RED ROCK CANYON
BY MARGO MCCALL
Nineteen is hard, my mother tells me. So are twenty and twenty-one. It's late afternoon, a glittering crystal of time when it's just the two of us. My mother, home from another day of changing sheets at White's Motel, kicks off her shoes and rests her bare feet on a kitchen chair. The sunlight has erased the wrinkles from her face, burned away the hard feelings.
"When I was your age I didn't want to stay here either," she says, picking at the peeling skin on her rough hands. "But after you and your brothers came along, where was I going to go?"
The refrigerator is still festooned with pictures from when my three brothers and I were little. The linoleum reveals our well-trodden paths. My brothers haven't gone far. They're dutifully scattered like stones around their birthplace. Robert works at U.S. Borax, Steven at Cal-Portland Cement, Paul at the Air Force base. They're married, except Steven, who still likes to party. There's already a grandchild. At nineteen, I'm already an aunt.
My mother sinks deeper into her chair. These sunny afternoons keep her going, along with her high hopes for me. She doesn't want me to end up cleaning rooms. She wants better. A year out of high school, I still don't know what better is. But I'm sure I won't find it in Mojave, California.
In the brightness of afternoon, my mom seems happy and carefree, and as she shakes her golden hair free of its rubber band, raises a glass of water to her lips and drinks, I can glimpse her back when. I've seen the pictures. She was once young, too.
My mom smiles at me, this time without her lips quivering like they're tasting something bitter. "You know, honey, my life could have been a lot worse. Your brothers are grown up and gone, but I've still got you."
I'm nobody's baby girl. Not anymore. My mom empties her glass. The sun moves on to another kitchen. And it's no longer the past or the future. It's now.
"Life is tough," my mom says, her voice a windy wheeze. "Sooner you get used to it the better." She picks up the empty glass and walks to the kitchen sink like she's sixty, not forty-four. Now that the sun has moved on, her tinted hair resembles dry straw.
"Well, I better get started on dinner." She sighs. "Your father will be home soon. And Lucy, shouldn't you be getting ready for work?"
Pauline is already busy behind the counter when a gust of wind blasts me through the front door of Don's Market and deposits me in a disheveled mess among the racks of candy bars and potato chips, the leathery hotdogs twirling listlessly in their stainless steel cage, the rows of glass doors holding Coke and Pepsi, Sprite and herbal iced teas. People are already jostling in line, impatient to buy gas and snacks, make their restroom stops and put this windy pit stop behind them.
"Hey girlfriend," Pauline says, her brown eyes searching. "You made it."
I spot Pauline's schoolbooks under the counter, as usual. Later, when traffic on the interstate dies down, she'll sit on a stool and bury her head in Introduction to Business Practices or Standard Accounting. But right now her fingers are dancing over the keys of the cash register, her determined lips saying "That will be $18.40" and "Restrooms in the back," and "Lucy, can you reset Pump 2?"
It's always jarring to enter Don's Market, the cacophony of the store and the people a busy contrast from the lonely streets I walk to work, the stucco shacks in need of paint, barking dogs lunging at chain link fences piled high with trash, just me and the wind and blowing sand. But after a few minutes, I too, am speaking in sharp phrases: "Sign here, please" and "Will that be all?" and "Roadmaps are by the door."
The maps. Eastern Sierras, State of California, the entire United States -- I know them all. After the whir of traffic on Highway 58 gives way to quiet, during the silent time when Pauline presses her pink highlighter into the flesh of her chin, poised to mark a key phrase or business concept, I like to stretch the maps out on the counter.
The place where I live is a dot on a map, connecting the red lines of highways and the black lines of interstates, one of thousands of other dots on the map. I'm attracted to the bigger ones: Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami. For awhile, I thought Philadelphia had a nice ring. I liked saying the word in my mind: Fill-a-del-fya. That gave way to my idea that if I were going somewhere new, the place should have "new" in its name: New York, New Orleans, Newhaven.
"Lucy!" yells Pauline. "Men's room, quick." As I pick up the mop and head into the men's bathroom, I wonder if this is how my mother feels.
Moments later, bathroom crisis averted, I hurry back to help Pauline up front. Somebody has pulled the maps out of the rack. Don will have a shit fit if they're not refolded exactly as they were. Don, with his sunburned face and beady eyes, reminds me of my father, who's always ranting, screaming at my mother one minute, snoring on the couch the next. Both act like they own the world. With Don it's "my maps, my store, my girls." With my Dad it's "my wife, my sons, my house."
