I'm nearly sixteen years old before I learn the true story of my birth. It is the spring of 1979, fifteen months before snowcapped Mount Saint Helens will wake up a few hundred miles away and create a new country, seventeen years after my teenage mother lay down on the floor of her father's house and contemplated suicide. I can picture her in 1962 with her apple cheeks and light brown ponytail, lying there flat against the gray carpet, looking too brunette to be Scandinavian and much younger than her nineteen years. She might have been wearing a sleeveless blue cotton smock, the patch pockets stuffed with half-used tissues, and a mannish pair of black glasses. Those droopy blue eyes of hers, so deceptively sleepy, would have been wide open for once. Seventeen years later, except the short bowl haircut swirled with cowlicks, she looks exactly the same.
Time has stopped in the living room of our tiny house. It's as if with my mother's silence, a spell descends over us like the ash when Mount Saint Helens erupts, turning cars and flowerbeds silver. We will have to wear surgical masks outside, just like at the Annual Portland Rose Festival to the south, thousands of spectators and beauty queens waving to each other from behind white paper cones. My mother contemplates the ceiling, and the cats on the roof fall asleep, whiskered chins upturned in the shade of the honeysuckle vine.
No one on Gregory Avenue moves. Next door, Mr. Graham turns to stone in the midst of his prized Hybrid Teas and Floribunda. Across the street, Tommy the Plumber stalls, tattoos motionless in the hairy forests of his arms and legs and chest. At the end of the street, the boys on the high school wrestling team—state champions for three years straight—slump drooling onto gym mats, while next door at my mother's junior high, three kids smoking joints topple over on the football field.
The entire town of Sunnyside, Washington—where according to the Chamber of Commerce, the sun shines 360 days a year—holds its breath. At the feedlot near the sign welcoming visitors to Sunnyside Home of Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, the milk-faced Herefords and polled Angus stand vacant-eyed and slack-jawed, just like when the volcano blows. In the tiny business district, the Rotarians and Kiwanis and Elks and Eagles stop singing in mid-song; the neon warrior on the awning of the Safari Lounge watches his spear and shield blink and fizzle out; and the Golden Pheasant Chinese restaurant actually closes.