A makeshift family living on the brink faces eviction when the city cuts off their water supply.
A dozen empty paint buckets rattle in the truck bed as Emily and her two uncles, Dwight and Jay, head west on Van Buren to the ragged edges of downtown Phoenix. Dwight drives, and Jay dangles his arm out the passenger window, his palm spread wide to catch the wind, his feet tapping on the floorboard. Citrus-scented air blows in, the night dimly lit by a shard of moon and a scatter of stars. It’s 12:30 a.m. It’s been five days since they had running water. Dwight says the buckets should hold enough water to last them a couple of weeks.
They pass Daddy Wallet’s Check Cashing, a squat wood structure easily mistaken for an oversized hot dog stand, just before the 202 underpass. Dark, half-demolished motels and old abandoned buildings intersperse among new apartment complexes with high wrought-iron gates. Tall security lights ascend from the grounds of these new structures, an announcement that the old will be demolished and replaced, the way Grandma Marilee said the barrio in Tempe was wiped out when she was a young woman, after Arizona State University needed more land for their buildings.
They took what they wanted, Grandma Marilee said. The University needed more land for their buildings. Seized it from the people who lived there. Paid them a pittance and razed their homes. How do you think they got so big?
A little farther west, run-down but still-open motels dot Van Buren, their logos lit in dull neon. Babylon. The Paradise Inn. Motel 8. A large, vacant lot separates Ajax Liquors from the Pink Rhino Strip Club. Shuttered businesses stand on either side of Magic Keys Daycare Center in a derelict strip mall. The Blue Moon Nude Dancers building is across the street. A few blocks east of downtown, a pale outline of Phoenix’s high-rise buildings appears against the skyline. Dwight turns left at Fast and Furious Used Cars and into a residential neighborhood. Twinkly lights along the edges of the car lot’s roof light up the nearest house.
“This where we’re getting water?” Jay licks his thumb and index finger, snuffs out his cigarette, and sets it in the ashtray.
“Stuff’s always going down in this kind of neighborhood. Nobody cares,” Dwight says.
He parks the truck between two small houses. No cars are in the driveways or on the street in front. A dingy yellow streetlight stands a few feet ahead. A dog barks in the distance but otherwise it’s quiet. Houses across the street look deserted—no cars, no porch lights, only black curtainless windows. Weeds grow up around a bike that lies on its side in the front yard of one of them. Yellow police tape wraps around the house next to it. They sit in silence and watch for several minutes.
“Jay, grab a couple of those buckets. I’ll take another two.”
Jay nods. “Where’s the nozzles?”
“How the fuck do I know? We’re gonna have to find them.” Dwight points to one of the houses. “You take that one.”
“Don’t you want me to do anything?” Emily says. When she’d asked to come along, she thought he might let her help.
Dwight shakes his head. “Just stay in the truck. You hear or see anything that’s not us flash the headlights one time.”
Emily looks at the light switch on the dash. “Okay.”
“Key’s in the ignition. Leave it be unless I yell otherwise.”
“I could get behind the wheel, be the driver.”
“Not tonight. Just keep your eyes open.”
Dwight and Jay get out of the truck and silently close the doors. They each take two buckets from the back and approach the houses. Dwight finds the outdoor faucet, and water gurgles into the bucket. Jay walks to the back of the other house. Look on the side, stupid, Emily thinks. Jay reappears swinging empty buckets. He looks at Dwight and shrugs. Dwight points to the other side of the second house. Jay walks around the front and disappears.
A couple of blocks ahead a car moves slowly through an intersection. It could be a cop patrolling the neighborhood. But it’s too dark to see any writing on the side or a siren on the top. The car disappears and comes back a few minutes later going in the opposite direction. When the car comes back a third time, Emily reaches for the light switch but stops. Maybe the person inside the car didn’t see the truck. A light to warn Dwight and Jay will for sure attract attention. She crouches in the passenger seat and watches out the front window.
South Mountain rises in the distance. A vertical bulge of darkness, as if the earth needed more space and pushed through its outer skin. Emily can barely make out the peaks. City lights dim the stars. What lies beyond that blackness? Beyond the sprawl of Phoenix and its surrounding deserts? Dwight keeps a Rand McNally Road Atlas in the glove box, and in it, California’s a few inches west of Phoenix. The Pacific runs the entire vertical length of the map.
The car doesn’t cross again, and Emily relaxes.
Dwight walks quickly to the truck, arms at his sides, hands gripping the bucket handles. Jay follows. Water sloshes as they set the buckets in the back. They knock over a few of the empties, which bang against the metal of the truck bed. Emily turns the key in the ignition and watches the intersection ahead. When Dwight and Jay are in the truck, Dwight puts it in drive and speeds back onto Van Buren, toward Tempe.
