Ruth knew she was pregnant, but they’d driven the hundred miles from Gabbs to Tonopah anyway, for confirmation, she guessed, or for the change of scenery—though everywhere she looked there was desert and mountains, more desert, more mountains. At any rate, she was enjoying the small luxuries of the doctor’s office—the glossy pages of a Good Housekeeping in the waiting room, a chalky mint from the reception-counter bowl, a vinyl-cushioned chair that expelled air.
“Congratulations,” the doctor said. “Looks like late February, early March for this one.”
“Number four.” This from Del, her husband, who scratched at his ear, grinning. “Great news.”
Ruth couldn’t pin the news to one side or another with any honesty at all. She’d been nineteen when she’d climbed into Del’s old Falcon, left Colorado for glamorous nights in Vegas, stylish dresses she didn’t have to make herself, sets of matching jewelry—but the only thing she’d accumulated since was children. Nothing made Ruth appreciate the existing simplicities of her life like the impending arrival of a new baby, lovable and helpless and full of need, spiraling everything into chaos.
“Spring baby,” Del said, grabbing her hand. “Brand new when the world is.”
Ruth thought of her other children. Charley, eight years old, sensitive, was prone to tantrums and odd rotating fascinations—cloud formations by day, constellations at night, and now, because it was October, migrating tarantulas. The girls, Nancy and Brenda, seven and six, were all whisper and giggle, the bounce of their pigtails tapping gently, relentlessly, against their delicate shoulders. She loved her kids, but she’d been working to stop at three.
Outside the office, Ruth squinted against the desert sun glare. She considered the dusky greens and deep blues of the mountains outside Tonopah—Mount Butler, Mount Oddie—the subtle complexity of what had seemed, at first, a toasted desert monotone. A few errant cumulus clouds had formed over the mountains and Ruth, despite her doubts, searched the sky for signs. Catholic school had taught her to imagine the saints sitting on clouds with the well-meaning ghosts of her dead ancestors, watching over her life, offering protection, guidance, intercession. It was both comforting and disconcerting. She wanted to believe in it more than she actually did.
It was hard to accept that the world she’d left—her sisters whispering in her ears, her mother knitting her sweaters—was better than the one she’d run to. She’d been taught all her life that her future was sure to be brighter than her past. But yesterday’s future had turned into a vaguely bleak present, which made the past seem especially shiny. In Ruth’s daydreams, Colorado was just as she left it. Amber-colored goblets arranged in her mother’s kitchen built-ins. An orderly line of three girlish pea coats draped over the mudroom’s shaker pegs. Coffee and Irish Cream swirling in milk-glass mugs. In her daydreams, Ruth cooled her bare feet in the South Platte River.
“I’ve got to call home,” she said. “Let Teresa know.” Teresa, one year older than Ruth, had gone off to marry God the same year Ruth left with Del, moved to the convent, changed her name to Sister Agnes Mary. Ruth saw Teresa as she had been, flirting with the boys at her sweet sixteen party, her green dress swirling around her shins, her hair in pin curls, lips stained punch-red with Kool-Aid and 7Up. Ruth had trouble remembering to call Teresa Sister, could not conjure this new woman she had never met face-to-face. Only when she remembered the way Teresa had turned her appraising eyes toward Del, all those years ago, the way her head had bent under the weight of her disappointment, could Ruth picture Teresa in the gray habit and veil of their childhood-teacher nuns. “That one’s no good,” Teresa had said, “so of course that’s the one you want.” Teresa, like the nuns Ruth had grown up with, was a confusing blend of compassionate love and harsh judgment. Sisterly, Ruth thought, embarrassed to be smiling at her own silent joke.
“I’ll wait here,” Del said. “Have a beer or two.”
Ruth believed the nausea she felt then was as much homesickness as it was morning sickness, some result, certainly, of the difference between what she had and what she wanted.
Ruth dawdled. She bent down to pet a stranger’s dog. She ran her fingers over the glass of the drugstore window. She picked up a piece of litter that was in fact a crumpled brochure for the nursing program at the community college, smoothed it, considered it, put it in her pocket. Ruth had always wanted to be a nurse. After the blood and breath of birthing three babies, tending their fevers, bandaging minor wounds, she felt half a nurse already. She watched a lone tarantula pick a delicate path across the asphalt. She took deep breaths, counted the seconds between her steps.
It took a moment for the women of the order to find the right nun, but finally, Sister was on the line. “Everything okay, Ruth? The kids?”
Ruth closed her eyes. “Everyone’s fine. It’s me. I’m pregnant.”
Sister made a joyful noise and Ruth settled. She could count on Sister to love her babies just as much as she did. “Congratulations,” Sister said. “Ruthie, another baby! What blessings!”
