by Avra Elliott
The town took its name from the national park beside it. Geologists and paleontologists had once hunched like vultures in the cafés, scavenging for unsuspecting tourists. They lectured bored children about the petrified trees, how the wood had become silica, how their colors came from iron, manganese, and carbon.
By the time Ann and Kirk took over his parents’ store, most of the scientists were extinct, the trees depleted by theft and by the tourist shop owners who sold off the town’s main attraction. That something petrified could eventually slip away had never occurred to anyone, least of all Ann’s in-laws who’d run the first ad in the 70’s bragging a free piece of petrified wood to every visitor.
Cafés closed their doors, the forgotten menus advertising Petrified Pastrami Sandwiches blew down the street with the tumbleweeds. A retired professor bought a pit-bull to guard the largest remaining stump, a tooth protruding from the desert’s diseased gums. On her bad days Ann was jealous of the man’s stump. Her own property contained one large, bile-colored log with grey mold-like circles, and three red sections, split so clean they reminded her of a store-bought loaf of sliced bread. She was fond of the red ones, a deep mahogany the color of her son’s wood stained Lincoln Logs.
Tourists seemed to expect towering Redwoods of stone, and standing amid what could easily be enormous animal droppings was not their idea of a good family vacation. They entered Ann and Kirk’s store, spun the postcard rack or stuck their hand in the bin of petrified fragments and asked how far they were from the Grand Canyon.
Ann stopped spending her days hopefully waiting behind the counter and began sunbathing in her old cruise line deck chair. It was the only piece of lawn furniture she had personally purchased, and she considered it far superior to Kirk’s white plastic chairs and the assorted dinosaurs he’d sculpted from metal or papier-mâché. A T-rex provided her with shade, as from her deck chair she watched the only remaining outdoor food vendor, a Navajo Taco stand across the street.
She’d napped on the chair during her pregnancy and forced a smile as the taco stand proprietor, Elaine Johnson Running-Tree, joked about over-baking the bun in her oven. She imagined her womb as a sauna, the heat hospitable and not oppressive.
When Kirk Jr. was born a month early he appeared underdone. His pasty flesh wrinkled around his eyes, and Ann wondered if like a puppy he would need several weeks before he could see. Ann took to calling Kirk Jr. “KJ” and eventually slurred it into “Cage.” Now two, the boy looked very much like his father, as though his name had been a prophecy.
Cage played a few yards away amid the sand and tufts of brown grass that made up their lawn.
“Dead thing,” the boy announced.
Ann forced herself from the chair with effort, the heat of the day pushing her down. Elaine had already floated across the street to kneel beside Cage, her long braids the color of oxidized stones dipping into the dust.
Ann moved slowly to join them. She pictured herself as a majestic desert animal—though no specific animal came to mind—crossing the sands to check on a stray cub. She rested a hand on Cage’s white-blonde hair. When she met Kirk as a child he had the same lashes as Cage, the bleached white of the cow skulls so commonly used as yard décor.
Cage reached a fat finger toward a headless sparrow’s body covered in ants, victim to the damn roadrunners. The frighteningly prehistoric-looking creatures stared from the brush during Ann’s walks, the feathers along their heads lifting like a spiked cock’s comb. They twisted their necks to let one eye watch her. Kirk adored them. He had built a six-foot roadrunner from scrap metal. It was the catalyst for his dinosaur hobby and stood on the edge of town beneath a billboard bragging the largest Spinosaurus sculpture in the southwest. If she wasn’t careful Kirk would tell her all about them.
“Poor thing,” Elaine said, scooping the body into her hands and blowing away the ants. Ann frowned. How could she teach Cage not to pick up every dead thing he saw when this woman set such a bad example?
“Is that a good idea, Elaine? You handle food…”
“Every creature deserves respect. Come, Kirk Jr., let’s find it a resting place.”
Elaine and Cage crossed the street, Elaine stopping to check both ways despite traffic being rare as rain.
A plane passed overhead, and Ann imagined the pilot looking down and seeing the little boy dressed in red and blue, a lone wandering survivor of some wreck. A bright speck on the vibrant dreariness of the desert floor. Tourists told Ann they envied the blue skies, but the skies only looked blue because of the sepia earth they contrasted. It was like the marbles Cage found in the sand, only beautiful because their colors stood out against the dust.
