Where the West Commences
by Susan Morgan
When I was 17, I left home and went to live on an island. The short answer, says my husband, is that I wanted to put a large body of water between my family and myself. Tom’s answer is so concise that the first time I heard it, I was startled. Like a leap into the cold water of a quarry on an August afternoon, his reply felt sharp, breath taking, and welcome. I knew he was right.
I’d grown up on one of those tidy suburban Connecticut streets that materialized during the wave of post-war optimism. Our house, however, was disappointed and unkempt, inhospitably crammed with useless objects and thorny resentments.
After I’d squeaked through my senior year of high school, I ran off to Nantucket, 150 miles up the coast and 30 miles out to sea. Although I’d scarcely been there before, it was a place that had burrowed into my imagination. I didn’t know anyone there or have a plan but I understood that I wanted to be somewhere else and a far horizon line shimmered in my mind.
The year that I was born, my parents had bought a house and precariously entered the middle class courtesy of the GI Bill. Their lives were set on a course that circled around their own disquiet and the demanding furies of my older brother and sister. By the time I was 14, my brother was in college, zealously appraising his offers from fraternities; my sister was upstairs, locked in the bathroom, teasing her hair and stunting the runs in her torn nylons with dollops of frosted nail polish. I was lost somewhere deep in a book.
I don’t think it occurred to my parents that I would grow up, go away, and make a different life. My sister, they figured, would probably marry her car mechanic boyfriend who’d invested hours waiting for her to emerge from the bathroom. Education and ambition, of course, were the birthright of my only brother. I’d been drifting away from home for a long time so when I actually left, no one bothered to call after me.
My brother’s ambition, fueled by a mix of joyless yearning and blinkered drive, eventually crested and crashed: he’d acquired most everything on his list– an MBA and a bank presidency, a portfolio of commercial real estate holdings, oceanfront holiday homes, country club memberships, and the BMW sedan with vanity plates. And then the Federal Office of Thrift Supervision knocked on his door, issued a cease and desist order, and shut his bank down. He had swindled his investors and all of his family and friends within reach; ultimately, he was convicted on six counts of bank fraud and incarcerated at a Club Fed facility in western Pennsylvania. My sister had settled on a more blue collar life: a single mother living in a condo, she simply forged checks, helped herself to our parents social security payments, and falsified insurance claims. And me, I was long gone. For thirty years, whenever I went to visit my parents, I remained gingerly outside the orbit of my siblings. I was 3,000 miles away, living in Los Angeles, when my sister decided to give me a call.
“Your father’s in intensive care,” she announced, peevishness seeping into her otherwise affectless baritone.
“I took her to the doctor today,” she continued. “When we got back, he’d locked the front door. I had her on the ramp in the wheelchair. He’s on the couch getting up to open the door when he falls down near the rocker and has a stroke.”
The story of our parents’ plight built steadily into unruly heaps, a pile-up of unquestionable catastrophes.
“I broke down the door. I don’t know where I got the strength.”
Unexpectedly, she laughed, a small prideful snort.
“You better come home now!”
Sound can travel fast and curiously in certain places, across open water or within steep-walled canyons. And sometimes you hear a far-off conversation as if it was spoken directly into your ear. When my sister called, I heard something clearly in the distance and I went home.
A writer I knew, an author of urban thrillers, had never subscribed to the notion that story lines could advance instinctively like walking home through dense fog. Her books featured intricate plots and she liked to diagram each event and the trajectories of all her characters’ lives on to a large sheet of graph paper. While she was composing her mysteries, she’d pin the graph paper to the wall above her desk; as more characters and twists were added to the story, the network of red, blue, and green lines would converge and radiate out like some knitting pattern for a particularly delirious Nordic sweater. Whenever she finished writing a chase scene, she’d read it aloud while wearing a heart monitor and attempt to calibrate the effect of her invented suspense. She constantly made lists of rules about writing and I have forgotten most of them except one: she told me that when you write a flashback, you must always cut from a high-point in the story or the reader will feel as if there is no place they want to return to. This particular bit of advice stuck with me because I thought it was true in life and not simply a formula for fiction.
When my sister called and ordered me home, it was early summer and I had just returned from two weeks in Tucson. I’d been researching the Edward Weston archive and staying in an old motel, a small quiet place at the edge of town. You could hear Gila woodpeckers tapping at the cactus in the courtyard and the thrum of passing trains in the distance. During the day, I worked contentedly at a library table, poring through boxes of vintage silver prints and examining fragile curiosities that had been preserved and annotated in acid-free envelopes—pressed wisteria blossoms, bamboo leaves, paper wisps of Chinese fortune cookie predictions. I read through 80 year old diaries where entire paragraphs had been razor-bladed out so the margins of the emptied pages wobbled like slack picture frames. I studied Weston’s 1937 photographs, intimate records of a road trip, zigzagging across the California deserts and looking deeply into the landscape, abandoned ventures and incongruous objects: crackling hardpan basins, skies as flat and bright as polished glass, burnt wood alligatored to an impenetrable black, a weather-beaten cup and saucer promising hot coffee in the middle of the Mojave, and a dead hare with gangly splayed legs, flattened nose-down against a gravel background like a rudimentary specimen pinned directly to the earth.
Each day, at five o’clock, when the climate controlled reading room closed, I’d step out into the unrelenting heat and motor around the Sonoran desert.
