LAURA JOYCE DAVIS
You don’t just arrive in Slab City overnight, like going to sleep in the back seat of your parents’ Volkswagen van when you’re a kid and waking up in New York City, where you were dreaming of all along. You mean to go everywhere else—Aguanga, Yuma, Quartzsite, Mammoth Lakes—and then, when you’re sure you’ve been to all of those places and they’re all wrong for you, you turn in despair to the place you never believed existed, never even heard of until you met me.
My name could be Bonnie or Maggie or Sharon. The name’s not important, but the bike is. It’s a Harley, the kind you always dreamed of getting if you could have sold the house that went to your ex-wife: VRSC V-Rod painted Lava Red Sunglo, 115 horses, with a seat so wide you could almost lie back on it and look at the stars, if you liked stargazing, which you don’t particularly. My palms are thick and hard, just like yours, but the bad years hide in the creases around my eyes and the calluses on my hands, so you can’t see them unless you look close. With my smooth cheeks and red hair that doesn’t even look like it’s dyed, I’m a lot prettier than you. This probably makes you think I wouldn’t even consider you, but that’s where you’re wrong. When I pull into the Lazy Hog Saloon just outside L.A. in West Covina, I look at you, size up your Goldwing, and say you probably picked that color because it makes you seem flashy.
You look at me with eyes as empty as an ashtray, and say nothing.
Inside the bar I beat you four times at poker, and then tell you the game is for pussies, which is why I’m so damn good. This almost makes you laugh, and you try to buy me a drink. I order a Bloody Mary, and tell you to go to hell.
You don’t know why I hang around after the games have broken up and the bar tender has lost interest in my stories about climbing to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge with my first husband—the little wimp, couldn’t even make it to the top without me pushing his skinny butt every step. You watch me over your Budweiser, thinking maybe, just maybe. You don’t think I notice the way you’re checking out my black leather legs and thinking not bad, not bad for her age. I’ve spent half a lifetime on the road, but I’ve never forgotten my mother’s advice about sunscreen and firming cream. You think I’m a young-looking fifty-seven, sixty maybe, and it doesn’t cross your mind that I’m as ancient as you and not about to tell.
It takes you three more drinks to ask me where I’m going, and I’m not sure why I don’t just tell you the truth. I already know you’ll come with me. I could feel it from the second you got off your bike and walked into the bar. There’s something about you that makes the joints in my hips and knees ache, something in that grimace on your face that makes my bones creak. I won’t say it’s pity, because I don’t believe in that disgusting emotion. And I don’t think you are any better to look at than your flabby excuse for a bike. Sure, your eyes are nice—Paul Newman eyes. But your hair has probably been white for several decades, and while you might have been something to look at in your twenties, now you’re just another withered old man with a sagging gut and skin hanging off your arms. But there is something—something that tells me that you might just understand. I’m not optimistic enough to think that you’ll be some kind of soul mate, but I do get the feeling that you know hate the way I have known it: cold and hard and laughing at the way rejection twisted my lips and cheeks for one sickening moment. Something about you stops me from splashing the truth in your face like acid and watching it burn.
“There’s nothing quite like Slab City,” I say instead. “It’s the only place I can stand anymore, once the cold comes.”
You pretend not to be interested, but I can already tell that we’ll be riding there together, you glancing over every now and then to make sure I haven’t cut across lanes and headed back north without you.
“Sounds like a dump,” you say, but you cap your words with a pinched smile and take another sip of your beer.
“It is,” I smile, flashing my gold canine tooth at you. “But it’s the only place in America where you can live for free all winter long, and still go to Saturday night dances and play bridge on Sunday afternoons.” I don’t try to hide my stare as I check out your legs. They don’t look like dancing legs, so I don’t expect much from you. Still, I hope you surprise me.
“The state of California sort of looks the other way when it comes to Slab City,” I say, since you’re not talking. “Only once or twice does the law peek in, and that’s only if there’s something really strange going on. We’re sort of a law unto ourselves.”
