Devil’s Thumb by Gemma Cooper-Novack

“Mammoth Hot Springs.” James pointed to the upper left corner of the map. “Let’s do that. You liked the geysers yesterday.”

“Sure. Okay.” Meekay shrugged, her sweatshirt sliding around on her shoulders. “If you want.”

“It’s not about what I want, Meekay. I’m asking what you want.”

“I said it’s fine.”

A chipmunk rushed past their feet and Meekay smiled for a second. Then James watched her lovely face, still half little girl, reset into the distant passivity it had held for most of their journey.

“Got your pack?” James asked. Meekay held up her knapsack mutely.

As they slid into the car, James looked down at his vibrating phone, surprised he was still getting a signal. Natasha, of course: Everything OK?

Same old, James wrote. We’ll call when we leave. XOXO to you and Queli.

 

A profusion of pines—short and tall, dead and living—zipped by the windows. Meekay leaned back against the seat, eyes flat. Her dull brown roots were two or three inches long now; the rest of her limp hair was the same bleached blonde it had been since she was twelve and Natasha relented. James had been Meekay’s father for eight years by then, but somehow the one intimate year mother and daughter had spent together after Kyle died, two desperate girls against the world, cut him out of decisions related to appearance. When Queli was born, James had vowed he’d put his foot down about her, but so far she’d shown little of her sister’s poor judgment. It could all change when she became a teenager, but James didn’t think so. He might have been putting too much faith in his grandmother—when she’d heard about Meekay, she’d wrapped her arm around Queli, pressed her against her generous body, said, “This one’s going to be fine,” not trying to hide her glee that the white grandchild was the one who had screwed up—but Queli, at nine, might really be the only reasonable member of their household.

James wanted to blame Natasha for this trip, but the truth was he couldn’t remember whose idea it had been. When the prospective debt of rehab became more than either of them could handle, it was suddenly happening. They couldn’t sacrifice Queli to Meekay’s problems, and anyway Meekay was so close to getting past the worst of it, she just needed to stay away from her old friends, her old influences. Getting away, they decided, would help. James could keep an eye on her, couldn’t he? He understood what she was going through. James had agreed, and suddenly it was his trip, it was much easier for him to take the time off and anyway he was the better driver they were not letting Meekay behind the wheel. The pieces had fallen into place too rapidly for James to track: where could they get there and back in ten days, and hadn’t Meekay always wanted to see the park anyway, back when she wanted to be a naturalist, long before James and Natasha could have afforded such a trip?

“I want to come too,” Queli had said when they’d held a family meeting. “I want to go to Yellow Stones too.”

James and Natasha had rushed their responses: you have three more weeks of school and you know Meekay’s not going back this year (they’d struggled with how much or how little to tell Queli, and had settled by default on having no plan at all), you hate long car trips, there’s not room in the tent for three people. (James knew that traveling with a single tent was Natasha’s idea, and one of her worst—that James went along with it shows how little either of them was thinking.) Queli, ever Queli, had a logical counterpoint for each argument, and she grew more and more frustrated each time her parents rejected her suggestions.

Finally Meekay had broken her silence. “I’ll bring you a present, Queli, I promise.”

“What?”

“What do you want?”
Meekay had Queli’s attention. James and Natasha watched. “Guess,” Queli said. “Guess what I want.”

“How about … a pinecone.”

Queli shook her head, curls bouncing in every direction.

“A pine tree?”
Another head shake.

“Are you sure? I heard they have lots of them. Then how about … lots and lots of s’mores.”

“You know I don’t like them, Meekay.”

“An ENTIRE MOUNTAIN.”

“No!”

“Then maybe … a grizzly bear.”

Now Queli grinned as she shook her head, revealing the charming gap between her teeth. (Natasha was already starting to talk about braces, and the thought always saddened James.)

“I got it.” Meekay met her sister’s eyes. “A baby wolf.”

Now unable to restrain herself, Queli shrieked and giggled, bouncing up and down on the couch as she chanted, “A-wolf-a-wolf-a-wolf-a-wolf-a-wolf.” Natasha, voice thick with relief, said only, “I hope you’re planning to clean up after that wolf yourself.” Queli just grinned and grinned.

“And when you’re sixteen we’ll go there together, okay?” said Meekay. “Just the two of us. Promise.”

James wasn’t keen on hearing her making promises right then—she had already broken too many—but he had missed seeing her this way, Queli’s big sister. At seven she’d named the new baby Raquel within an hour of her birth; she’d held the infant against her chest while she met her stepfather’s gaze and declared seriously, “You better not die now, James, you better not.” She’d started calling him Dad so as not to be a bad influence on the baby; she’d accepted her new family nickname with grace when “Mikayla” proved too much for the one-year-old to pronounce. James couldn’t honestly say the worst part was the way Meekay had betrayed Queli—he’d kept plenty of pain and indignation for himself—but it had broken his heart to see his little girl moping over cheese grits, asking what Meekay had done with her iPad and when she was going to come home.

