Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Out of the Past

The town I live in, Henderson, Nevada, began as a World War II boomtown. A year before Pearl Harbor a British company established itself here to procure magnesium to make bombs to drop on people. The government encouraged people to leave Louisiana and Arkansas to work in the plant, and built them houses and a shopping center. We still have Army, Victory, Atlantic and Pacific streets downtown. Even after the war Henderson continued to be mostly industrial, making, among other things, rocket fuel. (Which is why we have perchlorate in our water.) Now Henderson is mostly suburban. It has a 1950s-style downtown, which is plain rather than quaint. Every now and then it appears to be a small inter-mountain West town, rather than a place that has been conquered by Las Vegas.
Which brings me to The Vat.
Where did it come from? Who left it? Will they ever come back? Is it perhaps the subject of a long-running property dispute/lawsuit so that it continues to flaunt its rusty industrial self opposite our brand-new Target? Am I the only one who ever looks at it, as I drive down Lake Mead, and wonders these things?
I don't know the answers. I just hope they never get rid of it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The same mesa twice

Well, it wasn't totally ego that led me to leave that last post up so long. I drove to Albuquerque and back and was away for about a week. And on the drive home, I took a slight detour. I saw an exit sign that said Acoma, and I remembered untold years ago, when my future husband and I rented a car and drove around the West, we stopped at Acoma Pueblo the first day. Acoma is "the oldest continually inhabited city in the US" (maybe) -- people having lived on top of the mesa since about 1100. But it wasn't Acoma that has always stuck in my mind from that day. It's the other mesa, the far one in the picture above, the one called the Enchanted Mesa. The story there, which is to a certain extent born out by archeology, is that the Enchanted Mesa was inhabited as well, until a storm washed away the handholds in the rock which enabled people to climb up and down. The people on top of the mesa slowly starved to death, while those left below went to live at Acoma. I supposed it's called the Enchanted Mesa because the spirits of those who died haunted it. Or because, as we might say today, "there's just something weird about it."
I know that's how I felt when we first came over the ridge and saw both mesas below us. I didn't know the story then, but I found my eyes drawn to that mesa as we followed the road down to it. And when we stood on Acoma during the tour I kept looking over at it. It seemed large and alone and bigger, more dominant than Acoma. I don't remember much about Acoma but I've never forgotten the sullen power of that mesa, sitting on the skyline.
So, on the way home from Albuquerque, I left the interstate and drove, bewildered, across the high desert, hoping I could find my way back, until I came to the same ridge, and saw the two mesas rising from the valley floor.
It wasn't quite the same. I guess in years of living out West I have seen a lot of mesas and they no longer seem as dramatic as they once did. You can't step in the same river twice and you can't see a mesa with the same eyes that you saw it years ago. If there was no longer a sense of mystery, of haunted power, about the way it stood alone in the desert, there was now unity and peace. Once the mesa had loomed on the horizon. Now it was small and part of the landscape.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The beginning...

I'm participating in Kelly's (of Kelly's Compositions) first page blogfest. Herewith the first 24 (and a half) lines of The Poison Hill. Run over and take a look at the others as well.

There had never been a time, after Gertrude had known David, when she had not believed that she would marry him someday. He had first appeared in the driveway in 1919, in that jittery spring after the war: an intense, upright boy who even in high school still tied up his books with a cord, who waited for her brother Louis at 7 a.m., rain, snow or fog, refusing all enticements into the kitchen. Nah, I’ll wait out here. Nah, I’m OK, Mrs. Leskow. He had called their housekeeper, Alida, Mrs. Leskow, and he repeated the gaffe almost daily, never acknowledging in any serious way that he had made a mistake long after he must have realized it.

That was the year that a chant, rhyming “Leskow” with “presto!” was raised whenever Louis crossed the high school campus, the year of his debating win streak, the year the Juniors ran the Junior-Senior Banquet (as they called it) as a Russian Revolution party and served caviar and borscht.

It was the year, too, that Louis brought home “Crazy Blues” and wound up the Victrola until the twining blues, rambling like a vine, climbed out and Gertrude found him dancing a solo grizzly bear on the Persian carpet, arms squeezed around himself, hopping from side to side.

No one else could understand their music. That murky wailing, those screeching horns! Their parents thought it was awful. And yet it was life; it was happiness; it was truth and justice and passion and everything else that had been locked up in the closet and lost. Thereafter Gertrude sat in front of the Victrola and wound it up over and over, shivering happily as the distant voice began again:
I can’t sleep at night, I can’t eat a bite…
’Cause the man I love, he don’t treat me right…

Even David, normally so scornful of everything, had grabbed her as he listened to it, and stepped her backward across the room in a kind of tango and dipped her far, far back until she shrieked.

Good Friday

Walking back from the dentist she had looked at the trees, just coming out, and wondered how many springs people had been looking at trees come out and suddenly the world seemed extremely young, a fingernail’s edge of growth. Spring was gray and unstable. It was miracles and tragedies – terrible events, anyway, that could never happen in summer and winter.
She left the office at noon. In the streets, along scaffolding around eternal construction, were posters for clubs, perfume, designers. Once, for a moment only, she had seen the world through the eyes of a saint, seen vanity in every single human desire – but only for a moment. No one could think that way all the time. The streets were gray, but there was color in the posters, and in the flame-colored tulips outside the Korean delis.
Church bells were marking noon. Some people climbed the steps; others looked up, caught, remembering the date. Beggars called out good wishes. Brightness in the air, and darkness in the church, and the choir triumphant now after many rehearsals, Latin on one side of the program, English on the other. The priest, high in his pulpit, preaching to strangers. The choir again. Soon the bells for one o’clock. No one would care if she came back late.
Now time was compressed again, and the world newly saved. Bells, and swoops of pigeons, and the entire city waiting for something as each toll rang. No gesture was needed, no words, nothing dramatic to bring out somberness in a civilization built on dazzle – it was already there, in the restless streets and the cries, in the pigeons flying as they might have flown up when the veil of the Temple was torn. The third hour began. People left, others entered. A new priest, coming forward to take up his assigned reading. The choir low and somber now. The last words spoken, the last note released. Left in silence, to go back out into the streets, still gray, still waiting, and the spring, still unsettled, still dangerous.
On the way back to the office she bought the flame-colored tulips.