by Ben Quick
Five-hundred feet below, between vertical walls of limestone, thin sandbars show here and there along narrow scree slopes, and chunks of bark and broken earth boil up in the greenish-brown current of the Rio Colorado as my son scoots back across the concrete neck of the old Navajo Bridge above Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, on June 1, 2007. We are at the midway point in the car ride from Tucson to Logan, Utah, where Sage will spend eight weeks with his mother before returning to me and the desert at the end of July. We’ve stopped so he can pee, but one glimpse of the bridge and he’s forgotten his bladder. He shoots me a look over his shoulder as he moves.
“Wait a minute, Dad.”
Passing through the Arizona strip—the northwest corner of the state, lopped off from the rest of Arizona by the canyon’s impassible abyss—carries me off to a place of deep nostalgia. In the early spring of 1997, after a year spent driving a delivery van and sleeping in the unfinished basement of my mother’s home in Pleasant Grove, Utah, I was hired to sell t-shirts and trinkets in the gift shop on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The two summers I worked on the North Rim, the southern boundary of the strip, the place where the land leaps from cool groves of aspen and pine to the gorge and the river in the pastel depths, twenty miles south of the Navajo Bridge, changed my life in an elemental way. Twenty-two, restless, and lonely from all those months among the teetotaling, insular Mormons of Utah County, I could barely contain my excitement the morning the employment offer arrived in the mail.
A month later I awoke from a night of restless sleep on wet duff beneath ponderosa pines just outside of Jacob Lake, the small lodge and jumble of cabins named for Mormon folk legend Jacob Hamblin. I was halfway up the Kaibab Plateau, within sight of the place where the spur to the North Rim breaks from Highway 89 and begins to wind its way up through rock-strewn meadows and dense stands of conifers to the edge of the abyss. I tossed my sleeping gear into the back of the car, cracked the skim of ice that had formed in my water bottle during the night, and brushed my teeth. After buying a cup of weak coffee from the lodge store and waiting 15 minutes for a Park Ranger to unlock to gate blocking the road, I started up the grade in my ‘83 Toyota.
The sun made its slow, warming creep through the trees, but the wind howled, and the snow along the freshly plowed asphalt grew deeper with each mile. By the time I reached the park boundary—30 miles and 1,000 feet in elevation from Jacob Lake—the curving, white walls on either side of the pavement stood at least a foot taller than my car. When I finally pulled to a stop in front of the broad log cabin announcing itself as the employee dining room and personnel office, I was cold, as lonely as ever, and unsure about my choice of summer work.
On the widow’s peak of that great and broken plateau, all doubts were soon erased. In those two summers the North Rim of the Grand Canyon became many things for me: wind swirling like ghosts through clusters of pine needles; May snowmelt rushing through nameless gullies in furtive rivers of light, pooling like mirrors in mile-long meadows, dropping lower and lower with each sunny day, giving itself entirely to blades of mountain grass, the first shoots of wildflowers, leaving behind a carpet of green; hikes with my new pal Sky Waters down the North Kaibab trail to Roaring Springs, sunning with books and sandwiches on flat slabs of fallen sandstone, watching tufts from cottonwoods skitter over water that gushed like thunder from bare rock and cut its way through the banded crags and pinnacles of Bright Angel Canyon to the inner gorge; late-night rambles with friends through damp hollows of waist-high ferns and glades of conifers, twigs and needles snapping under boots as we made our way to some secret clearing, the eyes of deer following us from the forest edge as we capped the night with a round of whiskey beneath stars and satellites and the wildflowers, the paintbrush and aster we picked as we traced our way back in the morning light.
Near the end of my second year, after the monsoons had scoured the land of dust and pollen and the nights became brisk, when half the crew had left for school or been fired and the tourists thinned out, when the aspens turned gold and the stock in the gift store ran low and the date of the first snow was thrown around as betting fare, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon became the place I met the woman who would bear my son.