James’s phone buzzed again. He looked down at it before realizing he was dangerously close to the edge of the road. Swerving, he overcompensated, fortunately missing a Westfalia in the opposite lane. James was a better driver than Natasha, but neither was really confident behind the wheel. Meekay had been shaping up to be the best driver in the family before the DUI.

“That Mom?” Meekay asked.

James nodded.

“You can tell her,” Meekay said, “that not once have I escaped your watchful eye.”

“My watchful eye?” James snorted. “Where do you come up with this shit?”
“I’m very creative. Tell Mom that.”

Indeed, for four days, James and Meekay had spent every minute outside of the restroom or the shower together. Meekay was showing the strain—though it was hard to distinguish that from the regular struggles of early sobriety—and James wondered if his own stress was equally obvious. Added to his constant worry about Meekay now was the scrutiny, a side effect of leaving their neighborhood. Meekay had been attentive to it, as careful to call him “Dad” in public as she’d been since she was eight and a store detective at Target gripped James’s arm and asked him exactly whose child that was. “I’m a she, not a that,” little Meekay had said firmly, startling the detective. “This is my dad. Also I have a mom and a baby sister. Please go away now.”

But at campsites, when they both emerged from the tent, there was nothing to keep the hostile stares at bay. This morning had been particularly excruciating. It hadn’t escaped James’s notice that he was one of very few black people at Yellowstone, and now he had to be some kind of pedophile on top of it, dragging a drug-wasted white teenager (Meekay had yet to gain any weight back, and her eyes still chased shadows) along on his spree.

But what was the other option—finding Meekay ripping her own tent apart in the middle of the night, finding her unconscious in the morning? Or staying home, watching helplessly at the door as Derrick or Ian or Addison arrived and she drove off with them because technically she was right, her parents couldn’t stop her?

James was not about to do that. The ferocity of his every reaction had taken him by surprise for the last ten months, but it had just confirmed what he’d known since the first time he met his girlfriend’s wide-eyed, tired three-year-old: Meekay was his. He would endure the racist stares of any Yellowstone visitor if he might get his girl out of the abyss.

“Dad?” Meekay said after a minute or two had passed.

“Yeah?”

“I did like the geysers. Yesterday.”

They’d walked the wooden slats above the volcanic fields for hours, stood still as sulfuric steam slammed into their hair. James wondered if he’d walk away looking like an old man, his curls white-tipped. Meekay had laughed, actually laughed out loud, when Old Faithful erupted. James knew what she meant—the endless cycle, steam and boil and burst and release, must have felt much to Meekay as it did to him. James had watched her grin gleam as Daisy Geyser shot towards an orange sky.

“I know,” James said.

 

They saw it from a distance first, a cluster of white and mustard rock in the center of the dense earthy mountains. The color was startling among the dry green and brown of the land. Meekay nodded, taking it in.

They said nothing while James executed still another series of hairpin turns. He pulled over once, briefly, to observe several bison at the side of the road. The animals glided by as though pieces of the hills had come alive. Meekay kept nodding, her body taking in the rhythm of their movement. One bison stopped for a few seconds, gazing directly into their car like he had something to say to them. James only started driving again when the animal walked away.

In the parking lot, James slid between two trailers, and for a second he and Meekay gazed up the rocky hillside, where pockets of steam hissed out of every surface. The sky was overcast now, not the clear blue of the previous morning, and it was difficult to distinguish steam from cloud.

“Oh man,” Meekay said. James felt the same sense of awe. He’d felt it since they drove through the gates of the national park; even the most seasoned city dweller would not be able to hold it back.

The names, like the names of yesterday’s geysers, were mythological, poetic, strange: Liberty Cap, Minerva Terrace, the Devil’s Thumb. Meekay kept demanding that James text photos to Queli, and they stood at the wooden rails, feeling steam coast along their features.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Meekay said quietly as they gazed over Cleopatra Terrace.

“Hmm?”

“I think I put you through a lot. You and Mom, and Queli, but—you.”

James looked at the shiny orange glaze that covered the strata. “I was on crack, baby,” he said. “When I was your age.” He hadn’t known he was going to say that. As far as Natasha knew, he went to meetings because he’d been a teenage alcoholic, and he’d never enlightened her. They couldn’t have lasted if she’d known: Natasha had a hard time keeping secrets, and it was struggle enough to get her mother to accept that she was dating a black man in the first place. (Never mind the shit James had gone through with Kyle’s parents, who were desperately protective of their granddaughter, the only piece of their son they had left.)

