Excerpt of Jenny Forrester’s NARROW RIVER, WIDE SKY

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Chapter Four: A Familiar Kind of Forgiveness

BY JENNY FORRESTER

In Mancos, the ’70s arrived later. Teachers gave letter grades. Children learned through textbooks, rote memorization, and discipline in black and white, straight lines, moral certainty, there were no discussions, no show and tell. We went on one field trip in sixth grade to Mesa Verde National Monument, seven miles away. Two of the kids had never left Mancos before.

Mancos was heads turning when you walk in the door of the P&D or the post office or the café. Mancos was who’d parked in your driveway with out-of-state (or the county) plates and what the bride and her mother wore at the wedding and who survived whom published in the weekly two-sheets of newspaper. Mancos was a river valley with ghosts of boom and bust, trails in, trails out. Mancos was moving the border of a whole American Indian Reservation for white settlers and for their many churches for so few souls, for railroads, and for itself because it could be moved.

Mancos was haven to Mormon fundamentalists and the second amendment in cross stitch and engravings and everyone in closets and no privacy and artists as painters of Old West motifs and children of belt-smacking parents and violence as love. Mancos was knowing who’s in town, who’s leaving town, and who’ll never come back. Mancos was wanting more and also wanting nothing to do with the outside world. Mancos was belonging to mythology through genetics, land, or pride. America was gun country, but in Mancos, like so many towns in western American gun country, it was a point of pride. Teenagers and young adult, unmarried men, the ones to worry about, shot handguns by the water tower on the hill where the track team ran repeats.

Mancos was tourists saying, “This is such a beautiful area.”

The kids in Mancos didn’t have goats or chickens or ski passes. They had cowboy boots and many siblings. They had religion and discipline. . . .

We took the trash out, walked down the two-tire-track driveway along the trailer, crossed the dry grass to the burn barrel. Brian lit the fire with Ohio Matchstick matches, made right there in Mancos, Colorado.

We watched things burn and listened to the whisper and hiss of the fire.

 

Chapter Six: Kneel

Mr. Adcock, the bus driver/shop teacher/driver education/hunter safety instructor, passed out pages from hunter safety handbooks. He demonstrated the supine, kneeling and sitting positions for hunting, holding an imaginary rifle, cocking a phantom trigger, seeing ghost deer.

We watched movies. Mr. Adcock told us hunting stories about heroes and idiots and city people, especially Texans and Californians.

“We take this class so we don’t hurt anyone including ourselves.” He had plenty of stories about people shooting each other while they were out hunting. And we knew of at least two kids our age who’d shot themselves in the foot.

“Carry your firearm pointed at the ground with your finger off the trigger,” he said.

He told us to be responsible gun owners and responsible hunters.

“Never aim unless you’re gonna kill it,” he said. And, “Know what you’re aiming at first.”

To pass, we had to shoot .22s and hit the paper target in three places. I could pass a paper and pencil test. Easy.

But, firing a shotgun made me nervous. Couldn’t focus, couldn’t do anything, Mr. Adcock said, and he didn’t have time for it.

I couldn’t look at anything except the meanest boys in class, Bobby, the spitter, and Timmy who’d chewed tobacco even though he got swats in grade school and suspended in junior high, said he’d suffer the punishments to do what he wanted. Bobby and Timmy stood there with loaded .22s.

“Look here Spacey,” he pulled the little rifle out of my hands. “Right here,” he pointed where the cartridge went and loaded it for me anyway. “Better leave the safety on until I can come back here and shoot for you.”

The boys laughed. The boys who didn’t ever do well in school, but excelled in Hunter Safety class.

The other kids shot their targets and got to take them home as a Hunter Safety report card.

Mr. Adcock put the rifle in my hands, butted it up against my shoulder, kicked my feet into the right positions and said, “Okay, Spacey, you can’t hurt anybody now. So go ahead and shoot and don’t take all day.”

My target didn’t have holes. Mr. Adcock said, “I even looked in the wood around it for holes. You really couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

My throat tight, I didn’t cry.

The other kids were already on the bus when I boarded with Mr. Adcock trailing behind.