Ann returned indoors to open the store. They lived in the rooms above it. During the first years of marriage she would walk downstairs in her robe to bring Kirk coffee, and if a tourist happened to stop by she slipped away to dress. Now every morning she felt the dust of unsold souvenirs seeping up through the floorboards.
Ann buried her hand in a bin of fossilized fragments. When the exodus first started, she took Cage on morning walks to collect pieces of petrified wood from other properties for their store, but Kirk stopped this, saying it was dishonest since they were unable to pay the rightful owners.
Tourists stopped buying souvenirs when they realized they could pick up a piece of the town in any surrounding field. Ann said nothing, merely watched as Kirk began staying up late with a yellow legal pad, writing out lists of potential side incomes. Her mother had worked as a housecleaner for the retirees who trickled into a town they thought of as warm and full of natural history. Ann had offered, trying to keep her voice light, to pick up her mother’s broom. Kirk had shaken his head. Her place was by his side, smiling at tourists and parroting back facts, arranging the pieces of petrified wood on the shelves into artistic displays.
The problem with Kirk was that his expertise never matched his enthusiasm. He bought old school buses and outlined a plan to turn them into food trucks. As the buses’ paint faded and the interiors cracked and peeled, Kirk began posting small signs advertising his availability as a notary. He viewed the dinosaurs as one of his art projects, and thought Ann enjoyed being a curator of sorts. But she hated them. Most were tall enough to come to her waist, and many stood several feet taller than she did. From the store window she could see his Triceratops and even make out its empty, staring eye sockets. It was tedious to keep the area around the dinosaurs clean, so each one had its own surrounding patch of brush. The grass vaguely camouflaged the peeling skins of papier-mâché and scrap metal. Ann reminded herself that this was Kirk’s way of surviving.
The bells above the door announced a customer. Ann kept her back turned, focusing her attention on a small tray of rattlesnake tails Kirk had collected. He had found a den of snakes recently in the leg of his T. rex. This was how he viewed every hazard or disappointment, as something to be prized or sold.
The sound of a digital camera’s shutter startled Ann. The customer, a girl, stood a few feet away. The tiny juts of her hip bones peeked over the top of her jeans, bird’s bones. A small white dog stood by her feet.
“Fantastic,” the girl said, studying the image she had taken on her camera. She wiped black bangs away from her forehead, and grinned, revealing perfect small teeth, the kind previously trained by braces. Ann ran her tongue along her own, feeling the familiar ridge of a canine.
“Can I get your name?” the girl asked, pulling a composition notebook the size of an index card from her denim vest pocket. She was a head shorter and maybe ten years younger than Ann.
“I don’t allow pets in the store,” Ann said. She didn’t care for young tourists. They spent little and left beer cans behind.
“Tiny behaves himself.” The girl thrust out her hand. “I’m Stu. I’m taking a road trip down old highways for my book.”
Holding the girl’s hand, Ann noticed how freckled her own hands had become. They appeared large compared to the girl’s.
The girl laughed. “Stu.”
Ann imagined canned stew, the orange grease congealed on the surface. The girl’s parents must have hated her.
“Is there a good place to eat?” the girl asked.
“There’s a place to eat.”
The dog began yipping, each bark propelling it backward.
“It’s across the street,” Ann said, and opened the door for the girl to leave. She pointed across the street where Elaine was heating the grill for the burgers she served on tortillas and called Indian Tacos. Cage was setting out condiments like toy soldiers in a line.
“Lead the way,” Stu said.
Kirk would have taken the girl by the arm and walked her across the street. He would have given a monologue that didn’t sound rehearsed about the history of the town, downplaying his parents’ role in repeatedly bailing out other struggling citizens, but Ann walked silently ahead, telling herself she needed to get Cage anyway.
