Pioneertown can be heartbreakingly lonesome. There’s no one thing that makes it so, nothing I can put a finger on. It’s more atmospheric in its workings. A kind of loneliness that makes me wish to be somewhere else, rather than discover its source.
For now, I’m drinking a decaf inside the Red Dog Saloon, here in Pioneertown, both built in the mid-40s for shooting Westerns. Dark clouds cake the sky, and though there’s blue in the distance, it’s too far away to do more than tease. The wind has changed in the hour I’ve been here, the gusts folding back the delicate hands of each snowflake into mean cold grit that stings the cacti and the stained wooden fronts of the bank, hotel, and livery across the street, buildings that have been private residences since the last production crews left. At the end of this snow-dusted street, Louie will ride in. I study the Coors clock mounted above the bar, its idyllic depiction of snowpack endlessly melting into a cascade of ice-cold water. He’s late.
I’m a stop on Louie’s bicycle trek across America. Ten years have passed since I’ve seen him. I’ve been married and divorced in less than half that time. Louie and I were once a couple, back when I was going to school in Seattle, my other life before my father became ill. I was going to be a botanist. Louie was studying to be a teacher and is one. Louie and I used to go out for breakfast every Sunday, a place called Eggs, then go back to my apartment, make love, then lounge in bed until far past noon. It’s how I remember those mornings, anyway. Another thing I recall is his great back massages, his thumbs like steamrollers, his knuckles like pneumatic drills.
Louie might not recognize me. I’m thirty-two, but my face looks forty, with deep wrinkles from squinting and a tan that looks like it goes straight down to my bones, even now in winter. I am the toughest-looking woman I know. And though I’ve got good friends, make just enough money, and have no mortgage payments and no debts — nothing to cause me to look the way I do — I still look like one of those Dust Bowl mothers in those black and white photos, a crowd of gaunt children at her apron strings, the woman leaned against a doorjamb from the fatigue of simply standing. I’m not fond of mirrors.
My name is Melody, by the way. A while back, a friend of mine put me in the personals section of the local paper. I have the clipping on my fridge for kicks. It reads: SWDF, 29, THIN, FUN & FULL OF HEAT. Everything up to and including THIN is right. The rest is like seeing the Virgin Mary in a fruitcake. I received a reply from the ad. And I’ll admit I was curious. I caught myself thinking about things, like how it feels to kiss a man you love, or how it is to see him from afar when he doesn’t know you’re looking at him yet. That heavy smell in bed, on his clothes and in your car, even when he’s not there. But the want ad instead confirmed the desert’s limitations. The single inquiry turned out to be from my ex-husband, who lives nearby in Landers. I first met him after my Dad passed away. I was married to him for a couple months of fun and a few more years of misery. If there was any consolation to receiving just one reply to the ad, it was that my ex resorted to personal ads.
While waiting for Louie, I’ve been talking to an older couple sitting at another table. They’re the only other people in the Red Dog besides me. They just retired to Pioneertown and are surprised by the snow, coming, as they have, from someplace back East. People think of desert and they think of heat, cactus, sand and mirages. But it’s cold here in the winter, especially at night, I say. This is high desert. Cold as a witch’s tit, the man from the other table puts it to his wife. I can tell in his voice that he’ll be okay, though. For the past half hour, he’s been talking it out, getting himself used to the differences between what he expected and what he’s finding. And it sounds like his wife loves it. Even has on a fringed suede jacket.
Not to make this some sob story, but I moved here to take care of my dad. He’s gone now. While he was still alive, I managed an amicable relationship with the desert by willfully sweeping the rest of the world away. I ignored the Pacific Ocean. I clear cut visions of forest from my head because of the longing I would feel if I allowed them to be. But I eventually thought of moving. First after my father died, then after my divorce. But contemplating a move and carrying it out are two distant relatives. Leaving means the house will need to be sold — no small feat considering that empty lots nearby sell for near nothing, and the repairs the house will need. With moving, there’s the matter of finding another place to live and another job. Until recently, these uncertainties have made me hesitate. The desert has a way of clamping down on people, emotion and time until nothing wants to move or change, or ever hope to. I did not want to come here, nor stay, but so many years in one place and I lost momentum. And then, suddenly, I am pregnant and can feel change coming.