He felt Meekay buck a little beside him with the realization. James had reached a threshold early in high school when he hadn’t seen a way out, when the best route seemed forgetting. It was the jolt of it that James remembered, the sudden rush of sound in his ears, the sweetness ricocheting through his veins that made movement both impossible and unnecessary. It was amazing how strong the memory still was.

“How’d you stop?” Meekay said, as if her voice had travelled through a tunnel.

“Granny,” James said. “She was … very persistent. She was incredible. I was young, Meekay. And she—she found out early.” To be specific, she found James passed out in his room, his ersatz pipe—a jar covered with foil, residue melted over the holes he’d poked, which he’d been using for several weeks—askew in his right hand. His grandmother had stormed him to consciousness, bundled him to the clinic three blocks away, mortgaged her own tiny house to pay for an inpatient treatment program. James still had a hard time remembering the weeks that followed.

“Was it hard?” said Meekay. James could feel her eyes on him and decided not to look at her.

“It was hard. But I’m glad I did it.” James sighed, heavily, breath mingling with the rolling steam. “I wouldn’t have your sister. I wouldn’t have you.”

They wandered the upper and lower levels of Mammoth Hot Springs, the rush of steam on their faces and the sprinkling of light rain on their arms. Occasionally one of them would fall behind the other, as if meditating in the hot air. James was happy to let Meekay have these seconds of peace: it seemed a good place for it.

“I’m hungry,” Meekay said while they stared at Angel Terrace. It was the first time she’d spoken since James’s confession. “Do you think there’s a snack bar?”

“I’ve got snacks,” James said, reaching into his camera bag. He and Natasha had considered this contingency. “You want peanuts or chips?”

“Chips,” Meekay said innocently, and James pulled out a small bag of Sour Cream and Onion. A family, wide-hipped white mother and father with three small and round daughters, grizzly-bear-bedecked T-shirts tight across their bellies, stopped beside them to stare into the steam. The youngest child seemed distracted by Meekay, who smiled and offered the bag of chips.

“They’re yummy,” she said.

The child, who couldn’t have been older than five, shook her head.

“You sure? I don’t mind.”

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” the girl whispered.

“Yeah. Me neither.” Meekay grinned.

The mother, overhearing, turned to glare at Meekay, brushing her gaze over James for only a second before dismissing him. “Don’t worry, Chelsea,” she said. “You don’t have to talk to her.”

“Okay,” said the little girl. She added to Meekay, a little apologetically, “I don’t have to talk to you,” and marched off behind the rest of her family.

Meekay leaned back against the wooden railing. “Do I look scary?” she asked.

“No, honey. They’re just—It’s not about you.” James would have assumed it was about him, but Meekay’s missing canine tooth, which they can’t yet afford to fix, probably didn’t help either.

“It feels like it is.”

“Don’t worry about them, Meekay.” Honestly, James was pleased. The platitude “never talk to strangers” had bounced off Meekay since she was a kid—she’d always strike up conversations as they walked through the mall or the grocery store, revealing an alarming amount of personal information to anyone who would listen. Neither James nor Natasha was ever able to dissuade her, not even as she aged, and her silence since they hit the road had discouraged James. It was a relief to see her in her element now, to see her trying again, and he didn’t want her disappointed. “I’ll take a chip.”

She held out the bag. As James crunched down, his phone buzzed again.

Q likes the pics, Natasha said.

Prove it, James answered.

Thirty seconds later, his younger daughter grinned out of his screen. James showed the phone to Meekay. “She liked the pictures,” he said.

Meekay smiled. “Tell her it’s hot springs, like a spa, and we’ll do a spa day. When I get home.”

“Go ahead, you can text her.”

Meekay relayed the message, and James watched another stream of viewers march up the stairs. They looked a little older than Meekay, college students maybe, two girls and three boys, mostly white with one a little darker-skinned, maybe Indian, James thought. Most were in Mariners baseball caps; one wore a watch cap, and one girl, white, had long matted dreadlocks that flowed over her shoulders. James hadn’t seen hair like that in a long time and had forgotten how terrible it looked.

“This is my favorite place so far,” one Mariner-capped boy said enthusiastically. “Anna, Jake, over there.” The designated two hurled arms around each other’s shoulders, and the other three hastened to snap pictures with their phones.

“Want me to take one of all of you?” Meekay asked.

“Sure!” This from the girl with the dreads, who handed her phone to Meekay. Two boys followed suit, and the five gathered at the railing, beaming in Meekay’s direction as steam curled up around their shoulders. With a pang so sharp he could taste it, James imagined being them, being twenty and having the money and time to hit the road with your friends with no real forethought, no concerns.

