The world went blank, awash in white. For many this is how the world ends. A flash of white and then a silence. For Norman the flash of white and the silence were consequences of his hasty retreat. A single strand of barbwire caught him in the side and dragged its rusty metal length through the flesh of his underarm, rubbing a wound more than cutting it. He had cursed and stumbled forward when a second shot rang out, the sound of the ricochet at his feet whining long across the desertscape.
He lost his footing and toppled to the ground. His shoulder glanced off a rock. His leg twisted. His ankle throbbed from where he sprained it on a low-laying gravemarker. As he skidded to the flat bottom arroyo his ear grated on the hardpacked soil. The force of the final impact thumped the air from his lungs, leaving his jaw yawping at nothing, his neck straining upward and his teeth opening and shutting, biting at the sky above him. Dust blinded him and he blinked rapidly. Yet, the wound under his arm occupied his mind—it burned as if the wire still dragged long and slow through the skin.
He used his good arm to prop himself up. Blinking some more, he cleared the dust from his eyes and looked up the bank at the driftwood and barbwire fence. The desert plays tricks on the mind and the trick it played now made the wire look like a crack across the clear blue of the sky.
From the opposite bank of the arroyo, the distinct sound of gravel crunching under boot, heel to toe. Norman turned his head almost imperceptibly to the side, as if by not looking at this figure on nether bank, it would simply disappear. But this is a child’s game.
‘Run, if you got the mind to,’ an old man’s voice said. There was a timbre in the voice that shattered the silence like the gunshots.
He dropped the charade of not looking at the old man. He started to his feet and pivoted, still in a stoop to look at his assailant.
‘Go on.’ The old man used his free hand to make a shooing motion. His other arm cradled a rifle. His voice crackled a little, wizened, kindly. Ruts in his face, his filthy clothes, white windblown hair—had this been another time and place he might be viewed as a sage or a saint.
‘Didnt mean to trespass,’ Norman finally said.
At first the old man nodded, then he said yup. After a few more seconds he seemed to think better of his answer. ‘This land aint mine,’ he said. ‘An you know it.’
For a moment they both nodded in agreement, one convincing the other, but neither knew which one. ‘You know good an true this land here belongs to the Bureau of Land Management. Thats why youre here.’
Again, the old man nodded. Pulling at his pant legs he squatted on the bank, the rifle still cradled in his arm. Though he whispered as if speaking to a child, his voice amplified as all things do in the desertscape, voxed in the space of nothing. ‘I coulda hit you with the first shot,’ he said. ‘That woulda been the last thing you ever read.’ He nodded up the slope at the headstone. Then the old man chuckled and for a moment both parties seemed to be at ease. ‘Figured I should scare you down here into this ditch before I cut you down.’
Twice now the breath had been forced from Norman’s lungs. He lay half-propped in the dirt while the old man stood back up, the bones in his back audibly cracking into place. He groaned. Norman took in his surroundings once more. Down here in the dirt wash nothing offered shelter; up above, the desert stretched out without respite. Aside from the few gravemarkers in the wayward cemetery, there was also nothing. Running would be futile.
The old man reached into the breast pocket on his shirt and fished out a bullet. Casually he loaded it into the rifle, the parts clicking and sliding into place. He squinted at his target for a few seconds, both men staring and breathing at each other. The younger man held up a hand as if to make a pledge. Instead his words came out only as a series of pleadings punctuated with the word please. The old man hefted the butt of the gun to his shoulder and peered down the length of the barrel.
‘I didnt have anything to do with that graverobbing,’ Norman said. ‘I’m a scholar. I’m just here to study ghost towns.’
For a long time neither of the men moved, each of their bodies held in poses designed to fatigue—the older man holding his breath with the rifle raised, the younger man’s hand held up like a proselytizing beggar. Finally the old man gasped and in doing so caused the younger man to gasp.
‘Scholar,’ the old man said.
‘Yessir,’ Norman said. ‘Like a academic type from a university.’
‘I know.’ The old man smiled wryly, licked his lips and cleared his throat. ‘And what do you study, scholarman?’
‘Anthropology,’ Norman repeated.
‘The study of man, I know.’
Finally, the old man’s poise with the gun grew completely lax and he leaned on it like a walking stick. He looked past Norman, toward the opposite bank of the arroyo and nodded. Norman craned his head around, following the old man’s line of sight. Three figures dressed in rags descended on him, whooping as they came.
