because tonight it rained for the first time in a month. Just for a few minutes, it never stays long, but afterwards the brand new baby leaves on our front yard aspens glittered like polished emeralds pulled from a late summer afternoon. The birds got louder, maybe to sing of rain-rebirth or perhaps the new crop of worms, or maybe the world just stopped for a second to listen. In Gypsum, rain is a gift. The Ute people call the town the hole in the sky because bad weather always seems to skirt right around it. I think Gypsum got missed by other things, too, the future drove right past on I-70 without looking to the right. It’s easy, I know, but if you glance out the passenger window and the sun is just right you’ll see green, emerald green, aspen green, green, green, green, all the way up the dirt road valley to the top of Red Hill. Gypsum is painted into colors and the world whips by at 60 miles an hour. Up in the hills above the highway there are the gypsum mines. I’m shit at geology but I could pick some gypsum out of a hat blindfolded if I had to, soft, flaky, barely even a rock. The breakfast table in my old house had a telescope view of the mine roads and I’d watch the trucks collect dust over my soggy oatmeal. In third grade we went to the factory for a field trip. We walked there from the school. They gave us a piece of drywall and promised that their polluting smokestacks were only steam, like cloud memories of the mines. Gypsum is not a water town, but a creek has snuck its way into the wrinkles of our lives. Softly, like a gentle reminder that we are not all rock. It feels like an afterthought compared to the respect commanded by the Colorado just a few miles away, but in the spring rainbow trout spawn and melted snow rushes over river rocks smoothed by seasons and time and the sunset’s reflection dances through the neighborhood. In Gypsum, all roads lead to dirt. Fifteen minutes out and you’ll forget about the mines and the cookie-cutter houses painted puke green and the air will tug on your lungs like wildflowers on the wind and the scent of sage burns in your memory and all you can see is rock and dirt and life and death and somewhere, a car is passing the exit and a fish is stuck in the stream and the birds are singing and wondering if it will rain again.
One day in this life, insha’Allah, I want to leave the train in Marrakech or Istanbul and listen to the adhan as it soars from morning minarets. I want to sleep with the city in the day when the shops are shut on Ramadan time and wake with her when the night begins to shake hands and sing — to pray for peace and give thanks for three sips of water and a date. I want to kneel shoulder to shoulder with sibling strangers and put my forehead to the masjid floor, grateful for a chance to be better and a path to walk on my journey home. I will give salaams to the people in the street, to the pilgrims and porch cats sitting below windowsill flowers. Until then, alhamdulillah, I will be here at the other end of this world with my hands in the rain-blessed soil of this garden mosque, content to praise Allah by watching the snow peas spiral towards the top of the fence post, or heaven.
I want to live with you in Indianapolis I’d like to work normal hours and shop for groceries and maybe go bowling And maybe we would go on a hike sometime or maybe we wouldn’t And maybe we’d have sex but we don’t have to And we can have friends but we don’t need them And we can talk about big things or we can talk about small things Like the weather or who is running for mayor or that the Walmart just moved our favorite yogurt to a different aisle And we could read mystery books and watch Wheel of Fortune And it would be nice but it doesn’t need to be So long as I get to be with you in Indianapolis
Life is a short thing, the flies that buzz around my room will stop their droning gaggle in a day a day or two, anyway. The large gourd-shaped hulk who bellows beneath the depths has over 200 years, that lucky thing and when my son tugs at my pant leg, and asks me why my hair starts to look like the feeling of a key ring, silver and weighed down by things, I read him a book about whales and hope that he will not ask how many whale lives I have left but how many fly lives I have. Life is a long thing, when starfish lose limbs, it’s usually just because they’re a little warm, it’s their small discarded sweater but when I get a little warm at night, my body shoved by invisible currents, I sit in the cavity of the couch eyes falling like stars from when I used to stay up all night and it was an act of joy, instead of a lonely, slow-moving river that just pushes me towards when that orange strobe rises above the water line, when my eyes clench from its brilliance and the bones in my body have not fallen off like the starfish, they have never felt so weighted. Life is a short thing, because the macaroni penguins, they mate for life, and my son and I were watching discovery channel discuss Antarctica, a place that feels like running out of time, at the end of the world, something like me, and he turned to me and said that he wished I were a penguin so I didn’t have to be alone. I said I’m not alone, I have you. And he smiled the same smile from when he visited his first zoo and said “I have you too” and the narrator talked on.
Grandma’s house was on the top of a hill with no view. Driving up the crowded hillside for the first time in almost ten years, all the houses I used to think looked like easter eggs had somehow grown uniformly washed-out. We turned onto her street where some bigger lots had front yards with shrubs that sprouted chain link fencing and guarded two-car garages. The garages, I supposed, were for things and not cars because the cars were strung along the asphalt where the sidewalk should’ve been. The street sagged in the middle, and yellowing lawns baked in front of empty porches. It might’ve looked so exhausted because of the late July heat, thick as a nosebleed. But it was probably because she was gone.
