Second Novel in a Trilogy
Saturday 7 May 2005
Heather’s lopsided ponytail whipped as she jerked around at the sound of crashing outside. Inside, squeals from the pair of red-throated lovebirds she’d brought to her in-laws' new house split her ears.
She was carrying a tray holding lemonade, a decanter of sherry, and four goblets from the kitchen. Through the front window she glimpsed the pile of gravel a truck was dumping beside her husband’s sedan—just as a toe hit the rolled-up Navajo rug Sissy had bought yesterday on the Plaza.
"Oh, hell!" she cried out. Plunging, throwing the tray forward, she shut her eyes and spread her hands for the fall. Tumbler, decanter, and goblets smashed against the living room’s Mexican tiles. The lovebirds flapped their green wings at the end of the kitchen counter. Their squeals turned to screams.
Heather hit the rolled-up rug as if to embrace it. The ends of the boa she’d flung around her neck flew straight out. Her wrists stung and her breastbone felt broken. Thank God I'm not pregnant! she thought.
"Little Sweet Pea!" Sissy—her mother-in-law—yelped from the chair near the sliding door. She rose and clacked across the tiles, crunching bits of glass.
"Good Lord," Heather's husband, Christopher, barked. Furious, Heather opened her eyes.
He loomed under the ponderosa ceiling vigas. One had split, cracking the new plaster. The creases she had given his charcoal jeans that morning—how she hated ironing—shone like the edges of knives. She’d love to rip a button off his collar so he didn’t look so damned plastic. Arms akimbo, he glared at her under brows combed before breakfast after gelling his crew cut.
"Are you badly hurt?" Heather's mother-in-law asked, kneeling to lift Heather's chin.
"Your perfume’s so strong," Heather murmured.
"Bill's preference, dear."
The helmet-like wave of Sissy Ryan's hair jiggled like jello. She'd had it done in Palo Alto for this mid-May, two-week visit to Santa Fe.
"What a klutz!" Sissy's peach-colored sweater and pleated skirt seemed so tasteful compared to her own nasturtium-splattered dress.
"Me, Sweet Pea?"
"Of course not you, Mother, Jesus Christ. Heather, come on, get up, you can do it. Mother, you, too." Christopher bent to take Sissy’s wrinkled elbow. Though Trujillo & Son had sealed his parents’ new retirement home—and low heat radiated from tubing encased in the slab—the coldness of his mother’s flesh made him shiver.
Heather felt tears smart as she rose by herself. She swiped them away and stared down at one of the rug’s whirling-log motifs, shaped like swastikas.
"Can’t someone quiet those birds?" Christopher’s father, Bill Ryan, called out. He got up from a pueblo armchair beside the kiva fireplace, marched over in tasseled loafers, and paused in the living room halfway between its tiled borders of donkey carts.
In the kitchen Pity and Merciful fluttered from perch to perch like giant, neon-colored moths as their screeches lessened.
"Kiddo, you gonna be okay?" Bill asked.
"Chris, did you bring some kind of cloth?"
Bill Ryan’s sole religion was ensuring patent rights for Silidyne Corporation in Silicon Valley, yet the back of his Mexican-cotton shirt displayed Our Lady of Guadalupe clasping her hands. His khakis wrapped a home-exerciser-hardened belly.
Though his mustache was white, brows black as Christopher’s dropped as Bill Ryan threw out his hand. "Anything to shut the damn things up. I gotta go see what damage that bozo is doing outside. Go on and get one of your mother’s dish towels, Chris."
Fuck you, Dad, Christopher thought. He strode past the dining table into the kitchen in the black-leather boots he loved to wear on days off. He ducked under pots dangling from an iron frame suspended between two rafters. A chicken ready for roasting sat on the granite next to the double sink. In the cabinet under the counter, he yanked open drawer after hand-tooled drawer.
While Sissy helped Heather to stand, Bill depressed the latch of the door he’d commissioned a santero to incise with Saint Peter waving a key to the Kingdom. He hauled the heavy oak inward and clicked onto the flags of the portal, sweeping fingers through his thick, white mane.
A cement truck fifty yards away, barrel revolving, chugged out of sight toward Atalaya Mountain. The three mesas of Los Alamos peeked through cumulus clouds thirty-five miles to the northwest. To the southwest, housing developments glimmered in the five o’clock haze that had spread up from Albuquerque.
Armando Trujillo of Trujillo & Son, Contractors of Perfection, hunched beside his pickup, billed cap jammed on backward. He shoveled gravel onto the Ryans’ drive from the pile unloaded a few minutes ago.
