The morning we left for the Mojave, we danced together naked to Van Morrison in the kitchen of the Shoebox Room. He made love to me on the mattress on the floor, and as I moved over him, my body warm and wet and fast, he pushed my shoulders back. “Let me look at you,” he said, just like always. He gripped my hips hard, light washing through my skull as I cried out. I opened my eyes to a moth, clinging to the lower left corner of the screen.
Afterward, we lay on the sheet, our bodies pressed together, breathing softly, the damp wreckage of all we’d done to one another, the wrong turns and the fuck-ups of ten years. “Don’t go back on Monday, D,” he whispered, “Stay.” I turned to look at him, sure that he was joking. His eyes caught my breath, so green and darkly shining, laid open, almost free, like the clean shade of the woods he had grown up in. “Stay,” he said again. I reached out to touch his face, the raised worn scar at the edge of his left eye where his father stabbed him when he was nine.
From L.A., we take 10 East to 605 North to route 210 — then 15 North to 40 East. Exit onto Kelbaker Road. Nicky and I are in the back, Rafe drives and beside him, his girlfriend Cally, a moody knockout — 22 years old and 5 months pregnant — lithe body, dark ringlet curls, her belly sits like a ball in her lap. Rafe met her in his yard one day. She’d been out for a run and stopped to plunge her face into the wisteria vines that swathed his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s house — she dragged in deep on the smell. He took one look and invited her to audition for one of his films. She wasn’t cast but by then it hardly mattered. In a few months, their baby will join the growing menagerie: Juju the Beta Fish; Cat, the eleven pound Balinese; and sweet little dog Loki, who has leapt from her place next to Rafe in the front seat into the backseat next to me.
“A Basenji,” Rafe tells me.
“Central Africa. But they were on the steaele in the tombs of Pharoah.”
“You’re ancient, Loki,” I say, and she turns to me with her soft eyes, long pointed nose, pricked ears. I’ve seen her jump off her hind legs as high as my chest, and charge across the grass after a ball. She is quick and sweet and the only thing I have noticed Rafe to love.
“Bred to hunt,” he says, keeping his eyes on the night road split open by the Land Rover’s headlights.
“Loki?” I get my face right next to hers. “Are you big enough to take down a lion?” Rafe’s hand shifts, his thumb drums the wheel. “I’ve never heard her bark,” I say.
“No. But early on, to keep villages safe from other tribes, the barky ones were killed. There’s a sound she makes sometimes. She hasn’t made it since you’ve been out here.”
His nose is aquiline, features long. His brown hair curls around his ears. He will do this sometimes when the four of us are together, talk to me directly, paring out the other two — like I am a guest to their world. I’ve never entirely liked him — he strikes me as arrogant, hard — but there’s some common ground between us. He’ll throw some philosopher at me, Greek is his thing, and I’ll toss some Sartrean flim-flam back. He likes that I’m smart — he told Nicky that when I met him for the first time in New York four years ago. “And there’s an unusual quality about her,” Rafe said. “Aloof. Like a polish.”
“Who’s the girl in the third person?” I said coming back into the room.
They both turned and looked at me. We were in Nicky’s apartment. It was before he moved to L.A.
“It’s not a bad quality,” Rafe said. “Just different.”
“And you’re the judge?”
His eyes darkened for a moment, then he laughed and Nicky relaxed. His oldest friend and the scrappy girl he was nuts for — he had wanted us to like each other and had been nervous that we wouldn’t. We didn’t, exactly, but we got on well enough. Rafe is a digger. Always digging for the other side of some remote splintered moment, some argument, some truth. He worked on the site at Akrotiri before he was a filmmaker and, as a child, I spent every summer in Crete. We were only tourists there, I’ve told him as if those long summers didn’t mean what they did. That was the free sunlit season of my life and sometimes when I look at Rafe, I catch a glimpse of that Aegean dreamer thing I knew once and feel my heart kick over .
After midnight we reach the Kelso dunes. Sloped black shapes like a woman’s body. The moon has risen, its sleek light shifts over the wind-driven ridges of sand. Nicky has zipped our bags together, “Get in with me, D,” his voice with that rough ache in it I love. I slip inside. I can hear them bickering over by the truck, a door slams gently, then Cally swears, “you mother-fucker.”
“How cold it will it get, Nicky?” I say.
“Cold.” He wraps his arms tightly around me. Moonlight rakes his face. I saw him in a Levi’s ad before I met him, that slight bow to his legs that makes you think of cigarettes and motorcycles. He’s got that broken-in look to his body, good for a pair of jeans. In that ad, he was walking down some city street between two women carrying a tremendous dog. And sometimes it happens: I will look at him and my mind will skip and, for an instant, I’ll be sure there is no history between us. We are a young poet and a man from a Levi’s ad wedged together in a sleeping bag somewhere in the Mojave.
Over by the truck, they are still arguing.
“No way that’ll last,” I say.
“She’s just young.”
“He picked her young. Thinks he’ll shape her up like clay.”
“You give him a lot of credit, Nicky.”
“Naw. I just don’t give her much.”
I don’t answer. He feels the shift in the silence between us.
“Moon’s bright as daylight out here,” he says.
“He’ll keep her busy, banging out kids.”
“If that’s what she wants.”
