(If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home)
By Max Zimmer
BOOK EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1
You know before it’s over. This sound that takes the human breath of a voice and gives it the shimmer of steel and makes it light and effortless and fly like a bird made of the clear bright ringing sound of steel with all the sky out through the windshield to itself.
It’s not enough to hear it.
It has to come from you.
The way you can’t breathe just by listening to someone else’s breathing. Pump blood just by feeling someone else’s heart. Get rid of thirst by watching your mother drink down a glass of her lemonade. It makes you want some too. It has to be you drinking it.
Find out what instrument it came from. Manny and Hidalgo. You can’t ask them. They’ll tease you if you let them see how much it matters. They’ll never tell you.
“What’s got you by the tail there, little man?”
“Nothing.” And then, feeling the punishing bite of telling a grownup a lie, you say, “That music. On the radio.”
“Just now? Just some Mexican jazz. You like it?”
“Jazz. You never heard it?”
“It’s from Mexico?”
“It ain’t from no hymnbook, that’s for sure.”
“Where’s it from?”
“It’s sheepherder music, little man.”
“No it’s not.”
“No? Tell him, Manny. Sheepherder music.”
You, almost twelve, the oldest of five, the first born back in Switzerland, four years before you were put on the Queen Elizabeth and brought across the ocean, then on a plane in New York the rest of the way to Salt Lake City, a big plane called a Constellation, where a stewardess helped your mother scrub your vomit out of the sweater some aunt had knit for you. Born four years before you lived in your grandfather’s open basement in the big house in the Avenues, with your uncles and aunts and cousins, where blankets were hung from the floor joists overhead to make rooms for the families. From there, a tumbling kaleidoscope of the places you found yourself living, moments in your head you could capture and then let go and then catch again like grasshoppers or moths, the upright piano your mother brought from Switzerland in different living rooms, songs from Broadway musicals one of her ways of learning English, the lessons you took at her side from her thin articulate hands the same no matter what else around you kept on changing. The basement apartment where nightcrawlers came up through the drain in the kitchen sink. The house with two front doors, the house divided down the middle, the half where the welder’s family lived and the half where you lived, the room where your fingers nibbled away at night at cracks in the wall your bed was pushed against, where you came home from school one day in the fall to a fire truck, a busted water heater in the yard, the front door open wide, your mother in her striped dress out in front, firemen talking to her. The first Rose Park house on Talisman Drive. The second one, a corner house on another Rose Park street, in whose basement you and a neighbor girl named Louisie pretended you were married. Then La Sal, the ranch down in southern Utah, where they slaughtered a steer each Saturday and passed the meat around and your family always got the kidneys because nobody in America ate kidneys. Four years there, your father the ranch bookkeeper, the retired old workhorse named Rex you used to ride bareback out across the sagebrush till the ranch was a tiny oasis of trees in the shimmer of distant heat, the junkyard of abandoned army trucks across the dirt highway whose dashboard instruments you extracted and traded with your buddies, the tank without a turret in the sagebrush, the mountains behind the ranch bald where their forests ended, the long and intricate and sometimes abruptly scalloped line of distant yellow sandstone that was as far as you could see in every other direction, the piano the choiring heart of the little house where sometimes you woke up to watersnakes in the living room.
School the same kaleidoscope. Kindergarten, the teacher a white-haired woman big as a polar bear, who used to get the class to laugh along with her at the way you fumbled English, who came striding down through the desks when laughing got tiresome to slap the back of your head so hard you saw sparks like lightning in the flash of black. Mrs. Brick. First grade partitioned between three schools you don’t remember except for Webster Elementary. Second grade in Rose Park, where you used to come home for lunch to chocolate and cheese sandwiches your mother would heat in the oven to just before they melted, where the Diamond brothers caught you coming home on Valentine’s Day and scattered the cards the kids in your class had given you in the slush of the gutter. And then the two-room schoolhouse on the ranch. Third grade in the room from old Miss Jenny. Fourth and fifth and sixth in the other room from Betty Peterson whose husband Chas ran the milkhouse across the big dirt lot from the bunkhouse where all the sheepherders lived. The potbellied stove, the portrait of Adlai Stevenson on the wall, the coal bucket you took out back and loaded whenever your turn came around, the flagpole out in front in the dirt that got turned into a maypole every spring. By fifth grade, and then all through sixth, because of Mrs. Brick, you were winning every spelling bee they could throw at you. And then here, two months ago, in April, to this house in a town named Bountiful, twenty minutes north of Salt Lake City, this brand new house on a paved and guttered circle ringed with other brand new houses. So for junior high you wouldn’t have to ride the school bus all the way from the ranch to Moab and back to the ranch again. So you’d be close enough to a school to ride your bike to seventh grade instead.
They let you out of sixth grade early. Your father told them he had to move in April or else lose the house. So they let you and Karl and Molly out of school with two months left and had Manny and Hidalgo use a cattle truck to move your stuff here from the ranch. Karl and Molly and Roy made the trip north through the length of Utah in the deep back seat of your father’s Buick while Maggie rode in your mother’s lap. You got to ride with the sheepherders, on the bench between them, perched on a bundle of gunny sacks so you could see, smelling hay and sheep feed, keeping your knees away from the trembling black knob of the tall gearshift, watching the buttes and the cliffs and the canyons move slowly past, listening to the radio right there in front of you over the grinding whine of the engine. Moab. Crescent Junction. Green River. Price. Helper. Soldier Summit. Towns you knew from the shopping trip your family made in August every year to Sears in Salt Lake City for clothes for school and Christmas toys. Manny driving, Hidalgo on your other side, the sheepherders talked to each other in Mexican the way your father and mother talked to each other in Swiss. When they talked to you, like your father and mother, Hidalgo and Manny used English.
