River Purgatoire

Monday, January 16, 2012

It was still early morning when I stopped to take her photograph just above the tree line, twelve thousand feet. Glory was sitting upright on the metal guardrail, her back to a high wall of rock and little aprons of old melting snow. Wind lifted the ends of her pale butter-colored hair, and on her face, one of those white ten-thousand-dollar smiles she wears—as if the universe were a fundamentally welcoming and benevolent place, as if all the inventory of the world were secretly mirroring back her same smile, all its eyeteeth clear and empty and good.

She’ll write our names on the back of the picture—Glory and Scott, Resurrection Pass, Summer 2010. Someday she’ll show her kids and say: me when I was twenty. Her husband will be washing the dishes in the kitchen. This husband of hers will be in a collared shirt, his tie over the back of his dinner chair, the first two buttons of his shirt undone. He’ll be as tall as I am, but vaguely stupid. Their children—two girls, one boy—will be on the couch with their mother, flipping through the old photographs. Your hair was so long! one of her girls will say. Look at those clothes! They’ll laugh. Then the boy—the quiet kid at the end of the couch with eyes like her eyes and hair like her hair—he’ll look up from his picture book and say: who took that picture? Her husband—call him Michael—will carefully set the last glass dish on the drying rack and cross the kitchen in his loafers to join them on the couch. Yeah, Glory. Who took that picture?

So I have to be careful with her. I knew what she was thinking, hopping down from the guard rail and skipping across the bare highway, the hem of her T-shirt flipping up in the chilly wind, flashing the white meat of her belly. She was thinking we were embarking on some big adventure. She was thinking I was bringing her to my hometown because we were in love like no two human beings have ever loved. She wrapped her arms up around my neck and kissed my jaw. She was even thinking that I would be the man in the kitchen.

“Watch the camera,” I said.

I circled slowly back to the driver’s side door and she leapt in after, climbing over me like it was a game, like she’d never been in love before, like she didn’t know how these things end. I started the car and she immediately started in with the AM talk stations. “Uh-oh,” she said, taking her hand off the dial. “It’s that extraterrestrial show.” My little Honda whirred and clicked—not the right car for a pass like that one. I always kept it to the right, as a courtesy to other drivers. We drove with the trailers and the RVs and the trucks. There was nothing fast or brave about the way Glory and I traveled. She liked to pretend there was. She liked to pretend the mountains and the trees and the bodies with which we witnessed them had only just now—and now, and now, and now—been born. Everything was new for her, everything easy and startling and wonderful. She gripped my arm, grinning and watching my face for a reaction to the radio. I turned it off.


“You’ll have nightmares. You don’t want nightmares out on the river. I don’t want you panting and climbing all over me like some scared little kid.”

“I won’t have nightmares.”

“There won’t be any lights out on the river.”

“Tell me how it will be.”

“It’ll be quiet.”

“No, tell me what it will look like.”

“It’ll be dark.”

“Come on.”

“Well, I don’t know, Glory. I haven’t been there since I was fifteen.”

“Do rivers change that much?”

“Rivers do what they have to.”

“Mr. Profound.”

“They do. They meander and cut out islands and change the landscape completely. Didn’t you ever take a geology class?” I don’t know why I’d invited her along in the first place.

“Have your parents been back?”


“I love it that you’re taking me.”

“Sometimes a trip to a river is just a trip to a river.”

“Not this trip. Not this river.”

“Let’s just listen to the quiet.” We rolled down our windows, and the roar of wind and fresh balsam filled the car. Glory pulled her fleece up under her chin and leaned back in her seat, took my wrist in her hand and shut her eyes. She said something then, but I couldn’t hear her for all the noise rushing in through the windows.

When we came down the other side of the mountain, we reentered the trees. Subalpine pine and aspen. The last of the white stars blinked out, and the paper face of the moon was slowly absorbed by the day, like a soft blue cloth soaking up a small white spill. The trees thinned and disappeared again as the ground rolled and flattened from gray rock to pale meadows lined with dark green slashes of ditch water. Shadow black beef cows curled up in the shade beneath miserable narrow-leafed cottonwoods. While she slept I drove past Mount Antero and through the Blood of Christ Mountains. She woke in the midst of a dry plain of twisted juniper and pale sage scrub knotted in hard dirt.

“Where are we?” She sat up, her face flushed. “The bottom of the ocean?”

“This is still high country.”

“It looks like the bottom of something. Some other planet.”

“Which planet?”

She smiled, ran her fingers into her yellow hair, and looked out through the windshield. “Someplace you’d come from. Something place strange and beautiful.”

“Well. Don’t get your hopes all up.”

