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The mountain story

The Mountain Story
by Lori Lansens
The Mountain Story BEFORE My boyhood home on Old Dewey Road stood among similar clapboard bungalows in the older, grimier section of Mercury, upwind of Michigan's largest rendering plant, with the train tracks near enough that I could distinguish passenger from freight by the way the house shook. A year and a half after my mother's accident--that's what we called it--my father briefly got sober and painted the entire house, inside and out, a dark, flat blue. Drowning Man Blue. Frankie said it was a tribute to Glory. She loved the color blue. Frankie said I was too young, only four years old when she passed away, to have an honest recollection of my mother, but I do. Glory Elizabeth Truly. In my favorite memory she wears a silky white dress with batwing sleeves--one I've never seen in photographs. She's standing in front of a dressing room mirror, smiling at our reflection, and behind us is another mirror where I discover our infinity. "Always," I say. My beautiful mother laughs and tells me I'm clever before covering my face with soft kisses and spinning me in her embrace. I glimpse us with each turn. Glory looks like an angel in that white dress. I remember the mornings with my mother the most, watching her get ready for work (kindergarten teacher) while Frankie ("entrepreneur") slept upstairs. We talked in whispers as she made up her pretty face and spritzed her curls with lemon-scented hairspray. Before disappearing out the door, she'd turn to smile and then lay her hand on her heart to say she kept me there, even when she was away. After she died, Frankie had her name tattooed on his forearm--Glory, in a rainbow that arched over the word Always. I used to think it would have been truer if the tattoo said Glory Once or Glory Briefly or, even better, Sorry, Glory. I have never, to my recollection, called Frankie by any name other than his first. My ears were filled with the sound of it, usually shouted, often slurred, by the strangers who came and went from that smoke-choked blue house. Men who slammed doors and broke bottles. Women I didn't know cooking food I wouldn't eat. Children I'd never seen playing board games I didn't own. I remember one time Frankie tossed me a package of gum and warned, "Share that with your sisters." I turned around to find two freckled redheads I'd never seen before sitting behind me on the couch. Glory Always? She was only twenty-five (Frankie a full decade older) when she died. I have my mother's smile, I've been told, but otherwise I'm the image of my father. I remember after a second-grade lesson about immigration, I'd asked Frankie the details of my heritage. He told me that Glory's family came from England when she was a baby and that her parents, both older physicians, had died of natural causes before my mother graduated from teachers college. Frankie guessed they wouldn't have liked him. It did occur to me that if Glory's parents had lived longer, I might never have lived at all. When I asked about his side of the family, Frankie hesitated. He was secretive about his past, like me. "On my father's side we were Trulinos until the nineteen thirties, but then my grandfather decided he wanted a more American-sounding name, so he changed it to Truly and that caused a rift and that's how we ended up in Michigan. On my mother's side we're French Canadian and Cree. My cousins came down to visit us from Quebec one time. They were dark and lean. Badass. I take after my mother's side. That's how come I'm so stealthy. Why I like my feet bare." There was this rotting cedar porch out front of our blue house from which I'd leap as a boy--towel-cape aflutter behind me--shouting, "I am Batman," or "I am Superman," but I remember one day I lost my cape, and I'd simply shouted, "I am . . . ME!" Frankie slammed his palm on the kitchen table and hollered through the open window, "That kinda arrogance'll take you to Cleveland, Wolf! Cleveland and back!" Whether he meant to encourage, mock, or scold me, I still have no clue. My father has left me, my whole life, in a state of wonder. One spring day when I was thirteen, Frankie stood up from the kitchen table and announced, "We need to be near family now," like the tragedy of my mother's death was ten days, and not nearly ten years, old. "What family?" "We're moving to California. This summer." "Okay." "We'll stay with Kriket till we get on our feet." I'd never been to California and neither had Frankie. I'd never met his sister Kriket (Katherine) and never knew them to be close. I figured Frankie had gotten himself into some kind of trouble in Mercury, a debt he couldn't repay, or maybe he'd slept with somebody's wife or girlfriend or sister or mother. You wouldn't think women would go for an unemployed widower in a stained concert T-shirt, but there were plenty of pretty girls around to finger the rainbow on Frankie's Glory Always tattoo. "I reek of pheromones," he told me once, flapping his hands around his armpits, encouraging me to take a whiff. We made a plan to head for Kriket's place in the California desert in late July. Frankie was vague when I asked about the future of the little blue house. (Later he told me he'd lost it in a bet.) He bulldozed Glory's toiletries from their bathroom