Authors: Camden McInnis
“What?” She asks, “Can’t I cook breakfast for my little boy once and awhile.”
I blush like I always do when she calls me her little boy or her little man or whatever. I’m like most 17-year-old boys, I can be a serious asshole to my mom sometimes, but I still love her more than any person on the planet and always will. Before I sit down in front of my heaping plate of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, I give her a quick peck on the cheek—which causes her to go the same deep shade of red I was a moment earlier—and the biggest smile I can muster so I can show off my newly non-braces filled mouth. After 5 years of excruciating teeth straightening, it still feels so weird to not have my mouthful of metal. This also thrills my mother to no end to see. She worked two jobs in order to straighten my teeth, and I’m fairly certain she takes just as much pride in them as I do.
I sit dow at the kitchen table and dig in. My mom sits down across from me with nothing in front of her but her coffee and her worn #2 yellow pencil pinched between the fingers of her right hand. Up until 2 years ago, the pencil would’ve been a Marlboro light. But thanks to her cancer scare a couple of years ago, her beloved inanimate best friend for the last 25 years went into the garbage can and out of our lives permanently. True enough, the black spot on her lung x-ray ended up being nothing more than a shadow, but it scared her enough to wise her up that if she didn’t quit, the next time she had a chest x-ray taken, the black spot might not be a shadow but the real thing. I only wished that I could live by her example and quit, too. Although, I only smoke a couple of butts a day and when I’m drinking, which, generally speaking, is pretty rare.
“You’re not eating anything?” I ask.
“No, I’m not hungry.” Mom’s never been what you would call a big eater. A big coffee drinker, yes. A big (ex) smoker, yes. A thin sleeper, the BIGGEST yes of all. I don’t think Mom has slept more than 3 hours a night for the last 20 years. This mostly has to do with the fact that for the first 4 years of my life, I only slept an average of 2 hours a night (Yeah, I was a total spazz when I was a kid.), and then later on when Dad got sick, he only slept when he was so doped up his body forced itself to pass out. No, Mom hasn’t had an easy go of things, which is another reason why I love her so much.
“So are you taking Sarah out to the Gulch tonight?” I almost choke on a mouth full of food when she asks this. I’d like to think that Mom has always been 41-years-old and that she was never a teenager and never went drinking out at the Gulch with her friends back when she was in high school. I also find it hard to believe that Mom has lived in Sleepy Creek for all of those 41-years. Everything I’m experiencing now, Mom already went through over 20 years ago. Except for the whole girlfriend of 2 years breaking up with you a week before the last summer of your lives thing I’m going through right now. Mom was dating Dad back then, so she has no idea what I’m going through because she’d already met the love of her life at my age. And I thought I had, too. Although, Sarah didn’t think so.
“No,” I answer, “I’m just going out there with Billy and Stan and maybe Ali and Steve if their not still getting ready to go to Europe.”
She gives me a funny look over her coffee cup but doesn’t say anything else. I have told her about mine and Sarah’s break up yet. Largely it’s because I’m still trying to absorb it myself. I mean, I know in the whole scope of life, 2 years isn’t exactly a long time to be with someone, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t heartbroken. Virtually every second of my life for the past two years has been dedicated to Sarah and our relationship. I know I was being a bit a naive thinking that our relationship would go beyond high school, that maybe it would extend into college and then the rest of our lives if we were lucky. But, Sarah had other plans, namely that she wouldn’t be going to UC Irvine like we’d been planning since our first anniversary, she was going to go to Yale instead.
And I can’t say I really blame her, even though UC Irvine is a great school, Yale makes it look like community college in comparison. When she told me, I was ecstatic for her. She’d always wanted to go to Yale because her grandmother or her great-grandmother (One of her mother’s, I was trying to get her out of her bra when she told me the story, so obviously something else was on my mind.) was one of the first female students to be admitted to the university, so it was a matter of pride for her.
