by Erica Olsen
Finalist : 2011 Fiction Contest
On certain days in the city, a golden smog filtered through the streets, a kind of pollen falling on our upturned faces. I’d get glimpses—the crispness of possibility, the vitamin smell of a new $20 bill.
Derelicts stood around on the sidewalk in front of the Basque hotel. It was part of my job to escort them off the steps. Looking at them was like looking back into the last century. These men were daguerreotypes. They didn’t know what a city was doing around them. There was one with a magnificent head of hair and a curled white beard. He looked like the mountain man in the painting, all brown and gold, that hung in the old library before the renovation. His canvas clothes had stiffened into a kind of leather, and his eyes remembered the endless views from the high passes where snow doesn’t melt.
It was the other ones I was afraid of, the ones dressed normal. Get up close to them and it was fucker, fucker, fucker, walking fast down Market Street, or on the bus.
The homeless! Under my window, they worked for hours lettering their cardboard signs, while discussing the Bible in amiable voices. “Did you hear about the tower of Babel?” One of them posed this question to the other. It was news.
This was in San Francisco in 1999. I’d left Salt Lake without my belongings. At the Catholic thrift shops on Sutter I’d found some shirts and pants in my size, and a pair of shoes that were still shaped like someone else’s feet. Only later did it occur to me that these clothes had probably belonged to some young man who had died, and I was walking around the city dressed as his ghost.
In April the snow, I knew, would be melting from the mesa tops. I went looking for Prine, who I thought might be willing to drive me back to Utah.
I’d found a site, the previous autumn, in a little side canyon past the long house on the mesa. The floor of the alcove was already all dug up. Some of those holes were a hundred years old. The ruins were tumbled over. But the late summer rains loosened things up, and the artifacts—some baskets and a cache of unfinished sandals—were popping out of the ground.
My friends had gone back to the long house with a backhoe, and that’s how they got caught. They implicated me, but for lack of evidence, I was let go with a fine and a 500-word essay on how what I’d done was wrong.
All this time, I’d been carrying around some Polaroids of what I’d found. I liked to think about the money I could make, just by going back.
Prine was out at Ocean Beach, watching over his rods—five of them planted in the black, oily sand. He used to work for the airlines, until he hurt his back. Now he spent his days at the beach, here in the city, or down in Pacifica, fishing for salmon.
He shook his head in a mournful way. “That car,” he said. “I’ve got it parked somewhere. I’m having trouble with it.”
I was embarrassed to ask outright, but I was hoping he would give me the money for a bus ticket.
“Let me see those pictures again,” he said.
I fanned out my Polaroids. Nothing was the slightest bit frayed or eaten away. For Basketmaker artifacts that was as good as it got.
“I’ll come with you, but I’m not getting involved in anything illegal.” He wanted to make that clear.
“It’s all public land,” I told him.
“We’ll go, and then we’ll come right back.”
“It won’t take more than three or four days.” I could hardly believe I’d succeeded in devising a workable plan. What a beautiful vision I had, then, of these shores, the gentle licking of the green waves, and myself far from here. There was hope.
Then I remembered. “How are we going to get there?”
“A car will be the least of our problems,” Prine said.
We got off the Samtrans bus down past the airport, where the driveaway places were.
“Which one of you is the driver?” the man at the counter asked.
“He is,” I said.
“I am.” Prine confirmed it.
“Do you have a reference?” the man asked. “Someone who can vouch for your character?”
“That would be me,” I said.
“How long have you known the driver?” the manager asked me.
“I don’t know. Eight, nine years.” I had to think.
“He’s my brother-in-law.” The ease of this testimony surprised me, as if I’d opened my mouth and fluent Dutch came out. Lynne wasn’t my wife anymore, but he was her brother.
We signed the paper for our car—a white Saab just a few years old, belonging to a marketing manager who was being transferred to Salt Lake. Out of the printer came a sheet of directions to the drop-off point in West Jordan.
That was all there was to it! I had to laugh. In my mind we were all over the country in this car.
“There’s something I want to know. Why doesn’t everyone do this?” I asked, as we were driving out of the city.
“Most people don’t have the imagination.”
I did. In the canyon, it was likely we’d find a burial, with jewelry—shell beads and bracelets.
We were driving the Emigrant Trail backwards, reverse pioneers. The discards were everywhere, on the side of the road. All we had to do was gather them up.
In Winnemucca, the fast-food restaurants and motels had been built right up to the edges of the cemetery, surrounding the graves. That’s probably how it was in the mining camps.
“Do you want me to drive?” I asked. We’d stopped for gas.
“That’s all right,” Prine said.
“Well, I can drive if you want me to. There’s nothing wrong with my eyes.” I was taking some medicine to help me pay attention, and also, I’d finally gotten around to keeping a list of things I needed to do, as a high school counselor had once suggested.
But he didn’t want me to. So, until it got dark, I worked puzzles out of a book I found under the seat—mazes and jumbles, where you rearrange the letters to answer the question in the little cartoon. There weren’t any surprises on the road. Just nightfall—the sky pressing down.
