Our New Voices feature will showcase original fiction from emerging writers. The first in our series – ‘Sign of the Gun’. Read an interview with P.D. Mallamo here.
Sign of the Gun
He buys a thrice-wrecked Maule in Alaska after his second season in the business, a brown-and-white STOL tail-dragger that doesn’t look like much but gets off the ground in 200 feet. He sells his truck and most of his things, stuffs the rest into the airplane and leaves Georgia forever.
With a new set of topos he scouts north-west New Mexico for a week before he sees his spot, an abandoned airstrip with a wobbly hangar on the lip of a deep canyon just off the Navajo reservation. He wonders at its purpose all those years ago, the runway so short and close to the canyon’s edge it may have been for helicopters instead of fixed-wing. Now sage grows through the pavement and tumbleweed piles against the west side of the shed. The desert is full of old strips. For his purpose this is the best.
The maps indicate springs nearby. A self-published guidebook written by a hippy explorer forty years earlier says they are good springs. In a thousand square miles he’s seen nobody and figures he is alone.
His back story, if he needs one, involves aerial mapping for the United Nations Cultural Agency. Uncharted Anasazi settlements detectable only from the air are scattered widely across the long red waste.
In truth he is a grower of high-grade marijuana for certain young lawyers in New York City who prefer organic, sun-grown bud, preferably from a desert with a whiff of Castaneda. He’ll call his crop Verse of Eden and should anyone care to read the fine print on the packaging he’ll describe it as That Which the Lord in His Infinite Wisdom Hath Brought Forth for the Joy and Benefit of Mankind. Like the prophets of old the desert makes his plant purer and stronger, altogether unlike that grown in the feeble artifice of civilization.
You are going to be lonely for a while, he says to himself at six p.m. on a Thursday and orbits the field three times before dropping in like he’s crashing, just beyond the edge of the canyon he’ll fall back into when he takes off again. He stops abruptly before a dilapidated hangar, cuts the engine, opens the door. Footsteps absurdly loud in the deep silence, he walks through the ruined old building, returns to the plane for a pair of leather gloves and commences rearranging.
The plane barely fits, with all the falling-down junk inside. He jockeys it in with a hand winch and goddamnit. He figures the shed has weathered many big winds so he’s not too concerned with structural integrity, but just in case shores up two pillars with four-bys and wire he finds on the ground. He plugs the engine where it needs plugging and covers from prop to wings with a waterproof tarp cinched tight at the bottom but cut for the doors. He lowers a light dirt bike, fuel and oil, provisions and grower supplies from the packed-tight fuselage and passenger side, jacks up the rear of the craft to make it level, removes the passenger seat, lays his bed out, then, further back, checks the germination of his seed in the damp folds of the bluetowels.
Evening. In the cockpit he listens to an AM station from Virginia, a right-wing screamer deifying American power in Iraq, but it is obvious that conditions at the front are not good. The USA is ruled by fools, he thinks, big red-faced Anglo-Saxon fools who know even less than me. All that blood and money. Por nada. And they call me a criminal.
The violet horizon swarms with silent bats, twittering nightbirds. Rain will come in a month or two, he figures, and release the deep scents of desert sage, chamisa, juniper. He stands with his face to a sun well-dropped below the glowing rim of the world and imagines what day is left in San Francisco, the day ahead in Singapore; sees slender, coal-haired Chinese women in summer dresses stroll leafy boulevards.
He is up before dawn, takes three protein bars from a big bag of protein bars, an apple, a package of buffalo jerky and a gallon of water with a water-soluble vitamin pack, stuffs everything in his saddlebags, and heads off on the bike. He’s marked six spots on the maps and three more in the old hippy guide which he almost didn’t buy years earlier from a sidewalk bin outside a new-and-used bookseller owned by two lesbians named Sam and Amos in Nashville up near Vanderbilt University.
He seeks a sweetwater spring near a plot of land he can fertilize with composted guano and chicken litter and irrigate with a small pump and several hundred feet of black plastic tubing. The sun and shade must be right, and it is also a good thing if the plot is protected from at least two sides or near some trees that might provide a bit of camouflage.