“Holy shit.” Jay giggles and lights up his cigarette butt. A lock of dark brown hair falls over his left eye and his head leans that way, as if pulled to the side by that strand. Jay’s thirty-two, but sometimes seems closer to Emily’s own seventeen years. That stint in prison must have stunted his brain or something. He reminds her of a defective firecracker that sizzles and burns out before it does anything.
Dwight keeps his eyes on the road and occasionally glances in the rearview. “Who told you to start up the ignition?”
Emily can’t tell if he’s angry. “I don’t know. Nobody. You guys seemed in a hurry.”
He takes his eyes off the road for a second and looks at her, his face always a mask. Handsome in a battered sort of way; the world’s thrown a lot of shit in his direction. But, under his brown mustache and short beard, Emily catches that almost-smile of approval on his face.
They pull into the Babylon. The parking lot is tiny. One car is parked in front of a room at the end of a twelve-unit, single-story structure, another in front of the office. A handmade cardboard sign advertising a vacancy hangs on the door, but it’s dark inside. A bare bulb, mounted on the exterior wall, sputters on and off. Dwight parks under a fat date palm, about twenty feet from the office. Fronds brush against the truck’s roof.
“Keep your eyes on the office.” He gets out, walks behind the motel, and reappears a couple of minutes later.
“C’mon Jay. Faucet’s in the back.”
They fill four more buckets, put them in the truck, and then go back with the remaining empties. Emily waits. The clock on the dash reads 1:45 a.m. She sees movement at the double window next to the office door. A light comes on inside, and a woman in a nightgown pulls back the drapes. Flab hangs from her upper arms like flesh-colored jelly. She looks directly at the truck. Emily freezes, feels the woman’s eyes on her, and for a second imagines they make eye contact. She taps the car horn once, lightly, but doesn’t take her eyes off the woman, who quickly closes the curtains. Dwight and Jay reappear with buckets in each hand, race to the truck, and sling them in back. Emily starts the engine and makes room for Dwight.
As Dwight speeds out of the parking lot, a few buckets of water fall over and water spills into the truck bed. The traffic signal east of the Babylon blinks red. He stops for a second, then floors the gas and races to the 202 entry ramp. The freeway is empty except for a couple of cars heading in the other direction. It’s now 2:00 a.m.
“Hot dog!” Jay wears a big grin on his face, legs dancing as if detached from the rest of his body.
“You think she called the cops?” Emily says.
Dwight concentrates on the road, doesn’t answer.
Emily turns to the back window. Nothing behind them.
“Don’t matter now.” Jay winks at Emily then leans his head out the window as Dwight exits the 202 onto Priest Road and drives toward home.
Jay’s an idiot sometimes, but she feels his adrenaline mix with her own and race through her body. Dwight remains stoic, silent. He turns the truck into the driveway of their two-acre property and parks next to the patio. Water covers the truck bed and drips into the dirt. Dwight lifts one of the full buckets and takes it over to the old Airstream trailer that Emily shares with her cousin, Paula, Dwight’s daughter.
He sets it down by the door. “This should do you girls for a while. We’ll unload the rest tomorrow.” He takes another bucket into the adobe house on the other side of the patio.
The Airstream is dark; Paula’s probably asleep. Emily sits on the trailer steps. The light rail rumbles across the bridge over Tempe Town Lake, curves east, and becomes a smear of illumination. She hasn’t showered in a week, her scalp itches, her long dark hair pulled into a ponytail. When Emily turned the handle on the bathroom faucet last week, not a single drop came out. None from the other spigots on their property either, not even the usual drip from the rusty tap in the kitchen. There must have been some warning because Grandma Marilee had filled the bathtub to the brim. But the water quickly turned filmy, and gnats floated on the surface. Emily splashed her face but passed on washing her hair or using the toilet which already smelled from not being flushed. Only flush once a day, Grandma Marilee said. Until we get this figured out.
At first, Emily thought figured out meant paying the water bill, but she didn’t realize the principle at work in Dwight’s mind. She’s been peeing in the yard behind the cab of the old semi to avoid the unflushed toilet. The clerk at Quik Stop up the street gave her the bathroom key for other business. It won’t be so easy to wash her hair in those buckets. Even if she has two it will be a pain. Two buckets would be enough to fill the toilet tank for at least four flushes, and Dwight’s not about to give her two full buckets just for her hair. She glances at the water beside the steps. Already, bits of debris float on top.
The first thing Emily sees when she wakes up is the poster hanging crooked next to the window in the Airstream. The woman in the two-by-three-foot photo wears black-leather, spike-studded bracelets on her wrist. A red-lipstick smirk stretches across her face as she gives the finger to the camera. Emily got the poster for fifty cents a couple of years ago at a garage sale. When she bought it, she’d never heard of Joan Jett, but she liked the way she looked in the poster—like a lady who wouldn’t take shit from anybody.
Emily and Paula share a double bed, which takes up most of the trailer. Paula lies with her back to Emily, but Emily senses she’s awake.
