By Michael Heiss
A small brown envelope was waiting on the kitchen table when I arrived at my mother’s home in New Jersey. Addressed to me.
The old address.
The house we lived in when they got married.
The return address was the Department of the Interior. An address from Rapid City, South Dakota. I hadn’t visited my mother in a month or so. My poor relationship with my stepfamily disincentivized the four hours of driving from Queens.
“I’ll be down in a few.” Her voice echoed through the cavernous house.
I picked up the package and tried to tear it. The thick brown paper wouldn’t give. I raised it to my mouth, to tear with my teeth but froze–who knows where this has been.
The scissor in the drawer under the telephone cut the top easily. A fowl smell followed.
My nose nimbly avoided the brunt of noxious odor.
I rushed to the sink and tipped the envelope upside down. Out clunked… what?
It was a wallet…the remnants of a wallet. A red square tri-fold wallet, made of some poly fiber, plastic, and Velcro. The outside was woven to look checkered and flannel. There was an embroidered 8-Ball on the top, next to where the Velcro clasped it shut.
“You’ll never find it. These tunnels go forever.”
The ranger’s voice pulls me back–a snarky confidence in his tone. I hate him for it. Partially because I know he is right, and partially because everything that matters to me in this moment rests nuzzled in the wallet that has been dragged underground by an eight-pound rodent who thought it was a meal… and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Behind him, pink hues and yellow streaks bounce off fluffed clouds, lighting the sky on fire. I feel as if it would burn my fingertips if I outstretch them just enough. Below, the multicolored layers of sedimentary rock are maroon, gold, and taupe. The speckles glisten. Grit. Grain. Dust. Along the grassy plain where I stand, the shadow I create goes on forever. Well, at least to the precipice. My hands move to my hips in frustration. The cliff’s edge is tempting.
“I’ll need you to sign this form. Because you contacted the Ranger station, we’ll need to document the incident.” His slight twang shifts to a more robotic tone. “The Department of the Interior and Division of Parks and Natural Resources will conduct a thorough investigation of the incident, however, investigations involving Wildlife often are deemed inconclusive.”
He hands me the clipboard. The document is in triplicate. I wonder if the pink form on the bottom will capture my disappointment along with the information. The pen atop the board is warm. I sign the paperwork at the bottom. My signature is barely legible–it contains the same seriousness as his upcoming “investigation.”
I hand him back the pen and clipboard and he gives it the briefest of glances before flipping up the white copy, then the yellow copy, and detaching the pink copy.
“White is for the office. Yellow is for Washington. Pink is for you. We hope you enjoy the rest of your time at one of our nation’s most beautiful treasures.”
The pen clicks closed. My heart remains hard. The pen returns to his right breast pocket. The clipboard slides under his arm, pinned to his torso.
The twang returns. “Don’t lose anything else out here! It’s getting dark soon! I’d tell you to find a site and make camp, but,” he pauses for a moment, “you’d need a permit to camp, and, well… you’d need ID for that!” He laughs deep but restrains himself after the first chuckle.
I nod. Inside, I wish he’d drop dead.
He spins away and returns to his dusty olive-green Jeep. I remain, standing in the center of the prairie dog town, statue-like, the leather strap of a decades-old camera around my neck pulling on my spine, the machine heavy, an anvil, while the rest of the tourists continue moving around, ogling at the little rodents that are just so damn cute!
My cross-country companion Justin returns from wherever he walked off to. His brow is beaded with sweat. His pants are dusty. His knuckles are crusted with blood.
“Dude, there’s some great rock formations around here. Kinda slippery, but you can really see the colors. And if you get up close, you can see some kind of sparkly metal embedded in the rock.”
I hear him. The sound of his voice cuts through the blowing of the wind, but it isn’t until his 6’8 shadow crosses mine that I acknowledge his arrival.
“Hey man, you alright?” He has a slight pant.
“My wallet fell out of my pocket while bending down to take a picture and a prairie dog dragged it underground.”
A smile breaks on Justin’s face. “Dude, that sucks!” The corners of his mouth crease and crinkle. I can only close my eyes.
“Go ahead what.” I open my eyes. His smile grows bigger.
“Go ahead. Laugh. Get it out before I kill someone.”
With the permission, laughter erupts. Bellowing. Shareable. The other people circulating through the monument stop and look at him, all but a quiet moment, then return to their touristy oblivion.
It hurts to see him laughing, but I understand. If the circumstances were the other way around, I’d be laughing too.
I wave my hands. Get it over with. His voice peaks for a moment, and then the laughter dies, and we both walk back to the car.
“Good thing I have the keys in my rucksack, then, eh? You can’t seem to hold onto anything.” He shifts the bag from his back and takes out the keys.
