Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 15 • Fall 2005 • Featured Writer • Fiction

An excerpt from
Crashing America

Katia Noyes

Northern Nebraska jumped with green. The grassy crops sparkled as if the sun had licked each leaf and stalk. Everything needing sun to grow and everything getting it. It was July and it was hot and it was magnificent.

"What a spread." I had the wheel and hadn't said anything for a while, so I said something lame.

Jessika bounced her colorful body about, as restless as I was to leave the car. "You could say that. I mean it goes on. And on."

To get ready for our trip, she chopped off some of her flame-colored hair, and the remainder sprang up like she'd been plugged into an electric socket. With her ragged sparkly blue nails, her big flying body, and her godspeedy old orange Toyota, she was everything I needed.

Jessika and I used maps to get our states straight, but otherwise we liked never knowing where we were heading. Things were working out. I might not have my famileee, but at least I had my kooky dancer.

We were on a grid and I could imagine it from a plane, one square after another. Don't end, I thought. Nebraska was definitely my favorite place so far.

Jessika pointed to the county road ahead. "Take it. It's getting stranger and stranger. I can't stand it."

I grinned. "Telling me what to do again."

As the flatness took over the horizon, the green came tumbling more and more. I turned off where Jessika wanted.

At the side of the narrow road, wild grasses bent in loose crimson arcs. Harvested hay lay heaped in miles of rows, and piles of corncobs dried in open containers. Dark silos poked high into the sky. Then at last. The first of them. About two feet high. I stopped the car.


The stalks grew in long bunches. The leaves branched from the base in limp dark green, and at the top, fronds waved around like soft, fuzzy antennas. I wanted to leave the car and walk among them, but fences contained everything. There was no place to go and curl up into it all.

"I feel so empty," I said. "In a good way."

At last I found us a town, and we parked near Pizza Dog Heaven Café. Jessika scooped up her spotted leopard purse, I got my blue carrybag, we each tucked a sleeping bag under an arm, and we were finally out in the air. We walked by the Swinging Doors Lounge and a tiny American Legion Hall. I was a little dizzy and plucked-out from not eating, but I had to get to know the land around us. It couldn't be just a view from the car anymore.

Jessika came along behind. She could keep a pretty good pace even with her leg. In a couple minutes we were out of town. Without talking, I crossed over to another old county road. Number 54.

We had talked a lot of wild stuff on our trip, but now, finally, we were talked out. We walked for about fifteen minutes, until I saw Jessika really dragging herself. I stopped. The fields were still except for one thing: a machine rolling across a cornfield and getting closer and closer to us.

The monster machine blew something from a funnel at its rear. It traveled in a straight line away from the horizon and toward us. We hid our sleeping bags in the drainage ditch and watched.

The summer twilight lasted forever. It smelled like hay, and I knew it would be beyouteefull to sleep in the fields. People had been telling us that it was usually hotter by the beginning of July, but it seemed plenty hot to me, just right really.

We waited for the huge tractor-thing to come face us. Glass enclosed the driver, and we saw only a strange, blue reflection where he must be sitting. As the machine crawled closer it paused at the edge of the row, rose a few feet and hovered, exposing the parts underneath -- like a robot insect showing its legs. We waved. A human being appeared, tilting from the enclosure, poking out an arm and a head. An old guy with headphones and a cigarette stuck in his mouth. His robot-arm saluted, slow and steady. Then his machine turned and left.

Free from the spell, we shook our heads and howled.

Pizza Dog Heaven Café was the largest building in Mars and empty except for two girls drinking Cokes in the corner. Jessika and I sat near the huge windows, almost on top of the highway. We'd left our sleeping bags hidden in the field and come back to town to get some food.

One of the high school kids asked if we were in a band.

"She plays guitar." Jessika jackhammered her platform shoe into the floor; her own private drumroll. "And I'm a Hollywood actress."

"I was in California once and saw the Hollywood sign." The girl who spoke bounced in her seat and her strawberry hair bobbed against her cheeks. We found out her name was Melanie.

