Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
This land is dry and hard, and the wind can blow for days without relief. Outside the canyon, nothing stops it. Standing on my front porch, I can look through a gap in the canyon wall and across forty miles of greasewood and saltbush to a distant butte on the southern horizon. The land there is an arid plain, broken only by shallow arroyos, sandstone outcrops, and barren dunes. It is empty and open to the sky, offering no protection.
I was standing at my kitchen window drinking a glass of water when the truck pulled up. Visitors usually mean trouble, so I waited for one of the men to come to the door. He explained that he was the maintenance man at the oil well near Red Mesa, south of the canyon. The other man, still in the truck, was the geologist. The woman with them had wandered into their tiny residential compound late the night before, setting off the dogs and rousing them out of bed. She had been skittish and wary of them, but they had finally coaxed her into their trailer with promises of food and water. At the table she began to talk nervously, telling them that she had been wandering on the nearby mesas and across the desert floor for ten days, eating berries and drinking water from potholes in the slick rock.
They didn’t know what to do with her — they couldn’t keep her with them at the well — and they knew we had a phone. As she climbed out of the cab of the truck, I recognized her: she had hitchhiked into the park a couple of weeks before and stayed alone in our campground for a few days. She had been furtive then too, disappearing into the back country during the day and concealing herself in her tent at night. Other visitors had worried about her and tried to talk to her. She had left the park on foot, and when my roommate had jogged by her on the road and said hello, she had responded tersely.
“Up yours,” she said.
She sat on my front steps while we talked quietly above her. As I watched, she pulled her gray-streaked hair up into a bun, pinning it carefully in place. She was a small, frail-looking woman, with a delicate nose, famished cheeks, and deep-set eyes. She was wearing ragged cutoffs and a faded short-sleeved blouse, and her legs and arms were deeply tanned. You could have broken them like pieces of kindling. She turned on the step and spoke to us.
“I won’t go back. You don’t know how bad these last nine months have been. You have no idea. He had no right to do what he did.”
When my roommate came home in his uniform, she moved away and eyed him suspiciously.
She went into the trailer to the bathroom, and we could hear her opening and closing cabinets. I hoped she wasn’t looking for pills or razor blades.
The geologist and I walked to the phone shed. The Navajo police weren’t interested in a white woman, and the county sheriff didn’t want to come out unless she was a juvenile, a runaway. The state police finally agreed to pick her up and take her into town to the hospital for a checkup, and then to a halfway house run by a local minister.
We waited for them at the visitor center. She was worried about her backpack, which she had cached that day she had walked out of the park. She couldn’t remember where exactly — somewhere off the south road. I told her we would look for it. She was calm then, and she slid into the police car without saying anything.
Three mornings later, as I drove toward the south boundary on early patrol, I found her walking along the road. At first the truck and uniform put her on guard, but after she recognized me, she seemed to relax.
Someone had given her a nylon day pack. She was still wearing the same cutoffs and blouse, still looked as frail as she had looked sitting on my front steps. She told me she had returned to find her backpack. She needed it, she said, to go to Oregon, where she had friends with whom she could stay. Cautiously I asked her about the halfway house.
“Oh, it was all right. But there were a lot of drunk Indians there.”
She anticipated the question I didn’t want to ask.
“That minister guy said I could leave.”
I gave her a ride ten miles south of the canyon, past several places that looked familiar to her, until I was sure we had gone far enough. I turned around. She already had some food — an orange and some cheese and crackers. I gave her two quarts of water and told her to walk back toward the canyon as she looked for her backpack, and to come to our trailer for the night.
We stood then for a few minutes on opposite sides of the truck, gripping the sides of the bed, trying to talk, but our words died in the light morning breeze.
I told her again she should come to the trailer for the night. She nodded distractedly, her eyes already dancing over the desolate expanse of saltbush, sandstone, and dune, a landscape that struck me at that moment as utterly inhuman. She walked out into it bravely then, only stopping once to orient herself and turn to wave goodbye.
Iowa City, Iowa
A warm, sleepy Sunday afternoon. The sky translucent and pewter-colored, laden with moisture, with white thunderheads building. Under it, the trees, shrubbery, and grass a profusion of green: obscene fecundity. Midwestern spring.
I suppose I had packed most of my stuff on Saturday, although I really don’t remember. I think that was the day Lynn called and stopped by and we went to look at the apartment she was thinking of renting in Black’s Gaslight Village — a funky, ramshackle complex where a few Workshop people always lived. She was eager to enter the Iowa City literary community. I recognized that, and at the same time I knew I couldn’t go with her — I had exhausted my tolerance for that self-conscious way of doing business.
So Sunday came, and I was just about finished packing finally, and for some reason I called the other Lynn, my student Lynn: a bright, self-aware young woman; a fine writer; and a professed lesbian. She had short, bleached-out hair (she had recently gone through her butch phase), creamy skin; blue eyes; prominent cheeks and full lips; a young, athletic body; and a confident, breezy air. She was all of twenty-one at the time. I asked her to come over and share a beer with me.
When she arrived, she said that some guys in one of the dorms near the river had whistled at her as she walked by. She was wearing gym shorts. She seemed pleased, in a girlish way, by her ability to affect men. We drank a couple of cans of beer in my cavernous apartment — the shelves clear, the walls bare, empty except for my litter and the peeling furniture — and played tapes on my boombox. We walked to John’s Market on Gilbert Street to buy more beer. Along the way, she stepped out of the breeze into the vestibule of a thrift store to light a cigarette. It seemed an important part of the image she was cultivating. When we got back, we sat on the brown couch with the scratchy fabric cover and listened to more tapes and drank our beer and talked.
