An early piece of fiction published in CR’s Poets and Writers, 1998. Parts make me cringe now, but people decided to include it in that small anthology, so I will allow it to live here as well. (Note to self: helicopter blades do not whisper!)
This is the place where a careless god spilled cold white diamonds over a sky of black marble. Underneath the glittering sky the land stretches out until the tumbleweeds seem to drop off the curving edge of the earth; space and infinity for once, defined. A person can get lost in all that vastness. Trying to expand into the void, some people stretch so thin they break into fragments that blow away in the inevitable wind. Some people shrink from the hugeness of the open night and pull into themselves so tightly they disappear. But some people, breathing carefully and holding still, some people can inhale that bigness, that vastness, that taste of forever. Some people wobble on the edge, afraid.
Joshua was afraid. He’d parked his truck next to the remains of last night’s bonfire, tilted the vodka bottle into his mouth for a full five seconds, lowered it, and swallowed. His body twitched, fighting the alcohol. The moment passed. Joshua rolled his window down and chucked the bottle into the darkness. He heard a scrape as the bottle landed in a tumbleweed, then banged his elbow as a jackrabbit jumped out, startled into the moonlight. The jackrabbit froze, caught Joshua’s eye, then raced away.
“Sorry,” Joshua muttered, rubbing his elbow. As he began to crank the window back up, a breeze snaked across the desert, carrying the scent of sagebrush. Joshua paused. The breeze passed and he closed the window, wrapped his arms around his chest, and waited.
He wished he had more vodka.
He scanned the stars. Orion, then Scorpio hanging low on the horizon. He used to have nightmares as a child, visions of hundreds of scorpions skittering across his bedroom floor, crawling out from under the bed, coming toward him. His mother would find him screaming, curled up, head under the covers, the blankets wound tightly around his body.
“Shh,” she would croon, “it’s okay. Mama’s here.” She would repeat the words, softly, until he dared peek out. Then she would kiss his head and rub his back until he fell asleep again. He would be okay then, as if his mother’s kisses shielded him from the nightmare’s return, forced it back to the dark place it had sprung from.
He shivered. A star fell out of the sky. Make a wish, he heard Sarah’s voice, a shooting star, make a wish. He and Sarah had been such dreamers. But who wasn’t a dreamer in high school? Sure, they’d come out here, watched the meteor showers, said all the words love always you forever special the first precious heart love love love. Sarah had whispered her wish, the same one, with the desperation of prayer, but they’d broken up despite the words, despite the stars.
He closed his eyes, slid down an inch. Maybe he should wait in the back, he thought. Climb under the camper shell and pretend like he was camping instead of just waiting. He wished he’d brought food. He wished he’d brought more vodka.
Time passed. Stars shifted. Somebody pounded on the truck windshield, waking Joshua from his dream of being locked in a box. He awoke yelling.
“Calm down, man, calm down.” The pounding was Frank. Joshua stopped yelling and opened the door.
“What the hell are you trying to do, Frank?” he asked.
“Nothing to do with hell,” said Frank, “just trying to wake you up. Unlock the other door. It’s cold as a bitch out here.” -
Joshua slammed his door, leaned across to the passenger side, and let Frank in.
“Any action yet?” Frank said.
“Not a word, not a sign,” Joshua answered. “Got anything to drink?”
Frank narrowed his dark eyes at Joshua. “Why?”
Frank laughed, fast and brutal, a hyena in man’ s clothing.
From the pocket of his thigh-length corduroy jacket, Frank pulled a flask and a gun. “Just how bad you hurting for that there drink, Josh-u-a?” he drawled.
Joshua shrugged again. He looked away, out his window, searching the night. No movement; the wind had blown on for now. One thing about the desert, thought Joshua, you could always count on the wind to return. He cranked his window down. Without the breeze, the desert had no smell. He sniffed again and the cold air bit his nostrils. He rolled the window back up and turned to face Frank, who waited patiently.
“C’mon, Frank….” Joshua glanced at the flask, but made no motion toward it.
“You know the rules,” -Frank grinned. He placed the gun on the seat between them. Joshua sighed. How badly did he want a drink? Not badly enough. Not yet. He decided to distract Frank from the game.
“What about that time we went to San Francisco?” he asked Frank..
“Man,” -answered Frank, “that was a time and a half. Can you believe that guy lived? He was a crazy freak to begin with…” -
Joshua tuned out as Frank reminisced.
His attention wandered past Frank and back through his window. Two tumbleweeds, a tire- sized one and a basketball-sized one, rolled by, proof that the wind was blowing again. The smaller tumbleweed tried madly to catch the larger one, but it got stuck on a manzanita bush. The larger one tumbled on into the darkness.
