In My Father's House
by Jane Hammons
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It is summer and in the shallow valley bordering the Lincoln National Forest where my father lives, the light fades slowly. His house is made from fake adobe bricks. They were not molded by native hands from the ancient clay of the earth; they were not fired individually in round earthen ovens. He bought them at Capitan Lumber and Hardware, but still they are the dusty color of real adobe. Smooth and irregular, their corners are rounded like the edges of the earth. Pap, my grandfather, helped him build this house so that he could move out of the trailer parked behind the Win-Place-Show Laundromat near Ruidoso Downs Racetrack. This is my first visit to the new house, the only home my father has owned since he and my mother divorced more than 20 years ago.
Mama, my grandmother, is here. She would have made the trip—taking the Greyhound from Carlsbad to Roswell, and from there a mail truck to Capitan—to see just me. But the fact that my sister DeeAnn is also here makes it doubly worthwhile. We are her first grandchildren and the ones she sees least often. I coerced DeeAnn because I did not want to come alone.
“Come to Austin,” she said when I asked her to meet me in Capitan. “There’s an airport. You can fly.”
I remind her that Dad was sick all winter and is currently unemployed. Will she pay his airfare? His wife’s? We haven’t all been together since Pap’s funeral five years ago. Mama is getting old. I pile it on. DeeAnn makes her way to the bus station in Austin, unable to afford her own airfare and rental car. Tokes of marijuana in the Ladies Rooms of San Angelo, Lamesa, and Lubbock, stoke her along the way.
After a rough flight from Oakland into Albuquerque, I ride the Greyhound 70 miles to Socorro where I wait two hours for a delivery truck that will take me to the village of Capitan. Living in the Bay Area, I use public transportation, and I’ve let my driver’s license expire. No rental car for me either. I take a walk around the small town square until the temperature rises to 102. Then I return to the waiting room, where I watch horseflies circle the gray metal trashcan for an hour before I take a Valium, a small dose, according to my husband, who takes much larger doses of this and other drugs. I picture Mama popping her blood pressure pills somewhere around Mescalero.
Steeled for our separate journeys, we prepare to come together.
It is too hot to cook, but Mama brought along a plastic Montgomery Wards shopping bag full of squash, okra, bell peppers, jalapeños, onions and crisp green beans from her garden. So we will cook. And gladly we will eat. DeeAnn and I munch raw green beans—Kentucky Wonders, Mama tells us—as we wash the vegetables, thankful that Dad will not be serving bologna sandwiches on gummy white bread, slathered with mayonnaise, garnished with rings of Spanish onion on request, his summertime specialty.
Nellie, my stepmother, has given over her kitchen to Mama who doesn't mind cooking in this heat. She doesn’t even notice it. She is in her element, wearing a dishtowel around her neck like a winter scarf.
Dad is sitting quietly in his recliner. He listens to DeeAnn and I joke about customers in her store and students in my classes. Unable to join in our sister talk, Dad cleans his glasses, deliberately rubbing the lenses over and over with a white handkerchief. He holds them at arm's length and inspects them in the gray light that fills the room. No smears, no flecks. Satisfied, he folds them and slips them into a leather case, a Christmas present from me. He sets the case on the end table, a large redwood burl, and stares shyly out the front door, always wide open on hot summer nights. He is trying to think of something to say.
"Don't those jalapeños smell good," Nellie calls from the open door of the bathroom. We can see her reflection in the mirror; she is taking pink sponge curlers out of her hair. She pokes her head around the door and laughs. "Just hope they're not nuclear.”
"There's nothing nuclear in Carlsbad yet.” Mama informs Nellie over the sizzle of the vegetables in the black cast iron skillet. "The day they store a drop of that trans-ur-an-ic waste,” she drawls the word out by syllables, “is the day I retire my trowel and hoe.”
“Transur-what-ic?” DeeAnn asks.
“Small stuff. Clothing, tools, rags.” Dad attempts to reduce the hazard by reducing the materials to household items.
“It’s all radioactive,” I say. “Used in nuclear weapons research. They’re going to transport it through the countryside—from Los Alamos to Carlsbad.”
“Get federal funds to improve the roads. People need jobs.” My father owns a backhoe and hires himself out to road crews. He’s had no work lately. For the first time in years, Nellie has a job. My father lights another cigarette.
“Don’t you forget that your father worked under that earth all his life in the potash mines," Mama says to Dad. "Organized the first protest against that WHIP.”
“It’s WIPP—Waste Isolation Pilot Plant—not WHIP,” says Dad. “And nothing is going into the old mines. It’s out in the salt beds. No danger of leakage. Salt heals its own fractures.”
“I'll lay down in front of your backhoe, you start cutting one of those nuclear highways through my town.” Mama leans over the counter that separates the kitchen from the living room and raps my father lightly on the head with the wooden spoon, accidentally depositing a piece of zucchini in his thinning hair.
“For Christ's sake!” My father furiously brushes the top of his head. The zucchini flies out and lands at the feet of Nellie's poodle who sits up and begs for it. "It'll be years before they start storing anything."
“I plan to be here for a while,” says Mama.
“Dumb dog.” DeeAnn picks up the zucchini and drops it into the teeny poodle's mouth. I hand Mama a clean spoon.
“This country,” says Dad, referring to the landscape he inhabits, not the entire U.S.A., "survived the A-bomb. Turned a few cows white. Singed the hair off some barn cats but didn't kill anybody."
“When I was a little girl I thought that White Sands was white because of the test explosion of the bomb.” DeeAnn joins the conversation. “And that Japan was a white desert island.”
“Gypsum,” Dad says. “The sands are naturally white.”
“Did you see anything when the bomb was tested?” I ask Nellie, who has joined Mama in the kitchen. She grew up on a ranch just twenty miles from the Trinity Site.
“No, she didn't.” Dad answers for her.
“I didn't ask you.” I turn my gaze to Nellie, giving her the look I give students who are reluctant to participate in class discussion.
“I heard that boom.” Nellie starts as if she were hearing it again. “And I thought the world had come to an end. It had been raining quietly all morning. I was helping Mother make breakfast for the ranch hands. Scared me to death. I was just a girl,” she adds as if needing to justify her fear. “Later I learned it was the atomic bomb, and I wondered why the government wanted to drop it on innocent people. I didn’t know it was just a test.”
