by John M. Gist
Pulvis et umbra sumus.
“I don’t know,” I mutter. “I do her hair every Thursday at four. For three years she never missed an appointment. She’s always here. She wasn’t here today.”
“The cat’s gone?” inquires Deputy Perez, a leather-backed notebook open in hand, sunglasses concealing his expression.
“I looked everywhere.” I glance at myself in the baroque mirror above the antique bureau in the entryway to Sadie’s ranch-style home. “Sometimes Sadie forgets where she is. Or where she’s been.”
Perez scribbles in the notebook and snaps it shut. He scratches a cauliflowered ear. “If the cat’s gone, I’m betting she went looking for it.”
“You know Sadie Hellbock?” I run fingers through my pomegranate hair. Most people think I’m attractive for a woman of forty-three. I’m thin, tan, and have green eyes, which sparkle like a twenty-something in the right light. I turn to face Perez. “Are you the one that told her to quit calling?”
Perez ignores me. “I assume Mrs. Hellbock doesn’t mind that you let yourself into her home. You checked every room?”
“It is you,” I laugh. I remember now. Perez. “She was complaining about you last week.” Sadie was always complaining about something unless she had her nose buried in one of her books.
“She called about her cat. I told her to call Animal Control, not the Sheriff. Have you checked every room?”
“No. I have a key. I water plants and take care of the cat when she goes to visit her son.”
“Where does he live?”
A framed collection of beetles, pinned in the abdomen to faded gray paperboard, lines the walls of the hallway. I assume they are the late Mr. Hellbock’s collection. I never knew him, so I never asked Sadie why she leaves them hanging on the walls. They give me the creeps. The air smells slightly of burnt grass.
Perez removes his sunglasses. “She drives?” He scrutinizes exoskeletons—green and blue and gold and black—beetles; one of the specimens is black and sports pincers as large as its body.
“Oh no, no. Jack sends a car.”
“Jack is her son?” Perez removes a cobweb clinging to the corner of the frame with the swipe of a finger.
“Her one and only.” I take a step forward to stand directly in front of Perez. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that, Detective.”
“It’s Deputy, not Detective.” He takes a step back. “I’m going to take a look outside. Maybe she wandered into the arroyo.”
Perez looks at me like his brain has cramped.
“That’s what she calls the cat. Hanky Wee for short. Maybe she went looking for him.” I step toward him again. “Did you wrestle in high school?”
“Oh. Yeah. And college.”
“I dated a wrestler.” I reach out to touch him and then stop. “He died.”
“I’m sorry.” Perez turns to leave. “You know Jack’s number? You better call him. Maybe he knows something.”
“He never visits.”
Perez pauses at the door. “Call him. I’ll be back after a look around.”
“Whatever you say, Detective.” I step back to the mirror and consider my reflection.
The dead speak to him in dreams, guide him to this place of wilderness, and whisper so that he might forget. Disembodied voices attach to bloody recollections: mouths agape with the teeth blasted out, eyeless sockets dribbling bits of brain matter. They guide him here, to this canyon, to this stream. He craves peace, a junkie’s desire, needs it like love. They bring him here—how long the journey takes he cannot say, a week, a year, a moment—and are then consumed by the trailing silence, the silence following the creaking bones of raven wings passing overhead. The silence behind the whine of mosquitos in the mustering darkness.
He becomes silence.
The driver of the Escalade, a Mexican wearing a bolo tie with a copper and turquoise clasp, escorts me into the woods. He assures me Jack awaits in a cabin at the bottom of the canyon next to a stream. Jack has a present for me, so says the Mexican, a Siamese cat. Hank Williams will not tolerate another feline in his territory, Siamese or not, and I protest by stomping my heel into the preposterously pointed toe of the Mexican’s red cowboy boot. Towering above me, the Mexican nods like a dashboard bobble-head traveling over washboard ruts. His smile reveals a silver cap on a front tooth. He draws a toothpick from the front pocket of his rose colored shirt, the mother of pearl buttons jiggling in thin light, and says, “You best tells him, SeñoraHellbock. Just down the trail. The cabin at bottom. You finds him.”
