Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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* HONORABLE MENTION, FICTION *
The King of the Mojave
by DANIEL J. PINNEY
I live in an Airstream trailer in the desert outside of Barstow, down a dirt track that snakes off from Interstate 40 into the scrub. I’ve got my own low-slung mesquite tree (for shade), and a jerry-rigged connection to a nearby power line (for lights), and thanks to my disability and the patriotic feelings of my neighbors, I get a good deal from a local merchant for topping off the water tanks every week, and disposing of the waste. I told the man that my missing eye is the result of a war wound. Which, in a sense, is true.
“I love your life,” Cassie said to me one morning as we sat on plastic lawn chairs under the mesquite tree. I sipped my coffee, added a bit more bourbon to it out of the pint flask that stood beside the coffee pot on the cable spool that served us as a table, squinted into the orange rays of the rising sun.
“Do you now?”
“Yes. You’re so free.”
I took a deep breath. The morning is the only time the air doesn’t taste like dust out here. “Well, you’re free, too.”
“Not like you, though. I have to go back to school in the fall.”
I picked Cassie up one night in a bar across the Nevada line, and she hasn’t yet departed. Her driver’s license claims she’s twenty-three, and I’m not inclined to argue with that. She seems to like me and she’s very exuberant in bed. I’m a late-thirties burnout with one eye and a disability check and, if truth be told, not much going on, so I’m not about to look a gift horse—or, in this case, pony—in the mouth.
“You don’t have to go back to school if you don’t want to,” I said.
“Yes, I do. If I don’t go back, I’ll have to start paying back my student loans.” She frowned. “I’ve got things that people expect of me. My parents and all.”
She sounded like a college student.
“What do they expect of you?”
“To succeed. To make something of myself. To make them proud.”
I sighed, and sipped some more coffee.
“What was your major again?” I asked after a moment, slightly mortified to find myself uttering the question at my age. I also felt like I should probably remember.
“I’ve told you. I’m starting med school in August.” She set down her coffee mug. “God. Do you even listen to anything I say? Or am I just a young piece of ass for you?”
I thought about it, and grinned. “You’re a young piece of ass for me, pretty much.”
“You’re really a dick, Evan,” she said, laughing. “That’s good, though. It means I don’t have to care about you either.”
I nodded gravely.
“Moral equivalency. Yes.” I squinted out toward the brightening horizon. “It’s gonna be hot today. It’ll hit 120, easy.”
She said nothing. I cleared my throat.
“I wish this could be my life,” she said after a moment. “Out in the desert, no place to be, off the grid.”
“It is your life,” I offered. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
“But I’m not free. I’ll go back.”
I smiled a bit sadly. “Well, you know what Janis Joplin says about freedom anyway, right?”
Cassie looked at me blankly, and I sighed.
“Never mind,” I said. “Of course you don’t. You weren’t raised in the classic rock tradition, were you?”
Her face grew cold and stiff, as if that suggestion had offended her more than any of the other things I’d said. I found that interesting.
“Certainly not,” she answered.
I have the navy to thank for my life of relative leisure and ease. Not because I’m a veteran—oh, no, as a great teen icon once remarked, I could never work for that corporation. No. It was that night in 2003, when the tanks rolled across the border from Kuwait. I was sitting with friends, drunk in a bar on the waterfront in San Diego. I think we’d gone to the zoo that day. But at the next table were a bunch of midshipmen, or whatever they call them, the young’uns in their sailor suits and goofy Popeye hats. Our table was, by comparison, decidedly shaggy. I shouted something at the television behind the bar, and the Navy boys shouted something back, and I made some pithy connection between their branch of the service and what CNN was showing live—I believe “tits on a boar” was in there somewhere—and one particularly burly sailor, whose name, rank and serial number I later learned were Raymond Hubert Singleton, Ensign, XYZ-3031444/C, didn’t do the courtesy of allowing me to remove my glasses before he punched me in the eye. My insurance at the time didn’t include optical, so I’d skimped on the extra $39 from LensCrafters for the shatterproof lenses, and, well, that was that. Now I’ve got a sporty black eye patch and a monthly disability check from the government. Thank you, Ensign Singleton. No need to salute.