Both Natasha and James have been surprised in adulthood to find themselves middle class, almost safe. Natasha felt as out of place in her South Dakota trailer park as James did in the Charles Horn projects of his childhood, both kids who longed for something different but lacked the imagination (which both could already see blossoming in Queli) to picture what it would be. Natasha had won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, but got pregnant halfway through first semester; she had opted to stay in St. Paul anyway, and Kyle, to no one’s surprise more than Natasha’s, proposed right away. She restarted school when her little girl was two, this time aiming for an Associate’s at North Hennepin, when Kyle was diagnosed, deteriorated and died within two months.

James, stable at last thanks to his grandmother’s timely and steady intervention, moved unremarkably the University of Minnesota, got Bs and worked nights, sent money home, became the kind of reliable man everyone in the neighborhood claimed they always knew he would be, as if the worst of his adolescence had never happened at all. He dated girls who were comfortable and educated, and whom he dumped after two or three months. It wasn’t until he struck up a conversation with Natasha at the concession stand at a Timberwolves game—she was still struggling through North Hennepin’s nursing program, a course at a time—that he felt in a rush what he had been missing. He needed someone uncertain, someone raw enough to know that nothing easy could last.

“Thanks,” the girl with the dreads and the tallest boy said simultaneously as Meekay handed them their phones. The boy touched Meekay on the shoulder, briefly, as they passed. James watched them go; he had never had their peace, and he certainly wouldn’t ever get it now. It took a harrowing second to remind himself that Meekay and Queli were worth it.

“Dad, I have to pee,” Meekay said.

“I think it’s that building.” James pointed to a small building, down about a hundred feet and across the parking lot.

“Okay,” said Meekay. “I’ll be right back.”

“Yeah, you will,” James said.

He watched her go. She stopped briefly to talk to the students. Two of them crossed the lot to the bathroom with her, waiting in line for other park visitors to emerge. He got another text from Natasha: It’s so pretty. I miss you both. Everything OK?

OK. Miss you too.

Middle-class hadn’t been enough to protect Meekay. James’s only relief in this ordeal had been to realize that Natasha, like him, had never thought it would be. Together they’d taken their fear with resignation, as if they knew it was coming, had only been surprised they got away with this charade of security for so long. At support group after support group, mothers in pastel sweaters and fathers in polo shirts murmured, “We just never thought this could happen to us.” James only made it through the forty-five minutes was by squeezing Natasha’s hand and feeling her squeeze back, knowing that she was wondering, like he was, who the hell these people were.

Maybe that was why, when Meekay opened the bathroom door and he could see the glaze on her pupils from two hundred feet away, James wasn’t surprised. He was disappointed, certainly, more disappointed than he’d ever been in his life, and his intestines were cramping into fists, but he wasn’t surprised. He didn’t know what they had been thinking, what he was expecting.

His first impulse was to bound down the slats of the wooden pathways, force Meekay into the car immediately, but he made himself stay still and let her come to him.

“God, I love the stripes on them,” she said, gazing at the rocks beneath the shafts of hot air. “What makes them those colors?”

James nodded towards the beginning of the path, a few yards away, where an informational sign and a map were mounted. “It probably says over there.”

“We should find out,” Meekay said. “I bet Queli would want to know.”

James wanted to knock the little girl’s name out of her mouth, to shake her and demand to know where she got it, whatever she was on. Had she had it with her the whole damn time? But it didn’t matter, not really. Wherever she’d gotten it, he’d be stuffed in a car with her for a dozen hours; no matter what had happened, they were going home. He was going to have to text Natasha, and they were going to have to find thousands of dollars from James didn’t even know where. The trip was a failed experiment. They would have to figure out what to do next.

Meekay trotted down the wooden walkway, and James couldn’t do anything but follow. She splayed her hand beside the informational sign and started reading the words aloud.

“Let’s just read them ourselves,” James heard himself say, snap. Meekay had to know he knew.

Meekay rolled her eyes, kept up her charade. “Okay, Dad.” A couple in their sixties, white with fleece jackets zipped up to their chins, did a double take at the word.

Meekay saw them and seized James’s elbow. “I love you, Dad,” she said, leaning against his shoulder. James wondered what the harm would be, just for the next few minutes, in believing it was true.

3 Comments

  1. Tony Press

    Wow! There’s so much in here — class and race and parenting and siblings and nature and nurture — and throughout it all, so much heartbreak. Beautiful.

    Reply
  2. Maggie

    Beautiful, Gem! They are both “gems”.
    You drew me into their world with the first lines. I knew these characters instantly, grieved/hoped with them and didn’t want to let them go. Please give me more.

    Reply
  3. Jon Sindell

    I have just seen Boyhood. I admire the sensitivity and realism of this fine story, as of that fine movie. Congratulations, Gemma.

    Reply

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