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New California Fiction : PURGATORY

July 17, 1994|LIZA WIELAND | Like the woman in "Purgatory," Liza Wieland thought about buying a ticket to Silverton from Durango, Colo., but she didn't go through with it. "The rest of the story comes from the novel I'm working on now. In some ways, this is a chapter, but a different telling of the story." Wieland teaches American literature and creative writing at Cal State Fresno. Her novel "The Names of the Lost" was published in 1992 by Southern Methodist University Press; "Discovering America," a collection of short stories, was published in 1994 by Random House

Main Street in Durango, Colorado, makes me sad to the very core, the kind of deep loneliness I used to feel as a kid on winter mornings in Flagstaff when I'd walk to the bottom of the driveway to get the newspaper. Up and down the block, there'd be all those houses lit up against the cold, the buttery light of the neighbors' kitchens making me feel orphaned. All the way back up the driveway, my heart seemed like it would break open, and the pain of it got sharper and stronger until I thought it would kill me, right there on the back stoop, with all the news that's fit to print clutched in my hand. I'd let myself in the back door, into my mother's kitchen, and she'd turn away from the stove to watch me come in like she'd missed me for all of the five minutes I'd been gone. Everyone else was still asleep. I'd hand her the paper and see that same yellow light shining in our house too.

Now the only place to go back to is the Pine Aire Motel, and Charlie and the tired argument we've had the whole way across the country from New York, then on to Flagstaff to my father and my brother and his exemplary life. We were going so Charlie could meet my family before we get married. But somewhere in the great ugly void of Kansas we seem to have decided what we really need to get is an abortion. I say "we," but I have plans of my own. I always have had plans of my own, I guess. It's what my mother hated most about me, that I wasn't your basic family-type person, wouldn't run with the pack, turned and snarled at the pack most of the time. Wouldn't she be surprised now. Maybe she is surprised, looking down from her front-row seat in heaven. Maybe she's saying to her heavenly cronies, That one's mine. Maybe she's thinking, Hang on, there's hope.

I've come to the end of Main Street, where it bottlenecks into the turnstiles for the narrow-gauge railroad to Silverton, passing through, would you believe it, the town of Purgatory. I have this idea: I will go to Purgatory, and I will get work in a bar. Of course there are bars in Purgatory, there'd have to be, but the glasses would always be just out of reach, or else you'd drink and drink but never forget your sorrows, never even get drunk. I can go there and have this baby that its own father doesn't want, and no one will ever find me. This baby can grow up in Purgatory, and when it gets ready to enter the world, it will be one of the few humans truly equipped to live there. Charlie can drive the rest of the way to see my brother and my dad, and he'll be happy for a way out. That's when I start to feel scared. There's a solid wall of people moving from the McDonald's across the street past me to the railroad station and the ticket window, and at first I resist their jostling, but then I let myself be pushed into their number, close behind a man with an infant slung over his shoulder. I get packed in so close I can smell the sweet stink of talcum powder and sour milk that babies give off. I follow the baby and buy a ticket to Silverton. Then I stand along the west wall of the depot watching the baby as its eyes begin to close for the slow ride into sleep.

At 6:20, when the all-aboard whistle blows directly above my head, I open my mouth and give one long grieving wail, but it can't be heard above the whistle and the loudspeaker instructing passengers to have their tickets ready. My stomach heaves, and it's while I'm getting sick in the ladies' room that the train leaves for Purgatory and Silverton and all points in between. I know I'm going to ask myself sometimes what would have happened if I'd gotten on that train. What would have happened if my baby hadn't picked that moment to show off its early willfulness? I know, too, that I'll never stop asking because I'll never come up with a good enough answer.

WE LEAVE DURANGO AT FIRST LIGHT, HEADING WEST, THEN SOUTH, ON Route 160, the two-lane highway that will run us through Four Corners, the wild and desolate convergence of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. We stop there, expecting fanfare and earth shifting under the weight of its own importance, but find instead only a few Indians selling their wares, and 200 portable toilets. Then the road drifts gradually southwest, skirting first the Navajo, then the Hopi reservation, then the Navajo again, bisecting and squaring the land until it dead-ends into 89 South to Flagstaff.

I point out to Charlie how this landscape looks like the moon or other places you would never think to go. The roads are deserted and so the land takes care of itself, makes itself up as it goes along, seeming to have never gotten the news about the way order and repetition make for what people back East call scenery. I wonder if the point of scenery isn't getting a lot of other people to see exactly what you've seen, which accounts for postcard sales and that red barn near Gloucester, Massachusetts, that's the most often-painted piece of landscape in the entire free world.

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