By Lyle Hopwood
The Sundown Café’s For Sale sign had hung so long in the mountain sun that the details had faded into illegibility. The plywood boards nailed across the doors of the Thunderbox Theatre were weathered to shiny silver. I drove past, imagining the street returning to life for half a minute, like a TikTok video. A multitude of teens outside, milling around the sidewalk, slouched against the wall, leaning on the green transformer boxes, smoking weed. The thump of electronic dance music shaking the arched upper floor windows. Young men in from the ranches in their cowboy boots, eyeing girls in tie-dyed tees and fishnets. Antiques stores, voracious for customers, stacked high with old gas pumps and unidentifiable iron implements salvaged from the farms.
My thoughts—half-memory, half-dream—cut abruptly. Morningside’s present main street came back into view. No ravers, no shoppers. Two dusty trucks parked akimbo across four marked spaces. A hunting outfitter with a vinyl sign Over The Counter Elk Tags Sold Here, a gas station, and an electronics store. The rest of the street was a brick façade with nothing behind except collapsing roofs.
I drove on. The scenery quietly transformed into red rocks and lofty pines with wide open green pastures between. Mom’s ranch house hid in a stand of Blue Spruce with a chicken run at the side. She’d lived here forever, growing up in the shell of the town before the rich Detroit musician arrived, liked what he saw and built his Colorado ranch. The whole town briefly resurrected itself around the unlikely core of an electronic dance music festival and its masked producer.
I parked the 4Runner beside her pine needle-blanketed truck and checked my appearance in the mirror. I’d shaved the beard. I wanted to give her the best chance of recognizing me. Mom had no phone, otherwise I’d have called ahead. I rang the bell, waited a beat, then pushed the unlatched door. The hinges must have sagged over the years because the door swished reluctantly inward, scraping the linoleum.
“Mom? You here?”
No answer. I stomped my feet to alert her as I walked to the front room. I found her sitting in an armchair with a wool throw over her lap. She had no book. The lights and TV were off. For an instant, I was afraid she was dead, mummified like Norman Bates’s mother in Psycho.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said without any hint of surprise, and moved her spindly hand off her knees to touch my face. “You didn’t tell me you were coming.” She dropped her hand and sat up straight.
I noticed she didn’t say my name. The neighbor who phoned me last week said she no longer remembered his, said I should be prepared for it. Truth is, she never much said my name. I was always ‘the boy’ to her.
“I’ll make coffee,” she said, pulling off her throw and standing up. Her legs were much thinner than I remembered. As she stood, she tensed her leg, pointing a slipper toe towards the floor, disguising a tremor. I noticed her hands shook.
I gripped her elbow, helping her sit back down. “I’ll make the coffee,” I said. I asked her how she liked it. I’d never made it for her before.
Dad left her, with me in tow, twenty-four years ago, after the Thunderbox Festival packed up for the season and he had nothing to look forward to besides manufacturing more ironwork “antiques” to sell to tourists. I was just a little kid, and I understood in an inchoate way that we were going to California, where the festival’s hardcore ravers came from. But in San Clemente there were no raves. Dad never looked back and I wouldn’t have either, until Stan, Mom’s neighbor to the north, told me she had fallen sick.
“Not sick like cancer sick,” he said over a phone line with an echo that made it hard to speak because our voices came back to us a half second later. “It’s like, y’know, senile dementia.”
I’ll dement ya, the echo retorted.
I could have ignored Stan, but Yassie from Mom’s dental office phoned later. Whether she and Stan colluded, or she was just concerned Mom hadn’t been in lately, I don’t know, but she used the same image. “Not cancer sick,” she said, “But when you come, she might not recognize you.”
When I told her my Mom was still in her sixties, Yassie said it comes on fast if it comes on early.
I didn’t know if I’d recognize her either, but I was still her kid, so I made the trek out of duty, not expecting too much.
The pot was only half-brewed when Mom appeared in the kitchen. She had come to life, as if plugged into a USB port. Her eyes were alight, and she stood straight.
