Claudia Bass’s house stood on the high part of a sloping acre under a large oak tree that had cast its shadows long before the house was built beneath it. It was a 1920s white frame bungalow with layers of old paint snaking off the exterior, and the only maintenance in recent years had been Claudia Bass stomping through the yard whacking weeds with her black cane. The place had an unkempt look, pebbled and weedy, and was starkly shadowed on this bright October afternoon.
Meg Mabry drove up in her pickup truck, parked at the weedy curb, pulled the keys from the ignition and stared at the house. Seizing a package of office paper from the seat beside her, she slung her purse strap over her shoulder, slammed the door as she got out, and stalked up the cracked walkway with the package under her arm, noting her grandmother’s rusty Pontiac parked in the center of the uphill drive, the wheels at a different slant from what they had been yesterday. She climbed the porch steps, pounded on the screen door, then peered in through the window to see her grandmother, whom she had always known by the ill-fitting name of Bassie, at the rolltop desk, talking on the telephone in a puddle of sallow lamplight, her shoulders jutting as sharply as wings under her nylon robe and her skull showing in patches where the hairpins tacked her braid down flat. Bassie did not turn to look at Meg, though Meg was certain she had heard the knock. The coils of a space heater glowed a lurid red against Bassie’s mule-toed slippers, emitting a buzzing sound loud enough for Meg to hear clearly through the windowpanes.
Meg rummaged through her purse, found a key, and let herself in, as Bassie swiveled in her chair to glare at her, still pressing the phone receiver to her ear. Bassie had fought harder, in Meg’s opinion, against old age than she should have done: her hair was dyed a harsh, unnatural black, her lipstick was a gaudy red, her parted lips revealed the gleam of over-whitened dentures. Her glasses magnified her eyes so they looked as if they floated in a fishbowl, the black rims casting errant shadows on her sagging cheeks. Nothing flickered in the eyes themselves, however. The stiff hairs of her eyebrows were painted into domelike arches, though the brow itself was fiercely level. She had not accommodated age; she had painted a new face on the old one. She clenched her lacquered lips with intimidating fixedness and growled into the telephone, “Well, Jim, I like dead ones. I don’t give a rat’s ass what Phil Barker says; this isn’t just about the dogs. It’s about the hill. I don’t have many memories of my mother, but I remember her digging those dog graves on that hill. If Phil is going to build on that hill, he can give me the bones. I’ll bury them somewhere else.”
Meg dropped the package of office paper on the sofa in the center of the room. The sofa was an ugly 1970s orange plastic affair, hovering low to the floor on short chrome legs, ridiculously at odds with the Victorian furniture around it. It had belonged to Meg in college; she had bought it at a thrift shop and later tried to sell it, but Bassie disapproved of getting rid of things and made a point of laying claim to it. Since then it had remained here, squatting in the center of the overfurnished room, like a garish monument to every bad choice Meg had ever made. She could remember mornings from her college years when she awakened on this sofa, in her efficiency apartment, her face sticking to the plastic.
“You’ve been driving,” she told Bassie. “Mrs. Chen just called me.”
Bassie waved her off, turning in her swivel chair to face the desk, and continued snapping her demands at the person on the phone.
Meg made her way down the hallway between stacks of papers and moldy books piled along the baseboards, passing a room filled with boxes and the same assortment of old file cabinets that had been there since her childhood. She had lived in the house with Bassie from the age of nine until eighteen, and this room had been her bedroom, called the file room even then; she had slept here stored away at night with the other detritus of Bassie’s life. The bed was now reduced to a dusty mattress on box springs. The blinds were closed; the room smelled like stale paper. It was no wonder, Meg thought, passing the room—it was no wonder she had wanted to empty her life to such an extent that now this clutter shocked her every time she came here, annoying her at some deep inner level.
At the end of the hall she went into the bathroom and began searching for a rubber band to secure her hair. She looked under the sink in an old revolving caddy filled with hairpins and cosmetics but found nothing resembling a rubber band. The lead soldering of the water pipes under the sink bothered her, not for the first time, with the thought of how much lead she inevitably had consumed from these pipes when she had lived here.
