top of page
Free Read

Into Focus

Chapter 1
Victoria Smith

Amazon icon: Buy Fire On The Mountain in Kindle or paperback

   I’ll bet steam blew out with his commands. Nana said it was freezing that morning, as the sun struggled to summit the Wasatch mountains flanking Salt Lake’s eastern geography.

   My grandmother, Nana, didn’t hear Deputy Shettler’s words. He was several hundred feet distant, insulated behind thick, stone walls. Nana was only fifteen then, having slipped aboard earth the first year of the twentieth century. But her mother read her an accounting the next day, in the November 20, 1915, issue of the Salt Lake Telegram.

   “Ready, aim…” were Shettler’s words, and I imagine they were delivered with stony tension. The part of the story that caught everyone by surprise was that the condemned man himself gave the final order. “Fire,” he shouted. “Go ahead and fire!”

   Those were Joe Hill’s last words, and while Nana didn’t hear those either, she heard the fusillade of bullets guided through long steel barrels that ended his life.

    I lay in the sweet-smelling Kentucky bluegrass that blanketed the elevations of Sugar House Park and squinted at the wide, azure sky. Nana had grown up in the nearby Redondo Avenue home and inherited it when her folks passed. That’s where she was the morning she’d heard Joe’s execution. I was less than two football fields south, in the rapturous haven I always roamed when visiting my only living grandmother. I could never shake the odd notion that all this verdant acreage had once been the site of Utah’s first state penitentiary. I lollygagged, free as the bountiful gulls above maneuvering in graceful, Jonathan Livingston acrobatics, yet on the very grounds where Joe Hill spent the last year of his life jailed.

    Jaunty, boyish chatter snared my attention, and I rolled onto my stomach to investigate. I balled my fists, placing one atop the other to gain a perch for my chin, giving me elevation enough to see but stealth enough not to be seen, at least not easily. A river of fragrance from the neighborhoods abutting the park floated waves of honeysuckle and lilac across my sanctuary, sliding me into a new emotional chapter. I was happy to leave the depressing story of Joe behind and transfer my heart to the intoxicating here and now. There were five of them, about my age, parading at a relaxed pace near the park’s meandering roadway. Less than a hundred feet away, they performed the antics of young boys afraid of nothing in a world made just for them. Their playful galivanting was infectious, and my mind rolled into this new, captivating episode with thirsty interest.


   It was June 1972, two days since daylight’s apex began its slow retreat toward fall’s equinox. I was fourteen; in less than four months, I’d be fifteen. The significance of gender had only recently awakened in my awareness—its ungainly admittance scaring the bejesus out of me and all my friends, like I suspect it’d been doing to kids around the world for millennia. I had a particularly obstinate challenge in this new province since I was pretty. According to my mom and dad, “dangerously pretty.” I didn’t do anything to earn my outward appearance other than be born from a certain combination of genes. My entire contribution was to brush my thick mane of wheat-blonde hair that ran halfway down my back in a wavy cascade. Nana said it was strawberry blonde in the house and almost yellow in bright sunlight.

   I’d had a smooth go of life so far that dated clear back to my birth, until this gender business started hogging center stage. My mom was a free spirit who’d been turned off by her hospital birthing experience with my big sister, Maria. Irritating fluorescent lights, machines that beeped and buzzed, and too many caretakers that had looked concerned and agitated, put the kibosh on a repeat performance. Once was enough down that sterile path, and when it came time for me, she asked her midwife friend, Sally, to preside over an at-home delivery. I guess I had the best seat in the house, but my eyes were closed. Later, Mom told me the highlights which were few. The upshot, so to speak, was that she was so relaxed, and I so ripe, that I practically flung myself into Sally’s hands. No screams or gross, painful contractions. Instead, in her own darkened bedroom, the sac broke and out I flooded like a kayaker through a culvert.


   Now, nearly fifteen years later, it annoyed me that I didn’t have thousands of hours invested in ballet, or gymnastics, or high jumping, but was treated with Olympic champion celebrity anyway because of my looks. Boys were mostly terrified of me. Untangling that awkward interval was a struggle that infected teenagers pretty much universally—once the pin got pulled on that hormone hand grenade, a good, solid focus was off the table for a while.


   Now I couldn’t believe this little gang would be scared, especially since the distinct odor of pot followed in their wake, and it was too beautiful a day to be afraid of anything. They’d made it almost to the duck pond by the time I decided to accidentally intercept them. I got up and brushed the fresh grass off my clothes, then set a course that took me directly across the middle of the grounds, so our rendezvous would be on the park’s south side.

   Nearing one of the pavilions, I could see my plan was unfolding as perfectly as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. I was close enough now to see the whole gang’s eyes bloomed with swollen blood veins that Visine promised it could “get out.” These hippie kids were not the least abashed by me and, in fact, absorbed me into their clique without so much as a blush. That was fabulously tantalizing to my youthful innocence. My heart warmed as if the sun’s rays shined inside me, and my faltering conviction about boys began an about-face. Our whimsical troupe soon happened upon a shady spot under some tall cottonwood trees where we plunked down and began passing a killer joint around. The ethereal aroma of burning pot mixed with the park’s fresh-cut lawns to install a memory whose window opens wide whenever I smell marijuana to this day.

