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Monday, 24 December 2012

Acoma Pueblo. It was my first visit there that inspired this story.

  

SKY CITY


We were still living up on the mesa when I first met him.  We`d been there about two years, I guess.  Evelina was already threatening to take Bird and go home to her folks.  They`d all said from the start we were crazy to go up there, especially with a young child, but I still felt pretty rocky about things and I figured another spell of solitude was what I needed.

Evelina had been fine at the beginning.  She let her folks have their say and then quietly set to and learned to cook over the wood stove and sew by the light of the kerosene lamp.  I hauled water for her, and once a week we`d take the pick-up down to the highway to shop for groceries and she would visit with her family there.  Sometimes I`d call round with her; but mostly I`d find some kind of errand - maybe picking up a load of wood for the kiln.  Being an outsider I didn`t feel too comfortable around her aunts and her grandma and particularly her brother, Paul.

When they were through with fussing around with the baby they`d pretty soon start to ask how much longer we were going to stay up there and how we were managing with no electricity or running water, and Paul would start making jokes about me living like a goddam Injun. 

No, I guess I felt I was best away from all that.  The way I saw it I got enough of socialising with the other craftsmen who came up to the mesa weekends and in summertime to sell their blankets and jewelry and ceramics to the tourists.  But even they couldn`t figure me.  Soon got to asking me if I wasn`t nervous around so many ghosts and memories, and of course I had no answer to that. 

With my dark skin they`re inclined to forget I`m only one-sixteenth Indian, and even that isn`t Pueblo.  What I really wanted to tell them was I wasn`t too concerned with other people`s worries, that I could people all those empty houses with characters from my own imagination, never had given much thought to their ghosts.  But in the end I settled for pointing to the desert, to the still, silent buttes and canyons and the huge bowl of the sky.  "I guess I need the views up here.  For my inspiration," I`d tell them.

But they`d always come back to their own view.  They were all artists - painters and sculptors and weavers, all of them working with the colours of the land and its forms, but they all lived in comfortable apartments in Taos or Santa Fe or in modern air-conditioned places on Pueblo land.  So how come I had to be different?  I had no answer to that.

Yes, now that I think about it was just two years after we moved up there that he first came.  It was just coming up to Bird`s birthday and Evelina had taken her into Grants that morning  with her grandma to buy a new dress.  It had been a brilliantly sunny day, the way it generally is right in the middle of winter, and I was down at the Center, late afternoon, thinking about how we might as well close up early.  There had only been a handful of visitors all week, and to tell the truth I`d spent more time at home going through my stock than I had around the office.  I`d spent most of the day arranging all our pots on trays according to price - trying to figure out what we were worth, I guess.

I`d set them outside the house on a table, ornaments too.  I had the usual problem with my eagles.  With the spread of their wings I had a job balancing them.  I`d been experimenting with weighing the bases down with a spot of lead, but they were still too finely balanced.  The slightest knock, or gust of wind, and they`d go over.  In the end I arranged them at the front, surrounded with Evelina`s little fat quails.

About four o`clock I walked down to check with Shirley.  She runs the Visitor Center and sees to the parties who want to take the bus trip.  It`s her job to collect the fares and camera fees and hand out the leaflets.  I show then around.  I`d only planned to  help her lock up.  I wanted to take the bus back up with me and get my things inside before it got too cold.  She wasn`t sure about closing:  it was a little early.  But since it had been so quiet, and starting to freeze even before the sun went down, she said what the hell, and went for the keys.

Then just as I was about to get in the bus this big Oldsmobile arrives in the parking lot.  The guy parked it all aslant like he was in a hurry.  I figured at first he was lost.  We get a whole bunch of tourists stopping to ask how to get back to I-40.  Either that or can they use the rest-rooms.  I remember when he opened the door you could see the plastic seat covering was still in place, which surprised me: with all the dirt on the car you`d never have guessed it was new.

He was a tall man, heavily built, about my age or maybe a little older - say thirty, thirty-two.  And real untidy.  I don`t mean like a bum or anything - he had a suit and a nice pair of city shoes - but just that he hadn`t shaved, and his hair was all wild.  As he walked over to us he was trying to read the notice we have there, about the tours and the charges for taking pictures.  He stumbled on the rocks.  He was squinting, like he normally wore glasses.  I`d have said he was the professor type.