Closing the cabinets, she tugged at the handle of a drawer beside them. The drawer stuck, then gave way suddenly, plopping out onto the warped floor and revealing, bunched inside like a nest of spiders, an expanding, grotesque mound of Bassie’s black hair which she had been storing away in case someday she should lose her hair and need to have a wig made. Synthetic wigs, Bassie always said, were absurd.
Meg irritably wrestled the drawer back into its slot, stuffing the hair down in it, and then returned to the living room. “You tell Phil he’ll regret it,” Bassie was snarling into the phone. “I’ll come out there. I’ll tell the press I’ve come to get the bones. And isn’t that going to look pathetic to the public. An old woman collecting little tibias and fibulas of her mother’s dogs.” She sucked volubly on her dentures, listening to the reply, her computer screen glowing with a large-print section of text on the extinct language of a Pueblo Indian tribe. The rolltop desk predated by a century the equipment on its writing space—the computer and printer and fax machine, with electrical cords festooned from the top and knotted in a tangle of extension cords that trailed down near the window. “I don’t give a ripe fig about that, Jim,” Bassie snapped. “I don’t care if Phil ends up with every Native American in the entire state demanding ancestral bones. Either he can call off the project, or you can figure out where the graves are, and let me have what’s left of my mother’s dogs.... No, I don’t know the exact location of the graves; how would I remember that? They’re on the hill. You can find them. I was three years old, for crying out loud. And don’t you cite that museum law to me. I wrote that law. Now, I’ll be out there tomorrow unless I hear from Phil. I’ll call you from the airport. Here. Talk to my granddaughter. She can make the arrangements.”
Bassie shoved the phone at Meg and began to sift through papers on her desk. Meg put her hand over the receiver. “Who is this?” she asked Bassie.
“Jim Layton,” Bassie said. “At Pecos. Work things out. Call him back if you have to.”
“What am I supposed to work out?”
“Just talk to him.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Talk to him.”
“Hi. This is Meg,” she said reluctantly into the phone.
“Hello, Meg. Jim Layton. Did she tell you the situation?”
Bassie was taking hold of her walking cane, jamming it into the floor and dragging her bony weight up against it. She began making her way to the kitchen. Her nylon robe clung to her underwear with static and was cinched with a patent leather belt. She apparently had lost the sash.
“We’ve been given money to add a room onto the visitors’ center,” Jim Layton said. “And the only logical place to build is on the hill beside the center. Which is where your great-grandmother buried her dogs. So Bassie wants us to find the graves and excavate them.”
“How hard would that be?” Meg asked, attempting to keep the impatience out of her voice.
“It’s just two graves, and I have ideas where to look, so I can probably find them. But getting our superintendent to let her have the bones is going to be a problem. This is federal property, so the bones would legally belong to the government. Not that the government wants them. But Phil’s prickly about this sort of thing. You know Bassie’s going to want you to come with her.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“I’ve met you once,” he said.
“Sorry. I don’t remember.”
“There’s no reason why you would. I don’t think you were even in high school yet. I was lecturing at U.T. and stayed at Bassie’s house.”
“Oh. She probably gave you my bed. That’s what she usually did when somebody came.”
“She tried to,” he said, with an undercurrent of amusement. “I want you to know I didn’t take it.”
Meg actually thought she remembered the incident now. She vaguely recalled an unremarkable-looking young man stoically resisting Bassie’s mandate that he take over Meg’s bed, and insisting he would sleep in the living room.
“So you owe me one,” he was saying. “I need you to come out with her and run interference.”
“Can’t,” she told him.
“Is she there listening?”
“No. But she’ll be back in a minute.”
“Then hear me out. She’s got a reason to be upset. She has some strong memories associated with that hill, and we’re basically going to have to dynamite and flatten it so we can build the room. She’s going
to need you out here. More to the point, I’m going to need you out here.”
“She hasn’t invited me.”
Bassie was returning from the kitchen, a ballpoint pen stuck behind her ear and a yellow pad under her arm. “I’ll see what I can do,” Meg said.
