Relative to the moon you barely seem to move at all. You explain it to Nathan that way. The moon’s so far away, honey. The little ways we move is inconsequential compared to all that distance. His four-year-old eyes widen, trying to grasp distance. Inconsequential. You never really could speak to a child. Distance is a concept waiting for him, like time. Right now anything good is within arm’s reach, or barely beyond. Everything else may just as well not exist. That is, until you left. Now your absence is a kind of presence to him. Just as once you were your body, your voice and breath, your arms and the warmth that floated like an aura around your skin, now you are your absence.
The beam of your headlights is a line cast from the darkness of the desert to your eyes. It has hooked you; now it’s reeling you in. There, just beyond the headlights, where the night swallows everything, is where you’re headed. There is the place you never reach. The rushing puddle of illumination before you pours into your eyes and drowns in the darkness behind them. Your eyes, once greedy for travel, for the blur of a road before you, have no choice but to let it in, because driving forces them to stay open. But you’re tired of it. You long to close your eyes, to stop the light, to stop everything from flowing in, from taking up more space in you.
The desert flanks you here. It passes by, now level, now with low hills blacker than the night sky black, flat as cardboard cutouts. So foreign to you. You’re headed west, where a county is bigger than your eastern state, where gravity promises to loosen its grip. You’ve driven for days without consulting a map and you don’t know where you are. The desert, like the ocean, hides its life beneath the surface. Loneliness is its veneer. That comforts you. This vast land where snakes wait, where scorpions skulk in armor, where a hawk cries hunger as it luffs into a thermal, spinning up towards the sun. You think, my god to be stuck here. The little towns sprung up where someone must have dropped from exhaustion, what other explanation could there be? Why here and not there? No reason. Dry wash, dry creek, dry lake. You cry for the sea. This was an inland sea once – you read that. This was a bed of silt above which fishes flickered, where birds now beat the air. But you drive on dry land. You dab your tears with your fingers, then suck them for their salt, swallow them down. You imagine somewhere in the crucible of your body, they will turn into grains of light. They will run the circuit of your blood from your heart to your heart and heal everything they touch along the way.
You pull off at a rest stop. A cinder block hut to pee in, dismal as a barracks. Some overhang – what do they call them here? Ramadas. Tin roofed sun shelters, lonely as stars, purposeless at night. You pee, then go outside to sit on a concrete table. The road throbs in your ears. Your bones hum the miles. Without the din of travel it’s so quiet. You rise, crunch a few feet into the desert floor, mindful of all the poisonous beasts you think await you there. You wonder what the bite of a rattlesnake would feel like. The womp of the its head, pierce of fangs, then the poison in your veins, rising sure as dawn light up your thigh, your belly, homing in on your heart. It would feel like love.
Hush little baby don’t you cry, mama’s gonna sing you a. Hush little baby. You could lie down on the sharp-rocked ground. Hush. Stone for a pillow. Don’t you cry. Doesn’t the earth want you? It wants you, it’s calling. The bulging earth says sleep and you’re inclined to agree. Hush. People die that way. There are rattlers, grey wolves, pumas. Go to sleep, don’t wake up. Don’t do it. Mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby.
Mama, what’s a mockingbird?
What? you say. Here in the desert, to no one, you say, what?
That’s a bird with no song of its own.
You’ve heard that the earth is conquered, no mystery left, but that’s a lie of maps. Put a foot on the ground. Take a step. Two, three. In a single acre how many heartbeats? How many legs scurry, hard limbs that click, exoskeletons thrust against the world? How many ears prick up, how much blood runs for its life? The moonlight soaks the fields of stones, the shadows draw silence like dry water from the earth. You think of wandering off on foot, straight into the desert – why not here? Why not this place? Why not now? Go on.
There’s the problem: resolve. Take six steps. Seven. It’s not like a movie where days pass in a minute long montage. It’s not like car travel where miles are a child’s arithmetic, where small towns are hallucinations that waver in the heat and disappear in your mirror and entire countrysides, distances that would blister your feet if you walked, are snapshots. It’s feet, inches, spaces too tiny to merit names. Walk a quarter mile out away from the aquarium light of the rest stop, lose the companionship of the highway – it’s lonely too but when other cars pass you risk a glance into their lives. Feel thirst grow. It’s ninety-five here at night. Grow tired, look for some comfort amongst these rocks. Grow hungry, grow restless, grow scared, grow bored. Grow reasonless.
Another car pulls into the rest stop, slops diagonally across the lines and jabs the curb. Two men get out, head for the john. They both glance over at you. They glance again, covertly, as they enter the door – as though their heads would have turned that way naturally. The looks men give a woman who’s alone at night. On the street, in a bar, shopping late, along the highway. What are you doing here alone? Don’t you know how dangerous it is for a woman here alone? The tacit agreement that the world of men isn’t safe for you. If they’re not predators they’re protectors. They ask you do you need some help. They say it’s not safe, that other men aren’t safe, but they are. They know protection is possession. They know it in their groins. Go home!
As soon as they duck into the door you rise to go. But another car pulls in, a minivan with a mom and dad, ash-tired, kids conked out in the back. The dad comes round and yanks the sliding door aside, hoists a moaning four year old who clings to him with all four limbs like a gibbon. The mom stands watch as he takes him in to pee. You sit. She catches you looking, looks back and her lips stretch almost to a smile. You raise a hand. That’s all. Everything in you wants to smile back, to say with a weary smile that you understand, you’re tired and there’s no one else to do the job. There’s nothing for it – try to make some miles while they sleep. Tomorrow nap in shifts.
If you smile now, if you exchange a word in passing, you’re afraid that out of habit you will ask her something only a mom would ask a mom. You’re afraid of what she’ll ask you back, afraid you wear your motherhood like a brand. Where are your children? A mother traveling without her child happens all the time – toss it off. But you’re afraid you’ll darken, that even if you don’t give a deeper answer she’ll suspect you. What of it? You’re paralyzed. You’ve done the unthinkable. No, there’s something more. That’s it – you actually want to tell her, you want to tell her more. In your mind, you’re already walking over, saying listen, please, just listen. What’s this urge? What do you care what piece of you this stranger takes with her? You think you’ll rebuild yourself with words, you’ll send a good word about yourself home with her. For what? So she can vouch for you? Jesus.