The line crackled and popped. Ruth pressed her fingertips against the phone booth wall, felt the heat from the desert sun in the glass.
“I want this one to be born in Colorado,” Ruth said. “But I still can’t afford to get there.” Ruth saved cash in an empty creamed-corn can in the back of the pantry, that $3.72 the only secret she had in the world.
“The creamed-corn can is low?” Sister’s laugh was bright, cutting, like she knew something Ruth didn’t. “I wish I could help you bring those babies home, Ruth, I do. But you know, vows of poverty. And Mom and Mano are barely getting by as it is.”
Ruth knew what Sister wasn’t saying out loud. You made all the decisions that led to this. “I wasn’t asking for help.”
Someone Ruth didn’t know was waiting outside the phone booth.
“I’d like to get a job, save my own money, but Del’s not thrilled with the idea.”
Del had, over the years of their marriage, lost a string of jobs dealing cards at cut-rate Vegas casinos. Not the big names, where he could have made a real living after Paul Anka or Tom Jones shows, but the trashier ones, daylight hours, penny-slot locals feeling flush on payday, a few low stakes poker hands. Mining would be different, he’d told her, just before he moved the family from Vegas to Gabbs.
“It’s 1970, Ruthie,” Del had said, handing her a beer and then clinking his against it, as though she was as thrilled as he was. “New job for a new decade!”
“Plenty of mines in Colorado,” she said. If they were going to leave Vegas, Ruth wanted all of Nevada in the rear view.
Del rolled his eyes, but still they sparkled. He pulled her close, tried to dance her across the kitchen. “You’re missing the point, Ruthie. This is ground-floor luck. Magnesium is the mineral of the future!”
The stranger outside the phone booth looked impatient. “Does he have to know?” Sister asked. “About your job?”
Ruth tried to imagine a world in which she could have a secret job. It was ridiculous. Impossible. Sister didn’t know anything about husbands. About kids. About the way a family was always around you and on top of you and inside you. About the ways it was possible to be surrounded and loved and crushingly lonely all at the same time.
“What do you mean does he have to know? Where would he think I was?”
“All right.” Ruth heard Sister whisper to someone nearby, but she couldn’t make out the words. “But if you found a job, you could tell him you got paid a little less than you did. Set a little by every week.”
“You’ve got a lot of advice about how to lie,” Ruth said, “for a nun.”
“Would a creamed-corn can full of money change Del’s mind?”
Recently, Del had started telling stories about the incompetence of his direct supervisor and the generally dirty nature of work in the mine. It was a familiar pattern—complaints about the minutiae of the work, railing against workplace politics. Any day, he’d come home telling her he’d quit on some obscure principle, which would mean, of course, that he’d been canned.
“Might be.” Ruth ran her hands up the metal of the cord, felt the joints bump against her fingertips. “Or maybe I’d just come home without him.”
“I don’t know, Ruth. You have to think of the kids.”
Ruth sniffed. As if she ever stopped thinking about her kids, as if they weren’t the first thing she always thought of, her closest, most essential thoughts. It was Del she didn’t know how to think about. It wasn’t indifference she felt, not really, it was more like having to decide whether she wanted to sink ever deeper into Del or whether she wanted him to disappear, or to disappear herself. These topics were not available to discuss with Sister. She couldn’t possibly understand a marriage, but that wouldn’t keep her from having strong opinions.
Sister kept going. “What I mean, Ruth, is that maybe there’s some better use for that money, if you manage to save it, than just coming back to where you started.”
Ruth pulled the nursing school brochure out of her pocket. Good jobs helping others. Rural training initiative means flexibility for you. She had never been jealous of Sister’s vows, chastity least of all, but she’d been surprised by how green she’d felt when the church sent Teresa to college.
“I’ll think on that one,” Ruth said, and because she wanted to do that thinking before she talked any more to Sister about it, she asked, “How’s Mano?”
Mano was their especially little sister, seventeen, the age difference between Ruth and Mano almost the same as the age difference between Mano and Charley.
“Flighty. Struggling to finish high school now that she knows she got her scholarship to that art school in Denver.”
“She’ll make it,” Ruth said, picturing Mano blending oil pastels, flourishing her calligraphy pens.
“I’ll make her.”
Ruth pictured Mano, dreamy, bent deeply into her art, Sister hovering behind her, checking the clock, encouraging strict production deadlines. Life in the church must be so simple, Ruth thought, if it allowed for such clarity, such a sense of control. “I have to go. There’s a line for the phone.”
“I miss you, Ruthie. Kiss those kids for me. Call soon.”
