The Choice – Deac Etherington

ENOUGH TIME goes by, you get to know a place. Every groan it makes in the wind. The coffee smell in the kitchen at dawn and how first light creeps up different windows depending on the time of year. You don’t focus on these little whispers of life until someone tries to take them all away. Today my daughter is coming to drive me to a rest home in Phoenix. Gold Canyon Sunrise or something. A place with music coming out of the walls and big comfortable chairs where you die by inches in front of the TV. Maybe she means well. But I intend to stand.

The love of my life is a girl named Liliana Dominguez. She has been ever since the day I saw her silhouette through that airy cotton dress in the sunlight when she was taking out the trash behind the Diner. Smiled at me bright as a whole season. But it was never going to go any farther than that. I was twice her age and my wife hadn’t yet run off with that fertilizer salesman from Van Horn. I don’t mind. Love makes sense mostly to itself no matter what we may want for it. Been like that since the day we woke up and figured out we have souls. Could be that’s the whole point. The mystery. A reminder there’s things out there larger than you.

Like this mountain.

Half way up, its trail forks. One way leads you deeper into itself. The ponderosa pines and little caves and cold flowing springs. The other to a deadfall down a rock face etched with wind cuts. I always liked how the mountain appeared to be giving you a choice. Seems the least it could do.

*

There’s a good early morning smell in the diner. I’m wearing my best black suit with a starched white shirt and shiny shoes. Liliana, pouring coffee for the regulars at the counter, looks up. Frowns. Red tendrils leaking out of her bun. That’s the other thing. When she shakes out her red hair it’s like a scarlet explosion. Sheriff Ruben Estrada looks around at me. Then his face goes kind of slack. Tips his hat with two fingers and smiles like you do at the old man standing next to you in the check-out lane at Walmart who smells like carpet.

“Morning, Cody,” he says.

“Hello, Ruben.”

I sidle up to one of the chrome stools.

“Nice suit. Someone die?”

“My daughter is coming today.”

“That so? None of us have seen much of Sue Ellen since her Rodeo Queen days. How’s she doing? Pretty as ever?”

I pull the coffee toward me that Liliana pours.

“She uses those supermarket scooter-chairs, now. The kind that beep when you put them in reverse.” I look up at Liliana. “And she keeps sitting on her house cat. A calico named Snoozey. I’m guessing Snoozey is hard to spot on the paisley. I suppose these days once Sue Ellen commits to an angle with a chair there’s no turning back.” Liliana spits a laugh into the back of her hand. This makes me smile.

“Is she still married to that television preacher?”

I nod. Several years ago, at the Fourth of July Pig Roast, Sue Ellen spent the night in the back of a pick-up with Cory McDonald and the Saddle Sores. The next morning she tumbled out into a field sprinkled with beer bottles and decided it would be a good idea if she found Jesus.

Preacher Jimmy Jeff Haze was in the right place at the right time. Even though he had fishy skin and was kind of twitchy from all that Jesus-current flowing through his limbs, Sue Ellen took to him like a fly at a picnic. On TV she became the one holding the sign for the toll-free number. Now they live in a house in Scottsdale with a water-fall pool and Sue Ellen no longer cares about looking like a Rodeo Queen.

“Your hands are worse than ever,” says Liliana.

I look down at the cheesecloth wrapping. At how it’s bleeding through a little.

“I’m not surprised,” says Ruben, looking straight ahead. “Seeing as how another hole just appeared in town. This time it’s out by that statue of Francisco Kino over at the old Mission. Must have happened last night, before someone put on his fancy black suit. Of course that’s just my professional opinion regarding this most recent incident.”

I slide my hands closer to me.

“Leave him alone, Ruben.”

“Now, darn it all, they had to tape off the area before the fifth-grade field trip. Over the past month he’s been digging those holes everywhere. The soccer field over at the school. Out behind the post office. Parking lot of Gabe Turillo’s bar. And, if I’m not mistaken, he’s spent some time molesting your begonia beds. It’s becoming a problem for the whole town and I for one am glad his daughter has finally found the time to make the trip back home to assess this situation. No offense, Cody. But each of those holes is deeper than a five-gallon paint bucket.”

Liliana swats at him with her rag. Turns toward me.

“You want anything to eat?” she says gently.

“No. Just coffee.”

“Well you should eat.”

“I’m fine.”

“No you’re not. Your refrigerator hasn’t worked in two years. Oven, either.”

Two years seemed like a long time. I stared at the counter. Blinked.

Ruben shakes his head.

“All this time him thinking he was going to find that Spanish silver on Mule Deer Mountain. Been looking long as I can remember. Long as anyone around here can remember. Day in. Day out. But that mountain’s not giving up any secrets. At least not to him. Something like that is bound to change a man after a while. Now he’s seeing flecks of silver everywhere. Digging test holes in flowerbeds because he just can’t help himself. Isn’t that right, Cody?”

There’s a silence.

“I’ll make you some eggs,” she says.

I keep staring at the counter. At the blood-smear there. And I wonder about the strange way time swells and shrinks around your life. Maybe Ruben’s right. Maybe if a dream burns long enough without coming true it singes the edges of sanity. Because you ask your life to stand still, in a way. You ask it to wait until you’ve accomplished the thing that defines you. The thing that proves you are who you’ve imagined yourself to be. Everyone knows the Spanish silver is somewhere up in that mountain. That in 1768 those practical-minded Jesuits took it from the Mission and hid it before expelled from New Spain in ox carts. I always imagined myself to be the one who would find it. Because that would make me part of grand things. That would give my life a single immortal moment of indisputable value.

I look up.

“Any word on my dog?”

No one says anything.

“Well?”

“She got adopted out, Cody. Nice couple up in Tucson. It was for the best.”

I feel this dead-center in my chest.

“Uh-huh.”

I stand up, slowly. I run my hand across my beard stubble. Realize I hadn’t shaved. Maybe not in days. That was a shame. It would have gone better with the suit had I shaved. I reach my hand into my pocket. Then, looking straight into Liliana’s eyes, I pull her hand into mine and press the coins into her palm. Close it tight.

“What’s this for?”

“Tip. For those eggs.”

*

Out on the street I turn back and look through the window. I can see her holding out her palm to Sheriff Ruben Estrada and all the others. Eyes wide. Each of them leaning in close to get a good look. Then she lets out a cry. I can hear it all the way in the street. It lasts a long time and it’s one of those sad sounds you sometimes hear in the desert at night. She shakes her head and raises the back of her hand to her eyes. Ruben tries to comfort her. But she pushes him away. I’ve only seen Liliana cry one other time. That was the day I had to give up my dog because I knew I couldn’t take care of her anymore.

I turn to go.

It’s a quiet drive long past where the pavement ends. There’s not much out here besides me and this desert. Tires churn a cloud of dust rising along silvery strands of cattle wire while my tools rattle in the back. A familiar sound. But not as familiar as my footfall on Mule Deer Mountain. That’s where I’m heading next. To that fork in the trail. I imagine it will be a fine thing to stand there now, wearing my best suit, with the rest of the day ahead of me.

***

Deac Etherington is a Finalist, Arcturus Award for Fiction 2017 – The Chicago Review of Books; 2018 Fiction Contest Finalist – San Francisco Writers Conference. Degrees from Connecticut College and Wesleyan University. Former English Teacher and Headmaster. SSI Divemaster. “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” Kurt Vonnegut