I know it had to be in early June, the day I first saw the canyon house squatted like a tombstone in shade as dark as Mama’s black coffee, all but hidden beneath the colossal Mulberry tree. Summer-dried grass and weeds grew right up tight against the gray stucco walls. My father warned Mama and me to “watch for rattlesnakes” as we high-stepped through the tangle to peer through the windows of the two bedrooms along one side of the house. The thought made me shiver to the bone for a second or two. My cowboy boots, the ones with the toes worn almost clear through, and my mother’s white Keds stirred weed spores and dust that rose and tickled our nostrils, causing my mother to break into a sneezing fit. I blessed her, to keep the plague and the devil at bay, and trudged on, eyes down, the snake warning replaying in my head. That’s why I saw that Mama’s anklets bristled with foxtails.
“Oh, Mama,” I said pointing to her feet.
“Damn bugs,” she said, swatting at the sweltering air and bending at the same time to pick at her socks. “I hate these gnats. They get in your ears, your nose and everyplace else they can get.”
Side by side, me up on tiptoe and Mama bent at her waist, we put our faces near the glass and cupped our hands around our eyes to get a clear look. The rooms were small and lacked any kind of likable character at all. The walls bore no color I could name. The one sign of a previous inhabitant of the tacky room was a pale oval where a picture had hung from a carpenter’s nail. The floors were covered with grainy, flower-patterned linoleum. Footfall had worn it ragged and muddy-looking at the doorway. My interest shifted to the window pane I’d been peering through. It had a long diagonal crack and the thin wavy glass to one side of the flaw captured a dozen clear bubbles. I traced them lightly with one finger.
“Don’t do that, Poppy. That glass’ll likely fall out of there and then we’ll have us a mess.” I noticed mama’s face growing redder, either from the heat or from bending again and again to pick at the foxtails gripping like fishhooks. “Wish he’d told me about these weeds and stickers. I would’ve worn something else.”
I wondered what that something else might have been. She sure didn’t have any cowboy boots. I turned away from her look of agitation and made my way around the house and up the front step to inspect the porch.
I heard her say, “Dear Lord,” as I walked away.
I think the August heat crushed my mother’s spirit. That, and two other matters. There was no relief from the misery of the constant high temperatures. The nights sweltered and the bed sheets were damp with sweat even at midnight. I tossed and turned and kicked crazily at anything that touched the skin of my legs. Only my father slept for any length of time and I knew that because he snored so loud the sounds vibrated through the little house. My mother had often complained about his snoring, but because I had slept the deep sleep of youth, I had not noticed it much until those August nights that robbed me of sleep.
I was edgy and tired and emotional. I cried over everything that was contrary to me. I was a notorious crier anyway, our entire family knew that, and the oppressive heat that stole our rest made me even more of one. I drug myself around like a sack of wool throughout the long days. I flopped down on the lawn in the shade and tried to fall asleep, but the bugs pinched and tickled to the point of annoyance that made me get up and try something else to find comfort. I sat with the water hose turned on my legs and feet, but after a few days my mother said I shouldn’t do that because, “God knows how long the well will hold up in this kind of weather.”
Living things lost any semblance of thriving. Plants drooped their heads and leaves. The animals followed the shade as the sun moved overhead. They lay in limp mounds of hair or fur and panted through gaped mouths. No matter how many water bowls and pans we kept scattered around for them, they suffered.
My poor mother. She still fixed meals, washed clothes and did household jobs related to daily living. She kept a damp towel handy and held it against her neck and chest for a brief few minutes of relief. By the time my father came home in the evenings, she appeared drained and exhausted.
He was the only one who wanted to eat supper. My mother and I took little food onto our plates and often I didn’t eat mine. One night, as she pushed the food around on her plate, she made the mistake of saying how she was tiring of cooking in the blazing hot kitchen.
My father’s voice exploded inside the small space of the supper-table nook. “Dammit, Francine. I work all damn day while you sit around here on your butt doing nothing but fanning yourself, and then you bitch ‘cuz you have to fix supper. A workin’ man has to eat.” He drained his wine glass in one long swallow and slammed it back onto the table. I felt my body start at the noise of it.
For the first time I could recall, I heard my mother talk back like she meant it. “Shut up, Norman.” She dropped her fork on her plate and stood, scraping her chair back into the room. “You think you’re the only one who counts around here. I hate this miserable place. You stuck me up here in this godforsaken canyon and all you care about is yourself and your damned old cows. I feel like I’m burning in Hell.” She turned and left the kitchen and I heard the screen door slam shut.
I sat without breathing and looked at my father. His face was red as fire and his blue eyes looked to have a light behind them. He stared after my mother for a moment, then a calm voice said, “Sis, pour me some more wine, would you?” dropped his own fork and pushed his plate away from him.
My legs felt shaky when I got up to take his glass to the sink board where I managed to pour it full from the jug. I tiptoed it back to the table, terrified I would spill it. I set it down and turned and ran out of the house. My mother was sitting at the red picnic table, smoking a cigarette. I could see the tip of it flare in the dark as she took a long drag. I sat next to her on the bench seat but neither of us said anything for a few minutes. I could tell by her noises that she was crying a little bit.
I see it now in slow motion. Riley leaving the ground in one determined step into the edge of the water and then one more, falling forward into the gushing stream. Beside me, Sky was screaming his name in a wild, high pitched voice. She stumbled and fell to her hands and pushed herself up trying to gain her feet under her. I grabbed her arm and pulled and we ran again.
The three of us met at the creek edge, all running and calling Ri’s name. I saw him face down at first and his blue shirt full of air puffed out of the water like a parachute. His thin legs came up, bent at his knees, showing the soles of his shoes. He moved in the current that way for about a second then he slowly tipped to one side and turned face up. His eyes were closed, but his mouth was working as if he was talking.
My mind must have disconnected from my body. I remember the energy that shot through me, catapulting me into the water. I was not prepared for the force that grabbed me up and shoved me around at will. I struggled to position myself so that I could see Riley who I thought should be right next to me. I caught a watery glimpse of his dark hair and I saw that he had already been whirled around so that he was going downstream headfirst.