   My mom used to tell me my eyes were cobalt blue. The cannabis did a number on that heavenly color according to the reflection I saw in my compact. I looked just like my new friends.


   Geoff, apparently the ringleader, sported eyes about the same color as mine, except right now they appeared closer to the pink of rare steaks. Crowning his head was a halo of sand-colored, curly hair somewhere between Art Garfunkel and Jimi Hendrix in dimension. He introduced himself and then asked if he and his friends could guess my name. In my high state, that sounded like a fun game, so I said “sure.”


   A short fellow they called Tuck sung out, “Daphanie?”

   “No.” I laughed. “I’m from this side of the Atlantic.”











   “You guys!”


   Geoff giggled, rosy-cheeked, along with the increasingly silly jests, and said he’d bet me a kiss he could guess it first try.

   “So, if you guess it, you get to kiss me?” I asked.




   “And if you’re wrong?”


   “Then you get to kiss me.”

   “Nice try, silly head. How about if you lose, I get the rest of that bag of pot in your pocket?”


   “What would you do with that much grass, Blue Eyes?”


   “Wait, was that your guess?”


   “No, no, no. Here’s my guess. Ready?”


   “Shoot,” I said.



   “You cheated!” I yelled as the joint was passed to me again.


   “How’d you know?” I asked, then took a long drag and held it.


   “First, the kiss. Then I’ll tell.”


   I was stoned enough to play along so blew the smoke out in Geoff’s face. He leaned through the fragrant mist and gave me a peck on the lips. This was a brand-new experience for me that added a pinch of naughtiness to my adventure. I didn’t feel the least threatened, everyone being so nice ’n’ all.

   “When you were peeking at your mirror, I took a gander into your purse. There’s a key in there with a tag tied to it. Your name’s on the tag.”


   “See, I knew you cheated. I want my kiss back.”


   “Okay,” he said, and leaned over and kissed me again. “Now we’re even.”

   Everyone was laughing except me and Tuck. He looked as confused as I felt. I looked around at all the friendly faces and decided for once, I wasn’t going to analyze everything. I was feeling not just content, but genuinely happy, maybe even euphoric.


   “Do you go by Vicky, or do you use all four syllables of that candy-coated thing?” Geoff asked.

   “Victoria—the whole shootin’ match. It’s what everyone calls me. You don’t like it?”

   “I like it fine,” Geoff said, taking a big puff of weed.


   Then, in a nonchalant gesture, he leaned over to hand me the reefer, and with half-held breath, he wheezed, “Here you go, Richard,” and BAM, it stuck like a dimwit’s tongue to a frost-covered lamppost. Not a kid in that ragtag circle missed an opportunity to use the new moniker, and by the final round, when the joint was a tiny stub that stained our small fingers with its resin, tears rolled down every face in the group as the pot’s exaggerative qualities made it the joke of the century.

   We all got wicked thirsty after a while and went off in search of water. There were plenty of fountains throughout the park, so it was a short and easy mission. I lost track of how many laps we made around that hundred and some acres that used to be a prison. We weren’t keeping very good track of anything, including lame attempts at conversation, often ruptured midsentence. “What was I saying?” I, or one of the boys, would blurt out after a long pause that no one had noticed. Repeatedly, whatever the thread had been vanished without a trace, and our swirly minds feasted on the hilarity of our own delirium. That is, until the munchies struck with ferocity. Geoff and his troupe invited me to go with them to the Colonel’s for fried chicken and biscuits. But I’d already left Nana alone too long, and her pantry sounded a lot more appetizing, so we began the dissolution of our impromptu circus and traded phone numbers, schools—I went to Rowland Hall, they to Churchill—and made a pact to meet again.


   Approaching the park’s entrance, Geoff said, “You have the most striking blue eyes. I’d hardly imagine such a lovely face could find a perch on somebody called Richard. Where’d you ever get such a weird name?”

   He consumed his own wit as generously as anyone else’s, and I noticed tears easily joined his unrestrained laughter. Yes, it seems I’d become “Richard,” its sour tang already rinsed from my mouth. To answer his question, sounds like a hee-hawing donkey escaped from me that would normally have been embarrassing. They seemed perfectly licit then. “Well, you’re too pretty and too nice to have that old clunker, but I’m afraid you’re stuck with it. I have this unintentional gift for giving people sticky nicknames. Sorry.”


   That made me think of something my mom used to tell me. My eyes were the color of mountain larkspur, “the most stunning blue in all the universe,” she said. But in the same breath she warned me that the perennial, cherished and coveted by bees and hummingbirds, was fiercely poisonous to humans. She found cause from time to time to remind me that I had some of that stashed away inside me. “I’ve seen it peeking out, like it wants a shot at the action. Be careful when you find it puffing up; it could land you in trouble.”


   Sure, I thought. Little old me? When I see a pig with flapping wings, maybe then I’ll worry.

-End of Chapter 1-

Copyright © 2024 Andy Walker  Alta Alpine Publishing  All Rights Reserved.

bottom of page