I’m twelve when Ma’s best friend shows me her tits in the driveway. We’ve just pulled up in her shitty BMW, she’s turned the key and the engine’s sputtered to a stop.
“Fascinating as fuck, ain’t it?” She runs a champagne colored Lee press-on nail along the Frankenstein scar tracing each nipple. She’s had breast reduction surgery, has to share the results.
“Fascinating,” I agree. My eyes shift to the snot-smudged kitchen window ten yards away where Ma’s making dinner. It’s never had a screen. All I can think is how we used to throw chunks of liver out into the yard when Ma and Dad weren’t looking, when our two black labs had been banished from the kitchen and we couldn’t underhand it to them on the floor.
Summer after my sophomore year, she asks if I smoke pot ‘yet.’ Taking the bait, I answer yes. I leave out the shrooms and the acid and the crystal and hash I’ve been doing since twelve, since around the time she showed me her tits. I leave it out cuz although she’s probly asking so I’ll party her out or score her a dime bag, there’s the chance she’ll turn right around and tell Ma. The time she egged me and Chuck on to take Dad’s Chevy for a joy ride she did exactly that. Narced on us the minute we peeled out of the driveway. Not to mention the strange habit she has of rolling up the automatic window of her shitty BMW, pretending not to notice my hand wedged there at the top, getting maimed.
Ten minutes after she asks the question, we’re smoking hash by the pool at her place. Her husband, a high-powered attorney she landed at a dive bar, is out of town. I know something’s up when she towels off after a thirty-second dip and heads inside. I feel silly out there alone so I follow her in.
She locks the door behind us, quick as lightening, starts making out with me.
“I don’t think we should be doing this,” is all I can manage with her tongue there, everywhere. How did I not see this coming? Or did I? I’m too stoned to know or care. She ignores my protest and soon she’s pushing me back on the attorney’s bed, going down on me, teasing the tip, enjoying the power of controlling if and when I shoot. She straddles me for another half-hour, then gets up and showers, me still on the bed frustrated—she’s made sure not to let me come.
Gerdt Yaeger and me pound the length of Alameda Ave. The sweltering wraith of a San Fernando Valley dog day caves to evening’s mercy, a chorus of crickets signaling the mercury to drop. It cools off at night here, not like a lot of places. Without irrigation the valley would be desert; there’s no insulation. So summers, evenings are bearable. But other than that, the valley’s a Godforsaken pit.
Best way to put it is: nature never intended suburbs, their endless stretches of parched, sunbaked asphalt punctuated by decrepit record stores with decades-old signage, chipping and forlorn. The potholes and the shithole public transportation and the bored fucking teenagers-turned-drug-dealers.
We hoof it over sidewalks buckled by angry sycamore roots and gritty patched-together asphalt that’s grown soft when the sun was highest but now takes familiar shape. Alameda runs smack through a slummier part of town zoned for apartments, where single Moms cuss at their boys through broken windows, mistaking them for whoever knocked them up in the first place. Gerdt’s no different; he was conceived during Vietnam where his ma was a nurse. Never knew his Dad. The one time Gerdt tracked him down and called the military base in Texas where he was stationed, the man freaked and said never to call there again. His ma’s pretty much lost it since Vietnam, projects all her neurotic worries on him like bile, while making him the reluctant man of the house. Gerdt reminds her of the man she once loved, or at least fucked on some gurney; she tries to remind herself it’s not him, to fight any attraction that might arise. Mothers are not attracted to their sons, she tells herself. Before she broke down and told him how it was he came into the world, Gerdt’s drawings always featured barbed wire, trenches or foxholes and raining flack, if not helmeted, napalm-stripped skulls with gasmasks and full-blown mushroom clouds or otherwise apocalyptic shit straight outta his fucked up DNA.
We met just this year—sophomore year—at orientation. From different junior highs across town, but now thrown together along with the rest of Burbank’s delinquent youth.
“Gerdt, not Garret.” He clarified right there in line. “One syllable, like fart.”
We bonded over our art, even though he drew way better than me. He gave me a homemade Anarchy tattoo using nothing but a sewing needle sterilized with a Bic lighter and some Schnapps. The next afternoon, he pierced my ear with the same needle and a potato wedge. Ma noticed before I did the first time he crashed at our place: after he left in the morning she asked me “Is that boy black?” Turns out his Dad was African American, his ma German. Made for a good-looking kid, even with the piercings and the skinhead. Before he shaved it entirely, I buzzed it with Ma’s clippers and bleached it platinum in our driveway, rinsing it with a frayed garden hose.
We’re headed to score shrooms. But the dealer’s way up in Topanga canyon and neither one of us has a car yet. So we’re headed to Jason’s—a skate punk Gerdt’s hung with since elementary. His Ma’s at work and her second car is fair game, even though he has no license—failed Driver’s Ed and not old enough to take the behind-the-wheel test anyway. Man, I’ve never considered myself from the ‘right side of the tracks,’ but if Gerdt’s got it worse than me this kid’s in another league altogether. Never mind what Ma’s best friend pulled after our dip in the pool—I considered myself a more-than-willing participant at the time—my Madonna complex is intact. Jason’s ma is half the age of mine and runs around with guys half her age, putting most of them right smack between Jason’s age and his Ma’s—mid twenties.
The latest is Daryll but Jason calls him Derelict. Not to his face, of course; dude could tear his head off with two fingers. He’s there when we arrive, sprawled on the burgundy madras couch in sweats, tipping a foil bag and channeling potato chip mulch down his throat. The TV is on with the sound turned down but otherwise the tiny apartment is dark. There’s a green glass bong on the faux mahogany coffee table, next to a baggie full of packed Indica buds.
“Whatup, dude?” Jason shakes hands with Gerdt and me, ushers us in.
Jason is shorter than both of us, a year younger. But the dude’s ripped. His tanned shoulders are relentlessly inked beneath a worn-out Sex Pistols wife beater. He wears khaki Bermudas and green suede creepers. His customary Mohawk has been downgraded to a platinum buzz. Like Gerdt, he belongs to B.P.O.—Burbank Punks Organization. Not so much a gang as a bunch of bored suburban white kids with nothing to thrash but each other. Their most badass recreation involves tagging Pic-N-Save or slam dancing in a faux mosh pit until someone suffers an unintentional curb stomp and has to be rushed to emergency.
“This is Daryll,” Jason nods submissively toward the lumpy couch.
The man leans forward and nearly tears our arms from their sockets. He’s got sinewy forearms like rope, with perfectly configured blonde hairs. He sports the jaw of a professional baseball player and the cap and jersey to match.
“Bong hit?” He holds up the crazy glass bong; it’s more like a lava lamp.
“We’re good.” Gerdt raises a hand. We’re still getting our bearings.
“Bunch o’ pussies.”
Jason plants himself on the couch next to Daryll.
I’ve never met Jason’s Ma, but last time we cruised by I met the boyfriend. And it sure as fuck wasn’t this dude. So it’s a month, tops, this thug’s been hanging around.
“I’m bangin’ Jason’s ma,” he announces. He smacks Jason on the back of the head. “Right, Dude?”
Here the man holds up the crinkly foil bag of remaining Fritos. “She’s got the best junk food in Burbank.”
The woman bartends at some dive in North Hollywood, late hours. From what I can tell, the apartment has a revolving door. Jason’s ma’s even taken in a chick a few years older than him—a senior maybe, but not enrolled in school. I’ve seen her once or twice but not asked too many questions. Looks like a Barbie doll, a low class one. Always tanned, always in faded dolphin shorts or cut off jeans, probly a runaway or a squatter the woman’s heart went out to. The chick doesn’t pay rent, but she does the housekeeping.
“You got the keys?” Gerdt asks Jason in a whisper, standing behind him and the sagging excuse for a couch. Jason’s eyes shift to the freeloader next to him, whose eyes are glazed on the silent TV screen. “Ma left ‘em for Daryll. Sooo…”
The man overhears, ice blue scimitar-shaped eyes darting in Jason’s direction. “I told you I’d drive you, punk!”
“Can’t deprive a kid of his shrooms, can I? Let’s do this!”
Our eyes widen, Gerdt and me. What the fuck’s the problem here?
Jason turns to the man, irritated but powerless. “I told you—I can’t give you no shrooms, man. We’re saving ‘em for the concert.”
It’s true: the whole plan is to do them Saturday at T.S.O.L.
“No prob, dude. Like I said, a twelve pack is all.”
Jason looks to us and then back to Daryll. “All right. We’ll stop off at 7-11.”
Daryll picks up the bong, packs a bowl. “My buddie’s on his way over. We can leave when he gets here.” With that the man puts his full, stubbly lips to the shaft and takes in a long, turbulent hit through translucent monster-green plastic. He exhales a slow, steady stream, adding to the cloud that hangs in the room, permeating drapes and paneling and dingy, brown indoor/outdoor carpeting.
When the buddy shows up he’s introduced as Sammy—short for Osama. He’s stockier than Daryll, more like a wrestler than a baseball player, and darker, middle eastern. Thick eyebrows arch over wide, disingenuous eyes full of bullshit. Even as he shakes my hand I feel I’m shaking the hand of a snake oil salesman. He makes sure to smack Jason on the back of the head before raiding the fridge.
I can’t help but feel for Jason’s ma, some woman I’ve never met but imagine to be a hot young cougar, considering Daryll’s sinister good looks. Here she is working her ass off for tips while a bunch of freeloaders spill potato chip crumbs on her couch and blow bong hits into her macramé drapes.
A door creaks open in the rear of the dark apartment. I turn. The Barbie doll is navigating the hallway, stooping to pick up errant socks and underwear and throwing them into a plastic laundry basket. Even her movements are doll-like. Just before exiting the back door toward the apartments’ laundry room, she shares some kind of a look with Daryll.
“Let’s hit it!” Daryll commands after offering his buddy a bong hit from the green monster. “I need my beer fix!”
We pile into the tired green Dodge Polara whose upholstery is shredded and hangs from the ceiling like curtains of moss. She groans in protest with a twist of the key, turning over reluctantly as if to an unwelcome alarm clock. She sputters and dies. On the third try, she chokes out a ball of exhaust and the engine squeals full-throttle.
“Woo-hoo!” Daryll hollers, gripping the wheel tighter. “And they’re off like a pack of turtles!”
Sammy and Jason have piled into the back seat; I’m in the front passenger seat, nervous as fuck, like any minute the man’s gonna smack me on the back of the head.
The Polara crunches leaves as it peels away from the curb. Daryll hugs the cement, slinking along until reaching the alley that’s a shortcut to the freeway onramp. It runs behind the row of run-down apartment buildings, jacked up with wide cracks and potholes. The oil-slicked water that’s collected in them reflects a nervous twilight; the violet sky is quickly turning to night. In the dimming ambience, a figure can be seen navigating the errant trash barrels that form a strange obstacle course, beaten in and slumped. It’s laundry girl, returning from the community laundry room with a flimsy plastic basket. It’s empty.
“Yo!” Daryll calls through a rolled down window.
She turns too soon, feigning surprise.
“Wanna go for a ride, little girl?” he propositions.
“Where you all off to, stranger?” She plays along. Still, there’s something choreographed about the whole thing.
“On a shroom run!” Sammy shouts from the back seat, loud enough for the entire apartment building to hear.
The girl giggles and puts a finger to her lips. Jason says nothing. He’s turned out the far window.
“Come with us.” Daryll insists. I can’t see his face, only his enormous jaw in profile, but I’m sure his heavy brows are bouncing and there’s an insistent look in his ice blue eyes. “We’re going on a beer run first. And I know you like a stiff one.”
“Let me get rid of this,” the laundry girl smiles, swinging the laundry basket playfully against her hip.
When she’s disappeared into the courtyard of the complex, Daryll whisks his head toward the backseat, so fast it startles me.
To Jason: “Get up here and drive!”
“What? I don’t have my license yet…”
“Do what I tell you, you stupid shit! Get up here. NOW!”
It may be the opportunity to drive, the thrilling danger of being pulled over, or the fact that Daryll has thrown open the driver door and is charging at him full-force, rounding the vehicle, but Jason flies from the back passenger side and obediently takes his place at the wheel.
“Get in the front seat, bitch.” Daryll then orders Gerdt. Sammy pushes him out for good measure. He situates himself beside me in the front seat. When laundry girl returns, basketless, she settles into the back seat between the two men. I notice the ochre vinyl of the seat is as shabby as the ceiling, split at regular intervals by the sun or a razor blade. The car door slams shut, the only remaining warmth dimming like a dying star. By the time we have our beer and rattle onto the Ventura freeway, it’s pitch black.
They’ve got a beer bottle up her twat before we’re halfway to Topanga Canyon. She’s passed out, or pretending to be, after one beer.
“Rohypnol, dude,” Daryll schools his buddy. “Ludes ain’t shit compared to this stuff. Colorless and odorless, too. Chicks have no idea. Don’t remember shit later…”
Sammy takes a mental note.
Before she went limp like a ragdoll, Sammy tried to shove her mouth on Daryll’s cock through his sweats but she was too relaxed to be much use. Then she passed out cold. I think.
Suddenly she’s moaning softly, in and out of consciousness, head thrust to the side and smiling stupidly.
“She likes it. Check it out.” All at once Daryll’s a sportscaster delivering a play-by-play. “She wants more.”
Sammy shoves the cold but empty bottle deeper.
Me and Gerdt are looking straight ahead, into pitch-blackness.
Weak amber headlights pan across shoddy foliage as the Polara navigates the twists and turns of Topanga Canyon Road. Messy vines and strange succulents spill into our path, catching the dull shafts.
“We’re almost there,” Jason mutters under his breath. But the warning is ineffective, choked.
“Pull over, bitch!” Daryll yells suddenly.
“Here? We’re a quarter mile away…”
“Do it, pussy!” The man insists, grabbing Jason’s neck from behind like a vice grip. “Better yet, make a right here—turn down this road.”
A dirt road splits off from Topanga Canyon road, jogging defeatedly through trampled grass and into darkness.
They’ve got her on a picnic table now, on her back. Her joints are loose, listless, like a mannequin or a C.P.R. dummy. Sammy pins her knees back while Daryll goes at it in the dull, dispassionate moonlight—files away at her like a bored jackhammer.
We’re leaning against the jalopy several yards away, staring at the ground, the moon, the shitty grass and scattered beer bottles, even here in the middle of a canyon.
“These cloves suck,” Gerdt editorializes, flicking a crumpled butt into the dirt road where it’s least likely to start a fire. “Djarum non-filters are still the bomb.”
“No shit, “ Jason agrees, flicking his own spent roach at hardened earth.
“Yo! Jason! Get over here, pussy!”
Jason doesn’t move. Doesn’t look at me or Gerdt.
And then, after a minute, without turning: ”C’mon, man! Dave thinks we’re on our way. I told him eight-thirty…” The moon paints Jason’s teeth a lazy blue, the whites of his eyes. They find us at last, as if to apologize.
“Get over here you fuckin’ pussy!” Daryll’s voice is bouncing off the canyon walls now. “You know you want some o’ this.”
Reluctantly Jason turns, as if to get something over with. We watch his T.S.O.L. shirt bouncing down the uneven path toward the picnic table. Gerdt and I look at one another, wondering if he’ll do it. We station ourselves behind the corroded Polara and watch.
Daryll’s shot on her face, zipped up. Sammy was the first to stick it in, but if he came he wasn’t vocal about it. Jason sidles up to the picnic table, stroking his cock through his khaki Bermudas. Daryll yanks them down in one shot; a button goes flying, clattering across the picnic table’s bench.
“C’mon, pussy! Whip it out already!”
Our jaws drop, Gerdt and me, as Jason sticks it in and starts pumping. We look at one another in the coldblooded moonlight, any shock turning to stifled laughter. Laundry girl purrs throatily, head falling to the side, to the splintery wooden slab. Suddenly the scene looks like the altar of a Mayan temple, the thrusting and the gawking some kind of ritual sacrifice.
“See, stud?” Daryll teases his protégé encouragingly, “I knew you had it in you. She can’t get enough. Look at her.”
She does seem to be encouraging the ritual, this girl with no name, even in her ragdoll state. And it’s contagious—the vicarious, palpable thrill of watching our buddie’s bubble ass catching moonlight as he pounds her incessantly, imagining doing the same.
Sammy smacks Jason’s cheek. “Harder, stud.”
I can feel the blood rushing into my groin. So can Gerdt; I see evidence of it.
“You pussies are next,” Daryll calls up to us.
The mild fear does nothing to kill our anticipation, or our hard-ons. We’re both stroking now in preparation; Gerdt’s unbuttoning with stiff, inept fingers.
“This is the perfect spot to dump the body, too,” we hear Sammy point out.
Daryll does not laugh, surveys the undulations of dry, wretched grass instead. If they’re serious, the locale certainly seems a pathetic place to be dumped. An inglorious resting place.
As we prepare for our go at it, the rushing blood drains all linear thought from my brain, replaces it with horniness. Me and Gerdt will never speak of tonight again—how beneath the horniness thoughts swirl like a tempest—thoughts of kicking the dog and rites of passage and cruel practical jokes, of red dress-blaming and rationalization, of nameless, faceless teen runaways reduced to ragdolls, even willing ragdolls but still victims somehow, the persistent feeling that even more disquieting than what these men are capable of is the haunting likelihood laundry girl is one hundred percent along for the ride.
Jason comes with an involuntary grunt. He stuffs his junk back into his shorts, still semi-engorged. He zips up, but has no button, so his semi-hardon keeps causing the zipper to come undone. Gerdt is staggering down the slope awkwardly, nylon board shorts around ankles, when she wakes up.
Suddenly she’s sitting up. They’re handing her clothes to her article by article, a tissue to wipe the load off her face.
In the car, she digs in her purse, finds a safety pin for Jason’s missing button.
After scoring our shrooms, we ride home in silence. In the rear view mirror, I catch it—what could pass as a contented smile. She’s looking at him with the same look I saw in the apartment, just before Daryll swung around to the alley and abducted her. Brought her along for the ride.
It’s unsettling to know something and wish you didn’t. Not anything you’ve been told or read about, but something your heart knew beyond a doubt. Something you saw in an expression or a telling smile that revealed all about a person in a singular, defining moment. You wish you could go back and erase this new knowledge—this shadow that has come to roost, threatening to feed on all that holds your world together. But it will not fly away, and must be lived with like an unwelcome tenant in your own heart.
It was on Thanksgiving 1987 that my shadowy tenant came to roost. My wife Beth and I were the first to return that year to Running Springs, the great fortress of my youth. The government had threatened to evict Gram and Gramps on countless occasions and level the place, originally built by the DWP as a government way station to guard the aqueduct against bombing. But for the moment, it remained standing. On arrival, the place looked none the worse for wear, despite the irrigation having been long since been terminated and the aqueduct rerouted. I’d feared the towering pinions surrounding the place might have withered with my youth, that the great cottonwoods no longer met in a welcoming arch above the gravel drive.
As we turned off the main highway I recognized the jolt of smooth asphalt giving way to poorly maintained dirt road. Haphazard clumps of sage and Joshua thickets yielded to neat rows of cedar bushes. And in the distant haze of twilight loomed the station house, just as it had been imprinted on my memory. Magical, I thought. Like an island in a vast sea of nothingness. Rising monumentally from the void of sand and brush, its ashlar walls formed the bailey of a great fortress. Its parapet was edged with evergreen battlements, giving the appearance of a great oasis visible for miles.
“The first time I saw this place as a kid, “ I told Beth, “I woke my cousin from a sound sleep.”
She turned, blond hair whipping in early evening’s breeze, wanting to share in my childhood wonder.
I took her warm smile as the cue to continue. “It was the most awesome thing I’d ever seen. I said it looked like a castle. He corrected me and said it was a ‘fortress,’ then rolled over and went back to sleep.” From that day on we’d referred to Running Springs Station simply as “The Fort.”
This would be my first visit since our marriage in the fall, the first bearing news of yet more grandkids. Ours was an exceedingly fertile family. You looked at one of my cousins wrong and they were pregnant—becoming so for a Robinson was about as divine an accomplishment as stubbing one’s toe. Still, I was glad to be doing my part to propagate the bloodline. We would be naming our daughter Sonja after my dearly departed aunt, Sonja Elena, whose namesake had been bestowed on enough Robinsons that year to sink a battleship. ‘One more won’t hurt, Rick,’ Beth had insisted.
The story of Aunt Sonja’s untimely death had become folklore not only in the family but in all of Inyo County. Its telling and retelling had diminished its tragedy so as to make it bearable, replacing sadness with the novelty of sensational details. Folks said it had been by nothing short of the hand of God that she’d been delivered from her suffering. They reminded themselves what a hard life she’d endured, took solace in knowing she’d moved on to a better place. And since it is at the crux of the story of Thanksgiving 1987, I will recount the tale of how she was taken so young that chilly morning on a dry lakebed far from the world:
Aunt Sonja’s life had been turbulent. She and Uncle Roy were married in ‘74 after meeting at the electronics manufacturing company in Mexico City where she assembled parts. He’d been stationed there briefly to oversee a project. After the wedding she returned to California with him, and was tom from her family. They’d been dirt poor, all eleven of them, but the ties were strong. The Inyo desert offered terrain similar to home, if the language and culture differed greatly. She pined for her family. Even as a child I read sadness in her eyes, as if part of her were far away, still running amongst the saguaros. I knew that behind her broad, patient smile was a longing, a vast emptiness that could not be filled. And so she busied herself. Making tortillas at the restaurant the two opened on the road to Bishop, she forcefully ground or tossed the dough to pulverize the regret she wasn’t allowed to feel. She had to be strong.
When she died suddenly two years ago it was shocking, but somehow preordained. Uncle Roy had quit drinking after years of marital turmoil. She’d threatened to leave him and go home to her family and this had sobered him up. According to folklore, she’d just begun to say I love you again when it happened. They’d been planning to drive their van to Mexico together for the holidays. But a flu bug had got him. He was flat on his back with a high fever when he told her to take the van and go ahead without him. She told him, strangely, to kiss Gram and Gramps and say she loved them. And then she headed for home.
The van was found the next morning less than five miles away. It had gone into the brush, stopping several hundred yards from the highway.