But she had no intention of going to New Mexico with Bassie. As she hung up the phone, she looked at her, standing at the desk rifling through a stack of papers. “You’ve been driving,” she said. “Mrs. Chen called and told me.”
Bassie snapped her dentures with her tongue. “Yes, I have been driving. I’m not surprised I got found out. The only time that slanty-eyed spy ever speaks is to tell on me. She lived over there for fifteen years before I knew that she could talk. And now she reports everything I do. Perfectly mute, until this urge to tattle.”
“She’s always talked, Bassie. Just not to you. You terrify her.”
“Not enough, I don’t. Now don’t bother me about any of that.” She continued her search through the pages.
“I brought the paper you needed,” Meg said, retrieving the package of office paper from the sofa and tossing it onto Bassie’s desk.
“I told you I needed it this morning.”
“No, you told me this morning that you needed it,” Meg said.
“I needed it when I called.”
“So I take it that you went and got some for yourself? You’re going to kill somebody with that Pontiac.”
“Don’t threaten me. Did you get the pineapple I wanted?”
“Aren’t you even curious about the hill? Did Jim tell you what they’re doing? They’re digging up the last of my memories, that’s what. The last of my past. Blowing up the hill and flattening it, to put a room on it. That pea-head Phil Barker would dynamite the camposanto to put in extra toilets if he thought they’d be a tourist draw.”
Meg lifted her eyes to the lacquered wide-mouthed bass that was gaping at her from its place of honor over the mantel. It was affixed to a plaque emblazoned with the words bass’s house. She sat down on the sofa and crossed her legs, trying to appear comfortable, though she had never, once, been comfortable on the sofa since the day that Bassie had planted it in the living room. “I’m not that interested in the hill, frankly,” she said. “But we have to solve the driving problem. You can’t be driving.”
“You would know about the hill,” Bassie said, “if you had read the journals.”
Meg stopped herself from glancing involuntarily in the direction of the famous journals standing solidly in their permanent place on the shelves of the far wall.
“You’re refusing to face your heritage just because it happens also to be mine,” Bassie said.
“I’ve done all right without it.”
“Not so anyone would notice. You have very little to show for yourself.”
“I have two thousand people depending on me. That isn’t very little.”
“Oh, and any woman in her right mind would want two thousand dialysis patients dependent on her engineering skills. The biggest obstacle at Pecos now,” she said, “is the superintendent. Phil Barker. Phil the Pill. Phil the bitter pill. Now get me that book over there on the table.”
“It must be ninety-five degrees in here with that heater on,” Meg observed.
Bassie looked at the rattling space heater as if she had never seen it before. “Get me the book,” she repeated, lowering herself into the chair at her desk.
“All right, but then I have to go. I have a meeting.” Meg got up and retrieved the book, titled Seven Centuries of Pecos, and moved aside some papers to make a place for it on Bassie’s desk. It was a large book of photographs. Bassie flopped it open and turned through several pages.
“Look. There,” Bassie told her, smoothing her fingers across a full-page aerial view of a rocky mesa with a valley below it. A stone wall encircled the edge of the mesa, and within the wall, across the top of the mesa, mounds of earth overgrown with vegetation obscured the pueblo ruins so that they resembled low hills more than anything that had once been inhabitable. There were two rings of stones with holes in the center of them and ladders protruding out of the holes, descending into underground chambers. The ladders threw spidery shadows over the rocky ground. By far the most prominent feature in the photograph was a roofless old adobe church perched on an edge of the mesa, orange sunlight tinting the adobe and stretching long shadows from the weathered walls. Below the church was a contemporary building with a parking lot, which appeared to be a visitors’ center.
“This,” Bassie said, pointing to the sloping ground between the church and the visitors’ center, “is Dog Hill. Where Mother buried our dogs. Milton was a one-eyed, pug-nosed little tramp. Argus was aggressive. And large. I never liked him.”
The hill was, at best, a rugged area rising from the valley floor up to the church ruins. It was covered with wiry grass and what looked like cactus and small cedar bushes, and on one side had a length of about forty yards of cliff bordered by a line of jagged rocks and scrub trees.