“She doesn’t have a clue what she wants — “
And he is right, which is why she whipsaws around in her moods. She threw a mug at Rafe the other day. He ducked, but reached up to keep it from crashing through the window behind him, and now there’s a purple line through the palm of his hand. He showed it to me earlier when we met them at his house.
“Quite a statement, Rafe,” I said.
“Artwork,” he answered.
“You could do a little tattoo-signature there.”
“I’m not that permanent.”
I almost touched it. He had his hand open — the lake of his palm with the lean dark welt running over the heart-line — my fingers hovered, on the verge of touching. Then I bent instead to pick up Loki.
Over by the truck now, Cally lets loose another slew of invectives.
“She is a sullen whelp.” Nicky remarks.
I laugh quietly. “Now who’s the mother-fucker?”
He scowls. I touch the corner of his mouth and press the edge up into a smile. It’s a thing I’ve done to him, always, for that smile, and I think of the moth I saw this morning, how it clung that way — curled dried legs stuck in the weave of the screen.
Loki is running back and forth between our bag and the Land Rover, she brings us her ball and I hurl it hard, she flies after it and disappears into the dark. A few moments later, Rafe calls her. Calls her again, then claps his hands twice and she appears, the ball in her mouth. He scoops her up and closes her into her crate for the night. Cally is up in the bed of the truck, on her knees laying down blankets.
“It’s the ass,” I whisper. “She’s got one hell of an ass.”
“Too skinny,” Nicky says.
“It’s good skinny.”
Nicky doesn’t answer. He hates it when I talk like that, and it may not be kind but I work it to bait him. Rafe gets into the Land Rover behind her, gets his hands in the waist of her jeans and starts peeling them down. She swats him off, laughing now, and they fold together into the dark of the truck.
“See, they’ll get through it, D,” Nicky says. “Just like us.”
In the morning, we run up and down the dunes to make the sand boom; by nine the sun is blazing, a strange white heat that makes my skin crawl.
We drive back to the gas station we’d passed the night before, and break into the store, because there’s no one in it and we’re hungry. A few bottles of soda, a loaf of bread, two jars of peanut butter. We get back on the road along the edge of Devil’s Playground. Through dry riverbeds, mesas, cinder cones, and lava flows. Without turning around. Rafe asks where I learned to break into closed gas-station stores.
“Hidden gifts,” I answer.
“Harvard,” Nicky says.
“That’s it. In the Widener stacks, I studied pilferage.”
“And you always carry a small knife?” Rafe asks.
Loki is in the front with Cally. Her tiny white paws propped up, she peers around the headrest, ears pricked waiting for my answer.
“With a small knife, Loki, I could go after anyone who tried to hurt you, couldn’t I?”
Rafe glances back at me with a quick laugh. Alpha teeth. White and strong. Predator teeth.
My older sister Susanna disappeared when I was twelve. She was found later, in pieces. It’s a little known corner of my history — and old — not worth the care and work of excavation, but it scares some light into the traces of understandable crazy I grew up in, and why, exempli gratia, I carry a small knife.
I do not explain this. I’ve never told Nick I had a sister, and there would be no reason to get into it now. More than often though it has struck me how easy it is to sidestep this kind of relic when you are dealing in current small-time drama and the predictable down-and-dirty pull-back of desire. He’s loved fucking me since we met which didn’t stop him from knocking up someone else — a long-legged older broad with big tits who played ultimate Frisbee and lost the baby in her first trimester. We split for a while after that. Then he started coming around my first floor apartment on W 77th that I called The Cave. He’d sit on the steps and strum love songs on his Martin D28 outside my window until the neighbors threw shoes, and finally, I shifted the bolt and let him back in. It was that night he first told me the story of his father who split selves, was locked up for a while, then went after his mother with a clip-point blade. Nicky stepped between them, and got grazed instead, ergo the scar. It free-fell through me — that story — even as he played it up to justify what he had done, to explain how frightened he was of what I moved in him, so much in him, too much to think, to feel. I remember the gorgeous haunted look in his eyes that night — like one of Blake’s creature s— so vulnerable, a caged beating look, so familiar. I remember thinking how there was this curious symmetry between us — this echo of knives — the known balance of childhood damage that seemed to even the scales. I never told him, then or since, what happened to Susanna. As far as he knows I am an only child. But that night, I let him back into my bed, he kissed me everywhere, then made love to me. I bit into his neck, and let my teeth sink in so slowly he barely seemed to notice until he cried out in pain. It released something small and old and deep in me, that cry of pain.
They are at it again, in the front seat.
“I need to stop, Rafe,” Cally says.
“You think you do.”
“I need to go.”
“You’ve been thinking you need to go for the last twelve hours.”
“Fucking Christ,” she bangs the door with her elbow —
“Jesus to you.”
“Almost fluent,” I whisper to Nicky. “Any day they’ll upstage us.”
Rafe glances in the rearview. A cool look. Meaningless.
“I Need To Stop!” Cally yells. Loki cringes, and buries her face in her paws.
Rafe hits the brakes and draws the truck to the side of the road. She gets out and slams the door behind her, walking toward the scrub. He lowers the window. “Watch out for snakes!” he calls after her.
She flicks him the finger over her shoulder, steps behind the scrub and squats down.
“Hard little balls of shit the size of marbles — ” Rafe says. “That’s all she can manage. I tell her to eat some fucking vegetables.”