I smooth the brown corduroy of my trousers with the palms of my hands, straighten, and look up at the Mexican, “Why would he bring a cat out here?”
“No know,” says the Mexican, his voice sonorous in the dry air.
“Why didn’t Jack tell me? He never sends a car without calling ahead. I might have prepared. Worn boots.”
“Si, si. You go. Set him straight. I waits here.”
“You’re not coming?”
The Mexican shakes his head, streamers of sunlight twisting in his thick hair. “No, no. Me no get involved. I waits here.”
‘Fine.” My pleasure to be rid of him. I find him rude. “This is America. You should speak English in the presence of a lady. Did nobody teach you that?”
“Perdón. Perdón. You best get going. Jack waits.”
There is nothing left to do. I start down the trail.
I sit in a wooden booth across from Perez. Leaning forward over the worn tabletop, I insert a plastic straw into a glass of Diet Coke and place it between my lips painted the color of overripe plums. I suck.
“It’s strange,” says Perez. He wears faded jeans and a beige t-shirt. He is thin and muscular under the cotton. Hair sculpted into a flattop, he smells as clean as the shine on his patent leather shoes. “Something’s off,” he says. “How does an old woman disappear like that? Here and gone like a ghost.”
“You think Jack had something to do with it?” I glance down at my cleavage exposed in the V of my turquoise blouse. He has seen it too, can’t help himself. But desire makes him uncomfortable.
“I can’t say,” says Perez.
We sit in silence. Pedestrians in short sleeves and low-rise jeans trickle by the café windows. They pass the words La Cocina painted in red letters on the glass door. A street-legal dune buggy eases down the main drag of the desert town. Headlights on a primer-gray Volkswagen Bug beam suddenly against the dusty dusk. A horn honks, then another. Sluggish evening, in the space between thoughts, transforms into hectic night.
I lean back in the booth. “Maybe I had something to do with it,” I tease.
Perez plays along, “What would you have to gain?”
“Maybe me and Jack are in it together. I get a cut of the insurance.”
“Insurance won’t pay without a body. Not for years.”
“Maybe I’m as patient as a cat.”
Perez takes up his coffee and sips from the porcelain rim of the cup.
“Or maybe you are,” I laugh. “Cops rely on their instincts, right?” I scoot forward and suck from the straw. “You know, the sixth sense? What’s your cop-sense telling you right now?”
His throat tightens.
He sniffs out the cave like a bear preparing to hibernate, and claims it for his own by pissing on the rock wall near the entrance. He builds a fire in the interior. He adds green pine boughs and stands outside to watch the white smoke billow.
He gathers food: pine nuts and cattail tubers and stinging nettles. He hunts lizard and snake. He fishes the creek with hooks fashioned from spines of barrel cactus growing bulbous where the canyon opens into the desert some four miles downstream from the cave. He unsheathes the blade that has cut life from men and expertly filets the fish. He hangs the flesh on wooden racks. Pine smolder cures the meat.
He craves more substantial fare and so digs a pit at the mouth of the canyon with a beveled wedge of shale. He plants sharpened sticks at the bottom and covers the hole with branches hacked from scrub oak. He returns to the cave and sleeps without dreaming.
Once more awake, he travels through the blushing dawn and reaches the trap by midmorning. A female javelina, a desert pig, lies dead in the pit, three sharpened sticks penetrating vital organs. He climbs into the hole and guts the beast. He heaves the dripping carcass from the earth as if it is being born from dust. Draping the body over his shoulders, he carries it to the cave and cuts meat from bone.
He has forgotten how to speak.
I decide that it is, in actuality, a trail. I follow it down. I speak to an invisible audience, describe the scene as poetically as possible so that I might not feel so alone: “The withered earth resists my footprints. Ponderosa pines bury my shadow. I am dwarfed by what I am: I, who live in a modest ranch style home.” Soon, it seems, I am clear of ponderosa and down into piñon. I hear the sound of running water, here and gone, but do not trust my ears. Orange-winged butterflies bounce on invisible currents of breeze.
