A PLACE THEY’D NEVER BEEN

JOSEPH GARRETT

Taos, New Mexico, 1959

Sarah climbed the terra cotta steps, her footsteps echoing in the stairway like the hooves of horses on the little street below. She struggled with the key to her apartment; the key was the duplicate of many duplicates, and the people who had lived there before her had come and gone like snowflakes landing on the river in winter.

Inside, she watched the thunderheads above the Jemez Mountains as they flashed and glowed from the inside out, first pink, then translucent, then gray-blue. The clouds caught her breath; she watched, then turned on water for a bath. She went out on the iron balcony; it shook; she grasped the railing and looked out. Beyond the roofs and television antennas, the Rio Pueblo, vermilion from the day’s rains, then the sage plain, running out many miles to the west. The smell of sautéing onions and the voice of a mother gently scolding her children drifted up. The evening sky was still broken with clouds, remnants of the thunderstorm that had campaigned from the mountains across the sage to Taos that afternoon.

She went back in, undressed, got in the bath, and thought of her boyfriend Miguel, the last time they had made love, the light touch of his fingers as he caressed her. They had taken their time. Michael had cried out he loved her; she had whispered she loved him. She remembered the feel of his smooth face on her breasts as his head rose and fell with her breath.

After they had slept, Michael had risked it. What about us? They had been dating for close to two years. He loved her and wanted to have children. His family was very proud, Catholic, Ortiz, one of the oldest Spanish families in New Mexico. While young Ortiz men could shop around, they were not supposed to shop too long, to dally in the store.

“Not yet,” she had said, shaking her brown curls.

Michael thought they had an understanding. They were to marry, to have children, to find a place up north, away from his family and their voracious judgments. “If not now, when? Will there ever be a good time?” in Spanish he had said.

“It’s just so hard for me,” she had said. Michael’s father, a dealer in Indian artifacts, was hated by Puebloan people. Sarah’s mother was Puebloan and despised the Ortizes.

“We will move away,” Michael had said.

Sarah had sighed. Not now her sigh meant.

Lying in bed with Michael, Sarah felt a wave of anxiety. It came from nowhere, became swollen with fear, then just as suddenly was gone. Where does it come from? Then another wave, much bigger: what are we calling this? A breeze off the plain had rustled the curtains and the night air reminded her of the small cedar cabin in the mountains on a lake where she was happy as a girl. “We would be closer to the cabin,” she had thought, then softly had said.

In her bath Sarah now drifted in and out of sleep, her curls in the water. One of the children downstairs was singing; their mother, no longer scolding, joined in. A radio across the hallway announced a kidnapping had just taken place. The voices singing, marrying Michael, the kidnapping—in the blue-grey light at the end of the day, the memory of a rough red face intruded. Sarah shook and turned her head, as if to turn away.

The next day as she was leaving for work her landlord called out to her. His door was ajar and the cigarettes he chained smoked stunk up the hall. “Holá,” she said as she strode past his apartment. She hurried down the stairs and walked towards the Taos Plaza and work.

Across the Plaza she saw the back someone’s neck—red, thick, leathered, like the pink bubbly neck of a buzzard, but darker, bloodier in hue.

Even before she registered it was him, she stopped breathing. The stoop of his shoulders; his gauntness; the way his long, enormous arms swung low to the ground; his faux confident gait; his head bobbing as he walked. It was her uncle, her mother’s brother, Carlos Ortega. She looked away, as if by looking away she could change it, go back to her life the moment before. She looked again, drawn to look, like the pull to look a second time at roadkill. He did not see her but she ran back to her building. She struggled again with the key, got in and bolted the door.

She looked around her little place—books, tchotchkes on the shelves, two bent wood chairs, a photograph of Michael. She looked in the mirror over the dresser. Her chestnut curls made her face look thinner than it was, and her eyes, light brown in the morning light, were filled with dread and fear. How could he be here? She heard her landlord hacking. She wanted to be with someone, anyone, and went out to the hallway and to his door.

“Mr. Hernández?” she said pushing the door open.

Blue smoke from his cigarettes hung just above waist level and stacks of old newspapers stood like small tables around the room. Like his nose and ears, his face was oblong and his skin was tinged yellow by nicotine.

“Sarahhhh” he said, delighted—for her to approach him was an event. She hated his lecherous glare.