"I like your tattoo," said the other girl, called Bo. Black eyeliner oozed from her eyes and her emaciated body was draped in a T-shirt that said Omaha Skillet-Throw. My type of kid.

"Don't listen to Jessika. She's in fantasyland. I look the way I do cause I don't want to be part of your regular American world," I said. "Hey, Bo. Try to put something over on me."

"What do you mean?" She and Melanie came over and sat at our booth.

"I mean you can't."

The girls liked that a lot.

The fleshy waitress nodded at everything and smiled, hovering at the edge of our table. She was big as a pile of pillows, and starved for company. Her white shirt was stuffed down in front but hung out in back. I let her run her hand over my mane and examine my dragon tattoo.

Feeling tired of being on display, and tired of our long night-day-night of traveling, I went to the phone near the restroom and called my granddad collect. He wasn't around.

When I sat back down, the kids asked where I was from. I told them San Francisco. They couldn't hide their glee.

"Everyone here hates us. We aren't part of anything you could call regular," said Melanie, the cute one.

Bo, the ghost, said everyone in town called them the druggies. We asked if there were any farmers around and they said there weren't many. Everyone worked in the Blue Basket factory making Caramel Fudge Bomb-Pops.

"What about these fields?" I asked. "These tower-things with corn in them? Somebody has to be doing the work."

"It's all done by machines." They laughed in a deep, bitter way, like I could imagine their parents doing.

"What about that?" I said to Jessika. "Here we are in Nebraska, the All-American Heartland."

"Woof, woof." They turned their hands into limp paws and rolled their tongues to the sides of their mouths.

"Woof," I said joining in their private joke for the hell of it.

Jessika flattened her drinking straw with her back teeth, chewing further and further, till I thought she would choke. "Come on? Really? Where's the farmer's daughters?"

"Well, yeah," said Bo. "If we went to San Francisco, people there would think we were all farmers." She jutted her chin out over the table. "I'd say, 'Screw you.'" The girls smirked as if they had won my challenge and gotten one over on us.

"Well, you think we're all a bunch of queers, right?" I said.

"No, no. Not at all." Their eyes got big and respectful.

Jessika howled. "All right then. Do you have anything?" Jessika looked at Bo. "I want to get iced."

They went to the bathroom and did who knows what. I munched my curling grease-cup of a hamburger. Melanie smoked. She was desperate to know about my scene but didn't want to seem too curious.

When they came back, Jessika's eyes and skin were lit with energy and she wouldn't stop talking about Sioux City and how she would get a job there. Sioux City was all the way in Iowa, but she said it wasn't much further than Bonesteel, right on the border of Nebraska and Iowa and South Dakota, where the rivers meet. This was the first I'd heard about her plan. We were supposed to be heading straight to Randa's farm.

Jessika said Joey had a friend who could get her a job stripping.

"Taking your clothes off?" said Bo.

"Why not?"

"So you want men to look at you?" I said.

Jessika shook the ice in my water glass and took some out and licked it. "Why not? We need the money."

"What about Jesus?" I asked.

The girls laughed, thinking I was the religious one and pulling the Christian card out on the table.

"Jesus can look, too!" Bo and Melanie pounded the table so hard that the silverware shook.

"Jesus Freaks A-Go-Go," I joined in. "Fifty bucks and we will pray for you. Down on your knees!"

"Scum. Go to hell and rot!" Jessika trotted out of the restaurant, leaving her little leopard-spotted purse to glower at me.

"Your friend split?" Melanie said. "Sorry."

Bo hung her head down and drew a skull with horns on her placemat. Her nose was running, and she was definitely high.

I told them I'd insulted Jessika and should probably go apologize. "Would you watch our stuff?" I asked. They smirked and said it wasn't the kind of thing you had to worry about in Mars. No one even locked their cars.

"Mars is a vicious name for a town. You guys are lucky. After all, you could be stuck on Earth somewhere."

"Yeah, right." said Bo, the skin-and-bones alien. "Ha ha."

It was just about dark in the sweltering parking lot. The truck lights sped over the highway like bright bugs trying to escape.

