FOR REBECCA CHEKOURAS - by Ryan Buell


I couldn’t let my husband know I was driving. One week from my due date, big as a manatee, I sped through San Francisco hoping to get home before he found out, but the closer I got to our apartment in The Mission, the more new construction choked the streets. In the few hours I’d been away my old, familiar route had become a maze of detours. I topped the hill at Liberty just as a man in a white hard hat and orange vest stepped into the intersection and raised a STOP sign. I hit the brakes. Hard. The steering wheel branded my chest and the lap belt scored my round stomach like a pill. I snapped back into the seat. A cement truck shifted into reverse, bleated for attention, and backed into the street. I ran my hands across my stomach; froze at the lesser chime of my phone pinging the arrival of a text.

No name. A number I didn’t recognize. I tapped just to burn off nerves. A sprawling hyperlink appeared and turned a half dozen times in the text box before it petered out in ellipse. Outside the shell of my car the cement truck pushed its churning rear-end up on gasping pistons and, grunting like an elephant, ran a shitload of wet slurry down the chute. I clicked the link. A video opened. The camera was trained to the windshield of a car as it drove through mountains at the tree line. No sound. Sunlight hit the glass and bleached the view to white but it came right back. The two lane road narrowed to a vanishing point. Above it all was pure blue sky. None of this meant anything to me. The camera panned to the passenger window. Speed smeared the trees to a green line. The camera pulled back and crossed a woman’s bare foot propped against the dash, her nails iridescent blue, and found the driver. My husband of three years looked into the frame and smiled. His cheeks pushed up the sunglasses I’d given him for his last birthday. James said something but there was only his mouth shaping silent words and his face crinkled with happiness. I hit replay over and over attempting to read his lips, lips that have been on my mouth, between my legs where amniotic fluid now stained a dark triangle. Ethan was born later that day, feet first, his arms above his head, screaming like he was taking the Kowabunga chute at Water World.

 

James said he would take Ethan and he did. I called for a taxi and stood in the round bay of our Huntington Park Victorian to watch for it, next to me the spinner I’d packed last night. No business clothes. Only simple cotton shifts, tees, and slacks; some eye-popping jewelry to jazz up summer evenings in the desert. And a canvas bag I once used to haul the many things an infant needs just to leave the house. James and Ethan stood on the corner below holding hands. At WALK, they stepped down. The window glass, scalloped by time, distorted the geometry of my husband and our three year-old. Watery and loose-jointed, they shifted shape and crossed the street.

The taxi pulled up. I grabbed my spinner, its handle snapped to attention, and shouldered the canvas bag that now held an iPad, phone, book proposal, wallet, keys, passport, ticket, and, finally, a contract with two blank spaces for signatures. I had one leg in the taxi and was about to fold to the seat when I caught the red square of Ethan’s jacket in the blue V of his father’s arm. I straightened up to wave. James pointed to the sky. Ethan’s upturned face followed. I dropped onto the cracked and sprung black pleather seat and pulled the door after me. The cabbie eased into traffic. I leaned forward, “SFO, International.” I glanced back but the park was already gone. I had an instant, desperate fear I’d left something behind. I tore at the bag; found my wallet and passport. Everything was where I’d put it. I fell back and hugged my possessions to my chest. The bag collapsed like a bellows and sent up a whiff of stale baby piss as faint as a radio signal from the edge of space.  

 

7:45 a.m. I found an empty bar in the Aeromexico terminal and took a seat near the beer pulls. Thought about calling home but shook it off. I’d been gone less than an hour. The barman clicked on the TV and set a cocktail napkin in front of me. I considered coffee, ordered a bloody Mary. My editor wanted Lupé Garza’s photographs to illustrate my book, Women at the Crossroads: Gender, Culture, Work. She’d given me a catalog of an early exhibition in New York. I knew almost nothing about Garza who, I discovered, had been notorious in the 70s; a darling of the club and gallery scenes and then, poof, she disappeared into the Mexican high desert, rumored to be near Los Huesos. If Garza had an agent I couldn’t find them. If she had a phone no one had the number. To satisfy my boss, I sent a fax general delivery to the Los Huesos post office. A week later an answer came thudding back through the old machine. Garza would take a meeting at her hacienda.