By nightfall he’s found three sandy seeps, all good water with animal tracks, plus one hotspring he can bathe in and, if necessary, drink. None is closer than three miles from the airplane. He can plant one site each day. He arranges his translucent growtubes, sacks of fertilizer, solar panels and pumps on the back of his bike, which he loads up like a Shanghai poultryman. He pulls his .41 from beneath its hiding place in the cockpit, an odd calibre that suits him. He spins the cylinder, buttons it up and stores the canvas holster and a box of ammunition next to the protein bars in the saddlebag.
He figures to sink a single line of tubes against low cliffs in two spots, and parallel with a raggedy treeline in another. The first cliff is etched with figures from that lost tribe whose dwellings he ostensibly seeks. This is good medicine, he knows, a provident omen in the great bare desert, these stretched spectral creatures presiding over his illicit labours. Who knows what they did here? Whatever it was, no doubt it wasn’t illegal. He samples soil here and there, then digs a heap of fine sandy loam from the side of the wash and carefully mixes in the right proportions of guano. By his calculations 160 feet of cliffline provide optimum light and cover, so he marks his spots, somewhat above the floodline and, donning latex gloves to prevent leaving fingerprints, lays out tubes and stretches his thin black waterlines, which he buries three inches under the sand.
He digs the seep at scrapings animals have made and lines it with rocks to create a lasting depression. This slowly fills with cloudy water, then runs off in a channel he has likewise formed from stone. When the water clears he samples a cup, literally betting his ass against giardia, and finds it candy-sweet. Bingo, he thinks. I have hit the mother lode. He sets his pump, solar panel and timer.
For three days he carefully plants and waters each tiny sprout, five to a laterally expandable tube of clear plastic that will increase in diameter as the seedlings grow. The soil and nutrients are rich enough to sustain all of them; in the event that one or more do not survive or must be culled, there’s always a backup which will grow bigger and faster, though not yield quite as much as the multiples. The tubes will protect the plants until they’re mature and by then he figures to have the desert and its challenges well read.
In eight weeks the plants are high and thriving, bursting from their tubes. There are no bugs, the rodents can’t reach that high, no sign of deer, hot sun, perfect water. He has only run off the trail twice with minor injuries. He’s finished five difficult books and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series, a sheaf of crossword puzzles, hung a hammock from a strut and a beam, three times cleaned the plane snout to heel, target-shot through ten boxes of 210 grain .41 magnum loads, cooked many a tasty little quail he trapped at the springs, done thousands of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, tanned himself golden, found a midnight jazz station from Chicago.
Things are going well.
He decides it’s time for a trip to town.
There is a little rut that follows the edge of the canyon south-west for six miles until it dips sharply left into an arroyo barely wide enough for a Jeep and winds its way steeply to a narrow log bridge at the bottom of the gorge and then up the other side. Once every two or three years a flash flood washes out the bridge and the tribe takes another two or three years to replace it, so the period during which it is serviceable is utterly unpredictable. From the canyon the road shoots east a few degrees off perpendicular on the other side and eventually connects with a maintained gravel road, which connects with a less maintained paved road, which eventually connects with a blue highway that bisects a few lonesome little pueblos. All are occasionally crossed here and there, usually at right angles, by other roads to nowhere.
He’s lucky: the bridge is up. Water runs clear and cold beneath it. He stops and wades around a little, chases a school of silver minnows through brief shallows, watches an eagle meander a hundred feet above, tipping its broad wings this way and that in a spirally rising thermal. He takes a spartan lunch in the cool shadow of riverside trees, then dries his feet and ascends the other side.
In Gusano, New Mexico, just off the rez there is a gas station attached to a tiny grocery store. This is on the blue road. On the others he sees nothing, not a hogan. Only the road, a busted-down fence and beer cans attest to the presence somewhere of somebody. The proprietor is a little brown man he takes to be Mexican or Latin American, but he doesn’t respond to Spanish or English. On the wall he sees a flag he can’t identify and points to it. Sri Lanka, says the man, and smiles proudly. In small rooms behind the counter he hears children, and in a moment the man’s beaming wife walks out, swathed in a sari of luminous red cloth. An old woman, similarly clad but in iridescent blue, follows after her and brings him a cup of green tea with mint leaves in a white bone china cup with saucer. He thanks her and sits on a fruit crate in the middle of the floor and sips the tea as an overhead fan creaks and rocks. Cool air from an AC unit in the bedroom swirls around his feet and when he finishes the tea and attempts to stand the old woman reappears and, still smiling, pours him another cup and hands him a cookie in a napkin. An hour and a half later he’s purchased far more than he requires and, with their assistance and two thick black plastic trash sacks, lashes it all somehow to the bike. He fills his tank with premium gas. The store contains no alcohol, an anomaly for any establishment this close to a rez, and he figures they’re Muslims just scraping by. How they got way out here he can’t imagine and can’t ask. He gives the children twenty dollars each, shakes the man’s hand, waves to the waving women and turns back the way he came.