Del was three sheets when she found him again, so she took the wheel of the Falcon. She wanted to pack the kids in the back and keep going all the way to Colorado, let her mother read them books, let Mano teach the girls to paint, let Sister explain the mystery of the Trinity to Charley. It wasn’t Del’s gathering restlessness she felt, it was her own. This time, Del couldn’t “quit” fast enough.
The tires threw gravel as she pulled onto the road. “Jesus, Ruthie,” Del said. “You don’t have to donkey-stomp it.”
A week passed. Ruth was stirring the dinner beans when Charley stumbled into the kitchen of their trailer in Gabbs, pulling her toward the door. “Ma! Come outside! Come see!” Del looked up from the solitaire he’d spread across the gold Formica table, raised an eyebrow.
“Coming,” she said. “Easy.”
Outside, the Shoshone Range had gone rosy, reflecting the pastels of the sky. The smell of sage was heavy, the dust baked stale. Her daughters were spinning, singing a song she didn’t recognize.
“Do you see the clouds? Mom? Look up!” Charley was yelling. His voice was always louder than the moment demanded. It drew unkind attention from others. A few neighbors stared from their porches, a few darkened their windows. Not all of them went back to minding their own business.
Ruth knelt down to be close to Charley’s ear. She felt tense, scrutinized. “You don’t need to shout, Charley,” she said. “I’m right here.”
The clouds were like giant discs lying on their sides, stacked in twos and threes in the fading desert light—white tinged with gray, the edges glowing in pinks and oranges.
But Charley was still shouting. “Those are alto cumulus standing lenticulars. They’re made of gravity waves and wind.” He threw his arms around her neck. “Mom! Wind blows through them at hundreds of miles an hour, and they just stay there, hovering in place. Like spaceships—people used to think they were spaceships.” At least half of Charley’s fascination with the sky was the possible alien life that could reside there. Del had encouraged this, his only real point of connection with his son—Del was a scholar of alien abduction, a conspiracy connoisseur. Otherwise, Del seemed baffled by Charley, perpetually annoyed.
Nancy rolled her eyes, whispered to Brenda, who giggled.
“Be nice, girls,” Ruth said, but her daughters were only mirrors of the way the world seemed to react to Charley. It was a small consolation that Charley himself did not register ridicule. Charley radiated his enduring enthusiasm outward into the world despite the world’s cold reception.
Ruth flushed, felt saliva fill her mouth, barely managed to turn away before she vomited into the sagebrush.
Nancy rubbed her back, pulled a tendril of hair off the side of her neck.
“Hey Charley,” Brenda said, “let’s play tarantula race.”
Ruth watched her children get down on all fours and crawl, frantically, toward the porch-step finish line, then disappear inside the house. When she could pull herself together, she followed them, the last heat of the day radiating up from the sand, warming her calves, her knees. She found a letter from Sister in the mailbox and waved it like a fan, cooling herself as she took one last look at Charley’s clouds. She’d always thought they looked like stacked pancakes, those clouds, but as they drifted over the Shoshone peaks, it did seem likely that they were piloted, that they had a clear destination. Ruth was exhausted by the relentless efforts of piloting her own life, especially now that she had so many passengers.
Back in the kitchen, the kids swarmed around Del, who tried to explain the rules of solitaire.
“The goal is to get the suits in order,” he said. “Line ’em right up.”
The girls laughed and climbed into his lap. Charley nodded, stared reverently at the cards.
Sister had sent a small silver pendant engraved with a bearded man in robes, a staff in one hand, a giggling child on his shoulder. Ruth held it in her palm. The enclosed note read: Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers and children. Church lore says his protection is especially effective against lightning, pestilence, and toothache. Keep him close, Ruthie.
“Your sister,” Del said, shaking his head, “is off her nut.” He went back to his solitaire, humming “All Around Man,” and Ruth caught a glimpse of the carefree teenage Del she had loved once, for real. Her parents had chaperoned their first date to the movies. Del had put his coat over her lap to keep her warm. Underneath it, he’d rubbed his thumb back and forth against the inside of her thigh. It had been the most scandalous thing that had ever happened to her. She had wanted a whole life just like that.
Ruth tossed the envelope and laughed. “Toothache,” she said dismissively, but she spent some of her precious creamed-corn dollars on a cheap chain from the pawn shop, wore Saint Christopher so that she could feel the silver against the bare skin over her heart, imagined the cells in her belly that would become her baby’s fortified teeth.
Ruth went to see about a job before she started to show, before the idea moved beyond impossible. The kids were off school, so she packed them into the Falcon, because what else was there to do with them?