He wanted to know, "Any chance of a tour this late?"  He didn`t look me in the eye, nor at Shirley who had just returned with the keys and was cussing quietly to herself.  I looked at my watch.  It was ten after, and I was about to tell him no, the last tour was at four.  But then I figured who knows, he might buy something.

"Yeah, I guess you just made it," I told him.  "Okay with you?" I asked Shirley.  It was up to her to open up and issue a ticket.  She said sure it was okay, and went back inside.  "Yeah," she called over her shoulder.  "I`ll wind things up here.  Just give me the money in the morning, will ya?"

I walked across to the bus and opened the passenger door.  "That`ll    be four dollars," I told the man.

We do sometimes get solitary parties, particularly in the winter.  When I first started the guided tours it used to bother me some: it`s one thing talking to a group of visitors, but a guy on his own?  I`ve never really gotten used to that.  As I backed up I asked him, "So where you from?"  He didn`t answer, and I let it go.  I was only being polite.  Nervous, you might say. It`s the same thing, really.  Generally speaking I couldn`t give a damn where they come from.

Then I turned to face the road and I caught sight of him in the rear-view mirror.  He was low down in his seat trying to get a look at the mesa top.  His eyes were red, kind of bloodshot as if he needed a good night`s sleep.  He wore a necktie, although it was loosened and his shirt collar unbuttoned. I was trying to think if I`d ever had anyone in a business suit before.  Generally they come in western wear, expensive stuff they pick up in Taos: designer jeans and two hundred dollar boots; a whole lot of turquoise jewelry.  I mean wealthy folk from the big cities.  Texans.

It`s only a five-minute ride to the top.  I concentrated on the road.  No matter how well you know it you still have to watch those curves.  The guy seemed busy enough watching the scenery.  Generally on the way up I tell them about the people coming here hundreds of years ago to escape their enemies, the Navajo and the Apache, and how the Spanish came up from the south and laid seige to the town.  And then the story about the movie company back in the fifties who wanted to shoot a couple of westerns and had to build us a regular road as their end of the deal, the very one we`re driving on.  They like that.  It makes them feel okay.

I can tell these stories without even thinking about them now.  I can tell them and be thinking about something completely different. Sometimes I hear myself reciting them and my voice sounds like it`s someone else and I wonder if they can read what`s going on in my head same as I can.

I still feel good when I get up there.  Every time.  I feel...free, I guess.  No, safe.  I remember something I read in school after I came out of hospital.  It was Willa Cather.  She said the Acoma people were born in fear and died by violence, and at last they`d taken off from the earth, and on this rock they`d found the hope of all suffering, tormented creatures - safety.  That`s always stuck with me.  Safe between heaven and earth.  Maybe that`s what I should say to Evelina`s folk, I guess.  Not that her brother would understand.  He`s a cop, and you know what cops are.

Sometimes up there it really is like flying.  You have the sky above you and below you.  And the silence.  I like it best when the sun`s going down and the wind dies.  You can watch the rocks change colour, gray to purple, white to gold, and all those shadows stretching out as the angle of the light drops before it fades into dusk.
"Real quiet up here."  I`d almost forgotten about him for a moment.  We were both out of the bus.  I`d parked beside the church like I always do. 

"Yeah," I said.  And then I took a deep breath and began.  "Well, my name`s Gregory and I`m your guide."  It felt kind of dumb beginning like that, but I couldn`t think of a better way.  I took him along the side of the church and in beside the cemetery.  I showed him the adobe soldiers` heads lined up atop the wall that surrounds the little plot, and told him how the people thought to fool their enemies that the Spanish were still there guarding the place, even though they`d driven them away.

"The Pueblo Revolt," he said.

"Yeah, I guess so," I answered, although to tell the truth I`m a little foggy on that myself.  It`s like the story about the church bells, how they were brought up from old Mexico in exchange for the first slaves from Acoma: I tell that a hundred times a year and I`m never sure I have it right.