What knocked me on my ass was that after she told me the news, she immediately broke up with me, saying she didn’t think our relationship could survive such time and distance. Of course, I found out a few days later from Sarah’s best friend, Nadia—who said she was telling me because she felt bad about the breakup. But, really, she’d had a crush on me since we were in the 6th grade and she was hoping to gain some possible replacement girlfriend browny points by telling me—that Sarah had started seeing Chad Eagleton secretly a couple of months ago. Needless to say, but that little bit of news hurt me even more than her breaking up with me. Chad was a grade a dick and a pretentious douchebag on top of that. But the fact is, Sarah’s always been kind of a pretentious douchebag, too. I’d just never noticed because I was too distracted by all the near constant, mind-blowing sex.
I keep trying to tell myself that I dodged a bullet when she broke up with me. That I avoided a possible lifetime of watching crappy art house films and evenings at the Opera. I keep saying this, but it still feels like I have handful of rocks churning in my guts every time I think about it. I shake off these thoughts and focus on my plate of food and Mom instead because it would be as embarrassing as hell to break down crying in front of Mom.
“By the way,” I say as I shove a mouthful of pancake and egg into my mouth, “What are you still doing home? Shouldn’t you be at work?” Mom’s been working the same job at Crowley’s Construction since Dad died. It’s one of the few decent businesses in town and they’ve been good to Mom. She started off as old man Crowley’s secretary and is now essentially the company’s CFO.
“Oh, you know how Oscar is,” She says with a sly smile. “His brain has him convinced he’s still in high school, so he decided he wanted a long weekend and gave it off to the rest of us, too.”
“Wow, that’s cool. So do the two of you have any big plans?” Mom’s cheeks redden and she gets up from the table to better hide her smile.
“Why in the world would I have any plans with Oscar?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said with a smirk, “I thought maybe you’d want to relive your high school days along with him.”
Oscar Crowley is the youngest of the 3 Crowley sons and the only one who had any interest in taking over old man Crowley’s business when he retired. He was the one who’d hired Mom because he was my Dad’s high school best friend and knew how sharp she was. But Mom always said she thought she got the job because Oscar always had a thing for her going way back to elementary school. She admitted that she never felt that way for him, that they were just friends, but over the last few years, things had changed between the two of them.
For one reason or another, Mom liked keeping me in the dark about her personal life. When I was little, I totally got why she didn’t bring any men into our lives. Our world had been rocked by my Dad’s death and she didn’t want to inject any more radical changes into our lives—Okay, my life—by adding a complete stranger into the mix. But now that was older and getting ready to leave for college, I didn’t understand why she still tried pretending that she didn’t have a life outside of work and home, especially when it came to Oscar. I mean, how could I not notice them talking on the phone every night? How could I not notice his truck pull into our driveway at 11 pm every Tuesday and Thursday?
But, that was just how she was. I knew she still loved Dad even though he’d been dead for almost 15 years and still wanted me to think that he was the only man that she was ever going to love. But, come on, I knew that was physical and mental impossibility by the time I was 12-years-old and started noticing girls. That’s just Mom, though. I guess she’ll always think of me as a hurt little 5-year-old boy, and to be honest, I’m kind of okay with that.
I finished off my plate, dumped my dishes into the sink, and kissed Mom on the cheek.
“Thanks for breakfast, beautiful,” I said. “You’re welcome, baby. You better get going, you don’t want to be late picking up Billy and Stan.
Chapter 2: When NoWhere Is All You Know
I’ve never understood how people end up in towns like Sleepy Creek? I know that sounds a little weird considering that I’ve spent my entire life here and so had both my mom and dad. But, seriously, with there being so many great and wonderful city’s in the world, you kind of have to wonder what attracts people to living in the absolute middle of nowhere? And make no mistake, that’s exactly what Sleepy Creek is, nowhere. Yeah, I’m sure I sound like every small town high school kid in the history of small towns, but Sleepy Creek is an entirely different brand of nowhere. Mostly because the city it’s closest to—the desert paradise of Riverside—is also a nowhere. Sure, I guess Riverside qualifies as a city. It has all of the normal crap you would find anywhere else: Wal*Mart’s, shopping malls, outlet stores, chain restaurants, burnt out mini-malls, it even has a little industry. But for the most part, if you live in Riverside, chances are you work in L.A. and you moved out to Riverside because it was the only place you could afford to buy a house.
