THE ROAD FROM LA CUEVA
Ana’s shift at St. Joseph’s had ended. The road ahead was a familiar ordeal. At La Cueva, thirty miles from town, the battered cattle gate came into view, chained and padlocked on its cedar post. A late November snow had come, turning the road to muck. She had to get out to open the gate, slogging ankle-deep in calíche, then back to the Wagoneer to drive through, and out again, to shut it. It would be a hard drive to get through the ditches carved in the road and up the slippery hills. The last stretch was a bog full of boulders, curved and slick as turtlebacks. She was grateful her daughter Emmy was at home with Frank. If not for that, there would have been the worry of sending the Wagon into a slide, of crushing it to a coffin of twisted steel.
She gunned the engine. Mud ground into wheel wells and sloshed across the Wagon’s rusted-out fenders. She had to floor it to get past Henry’s concrete-block house, plowing new troughs into the clay. When it dried, the road looked like a seismic disaster. Even when the road wasn’t bad, there was always the problem of getting past Henry and his rottweilers. This time the self-named guardian of the gate at the bottom of the road wasn’t home. His faded green Chevy wasn’t in the driveway, which was good, since the Wagon careened across a corner of it, turning his well-graveled path to a churned, soggy hole. Ana squinted, searching the forest for the dogs. They hid themselves well in the dense juniper, piñon, and cedar, but she knew, at any moment, they could bolt. And they did. She heard them barking, then saw them, shadow-forms racing after her, snarling as she passed. She shoved on, losing them at the first bend. If she could make it up the hill, she’d have a good run at the waterlogged pit below, where a culvert should have been.
But there was to be no good run. The Wagon strained to get to the top of the hill. Below, crawling out of the pit, was a mud-spattered Volkswagen Bug. Kay Scudder, Ana’s closest neighbor, gripped the steering wheel, straining her skinny chest against it. The Bug lurched toward the Wagon in slow motion, balding tires grinding helplessly in the mire. Neither could stop, or they’d be stuck. Or one might fishtail into the other, or slide off the shoulder and into the ditch. The Wagon’s headlights lit Kay’s face dimly behind a mud-splashed windshield, a pale blur framed in its cap of limp, yellow hair. Ana jerked the wheel to the right, shoved her foot hard against the pedal, and managed to pull clear.
Kay’s husband Dean came into view at the next bend, slouching on the porch of their rotting A-Frame. Ana could just make out the shape of his arm in the darkness, curving to shelter a flicker of match flame as he lit a joint. Dean. Scudder. Like a bottom-feeding fish. Sometimes Kay’s bright yellow hair was combed forward, hiding brown and purple bruises just the size and shape of his fist.
Ana didn’t know what she’d done to deserve neighbors like this. It probably had something to do with the bargain price of the land they’d all bought. The only one she trusted was Margaret who lived farther up. Margaret didn’t have a house--just a motor home that shined like a bright nickel from behind the trees, a home shared with dogs, cats, chickens, a blue parakeet. She had no electricity, and at first Ana didn’t know how she lived without it. But later, she’d seen her carrying the green Coleman lanterns, had seen the makeshift stovepipe that pumped smoke out at sunrise and all day long in winter. The propane truck came to fill her tank every month or so, to run the little stove in the kitchenette. She did all right.
There was the water problem, though. Most of them had no wells and had to haul water in from Santa Fe. At least she and Frank had gotten a well with the land when they’d bought it. The developers said that doubled the price, but even with that, and despite the shape the road was in, it had seemed a good deal at the time. Five-acre lots facing east, mountains, plenty of good, raw nature. She believed she could make it into a home, something of her own.
Ana had followed Frank there only a few years ago, climbing after him when he walked over boulders big as elephants, standing behind him as he looked out over the ridge. Plum-colored mountains, snow on the trees, light clear as water. She had thought she’d never seen anything so beautiful, so perfect. She’d had faith, then. There was only a minute when she’d hesitated, when Frank said it was time to decide.
“What will we do for a house?” she’d asked.
“I’ll build it,” he said. “And I’ll fix the road up. We can blade it out, put some gravel on it.”
“But it’s in such bad shape,” she’d said. She had hated to argue with him. He seemed so confident.
“Sure, now it does,” he said. “But just wait. I’ll build a big house, and the road will be easy. I’ll get a backhoe, put in some culverts. You’ll see.”
