One day in June, Dad found a foot in a men’s size 11 Adidas shoe lying out near the salt flats. My first thought was that there must be an ocean around, even though I knew that was impossible, that the salt flats had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’d never even seen the ocean outside of a magazine or sometimes a TV show, and even then I had the feeling that I wasn’t really seeing the ocean, that it wasn’t the same as actually being there. But the foot seemed like the kind of thing that could only wash up on shore from a faraway land, like a message in a glass bottle with a cork as a cap.
Rosemary and I bent our knees slightly to look at it, pinching our noses. I stayed slightly behind. I couldn’t help but think about who the foot would belong to, what a man in the Mojave would look like hopping around with a foot missing. Maybe he’d post a sign – Missing: Size 11 foot in a size 11 shoe. White. Hefty reward if found and returned to rightful owner in original condition. Dad bent down to look closer. He reached out and touched the shoe softly, rubbing the untied white laces between his thumb and forefinger. After a second, he looked up at us, squinting in the bright sun. “It’s a left,” he announced.
That summer, I was always on the lookout. I couldn’t help it. Mothers with daughters, mothers with sons, mothers with twins, mothers with their mothers, mothers with fathers, mothers with pets, mothers in swimsuits, mothers pushing strollers, mothers expecting, mothers eating hamburgers, mothers with broken bones, mothers with spit-up on their sweaters, mothers wearing white dresses, mothers wearing lipstick, mothers with slicked back ponytails, mothers drinking coffee, mothers with tennis rackets, mothers with damp hair, mothers driving vans, mothers singing, mothers with pearl earrings, mothers crying quietly, mothers wearing aprons, mothers with their hair pinned up, mothers alone that were inexplicably still, above all else, mothers. I couldn’t help but stare.
On the last Thursday of May, right after Rosemary and I finished school for the summer, we all drove north from St. George to Bonneville for the summer. Dad had a job helping prepare the salt flats for Speed Week at the end of August, when people descended from all over for the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials. It was rumored that one contender, Guy Martin, was hoping to break all records with a 1,000 horsepower motorcycle. I was mostly excited to spend the summer on the salt flats. Dad said that in the early morning on really hot days, the heat waves rose up and shimmered until it looked like a shallow lake again.
The drive was almost six hours long, and the whole way up we listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, our toes pressed against the windshield. To our left, the highway curved steeply and grasses in shades of green, yellow, and purple seemed to stretch on forever. As we drove, the canyons ahead of us seemed to ripple, faster as we drove closer.
This summer, Dad announced, our project was going to be learning Spanish. We were going to do a word each day, and then by the end of the summer we would be able to say a few sentences each. I loved watching Dad speak Spanish more than I loved hearing it, the way his mouth moved differently when he said words like amor or vidorra, how it changed his whole face. Spanish words never sounded right when I said them, like I was trying to talk with my mouth full. Rosemary barely even tried.
Sometimes, Dad would take us out to see the strange things he found in the desert. Mostly me, because after Rosemary turned seventeen she started staying in our room more, sometimes reading or watching TV even though I could tell part of her secretly still wanted to come with us. Sometimes I find her lying in bed, one cheek resting on her bent palm and her legs crossed behind her, thumping one heel after another on the dark wooden headboard of the bed.
“What’re you looking at?” I’d ask her, standing next to her and gazing out the window, wondering if there was something she was seeing out there that I wasn’t, but never more than the occasional lizard or spiny mouse scuttled across the salt flats as far as I could tell.
“I’m just thinking,” she’d say. “That’s all.”
The salt flats were in the center of Bonneville, the only thing left over from the Pleistocene lake that once covered half of Utah, spilling over into Idaho and Nevada. No one knew exactly when it was first discovered but Dad told me it was sometime in the 1830s. A U.S. Army officer exploring the mountains stumbled across the white and dried up land, stretching on for miles of nothing to the South. He must have thought for a second that he was on the surface of the moon. In the summer, the light reflected so brightly off of the flats we could barely keep our eyes open.
