Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Creosote Women

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Serena searched rows of plastic airport chairs for her teenage daughter. She had tried to be on time, but she was late, and Jasmine would use this as proof that Chuck, who was punctual, was the better parent. Los Angeles to San Diego was only a few hours by bus, but Chuck thought buses were too dangerous, and was willing to pay for Jasmine's plane ticket.
A red leather miniskirt caught Serena's attention. For less than a second, she felt sad that a girl so young was an airport hooker before she recognized her own daughter. Jasmine had her earphones in and a mock-tough expression that didn't prevent her from looking like a lost kid. Serena ran up to embrace her.

Jasmine kept walking. "So where's Paul?"

Of all questions, why that one first? "He . . . he left. Last month."

Jasmine wheeled around, angry. "And you didn't tell me? I could have gone to Baja with Angela and Spike."

Serena looked down at endless tough grey carpet. "So, without Paul, you don't want to see me?"

Jasmine pushed ahead through a glass door. "I just wish you could keep your boyfriends longer. As soon as I get used to one, you start seeing another."

Serena caught the door before it swung in her face. "I'm not seeing anyone right --"

"I wanted to go camping in the desert! I didn't want to waste spring break hanging around Hippie House." That was Jasmine's name for the La Jolla beach house Serena shared with two other artists.

Serena unlocked the milk-white Chevy wagon she called Penelope. Locking doors was an old habit, left over from her life as Debbie Briggs, before she changed her name. Jasmine brought out regressions like these. "We'll still go."

"As if."

"Come on, we used to go camping."

"With Dad. A big difference."

"I know," Serena said. That was partly why she wanted to go to the desert. No memories of Mexican beaches or Big Sur, no comparisons. No threat of rain and having to tent out a storm. A place Chuck had never been. "We can borrow Zephyr's tent. It'll be an adventure."

"No thanks."

Serena backed the car slowly. A Porsche hovered for her parking space. "Okay," she said, tense. "I don't want to make you miserable. I'll go alone and you can go back to Chuck right now."

Jasmine fiddled with the radio.

Serena stopped the car. The Porsche honked five irritated bleeps. "Well?"

Jasmine closed off her eyes with Ray-Bans. "God, Serena, let the Porsche park. I hate indecisive drivers."

Serena moved ahead. "The desert will be beautiful."

Jasmine said nothing.

"You could practice your driving."

Jasmine tipped back her head. "No chanting in the car?"

"No chanting."

"And no drumming?"

Serena hesitated. "Not near the tent."

"No drums," Jasmine insisted.

"All right, no drums."

"Okay, I'll go," Jasmine said. "Just so you don't space out and die there."

* * *

Serena liked to begin a trip before dawn, to watch darkness change into light as if she were driving the sun up. Jasmine insisted on stopping at a Denny's for breakfast.

"I wouldn't mind working for Denny's," Jasmine said. "If I pass the G.E.D., I can skip my senior year and be a manager before I'm 18."

"Wait a minute." Serena sipped Jasmine's coffee by mistake, grimaced, and picked up her own peppermint tea. "What about college?"

Jasmine rolled her eyes. "There's no point wasting Dad's money on college. I want to work. Not that you'd understand."

An old argument. Serena sold enough weavings to make a low-budget living. Jasmine was embarrassed that, unlike mothers with office jobs, Serena could spend a whole day in pajamas. "I work," Serena reminded Jasmine.

"Yeah, for yourself."

Serena had been ashamed that her own mother had worked: as a fry cook for an Orange Julius. At first, it had been fun to sit on the counter and eat French fries while her mother cleaned up, but in junior high, it bothered her to join her friends after school and see her mother behind the grill. Now, Jasmine wanted to work at Denny's.

Serena turned back to her daughter. "Is fast food really what interests you? What's your passion? What do you care most about?" She thought: writing, maybe, or music. Maybe astronomy.

Jasmine stared back at Serena. "How I dress."

"Be serious," Serena said.

"Oh, I am! Deep inside I'm exceptionally shallow."

"Don't put yourself down."

"I'm not." Jasmine made fork crosshatches in the catsup on her plate. "People who aren't spiritual belong on the planet, too."

Serena opened her wallet to pay the check and found only six dollars.