The store, full only a few minutes ago, has suddenly cleared out. "Whew," says Pauline. "That was some rush." She plants her ample hips, clad in purple stretch pants, on the stool and bends in two to fluff her hair and adjust her pink headband. "So what have you been up to, girlfriend?"
"Same old," I murmur, tracing concentric circles on the counter. "How 'bout you? Ready for finals?"
Pauline grabs a lollipop from the glass jar on the counter and carefully unwraps it. "Yeah. If I study any more, I'll go blind."
Pauline's the only girl I know who didn't get pregnant or married right after high school. Julia, Amanda and Leticia had babies even before graduation. Funny how the counselors at school always had more pamphlets on birth control and drug abuse than they did on college or vocational training. Pauline's mom and dad have always expected Pauline to go to college.
"You stick with Pauline; she's got a good head on her shoulders," my mom's been saying ever since me and Pauline became best friends in Grade 5. Pauline drives thirty minutes to the community college in the next town. She wants to be an accountant. Already, she's collecting the sensible pumps and suits she'll wear when she works in a high rise. Pauline wants me to go to college, too. I put her off, telling her I have other plans. But all Pauline says is, "Like what, working in this store the rest of your life?"
The nasty people in town say Pauline better get a good-paying job or marry a blind man. They don't see beyond Pauline's extra weight and oversized glasses. I think she's pretty, prettier than the face I see when I look in the mirror. But Pauline says no, shaking her frizzy dark head of hair. "Straight blond hair and blue eyes? "Don't kid yourself, you're a knockout."
"But you're smart," I reassure her. "That's worth more than looks."
Pauline says, yeah she might be smart, but I'm sensitive. "I get the feeling you absorb more than most people," she told me when I slept over at her house a few weeks ago. "You feel the world's pain. That's why you're so miserable."
Outside the market, the ceaseless wind rips at newspapers anchored by sparkling chunks of granite. The wind flips through stories about bingo night, fatal accidents, church services, methamphetamine arrests. I've told Don he should bring them inside out of the wind, but it's not a top priority. "No one buys the goddamn things," he says. "No one gives a shit what happens here."
During the week, mostly locals and barrel-chested truckers come into Don's. The truckers hobble from rigs marked with hometowns like Friend, Oregon; Greasewood, Arizona; Recluse, Wyoming--amble in on their spindly, useless legs, ordering coffee and Marlboros as their engines suck up fresh diesel.
Weekends are busier. Then, there are whole families of blonde children in clean t-shirts and pressed shorts; leather-skinned men with fishing boats strapped to pickups, mountain bikers in vans, couples headed for Las Vegas to try out their luck. All just passing through.
Here in the desert, the wind never stops blowing. Here you must stand your ground or risk being whisked away. The wind is a thief that takes what it can. It eats slowly at the sandstone cliffs up in Red Rock Canyon, then blows into town, dumping a thick film of ochre dust on houses and motels and highways and people. Sometimes I imagine myself filling with sand. When I can hold no more, I'll revert to dust and blow away.
Now that the rush of travelers has died down, we can relax. Pauline leans forward on her stool. "Guess who I saw today?"
"I give up. Who?"
"I don't believe in Cinderella anymore," I say. "Just tell me."
"You know, Phil."
I stare out the window, pretending I didn't hear his name.
"Did you know his seventeen-year-old wife left him?"
"She's eighteen now," I say, ripping into a packet of Skittles. Now it's my turn to shock her. "Did he happen to mention he was popped for dealing?"
Pauline's jaw drops. The lollipop lolls on her pink tongue, on the verge of falling out. She takes it out of her mouth and holds it up like an exclamation point. "No way! Not the captain of our football team."
I laugh. "He'll be all right. They play football in prison, don't they?"
When Pauline leaves for her break at eight, I have a slice of time like my mom's sunny afternoons. Tonight I think about the house where I've always lived, on Backus Road between the highway and the railroad tracks. People used to call it the trainmaster's house -- it's where the first one lived when he rolled in with the rails a century ago. It's the only place my dad's lived, too.
My dad's a Taylor. His family has always produced boys--big, strapping boys useful for all kinds of things: working the rails, digging dirt and fighting wars. My dad and his brother both survived Vietnam.
