Mona Houghton

On the Desert-Side of the San Gabriel Mountains

Melanie taught people how to glide through the sky in airplanes without engines. She taught them how to ride the thermals, how to float up above the earth with only the air there to keep the plane from falling. She did this at a landing field outside a small town called Pearblossom in Southern California. The thermals in Pearblossom were exceptional because the town sat at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, and so, when the hot desert air ran into them, beautiful columns of air, like ribbons, rushed up the fliers’ faces.

Melanie lived alone in a trailer that sat on a half acre of land in the desert foothills of those same mountains, close enough to the airstrip so that, with a pair of binoculars, she could see the flight shed, the tied-down sailplanes.

At dusk one day, as she walked up to this trailer, she heard a motorcycle, its rumble growing steadily louder. She didn’t think much about it—the high-school boys from town liked riding their noisy machines along the narrow, two-lane road that fronted the property. But she did turn when she heard the gears shift down, and wondered, what the hell, as the Harley headed up the drive. Tess, her mutt of a dog, ran toward the bike, barking. Melanie called her, told her to sit.

The man on the bike had hair that hung half way down his back, and he wore jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt. Black, studded saddle bags with long fringes hung over the motorcycle’s rear fender.

“What can I do for you?” Melanie asked.

“You gotta be Wanda’s cousin,” the man said.

He looked about thirty-five, maybe forty. He had a mustache and a fine layer of road-dirt all over him.

“Who are you?”

“Wanda said you looked like her.”

“Wanda.” Melanie hadn’t heard from Wanda in two, maybe three years.

“You didn’t get a letter?” He started to get off the bike, but Tess’s growl stopped him. He sat back down.

*     *     *

Later, after Melanie turned out all the lights in the trailer, she lifted the curtain and looked out over the desert. Billy’s campfire burned in the distance. Beyond him the mountains sat black against the moonlit sky. Wanda was in prison. Wanda. Melanie’s other self. Her echo, the other half of her darkness, more a sister than a cousin, a kind of twin, for a court had found Melanie’s parents unfit, and her aunt and uncle, Wanda’s parents, had accepted responsibility. Melanie soon realized these two people had no more parental instincts than her own had had, but she did find Wanda, and together the two of them tried hard to grow up whole in a world that seemed intent on pulling their arms and legs off.

Resisting arrest, Billy said. He and Wanda had been living together in Ashland, Ohio. They did fine for almost two years, then Wanda got laid off, then Billy got laid off. Pretty soon they didn’t have a nickel between them. Billy had winked at Melanie and said, “I’m sure you know how your cousin gets when she’s poor and drunk.” Apparently Wanda had socked a policewoman in the face. By the time Billy saw Wanda the next day in court, she had two black eyes and what looked like a broken nose. Drunk driving, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer. Wanda would be in jail for a while—three years if she obeyed the rules.

Melanie could see Billy moving around his camp site. She had fed him dinner—salad, tuna fish sandwiches—and had thought, as he roared away, that he would be gone for good. When his staying close startled something inside, it frightened Melanie, for in her early twenties she had sworn off sex. “Men,” Melanie had said, “like a bad habit.” She had said, “No more.” That had been almost five years ago.

That was when she had moved out of Los Angeles, over to the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains, landed a job at the local hardware store and had learned how to soar.

But tonight she felt it seducing her again, creeping up under her skin as she listened to Billy talk about Wanda, heard the tenderness in his voice, the way he ran the two syllables of her name together. He seemed to know Wanda, to understand it would take more than a few years in prison to break her. Billy, Melanie found herself thinking, was different. And he looked so comfortable in the motorcycle’s saddle, so at ease as he sat sideways at the picnic table out in front of the trailer after he had eaten dinner, his knees up under his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs, his head back so he could check out the stars as they popped through the sky. Those warm wants had come back.

*     *     *

The next morning after Melanie woke up, the first thing she did was open those drapes and look out the window. She couldn’t see Billy, but she could see his bike, a black shape out on the morning-yellow desert. Melanie patted Tess on the head and watched the sky for a moment, clear and blue. By mid-day the soaring conditions would be good, the ground radiating heat, the hot, light air moving upward, lifting the planes. She thought for a moment about offering Billy a ride.

For Melanie gliding through the sky made life seem safer. It let her see the curve of the earth, taught her how to listen hard, to hear speed, forced her to consider alternatives, to keep an eye out for turkey vultures and dust devils. It taught her how to see trouble.