“Is the apartment downstairs still available?” she said, pretending that was why she was there. He had been running an ad in the Taos News for months.

“You thinking of changing floors?” he said, the pitch of his voice rising.

She hesitated—she wanted to be a floor removed from Hernández and his licentiousness. He always wanted something from her—the latest gossip from town, her rent handed over early, something he didn’t really need from the market—always a pretext for what he really wanted, and no matter how plain she put it she was not available, he came back to her again.

“My grandmother is looking for a place,” she said, lying. Her grandmother was living happily with a friend.

“I just rented it to someone from Santa Fe for a couple of months.”

The new tenant was from Albuquerque, but Hernández knew Sarah was from Santa Fe. Sarah resisted the temptation to engage. He held up the rental application and squinted at it. “Carlos Ortega. Same last name as you.”

She felt nauseated and blanched.

Hernández noticed and cocked his head. “Do you know him?”

She froze, said no, but he saw in her freeze and heard in her no that she was lying. “I would like to rent it after he is gone. Can I give you a deposit?”

“Sure,” a small yellow smile below his oblong nose.

“Do you need anything from the store?” She wanted to leave, to get away.

“I could use some beer,” he said in Spanish, not really needing it.

She sensed he was lying, thought she knew why, and imagined throwing a bottle of beer at his ugly face. “I have some. You can have it,” she said and turned before he could say anything.

She went back to her apartment and locked the door. She stared at the crucifix that hung on the wall. Am I being punished?–she thought Ortega was living in Albuquerque; she didn’t know he had come looking for her. She imagined him in his true form, the form of a buzzard, tied to a chair. She imagined cutting its throat.

“How could you have allowed this?” she said, glaring at the cross.

The priest she told in a confessional condemned her.

“You should have fought him.”

She had sat there stunned.

“You say there were times after?”

“He threatened to kill me if I did not keep doing that with him.”

Early the next morning, Sarah stood on a bridge over the river, looking into the water, crying. A mallard duck and her ducklings were feeding just below. The duck kept fusing at her babies to keep them close.

She was fearful of the police—the police hated “Indians” and she hadn’t reported Ortega. The police captain knew Miguel’s father, and she didn’t want Miguel to know what had happened.

She went to her flat, packed her leather suitcase and filled a canvas bag with groceries. She set the canvas bag inside the icebox and went to her job at a jewelry store. At the end of the day she told her boss that her grandmother was sick. She said she needed to take time off.

Back at her flat, she got her things, locked the door, and left an envelope on the doorknob with Miguel’s name on it. Hernández came out holding a cigarette.

“Going somewhere?”

“Just a quick trip up north to visit my aunt,” she said lying. She walked quickly past him.

Hernández saw the envelope on the doorknob, lit a cigarette and thought about opening it.

The buzzard came to Hernández’s door and knocked. It smelled something, something familiar, not cigarettes, but before it identified the smell, Hernández opened the door.

“I’ve brought my deposit,” the buzzard said, shifting from one foot to the other. Its face was narrow and its eyes sunk into great hallows of darkness. It held out the check.

“Someone else is interested in the apartment,” Hernández said.

The buzzard shifted rapidly from foot to foot. “Here’s my check.”

Hernández locked eyes with him and debated, but took the check and put it in his shirt pocket. “How long did you say you’ll be here?”

“Just a month, maybe a month and a half. I paid you for two.”

“A month and a half. I’ll tell Sarah. It’s rented after that.”

“Sarah?” The buzzard began jumping from foot to foot, its head dipping with each shift.

“Sarah Ortega. Same last name as yours. Are you related?”

“No.”

“It’s a common name. I’m sure you’ll run into her after she gets back. She went up north to visit her aunt,” he said.

At the train station Sarah bought a newspaper and a one-way ticket. A porter helped her with her bags onto the train.

Miguel came down the hallway to Sarah’s apartment holding a small bouquet. He found the envelope balanced on the doorknob, propped the flowers against the door and opened it. She said she had to get away, take a break for a while, that it wasn’t him. His face flushed hot.

He came out onto the street clenching his hands and went around the building. Her car was gone. He went to Doc Martin’s, a bar on the main road. He ordered drink after drink and stayed until closing.

Sarah stepped down off the train and stood on an open-air platform. It was a small station—a concrete slab with an open tin-roof. She breathed in the crisp morning air.

