Permission is granted to
reprint the story complete with a copyright mark
and all credits
including a byline and tagline.
This story and many others are available in Harkening at
(c) copyright Carolyn
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
The Main Street of Gunnison is Highway 89.
It is marked “Main Street” on the street signs and “Highway 89” on
the map but it is no longer a main street and certainly no longer a
highway. I had to drive many miles off the Interstate to reach it and
in that thirty-minute drive, no car, pickup, or human was to be seen.
I slowly traced the city streets and gravel
side roads of the town in the hand-me-down car with Utah plates that I
was bringing back to California for my son. I was searching for
memories and I felt comfortable. Like a shadow. As if I still belonged
to the place and it belonged to me. It would be fun to renew old
memories, even find an old friend. I parked dead center of town and got
There were no marked lines down the center
of this street. Worms of shiny black tar traced what were once fissures
in the asphalt. An Indian Head penny embedded in the obsidian webbing
the surface told of how long ago the repairs had been made. Potholes
from recent winters were left unfilled. This road defined both the
inner city and outer limits of the town; it was easily wide enough to
swallow six lanes of a modern freeway with room to spare.
On the way into town I had passed The
Church. It was just as I remembered it—yellow brick with spires and a
green, well-tended lawn. It felt as if there should be more in the town
that was familiar. Maybe it wasn’t that I remembered the church so much
as that it was déjà vu. A replica of other wards I had seen in any
town, anywhere. In this year or in past decades. Mormon wards all
looked as if they had been carved with the same biscuit cutter. If a
hurricane picked one up in Santa Monica or Provo or Ogden and plunked it
down right here in Gunnison, it would hardly affect the landscape. The
locals might hardly notice. So maybe I didn’t remember it but only
recognized its sameness. It was bigger than anything in town, just as
they always were, are now and perhaps would be forever more. Flowerbeds
of chrysanthemums had just started to bend their heads in the frosted
nights. It was a monolith. Familiar. Expected. Serene. Simple.
Clean. No crosses or symbols of any kind. Not a soul about.
My family once owned a farm here, too. It
was not more than a couple of blocks off the main road. I tried to
identify it but couldn’t. Soybean fields, like wards, all looked alike
and so did the barbed wire fences that hugged their way along irrigation
Our farm was a “working farm” which, for
Dad, meant that he let Mr. Hackett sow the soy that spring. Then the
summer sun watched it grow while my brother built a lean-to. My father
fetched tools for him and made lunch for all of us. That meant that he
pulled Mom’s potato salad full of little black cumin seed out of a
cooler. When he also had set up the Cokes in shapely little green
bottles and put home fried chicken on Melmac plates and had forgotten to
put out the napkins, we knew it was time to eat.
The farm was to be my father’s new hobby
after his heart attack. It was a place for him to open his easel and a
little aluminum luggage rack. He used the rack to arrange tubes of oil
paint and coffee cans full of turpentine with paintbrushes sticking out
of them like feathers in a headdress. There were smears of paint color
on the top of the table where he’d mixed them, eschewing a fancy
artist’s easel. He’d pull out pages from “How To Paint Still Life” and
“How To Paint Landscape” along with desert scenes he liked from “Arizona
Highways,” shuffle through them and then quietly paint only the clouds
in the sky until my brother needed another tool. He believed the high
desert sun was so strong it urged him to paint. I thought that it
demanded that he stay alive.
At the end
of the season old Mr. Hackett harvested the soy. We never saw him.
When we arrived one weekend early in the fall, the fields had been cut
clean. Dad said Hackett would share a portion of the price the feed got
at market. We believed that he wouldn’t and that Dad knew he wouldn’t.
Not only could I
not find the farm but the town itself looked both familiar and foreign.
A vague disquiet crouched like a subliminal gnome. There was a new
park right next to a little creek with a water wheel turning behind the
strength of a mere trickle that flowed out of the Wasatch. I laid
out my own lunch of peanut butter on whole wheat and Sun Chips.
There was a restaurant I had never seen next to the park. It had
been called Celebration Café and Catering but it was no longer
celebrating. In the moment, the most important aspect of that fact
was that there would be no one to ask about bathroom facilities. I
thought of crawling through the front window but glass still protected
the place with shards and bevels like sharks’ teeth. I checked my
car over my shoulder and decided that, with a deserted street, I didn’t
have to go back and lock it.
The next storefront was the town’s office
building. There was one door and a hallway that served the businesses
there. In the office was Nebs Inc. Agency--real estate, I think. The
computer was on, its screen saver curling pixels of steam from a cup of
cappuccino. The door was locked. No one was there. The next office
was a small room with an old upright decorated with a doily and a vase
of artificial roses. Flat against the wall next to it was a large, very
simple cross, metal against plaster. There was no design, no softness,
very little depth. A stark cross hanging on yellowed stucco. There
were four rows of fold-down chairs in perfect rows of ten. Some of the
seats were occupied with hymnbooks as big as the Bibles in triple A
motels. A sign in the window said “1st Baptist Church.” It
would be a long, long time before a second would be needed.
The next room was a classroom, probably for
the church because there were pictures of Jesus on the wall. A
temporary table was set with neat stacks of church literature. In the
middle was a Baby Wipes canister with a slit in the lid. The masking
tape label said “Donations.” The last door was a bathroom designated
for men and women. Very modern. Very clean. No toilet seat
protectors. No soap.
myself carefully in. When I came back out into the hall and the offices
it served I was prepared with apologies and excuses, but there was still
no one around. I noticed that the church window also listed Kenny F.