“I’m going to take a leak,” Nicky says. He opens his door, and walks to the other side of the road, his back to us. Loki jumps into my lap. I stroke her ears down. They flip back up. I stroke them down. They flip up again.
“Why do you write?” Rafe says.
“You talking to the road?”
“Sure. The road.”
I smile. “It’s what I’m wired for.”
“But when did you know it was what you are?”
I hesitate. There are many answers to this question.
“Just out of school, I went to France, took the wrong bus and landed in the depot at Arles. I met a man who ran tours and spent the summer toodling around with him and fat tourists in a Go Van Gogh van.”
He starts laughing. “You’re shitting me.”
“I am not.”
Through the windshield, we watch Nicky walking down the highway.
“Where’s he going?” I say.
“He’ll turn around. Watch. At 30 seconds, he’ll turn around. That’s his pendulum circuit. He never gets farther away than 30 seconds from where he thinks he’s supposed to be.”
I feel something loosen in me. “You’ve clocked this?”
A slight nod. “Laws of probability. You know, that attitude of mind toward a proposition of truth that may not be — ”
“Certain,” he concludes, “but in this case…” He swivels his wristwatch face up, just as Nicky turns and starts heading back, “…is.”
“And what do you do with knowing that?” I say.
“I can only tell him what I think. It’s not my place to force him from the fire.”
Susanna was hitchhiking when a man picked her up — this was reconstructed after her hands were found — another driver of a Nissan Maxima had seen her and almost stopped — he described her in detail — cut-off shorts, an army jacket, long blonde mussed hair, tennis shoes. She had a cigarette in her mouth, explained the Nissan driver — he was trying to quit, and so he had not stopped.
“What does hooking up with a French tour guide have to do with knowing what you are?” Rafe asks.
“When I came back to the states, he came with me.”
“Did he bring the van?”
“No.” I smile. “The dead artist. Drove around with me for two years pouring his bony magic in my ear before I moved to New York.”
He turns his head around, a broad smile back at me. Those teeth. “You’re a lunatic.”
“It’s better that way,” I say.
“A lying gorgeous lunatic.”
“You didn’t need to add that.”
“That’s not the real answer.”
“It’s a good answer.”
“It’s not the truth.”
“Truth,” I say, “is a probability also known as shit luck and you know that.”
He looks away back out the windshield toward the road. Halfway back, Nicky has stopped. Something he’s found at the shoulder, he digs under it with the toe of his boot, kicks it over. A bleached, smooth stone. The size of an infant’s skull.
“Tell me about that magic,” Rafe says softly without turning around.
It moved close to me once, so close I’ve nearly forgotten how to describe it. Being able to look at a rose, for example, fall into the deep of the color and lose yourself there. One summer, driving to the south of Crete, my father stopped the car, and Susanna and I wandered along the rocks beside the sea. I lay down on one, my young body open to the sunlight, my head just over the edge so my hair dragged in the water, and when a wave broke in, it soaked me to the shoulders. So acute — that shred of time — the cold of the sea, the naked white heat of the sunlight, the pellucid sky, not entirely of this world, that sky, pouring like the future through me. Since then, I’ve known it.
“The magic,” he says again, his voice so quiet I might be imagining.
I shrug. “You know — just the artist thing — that rush of living in the world with a layer of skin missing, so close that if you leaned into it, really leaned in, it could kill you. Did you know Van Gogh used small quick jabs of paint?”
“He tell you that?”
I laugh. “All different colors, jab after tiny jab to make those broader arcs of night and hills and starry sky all flowing around like water, thousands of tiny hard jabs of paint, each so fucking finite and precise, building them into the shape of the wind through those fields.”
We do not look at each other. Nicky has reached the edge of the hood. Out past him the one lane highway twists and extends into a narrowing vale of heat, rising in rippled waves off the blacktop. Beyond that, the mountains flicker, dream-like. Unreal. Loki pushes her nose up toward me. I lift her. She licks my face. I bury my nose into her sweet little dog smell.
“You like her, don’t you?” And something in his voice makes me glance up — he has turned and is staring at me, steadily — his eyes that wrinkled sun-washed Aegean blue. An ache in me. I wonder if he can see it. That ache. The sky was endless then. Under my hand, I feel Loki’s heart — stunning, free.
“For the same reason you do.” I smile at him. There’s a moment when the air drops out of the car. “She doesn’t bark.”
We pass through Devil’s Playground, and head north though Cima, toward the Ivanpah mountains. Cally’s got a bottle of milk open in the cup-holder, her feet up on the dash, slender ankles poking out of her jeans. She’s reading from the guidebook I nicked back at the store. “That railroad town — Kelso. Back in the day, two guys put their names in a hat, and then the name of a third man who had just left for good to go back east. It was his name they pulled from the hat. Kelso.” She takes a sip of her milk.
“I don’t like you sitting like that,” Rafe says to her, “your legs up that way.”
“It’s not safe.”
Her head cocks. “You’re always the one telling me to drop my fear.”
His eyes don’t shift from the road. “If I hit something, it’s not just you in that passenger seat.”
Her hand is tight around the neck of the milk as she sets it back in the cup-holder. A few drops spill. Loki laps them up. Cally takes one foot down. In another five minutes, she’ll take down the other.
The road begins to rise — the Joshua trees grow larger and more dense. Nicky pulls me toward him in the back seat so my head is on his lap. I look up through the window and watch the moving limbs of those trees twist taller, reaching toward the sky.
