But traveling through the open country, Liz Story on the stereo, she’d actually been able to see herself living in a small town, a town where everybody knew everybody else, where neighbors helped each other and cared about each other and were willing to work together for the good of the community. It was a comforting thought, a welcome thought, and her belief and conviction in Gregory’s plan had grown stronger the further they traveled from California.
Even the kids were quiet as the road dipped through dry washes, wound around low hills, and finally began snaking through the canyons of a rugged desert mountain range. McGuane was in these mountains, and once again Julia found herself captivated by the rough beauty of this wild countryside. To their right, cliffs with the same multicolored striations as the Grand Canyon towered above them. Huge cottonwoods grew on the canyon floor, the trees providing umbrellas of shade to barely visible corrals and occasional ranch houses.
“Almost there,” Gregory said. He pointed ahead. The road passed through a tunnel carved through the rock, the zigzagging remnants of an old dirt trail still visible on the cliff above. “McGuane’s just on the other side.”
“Cool!” Teo said.
And then they were there.
According to Gregory, the town was almost exactly the way it had been when he’d left. There were no chain stores, no corporate gas stations, not even one of the name-brand fast-food joints that had taken over most of small-town America. There was no Wal-Mart or The Store, no Texaco or Shell, no McDonald’s, Burger King, or Jack-in-the-Box. McGuane had retained its local individual character rather than succumbing to the increased homogenization that was sweeping through the land, and from the first that had impressed her. Emerging from the tunnel was like coming out of a time machine, and she felt as though she’d been transported back thirty years and had entered the world of Gregory’s childhood.
They passed a small diner, saw a pickup truck and several bicycles parked in front of it, five or six teenagers clustered around a picnic table to the side. They looked up, waved as the van drove by. In Southern California, she thought, they would have yelled something or flipped off the vehicle. Across the road, two boys jumped down from a tree house into the dirt, laughing.
It was a refreshing change, and she understood what Gregory had meant when he’d said that McGuane would be a good place to raise kids. It was a Huck Finn world, a children’s paradise, a place where boys and girls could climb rocks, explore canyons, build forts and clubhouses instead of simply sitting inside the house and watching TV or playing Nintendo.
The highway came into town from the west, ending at the tan-brick courthouse, where it split into two narrow streets that wound through the diverging halves of the community.
The geography of the town was determined by the geology of the land. At McGuane’s south end was the mine, an ugly open pit long since closed down and fenced off from the highway by rusted chain-link. The old mining office was now the realty, where they’d bought their new home, and it sat dwarfed at the edge of the massive hole, a matchbox next to a drained swimming pool. The rest of the town snaked northward from the mine up two branching canyons to a sagebrush plateau. At its peak, according to Gregory, McGuane had had a population of thirty thousand, but that had been down to ten thousand when he’d lived there, and he was not sure what it was now.
“Are we almost there?” Adam whined.
Gregory looked over at Julia and smiled.
“Almost,” Julia said.
There was not enough room to back in, so the moving truck parked on the street rather than in the drive, its wide bulk blocking both lanes of the narrow road. Gregory pulled the van into the dirt driveway and stopped just in front of the carport next to the house. The movers had not even gotten out of the cab, much less opened the rear door of the truck and started unloading, so he sorted through his keys in order to open up the house before hurrying back to oversee their work.
“Hurry up,” Sasha said. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
He’d unlocked and opened the front door and was about to walk inside, when his mother stretched a bony arm across the doorway. She looked up at him. “We have to bless the house.”
Gregory nodded, motioning the kids back and shooting Julia a look of apology as his mother recited a prayer in Russian. She told them to remain outside, then walked in, going through each room, ordering out all evil spirits and repeating the same Russian prayer.
Adam’s eyes widened. “Are there really evil spirits in there?”
Great, Julia thought. Now Teo would never get to sleep.
“No,” Gregory said.
“Then why’s Babunya—”
“It’s a tradition.”
She emerged from the front door a few minutes later, nodded that it was safe to go in, and Sasha hurried past her, heading for the bathroom.
Julia hoped the utilities company had not forgotten to turn on the water.
“Are there evil sprits in our house?” Teo asked.
Gregory looked at his mother. She smiled, patted her granddaughter’s head. “If any there, they gone now.”
Teo and Adam ran inside, yelling and laughing, rushing excitedly from room to room.
“Adam!” Julia yelled, stepping over the threshold into the entryway. “Teo! You stop running right now!”
From behind them, up the drive, came the sound of the truck’s cab doors slamming shut. Gregory looked over at his mother.
“You should have invite him,” she said. “Jedushka Di Muvedushka.”
“I know,” he told her. “I’m sorry.”
She patted his back, sighed, and followed the rest of the family inside.
Gregory remembered the celebration from his childhood, but it had since grown into something entirely unrecognizable. Downtown McGuane was festooned with flags and banners and balloons, and a traffic jam worthy of Los Angeles at its worst clogged the narrow streets. They’d walked into town instead of driving, in an effort to avoid the rush, and the cars they’d passed even a block back had still not caught up with them. He glanced into the driver’s window of the unmoving Saturn next to him and saw an irate bald man swearing at the wife seated beside him.
Julia saw where he was looking, smiled. “Charming.” Adam and Teo were both very excited, but Sasha had wanted to stay home with Babunya, and having been made to come, she registered her protest by walking several steps behind, sullenly accompanying them, not speaking.
From somewhere up ahead came the sound of gunfire from the Wild West Stunt Show.
“Hurry up, Dad!” Adam begged.
“It’ll be on again at noon,” he told his son. “We’ll catch it then.”
On the open lawn in front of the courthouse, booths had been set up by local organizations. There was a fair in the parking lot and the park next to it, complete with Ferris wheel and carnival rides.