"Maybe you should let me take care of you," I said to Jessika. "You could take it easy. I'll work on Randa's farm and get money for both of us. Then we could take off somewhere else."

"Don't bother, okay?" Jessika paced as best she could. "I have to do things in my own way. No one ever understands."

She seemed so proud and defiant, and it was making me mad. "You think you know everything."

"I don't know anything more than you."

"I guess you don't want to go to the farm with me," I said. "Unless you still want to save my soul?"

A car pulled into the parking lot and an older couple emerged. They didn't even look over, just wobbled into the diner.

"I should keep my mouth shut," said Jessika. "No one ever understands me anyway, so sometimes I just say things. But you, muddafucca, you had to listen."

"I like listening."

"Well, don't."

I let her stew for a bit while I kicked the gravel. "I thought Christians felt they were better than everybody. I didn't know it could be just one more thing, something real, but messed up."

"Yeah. I am one mess of a wasted Christian."

I looked back in the diner. The kids were dragging hard on cigarettes, keeping their faces bored, sneaking glances our way. I wanted them to enjoy being kids while they could, enjoy getting cooked for and having their rent paid and their choices made. Instead, here they were drugging themselves and holding on to a big tangle of nowhere. Shit. Just like home. Why did kids get caught up in being stupid?

"I'll always listen to you." I put my arm around Jessika's waist. "At least you try to believe in something. You're kind of like how my granddad used to be. Only he wasn't a Christian. He wanted to have faith in things and tell people his ideas. Like you. I mean, I think. Unless you're lying to me."

"You're the one that lies all the time. Don't put that on me. Like you said that credit card was okay." Jessika sniffed and rubbed her nose. "You're so innocent and so amazingly twisted at the same time. I can't figure you out."

I kissed Jessika, right in the center of her broad warrior chest.

She cried a little while she drilled her chin round and round into the top of my head.

What they called The Pit was a man-made pond in a sorry little park that was a short walk from Pizza Dog Heaven. Since all of town filled two blocks, I wondered where they hid the Blue Basket ice cream factory. We walked into the parking lot, where a few beat-up cars circled the edge of the park. Some flabby, sweating boys sat on their engine hoods. A cop drove in at the same moment we arrived.

"It's the pigs," Bo mumbled.

Pigs. That was what my grandfather used to say.

"Yeah, Five-O." Melanie turned around. "I got to leave." Her little cupcake breasts and strawberry hair disappeared into the dark.

Jessika was restless. She fidgeted with her nose ring and stamped her big platform sneaker into the ground.

When the studly cop came over, Jessika started smiling. "Hey, officer, I'm new in town."

I crept away with Bo. The last thing I needed was a conversation with an officer about my whereabouts.

Bo knocked on a car windshield. A guy without a shirt named Curly had his bare back pressed against the passenger window. I was nervous and asked Bo if we could get in the car. We stuffed inside with the guys. Bo giggled.

Curly turned around from the front seat and gave me a lazy smile. He was mountainous with flesh, enormous shoulders and belly and cheeks. Long Indian black hair flowed down his back.

"Need anything at all, just call me." He wrote down his number on a piece of paper cup. "I'm the mayor of Mars."

"Mucho thanks." I gestured to Bo that I wanted to leave the stuffy car. At last she got the message when I put my finger against my head to shoot myself.

Bo asked Curly to tell Jessika we went to look at the swan babies.

We took some cement stairs that led far down into the pit. The girls had told us earlier about some new swan ducklings -- one of the highlights of their summer. Bo and I walked around the pond, through bushes and trees, looking for them. Most of the pond was dark and out of view of the cars, but portions were lit bright from huge fluorescent lights.

As she shuffled along, Bo hunched her shoulders way over so her stringy hair fell forward and covered her forearms. Her chest was concave, scooped out like a ditch. She told me in her gravely voice that years ago she had seen an eight-year-old boy named Zachary get pulled from the pond after drowning.

"His body was bloated with water and his eyes were open."

"Yeah? So what?" I hated death stories. "Do you ever want to leave here?"

"I wouldn't know anybody anywhere else."

"Why don't you come to the farm in Bonesteel? You'd know me."

