The clanking of the car’s engine ceases a few miles outside of town and Cliff and I settle into it, the wide quiet. We’re told that here, high up and in fall, aspens turn whole mountains gold. I twist the knob on the radio, though it’s been broken for years. We listen, instead, to rubber on asphalt.
For a while I watch the scrub, scouring the beige sand for coyotes or jackrabbits. Then, looking down I notice the specks of coffee and dust in the vinyl lining of the emergency brake. My husband, Cliff, stares at the road, the yellow lines finally disappearing. He’s from the desert and so he likes this, this alien blue sky, the way the road out in the distance wiggles and turns into a lake. I’m from the coast. I miss the trees, the way they hide wires and facades, the way they block up the view.
Because it’s quiet, because we are the only people we know here, Cliff and I argue. It’s nothing serious. He leaves his clothes in the washer until they’re dried to the sides and must be peeled away. If I ask him to take out the trash, he asks me to pick up my clothes. This morning we argued about eggs, whether when you poach one, you put vinegar in the water. Oh, the quiet—the big brown mesa out our window blowing air and dust and birds, the way it turns us toward each other like opposing magnets. He’s still sore at me for asking him if he ever poached an egg. “It’s not what you ask,” he said, leaning forward with his shoulders. “It’s how you ask it.”
Today, we’ll find the aspens. But, Cliff seems to say with his jaw, with his arms locked in front of him like two table legs, this doesn’t mean he forgives me.
“Let’s play a game,” I offer. Cliff pushes back into his seat, listening. I remove my feet from the glovebox, leaving a dusty grid. “Tell me a story. Something I don’t know about you.”
He uses his thumb to flatten the hair above his sideburns. Last night, during a peaceful interlude, I trimmed them. Now they look shorn while the top of his hair puffs up, a shiny mushroom. He’s clearly wrestling with it—whether to succumb to the invitation, filling the car with friendly chatter or refuse, keeping the petulant, if ridiculous, chill.
Cliff watches the road for a while. He keeps mints in the cup holder and now he reaches for one. It crunches between his teeth.
We drive over a dead gopher and Cliff shakes his head slowly. He’s a failed vegetarian, but the sight of road kill makes him pensive.
“What kind of story?” he asks.
“I don’t know. Something you’ve never told me.”
“Give me a topic,” he says. I touch his hand on the steering wheel and briefly, he takes his other hand and puts it on top of mine.
“Injuries or scars,” I say, because why not?
“You already know about my scars,” he says, which is true. He had a large mole removed from his thigh when he was young and it left a raw pink line which he sometimes claims is a shark bite. He has a small white storm of marks on his ankle from getting caught in some barbed wire.
“The next time we see a gas station, we have to stop,” he says. “Did I ever tell you about Shane and the BB gun?” I watch the little black arrow on the gas gauge hover over the white square. The gas light flicks on.
“No,” I say. “God, do you remember when everyone had a BB gun? A kid in my first grade class had a BB embedded in his neck. You could feel it if you put your fingers on the right place.”
Cliff glances at the gas light. He takes another mint. When he chews, the hollows of his cheeks suck in, making deep caverns. He hasn’t shaved. Little flecks of copper and gold wink from the indentations. “It was that kid, Todd, the one I told you about, the one whose mother brought in super-eight footage of his birth,” I say. I’m thirty-four and still, whenever someone tells me they’re pregnant, I conjure Todd’s mom hanging from stirrups, screaming like her skin was on fire.
Cliff and I talk about having children—two maybe, even three, but we’ve never actually tried. Sometimes at night, I pat at the space between us and say, here she is, our Josephina, our Noah, our little progeny. For a few years, Cliff played along, contributing geographical baby names: Topanga, Tonopah, Sierra. But now it’s become routine, an airy joke. Often, he just ignores me.
He sees a sign and circles back to the last Allsup’s before the mountains. Leaving the nozzle in the car, he walks into the mini-mart. The passenger seat won’t move back, no matter how much I try to force it, and when I reach under to wiggle the crank, I find an empty wine bottle there, escaped from the recycling.