Bassie moved her finger to the adjoining valley, not far from the visitors’ center, saying “Our home was here,” and then slid her finger back up to Dog Hill, pointing out a scruffy slope covered with boulders. “The graves are in this area. Now, take this back.”
She closed the book, shoving it toward Meg. Meg returned it to the table. She was starting to perspire from the heat.
“You would think,” Bassie said loudly, “that the Indians would put a stop to this. They’ve got twelve tribes out there that have to be consulted before there’s digging. And they’ve approved the plan. They apparently like the idea that their former camping grounds are about to be converted into square footage. Jim says the Hispanos are all gung-ho too. You would think he would have told me sooner what was going on.”
“You would think he wouldn’t have told you at all,” Meg said.
“You’re going with me,” Bassie retorted.
“To New Mexico? I don’t think so.”
“You’re going with me, yes, you are. Tomorrow.”
“I’m not going, Bassie. I’m not going. I have a Q.A. meeting at St. David’s Hospital.”
“I can’t imagine what a Q.A. meeting is. You can cancel it.”
“It’s a quality assurance meeting, and I have to be there.”
“I thought you had employees to do those things.”
“Not conduct the Q.A. meetings. I have to be there myself.”
“Then we’ll leave afterwards,” Bassie said.
“Look, I can’t just pick up and leave.”
“Well, that’s gratitude. After everything I’ve done for you.”
Meg retrieved her purse from the sofa.
“Now listen here,” Bassie said, the lamplight furrowing shadows into the folds of her face and illuminating the dark hairs of her chin. “You’ve heard the aeronautic term ‘on the bubble’? It refers to an astronaut who’s ready to launch. Well, I’m on the bubble. I’m old. I want two things from you before I go. Are you listening? I want you to read the journals. And I want you to go to Pecos with me. I raised you, didn’t I? I taught you manners. Now I’m calling in the chips. I would hate to die,” she said, her voice descending, “thinking that the blood I left behind got watered down. And I’m not talking about your mother. I’m talking about you. There’s something the matter with you. You have six volumes of heritage staring you in the face, and have managed not to look at them, in what—thirty years?”
“Thirty-seven. It isn’t like I need to find my roots, Bassie. If anything, I need to get untangled.”
“Well, isn’t that poetic,” Bassie said, and with a pressure of her foot in the mule-toed slipper, swung the chair around to face the window. Looking past the porch toward the gnarled branches of the oak tree, she said, “It has the wilt,” as if she had been speaking of the oak tree all along. “I need that pineapple from the store. Not canned. And I want my blood pressure medication refilled. The Dyazide. The bottle’s in the kitchen.”
Meg went into the kitchen, yanking open the cabinet where Bassie kept her medications, and started reading labels on the bottles. “Why does she need a pineapple if she’s leaving town?” she was asking herself, aloud, when the phone on the wall beside her rang suddenly.
“Answer it,” Bassie called.
“You answer it,” Meg grumbled under her breath as she picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
It was her assistant, Carolyn Stott, calling to tell her that the manager of C-TECH, one of Meg’s clients, had called with an emergency. He was running out of purified water for the X-ray machines. C-TECH made turbines for jet engines, and used X-ray to examine for cracks and defects.
Meg scribbled his phone number onto an Austin Light and Power bill that was lying on the counter, and returned the call.
The manager, Tom Steiner, answered. “Boy, am I relieved to hear your voice,” he said. “I can’t figure out the problem. We’ve only got about two hours of capacity. Can you get here?”
The company was in Round Rock, thirty minutes north on Interstate 35, and Meg was tempted just to walk Tom through the diagnostics over the telephone and have him systematically override the safety shutdowns until the water system activated. Instead she told him to expect her at the service door in forty minutes, and called her accountant to reschedule her meeting with him, in which she was to scrutinize purchase and resale numbers for an income tax audit defense.
“What are you doing?” Bassie called from the other room. “Who was on the phone?”
“It was for me,” Meg shouted back.
She found the prescription bottle and returned to the living room. Bassie was typing at the computer. “I’ve got to go,” Meg said. “I’ll make your airline reservations, and I can get you to the airport. If I can’t take you, I’ll have a cab pick you up.”