Jasmine took a twenty out of her jeans pocket. "You never learn, do you. Is the car out of gas, too?"

"We're fine there," Serena said. "I think."

They filled the tank at the next gas station. Jasmine made a point of paying for the gas. Then she added water to the radiator and checked the air pressure of each tire, including the bald spare, which required repacking all the camping equipment.

Serena hoped Jasmine wouldn't find the small doumbek she'd tucked under the back seat after promising no drums. "That's enough, honey. We want to get there before dark."

"Then I better drive." Jasmine claimed the driver seat.

Serena handed over the keys.

The mountain pass, grey, green, foggy, and chilly, worried Serena. Would camping always be damp, always needing Chuck's complicated rain-fly? Never seeing more than 12 feet ahead? But at the crest, the clouds stopped abruptly. A sudden expanse of desert opened out beneath them, and the colors changed to infinite pinks, faint purples, and muted golds. They coasted down the long grade, absorbing the transformation of pine trees and ferns to yellow cactus and scarlet pokers of ocotillo.

The Palm Canyon campground was full. They drove through Borrego Springs seeking another with no luck. Reluctant to head into the badlands and wilderness that first night, they spent the afternoon in the air-conditioned State Park visitors' center, watching movies about bighorn sheep, the wildlife star of Anza-Borrego. They returned to Palm Canyon at sunset, when they could rent a picnic area space for ten dollars.

Serena and Jasmine struggled to set up the tent against the wind. The sunset snuffed out and left them in darkness. As soon as Serena managed to light the lantern, the wind blew it into a rock, shattering the glass. Jasmine decided they'd have to sleep in the back of Penelope, and moved their supplies into the front seat. They ate cold chicken and raw carrots on the tailgate, then laid out their sleeping bags. The station wagon bed smelled of gasoline. The wind pushed against the windows and rocked the car. In the moonlight, the mountains reared up, hostile and ominous.

Serena tried to find a familiar constellation. The wind seemed to distort even the stars.

Jasmine stated, "I could have been in Baja right now."

Serena drew a sharp breath and forced herself to count to eight as she exhaled. "Tomorrow will be better. Sweet dreams." She herself slept fitfully, waking many times to the howl of coyotes.

She was relieved when she finally woke to pale sky and bees teeming in a creosote bush. The wind had died, and hummingbirds whirred around chuparosa. The Santa Rosa Mountains reclined, now, diagonal layers of broken pottery. Suddenly, she missed Paul: the touch of his blond beard, his gentleness. She began to miss all her lovers, back to Chuck, always back to Chuck, even missed their arguments, the early ones that could still be mended. Good morning, heartache. Hello, butane burner.

After breakfast, Jasmine insisted on a shower, and returned with freshly shaved legs, tight shorts with an oversize T-shirt, her hair in a high pony tail. Her music player and sunglasses waited in pockets.

Serena scrubbed the breakfast dishes with sand. "Do you want to hike the Palm Canyon trail before we break camp?"

Jasmine shrugged. "Whatever. It's your trip."

The trail was overly marked with numbered posts, and a follow-along pamphlet gave detailed information about the survival struggle of desert flora. Mesquite trees found just enough water to grow in the canyon creek, which only existed in the springtime. Creosote bushes, named for the smell of their leaves when damp, spaced themselves apart by exactly the amount of water their roots could reach to absorb and could be as old as 10,000 years, one of the earliest evolved plant species. Everything bloomed in April: mesquites with their flowers like yellow caterpillars, magenta and yellow barrel and hedgehog cactus, peach mallow, jimsonweed, peppergrass, and screw bean plants.

The heat scorched Serena's feet through the tread of her hiking shoes, and she waded in the stream, boots, socks and all. Jasmine listened to her music, faint synthetic noises around her ears, like insects humming in the buck cholla.

The trail, longer than it looked, led up to a palm grove and, astonishingly, a waterfall. They ate apples and figs from their backpacks. Other hikers rested under the skirts of the palms, breaking out sandwiches.

"We should have packed more food," Jasmine grumbled.

* * *

They ate a second breakfast in an air-conditioned coffee shop in a small plaza.

"Am I paying for this, too?" Jasmine asked.

