Fiction | Short Story

Quiet People

The wind wailed outside the car windows that night like it did when Dad drove eighty miles an hour on an unbent road. I was still buckled into the back seat, next to Shelly’s car seat, waiting. The car had stopped but Mom and Dad weren’t moving to get out. They just sat there staring […]

wind wailed outside the car windows that night like it did when Dad drove
eighty miles an hour on an unbent road. I was still buckled into the back seat,
next to Shelly’s car seat, waiting. The car had stopped but Mom and Dad weren’t
moving to get out. They just sat there staring straight ahead, as if they
expected something to happen right there in the headlights, a curtain to rise
and the show to begin. I kept quiet, like I usually did. In moments like this,
if I asked a question, they wouldn’t answer me anyway.

            Finally, the car light came on and Mom’s door opened, the
black wind rushing in. All of us looked yellow in the glow, even Shelly who was
normally china white or bright pink, purple when she cried. I stayed still, my
hands in my lap, the seat belt holding me in, the car rocking slightly in the
throb of the wind. Mom pushed herself out, the night outside swallowing her up,
and then her door crashed shut. Black out. The headlights bright again, I saw a
picnic table looking back blankly through the windshield. I remember it had a
strange nakedness, like a body stripped, like it was nothing until we put our
supplies and metal and paper on it, and made it our own.

            I could see the barbecue pit, charred blacker than black,
and empty. The last fire had burned everything away. It looked like a hole in
the earth.

            I could hear Mom unzip the pack on the roof of the car,
feel her tug at its skin, wrenching it open. She was looking for the tent.
Dad’s door opened, the spotlight again, yellow like old sun, the gush of wind,
and then Dad was gone too. The door slammed, the light snapped everything shut,
and Shelly and I were left in the car alone.

            I peeked around the side of the car seat at Shelly’s
face, cupped in the fuzzy neck of her sweatshirt that said “Calico” across the
front in brown, gluey letters. She was asleep and seemed far away from where
her little body sunk into pink and blue and yellow upholstery, where her
peach-like head met the side of the seat. She was still so new. I couldn’t tell
if she recognized me when she opened her eyes and I was there looking back. I
couldn’t tell if I was a brother yet.

            Mom’s highlights gleamed in streaks of brown and gold,
the coat she wore bundled about her like someone hugged her from behind. Her
arms flared out all of a sudden and something flashed above her head, solid
blue. It was the tarp. Mom was trying to lay it down, but each time she raised
her arms and flapped the stiff stuff up, it bended and tumbled off to the right,
pulling her along with it. I almost thought she would fall and kept my eyes
right on her in case I lost sight of her, in case she got blown out of range of
the headlights.

            Dad came to help. I could see his head poke up at the
other end of the tarp, facing the car. His eyes squinted behind his glasses
that filled now and then with a white glare, chalking out everything between
the dark rims. His face was blank, except when he made a slight grimace with
his mouth, as if fighting an enormous weight. Then he seemed to smile but it
was a sarcastic smile, tight and bitter. He shook his head.

            Mom didn’t shake her head. She didn’t even seem to look
up at him, but kept her head tipped down. She had a large rock in her right
palm now, ready to pummel the tarp once she had it wrestled to the ground.

            Shelly gurgled something in her sleep. It sounded like
“teepee,” like she was dreaming of wild canyons in the olden days, with cowboys
and Indians chasing each other on horseback across vast red earth. I wondered
if she could see all that in her head somehow, something too big for what she
could then put into words. Earlier that day I had been playing with the cowboy
dolls Mom bought me at the gift shop in Calico, the second ghost town we would
visit that summer, the one that kept being called “the best preserved.” I must
have used Shelly’s car seat as a plateau or rocky incline. I thought maybe that
was why she would dream of teepees. 

            Or maybe it hadn’t been “teepee,” I thought moments
later. Maybe she had said, “Take me,” which at the time made me think she
really was trying to tell me what she needed. She seemed wise all of a sudden,
and I wanted to wrench the cowboy and the Indian and the teepee out from under
her seat to keep her dreaming.