Bassie didn’t respond.
“I’ll bring you the prescription. And the pineapple. Is there anything else?”
“Nothing,” Bassie said, continuing to type. “I am in need of nothing but a granddaughter who shows some respect and gratitude.”
Meg cleared security at C-TECH and pulled up at the service door, where Tom Steiner was waiting to let her in. They went together to the water treatment room, and Meg performed the diagnostics on the equipment, discovering that the problem involved a failure in a low-pressure shutdown contact. She corrected the situation temporarily by mechanically overriding the contact, which brought the system back on-line.
“You look tired,” Tom observed as they started down the corridor toward the service exit.
“It’s the hair,” she said.
“No. It’s you. You need a break. You need to enter some kind of a different realm for a while.”
“And let your water run out?”
“Put somebody else on duty. You’ve got people.”
“Mind your own business, Tom.”
But he was right. She was tired. She was irritable. She was beginning to act like Bassie.
She started back to Austin listening to a physician on talk radio comment on genital herpes and pinkeye, followed by a right-wing pundit discussing Manuel Noriega’s indictment in the United States for drug trafficking and China’s imposition of martial law in Tibet, and praising George Bush’s first year in office. She was surprised that Bush had been in office for a year—she still thought of Ronald Reagan as the president. Her political opinions, she knew, when she had them, were usually based on nothing more substantial than an emotional reaction against Bassie’s opinions. Bassie claimed to be a Democrat, but was scornful of quotas for minorities and women, and of any policy that made life easier on anyone.
Meg rolled her window down to feel the breath of fall and found herself wondering if Bassie was right that there was something pathological about the fact that she had never read the journals Bassie’s mother had written. Several million other people certainly had read them. They were as famous as Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan narratives and the memoirs of Madame du Barri, and had won so many awards that even Bassie at times could not recall which volumes had garnered which prizes, among them the prestigious Bancroft Prize for the best book about the history of the Americas and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. And now Bassie had made a last request that Meg read the journals and go to New Mexico, where the events recorded in them had taken place. Of course, this was more of a demand than a request. And it would not turn out to be her last. Still, Bassie was going to need an ally in New Mexico.
Meg stopped at a Sonic drive-in and ate a fried-chicken sandwich with the windows down, watching grackles fighting over french fries in the parking lot, then drove to her office. It was nothing but a warehouse in a warehouse district of north Austin, but it was new, and had room enough for her equipment.
Carolyn Stott was out, so Meg had the office to herself. She returned some phone calls, then called her mother, Nina Witte—Bassie’s only offspring—who was working in Los Angeles as a sales representative for Texaco. Nina was the opposite of Bassie in most ways, but she had the same capacity, in Meg’s opinion, of immediately sucking the air out of every room she entered. She was a recovering alcoholic who had been in therapy of one form or another for nearly twenty years. The latest was a type of psychodrama in which she acted out her dreams.
A message recorder answered the phone—Nina’s voice saying she was out to lunch. Her lunches often lasted hours and involved male clients whom she had a special talent for seducing.
“Hey, Mom,” Meg said to the recorder. “Bassie wants me to go to the pueblo at Pecos with her. There are some things going on there. Call me if you get the chance.”
• • • • •
Three hours later, her mother had not called. Meg scheduled Bassie’s flight, filled her prescription and purchased a pineapple. When she stopped at Bassie’s house, Bassie was working at the computer and did not speak to her. “Southwest has curbside check-in,” Meg told her as she left. “I’ve arranged a taxi. The driver will come here to the door at eleven-fifteen and help you with your suitcase.”
Bassie continued typing.
An architect from San Antonio whom Meg was dating, named Paul Boyd, was in Austin for a conference with the city planners about a downtown building he was bidding to restore, and intended to stay the night with Meg. His visits were never as companionable as Meg hoped they would be, but nevertheless she was looking forward to having him around. It was nice to have a man in her apartment. It suggested some potential for the future. Though not much.
They went out to dinner at a restaurant on the east side in a quaint old plank-floored house, but Meg declined the offer of wine. She felt tired and sedated, deprived of oxygen, a sensation that she often suffered before a migraine started.