You don’t meet my gaze, but I’m not surprised when, after the fifth beer, you agree to come with me. You follow me to the motel down the road, and I can see you trying to decide whether or not to ask if you can share my room before thinking better of it and getting your own. You make me promise we’ll have breakfast at seven, and already I can see that look I’ve worn so well, but it’s on your face now. You’re positive I’m going to double-cross you. You’re no romantic and you never were, but you can’t stand a woman laughing at you.
You don’t talk over greasy eggs and flapjacks, except to tell me the only reason you’re coming with me is that you’re bored and broke. That suits me fine, since I am too, I tell you, but I won’t go there with a complete stranger, so you might as well start talking.
You stare at me like I’ve just asked you to pull down your pants. Fine, I say. We’ll ride first. Maybe you’ll be more interesting over lunch.
You ride behind me the entire way to Niland, the nearest town to Slab City. I suppose you want to make sure I don’t get away from you while you’re riding through country you’ve never ridden through. The sun comes out just as we reach the Salton Sea, and I glance over my shoulder to see if you’re still soft enough to appreciate something as beautiful as the glittering water and brown mountains off to our right. I wonder if you’ll be disappointed when you see that our destination isn’t half as pretty as what we’re seeing now.
“This is it?” you say when we pull over just outside the “Welcome to Slab City” sign. You scan the flat desert in front of you, already worried because all you see are hundreds of RVs with a few tents mixed in, and some low mountains in the distance. The Salton Sea is only a mile away, but you won’t see it from here unless you get someplace higher up. Your gaze settles on Salvation Mountain, that pastel construction of hay and mud and colored paint old Wilbur has devoted his crazy life to. The low mound of chalky colors and crude shapes looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
“You didn’t tell me it was this kind of place,” you say, eyeing the large cross on top of Salvation Mountain.
“Think of it as our version of the letters on the hill they have in Hollywood.” I wave my hand at Salvation Mountain. “No one in Slab City pays it much attention, but it does attract the tourists.”
“Must be some kind of fanatic,” you mumble.
“Not all of them are God-bangers,” I laugh. “Just Wilbur and a few strays who go to Pastor Jim’s church in the trailer.” I point to the large white cross on the top of the colored mound. “That thing got struck by lightning twice last year. Now what do you think God thinks of that?” You don’t laugh with me, but I can see you breathing a little easier, letting go of the panic. “Our own little desert oasis,” I smile, and slap you on the back. “No running water or electricity. But no fees or rules either.”
A large fly lands on your arm, and I slap it hard enough to kill it, leaving a red blotch on your age-spotted skin. “Mexican Jet,” I say. “They’ll spit poison into you if they bite. Don’t ever let ‘em and you’ll be fine.”
Your momentary calm vanishes, and you look at me like I’m the biggest mistake you’ve made yet, and I can tell you’re already thinking about turning right back around, or heading to San Diego, maybe, or Mexico. You could. You’re just over the border now, and the Chocolate Mountains there aren’t big enough to stop you. But I know you won’t. You found me just like they all find me, looking for someone who has something you can’t define, but you know you need. I won’t say you’re any more special than the last one, with his obsession with calling everyone by their full name, or the one before that, who yelled out the names of every town we passed (Gar-skee, North Da-ko-tah! You just got lucky!). I don’t get attached, knowing that my time with you is a few weeks, maybe, at most a few months. Still, you’re more like me than they were, and that means something, although I can’t say what.
“I can’t stay here.” You say after we’ve parked our bikes in front of my trailer.
“Course you can. You’ll stay with me.”
You give me the same tired stare that you’ve been wearing since I met you, and I start to think maybe I was wrong about you. Maybe you’re not angry or even bitter. Maybe you’re just bored. All along I’ve been thinking you were just not letting on how nice you think my ass is, that you’ve been playing it cool, but now I start to wonder if maybe you’ve really just become the monotony you dread so much. I don’t like thinking that you might’ve come for some other reason besides me, so I hand you a Bud, hoping this will pop your cork and start you talking.
