DESERT BLOOM – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
DESERT BLOOM – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
Lily drove east on I-15. The sun was low in the sky, just about to set. This was Lily’s favorite time of the day in the Mojave, when she missed it the most. The sun beat mercilessly down on the landscape all day, turning the dirt, the rocks, and the scrub brush the same dusty light brown. But as the sun set, the drab landscape exploded into color, glowing red, orange, yellow and green. She smiled as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the colors fading into a cool blue.
She glanced at the clock on her dash. It was 7:27. Lily figured she had about fifteen minutes to go. She could see Barstow’s lights glow in the distance, a lot brighter than she remembered. Barstow’s population had practically doubled since she was a kid. Lily turned her radio on and jabbed the buttons until she found a station without static. For the fourth time in two hours, Lily listened to Taylor Swift sing “I shake it, I shake it off,” in her ridiculously perky voice.
Lily had a happy/sad relationship with Barstow, probably because of that jealous thing that happened back in ’91. She tried not to dwell on it, but it came to her unbidden when she least expected it. Lily was happy she grew up in Barstow and loved visiting her family. But invariably she was unable to repress the bad memory as she made her way through town.
As she neared her childhood home, Lily passed The Station, one of the few tourist attractions in Barstow. The gas station and the little store were still there, next to the train car that used to be a diner and was now a MacDonalds. She averted her eyes from the Route 66 Motel, and turned right on Manzanita Drive. She pulled into the driveway and turned off the lights. Lily sat quietly for a few minutes, got out of the car and unlocked the front door. “Mom, I’m home,” she said.
After Lily graduated from high school in 1991, she didn’t have a clue about what to do next. Her mom wanted her to get a job. “You’re 18 now Lily, and you need to make some money,” her Mom said. “You aren’t a kid anymore. You have to start thinking about your adult life.” Lily didn’t respond.
They ate breakfast in silence. Lily thought about getting a job. Anything would be better than high school. Barstow was right in the middle between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, so Lily could move east or west to a city. She couldn’t decide which direction to choose. She would get a job, save up some money, and wait until the summer was over. Maybe she could decide then.
Lily applied for a job at the gas station store. The manager hired her on the spot. Instead of getting up in the morning to go to school, Lily got up in the afternoon to go to work. It was an easy job. Lily rang up purchases for a non-stop procession of humanity that streamed The Station every day. Families, couples, kids, and everything in between. People on their way to Las Vegas from Los Angeles. Tourists on the way to Death Valley. Soldiers from the nearby army base. Truck drivers. People driving Route 66 to Los Angeles. Buses full of senior citizens. Desert enthusiasts. Train enthusiasts. Gambling enthusiasts.
Lily was amazed at the variety of things people bought; junk food, pop, and trinkets to relieve the monotony and heat of the drive. Key chains, cans of Coke, commemorative silver dollars, Cheetos, baseball hats, Hershey Bars, miniature trains, coffee spoons, plastic cowboys and Indians, Life Savers, cactus refrigerator magnets, gum, beer, 7-Up, plastic covered wagons, Route 66 bumper stickers, cigarettes, pepperoni and beef jerky. If it was for sale, somebody would by it.
Lily was constantly busy. After the first hour, Lily’s shoulders would tense up and mouth was frozen into a rictus she hoped would pass as a smile. She hated talking to customers, they would ask her stupid questions, make silly jokes, or get mad if the line was too long and they had to wait.
Sometimes men would flirt with Lily and ask her out. Lily’s mother warned her about talking to strangers, so Lily always said no. She wondered how she would meet someone who hadn’t grown up in Barstow. She went out with boys she knew from high school, but the town was so small that she had already dated boys she was interested in. Like the decision to move east or west, Lily decided to give the dating situation a break until the end of the summer.
At the end of a long day in mid-July, Lily was waiting for her relieve clerk Tom to show up so she could go home. July had been hotter than usual, and it was still in the 90s even though it was 10:00 at night. The front door bell jingled. “Tom, why are you so damn late,” Lily said. “I’ve been waiting to go home.”
She turned around. He stood there smiling, his arms crossed. “I’ts not Tom,” he said. “I’m Jim.” He leaned over the counter toward her and looked at her name tag. “Nice to meet you, Lily.”
“What can I get you?” she asked. He was handsome, tall with light brown hair and clear blue eyes. He looked like he was from the city, Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Nobody Lily knew wore khakis and a pink Polo shirt with the collar flipped up. She smiled at him and blushed.
“I need to get gas,” he said, motioning to the red Miata parked outside. “Hot night. Glad I have a convertible.”
Tom arrived, panting. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “My car broke down again. My brother had to drive me in.” He looked at Lily and the man in the pink shirt. “Go ahead and leave. I’ll take over.”
Lily and Jim walked outside. She watched him as he filled the car with gas. “Your car’s cute,” Lily said. “I’ve always wanted a sports car.”
Jim smiled at her as he screwed the gas cap back on. “Why don’t you get one,” he asked. “You should always try to get what you want.”
“I’m saving up for a car,” she said. “That’s why I work here. I’m saving for a car and for college.” She watched him open the car door. “You don’t live around here,” she said. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from San Bernardino,” he said. “I’ve got business in Las Vegas. My company’s building houses. Lot of people in Vegas want new houses.” Jim laughed. “I don’t know how the hell anyone lives in the desert.” He looked at Lily. “Do you like it here? In the desert?’