For blindness, permanent, one eye, the Social Security Administration will send you a monthly check for $1,212, give or take. You’re also not, strictly speaking, allowed to drive certain sorts of motor vehicles, presumably because of the inevitable blind spot. In certain states, you can receive, for a nominal fee, special license plates with the little wheelchair icon on them, so that you can always be closest to the door when you pull into Walmart. Myself, I opt for the little laminated cardboard thing, rather like a do-not-disturb sign that you can hang on a hotel room door, that in this instance you hang from your rearview mirror when you pull into a handicapped space. And there’s the eye patch that makes me feel a little like a pirate and thus advances the nautical theme that surrounds my disability, unless of course I care to drive, in which case I put the patch in the glove compartment and deploy the glass eye instead. It creeps people out, but I’ve also found that out on the highway, cops don’t notice—which is not the case with the eye patch.
“Let’s go someplace,” she said one afternoon, as we sat under the mesquite tree, smoking cigarettes. I was drinking a beer.
“Where do you want to go?” I said.
“I don’t know. What’s in Barstow?”
I thought about it. “Not a lot. Some stores, a mall or two. It’s a biggish desert town with a Marine Corps logistics base with its own exit off the 40 and little else worthy of note.”
“You make it sound so appealing,” she said. I shrugged.
“It’s not, really.”
“I heard that there’s a place nearby where some guy built dinosaurs that you could actually climb up inside.”
I raised my eyebrows, nodded. “Roadside attraction, now defunct. There were motel rooms you could rent inside the dinosaurs, in fact. It’s actually not all that near to here, and the dinosaurs have been structurally unsound. You can’t go inside them anymore, much less rent a room. The dinosaurs have been condemned.”
“You sound like you’ve been there.”
“I have,” I said. “I checked it out. Wouldn’t you? All kinds of weird shit lying around in the desert.”
“We could go back, even if we can’t go inside.”
“Yeah. We could.” I lit a cigarette, the first one in my last pack. I took a drag, exhaled slowly. “But I don’t want to.”
“You really are a dick,” she said.
“You’ve made that observation on numerous occasions.”
“Fine, where do you want to go?”
I tested the heft of my beer can, which was almost empty. After a moment I drained it and set it down.
“I think a beer run might be in order, soon,” I said, with some element of sincerity but also because I knew it would piss her off.
“Fuck you. What do you want to do, then?”
“I need to stick around. The water guy should be dropping by later, and I have to look in on Jerry’s cats. He’s down in Los Angeles for the weekend, visiting his daughter.”
“Those are just excuses.”
“Yes, they are,” I allowed. “But just because they’re that doesn’t mean they’re not true.” I yawned, and squinted up at the brassy cloudless sky. “In addition, I think it’s getting on toward siesta time. And what’s wrong with here? We’re off the grid, in the desert, all that. I thought you were happy with this whole business.”
“I am. But it gets boring sometimes, honestly.”
I stood up, took her hand to pull her up from her chair, put an arm around her and together we slowly turned in place, scanning the horizon with our eyes.
“We’ve got the mountains to the north, which are lovely and mysterious and colored in interesting ways, if you find black and brown and gray to be interesting, and populated largely by soldiers.” I said. “The desert floor stretches out to the east, populated by all sorts of very specialized flora and fauna, all the way to Needles and the Arizona line. Not many organisms can survive in the Mojave. I’m just saying. South is the highway, and the freight trains into LA, and another military range, with more mountains thrown in. West is Barstow, eventually, which as I say isn’t worth much attention. It’s what we’ve got.”
“It isn’t much,” she said.
“Well, it’s pretty to look at. And you’re so keen on freedom, places like this are the places where you find it.”
“You sound defensive,” she said after a moment.
“I suppose I am,” I replied, after a moment longer. “I like it here.”
She disengaged from my arm, and sat back down.
“Way to sell it, cowboy,” she said.
