The Road to Enchantment
By Kaya McLaren
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2017 Kaya McLaren
All rights reserved.
Maybe it was the fact my feet hadn't touched real dirt in so long that I suddenly became aware of them when they did. Sure, they had been in sand not that long ago, but sand lets all things pass through it — water, crabs, and people. Clay doesn't. Clay holds what lands on it. This thought terrified me. I never did like this place and I sure didn't want to get stuck here.
Glittery glass shards from broken bottles littered the side of the remote dirt road. I stood outside the gate and looked over into my mom's world, into my past. Some things were exactly the same. For example, the old 1953 pink Cadillac still poked out of an arroyo in the bull's pasture like a fossilized dinosaur unearthed by the elements. And by "pasture" I did simply mean a large fenced-in area full of sage and not much else.
Señor Clackers, my mom's Toro Bravo Spanish fighting bull, had been her answer to a security system, a way to keep the drunks and thieves out, and he had just noticed me, so I knew I had only seconds to make my move. He was roughly fifteen hundred pounds of pure muscle that rippled under his shiny black fur when he moved, but at the moment he stood still, his head held high, sniffing the air, his regal horns reaching clear up to the sky. My mom had installed a system of gates so that the bull blocked a narrow section of the driveway when she wanted protection, but kept the bull out of the driveway when she wanted to welcome a visitor or go in or out herself. I quickly crawled over one metal gate and pushed another gate shut, blocking the bull from the driveway and allowing me to walk through safely. Curious, he trotted over to me, his massive testicles swinging back and forth as he did, the characteristic for which Mom had named him. Bull testicles were something I hadn't seen in my twenty-one years of city life and now struck me as somewhat obscene even though rationally I knew that was ridiculous. I took a step back, lacking complete confidence in my mom's aging fencing. Señor Clackers's long horns hooked forward as he snorted through the fence.
Mom's two dogs, Mr. Lickers and Slobber Dog, noticed us and began to bark and run toward me jubilantly, as if they had mistaken me for my mom, and I wondered what similarity they saw that caused them confusion — our frame? Our posture? Our walk? As they neared, they balked, as if they realized I was not my mom after all. The dogs and I had met twice before, but still, I spoke to them calmly, wondering how protective of my mom's estate they would be.
"Estate" was actually a word far too fancy for what lay before me.
I bent down to see which dog was male and which one wasn't, so I could remember which was Mr. Lickers and which was Slobber Dog. They were siblings and looked remarkably alike, built much like blue heelers, with four colors of fur all mixed in together, white paws, white stars on their chests, and white stripes down their noses. I let them smell my hand and then pet each one before I continued my slow walk up the driveway.
I didn't know how I was going to find homes for all of my mom's animals. In addition to the bull and the dogs, there were the horses, the donkey, the llama, and the guinea fowl. The livestock would be a pain to sell, but the dogs ... No one around here needed two more dogs. I looked down at their sad faces and wondered whether the Vigils farther up the road would take them back.
I scanned the nearly three hundred acres, wondering where exactly Mom had fallen off her horse and why. Maybe a rattlesnake had spooked it. Maybe coyotes or a cougar. Maybe it had been stung by a wasp or a bee. I would never know.
As I continued to walk toward the house I had once shared with my mom, the guinea fowl ran to get out of the way, eventually flying up to low branches on a nearby juniper. Their black feathers with little white polka dots littered the gravel. I picked one up and admired its elegance. Was I really going to catch all of these birds? No. Maybe I could advertise that I would give them away to anyone who would come out and catch them.
Since I had been here last, Mom had built a structure into the side of a hill on the other side of the barn. She had told me about it, but I had never seen it. The front was stucco with wooden timbers that poked out above the windows, and a hand-painted sign above the door that read, "The De Vine Winery." Behind it, the five acres of grapes Mom and I had planted had filled out, now striping the nearby hillsides with bold green lines where only small green circles had dotted the landscape not that long ago.
A white vinyl couch sat facing the large arroyo where coyotes used to hide, and next to the couch, sun shone through the green glass of an empty wine bottle.
And to my left was the house and garage, something between artistic and ramshackle that a friend of my mother's old friend had built out of straw bales, stucco, and salvaged materials. It looked boxy, even with solar panels sitting on the flat roof. The walls were fat with deep windowsills that I had loved to sit in, soaking up sunshine while I did my homework on cold winter days. Over the door was a stained-glass window he had salvaged from a church that had burned down, a window depicting the Nativity. It had been damaged so he'd had to cut off Joseph and the wise men, leaving Mary and her baby alone with the livestock and the Angel of the Lord. He had built a large frame around it before he had set it into the wall. Turquoise paint peeled from the wooden door and window frames. Near the door grew oregano, black-eyed Susans, and hollyhocks, an odd combination of survivors.