There didn’t appear to have been a struggle, the local sheriff reported. The mark on her forehead could have been from the steering wheel. But that wasn’t what killed her. Having blacked out or fallen asleep at the wheel and hit her head, she’d slumped down into her seat.
According to the autopsy, it was the seat belt that asphyxiated her.
I often dream about Aunt Sonja in the moments of freedom before her death. In the dream she is smiling, a true smile that is not there to mask pain, and her actions are deliberate. She seems to be guiding the van off the road and into the brush. The van bottoms out on a rock and stalls. And then I see her emerge from the van, take off her shoes, and begin to run. She starts out slowly, tentatively, but soon she is leaping over the sage, almost flying, away from the van and myself and the road, and into the desert sun.
I hadn't seen Uncle Roy since it happened. Some family members had gone to Sonora for the funeral. In addition to the culture shock—being faced with true poverty—they’d been startled by vastly different social norms; dozens of people had shown up from her village, wailing and throwing themselves on the casket.
Uncle Roy maintained his composure. In the two years since his wife’s death, however, he had developed cancer. The tumor appeared in the breast tissue near his heart and sent out tendrils that lodged between his ribs. He’d been going for treatment, but had moved back in with Gram and Gramps at Running Springs due to the financial burden.
As we made the final turn in the gravel drive, I warned Beth.
“He’s a bit ‘quirky,” I euphemized.
We’d navigated the great stone mesa that was the fort’s bailey, and as the road turned the main keep reeled into view. In truth it was a cottage. A modest but charming bungalow surrounded by a screened porch alight with kerosene lamps. As dusk encroached on the cottage the warmth emanating from them contrasted sharply with the blanket of silver that settled like ore across the Sierra foothills. The Fort was nestled in a canyon, great flat desert yawning wide below, the mountains themselves like sentinels protecting its insular beauty. The Owens River once carved its way along this very route, until being redirected to the L.A. basin via intermittent stretches of subterranean canal and ugly black pipe. Running Springs Station flanked one such protrusion in an otherwise rustic landscape—its contents could often be heard thundering by carrying the occasional boulder or worse.
“The adults used to tell us a cow had fallen into the aqueduct whenever a boulder would pass,” I told Beth, not wasting any time in sharing nostalgia.
But the aqueduct had been rerouted, ugly black pipe now vacant and cowless, rendering the canyon eerily quiet. The kerosene lamps could be heard on the stillness, inviting mosquitoes from miles around. The dogs had signaled our approach, and no sooner had we stepped from the running board of the S.U.V. into the welcoming crunch of gravel below, when Gram appeared on the porch with a friendly wave.
“Hello, Darling,” she called, voice raspy but sweet. Opting to put greetings before grabbing suitcases, we met her at the base of the broad cement stairs.
“It’s good to see you, Gram.” She kissed me on the cheek, and the embrace that followed at once conveyed warmth and boundaries.
“Hello, Sweetie,” Gram sang, extending a similar treatment to Beth and raising an arthritic hand to sweep the honey-colored hair from her young face. Gram had always been loving yet stem. But now that the grandkids were grown and there was no one to discipline, the sternness had distilled to maple sweetness. Her posture, not yet taxed by gravity, spoke of composure and dignity, as though it were a choice to develop poise from adversity, to resist time and circumstance. If her hair had gone white as the snow she had willed it, the deeply etched lines—she’d earned them.
“Hello, Dorothy.” Beth greeted her with affection. Despite not having seen Running Springs, Beth had long since made herself at home with the Robinson clan.
“You folks are the first ones here,” Gram informed us. “ Most of the gang are due to arrive tomorrow sometime.” In addition to being a fertile clan, the Robinsons valued family, and family get-togethers. You could generally expect a mob scene at Thanksgiving.
"That means we’ve got first dibs on accommodations then, right?” I kidded, fully prepared to camp on the lawn in a pup tent.
"Well you know your Uncle Roy’s moved back home with your Grandfather and I. So his room’s taken.” Gram nodded toward the cellar, which had been converted years ago into a living space we grandkids affectionately named ‘The Dungeon.’ It was here in the half-light that we would regularly pull each other around using old area rugs on the cold, stone floor. It was here that countless games of Killer Queen or Murder In the Dark transpired, ending when one or more cousins imagined that a rat had scurried across the room, grazing their bare toes along the way.
“What about the spare cot on the back porch?” I took the opportunity. "I just don’t think a sleeping bag on the floor is going to cut it for us this time; not in our condition.” I received an abrupt slap on the back, and Beth blushed. Gram caught the meaning in her embarrassment.
"Congratulations, sweetheart!” A delighted kiss on the cheek. "I know you’ve been trying.”
It was true. Forever we’d waited until my gallery work was really moving, until Beth could afford to take time away from Production Management. Once it was clear we both had options, that neither of our well-established careers would suffer, we’d been going at it like rabbits.
"When are you due?” Gram wanted to know.
“End of April. I’m in my fourth month. We found out a few weeks ago but wanted to wait and tell everyone in person.” Beth smiled, pleased by the approval. Her ice blue eyes flashed with admiration for the family matriarch.
“Well we’d best tell your grandfather!”
Gram turned from the porch toward the pine-encircled yard. Dusk was beginning to swallow muddled details.
“Abbot!” She called excitedly.
We followed her around to the back of the bungalow where the man sat watching night fall across the desert. His chair was planted precariously between the lawn and a cinder walk, facing the brink of the cliff. The earth dropped away at its base, stretching into the vast, empty plain that met oblivion somewhere beyond the smudged horizon. The man was smoking, ashes tumbling the length of his spun cotton beard. He didn’t hear our approach.
“Abbot, sweetheart…” The old man turned his gaze from the darkening plain, and yet more embers fell from the spent roach. Immediately a warm smile replaced the vacant expression that hung on his face like a well-worn overcoat. The look of recognition was remote at first. I kissed his forehead, and Beth graciously squatted next to his chair, taking his hand in her own.
“You’re going to have another great-grandchild,” Gram announced in a tone that rendered his hearing aid superfluous. Gramps nodded, eyes sharpening as if calculating a total in his mind. He had been without the power of speech for some time now, but we knew the message had been received.
Beth turned first to me, searching my expression, and then to Gram. “We’re naming her Sonja.”
Gram smiled in earnest.
Dorothy Robinson straightened a picture on the wall. She centered a familiar candy dish meticulously on the coffee table. Used a sturdy hip to push an errant storage box beneath a floor-length tablecloth. All this without breaking stride. We’d retrieved our bags from the bed of the truck and Gram was leading us through the house to the back porch, as if I didn’t know the place as well as our own home. As we passed the stairwell to the Dungeon I was sure I felt a cool draft arise from musty darkness. I turned.
“Your Uncle Roy’s sleeping, “ Gram informed us. “We just let him sleep. Lord knows he needs it. With all he’s been through. He just had his treatment yesterday and already he’s out there workin’ in the yard. Raked that whole driveway this afternoon for the company. It’ll be messed up in no time, but we don’t like the pine gum. The little ones track it all over.”
Gram hummed joyfully as she cleared a shelf for us on the screened porch, turned down the bed. It was an old habit—humming incessantly—as if to drown something out. Beth had pointed out it was probably the ten screaming grandchildren she’d trained herself to drown out. We used to spend at least one full week at Running Springs, just the grandkids and Gram and Gramps. But her humming, I somehow knew, long predated grandchildren.
Gram smoothed the bedspread with arthritic hands, pushing out the wrinkles as if calming a stormy sea. Suddenly she stopped and turned toward the screen panel framing the lawn. “I’d better go fetch Abbot. It’s almost dark out there.”
“I’ll go,” I said. “You two catch up.”
Gramps had lit up a new stogie. The light had left all but a portion of the sky, but his gaze remained fixed. The hills were in shadow now, defined only by the ambient glow of a cloudless night, looking more like an airless moonscape than the Mojave Desert. I’d stood in the very spot, ages before, with my grandmother. It was one of my earliest recollections. Of Running Springs, or anywhere. I’d been holding her hand, at that time just beginning to show signs of arthritis. As the two of us gazed from our vantage point I felt secure. In all the emptiness, the fortress on which we stood like a fountainhead gave meaning to the chaos. It was safe. But somewhere out there, at an indefinable distance, it all dissolved. I remember for the first time really trying to conceive of eternity. In my own childlike way, I was wrestling with some big stuff. Forever didn’t seem fun to me. I ‘d heard about eternal life through the Lord, and it haunted me. It seemed lonely, and anxious.
“Gram?” I struggled to formulate a question. “How long is forever? I mean, if you live forever like the Bible says, what do you do the whole time?” It was a relief, to have finally asked someone. Whether I got the answer or not, I had asked. And while I was at it, I was gonna put them all out there. “And if we weren’t here—the Earth and the stars and the people and cars and clouds and stuff—what would there be?” I was picturing blackness, pitch blackness. She just gazed at me with a tender, patient smile, hand tightened around mine.
After a long moment and a sigh, she answered: “Just try not to think about it, Sweetie. Try not to think about it...”
“Gramps,” I said, planting myself in his view. “It’s time to go in now. Dinner’s ready.”
I helped him put out his cigarette and the two of us walked toward the circle of light beginning to creep across the lawn from the kerosene lamps. Somehow in the waning light the place took on a sublime quality, cottonwoods withered, their great boughs devoid of life. The Eucalyptus and the pine were the same, the family of hawks that had once roosted in their uppermost branches having moved on. The lawn was patchy—overgrown in places and dead in others. The screened porch encircling the cottage sagged defeatedly, threatening to implode and consume all the memories within. Its paint was dry and chipping, molding scarred as if battered in some great storm.
But as we entered the well-lit interior, it struck me how little had changed. Every last tchotchke and knick-knack was exactly where I remembered it; the same daisy yellow paint adorned the kitchen, interrupted only by a chair rail and vintage culinary wallpaper beneath. It was alarming that the face of something could be so timeworn and weather-beaten while its main keep remained intact. This was profoundly redeeming to me, and as I seated my Grandfather at the supper table my hand tightened around his. I forced down the lump in my throat as he held on, impish eyes searching me for something recognizable.
“Thank you, “ Gram said when she saw us, “Sometimes he wanders off...”
Beth was helping set the table, commenting on the placemats and the table settings, the vintage wallpaper and antique silverware. I watched their interaction from the supper table, the family matriarch and her young disciple. Beth esteemed the role with awe, the demands and rewards of a career on which she would soon embark.
Watching them, my own trepidation returned. At first I’d chalked it up to cold feet. Giving up his freedom was a death of sorts to any bachelor. But it had come to feel right, this door-closing. It meant safety. I no longer had to search.
Only on occasion did it seem claustrophobic.
Only on occasion did I remind myself that one’s mate cannot provide all. That every comer of one’s soul cannot be completed by love.
“Rick’s told me so many stories about this place,” Beth was saying. “It’s really charming.”
“Well, we make do with what we’ve got,” was Gram’s summary of the situation. “Never have had much, but then never needed it. Momma and Daddy raised eleven kids on a miner’s salary. So marrying one wasn’t much of a leap. I hadn’t exactly developed expensive tastes.”
Beth smiled. She loved listening to Gram, and so did I. Her stories weren’t tinged with regret or ingratitude; they just told things as they were.
“It must be a lot of work taking care of Abbot,” Beth reflected.
“Medicare provides a bath nurse, but only twice a week. Uncle Roy helps out quite a bit,” Gram explained, polishing a spoon before setting it on the table. Presently her actions slowed, as if she were wading back in time. “Seems like I’ve been changing diapers as long as I can remember. Quit school in the seventh grade to take care of Momma. Her arthritis was so bad she had to crochet with her needle in the crook of her thumb. Had to be turned, fed. Left water boiling and nearly burned the house down once and that’s when I had to stay home with her. And after we buried her it was my own kids I cared for. Ricky’s mom and his Uncle Roy and Uncle Terry. And now it’s my husband I feed and bathe.”
I stepped further into the kitchen. “That’s something.” I’d often thought of recording her stories for posterity—capturing some kind of oral history. I just knew that such a lot in life meant something. That in her old age she was connecting all the dots, making sense of it all.
I took the risk. “What do you make of all that?”
Gram’s eyes sharpened. Completely without guile, she responded, “A lot of hard work...”
Gramps chewed intently, eyes serene and unfazed. Even among familiar strangers, he was content. Gram said we’d best not wake Uncle Roy; she’d bring him down a plate if he didn’t come up soon.
Beth made a few more observations about the silver and flatware, and I wanted nothing more than to ask Gram if she remembered our conversation out on the cliff. I didn’t.
‘This place has a lot of memories,” I offered instead.
Gram’s expression grew uncharacteristically grave. She took a moment to prepare her thoughts, then placed her fork neatly beside her knife and spoon.
“I’ve something to tell you.” I knew what was coming. I’d heard the tone before. “I’m going to make an announcement tomorrow when everyone’s arrived. But as long as you’re here, you may as well know.”
“This is it.” I cut to the chase. “Running Springs is kaput.” I wasn’t one for suspense.
Gram looked down, polished her already-polished spoon. “We got word yesterday from Sheriff Dunivant...”
My anger boiled up. “Whose side is he on, anyway?”
“I’m not sure anymore,” Gram conceded. “Says it’s beyond his control. That it’s a fluke this place has lasted as long as it has…”
I turned to Beth. “This place was built in the Mulholland days to protect the aqueduct from bombing.”
“Locals wasn’t too happy their water supply was being rerouted to folks in L.A.,” Gram explained.
“It’s just not needed anymore,” I bookended. “There’s nothing left to protect.”
Beth looked panicked. “What will they do with it? Turn it into a museum or something?”
“Parks Service plans to bulldoze it,” was Gram’s answer.
This I hadn’t expected. It seemed so final. “Fucking amazing. They’ll leave Montana de Oro standing for two years—nothing but a pile of ashes—but they’ve gotta level this place.”
Gram smiled with the patience of her years. “They’ve been talking about it for a long time. It’s higher on the list than the restaurant.” Montana de Oro, the Mexican diner once operated by Uncle Roy and Aunt Maria had been consumed by fire, its charred skeleton left standing yards from the highway.
I don’t know why the news about Running Springs hit me so hard. I felt part of me was being leveled with the place; a part I wasn’t ready to surrender. I took a deep breath. “I just don’t know why we need to do away with everything we decide is obsolete.”
The Parks Service had threatened to do it on countless occasions. But it was actually happening this time. Gram had gone through all the proper channels to evade eviction—filed for a restraining order to limit harassment by the N.P.S. officials who had visited her regularly, marching across the lawn to intimidate her with badges from behind dark glasses.
“My husband helped build this place with his bare hands,” she’d protested. “We’ve maintained it for fifty years, and with the swipe of a pen you folks want to bury that legacy…”
After she filed the restraining order they’d stopped coming. But it was just the calm before the storm. The eviction papers were due to arrive anytime. Then it would be final.
The remainder of our meal was spent in silence.
The bannister slithered cold and polished beneath my fingers, disappearing into palpable darkness below. Warped stairs moaned softly, reverberating throughout the dungeon. A particularly miserable stair shrieked loudly, and I nearly lost the plate in my grasp. I’d volunteered to deliver the plate Gram had prepared for Uncle Roy. I suppose morbid curiosity had gotten the best of me; I half expected to find him transformed, lurking about the cold stone chamber like some hideous minotaur banished to darkness. If any sound issued forth to confirm my suspicions, I would simply leave the plate at the foot of the stairs and run for the light. My palms grew clammy as I descended, clutching the banister in one hand and the offering in the other. The wooden railing ended abruptly halfway down. Surely it had been gnawed off.
The splintery door lingered ajar at the foot of the stairs, revealing a stirring within. I edged closer. Uncle Roy stood in familiar human form, gazing wistfully into the full-length minor that had once graced the entryway upstairs. The gaze was neither vain nor self-loathing in nature. It was pensive, as if the man were considering a recent discovery.
An invisible draft nudged the door further open and it groaned, announcing my presence. Uncle Roy turned casually, as if he’d been expecting me.
“Uncle Roy,” I said too quickly, effecting nonchalance. “Gram made you a plate.”
I held up the offering.
“Hey there! How are ya kiddo?” Uncle Roy greeted me cheerfully, hugging me about the shoulder and leading me into the dark chamber.
Uncle Roy was a rugged middle-aged man, a bit weathered for his years. A ruddy tint deepened in the extremities, enhanced by a taste for spirits. His fit frame had grown even leaner and more wiry than normal; an oversized belt buckle flashed in the obsidian black, accentuating an impossibly slim waist. Dime store Levis stretched tight over suede shitkickers that scuffed polished cement as he took the plate from me and shuffled me toward the sole empty chair in the room.
Somehow I felt like a child again; when he’d been nipping at the bottle the man would pull you aside, his captive audience. Then he’d wax too-familiar, begin to gush the way he rarely could when sober, the way he couldn’t to his own child. She’d been whisked across the country by his first wife after the divorce. You always felt you were making up for that somehow. Even as a child I knew there was something more going on, and it had to do with power. Because the things he said were not what adults said to children. Not obscene or profane, but still inappropriate somehow.
The man appeared sober now, in every sense of the word. His handshake was still firm, but with his arm around my shoulder I could tell he’d lost a great deal of weight, contributing to a sense of frailty about him. The mischief had not left his crooked smile.
“ Like what I’ve done with the place?”
“We used to call this the dungeon, “ I told him.
‘That’s about what it feels like sometimes.” He said with a chuckle.
“And that looks familiar,” I said, indicating the dusty mirror. Here I recounted one of many stories associated with that mirror, the one about the killer bean. The youngest cousin Veronica had, in an attempt to disguise herself, shoved a pinto bean up her left nostril. When it didn’t voluntarily dislodge, Gram had worked for twenty minutes coaching her in blowing it out. Over the years, the tale had evolved into several variations, the most novel of which featured the bean ultimately shooting across the room and striking Gramps in the eye, or across two rooms and glancing off the mirror, creating the hairline fracture that ran its length.
Other than the antique mahogany mirror, decor was sparse. The tattered area rugs that had been our magic carpets were arranged to conceal, if not insulate, the chilly stone floor. Various and sundry artifacts adorned the paneled walls—cow skull here, stretched rattlesnake skin there—in an attempt to dress up the place. A beer can lampshade cradled the sole light source, a small lamp on the nightstand near the bed. In keeping with the motif, strands of old bottle caps served as curtains separating the dungeon’s bathroom. A single framed photograph sat atop the rickety nightstand.
I gravitated toward the driftwood-framed photograph, Uncle Roy following in close proximity. It was a wedding picture of he and Aunt Sonja, the only one in existence. The two stood with Aunt Jesse, the officiator, on a cliff overlooking the Colorado River at sunset. All three braced themselves against the wind, palms pressed into a bible as if to anchor them from plunging off the cliff.
Uncle Roy gazed at the picture over my shoulder in an attempt to see it through my eyes. His breath grazed my neck with an edge of stale whiskey.
“I like that shot,” I obliged, moving along as if there were others to look at.
“Naaah,” he exhaled, “This here’s the only damn picture that means anything to me.” Here he produced a snakeskin wallet from his breast pocket. “This is how I remember her.”
Before revealing the treasure, my uncle sat me on the edge of the bed. Only then was the photograph removed carefully from its plastic sleeve and cradled before me like a new diamond. It had been taken in Sonora around the time of their meeting, I estimated. The black-and-white emulsion was tinted sepia and a mild grain softened everything the way time diffuses memory. Tiny cracks interrupted the pigment, missing threads in some great tapestry. Threads lost to time, never to be recovered. But the mind filled them in, providing what was necessary to complete the picture.
“Ain’t she a beauty?” Uncle Roy traced her jaw line with a cigarette-stained fingernail. Her face was an enigma of strength and tenderness, supported by a sinewy neck. Her bone structure was all fortitude, but the beauty of youth lay across it like new fallen snow. The determination in her eyes would have been mistaken for passion had there not been a peaceful resolve to balance it—the type of surrender that only comes of struggle. Her dark, robust hair framed her olive face like a great mane. It was neither frazzled nor unkempt; still, it was wild, unbound by the gravity to which the rest of her was subject.
“That’s how I remember her, too,” I said, speaking half the truth. Something was missing in the photo. The dreams had taken control of her place in my psyche, preserved for all time a glimpse of something more transcendent than her appearance in the photograph. I had seen her soul.
“Best thing that ever happened to me, that little chickadee. She was a good woman. Hard worker, too. No one could make her way around a kitchen like Sonja...” Here Uncle Roy restored the photograph meticulously, tucking it away as if into some chamber of the heart where it would remain untarnished.
Here the man seated himself next to me on the creaky bed and his eyes glazed into abstraction.
“Everything I’ve ever loved has left me,” Uncle Roy thought aloud, the words forming themselves on his lips as they arrived from some great distance. “Everything is fleeting. Can’t hold onto nuthin’ in this life—can’t own nuthin.’ And that’s why, kiddo—” here he leaned in close to impart the kind of wisdom only alcohol could inspire, “You’ve gotta treat everything like a gift. A precious gift that can be taken away at any time.”
The words were more than ready to be shared, like overripe fruit with nowhere to fall. I shut off instinctively, felt myself inching away from some great abyss. I knew myself well enough to know that when the alcohol flowed, my compassion ran dry. Not only was I protecting myself, but I had nothing to give. Still, I found myself wondering what horrible thing would happen if the wrong boundary was crossed? Would I be sucked into the great abyss with him, by some flailing bony hand? Would the tiny stone room explode? Or the entire universe ?
I stood up. "I agree.”
“You’ve got a good one there, that Beth.” He said this in earnest, grabbing my hand. “Don’t take her for granted.”
I smiled, but managed to break free. “We’ve got good reason to work things out no matter what: we’re expecting.” I immediately recognized the irony in this. The birth of Uncle Roy’s own child had failed to cement an ill-founded relationship with his first wife. The two were now counted among the many things that had slipped through his fingers.
In the awkward moment that followed, a familiar pattern ensued. Guilt, for striking a painful chord. And then the ability to shake it, to move further from the abyss. If the truth hurt, he had no one to blame but himself and the bottle.
