In this southeastern corner of New Mexico, late in August, the heat
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
My brother has been gone for a month. He is living with Dad. They
in a lake that floats at the edge of Dad's backyard. In the evening
boat rocks, solitary, moored to the bottom of what is really a
If I wanted to, I could drive to Dad's. It is only 20 miles away. I am
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,
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
displays the arrowheads, chipped pottery, and grinding stones she finds
Empty tonight, the house is an abandoned ceremonial ground.
Bay windows open out onto fields of onions, chile, corn, tomatoes, okra
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
never enter. It is built from the redwood that my great-grandfather
with him from California. At the turn of the century, when an entire
was moving west, he came east from Los Angeles. All the way to New
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
looks like over-whipped cream. It is sprinkled with glitter. So is his
her hair spun like cotton candy around her head. She covers it with a
net scarf that sparkles with hairpin butterflies when they go for rides
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
together. Eventually they will marry and divorce. She will become the
of several ex-step-mothers. In some other place, living together might
considered cool. But in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1970, it is considered
The sun is almost down. Dad and his wife drink vodka rocks and sit next
the lake, admiring the golden reflection of the setting sun. The lake
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
strips: green, yellow, purple. When I sit in them with shorts on, deep
stripes appear on the backs of my legs. I look like I've just had a
At Mom's house we sit out in old weather-beaten metal chairs. Chalky
pink, aqua -- the colors of faded mints. The backs are scalloped like
seashells, and they rock unsteadily on the one U-shaped leg that
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
into the farmland on dirt roads.
Here, when the sun sets, field hands pile into the backs of pickups and
home. Dusty breaths of tule fog settle atop the fields, hushed and
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
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.
he is in Vietnam, she can go out on dates, but she can't get serious
I don't date as much as Mom does. I had a boyfriend once; he went to
Laura Nyro's high-pitched notes plant slivers of memory in the
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
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
new shovel -- will stand straight up on its handle, shoot right out of
corn stalks. I can recognize other constellations, but in summer the
crowded. I can only see stars.
Bare-armed and without a knife, I pick okra. The prickly, hair-like
make me itch. I leave the tough slender fruit in a little pyramid at
of the row and walk back to the house. I wash off in the side yard with
garden hose and climb into the willow tree.
This deep, enormous tree was once a branch from the yellow diseased
that grew on the other side of the house. When I was a little girl,
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
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
and trucks and sometimes dolls. I unhook the remaining chain and drag
swing to the tree.
Willow trees are not made for climbing. Even their thickest branches
supple and slender, offering little support, even to a child. But I
that tree, clunking the wooden seat along with me as I find the
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
my neck like a winter scarf. When I stand, a link in the chain pinches
tender skin on my neck and I cry out. Dad appears from the side of the
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
around my neck. I pull the wedged-in seat from between the branches and
My brother comes over to take a look. It won't work, he tells me. You
swing from a willow tree.
To prove him wrong, I quickly wrap the uneven chains as tightly as I
around the thin branch. The seat swings crazily in lopsided half
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
been playing with the cat. She eyes me suspiciously.
What's going on, Mom wants to know. She has been frying okra and her
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
how anyone so dumb won the Chavez County Spelling Bee. Dad has gone out
the field. He inspects the brown-edged leaves of cotton plants. It is a
Mom spits on her finger and rubs the rusty trickle of blood from the
blister on my neck. She shoos me into the kitchen where I sit on a
near the stove and watch her fry okra.
Years later Dad has been gone a long time; Mom's boyfriend survives
and they marry -- a huge vulture will land and sit for days beneath the
voluptuous willow tree, offspring of the weak one, long since uprooted
discarded. Here the spigot for the garden hose leaks, creating a cool
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
This is the only sign that it is alive.
We call the Humane Society, the County Agriculture Office, even the
city zoo, but nobody will come for it. Their only advice is
stay away from it
don't feed it
My stepfather considers this every evening when he gets home from work.
is not a farmer. He works in town, away from the farm. The sun sets and
sky is the color of slate, shot through with pink and gold lights. He
the .22 out of the hall closet, walks out to the willow tree and stares
He will not shoot.
He has been to war.
In preparation for the vulture's death, my brother digs a hole for it
the clothesline. Just past the garbage cans, near the lilac bushes we
our pets: dogs, cats, turtles and the bullsnake that ate our baby
One morning we find the vulture on its back, feet up in the air.
stiff cartoon with claws, beak and feathers. Without ceremony my
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
golden, leaves slender and waxy. Dark breezes sweeping through.
©2007 by Jane Hammons