The barman set my drink in front of me and returned to the Real Madrid game on TV. I took a sharp, peppery sip and flipped through the catalog. The text offered only dates and places, no narrative or critique of the plates, all black and white on heavy stock. Meager shacks, working animals burdened to the point of collapse, dogs whose jutting, corrugated ribs cut ribbons of dark shadow into their flanks. Women looked up from their ancient work and smiled into the lens. Half-naked, sun-blackened children squatted in rain puddles and dragged a stick through reflected sky. Garza made no apology for her subjects’ lives and neither did they. Their easy, direct confrontation with the camera balanced the power equation—the one seen and the one seeing were equals in a fair exchange. I ran Garza through Google; churned up scores of the famous shot of her studio window reproduced now on everything from handbags to dinner plates. It’s an arresting image. On the near side of the broad plane of glass are the cameras and lens of an artist; on the other side, the Mexican high desert as alien as a distant planet of thin atmosphere and relentless heat; rock and cactus punched up from colorless moon dirt. A place only the fierce could endure. And behind the camera Garza, unseen yet so present in her work I had the feeling she stood at my shoulder and watched me search for her until my flight was called and I gathered my things.

Five hours later, the plane banked steeply and aimed for a runway no bigger than a stick of gum shoehorned into a mountain pass. I could never bear to think of the plane as falling. James always told me to get over it so I imagined instead the strip rising up to meet us. The tarmac slammed into the wheels. I was thrown forward. My hand pressed into the seat in front of mine until some ratio of gravity to momentum yanked me back.

 

I found my driver easily in the small terminal. Felipe, dusty jeans, a plaid cotton shirt, unbuttoned, sleeves rolled above the elbow, a beater underneath, and a wide-brimmed hat that hung down his back on a strap, was perhaps twenty. His family owned a business shuttling snowbirds to vacation rentals. He said Los Huesos was a two-day drive up rough terrain. We’d stay at a ranchero that night; arrive tomorrow in the late afternoon. He took my bags and led me to an open Jeep. We buckled in and he glanced over to me, his eyebrows knit into a single band of dark concern. “You got a hat?” I didn’t.

The asphalt road leading us out of the airport stopped at the gate in a clean, straight line an inch higher than the compacted gravel that stretched away to the bend of an ascending grade. The Jeep took the incline with ease. Felipe shouted to be heard above the wind. “Only a few pueblos from here to Los Huesos.  Old. Very small. Let me know if you want to stop.”

Wind and dust choked our conversation down to gestures and smiles. Occasionally, the pass flattened out and a cloudless sky cupped the plateau. We picked up speed until the next turn and we climbed again, a pattern we repeated for two hours until Felipe tapped my arm and pointed ahead to a dark smudge lining the road. We closed in on a couple dozen parked trucks so weather beaten light wouldn’t bounce off them. Felipe shouted it was the anniversary of the mission church and, therefore, the founding of the village. He said people came from all over to celebrate. I asked him to stop and reached for my phone.

We parked and walked in with a knot of recent arrivals, all families, the men in their good hats, pressed jeans and stiff white guayaberas, the women in ironed cotton dresses or long skirts. We scaled a slight rise together and a smattering of one and two story buildings on either side of a dirt road appeared. The church stood at the end of this main street. When we reached the village, several of our compañeros stopped walking and dropped to their hands and knees to merge with those already crawling toward the priest who waited alone for his flock on the stone steps of the church, his arms open and ready to enfold them. I opened the camera app on my phone and raised it, pointed it at the procession. Felipe’s touch landed light as a hummingbird on my arm.

“It is a penance, Señora. Between them and God.”

I nodded and moved farther up the street. I silenced the shutter and took a few discreet shots of the church. I thought perhaps with sufficient distance I could photograph the worshippers as an anonymous whole rather than individuals. I back pedaled and caught their line at an angle revealing both the posture of the penitents and their number. The shot was as good as I would get and I slid the phone into my jeans pocket. I walked around the back of the church mostly to duck out of sight and return, inconspicuous, to Felipe. Tucked away so that it couldn’t be seen from the street a satellite dish raised its patient face and searched the sky for satellites. I checked my watch still on San Francisco time. Ethan and James would be waking from their nap. I was trying to connect to a signal when Felipe came up behind me. I asked him for help but he said we had to leave. The light was slipping away and the temperature falling.

“Night will come fast. Do you have a jacket?” he said.

