The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
I caught Elma licking her front teeth in the rearview mirror. The gap between them seemed to be getting wider, like Jane Birkin, whose teeth spread considerably apart as she grew older, an oral Pangea situation. The late afternoon sun poked rhythmically between buildings as we left Los Angeles behind and drove east into the Mojave Desert. Outside, the wind gusted. We were ready to shed our skin in the hot desert, as dry and blistering as a foundry in July, and bathe in the light of the full moon. In the passenger seat, Magda propped her feet up, displacing a layer of dust on the dashboard.
The city had been closing in on me. Flippers had bought both houses on either side of my apartment. My faithful alarm was the double sound of sawing and the splendid expulsion of chunky phlegm at six in the morning. That my mother had died two weeks ago to the day did not serve to steady the gyre widening all around me.
On the main road into town we saw our first Joshua tree, Seussian and hirsute, elbowed limbs reaching up to the sky clutching green pom-poms. Yucca, I recalled, was the tree’s genus. With every tree we passed, the word yucca was a heckling refrain in the amphitheater of my mind. The frequency of the refrain increased at a psychotic speed as we burrowed deeper into the valley where the trees suddenly proliferated. Yucca yucca yucca, screamed my mind as we passed a truck full of leathered faces. Yucca yucca. The sun magnified itself through the window into the backseat, training a laser onto my thighs. I scooted to the left, fearful of its desiccating power. Yucca, a flatbed carrying a military tank roared through a red light. Yucca yucca yucca yucca. I recalled a quote denominating the Joshua tree as the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom. Yucca.
A friend of Elma’s mother’s, a feminist science fiction writer, had kindly offered her house in Joshua Tree to us for the weekend. Southern California was unseasonably hot for early spring, although it seemed as though every season was unseasonably hot. From the eighty-degree Christmases spent poolside in bathing suits to the Indian summer sunsets that burned blood into the horizon through late October, a singular mono-season prevailed over Los Angeles.
For the past six months I had set up camp in my mother’s living room to be with her. She had an autoimmune disease, they said, but we couldn’t know for sure. I cooked, cleaned, dressed, washed, but mainly I struggled between two positions: I could not bear to be there, and I could not bear to leave her.
Daily life was like a continuous drip on my head. I could never get dry. I could never elude the dripping. It followed me from my apartment to my mother’s house to the bookstore. At work, I roamed the aisles high on coffee, lining up book spines, and almost with a sixth sense, spotting single volumes that people had wedged back onto the shelf, intentionally or otherwise, in the Wrong Place. The glaring reality: It had been six years since I finished college, and my life was nothing more than the accumulation of blank days performing unskilled labor for minimum wage.
Magda had, last Saturday, skipped her shift at the record store to sneak into a warehouse party downtown. To her credit, she had previously missed work numerous times in this fashion and had never been punished. Her father heard a different version of this story. Magda told him that she had been sexually harassed by her manager and was forced to quit, resulting in the all-expenses paid vacation that was to be her new life.
I didn’t feel bad for her father. Giving money to his only child allowed him purpose in his newfangled post-retirement years. It afforded him the opportunity to make restitution. When Magda was eight, her father disappeared. Where was he, why did he leave? The answers were simple. Where all men went and why all men leave. Nowhere and just because. But alright. Really he had gone to South Africa without telling anyone, and started a lucrative business importing rare foreign goods. His most popular product was an emollient wrinkle cream harvested from sheep placenta. Magda always insisted that he had other children there—half-South-African, half-Irish, and fatherless—who would turn up one day at her front door calling her sister.
I had reasons to weather the storm of Magda since we had befriended each other in a junior high pre-algebra class. She was often the executor of my repressed desires, acting out, lying, and generally behaving badly when I was unable to. This was an invaluable trait in a friend, an avatar whom I could watch from a distance. She said and did things that both Elma and I were afraid to, and though we often suffered as the targets of her radically unthinking, id-like floggings, there remained a part of me that respected her for being exactly what she wanted to be whenever she felt like it.
Elma, the last anchor of our misshapen triangle, couldn’t sleep at night. After two months of near total insomnia and enough herbal remedies, homeopathic tinctures and Reiki to service a sizable commune, she was still listless and exhausted. Nothing worked.
