Desert Song

The Chevy truck looked like it had been painted by a team of monkeys on acid. Its front was bright green, the rear a muddy brown and the camper stuck on its back sported daubs of pink and yellow in no apparent pattern.

“Bought it from a hippie,” Ray yelled as he passed the kitchen window. We still said things like that in 1982.

I left the dishes in the sink and bolted out the back door in time to see the truck struggle around the corner into what passes for our backyard but looks more like a car cemetery. The thing looked even worse standing still. The passenger door was hanging on one hinge with a single strand of rope preventing it from peeling off entirely. The windshield was cracked from what looked like a bullet hole. It had no front fender and one headlight. When Ray shut off the motor, it kept running for about a minute. I thought it whimpered a couple of times too, but that might have been me. Ray said that he’d gotten it for “almost nothing” which seemed about right.

Ray doesn’t get enough auto repairing to suit him at his job at the Ford dealer downtown, so it’s not unusual for him to show up with stray vehicles that he fixes up to sell. It brought in extra money that we needed to survive in San Francisco, even though we lived in a rundown flat in the fog belt a block from Ocean Beach, so close to the zoo you we heard the lions roaring at night. I didn’t mind him working on his vehicles on the weekends, but when I saw that truck, I thought he had gone too far. If you’d told me then I was going to set out across the western plains in that heap and be chased by a skeleton to boot, I would have called you crazy.

“The engine isn’t bad,” Ray said. “Transmission seems okay. All it needs is a muffler, brakes, maybe a new carburetor and a little body work.”

“More than a little. That’s the sorriest-looking vehicle I’ve ever seen.”

He gave me a hug, crushing me against his chest. “I know it looks bad, Franny, but the engine’s sound. And I can fix up the camper so it’ll be just like home. You’ll see.”

I didn’t say anything.

“So, are you mad?”

“No. But don’t get too busy on it today. We’re having dinner with Rita and Jake. Six sharp.”

“Aw, Franny. Why don’t you let me barbecue up something right here?”

“Because we promised we’d come.”

“Aw, Franny,” he said again, but a smile was threatening to break out on his solemn face as he went into the shed to look for the right tool to start working on the truck.

I left him to it and got going on my errands. As I pointed my Honda north on the coast road, the fog was so heavy you wouldn’t have known there was an ocean right there except for the roaring of the waves. It was late July, and we hadn’t seen the sun for weeks, which didn’t bother me like it did Ray who’s a desert guy from Texas. He had lived all over the southwest and just happened to be working a temporary job at the BART repairing subway cars when I met him three years before at a neighborhood bar in East Oakland. I had just hit town and was temping at a law office in Berkeley, looking for a way to move into the city. He was pretty smitten with me, and would have agreed to just about anything, so I guess I was taking advantage when I convinced him we could make more money and afford a better place if we crossed the bridge.

It took me a while to figure out he wasn’t just being ornery about the fog that hangs over the Outer Sunset much of the year. I thought he would get used to it, that in time the sea would work itself into his soul, and be would be happy living with me on the edge of the world. Instead, he got quieter. Worked longer hours. Gave me a hard time about things I couldn’t help, like mildew in the closets. He shriveled up like an old fig in the sea spray that rusts our cars and makes me feel invincible. It was one of the things we could not reconcile.

Ray worked on the truck the rest of the summer. By Labor Day it looked better. That weekend he asked me to marry him again, this time trying his luck after we had made love.

“We’ll take a trip for our honeymoon,” he said, curling himself around my back.

“In that truck? No way. I can’t sleep over the cab with the ceiling a couple of inches above my head.”

“We don’t have to use the cab. The dinette folds out into a bed.”

“Sleep in the kitchen?”

“Well, then we’ll fly to Paris. How would that be?”

“I’m afraid to fly.”

“So it’ll have to be the truck.” He kissed the top of my head. Neither of us mentioned that I hadn’t answered his question.

I hated thinking about what we would do with ourselves in the desert for three weeks, but since I wouldn’t marry him, or have kids, or move to a warmer climate, I felt like I was pretty much out of excuses for a road trip. So the day after he finished painting it, in late September, we took off, me feeling grouchy and tense as we cruised down the interstate toward Los Angeles in the camper now painted turquoise and metallic purple to please me.