That had been five years ago, and still the road was a sinkhole, no culverts, no gravel. There was a house, though it was unfinished. Some of the windows were still boarded over, and there was bare sheetrock on the walls, floors missing tile. Frank had laid the foundation himself, working his strong, wiry arms, mixing cement in a battered wheelbarrow until his hands bled. He built it on the rock that forced its way through the land like the stubborn roots of a Chinese elm. The whole forest could have collapsed in a mudslide, but that house would still be there, Frank’s blood holding it in place.
She pushed the Wagon past the Scudder’s, through the worst of the pit. It did a long, slow fishtail, then lumbered up and out of the mire, hauling itself over a stretch of bare rock and onto the short, graveled driveway that led to home.
The living room was warm, the woodstove blazing with a neighbor’s juniper. Frank didn’t believe in cutting trees on his own land. He used a poker to jab at the burning logs, glancing at Ana as she opened the door, his jaw set in a stiff, hard line. There were the chiseled lips, almost hidden by a thick mustache, the sharp blue eyes, brows arching upward. His face had so appealed to her when they first met.
“We’re hungry,” he said, before she had time to put down her purse.
A sigh rose inside her, but she swallowed it, pushing it back where it came from. “I’ll make something,” she said. She pulled off tennis shoes and rubbed the soles together, clearing the mud. It gathered and fell, clotted, onto a worn floor mat. She looked at Emmy, who sat on the piano bench, feeding a sock monkey from an empty spoon.
“What’s Dooby eating?”
“Oatmeal,” Emmy said. She held the spoon to Ana’s lips. “Want some?”
“Not right now,” Ana said. She opened the refrigerator. There was a bloody slab of elk venison, a bowl of day-old tuna salad. The sight of the elk made her gag, so she reached for the tuna.
“How’s this?” She held the bowl out to Frank, an offering.
“All right.” He put the poker away, lit a cigar, and slumped into his La-Z-Boy. When Ana handed him the plate, he picked at it with his fork.
“It has onions?”
“Sorry.” She went back to the kitchen, started again. She found a can of tuna, mixed it with mayonnaise, and slapped it on the plate with a rebellious twist of the fork. But when she carried it back to him, she put it quietly on a small, round table, next to his ashtray.
There was no “thank you.” Just the clink of his fork against the plate. Emmy reached up, latched her hands around Ana’s waist, and climbed, curling in her arms. “Rock me,” she said. She was almost five years old, but she still liked to be rocked to sleep, and Ana didn’t mind. She took her to the bedroom, escaping the steady sound of Frank’s chewing. She didn’t know why it irritated her so much, made her want to scream.
Emmy settled into her lap in the rocking chair, and Ana read to her by the light of a brass table lamp with a dusty shade. The book was Harold and the Purple Crayon, the one she’d read to her a hundred times before. She studied Emmy, her freckled nose, round blue eyes, the white-blond hair in loose, unraveled braids, a patch of it hopelessly matted at the back of her head. She was beautiful in the same way Frank had been as a child, people said. Her eyes, especially, were his. Emmy seemed to belong to Frank, just as Ana had been her own father’s daughter. Still, the child was Ana’s anchor. She loved to hold her, the solid weight of her as she pushed the rocking chair forward and back. Emmy was going to sleep, her head tilting back, farther and farther. She had always been easy to carry, but lately this had begun to change. Ana leaned forward and pushed out of the chair. Her back strained as she stooped to put her in bed. This was still the same slight, almost delicate child, yet heavy, almost too heavy to hold. She tucked a quilt around Emmy’s chin and stood up straight, stretched her back. Things wouldn’t seem so hard tomorrow, when she wasn’t so tired.
She looked to the new glass in the window, already smudged to gray by wind and rain. But she could still see through it--to trees that looked soft from a distance, to blue moonlight on drifted snow. Underneath the snow, she knew, there was mud, crushed beer cans, rusted rebar. But for now, the land was white, clean, like bleached bone.
The evening shift Ana worked at St. Joseph’s turned into a “full moon night,” as the nurses called it. A grandfather sobbed in the waiting room, while the mother told the story. He had backed his truck out of the garage, running over his two-year-old grandson, killing him. A Mexican woman had stabbed her gringo husband. He’d called her a bitch, again. One time too many. A baby was born too soon, the tiny hands pale, limp. The mother bleeding on the gurney, red stain spreading on the sheets, the doctors hovering. Ana observed it only distantly, rushing through her rounds, drawing blood in the emergency room, the cardiac unit, intensive care, the psych ward, gathering blood in fat glass tubes, for the tests. Complete blood counts, chemistry surveys, drug screens. This was her skill, the one the techs had taught her on quiet nights at the lab. Frank had said he didn’t want her to work--that he made plenty of money, she didn’t need to. She’d won that battle, at least. He said she could work for a while, until the house was finished and the road was fixed.
