Glass Mountain

glass bottles

I first noticed Amy when she showed up in band class one day in April. I sat back among the second clarinets and she sat in the row in front of me playing what was probably the strangest looking and sounding musical instrument I had ever seen: a bassoon. She had reddish brown hair and big round glasses that both seemed to complement the mahogany luster of her instrument. And as it buzzed out its low notes, I was drawn to her like a snake to a flute.

Stephen F. Austin Junior High School held dances for each grade during school hours about once a month. Admission was a dime. After a couple of weeks, I had finally worked up the nerve to ask Amy to the sixth-grade dance, and she actually said she'd go. We went in and watched all the chicano kids dance to "Le Freak"and the Bee-Gees. Amy danced in a big circle with a bunch of her new girlfriends. All of us guys stood around and waited for a slow song. Sometimes we were brave enough to ask a girl to dance during a slow song. I wasn't, but I asked Amy to go steady with me the next day and now we had almost a week behind us. Romances at our age moved kind of fast.

It turned out that besides band, we were also in the same homeroom and math class. After I asked her to go steady with me, I switched seats with another guy in math so we could sit next to each other. Band and homeroom had assigned seats, so we did most of our talking by trading notes in math. I told her about the time my best friend and I had gone out to Glass Mountain and seen skydivers coming down at an airstrip we had never noticed before.

When the bell rang, we entered the surge of bodies in the hallway, heading for our lockers and then to lunch. Boys and girls didn't sit together at lunch. There were no rules against it; it just wasn't done.

"So what is this Glass Mountain anyway?"

What is Glass Mountain? How could she not know? Glass Mountain was a mound of recyclable glass that sat out in the middle of the desert near my neighborhood. But it was more than that. It was one of those semi-mystical places that all of the kids in my neighborhood, and everyone in Stephen F. Austin Junior High School knew about. It was sort of a pubescent Mecca. No one spent a lot of time there, but everyone went at least once. Or at least they said they did.

"It's this place out in the desert near my house. If you want to come over Saturday, we can go out there."

"What's it like?"

"It's pretty cool—melted bottles and stuff. I've been there a couple of times."

I caught just the quickest whiff of something sharp as she raised her arm to put her math book on the top shelf of her locker. I had never smelled it before, but I knew it was B.O. I was a little surprised but also somewhat intrigued, so I didn't show that I had noticed.

Body odor. It wasn't a particularly pleasant smell, but it wasn't overpowering or offensive either. It was just new. That one tiny wisp of scent was like peeking through a hole in the fence around puberty. Suddenly Amy had changed in my mind from being just another girl to being something infinitely more. She had become somehow alien and mysterious.

I had learned what naked girls looked like from seven-year-old Jenny across the street when I was six. She and I used to play pretending games where she was the wife and I was the husband. She would "meet me at the airport" while we both had our pants and underwear around our ankles. Sometimes we would even lie on top of each other like they did in her parents' copy of The Joy of Sex, but we were really more interested in what our eyes could tell us. We had both been told that our privates were for making babies—and the mechanics had been explained—but neither of us really believed it.

I had also seen enough pictures in my father's Playboy magazines to realize that girls and women weren't quite the same. Grown women weren't shaped at all like girls my age and they had hair on their privates. Television commercials had told me that they grew hair in their pits, too, but they shaved it off. Women had round smooth breasts with large pink or light brown nipples. They had long smooth legs that met at that little bush of curly hair in the front and round smooth cheeks in the back.

Amy was becoming a woman. I realized that in some way, but it was not a comfortable realization. Becoming a woman meant that she would have that hair and those curves. For the first time I realized that she really was shaped differently than I was. Lots of girls our age were wearing training bras, but I noticed that she had already passed that stage. Instead of pointy, walnut-sized bumps sticking out the front of her shirt, she had real breasts. Of course, they weren't as big as the magazines showed them to be, but they were shaped the right way—kind of like halves of oranges.

