It could be the heat. Or the barren landscape. Or the stark desolation. It doesn’t really matter the why. The fact is the desert brings out the desperate worst in a thing. In an environment where nothing is meant to survive, life seethes.
In the desert even the plants have chips on their shoulders. They’re water-starved and sunburned fighters. Forced to wrestle their way through rock and earth. Cactus, yucca, and saw grass can all draw blood. No one goes to the desert to see the fall colors, mostly because those colors are an unbeautiful shade of brownish.
There are no cute calendars devoted to the creatures of the desert floor. Whether a rattlesnake or a scorpion or a centipede, under every rock some scaly, poisonous monster waits for the chance to bite the next unsuspecting ankle. Even a desert hare will take a finger off the dumbass that tries to pet it. If the desert can make a bunny that angry, imagine what it does to the people.
That’s the kind of horseshit that filled my head as I stood in the dark with my father’s shotgun in my hands and an involuntary tremor in my knees.
It was quiet at that moment, but there was definitely something in the shed. At first I had heard movement, light banging, loud enough to hear from inside. No wind to blame it on. An animal maybe. One of the chickens, a cat, or a coyote. But when I stepped outside, I had heard something closer to a voice. It was only a fraction of a second. Faint, but human. I didn’t know what Pop kept in the shed. But even if it was nothing but rusty tools, they were his rusty tools.
Slow, quiet steps brought me to the shed door. I closed my eyes and listened. The only sound was my breathing. And even that I kept to a low wheeze. I aimed the Winchester at the ground and slowly reached for the looped rope handle of the corrugated tin door. Whoever was inside was in for a big surprise. So why was I the one that was shaking?
I swung the door open and lifted the shotgun tight to my shoulder. The double barrel swept into the darkness.
It had only been a few hours before that I had been driving my pickup eastbound on the 10 freeway. I had daydreamed then, too. Anything to stay awake and avoid the reality that I would eventually have to face. No good could come from analyzing my life. Introspection was for people with interesting lives and money.
I had left Los Angeles at midnight to avoid traffic in Pomona and San Bernardino, hoping to get to the Valley around four thirty or five. By getting in late and waking up at ten, I could avoid wasting a day on the road. In the middle of the night on the freeway, it was Kenworths, Peterbilts, Macks, and my piece-of-shit Mazda.
I had been making good time when I pulled into the parking lot of the Wheel Inn in Cabazon just west of Palm Springs. I needed coffee and something to eat, and the Wheel was eternally open. The food was standard diner fare, but the giant dinosaurs that loomed over the parking lot offered a pleasant wave of nostalgia. Come on, they’re giant dinosaurs.
I grabbed a seat at the counter, not bothering to look at the menu. I kept to a strict policy with roadside diners: OOB. Only order breakfast. It was a safe bet and sometimes a pleasant surprise. Lunch and dinner could be a crapshoot. There’s always that one entrée that doesn’t belong. Whoever orders chicken cordon bleu at Chonchy Joe’s Gasoline and Beef Jerky Emporium is asking for the intestinal challenge that they will soon face.
Because I had no interest in health or proper diet, I ordered biscuits and gravy with a side of bacon. I considered bacon to be a digestif.
I wasn’t in the habit of chatting with waitresses, so my refueling was unremarkable. The food was above adequate, and the coffee gave me just the amount of jitters that I wanted. I wasn’t ready to get right back in my truck. The gift shop in the belly of the brontosaurus was closed. So I walked underneath the tyrannosaurus, running my hand along the cracked plaster and having a smoke before I got back on the road.
From far away those dinosaurs were roadside behemoths, but up close they were nothing more than shoddy construction, chipping paint, and exposed chicken wire. To be crystal clear, I’m not saying that when we look at monsters up close we find that they are truly fragile. And I’m not saying that strength from a distance can often be revealed as a façade, protecting one’s smaller weaknesses. What I’m saying is that those dinosaurs needed some spackle. Simplistic metaphors are for people who take fortune cookies to heart, need something to say at their book club, and believe that love conquers all. Things are never more than exactly what they seem. We all could use a little spackle.
Another half hour on the 10, then I turned off at Indio and headed south on the 86 toward the Imperial Valley. I couldn’t see it, but I knew the Salton Sea was just outside my driver’s side window. In the daytime the Salton Sea could be beautiful, the cloudless blue sky mirrored on its reflective surface. But at night without the visuals to distract, all I got was the combined smell of rotting fish and some polysyllabic disease that somehow made its way into my truck through the closed window. I lit a cigarette just to freshen the air.
