Dirt Road Dirtbags

It was Saturday. And I love Saturdays.
My friend Libby’s dad takes her to church on Saturdays. And Polly’s dad takes her to museums. And Abigail’s dad takes her on picnics. But me and my dad are different because, on Saturdays, he takes me driving. Some people say that driving isn’t a fun father-daughter activity, but Dad says driving is like an adventure. And since his dad never took him on any adventures, I knew I was lucky that we got to do this.
Today was a great day for a drive because the sun was shining and it rained yesterday so our green pickup truck was extra shiny, and I knew the road would be a little wet still so it wouldn’t be as dusty. We bumped and bounced out of our driveway and turned onto 40-rod road and I spotted the little speck of a hitchhiker in the distance. He was standing on the side of the road just like they all do—his thumb was curved back like the inside of a spoon, and his face looked wrinkly and sad.
“Ready, Ella?” Dad stuck out his hand for a high-five and I slapped it hard because I always try to make high-fives extra loud. Dad started to slow the pickup down, but before he stopped he put on his pretend arm cast. I even signed the cast to make it look even more like a real one. “Alright Elle, time to catch us a dirtbag!” Dad said as we got closer. He sometimes likes to call hitchhikers dirtbags and when I was little, I thought it was kinda mean. Now that I’m big, though, I’m used to it and I realized his term even makes sense since hitchhikers are usually dirty. The man’s face looked happy when we slow down and I remembered how that’s one of my favorite parts of playing pretend because me and Dad are like heroes who rescue lost people on the road. This hitchhiker looked like a real Montana mountain man. He was old and had dirt crusted in between the wrinkles on his tan face. His clothes were so ripped – I would never be allowed out of the house if I wore them – and his cowboy hat looked like a perfectly roasted marshmallow because it was a golden brown color and had some burns on the edges. His spurs were rusty, which Dad says is a sign of a “careless cowboy,” and his denim jacket had one sleeve slightly shorter than the other so I think Dad is right that he is a little bit careless. The most important thing is that he had a bag. Dad says hitchhikers never have money, but if there’s two things they do have it’s a bag and a story. This guy’s bag was really more of a sack since it was made from an animal hide, so I guessed he probably had a good story too. I could already tell he would be a great player in our game of pretend.
“Howdy fella, where ya headed?” Dad says. He’s good at pretend because he knows how to talk like the locals.
“I reckon I’m goin’ wherever yer headed,” Mr. Mountain Man said, as he got in our back seat. His voice sounded like he swallowed a cotton ball and he smelled like dead animals and fire.
“Well, we’re heading down this road to the nearest gas pump, so how’s about we fill up there and then take you wherever ya wanna go, Partner?” Dad said. And then he looked at me through the corner of his eye and did a little smile because this was our secret code.
“That’ll do,” Mr. Mountain Man said. He kicked his feet up on the seat and leaned his head on the window. I’m not allowed to put my feet on the seats of Dad’s pickup, but I think it’s okay for Mr. Mountain Man to do since me and Dad are doing pretend now.
“What brings ya to 40-rod road?” Dad asked, like always.
“I was just up there on the butte leading a camping trip, actually. Campers are supposed to split up and survive for three days without me as the leader, so my job’s good as done now,” he said from under his cowboy hat, which he put on top of his face so we couldn’t even see his mouth or his eyes.
“I reckon they’ll miss you as their leader…Bet ya those kids need yer help out there in the wilderness, don’t they?” Dad said.
“Yeah, it ain’t easy teachin’ those rotten kids how to survive out here…little fuckers don’t even know how to light a match right,” Mr. Mountain Man said.
“Oh I know it,” Dad says, “Ella here was raised right, don’t you worry. I raised her to build a fire with nothin’ but her bare hands, a stick, and a stone—little girl doesn’t even need a goddamn match!” Last year, Dad’s pretend character never swore, but it’s okay for me to hear now because I just turned nine and Dad says that means I’m big enough to know it’s just pretend. He gave me a friendly pat on the back, “Isn’t that right, Elle?”
“Oh you bet!” I said, even though I secretly think I’m probably one of those people Dad said can’t even work a goddam match. I turned around to look at Mr. Mountain Man just to make sure he believed me, but I did a good job pretending so I think he did. Dad turned and we pulled into the gas station. This is the best part of the game because it’s my turn to play.
