Writer in Residence · 09/13/2013

Girl Lit Four: 'Where She Came From' by Chris Rice

This is an excerpt from a novel ms entitled Rambler. Rice writes with fine-tuned sensitivity to how natural landscapes shape identity. I’m watching the grey autumn rains fall here, but here’s the alchemy of fiction, the transmutation of senses: I can feel instead the desert heat, see the glints off a hot car chassis, the tall, looming cactus, and the colours and textures across a sandy, distant earth. The author describes the mechanics of her novel best:

Rambler, the story of a girl grown up on the road, circles through layers of childhood experience, ancestral legend and current time to find the family she left behind.

These girl lit chains and circles, constant movement of harsh and vivid life.

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Where She Came From

Thwack! The Rambler veered off the highway right front wonky, a burnt smell blistering the air. Mama flung her freckled arm straight out like a guardrail, to protect Susie, the kid beside her. The rest of them slid onto the backseat floorboard; dumped by the abrupt stop of a blow out.

On the shoulder of the road Mama’s shoulders curved inward. She turned off the ignition. Put her forehead down on the steering wheel. Said, “Now what?” to no one in particular.

“I guess somebody should get out of the car and see what’s wrong,” Christy answered.

Mama smirked. Shoved her door open, and walked round to the front of the car to check it out. Unimpeded wind bounced sagebrush balls down the empty road beside her. Dirt drifted across the hood. She re-knotted her white blouse at the waist, brushed a stray curl off her face, and twisted around to adjust the seams of her plaid Capri pants.

“What is she doing?” Susie asked.

“Trying not to touch the car,” Christy answered.

Through the windshield they watched Mama like a movie. Hands on her hips, she squatted to inspect the low side of the Rambler’s tilt, stood up maybe too fast, righted herself by pressing the top side of her thighs into the front fender, and pitched forward, vomiting all over the hood.

“Did she just puke?” Susie asked.

“Here we go,” Christy said.

Mama arched her back and attacked the Rambler, crazy-mad. Went after it, kicking the dead tire with sandaled feet. Pain didn’t stop her. “Damn, ouch,” pound. “Damn, shit,” kick. She beat the car, until, exhausted or bored, she plopped back behind the steering wheel trembling.

“What’s the matter, Mama?” Christy asked.

“The tire’s flat. What are you, stupid?”

“She means you threw up,” Susie said.

“I know what I did.”

Susie groaned. Burrowed her nose in her dog’s neck and rolled her car window up, to block the desert heat and the stink of the car hood.

Christy peeled her thighs off the upholstery. Even in cut-offs and an armless tee shirt, she was broiling.

Mama fiddled with the air vent knobs on the dashboard. Grabbed the steering wheel, and ran her hands around the black circle, touching it like it was the face of a dying friend.

The little ones jumped up and down on the seat behind her, screaming, “Too hot, Mama, too hot, hot, hot.”

“Christy, see if there’s anything left for them.”

Christy fished the last two soda cans out of the melted slush of the ice chest and rationed them out, one for the baby Maggie Lee and the other for the twins Tina and Lori to share. Sleepy-eyed, they huddled on the floorboard, drinking their sodas, ready for a solution. “Are we almost there, Christy?” Lori asked.

“I don’t know,” Christy answered. She never knew for sure where they were headed. Or where they were exactly.

Maggie Lee started to bawl.

“Jesus God, somebody do something,” Susie said. “It’s too hot in here for Pierre.” She shoved opened her door and let the dog out. When he hit the hot ground he yelped. “What’s the plan, Mama?”

“Christy’s going to find somebody to help us,” Mama said. Her eyes in the rearview mirror a strange green. Not green like grass or trees or the stems of flowers. Detached and unmoored, like illness or rare jewels.

“How am I supposed to do that?” Christy asked. “I don’t even know where we are.” She was afraid, but she wouldn’t let Mama know—not her, not ever.

“What does it matter where we are?” Mama said. “Just run up the road a little bit until you find someone.” She acted like Christy was some stranger she was trying to scam. Like Christy was a man. “You’re my right arm, kid. My strong right arm. You can do this.”

“Not a good idea,” Christy said. That last gas station was a while ago.

Mama reached over the seat and grabbed ahold of her. Clamped her fingernails into Christy’s upper arms and shoved her against the car door. “Who cares what you think,” she said. “I want you to do this you little shit. So do it!”

Christy jumped out of the car and ran to the other side of the highway. From there she looked back at the Rambler. Tilted off toward the roadside ravine, immobile, so broken-down it looked out of place and useless, almost prehistoric. Inside all of them looking out at her. Susie from the front seat, with a good-bye-you-sad-sucker look in her eye, the little ones in the back window yelling Christy’s name. She could see them but she could no longer hear them. Eyes squinted. Dirty hair stuck to sweaty faces. They’d spent most of their lives in the Rambler. Not in a house on the ground, in a car on wheels. Mama loved the Rambler. Railed against the trapped and the fixed. From the driver’s seat she mouthed commands. That way, that way, that way! Get going. Get going. Jabbed her finger in the air motioning Christy forward.

