Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Paradise (Santa Fe)

I fly to New Mexico for a July 4th family party in Santa Fe.

When I arrive at the Albuquerque Airport, the shuttle bus driver tells us to be careful of crime, because Albuquerque is the crystal meth capitol of the country, and be careful too on the drive from the airport to 25, because cops will be hiding among the tumbleweed, waiting to get you.

"I tell drivers this every time, and still I see them later, parked on the side of the road with police cars behind them," the bus driver warns us.

The dry air smells of pinon wood, and the black hulks of mountains pierce the horizon.

The rental car is a maroon Sebring parked in slot 22. It runs smoothly. I go slow until I hit Interstate 25, and then I give the car gas. Casino lights sparkle on the side of the highway as I drive through reservation land. Then there is blackness, and I think of the first time I came here thirty years ago and how wide the sky seemed coming from New Jersey.

When I was a little kid, we used to drive from the central Jersey shore to visit my aunt and uncle in their big house in Germantown. One weekend I want to stay over and I forgot underpants and my aunt and uncle take me to JCPenney to get some. I am the only girl out of all the cousins.

It rains and rains and the backyard fills with puddles.

One is so large that it becomes the Mississippi River. We drag into the puddle a red plastic sled, which becomes Huckleberry Finn's raft. My oldest cousin Michael is Huckleberry and he stands on the raft, paddling with a big stick down the Mississippi. Daniel and Peter and I wait our turns.

The house in Germantown has a waterbed that I sleep on when I stay over, and I thrill at floating away and being tightly wrapped in blankets at the same time. Once when Peter is four he swallows a nickel. Nicky the dog escorts us a few blocks away to my cousins' school, where I am entranced by all the new books, but too shy to talk.

I learn that a nickel will come out.

Uncle Paul is asked to become chief of nephrology at his hospital in Philadelphia. He is only thirty-five. Instead, he decides to practice medicine on an Indian reservation for a year in New Mexico. Peter turns five, and they move to Santa Fe. I ask my mother to buy me stamps.

My aunt and uncle and cousins rent an adobe house on Camino del Monte Sol. They grow apricots and have too many ripe ones and make pies and give the pies to their neighbors. The mother ditch, Acequia Madre, runs down from the mountains past their house, and often it is dry.

My aunt looks at the wide New Mexico sky that casts red on the Sangre de Cristo mountains at sunset. She asks for a job at the university and gets it. She picks sun-ripened apricots and her fingers get sticky and orange.

She tells Paul that they are not returning east.

"You can't just move somewhere because it's beautiful," Paul says.

"Yes, you can," she answers, handing out another pie, and they do.