I hate to say it, but I wouldn’t have remembered the exact day Grandma Clara died, except it was the day after my sixteenth birthday, July 24. She’d left me a message two days before. I remember I’d gotten home from driver’s ed, checked to make sure my mother was still at work so I could make some Top Ramen, and played the voicemails. Grandma Clara always called on my birthday, or whenever she remembered, and she’d always repeat herself, saying I had to get out to see her out where it was “California calm.” In the voicemail she only said she’d try again, and there was a card that should make the mail before Sunday.
I used to get dropped off at Grandma’s on weekends when we lived in the valley and mom had to work. But since we moved to Michigan for mom’s old boyfriend’s Amtrak job we’d never been back. I used to tell Grandma not to take it personal, we never went anywhere. The truth was, I stopped asking to visit when I hit high school because it was always the same answer: “If she wants to see you,” my mother would say, “she knows where to find you.”
She hadn’t called on my birthday or the day after. I was in the family room watching Antiques Roadshow when I heard mom put the landline on speaker and continue washing dishes. Maybe her hands were wet, or maybe she figured I wasn’t around because I heard the police still on speaker say they’d taken her mother’s body from the bathtub where it had been for 60 hours. “Autopsy pending,” I heard a man say. “Sure,” mother cut him off before she hung up, followed by, “that’s all right.” What else should she say, I guess, if she didn’t want to know. Still made me mad. We flew out the next week because estate services said everything had to be gone by the end of the month. I wasn’t going to go, but was told it was my last chance to grab anything before it got sold or dumped.
“We’ll get some stuff we can remember her by and some stuff we actually want,” mom said in our kitchen as she packed her suitcase with empty bags. She didn’t say much on the flight there except to tell me I didn’t need the Biscoffs. I only spoke to offer to split the earbuds so we could watch Wedding Crashers for the second time that summer. She said yes but didn’t laugh until the credits when I asked if I could drive the rental.
We didn’t stop for lunch, just drove straight there. I was starving, but the combination of the air conditioning and the second hour of Rush Limbaugh made me nauseous. The moment the car stopped moving I turned everything off. My mother said nothing, just pointed to some knocked-over squirrel feeders. “What?” I said.
“So nice,” she said, “to know she cared about some living things.”
“Don’t worry, they’ll die too,” I said, wondering if Grandma had actually managed to take the dependent rodents with her. She would’ve loved that, hippie hoarder that she was. We idled in silence while my mother corrected her drawn-on eyebrows, nearly permanent now that she had the habit of casually ripping out her brow hairs with her fingers. I was losing my patience and more nervous than I thought I’d be. I swallowed snot and jiggled the child-locked door. “Devin,” mom said with her eyes still on the mirror, “don’t open the door.”
“Thought I was here to help,” I said. “No, the house door,” she said. “The house will smell like her.”
“I mean like dead her,” she said, now looking straight at me.
“I said I know.” I found the lock, forced the handle, and blew my nose onto the wavy hot concrete. Mom got out halfway and drew one of her two-part breaths, exhaling forever. She looked so much older. Made me more annoyed. I thought about how slowly she’d moved in LAX, tripping over herself on the escalators, and how I’d actually felt sorry for her then. I watched her find the hide-a-key — the rock hadn’t changed — click it into the padlocked garage, then shove up with what looked like the last of her. Inside, hundreds of cardboard boxes lined the walls, all different sizes, five, maybe six deep in places, stacked to touch the ceiling.
We hesitated together on the threshold of the garage, which was surprisingly cool and deep. My decade-old memories of my grandmother, always busy preparing lunches, pulling weeds, or ordering toys I’d wanted off paid programming ads, were beginning to fade. Mom’s paranoia was replacing them, about Grandma’s drinking, her run-away debt, bad teeth, fat dog. From what little mom had said about growing up with an alcohol and credit-addicted single parent, I’d guessed there would be a lot of stuff. I was expecting it, just the sheer amount. But then I realized I probably would never see it all. I thought about crying. Maybe, if it had been a dump, we could’ve called a scrap truck.
Except what we had was a library, a temperature-controlled collection of everything Grandma might’ve breathed on since, like, the forties. She never really touched it either, by the look of the boxes’ sharp corners, how they hadn’t softened from age or being moved around. Each box had a Sharpie name tag on one side with her strange all-caps writing. My mother had already turned back to light a cigarette. I started reading the tags as fast as I could.
Hello, my name is: PANTS. FORMAL. ’71-’82. Hello, my name is: XMAS COUPONS (ALL). Hello, my name is: DRAWER ORGANIZERS. Hello, my name is: BUTTONS. (SINCE ’00). Hello, my name is: MELINDA — DOLLS (FOR DEVIN).
