A View of the Desert
This is the first time I’ve been down this road.
I should have called her by now. At least answered when she did, but I don’t, and I’m not sure why. I open the glove compartment and toss the phone inside, on top of the letter.
I should be going home. Thing is, I can’t stop driving on this strange and unfamiliar Louisiana road. I aim the nose of this beast at the next highway on-ramp, toward New Orleans. I haven’t been since Katrina.
So I drive.
And on this narrow road in my fire-engine red ‘92 pickup I pass quickly by empty towns, by scattered barns and ranches, surrounded by endless fields of brush and yellow grass, swaying with the coming and going of the wind, and of the passing cars.
I pull over on the side of the road and walk into a field, alone in a deep stretch of switch grass and dust. The sun closes in on the horizon and the sky on one end is bright with pinks and reds. On the other side it’s darkening, bruising. Clouds are streaked and broken all over. A wind builds up before it lashes around me.
No matter where you find them, deserts all feel the same. Like the desert surrounding the neighborhood where I grew up. I think about that place. About all the friends I had, about all the neighbors, wondering what they’re all doing now and if they think about me. I think about the dirt ramps we built for bikes, about the forts we built around Joshua trees, and the secret holes where we stashed the porno mags we found in our parents’ bedrooms.
It was the nineties, and it was suburbia in Southern California.
Things were good.
I decide to take a piss and aim toward a caved-in gopher hole by my feet. The shadow of a hawk slides across the field, and I look up at the sailing black bird.
I close my eyes and imagine this field before me to be the old desert I spent so much time in.
Gradually, trying to forget about the way things are, I begin to feel the way things were back home. The desert all around me becomes the desert of my childhood. The scampering life in the notches and burrows of the brittle, broken ground, begins all around me. The gophers wander, and the mice scuttle over mounded clods. The jackrabbits creep and then dart to what green things remain while overhead the winged hunters soar soundlessly.
Every so often tumbleweeds tumble by and dirt kicks up behind them in trails, then rests like pollen on my shirt and on my hair. In the distance there’s the faint twirl of bicycle chains. They click and they buzz, kids laugh. This is the music that sometimes comes to me in my dreams.
I think about the first time I hit someone.
A harsh wind blows. The bottom of the sun starts to dip behind the horizon.
His name was Mike, and I punched him right the face. I was just a kid, no more than fifth or sixth grade, same as him. I didn’t know any better. I haven’t thought about that in a long time, and I can’t quite explain why I am now. Only that I remember punching him right in the face. We scuffled, and when he pushed me back, that’s when I let him have it. I remember the blood that came from the corner of his mouth, trickling in a tiny vertical river down his chin. My hand hurt but I was alive all over. Mike touched the blood on his face with his fingers and looked at it. I remember the look on his face before he ran home. I’ll never forget that look. I hit a couple of other kids too, while growing up. I sure was a hot head back then, a real jerk.
I think about Mike and the others. I wonder why I’d ever do something like that to someone else. I wish I could tell them I’m sorry.
The last light slowly disappears as the sun sets over the field, strengthening the grounds of loneliness around me.
When I get back in the pickup I see that my phone is ringing again. I look at it and to no surprise I see her name flashing in a blue glow. I slide the phone over and stare at the letter. I pick the letter up, its flap still bent over and sealed shut. I don’t have to open it to know what it says. They told me already. Besides, with the way things are going in the world these days, it’s not like I didn’t see this coming.
When I get back on the road I think to myself I’d like a drink.
* * *
Sometime after dark I find myself at little run-down joint back in town called The Filling Station.
At the bar I flirt with the bartender, Holly, a not-so-bad looking brunette.
A few seats over I notice a short, stubby man in a nice red button-up shirt with a black tie. Sweating at the front of his bald head, the short man talks on his phone, something I realize he has been doing all the time it took me to have two drinks. It takes one more to realize that his phone isn’t even on and that this short man is only talking to himself.
I should have called Rebecca. I’m a fool.
I look around. A single neon light of the words The Filling Station buzzes in red over the door. The floors and walls are all old wood, and the booths have cracked red vinyl cushions.
