What’s Missing Is
Claire woke up in a sleeping bag. The familiar shimmer of nylon against her skin. The smell of creosote and dampness. Already the darkness was lifting off the desert in front of her. She rolled over on the chaise lounge and groped the ground until she found her headlamp.
The little tuna can stove was back against the wall of the house. She stretched until she could hook it with a fingertip. She filled it with alcohol and lit it with a match. As the stove heated up she poured the water and grounds into the moka pot.
She sat up, still in the sleeping bag, and sipped the inky black coffee. She thought of something an ex had once said to her, “Claire, normal people want to be liked and accepted. You don’t seem to give a shit. All you seem to care about is your coffee in the morning and your drinks in the evening.” More or less. She took another sip. But not really.
Little bubbles of the past had been welling up and bursting on the surface like that ever since the plane touched down yesterday evening. Every time she heard that horrid kitty litter crunch of someone walking on the endless gravel of Tucson, some bit of her younger self broke loose inside.
She was facing west, but could tell that the sun had not cleared the horizon. Two Cardinals flitted in the Mesquite tree at the edge of the patio. Flashes of red amongst the blacks and greens. She listened to them talking, the thin chip of their song muted by the morning stillness.
The desert began to sketch itself in the morning light, watercolor hues of sand and rock that surged together over the rolling canvas until everything was a million rioting shades of pink sandstone that held the river plain like a cradle, the dark green Palo Verde and Mesquite groves nestled like some dark scars in the blushing sand. It seemed to extend forever, spreading out to the west until it climbed up and disappeared into the green, juniper, and pine cloaked world of the Catalina Mountains.
It was wet. The rain she had dreamed was not just a dream. Everything beyond the few feet of solid patio cover where she had slept was dripping. The foot of her sleeping bag was wet. She slid out into the cool of the morning, gravel gouging at her heels, and hung the sleeping bag to dry from a hook on the patio cover.
She cupped her hand to the window and looked inside the house. Her grandfather was passed out in the recliner, fully reclined, just the way she had left him six or seven hours ago, when his eyelids had finally slid shut over the constellations of grief she had watched drift quietly across those dark expanses. The TV still flickered. Ever since she was a girl, the only way he had ever slept.
The late evening sun was just starting to temper its edge, take a little something off finally, maybe give a little respite from this goddamn heat, Ambrose was thinking when the entirety of the gravel station lot just outside the window was swallowed by a giant dust cloud that might, he realized, have somewhere in it a car, a customer—perhaps even customers—something he had not otherwise seen since much earlier in the day, back when it was hotter than Ambrose’s repertoire of swear words could convey.
He’d been wondering for some time if he’d need to expand that repertoire for the jungle. The Army was unclear on many things, especially to Guardsmen like Ambrose, not the least of which was how many words he might need to describe the heat of Panama.
He was still standing in the shadows of the garage wiping his tanned forehead with a greasy rag, trying to imagine humidity, or at least the idea of water, when he heard the door slam and the inevitable gravel crunch of footsteps coming his way. Squinting against the glare of the setting sun he was just stepping out of the shadows when a woman’s voice startled him.
“Sorry about the dust.”
“That’s all right ma’am.”
“We need some petrol and a place to stay.”
“Okay. Well I’ll fill it up for you. You can stay down the street at the Vida Court. I’m sure there’s some rooms.”
Ambrose followed her back to the truck where two small boys and a teenage girl sat atop a pile of trundles and suitcases in the bed. He nodded to the boys and tipped his hat to the girl who met his gaze directly, without flinching in the slightest, which brought a warm heat to his cheeks before he could stop it.
Ambrose turned his head away and busied himself with the gas pump.
“Heat brings the color to your cheeks,” the woman was beside him again.
“Yes ma’am.” Ambrose stared at the ground. “Been a hell of summer, if you’ll pardon me.”
“It’s not always this hot?”
“It’s always this hot, but not for so long.” The woman said nothing; Ambrose glanced up at her. “Ma’am?”
“I was thinking, I was wondering if my grandchildren will have to endure this place.”
“We’re here for my husband. They said that the dry air would be good for his tuberculosis.”
“Mmmhmm. They say that.” Ambrose studied his feet.
“I don’t expect I will get to leave.” She was staring off in the distance. “But I’d like to think my daughter might.”
He waited a moment, but she did not say anything more. She paid him in coins and climbed back in the truck. The engine coughed back to life after a few sputters that Ambrose attributed to grungy spark plugs. Most people didn’t know to soak them in gasoline, it was rare that they need to be replaced. He decided he liked the woman, she was maybe a bit odd, but the heat did funny things to you if you weren’t used to it. He imagined she would endure, something about her seemed incapable of not enduring. At the very least he didn’t feel like she should need to buy new spark plugs just yet. He would tell her as much tonight, after he went home to the Vida Court.