And the same can be said of Sleepy Creek: If you live here, chances are you work in Riverside, or you’re retired or crazy. My mom and a handful of people are the exceptions. She works in town and isn’t bug shit nutty. The parents of most of my friends, though, that’s another story. For instance, my best friends, Billy and Stan Winston. I’ve been paling around with the two of them since kindergarten. They’re great guys, funny, intelligent, and friendly. But their parents are off their fucking rockers. Like both sets of my grandparents, Billy and Stan’s mom and dad are ex-military. They were stationed out Edwards Air Force Base and for one reason or another, they fell in love with the desert. Or I should say they fell in love with the fact that they could live MILES away from virtually any human being. The Winston’s own 200 acres of desert and the family lives smack dab in the middle of it. Their electricity comes from a half a dozen generators and a half ass solar array Mr. Winston designed (Although, I doubt the array generates a single watt of electricity considering that most of the “solar panels” are nothing but mirrors that Mr. Winston rummaged from the dump.). And their “house” is two welded together double wide trailers that sits atop a steel and concrete bunker, which also happens to be where the elder Winston’s spend most of their time.
When I was a little kid, I thought Stan and Billy’s house was the coolest place on earth, largely because the 4 acres surrounding the house was the largest collection of junk I’d ever seen. Mr. Winston had everything, from burnt out computers-to-old refrigerators-to-the husks of military vehicles of various kinds (The coolest was a World War II era tank.). We would spend hours out in Mr. Winston’s junkyard playing war, hide and seek, and a million other games. But it kind of stopped being cool when we all turned 12 because we all realized that Mr. and Mrs. Winston were little nuts. Okay, they were more than just a “little” nuts, they were flat out bonkers. The reason why Mr. Winston collected all of that junk was because he was planning to use it. The old guy thought that the government would become the 4th Reich, or that a race war was coming, or that some foreign nation like Russia or China were going to shell America with nuclear bombs, and that the only people who would be left to fight would be guys like Mr. Winston. The only problem was almost all of Mr. Winston’s junk was just that: Junk (He did own a ton of guns, which was super cool when I was a kid, but was an entirely different story when all of the mass shooting started happening and I finally realized Mr. Winston was almost exactly like all of the guys who did the shootings: Lonely, disenfranchised, and paranoid.)
The realization of Mr. Winston’s mental health was really hard on Stan and Billy. I mean, both of them were just normal kids. They didn’t believe in any of the things that their folks did. All they wanted to do was go to school, hang out with girls, and get the fuck out of Sleep Creek and away from their parents as soon as possible. In fact, the two of them started thinking that their parents were so weird that they moved into a 6 person tent at the edge of their folks property just so they could have a life that somewhat resembled something “normal”. Not that living in a tent was what you would call normal by any stretch of the imagination, but at least they were away from the direct influence of their parents.
Over the years since they moved into the tent, they somehow managed to upgrade their home from a large tent to a pop up trailer with a functioning toilet and shower (Before the pop up, they would have to come over to my place a few days a week to wash the grit and grime of the desert off of them.), but both of them are itching to get out of the desert, and as soon as we toss the old mortarboards into the air, both Stan and Billy will be moving to L.A. and they’ve both sworn that they’re never coming back. Unlike so many of the kids I know who’ve sworn similar pledges over the years (myself included.), I actually believe Billy and Stan will do it and will stay all the way gone.
The other thing I realized when I had my revelation about Mr. Winston’s sanity was this: Virtually every adult in my life—outside of my mom, of course—is completely off their rocker. No, they’re not as far gone as Billy and Stan’s folks, but they’re pretty damn out there. Honestly, though, I think that’s what the desert does to you. I think it seeps into your blood and brain, it integrates into your DNA, and it radically changes you. It either makes you a part of the desert and makes you into something just like a horny toad or a Joshua tree, or it makes you want to run away from it like you’re on fire. Personally, I can honestly say that it hasn’t changed me in one way or another. I don’t hate it in Sleepy Creek. I love my mom and our house, I love my friends, but I don’t exactly want to spend the rest of my life here like my mother and Oscar have. But in the same breath, there’s something comforting about never having to go anywhere else. Never having to socially struggle in a new town or city, and knowing exactly what to expect day in and day out.