We sit on the metal steps of the RV that has been my winter home in Slab City since 1992, when I traded marriage for my bike, and watch the sky get dark. I can’t think what to say to you as we watch all the losers walk by, play horseshoes, and share coffee over the fire. You ask me who they are, and I tell you they’re you and me, but nicer. They’re the fraternities for geezers: the Loners on Wheels, the Birds of a Feather, the Escapees, along with a few outliers like us who don’t have a senior group to travel with. They come here every winter, sometimes as many as five thousand of them, and spend their time laughing at the country club set who’d never set foot in Slab City. That’s why we like it. We can be elitist about the elitists.
I watch your face in the gray light to see if this makes you laugh, but you don’t even crack a smile. “I saw a sign for a polka dance,” you say. “I can’t stay in a place where all these old farts do is polka.”
“That’s funny, coming from an old fart.”
I reach into the cooler I keep under the trailer and pull out two MGD’s and hand you one. “Time to pull out the good stuff,” I say, popping off the top of my beer on the edge of the trailer.
You slouch next to me and frown at a bonfire the next trailer down. “I don’t belong here.”
“There’s no place you think you belong, ‘cept maybe hell. But that’s not my problem. My problem is that I brought some tight-lipped bore to my winter hideout, and all I know so far is he doesn’t polka.”
You glare at me for a while, and then, just when I’m about ready to stop by the Loners on Wheels trailer and watch a rerun of the Lawrence Welk Show, you get all busted open.
“I don’t talk because there’s nothing to tell,” you say slowly, as if your own words might put you to sleep.
“You’re asking for an early death,” I say, the prediction slipping out before I realize what I’ve said. “You let that tragedy sit inside you, and it’ll rot your bones.”
“So I should shoot it out at everyone else instead, like you.” It’s the first nasty thing you’ve said to me, and it makes me smile a little.
“Yeah,” I say. “You should. Hate is a lot more constructive that sorrow. There must be something you hate in this world. I don’t believe you’re so boring that you don’t have anything to contribute.”
“Tattoos.” You say it quiet, but mean.
I follow your gaze to a leathery woman walking by in cowboy boots and a man’s undershirt. Her arms are a crowded collage of faded vines and thorns. She sees me and shrugs.
I laugh and pull up my shirt to show you the Harley logo on my back. “Now how can you dislike something as beautiful as this?”
You look at me as if I’ve just spoken in tongues, but then you get over it and look at the circle you’re making with your foot in the dirt. “She had these tattoos running up her left leg,” you say, quiet at first, but then spitting out your words in disgust. “Went all the way to her lower back where she had one of a hand, like it was about to grab her butt.” You spit in the dirt.
“Sounds typical,” I say, picturing the ugliest version of her that I can imagine. “Why’d you waste time on someone so boring?”
You look back at the bonfire, and I can see the reflection of orange flames jumping beneath your eyelids.
“Sheila wasn’t boring,” you say. “It’s boring now. Alone.”
I wait for you to continue, knowing you will. But now I’m not sure I want you to. “What death would you choose for her if you could pick one?”
You continue as if I haven’t spoken. “Hell, she had the nicest arms in all of Oregon, and probably Washington too.” You talk about her arms the way most men talk about a good rack. “She was always showing them off, pulling up the car hood and tinkering around, her muscles twitching and flexing. She was more at home under a Ford truck than—well, she was a show off.”
“Lucky for you,” I say, but you don’t laugh.
You rub your face in your palms. I keep my hands to myself, knowing you’ll snap if I touch you.
“If I found Melvin now I’d skin him and quarter him and hang him from a tree by his ear lobes,” I say. You look at me with an expression I haven’t seen in a long time, and I turn away because it’s too soft, too tender.
“If there’s a God, and I’m pretty sure there is, I’m pretty sure He’s a bastard,” I say, wanting to change the subject. You nod, like it’s the first true thing you’ve ever heard. “There’s a pastor here, Pastor Jim. He ain’t a bad guy, and I usually go to his Friday night campfires just for kicks and free chili, but he’s got God figured as some sort of sweet, candy-ass father-figure who pats us on the head and makes rainbows.”
I hear the slight shifting of sand next to my trailer, and glance over.