Not gray gravel, you fool! Bill shouted inside his head. He searched for what caused the crash that had set off the birds, and gasped. Surrounded by fragments, the top of a shoulder-high pillar of sandstone lay in the dirt near his son’s silver-gray BMW. A hole gaped where something had sheared the stone away. The front of the mailbox, embedded to save it from drive-by bashings, now puckered like aluminum lips. Even two of the house numbers that Armando’s son, Tony, had chiseled into the pillar showed cracks.
Yet such a beautiful Saturday evening! Bill thought. The green tank that supplied water to Kullman College just over the hill rose between Sun and Moon mountains like a round casita. Closer by, a gust mixed the turpentine of chamisa with the honey wafting from lupine and yellow groundsel. Sunlight silvered the Ryans’ split-rail fence and the bottoms of cloudlets drifting overhead.
"Armando!" Bill bellowed, hopping down the porch-wide steps onto the red earth. "What’s what, here?" He retreated back onto the portal as the contractor came trotting, gripping his shovel across his Levis like a lance. A cottontail dashed between the two men into a tangle of juniper-piñon.
The old man yanked an unfiltered Lucky Strike from cracked lips that were nearly black. "Not a problem, Señor Bill. The driver with the gravel forgot to shift out of reverse. He will of course pay. I will talk to the mason tonight and in four days you will see perfection once again."
"But we don’t want gray, Armando! When I phoned you from California, I asked for rose. To match the sandstone, to complement the stucco. Rose-colored gravel. Not gray."
"I was thinking you might want it to match the street."
Bill’s chest muscles knotted while Armando leaned on the rim of a ceramic urn holding geraniums. He struck a wooden match on his boot sole, sucked, and blew out smoke. The wind took it as his tongue flicked the cigarette to a corner of his mouth. Letting it droop across his lip, he twisted his cap so that the words Brighter Days perched above his eyes.
"Okay, Señor. Rose gravel for you. My cell phone’s in the Dodge. I'll phone Enrique. You may see his truck before your guests leave."
"Don’t you let him hit my son’s new car." Bill felt thankful he’d tucked his own rented Lexus SUV into the garage. "You watch him."
"Not your son, you mean."
"You don’t mean watch your son."
"I mean watch your friend Baca!"
"Of course he won’t let the driver hurt your son’s car. That would be foolish."
"It would be foolish all right." Bill clenched teeth he’d had cleaned and foamed at the dentist’s three days ago. "Armando!"
He turned. "Yes, Bill?"
"Pick up that piece of insulation that just blew against the fence, will you?"
"It will be taken care of before I leave."
"Where’s your son Tony, anyway?"
"At the college with the librarian who’s helping him study for finals."
"But Sissy and I expected the two of you to be working today."
"All will be taken care of, Bill. Tony is on scholarship. He must pass."
A Townsend’s Solitaire warbled in the fluttering top of one of the aspens clumped outside the master suite, as Armando began to scrape the gravel back toward the pile.
Bill frowned at the graffiti that blackened the adobe perimeter wall of the hacienda across the street. He pushed at the front door and arced his left arm back to scratch. His hives raged like fire ants.
A bath towel imprinted with roses now hooded Pity’s and Merciful’s willow cage. Bill’s stomach growled as he spotted his family. They sat in high-backed chairs under the umbrella beyond the sliding door at the living room's far end. He strode past the coffee table on tiles now swept free of glass and heaved open the slider.
"She’s been on edge a lot," he heard Christopher say. His son poured a couple of fingers of sherry from the pitcher he’d half filled.
"I have not," Heather retorted. She flung an end of her boa over her shoulder. It landed on a branch of the plum that Tony had planted beside the row of Apache plume.
"Maybe she’s pregnant, Chris." Bill poured himself some sherry and took the remaining chair. He scratched his shoulders against the white wicker, knowing full well that the motion would only inflame the hives.
"Wouldn’t pregnancy be a relief!" Sissy leaned forward to grip Heather’s wrist.
"Oh, Sweet Pea, you see? I already forgot your fall—but what if there’s new life forming?"
"Not a prayer."
"Well, may we celebrate the possibility tomorrow at your house?"
"Celebrate at their house?" The sores under the back of Bill’s guayabera felt damp.
"It’s Mother’s Day. Surely you can remember that. Heather and Chrisy are having us for lunch."
Heather grabbed one of the crackers Sissy had spread with Camembert. "Will you all quit talking about me in the third person? I’m sitting right here. Me." She raised her glass in a Statue-of-Liberty salute, finished her lemonade, and clunked the tumbler against the umbrella-table’s top.
"Rotter," Bill mumbled.
"Rotter, Dad? You don’t want to come?"
