My father was enlisted that year by the EPA to join one hundred of the nation's top photographers in the Documerica program. The assignment was to photograph untouched landscapes and average American communities alongside smog, oil slicks and burning garbage dumps to show the country what it was doing to itself. The EPA and Documerica were the only two goddamned things Nixon ever did right, according to my father. He was assigned to the Four Corners team, which he believed made him responsible for all four states and therefore required a road trip.
This was his largest assignment in over a year. Every photo selected for use in D.C. meant serious money and national exposure. The photographer who sent in the best, most compelling images would take home the most cash. He talked about it like a sports competition—a physical battle—especially against Michelson and Crane, the other two photographers assigned to the Four Corners. He sat two huge Styrofoam coolers squeaking between us in the back seat, stuffed to their brims with sealed bundles of slide film. My sister and I were responsible for keeping the lids in place. To buy all that film in advance, he hocked his precious record player and huge stereo, the couch given to us by my grandparents last Christmas, and our new color television. He was intent on using every roll. My father insisted on taking us out of school at the end of January to slip ahead of the other two photographers who would be afraid of the snow. He also wanted children in his shots of smoke stacks, junked cars and tailings ponds to introduce conflict and character into the images. The trip would be a life lesson. Education on the road, he called it. After two nights of heated discussion, my mother finally said it might be acceptable only if our school would permit the time away.
Somehow, my mother convinced Mrs. Roof, my sixth grade teacher, and my sister's fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Peterson, that this road trip was the educational opportunity of a lifetime. She explained that our entire family would be learning about American history by driving right through it, and made the claim, to the Arizona teachers, that it was our patriotic duty.
We were assigned to read American history along the way (from four huge books on extended loan from the library) and were required to write two-hundred-word essays every week that our mother would grade and mark like a teacher with her red pen. I spent the whole time writing about Lewis and Clark. My sister wrote about the history of American horses and the Cheyenne, but we favored illustration over writing; I drew canoes between my paragraphs, my sister drew horses everywhere and sketched elaborate feather headdresses on the back of each page.
For two months, we lived out of the station wagon and our musty army surplus tent, eating mostly canned beans, Spam, Velveeta, apples and creamed corn. Once a week we splurged on a meal at a truck stop or a lonely highway cafe where we lingered as long as possible to soak in the kitchen heat and greasy aroma of hot food. Through it all, my mother said nothing. Not a word of complaint. She had never been so quiet and compliant. It was unnerving because we saw her simmering, especially after one very long, cold week of Spam and tomato sandwiches with Tang at every meal. We knew something was coming. By the end of March, we had circled back toward Flagstaff and my sister and I were on the canyon rim, tossing snowballs, thrilled that home was now only a few hours away. My father kept telling me to back up so he could get a better shot. That's when I fell. My mother believed her son had just plunged to his death directly before her and she erupted with a terrified and angry scream so loud it echoed back from the nearest canyon walls.
I wasn't dead. I had fallen about eight feet onto a ledge (mostly dirt, some snow, a few pointed rocks) where I lay on my back, staring at the sky, trying not to move because I was certain my spine, or at least something important around my head was probably broken. They always instructed us not to move people after a bad fall because that would make things worse. That's what the evangelical EMT told us in Scouts about a climbing accident in Montana. "It would have been fine, but they rushed in and moved him without a brace," he said. "Snapped his spinal cord like a stalk of cold celery. Now he's a C5, in a wheelchair and needs a machine to breathe, Lord bless him. Remember boys: until help arrives, they stay where they lay." So I lay there, moving my fingers and toes a bit, cautiously checking things out. I turned my head slightly toward the canyon to see a few flash bulbs snap at me like silver plates spinning in the sun. Pressing against the fence line for the official viewing area, tourists from the Vegas tour busses jostled against one another, holding their cameras high to take the best photo of the boy who fell off the Grand Canyon—every one of them beating my father to the punch with their plastic Instamatics and fold-open Polaroids.
My mother was now shouting louder than I had ever heard her. "You fucking, goddamned, self-centered bastard. What do you have to say for yourself now? Go ahead. Take my goddamned picture. Do it! Take my fucking picture! Kill me too! Come on. Do it! Kill me!"