"So what time you want me to come over?" asked Amy.

"Sometime Saturday morning. Pretty early, I guess. It'll be hot. Besides, if we don't feel like leaving right away we can watch cartoons or something."

"Yeah, okay. I'll talk to my mom and see what she says."

"I gotta talk to mine, too. I'm pretty sure she'll say it's all right, though."

My family lived in a section of El Paso that was under rapid development. Paved roads and houses were springing up where there had only been sagebrush before. Scorpions and rattlesnakes were pushed further back into the desert, and only the ants remained. What had been dust two years ago was covered with grass lawns and rock gardens. There were only two types of grass lawns in El Paso—lush and dead. The lush ones were kept that way by vigilant daily waterings. The dead once appeared where vigilance didn't. The rock gardens were a reasonable alternative to grass because instead of constant watering, a weekly hosing would restore the maroon pumice or quartz-like white stone to its original splendor.

We stopped and looked across the the shimmering flatness to the horizon, where we could see another section of the city beginning to close in on the desert's other flank to conquer it. To conquer it was to live. Once you stepped into the desert, you were exposed. You were no longer protected by the roads and people. Mother Nature became a desiccated old crone who could—and did—kill.

There was life out there, but soft modern man did not belong among it. The desert belonged to animals and insects men were taught to fear: scorpions, tarantulas, gila monsters, rattlesnakes, and black widow spiders. And other things: tumbleweeds and dust devils.

Tumbleweeds didn't quite qualify as animal life, but they didn't quit fit in with the plants, either. I didn't even believe they were real before we moved to El Paso—I thought they were just one of those things that showed up in in old black-and-white movies. But real they were and at times they even seemed malevolently animated—particularly if you happened to be an eleven-year-old boy trying to outrun one on your bike.

Dust devils were neither animal nor plant. They were extranatural. Miniature sand-filled tornados, they were usually harmless. But when they got big and came into the city, they could pit a windshield to opacity or flay a man alive. When the fall winds came sweeping down the mountains, you could look out into the desert and see the tumbleweeds dancing with the dust devils. They danced alien rituals that showed their defiance of man. When you saw them dance, you knew to stay inside.

At this time of year, though, the tumbleweeds were still firmly rooted and the dust devils had not yet been conjured. But the reptiles and bugs still waited and the heat and aridity of the desert were still real threats. The desert had its dangers, but it was not automatically deadly—you just had to be prepared.

You simply couldn't go out on an adventure like this without provisions. In particular, you needed water in the desert. I had canteens I could fill. For a picnic, you needed food. Mom would make us baloney sandwiches. Since going with a girl was special, she would probably even give us chips and Little Debbie cakes—the square kind with the cream in the middle that were so thinly coated in waxy chocolate.

That took care of major things like survival, but if you wanted to be "cool," you needed cigarettes. Since neither of my parents smoked, providing these could prove to be a disastrous flaw in my plans. I had an idea.

I had skipped out of lunch at school a few times with my best friend and walked to the Circle-K about a mile from the school. We had about 45 minutes for lunch. After line-ups to go to lunch and line-ups to come back, we had about half an hour to spare. If we walked quickly, a one-way trip to the Circle-K took us six or seven minutes.

Sometimes they'd sell us cigarettes there, but I couldn't count on it. I was better off going to the 7-Eleven near my house. They wouldn't ever actually sell them to me, but I had other ways of getting them. I knew stealing was wrong, but I only got two dollars a week for allowance. I went that day after school.

When I got to the 7-Eleven, it was empty. This wasn't good for my plan, but I wasn't going to give up yet. I took a quarter from my pocket and put it into the pinball machine. My first game was over almost immediately. Calm down, I thought. I took a deep breath and pushed the reset button to start my second game. It didn't last much longer. Luckily, a man had come in to buy something just as my stalling technique ran out. He walked over the to the cooler and picked up a half gallon of milk.