"I promised myself to do something selfish—pick up half-a-dozen floribundas for the garden outside our bedroom. This Trujillo-and-Son can of worms is stressing me big-time. They were supposed to be finished before we showed up. The driveway’s the wrong color, the mailbox pillar’s busted, the powder room isn’t tiled yet, the canales don’t have their copper shields, and I bet we have thirty windows with stickers still on them. Kiddo, sure, I’ll help you and Chris celebrate." He plopped his hand on her knee, making her flinch. "What great news. Finally, hey? What’s the due date?"
Heather shoved her chair back, rose, and clamped her palms to her hips. "Is anybody home? I’m not pregnant! Christopher lives down in Albuquerque at the Labs. You get it?" She yanked at her ponytail, glared at her father-in-law, mother-in-law, and husband—then sat and hopped her chair close to the table again.
"Embarrassing me feels good, does it? Got any more dirty laundry to spread?" The belly muscles that Christopher worked hard to sculpt at Jan & Gerry’s Gym clenched.
No one spoke until finally Christopher said, "Looks like I’m up for promotion."
"Oh, Chrisy!" Sissy closed her glossed lips, opened them, and closed them as her hand flew to one of her small breasts.
"Good for you, Chris," Bill said. "What’s the assignment? Years ago I helped Silidyne draw up an agreement with your Cholla Labs to develop a computer ten times faster than anything our country had."
Christopher raked fingertips through his crew cut. "I’m moving out of radioactive-dispersal-device identification—"
"Out of what, Chrisy?"
"Dirty bombs, Mother. I’ve told you before. Mixing conventional explosives with nuclear wastes can poison a whole neighborhood. The only cleanup possible is to bulldoze everything in sight. Those babies fit in a suitcase."
"You know I try to forget whatever you tell me about terrorism as fast as I can, Chrisy. My heart won’t take it."
"You better thank God for people like me, Mother. At the end of the month the Labs are moving me to the International Advisory Center half a mile away. Section Two Manager running a team of eight."
"Doing what, son? God blast it, I’m hungry. Sis! Can’t you and Heather get that chicken going?"
"In a moment. I want to hear the news."
"You and my parents want grandchildren," Heather blurted, "and now your son may end up in Iraq."
Christopher twisted to face her. "What I said was that the IAC—"
"The what, Chrisy?"
"The International Advisory Center launched a branch in Lebanon in the late nineties. Now we’re thinking we can rebuild elements of Iraq’s science infrastructure from there. It doesn’t mean I’ll have to go over—we can do a lot by satellite."
"Such as what, Chris?"
"Nonproliferation technology training, beefing up our monitoring capabilities. Look, I’ve already said too much."
"We’re grateful you’re doing what you can to keep the nukes from spreading, son. Though I doubt this conference coming up at the UN is going to see much happen except whoring and drinking. And who gives a rat’s ass? If contamination from Los Alamos doesn’t do us in, something’s going to. How about global warming? Bioterrorism. Cyberterrorism. Collision with an asteroid. An accelerator-generated shower of quarks that turns all the atoms in the universe into strange matter."
"Billy, please, not again, not just before Mother’s Day."
"I can’t wait until retiring at the end of the year to move out here, focus on roses."
"We know, Bill. Chrisy, you come help me, come along." Grasping his hand, Sissy pushed down on the chair's wicker arm, stood, and wavered. "This altitude unsteadies me."
"Are you all right?" asked Heather.
"If I stand still a moment. You stay with Bill. I need to speak to Christopher alone. With the new convection oven my thoughtful husband gave me, we’ll be able to ring the dinner bell by six. Chrisy, wipe the dust off the dining table first, will you?"
Taller by half a head, Christopher followed his mother inside.
Bill rose to shut the slider, then walked back over the sandstone flags. He leaned down beside a columbine’s fireworks to take Heather’s shoulders and look into her eyes. "It’s Chris who’s more on edge than you, isn’t it, kiddo?" His manicured fingertips dimpled her boa.
Get away from me, she cried in silence. She inhaled the fetid sweetness of the petit corona he must have smoked before she and Christopher arrived at four. His razored cheeks with their capillary maps jiggled a foot from her.
"Don’t let him get to you. The poor sap doesn’t know how lucky he is to share your bed. But we gotta figure how to get him into it more." His smile raised the hairs at the end of his mustache. He straightened, thrust his elbows behind him hoping to shake the ants from between his shoulder blades, and sat facing her.
"Cold, are you? Brief me on what you’re up to careerwise before we join them. Chris says last year Genesure paid you close to eighty grand; he’s proud of you, kiddo. Me, too."
Hearing footsteps on the path, Bill turned to see Armando planting his forearms on the back-patio’s faux-adobe wall. Its joints were whitening because Tony had neglected to veil its cement blocks in wire before stuccoing.
