Long-limbed creosote waved like arms sticking out of the ground in clumps, while overhead a gray sky loomed. The sun, badly smudged, was in the western sky, and what crossed his mind was the eventuality of a sandstorm.
Pulling off a dirt road and onto a patch of cleared ground, he stopped in front of a single-story building. Roiling dust, catching him up from where it had been pestering his tailgate, obscured his view, but then the wind took that airborne silt in a snatch, which left him looking at a wooden sign that hung from the eaves of the building—the broken yucca!
The sign was made of thick wood, edges irregular, bark in evidence, and it hung a bit crooked while rocking in the wind. Two screw eyes and a couple of links of chain secured it to the eaves. The exclamation mark had him stalled.
On the wall facing him, three small windows were lit with neon tubing—Bud Light, Miller Genuine Draft, Corona—one brand to a window. Surrounding these portals of advertisement was brown stucco, but the brown had been abraded down to buff. Surfaces escaping the elements were few, but of those that remained there was genuine brown as a reminder of what-was. Under the building’s eaves it was chocolate, sign swaying beneath this mascara.
He turned the heater in the cab of his truck off and then turned the engine off and then looked around, but there wasn’t much to see. Two pickup trucks were parked, but unlike his truck neither one of those vehicles had a camper shell. He could hear the wind distinctly now, and when he got out of his truck he could hear squeaking from where the eye hooks of the sign met the chain.
Crossing a short distance of sand-fogged ground, his boots crunched on an occasional pebble. If he had been wearing a hat, he’d have had to hold it down with one hand, but he wasn’t wearing a hat, and since his hair was down to the nub, a buzzcut, there wasn’t any splayed or mussed hair to deal with. A denim jacket with a fleece liner was buttoned halfway up. He was rangy, and he walked with a forward pitch. When he pulled the building’s door open he heard more squeaking.
“How about a nice piece of chocolate cake, Dwayne? I got it today at the bakery, you know, the one over there at Valley Plaza. They say that chocolate is good for depression and for stress and for nerves.”
Dwayne, though, had other remedies for stress, depression and nerves, but regarding those maladies, apropos of his mother, he had certain theories that had to do with her always referring to a slew of handy-dandy terms that she’d picked up from TV, the Internet, and the Los Angeles Times—post-combat condition, traumatic brain injury (TBI), cognitive impairment, mood swings, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bruised brain, mental trauma, persistent stress-hormone release, manic behavior, combat vets, mental ailment, damaged neurons, personality change, altered brain chemistry, meds, VA, antidepressants, suicide. She’d slide these tidbits into conversation in the interest of compassion and concern, but to Dwayne’s ears they were thorns that rooted about in his head like tumbleweeds. Ellen, Dwayne’s mother, was a strong believer in talking things out. As she put it: “Get-it-off-your-chest therapy,” a phrase she used often and always with a smile.
But for Dwayne, these so-called “talks” were an exercise in endurance. Dwayne hardly contributed, and he waited for them to be over. Chocolate? What did he care about chocolate?
Of course Ellen knew that Dwayne was going to the VA every few weeks, but beyond that Dwayne hadn’t said anything about a councilor or medication or dreams or flashbacks or anything else, and neither did he tell his mother about cutting down weeds on the hillside in back of their house with a pair of hedge clippers, hand variety, and accidentally catching the hindquarters of a frog with the blades of the clippers in the somewhat greenish brush that was at the base of the backyard wall, and then looking down at the frog as it lay panting with one of its rear legs slashed and with Dwayne going “Oooh” in a crumbling voice, and then, after deliberation, scooping the frog up with a gloved hand and tossing it farther up the slope where the brush was dry. He resumed cutting down weeds, but that didn’t last long before reflection took hold in a stifling manner. Climbing the slope, he searched for the frog with the idea of putting it out of its pain, but he couldn’t locate it, which left him standing under an August sun with his throat knotted and his chest heaving.