He is speeding on the gravel road and almost runs first into a woman standing in the middle of it out of sight at the top of a rise, then, when he swerves, into her car which is burning on the shoulder somewhat further on. An old pickup without a tailgate is stopped sixty yards past the conflagration and he can see two heads backlit in the westerly sun craning around to look at the woman and himself.
They did something to it, she says as he slows and circles around to where she stands. I stopped at a station a hundred miles back and used the ladies room and that’s when they did it. Now I guess they can do what they want. My cell doesn’t work out here and I don’t have a gun.
She had gotten out with only her purse and hat and stands with one hand on her head and the other on her hip as the car burns to the ground. You’d better move back, he says. The tank will blow.
It’s already blown, she says. There was my suitcase and three boxes in there. She drops her purse, throws her hands up and steps back two or three paces, then rests her hands on the top of her head and watches it burn. He looks up the road to the truck. One of the men has climbed into the bed, then clambers up on the roof of the cab where he shields his eyes with his hands and looks east and west along the stretch of road. He sees the man lean and hears him say, Go to the other, then the driver’s door opens and the driver steps out and pulls a long gun from behind the seat. When he sees him check the chamber he reaches slowly to the saddlebag where he keeps the .41, tells the woman, Run, and crouches behind the bike as the man strides quickly toward them and shoots. He figures from the blast it’s a 12-gauge; a swarm of pellets tears into the chips, sodas, cookies, eggs, milk, sausage and orange juice that hang from the sack on the bike.
The man shoots again and he hears the woman cry out, sees her fall and pick herself up. He peers through the cooling vanes of his motor and waits until the shooter is twenty yards away before raising the magnum over the seat and touching off two deafening rounds. One strikes the man squarely in the belly and the shotgun flies from his hands. He rises to brace himself against the cycle, cocks the hammer and, with hand on hip like an old-time target shooter, takes aim at the other, now quickly descending the roof of the truck. With one shot he knocks him backward in the bed, then hears the liquid wallop of the blossoming hollowpoint. The woman stops and turns. He walks to the first man, who is crawling, and kicks him on to his back and despite his outstretched hands shoots him twice through the face. Bloody vapour explodes from the man’s shattered head and levitates briefly in the slanting sunlight. The woman falls to her knees as he walks to the second who is sitting in the bed of the pickup holding his stomach and screaming, No, buddy, no and shoots him like the first. The blasts echo and die across the shining red desert as she buries her face in her hands and prays, Jesus Lord in Heaven, Dear Lord Jesus, see this, see this.
He thinks hard to not automatically eject the spent brass on the ground and reload. He walks back to the bike where he sets the revolver on the seat and works his way noiselessly to the woman who is sitting on the dirt with her arms around her knees facing away. Blood seeps from a dozen small holes in her back and her white blouse is red through and through. If he’s going to kill her he’ll either have to reload or do it with his blade, but even as he pulls it from a sheath on his calf he knows he can’t. Her long tawny hair has fallen from the keep on her head and the wind is blowing it around her neck. She shakes visibly and does not raise her eyes to look at him when he steps into her field of vision.
He walks back to the bike and considers his options. There are only two, the first of which he has eliminated.
So he stands her up and steadies her, then turns her around and lifts her blouse. A few pellets are visible just under the skin. He pushes one out and holds it in his palm. Number four, he thinks. Duck load.
Can you walk, he asks? Sure I can, she says, but what for, why don’t you just kill me right here? He half carries her over to the bike, hands her the .41 and says, If it makes you feel better, you can keep this with you.