I pick my way through chunks of chert and basalt. The Dr. Scholl’s my podiatrist recommended kick up tiny clouds of dust. A shadow creeps into my consciousness, a ghostly weight. I refuse to acknowledge it as fear, though I experience shortness of breath. I spot a boulder, granite or sandstone, who cares what it is? so long as it is a place to rest. I step toward the stone like a sleepwalker beckoned to bed. My foot lands askance on a round pebble. I slip.
“Jack!” I cannot hear my voice. “Jack!”
The sound of water, far off, lures me into its flow.
Warfare twines in the double helix of his DNA, from the Peloponnesian Wars to the Battle of Khe Sanh and all the spilt entrails in between. Gems of sunlight flashing on the surface of the stream relax the tightness in his chest. He breathes.
Roadside bombs and blood wet red, bayoneted rigor mortis corpses soaking in incessant rains that can never cleanse. The girl, nine or ten, a ghost dwelling inside his head, clings to the torso of her limbless mother who is limp in the muddy trench.
Jewels of pulchritudinous light rupture on top of the water, there and gone like exploding cluster bombs. He is baited out of memory into time.
Just an old woman.
I remember my son and husband:
Jack the boy playing with Legos and Erector Sets on the cement floor of the garage, light splaying from fluorescent tubes.
Edward denigrating his bookish boy, towering above him, naming him, “Panty Waist, Pansy, Queer.”
Legos tumbling, metal twisting, the Godzilla-man wrecking the stuff of the boy’s imagination become real. ”We’ll make a man out of you yet.”
Do you hear it Jack, the movement of the water?
I think about my husband’s death:
A person unknown looses an arrow into the fog of dawn, overshoots a cow elk, the fixed blades of the broadhead clearing the beast’s back by less than an inch to socket into Edward’s neck as he kneels next to the trunk of a tree on the far side of the rocky meadow. Yellow blossoms of late blooming wildflowers bobble in a chill breeze. The killer knocking a fresh arrow, releasing, the steel blades striking the elk in heart and lung. The doomed beast lunging a few steps forward, red mist discharged from flaring nostrils, before sinking to its knees.
Whirlpools emerge and disintegrate in the flow. Do you see them, Jack? Are you here? The water is cold. Did you ever learn to swim?
Black powder hunters volunteer for the local search and a rescue team finds him. His body has been gutted by a pack of Mexican gray wolves. The team recognizes it first as human and then as male. Only after one of the bearded men discovers a wedding ring on a severed finger some thirty yards from the fleshless spine do they know it is Edward Hellbock. His name, along with that of his wife, is etched inside the white gold, “Edward and Sadie Hellbock, Two People, One Soul”.
Who are you, Jack? What kind of man have you become?
Dressed in a dark suit and tie the boy standing over the grave of his father, tearless and serene, his face unreal in the bright New Mexican sun.
Are you here, Jack? Have you come home?
Sour breath leaks into my nostrils. I open my eyes and it crouches next to me, a dark splotch, a shade smelling of rot.
“Go on, then,” the syllables crumble on my lips, drop into the darkness like broken teeth. “You don’t scare me, Mister Monster!” My bladder breaks. My thighs are warm and wet. I blink.
And I am alone. The fiend exists only in my mind. He is the terrible pain, the memories of a ruined boy whom I could not bring myself to believe. Stars crowd the sky above the tops of the pines, and, behind the trees, to the left, a full moon sinks beneath the horizon.
“Jack! Jack! Can you hear me?”
I am dying.
I imagine what he looks like on the other end of the conversation, iPhone at the nub of his ear, mirrored sunglass reflecting the world back onto itself.
I say, “Yes, I’m here.” Perez is surprised to find me still at Sadie’s house.
I wonder what it will be like to kiss him.
“Tending the garden and cactus collection,” I tell him. “Somebody has to.”