The two men reappear. They ransack their car, break out some beers, head for a table, pop tabs and light up smokes. The ghostly fumes go nowhere in the static air. The husband reappears. A host of lies flies through your head. It’s easy. It suddenly strikes you how easy it is. It’s just stories – open your mouth and let them tumble out. You’re heading to California to see your sick father. No. No, then you’d fly. Your east coast plates give you away. Your husband’s waiting with the kids at the new house in LA. No, isn’t that always the other way around? Lies are harder than the truth. The effort of creating false years that then must be remembered for consistency – it’s too much. It’s another mask for gravity.
It’s the mom’s turn now to pee, that’s your chance. Back to the car before they leave you here with the two men. You rise again. The parched air’s so thick, it seems to have congealed while you sat. You’ve never noticed air like this, not even freezing air that drives you, shivering, to your core. This air hunts you, it crowds against you like an unseen throng, its fingers prying for your pores. Its mouths on you, sucking your moisture. You could give it all and hardly make a puddle that would last an hour. You would not increase the humidity one percent of one percent. So odd to think. That’s all of you. Die here and – how the hell does anything grow here in these burning rocks? How could anything thrive?
You push against the acrid air, smelling of heat. What does heat smell like? It smells like dust, like pulverized stone. It smells of mountains whittled down to bones. Beaten, naked, done. It smells of the sea’s retreat. It smells of time, but time reduced to one long moment waiting endlessly for the next. You make it past the dad, past the glancing men – oh, go to hell! – and to your door. You close it, click the lock. You lock out everything, the men, the night, the cacti in the dark, their sharp spines catching moonlight on their tips. The desert’s full of knives, but now you’re almost safe. Now all you need is speed.
What’s left of the night? How long’s this road? How’s the gas? How long will the money hold? You carry a card that you won’t use because it leaves a trail. Where’s the Pacific? Is it desert all the way? You thought you’d pass through here during the night but now you see in the east the dimming stars give up and you’re still nowhere. What did you think? When you pull into the next small town you turn your head to miss the sign so you don’t have to know the name. You find a small motel that’s made of dust. You wake the shriveled clerk who sleepwalks through the deal with you, shuffling the form for your address and license across the scuffed formica. How did she come to be here? Brought here by some man who long since died? Born here, left for the city, and then one day woke up back at home, this time for good? For good, that’s funny. You laugh. She squints. The word is finally. She clatters a drawer of keys, waking them up, as though it’s some momentous choice, which empty room to put you in. As though there were a numerology of rooms and she was sizing you up, matching you to the fate of number 23. You look up – what? Its thirty-nine plus tax, she says, then waits for the bills before she forks over the key.
Just in time, you shut the peeling door on the light. The room’s a parody of a room. You crank up the cooler, crumple onto the bed beneath an ancient picture of the same desert that’s outside the door. A picture of the desert in the desert, in case you forgot. That’s funny, too. This is your dream. A silver fish, hooked, struggles against the line that leads back to a pole held in the trembling hands of your son. His father’s hands, dwarfing his, steady the pole as the filament spools out. He’s saying, give him some play. Give him some play. We’ve got him. Now! Tug! But the fish has got the line entangled in the rocks. Nathan turns to his dad, he’s almost crying – Dad go get my fish. He looks at you. You’re staring at the water. Mom? Mom! Cut the line, you say. The AC rattles like a snake. When you awaken it’s evening.
A cafe crouches along the highway, counting on the sign that says, next services fifty miles. That brings them in. Inside a waitress who has never missed a day wears disappointment like a bruise. The air around her is clammy with the humidity of grief. When she pours coffee for her customers she doesn’t look at them. She doesn’t watch the cup. She looks out the window, daring something new and different to come into her life. This evening she sees you.
You pull up, leave your car, walking like a sea creature that’s vulnerable on land. You go in, noting the help wanted sign on the door, and head straight for the restroom.
So long since you’ve lived in the kingdom of words. The sounds that knock against the walls of your skull all night no longer pass for language. They are tales told and retold by a manic storyteller barricaded in an empty room. The words, reduced to syllables, turn to gutturals, hisses, accusations. You cannot recognize the voices as you. Where are you, amongst the sights and sounds? A wave slips up on the shore in the cove where you walk alone. It sucks the sand from beneath your feet, you are sinking. Nathan asks you for help tying his shoe. Nathan is crying. Nathan brings a book to you and curls up in your lap. Your husband turns to you in bed while you pretend to sleep; his hand feels like a coal on the curve where your waist rises to your hip. You see him in a crowd and think, why him? Of all the people on this street, why him? You see him on the shore, skipping rocks in the evening glow, and love him suddenly. You run to him, breathless to tell him. What is that? My love says he should love me. My love says when I reach for him he should reach back. You’re no good. You question everything. Why do you have to question everything? You can’t just do the simplest thing. When you are six an early morning sunbeam taps you like a conspirator and, while your sister and your parents sleep, you rise and walk the quiet household like the queen of an empty realm. You whisper to your doll, from now on it will always be morning before anyone wakes up. The first boy in you – you’re seventeen – splits you into two, but something’s missing, the parts aren’t halves. The two of them put back together won’t make a whole; you’re the center that’s not there. His eyes close when he comes, he’s not in you, he’s not anywhere. When he resurfaces he says I love you. You see your arms go around him, you feel your lips kiss his, but you can’t feel him. You kiss him harder, harder, biting his lip. Hey, Jesus! Take it easy! The air’s eating you. The word’s not come. The word is go. Make me be gone! You and your fiancé share a wedding joke that has you giggling. Instead of saying, I do, as the priest commands you’re going to say, I’ll try. You all in white and solemn, fit to burst. A private joke, conspiracy of two, one of those jokes that sets a couple off against the world. So that is love. What? You heard me. A couple is a creature crawled out of the sea, all shell and claws in the devouring air. Why can’t I love you like the light? you say to him. Why can’t I love you like I breathe?