Bobby sneered when I walked by, “City girl.” The worst kind of insult.

Mom’s boyfriend at that time owned the Mancos Gun and Tackle, across the street – a tiny cinderblock house. He took me hunting to help me fill my license by either the deer for me or to helping me shoot it myself.

A deer stood on a hill at sunrise, a few miles from our trailer, and I cried at the beauty of the sunrise. As the Boys’ Varsity basketball coach, he had good aim. I heard the clack of hoof and crack of bone as the buck tumbled dead and snapping, getting covered in clay and bits of sage. His eyes filled with clay. I stopped crying when he died. The worst part over with.

 

Chapter Eleven: Small Town Dreams

Patty had a message for me — she said that Paul liked me. I liked his smooth and perfect skin, thick black hair with gray-blue-hazel eyes. He played every sport, too — football, basketball, and track, like most Mancos kids, but he was good at everything.

We met in the lower hallway on the new ramp. People grumbled about the money spent on it, but it was the law that schools be made useable for everyone. We paced, running our hands along the smooth, new, metal handrail.

We said hello and stood looking outside until we got the courage to turn face-to-face.

Paul said, “I like Chris, but I like you more.” Chris, new from California would do it with him, he said. “I’d rather be with you, but I need to know that we’ll do it.”

“I don’t know,” I said. Sin. I feared it. He and I were religious, our families were church-going. We had the same God, our services spoke the same words. The Pope and confession were the differences between he and I, but sin, I knew, had to be the same.

“We don’t have to do it right away,” he said. “But Chris said she’ll do it soon.”

I looked out at Menefee Mesa with its rock outcropping standing sharp and heavy over the south border of the valley.

“I don’t want God to hate me.”

“If we have sex, we’ll get married someday.”

I was almost 16. I wanted a boy to love me.

Paul drove to the alley behind the barn where we were invisible to sin, the trailer and my mom.

I’d turned 16 and he’d turned 17.

I didn’t really want to have sex, which meant his penis inside my body — the other things we didn’t see as sex, didn’t admit to, and couldn’t deal with the consequences of, if that weren’t the definition. That was the agreement, the promise, the hope that I’d set down for Paul so he’d be my boyfriend. Since the beginning, I’d known it was inevitable, but I’d also thought that somehow, I could get out of it. Women were supposed to save men from themselves. Women were supposed to be worthy of waiting for. A good woman was the prize of becoming a married man and I knew all that, heard all that. And I’d been raised to keep a promise when you make it.

Raised by a woman who’d been disappointed by the breaking of promises.

We parked in the alley beside the barn where we hung deer to bleed.

He said, “We have to hurry. I have to get up early to go work with my dad.” He logged with his father sometimes.

I straddled his lap, tried to impale myself, his jeans pulled down to his knees, mine on the floor with the shotgun shells and the future spit can. Sometimes, it’s easier to do it yourself — rip off the band-aid, scrape out the stones from a fall, apply the Mercurochrome.

Impossible. It hurt too much.

“You’ll have to do it,” I said.

I laid back on the seat of his mother’s Chevy four-door sedan and he pushed his way into me. The pain was more than I’d imagined.

I looked up at his eyes in the small darkness between us, the gentleness in his eyes didn’t match the pain I felt. I fell into it, seeking relief, to be good, redeemed.

“Hurry. Finish. No, go slow. It hurts,” I said.

I watched the stars, the Perseids, and satellites; I willed them to take my mind off the pain and to hide me from God.

I cried when he pulled away from me, hell-bound then, for sure.

“It’ll be OK. We’ll get married,” he said.

Chapter Twelve: Narrow River, Wide Sky

“You’ll lose weight honey. Don’t worry. You just have to try harder, that’s all.”  Mom said this out loud as she stood up. I’d asked her earlier that day if I could borrow her Richard Simmons’s book.

Lump in my throat. Lumps in my body stuck to me, stuck there like my starving soul that just couldn’t shake that feeling that there wasn’t enough to nourish me.

After a while, Paul broke up with me every week or so which lasted a long time. Every time he broke up with me, I found another boy and there weren’t many in that small town.

