They bought the land in Santa Fe in the 1970s, when no one else was interested. They borrowed the money from Elizabeth’s father and were starting a life for themselves. Standing at the highest point of their newly acquired purchase, they squinted their eyes and just barely caught sight of human existence. Layers of sand and clay swelled out beneath them. Pinion trees stretched their branches over the chalky soil, creating streaks of shade for horny toads to hide in. Thirteen dry acres at the end of Old Pecos Trail. Thirteen acres, with almost no road access, that rolled and pushed its way to the arroyo on its northern border.
They chose the land because the sky was vast and magical from anywhere they stood. Floating above their crowns were huge three-dimensional clouds that danced like creatures, clustering together one moment and spreading out the next. They watched millions of stars rise in the evening, sharp little points of light that raced down from the sky to seduce them.
Looking up at a ceiling covered in duct tape constellations, they lay in a small-dilapidated blue tent and huddled. They laughed at the water that seeped through. In this little world, they constructed dreams of their home and their future. They speculated for hours about how many children they would have, and whether they wanted a kitchen that faced the sunset or the sunrise. They didn’t know the winters would be raw and cold, or that the snow would pile high and leave them stranded miles from town. They spent their last pennies on an old beat-up Toyota truck that sputtered and kicked its way down the thump-ity-bump of the washboard roads and set out to build a family.
Even in the arid air and unfertile land, things tend to grow.
The lights were out, but the blue haze of the television crept around the room, flickering light, flickering dark. It was late, well after midnight. Cliff Gordon leaned against the doorframe that led into the living room. His wife, Elizabeth, nuzzled against the arm of the couch with her feet tucked under the cushions. Her breathing had been slow and steady for an hour or two, and the soft powdery glaze of sleep drifted across her face. Sissy Cornwall curled tight into the other corner of the couch, pulling a worn fuzzy Pendleton blanket closer to her chin. Although not related by blood, Sissy and her son Artie were as much a part of Cliff’s family as the two children that shared his genetic code. He and Liz met Sissy before their son Michael was born, and now, after twenty-some-odd years, she was sitting on his couch slowly dying.
But Cliff didn’t think of that now. He focused his eyes on the little tan man in the yellow bathing suit running across the television screen. The televised Artie couldn’t have been more than two or three and his legs were chubby, his knees soft like Play-Doh.
“Cute, huh?” Cliff said, his voice vibrating through his chest cavity and rolling out into the stillness of the dark living room.
Sissy smiled, “Better than cute.”
Ever since she got sick, they wanted to throw Sissy a party, but she insisted what she wanted most was to curl up with her family and watch movies of their life together. Cliff thought the whole idea was macabre, but he was wrong. True to form it was a celebratory night, a perfect night. The kids laughed and pointed at their former, shorter selves. Elizabeth fussed over everyone, like she always did, and they all felt good, which was exactly what Sissy wanted.
A little pot-bellied version of Cliff’s daughter Clara waved out at him from the TV screen. She stood on the edge of the pool wearing a purple bathing suit that ruffled at the waist and shimmered in the sun. Gripping her nose between her fingers, she set out to test the buoyancy of the bright-orange, air-puffed floaties on her arms.
“Watch this, Daddy,” she chirped.
When she jumped, droplets of water flew in his direction, and he heard his own voice, detached and faceless, “Careful, baby, don’t splash the camera.”
Her sweet young face showed little concern. Instead, gaps of baby teeth smiled out at him. “Come swimming, Daddy.” The picture jumped for a second, and then the tape ended. Cliff could still see Clara’s outline on the dark screen. Sissy looked over the back of the couch in his direction.
“I have one more,” he said. “You up for it?” He tilted his head in Liz’s direction, “Or, should I gather up my sleeping beauty over there and go to bed?”
Sissy tucked a chestnut strand of hair behind her ear and said, “No, one more.” Her sounds had grown deep, hollow, almost sad, almost happy.
The only sealed video left in the pile of discarded cases was Artie’s birth celebration. They had already watched all the birthdays and graduations, all the cookouts and trick-or-treaters, leaving what was either the most poignant or the most upsetting for last. Cliff knew it was not something Sissy could easily forget, and not just because she was the one who had the honor of huffing and puffing and bleeding and screaming.
