I pad around my house in the morning, turning on faucets and lights to assure myself that the apocalypse is still self-contained over a thousand miles away at Mother’s doorstep. Texas border states have already begun rationing plans. Through their television noise, scientists and preachers scramble to understand such centralized tragedy, use incantations and formulas to predict where this may go if it ever leaves Bonita. Some claim aliens.
To be clear, I’m not speaking in metaphor when I tell you the end of the world began on my wedding day. Leaves littered Mother’s lawn. Dried bits the grasshoppers left behind turned Bonita parking lots and roads a pale green ocean. A case of wine left too long in a truck exploded. Trees stood naked, bare arms raised to the sky as if seeking answers. Mother’s temperature gauge read 112 that day more than a year ago, but I was in love, if sweaty, in my sundress. Outside, grasshoppers crunched underfoot. We kept a broom handy to push them outside, letting three in for every one swept out. Mother, embarrassed, ran her well dry trying to turn brown grass green, as if the weather and bugs were a reflection on her and her housekeeping, not a sign of what was to come.
I fill the bathtub each night. When the faucet squeaks to life come morning, I water the plants, fill the dog’s bowl, and empty the tub, watching the clear water swirl away to nothing. Plant stalks swell and leaves droop. I wander out to check the sky for dangerous cloud formations, kneel and place both palms upon the ground. Neighbors wave, keep walking. Leaves shift in the breeze, lazy and unconcerned. My Idaho sky is blue for days. Rainbows come and go in the sprinkler’s twirl. I don’t know if a thunderstorm would make me feel better or worse at this point, so I turn on the television. Bonita’s apocalypse is growing old for the rest of the country. No news for almost a week.
It’s probably true that we all have our own self-centered versions of when this started, when we decided to believe, or stop believing in coincidence. The tornado that ripped off a section of Mother’s roof, causing her to box her sequined tops and fall upon her knees, was weather and nothing more in my mind. Her fundamentalist upbringing wouldn’t allow her the luxury. She heard the roar of the wind twisting metal and dislodging bricks. The sky took her bobtailed cat and left her half a home. She was chastened by the rain that pelted her carpet, only to watch the clouds dry up with not a drop of relief for months on end. She looked to God for answers. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t speaking, so she looked behind her, made a list of transgressions and underlined mother in red. I thought I had run far enough away to be sure I saw things back in Bonita clearly. I couldn’t have known that, in my flight, I would forever keep one eye over my shoulder, and in doing so would circle back again and again. When the second earthquake hit, shortly after the first round of fires I’d called plain old bad luck, I knelt in my closet and tried piecing together my own prayer, unable to remember anything beyond “Thy kingdom come.” Disaster close to home had not given the words new meaning, so I left supper to burn on the stove, called home.
work her every way I can from my Idaho kitchen to hers, our voices ones and zeroes pinged through space satellites. I tell her we’ll load the horses, haul them across the canyons and mountains, and put them in the backyard. Bring your chickens. Just brick and wood, I say of the three-bedroom home she’s scraped for, the patched-up house whose mortgage will probably outlive her. I hear her switch the phone to the other ear, bang a door shut. I brag on the depth of our town’s reservoir and the snow at the tip of the mountains you can see in August. A preacher buzzes radio noise in the background. I’ve never even heard of a tornado in Idaho, I say. You can carry your gun on your hip in the grocery store! She sits there, jaw set in silence I can see. Then—You know the story of Job, she says. What if God picked the wrong person for the job? VI NPR finally runs a story, a color piece on Bonita’s Riders for Christ—a group that takes its message almost as seriously as its method of delivery. Before all of this, they opened rodeos performing cowgirl tricks against the backdrop of fireworks and “God Bless the U.S.A.” Now sword-packing Riders sit sentry at each of the cardinal directions outside of town, certain the Four Horsemen will gallop down from the heavens any day in need of spangled escort. Steve Inskeep says a few have liberal enough interpretations to pack rifles, which has created something of a rift, and those Riders man only the southern outpost, where the group’s leadership think the Horsemen least likely to appear. Steve outlines stories for tomorrow’s program in the event the rapture doesn’t occur overnight. Then he cues Blondie. I pick up the phone to make sure Mother hasn’t found herself a sword.
VII Every day before she died, my grandmother bowed her head and prayed for Mother’s gambling and carousing to stop. She prayed for Mother to humble herself before the Lord and care about what good Christian people thought. She prayed for Mother to get out of that mess she was in, as she referred to Mother’s second—and then third—marriage. Both adultery in my grandmother’s eyes, though my only memories of Mother’s first (and God-recognized) husband are the blue welts he made of her eye, the way the bruises bloomed purple, then yellow on her chest and back, the way he swung the red suitcase as he walked down the hallway of our apartment building, as I followed, crying for him to stay. Grandmother prayed for God’s love to rain like fire from the heavens. I wonder if this is what she had in mind.
