by Modesty Sanchez
With every passing minute, every punitive increase in temperature, every dreary mile of unchanging desert, we were brought closer and closer to our destination.
What the doctor should have done to the pregnant sixteen-year-old all those years ago was have the young girl lay on her belly while the doctor sat on her back, squeezing the tendrons of blood clots and fetal cells out of her like a pastry chef oozing frosting out of a piping bag. Or maybe the doctor could have acted more expeditiously and merely thrust her hand up inside the teenager, taking firm hold of whatever filmy semblance of a person resided in the girl’s uterus before yanking it out into the real world. Who knows how that would have altered the course of everyone’s lives–– maybe the young girl would have graduated high school and gone to university in a city far away, maybe she would have proceeded to become pregnant again, this time with the triplets of a meth addict rotting in a trailer park. Who’s to say? All I know is that if the doctor had done what should have been done, I wouldn’t be going sixty miles an hour through a barren, dusty desert, trying to summon whatever lens Georgia O’Keeffe utilized to find the redeemability of a sandpit like this.
I was in the passenger seat saying nothing while my mom, who had only encountered doctors who harshly judged pregnant teenagers but still managed to deliver their babies safely, feverishly tapped the steering wheel with her pointer finger and also said nothing. That makes us sound like boring people with empty space between our ears, but that is just not true. I, for one, was childishly brooding over the fact I really did not want to go to Tucumcari, which is the name of the scattered grouping of gas stations, drive-thrus, budget hotels, and rusted trucks that we were headed toward. Technically, it is a “town,” just one that can only be appreciated by long-distance truckers itching for a Sonic milkshake while making their way through the American Southwest. Still, the place is so prominently desolate that, at least according to my coastal elitist sensibilities, even to reductively call it a truck stop would be a gross glorification.
The only reason I can point at Tucumcari’s general location on a map and scoff and roll my eyes is because my mom’s grandfather lives there. It was his 90th birthday, which everyone was saying might be his last, so the whole family was making the trek to our hicktown Mecca for a makeshift reunion. Apparently cousins from Arizona and Nevada and other states routinely strangled by a dry heat were coming, though I was only going to know a total of six people: my mom, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my great-grandfather. The idea that I would have to spend the next few days feigning a familial bond with people I had only the most tenuous blood relation to made my dead eyes leaden further as I stared out the window. I heard the sounds of my mom’s own contemplation become more frenzied, as she started humming along to her fiendish finger-tapping.
With every passing minute, every punitive increase in temperature, every dreary mile of unchanging desert, we were brought closer and closer to our destination. Eventually, we made a slight right onto an exit ramp that spit us out onto a road that ran between rows of squat little buildings whose boarded up windows had holes punched out of the cheap wood through which I could see the hurried movements of vermin rustling amongst the debris inside. After a few more minutes of admiring the city life through the car’s windows, we turned onto a gravel road that took us into a neighborhood of houses spaced out by acres of desert. One of these houses belonged to my great-grandfather.
I always disliked his house, seeing it as a bad omen that never failed to produce an uncomfortable, piercing sensation between my eyes. When I was younger and my parents would send me to visit my grandparents in Albuquerque, I always dreaded the obligatory two-hour journey to his house. My great-grandfather had had a wife (his second or third?) who was nothing more than an incredible assortment of bones and liver spots and moth-eaten shawls and lecherous eyes and hair so thin it looked like it was hanging onto her scalp by the grace of God. Not that God graced her with anything; only someone who had long sold their soul to the devil would have such an absurd doll collection displayed throughout her house. They were the creepy vintage kind that all looked the same, with their frilly petticoats and overly designed prairie dresses, and I thought only a person incapable of human intimacy would have to turn to such cold porcelain for warmth. When she finally died, all of the dolls were moved into the guest room, where I was forced to stay every time I visited. Unable to sleep lest the dolls’ persecuting stares turned into something more sinister, I passed my time there more irritable and groggy than the asphyxiating desert heat already made me. It’s those feelings, along with the mildewy scent of decay, that grip me every time I think of that house.