“And if you’re still not convinced what a jerk God is, you can take Slab City, the cruelest joke ever played on any retired man, with scores of single women who don’t give a damn about you and never will.” This comes from Rusty Candler, who has shuffled up to my trailer and joined us, announcing his presence in his usual, too-quiet way. “I never did get the slab of cement closest to the mountains like I wanted. That went to Jacky Kutchkins, who’s too crazy to appreciate it.”
“Hey Rusty,” I say. “About time you start creepin’ around and bitchin’ about life.”
Rusty leans back and laughs, rubbing his round belly. He looks you over, trying to figure out if you know why you’re here. He’s thinking you’ll be easy, with your short, scrawny legs and chicken wing arms. “Where’d you meet our lady of the night?” He finally says, smiling and rubbing his belly fondly, obviously impressed with himself for coming up with the expression.
You look at Rusty as if you’ve only just realized he’s there. “She beat me in poker,” you say, and it seems like you’ve just reduced your life to being beat by some woman at a game that was hers to begin with.
Rusty laughs. “That’s okay. She’s terrible at bridge.”
“I hate card games,” you tell him. “Never was good at any of them.”
But the truth is that you’re not half bad, and when we head over to the Escapees trailer, you win more than you lose before we head back to my trailer. You even smile once, when you win the third time and surprise even me.
“Place stinks like garbage,” you say before the trailer door rattles shut.
“So do you. Seems like you’ve come home.”
You sneer at me, and I notice that you’re missing a tooth in your bottom row of teeth. I feel more at ease whenever you get a little angry. I imagine all of the hatred sneaking out through that little gap in your teeth, like red smoke filling my trailer. My own anger starts to sneak out too. It’s the color of the sun at high noon, and as it mixes with yours, the trailer starts to sweat.
“You brought me to a stinking garbage dump.”
“No, you came with me. And it’s an abandoned military base. Might even find some scraps of old test-run bombs on the side closest to the Chocolate Mountains if you’re lucky. That’d be a nice souvenir for you.” I wait to see if you’ll snap back, but instead you start to relax. That’s when I see it, the reason you found me. You don’t hate me. You understand that I don’t hate you either, but that bitterness is a way of life with us. When you’ve been loved and left as many times as we have, hatred is a survival mechanism. The more you hate, the better chance you have of outliving your exes. For the first time since I came to Slab City over a decade ago, I start to wonder if maybe I’ve found someone who will stick around for a while. My vision of smoky anger filling the trailer has vanished, and this makes me shift from one foot to another and fumble around the night table for a cigarette.
“I hope there’s something better than bridge tomorrow night,” you say at last. “I might head off to New Mexico this weekend if this doesn’t stop being the worst place I’ve ever set foot in.”
But you won’t. You’ll stay right here, and if I’m not laying yellow daisies on your grave like I thought I would be, then maybe I’ll be convincing you that there are other reasons not to leave this place. The knowledge that I might have been wrong about you is something new. It feels good in my chest like the warm burn I get from a swig of Southern Comfort. But it feels dangerous too, and so I put my mind to plans for your decay. I won’t put a wooden cross in the dirt and sand the way I did with Harold, Wayne, Max and—what was his name? Ray. They still believed in a nice God, even if Max thought God was a Texan, just like him. You’d probably try to dig yourself back from the dead if you knew anyone was putting a cross above you. Maybe I’d put an old shoe there, or one of your bike tires.
I could tell you about it, but I know you’ll figure it out soon enough if I’m not wrong about you. I might as well not spoil things while you’re having yourself such a good time here. I figure we have at least a week or two, and maybe a lot longer, so I’ll let my secret hiss out nice and slow, and see if I can just let it soak in with that toxic loathing.
“You won’t leave,” I say, partly to solidify my own thoughts on the matter. “What would you do without me to show you the country?”
You don’t catch the sarcasm in my voice, and sit down on the bed facing away from me. “Do you really think I need you to show me the country? I’ve been doing fine on my own for eight years.”