It was last year that I decided I wanted a kid. The desire came to me gradually, spreading a cloud over all other priorities and generating its own insistent weather. There’s this guy I’m with who has a great build, a good smile and is also mild-mannered and kind, the sorts of traits I hope are hard-wired into genes. His bad traits, and there are enough, seem acquired and less likely to pass themselves on. Until recently, I had been sleeping with him at every opportunity, wearing him out. He takes me for a nymphomaniac, I think. But that’s okay. He’s held up his part of the undiscussed bargain, done his deed, sowed the oat I needed and remained oblivious. Right at this moment, he’s outside the Red Dog Saloon, getting shot, stumbling, clutching his imaginary wound and falling to the snow-dusted ground. He’ll get up again in a second. There, see? His name is Harold, but he goes by Hank. He’s part of a group of us in town who reenact gunfights. Unlike most of us who do this, Hank sees being a cowboy as a lifestyle decision. After making his money in software, he moved to Pioneertown and filled his house with Western memorabilia: wagon wheels, branding irons, and saddles for kitchen stools. He doesn’t even own a computer. You’ll only find electrical outlets in the bathroom and kitchen and that only has to do with meeting code. Coming into his house, the first thing that’s noticeable is the smell. It’s warm and permanent, a combination of oil, leather, candles and old wood. After the force of the smell comes the sound. The boot-worn wooden floors creak with every step, even mine, light as I am. On the walls of Hank’s bedroom are photos of Pioneertown in its Hollywood heydays. It’s a trip, his house.
Watching him feign his death, I don’t feel sorrow. Not even a pang, as a true cowboy might say. Is it wrong to move this way between hearts and beds? Maybe. Should I have chosen more carefully from the men in Pioneertown, ventured down into Landers perhaps, or Palm Springs or L.A., and there spent a couple years finding myself a future husband, a new job, another house? Decide some Sunday morning, while lazing away the hours in bed with Mr. Husband, that we want children, and change our love-making, our fucking, into the act of procreation? Please. Getting what you want from life is like trying to finish a 1000-piece puzzle with 500 pieces. I’ll be old, gone more likely, before I ever get a chance to glance at the box cover of my life and appreciate what I’ve missed. So, when I get stuck one place, it’s best to start over in another. If pieces are missing, that’s no fault of mine. This is my new philosophy, one I have yet to put into practice.
For now, I’ve been calling my baby Kermit, Kermit being his embryonic, tadpole name. It’s far too early to know if this place-holder name reflects the right gender, but I feel it does. Last night, dreaming, I watched Kermit grow. He sang The Rainbow Connection as he grew larger, lost his tail, gained appendages, sharpened his features. This isn’t the first dream I’ve had about him. This dreaming must be hormonal, because I normally never dream. I’m more of a day-dreamer. The most amazing thought I’ve had since becoming pregnant is that Kermit doesn’t yet know he exists. He is oblivious to his own being or my wishes for his early childhood. And no one knows about Kermit but me. No one in the entire cosmos, a gazillion light years wide. And again, not even Kermit. I find very little in life that’s astounding. This idea, though, makes me feel like I could swell to bursting.
Outside of the Red Dog, there are more fantasy cowboys arriving. Hank shuffles his feet through the snow, waves to me, and sits outside on the stoop for a minute, where he has a cup of steaming coffee waiting. He crosses his legs and spins a boot spur with his open palm. He hurts himself and sucks on a finger, then spins the spur again. During summer, a wayward tourist might find us engaged in elaborate shoot-outs, complete with spectacular rooftop falls onto bales of hay. We’ve been hired as entertainment for weddings and anniversaries. One of us was even in a 4 x 4 commercial you may have seen. The retired couple are standing outside now, watching the men and a few women square off and fire their blanks. Focusing closer, I watch the snow pile up in the corners of the windows, fine, like the sand in egg timers. I press my fingers on the glass and the snow melts on the other side. I’m nervous waiting for Louie to arrive. I take out my antique pistol and spin it around my trigger finger, first one way, then the other. This is my Yo-Yo, my baton, my nicotine replacement after too many years — and far too few — of smoking.
