Spencerville Road ran straight north from Highway 46, through a valley flanked by green, treeless hills. It was a narrow road, only wide enough for one car, and pocked with cracks and holes like the face of the moon. Barbed wire fences marched along both sides, so close they seemed to imprison the station wagon on the broken asphalt.
“Let’s not,” Sally said. “We can go back.”
Trevor pulled the lighter from the dashboard and touched its hot red end to his Camel cigarette. “You accepted, Sal. It’s too late.” His cheeks flattened as he inhaled.
“It won’t be terrible if we stand them up. We’re never going to see them again.” She cranked the window down to release the smoky fug.
In back, the baby began to cry – short, fretful whimpers accompanied by the thump of his feet against his toddler seat.
She looked over her shoulder. “Bailey, what’s wrong with Tango?”
“I dunno.” Bailey ducked his head behind the cover of his Hardy Boys mystery. He’d been withdrawn since she told him they were moving again, this time from Paso Robles to Fresno.
Tango’s wails escalated until the noise beat at her eardrums. Sal knelt and leaned over the seat back, absorbing in her knees the lurching of the car. Tears and snot ran down Tango’s fat cheeks into his mouth. She retrieved his bottle from the floor. There was no tissue in her pocket and, impatient to make him happy, she licked the dirt and cookie crumbs off the nipple. Saliva killed germs, didn’t it? When she offered it to him, he batted her hand away.
She sank onto her butt, pulling at the grit on her tongue. When Bailey was a baby, he’d been mellow, so easy to please that she mistakenly assumed it was due to her good mothering. With Tango, she felt as though she were in a dark room, stubbing her toes on the furniture.
The station wagon’s wheel slammed into a pothole, and her stomach thumped the seat back. “Trevor, for God’s sake.”
“Couldn’t help it. There hasn’t been a road crew out here for at least ten years.” He flicked ashes out the wind wing and put his hand back on the wheel.
Sal faced front again, rubbing her stomach. It was tender, and she wanted to cry. To distract herself, she stared past the fences to the pastures, thick with knee-high grass and dotted with grazing cattle. Calves tilted their heads and sucked from their mothers’ udders with small thrusting motions, as if saying yes, yes, more.
After a few miles, the road passed the tall rock columns and ostentatious metal arch of the Toby Ranch. Its private driveway, black and smooth compared to the county road, led to a Spanish-style house whose white walls were dazzlingly bright in the June sun.
“Leland told me his grandfather owned this entire valley at one time, including the Toby place,” Trevor said. “Fifteen miles from 46 to the Grade.”
“But Leland let it slip through his fingers,” Sal said.
“Not all his fault. He said his father lost some.”
Bailey tapped her on the shoulder. “Mom, Tango is standing up.”
“You little devil, how did you get out?” The thin plastic belt lay slack at Tango’s feet. He teetered on his fat legs in a shuffling dance motion that had earned him his nickname. As Sal settled him, he resumed his crying.
“One thing about Leland and Edwina, they’re crazy about Tango,” Trevor said.
“And I’m not?”
“Tango is a surrogate. A baby for Edwina because she couldn’t have children,” Sal said.
“Edwina didn’t say so, but I suspect Leland’s not all that well-equipped between the legs.”
She turned her shoulder to him. Why was it, she always ended up regretting acts of charity? She’d begun with good intentions, accepting Edwina’s invitation. Leland and Edwina doted on Tango while they tended him in the church nursery, but they weren’t the type of people Sal sought out. Their air of failure made her want to look away. Leland’s home haircut left his bangs sliding crookedly over his forehead, and his huge Adam’s apple bobbed like Gomer Pyle’s on the Andy Griffith Show. Edwina had a harelip. When she smiled, her scarred lip skewed upward, revealing a wide expanse of pink gum above her teeth.
“We want to have you out to the farm for supper before you leave us,” Edwina had said, and there had been something forlorn about her that moved Sal to accept. As the days passed, Sal’s charitable instinct evaporated, replaced by irritation. Today was the last day before the moving truck arrived, and she was wasting it on Edwina and Leland.
