“City on the Plains” Part IV

Denver streets after snow

Denver streets after snow

In the morning we wake to falling snow. Standing on the sidewalk of the motel, I watch the flakes swirling down through a windless sky and accumulate on the vehicles pulled against the curb. The light is altered, the way snowfall does, so that while diminished by the cloud cover, every object stands out in sharp relief against the white of the snow. The whiteness illuminates everything. Sound is diminished. The traffic noise on the five lane boulevard that the hotel sets on is dampened, and all that stands out is the swish of car tires ploughing through the slush. I have seen snow fall in every Southern state. I’ve climbed two hundred feet on high voltage transmission towers in snow squalls. I’ve skied icy, man-made snow slopes in North Carolina. In elementary school I made construction paper cutouts of idealized snowflakes, demonstrating their crystalline structure (reportedly, no two flakes are identical). But I’ve never seen powder snow, and as I bend down and look closely at the accumulation on the hood of my Mazda, I can actually see crystalline patterns in the snow. I am happy, in the moment.

We drive to another interview for Lisa, this one a full-time position, but fewer available hours and less pay than what she makes now in Mississippi. She goes inside the hospital while I sit outside with Bonnie, tallying monthly rent, utilities, gas, insurance, credit card payments, school loans, groceries, and a miscellaneous figure that never covers the actual miscellaneous expenses. The total is too high, and Bonnie sits in the front seat and looks at the untracked snow accumulating around us and gives me a pitiful look.

When Lisa comes back, she tells me that four other nurses are being considered for the job. The interview was tough. “They laid out scenarios and I had to diagnose illnesses and provide a course of action,” she says. As we drive back to the motel she says, “I thought the pay would be better in proportion to the cost of living.”

“I was thinking about Knoxville,” I say. “Nice country. Mountains. Closer to our families.”

“Knoxville wouldn’t be so bad,” she says.

We look at each other, but neither of us is willing to say anymore. One more bad job interview might send us packing, but fortunately, we have no other job interviews to attend, no one left to call. And there’s still the unexplored hope of Lisa’s Ob/Gyn connections, the doctor out of town at a conference, and whatever possible connections I might have made had it not been spring break.

“If the worst happens,” I say, “we’ve only lost the three-hundred on the deposit. Let’s find a Mexican restaurant and enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Everything else can wait.”

Lisa tells me about a place she used to eat at when she was a nursing student in Arkansas. She and her friends would drive down to a place in Little Rock called Casa Bonita. According to the menu, the chain had two locations, and the other was in Denver. “You raise a little flag at your table when you want service,” she told me.

 Casa Bonita


Casa Bonita

We looked up the restaurant in a phone book and drove through the snow, cautiously, the target of angry honks from drivers more accustomed to the stuff. The restaurant was on the west side of the city, close to the foothills. We find it in a nondescript strip mall, which has been modeled to look like the entrance to a Spanish style mission, walk through the fake adobe exterior, and find ourselves in a Disney World queue running through parallel railed lines behind several busloads of school age children. We wait, order and pay, and make our way to a table to wait for our food.

Once inside the dining area, we find ourselves inside a cave-like, Pirates of the Caribbean set of early 18th century false store fronts, lush tropical foliage, imitation rock cliff walls, and a thirty foot waterfall dumping into a postage stamp pool. Periodically, actors appear in period garb, balanced precariously on the narrow stage beside the waterfall. There is an evil pirate, a young woman in distress, a dashing good-guy. The story line is predictable—good wins out only after appearing to be vanquished, which means losing the sword fight and taking a fall into the pool. Eventually the girl goes in too—jumping to preserve her chastity rather than give in to the lustful pirate. She screams all the way down, and her long dress flies up, flashing her legs for the elementary crowd. The food isn’t great Mexican, though it ranks above Taco Bell and Taco Bueno quality. Periodically an actor performs a Swan Dive or a One-and-a-half somersault, just like the cliff divers in Acapulco. The show resumes—the next time with an actor in a gorilla costume capturing the girl, but with the gorilla eventually taking the plunge.

I do not understand exactly what is happening to me. Although I initially balked at the amusement park quality, there is something almost wonderful about watching divers doing one-and-a-halfs from a fake waterfall into a pool fifteen feet in diameter. After lunch we jump onto the interstate and head toward the Continental Divide. Elk graze beside the road. We get out at Loveland Pass, almost twelve thousand feet above sea level, and wade in snow over our waist. Driving back we take a road that runs through a canyon formed by Clear Creek, a tiny river tumbling toward the South Platte River and the plains beyond Denver. Eventually this water will flow into the Gulf of Mexico, over a thousand miles away, passing not far from our home in Mississippi. The canyon slopes on the south side of the river are covered with snow; the north slope, exposed to the high altitude sun, is bare. We pull off the road and climb down to a riverside rock formation where an old mill used to stand. Anchor holes are drilled into the rock. The water is dark with silt and ice cold from the melting snow. Bonnie explores the edge of the water, sniffing furiously.

Elk off I-70

Elk off I-70

“You realize this is only twenty-five minutes from where we’ll be living,” Lisa says.

“The closest I’ve ever lived to white water was an eight hour drive,” I say.

The water rushes past us, and we have to raise our voices to talk.

“Okay,” Lisa says. She looks upstream at the rapid and points. “You start in that chute between those two rocks and then move left, and then around that other rock.” She goes on to plot a kayak run for the rest of the river that we can see, until it sweeps around a curve.

“We’ll have to leave the extra bed at my parents’,” I say.

“And my kitchen table and china cabinet at my parents’,” Lisa says.

We climb back up to the car and, as the light fades, drive into the dark toward Denver, having decided, without words, that we were moving to Denver. Had I known, at that moment, that my father would be diagnosed with lung cancer in less than a year, and after moving to Denver, I would only see him five more times before he died, less than six months after his diagnosis, I might have ran back to Mississippi, or Memphis, and taken the first job teaching composition at a community college that offered itself. But we just don’t know those things. We don’t know at twenty-four, at thirty-four, and now, at fifty-three, I still just don’t know what the future holds. And I think it’s a blessing not to know. That evening, Lisa and I top a rise and the lights of Denver, laid out in neat parallelograms, full of promises, spread out on the plain like diamonds on a dark carpet.

Terry and Bonnie, Loveland Pass, 3-95

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One thought on ““City on the Plains” Part IV

  1. That moment when the two of you are standing beside the white water and you both suddenly KNOW that this will be your home…..my eyes filled with tears. I can’t wait to find out what happens next for the adventurous young couple.

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