Reminding her who was in charge and what was important.

Always keep your car in good working order, it is your Savior—the only way to make it when the chips are down—and they will eventually be down.

Christy took off down the deserted highway, Mama’s mantra in her head, first walking, then running, looking for someone, anyone who could get the Rambler going again. She did it because Mama told her to. But most of all she did it because that was what she did, all she thought she was good for—helping.

Old wire fencing ran beside her. Tan grass, waist high, grew between it and the road. Yellow dashes blipped out the corner of her eye.

Time passed. But the sun stayed high.

Hot wind whipped across her face, stinging crusty heat. Sand shifted in her shoes making little piles right in the middle of each arch, piles that rattled and shook back and forth with every lift and drop of her feet. Subtle scents drifted in the wind, chaparral smells from red-tipped flowers, wild bouquets grown against harsh odds. The more she ran the more the dull land became distinct and richly shaded: yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber—the names of crayons, the colors of skin. Alone at last, with nothing but the world on every side, alone, but not lonely, tucked in herself and happy—almost free, alive to the world and wondering where she belonged in it.

Whenever they moved to a new place and she checked into a new school, people always asked where she came from. And she always took some time to think before she said. The question wasn’t simple and neither was her answer. She didn’t have a hometown or a father’s claim. And she knew she never would. She’d been lied to so much, her whole life, about who her father really was—first this one, and then that one—the story changed so often and so abruptly Christy was no longer surprised by anything anyone said. No matter how far-fetched, no matter how unfathomable. Mama’s deceit had made Christy a doubting stranger, especially to herself. Where was she from? “No place, no place in particular,” she’d finally say. Because she could never describe who she was or where she came from like most people did, with a last name, or a place name, defining a specific location, recognizable on a map.

She came from Mama, and Mama was on the move, forever wandering, always leaving, on the run.

Christy stopped to shake her shoes out. Balanced on one leg, then the other. Pulled off each tennis shoe, poured sand back onto the ground, retied tangled laces, stood up and looked around.

Behind her, the Rambler was out of sight, vanished. On both sides of the highway, human-shaped Saguaros raised their green arms to the sky. Straight ahead, a line of dark hills marked an end to the distance. Chocolate colored and curved, hefty boulders dotted the packed ground, remnants from a denser world—abandoned. Christy crouched down again. Marked in the dirt with her finger. Blood pulsed through head and heart thumping in the stifling heat. Paper covers rock, scissors cut paper, rock smashes scissors. The backseat was crowded, elbow to eye, needy hands grabbed for too little food, drink, love. For the first time, she was alone in the world entire, with no one but herself to hear; no baby cries or sister sneers, no poodle yaps or Mama rants.

Christy brushed her hands off and stood up.

Mama had said she was her right arm, her strong right arm—a living extension of her, not for herself, forever Mama’s. She would never let Christy go. Her flexing need would always pull Christy back. She would never let her go. Christy would have to leave on her own, if she could.

She began to run.

Watched her feet point from side to side as they slammed down onto the warm asphalt, carrying her forward, away from the Rambler and into the world, the only thing Mama couldn’t take from her.

The sun, lower in the sky, shone directly in her eyes now. The road rose and fell over and beyond, flat ground giving way to hills. Legs grown heavy, she slowed down, exhausted and thirsty.

Up ahead a truck gleamed in the sun, parked on the side of the road, cherry red and gleaming chrome. Christy walked over to the eighteen-wheeler, a Peterbilt.

Stood below its cabin door and hollered up. “Hey, anybody in there?”

The window slid open and a grown man’s eyes met hers brown to brown. Part Indian—Kiowa, Caddo, Cherokee or like Christy some mix of all three—and rural raised. Hands more than able to take a dead tire off a car, back broad enough to lift what was hard for most to carry. “You broke down?” he asked.

“Sooo broken,” she answered. Not quite fifteen, she had learned Mama’s lessons well. She looked up at him. Put a long drag on that first vowel, emphasizing the sound that makes a mouth round. Talked like Mama, meanings entwined—to make him listen and to fend off questions—to get the burden of need off her back and on to his.

He looked down at her, his face a silly grin. “Well look at you,” he said. “Not much rolls down this road. Least not this time of year. What you need, girl?”

“I need a ride.”

“Lucky for you I pulled over for a snooze,” he said. “Reach up.”

When she did he leaned out the cab window, grabbed ahold of her forearms, and hauled her inside, across his lap and onto the seat beside him.

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Chris Rice is a Missouri born writer/artist/librarian settled in Los Angeles after living for a time in the red state of Oklahoma. While there she earned a BA in art. A former foster child, she has supported herself as a field worker, a nurse’s aide, a preschool teacher, a newspaper researcher, a corporate trends analyst, and a public librarian. Chris holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and an MLIS from San Jose State University. In the fall of 2012 she was awarded a slot at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program where she completed LITTLE TRESPASSER, book two of three planned novels exploring the difficulty of female leaving. RAMBLER, excerpted here is a work in progress. Kathleen Anderson, of Anderson Literary Management, represents Chris.

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posted by Helen McClory