“The coffee smells delicious,” she said, as I filled her cup. It did not rattle on the saucer; the tremor had gone. “Did you find any cookies?”
“No,” I shook my head. “Not even Girl Scout Cookies.”
“No Girl Scouts around here. Morningside is literally a ghost town. I’ll make something. It’ll have to be margarine. I don’t have no butter.” She put her cup down and opened the pantry door. “You know, for a while it was different. The town swarmed with people back then. When DJ Klaviatura came here, everybody wanted to be here. They came in droves. Stinking clouds of what-did-they-call-it, skunk. Smelled like it. And X.”
“Ecstasy. Don’t pretend you’ve never taken drugs.” She stirred batter in a stainless-steel bowl with a cracked wooden spoon. The smell of raisins wafting from it carried me back to my childhood. She was making scones.
“I’ve never even seen Ecstasy for sale,” I said. “I think it was a Generation X thing. No pun intended.” She sure seemed to be all there. If anything, her canny intellect shone bright, like the filament in an Edison bulb. No sign of the dementia they’d warned me about. “Mom, why did DJ Klaviatura come here? I remember the big charity yard sale thing for the kids and the bounce house, but…you know, I was five when we left.”
“You don’t remember the festival he started?” She put the baking sheet in the oven and closed it. “He was a DJ. He’d toured all over the US. I guess people told him about skiing in Vail when he played Red Rocks. Then someone told him about a ski lodge in Morningside County, a Futuro house –”
“A Futuro house. They’re from the sixties. Like a flying saucer on stilts. Remember Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still? I have a postcard of it on the coffee table somewhere. It overlooked the ski slopes. DJ-K bought the Futuro house and Hernandez’s ranch and moved the house down the mountainside to the pastures.”
“I remember the ski lodge. Like a jelly doughnut, with oval windows all around the edge?”
Since I had an excuse, I checked out the piles on the coffee table, assuming the worst—that there would be unpaid bills or medical alerts. But the heap comprised election flyers, shower modernization offers and partisan local papers, the usual junk mail detritus. The room itself looked lived-in, but not hoarder-level untidy. Maybe Stan or the woman from the dentist’s had been checking in on her? It seemed unlikely. Dad said the neighbors didn’t get on with her after she started hanging with DJ-K’s posse. I got the impression country folk could do a good shunning when they put their minds to it.
“DJ-K cleared his land,” she continued. “He brought in Texas Longhorns, got a cowboy hat, shuttled in all his Detroit techno friends. Morningside was deserted back then. The founding fathers bet everything on the silver mine, and lost. The loggers never cared for the town—the roads are bad. If the Williams family hadn’t sequestered the mine’s steam train, there wouldn’t have been no reason to ever come here.”
“How do you sequester a steam train?”
She shrugged. “How should I know? But the bankruptcy trustees never found it. The Williamses built a scenic track alongside the river at the bottom, got the locomotive running and tourists bought tickets. Those were the town’s only visitors.”
“What about the Conestoga Cowboys Annual Festival?” I didn’t remember going to any cowboy festivals when I was a kid, but I scoured Morningside’s webpage before I set out, and it touted the festival as the town’s major attraction. Horse-collar races. Pan the stream for gold (ages five to fifteen). Deep fried turkey legs. Funnel cake.
“The Festival of Donner Parties and Indian Massacres? It didn’t exist ‘til 2010. All that ‘Americana’ horseshit is about fifteen years old. Don’t let anyone tell you different. People swear their great grampaw did some crap when he was a boy and everyone believes ‘em. Pow, it’s a tradition.” She sipped her coffee, then added as an afterthought, “The Oregon Trail didn’t even come through Colorado.”
The Oregon Trail computer game? I searched my memory of the beloved educational program and realized Mom meant the town had appropriated the game’s ethos for money. Once DJ-K had gone, the town dreamed up an origin story to replace its lost tax revenues.
“Magic happened when DJ-K came to town. Before that man arrived,” she said, “Morningside had six stores and cafés serving farmers, hunters and maybe a few skiers. Some get lost every year and end up here.”