 

We gained the road and picked up speed. The sun fell behind the tallest peak and all color drained from the landscape. Visibility soon wound down to the reach of our headlights. The loss of horizon disoriented me completely. Suspended in an ebony void, a thousand ice-blue stars all around, a man I’d met only hours before barreled straight at nothing I could see. No signs, no railings. I kept my eyes on the dashboard to avoid the terror in the windshield. This entire adventure suddenly felt crazy. I didn’t even know where here was. We arrived at the ranchero and were met by a husband and his wife who wrapped me, shivering, in a blanket until water could be heated for a bath. At dawn, Felipe found a jacket for me and we again set off for Los Huesos.

 

We topped a long, slow rise, the last in the series taking us up Garza’s mountain. The vista flattened to a broad sweep of sky and ochre dirt. My faxed directions positioned the turn to her place about two miles into the plateau. The sun was directly overhead and strong enough to melt the horizon to quicksilver. I was excited to be in the teeth of the thing now; to arrive, to work the deal, to finalize the book that had taken me four years to write. I dug in my jacket pocket. I wanted a picture to show Ethan I’d traveled to the end of the earth and back to make the book he would hold in his hands, an object of weight and edges and corners. His mother’s work. My work. I snapped a picture but it was useless. The landscape couldn’t be contained within the tiny frame. I enlarged the image hoping to find some serendipity of composition that could support the narrative of this moment, the enormity of time and place, but the harder I tried the more my purpose eluded me. I dropped the phone and strained forward searching for the trunk road. A dark husk floated on the shimmering horizon, no bigger than a fly rubbing its veined wings.

We pulled nose-to-nose with a two-tone Ford pickup, the white abraded by sand to chalk and its turquoise faded. The door opened. A leg of lime green stretch pants slid from behind the wheel. A pink Croc reached for the runner. Blue-black hair gathered in a simple, red rubber band fell to wide hips. With a jump to the ground, a nut brown woman of indeterminate age birthed herself from the truck. Her demeanor, masked by mirrored aviator sunglasses, bore no trace of emotion.

I hopped from the Jeep, pushed my sunglasses up into my hair. “Lark Donne,” I said and walked toward her with my hand outstretched. Her sunglasses reflected back to me a crazy woman. Wind-whipped hair sprang from a face peppered with road dust except where sunglasses had preserved the white hollows of my eyes. I smoothed my hair. She nodded to me and spoke to Felipe in Spanish. He replied at length and I wondered as he settled my bags in her truck bed whether he spoke of me, either defending me or calling out my astounding lack of preparation for the climate or journey. I still wore his jacket and offered it back to him.

“Keep it. For night,” he said and touched the brim of his hat, first to me, then her, turned and climbed into the Jeep. A trough of anguished split my stomach. I still held my phone, the one artifact that connected me to the world I’d left, to him. I pointed the tiny blue eye at the Jeep and hit Record; stayed with it until the Jeep and driver were consumed by dust. I let go; watched until the rooster tail faded from view. I turned back. There was no one behind me. Sunlight glinted off the truck’s rust-pocked chrome. The passenger door swung open.

The road in consisted of two jolting lanes worn into scrub. I felt stupid for not asking my driver’s name before but couldn’t bring myself to ask her now. She gave nothing, not so much as a glance. I admired the landscape and remarked muy buen or linda as beauty demanded but she said nothing. Appalled by my desire to win her sullen approval I stopped talking.

 

The hacienda simply rose from the desert floor, a single story the same color as the dirt it was made of; no yard, no trees or shrubs. Only a double door of sun-pounded wood set back in a wall of baked mud. I was dropped in front. The truck, with my bags, crunched around to the back. I waited in the mark of my own shadow, seared to the bone by the same ancient star that had cured the adobe. I was about to call out when the door opened and a tall, slim woman stepped forward. She stopped half in, half out of the slanting afternoon sun and, perfectly bisected by light and shadow, raised her hand to her eyes. Her fawn dress was indistinguishable from her skin and at first impression I thought she was naked. She wore her snow white hair plaited and wound around her head.

“Welcome to my home, Miss Donne,” Garza said. Her high, thin voice rose and dipped like a swallow in flight. “Please, come in,” and she stepped aside to let me pass.