The Navajo Taco Stand consisted of two old grills beneath a bleached canopy. Elaine and Bob had originally opened a trading post offering moccasins, jewelry, and woven rugs. Upon learning his father was one sixteenth Navajo, Bob added Running Tree to their name and began advertising authentic fry bread. Elaine had yet to master any traditional recipes. Having worked summers at a carnival, her fry bread was basically funnel cake in appearance and taste. Whenever Kirk invited them for dinner, Ann took a certain pride in preparing red chili, or the Spanish rice her mother had taught her to make. At first she lied about the recipes when Elaine asked for them, leaving out key ingredients and relishing her own authority. When she eventually took pity, she discovered the lies were unneeded. Elaine managed to ruin Frito pies.
Cage waved to his mother and ran over to hand her a burger wrapped in a tortilla.
“He made that for you,” Elaine said
“Did you wash your hands?” Ann asked looking for the dead bird.
Cage reached for the dog, staring at Stu as he waited for an invitation.
“You can pet him,” the girl said, again revealing her teeth, only now Ann saw the girl’s smile was a touch crooked. “His name is Tiny. What’s yours?”
“This is Kirk Jr.” Elaine said.
“Is he your son?” Stu asked Elaine.
“I’m his other mother,” Elaine said.
Stu looked from Ann to Elaine with new interest.
“Elaine watches him when my husband and I are busy at the store,” Ann said. She didn’t mind someone thinking she was a lesbian, but if she was she would do better than Elaine.
Stu ordered fry bread and when it was placed in front of her she shook her head and sincerely murmured, “Fucking fantastic,” as though mislabeled funnel cake was exactly what she had expected and hoped to find. Ann hoped Elaine had forgot to wash her hands. She glanced down at Cage.
“Where’s your bird?”
He pointed to a small mound of stones near the corner of the stand and then resumed petting the dog.
Stu held up her camera the way an explorer might show a nervous native she was unarmed. “Can I take your boy’s photo?”
“Are you a reporter?” Elaine asked.
“Of sorts. I’m a lens for other humans to view America.”
Ann nodded in what she hoped was not an encouraging way. Stu continued.
“We were going to do the whole Route 66 drive. Classic American road trip.” She pulled the dog into her lap where it began to eat what was left on her plate. “We received a grant to finish our book.”
Ann pleaded silently for Elaine not to ask what she promptly did.
“What’s the book about?” Elaine said.
“Dying tourist towns. You know you are the fourth dinosaur park I’ve seen?”
Ann licked the sand from her teeth and sighed. Why correct an intruder? If someone came in to rob you and said, “This is a great silver creamer,” you wouldn’t correct them and say “It’s a gravy bowl.” Whatever you call it, they have taken it from you. Yet Ann couldn’t be memorialized as someone who lived out her life in a dinosaur park. If some girl’s book was all that was to remain of Ann’s life, let it be accurate.
“We aren’t a dinosaur park,” Ann said.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a dying tourist town,” Elaine added, taking the plate the dog had licked clean.
“What are you?” Stu asked. There was nothing confrontational in her voice, just a patronizing sincerity.
“We’re a national park, a landmark; the trees should be one of the World’s Wonders…” Elaine said. Her braids made Ann think of a scolded dog’s drooping ears.
“But where are the trees? It’s called Fossilized Forest.” Stu pulled the notebook from her vest again.
“They’re gone. Sold or stolen.” Ann switched to the monotone she saved for answering tourist’s frequently asked questions. “The government only owns and protects about ten percent of it.”
“Seems to me your town has a bit of an identity crisis.” Stu laughed and made a note of her own joke.
“They gave a grant to you and a dog?” Ann asked.
Stu looked confused. “What?”
“You said ‘we’ received a grant.”
The girl tapped the metal bit of the pencil against her teeth before lightly biting the eraser. “Where does the ostrich come in?”
“When I drove in there was a man painting a sign that said ‘Feed the ostrich.”
Kirk wouldn’t do that without speaking to her first. He wouldn’t. The hideous sculptures were one thing. The abandoned school buses were acceptable, even when she found teenagers’ used condoms in and around them, but surely he wouldn’t bring another living creature here.
Ann asked Elaine to watch Cage and quickly crossed the street to her own car. Kirk felt an immense trust for the other few citizens of their town, and as she expected he’d left the keys in the ignition. She sometimes wondered if he sensed her desire to flee, and left the keys as an invitation. Or perhaps he hoped someone would steal the car, leaving her stranded.