One Sunday, around the first week of June, we made our first trip into Salt Lake City, driving across the cracked flat surface of the flats before turning onto the highway. The truck moved up and down slightly as we drove over each crack, and Bob Dylan’s voice warbled in time with the motion. Dad told us about a restaurant he loved called The Blue Plate Diner. It served breakfast all day and stayed open past midnight for truckers driving home late. He and Mom had gone there once, before we were born, which made even Rosemary smile. We piled into the truck – first Dad, wearing an old grey baseball cap, then Rosemary, her long blond hair swinging in a ponytail, and then me. As he pulled onto the main road, I looked over at Rosemary and realized how different from me she looked. She was wearing a yellow sundress with a blue ribbon belt tied around her waist, and her lips looked too red for chapstick. I wrapped a loose string on my short hem around my index finger and pulled, but it only crinkled the fabric more. Today’s Spanish word was el cuervo. Crow.
I studied our feet against the windshield. Rosemary’s feet were softer and her toes were longer than my own, her toenails carefully painted a shade of pink so light it was almost white in the sun. Mine were chipped and mostly red and slightly different sizes, I realized, pressing them and releasing them against the windshield so they left little white marks on the glass. I crossed my ankles before Rosemary noticed.
Dad grew up in Cuba before and during the revolution. He was only in elementary school, a few years younger than me, when Fidel took over. Nothing much changed until one day, his father, a tailor who owned a small shop on the side streets of Havana arrived at work to find the doors and windows bolted shut, a sign taped to the glass: Property of the Government.
Fidel’s soldiers would march into his school, the kids sitting upright in pressed white and blue uniforms with matching vests and knee-high socks. The soldiers would burst in the classroom without warning, sometimes when the teacher was in the middle of a lesson, and then he’d have to stop whatever he was saying and stand to the side while the soldiers filed into the front of the room. Sometimes, kids would cry out, and the soldiers would laugh and laugh until finally someone, maybe the Captain, would say that there was nothing to be afraid of.
“Close your eyes and ask God for a piece of candy,” they would command, and Dad and the rest of the boys in his class would press their eyes closed and knees together under the desk while the soldiers walked up and down the aisles of desks as if they were preparing an army for battle. Upon the soldiers command, they would open their eyes and look down, and find nothing on their desk but papers and their pencil boxes. “Now close your eyes and ask Fidel for a piece of candy,” they would say, and once again command them to look and they would look and sure enough there would be a piece of candy on their desk, a fat toffee wrapped in translucent white paper twisted closed on both ends or a round red gumdrop in black paper dotted with tiny gold flecks.
Dad came here when he was only thirteen along with more than 13,000 other Cuban kids. They came alone. It was called Operation Peter Pan. He was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Wyoming. Their parents were all supposed to come join them just a few months later, but some took years to come and some, like Dad’s parents, never came at all. “The nuns who ran the orphanage taught me two rules,” Dad said. “Don’t lie, and don’t steal. Of course, they never said don’t fight and so the older kids used to pick on us all the time, especially when we first got there and only knew Spanish. But I’ve never forgotten those two rules, and you girls should live by them, too. Everyone needs something to live by,” he said.
“Says who,” Rosemary said, crossing one ankle on top of the other and pressing all ten toes against the windshield.
“God,” Dad said.
Dad was always finding things out in the desert. Mysterious things—like a concrete arrow seventy feet wide and crumbling a little around the edges, so massive we thought was a mistake if the greasewood hadn’t grown so patchy around it so we knew it was there for a reason. I thought it was made by aliens, a pathway that could lead across the entire Mojave to some kind of buried treasure, like an underground city.
Rosemary always said that was stupid, but she was five years older than me and was always telling me what I didn’t know even though I didn’t really think she knew much more than me. But that never stopped her from always reminding me that she had spent five years and two months and twenty-seven days longer on this planet than I did, and didn’t I know how much more she had seen than me? To which I always thought, with some kind of vicious joy that scared me a little bit, that it was only fair that Rosemary would die before me.
Rosemary and I sat on the couch side of the booth with red pleather seats and Dad sat in a chair across from her, his arm resting across the empty seat next to him. The menus were as thick as phonebooks, with carefully laminated double-sided pages divided into neat sections with little tabs on one side.
At the front of the diner, there was a young mother with short red hair tucked behind both ears sitting with a young girl and boy at one of the booths, dishes of applesauce in front of them. The boy said something and she laughed and laughed. She reached over and tucked her daughter’s hair, red like her own, behind her left ear. I didn’t blink; I didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
The waitress came, and smiled wide so you could see all of her teeth, even the bottom ones. Her nametag said Molly in capital letters. I ordered a double cheeseburger with a side of half French fries and half onion rings, and a chocolate milkshake. Rosemary ordered next.