Pretty Mike and I went out on a date while Paul went up to the mountains to log for a week.

Pretty Mike said, “I have a rubber.”

Blond and blue-eyed, but not in a short and severe Christian haircut kind of way, his jeans had that round mark, the tell-tale sign of a manly man who chewed tobacco.  He smelled like apple shampoo. I’d always loved Pretty Mike. So did all the girls. Since seventh grade, I had wondered what our married life would be like. Now that we were almost graduated and 18, we could get married, for sure, because in that town people married by 21.

Pretty Mike drove out the dirt road past the gravel road up to Jackson Lake and parked in the trees. I watched the stars in the Milky Way and felt them on my skin in a bright, sweet way for two minutes of bliss, Pretty Mike inside me.

We drove back to town and I smelled like apples. The Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, winked.

I worried about Paul finding out because of his temper and even though we were in a breakup phase, he circled the block in rage.

More and more, Paul hated me and I hated him.

The next day, in school, Mike passed me in the hallway and didn’t say a word to me.

I walked down the hall and heard that laughter. Patty said those two words.

“Trailer trash.”

I got a college acceptance letter to the University of Colorado at Boulder, my way paid in full based on financial need.

Patty told me that of all the people in town, it shouldn’t be me who gets to go to college with taxpayer money.

Paul said, “It won’t matter if you go to college. You’ll still be dumb.”

Paul drove south on Main out into the spaces where small ranchers sold out and became homeowners with acreage. A few cows, not too many. The cows were north. We drove south towards the reservation.

He stopped the truck at the border of a dirt road and then said, “You sure are fat.”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Why don’t you lose weight? You’re such a pig.”

“I’m getting out now.”

“Why did you get in the truck with me?” he said. “You got me all worked up, like we’re gonna get back together, and now you’re gonna leave? You’re such a bitch.”

My face turned hot and I glowed sweat and ugliness, I looked to the stars for comfort, but they blurred.

He picked a boot off the floor, a work boot and threw it in the small space. He could’ve hit me, but he controlled himself, threw it instead, without a target. His rearview mirror broke off. And then he got mad.

Ever aware of door handles, escape routes, I jumped out of the truck into the cold night and walked along the gravel, wishing I’d worn my tennis shoes instead of leather clogs.

He drove up behind me.

“Get in.”

“No.”

“You can’t walk all the way back to town.”

“Why?”

“You’re such a baby. Get in. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

“I’m pregnant.”

The world stopped, but I walked. The truck inched forward.

“You have to get in.”

“Did you hear me?”  I turn into him, look straight through the open truck window, straight into his eyes then.

“I promise I won’t hurt you. Just get in. You can’t walk all the way back to town.”

It was cold. I got in. I was always getting into that truck.  He cut the engine when I got in. Country boy power play.

“I’ll marry you,” he said.

“That won’t work out,” I said.

“Are you sure it’s mine?” he said.

“I’m sure. Pretty sure,” I said. I thought it happened the night we were parked out north of Hesperus on a gravel road. He didn’t pull out in time. I felt it or heard it — a whispered spark. The next morning I knew that I was pregnant.

But then in that moment when he asked if I was sure that it was his, I knew something truer — I’d slept with other men. I didn’t know that this baby was his for sure.

“You’re right,” I said. “It might not be yours.”

Wind, cows lowing, leaving rattling, darkness and the moon’s lightness. The smell of cooking oil in far off pots, burn barrels and smoke, frogs and crickets and coyotes. But I still felt alone — the only woman who’d ever been pregnant.

He said, “What are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “But I want to go home now.”

He started up the truck, dropped me off at the end of the long driveway, and never circled the block again.

Boulder’s Flat Iron Mountains had been a symbol of victory a few months before, but now, failing in college and on academic probation, I couldn’t muster the energy to get to classes, but I had to get out of the dorm to end the pregnancy.

No one knew I was pregnant. Boulder wasn’t a small town like Mancos — more people, stories, liberals, more people who weren’t white or Christian. I never saw anyone with a gun rack. I felt safer here in the city, but still lonely — I hadn’t counted on that. There were more people who didn’t know each other or care for each other. They didn’t need each other. They got along without help as long as they had money.