I passed a birdshot-riddled sign: You Are Now Entering Imperial County. The Imperial Valley was as far south and as far east as you can go in California, on the border of Arizona and Mexico. The towns of El Centro, Imperial, Brawley, Holtville, and Calexico made up the bulk of the population on the American side of the border. On the Mexican side of an imposing steel and razor-wire fence, the city of Mexicali sprawled, a metropolis of a million-plus. Due to Mexico’s proximity, a solid three-quarters of the population of the Imperial Valley was Hispanic. Spoken Spanish was far more common than English.
Imperial County is the poorest county in California with an unemployment rate over thirty percent and an illiteracy rate that makes rural Mississippi appear erudite. With a quarter of the people out of work, it’s not hard to imagine the crime rate. In short, it’s kind of a shithole. But I mean that in the most affectionate way.
I touched the back of my hand to the window, feeling the heat of the desert through the glass. Even late at night, it was in the mid-nineties. The days were going to be blistering, topping 110 degrees.
It would be an hour before I got to the house, but I was home. This was my home. Whatever that meant.
Pop hadn’t told me when the doctors had first diagnosed him with cancer. He hadn’t told me about his first surgery. Or his second surgery. Or about the chemotherapy. Or the radiation therapy. I had been gone twelve years, but we weren’t estranged. We talked regularly on the phone and had a mail correspondence that continued even when modern technology made it anachronistically quaint. But apparently all cancer-related events had slipped his mind. For his own reasons he had chosen to keep it from me.
Until a couple of days before my drive. Without prologue Pop had laid it out for me. Everything that he had kept from me about his illness. According to Pop, he was on what he jokingly called “the final push.” Not a great joke, but he was dying of cancer, so I cut him a break. No more chemo or radiation or surgeries. No more nothing. He had checked himself into a care facility and was just trying to maintain a level of comfort. He hadn’t sounded depressed, but he hadn’t any hope either.
I did the only thing I could. I packed up the truck and headed home. The house and the farm needed tending, and I wanted to spend as much time with Pop as I could. If he was dying, I wouldn’t let him die alone.
I left everything behind in Los Angeles. Luckily, “everything” wasn’t much. I quit my job installing stained glass windows, a non-taxing, sometimes-fun job that helped me avoid any real responsibility. So far my degree in American literature had not come in handy in the series of labor jobs that I worked only when absolutely necessary. Carpenter, glazier, day laborer, home security installer, Christmas tree salesman, just to name the recent ones. Few skills jump off a résumé like the ability to single-handedly inflate and deflate a thirty-foot Santa Claus.
I hadn’t been in Los Angeles for long, just one in a long list of addresses. I moved around a lot. Since I had left home and then graduated college, I had been constantly drawn to new cities, new faces, and new experiences. The money that I was using to finance this trip had originally been intended for a planned three-month jaunt to Southeast Asia.
I tried not to look too far ahead or too far behind. If your eyes focus on the horizon, you trip over your own feet. I read that somewhere. I think it was on the side of an ex-girlfriend’s box of chai tea.
As much as I would like to say that the labor jobs were a way to keep me in frozen burritos while I struggled to make my real dreams come true, I couldn’t. I wasn’t writing the great American novel. I didn’t want to open my own haberdashery. I didn’t want to direct (which made me the only one in the greater Los Angeles area). I didn’t have a dream. I just was.
I was one of those guys who knows a little bit about a lot. If I could sit around and shoot the shit all day, I would. But there are only so many talk show host jobs out there. Instead, I stuck with drywall. I worked, then lazed, hanging out in bars and coffee shops and opining on the world, art, and my fellow man. I was a shit-shooter extraordinaire. It was cool when I was in my twenties. Unfortunately, when I had recently hit thirty it began to concern me. Not enough to change, but enough to make me feel more losery.
It was about four in the morning when I drove through Brawley. Dirt patches pretended to be lawns in front of houses. A constant haze of dust lingered in the air. Some of the older buildings downtown hinted at better times, but decay, graffiti, and heat had eroded them. Brawley looked like a town that was losing a long battle, exhausted past the point of caring. It was as if the effort to fight off the desert wore on the buildings and plants and roads. Everything about Brawley sagged from the weight of its own slow cessation. I was born in Brawley.
I drove through Imperial, then El Centro, finally making the turn east toward the house. My tires clicked on the caterpillars that crossed the road between two alfalfa fields.
