La plata

At the top of the hill Nadine slowed Grady to a walk, and then a halt right where the road curved into the gated development. From the apex of the curve the land sheared from the asphalt and the south perimeter of the San Juan forest began, only to be broken abruptly by the old Connolly land. Down there was the man-made pond and leveled field where a few horses were still kept by Kevin, the great-grandson Connolly. Kevin Connolly didn’t own the plot anymore, he only had a land-use arrangement with the owners, whom Nadine did not know. Then the trees burst out again, finally unobstructed, rushing up the mountains until they couldn’t climb any higher, altitude knocking their breath all away at the same moment and creating on the distant peaks an almost uniform line of white caps. The vastness of the landscape made scale impossible. Just when the eye thought it must be consuming unfathomable expanse, that humanity inside those trees would be impossible to discern, a private home would appear, picture-glass walls glinting between evergreen needles.

On this December day the sun leaped from the snow and illuminated the eternal sky. The white was true white, containing all colors, hard to look at. Grady’s ribs heaved under her heels and his breath steamed. The cold excited him. He shook and stamped, annoyed at her for this ponderous delay. “Alright, you monster,” Nadine said aloud. She turned him back down the hill but heard a car’s engine vibrating off the high cliff of the inside road, and so delayed him again with a patted apology, waiting for it to appear. It took longer than she expected; the cold and the uneven rocks sent sound bouncing in strange tides. The car was a long black Lincoln. The only town cars around were the cars for hire to and from the little airport. The driver slowed to pass, made eye contact with her through the windshield, and raised his hand. Nadine recognized him, Tom, one of only two cabbies who wouldn’t charge more than the regular fare to drive you out here, well past the town. Nadine herself usually made arrangements with the other man when she needed to be picked up, but had on occasion hired Tom. The man in the backseat was not looking out at the scenery but down at something in his lap.

In the summer, the town at the base of the mountains, outside the national forest, would explode with adventure tourists. The main hotel, famous once only for being a watering hole for an outlaw, would be booked from the end of May to mid-September, a year in advance. The college had seen a steep uprise in the number of applicants from other states, and most of those kids had been sticking around after graduation to start their own hiking or rafting or snowboarding outfits. The main street in town had spilled outwards, and now there was a craft brewery in the old Wells Fargo building. A lesbian couple from California had started a Mediterranean bistro in the parlour of the townhouse that once belonged to a distant member of an old American family. The feta cheese, the menu explained, was sourced from the James ranch, a small operation down the highway from Nadine’s own home. Pilates and sports PT studios had opened, bringing with them lovely young sports medicine graduates from Boulder and ex-dancers from Seattle or Chicago. A celebrity had recently purchased a dozen acres north of town and purportedly built himself a helicopter pad, to circumvent the three-gate, two-airline airport and the long drive in a town car with split leather and cigarette smoke embedded deep in the fibers. Airline magazines supplied in the seat pockets had tips on “discovering” the town, accompanied always by a panorama in 4-color printing on glossy stock of the cliffs most visible from town, the layers of scarlet and bronze enhanced stunningly with digital photographic technology. The view was one Nadine had seen almost every year of her life, and those colors were true. They existed, however, for only one minute or so during a certain season, on days when there were no clouds and the sun for one minute angled all its fire on the red rocks, before slinking down below the distant gray peaks as though offended at this earthly rival.

Nadine did occasionally feel, during long evenings of self-reflection and flagellation, that her resistance to the sudden popularity of the town was hypocritical. But she had, in part, grown up here. She had spent summers as a child walking the old stagecoach road in the woods around a mountain lake. She could not, as her father had done, recognize so easily the markings of bears or coyotes in a backyard as opposed to chipmunks and deer, or repair without assistance the sections of fence that would be dislodged from the earth by drifting spring snow. But she knew other things, and found herself now often muttering fiercely to herself the way her father used to do, when coming up the mountain in her truck a new Subaru would barrel down, pushing her to the shoulder instead of yielding. When the new owners of the house next door, whom Nadine had chatted with a few times, had boarded up in October for the season and gone back to Ft. Lauderdale, she had considered asking them if they’d set the thermostat properly, or if they would like her to come in before a suspected dip in temperature and turn the faucet on. She hadn’t asked, because they were well into their 50s and this was their third home. Nadine next saw the husband again in May, in the driveway waving in the contractor’s truck, and later on the street watching men drag away sodden carpets and bloated floorboards and disintegrated dry wall.

When they reached the bottom of the hill, Nadine turned Grady off the street to a foot-flattened shortcut, through the thin trees towards home. In the winter they closed the golf course between her property and the new development, and every winter deer tore up the frozen turf. Grady loved this route, and she could feel him pull against the bit as soon as he stepped off the road towards the empty flat expanse. It was a bad habit, Nadine should not have indulged it, but she did every time, letting him have his head. Some does and a young Mule buck, his antlers still soft, ripped at the browned turf under an overhanging rock shelf, where snow had not piled. Heads lifted as she and Grady moved from the trees onto the flat open course, but only when Grady saw them and acknowledged them with an eager whinny and hopped a little in his canter did the deer bound into the beyond. Grady was disappointed but forgot quickly, and responded with renewed joy when Nadine loosened the reins and pressed her legs and he could erupt. Before Grady, Nadine could not have imagined such speed. Of course she had experienced convertibles on highways and the observation cars of trains and the phenomenon of human flight, but that kind of speed was automated. It required nothing from her but passive acceptance, in fact was designed to be as mysterious and distant as possible from the gross ability of living muscle, from raw and wet effort.

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