But as much as I couldn’t stand that woman, as much as she inspired such a visceral blend of discomfort and disgust every time I had to breathe the same oxygen as her, I still knew her better than my great-grandfather. I honestly felt fraudulent even including him amongst the six people I would know at this reunion. I know him better now that I’m older, of course, but I remember how aghast I was as a fifteen-year-old at the doll collector’s funeral, watching as he peered over the as-yet-empty grave with a protective arm around his date’s waist. I couldn’t believe it, but nobody else really seemed surprised. I later learned the date was his dead wife’s cousin.
That’s not to say he was completely incapable of forming lasting attachments. Every time I visited, he would be seated in a recliner that was easily triple my age, a can of beer nestled in his hand (I swear his hand morphed into a flesh cup-holder, that’s how naturally the beer fit), and Fox News blaring from the ancient TV. When I was younger, he would sit me on his lap like a Santa Claus whose only present was a desultory “you’ve gotten so big!” but as I got older our salutations gradually devolved into nothing more than a mere smile and nod. The only times I’d seen him get out of the chair were to feed his beloved dachshund mixes; I heard he got up a few other times to grief-strickenly dig up the dogs’ corpses and cry into their decomposing bodies, but I wasn’t there for that. I think such an intense display from someone with such a shallow capacity for love would have been too unsettling, anyway.
The only person left who still wanted to care for him was one of his daughters, my grandma. After a childhood of him beating, berating, and dismissing her, she continued to devote herself to an impossible mission: turn him into a father figure. My aging grandma routinely made the long trek to his hovel so she could do his dishes or tidy up after him or attempt to organize his mess of hoarded objects; still, she never felt she was doing enough and only dedicated herself further as he continued to get older and more bitingly senile. Now, she was orchestrating this whole birthday/family reunion extravaganza, intent on making what could be his “last” birthday memorable. I wish there was more inventive reasoning, but every year since I could remember was supposed to be his last, and I was starting to think he might outlive me. I appreciated the karmic humor in that thought.
When we finally pulled into the driveway, we were relieved to find we were the first to arrive. My mom put the car in park and took a deep yogic breath. We locked eyes and I let out a shaky laugh. Neither of us wanted to get out of the car, neither of us wanted to be there, seriously, why were we doing this? I could tell from my mom’s expression as we got down and started our deadman’s walk to the front door that she was asking herself the same question. Through the window I could see my great-grandfather predictably sat in his faded, decrepit throne, facing the TV, which I knew from the reflection on his glasses was showing some blonde woman with a look of disgust on her face excitedly wave her skinny arms in the air. Suddenly I heard my grandma shout from the kitchen, asking him what he wanted to eat. Her words came out breathlessly like she was still moving when she posed her question. He only grunted in response; he was perennially dissatisfied so it didn’t really matter.
Before I could even think, I grabbed my mom’s arm right when she raised it to knock and I pulled her away from the door, from the house, from the front yard, from the whole property. We ran and ran, splaying our arms wildly and kicking up the soft, red dirt of the road with each step. When we stopped, the sun and moon had begun the peaceful transfer of the sky, which was consumed by a vivid blend of maroons and oranges and violets and deep blues. As the sun set further, a great expanse of stars that weren’t as shy as the ones I was used to in the city shone brightly against the rich darkness of the colors. We could see silhouettes of cacti and tumbleweed for miles, and every now and then we could even hear prairie dogs calling out to each other in the night.
We still had to return and help my grandma greet the arriving guests, make the beds, cook the food for tomorrow, and appease her assuredly reclining father; but the idea that such a responsibility could possibly await us under the same sky refused to stick in my brain. Regardless, when my mom finally turned her serene gaze from the stars and started heading back, I unhesitatingly followed the solid silhouette of her receding figure.
© Modesty Sanchez
Modesty Sanchez (she/her) is a writer from Long Beach, California who is now based in Valencía, Spain. She’s been published in various online magazines; you can find her work on her Substack or website. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s usually doing yoga, tanning on the beach, or watching Seinfeld.
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