There are two exits out of Fountain, Colorado. The northern exit also acts as an entrance to Fort Carson, the Army base located in the foothills of Cheyenne Mountain, just south of Pikes Peak. Fort Carson is “The Best Hometown in the Army—Home of America’s Best!” A large portion of the Fourth Infantry Division is stationed at Fort Carson, and it has two of its own slogans: “Deeds Not Words” and “Steadfast and Loyal.” The base website welcomes incoming Fourth ID soldiers, promising, “The assignment will be challenging yet personally and professionally rewarding.” Someone told me once that the Fourth ID has had the most casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t remember who; I won’t remember when.
The southern exit winds past the 7-Eleven, a barn-shaped country-western bar, and a trailer park christened Chancellor’s Mobile Estates. Grandpa once managed that 7-Eleven. My mother was a slim eighteen-year-old clerk when the cocky G.I. who was to become my father walked in with a grin and asked for a pack of Marlboro’s. The country bar has changed hands and names more than a dozen times in the last ten years, and recently, accurately, reopened as Country Bar. Just beyond, the Mobile Estates welcome sign beams a cheery red, white, and blue catchphrase: THE AMERICAN DREAM STARTS HERE.
Thailand has sand like Gold Medal flour, water like Windex.
The blue is see-through more than fifty feet below the snorkeling mask, this other world where plants maneuver in alien ways and rocks are not what they seem. The fish dance, frantic for bits of bread, eluding my greedy hands. My back burns through three layers of SPF 80, but I don’t know the protection is failing just yet. I come up for air, and my husband and I watch the palm trees sway on the lush island bank, a live-action postcard: Wish you were here. “You and me in paradise,” I say.
While I hover through fleeing fish, Tara is dying, then dead. She is in Fountain. I am in Phuket. We are both twenty-seven, or we were.
I didn’t know Tara well, though we were both raised at the foothills of Pikes Peak, the mountain that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write the first few lines of “America the Beautiful,” in the landlocked state of Colorado. According to local lore, the city of Fountain, a waterless place, was in the running to be capital of our square-shaped state—until the Blast in the spring of 1888, when two trains carrying passengers and explosives, respectively, collided on the tracks I know so well. In Fountain, in summer, we have a Blast Dance, and a caboose race, in honor of those who died. I walked those tracks as the poor kids, sans summer camp, always do. I walked them with food-stamped Slurpee and Cheetos in hand. I walked them every day in the summer to Metcalf Park, where the middle-class boys Little Leagued. I walked to escape my siblings and our stressed-out single mother. Tara, I imagine, knew these tracks too.
From what I do know about Tara, we both had mothers who had too many kids, too young, who raised us in houses too small, in walking distance from the 7-Eleven and Paradise Liquors. Both of our fathers died as we were just reaching adulthood. We hocked Girl Scout Cookies at Walmart, dominated Student Council, played in the band, and lost spelling bees. We have, we had, fierce familial pride; our ties to the military are strong, as they are for everyone who attended Fountain–Fort Carson High School. Tara was a friend of a friend, someone I knew from a distance, but I saw these, our commonalities. Did Tara see me too? Her husband came home, if only physically, from Iraq; my little brother, Ronnie, did not come home at all.
My husband and I leave the Phuket fish behind for the day, the clown fish and the flat and menacing ones glowing like hot steel. We teach English in Korea, have long departed our hometowns. We travel through Asia and struggle to part with water that’s like transparent glass.
I first saw the ocean when I was twelve or thirteen. My siblings, Daisy and Ronnie, and I accompanied our cunning father and his new, wealthy, older girlfriend to Sea World and Vegas and places as seen on TV. At thirteen, San Diego was the most exotic place I’d ever been. I flung myself into the waves, marveled at the vastness of the blues and greens, turned circles in the water and let my palms skip, skim the fragile surface. It was too much, the water, endless water. My behemoth mountains, the sentinels over my youth, were a shadow, a memory, a blankness closing in, overwhelming the throb of the ocean. The horizon left me claustrophobic.
My brother Ronnie, eleven then, followed me in, his confidence stronger than his swimming. Daisy stayed ashore, but Ronnie and I floated past our dad’s line of sight. One hundred feet from family, then farther, and the undertow seized my little brother’s thin frame, and he seized mine.