Ranger Allen was a bear of a man, barrel-chested, with a beard and dark-rimmed glasses. He was about her age, sloppy. His park-ranger’s shirt was untucked, a grease stain above and to the right of where his navel would be. The scent of cigarettes actively vaporized out of his untrimmed, shaggy hair. The vaguely sour smell of the unwashed seeped from his clothes. Days, he was the ranger at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, which contained both Berlin, a god-forsaken ghost town from the Comstock Lode days, and the fossilized remains of the ichthyosaur, a prehistoric marine reptile that lived in the ocean that once covered the Great Basin. Nights, Allen hosted an AM-radio show about alien sightings and cover-ups, ghost stories and government conspiracy. Del was Allen’s most dedicated listener.
They found him working in Berlin, and she saw her children’s eyes widen as they took the place in. There were a few splintered miners’ shacks, a broken-down oxcart, an intricately carved wooden bureau. Someone had, optimistically, planted a scrawny young piñon among the cluster of long-abandoned homes. The Nevada sand swirled into spiraling clouds that rattled against the wooden walls, long since stripped of paint by the wild desert wind. Ruth could see at least five tarantulas migrating across the ghost town. She felt especially assaulted by spiders and the desert heat. Even in the cooling October afternoon, she couldn’t keep herself from absorbing it. It left her feeling desiccated and spent, more raisin than grape. She did not want this place to get inside her. She was carrying enough already.
“Ruth,” Allen said, nodding. He wasn’t smiling, exactly. He looked bewildered.
“Hey Allen,” she said. She pressed the nails of her fingers into both her palms. Don’t back down. Don’t let him say no. “I came to talk about the ‘Help Wanted’ sign I saw over in town.”
“That so?” Allen scratched at his beard. “It’s custodial, mostly. Cleaning pit toilets. Picking up litter. It’s not exciting.”
Nancy and Brenda giggled, and she and Allen both turned toward the children. “I don’t need more excitement,” Ruth said.
Allen nodded. “Del know you’re here?”
Ruth felt her heart seize. It was a truth or consequences moment, so she hedged. “Does it matter?”
Allen shrugged. “Not to me, I guess.”
Charley had dropped in behind one of the tarantulas, whose movement seemed slower than the amount of effort it expended, a constant motion, all eight legs stretching and reaching at different times, the pattern incomprehensible, pipe-cleaner fuzzy. Charley took a step, stopped, waited a few beats of Ruth’s heart, then stepped again. The tarantulas were the only thing that could bring Charley’s attention down to Earth. The girls followed close behind him, their skirts swishing softly against their legs.
“You like them spiders?” Allen asked Charley.
“They’re tarantulas.” Charley frowned as though he didn’t want to talk about something Allen so clearly knew nothing about.
Be polite. Ruth wanted to correct him out loud but didn’t. She didn’t know what would be worse, in Allen’s estimation, and she needed to make the right impression.
Allen bent down so he was eye level with the boy. “What else you know about?”
“I know twenty different constellations.”
“Twenty?” Allen let out a low whistle. “That’s a lot to know. You know Orion’s Belt?”
“Of course.” Charley rolled his eyes. “I could find Orion since I was three. Orion’s boring.”
Allen laughed. “I guess you aren’t interested in the spaceships then. I thought you would be, being Del’s boy and all.”
“Spaceships?” Allen had Charley’s attention. Ruth held her breath.
“They been here before, and when they came, they came right from Orion.”
Allen stood up, turned his face into the bright blue sky, where Orion would be if it were dark. They searched the sky together for a minute, and when Charley turned back toward Ruth he was smiling—the same Charley smile, exponentially bright.
Brenda was letting a tarantula crawl on her arm. Ruth had not allowed this at first, but Charley had convinced her they were both unlikely to bite and not actually deadly poisonous. He’d looked it up in an ancient set of World Books in the school library.
“Are there ghosts here?” Nancy asked Allen.
Ruth watched Brenda’s tarantula unfold its first set of legs, which stretched delicately forward and planted themselves, levered the crawling mass of the body forward. The creatures did not look at all efficient, Ruth thought, but they sure did cover country.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Allen said. “Most days the population of Berlin is entirely tarantulas.”
“Thomas Edison invented a machine that could call the dead,” Charley shouted. Nancy winced, covered her ears. “Or he tried to. It didn’t work.”
“Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, not a dead-guy phone,” Brenda said.
Ruth sighed. None of her children had made friends at school, but she didn’t worry about the girls. She had shared not just a room but a bed with Sister when they were young, Mano joining them straight out of the crib. Ruth knew sister love was like a gas—it could lift the barometric pressure of the entire atmosphere if you needed it to.
