Old Fossils and Footprints
Thick bull nettles crawl up Mariel’s leg as she anchors herself to one ragged rock and then the next as they tread down the clearing toward the Paluxy River bed. She scratches until her left ankle turns to blood. Lavera Dixon, the Girl Scout den mother, commands, “Don’t pick at your legs, Girls!! That’ll only make things worse.” Not comprehending how much the girls now suffer, their leader Lavera Dixon lectures about the necessity of preserving the past: “The dinosaur roamed here millions upon millions of years ago before the dawn of man.”
Sharon Connell asks, “But that contradicts biblical teachings. God created Eve from the rib of Adam on the seventh day. Then He rested.” Her wiry, thin, black pigtails cling to her back as Mariel follows in her footsteps down to the rocks where those dinosaurs roamed oh so such a God-damned damned long time ago.
“Shut up!! You know she’ll keep talking,” Mariel hisses. “Do you want to listen to more of this shit?”
Cherisse Dixon slides her foot down the rocks behind Mariel. She’s Mariel’s best friend mainly because, during moments when they get to be alone, they tell dirty jokes—ones where the punch line involves a man’s penis and the name Bennett. They don’t quite understand the jokes, but they have fun whispering obscenities while Sharon and her friends frame arguments about the Bible and when a person needs to get baptized, which doesn’t mean a thing to Mariel and Cherisse.
Sure enough Cherisse’s mother answers as the girls one-by-one reach the bottom of the incline just before they can get relief by wading in the thigh-high water that ripples over the rocks. “We don’t know how long God’s day was,” Lavera Dixon explains. “It could have been as long as a millennium, and the dinosaur could have, thus, been created on day two and become extinct on—let’s say—day four.”
Mariel nudges Cherisse and giggles like they have just told the joke again about Bennett. In turn, Mariel’s mother’s lips form a stern smile that amounts to a lecture. Shit be told, Mariel wishes her mother never volunteered to serve as co-leader of the troop, mainly because Mother transforms into Zombie Mom right in front of everyone.
In private, Zombie Mom coached Mariel to make friends with Cherisse’s older brother Donald, Jr. “Picking the right male means everything. Everything in the world, dear. Why, look at me!!”
Mariel knew the whole spiel by heart. Mother ventured from the Texas Panhandle town of Quitaque to get away from her own mother. Grandfather owned the Texaco station and made good investments. But who the hell wants to survive on dry Texas prairie and rocks? Besides, Mother’s mother met her grandfather when they both worked at a cattle ranch in Missouri. Mother’s mother was the cook, and Mother’s father was a lonely cow herder who left his hometown to claim his fortune. They fell in what they loosely called love. He brought her back to Quitaque where he gathered money hand over fist. Mariel never met them, not because they were dead and gone to whatever their damned rewards might be, but because Mother was ashamed that her daddy owned a gas station and that her mother was a damned bitch. Mariel’s grandmother would one moment be nice as pie to her mother-in-law and the next say she hated everything that God-damned woman stood for. In turn, Mother could never satisfy “that bitch” and sought employment in Fort Worth during the Second World War at a bomber factory. Mariel’s mother couldn’t make ends meet, and she lived next to Meacham Field in an old house where the roof leaked.
Yes, life looked bleak until Mother landed a receptionist’s position in a respectable eye doctor’s office, and would you believe his name was Dr. Weldon C. Lucksinger? He had a wife and twin sons named Jed and Ned, but that didn’t stop Mother. Fending for herself and living in a shabby duplex where planes might crash to the ground at any time of the day or night, she did not feel secure in her living quarters. She cried on his shoulder; he offered solace. With perseverance, Mother persuaded him to leave his family. And she never returned to Quitaque again; in fact, she had no desire to even visit Mariel’s borderline personality grandmother although Mariel’s grandfather possessed an honorable spirit for enduring “that shit ass woman.” Mother never missed an opportunity to call a “God-damned spade a spade,” but she also cautioned Mariel that there exists a public level of language where “one does not employ vulgarities. Real women must discern the difference.”
Mariel can never forget that damned story.