Ronnie dragged me down, and the salt poured into my eyes, ears, and nose. He struggled above my head, pushing me down or trying to pull me back up. The world slowed. When the water finally gave, we both hit air and struggled arm in arm back to shore. Halfway there, I threw up. I kept our near-drowning from Dad. Fountain girls do that, keep secrets. We see the ocean later—late, or never.
I don’t remember a cloudy day on Shield Road in Fountain, Colorado. I remember nights in 406 Shield, nights my dad showed up in our living room, drunk, crumpled, and weeping under my mother’s framed Georgia O’Keefe poster. I remember shadows across my mother’s knit brow as our appliances broke down one by one, our ketchup-colored refrigerator, our mustard-yellow stove, our fourth- or fifth-hand washer and dryer. But out on Shield Road we lit illegal fireworks with the neighbors and jumped rope and chased our runaway pound puppy. Our father’s girlfriend bought us a trampoline, and it fit remarkably well in the midst of weeds and gravel. Soon every down-and-out kid from every meager block was flying in our yard.
My siblings and I failed to accept our neighborhood as a place where people shouldn’t thrive. We grew older and avoided questions about what area of town we lived in. We became aware of the mentions of our streets on the news—child services investigations, drug busts. Spiral out a bit from the houses, and the neighborhood fills with trailer parks, or mobile home courts, as they once were called. When they were promising and clean, in decades past, they were full of new families and Fort Carson soldiers and retired veterans. Those people moved on before we moved in, or if they stayed—well, the rest of Fountain behaved as if people could lose value, too.
My mother, my sister and brother, and I lived at 406 Shield Road for a decade. We played hide-and-seek with the neighbor kids at 405, ate MREs that belonged to the neighbor kid’s soldier dad on the sidewalk near 407, had Fourth of July barbeques with the people of 408. We made plans in the wood-paneled living room over government-funded meals.
Our father moved away first, but he’d never truly leave. It was impossible to determine when he’d show up drunk in the backyard, or sober and meek at school events. He changed jobs as often as the sun sets. He fell behind on child support, tried to make up for it with elaborate jokes and lavish Christmas gifts. “Jack of all trades,” he’d offer. “Master of none,” we kept to ourselves. But Mom would finish college, become a teacher, and then remarry. I would be an actor, my sister a doctor, and my brother would join the Army. We’ve always been on our way out, away from Shield Road, and now we’re all gone—or, at least, not physically there.
The Fountain, Colorado, website announces that, in 2000, Fountain had been chosen as “America’s millennium city” by the U.S. Census Bureau. An award—or at least distinction—based on statistics from 1997, when I was drowning in San Diego, when Tara stayed behind (from what I understand, she would never visit, never see any ocean), it meant Fountain was the most demographically accurate representation of America, per the national census. Due to the men and women who served, the abundance of soldiers who stayed on as veterans, we had just the right proportions of each race and each class, intersecting at just the right time. The New York Times came and wrote an article about little old Fountain, quoted someone named Noel Gugliotta saying, “I’ve lived here all my life. I think Fountain is a very quiet town. It has its people that make mistakes. It has its good side and its bad side. . . . They take care of the lawns really, really well.”
There are Fountain girls who try to leave, but cannot outrun their hometown legacy; there are Fountain girls who never even stumble upon the chance to try.
In 2002, when I went to college in Grand Junction and contemplated the Colorado desert, the National Civic League named Fountain an All-America City. The award, also described per the NCL website as the “Nobel Prize for constructive citizenship,” is given to cities that “engage residents in innovative, inclusive and effective efforts to tackle critical challenges.” I left the critical challenges of Fountain by way of a full-ride academic scholarship, the only way I would go anywhere, the way I’d earn a graduate degree later, and another, after that. All this fully funded education, all this frantic growth, all for me to evaluate what it truly means to be “from an All-America City.” Perhaps more of the same: enlistments, young mothers, missing fathers, children taught to find a way out, to achieve more than their parents, and later, those same children taught to settle in. There are Fountain girls who try to leave, but cannot outrun their hometown legacy; there are Fountain girls who never even stumble upon the chance to try. The American dream says if we just try hard enough, if we work as hard as we possibly can, if we push and pull and reach and reach—but what then, when the dream hurtles farther ahead?