The sauguros were in bloom then, yellow and white against the starched blue sky. I’d drive out to San Xavier del Bac where the mission— dazzling white and voluptuously Baroque– would appear to float on the horizon, sublime and unexpected as a vision in a surrealist film.
If I was ever asked to devise the formula that might produce an ideal high point, I’d try to calibrate that experience– the graceful and compelling equilibrium, a kind of counterporint that occurs when uncomplicated but satisfying days play out against a background of such undeniable beauty. When my sister’s call arrived like a flashback of the worst order, I felt that I could do it, dive back into the wreckage of my family without any fear that I’d never return.
I went to Connecticut where the trees grew so close together, they often blocked out the sky. The air was muggy, damp and still. I spent my days ferrying my parents to hospitals, trying to set their house in order while protecting them from the depredations of my larcenous siblings. Sometimes I felt as if a building had collapsed on top of me and I was digging my way out of the basement with a teaspoon. My father didn’t survive the year and my mother died not long after.
Then, I returned to my own home, to the place where I actually lived.
The family I grew up in had been small and somewhat friendless. We had few relatives and really nothing in the way of traditions. My parents had lived their lives in one corner of New England and my mother had no use whatsoever for geography. She referred to every other Connecticut town as some place up the line, Massachusetts as the Cape, and all of New York state was Watkins Glen where she’d visited a distant cousin in 1955 and found the house so cold, she’d slept with her coat on. Once when Tom and I were driving across country, I sent a postcard from Hot Springs, Arkansas. When we reached California, I phoned my mother. “I looked up Arkansas in the World Book Encyclopedia,” she told me. “It isn’t very impressive.”
My mother liked to inform me that I had cousins in California but there was no way to determine what that might really mean. My father did have an older brother who’d died in 1970. They were close, exactly two years and one day apart in age— handsome, affable men, always quick with a wisecrack or the companionable offer of an unfiltered cigarette. One morning, while my uncle was brushing his teeth, he suffered a heart attack and fell against the locked bathroom door, trapping himself inside. I’ll never know why these two brothers were so keen to barricade themselves within their own homes. The fire department axed open the door to my uncle’s bathroom and my widowed aunt soon sold the house and moved west. I didn’t really know the cousins: two brothers and a much younger sister, a blonde-haired girl around my age. The brother cousins were businessmen, ex Marines, who stayed in touch with my parents at Christmas time: they shipped holiday parcels packed with foil-wrapped jerky and orange cheeses injected with Liquid Smoke and sent Xeroxed year -end letters reporting on their church’s missionary work and Ross Perot’s presidential campaign. The sister Margaret, my mother insisted, was my neighbor in California. She owned a house in some place called Brentwood or Malibu and I should really give her a call. Of course, I never did.
After my parents died, I received a card from Margaret. She lived in the high desert, 160 miles from LA. For 25 years, she had traveled constantly as a rep for a clothing company. She was married to Wesley, a Californian, third generation in the movie crew business, a sound editor whose father and grandfather had been costumers on Westerns from John Ford to Walter Hill. In the new year, Tom and I went to visit them.
It was odd, at first, to encounter another person with my same small square feet and wispy, duck fluff hair; it was disarmingly obvious that Margaret and I were related. Her eyes, however, were blue, pale and skeptical like our mutual grandmother’s.
Margaret and Wesley lived in a small adobe house with stout walls and a corrugated red tin roof. They owned 35 acres of high arid land, an isolated spot with panoramic views, a mile and a half from the county road, at the end of a washboard surface track.
They showed us around the property — two semi-derelict buildings, a newly constructed hen house, and a raised bed garden terraced with old railroad ties. Mesquite and creosote grew across the rocky landscape and the muted crackling of brittle stems rustled in the wind. There was an old bunkhouse built to face the rising sun; in one uncemented section of wall, a trap door had been installed. “That door was used for removing dead bodies,” Margaret told us, squinting into the harsh sunlight and gently allowing irony to fall where it may. “ You had to be able clap the door shut quickly to stop the spirit from rushing back in and invading the house.”
It was an easy visit, comfortable and unselfconscious. We talked for hours and then went for long walks without speaking. Wesley had originally bought 5 acres of high desert land one stoned night in the early ‘70s. He’d been watching a Fright Night movie presented and heckled by the Master of the Macabre: in one unforgettable moment, the horror film heroine – tangled up in electrified barbed wire, flickered and flamed as the ghoulish TV host vamped “Don’t Fence Me In.” When the midnight movie cut to commercial, a real estate huckster sporting a Stetson hollered out: “Why not get away from it all? Leave the smog behind! The boom is on! Be part of this great high desert country! Easy terms, priceless land and fantastic views! One dollar down and $129 an acre!” Wesley laughed all the way to the telephone and placed his order for 5 acres.
Fifteen years later, he and Margaret dug out the land scam deed from Rancho del Rio Estates; armed with a map, compass, dumpy level, and measuring tape, they tracked down the worthless acres: there was no rio, no rancho, only waterless land sited atop a lava flow. Quickly, they moved on through the region and discovered the sparse ruins of a hundred year old homestead, an uninterrupted tract of land with a working well and an abundance of silence.
At night in the high desert, the sky was filled with stars and the darkness was astonishing. The cold air was so dry that our noses sparked when we kissed. We went to bed early, pressed down beneath a heavy pile of blankets. Looking out the window, there was not another house in sight and the horizon felt limitless. As I fell asleep, I was content, an elder orphan adrift on an island in an ancient inland sea.