“Post-combat,” “chocolate for depression,” “a brisk walk to relieve stress,” and other such verbal knickknacks at his ears while making a cup of coffee at the kitchen counter might have been adding to Dwayne’s troubles as opposed to alleviating them, or so he thought. Thus he began a strategy of avoidance.
Ellen kept regular hours in the house due to work, a legal secretary for a law firm in Encino. On weekdays Dwayne had the house to himself. After Ellen returned home from work, though, there was dinner in the living room, TV dinner trays employed while watching television, usually the news. And so: “Ma, I think I’ll get my own dinner. Sometimes I feel like eating later. You just go ahead. I’ll fix something for myself, okay?” A drawn out moment, and then, “Oh, sure, honey. I understand. If you feel more comfortable with that . . .” She trailed off, but then said, “Have you called Sue lately?” Perplexity twisted Dwayne’s long face. It took a moment, before he said: “Sue? I haven’t talked to Sue in years.”
At the VA Dwayne’s councilor mostly listened, forty-five minute sessions, at the end of which Dwayne was handed a prescription for Prozac.
Dwayne beefed the Prozac up with a sixteen-ounce can of beer, or two, or three, while watching a sporting event on TV in his bedroom. He liked to stay up late, liked the quiet hours of two or three in the morning. And so, after having exhausted a baseball game and then a talk show, Dwayne was making a final sweep of the channels when he came across a travel program that had a documentary flair.
And there she was on Dwayne’s flat-screen television, strumming a guitar. A male drummer was in back of her, and there was another man with a guitar as well, the three of them in the backroom of some tavern, tavern introduced by way of back-and-forth images, in-and-out cuts, as if this were necessary to anchor reality, for without the tavern there wouldn’t have been anything to grab on to, because this group and their music were without reference, particularly the woman.
The woman was singing while playing the guitar, an electric guitar, but the electricity wasn’t on. The other guitar, the one the man was playing, was unplugged as well. The drummer, no amplification either, maintained a beat that came up behind the woman’s voice like cardboard getting thumped, which added more grief to the woman’s sound, a forlorn resonance, desperate and vacant. The slow thudding was icing on top of what was already there, for there was little question that this lady was astray.
Dwayne watched and listened to what was a five-minute segment of surrealism. When it concluded he reached for his can of beer and watched the rest of the program with the hope of getting another glimpse of the woman. He also wanted to find out where this tavern and its backroom were located, but the woman didn’t reappear nor was the location of the tavern revealed except in a general way—the desert, somewhere in the vicinity of Joshua Tree National Park, which was what the program was about—Joshua Tree National Park.
After the program ended, Dwayne turned the TV off. Getting up from his chair, he left his room and went out the backdoor of his house and circled around to the front of the house to where his pickup was parked. In the cab of his truck he pulled a map of California out of the glove box. Returning to his bedroom, he set to work locating Joshua Tree National Park. With Joshua Tree in his sights, he looked at what surrounded the park and discovered an area that was largely empty, more unpaved roads than paved. It was an immense area that ran south to the Mexican border, bareness its prime feature. East, to the Arizona border, the situation was the same. Regarding north, to the Nevada border, even larger areas of nothing. He thought about this, and he thought about the woman. It was a long shot, but he had to give it a try, for he needed to hear her story, needed to know what she had gone through to have reached such conclusions, which were impossible to name, but which Dwayne could somehow feel.
That voice, that look, that missing upper tooth on the left side of a languid smile. Dwayne guessed twenty-three years old, hair yellow-blonde and falling from her skull like shredded linen. The hair had probably been bleached a couple of months previous, roots dark. She looked weathered, but she looked pale at the same time. Her voice was not beautiful. It was something else, and that was a major part of what mesmerized Dwayne—her voice. In conjunction with her voice, there was the group’s music, an odd tangle of country-western with a dose of slow-motion rock-n-roll.
Dwayne got up and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and pee. Returning to his bedroom, he got undressed and turned the light off and got into bed where he spent a long time gazing up at the darkness before falling asleep.