What then, if the dream is only just?
I didn’t know Tara well. Her hair was wild, huge dark curls spilling down her back. She was a hugger—always surrounded by a tight circle of friends, their clique gliding down the school hallways as one. Tara’s mouth urged toward smiling. Like most Fountain girls, hers was an easy laugh—a pressure-release valve, a defense mechanism, a happy veil. She was a grade below me, her older brother my classmate, but in Fountain we were all-American. We were all intersecting at just the right time.
When my brother was killed by the IED, Tara left me kind comments on Facebook. She may have been one of the Fountain community, one of the all-Americans, who left KFC or bottled water or another frozen lasagna at my family’s flag-waving doorstep, at our new white house on the right side of the tracks, though minutes from 406 Shield Road. No one knocked. They knew we were making slide shows of Ronnie in the sprinklers, Ronnie eating birthday cake, Ronnie in a JROTC uniform. They knew we were setting the moments to his favorite song. Ronnie memorized every lyric of “See You at the Crossroads,” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. He did it unironically, all heart, all loss. He sat for hours and listened on repeat every day the summer our dad died, just seven years before we’d memorialize Ronnie with the same desperate song.
My husband, Jesse, who is from New Mexico, grew up in another small town in another dry state where beginnings and endings are hard to distinguish. We were visiting my mother when those men in uniform came to say Ronnie would not return to Fountain, would never come back. We were in the midst of planning our wedding—at twenty-four and twenty-six, we were tender and young, and late to wed compared to our small-town peers. Jesse answered the door that day, my soon-to-be-husband, and kept answering days after. He retrieved condolences from the doorstep, lasagnas, bottled water, floral cards and tear-stained letters, the relentless sun slicing through the house each time he opened the door. “I could see myself in a town like this,” he said, and my shoulders collapsed, my heart went cold, because I understood him perfectly.
The street that runs down the center of Fountain has two names: from the northern Fountain exit the drive is US Highway 85-87, but as it reaches the heart of Fountain, the name is Santa Fe—a sacred faith, a place not far from my own husband’s youth. The road is 85-87 as it passes the sewage treatment plant; and still, farther south, as it passes the open fields where horses graze too close to the railroad tracks; 85-87 when it passes the dirt lot where the World’s Largest Rocking Chair once sat looming and empty. As the highway reaches the red brick Lutheran church, it becomes Santa Fe. Santa Fe would be the name of a mirage or city in New Mexico, but the Fountain street refers to the gritty Santa Fe Railroad. There is a red Santa Fe Caboose pulsing at the center of Fountain, a lonely train car branded with the encircled yellow Land of Enchantment cross. It is a photo op for anyone who has made an entrance out of a Fountain exit.
The streets of our childhood neighborhood have misleading names: Royalty, Crest, Arms, Windsor, Shield. They speak of heritage and inheritance, of a level of class we would never know; they speak of a tradition of prestige, though we now understand this place as one with a habit of violence, loss, and decay.
The neighborhood was derelict—headed that way since before we moved in, in the early nineties—but in its heyday, two decades before us, the place where I grew up, in the shadow of Interstate 25 and the Tomahawk Truck Stop, was where the people who now run Fountain, Colorado, got their start. Mayors and county commissioners, high-school principals and motel owners, a future war hero—many began in what was once the second-biggest subdivision in my hometown, content in those days to settle in mobile homes. In the sixties and seventies it was one of two coveted Fountain neighborhoods. As the city grew farther east from the interstate, and Fort Carson moved a bit farther north, the ambitious people of Fountain moved to larger tracts of land, to homes stationary rather than mobile, to houses, not trailers, and in the early eighties, the neighborhood at the southern tip of Fountain turned: overripe, disposable fruit.
Shield Road itself is a weave of concrete fissures with one long crack running down the middle, each crevice filled with layers of black tar, inky seams struggling to hold the surface together, ready to burst from whatever was bubbling beneath the street where I learned to ride a layaway bike.