I remembered a time from my boyhood, camping with a group from church, under mountainsides so high it seemed like someone must have built them, like they were dams holding something back. At night, through the tent walls, I felt them towering.
It was the same way with this drive. The invisible world was made visible, as we came into Salt Lake, with the mountains on one side, the desert on the other, the lights of the hotels, and the wide, empty streets after midnight.
“We’ll need shovels,” I said as we passed a shopping center surrounded by acres of parking lot.
“I’ve already thought of that,” Prine said.
In the suburbs south of the city, he pulled up outside a little house with a swingset on one side, and a tricycle and some toy vehicles overturned on the lawn. The television was chattering inside. After we’d been stopped there a minute, the porch light went on.
“I’m just going in for a second,” Prine said. “You don’t have to come in.”
“Where are we?” I asked.
“I’ll just run in to get Cody,” Prine said.
“Cody, Cody,” I said, snapping my fingers, pretending to place the name. But I knew who he was. We were at Lynne’s house. Cody was her stepson, one of her new husband’s kids.
Cody was in the kitchen, spreading peanut butter on bread and putting sandwiches in plastic bags. A backpack was leaned against the wall just inside the door.
Prine said, “I forgot you don’t eat meat.”
Cody waggled one foot at him. He was wearing canvas sneakers. “No animal products,” he said.
When I pulled out my cigarettes he caught my eye and held it. He was one of those kids.
“I’ll just go outside, then,” I said. But I didn’t.
“You could’ve told me he was coming,” Cody said to Prine. He had small eyes and a chin beard that stuck out, and he didn’t stand up straight. But I couldn’t think of what to say to him yet.
House sounds in a dim room, water running in the sink. The TV surged with tearful late-night music, and outside in the dark, a bird was singing its song. These sounds comforted me. None of them was my fault. I lay back on the loveseat at one end of the kitchen, where the table ought to be, while Prine and Cody went about the house gathering up supplies.
“Hey.” Prine was shaking me awake.
Lynne was there.
“Bill’s going to be home soon,” she said. She was in her nightgown, a plain white thing with ribbon woven in and out around the edges. She was putting things away while she talked, the way women who have children are always doing. I looked at her knees, and then at her hair, a straight, shining wall keeping me out.
She looked at her brother. “You, I’d expect this from,” she told him.
Prine had two shovels in his hands, from the garage.
I swallowed. My throat felt raw. I had a cold that I couldn’t get rid of, but this wasn’t one of my symptoms. I wanted to be touched under my clothes. It had been a long time, and I’d have given anything for that. “You loved me, and then you didn’t.” Did I actually speak or only think it? She was looking at me the way a snake might look at the skin it sheds.
But I was seeing her in her nightgown, and then, in my mind, her wedding dress, stiff with lace, a kind of coral encrusted on her body. And then the shroud, but I wouldn’t be around to bury her. The heat of love was streaming out of me. Then, like someone suffering from hypothermia, I didn’t feel the cold any more. I could take off all of my clothes. I could lie down in the snow.
“You waltz in here,” she said. In her hands, at that moment, she was holding a yellow dump truck. She looked older than when I knew her. I was sure I looked exactly the same.
Cody put out his hand, and Prine gave him the keys. So I guess he was old enough to drive—15 or 16.
She came out in front of the house to see us go. She’d put a sweater, a blue cardigan, over her shoulders, and the sleeves hung down over her arms. She shrugged the front of the sweater together, with one hand, as we backed out of the driveway. That gesture went into the part of my brain that knows indisputable facts. State capitals, which planet has the rings.
We drove through the night, through Spanish Fork and Helper and Price. Then we were in the canyon country, filling up at an all-night station outside of Green River. The big trucks coursed by, hauling away the dead, and dragging the sun into place for another day.
“Cody. How’d you get a name like that?” I said when he got back in the car.
He shook his head. “What?”
“You’re too old to be a Cody.” I had observed it. The West was being overrun with four- and five-year-old Codys, Tanners, and Tylers. He was one of them, but older. Looking at the back of his head, I thought: he could have been my son.
Prine was asleep in the passenger seat, and later on, Cody also nodded off. His foot was still on the gas, although the car slowed down, eventually floating onto the shoulder. We continued to move forward, while the canyon walls grew tall around us, like something we were dreaming.
“What? What?” Prine was talking in his sleep, answering his dreams.
I opened my eyes. “Is it a flash flood?” A roaring sound was all around us, like you’d imagine boulders would make crashing against each other. The car filled with light like an egg about to hatch. The earth was coming up with the sun. We got out and stomped around on the hard, frosty ground. Somehow we had steered off the road right up into a beautiful valley. Everything was red—the rock spires, and the ground, and the bottoms of the silky clouds.
“Do you hear that?” I asked them. Was this a sound that always accompanied the sunrise, and we just couldn’t hear it in the city with all the traffic and the power lines? It was coming from behind the rocks, then rose up over our heads.
“Well, would you look at that,” Prine said.