A bar with stools, interior with subdued lighting. The bartender, heavyset and bearded, was looking at Dwayne with a pair of bulging eyes that were cautious, yet calm. A shock of grizzled hair fell to his shoulders. He wasn’t young, but he was big. On the backbar bags of Lay’s potato chips, Fritos, and Planters peanuts were clipped to a couple of racks.
Looking to his right, Dwayne saw a jukebox. More to the right, three Formica-topped tables stood, chrome piping for legs, but the piping was tarnished. Mismatched chairs accompanied the tables. No one was at the tables.
Of customers, there was a couple at the bar, middle-aged, postures statuesque, and a man as well, who was sitting apart from the couple. A can of Bud Light was on the bar in front of the man, and so was a thick black book.
The room was warm, and on top of the warmth there was a stray scent that Dwayne couldn’t identify at first, for he carried that aroma himself, but now, with the door closed and the air settled, Dwayne understood it to be woodsmoke, but whether he understood this nasally or visually was a tossup, for as he looked beyond the tables he saw a wood burning stove.
Taken altogether, Dwayne’s opinion of the place began to veer from “common” to “uncommon,” this summation informed by experience, for Dwayne had been in and out of bars and taverns while roaming mass acreage that ran from Palm Springs to Yuma, and then to Laughlin, while using Joshua Tree National Park for purposes of point-of-reference, as well as for camping and exploration, but what he had learned from all this travel had more to do with terrain and weather than with bars.
Looking further to his right, “uncommon” became “surreal,” for he saw a memory that he had turned over in his mind for so long, and so much, that he had worn it out.
She was on a couch that was against the wall where the three small windows promoted Bud Light, Miller Genuine Draft, and Corona. A coffee table was before her knees, a magazine in her one hand, a can of Bud Light in the other hand. Next to her on the couch, a little girl slept. A floor lamp was at that end of the couch where she sat with her magazine, lamp throwing yellowish light on the side of her head and her right shoulder. She was wearing a long-sleeved, burgundy shirt.
Dwayne tried to remember what he intended to say upon running into her, but rhetoric failed him. His head was empty and his tongue was dry. Strange, how he had given up on finding her, and now here she was.
He walked over and stood before the coffee table. There was no music and no TV. He heard someone at the bar shifting their weight on a barstool. Her eyes rose from the magazine.
“I saw you on television.”
It took him three hours to reach Joshua Tree. A seven-day pass was fifteen dollars. Camping was ten or fifteen dollars a night, depending on campground. He arrived in the late afternoon and drove slowly and saw coyotes.
“I saw you on TV.”
She was looking at him from over the magazine, a fashion magazine.
“It was late at night, a couple of months ago. You were with two men, a drummer and another guitarist. You were playing guitar and you sang. It was in a plain room, but they cut to scenes in a tavern, something like this place. You had an electric guitar, and so did the other guitarist, but the electricity wasn’t on.”
“That was that Japanese film crew, a year and a half ago or so, and you saw it a couple of months ago? Where did you see it, in Japan?”
“I saw it on cable in Los Angeles.”
She lowered the magazine to give her eyes a full view of him, a slow up and down. At his face, her eyes stopped.
“Are you a jarhead?”
He flinched, and then said, “Not anymore.”
She set the magazine down on the coffee table.
“Well, if you’re trying to pick me up, manners dictate a can of beer.”
She gave the can in her hand a shake to indicate it was empty. Her hair was the same as on TV, yellow but with dark roots.
He took the can from her and crossed the room, bartender watching him. When he arrived at the bar, he set the can down and said, “Two Bud Lights, please.”
The bartender opened one of two refrigerators, both home-kitchen models, and took out two cans of beer.
“Will that be all?”
“Let me have a couple of bags of peanuts.”
The bartender unfastened those items from a rack. The two bags went on the bar next to the cans of beer, cans unopened.
Dwayne pulled out his wallet and extracted eight dollars and put those bills on the bar. The bartender looked at the money. As Dwayne was putting his wallet back in his pocket, the bartender brought up a small ceramic bowl from under the bar and set it down.
“Here’s a bowl for the nuts.”