As we reach the car, a dust-covered Honda Accord desperate for servicing and hobbled from a slightly dented rim, he hits the unlock button and with a loud click, the car’s power locks disengage. He pops the trunk, and we head to the back of the car to assess our situation.
“So, what does losing your wallet actually mean?” His voice grows serious as he pulls off the sweat-soaked tee shirt from his back and replaces it with a fresh one advertising a local Vermont brewery.
“Well,” I say, the rage still smoldering and trapped between my shoulder blades, “I have no ID. The car has no registration. I have no bankcard, no credit cards, and most of my cash is in that wallet. There’s about a hundred forty bucks in the stash box in the trunk. The insurance card for the car is in the glove box, but it has my mother’s name on it.” I pause. A deep inhale. A frantic exhale. “Basically, it’s all on you now.”
I look past him and stare out at the horizon. Hills. Different grades of colors and malformed rocks. I think about the damn rodent, smiling somewhere underground, nibbling on the high-grade leather that my stepfather gave me as a birthday gift a few months ago. I hope he’s enjoying it. I hope the leather possesses some mystical tanning agent that is ultra-poisonous to whatever kind of rodent prairie dogs are and kills the bastard. Slowly.
It’s night. We make our way back to the pharmacy in Wall, the small town directly north of the entrance to the Badlands, where hours before we were sipping water from paper cups and planning next steps. Using a payphone in the center of the bank, I call my mother to let her know what had happened. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s habit, and perhaps I want to hear her say everything is going to be all right.
“Mom, I have something I need to tell you.”
“What is it? Are you having a good time? How is Justin?”
“Justin’s fine. Look.” I pause. I feel something building in my stomach. “I lost my wallet today. A rodent grabbed it and dragged it underground.”
There is a long silence on the other end of the payphone.
Still, the silence prolongs.
And then her voice breaks it.
“Does Justin have any money?”
“Yeah. Three hundred dollars, I think.”
“Turn around and come home.” Her command stern and unilateral. My throat opens to speak but there’s no words. Instead, the deepest laugh I have ever felt. It comes from my diaphragm, projects by my windpipe, and out through my throat, japing quickly at my tonsils before passing over my tongue and through my teeth.
“What the $#@& are you laughing about?” “Come home!”
At first, the words leap out of the receiver and strike me across the cheek. Maybe it’s the heat from my skin on the receiver. But she continues to speak, though I can’t distinguish the words. The sound trails and feels miles away. She is miles away.
“No!” Defiance blending with laughter. Tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. The laughter makes my ribs hurt. I laugh and I laugh.
I can hear my mother talking to my stepfather in the background. I picture her standing in the center of the white tile kitchen, phone handset waving around while she rants to him about the situation and her disappointment. I envision the thick plastic wire bouncing up and down as she talks with her hands.
She begins yelling at him, about how I am laughing at her on the phone. The reaction loosens the fear first felt before in the park. Fear of having no ID, no money, and no idea of what to do leaves me – lightens with each hollering laugh.
I gasp for breath, earphone pinned to my forehead. The air tastes different. It tastes better. It tastes sweet.
I turn around and see Justin sitting on the trunk of the car. His back is to me.
“Michael.” Her voice sounds firm and authoritative, reflecting off my forehead. “Come. Home.”
“No!” The laughter is still there, but ebbing.
“I’m on the prairie. I kinda feel free. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m not coming back yet.”
“Come home.” The sound runs away with the wind.
“Listen, I’ve got to go. Justin and I are going to find a place to camp tonight. It’s dark, and we can’t stay in the park. We’re heading to Casper next, and then going to stop near Billings. I’ll give you a call then to say hello.”
“I’ve got to go, Mom.”
“Good night! Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine!”
“Mich–” I place the receiver handle on the hook and end the call. Justin’s digging in the trunk. He hears me approach and pops his head up like an ostrich.
“So, do we head home?”
“Then what do we do?” His concern is palpable.
“I say we just drive.” I pause. “We’ll figure it out. We’re on the road. We’ll handle everything as it comes.”
“Okay then. Let’s go.”
We packed the car properly and jumped back on I-90, leaving the Badlands, Wall and its free cup of water, and made our descent into the Black Hills toward Deadwood. Windows open, my eyes focused on the lines in front of me. My hands gripped the wheel tighter. My foot upright on the accelerator. My expectations were blank. Fear and Freedom intermixed in my heart.
Michael Heiss is a storyteller from Queens, New York. His writing has appeared in print and online in publications including Dark Ink Magazine, Burnt Pine Magazine, Perspectives, and The Vignette Review. He teaches at Hofstra University and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth and received a Silver Educators medal from Scholastic’s Young Writers’ awards for teaching creative nonfiction. He loves traveling both near and far, sleeping under the stars, and creating possibilities.