Jessy Easton ~ We Didn’t Always Live in the Mojave

Before the Mojave, when the uni­form peo­ple came to take Mom and Dad away, we lived in a dif­fer­ent kind of desert—still in the California no one thinks about when they think of California. Everyone called this desert SB, and it was just as dry and even hot­ter than the Mojave, because in this desert, there were too many cars and too many build­ings, and the air felt thick like fog—only most peo­ple called it smog. Dad called it pol­lu­tion and said this desert was a shit-hole. Those were his words, not mine. He said I wasn’t old enough to say shit. But I think he was right about this kind of desert.

The thing I remem­ber most about this desert is that no mat­ter where you went, you couldn’t see the moun­tains because the smog was like a heavy cur­tain. And on top of not being able to see the moun­tains, your lungs would burn. We moved around a lot in the smog-filled desert with the moun­tains we couldn’t see, because Dad said Mom could nev­er stay still, and he was right, because she was always tap­ping her feet or bounc­ing her leg up and down as if she was try­ing not to step on lava. Mom said it was because of the bugs.

When we lived on Date Street, Mom would sleep in the reclin­er chair in the liv­ing room with her feet propped up so the cock­roach­es wouldn’t crawl on her. But one night, one inched up the side of the chair and crept across her hand, and she ran out into the yard scream­ing. I’d been sleep­ing wedged between her bones and the arms of the chair because I couldn’t stand to be away from her. When she shot up, so did I. I ran after her into the dirt yard and teetered from one foot to the oth­er to avoid the fire ants and the stick­ers Dad called goat heads.

Dad came out and told Mom to shut up and stop act­ing like a lunatic. He said she was going to wake up the whole damn neigh­bor­hood, but Mom didn’t hear him. She was gasp­ing and hold­ing her knees like some­one had dumped a buck­et of ice water on her head. I held the torn and tat­tered piece of Mom’s red lin­gerie that I car­ried around like a secu­ri­ty blan­ket and wait­ed in the dirt for her to go inside so I could go back to sleep. My eyes felt like heavy anvils, but I didn’t know how to sleep with­out her, so I wait­ed. She nev­er did go inside, and we slept in the back­seat of the car that night. The search­light moon shined through the dusty win­dow and I could still see the pur­ple eye­shad­ow Mom had swept across her eye­lids with a paint­brush. She looked like a sleep­ing princess.

Mom, with all her scream­ing, would’ve wok­en up my lit­tle broth­er Brandon, but he was stay­ing with my Grandma Linda because she said she found him crawl­ing alone on the floor with peo­ple step­ping over him like he was a pile of dirty laun­dry, peo­ple she called junkies, and her face looked sad when she said it, and I remem­ber won­der­ing why she took him and not me, but I was glad because I didn’t want to leave Mom.

Mom was gone a lot, but I want­ed to be wher­ev­er she was com­ing back to. Sometimes she would be gone for days, only return­ing when her fin­gers were stacked with so many rings she looked like she had dia­monds for hands or when she had fur coats or shiny sil­ver and gold trin­kets that looked like some kind of trea­sure to add to the ever-grow­ing pile of things she kept in the cor­ner of the liv­ing room. She’d always have Dad shake out the fur coats before she slid her long, tooth­pick-thin arms into the sleeves because she said the bugs liked to hide in dark places.

Mom com­plained to her mom, my Grandma Fields, enough times about the roach­es that Grandma had us all move into her lit­tle house on Michelle Lane. It was in the same desert with the moun­tains we couldn’t see and the burn­ing lungs, but there were no cock­roach­es. On Michelle Lane, there were five of us—me, Mom, Dad, Grandma Fields, and my Grandpa Steve, who was actu­al­ly my step-grand­pa. We were sup­posed to be six, but my broth­er was still stay­ing with my Grandma Linda. But, on Michelle Lane, he was allowed to come over.

I liked liv­ing on Michelle Lane. Grandma Fields kept the house clean, even though she worked a lot. I loved how she matched my clothes in the morn­ing and made me break­fast and combed my hair. She even made me brush my teeth, which I actu­al­ly kind of liked. The tooth­paste she used tast­ed like the green apple can­dy Dad would buy me from the cor­ner store with the bars on the windows.

I liked liv­ing on Michelle Lane because Grandma always opened the win­dow shades in the morn­ing, fill­ing the rooms with yel­low light. When we were liv­ing on Date Street, Dad had nailed blan­kets over the win­dows so there was no sun.

I liked that on Michelle Lane, there was grass in the front yard like the hous­es you see on TV. I liked that Grandma always smelled like flow­ers, and Grandpa always lis­tened to the kind of music that felt like a hug. I liked that some­one was always home, even if it usu­al­ly wasn’t Mom.

I liked liv­ing on Michelle Lane until the uni­form peo­ple came. Sometimes, I’d see the uni­form peo­ple on the street, at the cor­ner store, or at the cof­fee shop that Dad said had piss-water cof­fee. At the cof­fee shop, Mom would stuff the pock­ets of her flan­nel, which was actu­al­ly Dad’s flan­nel, with day-old donuts she paid for with the change we found in the car. At the cof­fee shop, the uni­form peo­ple always smiled and even some­times laughed, but when they came to Michelle Lane, they were not smil­ing or laughing.