She hid her surprise when Stu got into the passenger side. The girl had left the dog playing with Cage.
“There’s something I wanted to clarify,” the girl said in a conspirator’s tone.
“Can it wait? I need to speak to my husband.”
“Is he the guy painting the sign?”
“Probably. What did he look like?” Ann felt new hope. The man who owned the hotel often bought strange pets for his grandchildren. He kept a tank of piranhas in the lobby.
“Tall. Blondish. Good-looking in a daytime TV sort of way.”
“That’s him.” Ann registered the girl’s admiring tone and added, “My husband.”
“I’d just love to get a photo of both of you, or at least of the sign.”
“I need to speak with him. Privately.”
“I’ll give you space.”
Ann accepted the girl’s persistence but left the air conditioner off to punish her. She steered with only her fingernails touching the burning wheel.
Ann pointed to a rest stop as they passed. It had been built unfortunately close to town, allowing tourists to bypass Fossilized Forest altogether. They had been relying on children’s bladders for business for some time.
“A young boy was killed there last summer,” Ann said. “He was switching high schools, heading to live with his other parent because he was being bullied or something. He must have smelled weak. Three older boys killed him. Left him in his own trunk.”
“Oh,” Stu said, her smile defeated for a moment before returning in the form of little parentheses on either side of her mouth.
“It’s dangerous for someone your age to be driving alone,” Ann added, pleased to have momentarily dampened the girl’s aggressive joy.
“I’ll be sure not to pick up hitchhikers,” Stu said, the first hint of irritation in her voice. They rode in silence for a few moments before the sound of Stu’s camera as they passed the roadrunner sculpture made Ann look involuntarily at her passenger. Stu reviewed her photos, clicking through rapidly. For a moment Cage appeared on the little screen, smiling at Ann. The Ann in the photo was looking away. The desert had aged her.
“You asked why I said ‘we.’” Stu said. “I left Seattle with my boyfriend. He was supposed to come with me. We applied for the grant together.”
“Where is he?” Ann asked.
“I wanted to ride a trolley in San Francisco. I know it’s cliché, but anyway, Pence made fun of it, and then proposed on it. It made sense I guess. It was one of those perfect movie moments.”
“His name was Pence?” What the hell were parents thinking? Ann glanced at the girl’s naked ring finger. “You said no then?”
“It made too much sense.”
Ann saw Kirk long before they arrived. The flat land of the surrounding desert had the effect of making everything feel both closer and vast. As a child she had been sure she could walk to distant mountains, and occasionally tried.
Kirk shielded his eyes with the wide paintbrush and waved as she pulled over. He appeared to be applying a second coat to the letters of the sign which, as Stu had reported, encouraged tourists to come feed an ostrich. Beside the letters he had drawn a cartoonish looking ostrich body with its head in the sand. He smiled and set down the brush, holding out his arm for Ann. She let his arm envelop her as she filled the space by his side.
Her first photo with Kirk was from middle school. His father had told them to smile and Kirk had held his arm out in invitation. It was the gesture he made when her mother died. It was one he made when Cage took his first steps. The one he made when she would find him, head resting on his hands over the yellow legal pad. Like a word with no translation this one arm, this unforced affection, communicated everything they were.
“Head in the sand?” she said, wondering if it was a joke.
“I couldn’t get the face right,” he said.
She would not scold Kirk in front of the girl. She wouldn’t let the girl, now snapping photos, paint him as a caricature of the beleaguered husband.
“Why an ostrich? Ann asked softly.
“Why not? I saw an ad on Craigslist. A man in Holbrook was trying to find a home for his. It’ll draw people in. They’re exotic. And you love birds.”
“Only the little ones.”
“Who’s at the store?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Kirk said. “We’ll head back. Who’s this?”
Stu held out a small hand, giving Kirk a smile she had kept from Elaine or Ann, but one Ann had seen other women give him.
“Stu. I’m photographing your park for a book I’m working on.”
“Press! Excellent. I must give you the grand tour.” He walked over to his jeep and opened the door for Stu. “Hop in. I have all the insider information.”
