SOME OF THE MOJAVE
We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth. Love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table.
D.H. LAWRENCE (A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover)
The empty streets whistled the sad choirs of the day, spirits of the mexicalifornian night haunting the dusty spots beneath the lamplights and on the stoops to the shops and the bars that had not yet closed. From these unknowable depths came a volleyballbellied man with a torn red shirt and cargo pants, glasses slippery on his nose, head balding with curls of salt and pepper. A strutting manifestation of these phantasmal whispers hacking a great emphysema cough which seemed to emerge from a place dead or dying deep within.
Hey man, he said. Hell of a night.
How’s it going, I said.
You know. You gotta cigarette?
Not even a bum, huh.
Don’t smoke. Sorry.
The nightman smoothed the crescent dome with the flat of his hand, rubbing the excess oils into his shirt.
You got three dollars for me to buy my wife fries at Foster’s Freeze?
I looked at him closer. The nightman was short and squat. Taken to a nervous rubbing of his volleyball. Tiny furtive eyes darting behind cokebottle glasses in a ceaseless prowl of his world.
I have a dollar, I said.
A dollar fifty?
Aight then. Aight aight.
He came with me through the streets then, having got his dollar, spitting some of the death from the corner of his mouth to slap on the sidewalk, telling me of his wife from Yuma, and of the government, and of what he would do if…and if…and if…
The greyhound station was at the next block. He left me there, wandering to an alley across the street where a pair of men dressed in filthy flannels and pushing broken shopping carts joined him moments later. A massive Hispanic woman smoking the stub of a cigarette and toting a canvas bag joined them and together they formed a sentinel of vagabonds in the dimlit passageway, their hushes the only sigh of that forsaken desert night.
My friends came from the bars to see me off on my voyage, drunk and rowdy and joyous, the men’s voices and the girls’ skirts drawing within moments a small assemblage of representatives from other hidden congregations of the streets I had not scouted. They formed a bond, the drunk happy white kids and the drunk scorned homeless. The bus arrived, half an hour late. I got hugs, handshakes, a kiss on the cheek. My foot was on the step to boost myself aboard when a bony hand clapped me on the back. I turned to see a toothless old man with a gray mustache crusted by grime and something approaching tomato sauce. Through the scorn of his wretched physicality and his drunkenness he grinned with all the serenity of a monk, looked into my eyes, and said, You go ahead and win that.
The driver shut the gates with a hiss and the bus heaved away. For blocks and blocks later I watched through the tinted black windows that conglomeration flatten into a streetlight-speckled oblivion, the eyes, for all I knew, still watching the spot in the darkness where the doors had shut before vanishing away for all of time.
There was a passing flash of lights when we came through the little settlements that lined the edges of the desert. Worldbeaten women bent by age and clutching canes and bags of cans hobbled close-lipped down the walk by the light of the crack through the streetlamps. In their eyes the visions of those who have scorned them. Bearing that ruthless sort of self sufficiency born not of necessity or learning but of spite. These women vanished as the town thinned, habitations faded, to be replaced by scarcer places. Streetlights and gas stations fastfading one by one till the desert swallowed them again in images of rolling heaps of blackness. In my palm I held a worn yellow envelope, my grip whiteknuckling as the godlessnesses clicked by the window. As the road wound around the darkened hulk of a bluff, lunar crepuscular rays shot off from beyond the next rise and lit in flashes the musky-hot greyhound interior.
Where you going hunny?
The voice was from a middle aged woman sitting red-lipped across the aisle. Garbage bags and blankets heaped about her in a mass. Curling black puff of hair blown through and through with shocks of pure white.
Right now, or in the end?
Hell. I mean where is this journey taking you?
Oh so you a rich boy.
Only rich go to Catalina.
Well. Do rich people ride greyhound too?
Sometime if they gots to.
Well I’m not rich.
Well how the hell you getting to Catalina?
I’ve been saving for months.
So you a rich boy.
If you like.
For a moment I thought her miffed and we fell silent. The snores from the seat ahead of me had ceased. Almost cautiously I fingered the crease in the envelope, my eye on the approaching moon. For a time it had meant something different each night. No longer did it bear for me this ambiguity.
Only then did I notice the mass which the woman held clutched to her and laying across her lap. Edges of the child’s braided hair poked free from the blanket covering her.
Where did you take her? I asked politely.
Her parents is dead now. Took her to see her daddy’s family. She don’t got no one to look after her now but me and I scarce look out fo’ myself. But we been travelin the better part o’ four days now.
The child was stirring. The old lady had taken to stroking the little girl’s hair as she spoke of her, seemingly unaware of her action.
Nana, she said.
Are we almost there?
The grandmother made to cover the child up again, but the little girl was having none of it. She reared up on the seat, blinking big wide eyes at me across the aisle and reaching for her toys on the next seat. Something mechanical and blinking. The old woman slapped her hand.