“But if there are ghosts,” Allen said, “they’re over there in the old hospital. The doctor was nothing but a Chicago stockyard butcher. Could be the ghosts of his lost patients haunt this spot, only they must be scared of tarantulas, since I don’t see any here now.”
Brenda giggled, intertwined her fingers so that the tarantula could walk from one arm to the other. Nancy went wide-eyed, scooped a tarantula off the ground, held it between her body and the old hospital. Ruth clutched Saint Christopher. Charley went back to tarantula stalking, tracing their paths on a piece of lined binder paper. Sometimes, he stopped and held the map he had created up to the sky, studying both intently.
“What are you looking for?” Allen asked.
“Patterns,” Charley said. “Trajectory matches.”
“Smart,” Allen said. “You should try it at night too, against the stars.”
Charley and Allen were like Sister, Ruth supposed, all of them seekers of faith, or magic, or whatever meaning could be found combining the two. Ruth dismissed the alien talk from the men in her life the same way she’d walked away from Catholicism, with just the tiniest nagging doubts that it all might, in fact, be true. Ruth imagined Saint Christopher at the controls of a lenticular spaceship, heading for Orion’s Belt. She imagined each star in the constellation a nosy ghost ancestor with strong opinions about her choices.
“What do you see?” she asked, kneeling down next to Charley.
“I haven’t been looking long enough to know.”
She could prove nothing, disprove nothing. She decided then to stop doubting Charley, to stop worrying about how he did or did not fit in to the world. What if a hand-drawn map of tarantulas skittering across the desert really could unlock some mystic secret of the cosmos? Navigation might be the boy’s hobby now, but Ruth recognized its potential for practical application.
“That’s a smart kid,” Allen said. “Can you start tomorrow?”
Ruth sent a small prayer of gratitude to Saint Christopher then, for Allen’s kindness to her boy, for the job she needed, that nobody, so far, was suffering toothache or other pestilence. Ruth’s eyes followed her children’s fragile limbs as they stretched and contracted into the landscape.
Ruth was an unlikely state parks employee. After a few months on the job, her pregnant belly stuck out so far she tore a small hole in her sweater’s seam. Everything about her was poorly suited for the environment. The February wind blew steady and unpleasant, pinning the flared legs of her park uniform against her shins. She climbed into the cab of the truck for relief, pulled a stocking cap over her hair. Desert sand made its way through the knit of her wool socks.
Allen cracked the driver’s side door. “Ruth? You okay in there?”
“Just wanted a break from the wind,” she said. “I’m fine.”
“You need me to call Del?”
“He’s probably not home.”
She had taken Sister’s advice, lied to Del about her wages. She was adding to her creamed-corn can every two weeks, praying to Saint Christopher for the journey back home. Allen looked at her for a long time, shook his head, went back to work.
Ruth tried to bend down to remove her shoes, but the child in her womb moved in protest, pressing down on her bladder just enough for a small amount of urine to release, to leave a wet spot on her panties. She felt one of the child’s limbs extend down farther than it should, passing what she felt must be the barrier between belly and leg. The pain was sharp. Ruth felt as though she was being peeled from the inside, as though the membranes holding her together would hang now, stripped and useless, from her muscle and bone. Ruth drew in a quick breath and held it, waiting, willing the pain to spread out from her pelvis and into her knees, to make her arms shake and weaken. She wanted the pain to be brief but all-encompassing, to have her body store the memory of it, to practice. This child would come anytime now, and she needed to prepare herself, to be ready for the familiar ways it would rip her apart.
The final chore of every workday required sweeping the pavilion that held the ichthyosaur fossils, ancient reptilians that swam well but had to surface to breathe. Ruth struggled to discern the fossil outline in the assortment of rocks and boulders in the display, even though she’d seen Allen’s presentation for park visitors a million times, watched him map the skeleton by pointing to various areas on a small toy dolphin. She could not identify the creature’s backbone, could not tell its skull from its feet, but she felt a deep ache of empathy for this poor animal, sunk for all eternity into the sand, everything cool and familiar having evaporated away, the world dried-up, unrecognizable, tarantulas migrating annually over its bones.
“It’s some kind of instinct,” Ruth said. She hadn’t seen a tarantula in months, but she thought about them all the time, pictured their fuzzy legs in perpetual motion. What was the chemistry driving their built-in sexual clocks? Did they, like Ruth, regret the distances love required?
“What kind?” Allen asked, but she didn’t answer. Ruth put her hand on her belly. Her baby’s hand pushed back against it, hard, like it needed her attention, like it had something important to tell her.
Ruth came home to see Del sitting in a folding chair outside the trailer. His short-sleeved gray coveralls were unzipped above his belt so that Ruth could see a sunburn on a V-shaped strip of his pale chest. He hadn’t gotten that underground.