“Can we go in the mirror house?” Teo asked.
“Yeah!” Adam chimed in.
Gregory led them up to the highway, and they picked out a spot next to the announcer’s booth and settled in to watch the parade, which was already in progress.
Back in the old days, the parade had been a real community affair, the floats little more than flatbed trucks decorated with crepe paper, but now there were Shriners from Tucson, one of Arizona’s senators in a chauffeured 1940s Cadillac, assorted floats sponsored by some of the state’s major stores, businesses, and corporations. It was more professional and, he had to admit, probably more entertaining to the kids, but it had lost something in the translation, and he missed those innocent raggedly amateur days in which little Sunday school children walked the parade route dressed in prospector garb, pulling their pets in wagons made up to look like mine cars.
The announcer was a deejay from some big country station in Tucson, and his patter, too, seemed far slicker than it should.
After the parade, they followed most of the rest of the crowd and wandered over to the fair. The local tribe had set up a booth out front and were making fry bread, and Gregory bought the whole family Indian tacos. That brought back memories. Fry bread was one of the few types of ethnic food not available in Southern California, and the kids had never had it before. Though the deep-fried dough was perhaps one of the most unhealthy meals in the world, it tasted wonderful, and even sullen Sasha remarked on how much she liked it.
Adam finished his taco, wiped his dirty hands on his pants, looked around. Gregory saw his son’s eyes light up as he spotted something down the makeshift midway.
“A haunted house!” Adam said. He turned toward his father. “Can we go, Dad?”
Gregory followed the boy’s gaze. It was one of those shoddy prefab carnival attractions, all gaudy oversized front with an almost nonexistent ride behind it, but Adam was ecstatic and next to him Teo was frightened, and he could tell this was a big deal to them. He remembered how excited he’d been himself when as a child at the county fair he’d seen a booth advertising the frozen body of the Abominable Snowman. Even his parents had known it was fake, but he
to see it, and although it turned out to be merely a hairy plaster mannequin in a glass box, he would have regretted it for the rest of his life if he hadn’t been able to view the attraction, and he had no intention of denying his own children access to the haunted house.
“I don’t know,” Julia said.
“It’ll be all right,” he told her.
“Are you guys coming too?” Adam looked hopefully up at his parents.
“No,” Gregory said.
Adam turned toward Teo. “What about you? Are you coming? Or are you too
“I’m not scared!” Teo said defiantly.
“Then you’re coming with me?”
“M-maybe,” Teo said hesitantly.
Gregory smiled. Adam was only goading his sister because
was afraid to go into the haunted house alone. Gregory finished his Indian taco, tossed his napkin and paper plate in a nearby trash barrel, and took out his wallet. “Teo,” he said. “Will you go if Sasha takes you?”
Teo nodded happily.
“All right” Adam said.
Sasha threw away her paper plate. “Gee, thanks, Dad.” He smiled. “You get to go, too.”
“What a thrill.” She took the money he gave her, and after listening to her mother’s warning not to scare her brother or her little sister, led Adam and Teo across the grass toward the haunted house.
“She’ll adjust,” Julia said, putting a hand on his arm.
Gregory watched Sasha’s retreat. “We’ll see.”
The two of them started walking slowly toward the midway, stopping at various stalls along the way. Julia looked at the local historical society’s display of photographs and documents from the town’s past and picked up some pamphlets from an Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club. The crowd had swollen, the entire parade audience having now left the highway and merged with the existing throngs of people exploring the booths and exhibits spread across the park and parking lot.
Julia had heard someone mention a Molokan Heritage Club booth, and they were looking for it—Gregory saying that if his mother had known the Molokans were participating she would have come no matter how badly her arthritis was acting up—when a man in front of them said tentatively, “Excuse me.”
Gregory looked up and saw a heavyset middle-aged guy with thick hair and a thin goatee. The man squinted at him. “Gregory?”
The face of the man was familiar, and Gregory ran through the catalog of mug shots in his brain, trying to determine which of his past friends could have grown into the man before him.
“Paul?” he said.
The other man grinned, offering a calloused hand to shake. “Jesus! I thought that was you. How you doing, man?”
“Not bad,” Gregory said, smiling. “Not bad.” He put an arm around Julia, gave her a small squeeze. “This is my wife, Julia. Julia, this is Paul Mathews, my best friend from elementary school.”
“Elementary school? Try elementary, junior high, and high school.”
“My best friend from McGuane,” Gregory said. “How’s that?”
Julia nodded. “Hello.”
“Nice to meet you,” Paul said, smiling. He reached forward, shook Julia’s hand.
“We just moved back here,” Paul said.
Julia touched Gregory’s cheek, motioned toward the row of booths in front of them, and he nodded. She started walking, smiling a good-bye to Paul.
“I’ll catch up,” Gregory told her.
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“So you’re married, huh?”
“With three kids.”
“Two girls, one boy. Sasha’s seventeen. Adam’s almost thirteen. Teodosia’s nine.”
Paul shook his head. “Man. Time flies, doesn’t it?” “Yeah,” Gregory said, “it sure does.” He looked at the man in front of him, saw within that man the boy he had once known.
It was nice to see an old friend, he admitted, but there was also something disconcerting about it. They were both grown men, middle-aged, so the years had obviously passed, but the fact that they were both here, in McGuane, gave him the unnerving feeling that they had both been spinning their wheels, that they’d accomplished nothing in all those years, that their lives were pointless and useless and they were just killing time until they eventually died.
It was completely illogical, an idiotic thing to think, but he thought it nonetheless, and he realized that he’d been feeling adrift ever since he’d won the lottery, ever since he’d quit his job. He’d never considered himself one of those people who were defined by their work, who needed the imposed structure of a job to bring meaning and order to their lives, but perhaps he wasn’t as free and independent as he’d always thought.