“Nellie doesn't have cancer or drool on herself, now does she. Her eyes aren’t twirling around in her head, so I guess she doesn't have any radiation poisoning,” Dad says.
“Some of those disorders don't surface for years.” Mama looks at Nellie, perhaps expecting her to glow. “Met a woman from Alamogordo at the Methodist Convention last year, hair's falling out and she’s got a hacking cough.”
“Old age.” Dad grunts and shifts in his chair.
“Her husband died of cancer after two years of working for the government out in that atomic desert. She's going to collect.”
“Just another excuse to sponge off taxpayer's money.”
“I'm sure she's paid her fair share of taxes, Dad. She's not robbing you or anybody else.”
DeeAnn folds herself into lotus position on the floor, closes her eyes and begins to chant.
“The government didn't force anybody to work out there.” Agitated, Dad pushes the footrest of the recliner down with a forceful thud. “It doesn't take a genius to know that if people are testing atomic weapons there's going to be some dangers. Those people took chances. They took jobs. And you best believe that if they start burying waste out in that god forsaken Chihuahua Desert, I’ll be out there looking for a job. Good money in government jobs.”
“Cancer is a high price to pay.”
“Well maybe you better just run on back to Berkeley,” says Dad, “where people like Oppenheimer get their ideas and then drop them somewhere else.” He points toward the door open in the direction of White Sands Missile Range, just 40 miles away. “They're probably testing something this very minute. Hell, that must be why my hair is falling out.” He lights another cigarette. "Maybe when we die you girls can collect on me and Nellie. She's lived right on the border of the Range all her life.”
“I love the Malpais,” says Nellie, “Lots of people think it's ugly, but I’m just an old desert rat. I think it’s beautiful.”
“I love it, too.”
“Well, you should come see it more often, Sally,” says Dad reaching for my hand. A moment ago, he suggested I leave. Now he is holding on. Push. Pull. This is the way we are. “How’s Derek?” he asks.
“Fine.” As a topic of conversation, my husband is about as safe as nuclear waste. Dad knows I won’t elaborate. We won’t talk about Derek being in rehab for the third time trying to kick a coke habit. Dad’s disapproval of Derek is not based on the fact that he is a drug addict. He doesn’t know about that. Derek is a musician. Dad thinks if a man’s work isn’t killing him, what he’s got is a hobby, not a job.
The cicadas are humming in the trees. DeeAnn is chanting a mantra—the one I taught her years ago when I was eighteen and she was twelve. Some sisters advise their younger ones on the intricacies of dating, the mechanics of applying mascara. Instead, I turned DeeAnn on to Hendrix, yoga, Ken Kesey. She is still turned on. A devoted follower of the Grateful Dead, she meditates and takes psychedelic drugs, though only organic ones like peyote which she harvests somewhere near the Big Bend country of Texas.
“You going to cook those?” Mama asks in disbelief as Nellie takes five very peculiar looking cuts of meat out of the refrigerator.
“Pork chops.” Nellie holds up several pale pink cuts. She is training to be a butcher at the market where she works as a cashier and gets mangled meat at a big discount. “Shoo, shoo.” Nellie pushes Mama out of the kitchen. “You don't have to watch.”
“Don't let my vegetables burn.” Displaced, Mama wanders around the living room and settles in a chair behind DeeAnn. She leans down and smacks her on the thigh. “Stop buzzin' like a bee and talk to me. You eating meat these days?"”
DeeAnn shakes her head. The mantra tapers off. “Vegetarian.”
“Me, too, as of right now. Don't cook me one of those uh, pork things.”
“Too late,” Nellie says pleasantly from the cloud of smoke that rises above the stove. She fries pork chops hot and fast.
“Well, we won't be eating any.” Mama rubs DeeAnn’s shoulders and asks her to explain the benefits of kelp.
DeeAnn smiles. Gloating. She has earned the right. To have Mama ask for advice about anything, but especially this, is quite a coup. Mama used to think DeeAnn's health food-vegetarian-vitamin-popping habits were just plain weird. But now, like a lot of older people, Mama is concerned about blood pressure, weight and cholesterol. She reads about these things in her magazines. She’s proud of DeeAnn for managing a health food store. When DeeAnn dropped out of high school, Mama was sure she had a granddaughter who would dip cones at the Tastee-Freez for the rest of her life.
“A manager and a professor,” Mama says proudly. Though I have explained numerous times that I am merely a graduate student who teaches, she is not interested in the distinction. “You girls have really made something of yourselves. Think you can manage to make some babies?”
DeeAnn and I groan in unison. Dad chuckles. Nellie winks at us over her shoulder.
“I've got eleven great-grands now. Wouldn't mind having a few more. Your cousins don't seem to think they're too good to change diapers and wipe noses.”
“Supper's on.” Nellie calls us to the table. She has added a leaf to make it accommodate three extra people, and it fills the space between the kitchen and the living room. When Dad built this house, he made it just the right size for the two of them. It is crowded with the rest of us.
We join hands and Dad says a quick blessing over food and family. Mama’s jalapeños are too hot for me, but if I don't eat at least a few, I will be teased mercilessly. California sissy. I hide the untouched peppers under what is left of my second pork chop. Nellie and I both took two, removing the conspicuous cuts from the platter in the middle of the table.
“Your Dad's going to be in the Billy the Kid Pageant this year,” Nellie says.
“Yeah.” Dad chuckles softly. “I’ll be Robert Olinger—Pecos Bob they called him. He played both sides of the fence. Outlaw and deputy.”
“Just a way of surviving back then. This is a rough old country. Got to be tough to live here.” Mama looks at me, the only member of the family to leave the territory.
“Not always easy to play by the rules,” says Dad.
“Rules aren't always right.” DeeAnn fills her mouth with peppers and points with her fork at my unfinished pork chop and the jalapeños beneath it. She has discovered my hiding place.
“I'll send you the newspaper clippings.” Nellie changes the subject before DeeAnn, who is active in NORML, can launch her argument for the legalization of marijuana. “They always have a big write-up in the paper.”
As we finish supper, Mama gathers our plates and scrapes what is left into the dog's dish. My peppers slide in after the pork chop bone. I pity the little poodle, yapping and trying to get past Mama to his dinner. Nellie jumps up from the table and sifts through the food, removing the bits of jalapeño. She winks at me as Mama eyes the poodle with contempt. Better him than me.