I would like to say that some spark exploded in the air the first time our eyes locked, that we had the kind of chemistry that couldn’t be ignored, that we had something special. None of this is true. The truth is this: Cota was souring on the front desk supervisor she’d flown from North Dakota to see, and I was wounded and lonely. One drunken night I fondled her breasts in the women’s bathroom. The next night, she slept over. The day after that, she moved into my dorm room. Three months later, she was pregnant.
On the 1st of February, 1999, in Portland, Oregon, we waved goodbye to the benches of people waiting to argue speeding tickets and restraining orders, and walked through the doors of the Washington County Courthouse as husband and wife. We followed my father and brother—our witnesses—around puddles in the parking lot to my father’s black Mazda. Cota’s hair was stiff and cropped and a shade darker than the folds of the brown dress that covered all trace of early pregnancy and scraped the pavement like wet leaves. I smelled like patchouli.
On September 1st, at precisely seven a.m., after 21 hours of labor and two epidurals, in one final burst of effort from his mother, Sage Benjamin Quick tore past Cota’s perineum and issued forth into the whiteness of the world on the second floor of the municipal hospital in Minot, North Dakota.
That was nearly eight years ago. His mother carried him for nine months in her womb. She endured the stretching, the examinations, the 40 extra pounds in the heat of summer, the hospital gown, the dilation, the sloppy anesthesiologist who misfired on the spinal tap, the ripped vagina, the stitching—hardships I will never know. When she came home from the maternity ward the headaches were so bad she could barely stand. Not until late the next day, after a trip back to the hospital where a doctor patched the hole in her spinal wall with blood cells, could she move around her parents’ house without pain. And even then she was not altogether well.
Whether the postpartum blues, sheer physical exhaustion, something in between or altogether different, Cota did not take to mothering. From the afternoon we clomped up the thick wood of the stairwell leading from Cota’s parents’ garage and made our way through their living room to the converted art studio that would serve as our bedroom for the next few months—Sage swaddled and sleeping under a square of blue velour in the car seat that hung from my elbow—it was me, more often then not, who tended to the needs of our son. Mixing particles of yellow formula with water, sterilizing and heating bottles in boiling pots, rocking at three in the morning, bathing, changing shitty diapers, drawing cool wipes over raw skin, powdering and lifting up legs, sliding clean white fabric beneath, pushing close adhesive strips on plastic, and comforting our son when he was frightened: these became my jobs. And I enjoyed them. Yet Cota’s mother fought me every step of the way.
If her daughter was not going to be the parent she had hoped for, then by golly, she, the boy’s grandmother, would be the one to carry the load. I understand now in a way I did not then the rigidity of a woman’s role in certain parts of rural America. I know that her lot was not an easy one, that out there on the Northern Plains where the wind blows and the bars carry Grain Belt and the sky swallows all but the grass, she had given up on personal ambition, and any drive toward fulfillment in the greater world had been lost to her children and her husband’s career. Becky had been in college, going for a nursing degree when Walter, her childhood sweetheart and budding cowboy artist, found she was dating another man and rushed back into her life with a marriage proposal. That was it for her. She soon quit school, became pregnant with the couple’s first boy, and settled into a life defined by a throwback culture and a narcissist husband, a life that said boys will be boys and women will tend to the kids and the house. Power, for a woman like Becky, began and ended in the domestic.
I was the product of hippies. My mother always worked, and my father shared in the parenting. The idea that a man should step back and let others see to the needs of his child while he read the paper in the morning and went out drinking at night was as foreign to me as my insistence on changing diapers was to Becky. She lectured me on the proper way to swaddle and grimaced when I turned down her offers of help with nursing and baths. For weeks, the tension between us rose. I started calling my mother nearly every day with increasing hysteria. Becky soon opened the door to the studio, pulled Sage out of his crib, and took him regularly into the living room without so much as a knock or a question. I would look up from my homework, and she would smile, and I would turn to stone, not knowing what to say, feeling as though some vital part of my agency had been stripped.