“Hey, little man, we got your bed back there,” Hidalgo saying. “You sleepy, you can go back and take a nap.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
“We got all your stuff back there. Those magazines with the naked ladies, too.”
“I don’t have any naked lady magazines.”
“Sure, sure. Manny, he’ll tell you he don’t either, when you ask him.”
“Honest. I don’t.”
“We lose the brakes right now, little man, what you think happen?”
Manny saying something quick and sharp in Mexican to Hidalgo. But you heard chico there in what he said and knew that it meant little kid and you didn’t like it. Not after being called a little man all morning.
“You see that kind of cliff down there? Where the road turns?”
Manny shaking a cigarette out of the pack of Chesterfields he had on the dashboard while you looked down the road and saw where it looked like it ended. Not a cliff but this bunch of boulders like a family of huge brown elephants. You knew that the road didn’t end there no matter how much it looked like it did because the Buick would have been there, stopped, and your father would have been standing in the road outside the open driver’s door, wondering what to do, your mother complaining for an answer from the passenger seat.
“Yeah,” you saying. “I see it.”
“Time we got there,” Hidalgo saying, “no brakes, we’d be doing maybe a hundred.”
“Would we crash?”
“Would we ever. And all that stuff in back? All that furniture?”
“It all come flying. Right through the cab. Smash! Squish us to pieces like three big ripe pumpkin heads. Turn us into pumpkin juice.”
You understood it too when Manny coughed out a burst of white Chesterfield smoke and said fuck in the middle of something in Mexican and you got scared and looked at Hidalgo and he shut up but sat there grinning. And then turned his head and looked out his side window. And after a while said, “Manny don’t like pumpkin juice.”
And then, after the long and growling climb up Price Canyon, after cresting Soldier Summit, after making it around the turn past the elephant family boulders and the road was there again, and the distant back of your father’s Buick, there was the song on the radio, and the sound that was playing the song, a sound you’d never heard before, the human breath of a voice giving flight to a bird made out of the sound of steel.
You sat there spellbound. Your breath. If it was an instrument it was one you’d never heard before. But you wanted it to take your breath too, make it the sound you were hearing, a sound you would follow anywhere. And then it was gone, and Hidalgo was saying sheepherder music, and you were saying no, it’s not, looking at Manny, knowing from this quiet grin around his cigarette that they were fooling you.
“Sure it is,” Hidalgo saying. “Up in the mountains, the moon and the stars all out, the sheep all sleeping, just you and the dog, a little fire going, right, Manny?”
“Keeps away the cougars and coyotes, too,” Manny saying.
“That’s right.” Hidalgo taking a second to lean down toward the dashboard and light his own cigarette. “Makes them peaceful. Takes their minds off their stomachs.”
“You hungry?” Manny saying. “Thirsty?”
“Just say so. Don’t want your mom thinking we’re letting you starve.”
The movie your father took when Manny came to get your dog the afternoon before you moved because your mother said you couldn’t bring him north. You drew a picture of him instead to bring along. Rufus sat there, watching you draw, not knowing it was him, not knowing anything until Manny leashed him to the spare tire in the bed of his pickup truck. Manny said he wouldn’t change his name, would call him Rufus too, would make him a happy-go-lucky sheepdog. And then he drove away, Rufus barking, leaping back and forth in the bed, and there you were, in your gold-colored swimming trunks and the piece of tarp you used for a Superman cape, half chasing the small cloud of dust that rose up behind the tailgate, your legs confused and irresolute, the same uncertain jerkiness in your arms, up and then down and then up again, half waving, not knowing how to let him go, not sure how to say goodbye. Rufus. The dog you got when he was a puppy not much bigger than the bowl of your two hands. The coyote you cornered and tackled in the yard. The way you pulled his jaws apart until Rufus fell clear. The day it took for Rufus to come unparalyzed enough to eat and walk again.
Later, in Bountiful, when your father runs it on his noisy home projector during a Family Home Evening, the movie will startle and shame you. It will show you what he sees when he looks at you. You wheeling round, seeing the man behind you in the road with the whirring camera to his face, the recognition in your own face that you’re being filmed, the half-apologetic try at smiling, then wheeling around again to run a few more stumbling steps in the wake of the dust-blurred pickup. In the film you won’t hear Rufus barking. Just see the fierce repeating recoil of his head. Just see you waving while your father records on film what it’s like when you think that a dog would know what it means when you wave at him. The scene will feel endless while your family sits there watching. Jazz. A new word. Sheepherder music. A way to comprehend it. Thistle. Spanish Fork Canyon. Springville. Provo. Orem. Out ahead of you, through the windshield of the cattle truck, through the towns going north all the way to Salt Lake City, there was always the green rear end of your father’s Buick, heads and sometimes faces in the big rear window.
“Hey. Look over there. Your new house.”
Looking where Hidalgo’s pointing. The spires of the Salt Lake Temple above the roofs of the downtown buildings in the yellow afternoon sky.
“That’s the Temple,” you saying, because Hidalgo wasn’t Mormon, because maybe he didn’t know. “God lives there.”
Called a raw new voice in American fiction by Rolling Stone, Pushcart Prize winner Max Zimmer was born in Switzerland, brought across the Atlantic at the age of four, and raised in Utah in the take-no-prisoners crucible of the Mormon faith. In the summer of 1978 he wrote a long love story that became the genesis for If Where You're Going Isn't Home. He gravitated toward the city, lived and tended bar in Manhattan, met his wife, and eventually moved to the northwest corner of New Jersey, where he settled in to write If Where You're Going Isn't Home from the beginning. The East is now his home. Utah is a place he writes about.
Learn more at maxzimmer.com.
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