Except for a few packages of Fig Newtons, a three-week-old Sunday New York Times the Sri Lankans fished from their gas-pump trash can after a German tourist threw it away, some toothpaste and floss, two loaves of bread, mouthwash, new socks, four cans of spam, tomatoes, a sack of potatoes, salsa and a glass bottle of Italian mineral water that are all in another trash bag on the lee side of the bike and hence unpunctured, he throws everything he bought at the little store on to the car fire, then walks out to the pickup. There is, as he hoped, a chain in the bed. He drives to the dead man on the ground, removes his wallet, checks for exit wounds, pulls and hoists him like simple meat into the bed; he takes the other’s wallet and checks him for wounds, too. He tracks both later rounds through either the glass of the cab or wall of the truck bed and, satisfied that they are far out on the desert, backs up to the smouldering wreck. He hooks the chain to the hitch, then wraps it around the front of the red-hot frame and jerks the wreck across thirty yards of desert, down a ravine where both truck and wreck drop completely from sight. He walks back to the road, gathers the odd identifying litter this-and-that, and takes it all to the truck where he throws it into the cab. He remembers the shotgun out on the ground where the first man dropped it and tosses it into the cab with the rest. He backs the truck over the wreck as far as he can and waits a few minutes until it catches fire, too.
She’s leaning against the bike and hands him his gun. It’s empty, she says, what good is it? She’s pale as the dead and just holding on. He makes her drink a little water, then shifts the saddlebags and surviving trash sack and sets her on the seat. Both of them reek of blood. Hang on tight and tell me before you puke, he says. He starts off slowly, but they are losing light and still have to negotiate the canyon. By the time they labour up the other side she’s vomited twice and the sky is falling upward from cobalt to indigo to luminous obsidian. When they reach the Maule he can see the ghost of the Milky Way.
This is my airplane, he says. She stands in shaky wonderment at what the single headlight reveals. He finds his medical kit and a small gas lantern, sits her down on an empty five-gallon fuel can, gingerly removes her blood-soaked blouse, bra and another garment he can’t identify, and goes to work on her back. Two hours later she is lead-free, disinfected, bandaged, wearing one of his T-shirts, well drugged with two Percocets from a bottle he took from his addict brother years before, and unconscious in the cool belly of the Maule. He digs a pit, burns their now-dry bloody clothing with the help of a cup of gas, throws a few big rocks on the ashes and fills it in. A fresh desert breeze rocks the hammock and he’s sure he won’t sleep, then sleeps to the chanting of coyotes running from a dawn still half a hemisphere away.
At half past ten an F-16 flying contour 300 feet above the earth smashes the air directly over them and she tumbles screaming from the Maule.
White people! he hollers, then tries to orient himself in time and space after a dream about women with tiny heads driving cars. When the roaring stops she stands and wobbles and says to nobody in particular, I would rather be dead than violated.
He laughs and says, My daddy’s a fool preacher. Momma weighs much as a horse and can’t stop eating. I’m never going to see them again.
I’m a Mormon, she says next, as if he is wondering. That was the article of clothing you removed beneath my blouse. Where did you put it?
I burned the clothes. Mine too.
Now what do I do? she asks.
Keep the shirt, I guess.
She sits on the fuel can and he says, I’ll show you what to eat. I lost the good stuff with your two stupid assholes out there.
My God, she says, shaking her head and holding it in her two hands. My God. Where am I?
What do you do out here? she asks, looking around.
I’m an archaeologist.
She laughs immediately and slowly stands. And I’m Hillary Clinton. Nice to meet you, Indiana. She laughs again. Where’s the farm? My husband’s a sheriff. And I’m not stupid.
She staggers back to the airplane and fishes around inside for her purse. Where’s my cellphone?
I took it.
She weaves back to her can and sits down. What are you going to do with me?
Jesus Christ, he says. You’re welcome.
He makes her drink a cup of water mixed with pack of powdered vitamins, then leads her around the hangar where he’s dug a slit latrine. I’ll check in five minutes, he says. She walks back on her own and he leads her to the plane, helps her up and straightens the bed. Go to sleep, he says. Do you want another pill? She shakes her head and he leaves her alone.
At dusk he rouses her. He gets a towel and clean clothes he’s saved in a box against the parachute, takes his medical kit and sets her on the bike. They wind along a narrow trail for twenty-five minutes, then turn and drop through boulders big as a house. He stops at the side of a sandy wash, takes her hand and leads her, still groggy, to the base of a high sandstone incline where a steaming pool hisses in the shadows. I scooped this out myself, he says. The bottom’s gravelly and over there it’s about three feet deep. It’s hot and there’s sulphur in it. I want you to lay in it for half an hour. Take your clothes off and wash them out. Here’s clean ones. Drink a little of the sulphur water. It’s good for you. He lifts her shirt and peels off each small round Band-Aid. Here’s a flashlight, he says. I’ll be back in an hour or two.