I sat down too, and shrugged again.
“Sorry, it’s what I got.”
She had nothing to say in response to that, and after a while I stood up, donned the straw hat I wear to shade me from the afternoon sun and headed toward the trailer.
“Maybe another beer, my dear, and then it’s nap time. It’s hot, and I’m tired.” I looked at her and waggled my eyebrows. “Feel free to join me, if you like.”
She laughed, and after an interval followed me in.
At the Chevron Mart down by the interstate the next day, Randy sold me my weekly carton of Pall Malls.
“Was somebody in here a little while ago,” he said. “Looking for you.”
I tensed up, though not for any good reason. I hadn’t broken any laws recently that I could remember.
“Older guy, mostly bald, polo shirt, cutoff jeans. He was driving a pretty nice Mercedes.”
Well, fuck. “What did you tell him?”
“He seemed nice enough, so I told him where you were at. He bought a twelve-pack of Sierra Nevada to take out there. Said it was a housewarming present.”
I sighed. “Great.”
Randy stiffened, his spine becoming momentarily erect and his jowls and chins jiggling with tension. “I didn’t do anything wrong, did I? I mean, this guy’s not a cop, or a bill collector or something, is he? You didn’t kill a man, did you, and now you’re hiding out from the law?”
“No.” I managed a smile. Randy’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, watches too many movies of uncertain vintage but he’s a good guy. “No, he’s not a cop. Just my dad.”
I smoked three or four cigarettes on the walk back. The thermometer outside the Chevron had maxed out at 125, and even under the shade of my hat I could feel my cheeks getting red and flushed. Jerry’s got a Quonset hut about a half mile away, nestled against a small ridge of black, igneous rock. I diverted myself there, following paths through the yucca and agave and prickly pear, and let myself in. I fed the cats, topped off their water, spent some time sitting with them on Jerry’s surprisingly luxurious white leather couch. Jerry keeps tinfoil on the windows, he’s got one of the most amply supplied libraries of UFO-related literature that I’ve ever seen—which, to tell the truth, isn’t saying all that much—and local legend has it that underneath the corrugated tin half-cylinder he calls home there is a concealed bunker containing one of the most robust supplies of privately-obtained munitions in the state of California. That may be true, but a man’s business is his own and Jerry’s couch is very, very nice. So I didn’t devote too much time to looking for the entrance to the alleged bunker. Mainly I petted the cats, and talked to them, and when I’d pissed away enough time doing that I continued on home.
It gets hotter in the desert as the afternoon drags on, and though it was only a mile and a half (two clicks and change, according to Jerry, who employs metric measurements for distance for reasons I don’t entirely understand) from his place to mine, I was beginning to feel a bit lightheaded. Anywhere else, the sweat would have been pouring off me, but in these parts it evaporates almost as soon as it comes out of your pores.
When I got home to the little gravel-and-dirt clearing in which the Airstream stood, there was Dad, as described, sitting in my chair under the mesquite tree. Cassie was in her chair next to him. Four bottles stood on the cable spools, and between them on the ground was two thirds of my housewarming present in a bucket of melting ice. He was telling a story, gesticulating as he did so. Cassie was laughing.
“There’s my boy!” he said as I walked out of the scrub. He surged up out of his chair and spread his arms wide, his right hand still holding his beer bottle. “Give your old man a hug.”
I stepped forward into his embrace, received a thump between my shoulder blades from his beerless hand, and then stepped back.
“Hey there, Pop.”
He looked me up and down with his piercing blue eyes, and grinned.
“I was just telling this lovely young lady,” he indicated Cassie with an expansive wave of his beer bottle, “about a trip I took down to Key West some years ago. Did I ever tell you about that? There was this property—”
“Yeah,” I said. “Spotswood, Spotswood and Spotswood, right?”
He looked crestfallen, and sat down again in my chair.
“That’s right.” His face brightened again after a moment. “You remember!”