My windows faced east. The afternoon light that seeped through the trellis enclosing the porch was indirect and diffused, shimmering when the breeze shook the leaves outside. The window fan whirred softly, stirring the warm air in the apartment. A languorous afternoon, my last in town.
I don’t remember much of our conversation. But she had always given me good-natured shit, treating me like the wayward, aging adolescent I was, and that was the tone of our conversation then. She probably teased me, as she often did, about the gay guy who lived in the apartment at the front of the house. That year she had given me a Christmas card showing a line of cartoon hippos pirouetting in tutus and ballet slippers, with the caption “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.” “Just don’t show it to the guy in the first apartment — he may not be amused,” she had written inside. I remember telling her that she was the most talented writer I had taught, that she had “potential.” She already knew that, but she always liked hearing it. And we talked about law school; she told me she would like to go eventually. (She would make a good lawyer — articulate, feisty.) We talked to pass the time, to spend a last couple of hours with each other.
Given a chance, I think we would have grown closer over the years. But I was leaving town the next morning, going home to New Mexico. She talked that day about moving to Minneapolis or Chicago, magnetic cities for Midwesterners, where she already knew people. We had different beginnings and inhabited different worlds, but somehow, as teachers and students sometimes do, we had become friends, confidantes. She had written to me about how, several years earlier, she had been raped by an older man, someone she knew. She had told me about her itinerant father abandoning the family in Mason City, Iowa — a town, she was fond of saying, on which even the Rock Island Railroad had given up. She hinted about unhappy affairs, disappointed love.
She wanted my Joe Jackson tape. After mock resistance, I gave it to her. A going-away present, I said. And then it was time for her to leave. Standing inside my screen door, she fidgeted and glanced at the floor nervously as she tried to say goodbye, and for a minute I didn’t know what either of us wanted. She put out her hand to shake mine. I brushed it aside and put my arms around her and hugged her for a long instant. Her body felt unexpectedly light, birdlike, fragile. With my hands, I felt her scapulae; with my chest, her ribs and breasts. And I remember feeling very sad, knowing that moments like this never last, that separation and pain are the way of the world. For once I didn’t ruin the moment by talking too much. I simply walked with her out to my porch and waved goodbye.
She was gone then, quickly, walking down the alley and skipping across Dubuque Street, not looking back, disappearing into the green world, with the translucent sky arching overhead.
There are Indian ruins in this canyon, crumbling sandstone walls that were once thriving villages. A thousand years ago a Pueblo culture flourished here, and the canyon walls echoed with the sounds of Indian life. Generation after generation lived and died within the canyon’s rocky confines. They left us no written record; we know little about them, none of their names. The Indians buried their dead in empty rooms in the pueblos, in trash mounds near the pueblos, in cracks in the cliffs. There may be as much bone meal in this soil as there is sand and clay.
The Navajos in this area believe that the ghosts of the prehistoric Indians haunt the canyon, but those spirits normally don’t bother me. As many as a hundred thousand people lived and died here. The Indians are nameless, faceless. They’re ciphers. The numbers fascinate us, blind us to the reality.
A woman came to the visitor center yesterday afternoon to get a hiking permit. She wanted to walk, she said, where there weren’t any other people. Her husband had died suddenly one year ago. For several months he’d complained of worsening pain in his lower back. By the time the doctors discovered the tumors on his kidneys, the cancer had already spread. Two months later he was dead.
Late last evening, we sat at a picnic table and began to talk. She was an attractive woman, with olive skin and thick, shoulder-length brown hair, but her eyes were set in deep shadow. For someone so young, she had become a student of death. She was versed in the statistics of disease, fluent in the strange, impersonal language of the medical profession.
“Some oncologists think that cancers invade our bodies every day, but that our immune systems suppress most of them. Those last two months he lost eighty pounds,” she said softly, her voice beginning to quaver. “I figure he burned five thousand calories a day just lying in bed. His body consumed itself.
She had read Becker and Kübler-Ross, had watched a man she loved die. Until you live in the same room with death, she said, you delude yourself if you think you know what’s important.
Her husband had read about the canyon and had wanted to visit, but the disease overtook him too quickly. Now he was dead and gone, having left her behind.
“He died one year ago today. I still haven’t let him go. Some days I come home from work and expect him to be there.” She paused, considering. “I thought maybe if I came here — someplace we had planned to come together but where he had never been, someplace that isn’t full of him — I would realize once and for all he’s gone.”
She chose her words carefully, playing a game of verbal pick-up sticks.
Her mother called, worried about her. Her daughter’s husband had died last year, she explained. Her daughter had come to the canyon to scatter his ashes.
The wind came up in the afternoon, as it often does this time of year, the blowing sand and swirling dust devils driving the visitors away. I imagine she walked a few miles along the trail before she emptied the jar. I don’t know if she said anything — a prayer, a chant, a goodbye.
She left early this morning without saying anything more, driving home to the city to try to resume a normal life. Her husband’s ashes are already mingling in the sandy soil with the decaying fragments of those thousands of other bones. There will be no official record of her visit, of what she did. Her husband is, in a way, already as nameless and faceless as the Indians who lie here. And yet, his death has changed her life, and through her changes others. He lives on in the world, a continuing presence, a ghost.
Soon I will walk the trail she walked yesterday afternoon. I will stop where the trail crosses the wash, where the cottonwood trees are just beginning to leaf out, and I will perform a ritual of my own, scattering in the wind a handful of sand.