“Bassie’s going to New Mexico tomorrow,” she told Paul after they had placed their orders. “She wants me to go with her, and I can’t decide. I think I probably shouldn’t, actually. It would be complicated. Her mother buried some dogs on a hill near some pueblo ruins, and now somebody has given some money to add on to the visitors’ center out there, and the addition is supposed to be built where the graves are. Bassie doesn’t know the exact location of the graves; she wants the archaeologist to find them. And then she wants to have the bones. Have you ever been to New Mexico?”
“Neither have I.”
He was studying his menu, though he had already selected his dinner. “What would she do with dog bones?” he asked.
“I think she wants to bring them home and bury them.”
He looked at her. “That’s crazy. Where would she bury them? In her backyard?”
“I don’t know if it’s crazy. They were her mother’s dogs.”
“What’s she going to do, pack them in her suitcase? It’s a crazy woman’s thinking, Meg. To even want the bones.”
“It isn’t about the bones, Paul. It’s about her past. It’s about the fact that they’re going to dig up one of the few memories she has of her mother.”
“You’re defending her.”
“I should defend her. She’s done a lot for me.”
“But you don’t owe her this. You don’t have to go to New Mexico with her to bring home dog remains.”
“I didn’t say I was going. I said I probably wasn’t.”
Paul took a sip of wine. “I wouldn’t go,” he said.
She could feel the headache swelling. She disliked the way Paul sipped his wine; she disliked his attitude, his removed manner, his air of entitlement, the ease with which he seemed to know what was required of him and what was not—what, in other words, others had a right to ask of him. She didn’t want that kind of certainty extended to herself.
“How come you’re always complaining about her, but if I agree with you, you get defensive?” he asked.
“I’m defensive because she’s my grandmother. I’ve got a right to complain about her. You don’t.”
When the food arrived, Paul said, “Let’s start over for tonight. Cheers.” He offered his wineglass, and she clinked her water glass against it.
But it was too late for starting over. The migraine was taking hold. Sounds were assuming the muted, dull quality that preceded a headache, and Meg felt irritable and tense. She survived the meal without revealing how miserable she was, but when she and Paul arrived back at her apartment she admitted ruefully that she did not feel very good. The nausea then crept in, and she spent the next two hours in the bathroom. Between bouts of vomiting and diarrhea and dry heaves, she lay on the bathroom floor, resting one side of her head and then the other against the cool tiles.
Paul was helpful enough to hand her Cokes and ice packs through the bathroom door, but at one point his judgment abandoned him and he knocked on the door and called in, “By the way, I have a headache too.” She was crouching on the floor with her arms around the toilet seat. Staring into the bowl for a minute before answering, she finally said, creating an echo in the bowl, “A bad one?”
“Have you taken anything?”
“Do you need to lie down?”
“No. It may be sinuses or something. I think molds were high today.”
“Paul?” she asked, too sick to lift her head. “Would you go home?”
“What, you want me to leave?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Am I being banished? Did I do something wrong?”
“I just think I’d do this better by myself.”
It was one o’clock in the morning. “All right,” Paul said. “I’ll call you tomorrow. I hope you feel better.”
After he had gone, she ventured out and managed to keep down a cocktail of painkillers by lying motionless on the bed.
At three o’clock in the morning she was awakened by the sound of sirens down below, heading south on Lamar Boulevard. She lay awake for a while, fretting about Bassie and other problems. She loathed the frequent migraines and the toll they had been taking on her schedule; she had tried every plausible cure. She had even suffered through a demoralizing session with an acupuncturist during which she had become so bored and agitated during the half hour on the table that she’d managed, in spite of the needles, to sit up and make notes in the margins of an article on pseudomonous bacteria. The acupuncturist had returned and found her at work, and accused her of “heat-pernicious influence,” “yin deficiency,” and “excess of yang.” He told her she had set herself adrift from her life, and if she wanted to cure her headaches she would have to step into the stream of life again.