Some snow slipped off the ledge, hitting me on the forehead. I saw my sister peering down at me. She was lying on her stomach, her mittens gripping the edge. "Are you okay? You didn't scream. I don't think you should move. Why didn't you scream?"
"I don't know. It wasn't that far. I think I'm okay. I can wiggle my toes."
"Everybody screams on TV when they fall."
"This isn't TV."
"You should stay down there. Momma's not happy."
"Yeah, I hear that."
"Come on, you fucking bastard." She was thumping against something up there, probably hitting him. We were all wearing dingy, silver ski parkas she found at Goodwill, with yellow gloves clipped at the wrists. Every time we moved, one or two feathers of goose-down fluttered from the open seams. It sounded like she was having a pillow fight, landing a soft thud between every sentence. "Take my goddamned picture. Go ahead. It's so important. You're the big government man now. Getting paid. Come on. Take. My. Fucking. Picture."
"Are you bleeding?" my sister asked.
"No. I don't think so. Maybe. My pants feel wet."
"Stay there," she said, suddenly sounding much older. "You shouldn't move. Okay? Don't move."
"Oh, Jesus! Honey! Get away from the edge. Not you too... Jesus. Don't stand up. Just slide back, honey. Come on. I'm so sorry, honey. You shouldn't look. Come on, slide back to Momma."
My sister's head slipped behind the snow and I saw only sky again. Blue sky. And a large bird. Circling.
"Put down the goddamned camera and come comfort your daughter."
"He's right there, Momma."
"I know, darling, I know. It's terrible. I know..."
"He's not dead. He's right there. He's fine."
More snow dropped on me, then I saw my parents' faces tip over the edge and my sister again sliding out from between her yellow gloves.
"I'm not dead," I told them.
"Is anything broken?" my father asked.
"No. I don't think so."
"His pants are wet," my sister explained.
"Can you move your toes?" my mother asked. I wiggled them again inside my boots just to be sure.
We all looked at each other for a moment.
"Well, then, get up," my father said. My mother hit him on the shoulder. A few feathers popped out.
"No. We find help. Nobody touches him until we find help. You okay down there, sweetie? You okay?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"His pants are wet," my sister said again.
"Yes, sweetie, we know that. Thank you." She turned to my father, "Go get help. Do something useful for a change."
He looked down at me, nodded, put his hand out before him like he was holding me there against the ledge, nodded again, then left.
"I'm going to stay right here with you until help arrives. Are you cold?"
"No, Mom, I'm fine."
"Don't move. Just stay there. We're going to stay here with you while your father finds some help. He had no business taking you kids over here. It's much too dangerous. You could have fallen right to the bottom. Both of you."
"I did fall."
"Well, yes, I know, but it could have been much worse. I mean, it's a straight drop right there. Oh Christ... don't move. I can't believe how close... I don't know how we're going to get you back up."
"What, darling? Don't worry, your brother will be okay."
"I have to pee."
"Really? Right now? Here? Really? Can't it wait?"
"Nuh-uh. I gotta go, Momma. I'm sorry."
My mother pulled my sister away from the edge, then leaned over again to see me. "We'll be right back. Don't try to stand. It's not safe. Ignore your father. Just lay there. Don't look down."
Then it was only sky again. The bird was gone.
My mother was right, we had no business being there. At the end of the parking lot for the viewing area, we stepped directly over the small fence marked in three places with safety-orange warning signs saying: Do Not Cross. He knew better. We all knew better. Since Flagstaff was only ninety minutes away, we were out here all the time for Scouts and weekends for ourselves. My father was once a park ranger in Colorado, so he always talked shop with the canyon's rangers, mostly about the latest fool from Vegas, Europe, or somewhere out East—like the lady from New York who decided to hike down Bright Angel trail wearing high heels, a dress, no hat and no water in July, and had to be brought up by mule a few hours later, dehydrated and delirious after twisting both ankles at the bottom of the ninth switchback. "Idiot," they'd concluded together. "Useless tourist."
