I'd Always Been a Good Girl by Joan Taylor-Rowan

I’d hit a rough spot and was in New York.  I was an orphan to be exact.  My father had died two years earlier from a surfeit of bile that had left us all cowering. My mother’s recent death had been a quiet expiration as if she, by contrast, had wanted to be as undemanding as possible.  I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that her last word was “sorry” – but she hadn’t even managed that, just a tiny puff of breath, my sister said, and she was gone.

I’d always been a good girl, done the right thing but parentless and with thirty-six approaching like an express train I took off determined to live a little before the big D got me too.  My relationship was over, the ship of our relationship had puttered to a standstill on life’s ocean and neither of us knew how to get the motor going.  He was rescued by a passing blond, I wasn’t so lucky so I struck out on my own and ended up across the pond.

I had been two weeks in New York and was feeling about as lonely as a Hank Williams song. I sometimes rode the subway holding onto the hand-strap with my eyes closed pretending I was slow dancing to some corny Burt Bacharach number as my body swayed to the movement of the car. I had decided to cut my losses and go back home convinced that a life of adventure was for other people with names like Thelma or Louise.  I would go back to the English suburbs, find a husband, like everyone else and have some children before my eggs passed their use-by date.

Trouble was, I’d told my married friends I’d be away some time and If I returned after two weeks I’d feel like such a failure.   So when a sympathetic East village waitress – all eyeliner and heavy black bangs -gave me the address of an artist she knew in Crested Butte, I decided to fly to Aspen. Well as my other plans had gone West – I thought I might as well follow.

The artist was in his late 50’s with a walrus moustache and a roving eye so I didn’t stay long. I hitched a lift with a young woman called Reena  and her two kids – Bright and River, who were heading to Grand Junction after a week at the Art Fair selling candles.  The car smelt like nature and the spruce and sage-brush scenery passed by like a scratch and sniff book.

The road narrowed, winding through forests, with the occasional log house surrounded by lush grass and a view of mountains above.  I thought of the families inside, eating Devil’s Food cake and drinking quarts of milk like in the US sitcoms of my childhood. I told Reena  I was travelling with no ties. It sounded hollow when I said it but she didn’t seem to notice, she just sighed and moaned about her useless ex who wouldn’t give her enough to keep the kids.  I told her I was impressed with her enterprise - she was trying something new, taking life by the horns.  I didn’t know which of us I was trying to convince.  She beamed at me and squeezed my knee.

“Woah – watch out,” I said “something’s up.”

Reena braked suddenly. “Oh God, It looks like a car smash.”

I felt my guts knot instantly, as the girls clambered over me to the window.

“We wanna see it, is there any blood?” Bright yelped

We pulled up and Reena wound the window down.  A slim young guy in beach shorts leaned in.

“There’s a woman trapped in the car we need to get an ambulance. Do you have a mobile signal?” His face was white, his voice shaky.

“Not up here,” Reena said.

 He groaned and rubbed his hand through his sun-bleached hair.  I felt for him, he couldn’t have been more than 20.   He was on his way back to Aspen from a trip to the ocean with his friend, he told us.  I glanced across to his car, a surf board strapped to the top, the dashboard overflowing with cartons and chip packets. Reena got out, snapping at the kids to stay put.  I sneaked them some Oreos with a finger to my lips and they grinned and took them. 

The small white truck was balanced on its side – luckily it had skidded into the mountain and not gone over the edge.  Glass was scattered across the road.  It was growing cold so Reena opened the trunk and pulled out some blankets.

“Goddamn, someone get me out.”  The injured woman’s voice was raw and angry.

“I was first on the scene,” said the boy, as we hurried towards her. “I’ve already sent one car down the road to the Ranger’s station and someone else drove back towards Crested Butte.”

“You’ve done all that you can do,” Reena said squeezing his arm.  He smiled gratefully.

The woman was in her 60’s, her head cushioned on her husband’s thighs.  He’d managed to get out and pull her halfway. Even a few feet from the truck I could smell the booze. As I got closer I could see the crushed beer cans littering the footwell.  Reena offered the blankets to the husband, and unable to do much else, she stood in the road, waving down approaching cars.

A big Subaru truck arrived next and a heavy man with a threadbare baseball cap got out and assessed the situation.  He manoeuvred his vehicle into the middle of the road and attached a wire from his own fender to the chassis of the smash-up preventing it from rolling over but blocking the road in both directions.

We peered expectantly into the distance for the lights of an ambulance or a police car. The line of vehicles backed up along the mountain road - a snake of blinking hazard lights. The growing group of stranded motorists milled around, filling in newcomers with the details, exchanging stories and destinations. There was a young couple with a baby; some older folks heading down to their daughter’s in Paonia and a librarian with a trunk full of books that he was delivering to a literacy project.   Periodically a loud moan hushed us all reminding us, as we chatted and laughed, just why we were here. 

An hour passed and night settled on the mountains.  Reena’s girls, wrapped in blankets, snuggled up in the back like little rabbits. We got out warm jackets and wished we had hot drinks to share. Reena was comforting the surfer boy and I stood apart for a few moments, the night like a cloak, the chattering voices strange in this dark landscape.  Fall was in the air.  The leaves had already begun to turn gold up at this altitude. It wouldn’t be long before the snow covered everything, closing this road down, bringing in the wealthy to the ski resorts, and Christmas to the stores.  I should go home for the holidays, not hang out here with no plans.  My sister, on her own since her divorce, would appreciate the company. I should be dutiful, that was one thing I could do well. Still the thought of a turkey for two in my sister’s suburban flat filled me with dread. 