The troop reaches the river bed, and Lavera Dixon directs them to follow her as they tread two-at-time into the bed while Mariel’s mother walks behind to usher the ten girls as they move forward. Two, maybe three times, Lavera Dixon points to indentations in the rocks and calls them the prints made by dinosaurs eons ago.
Sharon says, “In the book of Genesis . . .”
Mariel shuffles to poke Sharon from behind. Before she touches the little bitch’s skinny ass, Mother jolts Mariel with a swift push that lands Mariel rump first into a huge slippery rock, just as Lavera Dixon cautions, “Girls, be careful. This water is treacherous.” Lavera Dixon turns back to gaze at Mariel, who stands rubbing the cheeks of her ass. Mother tenderly holds on to Sharon’s left arm as she manages to walk now by her side.
Mother also lectures Mariel with a stone-mad frown. Cherisse giggles, and Mariel mutters, “She’s a bitch.” Mariel knows her mother knows what she has said, but it doesn’t matter a good God-damned. What will Mother do anyway, but cuss her out when they get back from this trip to see remnant tracks of fossils no one, except Lavera Dixon, cares about. Mother grasps Sharon’s hand as they trudge from one slippery wet rock to the next.
Around the slight bend, Mariel expects to slide her foot to another wet rock and then another. But Lavera Dixon squeals as she announces, “Look, Girls, a dinosaur track!! One just like what nine-year-old George Adams stumbled across one day in 1909. He thought they looked like giant bird prints in the Paluxy River. But he came back and told his principal. The whole school took a field trip, and these prints proved a valuable discovery.” The woman had told the girls the same boring story before they left town to prepare them for the adventure ahead. The only interesting part was about a moonshiner in 1908 who discovered the tracks on the Paluxy and didn’t quite know what to make of them. Mariel liked that part because ever since she was a little girl, she’s lifted sips out of her mother’s vodka martinis at cocktail parties for dignitaries of Lindsey State University. Lucy calls what she did lifting since she sneaks into the parties and with craft manages to slurp down the remains of martinis. Sometimes, she even got to eat a green olive with its pimento center. Then other times she had to settle for cheap Chardonnay and bad beer.
Mariel doesn’t see one damned dinosaur print, and Lavera Dixon instructs each girl to move up to her arm and stare down one-at-a-time into the gurgling clear water. The woman points and Mariel stands behind Cherisse, who says, “Yes, Mother, I see. I see.”
Mariel views maybe some oh-so-slight indentations in the rocks, nothing that lives up to the excitement Lavera Dixon tries to evoke in the girls. Sure enough, Sharon responds as Mother holds her arm to make sure Mariel has no chance to again cause harm, “It’s there. I see, but . . .”
“We don’t know how long God’s day was,” Lavera Dixon explains one more time while Sharon murmurs she will discuss this point with her Church of Christ preacher the next morning at Sunday services. Mariel’s mother still holds Sharon’s arm. That doesn’t faze Mariel one bit, even though Mother has never grasped her arm to keep her from falling even when she was three and couldn’t walk across the carpeted living room floor without falling and scraping a knee or an elbow on the rough fiber.
The ground-up pebbles feel like stones on a gravel road, and Mariel crunches her toes to absorb the water into her fleshy feet and bony legs, wishing somehow that the cool freshness would move up to her arms and face. Sometimes, she swishes water from the stream onto her face, like she and her poor friend Susan used to wet wash rags when she spent the night and the family could afford only room fans. Mariel liked Susan, but Mother proclaimed that Susan’s father owned a dairy and didn’t possess the kind of family ranking that she demanded for her children’s friends. So after second grade, Susan and Mariel nodded in the halls but seldom said more than two words at any given encounter even though they had the same teacher each year.
They come to another bend in the water bed, and Lavera Dixon adds, “Look, more Theropod prints. These prints deteriorate year . . .” She stops mid-sentence as they see boys lounging on the rocks where the water flows over their twisted body parts. Some have shaved heads; red knit caps shield some of their skulls from the scathing July sun. Lavera moves her hand toward the slopes that bend down toward the bed of the water.
