The Slow-Cooked Sentence


Rachael Conlin Levy

We had such confidence as we set out to devour the miles, intent on swallowing not only the road but entire mountains and rivers, until endless hours under a hot, stubborn sun wore us down as words wear away an eraser.*

We were sleeping in a tent-trailer on my parents’ property, my four kids and I. I’d hauled the pop-up trailer from Washington to Idaho to Nevada, a super-sized sardine can of mattress and loose wire that required duct tape and zip ties to keep us rolling forward, but after eighteen hours we’d pulled into the sandy drive way and cut the engine only to discover that the camper was a bit broke. I’d wandered about sizing up bald tires, cinder blocks and tree stumps before deciding that a giant spool of rope shoved under the trailer’s frame would keep the beds from collapsing. I slept, undisturbed by dreams.

Mornings are fleeting in the desert and I liked to let the kids sleep in, their bodies tangled, a random leg or rounded shoulder surfacing from the sleeping bags like quicksand. Quietly, I’d step outside, stretch, blink under a sky white with the promise of heat. The neighbor’s radio played loudly from across the road and a family of quail pecked in the dirt until my presence prompted the male to call out in alarm and the flock fled to the nearest bush.

I crossed the yard, climbed the rickety steps to the front door and walked inside where my dad was making coffee and pancakes while my mom sat at the kitchen table, quilting in her pajamas. It was good, those minutes when I was not mother but daughter again, sitting at my parents’ table waiting for breakfast.

As the day progresses, the sun grows with frightening speed, expanding until it overwhelms the heavy, solid blue sky and burns the edges of mountain that rim this valley. The heat shines on endlessly, baking sand, splintering wood, fraying rope. My hands had slivers of plywood and nylon from rolling the rope spool from the back of the house to the front, the feet of my youngest was filled with thorns from walking barefoot through the sand, the older children’s skin had been seared pink. I had craved the heat, the stark land, the relentless sun, but now that I was here I felt vulnerable, unprepared, so scurried for the shadows.

Inside the tent-trailer the air was stuffy and the floor gritty with sand. I made a halfhearted attempt to sweep, to sort clean clothes from dirty, to straighten sleeping bags. I shook out flakes of my children’s sunburnt skin, wrinkled, feathery strips that collapsed into dust. But the heat defeated me and I sat in the mess and watched waves of air rise off sagebrush as I panted. This I still recall, the touch of hot air against skin, a smothering sandwich of heat and silence: I was but maybe eleven and trapped in a puddle of shade, dumbly staring at the fiery red ants as they worked through the middle of the day while everything and everyone else waited, eyes open yet not awake.

With night the desert softens, light glows pink and a wind blew down from Churchill Butte and across my damp skin, allowing me to move again, breathe again. Plans take on meaning and action, my appetite returned and I found the energy to help with dinner. What did we eat? Was it spaghetti and my mom’s homemade meatballs or barbecued chicken? Dishes and children were washed as June bugs hurled themselves against the window screen until I pitied them and turned off the light. Then it was time to return to the tent-trailer and our beds. Holding hands, we shuffled across the sand with heads craned up at the glorious night. I pointed out the Milky Way’s chalky line to my children, and connected the stars that create the giant scorpion in the southern sky. Later I woke and noted that the stars had shifted and Scorpius had crawled over mountain tops and now was sinking into darkness in anticipation of the sun’s return.

* This metaphor — as words wear away an eraser — belongs to Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud’s collection of stories “A Life On Paper.” I read it at the start of our road trip and loved its imagery, and as time and sun and rootlessness turned the vacation’s enjoyment into a test of endurance the phrase inspired this piece in me.

5 responses to “Sandscript”

  1. Andrea says:

    Lovely…so vivid I’m right there with you (and more than a little envious…my plans for road trip to drier climes this summer having been quashed).

  2. kyndale says:

    I guess I can imagine this more vividly because I know you. Thanks for sharing a little of your trip. ♥

  3. Rachael says:

    Andrea, sorry to hear that your road trip has been canceled. I hope you will still squeeze in some weekend camp-outs, which I know you do with style!

    Kyndale, my biggest regret is not being able to include your family in this visit. You will top our list next time!

  4. I can feel that dry baking-in-a-sauna heat. This really brings back Arizona desert memories for me.

    I admire your rope solution and your resilience.

  5. anno says:

    Beautiful, Rachael … there’s something nearly medicinal about the kind of heat you describe, psyche-altering for sure, and dreamy, too. Welcome back! It’s good to see your writing again.

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