“I’ll have a diet Coke,” she said, “and a side Caesar salad.”
Dad picked a chicken-fried steak and a piece of banana cream pie and the waitress smiled at us again, her red lipstick seeping into the cracks in her teeth as she gathered the menus. Women like Molly always smiled at my dad when they saw him with us. Like they felt sorry for him a little.
Dad disappeared sometimes, usually for a few days and never more than a week, unhitching his red truck from the front of our trailer and waving to us until he pulled away. It was kind of fun when he was gone—like we were two orphans, like the Boxcar children or Dad when he first came to Wyoming. No one told us when to go to bed or to close the windows so bugs wouldn’t get in or not to eat ice cream sundaes for breakfast. When he did have to leave without telling us, he would leave a note on the kitchen table and some extra groceries on the counter or in the freezer—12 or 13 clementines with tiny, sharp seeds wrapped in bright pink netting, cans of Pepsi for Rosemary and Coke for me, five or six boiled eggs on the counter with a plate over top to keep them warm, tubs of mint chocolate ice cream in the freezer.
And he always came back. He brought back souvenirs from his trips—creosote bush, honey in little glass jars with a piece of blue and white checked cloth over top, black t-shirts that read Peppermill Casino in red and yellow curly letters. My favorite gift was a tall white, blooming flower with glossy leaves that came in a glass jar with a little soil sprinkled at the bottom. It was a ghost flower, he explained. Instead of chlorophyll, it got energy and life from tree fungi. It looked like a strange plant that could grow only on the moon or miles underwater.
Above all, Dad loved adventures. Sometimes, Dad would come into our room all excited, his cheeks red, and ask us to go on an adventure with him, like we were part of a secret plan. Even Rosemary couldn’t say no. Dad was like a child sometimes, the way he asked for things so you couldn’t refuse. Sometimes Rosemary seemed older than Dad, or at least more serious than him. But Dad was serious, too. Sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t looking I would catch him. His mouth turned down in a little upside-down U as he drove or sat with his feet up on the kitchen counter, and he would run his fingers through his hair five or six times in a row. But eventually he would notice me looking and as if waking up from a dream he would grin wide, a smile that seemed to change his face entirely, change him back into our father again.
“Girls,” Dad said, stretching back in his chair and lifting his arms like he wanted to touch the ceiling. For a second, I thought he would tip over but then gravity pulled him back to the table again. “I have some news.”
I picked up my water straw so it was just above the surface of the water and blew, watching the air ripple through the water and splash against the far side of the cup. I wondered if that was what it felt like to feel waves on your feet. Dad shifted in his seat. He kept staring behind our heads, at the door. When neither of us said anything, he continued.
“I—well, girls, there’s no easy way to say this. I wanted to tell you that I’ve met someone.”
Rosemary put down her glass of water. “What’s her name?” she asked. I stared at her.
“Stefanie,” my Dad said. He took out his wallet and unfolded it. He looked through the main compartment for a second and then pulled out a picture from between two tens, flattening it against the table with his thumbs and sliding it over to us. A woman with brown bangs held a tiny baby wrapped in white blankets, laughing at something behind the camera.
“What is this,” Rosemary asked, picking the picture up. There was something written in curly blue pen on the back.
“That,” Dad said, “is your sister.”
I picked up the picture and looked at it again. I looked up at my father and back down at the photograph. I put the photograph flat on the speckled, shiny surface of the table and smoothed out the rolled up corner with my thumb. I slid it back across the table to him. Molly the waitress arrived and set down plates, first Rosemary’s and then mine. I dipped an onion ring into the milkshake and popped the entire thing in my mouth. The onion was hot and oily on the inside, the milkshake icy and sweet on my tongue. I wanted to throw up. Rosemary stabbed a crouton with her fork and then dropped the whole thing back into the bowl with a clang.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “A sister?”
Dad smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Luciana. Luciana Mariana. You’ll love her. She just turned one. And Stefanie – she’s so wonderful. She wants to meet you girls so bad.”
