Seems there weren’t a god damn thing to do in the Midwest and those families who went West looking for a better life took their hopelessness with them. They packed it all up and tied it to the tops of their cars and the backs of their pick ups and drove – out of Oklahoma, through the panhandle, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, all the way out to Cali-forn-eye-aye. When they got to the desert foothills, they unpacked. They’d run out of money, gas and possibilities. And that’s where the next generation of no-education, nothing-to-do and no hope planted their roots and grew up.
Natalie Hutchens thought she might do better. By some miracle, the rickety-boned genes of her mother’s side of the family and the gaunt, wire-y genes of her father’s side mutated and performed a random act of kindness.
Natalie’s sister had died at birth. She’d weighed 2 lbs. and was born without a lower intestine, the doctor said. Her older brother never could put on any weight and was born with his pinky toes missing. So everyone was surprised when Natalie was born, plump, pink and glowing with health. She had blue eyes the color of nothing anyone there had ever seen and blonde hair; real blonde, not that dirty-blonde color that looks like somebody hadn’t washed it ever. She was pretty-much perfect; a real beauty. If her ma hadn’t known better she would have thought maybe there was a mistake and she’d have to give that baby back.
But it was no mistake and as Natalie grew older, she only got more beautiful. It was nearly an embarrassment to her family. People always wanted to ask if she was adopted. But they didn’t. You’d have to be real stupid not to know that only the rich could buy a baby and the Hutchens people were share croppers. During the depression, folks had enough trouble feeding the mouths that belonged to them, much less looking for more mouths to feed.
Not only was life hard in the country, it moved slower than anywhere else – anywhere else where there were things to do, entertainment – things to distract a body. More than hard, life was brutal. Everything there was to do to earn a living, would crack your skin, peel your lips and make your body ache when it got up in the morning.
Again, Natalie proved to be the exception. Must have been looking in the mirror each day gave her a lift, because she had what people call a sunny disposition. Somehow, that little glimpse in the mirror in the morning seemed to give her the kind of hope that everyone in her family, and those like them, had buried somewhere along the dusty roadside between Oklahoma and where they ran out of gas.
Just the way a flower works its way out of the dirt, drawn to the sun, Natalie was meant for better things. And the very best that Barstow had to offer was the fruit and nut stand next to the only gas station for miles. The picking and packing was for those girls who were genetically less fortunate. Natalie got a job meeting the public. Some folks would stop even if they didn’t need gas or fruit, just to get a closer look at Natalie’s smile.
Some folks coming back from the coast would say she should get out of there – that there were places where they made silent films and the best looking actresses would pale next to Natalie’s good looks. But the road didn’t go any farther than Barstow for the Hutchens family. Everything west of Barstow just plain didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the rest of the world began to show up that Natalie got a taste of what the rest of the world had to offer.
Sometime in the 1920’s a glamorous-looking couple driving an open topped roadster stopped for gas. The man got out and struggled to put the top up. Newly deposited sand and dust coated the sleek new touring car. A goddess of a woman had covered herself with a hat and scarf and could be heard complaining dramatically about her hair. A greeting committee of three or four mongrel dogs crept out from under a tar paper covered shack, their tails between their legs. They were looking for handouts but were skittish and ready to run if given the boot.
The teenager who ran the pump came over to help him. The goddess stayed in the car, applying a fresh coat of paint to her face. Once the top was up and the tank was filled, she insisted she wanted to buy some oranges. To Natalie, the two might as well have been a king and queen. She was tongue tied but the man was a smooth talker and all she had to do was smile and he was smitten. He eyed her naturally blonde hair and curvy figure and, in a low voice, said some flattering words to her. Sensing competition from the hick beauty, the woman gave the man a glare and off they went in their sophisticated machine, leaving behind a cloud of dust and the scent of the woman’s perfume.
That night, Natalie lay in bed with visions of that man in her head. She thought about his slicked back hair and perfectly trimmed mustache. By comparison, the local boys with their chin stubble and cowlicks were as different from him as his sleek convertible was to their gritty, rust- bucket trucks.
Her heart would pound every time a plume of dirt rose into the air behind vehicles approaching from the west. She had a fantasy that he would come back for her someday – that she would then be the woman in the passenger seat of the touring car and he would motor her away to Hollywood where she would become a silent screen actress.
Just a week after those two came and went, she caught a ride into town on her day off and bought a magazine with film personalities on the cover and a lipstick to experiment with on her own virgin lips. Flipping through the pages she recognized the couple as John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. There was gossip that they would marry. Natalie smeared the lipstick from her lips with the back of her hand, got into bed and turned her face to the wall.
The following Saturday night, Buck Davenport invited her to go out walking. He didn’t show up until almost dark. She reached up and lit the kerosene lamp hanging above her head on the front porch. In its light, he looked a little like that gent John Gilbert. He’d shaved his stubble for their date and slicked back his hair although it didn’t look that clean. They’d been out walking before. The other guys knew Buck was sweet on her and pretty much kept their distance from Natalie. You didn’t want to cross Buck.
As they walked, he draped a proprietary arm around her shoulders. Around back of the tar paper shack there were some scraggly trees, a water trough and some old farming equipment left to rust. A cluster of windmills were bent over some, all leaning in the same direction from years of getting beat on by the desert wind. Just about in the middle of the windmills there was an old mattress and they lay down side by side.
Nothing was said between them for a time and then he rolled over on top of Natalie and fondled her. She took the only attention she’d had since the movie fella had flirted with her at the fruit stand. After Buck had his way with her, he zipped up his pants and said his good nights. He left Natalie there looking up at the stars. She lay still for a long while, listening to the rhythm of the windmills, creaking and rasping, like giant praying mantises.
Wasn’t long before Natalie found she was knocked up. The doctor told her he was sure.
From that day Natalie’s hair began to lose its shine. Her skin took on the rough texture of the Barstow earth. She stopped looking in the mirror. She didn’t want to see how her lips had become dry and cracked.
The Mojave that surrounds the gas station stretches away for hundreds of miles in every direction, with nothing but scrub, coyotes, snakes and centipedes. Folks who know, tell it that Natalie walked out into the desert and just never came back.
There’s a local Indian legend that the ghost of a young woman can sometimes be seen along the banks of the Mojave River and after dark they can hear her wail. White people have heard it too, but they say it’s just the wind.