She sat back and looked out the window. The brown gave way to wide green, smooth as cloth. Telephone poles. Magpies. Twenty miles between small painted white houses. A hawk circled high above the pastureland to the east.

“I love it when the wind moves through tall grass that way. It looks like the ground is moving.”

“Irrigation,” I told her. “Didn’t used to look like this.”

“It’s like a green ocean.”

“Why is everything ocean with you.”

“If you look,” she said, putting her head straight back against the headrest, “if you back up a little from the world and look at it like this, it looks like it’s all moving.”

“It is all moving.”

“But it doesn’t always look like it. Isn’t that something?”

“If you want to see the opposite of something, wait forty minutes.”

“Are we stopping there?”

“There’s a grocery store in Las Animas. Then to the Brays’.”

“For the key.”

“For the key.”


Las Animas was always a stone school. It was always brightly painted, peeling houses and rusted chain-link fence and dirt yards. It was always a cloth-eared stray bitch, newly pregnant and running across the grease-stained street with its tits swinging. It was always just before night, always the smell of soaped sidewalks and rancid meat and fried dough.

"This is like a different world.”

“It isn’t.”

Four boys stood on the corner outside an unmarked store, one waving a stick, black hair slicked back and shining on all their narrow heads. They watched me as we passed. They watched Glory.

“Do you know these people?”

“You’d better hope not,” I told her.


“Look at me.”

“You’re beautiful.”

Fucking Glory and her ceaseless adoration. Like a ten-year-old. “That never helped anybody, Glory. Maybe it did where you’re from, but not out here.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” We passed a Walmart. This was new. A McDonald’s. Old. We passed a Blockbuster and a wide square of dirt with smooth grayish-white foundations of new homes.

“This town has changed.”

Glory turned both her shoulders to face me, sitting sideways in the seat. “Why are we hoping you don’t know anyone?”

Billboards for a Motel 6 and an old Ponderosa and forty-acre parcels of land no fool in their worst nightmare would be caught living on. “I was the punching bag.”

“The what?”

I slowed down and looked at her. “They beat me up. That school we passed?” I looked in the rearview mirror, but it was gone. “Every fucking day. Like clockwork.”

That stilled her some. “Oh.”

“So.” I stopped at a red light and stared up at it. There didn’t used to be a single light in this town.


“Pretty boy. Like you said.”

“I did not.”

“Yes you did. About my face.”

“I love your face.”

“It never helped.”

“Doesn’t it help that I love it?”

The light turned green and I drove.

“I didn’t know that, Scott. About you and that school. I’m sorry.”

The grocery store was the same—a small, low pink stucco building with a pig and a cow in faded aprons and chef hats painted on the windows.

“It’s small.”

“All we need are tortillas, cheese, and jerky.”

“And eggs.”

“They’ll break.”

“I brought that little yellow camping thing to put them in.”

“If they break, you’re cleaning it up.”

“Okay, Scott. Let’s add paper towels. And one of those giant chocolate bars.”


She knew something was happening in the checkout line. The cashier was smiling at me and speaking to me in Spanish. Even though I didn’t say much, Glory knew.

“What was that?” she said, trailing behind me in the parking lot.


“You know her?”

“First girlfriend. Sixth grade.”

In the car she was finally quiet. We drove out of town five miles. Ten. Fifteen. It was hot, and I kept the air off because she was used to having the air on.

“If you want to know,” I said.

“I didn’t ask.”

“I was really in love.”

“I don’t want to know.”

“Every night after math homework I’d study Spanish. I was going to introduce myself to her parents.” She watched the fenceposts snap past. I was going seventy-five. Eighty. “I was going to say all of it Spanish. Very polite. Very formal.”

“I don’t want to know, Scott.”

“She was so beautiful then. She wore her hair in a bun. Why don’t girls wear their hair in buns? And such a soft voice. And she always spoke to me in Spanish. Like she was inviting me somewhere. In there. I don’t know. She doesn’t look good. She’s had too many kids.”

“She’s married?”

“I was going to marry her. We were going to have six children and combine our names so they’d all be Ramirez-Wright.”

“What are you telling me?” She turned to face me, her voice tight.

“I wrote her poems. In broken Spanish. I was going to learn to braid her hair.”

“Braid her hair.” She turned away, back to the window.

“Then on this one Saturday, I went to this place behind her parents’ where we used to have sodas—those little glass Coke bottles? It was all trashed out, a fire pit full of cigarette butts and charred bottles. But I’d made us sandwiches, and I was going to set up a picnic, set it up nice, then go get her. I was getting up my nerve to kiss her.”

“A picnic,” Glory said into the rolled-up window. “Imagine that.”

“I found her out there fucking some eighth-grader.”

“What?” Glory turned to face me.

“We were in the sixth grade and I’d never kissed her.”