On the afternoon I finally mustered the courage to speak, the sun reached through the poplars outside the sliding door and struck the hardwood floor of the living room in scraps of golden light. The smell of yeast from the kitchen grew stronger, and reflections of half-bare lilacs moved like fingers across the frames of paintings behind the couch as I made my way, trembling, toward the woman at the sink. Cota’s ancient labradoodle pawed an ear.
“Yes?” I could tell from her sigh that she knew exactly why I was there. I stood at the end of the counter, my bare feet inches away from the meeting of wood and tile that marked the entrance to the realm of pots and olive oil, dishes and knives.
“Do you think we could talk?” The tang of dish soap bubbled up through the yeast, and now the air took on the flavor of lemonade and biscuits. On the surface of the island at her back, bits of garlic skin, dry and weightless, shuddered in the breeze as Becky pulled bowls from water and placed them on a rack.
“Oh, I guess.” She had always been graceful, and by all appearances, much younger than her 60 years, but as I watched her now, she seemed to age before my eyes, becoming frail instead of slender, hollow instead of buoyant.
My mother told me I should thank her first, and I did.
“Well,” she said.
And then I said, “I feel like I need to set a few boundaries.”
She dropped a pan into the empty side of the sink, the clang of aluminum on aluminum echoing through the house. Then she exploded into tears and stormed out of the house, Hanna the dog trailing after her as she stomped through a patch of coneflowers, up the hill, and toward the road. Though it would take several years to fully fail, Becky trudging up that rise, for all intents and purposes, was the beginning of the end of my marriage.
Upriver, where Marble Canyon gives way to Glen, the landscape explodes into massive jumbles of chocolate hills and lines of high red walls. To the right, the Echo Cliffs trickle off in a low and ragged line toward the hogans, roadside trading posts, and stray dogs that prowl the wide expanse of the Navajo Reservation. To the left, above haphazard piles of fallen rock and talus and conical mounds of eroding brown shale, higher and more solid, stretches the smooth and seemingly unbroken sandstone wall of the Vermillion Cliffs. Afternoon light settles on the rampart, and in some places on its lower half the sun catches the sheen of leeching minerals and veils the umber of the cliff face in a translucent shade of metallic green. Here and there, pastel lines of lighter sediment run through the looming mass like layers of frosting in a cake.
Somewhere on the rim, 2,000 feet above the alkali and sagebrush of the House Rock Valley, white globs of condor shit seep down perches and collect in cracks amid junipers and piñon where scavengers with ten-foot wingspans scan the distance for dead mammals as my son comes hopping back toward me. The small bulge of belly presses the purple mesh and the number 13 of his Steve Nash jersey away from his body. He’s told me several times that when he grows up he intends to change his name to that of his basketball hero, and he’s taken to wearing the jersey over a tight purple t-shirt at least three days a week. When I bought him the Arizona Wildcat basketball shorts and the NBA headband and wristbands earlier this week, he started wearing them all as a combo package. He’s been checking himself in the full-length mirror every time he drifts through the hall of our Tucson apartment—dark bangs pushed up behind elastic and white cotton, his legs nearly hidden by baggy tubes of navy blue and red, the plum of his jersey matching nothing. When I catch him, and our eyes meet, I smile, and Sage smiles back. Out here on the Navajo Bridge, under a sky so blue it hurts, there are no mirrors.
With less than 24 hours and 500 miles to go until I drop him at his mother’s house, the only thing on my son’s mind is watching something fall from a very high place to water. He walks right by me, says nothing, keeps moving toward the tourists, small rock in hand. I hurry after. When he reaches a spot a third of the way across the bridge, he stretches his right arm over the brown metal of the railing, not waiting for his father, not so much as glancing over his shoulder to make sure the coast is clear, and drops his tiny load.
Sage’s face, only moments earlier a measure of tight-lipped determination and purpose, goes blank with expectation. He cranes his neck past the edge. I crowd in beside him, moving my eyes back and forth, trying to catch sight of a plummeting piece of stone no wider than a nickel. After a few seconds, I give up, train my eyes on the river, looking for a splash, a shiver of rings on the water’s surface 500 feet down. Nothing. A breeze kicks up, and I glance at Sage, his bangs drifting like black thread in the desert air. Still nothing. He steps back from the railing and takes off running.
