Photo credit, Jill Talbot

My daughter, Indie, and I sit on the back deck at night in the hour before she goes to bed and I go to worry.  She’s usually just out of the shower, her blonde hair still wet. She stretches her long legs from a plastic chair we found in the shed. I sit on the top step. We moved here last August, and three months from now we’ll move again.

***

There is history here. Indie and I sense it in the creak of the pine floors, the groan of the heavy branches hovering over our roof, the way sifted dirt settles on the kitchen counter, fallen from hidden gaps in the vigas.  The adobe home we rent in Las Vegas, New Mexico, the oldest in town, is one of nine-hundred buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The row houses along our street were once the last stop on the Sante Fe Trail before settlers and searchers drove their wagons over sixty miles to the big city.

When my worry has worn itself out, I climb into my bed hours after Indie has fallen asleep on the other side of the house. Both of us often wake in the dark to the sound of footsteps and pauses in the pine. Out on the deck, we share stories of the way we sat up for a moment the night before and wondered about the noises. I never tell her how my wonderings fall fast to worry, and I tiptoe through the dark to check the empty living room. I never tell her how I press down on window frames and tighten latches, how I open doors and shut them again, turning the key.

***

This area used to be part of Mexico until the United States declared war and sent General Stephen W. Kearney and his cavalry to secure the territory. The establishment of Fort Union twenty-five miles north of town made sure the region was safe for merchants and pioneers along the Trail. When the railroad came in 1879, it brought businesses, a boom, and bunch of outlaws. Doc Holliday last practiced dentistry here before closing up shop and opening a saloon on Center Street.  Then he killed a man in a gunfight and took out for Dodge City. For a time, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Rattlesnake Sam, Cock-Eyed Frank, Web-Fingered Billy, Hook Nose Jim, Stuttering Tom, Durango Kid, Mysterious Dave Mather, Hoodoo Brown, and Handsome Harry the Dancehall Rustler visited this city or called it home. On July 18th, 1881, (the same year The Plaza Hotel was built) Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked Billy down in Fort Sumner, just a hundred miles south of here, and the Las Vegas Optic carried the headline “The Kid Killed.”  Pat Garrett’s family still owns the house on the corner across from ours. The house in disrepair, all of its windows and doors covered by black bars. When I walk by I wonder what, if anything, remains beyond history.

****

Photo credit, Jill Talbot

Not long after we moved in, we wrapped a strand of colored lights around the deck’s railing, and every night as we step outside, one of us plugs them in. The deck faces Indie’s school, West Las Vegas Middle School, a yellow building with a red roof.  It’s just past a small creek, a sagging chain fence, and a steep hill.  From here, the craggy branches of the elm tree guarding the school appears taller than the low mountains beyond it.  The road we took to get here in August winds down those mountains. We watch it every night, count the headlights of cars blurring the curves.  I remember pulling off I-40 after driving for days and seeing the sign telling us we had forty-six more miles to go. Strange, the way an exit can trick you into thinking you’ve almost made it.

***

Las Vegas isn’t a mountain town as much as it is surrounded by them. When I take New Mexico Highway, I follow the frame of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance, see Hermit Peak jutting up behind them. The Gallinas River trickles through this town, and over on Railroad Street, trains still rumble toward the Depot, a two-story Spanish mission style brick building with a  red tile roof.  Across the street, a box in the Antique Store holds a collection of registration cards from The Plaza Hotel.  Every time I go into that store, I thumb through the box and read fancy signatures in black ink, dates from the middle of the last century, every Mr. and Mrs.. They say there’s a ghost on the third floor of that hotel, and guests can reserve room 310 or 306 to see if its former owner, Bryon T. Mills, will sit on the edge of the bed or if they’ll wake to that feeling that someone’s there, standing in the room.

***

Last week, I counted all the miles Indie and I have covered in the seven moves we’ve made since she was born. Colorado to Utah, Utah to Idaho, Idaho to Kansas, Kansas to Oklahoma, Oklahoma to New York, New York to Chicago, Chicago to New Mexico.

6, 095. Days and nights almost seem wasted, at least borrowed, when you’re counting down to leaving.  Not knowing where you’re leaving for makes those days and nights a map whose creases have worn away entire cities.

