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"Miz Stone," the pregnant girl said in the way Birdy hated: here at Pinetop High, teachers came in either Missus or Miss. "Miz Stone," the pregnant girl repeated, her hand swaying forlornly, every part of her weary. "Why are all these stories and poems so depressing?" As evidence, she now hefted the reader so that it fell splayed from her palm, a fat textbook covered with the bored graffiti of her predecessors, so heavy it appeared to be taxing her frail wrist just to hold it up. Outside, snow fell. Not the snow of November or December, which portended Christmas, nor the snow of January or February, which meant skiing, but the snow of March, that defeated, dreary, superfluous month no one could love.
Weather and room and subject matter were all gloomy. Birdy had smoked a joint over lunch break with her colleague Jesuús Morales, and that, combined with the pregnant girl's question, the snow, and the body odor of twenty-three teenagers, made her feel hopeless for humanity. She ached for the girl anyway, so unprepared for what awaited her. Around the teachers' lounge, her plight had become a watershed: those who sympathized and those who judged. As the youngest teachers, Jesús and Birdy were inclined to identify with the students.
Birdy drew a big breath as if to blow out candles; her tongue still tasted dryly of pot. She explained to her senior lit class that, in the first place, the stories and poems weren't all depressing, and, in the second place, didn't tragic feelings linger longer? Would there be anything much to say about a happy day? Her students studied her, thinking of a thousand things to say about a happy day. A few of the girls thought she had nice clothes; the boys appreciated her long legs and long hair and the way she took jokes well. But they couldn't quite muster the enthusiasm she seemed to expect. Accustomed to Spanish pronunciation, they called novels "nobbles," reducing them to rabbit food. They all hopped to action in other classes, inspired by threats, eager to keep athletic eligibility, avidly cheating if necessary. But Ms. Birdy Stone, lover of sad literature, held no particular power; her class was good for relaxing. This afternoon she felt her kinship with her students develop a wrinkle, a space between her and them, an annoyance that was new to her. I'm getting old, she thought dejectedly. They'll all stay seventeen, year in, year out, but soon I'll be old enough to be their mother.
Everyone sat waiting for the bell, which wasn't a bell at all but a buzz like an oven timer. Inside the school it was unnaturally hot; they were done. The buzzer buzzed and they went away.
All small towns are not alike. Having seen one, you had not seen them all. Everyone did not know everyone else's business, and the people were neither friendlier nor more genuine, the lifestyle not purer — just duller. Birdy Stone had lived for nineteen months in Pinetop, New Mexico, and still the old adages were being debunked.
She'd come from a big city, Chicago, and thought a high percentage of its inhabitants would fit right into Pinetop, far, far better than she did. She still tended to think of herself as temporarily installed here, not like a tourist but like a reporter on a story, a missionary on a mission, never mind that she could not name her cause. It seemed she was looking for something. She did not worry about the renewal of her teaching contract because its being terminated would finally give her a reason to pack up and flee. She was twenty-nine years old and unwilling to consider this place the backdrop for the rest of her life.
As an excuse for being a community, Pinetop had used mining and then timber industries. But that was over. Now those attendant structures hulked emptily on the hillsides as eyesores. Some nights they seemed to sneak closer, big boxes full of the void, square black windows and doors like holes punched in for a peek. The town had burned down twice in its one-hundred-year history, so there remained no interesting architecture, no quaint clapboard buildings or stately brick ones, nothing but the mountain of toxic mine tailings and the ravaged hillside where once there'd been a forest. A few towns away, the Apaches ran a gambling casino, and there was a large horse-racing trade in the vicinity, but neither of those lucrative businesses did much for Pinetop, although every Pinetop merchant sold T-shirts and postcards advertising both. Many of the locals seemed to think their town was about to be discovered by that most profitable of enterprises, tourism; little specialty shops popped up like flowers every spring — espresso bar, chocolate shoppe, Christmas ornament boutique — opening cheerfully with banners and bargains only to slowly wither over the summer and fall, the merchandise grown dusty, the clerk gloomy, the owner cynical, the crepe paper shabby and saggy, until the store-front stood desolate once more. Failure seemed its own thriving industry, like death.
On the highways leading in and out the national franchises lined up, jockeying for attention, pushed together like snap beads, the same eye-catching toy colors, red, yellow, blue, green. People in Pinetop considered it a coup when a fast-food chain selected their town for an outlet; they loved their Wendy's and their Jack in the Box and their Kentucky Fried. For the convenience of a drive-through window, they'd forsaken the downtown cafe, Dora's, in favor of McDonald's. Quaintness did not interest them. Charm was a little nothing you wore jingling on your wrist.
Plus, the wind blew. The mountains sat in such a way that a nearly constant wind howled through; pointed pine trees, those left standing, listed north-eastward as if yearning to give up and sail off, arrows into space. The gritty tailings, heaped in a barren yellow dune at the western end of town, flew overhead on particularly bad days, snicking against the window glass, thickening the air like flung salt, settling over the streets and yards and roofs. In the winter, it was snow that blanketed the ground, drifted against the east and north sides of houses, banked icy buttresses before windows and doors.
From the Windy City herself, Birdy should have been accustomed to the relentlessness. She'd hated the wind since she was a child, its cunning chill factor in the winter, its taunting tornadoes in the summer. But in Chicago you could huddle in doorways, escape into basements, dash between the high-rises, duck into steamy delis or crowded appliance shops. You could take solace in the fact that the wind swept away the litter and smog. The city fathers acknowledged its eminent domain; they heated the El stops and burrowed out parking lots underground; they called themselves Hog Butcher to the World, and girded their loins.
Here, people pretended the wind was not incessant. They walked out of their houses with tentative grips on their possessions, their hats and umbrellas and trash sacks. Their skirts flew up and their television antennas snapped, laundry defied the line. Both this year and last, everyone assured Birdy it was highly unusual, all this wind. They went around being astonished by it, exclaiming. She was suspicious of their wonder. She lived in a trailer, which rocked in the breeze like a bread box. Her neighbors owned aerodynamic A-frames, or peeling log cabins with portable carports lashed to them, or trailers such as her own, sitting atop concrete blocks and pink fiberglass bales, roofs dotted with old tires like sliced olives on saltines. It was not uncommon in Pinetop for houses to come rolling in on the highways — and, conversely, for automobiles to rest in fields among the flowers and cattle. Everywhere you looked there were signs reminding you not to dump: DO NOT DUMP, as if you might be tempted, otherwise, to unload all of your garbage, right here, right now. Birdy's street, she l
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