He sent us out there to throw snowballs at each other on the rim. The orange afternoon light cut into the canyon to our right, highlighting each century of sediment as the Colorado snaked along the bottom. The river was black in the shade but shone brown-blue under a bright finger of sunlight that stretched from the opposite ridge. He loved the contrast of snow and desert, past and present with two children playing beside it all in futuristic snowsuits. It was too good to pass up. He said it was just what they wanted in D.C. so we stepped over the sign and trod into the fresh field of snow. After I threw the first few snowballs, he asked me to step back while he kept shooting, then a bit more, then once more. I suddenly felt air under my back foot and dropped over the side.
The bird was back, with a friend. Both circling.
More snow fell on my head and I saw a man with a beard and a park ranger's cap looking down at me.
"Hello. You okay down there, son?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"Don't move. We're sending someone to get you. Listen to what he tells you to do. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes, I can."
"You're a very lucky young man."
"I know that sir. Thank you."
"Just wait for him to tell you what to do. We're going to do this slowly, so be patient."
"Yes sir. I can wait."
A ranger in a climbing harness and helmet leaned backward over the side, glanced at me, smiled, then fiddled with his ropes as he slowly rappelled down the cliff side toward me. It took a long time with a lot of checking and more rangers asking for my attention, telling me what they were doing, being professionally jocular. I heard my mother talking with someone up above and my sister asking questions about food, but nothing from my father. The sun was setting by the time they pulled me up over the side, then patted me everywhere to be sure I was fine. I sat in the back of an ambulance for a while so the paramedic could check some more, and my mother stood outside the open back doors talking with a woman who held a large green notebook against her chest. My sister hid behind my mother's legs like she used to when she was smaller. I knew the ambulance spooked her. When they first pulled me up over the side, my mother and sister rushed over to hug me. After everyone cleared, I was able to see my father, smoking and leaning against the station wagon in the far corner of the parking lot. He met my eyes for a moment, stubbed out his cigarette, tried to smile reassuringly, then turned away to sort things at the back of the car. By the time I left the ambulance, it was dark. He was sitting in the driver's seat, hands on the wheel, staring forward, his face lit blue by the instrument lights and the radio. He had started the engine to warm the car, which was gripped from behind by a thick glove of exhaust and steam. One of the rangers shook my hand and the woman gave my mother a stack of papers from her notebook. No one looked at my father except me, but I knew what they were all thinking: useless tourist.
On my mother's insistence (with only a slight nod of acceptance from my father) we ate at a restaurant that night with real tablecloths and too much silverware, and checked into one of the expensive log cabin hotel rooms at the park. The restaurant was filled with Germans who laughed loudly while they ate. My mother talked all through dinner and finished three large glasses of wine while she explained what we would do when we got home, how we would catch up with school, who we would see when we arrived. At the hotel room, she turned on the TV, and asked us to cuddle along both sides of her in bed to watch a cowboy movie. As soon as we climbed in and pulled the blankets to our chins, my father grabbed the ice bucket and left. He didn't return until we were asleep.
The next morning my father didn't roust us at sunrise like he usually did by pulling away sleeping bag covers, or by grabbing the end of our cots in the tent and shaking. He didn't shout his morning greetings in his mock drill sergeant voice (Up and at 'em people! Let's get moving! Things to do, places to go! Clock's a-ticking !), or complain how slowly we were getting dressed, or point out the spectacular morning sunlight while measuring it at arm's length with his meter, asking for his cameras. My father was, instead, not there. It was quiet and calm. His shaving gear and small evening bag were gone, as were most of our things—already packed away, we supposed. Our clothes for the day were stacked, neat and prim, on a chair by the front door.
My mother insisted we sleep until noon and for the first time ever she ordered room service. She showed us how to use the menu and said we could order anything we wanted. My sister and mother ordered huge breakfasts with extra bananas. I ordered a hamburger, fries, two different kinds of pop and a strawberry milk shake. My mother gave me a ten-dollar bill to hand to the waiter after he set the table in the room. The waiter called me sir as he left and my mother threw the curtains open across the sliding glass doors, revealing the stone tile balcony with stained glass and iron railings that proudly framed the continuous expanse of the South Rim. The rich canyon light flooded into the room making everything look new and expensive; my father would have commented on it and taken a photo. My sister found a classical station on the FM radio built into the TV, turned it up loud, and we dined like celebrities in our pajamas.
