July 28
Duane Moser
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015

Dear Mr Moser

On the afternoon of June 25 while on my last outing to Rhyolite, I was driving down Cane Springs Road some ten miles outside Beatty and happened upon what looked to be the debris left over from an auto accident. I got out of my truck and took a look around. The valley was bone dry. A hot west wind took the puffs of dust from where I stepped and curled them away like ashes. Near the wash I found broken glass, deep gouges in the dirt running off the side of the road, and an array of freshly bought groceries tumbled among the creosote. Coke cans (some full, some open and empty, some still sealed but dented and half full and leaking). Bud Light cans in the same shape as the Coke. Fritos. Meat. Et cetera. Of particular interest to me were the two almost-full prescriptions that had been filled at the pharmacy in Tonopah only three days before, and a sealed Ziploc bag full of letters signed M. I also took notice of a bundle of photos of an old car, part primer, part rust, that I presume was or is going to be restored. The car was a Chevy Chevelle, a ’66, I believe. I once knew a man who drove a Chevelle. Both medications had bright yellow stickers on their sides warning against drinking alcohol while taking them. Enter the Bud Light, and the gouges in the dirt, possibly. I copied your address off those prescription bottles. What happened out there? Where is your car? Why were the medications, food and other supplies left behind? Who are you, Duane Moser? What were you looking for out at Rhyolite?

I hope this letter finds you, and finds you well. Please write back.

Truly,

Thomas Grey
PO Box 129, Verdi
Nevada 89439

PS I left most of the debris in the desert, save for the medications, pictures and letters from M. I also took the plastic grocery bags, which I untangled from the bushes and recycled on my way through Reno. It didn’t feel right to just leave them out there.

 

 

August 16
Duane Moser
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015

Dear Mr Moser

This morning, as I fed the horses, clouds were just beginning to slide down the slope of the Sierras, and I was reminded once again of Rhyolite. When I came inside I borrowed my father’s old copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference from his room. From that book I have gathered that before driving out to Rhyolite you may have been feeling out of control, alone, or hopeless. You were possibly in a state of extreme depression; perhaps you were even considering hurting yourself. Judging by the date the prescriptions were filled and the number of pills left in the bottles – which I have counted, sitting out in the fields atop a tractor which I let sputter and die, eating the sandwich which my wife fixed me for lunch – you had not been taking the medications long enough for them to counteract your possible feelings of despair. ‘Despair’, ‘depression’, ‘hopeless’, ‘alone’. These are the words of the PDR, 41st Edition, which I returned to my father promptly, as per his request. My father can be difficult. He spends his days shut up in his room, reading old crime novels populated by dames and Negroes, or watching the TV we bought him with the volume up too high. Some days he refuses to eat. Duane Moser, my father never thought he would live this long.

I think there will be lightning tonight; the air has that feel. Please, write back.

Truly,

Thomas Grey
PO Box 129, Verdi
Nevada 89439

 

 

September 1
Duane Moser
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015

Dear Mr Moser

I slept terribly last night, dreamed dreams not easily identified as such. Had I told my wife about them she might have given me a small quartz crystal or amethyst and insisted I carry it around in my pocket all day, to cleanse my mind and spirit. She comes from California. Here is a story she likes to tell. On one of our first dates we walked arm in arm around downtown Reno, where she was a clerk at a grocery store and I was a student of agriculture and business. There she tried to pull me down a little flight of steps to the red-lit underground residence of a palm reader and psychic. I declined. Damn near an hour she pulled on me, saying what was I afraid of, asking what was the big deal. I am not a religious man but, as I told her then, there are some things I’d rather not fuck with. Now she likes to say it’s a good thing I wouldn’t go in because if that psychic had told her that she’d be stuck with me for going on fourteen years now she would have turned and headed for the hills. Ha! And I say, Honey, not as fast as I would’ve, ha, ha! This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.

I’ll tell you what I don’t tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.

I imagine you a man alone, Duane Moser, with no one asking after your dreams in the morning, no one slipping healing rocks into your pockets. A bachelor. It was the Fritos, finally, which reminded me of the gas station in Beatty where I worked when I was in high school and where I knew a man who owned a Chevelle like yours, a ’66. But it occurs to me perhaps this assumption is foolish; surely there are wives out there who have not banned trans fats and processed sugars, as mine has. I haven’t had a Frito in eleven years. Regardless, I write to enquire about your family, should you reply.