No, she said severely. No.
I turned. The night was still streaking by. My own half-formed reflection shaping itself in shadows in the reflection of the pane. The words on the envelope just making themselves clear in the breaks in the shadows by moonlight.
The letter had been torn from her journal. Smudge marks from her fist colored the margins stamps of blue and the paper itself yellowed like a scripture that had been sourced from some desert wild.
Dear friend, You have no need to worry. I am forty kilometers from the Strip and nothing much really goes on here. Once I woke up in the middle of the night to bombing and explosion noises. It was so scary! But it was all happening over the ridge two whole towns from us. So no need to worry dear friend no need to worry. As for the whole thing with the Palestinian activists what you have heard is a lie. A good friend of mine’s best friend was in the first helicopter that landed on the ship and everything you have heard is a lie. Jerusalem since you asked at this point seems irrelevant. Remember that quote where it goes, the traveler sees what she sees and the tourist sees what she has come to see? Well anyway. Update me on your travels dear desert friend. Your friend, Elle. P.S. I included some of the Negev here in the envelope for you. One day send me the Mojave because I know you will go back.
I took the crusted yellow envelope and held it open with my thumb and forefinger, tilting it slightly so that the sand collected in a tiny pile in the corner. For a moment I poked the envelope with the tip of my index finger. It smelled salty. Goodnight, goodnight, I said, the world rolled by and I slept.
I spent the night in a hostel in San Diego, plotting furtively in the darkened dorm room by the light of the alarm clock the precarious journey of the day following. I never saw the faces of the other figures snoring in the three adjacent beds, enshrouded by blankets and darkness, and left before first light while the sky was still yawning its purplish hues over the horizon and the traffic lights governed the empty streets and blinked for no man. I caught a train bound for Laguna Niguel which tore along the sunny coastline and green countryside and deposited me inland at a station along an industrial road with no sidewalk. I hiked for a few miles into town, stopped briefly to feast in a gas station-carwash combination complex, and got on a bus that was heading towards the ports.
I hopped off at Dana Wharf and said goodbye to the tall blonde boy across the row clutching a surfboard and bearing that faraway, unconcerned expression of the person who has one true joy in life and sees most of the rest of the world in light of this overarching truth. Fishermen, surfers, runners, alcoholics alike. Later, dude, he said, and may have smiled for a moment before blinking back to his standby.
For the first time outside of the bus I felt the spring chill, the gusts of the ocean breeze just beyond, the light scent of pollen on the air and the richness of fertilizers and grass which were banished from all deserts and certainly from the deep southwestern metropolic hell whence I had come. Sundrenched, brighteyed, I wandered the docks and bayside shops, plucking a postcard into my sidepocket from the kindly old shopman who said that he loved all people who looked like me, going everywhere with all of my things in the overstuffed orange pack with a water canister hitched to the side that made a liquid slush as I walked along. At a deli in one of the shopalleys I ordered a tomato and pesto sandwich with a pickle and sat outside at a table in the court to wait. I watched the joggers and walkers come by in droves, with iPods and sunglasses and spotless white shoes, and technical spandex and sweat-wicking hats and bottled water buckled to their hips. Old women dressed regally wore massive hats and frowned at the world. The younger girls in designer skirts picked at their thousand-dollar handbags and ran their fingers through their sun-freckled hair. The sandwich came and while I ate it I read some more about the island and thought about the surfer boy from the bus and the old man from the night before with no teeth who said you go and win that. It was a good sandwich with very fresh tomatoes. I wrote a letter on the wrapping but threw it away and brought the pickle with me as I walked to my ship.
By the end of the third day I had come to know the desert.
The day had been spent out on the flats a few miles past the canyon. October sun of the Mojave beat the scorched landscape and those who peopled its arid hallows. Stark, silent Earth which had no voice in that other world of our origin. From the legal dirt road we stood all forty-two of us and looked out over the desert plains. Illegal offroad vehicle tracks wound their way through the creosote like scars in the valley leading to distant bajadas. The program director, some kind of 6’3 lanky Texas exinfantry hefting a shovel and a clipboard, was giving a rousing speech to the crews. This I could tell by the nature of their silence: rapt, godfearing, head-bobbing. Evangelized. He strode back and forth before those assembled, his eyes shifting in an oratory tactic of sincerity from desert to man, desert to woman. As if to say they were one.
Ya’ll applied to the Desert Restoration Corps, he was saying, Cause ya’ll believed in something. And lemme tell you wut. That right there is a miracle this daynage. And don’t you let anyone tell you anythin’ less.