In the dark he picks his way to the pool and calls. I’m here, she says, and flicks the flashlight on and off. He finds her sitting on a rock with the towel around her head staring at the galaxy turning gigantically above them, brilliant and indifferent as if it were itself the mind of God. He sits beside her and the light of a billion lost suns pours through their eyes and over their heads and shoulders and into the clear steaming waters of the hot spring. Can you hear the stars? she asks in the darkness. Can you hear them?
Since I was little.
Nothing we do is miraculous, she says. Look at this!
I never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it, he says in the dark as he dries from his bath. Keep that in mind. This is a bad business I’m in. That’s why I’m by myself way out here. Then I run into your two fools. Some goddamned luck. Now you. I couldn’t dream this up.
Mormons don’t believe in adultery, she replies. We regulate sex. We regulate it all over the place.
Where did that come from? he asks.
Sex and killing are the same to us. Sometimes sex is worse.
He laughs and says, You might reconsider after what you’ve seen.
What about the kids? she asks. The ones who smoke your dope. Do you ever think about them?
There aren’t any. It costs five hundred bucks a jot.
Then who buys it?
Legal professionals in Manhattan.
That’s a good one, she says. You must have quite a reputation.
A small circle. It’s good dope. Free-range, he laughs. You’re a Mormon and sheriff’s wife, so when it comes to understanding something like this you’re as close to an idiot as it gets.
She laughs too and says, Maybe that’s just as well.
Nothing but this, in case you’re wondering – no crank, no chiva, no pills – nothing but weed.
I feel better already, she says, and he laughs again.
You can’t always judge your life by what’s worse, he says. Sometimes there’s no frame of reference at all. For instance you can’t say, No matter what my life is like, I should be grateful because I could have no legs like him over there. I should just shut up and be grateful, especially for my legs. I don’t think like that. My family was bad. My luck was bad. Now my business is bad. That’s the way it is. I didn’t choose it. You can turn it this way and that in your head, you can symbolize it all you want, but it’s still what it is.
She asks if he’s ever read the Book of Mormon. No, he says, but on the other hand why bother? He’s read enough archaeology to know it’s bullshit top to bottom, there weren’t any Jews in Guatemala. She says that some things you know by other means. He replies that lots of people in other religions know things by such other means too, but so what, do we worship the elephant god like them? She says there’s a powerful thing, the Witness of the Spirit, and once you experience it you are never the same. He replies that those two men out there had a witness, too. She says she is very tired and can she please go to sleep now.
He takes the flashlight from her and says, Let me see your back. He opens his medicine kit and takes out a small tube of Neosporin, then lifts her new shirt, which is showing a little blood here and there. He daubs the ointment on each small hole and Band-Aids the wounds that are seeping. He sees no sign of infection.
In the morning he opens his eyes to find her standing next to the hammock. She’s resting a two-by-four on her right shoulder but grips it with only one hand. She appears to have been standing there for a while. I changed my mind, she says. God loves you. I owe you my life. I won’t betray you. I give you my word.
He takes her back to the hotspring on his way to the farm. Before they leave he hands her the cellphone. She tries it here and there on the way and finally connects with one of her children at home and talks for five minutes.
Turn if off, he says when she’s done. There’s no charge for your battery out here.
So what the hell are you doing all by yourself?
I’m an audiologist, she says. In the summer I go from settlement to settlement and test the Indian kids. I forgot my gun and it was too far to go back. I’ve never had a problem until now. I’ve been doing this for years.
I learned to fly in the army, he says. When I got back they sent me to Fort Hood. There was a little college and flight school right next to it. The army pays for everything and I think, Why not? I got a commercial licence and when my time was up I learned crop dusting. Then I damn near died with the sprays, allergic or something, I don’t know. I couldn’t get medical because I’d signed a waiver – don’t come crying if this bad shit makes you sick. I could barely stand. A naturopath cleaned me up and turned me on to weed for pain. I said hell, this is good, make your own. I save money for bail and skipping if worse comes to worse, but I never been caught. Tried the swamps down south, but so does everybody and crowding leads to fights. I love the desert. It’s open and quiet except for the fucking air force, but that’s every other month most likely. I bought the Maule in Alaska after two big crops. The guy wrecked it and fixed it and wrecked it and fixed it. I helped him fix it the third wreck, so I know it top to bottom. He gave me a good deal and anyway with that history nobody else would touch it, for jinx if nothing else. We got rapport, my girl and me. She’s finally got a man who cares.