We pull into the trailhead off Cima Road, and hike across a field of yucca and cacti mixed in with bitterbrush and creosote bush headed toward the edge of the mountain. The sand is dry and coarse, strewn with granite boulders.
Nicky and Rafe are ahead, they are talking about a film Nicky was just cast for — he’s told me this is a point of dissent between them. Rafe doesn’t like the producer, doesn’t trust him — they are not arguing, they don’t argue — always just this curious tensile understanding between them. Rafe had already shifted coasts from New York to LA by the time I struck the scene — he was the old friend. They had met in Europe. Rafe was working on a documentary about the dig at Akrotiri. Nicky was twenty-three and shooting a cigarette commercial. “You can do better than that,” Rafe said and threw him in as the narrator, but Nicky’s career in documentary started and ended there. He has a good face, and by then it was out there and plenty of people wanted to use it.
As they stride across the field toward the bend in the path near the mountain, Loki stays at Rafe’s heels. She’ll take off after some windblown thing past the visible, her little body screaming out across the open space, then Rafe whistles and she’ll stop, her little white brown body poised, ears erect, she’ll shoot back toward him.
“He loves that dog,” Cally remarks. We have fallen a good twenty yards behind them.
“She’s a good dog.”
She wipes the dust and sweat from her face with the back of hand, curls of her hair have come loose from the ponytail, damp strands cling her neck. She is taller than I realized, an inch or so taller than I am.
“This place is lifeless,” she says.
“Not really. You got snakes and lizards, bats, owls, mountain lions, fox.”
“Nocturnal,” I say. “Or crepuscular. Dawn and dusk. We’re the only knuckleheads senseless enough to be prowling around in the heat of the day.”
She kicks a stone. “I hate it out here.” She pauses for a moment, then says, “You know what he calls you?”
“What who calls me?”
I feel something in my throat rise. I keep walking. I hate that I can’t just give her a hard shove. “What?”
There are blooms of a yellow cacti flower, clumps of them, dotted everywhere through the open space — like some god was playing craps — throwing those spiny blooming gorgeous yellow things and granite boulders like cubes of dice. I follow Loki as she zooms across the open — her fast lithe body managing to avoid every thorn, every unforgiving sharp edge.
When my mother died, Nicky drove me from the city up to her house on the coast. The state owned it by then, and I was told I could take what I wanted from the contents. She had kept everything — piles of magazines from 1972, tall boots, short boots, dresses, coats, photographs of Susanna, artwork by Susanna, my poems, her research materials. Three spare bedrooms full of nothing but towers of books. My mother had been a professor of Germanic literature and won a Pulitzer for a book she wrote called Wera’s Gift about Rilke and his obsession with a dead girl. She kept two shotguns behind the pantry door, and she’d shoot woodchucks from the kitchen window when she caught them messing around in her garden, chomping off the heads of her broccoli. She smoked Salem cigarettes. She liked that Asian menthol. The place was a wreck when she died, and the executor hired a young hippie couple to clean it. I caught the man emptying a change jar into his pocket, and when he’d realized I had caught him, they left.
“Fucking sleepwalkers,” Nicky said. “Thinking the weight of a life’s in a change jar.”
I didn’t answer. I sorted through the photographs alone — and sent him out onto the flagstone patio to box a collection of old license plates, her journals, the rare books of French and German literature. It was on the clothes dryer in the basement that I found what I was looking for, pinned by a magnet to the small open square of space by the controls.
There are moments, and it is only a matter of a few seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony. A terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you…During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly.
My mother had kept that passage on a paper-plate pinned by a magnet to some appliance surface since I was a child; and when it got ketchup spilled on it, or some other incontrovertible stain, she’d grab a clean paper plate, and write the passage out again.
Nicky found me down there, my knees caked in mildewed cellar dust. “I’m so sorry baby,” he knelt and held me tightly. He had never seen me cry. There is no weight of a life, I could have told him then. Not in a change jar or a slip of paper that meant so much once or the photographs of my sister and me when we were young that I did not let him see. It all gets tossed. We keep what we think is worth something. But you dangle by an icicle. It melts. And down you go.
They are waiting for us at the edge of an abandoned silver mine. An open shaft.
Rafe nods across the road to where the trail narrows to a cairned footpath and begins to ascend. “A five-hundred foot climb to the summit. You look beat, Cally.”
I offer to stay back with her. I feel her flinch. She doesn’t want to be alone with me.
“You don’t have to stay,” she says.
“No. All set. I’m good down here.”
I pick up Loki, and stroke her sweet head. Cally sits down on a low boulder, and turns away from me, looking back the way we came. The strap of her camisole has fallen. She doesn’t shift it back, her shoulder bare, touched by sunburn. Loki squirms in my arms — she’s watching Rafe disappear into the trees, his white shirt and long stride weaving ghostlike through them. I set her down. She bolts after him.
They are gone for over an hour. We don’t speak. I lie down on a flat rock near her, my face turned away toward the edge of the silver mine and the side of the mountain in a dead-end behind it. I hear a funny sound — small and crisp like a rodent scratching. I shield my face from the sun and look toward the boulder where she sits, one knee pulled up to her chest, picking at her toenails. She feels me watching her and looks up.
“What?” she says.