We left the room a mess, towels everywhere, tissues on the floor, even a few dishes on the bed, but our mother also put a stack of ones and a ten under the ashtray by the TV and wrote a thank-you note that she left on the table. When we came out of the room, we saw our father sitting on a bench by the stairs, reading a magazine as if on vacation, alone and unattached, but by the time we settled into the car, he was seated up front, hands on the wheel with the engine running, ready to depart.
Every day of the trip my father lectured to us (while he drove, when we were eating, while he folded the tent or repacked the car) about the terrible state of all things: the decline of democratic government; the dangers of ignorant racists and snake charming Christians from the Deep South; the collapsing economy and inadequate school system; everything terrible Nixon and his buddies represented. He especially went on about how we were filling our rivers with sludge, our air with poison, and our ground water with radiation. They were occasionally interesting lectures, and he sometimes explained things in a funny way when we had questions from the back, but mostly it was like a radio playing that my mother ignored and my sister and I learned to not hear. So, when we drove away from the park with all the windows open to the high desert air, it took me a while to realize he wasn't talking. He was just staring ahead, listening to my mother as she eagerly tripped through a long list of things that had to be settled in the coming months. The evergreens fell away and we flew onto the desert floor for a straight run at Flagstaff. He was just speeding up when my sister shouted, "Daddy! Stop! Please! I need to go. Sorry. I'm sorry. I gotta go."
I squeezed her hand. She started crying silently and pressed her legs together.
"It's okay, honey," my mother said, "Don't worry. It's fine. There's a wonderful place right over there. Just ahead."
My father abruptly slowed down and pulled a good deal off the highway onto the rough dirt. I climbed into the back to retrieve the portable toilet seat—our constant, necessary companion. We all hated it. We quickly hung a beach towel from the open side door as a type of curtain. My father stood vigil by the hood, watching traffic. My sister sat on the seat, staring at her feet. I studied the car ceiling light with the cracked plastic cover.
"It's okay, honey," my mother said.
"I'm sorry, Momma. I'm sorry."
"No, no, no, sweetie. It's just fine."
One car passed. Then another. I didn't have to look but I knew every time a car ripped by she shrank into herself a bit more, trying to be as small and invisible as possible, closing her eyes to imagine herself anywhere but here.
When she finished, my father took down the towel, folded it carefully, and handed it to my mother as he climbed into the driver's seat. A few more cars drove by. While we waited to pull back onto the road, my sister and I fixated on the head of the big green dinosaur gazing down at us from the distance. It was just a few hundred feet away, closer than we'd ever been. My sister squeezed my hand.
"Ask him," she said.
I saw my mother looking at me in the rearview mirror. She knew what we were thinking.
"Dad," I said. "Do we need to go home right away?"
"Yes, we do. I have work to finish, and we need to clean out the car. Why?"
"I was thinking that maybe, because we're right here, maybe we could go to Bedrock City."
Three large tour busses thundered by like a short train.
"Please," my sister said, "just this time. I want to pet Dino."
"It might be fun," my mother said. "You could shoot the park, or shoot the whole family. All of us, like tourists. Treat it like an assignment. Just this once. It's a kind of landscape. And it's God-awful blight, you've said so. I bet they'll use it in D.C. This might be just what they're looking for. Michelson and Crane won't stop there. I promise you that."
"Please, Daddy, please," my sister pleaded, tapping the back of his seat with her feet.
He didn't say anything, but instead of pulling onto the highway he began driving toward the dirt turn-off for the amusement park ahead of us. He followed the lane into the long, thin, nearly empty parking lot, stopping just beyond the entrance, which was a gateway of large, bright white dinosaur bones. A flat stone hung from the bone crossing atop the entrance with "Bedrock City" spelled on the face in huge letters made from curvy logs (all fake). To the right, with her hand out in a wave, a freshly painted Wilma statue stood up on her toes, about to take a step forward, gazing past us toward the highway. To the left was Fred, leaning forward slightly, his arm thrust out as he pointed directly at us with his thick, knobby finger like Uncle Sam. My sister tightened her grip on my hand as she stared at Fred and the park behind him. I couldn't tell if she was excited or scared. A fake stone sign leaning on the wall next to Fred said, "Yabba Dabba Doo Means Welcome to You."