There’s only one bed in my trailer, and you’re not the first one to sleep there with me, so I slough off the awkwardness when I pull down my pants and tell you I’m not about to do anything but sleep, and maybe have a smoke if I can’t sleep, so you might as well put away the Viagra. This singes you, since I can tell you were only planning to think about me all night long. “Rusty was right,” you say, spitting your words at me. “A place full of women who don’t need you.”
I lie in the dark, staring at the ceiling, and think about how I’m glad for this little outburst. Your hate will keep you alive.
Soon you’re practically shaking the trailer with that big old nose, but that’s not what keeps me awake. I think about what it’d be like if I’d never met you, or the four guys before you who are buried on the far side of Slab City next to the pet cemetery, which will always be bigger than the people cemetery since the animals don’t know any better than to drink the water from ditches and puddles. I don’t believe in loving somebody, haven’t since before my first marriage ended. But that thing you said about not needing me—why does it keep me up looking at shadows on the ceiling, listening to the rattling of the wind on the sand outside, wondering who’s singing “Waltzing Matilda” somewhere a few trailers down? Of course you don’t think you need me. I don’t need you either. I could’ve come here all by myself, would’ve been just fine drinking beers with Rusty and making fun of the pink-haired ladies. Slab City isn’t a home, but it’s a place you can be sorta loose in, and I’ve done that for ten years before I ever met you, so why should this time be any different? It isn’t. I’m still a loner, still just doing an old guy a favor by bringing him to death instead of letting death creep up on him. Of course I don’t need you.
The next morning I do a water run before you’re up, since I only brought a few gallons from Niland on the way in. You barely stir when I leave you, the sky still gray and lavender, the way I think of it whenever I think of Slab City. This, I remember, is why I came here in the first place, and why I come back every winter. Wilbur’s Salvation Mountain looks hazy and soft under the morning half-light. It’s not much more than an obnoxiously bright mound of sand and clay, but when it’s under the dull, cool sky, it’s our own little version of heaven. All of the trailers and tents are quiet, except for the occasional clatter of aluminum as someone shuffles around to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. The only place on earth I feel peaceful is a place where they used to drop practice bombs.
Bill Waters is already setting up speakers and mics at the Range for tonight’s live music, which means today is Saturday, and we’ll all be forced to hear whatever local crooner Slab City has coughed up for the week. I mostly ignore the music at the Range when I can, because it’s so bad. But it’s something to do, and it’ll give you something more to complain about, which ought to make you happy. We can sit in the back and snicker at the banjo players while the sincere old ladies in the front clap their hands to the beat.
By the time I get back from Niland, you’re washing in the outdoor shower Jesse Nutkins rigged up in a ditch a few years back. The canvas walls only come up to your shoulders, and I stride across the sand and peer at your scrawny figure.
“Pretty cold this morning?” I walk away, laughing, and you throw cuss words at my back as I head back to the trailer. You like me, in your spiteful way, and I feel kind of sprightly and even a little cheerful by the time the eggs are sizzling and popping in the frying pan. I think about asking you to play horseshoes after breakfast, and hum Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” I always thought Frank was a fake, but his songs have a funny way of finding their way into my head when I’m feeling slightly less resentful toward him.
That evening, as we sit around the fire I build and roast s’mores, we start up a game that we continue every night after that.
“What’s the worst thing you’d say to Sheila if she brought her little tattooed, cheating self up to our campfire right now?” I say, and watch you blow out the flame that has turned your marshmallow black.
“I’d tell her that her arms had gotten flabby and soft, and that if her mechanic was telling her otherwise, it was just because he’s using her for her way with machines.” Your face twists in a sneer, but when I laugh, you smile a little too, and the scowl gets mixed in.
“I’d tell Melvin that he was terrible in the sack. As if a guy named Melvin could be anything but terrible. Did you know that he used to tell me he was the best guy in bed he knew? He thought that because some of his friends told him they were jealous that he’d slept with so many women. I’d tell him the reason he had to sleep with so many was that no woman could stand to sleep with him again, once she found out how awful he was.” This makes you laugh, and I’m surprised at the way your laugh is hearty and careless, like a child who hasn’t realized how he sounds yet.
“I’d tell Sheila that we weren’t actually divorced, that I didn’t sign one important paper.”
“Is it true?”