I don’t answer. I just stay there, my cheek against the cool dryness of the stone, studying her. Her face is extremely beautiful. Small features, delicately chiseled, not a bone out of place. Her breasts rise up against the edge of her camisole, the tops of them visible, round, perfectly shaped. Her nipples press through the thin fabric. She notices me looking at them and bites her lip.
“He said the first time he saw you, you were like a cat on a leash. But in your poems, you’re brave. That’s where you hide your braveness.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Her eyes fill.
“Do you think I give one whit of a fuck what he thinks?”
She stares at me blankly, then a shy smile. Impossibly young.
“I thought — ”
“No, actually, you didn’t.”
The smile drops from her face — and I want to just leave her there, hanging out on the skinny branches, let her pick her own way back. Instead I laugh, not unkindly, but gently, like I am joking, like it is all one fat marvelous joke that we find ourselves here. Her face softens and she laughs too. And I don’t say anything to try to explain it, because the words would just be spent. She starts to talk to me then about her mother from northern California who is going to come down and stay with her for four weeks when the baby is born. She talks about the small town where she grew up in the Midwest — tornado alley — and how when the storms blew through it was as awful and ordinary as the slamming of a door. She gabs on about the horses she had when she was young and how she loved them and their names and the baby coming now, so soon, and how sometimes she wants it and sometimes she is less sure, and how guilty she feels to be unsure, and I find that I want to tell her that I know what he is — the kind of man who always insists we’ll each learn what we learn but gets off on watching things break. I want to tell her again that I don’t give a fuck what he thinks. And it unsettles me that I should need to make the point twice, as if I had something to prove. I let her prattle on. I listen and smile and laugh, and she moves onto the rock where I am, and sits next to me, her gorgeous slim ripe body shining there in the late afternoon sun, her leg kicking absently over the edge of the rock as she talks, her bare foot grazes the ground, back and forth, the chalky yellow dust cloaking her skin, and we are still laughing when we hear their voices falling toward us, the sound of twigs snapped underfoot as they come down the last stretch. I turn and look over my shoulder as Loki shoots out from the trees, Rafe behind her, then Nicky, who seems to pause for a moment at the end of the path, taking us in.
Back at the Land Rover, they swig down water and tell us about the climb, how the path had ended near the summit. They tied Loki to a tree so she’d stay put and not follow, and they free-climbed the rock face to reach the top.
“You would have loved it, D,” Nicky says. “Just a skinny little toehold, along one vertical, barely an edge keeping you on.”
“There’s a hot-spring on the way to Death Valley,” Rafe says, thumbing through my guidebook.
“There’s no decent place to eat that way,” Cally says. “I already looked.”
“There’s a place called Crowbar.”
“I am not eating at a place called The Crowbar.”
Rafe nods slowly, still looking down at the book.
“Just find me some decent food and decent sheets,” Cally says. “No hot spring.” He closes the book. “You got it, sweetheart,” an edge to his voice that makes me shrink. I can’t tell if she hears it — it would be hard not to, but she leans in and kisses his cheek, her fingers move toward the crotch of his pants, he catches her hand and draws it behind her, then pulls her against him, he kisses her on the mouth, then turns her in his arms.
I see it then. I see it again later in the car — a faint clench to his jaw, barely perceptible in the rising dusk — as he makes the turn onto CA 178, toward the Nevada border.
At dinner that night at a Mexican restaurant where there are candles and walls washed over with a clay-red paint, then scuffed to resemble adobe, Rafe brings up the question of fate or shit luck.
“I said probability or shit luck.” I say.
“That’s what you said. That’s not what I am asking.”
I am drinking. I don’t usually drink, but Cally wanted a glass of wine and Rafe shot that impulse down.
“My doctor said one drink of anything was fine. “
“An LA Doctor. What do you think he’ll prescribe?”
“Then I’ll only drink half.”
“I’ll drink the rest.” I say. Nicky drank his quota by the time he finished college and hasn’t touched it since. Rafe, from what I gather, never did. He claims he never took to the taste of alcohol, but I would bet half an acre it’s more about keeping control. The nachos come — black olives scattered through them — and the wine Cally ordered is white which is good news since white is the only kind I can drink without picking a fight.
She is only halfway through her half when she starts getting loopy, her face softens, flowing into the candlelight — she is radiant, olive skinned, and smiling — she lets her head fall onto Rafe’s shoulder, nuzzling against him like a little girl. She is happy, that free bubbly joy, laughing at something Nicky said, some story he’s telling her about playing hockey in Japan. Rafe strokes her belly, the flat of his good hand moving absently around the top edge of it below her breasts. It’s hard not to watch them. The hand stops abruptly. I glance up. His eyes are on my face.
“Excuse me,” I say, and push out my chair and go in search of the restroom. I pass the waitress carrying a tray with our food back in the direction of our table. Beyond the swinging door to the kitchen, there’s a right turn into a short corridor, a cowboy with a lasso for the men’s room; for the women’s, a cowgirl on a horse. Set on the blank of the wall between them is a black-framed print of that famous tintype photograph of Billy the Kid. The cold faucet on the sink doesn’t work, and the hot blasts out so damn scalding hot. I glance in the mirror, my face flushed nearly as red as my hands. He is there when I step out. Not blocking my way. Not exactly. It would be easy enough to throw a curt nod and walk past him to the table. I don’t.
