Excerpt from 'The Water Museum'

The Water Museum


By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2015 Luis Alberto Urrea
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-33437-2


1. Mountains Without Number, 1,
2. The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery, 31,
3. The National City Reparation Society, 49,
4. Carnations, 73,
5. Taped to the Sky, 77,
6. Amapola, 105,
7. Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush, 135,
8. The White Girl, 153,
9. Young Man Blues, 159,
10. Chametla, 185,
11. The Sous Chefs of Iogüa, 193,
12. Welcome to the Water Museum, 213,
13. Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses, 237,
Acknowledgments and Credits, 257,


Mountains Without Number

In a beat-down house at the foot of a western butte, a woman sips her coffee and stares at her high school yearbook. Most everybody's gone. The pictures seem to be a day old to her. She still laughs at the drama club portrait, still remembers the shouting when the football team won the regional. And there she is on page thirty. She was one of the pretty ones, for sure. One of the slender ones who had a mouth that suggested to every boy that she knew a secret and was slightly amused by it. She had famous lips.

She looks at herself in her drill team uniform. Runs her finger down her skinny leg. Wonders where that girl went.

Now she keeps the shades at the back of the house pulled down so she doesn't have to look at the cliffs. A few years back a woodpecker got into her roof beam, and it's all chipped out. Wood bees are rooting around in there.

She has been meaning to hammer some sheet metal over that corner, but she hasn't seen woodpeckers in years—not since the drouth got ahold of the land. She keeps her geraniums and little apple tree out front alive with her dirty dishwater. Saves money, though her neighbor says that makes her a Democrat. Being eco-logical and all that happy crappy. They laugh about it over the fence some mornings.

"Them apples," the neighbor says, "are gonna come up tastin' like Lemon Joy."

But the old lady isn't out today, and the woman wonders as she often does if the neighbor is dead in there. Some days are spooky like that, and she doesn't know why. She wants everything to live forever.

Her coffee dregs go down the drain, and she rinses the cup in her plastic water bin and upends it in the dish rack and slides her keys off the counter and goes out. Turns hard left out the door so her back is to the butte. She drives a Ford F-150 with 120,000 miles on it. One bumper sticker: honk twice if you're elvis, with a little yellow smiley face. Backs out and doesn't look up. She can never find Bon Jovi on the radio. Just Jesus and Trace Adkins. But Trace is good enough. The sky feels like it's on fire as she drives into town. Her morning clients are always there before she is. Waiting for her. Feels like the last six people left in the West.

* * *

Atop the butte, the spirits of the old ones are indistinguishable from the wind. From up there, the old main street is thinned by altitude and turns silver in the morning sunlight. Crows skitter across the streak of light like small embers. And her truck pulls into a diagonal slot outlined in faded yellow paint. The pickup could be any color, any color at all. It doesn't matter. The sun is turning it gray. She looks as small as a pebble in a creek bed.

Up there, the wind is an oven, and nobody below knows there are ancient fire rings and small middens of deer bones and remnants of lodges where pack rats still gather twigs from the dead white trees. Scattered across the brow of the butte, hide scrapers and arrowheads and metates hollowed out in flat rocks where acorns and pine nuts were ground by ten thousand years of women smaller than the one below but with the same thick braid of hair. Gray, everywhere gray, threading its way among the colors, as it has stitched the fields to the south. Dead watercourses form scars across the belly of the world. The oaks and the pines are as pale and colorless now as photographic negatives, except for the wide black plains to the east: dead oceans of boiling rock.

The few tourists who speed through town on that main drag don't use film anymore. Their children may never know what negatives are. If anyone takes a snapshot, it is on a smartphone. And it will be a picture of these red and black cliffs, not the town, not the woman.

The colored figures painted upon the face of the butte are the only relief for a hundred miles: white, blue, yellow.

* * *

They call her Frankie. Has been Frankie since high school. It was so cute then, so saucy. Better than Francine, by God.

Frankie pulls herself out of the Ford, wonders how her hip got so stiff. She couldn't ride a horse today if you paid her. Wonders how she got to this time in life when she tries to get up from a booth inside her diner and her hip locks on her and keeps her trapped for an extra minute until her body releases with a click like a door unlocking. How she got to this season of night fevers and wet sheets and spooky moods. Her keys are clipped onto a great purple carabiner with a small foxtail with Indian beads dangling. She sounds like bells as she moves.

Her clients await her in the scant wedge of blue shade along the wall. She nods to her breakfast club and slams the truck door and hates the way her upper arm jiggles and wishes there was a health club in town. She grins—that grin of hers never aged. Her lips will always stay famous when the rest of her falls away. Health club in town? She wishes there was still a town at all.

The morning crowd nods and touches her arm and says "howdy" and "hey-now" as she pushes through them to the door. Saint Frankie of the Perpetual Coffeepot. She unlocks the door with those jangling keys, rattling and melodious. She feels like a fifth-grade schoolteacher and they feel like kids waiting for school to start. The men look her over. She still fills a pair of jeans, they think, though only she knows what size she wears now. The swinging door allows the old scents of grease and bread and donuts and eggs to join the sage and dust in the street. The breakfast club follows Frankie into the shadows, seeking refuge.