The episode had depressed her. She remembered it now in detail, lying in bed, and recollecting it somehow caused her to think of Pecos Pueblo: the adobe of the roofless church a deep orange in the sunlight, the mounds of pueblo ruins overgrown with vegetation, and Bassie’s crooked finger moving down the page to indicate the slope of Dog Hill where the dogs were buried—Milton the pug-nosed tramp, as Bassie had described him, and large, aggressive Argus. She thought of what Tom Steiner out at C-TECH had suggested—that she take a break from her work, and enter a different realm for a while.
Perhaps, she thought, she should go with Bassie to New Mexico. She could attend the Q.A. meeting at St. David’s Hospital and make the flight with Bassie after that. She would have to alert her clients, and notify her technician and service manager, placing them in charge in case of emergencies. But these things could be done.
Of course, going would mean that Bassie had won.
Meg began to think of Bassie asleep in her house on Bouldin Street just a few miles south off Lamar Boulevard, and to wonder what the chances were that the sirens she had heard on awakening were on their way to rescue Bassie from some medical mishap. It was always possible that Bassie had fallen during one of her numerous nightly trips to the toilet. She had fallen once before and broken her hip, and while that hip had been replaced with a steel ball and socket, there was still the one remaining.
Meg got up and turned the light on, feeling the dull-headed sensation of a hangover caused by the last of the migraine and the blend of medications. She made herself a cup of coffee for its vasoconstrictive properties and sat on the couch in the living room, telling herself that Bassie was not in need of her at the moment. The apartment around her, lit by a glow from the city, was spare and contemporary, clean and underfurnished, the opposite of Bassie’s house. There was nothing hanging on the walls. Meg had come a long way from the dense overbearing crowdedness of Bassie’s rooms. Yet she had not come far enough. Here she was, just a seven-minute drive away.
She turned to look out of the plate-glass windows down Twelfth Street to the state capitol building, the familiar dome lit starkly against the dark sky. Traffic lights were blinking yellow in these early-morning hours. She watched them blink, and watched a few cars make their way down Twelfth. Then she got up and turned the television on to see which of the Bonanza episodes was playing. It was one that she had seen before, so she turned the set off. Her gaze was drawn to the bookshelves and the collection of Hannah’s journals which Bassie had given her through the years, volume by volume, as they were published, the first two in white jackets from the University of New Mexico Press, the others in brown jackets with the Random House imprint. She walked over to them and pulled one out to look at it. Hannah stared at her from the cover, posed in a full-length studio photograph, young and fresh-looking, wearing a large, feathered hat. She was standing behind what appeared to be an ice-cream parlor chair, waves of brown hair spread over a shoulder, her hands resting on the back of the chair, the front legs of which she had tipped slightly off the ground, probably at the photographer’s suggestion. Her dress was dark and fitted tightly to the waist, with buttons from the collar down. Draped over her shoulders was a shawl with an elaborate embroidery of peacock feathers reaching around her arms. Her gaze was slightly averted. She stood looking out from under the brim of the ridiculous hat as if it were not up there at all, as if there was nothing over her head but open sky. The painted backdrop of stone pillars and plant fronds seemed superfluous to her image.
Meg realized that she had never liked the photograph. Hannah seemed too distant and otherworldly. The very thought of her, and of her journals, bothered Meg. The original, unedited notebooks from which these volumes had been compiled had been stored, during Meg’s adolescence, in a fireproof safe that occupied half the closet at Bassie’s house where Meg had hung her clothes. Bassie had built her life around them, and founded her career on them as a professor of southwestern history, transforming them into these six published volumes that had become, through the years, a kind of cult literature for lovers of the American West and the Victorian era. Bassie worshiped her mother and the journals. But for Meg they were a source of embarrassment, documenting the story of an ancestor whose life had been more dramatic and interesting than Meg could ever hope that hers would be.
She opened the cover, and turned a page to look at the photograph of Hannah’s husband—Bassie’s father, Elliott Bass. He was standing in the sunlight in a rumpled suit in front of a large black steam engine, his arms crossed over his chest. His coat was opened to a buttoned vest, and dusty. He was holding his hat; his hair was brown; he had a mustache, and he looked small in front of the massive engine, with its intricate matrix of valves and pipes. He was not squinting, though the sun was in his eyes.