You’re looking in the mirror. You splash water on your face, then splash some more and stare. No clue of the storm within. You think, I hate you, and you just look tired. You think, I need a cup of coffee and you look the same. I love my eyes, you think. No difference. I’ve done the worse thing you could do. Not a clue, not a ripple on your face betrays the turbulence in the depths. The distance between your face and thoughts is farther than all the miles you’ve driven. You grab a wad of paper towels and wipe your eyes and prepare to speak when you go out. It makes you feel dirty to know that you’ll dissolve in stories. Silence is clean. Cleaner. At least it doesn’t lie. Even now, your old life, which you try to hide, is a lie – so what’s the use of hiding? You’re tired to death. You’re tired of breathing, tired of letting in the pushy air. You should be able to say no, just no. I’m done. But the command turns into a plea. If someone asks you’ll say, long drive. Oh, I’ve a ways to go yet. Yes, coffee’d be great, thanks.
You seat yourself. A menu slips in front of you. The waitress’ other hand is poised with a pot, one of those plastic jobs with coffee pale as tea. You and your husband called it road water. So damn superior. In most of America, you can’t get a decent cup. Yes or no? Sorry? Do you want coffee? You look into her face. She looks back at you, but you get the feeling she’s not used to catching someone else’s eye. You get the feeling that she’s always staring through a window at the sand. Then suddenly one day you arrive at her restaurant and look back and curiosity stirs her like a hormone. Oh, nonsense! Oh, shut up! Turn the cup over, she says. You do. She fills it. Cream? I guess. You guess? Well, lemme get some so you can see. When she comes back – you’re tired, aren’t you, honey? You stare again. You mean to say, long drive. You mean to say, I’ve been driving so long. I’ve got a long ways yet, only I don’t know how long, and all I want to do is sleep, I’d sleep a week. I’m tired to death. Instead you start to cry.
Without missing a beat she hands you a napkin. You blow your nose and then you start to laugh. Oh, God, I’m sorry – laughing – I guess I really am tired. Time turns on a pulse. The world pivots on a heartbeat, a speck in your eye, you choke when you had meant to speak. If you had just said I’m tired this would have been a dinner break before you’re off again. Now you ask about the sign that you saw coming in. It looked old, but was it still true? Been there a week, she says. Things fade fast here. Yeah, we’re still lookin. Why? She eyes your hands. Your nails aren’t manicured, just sensibly cut, and after days of travel the last clear lacquer clings in patches. Still, they’re slender, white and smooth. They’ve worked – if they’ve worked – on keyboards or telephones. Maybe you sold real estate.
She looks out at the Volvo in the lot, under the dust just one year old. It costs more than she makes in two. Honey, she says, what? I need some work. Excuse me if I say that you don’t look… You drop your eyes. I can work. You don’t need to pay me much, if you can pay… Under the table? Yes. What’s your name? You pause, you hadn’t thought it through. Jennifer. She laughs. Jennie, she says, you suck at this. Lucky for you, whatever you’re running from, I don’t care. Spat with the hubby, you’ll make it up. Need cash for a week? Wait – you didn’t kill no one? Rob a bank? You smile. If I’d robbed a bank… You wouldn’t need money. OK. You don’t have to pay for dinner, just see me in the kitchen when you’re done. She turns to go then turns again. You got a place to stay? No, of course you don’t.
The room she gives you was her son’s. You start to laugh before you’re through the door. She looks like stone. Oh no, you said, I didn’t mean. It ain’t much. No, I mean – you point to posters on the wall, of basketball stars and cars and naked girls. Oh that. I never thought to take them down. It’s fine, I’ll leave… You do whatever you want.
So then you know he’s dead. You try to think of something you could say. You search your mind for wars. Was he a solider? Hnuh! Yeah, soldier, yeah – that’s rich. The war of the bottle. You know that war? About one fucking tree in the whole county, he hits it full bore. Floored. Cops said that, floored. They could tell by the wreckage. He and his dad, never given to half ass fuck ups. That ironwood sure stood its ground. Been there forever like we’ll never be. I’m sorry, you say. Not like it’s yesterday, forget it, hon. You want a drink? Oh look at you lookin at me. Christ on a crutch. If livin clean’d raise the dead. Sweetie, I got Wild Turkey and tequila. Make yourself at home. My bones ache.
You remember one of those roadside shrines you’ve seen. A flimsy cross of pickets wrapped in foil, lashed with colored string. Some figurines, a Virgin, Christ the bystander. A spray of plastic flowers blistering in the sun. The whole thing like the map of debris to nowhere that a flash flood leaves. Catastrophes that happen in a second, less than that. Violence, tsunami, earthquake, wreck. Then silence floods in like a reclaiming sea. Silence – nothing, or its emissary. Stand and stare. Nothing is the hardest word to say. No door in the light, no home on high, no lie the plastic virgin tells that’s half as convincing as the cackle of a raven in the searing air. If there ever was a door that door’s closed. You stand there, look around – the blast zone of the sun. How can the sun be silent, all those bombs? How can the light be silent, why doesn’t it roar through like the wind, ripping the skin off things? Why doesn’t the air crackle and burn, and the world wrench as it turns? Because nothing happened. Because there is no death. Because there’s just air and light and distance spinning stories and the smell of dust. Even when it rains here, the rain smells like dust.
You look at her. I’ll have tequila. Laugh a little nervous laugh. Here you’re so nice and I never asked your name. Ha-ha, she laughs, yeah, nice. I couldn’t leave you in that fleabag’s all. Plus I could use the help, however long you stay. Ice? Look at me, still servin. There’s the bottle lazybones. I’m Clare. You stickin with Jennie? It’s my name. Mmm-hmm. The tequila goes down like acid and thorns, you feel it burn a route straight past your heart into your gut until it finds a core and settles in. Welcome, it says, to your new life.
How can a day be not like a day, a week not like a week? You used to live for goals. Your son through daycare, your meetings with committees. Now it’s rise to work and then come home, feet burning, to your room. There’s no progress, no road signs, no landmarks to pass. A gush of people spill in, hungry, and you feed them, then you clear the dishes for the next. You make the usual beginner gaffes. Drop the tray, break the glass, splash water on a customer. And your embarrassment pulls you back into the world. You care. You look at Clare with damp apologetic eyes. You bite your lip. I’m just no good at this. Oh, bull, just sweep it up. Honey, I believe you’re about to cry. She laughs at that. Marcos, the cook, grins at you like a Buddha; he laughs more than he talks. Clare’s eyes roll heavenward. Jennie broke a cup, oh Lord, is this the end of all things? See them four horsemen swoopin in? Guess they missed it, get a rag. You’ll get the hang of it. But not with those people, you say. To them this was their one experience of the restaurant. No, honey, see, this is like a parade of humanity, see? Practice away. Cause they ain’t never coming back. Don’t matter you’re an angel or a klutz. This town’s a total fluke to them, their bellies dragged them here. Their tanks are empty. And mostly, anyhow, they like you, see? Slip of a thing. They’re rootin for you, doll. Them brown doe eyes, that shy girl smile. Truckers don’t know whether to fuck you or see you safely home. More ‘n likely both. They do not, they’re funny and nice. Oh, they’re funny all right. And some are quiet and lonely, they miss their wives. Uh-huh. Watch those ones.
