Amber was looking for the Town of Sagittarius. It was someplace out West she figured - probably in California, since California was the one State that would conceivably set up a community named after a sign of the Zodiac. It was her sign - the Archer - and Amber could think of no other that suited her better- half-man, half-horse pointing his bow and arrow at some nebulous target. Amber felt out place, wayward; a mutt in a town of self-considered pedigrees.
Amber grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. From her expansive waterfront deck, she could see barges carrying chunks of offshore rigs to the Gulf of Mexico and helicopters yo-yoing up and down from dockside platforms taking workers back and forth from those rigs. It was a Lionel Train set panorama writ large - and for most of her life, Amber felt as if she were a little plastic figure placed there for decoration. Her father owned and managed his own petrochemical company at a time when individuals could do such a thing profitably - a true Texas oilman. Everything; the house, the cars, the two trees outside the front porch, even the air, had a slick sheen bordering on iridescence. Amber imagined that if a pathologist opened her up, the inside of her lungs would be the same metallic hue.
She was cut from different cloth than the other kids who dreamed of riding the gushers to incredible wealth. While local girls grew their hair to Farah Fawcett proportions, Amber kept hers, the color of kettle-cooked potato chips, parted in the middle sleek and straight to her waist. The others primped and preened, trying on then casting off expensive fashions from Houston, which was, they claimed, “light-years ahead of New York” when it came to trends, because Oil Baronesses flew straight to Paris for their wardrobes and expected the latest. Amber dressed like her hometown idol; Janice Joplin. Kids took to calling Amber “Granola Girl.” She was born in the wrong place to the wrong parents. She couldn’t wait to get out.
By the time she was 16, Amber needed to be someplace else. Someplace without the erector set spires and spew and drone of the oil refineries that had dominated her worldview, literally and figuratively till then. It’s not that she felt wham! at 16 she was mature enough to be on her own. Amber ruefully acknowledged that she’d been on her own her whole life. Her parents were just strangers in the house; Dad with his agate bolos, felt hat and shit-kicker boots cussing or whooping at the latest production numbers, Mother prone to blurting adages that harked back to her Appalachian roots.
“It’s important for a young lady to be fit as a fiddle,” she’d say as she dressed her toned body for another night out on the town.
“Let’s think about this a second, Mother,” Amber would play. “How fit is a fiddle, if you take a minute to picture it? A fiddle is rather curvaceous – Rubenesque, even.”
“What a silly, brainy girl,” Amber’s Mom would laugh, spinning in her strapless form fitting gown, preparing to act out her Madonna/Whore fantasies with husbands of equally vapid women. Her parents deserved each other, deserved this life and what they got out of it. But they didn’t deserve her.
Amber studied road maps the way her mother combed through catalogs from Nieman Marcus and Saks. She’d longingly run her fingers over the solid red line of Interstate 10 and the lesser gray squiggles that emanated from it like tributaries of a mighty river. She unfolded the whole of the United States on her bedroom floor marking the places she might live - or at least pass through - with a highlighter, then folded it back up when a boy came calling. Despite the fact that Amber was idiosyncratic (jealous, shallow girls called her “weird”) and some would say unkempt, she had the good looks of a Homecoming Queen.
Tawny skin and natural highlights in that sleek blond hair from hours spent outside riding her bike to school every day gave her a glow that the pasty big-haired girls couldn’t replicate with all the tanning oil and Sun-In in the world. Yes, boys paid attention to her, but it was not any attention she wanted or sought. These gentlemen callers were no gentlemen, but snotty sons of oil tycoons who, with their good looks, football physiques and daddy’s bucks were used to getting everything they wanted. But they’d never get Amber. She was so out of there.
America is a big country, and a one-of-a-kind like Amber could get lost in it. She had a plan, sort of, based on her curiosity about geography. She didn’t care about cultural attractions, a burgeoning downtown, a decent school system. She intended to follow this curiosity clear across the country, stopping for an hour or a day or a week depending on what she considered a Karmic connection. She’d let town names show her the way.
Amber left Port Arthur with $500 she’d saved up from babysitting rich brats along with two changes of clothes in a backpack. With thumb out and little concern for her own safety, Amber headed northeast to the hollows, hamlets, villages, and settlements that would never be on anyone's "go-see" list if not for some founding father's sense of humor.
Her first stop – Hot Coffee, MS. She figured this as just a short stay – a place to refuel then leave. Which is how it played out. The coffee might have been hot, but it wasn’t any good, so she left for Allgood, AL, then on to Smile, KY and Fearnot, PA. In each case, she felt the great relief of freedom and inclusion. And why not? She was a pretty stranger with a benevolent air. No longer locked in ideological, material battle with those around her, Amber felt giddily unfettered. Folks took her in and fed her. She gave back any way she could – cleaning bathrooms, cooking dinner. But she never stayed too long in one place. Despite their opportunistic names, one town was as interchangeable as the next.
Shying away from any municipality that blatantly avowed old time religion – like Burning Bush, GA or Christmasville, TN or Satan’s Kingdom, RI, Hell, MI or even Weeping Mary in her own state of Texas – Amber stuck to the upbeat or downright strange. She wanted to explore Virginville, PA -the same state that offered up Blue Ball, Intercourse and Blowtown.
Though curious, Amber avoided communities where misfortune might find her; Accident, MD, Liar’s Corner, OH, Bloodland, MO, Little Hope, PA, Uncertain, TX. But she had no such reservations about Battle Ax, MI where she found a certain affinity in the outrageous antics of the place’s namesake. And Hungry Mother State Park in Virginia which conjured tales of melancholy striving.
Wham, LA, Two Egg, FL and Frog Suck, WY made Amber laugh when she got to the city limits signs, but these, like most bizarrely named towns, were more interesting on paper than in real life.
She found Niceville, FL on the Gulf Coast too much like her hometown, so she left quickly to locate a soul mate in Romance, AR. Though she discovered several cheesy married men who’d be happy with a roll in the hay, passion was not in the cards in Arkansas. Licking her wounds, Amber made it to Happy, TX where she was greeted with an unhappy, dirt-poor population. Thumb out, she passed through Bliss and Nirvana MI, Magic, ID, and Okay, OK before alighting in Surprise, CA.
It was here, in the very Northeast corner of California that Amber finally felt a stirring that closely resembled homecoming. Though there were no surprises in Surprise – the town had the typical low-slung school and nondescript government offices of every other well intentioned, tourist-hungry town – the vibes here were different. Amber’s very atoms resonated with those of the people around her – people who had left wherever they were from to find a sense of belonging.
Amber knew that she wouldn’t stay in Surprise for very long, though. She was looking for Sagittarius. And if she didn’t find it here – in her claimed state of California - then she’d establish it herself; she and a bunch of other Archers whose arrows would finally strike home.