"Make yourself useful," my father's always said. I've never been sure what he meant. Maybe he wants me to produce more boys. And I have no desire for that. One night I was in Reno's, and someone asked, "Are you one of the Taylor boys' wives? I didn't know the Taylors had a daughter."
I chuckle to myself. They know now. Ever since I hopped a freight and made it all the way to Colton before being returned like a shipment sent by mistake to the wrong destination. That was before graduation, after Phil.
I still wonder why Phil didn't stick with the cheerleaders and ignore me peering out the library window at him scrimmaging on the sun-bleached grass. We met under the bleachers. Cold sand where no grass would grow, where the wind couldn't reach. His skin was warm. I liked running my fingers over it. He lied to me, though. Liars can turn a girl's heart to desert.
When I first see the motorcycle pulling up to the gas pumps, I feel like a terminator zeroing in on my target. Click, click--and he's locked in for good. The rider is wearing a black biker jacket with tight jeans, and a gold nose ring that glints in the sun. Leaning near the pumps is the blue metal-flake Harley that will take me away. The rippling desert heat reduces him to shimmering waves as he fills his tank. But when he saunters into the air-conditioned coolness of the store to pay, our hands touch and he proves he's no mirage.
When did I first want to be a tumbleweed rolling over open land? I remember sitting on the curb in front of White's Motel, a little girl watching traffic. Cars loaded with families and semis all going somewhere, and I was stuck, there on that curb. Sometimes if I raised a palm and fluttered it like a bird, someone waved back. But usually they were going too fast to notice. And then my mother would come out of a room, pushing a cart stacked with cleaning supplies, with that terrified scream, "Get away from that road."
My mom screams a lot. These days, her favorites are, "Don't you care about me?" and "What did I do to deserve a daughter like you?" My favorites are, "I didn't ask to be born" and "If there's one thing I hope, it's that I don't end up like you." The sad thing is, I don't think I'm such a bad kid. And maybe she's not such a bad mother.
I was surprised when Pauline told me that her family never fights.
"Can your parents adopt me?" I'd asked, joking. But Pauline thought I was serious. She put an arm around me and said, "I'm sure they'd love to, but there's no way in hell your momma will give you up."
I guess she's right.
I'm prepared for Pauline to get upset, but nothing like this. Her face gets ugly when she sees the Harley drive up and Jay wave in my direction and me start gathering my things. "You don't know this guy from Adam. How do you know he's not a mass murderer?" she spits, her lips pursed with disapproval.
"He's not a stranger, his name is Jay," I try to explain.
"Lucy, I'd be happy to drive you somewhere when the semester is over," she says. "Come on, I thought you were through with the self-destructive stuff. Didn't the counseling do anything?"
"You come on," I say quietly. "You know if I don't get out of here I'll die."
"I was the only one who stood by you when you went off the deep end after Phil. I guess you forgot." Pauline looks at me sadly and turns her back.
I don't care that Jay's only taking me to Reno's, beyond the glare of drive-throughs and mini-marts, only that tomorrow we'll hit the highway. Hooked onto his jacket in the dark, smelling leather and sweat, our hips collide with each gear-shift. It's in that center that the roaring power of acceleration collects, the scattered energies that make me want to move, move, move.
People I know glance up with hostile boredom as I strut into Reno's with the road warrior and slip into an empty back booth. Looking around the bar area, I see some of my dad's friends--laughing and drunk again--and kids my brothers went to school with. Everywhere I go, there's always someone I know.
Jay removes his leather gloves and smoothes down his hair with hands that seem delicate. I hadn't noticed before how gray and frizzy his hair is. On the back of his bike, it felt like steel cables lashing my face. But in the dim lights, it appears harmless as a used-up scouring pad.
Later, lying on the thin sheets at White's Motel, I can only concentrate on the water stains on the ceiling. Jay seems smaller without clothes, and older, with flesh that drips like melted wax. He reeks of last chances. I'm relieved when he passes out.
The next morning I awake alone, and remember when I used to help my mom clean these rooms. There would usually be empty liquor bottles and ashtrays full of cigarette butts, sometimes a condom in the trash basket. After Phil and I broke up, I saw him go into one of these rooms with Gina.
I'd rather not remember. It's like being buried in quicksand. I'm trying to figure out how not to sink any deeper, and don't hear the rapid-fire knocks followed by that familiar voice calling "Maid Service."