The distant windows of Kullman College's tower and dorms glittered like mirrors behind Armando's face. He twisted his cap around and down over his forehead, and plucked the cigarette from his lips. "Very good news, Señor Bill. Enrique Baca was on his way to a job nearby. He has come here instead. With rose-colored gravel. He and I will load some of the gray into my truck now. A backhoe will come up Monday to load the rest. No extra charge. Okay by you?"
Around the corner, gravel began to clang against the Dodge Ram’s metal bed.
"You watch my son’s car."
"De nada, Señor." He pinched his cap's bill and lifted it from the wavy white hair.
"That man will put me in the hospital," Bill said when the contractor had disappeared.
Heather pressed her boa to her chest. "We’ve told you and Sissy over and over that everything built here is botched."
"And you’ve told me that you love this place regardless. As I intend to love it."
"I do love Santa Fe. It’s our lifestyle that sucks. Genesure’s launching an antibody to knock out nerve-growth pain. So I’ll be on overload updating the Web site and writing backgrounders. Christopher’s always in Albuquerque and I’ll be flying to San Francisco at least once a month. We left the west coast to soak up Santa Fe's magic—the art, dance, music, all the literature. I want to write poetry, damn it, not biotech bullshit to cheer all the nonagenarians tottering around a one-size-fits-all world."
Heather brought a leg over her knee. Noticing Bill’s eyes shift, she pulled her dress taut.
"One size fits all?"
"Empire—American style. Chinese style in fifteen years. Though it’s true that having a separate income does build my self-esteem. Christopher wishes I’d spend some of the money to hire a house cleaner and go work out at his gym. No way. I’m saving up to retire long before I reach your age. Christopher and I live in a dreamworld. So what? Damn it, I’m crying again."
She dropped her head into her hands and started shaking. The end of the long ponytail flopped against her elbow.
Just then, a clamor of metal smashing metal came from the direction of the front yard.
"I knew it!" Bill leapt toward the gate that Armando had fashioned from grilles ripped off the old Truchas jail. Outside the patio wall he high-stepped through dirt clods Sissy had left. She'd been troweling the ground for wildflower seeds brought from Palo Alto. He ran along the path past the guest suite and up the side steps of the portal. Christopher and his mother already stood there gawking. Bill could hear the covered lovebirds screeching in the kitchen.
Chris's BMW parked beside Baca’s battered dump truck looked unharmed. Armando brandished his fist at a straw-hatted woman who had stumbled out of a Lincoln Navigator. He cursed in Spanish in the middle of the road while Enrique Baca waved a forefinger at her from near the pillar that encased the Ryans’ battered mailbox.
Her SUV—as black as the graffiti filigreeing the woman’s perimeter wall—sat almost out of her red-dirt drive. She and Armando had backed into each other. Her bumper pressed the crumpled rear of his truck. Their vehicles formed a dam across the street.
"End Time!" Bill cried as the goggled driver of a Miata convertible rounded the curve just east of the Ryans’ fence.
The woman gripped the brim of her hat and scurried back along the irises and beetle-browned piñons lining her drive. The fringed doeskin jacket flapped.
The Miata flew up off the yellow-striped speed hump, tire walls bulging when it hit the asphalt again. Christopher grabbed his mother’s upper arm. The brakes' squeals coalesced into a screech that changed to a head-splitting clang and tinkling of glass. Its top furled, the convertible skittered sideways into Armando’s truck and the Lincoln. The driver’s head jerked forward as his outside mirror flew off the door.
"Bat guano," exclaimed Heather, hurrying up the portal’s three steps. "What’s going on? Oh, shit." She jerked the hem of her dress off the nail head that jutted from one of the portal’s posts.
"What’s it look like’s going on?" Christopher asked, ignoring the ripped chintz. He hauled his camera phone from its holster, flipped its cover, and jabbed the numbers 911.
A pair of ravens veered low over a polypropylene bag marked Whole Foods. It bellied along the path bordering the asphalt.
"The way out of here’s blocked," Christopher moaned. "I hope the cops can untangle that mess soon."
"An hour should do it," Bill said.
"Good luck! This is Santa Fe, Dad. I need to be in bed by eight. I’m hitting the freeway before dawn."
"Did anything I said in the kitchen sink in, Chrisy? Tomorrow is Mother’s Day."
Armando stood talking to the Miata’s driver, whose forehead pressed the steering wheel.
"Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, I told you he’s never home," Heather said.
Glaring at his wife, Christopher squeezed Sissy's shoulder. "I’ll be back for your party in plenty of time, Mother."
"That has nothing to do with it."