He doesn’t answer. And then I know. There’s a foot of space between us. I am wearing a white-button down shirt, my lightweight army jacket — the one I always wear that is not so different from the one my sister wore. His hand reaches across that space between us, and he touches the charm on the thin gold chain that sits just below my throat. His fingers pause there for a moment, then move along the right side of my neck, up under my hair, until his hand cups the edge of my face. I can feel my heart, the shivered roar of blood in my ear, and in the silence of that corridor excised from space and sound and time, he holds me there, listening, feeling, his hand like a blade pressed against the molten edge of me —
Years from now, I will see a photograph of him, his face turned slightly away from the camera, behind him a room torn to dazzling sunlight, his hair much longer than it is now, the edges of it lit. It will not be the light I am drawn to in that photograph but the tone and temper of the shadows on his face, a trace of sorrow I do not remember, but which feels raw and voiceless, so deeply and exquisitely true as if it had always been there and I will wonder, for an instant, if I misjudged.
I walk back to the table, piled high now with food. Tortillas, taco salad, sizzling skillets of chicken and meat. Cally has drained her wine and Nicky is laughing because she has managed to knock over the hot sauce into her plate, and is swearing like a pirate. Rafe returns five minutes later and for the rest of the meal, he does not look at me.
We find a hotel for the night. A cheap place, but clean. Dark mustard colored carpets with gray threads woven through. No stink of smoke. I get into the shower the moment Nicky and I walk into the room, and he starts in on me the moment I get out.
“We heard you today,” he says.
“You and Cally.”
He is sitting on the edge of the bed behind me. I start toweling my hair dry in front of the mirror.
“You were laughing,” he says.
“No law broken there.”
His eyes in the mirror meet mine. Green. Splintered. That Clint Eastwood crease between his brows loved by every photographer he has ever worked with. I find a wide-toothed comb in my bag and start working it through the tangles.
“Did you touch her?”
“Oh fuck Nicky, don’t start.”
“She’s six months pregnant.”
“But you wanted to.”
I feel the tightness ring through him. He shakes his head. “God, I hate that.”
“Then don’t corner me into it.”
He looks at me for a long slow moment, his eyes off-kilter, trying to gauge who I am and what I might be guilty of or if these are his own demons doing their gleeful, fastidious work. I know how hard it is for him. My neck still burns where Rafe touched me, so sudden and inevitable that touch, I am shocked it left no visible mark. And it occurs to me that this is how it happens: how the deeper betrayal, the real crime, is the one that goes unnoticed, and continues like a seed drifting down through time.
Nicky reaches for me, and I let him pull me back onto the bed, let him pull the towel from my body, I let him touch me. His lips roam my face, kissing cheekbones, eyelids, nose.
“Have you cancelled your flight yet?” he murmurs.
I smile. “Are you acting like you want me to?”
“You just don’t get it, D, do you?” That sweet broken need in his voice, his lips very bright, darkly red against the sheet, and the expression of his face lying there beside me looking just like it did that day I first met him in the rain. I had written a poem — it was the first good one — then I took a taxi to the Mt. Auburn hospital three miles away, and left the poem in the cab by mistake. I ran all the way back to the square, the cobblestones pounding through my shoes until they split, and he found me there, rain carving down my face, waiting at the taxi stand, checking in the back of every cab that pulled in. He asked politely what I was doing, and I told him to get lost, but he didn’t, and finally I explained that there was something I had lost, and I was waiting for it to come back, and he bought an umbrella from a man on the corner, and sat down and waited with me. My mother was sick by then, one of her breasts gone and some dark thing already massing in the other; my father was screwing a young woman he had hired to open his mail. I told Nicky some of this that day — he was a stranger, why not? I’d never see him again — and he did not try to clean it up or fix it. The rain touched his face, and he held the umbrella so it covered both of us for the most part, but always me, and my hands grew cold, shrunken, turning white, and finally, I let him lead me away to some downstairs café where it was warm. It was then that I took a good look at him, “Hey, aren’t you the guy from the Levi’s Ad?” I laughed. His face broke into a smile, and for one brief, luminous moment, we were alone. I told him I was moving to New York in five days. “I’ll be back to visit,” I said, “maybe we can hang out at the taxi stand again.” “New York is where I live,” he answered. And so it was.
The next morning, when we meet Rafe and Cally for breakfast, the tension between them is palpable. They don’t speak. She cuts up a grapefruit, some melon, and eats three bites. He leaves the table early to go walk Loki. We check out. Even packing the car, he steps around her, the silence between them hard, strained. It’s an hour’s drive to Death Valley. A straight shot west. We stop at the gas station to fill up; Nicky buys a six-pack of water and Gatorade. I sit behind the driver’s seat. The sun is behind us on the rise, intermittent flares of white light fractured in the rear-view. I crack the window, just a fraction of an inch. Loki is on my lap. She raises her head, sniffs the air.
We have passed into the badlands. The slant of morning light touches the wild grasses and the bare loose rims of the hills. I twist the cap off my green tea, and take a sip. It stayed in the car overnight. The cool sweetness of it washes through my mouth.
“So what do you think, Nicky?” Rafe says. “Artist’s Drive? Panamint Springs? Or Darwin Falls?”
Cally is chewing on a fingernail. She looks a little crazy this morning, her makeup is uneven, a little black smudge that dried funny — she must have been crying, or slept on it weird — her hair is pulled back tightly, but the ponytail skews to one side.