"As a loan." Serena spread out the Anza-Borrego park map. She was already prickling with sunburn and her knee hurt. "Where do you want to stay tonight?"

"At the Borrego Hilton."

Serena breathed deeply. Then she said, "When you make negative jokes like that, I feel frustrated and discouraged. This is my vacation. Please don't try to ruin it for me."

Jasmine said softly, bitterly, "Of course. Your vacation. Everything's always about you. Let's talk some more about your feelings."

"Well, I can't speak for anyone else, can I?"

"You could listen for a change."

"I do! I want to! I wish you'd share more with me!" Serena looked wistfully toward Jasmine.

Jasmine stood up. "Never mind. Let's go."

Outdoors, the heat seemed to physically tackle them. Jasmine soaked towels in the melted ice from the food chest. They anchored the towels on their heads with caps, like Bedouin headdresses with pink and orange stripes. A military jet sliced the sky with lingering echoes.

Serena was intrigued by the idea of finding Indian pictographs, noted in tiny italic print on the map. Jasmine argued for visiting the main tourist attraction next to bighorn sheep: Yacuitepec, the old adobe homestead of Marshall and Tanya South.

"After all, the pictographs might not even exist," Jasmine said.

"You're too cynical," Serena said.

"You're too gullible."

There wasn't much left of the adobe except melting walls and busted bed springs. Jasmine examined the cistern while Serena turned a slow circle to take in the hilltop view.

"They lived off the desert here, growing vegetables, raising their kids," Jasmine said. "Marshall wrote articles and Tanya wrote poetry. They drove a Model T Ford in to Julian for supplies and mail. It's kind of neat they could stay out here for 16 years."

Serena looked down the path they'd climbed. It seemed too steep for a Model T loaded with supplies. "How do you know all this?"

Jasmine smiled smugly. "I read the placard at the bottom."

* * *

They camped in a rock cave at the entrance of the trail to the pictographs, mostly to avoid setting up the tent. Serena built a fire that made snake noises: a fire coiled up, ready to strike. They ate baked potatoes blackened in the ashes.

The Talking Fire made orange patterns through the rock crevices, smoking up through the cracks. Serena arranged the pebbles from Palm Canyon in a sunburst design by the fire. She burned some dried sage and cast the ashes outside to Gaia, goddess of the desert wind.

Jasmine carefully laid her flashlight, a roll of toilet paper, and the kindling axe near the head of her sleeping bag. "This place is spooky." The rocks amplified her voice.

"Not spooky. Powerful," Serena said.

"The air currents are weird."

They settled into their bags and watched the triangle of stars overhead for meteors. Serena caught Jasmine with her eyes tightly shut, wishing -- probably for this trip to end.

* * *

They hiked to the pictographs the next day. The trail disintegrated into white sand, soft as a beach, difficult to slog through. The trail head marker indicated one pictograph rock was only half a mile in, but they hadn't found it after nearly an hour's trek.

"We won't find them," Jasmine said. "They're only paint. Gaia's worn them off or tourists have chipped them out."

"They've got to be here," Serena insisted. "Look for flat sided rocks. If you were a shaman, where would you draw? I have a feeling about that hillside. Let's look there."

"You go. I'll be at that big rock up ahead, in the shade."

"Well . . . okay."

Serena headed toward the rock outcroppings on the hill. Even with her cap and towel protection, the sun's strength made her dizzy. Each step in the glittering sand seemed like a backwards step. She thought she heard a voice from the rocks and was surprised by a flutter of fear in her throat. She turned around and watched Jasmine, a slow dark figure in a panorama of bright, wild sand below -- a photograph negative. The rocks, sculpted by the wind, made faces at her. They changed from castles to prisons and then to doors that opened on closed doors behind them.

When Serena lifted her canteen and felt the lightness, she knew she had to turn back. She held tepid water in her mouth as long as she could before swallowing, to make it last. She kept searching for pictographs on the way down and found a smooth white rock with four morteros. Half-expecting the stone holes to be hallucinations, Serena put her hand inside one. It was almost as deep as her elbow and faintly cool at the bottom. She wondered if she was the first woman to visit that rock since the women who ground corn in it.

She heard another voice, or echo, and started to run downhill. The echo merged with a human voice that became Jasmine's.

