June 1976. I was eight. Almost nine. We – my parents in the front seat and my six year old sister in the back – were driving from my hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri to Los Angeles and then, unfortunately, back.
Barreling down the highway, we saw an ungodly amount of cars for Wyoming (about twelve) clumped together and an ice cream stand and, thank the merciful Lord, a bathroom.
Apparently, this was yet another natural wonder site – an otherworldly clump of rocks in a weird color. Or maybe that was South Dakota. I forget. Most of the trip I had my head buried in my horror comics. The greedy boxer who drank the potion to give him superhuman mass had just sunk to the earth’s core and, in an ironic twist, was being pummeled by mole men. I had no time for scenic vistas.
We grabbed our ice creams and stood with the others staring off into the near distance at the immensity of it all or something like that but my mind was elsewhere. On the mole men, yes, of course, but also I couldn’t stop thinking about the pile of money that we passed on the walk from the car to our current location.
My sister Dana had seen it too. We exchanged glances and slowly backed up from the group as new aficionados arrived. We walked quickly to the fountain and stared hard at the loot gently ensconced in the water, smiling at us, winking, beckoning. I felt dizzy.
I had seen a wishing well before, of course, but never in my almost nine years on this planet had I seen this kind of haul. This was the motherlode. Twelve, maybe thirteen dollars.
I looked at my sister. She knew the routine. We’d run this sort of thing before in our hometown but on a much smaller scale.
By this time in my checkered history, I already had been busted many times for thievery – Juicy Fruit from Burt’s Five & Dime, Archie comics from Woolworths, and miscellaneous school supplies from St. Rita’s, my grade school (“Why do you have fifty pencils and nine chalkboard erasers under your mattress? my mother asked one day at breakfast. “What’s that?” I said). The list was long.
Of course, I didn’t need the stuff I pilfered. Half the time, I didn’t even want it. I just liked the buzz, the rush of it. So much better than kickball.
And coming from the middle of America with a Catholic father and a Southern Baptist mother in perpetual conflict about which version of guilt would rule the house – well, that just made it all the more exciting. Everyone was always on the precipice of hell anyway – so why not take a little control of the situation? Such was my logic.
Going to weekly confession and neglecting to mention that week’s crimes was a middle finger to all that was sacred. “Nothing new this week father. Maybe I didn’t pay attention enough in religion class. I’m sorry about that.” “Just try more next time. Five Hail Mary’s.” “Thank you, father.”
But that was all peanuts compared to a Wyoming wishing well. This was big money. I was already feeling the rush.
So, as people stood at the fountain, closed their eyes and made their wishes, Dana and I made our move. Slowly, methodically, ever aware of our surroundings, we shoveled more and more coins into our pockets. The others either didn’t notice us or, cherubic as we were, or they couldn’t quite comprehend what they were seeing. And if someone did glance our way, we would close our eyes and mumble a prayer.
On and on it went. The wet coins soaked through our pants. It was summer but cool nonetheless so we were wearing jackets. Great for us. More pockets and also cover for our leaking pants pockets.
Where our parents were while all this transpired, I can’t imagine. At some point, we were back in the Pontiac station wagon and driving west again. Dana and I were cool as cucumbers. Mission accomplished.
Then, suddenly, things got weird. It all started to get to me. The apocalyptic Wyoming landscape began to taunt me – the burned out cars abandoned roadside, the burned down churches with trees growing through the roofs. The sun began to set.
We kept driving past and through it all. Now a burned down gas station. Now a mangled antelope by the side of the road. A coyote stared at us.
“Oh, God,” I murmur, “looking out the window. “He knows. God knows. This will soon be me laying on the side of the road.”
My mother looked back. “How you guys doing back there?” “Good.” The sunset glares red in my eyes. Water, warm like blood, trickles down my leg.
“What’s up with the water?, “my mother barked. “Open your jacket.” I opened my jacket. My sister opened her jacket. Busted. She glares at us and then my father. He looks scared.
They pull over and the Catholic and the Southern Baptist fire and brimstoners began to formulate a plan of familial redemption. The only solution to save us from perdition, they surmised, was to not enjoy the money. The only solution was to find a church, not yet burned down, and to give it to them to do whatever they wanted with it – rebuild a burned down church, perhaps.
So, we kept driving and driving and driving. Finally, we saw it – a functioning church. My mother leaned in the backseat, eyes blazing with rage and fear, and spat out through clenched teeth, “I’m gonna march you kids right up there and you are going to give this money to the priest and tell him what you did, you bad kids!”
Weighted down with coins, water, guilt and shame, we slowly trudged up the hill to the church rectory. The sun had been down now several hours. A cold wind blew. A coyote howled. We heard a television and knocked softly. No answer. We knocked louder. No answer. We rang the bell. At long last, a priest cracked open the door. An older man with a gentle face. “Yes?”
Our mother exclaimed, “father, we’re very sorry. These are very, very bad children. They’re going to explain to you what they’ve done.”
My sister and I explained ourselves with quivering voices and beseeching eyes. Our very souls depended on this man. He nodded sternly, a faint smile crossing his lips, which he, sensing my mother’s mounting fury, promptly made even more sterner.
“Father, we are so sorry. We took this money -” –
“Correction. You stole that money,” our mother said.
“We stole this money from a wishing well in Wyoming. We are very sorry. Please take this and give it to charity.”
“Oh, children. That was a bad thing you did,” the priest said, “but you’ve now done the right thing and all is now good in the eyes of God. God is all forgiving and forgives you.”
Our mother softly gasped.
We all three glance at her. She looked disappointed, like she needed a little more.
But the holy man had spoken. So, we unloaded our pockets on a blanket on his porch and then stumbled forlornly down the hill in the moonlight, kicking rocks as went, our mother behind us saying the priest was too lenient and our father studying a map in the car trying to locate our hotel.
As we drove away, I caught eyes with my sister, fingering the few coins I had managed to hide in my pocket, and couldn’t help but wonder if she was thinking like me:
The American West is big. There will be other wishing wells. And next time -next time we’d get it right.