“No,” you laugh your silly chuckle. “But it’d piss her off.”
“I’d tell Melvin that the only reason I married him was to have a reason to visit his baby brother now and then. He was ten times the looker Melvin was.”
“I shoulda married Sheila’s cousin,” you confess. “She was the kind who wouldn’t run off.”
I stare at the fire, pretending to be engrossed in getting my marshmallow just right, so the outside is crispy brown all the way around. I didn’t expect to get this feeling so soon, or to be sorry when I did. It’s the feeling I get when the end is just about to sneak up on us. I look to see if you notice, but you’re lost in thoughts of criticizing Sheila’s tattoos.
I can’t sleep that night. Your snoring is even louder than last night, so I know you’re still plenty alive. I keep thinking I’ll wake up and you’ll be gone, all of that boiling frustration reduced to a corpse, and me left to deal with it. You make it through the night, and although you don’t suspect a thing, I can tell you’re annoyed when I say I don’t want to play bridge tonight, that I’d rather sit on the stoop and smoke alone for a little while. I feel slightly guilty throwing you out to those old dogs by yourself, but I need to nap for a little while, or at least be quiet and think things over.
I sit on the metal stairs of my trailer, blowing smoke up at the stars and watching the way it clouds my view for just a second. I know what will greet you as soon as I’m not by your side. Those vultures at the Loners on Wheels hall won’t be able to stand not spilling the news to you. I close my eyes and picture the scene I know you must be facing: you walk in, and you know something is up from the way they look at you. You probably ignore them. You’re not curious enough to ask them why they’re looking at you like you have leprosy, and so you instead sit there thinking of what you’ll say to me when you get back to the trailer tonight. You’ll tell me you don’t know how I’ve put up with these geezers for over a decade, and you’ll never understand why I keep coming back here. You’ll tell me you’re going to leave at the end of the weekend, you can’t stand it here anymore.
Maybe I should have told you by now.
I close my eyes again and imagine that my spirit can lift and float on the wind until I’m hovering over the trailer where I know you’re playing cards. I know the scene well enough that imagining it is a snap.
Rusty probably talks you into playing bridge, and you sit across from him. Edith and Sissy Marshall or some of those other old biddies probably sit on either side of you. They’re sisters, they tell you proudly, and they’ve been coming to Slab City for fourteen years, and they’re ever so happy to meet you. Rusty grins, and you can already tell he’s got his eye on Sissy, hoping she’ll change her mind about needing only her sister.
Before the first car has been laid, one of the Marshall sisters will look over at Rusty with a knowing nod, and they’ll give you the biggest blow you’d ever gotten.
“Say, has she told you why she brought you to Slab City?” Rusty says as he peers across the table at you.
“I was bored, so I came here with her,” you say.
Edith and Sissy share a look, and you shift in your chair.
“You poor thing,” Sissy says, placing her hand lightly on yours and probably trying not to notice that you haven’t showered in three days. Rusty’s jaw clenches until she pulls her hand away. “I thought she’d have the decency to tell you.” They always find a way to blame it on me, as if I had a choice in the matter.
“Your lady is what we call special,” Rusty confesses, his jealousy already evaporating.
“And not in a nice way,” Edith says. “She says she gets these feelings about people—about certain men.”
“She brings them here to die.” Sissy says this in a whisper, so that you’re forced to lean in just to hear her. She presses her bright pink lips together and pats her coiffed hair the way she always does when she had some important news to deliver.
“She’s got some sort of sense of ‘em, says they find her and she just knows. She sizes ‘em up, and knows they’re just waiting for her to bring them to the grave.”
“It’s just terrible that she’s brought you without telling you.” Sissy folds her hands in front of her and sighs.
I imagine you’ve done a pretty good job acting bored up until now, but this last comment makes you angry, seeing as you’re convinced you don’t need me. “I don’t need anyone to help me die. I don’t need her or any of you to feel sorry for me.” You stand, your hands shaking visibly. “I’m leavin’ tonight. No way in hell I’m dying in this old dump.”