“Funny how things come down, never how you’d expect it,” my uncle mused in reference to nothing, and everything. The man was shipwrecked in a miasma of contemplation, sifting through fond memories and regrets, choices made and opportunities ignored, in search of connections. From that remote place anything gleaned made perfect sense. But from the outside the ring of truth was muted, and his insights hung on the air begging for context.
“Didn’t see the cancer comin,’” he shared, an emaciated hand involuntarily tracing his heart.
Here we go. We’d moved from the first thing that defined him to the other. I took a breath, grasping for the buoy of my own compassion. “How is your health?”
“Well, kiddo. I’m fit as a fiddle today.” Uncle Roy pounded his chest, inspiring a series of hiccups. “These damn doctors ain’t got the first clue what they’re dealin’ with here. Better off without ‘em. I just take my vitamins and pray to the Lord...”
“What do you mean ‘better off without ‘em?’”
“Put it this way. By the time they found that damn tumor it was inoperable. Spread out between the ribs and lodged in there so tight it’s a miracle it hadn’t strangled my heart. Every test known to man, an arm and a leg for each one. For what? So they can tell me there ain’t nothin’ can be done about it...
“Except, that is, to pump me full o’ poison. That’s all that chemo crap is. Bastards poison all your cells in hopes of killing off a few bad ones. If the tumor dies and the rest of you survives, you’ve won the battle. And you get to pay for that abuse, too! Gotta be a glutton for punishment to keep that up!
“Anyway, none of that rigmarole did a damn lick of good. A few times I just about threw up my spleen. And funds were runnin’ low. Had to sell the trailer toward the end there to cover the bills. Anyway, that’s when he comes along. Young kid, straight outta med school. Happens to wander through and catch wind of my case over there in the cancer ward at Lone Pine. Wants to use me for some new study—some experimental treatment.” Even as the words were spoken, hope appeared in his eyes like the morning sun breaking a still horizon.
“This young man was handsome as the Devil, but damned if he didn’t fall outta the clear blue like a gift from God. Took my own white blood cells, injected them into lab rats, where more of the cancer fighting cells were incubated and produced, and then put ‘em back into me. Sounded like quackery to me at first, too. But I looked at this handsome young kid, in his white coat in that white hospital, and there was something Godlike about him. I knew if I believed in it and wanted it, it would work.”
I waited. Uncle Roy said nothing, one with the memory of a transformative time. I knew the feeling of a weight being lifted. Of roots that have tapped barren soil for too long a time at last finding nourishment. In a cause. In a new belief.
“So you’re in remission?” I wanted to hear him say it.
Uncle Roy’s smile said it didn’t really matter. “Dunno.” He stood up and paced a bit. “See, what happened is, we did a couple rounds o’ this business. I know it sounds medieval, but I believed in it. But suddenly I’m outta money, he’s outta money. It’s over. The research funds were cut. I never went back. Didn’t want to know what shape I was in exactly. Now I just take my vitamins and don’t look back.”
I smiled, biting my tongue. I was not going to be the pessimist in the room. And I admired his faith. Still, part of me sensed a tiny flaw in the belief system that was to be his salvation. Not only did one need to believe in his redemption and to want it; above all else he had to believe himself worthy of it.
“Gram and Gramps think you’re still going for chemo? She said something about a treatment just yesterday.”
Uncle Roy was in the comer, taking a nip of whiskey from his flask. “I don’t like to worry ‘em,” he said, and smiled his mischievous smile, “I been goin’ over to the rest stop there at Coso Junction. ‘Ere’s a little lady works the counter there I been spending time with. Good woman. Sorta helped me through all this...”
After a moment, a propos of nothing other than his white lie, Uncle Roy generalized: “The truth is subjective. Folks see what they want to see, recall things just the way they choose. If there’s one thing I learned at the bottom with nothing to loose, it’s that folks create their own reality. Examine the truth to the degree they can handle. And for most folks them blinders is pretty thick. I’ve looked down the barrel of an awfully long shotgun at death itself, and there ain’t no goin’ back. Once you’ve allowed yourself to look at things as they really are, them blinders is off for good. I only know if you’ve looked the truth in the eye and don’t speak it, It’ll eat you up. The truth will turn on you and devour you.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I only know that the abyss was growing larger, and Beth was waiting upstairs and I felt like a child again. The piety that had protected me earlier when I could attribute his bitterness to the bottle was ineffective against words that seemed too profound to do anything but deflect. His relationship with the truth was not cheapened by his boozing; it was the cause of it.
“Eat your dinner,” I said, sliding his plate across the nightstand.
I was halfway up the stairs when it registered: the nightstand was not just a nightstand. It was that old trunk, tipped on end. The one that had intrigued us so as children, we ten cousins—along with the magic carpets and the thrilling possibility of rats. It had always lived in that basement—even before Gram and Gramps converted it to a guest room, partially shrouded in darkness but protruding just enough to capture our overactive imaginations. Its lock was rusted shut and the key had long since gone missing.
“Never you mind,” Gram had sternly replied when we’d asked what was inside.
Later we’d overheard the adults saying it would eventually have to be forced open. It was full of paperwork relating to the family mining properties. Nothing scandalous, just the nature of certain acquisitions and just how the family shares had panned out. But to us it was a treasure chest once belonging to a band of pirates. It had traveled the world, increasing in riches. And now it sat here in darkness, in a most unlikely dungeon, stubbornly concealing its wealth.
“Abbot!!” Gram called out into the night, voice tinged with an anxiety I’d rarely if ever heard in it.
The door had been left open and Gramps had wandered off. The kerosene lamps were out, rendering everything beyond the porch a featureless void. It was into this cold nothingness that she issued her dreadful refrain. “Abott!”
I pushed past her and ran out into the night calling to him. The Milky Way spanned the desert sky like shimmering silt, countless stars promising ore in an otherwise meaningless expanse.
“Gramps!” I called. My own voice echoed across the canyon, the only evidence that anything tangible existed in the darkness.
After several moments of this, a peculiar sight attracted my attention. One of the stars had dropped like a glowing ember and smoldered near the earth, orange in hue and gathering periodic intensity. I ran toward the curiosity.
The old man had lit up near the edge of the lawn, wandered aimlessly as he puffed.
When I caught up with him he was less than five feet from the railing. I stood with him on the brink of the cliff while he finished his smoke, and then led him back from the darkness. “Thank the Good Lord,” Gram said when she saw him. The terror had left her voice. “All’s well that ends well.” She sang, as though an adage could fix anything. My grandmother could spout colloquialisms as easy as take a breath.
When I found Beth I held her tightly for a long, long time.
The city turned to desert, concrete and asphalt surrendering gradually to the barren white-hot dunes of the Mojave. From the window of a Greyhound bus, I watched the San Fernando Valley dissolve into nature, until at last it was but a distant memory. There was something final about the passing of the last building—a monument to fleeting order and the chaos that waited to consume it.
In fact, I welcomed the sterile simplicity of the desert. Another long summer in suburbia was a grim prospect at best. The toils of adolescence had lingered on the horizon for some time, but now hung over my life like a tempest. In an attempt to avoid the deluge, I ‘d campaigned for our yearly stay at Running Springs.
“Your grandparents are away this summer,” Mom had informed me, “Doing upkeep on some properties in Nevada.”
To the older female cousins whose social lives had taken precedence, the news was inconsequential. To me, though there was solace in knowing the Fort would be ours again next summer, it seemed the end of an era.
And so it was arranged that I would spend the summer with Uncle Roy and Aunt Sonja. They had a spare bedroom at their home—a small apartment adjacent to the restaurant they’d just opened fourteen miles north of Running Springs.
Sonja’s Montana de Oro lay on a stretch of highway frequented by loggers, truckers and miners. The occasional tourist passed through on return from a backpacking trip in the Sierras, or exhausted from a long desert hike. They were treated to handmade tortillas and authentic Mexican cuisine. The quality, more often than not, was a surprise to customers, as the diner’s ambiance was that of a truck stop. Everything from the red Naugahyde to the granite-flecked Formica screamed ‘greasy spoon.’ But Sonja’s culinary magic transcended such modest appearances. In its prime, Sonja’s Montana de Oro boomed.
After sundown, the locals descended. They’d emerge from humble dwellings tucked away in the hidden valleys and canyons that surrounded Cartago like the spokes of some lonely hub. Men trudged wearily down from the perlite and pumice mines covered in dust at the close of each day, eager for food, drink, or simple human contact. Comprising the female companionship were Post Mistress Pat, who operated Cartago’s only service station with the help of her two grown sons, and Mona, the barmaid from the watering hole down the road. After serving others for an eight-hour shift, Mona found it essential to indulge in some good cheer of her own. Several nights a week Sheriff Dunivant himself would turn out, never one to miss a good party. Long after closing he would stumble out to his patrol car and speed away, with or without the benefit of head lamps, with or without barmaid Mona.
Come summer festivities would commence on the patio, under a roadmap of stars. The usual suspects would remain, even as Uncle Roy counted the day’s till and Sonja prepared the kitchen for the following day. During my stay I’d join them, nowhere else to go. I’d watch the mosquitoes circle flickering kerosene lamps, some unable to resist its hypnotic lull and torpedoing to a fiery death. The incessant wind disregarded nightfall, persisting like the hot breath of the desert itself. Too young for the standard faire of blackjack or Gin Rummy, I’d sit in a corner of the patio with my sketchbook, half watching the surreal events unfolding before me: the drunken sparring, the tumbleweed gossip, an amateur striptease.
Here in the stick, the isolation I felt was justified. In the city I was surrounded by opportunity, and one always feels loneliest in a crowd. Here there were built-in excuses—no one my age, only tumbleweeds. And besides, I’d chosen to get away.
I’d learn later that I existed best in self-imposed isolation. It offered an inner peace that could not be infringed upon. But for the moment, the function of introversion in my tortured adolescence remained unexamined. Unable to escape the chaos, I’d dive into my sketchbook, world reeling about me. I’d take refuge in the silence of its pages, only the sound of the lead dragging across pulpy fiber—its rhythm, the feel of the lead pencil in my hand. In moments like these, my own mental chatter was hushed. It was just me and God. The act of creation.
Finding an outlet for all I saw was only one of puberty’s challenges. A barrage of questions came with the discovery of my own penis—most too threatening to explore. Still, nature called—and I answered. But one cannot spend all of his time acting on nature’s impulse.
And so I drew. A lot. One evening shortly after arriving in Cartago, I sat Indian-style in a comer of the patio with my sketchbook. Uncle Roy, Sheriff Dunivant and Postmistress Pat were deeply entrenched in a hand of Gin Rummy, while Sonja dried the last few dishes. Periodically Uncle Roy hired a dishwasher when things were slow out at the mine, but that June a new account was in full swing, and any man with opposable digits was needed. The kitchen was directly off the patio, and from my comer I could hear Aunt Sonja humming softly to the jukebox. I was mesmerized by the sound of her melodic voice, as it was scarcely heard.
Sonja’s English was very limited. Despite a shortage of words, she understood all. Even now from her station in the kitchen, her huge eyes would flash periodically as she raised them from her work. In a split second, they would take in all she needed to know. There was no judgment in their caramel-colored omniscience. Only…truth. I found myself shrinking from their powerful range, but only when I had something to hide. ~
Tonight I felt somehow protected under her watch. As I sat in the pool of light from the kitchen, I sketched the scene before me. Mona, the barmaid, was migrating from lap to lap, performing a burlesque striptease. Mona was my grandmother’s age. Her still-platinum blonde hair was perpetually coifed. Swept to one side of her face and restrained by an enormous rhinestone barrette, it was then sculpted into perfect ringlets that fell well past her bare shoulders. As if to compete, her blue eyes were adorned with fake lashes and gobs of black liner. Her lips were painted with equal abandon. Much of her evening had been spent leaving their ruby red essence on anything that would sit still long enough, and then reapplying.
When she made her way to my comer, I was not spared the brand of her affection. However, she seemed unsure how to proceed after leaving her mark. Her cogs turned. The great lashes came together. Once. Twice. Her hips censored their movement, recalling some faint notion of what was appropriate. Finally, they stopped undulating altogether and she stooped to my level, hands on knees.
“What you got there, Nicky?” She asked.
Before she snatched the sketchbook, I flipped to a benign rendition of the nearby desert.
“Hmmmm.” She turned the thing a few times. “That’s real pretty. Are those Joshua trees? Sure don’t look like Joshuas! Pretty good drawrin’ though. I couldn’t draw a stick figure to save my life.”
Even as she uttered the words her eyes grew remote. ”Used to draw, come to think of it. As a girl I just loved to draw and paint. Used whatever I could get my hands on: napkins. Momma’s stationery, you name it.”
Suddenly the woman, in all her artifice, was very real to me. I felt her sadness, like a wave.
'”Why’d you quit?” I asked her.
She thought for a long time, drumming long, polished fingernails on the paper pad. “I’m not sure. I guess other things took over. Discovered boys for one thing…”
The woman’s painted eyes slid toward the sheriff, but he was embroiled in his hand.
“And Momma wasn’t too fond of me usin’ up all her stationery. Anyway, haven’t touched it in years. Closest I come now is makin’ out a shopping list. Imagine I’m a tad rusty.”
“All she paints now is her face.” Sheriff Dunivant interjected. So he did have one ear out.
In a flash the thick lashes scrunched and Mona wheeled around, lunging at Sheriff Dunivant.
“That’s right, Darling. My face is my canvass!” Here the sway returned to her hips. “And in case there was any question my life is my art!”
The ringlets bobbed as she wheeled around again, announcing to me or the air: “Sheriff Dunivant here thinks I’m …eccentric.”
“Eccentric don’t cover it,” the sheriff editorialized. “Woman’s a straight-up loon!”
Here the sway in her hips became a grind. “Someone’s gotta stir things up out here in the yucca and sage—make it all worthwhile!” At this point Mona began reeling about the patio in a manner more exotic than before, still holding my pad. Now and again she would clutch it to her bosom, caressing it like a baby, or raise it high into the air so that its loose pages fluttered wildly.
“Send in the white coats…” Sheriff Dunivant mimed into an imaginary radio.
When the song came to an end, Mona collapsed into a folding chair, pad in lap. Her arms dropped to her sides, vanquished, so that the knuckles rested on cement.
Dunivant took the opportunity to snatch the pad, examining it like evidence. A long silence ensued, broken only by the whistle of desert wind through sage. At long last the jukebox kicked in, filling the night with vinyl nostalgia. Roy got up and returned my pad with a smile. “Don’t pay them no mind kiddo.”
“Hey Roy!” the Sheriff called to him. “Y’all get a bunch o’ city slickers through here today?”
“Imagine we do every day, Kent.” Was Uncle Roy’s response.
Dunivant sat up in his lawn chair. “I mean real city folk. From down below. Shiny black Mercedes, car phone, the whole bit. Arrogant bastards. Toolin’ through here like they own the Goddamn road. Got ‘em for speeding, back there around Coso junction. Now if they’d only pass a law so I can get ‘em for the car phone next time. Damn things plastered to their ears like flies on shit!”
Damn things are a menace to society!” Post Mistress Pat chimed in, “What the hell does a person need one of them contraptions for? From my mouth to God’s ears; take me out to the field and shoot me if you ever catch me gabbin’ on one of them things.”
“You couldn’t afford one o’ them things so you ain’t got to worry!” Dunivant pointed out.
“I can sort of see the point,” Mona speculated. “Sure as hell coulda used one last time I drove into town. Broke down on the highway and had to wait an hour in the sweltering sun ‘till Sheriff Dunivant here happened by. Nearly got heat stroke.”
Ignoring her logic, Dunivant embarked on a long-winded discourse on the evils of technology and the unsavory characters behind it.
“And speaking of unsavory characters,” here his eyes narrowed, scanning the table, “Any of y’all had a chance to meet that Reilley fella? Now there’s a slippery varmint if I ever seen one.”
Mona was nodding excitedly. “Came in the bar the other day. Can’t say as I got a read on the man yet.” At this point she smiled fondly. “Good lookin’ though.”
Dunivant’s eyes narrowed even further. “I suppose for a desert rat who spends all day in a ditch.”
“Well, if that ain’t the pot callin’ the kettle black…” Pat chimed in.
“Anyway, I like my men with a little dirt on their jeans,” Mona announced, stirring the pot.
“Where does he come from?” Pat wanted to know.
“All over, from what I can gather,” Dunivant replied. “Let it slip he been layin’ low back east while things ‘blew over,’ then it was time to move on. Which puts him here. So he starts workin’ out at the perlite mine. And course they need all the help they can git. It’s the law that’s after him, no doubt. ‘Time to move on?’ The man’s runnin’ from something...”
Uncle Roy was biting his tongue. “Best not to jump to any conclusions, Kent.” My uncle and the sheriff had gone all through school together. When something was important, he dropped the title and it was just ‘Kent.’
“Granted,” My uncle continued, “ I haven’t exactly met Reilley. But Cooper swears by the man. He’s rented the old ranch house out to ‘im behind the sawmill there.”
“That don’t mean nuthin,’ Roy. You know that. Cooper’s about as good a judge of character as Mona here is a flamenco dancer.”
Uncle Roy took the man’s beer mug and rinsed it, effectively cutting him off. “Well, folks deserve a second chance, whatever their skeletons...”
Dunivant was shifting in his chair now, running his fingers slowly through bushy sideburns. “I just don’t trust a man with too many names...”
“He goes by Little Bear,” Mona boasted, as though sharing privileged information. When the entire table turned, she feigned nonchalance, “He was given the name when he lived on the reservation some time back. Hear he’s got a wife and kid somewhere too.”
“Well I for one am keepin’ an eye on him,” Dunivant persisted. “That man so much as looks at me cross-eyed and the he’s mine.”
“Well I never seen a man so threatened,” Mona teased. “Handsome stranger comes into town and first thing you wanna do is run him outta here!”
“Got that right.”
“The guys need him out at the mine, Kent...” Uncle Roy reminded him.
Dunivant, without knowing it, was fingering his pistol in its holster. “Well, as soon as that contract’s up out there, I’ll get ‘im. Don’t know for what yet but I will...”
That was my introduction to Joseph Reilley Black, or Little Bear, as they called him. It would be another week before I met him face to face, and under the least ordinary of circumstances. My time was spent helping around the restaurant, however I could without getting in the way. Once a week I’d ride into town with Uncle Roy and Aunt Sonja for supplies. We’d leave before dawn, myself wedged between them on the cracked seat of the old Ford, frozen air filtering into the cab from the missing boot around the gear shift. I’d watch the asphalt rush by beneath the vehicle, mesmerized, fighting the temptation to drift back into sleep. Just as I was losing the battle, Uncle Roy would stop off for coffee. He always ordered three, and somehow I felt their equal sitting on the tom hump, taking a moment to blow on our coffee before sipping it in the cold morning air.
One weekend Roy enlisted my burgeoning artistic skills to collaborate with him on a mural for the patio. The end result was meant to be reminiscent of Mexican surrealism, but ended up somewhere between black velvet painting and the airbrushed images seen on the sides of vans. We’d reached a crucial point in our haphazard execution of the fresco, when we ran out of red enamel. This was disastrous, as the cactus blossoms and the Seniorita’s dress had yet to be rendered. Not to mention her lips.
“There’s some left over latex house paints in that storage unit yonder,” Uncle Roy waved a hand in the direction of the blue granite hill that loomed up behind the restaurant “They’re a might old but I’m sure they’ll do the trick.” This was my cue to pay a visit to the storage unit. In truth the storage unit was a dilapidated structure that had once housed the guts of a mining operation belonging to a Mr. Griffin. Ages ago he’d carved away mounds of earth from that hill, gleaned quite a profit for himself. He’d lived to the ripe old age of ninety, was struck down by a logging truck and died.
The mine belonged to no one now, save the very earth. The eroding wood had taken on the color of its surroundings, bleached, polished by years of weather. I followed the succession of rotting tires that lined the brink of an undulating gravel footpath. Rusty cables remained suspended from some point high on the hill, empty buckets that hung from them creaking in the wind. I imagined the hoards of granite that had once streamed from that mineshaft, the hollers of excitement when buckets of ore looked particularly promising. Deposits of iron oxide stained the surrounding hills, running through the earth like deep ochre veins. Deluded by hope or desperation, one could almost imagine that it glittered in the sun, that there was in fact gold in them there hills.
The storage unit encased the pulley system where the buckets had once been sorted and refined. No sooner had I thrown open its splintered door, allowing shafts of sunlight to pierce the darkness within and illuminate yet more phantom buckets, when something alarming happened. A bass rumble, originating high above, traveled down the ancient cables like conductors, filling the shed with its clamor. I bolted from the structure on instinct. The cables were bouncing wildly. The buckets been set in motion somehow and careened down the hill at an unstoppable pace.
My attention was drawn to a crest high above, where flat stones stacked themselves like monuments against a stark sky. It was here that the main shaft had once spewed forth its riches. For a moment I thought I could distinguish a figure, etched against the stillness, poised and riveted on the valley below. I blinked, and it was gone.
The following weeks were profoundly uneventful. I’d taken to counting vehicles by make along the highway, inventing stories about their blurry passengers as they whizzed by. Now and again a group of young people would stop in for a quick meal, laughing and shooting straw wrappers across a Naugahyde booth, and silently I’d wish I could stow away with them and leave this place with its simple folk and tumbleweeds and gossip.
One day a group of Scandinavian youth stopped off for the night. They’d rented an RV and were headed north to scale the face of Mount Whitney. They strolled in with confidence, colorful and alive against the desert. They were twenty-two or three, all of them, blonde and tanned by the Mojave sun. When the restaurant closed around them, Mona became the mistress of ceremonies and enticed the regulars to join her on the patio. It was then that I slipped out to the R.V. to play drinking games with the Scandinavians. For a moment I felt alive again. The existence of these people validated my own. In that tiny R.V. I was no longer the odd man out. The status quo did not revolve around shitkicking or sage spitting or snuff. They accepted me like older brothers and sisters, despite the language barrier. They didn’t, however, invite me along the scale Mount Whitney.
I accepted this around two A.M. and said good-bye. To the last semblance of camaraderie I would glimpse for some time. I slipped into my room as quietly as I could.
