I remember when roosters used to crow at dawn but now they crow at dusk. You can hear them start up in the late afternoon, like warbly trumpets that clash with the rhythmic buzz of the cicadas. Day or night, their message is the same: Get up! the roosters say. Now is the time when things happen.
Dusk marks either the start or the end of the day in Reno, depending on who you are. It’s the end if you spend your days like me, awake but inside, trapped by sun and sand and curfews. But for others, dusk is the new dawn. These people are part of the night’s happenings – soldiers, criminals, street vendors and people like my mother, Vivian, who start evening shifts at the casinos along Virginia Street, where the soldiers congregate.
I’m never part of these happenings. For one thing, you need shoes to get to Virginia Street and shoes are reserved for people with places to go. So most sunsets, as the roosters clear their throats, I watch the migration at my bedroom window for as long as my eyelids will allow. While the roosters and a city full of do-ers outside awaken, our house quiets down.
Night begins in earnest at 9 p.m., when the power to most of the city gets cut. That signifies curfew, a time after which you’re supposed to have papers to be out on the street. The blackouts started during the war but have continued in the five years after we surrendered. Officially, it’s to conserve energy but Los says it’s to keep people like us trapped inside. You live through a war and you develop a healthy fear of what’s waiting for you in the black.
Power is cut everywhere except at the casinos and hospitals, and whatever street lamps have working bulbs. From my window I can see one lamp spotlighting all the people living in junked out cars and those who don’t have more than a curb for a pillow. My family is one of the lucky ones – we have a house with a roof, even if most of our windows lack glass.
Most sunsets, I watch Vivian leave our crumbly little house and join the pilgrimage of street hawkers and casino workers heading east into the heart of the city. Sometime after she leaves for Circus Circus, my brother, Los, vanishes out the back door and into the black. Pops is passed out on the couch, usually by about the time the do-ers call “lunch.” That just leaves me and my sister, Peasant, who doesn’t stay up because she’s just a kid. So I watch alone at the window as street vendors, soldiers and the rest of life passes me by.
On bad days, when I awake in the mornings with an empty windowsill for a pillow, I hear Vivian out front, watering.
Today is one of those mornings.
I curse a quiet church curse.
“What?” It’s Peasant, awake and standing in my doorway.
“Nothing,” I say but it’s too late, she’s at the windowless window with me. Together, we watch our mother pours a day’s worth of water rations into the dusty front yard – water that could be used for drinking or rehydrating breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. I want so badly to scream at her but I never do. Instead, my dry tongue sits slack in my mouth as my stomach punches at my heart a little harder.
I remember when she first traded our gas mask for a few potato nubs. They looked like small, withered pieces of flesh – like the fingertips Peasant and I had found in the street after the first bombing. We weren’t allowed to leave the yard after that.
“This is a potato,” Vivian had introduced the nubs.
“What are you going to do with it?” Peasant asked.
“I’m going to put it in the ground and water it, and someday you’ll eat it,” Vivian said. “You remember mashed potatoes, don’t you Rio? They used to be your favorite.”
“Sure,” I said, staring at the withered nub.
Now my tongue massages my sore gums. Living with thirst here is like living with dust. Some days I’d swear I sweat dust.
Still, every day for three months she watered the same spot, praying for a hint of a sprout. Stupid nubs aren’t worth the sand they’re buried in.
“What do you think potatoes taste like, do you remember?” Peasant asks now.
“What does it matter?”
“I just wondered.”
I wonder if life will ever change, or if I will. Some nights at my window, I watch shadows race past our house, followed by stealthy Peacekeepers with flashlights, or hear shouts or screams nearby. I wonder about their origin and destination, but my body stays rooted in place, leaning out the window just far enough to make my pulse pound.
A few nights later, I am almost asleep on the windowsill when I first see them: runners. They move like a pack of coyotes, hushed, owning the center of the street and running in tandem like their bodies are talking with one another – like their limbs are connected even though their mouths are quiet.
