Grasshoppers and Kangaroo Rats
1. My dad shuts his headhunter/recruiting business down when we travel, but he still checks his phone messages obsessively. In these days before mobile phones or voicemail, this means calling the cassette tape-driven answering machine at our home and then playing into the phone receiver a series of beeps from a small transmitter. This theoretically activates playback, but it is an unreliable system. My dad is always hunting for payphones from which to enact this doomed ritual, sometimes forcing us all back on the road after we settle somewhere for the night so that he can find a Ma Bell receiver.
One late, long search for a gas station with a phone delivers us to that old, weird America before box stores. A single pump station with a small store emerges in the night. The boxes and cans of food on the shop's shelves are covered with dust, whether from a lack of stock turnover or from the desert itself. The proprietors are a very old, stooped couple with brown skin and white hair who watch as my brother and I draw in the dust to kill time while my dad stands at the payphone. The old man speaks to me: "Do you want to see Grasshopper City?" I don't know what he means and answer only by moving closer to my mom. "Come, come," he gestures, shuffling to the back door of the store. When he opens it I see that the building backs up to a hill compressed from the red dirt common to the southwest. There are lights strung up around a small patio. The wall of red dirt is not smooth, though; I can see small hollows and bits of wood and textiles in the earth. I step closer and see that the wall presents an exquisite, extensive, small-scale replica of the ancient cliff dwellings of the Pueblo peoples found throughout Arizona and New Mexico: small recesses or cavities in the wall in which tiny adobe buildings are packed, secure in their defensive remove from ground or sky access. "This is where the grasshoppers live," the old man says. We stand in silence listening to the unseen grasshoppers. My father finishes his call and we drive back into the night.
2. We are parked in the desert another evening, under stars whose density of visibility is in inverse relationship to the region's density of population. My parents are awakened by a strange scuttling sound. Following the sound to the RV's tiny bathroom, they are terrified to see tiny fingers emerging from the closed lid of the toilet. The dry, frantic sounds continue. It is probably my mom (the tough farm girl, still today a sworn foe to all rodents) who lifts the lid to see an enormous kangaroo rat, which had climbed up through the septic hose and is now skittering to emerge from the horrible interspace into our traveling home. We drive (flee) from the scene that night. Huge, hopping kangaroo rats pace us along the road.