Mama follows the unspoken command since it’s unsanitary to touch these boys whose crystal clear snot runs from their nose down to their chest nipples that protrude through their old man sleeveless t-shirts with the words Abilene State School for the Retarded and the Infirm stenciled on the back that outline the muscles on some boys and that droop down on others. Hell, they remind Mariel of the outcasts of India with their bone-thin arms and legs. They bring forward to Mariel’s memory a character she might have read about in a book somewhere, sometime. At twenty, this fictional character gave up everything because he could not deter his overwhelming greed to possess a gold ring that he found in a body of clear water just like the one they tread through now.
The water swishes over the girls’ feet, but still that doesn’t provide enough relief from the hot July sun. They “trudge onward and forward” as Mrs. Dixon instructs. The gray pebbly rocks have merged into slick boulders in Mariel’s mind, but still the troop moves forward. Lavera looks for small inclines where the girls can move again onward and upward and away from those strange children with purple ligaments and huge eggplant boils on their faces.
They trudge ever and more forward since Lavera insists that her motto for living is “make all things full and fruitful.” Mother nods and clutches Sharon’s limp arm that reminds Mariel of one of the boys they passed and are now moving back toward.
Lavera, as always, covets her role as the troop’s matriarch, and Mother honors that title when she grasps with great determination Sharon’s arm.
A skittering shadow slithers across the river’s bed. Mrs. Dixon announces, “We must turn back, Girls!! We must!!”
Mariel notices as the woman’s coal-brown eyes center on the incline the girls would never be able to climb, especially since wimpy Sharon engulfs Mariel’s mother’s arm and lectures one more time about the trials and tribulations all mankind must face in the later days.
Mariel can’t stand Sharon’s whiny voice that sounds like a telephone ringing. At home when the phone rings, Mother grasps her martini glass firmly and stumbles across the room. She then mumbles, “Who the hell could be bothering us now?” Mother has always emphasized the difference between private and public language, and she clearly lets Mariel and her siblings know not to get the two damned things confused.
A skittering piece of twine scoots by Sharon’s dimpled knee. It could be red, it could be copper, it could be black. Mariel remembers the chant: “Red on yellow will kill a fellow, but red on black is a friend of Jack.”
Lavera issues a command after Mariel notices the woman has surveyed the harsh terrain that lies ahead. “We have to retreat!! There must be a water moccasin den ahead.”
Mariel realizes these words stem from the fact that the Randolfs, who live five miles out of Lindsey, built a house on top of a mountain. That’s where Mother fakes at playing bridge. The Randolfs are rich enough to afford a closed-in swimming pool that, like a greenhouse, drips perspiration on humid days. Mr. Randolph once discovered a water moccasin lazing on a step leading down to the pool just as he jumped ten feet from the diving board. Mother and Lavera Dixon play their bridge games in the garden room on spring afternoons, but Mother often returns and says, “I never feel comfortable there—not with those creatures looming.” Still, Mother, Lavera Dixon, and important women of culture drive out to the countryside to play a game whose purpose Mariel will never understand.
The group of girls edges back to the terrain they just crossed. Mariel’s foot scrapes against the broken pebbles. Her leg feels the water swirl across her thighs. They reach the protruding big rocks of the Paluxy River. Along with the rest of the girls, Mariel expects the boys with their thin stained t-shirts and baggy gray swimsuits that look more like shorts than pants to have remained in static positions on the rock ledges. Instead, their supervisor has told them to crawl from one rock ledge to the next.
The Karo clear snot glides into the water, and Mariel shivers thinking that the cool, clear water that provides them release from the frying hot sun could be contaminated with boogers and gluey snot. The purple threaded boils on some of the boys’ foreheads caused Mariel to shiver as the girls begin their one-by-one stride by these poor forsaken children, Lavera Dixon’s words that again echo in the inner chambers of Mariel’s threaded memories when the girls had reached the last cliff and noticed the slithering snake.