            I didn’t know how to talk to Shelly yet. Even her name
still sounded funny coming out of my mouth. I almost wanted to wait a few years
for when she could talk somewhat normally, then she and I would enter into
conversation. As it was, I didn’t talk much to anyone. My parents had always
just let the music play, especially on our car trips, when there would be hour
upon hour of nothing but scratchy songs, engine noise, and the occasional skip
in the road like a short, sharp word. Sometimes they’d leave the radio off, and
if it wasn’t too hot, roll the windows down so our ears could fill with a
smooth, soft howl of even desert air, something not quite fresh because it was
so old, had been baking for centuries before we rushed through it. I loved
those moments, when the three of us seemed to soak up so much stillness at
eighty miles an hour. Everything was even, smooth, like I would only listen to
this one sound forever.

            People would make comments about my parents back at home.
It was usually after a Little League game or a day trip somewhere like the zoo
with a friend. And it would be my friend who would first whisper to me, “They
don’t talk much, do they, your parents?” I would just shrug and look away. I
wouldn’t have noticed anything different about my parents that day. Then when our
car pulled into the friend’s driveway and he got out and gave his mom a hug, I
would hear him make a whispering sound as the car backed up and hear the mom
reply something like, “Well, they’re just quiet people, honey, that’s all.”

            When Shelly was born we all held our breath. What would
she be? Would she screech and cry through the night, beat her fists against her
chest, cough up balls of newborn anger? We did not know what to expect from the
addition to the family; we did not know if she would respect our ways. I
scrawled her a letter in my chubby second-grade handwriting, pleading with the
unborn fetus bulging out of my Mom’s stomach “not to keep us up at night, or
make Mom tired, ‘cause she works so hard and likes to watch her mystery show in
peace.” I folded up the letter as small as I could, to about the size I thought
would fit in the unborn Shelly’s hand, and tucked it into Mom’s pocket, thinking
somehow it would find its way inside her body.

            But she must not have gotten the letter because the day
Shelly April was born, the world that had been our house was turned upside
down. Uncle Tom was there and he was laughing and shaking his head, saying the
baby had cried all the way from the hospital and here she was home and in her
new crib and she was still crying, crying her brains out. I remember Uncle
Tom’s round, blond face, and the soft laugh he was making, while all along
there was this high-pitched wail coming from upstairs, piercing the walls. Mom
and Dad must have been up there with it, trying to figure out what to do, and
Uncle Tom was downstairs standing around with me, shaking his head, laughing,
getting ready to head back to the hotel so he could get some rest.

            I didn’t see Mom for a few days after Shelly was born. I
just remember the beet-red face poking out of some blankets in Dad’s arms, the
wide-open mouth releasing a rhythm of noise. It came out raw and mechanical,
like when I revved up one of my motorcycle toys with a string. The way the jaws
stretched apart, I thought she’d be getting ready to yelp like an Indian in the
cowboy movies, high and clear, the kind of sound that carried throughout
canyons. But what would come was rough and scratchy, layered somehow with more
than one voice, three or four maybe, voices that must have all been hers at
that point, auditioning to be her sound. I used to think she had someone else
in her, someone who made her scream like that, and then turned her screams up
like they do through the pipes of an organ, like at the end of church service
when the lady turns the volume up and just lets the monstrous instrument play.

            On the way from a ghost town called Genessee to Calico
that summer there were times when Dad had to stop the car the screaming got so
loud. I would look over at Shelly and see the tears bubbling up in the corners
of her eyes and wonder what would happen if the seat belt just all of sudden
unhooked itself and the desert wind up and took her away out the open car
window. What would happen after that? I would sit with my hands wrapped tightly
around a pair of cowboy and Indian dolls and just look at her and wonder.

            The night we arrived in Bodie it was past two o’clock in
the morning and we were all exhausted. Even Shelly was sleeping. Dad seemed to
drive in neutral into the campground, like we were sneaking up on it. I
remember how the other tents looked in our headlights, their shells zipped
tight against the wind. They made me think of women’s wire skirts from way back
when, the way they seemed to move on their own, nothing human in them.

            Through the windshield I watched Mom lean on one of the
tent poles, her shiny hair whipping around and slapping her face. The tent was
this great, wobbling mass behind her, bowing and curling above her head. Dad
must have been somewhere on the other side, but in that moment there was no
trace of him and it seemed like it was up to Mom to finish the job.