Dwayne looked at the bowl and wondered if this was a courtesy.
“We don’t allow smoking in here.”
“And one more thing—no fighting.”
Dwayne had his hands full as he walked back toward the woman on the couch. After setting everything down on the coffee table he straightened, woman watching him.
“No smoking and no fighting,” Dwayne said, an aslant grin moving up into right cheek.
“Those are the rules,” the woman replied, and picked up one of the cans of beer and popped its tab and brought the can to her lips and drank.
The little girl, curled up on the couch next to the woman, had black hair and light brown skin. Dwayne opened the other can of beer and brought it up and drank.
“Pull up a chair.” The woman gestured toward the tables.
Dwayne stepped over and got a chair and brought it to the coffee table and set it down so that the woman would be to his left, the two of them sharing the light from the floor lamp. The woman opened a bag of peanuts and dumped the nuts into the bowl.
“What’s your name?”
It was just after he got his campfire going that his cellphone buzzed, the device in the pocket of his jeans. Twilight was in progress.
“Are you okay?”
“Where are you?”
“In the desert. I’ll be home in a couple of weeks or so.”
“Where in the desert? Do you know?”
“I just felt like taking a trip, you know, to get away from Los Angeles. Just before you called I saw four coyotes walking by. It was neat.”
“Where are you?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be home in a couple of weeks.”
“Are you going to see your father?”
“Ah . . . I hadn’t thought of that. Well, ah, I better get off the phone now.”
“Are you going to make your VA appointment?”
“If I can’t make it, I’ll call and cancel. No problem. Good-bye, now.”
He folded the cellphone up, and then sat with it in his hand while looking at the campfire that was in the fire grate. He opened the phone back up and pushed a button, which shut everything down completely. He stood up and went to the cab of his truck and put the cellphone in the glove compartment and then returned to his fire, where he opened a can of beer and took a Prozac.
“See that man at the bar, there—Ted?” Leslie gestured with her chin toward the man sitting alone. “That’s a Bible next to him on the bar. He takes it everywhere, even when he goes to the restroom to take a whiz.” Leslie reached to get some peanuts from the bowl. “The desert—it draws all kinds, and for all kinds of reasons, which brings me to the question: Why are you here?”
A slightly acrid smell clung to Leslie’s vicinity. She began chewing peanuts, wide mouth working unhurriedly, jaw muscles flexing.
At first she didn’t respond, but then her mouth stopped moving and her eyes moved to the right to examine Dwayne’s face. After this she said, “Say what?”
Dwayne chuckled and said, “There was this guy in my squad, Jess Finn, who used to say that.”
“Just that—‘Say what?’ And if it weren’t for Jess Finn, I might not have had heard that before. Jess was from Alabama. Where are you from?”
“Knoxville? Like in Tennessee?”
“Yes.” Leslie’s face had wind and sun on it, and her hands had long fingers that were not delicate.
“I came out here looking for you.”
Silence fell between them, which bespoke of waiting. Dwayne didn’t know what to do with his eyes. He glanced away, and then he heard: “Do I owe you money?”
Dwayne’s eyes returned to that gap where the missing tooth was in Leslie’s upper row of teeth. He lifted his can of beer. Leslie lifted hers. They drank. After they lowered their cans, Dwayne said, “This isn’t about money.”
During the day he left Joshua Tree National Park, and with the aid of a roadmap went in search of bars and other such establishments in hopes of finding traces of the TV-woman with the missing tooth and disturbing song.
On his fifth night in Joshua Tree he was at his campfire sipping beer while thinking about a Prozac when out of the darkness there came: “Trick-or-treat!”
He jumped up, and from beyond the light of his fire two small children emerged to enter the firelight, one dressed up like a skeleton, the other Tinkerbell. Behind them a man followed.
“Ah, jeez,” Dwayne muttered and started laughing. “Halloween. Hey, I don’t have any candy or anything. I’m sorry.”
The kids stood, each holding a bag, firelight dappling their costumes.
“But I have some cans of Dr. Pepper. Wait a minute. I’ll get a couple.”
