Driving across the border from Nebraska into Wyoming, the old coal lines broken, sage overtaking the rails.
Driving back, leaving one state in the rear view mirror—a line of badly painted clouds in a poor attempt at being random leads us towards another. All of this so much closer than it appears. All of this aching.
My daughter is half asleep in the back seat, her eyes focused on her Monster High video rather than the antelope we pass along the rocky side of the road.
The grass browns as we leave; we trade humidity for the dry winds we remember.
It’s eight months since I filled my daughter with the false hope of a female president. How sure I was then, how less afraid for her I was. I was naive. I didn’t know how quickly we could slide towards an overt sort of hatred, how people in her own family would embrace things like using these words that we thought we would never hear again, words that attacked people we were teaching our daughter to love.
The air cools. We take the straight line across nowhere, watch pick-up trucks leave dust trails in the distance as they roar through their fields. Cows cluster near anywhere they can find water, their deep brown and white patterns dotting the landscape.
We spent the fourth with my wife’s sister, with her daughter. Watching the girls laugh, watching the colors of fire reflect in their thirsty eyes. Our daughter is solo, an only. When I take her back like this, across the state line, away from her cousin, I feel that. The weight of it. How we’ve left her to deal with this loneliness. How our choices affect her even when we pretend they won’t. It’s a sneaky kind of guilt that worms its way in from time to time, this parenthood thing. I watch the world she will inherit pass us by through the car window. Maybe it’s the emptiness of this landscape, but it feels like a promise more bleak today than the day she was born. What does this dry earth around us know of kindness?
She quietly sings along to her video.
Two billboards on an otherwise lonely plot of land. The first: “Choose life: Your mother did.” The second: “Stay where the true cowpokes stay.” Each heavily features the red white and blue in some way.
Sporadic traffic through the hills, past livestock and burnt firework remnants, past bighorns and rusting car husks beside the empty streambeds. An American flag, mostly tatters, over barbed wire. I linger on it a moment, choose not to see this as an omen.
How often true, these sad clichés of the American west.
Months ago, we decided not to talk politics in front of our daughter anymore. Living blue in a state this red tends to leave one angry and defeated much of the time. It’s not that we don’t want her to see us feeling defeated. We just don’t want her to always see us feeling that way. It’s hard to talk to her about a lot of what is going on in the country right now, the way people are walling themselves off, creating an “other” anywhere they can. It’s hard to talk about any of this without scaring her, without her knowing we are scared for her. We want her to have a carefree childhood, to be proud and open about whomever she chooses to love. We want that love to sustain her, want her to love hard, to be loved—beyond this lonely landscape, this life.
Half-empty train cars lumber along past Lusk, the tracks mirroring the meandering and lifeless highway, red Solo cups collected against fences. A faded map catches a breeze and alights as we pass, a tri-fold butterfly. Quiet snoring overtakes the mumbled singing from the backseat. Her head gently bounces along with the road, unaware of anything passing us by.
Driving back into Wyoming, the plaintive insistent barking of a dog somehow follows us for miles.
Driving back, leaving behind. We are tired. We are just that haunted.
C.C. Russell has published his poetry and prose in such journals as The Meadow, New York Quarterly, The Colorado Review, and Whiskey Island among others. He has been nominated for several Pushcart prizes and for Best of the Net and will be included in Best Microfiction 2020. He lives in Wyoming with a couple of humans and several cats. You can find more of his work at ccrussell.net
Artwork by: Mark Vegera