Before today, I’ve been my sister’s helper. Last summer, I’d helped Cindy clean the Leggett Motel cabins scattered in the redwood grove just off the highway. The buildings are run down, porches sag, and the floors inside not exactly plumb. While the cleaning solutions burned our eyes, we’d scoured the bathtubs, the showers, and the sinks. We made the toilets shine, wrapped paper sashes—“Sanitized for Your Protection”—around the lids and seats. Cindy taught me how to make hospital bed corners, to fluff pillows just so.
She’s started a better job at the Drive Thru Tree, and I am left alone. Even though I know what to do, I am twelve and unsure and timid. Without her, I’m less concerned with the exactness of a dusted shelf, with hanging towels precisely on a wobbly rack. It’s lonely work, but her growing passion for Jehovah has made her seem far away.
On this morning, the rain grays the day out, making the redwoods less solace and more menace. I carry the cleaning tray in one hand and the clunky vacuum cleaner in the other, knowing that the rooms were used by fishermen come for the salmon runs, and the cleaners will fuse with the rank odor of fish.
In the first cabin, the heater has been left on, so the air is hot and humid. Towels and bedspreads litter the canted floor and legions of Coors line the counters. Everything about the mess—the beer and the dirty dishes and newspapers on the table—all scream “men.”
I wish I had a radio, something to distract from the quiet, from the heater’s cooling click.
I step into the second room. Gathering the dirty sheets and towels will be a good move—it’s what Cindy would do when the rooms overwhelmed her. She’s saving for the day she turns sixteen, when she’ll become baptized. She wants to become a full-time pioneer, witnessing seventy hours a month to Jehovah’s truth.
I want to leave this town of two hundred. I see how trapped my mother is by the Scriptures that give my father dominion over her. Women have so few options here.
While the sound of rain mutes the air, I pull apart the towels tangled into the sheets.
A magazine falls out, revealing a shock of women’s bodies. In the pages, breasts, and thighs and tongues leer. I sit, feeling my body respond with heat, to the ways these girls open themselves page after page. If Mom or Dad find out, I won’t be able to keep this job—I won’t be able to save toward my future away from here.
Dad’s anger—at me, at the motel owners, at everyone—it will volcano into a bigger problem than the one of nude women inviting touch.
The heater clicks and I jump, sending the magazine flying. I grab a newspaper and bury the magazine deep within the newsprint then shove the bundle into the trash. I take the bag to the dumpster—hopefully, my father won’t find it when he picks up the garbage.
The only stranger whose ever seen a private part of me is Jehovah—but His presence is too large, too ghostly to consider, too much like my father’s. I return to the cabin and wonder if Cindy has found similar magazines. Does she look before she throws them away?
I hurry, gathering the sheets and towels. That leaves only the bathroom. In the tub, on a melting bed of ice, lies a salmon—the sheen of scales glistens, the iridescence not yet faded. Just yesterday, it was in the river, moving upstream, following an internal compass, slipping and sliding against the current.
The men must’ve forgotten it. It’s a female, and her roe has been milked. The pale red pearls lie inside a gallon-sized bag, but a few ooze near her tail. The men must’ve run their hands over her, squeezing the precious roe out. It makes me sick to my stomach, to think about how these strangers had pulled her from the water, worked her over, then forgot her, distracted by the glossy pages of the magazine I’ve hidden from my father.
The redwoods shudder in a gust of wind, and I touch her cool skin. The scales lie in perfect symmetry, both simple and intricate. The edges have a beautiful precision, sharp and cutting. Her glinting eye watches me, witnessing.
I am slowly understanding that to get anywhere exacts a price.
Charlotte Gullick grew up in Northern California and is currently chair of Creative Writing at Austin Community College. In May 2016, she graduated with a MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Artwork by Allison Dalton