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Caring For Prickly Pear
Jake Buckholz

Dolly didn’t know. Dolly didn’t know a lot of things. She didn’t know she’d been named after a sheep. She didn’t know it was her father’s radical political views that kept them ever on the move. She didn’t know her mother wasn’t in fact dead, like her father claimed, but instead was addicted to a drug that greatly addled her ability as a parent. She didn’t know that the massive station wagon she now sat in as it sped down the empty desert highway had been stolen by her father in Las Cruces.

Dolly did know a lot of other things. She knew things that got her in trouble if she said them around teachers or other children, so she’d learned to keep her mouth shut on certain topics, the trick was learning exactly what topics that included. She knew how to read at a very high caliber for her age. She knew how to cook for herself and how to shoot her father’s gun. She knew the president was a crook and that he was surrounded by clowns. She knew her father would never let any harm come to her. She knew he could drive like no other and that he was one of the few sane people in the world. That’s what he used to tell her, that they were safe as long as they were in a car alone and he was at the wheel, but beyond that glass, the world’s a madhouse full of loonies and violence and chaos. He said that being able to exert your dominion over a space so small as the interior of an automobile was an incredible feat in this day and age. “Most people, they aren’t safe anywhere they go. They think they are, but they don’t understand that they’re sleeping with their eyes open. I might not be able to give you much, but I can give you this safe place.”

That’s why the car and these long trips were Dolly’s favorite. It was never the same car and never the same road, but she always felt warm and cozy even as she sat alone in the backseat. There used to be a dog who rode with her, a massive black poodle named Charles, but not anymore. Now she rode quietly as her dad drove, hanging halfway out the window to smoke his cigarettes because he didn’t want her to breathe in the smoke. He said she wasn’t big enough yet and when she expressed concern for him, he simply laughed and said there were much more dangerous forces after him than a tube of paper full of plants. He drove immaculately in this fashion, always at night, always smoking, always with the radio turned way up and sometimes he’d be yelling into a cell phone and driving with one hand.

Dolly’s favorite thing to do in the car was to stare out the window and memorize as much of the plant life as possible. Then, when they came to a stop, she’d ask her dad what they’d just driven through. He never gave political names, like states or cities, instead he’d give geographical regions such as the Sonora Desert or the Great Plains, or places with intimidating names like the Badlands or Death Valley. She’d then repeat the name to herself until she had it memorized and repeat it to the librarian at the local library which is where her dad would drop her off for long periods, but never more than twelve hours. She’d ask the librarian if they had any books on the plant life in this place or that one and then she’d take the book and flip through it and write in her journal the names of the plants and sketch a quick outline of the plant. Her father suggested she learn the medicinal uses, if any, for her plants and if they were good to eat, so she added that to her journal now too.

The plants she loved most were desert plants which was fortunate because they were often driving through deserts. Her father said Jesus had the right idea when he went out for forty days into the desert, he said that’s probably where he got all his big ideas because man can think in a desert like he can in no other place.

 What she liked so much about plants that grew in the desert was their toughness, how they were covered in sharp spines and rough edges. They could look after themselves just fine and they could live on very little. Her father instilled in her a respect for such traits. She was used to surviving on next to nothing and then a great rain would come and her and her dad would gorge themselves.

Currently, it could be said, they were in a drought, but Dolly’s father said it would be fine, that things were going to turn around for them just as soon as they made it to the coast. They were going to find a secluded beach somewhere and stay for awhile. Live there, on the beach. They’d fish for their food and drink rain water. They could sleep right out on the sand and listen to the funny sounds the crabs made. How does that sound? he asked. Dolly thought it sounded nice. She didn’t know too much about crabs, but she liked the idea of them. In a way, they reminded her of her desert plants. Tough-shelled, sharp, survivors.

The next day as she waited in some library, she asked the librarian not about plants, but for a book on crabs. The librarian, an old woman with short grey hair and a slightly hunched back, climbed down off her stool where she sat and slowly rounded the counter. It was a small library and not particularly nice, but the woman with her strong, flowery perfume, led the way to the kids section and selected a book with a smiling, cartoonish crab on the cover and about four words a page. Dolly forced a smile at the old lady and thanked her, not having the heart to tell her this wasn’t at all what she wanted. The lady shuffled on back to her seat and Dolly set to exploring the library on her own. In a short amount of time, she tracked down the science section, narrowed that down to biology, found the one shelf allocated to marine interests, and there she found one book on crabs. It was a thin, tall book full of beautiful pictures and interesting facts. She took it over to an open table by a window and read for awhile.