They began building the Flintstones park one year earlier with digging machines, dump trucks and graders that shoved dirt around the desert floor. For a while, we thought they were building a road, then maybe a hotel. Every time we drove by on the way to the canyon, my father shook his head, locked his eyes forward and sped up. The first thing to rise from all the dust and commotion was a brontosaurus that could be seen for miles in every direction. It was just an elongated wire and wood frame for a long time, then became a giant white sculpture for a few months, and was finally painted a bright, cartoon green with white saucer eyes and black freckles clustered on his sides. Around him arose a number of fake rock houses, stone cars, hatching dinosaur eggs, a barbershop with a tall stone barber pole, road signs, log benches and stone bus stops; every piece modeled from the show. None of the buildings or semi-prehistoric characters and animals were arranged in an understandable order, and instead appeared to have been dumped on the desert floor from a child's toy-bag. Everything that wasn't white bone or grey rock was painted bright simple colors: red, yellow, green, blue, orange and purple. The last thing to appear was a fake stone wall that hid the entire park from the highway, except for the dinosaur's long green neck and head, twisted toward the road and tilted down as if it had suddenly noticed the cars screaming by. Every time we approached Bedrock City on the way to the canyon, my sister and I scrambled to that side of the car and watched the park slide past as we tried to catch each improvement: I see a stone bicycle! Look, a candy store! I see a train! That's a pterodactyl on the roof!
My father never stopped the car, and we never asked him to do so until the day he nearly killed me at the Grand Canyon. Now we were parked right out front. He told us to go ahead since he would need time with his cameras. My mother paid the woman in the ticket booth tucked behind the big bone entrance. She asked about bathrooms; we always had to ask for the nearest toilet.
"Oh ma'am, I'm so sorry," the woman told her. "They're out of order. Problem with the septic. We closed them an hour ago."
My mother looked out at the park, down at my sister, at the little red tickets in her hands, then back at the park.
"Go ahead, honey. It's okay, I'll catch up." My sister took off toward the nearest stone car. My mother turned to me. "Go tell your father. We'll need the seat." My sister had already climbed into a giant blue and green stone car. She was tugging at the rock-like steering wheel, running her feet in a blur under the seat just like the show.
"Momma, look at me. I'm driving. Hop in. I wanna drive us to the bowling alley."
As I walked back to the parking lot, two tourist busses pulled up, stopping with a sigh of brakes and a cloud of dust and diesel that drifted around me. The doors opened and tourists cautiously stepped down into the sunlight, muttering to each other in Italian and German. I watched them for a moment as they blinked madly and fumbled for their sunglasses. A few snapped photos of each other with the cameras dangling from their necks and a small group gathered at the back of the busses where they started stretching and counting through some sloppy calisthenics. Most of them were older, my grandparents' age perhaps, with white hair and walking sticks, but there were a few families with teenagers, younger kids chasing each other, a few babies. The tour guide (a trim, officious young woman in a grey business suit with a blue badge on her suit pocket that said EB Tours) began calling the tourists together, shouting in German, Italian, then thickly accented English. As they shuffled into a single group she turned to me and asked me something in German. I shook my head. She tried again in English, "Where are your parents, young man?"
Confused, I pointed at the park behind me, then over to our car behind the busses.
"No, no, no, that is no good. Collect them back here. No time for outside pictures. We have a set schedule. That's a good boy." She waved me away, then began calling out names from a sheet in her hands, pointing to different locations in the parking lot where the tourists rearranged themselves into smaller groups. When I arrived at the back side of the busses, our station wagon was gone. It should have been right there. I walked down the length of the wall, angling toward the road a bit so I could see more of the lot and finally spotted the back of our car poking from the end where the wall stopped. The tailgate was open, and two camera bags rested on the hood. When I came around the front of the car, I found my father crouched behind the camera mounted on his large tripod. His longest lens was attached to the front with an additional support arm.
"We need to take the seat," I told him.
He kept fiddling with the camera. When he was composing a shot, he often didn't hear anything. I stepped closer and tapped him on the back.
"I need to get the seat."
He didn't turn away from the camera. "Oh, okay. You know where it is."
I looked past him to see what he was shooting.
