“New Mexico, 1957”

Ruth Galm

(inspired by the Garry Winogrand photograph “Albuquerque”)

From the concrete step she watched the baby in his slumping diaper. He wore no shirt because Yvonne did not see the point in the heat, although his skin was a helpless white, she must remember that. He toddled down the pale cement driveway, face aggrieved by glare, eyes retreated into squinting holes, innocent of what was dogging them. He bent beside the overturned tricycle. (The shock of white-blonde hair in the sun surprised Yvonne each time, as if he were some kind of tufted fledgling not meant for the yawn at all.) Yvonne watched, curious, sipping the gin fizz. The boy grabbed the trike and dragged it clattering on its side down the driveway, his elfin ribs heaving in and out. Yvonne rolled the tart of the lemon on her tongue, still unconcerned. When the small tic fluttered in her pelvis, she removed it to a corner of her mind.

An insect clicked somewhere. Things were always clicking and buzzing on the yawn. (She had never liked to call it anything else; perhaps it was a “playa” or a “basin” or some other desert term, but to her it was only ever a gaping void, stretching infinitely—the yawn.) She watched the boy squat to the trike. The sad slit of his bottom exposed. He began to pet the handlebar fringe, long careful strokes as if it were the living fur of a beloved animal beaten and limp. (But beaten animals die, Yvonne thought, and so must be let go.) He looked as if he might cry. Yvonne bore her eyes into the boy’s platinum head. He went on petting. “Stop that,” she finally said. He turned around then, no tears in his eyes (although she could not make out in the dark hollows the exact mood of the blue). He popped up and waddled away.

Yvonne fidgeted. She did not like to speak on the yawn, the boy knew that. There was something about this day. When Herb left in the morning, she’d switched off the air (she could never feel her skin in it) and gone back to bed. She’d woken to find grains from the yawn in the cream of her underwear and the boy staring out the window at the trike. She threw the underwear out. She’d fixed the boy his oatmeal and chatted with him about their day ahead, but the heat seemed implanted in her body, white light firing in her eyes. Twice she retched.

Yvonne sipped her fizz and pushed these thoughts out with the tic. She watched the thunderheads gather in dark and gray mushrooms over the mountains. Too far away for any relief.

Now the boy was in the dust next to the driveway with a metal object. A fork? A spoon? Yvonne lost track of all that ended up in the dirt. People’s knives and rings and milk bottles and brassieres. Once she’d found a pair of bloodstained spectator gloves. That was when she’d tried to explain to Herb (because of the fleeting fear that the gloves were her own): you forgot what was yours and when you’d brought it and why it mattered. “Go to the pool, honey, that’s what it’s for,” Herb had said. “Splash around with the kid!” Always with a childlike softness to his mouth, as if any small possibility could be let in.

She could not tell Herb the truth about the yawn after that.

The boy drummed his thigh with the fork-spoon object, and she went inside for another drink. The fizzes were just a warm-weather refreshment, a mid-afternoon spritz (although today they seemed to do nothing against the dry and glare, Yvonne thought). She cracked ice in the highball, stirred in the lemon juice and sugar. She moved to put the bottle back in the cabinet and paused. If Herb was late at the dealership again, she and the boy might as well stay out on it. (The crowded pool, the glossy pool; they would not go to the pool.) Yvonne left the bottle and glanced at the newspaper on the kitchen table. People driving from all four corners for the test, with their sunglasses and cameras and atomic-themed ties. Yvonne closed her eyes and imagined the quaking and flash wave through her, a thick vibrating pleasure at the yawn drowned out. She wished she could take the boy.

Her body hummed with this image when the tic pulsed to life again. An imploring rhythm, thump thump thump. Yvonne drank the fizz until it was quiet.

Back on the concrete porch, the heat knocked her sideways for a moment. She steadied herself and sank to the step. The boy was gone. He’d be back. (He always came back.) It was the damn broken-wheeled trike today, she thought. The heat and the trike. “It’s all done, there’s no more,” Yvonne told him yesterday. But he’d lingered strangely, as if expecting some new door to open. As if he had no idea, after all this time, how things on the yawn were meant to work.