It took most of the day to get through the Central Valley–green fields, an occasional barn, flat as Kansas. Ray got lost in the driving, looking as happy as I’d ever seen him, and handsome too in a new plaid shirt, bright green, his sandy brown hair slicked back. His strong hands gripped the steering wheel, and he hummed along with the radio no matter what tune was playing. Every once in a while, he turned to me and curled up the corners of his mouth, like he wanted to tell me something but wasn’t sure exactly how to do it. I smiled back, determined to say nothing to spoil his mood, and kept on reading the Tony Hillerman novel I’d picked up to get me in the mood for my return to the desert.

As we passed the Tehachapi Mountains and headed through the Los Padres forest, a full moon rose between two jagged mountain peaks. In Los Angeles we picked up I-10 going east and soon were doing seventy-five through the suburbs. That thick, yellow moon was shining its pale light right at me, and I asked Ray to pull over so I could look at it from a stationary perspective. He looked at me sideways. There were cars all around–four, maybe five lanes–and metal guard rails on the right side instead of a shoulder, so I took his point that stopping to look at the scenery wasn’t the best idea I ever had.

“Franny.” His fingers closed over my knee. “It’s going to be fine. We’ll sleep outside tonight if you want.”

The tears that had been blocking my throat since we pulled out of the driveway that morning rolled down my face. I was relieved to taste the salt.

“Maybe nothing has changed,” I said.

“Is that what has you spooked?”

His blue eyes searched for me in the dark cab.

“You’re a grown up woman now, Franny, not a seventeen year old kid. What happened back then is long gone. Besides, I’m here now.”

I grabbed his hand and squeezed it. He knows why I hate the LA desert, land of my birth, where my mother raised me to go along with whatever came along. In the blur of oncoming headlights, I saw Ada’s face on the night I ran away fourteen years ago. Pale and angular. Orange lips and blue eye shadow. Sitting at a metal table in the kitchen of an apartment stinking of fried food and spilled beer. I felt the narrow bed where I had cowered, trying not to hear the grunts coming from the next room.

Two days before, the guy I was living with had gotten so high he tried to run me down with his car outside our apartment. The leering yellow lights bore down fast, but I rolled away at the last minute. I ran down the street and straight into a man in a uniform. I collapsed into his arms, sobbing with relief. But the cop knew a crazy woman when he saw one and marched me off to the station. It wasn’t until the next evening that Ada got around to coming for me.

She took me to her apartment in west LA where I sat shivering on a cot in a tiny bedroom until she and her boyfriend went into the kitchen to eat. Later I went out too, thinking he had gone. But he was hunched over the table drinking whiskey out of a dirty glass. He looked up at me with dull black eyes and pulled his lips back over big yellow teeth. Knowing that look, I tried to leave, but it was too late. She made some protest, I remember that, but he was too strong. Did he hit her too? That I don’t remember. Only the blows across my head and back until I was quiet for fear his mindlessness would kill me. Afterward he left, slamming the door so hard the walls rattled. I heard her crying in the other room, drunken sobs that had little to do with me. I cleaned myself up, took the suitcase I hadn’t gotten around to unpacking and got in my car. Drove all the way to Tucson. That was the last time I saw her.

“She’s in Albuquerque,” I said to Ray, shivering in the warm night air at how clear memories can be. A few letters had reached me over the years, and once or twice I wrote back, with no return address on the envelope. She doesn’t know where I live, although my cousin Ruth, who is sworn to secrecy, does. It was Ruth who told me that Ada is still in Albuquerque where she moved years ago with a guy who was starting a used car business. He disappeared after a couple of months, but she stayed on, getting by on disability for her asthma.

“We aren’t going to Albuquerque,” Ray said. He stroked my hair. I leaned against his shoulder and watched the moon that was waiting to tell me its secrets.

“We’re going to camp tonight?” I said, suddenly feeling like a child on an outing.

“It won’t be so bad, being in the desert, Franny. It’s a big place, you know. We’ll camp under a palm tree.”

I thought he was joking, but just before we reached Palm Springs, Ray turned off the interstate, then onto a dirt road that took us past a row of tall date palms. Under one of them we parked the truck. We dragged our sleeping bags onto a patch of soft sand and zipped them together. Lying beside him with only our hands touching, I thought about my mother and all the places I had lived since LA. I thought of the men I’ve been with, good and bad, and how Ray had lasted longer than any of them. Through the swaying branches of the trees, starlight pierced the utter darkness. Ray’s hand was warm and solid in mine.

