asked, "What is that really?"
"Why, a jackalope," she said. "Half-jackrabbit, half-antelope. You know antelopes? Kind of like reindeer, Santa's reindeer. They sure are fast. Santa ought to put one of those guys to work. He'd outrun Rudolph, that's for sure."
Keevin knelt on the bench to get a closer look. "He looks alive," he said. "I wish I could see a live one."
John, smiling, poked a finger at the creature's chest and said, "Taxidermy, K. It's a joke. They just take parts of a rabbit and parts of an antelope and put them all together. Voilà! A jackalope."
Iris said, "I wish I could see a live one, too, Keev."
Keevin said, "But he looks real." He climbed up on the bench, at eye level with the creature, and ran his fingers through its fur. "It's scratchy," he said.
"Well, it is real, K. A real fake. Genes and chromosomes and all that," John said. "Finish your sandwich. Let's hit the road."
At the cash register, Ed handed them a brochure for "Ed's Too--The Reptilian Pavilion!--Snakes and Turtles Exhibit."
"Take the old highway about a mile east; there're signs. You can't miss it." She winked at Keevin. "Ed might just have a jackalope or two." Keevin studied the gift counter: postcards, ashtrays, t-shirts, coffee mugs--all with jackalopes. There was a shirt with Santa and his sleigh being pulled by a big jackalope. Keevin said, "Neat. Dad, can I get that shirt for a souvenir?"
John said, "Fifteen dollars. Let's save your souvenir money, K. How about a postcard."
Keevin picked out a card, a jackalope standing next to the horse out front. He looked just like the one in the window. Iris reached over and rubbed Keevin's lip. "Chocolate mustache, Keev."
Walking to the car, Keevin said, "I never heard of a lady named Ed before."
John said, "This is Wyoming, K."
John took the driver's seat. "You be navigator," he said to Iris. At the junction, Iris and Keevin cajoled John into taking the old highway. He teased, "But we'll never get 'there yet' if we take these detours. Where is Thereyet anyway? Seem to be lots of places with that name. Thereyet, California. Thereyet, Nebraska."
Keevin teased back. "Thereyet, Wyoming, Dad. That's where the snakes and turtles are."
John sighed and turned off onto the old highway. "All right, you win. This'd better be worth it."
They soon came to some "Ed's Too" signs, homemade and faded. John read them out loud: "Tortoises, Turtles, Terrapins!" That sign showed turtles spilling from a box like so many colored buttons. "Rattlers and Reptiles Galore!" "Live Leaping Lizards!" "Snakes, Serpents, Salamanders, Skinks!" "Moccasins--and we don't mean shoes!"
Keevin said, "I can't wait!" He looked out at the hot, dry, and windy day. Wyoming—Keevin liked that name--Y-O-Ming—spread out, dotted with sagebrush and scraggly thin trees blown crooked, to the faint faraway hills. A line of power poles stretched, diminished, vanished in the hills at the horizon. Keevin said, "Giants. Giants all lined up, marching, like at recess. Look." The giants stood, legs spread wide, planted, arms lifted, holding up the miles and miles of wires.
Iris said, "Giants, hundreds of them."
John said, "No, K. Just steel and volts. I guess they've got to be careful where they put those things. I read that if people live within half a mile or so they pick up lots of radiation over time. Not healthy. Birth defects and cancer. Affects crops, too. Reminds me of erector sets. Hadn't thought about those in years. Do kids still get erector sets for Christmas?" He looked at Iris. "Put an erector set on your list, K. You'd like it. Wonder what ever happened to my old set."
It was strange to be alone like this, all three of them, in Wyoming, driving to Nebraska. Keevin never went anywhere. Iris never went anywhere. John went everywhere. South America, Africa, Florida.
Sometimes he was gone for so long Keevin would forget what he looked like, would be sitting in school, listening to the teacher and suddenly think of his father and try to picture him and not be able to. After school he would run home and look at the photo of John and Iris and Keevin that stood on the TV to remember his father's face. He always felt such relief. Yes, of course, he remembered; yes, that was what his father looked like. And then he was ashamed, ashamed he'd forgotten to think of his father for days, ashamed he'd forgotten his blonde hair and mustache.
John sent Keevin postcards of smiling brown children in funny hats, of pyramids and jungles, of skies from all over the world, postcards with beautiful, colorful stamps. And he sent souvenirs: trinkets, rocks and bells and shells, buttons. Keevin had shoeboxes full.
His bedroom walls were covered with maps, stuck with pins: blue pushpins for where his father had been; a red pin for where he was right now; and yellow pins for where he would go next. Keevin's father built things--bridges, dams, roads.