The ride into town at 6:00 A.M. was an extension of the previous night, separated only by a short-lived interlude that could be likened to sleep. The drive was made in silence, punctuated by the occasional jolt of a gargantuan pothole. There would be no coffee this morning. I was spared the all-knowing eyes of Sonja, but it was worse somehow knowing she could not bear to raise them to me.
Maybe she knew about my rendezvous with the Swedes in the R.V. Maybe she knew I was hung-over. Or worse, that I’d fallen asleep after tossing off to the thought of two of them, a couple, having Scandinavian sex on the hood of the R.V.
Sonja smiled, bracing tighter. Throwing a lock of coal-black hair from her bare shoulder, hands occupied. Concentrating with equal parts furrow-browed patience and utter serenity.
It was Sunday and the restaurant was closed. Roy napped on the couch. This was Sonja’s day to relax, which she did in one of two ways: She’d cultivated a rock garden adjacent to the patio, and here she would get her hands in the earth, however dry, transplanting prickly pear or ocotillo or cholla. Her other pastime was throwing on the potters wheel. She’d perfected several grades of clay by adding grog to a base collected from the nearby lakebed. She’d work the clay on a kick wheel, moving and shaping it like a beast to be tamed. Once centered, she dug her thumbs in and the material flared with her touch. Out of nowhere, a form appeared—a bowl or a vase—which she then finessed with the loving caress of a new mother. Her face remained serene throughout, whether bracing against her hip in the unwieldy stages or applying the lightest touch to smooth the finished lip. Sonja lifted the precious object from the wheel, placing it to dry in the sun. As she spun the wheel to wipe it clean, her eyes met mine, and there was kindness there. Sensing my ennui, she broke off a lump of clay and placed it in my hands.
“What am I gonna make outta this?”
She shrugged, smiling.
There are precisely two phrases I can still hear Sonja saying. Whatever her own inhibitions, she’d always found it fitting to ask when a pumice miner took his hat off and sat down to eat, or some other local, “How’s your wife? Is she well?”
The other phrase was delivered in a much sterner pitch. Many an evening after playing Devil’s advocate to Dunivant’s claims of what was normal—They’re differnt. Just differnt, he would say of certain passersby—Uncle Roy would retire the role. When the alcohol caught up with him his opinions would come out. Soon after this transition he would call Sonja from the kitchen.
“Come on out here and relax for awhile,” he’d holler. And she’d humor him. I was always impressed by her grace as she laughed with them all, taking a drink or two of vino herself. Maybe she even enjoyed it. She’d smile, even as Roy teased her or insisted she come sit on his knee like a prize. If when she got up her husband raised a hand to smack her behind, then and only then would she warn:
“Roy, that’s enough!”
Call it boredom, but I could not stop thinking of that mine. For the next few days after my visit to the storage shed it would steal into my unoccupied mind, empty buckets shrieking on corroded wires in that lonely canyon. At night I could see the blue granite hill silhouetted against the Milky Way. If I cracked a window, I could almost hear the cacophony of half-filled buckets transporting their mysterious cargo. Something about the place beckoned me back, like truth to a blinded soul.
On a particularly busy day at the restaurant, with little chance of being discovered, I slipped out to the storage unit. Uncle Roy kept an all-terrain cycle for staking claims on the various family properties. He would load it into his truck bed and use it to visit remote posts and renew the claims as required by law. It hadn’t been used in ages; I considered it my duty to take the thing for a spin.
It took a few tries to start her, but soon I was kicking up gravel, flying toward the abandoned mine shaft. The dirt road was erratic, scaling the incline in a series of hairpin turns. Plowing through dense Joshua thickets, emptying without warning into expanses of silt displaced from above. Halfway to the shaft the road swelled, nearly to the height of the more direct cables. I skidded to a stop, surveying the place.
One of the buckets was within reach. When I turned it over, stones tumbled from within. Aha! So this this was the cargo that had animated the cables, so rusty as to be indistinguishable from the very earth. Something or someone had set those buckets in motion with the weight of the stones.
I glanced up at the crest. The figure that had stood there was now nothing more than an imprint on my imagination. The wind that had whistled through the gorge was replaced by a still, unnerving silence. I had the distinct feeling of being watched. I looked to the stones in my hand, chucked them into the sand. I put the vehicle in gear and headed home.
After only a few yards I found myself braking again. Some decision had been made without my knowing it, and suddenly I was turning yet again, racing heavenward with more resolve than ever toward those great flat stones stacked against the sky on that high ridge. The sage flew by like fleeting memories I couldn’t quite grasp, and the high, steady hum of the throttle drowned out all else.
As I rounded a particularly hairy turn. something sprung without warning from the brush. At once I was on it, wrestling with its amorphous-mass. The engine screamed at full throttle and choked, yielding to complete silence. By some miracle, I had not been thrown from the vehicle. As I collected myself, I could see why.
A low barbed-wire fence bisected the path, hidden by an oblique turn until it was too late. It was now intricately entangled with myself and the bike, wound angrily around its wheel like a rusty web. The impact had popped a fence post from the ground; several feet of barbed wire had been freed up to strangle the bike and would have to be extricated. The reason I’d not been thrown from the bike was this: My leg had been caught up in the nasty web. It was bound tightly to the vehicle, pant-leg shredded, dripping blood into coarse sand.
This was not good. This was not good for many reasons.
Of course there was the pain. The throbbing and the stinging and the immediate thought of rust swirling through my blood stream and the tetanus shot that would come later. I looked around.
If the place had possessed a foreboding chill before, it was millionfold now. It was only a matter of time before I fell prey to a carnivorous predator; it would surely smell the blood and discover me, unable to move. The hills were full of them. Rattlesnakes. Coyotes. Mountain Lions. I was a sitting duck. If somehow I escaped this grueling fate, I considered the alternative. How long would I survive without sustenance, beneath a sweltering sun? How long did fate mean to torment me, allowing foul carrion to circle my failing carcass? Perhaps they’d grow impatient and begin to pick at my flesh before I expired. Surely my eyeballs would be first to go, stripped from my skull like jewels by a thief. When I was discovered weeks later all that remained would be a stark white, anonymous skeleton, polished clean and bleached by the desert sun. Uncle Roy would have to identify me by my dental records. Somehow the thought of Uncle Roy’s wrath was the most dismal prospect of all. One that inspired me to actively take stock of the situation.
The A.T.V. tires were thicker than the Great Wall of China; they’d not been punctured. If I could manage to free myself before the coyotes got me, there was a chance I could untangle the barbed wire and restore the A.T.V. to the shed incognito. I promised God I would never take it out again, and began to wriggle myself free.
Before I could make any progress at all my fears were confirmed. A rustling in the sage signaled the approach of a predator. My heart raced. My range of motion was limited; I was unable to turn and face whatever was emerging from the Joshua thicket behind me.
This was it. This was the end.
I began my second prayer of the day, hushed and frantic. Suddenly the foliage snapped, and whatever it was sprung into the road.
The holler I produced reverberated throughout the small canyon, creating a small avalanche.
“Shhhhhhhhh.” A voice commanded me. Do coyotes speak? Or was this God, persuading me to accept my fate with dignity?
If it was God, he certainly didn’t look the way I expected.
The man that rounded the ATV and appeared before me was covered head-to-toe in dirt, jeans indistinguishable from sturdy work boots and tartan flannel. The full beard and scraggly hair were similarly colorless, defying refraction by the sun. From amid this dull, monochromatic disarray peered two deep-set eyes of shocking blue. I knew immediately what name belonged to the stranger before me.
“Looks like you’re in a bit of a bind, son...”
I sifted through several smart remarks, but considered my acute disadvantage and thought better of sharing them.
My predicament amused the mysterious fellow and a broad grin parted the dusty mess of a beard. Unlike most of Cartago’s miners, whose teeth were yellowed from years of tobacco and sulfur dust, his shone like polished ivory. Of course it could have been an illusion due to the surrounding dirt.
“How long you been here like a stuck pig?” The man teased.
Completely at his mercy, I considered every alternative to producing a retort, including a final attempt at wriggling free.
“I’m sure you saw it all from Old Man Griffin’s mine,” I said at last.
He took a long pause, further amused. “Pretty far off the beaten track here aren’t
I rocked forward and back, forcing a grimace intended to draw attention to the task at hand. To virtually no effect.
“Can we cut the small talk?” I barked. “I’m bleeding here…”
The man chuckled, surely knowing an acute emergency when he saw it.
I rethought my strategy. “Listen—this is my uncle’s A.T.V. and if I don’t get it back to the shed before he notices I’m—”
“—In no worse a bind than you’re in now?” Joseph Reilley Black advanced slowly from the brush, stopping at arm’s length. “Looks like we both got a little secret here. Let’s make a deal, kid. You don’t say nothin’ about me operating that rattrap up there and I won’t say nothin’ about your little joy ride.”
“Deal. Deal. Now did I mention I’m losing blood here?”
Without further hesitation the man knelt and ripped my pant-leg further to assess the damage. He produced a surprisingly dust-free handkerchief from his shirt and began dabbing the blood from my clotting wound. He wet the cloth with water from his canteen. I found myself studying the man as he blotted carefully, wondering what lay beneath all that dust.
An instant later he’d risen and was headed down the dirt path.
“Hey!” I called after him.
“I’ll be back.”
Stubborn wire groaned between blades as it twisted and turned. Snip! At last one half of the rusty strand fell away in defeat. Joe Reilley had returned with wire cutters and begun choosing which wires to snip, as though diffusing a bomb. When at last I was free, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there.
“You’re welcome to clean up at my place,” He offered.
“Thanks anyway,” I called back, and flew down the hill.
The fort was nearly complete. When Sonja had placed the coarse lump of clay in my hands I’d massaged it for what seemed an eternity, shaping and reshaping it. Hoping inspiration would strike. Finally Sonja had rescued me from creative inertia, showing me how to pound out the air pockets by slamming it against the cement floor. Her strength impressed me, rising as it did while grinding tortillas, from some reservoir deep within, to her very fingertips. I gave it a shot. Not only was there something cathartic in the rhythmic act, but on the third or fourth blow the mass took on a shape at once oddly familiar.
It was not long before I was working into the solid form, carving out the deep stone pool, the terraced hillside that was the apple orchard, the rows of cypress and cottonwoods that lined the drive. There was great satisfaction in refining each and every stone of the great ashlar walls of the fortress’ bailey. I thought of Sonja, trimming the edges of a fine vase that spun perfectly balanced on her wheel, and somehow identified.
She watched me as I discovered this place she knew so well, this solitude from which inspiration is born. When I glanced up her eyes would calmly divert themselves, a smile lingering as evidence of her affection. I’d always identified with Sonja, the way she gave her smile so freely but found it difficult to replicate when the camera was turned on her. I’d always hated smiling for the camera, or saying thank you after dinner just because everybody else was. What I hadn’t considered but now surfaced like a rare gift, was what it must have been like in her world: to see all without a voice to express it. It was the first time I truly understood her sadness.
One summer we cousins hiked past the timberline, where Bristlecone pines began to pepper the brush. Gram had always warned us not to venture too far. Here we were on the edge of something austere and formidable, the fortress nothing more than a speck miles below. We’d passed through many worlds to get here, and though it was late, we were not about to turn back. There was a buzz in the air, the buzz of lofty altitude, of fleeting daylight or youth.
There was a margin between earth and canopy, and seduced by the unknown, we plunged into the swarthy hollow. The scrub pines that had fringed the forest were replaced by the immense trunks of much older pines. The sheer cliffs of the Sierras ascended from cool shadows to tower stalwartly in the alpine light. Far above, the highway sheared its way through granite. About a mile past the timberline we saw it:
Twisted metal wrapped around the trunks of great trees.
Those forced off the road had undoubtedly been unsuspecting vacationers who’d plummeted to a fiery death and remained forgotten until discovery some time later. Even then, it had been too great a task extricating the wreckage. And so they’d been left in this silent graveyard, all of the lonely vehicles—a morbid tribute to family vacations gone wrong. The bodies of course had been taken, if piece-by-piece. Unless it were that one had been overlooked, one stark white reminder of mortality, one porcelain cranium peeking out from beneath a rotted tire. The hike was much quicker downhill.
“Damn logging trucks! You kids never should have hiked past the timber line!” Gram reprimanded us after hearing the horrific tales of what we cousins had encountered, relayed of course after fabricating all the grim details not yielded by the site itself.
“Mornin’ Senorita.” The side door of Sonja’s Montana de Oro swept in a gust of already warm desert air as it closed. Sheriff Dunivant had stopped in for his morning cup o Joe, on Malena, of course. He swaggered up to the counter, hand on holster, with the air of authority the law afforded him.
Sonja looked up from the dishes she was drying. “Good morning, Sheriff.”
“Coffee?” She was already pouring a cup.
Dunivant hefted his portly frame onto a barstool. “Thanks, Doll. Where’s the ol’ ball and chain?” ' -
Sonja smiled and turned to put a dish away. I thought I saw her olive skin blush as it did on occasion when an idiom escaped her.
“The old man...Your husband.”
“Roy. He go...to...town,” she managed.
“He’s picking up some things for the lunch rush,” I helped.
Sheriff Dunivant hadn’t been aware of my presence in the kitchen, but now his narrow eyes shifted to the order window. “I thought y’all did yer shoppin’ on Sundays...”
I explained we’d blown a fuse the previous night without knowing it, and much of the food had spoiled.
“Mona says Mercury’s in retrograde,” he said dumbly, and then after a moment, “Whatever that means. I don’t buy half the slop she rattles on about, but supposedly things go amiss when Mercury's in retrograde.” There was a brief silence that Dunivant felt compelled to fill.
"That astronomy stuff’s a crock ‘o shit to me. Woman’s off her rocker—been callin’ that psychic line four, five times a day now, rackin’ up a phone bill to scare the hide off a burro. Makes all her decisions on the advice of this loon down in Los Angeles. The blind followin’ the blind.”
At that moment Uncle Roy burst in the side door, arms loaded down with boxes. “Who you goin’ on about this mornin’ Sheriff?
“Who else? Same crazy woman I been goin’ on about for years now.” The two had never seen the need to shack up; it was just as convenient to rendezvous after her shift at the saloon and head back to her place or his five nights a week without the strings. That way, she claimed, they could both maintain their lifestyles.
“In fact,” Dunivant informed us, “I’m on my way over there right now to settle a dispute.”
As I unpacked the remaining boxes from the pickup, I overheard the following account of said dispute:
“Seems Logger John’s been hasslin’ her over there. Got so she told him she don’t never want to see him on her property again.”
“Doesn’t sound like the Mona I know,” Roy remarked. “What’s eatin’ her?”
“Well, it seems Logger John owed her former husband a thousand bucks—for years. Since his death Mona hasn’t brought up the subject. Been years. She’s not even sure Logger John knows she’s aware of the debt. Convenient for him—dipshit sure as well hasn’t mentioned it neither.
“Well everyone and their brother’s been tellin her, this psychic woman included, that she’s got no choice but to collect, so as to put things right for her dead husband. So her son Jake makes arrangements for Logger John to drop off several bundles of firewood for the winter and she’ll call it even. Weeks go by and no sign, o’ nuthin’ resemblin’ wood. Just yesterday Logger John stops by Mona’s place to say hello. Without mentioning the debt, she asks about the firewood and he just about flies off the handle.
“Says he never agreed to no such thing. Calls Jake a damn liar and just about every other name in the book. She says, ‘That’s my son you’re talking about…’ ‘I don’t give a shit,’ he says, and the whole thing up and escalates from there. Ends with her tellin’ him to get the hell off her property and not show his face again if he knows what’s good for ‘im. Well guess who’s playin mediator today...”
“Hmmmm,” Uncle Roy began, “No excuse talkin’ to a lady like that, and startin’ in on her own son—probably woulda hauled off and slugged him myself. Still,” Uncle Roy ran his fingers through three or four days’ stubble, “You gotta remember all the guy’s been through. God knows he ain’t quite right.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
“You know he’s had that metal plate in his noodle since the Korean war. And then after that logging accident the idiot doctors forgot to put the damn thing back in. The devil knows how many times the poor guy’s been opened up...”
“Well, they musta accidentally removed his sense, cuz you just don’t talk to a sweet ol’ broad like he done. She may be eccentric, but Mona’s as good and sweet a gal as there ever was...”
“No argument here.” Uncle Roy smiled.
Dunivant swilled the last of his coffee and stood up, adjusting the holster about his waist.
“Go easy now, Kent. Remember what I said.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Dunivant threw a quarter on the counter and swaggered to the door. “Adios, Senorita.” He tipped his hat gallantly, and with a flick of the wrist restored it to his glistening crown.
“Where the hell is he?” Logger John stumbled in the side door, enraged. “Lousy bastard—where the hell’s that crooked sheriff?”
In addition to the metal plate, Logger John possessed another physical peculiarity. In a drunken state he’d rammed his motorcycle into a telephone pole, popping a nerve from his spinal column. Without the means for microsurgery to reattach the nerves, his arm had atrophied and ultimately had to be amputated. The stump hung at sleeves length, and as he waved his other arm excitedly, it twitched and raised in a similar fashion.
“Lousy son-of-a-bitch done me wrong! He won’t get away with it this time, badge or no badge...”
Uncle Roy knew better than to try to appease the man just yet. His fit was just peaking, and it was best not to rob him of such moments. Once he’d blown off steam, his flair for drama would be satisfied and he could be reasoned with. But for now, it was best to let him go on.
“It ain’t like I wasn’t gonna bring it, I was. I just forgot is all. So I’m a day late. Winter ain’t cornin’ for months now!”
“What happened?” Uncle Roy humored him.
“Well I’m cruisin’ through Coso Junction there loaded down with timber, headed for the mill. Standard fare from Kennedy Meadows. When lo and behold outta nowhere Smokey appears. CHP Officer Gregory I think his name was. Nazi bastard was staked out behind one o’ them Vegas road signs. Gets me for everything short o’ the fall of the Roman Empire. Overloaded, tires too worn, cracked mirror—not to mention speeding. Oddly enough when all’s said and done damages amount to no less than a thousand bucks. Exactly what Jake says I owes his momma. Anyway, no good son-of-a-bitch signs the damn citation, smiles, and says, ‘Sheriff Dunivant sends his greetings...’”
I imagined Uncle Roy was suppressing a smirk.
‘Then the lousy bastard’s gotta add insult to injury. I been a complete gentleman ‘bout the whole thing—haven’t blown my top or nothin’—when the bastard turns and says, ‘Yer lucky I don’t get ya fer operatin’ a manual rig with one arm!’”
Sonja’s eyes moved to the ceramic floor. I myself had never seen a grown man look so dejected.
“I ain’t no gimp,” Logger John declared, tears welling in his eyes. “I may not be able to get past the metal detector at the airport, but I ain’t no gimp!”
Uncle Roy placed a hand on the man’s great sloping shoulder. In an effort to lighten spirits, he chuckled, “ I been meanin’ to ask you myself all these years how the hell you do it...”
“Easy.” Here Logger John’s posture returned, almost an air of pride. “When I shift. I just steady the wheel with my belly.”
With few milestones to mark its passage, time has a way of slowing down in the desert. The next several weeks, nothing of import seemed bound to happen.
And then we smelled the fire.
By the time we noticed it, the locals had begun to gather along the highway. They stood huddled, watching a column of thick, black smoke chum across a glacier blue sky. It originated just beyond Coso Junction, snaking south where it hung over the distant hills like dirty cotton.
“Looks like the Post Office,” Uncle Roy said soberly, tracing the smoke with wary eyes.
“Could be the gas station,” someone else conjectured.
“It’s the Post Office.”
Uncle Roy was right. Long after the smoke had diffused and cast the entire valley with a surreal crimson glow, Sheriff Dunivant pulled up in front of Sonja’s Montana de Oro. The smoke-filtered sunlight lent his normally ruddy skin a fiery hue, making him look to be made of the same stuff. His eyes blazed as he stepped from his patrol car, presumably from having come from the site itself.
“I think I’ve inhaled enough carbon dioxide to smoke a school o’ salmon! And that volunteer fire department—It’s like watchin’ an episode o’ the three stooges. Coulda saved the place if we’d had some decent help sooner...”
‘The Post Office?” Roy asked.
“Yup. Burned to the ground. Arsen investigator don’t know as yet how it happened. But ‘es doin’ his thing.”
At this point Mona, who had been watching the proceedings well protected inside Sonja’s Montana de Oro, so as to preserve her eyes and throat, pushed through the crowd to be at his side.s
‘Tell me it wasn’t the Post Office!” She insisted frantically.
“Don’t worry,” Dunivant assured her, “Pat was safe at home; hadn’t yet showed up to start her route for the day.”
“That means all that mail was just sittin’ there. All burned. Every last letter.”
Dunivant’s already smoldering eyes narrowed, concentrating their scarlet intensity. “You’re not thinking about...”
“Of course. I am,” Mona sobbed for all to hear, “I just know it was there with all the rest of the incoming mail. Vanessa told me it was a sure thing. And this was the final round.”
“Her psychic,” Dunivant clarified, rolling his eyes.
“What on God’s Earth are you getting’ at?” Roy demanded.
“Why, Publishers’ Clearing House for God’s sake! I was one of two finalists. In fact the last letter distinctly read, ‘You may have already won ten million...’”
“Your compassion is boundless,” Dunivant seethed.
And that’s how it came to pass that Post Mistress Pat began delivering mail to Sonja’s Montana de Oro. The state ultimately built a new, if marginally conspicuous replacement for the post office, but during the interim, a makeshift post was set up inside the diner. It was good for business and it helped Pat. She still visited those county locations that maintained a street address, but most locals picked up their mail from Post Office boxes against the wall near the jukebox.
Apparently the tragedy of missing the letter from Ed McMahon affected Mona more than anyone knew at the time. Not long afterwards, Dunivant appeared for his morning coffee looking especially perturbed.
“Can’t believe it, Can’t fucking believe it,” he started in, when no one prompted him. “After all I done! Woman’s crazy! And now she wants to drive me bonkers too!”
“What’s she done now?” Roy obliged.
“Well—I don’t know as I ever bragged to you ‘bout how I evened the score with Logger John...”
