Shift 6: Squatter

I been hanging out with Yuki. I like her style.

She told me she likes my style. I’m not surprised. I was wearing one of my new vests and the scarf I got from the free box. Like I said: Swanky.


When I talk with Yuki, I forget everything. She gets me laughing so hard, and next thing I know, I feel like I’m a regular kid and we’re out after curfew on a school night.


She always says something goofy when she leaves, like, “Toodles.” Or once she said, “Jaa mata,” like they say in anime.

God, I wish there was a TV and DVR in the lounge. It would be so awesome to watch anime with her on a Saturday afternoon.

As it is, we catch pieces of stuff on her phone or on my tablet. That’s fun, too, because we get to lean in together and watch the video like we’re both in the same tiny world.

And maybe we are both in the same tiny world. It’s just that sometimes she leaves it to go back to her big world, and then I leave to go to mine…


My world feels both tiny and vast. It’s tiny because it only extends as far as I walk or run: The visitor’s center, my camp, the trails all around, that district nearby with Deon’s spa and the tapas bar. That’s the extent of it.

It’s vast because it’s nowhere. I live nowhere. I don’t really live here–I’m just staying here before I shift on. I live nowhere and everywhere. That’s how vast it is.

I got a scare the other day that it was time for me to shift.

I got back to camp from hanging out late with Yuki, and there was an old guy sleeping in my cot.


I freaked. I thought it must be that guy whose camp this is who returns every winter. It’s getting on towards winter, late fall, anyway. I guess I’ve been halfway expecting him to return anytime. I don’t think this park’s big enough for two homeless people to camp here. So I always figured when he returned from up north, I’d head on. I don’t know where. Somewhere. It’s his camp, after all.

I slept in the lounge that night.

Next morning, I told Deon that the old guy had come back. He said he didn’t think so. Usually the guy came back a lot earlier, like in the middle of October. He was so late, Deon had started thinking he might not make it this year. He asked me to describe the guy to him. Tall. Skinny. Long gray hair.

Wasn’t him. Deon’s old guy is short, stocky, Asian, crew cut.

That afternoon, I saw the guy who’d slept in my cot. I got to talking with him.

Turns out he’s a rich guy who lives on an island. But now and then, he runs away from home, just goes roaming for a while, until he gets the vagabond out of his system, and then he calls up his kids and asks them to come pick him up or wire him money for the train ride back.


His daughter was on he way to pick him up now.

And that meant, if it wasn’t him, then I’d get to stay here a little longer.

I found myself feeling grateful that the old guy hadn’t come back. And then I realized I was feeling grateful for what might be somebody else’s misfortune. That won’t do.


Just take it for today. Just be thankful for today. I let it go, all those thanks. I’m not making plans. That old guy comes back to his camp, and I’m outta here, thankful for the time I got to stay, and no begrudging. Just gratitude.

That old guy doesn’t come back, and it’s grace. It’s a gift.

How do you accept a gift? For just what it is and nothing more.

That’s life. Just what it is. Nothing more. Which means it’s everything.

I ran into one of Deon’s friends from the tapas bar. He was fishing.

“Catch anything?” I asked him.

“Nope,” he said. “Never do.”

He looked like he was having the time of his life.


I slept in the camp that night, and it felt as good as a dream.

When I woke up–OK, I woke up late. I can sleep in. It’s not like I got to do anything during the day–when I woke up, I found a note on my cooler.

“There’s a treat inside for you, Jazzie Joo!” It was signed by Deon.

I opened up the cooler. There under a bag of ice was a carton of yogurt and a basket of strawberries. Deon had even left me a clean bowl and spoon.

Man, breakfast that morning was the sweetest thing.


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Shift 5: Tapas


I picked up stuff from the Free box at Deon’s spa–some vests, a scarf, some shirts. I feel pretty swanky.

Deon wanted to take me to this tapas bar across from his spa. They serve free tapas every Tuesday, from 7 pm until closing. Deon says I gotta know where all the free food is if I’m gonna live this way. It’s one of the insurance policies.

I met him out front. He told me I looked good.

I felt good.


“So what pronoun do you prefer?” he asked me.

I didn’t know what he meant at first. I told him I especially liked first person plural. It’s inclusive–me and you, in it together.

He said that wasn’t what he meant.

“So, we’re going in here,” he said. “I’m gonna introduce you to my friends. Do you want me to say, ‘This is Jazz. She studies saguaros out at the park.’ Or do you want me to say, ‘This is Jazz. He studies saquaros.’ Which do you prefer?”


I felt weird. Did we have to talk about this?

“OK,” I said. “I’m a girl, OK? So. That’s all there is to it. I don’t have a choice.”

“Not necessarily,” Deon said.