This is a life, you think. This is a life. Little by little you make different moves, you use different words that turn you, by inches, away from your old life. You veer away, you peel off. You run at a tangent to your life that flings you, before you know it, into space. You can’t pinpoint when you become different, when your old life can no longer get your attention. For a while you compare. How you were raised to be something, how your father told you time and time again that a life spent drifting is no life at all. Grab your life and plot a course through it, don’t waver, that is how you meet success. He should know, powerful litigator, possessed of the lawyerly sense of winning through having the secret information, the better strategy, the surprise witness and the tidal sway of words. You cannot be defeated, he tells you still, in your head every day, you can only hand victory to your opponent. You hand it over, what can’t be taken from you. Either way, you’re in control. So why not choose to win? It’s just logical, Alexa, sweetie-pie. Isn’t there a time, you venture, when everyone loses? What kind of talk is that? Okay, when everybody wins. That’s not what court, or life’s about. He’s dead four years now, congenital arrhythmia. One moment there was time, there seemed to be three tenses. The next moment there was one.
Now you aren’t something and you won’t be anything. After a bit you no longer spill the coffee – atta girl, yer gettin the knack. This life is nothing and nothing is a day with a single cloud crawling across the sky without conceding a drop of rain. Nothing is the incremental inching of the sun, the twitching of the second hand, as though it had to choose each time to tick, then choose again. There’s no progress, no way to plan ahead for anything but the same old same. You can’t set places for a week from now, make a hundred gallons of coffee, order up a ton of eggs, butter a thousand slices of toast. Order, serve, clean. Repeat. A rhomboidal patch of sunlight strikes the counter at four, elongates as it slinks towards a fork and sets the tines ablaze.
Welp, Clare says, was it everything you hoped? She cackles; her laugh astounds the air before it settles in the corner with the husks of moths. I never figured you for more than a week. Grab some cash, be off. That’s the truth. I didn’t, you say. Didn’t what? Hope. Hon, that’s a figure of speech. Clare, how’d you get that name? My mother gave it to me, free. But I mean, it doesn’t seem… What? Like a name you’d have here? In dust town? She was French. And my grand daddy brought her here during the war. That’s funny, right? Dragging on her smoke. Guess you can’t get no farther from France. That’s world war two, by the way, the last one worthy of the name. To keep her safe. She was a Jew. That’s funny, too. Why is that funny? Christ, take a gander. See a slew of synagogues do you? Hnuh! Sun here bakes religion out of you, ‘cept for them Mormons – for them it seems to sear it in. Anyhow, she forgot all that, what caused her all that danger in the first place. Forgot her French, too, never taught me. That’s a shame. What’s a shame? Well, think of it, to lose the only language that you knew. What was the use? She was like a, hell, I don’t know. A flower when you yank it up, and try and replant it and it don’t take. Couldn’t live here, couldn’t go back there. She was like one of those people who gets lost on the way to the store and then never comes back with what they went to get in the first place.
And you, you never left? You know, for someone who won’t say shit about where she’s from or why she left or what’s her real name, you sure do want to know a lot. I didn’t mean to pry. Well, good, cause it’d be like breakin into an empty shack. I’m sure that’s not true. Sure you’re sure. Anyhow, what the hell. Unlike some I got nothin to hide. She lights another smoke, takes a thirsty pull. Yeah, I left here. I went to Phoenix for a while. To do that big city thing. Course in those days it was mostly dust and cotton. And oranges. They smelled all syrupy, the trees in blossom. The heat’d kind of pull it out. And I went to California. To see the sea. But those folks over there. And back again to Phoenix, workin the bars. Then Ron comes along – he’s the famous fuckup of an ex – and we try to look like a couple. Ha! A couple of what? He’s less like a husband and more like a hitchhiker that won’t get out. Till Jeremy. Then he finds the handle quick enough.
So then I found out you could leave this place but you’re always kind of in orbit of it till it sucks you back in. Like those satellites they put up. They know they’re gonna fall on someone’s head someday, they know it the day they put em up, but does that stop em? You go back to where you know. Leastways I did. I came back here, I never gave up the house anyway. Like I knew I’d need it someday. You can’t escape, Jennie. You can go to some bigger place but mainly they just got taller buildings, more lights at night. So it seems less lonely. More or less. Folks are slicker. Here people don’t lie so much. Cause, truthfully, what about? Something’s got to happen for there to be a secret. And I’m thinkin the small town life for Jer. Only I guess I was lookin back at the small town life through rose-colored glasses. Or blinders. It’s okay for a kid, but not when that kid gets a man-sized body and all there is to do is drink and screw and drink and drive real fast. You know, there was a reason I left once. Ron, I couldn’t find him to come to the funeral. Heard he was in El Paso. Heard he was in Flagstaff. Didn’t matter. I figured he could chip in a little at both ends of his son’s life, but it didn’t matter like I thought it would. Not on that day. So there you go, mystery girl, that do you? Another drink? Hey, what’s the matter with you?