Which was why, at the airfield that morning as Melanie untied the three training gliders, Tess following close behind, she tried so hard to push Billy out of her mind and concentrate on the task at hand, checking the tension on the rudder cables, inspecting the ailerons. She chided herself. He was probably already on his way to San Francisco, the bike rumbling beneath him, the wind whipping through that long hair. Melanie leaned into a cockpit and worked the stick. She wondered if Billy knew about her tattoo, the red lips right dab in the middle of her left cheek. Wanda had one just like it and in the same place. She must have told him about the night the two cousins ended up at the tattoo joint on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, high as kites, flipping down sixty bucks each so that this red haired gorilla with flaming designs covering his arms would take that high whining drill and give them each a permanent kiss. It was a story Wanda used to tell all the time, laughing, and always when Melanie remembered the telling she heard ice cubes pinging in glasses and saw white teeth, men’s teeth, and she smelled cigarette smoke and a cologne that turned her on and everything felt spiny and okay at the same time.

Life had been one fast rush when Melanie and Wanda had worked as models, the two of them long legged and skinny, getting their nails done twice a week, trying hard to hit the big time and meanwhile sitting for students at the art schools, getting the occasional catalog job at Sears or J.C. Penney’s. Los Angeles, with all its cars and that crazy Santa Ana wind blowing through it every once in a while, and the streets with jacaranda trees bursting with purple blooms, and one hundred different types of eucalyptus trees growing all over the place, confused these two seventeen-year-olds from upstate Michigan. None of it made any sense, that city of twelve million people who knew nothing about winter or spring, people who ate Thanksgiving dinner outside on their porches and worried about the weather being too warm on Christmas eve to light fires in their fireplaces.

It seemed so odd to Melanie, how different life could be on the other side of a mountain range.

*     *     *

In the flight shed, Melanie poured herself a cup of coffee. Her first student of the day had made some progress—he got the hang of feeling which wing lifted when the plane entered a thermal and determined which way to turn depending on that sensation. It was a big step, but when he came in to land, his approach, steep and awkward, forced him to overuse the dive-brake and they had thudded into the ground. Next week, she had promised, they would work on smooth landings.

Melanie sipped her coffee and stepped out of the shed. The tow plane landed, a Piper Super Cub, and Mark, its pilot, waved at Melanie as the plane rolled by. Some cumulus clouds were taking shape to the west of the airstrip.

Mark yelled. “Push the Libelle out and I’ll give you a lift.”

*     *     *

For the first time since she started flying, Melanie thought twice about accepting a free tow. All morning she had resisted taking a solo flight; she was afraid that once in the sky she would find herself over her own house, looking for signs of Billy.

“Come on,” Mark yelled. “You got some great action back there.” He pointed to the rising cauliflower shaped clouds Melanie had noticed, a guarantee of thermal activity, a promise of a strong and steady rise. They would certainly give Melanie some altitude to play with and so she ran over to the sleek, fine sailplane that, in the right hands, got as much lift out of an updraft as any plane on the field.

Within five minutes Melanie, strapped into the single-seater, was in the air, and Mark was towing her up toward those great billowing monster-clouds. As the needle on the altimeter edged up on two thousand feet, Melanie reached out and pulled the yellow tow-release knob. She still got a quickening in her stomach each time she heard the pop of the rope as the hook slammed open. She was on her own. Melanie banked to the right and headed on towards the thermal activity. She could see Mark below her turning back to the airstrip. Billy disappeared from her mind as she worked her way into the thermal, into a tight and efficient spiral.

After getting all she could out of the rising air, Melanie flew out over the Lovejoy Buttes, checked her seatbelt, then sent the plane into a dive and rode it. Once she hit 100 miles per hour she pulled back on the stick gently, lifting the plane’s nose straight up into the sky. As the airspeed bled off, the plane hung there in space, almost motionless, and a stunning silence surrounded her. It was this moment she cherished and so she held on for as long as she could, keeping only seconds between this and a tail slide.

At the last moment, Melanie kicked in the rudder, and the plane fell to the left and she rode the free fall, exhilarated, for as long as she could stand it.

*     *     *

Melanie left the airstrip immediately after her last lesson. She drove straight to a liquor store, bought a six pack of beer and drank one bottle before leaving the parking lot. After doing two or three wing overs in the Libelle earlier, she had flown back into that thermal, all full of herself, confident, every nerve end tingling, alive, and once she had gained some altitude, she had soared to the east, toward home and the San Gabriel Mountains, but then she couldn’t find Billy’s camp site and when she flew over her trailer and everything looked normal, undisturbed, a shocking desperation set in, right in her belly—all the elation gone. She could barely negotiate the broad sweeping turn that aimed her back toward the airstrip. And then she had seen Billy down by the fence at the beginning of the dirt road leading up to the trailer. It had looked like he might have been fixing the front gate. Finding him there had sent curious waves of relief out into her body. Was it his having loved Wanda that set her spinning in this direction?