Stepping into Sadie’s bedroom, I sit on the corner of the king-sized bed, pet the Navajo blanket—the wool, dyed red and blue, patterned into shapes of cornstalks. The mysterious dead husband brought it back from the reservation where he worked as an entomologist. She rarely spoke his name. Only when she drank hot toddies during the holidays: Edward—only then.
“You talked to Jack?” I ask. Images of our bodies, his and mine, tangled together under cool, cotton sheets. I look at the shelves brimming with books that line the walls of the room. “Don’t let him fool you,” I say. “He’s a true believer. One of those life is suffering types.”
I walk barefoot over carpet the color of scalded cream, the nylon fibers filling the space between my toes. I don’t remember having carpet growing up. Don’t remember having a childhood really. I’m happy about it now. Children are a waste of time.
I pause near a wooden rack housing vinyl record albums: jazz, classical and bluegrass. I remember music. Mother loved bluegrass. Played it on the old record player, night and day, while she sipped whiskey from a tin cup.
“I know,” I mutter. “He wasn’t the only one dealt a shitty hand. My mother disappeared when I was twelve—at K-Mart. She told me to wait by the TVs.” I get a sudden craving for marijuana and the dusty oblivion of tequila.
In the private bathroom, I pinch the cellphone in the crook between my shoulder and ear and twist caps off bottles of body cream.
“Well, somebody knows where she is,” I snap.
I sniff at a glass bottle shaped like an angel, poke a finger in the slightly pink cream and dab it behind an ear.
“You’re the detective, not me,” I laugh. “Listen, I’m staying. Just in case. But it’s kind of spooky. You know. Maybe somebody took her by force.”
Pulling open the door to the walk-in shower, I locate a designer bottle of Creed Bath and Shower Gel. Never have I been afforded such luxury. What did Sadie do to deserve this?
“I know,” I repeat. “Probably my imagination. Come by and check on me, please? I’ll cook my famous chicken enchilada pie.”
Looking into the mirror above the bathroom sink, I watch the blood color my cheeks. “Great. That’s great. See you then.”
The call ends. He is coming. It will be dark when he arrives. I reach into the shower and turn the spigot. Water, steaming hot, erupts.
He considers killing her, plunging the blade between her useless breasts. The possibility presents itself as an image, for he no longer thinks in words. The body bucking in death throes, the old woman opening her eyes, befuddled, confused, horror seeping in as blood splurges out, and then she sees him. She cries for help and realizes there is no help, no cure, no hope. He lifts the knife over his head. Like Abraham before him, he pauses and waits for reprieve. But God is absent, witnessing the sacrifice from an Archimedean point forever inaccessible to men.
A mockingbird improvises a tune in the night, mimics the bubbly song of a thrasher, then a chirping cricket, and, finally, the human words, “No, no, no.”
He remembers the scotch-scratched voice of his grandfather reciting poetry at dusk on the long and narrow veranda. Moths tapping against the lantern mantle. The yap of distant coyotes.
The reflection of his face shimmies on the surface of the water, the features elastic, a smear of skin and hair.
Spread-eagled on a slab of sandstone next to the creek, face down, I turn my head, the pain in my hip exploding, and see him straddled over a thick branch of an Arizona sycamore, the pale bark a fretwork of sunshine and shadow.
His teeth are the color of puss.
Mrs. Hellbock’s entryway smells of marijuana as I enter the house. I caught a whiff the first time I met Sam. I don’t care if she smokes weed, but she cares if I know. She greets me, explains away the odor as a side effect of a fresh perm.
She leads me through the entryway and I notice the beetle collection has been taken off the wall. On the back porch, a breeze slithers through the branches of a tall Arizona walnut. The breeze wanders under the hem of Sam’s denim mini-skirt, swirls in a bag of open peat moss on the brick wall, which separates the covered porch from the flower garden. In the center of the garden, among purple chrysanthemums and yellow sunflowers, water trickles from a multi-tiered fountain. “You doing some rearranging?” I ask.