In every direction it seemed there was a doorway I was afraid to walk through, not wanting to see the archaeology of my mother's last day — the rag she'd used to disinfect the bags of the goats she had milked that morning, the rake she had used to pick stalls, the pans and buckets that were undoubtedly still in the drying rack, the clothes she hadn't laundered, her hair in the shower drain.
At once, a momentary wave of fever and weakness washed over me as my stomach turned. I dropped down on all fours and abruptly threw up. I had been doing this for the last two days and chalked it up to grief.
I sat back on my knees, looked up at the front door of the home where my mother's absence felt so wrong, where it was finally real in a way it hadn't been until that very moment. Then overcome by weakness, I laid down on the gravel, rolled over, and looked up at the sky above. It was clear and blue with only one cloud in it — a large bear that floated in the southeast over the Vigil place. A bear. My old best friend, Darrel. The sky seemed to be telling me he was coming, and so I shut my eyes and waited.
I was thirteen the first and only day I had ever seen a cloud shaped like a cougar in the sky, an animal that sneaks up on you from behind and attacks before you ever see it coming. I had seen it as I rode my bicycle home from the old brick junior high school through the maze of old neighborhoods and into progressively newer ones.
Only after I had turned a corner did I notice the very large plume of black smoke coming from the vicinity of my house. As I neared, I could see my mother in the driveway, sitting in a lawn chair roasting something over a flaming mattress. Neighbors peeked out of their suburban ranch homes to monitor the situation, and in the distance I heard a siren.
My mom had an extra lawn chair and marshmallow stick waiting for me when I pulled up on my bike. On the chair sat a bag of Peeps, those marshmallow chicks Mom put in my Easter basket every year even though for years now I had been way too old to be playing along with the Easter Bunny. Mom had speared one of the Peeps and something about it was a disturbing and grotesque sight roasting over the mattress fire.
"Hi, baby," Mom said as she pulled the bright yellow marshmallow off her stick, and washed it down with a swig of cheap Chardonnay. Then she put a hot dog on her stick and offered one to me.
I shook my head as I assessed the situation. To be honest, I wasn't sure whether Mom had finally slipped right over the edge. I decided to begin gently. "I'm sorry you had such a bad day," I said calmly.
"Your father has a new girlfriend. Surprise," she replied.
Seven words seem far too few to completely turn a person's life upside down, and yet they did. "What?" I asked, stunned. "Is he leaving us?"
"Yeah, he's leaving us, baby."
While I didn't want to inflame an already critical situation, I was furious and couldn't stop myself from saying, "You should have been nicer to him."
"Did you ever see me be mean or disrespectful to him? No. So don't be mad at me. He's the one who left. And I'm the one who wouldn't leave you for all the tea in China."
Unsure of what to do or say next, I scanned the neighbors' windows to see who was watching as I listened to the sirens of the fire truck get louder and louder, and waited for the inevitable scene. Just then, Ms. Nunnalee, my social studies teacher, drove up to her house across the street. On a normal day, she stopped at her house quickly to let her dog out before going back to school to coach whatever sport the girls were playing that quarter, but on this day she looked at my mom with wide eyes and kept driving. God. How horrifying.
Even though I was sure the engine was racing through town, everything seemed as if it was in slow motion. After what seemed like an eternity of embarrassment, the fire engine finally arrived. My mom's wiener was only half roasted.
"Hi, Monica," the oldest of the four men said delicately, while the others went to hook a hose to the nearest hydrant.
"Hi, Dave," Mom replied. "Hot dog?"
"Um ... Actually I just ate. Perhaps another time," said Dave diplomatically.
"Um, Monica ... You know we have to put this out, right?"
"Yeah, I know." With that, she picked up her lawn chair and walked into the garage, resigned.
"Sorry about my mom. Apparently my dad has a new girlfriend," I explained to them, as if that would make everything okay. Still stunned, I picked up my lawn chair too and followed Mom into the garage, where she then shut the automatic garage door behind us.
She began to riffle through an old box on the shelf, and near the top, found what she had been looking for: an old poster of Sam Elliott. She grabbed the hammer and some nails, along with her bottle of Chardonnay, and walked purposely to her room where she tacked Sam on the wall behind where my parents' bed had been. She took a long swig, then lay down in the pile of blankets and rolled herself up. "God, I smell him everywhere," she muttered to herself. "This whole damn house stinks of him." She fell asleep or passed out next. I wasn't sure which.