Lavera Dixon moves upward while Mariel’s mother pushes the girls forward and repeats the command: “We must retreat!! We must retreat!!” The refrain reminds Mariel so much of some kind of military battle. In the deep core of Mariel’s heart, she resents her mother following, not asserting. She can’t explain. Still, she realizes that Lavera Dixon desires to move the girls away from those boys with their purple boils and skeleton limbs. The boils, the limbs, and the boogers frighten Mariel. They make her quiver in her soul. In her deep core, Mariel desires to touch one of the boys: to feel his gray skin stretched thinly over bones. But then the blood freezes in her veins, like when she had her tonsils taken out, and the anesthesia made her veins feel that ice water moved through her body. At the time, she created a mind picture what it must be like to die the moment the drugs began to take effect, and she went into a too deep sleep where the doctors had to monitor her for three days. She shudders as Mother clutches little Sharon’s grubby claw of a hand and they move onward just ahead of her. She and Cherrise sometimes one and then the other moves forward; sometimes they shove each other almost into Sharon’s back to make her fall. They almost succeed each time because otherwise their mothers would lecture them in front of the whole troupe about respecting others. In that event, their last words would be, “It’s not right to choose someone smaller than oneself to bully. Now stop that behavior immediately!!” And the God-damned lecture would not be short and brief.
So they walk from one protruding gray boulder to the next. Mariel’s butt still aches from when she fell on the ill-planned trek down the Paluxy River bed, but she pretends to be shit-damn fine because Mariel exhibiting any sign of pain would please the hell out of Mother.
A mutilated orphan with one hazel eye and a vacant socket for the other reaches a long, thin finger toward Mother, who swats at it like she’s holding a fly swatter and it’s a blood-sucking mosquito. Even from behind, Mariel visualizes Mother pursing her lips and the once even lipstick smearing in blotches around the edges of her mouth.
Mariel walks by the same orphan. His translucent eye transfixes from the sun’s rays into a kaleidoscope of green Mariel never noticed when they walked by him from behind. When Mariel was seven, her sister Martine a couple of years younger, and her brother Maurice only two, Mother announced one Friday night she needed time alone to sort through the rigors of daily life in a God-damned little berg and she would leave the next morning for a retreat to Fort Worth for a long-needed trip to Nieman’s. Father could very well fend for himself and his shitty little brats. Father fended for them by eating at the Onyx Café and ordering hamburgers, onion rings, fries, and anything else Mariel and her siblings desired. With Mother gone, Mariel found herself freed enough to call him Daddy, just like her half-brothers did when they came for one of their rare visits. Each night he played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Languor caused by the heat.” When she heard the music for the first time, Mariel felt could only utter: “Daddy, that’s beautiful.”
The malformed child with his kaleidoscope eye touches the hem of Mariel’s blue denim shorts. By instinct, she shivers. A remaining bugger could be sealed to his fingers; he could still ooze from his nose the Karo clear snot with green mucous at the center. Mariel rephrases her words that she said to Father six years ago and that she repeats every time Mother leaves for one of her retreats from the family, “Daddy, that is truly beautiful.”
They steer away from the boys. They crawl up the ledge, and the two mothers drive like a damned creature from hell is chasing them. At Oak Dale Park, they catch their breaths. They place on the stone campground table the play dough sandwiches. In her mind Mariel catches a foolish glimpse of Father conducting the Four Seasons as his left-hand moves up and down. She’ll vaguely capture in her memory-camera trekking over the big rocks across from Oak Dale Park. She’ll vaguely make out double exposures of “languor caused by heat” in the retarded boys on the rocks of the Paluxy River bed. Yet later, she will never visualize the hazel eye that caught the light and shimmered: the essence of memory, decaying fossils, and footprints in time.
Donna Walker-Nixon was a full professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where she received the Mary Stevens Piper Award for excellence in teaching. She currently serves as an adjunct lecturer at Baylor. She lists her five primary professional achievements as 1) founding Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997, 2) co-editing the Her Texas series with her friend and mentor James Ward Lee, 3) co-founding The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas 4) publishing her novel Canaan’s Oothoon, and 5) serving as lead editor Her Texas, which has jettisoned Donna’s faith that the voices of women writers and artists truly mean something to both men and women.