Rabbits and Other Broken Things


July 7, 2021 / Eliza Pillsbury



To go west means to end in failure, to come to grief.

When we pulled into Balmorhea State Park in far West Texas, I knew it was a mistake. I had just turned 14, and this was the first family vacation that I was old enough to remember. Dad chose for us to stay in Balmorhea instead of Marfa, Texas. My father is frugal to a fault.

Even now, I remember my fixation on the pronunciation of the name. It sounded too much like “diarrhea,” which I thought did not bode well. Bahl-muh-ree-yuh. Another bad omen, one that I only discovered many years later: To “go west” is an idiom meaning “to end in failure, to come to grief.”

We dropped our bags in an adobe cabin and got back in the car to look for food, stopping at a gas station down the road that inexplicably doubled as a bar. My dad asked the bartender where to find the best restaurant in Balmorhea.

“There are no restaurants in Balmorhea,” he laughed. We could either drive an hour to Marfa or 45 minutes to Pecos. We were starving, and it was getting dark.





*

Pecos felt like the opening scene from a horror western, rolling past shuttered storefronts in the shadow of a rusty water tower. The All American Bar & Grill was the only thing open. When we all had our food, my mom excused herself from the table, then the restaurant. I found her standing down the street, crying in front of a display case of dismembered mannequins in ‘80s clothing, their fishnet sleeves and leg warmers stretched taut by their dangling limbs.

“You can’t see me like this,” she said.

I’ve forgotten most of what we said throughout the trip, save for a few lines seared in my memory, but the subtext was deafening. I knew how Mom was feeling — helpless, foolish, betrayed by what was supposed to be good and trustworthy — just as deeply as I knew that I couldn’t do anything to help her. She gave me her blue eyes and stubbornness, but I had nothing now to give her in return.

We drove together to a deserted Walmart for food to take back to Balmorhea, but we forgot plastic utensils. We would later spread peanut butter and jelly using an old Whataburger straw. My brother is allergic to peanuts, so he ate Frosted Flakes out of the bag with his hands. There were no rules in the wild, wild west, and we had no tools to prepare for what we couldn’t have known was coming.

The darkening sky turned out to be from an approaching storm, a big, purple spot on the weather radar. My dad drove toward Balmorhea, hunched over the wheel of his Ford Fusion, which shook with the threat of lifting off of the asphalt.

Ahead of us, the familiar structure of an oil pumpjack was silhouetted in flames. Lightning must have struck its adjacent tank, and the whole rig had caught fire. Dad yelled to take a picture for posterity, and I screamed back at him to keep his eyes on the road. We had to pull over when he could no longer see through the haze of rain and smoke.

The storm moved quickly, a gray beast that soon loomed in our rearview mirror. We maneuvered onto the one-lane highway. Telephone poles lay fractured across the road, some halves still standing with broken wood splintered at their sides.


*

West Texas was the first place I felt the cracks in an otherwise solid façade. It was where I first thought about how easy it would be to put rocks in the pockets of my nightgown and slip into the natural springs while everyone slept. The first place I witnessed my family’s dysfunction on full display and my accompanying shock and shame.

My mom swears I knew before she did that we deserved better from my father, now her ex-husband. But I remember a privileged childhood, marked with outbursts of rage I thought were my fault. I never doubted my dad loved me nor that my mom loved him, until she told me when I was 15 that she had asked for a divorce.

I couldn’t discern the storm’s strength from within the calm of its eye.




*

When my brother and I were little, my dad would carry us outside before bed every night to look at the moon. He took me to storytime at the public library before I could talk. Maybe it was my dad’s traditions or his writer’s genes that gave me an overactive imagination, but I’d always had a fascination with the other worlds that might be waiting for us to discover them, or else hoping we didn’t.

One of the first things they tell you at the McDonald Observatory outside of Marfa is that it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the absence of light pollution. I loved this idea: I could get closer to the universe with enough patience and self-discipline.

An out-of-body feeling came over me that night as I scolded myself to be in the moment, already imbued with significance before it coalesced into memory. I remember craning my neck so far back that it ached. I was loath to leave. I made my family swear we were actually leaving for the night before I agreed to go to the bathroom, where the fluorescent lights of the visitor’s center would once again obscure my vision. I blew the stars a kiss goodbye.

But when I went back to retrieve my family, they had changed their minds. We would stay a little longer, then drive back to Balmorhea. I couldn’t enjoy the extra time because I was once again blind to the night sky’s beauty. They had taken something meaningful from me on a mere whim, broken their promises, and lost my trust. My mom and brother still make fun of my extreme reaction, but I succeeded in getting everyone into the car and on the dark road down the mountain.

*

We must have taken a wrong turn coming off the mountain — left instead of right, west instead of east. It was pitch black, and cell service was spotty. Soon, we had sped past any relevant road signs. I have a vivid memory of Dad white-knuckling the wheel and yelling, “We could be driving to Mexico for all I know!” Then, we heard a thud. Another. Suddenly, several in a row, and quick flickers of shadow in the road.

Rabbits.

Something must have rustled them up from their burrows and into the car’s cruel path. My brother and I started sobbing at the thought of the dead rabbits in our wake, while my dad swerved to avoid them. My mom just laughed, which made us cry harder.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “For every five we hit, we’re missing two dozen more.”

By the time we found our way back to Balmorhea, it was three in the morning. The blood on the bumper was the only proof of the night’s destruction. I looked up at the stars before going to bed, saying a prayer for the rabbits and the families they left behind. I didn’t think to pray for my own.

*

I love my dad for who he is, though he’s not who I needed him to be. My mom wanted him to go to therapy, wanted to go back to school, wanted my brother and me to know what love should look like. I would come to realize how much she covered for him — made ends meet when he lost another job, sacrificed her independence to keep things stable for her children. I don’t know how much my dad really knew her, through the falsehood of fundamentalist Christianity and the narcissism he inherited from his parents.

It took my brother much longer to mourn the loss of a father figure, if not the man himself. I wonder when that process started for me — in the desert or under the stars? ■




by: Eliza Pillsbury

layout: Iszy Coco

photographer: Jessie Curneal

stylists: David Garcia & Alex Cao

hmua: Angeline De Guia & Jane Lee

models: Presley Simmons, Samantha Maggart & Tony Vega



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