Sam moves to the table at the edge of the porch. “Somebody’s got to keep the place up.”
“What if she doesn’t come back?”
Sam closes the distance between us in two short steps and slaps me across the cheek.
“Don’t say that.” She lowers her face and inspects fingernails painted the color of rust. “That’s what they said about my mother.”
I say, “I’m sorry,” and start back toward the house.
“I’ll never give up on her. You hear?”
I turn to face her. My cheek stings. “How can a woman live in the same town her whole life and there’s nobody to miss her but her hair dresser?”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “But I’ve talked to everybody I can think of and nobody seems to know Sadie Hellbock.” I pace the porch, hands clasped behind my back. “Some checkers at the Safeway remember her coming through the line. Her doctor knows her medical condition, kept advising her to lose weight, but nobody really knows her except for you. Not even her son. Why?”
Sam steps in front of me and takes my hand in her own. “I hate to be the one to break it to you, Detective, but the world’s full of little old ladies nobody gives a shit about.”
But, she wasn’t alone,” says Sam. “Not really. She had her books. Always reading, going places in her head.” She pulls me toward the table. “Now come and sit. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. I’ll get you a beer and a shot of tequila. How’s that sound?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It feels like I’m trespassing.”
She tightens the grip on my hand. “I have to wait here. Understand? I have to.
When I remain still, the pain subsides. I listen to the creek—the water winding around rounded rocks, headed down, down, down. He offers me a drink from a liter Pepsi bottle, the worn plastic checkered with tiny white lines. He kneels before me like a misplaced supplicant searching for something in which to believe.
“Excuse me,” I say, and, with the words, my hip pulsates. “Will you hold it for me?” Stillness, I realize, does not exist, can never exist where there is life: the constant movement of blood and marrow and breath. Thirst defines me.
He does not budge.
“I’m sorry,” I say. Edward counseled Jack, time and again, that if he found himself lost in the mountains to find a stream and follow it down. Water leads to civilization. But Jack never went into the wilds. Not after Edward’s death. “I’m sorry,” I repeat. “I can’t hold it myself.”
His head snaps up and his eyes are as brown as a bog. They are not quite human. There is no other way to phrase it: they are emerging. Tiny bones hang from the corded beard jutting from his face like roots probing an earthen home. Gray strands snake through the matted tangle of brown. The hair on his head has been hacked short. Knife cut. He holds the bottle to my mouth. I drink. Water.
Jack claimed his father pushed him from the cliff and left him shivering in agony on a heap of silvery stones. The men from the search and rescue found the boy unconscious in a tent brimming with buzzing gnats, his arms and face a tapestry of insect bites. Days later the same men discovered the body of my dear Edward. Though I tried, I could not bring myself to take the word of my ten-year-old boy who claimed his father desired him dead.
He feeds me a warm mush of prickly pear and I wash it down with what I can only assume to be fermented cactus juice. I feel giddy and grand and the more I drink the less my hip aches. Not a single syllable escapes him. I fancy he is a foreigner, not from another country but from another planet, some place far, far away, a place where no human loves fiercely or fights bitterly or dies for no reason at all. His presence puts me at ease.
He builds a fire on either side of the slab of sandstone. The wood snaps and pops, pitch pockets exploding like fireworks on the Fourth of July. I hear him behind me, listen to him breathing. I wonder if he has curled into sleep.
Maybe it seemed that way to Jack, that his father tried to be rid of him, maybe it seemed that way, but the authorities found no evidence to support the claim of the frightened child, a boy who may have fabricated the tale from some Freudian impulse he could no longer fathom. I cannot believe that Jack, mangled and marred, clawed his way up from the bottom of the cliff and into the tent. The official explanation: an accident, Edward’s killer unknown.
“Excuse me,” I venture. “I’m not able to tend the fire. Do we need it to burn throughout the night?” Will it ever be light?
Something stirs in the swamps of his eyes as he glances at me—eyes replete with lacertilian wisdom—something that hints that he no longer lives in language. Yet he understood that I could not hold the bottle. He can remember. Maybe I can help him.