Loose boards rattled as they crossed the bridge at Little Chalome Creek. She’d read about this spot, where the infamous San Andreas Fault was marked with a road sign. The Temblor Range reared up in front of them, the mountaintops gold in the sun, divided by the great purple scar of the fault. She could feel the Pacific and North American plates grind against each other, creeping inches at a time, dueling for supremacy. Sharp needles of tension pricked the air.
“There was a big one here two years ago. Leland’s place was pretty much wrecked,” Trevor said.
He turned into a driveway, past fields enclosed by sagging wire. At the end of the lane sat a one-story frame house. Leland’s farm staggered out from the house in various stages of disintegration. A grain chute dropped its parts in the farmyard, and two harvesters in the right-hand field were covered with a scaly coat of rust. A water tank lay prostrate and, beyond it, a barn cast off its weathered boards and galvanized roof into a pile of wood and metal.
Trevor braked in the farm’s turnaround with the motor still running. The air was hot, and the smell of manure burned Sal’s nostrils.
“I don’t like this place.” Bailey rolled down his window and let in a couple of enormous flies, which flew around Sal’s head, bumping her cheeks with their solid bodies.
The back door of the house flew open. Edwina and Leland burst out, almost running to the car. Tango stood up again.
“Oh, my, oh my.” Edwina smiled, more of a grimace, really, her harelip twisting her mouth. Tango danced and held out his arms. Edwina rattled the back door handle.
Rather than unlocking the door, Sal gathered Tango’s diaper bag and blanket from the back seat. Edwina poked her head in the front window and reached over to patty-cake with Tango.
“Bailey, put away your book and hop out,” Sal said. She could smell Edwina’s damp skin and felt the brush of Edwina’s rayon blouse against her arm. She wanted to shove the woman’s heavy shoulder, force her away.
Trevor pulled the keys from the ignition. Leland hiked his suspenders onto his shoulders and propped one hand on the car’s roof. “We thought maybe you’d got lost. Or bailed.”
“We made a late start. Movers are coming tomorrow,” Trevor said.
Bailey scrambled out to inspect a flock of russet chickens and an imperious rooster pecking at his domain in the driveway gravel. Bailey’s thin face brightened. He darted this way and that after the birds, who avoided him with light, quick steps and a great clucking.
Edwina released the door lock. She lifted Tango into her arms and tickled his ribs. The first Sunday Sal had left Tango with Leland and Edwina at the nursery, Sal was relieved. The hour alone in church gave her skin a chance to breathe. Trevor worked a hundred miles away, and she wore the children like tight clothing from Monday morning until he drove in on Friday night.
But after Tango had stayed with Edwina two or three Sundays, Sal had trouble prying him away. He clung to Edwina’s soft fatty neck, and she seemed gratified, perhaps even smug, that Tango preferred her.
Sal slammed the car door. “He’s too heavy for you, Edwina. Put him down.”
The scar on Edwina’s lip trembled. Sal’s cheeks burned, but she didn’t stop. She needed to pass on the hurt. “He won’t be seeing you again, and he needs to detach a little.”
As soon as his feet touched the ground, Tango cried, “Up, up,” flexing his fingers and stretching his arms for Edwina. At the same time, the rooster, red comb and wattles swinging, extended its feathered neck and pecked Bailey on his bare calf just below his shorts. Bailey screamed, and the rooster scuttled away.
A dot of blood formed on Bailey’s leg, and when he saw it, he began to cry.
“Come now, in the house, we’ll take care of it.” Edwina’s voice was soothing. She picked up Tango and herded Bailey ahead of her, hand cupping the back of his head. “Leland, you and Trevor start the barbecue.”
The kitchen was cool and dark. Cupboards and walls were knotty pine, the kind Sal remembered in the kitchen when she was growing up. Tears stung her eyes. There was a scent in the plaster and soft pine, a residue of bacon and spiced peaches.
She blinked to clear her vision. Edwina’s kitchen was outdated now. In Fresno, their house would have the latest olive green refrigerator and stove.
Edwina settled Bailey on a chrome-legged chair and knelt on the cracked linoleum while she dabbed a circle of Mercurochrome on his leg. After a minute or two, Bailey flexed his calf muscle, and Sal sent him outside. Like he did at home, Tango tottered directly to the cupboards and pulled out the pots and pans.
