How can I quantify to you the loss of our sunny afternoons in Austin, circa 1980? I still have dreams about the house on Lockhart Street, and in my dreams, it’s for sale and I have to scramble to buy it, despite the mortgage and mess costing me more than everything. That neighborhood is different now, you know; a thousand square foot craftsman with a window unit can cost half a million dollars. I went back there this summer and sat under that big live oak that arches out over the wading pool at Little Stacy Park, letting my three-year-old run back and forth in the shallow glinting water. I nursed my two-month-old in the shade along with all the other hippie mommies who could care less whether or not I was making anyone uncomfortable. My sister and I played there once, too, back when we were freckle-faced and gap-toothed, and we knew that after swimming we would pad up to HEB in our bare feet and select junk food from the generic aisle. Yes, there was a generic aisle in those days, where all the food came in white and black packages, bar codes prominent on the spines. Don’t you remember this? Or remember when the summer got its hottest and the sun had no slant at all the best place to be was under those live oak? Or if I was lucky enough, and you were willing to drive me to the main library downtown, I would hide in the children’s section, in the castle covered in beige carpet, lost in Louis L’amour, or Robin McKinley or Larry McMurtry, reading and reading, and then furiously scribbling my own stories on loose leaf paper with your felt tip crossword puzzle pen? I remember how you read them once, how you laughed at my heroine. “Magic?” you said. “What kind of shit is this?” Nice father you are, I remember thinking, you reading all that Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova. We folded into your Volkswagen Rabbit, and I’d already forgiven you by the time you bought us KFC for dinner and we were fishing chicken out of the bucket around Grammy’s dining room table. I cried when Mom came to pick me up and take me home, sensing even then how quickly you’d be gone.
When you first moved to La Grange, before you lived in that log A-frame on the creek underneath the pines, you stayed at your friend John’s cattle ranch. You would come get me every other Friday afternoon, and I was always so ready to go. Mom used to say if the wheels were turning, I wanted to be in the car. We’d get into town too late to see the one Friday night movie, so we’d rent one: Disney’s Robin Hood, Conan the Barbarian, John Wayne. I’d wake up early on Saturdays to you frying eggs, and we’d wander all over the scrub land picking up the rounded quartz, smooth as river stones, dashing them on the ground to get at the sparkles inside. We’d find fossils, stones imprinted with ancient cochlear swirls, and you once told us that the land on which we stood used to beat the bottom of an ocean. You’d point to the cedar tree where John crashed his ultra-light airplane, the beginning of the end, before John fled for good to what was then British Honduras, and before you promised to follow him. To this day you still haven’t gone, and we never saw John again.
The day before I fell out of the truck and landed on my head, streaking the gravel scarlet and tinting the bathwater a sickly metallic brown that smelled like rust, we walked down to the empty creek bed. I know now that this creek might have returned if John would have cleared the cedar from his land, but in this memory from thirty years ago, there is only a bed of stones bleached white in the sun and a phantom, mirage smell of lake water. I remember the mustang grapes, tempting but too sour to eat, curling down from the live oak and pine overhead. I remember your shout of discovery. I remember thinking I could make one of those arrowheads, that I could live by myself in those woods, that I could pick my own berries and dry my own leather, that I could leave all of this and one day you’d find me and be sorry.
You held that arrowhead a long time, fingering the grooves along the sides, and I knew you were picturing it whole and useful, that you were imagining shaft, binding, prey. “You know there were Indians down along the coast,” you said almost too softly for me to hear, “who could kill a deer without an arrow, just by running it down till it dropped?” You slid the arrowhead into your shirt pocket but your hand lingered. “Sometimes it took days.” I could tell what you were thinking. You were still young, wiry, full of the physical, sure of your mind. You were wondering what it would be like, what it would take from a person, that running. You were wondering how the deer knew when it was time to lay down.
The year after I barely graduated from high school, my friends and I drove to Mexico to drink margaritas made of cheap tequila and Rose’s lime. We crossed the bridge in Del Rio, noting clearly the delineation between here and there. Once in Ciudad Acuna, we drank the margaritas and wandered through the tourist shops in a wormwood, vaguely hallucinogenic haze and handled all of the kitschy stuffed frogs, some playing miniature guitars under the shade of sombreros, some driving Barbie convertibles with doll hair pulled back. When we crossed back over, we took a wrong turn and didn’t notice for hours.
I watched a lot of Clash of the Titans back then, and so when we crossed the deep gash of the Pecos River, I imagined our car to be Charon’s ferry. The wind might have plucked us from the highway had we not felt that incomprehensible weight of sky, the land so flat we could feel the earth turning. We stopped at a gas station made of 2 x 4’s and heard the sign strung on a chain over the door squeaking and swaying in the breeze: “Home of Judge Roy Bean.” A three-legged dog whimpered as we got out of the car, and the white limestone dust caught in our throats and worked itself under our fingernails. We bought a tank of gas for $2.45 a gallon, which in 1995 was more than twice what we would have paid somewhere else, and the wind curled around our hips and made itself familiar. The road ribboned away from us, a black tongue in a nearly colorless landscape, and the land was empty: no trees, no people, no sound but wind. The air carried a smell like cold, although the temperature still blistered; the smell told us the mercury was falling fast. My friends were dismayed, but I guess I inherited your instinct for running. Just moments before I had been wondering if we would make it home in time for the Simpsons , but now my heart thrummed in this sere and barren place and I felt a luxurious, rolling sense of wildness cresting in the back of my throat. I looked west, standing wide-stanced in that fluorescent sun, raw as an overexposed photograph, and I felt the gravity and pull of that line of horizon. I cannot remember exactly who was with me that day; I cannot remember who it was that pulled us back and turned us toward home.