When Keevin got home, he would put some new pins on the map, places he had gone: Wyoming, Nebraska. He would use green pins.
Keevin dozed off, the sun warm through the window, and woke to hear his father saying, "Well, Tiger, this must be the place." Keevin liked it when his father called him Tiger. He blinked, forgetting where they were. What was this row of rundown buildings?
His father said, "Whew, not exactly the Smithsonian."
Ed's Too, The Reptilian Pavilion! was a fenced compound of several long low ramshackle buildings and trailers just off the road, all painted camouflage green and brown. Flagpoles with American flags marked the corners. Next to the road, there were a couple of picnic tables and benches under an awning.
John said, "Maybe we should skip it."
Keevin, remembering, wide awake now, unfastened his seatbelt and scrambled to open the door. He pleaded, "No, Dad, let's go see."
As they got out of the car, a very short man with a crew-cut stepped out of the nearest trailer, slamming the screen door behind him. He flinched, backed up, opened and closed the door quietly, and tiptoed down the steps.
He walked over to them. "California, eh? I was there in '44. Treasure Island. Damn cold and foggy place."
He thrust out a hand to Keevin. "Ed here. You come to see the snakes and turtles?"
Keevin shook his hand and said, "Yes, the snakes and turtles. How about jackalopes?" He looked at Iris: Was that what they were called? She nodded. He asked, "Do you have any jackalopes here?"
Ed said, "Jackalopes, nope. Them's mammals." He rested one foot on the bottom step and put his hands on his hips. He winked at John, "Well, rodent-mammals, I guess. We just have reptiles here. Reptiles. Snakes, lizards, turtles, a regular bale of turtles, tortoises, tepparins. Like the signs say."
John said, "Terrapins?"
Ed smiled. "Yep. Tepparins. We got a bunch of those, too. They make the best soup. Restaurant in Cheyenne gets tepparins for some special soup. It don't taste like chicken." He pointed to a hand-lettered price sign: $5.00—adults; $6.00—seniors; $1.00—kids and dogs on leashes; free—babes in arms. He said, "Don't pay no attention to that. Senior citizens. They got more money than me and you put together with their RV's and their SUV's and their AARP's and their air-conditioning. How about four bucks for you three? Three bucks, how about three bucks?
"Exhibit's kinda skimpy just now. Rattlers' house is being cleaned; bunch of lizards got some kinda fungus and had to go. But we got some nice moccasins, a couple pythons and cobras. Lots of turtles and such."
John and Iris looked at each other and at Keevin who shook his head yes. John pulled out three dollars and handed them to Ed.
"Right this way," Ed said, and he ushered them through a gate and into the area behind the trailers. A great tortoise, as big around as a pizza, lumbered across their path. "Uncle," Ed said. "That's Uncle. He's gotta be a hundred years old. He's a tortoise. Tortoises like the land, turtles like the water, mostly." Ed handed them a wrinkled map and told them to look around and give a whistle if they had any questions.
Keevin sidestepped around Uncle and skipped ahead. Surrounding a small square of grass and rosebushes were awning-covered cages of all sizes and aquariums, some with water, some with dirt, rocks, and sand, brimming with turtles, lizards, tiny snakes.
One aquarium held a dozen or so half-dollar-size turtles, their backs painted with flowery designs. Iris said, "Dimestore turtles, John. Remember those? I used to have one when I was a kid." Iris reached in and gently picked up one painted with a yellow rose and a string of pearls. "The poor things. Guess it doesn't hurt. Not very dignified, though. Mine had an ear of corn painted on her back, but it wore off after a week or so."
John shook his head. "Dimestore turtles. I don't think we had those in California. Wasn't there a country-western song: 'You Make Me Feel Like a Dimestore Turtle'?" He caught up with Keevin, nose pressed against the glass of a lizard enclosure. "At least this place is clean, more or less," John said.
Most of the lizards were asleep, or seemed to be, draped over rocks. One lizard crept across the bottom of the cage, sticking his tongue out. Keevin flicked his own tongue. The lizard nabbed a bug and gulped it down. Keevin moved on to a fenced-in pool in the corner with rocks, grasses, and snakes, the sign said. But he couldn't see any snakes.
Iris and John stopped at a bench in front of the Rattlers-Closed-for-Cleaning trailer. Snakeskins, rattles, and lizard skins were stapled to the wall behind them, a row of turtle shells lined up on a shelf above. They sat, not talking, watching their son.
Soon, Keevin came over. "Pretty neat," he said, running his hand over a snakeskin. John picked up a tortoiseshell the size of an army helmet and set it gently on Keevin's head.