Our children came to us later in life than most. My oldest, Danielle, has just started school. Her little sister, Layla, is having a hard time with it. She wants so badly to go to school with Danielle that she screams and cries as the school bus pulls away in the morning. Sometimes she throws herself down to the ground, embedding little pieces of rock in the flesh of her fists. Then she is sullen and forlorn for the rest of the day. My wife worries for her, but truth be told, I am encouraged. The sooner Layla understands that we are nothing but the sum of that which we endure, the better. But my father has taken to walking Layla to the end of our gravel road in the afternoon to wait for Danielle at the bus stop. Layla likes to go as early as she is allowed, as if her being there will bring the bus sooner. She would stand at the end of the road all day if we let her. She pesters my father so that he sometimes stands there in the heat with her for an hour or more, though his heart is in no condition to be doing so. In many ways he is better to my girls than I am. He is far better to them than he was to me. I am not a religious man but I do thank God for that.

I am beginning to think I dreamed you up. Please, write soon.

Truly,

Thomas Grey
PO Box 129, Verdi
Nevada 89439

 

 

October 16
Duane Moser
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015

Dear Mr Moser

I have read the letters from M, the ones you kept folded in the Ziploc bag. Forgive me, but for all I know you may be dead, and I could not resist. I read them in my shed, where the stink and thickness of the air were almost unbearable, and then again in my truck in the parking lot of the Verdi post office. I was struck, as I was when I first found them out near Rhyolite on Cane Springs Road, by how new the letters looked. Though most were written nearly twenty years ago the paper is clean, the creases sharp. Duane Moser, what I do not understand is this: why a Ziploc bag? Did you worry they might get wet on your journey through the desert in the middle of summer? Then again, I am reminded of the Coke and Bud Light. Or am I to take the Ziploc bag as an indication of your fierce, protective love for M.? Is it a sign, as M. suggests, that little by little you sealed your whole self off, until there was nothing left for her? Furthermore, I have to ask whether you committed this sealing purposefully. She says she thinks she was always asking too much of you. She is generous that way, isn’t she? She says you didn’t mean to become ‘so very alien’ to her. I am not so sure. I love my wife. But I’ve never told her how I once knew a man in Beatty with a ’66 Chevelle. I know what men like us are capable of.

Duane Moser, what I come back to is this: how could you have left M.’s letters by the side of Cane Springs Road near the ghost town Rhyolite where hardly anyone goes any more? (In fact, I have never seen another man out on Cane Springs Road. I drive out there to be alone. Maybe you do, too. Or you did, anyway.) Did you not realize that someone just like you might find them? How could you have left her again?

I have called the phone number listed on the prescription bottles, finally, though all I heard was the steady rising tones of the disconnected signal. Still, I found myself listening for you there. Please, write soon.

Truly,

Thomas Grey
PO Box 129, Verdi
Nevada 89439

PS On second thoughts, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that’s no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.

 

 

November 2
Duane Moser
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015

Dear Mr Moser

My wife found your pictures, the ones of the Chevelle. The one you maybe got from a junkyard or from a friend, or maybe it’s been in your family for years, rotting in a garage somewhere because after what happened nobody wanted to look at it. I kept the pictures tucked behind the visor in my truck, bound with a rubber band. I don’t know why I kept them. I don’t know why I’ve kept your letters from M., or your medications. I don’t know what I would do if I found what I am looking for.

When I was in high school I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station in Beatty. It’s still there, on the corner of I-95 and Highway 374, near the hot springs. Maybe you’ve been there. It’s a Shell station now, but back then it was called Hadley’s Fuel. I worked there forty, fifty hours a week. Bill Hadley was a friend of my father’s. He was a crazy sonofabitch, as my father would say, who kept a shotgun under the counter and always accused me of stealing from the till or sleeping on the job when I did neither. I liked the graveyard shift, liked being up at night, away from Pop, listening to the tremors of the big walk-in coolers, the hum of the fluorescent lights outside.

Late that spring a swarm of grasshoppers moved through Beatty on their way out to the alfalfa fields down south. They were thick and fierce, roaring like a thunderstorm in your head. The hoppers ate anything green. In two days they stripped the leaves from all the cottonwoods and willows in town, then they moved on to the juniper and pine, the cheat grass and bitter salt cedar. A swarm of them ate the wool right off of Abel Prince’s live sheep. Things got so bad that the trains out to the mines shut down for a week because the guts of the bugs made the rails too slippery.