These were the circumstances that brought us to the desert, that forlorn place of harsh and frightening beauty. The Bionic Woman lived here, in her eighties and still huffing an eight ball of cocaine a day, as did the woman once known as the Hollywood Madam, and the former real estate magnate, now penniless, who once owned half of Malibu’s Carbon Beach and served time in prison for molesting children with an electric toothbrush. These were all people ushered to the desert, drawn to the sun and the wind that burned and scraped their faces into illegibility. The hypodermic cacti, the land more arid than cottonmouth from sucking on a six-foot bong, the pareidolic rock formations that followed us with sunken alien eyes—the desert subjugated its denizens. We inaugurated ourselves as temporary members of this club, cruising into the basin of the Yucca Valley on Route 62 like cockroaches into a steep and slippery bowl.
We pulled up to a small homesteader cabin with chipped green paint and because of the heat rising off our car hood refracting the light, the house had the illusion of crawling with grasshoppers. Creosote bushes scattered up around the property like loose change. One lone piñon pine sang in the distance against the mountainous backdrop. No Joshua trees in the vista, to the relief of my compulsive refrain. Just the thought of it made me yucca. After dropping our possessions off at the house, located on an unmarked dirt road two miles from the main road, we headed out to lunch.
Magda insisted we eat pizza, although eating pizza when it was this hot in the desert seemed more like a punishment than something to look forward to. Elma and I exchanged weary glances. We two, even together, were no match for Magda. It had gotten to the point where we didn’t even try.
The slice of pizza I received was as dry and hard as the desert outside, glowing a translucent halo of orange grease on the flimsy paper plate. Magda folded a slice of pepperoni and stuffed half of it into her mouth, licking her fingers, which were stylishly tipped with grease.
“Eat your pizza,” Magda ordered us.
“I kind of don’t have an appetite.” Elma hung her head, her long brown hair brushing the freckles on her cheeks.
“El, are you okay?” I waved a horsefly away. “Have you figured out why you haven’t been sleeping?”
Elma pushed her plate away and leaned her elbows on the table, cradling her face in her hands. “My therapist thinks it has something to do with the article.”
In a magazine article about her mother’s art career, published when Elma was seven, her mother talked about being a failed artist, her ten-year block, the subsequent succession of poorly reviewed shows, and getting dropped by her gallery—all of which she attributed to postpartum depression following Elma’s birth. After sending Elma to boarding school, she made a triumphant return to the art world, finally unshackled from motherhood. According to the therapist, the article, which twelve-year old Elma found in her mother’s archives, was the urtext of Elma’s orphanhood, assigning her a symbolic title to make her into what she was supposed to be: a murderer responsible for the death of her mother’s vitality. For this, Elma was cast out. Motherless and matricidal, it was this paradox in which her therapist framed her dilemma.
“Still? That happened fifteen years ago,” Magda said, pinching the cheese off of Elma’s slice in one congealed slab and sucking it into her mouth.
“I didn’t know that trauma had a shelf life.” Elma undid her ponytail, her hair falling over one eye.
“Where I was so shall I be,” I said.
“What does that even mean?” Magda asked.
“It means that—” I began.
“Forget it. I don’t actually want to know.” Magda ripped Elma’s crust off and bit into it while holding my eyes with her own, two glistering unknowns.
We walked across the street to the health store, where Elma perused the herb section in the back and Magda paced, bored and impatient by the register.
I was busy testing the papaya cream on the bottom shelf when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Magda had paced her way to me. She jerked her head to the right. A middle-aged man stood in front of the nut butters wearing a white T-shirt, on which the words KICK ME were scrawled near the back hem with a black marker in blocky script. This seemed an indelible cruelty. I looked up at Magda, my legs white from applying too many layers of different creams. She shrugged, grimacing.
“Excuse me,” I said, tiptoeing up to him. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you but someone wrote Kick Me on the back of your shirt.”
He turned around, a jar of nut butter in each hand. His eyes, the same shade of green as the Joshua trees, shot double yuccas at me with each blink. “Yeah, I know.”
“It’s my friend’s band. He made it for me. His dad’s my rock climbing buddy.”
It took me a second to realize that his ‘friend’ was a kid, probably a teenager. “Oh,” I said.