When she started the job, she couldn’t detach herself from what she saw: bodies, mangled and broken, the pale, sick flesh offered up to her needle. She took comfort in the company of the techs and nurses; they dragged her to Tino’s after shifts had ended, made her watch while they numbed themselves with pitchers of beer. They tried to get her to drink, but she wouldn’t. It was bad enough that she had to worry about what Frank would say if he knew where she was. They nagged her to play the tinny old piano at the back of the bar. There was a book of love songs inside the bench--a big book with a fat cover, drawings of ladies in long dresses, men in top-hats, faded valentines. Silver Threads Among the Gold, Red River Valley, Auld Lang Syne. The songs reminded Ana of her mother’s old radio programs, songs full of love and regret, hopeless. Still, she gave in to them. She secretly craved the attention, the feeling that they admired her ability to play.
Tonight, when they asked if she’d meet them, she said she had to think about it. Frank would be mad if she was late again. The last time she came home past midnight, he warned her. All he said was, “You know better…” The way he said that, the most terrible thoughts came to her. She never knew what he was threatening, but she was sure he would follow through on whatever it was. Sometimes she didn’t care. He could do what he wanted. But other times, like tonight, she didn’t want to hear his questions, his veiled accusations. Besides, another soft, wet snow was beginning to fall. The road would swallow her along with the Wagon if she took too long to get home. So when they asked, she begged off, promising to go another time. She knew she would come home from work to find them sleeping in his La-Z-Boy, waiting for her. One of his arms would be cradling Emmy tenderly against his wiry chest, and she would be curled against him, like a kitten.
Ana’s last patient was on the psych ward, a fifteen-year-old. He had sprayed gold paint into a paper bag and inhaled the fumes. His mouth and hands glittered like the paper art of a child, and his breath escaped in a haze of acetone. A filthy T-shirt hung from long, thin arms, and the eyes were open, unseeing, a flat, muddy color.
A man was writing notes in a chart. A man--a nurse, Ana realized. She cleared her throat to announce her presence, and he glanced at her.
“I’m here to get the blood tests,” she said.
“Come in,” he said, pulling the pale green curtain aside, starting to leave the room. Then he stopped, studying her. “Need help?” he asked. He didn’t seem to mind the way Ana’s eyebrows had lifted when she saw him. He probably knew by now how people reacted when they saw what he did: women’s work. She studied him too, his tall, lanky body, his face a terrain of well-healed acne scars. The look was battle-worn, but not unattractive. His eyes were hazel, flecked with gold, and a shock of long chestnut hair was pulled back in a strip of red braided cloth. He moved to yield the narrow strip of linoleum beside the bed to her, but stood waiting, looking at her intently.
“Thanks, I can handle it,” Ana said. She fumbled for her equipment, glancing up at him when she felt he had finally turned his eyes from her.
“I’ll stay for a minute,” he said. “In case you need me.” He moved back in, close to her. He clamped a hand around the boy’s wrist. There was no resistance.
“I’m Michael Woods,” he said. “Just started the evening shift.”
“Ana Howland,” she said, puncturing a vein in the boy’s arm, drawing thick, dark blood into a white syringe. he thought this Michael was feigning a casualness he did not truly feel. There was something in his eyes--searching. But she quickly shook off the feeling. It was silly. He had hardly said a thing. He was just being friendly, helpful, as anyone would be.
She tried to focus on the procedure, on how she handled the syringe, pulled the needle out, capped it, labeled tubes.
“You get many orders up here?” Michael cleared his throat. As if he wished he’d said something else. “On the psych ward, I mean.”
“I go all over,” she said. “Wherever they send me.” She gathered up her tray, turned to leave the room.
“I’ll look for you,” he said. His hand reached for hers. It was warm, chapped, and it held her hand tightly, for a long time. The grip made her hold her breath, return his gaze. It was a look that let her know he meant what he said. He would look for her, he wanted to see her again. She pulled her hand away, suddenly shy. He smiled, gently, raised his hand in a wave goodbye, and left the curtain flapping behind him.