Sal began replacing the cookware, but Edwina shook her head. “He won’t do any harm. They’re all banged up. The house got hit bad in the ’66 quake.”
From where she knelt beside Tango, Sal noticed Edwina’s brown shoes, run over at the heels, and the thread dangling from the uneven hem of her skirt. “You were home when it happened?”
“Knocked us out of bed. All the dishes fell out of the cupboards, and the freezer tipped over. We lost a year’s food. The foundations were damaged, and we lived in the trailer out back for eight months.” Edwina’s lips tightened, and her scar stretched white.
She poured two glasses of iced tea, carried them outside on a tray, and set them on a redwood table laid with a flowered oilcloth. Trevor had forgotten to unload Tango’s playpen from the car, so Sal got it, unfolded it in the shade of an oak tree, and put Tango inside. He cried for a minute, his fingers twisted in the netting. Edwina scurried inside the house and returned with several pot lids and a nest of measuring cups.
“Here, my sweet boy,” she said.
He thumped onto his bottom, marshalling his army of cups and lids between his spread legs.
The tea was very sweet, not the way Sal liked it, but the heat made her throat dry. She drank deeply, then pressed the wet cool glass against her bare arms. The men had lit the barbecue, a dented oil drum on iron legs, and smoke eddied around the table, keeping the flies away.
Sal thought she’d seen all of it before in a dream: a smoky haze captured under the tree’s canopy, coarse-bladed grass clicking against her shoes, the broken equipment, the disintegrating barn.
She watched Leland and Bailey cross the green expanse of pasture, small figures from a toy farm set. Leland lifted Bailey onto the seat of a tractor with a missing front wheel. Bailey sat straight, chin up to see over the engine casing, as if he were master over a thousand acres. He moved the steering wheel left and right.
Edwina set an armful of corn on the table. “Picked an hour ago. The sugar turns to starch if you let the ears sit too long.”
For a few minutes Sal leaned on her folded arms. Edwina looked up from plucking the fine silk from time to time, her eyes magnified behind her glasses. She was calm, as if Sal’s hostility was a force of nature, like high wind or barley blight.
The flex of Edwina’s wrists and the crackle of the green husks had a pleasant rhythm, and Sal, almost against her will, joined her in stripping the ears and throwing the waste into a galvanized tub. The corn smelled moist and rich, different from frozen corn or canned corn that Sal had eaten as a girl. Her fingernail sliced a nick in a kernel, and a drop of juice beaded on the yellow surface. She sucked it, sweet as honey, off her knuckle.
Edwina snapped off the tip of an ear and gave it to Tango, who gnawed the raw kernels with his four Bugs Bunny teeth.
Edwina dropped the corn and a pile of new potatoes into a large kettle of water boiling on an outdoor camp stove. “We use this in the summer, to save on electricity. The house needs to be rewired, but Leland hasn’t got around to it.”
Edwina carried from the kitchen a basket of tomatoes whose skins still smelled of green leaves and vines. The tomatoes were warm in her hands as Sal sliced them into a dish. When Edwina spread the lamb chops on the grill, smoke thickened overhead. The meat sizzled and fat drippings vaporized into a burned, intoxicating smell. The scent lured Leland and Bailey to the table, where they snatched the discarded tomato ends and stuffed them in their mouths.
“Butchered a lamb for this great event,” Leland said, rubbing his hands together. They settled themselves on wooden benches around the table. Across the farmyard, Sal saw Trevor standing near a ramshackle pen where he watched two calves lip grain from a trough.
Edwina lifted the chops off the fire onto a platter and slathered Bailey’s steaming corn with butter. She waved to Trevor, and after a moment, he ground out his cigarette with the toe of his shoe. When he slid onto the bench beside Sal, she moved away. His weight, the sag of his arm against her shoulder, and the intrusion of his hip reminded her of Friday evenings. He’d walk in the door, after being gone all week, and assume she had a place for him after her days with the children and nights listening to the wind around the house.
She cut into her chop. The meat was faintly pink, and when she forked it into her mouth, the taste made her hum with pleasure. Trevor looked away. The fatty rim on the lamb, no vinegar for the tomatoes, Trevor was perpetually dissatisfied.