"Mom!" Jasmine waved her pink-striped towel from the rock below. "Mom!"

Serena, out of breath, skidded down to her daughter.

"Pictographs," Jasmine said.

The flat side of the big rock sloped inward, making a wide pocket of shade. The terra cotta sun was the easiest drawing to recognize. There were several crosshatchings, linked X shapes in burnt sienna and ocher, and zigzag waves. As Serena and Jasmine ate warm apples in the rock's shade, the drawings became possible coyotes, lizards, and dancers. Serena thought the crisscrossings might be weavings; Jasmine insisted they were rattlesnakes.

"I only wanted shade," Jasmine said, "and I found this place, big enough to actually lie down, and I looked up and there was that rust colored sun. Amazing."

* * *

Breaking up camp, Serena ventured, "You called me Mom."

Jasmine crammed her sleeping bag into its case. "So what." Her voice was uncomfortable.

"You haven't called me that for a long time."

Jasmine fiercely tied a knot. "Do we have to talk about this? Save it for your therapist."

"I want to talk to you, Jasmine. Do you have to snap my head off all the time?"

"Yes. I'm a teenager, remember?" Jasmine gestured toward Serena's rocks. "The campsite's clear except for your mystical experience paraphernalia."

"Leave the stones there," Serena said. Her parched lips hurt when she spoke.

Both she and Jasmine were deeply sunburned. The ice chest water they soaked the towels in now stank of garbage. Jasmine's legs were prickly as young cactus, and her hair was evolving into dreadlocks.

They drove into the badlands, miles of hot gray craters. Serena directed Jasmine to sand roads, looking for a campsite. Penelope skidded in the sand, lurched alarmingly over potholes. In the middle of nowhere, the sand road flattened into a beach-like basin. One sign: "Speed Limit 25." The temperature gauge needle quivered at the edge of the red zone.

"Penelope can't make it," Jasmine said.

"Maybe we could camp in this flat part."

"It's a flash flood area for sure. We have to go back," Jasmine said.

"I guess you're right. Want me to drive?"

"No." Jasmine slowly turned an even arc, tires sinking and twisting. She turned with the skids and kept the speed even. One last wild spin and then they were back on the packed road.

"You're a good driver," Serena ventured.

"I know," Jasmine said. "Once I pass the written part, I'll ace the road test."

"I didn't get my license until I was 20. I --" Serena stopped, self-conscious after Jasmine's accusation that she never listened. "What's the written test like?"

"Lots of dumb rules," Jasmine said. "What's the penalty for hitting a blind person who steps out between cars parked in a hospital zone? I mean, is a cop going to pull you over and ask you to recite the sentence?"

Serena laughed. "I hope you put that in your journal."

Jasmine looked straight ahead. "I don't keep a journal anymore."

"Why not?"

"There's nothing special about me," Jasmine said. "I'll go down the drain with all the other dishwater people."

"Don't put yourself down. You are special."

"I'm accepting who I am. I'm not creative like you."

"When you were little, I thought your journal was --"

"You don't get it. I want a real job."

"Oh, a real job. You sound just like my mother."

"I'm NOT your mother!" Jasmine yelled. "And I'm not you, either."

* * *

By sundown, they reached Blair Prairie, a wide valley of creosote bushes and sparse scrub grass. Serena hoped the bushes, dense with dead bracken centers and about eight feet high, would buffer the night wind enough to shelter their tent and campfire. Zephyr's tent was a small dome framed with three poles that crossed like an asterisk at the top and curved down to six tent stakes. After looping the poles through the nylon walls, Jasmine bowed the frame, leaning her weight into it, while Serena tried to pull the poles into the grommets of the floor.

"Hurry up," Jasmine complained.

Serena strained, out of breath, frustrated. Over and over, she struggled to get the stem in, pulling with all her strength. She was past the point of asking Jasmine to switch roles; even if she couldn't do it, she couldn't let her daughter take this away from her now. The ache and frustration continued until Serena used her entire body weight to balance Jasmine's and the pole scraped over the quarter inch of metal ring and from there into the grommet. The next two poles were difficult, but didn't take quite as long. Before they got the tent stakes in, the wind blew the tent, entire, yards away into a creosote bush.

