Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Mountain

   Here is a short story I wrote about a year ago (maybe longer), along with pictures I recently drew to go along with it.

   Every evening, my grandmother and I sit on the porch together and watch the cars rumble across the highway. Today it is Friday, so more cars are heading up the mountain than down. But there are always more cars heading up the mountain. Grandmother and I almost live on top of the mountain, but not quite. No one ever stops in our town because by the time they arrive, they are almost to the top and are too excited or nervous or bored to stop.
  Even though we are only twenty miles or so from the top of the mountain, I imagine that it is a completely different place up there. Here, it is muggy and dusty and the air tastes like stale saw dust. It must be one hundred degrees here. But mountain tops are suppose to be cool and crisp places, full of oxygen and ice and wildflowers.

    It is so hot here that there is nothing to do except sit still on the porch and watch the cars. I try to think deep thoughts because even if you are sitting still and doing nothing, you are not really being lazy if you are thinking deep thoughts. I think to myself, “E=MC2.” I try to remember what C stands for. I am about to ponder the meaning of life when two cars collide on the highway. Neither one was going very fast but as they collide the tips of both cars crumple like paper.
  “That makes the third crash since summer began.” Grandmother mumbles. It sounds more like “Thave maksda ford crisssh sensumbe gan.” But I’ve grown quite accustomed to deciphering my grandmothers weird mumblings into coherent sentences.

  “I’ll call the police station!” I say, relieved for the respite from my deep thoughts. I dash inside and call the station. I dutifully report the crash to Rita who is the only person who ever answers the phone at the police station. I think Rita likes her job because people so rarely call the police. Usually she spends her days reading magazines or romance novels. When she has to answer the phone, she sounds annoyed. Rita and I were almost friends once. Sometimes I wonder if things would be different if we had become friends. Maybe she would sound glad when I called and then we would casually gossip after I finished reporting the accident. Maybe I’d even call when there was no accident just to say ‘Hi.”
  When I go back outside, two men are standing beside the car yelling at each other. Their wives and kids are still huddled inside the dented cars. One family looks scared. The little girl has her hands over her ears and the little boy is crying. The mother sits still like a dazed or dead animal. The other family looks bored. The mom is reading a magazine and the teenage daughter is painting her toenails some florescent color.
   Ever since I moved in with my grandmother, we have been counting the car crashes we see from our porch.  We have counted seven hundred and seventy-three crashes. It’s a dangerous part of the road or maybe there is something unlucky about the stretch of highway. Most people survive their crash but sometimes I look out the window at night and see a glow of ghosts hovering over the road.

  I didn't always live with my grandmother. I came to live here when I was twelve. I was nervous because we had never met before and she didn't have a phone, so I couldn't even call to tell her I was coming to live with her. I took the train to the base of the mountain and then the bus the rest of the way. The bus was heading to the top of the mountain but I asked the bus driver if he could make and extra stop in front of my grandmothers house. He said in a real cutesy voice “Well little girl, that’s against the rules but I think we can make an exception this time.” And then he smiled and winked. I thought he must have had a niece the same age as me or maybe a daughter he didn't see very often.
  It was on the bus ride that I first learned about the people on top of the mountain. Years ago, before I was born,  a man moved to the top of the mountain. No one else lived up there except for bears and birds. But this man moved to the highest place he could think of because he wanted to be close to the sky. People started following him to the mountain. For some reason, strangers from all around the country flocked to the mountain top just to follow this man.
  Most people on the bus with me were going to the mountain top to join the man. Everyone on the bus was very quiet. They looked out their windows and sometimes fidgeted in their seats so the old leather squeaked and burped. When the bus driver stopped in front of my grandmothers house, everyone on the bus called farewells to me.  From the side of the road, I looked at the bus. Everyone on the bus looked different from the outside looking in. They all looked tired and disappointed  I waved and watched the bus sputter smoke and heave up the road.