Nicky chooses the Falls. A steep road off the highway, dirt. Loki is still on my lap. She gets up, her little claws kneading into my thigh, then sits back down again, curled over herself, her legs tucked underneath her, her small face resting on her toes. I stroke her short fur. Her body is warm and smooth.
When they found the man who killed Susanna, I recognized him. I had seen him when I was with her the week before she disappeared. She and I had walked into town and were sitting on the bench outside the ice cream place, waiting for it to open. Then she got up and walked over to the 7–11 to buy a pack of cigarettes. Watching her long legs flash out from under her skirt, that man remarked to another he was with: “There’s a whore waiting to happen.” I felt something inside of me shred. I had just turned twelve. She was sixteen — and every man she passed took a second look. She had long blonde hair — and wore red lipstick and short skirts even in winter with leggings underneath and lace-up boots that hit mid-calf. That day, she was dressed in one of those skirts with Grecian gladiator sandals, a tank top, and a camo engineer’s cap. It was summer. As she crossed the street toward us with her cigarettes, the man let out a low whistle, and said something crude. She flicked him the bird. “Go home little dick and bang your ugly sister,” she hissed. His face turned a dark color — almost purple, a vein bulged from the side of his neck. He was from Louisiana — we learned later — just passing through on his way to Canada — he had stopped for a short visit with a friend. He had a record, the extent of which took time to pin down. He had a disabled sister who had been abused by their stepfather. This too would come out later. He was on his way out of town heading north when he saw Susanna, hitchhiking up Route 7 to her girlfriend Melanie’s house, and he stopped.
We pull into the parking area, pack a bag with water, and pass by the steel gate on the right into the dry wash. We start hiking into the canyon; there’s a PVC pipe running beside the trail jury-rigged with ropes and other lengths of pipe. We come to another steel gate. Water begins to flow. The dry dirt changes to mud. At one point, jumping a narrow creek, Cally slips, and Nicky catches her. “You alright?” he says. She doesn’t answer, but falls slightly against him, almost like she’ll slide away right there. “Come on, Cally. It’s just a little farther.” The canyon begins to change in the descent, unexpectedly verdant, the trees grow thick, cottonwoods, willows. Rafe is ahead of us with Loki, he shoulders the pack. A bird shrieks in the trees. He stops to look for it. I catch up with him there, without exactly wanting to, and realizing it would seem odd if I didn’t. “What kind of bird is it?” I say. “I can’t see it,” he answers. “Listen.” And I do listen, but it does not call again. A dragonfly crosses the trail ahead of us, as we walk on. The trail veers to the right and narrows. His hand brushes mine. We are out of sight from the others. His fingers move over my hand, twisting through my fingers, then let go. The trees turn so green it is almost unthinkable. The oasis comes into view. “Hard to imagine, isn’t it,” he says, “that something like this could exist?” And for a moment I am sure he is talking about the water in the desert, the creek, the oasis, something so unlikely, so lush and unexpected. We cross over the rocks to the back of the canyon and the falls. “So we’ll swim,” he says. There are trees overhanging the water rushing down the blue mossy rock face into a small clear pool.
Looking back, I will never remember the exact sequence of events over the next two hours. The argument between them started long before that day, perhaps the night before, but more likely months ago, in some unrequisitioned time that had nothing to do with me. But there was a moment that day when we were swimming, our clothes folded on the rocks with our things, Loki batting at the water in the shallows and making it dance up in light-strewn drops of spray, when Cally saw Rafe look at me, and read the look, and knew. Nicky had left us, gone alone to climb the scree slope that led to an upper falls, a fifty foot chute down. I saw Cally’s cheeks burn. She was sitting on a rock jutting into the pool, the Land Rover keys and Rafe’s watch beside her, I saw the tension in her fists, and how she didn’t say a word, but only stared at him in disbelief. When she realized he did not notice her staring, or did not care, her face contorted into something older, not beautiful — something she would become.
I was in my underwear. Rafe was naked. He swam under the falls behind the point where the water struck the pool, he floated and let it wash down hard over his body, then he moved along the rock face, and disappeared behind it. He called for me to come and see the shallow cavern he had found. I looked at her. She shook her head once, grabbed the keys and stood up, kicked his watch into the water, and started walking back alone across the canyon toward the trail.
We are dressed by the time Nicky comes back down. As he pulls on his clothes, Rafe leaves and starts after her.
“What the hell happened?” Nicky asks me.
An echo in the stillness over the black water.
“Nothing new,” I hear myself say as we head back.
I’d edged myself around to the entrance of the cavern, a hole in the rock below the water level. I dunked underneath, swam through, and surfaced. Light shot down between a narrow crevice, white desert light striated into rippling colors, violet, blue. It fell onto his shoulders. His teeth were very bright in the dark, his hair sculpted over his skull, and the green smells of the shade were dank and rich — those smells and the scent of his skin, the smoldered light and the outer noise of the falls all trapped together in that intimate space like an underworld.
From the second steel gate, we hear them fighting, her voice shrill, cracking out in loud awful bursts calling him twenty names under the sun — almost a litany — Rafe says something back — his voice sharply focused, too low to make out the words, but enough to silence her. We reach the Land Rover. Loki jumps up on her hind legs, Rafe has looped her leash to the hitch. He’s got a half-bottle of water out. He drains it then reaches for another, tearing it out of the plastic. “Can we leave, please?” he says. She walks over to him, “Rafe, Honey, Talk to me.” “I would be happy to fucking talk to you,” he says. He grabs her by the wrist and pulls her off into the trees.