Nellie brings us fresh glasses of sun tea with thick wedges of lemon. Coffee is unthinkable in this heat. Only my father makes himself a cup of instant with hot water from the tap. Then we drag our kitchen chairs outside.
My father and Nellie do not have any lawn furniture because they don’t have a lawn or even a patio. The land is untouched except for the space that had to be cleared in order to build the house. The yard is covered with tall dry grass, short scrubby pines, Queen Anne's Lace, mustard grass, Indian paintbrush, wild yellow asters, several yuccas and a century plant. When my father saw that the century plant would have to be destroyed if he followed the original plans, he relocated the house.
We drink glass after glass of lukewarm tea. Mama fills us in on family events. She has twenty-three grandchildren, so it takes a while. I only know seven of my cousins. I think of the rest of them as Mama's grandchildren. We all listen as she catches us up on everyone's marriages, divorces, children, illnesses, operations, and recoveries. After a while the stories become one story and I am no longer listening to the tale, but only to the teller.
DeeAnn is grinning at me. Death! Divorce! Disease! She mouths the words we chanted during the summers we spent with Dad at Mama's house, always full of family news and gossip. When our parents divorced, our mother sold the house we had all lived in together and the farm Dad had worked on since they were teenagers. She married a Colonel in the Air Force. With them, DeeAnn and I traveled from base to base, but always considered New Mexico home. Mama winds up the chronicle with the Caesarian birth of her eleventh great-grandchild. On her way to bed, she grabs us close and gives us long hard hugs. My father and Nellie wish us good night and follow Mama into the house.
It is past midnight when DeeAnn and I crawl into our pallet on the living room floor. It is made of dusty quilts and soft worn sheets. The house still smells of Mama's garden. Southern fried.
It has cooled down a bit. DeeAnn and I lay close together. When we were girls, we shared a bedroom, and sometimes when we were sick, scared, or just lonely, we'd push our twin beds together and sleep beside one another. She tells me about her boyfriend, a man I have never met.
“He's visiting friends in El Paso. I'm going to meet up with him there, and we'll drive back to Austin together," she says. “He offered to drive up and get me. But he’s an artist, and if he comes here, Dad will give him the Derek treatment. So I’m going to hitch.”
“I'll buy you a bus ticket,“ I say too quickly.
“I can afford a ticket. I am a man ah jer.“ She drawls her job title out, imitating Mama’s accent.
I laugh, but I am careful not to let her distract me. “Why can't you just take the bus?“
“I rode the bus here. Man, that is so depressing.” She searches in her knapsack for a joint. I hope that everyone is sound asleep. “Don't sweat it.” She lights up, her face illuminated in the darkness of my father's house. Her long straight hair is the color of ice, her narrow deep set eyes a frozen shade of blue.
“Don't you read the newspapers? Didn't you read about those two Swedish girls who were strangled and mutilated near San Francisco?“
“You're just paranoid, man. Been living in California too long.“
“California! What about that guy in Houston with all those little boys in his basement and that weirdo in Lubbock.“
“Well, I don't know.“ DeeAnn holds in the smoke then blows it out in a long thin stream.
I have been dismissed. I turn over on my side and try to sleep, but news reports of bodies excavated from basements, bizarre tortures, and photographs of smiling people taken before they were victims fill my head. I fall into a shallow exhausting sleep.
It is summer and we are all riding the school bus. DeeAnn, a child with a pixie haircut, sits on my lap. I ruffle her hair, and she grins like the Cheshire cat in my illustrated Alice in Wonderland. An old woman sitting next to me strings necklaces of green beans for all her grandchildren. She says grandchildren over and over. The cheerful woman sitting in front of us has pink hair. She tries to help the old woman string the beans, but the old woman shoos her away. It's okay, though. The woman with pink hair writes giggle, giggle on the dusty window. The bus driver is a man. He grinds the gears and a bucket on the front of the bus rises and dumps white, crystalline lumps of potash on us. We are being buried alive. The red radiation light on the ceiling blinks angrily. The beep-beep noise of a dumptruck accompanies it. The woman with pink hair is green. Radiated. We are not alive. We are strangled. Strings and strings of green beans dangle from our necks. We are dismembered. Irregular cuts of meat flung out the school bus window. Sticky clumps of toxic waste.
I awaken suddenly. DeeAnn is sleeping so close to me that the backs of our legs, moist with perspiration, are stuck together. I get up and walk outside. The five kitchen chairs are still sitting in an empty semi-circle. I step onto a cool damp flagstone and shiver in the sunrise. The sky is pale, almost silver, then violet, pink, gold, and finally broken bits of blue shine through. The pearly blossoms of the yucca plant quiver in the morning breeze. The century plant longs to bloom.
It is summer and DeeAnn and I are barreling down the interstate in her beat up Pontiac Lemans. She says it has AC, but the thin stream of warm air that trickles from the vents feels more like something leaking from beneath the dashboard. My son, Charlie, and I flew into El Paso, and DeeAnn and her son picked us up there. Because Derek never made these trips with us, New Mexico is the one place Charlie and I can be where the absence of his father isn’t a painful presence. Derek went on tour with his band last year and never came home.
We pass a billboard advertising the Carlsbad Caverns. The Big Room is dramatically rendered in contrasts of dark cavern walls and glistening stalagmites and stalactites. “That’s where Grandpa works,” says Joe, DeeAnn’s son. He is five, one year younger than Charlie.
“No.” Charlie corrects him. “He works in the salt beds. Even deeper than the Caverns.”
“Maahm.” Joe whines. He wants to be right.
“Charlie is right,” DeeAnn says, giving Joe a quick No Whining Allowed warning glance in the rearview mirror.
“How deep then?” Joe challenges Charlie.
“Two thousand one hundred feet.”
“Is that right, Mom?” Joe asks.
“If Charles says it’s 2,150 feet, it’s 2,150 feet.” DeeAnn always calls Charlie by his full name when she is irritated with him. “The little professor is never wrong,” she says under her breath.
I punch her on the arm, giving her a warning shot. Charlie loves to recite facts and is often unaware of the effect this has on a lot of people.
“The salt beds are over 250 million years old,” Charlie says.
DeeAnn guns it, and the LeMans creeps up to 80 on the speedometer. I pray that Charlie won’t notice that she is speeding. He also loves rules.