On the page opposite this photograph of Elliott was one of Vicente Morales with a caption describing him as Elliott’s closest friend and Hannah’s confidant. The photograph was poor quality and Vicente was not the only person featured in it; he was posed with about a dozen other men in front of a wooden fence, their names printed at the base of the photograph. Several of the men were kneeling in the foreground and the others were standing behind them, most of them Hispanic, all having removed their hats. Vicente was kneeling; he had cocked up one knee and perched his hat on it, and was supporting the edge of a large placard bearing the words sheep sanitary board, new mexico. His black hair glistened in the brilliant sunlight. He was wearing spectacles, and like Elliott, had a mustache. He was looking at the placard and therefore appeared in partial profile, making his features unclear.
Meg turned the page to the only other photograph in the book. It was of a house where Bassie had lived with her parents at Pecos in the shallow valley spread below the ruins. The image was pale, either faded or overexposed, and so appeared to be seen through a fog. It revealed the frame structure viewed from the front, with a picket fence around it and the slope of what Meg recognized as Dog Hill rising behind it. Higher still, looking up over Dog Hill, was the mesa, on the edge of which could be seen the ruins of the adobe church. Dog Hill was dotted with scrubby evergreens, the mesa above encircled by the low stone wall.
Opposite this photograph Bassie’s introduction to the journals ran on for a few pages, which Meg skipped over until her attention was seized by several lines in the middle of Hannah’s first entry, dated in June of 1891.
The lanterns had remained lit, and by their ghastly light I saw that the seats at the back were crushed into pieces resembling a pile of driftwood. From under this, the hand of a child was reaching. Lifeless, I could see. It occurred to me that it was severed from the body. It was the mother wailing. She and the father at once began to drag at the splintered wood to reach the child. There was a flame beside me and I saw that one of the lamps had spilled its oil. The car began to fill with smoke ...
Abruptly Meg closed the book and returned it to the shelf. She was tempted, for a moment, to pull it back out and finish reading the entry. Instead, she returned to the bedroom, peeled her pajama pants off and pulled on blue jeans and a sweater over her T-shirt. She put on tennis shoes, and went down the flight of stairs to her front door and out into the parking lot where the autumn air was breezy. Getting into her truck, she drove down to Lamar and turned south, crossing the river bridge and going left on Riverside, and right on Bouldin, into Bassie’s neighborhood. She stopped at the curb in front of the house. There was no ambulance here, of course. Everything was quiet. The house was dark. Meg sat in her truck with the radio off and the motor running, looking at the old house. It was ominously still, sadly familiar, strangely aversive to her. Bassie, she knew, had decreed in a will that Meg would inherit the house. The thought of that burden weighed heavily, and the thought of Bassie dying filled Meg with an escalating dread as she sat alone in the truck cab with the heater blowing hot air onto her face. Bassie’s death would liberate her from the dictatorial demands, but to what purpose? What would she do with her time then? Fill it with more work?
She studied her face in the rearview mirror, the darkness deepening shadows under her eyes. She could hardly blame Bassie or anyone else for the fact that she was lonely. Bassie was the one who had given her a home. Of course, in doing so she had deprived Meg of a normal adolescence, with sleepovers and friends. Bassie had even refused to own a television back in those days. She had scared Meg’s friends away with her confrontational, autocratic nature, and run off boys with her sarcasm. She had driven off the boys in the same way that she had driven off Meg’s father.
Bassie and Meg together had pretty well made a mess of Meg’s life, in Meg’s opinion now, and someday Bassie was going to die and leave her, alone, to deal with it.
Perhaps the acupuncturist was right, and Meg had cut herself off from life. If that was true, she wished she could reconnect. New Mexico offered itself to her thoughts again. She would like to see the mountains. And she could meet Jim Layton; she had liked his voice. Perhaps he wasn’t married.
But New Mexico was Bassie’s place. It could be a mistake to go creeping onto the edges of Bassie’s turf at this point in her own life. She should find her own place in the world.
Excerpted from THE NIGHT JOURNAL © Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Crook. Reprinted with permission by Penguin. All rights reserved.
The Night Journal