Postcard from Reno, May 1980

From the top bunk of the RV, motion-sick, I-395 unfolded southward and dusty onto brown hills and sagebrush. Jigsaw puzzle pieces lay on a hinged table behind the front seats. Uncle Klaus tested his English from the passenger side, shouted every road sign, while Brigitte, overheated in her leather pants and high heels, nursed their baby. Mom’s boyfriend Jerry chain-smoked as he drove and argued with Klaus in German. My sisters stared out the windows, silent, covered in chickenpox. Mom ignored us all behind a Redbook magazine. For the 800 miles between Spokane and Reno, we’d packed a box of saltines, a jar of Tang, some instant coffee and a bag of overripe plums from a neighbor’s tree.

At a KOA near Eureka I wandered between water-fighting kids and sleeping teenagers, sunburned dads in plastic chairs with beer cozies balanced on their laps. My stomach growled as I peered into the broken snack machine. Picnic tables and lanky pine trees bordered concrete coin-operated showers. Laundry smells mingled with burned hot dogs. As I walked toward the fence at the edge of the campground, a creeping thrill of solitude gave way to panic. I ran to the parking lot as my sisters crawled back into the RV, my absence unnoticed.

Jerry parked behind the Reno hotel and we dispensed from the hot Winnebago like change from a vending machine, moving in separate directions on the soft tarmac. Inside the dark casino icy air soothed my sunburn. Suspended in stale smoke, bodies grafted to the slot machines, the gamblers didn’t see me.

We bought nothing in the gift shop, ate at the buffet for lunch. Returning reluctantly to the camper, we waited for Jerry. Eyes bloodshot, carrying a Crown Royal bag heavy with nickels, a cigarette bouncing on his lips, he chided Klaus, “See how it’s done?” Brigitte rolled her eyes at me. We lurched back onto the highway long after sunset.

Camped at a beach in Santa Cruz, the ocean was a thin flat opal on the horizon. I sat alone, listening to the distant waves, drawing patterns in the dark brown sand, until Jerry stuck his middle finger in my face and said, “How about drawing one of these for your Uncle Klaus?”

Klaus and Jerry made a bet near the end of the trip, argued at a rest stop. Jerry stomped away, toiletries bag and sunglasses in hand. An hour later, we split up to search for him. Mom found a tavern a half-mile down the road and sent me inside. I saw the dim shape of his back, two bottles beside him. Outside, as other drinkers drifted in, he waved a plane ticket at us. Loud hassles reached an impasse, dread settled into fatigue. We headed north again.

When we returned the camper to the rental agency, I scooped Klaus’s unfinished puzzle into its box, an image of the Grand Canyon with German words below. It was Mom’s idea to invite the brother she’d never liked. Maybe she’d seen a postcard of a family vacation. My uncle, aunt and cousin left the next day. At dinner, Jerry handed us each fifteen dollars, announcing he’d won the bet.

The year before, when our father died, my sisters and I moved in with Mom and Jerry, lost luggage they were obligated to claim. One spring, packing to move again, I found a collapsible souvenir cup under the bathroom sink. I stared at the black KOA letters on the yellow plastic discs and wondered what had been wagered that summer.

Benjamin Malay works in a variety of mediums to create deeply personal images of people and places, embracing imperfect memory and fleeting life by creating art and writing. Influenced by patterns of the natural world, he is most inspired by the spontaneous use of available materials. He is the sole proprietor of a fine art framing business in Seattle, Washington. His creative nonfiction work “Agates” was featured in the “Solitude’s Spectrum” issue of Cahoodaloodaling.

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