We headed down to work and to hypothetical passerby of that valley it would have been a strange sight indeed. Dozens of sweating desert rats hacking at the earth as if it held a treasure buried. Pickaxes and pickmatics heavy in their hands and heaved into the hardened soil with grunts and sighs. Everywhere there were tracks, beat in places into paths and sidetrails, gunning through vegetation and probing sacred depths not fit for the roar of an engine or the destructive force of a two-ton truck. So effortless was the action of men which laid waste to these hallows, so painstaking its reversal. To prevent further sacrilege of those sensitive habitats (final bastion of the Inyo brown towhee and long guarded palace of the desert bighorn sheep) these tracks had to be erased, the soil upturned so that seeds could take root, the illegal paths blocked and blended back into the surrounding brush. This was man working for the illusion of wilderness in a place condemned as wasteland by the citified world, that world grown cold with steel towers and bus lines and furnished apartments, that world of excess which found its invalidation in the reparation of this unflinching Mojave landscape. Long reckoned had been the effect of the desert on the city, a fact evident in the overdone and overbearing human insistence, the insecure flashy grandiloquence, of desertmade Las Vegas, desertmade Dubai. Yet here we were confronted directly with the erasure of the effect of the city on the desert. To even consider such a possibility seemed wicked – Aslan must not submit himself to those lesser beings, those perversions. Why not crush them? For as sure as a lion can roar the desert can kill.
Across the valley the peaks of the Trona Pinnacles loomed, and the hints of the Sierras beyond. Spiring frost-tipped into the sky like wrought-iron gates at the step of some arid magisterial throne holding judgment upon its footlands. At moments the rats would pause to take in those distances, leaning atop their shovels and picks to take a drink and stare as if to remember where on Earth they were and what those sights could mean. In the silences of that vastness there beat a meditative hum and no one would argue that revelations yet untold did come of the noiseless caress.
We worked till lunch and ate our packed sandwiches and Gatorade in the shade of the trucks. Taste of avocado and warm tomato with yellow mustard on rye. Vastly unsatisfied I left behind a too-scientific conversation on the merits of solar power (torn up wilderness versus reduced fossil fuel dependence) and roamed down through the other circles in search of more food, eyeing indecently the misshapen gourds of coyote pears stemmed from the trims of the yuccas. Further along the line a bed of one of the trucks was down and a few of the rats were milling about there on shared feastings. I had passed by when a short blackhaired girl tapped my back with half her left arm wrapped in gauze. Her smile said hello! so sprightly and clean within her dirt-tanned cheeks. A Star of David gold necklace hung from her neck.
Hey there, she said. Want a cookie?
Do I, I said stupidly. What happened to your arm?
Oh, I tried to tackle some cholla bush, she said, seemingly happy about the ordeal, bearing her wound proudly. Cookie?
After this day no matter where I was in the world lunchtime would always be holy.
I left for that afternoon’s work with pockets full of oatmeal chocolate cookies, loping the pickaxe over my shoulder and heading down to the furthest reaches of the restoration site where the incursion could not be seen from the legal road. Between the too-curious glances of the staff I snuck the cookies in bits of crumbs, avoiding those eyes marshaling my passing, eyes seeking little rules to enforce so that a physical respite from work might be garnered. As I walked I watched my workboots melt into the sand and understood that I desired the opposite. Soon not a hush from the desert. The noises of the rats a quarter mile distant stifled in those barren spaces. Something silencing in these empty buckwheat parlors, in the spare dollops of pumpkincolored mariposas. No wires, no concrete echoes, to ferret on the sounds no one needs.
I found the endpoint and began to swing into the scarred earth. Finely sharpened bronze tearing into the hardened soil and skipping flecks of rock up into my eyes. The sun at its golden zenith above. I swung hard, harder as I went along, the sweat coming freely and pasting the sand to my skin and coating it a reddish amber. I did not slow. Every time I felt the cookies against the throbbing muscle in my leg I thought of her saying, I’m Elle and my grandma told me to make sure to share them with the hungriest person I saw. My shirt ripped in the corner and I ignored it. I let it inconvenience my swing. My neck burned and I staggered slightly as I heaved again, again, again and on for hours until I could hardly breathe. Lengthwise and across and deep and the deeply driven tracks began to melt away into the baked flats around them. I met other rats along that path and tripled, quadrupled their acreage decompacted, flashing them grins, tossing a sunworn pale Irish boy my water, shameless in a decadence swelled by years of repression. Finally when I reached the end, sweating and filthy like an arroyowise coyote come from some violent dusty scrap, I met one of the frowning staff. He peered at me, sediment-bearded, chinstroking and worrisome and saying, you might want to learn to pace yourself. I grinned hugely and licked crystals of sand from my burnt upper lip. Cookie? I asked him, holding out my sweaty oatmealed chocolate palm like I’d rediscovered something.