I asked him what he meant. He said I could choose which pronoun. If I wanted, I could go by “he.”

I’d never thought about that.


I ran them both through my mind a few times.

This is Jazz. She hopped a freight train to get here.

This is Jazz. He hopped a freight train.

They both sounded weird.

“How about if you don’t talk about me in the third person?” I said at last. “Just don’t talk about me. And if you talk to me, you’ll say my name or use ‘you.'”

“That’ll work,” Deon agreed.


So we went into the tapas bar, and Deon introduced me to all his friends.

“This is Jazz.”

The tapas bar was really cool. The World Series was on. Deon’s friends watched it, but I had better things to do because the Wi-Fi connection was screaming fast. Deon might think it’s important I know where free food is, but I think it’s just as important to know where fast free Wi-Fi is.


Deon said I had to try the hummus and pita. It was so good. Paprika and a bit of lemon. I hadn’t had carefully prepared food like this for a while.


While I ate, I began to wonder what people think when they look at me. What do I look like to them?

One of the best parts of being on my own, where nobody knew me, was getting to start fresh. Here, nobody thought me weird because, for one thing, I hardly had to interact with anybody. And for another, they’re just meeting me. So how I am, is how I am.


Back home, I was always a tomboy. Mom and Dad didn’t mind. They raised me to be independent and think for myself. When I went to live with Gran, she didn’t mind. She’d been the biggest tomboy when she was young. She still didn’t really fit the stereotypes. I mean, she didn’t, all through her life.

She had this big gardener’s hat she wore. Oh, man. I better not think about her. Not yet. Putting the hat out of my mind…

But it was cool. I got to be me.

Then in the middle of eighth grade, the girls started asking me when I was gonna wear make-up. Why I didn’t change my hair. Why I didn’t wear bright colors or short shorts. It was lucky I was a track star. That bought me freedom. I ran fast so I could wear what I wanted.

I always wondered what kind of pressure I’d get in high school.

Sometimes, I’m glad I haven’t had to go. Maybe this freedom, hard as it is, is better.

I can sit in this bar, and nobody looks at me twice. How I am is how I am.


Something good comes from every something bad.

I wonder if that’s true.

That’s what Gran always said.

“Maybe it’s true!” I said aloud.


The bartender overheard me.

“What’s that, dear?” she asked.

I asked her, “Do you think that out of every bad thing something good can come?”

She thought for a moment.

“Nope,” she said. “I don’t believe in one coming from the other. But do I believe there’s abundant good? Yes. I think I do!”

“Abundant good is awesome!” I said. “That means it’s always there!”

She looked at me like I was too young to know, like I hadn’t yet had hardship.


A while later, Deon introduced me to his friend Spencer, who was getting ready to start his shift at the bar.

Spencer was really interested in hearing my theory about saguaro distribution. I’ve been noticing how the white-winged doves help with seed dispersal. I haven’t been able to find any research that supports this–the best I could find was an article that said, “direct corroboration of this hypothesis has not yet been achieved.”

He thought my theory made good sense. “They eat the fruit, they poop the seeds, the seeds grow in ready-made fertilizer, it’s perfect!”


I told him I was glad he liked the theory based on my observations.

Then he started grilling me on buffelgrass. He was really worried about it, because it’s one of the biggest threats to the health of the saguaro ecosystem. I’d been reading about it. I’ve been worried, too, and I’ve been helping Deon with his eradication efforts.

But I thought it was really cute to see how much Spencer cared. It’s not often I meet somebody else who feels genuinely sad about an invasive grass.


We talked so long. And the game went into extra innings. Spencer went to tend the bar, and I headed over to the nearest empty couch to sleep to the crack of the bat and the cheers of Deon and his friends.


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Shift 4: Not a Boy

If I were a boy, this would be so much easier. Nobody would look at me twice. I could sleep without checking I hadn’t been followed. I could go anywhere.

And I wouldn’t wake up with cramps.


It took a while for my period to come. I guess all the stress of everything. But when it came, it came heavy and felt like it was ripping me in two.

When I had bad periods before, Gran would always bring me a hot water bottle, tuck me in, leave some ginger tea on the night stand, and then, lying with the warmth on my abdomen, I’d listen to her playing Chopin nocturnes. Soon all the tightness eased away. Sometimes, I’d get out of bed and do something. Sometimes, I’d stay tucked in and read all day, while she played, taking breaks to bring me snacks.


It’s not like that now.

Of course, I didn’t have the stuff I needed for it. I found the secret key to the employees’ lounge that Deon kept under a rock for me, and rifling through the medicine cabinets in their bathroom, I found some “sanitary napkins.” By then it was too late, and my underpants and pajama bottoms were messed up.