He wandered into the graveyard to look at one of the little mounds, one that had fresh flowers strewn across it.  I told him we still used the old campo santo.  People like to have their folk buried up there, even though they wouldn`t dream of living there.

It was real strange, but it was easier than you`d think.  I mean talking to him like he was a bunch of tourists with a lot of dumb questions and a mess of kids wanting to climb all over.  I just switched off and gave him my regular tour-guide routine, took him into the church and showed him the dirt floor and explained about the walls being repaired each year with fresh adobe, slapped on by the people with their bare hands.  He reached out and touched the dry mud, all flecked with straw, and stroked it.  I told him how the adobe was made with water from the little reservoirs, that that was the only source of water up here, apart from the secret spring where the drinking water came from.

I took him through the village itself.  He didn`t show much interest in the streets and houses until we came to our own place, and the table with the pots and ornaments on it.  He made straight for it and reached out to touch one of the eagles.  He only just caught it before it toppled off the edge.  When I`d replaced it he picked up a quail.  "That`s real pretty," he said, and put it back down.

After we`d walked a way, past the house, he said to me, "I only have my credit cards with me, but there`s plenty of cash at the car."     
"Sure," I said, "if you want to buy something my wife`ll wrap it for you.  Pay me when we get back to the Center."  He followed me back to the house.  While he had another look at the models I shouted for Evelina.  I watched the guy pick up several of her little birds in turn.  He seemed choosy.  I couldn`t figure why:  I`d always thought they were pretty much the same. 

Just as he`d settled on one Evelina came out.  She had her hands all covered in dough and she looked hot.  Bird ran out in her new dress shouting, "Mama`s making sopaipillas for supper!"

"That`s terrific," I said, and then I told Evelina, "Yeah, this gentleman wants to buy one of your quails.  We got some paper to wrap it in?"

"Sure," she said.  While she went inside Bird walked across to the table.  "They`re eight dollars," she said.  "Do you like my new dress Mama just bought me?"  Then before he could answer she ran indoors giggling.

"You live up here with your family?" the man asked.  He seemed surprised.

"Sure," I told him.  He looked at the dusty street, the half derelict houses, the muddy little reservoir.  "I guess I like the old ways," I said. 

"But you have no power or gas lines."

"Neither did my grandparents," I answered.  I`d slipped into that with the tourists: `my` grandparents.  I meant Evelina`s, of course.  Mine had lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Brownsville.  They didn`t have gas or electricity, it`s true.  But their poverty wasn`t the least bit picturesque.  It was just mean.

He paused for a moment.  "I guess not.  But you need people around you, don`t you?  In case something happens?"  He turned to the quails again.  He`d been tidying them into a half circle in front of the fat mother hen, like kids listening to a teacher.  "I`ve always hankered after the simple life," he went on, "but...hell, I don`t know."  He seemed about to say something else but just then Evelina came out with his package and we walked on.

I took him to the edge of the cliff above Ramirez` place.  We stood there looking out over the desert.  I was talking about the corn crops, pointing to the square patches of dried-up stalks far below on the valley floor, and telling him how the people had survived for centuries in a land that the white people called a desert. 

"Don`t you get nervous at all?" he broke in.

"I`m sorry?"  I said.  I didn`t follow.

"About your little girl."  He motioned to the drop at our feet.  "I mean" - he shrugged - "running around alone up here.  She could - "

"No," I said.  "She knows to be careful.  Besides, there`s people to watch out for her."  He looked puzzled..  For a moment I swear he thought I was talking about ghosts.  "There`s a few other people stay here year-round.  And then a whole bunch come up weekends and feast-days."

"What for?" he asked.
"To sell their work.  Besides, she`s a whole lot safer here than if she was down by the highway."  I pointed to the northwest and he nodded.

By this time the sun was almost to the horizon.   As we walked back to the bus he stopped for a moment to take in the view.  He had his hands deep in his pockets and he shivered.  He shook his head slowly from side to side and then came over to the bus and climbed in.  He reminded me of the way I felt some evenings when I took a walk alone.  So close to the sky that I might just reach out and grab it.