I was a middle schooler, perhaps a year or so from the first time I would see the ocean, on the early morning I woke and found my mother leaning against the counter in the kitchen: the right side of her face illuminated by the overhead stove light, the rest of her thin body shrouded in darkness. She choked the cordless phone in her self-manicured hands as she told me her friend, who lived in the trailer up the street, had been murdered. My mom had heard the sirens, saw the flashing lights, and she walked out onto cracked Shield Road, bowed, reluctant, toward the sound, knowing what it was—who it was for. She had met the woman at the community college. They were both single mothers at the time, their children attending the same elementary school, both of their lives in places unexpected; they knew each other intimately, or not at all—their relationship not unlike mine and Tara’s. Lives parallel, and lives diverge. My mom divorced my father, who was a good but self-destructive man. The woman from the community college met a good if self-destructive man, and he moved into her trailer and tried to parent her children. Later, it was said, he was not a good man.
I remember my mother’s face as she told me the story. It is the gaunt—lovely—face of a woman thin from worry; it is a face with a smiling, cackling laugh my siblings and I never stop trying to invoke, a face full of resigned anger, with a cutting tongue and a sigh that could level a house like 406. Our home, a tomb the morning after that woman and her children were murdered. My brother and sister slept, unaware, Ronnie wrapped in his Broncos blanket, Daisy cozy in the bottom of our red bunk bed. The dusty morning light lingered, found my mother and me with nothing to say, the shadows of the kitchen consuming us.
In the trailer up the street, the woman and that man—they’d had a baby girl of their own. She’s who survived the shots that night up the street from our home, the baby—only the baby. The man shot the woman, and he shot her two children from a previous marriage, a boy and a girl. Then he shot himself. He left his own baby in the crib crying alone.
I can, just as vaguely, describe the scene of Tara’s end. I can vaguely promise you her children live, they are living—they are alive.
A bullet once pierced our own living room wall, a clean round breach in the wood paneling. Dad still lived with us then, a time we fled him—drunk, bitter, less-than-employed, shooting at pictures of himself on the mantle. I didn’t know about the bullet hole until after we’d left Shield, after my dad left us; I need to believe with a numb certainty that he would never have shot at anyone but himself.
We’ve left Shield Road behind, haven’t we? And that baby—where is she?
Where is that Fountain girl now?
The second time I saw the ocean I’d moved near the Atlantic, just out of college, a wizened twenty-two-year-old. I spent most of my time from 2006 to 2008 in close proximity to the water shifting and sighing underground in Manhattan. Those subways were dank, rodent-filled tunnels, the people in limbo, a place in between. I auditioned for shows and wrote film reviews there. I fled from the city of Fountain.
Tara moved a little north of our without-a-namesake hometown—where is the mythical fountain?—but stayed close to her family, the tracks. Facebook says that in those last few years she had three beautiful young boys who lavished her with Kay’s jewelry and kisses. She adored Zumba and considered becoming an instructor. She had an administrative job, with health care and steady hours. She lived for the mountains and wore red lipstick on four-wheelers. She had a pouty mouth and wild hair and wore eye shadow the color of water in Phuket. She longed to see the ocean someday. I know because the Facebook page is still up, a memorial to all she was, wanted to be. I visit it, again, again, searching for clues, for opportunities missed. There are articles friends post: “This Is Why I Didn’t Tell You He Was Beating Me.” Her sons grow too quickly, so handsome, their eyes knowing, like hers. Her mother, her sisters, dream about her. The Facebook feed is current and full, candlelit GIFs and prayers and weddings and birthdays, everyone still posting as though she might check it, respond. Her last status update was February 19, 2012, two days before her death. My life right now is much like a broken mirror, I’d rather leave it in a million pieces than hurt myself trying to fix it anymore. Of course this is the last thing she wrote, of course this is how she wrote it. I note her impulse to render pain in poignant, agonized metaphor.
I didn’t know Tara well.
It’s strange to look back now, to really look. I drive down Shield Road every time I visit my hometown. I’ve made it my duty to catalog this place. Survivor’s guilt is gluttonous, indulgent at best, but still, I binge. I do not spend time considering the obligation I feel to witness, to record the place that I was, that I am, and I do not stop myself from writing all of it down. I am here, hunched over a laptop on a secondhand desk, sturdy oak my mother sanded down, repainted in a soft, numbing, lavender-gray. If Fountain is ever too much—too close, too far—I rest my forehead on closed fists and map the lines in the wood, follow the grooves that didn’t smooth down and out. The proud sign that once stood in front of Chancellor’s Mobile Estates has been torn down in the last few years, the community abashed of its once confident or at least compelling proclamation, THE AMERICAN DREAM STARTS HERE. My mother has asked around town for it, has searched old barns and storage sheds for that promise. Now how do we know where the American dream begins?
