At the base of the small hill where Paseo del Pueblo Sur intersects with Kit Carson Road, a boy had fallen to his death from a utility pole. He had climbed it to drape a string of Tibetan prayer flags among the grimy holiday decorations put up by the Taos Department of Public Works. Now, two days later, the snow bites into a makeshift shrine at the base of the pole, teddy bears and wilted red carnations. Into the prayer flags, knotted with a string of silver garland and wind whipped around a high phone wire. Into the immigrant from Zihuatanejo, who holds a hand to his cheek and thinks of the sting of sea sand at the beach near his home.
Through the windshield of their rented Sentra, Carol looks at the yellow police tape fluttering at the base of the pole. Del switches on the wipers, and the scene smears into a mélange of gray snow and remembered blood.
“Can that thing tell you what time the Lions play?” Del asks, a well-intentioned attempt, thinks Carol, to keep her eyes on her iPad and away from the spot she had seen the boy die.
“Nope,” she says. “Only dancing cats.”
“Did he bounce when he hit the ground?” says Tom, their fifteen-year-old, from the backseat. “Could you hear his head crack?”
“Enough,” Del says.
“He can’t help it,” Carol says and turns to look at her damaged son. His eyes twitch from her to the utility pole to his spasming fingers, palpitating a soiled rubber dog toy. His latest therapist claims it siphons off excess cranial electricity, neutralizing the downed and live wires that litter Tom’s psyche.
“Did he piss his pants? Did he shit — sorry, poop — his pants?” Tom rocks hard against the seatbelt.
“What’s wrong?” says Carol’s mother, from beside Tom. Her words escape her mouth as if they have had to struggle their way out of an ice-clogged river. She’s forgotten her teeth. God help us if she’s forgotten her Depends too, thinks Carol, and sniffs. She smells only ancient cigar smoke and this morning’s hotel coffee.
“Only one car gets through each green,” Del says and bangs the steering wheel in time with his son’s rocking.
A Hispanic man threads through the idling vehicles. He pulls three dark-haired girls, their hands interwoven, their dresses pushing out from the bottoms of their Hello Kitty parkas, three mushroom clouds of pink polyester and yellow ribbon. Carol watches one of the girls place a miniature poinsettia at the base of the utility pole.
“What’s that supposed to do?” says Del.
Carol feels a stab where her breasts meet her ribs. She longs to be part of that family, capable of pairing catastrophe with right action. The trip to New Mexico had been her idea and was becoming her fault. Del couldn’t master the cable channels in their hotel room. The soft-boiled egg Carol’s mother insisted on each morning was too hard. Tom was wetting the bed again.
Only Carol sees that Taos is where her mother can take a few last footsteps on sacred ground. Only Carol sees that bringing Tom to the Taos Pueblo, continuously inhabited for one thousand years, might convince him to inhabit this earth for at least a few moments. Only Carol saw the poor, tattered boy fall, and only Carol sees that his death and her life, their families and this place, are married, as much as if they had rented a hall and booked a band.
“At least it’s something,” she says. She grips the door handle. There’s still time.
Out of the car, she squeezes between the bumper of the Sentra and the VW van in front and angles across the other lane of traffic to the pole. She reaches in the pocket of her fleece for something to add to the icy pile of offerings and pulls out three small silver screws. She cups them in an ungloved hand. They must have fallen out of something in her rickety life, but out of what she can’t recall.
“Get in the car, Mom,” Tom yells.
An old man, probably from the pueblo, steps next to Carol. His silvering hair is the color of street snow and his face, the texture of creased parchment. His tan duffel is worn thin but clean, and his jeans are pressed. Carol imagines him ironing by the light of a single bulb, gnarled brown hand gripped tight on the iron’s black plastic handle. He looks at the screws in her palm and then at her.
In his black eyes, Carol sees all the history and wisdom of this place, the very gift she wants to give her dying mother. But what her mother wants is an egg done the way they do it in Ohio. In his empty eyes, Carol sees all the hunger of a lonely boy, the very pain she wants to assuage in Tom. But what Tom wants is to look at porn on their laptop. Carol opens her hand and lets the screws fall onto the frozen toys and the frost-burnt flowers and crosses the road and climbs back into the Sentra.
KT Sparks is a farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Her short fiction has appeared in Word Riot, Citron Review, Jersey Devil Press, and Whiskey Paper, and was recognized in the New Millennium Writing Awards. She received her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte and served as an assistant fiction editor of Qu (a literary magazine). Her novel, Four Dead Horses, a story of cowboy poetry and the obese pet mortician who loves it, took first place in the 2017 James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest and will be excerpted in the September issue of Richmond Magazine. You can read KT’s fiction at KTSparks.com. Contact her there or tweet at her @OnTheFenceWrite if you want to publish her book or buy eggs.
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