Frankie flips on the a.c. and the blowers bang to life.

They think they've always been there, these good people, but they haven't. One of her breakfast club, Ike, used to tell Shoshone tales to anyone who would listen. He was a major pain, of course, with his Indian legends. But then he died and suddenly became one of their angels. Good ol' Ike! And Remember when Ike used to say ...? And what he said was that the cliffs did not love them because they spoke English, not Shoshone. That the spirits who tended to the butte spoke the old tongue, and nobody who ever climbed up there managed to learn a damn word of Shoshone—he always pronounced it Sho-shown, like that. "If you learned a few old songs and went up there to sing, the mountains would hear you, and miracles would happen." He smoked two packs a day like all the old-timers, and he died in 1987.

But the cliffs are older than the Sho-shown. The cliffs don't count years—years are seconds to them. Flecks of gypsum pushed off the edge by the hot wind. They are the original inhabitants of this valley. And they weren't always cliffs. They were entire mountains once, until the inevitable carving wind and scouring dust and convulsive earthquakes and cracking ice trimmed them, thinned them, made their famous face appear to oversee the scurrying of those below.

Mountains, too, are doomed to die. But it is their curse to die more slowly than anything else on earth. To weaken and fall, mile by mile, carrying their arrowheads into the gullies, and with them the gemstone skeletons of the old ones, and the great stony spines of the elder giants. Even these are mere infants to the falling mountains. All falling as grit on the flats. Tiny hills for ants to climb.

* * *

If you hit Highway 20 to Idaho Falls, you've already missed it: New Junction—home of the Benson Hill High School Mountain Men and the State Champion Benson Hill Colorettes. The sign on the playing field is partly down now. It says:



Frankie's Diner is the only restaurant left in town, though there is a Taco John's on the east side, right before you hit the Sinclair station with its green dinosaur on the sign. The mountains knew those animals well. Truckers and tourists, when they come through, stop at Taco John's for their sodas and their burritos and their toilet breaks. Frankie doesn't seem to mind, though she keeps her feelings close. She doesn't serve hazelnut French roast anyway, she tells herself. Everything at Frankie's is like it ought to be, like it used to be.

She bakes big blueberry muffins every Tuesday and they're gone by dinnertime, mostly gobbled by The Professor and Miss Sally. Frankie's has its best crowds on Tuesday mornings. Everybody comes in except those crusty old waddies who still try to run a few beeves in the draws. Once in a while, one of them rides his horse right down the street, looking like something out of a crazy cowboy movie. They don't even wave, just grimly straddle their saddles and clop out of sight. Those boys don't care to talk much, and if there's one constant at Frankie's, it's palaver. It was busier when she was a kid, when her mom and dad ran the place, but the oil field roustabouts are gone over to Rock Springs in Wyoming. And the uranium miners are long gone, too. Lots of them tearing up the Indian reservations now, but some of them still burning out their lungs and kidneys digging around the back side of the butte. But that's nearer to Arco.

People don't mention Arco much. Hell, Arco came up with the figures on the cliff faces idea before they did. Arco beat the Mountain Men every year just about. Arco was the first city ("city," ha!) lit by nuclear energy in the world. The buttes and mountains look down upon Arco also, and after the seas of molten fire they observed, the reactor meltdown in 1961 was just a little pool.

* * *

Inside Frankie's, the coffeepot is on and Ralph, the Sinclair owner, sits on his stool at the counter and opens his paper: drunk drivers and abandoned horses and no call for rain. Well, hell—there was never all that much rain to begin with. They are inhabitants of the rain shadow, where those Cascades to the west scrape all the juice out of the clouds as they head this way.

The phone rings, and Frankie beams and sits in the kitchen and says, "Hi, doll! How you feeling?"

"That's Sammy," The Professor says, as if everybody doesn't know it.

"When's she due?" Miss Sally asks.

"Any day now!" The Professor is feeling like a news anchor, delivering the headlines. "A girl!"

"No shit," mutters Ralph.

He's thinking of a vacation. Maybe Florida. He'd like to fish.

They hear her laugh. "Bye-bye!" she says. "Love you too!" Dishes clatter back there.

"Another beautiful day," The Professor announces.

"Wait. Don't tell me," Ralph replies. "It's sunny."

The diner's windows look west, away from the cliffs. Frankie likes it this way. The old motor court sits across the street. And a couple of white houses and two trailers.

Some of them have foil over their windows. Satellite dishes. Frankie thinks about how each of those little places is a story. The drivers hurrying through town think about the huge stories looming over the road. They don't even see the town. Those numbers on the face of the butte.

They're huge. Much bigger than the old red handprints painted on the rocks when gargantuan creatures walked the plain, hairy and regal and slow as clouds. Taller than the lines of antelope scratched into the rocks.

The numbers start at 23. They march forward through time and stop at 00. Nobody in town likes to look at 77. Especially Frankie.

