SEPTEMBER 12, 2007
The twinge caused by a drop in barometric pressure shot from Lee Ann’s shoulder up her neck into her left eye. Rain, the most cherished commodity in the Southwest, made her sick. She turned from the bedroom window, fell back against her pillow, and shut her eyes against black-bottomed clouds stalled over the east mesa, multiplying, hanging there, heavy and close. Of course, she would not curse such benevolence, for across the range wildflowers, grasses, and trees had extended their delicate arms, embracing the recent moisture after cringing in defense of a hot, dry summer. But enough rain had soaked the land, and the plains, mesas, and mountains were plump and green from downpours that passed through quickly, dumping inches all at once.
Following a two-year prison stint, Walker Walker returns to his family’s New Mexico ranch, where his pious older sister Lee Ann is busy caring for their mother, raising two sons, and grappling with unethical workplace demands at the county commissioner’s office. As Walker’s reckless life careens into Lee Ann’s careful one, a drastic transformation of beliefs, identities, and relationships ensues.
Alibi Creek explores the weight of sibling bonds, the healing power of place, and one woman’s rebirth in the wild and fragile landscape surrounding the small-town Southwest.
She sat up and hugged her legs and lowered her head between her knees. Eugene laid his hand on the base of her spine and they breathed in unison. She needn’t remind him that even gently rubbing her back increased her suffering. His hand rested where it was, its weight and warmth a comfort, if not a cure, and when he removed his hand the place he’d touched cooled as if a hot compress had been lifted.
At the courthouse, she struggled through work on migraine pills that had little effect, gathered her untouched lunch and sweater an hour early, and stumbled to the Blazer, parked between the sheriff’s cruiser and county treasurer’s Subaru, her spot for over 20 years. Shielding her eyes, she reached inside her purse for the key (always in the outside compartment with comb, nail clippers, and yet-to-be-filed receipts) and drove past Walt’s Mercantile and Art’s bar, across the San Carlos River onto Highway 14, the smell of co-workers’ perfume on her clothes and the sum of $346,000.00 wedged next to her eye, hovered over by three over-fed county commissioners. Her index finger found a hangnail on her thumb and she worried the thing the entire 30 miles to the family ranch—hills dark under low clouds, cattle facing west, no birds in flight. A shaft of light escaped through a crack in the gray ceiling and struck Solitaire Peak. Clouds bunched together patching the gap, and as if the lights went out, the land fell under shadow.
At the junction of Highways 34 and 14, she stopped to pick up the mail from one of 14 battered mailboxes nailed to a rotting pine plank in front of the Alibi Creek Store. Normally, the contents of 477-C could be retrieved from the Blazer’s window, but a Budweiser truck with its motor running blocked access to the boxes. She massaged her temples and forehead, 20 paces through the exhaust an impossible distance. Holding her breath, she leaned her shoulder against the door and pushed her way out.
Phone bill, electric bill, Vermont Country Store catalog, junk mail, and a letter in a regular white envelope with the stamp stuck on crooked. Return address: Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, Los Lunas, NM. Two W’s had been scribbled together, like a child’s drawing of mountains, creating a jagged line under Adult Prison Division.
Wind twisted her skirt around her knees and one by one, fat raindrops pelted her head, becoming a deluge in seconds. She ran for the car. Inside, the windows fogged as great sheets of rain lashed at the hood and pummeled the roof.
Peace. In the last two years, she’d obtained some in good measure. And for that, gratitude, for contentment depended on a predictable routine with an attentive, capable husband who managed the ranch, and two grown sons, one a cattleman, the other college bound—a trio that for the most part worked in harmony, as if each member had mastered a specific instrument, their combined effort producing a light tune played at a steady tempo.