My mind flits to a story I heard in school years ago. Apollo, god of light and music, is struck by the beauty of a sibyl. What will she trade him for one night in bed? She considers it. This is a sharp sibyl and she sees her chance. He’s a god. What else to wish for but eternal life?
Time passes, though, and the sibyl has a change of heart. She doesn’t want to sleep with him, doesn’t want to hold up her end of the bargain. It doesn’t take Apollo long to tilt the scales back in his favor. He’s given her eternal life, but not yet eternal youth. So, the sibyl ages—and ages forever—growing smaller and smaller as she does. When she’s finally as small as a grain of sand, she’s swept into a bottle at the ocean’s edge, trapped in a prison of glass.
It’s moments like these, with a story in my head, that the absence of little Josephina is most pronounced. She appears, but in ghost form. I can almost feel her. Her fine hair is a version of my own, coppery with a corkscrew curl. She listens to the myth or the song on the radio and I feel a sweep of understanding. I will leave the world someday, but she will carry our history in these details. The time I told her the myth while waiting for Cliff to fill the tank. The way the sun warmed the plastic dash, the fungusy smell of the car. These things will crawl inside of her like seeds, becoming both important and frivolous, the way history does.
I would tell Josephina that a sibyl knows everything. She can see war coming to her country, she can see her friends in peril. If she were free, she’d have the power to change this, but she’s not free. She’ll see her predictions come true through the fog of sea-salted glass, growing even tinier, even more insignificant.
I want to die! she’ll cry in her tiny voice. I want to die!
Cliff tosses a bag of chips at me.
“They only had that kind,” he says. “Super Nacho Cheese with Jalapeño.”
A cartoon animal on the front of the package looks like he’d like to lunge at my throat. I stick the chips by my feet. Cliff finishes up the gas.
I pick the bottle up and check it for sibyls.
“That’s my emergency plan,” he says, climbing back in. “Since I refuse to get a cell phone.”
It takes me a minute to understand. “And float it in what ocean?” I ask. He shrugs.
“God will provide,” he says. “Open the chips.”
The bag’s swollen from the elevation and makes a whooshing sound when I tug. The quiet happens again. Two cars pass, making wind. A large black bird hangs in the sky. We’re headed up now, then down into a small canyon where some adobes are sprinkled at random, then up again, climbing the side of a mountain.
“It was in Reno,” Cliff says. “When we lived in Reno, me, my mom, and that guy Ray.”
I’ve heard about Ray. I imagine he was wound too tight, his jaw just skin over a series of pulleys and wires. Oiled black hair and an oiled black jacket and oiled black shoes. A belt buckle that sagged toward the floor.
“Well, Ray was married when he was seeing my mom. I told you that, right? He had this wife. I can’t remember her name—Pricilla, Prissy—she came around every once in a while.”
I put a woman with oily Ray. One of those women who lack moisture, whose face stretches taught against bone. She wears a dress—no a waitress uniform. Light blue with an apron.
Cliff reaches for more chips. One has fallen onto his tee shirt, defying gravity. It sits there, cockeyed, at an improbable angle, like a small invisible hand props it up.
“She got a boob job. That I remember.” He shakes his head. “Is that even possible? Were people getting boob jobs in the late seventies?”
“I’d guess yes.”
“Well, one day she came to the house to pick up her son, Shane. I guess Ray had joint custody or something. Shane stashed all these low-budget porno magazines in our shed, so we used to go out there.” Cliff widens his eyes and makes a smooth, angel face. “Of course, I never looked at the magazines,” he says.
“Prissy was just some older lady, but that day she arrived with a rack like you’ve never seen. Made a big impression on me. I was ten.” He takes another handful of chips. The rack doesn’t fit with my light blue uniform. I try to reinvent her—polyester tee shirts? Low cut blouses? But now my images are muddled.