“But I don’t want a sister,” I said. Dad’s mouth turned into an upside-down U, and he looked at me strangely. It shocked me how much I could hurt him. It delighted me.
The steak arrived, bathing in gravy. “It looks like an intestine,” Rosemary said quietly.
“Girls,” Dad said, “Chiquitas. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I didn’t want to keep this from you, I was just waiting to – figure out a plan.”
“I knew you were having an affair,” Rosemary said. “But we don’t need a sister.” I looked sideways at Rosemary and then across at Dad. I didn’t know who I hated more.
“I don’t want to hear about this,” I said. Suddenly, I realized I was yelling. “I just want to go home.”
I watched the family next to us stare, forks frozen in mid-air like they were watching a riveting TV special. It felt good to yell. It was like taking off tight pants.
Dad sighed. “Let’s have lunch first,” he said. “And then we can talk when you’re calmer. Okay?”
I said nothing.
“Rosemary,” he said, “please. Say something.”
Rosemary looked up at him. “You can fuck whoever you want,” she said. “You’re the adult.”
I had never heard Rosemary swear before, and Dad turned pink. I could tell she had done something that she could never take back.
“Don’t speak to me like that,” he said, and now he was yelling, too, even though his voice was barely a whisper. “I’m still your father.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Molly the waitress approach, stop, and turn on her heel, disappearing behind the counter.
“Yeah,” Rosemary said coolly, “whatever.”
She picked up my milkshake and drained the glass, her red lips a perfect circle around the thick white straw. She was looking at Dad like he wasn’t our father anymore, like he was a man she didn’t even know at all.
I started to cry. Rosemary jabbed my side under the table.
“Girls, I have to take another trip after this. It’ll be longer than usual, maybe two weeks, but maybe more. There are some things I have to help them with. You girls should come, if you want—but I figured you might have more fun here.” He looked at me. “I know you love the salt flats.”
“But why do you have to help them?” I said. I knew I was being selfish, but I didn’t care.
Dad suddenly looked very tired. “Because,” he said. “Stefanie might get deported. She doesn’t have the right kind of papers.”
“So she’s illegal,” Rosemary said. She crossed her arms over her chest. She was looking at Dad like she had never seen him before in her life.
“She’s not illegal,” Dad said. “People can’t be illegal. She came here illegally, when she was very young.” I knew only one illegal immigrant, a girl in my class named Maria. Her dad was a gardener and she wore her hair in two braids tied with pink ribbons at the ends. I was jealous that she had a mother to do her hair, even if she was illegal.
“I care about her very much,” Dad said. “And about Luciana. Kids need their fathers.”
“It’s not our fault we don’t speak Spanish,” Rosemary said.
“Of course it’s not,” Dad said. He used his fork and sharp knife to cut a bite from the steak, put it in his mouth, and chewed.
“I need to help my family,” he said finally.
“But we’re your family,” I said.
Dad reached across the table. Rosemary and I put our hands down in our lap.
“Of course you are,” he said.
Once, when we were really little, Dad spotted an old Chevrolet on the side of Highway 374, white paint peeling silver and the driver’s door flung open like someone was going to come back for it any second. He took Rosemary and I out to see it, waiting until dark because he said a fire is always more beautiful at night. The moon was huge above us, and Dad held the match while Rosemary and I doused the windshield and all four doors in lighter fluid from an old paint can. I climbed on top of the hood to coat the roof.
And after Dad finally dropped the match through the passenger window, the heat chased us away faster than we had ever run from anything before, like it was already under our skin. We heard it blow before we stumbled around to see, dizzy, and saw the whipping flames now twice as tall as us. And after all his talk, Dad didn’t even turn around to watch the show. He just crossed himself, lit a cigarette, and started walking home.
First, Rosemary and I wandered through the produce section, pulling fat red grapes off their dusty stems before popping them into our mouths. She didn’t speak to me and I didn’t say anything to her. Then we walked back and forth through the freezer aisles, past boxes of yellow and blue frozen food: chicken fingers, chicken strips, chicken tenders, chicken drumsticks, popcorn chicken, popcorn shrimp, mac and cheese in big zipped bags, black rectangular cartons of strawberry ice cream, cherry pie, apple pie, banana cream pie, chocolate lava cake, cheesecake, green beans, mashed potatoes, cubes of corn and carrots and peas, cylinders of pink lemonade, ice cream sandwiches, strawberry shortcake bars, red white and blue push-up pops, pepperoni pizza, corn dogs, chicken pot pie, enchiladas, Chef Boyardee lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs. The cold air felt good on my arms. I wanted to climb inside a freezer case until it was so cold I wouldn’t be able to feel anything.