The woman in the car groaned loudly.  I heard her husband murmuring to her.  She might die if an ambulance didn’t arrive soon.  Life felt so solid, so permanent, but it was as light and fragile as a balloon.  Knowing that should make it easier to make the right choices but it didn’t.

Just then, a strapping girl marched up the road towards us, removing her gloves.

“I’m a nurse” she said, “let’s see what we can do here.” I felt some of the anxiety leave me.

 I turned back then and noticed a new man had joined the group. He was in denim overalls, his white beard shaped like a hoe.  He wore a straw hat and his blue eyes shone out even in the low light. His wife stood behind him, sturdy in a floor length skirt and a white bonnet made from fine starched cotton, the ribbons dangling at either side framing her face.  Reena nudged me, “You’re staring,” she giggled.

“Have they been to a fancy dress party?”  I said.

Reena gave me a look, “they’re Mennonites,” she whispered, “farmers down in Paonia.”  I inched nearer. They’d begun to chat to the couple with the baby.

 “Get this fucking thing off me…” the voice of the trapped woman cut the air. We heard the no-nonsense tones of the nurse answering her.  The Mennonite man chuckled,

“At least she’s strong, that one.” His voice was musical, American with a lilting European accent.

“Where’ve you come from?” I asked.

“Crested Butte, and yourself?

“The same, by way of London and New York.”

“How long are you staying?” he asked stroking his beard.

I shrugged, “not sure yet.”

“Ah you have no children then.”  I shook my head guiltily, sadly, I wasn’t sure which.

“I have five girls,” he chuckled, “they all live close– they are good girls.”

 I thought of my sisters, all of us as far from our childhood home as we could be.

“You live in Paonia?” I said

“Ya, we are fruit farmers. I was born in Mexico near Chihuahua but I moved here to marry.” His wife smiled.

“There are Mennonites in Mexico?” I said, imagining how incongruous these Johnboy Waltons must look among the dark-haired ranchers that I imagined filled the Mexican landscape.

“Ya” he said, “there are big communities, dairy farmers mostly. You should go and visit them it’s beautiful down there.”

“Help me I’m gonna die here for crissake….”

Mrs Mennonite rolled her eyes, “she should conserve her strength for healing.”

 I watched the two of them interact, quietly patient with each other.  Maybe I should go South, maybe I would meet a nice Mennonite boy and settle down – I imagined myself in a bonnet and dirndl like Mama Walton, trying the outfit on in my imagination, like a paper dress-up doll.

 I looked across and caught surfer boy watching me, the strong muscles in his arms as he wrapped them around his body for comfort and warmth.  He smiled tentatively.  The paper outfit crumbled away to nothing in my mind.

“No sweater?” I asked him.  He shook his head, grinned.

“Where’s your friend?”

 “Dropped him off in Butte, his family run a restaurant there.”

“So what happens when you get to Aspen?” I said.

“More travelling, I’m heading down to Mexico, last chance before college gets me.”  He laughed. Despite the shock he’d experienced, the life danced in his eyes, like a flame you wanted to put your hand to.

 “That’s funny,” I said “I’m heading that way myself.”  It had just slipped out of my mouth.  One second I had no idea where I was going, and the next I had a plan that seemed quite solid, and completely possible.  He was smiling slightly, nodding with interest.  I was glad of the darkness as the blood ran up through me in a sudden surge that hit my cheeks.

“Really? Wow. Uh, I can give you a lift if you want,” he said. I was silent for a moment,

“I mean if it fits in with your friend and everything,” he stammered, “I mean I could do with the company.” He looked away, rubbed his hand around his neck.

The Mennonites as pure and perfect as the characters in a Swiss clock, vanished back inside my head, the little doors to the big bad world closing behind them. 

There was murmuring among the crowd, someone had spotted a fast-moving vehicle, and as we stood there the siren wail grew louder, then all at once,  in a blaze of noise and lights, an ambulance, a fire-truck and a ranger’s van roared around the corner and came to grinding halt. The crowd who had become frustrated and bored, were galvanised into action.  Volunteers were recruited to hold equipment, clear a route for the paramedics, lift her onto a blanket, as she shouted and swore.  Within fifteen minutes she was strapped to a gurney and loaded into the ambulance.  She was to be driven back over the mountain to a place called Horse Ranch where, the fireman told me, there was a field flat enough to land a helicopter. 

The travellers as if shaken from a dream suddenly became strangers again, heading back to their abandoned vehicles, picking up the broken threads of their journeys. 

“We’d better get moving,” Reena said, “before double trouble wake up.”

“Thanks,” I said, hugging her, “but I think I’m leaving you here.”  Reena glanced over my shoulder at the surfer boy who was standing a short distance away and raised her eyebrows.  I gave her a twisted smile.

“Well, it’s a free country” she said and laughed as she headed back to her sleeping children.

As I walked through the dark and climbed into the passenger seat of a car that smelt of suncream and sea salt, I could still hear the longing in that laugh.


© Joan Taylor-Rowan 2012

Joan Taylor-Rowan is an award-winning short story writer and has had several stories on BBC Public Radio. She has just published her first novel - The Birdskin Shoes. She is also part of a song-writing team Taylor-Rowan and Hughes.  She teaches Art and Textiles in London.  

I'd Always Been a Good Girl was read by Erika Iverson on December 5th 2012