“I love you,” Ray said.

I was afraid I’d start crying if I said anything, so I pretended to be asleep. He rolled over and curled his arm around my waist.

In the morning everything was colored gold, lit by the rising sun. We were in a valley of sand dotted with cactus and scrub bushes with the ungainly palms soaring above us and nothing of civilization in sight. In the distance, desert mountains towered silent and proud; their nakedness held me still for more than a minute as I took them in. As I walked away from the protection of the palm trees, the sun seeped into my pores. Despite my terror of being reminded of how crazy my life used to be, I felt light and dry as if I could run all the way to those mountains and all the way back again.

Ray emerged from the camper carrying a coffeepot and two cups. It was a familiar ritual. I sat on a rock and took the cup he offered.

“How you doin’?” he asked.

The lines of worry around his mouth had already softened; sunlight works miracles with Ray. I shook my head, so many words crowded my throat, none came out.

“Did you sleep okay?”

“Fine. The desert is warming me up.”

Something of what I meant must have shown on my face. His eyes crinkled. I placed my untouched coffee on a flat rock. Ray stood, took my shoulders, and drew me up. I buried my face in his neck and bit the tip of his ear lobe. I wanted to lie down on that warming sand with the sun in my face and the naked mountains watching over us, and I wanted to feel him reaching for me, all the way inside, as far as anyone has ever got, so my body would beat in time to the vibrations of that place. I conveyed this to him with that one hard bite. He muttered into my hair that getting an early start was not always the best plan for the first day of your vacation, and so it was close to ten o’clock before we started east again.

A couple of days later, I was thinking this trip maybe hadn’t been such a bad idea. Then the skeleton started following us. We had lunch at a diner in Kingman, Arizona and were driving out of town into the heart of the west I had seen in a dozen childhood movies, when I glanced at the rearview mirror and saw the skeleton. It was running along the sand, just off the road, on my side, just far enough behind the truck that I could see it perfectly in the mirror. It was running like mad to keep up with us, its white leg bones pumping away, its arm bones moving rhythmically as if were a serious long distance runner, minus its flesh and organs.

I snapped my eyes back to the front. We were on old Route 66, a two-lane road that stretched into nowhere. Huge mountains in the distance. Flat prairie. Rows of hills I swear were in some movie where Indians surrounded a wagon train of settlers. I glanced sideways at Ray to see if he had noticed anything. He was humming under his breath. He felt my eyes and turned.

“How you doin’?” he asked.

“Great,” I said.

He winked and turned back to the road.

I looked at the back mirror again. The skeleton lifted its spindly white right arm and waved.

I felt the tide inside me rising–from deep in my belly to my chest and all the way into my throat. Leave it to me to come to the desert to drown, I thought wildly. With a few deep breaths, I pushed it down, threw a couple of logs of driftwood at it to create a barrier. It surged against the logjam, groaned twice, receded. I stared straight ahead, and refused to look at the skeleton again.

By the time we got to Seligman, a little prairie town that looked as if the modern world had moved on without it, the familiar pain in my back had started throbbing. There was no medical reason for it. I had been checked. I had never been in a car accident or fallen off a roof or done anything else to account for it.

It had started when I was a teenager, with monthly lower back pain like a lot of women get. But as time when on, it wormed its way deeper, into nerves and vital organs, twisting its way up my spinal cord and attacking my lungs, shoulders, and finally penetrating my neck. When that happened, I couldn’t move my head to either side for a week. It was like being sucked dry by a creature with tentacles, like the horror movies about aliens from outer space. Those movies never scared me. I didn’t see much difference between slimy aliens with evil intent and what I was already hauling around. At least you’d get some sympathy if you took off your coat and showed somebody a fishy tail hanging out of your back. On bad days I could feel the thing slithering around my lungs, going for my heart, squeezing until I could hardly breathe. Then my back would start to spasm. In protest, I thought at first; but no, the thing had its roots in there, deep in the big muscles in my hip. The spasms were its victory dance.

