Dirt is matted in the treads—as if trying to convince me that this is where I grew, that these leather planters have some permanent hold on my roots. I’d like to believe it. The film of mud pleases me. Boots ought to be dirty, but these have been deprived of their birthright for years. It’s hard to find raw, wet soil amid concrete and office buildings. Flannel. Owned not for utility but because at one time the tags indicated a price high enough to demand acceptance. Jeans embarrassed by the dark, unfaded stain of the denim. All at home surrounded by sagebrush and red dust. All belong, but only in pictures.
The sharp smell of sagebrush, at least I’ve been told that’s where it’s coming from, pervades my lungs. My nose wrinkles involuntarily, revealing for a moment exactly what I don’t want to admit. A few more deep breaths and the scent becomes sweet; my own heritage arguing within me. My mother’s mother, my own mother-once-removed, grew up about an hour from here. A distance that seems negligible in this place where the horizon takes no notice of days, much less hours. The red of the canyon walls runs in my veins. I have been here before. Or rather I have passed by here before. Always there was somewhere to go, some destination to reach. It never occurred to me that the scene blurring past the car window was any more tangible than the picture behind the glass of our TV. If you catch me half awake and ask, I might tell you that I’ve lived here all my live. Not meaning to lie, just letting something else in me answer. Wanting to claim the inheritance I came into a lifetime too late to own.
I’ve heard it said that if you aren’t used to it, the ocean of sky feels oppressive, drowning. That it’s hard to catch your breath. I think this is true. There is something unsettling about this land that is too bare to keep any secrets. It makes me think of those dreams where you find yourself in the middle of the cafeteria, completely naked, and wake up with the blood still warm in your cheeks. But it is only a dream and soon enough I’ll be back where the only way to see sky is to look straight up and hope that at least has been left unobstructed.
New York City
Get out before the doors close. Move. Quick Quick Quick. Don’t lose sight of the group, but don’t stop moving either. Follow traffic. Down the platform, Up the stairs. Step out into the light. Blink twice. Breathe.
The few who don’t know the rules shout out requests. He plays them all. The curly ashen remnants of hair splotchy against the dark black of his scalp make me think he must be somewhere between thirty and eighty. The pangs of the tarnished alto saxophone reverberate through the metal canister of the subway. They bounce and ricochet until you can’t tell one note from another. I listen, trying to look like I’m not, waiting for the error. It never comes. Six years of lessons outdone on a subway on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of July. It takes many more lessons and several more years before I learn to play compassion.
The cosmopolitan clack of my shoes against the sidewalk echoes with confidence. Heading uptown I look through, never at, the well-tailored pinstripes, the silkened legs. It is harder to ignore the huddled masses of rotting cotton and polyester that grow like mold from the marble and concrete of any corner or door frame. Just don’t look down and it’s only one, two steps until you’re past. The shadow of a memory tries to fight its way from my head to my heart. Caught about halfway down my throat, it lurks and lingers throughout the evening like a phrase from a language I don’t speak. Hours later, a final swallow in the exhausted restlessness before I fall asleep brings at least a partial translation . . . it’s something I read somewhere, something about the “least of these” . . .
I don’t bring a purse. I keep a twenty in the front pocket of my pants, another zipped inside my coat, a third inside my sock, folded under the arch of my right foot. There is safety in distrust. You get what you expect and are never disappointed. Except maybe when you come home time after time with a folded twenty under the arch of your right foot.
No matter when we start the drive, we always arrive in the middle of the night. Stepping bleary-eyed from the cramped confines of the van, my ears are the first to register the change in location. The rattling, electric buzz of cicada overpowers any stillness night might have lent to the air. Small, flying insects knock against the headlights and our legs. The driveway radiates heat like an oven someone forgot to turn off after the day’s baking was done. The heat is comforting. No one here is cold, regardless of circumstances. The air is dense and hard to swallow. It is not dark, whether because of a full moon or a porch light I don’t remember. I hold out my arms for my dictated allotment of luggage and head towards the house. I feel the short hairs framing my face beginning to curl. The door is unlocked and I’m asleep on the floor, a sleeping bag barely unrolled beneath me, before any one comes down to say hello.
If I squint just right and stop blinking long enough for my eyes to grow hazy I can see the giant oaks overhanging Main Street. Fifty feet apart and straight across from one another, branches weaving a canopy to keep the road in constant shade. Petals skitter across the ground like confetti left over from a celebration of the last solstice. Piles of them accumulate along the sides of the street as if waiting for the clean-up crew after a ticker tape parade. It was easier to believe that the world was a nice place then. They took the trees down to put in a sidewalk. Couldn’t decide which side so they took them all down. Would keep the frantic, the strolling, the observing off the streets. The street is bare now . . . too hot to enjoy. Guess they were right.
A curious breeze occasionally meanders in through the open window. Somewhere between dream and thought, I turn to taste the damp, dark air. The high-pitched cadences of the distant pond-dwellers successfully lull the audience to restless slumber. Waking at a noise remembered but not heard, denial keeps my eyes closed. The thread-bare, nearly transparent sheet lies in a crumpled wad at the foot of the bed. My body tenses as my neck complains against the weight of my own head. With one arm I flip over the flattened mass of pillow. The momentary coolness against my cheek, like stepping into a shadow, just long enough to fall back asleep.
We had to go inside when the streetlight turned on. Curfew grew later as the days grew longer. Barefoot, we could feel the pavement begin to cool as the sun disappeared into waves of gold and amber. Our shadows showed us as grown-ups. Too tired to chase the missed catch, we ignore the ball as it comes to rest against the curb three houses down. Like wind-up toys struggling to maintain the final dragging turns of the key, the momentum of our play slows. We sit on the lowered tailgate of the small black pick-up, legs swinging a foot above ground. We look away from the sound of the door closing. A younger brother, drawn by the lamp shining through the window and the far-off sounds of a television, leaves behind another day. Maybe this is why we’ll tease him tomorrow. Without conversation, we wait for the streetlight to turn on.