The grasshoppers were drawn to the fluorescent lights at Hadley’s. For weeks the parking lot pulsed with them. I would have felt them crunch under my feet when I walked out to the pumps that night, dead and dying under my shoes, only I never made it out to the pumps. I was doing schoolwork at the counter, calculus, for God’s sake. I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.

I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?

There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.

I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.

Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile. The deputy sheriff, Dale Sullivan, who was also the assistant coach of the basketball team, came and sat beside me. I had my hands over my head to keep the grasshoppers away. Kid, it was bound to happen, Dale said. The boy was a troublemaker. A waste of skin.

He told me I could go on home. I didn’t ask what would happen to the car.

That night, I drove out on Cane Springs Road to Rhyolite. I drove around that old ghost town with the windows rolled down, listening to the gravel pop under my tyres. The sun was coming up. There, in the milky light of dawn, I hated Beatty more than I ever had. The Stagecoach, the hot springs, all the trees looking so naked against the sky. I’d never wanted to see any of it ever again.

I was already on my way to college and everyone knew it. I didn’t belong in Beatty. The boy’s family, his mother and sister and stepfather, moved away soon after it happened. I’d never see them around town, or at Hadley’s. For those last few weeks of school no one talked about it, at least not to me. Soon it was as though it had never happened. But – and I think I realized this then, up in Rhyolite, that dead town picked clean – Beatty would never be a place I could come home to.

When my wife asked about your pictures, she said she didn’t realize I knew so much about cars. I said, Yeah, sure. Well, some. See the vents there? On the hood? See the blackout grille? That’s how you know it’s a ’66. I told her I’d been thinking about buying an old car, fixing it up, maybe this one. Right then she just started laughing her head off. Sure, she managed through all her laughter, fix up a car. She kept on laughing. She tossed the bundle of photos on the seat of the truck and said, You’re shitting me, Tommy.

It’s not her fault. That man, the one who knows a ’66 when he sees one, that’s not the man she married. That’s how it has to be. You understand, don’t you?

I smiled at her. No, ma’am, I said. I wouldn’t shit you. You’re my favourite turd.

She laughed – she’s generous that way – and said, A car. That’s the last thing we need around here.

When I was a boy my father took me hunting. Quail mostly and, one time, elk. But I was no good at it and he gave up. I didn’t have it in me, my father said, sad and plain as if it were a birth defect, the way I was. Even now, deer come down from the mountains and root in our garden, stripping our tomatoes from the vine, eating the hearts of our baby cabbages. My father says, Kill one. String it up. They’ll learn. I tell him I can’t do that. I spend my Sundays patching the holes in the fence, or putting up a taller one. The Church of the Compassionate Heart, my wife calls it. It makes her happy, this life of ours, the man I am. Layla helps me mend the fence. She stands behind me and hands me my pliers or my wire cutters when I let her.

But here’s the truth, Duane Moser. Sometimes I see his eyes above that bandanna, see the grasshoppers leaping in the lights, hear them vibrating. I feel the kick of the rifle butt in my sternum. I would do it again.

Truly,

Thomas Grey
PO Box 129, Verdi
Nevada 89439

 

 

December 20
Duane Moser
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015

Dear Duane Moser

This will be the last I write to you. I went back to Rhyolite. I told my wife I was headed south to camp and hike for a few days. She said, Why don’t you take Layla with you? It would be good for her.

Layla slept nearly the whole drive. Six hours. When I slowed the car and pulled on to Cane Springs Road she sat up and said, Dad, where are we?

I said, We’re here.

I helped her with her coat and mittens and we took a walk through the ruins. I told her what they once were. Here, I said, was the schoolhouse. They finished it in 1909. By then there weren’t enough children in town to fill it. It burnt down the next year. She wanted to go closer.

I said, Stay where I can see you.

Why? she said.

I didn’t know how to say it. Crumbling buildings, rotted-out floors, sinkholes, open mine shafts. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions.

Because, I said. It’s not safe for little girls.

We went on. There behind the fence is the post office, completed in 1908. This slab, these beams, that wall of brick, that was the train station. It used to have marble floors, mahogany woodworking, one of the first telephones in the state. But those have been sold or stolen over the years.

Why? she said.

That’s what happens when a town dies.

Why?

Because, sweetheart. Because.