   Before leaving, I wrote my grandmothers address on my inner arm with a ballpoint pen. The letters and numbers were  faded to dainty shadows, but I had looked at the arm so many times by now that the address was thoroughly memorized. I knocked on the door and when my grandmother answered, she glared down at me. I was not yet adept at understanding her mumbles but I think she said “I don’t want what you’re selling.”  I had worn a fetching plaid dress and my hair was divided into two neat pig-tailed braids. This was not my preferred method of dress, but I thought it made me look sweet and appealing to an old lady, but of course I had no way of knowing that my grandmother was not that type of old lady. I smiled up at her.
   “Grandma,” I said, “It’s me. Your granddaughter Allison.” I tried to make my voice bubbly and friendly. It was the voice certain girls used in school with the teachers. I noticed that these girls seemed to get away with the most antics.
  “I don’t have any grand-kids.” she mumbled.
  When she said this, I felt offended. I knew she and my parents had fought, but this is no reason to disown me!
 “Sure you do Grandma. I’m your son Franklin's daughter.”
“I don’t have any children.” She said this in a strained sing-song voice. I wondered if she had forgotten all about her son. If he was just  a dream to her. This was almost a relief. I didn't want to talk about her son and my mother. It felt better to not say anything at all. Sometimes I’m still unsure if grandmother really believes I’m her granddaughter. But she let me inside her house anyway and I've been living here ever since.
   Once when I was a teenager, I sneaked into my grandmothers room to look for evidence of my father. I thought maybe she would still have a photo of him. Or maybe saved school work or childhood art projects of his. The only photo I found was of my grandmother when she was a young woman. Her hair dangled like thick plastic curls. Her mouth was clenched in a scowl. In the corner you could see the smooshed tip of the photographer’s finger.  For a while, I pretended it was my father’s finger tip. But my grandmother was to young in the photo for my father to have even been born yet.
   When Grandma and I aren't watching the highway from the porch, we are in the backyard in her workshop. Grandma is trying to build a machine. As far as I know, grandma knows nothing about mechanics or invention. She claims she once invented a machine that shuffles playing cards. I didn’t tell her those machines have been around for a long time. Now she is trying to build a flying machine. So far it has been a failure, although I will never tell her to her face. But she has been working on it for years and it has not once lifted off the ground.
   “Why don’t you buy a plane ticket?” I asked once.
 But grandmother isn't interested in flying. She said she wants to be at the top of the sky so she can look down. She wants to see the world beneath her from the highest point in the sky.
“A normal plane can’t go where I am going.” She said.
  Originally, grandma had a different plan for reaching the top of the sky. She was building the tallest staircase.
  “It wasn't my idea and I always knew it was a rotten one. I don’t know why I stuck with it as long as I did.” Grandmother says now. But when the staircase was still sturdy, she was quite proud of her ingenuity.
  Once, on a particularly slow traffic day, Grandmother and I were working in her workshop. It was raining and we could hear the patter of the rain smacking against the tin roof. I was frustrated. The whole day I had been screwing pieces together on grandmothers insistence. The various pieces lay scattered on the ground in a messy jumble. It seemed like ridiculous busy work. I doubted all the pieces could ever lead to a machine that could actually fly and I told grandmother so.  This is when she first told me about the man from the top of the mountain. When they were children they lived together in the very house that we live in now. They weren't siblings but they were raised as if they were brother and sister. They use to always have the same shared dream, every night. They were on the top of the sky. The highest part of the sky before it turns into outer space and empty atmosphere.  My grandmother said that the only time she ever felt happy was in those dreams.  Her and the man, her artificial brother, decided that they needed to get to the top of the sky for real, not just in dreams. They started to build the staircase together. But then something happened. My grandmother didn't say. Maybe another fight like the one she had with my father. The man moved away to live on the top of the mountain where he would be closer to the top of the sky. Shortly after my grandmother started reading news stories about the man and how people were following him to the top of the mountain. He was the man all the people on the bus were visiting.  My grandmother said she spat at the newspaper and she spat in the direction of the mountain top. Grandmother didn't say, but I knew she hated these people that followed him to the top of the mountain. They didn't have the dreams. They didn't deserve to get there before her.  So she just kept working on the stair case or the flying machine or whatever she tries next, hoping she will finish it before the man and his followers get to the sky.

