Away from the sunrise in a solemn dance - part 1
Some stories have a certain inevitability and looking back a few years down the line, I wonder if this is one of those stories.
Picture the isolated community in a tiny town off interstate 40. San Jon, New Mexico. Population 200. The town hunches vulture-like on old route 66. The mother road, the ghost road - its markings, mirage wobbly, converging to a point on the distant horizon.
And why was I there? Well everyone’s somewhere, and to be frank, the why of me being there is none of your concern. Suffice it to say, I’d rocked up in this town with its weathered wood and broken buildings. With its long, solemn windows, shutters winking; hiding the souls of the houses in the same way some people hide their souls when they won’t meet your eye.
This town let the sky through old roofs, creating slatted light as thin and mean as a cat’s eyes in full sun. Here, lives stopped in the middle of something, whatever that something was that brought people to the town in the first place.
Steps here led up to nothing. Funhouse-crazy doors no longer fitted their frames and people no longer fitted their lives. Easy chairs on stoops had views of silos and disused gas pumps only. On the rickety Shell Oil Company sign, it was the hell part of Shell that stood out for me.
It would be easy to be sentimental and imagine life had once been easier, but old photographs on the walls of the only surviving bar showed the grimacing faces of short lives lived hard. Why this bar had made it when others hadn’t was hard to discern. The ghosts of old bars lingered on in the battered signs along Main Street, still touting their names. Rich Henry’s. The Dixie. Cozy Dogz.
Sure, amongst the ruination of fifties’ rest havens, there were the houses that hadn’t given in to time or the desert. Pursed lipped dwellings with sanctimonious flower boxes, asserting their ability to produce viable blooms. But what you really felt in every crawl of your noon hot skin was the obsolescence. In back yards, rusting cars and trucks slumped like children’s drawings of dinosaurs. The bridge over the sluggish river had been long chained off and then bolt-cutter opened again. On the ‘Danger, do not cross’ sign, some optimist had added their own imperative. Ain’t no matter to me. Still gotta get over dat water.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what crushed me more. The weight of the heat or the boundless skies. All I know is it was only when there were the infrequent, wild storms that my mood lightened. I felt everything - a synthesis of all my senses, making one. The smell, the sound, the sight of the storm, electricity pricking my nerve endings. In the mustard blue of a desert sky, the taste of dull, sulphurous rain on my tongue.
These storms never stayed though and never made any lasting impression, I suppose. What I remember the most is the sitting off Main Street, hypnotised by the slow heat of the afternoon, wishing like hell I was home. That, and Mama Custodian.
I didn’t know her actual name then. That only came later in the newspaper reports, when everyone knew who she was. She was a large woman - in late middle age, I’d guessed, when I first saw her. My go-to memory is of her sitting on a barrel on the stoop of the convenience store I gathered later was run by her brother. I never saw her working in the store, nor did I ever speak to her, but I remember her stillness that gave off a kind of unsettling elegance and grace.
She caught my eye and smiled at me once - curling lips revealing small, sharp teeth, in a similar way the red and white paint of the old barber’s pole peeled back to expose the ugly metalwork beneath it.
To myself only, I named her Mama Custodian because she always seemed to have grocery bags at her feet. I could never see what was in them on my frequent, aimless walks past, but I often saw other people carrying more bags to add to the ones already there. I imagined her being gifted vital objects from people’s lives to ensure they never left town. Photographs, letters, secrets. Hoarding everything in some dusty room. Protector and curator.
In a strange way, I wasn’t so far off the truth, but not in the way I was imagining. No, not in that way at all. But yes, Mama Custodian’s story was one about love and control. Like most stories are in the end.
From this distance of time, I wonder whether she ever had the same view of the edge of town that I did. On the corner of Main Street, looking out on the desert; at the periphery of things. Past the darkened neon into the cold of the night. The upstretched branches of ancient trees imploring, but to whom? To whom?
I know I’m seen as a doom-monger by some and I can see why this might be said. However, even I understand a truth to live by - the sun will set and then it will rise again. It’s just a lot can happen within a day’s span, but that's a story for another time.
And what do I believe in? This isn’t belief, but what I know. That is, some people like the roads that lead to nowhere. That grass will eventually come up between cracks in sidewalks. That bodies will rise out of the ground if you wait long enough.
No, on balance, it’s not God or the devil I believe in, but the visceral fierceness of a mother’s love.
(The title is a line from the film, ‘The Seventh Seal’.)