I was in bed with Mom when the uni­form peo­ple came. It was morn­ing, but nei­ther of us knew it, because Dad had nailed the blan­kets over the win­dows again. Grandma told him not to, but he did it any­way. The uni­form peo­ple didn’t knock or ring the door­bell. They just bar­reled inside and through the bed­room door like a bull­doz­er and took me out of bed. Mom screamed and yelled a bunch of the words she usu­al­ly said through her teeth. She thrashed around like a dust tor­na­do, and it took three or four of them to put her hands in shiny sil­ver bracelets that were held togeth­er by a fat chain.

Dad was wear­ing those bracelets too by the time we made it out to the liv­ing room. One of the uni­form peo­ple was rock­ing in Grandma’s black rock­ing chair—the one I always rocked my baby dolls in—and it was mak­ing a squeak­ing sound like a mouse scream­ing. He was rock­ing and talk­ing to Dad, say­ing, “Looks like we got you now,” and “You’re going away, bud­dy.” Going away where? I want­ed to ask, but my throat had closed up, and I felt like Ariel in The Little Mermaid when the sea witch took her voice and gave her legs. Only I couldn’t feel my legs either. One of the uni­form peo­ple was still hold­ing me, so I wasn’t even sure if I could still walk.

The rock­ing con­tin­ued, and the mouse kept scream­ing, and the uni­form man was sweat­ing and laugh­ing and Mom was call­ing the sweat­ing uni­form man bad names, and Dad told him, “We’ll see about that,” and start­ed to smile, so I thought maybe they were friends. I thought maybe they could take Mom’s bracelets off so she could hold me. Then a man who was wear­ing black and not a uni­form point­ed to Mom and said, “It’s her. Not him.” The rock­ing uni­form man stopped laugh­ing but he kept sweat­ing, and his mouth opened like a car­toon fish. The whole room went qui­et except for Mom, who was call­ing the rock­ing uni­form man, who was no longer rock­ing but still sweat­ing, a cross-eyed bastard.

The man who was wear­ing black and not a uni­form said for Mom to get dressed. They took her bracelets off, and she went into the bath­room. She changed out of her green house­coat that she always wore in the morn­ing. She’d wrap me inside like a cocoon, and her skin always smelled like smoke and sug­ar cook­ies. When she came out of the bath­room, she was wear­ing jeans and a tired face, and I put my arms out for her to hold me, but the uni­form peo­ple put her bracelets back on.

One of the uni­form peo­ple was a girl, and she was the one hold­ing me, and the one who was ask­ing me ques­tions now. Questions I couldn’t answer because the sea witch took my voice. Mom told her to stop talk­ing to me because she was going to make me cry. I didn’t cry until they put Mom and Dad in the back of one of those cars with the lights on top and the cage in the back. It looked like a cop car, but I thought the cops were the good guys. I thought they were sup­posed to pro­tect you from bad things hap­pen­ing, and this felt like a bad thing. And it felt like it was their fault.

Grandma was hold­ing me now. The uni­form peo­ple had called her at work and told her to come home. She smelled like a beau­ty salon and her hair was piled on top of her head like the yel­low bou­quet of flow­ers Dad some­times bought for Mom from the guy on the cor­ner sell­ing them out of a plas­tic buck­et. Grandma’s shoul­ders were shak­ing as if she were laugh­ing, but she wasn’t laugh­ing; she was cry­ing, and her make­up made black rivers on her face. The car with the lights on top that looked like a cop car drove away with my par­ents, but Dad came home a few days lat­er. He said the cops couldn’t prove he did any­thing wrong, but they found Mom’s fin­ger­prints in over three hun­dred hous­es that had been robbed by burglars.

After that, we moved out of the house on Michelle Lane because Grandma said there were too many peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood who could get Mom in trou­ble when she got out of what she called prison. Prison is where grown-ups go when they’ve done some­thing bad, like a time-out. Grandma said Mom took some­thing that didn’t belong to her, and now she was being pun­ished for it. I heard Dad say that Mom was so bad she even made it in the news­pa­per, which sound­ed like a grown-up ver­sion of Santa’s naughty list.

So we left the desert with the moun­tains we couldn’t see and the burn­ing lungs in search of a bet­ter life, as Grandma put it. We went to the Mojave where a lot of the roads were still made of dirt and noth­ing else, and the sky was wide and blue, and you could always see the moun­tains. I count­ed tum­ble­weeds and jackrab­bits and the days until Mom came home.


Jessy Easton’s writ­ing has been pub­lished in the Good River Review, Beacon Quarterly, Rappahannock Review, and Marrow Magazine. In 2022, her sto­ry “The Things We Leave Out” was nom­i­nat­ed for a Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Net Anthology. She holds a BA in Communications from Vanguard University of Southern California.