Joshua thought of his father. The trip to San Francisco he most remembered. July. Rain. Sick from the weather shifting from dry scorching desert to wet chilly city.
He had started the day in the desert feeling like a man, hunting jackrabbits alone in what felt like the middle of nowhere, his gun at the ready. Gun. He returned to the present.
“…and when that freak came out of the bathroom.” Frank expounded, eyes wide. The gun rested on the seat.
Joshua slid back to his thirteen-year-old self in the desert. The boy who had fantasized he’d been sent on a quest by his tribe, that the jackrabbit hunt was a ritual from which he’d return glorified, honored, heroic.
He hadn’t wanted to actually kill any jackrabbits, he remembered. The act of shooting at them, of knowing the power the gun gave, had been pleasure enough.
When the sun had reached its apex, Joshua had ambled home, hungry for lunch and watching the spiky shadows of the trees lengthen. The lasting glow of the sun echoed the pride he carried with him.
He had been greeted with “Where the hell’ve you been?” and “Get in the car.” -
He’d climbed in the back seat as a protest, mad that his dad had failed to acknowledge Joshua’s newly acquired manhood.
His dad drove in silence. Only when the desert had receded far beyond the rear view mirror had Joshua’s father begun to speak.
“You’re gonna love the city, Josh.”
His vision of himself as a man had fled, just as his father eventually had.
He saw himself in the motel room mirror, thirteen years old, face red, lips cracked, eyes watering.
A sunburn had crept across his face during the ride; his nose had started running the minute they crossed the city line. By the time he and his dad had reached the motel on Valencia, the act of wiping salty snot from under his nose had left him raw. His dad stuck around long enough to pay the clerk, then lit out for the city’s bars, leaving Joshua, on his first trip to San Francisco, spending his thirteenth birthday watching kung fu movies alone in a cheap motel room
“San Francisco, man, that’s the place to be,” Frank shook his head causing his matted black bangs to flop from side to side. “We should go back up there after tonight. Whaddaya think there, Joshua, my man?” -
“I’m thinking farther north,” Joshua answered. “Past the city.”
“There’s nothing north of the city,” Frank answered, his voice slicing down on the conversation like a guillotine.
The air inside the truck thickened. Joshua opened the door and stepped out. His legs moved awkwardly, stiff from sitting so long. The crescent moon lingered on top of the foothills, the dark part of the moon barely visible, like a sliver of gold holding a crystal ball.
The future remained misty; the breeze accelerated. Joshua walked away from the truck and unzipped his jeans, back to the wind.
You are here, he thought, marking his spot. You are this puddle soaking into the dirt. You are here. Everything else is far away. And you have nothing to do but wait.
Finished, he looked back at the truck. Frank had sunk low in the seat, his cheeks barely showing above his jacket collar. Joshua wondered how much was left in the flask.
“Hey, Frank,” he called.
Frank turned and looked at Joshua through the open door. “Yeah?”
“How much longer do you think it’ll be?” Joshua’s voice expanded into the night, louder than he had meant.
Frank climbed out the door Joshua had left open. He had the gun in one hand and the flask in the other. “Why, Josh-u-a? You getting thirsty?” -Frank’s upper lip curled, showing his teeth.
Joshua sighed. The air hung still around him. He thought for a moment that if he could just remain still enough himself, he could cease to be a separate and distinct entity. Not with Frank around, he thought.
A chill unrelated to the surroundings shook him. Fear flared up just below his ears. He could hear it. He needed to drown out the noise.
Just turn up the stereo, he thought, remembering Bonnie. She drove a ‘67 Mustang that always ran perfectly, despite Bonnie’s lack of care.
Whenever it starts making a strange noise, she’d say to anyone who asked about her good fortune, I just turn up the stereo until it goes away.
She’d sold the Mustang just before she’d gotten married, just a year after she and Jake had broken up. She’d kept the stereo, though. Vintage junk, she said, figuring the kid who had bought the car would want something newer. He might have, but who knew? The day he bought the car he apparently decided to see what the rebuilt V-8 could do. The cops figured he had pushed it to around one-thirty-five before he’d wiped out. Last Joshua had heard, Bonnie was driving a Volvo, still singing along to the ancient stereo.
Frank whistled. Joshua started. Frank stood ten feet away, gun tucked in the front of his pants, his hands cupped around a cigarette he was lighting.
The flame of the lighter illuminated the lines in Frank’s face. Frank’s getting old, Joshua thought.