I had electroconvulsive therapy when I was in college, she says. BYU. A room-mate from California took me up to a hospital in Salt Lake and they did it outpatient. I’ve never told anyone, not even my husband. My parents never found out. I got so depressed I tried to kill myself. Why was I living? She shrugged and held out her palms. Just so I could do what everybody else does, have kids and die? What’s the point? But I made it through college and went on a church mission to Portugal. It seemed to disappear over there. Then I came back and got married and had kids, of course. I hope this doesn’t push me over.
You and a dope dealer at the spa, he says. Vacation.
How long will I be here?
Till the crop comes in, he says. Twelve days.
Her name is September; she has a sheriff husband, two kids and lives in Spanish Fork, Utah.
I’ve not heard that as a name before, he says. September. I like it.
She pulls an Oprah magazine from her big battered purse and sits down to read. Hoary Oprah herself is on the cover, airbrushed again to look like a June bride. She never gets any older, he laughs. If anything it’s going the other way. He looks over her shoulder as she turns the pages and says, The next new shoe women can’t walk in either. Explain that to me.
Women dress for women, she says. Men are too stupid to notice one way or the other. After you’re married, the important men are all homosexual anyway. My brother, for instance.
I like fashion, he says, least as much as I’ve seen. After I sold my first good load in New York I found out I was a city boy. I stayed for a month and did everything, even the shops on Park Avenue. I had some money. I blew it all. One of these days I’ll go with a woman who knows her way around.
This is the library, he says, taking a small box of books from the airplane. At least part of it. You want my recommendations? Sure, she says. He holds up The Rainbow Stories by Vollman, Our Kind by Harris, The Cold Six Thousand by Elroy, The Bushwacked Piano by McGuane, and Che Guevara (My hero, he says) by Jon Lee Anderson.
He hands her The Rainbow Stories. Here, he says, take it. Put it in your purse. He winks. Might even lift a print or two. He finds a pen and signs the title page: To September from Joshua. Remember me.
There’s a dictionary in here, too, he says. Primogeniture. Sacerdotalism. He smiles at her. Do you know them?
I do not. You’ve got me there.
What does the old man read?
Elk magazines and police reports. The scriptures.
What do you talk about?
She pauses for a moment. Kids. Work. I’d have to think about that.
Besides the gay brother and three straight brothers, she has a sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws galore. Essentially he has nobody.
Don’t you get lonely? she asks.
You learn how to be by yourself, he says. I don’t want to do this forever, but it’s all right for now. I got my teeth fixed and whitened a couple years ago. I thought it would make a big difference with my confidence. But you watch your parents, don’t you, and do what they did until you think your way out of it. My parents hate themselves. We learn those things. Did you have good parents?
Not perfect but always there. They tried. Most parents in my church are like that. It’s what we believe.
You tried to kill yourself.
I grew up.
Jesus Christ Himself could come around now and it wouldn’t make any difference at all, he says. My brother and sisters? Good God, woman you can’t imagine, you can’t in a million years imagine what their lives are like. Maybe Jesus isn’t just for Mormons, but we’re coming up on your system way too late for anyone in my tribe.
Daddy preached the old-timey stuff, he says while he cleans the .41. Old Testament. He could work momma and the others up like singing hounds or clapping so hard you wonder they don’t break their hands. He beat everybody. He beat the fucking dog. The only thing he didn’t do was strychnine and rattlesnakes. Too bad. He should have.
He holds up the gleaming revolver. Flame and shadow play along the barrel as he hefts and twists it in the firelight. Misters Smith and Wesson here have solved many a problem, he says. For me and others. The big guns make one hell of a mess, go right through or disintegrate inside so there’s no round to trace. You understand that, I bet.
Did you kill your parents?
What a question, he says.
Well, did you?