A helicopter was hovering, with a truck slung on ropes underneath, settling onto the flat top of one of the red buttes.
“So that’s how they do it,” Prine said.
“They could do it with computers, but they’re doing it for real,” I marveled.
We felt like we were watching a man land on the moon, the small rockets lowering onto the remote surface. We were witnesses.
After that, it felt like an afterthought to go up on the mesa. The road climbed, and the rest of the world dropped away. We passed, rusted on a ledge, the uranium truck that went over in the ‘50s. Then we were a thousand feet higher, in the pinyon and juniper forest. It was cold, and there were patches of old snow under the trees.
Prine was at the wheel. I sat forward, watching the mile markers pass at the side of the highway.
“Slow down, slow down,” I said.
“There’s supposed to be a road here?” Prine said.
“There is,” I said. “Turn. Here.”
It was just a wide spot between the trees, until we nosed down into the gully and up the other side. Tracks appeared, leading into the forest.
“Wunderbar,” Prine said, easing the car between the trees.
“What about rangers?” Cody asked.
“No one comes up here but Navajos cutting wood.” I was excited about the burial I was sure we would find.
Brush was dragging on the sides of the marketing manager’s car. At a clearing, Prine backed up into the trees. There were soda cans lying around on the ground, the lettering bleached off, and yellow plastic jugs where Indians had changed their oil. Tire tracks went everywhere, in overlapping figure eights. We set off on foot down one of the two-tracks. I wouldn’t have been surprised to come upon a little hut, a woodcutter’s or a witch’s, someone who knew our names and what we were doing there.
The mesa was thick with pinyon and wide-branched juniper. Between the trees there were deep, soft gullies that we plunge-stepped down. In a little while we came to the white rimrock and dropped down into the canyon.
I knew where I was. The big overhang. The ledge, with the tiny corncobs and the pottery that hikers had laid out on the rocks. There were two and a half small rooms still standing, and pits dug out all along the back where the other rooms had been. The Basketmaker level was underneath those.
“Okay,” Cody said. “Let’s get to work.”
Prine took hold of a shovel.
“What about your back?” I asked.
“My back is fine,” he said.
In a little while, we had three baskets sitting on a patch of open ground. But I wasn’t feeling like myself. My throat was hurting again, and maybe it was the altitude, which I wasn’t used to anymore.
There was plenty of wood lying around—mostly old roof beams, entire trunks of the same small trees that grew up on the mesa top. I pulled some of this wood together in the shape of a fire.
“Do you have any matches?” I asked Prine.
Cody said, “You’re lighting a fire? Are you stupid?”
“I’m cold. It’s this sickness coming back.”
Cody said, “They patrol sometimes from the air.”
“Oh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Something was sticking out of the loose dirt where I’d pulled out one of the roof beams. I brushed away the soft, pink sand, thinking it was a sandal or a yucca-fiber mat.
“Whoa whoa whoa.” I pulled my hand back when I saw what it was—some cloth, folded over, with a little baby wrapped up inside. When I moved the cloth, the baby looked asleep. That’s how tightly wrapped it was.
Then Prine was shaking out the blanket—a perfect square of light-colored cotton with a pattern woven in.
“This is the shit,” he said.
“I don’t believe this,” Cody said happily. He punched me on the arm. He would never love me more.
But there was the baby mummy curled on the ground, the years catching up in a rush, the open air shriveling it.
“A blanket like that is worth a lot.” Cody regarded it with respect.
“Give me that.” I took the blanket back from Prine and laid it over the baby. I felt the bones move, small and loose.
“We should rebury it,” I said, but even I knew this couldn’t be done.
Prine was sitting on the edge of the low wall, cracking sunflower seeds, a ring of seeds around his feet. Cody was wrapping things in newspaper and positioning them inside his pack.
“First we killed the Indians, and now we’re desecrating their graves,” I said. I’d wanted a burial, but not like this.
“You haven’t killed any Indians,” Prine said. “I haven’t killed any Indians.” He seemed to be observing me with pity.
“Hey, hand that over.” Cody reached for the blanket.
I glared at him. “This is the baby’s blanket.” I didn’t have a gun, and it occurred to me, for the first time, that Prine probably did.
“Oh, fuck,” Cody sighed, extending his arms like an embrace. Then he was rolling up the blanket, and there was nothing but dust on the cave floor.
For our actions that day, we would be punished. We would have no place to be buried ourselves, and our children wouldn’t remember us.
“This blanket is worth money,” Cody said, as if I had failed to understand some simple, basic truth.
I left them there.
The place we were working was no more than a mile and a half from the road. But on the mesa top, in the maze of gullies and the short trees, I couldn’t find our two-track. I walked through the trees, toward the highway, and came out past the spot where we’d gone in. I was walking down the shoulder when the white Saab nosed out of the woods ahead of me. I kept walking. Prine and Cody followed for a couple hundred yards. Then a car came up behind them and they sped up and drove away. When I couldn’t see them anymore, I crossed to the other side of the highway. I put out my thumb when vehicles went by, and after a while one stopped and I got in.
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