VIII There will always be those ready to don a cowboy hat and ride the bomb down with a yippee-kye-yay, those who sell hats and work the levers. While the Bible church holds twenty-four-hour prayer meetings, sinners filter to the casino and the VFW, filling up the dark places, no need to conserve, no need to conceal pent-up desires. Faithful to no end the time is nigh. Mother refuses to step into a church, but she’s taken to covering her head, wearing long dresses. I find myself in the unexpected position of suggesting she go to the casino to keep some semblance of normalcy. She won’t hear of it. Mysterious are the ways. IX I get an all-networks-busy recording and punch end and send until I get a crackly ring and she picks up. I don’t tell her I’m half-believer. I insist that, while surely some kind of geo-seismic shift has occurred beneath her very feet, this does not necessarily mean that the Christian God of Fire and Fury has returned. I tell her it probably has to do with all the oil Texans sucked up. Arrogant Texans messed up the tilt of the earth, perhaps. Somehow altered weather patterns, I say. I was never good at science, and she reminds me of this. I duck, jab. Ask if she’s taken up embroidery or churning butter, ask if Laura Ingalls is the First Saint of the New Apocalypse. She sets her jaw. Okay, the end of the world maybe, I say, but show me this God. X What do I love the way I used to love the mystery of my mother, her strength in suffering? 40_Stories_Final.indd 364 6/18/12 5:38 PM What Good Is an Ark to a Fish? 365 XI Today I ask if she wishes she’d left before it got so hard, come to live with me and my husband in the high desert where we could listen to the end of the world over the airwaves and cook frittatas still. This is what we do when there is nothing new to report and the line goes quiet. This is how we push back at the distance and the catastrophe. Do you wish you’d stayed, she says. I am afraid she’s getting religious.
XII CNN runs a segment on the Mayan calendar. A reporter runs around interviewing people in front of the Mall of America, asking for views on the Texas apocalypse and the End of Time. I wonder what the Mayans had in mind as they toiled, fashioning stone chink by chink: a twenty-four-hour news cycle, complete with a running Twitter ticker of the apocalypse? An African American woman claiming Mayan and celestial ancestry speaks during the second half of the segment. She wears a purple tunic with strange lettering. Says this whole Mayan hysteria is a big misunderstanding. The Mayans didn’t create a calendar, and 2012 isn’t the end of time. They were measuring divine light, outside of time. One the back of a Chinese take-out menu, I try to doodle light and circles of time. In the end it all looks like lightning bolts and cyclones. The anchor seems relieved until the Mayan lady places a hand upon her polyester arm and explains that just because the Ancients weren’t concerned about our modern world, doesn’t mean the events in North Texas aren’t indicative of what’s to come. We must practice seeing with our eye-eyes, she sighs, before we can see with our mind-eyes. And then: North Texas is now. When she smiles into the camera, she seems sad for us. I hear my husband’s key in the door, home from giving a final, and I turn off the television, fold the menu into a tiny square and cram it into my back pocket.
My husband is a skeptic. He thought the grasshoppers were a nuisance last August, nothing more. Of the heat, he said, it’s Texas in August, what did you expect. When I speak to Mother, he opens the computer, goes quiet. As soon as I hang up, he closes the laptop, and his sigh misplaces the rest of the air in the room. I don’t think he does this for my benefit. I think he does not appreciate what he cannot tie down with reason. I think this is why he loved me in the first place: I am a good challenge. XIV At first nobody danced at the wedding, or Mother’s Event, as I began calling the night. The Legion Hall filled with Bonitans and relatives of Mother’s third husband, the one who died in a freak accident when his pony horse spooked into the crowd at the track, crashing into the pane glass window of the V.I.P. suite, crushing fancy hats and knocking my stepfather stone cold dead. Few friends made the trip to Texas, and when I bemoaned the fact, Mother knocked back her white zin and said, Yes, it’s too bad you have a family that loves you. As ladies in tight jeans and men in broad-brimmed straw hats streamed in, they brushed one another’s backs, checking for grasshoppers, made quick for cold Dos Equis and napkins to dob sweat. The swan-carved melon soon sat empty, save the black seeds. People fanned themselves. Mother cocked her brow toward the empty dance floor, so I gave up on Rebirth Brass Band and put on the AC/DC that she had insisted I load onto the playlist. As soon as the bells began to ring out and the guitars snarled to life, cowboys began setting down drinks, clasping hands with their women, marching bowlegged toward the rented speakers. I took a hard pull off my beer. She knows her crowd, my husband said. I told you, Mother said, and led us onto the sawdusted floor, “Hells Bells” echoing off the walls. My husband shrugged his shoulders, pushed up his glasses, and proceeded to get down, banging his head and bouncing his ass off Mother’s as I clapped them on. In those sweaty three minutes, Mother was right—everything was, somehow, just right. But soon I’d had two beers too many, and barefooted and half-cocked, I was out Bonita-ing the Bonitans. I woke up the next day as ready as ever to leave and never come back.
I get the all-networks-busy signal for two days before I decide I have
to go. My husband calls the plan hopeless and vague. He says we need
to save our resources. He quietly reminds me of my job search. When
he asks me what my goal is and I shrug, he walks away, comes back to
say she is a grown woman who can take care of herself and never has
been inclined to listen to reason. That’s easy to say, I blab, when it’s
not your mother living on the brunt end of the beginning of the end
of the world, which is mean because his mom died years ago.
Being the man he is, he agrees to go to Texas if I wait for him to
enter final grades and agrees to use his credit card to pay for the gas
that has skyrocketed. Despite rationing, you can still travel freely if
you have the money and don’t live at the end of the world. He tells
me I am about to put an end to that freedom on both accounts. Then
he squeezes my hand hard and begins to pack.
I pack with one hand, work the phone in the other. Sending,
ending. Sending. I fill my backpack with Ziplocs and wool socks.
I check the tent for stakes. My husband packs a few shirts and underwear
and fills his bags with books on Greek philosophers whose
names I can’t pronounce. When I come in with the orange cat-hole
trowel, he takes it gently from my hand and puts it back in the garage.
I don’t know how to pack for the end of the world, so I imagine a
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