She turned her attention back to the boy. There were too many of these kids, defeated, hopeless. She’d been like that. Young, crazy. But she always thought the rest of the world was normal, that she was the only one who gave up, who didn’t fight for something better. It seemed that way, growing up in her mother’s church. That world was clean, milky-white, flawless. She never felt good enough to live in it. And then Frank had come along, and she had the idea he could save her from it, or from herself.
From the time he walked into the blood bank where she worked, she had thought Frank was different, special. He was handsome, in a rugged sort of way. She liked that. And he was bold. He knew what he was looking for. In the beginning she thought she understood him. He’d gone to college for one year, and then announced to his parents that every moment there had been useless and boring. Like her, he was an only child. His mother had a college degree, but he identified with his father, who didn’t. Both Frank and his father believed uneducated women made better wives. His mother proved it by running off with a rich lawyer when he was in his teens. He forgave Ana for having a degree, since she already had it. As for his own education, he had gotten it on his own terms, from borrowed textbooks, from businessmen in bars. He’d worked odd jobs, building cabinets for a local contractor, welding, walking patrol as a security guard. He was working for a telephone company when Ana met him, and he liked to talk about how he’d taught himself to wiretap, how if he wanted to find something out, he could.
The plans he had for his life sounded real. He made Ana believe he was brilliant--a real man, like her father could have been, if not for her mother. The Frank she’d met seemed strong as hell, stubborn enough to do what he believed in, smart enough to know how to make it happen. Still, she had begun to wonder why she’d given so much of herself up for him. Her only excuse was that she hadn’t seen it coming. She hadn’t known she was about to lose the Ana Godreau yet to be discovered. She hadn’t known she’d end up as Mrs. Frank Howland, a person she had never intended to be.
Despite all that, he asked little in return for what he offered. Only that she live by three simple rules: family first, no friends (other men), and to follow any new rules he came up with. It seemed a small price to pay. He said he loved her, and she knew the moment he said it, this was something she desperately wanted. Lately, it seemed he was always watching her, to see if she obeyed. She hadn’t known, when she married him, how long the list of rules would be.
She remembered their wedding, the off-white dress sewn at the last minute, in fabric her mother Louise had chosen. Real white is for virgins, Louise had said, sly, vicious, in the tone she’d always reserved for Ana’s father. Since his death, she only had Ana to use it on. And it had been Louise who took Ana’s thick, wild hair and twisted it into a single, tight braid. As for Frank, his hair was slicked back, every hair in place, and he’d worn a tan polyester casual suit with an awful, green-leafed shirt.
In the wedding pictures, Ana’s lips were pressed into a tight smile, chin tucked in, as if she was trying to disappear into the high-collared dress. Everything on Frank was lined up straight, like someone had laid a yardstick down his back. The hands came together at a point just around his groin, one hand clasped protectively over the other.
Before the marriage, she hadn’t really known what she wanted. She had trained in lab work by default after college--it was something women could do, like nursing, teaching. Something to kill time until the right man came along. At the blood bank where she worked, she made deliveries, speeding everywhere, driving a cheap red Datsun from one hospital to the next. Blood-running. Her days were a drill of dashing from work to car to highway, to hospital labs, and on to the next round. She worked all night, drinking strong, black coffee to stay awake. She documented deliveries, scrawling notes in shaky letters and talking fast when the hospital called in the orders. She had driven the Datsun eighty miles an hour down the freeway, balancing the rushing of the blood inside her with the rush of the ride, billboard colors stretching outside the windows, flattening into amorphous streaks. She had never been with a man before Frank. Her life before had been ruled by her mother, and the church. And the church had made the position of God very clear. The works of the flesh are these. Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness. They who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Ana washed her hands with disinfectant, trying to mask the hospital’s smell--a nasty soup of iodine, floor soap, body fluids. She thought about Michael, about the way he had smiled at her. It was a kind smile, one that had stopped the frenzy of her work, if only for a minute. She wondered why a man would choose to be a nurse, would be willing to submit to the stares of those who thought it odd. She thought maybe he was like her, that he had done it to kill time, until something better came along. But maybe not. He looked like a man comfortable in his own skin. She turned off the light over the sink, wiped her hands. She thought about Emmy, imagined her waiting for her, fending off sleep until she got home. This was reason, at least, to finish up, to face the road.