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Jane Hammons

August Night

In this southeastern corner of New Mexico, late in August, the heat doesn't fade. Night simply masks the day.

This evening everyone is out. Mom has a date. My older sister is with friends. My younger sister is at Granny's where she often spends weekends. My brother has been gone for a month. He is living with Dad. They water ski in a lake that floats at the edge of Dad's backyard. In the evening their boat rocks, solitary, moored to the bottom of what is really a resevoir.

If I wanted to, I could drive to Dad's. It is only 20 miles away. I am 17, I have my driver's license, and I am always welcome.

My sisters and I live in a large, rundown farmhouse with Mom. Since the divorce she decorates in dark colors: avocado green, damp brown, overripe orange. Along the walls and crowded into corners, she arranges fake primitive doodads -- shiny black African statuettes, Kandinsky style pictographs, brightly colored Mexican masks. On shelves and tabletops she displays the arrowheads, chipped pottery, and grinding stones she finds in our fields.

Empty tonight, the house is an abandoned ceremonial ground.

Bay windows open out onto fields of onions, chile, corn, tomatoes, okra and squash. Farther down, a half-mile or so, near the highway, alfalfa and cotton grow. Across the highway is a grand house that I can always see but never enter. It is built from the redwood that my great-grandfather brought with him from California. At the turn of the century, when an entire nation was moving west, he came east from Los Angeles. All the way to New Mexico. He built a stately residence: verandahs, porticos, a gazebo. My step-great-grandmother lives there, alone now. We are not welcome.

Dad's house is newly constructed, like the landscaped banks of the artificial lake it was built to sit upon. The white stuff on his ceiling looks like over-whipped cream. It is sprinkled with glitter. So is his wife, her hair spun like cotton candy around her head. She covers it with a black net scarf that sparkles with hairpin butterflies when they go for rides in her convertible.

Things belong to her -- the house, the boat, the car. Dad.

I'm not supposed to know this, but she isn't really his wife. They just live together. Eventually they will marry and divorce. She will become the first of several ex-step-mothers. In some other place, living together might be considered cool. But in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1970, it is considered a secret.

The sun is almost down. Dad and his wife drink vodka rocks and sit next to the lake, admiring the golden reflection of the setting sun. The lake hums with the last motorboats of the day pulling skiers in off the water. My brother is fifteen. They give him beer.

Dad has fashionable deck chairs, bright white metal wrapped in gay plastic strips: green, yellow, purple. When I sit in them with shorts on, deep red stripes appear on the backs of my legs. I look like I've just had a good whipping.

At Mom's house we sit out in old weather-beaten metal chairs. Chalky white, pink, aqua -- the colors of faded mints. The backs are scalloped like seashells, and they rock unsteadily on the one U-shaped leg that supports them. They are the kind of lawn chairs you see in the yards of 1950's cinderblock houses like ours when you get off the highway and drive back into the farmland on dirt roads.

Here, when the sun sets, field hands pile into the backs of pickups and go home. Dusty breaths of tule fog settle atop the fields, hushed and bountiful.

No one is around to complain of noise, so I put on my favorite records. Laura Nyro intrudes upon the silence. Next on the spindle, Jimi Hendrix. I turn the volume up all the way and aim the speakers toward the fields.

The hi-fi is not ours. It belongs to Mom's boyfriend. When he went to Vietnam, he left his stuff at our house. They have an understanding. While he is in Vietnam, she can go out on dates, but she can't get serious about anyone.

I don't date as much as Mom does. I had a boyfriend once; he went to Vietnam, too.

Laura Nyro's high-pitched notes plant slivers of memory in the twilight. I walk along the dry-caked ditch and listen to her sing. Brown Earth. Her voice shimmers. My feet are bare and dirty. Jimi falls. Sound swells between the rows of corn. Bold as Love. Bold as a blue-black August night. Come September, Jimi will die. Come fall, the Big Dipper -- smooth and silver as a new shovel -- will stand straight up on its handle, shoot right out of the dry corn stalks. I can recognize other constellations, but in summer the sky is crowded. I can only see stars.