“I have a son,” I say. “It’s his birthday. Wait. What day is it?”
He scratches in the dirt, cracks dead wood, feeds the flames.
“Jack’s father died when he was just a boy. Somewhere near here.”
He squats next to me.
“Jack never married.”
Tears well in my eyes, though I feel no sadness, no weight of emotion.
“A loner, that’s Jack. Like you.”
The sandstone under my chin is tear stained. Stars flicker behind the tops of trees. I say, “He murdered his father and he knows that I know.” I never told a soul of my awful secret. I have borne it alone all these years, a cross more burdensome than that of Barabbas. “He killed his father and couldn’t bear the shame. Then he tried to kill himself. But he wasn’t ready to die. He knows I know. And so now he’s killed me.”
Kneeling, he holds the Pepsi bottle in offering. He looks at me and his eyes are wide and dark and wet.
“You’re just like him.” Poor child, poor boy. The liquid is alkaline. I swallow and gulp. He pulls the bottle away and juice spills from the neck to mingle with tears on the surface of the stone.
His snoring reaches into my subconscious as I dream of spewing volcanoes, orange-hot lava illuminating a tropical night—beautiful fear. The earth rips to reveal the abyss that consumes all. I fall and fall and fall and fall. I am not afraid.
“Sam,” he breathes my name gently. I twitch and slur until he shakes my shoulder softly, speaks the words, “Sam, wake up.”
The syllables are tiny parachutes that slow my fall. Words work as guy-wires to lend being the stability of form.
“It’s okay,” he whispers.
I open my eyes and find myself stretched out on Mrs. Hellbock’s queen-sized bed, my breasts plopped on my chest like half-full bags of sand. I pretend to be embarrassed and scramble under the Navajo blanket.
Perez stands from the bed and retrieves his boxer shorts from the carpet. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no.” Wrapped in the blanket, I stand and shuffle to him. “I had a dream. It was like the world was ending. Not the world. Everything. It was beautiful.”
“This isn’t right,” says Perez. “Not in her bed.”
Sam says, “She’s not coming back.”
“How do you know?”
I shove him in the chest and he sits on the bed.
“That’s what it meant. The dream. She’s not coming back.” I allow the blanket to drop to the floor.
I lean to kiss him. He pushes me away. He stands.
He says, “I can’t do this.”
I collapse onto the bed. He will remember how I loved him and come back. He needs time. Just a little. For now, though, there is nothing more for him to say.
“You should go,” I whisper. “Go away.”
The sun rises. He warms water in a metal pot, adds brittle leaves of Mormon tea.
“He never visits.”
Spears of sunlight ricochet off the top of the stream.
“He doesn’t consider it home.”
Water skippers skate over the current, the slender bodies ablaze in the convulsing light.
“He’d put it on the market in a quick second.”
I see him squatting next to the fire. He skewers strips of meat on sharpened sticks of pine, props them against stones encircling the flames.
“So I went to the lawyer. I left it to Sam, my hairdresser. All of it.”
The clicking of pine beetles fills the air.
“He doesn’t know. She swore never to tell him. Leave it to the lawyers.” I laugh and it hurts.
Jays squabble in branches of trees.
He carries an aluminum cup of steaming tea and sets it on the sandstone in front of me. It smells like dirt after rain.
Standing, he moves into the woods. I listen but can no longer hear the clickety-clack of pine beetles. Or the creek.
I am tired beyond reckoning.
Deep in the woods he finds her, the girl, her eyes as wide as seas. She clings to the corpse of her mother. Blood congeals at stumps where arms and legs belong, tacky, like half-dried glue. The mother’s eyes are open and she looks at him like a lover betrayed. She is dead. Flies buzz. Maggots curl. The girl wears a tattered burlap sack as a dress. Tears carve furrows through the dust on her cheeks. Her skin is the color of chicken stock. She does not know he is there, cannot see him, and she pets the swollen belly of her mother. She sings:
…the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Detonations. Holes. Soldiers berserk, shrapnel seething inside of them. Her voice sweet as arsenic in almond milk, she sings:
Goosey, goosey, gander,
Whither dost thou wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers;
I took him by the left leg,
And threw him down the stairs.