  When I moved in with her, the staircase was already a tower. It was the tallest thing I had ever seen. It took me an eternity just to get to the top of it. I helped her build more of the staircase. It just got taller and taller, stretching toward the sky like jacks bean stock. I knew there weren't any giants in the clouds, but I still was nervous on the top of the staircase. Sometimes the neighbors would complain that the staircase was blocking their view, but the only thing it blocked was the view of the highway and all the crashes.
  Grandma and I live in a small town, so it is difficult to make many friends.  There aren't that many people my age. But shortly after my move, I did make one friend who lived only a couple miles south of me. Petey Duncan. I thought of Petey Duncan as my sidekick. He was the type of kid that they cast as sidekicks in old TV shows. He had freckles and a button nose and reddish blonde hair. He wore striped shirts and even carried a sling shot.  I’m sure it was all very cute when he was seven, but we were thirteen. I felt bad for him that he still had so many freckles and I told him sling shots were for little kids. He said I was just a stupid girl and what do I know. Such a typical thing for an angered sidekick to say.
  We liked to play on the staircase. We would have races to the top.  Petey liked to stand on the very top and shoot things from his sling shot. He was always aiming for flying birds, although I don’t think he really aimed for them. He aimed for just beneath them. He wanted a target but he didn't really want to hurt the birds. One time he did actually hit a flying bird. The bird swirled downward toward gravity. Petey had such a look of shocked dismay on his face that I leaned over and wrapped my arm around his shoulders in a way that I thought was consoling. He wiggled free from my grasp and walked down the stairs without saying a word to me.

   The day the staircase collapsed was the day Petey disappeared. The townspeople were convinced that Petey had been playing on the stairs when it fell. They all thought Petey was trapped underneath the wreckage. The police brought an old search dog to our house. The dog tried to sniff out Petey. I helped look underneath the pieces of fallen wood. His parents stood on the side and cried. They didn't even try to help. They were just too distraught. They were too scared that they would lift up a piece of wood and find their sons crushed body underneath. The police and their dog never found anything. Two days later, a couple who were friends with the Duncan’s said they saw Petey get on the bus heading up the mountain. It made sense to me. Petey loved spending time on top of the staircase. He liked being close to the sky just like those people on the mountain top. So my grandmother and I were left alone while the police debated weather or not they wanted to search for him on top of the mountain. It was just talk though. Everyone knew they would never go to the top of the mountain.  Most people who went never came back. And those police officers had families and lives here that they didn't want to leave.
  My grandmother cried for days after the stairs collapsed. She said it was the loss of her lives work. I cried too but for Petey. Grandmother thought I was crying for her staircase too. This is the only time I felt any real anger toward my grandmother. How could she think I was crying for her stupid staircase when I lost my only friend?  Shortly after the collapse she started working on the machine. The machine has had several incarnations and several flight attempts. Grandmother sure was persistent though. She didn't let the continued failure deter her. She use to work on the machine most nights but lately she has been spending more and more time sitting on the porch.
  Grandmother even said that tonight we would work on the machine but instead we are still on the porch watching the highway. We hear the sound of sirens as the police finally respond to my earlier call. They were too slow. The cars left at least an hour ago. I thought the men were going to fight but instead one of them sighed and one of them scratched his head before getting back into their cars and leaving. As they revved off in different directions they both stuck up their middle fingers at each other. The show was over and the highway was boring again with it’s easy monotony.
  “Grandma, I’m going to the corner store. Do you want a soda pop?”
“No, no.”  She mumbles. She keeps looking at the highway. The sun is setting and the glow of the dim light makes her white hair look orange. I touch the top of it lightly with my palm. The hair is course against my skin. She flinches and shakes her head like a horse trying to chase off flies. I shrug and head toward the store.