In the predawn four a.m. chill the race boat left from the port of Avalon for the other end of the island, chugging through the fog to deliver the runners to the start. I watched the blackened sea closely and listened to the distant roar of the waves lapping upon the hull. Turned away from the windows and its darkness was the crowd of jittery marathoners hyped on coffee and power bars, speaking to one another in that restless, anxious companionship forged by the common breach into which they were to head. Plyometrics, yoga, yogurt, stretch ropes, massage oils, oxygenated socks metastasized their way around the cabin. Out of this ritualistic fervor came a fortysomething man Gore-Texed to his every curve, sweat wicking cap adorning a salt and pepper skull, a massive GPS chronometer strapped to his wrist, compression tights and armwarmers making his new skin. Grinning familiarly and circling his arms good-naturedly as he approached my seat.
Your first marathon? he asked.
Man, he said. I wouldn’t have picked this one.
As the race boat pulled into the harbor the fog was clearing over the green hills, dawn breaking through the clouds smoking the mountaintops and giving a sunsplashed visage of the broad side of the island. Cliffs lined the nearer shore and small motorboats chugged the shallows penultimate to those rocky heights. Razorous yellow lines of trails and paths mapped the headlands and marked the way to the interior. Sitting there from the viewport I watched this sudden emergence from the murkiness as though a television had been switched on. Yet soon I saw those lines curling around the greenery and vanishing away as if to tease, hinting at all that had been left unseen by this brief profile.
The other runners had begun to flock to the windowpanes with the cleared views.
Surreal, said one, his jowls carelessly brontosaurusing a powerbar and offering a grisly view of halfchewed oatmeal to those within range.
Unreal, said his companion. He took a picture with his iPhone.
It looks like Lost donit? You know the show on the teevee dontcha? With the goddamn polar bears and all dontcha?
No brother. This is straight Jurassic Park. Some real Crichton shit.
The crowds began to move back to the doors as the ship slowed, the men eying the windows as they walked like two pop scifi acolytes revisiting the set of a film which had been their nurturing.
Well, Gore-Tekker said to me, standing to join the crowd. Make sure you get your gels.
Gels. Eight to twelve of ‘em total probably. By that five mile marker you’re gonna want at least three to four of the bastards in ya.
He disappeared into the throng. Deep in my bag my hand inside an envelope touched a few grains of sand and I dropped them in my sock before heading down the plank.
Coming down the plank the stunted rays of light played through the trees and flickered the path before the runners, the ocean across the island visible through the breaks in the trees, straddled by two bluffs which did not quite touch. Ocean breezes gusted from over the hills and hit my eyes like a primal awakening. To laugh and smile now seemed near sacrilege.
The crowds walked selfcontained as though their words did not inhabit that very air, as if their feet did not touch the very ground over which the air moved. Living room conversations cut through that sense of something goliath as we wandered through the little settlement on the harbor to the starting line. Of the proper way to attach a fannypack. Of adidas’ delayed release date for the new overpronating trail shoes. Of the amount of weeks which must be taken off for a calf twinge.
The start line was in a valley of greenmounted bluffs on the other side of the harbor beside a lagoon that took in a trickle from the sea. Nervous laughs and stranger rituals had replaced the talk show isn’t this dandy vibe of the boat. Gore-Tekker found a place near me in the line and held his salt-pepper head out to the salt air as if to ponder what he scented. He stood straight and erect and I could see in his eye all the runnersworld prescribed madness in him. Yet he was goodnatured as all hell even with his sunglasses perched on his nose like that.
Didya know about the buffalo herds?
Yee-huh. They got themselves some buffalo herds out in the middle of the isle supposedly.
I hadn’t heard.
From the crowd came a man wandering about with a video camera, going through the lines of runners unapologetically, wielding his instrument as though the threat of controlling an unnamed media outlet would in and of itself make a power intangible to clear a path forward.
This is my sixth Catalina, wheezed the coffee-stunk man interviewed behind the Gore-Tekker. And ya know what it’s just so dern beautiful here I may just have to come back next year for number seven.
As he spoke he leaned close to the camera and then down to his shoes, kicking a place in the sand as if he might retch should he not maintain a fixed point.
I overheard the cameraman going to others, some of whom stopped quoting Amby Burfoot and John Bingham long enough to vomit themselves without excuse into the dirt road before turning back to stuff in their mouths the heel of a banana or a squirt of energy goo. In out, in out, went this restless craze of the magazined man. Some were finishing phone conversations and gazed at the cell screen long after before tucking it away. Middleaged women pulled visors tight down over their eyes, younger men plugged in their earbuds and resolutely fingered iPods, others milled about in cliques and clubs and training groups to seek some company to their agony as if this should ease what was inevitably the throes of their own twisted Gethsemane.
Falcons were soaring over the bluffs and the hills in the distances and made black dots against the silk sky. I looked up to them briefly to stay the pumping madness inside which issued with each breath of salty wind and each glance to the wild peaks beyond. A pistol was fired to start the race. The thousands in that valley were for that one instant stilled and made silent by the report before lurching off into the unknown, vaguely chuckling to one another and saying I don’t know what I’ve got myself into as if that statement were a joke.