“Something happen at work today?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.
“Things ain’t gonna work out at the mine,” Del said.
“So let’s go home.” She felt the baby squirming. Maybe now it could be born in Greeley, in the same hospital where she and Del had been born. Her mother would knit a hat. Mano would paint its portrait. Sister would coo at the wrinkled newborn, fill its ears with whispered blessings.
Del shrugged, pointed toward the mountains with his palms up, like he was offering her some gift. “This is as good a home as any.”
Del was so close that Ruth could feel the warmth of him on her shoulder. She stepped away, and they watched Charley, alone, head for the edges of the trailer park, back toward the scrub-sage foothills of the Shoshones. Ruth felt sadness settle, again, all around her. There wasn’t a single tree in walking distance for Charley and the girls to climb, no ancient catalpa with its June blossoms, no bean pods to throw at one another.
“I got a new job. Trucking company. They’re picking me up tonight.”
“Reno, first, then down to San Francisco tomorrow. From there, they say they got at least two weeks of routes. Long-haul.”
Ruth sat back down in the chair. She kicked her shoes off with a strength she hadn’t expected—and her left shoe flew gracefully, almost with purpose, landing in the scrub sagebrush a few yards past the area she had cleared as a front yard. Ruth thought she saw a tarantula skittering across the patch of light-brown dirt that, having been liberated of its anchoring vegetation, puffed up around them, but in February, it seemed unlikely.
“You’re going to leave us here and go off yourself?” she said. She felt unbearably heavy. She looked at her shoe in the sagebrush. She let it go. “To drive a truck?”
“Look in the want ads. There’s no jobs but at the mine.”
“But the kids, and the baby coming.” Ruth’s arms had gone dead. It would take a lot, she thought, to move her arms right now. The whole of her body felt defeated, all her energy sucked dry. And something else, something cool like the desert evening. Relief, maybe. And something even more, a longing for her own solitary long-haul route. Jealousy, certainly.
“Look, I’m not leaving you, Ruth. It’s a job, is all. I’ll send the paychecks.”
Ruth dropped her chin and closed her eyes, and the relief of not seeing in that moment made her wish all her other senses were so easily blocked, that she could make herself stop hearing, stop feeling through some series of actions as simple as blinking.
“Unless you got any better ideas,” Del said.
Charley and the girls had returned from their wanderings, had gathered around the porch, straining to hear every word without being caught listening. Charley stood close to his sisters, as though he wanted to try to catch the bad news before it hit them, soften the delivery.
“Guess not,” Ruth said. “Guess it sounds like this all works out real well for you. All that roaming, and then you drop in to see the family once every two weeks.”
Del shook his head. “You’ll get over it, Ruthie. You’ll see. It’s for the best.”
“Not my best.”
“I gotta pack,” Del said, and he disappeared into the trailer.
“Daddy’s leaving?” Nancy said, and when Ruth nodded, the girls sat down at her feet. Brenda leaned her head against Ruth’s leg. Nancy kept her back straight. Too fragile for contact, she needed only proximity.
Charley took her hand, pointed it above the tallest peak of the Shoshones, the trailing shadow of the sunset drama spread in all directions. “Look, Ma,” he said, wiping the tears off her cheek. “Those are cirrus clouds, and they’re all pink and purple. I think they’re the happiest clouds, don’t you? Birthday-streamer clouds.” He stroked Ruth’s cheek with the back of his hand. It was the most tender anyone had been with her for ages.
“Thanks, buddy,” she said, finally, drawing him close to her in an awkward hug, stroking Nancy’s hair with her fingers, feeling Brenda warm against her shin.
Babies weren’t the only thing that could upend an entire world. The world changed fast or slow for a million reasons. There weren’t always nine months of knowing what was coming. There wasn’t always time to prepare.
After a few days, Ruth moved Del’s empty chair away from the family table. She taught Charley how to keep the handles of the pot turned sideways to avoid spills and burns. She told her kids that after school was all-they-could-watch TV so long as they behaved, so long as they could fend for themselves. During the after-school hours, when she was at work, she imagined the trailer on fire, imagined tarantula bites, imagined poking Del’s two eyes with her fingers when he next came by for a weekend. Evenings, she re-read the nursing-school brochure, as though she’d find new instructions printed there, not just what but how and should. She wished a dead ancestor would lean down from the heavens and tell her whether or not she was fooling herself.
Sometimes, the kids came with her to work, spent their days in Allen’s one-room trailer on the outskirts of Berlin. Every time they went, Charley tapped the handmade sign on Allen’s door that read: ranger station. The trailer was full of machines and panels Ruth thought must be for radio broadcasting, for all of Allen’s lonely, conspiracy-minded midnight transmissions.