A young man wearing a black cap spotted her. He said he had a cab and asked her if she needed a ride.

“I have a long way to go.”

“I’m the only driver around here,” he said, smiling. He picked up her bags; she hesitated, then followed. “Cab” was stenciled on the door of his truck. She saw what looked like a permit on the dash and got in.

As they drove away from the train stop the driver tried to flirt with her. She thought of Pedro Jimenez, a boy in her neighborhood, who snuck into her bedroom one night when she was a girl. She woke up, saw him, and called out. He had jumped out the window with his pants still down. She remembered her high school teacher, Mr. Clausen. One day he made her stay after class and propositioned her for a better grade. She was stunning and had blossomed early, but she hated how she looked, what it did to boys and men.

The driver took her way up into the mountains. He turned down a dirt road and stopped in front of the cedar cabin. They both got out. He got her bags out of the truck bed and looked around. It was the only cabin on the lake.

“I can get them,” she said, handing him some cash.

He set the bags down and took the money, looked at it and reached into his pocket.

“No, keep it,” she said.

“There’s no one here,” he said smiling, but his eyes had no life in them.

“It will be alright,” she said.

He stood there looking at her.

“There’s a phone,” she said.

She glanced toward the road.

He stood there motionless, staring at her. Finally, he shrugged.

He asked if there was anything more he could do.

“No,” she said.

He got back in his truck and turned around, then headed back down the dirt road, watching her in the rear view mirror as he went.

She carried her bags to the porch and set them down. Her hands were shaking. She got the front door open and went in. She went to the bedroom and got a pistol. She sat at the kitchen table staring out the front window. After a while she went to the phone and lifted the receiver. It was working. “Well,” she said and looked out the front window.

Miguel was horribly hungover when he finally awoke the next day. He went to the toilet and wretched. He peered in the mirror—he looked like an old man—and his charcoal irises surrounded by dying red embers looked back. His skin was yellowish-brown.

Where did she go? He thought he knew—the cedar cabin in the mountains to the northeast. He threw some things in the back of his car and headed north up the main road. The lights of Taos were coming on in his rearview mirror. The two lane highway went straight across the sage plain, and the mountains off in the distance rose up into thunderheads—orange near the peaks, then gray reaching out to swaths of yellow close to him.

About 2:00 a.m. he pulled off the highway onto a dirt road, drove a ways and got out. He was very thirsty. The stars were brilliant and the night was cold and clear. He opened the trunk, drank from his canteen, spread out a tarp and unrolled his sleeping bag. Shivering, he got into the bag and zipped it up to his face. But he couldn’t sleep and tossed and turned, clinching his jaw. What did I do?

He got up, got in his car and turned on the heater. He was bitterly cold. Out to the east, the sky got lighter. He drove back out on the road and sped across the sage plain.

He came to a tiny restaurant, where the mountains thrust up out of the flatland. He was ravenous. He stopped the car on the gravel in front and went in. There was just one counter and a few tables. A lonely woman behind the counter was sitting on a stool reading a newspaper. Her light blue eyes shone out from her face. Her hair, cinnamon, had swaths of gray.

“Lunch is all I have,” she said, looking at him, touching her hair.

He was surprised—she was 30 years older than him and despite her age, he felt attracted to her. She took his order, went over to the sink and washed her hands.

“There are pickles in the jar on the counter. Help yourself,” she called back.

She chopped onions, brushed a wisp of her hair back with her forearm, then pressed the onions into the ground round. She looked over her shoulder. “You just passing through?”

“I’m going fishing,” he said, running his hand through his hair. He worked as a waiter, played soccer and wore his hair longer than was the style.

“They’re plenty of fish up there.” She turned and looked at him. “We used to go out fishing, way over the pass, at Osprey Lake, my husband and me, before he passed.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, might be a better thing. Wasn’t anything more anyone could do.” She opened the icebox just across from him.

He didn’t want to ask how her husband had died, but it was the only thing he could think of to say.

“We were at a party over in Chama. He wouldn’t let me drive,” she said, almost to herself, her voice trailing off. She pulled the lettuce and tomato out of the box. “You up here by yourself?”

“Yeah. Just needed to get away.”

“Well I know about that. This is a good place to do it. I wish I could get away,” she said, rinsing the iceberg lettuce back at the sink.

