A journal of narrative writing.
Introduction to Airborne Radar

In October—or if you listen to the local DJs, Rocktober—Delia, her mom, this snooty ski-society woman Peg, and I sit in a Chinese restaurant in Vail. Lunchtime on a Friday. Parent-teacher conferences are this week, so the high school gave us the day off. I’m sixteen. I was supposed to spend the day with Ernie, but he decided to take an extra shift down at Bowles Crossing Cineplex instead. He told me this in voicemail—said he needed gas money—and I had no way to talk back. I left him my own message filled with my dumb enthusiasm, cringing even before I put the phone down, though I still meant it.

Delia and her mom drove us up here from Littleton this morning. I’m staying with them while my parents are in Glenwood with this weird religious couple they met online. They go on retreats every so often—“to bullet-proof their marriage,” they say—and finally I’m old enough to be left behind.

In fall and winter, the Rocky Mountains wear their name—dark, jagged, and iceberg-like. And though I hate driving on ice, and would have been fine staying home alone with my CD player and some movies, I know that traveling in them, even for a few hours, always feels like a massive, head-clearing journey, only broken by the return to the suburbs hours later.

Delia keeps rolling her eyes at me because Peg won’t look at us. We sit at the same table, next to the same scroll painting of fruit, but an invisible force field seems to block us from her view. The waiter slaps down the check. Peg tells Delia’s mom she’ll pay for half, clicking plum-colored nails on her card. “For you and me,” she says, ignoring us. “This was a business lunch, you understand.”

Delia scowls in my direction. I clunk my purse on the table, olive green with about seventeen zippers. I hate feeling dependent on people. Delia’s mom taps my wrist. “It’s okay, Lindsay,” she says, then smiles at Peg. “Of course. I’ll get them.”

In the car, Delia pushes in a mixed-tape. “What a bitch,” she says, glossing her lips magenta, shiny like jam or a stained glass window. Outside her mother shifts her hips, talking to Peg in the parking lot.

I check my phone. “Ernie hasn’t called yet.”

“Don’t you think?” Delia says, dabbing her mouth.

I shrug, suffocating with the car windows up. I roll mine down and brace for the cold that settles in on us. “I hope she doesn’t have kids,” I say.

We hear Delia’s mom: “We’ll be in touch soon, Peg,” and the scrape of her shoes on the rock-gravel lot. Delia’s mom keys the engine on. “That went okay, didn’t it?”

Delia pulls down the visor and watches me in the mirror. She mouths, “Call him,” but I shake my head. It’s his turn. To her mom she says, “I guess so.”

Down the mountain, I check my phone often enough to start an aneurism. Reception varies in the mountains with so many dead zones vacuuming up conversations, but mostly it looks like Ernie hasn’t tried. Maybe he hasn’t thought about picking up the phone at all. Sometimes his job means spending hours in the projection room keeping the movie in focus or making sure it doesn’t grow black hairy lines. Or in slow times, screwing with the nacho cheese pump behind the counter. It doesn’t matter that we had sex for the first time in my life last night. It doesn’t matter at all.

I-70 is getting slick, icy and graveled at the shoulders, and Delia’s mom wants to stop in the Georgetown visitors’ center. My mom loves this place, too. Free coffee in an A-framed hut. Brochures on gold panning, dude ranching, and hills dotted with bighorn sheep. Delia and I watch a machine smash pennies into flat ovals for the price of two quarters, waiting for her mom. Delia tells me her little brother Gregory’s imaginary friend joined the army without him. Now what was he going to do? He had named the soldier after their dad, who died a couple of years before.

“He’s on a mission,” I say. “That sounds healthy.”

“What sounds healthy?” Delia’s mom comes up behind us.

“Lindsay’s obsession with Ernie,” Delia says, smiling at me, though she knows how much I hate to talk about this with parents.

“Ernie McCarthy? I didn’t know you two were an item. I saw his mother at the Tattered Cover last week,” her mom says. “She looked really different.” Ernie’s mom recently married a rich finance guy after Ernie’s father lost his job. Ernie stays mostly with his dad in a small wood-paneled apartment in Englewood. The carpet is the color of chewed Juicy Fruit and probably comes from the seventies—but it feels good on your bare toes.

Delia’s mom pats my shoulder. “I’m sure you keep him grounded,” she says.

We drive through an opening in the foothills, a vista that reveals the whole Denver city grid. The highway dips down into it, and we slide across the plains until the road meets a neighborhood street running past the golf course and several mini-malls. When we finally reach the cul-de-sac with Delia’s blue house, it feels like a plane landing. Delia’s dad’s car still sits on the driveway; her mom can’t get around to selling it. The grass, yellow and brittle, inches outside the rectangle of their yard.

Gregory races over from their neighbor Mrs. Moorehead’s house, skidding into Delia’s legs as she gets out of the car. Mrs. Moorehead stands inside her screen door looking at us, then walks down the driveway in thick-heeled sandals and boxy red-framed glasses. Delia chases Gregory around a tree.

Delia’s mom says, “Was he good for you?”

Mrs. Moorehead reaches Delia’s mom, shading her face from the pale sun. Delia’s mom smiles. “Any trouble?”

Gregory screams as Delia wrestles him to the ground.

Mrs. Moorehead says in a stage whisper, “There’s been a shooting this afternoon.”

“What do you mean?” Delia’s mom says.

“It’s all over the news,” Mrs. Moorehead says. “At Albertsons.” The grocery store just a few blocks from Delia’s house and a five-minute drive from mine. I was there a few days ago buying enchilada sauce for my mom.

Gregory crashes into Delia’s mom’s leg. “Boom!” he yells. She picks him up, lays his head against her shoulder, and holds his cheek.

Delia walks up, pulling grass from her hair. “What’s going on?”

“Guy went berserk,” Mrs. Moorehead says, even more quietly. “Killed two people and injured a cashier. He knew one of them.”

“God,” Delia says.