I slump on my bar stool, which is red vinyl too.
You awlright? the bartender asks.
I look up, surprised.
Evurthin’ okay? She rinses out a glass, wipes it with a rag.
I decide to give her a sarcastic smile instead of an answer.
You don’t look so okay, she says.
I sigh. I’m fine.
She looks me over. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and when she shakes her head at me it swings from side to side. She plants her fists on her hips. She looks stern.
Yeah, well, you got that look ’bout you, she says.
Hell is that supposed mean? I think but don’t say.
You must have me wrong, I tell her. I dip back into my drink and hide behind the glass.
Nah, she says, I seen ‘em all, and I know ‘em when I see ‘em.
I set my glass on the bar, look her over. She’s a little frayed around the edges, and her eyes are sad. She’s been on the clock for a couple hours now.
My phone buzzes in my pocket. I reach in after it, pull it out, and when the buzzing stops I put it back in my pocket.
Hidin’ from sumthun’? she says. Then she walks away.
A couple argues at the table behind me. They’ve really been going at it. I look back to try and understand what they’re fighting about but it’s hard to hear over the loud jukebox, some old Skynyrd song, and I give up listening.
Air-force-man? I hear someone say.
I look down the bar. An old man a few seats over is the only one there, and he’s looking at me.
You talkin’ to me? I say.
Mm-hm, that’s right. You in the force? He lifts his glass to his mouth and takes a drink. His hands and his face are wrinkled and spotted.
MP, I say.
Mh-hm, a cop. He takes a drink, and I take a drink. Based out here?
Barksdale, I say.
Mm-hm. He swirls the drink around in his glass.
Why? I say. Were you in the army?
Navy, he says. Twenty years.
The old man nods his head, stares off into a far corner of the bar. I wonder what he’s thinking. He looks like a troubled man.
Patrolled the waters of Vietnam, he says.
Betch’ur ass that’s so, he says. You can betch’ur whole damn ass that’s so. Even watched a whole sister ship a ours get taken down. No more’n a few hundred yards away from us. Got hit from underneath and sunk itself right there in the water.
The old man takes a deep breath.
Watched about a hundred a my brothers an’ friends go down with her, too, he says. Nuthin’ we coulda done woulda done a bit a good. So we just set there an’ watched our men drown.
The old man gulps his drink. I have no clue what to say to him. It’s like he’s on autopilot. Luckily for my sake Holly cuts in.
Sherman, she says, are you botherin’ this nice young fella? Holly looks over at me. He does this to evurone, she says.
He’s not bothering me, I say. Actually, we haven’t even really met. My name is John. I extend my hand. The old man grabs a hold of it and we shake. John Broadright, I say.
Hear that, Sherman says to Holly. I ain’t a botherin’ John Broadright here. I ain’t a botherin’ no one. Not a soul.
You’re botherin’ me, Holly says. She swings her rag at him and gives him a funny look.
The old man smiles. Another round?
Over a couple of drinks, Sherman tells me stories about the war in Vietnam. He tells me how lost and dumb he was. About how confused and young he was. He tells me all of his regrets. But he spends most of his time telling me about the bullshit. About how the men he knew that died, died in vain. And it’s still happening now, he says.
Don’t think for a second that it’s any different now than it was in my time, he tells me. We’ve been lied to. No way around it. No way around it. Then he says he’s told me more stories than he’s told his own son, but he thinks about it all the time and it always hurts just the same.
This is what his life is like.
After a while old man Sherman says, thanks a million for the drinks, and leaves my life as quickly as he’d entered it. Sitting at that bar, left alone by an old vet, I think about a lot of really important things.
Holly, I say.
She looks at me.
When I was a kid, I tell her, there was a desert behind our block that all the neighborhood kids used to play in. We’d mostly build forts and ride our bikes, and there was a pond where we used to catch tadpoles.
Uh huh, Holly says. She wipes down the counter around us but I can tell she’s listening.
We had these really bad neighbors. The first white supremacists I ever heard of. Really, they were a couple of skin-headed Nazis, no lie. And they sure didn’t like us kids, especially when we were playing in the desert by their house. But there was this one time, I’ll never forget, where they actually came outside with pellet and BB guns and shot at us.