Her grip around my wrists is startling. "No daughter of mine's going to...and in the place where I work, no less," she sputters. "Where is he?"
"Where is who? It's just me."
And then she deflates, crying into the soiled sheets. Her pitiful wails show no sign of subsiding even as I gather her in my arms and rock her like she once rocked me. I should tell her that she's wrong, but I don't. I suppose a part of me wants to punish her for jumping to conclusions.
Nineteen is old enough to recognize when there's no going back, when the place you live has become a mirage. I lie on my bed at home, looking up at the ceiling. In my bedroom, I can already sense the hard-edged emptiness that will come when I'm no longer there to occupy space. Goodbye to the past: the ballerina jewelry box my mother gave me, stuffed animals from my father, mystery books I read as the wind howled outside.
A family meeting has been scheduled, right after dinner. As if anybody's going to do more than push food around on a plate. Except my father. He shovels up his macaroni and cheese and forcefully cuts into his pork chop. Taking immense enjoyment in refusing to acknowledge my presence as he cuts and chews and swallows. I feel like I'm going to throw up, only there's nothing to eject from the vast plain of emptiness inside.
Ten minutes later, he pushes his plate away, and looks me in the eye. "Out of my house," he orders. "As far as I'm concerned, you're no longer my daughter."
"You stopped being my father years ago," I shoot back, giving him my best sneer.
All the days spent at the borax plant, coming home each night covered with white dust, have leached away all the understanding he ever had. A long time ago, he laughed. His brown eyes were happy. Now he can't look at me.
My mother is kinder, sitting at the kitchen table with me going over options with a map of the whole country spread out. She points a jagged finger at the city of Minneapolis, "That's where your Aunt Brenda lives."
Aunt Brenda is happy to hear from her younger sister, even though it's been, what, three years without as much as a Christmas card. But after all, family is family and I can stay in her guest room until I find a job and save up for my own place. She can't talk long. She's finishing some work, in the middle of a trial transcript. Will pick me up at the train station. "Tell Lucy to bring warm clothes," she warns.
I feel like one of the walking dead as I follow my mother upstairs into the musty smelling room where my parents have slept for twenty-five years. She struggles with her jewelry box while I sit on the bed, looking around, trying to preserve their room in memory. All the pictures of us kids growing up, sitting on Santa's knee, climbing the metal jungle gym that got so hot it burned our hands. The pictures swim and swirl, ready to be sucked into the drain of memory. My mom presses a wad of bills into my hand. "I should have given you this sooner."
There's no going-away party, since there's nobody to invite. I count the money at the Greyhound station, buy my ticket and climb aboard. The bus is half-filled with twittering old ladies who excitedly point out scenery as the bus chugs past the outskirts of town. "My goodness, will you look at those funny plants," one of the ladies says, gesturing to the trees explorers named Joshuas because it looked like they were praying.
My seatmate wears pink sweats and shocking white athletic shoes. As she stares out the window, the wrinkles in her face spread out like roads and rivers on a map. "Do you live in this area, honey?" she suddenly asks, turning her aged cheek from the scenery of desert pastels.
"I was born here," I say, grimacing.
"I grew up in a small town, too, but I've lived in Paris and London, all over the world." The woman turns and stares out the window again. "Leaving home was the best thing I ever did."
Thirty minutes later, I stare at sandstone cliffs rubbed red as raw wounds, remembering the times my parents brought us to Red Rock Canyon to scamper around on the rocks. My father was strong enough to carry me on his shoulders. He'd pretend to be one of the mules used to haul borax through the desert before rock was blasted out for the highway. My mom waved gaily and laughed as I climbed as high as I could and heard the voices of the wind. My heart pounded with the flash of raven wing, the undulating purple of mountains, the sparkle of sunlight on sand.
The state transportation department cut right through Red Rock Canyon to put in Highway 14. There was a time when I considered the place ruined, just like me. But now in all the bright sunlight I see that the road cut did little to diminish the rock formations' grandeur. Even after everyone on earth has eroded and turned to dust, the rocks will remain.
A dust devil kicks up in the distance, rising and spiraling above the sand. And soon the bus is barreling along the highway, the wind from the open window tossing my hair. Distance reduces the cliffs of Red Rock to an etching of sand that will grow smaller and smaller then finally disappear.