Serena had no strength or patience left. She turned her back and started walking, tears blurring her vision. She hated Zephyr for saying it would be easy, then hated all men for having muscles, hated Paul for leaving her alone, hated herself for her own weakness, and hated Jasmine for rejecting her.

She wandered between the creosote bushes until she collapsed on her knees, rocked herself violently, and began to cry. The wind streaked her tears across her burned face, blurring them with sweat. Her lips were like desiccated adobe, and when her chattering teeth bit into them, they bled. As soon as she snuffled down a bit, another outburst began. She cried about the people who left her: her mother, Chuck, even Jasmine, her own daughter. Then she cried for all the weavings she made and sold, each a facet of herself, Debbie giving birth to Serena, over and over, and still. Her tears wet the creosote leaves enough for them to give off their chemical stink. She cried through the sunset, into night.

Then she stopped.

She gathered a handful of white quartz, the size of crocodile teeth, and made a garden of them under the creosote bush as a monument to mark her tears. When she stood, she had no idea where the campsite was. She couldn't distinguish her footprints in the sand; the wind might have blown them away. She was in a maze of creosote bushes, an eerily even grid, no landmarks. She thought she had walked against the wind to get here, so she turned her back to the wind now and headed in that direction. At last, she saw a light, far off to her left. She turned and trudged toward it.

Jasmine had retrieved the tent and staked it in place. The sleeping bags were unrolled inside. Couscous was steaming on the stove. A salad of the last of the vegetables and chicken was sheltered from the wind and sand in the box she'd hidden her drum inside.

Jasmine glanced over as Serena walked up. "I found your silly drum, if you want to play it." She spoke to the pot on the burner.

"I'm sorry I left you," Serena said.

"It's okay. The tent wasn't difficult to stake down once it was set up."

"Jasmine, really, I shouldn't have walked out on you."

Jasmine scooped couscous into bowls. "Leave it to the desert to bring out emotions. Here -- eat."

Serena took the bowl of food.

* * *

In the morning, Serena took her doumbek to the rock hillside that framed the prairie and softly palmed rhythms as the sun rose. With the sun: sudden heat and bird song. Bees vibrated in the creosote bushes. On her way back to the tent, she tried to find her monument. White, tooth-like quartz was under every bush. She could not tell her creosote from any of the others. The sand was too bright to look at, and her head began to pound. She had a vision: for 10,000 years, these bushes had absorbed the tears of women who journeyed to the desert to cry.

* * *

They were out of ice, and their food supply was down to Shredded Wheat and peanut butter. Serena and Jasmine took turns dipping the biscuits in the jar as flies looped and zoomed and ants organized around the water droplets on the ice chest.

As they packed Penelope, a formation of jets flew through the sky with an elegant dip and turn. The sound was as if from the rocks, the echo like drums.

To postpone driving through the heat and smog of the highway, they stopped in the city of Julian for date shakes. Old photographs of date palms and state fair ribbons hung on the wall over watermelon-slice wallpaper.

Serena felt queasy. She had internalized the desert, and the thought of confronting traffic, buildings, money, and clocks injured her, like a flower pulled through a funnel. A shower would kill her.

"I've been thinking," Jasmine said. "I'm going to change my name to Susan."

"Why!"

"Susans are dependable, smart. I want to be a Susan."

"But there are millions of Susans. Jasmine is such a pretty name --"

"To you," Jasmine said. "I want a new name. You should understand."

Serena crumpled her napkin into her empty glass, another old habit come back, and remembered her own mother's reaction when she decided to change her name: "Serena? What kind of name is that? You're Debbie, named after my favorite aunt."

The parking-lot asphalt heated their thongs. Jasmine spread towels on Penelope's seats, then wet a rag to scrub bug juice off the windshield.

Watching her daughter, it struck Serena that some part of her was jealous. Jasmine knew how the physical world worked, how to fix things. She was dependable and smart.
Jasmine was right; Serena, of all people, should understand the need to name herself.