Cigarette lit, Frank tossed the lighter into the truck and pushed his matted hair behind his ears. “Watch this,” -he said to Joshua. With a practiced motion, he pulled the gun out and fired into the darkness. Joshua waited for the sound of the bullet striking something, but not a sound disturbed the silence. If a bullet is fired into nothingness, Joshua thought, then do the people listening to it really exist?
“Waste of a bullet there, Frank,” he said. Frank twirled the gun, shoved it into his pants, and then whipped it out again, taking mock aim at an imagined threat in the darkness.
“Won’t be in a minute, Josh, my boy,” -said Frank, “just wait until I finish this fancy move. I could’ve been a real outlaw in the old Wild West, don’t you think?” He spun the gun around his index finger again, then pushed it into his pants.
The gun went off.
Joshua stepped backward at the sound. In the moonlight, a dark circle spread hungrily up Frank’s stomach.
Frank fell to his knees. “Oh, fuck.” He looked at Joshua, who was still watching, as if he expected Frank to say, ” Just kidding.”
Instead, Frank said, “Oh, fuck,” again. A picture flickered in Joshua’s mind of Frank’s grave a lonely mound of dirt with some weeds and a headstone that read Oh, fuck.
Frank fell to the left. Joshua shook off the unwelcome gravestone image and moved toward Frank. He reached Frank’s side and tried to remember what to do in case of severe bleeding. He knew he’d had a class or lecture, some first aid stuff, mouth-to-mouth, CPR, maybe a health class? Pressure points, he thought, he was supposed to do something to do with pressure points…
…Laura Snow eased a Tootsie pop out of her mouth, sliding her lips over the red globe, twisting her tongue around the sucker as if she couldn’t get enough of the taste. She narrowed her eyes at Joshua, inserted the Tootsie pop back into her mouth and gave it a particularly hard suck. Mr. Weinbrenner droned on – “first, make sure the air passage is clear” – oblivious to the rising sexual tension of the classroom, the snickers. When Mr. Weinbrenner bent over to demonstrate mouth-to-mouth, Laura winked at Joshua, inclined her head to the door, and raised her eyebrows. Joshua nodded, sidled outside. Laura followed. They spent the rest of the afternoon in the back of her father’s van, where Laura taught him far more than Mr. Weinbrenner ever did…
…No wonder I don’t remember a fucking thing about first aid, Joshua thought, cradling Frank’s head on his lap.
“Josh? My man?”
“It’s okay, Frank. I’m here.”
“I – ” The rest of what Frank had to say was lost between a gurgle in his throat and the whisper of helicopter blades heralding a dark shape approaching low from the foothills.
“It’s okay, Frank,” Joshua said again, looking away from Frank’s face. A beam of light sliced through the darkness, land on the truck, and vanish. The black outline of the helicopter descended, scattering tumbleweeds in all directions and blasting sand over Joshua and Frank.
The blades did not stop turning. A man climbed out. The beam of light returned, this time landing on Joshua, then moving downward, illuminating Frank’s sweating head and the blood that had pooled underneath him. Joshua felt Frank recoil, pull into himself. The light clicked off. Joshua blinked, tried to adjust his vision. The man climbed back into the helicopter, which whispered away, blending into the shadow of the foothills.
Joshua gazed at the hills as if the helicopter might reappear, but he knew he might as well expect the hole in Frank’s body to suddenly heal itself.
“Did I fuck it up?” he heard Frank rasp.
“No, man, no. It’s cool. Everything’s cool,” Joshua lied. He thought about Serena, the first time Frank had realized she had a kid. Frank had cut her off, no more drugs, no more nothing. Then he called in some favors, found Serena a waitressing job, paid a year’s rent on a two-bedroom across from her daughter’s school, hired a guy to keep an eye on Serena and the house and the kid, make sure nobody gave them any trouble. It amazed Joshua that Frank had done it all without Serena really knowing, made it seem like things just fell into place. Last Joshua heard, they were doing real well, Serena and her kid.
“Everything’s cool, Frank,” Joshua said. “You did all right.” He watched Frank die and when he was sure Frank had no more life in him, he left it, wondering who would get Frank’s shell first, the coyotes or the cops.
Orange fire fractured the horizon as Joshua drove away. Soon blue would melt the night and the sun would burn its way carelessly through the sky. Joshua aimed north. He’d drive right through San Francisco, maybe into Oregon or even Seattle. Canada, maybe. Find a place where the sky was more forgiving, where a man could exist without being reminded always of how small he was. He stopped at the place where the dirt road met the highway, took one last deep breath, held the taste of purity for a long moment, exhaled, and drove on.