Back at the Center he went to get the money he owed.  I noticed he  hadn`t even bothered to lock the car.  From the passenger seat he picked up a fat bill-fold - I mean fat.  It was just crammed with bills.  He pulled out a hundred and then, checking himself,
reached into the glove where I could see a whole mess of small bills.  He gave me a five and three ones.  "Thankyou," he said, and got into the car and drove off, back towards the highway past the darkening outline of the Enchanted Mesa.

I guess I would have remembered the guy anyway, especially since Bird took ill that night.  She got a fever and kept mumbling to herself in her sleep.  "My new dress...it`s eight dollars."  And although we were worried until we got her cooled down I couldn`t help smiling. But Evelina, she got mad.  Said this was the kind of thing she always dreaded, getting sick up here with the nearest help miles away.  She ought to have listened to her mother, she said.

And then in the spring, just when we started to get a few more visitors, the man showed up again.  I spotted him right away - or leastways, I spotted the car.  Same dirt on it, it seemed; and still the same plastic covering on the seats, only now it was torn all to shreds in the front.  I swear he was wearing the same suit, but now he had on a pair of tan ropers, already scuffed and down at heel.  He had a full beard now too.  Even so, I remember Shirley saying he`d be pretty good-looking if he ever bothered to clean himself up.

He took the tour again, along with a family from back east - New York by the sound of them.  He gave no sign of recognising me, except maybe a little nod as he got on the bus.  I remember he   
took a long look at the graves.  In fact, he stayed out there in the cemetery while I went through the church.  When I came out he was standing at the far side looking out over the valley to the mountains beyond.

He took a good look at the quails again.  The easterners were interested in the drinking mugs.  It was a new line we`d started.  We`d put a few names on them.  They wanted to know why we hadn`t got an Abe or a Cyrus and made a little joke about it.  Meanwhile the man was turning the quails over, looking for one that suited him.  Evelina was at the door this time and he paid her with some crumpled bills from his coat pocket.  Bird came out and giggled.  "They`re nine dollars," she said, but Evelina told her to shush, and smiled at the man, kind of embarrassed.  "No," she said," as he put his hand back to his pocket, "no, she`s got it wrong."

After that he came several times in a month or so.  It was around Easter time and I wondered how come he had so much time, unless he was one of those researchers we get.  But they usually have a camera and notebooks with then, and they`ll often bring their own guide.  He always took the tour, and he always bought a quail, and we kept on charging him last year`s price.

We all used to wonder about the guy, of course.  We called him Quail Man - leastways Bird did, and we picked it up from her.  We couldn`t none of us figure out where he came from or why he was so fascinated with Acoma.  Don`t get me wrong: we get a lot of people come back over and over.  I can see why.  It cast its spell on me the first time Evelina brought me here.  It`s a place to be still and reflect.  It`s a place to work things out, except that you don`t want to think too hard.  It has a beauty so powerful that - well, it can  hurt.  That`s the fact of the matter.  You know the way you feel at the end  of a real good day - like you`ve been to the State Fair and when you were up on that last ride high on the Ferris Wheel, up up up in the blue and the world below so distant and doll-like?  That`s when it hits you, just at the point when you first start to think about it and people start to shout up at you, C`mon, smile!  And you realise they never will understand, that you`re a jump ahead of them - or a jump sideways, one or the other, coping the best you can in that moment with the realisation that it`s all downhill from here...

When you stand on that mesa top and all you can see is sky, and your joy is so intense that you want to fly - that`s when you suddenly shudder.  For fear, same as he did, I`d say.
But most of those people who keep coming back are students of one kind or another.  Quail Man, I couldn`t figure him.  Evelina reckoned he`d run away from something -  a broken love affair, maybe.  Shirley said more likely it was the law.  Why else would he have all that cash?  And the way he dressed, she said, was just a disguise.  I didn`t buy that.  I figured sooner or later he`d open up.