“Ok, Elle, wanna hop out and fill us up? Can’t hardly do anything anymore with this here cast on my arm,” Dad lifted his arm to show Mr. Mountain Man his pretend cast with my pretend signature.
“Please Dad….it’s so heavy,” I said my line just like always. Dad says it’s the most important line so he helps me practice it every morning when we eat our Eggo waffles with extra chocolate chips. He says it’s better for the game if I look sad and weak when I say it and I think it’s okay to be weak and sad when we do this because I’m old enough to know that I’m not weak or sad in real life and I could probably pump gas if I really wanted to.
“Mind givin’ us a hand?” Dad asked Mr. Mountain Man. The mountain man tipped his hat onto the top of his head, straightened up his jacket, and stepped out to get the pump. He left his bag in the car, and as soon as he stepped out, just like all the other times, Dad pressed the accelerator, and we sped away. We left Mr. Mountain Man in a shower of dust.
“Whoooo-eee!” Dad shrieked. He took his arm out of the pretend cast and held out his hand for a high-five. I slapped his hand and made an even louder noise than before. “Wonder what treasures we got ourselves today!”
“Dang,” I said. I was too excited to think of any other words.
Dad and I start as heroes of the road, but this is the part where we become treasure hunters in our game, so I reached back to grab the mountain man’s bag. I pulled out a small wooden knife with red and blue feathers painted on the handle, a leather notebook, and a pack of matches. “Alright Sweets, you know the drill—pick which one ya want, and I get the rest,” Dad said. I thought for a long time, because once I pick one thing, Dad always says no trade-backs, which means I have to be real careful when I choose. I decided on the notebook because I thought maybe it was Mr. Mountain Man’s diary and it would be a great addition to my secret book collection—even though Dad says I have no use for books, since he’s the only teacher I need in the school of life. It was an easy choice anyways, since I don’t like matches or knives. Dad kept the animal hide sack in his lap for the rest of the drive and we smiled all the way home because we both love pretending.


It was next Saturday already and we were in the faded green pickup truck bumping along 40-rod road again. The sun was high in the sky and there were no clouds, but there was lots of dust. And just like that, we saw a little grey speck of a boy in the distance.
“Alright, kiddo, looks like we got ourselves a hitchhiker!” Dad started to steer the pickup to the side of the road. He slowed down just before we got to the boy so that the dust wouldn’t spray up on him. He was a teenager, his jeans were sagging, his grey t-shirt was too big, his blonde hair was crusty with dirt, and he was carrying an empty water bottle in his hand. He had a small blue drawstring bag slung over his shoulder.
“Thanks, man,” Teenage Tommy said, as he opened the door to the backseat of the pickup. I decided that would be a good pretend name for him since one rule of playing pretend is that we never ask names.
“Where ya headed, bud?” Dad asked, pretending to sound young like the boy.
“Um, well, I live in the next town over…b-bu—but anywhere is fine” the boy’s voice quiet and shaky.
“Well, we’re headed about ten miles down to the gas station, so how ‘bout we fill up there and then decide?” Dad said like usual.
“Sure,” Teenage Tommy said—even quieter now. He took a deep breath and looked out the window.
“So, what brings you to 40-rod road?” Dad asked, and he did our secret code because he looked at me through the corner of his eye. But Teenage Tommy was still staring out the window and he didn’t respond.
“Dad…I don’t know if he’s okay,” I whispered, but I don’t think Dad heard me because he just kept on driving.
“I said what brings you to 40-rod?” Dad said louder. The boy twitched and looked at me and Dad. And when I looked closer I saw his eyes were puffy and bright red on the edges like maybe Teenage Tommy hadn’t gotten much sleep, or maybe he’d been crying, or maybe other cars who weren’t nice like us had sprayed dust in his eyes.
“Dad…,” I whispered and nudged his leg since I had a feeling that Teenage Tommy was sad and I was thinking maybe just this one time we should not play pretend and we should just drive Teenage Tommy to where he wanted to go. Especially because I know when I get really sad and my eyes are puffy from crying, Dad is nice to me and plays cards with me and even lets me stay up past my bedtime—even though he always says that his dad never did that for him.
“Not really sure what brought me here…guess I kinda lost my way,” Teenage Tommy still spoke in a quiet voice, but I could tell he was being honest. His eyes were blue like mine and his cheeks got red hot like mine sometimes do when me and Dad sing to the radio in the kitchen and I get the words wrong.