“Shane had this BB gun. These chips are gross. The jalapeño tastes like motor oil.” Cliff tosses his handful back in the bag, then wipes his hand on his shorts, leaving a small orange dusting. “I have no idea if Ray got it for him, or if he borrowed it, or if it was from one of his mother’s boyfriends. Because I remember a lot of boyfriends involved in this Ray thing. There was Ray, my mom’s boyfriend, but then there were these huge guys with wolves for pets that tagged along with Shane’s mother. And Ray would get really drunk and cry on the back porch and sometimes my mom would kick him out.”
Cliff’s hands clench and unclench around the wheel, his mind skimming over its own history.
“Shane had the gun,” he says again. “And so, obviously, we had to go shoot some stuff.”
“Obviously.” I pick the chip off Cliff’s shirt.
“Neither of us could drive yet. Shane put the BB gun in a duffle bag and we got on a bus out of town, this bus that went to the edge of a housing development. You could walk straight into nowhere after the last house ended.”
“You were ten?”
For a woman who soothed dying people for a living, who saw that life was temporary, Cliff’s mother, Connie, was surprisingly oblivious to danger. She dated men with gun racks, knife collections and special radios. Once, she rode on the back of a motorcycle wearing nothing but a negligee. I met her two years before she died, after her exotic beauty had given way to a muted and fleshy facade. She had the coloring of a Christmas dinner—ham and bread pudding, overboiled green beans. But photos of her young capture sharp shoulders and lithe arms, a butt poured into dark denim. In a few she winks, as if she knows a secret.
“Shane wanted to shoot lizards. So we did. We shot maybe six of them. They were sunning on the rocks and we just picked them off. I don’t think we missed even one.” It’s odd he doesn’t cringe, this man who softens over the sight of a gopher smeared like jam over the asphalt.
“And then, the weird part,” Cliff said. “Shane wanted me to take the gun. He put it in my hands and he dared me to shoot my own foot. I said no. He said it would feel good. I asked him if he’d done it, shot his own foot. And Shane pulled up his pant leg and showed me a whole mess of scars, a million tiny white bumps and lines.” He reaches for the chips, but changes his mind. “Do you have any gum?” he asks. I don’t. “Water?” he asks. I hand him my Nalgene. He drinks for what seems like a long time.
“And then?” I say. Cliff takes another swig of water and wedges the bottle between his thighs. He taps his thumbs on the wheel and curls his lips around his teeth. He sits there lipless, remembering.
“Shane got really intense. He took my hand and tried to force me to shoot myself. I didn’t want to do it, but I was only ten and I wasn’t as strong as him. Finally he managed to get me pinned beneath him, but he couldn’t hold me down and make me shoot at the same time. The gun was actually a little ways off in the dirt. Shane said he’d only let me go if I shot him. I haven’t ever told anyone this,” he says. “It’s not really a story.”
“Well, I want to know what happens. Did you shoot him in the leg?”
“Yes,” Cliff says. He curls his lips around his teeth again.
“You shot him in the leg.”
I defrost Cliff from old photos I’ve seen of his childhood. He’s in a yellow soccer jersey and he’s grinning, smashing his eyes to slits, a front tooth cockeyed, his cowlicks untamed. I try adding a gun to the visual, but as soon as I do, the whole thing collapses.
“I shot him in the leg. He picked up the gun and handed it to me then he turned around. I got him in the back of the calf.” Cliff hunches his shoulders.
I’m about to ask what it felt like, that moment the metal hit skin. But before I can ask, Cliff jerks the wheel to the right to take a turn. “Is this what we’re looking for?” he asks. Indeed, a green sign points the way. The car flies over a series of potholes, causing us both to jolt forward.
“Slow down,” I say.
“No kidding,” he says. “Anyway. Shane wanted me to touch his bleeding calf. He grabbed my hand. He just kept staring at me, like in a creepy way, romantic, sort of, like he was going to lean in. And he was holding my hand. So finally, I took a rock and punched him with it.”
I can tell this is the part of the story, more than the gun, more than the creepy staring, that Cliff doesn’t like telling. One side of his face looks cramped.
“Shane didn’t do anything. He just let go and covered his eye. I walked back to the bus stop. I had no money so I had to beg my way on.” Cliff takes another mint. The hollows happen. An ancient van looms in front of us and Cliff slows the car. Someone has written bite me you cougar in the dirt on the back window.