I smiled faintly, and reached into the bucket. I took a dwindling ice cube and put it in my mouth, swallowing the meltwater as it slowly dissolved. Then I took a beer and opened it with the bottle opener on my key chain, and settled down, cross-legged, in the dust, barely within the footprint of shadow that the mesquite tree cast. I raised the bottle to Dad, and then to Cassie. “He hasn’t been talking your ear off, has he?” I asked.
“No,” she said, smiling. “He’s been telling me stories about when you were a kid and stuff. You sound like you were adorable.”
“Not like now,” I replied.
“No,” she agreed. “Not like now.”
“You know,” Dad said, “I had a bitch of a time finding this place. Turned off a couple of places, wound up at armed checkpoints with soldiers. What the hell goes on out here?”
“Fort Irwin. Biggest military training area in the country. They do weapons development, too, testing, all kinds of crazy stuff. China Lake’s attached to it. They’ve tested nukes there, or so I understand. They don’t mark these places on AAA maps. You definitely don’t want to get too far off the beaten track out here. Black helicopters, stuff like that. All kinds of stuff.”
“Huh,” he said, his eyes looking past me, sweeping the horizon suspiciously. “Good to know.”
I caught Cassie’s eye, and whistled the first few notes of the theme from the X-Files. She rolled her eyes at me. I took a sip of my beer. Even fresh out of the bucket of ice, it was starting to get warm.
“So what are you doing here, Dad?”
He looked at me, jerked his head back and bulged his eyes out in a caricature of offense.
“Can’t a man take a drive out into the desert to visit with his son the hermit for a couple of days? What?”
“A couple of days,” I repeated. “Mom kicked you out again, then.”
He flashed Cassie a quick, pained smile, then looked back at me. He lifted his shoulders in a little shrug.
“Well, you know your mother. She’s going through one of her phases.”
“Uh huh.” I sighed. “You probably should have brought more beer.”
My dad is an attorney, a charmer, a womanizer and a drunk. Not necessarily in that order. My mom, on the other hand, is rigid, and cold, and very much concerned with things having the proper appearance. The first time she went through one of her “phases,” I was fourteen and one of Dad’s legal clerks had filed a sexual harassment claim against him, though I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that he lived out of a hotel in downtown Phoenix for about three months, though he’d come by to take me bowling or to a movie on the weekends and use the overlap time when he and Mom were conducting the Evan hand off to charm his way back into her good graces.
The second time I was in my mid-twenties, working as a junior engineer for Caltrans in San Diego. He’d gotten caught in bed with a married judge by a private investigator hired by her husband, which was sufficiently embarrassing for him and my Mom to necessitate him leaving town. He showed up at my apartment four days before the Superbowl, slept on my couch for a couple of weeks, seduced one of my coworkers, and was home again by Valentine’s Day. I have no idea how he swung that with Mom, but well, the man does talk a good game.
“Your dad’s very nice,” Cassie said that night, after we’d gotten him arranged in a hammock slung between the trailer and the mesquite tree. We were laying in bed, neither of us, it seemed, feeling terribly sexy.
“He’s really not, actually,” I said.
“Well, he’s much nicer than you.”
“No. He’s not. He’s kind of a romantically sociopathic train wreck.”
She thought about that for a bit.
“So what?” she said at last. “Nice is measured in the moment, not in the long haul.”
“You might want to rethink that definition.”
“Yeah, I might. But not right now.”
I yawned. “Let me guess. He asked you some getting-to-know-you questions, and he listened attentively, and then asked you some thoughtful follow-up questions. You told him about medical school, and about the pressure that you feel from your mom and dad, and he probably said something sympathetic about how hard it is to have parents who drive you so hard.”
I felt her stiffen a little bit. “So?”
“I imagine he complimented you on your tan,” I continued, closing my eyes, “and perhaps your legs, and your striking green eyes—all of those compliments delivered in ways that made clear that he was noticing you, but which somehow came off as less creepy than you would have expected while still leaving you to think about the fact that he had noticed.”
“Stop it,” she said. I didn’t.
