Fall 2012



Skin of the Earth

Nicole Walker

In the winter light, streaming in from the obscured glass window, my face looks as cracked as the desert floor. The skin reads that there was once water there but that those days are over. The skin, as does the dirt, yawns for what it has lost. I rub Lubriderm into the cracks to the side of my eyes, in the middle of my forehead. I wonder if Botox would resolve the gap, would somehow make my brow a flat scape that promised a smooth ride from one side to the other, tripping no one up on my age or my past or how much sunscreen I neglected to wear in the high-altitude desert. If my skin is a map of cliché, then the legend is neither mystery nor code. The map is as plain as the porcelain I wished my skin to be.

After my dad died, we had him cremated. My sisters were twenty-one. I lived in Portland. We were not able to get it together to have him cryogenically frozen as he once said he’d like to be. My uncle’s wife, who had been taking care of my dad, had found his body curled on the floor at the top of the stairs to the basement. He had not fallen down the stairs like his mother had or a friend of mine did. He did not make it that far. It was like he sat down, then laid down, then curled up. He was more cat than man then anyway. The funeral was what you’d expect from twenty-year-olds—full of 70s music like the Eagles’ “Desperado,” though he preferred the Linda Ronstadt version, and Don McLean’s “Vincent” because who dies young who is not an artist? My dad once made a clay sculpture of tackling football players. Perhaps we thought that counted as art.
      I went to see him before the cremation. He was still curled on the gurney. He had a bruise the size of a fist knotted in the skin of his forehead. The only person I could imagine making it was my dad himself. If you push into the brain far enough, perhaps you can change it.
     After what seemed like the many-decade funeral, we gathered my dad’s ashes up in a cardboard box housed in a purse of velvet and took him to the wake we thought he deserved. We sent him up in the style to which he had become accustomed. Bourbon-based Bloody Marys and chardonnay on ice. I drank gin and tonics at the time—differentiating myself from him, from those who thought a wake was a proper send-up. After too many gin and tonics, too many sips of bourbon and chardonnay, my mother and her sister and I opened the box. The ashes aren’t uniform. There was obvious bone. I wet my finger with my tongue and stuck it in the box. I put my finger back in my mouth. The ashes tasted like nothing. Just dried out in the tuck and crevice of my throat. A kiln-firing from the inside out. Pottery shards become classic organs.

The earth’s crust is alive. You think when you cup your hand and scoop a handful of grains, all you’re doing is looking at the past—some shell a reminder that a lake was once here, that this was just a rock, that this grain was snail shell, this one was a Brontosaurus bone. But it’s not true. The earth’s crust moves. Like memory, it runs into itself, shaping itself as fluidly as sea.

My cuticles are falling apart. Every nail hangs. You can see the edges of my nails that soft skin usually hides. If drying is revealing. If drying is a pulling back. If the veil is lifted and now I see the contours of things best hidden, what behooves me to pull back further, to bite the skin, to tear at the white, now red, edges? If the bowl of Salt Lake Valley is the contour of God’s cupped hand, when Lake Bonneville receded, did the plump ridges in the hand stretch flat, did the fatty mounds become fault lines stretched across palm and joint? Does the hand always cup or does it bend and crush and flatten? Do those mounds of finger flesh protect or do they promise landslide? Some say that if you can’t trust the mountains then who can you trust? Gravity is constant. Water slides downhill. To quench a thirst, even a valley’s, is inevitable.

The echoes of Lake Bonneville’s shoreline are known for their isostatic rebound. The rigid surface layers float on top of a denser subsurface. The desert is water. Lake Bonneville, though dried up, still undulates and waves.

It took us a long time to decide when and how to spread the ashes. At first, the box they came in with its velvet wrapping sat on my mantel in what we thought was traditional cremation-having fashion. But the velvet attracted fireplace soot and animal hair, and the outside began to look a lot like the inside. I moved the box to my closet where I thought it would be warm and comforting and also warm and forgettable. The box was moved, by me, I suppose, to sit in the basement. So sat a lot of his books, his record collection—the Beatles, Mannheim Steamroller, Best of Bread, Roberta Flack, Gordon Lightfoot—which he’d recorded onto cassette tapes to keep the records from scratching. Eventually, my sister Val and I took half of the ashes to Hawaii. We spread them out on a beach of Kona named what I can’t remember. There may have been a poem read or a joke about how he could find his way back toward the continent by following the current if he needed to.
     Later, both my sisters and I took the rest of the ashes to Guardsman’s Pass which was the tricky, back way to Park City. My dad drove us in his Buick or sometimes the Jeep over the dirt roads and we’d descend on our favorite restaurant—Scrooges, which was decorated like Christmas every day of the year except for December 25th, when they decorated for Halloween.
     On the side of one of the few hills where condos weren’t emerging, the twins and I got out, sat in the dirt with the stems of cheatgrass poking our legs, crinkled some fallen leaves in our hands, turned them to pieces. Paige told the story about the time he needed Ski Patrol to toboggan him down the mountain because he had over-medicated, one way or the other. Val reminded us about her first wedding and how he walked her down the aisle, crooked. I remembered the time at the castle in Germany when he almost fell off his chair. And the story too of how he let me help him build the redwood deck and room for the hot tub. How he pitched me softballs. How he taught me to ride a bike. The twins know those last stories less well than I, because I had him more sober for longer. It took him quite awhile to prefer drinks to kids. Of course, the day I lost my virginity was the day he started drinking, it seemed to me. The revelation of my sexuality drove him to hide behind liquor. But maybe not. Maybe the changes did not correlate. Maybe like water and salt, the two just dissolved into each other.

The ashes spread, Paige and Val and I headed back to Salt Lake. Park City was a resort town affordable only to Sundance Film Festival-goers now. Scrooges closed the same year I went away to college. Our parents’ old condo had been sold and resold for three times what they bought it for. And although my dad would have liked to join the truly wealthy set that now lived on the Park City-side of Guardsman’s, we hoped the ashes winded their way back toward Brighton, the ski resort where Dad taught us to ski. He taught each of us. He packed our boots for us. He loaded the car with the skis. He skied backwards, his skis making a V with the backs as we made a V with their tips. His skis locked against ours, we made perfect S curves down the hillside, a teleological fall.

The earth’s crust is the skin of the apple, the skin of a peach. Near the top, the crust is like cold wax. It crumbles, but the part nearer the mantle moves like hot wax. It shapes and reshapes. It can’t premeditate or predict, but it can reform.


When I touch anyone, here in Salt Lake, my daughter or my husband or my mother, my sisters, all I get is static. They said that during the dustbowl, people in Oklahoma refused to shake hands. It was so dry there, the particles in the air so charged, so full of near mass, so full of potential energy, that a mere touch could send someone jumping a foot back. Here, it’s a gentler shock but one that makes you re-think your motivations. Is it really worth it—shaking the hand, giving the kiss, patting the shoulder—knowing you’re both going to suffer a jolt? But touch we do because that’s what we do. The inevitable slog, the inevitable reach, the inarguable gravity. The need to touch sits somewhere on the scale between the physical need to drink water and the psychological perceived-need to drink alcohol. It’s all desire and slake. All promise and quench. When your glass is empty, you ask that it be filled up. If your hand is empty, you extend it to be shaken or held or turn it upside down like a cup and let someone fill it with jelly beans or quarters or water enough to seep through the fingers, out the ridges, to puddle in the bottom of the palm. The shock doesn’t hurt that badly. If you keep touching, you get used to it. Other shocks become submerged like sand at the bottom of a land-locked sea. Eventually, the shocks settle into ground, leaving you something you can build on.

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