He watched the truck crawl out onto Prince road. He followed it out, kicking a rock out the driveway into the road. He saw the brake lights at the end of the street. The truck lurched into the Vida Court. He thrust his hands in his pockets and walked back toward the office.
If she really didn’t give a shit Claire reasoned, then she would not have come. People who don’t give a shit don’t abandon their lives half way around the world, book very expensive last minute plane tickets and come back to the godforsaken fucking desert.
Although, in truth, now that she was here, she missed this desert in some deranged way that made her half understand why people stayed in abusive relationships. Hate is just a perversion of love, but rage, rage is another thing altogether.
She had left the desert in a kind of rage, a dull rage of unfairness wrapped up in punk rock and politics, and being born at the wrong time in the wrong place to the wrong people. The people who didn’t stick around.
Claire found her aunt’s cigarettes tucked in the side of her purse, which she had left next to the impossibly long telephone cord that connected the old push button land line her grandfather insisted on keeping around. She took two and ducked out the back door for walk in the desert. She wanted to get away from her aunts.
Her mother’s sisters both thought she didn’t give a shit. They always had. All because Claire hadn’t cried at her own parents’ funeral. As if a six year old is aware of social decorum.
They still hated her for it. Or, if not hated, at least thought she was strange, most likely a little dangerous and best studied in silence. That she insisted on sleeping outside, like an animal she had heard her aunt say last night, only reaffirmed this belief. But outside was the only place the rage dissipated. Outside there was only the heat and the stillness and the relative cool of the evening and mornings. Coffee and cocktails were not so far off after all perhaps.
There was also the rather insulting move of leaving the desert. Claire did what no one else in the family had dared to do since her grandmother stepped off the beat up flatbed into the cactus-strewn world of kitty litter: she left. We are here to go she had said with a smirk as she disappeared over the horizon, traveling halfway around the world to do god knows what. Claire imagined how much they must enjoy talking about her when she wasn’t around. Sometimes she thought she should sit them down and just tell them everything, but they had over the years made it pretty clear that they actually liked her better as an object of fascination than a person. Who was she to deny them such pleasure?
It was April, the edge of searing heat, more of a baking heat right now. The dry heat of spring in a place where somehow flowers still contrived to not just exist, but explode out of the seemingly dead soil. Claire looked down at the cigarette between her fingers. She’d quit years before, but somehow it seemed like something Emma would do. Now though, standing in the middle of a flame red cluster of Ocotillo flowers she realized Emma would never have lit the cigarette. Would never have even taken it. Would never have come at all. She was never part of the desert the way Claire was, she had floated above it like a cloud.
Claire watched a tiny dust devil gathering in the wash down the hill. The desert was where the earth’s dust came from. Bits of the Sahara coat the Amazon every year. There is no escaping the desert. Even if you travel half way around the world your desert past will find you, grain by grain, dust to dust. Everything ends up back here in the dry desert plain where it settles and bakes in the heat until it’s all as hollow as a corn husk. A little wind and it would all be off again, headed south down to the Mexican coast and out to sea.
Emma had developed a peculiar fascination with chewing sand. It came to her mouth as a dry film licked off her lips. From western Oklahoma onward she had been chewing at the nothingness of sand. Now, after jumping down from the truck bed, she violently spat the contents of her mouth on a cactus and resolved to never chew sand again.
Except that it kept settling on her lips. And she kept licking them, out of habit. Perhaps, she thought, the whole West is just one thin dusty film settling over the world. Certainly the room at the Vida Court was saturated with fine grit.
Mother had laid Father out on the bed and was giving him a glass of water and some saltines. They were talking in low voices that Emma could not make out. She went outside to get her bag and have a look around.
The Vida Court was, Emma reasoned, better than sitting atop trundles in the back of the flatbed wedged between sweaty siblings and a mucus and blood-spewing father. And that was about all that could be said of it.
It was not, for instance, a ten-room farmhouse with three floors and a tornado cellar. Nor was it surrounded by endless acres of imported genuine Kentucky bluegrass with a semicircle of drooping cottonwood trees growing around the pond. There were no ponds for miles. Just a small, rusted, copper tub full of sun-warmed water.
It was only after she removed her stockings that she realized how thoroughly the sand had saturated her. Or perhaps, she thought, perhaps my thighs have tanned through these skirts. She climbed into the water and watched as the brown of her legs faded back to milky white, the dusty film of Oklahoma and New Mexico drifting across the water like great orange clouds moving from one end of the tub to the other.
She could see the young man from the gas station through the chalky pink haze of the bathroom window, but only as a still, dark frame in a chair on the porch. It wasn’t long before Emma found herself standing in the bathtub, dripping water, watching the shadowy porch for signs of movement.
She put on a clean dress and evacuated the bungalow as fast as she could without raising undue suspicion. The sun was already gone, but the air still held the heat like a treasure of the day. She walked around the cacti and was tempted to touch the thorns. She reached out her hand and ran it from the center out and down the edge, careful to keep her hand moving with the hooked direction of the needles.