I stalked the counter. With the same nervous assurance that TV gunfighters showed as they loosened the pistols in their holsters, I untucked my T-shirt. I hid among the Milky Ways and Necco Wafers while I waited for the man to bring his milk up to the counter. After what seemed an hour, he did. I fought the urge to pounce and casually walked to the opposite side of the counter.

True Menthols: Each had a free Bic Razor held to the pack with a rubber band. Everything else was too far to reach. I liked Kools better, but you had to take what you could get. I reached up as quickly as I could without drawing the milk-man's attention and grabbed two packs. Both went into the top of my jeans and I draped my T-shirt back over them. The plastic cases on the razors dug into my stomach.

The milk-man left. The cashier turned, glaring accusations, but I was ready. I put a Three Musketeers up on the counter.

"Twenty-seven cents," he said.

I wondered if there was a silent alarm button that he had pushed as I dug in my pocket for the money. With an effort, I managed to grasp two quarters. Each thrust into my pocket caused the razor covers to jab me again. I handed him the money.

"Do you have two pennies?"

"No." Did he think I was enjoying this? Was he stalling? Were armies of policemen and reporters tearing through the streets to catch me in a criminal act? Were my parents even now receiving a call from the president of the Southland Corporation?

"Twenty-three cents is your change. Have a nice day."

I started to walk out, but the cashier called after me.

"Hey, kid!"

I though about bolting, but checked myself. Trying not to look guilty, I turned.

"You forgot your candy bar."


I walked back—carefully erect in spite of the razors gouging out pieces of my flesh—and picked up the candy.

When I was out of the store, it was all I could do to get out of sight of the door before I yanked up my shirt and took the cigarette packs out of my pants. I removed the razors and threw them to the ground. I had no use for those for at least another three years. I put the cigarettes back in my jeans and was glad I had not grabbed hard packs.

Amy and I set out at about ten o'clock Saturday morning. As soon as we were down the street and out of sight of my house, I lit one of the cigarettes I had snagged from the 7-Eleven Thursday afternoon. It tasted like peppermint flavored dirt.

"You want one?" I asked.

"Not yet. Just let me have a drag of yours."

I handed her the cigarette and watched carefully as she inhaled. There was something sophisticated in the way she held it. I was a child by comparison. She gave it back. Half a block down the street and around the corner, Amy and I came to the edge of civilization.

We just stood there and looked for a minute. At the edge of the horizon stood the Franklin Mountains—a sub-range of the Rockies. The mountains looked like a huge picture postcard in the clear dry heat, as if they had been outlined in pencil against the sky to sharpen the focus of the photograph. Between the end of the street where we stood and the barely visible rest of the city on the horizon was a large sparkle of light that was our objective: Glass Mountain.

"See that big twinkling thing out there?"I asked, pointing.

"Out there? No, I—wait. Yeah, I see it."

"That's it. It'll take us about two hours to get there," I told her.

"Why so long? It's just right there."

"It just looks like it's right there. You can't really tell across the desert. Everything seems closer. It's about three miles away."

"It still shouldn't take that long. It only takes me forty-five minutes to walk two miles to school."

"Yeah, but that's on roads and stuff. We'll be moving slower out there." You couldn't hurry through the desert. Heat stroke was real.

We left the road and stepped out onto the sand, walking side by side. I wanted to hold her hand, but I didn't have the nerve to take it. We didn't talk much as we walked and I realized that I hardly knew her at all. From time to time we stopped and took small drinks from our canteens. Amy wanted to drink more, but I told her to conserve.

"We'll be really thirsty by the time we start coming back." She looked unhappy about it, but she listened to me.

As we weaved in and out of the clumps of sagebrush, Glass Mountain grew slowly but steadily in our sight. When we at last arrived, the sun was high overhead and the temperature had reached about a hundred. The heat wasn't really oppressive, though, because it was so dry. That's where the danger was.