By dusk of that third Mojave night a bongo-banjo circle formed in the little kitchen tent. Sunbeaten and dirtcrusted and sitting on the bottoms of upturned buckets the desert rats played. Some unfailing guiding spirit moved through us and one could not help but say that it was the desert itself. Here there was no one to impress and no idea of impression. As though a place where this was not true had never existed and did not exist but a hundred miles distant. That world forgotten in their weary smiles. There was no cell reception, no visitors from the outside world. We would see the town of Trona a week later on the hike to the Pinnacles and laugh at its Lilliputian remoteness and meaninglessness from far above. Space does not heal all, yet this I believed as a matter of religion.
We were sitting together Elle and I in the rocks beyond the tent watching this commune spring from the sand. Someone had mentioned they did not like Ulysses and someone else started singing the one line lyric to James Joyce is Shit Except for Parts One through Four of Portrait of an Artist. She told me how her father had sold her weed when she was thirteen and how she had almost responded to an ad for a Jewish girl to give a massage on Craigslist the year past when she was volunteering in Boston.
I was very poor, she said. She swung hair from her green eyes with her bandaged arm and caught my eye briefly before looking off. When she said those words I heard her in my mind I’m Elle and my grandmother told me to make sure to share them with the hungriest person I saw. Her being seemed impossible. A rejection of a darker law I had long taken for granted.
When the wind gusted it laid havoc to her carefully tucked away hair and blew black strands all about her face. She narrowed her shoulders together in a constrained shiver and zipped up her black fleece to her chin, tucking away the Star of David. The sun had long ago vanished beyond the far rim of the canyon and splashed a final brilliance of fiery pastels into the sparse and shifting cloudcover. She wrapped her arms around herself and she asked me why I was here.
I don’t know, I said after a moment. I’ve always sorta thought the politics of this – of anything – was beside the point. Everywhere I’ve been, there’s no chance to fight for anything. No chance to really fight. Not with your whole body and soul. Instead you kinda just go round holding all that extra life-energy in. I mean I feel like I’m on the brink of explosion half the time. Which can’t be natural.
I’m nearly exploding right now, she said. Although since I’ve been here – she paused, turned past me to look out of the canyon’s fading fiery sky, eyes open and undaunted by the elements, the confident form of a true desert rat.
As night settled she leaned back against my knee and I rested my hand on her head, her hair like warmed silk. The circle in the tent began to thin, some of the rats wandering off yawning and blearyeyed and picking the sand from their eyes and their hair and the edges of their pockets. The cook, a curlyhaired blonde country boy from the Ozarks, had sat those postdinner hours twanging the strings of his guitar softly and watching the impromptu orchestra in its initiation. A voice from those remaining asked him to play a song and though he waved his hand and turned away smiling they kept asking and he grinned back off into the great boulders of the canyon in a slide from the night sky as if in a pleasant commiseration with what forces he pondered and said okay.
I’ll play ya’ll one song, he said. One song only. Now you gotta tell me what type a’ folk are ya. I mean ya’ll wanna laugh or ya’ll wanna cry?
Cry, they said.
He looked down then and did not look up again, picking gently and launching into song whose voice met somewhere between Bob Dylan and Huck Finn. A great mournful squeaking lisping twang that hollered and cooed at once. This voice was the voice of the desert, unapologetic in its appraisal and yet consoling in that very honesty. A face and a heart to the music not unlike old Aunt Polly herself. The song was derived from Dylan’s Wagon Wheel, issued slow and acoustic only as it was meant to be.
Starin’ down the road and pray to god I see headlights…
As he sat there singing whatever had begun to move through those present moved through his music too like he were an ombudsman of that intangible thing, a messenger or mouthpiece translating what was left unspoken by the wind. The weight from her there on my knee seemed to meld with the weight of the rock and the sand which I leaned against as though one were as natural and as permanent as the other. When she turned to smile I read in her eyes an unexplored endlessness not unlike the desert plains looming now infinite out the mouth of the canyon by starlight to the valley and the eleventhousand foot peaks beyond.
Coyotes howled distantly on and off as though tuned to the song. The stars settling overhead made out such a blanket of dots that to pick out the black spaces between would have been a task in itself.
I looked over and I saw a tear striking a white course through the dirt on her cheek. You cannot be real, I thought, This cannot be real, for everything I had been taught by the world without the canyon supported that unbelief. My reach for her hand was beyond instinctual and could not have been stopped had I been pinned under the very weight of those goliath boulders on which we sat. And I almost wished I was just to prove it.
As I crested the hill nearing the halfway I looked over across the inlet and the wild beaches far below to the next rise and second place behind me was not in sight. Nor was anyone.