Dwayne gave each kid a can of Dr. Pepper and then gave a can of beer to the man, and the man and the kids sat down on a large flat stone like the one Dwayne had been sitting on, and then resumed sitting on, the four of them around the fire. The man told Dwayne a few things about the park, like being able to see bighorn sheep and where the best places for seeing them were. Dwayne got out a map of the park, and the man pointed out the spots.
The next morning Dwayne went to the eastern sector of the park and hiked into the Eagle Mountains where he ran into an elderly man on the trail. The man had a pair of binoculars. “Here,” the man said. “Take a look.” He handed Dwayne the binoculars. It took a moment, and then there they were, four bighorn sheep perched on rocky incline.
That afternoon, at a sporting goods store in Indio, he purchased a pair of binoculars and an Audubon Field Guide. He also called the VA and cancelled his appointment. As for Prozac, it sat untouched in the glove box of his pickup truck.
“How old’s your daughter?”
“She’s not my daughter. I’m babysitting.”
“Ted, the man with the Bible, made a lot of money in San Diego selling window coverings—mini-blinds, pleated shades, vertical blinds. He comes home from work one day, and there’s a message on the answering machine from the Highway Patrol. His wife’s been in an accident. Ted goes to the hospital. His wife dies the next day. Six months later, Ted is in the desert with a Bible. He comes in here and sees an ad on the bulletin board over there.” Leslie gestured. “Calls the Realtor and settles the deal, in cash—acreage and a mobile home.”
Joshua Tree National Park’s fourteen-night camping limit forced Dwayne to seek alternatives. He camped at the Salton Sea and along the Colorado River. From the Davis Dam campground he called his father, who lived nearby in Bullhead City.
“I was thinking of maybe stopping by for Thanksgiving, Dad.”
“Oh, sure, Son. No problem. Connie and I will be here. Let me give you directions. Where’ you at?”
Jim, Dwayne’s father, lived in a singlewide in a mobile home park. When Dwayne arrived at one in the afternoon, pumpkin pie in hand, Jim waved his son in and gestured for Dwayne to have a seat at the breakfast nook, which was where Connie was seated. A half gallon bottle of bourbon and a couple of glasses and an overflowing ashtray were on the table.
“Connie, this is my son, Dwayne. You know, I told you, he was over in Afghanistan serving his country.”
Connie extended a thin dry hand for Dwayne to shake. “How do you like your bourbon?” Connie asked. “Ice, water? Your mother’s been calling day and night. Says she can’t get a hold of you. Something wrong with your cellphone?”
“The battery ran out.”
“Bring it in. You can charge it in here.”
“Yeah, well, maybe later. Ice and water with the bourbon.”
After a couple of hours at the breakfast nook with bourbon, cigarettes, and disjointed conversation, they went to a place where there was a parking lot and a small ferry terminal, ferry traversing the Colorado River every few minutes, Arizona side, Nevada side. On the Nevada side they had turkey with all the trimmings at an all-you-can-eat restaurant in a hotel/casino. When they returned to the mobile home park Dwayne crawled into the back of his pickup, camper shell overhead, and passed out. The next morning he woke early, got into the cab of his truck, and drove away, hangover like a pounding nightmare.
“Are you ready for another one?”
“Yes, I believe I am.”
Dwayne took the empties to the bar and returned with full cans.
In Needles, having just come from his father’s trailer court, Dwayne stocked up on foodstuffs and then headed into the Mojave National Preserve where he spent the next four nights in the Providence Mountains at a campground, twenty-five dollars a night, facilities termed primitive in his guidebook. At his campfire, though, he found no discomfort.
Nearby peaks rose to over six thousand feet. It was cold at night. During the day he took hikes through pinyon pine forest. Bighorn sheep were in these mountains, but he didn’t see any. With his head clear, he came out of the Providence Mountains and wandered a vast area between Interstate 40 and Joshua Tree, camping at will, which cost him nothing.