Louie doesn’t show. It’s not the first time. When I had to leave Seattle to take care of my father, Louie had only a semester left of school. Then he was going to look for a teaching job down in Southern California, someplace not terribly far from Pioneertown and me. In the beginning, we kept up a kind of correspondence, sending cassettes back and forth with music mixes and just us talking. He’d complain about the rain in Seattle and I’d complain about the desert heat. Louie and I both knew my father was dying and one of the things that kept me going was knowing that I wouldn’t be in Pioneertown forever, that we had plans lined up. On his better days, I’d even talk to my father about my future, and he’d nod his head and say they were good, sensible plans. Helping him imagine where and how I’d be after he was gone made his burden a little easier, I think. Louie’s arrival now is a decade belated, and for an entirely different purpose. I go out and shoot.
After our killings, deaths and resurrections on Pioneertown’s main street, I find myself back in Hank’s cowboy bedroom. The sex feels habitual now, purposeless, but still good. I wonder what Hank would say if I were to tell him I’m currently carrying a one-inch long tadpole of a child, the evidence of one of our earlier nights together? He’d probably be thrilled, and I’d live a life with a crackpot cowboy and a son teased for wearing chaps and speaking with a mouthful of acquired, over-the-top, slang. Kermit’s conception began here in Hank’s bedroom, where I’m lying on the narrow antique bed with springs that sing while we’re at it. There’s the authentic Calico dress Hank likes me to wear first, now on the floor, but usually hanging from a nail driven into the wood wall. There’s the bare yellow bulb that tends to sway gently from the ceiling cord, the mattress sagging and sagging during sex, so low it hits the porcelain chamber pot beneath, the one Hank uses afterwards for an ashtray, still filled with the stubs from my so-recent smoking days. On one night like this night, the chromosomes embraced.
At home, I take a long shower and eat half a cooking pan of brownies. Then I mist my orchids and the clay-colored roots rising out from the soil of woodchips. Just as I’m thinking of turning in, Louie calls me on his cell phone. He’s entering town and is a little lost. Outside, I walk to the main street, feeling the snowflakes melt as they touch my face. At the other end of the main street I see a bicycle light. Closer, I can discern that Louie has one of those bicycles you lay back in, like how I imagine an EZ-Boy recliner’s skeleton would look if it had one.
I don’t mean to say holy shit when I say holy shit, but Louie, getting off his bicycle, laughs, so I say it again. “Holy shit, Louie!”
Louie was heavyset the last time I saw him, not fat, but big-boned. He was maybe 220 that day he lifted boxes into my rented trailer, talking about visits, great desert heat and other lies and distractions. The kiss goodbye. The see-you-soon. Now he’s daytime-talk-show fat. Two-seats-on-an-airplane fat.
“Not quite the same, huh?” Louie says, slapping his belly. “Should have seen me when I started this crazy ride. You could tack another fifty pounds to this. I was really copulant.”
I’m pretty sure he means to say corpulent, but his mistake makes me smile. “You’re a Sumo wrestler,” I say. We hug for a moment, but I can’t manage to get my arms completely around his orange wind breaker.
“I keep a bathroom scale in my pack,” he says. “I was 420 pounds this morning. Two pounds less than Friday morning.”
He looks like he weighs even more, but I don’t say that.
“The British have a better word for this,” he says, grabbing at his stomach. “Stones. Doesn’t that better imply a burden? I need to lose stones. But you. Shit, Melody. You’re still so skinny.”
It’s the first time in a long time someone’s called me Melody, not Mel, and this makes me feel nostalgic. And about the weight, it’s true. I was a hundred pounds when I was with Louie, a hundred pounds when taking care of my dad and a hundred pounds now. Give or take a pound.
“Where did you spend last night?” I ask.
“About twenty miles back. Off the road. You didn’t say I’d have to pedal up so many hills to get here.”
“You should’ve called. I could have given you a ride.”
“No way. That would be cheating.” His voice is serious.
Louie still has the familiar way of rubbing his chin when he talks, though it’s less a chin now and more a broad driveway from his neck to his lips. I thought I’d forgotten his mannerisms, but they’ve come back now, like words to old prayers or smells from childhood.
“What’s with this place?” he asks.
“Roy Rogers helped build it,” I say.
“It’s like Westworld. The movie with Yul Brynner. He’s a robot gunslinger.”
“I know. They did make the Cisco Kid here, though.”
He takes a long look around. We’re the only ones about. If it weren’t for the smoke rising from a few chimneys, and a few dim lights in between all the empty space, the town would seem deserted. Even the strange dance of tracks in the snow left from this afternoon’s gunfights are now covered in white. There’s no wind and the snow is delicate and large now, like ash.