Ann drove ahead, glancing in the rearview mirror. Stu was waving her hands as she spoke, coming alive in his presence. Kirk grinned in response. Ann imagined a third driver smashing into his car. She imagined the grief she would feel losing the person she’d known the longest and the freedom as she packed their belongings and headed—headed where? The west coast. She would go to El Centro where her mother had said she had distant cousins. Was it near the shore? It had to be; she couldn’t imagine a city in California without automatically picturing a pristine ocean, shells larger than her hand. She could take Cage to the beach. Or perhaps Cage would be in the car with his father when the accident happened. Ann placed her hand against her sweating forehead.
When they returned Elaine was standing in their yard, holding Cage on her generous hip. She began bouncing him as they approached. Long brown streaks of dirt ran down around his eyes. He had been crying. Kirk took him from Elaine, immediately examining his palms and face for some sign of damage, some explanation for his tears.
“The little dog,” Elaine said and looked toward the feet of the T. rex. “I’m so sorry,” she said to Stu.
Kirk handed Cage to Ann, telling her to keep him away. She moved the boy’s round body to her own narrow hip where he promptly began to slide down.
Stu followed Kirk at a distance, then stopped, giving a short scream that turned to choked cries.
Elaine said the boy and dog had been playing, running around the legs of the dinosaurs. She hadn’t heard the snake’s warning in time, and only noticed something amiss when the dog yelped.
Ann glimpsed the dog’s grotesquely bloated face and looked away. In the distance the horizon was turning brown from an incoming storm, but the air still felt hot and stagnant.
“Dead thing,” Cage whispered.
She touched his hands, still sticky from honeyed fry bread, tufts of the dog’s fur stuck between his fingers.
Kirk had his arms around Stu, telling her to breathe deeply. Her gasps gradually returned to normal breaths, even as her body continued to shudder.
“Are you okay?” Ann asked Cage.
“She’s crying,” he said. Ann wished she could appreciate that he had inherited his father’s empathy.
The girl slumped toward the ground till she was sitting in the dust beside the dog. Kirk draped his handkerchief over its head. It was a kind gesture, but there was something melodramatic about the partially covered corpse.
“Why don’t you go give her a hug?” Ann said, grateful she was able to send him as a small ambassador. He sat beside Stu who stroked Cage’s hair as though he were a surrogate puppy.
Ann pulled Kirk aside.
“Should I call Animal Control to come get it?” she asked.
“They’re closed on Sunday.”
Cage was watching them, and they instinctively moved closer.
“Can we bury him?” Cage asked.
“Junior, that’s against the law,” Kirk said.
“We buried the bird,” Cage said.
“A little bird is different,” his father replied.
Cage looked to Elaine, his eyes searching for an ally.
“We could bury him behind the house,” Ann said. “If that’s okay with you?” she asked Stu.
The girl was broken, the smile gone, the body just some boney sticks holding up a denim vest.
“It’s not like I can take him with me,” she said, her tone surprising Ann. The girl held Cage tighter. “I’m sorry. Yes, a burial would be good.”
“I’ll fetch something to wrap him in.” Kirk went to the house.
Ann took Cage from Stu’s arms and followed Kirk, holding Cage’s fat hand in hers. He slowed her down, but she was hesitant to leave Cage with the two would-be mothers. By the time she was upstairs Kirk was searching the linen closet. He held up one of Cage’s old yellow crib sheets.
“This should work,” he said. He turned to Ann and Cage. “We’re lucky…” He frowned.
“That it was just a dog?”
“Elaine is a fool.”
Ann loved him for this comment, for stating what she felt. It allowed her to be the kind one. Despite living in the town for twenty years, Elaine still exuded the naivety and fervor of an outsider. Tourists and transplants thought they knew the desert. They were the types to leave food out for coyotes and then feel shocked when their cat disappeared one night. But she and Kirk were different, should be different.
“Kirk, the den you found a few weeks back--”
“I killed all of them.”
He knew she slept by those snakes, and for a moment she let herself wonder if Kirk also imagined fatal car crashes.
“I’ll take the other sculptures down.”
“You know, some people will pay to hunt rattlesnakes,” Ann said.