            I turned my head and pressed my face up close to the
glass of the car window. I could see there were stars far above, and hundreds
of them. I had forgotten we were practically in the desert, just a few miles
out, where the sky is the biggest and the clearest, the desert its own
self-contained dome. In Calico that day I had looked up and saw nothing but
blue, thick and heavy, like no blue I had seen before. Everything on the ground
was a reddish tan color, the houses, the dusty storefronts, the streets, the
mining pits. It seemed like the town had been coated with preservative, some
chemical that kept everything just as it had been left a hundred years earlier,
and all one color. “Why didn’t the people come back?” I asked Mom, squinting up
at her sunglasses, rocks and old wood reflected in them. She just shrugged her
shoulders, shook her head.

            I walked with Mom while Dad carried Shelly a few paces
back. Mom and I had stopped turning around to wait for them. It didn’t seem to
make Shelly quit crying. Dad had even stopped patting her back through the
carrier strapped onto his stomach. His arms dangled at his sides, making the
baby clinging there look like it was sucking the life out of him. Her screaming
echoed through the streets, which, though they were the streets of a ghost
town, were bustling with families
and women in shorts and tank tops, fanning themselves with their Calico
brochures, their kids clasped onto their shoulders or running down the old
wooden sidewalks with invisible pistols in their palms. Shelly made them stop
and stare as if they’d seen a ghost. She cried and cried and each time her
wailing seemed to come from far off somewhere in the hills, like she was some
baby abandoned in one of the mines, left for dead.

            Mom took me into the gift shop and after a while Dad came
in and joined us. Shelly was gone. Even the carrier no longer clutched his
middle. He looked like he had never fathered a second child, like it was just
the three of us again, and I was again their only burden.

            “What did you do with Shelly, Dad?” He pointed out the
window and my eyes followed to where a sign across the road read “Child Care
Center.” The sign was made to look like any of the other signs in Calico, as if
it had been there with them all of these years. The door, too, looked like the
other doors, pale and ragged, the windows warped and yellowed.

            “You left her in there? With a babysitter?” Mom and Dad
were looking at each other. Dad nodded. “When are we going to pick her up?” Mom
took my hand and led me to the cash register.

            I remember moments of that afternoon as if they happened
this morning. Dad was wearing a dark green Izod shirt and white shorts to the
tops of his thighs. He had on running shoes and the tiny running socks that
barely show. His beard was long and trim, and it sparkled in the sunshine. Mom
was in shorts too, and a peach-colored tank top. Her hair was pulled back in a
ponytail, making her sunglasses look even larger. The three of us walked to the
nearest empty street and ducked in. We followed each other into the shadows,
bending to peer inside the hundred-year-old windows. Everything had been left
just as it had been the day of the fire. There were livery tools laid out in
the stables, doctor’s utensils set in preparation for the next patient, even a
table setting anticipating supper. I would look into each darkened chamber,
each dim corridor, searching for a trace of someone trapped inside, someone left
behind and preserved just like everything else.

            We hiked up into the mines, where we could take rides in
the mining cars and sidle along the piles of reddish rock that once had been
hills. I expected to find a scrap of metal, cloth, a hand or a foot poking out,
something, anything that hadn’t been uncovered yet. Mom and Dad looked too and
the only sounds we could hear were the creaks and scratches of another mining
car making its way up the track.

            The summer before, we had taken a trip to Glacier National
Park and the three of us had hiked around all day in the white glare of ice and
rock, our breath white furry streams of air. Mom was six months pregnant, but
didn’t say a word about not being able to hike. She never got tired either. Dad
and I had started to complain about our feet before she did. Back in the car,
our skin burning from the white reflection, Mom didn’t even rub her belly as I
had seen her do so many times before. She sat in the front seat with one arm on
the door handle, the other limp along the side of her thigh.

            In Calico that day, while Shelly remained with a babysitter,
we sat and ate lunch at a picnic table in the shade of a few young trees. The
sound of the branches sifting the wind was wonderful and calming. I looked up
and watched the leaves spin on their stems, beating the light. The wood of the
table felt cool and soft and after I ate I put my cheek to its surface and
closed my eyes. Everything in Calico, whether it was part of the real ghost
town or not, felt like it was inhabited by the same sense of quiet, a kind of
populated abandonment. Things still seemed to move and breath, just beneath the

            I don’t remember much more about the rest of the day,
except that the three of us took one more tour around and walked down a street
we hadn’t been on yet. At the end of it there was a white schoolhouse that was
also the church. A rusted cross poked up from a squat steeple. It looked thin
and sharp against the blue, like a piece of wire fence transfixed in the sky.
The walls of the schoolhouse were peeled and gray, and the windows were
black-blue holes impossible to see through.