Trembling fingers tore at the envelope. Large, loose script paid no attention to lines or margins, climbed hills and descended into valleys without punctuation, one long scrawl that ran out when the page ended, the last crunched sentence ending with Sept 29th. Already an inch of water had accumulated on the gravel lot, pooling under the mailboxes and filling the bar ditches. Directly overhead lightning cracked a cloud and thunder shook loose its contents, blurring everything beyond 15 feet. More lightning zapped the northern sky, the east, and west. The Budweiser truck flickered through the glittering haze, flashing for a moment as the great ark packed with creatures, she a dove with her mate among them, to be swept away to nameless and unchartered land.
In half an hour Alibi Creek, which ran through the Walker Ranch, would flood, leaving her stranded on the highway for hours until the water receded and she could cross to her house. Dinner needed fixing. Mother needed tending. The ranch’s entrance was two miles north of the store, a familiar route driven as easily through sleet, dust, and rain as on clear days. She could make it.
The letter fell on her lap like an anchor, preventing her from driving on. Lee Ann clasped her hands under her chin. “Lord, he’ll be home in just over two weeks. Make this time different.”
Could Jesus make out her words above the screaming wind and beating rain? Surely.
Five-thirty—time for Mother’s medication. She inched the Blazer up the highway, windshield wipers swatting on high speed, and slid onto the turnoff, skidding down the dirt incline to the ranch. At the crossing she got out. The lazy creek had swollen into a fast-moving, muddy river with tree limbs and branches rolling in the current. Headlights beamed from the other side and Eugene’s white diesel pickup moved steadily through the water.
She grabbed the handle above the door and pulled her body into the cab, dripping letter in hand. He touched her thigh, stretched his arm across the seat and looked over his shoulder, backing the truck a quarter-mile up the slick road.
Two houses stood an acre apart.
“Drop me at Mother’s,” she said.
“Get into some dry clothes first.”
“Walker’s coming back on the 29th.”
He maneuvered out of a rut.
“A letter came today,” she said, louder.
He stopped outside the mudroom. “I’ll wait here while you change.”
She opened the door. He didn’t want to hear. No one in the family would want to hear, except Mother.
SEPTEMBER 29, 2007
Walker winked at the security guard, pushed his hip against the metal bar on the EXIT door and pranced out of a two-year stint at the Central New Mexico Low Security Correction Facility, head back, yipping, imagining folks in Dax County reacting to his release. They’d grin, hands reaching inside their back pockets to confirm the location of their wallets.
First thing, after Edgar came to collect him, they stopped at Palms Trading Post in Albuquerque where Walker picked out a silver bracelet inlaid with turquoise and coral for his big sister, Lee Ann. Next stop Walmart, for a Coleman cooler and bag of ice. At Save-on Floral he had the girl cut the stems on a long bouquet of glads (Mother’s favorite) to fit that cooler without crimping a single bloom, leaving enough room for a six-pack of Corona. He ordered Edgar to spread his legs and set another six-pack between the old ranch hand’s boots, caressed the hood of the ’84 pickup, beat it like a bongo drum, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Destination: Alibi Creek.
Whooee! Blue September sky. BIG sky. Bigger than the ocean, ’cause even though the ocean was deep, it had a bottom. Using snorkeling gear, a man might study sea life spawning beneath the water’s surface, but a space ship hadn’t been invented that could scope out the heavens. The sky owned the sun, stars, and clouds. Its moon pulled tides, dreams flew up there and the sky held them all, with still room for more. God lived there.
Speaking of God, he was sorry. At this moment, he truly was. He did “borrow” that jewelry from Harry Simmons’ wife to cover the debt on some land he’d bought. And although he’d needed the money in a hurry, he’d been a fool to take the stuff to Gallup, hockshop capitol of the United States of America. No sooner had he got Chase Cummings off his back over the late real estate payments, state police had come a-knockin’, asking about the origin of the turquoise rings, bracelets, and necklaces at Big Boy Pawn. He explained he had every intention of buying back each item as soon as he raised the money. That didn’t go over with the cops.