It would take months, maybe a year, to go through it all. But I could figure something out. I could block off the street, get a crane to arrange the boxes on a mile-long blanket where I could splay everything out, look at everything one at a time, then all at once. Sure, an inconvenience to the neighbors, but I could turn it into a museum, free of charge except for a suggested donation for my troubles, call it “Clara’s World.” Or I could make it a theme park with a Maze of Memories, games to win rodeo paraphernalia, rides like Tupperware Tumbler. I’d have info plaques with her favorite salad dressing flavors and get the catalogs she loved to sponsor the merchandise. There would be a big book at the end that everyone had to go out of where they would write down things they loved about her, even if they didn’t know her and were just there for the experience. Or I could win Antiques Roadshow.
“God, be near,” I heard mom say as she pulled out her notebook. “Who gets the house?” I asked. “The bank,” she said, continuing to write.
“Not your business,” she said, “even if there was anything.”
I waited. “Too bad,” I said, the closest I’d come to a condolence. I walked back into the heat of the driveway and scanned the street for neighbors, mailmen, dogs, anyone that she might’ve known by name or who might’ve known hers. My mother’s bleached, perm-curled hair had fallen over her made-up eyes, still on her notebook. I couldn’t believe it, she could write nonstop, but she refused to talk to me. I grabbed the key off the car hood and slipped it in my giant sweatshirt pocket. “I’ll check the mail,” I said. No response. I turned the corner, took the shallow steps to the back door under the fading scalloped awning, slipped in the key, and turned the lock.
I took a breath and considered if I should hold it while I tried to find the card, just in case of rotten food or, I don’t know, whatever mom was worried about. But I’d only taken one step and looked down before I saw it on a table, next to a fake hydrangea bouquet and an ashtray. On top of a plain envelope was a pink Hallmark card with owls who had rhinestones for eyes. “To my beautiful granddaughter,” the front read. I opened it immediately. “DEAR DEVIN,” was in the top left corner, printed small as if for a long message, but there was nothing below.
The silence in the 4×4 was tangible.
“Holy shit,” I muttered, forgetting the presence of my Mamaw two seats over — the kind who “doesn’t do spice,” capturing the life of the savannah with her first generation iPad as if she were Paul Nicklen, eyes squinting behind thick black frames to protect them from the slightest breeze — but no one seemed to be listening to me, except for a small chuckle escaping our guide’s lips, each word delivered with a thick Afrikaans accent: “Isn’t nature beautiful?” The rest of them just sat there, as did the birds, onlookers from a safe distance.
We watched the cheetah cubs toy with their live food. As if in a game of Marco Polo, each of the cubs’ movements was received by a bleat, weakening with every response, from the poor baby impala that must have strayed too far from its creche. At first it ran, or at least it attempted to, but its long sinewy legs, awkward and wobbly and fueled by what I could tell was only its mother’s milk, were the perfect chewing toys, and within an instant, a loud crack sealed the young one’s fate.
The wide brim of our guide’s hat cast a shadow over his pale skin, causing his white teeth to glisten and his eyes to sparkle with fascination and wonderment. All was quiet. He had turned down his radio, an action that seemed habitual, his fingers moving by muscle memory, but the meaning of which I couldn’t discern: was it a nod of respect to the gruesome death of the impala, or the elimination of background noise, causing each helpless cry and the destruction of flesh to echo throughout the bright open plains?
At that moment I was engulfed by the silence. Sometimes, the emotion that fills empty spaces rings louder in one’s ears than does any decibel of sound, and sometimes this deafening silence can transport you through time. I thought of Grandmommy. She was given two funerals. She was loved enough to fill two separate rooms full of stiff wooden pews on the first, and on the second, loved enough that the bitter December cold attracted a crowd, ignorant of their frozen tear ducts as their chattering teeth sobbed through the heatless church. As for Mamaw, she is also the kind that would receive two funerals. The matriarch that stands in the middle of each awkward family photo, with dozens of children pullulating from her lineage.
We watched as the cubs clumsily sank their juvenile teeth into the backside of the impala, and only with their mother’s help could they dislocate the rear quarter from the cordage connecting it to the young one’s frail bones. The impala no longer cried, only producing deep lumbering breaths; its head rested in the tall grass, with eyes wide. Its body was mutilated, not preserved, its funeral procession waiting to drive away without it and its time on Earth traded for currency and our viewing pleasure. I remember hearing my sister’s camera shutter click.
We sobbed as we watched the light go out.
We mourned on the ride back to the villas.
We were quiet over dinner.
We had other worries by morning.
We complained about the long flight ahead.
Upon returning home, we raved about the trip, and our new souvenirs: a beautiful zebra pelt, a spring buck throw, and two impala pelt pillow cases. The SD card containing the photos was lost in transit.