The bus dropped me off in front of a two-story office building.

I waited in the front room until the nurse called me back.

She asked the personal questions.

I didn’t cry. I thought I deserved the humiliation.

The receptionist said, “Where’s Mancos?” When I told her in southwest Colorado between Durango and Cortez, she said, “Oh, that’s such a beautiful area. Lucky you.”

It hurt. I thought I deserved it. I couldn’t afford the fee it would cost to be put under. 200 dollars for the procedure and 500 with anesthesia. I didn’t have the 300 more dollars.

 

Chapter Fourteen: Boys Who Didn’t Chew Tobacco

I believed I could settle into my schoolwork if I knew what would happen to me, if I could just know how it would all turn out.

Other college girls were beautiful, charming, funny, sweet, smart, a million great things. I had big breasts and blonde hair and a 40-hour-work week at a nursing home where I cleaned bedpans and worse and made old people go to bed and wake up when they didn’t want to and strapped them into beds and chairs and didn’t have time to listen to them cry.

Instead of taking the gift of education, I worked at the nursing home and partied and went out dancing.

I slept with boys who didn’t chew tobacco and had never fired a gun.

 

Chapter Fifteen: Phoenix

I told Mom, “I’m going to Phoenix — the big city, at last. When people ask me why I’m going, I’ll tell them I’m going to school there. I won’t tell them there’s a boy there, and I’m going to live with him. And I won’t tell them I don’t know whether I’m going to travel agent school or to technical school. I’m still deciding on that.”

At the airport, waiting at the gate, we held hands.

Mom and I hugged each other for a long time. She said, “You better go.”

I didn’t want to. “I think I’m leaving Colorado forever.”

She nodded. We felt the truth of it. The depth of it. It wasn’t the city I dreamed of going to, but it was a city. City enough.

 

Chapter Sixteen: Salt River

Cindy and I became friends. We went out dancing and had the same big hair dreams, and shared the same thin, fine blonde hair humiliation. There were girls with really big hair.

Cindy’s boyfriend, Johnny, a carpenter, also sold crystal meth for a little extra money.

I don’t know why I started. Maybe a propensity to negativity might have had something to do with thinking that snorting powder would be a good idea. Maybe it was my problematic childhood. Maybe I really believed that it would give me more energy. Or maybe I wanted to expand my horizons. Or maybe it’s not all that important to know why it started. It just started.

And then it had to continue, and I had to start buying it for myself. It was cheap, not like cocaine or heroine. Those drugs were for wealthier people — those who’d been wealthier and would be wealthier again.

I’m breathing the go-away-pain breath. The pitocin is dripping.  I am going to meet my baby soon.

The Smashing Pumpkins are playing “Today” — “Today is the greatest.”

In the haze of adrenaline and pain and painkillers and childbirth, I tell Ron I understand things.

“It all comes down to this moment.”

He’s huddling in the corner, afraid of all this suffering.  I’m trying to tell him that it’s OK, it’s nothing I can’t face and I know that now. I am so happy.

As I’m breathing, the adrenaline rushes and races and swirls and I am back in time when I used to run the country roads, the long winding gravel roads, the skinny paved roads, the dirt path, the empty fields. I was free then. And I ran and ran. Not fast or strong, but free in solitude, I felt a real kind of power. All I needed was my two feet and open space, and I had all that — everything a person could want.

I run back into the present time and with one more massive push, I meet Chiara.

She is the greatest. Big bright blue eyes, wispy halo bit of hair. She looks straight into me.

We are born right then, in that moment, born of high elevation Colorado breath and wide desert expanse and hope for more compassion, less violence, and something more than just that.

 

Chapter Seventeen: My Chevy S10 Pickup Truck

I loaded my black Chevy S10 pickup truck with the life-sized, red-painted plywood silhouettes representing women and their children killed as a result domestic violence, murdered by men, mostly — boyfriends, husbands, domestic partners.