My mother remarried when I was seventeen, married a man of uninterrupted kindness and patience, a man with a very precocious young son. They moved our newly formed bunch to a white picket-fenced house in those middle-class Fountain ’burbs farther east; at that time our father’s recent death served as anchor or homage to the past, and our Ronnie’s future was still intact.
Though my sister and I have now been adults longer now than we lived in 406, I am pulled to drive down the nobly named streets. I follow the sunlight to a house on Crest, once a moderate-scale meth lab just a block from 406 and across the street from a house I went to slumber parties in. I park on the side of Royalty or Arms, study light glinting off the side of the trailer where a man, with his wife’s help, buried his mother in their backyard. He strangled her to death, continued receiving her welfare checks. The sunlight caresses the border of our neighborhood, the old apartments now flanked by a massive stucco wall. The rust-colored monster does not serve as a sound barrier between the now boarded-up, largely abandoned brick buildings and the interstate pressing upon them. Instead, it serves as a visual barrier, shields the people driving 75 miles per hour from our unsightly neighborhood, allows them to at least consider the southern exit out of Fountain.
My parents now live in a neighborhood with bucolic names, Harvest Field Way and Candlelight Lane and Autumn Place, but still I return to the heft of Shield Road. I can’t retreat from or escape the place where I began, a place that has lived in me as a guarantee—or a vow.
The Fountain Caboose Park is not a park. Children don’t play there. It is only a crimson caboose in the middle of a nice grass and concrete square, with a low brick wall surrounding the caboose. The city of Fountain has christened it the Wall of Honor. My brother’s name is on two different bricks in the wall; his name is on many different walls across America now. My mother bought one brick from the Chamber of Commerce. We don’t know who bought the other one. My mother plans, someday, to build a statue in the park. It will be a statue of the soldier’s cross. My sister has this image tattooed across her freckled, sun-kissed back. It is a rifle, upright, perpendicular to the ground. The firing end is placed between two combat boots. From the butt of the rifle hangs a soldier’s helmet, a soldier’s dog tags.
In Fountain, sometime in late 2013, one year after Tara’s death, a young GI with PTSD holed himself up in his car with a gun. He was another young GI, one of so many, so many, with guns; I don’t know any wall with his name on it now. The news said he had a minor car crash at the corner of Shield and Crest, triggered by a flashback episode, just four houses away from ramshackle 406. The yard at 406 was once big enough for a haphazard club house and our trampoline with a tear in the middle, but there are trucks parked in the dirt yard now, and demolition derby cars, white cracking numbers painted on the sides, the hoods and trunks collapsing in on themselves. My mother’s baby-pink rose bush is gone, ripped out by the roots, and we threw that trampoline in the trash when a friend jumped too hard, too high, and turned the tear into a sink-hole.
But that young soldier, there, at the corner of Shield and Crest, almost exactly fifteen years after we’d left those streets behind: He had left behind a wife and a young son. He also had three deployments under his belt; he had seen Iraq, been to Afghanistan, and spent a recent four months in Kuwait. The woman who had been in the car with him called the police because of the crash, but when they arrived, the confused young soldier drew his weapon on the two officers, and in turn they did the same. He later died from wounds to his hand and his heart.
He was another young GI, one of so many, so many, with guns; I don’t know any wall with his name on it now.
My mother heard about this on the news, and she heard someone say that the young man promised he wasn’t coming out of the standoff unless he was in a body bag. Where did she hear this?—I needed to know. They don’t say such morbid things on the news, do they? They don’t report possibilities, determine things that couldn’t possibly be determined? And yet—that is how he came out in the end, in a black body bag, his blood on the sidewalk of the place where we grew up.
You fill the hollows of growing up poor, of growing up, in different ways. I trot the globe, cross seas with a man I love, and worry too much about the past. I’ve not lived in Fountain for fifteen years, but I can’t unsee it—in every military uniform, in muted, invisible Memorial Days abroad, in a kid’s shoes that are scuffed and worn more from time than play. Tara claimed Fountain, built a family with a man she loved, and, from what I can tell, also worried about the future. She longed for the ocean—she wrote this on Facebook. She bought her first New Year’s Eve dress just months before her death, and posted hope after hope. Working on Resolutions! Changes are coming to this girl’s future! If life has shown me anything lately, it has shown me that life is too short to be anything but happy!