***

I don’t go back to places I’ve left, I’d rather let them be, but memory’s a different thing. I go back to Indie’s nursery, the one with the window where I’d lean against the ledge, hoping hour after hour that every pair of  headlights turning in to the parking lot belonged to her father’s blue truck. Maybe that’s why I like sitting out here with the cars coming into town, coming back, coming home, a steady strand of lights.  Indie likes sitting out here, too. She says ever since she found out we’re moving, the house no longer feels like ours.

***

Some nights, just before the sun slips beneath the silver of our corrugated roof, Indie wanders down the gravel drive and into the alley.  I know she needs distance, her own way of thinking all this through.  She shuffles in her pink shorts and flip-flops, hooded in a gray sweatshirt too big for her, the way she likes to wear them. I watch after her, call out not to go too far. It’s this neighborhood, the west side of town where shaky men shuffle down our alley all hours and everyone who walks anywhere in town carries a stick to keep away the strays that panic every street.  Often when I drive down the alley, I have to make a block to wait out the scruffy stranger lingering along our fence or huddled over the trash bin, worrying over a wine bottle I’ve tossed in, hoping I’ve left something behind.  I always want to stop and tell him, You’re not going to find anything there.

***

Photo credit, Indie

Some nights I wake to screaming, years-of-hurt screaming, and I pull the curtains back from the window in my room to see the woman who lives next door pacing the alley under the dim streetlight. Four in the morning. The lady who lived in this house before us, the one who runs the bookstore in town, likes to tell stories of what she saw or heard or wondered while she lived here. She said the woman moved in to take care of her father after she got out of jail. She said there’d be months of closed doors and windows, and she worried that the old man had died or his daughter had killed him. She had the police go in there once, just to make sure. I know what she means about the months of no movement—locked doors, closed windows, still, like they’ve moved out or died, OD’d. But then, I’ll see her shifting down the alley on the way back from god knows where or what or what man, her dark hair dripping from a dingy hoodie, her jagged fingernails dangling a cigarette, her shoulders two knots cinched tight. Sometimes she talks on the phone in her tiny yard, the yard where her dog died only a few weeks after she got it.  The dog lay in the yard for days until I walked over and asked if she wanted me to call the City, but she said no, she’d take care of it.  Someone poisoned my dog, she told me in a scowl.  I knew that’s not what happened, but I didn’t want to think about it.

The next morning, my other neighbor, Lucy, called to tell me she saw that woman dump the dog in the trash, and when she snuck over to see for sure, there it was in the bottom of the bin, covered with empty Pepsi boxes.

Still, every few weeks or so, when the screaming woman stands out in the alley in the darkest part of her nights, I feel it inside me, right in my chest, cause I know she’s held on for as long as she can—in the haze of the meth or the men. When she lets loose, her wails wake whatever’s in me I’d rather not know.

***

I turned the calendar to a new month today. We’re well into spring and summer’s closing in. Indie’s gone to bed, exhausted from all this unknowing. I take my spot on the top step and lean against the rail, raise my head toward the mountain road to wait for the lights of the first car, but the elm in the school yard has bloomed full, and I can’t see past it. I’ve only got a couple months and not one hint of direction, just the worrying of a road in the middle of a dark so heavy I can’t make out the next mile.

***

The other night I woke to the feeling of someone in my room.  I couldn’t shake it, sure that the ghost of a large man stood right in the middle of the floor. I got up for some water in the kitchen. Kept my distance. When I came back, the shape was still there like a mountain in a night sky—black against a darker black—so I turned on the television to keep some light and noise between me and the shadow of someone who had returned.

***

Hermit Peak rises 3,700 feet above this town, about twenty-five miles south.  It was originally known as El Cerro del Tecolote, “The Hill Of The Owl” by early Spanish settlers, but was later renamed for John Augustiani, an Italian religious recluse who lived there in a cave he dug into the summit in the 1860s. Legend has it he’d trade carvings and trinkets for food. According to an article from July 22, 1899 in the Sante Fe New Mexican, “One of the most mysterious and at the same time pathetic figures that ever appeared upon the Santa Fe Trail was a gentle, saintly, self-sacrificing priest, familiarly know as ‘El Solitario,’ who for several years lived in a cave in the Rincon range of mountains and in his honor the Mexicans have christened the highest peak ‘El Cumbre del Solitario,’ the hermit’s mountain.”  Beyond the speculation of the priest’s history, the article reports the discovery of his lifeless body on the rugged trail leading to his cave.  According to the miners who found him, he had been assassinated by a poisoned dagger,  attacked from behind and stabbed between the shoulders. Pilgrimages to the cave went on for a century.