He’d driven across the United States on the interstate. For weeks his home had been his station wagon—a wood paneled tank with an extra large cabin. In the flatlands of Kansas he stopped for the night by simply pulling to the side of the road. Stink from the cattle farms permeated everything and he woke to the occasional roar of the passing tractortrailers. He continued on, stopping for fuel at two-pump gas stations and eating a late dinner at a ground round.
A middle-aged man with meaty hands sat three seats down the counter from Norman at the ground round. As he used his thumb to hold the hashbrowns to the fork and lifted them to his mouth, a blurry tattoo of the eagle, globe and anchor became visible on his forearm, indicating he served as a marine once upon a time. As he ate, dabs of ketchup hung from his mustache.
‘Tell you what, missy,’ the marine said to the waitress. ‘Gonna have to order me up another plate of these hashbrowns.’ He slugged back the last of his coffee and said to make sure the cook knew this was the best hash and scramble he ever done tasted.
‘Sure will,’ the girl cooed. She smiled and winked at the man. When she strolled down to ask Norman if everything was alright, the marine watched her walk away.
‘Everythings good,’ Norman said. ‘Like he said, best hash an scram I ever had.’
He stopped, like he said too much—he tried to decide if he should say something else, but the marine decided for him.
‘Where you from, stranger?’
The waitress cocked her head to the side as if she had just posed the question herself. Norman looked down at his plate, the smears of ketchup and strings of fried potato when he said Indiana. Then he looked up at the waitress, her face a painted mystery—either she was young and the late nights and hard work aged her prematurely or she was older and tried to look younger.
‘You a long pull from Indy-ana,’ the marine said. He rotated on his stool, slowly and forcefully in tectonic motion. There was a question left unstated.
‘Driving out to Utah,’ Norman said.
‘Going out to desert country.’
The marine’s eyes narrowed. He glanced at the waitress and she shrugged.
‘What kind of business could a boy from Indy-ana way have out in the deserts of godforsaken Utah?’ Before Norman could answer, the marine looked at the waitress and said he’d been out to south Utah before. ‘Aint nothing there but dirt, wind, few hippies, and villages of polygamists.’ There was a rejoinder of laughter.
‘I’m doing some research,’ Norman said. ‘I’m an instructor at a university.’
‘Research?’ The marine snorted with laughter.
‘You a little young to be a professor, aint you?’ the waitress asked. She leaned on the counter feigning interest.
Norman stammered. ‘I, well, I’m not a professor. I’m an instructor. And I’m old enough, I guess. I got my masters degree.’
The marine guffawed and slapped his hand on the counter.
‘I’m sorry,’ Norman said. ‘I’m not sure what the—whats so funny.’
‘Nothing,’ the waitress said. She straightened back up and cocked her head to the side again. ‘Nothings funny.’
‘Desert will eat a straight lace like you alive,’ the marine said. ‘Stationed out in the Mojave just after Korea ended. Goddamnedest place I ever been.’
Norman looked back at the waitress, hoping for some sort of kindness, some type of pleasantry. But she forced a smile and the ruts around her eyes were wrinkled with age, not laughter. And Norman knew this job had aged her prematurely. She began to wipe at the countertop again and said she had a sister out in Indy.
‘You aint never mentioned that,’ the marine said.
Norman acknowledged the remark with a single nod.
‘Yeah,’ she sighed. She glanced up at Norman, then at the marine; said her sister met a man and they ran off to Indy. ‘Havent heard from her in years.’
‘Like she got kidnapped,’ the marine said.
‘Well, she was in love with him,’ the waitress said.
‘But he made it so she never talked to her family again—that sounds like a kidnapper. How you know she isnt in some sort of trouble?’
‘I guess I dont know,’ the waitress said, her voice small.
The man turned back to Norman. ‘Guess we cant trust you Indy-ana types. You aint here to steal our women, is you?’
With a surge of confidence, Norman faked a smile, winked at the waitress and said he had already kidnapped one, years ago. ‘Came back when I realized I got the wrong sister,’ he said. He laughed at his own joke, then stopped when he realized no one else laughed with him.
The waitress shrank back from the counter and the marine sat sideways, watching Norman’s every move until she gave him the bill. He paid in cash, counting out single dollars silently. And without waiting for change, he slipped out of the glass doors into the parking lot.
From the station wagon in the parking lot, Norman watched through the flat-paned windows of the diner as the woman and the marine chatted. He watched other customers come and go, some sitting and smoking, talking with the waitress and the marine, the tables cluttering with dishes and food and then cleared and wiped clean again. On the corner of the counter the pie rack spun around. When the waitress and the marine left the diner together, the marine noticed Norman sitting in the station wagon. He leaned in to whisper something to the woman, guiding her by the elbow toward his pickup truck. They parted and the marine strode over to Norman’s car and motioned with his forefinger for Norman to roll down the window.