South, Pastor. Leader of his silent, invisible flock.
As I left I noticed a darkened beauty
parlor I hadn’t seen before, a business niched between the Sunday school
classroom and the real estate agency. The sign in the window was almost
illegible. It promised “fashionable hair design for all
As I stepped off
the curb I realized I was shaking my head and blinking hard.
Perhaps it was an adjustment to the change in the light, perhaps an
adjustment to the silence, perhaps just an adjustment. Directly
across the street was the old mercantile where I had once shopped for
supplies. It was leaning a little and crumbling in places.
It reminded me of the sets at Universal Studios—sadly decrepit and
unused. A window in the second floor framed a piece of sky and a
wisp of cumulus like an unexpected snapshot of nature. The lower
windows exposed fallen studs and plywood from the floor above.
Next door was The Juab County News. The
door was open. Next to the door there was a stand full of newspapers
just like the ones on the streets of LA. I crossed without looking,
something I hadn’t done since I was a child. There was no sound of
motors and wheels, only the hush of cottonwoods whispering near the
creek. The paper was 75 cents. I plopped three quarters into the
slot. Two quarters more than the LA Times. A thin coat of gray dust
adhered to the windows blurring the interior of the newspaper office. I
hoped that I’d see a print shop that hadn’t changed since the days of
hand-set type and rolling printing machines.
Instead a fluorescent orange Mac computer
monitor with scanner, printer, and a shiny mouse greeted me with
clicking and buzzing sounds. In an office beyond the reception desk was
a table set with several keyboards and three screens and a tower or
help you?” the man facing the three screens said without turning.
publisher.” He turned away from his set up like a man with arthritis in
his neck and looked at me. There was no smile.
from that old mystery program on TV played “oooheee, ooooheee” in my
mind. This was a character from-- not Stephen King--more Alfred
“I used to
spend my summers here,” I said. Not many summers. No
point in explaining. His expression did not change. I
stuttered. “I-uh, bought a paper.”
pay for two?”
at the papers in my hand. “Fall Flu Vaccines Late” the headline said.
I ran my thumb along the edges. “Oh yes, I guess I do.” I fished three
more quarters out of my Levi’s pocket. “I thought…”
they’re thin next to what you’d be used to.”
in denying it. I was a little surprised that he seemed to know what I’d
be used to. Anonymous car, a little beat up, local plates. T-shirt.
Jeans. Worn baseball cap. I shook my head, then jerked it toward the
street. “Where is everyone?” I said.
where they always are,” he turned his back to me. The Macs were calling
“Do you do
all the writing yourself?”
“Me ‘n my
wife do.” His voice was turned to walk away.
it’s nice to be back. I loved this town.”
He was back
with me. “Just in case you don’t know. It’s a revolving
door. My six kids all left. One’s in Michigan. One’s in
Atlanta. Couldn’t stand it any more. But then you
Californians start coming in,
from Utah. I may live in California but I was born here and my
ancestors were pioneers. I’m from Utah.”
revolving door,” he said and went back to his desk, sat, and showed me
his plaid flannel back and an unseeded head.
out onto the street. The noon sun was bright just as I expected it to
be. Across the street, next to the Baptist Church and Associated
Tenants was a Napa Auto Parts store painted royal blue and gold. Its
door was still labeled with a hanging sign that said “CLOSED.” No “Cerrado.”
Definitely a revolving door. More go than
come. More sun and quiet than not. I thought of my father with his
colors. I shaded my eyes against the bright of the town. I listened for
warmth. I turned to see the direction from which I had come, the
highway illustrating the principle of perspective, the mountains dusty
in the northern distance. Then I turned and pulled my cap down to
shield my eyes and squinted in the other direction. The highway
streamed and curled like Krinkle Ribbon to the South. Gunnison was not
what it was. The memories were not there but in my head. My father had
died sometime after the lean-to was finished, sometime in the fall
before Mr. Hackett was supposed to show up with the soy money. He left
a procession of canvases propped with their faces toward the cabin wall,
a series sort of like Monet’s haystacks. Clouds in all sorts of dress.
Thunder clouds. Shreds of stratus. Clouds licking the Wasatch peaks.
Summer clouds. Clouds the color of aircraft carriers.
There was more than
one way to go through that revolving door. I climbed into my unlocked
car, ground the old starter twice, and headed out in the opposite
direction from the way I had come. I, like my father, was only stopping
there, only a tourist in a place where I didn’t belong.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson's first novel, This is the Place (buy
Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered ( buy link:
www.bit.ly/TrueShortStories) are both multi
award-winners. Her fiction, nonfiction and poems have appeared in
national magazines, anthologies, and review journals. Her chapbook of
was named to The Compulsive Readers Top 10 Best Reads and was given the
Military Writers Society of American Silver Award for Excellence. She speaks on
culture, tolerance, writing and promotion and has appeared on TV and
hundreds of radio stations nationwide. She was an instructor for UCLA
Extension's renowned Writers' Program and has shared her expertise at
venues like San Diego State's Writers' Conference and Sinclair Lewis
Writers' Conference. She was awarded Woman of the Year in Arts and
Entertainment by members of the California Legislature; her home town's Character
and Ethics Commission honored for her work on promoting tolerance and
the Pasadena Weekly named her to their list of "San Gabriel Valley women
who make life happen" for literary activism. Her nitty gritty
how-to book, The Frugal Book
Promoter won USA Book News' Best Professional Book
and the Book Publicists of Southern California's Irwin Award and is the
first in her HowToDoItFrugally series of
book for writers. It is now in its second edition, holding several
awards of its own. Her Web site is