“Del called in last night,” Allen said, “with some theories about mind control.”
Ruth rolled her eyes. “If he calls back,” she said, “tell him to send the rent.” Del didn’t call her from his long-haul routes. Apparently, he prioritized the aliens.
Allen had been washing his clothes more often. Last week, he’d trimmed his beard. Ruth kept just enough distance to discourage him. She was, after all, still married.
“You getting by all right, Ruth?” Allen’s brow furrowed. He looked worried, and Ruth felt compelled by the sorrow she saw behind it.
Ruth shrugged, nodded. Allen meant well, but beyond loyal friendship, beyond this job, what did he really have to offer?
A week passed. Ruth was sweeping the fossil pavilion at the end of the day when she felt her belly contract and harden, felt the heat in her arms and legs drain inward, concentrate into the boulder her womb had become. She tried to lean on the broom, to stay upright, but couldn’t manage it. She dropped into a squat and linked her elbows around the bends of her knees. She closed her eyes, blowing out hard, emptying all her air, waiting for this wave of pain to pass. The broom slapped the floor, the sharp initial sound softening into gentle echoes that intertwined with the rhythm of her panting. The effect was not unlike radio static. Her left hand gripped the ichthyosaur’s fossilized eye socket.
“Allen,” she said. It came out as a whisper. She grunted, trying to force her voice back into her throat, trying to muster a shout. She thought of her kids, at home in the trailer in Gabbs, felt relief they weren’t with her. She staggered herself out of the pavilion, into the gathering dusk. “Allen!”
And then she was alone in the throes of another contraction. Her ears were full of the tidal rushings of her own blood, of her amniotic fluids, all her salty marine internals muting the outside world. She was inside her own head now, focused. The pain moved from her womb to her low back; she felt the baby flip inside her. This she had not felt before, not with the others. She tried to morph her screams into a level, steady keening. She imagined her breath catching her pain, imagined the way both breath and pain would leave her, diffuse into the air around her, the way she would have to breathe them both back into herself.
She felt the baby turn again, and the pain moved back into her belly. Her pelvic muscles felt alive, as though each fiber was moving individually and at cross-purposes to the others, like a writhing pile of mating snakes. She was overwhelmed by her desire to bear down, to push into the Earth’s gravity. The baby would not wait for safety. Ruth wanted, more than anything, her sisters, but she wanted also, just a little bit, Del.
Ruth caught the sliver of new moon surrounded by wispy, long clouds. She tried to name them. Cirrus? Cumulus? She couldn’t pin them down, and if the angels were gossiping with her dead ancestors about her current predicament, she didn’t want to know. The stars were coming in bright against the darkening skyline but seemed in motion, like they were being drawn in real time by a frantic spirograph. Bad enough the other children had to be from Vegas. This baby would be from nowhere, a ghost-town baby, born on top of a fossil. She could not take back any of the decisions that had led her here. This is where she found herself, so this is where her baby would be born.
Allen came in then, stopped still with shock. He gagged, then bent forward as he sat down on a bench, his head in his hands.
“We have to get you to a hospital.” He didn’t look up. His concern was directed toward his boots.
“There’s no time.” Ruth wriggled out of her nylons and dropped into a squat. She rested her forehead against the beam of the fossil pavilion. The pressure was somehow soothing, and it allowed her to balance without using her hands.
She breathed into her body’s gathering, bearing down in her womb, trying to maneuver her rib cage lower, pulling her neck downward until it felt there was nothing at all between her chest and her chin. She tried to relax. She’d done this three times already. If she was in the hospital, she’d have a nurse to coach her. Here in the desert, she’d have to be her own nurse. At the peak of the contraction she reached her right hand up and into herself, screaming her wild misery into the night but willing her hand to be gentle, gentle, as she pulled, lightly, lightly, down on her child’s shoulder. The head cleared and the rest of the child dropped. Ruth held it with both hands, pushing her forehead into the beam so that she would not fall, would not lose her grip. Behind her, she heard a tremendous flopping thump.
The boy was blue, wrapped in his own umbilical cord. Ruth made short work of unwrapping it, of clearing the clotted white mucus from the baby’s nose and mouth. She turned to ask Allen for his ranger’s shirt, for anything to wrap the child in, but Allen was still crumpled in a full faint. She took off her own state-parks sweater, wrapped her baby tight against the chill. When she heard his indignant, hungry cries, she put her back against the beam and started crying herself, shivering on the cool desert ground. The baby rooted against her breast as she waited to deliver the placenta. Beyond his newborn head, she could see the full glory of Orion’s Belt. Something in the center of the constellation was flashing brightly on and off, or it was distant lightning from a threatening storm, or it was just the way she saw everything differently through her tears.