“Old like dinosaurs,” Joe sighs. Charlie has outgrown the dinosaur phase, but when he is around Joe, he becomes interested again. The boys devolve into T-Rex and Velociraptor, clawing and gnashing at one another in the back seat.
As we enter town, the electronic sign on the bank tells us that it is 11:00 a.m. The temperature is 100°. It will only get hotter.
“So what’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” DeeAnn asks. “Are we going to the Caverns?”
“It depends on Dad and Nellie. Nellie is driving over from Capitan today.” Neither Dad nor DeeAnn has taken time off work, so we will all be together for just the weekend. A trip to the Carlsbad Caverns will be the big event.
Dad’s job with WIPP requires him to commute across the state, from the WIPP site south of Carlsbad to labs in Los Alamos and Albuquerque. To be close to one work location, he lives at Mama’s house in Carlsbad. Nellie manages the market in Capitan, a position she did not want to give up when Dad took the job. So she lives there. They spend weekends together.
My father will not tell me exactly what he does. Top Secret, he jokes. Knowing the kind of work my 60-year-old, high-school-drop-out father is qualified for, I worry. Nellie has told me that in Los Alamos he works with containers of transuranic waste. I picture him sifting through nuclear products, touching unspeakable things, his body the container that is really being tested.
When we pull into the driveway, Mama is sitting in the shade of her front porch. The boys tumble out of the car before DeeAnn turns the engine off.
“Look at you little men,” Mama cries, rising slowly from her chair. She grabs Charlie and Joe and squeezes their thin little boy bodies into her ample grandmotherly one. They giggle and return her hugs.
I have not been home since Derek left. I know this is what is on my father’s mind when he comes slowly from around the back fence and rests the hoe against the cinderblock wall. “Sally,” he says my name softly and puts his large rough hand on the top of my head. This is all we will ever speak of the divorce.
Charlie splashes in the little plastic pool Mama bought for this occasion. Joe naps in the hammock strung between two pecan trees. Mama reads aloud from The Upper Room.
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”
“Gruesome,” DeeAnn says, wrinkling her nose.
“No,” says Mama, “Lazarus. John 11. I suppose your boys don’t know about The Bible.”
“I know about nature,” says Charlie.
“Raising your son to be some kind of environmentalist?” Dad asks.
“It’s what they learn in school,” I say. But I do not want to seem as though I am apologizing. “So what if he is an environmentalist?”
“If you had to cross their picket lines, you wouldn’t ask.”
“We have clean-up days on the beach.” Charlie shifts the focus to himself, a strategy he perfected listening to his father and me argue.
“We have dinosaur rodeos.” Joe jumps wide awake from the hammock. “Yippee ay yea! I’m bustin’ a T-Rex!” He gallops around DeeAnn’s chair.
“A little religion,” Mama says, looking at me, “might prevent divorce, and make men take responsibility for their illegitimate children.” She shoots a look at DeeAnn. DeeAnn has told no one who Joe’s father is.
“I don’t like divorce,” Charlie says quietly.
“What’s illjimut,” Joe says, tumbling into DeeAnn’s lap.
“It’s . . .” Mama begins.
“Enough,” I say, my voice sharper than I intend. A couple of years ago Mama was born again into a religion she had been practicing her entire life. Now she is not merely faithful. She is judgmental and dogmatic. She gets up slowly from a deck chair Dad has modified to accommodate her bad hip.
“Is your hip bothering you?” I ask. I’m sorry I’ve upset her, but I’m also sorry she upset Charlie and Joe.
“A little.” She replies curtly without looking at me and begins to stack plates.
DeeAnn picks a couple of pomegranates from one of Mama’s bushes. She takes the large carving knife Dad used to slice the ham we had for lunch and swiftly cuts the fruit in half, exposing the brilliant red seeds.
“Charlie, look.” Joe rips a handful of seeds from a pomegranate and holds them out to his cousin. They stuff the seeds into their mouths, their fingertips, lips and chins turning bright red.
“We may be sinners, but you have to admit we did finally manage to make some beautiful fucking babies,” DeeAnn says, forgetting to censor her language.
“Lord have Mercy.” Mama wipes her hands on her apron and heads toward the house.
“I won’t have that language in my house,” Dad says.
“This isn’t your house,” Nellie says.
“He knows my rules.” Mama calls over her shoulder.
“Anyone want a beer?” I ask, opening a cooler that sits in the shade of one of the pecan trees.
“I’ll take one, Sally,” says Nellie. “And your boys are beautiful little jewels.”
DeeAnn glances at her watch and hides her face in a floppy sun hat. We sit in the back yard and wait for night to fall.
At bedtime the boys crawl into a tent in the backyard. DeeAnn and I sleep in the double bed in Mama’s sewing room. Overhead, a quilt frame hangs from the ceiling. Mama has it rigged so that she can lower it into the center of the room when her quilting circle is here. I drift in and out of sleep dreaming that I have been wrapped like a mummy in the suffocating quilts. The fan in the hallway clanks noisily. In the next room, my father coughs. Nellie asks him over and over again throughout the night if she can get him something. I hear no reply.
When I rise in the morning, the house is already hot. Mama has been in the kitchen fixing breakfast.
When we sit down, Charlie points to the gravy boat in the center of the table. “Is that yogurt?”
“That's red-eye gravy,” Mama says. A wrinkled skin has begun to tighten across its surface.
“We usually eat yogurt and fruit for breakfast.”
“Well, I hardly ever make gravy for breakfast anymore, isn’t that right, Earl.” Mama becomes defensive. “I thought, you know, for the boys.” She wipes the sweat away from her face.
“I just meant that’s why he thought it was yogurt.” I start to explain, but DeeAnn stuffs a biscuit in my mouth.
“God, I am so glad I’m not a vegetarian anymore,” she says. “This gravy is terrific. And the biscuits are so flaky.”
Charlie fills his biscuit with the apricot jam Mama has made from the fruit in her backyard. “I like this,” he says, biscuit crumbling from the sticky smile he sends Mama. She pats him on the head, and pulls his long blonde hair off his neck as though she’s going to put it in a ponytail. “That’s my picture.” He points to the drawing he made of our compost heap and recycling bins. It is stuck to Mama’s refrigerator with magnets. “Reduce Reuse Recycle and Rot: Everything You’ll Get and Everything You’ve Got.”
“That’s a charming little diddy.” DeeAnn laughs and repeats it, snapping her fingers to the rhythm.
“Berkeley kindergarten mantra. Indoctrination begins at an early age. He’s learned meditation, too,” I tell DeeAnn. “Maybe you guys can swap techniques.” She sticks her tongue out at me.
“What’s in-do-cration?” Joe asks.
“Here, son.” Dad fills Joe’s plate with ham and biscuits. “You want to have lots of energy for the Caverns.”
“We’re going today!” Charlie shouts, happy that he will get to see the caves.
“I won’t be joining you. I’m taking Mama to the clinic later today,” Nellie says quietly. “Her hip is bothering her where she had that replacement surgery last year.”
DeeAnn and I are both disappointed. Dad looks nervous about the prospect of a family outing without Nellie. “When did this come up?” he asks.
Mama sits with a groan in her rocker in the dining room.
“Early this morning.” Nellie whispers. “She doesn’t want anyone to know.” The discussion of who is going where ends.
We drive in Dad’s air-conditioned Jeep to the Caverns. For the first time in many years he drives a new car, one that won’t break down on the long drives from one end of the state to another. He tells me about his retirement plan, selling me on his job.
“Look there, son,” Dad says to Charlie. “A roadrunner.”
“Beep beep.” Joe giggles in the backseat.
As we continue up the winding road that leads into the Guadalupe Mountains, Dad points out some trails he likes to hike and invites us to come back in the fall for some camping and hiking.
“Can we?” Charlie asks, squirming eagerly in his seat. “I want to camp in the desert.”
“Maybe Thanksgiving. That’s the only time I have off until Christmas.” I’ve just been hired at a small private college in the Bay Area and continue to live on the academic vacation schedule.
“Mesquite mush for Thanksgiving,” says DeeAnn.
“Jackrabbit jello.” Dad smiles.
“Rattlesnake rice.” Charlie adds a dish.
We are laughing about the Thanksgiving menu when we pull into the parking lot of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. But the moment Charlie steps out of the jeep, he bursts into tears. “It’s so hot.” He yells and shields his eyes from the harsh glare of the sun.
My father attempts to distract him with the view. “Over there.” He points to the southeast. “That’s Mexico. From here you can see all the way to another country.”
Charlie dutifully glances at the mountains before he doubles over and vomits.
“What’s the matter, Charles?” Dad asks, looking nervously at me.
“Probably car sick,” says DeeAnn. Used to the heat Joe scrambles out of the car and chases a lizard across the parking lot.
“Let’s get inside. It will be cooler there.” I take a tissue from my backpack and wipe Charlie’s face.
Joe runs back to join us and takes Charlie’s hand, sticky with tears, and gently leads him inside the main building. They find a bench to sit on while I go into the restroom and get some damp paper towels. I hold the towels to Charlie’s face while Dad, DeeAnn and Joe look at the exhibits and browse in the gift shop.
From a large nearby window that provides a view of the Caverns, I watch people take the trail down to the walk-in entrance. We will descend by elevator. But as a child I always walked in, mindful that where I entered was where the bats exited. DeeAnn and I came at least once a year with Mama and Pap to watch the bat flights. At dusk, the mouth of the cave filled with an unrecognizable mass of dark fluttering, expelled into the muted blue of the evening sky. Once Pap brought us here in the predawn hours of morning to see the bats funnel back into the entrance. “That’s not something you see every day,” he said as I stood frozen at his side, fearful of being swept up into the vortex of whirling bats and sucked into the vacuum of the cave.
Charlie tugs at my shirt and whispers. “I feel better now.”
We descend 1,500 feet into the Caverns in a hot elevator crammed full of people. Charlie stares intently at his red high-tops. He squeezes my hand and I squeeze back.
“Here we are,” says Dad when we arrive and walk out into the Big Room.
Charlie sighs with relief and checks a thermometer on the wall near the elevator. “Fifty six degrees.” He gapes in awe at the limestone structures as we take the path of our self-guided tour. “This is kind of scary.” He looks into the Bottomless Pit.
“Nothing to be scared of son.” Dad pats Charlie carefully on the back. “The pool is actually pretty shallow. The reflection off the ceiling of the cavern. That’s what makes it look deep.” He reads Charlie the informational sign next to the railing. Even though Charlie can read it for himself, he listens politely.
“I’m not scared,” says Joe, reaching out to touch a stalagmite.
“No touching.” Charlie knocks Joe’s hand down. “It’s against the rules.”
“He wasn’t going to touch it.” DeeAnn snaps at Charlie.
“It looked like he was.” I defend my son.
DeeAnn takes Joe by the hand and walks with him to the Lion’s Tail.
Dad checks for cigarettes in his shirt pocket. He can’t light up, but he needs to know they are there. Slowly we wind around the trails and meet again at the Hall of Giants.
“Hey, let’s go look for cavemen.” Joe grabs Charlie by the hand. They wander off, creeping around the side of the Rock of Ages pretending to be on the look out for men with clubs.
“I’m going to be ready to go pretty soon. How about you?” DeeAnn asks. She tilts her head slightly in Dad’s direction. He looks tired, waiting at a bench for the occupants to leave so he can take a seat.
“Sure. Let the boys roam around a little more. Then we can go.”
“It’s kind of chilly down here.” DeeAnn snuggles up against me. I put my arm around her, and we watch the boys play. After a while, she motions for them to join us.
“Seen enough?” Dad asks the boys who aren’t quite ready to go.
Charlie fidgets. “I want to stay. It’s cool here. It’s too hot outside.”
“Come on now, Charles,” says Dad. “You can’t move in down here.”
Charlie starts to cry. Dad and DeeAnn head for the elevator. DeeAnn pulls Joe down from a railing he is crawling on and drags him along behind her. Soon Dad and Joe are having a pretend boxing match. The rough and tumble charade cheers Joe up. Charlie trudges along behind and once again we line up for the elevator. It is hot inside and filled with the body odors of the many passengers it has carried up and down. Charlie covers his nose with his hand.
“When we get back up, you guys go to the snack bar,” I suggest to Dad and DeeAnn, “I’ll go run the air conditioner in the Jeep to cool it down, okay?”