“My mom broke up with Ray. She said he drank too much. And that was the end of Shane. We never saw each other again.”
“I wonder what he’s doing now,” I say. Cliff shrugs. “Do you think he remembers it?” “Sure,” Cliff says. “Wouldn’t you?”
And it’s true that these are the things you hold onto and don’t tell. Because they’re weird, the wishes people make, the things we make come true.
“How come you’ve never told me that?” I ask.
“It’s not the kind of thing you tell,” he says. I know what he means. I take my thumb and run it over the prickly hair on his neck.
“It’s not such a bad story,” I say.
“You got worse?” he says. I run my thumb over his neck again. “Bite me you cougar,” Cliff says.
“Do you know the story about the sibyl in the bottle?” I ask. Cliff squints. He shakes his head.
I tell him about her, about how Apollo wants her then traps her.
We sit quietly feeling each turn of the car. The fall has frozen the air. It has that particular quality of cool; it mutes the trees. Even the bark looks grayer.
“That’s a sad story,” Cliff says.
“There are a lot of sad stories,” I say.
“Why didn’t she just sleep with him?” Cliff asks. “He’s the sexiest god, right?” I roll the bottle back and forth with my toe. “What’s one thing I don’t know about you?” he asks.
I’m not as good at things like this. I can feel the feeling: that whirring sense of being unmoored by my own trespass. But the only memory I have, the only one that fits this game, is one I don’t feel like telling.
“I used to step on ants outside and then try to heal them with Children’s Tylenol,” I say.
“I once let a whole jar full of grasshoppers go in the living room.”
Cliff shakes his head. “I’m never telling you anything again,” he says.
“Okay, I know something. I had a Spanish teacher in high school, Mr. Lombardi, who used to always threaten to give me a bad grade. He said I was too quiet.”
“Hard to believe.”
“My friend Kelsie said to go and talk to him. She said if you went to talk with him, he’d be reasonable. Kelsie was an awful student, but she always got As in Spanish. Kelsie also had a big rack, to use your poetic phrasing.”
Cliff smirks and brushes his eye with his hand. One eyebrow sticks up, pointing to the dotted roof of the car.
“She was stacked,” I say.
“I get it,” Cliff says.
“But she was plain and none of the guys really liked her. So anyways, I walked up to the door and the first thing I saw was Kelsie and Mr. Lombardi in the corner near the map of Mexico. Then I saw that the map of Mexico was weirdly crinkled.”
“Mr. Lombardi had both hands up her shirt. Kelsie was sealed to the map, going up and down with his hands. And she saw me.”
“What a perv.”
“I backed up and waited for her around the corner. I said we should go to the principal. That year we had a new principal, a woman. I was excited to get Mr. Lombardi in trouble so I could avoid a C in Spanish.”
“That’s why I love you. Always thinking of others.”
“But Kelsie said that if I told anyone, she would never speak to me again. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone so certain, so—I don’t know—possessed. She looked like this.” I point to the lunging animal on the bag of chips. “Years later, when we were both home for Winter Break, Kelsie told me that she lost her virginity to Mr. Lombardi on his daughter’s bed.”
“Gross,” Cliff says.
“Yeah. She said she wished it would happen with him and it had.”
“She wished to lose her virginity on the Spanish teacher’s daughter’s bed?”
“So what’s the moral of your story?” Cliff asks.
“What’s the moral of yours?”
Cliff shrugs. “Don’t take the bus,” he says.
“I never took another language class,” I say. “Even in college. I stayed away.”
“Is that the moral?”
“Does there have to be a moral?”
I roll the window down. Clouds are creeping in from the west. My sister, Kate, says that every year, people from the coasts go into the Rockies, the Sandias, the Jemez, and they don’t know about flash floods or lightning. They bring cheese and specialty bars wrapped in foil, then wham, they’re dead. She told me this when she came to hike in these very mountains. It’s as though, by acknowledging this, she avoids that fate.
