New California Fiction : PURGATORY

Main Street in Durango, Colorado, makes me sad to the very core, the kind of deep loneliness I used to feel as a kid on winter mornings in Flagstaff when I'd walk to the bottom of the driveway to get the newspaper. Up and down the block, there'd be all those houses lit up against the cold, the buttery light of the neighbors' kitchens making me feel orphaned. All the way back up the driveway, my heart seemed like it would break open, and the pain of it got sharper and stronger until I thought it would kill me, right there on the back stoop, with all the news that's fit to print clutched in my hand. I'd let myself in the back door, into my mother's kitchen, and she'd turn away from the stove to watch me come in like she'd missed me for all of the five minutes I'd been gone. Everyone else was still asleep. I'd hand her the paper and see that same yellow light shining in our house too.

Now the only place to go back to is the Pine Aire Motel, and Charlie and the tired argument we've had the whole way across the country from New York, then on to Flagstaff to my father and my brother and his exemplary life. We were going so Charlie could meet my family before we get married. But somewhere in the great ugly void of Kansas we seem to have decided what we really need to get is an abortion. I say "we," but I have plans of my own. I always have had plans of my own, I guess. It's what my mother hated most about me, that I wasn't your basic family-type person, wouldn't run with the pack, turned and snarled at the pack most of the time. Wouldn't she be surprised now. Maybe she is surprised, looking down from her front-row seat in heaven. Maybe she's saying to her heavenly cronies, That one's mine. Maybe she's thinking, Hang on, there's hope.

I've come to the end of Main Street, where it bottlenecks into the turnstiles for the narrow-gauge railroad to Silverton, passing through, would you believe it, the town of Purgatory. I have this idea: I will go to Purgatory, and I will get work in a bar. Of course there are bars in Purgatory, there'd have to be, but the glasses would always be just out of reach, or else you'd drink and drink but never forget your sorrows, never even get drunk. I can go there and have this baby that its own father doesn't want, and no one will ever find me. This baby can grow up in Purgatory, and when it gets ready to enter the world, it will be one of the few humans truly equipped to live there. Charlie can drive the rest of the way to see my brother and my dad, and he'll be happy for a way out. That's when I start to feel scared. There's a solid wall of people moving from the McDonald's across the street past me to the railroad station and the ticket window, and at first I resist their jostling, but then I let myself be pushed into their number, close behind a man with an infant slung over his shoulder. I get packed in so close I can smell the sweet stink of talcum powder and sour milk that babies give off. I follow the baby and buy a ticket to Silverton. Then I stand along the west wall of the depot watching the baby as its eyes begin to close for the slow ride into sleep.

At 6:20, when the all-aboard whistle blows directly above my head, I open my mouth and give one long grieving wail, but it can't be heard above the whistle and the loudspeaker instructing passengers to have their tickets ready. My stomach heaves, and it's while I'm getting sick in the ladies' room that the train leaves for Purgatory and Silverton and all points in between. I know I'm going to ask myself sometimes what would have happened if I'd gotten on that train. What would have happened if my baby hadn't picked that moment to show off its early willfulness? I know, too, that I'll never stop asking because I'll never come up with a good enough answer.

WE LEAVE DURANGO AT FIRST LIGHT, HEADING WEST, THEN SOUTH, ON Route 160, the two-lane highway that will run us through Four Corners, the wild and desolate convergence of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. We stop there, expecting fanfare and earth shifting under the weight of its own importance, but find instead only a few Indians selling their wares, and 200 portable toilets. Then the road drifts gradually southwest, skirting first the Navajo, then the Hopi reservation, then the Navajo again, bisecting and squaring the land until it dead-ends into 89 South to Flagstaff.

I point out to Charlie how this landscape looks like the moon or other places you would never think to go. The roads are deserted and so the land takes care of itself, makes itself up as it goes along, seeming to have never gotten the news about the way order and repetition make for what people back East call scenery. I wonder if the point of scenery isn't getting a lot of other people to see exactly what you've seen, which accounts for postcard sales and that red barn near Gloucester, Massachusetts, that's the most often-painted piece of landscape in the entire free world.