The smell of napalm on a tepid jungle breeze, mustard gas in the slop of mud trenches. Human bodies impaled vertically on lances in Romanian mountains. Men crucified on the roads to Rome, the rosy dawn bloody as the secret rose. Her voice like a paper cut:
London Bridge is falling down, down
Falling down down, falling down, down
London Bridge bridge is falling down, down
My fair lady.
Take a key key and lock padlock her up,
Lock padlock her up, lock padlock her up,
Take a key key and lock padlock her up,
My fair lady.
The girl sings and she does not see him. He wants nothing more than to reach out, to comfort her, but he cannot. Her voice pungent as horse manure steaming on green pastures:
Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down!
His grandfather dreamt him a poet, read him verse on the veranda—pine columns all in a row, copper wind chimes strung between, skulls of coyotes hanging on rough hewn wall—on summer evenings. His father killed by war. Another casualty. Another corpse. He joins in:
Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The girl looks up from her mother. She sees him. The concussion from the exploding grenade rips her teeth out by the roots. The words flowing from the wound sweet as sin:
Ladybug, ladybug fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children will burn.
He finds the hatchet in his grip, blade sharp, metal bright. He turns back to the camp, to the old woman who needs more than he can give.
“You didn’t follow her?” I ask.
“No,” says the Mexican. The toes of his red-leather boots point gnomish in the afternoon light.
“I told you never to come here.”
“Perdón,” says the Mexican, “but you no answers phone. I leave messages. You no call back.”
I lead him through the maze of bookshelves to the back porch.
“You likes to read?” asks the Mexican. “Not me. People making stories. No entiendo. Not reals.”
I stink of tequila and crave a shot to steady my nerves. Why would he come here?
On the porch I turn to face him. The crown of my head comes to the Mexican’s sharp chin. I study the turquoise clasp of his bolo tie. “Let me tell you a story.” My eyes pause at the crucifix hanging from his earlobe, the silver in sharp contrast to his black hair. “I have a new boyfriend. He’s a cop.” My eyes rise to meet his. “Never come here, understand?” I take up a half-smoked joint from the ashtray on the table and light it with a wooden match.
“Si, si. Know all about that.” Taking a tin of mints from the back pocket of his pressed jeans, he places the sole of his cowboy boot squarely over my foot. “Want what you promise. No mores.”
I say, “You’re hurting me,” and blow smoke into his face.
“Oh,” he removes his boot from the top of my foot. “Perdón.” He flicks the lid of the tin open with a thumb and pops a mint in his mouth. “Forgive me. Your feet poco. No sees.”
I step off the porch into sunlight. “You didn’t see her either. For all I know they’ll bring her back alive and it will all have been for nothing.”
“No think so,” returns the Mexican. “I watch her go into canyon. I waits. She not comes out. It swallows her whole.” He snaps the lid shut and slides the tin into his pocket. “You say make disappear. She disappears.”
A big gray cat appears on top of the six-foot wooden fence enclosing the back yard.
“Hanky Wee?” I groan. “See what I mean? Now the goddamn cat’s come back.” I step into the shade of the porch. “Listen. There’s no money without a body. I didn’t know.”
The Mexican smiles, his silver tooth flashing. He runs a thick finger down my cheek, “I be back. Next time you pays.”
I feel the blood rise to my cheeks.
Hank Williams jumps from the fence, walks through sunflowers sagging yellow, and rubs against the fountain in the center of the garden.
I imagine him building an ark to take us to the far shore. The air smells of wood chips. Chop, chop, shuffle, there is rhythm to his work.
A shadow passes. I think it is a bird so it is a bird. The sky pales.
I pick up the story where I believe I left off, “She is very dear to me. Calls me every day. I allow her to smoke pot on the back porch.”
Chop, chop, shuffle. He continues to work.