Bare-armed and without a knife, I pick okra. The prickly, hair-like spines make me itch. I leave the tough slender fruit in a little pyramid at the end of the row and walk back to the house. I wash off in the side yard with the garden hose and climb into the willow tree.

This deep, enormous tree was once a branch from the yellow diseased willow that grew on the other side of the house. When I was a little girl, about eight or nine, I considered hanging myself in the scraggly parent tree.

I take a swing down from the rusty jungle gym in our backyard. One of its chains has been broken for a long time. On windy nights I listen to the splintered wooden seat scrape across the barren ground beneath the structure. My brother and sister and I have worn away the grass playing tag and trucks and sometimes dolls. I unhook the remaining chain and drag the swing to the tree.

Willow trees are not made for climbing. Even their thickest branches are supple and slender, offering little support, even to a child. But I climb that tree, clunking the wooden seat along with me as I find the highest, sturdiest limb. I plant the swing firmly in the crotch of two adjoining branches, neither as big around as I am. Then I sling the long chain around my neck like a winter scarf. When I stand, a link in the chain pinches the tender skin on my neck and I cry out. Dad appears from the side of the house and asks me what in the hell I think I am doing.

Hanging this old swing from the tree, I lie, busily removing the chain from around my neck. I pull the wedged-in seat from between the branches and let it dangle.

My brother comes over to take a look. It won't work, he tells me. You can't swing from a willow tree.

To prove him wrong, I quickly wrap the uneven chains as tightly as I can around the thin branch. The seat swings crazily in lopsided half circles. I prepare to sit on it even though I am afraid now of falling.

Don't, my older sister yells at me from the backyard patio where she has been playing with the cat. She eyes me suspiciously.

What's going on, Mom wants to know. She has been frying okra and her blouse is spotted with cornmeal and Crisco. She is large and pregnant with my younger sister. Come down from there, she demands gently.

I climb slowly down from the tree and walk past my brother who is wondering how anyone so dumb won the Chavez County Spelling Bee. Dad has gone out into the field. He inspects the brown-edged leaves of cotton plants. It is a hot dry summer.

Mom spits on her finger and rubs the rusty trickle of blood from the purple blister on my neck. She shoos me into the kitchen where I sit on a barstool near the stove and watch her fry okra.

Years later Dad has been gone a long time; Mom's boyfriend survives Vietnam and they marry -- a huge vulture will land and sit for days beneath the rich voluptuous willow tree, offspring of the weak one, long since uprooted and discarded. Here the spigot for the garden hose leaks, creating a cool swamp. An inviting place to die.

I try to feed the vulture. I bring it raw hamburger, tomatoes, leftover oatmeal, hoping it is just hungry and will go away once satisfied. The vulture glares at me. It does not eat. A thin filmy shield occasionally slides across its glowering eyes, masking for a moment the desire for death. This is the only sign that it is alive.

We call the Humane Society, the County Agriculture Office, even the small city zoo, but nobody will come for it. Their only advice is

stay away from it

don't feed it

shoot it.

My stepfather considers this every evening when he gets home from work. He is not a farmer. He works in town, away from the farm. The sun sets and the sky is the color of slate, shot through with pink and gold lights. He takes the .22 out of the hall closet, walks out to the willow tree and stares at the vulture.

He will not shoot.

He has been to war.

In preparation for the vulture's death, my brother digs a hole for it out by the clothesline. Just past the garbage cans, near the lilac bushes we bury our pets: dogs, cats, turtles and the bullsnake that ate our baby rabbits. One morning we find the vulture on its back, feet up in the air. Frozen, a stiff cartoon with claws, beak and feathers. Without ceremony my brother and I drag it to the hole and bury it.

Come winter the willow tree will freeze -- its branches transformed into daggers of ice. But in August, it is deep in mossy green. Willows lithe and golden, leaves slender and waxy. Dark breezes sweeping through.

©2007 by Jane Hammons

Jane Hammons was born in Roswell, New Mexico, a place that continues to inspire even after 25 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the Senior Editor for Mom Writer's Literary Magazine. Her most recent writing can be found there and in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and Word Riot. This is her second appearance in Slow Trains.

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