And then: Tara’s husband (at war) comes home; came home; is home. With PTSD and a gun. His life, her life, in a million pieces. Her children, all young, all innocence, all three, hide in the basement. Her husband’s family will post their own dreadful hope. They will want us to know he was a good man. He was dangerous, he was war-torn, he was a good man. He is, was. And he was Tara’s husband, and he is Tara’s killer.
I didn’t know Tara well, and I must understand—when, where, is the place good gets derailed? Where, in our reach for something better—an enlistment, an education, a steady job, a family, the dream—where do we, instead, cycle back, or discover our beginnings have inevitably been our end?
Here is Tara’s worried future, now past, where he takes the gun and her life and his own.
My mother, a Fountain girl, had three kids by twenty-seven. I don’t know how late she saw the ocean. She walked the railroads of Fountain once too, the two sets running north and south, cutting the city in half; she showed me all of the tracks. My mother had us, two girls and a boy, all freckled, all loyal, all three. She had a husband with a gun, too. He only left bullet holes in pictures of himself when we fled the house and him. He suffered and died from drugs, from drink, from loneliness, not from PTSD or a gun. I witnessed my mother suffer my father, and live. We suffered him, loved him, and lived.
I am in a hotel lobby in Phuket, Thailand. This is approximately 8,878 miles from Fountain, Colorado. The tears slip out onto my sunburned cheeks as I scroll through the status updates. I am crying and sweating and the cloudless blue and the guileless fish are so far away. Dear Tara, your boys, so young. Here, in this lobby, on this island far away, I tell myself our lives intersect, then careen, apart. But I didn’t know Tara well. We’ve not been running parallel for years—we’ve been moving toward perpendicular, our own distant elsewheres, for some time. We cross, we overlap, right here, I decide—and now we’ll move forever apart.
In the middle of the decade we lived on Shield Road, men in orange vests replaced the sidewalk at the corner of Shield and Crest, the same sidewalk that would later become the resting place for that young GI, one more Fountain man with a gun. Daisy and I watched from a distance, grew bored and went back to dumping homemade mud pies outside the porch of our crumbling clubhouse, swept the Astroturf carpet and promised that summer would be different, life-changing, like we’d promised each summer before. Ronnie, a scrawny, spiky-haired preteen, a regular Bart Simpson, waited for the construction crew to leave so he could carve his name into the drying concrete. Ronnie will never return from Iraq to see his name is still there, etched in the sidewalk where the young GI would die five years after our Ronnie did. The r in his name is sprawling, the onnie progressively smaller with each letter, as if done with great haste, the future moving in, for all of us, so quickly.
Tara is dead and I am in Thailand. The sun is dawning in Fountain: I know the night is holding on, the air is bone dry, the mountains stand watch over the fading city lights, the trains blast horns in early warning. In Phuket the air is thick with water and the night is just beginning. My face is layered with aloe and humidity and bewildered despair.
(I didn’t know Tara well.)
We walk hand in hand, my husband and I, through a dusty street where everything spoken is not English. Casual dogs pant on the sidewalk, without collar or owner. I take a picture of one, and he nods his fuzzy head as if to say, “Go farther, keep going, I’m fine.” We sit at an outdoor cafe called Home, and I order french fries. It is the only food that makes sense as the Thai house band plays Sting, then Phil Collins.
We mouthed the lyrics together on the playground, swayed in the sandbox to the unheard melody. It’s just another day—for you and me—in paradise. “Do you know what that song is about?” Rachael asked me. In second grade she was my best friend, another kind of Fountain girl. She lived on the right side of the tracks and her hair was triple platinum and she had her own bedroom; thus, to my eyes, she held all the knowledge of the world. “This song is not really about another day in paradise. He is singing about people who are homeless,” she confided through perfectly square white teeth. She belted out across the sand. It’s just another day for you—you and me in paradise.
I was ashamed. I assumed he sang about palm trees and the Pacific—though I’d heard the gloom, the lyrics were brighter. I kept this a secret. I joined her mournful singing. I told her I knew all along.