It was June when the days blurred. Some I wished would end faster than they did and others I hoped would go on just a bit longer. But once July and the dead of summer out here in the worthless desert arrived I wished only for night. That dark gift that allowed me to feel languorous and temporarily undeceived.
It was true my life had taken a dreary road. I found myself here at home, alone in the middle of nowhere, in a half-finished house powered by generator and solar panels — when they worked. The only reliable source of light – besides the sun – came from the gas can. And thank God for it. Earlier that year I’d sold my car so I would refill the can on those long weekly walks to the Arco station, avoiding like a sunburn saying hello to anyone I would meet on my path. I hated my neighbors. I found their habits repulsive and ridiculous. The locals had fastened a sign just off Sunburst Avenue and tied it to an abandoned and hollowed out Chevrolet truck:
LOS ANGELES GO HOME!
It was not a message meant only for me, I know. There are many of us who have unknowingly become permanent transplants here — five acre parcels apart. But I found it unnerving just the same, as if it placed a target on my back or a scarlet letter on my chest so that no matter which way on the road I was headed I was marked.
My name is Peter. My husband’s name was Samuel. That is still his name but he is no longer my husband. He moved back to the city when my inheritance dried up and the weekend rentals evaporated. I have not seen him in a year and I wish it were longer. Samuel is a water conservationist. That the desert would not suit him we should have known. Perhaps I did know and chose to ignore it. He works at a nonprofit that supplies rain barrels to those hoping to catch and make use of rain. All that is required to utilize the rain barrels is a gutter downspout. And who has a gutter downspout but those who also have houses? Couldn’t they simply buy a rain barrel? I asked him on one of our last nights together. As if I were wily, clever, and cruel, which I am not. Could it be possible that I was simply locked away inside my own debris, a kind of still life half asleep and jammed wide awake? It was possible.
Samuel was never to be vital to my life. No man is vital to any life. One might think I would miss the city. The usual noise, dead ends, temptations. But I do not miss it. Humans, on the other hand, I think I might miss and then I meet one. I have decided: if it is a choice between the humans here and no humans at all I have made my decision.
But if I am telling the truth, there is one human who occasionally makes his way over the hill from Palm Springs to see me. He does not stay the night. He brings me driftwood he collects but from where I don’t ask and for what I don’t care. Conversation is not why he visits.
At night here the chorus of the desert swells and howls and becomes a far-off laughter before the morning sweeps it all away. It is best to be emboldened by dusk by whiskey. If I can sleep through the night I feel no harm will come my way. I have often woken up scalded by the early morning’s already intense dawn, having fallen asleep again on the hammock by the condemned outhouse. Summer in the desert is like living trapped inside a roaring oven.
My visitor is set to arrive this evening and I have spent all day in a sort of frenzy, or as much mania as this heat can allow. I had known my visitor in my life before this, back when I viewed men as a pleasant addition to my day instead of the cosmic threat they are.
There is one neighbor I know and sometimes see. Edythe. It is a purely transactional relationship, yet she is the closest thing I have to a friend in this town. We met at the weekend swap meet, the Ideal Mall, each of us selling the clothes off our backs. “You get fried?” She’d asked me when I’d approached her table. She could sense my confusion and repeated, “Fried? Foiled? High?” I hadn’t, not yet, but, in the desert, I’d learned, when the night stretches out empty and open before you, you do things you normally wouldn’t. You used to call this spontaneity.
Today, though, Edythe was not at home when I went to see her. I came back to the ranch empty-handed and I am afraid my lack of supplies will disappoint my visitor tonight. Edythe lives with five other people in that small run-down cabin. Two of them are her boyfriends. The other three are her children. None of them were there this morning, only the barking dogs inside and the clucking chickens out front. For a week or two last year their well ran out of water so I had a tank trucked in for them. It was the least I could do. They live on land that isn’t theirs and in a house without a roof.
It is still easy to feel sympathy for the dullness of another person’s life. I am not a misanthrope and what I loathe in others I understand I sometimes find and allow in myself. I used to spend my days here busy. There was always a project, something to do. I still read books then and made dinner. Everything done was in service of the money to be made. What could help me charge paying guests more? A hot tub? A horse trough? A fence around the perimeter? Linen sheets? Board games? Every house should have at least a single deck of cards. Televisions were not necessary because of the night sky. Back then it was easy to get caught up in the procurement of things. I thought every purchase carried with it the promise that it would lead to a new and larger purchase. How wrong I was. “Glittering” is how the night sky was often described in listing copy, including the copy for this property when I bought it. But I always felt a more appropriate and true word for the night sky was breathing. The night inhaled and exhaled and whistled like some kind of brutal monster. Sometimes I pray I had made different decisions in life. Other times I don’t pray. I barter. I plead.