“And finally, somewhere in there, he asked about me. Not prying, just to indicate that he was concerned. And he didn’t say ‘Evan,’ did he?” I could hear an inflection of bitterness creeping into my voice, making me snap the ends of the sentences more than I needed to. “He asked ‘How is my son?’ Reminding you of his paternal stature, and in a clear but understated way demonstrating his admirable parental concern.”
Cassie sat up, kicked off the sheet. “So, what? He was lying about everything?”
I covered my face with my hands, squeezed my one eye shut, then opened it again, seeing little red and blue spots that danced momentarily against the darkness.
“No,” I replied. “He wasn’t lying about any of it. It was tough for you, I’m sure, being driven to excel by your folks. Your legs are great, your eyes are lovely, he is my father and I am his son and he is concerned about me, no doubt.”
“Then what’s your point?”
“The point is that there can be more than one reason for saying something, besides it being true. That’s generally the case with him.”
I heard her take a slow, deep breath, and then blow it out in a quick whoosh.
“Well, at least he says that stuff to me. Nice things. Caring things, like he’s taking an interest. You don’t.”
I sat up and levered myself backward so that my back leaned against the trailer’s exterior wall. Even through the paneling, it still felt warm from the heat of the day.
“I think those things sometimes,” I said after awhile.
“But you don’t say them. They’re nice to hear, but you don’t say them. Why don’t you say things like that, if you are really thinking them?”
I found a cigarette from the pack beside the bed, and turned it over in my fingers.
“I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of point.”
“Maybe not for you. But I like to hear nice things sometimes. I need to.”
“And that’s one of the multiplicity of reasons that he says them.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
I thought about it. “All of the different reasons all inform each other and are contingent upon each other, and as benign as some of those reasons are taken alone, they really can’t be taken alone, because the whole is greater or lesser than, and radically different than, the sum of its parts. And in his case, that whole is generally lesser.”
She didn’t say anything for a long time. She laid back down, and moved a bit closer to me on the bed, so that I could feel her hair tickling my left hip.
“It sounds like you don’t respect him much,” she said finally.
My dad is a very good lawyer. He made partner before he was forty, with a big, national firm. He’s very good at everything he does. He can hold his liquor, he can make women fall in love with him—or at least fall into bed with him—without even trying, he generally wins when he plays poker and he plays a mean round of golf. I caddied for him during his San Diego trip, and watched him shoot a two over par on the south course at Torrey Pines. And he somehow manages to maintain the sort of internal equilibrium needed to remain charming, despite all the moral ambiguity that arises from the manner in which he moves through the world, which is at least slightly monstrous.
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t, does it?”
She didn’t anything for long enough that I thought she’d fallen asleep. I was beginning to drift off myself, still sitting up in bed, when she spoke again, softly, sleepily.
“Do you really think my eyes are lovely?”
I smiled in the darkness, and realized I was still holding my unlit cigarette. I set it back down next to the pack, and slid back down the mattress so that I was laying next to her.
“Yeah,” I said quietly, so quietly that she might not have heard me. “I do.”
I woke up the next morning to the “thunk” of a sand wedge striking golf balls. Cassie was still asleep, though she stirred a little as I slid out of bed. I pulled on my shorts, slid into my flip-flops, and started the coffee brewing. When it was done I poured myself a cup, and a cup for Dad, and carried them outside. The air was still cool and moist from the dew, and this morning there was a hint of the sweet scent of the orange groves down the highway. There were clouds over the mountains and a haze of faint humidity hovering over the vista to the south.
The trunk of Dad’s Mercedes was open and he was standing beside it, his golf bag leaning against the bumper and a bucket of golf balls at his feet. He would flip one out of the bucket with his club, and play it where it lay, firing it out into the scrub.
Sometime back, I’d dug a little palisade between my little patch of ground and the wash that snakes just to the right of my clearing. I glanced at it, and at the clouds, though they didn’t look like they were holding rain, and decided that it needed a bit more height. I set down Dad’s coffee cup on the roof of his Mercedes, set down my own on the cable spool, and picked up the shovel that leaned against the side of the Airstream, right beside the door.
