It all starts with me getting caught shoplifting a six-pack of Coors Light at Rick's Stop-N-Shop, back home in River Junction, Michigan. The week before I'd gotten fired from my job at Hardings Friendly Market on account of my cash box failing to come out right a third time. Getting hauled up to Rick, who is best buds with Fred, the Hardings' manager, would mean that the cops would get called for sure, so I point at Alex who's standing at the magazine rack reading the National Enquirer and say I'm getting it for him, that he's paying for it, and then I start to cry (just pretend tears) and old Phyllis the cashier lets me go after Alex digs the cash out of his pants.
That little moment becomes this huge catalyst for change as Mr. Brainard, my science teacher back in the tenth grade would have said. Because Alex, my boyfriend of almost two years, gets way P.O.ed and says we're through, and then Momma hops on the bandwagon and don't want much to do with me either. After a couple of days of their silent treatment I start to wonder why it is that I'm even taking their judgmental crap and I say to myself, "Callie Syfransky, you're 19 years old and you don't owe anybody anything."
And then it's like that ball rolling down the hill, gaining momentum every second. Dora, our neighbor at Mystic Estates who like knows everybody and everything tells me about this girl Sheila, who is heading out west and looking for a rider. Sheila's twenty-six and on short-term disability due to getting rear-ended by some guy messing around with his car stereo and she is saying we can split the gas and everything and she's got some room for my things in the Bronco she bought with her insurance money, but not much.
I borrow Momma's car and promise to use the turn signal whenever necessary and meet Sheila for a drink at the bar connected to the Montrose bowling alley. Sheila's a big girl, maybe six feet tall, long red hair and blue eyes. Maybe thirty pounds lighter and she could be a model. She orders a Bahama Mama and it comes with a little umbrella in it. We're getting to know each other okay, just the light stuff before we get into it.
"You don't smoke cigarettes, do you?" she says.
I shake my head, eye the butterfly tattoo on her neck. "So Buena Vista?" I say. "You've been there before?"
"Never," she says smiling, twirling the purple umbrella between her fingers.
"You've got friends there?" The waitress brings us an order of fried mushrooms. The bar's about half full, mostly old guys getting away from their wives.
"Nope." She looks me in the eye, takes a sip of her drink.
I bite. "Okay, what's the story?"
"Buena Vista. Neat name. Means good view."
"So you picked the place based on the name?"
Sheila shakes her head. "Better than that. I opened an atlas, closed my eyes, said a little prayer to the powers that be, and plopped my finger down on beautiful Buena Vista, Colorado." I nod, and gulp my Diet Coke.
"Change is good," she says. "Shake things up a little, get a fresh perspective."
I nod again. Change is what I need.*
So I start going through my stuff. Grandma gave me this big Lane chest in middle school and it's almost full. There's a quilt she made me and a set of silverware, still in the box from Momma, some real beautiful china with violets painted on it that I got for only five dollars at a garage sale last summer, fancy silk flowers, lace doilies from Grandma, and even an ice blue garter with white lace, in it's own plastic case. I go through the stuff and Momma is saying what ever I want I better take with me, cause she is not storing it for a hundred years, and in an emotional fit, I just take it all to the Goodwill, even my favorite plates and the quilt.
So then the day comes when Sheila is ready to go and she's stopped at the front of our trailer park. I'm waiting there with my backpack, one suitcase, and my sleeping bag, standing there all alone, nobody even trying to stop me, saying please don't go, all that. Sheila hops out, her belly jiggling under her tight t-shirt and jeans. She opens the back of the Bronco and it's full of shit like ten years worth of Rolling Stone magazine, hundreds of cassette tapes, more clothes than a person could wear in a lifetime and like a hundred cans of French cut green beans. So I'm thinking, I gave up my grandma's quilt for this? But I don't say anything, because like, I don't know Sheila, only that it is her Bronco and she is calling the shots and my stomach's all jumbled, but there's nothing to do but slide my suitcase and stuff alongside the green beans. And then Sheila slams the door shut and says, "Hop in." And I do.
Sheila's got The Grateful Dead playing and it turns out she's got the whole collection, including bootleg live concert tapes. She's high most of the time, which she says is to counteract the pain in her back from her accident and doing all the driving, which she insists she does on account of it being her Bronco. She passes a fat joint to me, I look at it, all wet from her mouth. "It just puts me to sleep," I say, thinking that somebody better stay clear-headed.
I'm looking out the window all the time and we don't talk much. Sheila taps her finger on the steering wheel to the beat of the music and sings along. I've never been more than a couple hours from home. When we drive through Chicago with all its giant buildings and cars filling up every inch of the pavement, I get a little freaked out, but Sheila doesn't even say a word.