On top of that, the sink in the public bathroom was busted. I got the other secret key from under the other rock and opened the work shed. I could only find the big monkey wrench, but it did the job.


If I were a boy, I wouldn’t have to be on my own like this.

Uncle Scott didn’t touch boys. He didn’t tell them they were worthless pieces of… He didn’t tell them they were wrong, stupid, fat, ugly, bony, too muscular, too skinny, put on a dress, shut up, get over here, and shut up.


If I were a boy, I’d be living with Uncle Scott.

If I were a boy, I’d kill him, for what he’d do to me if I were a girl.


And I am a girl. And he did it.


Deon called my name.

“You’re up bright and early! We haven’t even opened the buildings yet!”


It didn’t take Deon any time at all to see I was upset.

When he asked what was wrong, I just told him my period.

“Ah,” he said, “that’s rough. You got what I need?”

When I told him I did, he just shook his head and thought for a moment.

Then he pulled out his wallet and handed me a guest pass to his spa.

“It’s not far,” he said. “You can walk there in half an hour. And if you want to wait until I get off, I’ll drive you.”

He told me they had showers, steam rooms, and laundry facilities.

“They’ve even got a free bin of clothes from the Lost and Found for the stuff that’s been there over six months. Pick out something new for yourself!”

When I got there, I discovered they had free Wi-Fi, too.

After my shower, while my clothes were in the wash, I googled myself again. Middle school track record in the 880 was all that came up, once again.

I spent some time looking through the facebook pages of kids I’d gone to middle school with. They were in high school now. It felt really neat to look into their world.


They were still living normal lives.

I found one of my old friend’s blogs. She writes fanfic for Disney Princess movies. Her most current story was about Pocahontas. I could tell she’d based the character on me, in some ways, like she was a fast runner, dressed like a boy, acted tough, knew a lot about plants, and had a real tender side that got hurt easily.

I wonder if I’ll ever see her again.


I got tired reading, really tired, all of a sudden.

I took a nap, right there in the spa, while my clothes spun in the dryer.


In my sleep, I could hear the music playing on the sound system. It was the adagio from Beethoven’s first sonata. My gran played that, too.

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Shift 2: Haven

Around noon, I realized I’d better figure out where I was going to sleep that night. The whole time on the train, I hadn’t had to worry about that. I had to worry about if anybody would be in the car I was riding in, and if so, would they leave me alone, but I always knew I’d be sleeping somewhere on that train.


But I realized I didn’t know where I’d sleep tonight.

I wanted someplace where others wouldn’t be around. I didn’t just want to sleep on a park bench or under a mesquite there in the main grounds.

Where I wanted to sleep was on that bluff where my dad and I had camped out.


I remembered the way there. I took the high trail, that ran along the crest of the mesa, so I could survey the area, make sure it looked safe.

My heart sang when I saw it. I don’t know. I expected it to be gone or something. Like the whole landscape would have changed, just because my dad wasn’t there. Because that’s how it had felt. That’s how it still feels.

I sat on a rock and looked down at the clearing where we’d camped. There it was. Just the same, still encircled with a ring of boulders. There was stuff there–a table. Maybe a grill. Other things I couldn’t identify.


I ran the whole way down the trail.

It looked like it had been somebody’s campsite sometime. There was an old cot, cardboard spread out like a rug or something, a little meditation stool, and a yoga mat. It was all old and abandoned.


I shook out the bedroll on the cot and hung it over the bench so the afternoon sun would sterilize it. I’d read that in the desert, especially at this high elevation, the sun is the best sterilizer.

While the blankets baked under the solar radiation, I scavenged the lower part of the trail. I found some saguaro fruit, which I picked with a long forked branch, just like the Tohono O’odham do during harvest festival. Then I picked some prickly pears and some barrel cactus fruits. I picked a few nopalitos, too, and gathered up dry mesquite branches and mesquite pods for the barbecue.

A few hours later, I was sitting down to a feast and the bees were circling around, drawn by the sweetness of the roasted fruit.


I felt really alive.

There was something about focusing all my attention on getting the food and preparing it that took me out of my worries.

I got my notebook out of my backpack, and that’s when I started writing all of this.

When I was writing, I remembered something that Gran always told me. “Don’t worry. When you worry, it means that you forgot how big the universe is. Honey-baby, don’t worry. Instead, watch, and you will see that whatever you need, something will pop up to fill that need.”

I forgot that she had said that. From the moment I ran way until now, I had completely forgot that she used to tell me that.

But look at it now: What had I needed? A safe place to stay. What did I have now? A safe place to stay. And I could get all my food I needed myself, right from the desert around me. And cook it myself. And there was even a bed waiting for me.

It’s like the universe looked down and saw, “Here’s a kid who’s in trouble. She needs a place to stay. Let’s get her out of this situation, and bring her someplace where she can find herself again and recuperate.”