Every time I turned around, for my whole life, I felt like I was doing something wrong. Didn’t matter what it was. Got a job. Quit the job. Moved to a different town. Got a lover. Went to school, you name it. Nothing was right, and the thing inside me was quick to point it out, with all that squeezing and thrashing around. The only way to beat it was to keep perfectly still which was the one thing I refused to do.

After I met Ray, the pain didn’t come as often. Even though it scared me to death when he talked about getting married and having kids, I couldn’t leave him like I did all the others. My body knew, even if the rest of me didn’t.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I didn’t think I had made noise, but his furrowed brow said different.

I was practicing not telling lies, not even the little ones.

“I don’t know,” I said, settling. “My back hurts and my stomach is cramping, but it’s the wrong time for that.”

“Could be the desert,” he said as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Do you want to lie down in the back?”

Lying down felt worse than sitting, so I folded my arms over my belly, wishing I had another pair of arms to hold the place behind my heart. Ray would have done it if I asked. He liked to rub between my shoulder blades in slow clockwise circles, but I felt too tender for touching, so I hunched over and willed the muscles in my back to relax on their own while Ray kept driving across the desert.

The skeleton stuck with us as we drove into the mountains at Flagstaff where it was cool and green. I thought a more populated area might scare it off, but it just kept running along the right side of the road, at a pace to keep it the same distance behind us. When we drove through town, it moved into onto the shoulder, and when we came down the other side of the San Francisco Peak, into the canyon lands, the skeleton moved off the asphalt and back onto the desert. I got the impression it enjoyed running on sand.

When we got to Flag, the pain in my back felt like somebody with a blowtorch was relieving me of everything in my body that was not essential. The heat snaked round behind my heart, through my chest and started scorching my arms. By the time we got to Winslow, I was in flames.

“Do you want to stop?” Ray asked. “You haven’t eaten all day.”

The last thing I wanted was to encounter strangers. “No,” I said. “Why don’t you go left here?” We were sitting at a crossroads with emptiness all around us.

He looked at me. “Why left?”

“When in doubt, always go left,” I said, trying to sound adventurous. “Maybe we’ll find a place to have a picnic.”

Ray shrugged and turned down a narrow road that wound around dry hills and narrow canyons. After a while, we came to a stand of cottonwoods by a little stream.

“Stop here,” I said. “This is perfect.” I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it felt right. I got out of the truck, and pretended this was the place we had been driving for days to get to. I asked Ray to get some food out of the camper and went to sit under a cottonwood that was turning all golden and whispering excitedly to its neighbors that they had company at last. I hadn’t seen the skeleton since we turned off the main road, but I wasn’t optimistic about that.

I ate some of the soup and bread that Ray brought me, then for some reason, I couldn’t sit there any longer. I told him I had to have some privacy, ignored how his face tightened up, and set off walking down the bank of the little stream. When I found a grassy place that looked inviting under another cottonwood, I lay down right by the water’s edge and let one hand fall into the water. The current brushed against my skin. I looked up through the old tree’s branches at the perfect blue sky and tried to figure out what to do. It came to me to roll, so I started doing that, moving from side to side. As I gathered momentum, I felt like moaning, so I did some of that too. The pain was so intense I wasn’t sure I’d ever get up again, but I didn’t care. I kept on rolling around in the grass, feeling the friction against my arms and legs, and moaning to beat the band. After a while, the flames inside me died down to embers. I focused on breathing and not thinking of anything but this thing inside me that was trying to get out. It would be something soft and slimy, maybe with scales. It might take all my organs with it, so this golden tree against an azure sky could be the last thing I ever saw. I moaned about that. My only regret was Ray. But what good was I to him with this thing inside me?

There was a sharp pain at my tailbone, like someone had slit me open with a knife. Then it slid out of me. It was a thick stream of black viscous liquid, like oil. It pooled on the grass and gradually soaked into the sandy soil. After it started coming out, the pain dissolved. Then, it was easy to let go of it. No trouble at all. It just kept on coming out, the black liquid, with no blood or guts that I could see, no body parts wiggling in the sand. I could feel it letting go of my heart and my lungs. It moved down my spine and out the back until there was nothing of it left inside me. I laid there for a while watching the sand absorb the black gunk.

I used the trunk of the tree to pull myself up and walked back to where we had parked. Ray was busy digging a substantial hole in the sand with the shovel he kept in the camper.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He looked up and nodded with his head to his right. Then I saw the skeleton, partially buried in the sand. It was on its back with its hands folded over its pelvis. Weeds had grown up around it and poked through its ribs.

