As I approached the rough plywood shack under a hot blue sky, she floated up from within the only shade for miles around. With porcelain smooth fingers she brushed back hair the color of twilight shadows easing into night; her fingers tracing the curl of her ears as they mindlessly slid down over long silver and turquoise earrings. As she waited for me to arrive her hands came to rest, with a practiced finality, on the rough counter as a stray dog got comfortable under one of the parked cars.
After collecting the canyon guide fee she lightly slid the sign-in form towards me and waited. As I scribbled the few required items I took notice of where others had come from: Tokyo, Paris, New York, Berlin, and now Seattle. While scanning the list of names and places, I stole hasty glances at the hard lines of her jaw and angular cheeks emerging from the shadows. Her eyes never focused on me but on something far away, away from the dry routine of being stuck here in the desert, which day by day, was a silent witness to her beauty and youth evaporating. I couldn’t help but wonder if her dreams flew in that giant sky and took her to New York or Paris.
While waiting for my guide to come and get me I listened to her banter back and forth with the half a dozen guides who were passing the time by wiping sweat away and smoking cigarettes as they sat on a dried up grey picnic table in the bright sunlight, the soles of their shoes leaving footprints in the dry red earth. I soon understood that this place was no temporary gig while waiting for the moment when she could fly away to the places scribbled on that sheet. No, this was it, the place where she had been coming each day for several years to earn the few bucks she needed to get by or pay for another Saturday night of leaving lipstick marks on beer glasses.
But for now her smooth bronze skin was protected by her toughness. And it seemed that she never gave a second thought to the silent witness that would watch her physical beauty be overtaken and consumed by living hard, drinking harder, fighting over men, family ties and the reservation. But then again I may be mistaken since she summed up this place as “living on the rez” with the “z” sound resonating like the wings of an insect.
As I started to join my guide she turned slightly, and the hard curve of her shape was momentarily before me as she dropped into the shadows where another hour, another year would be passed talking smack with the guides and forgetting the white faces before they were gone from her brown eyes that sparkled like crystals illuminated by a late afternoon sun.
Life’s needs came to the small white town on Saturday to shop, have ice cream, and to wash clothes at one of the three Laundromats. Entering one of them with my meager bag of clothes I was greeted by a scuffed up linoleum floor, burned out fluorescent lamps, the heat and humidity from the whirring machines, and the eyes of the women attending to the mountains of clothes being cleaned.
While waiting for one of the soap caked machines with busted up porcelain to open up I staked a position off to one side and partially escaped into a year old celebrity magazine. Stealing glances again I watched as the women hushed babies, stuffed quarters and clothes into the washers, brushed away trickles of sweat as they moved clothes in and out of the hot to the touch dryers, and finally folding, with efficient care, the hot clothing into tall neat stacks. Whites in one pile, jeans in another, men’s shirts there, polyester blouses over there, and the occasional traditional dress still worn by the elderly women that worked side by side with the younger ones. I am still not sure if the pressure to wrap the work up quickly or a place to put everything had a greater premium in the harsh light of the naked fluorescent tubes.
All the time there was, a pitch or two above the humming machines, a quiet murmur of conversation about meals, children, schools, and the jobs some held to help support everything life demanded from them. No smack talking was going on here as their faces and bodies, softened by time, looked tired, were tired. They simply wanted to get the one or two-hour pickup truck ride home to the “rez” started, babies at their sides, and the mountainous stacks now jammed into giant white plastic bags tied down safely in the back.
As the late afternoon sun started to cast twilight shadows over the town the machines started to go silent one by one. As the women left there was a quiet purpose in their brown eyes; an acceptance that in another week or so they would be back here with another mountain of clothes and a stack of quarters. Then again it might have been a look of resignation that their Saturday night would be spent emptying the giant bags.
Copyright 2012 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved.