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^JrÊ£„Walks^£ Saves a Nove Clyde Edgerton The Starting Place In the early nineties I overheard a conversation in which a mother said she wouldn't let her child, Will, play with the children who lived next door to her. For one thing, the neighbors ate out too much. The problem , it turns out, was that the father next door ran a free-lance embalming service. His embalming table was in the kitchen, and sometimes it was just better to go ahead and eat out rather than cook in. Will's mother also complained about an electric saw noise in the neighbor's back yard late at night sometimes. He was cutting wood for coffins. I went home, and after taking notes, drove by the residence of the free-lance embalmer. I drove slowly. It was a simple white frame house. The front door was painted red. Parked on the street were several old black hearses. The back yard was mostly fenced in but I could see a rusting hearse, a truck, and stacks of wood. My mind was working on the first several chapters of a novel. This was good. I didn't have the nerve to knock on the door and ask to look around, so I drove back home and imagined a grandma and a couple of kids. I imagined a TV in the living room. I imagined a kitchen table that could be converted from embalming table to pool table to dining room table. I decided that no member of the family would ever say "corpse." "There's a tree in the kitchen. Let's eat out tonight." I quickly thought up a scene: One night, Grandma, confined to a wheel chair and unable to talk, would be accidentally locked in the kitchen—where everyone knew there was a tree. The children would be watching TV in the living room while Mom and Dad were out bowling. To get attention, Grandma would throw a dish. The children would look at each other, startled and afraid. All this was gritty, down and dirty, and for me, fun. I started the novel. I02 Clyde Edgerton The novel died, became a tree, and just wouldn't stand up and walk. I gave up, even though I still liked the "idea." Cliff Palace and Mountain Meadows Several months later, during a trip to Colorado to see a friend, I took my twelve-year-old daughter to Mesa Verde National Park. I was told she'd be interested. As we walked out on a ledge to see one of the big cliff dwellings, called Cliff Palace—a small village carved into a sandstone cliff—I almost lost my breath. The tiny village—several houses, a small round tower, and kivas—was so isolated, so unlike anything I'd ever seen or thought about. The village was in a cliff. I was overwhelmed , and left the site with a strong urge to find out more about Mesa Verde, the people who once lived there. How did they build their dwellings? When and why did they leave? In the park museum bookstore I bought several books. One, Richard Wetherill, Anasazi, Pioneer Explorer ofSouthwestern Ruins, was about the life of the cowboy who "discovered" the ruins on top of Mesa Verde in the late 1880s—over 500 separate dewelling places. Wetherill, it turns out, became obsessed in a way that I was certain I would have. He wanted to know more about the people and, as an amateur archeologist , began collecting relics, pottery, and mummies. This was still kind of gritty, down and dirty, and fun. As I read about Wetherill and his discoveries—and his intense curiosity—I knew I would have to write about him, fictionalized, in a novel. Why not move my little free-lance embalming family back one hundred years or so and out to the desert? Make the kids, the grandma, the parents, part of the same story? There should be plenty for them to do. As I read other books about the west, my excitement rising, I discovered that the first school of Mortuary Science was founded in Denver, Colorado in 1870. Things were...


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