Uncle Roy was nodding incessantly. “Oh yes you did. Several times.”
“Then you know I gone outta my way to collect,” he ranted, "Cuz I know there ain’t no way that son’o’bitch is gonna pay up. After all I done, I stop by Mona’s place to deliver the news and she...”
Here Dunivant slumped into the Formica counter and stared blankly into his coffee.
“She what?” Uncle Roy volleyed.
“Says she wants to...” Dunivant’ eyes rolled involuntarily as he repeated the words, “’ Extend grace and turn the other cheek. Let bygones be bygones…’”
Uncle Roy was intrigued. “Why the change of heart?”
Dunivant returned momentarily to that remote place inside his coffee cup, grousing under his breath, “She’s found the Lord.”
“She’s found the Goddamn Lord, for God’s sake!!” He bellowed so hard the windows rattled.
Uncle Roy was genuinely amused. “Not at the Tumbleweed Saloon, I reckon...”
“Hell, no. Had some kind o’ vision or other. Seen Christ in her grits. Woman’s always bumin’ somethin’…”
Dunivant grew even more glum. “She’s gone and quit servin’ drinks. Says she’s gonna do the Lord’s work.”
Here, Dunivant’s expression evolved from exasperation to genuine concern. “You gotta talk some sense into her, Roy. You’ve always been the level-headed one...Broad quit listenin’ to me a long time ago, but she listens to you...”
Roy thought about it for a moment. "Did you ever think maybe it ain’t such a horrible thing she found the Lord?”
“Course it is!” Dunivant slammed a pudgy fist on the counter. “For fuck’s sake—what the hell good can come of it?”
“You’ll appreciate this, Nicky. ”
“You’ll appreciate it ‘cause you’re a drawer...” Mona was leading Uncle Roy and I from the back door of her mobile home toward a dilapidated wooden shed, the only other structure to grace her property. We’d stopped by on the way to town for supplies one Sunday. Sonja had stayed home to work in her rock garden.
“I’ve found my true calling,” Mona was saying, “ Rediscovered my God-given talent. It’s my duty to create...”
Roy had agreed to stop by with every intention of helping Dunivant nip a curious obsession in the bud. He hadn’t said a word yet, and after what happened next, it was clear he was in over his head.
As Mona threw open the door to her storage unit, we saw that the space had been converted into a workshop or studio. In the comer lay gem-cutting tools, planers and sanders, a rock tumbler. But the majority of the space was devoted to her creations: figurines, relief surfaces, driftwood carvings of every saint or sinner in the Bible. Mona treated us to a guided tour, accompanying each piece with a lush narrative. The final attraction spanned a third of the room. A great, sturdy table large enough to dine on, but scarcely taller than a coffee table supported a scene not unlike those seen among model-train aficionados.
The table itself was composed of sturdy driftwood legs, varnished to a high gloss, and cross-sections of an old stump. Numerous stories from the bible were depicted thereupon, and of course the entire shrine was encased in Plexiglass. The tableaus ran the periphery of the table, figures having been carved from soapstone or lime. At the head of the table stood the culmination of the entire procession: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
“I carved the Holy Trinity from the purest quartz I could find. Isn’t it precious? like porcelain or alabaster—But just wait! Here’s the best part of all...” Here Mona reached under the table and flicked a switch. A tiny light bulb had been inserted into the hollow interior of each member of the trinity, and after several seconds, they began to glow.
“It’s on Sonja’s.”
Roy slid a plate of Chorizo and eggs into the waiting stranger’s hands, along with the customary side of warm tortillas.
“Always like to make a newcomer feel welcome...” The meaning was dual. In fact, Little Bear had been residing in Cartago for several months. True, this was the first time he’d stepped into Sonja’s Montana de Oro, but the title ‘newcomer’ was most often meant to say, ‘We’re keeping an eye on you. Don’t get too comfy.’ Until, that is, there’s a new kid in town.
I’d known it was only a matter of time before he’d show up to get his mail. Even so, I busied myself in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the dinner rush, hoping he’d finish his eggs and be gone before noticing me. Still, through the order window, I couldn’t help but steal the occasional glance.
It’s true without all the dirt he cleaned up well. His thick collar-length hair was combed back, still a bit wet, and the goatee proved slightly darker than the colorless dust trap that had blended so seamlessly with the rest of his person. Tribal tattoos adorned muscled forearms, punctuating a rich tan that ran the length of him. His blue eyes were ignited by the contrast.
“Hear a lot about you,” Roy said cordially. “All good, of course.”
Little Bear laughed good-naturedly. “Good to hear. A man’s reputation should never arrive before he does…”
Uncle Roy laughed, but quickly moved on to other matters. “Where do you hail from anyway, stranger?” The man didn’t waste any time.
Little Bear sighed, a lopsided smile commandeering his face as he waded back through his life. “Seems I’m from all over,” he answered finally, though it wasn’t much of an answer. “Go where the work is.”
And then, realization dawning on the stranger’s face: ‘Longest I’ve settled in anywhere for a good, long time…”
“What keeps you movin’ exactly?” Roy was only half expecting the answer to be what Dunivant suspected: the long arm of the law.
“Not sure,” was all Joe Reilley offered.
“What brings ya to these parts, then?” Roy lanced.
The man’s ice blue eyes eyes girded, fixing on Uncle Roy from beneath impossibly heavy brows. “I heard about the fantastic tortillas here at Sonja’s Montana de Oro.”
Behind the window, Sonja smiled. There was the infamous charm, at just the right moment. Roy redirected his line of questioning. “Hear you spent some time on the reservation...”
“You heard right. Blackfoot Reservation—South Dakota. Greatest and most humbling experience of my life...” Joe Reilley spoke in earnest. Somehow I knew he always spoke in earnest. And if the power of his words rendered small talk petty by comparison, it was an unconscious strategy on his part.
“Poverty there is so deeply ingrained,” he expounded. “Changed my life. At first, the shock put things in perspective. Made me question all I’d taken for granted up to then—everything my life amounted to. Every day in survival mode, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or if it’s coming at all, and knowin’ if it is that it’ll surely be beans and lard like all the others makes everything else seem pretty small by comparison.”
The man was back on the reservation, miles from Cartago, speaking from a past that time had numbed. “Thought I could make a difference. Show ‘em something beyond what they were living. That there was a whole wide world beyond the reservation...”
The glimmer that had momentarily appeared in his eyes began to wane, was abruptly extinguished. “Finally I just had to get out of there. It was the day I found little Dove. A real bright soul. So much promise, so much innocence. Over time I figured her parents drank pretty heavily, like a lot of folks on the reservation. She’d show up with new bruises and scrapes all the time she couldn’t explain.
“She was hit by a drunk driver in a pickup truck, and lay in a ditch for half a day before I discovered her, because her parents were too drunk to notice her absence or care. I just couldn’t stop thinking about her lying in that ditch, unnoticed, unmissed. It all seemed so futile…”
And then the man’s eyes girded again, reflecting yucca and sage as it flew by the rolling door of a boxcar. “So I got outta there. Just…moved on.”
For a moment there was silence on the other side of the window, and I was left to imagine what my uncle looked like rendered speechless.
“Well,” he ventured after a spell, “Sure don’t sound as if you stay in any one place too long...”
“Seems that’s how it’s panned out.”
“And how long will we be graced with your presence here in Cartago?”
“Well, I got myself a contract out at the mine; plan to see that out. Through summer, anyway. See what else pans out.”
He was talking about Griffin’s mine—our little secret. From where I stood I couldn’t decide if his operation was driven by entrepreneurial spirit or incredible naiveté.
“Whatever else?” Uncle Roy repeated. “Ain’t much gonna pan out around here. ‘Cept more mosquitos come August.”
“Thank you for your hospitality.” Little Bear made sure to say once he’d folded his napkin and placed it neatly on the counter.
“Don’t be a stranger now,” Uncle Roy called after him as he headed for the door.
And just before it jangled open, tin cans serving as a makeshift bell, he caught my eye through the order window. I could not look down in time. A nearly imperceptible wink, and he was gone.
Late afternoon sent a gust of desert wind through hearty Joshua spines, setting them to rustling. The sun still hung high in the sky. In the peak of summer, days seemed to last well into night, robbing the Owen’s valley of evening’s mercy.
A great gorge swelled on either side of the meandering path I’d chosen, carved away by runoff from high above. The floor of the chasm was etched with rivulets, erratic and interspersed with clumps of sage and Mormon tea that had found a fertile haven. Great boulders imbedded in the cliff peered down like the eyes of ancient deities. As the gorge veered abruptly, its undulating floor heaved itself heavenward so that I found myself needing all four appendages to climb.
I’d started out near the tool shed behind Sonja’s Montana de Oro with the intention of ending up at Old Man Griffin’s mine, but the thought of spying on Joe Reilley had only vaguely materialized.
I scrambled up the slope to one of the many turns in the graded footpath. Having exhausted my energy, I resorted to the path, maintaining a low profile by skirting the shadowy fringes of the Joshua thickets that lined it.
The mine looked deserted.
The buckets hung solemnly as ever, swaying almost imperceptibly in the wind. The shaft was flanked by dilapidated wooden structures in various states of decomposition. The desert sun had caused the bleached wood to splinter and separate, only to be worn smooth yet again by sandstorms and precipitation. In places, the grain endured like the fossilized remnants of a once living, breathing organism. Fallen planks had been reclaimed by the earth, taking on its color-drained patina. Stubborn shoots of oil wood and scrub brush poked through missing knotholes.
I ran my hand along the polished wood that now served as a railing about the abandoned mine shaft, peering into the darkness below. The sunlight penetrated only a stratum of what seemed a great, murky depth. There were steps built into the wall, but they disappeared at a short distance, leaving one’s curiosity to get the best of him.
I hadn’t come to spy a glimpse of Joe Reilley working. Not really. But as long as he was nowhere to be seen, it wouldn’t hurt to learn a bit more about what kind of an operation he was single-handedly running. Go on a ‘reconnaissance mission.’
I descended slowly, cautiously, watching loose sand and pebbles disappear into nothingness. After too long a moment they could be heard resounding off some cold, hard surface below. The only remaining light refracted from a patch on the wall above. The afternoon sun was at such an angle that the mere sliver had little influence on the ominous cavern. I stopped to let my eyes adjust. The silence was interrupted only by raining silt, and enveloping darkness was palpable. Something about the nothingness brought a sense of profound isolation. I’d managed to stuff away the loneliness I felt, the reasons I’d fled the city, but the lack of stimulation brought it all surging back, demons I thought I’d buried. I stood for a moment, paralyzed with dread. Returning to the surface seemed an anxious prospect at best, as I’d be dragging existential terror into the light, but remaining where I stood was to feel the constant tug, the threat of being overwhelmed and never making it out again. Suddenly the very earth bellowed, giving voice to my mounting fears.
I scrambled for the light, startled beyond words, but not before something grabbed my ankle from below. I shook free its feral grip and shot out of the hole. But my foot had caught its lip, and even as I met the earth, I could hear the demonic wail dissolve into laughter.
“Fucker,” I called back as Joe Reilley popped his head out of the hole. I threw a rock and he ducked to miss it. My heart was still beating like a hummingbird’s when he sprang from the mineshaft. I jumped up to run but he tackled me, pinning me to the desert floor.
“Curiosity killed the cat,” he warned between waves of laughter.
“Last I checked this was a free country,” I rebuffed, “And this is national desert.”
“There’s where you’d be wrong, son. This here would be private property.”
“Old Man Griffin’s been dead for years.”
“With no beneficiaries. I been maintaining this parcel and I pay taxes on it. That makes it private property. Belonging to none other than ‘yours truly.’”
He let me go but I didn’t move. The two of us stared into a cloudless sky, him smug and pleased with himself, and me still struggling to catch my breath. When at last my heart had slowed to a human pace, I propped myself up on an elbow.
“Is that why you’re here in Cartago? To mine this washed-up thing?”
“No,” he said at last, “But as long as I’m here,” Little Bear looked out across the bleakness of the Owen’s Valley, “I figure rather than just churning out pumice and perlite all day, I may as well dig up something worthwhile...”
I sensed the resonance in the man’s words, found myself suddenly wondering why he’d appeared at this particular moment in my reality.
I moved away and sat up, and he saw me looking out at the buckets that swayed in the wind.
“Don’t you have anything you like to do for relaxation? You’re drawing, for instance. I’ve seen what you can do. And that mural. Now that’s a true artist.”
“Keeps me out of trouble, I guess.” I’d never been validated for my drawing. It was something tolerated. Something to be outgrown and not encouraged. My father acknowledged it least of all. He was a blue-collar man, self-made, and it ran counter to everything he stood for—all that made him a man. And though the policy remained unspoken, I’d learned not to share my creations with him.
Once, I’d shown my parents my latest masterpiece. Not long after the aborted conversation with my grandmother on the cliff, I'd done a drawing. Not having received sufficient answers to my metaphysical ponderings, I’d found a way to address my fears.
“This is forever,” I'd told my parents, holding up the drawing for them to see. Somehow I’d pictured it as a vast expanse of blue, cloudless and immaculate, and a loose cluster of balloons ascending.
"If there were no Earth,” I explained, “no cars or people or buildings, this is what it would look like. This is forever...”
My parents said nothing. They could hardly bear to look at one another, lest one implicate the other for creating such a complex five year-old. I waited and waited for a response. Eventually I folded the paper and put it in my pocket.
My next drawing was a turtle.
Before Joe Reilley could venture into uncomfortable territory, I turned things around. “You’re not going to find gold up here...Old man Griffin exhausted this mole hill a long time ago.”
Little Bear took his time responding to people. The comers of his bearded mouth curled involuntarily with his response. “What makes you so sure it’s gold I’m after?”
“You said ‘something worthwhile...’”
“Who was it decided gold was more valuable than anything else? More worthwhile? Someone long ago, and consensus agreed. Folks are conditioned to see beauty in some things and not others...”
Whether he was after the gold or not, the man was a philosopher. A philosopher in dirty jeans and mining boots.
“It’s rare, for one thing,” I argued. “Things that are rare are valuable.”
Little Bear ran thick fingers through his dusty beard. “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful or miraculous than the everyday. We’re just not in the habit o’ looking real close. We only pay attention when we’re told something is worth looking at...when there’s a frame around it.”
“So if it’s not the gold you’re after...what’s in the buckets? What do you do up here all day?”
“Guess I jus’ like the idea of unearthing things. Buried things that would never be seen otherwise, bringing ‘em out into the light...” Joe Reilley stood and fished two rocks from a nearby bucket. “Underground, like fish in the depths of the sea, their colors blend with the darkness. But you bring them out into the light—like this mica or crisocola—and their iridescent beauty sparkles with the power of a thousand suns…”
He handed me the rocks, and as I rolled them together in my palm, countless hues shimmered across the surface of each. For a moment I saw how this would bring him satisfaction, the way working the potter’s wheel brought peace to Sonja, centering him the way drawing did me. In that moment I was one with the universe of colors contained in these two tiny rocks, that one might kick to the side or simply overlook, too hurried to look down. For the life of me I could not tell if the hues were being refracted from deep within the layers, or simply dancing across the pearlescent surface.
“And for the record,” he said, ‘There is gold up here.”
The microcosmic world in my palm vanished.
“All around us. Back in the day Old Man Griffin mined a vein he’d discovered. And yes, it’s been exhausted. But this entire area is littered with volcanic cinder. Igneous rock, it’s called. We’re sitting on a great geodesic dome surrounded by cinder cones. Truth is every ounce of this volcanic rock is charged with gold. Just no cost-efficient way o’ refinin’ the ore.” Here the man smiled his infectious smile, and the spark returned to his eye. “Yet…”
“So you are trying to strike it rich,” I said.
“Running some tests on the ore. There’s chemical extraction nowadays- somethin’ Old Man Griffin never lived to hear about.”
Though I’d just met the man, the thought of him moving on bothered me. His motives remained a mystery, and I was hooked. “Then what, you skip town?”
It was Joe Reilley’s turn to throw the nearest rock at me. “I don’t think I’ll skip town,” he conjectured. “I’ll probably buy it. This dried out, sawed off stump of a town sort of grows on you.”
Moonlight caressed folds of cotton as I caressed her belly, just beginning to show signs of incubating life. Beth never woke up when I stroked the soft skin of her abdomen—impossibly tender and protected from the elements. This time, I myself was unaware, stroking softly, seeking comfort from a state of dreadful slumber.
In my dream, that chest had slid itself from darkness. Not just a corner—the whole damn thing. Like a beast grown too wieldy for the confines of its labyrinth. Like something begging to be opened, impossible to ignore any longer. It was unclear in the dream whether I was a child or an adult—whether the setting was the past, or the present, or some plane that transcended time altogether.
I edged closer, contemplating what it would take to open it the thing. What kind of force would pop the lock—a sledge hammer or a crowbar or—
Suddenly the beastly thing belched itself open, lid thrown wide and inviting me closer.
As I peered into the darkness within, no foul breath escaped its gullet, only a vacuum. Only eternity. The promise of chaos. The possibility that it was all for nothing—that the meaning and truth and beauty and order we assigned were but grains of sand, ethics and morals nothing more than night lights installed for comfort. Both inside and outside the dream, my heart was pounding out of my chest.
“What is it?” Beth’s voice beckoned me from sleep—from the edge of the abyss.
“Wow. Crazy dream.”
She rolled over.
“What was it? Tell me…”
“Creepy,” she grogged when I’d caught my breath and relayed the simple image. And yet I knew the gravity of it escaped her. That there was no way to explain it.
“Your Uncle Roy told me a weird story earlier,” Beth shared. “While you were out fetching Gramps.”
“Oh, Lord.” I grumbled. “Sorry. We hated being his captive audience as kids.”
“That’s what it felt like,” Beth admitted. And then, of course, extending grace. “But he’s sweet. And harmless.”
“What was the story?”
“He said it was an old Arabic folktale. Something like: one day a husband comes home early to find his wife breathing heavy sitting on a trunk large enough to hold a man’s body. Trying to act casual. ‘Get up,’ he demands. She refuses. ‘If you loved me faithfully,’ he says, you’d get up and open the trunk.’ Still she refuses, saying, ‘if you loved and trusted me, you would not ask me to open the trunk.’ After a long standoff, the two agree to bury the trunk in the yard without opening it, and never speak of it again.”
I said nothing. Gram’s tiny guest room with its chair rail and antique wallpaper was suddenly a vast cosmos. A reeling void of moral relativism. To anchor myself, I reached out for her belly again, softly caressing, clutching, seeking to own. The life growing inside somehow gave meaning to the chaos, anchored me. Even if I was not sure it was mine.
Gram hummed incessantly as she turned eggs in that old cast-iron skillet I recognized from childhood. Beth was helping her and Uncle Roy sat ignoring his orange juice and reading the paper he’d picked up at Cartago rest stop.
I took the opportunity to let him know I knew. That he’d done to Beth what he’d done to us as children. That he’d been inappropriate.
“Beth told me about the chest,” is the way I put it.
“Yes, the chest.”
The man scrutinized the paper closely, scanning columns of microscopic type. “Ah. Yeah, one day soon we’re gonna have to get that thing open.”
And then, affecting even greater nonchalance: “It’s your Grandmother and I run the LLC.”
Here Roy’s eyes darted to Gram. She was occupied, and anyway her humming would drown him out.
“Now that Pops is so far gone, she’s the only one who remembers everything. But that won’t last forever. Gotta get a living trust together here soon, and the lawyers are gonna want to see them papers. Make sure everything’s on the up and up.”
Little Bear didn’t exactly invite me back. Nor did he send me away. In my adolescent insecurity I imagined he tolerated me like a pesky little brother or a mosquito. That he got used to having me around. But I also knew whether he was sorting rocks while I sketched, or down in that shaft digging around, he liked having me there. Sometimes I helped him sort. Normally I was not one to pursue—in fact I was most comfortable in isolation. But this was someone I wanted to know. He intrigued me.
One day I decided to warn him. The man gave every indication he could look out for himself, but what I’d overheard was eating at me.
“Dunivant says once that contract’s up out at the perlite mine he plans to run you outta here. Nab you on something.”
“And what’s he got so far?” Joe smirked.
“Access to records, for one.” I was proud of my reasoning. “Any warrant, in any state.” I suppose I was fishing myself. Trying to get my own read on the man.
Little Bear did not flinch. “Well, thanks for the heads-up, kid. “
Then after a moment: “I know his type all too well. They’ll do anything to keep the status quo.”
I didn’t know the term, but I got the idea. “Why?”
“Well, kid—let’s just say when you been a lot of places and seen a lot o’ things, that can be a threat to folks. Dunivant and his ilk are the keepers of law and order.”
I thought of Logger John and the vendetta and how Sherriff Dunivant had evened the score. “There’s no justice around here.”
“Desert’s got its own brand o’ justice.” Joe Reilley surveyed the splintered beams, nearly indistinguishable from the sand. “In the end, it claims everything…”
Suddenly I felt his equal—this man with so many names. Without them—without time or distance or labels to separate us—we were just two souls conversing on a hill in a great, empty desert. Déjà vu told me the moment had happened before, or a million times before. I saw nothing but blue, cobalt blue, balloons ascending.
“With all you’ve seen,” I asked him, “How can you settle down here?” It wasn’t the tumbleweeds or the prickly pear I found objectionable, just Dunivant’s brand of ignorance.
“Oh, I could settle down anywhere!” Was Reilley’s answer. “I take all that with me…”
In that moment I knew that treasure trove of indelible memories and experiences is what had gotten him through on the reservation. That Little Dove had become one of them when she died, hopping trains alongside him. I suggested as much.
“That little soul changed me forever,” he admitted, stoic and detached. The visceral weight of the experience was quickly converted to philosophy. “Before the reservation, I thought being stuck there was killing them as a people. What I learned is freedom is in the mind.”
Joe Reilley’s gaze settled on the aqueduct. That great black vessel that now harnessed the Owen’s River. Once its nourishment had sustained an entire valley: the land and its people. But their life force had been stolen, redirected, leaving the Owen’s Valley arid and desolate.