            We looked in anyway. The three of us were determined to
see everything inside this town. We wanted to imagine that the insides were
still living, even making sounds we couldn’t hear. We were all as quiet as
possible, holding our breaths. Somehow the sounds would be heard.

            When Dad put Shelly in her car seat an hour later the sun
was setting and she, miraculously, stayed fast asleep. I wondered if the childcare
people had done something to fix her. Her eyelids looked sewn shut. We didn’t
say a word getting in the car and snapping on our seat belts. We wanted her to
keep on sleeping, sleeping sleeping sleeping, so we wouldn’t have to stop. It
was a long drive to Bodie.

watched Dad walk around the tent, hammering in the metal stakes. The earth must
have been dry and ungiving because each time he bent a plume of dirt splashed
into the headlights, specks of it catching and carrying the light up into the sky.
The tent, though now secure, still trembled and kicked, flapping its roof
covering like wings. Mom, circling, fastened the covering down to each stake.
Our roof for the night was almost complete.

            Just then I heard a roar that started a long way off, but
within seconds it was pounding on the side of the car. The wind, like a giant
invisible tumbleweed collecting more wind and sound as it came, rushed in for
what seemed a final assault. It hit the side of the car and nearly lifted it
up. I felt the tires lighten, the whole back seat vibrate, making me bounce.
Shelly still did not move. I looked to see the tent get punched in the side,
the whole roof curl over, and one of the stakes, like a knife, hurdle through
the air. The sides of the tent bubbled and collapsed like thin skin over a
dying heart. Mom and Dad stood still, heads bent, bracing themselves with the

            The sound was so loud, so enormous, I didn’t hear Shelly
wake up and start to cry. I only noticed when I turned my head and saw her
mouth open wide and wet, her lips vibrating with her high-pitched wail. Her
tiny fists beat the air and I thought she would bring them to her cheeks like
an old woman, try to pull her hair out. I was struck with awe at the way her
body took hold of the wind outside, the wind that had begun to occupy the
inside of the car, possessing our ears. I was paralyzed with fear, but Shelly
seemed to grow in that moment, throwing her little baby cry into the great wide
universe outside.

            When the wind died, Shelly did not stop crying. Her cry
just kept streaming out of her, steady and clear, invisible. I started to hear
a word in it. It sounded like, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Like she was calling to someone
across a wide-open field with nothing but grass and sky and clouds for miles and
miles. I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself there with her, except I
was the one she was calling to, waving her tiny arms above her head. I was
walking and walking and then running as fast as I could across the grass trying
to reach her but she was too far away and getting farther the more I ran. Then
I looked back and realized that I was not running to her but away from her.

            I don’t remember the car door opening and Dad unlatching
the seat belt and taking me in his arms. Suddenly, I was inside the tent. The
dome of it seemed endlessly high up, the space enormous. I could hear Mom’s
breathing somewhere off to the left, and when I turned my head I could see the
edges of Dad’s beard rising and falling. I lifted my head. My eyes rolled along
the dark bunches of bags and blankets lining the inside of the tent. And then I
realized she was missing.

            I don’t know how long I stopped breathing but I remember
feeling a pounding in my chest, my eyes wide, glued to the opposite wall of the
tent. From somewhere worlds and worlds away came one steady, rhythmic sound.
One word repeated over and over and over. First it sounded like, “Hey! Hey!
Hey!” And then, ever so slowly, my chest quieting, my breath still, I heard it
say, “Help! Help! Help!”

            I lay there for the rest of the night, listening to that
far-off scream. I wanted it to be over, for the sun to come back and expose all
of the sounds for what they were. The night was hiding things, and before long
they would be gone forever. Before long, the wind would pick up again and carry
Shelly off, veiling her voice with its own. No one would know. Just the three
of us here in the dark, with this one sound in our ears.

the morning I heard the car door opened gently and minutes later gently closed.
I heard the tent zipped open then zipped shut. I heard a body lie down beside
me to my right, and then another placed carefully just inches from my head.