Out here, though, I'm more alone, even with Charlie close enough to touch, even more alone than I felt last night on Main Street in Durango. This desert couldn't care one iota about my traveling through it on the way to Flagstaff and from there to my sorry old age, my puny death. It doesn't even care about its own name, much less mine. Names means boundaries, and the desert has nothing to do with boundaries--they're somebody else's problem. I've never felt so much myself as I do now, driving through this desert, with Charlie sleeping next to me, his head turned away. I'm never so much myself as when I'm nowhere. This is especially true in the early mornings. We both like to be driving before the sun's up, and then hard, hot daylight begins to come on, come toward us, and that whole desert world turns blue, blue like it's underwater. So you can see, in some small way, that the desert had once been an ocean, that it had dried out, gone belly up, but hung onto its original color the same way we all die, holding onto the shadows of what we've been.

North Flagstaff was a long time ago given over to light industry. Railroad tracks guard the innards of the city and heavy-duty trucks fill the motel parking lots. I call my brother from a pay phone. When he answers, I tell him we're here, making my voice singsong and haunting.

"Good," David says, "Dad can't wait to see you."

"How is he?"

"So-so. We drove him around today so he could see some of the painted desert. Lately he's started talking about maybe moving out to California."

"That's a good sign."

"No, it isn't. He thinks Mom is in California waiting for him. He drinks too much. Fell down and had to have stitches in his forehead, and now he's on crutches. It's like living with a hundred children. You can take over for a few days. I've had it."

"We're happy to stay in a motel," I say.

"No, no, the more the merrier. Arlene's about gone stir-crazy since she quit work. She says just get here as soon as you can."

"Dad's out of it," I say to Charlie when I come back to the car. I tell him about the stitches and my mother's putative whereabouts.

"You get this voice when you talk about him," Charlie says. "It's like that computerized instruction at the airport, 'Our next stop is Concourse B. The doors are ready to close.' "

"Yeah?" I say. "So?"

"It's just that it's not very nice."

Nice, I think. No, it's not nice. I'm not nice. I know a lot of people who are, but I'm not one of them. Arlene is nice. When we get to their house, I'll watch her and see how she does it. If I can't manage, well, she's nice enough for two. I tell this to Charlie. I tell him I always thought Arlene should be the name of a much older woman than my brother's wife is. Whenever I heard the name, all I could think of was Arlene Francis from "What's My Line?" and the way she had to sit there in her chiffon gown next to the likes of Soupy Sales and Nipsey Russell. So when David first brought Arlene Fisher to meet us three years ago this Christmas, I was surprised to see somebody young and pretty, with this mass of blond curly hair, and wearing a red dress like she knew how it was supposed to be worn.

It was a bad Christmas for everybody, though now I find it hard to say exactly why. I remember that no one was there to meet me at the airport, and when I did finally wise up and call a cab, the house was dark and locked. On Christmas Day, my mother finally told me why, told me that all my life I'd been selfish, not at all nice, and she was giving up. Arlene got to hear most of it. The day was never mentioned between us again until the night before Arlene and David's wedding. At the rehearsal dinner, in the ladies' room, a very drunk Arlene put her arms around an equally drunk me and promised I'd never, ever be locked out of their house.

Six months ago, they moved Mother and Dad into their house, because they were too old to be alone. Twice Mother had been found walking into the Coconino National Forest, shedding her clothes piece by piece as a trail to follow back. She died a month ago, and at the very end, she didn't recognize anybody, got the generations and bloodlines all confused. "Mother," she had said to Arlene, "I hope I have a daughter just like you. And if I do, will you pay to send her to college?"

Now Arlene is 8 1/2 months pregnant, carrying high and walking swaybacked with her feet turned out. I think, in the first instant of seeing her, that Arlene looks used up, like the baby is already starting to take its measure of her, even before its official entrance into the world. Her skin has the flush of somebody who's been drinking or crying or both, and her eyes move quickly from my face to Charlie's to David's, as if she can't quite keep up with all that's being said. She says she's hated the last few weeks.

"Women talk about this glow," she says when I ask why. "All expectant mothers are supposed to have it. Bull, I say. It's not a glow, it's the frenzy of looking for yet another place to pee."

"You get a sort of bovine feeling," David says. It's a term one of the pregnancy books used. Charlie tries not to look at me. It's part of the deal he was trying to make in the motel in Durango before I took my little walk to the train station: no talking about our situation, no meaningful looks. It wasn't my deal, so I'm looking at him as hard as I can.

When my father comes into the room, I'm not sure he recognizes me. We hold each other in a formal way, like people just learning to ballroom dance. He balances on one crutch to shake hands with Charlie, says he's pleased to meet him. Then he turns back to me.