At dusk I tried to show Layla how to set a tent and build a fire but she wasn’t interested. Instead she concentrated on filling her pink vinyl backpack with stones and using them to build little pyramids along the path that led out to the town. She squatted over them, gingerly turning the stones to find a flat side, a stable base. What are those for? I asked.

For if we get lost, she said. Pop Pop showed me.

When it got dark we sat together listening to the hiss of the hot dogs at the ends of our sticks, the violent sizzle of sap escaping the firewood. Layla fell asleep in my lap. I carried her to the tent and zipped her inside a sleeping bag. I stayed and watched her there, her chest rising and falling, hers the small uncertain breath of a bird.

When I bent to step out through the opening of the tent something fell from the pocket of my overalls. I held it up in the fire light. It was a cloudy stump of amethyst, as big as a horse’s tooth.

I’ve tried, Duane Moser, but I can’t picture you at 1077 Pincay Drive. I can’t see you in Henderson period, out in the suburbs, on a cul-de-sac, in one of those prefab houses with the stucco and the garage gaping off the front like a mouth. I can’t see you standing like a bug under those street lights the colour of antibacterial soap. At home at night I sit on my porch and watch the lights of Reno over the hills, the city marching out at us like an army. It’s no accident that the first step in what they call developing a plot of land is to put a fence around it.

I can’t see you behind a fence. When I see you, I see you here, at Rhyolite, harvesting sticks of charcoal from the half-burnt schoolhouse and writing your name on the exposed concrete foundation. Closing one eye to look through the walls of Jim Kelly’s bottle house. No, that’s my daughter. That’s me as a boy getting charcoal stains on my blue jeans. That’s you in your Chevelle, the ’66, coming up Cane Springs Road, tearing past what was once the Porter Brothers’ Store. I see you with M., flinging Fritos and meat and half-full cans of Coke and Bud Light from the car like a goddamn celebration, a shedding of your old selves.

It’s almost Christmas. I’ve looked at the prescriptions, the letters, the photos. You’re not Frankie, I know this. It’s just a coincidence, a packet of pictures flung from a car out in the middle of nowhere. The car is just a car. The world is full of Chevelles, a whole year’s worth of the ’66. You know nothing of Hadley’s fuel in Beatty, of a boy who was killed there one night in late spring when the grasshoppers were so loud they sounded like a thunderstorm in your head. I don’t owe you anything.

When I woke this morning there was snow on the ground and Layla was gone. I pulled my boots on and walked around the camp. A layer of white covered the hills and the valley and the skeletons of the old buildings, lighting the valley fluorescent. It was blinding. I called my daughter’s name. I listened, pressing the sole of my shoe against the blackened rocks lining the fire pit. I watched the snow go watery within my boot print. There was no answer.

I checked the truck. It was empty. In the tent I found her coat and mittens. Her shoes had been taken. I scrambled up a small hill and looked for her from there. I scanned for the shape of her among the old buildings, on the hills, along Cane Springs Road. Fence posts, black with moisture, strung across the valley like tombstones. Sickness thickened in my gut and my throat. She was gone.

I called for her again and again. I heard nothing, though surely my own voice echoed back to me. Surely the snow creaked under my feet when I walked through our camp and out to the ruins. Surely the frozen tendrils of creosote whipped against my legs when I began to run through the ghost town, up and down the gravel path. But all sound had left me except for a low, steady roaring, the sound of my own blood in my ears, of a car rumbling up the old road.

Suddenly my chest was burning. I couldn’t breathe. Layla Layla. I crouched and pressed my bare palms against the frozen earth. The knees of my long johns soaked through, my fingers began to sting.

Then I saw a shape near the burnt remains of the schoolhouse. A panic as hot and fierce as anything – fiercer – rose in me. The slick pink vinyl of her backpack. I ran to it.

When I bent to pick it up I heard something on the wind. Something like the high, breathy language my daughters speak to each other when they play. I followed the sound around behind the schoolhouse and found Layla squatting there in her pyjamas, softly stacking one of her stone markers in the snow.

Hi, Dad, she said. The snow had reddened her hands and cheeks as though she’d been burnt. She handed me a stone. Here you go, she said.

I took my daughter by the shoulders and stood her up. I raised her sweet chin so her eyes met mine and then I slapped her across the face. She began to cry. I held her. The Chevelle drove up and down Cane Springs Road, the gravel under its tyres going pop pop pop. I said, Shh. That’s enough. A child means nothing out here.

Truly,

Thomas Grey

Dyke Bridge
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