He could still see the blue-purple color that came to Elizabeth’s lips eighteen years ago when Sissy told her she was going to throw a party at which guests would be entertained by watching the “miracle of birth.” The three of them were sitting around the coffee table, the same coffee table that Sissy was resting her feet on right now.
On that night eighteen years ago, Elizabeth was on the floor. She wore a white, embroidered, peasant blouse, and her wine glass, sticky with fingerprints and burgundy colored remnants, rested on the table in front of her.
“I wouldn’t want to give birth in front of a gang of people, that’s all,” she said adamantly.
Sissy spoke around a Twinkie she had just stuffed into her mouth, “I think I wanna share it.” She swallowed. “I mean how many times am I going to have a baby?”
“It’s not really all that pleasant,” Liz countered. “I mean the idea is beautiful and everything, but the action of giving birth is pretty grotesque, and… well, you certainly will not look your best.”
Sissy laughed. “I’m not particularly worried about my appearance, but if you are, you’ll be right next to me. You can touch up my lipstick.”
Liz sternly pursed her lips, not laughing even though Sissy was funny. “It’s personal, ya know? Do you really want all our friends looking at your,” she lowered her voice to a whisper, “privates?”
Cliff sat on the couch just behind Elizabeth, twisting her blond hair in circles around his finger. He had been drinking but was more intoxicated by the looks on their faces, and he guessed he spoke just loud enough to be too loud.
“Oh come on Liz. Don’t be such a priss,” he said. “It will be fun. A big party. Lots of oh’s and ah’s and eww’s.” Neither woman laughed. They just looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
Sissy had only been living with them for a few months then and her sway over Liz hadn’t even begun to grow to its full potential. The conversation went on for hours, days even. It had not been easy for them to convince Liz. He could picture Sissy perched against the kitchen counter, one hand rubbing the swell of her belly, her eyes fierce with the intensity of her argument. He could see her hollering through the bathroom door while Liz tried to shower. He remembered her trailing and droning behind Liz while they collected the laundry, and then finally one day at the breakfast table, Cliff watched Sissy push her fork back and forth through the scrambled eggs on her plate, while his wife gave in to her unyielding persistence. In between sips of coffee Liz sighed, shook her head and said, “Well I guess if you want to have a baby in front of all those people, it’s your prerogative, but I was just saying…”
Before she could get another word out, Sissy cut her off, “Good. We’re having a baby in the backyard Cliff-O.” He was sure he smiled at that, and he thought maybe he had also winked at her, but he wasn’t certain.
The preparations for Artie’s birth had been ludicrous. You didn’t invite just anyone to a “birth celebration,” but they kept unusual company to begin with, and Santa Fe is a mecca for artsy, hippie, loving types, who might think a public birth is a great idea. Women in Santa Fe are constantly getting together to celebrate the passage into menopause or the arrival of a girl’s first period, so why not Sissy’s leap into motherhood? Of course, because of the nature of the event, no matter what kind of people you invite, they aren’t quite sure they want to go.
As far as Cliff was concerned people came because it was Sissy. Something about her made people think, “Oh, Sissy’s going to have her baby and she wants us to be there. Well then, that sounds fabulous.” She had a spark that made people commit to things, much like a rollercoaster that makes you scream your heart out, pumps you full of adrenaline, and rattles your bones with excitement, until you‘re retching up cotton candy and corn dogs in a rancid smelling waste bin. She had even been able to convince Elizabeth that Clara and Michael should be privy to her outlandish presentation of human reproduction.
When all was said and done, Artie came into the world under the watchful eyes of nearly fifty people. In those days money was tight. Cliff had just opened his architecture firm and the cost of building Sissy’s house still burdened their bank accounts, so all the guests received handwritten invitations. Each envelope included a detailed phone tree. Liz still had one of those invitations stuffed in a box somewhere.
Sissy had her first contraction, on a Tuesday morning in early August. Elizabeth was serving as the midwife. She propped Sissy’s feet up on the chaise outside on the patio and they sipped icy lemonades, while Cliff, some boys from work and a smattering of other volunteers set up for the expected evening’s entertainment.