From this perspective, the park appeared like a scattering of discarded toys in a sandbox. The green dinosaur stuck up from the center, and beside it stood a small, pointed volcano that was supposed to also be a gas station, but from here it was identical to the cement teepee tourist shops my father had photographed throughout Arizona and Utah. To our immediate right was the back side of the stone wall, revealing the bent chicken wire that shaped the plaster, and the wood and steel supports that propped it up. The sun cast long shadows from the volcano and the dinosaur, pointing them in tandem toward the far desert plains and the blurred, dusty horizon. But what he was focusing on in the foreground was an animal pen roughly twenty feet away, designed like a miniature version of Stonehenge with white plaster and cement pillars forming a ring, and a black metal gate facing us. A few hay bales were stacked next to the gate. In the middle of the pen stood a large, dark brown buffalo wearing a plastic bone necklace, studying us with wet, black eyes while it chewed. Beside the pen leaned a fake stone sign, shaped like an arrow, pointing at the buffalo. The sign said, "Buffalosaurus"
My father changed a few settings, took a reading with his meter, then clicked off the first few frames. He adjusted the settings, shifted the tripod and took more photos.
"That's a real buffalo," I said, finally.
"Yes, that's a real buffalo."
"I've never seen a real buffalo," I said. "I don't think he should be here."
"No, he shouldn't be here," my father said as he clicked off more frames.
"Scheisse!" I turned around. The tour guide woman was right behind me. "That is a buffalo. A-one American buffalo," she said.
"Yes," my father whispered, as he moved his tripod closer to the animal.
"We are not to be here. We need to go to the front," the tour guide told us, not looking away from the pen.
"I'm with my family. I'm sorry, we're not on your tour. We're not tourists," I said. "We live here."
"Oh," she said, realizing her mistake. "Americans. Not with us. I am sorry. My mistake. This is your home."
We all looked at the buffalo, which kicked its back foot in the pen and continued staring at us.
"Scheisse," she said again.
"Exactly," my father said. "It's perfect."
The tour guide apologized again and walked past us into the park, giving the pen wide berth. My father continued to shoot the buffalo, the park, the tour guide from behind, and the tourists crossing between the park displays in the distance, like moving stick figures. I took the toilet seat from the back of the car, collected our toilet supplies into a paper shopping bag, closed the tailgate, then followed the tour guide's route into the park. When I glanced back, my father had left his camera on the tripod and returned to the car to grab another camera.
I passed a stone road sign, a stone mailbox with thick stone envelopes resting beside it, a stone hut with delicate, pink polka-dot window curtains and a sign that said, Beauty Parlor, then saw my sister waving to me from atop the brontosaurus' back. She was up there with my mother, in a yellow, thatched-roof cab. That's when I realized the animal was supposed to be from the show's opening credits, when Fred was working at the quarry, driving his dinosaur as a combination crane and bulldozer. When a whistle blew marking the end of the day, Fred would slide down the tail directly into his car and race through Bedrock City to his stone tract house where Wilma was cooking dinner. I could now see long straps swinging away from a bone bit in the dinosaur's mouth, draped down into the front of the cab. There was a set of black metal stairs on the side of the dinosaur, away from the road, that allowed visitors to walk up. When I reached the base of the tail, I saw it was actually a steep metal slide. My sister slid from the top, giggling as she held her arms in the air, landing at my feet.
"This is really fun." She popped up and brushed herself off. "I've been down nine times. You can see a lot up there." She was excited and out of breath. I rested the seat against the tail, with the bag next to it. My sister ran ahead, up the stairs to the cab. "Beat you! I beat you!"
At the top, I did see everything. The highway was perfectly straight, as if drawn across the desert with a black felt pen pressed against a ruler. My mother stood in the corner of the cab, holding onto the railing, looking toward the canyon. "Where's your father?"
"He's taking pictures over there." I pointed. She turned.
"That's good. Where?" She bridged her hand over her eyes. "I can't see."
"He's by the wall. At the end." The Stonehenge pen was there, but I didn't see the car, or my father. "He was right there."
A veil of dust blew over from the parking lot and I saw a blue station wagon driving onto the dirt lane toward the highway. "That's our car."