“Stay here, Dad. I’ll be right back.”
We left Logan on a mild day in the first part of August 2006. After months of tense and sometimes hostile talks with Cota, she’d finally decided, following a week when it seemed like we were heading for court, to let my son come with me to Tucson, Arizona, where I’d work on a degree in writing for the next two years at the state university. I drank expensive tequila and cheap wine with friends on our porch the night before we left. We danced and flirted and hugged each other way too much. We spilled liquor on the concrete. Some of us threw up in the flowers. Some of us took off our clothes.
The next morning, I finished wiping down the window sills of the living room, crammed bottles of Lysol and a mop bucket into the tail end of the U-Haul, and strapped the wheels of my Subaru to the trailer I would tow. As I waited on the grass in the front lawn for Cota to bring Sage by—my hands black from latching and unlatching and playing with various trailer parts, my head sore from the previous night, my joints aching from all the boxes and furniture—I watched contrails dissolve over the Wellsville Mountains. I knew it was time to go.
That first Thursday morning in Tucson, before the sun had risen high enough to make the five-block journey from our apartment to the tiled roof and hummingbirds of Sam Hughes Elementary School an exercise in endurance, I registered Sage for second grade. As we rode our bikes down silent streets, for the first time, I was a true single father, no ex-wife living five blocks away, no mother a quick shot down I-15, no friends, no support of any kind.
We passed by mission-style homes—some tan, some brown, some purple and green—that spilled thick manes of bougainvillea bracts, pink and heart-like, over the lips of walls that hid yards I could only imagine. Some spreads were guarded by high hedges of living cactus. Others rinsed patios and stone verandas in the thin shade of palo verdes and birds of paradise. As we rolled down Third Street, the shadows of palm trees reached out to meet the spokes of our wheels. A lizard scurried through patches of light on a rise of cobblestone beside the pavement. Above us, sparrows flitted around a tree draped with what looked like oranges. I pulled my brake lever.
“Sage, check this out.”
“What?” He hauled up behind me, bumped my rear wheel with a knobby tire, and nearly toppled trying to move his butt from the seat and his feet to the ground. “My crotch is too long,” he said with distain, grabbing at the zipper on his cargo shorts.
“Oranges.” Having grown up in the Midwest and living solely in places with harsh winters since, my only exposure to live citrus were the trips to my grandmother’s condo in Naples, Florida when I was young. I found myself taken back to that time, to gusts from a storm that whipped drapes through an open screen door 20 stories up, to hunting sea shells on Sanibel Island, watching from a raised wooden path as gators curled through lily pads, my grandmother’s white kitchen, her scents of perfume and vodka. For Sage, there were no comparable memories. He had never been to Florida, had never seen a growing orange up close. He did not know my grandmother before her death.
“Can we pick them?” He filled with the simple fascination of seeing something new, something exotic. Forgetting the frustration with his hem, Sage dropped his bike and approached a thick bunch of spear-shaped leaves hung with three plump and glowing specimens.
“Can we?” He turned to me and pushed a shock of hair from his eyes to the nylon strap of his helmet.
“Well, maybe one.” Before the words were out of my mouth he thrust a hand into the green mass and yanked. And there it was, bright and round and, it appeared on first inspection, not anywhere near ripe. Still, it was an orange: rare, precious. And at that point, one week into our new life, with Sage missing his mother, missing his friends, having not yet started school, not yet beginning to fill the empty space with anything substantial enough to ward off the longing for the familiar, even the smallest discovery was pearl-like.
“Let’s peel it when we get home.” He handed it to me. I reached around my side and plopped it in a pocket of my backpack.
“Let’s do that,” I said, and so began our desert communion.
During our first few months in Tucson, when Sage’s bedtime came, the ritual often played out like this: at around eight o’clock, I’d harass him into taking off his clothes, usually mud-stained and splotched with ketchup or some other condiment by then. He would resist.