The walkers had started an hour before the runners and for a time after I took the lead I would come upon a struggling soul navigating the emptier hollows between the bluffs and in the little inland forests silent from even the roar of the sea. Each bore me by with a dull skepticism, two down twenty four point two to go har har har echoing those grassy canyons long after. I felt fine, fine. Just fine. Sweat blanketed me. I was running too hard and I knew it yet it were as though I feared each turn would disappear should I not get there quick enough, that some limit would be placed to the endlessness, that it would all be proved illusory if I did not run as fast as I could and feel my legs freeze at the top of each climb and the wind hurry me down the sharp slopes at uncontrollable speeds. The idea of an organized race seemed very separate from what I was doing there in those mountains and part of me had known from the very beginning I was not there to run against men.
The dirt road began a long descent, eventually giving way to a trail which came through the ruins of a long since abandoned fishing village, the sterns of ancient rowboats sitting vanguard in the waving grasses, old burned out huts with shattered windows and tremulous chimneys rising up to look over the greenery to the sea and the other world beyond it. Inexplicably two children, a girl and her little brother, stood amidst these broken treasures, watching me as I passed, impassive, vaguely curious, twirling dandelion stems in their fingers and their long unkempt hair sweeping across their faces in the breeze. Hola, the little boy said. The flat lasted a hundred yards more. The next mountain was coming up. Later I would think I had imagined them.
There was a time, when I was younger, that I believed in deserts:
The canyon wash was lit by the night sky. Seventeen days passed in the lee of these sandstone hills. No touch of the world without. She lay beside me in the sand my girl with her hand in mine and resting on top of my hip. Grime and sand bristling the grip of her little fingers. I told her as I had told her time and again this is a dream, this is a dream. She would pick out her favorite red star from that massive collage, point out where it had shifted from the night before, speak of whether the universe was shifting its presence over our desert or our desert was shifting beneath the universe. A matter of perspective only God if he existed could tell. Here we were just two infinitely miniscule dots to that kingdom of lights above, yet at that moment amidst that kingdom could there have been another like us?
Do you think I should go to college? she asked.
I don’t know, I said. No.
I don’t think I will.
As if offering assent a long shooting star clipped across the sky from canyon rim to canyon rim and blinked out to the next universe beyond. We titled to each other as if in a coordinated unison and pressed our chapped lips together. Her mouth was warm and I held the nape of her neck under her hair gently in my palm. She kissed like she was creating something.
You sure we shouldn’t just stay here?
There was the lightest touch of a cool breeze and I held her tighter as she shivered and the desert sands flaked over us, melded between us one as one as one. Through her fleece her heart beat quick into my shirt. And with sidewinders amidst the creosotes and coyotes prowling the cliffsides as sentry we would sleep, followed by the Pahrump. Pahrump. Pahrump.
of her slowing heart joining the noiseless desert hum.
Two men had passed me by and I had little memory of them now but for the brisk nod they gave charging away up an infinite rise which had no end in sight. A brilliant white goose had stood by as witness in those marshy wilds where I ceded the lead, priggishly poking in the brush for some illicit snack with me stumbling by, frowning inquisitively as if to pass judgment on what it saw from the marbleblacks of its eyes. You lose, the goose said, irreverent to the seizing of my hamstring and perhaps all the great shuddering pain of the earth. It seemed important he know I would not give up, that pursued in this depravity of body was not those other men themselves, or a time, or the reward of completion, or anything glorious, anything enceedoublea, anything runnersworld – but rather the disproving of a myth: what the greater speed of that pair ahead might imply to an outside observer such as this goose about their better relation to the ground beneath their feet. In the savagery of a distance run was a necessary reunion of man to earth. The mountain made distant the irrelevancies of the citified, those that had been long severed from their true homeplaces. Severed in that break from their brothers, their sisters, their nature. Man to woman to Gore-Tekker to homeless. Everywhere I went I saw fractures and I saw their casts in dumpsters. I equated victory with the title of Truest Human, a title sure to bring answers about the girl. I can’t move any faster, I wanted to tell the goose. Yet I know I must win. Ahead the incline sharpened.
All nature is a cathedral, I had once told Elle. Running is just my way of praying.
Whether to distract the horror of the climb and my coming death or as a process of some psuedosadistic embrace I began a conversation with the island, saying simple things in my mind like hello and how are you? And the island with its Pacific oceanic smile saying quite well, quite well, and later on the island eventually becoming an inquisitive bastard in its own right and asking questions of its own, like:
What was it about her? That she gave cookies to the hungry, gave tears to the song, gave your skin the feeling of a canvas by the lightest touch?
Yes, yes, yes, I said, dry heaving a bit. I looked up and there was much more to come still.
Her green eyes, her black hair in her eyes, her smile, her lips, her face, her sweaty hand in yours?