The beer made it possible for Melanie to drive home.

When she got there, Billy was sitting on the step leading into the trailer. Tess jumped out of the open car window. Melanie sat in her seat for a moment.

“Hi, Tess,” Billy said.

The dog circled Billy, sniffing. He looked the same as he had the day before, a biker who needed a bath.

Billy stood up as Melanie got out of the car and said, “It’s beautiful out here.”

Melanie held out the six-pack. “Want a beer?”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last hour.” He took the carton from her.

Melanie walked by Billy and used her key to open the trailer. “I’ll be right out,” she said as she stepped into the kitchen and closed the door. Melanie went over to the bed and sat down. She wanted to know what he was after. Back at the airstrip after she landed the Libelle, the old sense of helplessness that had always seemed to go along with the want set in, and it hurt, stretching tight around her like old scars.

*     *     *

Melanie found Billy out in front at the picnic table, working on his second beer. She thanked him for fixing the fence and he said it was no problem, that he liked doing those sorts of things.

Billy twisted a top off one of the beers and handed the bottle to Melanie. She sipped it and they sat looking west at the black mountains, wispy cirrus clouds a hot orange above them.

Melanie finally asked him, “Why did you come here?” She kept watching the sunset.

“Wanda talked about you a lot,” Billy said.

Melanie felt something turning in her stomach. She forced herself to go on. “That’s not necessarily a reason to show up on someone’s doorstep.”

“Do you want me to go?”

“What did she say about me?”

“One thing she said is that you were prettier than she was—but just as fucked up.”

Melanie laughed. “Am I in prison?”

“You are prettier.”

Melanie thought about Billy loving Wanda, wondered if he had ever traced a finger along her hairline, down that sharp widow’s peak, and around her ears, if he ever rested his head on her flat, tight belly. She wondered how much Billy knew about them together, about how they crawled into each other during those rough growing up years, about how hard it was for them later, when they lived in Los Angeles, to get away from each other, to separate the bits and pieces, to find their particular selves.

“But why are you here?” Melanie looked at him this time when she asked the question. She had to hear an answer.

“Because you got a tattoo on your ass in the same place Wanda does.”

“Wanda tells that story to every guy she meets,” Melanie said, determined to hold her ground.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just what it says.” The orange was all gone from the sky.

Billy stood up. “Wanda loved me.”

“Tell me why you’re here.”

Billy threw his empty beer bottle out into the dark desert, and he told Melanie that he was there because he couldn’t stay in Ashland, Ohio, without Wanda, that he had tried it for a month, visiting her once every two weeks, sitting in some stinking room holding hands for an hour. It didn’t work for him. He had to get out of there, out of the grubby apartment, out of the state, and, once he knew that, there was only one place he could go. Billy said, “Like I told you, Wanda talked about you all the time. It’s like you’re a fucking part of her. That’s why I’m here.”

Melanie got up, the hard thing expanding inside her, spreading out from her belly. She felt as if her plane had hit a wave rotor, as if the turbulence was going to throw her right out of the sky. Melanie went into the trailer.

Billy followed her, talking, saying, “It feels good to fix your fence. What can I tell you?”

Melanie opened the refrigerator, got out the mayonnaise, the bread, a stick of celery. She started making tuna sandwiches again.

Billy went on some more, telling her he knew it would feel good to kiss her, too, and wrap his arms around her. But none of that mattered. All he really wanted was to be able to pitch his tent in her backyard, be close to her, share a beer and maybe do a little work around the place, refinish the picnic table, maybe slap some paint on the trailer. “I need your help,” he said, “at least for a while.”

Melanie laid the celery down on the chopping board, got the knife out of the drawer.

“Look at me,” Billy said, a plea more than anything else.

Melanie gripped the knife. She was scared. The thing inside was all over her.

Billy reached out and put his hand under her chin. He lifted her head up. “Look at me, please.” He whispered this time. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Melanie finally raised her eyes and, when she found Billy’s there to meet hers, she suddenly felt as if she had landed inside a standing wave, into that calm air that sat above the mountains on windy days, the quiet air that she could ride up to the roof of the world on.

He let go of her chin. Neither of them said anything. Melanie swallowed hard, and Billy lifted his beer to his lips. He nodded and then took a long pull on the bottle.

Melanie finished making the sandwiches and put them on plates. She could hear everything—the tick in the refrigerator’s motor, Billy’s breathing, the piece of loose siding bending in the breeze.

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