No way, Holly says.
No, really, I say. These jerks actually came up with the idea to go outside and shoot at a bunch of little kids. I remember ducking behind a mound of dirt next to my brother and our friends, dust puffing upward from the ground where the pellets and BB’s hit, thinking how it was the most awful thing anybody could have ever done to a little kid. I was so scared. But somehow, without really thinking about it, I managed to, like, maneuver my way out of the situation. Without looking back, I ran straight home, fast as I could, and got my dad while the others waited behind to be rescued.
What happened? Holly says.
My dad straightened them out, I say. And the rest of us kids just went inside for the night.
Oh, she says. Well, that’s some story you got.
I look at Holly. She looks back at me like she’s waiting for me to say something. I take a sip of my drink. A man at the other end accidentally tips over his glass, beer spills on the bar. Holly walks away to clean it up and then she walks back to me.
Holly, I say.
They’re sending me to Afghanistan.
Holly doesn’t say anything. I can tell she’s putting together what I just told her.
I got my official letter today.
For a moment Holly just stares off. She doesn’t say a word, just stands there. Neither of us says anything. I’m thinking of the possibilities. Is she? Then there’s this strange thing that for the first time I realize what’s at stake.
I take a sip from my glass. I lean forward closer to the bar, closer to her. She leans in toward me.
I’m sorry, she says.
Holly, I say.
Crouched over in front of me, chin resting in the palms of her hands, Holly bats her lashes.
There was this other time when I was a kid and I was out back playing with my little brother Charlie.
You sure like talkin’ ‘bout when you were a kid, she says. I bet you got all kinds a stories.
Must be the booze, I say. I smile and she laughs.
We were running around on the side of the house, Charlie and I, when we both noticed this spider clinging to the stucco. This strange black spider with an orange circle on its back. We’d never seen anything like it before.
Uh huh, Holly says.
Being that we’re kids, I say, And don’t know any better, we grab a jar and trap the spider inside of it. We seal it up and poke a few holes in the lid. And then we did what any kids with nothing but time on their hands would do. We started putting other little bugs in there.
Holly laughs a little.
We started with ants, I say. And that spider just wiped them out. I’m talking, he annihilated those ants. So we threw a beetle in there. We left for a while, and when we came back, sure enough that beetle was stiff and on its backside. Don’t ask me how but we caught a bee next, then a wasp, you know, the kind with three stingers on them. And wouldn’t you know that spider took all them out too. One by one that spider killed anything we stuck in that jar with it.
I stop for a moment. Holly snickers, nods, and waits for me to go on. I throw back a swig of my drink.
We were just kids, you know, I say, Curious as all hell about this tiny, eight-legged survivor.
I pour the rest of the drink down my throat and set the glass on the counter. My brain kind of freezes up, and I clench my eyes shut, then open them again as if to see things more clearly. I turn around toward the couple arguing at the booth behind me. I listen carefully to what it is they’re saying to each other. Seeds is something I think I hear, but I could be wrong. Seeds.
I sure like your stories, Holly says. You should come aroun’ here more often.
I like Holly, but it’s obvious she doesn’t know what to make of my story. I ask her for my tab, and it’s then that I really notice the two little scars on her cheek, one running downward, the other going across, each no bigger than the length of a thumbnail.
Mind if I ask what happened? I say.
She chuckles. Got bit by a dog, she says.
Ouch, I say. I rub at my cheek with my fingers.
Nah, she says. I wasn’t but two years old.
Oh, I say, how about the other one?
Holly’s eyes shift to the floor. Oh, well, that one’s from my boyfriend. Then she rings me up and hands over my change. I tip her OK and smile after I say goodbye.
I stagger walking back to my pickup. I know I shouldn’t be driving.
A heavy wind wraps its way through the parking lot. It lifts the baseball cap from my head. Clumsily I chase it down as it skitters left and right across the buckled pavement. I pick it up, shake it off, set it back on my head. Then I get in my truck and turn the engine over.
* * *
I never make it to New Orleans.