“And irony of ironies, instead of protecting the tribe from corruption, from progress, their isolation cut them off from enlightenment. From ideas. From inspiration.”
Here the deathly still was animated by a scarcely perceptible breeze that moved grains of sand along in its invisible current.
“I now know that God is learned.”
Joe’s eyes were fixed and steady, reflecting sky. I stole a closer look. Though the man was far away, I sensed he was allowing it, and I felt privileged. The surface of his eyes was richly textured like armor, as iridescent as the mica he’d unearthed. But despite all they reflected, when the battlements girded it was impossible to see deeper into them. I knew it was all by design, the same way his forthrightness shut simple folk down, the same way his own emotions were held at bay, transmuted instead into heady philosophy.
From my adolescent perspective, the quirks that distinguished adults were glaring.
Joe Reilley wanted to see my sketchbook. Said he wouldn’t tell me any more about his operation until I showed him.
“How do you plan to refine the gold?” I’d asked him.
“That would be top secret, son...
“I’ve kept my end of the bargain,” I reminded him. “Haven’t said a word...”
The furrow in the man’s brow dropped. “Some tests are being run down in town. Small scale. We’re still assessing the ratio of gold yielded per ton of ore; determining the cost-efficiency of several methods of refining it. Nothing conclusive yet. I’ll keep you posted when there’s something to tell…In the mean time. I’d like to see them sketches.”
I didn’t see the connection. But he insisted, so I agreed to meet him the next day, sketchbook in hand.
He sat smiling, tartan flannel neatly pressed, not a speck of dust on him. He’d not been digging in the dirt, only waiting diligently.
“You’re late, son.”
“Uncle Roy had me chopping tomatoes,” I offered by way of apology. The demand for salsa could excuse anything.
“Where’s your hide?” I asked, referring to the layer of dirt that normally served as a second skin. Surely he hadn’t showered for our rendezvous.
“Had some meetings in town today. Looks like we’ve got potential investors to get this thing off the ground. Depends on the latest results. If they’re convinced and this things a go, it’s gonna be big…”
“Now not a word of this to anyone. I’m telling ya.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.’
Joe held out his hand for the sketchbook. Even his fingernails were clean and polished. Neatly rolled sleeves exposed meticulously inked images, some tribal abstractions, some vaguely representational. Reluctantly, I placed the sketchbook in his grasp. He examined its cover, caressing it with calloused fingertips as if to absorb its contents. The man’s rich tan, if it was possible, extended to his fingertips, pronouncing the immaculate nails. As he parted the book’s frayed cover, I took in the patterns emblazoned on his flesh—images I’d seen peripherally but not dared explore. The wrists were bound with Blackfoot motifs like shackles. Interspersed in the black were negative spaces, like gaps in which to breathe. But even they formed images—a cloud, a blazing sun, a dove. Little Dove.
Suddenly his eyes darted to mine. He’d parted the book and fixated on a sketch. Buckled pages fluttered in the breeze. The desert was beginning to take its toll on the paper, already saturated with watercolor. “This one’s older,” he said simply.
“Yes,” I mumbled.
The drawing that jumped out was admittedly naïve, but also freer than the others somehow.
“Before you knew ‘the rules.’”
“Yes.” For the first time, I felt exposed by his astute nature. “That was done before my lessons.”
He said nothing further until he’d considered every last smudge and mark the book had to offer. He closed it, unconsciously holding it to the pressed flannel of his shirt.
“You have a gift,” he said simply.
Somehow my heart lifted with just those four words. My own parents had been struck silent by my work. Here was a man who had glimpsed my interior world without so much as flinching. Before those four words, I’d assumed the man was as bored as I was, or needed the help I offered and so tolerated me. Now I knew he actually saw me. I felt my palms grow clammy in anticipation. I was finally going to ask.
“Why are you here?” I asked. “If it’s not just for the gold, why Cartago?”
The man restored the sketchbook to my waiting hands with care. Then he hunched a bit, staring at the earth and wringing his hands. When at last he raised his eyes to mine, the look in them said that I deserved an answer.
“It’s true I was just passing through. And this dried up stump of a place looked like as good a place as any to settle in.”
“To lay low?” I pressed, wanting more.
Again, he hesitated. “It’s also true I ran into a bit of trouble; a few things caught up with me.”
I waited. The man sighed with the weight of the world. “I told you folks like me can be a threat. ‘Cause we’re a mirror. And some folks just ain’t ready to look at themselves.”
I nodded. I understood as much as I cared to. I knew his wistful ponderings were a mask. And even I wasn’t ready to look behind it. I’d only thought I was. God knew if he revealed all he might turn out to be as ordinary as the sheriff or Logger John. And part of me knew I’d grown addicted to the mystery. The slow revelation.
I made it back to the diner just as Uncle Roy turned the sign. Aunt Sonja was cleaning the grill. Alone in my tiny room, I sketched Old Man Griffin’s mine, and Joe Reilley. I tried to recapture the splintered wood, the swinging buckets, the strong forearms and girded eyes. I left behind the voices—those of perspective and light logic and composition. I thought instead of freedom, threw away the rules. They had no place in our secret haven, on that lonely hill where the rest of the world disappeared.
That night, I dreamt a volcano had sprung up under it. The geodesic dome had swelled, skewing the horizon, and the mineshaft itself became the head of a great volcano. In the dream I could see all from my window, and I wanted to go warn Joe Reilley. But Sheriff Dunivant, keeper of law and order, wouldn’t let me go up there. The thing finally blew, spewing an inferno of fire and magma high into the air.
My grandmother had told a story once about her sister, eldest of eleven siblings, recounting the endless trials she’d endured. She’d buried several husbands, one child soon after birth, and raised one they’d told her was ‘slow.’
‘And she never weakened, down to the very end...’ the story concluded.
The story had stuck with me, the precise words of the conclusion. By ‘weakened,’ she meant ‘cried.’
My grandmother had a euphemism for everything.
I wouldn’t be seeing Joe Reilley for a week. I almost wished I hadn’t met the man; before he’d shown up I’d grown used to the boredom. Now, by contrast, it was excruciating.
One day Uncle Roy and I paid another visit to Mona’s trailer. Dunivant had finally accepted her new calling and asked us to help load her entire body of work into the pickup and drive it into town. He’d found a boutique willing to sell her figures on consignment. The modicum of faith on the part of the storeowner was enough to make Dunivant take her seriously. Someone else had found her work worthwhile; it had perceived value. Which meant there was potential profit involved. Mona had made little cards to be included with each piece, explaining its biblical origin. She was doing her part to spread the word.
As we walked up the gravel drive to her trailer, I noticed things had changed considerably. The normally haphazard collection of junk had taken on a strange semblance of order. Volcanic cinder was contained in red brick planters on either side of the path. Piles of obsidian graced every other planter, stacked methodically—ritualistically—in odd little pyramids. Topping each was a random, yet cohesive element: jackrabbit skull, rusty can, shotgun casing. From above, I was sure the strange configuration formed a crop circle.
Dunivant couldn’t show up to help; he was on duty. It was Mona who orchestrated the move, holding her breath as we loaded each piece.
“The holy trinity is especially fragile,” she reminded us. “It’s made of the finest quartz...All the finest things are fragile. Have I shown you how it lights up?”
While Roy worked with Mona to rearrange the load to her satisfaction, I asked to use the restroom. The place was dark, shades drawn. An eerie silence occupied it like an invisible houseguest. As I emerged from the bathroom my eyes adjusted, revealing details I hadn’t noticed before: the poster of Jesus on the fridge, ascending to heaven. The altar to Elvis titled simply, ‘The King.” The deer antlers mounted above the door.
When I’d nearly made it to the exit two final adornments diverted my eye. Drawn crudely in wax pencil and taped symmetrically flanking a wallpapered light switch cover hung two nearly identical images. Despite slight deviations like cranial nubs in one and extremely prominent canine teeth in the other, both were immediately recognizable as gray aliens. Great care had been given to each and every detail: the highlights on the horns, the glistening teardrop in the comer of each bulbous, almond-shaped eye.
“As you see, I’ve moved on.” A voice cut into the silence, startling me. Mona had caught me gazing at the sad-looking, teary-eyed aliens.
“My next body of work will be nothing but the Grays.”
“Oh,” I reacted, stepping back and attempting a poker face. But as I looked at the woman smiling dizzily, platinum blonde hair no longer braided but frazzled and defying gravity, I couldn’t help wondering if she’d been abducted.
“Let’s hit the road,” Uncle Roy called from the truck bed.
Saved by the bell.
Sonja tossed her head, letting the wine hit the back of her throat. She giggled as a bit dribbled onto her chin, and her wild mane bounced as she laughed.
Uncle Roy took in her stunning beauty, seemed most proud when she was cutting loose. But always the propriety remained. When company was present, she was an accessory.
“Tell us a story, Guapa. Tell us the one about Aunt Carmen...” Roy turned to Mona, Dunivant, and Post Mistress Pat. “It’s a good one!’
Reluctantly at first—she’d been similarly prompted countless times before—Sonja began to recount, and Roy to translate, a story that brought laughter across even her own face as she spoke.
“My aunt was a bit psychic.” Roy translated. “Actually she was just very superstitious, but everyone else in the village decided she had psychic ability. So they would come to her for counsel. One day, the mayor’s wife herself appeared on Aunt Carmen’s porch, all broken up.
“I need your help,” she said. “My husband has changed. I think that he does not love me anymore. I fear he may stray...’
“‘My dear,’ Aunt Carmen advised her, I have something that will bring love back into the house. If you perform this ritual, to the detail, as the women in my family have done for centuries, love will return and all will be restored.’
“‘What must I do?’
“‘First, the home must be cleansed of the demons of mistrust, resentment, and ill will. Over the period of a week, every comer of the home must be scrubbed with vinegar-water and then sprinkled with this potion. Aunt Carmen gave her a small urn full of liquid.
‘Behind every piece of furniture, every picture on the wall, without fail. The bedding must be laundered and sprinkled with the potion as well, as this is where most of the demons have settled. However, and this is most important, throughout the entire procedure, if a single ill word is spoken in the home, a single insult or degradation, the spell is broken. Doom will descend upon your marriage and your home.
“‘I’ll do it!’ She said, I’ll try anything!’
After two weeks the woman returned to thank Aunt Carmen, tears of joy streaming down her face.
‘Thank you,’ she cried, ‘You are truly wise. The passion has returned. My husband is as amorous as the day we were married. What on earth was in that potion?’ ‘“Water from the well,’ Carmen replied, ‘And nothing more. Think about it,’ she said, ‘Would it really have worked if I’d simply said, ‘Clean the house and be nice to your husband?”’
Going back to Old Man Griffin’s Mine was returning home. Joe and I shared a comfortable silence, me sketching while he worked away collecting ore. I didn’t ask him about the investors, and he didn’t ask to see my drawings. But he was glad to have me there. And even when he was out of sight, I liked knowing he was digging around down there.
Occasionally he’d show me something he’d discovered—some gem or mineral, or combination thereof. Just like those fishes in the depths of the sea, he’d say, whose colors did not exist until you brought them into the light, the most unique combinations remained unidentified.
“They’re always the most beautiful ones. Like new colors without a name.”
He did most of his digging with a pick, transporting the ore downhill by bucket and loading it into trucks borrowed from the perlite mine for delivery to town. The tests were done chemically at a lab. On occasion, when Aunt Sonja, Uncle Roy and I went to town for supplies, he’d blasted into he hill with dynamite, augmenting the meandering tunnels.
I found out all of this without prying. He hadn’t planned on divulging the full scale of what he’d already accomplished, but was forced to in a way.
One of the tunnels collapsed.
I’d felt more than heard the cascading of terra firma below, so bass a rumble it was eerily quiet, and seen the cloud of dirt thrust into the air from the shaft.
“Holy crap!” He yelled from below. At least he was alive.
“Are you all right?” I called into the darkness, choking on dust.
“I’m stuck here. Almost missed me—caught my leg.”
“Is it broken?” I asked.
“Can’t tell. It’s sure felt better...”
I grabbed a shovel and lowered myself rung by rung into the shaft.
“Be careful!” He called.
Joe Reilley’s helmet glinted in darkness. It seemed a great distance away, but somehow the claustrophobia that had gotten hold me before was nowhere to be found.
The tunnel was sealed beyond where he stood. A stream of rocks had channeled itself from above, trapping him in an awkward position. He could scarcely keep hold of his pick for support, let alone find the leverage to put it to use.
I dug away at the stubborn pile of earth, careful not to jar his leg in case of a fracture, mindful not to start another avalanche. When at last his leg was free, he tested it out tentatively. It had only suffered a sprain. With his arm about my shoulder, the two of us made it out of the shaft and into the light.
He was holding something in his hand.
“This is all I wanted,” he chuckled. “This little bugger right here.”
He held the walnut-sized object up to the sun, squinting. Whatever it was harnessed the light with the amber intensity of a thousand tiny suns.
“Wow. Is that a diamond?” I asked him.
“Bytownite. Better known as a desert diamond,” he responded. “Next door to glass. Still, sure is pretty, ain’t she?”
I inspected it closer.
A dozen tiny fractures interrupted the gem’s crystal purity, and deposits of alizarin crudely encrusted its smoldering center.
“Can it be cut?” I asked him.
“I suppose,” he said, placing it in my palm. “Still won’t be worth much. In dollars, anyway. Its beauty is in its imperfection.”
Those blue eyes scanned the desert, as if for the first time. “It’s amazing. The Earth is always at work. She seems to be sleeping, dormant. But she’s actually shifting, changing. Far below, the pressure—the sheer weight of it all—is constantly creating, forging something as beautiful as this.”
The desert diamond was half the size of my palm. It was hot, like a pearl from a living thing.
“I want you to have it,” He said. I smiled.
“I don’t care what you do with it. Have it cut, or don’t. But hold on to it.”
“Deal,” I promised.
The diner was oddly deserted. No regulars. Only Uncle Roy and Sonja. He was counting the till and she was dutifully wrapping up food in silence. I had the feeling something had happened or was about to happen.
“Where have you been?” Uncle Roy demanded. I was taken off guard. He’d never been concerned with my whereabouts before.
“I...took a hike,” I only half-lied.
Sonja’s eyes flashed from her work, taking in every speck of dust on me. Uncle Roy’s snake eyes crawled down to my boots.
“Whereabout?” He pressed.
“Up there.” I made an ambiguous gesture.
“Been drawwwing, have you?” Uncle Roy was slurring his words. He’d started early today. “Drawing and hiking. Hiking and drawwwing.”
I turned for my room. But he’d already snatched the pad. He thumbed through it slowly, deliberately. He halted on the final drawing, the one I’d done today. Of the mine. Of Joe.
For a time Uncle Roy said nothing. Sonja’s huge eyes raised and lowered. My heart pounded. Uncle Roy was looking into me, through me. He seemed angry, unlike I’d ever seen him. His lower lip strained, holding in a million thoughts like a dam threatening to burst.
“Your momma called,” he said at last. “I didn’t know what to tell her.”
He handed me back the book, and I headed for my room.
“And dammit,” he exploded as I reached the door. “Stay the hell away from that mine!”
Alone in my tiny room I looked at the picture again, wondering how much it gave away. About the mining operation. Uncle Jeb had said nothing of staying away from ‘that stranger.’ Only the mine. Maybe he hadn’t caught the affinity in the drawing. The regard. The fact that I respected Joe Reilley more than I ever could my own uncle.
The blue granite hill loomed right outside my bedroom window, a constant reminder. But the tungsten light was on inside, rendering the dilapidated window but an empty black square. The mine was obliterated by the brilliance of the light. When I shut it off, the hill sprang from blackness to stand prominent as ever against the stars.
From that point on I made sure to keep my adventures with Little Bear covert. Whether it was the mine or the man Uncle Roy objected to more, I didn’t care to find out.
When he’d delivered enough ore and there was nothing to do but wait, Joe Reilley took me out to the dry lakebed where we spun donuts in his old Chevy. He let me drive, and after grinding the gears once or twice, I was spinning donuts as tight as his. We took long hikes, hunting for arrowhead or scrapers among the countless obsidian veins that glittered in the sun. He taught me to carve my own using a deer horn and an old tire, a technique he’d learned on the reservation. The deer horn was the ideal size to depress into the obsidian to create scallops, and the tire absorbed the shock beneath its serrated edge.
We would watch the hawks soaring high above, descending in wide circles to attack prey spotted from a mile in the sky.
After a spin on the lakebed, if Sonja’s eyes fixed on the molecules of dirt that had latched on to me, there was no judgment in them. Like me, she feared the wrath of Uncle Roy. His drinking had gone into high gear.
One night I overheard an argument between them in the diner. It started as a hushed conversation but escalated. They’d been closing shop, sparring in Spanish. When the locals caught a shift in the couple’s tone they’d made a quick exit, foregoing gin rummy for one night. I watched from the kitchen, unnoticed. Sonja continued her work, skillfully deflecting his barks with dignity as he circled her, a wolf stalking prey. Now and again the tendons in her neck would tense, her eyes closing momentarily as she breathed.
I told myself I was not responsible for the tension. Nor his drinking. The world did not revolve around me and this had nothing to do with me. And anyway, even if he regretted agreeing to take me in for the summer, there were only a few weeks left.
Suddenly their words became percussive, charged with fury, flung into the air with increasing rapidity. The pitch raised, volume reaching a grand crescendo.
He lunged at her.
His hands were around her throat in an instant, pinning her to the wall. Her own hands flexed, releasing the saran wrap to the counter. There was an instant of wild fury in her eyes, and then calm repose. Even as the breath drained from her, she looked peaceful. I searched the kitchen frantically with my eyes, trying not to give myself away. A second later there was a carving knife in my hand and I was marching across the checkered linoleum.
He released her.
A chorus of crickets could be heard gathering on the desert air from miles around, some invisible force synchronizing their union.
Sonja continued wrapping.
Uncle Roy kept me busy after that. Turns out the reason my mother had called was to tell me her and my father were leaving for Illinois for the remainder of the summer. I’d have to stay in Cartago. My father’s father was in poor health; they were going to help care for him. I didn’t tell her what I’d seen between Uncle Roy and Sonja. Now I was their official responsibility. And Uncle Roy felt the weight of it. His drinking would only increase.
He’d make me ride into Bishop with him regularly for supplies. It became routine; I would take care of half the list and he, the other. Routine also were the knowing glances of the buxom young cashier.
“Welcome back, cowboy,” She’d say with a wink, “ You been away much too long...”
She’d press the change into his palm with familiar urgency, eyes never leaving his. “Don’t be a stranger...”
And included with each purchase, a case of Southern Comfort to keep the demons at bay.
I looked forward to my less-frequent escapes with Joe Reilley. One day, when he didn’t come, I felt I’d been kicked in the gut. I was sure he’d skipped town. I’d always known it was a matter of time.
Snap out of it! I told myself. He was probably just in Bishop meeting with the investors. Still, the feeling in my stomach persisted, one I’d never felt before, and my mind reeled.
When I made it back to the diner, Sonja was working on her ceramics. She’d modeled a pitcher and a set of Sangria glasses from a coarse batch of clay, glazed it in earth tones. The final touch was attaching a handle she’d fashioned from meticulously braided Joshua twines she’d dried in the sun and soaked for flexibility.
She looked up from her work and kissed my cheek. My eyes followed hers to the comer of the room where my own sculpture sat wrapped in a wet cloth. The Fort. I’d abandoned it unfinished—nearly forgotten about it. The real fort seemed a distant memory. The eminence of the pubescent present, for good or bad, had reduced its place in my psyche to nothing more than a childhood fantasy.
But I’d used a ton of clay on it the thing. And Sonja expected me to finish it. So I forced myself to work back into it, to rediscover what had inspired me in the first place. I stripped off the wet cloth and began slowly, tentatively, to caress its surface. At first, like the fort itself, my rendition of it looked childlike to me—all I saw were imperfections. But as I worked, to my amazement, I discovered it was all still there, lying dormant. The joy and satisfaction I’d experienced indicating each and every trunk in the orchard. The potential for enchantment if you sat long enough staring into the miniature oasis. But somehow the motivation was different. It was the thought of sharing the result with Little Bear that compelled me to work fast and furious, losing all track of time.
When I was done, I knew it.
Sonja smiled as I wiped my hands on my jeans and stood back. It was time to bake the masterpiece. The next day, she fired up the huge kiln behind the house. The only 220 outlet was there in the shade between my bedroom and the blue granite hill.
Anticipation mounted as I carefully lowered the fort into darkness. I insisted on loading it myself. It could not be broken.
“Hey, kid,” Joe Reilley had appeared from behind the blue hill. Sonja and I looked up. He hadn’t seen her at first, and I nearly dropped the fort. There was a moment of silence, as Sonja’s doe-like eyes locked into his.
“Just came by to pick up my mail,” he said at last, inching away.
I made sure the fort was resting flush with the floor of the kiln, and Sonja carefully closed the lid. She looked at me without expression and returned to her work.
When Joe Reilley came back from getting his mail, Sonja had gone inside and I was waiting in the shade.
“C’mon, kiddo! Let’s blow this popsicle stand...I’ve got something to tell you...”
Just like that, he whisked me away and up the hill. Old Man Griffin’s mine seemed further away than normal. My mind was on the outcome of the fort.
“It’s a go,” he said when we reached the mine. “We’ve formed an LLC, and a large scale operation is weeks away.”
‘That’s great.” I said absently.
“I thought you’d be excited,” he said. “Now I can buy this dusty little town.”
I wanted to feel excitement for him, but there was nothing. Nothing but the sick feeling I’d had since the day before, something much bigger than myself that I was completely ill-equipped to wrestle. I was already feeling abandoned, though I did not have words for it. I’d put myself out on a limb and bonded with someone, and it would eventually be taken away.
Little Bear saw the look in my eye. The wisdom of his years told him what it was.
“Look, I ain’t going anywhere, kiddo.”
Suddenly his term of endearment was condescending. I was perturbed. “I know you’re joking about buying Cartago. And even if you did, I’m leaving in a few weeks.”
Joe Reilley had nothing to say to this. In place of words he reached out and pulled me to him, wrapping a huge arm around my shoulder. I felt the tears spill, hot and fast, as we sat there in silence on a splintery beam. I tried to wipe them, embarrassed. But they just kept coming.