“Do you remember in the movie that the only way you could tell if someone was real or a robot was by the hands. The robots hands hadn’t been perfected.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it,” I say. Actually, I’ve never seen it. “C’mon. You must be cold. I’m not too far away.”
“I’m never cold,” Louie says, as he squeezes my shoulder. I bring his hand down into mine for a moment before letting go. His hands are so chubby and childlike. Real enough. Naked, he probably looks like a newborn.
It takes ten minutes to reach my house, but only two to show him around.
“I thought you said you worked in a greenhouse,” he says.
“I do. This is my personal stash.”
I have orchids on the dining room table, carpeting the floor, on top of the bookshelves and even on the TV set. There are foot-long blossoms draping, hanging and sprouting in every color from pale pink to sinister black. It’s like a jungle in here and makes me feel rich and earthy. It’s the same smell which makes it easier to wake up and face work at Gubler’s, an enormous orchid nursery down near Landers. Those of us who work there call it the Garden of Eden. In addition to cultivating a variety of orchids, we also grow carnivorous plants, my favorite being Sarracenia purpurea, the Pitcher Plant, which can dissolve mice. I wouldn’t want to actually see it dissolve mice, but I’ve seen it do a number on hamburger meat. The plant has hairs inside that point down at its pit of digestive juices and make escape difficult, if not tortuously impossible. I tell Louie this while showing him my favorites.
“I’ve got Farbspiels, Super Novas, Phalaenopsis and others,” I say, “though they’re not all in bloom. We grow the showy orchids for the kind of people who are used to buying plastic flowers, and the rare and delicate orchids the serious collector keep to themselves. Or use as studs. The nursery even has one named after me. Melodiopsis. It hasn’t bloomed yet, so who knows if it’ll sell.
“What do you do there?”
“Fill orders mostly. I also give tours. When collectors come in you can see them jonesing.”
As I’m telling Louie all this, I realize how much I hate the sound of my own voice, thin and fast, carrying on like an over-eager salesperson, like I’m at work giving him one of my tours. I’m blabbering, when really I just want to know how he got so fat. I want him to say I was the only woman for him and when I was gone he ate out of heartache. Or guilt for not following after me. These fantasies. Instead, I ask him if he’s hungry. Louie politely declines. Instead, he pulls dehydrated spaghetti from a bag in one of his packs. I start another load of laundry for him. With the addition of boiling water, Louie’s dinner swells into a meal that doesn’t look half bad. After eating, he takes a shower and comes into the living room in another track suit. He continues to sweat. As I grab an armful of his clothes from the drier, all I can think about is how fat he is.
“Didn’t you have a cat?” Louie asks.
I dump a basket of his dried clothes on the couch and begin folding. “I had to give her away. My Dad was allergic to her. You?”
“A dog, from the pound. Here, give me those clothes. Thanks.”
He folds his clothes into tight bundles. I hand him what I’ve folded. I think these are the largest pants I’ve ever seen, the widest shirt, the loudest pair of boxers.
“I overfed him,” Louie says. “My dog. He died. I was going to bring him with me. Have him run and lose weight with me. I even bought a little trailer I was going to pull that he could lie in.”
“It must get lonely on the road.”
“Nah. I’m occupied enough with finding a good place to spend the night, or a good route that’s not filled with trucks running freight. Practical thoughts. Besides, I’m not alone. There are a lot of coasters, too. People riding from one ocean to the other. There was a family on one long bike raising money for their youngest kid. Five of them. They were going East-West. The kid was riding with them and looked fine, but I guess his condition, some rare blood thing, was about to kick in at any moment. They’d already raised $40,000. I gave them a twenty. I also met these two sisters rollerblading to Mexico from their homes in Vancouver.”
“Wow,” I say, envying such a long journey.
“You should have see their legs.”
“I bet they were huge.”
“Shit. Like flying buttresses.”
We spend the evening talking about Louie’s ride so far, even while we’re in the kitchen doing dishes. Things like what he’s been keeping track of in his logbook — in addition to his weight. Four snakes, twenty-eight deer, a dozen feral cats, thousands of head of cattle, packs of dogs, lone rabbits, desert tortoise, and more, both the living and the dead. And also the junk, the endless blown chaff of cigarette butts. Enough metal cans to build a Navy destroyer, as he puts it.