“But thanks for telling me. You’re the only one who’s ever said anything.”
He looked at the nut butters in his hands and put them both back.
Slightly bewildered, I went back to the body section.
“Don’t talk to that guy. He smells like mildew,” Magda whispered to me.
Actually, he did smell. He had probably dried off with a moldy towel and now his body was teeming with spores. I went to the back of the store to find Elma, who was spaced out in front of the tinctures and essential oils. After corralling her, we paid. Prickly pear cactus candy for Magda, magnolia bark and passionflower tinctures for Elma, and SPF 50 for me.
The following day passed in a speedy montage: hiking through Hidden Valley, squinting in front of Skull Rock for barely passable photos, climbing rocks at Sheep’s Pass, taking pictures of the teddy bear cholla in the Cactus Garden, walking down Cottonwood Wash past an oasis to the dry falls where the wet season brought promises of rushing water and Bighorn sheep, then doubling back to Keys View for sundown, the stinking tilapia graveyard of the Salton Sea to the east, the northernmost Peninsular Ranges of the San Jacinto Mountains behind Palm Springs to the west.
Elma climbed on top of the car and beckoned us to join her. Magda ran over, double fisting rocks that she’d collected around the trail. We sat with our legs thrown over the side of the station wagon.
I recalled being a child, dangling my legs off the edge of the Santa Monica pier when my mother took me fishing. I could suddenly smell the grease of the wood planks. Someone had caught a baby shark, silver skin knifing the waning light of day. My mother led me over and showed me how to pet its skin. The fisherman threw the shark back into the water, where it disappeared immediately into the oily, sable sea. Baby sharks, my mother told me, are born with a full set of teeth, immediately ready to take care of themselves. They quickly swim away after birth, as mothers often eat the newborn pups.
The arrival of this memory coincided with the sunset in Joshua Tree’s national park, which did not impress upon me the majestic feeling I had expected, surrounded by corpulent granite boulders and the doting sun spreading itself thickly over our sunburned faces as it descended, but instead pressed against my cavernous chest like a barbell on a paper drum.
“Thanks for inviting us out here, Elma,” I said, putting an arm around her shoulders. I took a deep breath. Desert dirt had a particular scent, reminding me of the way vacuum cleaners smelled, hot air blowing through the paper dust bag.
“Thank Bean. It’s her place.” Elma threaded her arm around my waist.
“What about thanking me?” Magda asked. She kicked her feet against the car. “We’re using my dad’s gas card.”
“Thanks Mag,” I said dutifully, but any appreciation I had felt for her immediately curdled. I didn’t understand the concept of asking people to thank you.
I put my head on Elma’s shoulder. A pickup truck sped on the dirt road ahead, churning the landscape into a blur. The yawning mouth of the firm apricot sky, the open arms of the Joshua tree. All of life’s ancient secrets baked into the earth, where they would remain.
“What?” Magda asked, turning toward me with a twisted mouth.
“What?” I echoed. Oh no. That mouth. It was a portent of trouble. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You don’t have to,” Magda pouted.
“You can’t just decide that I’m saying something when I’ve said nothing.”
“So what are you thinking, then?” she asked.
“Well, my mother just died. I was thinking about that.”
The double thrill of thwarting Magda’s accusation and speaking my mother’s death unharnessed from my dehydrated body and traveled out into the park. All the Joshua trees caught it with their pompoms and shouted yuccas back in choral support. When I thought of my mother in her current state, I felt a surge of energy rising up inside of me. It wasn’t elation; it was perhaps more related to adrenaline, a body’s reaction to disaster and in turn, its own survival.
“I love you.” Elma unhooked her arm from my waist and turned to me.
“I love you too, you know.” Magda frowned.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
It was true. What was I supposed to say? That every time I saw my mother she had a new symptom, that each one was worse than the last, that the hunger of disease was terrifying, its titanium teeth chomping after us as we ran directionless, never fast enough? What had happened was outside of language.The most disturbing thing about my mother’s death was that I wasn’t at all afraid or sad. I was devoid of emotion, defined by lack. I walked around like a husk whose sole function was to contain emptiness. Intellectually, I understood the role of this emotionlessness, some form of repression, but living with it was altogether disconcerting.
