Chapter One: 1960
The winds blew hot across the desert the summer I was 13, withering the wildflowers that bloomed with the early spring rain. That summer, the white grapes came early on the strings my mother had woven to make an arbor on our backyard fence. But the heat and the wind shriveled them to golden pellets almost before they could ripen. It was a disappointment, that hot dry wind, when we had waited so long for summer, and it brought with it the feeling that things in our family might never be easy again.
There were five of us now in the house on Birch Street. My parents; my sister, Kathleen; Charlie, the youngest; and me. Sharon had been gone for three years, and, although we did not know it at the time, my mother had still not gotten over the shame.
Perhaps that was why she began going away.
She had been a lackluster Mormon for most of the years of her marriage. But the year I turned 13, she had—suddenly, it seemed to me, then—increased the intensity of her religious devotion. At home this showed itself through stringent, almost arbitrary, rules in simple areas where few rules had existed before; rules that made all of us, including my father, resentful and silent.
The other change was in the frequency of the trips she made—alone—to Utah. She returned to the small town where she was born, and to the Mormon temple in a larger town nearby. There, in the place that was closed to all but the most faithful of those who practiced her religion, she must have tried to find peace.
My sister, Kathleen, was a carhop that summer at the A & W Root Beer Stand on Boulder Highway, on the outskirts of town, toward Las Vegas. I had a summer newspaper route, and rose each morning at five, to painfully fold and rubber-band the morning edition of The LasVegas Sun. The gray canvas saddlebags I dragged onto the frame of my blue and chrome Schwinn bicycle were heavy, and only the balanced weight on either side kept me from tipping over in the street each time I tried, always unsuccessfully, to toss a paper close up to the porches above the long, green slopes of lawn.
During those long, hot, early summer afternoons, my friends and I lingered in the town swimming pool, diving underwater again and again to escape the wind.
In that last week of June, like so many other weeks before it, Mama was away. I’d developed a limp—insignificant at first, but something that grew steadily until I swayed to one side of my body, one arm lunging until my hand fell below my knee with each step. Daddy thought it was from throwing the papers on my paper route.
On the night before Mama was due home, Daddy called me to their bedroom to lie next to him on the double bed with the white coverlet. Kathleen was not home; she was almost never home that summer before she went to college. Charlie, only six, was asleep in his little room at the back of the house.
I was tired, and I could not pay attention to the movements of my father’s hands.
It was dark, then, always dark, and a yellow glow slid through the crack of the door to the room my sister and I shared. She did not come anymore—not to the room with the twin beds and the yellow chenille bedspreads and the green throw pillows. Only the dark moved with the yellow light that came sometimes from the hall and sometimes through the slats of the closed Venetian blinds.
I could not leave the bed. Even the smallest movement sent waves of hot pain through me.
I heard my brother Charlie’s voice in the hall.
There I was, below, so small, on the bed. I was up high near the ceiling, but I saw the girl on the bed. I heard my mother talking on the phone that was mounted on the wall outside the door where the yellow light came in.
“She has a temperature of 104,” my mother said.
The yellow light came in through the crack in the door near the hall.
My mother touched my face, and I opened my eyes. “The bishop is here,” she whispered. She straightened the sheet around me. She brushed my hair away from my face. She washed my face and chest and arms with a cold cloth.
Through the door to the hall, I heard the voices.
“Why is he here?” I asked.
“Shh!” she whispered, harsh. “He’ll hear you. Keep your voice down. They’re going to give you a blessing.” Her face was lit yellow with the seeping light.
The yellow light spilled into the room. Three of them came in. My mother turned on the light on the table beside my bed. The bishop was young, and dark, and fierce. Two others were with him. They stood in a row, next to my bed, their hands hanging at their sides.
“How are you?” the bishop said. He lifted his hand. He held a small bottle.
“Fine,” I said.
He signaled to the other two. They moved to the head of the bed where I lay, and one of them was my father. The bishop opened the bottle, and a smell of rancid oil fell out. He poured the oil on my head. They placed their hands on my head—two hands, each man, two hands: two hands, and two again, resting on each other like the delicately piled sticks of a mud tern’s nest.
Chapter Two, 1953
My Daddy works at Hoover Dam, and sometimes we go there, but mostly when my cousins come and he gives them a tour. Then we get to go, too. As soon as we get to the top of Arizona Street and go around the curve, we see the lake so beautiful and blue, and the flat black mountains behind it, and the way it shines so beautifully on the light brown sand.
My Daddy says that blue is the color my eyes are. We drive out of Boulder City, with the tree limbs that touch each other across the streets, and down the long hill toward the lake. But we don’t go to the lake. We drive right by the road to the lake, and into the road that curves so steep through black shiny cliffs until we see the dam and the river spilling out, green because all the electricity has been taken out of it. On the other side of the dam, the river comes up high, but on this side, the river is far down, so far a truck parked way down there looks like a tiny toy I could hold in my hand.
