“Usted cerró su boca, Momma. Solamente lo hará más doloroso si usted lucha.”
Tears silently sliced channels through the grime caked on her face as she reluctantly yielded, moving her bare knees outward. The reek of tequila from his mouth directly above her own brought her to the brink of nausea.
“Padre Nuestro, que el arte en Cielo, santificado sea thy nombre…”
“Chinga sus rezos, Momma. Dios no esta escuchanco.”
The hunchbacked old woman limped her way up the shoulder of Cundiyo Road with an infant swaddled in blankets under her right arm, trying desperately to exorcise the horrible scene from her mind. She looked to the overcast sky while mouthing the Act of Contrition, and briefly stumbled over a thatch of sagebrush, quickly adjusting the baby securely in both arms.
After several hours of walking in the blistering August sun, the bell tower of the main chapel of Santuario de Chimayo appeared in the distant waves of heat. As she walked along the pathway leading to the church, the baby resting in the crook of her right arm, she lightly glided the fingertips of her left hand over the homemade palm crucifixes affixed to the fence in tribute to countless suffering and departed loved ones she had never known.
She entered the chapel and genuflected at the altar before placing the baby down carefully on a wooden kneeler, moving towards the right of the crucifix to light a votive candle. She knelt in silent prayer for several minutes beneath the heavy oak ceiling of the chapel. Then she arose, gently picked her baby up from the kneeler and entered the sanctum to the left of the altar. In the center of the sanctum was a well of dirt at ground level. She placed the baby tenderly at the edge of the well and thrust both hands into the auburn mud, first wiping it on her forehead, chest and heart. She then picked up the baby and removed its swaddling clothes. Darting glances left and right, she raised the child above her head, uttered “Lord have mercy”, and submerged him as far down into the holy dirt as her feeble arms would allow. She re-clothed the infant and placed him on the floor of the sanctum while reciting the rosary, shaking fingers grasping the appropriate bead at timed intervals.
As dusk began to temper the sunbeams shooting through the stained glass, she picked up her baby and exited the chapel, holding him as close to her bosom as she could without risking asphyxiation, heading away from Chimayo with as much haste as her aged body would allow.
Feeling haunted by the red dust dervishes dancing tarantellas in the desert expanses on either side of the highway, I turn my attention to the odometer which has just flipped back to zero for the second time today. The ashtray is boiling over, so I tip it out the window while lighting another. A sudden rush of cool air raises the hair on my forearms and signals the approach of nightfall. Next exit 53 miles.
There’s something sinister in the atmosphere out here; an unspoken warning riding the desert wind. If I had driven this far to die out of range of those I knew, the feeling all around me might have been inviting, even pacifying. But the suicidal nature of this trek is only figurative and the hopes of finding comfort in a new setting are being called into question with each rotting armadillo carcass that I speed past.
I’ve never seen eyes on a human being quite like the ones staring at me through the sunken sockets of the attendant who sold me this pack of Marlboros at the last filling station. They were dead, shot through with gray lines; the eyes of a corpse beneath a corduroy John Deere cap. Even so, I could still feel them fixated on me miles from the place. Once or twice, I was startled by the illusion that they were peering at me through my rear-view mirror and I spun around to make sure the back seat was inhabited by nothing more than storage boxes. I had to laugh aloud at myself to make the creepy feeling dissipate. Light another cigarette, put another CD in the stereo and sing along with the gusto of someone auditioning for the church choir.
Scanning the garbage on the passenger side floor mat, I realize I’ve gone through three packs of Marlboros already on my first day of driving. Jesus. No wonder singing to the radio is becoming so painful to my throat. Time to call it a day and get some rest I tell myself, while unconsciously popping another cigarette between my lips.
The television at the Motel 6 gets two channels, one of which is devoted entirely to religious programming. I stare at the evening news while pulling on a freshly rolled joint, letting the one-two punch of TV and marijuana push me into a sweet state of catatonia. For the first time today, her ghost is no longer by my side. In an effort to enjoy the momentary reprieve, I sit upright and try to fend off sleep for a while more. Slowly, I sink back down into the bed to the lullaby of the local weather report.
I’m not sure on which continent a pre-packaged Danish and a cup of black mud coffee is considered breakfast, but for today, it will have to do. I want this drive behind me and I’m not very keen on avoidable delays like finding a decent restaurant. Only 200 miles today and I’m…well, home, I suppose. And she’s still right here, so close I can smell her perfume. I’m beginning to realize that she may follow me where ever I go until the day I die. I want to be angry with her, tell myself I am wise to have put so much distance between us. I want to stop crying at every fucking reminder that comes from the radio, the television…the pulsating blue white star equidistant from the tip of the Little Dipper as that tip is to the North Star. And I’ve never seen a clearer night sky than out here in the desert.
I picked up Route 66 in Oklahoma and have been on this highway littered with the skeletons of towns for what’s seemed an eternity. Finally, the road sign I’d been impatiently anticipating for thousands of miles materializes. Welcome To New Mexico. Thanks, but somehow I feel about as welcome as a cloud of locusts. I’m not sure why I didn’t think to fill the tank before departing the town where I had spent the night, but a quick glance at my gas gauge tells me it’s time to fill up at the next exit.
I coast off of the exit ramp towards the dingy Gas & Go up ahead, put the car in park and step into the dry air of early afternoon. The unlined blacktop of the road beside the station is undulating with waves of heat; I imagine it’s a Venetian canal while I put the nozzle into the gas tank of my gondola and flip the switch. Still feeling a bit hungry, I walk towards the store to grab a Snickers bar.
A bell rings to signal my entry and I find myself amidst dusty shelves of aspirin and Dinty Moore beef stew decorated sporadically with stuffed jackalopes. I smirk at the fact that each of these mythical creatures actually appears injured, its fur matted and stained a dried blood color, as if a road kill statistic or a hunting trophy. Scanning the selection of candy, comprised largely of cheap brands that must be sold exclusively to ghost town gas stations, I find the one Snickers bar left on the shelf and head towards the counter.
Fumbling in my pocket for a single, I glance up at the counter and am suddenly frozen with terror as my eyes meet the same two sinister gray orbs beneath the John Deere cap that have kept me unsettled for the last hundred miles. Not wishing to draw undue attention from this familiar zombie behind the cash register, I steady my hands and wordlessly pay for the candy bar, my eyes fixed on the floor. Heading towards the door, I feel those eyes piercing the back of my skull as I quicken my pace and exit the store.
In a panic, I climb into the car and turn the key, nearly forgetting about the gas nozzle which is still protruding from the tank. I exit the vehicle, quickly replace the nozzle and screw in the gas cap, get back in and leave the station with a screeching of tires and a cloud of sand kicking up in my wake. Just before the station is out of sight, I glance in my side view mirror and see him standing at the door, motionless, watching me tear off down the highway as my heart beats with such rapidity that I fear it will explode at any moment.
I did not stop again until I arrived.