I kicked my legs around off the side of the car, noticing how tan I’d gotten since we’d been here. Unlike my mother and sister, who guarded their porcelain skin in the sun with huge face-concealing visors like welder’s masks, I had inherited my father’s dark skin. According to my mother, only peasants had dark skin from centuries of wretchedly slaving away in the fields, while pale skin indicated the heritage of nobility. Generations of lily faced maidens smearing pearl cream on their faces. No, my complexion was closer to mud.
Magda put her arm around Elma. The roof of the car resisted and then relented, caving slightly as I lay back. From behind, I could see a strip of exposed flesh between Elma’s cropped shirt and denim shorts, Magda’s bad posture, the way her back curved like a turtle’s shell. A warm wind tumbled over us. The car still held the heat of the sun beneath our bodies; our flesh clung to the metal like splintered magnets. Like this, the three of us denting the roof of Elma’s station wagon, anonymous lizards in the largeness of the desert, we sat watching the sun sink into the pruned folds of the earth until the crepuscular ache of dusk fell, shuttering out the day.
That night we went to a saloon and grill, one of the only places that seemed to be open at night, and ate burgers at the bar, dripping mayonnaise onto our thighs as we swigged beer.
“Work sucks. You should quit. I feel great. I feel happy. Now I can read books and watch movies and go to the museum every day.” Magda said.
We walked outside, dizzy with bloat, where we could see the main road.
“When was the last time you did any of those things?” I asked.
“Exactly. I didn’t have time before. You need to quit. You’re overqualified and underpaid,” Magda said.
I didn’t mention that she hadn’t actually quit, or that unlike her, I didn’t have a benefactor who would bankroll my life. Instead, I stared at the sky, vibrating with stars, displaced momentarily with the feeling of floating in a pool at night, the warm wind lifting my face off my skull like the loose page of a book. Beneath the flapping sheet of my face was the guilt that lay beneath all of my surfaces. Look at me, working a job where I was paid to stand around and drink coffee all day while reading books, lazing in the desert drinking beer and eating pizza, trying to pass off a pajama shirt as daywear, sartorially gloating in my torpor instead of concealing it as I should be, losing myself in the context of the egocentric youth culture that I insisted on belonging to, mistaking myself for someone who was like Magda. Because I had to remember that I wasn’t. I was the daughter of my mother, who would be, if she were alive, at this late hour of the night, watching reruns of Korean soap operas dubbed in Mandarin, huffing on her inhaler and eating string cheese.
“Not quite a full moon, but we’re nearly there.” It was the man from the health store. He was still wearing the Kick Me T-shirt.
His face was sunburned and etched with the crisscrossing of life’s travails, the telltale mark of all desert dwellers. “You all here for the weekend?” He leaned onto the wooden pole, his back magnetically fusing to it.
“Yeah, we are.” Elma said. “What about you?”
“I’ve owned property here since 1985, some land on the other side of town, a house up by the park, an old Airstream, and more land near Yucca. But I only moved here full time a couple years ago. Grew up in Laurel Canyon. Crazy time. Used to cat sit for Joni Mitchell. She had a lot of cats.”
“I love Joni Mitchell.” Magda looked up at him as if he were Joni Mitchell. “What’s she like?”
“Oh, what you’d imagine. Same with Frank Zappa. He came over twice a week, chain-smoking, to pick my sister up in the morning for carpool. Laurel Canyon in the early seventies.” He chuckled and shook his head. “Jim Morrison used to wake me up in room at night, shirtless at the foot of my bed with a guitar slung over his shoulder. ‘Hey kid,’ he’d say, ‘Wanna smoke a joint?’ My dad was his accountant. Cheech and Chong, all kinds of people.”
“Your dad was the accountant for the Doors and Cheech and Chong?” Elma asked.
“The Eagles too. And all the clubs on the Sunset Strip. The Rainbow Room, The Whiskey. He was everyone’s accountant. Until he went to prison.” The man lit a cigarette and picked at his forehead like he was trying to catch the corner of a sticker to peel off.