In mid-December he was back at Joshua Tree. After that he headed south again, but this time he veered easterly, covering ground he hadn’t explored before, unpaved roads mostly.
Brisk nights, wind sawing his campfire, stars like an avalanche.
“I had given up searching for you, but I can’t say exactly when I gave it up. I went up into the Providence Mountains, and when I came out of the mountains, I knew I wasn’t looking for you anymore. But I kept moving. This is the first bar I’ve stopped at in a couple of weeks. A combination of coincidence and impulse brought me in here.”
“That’s what brings most everyone in here.”
The door opened and a man and a woman and the wind came in, the woman with brown skin, the man with a ruddy complexion. When the door closed, the cold air stopped. They stepped over to where Leslie and Dwayne were, and the woman said to Leslie, “Sorry it took so long. How was she?”
“Just fine. Fell asleep about thirty minutes ago.”
The woman had a blanket tucked under her arm. She reached down and put the blanket on the child and lifted the child up.
The woman said, “Thanks so much, Leslie.”
The man nodded to both Leslie and Dwayne, as if to include Dwayne since he was with Leslie, but there was something else as well, something between Dwayne and the man. When the man walked to the door his step was slightly unnatural. He opened the door for the woman, who was carrying the child, and while holding the door open the man raised a hand toward the bartender, and the bartender barked, “Be well.” The man nodded in return and went out the door.
“Fred and Susan,” Leslie said.
Leslie sipped her beer. Dwayne did the same.
“Fred was in Iraq. Lost half a leg. He’s an amputee. That’s a fake leg he’s walking on, the left one. Did you notice?”
“Was he in the Marine Corps?”
“I think he was.”
Dwayne raised his can of beer and sipped.
“They keep Angora goats. Angoras yield mohair. They’re not a milking goat. It’s their hair that constitutes value. They eat roughage—woody plants, fibrous plants, which is what we got around here. Colored Angora—black, brown, red—occupies a niche market, high-end. Fred and Susan are really into it. Fred loves the work. He’s outside from morning to night, always doing something. Sometimes they ask me to come over and watch the place, throw out some grain for the goats. This is when they have to go to the hospital or to the dentist. Susan’s Navajo. She met Fred at the VA. Susan was in the service, too. According to Susan, they spent their first year together drunk.”
“Then what happened?”
“They got tired of it.”
Dwayne reached for some peanuts.
“Everybody’s got a story, here,” Leslie said.
“Doesn’t everyone everywhere have a story?”
“Yes. But in here, you hear the stories.”
Listening to this, Dwayne nodded.
“It’s the odd ones, the one’s who are here for reasons other than wealth that manage to hang on.” Leslie brought her can of beer up and sipped.
“What about you?” Dwayne asked. “Your story?”
“I was stumbling around on that dirt road out there. A toasty afternoon in July, ‘bout two o’clock, a hundred and twelve degrees maybe. Some gentlemen on Harleys dropped me off.”
Dwayne was looking at her.
“Two years on crank, methamphetamine, and here I was.”
“I spell Jack, four days a week. That’s Jack there, the bartender, bartender/owner. I got a singlewide out back, about two hundred yards from this building. There are some big boulders back there, beautiful stones, as large as houses. I’m up against them, out of the wind for the most part. There are a couple of other trailers spread around back there. The one I’m in, the owners gave up on. Made a deal. Paid for the trailer by the month. Took about a year and a half, but now it’s mine. The land of course is Jack’s. Rent’s cheap.”
“We got this group. Practice in the back room through those double-doors. That’s where you saw us on TV.”
“What’s the name of your group?”
“The little things. Started cooking the night after Halloween, cooking over a campfire. The simplicity of it, but not really so simple. Pinto beans, rice, potatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots. This took place in conjunction with the weather. Weather became important, as did location. I started looking at the sky, I started looking at the land, I started seeing animals. Coyotes, jackrabbits, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and finally a mountain lion up in the Providence Mountains.
“Birds—I can only identify a few, but I’m working on that.
“Flora is endless.
“I was busy, but I wasn’t busy. Things began to change.”