Dad turned, and we pulled into the gas station.
“Mind helpin’ us out? Can’t lift the handle on account of my sore arm, and my girl over here is a bit too small for the job,” Dad said, unlocking the car door. I looked back at Teenage Tommy and pretended to look extra small and sad by opening my eyes real big and blinking a lot like I thought a small cartoon puppy would. I secretly wished that Teenage Tommy would notice we had the same color eyes. I know I did a good job of pretending to be small and cute because Tommy got right out of the car and left his blue bag in our seat and Dad pressed the pedal and we escaped.
Dad’s smile was wider than ever. I looked out the window and watched the dust cloud spiral behind us and swallow Teenage Tommy up, and I was thinking that he was probably sad he didn’t have his blue bag anymore, especially since it matched the color of his eyes.
“Dad…that was weird,” I said, “at first I thought he was just sleepy…but what if he was sad or scared or something?”
“Hey, I don’t wanna hear any of that kind of talk,” Dad patted me on my shoulder, “you were great! And that puppy dog look you did…it was just like we practiced! Couldn’t have done it without ya, kid…best one yet!” We looked at Tommy’s treasures: it was a pack of cigarettes, a Milky Way candy bar, a half finished bottle of whiskey, and a long sparkly necklace with a price tag still on it, and Dad said maybe that’s why he seemed scared. I was allowed to choose anything except the necklace, and since I was extra hungry this time, it was easy for me to pick which one I wanted. I ate the whole Milky Way before we even got home.


Saturday came fast again and 40-rod road was dustier than ever. The pickup looked like someone splatter-painted it with dirt. Dad says the dust gives the pickup character, but I think he just doesn’t want to clean it. We bumped along the road like usual, and, like usual, we saw a speck of a man in the distance. But this speck was big. When we pulled close, I decided he was the biggest man I’ve ever seen. He was much taller than Dad, and bigger and stronger than Dad too. But I didn’t say that out loud because I knew Dad wouldn’t like that. The big man’s belly was wide and it overflowed out the top of his camouflage pants like when Dad gives me so much whipped cream that it spills over the edge of my hot chocolate. His hands were the size of the pickup’s mirrors, and his bald head was round and heavy-looking like a bowling ball. It was cloudy today, but I think if the sun were out, it would probably reflect off his huge bald head and shine right in my eyes. His shirt and pants were both camouflage, but he didn’t do a good job of blending in. He had a big brown backpack slung over one shoulder.
“I don’t know about this guy…” I whispered loud enough for Dad to hear me, but still kinda quiet because I didn’t want to be a scaredy-cat.
“Oh c’mon, Elle—look at that big ol’ bag of his! I’ll bet ya it’s full of all kinds of treasures!” Dad said. He slowed the car down, and the big man whipped the door open so fast that it almost snapped right off.
“Where ya headed, big guy?” Dad said in a low voice. The big man slid into the backseat. I thought a good pretend name for him would be Big Ben since he was so tall he had to crouch his neck a little and his tree trunk legs were so long that his knees didn’t fit behind the seat and he had to bend them so they touched the big muscles in his chest.
“I’m headed up to the mountains…If you can get me anywhere close to there, I’d be thankful,” Big Ben’s voice was even deeper than Dad’s pretend one.
“Well, we’re headed to the gas station ten miles down…we’ll fill up there then take ya wherever you wanna go,” Dad made his pretend voice even deeper. My neck jerked back a little when Dad pressed the accelerator so I knew we were going faster than normal.
“What brings you to 40-rod?” Dad’s voice was a little scary now but I told myself it was okay since it’s just pretend.
“What’s it to you?” Big Ben said. Dad didn’t give me the secret code smile this time.
“Look, pal, I’m just making conversation…for the sake of the little one over here,” Dad tilted his head in my direction. I turned around to face Big Ben, but I didn’t say anything this time because even though Dad says I’m not actually “little,” I felt pretty little next to Big Ben. Big Ben didn’t say anything. Dad tightened his grip on the steering wheel and made his eyes real small again even though it wasn’t sunny, so I knew he wasn’t squinting. “Hey, she’s the one who begged me to pick you up off the side of the road. Least you can do is talk to her,” Dad said.