I drove the silhouettes from place to place  — university events, women’s organization meetings, parks, and malls. The National Organization for Women chose me to speak for them for a while because they said, “You’re young and pretty and you have time. People listen to pretty people.”

A newspaper reporter and a television reporter interviewed me as I walked among the silhouettes and the shadows they cast under the Arizona sun. I read the names and stories of the women and talked about the hope for The Silent Witness Project — more awareness, fewer deaths. The reporters said they could cut out the vocal pauses and nervous, inappropriate laughter.

The camera panned from my sandaled, blue toe-nails to the red silhouette feet as I read aloud, “Theresa was a loving mother of two. She threw her boyfriend out and was ending the relationship when he returned and killed her. The perpetrator was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.”

The camera panned to her shadow.

A church with a massive cross pointing into the desert sky above Scottsdale invited us to speak and to set up the silent witnesses outside the church next to the white rock yard planted with barrel cactus, yucca and palm trees.

The reverend asked what I wanted to say to his congregation and then took a seat close by. I stepped to the podium, afraid I’d get the “ums” but a miracle occurred.

I looked out and saw men with all their power sitting with families in a church, and I felt a strange, deep anger and a thought flashed lightning and thunder to my tongue.

I said, “People always ask me ‘why does she stay with him’, but they never ask, ‘why does he hit her if he loves her?’

I looked at the reverend as he nodded his head and said, “Good question,” and motioned me back to my seat.

I sent Mom a copy of the newspaper article and told her about being on television and about the project and the NOW meetings.

She said, “You’ve always been a joiner.”

I said, “No! I really believe in this. What do you mean a joiner?”

She laughed and didn’t answer. I hated that. Even after the changes in our relationship, being grown and my being a mother now, she could still make me feel dumb and small and broken. I knew she mostly thought well of me, but I would always be her child, but I wanted more.

After Mom died, people said to me, “There’s a reason for everything.” Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, everybody said this in their own way. I despised them for it.

Her big red dive bag arrived at my house, sent by the consulate. Buried underneath her clothes that smelled like her and like salt sea and airport fumes and absence, I found a book called Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. The book described the particular trauma of losing a mother at the various ages — as a child, as a teen, in the 20s, 30s, etc. The bookmark was on the page for the 20s as if she’d left it there for me.

I used the rest of the insurance money to put a down payment on a house in Portland, Oregon. Ron wanted to move back to Oregon — he’d lived there for a couple of years as a young teenager. I wanted to move home to Colorado, but the Silicon Forest of the Pacific Northwest had better jobs.

We lived a life in a house with two dogs, some cats, some chickens in the backyard and grew kale and planted forget-me-nots and watched the rain under the streetlamps and watched the fireworks at Ft. Vancouver from the upstairs window while the dogs trembled and drove to eastern Oregon to look at a sky-full of stars and a whole childhood passed through it all.

And I wrote.

I wrote against the loneliness of three people becoming one each. I wrote about the high desert and the mountains and alpine meadows while I listened to the rain of the Pacific Northwest and drank coffee and lived among wide rivers and Douglas Fir and Hawthorne trees. I wrote about motherhood and not spanking and trying not to yell. I wrote bigger things about being free and saying no and about god as something other than stained glass, robe-shrouded men and sin-listing and forgiveness-on-knees. I wrote about the matriarchy Mom whispered in my ear in the red dust, learning as I went, seeking other gods and then seeking nothing and untying knots in my mind, pulling out poetic threads, removing what wasn’t needed.

I wrote regret and sculpted a narrative where I didn’t talk too much and I didn’t tell sad stories without the victim’s victorious strength being the ending. I thanked Mom in the stories for her setting us free in a small pond with the best of intentions. I wrote my mother’s forgiveness into the lines and acceptance as a whisper between them.

I wrote about revolutions, inner and outer and about sex and being a woman and about grief and never being quite good enough and about being something more. I wrote myself resilient.


Jenny Forrester has been published in a number of print and online publications, including Seattle’s City Arts MagazineNailed MagazineHip MamaThe Literary KitchenIndiana Review, and Columbia Journal. Her work is included in the Listen to Your Mother anthology published by Putnam. She curates the Unchaste Readers Series.

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