“Good lord,” Dad sighs and hands over his keys.
DeeAnn takes a pack of Marlboros out of her purse and begins to pack them hard against the heel of her hand.
“No Smoking in here, Miss,” says the elevator operator.
“Do you see me smoking?” DeeAnn’s voice is shrill. Several people glare at her.
“Can we get videos?” Now Joe is whining. “Greatgrammy doesn't have cable.”
Dad takes his glasses off and wipes them against his shirt. From his pocket he takes out a pair of dark green lenses and snaps them over the clear ones. As much as he loves to see his grandsons, Dad doesn’t adjust easily to their demands. DeeAnn and I have made few on him. Our mother raised us. Until he met Nellie, Dad lived with his parents, so when we visited, it was Mama who cooked meals, washed our clothes, found neighbor children for us to play with.
On the way back to Mama’s, we stop at the video store and rent several hours worth of cartoons for the boys to watch. Joe is the authority on X-Men, a program Charlie is not allowed to watch at home. He listens attentively as Joe explains the origins and powers of Wolverine and Storm.
“How did you boys like the Caverns?” Nellie asks.
“Good,” says Joe, not taking his eyes away from the TV.
“Giant Dome reminded me of Half Dome in Yosemite,” says Charlie. “Someday I’m going to climb that rock.”
“You like to go hiking?” Nellie asks.
“Uh-huh.” Charlie can’t hold a conversation and pay attention to X-Men at the same time and turns his attention to the TV.
“How’s Mama?” I ask.
Nellie shakes her head and takes a sip of beer. “Not good. The doctor says that she needs to stay off her feet for a while. I haven’t talked to Earl yet.” She lowers her voice. “The doctor says she needs someone here with her. But you know how she is about having help around.”
I nod. For years, Dad and Nellie have hired various people to come in and help Mama with the yard and the housecleaning. But she is so critical of their work and difficult to be around that everyone quits after a couple of months.
“What will you do?” DeeAnn asks.
“I’m afraid I may have to move here for a while,” Nellie says, tears welling in her eyes. “I don’t want to. Mama and I don’t get along that well when we’re together a lot. She’s gotten so . . .”
“Bitchy,” DeeAnn says, “I think that’s the word you are looking for.
Nellie laughs and then begins to cry.
“Maybe there’s some other way. People from the church or something?” I try to be helpful.
“I’ll check into it.” Nellie sniffs and wipes her eyes. “But I will still need to stay here to get those things set up. Earl can’t do that and work the way he does. He’s only here part of the week.”
“But what about your job?” I ask.
“Betty, the cashier, can run things for a while. I just hope she isn’t too good at it. I don’t want to lose that job.”
DeeAnn burrows in her bag. “I’m gonna smoke. Want to join me?” She opens her hand just enough so that Nellie can see the fat joint. “It’s faster and less fattening than that stuff.” She points to the beer in Nellie’s hand.
“DeeAnn!” Nellie looks at me as though for permission.
“I’ll keep an eye on the boys,” I say to DeeAnn.
Nellie follows DeeAnn to the side of the house. I hear a lot of coughing and then less as Nellie learns to inhale. After a while they come back into the house, and Nellie heads for the refrigerator.
“I don’t think this is going to be less fattening,” she says, taking out a container of potato salad and several slices of ham. She layers the ham and potato salad on thick slices of homemade bread.
“Time for a snack?” Dad joins from his room where he has been napping.
“Snacktime!” Nellie shouts and bites into the huge sandwich.
Dad looks puzzled but doesn’t pursue it. “What do you girls want to do for dinner tonight?” he asks. “We could go out for Mexican or order in some pizza.
“Pizza,” Nellie says, “oh lets have pizza. With everything. Even pineapple and anchovies.”
“You better lay off the beer.” Dad takes the bottle from her hand.
“That’s exactly what I told her,” says DeeAnn.
Nellie guffaws and spews potato salad.
“What the hell?” Dad looks at me.
“Hey boys, let’s ride over to the Pizza Hut,” I say. “Come with us, okay Dad?”
“No,” says Joe. “We just want to watch videos.”
“I’m kind of tired,” Dad says.
“Video games.” I shake my coin purse to entice Joe and Charlie.
“Let’s go!” Charlie is eager to see what games are available and pulls Joe to his feet.
“It won’t take long.” I put an arm around Dad’s shoulder and usher him out of the kitchen. “No more beer for you girls. “ I shake my finger at DeeAnn and Nellie, pretending to scold them. Dad follows the boys out to the Jeep. DeeAnn and Nellie fall into a fit of laughter.
When we return with pizza for everyone. Nellie is drinking tea. Her eyes are red, but she has recovered from the giggles. The sun is down at last, so we get paper plates and head out to the picnic table in the backyard. Mama is resting in her deck chair.
“It’s nice out here at night,” I say to Mama. She lives on the outskirts of town. Her alleyway borders a farm, and we can hear tractors pulling into the barn, leaving the fields for the day. Across the road from the farm is the cemetery where Pap is buried.
“Supposed to be a hot one tomorrow.” Her voice is husky and dry. The medication she is taking for the pain in her hip dehydrates her and makes her drowsy.
Crickets chirp noisily. Dogs bark back and forth at one another. The sprinklers in the cemetery go on quietly shushing the evening with a light spray.
At bedtime Charlie begs to sleep in the sewing room with me, so Joe and DeeAnn camp out in the backyard. I see the glow from DeeAnn’s joint as she wanders about Mama’s backyard, stopping to touch the smooth tough leaves of the aloe vera, sniffing the blossoms on the roses. Tomorrow Charlie and I will rent a car and drive to the northern part of the state, traveling for a few days to Indian dwellings at Acoma and Bandelier. We will walk along the lava flow at the Valley of the Fires and take a drive through the Bosque del Apache—a wildlife refuge. Next to Yosemite, it is Charlie’s favorite place.
Again Dad coughs all night. But I rest more easily listening to Charlie’s slow even breath beside me.
He is wrapped in cotton batting. Gutted quilts lay in deflated heaps around the floor of the cave. Slowly I unwrap his bandages. Don’t do it, a little boy cries. He’s going to stink. Marry me, cries the other little boy. He mounts a gigantic Gila Monster and rides away. The old woman at the mouth of the tomb offers me a gelatinous mold. In it jackrabbits chase roadrunners across the desert. I continue to unwrap the man. Can I get you something? Can I get you something? a mourning dove calls. A white haired girl waves a knife at me. After layers and layers of batting are removed, I find his face. He does not stink. He is stuffed with small red seeds. He tries to speak, but cannot find the words. Rubies fly from his mouth; glistening fills the sky.