Outside our windows every morning, there’s a man with a backpack, a mess of plastic bags, and a walking stick.  Most mornings he’s wearing a bright blue ball cap. On the sunniest days, it’s a straw cowboy hat, but sometimes it’s nothing but his pale bald head. We’ve named him Floyd.  It’s a weekday morning ritual, this watching and sometimes waving at Floyd when he struts past our window at 7:45 toward the park, where he hunches over the black-bagged trash, pulling out cans and pouring whatever’s left into the grass before putting them into his plastic bags. We wonder where he comes from, where he goes, if he’ll notice when we’re gone.

***

Photo credit, Indie

Our neighbors to the left, Lucy and Bill, have been married over forty years.  They spent most of the 1960s living in a commune in Virginia and many years after that trying to outdrink each other. After a while, Bill let the booze go and told Lucy if she didn’t he’d let her go, too. When they heard about an adobe house for sale in Las Vegas, New Mexico, they bought it over the phone and spent the next few years felling crumbling walls and transforming one of the bigger rooms into an art studio, where they have a kiln and a wall of colorful tiles. Not long after we moved in, Lucy took us on a tour and showed us the slanting legs of a piano that used to be in one of the town’s saloons. She showed us a coin marked 1856 she found in their backyard. She showed us a small bedroom and closed the door behind us, pointing to the shelves inside a narrow closet that were used in the 1850s to keep goods for the store. A thin woman with gray hair, thick glasses, and fast hands, she turned and pointed to a small window facing the street. All the windows along the row houses, she said as if telling a story around a campfire, were the storefronts.  I backed against the door with my hand on the knob, cutting my eyes to Indie and nodding toward the corner of the room.  Later when we walked home, we shuddered, agreed a terrible history trembled in there. We’ve never gone back.

Now, Lucy talks to me over the fence or in the alley on days we put out our trash. She’s told me, more than twice, that when the woman who screams in the alley got out of prison, she’d see her at AA. Said she gave her a ride home once. I don’t tell Lucy I stopped going to AA years ago. And I don’t tell her that living in the middle of such poverty and addiction and despair makes it hard not to surrender, to think that days might be better spent ducking into the dark doorways of those bars lining Grand Avenue.

***

A guy who runs one of  stores I go into now and again grew up in this town.  He went to school in California and wanted to stay there, where he and his wife always joked that when they were ready to die, they’d come back to Las Vegas. When the chance to run the store came up, he felt like he didn’t have a choice. He, too, has a daughter to raise. More than any other worry he has is the one that people at work, people in this small town, are talking about his drinking.  He doesn’t go to the bar anymore, says he can’t make himself leave, says he always ends up doing something or saying something he’s sorry for the next morning.  “If I came here to die,” he once leaned over his scotch to tell me, “I might as well do it drinking.”  So now he drinks at home, I suppose, and sometimes I imagine him dragging himself down into the evening the way my neighbor does, screaming against his return.

***

I can’t imagine moving to a town knowing it will be my last.  Every time I unpack boxes, plug in lamps, or stack plates in cabinets, I wonder how long it’ll be before I do it again.  I’ve got it down though, all those boxes in the shed labeled so that when the time comes, I’ll put the pots and pans, the blankets and pillows, and the books back where they belong.  We always rent furniture so what we own fits into one of those U-Boxes that some stranger hitches to a truck and drives to our next town. When we moved into this house, Indie and I bought a map of the United States and hung it on the living room wall.  I catch her there lately, staring at it as if it might give up some clue.

 

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Photos: Jill Talbot and Indie Talbot

 

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JILL TALBOT is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3 and listed in the Notable Essays section of Best American Essays 2014. The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir is published by Soft Skull Press.

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