"My cap!" Keevin cried. "My Number 12."
John said, "Oh, sorry, Tiger. Guess we left it at the cafe."
Keevin looked at Iris. "Can we go get it?"
John said, "We'll get another one, K."
"But it's my Number 12!"
John said, "Don't whine, K." He put the tortoiseshell back on the shelf. "Tell you what. We'll buy a new cap for now, and we'll stop back in there on our way home next week."
Keevin said, "That's a long time. Someone will take it."
Iris said, "It's only half an hour back, John. We can do that, can't we?"
John shook his head and looked at her. "You can do that. I'll wait here." He got up and headed for the gate.
Ed reappeared as they walked to the car. "How about some lemonade, folks?"
John pulled a box of papers and his briefcase from the back of the car, took them over to one of the picnic tables, and dropped them on a bench. "I'd like a beer." He looked at Ed. "Do you have beer?"
Ed said, "Can do."
John said, "I'll have a beer, sit here and do some work." John was going to Morocco in September.
As Iris backed the car, Keevin turned around to wave, but John was already hunched over papers at the table, a circle of perspiration on his red shirt.
They passed the backs of the Ed's Too signs. Keevin said, "Things look different going the other way." Iris looked over her shoulder and smiled. Good, she wasn't mad at him. He hoped his cap was still there.
They passed the power poles again. Keevin said, "Look, Iris. Their hands are different. Their hands are straight out now. They moved."
Iris said, "Hmmm. Maybe these are different poles."
They were the same poles, Keevin thought; maybe the giants just got tired of holding the lines so high. He wondered if he'd dream about the giants tonight.
He ate a few raisins and M&Ms and took out his crayons and drawing pad and quietly doodled. "Keevin," he wrote. He drew a cap with Number 12 on it. He drew a circle and put antlers on it. "Look, Iris. A cant-alope," he said, holding up the tablet to show her. She laughed. He drew another circle, a circle on top of that, a curvy tail, whiskers, triangle ears, and antlers. "A cat-alope," he said, holding the tablet up again.
"Very good, Keev. Show your dad when we get back."
As they pulled up in front of Ed's Place, Keevin could see the jackalope in the window, his Number 12 cap still dangling from an antler. Inside the cafe, Keevin ran to the booth, stepped up on the bench, and retrieved the cap. He paused to take another, closer look at the jackalope, rubbed its antlers, smoothed its rough fur, and looked into its cold, still eyes; he tried to find a spot where it might have been stitched together. He turned back to Iris. "It's real," he said. "You can tell it's real."
From behind the counter, Ed the waitress said, "Kinda knew you'd be back for that." Iris let Keevin buy a jackalope lunch box. He would go to school all day this fall.
Driving back to Ed's Too, his cap safely on his head again, Keevin thought of "t" words: "Turtle," he said. "Tortoise. Tepparin. Lots of words start with ‘T.’"
Iris said, "Tepparin. Terrapin! Now I'm saying it wrong!"
Keevin said, "Truck, tricycle, train, tires, Toyotas."
Iris said, "Trials and tribulations!"
Keevin giggled. "Ty-O-Ming. Talifornia. Tee-braska."
Iris pointed out the window. "Tumbleweed. Tumblin' tumbleweed, Keev."
The sky was almost white, the stretch of road ahead wet-looking, the land around them dry and brown. Keevin pictured the desert and his father out there building roads and bridges. Maybe this was what the moon looked like. His father was like the man on the moon. He wondered would his father someday go to the desert and not come back.
"Does the moon look like this, Iris?"
"It might, a little," she said.
Maybe he could spot a jackalope. He leaned his forehead against the window, trying to see one as the car pulled around a turn. He could see the tumbleweeds, some flat buildings and a fence. He squinted at the vast brown and green world beyond. Iris was telling him that the moon's dirt was soft and powdery. "The astronauts take big, slow steps, like trying to walk in deep water, Keev."
A man in a red shirt was standing, like a stoplight, at the side of the road next to the buildings. The man held up his arms as they drove by.
Keevin looked back. "Dad," he said.
"Oops," said Iris. She slowed the car, turned it around, and drove back toward the man in the red shirt, his arms outstretched like the giants’.
Judy Brackett’s stories and poems have appeared in Tule Review, Innisfree Poetry Journal, egg, Canary, Squaw Valley Review, About Place, THEODATE, Waterhouse Review, The Untidy Season (Backwaters Press), and elsewhere. She has taught creative writing and English literature and composition at Sierra College. She lives in California’s northern Sierra Nevada foothills.