Of course it was Bird who got him talking, what little he did.  She often trails around after me when she gets bored with being around the house.  It must have been in May, just when the weather was starting to hot up.  I had a whole bus-load, maybe ten or a dozen, and they were all gathered around some sand-paintings trying to haggle with Ramirez, as if they thought they`d get any change out of that old vulture.  I`d walked on a way with Bird and suddenly realised Quail Man was standing close by.  I was wondering whether to speak when Bird chipped in,  She said, "Why do you keep coming here, mister?"

For a moment I thought he hadn`t heard her, or he was going to ignore her.  In fact he did more or less just that, because when he answered the question it was me he was talking to.

"I`ve always liked lonely places.  Used to argue with my wife about it.  When we were back east.  New York City.  Had us an apartment twenty floors up.  It was a little like this in its way."  He gave a snort of a laugh as he said that.  "The views, I mean, except it was all buildings there, not rocks.  But you could imagine if you wanted to.  Up there everything else seems pretty distant -  until you pick up your binoculars and look around and realise there`s a million other people looking back at you, all trying to claim the same patch of space.  Boy, you pay through the nose for that little illusion, let me tell you."

I said I guessed he was glad to get out of there.

"Huh?"  He seemed surprised by my voice.  "I guess you were pretty glad to get away from New York," I repeated.

"Oh.  Yeah, I guess so.  Well, no:  not really.  It caused a deal of friction.  My wife liked city life.  I had to twist her arm some just to get her to take a vacation in the woods."  He laughed drily.  "Used to call me a goddam Indian."  He looked as though he was about to apologise, but I couldn`t help grinning at him.  "But I guess you people take all this for granted," he said.  He was pointing to the view.

"Yeah, I guess we do," I heard myself say.  And almost immediately I wanted to correct myself.  I was thinking back to the crowded squalor of Brownsville when I was a child and all the moves - to Fort Worth and Houston and Lubbock, my father chasing jobs and my mother chasing after my father and us kids always getting beat up on in one school after another.  And after that the Army, and...well, I swore I was through with talking about that.  The only people who want to hear it are the ones who are down where you are.  And then to school in Albuquerque, and everyone wanting to know about my "heritage", man, which I admit I played up to on account of it being so damned cool to be a minority back then, and how in the end I just fell apart from the effort of playing the goddam Injun and trying to forget my past - as if a guy don`t have troubles enough without the whole weight of some other people`s history on his back.

It`s no good escaping from one world and hoping to lose yourself by hiding away in a world you don`t belong in.  That`s really how I got sick and ended up in the hospital in Grants, and the rehab people there got me the job in the mines.  It was as if they were trying to finish me off for good, putting me down a mine for chrissake.  It was good money okay, and easy: I was one of their quota of natives.  Got in with my half-pint of Comanche blood, and that`s where I met Evelina.  She was visiting the school of mines there.  If it hadn`t been for her I`d never have gotten away.

Of course I don`t take it for granted, not for one moment.

The rest of the group caught up with us then, carrying their packages and stuffing their wallets back in their pockets.  Quail Man said to me, "Would you mind if I walked back down this time?  Take in the view?"

"Sure, go ahead," I told him.  "You got more time in here than some of us natives."  

It was only when I had driven the rest of the party down to the Center and was talking to Shirley in the doorway there that I realised.  "Hey," I said, "you know - he never bought anything this time."

"Who?" she asked.

"Quail Man."

"Maybe he`s saving for a shave and a haircut," she said, that jokey way of hers.  But it bothered me, and as I drove up with the next party, the last of the day, I didn`t see a sign of him on the road, and I began to worry.

At night his car was still in the parking lot.  First thing next morning we started looking for him.



We found him surprisingly quickly, me and Ramirez and Paul - my brother-in-law, the cop.  We`d been working our way around the mesa top when a buzzard led us to him: wedged among the rocks about fifty feet down, just under Ramirez` place itself.  Paul went down - you can say that for the guy, he ain`t one to send you where he wouldn`t go - and we hauled him up with a rope and laid him out on the roof.  His neck was broken and the back of his head was stoved in pretty bad.  And of course the buzzard had had his eyes.

We`d already been through the car in the parking lot to find some address where we could notify someone he was missing.  But nothing.  All we`d found was a few small bills and a couple of photos, of a woman and a little girl.