For that’s what I’m doing. I’m recuperating.

It’s not so much that I’m sad. It’s that I had a loss, on top of other losses long time ago, and now I’m recuperating.


I think that’s all I really need: just the time and space to be alone and figure out how to take care of myself.

The beauty is that when I focus just on today, then I can’t even worry or feel sad, because all my energy goes into keeping it together today, making sure I have what I need. That’s a full-time job, right there. So, what I’m hoping is that I can just focus on that full-time job for the amount of time it takes to get over grief, and then, when that time passes, maybe I’ll find myself in a different situation, but by then, the grief-time will have passed, so maybe then I can just be happy. I don’t know if I’ll still be a kid, but at least, maybe then, I can be happy.


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Shift 1: Far Away

I could hear the train whistle blowing, even though it was miles away. I knew how far it was, for I’d walked here by foot after hopping off the freight.

My tablet still worked, and the state park had free wi-fi.

Out of habit, I googled myself to see if there were any reports yet of me having gone missing.


I was glad that nothing came up except my record in the 880 in the middle school track championship from last year. My claim to fame.

How different life had been then. I’d had a home. I went to school. I was a regular kid, even though I was an orphan, I was still a regular kid, because I lived with Gran, and she kept life normal.


After the EMTs came to take Gran’s body, I knew I had to leave. I wouldn’t give them Uncle Scott’s name. They said someone from Child Protective Services was coming “to help me.” It wouldn’t help.

CPS would track down Uncle Scott. I won’t stay with him. Not an option.

Maybe I’d get a foster family eventually. Or be able to stay at a shelter. But that would be after Uncle Scott were declared unfit. Or worse. If anyone would believe me that he’d do what I knew he would do.

Better that I run.

I don’t even think about Gran.

I just think about each day. Up to now, it was just thinking about getting here. Am I safe on the train? Where do I jump off?

Now I’m at the park. I cleaned myself up. I’m just thinking about where I’ll stay, what my story will be.

When this blue-haired girl comes up to me, I think, “OK. First test. Act normal. Remember your cover.”

My cover is that I’m a university student doing field work on the genetic variations in saguaro cactus.

So when she showed me a video about morning yoga routines, I had to think, “How would a scientist respond?”


It felt surreal to talk to somebody my age after so long of being quiet, especially when I was pretending to be so much older.


I kept wondering if my voice sounded weird. It sounded weird to me.


I feel like I must’ve forgotten how to carry on a conversation during my weeks traveling, for she made a face as we were talking.


I reviewed what I’d been talking about. Clouds. I was talking about cumulus clouds. That’s a fine subject, right?

I said something about how I feel safe when I look at clouds because I know that, wherever I am, they’re composed of water molecules from somewhere else, so clouds are wanderers, too.

She started rubbing the back of her neck and saying something about sleeping in a funny position.


She took off after then.

I was glad to be alone again. I’d enjoyed talking to her, though, even if I had said weird stuff and even if she did have a stiff neck. I’d found some solace in sharing a thought.

And she must not have been too mad, for she said maybe we’d run into each other again.

I went exploring the park. It’s pretty much like I’d remembered it. I hadn’t been back since Dad brought me here the year before the accident. I must’ve been around eight, I guess.

That was one of my best summers. Mom was getting her MFA, so me and Dad traveled all summer. I’d loved this park.

We camped out on a bluff back in the wilderness area, cooking our meals on a grill and sleeping under the stars. During the day, we’d look for arrowheads and fossils, or we’d come here to the park lounge to read and find shelter from the sun.

I was pleased to see the library was still there. I even found the copy of The Last Unicorn that I’d read that summer. I found the dog-eared pages that marked my places.

I smelled the book. It was six years ago. Can a scent last that long? I imagined I smelled the clove scent of my dad’s aftershave.


An old steel guitar stood in the corner of the room. I felt my fingers. The callouses had worn off since I’d been traveling. But there was one sure way to build them back again.


As I played, at first I sort of forgot everything–I was concentrating so hard on remembering the chords.


But then, as my fingers remembered, I remembered. I haven’t let myself grieve yet. I don’t know if I ever really properly mourned my mom and dad. I was just a little kid, and Gran was there to take me in, and it seems like I just went quiet for about three years. I don’t remember crying.


I’m not ready to mourn Gran. I’ve been pushing it off.

I think you’ve got to feel safe to mourn properly.

I don’t feel safe.

Not yet.

But if I close my eyes, and focus on the music, I feel safer.


I’ll just keep the pain for another day. For now, I’ll keep pretending my cover: I’m a college student doing field work on saguaro cactus. I don’t have the capacity, at present, to be who I really am.

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