“What’s her crime?” I say to Nicky as he throws the pack in the back of the truck, and opens the last bottle of water. “What the hell has she really done?”
“It’s not that simple, D.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Which of course strikes me as funny, and I laugh — he doesn’t like that, my laughing, and he sulks for a while.
I see them through the trees. She is down on all fours, he is behind her — they have gone deep in the shade — not easily visible, they appear almost soldered, an indistinct moving tableau —
They are gone for less than ten minutes. When they come back, she walks behind him, crying now, her shirt ripped at the shoulder, she looks small, bedraggled, like something out of the sea washed in. She comes over to where I am, not too close, but near enough to be saying she is staying with me, as if that might be the only place she feels safe enough to be, and it hardly is, and she knows that, but for a moment, I feel my heart give, and I want to tell her that you don’t stay with someone because you are weak or because they’ve stepped on a corner of you in a way that was cruel and hurt. You stay because of how they make you laugh, or blow your mind, or because there is still some good, young, beautiful residue left between you that makes you glow inside.
“Get in the car,” Rafe says to her, his voice still so darkly angry. It is nothing to me, his voice. He opens the door and gives her a little push in. She scrabbles over his seat into hers. He climbs in after her, slams the door, and kicks on the engine. And then we are inside, and it is airless. As he drives up the dirt road, he begins to take the holes, to hit them with a little more force than necessary, and she is sobbing quietly, then not as quietly — her face buried in her knees, and he does not tell her to put her feet down, or sit up, and the car is strangely, deathly quiet, bouncing over that shitty dirt road. Then we come to the end. He waits for a car to pass, then turns onto the highway, nearly cutting off another. There’s a couple inside it. The man slams his brakes, and waves his fist out the open window. Rafe swears and hits the gas, and Nicky is sitting at the other end of the back seat across from me, such a new long distance between us in the dark storm of this car that does not belong to us, and yet is indelibly ours. I drink slowly from the bottle of green tea, warm now, and stare out the window at the badlands passing by — those soft-sediment eroded hills washed down by water, years, and rain — gullies, spires — spectacularly colored unstable forms, treacherous to navigate. The car behind us has picked up speed, and is staying with us, the man driving gives a few sharp honks, “Get off my goddamn tail, asshole,” Rafe says, his face glowering, the ends of his hair brush his shoulders, a wet stain has spread through his shirt, leftover from the falls. I screw the cap carefully back onto the bottle of tea. My hands, I notice, are shaking, as I set the bottle down on the floor. The man behind us lays his hand hard on the horn, one long extended blare. “Shut The Fuck Up,” Nicky says under his breath. Shut up. And I freeze. “Rafe. Stop.” I reach forward and grip his shoulder. “Stop, please! Loki. She’s back there. Stop!”
“Oh God,” Cally cries. “Oh god oh god oh god oh god.” She screams and does not stop until his hand comes across the front seat, his fist hits the dash, hard enough to leave a mark. She slumps in her seat, choking on her own small sobs, as he pulls over to the shoulder of the road, and then he is out the door. He runs behind the car. She is there, tangled in the leash still looped around the hitch. He picks her up and holds her tightly to his chest. She is after all his jumping silent heart. She is alive. Impossibly alive, bloody and covered in dirt, her little face the only recognizable thing about her. I kneel with him. The rope is wrapped around her leg, only once, but tight. I take out my knife and cut it free. He cradles her to his chest. From his arms, she whimpers. She is skinned in patches, in one small awful place, to the bone. Her tiny cunt is scraped, and bleeding. He yells at Nicky to bring a clean towel, and there is no towel, so he takes off his shirt and floods it with the drinking water that is left and begins to clean her up. Nicky finds four antiseptic wipes in the First Aid Kit — and Rafe dabs them into the places that are raw where the dirt is ground deep in. She howls from the sting — not a bark, but something muted and human and real — “She’s going to be alright,” I say. And it is true. I don’t know how she managed to take the road that way, but I can see it is for the most part all surface. I wipe the blood from my knife on my jeans.
He sits with me in the back as Nicky drives. His hands wrapped around her, his large, square fingers hold her gently, swaddled in another clean shirt he pulled from the duffel. I touch her small black nose, there’s dust in her ears. I brush them out softly until they are clean. I unsnap her collar. We find a vet in Baker — an emergency hospital that’s open on Sundays. Rafe takes her in alone. Cally and Nick and I wait outside near the railroad depot. Three young girls — they can’t be more than ten — walk the tracks, the tallest one in front, her arms outstretched to keep her balance, her sneakers move in small adroit steps over the burnished iron rails — the others follow, tripping every so often off the tightrope they have set for themselves. Nick walks away from us, I count under my breath, thirty seconds when he hits the trash can, then turns and begins to walk back. The wind shoots pools of sunlight through the trees. Cally and I do not speak. There is nothing to say. I will not miss my flight. I know this already. I watch Nick, his head slightly bent, eyes scanning the ground, like he is looking for some cipher in the pavement cracks, that slow familiar amble of his walk. Behind him, the three girls make their way down the rail tracks in their single file, the vast wild sky flowing off their shoulders.