The sweat had stopped now, I took deep breaths that brought no air and gave no easement to that constant pressure gripping my chest, the grasp of the sea itself perhaps administering its admonishment for those things I believed in. I could count them one two three on my fingers: the girl, the desert, myself.
Maybe her place in the desert, the desert’s place in her?
I hit a brief plateau. From that birdseye all the earth could be reckoned for better or for worse for those with eyes to see. The sun urinecolored splayed its light over the pagan waters shimmering a choppy green reflection. A hollowness dropped in my belly whenever I looked into those depths for very long.
Why do you see her in my hillsides? the island asked next.
I spat thick cotton spit into the steaming dust at my foot. The flat had ended.
I’m asking you, I said.
Fog obscured the cliffsides below, the whole world reduced to nothing more than a fuzzy green-blue mass with this little squiggly yellow line of a trail aiming forever upwards, vanishing around turn after turn after turn, no one behind and no one ahead. In the past eight miles ever since the beach with the children a knot had been forming like a rock inside my right hamstring. Now when I took the hill in the wrong manner it seized and vibrated and I straightened my crumpled posture sharp so as to ease the agony.
You think you’re very beautiful, don’t you? I asked the island.
I don’t think anything, the island said. I’m an island.
That’s some bullshit, I said. Right there. That is.
I looked to the sides of the trail as if to read some solace in the sandstone and juniper scrub, in the stretches of the alluvial fans vanishing into the mist, even out in the air itself faint over the sea as though there could be company made in the things of the earth. But there was nothing there. No nothing not even a goose.
The island could not shutup.
Your problem becomes: can you have faith in that which has betrayed you so absolutely?
It’s not betrayal, I said. It’s me reading too much into the innocuous ways of the natural world.
Have you always been such a goddamn wordsmith? the island asked.
Only when I’m in great pain, I replied.
The canyon we had known was months past and miles gone. On breaks we met in L.A., then Vegas, midpoints between those haunted dusty mexicalifornian streets and her own base camp five hundred miles north in the Mojave highlands. In those cities we became the coyotes of the desert, ribs pressed against fur and nimblequick on their toes, overeager for sustenance and prowling the edges of the towns that have grown too far. Finding naught to eat save some filthy and wronglooking scrap of trash which they eagerly swallow. Indigestible. Reducing. Ravaged by this poison and the unabated desire for food they cease to recognize one another and go forth into that foreign asphaltic hell, misplaced beasts suddenly torn from the only creature on the earth capable of understanding their suffering, the only place on earth capable of offering solace.
We had begun to understand the cities. Yet I maintained as a matter of religion the conviction borne that afternoon looking out from the summit of Argus Peak: space can heal all. On the break just before Christmas we headed south into the heart of the Sonoran, through Mexicali and San Felipe and way down the Baja Peninsula. The roads girded by salt flats and colorless mountains of untold enormity. Tire-strewn dirt highways soldiered by drug patrols and battalions lurking conspicuously in roadside tangles of manzanita, machine-guns glimmering in the sun as white as the teeth in their muleworn smiles. We came by daybreak of the second day to an empty coastal village at the Sea of Cortez, abandoned by all in its wintering save for strange stray dogs and strange stray Americans come southwards to search. Sulfur rotted the dry air. We spent the day in the geothermal springs amidst the granite honeycombed shoreline. The sun a shade of blinding I knew not, despite all those months communing in the arid shadeless lands north. After a few hours I could scarcely open my eyes to see her lounging a few feet away in her sunglasses.
She left for a snack and when she came back she had with her a wretched manthing of untold hideous description that had halted her on her return. An organism emerged from the jagged rocks at the edge of the harbor, festering those daylight hours in the cavernous jetties. A creature more precambrian than the ancient rocks upon which he stood. Dusk fell over the Gulf behind him. From his eyes peered graceless and beguiling arrows of lust and illdoing. Skin hung off his elbows and his naked flesh drooped. A towel somewhere lay discarded, of no use to this shameless specimen. There was atrophied muscle pressing against his skin wasted by the sun and pockmarked by some unnamed cancer. Those pedophile eyes spoke a constant assessment and a seeming self-awareness of being assessed and responded with a mocking so what.
They came down into the springs where I sat and she introduced me.
Gettin’ late, he said, looking only at Elle, eyes following the long razorous scar across her bare stomach to the hem of her shorts. Ya’ll might wanna come up for a bite a sup.
Her green eyes lit up in that way that said hello! so sprightly and full. The kindness of strangers a thrilling prospect to her desert sensibilities. He claimed then to be a retired psychology professor from UCLA.
Sure, she said. We’d love to.
It’s a hard world out there, he said, as we hiked back up through the dusty streets and past the filthy abandoned shanties. I walked behind them. The drooping flesh of his buttocks quivered cellulite beside her shapely thighs.
It’s a hard world when a man can’t retire till my age, he said.