The main attraction was situated at the bottom of the unfinished pool or a hole in the ground, depending on who was looking at it. Cliff decided the increase in possible vantage points made the pool a perfect place for the birth, even though it was not yet suitable for water. He built a temporary floor in the mud, propped an old mattress up on a platform, reinforced it to withstand the bouts of birth, draped it in white sheets, and christened it “Willamina, the birthing table.” (They had laughed at that.)
Around seven in the evening, Cliff made the first in the line of phone calls. Sissy’s eyes watched him through the patio doors, as Elizabeth helped coerce her awkward pregnant body down the makeshift stone steps of the empty pool.
“It’s time,” he said into the receiver.
Luminarios lined the path weaving around the Gordons’ property and the edge of their two-story adobe rooftop. Each paper bag guttered with a warm golden glow. The sunlight slipped behind the horizon and the orange fiery streaks in the sky seemed to mimic the candles. Carrying a hodge-podge collection of used trays lined with glasses of champagne and colorful hors d’oeuvres, their friends’ teenagers floated and weaved their way past the guests’ apprehensive faces. Everyone stood frozen in wait, their necks craned, looking down into the depths of the unfinished pool. The smell of sage waltzed and spun through the crowd making the air smell fresh and unsoiled.
There was very little sound other than Sissy’s struggle and Elizabeth’s words of encouragement, cycles of clenched faces and fists, grunts and pushes, and then a child, a boy. Artie’s lungs opened in their first ear piercing cries, and the crowd clapped and lifted their glasses in congratulations. With Elizabeth’s hand resting on his shoulder, Cliff cut the cord that connected Sissy to her new man.
Eventually, Artie grew accustomed to his surroundings, and Sissy had each person in the room touch his fresh fingers and wish for his future. Cliff wished that Sissy’s son would love him like a father and that in return he could be the father her boy no longer had. It was a spectacular sight, blood and all. When Cliff thought about all the moments that threaded together to become his life, Artie’s birth celebration was quite possibly the most perfect and awe-inspiring memory he could call on.
But, that wasn’t exactly the story the movie they were about to watch told. The guy they hired to film the celebration made an artistic choice, which failed to capture the essence of the event. His “choice” excluded the birth of Sissy’s son altogether. He was barely in his twenties, an awkward pimply sort of a boy, perhaps not quite old enough to understand the power of a man’s birth. He sat on the edge of the pool and filmed straight ahead, so most of the footage was crotch to ankle images of the guests, but all throughout Clara’s tiny face was in the frame. Her wide eyes filled with terror and amazement.
Cliff’s frail, blond, two-year-old chewed on her little fingers, pulling anxiously at her skin until it bled. She was wearing dress shoes, patent leather ones that reflected the hem of her skirt. You could almost track the happenings of the birth by watching her twisting expressions. Elizabeth tried to prepare her for the sight, but being so young, she couldn’t understand. They probably shouldn’t have let her watch. When the crown of Artie’s head began to appear, pushing its way through the soft flesh between his mother’s legs, she burst into hysterical tears.
After a few sob filled moments, the photographer suddenly turned the camera to the action. Cliff’s swarming fingers, seeming larger than the baby’s body, submerged Artie into the clear liquid that washed him clean, and for the first time Artie’s little eyes squinted at the patio lights. Then, Cliff passed the infant to his wife and stood by smiling, as Elizabeth wrapped his tiny little legs and tummy into the warmth of an old soft blanket she had used to warm their children. Together they lowered Artie into Sissy’s arms, and she nuzzled him for the first time, her bottom lying on the blood stained white cloth.
As if he finally realized the true importance of the event the camera man panned to Cliff pulling his two young children down into the pool with the rest of their family. The final frame rested on the panorama of the Gordons, all four of them, circled around Sissy and her new son, protecting them at all costs.
It was that image that flooded Cliff’s mind as he slipped the tape into the VCR. He had done his best to be the good father he hoped and wished he’d be that afternoon, but he wasn’t perfect. In the future he’d be better. If Sissy left them, he’d be better.