“Morning,” I said, and began digging. Dad kept hitting his golf balls, ignoring me as I dug out some dirt and added to the top of my berm. After a while I’d gotten it to what seemed like a satisfactory height, patted down the dirt with the back of the shovel, leaned it against the tree and sat down in my chair.
“Morning,” I said again.
“Morning,” he replied this time, and hit another ball off into the foliage, gouging out another gobbet of dirt and bouncing the ball off the tall stalk of a yucca tree in bloom, about forty yards away.
“Did you mean to do that?” I asked.
He looked at me and grinned.
“Sure,” he said, and picked up his coffee. “I’m always aiming at something. Care to try your luck?”
He held out the wedge toward me, but I shook my head.
“Not my game, really.” I pointed to my eye patch. “No depth perception. Kind of fucks up my ability to strike the ball.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.
I found the pint of bourbon, added a dollop to my cup, offered him the bottle.
“No thanks,” he said. “A bit early for me.”
“It’s never too early, I say.”
He shrugged, and put his golf club back in the bag. I sat down in my chair, and surveyed the dusty ground before me, freshly gouged in a number of places.
“You really fucked up my yard,” I said.
“Sorry, kid. Gotta keep in practice.” He sat down in the other chair. “Next time the landscapers come, make sure to send me the bill.”
“So what happened this time?” I asked after a moment. “With Mom?”
“Oh, the usual thing,” he said airily. He shrugged, looked out at the yucca tree he’d just beaned. “Well, kind of the usual thing. Though I don’t think it’s quite so usual this time.”
I sipped my coffee. “How so?”
He just shook his head.
“You’ve got a lot of luggage there in your trunk,” I observed. He did. Besides the golf bag, there were two big suitcases and a couple of boxes. There was also a steamer trunk in the back seat.
“So what’s up?”
He reached for the bourbon bottle and added the rest to his own coffee cup.
“I don’t think I’ll be returning to your mother this time around, kiddo.”
I nodded. “You think she’s finally done with you?”
He took a long drink of his coffee.
“No. I think I’m done, actually.”
Cassie came out of the Airstream a little bit later, in an orange sundress and sandals.
“So, you’re going to be a doctor,” Dad said.
She smiled, and looked at the ground.
“If the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise,” she said with a little laugh.
Dad clapped his hands.
“Quoting Johnny Cash at me? Good lord, Evan, this is a girl after my own heart.”
I sighed, and reached for a cigarette.
“Settle on down there, Pop.”
He was very good with Cassie. He got her talking, and made her laugh, and brought out her virtues into sharp relief in ways that I generally did not. She really was lovely, and she was smart, and she was very young and there was a lot of life in her. I caught the occasional twinge of wariness in her voice or a stiffening in the set of her jaw when he said something particularly flamboyant in its transparent flattery, and felt bad about having planted the seeds of suspicion in her mind, though I didn’t feel like that suspicion was unwarranted. She had been wilting out here, though, and watching her with him was like watching the desert floor turning green for a day or two after a summer cloudburst.
“So what are you doing out here in the desert with this old bum?” he asked her, late in the afternoon, jerking his head at me as we cracked open the last of the beers. She actually stopped and thought about the question for awhile before answering.
“I’ll be going back to the grindstone soon,” she said. “This is a break.”
“And is that working out for you?”
She looked at me, and at him, and took a long drink of her beer, and smiled.
“I think it’s working out okay. It’s good.”
I raised my beer to her, and so did Dad, and the three of us clinked bottles, and then raised them high and drained them.
“Someone needs to go on a beer run,” I observed.
“I’ll do it,” said Cassie. Dad tossed her his keys.
“What’s the deal with that one?” Dad asked, as we watched her drive off in the direction of the Chevron, the dust kicking up in a cloud behind her. “She seems like a sweet girl.”
I shrugged. “It’s just a thing. She’s young, looking for something. Something else than what she’s had so far. I’m that, I guess, to her.”
Dad looked down at the ground, then directly at me, his sharp blue eyes finding mine.
“And what is it for you?”
I held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.