Serena shaded her eyes and took a last look east to the desert. The smell of creosote burned in her nostrils. She opened the passenger door gently, to avoid hitting a telephone pole. Window level, she saw the pole had been freshly painted with creosote; some of the sticky goo came off on Penelope's door handle. She closed her eyes and imagined the white quartz under her bush. She would return to La Jolla and manage to take a shower. Tomorrow, she would manage to say goodbye to Jasmine at the airport. And after that, somehow, she would start a new weaving, with smoky pink and purple threads, maybe with stones and tent stakes, and after that, another.

Serena closed the door and went around the car to her daughter. "Well, Susan, it's time for me to drive." She held out her hand for the keys.

An earlier version of "Creosote Women" was first published in The Bear Essential (now called The Bear Deluxe).



Sara Backer, author of the novel American Fuji, currently teaches English at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. An ex-stepmother, she now lives in the splendor of the Merrimack River watershed with her partner and very spoiled cat.


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I am a big Sara Backer fan, and am so happy to read one of her pieces of short fiction. What a sad tale--full of poetry and disconnect. I had a similar disconnect with my mother (though I *wish* she had been the hippie type! lol) and wound up naming myself, so this had particular resonance with me. Glad to read it!
Love descriptions of the desert, harsh and beautiful, like the interactions of the women in the story.
Another wonderful story by Sara Backer. Her work evokes powerful images and illuminates relationships with dialogue you can actually hear as you read it. Great work!
This short story is one of the best I've read in a long time. The desert becomes one of the characters, as deep and complex as any person, with its own rituals and continuity.
Since I always get the feeling that Sara Backer hand picks each word with exquisite care for her writing, I did some reading on the significance of creosote. This is from the online Wikipedia: "The prevailing use of creosote is to preserve wooden utilities/telephone poles, railroad cross ties, switch ties, and bridge timbers from decay." Creosote is also considered to be a carcinogen. I hope that the line of communication between Serena and Susan are protected with the creosote, which is considered medicinal and toxic.
A wonderful story - creosote is a wonderfully awful metaphor for sticky family relationships. This story really engages all the senses too!
I love Sara Backer's work, she provides the reader with a visceral experience on every page...
These characters are so well-developed in such a short time that you feel like you know how they feel. I've never been to the desert but this seems to capture the very sensation of it. Seems like Sara must have some experience with teenage girls too.
This is a really moving -- exactly captures what parenting a teenager is like.
I loved Sara's story. The description of the desert was vivid and intense, the interaction between mother and daughter complex.
I loved Sara's story. The description of the desert was vivid and intense, the relationship between mother and daughter complex.
Vivid and rich physical detail, uncomfortably keen portrayal of human relationships-- characteristically, deliciously Backer. Give us more.
I love some of Ms. Backer's descriptions--crocodile teeth--and her contrast between what one person wants of another, and another person wants of herself. Well done on so many fronts!
Vibrant, real and redeeming. It is profoundly uplifting for a grandparent to realize how rich are the rewards of filial love... no matter how wretched we sometimes feel. Bravo for the gift of Sara Backer.
Sara Backer has a wonderful gift for dropping the reader straight into the environment she's created. We see, hear, smell, touch and even taste everything the characters encountered throughout their journey into the desert. The story left me wanting to know more about the characters, how they got to this level of estrangement, and where they'll go from here. Beautifully written.
Creasotebush has been my totem since I moved to El Paso fifty years ago and I am thrilled to see it interwoven with the story here. I also like the date shakes and the brittle teen dialogue. Fascinating. Thank you.
It's always a pleasure to read Sara Backer's fiction. Nobody gets the details more accurate or displays them more effectively to reveal every last iota of meaning. The images shine, and the light they cast illuminates every last corner of the meaning of the story. This time through, the mother's anguish at her own pain and her overcoming that anguish was the most interesting feature of the story for me, but the descriptions of the desert compelled me to re-read. Nice work.
The desert is a beautiful, though sometimes hostile backdrop to this story. Although most parent/child relationships suffer from teenage rebellion, this one was interesting because the daughter's "rebellion" involved becoming responsible, reliable and and competent. Very thought-provoking.
The first time I put up a tent with my future wife it didn't work out well. Me methodical, she chaotic. So I relate to Serena's walking away in frustration. Sara nails it. Gotta go back because someone important is in there. The imagery of the desert is very good. But we find out who we are when we put up the tent.
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