Up there on the roof Paul went through his pockets.  He found the car keys and a roughly folded sheet of notepaper from the Eagle`s Nest motel in Grants.  That`ll do, it, he said, and while he went to his car to radio in Ramirez fetched a coat from the house and laid it over the dead man`s face.

I went over to Grants with Paul to check out the motel.  As we rode past the Enchanted Mesa he jerked a thumb at the towering bluffs.  "Now me, if I was going to kill myself I`d do it off there, huh?  That`s what I call going out in style."  And he laughed.  Just like him.  I never could stand that guy.  I was glad when he took a promotion over in Window Rock, tell you the truth.

The desk clerk knew who we meant right away.  The guy had been there three, maybe four months.  Never went out hardly at all.  Wouldn`t even let `em in to clean.  He wanted to know what the man had done.  Was he wanted?  Was he on the lam?  It wasn`t him who did that awful murder over in Socorro, was it?  Paul just ignored him and told him to open up the room.  The clerk followed us across the parking lot but Paul grabbed the key right out of his hand and soon as we were inside slammed the door shut in  his face.  

The room was a mess.  The bed looked like it hadn`t been changed in a month.  There was a whole pile of dirty clothes on the floor.  There was a faucet running in the bathroom.  Paul went to turn it off and I took a look at the bedside  table.  He had it fixed up like some kind of a shrine.  On either side of the lamp he`d got a candle stuck in an ashtray and burned right down to a stub.  And propped up against the lamp was a photo of a woman, same as the one in the car as near as I could tell.  It was in a gilt frame, and tucked in the corner was a shot of a little girl.  She was holding a pet rabbit and she was smiling.  She had just about the sweetest smile and her head was cocked to one side.  She looked just like the older woman and I figured maybe she was her daughter, Quail Man`s daughter.

In front of the picture, in an arc, like a bunch of kindergarten kids, were the quails, eight or nine of them, all the ones he`d picked out.  I lifted the snapshot out of the frame.  On the back was written `Lori, 1963`.  I looked at the big picture.  It said, right there in the corner, `Lori, 1985`.

Paul was still poking around in the bathroom.  I could hear him cussing about the mess.  He was looking for drugs, I guess.  In front of the quails was a Gideon`s bible.  I picked it up and it fell open to reveal a newspaper cutting.  There was a fuzzy picture of the woman Lori and a headline, "City Woman Dead in Hunting Mishap".  I read through the brief item, then called out to Paul, "Here`s your big lead."

He came over and snatched it from my hand, almost tearing it.  As he read he whistled to himself.  "What a dumb asshole.  Shoots his own fucking wife."  And he grinned at me.  "What he think she was, a goddam bear?"
"Read it through for yourself, " I said and went to the door.  It was hot outside and a thunderhead was piling up in the west.  I heard Paul whistle to himself once more, than laugh aloud as he said, "Oh, a quail, huh?"  Then he shouted after me as I walked across to the office to buy a drink. "Hey, doncha wanna take these birds home with you?  It`s your stuff, ain`t it?  Or is it my sister`s?  Must be fifty bucks` worth."



We moved down off the mesa that summer, Evelina and Bird and me.  Evelina was pregnant, and she flat out refused to stay any longer.  To her, Quail Man`s death was a simple accident, but one that served as a warning to us.  I read more into it than that.  I didn`t need a whole lot of persuading to move out.  We took a plot of land over near the highway and put a trailer on it.   When things pick up we`ll start to build our own place.

I still do the tours, of course.  And we keep up the house on the mesa.  We stay there weekends and feast-days, treat it as a kind of vacation home.  Sometimes I stay on in the evening after the last tour just to take in the panorama and the silence and watch the shifting patterns in the rocks.  Once in a while I feel that shivery feeling come on and then I know for a fact it`s time to head home.  The past is the past, and there`s a lot to do now with the new baby.

And we`ve never been busier with the kiln.  We do a new line, me and Evleina together: miniature quails set around a mother bird.  We`re selling them as fast as we can produce them.  They fetch forty-five bucks apiece.  People really go for them, especially the oldtimers.  They often tell me it`s as if there`s a story being told.