The scones in the oven smelled heavenly.
She went on, “He opened the Sundown Café and people kept flowing in. He started the charity gift shop, with the autographed mugs. Second year he created the festival, the rave. He got it permitted for three thousand attendees. Soon, thousands of people were here all summer. RVs everywhere. Lord knows how they got them up the 4X4 road.” She leaned on the kitchen counter as she talked.
“Did you set a timer?” I asked.
“Don’t need no timer,” she said. She opened the oven door. The scones were golden, fluffy and full. She put them on the counter to cool.
She continued, “They bought curios, more than your father could make in the off-season—he had to get new antiques sent from China. The Sundown was always full, winter and summer, snow or no. DJ-K opened that pop-up Thunderbox Theater and people drove from as far away as Denver to dance there. The outfitters shop got remodeled as a hipster clothing store.”
I poured more coffee and bit into a scone. It was delicious.
She carried on describing how the town sprouted like spring grass around DJ-K and his dance festival. “Barbers, tattoo parlors, a store selling iguanas and snakes. Glowsticks, whistles, pacifiers, crystals, sage bundles, second-hand LPs.”
“Vinyls,” I corrected, gently.
She nodded her head a couple of times, as if thinking how to go on. “And then he died. One minute he’s playing music for thousands at Coachinga…”
“Coachella,” I reminded her.
“Next, he’s in a coma. Then dead.” Her voice sank to a throaty whisper on the last word.
I guided her to the chair in the living room and put a plate with the remaining scones on the coffee table.
“He used to perform wearing a giant teddy bear head. A Mylar foil deal. It was 120 degrees in the dance tent in the desert. The heat and the drugs did something to his brain.”
I was five when Dad hustled me out of Morningside. DJ-K ran six of those annual festivals in the town before we left. I realized Dad might have been telling the truth. She had loved the man.
I got up to clear away her plate and cup. She didn’t hand it to me. She just let the plate lie on her lap. The flood of memories had dried.
“People didn’t want autographed mugs after DJ-K died?” I prompted.
“Denice—” she paused. “Denice, his wife, made a go of it, but she couldn’t do the music for the dancers who came to the raves. The café got a few hunters, but they tend to stick to their own kind. She sold the saucer house to a Silicon Valley tech bro for next to nothing and went back to Detroit.” Mom sighed so loud it bordered on a hiss. It made me jump, but when I looked out the kitchen door, she was okay, just mired in the past.
I switched on the lamp that stood on the ironwork end table. “You should get a cellphone,” I said, thinking about when I’d come back again. I could bring butter.
“A what?” She had closed her eyes and leant back in her chair.
“If you get a cell you can talk to people. There’s an electronics store in Morningside.”
“There’s nobody I want to talk to.”
“Should I come back soon?” I asked.
I strode into the center of the room where I could see her face. She jerked suddenly and I thought her tremors were back, but it was surprise.
“I’m your son,” I said soothingly. “We just ate your homemade scones together, like when I was small.”
She picked up her throw and shook it out to cover her legs, then rested her hands on her skinny thighs. She pursed her lips in a look of mild disapproval, as if the world never failed to disappoint. “Sure.”
I didn’t know if she had answered my question about future visits or acknowledged I was her son. Whatever magic I’d brought that briefly roused her mind guttered out. I rinsed the crockery and baking sheet and went out into the pine-scented yard, yanking the obdurate door closed behind me. The sun set between the mountains in a scarlet blaze. I left before the hairpin bends became undriveable in the approaching dark.
Born in the UK, Lyle Hopwood immigrated to the US, where she worked in clinical laboratories as a director of regulatory affairs. Reading was not enough for her, so she decided to join the conversation. She has had short stories published in magazines including Interzone, Eldritch Science, Edge Detector, Back Brain Recluse and others. More are coming soon in IZ Digital, Aurealis and BFS Horizons. Her short stories have also appeared in two German anthologies. She lives in Southern California with a holographer, her herptiles and her collection of Kalanchoe.