For a moment he wanted her to go with him.

“My name is Miguel.”

“Mary,” she said, smiling, over her shoulder again.

“Why don’t you? Why don’t you get away?” He was surprised—he hadn’t meant to say that, to say it that way.

She turned off the water and looked at him, pushed her hair back with her wrist. He’s young enough to be my son.

“I can’t leave. This is what I have,” she said looking out the window, scanning the road. “Sometimes the hardest thing in life is forgiving yourself,” she said quietly.

She looked back at him. “Do you want something to drink?”

His car started to overheat near the top of the pass and he pulled off at a turnout. He opened the hood, but not the radiator cap. His father once told him opening the radiator on a hot engine was like picking a fight with a drunk Indian woman.

A black buzzard was circling on thermals rising up the side of the mountain. He watched the buzzard circle up over him, then drove over the pass and further into the mountains. He had camped in these mountains when he was younger, and the shadows of the peaks and the mysteries of the gorges reminded him of fishing and campfires with friends. He could not stop thinking about Sarah. The wound of her rejection was the pain of what might never be realized with her, and with it came a fear that it might not ever be realized with any woman. He thought he might not find her. The pain and the fear did not leave him as he drove.

Sarah did not know where she was when she awoke late that morning, then remembered Miguel and why she had come back to the mountains. She went to the front window and looked out—a sandy cove off to the left, a small ridge up above it and the main part of the lake out in front. The cabin smelled old, like mold and smoke and dried hay. There was a pail on the front porch, then a little patch of grass.

She went out to the lake, slowly waded in and swam out. She wanted to feel redeemed but did not. She thought of the phone.

“Well,” she said aloud, treading water.

Inside, she picked up the black receiver and dialed Miguel’s number. It rang and rang. A woman’s voice came on, a loud metallic recording, “The party whom you are trying to reach is not answering . . .” As the recording came on again, she hung up the phone.

Miguel drove on. He recognized less of the country, and after a time the high mountains were all new to him.

He coasted down into a valley lush with pines and saw the lake through the trees. “Osprey Lake,” said a broken, weather-beaten sign.

He headed down the dirt road Sarah’s driver had taken; at a fork he went to the left, thinking he would come out on the lake. Instead he came to a clearing and an old saw mill. A rusted saw stood in the middle of the clearing, and weathered cedar pillars stood four corners around the saw.

The low ridge stood between him and the cabin. He walked to the top of the ridge and saw the cabin; his heart leapt, but just as quickly sank. There was no sign of anyone—no smoke from the chimney, no car. Army ants were crawling over the ground in front of him. He stepped on them, ground them with his boot and wept.

Sarah was out of sight in the kitchen making lunch. She had left the pistol on the table. She ate her sandwich while Miguel wept.

He was still grieving as he walked back down the side of the ridge to his car. He got his bamboo fly rod out of the trunk and took a path through some trees. Trout were kissing the surface of the water feeding on small insects. He could not see the cabin from where the trout were rising. He caught two trout and let the life flip flop out of them.

She went out for a swim after she cleaned up the kitchen. She slipped off her dress, eased into the cold water and swam long and hard down the lake. Miguel had gone back to the saw mill and was making a fire. She lay naked on at the edge of the water, warmed herself and dozed off.

When she awoke something caught her eye and she looked up the lake toward the cabin. She saw smoke rising from behind the saw mill. She wondered if she’d been seen; she turned over, then squatted low to the sand and watched. The wind was coming up behind her and blew her curls around her face. She slipped into the water and swam toward the cabin, keeping close to the bank and looking up at the smoke as she made her way.

Still wet, she slipped on her dress, went into the cabin through the back door and up to the front room. She stood back from the window, but could just make out someone moving up on the ridge.

Miguel ran his hands through his hair. He stood there looking. He walked down the side of the ridge to the water, stripped off his clothes and waded out into the cove.

She realized it was Miguel and gasped. She stood there, as if he was not generous, not Miguel, did love her.

She shuddered: she saw the ever-repeating swing of her zone of comfort with men, the pendulum to one side, then back to the other, the pattern unstoppable, always swinging to fear, anger and the path away. She saw it clearly, like the ripples radiating outward from Miguel. The plainness of it shook her. For an instant she saw her fear as divisible, as past, a soft line between then and now.