But, hey, he was out. He’d lost the Cummings place, but he might get his hands on Ross Plank’s piece, a prize two sections not far from Mother’s ranch, and turn it over to a prospective buyer in Arizona, the name given to him by Pat Merker, his cellmate.
Man, look at those harmless, cotton-ball clouds scattering shadows over the Plains of San Agustin. Sunflowers bowing and waving on each side of the black highway. Bordering Arizona and encompassing the west central mountains and high plains, Dax County happened to be the most isolated region in New Mexico—7,000 square miles of wilderness, 3,000 people, 10,000 elk, and not one traffic light or fast food restaurant. In the last several years, retirees from Arizona and California had started creeping into the area around Brand, the county seat, voicing their opinions at commissioners’ meetings, organizing a Health Council, and instructing folks on how to conduct local events, their ideas on “improvement” upsetting old timers. Tucked in a fold of the Mariposa Mountains, Brand had been overrun by unfamiliar faces, the locals showing their disapproval by shunning greetings, refusing to indulge in small talk, and forgetting names. Walker, however, saw this small, steady influx of newcomers as Opportunity for Lucrative Creativity. He’d have a close look at Ross Plank’s 1,280 acres, figure an angle to get him to part with it. The old skinflint had moved to Sierra Vista, Arizona, 12 years ago. What did he want with it, anyway?
Skinny as a pencil line, flexible as a wet strand of spaghetti, Walker seated his hat so far back a sneeze might knock it off. He never strolled, but scampered, took steps two at a time, three if he wasn’t hung-over, swung around porch posts, jumped off fence railings and landed easy, lips sculpted in a permanent smile, no matter what the circumstances. Modus operandi: never allow a lady to open a door or struggle with a bag of groceries. Never let a man finish a sentence without topping his story.
At birth, his parents called him Gaylan, after his maternal grandfather, the name originating from ancient Greek, meaning “calm.” After six months, they admitted their mistake, for he never kept still. Green eyes darted. He scooted across the floor like a wind-up toy, pulling himself up on any object within reach. At eight months he took his first steps and never stopped going, into the next room, onto the porch, across the yard, around the barn, and down to the creek. Edgar, watching his father chase him around the place, tipped his whiskey glass and said, “Well, you got half his name right,” and dubbed him Walker the Walker, then just Walker Walker. Now a man of 42 with ropey limbs, cantaloupe head, big ears, and long nose, Walker wore two-inch heels to add to his height (5’10” with the boots). Extra tall hats, straw in summer, felt in winter, shaded silky hair the color of caramel candy. His presence seemed innocuous until he moved, then folks watched out. He jerked, leapt, hopped and sprinted, stirring up a mini dust devil all his own.
After three hours heading southwest, Walker turned the pickup north onto Highway 34, past a row of empty chairs on the Alibi Creek Store porch. Ahead, lumpy Bruja Mountain rose behind the west mesa, the Randall Range sprawled to the east. He checked the sun’s position—one o’clock, too late for the morning coffee crew, too early for the mail. Taking the corner, he leaned on the horn and waved anyway.
“Ain’t nobody there but Shelley and she’s probably out back,” Edgar said.
“When they hear I’m home, they’ll be hanging around all day tomorrow until I show up.”
A mile north he swung left onto the dirt road leading to the Walker Ranch. The pickup splashed across Alibi Creek, low after the seasonal monsoons, cottonwood roots like straws sucking up moisture, the water a silver thread looping through rugged mesas covered with piñon, scrub oak, and pine. Cattle grazed on strips of lush bottomland. An 80-year-old weeping willow draped its limbs over the dark cedar-sided house he shared with his mother, partially concealing a black walnut loaded with nuts just outside the back door. Directly south, the chalk-white stucco walls of Lee Ann’s place bounced off the landscape, assaulted by early afternoon light.
Photo of the Bosque del Apache in central New Mexico by Simmons B. Buntin.