“You should’ve come with us,” Emily says.
“How much did you guys steal?”
“Steal is a complicated word.”
“Not really. It’s taking what isn’t yours.” Paula rolls over onto her back.
“The city’s the one who stole our water. We were just getting some of it back. The places we got water from still have theirs. Nobody’s hurt.”
“You sound like my dad.”
Maybe she did. Goddamn city. Crooks think they own water, Dwight said on their first day without water. Grandma Marilee agreed. Sons of bitches, she’d said and shook her head, her voice like gravel, the first cigarette of the day hanging from her lips. They were right. You don’t pay for the air you breathe. You don’t pay for rain. They don’t pay for water in Ireland. Emily had read that in an old National Geographic of Marilee’s. Dwight’s always saying the government should keep its dirty, thieving hands off people’s lives and their property and their paychecks. Water’s the latest offense. He’s going to bypass the city and get free water, the way it should be. But in the meantime, they need to keep those buckets filled.
Emily’s eyes roam the water-damaged ceiling of the Airstream that Dwight patched up with heavy-duty plastic and duct tape. “Think about it. Water’s a natural thing. Why should anyone get to own it in the first place?”
“Twelve buckets, minus the ones that spilled over. That’s how much we got. There’s a bucket outside our door.”
Emily props herself up on the pillow and recalls the previous night. “There was this fat bitch at the window, with curlers sticking out of her hair all over the place. Looked right at me with beady little eyes buried in her puffy face. I think she called the cops before we raced out of there.” She isn’t sure about the curlers or the cops. Or even the woman’s eyes. But they add a nice touch.
Taped to the wall in the space between Joan Jett and the window is a postcard of Eureka, California. An aerial view. A pier juts into blue ocean, white popcorn clouds float in the sky and sailboats of various sizes dot the water. A city spreads out in the background and behind it, mountains. Emily knows the postcard by heart, every detail. She found it in a shoebox at the same garage sale as the poster. On the back, the words: Eureka, California, largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland. Located on U.S. Route 101 on the shores of Humboldt Bay. As they walked home from the garage sale, Emily examined the card and said to Paula, That’s where I’m going someday. And she is. Figure out how to get some money and take off. Get the hell out of Phoenix.
“So, we’re supposed to wash ourselves in those buckets?” Paula sits up in the bed. Short auburn curls messily frame her face. She pulls her knees to her chest, rests her chin on them.
Dwight’s right about not paying for water, but it is pretty fucked-up they can’t shower and wash their hair. “Your dad will figure something out. He said he’d get it back on.”
“He wouldn’t do this if my mom was still here.”
Emily doesn’t respond. It’s true Dwight would’ve done anything for Ruth. She would have done anything for him too, so who knows about the water.
“She wouldn’t let us go without water. She wouldn’t like him going out stealing water. He’d listen to her,” Paula says.
Emily’s careful about what she says when Paula brings up her dead mom. Emily’s own mother left when she was five, probably better than having her die when you’re thirteen and she’s been there all your life. At least Emily never got used to having a mother around. She waits for Paula’s thoughts about Ruth to pass but knows they never really do.
Paint peels from the walls, a piece of balsa wood covers the glassless back window. Dwight had traded rebuilding a friend’s Harley engine, plus a couple hundred dollars, for the dilapidated Airstream four years ago, 2006, when Emily and Paula were thirteen. Right before Ruth got sick.
No more than seventeen feet in length, the back corner dented in a good two feet, the insides water damaged, it had been destined for the junkyard. He removed the wheels, pulled out everything except the sink and cabinet, cleaned it up, and put in a double bed. Before that, Emily and Paula slept in sleeping bags in the living room of the adobe house. No plumbing in the Airstream; they use the sink for odds and ends, makeup, hair stuff. Their clothes fill the cabinets. A row of books and DVDs spans the width of the floor under the back window.
Paula’s eyes fixate on a space just beyond her feet. Emily can’t tell if she’s still thinking about Ruth. It was a rush getting the water, but Paula’s right about the buckets. They’ll never work.
Through the trailer’s window, the eight-story U.S. Airways building with its blue glass windows and curved roof dominates the street leading to Mill Avenue, the hip downtown area of upscale restaurants and college hangouts. Less than a five-minute walk from their place, it seems like another world to Emily. Even when she walks along that street, pops into American Apparel or Urban Outfitters or the ice cream shop where Paula works a few hours a week, she can never shake the feeling that she’s an intruder. “You’re right. The buckets are bullshit. We can find somewhere to shower and wash our hair. Let’s check out the university.”
The sprawling university lies beyond what Emily can see through the window. It snakes through downtown and the surrounding area, like some giant desert creature stretching tentacles in every direction. Emily’s never figured out exactly where the campus begins.
“It’s so huge, no one will notice us,” Emily says.
And if they do, who gives a shit? It’s not a crime to take a shower.