“Wish I was going with you,” Nellie says as we load suitcases into DeeAnn’s car.
“Maybe we’ll be back in November for Thanksgiving.”
“That would be wonderful.” Nellie hugs me. “I hardly got to see you.”
“Ready?” DeeAnn asks. She is taking me into town to pick up the rental car.
Mama hobbles out the front door. “These are for the boys.” She hands Joe a quilt covered with appliquéd dinosaurs. She gives Charlie one covered with planets and stars.
“The universe.” He smiles and spreads the quilt out on the grass. He stands on planet Earth and surveys the cosmos. Mama’s alignment of planets is not exactly accurate, and I can see Charlie making mental corrections. But he asks sweetly, “It’s for me?”
“All yours, son,” Dad tells him. “Your Greatgrammy made it for you.”
“Thank you.” Charlie gives Mama a big hug.
“Thanks.” Joe wraps his around him like a cape.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” I say to Dad. Charlie and I will stop off in Los Alamos on our way back from Bandelier.
Mama leans on Dad. She has refused to use her walker during our visit. I look back and wave out my window. Nellie takes Mama by the arm and leads her back to the house.
DeeAnn catches the same view in the rearview mirror. “Thank god for Nellie.”
To that I say, “Amen.”
Summer has passed and Nellie is driving us to the cemetery in Dad’s Jeep. He died fairly quickly once the cancer spread to his liver. He underwent chemotherapy, but refused radiation treatments. The irony of being treated with the same element that he believed was killing him was not lost on him. In his last days, there were many ironies. Smoking pot with DeeAnn, who moved with Joe to Capitan several years ago, became one of his greatest pleasures. It relieved his pain; he could sometimes laugh. During a brief remission, he accompanied Charlie and me to the Trinity Site in the White Sands Missile Range to participate in a 50-year anniversary memorial service for those killed by the atomic bomb and for the many local people who have died from and suffer a variety of cancers. We were quiet there, peace made in the silence of the shifting gypsum sand.
On the way to the cemetery, we pass the Lincoln County Courthouse where Billy the Kid was shot. “Your Grandpa never got to play Pat Garrett,” Nellie says to Joe and Charlie, who already know this, but they are attentive as Nellie lists the characters Dad played: Pecos Bob, John Chisum, Alexander McSween, Sheriff Brady.
Mama squirms next to me in the back seat, impatient with Nellie’s chatter. DeeAnn stills her with an arm around the shoulder. We brush away our own tears, weeping quietly. While he lived with cancer, DeeAnn and I understood that Dad was dying, but we are not yet accustomed to the fact that he is dead. The cemetery is a barely noticeable plot of unkempt land. Yellow asters and Queen Anne’s Lace grow like weeds. Most of the headstones are small, rectangular slabs of granite. Lying flat upon the earth, they make modest statements about life and death.
DeeAnn and I get Mama’s wheelchair from the back of the Jeep. Charlie helps her into it. Then Joe pushes her up to the edge of the grave where she sits next to the coffin. Dad has not yet been lowered into the ground. Mama rubs her hand across the frayed quilt that covers his coffin, telling us that when he was a child, it covered his bed.
“Flying Geese,” Mama whispers the name of the pattern. “I’ve almost forgotten now.” She pauses as if making a list of things forgotten. It is only in this moment that DeeAnn and I truly understand: Mama is not burying our father; she is burying her son. We grab Charlie and Joe and hold them tight. Nellie rests her hands on Mama’s shoulders. By Dad’s request, we are the only ones present at the burial. The funeral service took place earlier this morning. Family and friends are waiting for us back at my father’s house where they are spreading tables with platters of ham and fried chicken, baskets of cornbread and biscuits, warm bowls of green beans and black-eyed peas, plates of sliced tomatoes and homemade pickles. An aluminum folding table is weighted down with an array of cookies, cakes and pies. Soon we will feast. But now we listen as the pastor reads from the Gospel of John.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
We watch as four men from the nearby Mescalero Apache Reservation lower the casket slowly with ropes. DeeAnn has been dating one of them. She met Ronnie at the market where Nellie is teaching his son, Lupe, to be a butcher. Along with the quilt the ropes will remain in the space that has been excavated for the coffin. When Ronnie heard that Dad was near death, he offered to bury him in Apache tradition, which does not involve any machinery, just the labor of men. Ronnie had not known Dad long, but he knew him well. When they have finished, three men remain to fill in the grave. DeeAnn and Joe ride to the house with Ronnie and Lupe. Charlie pushes Mama back to the Jeep, and we drive with her and Nellie back to the house where relatives I barely recognize and Charlie has never known greet us at the door. Mama takes great pride in showing off Earl’s grandsons. Charlie and Joe endure slaps on the back and hardy handshakes from the uncles I have not seen since I was a child.
One of them, Uncle Clyde, who is taking Mama to live with him in Houston, surprises me by asking about my mother.
“Rita was a pretty little gal,” he says. “All blonde and blue-eyed like DeeAnn.” He pauses recalling my mother as the 25-year-old she was when she divorced Dad. “You tell her Clyde says hey.”
“I will.” I scan the room, looking for Nellie. When I can’t find her, I knock at the door of the bedroom she and my father shared. “It’s Sally.”
Nellie opens the door and quickly closes it after pulling me in.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to intrude. I just needed some quiet.”
“You and me both,” says Nellie. She takes a joint from the nightstand on my father’s side of the bed. “Last one.” She crawls to her side of the unmade bed. She pushes magazines to the floor and piles pillows up against the backboard of the mission style bed, Navajo whirling log and sunburst designs carved into the wood. “I’m sorry Brandon couldn’t make it,” she says referring to my partner of the last seven years. “Earl was awful fond of him.”
“I know. The thing is,” I say, my eyes watering, “we’re splitting up or taking a break or something. I don’t know.” I stare at a photograph of my father and Nellie taken at the nearby courthouse when they were married almost 30 years ago. “I think he’s met someone else.” I pretend to be uncertain about what I know to be true, feeling an inexplicable need to protect Brandon from the harsh judgment that would surely befall him were Dad alive to hear this news.
