The Soup Can
Juniper Hills, California
For a guy who wanted to be Kerouac, he was just another shitty father full of rationalizations. Between the two evils; it was better to run.
The view from the ranch porch was a rugged sort of beauty. It was a sweeping desert beauty that only a certain kind of drunk-ass, deadbeat alcoholic father who’d abandoned his children to a madwoman could enjoy.
The Mojave sky was purple, pink with streaks of gold fading into another endless starry night. You could sip scotch and gaze up at for hours before you realized your neck was numb. My father loved to sit out in the dark, alone
He would sit in his chair and stare at the sky and the changing colors of his magnificent view and would sit still for hours. I never saw him smoke but he was a heavy smoker for 40 years and sometimes I would see a faint slow swirl of smoke from the Kool cigarettes he used to smoke curl around him, like ghosts from the bar that followed him from Manhattan to his new life and desert home in the Mojave. Ghost cigarettes and old stories followed him and if you waited long enough, you’d see them at twilight.
The desperate harshness of the desert mirrored his face and I never let him catch me spying on him when he was outside drinking in the dark alone, but I knew he understood this land. “You have to respect anything that survives in the desert, Morgain.” He’s say and then a low “Mmmmm..hummm..” under his breath and then sip his scotch again.
Erin and I knew he would be home soon, around dusk; coming up the long dusty drive in his beat up ’79 Honda civic hatchback; mean as poison, already drunk. Most likely he would’ve stopped by one of the many shitkicker bars he frequented on Sierra Highway before getting behind the wheel to come home.
Sometimes he was in a good mood, but sometimes he would unleash his bitterness upon us. My father was an excellent pool player. He did the trick shots in the movie “The Hustler” and was Paul Newman’s stand in when they were filming.
Whatever my Dad had tried to do by taking us in after the Feds got Mom hadn’t worked. He was too far gone in his alcoholism and was abusive, horrible and sick. By the time he said he would take us in to live with him, Erin and I were 16 and 17, sick of living in motels and living on the run with our mother. And very, very angry.
We were angry at his half-assed attempts to redeem himself. Thanks for giving us a place to stay while our Mother was in prison again. Thanks for finally stepping in 15 years too late.
At least they didn’t air the show about her on America’s Most Wanted. They Feds caught her the day before it aired.
Where the fuck was he for the last 15 years when we were going to three schools a year? Why didn’t he step in before it got to this point? He knew it was his fault. He said we were like her. We were as crazy as our mother and were going to end up losers like her.\
He liked to spout his bullshit while sipping his Johnny Walker red and staring at us through heavy lidded eyes. What about him? What part did he have in all of this? How did he sleep at night knowing his children had been living in and out of hotels and on the run all of their lives?
It was useless arguing with him, he was abusive and not a nice guy.
Erin and I debated for a long time about whether we should stay with him and deal with the abuse and have a place to live, or we could move out. I’d be eighteen in a month and find a way to get my own apartment.
Our Mother taught us not to take shit from drunk, abusive men and for the first time in my life, I realized that one of the best things my mom had ever done was to leave and not raise us to see her get abused by him. Mom might’ve been a crazy con artist, but she wasn’t a woman who was afraid to be on her own.
The problem with freedom and leaving an abuser is money. It is always money, or lack of it, that traps women. My sister and I had a plan and we had money, sort of.
We had a piece of stolen jewelry that we had hidden. A gold necklace and some other pieces we had found in a stash in Mom’s hotel room in Florida before the cops came and searched the room. We were going to pawn it on the way to New York so we could get an apartment when we got to our older sister’s house. We were going to run away.
Erin wanted to go back to the Adirondack’s, to Glens Falls were Katie lived with her husband and baby Matthew. I wanted to stay in California and save money and get our own place, we could move near the beach. I was going to be an actress and didn’t want to go to New York, but Erin and I had made a pact to stay together no matter what.
We called my semi-boyfriend, Steve, and asked him to help us escape from our Dad. He knew the situation and agreed that was should get out of there.
Steve was a Marine and came to rescue us from the isolated ranch prison high above the Mojave. Erin and I had met Steve at a party with some friends we met at Littlerock High School and after attending school in the LAUSD for two weeks and I decided I was over school. After all that I’d been through in London, I just couldn’t face pretending anymore. I wasn’t going to college and I couldn’t relate to the other kids in school.
Steve had just returned from the First Gulf War and was all fucked up from seeing death and destruction over there. He had seen his own war too. And, he was a really good looking man. Tall and tan, with light brown hair and blue eyes. He was just the kind of guy I liked. A man’s man. Built, strong, handsome, tall, considerate. He was quiet and definitely grown. He was like a cop or a fireman. These guys had seen action. He liked me and it was fun to have a guy to hang out with and drink beer and we had gone out a few times. And he had a white Mustang.
He came to Dad’s ranch and gave us a ride to the Greyhound Bus station. The bus station in Lancaster with deserted when we arrived and we had packed light. Erin and I had packed hastily, with a small suitcase each and we’d left most of our stuff behind at our Dad’s. We’d just get new stuff later, we needed to get out of California before our dad realized we’d run away.
The November desert wind sent chills on our bare arms. The big silver beast of a bus was idling, ready for the next adventure. Erin got out of the Mustang first so I could say goodbye. I looked at the bus station and thought about going back to the ranch.