The truckers come and go but there’s one man who sticks. He is tall and lean and you have never met someone in whom so few words reside. He came in once, saw you and couldn’t believe his eyes. Now he comes often enough that it’s obvious. His discomfort shows, but the other choice is worse. Clare tells you, look out Jennie, Luke’s got eyes for you. Oh, come on. That smile of hers, half satisfied mirth at knowing the score, half clamped down reprimand. Take care, that one runs slow and deep. You like his silence. When you go to pour him coffee you smile at him. You say good morning; he says, ‘mornin. How does it feel to be impossible, to be the thing a man is sure he cannot have? Ridiculous. You’ve never known why anyone would want you. Except one day, Clare walks in on you, naked in the bathroom. Stares at your small breasts, still supple after Nathan. Stares at your belly, flat, and your slim hips. Oh God I hate you. Look at you. Guess you could have your pick of any guy you’d like. She leaves and you run your hand down over your breasts towards your pubis, in between your legs. Two weeks of glances, then one morning you say, Luke. You know my name. Well, I’ve been bringing you breakfast for two weeks. I’m Jennie. You must be the quietest man I’ve ever seen. He can’t meet your eyes. The cup’s a toy in his big hands, they look strong enough to crush it, but gentle as draft horses. I guess I don’t say much. Well, I respect that. How’s your coffee? It’s good. Not too weak? He smiles at the table. I guess they’ve got better coffee where you come from.
Who can say when a simple notion, blown in like a scrap of trash, becomes a plan? A flush of sex runs from your pelvis up into your eyes. You flash a smile.
No, you say. Nothing’s any better anywhere.
So long since you’ve sat in the passenger seat. Luke can’t believe you’re in his truck. He also can’t believe you’re solid, that you’re in town, that you pour coffee in his cup, that one of the uses of your teeth is to smile at him, that your slim fingers touch his plate, that when you’re near he breathes in air that you exhaled, as though once it had passed through your veins it bore your blood’s imprint and separated evermore from other air. He thinks you are a flash of summer lightning, a dust devil, an ad from a slick magazine. He expects you to dissolve in front of him. He couldn’t believe the morning in the café when you sat across from him, in view of everyone, and said, it’s fall and I miss fall. Isn’t there anywhere here where something changes color? Heading up the mountain, he says, there’s cottonwoods in the wash. Sometimes they turn, if it’s been cool enough. So would you take me there? He looks you in the eye, first time. It’s a long ride. And I can’t make no guarantees. Neither you nor life, you say. He looked down, some nerve inflamed. That’s about right.
The sun is low as you wind up through the gulchy hills, the cactus and the always-dying desert grass giving way to higher scrub. Some kind of scabby-barked oak, boxwood and elder. And amongst them, sure enough, cottonwoods with yellow leaves, more choked by lack of rain than turning on the tick of seasons, relieved to lose the burden of their leaves. To you it’s a shabby echo of the forests in the east. Still, in the air, the slant of light and, unmistakable, the wince of fall.
You run from the truck and fling your arms out wide before the trees, tossing back your hair. Luke comes up, matter of fact, beside you, smiling at you smiling at the leaves. Listen, you say, it sounds like water. You turn delighted eyes on him. Well, that’s the wind. It’ll fool you here. Sometimes in the desert everything sounds like water. Even your thoughts. What do you think of, Luke? He shakes his head. Not so much. I like the quiet. Come on, I want to know. He turns away – to me your voice sounds like water. If only the wash were full. If only there were water running in the gully, quickening the rocks, water coaxing life out of the dust, conjuring fish from shadows in this dead ditch. The chime of water leaping under barren sky. But now you know a woman’s voice, your voice, is like water to this man.
I think that’s sweet.
How tall’s this mountain? It’s big. So could you take me to the top? Long road, it’s rough. It’s mostly pine up there. But there’s some aspens coulda turned. I want to see, you say. You touch his shoulder, let your hand rest there a moment. Does that, too, feel like water?
Luke’s not the one for fun, Jen. His wife run off and the odd thing is, it’s like he never was surprised. Just went on like normal. You want to mess around, there’s other men.
Clare. What do you take me for? A tremor of anger rattles up your spine, makes you rise from your chair, taller than you are. She backs away.
The light is golden red, dust from the dirt road rising like sparks, settling like spent cinders. There is a stand of aspens with trunks the color of fawns surrounded by swarms of clattering golden leaves. Everything is gold, even the needles of the pines. Thank you for showing me your world, you say. Not my world. Do you come here much? Not so much, not anymore. Well, it’s beautiful. I used to come here. With your wife? Luke looks at you. I guess there’s not much anyone doesn’t know. No, no one really knows anything, just some facts, which don’t mean anything. I guess that’s right. The word is, you suffered in silence. I don’t know about that. I came here once, after. It was spring. There was runoff in the creeks, and new leaves, when they’re just yellow-green and soft. Before the heat kinda leathers em up. I like the quiet. It’s you I don’t know anything about. I’ll make you a deal, you say. No more questions about you if you don’t ask anything about me. You smile like a thief. We’ll be conspirators. No more questions. There’s no answers anyway. He takes your hand, small as a leaf in his, and shakes it solemnly. Then, self-conscious, lets it go.
I can’t help what I want to know, Jennie. What’s that? Well, everything. Impossible. How come you came here. I don’t know. How long you’ll stay. I don’t. Why you smile at me. No, no. It’s not hard to not ask anything. Do it like this. You turn and stand, your back to him, facing the trees, and lean into his chest. Then take his arms and encircle yourself with them, so that each hand holds a forearm, you locked within. Luke laughs. What’s so funny, cowboy? I can’t believe, is all. Neither can I. Jennie, you got to know, the town’s full of stories about you. Where you’re from, what you’re running from. And how about you, Luke, full of stories? Full of questions. How about those trees? I don’t know what you mean. Do you have questions for them? He laughs. They’re just trees. They’re beautiful, right? They are now. So there you go. I’m just Jennie. Are you going to write my biography or hold me?
Marcos told you that in Spanish you say te quiero when you love someone. I want you. Plain and clear. I want to see your face, it makes me feel love. I want to feel your arms around me, I feel safe. I feel protected. I feel like I belong. I want you home, want you to come to bed. Come to bed. I want to know everything about you. Want you to stay.
What do you want here? Clare says. You come here like a little lost thing. And now.
And now, what?
Like you’re movin in. Changin things.
You think, I don’t have to do this. But that’s no longer true. What keeps you from running? Now, again, like that night at the rest stop. What stops the first step? A jolt of lightning down the wiring of your spine and Luke is history, a memory, a face whose lines are made of dissipating smoke. You can’t, or rather this: it doesn’t happen. His eyes are several questions, several doubts, coiled around a courage that scares him. He doesn’t know if he’s worthy, he doesn’t know if you’re willing, he doesn’t know if you want him, he knows he wants you. No, he doesn’t even know that. He thinks you’re beautiful, he thinks you’re mysterious, thinks you may be dangerous. He knows he wants to kiss you but he doesn’t know if he wants to kiss your life, to take it in like a catalyst, a reagent that will change him with the smallest dose. As though your saliva was a potion into which was mixed a history he’ll absorb. Want, that’s the key. You think, want to walk away, to walk off into the desert. Want to disappear. You don’t move. Jennie, I don’t want to get hurt again. He turns you towards him, hands on your shoulders. Disappear. He kisses you.