  The Kid is working at the corner store. He’s called The Kid because at fifteen, he’s the youngest person in town. Rita, the police receptionist is there too. Rita always chews gum and I can hear the smack of the gum in her mouth before I actually see her in the chip aisle carefully examining the different varieties.
“Hi Rita!” I say. She jumps. She must have been deep in thought over those chips.
“Hey.” she says, almost reluctantly.
“I’d go with the sour cream and onion.” I say, pointing to a bag of my favorite chips.
“They’re not for me.”
  I didn’t know if she meant she was buying the chips for someone else or if sour cream and onions weren't the chips for her. But she picks up the chips anyway. She flips the bag around to read the ingredients.
I pick out a strawberry soda and browse the magazines. All the magazines are several years old with faded pages and folded corners. I choose two that I want. One is about Hollywood celebrities even though all the gossip is outdated and the celebrities are doing different things now. The other is a ‘National Geographic’ with a picture of a mummy on the cover. The mummy has withered skin that looks like a crinkled brown paper bag. Instead of eyes he stares with hollow holes.
  I try to chat with The Kid as he rings up my items but he has a thick sullen look on his face and stares past my right shoulder instead of at me. When I walk out the store Rita is standing outside smoking a cigarette. The smoke lingers around her chubby face and hangs around in the muggy air.

“Who you waiting for?” I ask.
“My boyfriend.” She says smugly.
“Your boyfriend? Who is it this time?” Rita has dated almost everyone in town so there aren't too many options left.
“You don’t know him. He’s from the top of the mountain. He is going to take me there tonight.”
“You’re going to the top of the mountain?” I ask, astonished. I never thought Rita would leave.
“Yeah. He should be here soon.”
“Are you nervous?” I ask.
“Of course not. I’m never nervous.”
I wondered if this was true.
“Well, I guess this is farewell.” I say.
She smiles and takes a deep drag of her cigarette.
As I walk home I think about Rita. I was kind of hoping that one day we would become friends after all. I wonder if she really will leave. People almost never leave this town. People almost never come here either. I wish I had asked Rita how she had met her mountain boyfriend. I imagine him stopping into the police station to report a roadside crime. He’d walk in and sees Rita before any of the officers. She would be sitting at the desk with a romance novel and a wad of gum crackling in her mouth.  I wish it had been me.
   Maybe someday I’ll go to the top of the mountain too. I’ll go look for Petey or drop in on Rita as if she were my old friend. Or maybe I won’t go to the top of the mountain, maybe I’ll go back down. I don’t really remember what it is like down there.
  When I get home, grandma is still on the porch. She is still looking toward the highway even though it is really too dark to see anything. She looks sad. Sadder than I have seen her in a long time. She has a frown that sort of hangs loosely from her face. In the dim glow of the porch light her eyes look gray like an overcast morning.  I sit down next to her and grab her limp hand.
  “Grandma, let me tell you a story.”
  She sighs and nods her head. In a low voice I tell grandma the story. It is the same story I've told her a hundred times before. But she closes her eyes and smiles and lets the sweet words wash over her. She falls asleep but I finish the story anyway. During the summer the nights stay thick and warm so I’m not afraid to leave her outside to sleep.  Sometimes when I leave her to sleep I kiss her forehead. The crinkled skin feels dry underneath my lips like I’m kissing an autumn leaf. But tonight, I leave her there untouched. I say, ‘The End.’ and walk back into the house.
  I turn on the TV and open my soda. I click through all the channels and get brief glimpses of strangers and places I've never been. Eventually I settle on a show I've seen before. There is a lot of candid laughter at jokes that aren't that funny. But the laughter, no matter how insincere is always comforting. It helps me fall asleep.
  When I wake up, I realize I had the same dream I always have.  The ground and the sky are the exact same shade of white, so they blend together and it is impossible to know which is which. Every person I pass is covered with feathers.
  Today when I wake up, I look out the window. It’s always the first thing I do. By the slope of my grandmothers head, I can tell she is still asleep. Beyond her on the highway, I can see that two cars crashed while we were sleeping.
  “Seven hundred and seventy four crashes.” I think. I pick up the phone and dial the police station. The phone rings and rings. I can hear the politely insistent ring from my end and wonder what it sounds like echoing in the police station. Smoke is twirling upward from the two cars. I wonder if the people in the car will join the ghosts. The phone keeps ringing and I wonder if anyone will ever answer it.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing story. I love how you set up such an eerie, but mundane life surrounding Allison. Maybe she'll start working at the police station now...