“And glass,” he says. “So much glass. It’s like there used to be a giant greenhouse over the whole country and it just shattered. There are enough shards out there to puncture every bicycle tire in America.”
“What keeps you going?”
“Music. Talking Heads, Bach fugues. Books on tape. I also like keeping my log while I’m pedaling. I can do it pretty well while riding, though sometimes I can’t read what I wrote and it ends up being incomprehensible.”
Louie pulls a notebook from one of his packs. We skim a few pages and find phrases we simply have to guess at: sandwiches are beautiful losses, or flirting traces miles.
“What does that mean?” I ask, setting my finger on a line neither of us can make out.
“I don’t know,” Louie says, then laughs. “Who knows what I meant to say?”
Louie is snoring when I get up the next morning for work. Coming out of the shower, I stand in the doorway and listen as the air blubbers out of his mouth, then creeps back in with a carnivorous snore. It’s still dark outside and the only light comes from the bathroom behind me. Louie smothers my couch, lying on the sheets I’d given him. The blanket has fallen off most of his body in the night. Standing there, I can’t help but feel that if I looked hard enough – perhaps in the navel, or concealed in an armpit — I’d find a nozzle that needs just a pinch to release all the air that he sucks in with each snore, a valve to deflate him and return him to normal size. He snores while I dress and while I eat breakfast. He snores while I draw a rough map of Pioneertown for him in case he wants to get a cup of coffee or ride around town. I think of how much I missed his body, once. How much hurt I felt from his willful absence. How much I wish we were ten years younger, and back in my apartment in Seattle. That this child in me was ours and that there were no detours ahead. No counting on false promises. No loss. I haven’t slept with a man I love for years.
I climb out of my clothes, pull the sheet from his body, and climb on top of Louie as he wakes. He seems too sleepy to be surprised, though I can see surprise in his eyes. We don’t say anything. He comes in no time, and I climb off him then, gather my clothes and use the bathroom. I feel weighed down by a dissatisfaction of all parts: body, mind and spirit. I hope Louie remembers this morning when he’s long gone and in another state. Melody, the woman he could have had for good. Not now, no it’s too late for that. But once. Ten years ago. When I come back out, he’s asleep again. I can even hear him snoring from outside, in the dark, as I climb into my truck and get it warmed up. I am late for work. The snow on the ground is the color of pewter and I can hear his snoring still, in my mind, as I pull on my wool gloves. A cold breeze has carried through the night and blows out the stars one by one on my drive to Gubler’s. The only color comes from Christmas lights strung around the eaves of a few homes, one eave extending its circumference of chasing lights to wrap around a nearby Joshua tree. I feel terrible. Just awful.
At work, standing amid thousands of orchids, I cry. Overhead, forced air billows down long plastic tubes, animating the surface and seeping hot air through the many perforations. I crouch down and bawl. I can see under all the tables in every direction. I see the legs of someone I work with far in the distance. I see Spike, the nursery’s pet Labrador, sitting under a table, and he sees me. I expect him to sense how I feel, to trot over on his soft paws, working his way to me among the forest of table legs to comfort me with his animal compassion. He stares disinterestedly, never rousing, and looks away. I take a deep breath of humid earth, push myself off the ground, and continuing filling my cart with an order.
A few stars have peaked through the clouds by quitting time. My ex-husband’s truck is parked next to my house. I pull up behind the empty truck and approach the house. It’s been dark outside for a good hour and the living room window is bright with light from inside. Louie’s bicycle sits in the open garage. Through the window, I can see Louie sitting on the couch watching a video. In the chair sits my ex. The video is of us gunslingers, one of a few videos I keep in the TV cabinet. On the screen, I’m pacing down the main street of Pioneertown with a gun at each hip. They have the set turned up loud and I can hear myself. On the video, I let out my best whooping and hollering. You’ve been treating me bad, Hank, I yell. Real bad. And I’m not taking any more of it. I’m giving you to ten to high-tail out of here. It’s a warm summer day in the video and the picture is bleached and faded with sunlight. Oh yeah?, Hank shouts back with false vehemence.
Hearing this, my ex laughs and slaps the arm of the chair. “Oh yeah?” he repeats aloud, mimicking Hank’s southern accent.
