Birth Place

I used to have a recurring dream about Soldier Summit, the dying town high in the mountains of Utah where my parents began their marriage and my brother and I first lived. Though it has been years, my memory of the dream remains vivid. I am hiking along a road with snowbanks on both sides and mountains rising in front of me. Then night falls and it begins to snow. Music plays, haunting music with bells. Brilliantly lit houses on the mountainside overlook the road, promising warmth and rest, but I can’t stop. I have to reach Soldier Summit before nightfall. Then the lights from the houses fade. Darkness closes around me.

My mother told me how she waded through hip-deep snow to reach the Hillcrest Cafe where she waited tables and my father cooked. Before buying the cafe, my father worked as a dispatcher at the railroad station in Soldier Summit, but he wanted to be his own boss. Once Mom became pregnant with me, she stopped working at the Hillcrest. She had to be careful. She’d miscarried with her first pregnancy, an older brother or sister that Steve and I might have had.

After Steve was born, fourteen months after me, Dad’s mother came to help Mom take care of us. Nana soon claimed me as her darling, leaving Steve to Mom. Throughout our childhood, I thought Mom loved him more and forgave him things she would never have forgiven me.

I recall only moments of that time in Soldier Summit. I remember waking before dawn in the dim bedroom where Nana and I slept and watching her get dressed. She had on an old-fashioned girdle with garters and stockings but no underpants, and I saw the tuft of gray hair between her legs before she slipped into a dress. I asked where she was going. To Salt Lake, she said, just for the day. I asked if I could come. Not this time, she told me. Sometime later she took me on the train to Salt Lake. We shopped in a huge department store. Then we checked into a hotel so I could take my afternoon nap. This seems unlikely given how little money we had, yet the memory is vivid — the cool sheets and the precipitous view from the window.

Another memory: Steve as a toddler wearing a frilly pink dress, screaming, furious, his red face smeared with tears and snot. Years later I asked Nana about the incident. She told me I was imagining things, nothing of the kind had happened. So I never mentioned it to Steve. But a long time afterward, when both of them were dead, I asked Mom about the memory. Nana had put the dress on Steve, she said, as punishment for wetting the bed. When Dad came home and saw, he cussed Nana out and ordered her to get that dress off him. “It was my fault,” Mom said. “I should’ve stood up to her.”

Steve told me once I had no clue how hard it was being a man. High on speed and beer, he’d nearly fought some guys on the street because one of them said something. He got into vicious fights over matters of respect. I heard about the ones he won. He boasted of beating up a drunk who ruined his hat with a pocket knife.

Earlier this month I went back to Soldier Summit. Steve’s son Hayden, his wife Tonia, and their daughter Aspen came with me. The place I remembered was no longer there. Snow covered the foundations of the demolished houses where Steve and I once played. There were a few new buildings along the highway, but everything I remembered was gone except for one abandoned house and the railroad tracks.

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