“I don’t know. I like having her around. I hadn’t focused on that until you got here, actually. She’s really young, though.”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
I lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, blew out the smoke and watched it spiral away into the darkening sky. “She’s on this kick about being free. She thinks I’m some sort of guru of that, because I live out here. It’s not about that for me, though, so much. At my age, I’m a coward. At her age, she’s coming at this from a rather different ideological vector, where concepts like ‘freedom’ are concerned.”
“She’s defined it positively,” he said, with a small, sad smile. “You’ve defined it negatively.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” I took another drag. “In a sense, that’s exactly right.”
He spread his hands, then rested them again on the arms of the chair.
“Are you sure about your definition?” he asked. “Whatever else she is, she is a sweet one.”
“Can we not talk about this?”
“Sure.” He nodded. “Sure.”
We sat for a spell, listening to the droning hum of the cicadas.
“What are you doing out here, Evan?” he asked me after awhile.
I lit another cigarette. “What do you mean?”
He spread his hands wide, taking in the scrub bushes, the mesquite tree, the yuccas—encompassing with a dismissive gesture my little sliver of the Mojave Desert.
“You live in an old broken-down trailer, in the middle of nowhere. You don’t do a damn thing, as near as I can tell. You had a profession. You had a career. You had a future.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I did.”
I watched his hands clench and unclench, clench and unclench.
“This wasn’t what your mother and I wanted for you,” he said after a moment.
“Don’t even fucking go there,” I said.
He raised a hand. “Say what you will about your mother and me, one thing we were always united in was wanting the best for you. We did. We do.”
“I said not to go there.”
“Well, I just did. So.”
I smoked my cigarette down to the filter, and dropped it into the dust between my feet, and ground it out with the heel of my flip-flop.
“Maybe this is the best for me. Who are you to say?”
“Fort Irwin? The black helicopters? Stuff like that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe. All kinds of crazy shit, lying around in this desert. I like being close to that. I was kidding about the black helicopters, by the way. I was just fucking with you.”
He smiled faintly, briefly, his eyes ranging out toward the mountains.
“You like being some of that crazy shit that’s lying around in this desert, I think.”
I thought about that, and nodded once, sharply.
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re exactly right.”
“I don’t get it, son.”
“I know you don’t. That’s part of what I like. You’re always aiming at something, right? I’m glad not to be you.”
He sighed heavily, and nodded.
“Fair enough. Fair enough.”
We sat in silence after that, until we saw the dust of Cassie return in Dad’s Mercedes.
“That’s quite a plume,” he said.
“Don’t worry. She likes to drive fast, but she knows the road.”
“I’m not worried.” He smiled.
We watched the dust, and the occasional gleam of the windshield visible through the scrub, until we could hear the noise of the engine approaching.
“I’ll be leaving in the morning,” he said. “It’s been good seeing you, son.”
“Where are you going to go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe down the coast to the Baja. Maybe up the coast to Washington, or Canada or Alaska. Someplace new.”
“Not back to Phoenix?”
He looked at me, and shook his head once, emphatically.
“Not back to Phoenix.”
I took a deep breath, and listened to the approaching car. “What do you want me to tell Mom, if I talk to her?”
“You don’t have to tell her anything, son. She already knows. What is it they say? ‘A tiger can’t change its stripes.’”
“I think it’s actually a leopard, and spots.”
He grinned. “Whatever.”
Dad’s car was gone when I woke up the next morning, my head thudding and the taste of beer sour in my mouth. Cassie was gone, too. She didn’t even leave a note. I couldn’t believe it at first—I wandered around the trailer, made coffee, sat under my mesquite tree, waited until almost noon before I thought to check the closet, and the drawers she had used. They were empty of course. She’d brought back a fresh pint of bourbon from the Chevron Mart when she’d come back from her beer run, and I lit a cigarette and I stood in the shade of the mesquite tree and the sun beat down on the desert floor. It was going to be another hot one. I took a long, long drink from the bottle, and then another.
“You fucking son of a bitch,” I said. “You son of a bitch.”