What for? They’re killing themselves. I wouldn’t dirty my hands. He holsters the gun, snaps the dust flap over the grip and says, Man carry his rags and bundles around Salt Lake, you don’t know him from Adam, only you got to keep the kids away. But I do, I know where he’s from. I been there, too. I know what the old man did to him and the rest. If not for a naturopath in Georgia I’d be on the street myself.
No one knows but me and my parents, she says. I’m sorry. Another true confession. Why do we tell these things to strangers? My little brother killed himself. Everybody thinks it was an accident. My parents knew he was gay and tried to fix him – blessings, therapy, special summer camp. Everything. He got the message. In my culture that’s too much for some of them. They leave the church or kill themselves. My parents carry a heavy weight. He was smarter than anybody. Funny, too. He could see right to the middle of things. I don’t know how, but he could. Everything except himself.
That’s all of us.
He didn’t have to do it, she says. Across the fire he sees her eyes fill with tears. He could have moved. Gotten out of Utah. He’d still be alive. New York City maybe.
That’s right, he says. He’d of been right at home. It’s a different place. A lot like the desert. He stares into the flames. That’s a damn shame, he says. A damn shame. I’d have taken him there myself.
He shows her how poor boys take care of bright, new teeth. I might not be able to see a dentist for a long time, he says. Here’s the program: Get some good toothpaste with fluoride and whitener. First you brush. Spit but don’t rinse. Then you floss. Then you put the toothpaste on a little prophy brush and run it between every tooth down to the gumline. Spit but don’t rinse. That’s the thing. Leave the toothpaste on your teeth all night so the fluoride and whitener work. I don’t have any cavities and I haven’t seen a dentist for years. I never know when I can see the doctor, either. I don’t smoke and I take vitamins. My brother and sisters, they don’t give a damn. Do whatever they want. Sick or hurt all the time, don’t give a shit one way or the other. I’ll have me some funerals to pay for soon. There’s no one else to do it. Life is no great secret, you know. Some choose to go on, some don’t. A few are in between, like priests and addicts. They don’t know if they’re dead or alive.
She fishes around inside her big purse and comes up with a thin slip of plastic and paper. Okay beautiful, she says, let’s give this a try. Wash your face with soap, rinse, leave the skin wet. He does so, and she applies the strip over his nose. When it dries she peels it off and shows him the dirt it’s drawn from his pores. It’s for women, she says, but your secret’s safe with me.
He examines the strip closely. The naturopath candled my ears once, he says. He pulled out everything from earwax to dead gnats. I was impressed. I wish they had something like that for the brain.
You want something to eat? he asks.
She looks up and smiles at him. I trust you, she says. I’d trust you with my children.
Rain all night. Sharp scents and heady fragrances saturate the desert, sage fusions of soil and plant that are singular every time. She rides with him on his rounds, arms tightly around his waist unselfconsciously, face against his back. She inspects the farms close up: Now I know what to look for, she laughs. That’s quite an operation. She calls a reservation school on her cell, speaks for a moment, disconnects and says, Indian Way: They don’t care if I show up or not. He’s brought the revolver, a package of earplugs, some cans. They shoot through two boxes and she can hit, holding the heavy pistol with two hands in combat stance. I’m a lawman’s wife, she says. What do you expect? Now’s your chance, he laughs and jerks up his hands. On the dirt, dirtbag! she yells, but points the pistol over his head. Then the joke is over, and when she reloads she examines the weapon closely. You executed those men, she says. Was that for me or you? That was for them, he replies. Those old boys had already gambled – once for your backside, once for your front, once to see who cuts your throat. They had become devils. It’s why I shot off their faces. That way the devil’s gone for good.
Later he remembers the wallets and they go through them slowly, she quietly pointing out this and that. One is attached to a chain, and both are thick with papers: driver’s licences from Wyoming and Colorado – two hard men with dire histories and uncertain futures; forty-one dollars, cards for six different roofing companies, a couple photos of spread-eagled women, children they take to be nieces or nephews, a ribbed, strawberry-flavoured condom, fake confederate money, a single-edged razor blade still in its little cardboard sheath, a handcuff key, calling card, debit card, a five-yuan note from the People’s Republic of China. One has a little certificate from the Universal Life Church indicating that the bearer so designated is officially a clergyman. This makes them look at each other and laugh. When he builds a pit fire against the damp evening chill he burns everything but the money, which, while she sleeps, he stuffs into her purse along with several hundreds of his own.