* * *

"Here we are," Frankie says, as she says every morning, once the call is over.

She pours the first cups.

"How's Sammy?" Sally asks.

"Just about fit to burst," says Frankie.

"I remember those days," Sally says with a wink.

"How did we do it?" says Frankie, going to Ralph, and to the far booth and then to The Professor.

"What the hell," says The Professor at his customary window seat, where he spends every morning staring out—as if there would be anything new to see.

Everybody glances outside, and by damn, something new does come along. A lone steer, all slat sides and idiot drool, ambling down the street, looking in the windows.

He stops and chews his cud and drops a pound of fertilizer outside the diner.

Frankie opens the door and waves the coffeepot and scolds, "Shoo, now! G'on!"

He shakes his big horns once and gets dogged on down the street by a squadron of agitated biting flies.

"You seen that?" asks Miss Sally, but nobody answers.

Frankie says to Ralph, "Pay you a dollar to shovel that patty out of there."

Ralph stares at his paper.

"Feed me first. I'll do it when I'm done. No charge. I'll be keeping your tip, though."

"There goes my Cadillac," Frankie says, winking at Sally, who covers her mouth with a napkin.

"A gentleman," The Professor announces. "Chivalry is not dead."

"Sure ain't," says Ralph, pondering the ball scores. Goddamned Seahawks.

* * *

Doesn't every town in America have an old-timer called The Professor? That duffer who knows everything and everybody, as long as they are dead. He can tell you who Monica Benson dated between 1955 and her tragic demise in the flood of '67. Yep, it rained sometimes. And the big cliffs made sure the arroyos north of town exploded with deep red floods that swept cars out to the lava beds and left them upside down and full of sand.

Frankie is mixing her batter. The ovens are on. Miss Sally grabs the pot and goes ahead and refills her friends' cups for them.

"Gotcha, Frankie!" she announces brightly, like another breaking news report.

"Thanks, hon!" Frankie calls from the back.

Everybody has a personal cup, and they hang on wooden dowels on the wall. Old Bev and Howie still hang there, though they died a couple of years ago. Right beside Indian Ike's cup with feathers and a circle with four colors in it.

"Hope you have a hair net!" Frankie adds. Everybody chuckles.

"Oh, you!" cries Sally, which makes her blush as she sits back down.

The Professor's cup has some kind of chemical diagram on it. He really was a professor, of sorts. Taught Science and Bio 101 at Benson Hill. He coached drama club after school, which is where he met Frankie in 1976. It was hard to get boys in there, since actors were pretty much known as "faggots" by the Mountain Men. Still, Frankie was queen of the color guard that year, and some of the footballers followed her naughty smile into the club. That's how he met Son Harding and poor old Stick. Stick made it as an actor for a month and dropped out of the club when he tried to read Shakespeare. That was some fairy shit right there and Stick wasn't going to put up with it. But Frankie and the Colorettes had won a state ribbon that year, and she was hell-bent on winning a drama award, too. She wasn't about to let all the boys off the hook. So Son was her partner—he didn't mind—and they did solos from West Side Story. He couldn't sing to save his life, but Frankie belted it out like Skeeter Davis, by God. And she danced fine, too. Spun those skirts of hers like a carnival ride and made everybody feel like it was the Fourth of July when she took the stage. Frankie made Sonny great. They were all juniors that year.

Frankie puts The Professor's bowl of oatmeal in front of him. Sally eats English muffins with jam. She can't afford more, but everyone makes believe she's a light eater. She actually pays with change that she fishes out of one of those plastic ovals that squeeze to open, as if she's still in grade school. Frankie makes a big show every Tuesday of eating a blueberry muffin with her, calling them extras, even though she can't stand them anymore.

Ralph studies the Big Beaner Platter—eggs, chorizo, beans, and tortillas—as if it were an engine needing a tune-up. He isn't sure if Mex food is right for the valley. But he's up for something new.

Professor: "Ralph, what you eating?"

Ralph: "Illegal alien grub."

The Professor turns to three sheepherders skulking in the corner booth, hunched and dark.

"Sorry," he says.

"Basque," says one of them—and a look that tells him to mind his own business. "Legal." The men go back to their eggs.

Professor: "And what you reading?"

Ralph: "Paper."

Professor: "What's it say?"

Ralph: "Same as yesterday. Obama's still a communist."

Miss Sally: "Oh now." She still has an old Hillary sign in her front yard. The only blue campaign sign in the whole region.

* * *

Frankie's in and out of the swinging door all day long. She tries to count her steps—Dr. Oz says to get in ten thousand a day. She could probably get there on a fairly busy shift. It reminds her of the old marching days. She can't afford busboys right now, so she buses the tables, cooks, washes dishes, and takes the orders. A strand of hair has escaped her braid, and it is stuck to the sweat at her temple. She brushes it away with the inside of her wrist. Her eyes are still blue. No rings on her fingers.


Excerpted from The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea. Copyright © 2015 Luis Alberto Urrea. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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