The first kiss is a question, tentative and pure. His lips, your lips, still hard and holding out. His hands still on your shoulders, tethering you, but lightly, apologizing for their strength. And then a look. You don’t say yes, you don’t say no. Jennie. Is this okay? I need a sign from you. A shift in wind. A hieroglyph some seer, trained in runes, could read. Jennie? But no one answers to that name. You think, Alexa. But no one rises to that, either. No one comes home. He starts to speak again and you’ve no time to think, to imagine consequence, to write a story of the promise or the error or the unknown future of this kiss. The name you call yourself by floats in dark space. Shut up! Who is it then that’s calling? Shut up, be nothing, do this. Why? Do this. Shut up the sky and the aspens clacking in a waft from nowhere and shut up the keening coyotes fretting in the woods as the sun subsides. Shut up the loitering ghosts. Consign it all to silence. Shut up most of all this man with his longings and questions and his slow decisions that the earth transmits to him in its own sweet time. You silence him with recklessness. You take his face in both hands, pull it down to yours and kiss him furiously. You don’t say no. You don’t say yes. Alexa? No one comes home.
His arms go around you, cinching you in, and your lips soften now against his hard man’s lips. They part, give way and let the ocean in, cold with the shock of trespass and betrayal that sends a shiver through your hips. And then the kernel of a spreading warmth lights in your groin. When was the last kiss, when the one kiss, ever, that was just a kiss? What would that be? Is there ever, you ask your husband, freedom without betrayal? The things you say, Alexa, you make life seem so harsh. Of course there is. Then when? Then where? Name me a time. The moment you’re born, you’re in for it, it’s like a contract you never read and someone swore you signed. See, here’s your signature. That’s not my name. Is it so bad? I love you. Te quiero. Kiss me now, you say. Kiss me like nothing depends on it. Like you could kiss me, all of you, and then just walk away. I love you. I don’t want to hear that! What do you want? Nothing, do you understand? You want me to not want? How fair is that? Fair as the sea. He looks you, seriously, in the eye. And then he cannot help but laugh. I’ll try. Then you laugh, too. Freedom and its tariff, ruin. Make this that kiss.
Luke’s hands are questing, grasping at you, breath coming hard. Make me be gone! Nathan shouts, Mom! You say, cut the line. No, don’t. You wade into the creek, your sneakers filling, sloshy, trace the filament that binds the fish to you. Your hands snake down among the rocks and find him, sinewy in the sinewy stream, grasp him hard and pull him up, holding him tighter than you’ve ever held anything, and watch him gasp in the unbearable air. Life in one muscle. Stand and stare. Past the pink and orange mouth, down, straight down the simple tube of the beast, dark as a pupil within. Why can’t you breathe here, fish? I can drink water, why can’t you breathe air? What kind of life is this that must be lived within a corridor of liquid six inches deep? And all around you, all above, on the banks, the sky, your death. Breathe! Conjure up lungs. Show me this ether can sustain, that light all by itself can lift us up, that we are light and not this lifeless mass tricked into movement for a spell. His mouth moves rhythmically, up and down, puppet-like on a flimsy hinge of bone. Gasp. Up and down. He cannot close his eyes. He cannot blink, can’t miss a moment, even if he wanted, but he doesn’t want. His eyes stare into yours, tell you in language clear as light, I no more know why I am dying than why I lived. He’s dying backwards, warming in your hand from the coldness of his life. His life moves into you, his eyes become yours and all around you see that he’s not dying – you are dying, the creek is dying, the banks, the trees, the sky, the sun is dying. The air is crackling, turning white, more blinding than the sun. How can the air be white? The solid world dissolve? The fish is as warm as you. Too late. Ruin. Too late to put him back.
The air is crackling white, why must I breathe? Why must I do? Why can’t this ember light dissolve me and the coal glow of the sun abduct me and the wind shred my body to atoms and send them flying? Ruin. Accelerate, earth, do your duty, swallow me. Make this that kiss. Luke gasps above you when you grasp him hard and plunge him into you. His eyes stare into yours. He’s swimming in you. Too late. Only ruin serves to sweep your life away, to leave you an arena of air where you can move, finally, any way you want. You are a cup, filling, emptying. Cup your hands. You walk through the woods with cupped hands and when Luke catches up you say, take me home. Jennie, I’m sorry if. Don’t be. I mean, come home with me. Now his body covers yours, he swims in you and he is warm, he’s hot, his life comes pounding into you. Waves. Disaster––I don’t care! Clouds, rocks, the road rush towards you at the speed of light, and when they reach you. You are rising. There is a flood of warmth between your legs that spreads like rising water, drowning you, rising in a silence that makes you cry. You’re tumbling downstream, rushing in the current over rocks, through waving waterweeds, towards the sea. Above you, like a memory, the shivering sun. Sift through it. Debris. Nathan. Above you in the stratosphere swift rivers of frozen air, the thin ice clouds stretched taut, the final membrane of sky. You can’t breathe there. A rogue wave rises above you. You can’t breathe, gasp out, Luke! His eyes stare into yours. He can’t stop now, he’s helpless in this moment, the power gathering in his groin. He moans, his eyes lock into yours. He’s growing harder in you, filling as though he’ll explode. And then he floods you with a roar. He cries out a name that calls nobody home.
For just one moment, no cost.
Luke sleeps while you dress in silence, take your purse, your shoes in hand, and ease open the door. You’re twenty steps from freedom when you hear Clare’s voice.
