When I show up at her trailer, Nicole’s dogs are in attack mode, barking murderously and threatening to break their chains. They’re tied up to a tall metal pole in the dirt plot that passes for the front yard. One is an enormous pit bull with a head like a battering ram. The other is a Dalmatian with skin so saggy the dog appears to be melting. Both of them still have their testicles.
“Gus’ll hump anything in sight,” Nicole says, coming out from the trailer and looking down at the Dalmatian. The double-wide is fronted by a long deck made of two-by-fours painted the shades of the rainbow, only the colors are out of order so the place looks more like a carnival than a castle in the sky. She lights a cigarette and stands half-in/half-out of the door, with one foot on a green slat gone greyish-brown from her long hours spent looking off at nothing, polishing the wood with one foot. “Damn dog’s 13 years old, and still horny as a son-of-a-bitch.”
Now that she’s here, the dogs are quiet, and so is the campground. It’s home to a small number of permanent residents, namely, three: Nicole and her two sons. She and I talk for a while—about the trailer park, about Ricky, about why she thinks the newspaper I write for should cover her and Ricky’s dispute; she doesn’t say much about herself—and then Axel, her youngest, is dropped off from middle school by a yellow bus that stops in the church parking lot on the other side of the campground’s fence. He slips through a hole in the chain link and strolls over to the trailer. He walks coolly, on his own time, across the dirt, gives Gus a pat on the head. He sits down on the edge of the deck, pulls out a pocket knife, and starts shucking at the tip of a stick.
“What you doin’ there?” his mother asks.
“I’m whittlin’,” says the boy. “Here—feel the tip. Ain’t it sharp?”
“He likes to whittle. I could probably worry about it. He’ll probably cut himself someday, but boys is boys.”
“I cut myself last week. Right here on my thumb.”
He scrutinizes his thumb, sucks at it a little, looks at it again, and keeps whittling.
“I’m gonna make this stick so sharp it’ll be like an arrow,” he says.
The campground hosts periodic RV families and Airstream-brand motorhome enthusiasts, a trio of whom are camped a hundred yards back, behind the copse of pines that shelters Nicole’s family’s own disheveled trailer. The Airstream set enjoys the snoozy nostalgia of the place. They mostly keep to themselves. High, slender pines canopy most of the campground. A hedgerow along the western border serves as a windbreak against the stern winds that flash down a nearby ridgeline. The winds buffet and toss the hedgerows. They sway the pines and whistle through the evergreen needles.
Nicole reaches up at something on the trailer’s interior wall and pulls out a framed photo.
“This is a picture of me and Ricky. It was there at the pole.”
In the picture, she and Ricky are standing in the foreground, dressed in black hoodies. The highway slides away behind them and vanishes between the burnished hills. Neither one of them is smiling. Their eyes are cold and sable. They are close, but they are not touching.
Ricky’s father was an original Hell’s Angel. Did security for the Grateful Dead. He roared like his Harley. Once, he bit off a man’s pinky in a bar fight. He ran on full-octane and whiskey, but swore off hard drugs after crashing his bike through the plate-glass façade of an all-night diner, mistaking the patrons inside for seraphim guarding the gates of heaven.
No saint would marry a hardcore biker, and Ricky’s mother was haunted by her own demons. She was a cocaine addict with a venomous mouth that wouldn’t quit, and Ricky grew accustomed to the sight of her lying in a fully reclined vinyl beach chair in the backyard, a steak over each eye. Dad disappeared when he was young. His momma, he loves her, gives her hugs and kisses.
Nicole and Ricky met at the Pine Cone Café, where she waitressed and he was the busser. She liked how hardworking he was. He was so polite to the café’s regulars, the old timers. She liked his tattoo—a vulture fighting an angel on his left arm. She wanted to be his angel. They fell in love and he moved into the trailer with her and the boys. Things went good for a while, but then Ricky started swinging and cussing at the children, so she kicked him out. She says he took some of her things when he left. That’s what the story should be about.
“I just want Ricky to give me my stuff back, that’s all.”
“Here—feel the tip of this.”
We all look at the stick’s pointy end. It could pierce. It could draw blood.
“He’s gonna cut himself, I just know it.”
Benjamin Bombard is a producer of RadioWest on KUER, a freelance writer and a former newspaper reporter.