Does knowing help? Sibyls are supposed to see into the future. Couldn’t this one? When she said no to Apollo, she didn’t see herself trapped in the bottle, wishing to die? Or was that why she didn’t sleep with Apollo? Did she know that the outside world, from the captivity within glass would glow brighter and brighter? That because of the glass, the world inside of her would go vivid with longing and despair?
In the distance, I see a yellow stand of aspens, but the car turns into some thick juniper and cottonwoods and they disappear.
“Do you think he wanted to put something in or get something out?” I ask.
“Do you think the point was to make a scar or to let something out, through the skin. You know, like bloodletting.”
“Shane?” Cliff moves his head slowly in a no. “I couldn’t tell you.”
The wine bottle rolls under the seat and hits something metal.
“If Apollo gave you one wish, what would you wish for?” I ask.
“To not have to sleep with Apollo,” Cliff says.
“I might wish for a baby.”
Cliff looks at me sideways. “It would come out half-god,” he says.
“It would come out, though.”
“Yes,” he says. “I suppose so. But maybe through the crown of your head.”
“A baby for every grain of sand.”
“A baby for every turning tree,” he says, “and you would be one busy woman.”
And then there they are, yellow as a room of canaries. This is what they do at the end of their season—yelp this color into the desert sky, then send it scattering to the red ground. Cliff parks the car under a stand of them. I open the door.
“Look at that,” Cliff says, pointing to a rainstorm of leaves, sent sailing with a wind. His brow relaxes. In typical desert fashion, the blue sky of the morning has transformed to dark clouds. There will be storms tonight. The trees will go silver with winter.
Cliff’s mom told me about a client once, a fourteen-year-old girl dying of leukemia. I was sitting on the sofa after brunch, stuffed to the gills, watching a cartoon and she just told me, out of the blue. All this girl wanted was for a particular boy to come to her bedside. She talked of nothing else. But when the girl’s friends finally dragged the boy there, the girl wouldn’t look at him. She was embarrassed by the state of her skin. Then she died. Connie finished this story, slapped her thighs, and got up to clean some counters.
Cliff arches his back. “Let’s walk,” he says.
“It’s going to storm.”
“I know,” he says. Far off over another set of hills, the first lightning flashes. The wind moves slowly. The world seems to shiver under its big hand. Families in colorful jackets pack their cars, fleeing the mountains.
Cliff closes his door, but I wait, caught for a moment.
I try not to think about it, this one thing. The memory—even just a hint of it—makes my skin cringe all at once, like a sheet ripped from the line. I was ten when my mother decided to foster Derrick. My father had just left us—a trial separation everyone knew would last. My mother needed a project. I’m not sure how we qualified; maybe she lied on the forms, maybe she and my father had interviewed before he left. Derrick was fourteen, skinny and big-eyed. He’d been beaten up at the group home, probably because of his willowy build, the way his hands tapered like a girl’s. He arrived with a black eye and a brown duffle bag. My mother set him up in the room that used to be my father’s study.
In the first weeks, Derrick drew into himself like a sea snail snatched from its rock. And his silence lured out of my mother a warm, maternal heat. “How was school?” she’d ask him in a way that she never asked me, her eyes damp and curious, her mouth parted in anticipation. He’d mumble fine, and try and walk away, but she’d try harder, following him with questions about his homework, his school supplies, sports, and friends. She urged me to sit next to him at dinner, to ask him to go swimming at the Y. She assigned the two of us chores to do in tandem—planting a berry patch out back, reorganizing the pots beneath the stove. When he wasn’t around, she asked me my opinion. How did I think he was doing? Did he say anything to me about being happy or sad?
It makes sense to me now. She wasn’t playing favorites. She was trying to make up for the world’s bad temper, compensate for Derrick’s hard luck, put some pennies in his cosmic bank. She must have known, as I didn’t, that his mother wouldn’t get out of jail, that Derrick would spend the next years in a world of unstable charity.
