Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by Jeffrey Douglas

Aliens and Rock Slides

The boy was ten, and he stood two hundred feet below the Arizona surface. He was by his mom in a group of people looking at a cavern wall lit orange by a row of ground lights illuminating a grid of cross-hatched scratches from some enormous creature that had fallen into the cavern, into the dark, and spent the last days of its life clawing at the wall for a way out.

The guide in her green shorts and tan shirt said, “Now we’re going to show you how disorientating the dark of the Carlsbad Caverns can be. Do not panic; the lights will be out for only five seconds.”

Quiet passed over the group of underground aliens. The boy’s mom held him close. His brother and sister stood near. Across the cavern room, he saw his dad looking up at the scratches on the wall. The lights went out.

The week-and-a-half road trip across the southwest had left the boy much time to watch the distinct and distant figures of his parents in the front seat, who both looked out at the endless passing scenes of plains and deserts of long shadows and falling sun, which the boy shared with them, though looked at from the back seat of the Suburban, where he continuously took headphones and a cassette player from the head of his sleeping brother and listened to Snoop Dogg’s album Doggystyle. He remembered wondering what the rappers meant when they referenced putting objects in girls' mouths.

He does not remember where, but somewhere on the network of dirt roads and empty gravel highways, he pieced it together.

He will remember the Grand Canyon as a hole extending off into the sun. And he saw a deer with dark eyes on a path down below him.

He will remember seeing True Lies at a small but crowded movie theatre in a small town and his brother saying, “If everyone in town is at the movie theatre, who’s watching the bank?” The boy had laughed.

He will remember thinking in the backseat, as the barren landscape continuously passed his window, that he could not, and still can’t, remember a time when his parents seemed to love each other.

He will remember somewhere in Arizona at a river with a network of natural veins like slides spreading down the rock walls, his dad trying to avoid the twenty-five dollars parking cost and parking the Suburban on the thin highway. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, he threw the Suburban into drive and sped down the highway.

The mom shouted, “If it was a train station or some military landmark, Roj, you would have busted your ass to see it! But because you didn’t want to be there, because you didn’t care, it means nothing to you.”

I didn’t want to slide into the river that bad, thought the boy.

He wanted the headphones, but they were on his awake brother’s head. The sister looked out the side window. The boy watched them all in the silence, the passing trees reporting distance traveled. Until, when there was a possibility for a U-turn, the dad turned the Suburban around while the mom said, “Forget it, Roj! Just forget it.” But the dad turned around, and drove back and paid the twenty-five dollars and parked.

From the silent car, they watched people walk toward the river wearing swimsuits and smiles and sunglasses, carrying coolers and towels and bottles of sun block.

The dad got out first, shutting the car door hard and walking toward the river. The brother and sister went after him. The mom said, “I’m not getting out.” The boy stayed too. After a short time, he asked if she wanted to go to the water. She said, "No."

He looked toward the river and could see the end of the parking lot, where people stood at the water’s edge or sat on towels or swam. He could see his brother trying to push his sister in the water. He could not see his dad.

He asked the mom again. She had her dark glasses on, which, he later realized, meant she was crying. And she wiped her nose, sniffled, and said, “Okay.”

They went to the back of the Suburban to get towels and sun block, and the mom put on a floppy blue hat. The boy asked if he could wear it, and she gave it to him. He put it on, but when it didn’t make her laugh, he gave it back.

They walked to the water, the boy mentally remarking every sniffle of his mother. When they came close to the river, he ran to the bank's edge and dipped his toes in the cool water. Near him, sitting chest deep in the water were two fat guys with glasses and gold chains, both holding silver beer cans. To the boy they looked like hairy pale frogs. One said, “Gonna jump in?”

The boy shook his head and turned to his mom who was walking toward him, carrying a set of towels.

“Where’s your brother and sister?”

“I don’t know, Mom.”

He stood near her and looked at the people standing on the banks like curious birds, or lying on the rocks like large lizards, or sliding through the rocks like the water itself, flowing to the deep, fast river.

He saw his dad on a rock across the river, sitting near a winding, smooth indent people were sliding down. A lady in a red bathing suit had stopped sliding, and was trying to push herself, but wasn’t going anywhere. The dad went to her and began helping her move down the slide. The boy said, “Look, Mom, Dad’s pushing that lady.”

“Well, if he’d get out of the way,” said the mom, then turned and kept walking down the bank.

The lady slid the rest of the way, and then fell flailing into the river. The boy watched his dad sit on the rock and rest his elbows on his knees.

He wasn’t in the way, thought the boy.

And he does not remember leaving the river.

He remembers an Indian city cut into the side of a mountain.

He remembers the snoopy rock against a sea green sky, which high up on its hill, looked like Snoopy with that yellow bird on its nose.

He does not remember coming home to the suburbs of Long Beach.

He does remember, on the first day of the trip, looking past his headphoned brother and his window-gazing sister, noting with interest that his parents were speaking civilly in the front seat. And later that first day, when the boy was in the car alone with his mom, the others inside the gas station of some empty desert, he said, “You and Dad are actually talking.”

She looked back at him and said, “We’ve always talked, where’ve you been?”

He does remember, at ten years old, not believing her.

And he remembers when the light in the caverns came back on, his dad was looking up at the scratched wall, his brother and sister were looking up into the dark ceiling, his mom’s hands were around his shoulders and crossed on his chest. And at the prompt of the guide, they all began their ascent.

BIO:  Jeffrey Douglas was born and raised in Long Beach, California. In this city he can be seen walking with a back pack and head phones. It is also where he is a first year MFA: Fiction student at Cal State Long Beach. His short stories have appeared in multiple issues of Vulcan: A Literary Dis-Allusion, 14 Hills Literary Journal, The Main Street Rag, and Verdad. When not walking around the city and noting the more hilarious and enduring scenes of life around Long Beach, he will respond to E-mails sent to Metalwrecker1@aol.com.