Through blurry tears I could see Cartago below. It looked fake somehow, like a model train set—the diner, the burned down post office, Mona’s tip-out and the saloon and the minders’ houses tucked away in deep canyons.
“Looks different, don’t it?” The man read my mind.
No crazy barmaids, no drunken miners, no crooked sheriff, I thought.
“Like most things,” he waxed, “If you don’t get too close, you don’t see the imperfections.”
I half wondered if that’s why he rarely settled down. And why my youth was attractive to him.
Suddenly I stood, put myself in front of him. “I want to know why you move around so much. What you’re running from.” I had nothing to lose. “Is it the law?”
Little Bear looked surprised. He took his time. No pat answer would do here. It wasn’t some petty local or Uncle Roy who was asking. It was—well, I’m not sure what I was to him.
“I didn’t plan to be a nomad,” he said after a long time. “Seems like life has its own plans for you.
Little Bear was going into the files again.
“I was headed for medical school,” he began. “Long time ago. No one in Stover did anything with their lives. They married their high school sweetheart, learned to operate a John Deer tractor, and settled into a life making all the same mistakes their parents made. Calvary Bible church, too many kids, and a lot of regrets.
“I was gonna escape all that. Do something big. I was gonna save lives. Left my family for the city, left my high school sweetheart. Here I am halfway through pre-med, thinking ‘I’m doing something important. I'm gonna save lives... But meanwhile, I’m missing out on mine...’
“So I walked out. Middle of finals week. Jumped on a bus and headed home. But when I got there my high school sweetheart had married, was on her second kid...”
After a long silence, as if it explained everything, he reflected: “Once you walk out on something, makes it a hell of a lot easier the next time around…”
My anger boiled over.
“Like your kid?” Joe Reilley was taken off guard, looked injured. This only empowered me. “Everyone around here knows you left a wife and kid somewhere.”
The battlements raised in his blue eyes. It was a long time before he spoke.
“I didn’t leave my kid.” He said soberly. “I would never leave my own kid. Or my wife.”
Suddenly the battlements were covered in rain. They lowered with the weight of it, releasing the deluge. No amount of philosophizing could numb the acknowledgment.
“It was she who left me,” he said at last.
Suddenly I understood. The man was not escaping the law or addicted to adventure or even restless. His heart was broken. He ran because his heart was broken. One day I would know what it was for one loss to compound the next, for the scar tissue to build up. What it was to fear you had nothing left inside. For the moment, I just looked at the dove on his wrist and understood the man. Little Dove had left him too. This I understood.
“I want to draw you,” I heard myself say.
“You drew me the other day,” he said.
“You look different today. Something about your eyes.”
“I always look different when I’m about to be rich.”
I started with the steel blue eyes. Unguarded. Eternal. My pencil traced the contour of each lid, each heavy brow bordering its deep socket. The lead moved to the furrow between them, wanting to ease his burden and smooth it away but knowing it was part of the tragedy that made him. My pencil caressed the page as though caressing the cheekbones themselves, the square jaw, each sturdy plane of each jowl, knowing it could well be the last time.
The lead continued on to massive shoulders and powerful arms, rendering long, equally powerful strokes. I felt a familiar privilege in taking him in this way, appreciating him in the timeless flux of creation. All was suspended. The world, its fears and apprehensions and rules. Only beauty.
Suddenly I stopped.
Just above Cartago, a lava flow I’d never noticed before stopped abruptly, terminating in a sheer drop-off as though some unseen barrier had retarded its flow. The edges of the precipice were eroded, polished to a surreal, sculptural perfection. The impossible shapes were those rarely found in the nature’s randomness, confirming the existence of some grand designer.
Joe Reilley followed my gaze.
“That’s “Eternal Falls,” he informed me.
“Incredible,” I marveled.
“Once upon a time,” he explained, “The Owen’s River flowed through here as freely as the wind. That there is a result of a lava flow meeting the river. Cooled so quickly it held its form. In fact, so quickly the bubble shafts remained intact. Place is riddled with fifty-foot tunnels as smooth as glass and round as a tire. You can climb in one end and out the other.”
I thought about my dream. The volcano that had sprung up beneath Griffin’s mine. There had been no river in my dream to cool the lava. Only the force of the fiery magma. Alone the lava was destructive. And the river, which had nourished the land and its people, was fleeting. It could be stolen and redirected to L.A. with the swipe of a pen. But when the two met, something rare and monumental was created. Something permanent.
When I returned to the restaurant, the sun was nearing the horizon. Sonja and Roy were discussing something in her studio. Her pitch was stem. I knew Uncle Roy was sober, because Sonja was dominating the conversation while he stood back, arms folded.
I shuffled down the loose granite base of the blue hill, could see their silhouetted forms moving about the room. I opened the door.
The fort had exploded in the kiln.
Sonja was arranging the broken shards on her worktable.
Uncle Roy stood by, a furrow in his brow.
“It had air pockets,” he translated, “Couldn’t withstand the heat.”
It was one of the few times I’d see Aunt Sonja angry. She could not look at me.
“She told you to pound them out,” Roy scolded me. I recalled Sonja’s impressive force as she’d slammed her own slab of clay into the cement; only now I understood what she’d been doing.
Gram came by that night around closing time. She and Gramps had returned from renewing the claims. I was looking over the fragmented remains of the fort when she came in, humming.
“Looks like someone’s been creating,” She hummed.
“It’s stupid. I only finished it because Aunt Sonja didn’t want me to waste the clay.”
The pieces lay scattered across the worktable, a silent graveyard of jagged forms. Individually they were unrecognizable, abstract. I wanted to destroy them, pulverize them back into dust.
“Have you been staying out of trouble? You’re Uncle Roy’s got his hands full, what with the restaurant and all.”
He’s a drunk. He beats his wife, I thought.
“Yes, Gram. I’ve been good.”
“You’ve been helping around the restaurant?”
“As much as they’ll let me. I mostly stay out of the way.”
I hang out with a guy named Little Bear. He’s a transient.
"It’s pretty boring around here.” I answered.
Gram moved closer, taking a greater interest in the Fort’s ruins.
“What happened?” She asked.
“Air pockets, I guess.”
"Well,” she sang, taking one of the larger pieces in her hand and turning it over. “No use crying over spilt milk. There’s nothin’ on God’s green earth can’t be fixed if you put your mind to it.”
Gram gathered a few more pieces and organized them on the tabletop. She then proceeded to fit the shards together like a jigsaw puzzle she’d completed countless times before. She took a bottle of slip from the cupboard and began to surgically reconstruct my sculpture. From the base up, the Fort reappeared—the apple orchard, the servants’ quarters, the great stone pool. It took time, and I was not convinced it would be quite the same. But Gram persevered, humming all the while, faithful it would be stronger than before.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
After bonding the fragments together with slip, she glazed the entire fort with a clear glaze to seal the cracks.
The next day, we re-fired it at low temperature. When it was done, the fractures were invisible, and I was sure the Fort had a sheen unlike before.
“What doesn’t break us makes us stronger,” she advised.
My grandmother could spout colloquialisms as easy as take a breath.
Uncle Grant and Aunt Emile pulled into the gravel drive mid-afternoon Saturday. Someone had spotted their silver Toyota Camry turning off the main highway, polished and gleaming against the colorless dunes.
They were always last to arrive; it had been a running joke in the family as long as I could remember. Uncle Grant’s pace was conspicuously unhurried, due in equal part to a persnickety nature and an inexhaustible if annoying patience. There were forever roadside discoveries to be taken in, appreciated, and expounded upon later. More often than not they came in the form of a geological formation—an unusual mineral deposit, geodesic dome, or evidence of a shift in the tectonic plates.
“What you have here is a prime example of a volcanic cinder bomb,” he’d had me repeat by rote at the tender age of seven.
Aunt Emile, through years of road trips, had learned to endure his laborious dissertations. She’d smile pleasantly while continuing to flip through Reader’s Digest, offering an obligatory, ‘Yes, Dear’ between facts. She hadn’t heard a word he’d spoken in twenty years.
My uncle’s other main quirk manifested when attempting to photograph our get-togethers for posterity. After assembling the entire clan on the lawn—in-laws and outlaws—in the sweltering sun, there would be much fuss attaining the proper exposure and perfect focus. He’d be lucky to capture a single shot before smiles dropped and the little ones wandered off. We’d learned long since not to humor him, or to let some relative less particular man the camera.
Aunt Emile stepped from their conservative family-sized sedan, tugging at the wide brim of her straw hat. Uncle Grant emerged some time later after setting the parking brake, cutting the air conditioner, unfolding the reflective dash protector, and rechecking the brake. He’d begun securing a newly purchased anti-theft device, when his wife assured him there was little need.
“We’re a million miles from anywhere, Grant. Now, come on! What, is a jackrabbit gonna take our stereo?”
Uncle Grant shared his younger brother Roy’s ruddy complexion. But Grant’s was the product of remaining well scrubbed, not of nursing a bottle. Two years younger than Roy, Grant had superseded him in both education and social status. The earthy trade he’d inherited had led to a career in urban development; he and Aunt Emile had lived comfortably. Soon after the inception of the tract house, the couple had settled in the quiet California suburb of Agoura Hills. It was a family-oriented community, perfect for raising their three daughters. Grant was a church-going man, and his faith had provided the structure for a placid, orderly life.
All this cast Uncle Grant the ‘good brother’ and Roy the villain. Even as the younger kissed his mother tenderly hello, Roy looked on with resentment. But when Grant turned to shake his hand, any resistance melted away with the bond of two boys who’d played marbles and shared a bunk bed. Growing up poor had forged a lasting bond. It's you and me against the world, kid, their mantra had become.
Roy had been a protective big brother, confronting anyone who dared make fun of Grant for wearing homemade denims. Instead of using his fists, he’d spout conventional wisdoms—phrases recited to rationalize what one doesn’t have. Material things aren’t important; it’s what’s inside that counts. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
But at some point, things started to slip for Roy. As Uncle Grant’s life had grown comfortable, he’d been afforded the luxury of ideals. But somehow, it seemed, Uncle Roy’s morals had decayed. Something changed. Maybe he grew tired, but he stopped believing those phrases.
“How are things, Mother?” Uncle Grant asked cautiously.
The old woman sighed. “As well as can be. We keep busy around here. Your father’s a handful, but we get through.”
“Where is Pop?” Grant wanted to know.
Gramps was planted in the middle of the lawn amid the throng of grandchildren who were fiercely embroiled in a game of tag. Pigtails flopping, twin cousins circled his chair endlessly, preventing the elders’ approach.
“Girls, girls!” Emile sang graciously but firmly, “Your Uncle Grant would like to visit with G-g-pa.”
Grant squatted near his father, a formidable figure reduced to a feeble version of his former self. Grant spoke into his ear without a twinge of awkwardness. His manner only vaguely resembled the way one would speak to a child. There were updates on the various mining properties, the value of precious metals. All the while Emile nodded and smiled, holding Gramps’ hand tightly.
Beth appeared from the cottage, crossed the lawn. She’d been inside plating brie and crackers, our attempt to re-envision the standard pre-meal fare of mixed nuts and vegetable trays.
“Hello!” Aunt Emile sang when she saw Beth.
The two women exchanged warm hugs, and then Beth squatted and kissed my uncle on the cheek. As the two women caught up, it struck me how at home Beth was here—as much or more than with her own family. She was all grace and charm—every interaction effortless. Every gesture, smile, witty remark.
The little ones were touching her belly now, some still circling but others gathered around and appreciating the miracle to the level they could. Beth smiled at them, guiding their hands even though there was no kicking yet, hardly a paunch at all to trace. I thought of my dream from the night before, and the suspicions it had stirred. Suddenly Beth’s grace was duplicity, her sincerity a guise.
Sure, I’d had my own indiscretions, but she’d not been aware of them. So it could not have been revenge. Until this very moment, there’d been no resentment between us. Three years together, a year of marriage now, and no baggage. What haunted me most was the possibility that nothing at all was behind it. No malevolence. No malice or acrimony or ill intent. Only nature.
Coarse barbs grazed my neck, tentative exhalations glancing off my own bare chest. Calloused fingers traced supple skin, trembling ever so slightly with trepidation or restraint. My desire too great, I ended the waiting and lunged at the man—his scent, his essence, everything about him I needed to be part of me.
We were already naked; I’d been drawing him that way. It didn’t take much coaxing on my part. I’d nearly run out of lead trying to replicate the broad matt of perfectly configured hair on his chest.
“That’s what’s known as a ‘treasure trail,’ son,’ he’d educated me.
I’d given up on trying to replicate the kaleidoscope of his life covering his rippled forearms, the twin shackles that encircled massive calves. He said one day he’d recount the narrative behind each. Mid-drawing, I’d thrown my pad to the floor of the mineshaft and approached him in the dim, filtered light from above. I’d reached out and stroked the matt of fur, gauging his response.
And now here we were, my own pants around my ankles, him fully naked, kissing so hard I only hoped I’d still have a mouthful of teeth when all was said and done. And then we were flat on the gravel, me exploring the broad expanse of his back with my hands, the taught, rippling mass. Pressing into it, pressing it to me. Our breath synchronized. We breathed into each other, teeth clanking, as if nothing could pry us apart. We came this way, at the same millisecond, breath as one.
To this day I don’t know if I would have had the guts to act on our mutual desire had there not been a built-in end date to our time together. The urgency had arisen with the momentary scare of abandonment that had reared its ugly head—the sick feeling of losing him I’d been able to keep at bay for only so long.
As it turns out, we’d have more time together. My parents had gone to Illinois on an emergency, extending my stay in Cartago. And the corporation’s Plan of Operation had been stalled by the Bureau of Land Management, keeping things in an indefinite holding pattern. The approval papers could have arrived from Sacramento in a day, a week or a month.
In the mean time, we profited from the luxury of our extra time. Mostly by engaging in similar encounters involving pants around ankles. In the mineshaft. The sorting bin. His pickup. It was too risky to even consider a tryst at his place; he was leasing from Terrence Cooper, who had the loosest lips in not just Cartago but all of Inyo County.
We didn’t have to worry about Uncle Roy. He’d warmed up to Joseph Reilley. The contract had ended out at the mine, so Roy started paying Little Bear for small maintenance jobs around the restaurant, brought him on as a dishwasher twice a week. This freed up more of Uncle Roy’s time for the buxom cashier at Bishop’s general store. If the shared secret of the mining operation had bound Little Bear and I, the stakes had risen millionfold. But instead of making us nervous, it was a source of amusement. A private joke. Our familiar glances, our knowing smiles, even stifled laughter—all went unnoticed.
Sonja delighted in Little Bear’s charm; she so rarely stepped out of the kitchen. Silently I fantasized what things would be like if she’d married him instead of Uncle Roy. Whether part of her would still be out running amongst the Saguaros, so remote and unattainable.
Joe Reilley taught Aunt Sonja English. During stolen moments, little by little—him washing dishes and her filling orders. His Spanish was flawless, and he was a good teacher. He’d taught English on the reservation. He never tired of introducing new words to Sonja.
“Delicious,” he’d exclaim after tasting a fresh batch of salsa. “Delectable. Fantastic. Divine.” Then he’d make her repeat them.
One day when Uncle Roy came into the kitchen with an order, he caught Sonja rattling off ingredients using newly acquired vocabulary.
“I pay you to wash dishes,” he shot at Joe, “Not teach my wife to babble.”
You could always tell when he’d had a drink or two at lunch.
I had to get away. From the vacant expression that hung on my grandfather’s face, from the periodic glimmer that was completely random but read as lucid. The man was clearly on some other plane. This world existed for him less every day, the thread that held him here beginning to fray.
And so I walked.
I left Beth with Aunt Emile and Uncle Grant on the lawn, shouting into the old man’s ear.
I walked through the old orchard at the base of the fort, down the flat, stone steps that had gushed with rainwater after freak desert storms. Past the rusty wagon full of sour green apples, the pig pit that had been used as a kiln.
An orchard encircled the fort’s base, great ashlar walls rising from the midst of its withered trees. They’d once been lush and green, nourished by an irrigation system that deposited the water in tiny pools. We’d named it ‘the moat.’ I gazed into the cracked clay of the now dry reservoirs, remembering when they’d been lined with moss, when we’d raced frogs and named dragonflies without a care in the world. I pressed my back to the cool stone wall, basking in the flood of memories, trying to shake the paralysis of pending mortality. The feel of the wall was familiar. I closed my eyes and breathed, ran my fingers across the gritty, cool aggregate.
That’s when I felt it. The tiniest fissure, meandering between stones. I traced it with my fingers, disturbed somehow that the foundation of something so great could have cracks. When I looked up, I saw that it ran the height of the great stone wall, disappearing into oblivion above. I pictured myself inside the main keep, in the heart of the fortress, surrounded by arrow loops and crenels. I tried to imagine its inner-workings—the cannons and catapults and suspension bridges that protected it. But all I could picture was stones tumbling. Me looking out at the vast emptiness of the Owen’s Valley, the nothingness that had haunted me so as a child, surrounded by falling rocks.
It was Beth. She’d descended the stone stairs, was now navigating the dry pools of clay.
“You okay? You wandered off…”
Suddenly I felt no different than my grandfather, wandering away into darkness, needing to be led back into the circle of light from the kerosene lamps. As much as I’d needed alone time, as smothered as I felt having it interrupted, in a way I felt she was saving me from it.
I squeezed her hand.
As we walked away, heading back toward the cottage and the lawn and the dying old man, something occurred to me: The cracks are not caused by others. By disappointment or betrayal. We chisel them ourselves with every transgression, every boundary crossed, every conscious decision to go against ourselves.
That night I held Beth tightly. The wind moaned through the canyon, and the screened porch swayed with each swell. That night I dreamt of Aunt Sonja. It had been years, but the image was vivid as ever, as if it had been there all along, awaiting my return. Only this time, something was different.
The van stalls, bottoming out on a rock. I see the van from a distance, surrounded by the dry lakebed. Soon she will emerge, leave her shoes beside the van, and leap across the sage.
But something prevents her.
There is somebody else in the van with her. A dark shape, approaching from behind.
I awoke with a start, and Beth was already awake.
"What is it?”
I took a moment to assimilate the fragments that hung on the fringes of my consciousness. It was not Sonja who had emerged from the van to leap across the sage and into the setting sun. It was the dark figure. Alone.
"Does time change things for you?” I asked Beth.
“What sweetie? Are you awake?”
“Does time change the way you see things? Do things look different in retrospect? Things you wouldn’t allow yourself to see in the moment. But you must have sensed them...otherwise how would you know them now?”
Beth was silent but held me tighter. I realized I was babbling.
“Life has a way of veiling things,” Beth said finally, surprising me. “Until we’re ready to look at them. Otherwise we couldn’t go on.
I thought about it.
The next day I’d all but forgotten the dream. But something had changed. Some kind of residue remained, coloring my perception.
It started as a passing thought. What if Uncle Roy did it?
Normally such a thought would have passed. Or been forced out, replaced by more palatable, less scandalous reverie. But today, and the following day, and the rest of that holiday weekend, my mind went to town.
When Uncle Roy looked my way, the mischief in his eyes had been replaced by something much darker. The crooked smile betrayed nothing less than murderous intent. As he wrung his hands, preparing to carve the turkey, I imagined them around her throat, red knuckles tightening, in the silent dawn of the anonymous desert, far from justice. Far from the law. And when he took hold of the carving knife, I noted the ease with which he wielded it. The familiarity in his grip as he caressed its polished handle. Was no one else seeing this? Were they looking the other way?
“Blood is thicker than water,” Gram had often said.
When the entire clan had arrived, Gram gathered everyone on the lawn. Those who planned on spending the night had settled in, nabbing cots or putting dibs on a particularly nostalgic corner by prematurely rolling out a sleeping bag to mark it. Now that all the logistics were out of the way, it had to be done. Gram stood, commanding a religious silence. Her face was notably grave.
“Sixty some odd years ago when Abbot and I exchanged vows on a patch of dirt in the Mojave, we had no idea what we were starting.” She looked around at the attentive faces, the hub of life that would propagate to eternity. Gramps was seated next to her in a folding chair, at ease with the chaos.
“We’ve been at Running Springs on and off for over forty years now. A lot of memories were made here. And we’ll always have them.”
Some cousins were already in tears.
“Some of you know the eviction papers are on their way. The National Parks Service now owns this property; it will be turned back into National Park. Bulldozed.”
Cries of protest from the clan, rhetoric. They’d known it was coming, that nothing could be done, but the knowledge had provided no comfort.
“This is a celebration!” Gram shouted over the mayhem. “No tears. Let’s make this a celebration of what we had. For a pretty good, long run no less...”
Every Robinson in attendance knew in his or her heart it was the end of an era. Not just because the stronghold of so many memories would be wiped away, but because Gram and Gramps would both be going into an assisted living facility and nothing would ever be the same.
“I got the dirt on the bastard,” Dunivant snickered. He’d sidled up to the bar, swagger cockier than ever.
Sonja slid a cup of coffee across the counter, glaring. Uncle Roy waited.
"Guy’s got a record a mile long.”
Sonja returned to the kitchen and busied herself grinding tortillas. I continued chopping onions, half wanting to drown out what I knew were lies, half wanting to hear details out of morbid curiosity.
“Folks like me can be a threat.” Joe had explained. ‘Cause we’re a mirror. And some folks just ain’t ready to look at themselves.” I repeated the phrase in my head to drown out Dunivant’s lies. He was going on and on, boasting about being a sleuth and getting a hold of criminal records back east. Words like misdemeanors and petty larceny made it past the chopping and suddenly Sonja was humming and the jukebox was warbling and then Dunivant was saying: “And the juiciest tidbit of all…”
Sonja stopped singing. I stopped chopping. The jukebox skipped.
Sheriff Dunivant whispered something in Uncle Roy’s ear. Uncle Roy glanced at me through the order window.
“And that’s about the time he skips town and surfaces out here...” Sheriff Dunivant
smiled, holstering the pistol he’d been absently polishing with a cloth napkin.
“So the man is fugitive?” Uncle Roy didn’t know what to believe.