I’ll open up a can of whoop-ass on ya if you don’t, I shout. I can hear both of them laughing in the house, now. In the video, Hank stands with his feet apart and a hand above his holster. I’m quicker, though, and whip out my pistol to fan shot after silence-shattering shot, the loud cracks echoing off the buildings, then off the hills. Hank gets in one chanceless shot, then grabs his chest with his free hand. He spirals on his descent, crumpling into the dirt like something burned up and withered by a great heat. Playing the dying part is really the best bit, not the shooting. Watching the video, I feel a bit of the sadness that comes while acting out these gunfights. For all the play-acting, some lobe of my brain always keeps the fiction out and makes me think, for a moment, that I have killed a man. But only for a moment. Through the window, I notice that Louie is holding my pistol in his hands as he watches the video. He puts a finger on the trigger. It looks like a snug ring on him, as though the faintest twitch could set it off.
I could walk in and ask them what they’re doing, what’s up, how was their day. My ex drops by a couple times a month and it could be like one of those times. I never do much more than listen to his complaints anyway and maybe Louie’s being here will have us talking about something else. But I can’t bring myself to enter the house. It’s coming back, the things I’m angry at each of them for, the reactions I’d thought long-gone and overcome. Together, they’re too much for me right now. I get back in my truck and continue driving down the road to the next lot, the one with the slab foundation that was poured a decade ago, and which has never been built on. I pull my truck right up onto the concrete, stopping beside the pipes that rise up where a kitchen or bathroom was planned. I kill the lights and ignition and watch the house. I’m there for maybe a half hour, listening to the radio. From where I’m parked, it’s a gentle slope down to the house. I feel like putting the truck in gear, releasing the brake, and letting it roll down the hill without me. Into the house. Into Louie and my ex. Into the place and people which have taken time from me, forget heartache, forget loss. Just then, the two men come out of the house laughing, like real pals. I can’t see them, but I can hear them get into my ex’s truck, one door slamming, then the other, and I can hear the truck start up and see it, finally, as it clears the house and heads out on the road.
I want to keep everything in front of me from Kermit. I don’t want him to know the town or the desert or the emptiness or share even a geographic similarity to this region of ups and downs and the mostly long, endless stretches of flatness. I don’t want him to sense that I’m angry, frustrated, discontent. I want my child to start off someplace else, with a mother who is someone I’m not, yet. I want Kermit to grow up in a city with a population of at least 100,000. To watch him touch damp bark and watch raindrops radiate in puddles. In Portland, perhaps. Or back in Seattle. This is the power I have. Not to guarantee him a talent, or good looks, but to shape the earliest of memories. Instead of a childhood of endless squinting, long school bus commutes, and the near-ignorance of grass, I can furnish lushness, company, movement. I will love him for what he becomes.
Entering the house, I notice what’s changed. My pistol lying on the couch. My ex’s billfold, left on the same corner of the table he’d place it after coming home from work, back when we were married and living here. There’s one of his cigarettes still burning in an ashtray. In the kitchen, on the grocery list stuck to the refrigerator, are two notes. One, in Louie’s hand, says that Hank called about BBQ for dinner (Hank’s code for sex, a word he often uses when leaving messages for me at work). The other note is in my ex’s scrawl. Took Louie to Red Dog. Considerate, but presumptuously unsigned.
Back in the living room, I pick up my ex’s worn billfold. It bulges with credit cards and business cards accommodated thanks to the conspicuous absence of cash. From the fold, I pull out a folded page from a men’s magazine showing a woman with the largest breasts I have ever seen. She is resting them on the tops of Corinthian columns, like the kind we use at work to display some of the orchids. One breast per column. I dread to think what happens when she decides to walk around. I dig deeper. On the back of an expired medical card is the signature of someone to be contacted in the case of an emergency — my signature. I find another photo, this one of myself, at the foot of a wad of credit cards, deep in the dark, crumb-filled recesses of the leather wallet. The photo is scrunched and worn by the edges of the cards and I’m unrecognizable. I doubt he knows he’s been carrying my photo around. I certainly don’t carry his.