"Your mother was just wondering where you were," he says.

"So what did you tell her?" I ask.

"I said you'd been met with unavoidable delays."

"That's how come I talk like an airport," I say to Charlie and point at my father. Nobody else understands what I mean exactly, but they get the drift. Arlene changes the subject, tells my father he did a good job putting on the new bandage.

"Aren't we a pair?" my father says to her. "We could be our own hospital waiting room."

Arlene smiles. We talk about her doctor, Lamaze classes. My father says he'll wait around for the birth, but then he's off.

"So, Dad," I say, "what's in California that's got you so worked up?"

"Ask your mother," he says, and stops for a second. "I like the Pacific Ocean. Seems like I should see it again before I die."

"What's the rush?" David asks.

"And I got to be scouting retirement places for your mother and me. She never did like this desert out here. I know I don't."

"Well," I say, "I heard she already took off."

My father gives me a dark look. David waves his hand to mean I should stop egging him on.

"You know that's the best way to do it," my father says. "I have to look around by myself, and you know, I think she should look around by herself too. It shouldn't be that I run her life."

"You should have told her that before," I say.

"Maybe so," my father tells me, "maybe so, but I hadn't thought of it yet."

AFTER SUPPER, ARLENE TAKES ME UPSTAIRS TO see what is still the guest room but will soon be the baby's room. Its walls are hung with colored posters of exotic birds and animals, toucans, ibexes, peacocks. There's a windsock in one corner, its streamers all the colors of the rainbow, fluttering against the freshly painted white walls. I want to tell her about Charlie and me, but I don't know where to start.

"The word is," Arlene says, lowering herself to her knees, "babies go for bright colors and contrasts. No pastels, none of that Santa Fe style here. Help me fold some of these, will you?"

We sit on the floor with our backs resting against the bed. Between us, there's a pile of baby clothes and shoes, gifts from various baby showers and hand-me-downs from relatives and friends. In the pile, I recognize some of my old favorites. Carter's pajamas with feet, the kind that snap together at the waist. There's a pile of stretch shirts and matching pants. I remember being the first kid on the block to wear 100% polyester.

"Amazing how these lasted," I say to Arlene.

"Your mother told me it's because you both grew so fast, you hardly ever wore anything longer than a couple of months."

"I remember," I say. "I remember Mother crying after we'd been to the shoe store and my foot had grown two sizes. At dinner she said to Dad she cried because she had been jamming my feet into those old shoes. She thought I was just being stubborn about putting them on all the way."

"Your poor mother."

"No kidding, " I say.

"She asked for you right at the end."

"It's called being delirious."

"She said to tell you hello."

I want to say something to Arlene, but I can't. It's not that I don't know where to start, it's that if I started, I'd never stop.

"Are you OK?" I ask Arlene through the silence. "You look dead tired."

"I am. It's supposed to be two weeks now, but all the books say that first babies are usually late. I've got a kind of cooped-up feeling too. And it's only going to get worse. I keep thinking, what if my water breaks in some public place. So I only go to the grocery store and I always make sure to buy a jar of pickles so I can drop it in case of emergency. I read where a pregnant woman always carried a jar of pickles in case her water broke in public."

We look at each other and burst out laughing. David comes running up the stairs.

"Oh," he says when he sees us folding baby clothes, "I thought you were crying."

"These days, it's a tossup," Arlene says.

We've folded the sunsuits, the pinafores, smocked dresses, plastic pants, footie pajamas and piled them in the drawers of what used to be Arlene's desk. If that's not symbolic, then nothing is, but I know better than to say such a thing out loud. All that's left are two pairs of shoes, polished white baptismal shoes and tiny blue Nikes.

"Bo don't know diapers," Arlene says, holding up the Nikes.

"Where did those come from?" I say, pointing to the white pair.

"David bought those down in Mexico. From a woman sitting outside a church. She said they belonged to Santo Nino, the child saint who travels through the countryside at night and wears out his shoes. She said David should give these shoes to his baby to wear and then when the baby outgrows them he should bring them back to Santo Nino.

"That's sweet," I say.

"It is," Arlene agrees, picking up the two pairs of shoes and opening the bottom drawer of her desk. I crawl over on my hands and knees as Arlene tries to shut the drawer, and I reach in and pull out the shoes.