She wanted to call Sister. I’m naming this one after Saint Christopher, she’d say. Because I miss you. And to protect him from lightning.
Charley would be taking charge of things in the trailer, she thought, calming the missing-mother panic of his sisters with tales of constellation aliens, spaceship abductions, and lenticular pancakes. Her sweet, awkward firstborn forever scanning the sky for signs of life and omens, trying to show everyone around him all the potential it contained, to teach them to see what he saw. Baby Chris was squalling now with healthy lungs, the tiny fingers of one hand wrapped tightly around her index finger, his other hand stretched out, pointing toward the ichthyosaur. She turned his head toward the window so that he, too, could look toward the stars.
“Someday, you’ll see how bright they are,” she whispered.
It was possible, Ruth thought, that being from nowhere might somehow allow this baby to belong everywhere, to call anywhere home.
Allen crawled beside her. He reached toward the baby, but then pulled his hand away. “We’re going to have to get you a raise.”
Ruth laughed, shivered, tightened her arms around the bundle of baby on her chest. “I’ll take it.”
The following week, Ruth rocked a sleeping Chris on the porch while the other three slept inside. She worried Saint Christopher between her thumb and forefinger. She had one blanket over her shoulders and one on her lap. The night air was headed toward frost. It still carried the fragrant sage scent, but the dusty tones had shifted to something deeper, prehistoric. Del had come home for just two days to meet his new son, dance the girls around the kitchen, give Charley a UFO-shaped keychain.
As he drove away, his return unspecified, Ruth realized she didn’t miss Del so much as she missed his hands—hands that could button a child’s coat, fix a dinner, warm her shoulders with their heat and their weight. Any man had hands. Allen had hands, but they came with strings attached, and she wanted the strings less than she wanted the hands. Ruth had saved enough to get in the Falcon and drive, job and Del be damned, back to Colorado, but she hadn’t left Gabbs. The Falcon’s tires were threadbare but roadworthy, and Ruth had decided to drive them toward her first nursing class instead of retreating back home. The creamed-corn money added up either way.
That night, when she waddled into the kitchen to count it, the creamed-corn can was gone. Ruth felt everything in the hot center of herself twisting—gut, throat, heart. She reached for the countertop, heaving her weight just in time, and vomited into the chipped porcelain sink. She imagined Del in Vegas, turning her creamed-corn money into slot tokens and lost potential. She imagined him in a liquor store, turning it into a happy solo buzz.
What now, Saint Christopher?
The silence was infuriating. She needed spiritual guidance that had some volume. She checked on her children, their sleeping bodies illuminated by moonlight, and then she swaddled Chris tight and drove down to the pay phone.
The phone rang and rang until she heard a drowsy greeting, then whispered feminine commotion, and then, finally, Sister.
“Ruth?” Sister said. “It’s the middle of the night here.”
“You woke everyone up.”
“It’s not fourth grade. You can’t rap my knuckles with a ruler.”
“Ruthie,” Sister said. “You sound crazy.”
Ruth tried to picture what nuns wore to bed, what Sister looked like in this moment. She imagined multiple layers of garments, complicated hook-and-eye fastenings.
“Can I still pray to Saint Christopher if I’m stuck here in Gabbs?”
“Prayers are like the radio, Ruthie. You never know who’s listening exactly, but someone always is.” There was a pause. “Can you please tell me what’s happening?”
“Del stole my creamed-corn money.”
“Del,” Sister said, expelling his name with her breath, almost grunting him out. Chris startled, blinked his drowsy newborn eyes, settled back into sleep. “I’m sorry, Ruth.”
Ruth slumped down onto the sidewalk under the pay phone, her back against the cinder-block wall, the desert sky stretching endless in front of her, her newborn son cradled in one arm. She felt comfortable with the immensity of the sky. She hoped Charley was right about the aliens, that Del and Allen knew more than it seemed possible they could. The more life there was the less lonely any one person had to feel, the more hope for a connection.
“What do you think you’ll do now?” Sister had turned her volume down, or there was something wrong with the line. It was hard to hear.
“I’ll just have to start over.” She wasn’t ready, yet, to tell Sister about the nursing school. At least it was a safer place to put the money than a creamed-corn can, even if it was a longer road back to Colorado. A way to believe, again, in her own glittering future. Something, like her children, that she’d have for herself.
Chris stirred in her arms. Ruth thought about her girls’ giggled secrets, about Charley’s hand on her cheek. She watched the moon traverse across the patterned stars, wondered which bright constellations Charley would map for her if he was awake, which individual shining points of light, grouped together, would make a whole story.