“It’s OK, I guess,” Lily said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, so I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else.” She looked at her watch. “I have to get home,” she said. “My mom’s waiting for me.” Lily stared at him. She thought he was the best looking man she had ever seen in person, not counting people on TV.
“Do you have a curfew, Lily?’ he asked. “I’m staying a couple of blocks from here, at the Route 66 Hotel.” He got in the car, leaned over and opened the passenger door. “Get in. I have some Bacardi back in my room. We can have Bacardi and Coke.” He motioned her toward his car. “Just one. Have one drink with me.”
Lily walked toward his car, and hesitated. She looked at him. He didn’t look like a serial killer or a rapist. He just looked like a regular guy to her. The kind of guy with a job and a cute car.
“Come on, Lily. Just one drink,” he said, smiling at her. “I’m harmless. Just one drink. Then you can go home to your mom.”
Lily got in silently, suddenly shy again. He was older than anyone she knew so she didn’t know what to say to him. He drove a couple of blocks and pulled over at the hotel. The Route 66 Hotel parking lot was full of gas station and car memorabilia, old gas pumps, rusty car parts. A red neon Pegasus loomed over the motel office, blinking on and off. MOBILGAS.
She followed Jim to his room. He fumbled with the key, got the door open, and flipped on the lights. Lily looked around at the spartan furnishings and the double bed. Jim’s suitcase was open, clothes neatly folded. She could see the bathroom beyond the double bed. Jim handed Lily a bucket. “Can you get some ice for the drinks,” he asked. “The machine’s around the corner.”
Lily watched the ice cascade into the plastic bucket. She wondered if she was crazy as she returned to his room. “Shut the door,” he said to her. “The air conditioning will work better.” He motioned to the bed. “Sit down,” he said. She perched on the edge of the bed, back rigid, legs still. She watched him pour a can of Coke and some Barcardi into two amber glasses. He turned around and handed her a drink. “Cheers,” he said, clicking his glass with hers.
Lily took a big sip of her drink. It was strong and sweet. He watched her as she drank. “You’re pretty,” he said. “It’s the first thing I noticed about you, how pretty you were.” Lily felt her face get hot. She smiled and stared at the worn carpet. She didn’t want to look at him.
He hopped up and paced around the room. “I’m glad we met,” he said. “I travel through here once a week, and it gets boring. I don’t have anyone to talk to. I got lucky, because tonight I have you.” He sipped his drink. “A pretty girl to talk to.”
Lily finished her drink. She began to feel more relaxed around him, less self-counscious. “Want another?” he asked.
“One more,” Lily said. “One more, then I have to go home.” He handed her a drink and sat down beside her on the bed. He brushed her hair away from her neck and kissed her cheek. “Are you married?” she asked, kissing him back.
“Yes,” he said. “Do you care?”
Lily thought about it for a few minutes. “No,” she said. She thought she should care, but couldn’t remember why. “I don’t think I do,” she said as he unbuttoned her dress. She took another drink and helped him unhook her bra. Jim leaned over and switched off the light on the small table next to the bed.
After that night, Lily began seeing Jim once a week as he drove back and forth to Las Vegas. She started paying more attention to her clothes, buying things she thought he might like. He began buying her bras and underwear for her to wear when they were together, and other things Lily liked like silver bracelets and matching earrings.
She looked forward to seeing him on Sunday nights. He would leave San Bernardino after dinner and arrive in Barstow a few hours later. Lily would dress up for her shift at the gas station store. By seven, Lily would have a stomach ache from the anticipation of seeing him. He would pull up in his little red car, get gas and pick up some Coke. After Tom arrived, Lily would leave thought the back door and walk to the Route 66 Hotel on the side streets so nobody would see her.
Lily was so happy she met Jim. She knew he was the best thing that ever happened to her. She forgot how bored she was, and put off all decisions about her future. The only thing Lily planned for was the next time she would see Jim. He never called her and it never occurred to her to call him. She would just wait for Sunday night when he arrived. Lily thought he was the smartest, funniest, handsomest person she ever met. She liked everything about him, his teasing, he talking about all the problems he had at work, the way he kissed her when he was undressing her to have sex.
At the end of of August, Lily got ready for her shift. She put on the white dress Jim liked, and the necklace and earrings he gave her a few weeks ago that he had bought in Las Vegas. The hours dragged as Lily waited for Jim to arrive. Tom relieved her at 8:00. Jim hadn’t showed up. Lily wondered if anything was wrong. She waited at the gas station until 9:00, then decided to go to the hotel to see if he had arrived and she missed him drive by.
When she got to the hotel parking lot, Lily saw the Miata parked in front of Jim’s regular room. She was relieved that nothing had happened to him. Lily knocked and Jim opened the door with the chain still on. “Jim, who is it?” Lily heard a woman call from the bathroom. Jim shook his head and motioned Lily away. “Wrong room,” Jim responded, slamming the door.
Lily ran from the hotel to her house as fast as she could. Tears ran down her face as she fumbled with her keys. “Lily, is that you,” she heard her mom ask from the living room. “You’re home early.”
“I’m not feeling good, Mom,” Lily said. “I think I’m getting sick. I’m going to lay down in my room for a while.”