"No, no, no," I say to Arlene, shaking my head, getting up and walking to the closet where I've already hung up some of my own clothes. I bend down and line up the tiny Nikes next to a larger pair. Arlene is standing right next to me, laughing, but then she covers her face with her hands and it doesn't sound like laughter.

"What? What?" I say, and go to wrap my arms around Arlene's shoulders. It kills me that I made her cry. Arlene shakes her head and stands still against me. When she can speak again, she says the sight of those shoes in the closet just now made everything real.

LATER, I'M LYING THERE IN THE DARK LIMBO OF the guest room soon-to-be nursery, listening to David and Arlene whispering together on the other side of the wall. Charlie's downstairs watching late-night TV. He'll probably stay down there. It's really the beginning of the end. I can see it now that I've got some perspective, now that we're able to sit farther away from each other than the length of the front seat of a moving vehicle. I drift a little further toward sleep and into an old dream, one I had about David and Arlene's wedding, but years before they were actually married. In the dream, David, Arlene and I are all standing on our old front lawn, and I reach out to touch David's wedding ring, because I doubt it's real. Like Thomas, Arlene says in garbled dream language, like Thomas into the wounds, her voice sounding like it's coming out of a long metal tube. Then David says to me, This will never happen to you, and it's right then that I always bolt awake, breathing hard and feeling as if there's been a fist driven into my heart.

I can remember their real wedding like it was yesterday, even though I was hung over from the rehearsal dinner. I remember how David looked at Arlene in a way I'd never seen before, and then after the priest pronounced them husband and wife and after he kissed Arlene, David looked up at me and made his eyes go huge, like he couldn't believe it any more than I could.

After that, I read from the Book of Ruth, "Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you. And when Naomi saw she was determined to go with her, she said no more."

"Say no more," was a joke between David and Arlene ever since she said it to him when he asked her to marry him. So when I got to that part, they both laughed and Arlene dropped the shredded Kleenex she'd been hanging onto for dear life, dropped it right at the priest's feet, and it lay there for the rest of the ceremony. Everybody was happy. Even my mother and I declared a truce. We got drunk at the reception and fed each other pieces of the wedding cake, neatly and carefully, no messing around.

THE NEXT NIGHT, AFTER SUPPER, DAVID TAKES us all out to the Grand Canyon, a club where four of his lawyer friends are playing in a band called Power of Attorney. Their big hit is "Heart Balm and Tender Offers," which David says is an inside joke. The lead singer is a woman from David's firm whose voice is half Emmylou Harris, half Beverly Sills, a nicer-sounding combination than you might think. Between songs she tells lawyer jokes that run toward the indiscreet. She winks at David and Arlene and says, "Did you hear about the lawyer who was so lazy he married a pregnant woman?"

"It's a good thing she's the best tax attorney in Flagstaff," David says, smiling, "or she'd be out tomorrow."

Dad sits at the table and listens to the first three songs, them stumps up to the bar for a refill. I watch him shift his good hip onto a stool and rest with his bum leg hanging down to the boot rail, three inches up from the floor. Arlene elbows me in the ribs and whispers how it's the most comfortable she's seen him since Mother died.

"Maybe he's been wanting some other men to talk to," I say back. And not David either, I think. If David and Dad could be old men together, they'd be quite the pair. But right now, they're too much alike, with too many years between them, years that David will discover one by one and slowly, just as Dad is forgetting, leaving them behind.

"We haven't been much company for him, I guess," Arlene says.

We watch as Dad introduces himself to the man on his left, who then turns to look back at us when Dad jerks his thumb over his shoulder to show he's with us. Both men turn slightly to the left to watch the television over the bar. It's preseason football, the Broncos and the Chiefs going head to head in Denver, the sky-cam drifting high above the stadium to bring its view of the Rockies into a million homes and establishments just like this one.

I watch Dad and his new friend carrying on a kind of conversation, nodding sometimes, pointing at the TV without ever lifting their elbows up off the bar. There's a jangling part of me that admires men's conversation, always recognizes it above whatever else is going on in a room. The way it takes place with so little effort, that's what I admire most about the way men talk to each other, the way it always has to do with things of this world. Charlie's like that too: All during this trip, he's loved talking to other guys on the road, store clerks and pump jockeys, about mileages and the names of towns and the exact distance we covered in a day.

Dad orders another beer and a shot of whiskey to go with it, then raises the shot glass to the television. I imagine he's making his old toast to Joe Montana, a guy he admires for having the name of the biggest wide-open state in the Union with the lowest population per square mile.