When they were first married, Trevor had been happier. Sal cooked like his mother, a quarter bought him a pack of cigarettes. But all the good meals, vacuumed floors, clean children, and weekend sex were not enough to keep him happy now.
“Are you all right, Hon?” Edwina touched Trevor’s hand.
“Off your feed? I’ll give you a dose of what I give the sheep. Haw, Haw.” Leland’s Adam’s apple bounced.
“My ulcer.” Trevor touched his chest.
“I’ll cook you something else.” Edwina swung her leg over the bench.
“No, it’s all right,” Trevor said, but he left his food on his plate.
Sal put her fork down. The meat was tender, the tomato slice sugar on her tongue, but she stopped eating, as if her hunger could dissolve his discontent. After dinner, Edwina tossed the corncobs and the uneaten food to the pigs, who grunted with delight. Tango still slept in the playpen, his lips moving for Sal’s breast. She felt an ache in her nipples.
Edwina untied her apron and laid it on the table. “Let’s take a walk. I want you to see something.”
“I can’t,” Sal said. “Tango is still asleep.”
“Trevor can watch him. We won’t be gone long.”
Edwina walked ahead, across the sheep pasture, through a grove of thick-limbed oaks. On the other side of the fence, a path climbed a series of low hills covered with sage and ripened wild oats. The fault opened some distance ahead, broken by hills and cliffs, more visible from the air, perhaps, than the ground. They entered a narrow canyon, Edwina breathing easily despite her bulk.
The sun had sunk behind the hill, and they were immersed in violet shadow. The air still held the day’s heat, and Sal’s lungs were infused with the pungent odor of sun-saturated plants and grain, earth and rock. Birds darted between the branches like half-remembered thoughts. Beside the trail, sword ferns drooped over a steady trickle of water.
Edwina climbed down over the rocks to the water several times to check her location. Then with a soft “Ah,” she descended to the origin of the rivulet where it sprang from a crack in a wall of loose granite.
She breathed deeply. “This time, it’s open. It’s alive.”
Sal let the water spurt over her fingers. A breath ran up her spine. She’d expected the stream to be cool, but instead it was warm, as if heated by the friction of its headlong rush.
“I suppose every stream is alive, in a way. Tiny plants, microscopic animals,” Sal said.
“No, not like that.” Edwina was pale, her pupils large in the dim light. “Leland has visited this spring since he was a boy. The fault sealed it up in the ’34 quake. It was underground for thirty-two years before it opened again after the ’66.”
Sal imagined the spring – pure water seeping under tons of dirt and rock, squeezed between layers, waiting, pressure mounting as the plates moved, until a great internal trembling released it.
“I had a miscarriage six weeks ago,” Sal said.
Edwina’s cheeks flamed, as if she’d been slapped by a cruel hand.
“Trevor was gone. The dog was outside barking, barking at something in the dark, a raccoon, maybe, or a coyote. I walked downstairs and opened the door. When I put my bare foot on the cold step, I started to bleed.”
Sal rubbed her thigh with her palm, remembering how she pressed her hands between her legs to stop it, but the downward rush was inexorable.
“A neighbor came to stay with Bailey and Tango. I drove myself to the hospital with a towel on the car seat.”
A tremor shook her, and she felt a movement, a painful shift of pelvis and femur, vertebrae and ribs. It was a small shift, a scrape of bone, a realignment of muscle. The water notes rose and fell.
Edwina leaned over and dipped her hand in the spring. Before Sal realized it, Edwina touched her wet thumb to the tense ridges on Sal’s forehead.
When they arrived again at the sheep pasture, the heat had broken. Creeping darkness hid the farm’s decay; the sheep clustered close together, crickets spread a carpet of sound. A light over the back door illuminated Tango’s yellow curls as he struggled to climb out of the playpen. Bailey sailed a handful of small stones into the barley field. Leland and Trevor sipped iced tea at the table, Trevor nodding occasionally as he gazed into the dark.
“There’s strawberry shortcake,” Edwina said.
Sal’s stomach growled. “That would be good. Thank you.”