The hacienda was constructed as a rectangle around an interior patio open to the blistering sky. Beneath an arcade that ran the perimeter, a series of doors set at even intervals marked the individual rooms. The patio was surprisingly verdant despite its exposure. Clay jardinières, some tall, others low to the red clay tiles, were scattered around the arcade’s weather beaten timber supports. They lent shade to an arrangement of red, yellow, and orange blooms as broad and wrinkled as handkerchiefs. A fountain at center drew from a catchment Garza said was trapped in mountain caverns. “It was a deep drill, Miss Donne. Went on forever.” She ladled water into a shallow, earthenware bowl for me to rinse my hands and face and then motioned toward a pair of low-slung canvas chairs next to a Japanese table set with two glasses and a pitcher. The woman who met me appeared, in each hand a plate of sliced tomatoes, roasted corn, beans and rice. “Gracias,” I said to her continuing silence. Garza did not introduce her. I snuck a glance to my host. She seemed unperturbed. The woman walked back the way she came, passing from the bright sunlight of the patio to deep umber beneath the arcade. Light fanned around her feet when she opened the door. The door closed and swept the light in with it.

Garza ate, slowly, patiently. I mimicked her pace to be polite. James often remarked I ate like a refugee. When she finished, Garza set her plate aside and lifted the pitcher. “More tea, Miss Donne?”

“Please, call me Lark.” I wanted to establish a sense of shared purpose, of being on the same side in some endeavor that did not include her nameless assistant. I asked about her work to draw a circle around just us. “Maybe begin with your aesthetic? How it developed?”

The longer Garza thought the more self-conscious I became. At the bright ring of her voice the air rushed from my lungs.

“I shoot to witness, not shape or interpret. My aesthetic is to stay in the background where I can observe unobserved, if you follow my meaning. Invisibility is my passport. One can go anywhere on it.”

I waited but she said nothing more. Perhaps it was fatigue or simply a nagging fear of failure but I pushed. “Tell me how you became a photographer. What obstacles did you have to overcome?” I hardly recognized the woman asking these ridiculous questions.

“Learning to use the equipment,” Garza said. “I had to learn my craft like anyone else.” With that she suggested I rest for a bit and we could talk again after. She rose easily from the scoop of her chair. “Alma,” she called, and the other woman appeared.

 

Alma showed me to my room. The air had lost some of its burn and the shutters had been pushed open. The sun teetered on a far ridge and cast our shadows long on the floor. Both bags were on the bed. “I’d like to shower,” I said and opened the spinner. I expected Alma to leave. Instead she remained. Not in the doorway but in the room with me.

She ran her hand along the top of the canvas bag. “You are a traveler?”

“Yes,” I said. “Well, not so much anymore. Once. I want to again.”

“You know Mexico?”

“I’ve been to a few places. Oaxaca. San Miguel de Allende.” I sounded like every rube come to San Francisco and making a beeline for Fisherman’s Wharf and The Haight.

“Yes, but did you cross to the other side?”

Before I could ask what she meant, she turned and left; closed the door behind her. I sat on the edge of the bed. The sun hit me full in the face. I lay back, draped my arm over my eyes.

 

It was dark when I awoke chilled and disoriented; my clothes twisted all about my arms and legs. The house was quiet. I rose and went out. The patio was awash in the bone light of the moon. Indigo shadows splattered the floor and walls. I retraced Alma’s steps and pushed the door open. Outside, in the scoop of three low walls and a slanted half-roof, I could just make out a table and stove. Alma’s truck was parked there. A sharp tang of wood smoke threaded the clear, clean air and I followed it about a hundred yards out to a low building with a wide entrance cut into the side.

A double panel wood door mounted on a tractor rail and pushed back exposed much of the interior. A small lamp glowed on a long wooden desk under which had been kicked a pair of shoes and Alma’s pink Crocs. Clothes draped the back and seat of a chair. And there, on the wall opposite me, the iconic studio window framed not the hostile desert but the Milky Way thrown like a bolt of luminous cloth down the table of the night. Trapped in the glass, my own pale reflection grew larger with each forward step I took. The cameras. The lenses. All still there. I put both hands on the sill and leaned toward my own face. Hard to my right, Garza and Alma sat naked in a hot tub, arms stretched along the rim. Light danced up through the water and jumpy white polygons tattooed their skin. Alma’s hair bobbed on the surface like a net that had captured the pale fish of her breasts. She said something I couldn’t hear. Garza raised her head to laugh and saw me. I drew back, ashamed to be caught spying.

Alondra,” Garza called. Her voice came through the open door behind me. “Come join us.”

