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,
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.
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."
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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
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,
"Same old," I murmur, tracing concentric circles
on the counter. "How 'bout you? Ready for finals?"
grabs a lollipop from the glass jar on the counter and carefully unwraps
it. "Yeah. If I study any more, I'll go blind."
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
"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."
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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
"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?"
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."
around my wrists is startling. "No daughter of mine's going to...and in the place where I work, no less," she sputters. "Where
"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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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