In the center of the Food Lion was a display of chocolates, towering high in a pyramid as tall as a Christmas tree. They were individually wrapped in gold and silver paper, no bigger than a pair of dice each. “Rosemary,” I said. I didn’t know what I was going to say next. She turned to look at me and something in her face changed; it got soft for a second. “Wait here,” she said.
I lingered by the frozen section and watched Rosemary walk up to the chocolate pyramid, turn her head a little to the left and then to the right, and then slip a small gold piece into the pocket of her dress before turning sharply to the left and walking away. I sped around the display and found her reading the ingredients on the back of a carton of yogurt.
“Rosemary,” I said, and grabbed her arm.
“Try it,” she said, and for a second I saw her eyes light up again the way they did when we used to play out in the desert as kids, chasing lizards or creosote bush, making up stories about our mother in a big house by the ocean. “Go on,” she hissed, pushing me forward a little bit. Around us, tired-looking mothers pushed carts full of boring groceries: broccoli, milk, white bread, square packets of green and red jello. I sidled up to the pyramid, looking for a perfect spot. Slowly, I picked up a piece, weighing it in my palm and pretending to study the gold letters printed on the packaging. When the man in the red Food Lion apron in front of Aisle 3 turned around to rearrange the shelves, I quickly stuffed it into the back pocket of my shorts and raced back to Rosemary. She seemed proud.
We linked arms and continued walking through the store, a few steps faster than our first round. Past the towering pyramid of chocolates again to the deli, which reeked of brine and hot dogs. Pallid halves of turkey lay in a glass mausoleum, wrapped in plastic netting and nestled in fake leaves.
“You girls need anything?” We looked up. A man smiled at us from under a red Food Lion baseball cap. He stopped right in front of us, so close I could see every detail of his face. He had birthmarks like mine, but more raised.
“We’re fine sir,” Rosemary said with a wide smile, a copy of Dad’s.
The man took another step towards us. His shirt, short-sleeved and plaid like the kind my teachers wore, strained slightly around his biceps as he leaned his elbows against the glass casing. His hands trembled a little above the block of provolone, something wet collecting in the holes.
“We don’t need any cheese,” I said. He moved away from the meat and around the glass casing. He wore clear plastic gloves that were too big for him.
“I’ve seen you girls here,” he said.
Rosemary grabbed my elbow and we took a few steps back. I looked around but the aisle was suddenly clear of people, the whole store seemed empty. “You like chocolate, don’t you,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“We really should be going,” Rosemary said. He put out his hand – he didn’t touch us, but I stopped as if he had hit me across the face.
“Listen,” he said, “I won’t tell.” His face split wide into a grin, but it looked nothing like our dad’s. “But you’ll have to do something for me back. Pretty girl like you.” He was looking at Rosemary. She wasn’t moving.
“Rosemary,” I said, tugging her arm. “Let’s go.” I grabbed her hand and began pulling her towards the front of the store. As we turned the corner, I could hear him laughing and the sound of the meat slicer whirring on again.
Outside on the concrete, Rosemary was trembling. It felt good to feel the sun on my arms again. “Where’s Dad?” he asked, and I scanned the parking lot for him while Rosemary watched the sliding doors of the Food Lion open and close behind us. I spotted the red truck parked at the other end of the plaza and Rosemary and I ran towards it, weaving among cars and trucks and shopping carts. He looked up as we were running towards him, and he broke into one of those giant smiles that changed his whole face, and I had never been happier to see it.
“Daddy,” Rosemary said. “I have something for you.” She put her hand in her dress pocket and pulled out the goldwrapped chocolate, holding it in her open palm. I did the same. Rosemary opened her other hand and inside was the twenty-dollar bill, crumpled like an old receipt. Dad looked at us and then down at our outstretched palms, and for a second I thought he might hit us. In one motion, he grabbed both pieces of chocolate and held them in his fist. For a moment, his eyes filled with something like tears, but when I looked again they were gone.