What do you need? he asks. I’m going to town. What town? she asks. He tells her about the Sri Lankans and their fine green tea, then tucks her list in his pocket. She takes Our Kind to the hammock and settles in.
He finds where he found her on the gravel road and circles around to the burned-down vehicles. Storms have washed clean the ground, and half-buried the wrecks in silt at the bottom of the sandy draw. They look like they’ve been there half a century. Coyotes have carried away the charred carcasses; nothing remains. At least those men were good for something, he thinks, if only food for the little dogs.
He marvels that all the destruction he had wrought is melting into the fine ochre sand like so much mother’s milk; that all of it, blood, flesh and splintered bone, now nourish the insects and plants that constitute the sweet matrix of life. Even the wrecks, once blackened and raw, now rust and settle in their graves as no more than tranquil memorials to his small undetectable holocaust.
The Sri Lankans greet him like a brother or a son and this time insist he eat with them, an aromatic supper of eggplant curry and lentils. He asks to use the bathroom, locks himself in and weeps silently. He washes his face and hands, and when he emerges the wife, with poignant expression, touches his eyes. He says Dust Dust, then motions with his hands to indicate the rolling tyres of his bike.
When they finish the women rub his hands and feet with oil, then hug him and say soft words he cannot understand. They will take no money for his shopping, but he folds 300 dollars in a child’s shirt pocket, kisses them all, even the man, and spins slowly back to the canyon.
The first man I killed raped my sister, he says. The Mormon Woman and Sheriff’s Wife sits in a folding canvas chair the Sri Lankans have given him. She shakes her head, laughs, covers her face with her hands.
I know, he says, like a goddamned comic book, unbelievable – but at the lower end of things in Georgia that’s how it is for everybody, not just us. But wait, wait – he holds a hand up – here’s the rest of it: Killing him didn’t do any good! She actually married the man’s brother, a wife-beater, and one day she stabbed him in the liver. He bled to death and she did five years.
Do you smoke it? she asked.
Sometimes. Not very often. I can’t fly and smoke it. I fly mostly at night so I have to stay sharp.
So what do you do?
Whisky, he says, and smiles. Only once in a while. I guess it’s in the blood.
Now they walk the crumbling runway. She kicks rocks to the side, he chops weeds and trees. She calls her husband and lies innocently, laughing and chatting like she’s just around the corner. How beautiful she is, he thinks, how much younger than the day I found her. She is so different from the coarse, unhappy women he has known. She hangs up, turns the phone off, slides it into a pocket. A breeze swirls her hair. She gathers it in her hands, twists and pins it with a splinter she’s carved smooth to the top of her head. They walk to the very edge of the canyon. He would stroke the pale skin of her neck and throat, but knows he must not. You can hear silence for a hundred miles, she says, turning her hazel eyes upon him. Sunlight pulses above the great shadowy depths, and a whisper rises from below, verdant and cool. A hawk appears from nowhere and floats silently just beyond the rim of the gorge. I can’t hear the river, she says. I can smell it but I can’t hear a thing.
After harvesting more or less non-stop for two days he finishes loading the rough cut at two a.m., and together they push the plane out into the warm, starry night. He will leave her off at the small airport in Durango and fill his tanks. He has stowed the dirt bike, leftover fuel and provisions high up in a rickety loft at the rear of the hangar. You never know, he says, though of course they do. He would burn the hangar if the sky was overcast and close.
He shovels in the latrine and builds a small pit fire just inside the hangar. They burn garbage and anything else not part of the structure or the natural world. After a pilot’s walk-around with the flashlight, he says, Let’s go. We’re heavy. We’ll drop like hell into the canyon, but don’t you worry. Baby’s gonna pull us right on out the other side.
He does another walk-around and two run-ups just to make sure, then flicks on the lights and points her to the chasm. Ready? She nods her head, and he shoves the throttle full forward. Laughing and yelling they charge down the runway and plunge into the inky abyss.
As they fall she closes her eyes and sees the metropolis, a broad crowded sidewalk on an avenue of trees. A man and woman pushing a baby stroller pass her in the multitude. She sees him turn, sees him raise himself on his toes to find her, sees him smile, sees him lift high his steady right hand and, before vanishing forever, make the sign of the gun.