Maybe it’s the booze or the old man at the bar, but I don’t feel much like going anywhere. Not even home. Of course when my phone buzzes again I know what I have to do.
What a feeling to wonder where you’ll go and how you’ll end up when you get there.
* * *
In the early dark hours of the morning, I sit in my truck in the parking lot of the apartment complex I call home. I open the door as a heavy gust blows by. I don’t get out. I need to think. Why can’t I think clearly? I’m a fool.
Finally, I have to go inside. She’s on the couch waiting for me. I shut the door, take off my boots, regard her. I notice the way her legs are turned up underneath her and how her hands are buried between her thighs, her chin tucked close to her chest. Her face is wet, flushed. Her down-turned mouth shows how unhappy she is. Greasy strands of hair frame her cheeks and her eyes are focused on the floor.
She doesn’t get up to hug me or kiss me, much less say hello. She has no reason to wait any longer so she comes out with what’s on her mind.
Where were you?
I went for a drive, I say. I look in her direction and then back to the closet where I hang my uniform jacket. Shouldn’t you be sleeping? You need your rest.
You’re drunk, she says.
Get off it, I say.
Son of a bitch. You’re drunk.
I had a drink. I am matter-of-fact.
Jesus Christ, I can smell it all over you, she says.
Make no mistake about it, I feel right at home.
I thought we fixed this, she says.
Water under the bridge. I know. I know. She’s pissing me off.
I don’t believe this, she says.
Why aren’t you in bed? You need your rest.
You’re right, she says, I should be, but instead I’ve been up all night waiting for you again. So I couldn’t sleep, okay? Do you see now? Do you get it?
I shake my head and make for the kitchen in our tiny two-bedroom apartment.
I won’t do this anymore, she says. She’s kind of crying in her throat now. Her skin swells bold around her eyes, bottom lip quivers.
I look at her. Then seeing her, actually seeing her, I start to consider how I might be growing tired of her face. Maybe it’s the alcohol, I don’t know, but I can’t stand to look at her eyes, the pink shine all around them and the black mascara smeared underneath. She looks tired, and that bothers me.
You have no idea what it’s like to be stuck in this shitty little apartment all damn day, she says. All day I sit and I wait. And for what? For what? Big tears shine on her cheeks.
The window shudders from a wind burst. Grit and gravel crash like tap dancers on the pane.
Husbands should be home with their wives, she says. I can’t do this by myself.
I look away from her.
I called your mother, she says.
With that, I go in the kitchen.
In the kitchen I turn on the overhead and then reach far in the dark corner of the cabinet next to the fridge and pull out a bottle of Malibu rum. The light above flickers and when it stops everything in the room seems dimmer.
Outside the wind roars like it did in the Mojave of my youth.
I fix myself a drink, warm rum over ice.
Where’d that come from? she says.
My back to her, and my focus outside the kitchen window at the desert surrounding the parking lot, I lift the glass to my mouth and swallow everything in it. It is a bitter sight.
I turn around, she moves in. She’s right in my face, staring into my eyes.
Go to bed, I say. And wash your hair. It stinks.
I look away at the wall next to the window. There’s a small smudge of paint, a faint sky blue. I remember that she wanted to paint the kitchen walls. We never had the money to do it, but I remember she really wanted it sky blue.
Then Rebecca hurls the bottle of rum, and it shatters against the floor.
Godammit! I grab her by the wrist really hard. What’d you do that for?
Her shoulder drops and she winces. I immediately let go.
I’m sorry, I say. I didn’t mean to grab you so hard.
You don’t always have to be such a bully, she says. She rubs at her wrist and stares at the floor. I turn away from her and look at the mess all around. The broken glass looks like emeralds on the tile, and the rum closes in around our feet, surrounding us.
Baby, I’m sorry, I say. I’ve got a lot on my mind. Are you okay? I didn’t mean to—
But she won’t answer me. She gathers herself, goes to the bedroom and shuts the door behind her.
* * *
In the beginning, when we were getting started, we asked for an apartment with a view of the desert.
Now, staring out the kitchen window at this strange Louisiana desert, so far from anything I know, I think how hard it is to be hopeful anymore, and I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen next.
