Jeff Van Valer
“Come with me to California, Dad,” Paige said. “You and me.”
“We have what we need in the truck. It’s time for us to leave this place.”
“They say the first Home-Owner’s Association was established in nineteen fifty-nine,” Milt said.
“Oh, no, here we go.”
“Dad, you need to knock that off.”
“Whispering Oaks was the first. Nineteen fifty-seven. Established by y—”
“Yours truly. I’ve heard it, Dad. We’ve all heard it, and I’m now the only one left here for you to say it to. Now listen. I love you. Please know that. But you’re only hurting yourself dwelling.”
Milt sipped at the lemonade Paige had fixed him and poked at the ice cubes with the straw. “Pffft. Paper straws. You say these things are supposed to be better for the environment? They’re a pain in the ass.”
“You have bigger concerns, Dad.”
He dropped his chin and rocked in his porch swing. The dog chain it hung on groaned in the ancient, wooden cross-ties above him. His daughter, the only bright thing left in Whispering Oaks, leaned on the balustrade. Her signature ponytail, now adorned with flecks of gray, glinted in the evening sun. When the ice cubes stopped their resonant clinking, the dry desert wind registered the only ambient sound. A dead weed tumbled down the sunbleached boardwalk.
“Concerns like what?” he asked.
“Like Tommy’s cars.”
“I’ve about gotten to the point of thinking he’ll never move ’em.”
“He won’t, Dad. He wouldn’t move them when they still had wheels on them, so I doubt if he will now…”
“Damn Everitt boys shot the tires flat with their twenty-two rifles what? Twenty years ago?”
“More than that. I wasn’t even here yet. You and Mom were listening about the Cuban Missile Crisis on the radio back then. That’s almost sixty years ago. They left not too long after that.”
“Whatever. The recorder’s office says he still owns the property. So he’s in violation of the covenant.”
“Not sure he cares, Dad. I’m not even sure he’s still alive.”
“He still owes the Aich-oh-Ay the fines. The interest alone would pay for his house at this point.”
“There’s not much house left.”
“So two houses, then. S’pose to of kept his grass green, too.”
“And those tumbleweeds—”
“There’s no grass left in your yard, either. I tried to keep up with it, but there’s none left in this whole town.”
“Tumbleweeds by his boardwalk, the cars, place fallin’ down… those boards need stained. Tommy hasn’t done it in years. Years.”
“Decades, Dad. And he didn’t build that, remember?”
“The hell he didn’t.”
“You and I built that boardwalk.”
“Hell if we did.”
“You and I,” Paige hissed. “After Mom died. On our hands and knees we worked. Years after that sorry strip out front stopped being a street.”
Milt quit poking the ice cubes. “You? You think you built that? You couldn’t hammer your way out of a paper bag.”
Paige breathed deeply and dropped her head. “Years after your experimental little community—”
“Get the Everitt boys out here,” he said. “They can get rid of those crappy old cars…”
“Forget about them. Those Everitt boys are grown, gone, probably retired by now with gold watches.”
“Sons of bitches.”
Paige leaned toward her father.
“Disloyal sons of bitches.”
“Disloyal?” she whispered. “Dad, you ran them out of town. Just like you did Tommy.”
“Don’t you say it, girl.”
“I said don’t say it.”
“Louisa. She was the most loyal member the board ever had.”
“So where is she now, if she’s so loyal?”
“Who knows. You ran her out, too.”
“She was a traitor just like the rest of them.”
“She was loyal to you.”
“Stop it, Paige.”
Paige met his gaze squarely. “She would’ve kissed your feet if you’d asked her—”
“Shut up, Paige. I do’ wanna hear another word about that harlot.”
“What’re you whining about now?”
A desert rat scurried between Tommy’s dead cars. The wind hummed through a hanging wire somewhere.
“You heard me,” Milt said. “Shows you’ll still listen to something.”
“She wasn’t just loyal to what you wanted for the community, you know.”
The old boards groaned under the weight of the swing.
Paige dropped her chin, maintained eye contact with him, and said, “She loved you.”
“Love is bullshit. Loyalty is bullshit. Look at this town. Can’t count on nobody.”
“Listen to yourself!” She knelt and took his liver-spotted hand in hers. Whispering again, she said, “I’m loyal to you.”
“I’ve stayed in this town when no one else would. I sat here with you and watched them leave. Watched the brook dry up, the dead grass blow away, and the oaks starve and fall down. The life left this place with everybody else, and I stayed for you.”
Milt put his lemonade between his knees and clapped. “Excellent performance. That what you think you did? Stayed here for me?”
“You let me down. Just like them.”
Paige pursed her lips, and her eyes reddened. “Dad…”
“You sound just like your mother.”
“Good. I couldn’t do better. Did she let you down, too?” Paige sniffed. A tear washed a clean trail down her dusty cheek.
“She left, didn’t she?”
“Dad, she died.”
“That’s called leaving.”
“And that’s why you didn’t mind if everybody else left?”
“Everybody left because they didn’t want to pay their fees.”
“Dad. The lawsuits dried up. Nobody cares anymore.”
“God, you sound like all the rest of ’em.”
“It’s true is all.”
“My ass. I have no idea why you’re here. Just one of the Everitt boys is all you are, Paige. All you ever would be. Shoulda named you Pete.”
“Not nice, Dad. Why are you doing that?”
“Go on, Pete,” he said, waving his hand to the desert. “Go make yourself useful.”
“Dad. Come with me to Calif—”
“Go on, now gitt.”
Paige pulled her hand back to herself and stood.
“Go sweep Tommy’s porch. Stain the boardwalk. Drive to Santa Fe and buy me a gallon of milk. Sump’m. I don’t care. Just gitt and lea’ me ’lone.”
“I. Said. Gitt. Just go.”
Paige backed away, stepped off the wooden porch, and went to her truck. When she opened the door, he faced somewhere else from the porch. She squinted at the blowing dust, climbed inside, and turned over the engine.
A windblown doubletrack led a quarter-mile to another dirt intersection. There, a steadfast, sunbleached, wooden sign Paige built in her twenties pointed east to Santa Fe and west, to California.
Milt looked. At the old sign, her brake lights shined through her dusty trail. After an entire minute, the right one started blinking.
“No one to signal,” he whispered. “Go get me my damn milk, girl.”
Then the signal stopped.
In another minute, the left one started. Paige’s truck broke into a turn. Her next dusty trail headed west. Milt slurped his lemonade and flicked his wrist, as though to backhand the entire desert.
“Go on, Pete,” he said.
Jeff Van Valer is a neurologist and sleep medicine physician. He lives in Fishers, Indiana and has authored the first to books in the White Birch Village series, The Light in the Trees, and White Birch Graffiti. He rides mountain bikes and loves the desert.