“It’s time for you-know-what.”
“Don’t talk to me that way.”
“I hate you. You’re the worst father in the world. My mom doesn’t make me go to bed this early.” And I know that I was easy on him because of the move. I couldn’t help myself.
“Sage, you can’t—“
“She’s nicer than you. She buys me better things.” I felt like asking him why he thought his mother spent so much on his a birthday present instead of coming to see him. Most of the time, I bit my tongue.
“I miss my mom.” Sometimes he sobbed. But as the months wore on, Sage cried less and less. He joined the chess club and fell in love with basketball. He began to trade sleepovers with friends from school. Our weekends filled up with boys shooting water pistols and movie marathons. We settled into a routine. Gradually, change nuzzled into both the tone and substance of our nightly negotiations.
“I’ll read you a chapter in Harry Potter,” I would say.
“We’ll see if we have time. You’re wasting it right now.”
“I need help.” He would raise his arms above his head and wait for me to pull off his shirt. With his toes, he pried his shoes from his heals and kicked them at the ceiling.
“Don’t do that,” I said, and he grinned. I unbuttoned his pants, yanked them down, and slid his socks over his toes. He took two steps back, ran toward the bed and jumped as high and far as he could, grunting as his feet lifted. Upon impact, the bed scraped across the hardwood floor, adding to the wake of gouge marks. Sage looked pleased with himself.
“Jesus, Sage. Scoot over.” And he would. I’d burrow in next to him, reach down for the covers, and off we’d go into the magical realm of Hogwarts. I could usually sense him nodding off halfway through the second chapter.
“Are you sleeping?”
With great effort, he turned his head toward me. “Keep reading.” His words slurred like warm soup. He yawned. When his breath grew heavy and coarse, I knew it was over. I kissed his forehead and trundled off, relaxed and ready for a few hours of silence.
By the end of the school year, Sage’s report cards were better than ever. He had more friends than free time. No longer timid with speech or strangers, he had become a young man, buoyant, and more often than not, cheerful and poised. It was obvious that something about his life suited him, something in the apartment, in the boys from Sam Hughes, in the order of our days and the ruckus of our mornings, in the otters and snakes of the Desert Museum on the west side of Gate’s Pass, the busyness of Speedway and Grant, the pork burritos of Chipotle, and the crook in the branches of the mesquite tree he climbed to when things got hard. In the grain of the front door he couldn’t quite close without a thud, the nest of wood chips he shook from each shoe after school, the blue oven of sky, and the cactus and gravel of the city, something wore him well. He had grown sturdy in the sun.
Sage comes charging back, smiling from ear to ear, his right hand clasped around another rock. Again, he shoots right past me. Again I know without asking exactly where he is heading and why. He wants to be sure he is in the absolute center of the bridge. He worries the first stone may have landed among the broken boulders on the river bank and wants to be sure it won’t happen twice.
That Sage, a seven-year-old with a mother who is neither dead nor imprisoned, lives with his father matters little out here where the stones fall with gravity and wind. Stones and people do what they must to find repose. And yet, I am aware of the alien space we occupy, my son and I. I’m reminded each time someone asks about Sage’s mother. Even in the post-modern culture of 21st century America, it is still enough for a single mother to say to strangers, “He’s an asshole,” and for strangers to nod their heads. Not so for single fathers, for men who love their sons.
After drifting back and forth for what seems like minutes, the second rock finally hits the water. Sage shows his teeth, does something between a jig and Mambo, spinning with his knees bent and his fingers in the air, straightens up, glances back at the spot on the river where the stone made contact, satisfied.
“Come on, buddy,” I say. “We’ve got a long way to go.” I walk back toward the car, motioning for him to follow. After a moment, he does. We shuffle over the gravel and past the row of blankets where the Navajos have spread their jewelry to sell, and then we are on our way—brakes grinding, just enough gas in the tank to make it to Jacob Lake, the two of us eating crackers.
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