“Oh Scott.”

“The whole time she’d been fucking some eighth-grader.”


Inside the Brays’ kitchen, Clare Bray poured us tall glasses of whole milk. He looked old. His hands shook when he set the glasses on the table—the same old sticky-topped oak table. His blue eyes were watery and rimmed with red. Donna had been gone, I don’t know, ten years. None of us had been back for the funeral.

“Here,” he said. He brought two paper plates over from the counter, ham and butter sandwiches sliced diagonally. “Eat those,” he said. “Not much out there where you’re going.”

“We got some things in Las Animas,” Glory said. Her stop in the old broken Hispanic neighborhood was a new banner for her pretty little white body, something to match her hair, something to wave around when she moves back to the city. It’s the kind of place, she’d say, that you only need to see once.

“Did Scott stop in Las Animas?” Clare smiled at me as if he knew my heart. “Did he take you to the old school?”

“He pointed it out.”

“Did he show you the old house?” He looked from me to Glory, who looked disappointed.

“She didn’t want to see that old dump,” I said, and stood up.

“You didn’t ask!”

“But now you’ll get to see the river.” Clare crossed his arms and appraised her, like he had the same ideas she had. Like all of this was supposed to mean something. I took Glory’s paper plate and folded it and dropped it in the trashcan.

On the way out the old man handed me the tiny black key that opened the cattle gate. “Don’t lose that,” he said. I reached into the car and hung it around the rearview. “Lock the gate behind you and bring it back on your way out. What, two days? Three?”

“We’ll see,” I said. “Definitely no longer.”


Everything out there was brown. Always has been. A flat pan of dirt so hard and dry it glittered in the distance, the horizon a soft estuary of dust and clouds and sky.

“Pretty soon it’ll all be pig farming.”

“Pig farming?”

“They’ll bring in a big complex.”

“A big pig complex?”

“You think it’s funny. You ought to smell one.”

We drove ten miles like driving inside a small brown and blue box, nothing changing outside the windows. Glory fiddled with the radio station but nothing came in.

“Static,” she said.

I grinned at her. “Just a lot of fucking nothing. No, wait.” I held up a hand. “Don’t tell me. It’s some kind of ocean.”

“Ocean of nothing.”

We turned off the paved road and onto a dirt road, then followed the dirt road to the cattle gate. Barbed wire and fence poles stretched off into the distance on either side. I let Glory open the gate and shut it when I’d driven through—that’s the kind of stupid little thing that gets her all worked up—and we rolled over crushed sage at ten miles an hour. Again, the wrong car for the trip. The windows were down and dust was everywhere. “People from the East come out here,” I said, “and they have money for the right cars. Fucking SUVs. Then they crash them in an inch of snow on the pass.”

Glory said nothing.

“When you go back east,” I said, watching the ground ahead for rocks, “how will you describe this place?”

“I’m not going back east.” She pointed ahead. “See that?” The homestead. Caving in. Half-collapsed. “We’re moving in there.”

“Well,” I said, not smiling. “That’s just perfect.”

The old cattle fences behind the homestead were still standing. Barbed wire still stringing the fence poles together, the broken wire flat in the dirt. The place itself was made of lodgepole and mortar, glassless windows, one square room and a slant roof. Inside, a few cracked bottles, a small brown medicine bottle on a window sill. A single narrow rusted bed frame. A woman’s boot, pale and cracked. A broken wooden wheel.

“Antiquarians should come here,” she said.

“Sweetheart, you have no idea.” I slipped my hand into my pocket and coiled the string of beads around my index finger.

“Call me that again,” she said, coming up close. I gave her a light spank. It was enough for a necklace for a child, or a bracelet for a woman. Worth a hundred thousand dollars to the right museum. Or to the right woman. I kissed her mouth, then let go of the beads.

“Let’s look around,” she said. “God. Look at all this junk. It needs some work before the baby.” She stooped to pick up a rusty nail, six inches long. “This isn’t safe.”

“No doctors here.”

“Nope. You’ll have to go to med school yourself.”

“Become a doctor. Sure, Glory. And you’ll paint? Weave blankets? Write novels?”

She picked up a cracked and bleached cowboy boot—a small one. A boy’s. She tossed it at me, but I stepped away and it landed in the dirt. I head toward the trough, split and whitened by the sun and wind, nails bright with orange rust.

“We used to come out here when I was a boy.” I watched the ground. “I’d spend hours while my parents talked with the Brays, or drank beer or did whatever it was they did.”

“What would a little boy do out here alone like that?”

“Just this.”

“Walk in circles and stare at the ground?”

“Look for Indian beads.”

“Indian beads? You’re kidding.”

“I made a necklace,” he said. “It took years. I put them on fishing line.”