I didn’t have a hometown proper. The house where I grew up was on a farm between Holtville and Calexico. “In the country,” as opposed to “in town.”
I claimed Holtville, as it was where I went to high school (Go Vikings!) and where we shopped for groceries. Holtville was small town quiet, home of the “world-famous” Carrot Festival. After all, Holtville was officially the Carrot Capital of the World.
On the other hand, Calexico was all border town with an almost all-Mexican population. Calexico was the tip of the gigantic Mexicali iceberg, the small portion surfacing into the U.S. Twenty-five thousand people on this side, a million people on the other. It was mostly just hard-working families, but with the border so near, mischief and the mischievous were never too far away. Calexico was the Knife Laceration Capital of the World. Unofficially, of course.
As I turned off Bowker Road, I could see the house in the distance. A large Spanish-style house, white with a red terra cotta tile roof, it looked like one of the old missions. Surrounded by a sugar beet field, it appeared as an island in the vast flatness of the farmland. Its remoteness was spared by Morales Bar, a Quonset hut field-workers’ bar directly across the street. Growing up, it had never seemed strange that my only neighbor was a bar. It probably explained a lot.
I pulled into the circular driveway of the house and parked my truck behind Pop’s tired Chevy LUV. There must have been sheep grazing nearby because the sound of the truck cleared a large group of turkey vultures out of a tall pine. I couldn’t see them, but their feathers sounded like sheets of metal rubbing against each other. The brief disappearance of stars marked their path in the sky. I got out of the car and stretched. Live trumpet blasted from Morales Bar across the street. I grabbed my bags out of the truck bed.
Almost twelve years and I had never taken the key off my key ring. I unlocked the front door and went inside. It was dark and empty, but not quiet. Country houses make noise. Creaks, groans, and a strange bubbling sound in the basement brought the house to life. The house had the pleasant reek of farm living, a faint combination of dust and stale sweat. In the Imperial Valley, very little changed. And when it did, it changed slowly.
Pop had warned me that the air-conditioning had busted a couple years prior, so the inside of the house was like the inside of a convection oven. It was actually hotter inside, as the house had trapped the heat of the day. I dropped my bags in the living room and turned on two oscillating fans that moved the dust and hot air around.
Crashing on the couch, my ears rang from the drive. I was wide awake, yet exhausted. I stared at the ceiling doing the exact thing I had been trying to avoid. I was back in the house I grew up in, my father was dying, I had no job, little money, and between my head and the heat, I wasn’t going to sleep. As I lit a cigarette, I thought, at least I have my health.
About three cigarettes and a half hour later, I heard the sound coming from the shed. The shotgun had been where Pop always kept it.
The moment I saw them huddled in the dark, I felt like the biggest asshole in the world. Why? Because only an asshole would point a shotgun at three unarmed, middle-aged Mexican women and a small boy. They didn’t look surprised, although they seemed concerned about the shotgun. I lowered it and tried to smile.
While the boy was all eyes to the shotgun, the women slowly rose and gathered the blankets they had laid out on the dirt floor. Their nonchalant acceptance spoke volumes. I dug into my brain for what little Spanish I remembered.
“Wait. Espera,” I said. “Tu puede sleep aquí. It’s okay.” I even made the universal symbol for sleep, resting my cheek against my hands. Although something was lost in the interpretation due to the shotgun in my hand.
They stopped collecting their blankets and looked at me questioningly.
I knew they were in the country illegally, but that didn’t make them criminals. They were only trying to survive, and I saw no reason to treat them as anything but human beings. That’s what Pop would have done. I had seen him bring illegals water on more than one hot day.
“Necessita agua? Yo tengo agua. En la casa,” I said, seeing no water on them.
They nodded shyly.
“Y food? Shit, what’s the word for food? Comida, right?”
They nodded again.
“I’ll be right back. Espera.”
I went back into the house. I poured out a quarter-full bottle of flat soda and filled it with tap water. The only food I had was a half box of Ding Dongs that I had bought on the drive. It had to have some nutrition, and the kid would be stoked. I even dumped a bunch of ice cubes in a plastic cup. When you’ve been in this kind of heat for too long, it’s hard to remember what cold feels like anymore.
I unloaded the shotgun and put it back in the closet.
When I returned to the shed with my arms full of goodies, they were gone. They must have assumed that I went inside to call La Migra. I left the bottle of water in the shed for the next squatter, dumped the ice in the grass, and ate a Ding Dong.