Ghost Gathering appeared in the Arizona Republic, September, 2001, and Midnight Mind magazine in 2002. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix
I travel east on I-10 past mile after mile of broken glass, tire skins, rusted axles and brown dirt and wonder how anyone could ever say there is nothing on this road. I went to college in Tucson, and every time I travel this stretch, I feel out of balance. Some years, leaving Phoenix and driving to Tucson was going home. Other years, the opposite.
Cars filled with 18 year olds off to college jam the road. Possibilities stretch in dotted lines in front of them. Retirees from Minnesota driving motor homes bigger than my house inch over the lane markings. The road behind them releases regrets.
Altars speckle I-10. Crosses edged with carnations, candles, letters and balloons are monuments signifying that at that spot someone’s life changed forever. My own crosses are not marked with wooden sticks and hand-lettered signs, but I see them three-dimensionally every time I make this trip on this road where I grew up, grew apart, grew together.
On the way to Tucson, I gather the ghosts. Sacatan Rest Area, with its brown round restrooms and vending machines and warnings about dangerous insects and snakes, is where I pick up the first one. She’s nineteen and bitter. Fire cracks in her eyes. She just buried her father. Just left her family. She climbs into the backseat, smacks her spearmint gum, pops a few M&M’s in her mouth and stares at the back of my head. We pull out of the rest area and are reminded to “Buckle Up: It’s the Law”. The ghost looks out the window, yawns, and refuses to put her seatbelt on. It’s 78 miles to Tucson. We’ll have a long time to chat.
I almost died at mile marker 199, where the second ghost jumps in, east of Casa Grande. Looks like an ordinary roadside, with the stray Adidas tennis shoe upside down in the dust and the coyote bones bleached almost clear, patches of its tan fur pressed into the dirt. Along the highway’s edge, the road dissolves to gravel. I was tired. Driving in the dark. Going back to college. Fell asleep. A semi truck behind me flashed its brights and honked its horn and my head jerked up and awake, my car swerving inches from the mile marker sign and a wooden fence post. I spun in the gravel on the shoulder and stopped, heart pumping, hair electric, palms sticky. I rolled the window down and smelled the asphalt and musky heat. Even with cars passing in both directions, I knew the land around me was deep enough to walk into and vanish, wrapped in a cloak of indigo night.
The second ghost has only one tennis shoe and hair so short she’s almost bald. Her mouth is stitched closed. She kicks the same things over and over with her bare foot and cries when her toes bruise. Time to wake up. Remain present. Accountable.
The third ghost lives at Toltec outside the Carl’s Junior. She waits, drinking an up-sized Diet Coke at the yellow plastic table, for me to pick her up. She’s got a ferret, a brand new college degree and bright red hair. Her ring finger is bare, but the suntan line still glows from the diamond she wore for two years. She comes to sit in the passenger seat, looking warily at the ghosts in the back. She hates them. She turns the radio to the pop station. I smile and ease the dial over a few notches. She doesn’t realize that the modern music she’s looking for has somehow become classic rock. I pull out of the parking lot and wait for a caravan of Wal-Mart trucks to enter the onramp in front of me. They spit black smoke into the air. The red-headed ghost coughs and drums the riff to a Foreigner song on her legs.
The fourth ghost hitchhikes on the hill just outside of Marana where the high school stretches into the middle school and farther down to the playground of the grade school. Cops wait here to catch the speeders. This ghost smiles and waves. She’s jumping into a new life, a new future, a new home. She’s hopeful, hoping. She squeezes into the backseat and the whole energy of the car shifts. I like this one. I remember her. She still wanted to play.
The ghosts ride with me into Tucson and through it. Past U of A, where I hardly recognize the campus anymore, and the signs above the construction zones tell me my mother’s tuition dollars are still hard at work. Past my old two-room apartment with the lima bean green door where I learned more in a year about what I would not tolerate than at any other time in my life. Past Greasy Tony’s where we’d eat Philly cheese steak sandwiches and French fries like our metabolism would never change, and we would always have hours in the afternoons to talk about Woolf and Faulkner.
Back to Phoenix and the car is heavy, carrying all the excess. I feel it in my shoulders. I hear it in the whine of the 4-cylinder engine shifting gears as we go from zero to seventy-five as quick as my little Sentra can.
Let them go. Let them go.
hells of buildings litter I-10. The Picacho Motel is nothing but a monolithic sign in front of dust. The Precision Machine Shop just east of SR 87 stands empty, the glass in the window coated with green dust. Train tracks run both east and west along I-10’s westbound side. Cargo trains pull double-decker loads of boxcars painted yellow and gray past crossings where the red lights flash to warn no cars of its approach.
I wonder who stops and buys genuine Indian jewelry at the Dairy Queen off of exit 219. Who buys the “real” Mexican blankets and the black hills gold? Who stops along the edge of a speeding highway to breathe in the dust of trucks and travelers and eat a banana split and trade journey stories with the man behind the counter? Seekers. People searching for their stories. Thinking perhaps a bit of history in the form of petrified rock bookends or leather moccasins might answer some of the deeper questions of their hearts.
In the backseat, all four ghosts sleep in each other’s arms. The car is quiet, the whining of the engine vanished. I watch them in the rear view mirror, breathing together. I pull into the rest area and stop the car.
“Hey,” I whisper. “Move on now.”
They wake up, a collective quad of self-reflections, and slip through the door into the desert. The car smells of vanilla. I move forward, zero to seventy-five in record time. I breathe.
People say there’s nothing on this stretch of road. Nothing much, maybe. Just everything I’ve ever been, and the possibilities of everything I am to be. The mountains in front of me are rimmed in magenta and burnt umber. The sky is gray to the south, baby blue to the north. Dust winds a serpentine path upward. Ahead of me, the sun.
Causes Laraine Herring Supports
Amnesty, Planned Parenthood, Women for Women International, The Humane Society