After going to 28 different schools and saying goodbye to friends, I realized not to get too close to anyone. He was a Marine and military guy, he had seen things too. Guys that have been through war were guys I got along with. We understood each other.
“Everything’s going to be fine once you get to your sister’s house.” He said.
I smiled and gave him a long kiss. He was a good kisser.
That was the last I ever saw of him. I called our mutual friends a year later to find him and call him. I learned he’d driven off a cliff one night and died a few months after I left. Either by accident, PTSD or on purpose, it didn’t matter. He died and I never got to see him again.
I opened the car door, the cold desert wind hit me. I hoped the bus would leave before my Dad came pulling up, forcing us back to that prison of a mindfuck he called home.
Erin and I only had $20 in cash and it was going to be a long ride to New York. We had to make it last. We needed to pawn that gold necklace but Thanksgiving was two days away and we needed to get out of California, fast. Dad would be home soon.
We got on the bus and in two days, we were in the Midwest. We woke up at 6am and looked out of the window, there was snow and frost on the ground but we had forgotten to get out our jackets in our suitcases under the bus. Erin and I huddled together in the back of the Greyhound and looked out the windows at the cars going by and small town life.
We saw big towns and little towns go by, cars full of families and happy people, driving to see their relatives and have huge feasts and relax in their living rooms. Thanksgiving decorations fluttered and Christmas decorations were going up.
We were beginning to get hungry. We checked our cash stash and recounted it. We each had exactly one dollar. We went back to sleep and decided we would pawn the necklace in Chicago and get some food. I was seventeen, but someone would buy it from me if a pawn shop wouldn’t.
By the time we got to Chicago, we realized it was Thanksgiving day and nothing was open. We were scared and the gnawing hunger in our bellies was becoming a dull ache that we were getting used to.
We’d be in New York by tomorrow night and Katie would pick us up in Albany, so we had 24 hours to go, if the bus didn’t break down or we didn’t get stuck in snow, the other passengers told us.
We finally got off the bus for an hour break; and I couldn’t believe how cold it was inside the bus terminal. We were on a mission to find a pawnshop, and Erin and I went outside the bus station to find a pawn shop that might be open on Thanksgiving.
The air hit us first, like an icy blast of warning, as the doors from the terminal opened. When we got outside, it was so cold the wind bit through our souls. It was colder than London in winter.
The wind blew through the tall skyscrapers and made an eerie sound. It was like a deranged animal in a trap howling in your ear. The streets were empty. It was Thanksgiving Day. People were at their warm homes with their families. I thought about my Mom’s sisters and her sisters and my cousins and their families.
I bet they were eating turkey and onion soup and watching the Macy’s parade.
Erin looked at me and the wind was howling. We couldn’t walk a block in this weather, we forgot our fucking jackets and our stuff was under the bus and the driver had taken off for an hour. Erin shouted to me over the rush of air, “It’s fucking freezing! We have to go back inside!”
I looked at her and laughed, “Run!!” and we both hightailed it back inside the Greyhound bus station, where it now was suddenly warm and toasty inside compared to the iciness of downtown Chicago.
We trudged our way through the emptiness of the weird green light of the bus terminal. There were a lot of homeless people were snoozing on benches and some were reading. The Libraries were closed today. It was too cold outside for anyone. Even crazy people.
We were still shaking from the cold as we walked up to the vending machines and we were trying to decide what we were going to eat. We still had our dollars.
Erin wanted Tomato soup. The old machines were full of crappy looking old junk food with faded wrappers and mostly empty.
The florescent light above us cast a greenish glow over the glass.
We could see our reflections. Two young starving girls in a bus station in Chicago on Thanksgiving. No coats. No food, no money. Family blown apart. I tried not to think about it. How did we end up here?
There was a small Campbell’s soup can with a peel back lid in that old rusty machine, but it looked dented and old. I saw her eyeing the soup. There was a microwave nearby.
“Don’t get it, it looks old” I told her. Always the older sister.
“I want something hot and this is going to be good.” she said.
I looked at the soup can. It was small and the label was faded; it was also the last one.
“Dude, just get the snickers bar. Chocolate doesn’t go bad.” I said.
She gave me that funny look that means she’s not backing down.
“I’m getting the hot, creamy, tomatoey soup and it’s going to be good. We can share.” She looked at me, smiling.
I plunked my quarters in first.“ Okay, I’ll get the snickers and we’ll have soup and dessert.”
The first bite was good, but I wanted to make it last. We’d been living on mostly fear and cigarettes for the last 2 days. This was a different kind of starving.
She plunked her last quarters into the machine and pressed the buttons. Out popped the soup can.
She grabbed it and pulled up the ring and pulled back the tin lid.
Inside was a moldy mess of green and brownish liquid. She stared in disbelief, but not me. I knew fate was out to get us. She jeered at me in my head. You think you can outrun me?
We were stunned and defeated but when we got on the bus, we snuggled in our seats in the back of the bus and shared that last little candy bar. We tried to make the best of it. We were still together and still sisters and still safe from our Mom and Dad.
One Snickers bar to share for the rest of the ride to New York. It was going to be a long 24 hours. One more day and we’ll be safe with our older sister. One more day and we’ll never have to feel this way again.