The next morning was foggy. Foggy in spring? Fog was typically an autumn phenomenon in western Washington, so this struck me as a very bad thing. And I knew what it meant — it meant that I could not see what was coming at all. But this much I knew about fog — it was never a good sign. No, fog never foretold good things, like surprise birthday parties. Fog was always creepy.
But after enduring a whole day of school being the target of all the day's — and probably the week's gossip — I wished the fog hadn't burned off so I could just disappear right into it. I hopped on my bike after the final bell and got out of there just as fast as I could, angry about the damage my crazy mother had done to my social life.
When I returned home, my mom was standing outside of the house next to a green pickup truck, all loaded high with boxes, wearing the overalls she always wore when she was doing a big job, and a red bandana tied around her head to keep her hair out of her face.
"Hi, baby. Get in," she said, like nothing was unusual or downright wrong. She took my bike and loaded it into the pile in the back of the green Ford pickup, and then with a rope, tied it to the heaping mound of our other selected belongings. "I traded in our station wagon today."
I took a deep breath and looked up at the truck. I had not seen this coming — no, not at all, but I figured we were simply moving across town to a different house — one that didn't smell like my dad.
Above the pickup floated two clouds shaped like geese. Geese fly south. For better or worse, I accepted moving was my destiny, opened the door, and stepped into the truck.
When Mom first pulled away, I simply felt numb. I didn't panic too much right away, figuring that my parents likely needed to sell the house and each get smaller, less expensive places. But then Mom turned right instead of left, and we began to drive in the wrong direction.
"May I ask where we're going?" I asked.
"New Mexico," Mom answered.
Shocked, I had to verify that I had indeed heard correctly. "New Mexico?"
"A friend of an old friend of mine bought some cheap land there long ago, and built a small house on it that's off the grid. Do you know what that means? It means no power lines or phone lines go to it. It has solar power. How about that? We're going to be completely self-reliant. Anyway, now that guy is on to other things so he offered to sell it to me for a song and carry the contract, which is great because I would never qualify for a loan."
"It's beautiful. I've seen pictures. Georgia O'Keeffe country."
"Am I going to see Dad again?"
"Of course. He'll fly out and visit you. Or maybe he'll send you plane tickets so you can fly back and visit him."
"So, wait. I'm going from seeing Dad every day to seeing him what — once or twice a year?"
"We both are," Mom answered plainly.
"And there's no phone so I can't even talk to him?"
"Nope. Sorry. Maybe he'll send you a phone card so you can call him from a pay phone sometimes. Write him a letter and suggest that."
Panic rose up in my chest through my throat, but I tempered it in my mouth because I always got further with Mom when I used a calm, big-girl voice. "I can't believe you're taking me this far from him."
"I can't believe he didn't value his family enough to keep it in his pants," she retorted.
I buried my face in my hands. This couldn't really be happening. It made no sense — except that when I looked at my mother, it kind of did. She would not be an easy person to live with. After all, she didn't seem to care very much about what other people wanted and she definitely drank too much. "You drove him away. You're the reason he left me."
My mother turned and looked at me, at first angry, and then she softened a little bit — enough to go back to looking at the road anyway. She didn't reply. We drove in silence, with the exception of Mom occasionally asking me whether I needed her to pull over at a rest stop or whether I was hungry. I would answer with a nod or by shaking my head.
As each hour passed, I felt the growing distance acutely. My sense of severing overwhelmed me. Sometimes tears would escape as I looked out the passenger-side window. After I wiped them away, my mother would look over as if to say, "Stop it," and it fueled my silence.
The green forests and pastures along the I-5 corridor in Washington led south to Oregon. And the cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge gave way to open desert and golden wheat country. We passed the Blue Mountains and the Wallowas of northeast Oregon, drove over the Snake River and into farmlands of Idaho. Each change in topography was one more world apart I was from my home, my dad, and my friends.
Somewhere around midnight, we pulled into a Motel 6 in Boise, brushed our teeth, and fell asleep in silence.
And the next day, no apologies or comfort were offered either. Farmland turned to ranchland. Little junipers sprung up in the high country between Idaho and Utah. Then, on our left, the Wasatch Mountains towered above the Great Salt Lake on our right.
As the afternoon crept on, we crossed the mountains and entered a land completely alien to me. Eastern Utah stretched out before us, so vast I could see all the way across it to Colorado. The mesas with their flat tops rose over carved canyons, and the whole country seemed painted in shades of tan, pink, gray, and orange. It appeared as if almost nothing lived there. Such lonely country, I thought. As we drove south to Moab, the rocks and cliffs actually glowed like amber coals. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren. Copyright © 2017 Kaya McLaren. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.