The broken trike was some new threat, Yvonne thought vaguely. She eyed the simple metal contraption, its dirty white and red paint, and sensed a danger she could not yet conceive. (It was certainly goading the tic today, egging on the thumps.) Maybe she had not let the boy out far enough into the creosote and bird bones, she thought. Not far enough for an inoculation.

Before Yvonne could complete this logic, there was Ida coming up the volcanics. (Ida was always coming up the volcanics before Yvonne noticed.) The old woman lived across the street, a mirror lot on the same naked edge, and brought them cobblers and casseroles every week, as if they’d just moved in, as if they were starving. Yvonne downed the fizz. The white light exploded in her eyes.

Ida lifted the glass pan with sallow contents. “I had extra macaroni. Where’s the little angel?”

“Nap.”

“Well, that’s alright, isn’t it. Helpless thing.”

A filter opened up and denuded all objects into sharp, glowing projectiles. Ida’s face was a screaming fluorescent, her freckles neon lavender. Yvonne blinked; the neon freckles frowned.

“You ought to be resting,” the freckles said. “You’ll show soon and you won’t be able not to let us help you.”

The old woman’s dress was ultraviolet too. It crackled. Yvonne could not concentrate on the dress or the freckles for long; she went between them.

“I don’t feel anything yet.”

“All the same, you should be inside on a day like this,” the freckles insisted.

The dress crackled and blinkered. Yvonne tried to look away. But inside there was a bright dazing erasure, a glittering oblivion that seemed possibly the other side of the yawn. If she and the boy could get there. Yvonne lingered in the pulse of lights. (Surely they could burn the endlessness out). But gradually she sensed the yawn at work. A lure to derail her vigilance.

“I’m fine here,” she said loudly to the freckles. “I don’t like to feel cooped up.”

“You can’t be too careful,” Ida said. “I nearly stepped on a black-tailed last night, on the patio. Black-tailed bring bad omens they say.”

“Still too hot for them.”

A breeze rolled grains across the porch and expired.

The rattlers and bark scorpions had never scared Yvonne. It was nothing to see or touch. She knew the minute Herb peeled off the handkerchief for the surprise, the new house on the bed of void and dirt. She’d begged him not to leave her there. “You’ll get the hang of the double oven, honey,” he’d said, leading her through each white empty room. “And look, central air. Mack’d kill for central air!”

Every morning he left her and she sat with her growing belly watching it for hours, the sun inching over the dust in thin meaningless shade. No progress or melioration to detect and so she kept watching for something else. Some other sign. When she was tired, she knit booties or flipped through ladies’ magazines, but eventually she went back to watching. When the boy came, they watched together.

(And now, after all their watchfulness, all their conditioning, it had gotten in through the tic. Was getting in through the trike…)

“—so you won’t catch me driving nine hours for some silly detonation.” The freckles had been jittering and yapping at Yvonne, she realized. “Why do people always need excitement? Why can’t they just stay home?”

Now Ida was peering in the picture window, the gelatinous supper still balanced on her palm. (Time invaded by the yawn, too.) “Well he’s sleeping like a baby, isn’t he. Can you hear him out here?”

“Who? Oh, sure. But he won’t be up for a while.”

Maybe she could tell Ida about the inoculation. Yvonne watched her sometimes when the curtains were open. Nothing in the treeless white quartz to veil the view. The old lady stared out the back patio door for hours. Not thinking of the soul-saving missions or the dead husband, or even the black-taileds lurking in the dark. Thinking, Yvonne knew, of the vast nothingness they abutted day after day. The price of baiting it as they did, of not preparing fully.

“Ida.”

“Hmm?”

But the old lady had walked away toward the trike. Anyhow, she would only bring up the second-coming malarkey, Yvonne decided, prophets in the desert. Yvonne licked the ice of the fizz. And all this talking, she wanted it to stop, her voice gritted away, eroded into the yawn. She tried to stand so she could take the pan and make Ida leave, but the heat sucked at her, the white light blinded.

“Doesn’t he love this ole thing,” Ida said. With her free freckled arm she leaned over and pulled the handlebars upright. “Bless him. Those were the days. Only the sin you were born into.”