The park's tall trees and spotlights now circled around us. Distant sounds of boys' grunting and a wailing radio guitar came from above.

Bo didn't say anything about my offer.

Something moved in the center of the pit. "So you're going to stay forever in Mars?"

She shrugged. "Look!"

A swan flashed by in the murk, her crooked neck guiding her ducklings, small as flowers. They disappeared around a marshy bend.

"Let me know if you ever want to leave." I tried to tickle her.

"You're weird." She moved away and kicked a rock into the water. "I'm spinning, man."

The orange electric lights surrounding the pond made the whole place seem like a morgue. The swans were little god gifts, but everything else was pretty close to a horror movie. I couldn't imagine the kids coming here night after night, then going on after high school to work at Blue Basket, and that's that.

Bo chose that moment to tell me she felt like puking.

"Lie down and be still. Breathe normal." I tried to see if she could still hear me. "You'll be all right."

At the edge of the pond, she curled in a ball near my feet. I pointed to the wings of Cygnus the Swan. Then showed her the bright goldenstar of Arcturus, one of my favorites.

After a long silence, Bo sat up. "Those starfires are thousands of light years away and are already dead." She dug both hands into the dirt at the edge of the pond. "We just see their light. But it's not really there, right?"

I could see her spending her whole life feeling lonely without even knowing why. "Yep. The stars are going to die some day, just like you and me and everybody else." I splashed my hand in the water. "Sneaky death will come and find us all. Big and dark. A creeping thump, thump."

Since Jessika and I had left our sleeping bags in the field, I wondered if we would even find them in the dark. And if we could ever get out of here with the cop hanging around.

What I wanted to say to Bo, but didn't know how, was that even though most of the stars are probably long gone, I liked knowing their names. The names were a way of having a memory of something, even if it wasn't around anymore.

"All right!" Bo yelled. She stood, suddenly sober. "I'm going swimming."

"Good!" I threw off my pants, left on my T-shirt and underwear, and ran in.

Bo kept on her clothes. She raised her arms like Frankenstein and lurched into the water. She giggled as the weight of her heavy jeans sloshed against the marshy weeds.

My feet sank into the soft mud, and I slapped my arms against the orange reflections on the water. Just a little farther and I was in up to my neck, and no more bottom. I sidestroked to the center. "Betcha can't get me." Being in the pit was the first time I'd felt cool in days. I turned on my back and floated.

Jessika stood at the top of the stairs, a long cement row of them. "Hey." Galloping down the steps to us, she dropped her weak leg first, then plunged her other leg to meet it. Her arms pumped in jogging motions. Jessika's own stumbling, private dance channel. None of her moves were what anybody else would do.

"Don't let them hear you," said Bo. "I hope you told Curly not to come down."

"He's gone. Mr. Nice Man in the Uniform told them to leave."

"Oh, they're around. I can hear them."

Music still wailed from somewhere in the dark fields.

Jessika took off everything but her scarlet bra and lavender underwear and got in. We splashed one another near the willow trees on the far side of the pond, hidden from the stairs and parking lot.

Bo and Jessika played games, climbing on top of each other. I swam around and floated in the cool relief.

When Jessika slipped and fell from a rock, Bo asked about her leg.

"I was born with it. God gave it to me."

"That's cool." Bo pulled her T-shirt away from her concave chest. Eyeliner dripped down her cheeks. A real Goth maiden.

"I was just thinking about that," I said. "God's gifts."

Jessika climbed onto Bo's back again.

Maybe this was all I wanted. Us three female-beings bobbing around a pond in the town of Mars, with the swans loose and the stars high.

Glory Be on Us Freaks.

I walked deeper. Dug my toes further into the velvet mud. Hoped the boys wouldn't come.

Katia Noyes

Katia Noyes left home at the age of fifteen. She has worked as a roofer, math tutor, factory worker, and go-go dancer. Twice a finalist for the Astraea Lesbian Writers Award, Noyes develops content for educational publishers and remains involved with organizations that serve runaway youth. Her first novel is Crashing America, a Book Sense Pick for October 2005.

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