I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen or heard her. I left the studio and rounded the corner to the building’s blind side. A wood fire burned in a stone pit and sent up a fakir’s rope of thin, white smoke. On seeing me, Garza nodded to where the firelight faltered and yielded to infinite night. There, a wooden pallet sat on the ground, above it the glint of a metal showerhead atop a pole. Another ten yards beyond the shower, the silhouetted struts and bowl of a satellite dish. The fax. The road trip to a tiny encampment in the middle of Boom Fuck. I whipped back to the women who watched me and waited for my reaction.

I stripped and left my clothes where they fell. The shower seemed to draw from the hot core of the earth and I scrubbed off road dirt, careful to run my hands over every inch of flesh, into every crevice and fold unconcerned with what the Garza or Alma thought. Dripping all the way to the tub, I climbed in and sat directly across from Alma; returned her silent appraisal. Garza was quiet. Minutes passed before Alma lifted her hands above the water and slapped her palms together first one way then the other like a woman flattening a ball of raw hamburger. The slow smack of her hands carried in the thicker air of night. I almost believed Felipe was listening. The priest could hear it. That James sat up in bed, his head cocked to the window. I refused to look away. I disliked her and wanted her to know it. She let her knees fall open and the light shone on her. I stood abruptly. My hot skin steamed in the cool night. I climbed out, gathered my clothes, and crushed them to a ball I held between my dripping breasts. “Alondra,” Garza called after me as I walked away. “Meet me in the studio when you’re ready.”

 

I threw my clothes to the floor of my dark room, sat naked there, my mouth slack, my hands between my knees. I waited for my heart rate to come down, for my head to deliver some kind of instruction. I understood nothing of the last twenty four hours. My mind churned the same three scenes. James in the video turning to the camera and smiling. Felipe turning to me in the Jeep and saying, You got a hat? Alma’s hands slapping first one way then turning the other. The loop persisted. I couldn’t stop it said out loud, James’ smile, Felipe’s question, Alma’s hands over and over, convinced my chant erected a barrier between me and whatever lay crouched in my heart unseen, unknown. If I stopped whatever hid there would detonate. So I shivered and chanted and waited until other voices crowded my ear, angry voices growing louder. The voices then stopped abruptly and I did, too. I listened in the dead night. The explosive start of a gasoline engine. The spray of gravel kicked against a hard surface. I rose and threw on a white tee and linen slacks and rushed out. Skirted the blue shadows. Hurried into the kitchen. Alma’s truck was gone and beyond the enclosure the studio convulsed in orange light. I ran.

The fire. It was being fed. I rushed to the back of the building. Garza stood alone, face to the fire. Scores of prints lay scattered at her feet others blackened and curled in the pit. She bent and scooped up an armload; hugged the photographs to her chest. I raced to the shower. There wasn’t a hose or bucket. I could only go back and scoop-up hands full of dirt to choke the flames.

Alondra.”

I dug faster. It wasn’t enough.

Alondra stop.”

We stood side-by-side. My chest heaved with each breath. Garza threw what she held in her arms to the embers. Paper curled and smoked. Flames closed over everything. I stared at her, completely defeated. She would not return my gaze. After a moment she walked away. I guarded the fire until it smoldered.

 

I entered without knocking. Garza knew I was there but studied the several cameras arranged on the sill. Alma’s clothes and shoes were gone. Garza lifted an ancient Leica. “It’s the same one,” she said showing it to me. “Stand here.” She positioned me in front of the window and killed the desk lamp. I heard shutter clicks and the ratchet of winding film.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Your shirt.”

I reached over my head and grabbed a fistful of cotton between my shoulder blades. In one fluid movement the tee off and on the floor.

Garza half turned me and tilted my head. She dropped to a crouch. “The stars! A volcano shooting from your head.”



About the Author: Rebecca Chekouras has appeared in The Open Bar (
Tin House), Narrative MagazineCatamaran Literary ReaderEast Bay ReviewPithead Chapel, and Longridge Review, among other publications. Her story Free to Good Home, was shortlisted for the 2016 Glimmer Train emerging writer prize. Chekouras is a 2015 Tin House fellow and a fellow of the 2013 Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat. In 2014 she helped inaugurate The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She lives in an old ironworks factory on Oakland’s waterfront where Port of Oakland boom cranes line the western terminus of the storied Southern Pacific Railroad.

Artwork: Ryan Buell is a writer and visual artist. He lives in California.