The moon grew full in the pillblue sky and fizzed there like a dropped AlkaSeltzer. There were no stars of which to speak. Inside his bungalow he tried to hand me a beer while she helped him cook. I looked at him when I said no, his eyes open, wide, wide open – exposing the rotting film of death covering that evil pale blue.
He pulled on a speedo to cook in, showed me again those pale blue eyes while I crunched a few tasteless potato chips. His eyes saying I am dressed only for you.
This Methusalah, this Humbert Humbert, this Vulture-Eye. They finished and laid out the steak and potatoes with gravysauce. To her he spoke of her future and told her she must go to college.
You’ll want to look into psychology for business, he said. That’s one hell of a lukeraytive field if I may say so. A hell of a one. And you seem to got an eye for that. You gotta know which men are strong ‘nough to handle the work. And you gotta know which ones just aren’t gonna cut it. Which ones aren’t man enough.
The vulture-eye rotated to me. Through the icy pale a sudden desire seized me to pick him up onehanded by the folds of his rotting chestflesh and throw him through the bay window. Though I was sickened by this mindlessness it is what sustained me at that horrid table.
For dinner she did not put on a shirt over her bikini. From his spot on the table I did not think he could see the scar by her navel but still he greedily took full measure of her collarbone, her reddish-gold shoulders, the golden Star of David necklace pressed against her chest, reading her flesh with his vulture-eye like it were his salvation. Like a desperate reforming criminal may read the Bible for the first time. He chewed his steak loudly and the gravysauce shot in bits from his mouth to spray the table and coat his cheeks. All the while he itched his arms in an inexplicable fervor as though havocked by a malady dregged up by centuries of misdeeds and abnormal living amidst the darker places of the earth.
The vulture spoke of his ex-wives and his Freudian sex theories and the importance of having good and opened chakra. He said he knew how to open up the chakra of an aching woman. She was a girl. He brought grapes from the pantry and placed them in her palm one by one. I watched the darkness complete itself out the slant through the blinds of the window.
Let me go see about a fire, he said when she had accepted the last of the grapes from his fingers, standing up from the table and disappearing out the back screen door with a tinny whine.
I stacked the dishes quick in his sink, grabbed her by the hand, and pulled her with me out the front door. Wordlessly she followed through those dusty streets again past the glittering eyes of starving canines in the alleys and looming emptiness of each shack. The alleys reeking of sulfur and dogpiss and dying Mexico. The night was black, the moon obscured by dark fog. No stars to speak of. There were no other kingdoms but this one here, to be shared with Vegas and L.A. and even that horrid parody of life we’d left in the bungalow.
We came to the jetties in whose glens and outcroppings were the hot springs in which we had passed the day. The rising tide submerged these springs and we sat instead on a slab of sharp granite, the water filing through the rocks to touch our feet.
I squeezed her hand and she did not squeeze back.
Listen, she said. It’s just not the same as the desert.
The wind gusted and when she spoke again it was like she were setting fire to a painting, one whose composition had been the labor of all of our lifetimes until that moment. It is not the same as the desert, she said again and again and again and again.
The dogs surely watched in that blackness. Her form hardly appeared there by the lightless sea, a flickering silhouette that had once been a part of the landscape. I waited for old stinkflesh to appear behind us. The art of seduction, by the sea, someone like him might say, never understanding, handing her a pesticide-made grape. We tried to kiss – to go away, perhaps – yet the thought of her striking a match made her mouth taste like ashes. Dead, that which creation had once sourced from. In this dying place amidst dying things that should be dead. Starving things contemplated our faltering lips from the shadows. The sea too black in its dull lap and recession to reflect even that most simple of final images.
Mist kissed off the hull as the liner cut across the sea and back to the mainland. The ocean choppy, its expanse frightless in the plastic light. Edges of California formed themselves out of the salty distances, redroofed villas set against the slopes of coastal pastures. Faint scars in the sunlight. I stood alone on the deck into the whipping wind, the hundredodd passengers buckled into the heated cabins, sipping Margaritas, flipping through their Frommers, their windows just cracked perhaps for the appropriate dash of salt breeze. White umbilicals of iPod cords stringing from their skulls to tiny innocent rectangles of replacement thoughts. Feet away the earth’s largest ocean a consideration best analyzed through the lens of alcohol or technology. Both, preferably.
I held the worn envelope in my hands lightly, peering into the interior as if to count the granules resting against the yellowed paper. I felt the bronze of my medal still cold against my chest beneath my tshirt. I loosened my grip on the envelope, made to let go – and suddenly just then the liner slowed, as if this world sensed my act, the wind dying at precisely that moment, the wharf appearing with its docks, walkways, roads scouring over the hills to the horizon and leading eventually to the unnamed places. Somewhere distant a desert still lay. And so I pocketed the letter for the time being and went ashore.