“Are we those kinds of people? And do you want those kinds of people around the house? We aren’t that desperate.”
Ann wanted to add, “not yet,” but instead began folding the sheets that had fallen to the floor.
Ann wandered the yard with Cage picking small branches of pink flowers from cacti while Kirk wrapped the body in the sheet and began to dig a small grave. Kirk had chosen a spot near one of his early dinosaurs, a fat, flat Anklysaurus that looked more like a horny toad. Ann sawed at a flower’s stem with her thumbnail and added it to the pile in Cage’s outstretched hands.
Cage pointed to a stem full of buds. Reaching her arm into the plant, Ann felt like a good mother. She was protecting the tender pads of Cage’s fingers from the cactus, but then she reminded herself she was not doing this to save him pain, but to save her from the pain of discomfort when he cried.
When Cage could carry no more, they brought the flowers to the others. Stu was holding the wrapped bundle with the same care Cage held the blossoms.
“Will anything dig him up and eat him?” Stu asked.
“In other cultures they break up the bones and let the animals eat the body. It releases the soul,” Elaine said.
Kirk silenced Elaine with a slight shake of his head, and looked at Ann as if to ask why the woman was still there. But Ann liked the image of cracking bones and setting out the rib cage like fried onion flowers. Would the dog be reborn as a coyote? Something fiercer that could survive in the next life?
Stu set the body into the grave and Kirk filled it again. He planted a cactus they’d dug up from the side yard on top and piled stones and bits of petrified wood around the base.
“The cactus will bloom in a few months,” he told Stu.
Stu stood and dusted the sand from her black jeans. Cage had moved to her side, leaning against her until she finally lifted him to the shelf of her hip. She nuzzled her nose against his neck and kissed his forehead. The wind whipped dust into Ann’s eyes as sand met sky and merged into a force of warmth and grit.
“Have you ever seen anything so blue?” Stu asked.
It was anything but blue. The dust storms sometimes ranged from lavender to a sickly yellow, but this one was simply parchment paper brown interrupted by a streak of rust orange as the sun fought to remain burning down on them. Ann turned to correct Stu, and then saw the girl was talking about Cage’s eyes. She was staring into them. Ann felt a pain in her side and placed a hand where Cage should be and wished to widen herself into a home for him again, to crack the bones where he once nestled inside her.
Kirk’s phone rang and he apologized, stepping away and giving directions to someone, probably the ostrich man.
“Will you send me a photo? When it blooms?” Stu asked, gesturing toward the cactus. She wrote an address down in her book and ripped out the page.
“Sure,” Ann said.
Ann closed her eyes as Stu drove away. She could visualize the road and the place where Stu would merge onto the highway. The first few miles would bleed together in a burnt umber blur, occasional roadside crosses breaking up the image but eventually appearing the same, as if you were driving on a conveyor in an old movie set. A truck would drive by with an ugly ostrich head poking from a crate. Stu might consider going back for another glimpse of it, maybe one more photo, but then say she had taken too many of this place already.
Kirk invited Elaine to stay for dinner, but her husband was back from his fishing trip, and she weepily crossed the street, calling out to him that he wouldn’t believe how awful her day had been.
Ann and her family went inside. Kirk and Cage went upstairs ahead of her while Ann remained in the store. She ran a hand along the register she’d never plugged in that morning and wiped dust from the postcards displayed beside it. Upstairs she could hear Cage giggle, Kirk pretending to growl. She locked the door separating the store office from the stairs into her home and went up to their kitchen. She focused on the task of boiling water for rice and heating the stove for fish sticks, but instead found her mind continuing to follow Stu. Ann pulled the slip of paper with the address from her pocket. She pitied the girl and shook her head before tossing the address into the trash. She didn’t approve of outsiders watching her husband or holding her child. Soon she called out for her boys to come eat. She set down their plates, one with ketchup for Cage and another with tartar sauce for Kirk. She could not decide between the two and left a blank spot on her plate. Its emptiness pleased her.
Avra Elliott is a writer and toymaker from New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Tinderbox, Shadowgraph, and Ilanot Review, and is forthcoming from Tupelo Quarterly, Jam Tarts, and Barrow Street. Elliott received her MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College.