When you're not in the desert, heat feels hotter than it is because of the moisture in the air. When you start to get too hot, you feel it, and you go inside. Everything was just so dry. That's why each house had a swamp cooler—a green metal box that stuck out o fits roof like a tumor. Besides air conditioning the house, it humidified the air inside.

Before us stood a huge mound of warped glass of every hue. Old Coke bottles in pale green and small sheets of plate glass that had melted over the bumps like cheese on a burger. Bright green 7-Up bottles and a few indistinguishable lumps of red or blue. We climbed to the top, feeling the soles of our sneakers softening against the glass.

"If you dig around a little bit, you might find something that hasn't melted," I said.

"Why is it all like this?" Amy asked.

"It's the sun. It's not that hot right now, but in the summer it can get up to one hundred thirty or more out here and the glass just makes itself hotter. Like a greenhouse."

We poked around for a while, kicking away the few sharp edges, and moving what we could with our hands. The edges of the mound near the bottom were better for treasure hunting, because they got a little shade form thee rest of the hill. The stuff near the top was mostly one huge mass.

We decided to stop and eat. I took off the backpack I was wearing and looked to see what Mom had packed for lunch.

"God, I hate baloney," I said. Mom had packed baloney in my lunch every day since when I was nine and had complained about getting peanut butter and honey every day before that. I had reached the point where I would simply throw the sandwich away when I got to school without even opening the plastic bag. I still can't eat the stuff.

"It's okay," said Amy.

I gave her a sandwich and dug deeper into the backpack. Two miniature bags of Cheetos, two packages of Little Debbie Devil's Food cakes—Mom usually split one pack between my sister and me—and two cans of Shasta Cola. I gave Amy her share of lunch and we sat down on the sand to eat.

As we finished our colas, we each smoked a cigarette. The menthol made the drink seem colder. We gathered our trash, and stood up to leave. There wasn't much to do once you got to Glass Mountain, so there wasn't much reason to hang around. Besides, I could tell that Amy was a little bit bored.

Amy went around to the other side of the mound to pee, so I spent the time kicking around a few more blobs of melted glass. I found a tiny blue bottle with flowers on it that had somehow survived the desert furnace almost intact. The neck was bent a little bit to the side, but it was still pretty. I put it in my pocket just as Amy came back.

The journey back is never as much fun as the trip out to Glass Mountain, but I was in high spirits. I even managed to take Amy's hand in mine. As I held it, though, I remembered that she was a woman, and after we stopped for a drink of water, I was too chicken to try again.

We got back to my house at about two thirty, and Amy's mother was supposed to pick her up at three. While we waited, we watched TV—some dumb sport show or something, but there was nothing else on Saturday afternoon. My parents left us alone together in the room because I'd had a "man to man" talk with my father about it before Amy showed up that morning. We sat in silence—she on the couch and I in the chair. I wanted to be closer, but my stomach knotted at the thought.

I sat there, trying not to stare at her. Her femininity—her adultness—terrified me. She's only human, I told myself. Why was I so afraid? I had rehearsed this scene in my mind a million times. It ought to be simple: Stand up, walk over, kiss, she swoons. No problem, right? I still sat.

When the clock on the wall said three o'clock, my body stood up without asking my brain. I was hardly able to breathe I was so nervous. I had already started to make my move, though, and there was no turning back. I reached in my pocket and produced the bottle I had found at Glass Mountain.

"This is for you," I said, and I kissed her quickly on the lips just as a car horn honked from the driveway.

Original: Fall 1991

Retyped: 2012-07-18. The only intentional modifications introduced are period- or colon-space-space changed to single spaces, and double hyphens changed to M-dashes. Any other discrepancies are typos or other errors.

2012-07-25. Exported to HTML and made cosmetic clean-ups for inclusion on LibreOffice had dumped a bunch of useless SPAN tags, weird characters, etc. I hope I didn't introduce more errors than I fixed.