“Found it there after you went for your walk,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of it laying there like that.”

He sounded so serious, like this was an ordinary problem, that I started to laugh. I laughed so hard I had to sit down. Nothing inside me hurt. I laughed harder. The afternoon was fading and the desert light coalescing into that deep focus that lets you see more than you can at noon. I looked hard at that skeleton, and, for just a moment, I swore I saw Ada’s face on it, gaunt and saggy and accusing.

When Ray finished with the grave, I helped him place the skeleton on a blanket. I was afraid it would disintegrate into a heap as we lifted it, but it kept its shape perfectly as we lowered it into the grave. Tears came to my eyes as I looked at it lying so helpless in that hole, but for the first time in my life, I was sure I was doing the right thing.

While I pushed the dirt Ray had excavated back into the grave, Ray wandered around picking up stones. I told him to never mind, that no one would ever want to find the place again, but he said it was only right and he heaped up a pretty good pile of rocks.

“It looks funny,” I said when he was done.

“Really out of place,” he said.

He reached out and pulled me against his chest. “There’s a little canyon just up this road that this creek goes through. Let’s drive up there and watch the night come on.”

“How did you know this was here,” I asked him when we pulled up to the canyon rim a few minutes later.

“Saw this road go up the hill,” he said. “Come on, the colors in the rocks are turning.”

And they were. I stood on the rim of that little canyon, with the creek a couple of hundred feet below us and the sun setting everything ablaze with pinks and golds and browns, and the green of junipers clinging to vertical cliffs; and, as if I were cut loose from my body, I felt what it would be like to fall over the edge, to spiral down as slow and easy as a hawk, past the desert rocks and colored sand to the creek below. I grabbed Ray’s arm.

“Look,” he said. He bent and picked up a tiny seashell from under a rock.

“How did that get here?”

“This was once a seabed.”

Then I saw it in my mind, the great flood of receding water, the plains appearing, the shelled creatures abandoned on mountaintops. The tide inside me broke through the last of my carefully erected barriers. Tears poured out of me, spilling down my face and onto my shirt.

The sun disappeared, setting us all ablaze in a final burst of light.


He looked down.

“I couldn’t answer your question because I was afraid I couldn’t stay still long enough. I’ve never stayed in one place as long as I have with you.”

“Franny,” he said.

I could have gotten away with that. So much had happened, I could have said almost anything next and he would have been satisfied. But in the midst of all that clear, hard beauty, I couldn’t play the coward. “I’m scared,” I said. “Scared to depend on anybody. Scared to let myself open up the way you deserve. Scared I’ll end up trapped and hateful without any way out.”

“That’s what you think will happen to us?” The pain in his voice tore at my chest. A cottony feeling in my mouth stopped me from answering so I just leaned against him, listening to his heartbeat.

“If you wanted to go, I wouldn’t stop you.” He sounded like he was being strangled. “I love you so much, sometimes I think it’s going to be the death of me, if the fog doesn’t get me first; but I’d never hold you back from what you wanted.”

“What if I’m not what you think?”

“I know what you are.”

“You do?”

He nodded. “You gotta stop running sometime. If you don’t want to move, we can stay in the city. If you don’t want kids, that’s all right. If you don’t love me, then you oughta be straight with me. But stop running so we can figure it out.”

I turned back to the canyon. Night was falling. The air brushed cool against my face. A crow screeched as it flew overhead. And something else. I heard music, low and deep, coming from way below my feet. It rippled through me and traveled up to the top of my head and out, echoing over the canyons and plains to the mountains.

“Do you hear that?” I said.

“Sure,” he answered. “Every place has a song.”

I looked at him and all of a sudden it hit me how lucky I was to have found him. Water or sand, it didn’t matter. We would figure it out. We stayed there on the canyon rim until the stars came out.

“This is where I stopped,” I said. “Maybe we should erect a monument.”

In the moonlight I could see the twitch at the corners of his mouth spread over his face until his eyes crinkled up the way they do when he’s tickled. I snuggled up close to him so we could both feel the warmth of that big yellow moon smiling down on us.

Carol Holland March’s current publications include Fog in Mirror Dance and The Conversation in an upcoming anthology, Aurora Wolf.

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