“Embezzlement. At school the kids who used to be my friends were like your dad stole money from my dad. I’m talking millions of dollars from the biggest musicians, comedians, and club owners of the seventies. But you know, soon, I didn’t have to see the kids around anymore. The banks froze our accounts and my mother moved us into an apartment in the Valley. I’ve never gone back to Laurel Canyon. I’ll never go back. I’m Jerry, by the way.”
What was there to say after that? We all stood there diverting our gaze to the moon. He was right. It was nearly full, just a delicate sliver missing from the upper right corner. I looked at Jerry’s Canadian-bacon face, a despondent assemblage of features: oniony nose, rolled-in eyes, conical chin. He flicked his cigarette into the street and smiled at me. Suddenly, his eyebrows pulled his whole face up and everything burst into purpose. Wow. What a metamorphosis. The whole event made me wonder if my face was subject to such hyperbolic drama.
“Getting late,” Jerry said. “You girls aren’t tired?”
“I’m exhausted.” I yawned.
“I wish I was tired. I can’t sleep,” Elma said. “Insomnia.”
“I’ve got this powerful tea at home. Kava kava, valerian root, catnip, linden, and chamomile. It’ll knock you out. It’s what I take when I can’t sleep.” He stretched, leaning left and right, with the surprising grace belonging more to a Pilates instructor than a chapped desert rat. “You can have some. Got an old t-shirt that Joni gave me somewhere. Too small for me. Probably fit you.” He nodded at Magda. “Come over. I live right up that hill.”
Magda’s head was lolling around with delirium over the thought of owning Joni Mitchell’s T-shirt. She nudged us, imploring. Elma shrugged, why not. But I didn’t want to go. I didn’t leave my mother’s house where I had been squatting, ramen packages and rice cracker wrappers—my steady consumption of the last vestiges of her pantry—piled around the couch like a moat, to come here and hang out with some guy who smelled like mildew with a Canadian bacon face.
“Why don’t you go get that stuff and bring it to us at the bar?” I asked him.
“If you wanted to stop by and grab the stuff, you’re welcome, but I’m going to call it a night. No pressure, though. I was just offering.”
“Oh no. You always do this,” Magda wagged a finger at me. “You always want to go home early.”
“It’s not like we were invited to the Vanity Fair Oscar party and I’d rather eat frozen burritos in bed. Right?” I turned to Elma. “I thought we were going to play Scrabble and make margaritas, hang out in the hammocks back at the cabin.”
Elma shrugged, meaning she disagreed with me. Magda glowered, triumphant. I was outnumbered. Defeated, I started towards our station wagon, but Jerry stopped me. The roads were unpaved. Only a four-wheel drive would make it up his steep driveway.
“How are we going to get back?” I asked.
“We’ll call a cab or walk. It’s a gorgeous night.” Elma pushed me out of the way.
“Don’t be selfish,” Magda scolded me.
I slid into the front bench seat of Jerry’s truck. Elma and Magda climbed into the back of the bed. We turned left and right down unmarked dirt roads. No cars were anywhere in sight, no signs of human occupation, other than a couple derelict trailers we passed. We should have taken our own car, I swore inwardly. But Elma’s car wouldn’t have made it. I gripped a handle above the glove box as we turned. Jerry drove silently, leaning against the door with one elbow propped out the open window.
On the right, as we ascended up a very steep hill, was a boulder with DONOVAN painted on it in a semicircle. The truck wound up the hill and at the top was a little yellow house. We parked beneath a carport and jumped out. Leading us up a staircase to the roof, Jerry pointed out a colorful modernist house in the distance built by two chefs who had a cooking show on television, an encampment where an artist had constructed portable travel units for off the grid living, and a sprawling ranch on the other side of the deep canyon owned by a premium wine producer with vineyards in northern California. And the painted boulder on the side of the hill? This house had been built by Donovan, the Donovan, the hall of fame musician from the sixties. Up on the roof of the house that Donovan had built, the extraterrestrial terrain of the desert rising up bluely to meet the Joshua trees, the wind whipped up, aerating our hair and clothes.
It was getting cold so we filed down the stairs and stood behind Jerry as he unlocked the door. When he flipped the lights on, I blinked to adjust to the fluorescence. The sink was full of dirty dishes, beer bottles, crusty glasses. Trash was piled up in the corner. Fruit flies swirled up in a vociferous tornado above a bowl of shriveled potatoes. Papers and boxes subsumed a desk pushed against a wall. An old saggy green velvet couch with a stained comforter crumpled on it anchored the living room.