“I’ve never seen it.”

“You can’t have it.”

She turned her back and faced the wind. “Maybe we should go find a campsite.”

In the morning I left the tent in nothing but boots and socks. “Let’s walk,” I said. No way she was coming out there naked. “Come on. Move your pretty little naked buns.”

“Scott, wait. Scott. Come on, don’t.”

“Come on, daydreamer.” I ran out ten yards and called to her. “It’ll be like a daydream. Naked in the desert sun. Take your shoes.” She peeked her face out of the tent and watched me. It was already ninety degrees. “Where are we going?” She crawled out naked and picked up her shoes, then stood with her arms over herself, looking around.

 “To swim.”

“In the Purgatory?” She held herself up, came after me.


“Purgatory sounds better.”

“That’s not its name.”

I took her around the waist and we walked like that to the river, wide and muddy and banked with sand.

“It’s just like the beach,” she said.

“No it isn’t,” I said and went right in, calf-deep. “It’s a river.”

“So river beach.” She stood on the edge, her toes in the water.

“Christ. It’s a river, Glory.” I went in up to my chest. “It is what it is.”

She stepped in. “It feels like a bath.”

“Can’t you like it because it’s a river? Not anything else, just a muddy warm river?”

She came up beside me, slick and soft under the water. “Okay. I see that it’s a river.” In a minute she said: “At least we know when we get that house fixed up that there’s water nearby.” She looked west, then east. “And plenty of it.”

“No grocery store,” I turned her around and put my hands on her shoulders.

“We’ll go to Las Animas. Twice a month.”

“No friends.” I walked her like that, splashing back out of the water. “No cocktails.” I pulled her down into the hot and dry sand. “No martini bars.”

“Who needs that stuff.”

“You do,” I told her. “The man in loafers does.”

“Who is the man in loafers?”

“Your husband,” I said, and she groaned. I pressed my mouth into her collarbone, closer to her ear where she would hear me say it again: “Your husband.”

“You don’t,” she breathed, “wear loafers.”

“I’m not. Your husband.”

We kept our eyes open, watched each other in the orange light.


I crossed the river with my boots and socks over my head. When I reached the other side I sat down and waited for my feet to dry, then booted up and walked naked into the red rocks and cliffs until she couldn’t see me anymore. She must have fallen asleep. She found me an hour later, naked in my boots in the shadow of a cliff. I saw her but did not move. Searing white daylight spilled between the triple diamonds of her legs and lined the silhouette of her body with silver. “You look good.”

She pressed her thumb and fingertips into the skin of her breasts and pulled them away. “I got burned.”

“Promise you’ll always come across the river to find me like this.”

“What?” she laughed. “Naked?”


She kissed my forehead. “Just me for just you.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

“Your skin is cool.”

“Careful where you sit.”

She stooped over me and looked into the sand. “What are you doing? What is that?”


“What is it doing?”

“Watch. You have to be careful it doesn’t bite you.” In the sand and fine rocks before us was a tiny, almost invisible circle in the sand, the size of a dime. I flicked a small red ant onto the edge of the circle. Grains of sand slipped and caved in beneath it until it was suddenly falling into the center of a tiny sand funnel. Glory held her breath. “Now watch,” I said as a pair of shiny, serrated black pincers came up out of the center and pulled the ant underground.

“Oh my god.”

“I know.”

“Let me,” she said. She found an ant flicked it over the sand, too far. “Oh no you don’t,” she said, bent over the ant, her bare breasts hanging beneath her. “Come over here.” She flicked it again, this time right into the bottom of the funnel and the pincers came up and took it. “Oh,” she said.

“You went too fast. Here. Like this.” I did it again slowly, and again the ant lost its footing, beginning its terrible slide into the falling sand.

“Let me try.” This time she got it. The sun was getting high. I stood and could see the muddy river gliding beneath us. We were in the shadows of the cliff where the sand was cool. I brushed the sand off the backs of my thighs.

“Wait,” Glory said. “Where are you going?” She went for another ant.

I looked down at her.

“Come on. This is so cool.” She flicked the ant and leaned into watch. I watched her.

“Don’t do so many.”

She looked up at me and rolled her eyes.

“We need to think about food.”

She waved her hand. “Two minutes.”

“Come on, Glory. Eggs.”

She went for another ant. “Why do I like watching these things die?” I watched her for a moment, then took her arm, just above the elbow, and pulled her up out of the sand. She pulled back. “That hurt,” she said, rubbing her elbow. She looked me in the eye, her hair spilling like liquid daylight down her shoulders, the backs of her arms and legs and her little belly and her sunburned breasts all dusted with reddish sand. “It’s harmless,” she said. “Don’t I get to play a little too?”

Sunday, January 1, 2012