“Oh, Sally. How could he?” She gently pulls me to her.
I lie down in the space left by my father, and she caresses my head, smoothing my hair, tucking it behind my ears.
“There’s better than him waiting out there for you,” she says. We are quiet listening to the people in the living room tell stories about my father as a child.
I hear Charlie’s nervous laugh and think I should join him. As I get up to leave, Nellie grabs my hand.
I hesitate. It is my mother’s year to spend Christmas with Charlie and me. “Maybe,” I say, feeling a little foolish about honoring the ancient but convenient custody schedule Mom and Dad agreed on years ago.
“Oh, of course, honey. I’m not thinking straight. Don’t worry about it.” Nellie lights the joint and flops back against the pillows. She lets the smoke drift out slowly between her barely parted lips.
I leave quietly, closing the door firmly behind me and see DeeAnn downing shots of tequila in the kitchen with Ronnie, who, in light of the occasion, is tolerating the bigoted ribbing of Uncle Clyde who keeps calling him Cochise. I wait for this day to end and feel guilty about how badly I want to go home.
The next morning, the sky is gray. A light mist falls around us as Charlie and I follow the familiar route to Albuquerque where we will catch our plane back to California. We pass through the Valley of the Fires and detour at the Bosque del Apache. This time of year, Canadian Snow Geese can be seen in great abundance as they migrate to South America.
We drive the Marsh Loop, silently pointing—a mule deer among salt cedars, an owl steadfast in its tree. When we come to the observation blind, we stop and walk to the wooden structure, looking through the holes cut at various heights. We peer out into the marsh, two sad faces pressed against a plank. Rattlesnakes creep into their dens; turtles slip beneath the mud. Birds nest. Coyotes howl from arroyos far away. Ducks, mourning doves, hawks, whooping cranes—too many birds to count. They come here for sanctuary, and Charlie, too, wants to stay. He wanders down the road to one of the viewing stations and grips the railing hard as he leans out to stare across the almost dry riverbed. Then he shuffles back to the observation blind.
“We need to go soon.” I guide him back to the car. “We’ll be come back. Maybe spring break.”
“It won’t be the same.” Tears trickle down his cheeks. We stand in the middle of the wide gravel road. I hold him while he weeps, choking out loud boyish sobs that rattle his thin frame, his heart beating so hard that I can feel it kicking against my chest. No well-meaning phrase about how everything changes will tell him anything he doesn’t already know. “What about Greatgrammy? Will I ever see her again?” he cries.
People in cars drive quietly around us. Those on foot and bicycles give us a wide berth.
“Of course.” I try to reassure him, but I cannot know if this is true. She will turn 95 this year. “We might have to go to Houston to see her.”
Charlie smiles, wiping away his tears. “Uncle Clyde didn’t seem so bad.”
I give him a quick hug, and he takes my hand as we walk back to the car.
For a while we drive in silence, but when we come to the I-25 on ramp near Socorro, and Charlie sees a sign for New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology, he says, “I might go to school there.”
“It’s not too soon to start thinking about colleges.” I know he is imagining that he can recreate what he has lost by staying close to what it used to be.
By the time we have driven another hour and returned the rental car, we almost miss our plane. I am exhausted when we arrive late at the airport, glad that we don’t have to wait to board. We are hurried to our seats by a flight attendant who offers us papery pillows and thin blankets and tells us to have a good flight. When the airplane lifts off, I rest my head on Charlie’s shoulder and sleep as we leave the desert behind and head for the Pacific Ocean.
Quietly, like whispers from the past, Apaches gather, bringing their horses to drink. Children play, peering into foxholes, chasing rabbits up into the clouds. They fall back—agate, onyx, malachite—ornaments from the turquoise sky. Campfires burn low. From far away we hear them. Conquistadores. Oppenheimer’s porkpie hat appears on the horizon. His skeletal frame slices open the landscape. Soldiers follow, moving in orderly lines, glistening in the sunlight—breastplates, lance points, helmets. Men with lariats chase them swinging lassos high in the air. Charlie and I sit on a quilt eating rattlesnake rice. Above us the sky opens. A blanket of snow geese slips like a miracle beneath us and bears us away. Below the container cracks. Dung beetles, termites, earthworms go to work. Salt heals its own fractures yet cannot make us whole.
I am awakened from my shallow sleep by the pilot who announces that we will soon be landing. I lift the shutter of my window and look out across the San Francisco Bay. Flat as a sheet of ice, it shimmers brilliant and blue in the heat. The Oakland Hills are dry and brown. A perfect Indian Summer day.
Charlie glances out the window. “Do you think they would ever come here for Christmas?”
“We can ask.” I take his hand. “It would be pretty different for everyone.”
Charlie laughs. “What would Joe do without a Christmas Eve snowball fight?”
“What would Nellie do without her fireplace full of piñon?” I picture the broad mantle decorated with fresh evergreen boughs and pinecones.
“Greatgrammy,” Charlie whispers, his eyes welling with tears.
I wrap my arms around my son and shush him as I did when he was a small child. “We’ll be okay, Charlie. We’re just going to be different.”
He shakes his head but holds on tight to me. “It is too hard to believe,” he says, his mouth warm and damp against my shoulder, “that I won’t ever see Granddad again. How will Nellie live? By herself?”
“She won’t be alone. DeeAnn and Joe and Ronnie and Lupe are there.” But I know that he is picturing my father’s house, two chairs at the dining room table. One empty. Two red flannel bathrobes hanging side by side from the hook on the bathroom door. Two pair of snow boots standing together on the porch. The wheels unlock with a loud jolt. The plane begins its descent over the Oakland Estuary. We cease naming what we fear we can’t live without as we touch ground not so far from home.
Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her writing appears in several anthologies including Hint Fiction (W. W. Norton) and The Maternal is Political (Seal Press). She is a recipient of the Derringer Award from the Short Fiction Mystery Society. A collection of short fiction, A Place Called Beautiful, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize by Salt Publishing . She has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of magazines and journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and Southwestern American Literature. She has work forthcoming in Akashic Books’ online series Mondays are Murder.
Don Funk is a Canadian photographer with a particular interest in Alpine and nature photography. View more of his work at Flickr.