My mother lowered her hand from her eyes to grab the railing again. "That's your father," she said.
"Where's he going?"
My sister ran past us, swung up on one of the bars along the side of the slide, then shot down the tail, arms up like a roller coaster ride, giggling all the way down.
"I have no idea," my mother said.
Our station wagon pulled onto the lip of the highway then paused. There was no traffic for miles in either direction. He was deciding which direction to go.
"Maybe he has to get gas," I said.
The right blinker went on, he pulled onto the road then accelerated directly toward the shudder at sixty-one.
"He's going to Flagstaff," I said.
"Looks like it."
"When's he coming back?"
My mother watched him drive away then stepped back from the railing, dusting off her hands while our car shrank smaller and smaller. "I do not know," she said. "He's done this before."
"He has? When?"
"A few times. For a few days, when you were much younger."
"Oh," I said, staring at the road, waiting for our car to stop, turn around, come back for us.
"Yes," she said. "That's something you'll learn about your father. He likes to disappear."
"He must be getting gas. Or toilet paper," I explained to my mother, but mostly to myself. "He'll be back."
"Maybe," my mother said. "Maybe not."
We watched for a while as our car became a dot, then eventually vanished completely.
"Well, shit. That's not good," my mother said, looking around for my sister. "Where'd your sister go?"
We began scanning the park, looking for clues. The tourists were making their way toward the entrance and a few were already climbing into the busses.
"Hello there!" Down by the dinosaur's front foot, the tour guide waved at us. "Buffalo boy!"
I waved back. She held up her Instamatic with her other hand and pointed at it. We both nodded. My mother pulled me tight against her and out of habit we stood tall, chests out with our chins tilted up, peering at the horizon in my father's favorite, contemplative pose. My mother called it the "Noble Adventurer." She thought it was hokey as hell, and told him that many times. But he kept asking us to do it anyway.
"That's good," the tour guide said as she took her photo. She turned her camera sideways and took another. "Thank you!"
We waved and she headed for the entrance, calling out names from her list.
"Buffalo boy?" my mother asked.
"Yeah, there's a real live buffalo over there." I pointed where my father had been.
"You don't say."
I nodded and pointed in the direction of the buffalo again, shaking my finger for emphasis, but my mother didn't look because she was searching for my sister. The park was now empty. My sister was out there somewhere among the cartoons.
"Is he coming back?" I asked.
"We're not going to wait and find out. You think those busses are going toward Flagstaff?"
I nodded firmly, as if I actually knew.
"Tell you what. Why don't you make sure. Go talk with your buffalo buddy."
"About going to Flagstaff?"
"Yes, we need a way home, honey. I'll find your sister. You check with your friend. All right?"
I nodded, thinking about what I would say, wondering how I would explain our situation. I could call it an emergency and say that my father raced ahead to collect someone important. Or say there was a fire. Maybe a flood. I started thinking through all the disasters they talked about in Scouts, certain one of those would work. I imagined climbing aboard the bus with my mother and sister, holding our portable toilet for luggage. The bus would smell of strange cheese and sausages. All the tourists would wave their hands at us in greeting, eager to help. "Hello Americans!" they would shout in unison, so happy to see us.
"This place will be closing soon," my mother said, rubbing my shoulders, moving me toward the slide. She scanned our surroundings, talking to herself, "Where'd she go to? Oh, there she is."
My sister was skipping toward us across the desert, kicking and spinning in the dust like she was splashing through a wading pool, overcome with delight. She stopped at the bottom of the slide. "Come down and play," she said, jumping up and down with each word. "Come. Play. With. Me."
The bus engines rumbled to life. "We need to get moving," my mother said with some urgency.
I stared down the dinosaur's tail. The metal was shiny and smooth like the surface of a deep river in the shade. It was a sudden descent, the biggest slide I'd ever been on. My stomach felt hollow and skittish as I imagined taking that first step over the edge. My sister had done it, no problem, but it frightened me. My mother gave my shoulder a slight shove, "It will be just fine. Close your eyes. It'll be fun. Go on. It's our adventure now. I'm right behind you."
I grabbed the edges of the tail, swung my legs over and down, closed my eyes, and dropped.
Title image "Out of Bedrock" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.