One holds up a fist and they congregate under the streetlamp near my window. I rub my eyes to make sure I’m not dreaming a weird, beautiful dream: they’re girls about my age. If school still existed, they would be my peers but it doesn’t and yet here they are. Like they’re waiting for me.
Then on some hidden signal they’re off again, racing down the street, past sleeping bodies and over scattered piles of junk, into the black. I fall asleep staring at the last spot I saw them, hoping for their return.
When I do see them again about a week later, I lean so far out the window that my feet leave the floor and I teeter, floating on an invisible plane of yearning and stubby glass shards. They’re all wearing shoes but most don’t match. Back before everything, my Pops coached my siblings’ track team at the high school. These girls run on the balls of their feet like real pros, springing from their toes with heels rarely striking, like how Pops once taught us.
What separates the girls and me feels vaster than just a windowless window and slouching chain link fence. I am a 16-and-6/7ths-year-old girl who never finished third grade, who has only left her yard once in nearly seven years, who is jealous of a potato plant.
I wonder if I could run like that. I want to try.
It’s the first time I can remember having a want that’s so easy to want, that’s not a complicated ball of wants like “erased memories” or “undead siblings.” For years, all my wants have come from the books that litter our house – books that I read over and over again until I can nearly recite them because books are one thing we can’t barter away. They’re plentiful and most people seem to think they’re good for nothing but fires, and in the desert when temperatures are hot enough for thunderstorms in winter, there’s hardly a cause to start a fire.
I taught Peasant how to read from the pages of Oh the Places You’ll Go!. When she was older, we hosted dramatic readings from The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland, but my favorite books are the art history books. Frescos and stained glass taught me how to read a different kind of story, one etched into walls and on the faces of people.
They might as well be fairy tales, those books, because I’ll never make it to Italy. I’ll never even make it to see The Venetian in Las Vegas – the only people who leave this city are Peacekeepers, crows and the dead. But maybe someday I could make it to the Atlantis casino downtown. I hear it has art.
I try jogging around our house, room to room like the mice that sometimes skitter about before they realize there’s more food on the streets than in our cupboards. I mime the drills I remember seeing from my childhood – high knee kicks and lunges, and even a few ladder sprints in the hallway.
“What are you doing?” Peasant asks when she sees me.
“That doesn’t look like running.”
“Nobody asked you.”
“You look stupid.”
“You look like you need to be punched.”
She shrugs. “If you punch like you run, I’m not worried.”
Part of me hoped Pops would see my efforts and say something – offer encouragement or advice – but he spends each day glazed past recognition. And after a few days, I stop running for the attention it could bring me and start wanting it for myself.
I want to run outside. I want to run outside as much as I want to see art or have a pleasant conversation with a stranger. Maybe those are stupid wants but they’re mine, and maybe if I work up to it, one could lead me to the others. My 17th birthday is nearly here. I decide that for once, I’m going to give myself a gift: on the night of my 17th birthday, I promise myself I will walk out the front door, down our crumbled sidewalk, into the pock-marked road, and run.
Until then, I practice lunges in my room where Peasant has to work to mock me and sprint in the hallway, timing myself by Pops’ snores. It’s exciting and new, having something to do. Something to look forward to. Having a secret.
Then the day arrives: October 8. I wake up at my windowsill 17 years old. For breakfast, I watch Vivian water the dirt like she always does. For lunch, I watch Pops pound a bottle of Circus Juice, the branded hooch they serve at Vivian’s casino. For dinner, Peasant and I share bread ration on which we smear a vitamin C supplement that almost looks like jam.
All day, I psych myself up for night to fall. I wait until Vivian leaves and Los is wherever Los goes and Peasant is asleep. I will myself to walk out the front door, down our crumbled sidewalk, into the road, and run. I pace. I count to three at least a dozen times. But I can’t do it. Instead, I grip the windowsill so tight that my sweaty palms are slivered with wood.
I do not leave the house that night.
Or the next night.
Or the next.
I sit by the window.
Like I have every other night.
Like my legs are painted on.
And I scan the street for scraps of life happening around me.