I put his wallet back at the edge of the table and pick up the cigarette he’s left behind. I take a couple drags to bring it back to life, my apologies to Kermit. I pull out a couple sections of today’s paper from beneath the ashtray and hold a tip of the paper to the end of the cigarette and take a few more drags until the newsprint catches. I point the corner up and watch the silent flame lick down, leaving nothing but a curled shell of black ink as the fire descends. Since I was a girl, I have always played with fire, especially candles, pushing in the soft wax edges, waving a finger through the flame. This feels different. The only thing in this entire room that interests me now is the flame, and not what I can do to it, but what it can do to everything else. The house doesn’t interest me, not even the orchids. Not even the variety named for me, Melodiopsis. I am tired, I realize, of false flowers.
Calmly, I walk the burning paper over to the drapes. But by the time I’m there, my arm is shaking so badly that I have to hold it still with my other until the flames cross over from paper to fabric. My fingers are black. I light another section of newspaper with the flames from the drapes. The chair’s fabric burns, so too the sheets I’d put out for Louie. I maneuver among all the orchids and furniture in search of the inflammable. The wardrobe of clothes I’ve hardly added to in ten years erupts in flames so quickly that it’s disconcerting. So much won’t burn, though, stubborn to comply. I find myself laughing because it shouldn’t be so hard to set things alight. I have one section of the newspaper yet unburned and I put that under the stack of extra wood beside the fireplace. Everywhere, the fires are quiet and reluctant to expand. But for the fact that the flames aren’t in a fireplace, they look almost cozy. Then, I begin to feel the heat and the ceiling darkens from the smoke. I open the front door and let in a breath of air that instantly brightens the fires. I take the remains of the cigarette out from between my lips with my shaking hand and place it back in the ashtray. Is it arson to burn down your own uninsured home? No, it’s not my home. It’s my fathers. My ex’s. Never mine. I take the pistol, step outside and walk past the open garage. There’s a nook filled with paint cans and other junk left over from my father’s tenancy. That’ll take, soon enough. Outside, tiny yellow lights from homes blink in the darkness.
Inside the truck, I roll down my window and turn to see the glow of the house. The air is cold, definitely below freezing, and makes tiny stabs at my lungs. The smoke is slow and heavy. I stay there, the truck idling, until the fire is bright and makes the sound of a stove sucking in air. There is no point in waiting, of course, but it’s satisfying knowing that each and every second there’s less to go back to, less to hold me here. As I pull onto the road, I hear shots, what must be the blanks catching the heat and exploding, there, in the bedroom, in the bottom dresser drawer, in the box below my lingerie.
I drive north through the dark, passing the Red Dog Saloon and continuing out of town. Then through the ancient lava fields, the cinder cone in the distance, invisible but for its black triangular cast on the night sky. A light sprinkle of rain turns to big wet flakes of snow as the truck climbs a hill, then changes back to rain just as easily when the truck heads downward. Snow again. Then rain. I continue through desert that hour by hour, loses its Joshua trees, its creosote bushes, silver cholla and bur-sage. I drive all through the night, gassing up three times by the time I cross into Oregon, feeling in turns nauseous, then giddy, the whole way up. With one hand on the wheel, I root through my truck, tossing everything out the window, cassettes, unopened bills, empty soda cans, the remains of a box of tissues. Last of all, I throw out the pistol, hearing it ding the side of my truck before I see it again in the rearview mirror, dancing on the blacktop. I suppose I’d like to picture Louie riding this way and finding my trail, but then I remember that his bicycle is in the garage. The thought of him, in the desert, knowing no one but my ex, makes me burst out in a punch of laughter. At dawn, the only contents of my truck are me and the owner’s manual in the glove compartment, just as the truck was when I bought it. I begin to feel how it is to give away all your possessions, everything you’ve had to maintain, support, remember. It’s then that I pull into a diner and order the trucker’s breakfast. Four egg omelet, hash browns, steak, stack of buttermilk pancakes, toast, and a tall orange juice.
Now, I’m alone in a booth. My empty dishes have been taken away. I’m just sipping at my coffee. It’s okay if Kermit is a bit wired, because today is an important day, worth remembering. I’m trying to catch the waitress’ eye. There she is. Hello. She’s reaching into her apron for the check as she moves this way. I can’t predict much, except this: she’ll put the check away. Because I’m going to order another omelet, a side of bacon, another orange juice, and maybe a short stack. The phrase eating for two comes to mind, but Kermit is only an inch long. He hardly needs anything yet. This is my own appetite. I have never been this hungry in all my life. ◆