Derrick stayed away from me as much as he could. He understood that he was treading on someone else’s turf. If I came in to talk to my mother while the two of them watched television, he’d get up and go to his room. Once—how this came to pass, I can’t recall—he let me sit on his bed and read the comic books he stored in the nightstand. He stood at the mirror and asked me if he should cut off the long floppy bangs that shielded his eyes. I liked him in that moment. I felt important—let into a world of older kids and their concerns.
My mother tried and tried. She bought him new shirts, the baggy shorts all the boys were wearing, even a skateboard. But she couldn’t quite get him to relax. He ate his meals quietly and rinsed his plate. He kept all his clothes neatly stacked in the drawers, his duffle bag folded atop the dresser. It was as if he expected, at any moment, to have to leave.
One Saturday, a couple of months after he arrived, she told me she wanted to take him out to the lake, just the two of them. Nature might do him good. I’d understand, right?
I went to my friend Jenny’s house, but I remember the feeling of that day so clearly. I was a ringing thing, a bell chiming out into a windy sky. Jenny left me in her bedroom, confused by my unwillingness to play, and I quietly ripped the tail off a stuffed squirrel near her bed.
That night, my mother tucked me in. I tried to tell her about it, that I didn’t feel well, that I’d ripped Jenny’s toy squirrel and hidden it in a closet. “You’ll survive, sweetie,” she said, and patted my head. I wasn’t even finished talking when she called me a trooper and left the room.
It began again, the feeling of being a bell in a big wind. I waited until I heard her close the door to her bathroom, turn on the faucet, open a drawer. The tile was cold under my feet.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Her mouth was bare of lipstick, flecked with the faintest white toothpaste.
I could have said that I missed her. That I missed my dad. That every penny I threw into the well at the mall was about them, about having them back.
But instead, I twisted my hands together. I said that Derrick came into my room at night. I watched her face contract, then loosen into a surface as smooth as a plate.
“What?” she asked.
“He touches himself,” I said.
My mother knelt down, staring into my eyes. “Are you telling me the truth?” she asked. I could have burst into tears, admitted my lie. I nodded. She tucked my hair away from my cheek. “Did he touch you?” she asked, her voice a strong whisper. I shook my head. She kept her hand on my cheek. She closed her eyes. Then she reached out and pulled me to her, smoothing the back of my head.
“I’m sorry,” she said, finally. “I’m sorry. Sometimes people go through things inside that they don’t show everyone.”
She walked me to bed and held my hand and the heat from it seemed to shoot directly into my face. “I didn’t know,” she whispered. “I didn’t know.” I knew she was crying, though I’d shut my eyes so tightly, the silver eyespots swarmed.
Derrick was gone that afternoon. Drawers and closet empty, borrowed bed turned on its side.
My mother returned to me. I got her back. She never fostered another child.
What did Derrick think when my mother drove him back to the social worker? Left him there with his duffel and an envelope of money? I don’t know if my mother explained her reasons, or if she simply said she wasn’t cut out for raising other people’s kids. In twenty-four years, we’ve never uttered his name—as if we can make him disappear from our past. As if by acting like the world can’t hurt us, we will make it so.
I’m still in the car. A roll of thunder, then a clap. The noise happens once in the sky, then silently with feeling through the earth. I open the door, stand in the cool wind. I didn’t bring a raincoat and within seconds, the shoulders of my shirt are soaked through. Cliff’s hair is flat against his skull. He looks out into the gray and red, into the yellow and silver.
The rain is loud, falling against the wood, the dirt, the trees, my face. When drops hit the dusty trail, they stay risen like tiny bunkers.
Cliff’s walking away from me, down into the trees. His body’s small against the bleak view of peaks and I feel a wash of gratitude—for him, for the air and trees. A clump of leaves lands near my foot, layers of yellow and brown. I grab a handful and squeeze.
The truth is, if I had one wish right now, if I could wish on a handful of leaves—for baby Josephina, eternal life, eternal youth, domestic peace, a love that would never stray from me, never end—well, I’ve listened closely. I know what happens.
I wouldn’t wish for anything at all.
I drop the leaves and lock the door. Cliff gets smaller and smaller. And then I follow him down the dust paths turning to mud, into the brown, silver and yellow, into the crashing storm.