The freckles on Ida’s skin began to crumble. Tumbling down her neck and over the bony clavicle, sifting through the turquoise rings, filling the stockings with flecks so that Yvonne knew it was the grains. (Everywhere, everywhere!) In the shampoo and the mason jars and the spaghetti and the nail polish, in the folds of the boy’s penis, in the private essence of her panties, coming and coming until they penetrated every part of her…

“But he knows it’s broken!” Yvonne suddenly cried. “It broke yesterday and there’s no fixing it and it’s useless to go back!” Her voice booming in her ears. She lowered it to a whisper. “Why would he go back?”

“Say again?”

But the old woman must have heard because she said, “The innocent never know, dear. And aren’t we blessed for it. They can’t know until it’s too late.”

“I’m taking this in before it goes bad.” Ida was at the front door before Yvonne could comprehend. (The grains whipping at her, pocking her thoughts.) “I’ll be quiet as a church mouse,” the old woman’s voice trailing off inside, “It’s too hot, Yvonne, really…”

The grains whorling in her head. “Well, if you’re quiet,” Yvonne said to herself. “Really you shouldn’t have, Ida.”

She scanned the dust. The rocks and sagebrush winking at her. A withered, bobbing twist tapping out a code.

Just then the boy toddled back around the house. Gnawing on the fork-spoon, a sour pinched look on his face. Yvonne checked for Ida through the window. The boy’s shoulders were pink, the dust-layered diaper coming apart on one side. She would get him a T-shirt the next time she went in. (That he should never feel one moment’s pain was the whole point of the inoculation.)

He slid his filthy foot into the dirt and tossed the fork-spoon at her. It rose a pouf of dust from the ground.

Yvonne glanced again at the window. (In any case, the old lady would understand now. They could speak plainly about the yawn now.) The boy stepped through the pouf. He was coming straight for it, sightline locked.

Yvonne picked up a volcanic. She hurled the rock at the trike. It clanged off a spoke in tinny ripples.

The boy did not flinch.

She crouched forward on her knees. Sweat of the fizz on her palm. Concrete grinding skin. The flash of light. (Everything she could do, now in this moment, everything she could give him, THUMP THUMP THUMP, any chance they had, THUMP THUMP THUMP, for the whole light, the peace, the erasing, the other side…)

“STOP IT. STOP TRYING.”

Her voice and the smashed glass and the whiff of juniper a million fragments. The boy’s puny chest panting over his belly. Yvonne saw the glints at his feet. But in the fading scent of lemon and the unsparing glare of the yawn, there was success. She saw now he understood. The blue eyes dry and clear. He blinked a few seconds more, looked once at her. Then he turned the shining blonde mop around and toddled back behind the garage.

Yvonne slouched to the concrete porch, limbs shaking, ears ringing.

“I listened at his door, he’s fast asleep,” Ida said when she came out. “Did I hear something out here?”

In Yvonne’s peripheral vision, streaks of radiant phosphorescence. Lit in the heat of the good flash.

The old woman went on: “It’s an oven in there, Yvonne, I flipped on the air. I tidied up just a bit. You should let me babysit, dear. What will you do with two? You and Herb could go out for steaks.”

The tic buried in the pulsing and ringing and fragments. Ida’s voice a dim whir. If she answered, Ida would go.

“I couldn’t leave him,” Yvonne said. “Not until he’s stronger. He’s getting stronger every day.”

“Just consider it, dear,” Ida said. “Now I have to get there early for tonight’s meeting because they never arrange the chairs properly. See you two tomorrow.”

Yvonne watched a piece of tissue trapped in the volcanics. It lifted uselessly, then deflated again. When she looked up Ida was gone and the white quartz dimming to grey. She went inside for a new fizz. Somehow the bottle was almost empty. There was another thing she’d meant to get but she couldn’t remember.

Yvonne waited on the porch for the boy. The growing shadows soothed her, bringing the strange day to an end. (She could try once more to tell Herb; she’d like Herb to understand what their days were like.) A scorpion crawled out from under a rock. It teetered forward like a blind man. The only sounds on the concrete porch were the rasp of wind behind the loose house numbers and what sounded to Yvonne like a cooing from the yawn. Small short coos in the coming dusk, not unlike, Yvonne imagined, a dying bird.

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