He bent over and cupped water to his face; he bent further down and dipped his hair into the water. He looked at the cabin and walked to it.

She swung open the door.

He was stunned. “I didn’t think anyone was here.”

“This is the cabin.”

He looked away, thinking of what Mary back at the restaurant had told him. Thunderheads were forming over the mountains down the lake. “What happened?”

She looked down and pressed her hands on both sides of the door, as if by the force of her hands against the cedar she could will away her fear, her shame, her ambivalence. The fairness of his question, his tone—

She looked up at him, her eyes flooded. “I don’t know. You want to come in?”

“No.” He ran his hands through his hair looked down the lake at the osprey nest. His chest fell and his heart softened. He stepped inside and stood there.

“Do you want anything?”

“No.”

She sat down at the table and was facing the window. Outside the wind was coming up strongly, pushing little waves across the sand and onto the grass.

“What happened?” he said again.

She frowned and pushed back her hair. That face—she shuddered again and cupped her hands over her mouth. She had never told anyone except the priest.

“My Uncle Carlos,” she said. “Oh Miguel!”

“What happened with your uncle?” he said.

“He came into my room one night,” she finally said.

“What happened?” he said again, his voice softening, like his voice when he was a boy.

“He closed the door and started talking to me like I was his girlfriend. At first I thought he was playing a game. I pulled the covers up over my head and pretended to be asleep. I felt his hands through the blanket. He got on my bed next to me and started humming, then singing, an old lullaby. I turned away from him and looked at the horses on my dresser. He put his arm around me and pulled me close.”

“What did he do to you?” Miguel said, his anger ferocious.

She told him and started sobbing. “He got up and stumbled into my dresser. He knocked over the horses. He knocked over the horses my grandmother had given me.”

Miguel went over to her, put his face against her curls and his arms around her—

“I’m so sorry Miguel.”

Tears were welled up at the bottom of his eyes and started down his face. “Look at you,” she said, crying.

The osprey flew back to its nest and was feeding her chicks, tearing off strips of fish and parceling them out. A buzzard came over the ridge, swooped down the slope and over the cabin. It smelled fish, flew down the lake and circled the nest. The osprey’s mate came up the lake and dove on the buzzard. The buzzard flew to the cabin and landed on the grass. The male osprey circled just over the water calling out.

Sarah heard the osprey calling out, looked out the window, picked up the pistol and went to the doorway.
She aimed at the buzzard’s heart and shot.

The buzzard’s narrow red face looked astonished. It started to hop as if to fly off, but fell sideways, flapping its huge appendages. Miguel took the pistol out of Sarah’s hand, walked over to the body aiming at it, then lowered the pistol.

“I killed him?”

“He’ll never touch you. He’ll never touch you again.”

She slumped down on the porch and he went over to her. Her arms were around her knees and she was rocking back and forth.

“He’s gone,” he said.

“He’s gone he’s gone he’s gone,” she said.

He dragged the body up to the sawmill and buried it. He got in the car and started it, then got back out. He went over to the buzzard Carlos Ortega’s grave and pissed.

He found the dirt road the cab driver had taken and turned down it. At the cabin he took the pail of water off the porch and poured it on the blood on the grass. He went to the lake and refilled the pail until the blood was gone. When he was done he took off his clothes and walked into the water. Sarah came out to him and they stood in the lake.

Small waves were marching across the top of the water to the cabin; they were coming across the sand and onto the grass. He put his arms around her and kissed her. “Miguel,” she said, looking down and touching him. She put her arms around his waist and pulled him hard against her hips.

Raindrops were hitting the tin roof of the cabin, sounding like horses, like the hooves of horses on the street at the start of a parade. Miguel closed his eyes and imagined they were in another country, in a small town surrounded by mountains, a place new to them, a place they’d never been.

She looked up at him, her eyes glistening. “Listen to that,” she whispered as the rain came down on the roof harder.

“Yes,” he whispered, standing with her in the rain.

“It’s just us now,” she whispered. “Listen to that.”

from Issue 31.2, Runner-up for 2020 Wabash Prize in Fiction


JOE GARRETT is a Berkeley, California fiction writer and Board member of Lambda Literary. He loves to bodysurf, fly fish and backpack, and all things outdoors. He is currently seeking representation for his debut novel, Makena Beach. The story in this issue is his first publication.