“Oh my god. He’s a meth head,” I whispered.
“No he’s not,” Elma said. “He’s just a hoarder.”
Annoyed at having to be there at all, I stepped away from them, inspecting a pile of mail in the kitchen. Was there a probation notice in there, any kiddie porn?
Jerry walked into the kitchen. “Do you want something to drink?”
I shook my head. If there was anything to drink in this house, I definitely did not want it. He sat down on the couch and began rolling a joint. “You want?” he asked, licking the gummy end of the rolling paper. “Hybrid strain I’ve been working on.”
“Sure,” Elma said. “Can I have a beer too?”
“Help yourself,” he said.
“What about the Joni Mitchell T-shirt?” Magda sat down across from Jerry.
“You don’t have to hover over there by yourself,” he said to me. “Sit down. I’ll tell you about the fertilizer I’m developing with Richard Nixon’s nephew,” Jerry exhaled. “We’re selling it in Panama and China.”
“Cool,” Elma said, sitting down beside him and twisting open a beer.
“Where’s the Joni Mitchell T-shirt?” Magda asked again. She plunked down in an easy chair across from Elma and Jerry.
“Relax. Here,” he handed the joint to Magda. “I’ll get it for you in a sec.”
I watched them from the kitchen while inhaling fruit flies. How could Elma and Magda sit there sharing a joint with this guy? The three of them giggled inside a cocoon of smoke, laughing about something Jerry had said.
“What are you laughing about?” I asked.
“Jerry just said that if you take all the women in town and put them together, you only get one set of teeth.” Magda fanned her face, giggling. She turned to Jerry and punched his arm. “You’re so funny.”
“That’s funny?” I asked. “What about the men, what kind of teeth do they have? Open up, Jerry, let’s take a peek.” I looked to Elma for backup, but she was sprawled out, a wide smile smeared across her face. She was incredibly stoned.
Reluctantly, I sat down in a cracked bootleg Shaker chair, flipping through some horticulture magazines, and half-listened to Jerry bloviate about getting in a fight with his father and storming out of the house when he was a kid, walking around Laurel Canyon in the middle of the night, being picked up by Charles Manson and Abigail Folger, the coffee heiress, and taken back to a tree house where Kenneth Anger was performing a satanic ritual. The stories that Jerry carried inside him. It was more fun to believe than to not believe that he was telling the truth, and so I believed. But still, I didn’t want to be in Jerry’s hoarder house, reliving his youth by proxy, inhaling second hand pot smoke. I wanted to be alone with Elma and Magda. I went to the bathroom, looked in the medicine cabinet, and rummaged around beneath the sink. There were endless bottles, tools, oily rags, and caulk. Alas, nothing incriminating. I took a dump and left it unflushed, washed my hands and walked into the hallway, stopping just outside of the doorway. This wasn’t Jerry’s fault. I turned around and went back to flush the toilet.
“I’m ready to go,” I said, returning to the living room.
Elma had fallen asleep, her head on the armrest of the velvet couch, dirty feet tucked beneath her. Beside her, Jerry and Magda were making out. She was straddling him, her hips swaying, her big butt making circles in the air.
“What the fuck!” I yelled.
Magda turned around, pressing a finger to her wet, tumescent lips. “Shh. Elma’s sleeping. We gave her the sleepy tea and weed combo. Good job, Jerry.” She patted him on the head and cooed as he blushed.
“What are you doing, Magdalena?” I never used her full name. “Get off him.”
Jerry peeked around Magda’s shoulder, his Canadian bacon face sizzling with embarrassment.
“Is this what you do, lure young girls back to your house and take advantage of them? Tell them stories about rock stars and promise them Joni Mitchell’s T-shirt?” I wanted to pull Magda off of him, but I didn’t want to touch them for fear of contamination. I picked up the horticulture magazine and threw it at the couch. “Where is the shirt anyway? You don’t have Joni Mitchell’s T-shirt. It’s a lie.”