Norman cranked the window down.
‘Parking lot aint no motel.’
‘Just sittin here,’ Norman said. He placed his hands where the marine could see them, then dropped them to his lap. For a second he made eye contact, but quickly looked away.
‘Aint a place for just sittin,’ the marine said. ‘Best if you just roll outta here.’
‘I’m not lookin to make any trouble,’ Norman began.
‘You done made it already,’ the marine said. ‘Just by comin here and being like you are, you done made trouble.’ The man struggled to keep his voice at an even keel and his hands were balled up in fists. He glanced across the parking lot where the waitress watched through the back pane of the pickup. Taking a deep breath, the marine continued, ‘I dont want to make no more trouble here, so I’ll tell you what.’
Norman raised his eyebrows in feigned interest. But the marine didn’t notice; he looked out over the roof of the station wagon as he spoke. ‘We’re both gonna pull outta this lot. I’m gonna go thataway’—he pointed his finger one direction—‘an youre gonna go thisaway’—and he used his thumb like a hitchhiker to indicate the opposite direction. ‘Give that little lady another scare, foller us outta here an I’ll make sure you meet your maker.’
Norman nodded and the marine finally made eye contact.
‘Go on now,’ he said and Norman shifted the car into reverse, the taillights behind him lighting up the otherwise vacant lot. The marine stepped back and watched him idle away. In the mirror Norman watched the man grow distant and then vanish altogether.
Time blended into a phantasma of transit—the blaring sun, snippets of the men’s voices, yuccas and scrub and grass and dirt and sky. No clouds or water. Some broken bottles and a pile of rusty cans. Later he opened his eyes to look up at the sky stretched plaintive and blue and even in all directions. It seemed to pulsate. The mountains on the horizon looked to be no more than scraps of torn paper fluttering in a non-existent breeze.
‘Pa,’ one of the voices called.
The old man walked over and looked down on Norman. ‘It’s alright, son,’ he said. ‘We got a ways to go yet. You just get some rest.’ He patted Norman’s chest.
And with the old man’s permission Norman collapsed back into an exhausted slumber where his dreams were illusion and his dreams were real—a nexus where all things meet and we believe we see with divine eyes. Some of the images presented themselves as mere images—a toilet full of bloody condoms in a truck stop bathroom, the floor of the stall sticky with piss. Other were fledged past imagery alone and unfolded across an artificial timeline. In these visions he saw people he knew. Dusty, his colleague from the university, stood in his office doorway, a paper cone full of water in his hand.
He said, ‘Forget it, man.’
And though the conversation did not exist outside this moment, somewhere in Norman’s brain the comment found a context.
‘I wasnt going to act on it or anything,’ he heard himself say. In this dream—like the dreams of those in comas or who lapse into hypnotic spells they attribute to some distant god—Norman did not see with his own eyes. Rather he looked down on the figure of himself, small and weak.
Dusty nodded, looked past Norman and around the half-empty room. ‘She’s married. She’s way the hell outta your league.’ He sipped at the water. ‘And in case youve forgotten, she’s also our boss.’
‘I was just saying,’ Norman began, but Dusty walked away from the door and Norman could see her from straight down the hallway. In the real world—in the waking life—there was no such geography. Her office sat at a sharp right angle to his. But the reality of dreams is a fickle thing.
Doctor Blanche looked up from her desk. The distance between them shortened and she asked Norman where he was going.
He said he would head west, the grant for the ghost town study came through.
‘You better take it,’ she said. Then she stood and unbuttoned her jacket, exposing her bare chest. Her breasts were full and firm, the nipples slightly oval shaped. Teeth marks rankled around the left areola. Bruises, purple and jaundiced, spotted her ribs. The jacket dropped to the floor and her bare arm showed four little fingerprint bruises.
‘Signs of life here!’ one yelled.
The dream vanished into mystery. Doctor Blanche and her bruised body became not even a thing of memory. A hand grabbed at Norman’s crotch and jostled his erection. He swatted clumsily and laughter bellowed out around him.
He did not allow himself to recede back into dreams this time. Instead he propped himself up on his side but a hand pressed against his chest and flattened him back out on the makeshift gurney. It must have been noon, for the sun hovered directly overhead and the heat spread out hot and even and unforgiving. The old man leaned over him, his face mostly a shadow. ‘Got a couple miles yet,’ he said. ‘Take a nap, rest your eyes and I’ll show you the place I made for us.’
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