“Look, I don’t need any trouble with you,” Big Ben said. Dad twisted his hands on the steering wheel like he was revving a motorcycle. His knuckles even started to turn white because he was holding on to the wheel too tight. The car was so quiet that we heard the sound of the crushing gravel under the tires. We were going much faster now. So fast that if we stopped right away, we’d definitely be covered in a big cloud of heavy grey dust.
“So, what’s your name, girlie?” Big Ben asked me.
“Ella…” I said, but then I remembered I was supposed to lie—well not lie, but pretend, “Um… short for Cinderella…Cinderella’s my real name.” Phew. My neck jerked back again because Dad pressed the accelerator harder and drove even faster now. I almost had to turn back around and buckle my seatbelt, but I had to make sure Big Ben believed me first; plus I didn’t want to seem like a baby.
“Really…?” he said and looked up at me. He pulled his big bowling ball head up close to mine, but his eyes were shifty and I could tell he wasn’t really looking at me. He kept coming closer, and Dad kept pressing the pedal harder, and I didn’t know if I should turn around or just keep staring. But it didn’t really matter what I did because the more I looked at him, the more I realized that Big Ben was only looking at Dad. Well, maybe not looking right at Dad…but definitely in his direction. Big Ben was so focused I had a weird feeling that maybe he was thinking of grabbing the steering wheel. But he didn’t because finally Dad jerked the steering wheel to the right and we skidded into the gas station. He didn’t do the slow stop this time, so the dust went everywhere and we couldn’t see for a while and I just kept thinking that all this dust was probably making the pickup even dirtier.
Dad lifted his arm to show his cast, “Mind helpin’ us out with the tank?” Big Ben took one last look in Dad’s direction before he backed his big head away from my face and untangled his thick legs from the backseat. He got out of the car and just at the last second, he poked his bald bowling ball head in the backseat and up close to my face again.
“Hey, Cinderella, do me a favor would you?” he said to me, and I nodded real fast and opened my eyes real wide because this meant I was doing a good job pretending and he even believed my made up name. “Tell your pop I’ve been watching the gas gage this whole time. Looks to me like he has a full tank of gas and he’s full of shit… If it weren’t for you, I’d punch his fuckin’ face in.” He grabbed his backpack, swung it over his shoulder, slammed the car door, and took four big, long steps into the gas station store. Dad didn’t say anything—he just spun the pickup around and drove home extra fast.
“Well, no treasures for us today, Sweets,” Dad finally said. He gave me a big pat on the back, “Yer lucky you got away with that Cinderella crap, though. I think that comment of yours got him suspicious…don’t pull that shit again, ya hear?” I didn’t even say anything because I was still scared. I wanted to tell Dad that Big Ben was bigger and stronger than him, and that he could’ve hurt us. But I knew I couldn’t say it because Dad doesn’t like to feel small, and he says his Dad makes him feel small enough already. So I just looked out the window and watched the dust pile swirl behind us like a chocolate milkshake swirling in the inside of a blender, and I was thinking it wasn’t fun to play pretend when we didn’t get any treasures.


Saturday came faster than ever—even though I didn’t want it to this time. I told Dad I didn’t want to go, but we still bumped along 40-rod road because he said he needed me and that after all he’d done to raise me, it wasn’t right for me to make him go alone. He likes to say that since Mom left, we only have each other and that we have to stick together. And I couldn’t really argue with that so I decided to suck it up and go on the drive.
It wasn’t even a good day for driving because it was cloudy outside and the green pickup was all brown now because it still hadn’t rained. I crossed my legs and folded my arms because I wanted to look like a grownup, and I looked out the window the whole way so I wouldn’t have to look at Dad.
“What if I don’t wanna play pretend anymore?” I said as we drove closer to the small speck of a man in the distance.
“Oh c’mon, Elle! This guy’s a piece of cake—look he even has a briefcase! Imagine the treasures in that thing. Ya know…we’ve never gotten a briefcase before,” Dad said. This man wasn’t scary like Big Ben because he was small and skinny. He didn’t even have a beard and his shirt was pink, which Dad says is a sign that he’s a sissy, and it was even tucked into his pants with an embroidered belt, which I bet is a sign of an even bigger sissy. He grinned a wide, shiny smile when he saw that we were slowing down to pick him up. He glided into the backseat and even buckled his seatbelt. I still tried to act mad at Dad, but I did want to know what was in that briefcase because he looked like the kind of man who would carry around real treasures.