During one night of stargazing Samuel asked the desert sky if he could speak on its behalf. When he didn’t hear the sky say no he began talking as if he were the sky. The next night he asked to speak on behalf of the moon. Then howled at it. Or as it, I couldn’t be sure. I was alarmed. I found it to be the epitome of male arrogance. How had his head become so swollen? So stuffed with what, exactly? Lint? Lead? The man was deranged. It could not have been me who added to that patriarchal braggadocio. He had to go.
He took our dog. Our dog which is now his dog. Her name was Shelley and I hope it still is. Shelley as in Mary or Long. At first the loss of that sweet and reassuring presence hurt like an open wound continuously punctured by some angry God. But recently I realized this was not the place for a second needy creature. So I’d sent her away like I had been sent away. It felt equal, at first, but in the end nobody had punished me but myself. Look above the fence and you can see the mountains of the park behind it. Far, far away now. The mountains were never green, always a blurry black, a gray mass maybe, an earthy blankness in the spring if we were lucky. Still, we enjoyed looking at them. Sam and I would sit on the back porch and plan. Planning was everything. What could this become? What will it be? Never what is it? We did the land wrong and it was a holy land and that is why I believe the land chose to punish us.
Edythe has returned but without explanation of where she has gone and why she is alone. I press her. She says, “Cathedral City. Kids are going to stay with grandma and grandpa a few days.” She has never mentioned her parents before. I once asked Edythe how she ended up here in the desert. From her response I learned it was best to not ask anybody that question because soon you might begin asking it to yourself. Besides, none of us have ended up anywhere yet anyway. We are where we are or where we are going until we die. I ask Edythe if she and her family are in some kind of trouble. “Trouble,” she says as if it were an unknown and foreign word. “Trouble,” she repeats, examining every syllable. “If we were in trouble you’d be the last person we’d turn to for help.” I remind her of when I had the water tank trucked in. She sets down her razor blade and looks up from her table and scale at me. “That was you?”
I light a fire with the help of the gas can because this cursed wood simply will not burn here without it. It is a still and quiet night. The kind of night I look across the desert floor and I can hear all the sounds and noises and talk from the other rehabilitated homesteads and I feel something absolute, suffocating, painful, and dry: I feel at one with the herd. My neighbors. These people; so sick, sad, and grotesque; each and every one of them. It was like Samuel said: “Addiction is the great subject.”
“No,” I replied, “Not addiction. Weakness. Harm. Hurt. — The great subjects.” It was another night, another battle. But that was another night altogether, long ago. Not tonight. A year ago. And I wish it were longer.
I barter. I see my visitor’s lights flashing as his car stumbles over the unpaved road. He blinks them once, twice, three times. He blinks them for no reason. The fire is strong now in its cauldron of a pit. Through the flames I see my visitor park, the headlights dim and are distinguished, and my visitor gets out of the car and waves. He is wearing a cowboy hat, Wranglers, and spurs. He’s dressed the part. He takes off the hat and holds it over his chest. A perfect gentleman. I take one last sip from my glass before I greet him. He kisses me passionately and we embrace before going inside and retreating to the bed which I had forgotten to turn down because I had left it unmade. There we find what we need on the nightstand and we sink into a hazy and necessary bliss for the next couple of hours. A beautiful and hideous incantation between gloom and splendor that helps ward away man’s ancient yet simple fear of being alone.
When I wake there is an uncertain light coming from the window. My visitor is missing though I could still feel his warm touch imprinted against my body. I check the nightstand thinking he has left a note. He hasn’t. My front door is wide open because it cannot be closed. I rush toward it to see if he is waiting for me on the porch smoking a cigarette and looking up at that night’s blanket of stars. He isn’t. His car is gone and the trampled dust that is so evident in the moonlight has settled. Like an apparition, he has left no trace. He departed a long time ago.
Back inside I find another piece of driftwood he has left for me. A small, polished piece no larger than my palm. I realize he leaves them as tangible evidence of his visit. Something to suggest he has been here. I knew him before this. Back then he had a name.
It is past midnight. The moon is a sliver of itself. The Joshua trees sway gently with the wind across the desert valley. The lights are still on in all of the homes surrounding me. And I can hear the voices in each of them. They become one single cacophony. A shrill and toxic orchestra in what should be the empty wilderness before the voices scatter like the end of an anthem and I swear as if through a telescope, I can see each of my pale-faced enemies, my guilty and horrific neighbors, watching me. Spying on me. Looking through my walls and into my home. I turn for the whiskey and whatever might be leftover and unused in the tinfoil on the nightstand. To temporarily disappear dilutes the unending and enduring horror of the night. Our only hope to drown out the ceaseless deafening prayers of those of us who pray to the prince of all.
Samuel believed he was the reason our rosebushes bloomed. But I know why the roses bloomed. Nature itself had its way. We relocated to the desert. He moved on. I settled in. I once cooked. I once read. One day I met Edythe at the Ideal Mall. A door was opened that could not be closed.