“So y’all sold your farm, bought the truck, and hauled your dad out here for some fresh air huh?”
His voice startled her enough that she almost leaned on the cactus for support.
“You sold the farm, bought the truck and here you are, TB and all.”
“Something like that.”
“We get quite a few passing through these days…”
“Oh we’re staying I believe.”
He extended his hand and she stepped out of the cacti and took it in her own.
“You know, Emma,” he took another sip of the beer for courage, “that truck your family is drivin’…you need to pull the plugs and soak them in some gasoline. I can do it if you like.”
The funeral was over by four. Claire sat on the patio with her Grandfather, eating leftover Fancy Franks.
“These were her favorite,” he said staring down at the last one in his hand.
“No they weren’t, she hated little cocktail crap like this.”
He laughed and pitched the last one out into the desert. “You’re right, she did.”
She watched a Brown Thrasher study the frank from a low branch of a Palo Verde tree. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
“Have I ever not been okay?”
“You wife just died Papa…”
“She died three years ago Claire, her body stopped working recently is all. I’m old, she was old. People die. It’s what we do Claire. Next time you come around here it’ll be for me.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way Papa, but I’m not coming back for you.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because when I’m gone there’s no one to come back to.”
Claire smiled. “True, plus I’d hate to disappoint all of them. Everyone thinks I don’t give a shit. If I show up here after you…well, that would seem like I gave a shit wouldn’t it?”
“Who thinks you don’t give a shit? Give a shit about what? They don’t think that.”
“About anything. And they do. Like everyone else has these complicated situations and feelings and worries and all this shit and I just float away on a bunch of merry red little balloons.”
Ambrose chuckled. “Who thinks this?”
Claire gestured around her, “I dunno, everyone…”
“Mmmhmm. Claire, you know better than most that there is no everyone.”
The rock sounded like a bomb against the window. She was a foot clear of her bed before she had even made sense of the noise. Then she heard his hissing whisper, “Emma…”
She pulled the window up and crawled out, tumbling down into his arms. “Stop with the rocks, you scared the life out of me.”
They crept through the sandy yard and down the banks of Palo Verde snarls to the edge of the river. He stopped suddenly and she crashed into his body. He started to say something, but she smothered his mouth with a kiss.
Later they lay on their backs listening to the river. Ambrose told her the names of the stars that he could remember, making up the rest on the spot.
She asked about the stars in Panama and then suddenly, “you aren’t going to get Malaria are you?”
Despite all the words he had conjured for Panama this was one he had not thought of. The Army had not mentioned it either. “Do they have malaria in Panama?”
“Of course. And snakes and worms and all sorts of nastiness. It’s a jungle you know.”
“I know. It’ll be beautiful, no desert, no dry cracking horridness.”
Emma smiled. “You’ve never felt humidity have you?”
“No, but I already know I love it.”
Emma laughed. “You might be the only person I’ve met who’s happy to be going to war.”
“I’m not happy to be going to war, but I’m happy to get out of here. I’ve been trying to get out of here for years.”
She laughed again and stroked his cheek. “You can always leave anywhere Ambrose, you just go. You just have to make sure you understand what you’re leaving.” She slid out of his arms and walked down to the water’s edge. He watched as she crouched down at the river’s edge and skipped rocks out toward the middle.
The patio had a fan. It spun too slow to move the air much. It had always reminded Claire of a tape reel or a movie projector, except that it was broken and only spun backward. A tape reel forever rewinding.
The rain had started again off in the distance, a low cloud hung over the mountains, a black mist trailing down from it, filling the canyons and ravines with drops that would become a raging wall of water by the time it passed by here tomorrow morning.
Inside the house Ambrose tilted back the reclining chair with a long angry sounding trail of ratcheting clicks. She could hear her aunts talking in the kitchen, their words muffled by the faucet and clatter of dishes. She heard the TV come on. They would be running the ticker tape at the bottom of television again tonight: Flash flood warning in effect.
Tomorrow the newspaper would want everyone to know that someone had died; that a new golf course is going to be built on the hillside above someone’s watery grave; that the threat of flood is the price we pay for sunshine; that the desert is a barren curse; that every place has its curse, that eventually all the curses will combine; that everything will be cursed; that the curse is not so bad; that loneliness is a curse; that loneliness is different than alone, that still, the coffee is quite good down at the…
Claire slid her legs into the sleeping bag, enjoying the dry slipperiness of nylon against her skin. It felt like slipping between worlds, cool dry worlds where she could float on red balloons forever. Darkness closed in, the world telescoped down into blackness. The foothills faded, the dark splotches of river slipped into black. Eventually there was only the lone saguaro still glowing in the soft blue light of the television flickering behind her.
Scott Gilbertson lives in Athens, Georgia with his wife and children. You may read more of his writing at luxagraf.net.