David gets up from the table and goes to stand at the bar next to Dad. He puts his hand on Dad's shoulder, but it's shaken off. I know what David's saying. He's telling Dad to ease up, checking to see if he wants to head back to the house. Dad turns back to the game, and David stands still for a minute with his hands hanging at his sides. Even without seeing his face, I know how David's slowly thinking through the situation like he always does. Then he moves around to Dad's right and sits beside him, nudging him with his elbow and signaling to the bartender at the same time.

I see Dad lean away to his left and say something to David, then swing himself off the bar stool, kicking his crutches up under the boot rail. Without them, he stumbles, pushing off against people's backs, heading toward the poolroom at the back of the bar. David is right after him. I get up and follow along the opposite wall of the room. Dad sees me and waves me back, but I keep coming.

Entering the poolroom from the bar is like walking out of a cave into full sunlight. Three naked light bulbs hang in a row over a pool table lined with pink felt instead of the usual green. Dad and David shield their eyes in identical gestures of salute. There are four women and one man standing around the table, alternating in and out of the game. They look up at their new spectators.

"Need a sixth?" Dad says.

"No, it's OK. We're OK," one of the women, a blonde, says.

"I could help out," Dad says. "That way you could all play. I'm not great, but I have my moments."

"Dad," I say, "let them be."

"Watch this," Dad says, taking a cue from the rack on the wall. "I'll call it, too. Usually I shoot with my crutches, but I left them back in there with the lawyers. Five in the left center there."

Delicately, Dad lowers himself over the table, looking like a bird coming in for a landing, his hip bones balanced against the rim of the table. He slips the cue back and forth under his left index finger and closes his eyes. The table groans and shifts under his weight.

"Now, what did I say?" he asks.

"Five in the left center," says another of the women. Dad lifts his head, and looks at her for a long time. She's small, dressed in a white T-shirt and a denim miniskirt. She wears a small tan purse crossed over one shoulder.

"Hey, honey," Dad says, "what's with that purse anyway?"

David comes to stand next to me.

"Dad," he says, then looks up at the other players and tells them he's sorry for the interruption in their game.

"Sorry about what?" Dad says, pushing himself upright against the table, lifting it up off the floor at the end so that all the balls roll forward toward the woman with the purse. She holds up her arms as if expecting to take the table's full weight.

"Don't you ever apologize for me, you understand? Ever. I'm not some old fart who pisses in public and has to answer to his own damn children."

"Dad," David says again, "we should be getting home."

"The hell you say. Just who do you think you are, dragging me off? Your mother will treat me a hell of a lot better than this, better than any of you. When I get to her in California she'll let me play pool if you won't. She'll let me do anything I want. Right now. I'm going. Right this minute."

Dad drops the pool cue and stumbles around the far side of the table toward the door. When he tries to pass through into the bar, David reaches for his arm, but Dad shoves him away, so hard that David's head snaps back against the door jamb. Dad stops and considers.

"Didn't know I had it in me, did you, son?" he says. "Neither did I."

We follow as he makes his way along the bar toward the door. Power of Attorney is doing a song I recognize but don't know the name of, and they're into the second verse before I get out the door, singing about a wild card up your sleeve. I see Dad turn around in the parking lot, sway for a few seconds, then fall into David's arms. I can hear him saying he misses my mother, wishes she'd come back from California, doesn't understand why she went.

"It's you damn kids," he says. "You drove her away. You fought all the time, you hung on her, made her drive you everywhere, all day long. You never said thank you. We would come home from a night out, and she would sit in the parked car and say to me, 'Do I really have to go back in there?' It might as well be that you killed her."

David shifts and leans Dad against the door of a car, like he's a potted plant or something you don't expect will make a move against you.

"And you especially," my father says to me, "you're the worst. Other people's children don't do what you did, they don't go running off like that, over nothing, over a cross word."

"I'm sorry," I say.

"You have to make it up to her," he says, "before it's too late."

We're absolutely still. All around us, around this parking lot, is the desert, its dark buttes and canyons waiting to turn blue in the early morning light, waiting to remember the strange truth of its origin, which is that it was once an ocean. If I started walking now, I could be out in the desert, smack in the middle of it by morning. I could watch its blue light turn slowly, softly to yellow, the yellow of kitchens in Flagstaff in the winter, when only the two of us were up. If I started now, I could be in Purgatory in a few days, and not alone, at least not for long. If I started now, I would never stop.

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