shelf shrine--the lemon-scented hairspray, prescription ointment for a patch of eczema, an unopened box of decongestant to relieve her springtime allergies--and threw them all into the trash. "Won't need all this where we're going, Wolf," he said, which made me wonder why we'd needed it where we were. I spent a lot of time at the Mercury Public Library when I was kid. Frankie sent me there to borrow books by way of free babysitting. Miss Kittle was the head librarian, a buttoned-up brunette who, along with the rest of the staff, barely tolerated me. I couldn't blame them. I stole doughnuts from the seniors' meetings, made a mess of the shelves, and spent far too much time in the men's room. Still, I loved the library. I loved books. I especially loved plump, berry-scented Miss Kittle. A few weeks before we left for the desert, Miss Kittle surprised me by calling out my name when I walked through the library doors. "Wolf Truly!" There was something different about Miss Kittle--her cheeks were pinker and her lips were glossed and her thick dark hair fell in waves over her shoulders. By the look of her face I wasn't in trouble, which confused me. "I have something for you, Wolf," she said. Miss Kittle had never spoken directly to me before. "Okay." "I heard you were moving to Santa Sophia." Her eyes were even prettier up close. "My aunt Kriket lives there," I said. "That's where I'm from," Miss Kittle said. "My father still lives there. I visit every summer." "California's a long way from Michigan." My cheeks were hot. "I had to move up here to help take care of my grandmother. I miss the desert." "I'll miss winter." "Ah!" she said, raising her index finger. Then she reached beneath the counter and drew out a large, heavy book. "You won't have to miss winter." "I won't?" "You'll have the mountain," she said, passing me the hefty book. "The Mountain in the Desert." The moment I glimpsed the photograph on the cover--a helicopter shot of the pine-rimmed granite peak--I knew that mountain contained my destiny. The details leaped from the pages like some 3-D déjà vu: ten thousand feet at the summit; mother of the transverse mountain ranges; hundreds of miles of pristine wilderness; hunting ground of the Agua Caliente band of Native Americans; habitat of bighorn sheep, mountain lions, rattlesnakes; precipitation ten times higher than what falls in the desert below; torrential rains in spring and fall, blizzards in winter. It was a place I'd never heard of but felt that I'd already been. "You have to climb to the peak," Miss Kittle said. "That looks pretty high." "You take the tram most of the way," she said, turning to the back of the book and pointing to a full-page photograph. "The ride up is almost vertical. Look." It was. "This tramcar takes you from the Desert Station--the climate of Mexico--to the Mountain Station--the climate of northern Canada--in less than twenty minutes. Palms to pines." "Cool," I said. "You can climb to the peak from there. I only made it once," she confessed. "It was cloudy." "Too bad." "Maybe I'll try again when I'm in Palm Springs this summer to visit my father," she said. "You should." "Maybe I'll see if you and your dad want to come with me. Frankie--right?" She blushed. Oh no, I thought. Frankie never came into the library, so I couldn't imagine where the two had met. "Frankie. That's right," I said. "Do you know where in Santa Sophia your aunt lives?" "Verdi Village," I said, remembering what Frankie told me. "Sounds familiar. I think it's gated." I knew nothing about gates. "Most of the gated places have golf." VERDI VILLAGE did not have golf. Or gates. Or shimmering pools. Or tennis courts. Or decorative fountains. Or paved roads for that matter. Santa Sophia was a tidy desert town consisting of mostly guarded, affluent communities. But past the mission-style shopping malls, and beyond the fuchsia bougainvillea and the median beds of white aggregate and flowering cacti, and over the abandoned train tracks, thousands populated the thrice-foreclosed-upon Verdi Village mobile home development that bled out over two square miles of hard-baked, treeless earth. The original double-wide, pitch-roofed aluminum trailers were run-down, but at least they still had electricity and running water, unlike the second strata of mobile housing grown from the seeds of Airstream and Coachmen and Four Winds. Past that, the vagabonds had erected a haphazard crust of shacks and shanties, shelter for economic refugees, the mentally ill, and bikers. Locals called the place Tin Town. In those dangerous narrows grew children who knew too much too young but, sadly, always seemed to learn too little too late. It was hot as hell in Tin Town--it set the most records in the state for triple-digit temperatures. I can still smell the unwashed bodies and twice-fried sausage, cigarette smoke and cat shit; and I can hear the discontent like bad radio reception. But mostly I can feel it--the wind, constant through the San Gorgonio Pass, polishing the earth and nourishing the groves of wind turbines along the desert roads. You can see those ribbons of straight white stalks from eight thousand feet up the mountain. It's a hell of a view. Excerpted from The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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The mountain story