I walk outside to my truck. I take the letter out of the glove compartment and climb in the back. I lie face up, put the sealed letter on my chest, and fold my hands behind my head. I look at the stars, pick out the brightest one, stare at it. With the soft glow of the streetlights, and the faint hum of the power lines, with the specks of light scattered across the black sky, and with the way things are going right now, all kinds of thoughts rush through my mind.
I think about the old man at the bar, Sherman. I think about what it must have been like on that ship, in those waters, watching your friends drown so close by. No way around it, he kept saying. No way around it. I think about Afghanistan.
I stare out at the sky and realize how lucky I used to be. I imagine walking through the deserts of that hell on earth, that never-ending war, wondering how dark the night skies are there, if the stars come out in the millions the way they do here. The way they do back home.
Most people don’t know how lucky they are. Often we ignore what’s important and justify what’s not. We’re all sleepwalkers.
I feel lonelier than I ever have. I think about that couple arguing at the bar. Seeds, I think. Seeds.
I look at the moon. Hanging low in a silver arc, it shines like a ship sailing on the horizon. For a moment I wonder how many people are alone and staring at the moon. A lot, I tell myself. Thinking this makes me feel better.
But I think about Becca. I think about the life we’ve chosen and what’s ahead for us. My heart races. I feel sad, and I’m anxious all over.
I grab the letter and tap it against my forehead over and over. I wish I could tell her my future, our future, but I haven’t figured out a way to. How do you tell someone everything as you know it is going to change?
Then the stars start to go blurry, and I know that I’m crying.
I wipe the tears from my eyes just in time to see a shooting star. Like a knife it slices through the night sky. Streaking at some fantastic speed, it goes as quickly as it came.
Suddenly everything becomes clear.
I sit up. I know what I have to do.
* * *
In the kitchen I use a broom and dustpan on the floor, then a mop, soaking up all of the liquor. I wash out the mop in the sink then go over the tile one more time, making sure that nothing sticks. I do this thoroughly and carefully, sliding the mop from corner to corner in smooth loops, sure to get everything back to exactly the way it was.
I keep thinking about Becca lying in our bed. Watching the floor dry I think about how fast things move, how day and night come and go so quickly. Then I wash my hands in the sink and stare out the window again.
The wind has calmed, and the dust has settled. With the sun rising, bright golden beams arrow across the desert, aiming for the shadows.
Leaving the kitchen, making my way to the living room, I look at the bedroom door, move slowly toward it, let myself in.
She lies on her back, sheet at her breasts, arms over the sheet, hands over her belly, eyes closed.
Without making a sound, I take small steps to the edge of the bed, lift up the sheet and slide in beside her.
She doesn’t move, just keeps breathing. I move in close to her. I gently stroke her delicate wrist with my fingertips. I gently lift her hands and pull the sheet down to her waist, to my waist. I gently place her arms at her sides and lift her shirt to just below her breasts, exposing her belly.
Her belly fascinates me. I stare at it. I consider what it means now, like this, pushed out and round. How strange a thing it is really, the way the skin stretches and pulls back, the way the belly button spreads open like a giant eye peering up at me. Peering into me. I look at her face, see that her eyes are still closed, then back down at her belly. I think about all of this for a very long time. I ask myself questions and I answer them.
Careful not to wake her I place my ear against the top of her belly, almost at her heart. I let her breathing take me up then down, up then down again, and listen quietly to the human noises she makes.
All the while I can see the sun rise over the desert through the bedroom window. Afghanistan is just another desert. I survive deserts.
I turn over some and kiss Becca’s belly, hoping the tiny kisses might sink below to my little baby girl.
I wonder if I’ll make a good father.
Lying there all the while, I hope she feels me against her. I hope she wakes up and forgives me. I hope she wraps her arms around me and holds me back, the way only lovers can do. I hope.
A wind blows through the slip of the windowsill. It sounds like a kind of singing.
After some time of lying with her, of listening to her, she puts her arms around me, tightly, and pulls us closer together. We lie here. We hold each other. We lean into one another as if against the wind, and brace ourselves.