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Conduct Unbecoming

I have spent much of my time in Salida trembling—caffeine to fight against the panic of losing a second of it, casting aside a winter coat in May to photograph snow clinging to the atmospheric raw bones of Leadville’s wooden skyline, the ache of legs after gripping hiking boots against granite and volcanic ash.

It is, some say, conduct unbecoming a nonfiction writer; I don’t make any of this up, I am supposed to remain clearheaded so as to report the damage and the dancing.  And yet the swirling currents of the Arkansas, the slanted peaks whizzing past the Virginia plates of my car, they had other ideas.

This was a homecoming, although the first I saw of Salida was a grainy Google image of a narrow street and a looming S affixed to a mountainside.  “Well,” I said to myself, “well, they like their phonics, at the very least.”

My primary attachment point to Colorado hangs about a hundred and fifty miles and an entire lifetime due northeast.  You cannot believe the difference. Fire?  What fire?  Our great and mystical S has protected us from fire.  Would you like an espresso, or perhaps a motel room featuring pillows?

But living is not what occupies my mind the most these days.  A month before my arrival, I sat at my mother’s feet as she took a phone call from a doctor about the kidney pain my father was experiencing, Sam The Baby Nephew curled against her chest.  She curved a protective hand over his ear as she spoke in normal tones, her mouth exactly once forming a thin line-- and then I knew.  When she clicked off the call she looked at me and said, “Cancer.”  And resumed rocking.

Salida enabled a mental blindness to the missing trees, held up a mirror to the bends of the Arkansas I once rafted as a teenager, the bends previously unseen but somehow familiar, textured with oil paint and offered as a highly acceptable substitute for the lost high country to the north.  I dipped a hand in the water; I drew it back numb.

Now, on a reedy connection to my parents’ home in Cincinnati, I am filtered information about chemo, lesions, steroids, hair falling out.  And I continue to stare into the Arkansas, back turned to the blackened north, and understand that all this is taking place, but word of it comes to me spoken into radio waves somewhere back by those concrete block walls.  It echoes off of my body, never quite landing.

I expected the shock, the slow, automatic movement of some sort of armament clicking into place—but what I did not expect was a sudden inspiration to write at length about my employment with NASA, a lifelong embracement of a space program which largely rose and fell before my existence was even considered.  I watched the final flight of Atlantis on a Denver television feed instead of with the Atlantic Ocean stealing glancing blows at my legs.  Why, I wondered, was I burrowing my way further into something which was unplugged, the life of it seeping into the sand, leaving us—in many ways, already gone?  Then again, space is all there is here—it’s between the deep scoops of snow-covered caldera and the sky, the highway and the riverbed, the quiet wash of the sweetened tea in my coffee cup.

I came here to gain a word count, but instead I lost:  Twelve pounds, eight skirts I used to wear as Corporate Woman, and a timid awe of Colorado as some sort of magical, continually vanishing kingdom where I wanted to be, but could never quite touch.  I don’t miss one ounce, one fibrous shred.

I’ve also applied for a residency in Key West.  I’ve been there, too, for about an hour in a half, airdropped in by Josh the Pilot.  It was January, the sky was scrubby, he dropped me on the runway when under the guise of assisting me out the the cockpit, and our jackets were zipped to our soft throats.  Perhaps, bound on an island, I’ll work on the book I planned to work on here, the still-waiting blank pages abandoned for entire paragraphs on orbital maneuvering systems and sudden, 70 MPH escapes further into boundaries of river and brown inclines.  We’ll get to know each other, Key West and I... a blind date, free of the heartache of kinships knitted into my very marrow.

I’ll get more done there, I’m sure.  Maybe I’ll even take a bit of Key West with me, in the same way I keep the rustlings of pinion trees tucked between my first date and the day I discovered peach Schnapps.

But I won’t tremble at sea level, I fear—that was a skill taught to me by the coffee beans and quiet rustlings of Salida.

elevation at:  mbe@drinktothelasses.com

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Reader Comments (3)

[...] Beth has some Deep Thoughts about her writing residency Share and [...]

Very nice. Thanks.

May 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterred pill junkie

[...] click here for the latest:  Conduct Unbecoming [...]

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