After a few hours, the old woman librarian approached her and asked her about her parents. She told her that her mother was dead, but that her father would be by to pick her up before closing time. The librarian nodded, looking a bit worried, but left her alone.

Dolly finished the book on crabs awhile later and realized that she was very hungry. She looked out the window at the empty lot behind the library. A labyrinth of prickly pear spread out under the beating sun. Much of it was in full bloom and the bright red bulbs set her mouth to watering as she thought of the sweet, pulpy juice her father sometimes made. She hopped down out of her chair and exited the library under the watchful, worrisome eye of the old lady. She rounded the building and entered the field of cacti. Carefully, she approached one of the larger plants and reached her arm towards it, steady and confident, as if she were playing Operation, she attempted to pluck a fruit from the plant, but it bit her. She yelped as she tore her hand back. The fruit looked harmless, but was covered in tiny, sharp thorns. Dolly looked around for something she could use to get it off. Then she remembered the tree in front of the library and ran over to it to look for fallen sticks. She found a couple good looking ones and returned to the field of cacti. Using two sticks like a pair of chopsticks, she tugged at the fruit until it popped off the plant. She took the bottom of her shirt and pulled it out and slightly up to create a sort of hammock to rest it in. This she was able to hold up with the one hand as she picked a few more fruit with the other. With her shirt bowl full, she made her way back into the library and dumped all the fruit out on the table. She left her bounty unattended as she returned to the biology section and looked through the desert plant books. She wanted to find something that would show her how to turn this dangerous little pod into something edible. She found one book called Caring for Prickly Pear and snatched it off the shelf. She flipped through the pages until she reached the culinary section. Here, she found what she was looking for, but she also learned that she didn’t have the tools necessary to follow the instructions. The first step she could do just fine. With her pocket knife, peeling the skin off would be easy enough, but she had no food mill to separate the edible pulp from the hard seeds. Her stomach growled loudly, not understanding the dilemma. She decided to cut one open and try eating around the seeds, but it proved impossible. She sighed in defeat and resigned to wait until her dad came back. She’d give him the fruit and he could turn it into juice. She did her best to ignore her hunger as she waited and the day ticked idly by. Dizzy with hunger and light headed, it proved impossible to concentrate on reading. Instead, she stared out the window at the plants which taunted her. They could eat sunlight. Nothing made her more jealous. If she could just eat sunlight, she’d never be hungry again. Eventually, she laid her head down on the table and fell asleep.

She dreamt of food.

Some time later, she was awoken by a gentle hand on her shoulder. Outside, a burnt orange light signaled evening. The horizon had turned purple. She looked around her and saw that the library was empty except for her and the old woman who’d placed a hand on her shoulder to wake her. They were closing. Sometimes, though not often, this happened. Her dad didn’t make it back before close and she had to be quick on her feet. She had to come up with something so that they wouldn’t take her away. That’s what her dad was always warning her about, people wanted to take her away, put her in a home, brainwash her. She couldn’t trust anybody. She thought of a lie to tell the librarian. She said he must be working late and that she could just walk home, that it wasn’t far. The librarian offered to give her a ride and Dolly didn’t know what to say to that. Where would she instruct her to go? But her starving, adolescent mind wasn’t quick enough. She nodded her head and followed the librarian out to the parking lot.

* * * 

Just before she climbed into the backseat of the lady’s Oldsmobile, the station wagon came beeping into the parking lot. It slid to a stop directly next to the woman’s car and Dolly’s father shouted over the loud music for her to hop in. She did exactly that and then they peeled away before the librarian could say a word. Dolly remembered that she’d left the prickly pears on the table, but they were long gone now. Soon she’d have fish, all the fish she could eat, her dad said. And clams and crab, anything she could think of. Dolly said not crab, that she didn’t want to eat crab, and her father agreed, no crab. 

Jake Buckholz is a young writer out of central Texas.