In for a nickel in for a dime, eh Jennie? You’re up. Yeah, pretty hard to sleep. What’s that supposed to mean? Going somewhere? Just when you and Luke’s hooked up? Funny timing. No one has hooked up. Oh no? Sure sounded like hooking to me. What’d you, have your ear to the door? You weren’t all that quiet, sweets, plus these walls. Pathetic. I’m surprised they keep out light. You going to marry him? What? You going to marry this town? What the hell are you talking about? I told you, Luke, don’t mess around. I known him since he was a kid. He always was the serious kind. Luke’s fine. He’s fine now, sure, we’re all fine sleeping. No one’s hardly seen him talk since his wife ran off. And then you come along, poor little rabbit, seeking shelter from some storm no one can see but you. Why don’t we ask him how he’s doing? That is, if you can stick around. You’re a vicious woman. Oh I’m the vicious one. To hell with you, after all I done, Jennie girl. Or whoever the hell you are.
Clouds, rocks rush towards you, passing at the speed of light. The road spools out. Everything rushes towards you and, just at the moment of impact, rushes past. Well, Clare, I’m sorry then, but, yes, I’m going. Without us even gettin to know who we harbored here amongst us. Yes, thank you. You got your purse, I see. You got that money I gave you stashed in there? I earned that. Sure you did. Breakin everything in sight. Ain’t had to spend a nickel for a roof above your head. Clare, please move.
What’s goin on? Luke looks at you, rubbing his eyes. Jennie? What’s goin on? Well, what do you think, Luke? She’s got her purse, she’s got her shoes, what’s it look like? You leavin, Jennie? You want to lie, you want to smooth a path to the door. So this is me. A clear path to the door. Clouds, rocks rush towards you. Let these two freeze, let them dissolve. Her name ain’t Jennie. The look on his face. Who are you, then? Luke, listen to me. Don’t you dare lie! You been lyin since you got here and we’ve been protectin you, all of us, against some wreck you left behind. Only now you brought that wreckage here. Luke leans up against the door, stares at your purse, your shoes in hand. I never did believe it. It was like a fairytale. No, Luke, I want to tell you, for the moment, just know, I did care. Oh, for the moment, Jesus Christ! You have no idea what the truth might be. Freeze. Freeze you two. And let me pass. Jennie, you don’t have to say nothin. She’s not Jennie!
Maybe we oughta call the cops. For what? For thievin, for what you done. Clare, let me pass! Let’s have a look in that purse. She grabs for it. You see the veins in her bony fingers, blue-green, the starved blood scrambling home for air. Let’s see who’s been among us. Clare! Let go! Life in that muscle. You stare her in the eye, see nothing. Pupils dark as caves. Her voice comes from the darkness in her throat. Now Luke’s behind you. Clare, just let her go. A trickle of liquid runs down your thigh. It’s sticky, warm. Just let me pass. You think now, all my life, that phrase. Please let me pass. It’s quiet. Even the scuffle, Luke coming to the fight, between you, his strong hand on your shoulder. You turn and snarl. Clare grunting with effort, pulling. You pulling back. This space of time. You never understood the phrase, a space of time, till now. This moment carves a quiet hollow in your heart, then boils in like a flood. A bad memory as it happens. The tangle of your tussling arms. You turn to see a rogue wave rise above you, hover for a lifetime before it falls. Space of time. Wave rises, blue-green wall. Again. Turn. Wave. Again. And when it falls, so quiet. Even the roar of water in your ears, absolutely quiet. You are tumbling, somersaulting in its force, hush-hushed in the loneliness of falling. Even here, with Clare’s claws pulling, Luke’s hands prying, you feel that privacy, the utter solitude. Just let me pass. You come up through the water gasping, pushing hard. Clare stumbles back. You shout out, with a strength you’ve never heard, just let me pass!
Clare is falling. Luke lets go of you to grab for her. A space of time. Three privacies. In this moment he never reaches her, she never hits the floor. Again. Clare stumbles. Again. Clare’s falling. Again. You shake your hair free, purse clutched to your breast, and turn. Clare is falling. But all you see is the door.
When you were born, you were given free passage and the impenetrable stone of your birth to finger in your pocket all your life. You were given an unknown number of breaths that await you in the unmapped air. Your heart, which began beating in the dark water of an inland sea, will never see the light. Not as it is. Not until it is dust blowing with its fellow dust, ignited in the sun, neither alive nor not alive, finding its way among the invisible currents carved by wind. Do you understand the desert yet? No, you say, I don’t. Drive on. Diastole. Systole. Fill. Empty. Who set that rhythm? The motor, throbbing in its cradle, gnawed by flame, unmoved itself, though it drums out the droning homelessness of miles. Who set that beat? Inside you dark, unseeing, unhearing, untouched – though you are sure that you’re alive, that you have lived, have stories, proof, sorrow to prove it. Didn’t you just leave a man who loved you? No, impossible. Didn’t he part you, enter you and leave a token of himself? Impossible. It’s all stories. Rocks pass, dark gymnastic stacks. The road rushes towards you and, just at the moment of impact, rushes past. There’s nothing in you substantial enough to snare it, even for a second. You are the moment that won’t happen. You are the vanishing point, the distance that won’t be reached. You are the smallest point of space that can’t be located, that fills nothing, that won’t be filled.
Where is the sea?
You drive on through the Colorado Desert, where nothing grows. You pass the childish glitter of casinos, alluring froth above an undertow of loss, the jumble of the inland towns, then cities of southern California. Sunrise catches you, crimson through smoke, colliding with a cloudy front that waits, you hope, above the sea. Cars pass like thoughts, like fish, like lives you’ve heard about. You drive straight through and up the coast until the suburbs end and the first salt draught latches onto your blood and tugs you in like a sucking tide. Mom, you call out, I smell the sea! She turns to smile. You ask, how come it pulls you so hard? You find the first flat stretch of beach and stop. What of it? Stop. What now? Diastole. Systole. Inhale. Exhale. Stop. Empty. Fill. Empty. You cannot stop. Your body’s just a body, after all. Blood runs the race it runs a thousand times a day. Your lungs create a cavern in your chest that fills with wind. Wind rushes out and you are hungry, once again, for air. Light pours into your eyes, the rhythmic shush of waves engulfs your ears. Rise, silence, fall and roar, silence. Rise, fall and roar. Silence. The anatomy of waves you know so well. You watch them grow from amniotic swells, separate from the ocean, crest and tremble, light rummaging in the troughs, shooting like lightning down the length of them before they crumple on the shore. They’re only waves.