“I’m wearing it.” Magda hopped off, plopping down on the couch beside Jerry. Elma on one side, passed out, her mouth slightly open, Magda on the other. The light blue T-shirt had a pair of hands reaching up from the armpits to choke the wearer. “Isn’t it cool?”
It was cool. I wanted it. But not if the price was making out with Mildew Jerry.
“Hey, I’m not taking advantage of anyone.” Jerry held his hands up, as if under arrest. “She started it.”
I picked up a record and hurled it at Elma. The corner hit her leg and slid to the floor. She kept sleeping, heavily sedated.
“That’s a Source Family record. Don’t break it,” Magda scolded me. “So what were you saying, you’re going to leave?” She crossed her arms in front of her chest. She had four hands now, crossing and choking her.
“Yes, I’m ready to leave. Let’s go.” I grabbed my long-sleeved shirt, draped over the crooked Shaker chair.
“How are we supposed to get back, exactly?” Magda asked.
I’d forgotten that Jerry drove us. Our station wagon was still at the saloon.
“Jerry, take us back to our car,” I directed him.
“I’m pretty stoned,” Jerry apologized, his cheeks blazing. “And a little drunk.”
“Fine, we’ll take your car,” I said.
“Can you drive stick?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Let’s just walk back to the bar and get our car.” I pleaded with Magda. “What happened to relax, relax, follow the stars? Don’t be a victim to pragmatism.”
She stood up and stumbled, her fragile stoned equilibrium displaced. I caught her arm and pulled her up.
“I can’t. I don’t want to. I’ll die if I try to walk down that hill. It’s cold. You go. I’m staying here,” Magda mumbled.
I was definitely not staying. It would be wretched to make my way down the hill in sandals, but if it was only a matter of making my body traverse the distance between here and the bar, I could do it. What was I supposed to do—sit on the couch reading while they had sex? Curl up on a trash pile to sleep? I didn’t want any part of it.
“I’m going. And when I come back with the car, you and Elma are coming with me.” I dug for Elma’s keys in her tote bag.
“Fine. Do what you want.” Magda hooked her leg around Jerry’s thigh.
I couldn’t believe she was letting me go so easily into the dark desert night, crawling with rattlesnakes and meth heads. I didn’t exactly want to walk by myself and risk getting lost or sliding down a rocky hill into a bed of cactus, but it was too late. I was the only one who could save us, and so I would.
Outside, under the carport, my eyes adjusted. The desert before me was a fluid expanse of glowing blue half-light. I scrambled down the dry dusty hill, so steep I had to employ a method of crouching and sliding, flat primatial hands bracing the ground to prevent my body from rolling over rocks. Huge clouds of dirt clogged my airways. The kicked-up dust bronzed my face. Wind tunneled into my shirtsleeves as I pushed along. I followed the tire tracks as they wended into a low rabbit fence, and looked up. The sky was so full of stars it hurt my eyes.
I brushed my hands off on my shorts and gently patted my swollen palms. Across both palms were single unbroken lines stretching horizontally from one side to the other. This, my mother had told me when I was a child, was exceptionally rare. Most people had two major transverse lines, the heart line and the head line, on the upper half of their palm. On my palm the heart line and the head line were fused together, this singular line extending all the way across the hand, edge to edge. I had it on both palms, which was rarer than rare. You will always be divided, my mother warned me. The life you have is split in two. I pressed my palms together and tried to see all the stars in the sky at once without pain.
I stood inside the cool desert night beneath the panoply of flickering light. Tire tracks went in six different directions. Each direction appeared identical. Just rocks and creosote. Which way to go? My thoughts skipped from one Joshua tree to another like a stone on flat water. Rippling out from each tree was the potentiality of success and failure and the unknown. Inside, I turned and turned on a central axis. One minute I soared up into the blinding sky and the next I plunged back into the crusted desert below. With each crest of the arc I braced myself for what was coming, the invariable repetition that gave as much as it took away. I turned and began walking, the yucca of the Joshua trees shouting for me to just keep moving.
Sarah Wang is a writer based in New York. She has written for n+1, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Conjunctions, Stonecutter Journal, Joyland, 6x6, the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, Story Magazine, The Third Rail, and The Last Newspaper at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, among other publications. She is the coeditor of semiotext(e)’s Animal Shelter. See more of her work at wangsarah.com.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.