“Where you headed?” Dad asked.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to get home from work. I work up at the high school and my car broke down, so I’ll take anything I can get,” Nice Norman said. He sat with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap. He was such a Norman.
“We’re headed to the gas station, so we’ll fill up there and then take you on home,” Dad reasoned. Nice Norman nodded.
“So what class do ya teach?” I twisted around in my seat to face him. We never practiced this, but since Dad wanted me to come this time, I wanted to do most of the pretending.
“I’m a science teacher. The high school kids are a handful, but…”
“—Oh, I love my science class! I think it’s one of my favorite classes actually, except the teacher I have assigns lab partners and I just wish we could pick our own, but I got assigned to Becca, which is lucky since me and Becca are actually friends… we just did this experiment where we took some bugs from the ground—”
“I was a science teacher too a few years back,” Dad interrupted me because I was too excited and forgot to play pretend.
“You don’t say!” Nice Norman did another toothy smile.
“Yup, biology for three years, then taught chemistry and physics,” Dad said.
“Yeah! He was even my teacher one time!” I said because I felt bad, and I knew Dad would like that line. I was right because he even turned his head to smile at me, which was especially good because we hadn’t done the secret code in a while.
“Where’d you teach?” Nice Norman asked.
“Oh, I don’t know…” Dad paused, “You probably haven’t heard of it…it was in a small town just South of here.”
“Hmm really? Was it Livingston or Bozeman?” Norman asked. Dad paused again.
“Actually, neither. It was a tiny little spot called Red Lodge…not many people have heard of it,” Dad smiled and I could tell he was impressed with his own pretending.
“Oh you don’t say!” Norman smiled wider than Dad now. “I actually grew up in Red Lodge! The elementary school there is great. What’s it called again? Red Falls Elementary? Or was it Red Creek?”
“You were right the first time—it’s Red Falls,” Dad didn’t even hesitate before answering this time, and his smile grew wider.
“There is no Red Falls, you fucker. Now slow this truck down and let me out before I call the police,” Norman said. Dad’s smile changed, he didn’t look at me or Norman, and he pulled over to the side of the road.
He unlocked the back door for Norman to get out, but then in one quick second Nice Norman shoved his hand in his pocket, pulled out a hunting knife, wrapped his elbow around Dad’s neck without his hand even shaking, and I screamed and Dad screamed. Then I cried because I knew it wasn’t pretend, and Norman, who wasn’t nice anymore, said we had to get out and leave the keys so me and Dad got out as quick as we could and Dad was sweaty and I was still crying, and then Not-Nice Norman, with his dumb shiny teeth and his sharp hunting knife, hopped in the front seat, revved the engine a few times, and drove away. Me and Dad stood in a whirling swarm of grey and brown dust. Even when the dust cleared, it stuck to our faces. My tears and Dad’s sweat made the dust stick to us like wet, brown glue.
I told Dad that wasn’t fun and that I hate pretend and that I was right that we shouldn’t have played the game today and I sobbed more. More dust got in my eyes and I imagined my eyes were a mixture of red and blue, just like Teenage Tommy’s were. Now my hair was crusty with dust, and now Dad’s face looked wrinkly and sad. And that’s when I wished we could be at a picnic, or a museum, or a church like my other friends and their dads. We weren’t heroes anymore, we weren’t treasure hunters, and this didn’t seem like an adventure. I even said all that to Dad but he didn’t say anything. He was still wearing his pretend cast when he held his hand out to me, and when I didn’t hold it or high-five it like usual, he just said, “One more game, Elle.” And I just looked down at the ground and watched my tears drip and make small ripples in the dust, and when I still didn’t hold his hand, he said, “Last one…I promise.”
Since he promised, we stopped walking, he stuck out his thumb and curved it back like the inside of a spoon, and I waited for someone to see two small specks in the distance and come pick us up.
The featured image accompanying this poem, entitled ‘Some.Where’, have been used with the permission of artist Patricio Betteo.

Nora Mabie

Nora Mabie is a rising junior at Colby College in Maine. At Colby, she is an English major and a member of the Women's Soccer team. She is from Chicago, and in her free time she likes to hang out with her four younger siblings. Her work has previously been published in Mangrove Literary Journal.

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