You leave your car, walk to the sand, kick off your shoes, walk straight to the water’s edge and barely register the shock of cold, walk in. The chill crawls up your ankles, tingling; your skin turns into crystals, white as bone. Your body turns into quartz. You glance, up beach and down, a few lone walkers. The next wave washes to your calves, and the next, up to your knees, then to your thighs. When the cold strikes your groin it freezes you in place, as though you just gave birth to cold, as though cold entered the world through you. It shoots up your belly to your heart and shivers you awake, brittle and stark in the enormous vault of air. You’ve never noticed before how brittle everything is, how thin. Skin over nothing, a flimsy wall the light breaks on but cannot crack. You cup a handful of seawater, let it drain and pinch the residue between your thumb and finger, feel the dryness at its core. Do you understand? You suck your fingers, salt. It’s only water. As a girl, you cut your finger to suck your saline blood. Just blood. This ocean that you love solves nothing. The clouds above you, traveling past, bearing the repetitious freight of rain, travel past. The cries of gulls concatenate ten million years of hunger. The sky, the hollowness, the empty stage contain…
… nothing. Do you understand? No. Understand. No! Feel the water, what’s at its core? Dryness, space, molecules with gulfs of nothing between the ghostly electrons and their phantom cores. Journeys too far to undertake. Space upon space upon space. You walk towards the bottom of the sea. The next wave slaps your breast. And the air? Is also like this. The sand beneath your feet? Crust over nothing, like a scab. Like the world is a wound. Understand. No, no I don’t. I don’t want to live here. Water to your neck. If this is life, if this is living, I don’t want it. Understand. No! The next wave puts you under. Freezing. You bob up, blue and trembling, when it passes. Look! Oh, look! The surface of the ocean, lustrous and vast, the light careening off its ferrous face. And beneath it? All the drifting ghosts. How long, how far, how deep, how many have drowned here? And when will we be home? The next wave falls and takes you in and sounds like ashes.
Alexa? Alexa! Who’s that talking? How can there be anyone? I’m alone. Alexa, what are you doing? I’m walking to the center of the sea. I’m all alone. You’ll never swim that far. No, no, it’s just the sea, it’s just a smear of water on a boulder hurtling through a desert of space. It’s quiet and I’m made of stone. Too far. Keep talking. Tell me I’m not alone. Alexa, turn back. Tell me how many passed this way before, tell me their lights long gone to darkness are now hands to take my hand and guide me home. Tell me ghost stories, tell me lies, braid my hair and smooth the creases in my brow and hold me till my heart stops thrashing in its cage and lie to me and say I’m not alone while I am walking to the center of the sea.
THE ROOM IS GREEN. The room is dark and green and full of grasping hands.
The room is murky green. Then it is white. It’s white, the room, or the air is white and full of feathers or else that is the moon filling the room. How come I do not seem to move?
Mom! The moon’s so far. You said so.
But I’m almost there, honey, driving all night. I think the bulbous moon has pulled me from the earth. I can’t breathe here.
Mom. You’re breathing now.
The room is black. There is no loneliness in life like this. Life’s loneliness is leaving, nobody home, an echo when you call hello, a motel room with tawdry yellow curtains and a bed that has shared the weight of sleepers who will never come again. But this – nothing could be this lonely and live. Not be this lonely and stand the incessant slap of consciousness. There is only space and space is ache, and there is no one coming, there is no one. Endless darkness. What room am I in? How can this be? No one, nowhere, no thing, no time, endless and endless and endlessly alone. Cold. Cold beyond cold. Loneliness without respite or reprieve, without thought of reprieve, without hope, habituation, without a dream of deliverance. Vast. Vast. You spread out, as though your heart had become a chasm and the murmur of your life a distant story disappearing as a story does when it surrenders to the severance of sleep.
Then you are wide-awake, your eyes are open in the spark-flecked dark and loneliness becomes companionable. Loneliness becomes its own companion and the cold is neither cold nor heat. You are neither you nor not you, neither alone nor not alone. You are walking up a hill in the desert. Your life, or what is left of it, sloughs off behind you, skittering away on clicking claws. Then silence.
Silence sculpts the world. You want to say, the world before you, but things are no longer arranged in space or time. Nothing before you, nothing behind. Here a rock, here a cactus, here a star, but they are no longer things, they are a moment, part and whole, and the moment has no duration. You won’t live long enough to walk ten feet, you’ll shatter, you’ll die and be reborn ten times. Those things you recognized as things, you would have sworn once were things, are composed of silence. They are each within each other and you are within them and they within you, no more, no less substantial than a whim. The stars are breaking against your brow as you walk up the hill, scattering like spray cast from a prow that genuflects into the troughs of waves, then lifts at the crests. The air lifts you. The air is full of voices, as close and remote as thought, the air is full of hands that lift you free of your name, of stories, of past, of other moments, and you are stripped, scrubbed to your shining bones and the humming hive of marrow deep within. You are born here as an eye that hovers above the ground, that sees itself wherever it looks, far from the country of your old myths, far from shame, far from the past and the trail of debris that followed you like a disconsolate wake. Above the desert full of silent stones, once hard but now as soft as night, in the widening silence that’s as encompassing as love, you are free.
The room is white. White walls. Nathan is sitting on your bed, his blunt boy fingers toying with your hair.
Mom, come back.
I can’t come back. There’s no one here and I can’t recall my name.
Open your eyes!
Tell me a story.
WHEN YOU ARE EIGHT YEARS OLD you turn and see a rogue wave risen several feet above your head. It rests aloft, suspended at crest height, then falls and sends you tumbling like a toy. You see the green of the water, then the quavering sun, then clearly, clearer than you have ever seen before, the pebbles on the shore. They shine as though from lacquer in the sun. They shine like joy. You should be frightened. You should know you’ve nearly drowned, but all you know for that one moment is that you’re alive in a world so brilliant that it’s blinding. Your mother screams, Alexa! from another world. You think, so that’s my name. That’s not my name. But for now, for the moment, it’s the sound that calls me home. You rise up laughing, throwing back your hair, and walk towards the voice that leads you from the sea.
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Peter Herring is a re-emerging poet and fiction writer living on a small farm near Port Townsend, Washington. When he’s not planting, tending or harvesting he’s writing a novel length series of linked flash fiction stories about people with covid, long covid, and their caretakers, under the working title “Love, Covid.” Read the author’s commentary on his story.