“She loves me. She said the words.”
A shadow passes. It flies like a vulture and so it is a vulture and I do not need to witness it to know.
He builds an ark to take us to the far shore.
And there I must learn how to forget how to speak.
I drive a black Escalade pays for in blood. It a living creature. I checks the glove box. The nickel-plated .357 still there. I closes the box and follow the asphalt as it leads out of the desert and into the foothills. She need body? Body she gets. Then I gets the money and feed the machine. Tires. Rims. Chrome. Horsepowers. A monster.
“I don’t want to go back.” He rolls me onto the travois as gently as he able, struggles against my weight. The pain burns like fire. “Don’t make me go back.”
He takes the poles of the travois and starts up the trail. It’s no use speaking. Words mean nothing, not now, not in this place.
The poles scratch small ditches in the dirt. I listen to water rushing downstream. The fountain in my back yard—in the center of the garden, powered by an electric pump, lined with Talavera tiles, the trickling designed to soothe—would only annoy me now. I don’t want to go back. Memories are like words in books: hollow. “I want to stay with you. Don’t leave me.”
He stops to catch his breath. Ponderosa pine rise silently above, the boughs etched into blue sky like a code only he can decipher. He picks up the poles and pulls. His sweat smells like sweet onions. I wish I had never married. No Edward. No Jack. Just him.
“No,” I say. My voice is firm. “I have to stay here.”
I pace the porch, the phone pressed against my ear. Cicadas rattle in the trees.
“You think it’s weird? Fine. Has anybody heard from Jack? Does anybody think it’s weird he’s not here?”
I pull a chair out from the table and sit. “Just come over after your shift. Please? I don’t want to be alone.”
Standing, I pace to the edge of the cement slab, pirouette, and walk back to the sliding glass doors.
“No. There’s nowhere left to go.”
I sit in the chair.
“I have to wait. I promised.”
I stand and pace.
“Fine. Fine. You’ll see.” I end the call and walk into the house. In the kitchen I turn the gas stove on and then the oven. I stretch out on the floor, the Spanish tiles cool against my back.
I finds the old woman half-conscious on the dirt road at the rim of the canyon. Bad to question good luck and, after making signs of the cross and rubbing the crucifix hanging from my ear, I loads her into the Escalade.
“The canyon no wants you,” I say. “Spit you out.”
The old woman groans and mumbles. I no understand her. I drive out of the mountains.
At sunset I pulls into a desert arroyo long dry. She says she hears water where there is no water. I lifts her from the Escalade and sits her on the gravel bed of the dry wash.
She says, “It’s not your fault,” and the words are clear as rain.
Removing the revolver from the glove box, I says, “I sorry, Señora Hellbock. No body, no pays.”
I pull back the hammer.
She speaks in the voice of a woman half her age, “It’s not your fault. Nobody knows what to do anymore.”
The metallic click of the revolver empties my mind.
She whispers, “Only him.”
The pistol bucks but I no hear the sound. Just a flash of bright light.
He finds Sam unconscious on the kitchen floor. He turns off the gas and drags her to the back porch. He kneels down and presses his lips against hers. He breathes air into her lungs.
Sam, consciousness rising, mistakes him for Deputy Perez. She latches onto to him.
He, without a thought, returns the embrace.
I stand in moonlight looking at the corpse of the old woman. Black beetles scramble over the parched earth, hard-shine exoskeletons softened by the red-blue lights cast from emergency vehicles. A family of illegals found the body. Now they’ll be deported for trying to do the right thing. For a stranger. I hate this fucking job.
John M. Gist
John M. Gist’s creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in publications such as the Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Gravel, Pithead Chapel, Prick of the Spindle, Left Curve, Academic Questions, New Mexico Magazine and others. He was recently awarded runner-up in South Loop Review’s 2014 National Essay Contest judged by David Shields and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He recently was named finalist in the 2015 Tucson Book Festival Literary Awards. With an M.F.A from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he teaches creative writing at sunny Western New Mexico University.