Around the middle of flat Iowa Sheila wants to talk. She turns to me. We're at a stop light in Sioux City. "Didn't you used to work at Hardings?"
I tell her about my cash box not coming out right and then before I know it, I'm on to my fight with Alex, how he thinks I'm some kind of kleptomaniac and how taking a mascara or a some other small item doesn't really hurt anybody. I mean the store has insurance and they're making the big bucks anyway. Sheila nods her head, but she acts different after that and I'm thinking how Momma warned me time and again that my mouth was gonna get me in trouble.
On day four the Bronco blows out a tire in Meridian, Wyoming and Sheila says it's an omen, especially being that Meridian is like some kind of celestial word and also that Wyoming is really a big reminder to ask "why" like in support of anarchy. She says that this is where we stop. I'm free to find my own way if I want to go further, but no, I'm sticking with her, figuring she's okay, and besides, she's the one with the car.
We're set up in the state park in our tent and Sheila and I are looking in the newspaper for people who want roommates, but there aren't that many ads, in fact only three, and two of them want Christians and the other is a man who has a zillion qualifications, like signing a contract with a bunch of rules pertaining to noise volume, bathroom use, cleanliness standards, and guests. Even at the food co-op there's only one ad and it's a vegan woman with three kids and a cat, who wants no meat or diary in the house and someone to baby sit her herbally medicated ADD kid.
Two weeks go by, I'm sleeping in the Bronco and Sheila in the tent and we are miserable. We cave in and pool our money to put up three months rent for a crappy two bedroom apartment in a not-so-good neighborhood. Sheila and I aren't exactly on speaking terms and I'm nearly broke, despite turning in a job application in practically every place in town. Seems like nobody wants to hire a person like me—no high school diploma and no local references. The lack of diploma isn't entirely my fault, but a technicality having to do with attendance. I passed all my classes.
So every time I put an application in it's the same. They look at me, look at the application, then back at me, then clear their throats and tell me to check back next month. In the beginning I try to explain about me and Alex and Sheila and the attendance criteria, but nobody really cares. Nobody seems to think that I might add up to more than the sum of my parts.
Sheila keeps to herself in her room with the door shut. I'm sleeping on the floor in my room with a sweater folded up for a pillow. My clothes take up six hangers and I keep my underwear and personals in my suitcase. No frills in this room: white walls, brown carpet, and a window with a view of a concrete wall. I don't think about Alex or Momma or anything much back home. And it isn't like I'm exactly disappointed with the way things are going here, because I left all expectation back home in River Junction, in front of our trailer park.
I read the want ads every day. Most of the jobs are for driving something somewhere or require a college degree. I've been bypassing that job at the nursing home, which by the way is only four blocks from our empty apartment. But I need money, so I give in and show up at Misty Mountain Home, walk down the stinky hallway, looking in a door or two. Sparse rooms with an old person or two in each, what did I expect? A woman, maybe forty-five, in a walker with some kind of mental retardation and thick glasses that sit cockeyed on her face reaches out to touch me and I scoot away. I know she doesn't have germs, but the idea of her maybe grabbing onto my shirt and not letting go jumps in my head. I find the main desk and ask about the nurse's aid position, then sit and wait.
A woman Grandma's age comes out from behind the desk and hands me an application stuck on a clipboard. Something snaps in me and I write that I've graduated from River Junction High School, that I've been a candy striper, when really my only experience with hospitals was visiting Grandma after she fell off a footstool and broke her hip a couple of years back.
Nurse Pamela Dody takes my application and doesn't even look at it.
"You like old people?" she says.
I think a few seconds. "I like my grandparents a lot. They're pretty cool."
Nurse Dody looks at me. Her cap has sharp white edges, crisp and clean. "You aren't from around here." She just keeps looks at me, rubbing her lips together.
"My sister's here," I lie. "I came out here to help her. She just had twins. Her husband's in Iraq."
"Young with twins. She doesn't need you during the day?"
"Oh, his mom helps during the day. My sister, she's got a big house. A room just for me. We hang out at night, go shopping for the twins, Jason and Jeffrey." The lie just comes out so easy like, and then I start thinking about that room. Frilly lace curtains, a canopy bed maybe. Like the girly bedrooms from the Penney's catalogue. Not like my room now. Nurse Dody eyes me, pushes up her glasses with her index finger against the bridge of her nose, scans the application for the first time.
"You'll need a uniform, white shoes. Go to the AMVETS downtown. You'll get two days paid training. You can start tomorrow." She gets up to file my application, looks at me sitting there, my mouth hanging open. "Got any questions?" she says. I close my mouth. "You'll need a stethoscope, too," she says, handing me the business card for a medical supply store in town.
So that's it.