Dunivant was shaking his head. “All charges was dropped on that count. But word is, folks made it pretty hard to hang around after that. Took things into their own hands, if you know what I mean...”
Uncle Roy came into my bedroom that night, shitfaced. I was already under the covers when the door creaked open and there he was, silhouetted against the moth-yellow light from the hall, bracing himself in the dilapidated doorframe for balance. He threw on the light in my room, staggering across warped floorboards. They moaned in protest. I could smell the whiskey escaping his pores from halfway across the room.
“Get up, fucker!” He commanded me.
I sat up, holding the sheet to my frame. In a flash he’d shorn it aside and I sat there in my boxers, awaiting his wraith.
“I told you to stay away from that Goddamned mine!” He bellowed. “I told you never to go up there!”
“ I…I haven’t,” I lied, hoping anything to the contrary was just a suspicion on his part.
“Get up I said!” With that the man retracted an arm and slugged me, sending me reeling into the wall and off the bed. Without missing a beat, he reached a sleek, sinewy arm beneath my mattress and grabbed it. Its pages fluttered as he held it over his head: my sketchbook.
I raised myself from the floor cautiously, felt my lip swelling as he thumbed through the first few pages of the book.
“That’s Old Man Griffin’s mine, aint it?” he hissed, pointing.
"That’s an old drawing,” I lied.
“Bullshit!” With that the man pushed me down on the bed again, shaking the book in my face.
“Pat says that man’s been waitin’ on something from the B.L.M. What the hell is he up to?”
"How would I know?” I didn’t dare move this time—kept my eyes glued to the floor.
Uncle Jeb collected himself, setting the sketchbook on the exposed sheet. He knelt before me, taking me by the shoulders insistently.
“I’m responsible for you, don’t you get it kiddo? The man is a criminal! Use your head, Goddamn it!”
“He’s not a criminal.” I cried, tears springing to my eyes. Somehow it was suddenly important to me that my Uncle saw the man as I did. When he wasn’t drinking, my Uncle was the Devil’s advocate. The fair one. The levelheaded one who could talk sense into even Mona of all people.
“Sheriff Dunivant exaggerates,” I tried to convince him. “ He’s not a crook. He’s a good guy.”
My tears were streaming now, Uncle Roy looking like he’d never seen tears before. He stood to get away.
“Well, you can tell Joe Reilley if it’s the gold he’s after, it ain’t never gonna happen. Dunivant will have the BLM turn that patch of dirt back into National Park so quick it’ll make his head spin. With no Plan of Operation in place it’s the swipe of a pen...”
With that my uncle stood, enormous belt buckle flashing in the tungsten light, and staggered toward the door. “Your parents will be back in a week. And as soon as they are, you’re on the first bus home.”
And then, as an afterthought. Uncle Roy marched back to my bed, flipping through the sketchbook once more. His inebriated eyes struggled to focus, to process what he was seeing. I felt invaded and ashamed and defiant all at once. Somehow the thought of the man in his drunken stupor glimpsing the sacredness of our secret haven was the worst prospect of all. Without warning, the man began tearing the pages from their binding one by one, gutting the thing. I couldn’t move—even as the act of watching him do it eviscerated me like a red hot poker. When the spine of the book had been stripped bare, the man strode out of the room in a calm rage. Through the open door, skewed and irregular, I saw him throw the pages—every last one of them—into the pot-bellied stove that was the furnace.
“We’ll miss the S’mores,” the twins parroted, pigtails bobbing. The Robinsons were gathered around the fire pit as twilight fluttered into night, as charred embers floated to the stars. The younger offspring occupied the space closest to the rollicking flames, faces mesmerized and full of wonder. Each was sharing a memory of Running Springs, at Gram’s insistence, or otherwise espousing some virtue of growing up a Robinson. If the sentiment included the right key words or phrases—solid values, warmth and compassion, unconditional love and acceptance—it would elicit applause from the adults, and involuntary smiles appeared on tiny faces.
I looked at Beth across the fire pit. I hardly recognized her, distorted by the flames. She held Gram’s arthritic hand in her own, as if to reassure the matriarch her legacy would remain intact. Suddenly I wished that just once, someone would stand up and espouse the dark side of the Robinson clan—the drinking, the denial, the drama that plagued our family gatherings.
Uncle Roy stood suddenly, cocking an ear. A squad car had pulled off the main highway, headlamps unnoticed in the deepening twilight, now crept down the long driveway crunching gravel. The fire popped as the clan waited.
The slam of a door.
Uncle Roy balled his fists. Gram stood.
“Evenin,’ folks!” Dunivant called cheerfully as he crossed the lawn, flanked by state marshals.
“You bastard…” Uncle Roy seethed. Grant placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Evenin’ Dorothy.” The sheriff tipped his hat cordially. He knew how to milk a moment for impact.
“This couldn’t have waited?” Roy hissed through gritted teeth.
“Coulda waited until tomorrow, but it would be uncouth to serve papers on a holiday…”
With that the folded eviction papers were produced from a breast pocket, and the man held out a ballpoint pen for Gram to sign them, acknowledging their receipt.
I wish I knew what had transpired that caused Dunivant to take such pleasure in serving the papers. After Sonja’s death and the fire that ripped through Montana de Oro, he’d really been there for Uncle Roy. After all, they’d grown up together. Dunivant even did his best to quiet speculation about the nature of the investigation surrounding Sonja’s death. And once the buzz had died down, he’d done his best to squelch the pity. After all, it was everyone’s interest to protect the old Robinson pride.
But something had changed over time. Their distaste couldn’t have been more apparent as Roy broke free his brother’s grip and put himself between the Sheriff and Gram.
“You’re gonna put an old lady out, you bastard?”
“I hate to have to do it.” The sheriff feigned remorse.
“Save it, you good-for-nothing lowlife!”
With that Roy threw himself at his childhood friend and the two fell to the earth, wrestling. The sheriff reached for his holster, but before he’d even had time to draw, the marshals had restrained Uncle Roy. The man stewed as Dorothy Robinson signed the papers solemnly. And then they were gone.
“Haven’t seen it,” Post Mistress Pat said too quickly. “Nothin’ resemblin government documents ‘round here.”
That’s what she said every time. The new Post Office was in full operation, and every day Joe would show up to see if his Plan of Operation had arrived. Joe had a good suspicion they were in cahoots. According to Joe it was one of two things—either Dunivant had friends at the Bureau of Land Management, or Postmistress Pat had intercepted the correspondence and held onto it to stall approval.
“Until?” I didn’t quite get it.
“Until the investors get antsy and pull out, or until the Parks Service passes their measure?”
“They plan to shut down all mining in the Mojave National Preserve. For good.”
Still, he clung to hope. We waited.
Sonja began conversing with customers as she refreshed their coffee. At first it was only passersby with whom she would discuss the weather, or current events, or the secret behind her magical tortillas. But eventually, the regulars caught wind she’d come around. This irked Uncle Roy, though I was not sure why.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise she was taken. No one in history has one been allowed to live who knew too much—had a direct line to the truth. It is a threat to see all. And have a voice to express it.
The big event was moments away. Plates had been heaped, children’s first, with all the amenities; white meat or dark, potatoes or dressing, gravy with giblets or without. Pitted olives were firmly in place on pudgy fingers that fidgeted as the clan awaited the signal to dig in.
This was tradition. Each year we’d arrange ourselves around the long table, which was really three tables pushed together, and wait. We’d join hands and endure another long-winded dissertations from Uncle Grant—known to some families as grace. Also tradition was cracking an eyelid to steal a glance around the room, hoping to catch the eye of at least one equally mischievous cousin, and stifle waves of irreverent laughter.
This year gratification would be even longer delayed. Instead of Uncle Grant, it was Uncle Roy who was to deliver Grace. And he’d been nipping at the bottle.
First he insisted we go around the table and say what we were grateful for. Family, work, companionship. The little ones made their answers as brief as possible, began picking at their food long before each member had been heard. Even I’d started picking. But the adults’ responses, unlike the calculated, approval-based fodder of the previous night, were sincere and heartfelt. Somehow the imminence of losing Running Springs affected us all, hung in the air like a palpable haze.
Aunt Emile was looking at Gramps with tear-filled eyes.
“I’m grateful for eternal life,” she managed, choking on the words.
Suddenly it was my turn. I could feel their eyes on me. I recognized the familiar pressure to conform. To perform. I thought of Sonja, of our shared trepidation before the camera, our resentment for all in life that is scripted. I heard myself say:
“I’m grateful for the people in life who have the courage to speak the truth, their own truth. And for those who show us parts of ourselves we may never have looked at otherwise...”
It’s amazing how early in the afternoon crickets can be heard.
“Let us all join hands.” Uncle Roy reclaimed the floor.
Reverent heads bowed in unison.
“Thank you Lord for family. Looking around at all these fresh young faces, all these bratty kids, reminds me of the importance of family.” Cousins giggled. “The more I see of this world of ours, the more I appreciate what a rare bond we got here. Folks call it unconditional love. But not all families have it. Or the loyalty, the commitment to family we Robinsons have. We love one another despite our differences, despite our faults. I pray, Lord, that we continue to accept one another with all our frailty, all our demons. Each of us has ‘em. We all have our…secrets.”
At that moment, of its own accord, one of my eyelids popped open. Just for a second. But it was long enough to see, without even scanning the room, that he was looking right at me. Burning a hole through me.
Suddenly I realized I was eating flesh. I hadn’t had to butcher the thing or even carve it, so it was easy to forget what I was chewing was a living thing. Suddenly the gray meat felt dry. I stole a glance about the room.
The entire table remained joined in reverent meditation, heads bowed with strange solemnity. I looked at Uncle Grant. Suddenly he seemed a very small man. He clung to his wife’s hand, red temples throbbing, taking refuge in tradition, as if it alone held his world together. Running Springs had already begun to crumble, great stones to cascade around us, and amid this deluge of fragile illusions so abruptly shattered, we clung like children. To whatever would sustain us a moment longer. To anything solid that remained in what would soon be a meaningless void. The Owen’s valley would remain—constant, eternal. But Running Springs, with her bounty of life and her temporal significance, would be washed away by the elements.
And amid the shower of stones tumbling and memories fleeting, Uncle Roy remained fixed on me. As if to say, ‘This, too will remain.’
His face contorted, formed a twisted smile.
We pulled up our pants. I fished out a chunk of granite, chucking it to the hard floor of the mineshaft. It had been fast, furious, primal this time. He’d been detached, preoccupied. Instead of coming at the same millisecond as we’d always done, breath in sync, our rhythm was off.
“It’s over,” he said some time later, sitting on a beam and stirring gravel with a leather boot. “It’s all over.”
I felt a familiar sickness rise in my stomach.
“Park Service is movin’ in.”
The cold, bluish light from above cast harsh shadows, concealing his eyes in deep sockets. I tried to get a read on his expression.
“Can’t fight City Hall, as they say. National Parks Service passed their measure—officially no more mining in the Mojave National Preserve. Ever again.”
Though his eyes were shrouded in mystery, the man’s solid frame was hunched in defeat. Suddenly I was riled. It disturbed me to see him dejected.
“No one’s hurting anyone else up here!”
“Ain’t no thing,” he calmed me. “I’m sick o’ digging’ in the dirt anyway.”
His words rang with dual meaning, and I sensed the truth in them. Still, this was not the spirit I’d come to know.
“Things are better left unearthed,” he said flatly.
I fished around in my pocket and in a moment I had it. I held it up before him, and it glimmered blue in the dull light: the desert diamond he’d given me. It had never left my person.
“You said yourself value is arbitrary. That the everyday is the most beautiful and miraculous if only we’d recognize it. Who needs gold?”
The man leaned forward into the light, and his eyes were one with the cobalt shaft from above, the ice blue flames that danced among the gem’s tiny fractures.
“Next door to glass.” Was his assessment. And then, after a moment. “But man, ain’t she a beauty?”
The man’s familiar smile returned. Suddenly it meant the world to me that I could inspire him. That my youthful resilience had rubbed off.
The next time I saw Joe Reilley, the spark had returned to his eye. Though we didn’t speak of it, I knew this meant he was moving on—that his eyes always looked more alive when he was moving on.
He left in the night, and I never saw the man again.
Beth and I stayed to help Gram pack. She had only a short time to sort through forty years, decide which memories would go, and which would be bulldozed along with the Fort. Dunivant reminded her daily that the wrecking crew were scheduled for demolition the first of the month.
So we rented a flatbed in town, took a week off from work and began the task at hand.
Uncle Grant and Aunt Emile would be getting them settled into the retirement community in Agoura Hills. Gramps needed a nurse full-time now, and life would be altogether easier in the city. Uncle Roy would move in with his lady friend from the service station. Her name was Edie and her trailer was a tip-out. State of the art. Anyway, as she put it, “It’s too quiet in that big trailer all by my lonesome.”
Uncle Roy packed the Dungeon into three large boxes, except for the mounted rattlesnake skin and the lamp whose shade was made of bisected Budweiser cans. The trunk would go with Gram. When Uncle Roy was snoozing or passed out on the lawn—I couldn’t tell which—I finagled the wallet from his coat pocket. I wanted to look into those eyes again—see if time had changed them.
I removed the photograph from its protective sleeve, cradled it before me as he had, a new diamond. Her omniscient gaze was there as always, transcending the broken pigment and the fractures and the tom edges of time. Only now, I could not fill in the cracks. My mind could not complete the picture.
I missed her.
As I slipped the picture back into his coat pocket, I looked at the man lying on his back in the shade. A hand moved to his ribcage involuntarily, tracing his heart. I imagined the tumor that had been there just beneath the surface, or still was, sending tendrils to choke the life from his diminishing frame. I thought about what he’d said—about looking truth in the eye and not expressing it—how it would turn on and devour you. The man had never been able to filter the truth, hence his relationship with the bottle. But now he had reason not to speak it. And here we were agreeing to bury our own trunk in the yard. Vaguely I wondered what the future held for me—which route I would take. I was glad I had my art to speak truth. Silently I wished the best for my uncle as I turned to go inside. If that meant being haunted by her memory, carrying that picture around in his breast pocket for the rest of his days, tucked neatly away next to his broken heart, so be it. Whatever the truth, I did love him. He was family.
I guess the Robinson way was deeply ingrained. Blood was indeed thicker than water.
It took several days to pack up Running Springs. Beth took it slowly, wrapping dishes in newspaper and placing them neatly in cardboard boxes. Gramps looked on in a state of indifferent bliss.
Our last visit, when his eyes had been so alive with leaving, had been melancholy. We didn’t speak about it, but we both knew it was inevitable. He was moving on. It was the way things were—the way the world wanted it. Later I’d not hold it against him—doing it in the night, wordlessly. There was much I didn’t know. And I didn’t need him to list the ways folks could have made it hard on him hanging around. I’d seen Dunivant fingering his pistol, or polishing it with a smug, twisted grin. I’d heard the miners—pumice and perlite, whispering in hushed tones, sideways glances smoldering slit-like with gossip.
Without telling Little Bear, I’d returned alone and tossed that desert diamond into the mineshaft where it belonged.
It was morning, the sorting bin still full of cold, musty air from the night before, as if to disregard dawn and preserve the night in confinement. Once it had become clear Griffin’s mine was on Cartago’s radar, the sorting bin had been our refuge, there at the base of the blue granite hill. Slivers of morning light pierced pine slats, rusted hinges shut out the world stubbornly.
Blue light framed his imposing form, tracing broad lines with supple splendor. His tartan flannel lay folded atop his work boots in a pile next to mine. The man stepped out of faded denims, kicking them to the side. The shackles about his ankles read scarcely discernible in the dim light, and it occurred to me he’d never recited the stories each image belied. There hadn’t been time.
As he approached, the same blue light rimmed his face, defining stubborn brow, granite cheekbones, chiseled jaw. I hadn’t a single drawing left to remember him by. I traced the lines with my finger—every subtle curve and hairpin turn—promising myself I’d remember them later when retracing them in charcoal in an attempt to recapture his tragic face.
We came together.
I cannot say with certainty what it looks like—two pale forms moving as one in darkness, bands of morning light splicing flesh. Could look like anything if one isn’t expecting it. But as those rusted hinges moaned in protest, surrendered and flew open, it must have made an indelible impression. We hadn’t heard a thing until it was too late. And suddenly light was pouring in, as if from heaven itself, blinding us in its fury. And there they were, surrounded by immaculate white light, gazing between broken slats. I guess she’d come to retrieve something from the storage unit. But I’ll never forget the way they looked, at once startled and cognizant, pure and wrathful, all-seeing. The godlike eyes of Sonja.
Beth and I loaded the last of the boxes into the flatbed, to the ominous sound of wrecking vehicles droning up the steep grade. Dunivant was there flanked by BLM marshals, grinning smugly. He was the desert, reclaiming the oasis, the fountainhead that was Running Springs, the only meaning in all the chaos.
Gramps was belted into our S.U.V. Gram and I would take the flatbed, and Beth and Gramps would follow.
I took one last long look at the great Fortress of my youth, as if to say farewell. Gram was humming, but her tone mingled with the roar of engines and was lost. I took her shoulder and helped her into the cab of the truck. As we backed out of the drive flack showered the running board, and I knew it was the last time I’d hear that sound.
Suddenly Gram stiffened and cried, “I know what it is I’ve forgotten! Wait!”
“What is it?” The trucks were turning one by one from the main highway at the top of the hill.
“Just a moment, sweetheart” With that she threw herself from the cab and ran toward the cottage. From a high shelf in the Dungeon she produced what I least expected to see at that moment; my sculpture of the Fort. A bit dusty, but completely intact.
“You kept that all these years?”
“Of course. You left it at the diner. I’ve always intended to give it back to you...” Tears sprang into my eyes. I was moved in a visceral, inexplicable way, robbing me of words.
Beth asked what it was Gram cradled with caution in the front seat.
“I’ll explain later,” I promised her, and we pulled out onto the highway, a reluctant caravan.
Gram waved as we passed the Sheriff and the wrecking vehicles one by one and exited the gravel drive. Running Springs road carried us turn by turn into the still valley below. Now and again, the contents shifted in the back, and I could hear the trunk shifting restlessly. As we rounded the final hairpin turn that brought the Owen’s Valley reeling into full view, a huge logging truck barreled past. The flatbed shuddered, and I swerved to regain control.
“Damn Logging trucks,” Gram said between clenched teeth. She was hugging the replica of the fort tightly, protectively, like something sacred to be preserved.
“I want you to keep the sculpture, Gram. It would mean a lot to me.”
Gram looked down, dusted the sturdy walls and towers with care. The glaze was as reflective as the day we first applied it.
When we hit the flat basin of the Owen’s Valley, the open road greeted us. Before us sprawled terrain not unlike the future: vast, uncertain, full of promise. We rode in silence, the great Sierras marching slowly, watchfully at our side.
Cartago was little more than a ghost of its former self. Signs of life were even more scant than before, making it impossible to tell which buildings were still in operation and which had been abandoned. Sonja’s Montana de Oro had been gutted by fire but remained standing. Her charred skeleton had marked the landscape for two years, an eerie monument. In the city, such a hazard would have been removed in a heartbeat. Here, the shell had been used as a low-end hotel by the occasional transient, the odd group of Scandinavian backpackers en route to the Sierras.
I turned to Gram. “Mind if we stop?”
Behind Sonja’s Montana de Oro swelled the great blue hill, unchanged. Fraying cables suspended rusty buckets the length of its crest, and I imagined that they swayed in the wind. I could almost hear them creaking, moaning in the distance.
‘This is Sonja’s Montana de Oro?” Beth surmised. We’d left Gramps to smoke a cigarette next to the SUV, and Gram to dust the ashes off his spun-cotton beard.
“Used to be,” I said.
Her expression reflected the fond sadness I felt. She moved to my side, put an arm about my waist, and looked into the ashes. But I was looking beyond them.
She squeezed tighter. “You alright?”
I looked at Beth, the wind catching in her long, honey-colored hair, and she looked at home in the desert. I knew then I wanted her there to ash my cigarette when I’d become a fire hazard like Gramps.
“I want to show you something.” I said.
As we walked, I told Beth stories about the diner. I told her about a kind, gentle man who’d made a great impression on me. What didn’t tell her is what it had been like to be held by a man. To be so connected. To feel for once that I was not my own God. That there was something stronger, wiser, and bigger than myself' to which I could surrender. I knew I would never feel that safe again.
The shaft was still exposed, unboarded. Dunivant had stood in the way of Joe’s fortune, but had never had the ambition to seek his own. Joe had destroyed the findings—the data on the amount of precious metals yielded per ton of ore. And Dunivant hadn’t believed there was anything in there worth refining in the first place.
So there it sat, infused with the desert’s lonely hues, being slowly ingested by eternity. I ran my hand along the splintered boards at the mouth of the shaft, and their polish was familiar to my touch. I peered into the dark chamber, at once a window to something equally familiar. Something I ‘d long forgotten.
Beth didn’t quite understand why I wanted to go in, but she indulged me.
“If I get eaten by a coyote out here, you’re dead meat.”
“No, if that happens, you're dead meat. By definition.”
It took me awhile, but I found it. When I returned to the light, I held it in my hand. I’d nearly lost hope that it was still there as I’d groped around in darkness. But when my fingers found the smooth, polished form among countless others, I was sure I could feel its iridescent shimmer in my palm. .
“It’s called a Bytownite,” I told her. “A common desert diamond.”
“It’s beautiful,” She marveled. She held it in her own palm, felt the weight of it. Then she held it to the sky, where it caught the light, its core smoldering with the intensity of a thousand tiny suns.
“There’s an entire world in there,” She marveled.
At that moment, my fears vanished. I knew then that we would share a lifetime of joy. She would have her private world and I would have mine. Occasionally, we would glimpse the other’s, but not often.
As we walked back toward the highway I could feel the desert diamond in my pocket, heavy but familiar. I would carry it with me always, a fond memory. A token of all the unspoken things in life that are real and wonderful, that exist between the cracks or far beneath the surface but are the things that make life rich. The memory of them sustains us from one glimpse to the next, through the winter when roots tap barren soil, when inspiration runs dry.
They are what keep us going.