My imagined story follows me into the trailer, and I do something I never do and light a cigarette and smoke inside. I close my eyes and wait for you to find me. I start to worry that you won’t make it back to the trailer.
Something tightens in my chest when I hear your angry footsteps outside the trailer. I think maybe it’s the smoking inside, and stamp out the cigarette before the illogic of this idea occurs to me. I take a deep breath and press my hands into the place between my breasts.
You’re already muttering under your breath when you open the trailer door, and your fingers are clenching and unclenching erratically, like they’re claws. I imagine that maybe my chest is ripping apart with all of the animosity inside me, that maybe your own hate is calling it out, and so it’s rushing to the surface too quickly. I figure you’re about to show me how inadequate my liquid-orange loathing is, how quickly it will get pushed out of the room by all of the red-hot, smoking spite escaping from your mouth.
The aluminum door rattles shut, too cheap to reflect the force you thrust into it. You see me there, sitting in the chair next to the bed, my hands clutching my chest, and you pull back your knuckles for the swing you should have given your ex-wife long before you met me. I wonder if the force of your fingers on my face will be enough to dislodge the gall ripping apart my chest, but something makes you stop and stare. Your arm still raised, you look at me with an expression that changes from anger to something I’ve hardly ever seen, and certainly not from you. It looks something like the way I imagine tenderness to look, but then something explodes inside me, and I slump in my chair.
My gaze is somewhere on the floor, and you start to shiver as you look at me. Your nervous fingers find my cheek, and then my neck before withdrawing quickly. You can see it now, the loose skin pulling away from my nose across my cheeks, the wrinkles that line my mouth and eyes, the loose flesh around my waist. I’m not a day younger than seventy-two, and the skin you thought was nice and tan looks waxy and yellow. My hostility is gone, vanished, and you step back, suddenly unsure of yourself.
You pass the night sitting on the edge of the bed, wiping snot on your shirt sleeve and shaking all over. You don’t even pick me up, because you can’t bear to touch me again, and so when they find me the next afternoon, I’m still slouched in my chair, staring at the place where your shoes were the night before. You don’t leave a note, since you don’t figure you owe anything to anybody, except maybe me, and what can you give me now? There’s a pack of my Marlboro Lights in the drawer next to the bed, and you take those, along with one of the water jugs I picked up in Niland. You don’t think to take my money, and even when it occurs to you hours later, you’re glad you didn’t.
Outside, you see the blue-gray morning for the first time, and you stop for a moment, glad that no one else is awake. You didn’t notice how pretty Salvation Mountain could be before, or the way the leftover campfires smolder black and yellow against the lavender sky. The Chocolate Mountains look purple in this light, and you think, just for a moment, that maybe you should wait a day or two so you can put some flowers on the dirt they’ll throw over me.
Your Goldwing sits perched next to my Harley, and you think better of it. Better to leave now, with the sky still full of color and the air hazy and heavy. You don’t think I’ll mind if Rusty puts the first petals on my grave. You’ll bring roses for me when you come again.
You go back into the trailer and rummage around in the drawers until you find my keys. You don’t think I’ll mind, since I wouldn’t want my hog going to any of these old farts anyway. Rusty can have your bike, if he wants it. You won’t miss it. You only picked it because it made you seem flashy.
The roar of my Hog fills the morning, and then it’s the gray Highway 111 stretching out before you to Mecca or El Centro. You follow the road to the north, the Southern Pacific Railroad keeping you company off to your right and the Salton Sea gleaming in the orange morning to your left. You’re not scared anymore, just curious about what it’ll feel like to take my place. If you run into trouble, you can always seek my quiet company, now that I can finally rest. Maybe you’ll go to Joshua Tree, even though it was one of the places Sheila always wanted to go. You could always turn back around if it gets too dull.
Laura Joyce Davis, a 2006 Mills College MFA graduate in fiction, lives in Oakland and has published work in the Cricket Online Review, Lakehōm Magazine, and the Mills Quarterly. She won the Ardella Mills Prize for fiction in 2005 and 2006, and was nominated for the 2006 Best New American Voices. She recently completed her first novel. When she’s not writing, she’s coaching collegiate cross country and track.