Two metal angels are on the dam, with skinny tall wings pointing up high. I don’t stand in front of them, because Daddy says if you stand in front of them and if you ever told a lie, they will flap their wings.
I know I have said lies.
There are dirt roads in the desert. Daddy hunts for rabbit and quail, and he takes me with him. We never see anybody else. Sometimes he takes his targets and shoots at them. I play in the sand behind him, and the sound of his rifle hurts my ears.
One time he shoots the mean cat that always clawed me, and bit me bad. Once I put it under a metal washtub and pounded on the tub. I clapped my hands when Daddy shot it. Mama said it was a mean old cat and it deserved to die, but Kathleen and Sharon called me “brat.”
Mama is a housewife and she is from Santa Clara, and that’s in Utah. My grandma and grandpa live there in a house up a steep hill above a little stream. Daddy is from California and he didn’t become a Mormon until he married Mama. I was born “Under the Covenant” two years after Daddy came home from World War II, and took Mama to the Temple and married her again. Sharon and Kathleen weren’t. Under the Covenant means I automatically get to be with Mama and Daddy in heaven, but Sharon and Kathleen have to take a test.
Daddy says Grandma Hunter didn’t like my mother because she’s a Mormon. But Mama says it’s because Grandma Hunter didn’t want any other woman to have her little boy, who is Daddy now. We went to visit Grandma Hunter in her dark house in Los Angeles once and she looked at me and said, “Who is this little girl? I don’t know this little girl!” That made me scared and I hid behind a red chair.
Grandma had a big turtle, but it’s called a tortoise, and it lived in the bushes in her back yard.
Daddy was raised a Catholic, but he wasn’t anymore, when he married Mama, and he says it doesn’t make much difference to him one way or the other. But one day when he was working out back behind the garage in his machine shop that is a hobby, he said to me, “Mormonism is bullshit!” But that’s our secret and I can’t tell mama he said it, or Daddy will get in trouble. When Mama was going to have me, Daddy already had two girls and he wanted a boy, but I wasn’t one. He takes me places with him and when we go to Boulder Drug to get my Mama a cherry 7-Up to go, people call me, “Charlie’s little shadow.” But I am six, and big.
One day, when it is after school, I run in from the back yard where I’ve been playing with Kathy, my friend who is only five. She lives three houses down. She can still play with me, even though I gave her a haircut and her mama got mad, and put a paper bag over her head with some eyes cut out. We play every day after school, and we run up and down the dirt alley or the long front lawns that slant down to Birch Street.
When I come in the house, first I go through the laundry room that has a washing machine that Daddy fixes, and windows that look out at the garage and back yard that has soft grass and bushes to hide in.
Sharon and Kathleen are waiting on the brown and red linoleum floor in the kitchen, in front of the door to the hall.
Kathleen and Sharon are bigger than me: Sharon is 13 and Kathleen is 11. Sharon has bright red hair called carrot top, and freckles. She hates her freckles, but she likes her blue eyes. Kathleen is the little Mexican, Daddy says. She has dark hair and brown eyes that are almost black. My hair is blonde, and when we cut paper dolls out of the Sears catalogue, I get the blonde ones.
I unbutton my pink sweater because it is hot in the house. It is almost Thanksgiving and the heaters are on in the house all day long.
My sisters stand in front of the white stove and they look at me.
“Guess what?” Kathleen says.
I pull at the little pink plastic rosebud buttons on the front of my sweater.
“What?” I say.
Sharon walks two fingers along the top of the stove, like a little man walking to town. Finally she stops and looks at me. “Mama’s going to have a baby!” she says.
“Oh.” I say.
“Do you know what that means?” Kathleen says. She twirls the folds of her blue pleated skirt with her hand.
I pull at the buttons on my sweater. I know ladies have babies in their tummies and then they come out, but I am not sure what to say. They will call me dumb if I say the wrong answer.
“No?” I ask.
They stand by the white stove on the brown and red linoleum floor.
“It means Mama won’t love you anymore,” Kathleen says. “When she has the new baby, she won’t love you, any more.“
My Mama is lying down on the big bed in the front bedroom—the one close to the front porch that has a pretty window called a bay window. I think she is asleep. She is there in her pink and green and white housedress that zippers up the front. Her white moccasin shoes, with red beads, are on the fluffy green rug next to the bed. Mama’s eyes are closed. I stand in the doorway and look at her. I think she is asleep, but she opens her eyes.
“What’s the matter, Eva?” she asks.
I shake my head and look down at my shoes. “Nothing.” I say.
Mama pats the white bumpy bedspread. “Come here,” she says.
I walk so slowly to the side of the bed. She says, “Come on up, next to Mama.” I climb up on the bed. I poke my finger at the bedspread’s bumps.
My mama moves my hand away. “Tell Mama what’s the matter,” she says.
“Kathleen and Sharon said you won’t love me anymore, because you’re going to have a baby,” I say. I am afraid to look at Mama’s face.
She pulls me tight against her.
“Mama will always love you,” she says.