Some Road through the Desert

By Frederick Greenhalgh

A young man, delirious in the desert, goes on a fantastic journey.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Download this story read aloud by the author (MP3).

Dog tired.
Dehydrated. An eternity in furnace heat, mostly without water.

Still trudging
along an unending highway in the painted desert. A blanket of colors engulfs my
vision. Black dances with blue and violet and murmurs through a hue of
magenta. I try to keep my mind off the color of death.

I’ve nearly
forgotten my name when a late-90s indigo Caravan slows down to the shoulder
maybe fifty feet down the road. I don’t know if I should believe it.

I’ve heard of
mirages. The California plate reads "CHARON."

I haul myself
up and stumble to the car. Looking through tinted glass, I only see a thick
silhouette of a middle-aged man.

"Where are
you headed?" he says.

"Out of
here, man," I say, "I’m trying to get to L.A."

"I’m not
going that far."

"Down the
road then."

"Very
well," he says, "Get in."

I open the rear
door to toss in my beaten-up L.L. Bean rucksack and hop into the passenger’s
side. The driver peels off before he asks me my name. I stumble with my tongue,
as if giving him this information is vital.

"I’m
David," I say.

"Greetings,"
he says, eyes on the road, not even taking my hand.

"You saved
me, man, I thought I was dogfood. I’ve been without water for hours."

"In this
heat?" he says, almost rhetorically.

I nod, savoring
the way the A/C cools my chapped skin.

"You
wouldn’t happen to have any water, would you?"

"A
little," he says, "In the back."

I whisper
thanks and turn around. It strikes me how precise this car is, like it belongs
either to someone totally anal about tidiness or to someone who never drives
it. The seats are bare except for my rucksack, the back deck is empty, and it
still smells new. There are two glass jugs of water behind the driver’s seat.

"One of
these for your radiator?" I ask.

"No,
both."

"Oh. Well
at least it’s water."

"It
is."

I pull one of
the jugs to the front with me, trying to act like he’s not being curt. It
actually doesn’t faze me. A lot of rides are from folks who’re scared stiff.
I’m grateful they pick me up, though I don’t really know why. Hitching for
three months leaves me with the same questions I had when I left. A tall lanky
white boy with scraggly long hair, an ambiguous accent, and a sweat-stained,
battered backpack. What’s there to be scared of?

Whatever. I screw
off the lid of the huge water vessel and take a swig.

"Augh!"
I cry as I spit the water back out, "It burns!"

The driver
shrugs.

"You
should’ve told me!" I say.

"The water
is what it is."

"But come on! This doesn’t even taste like water."

He doesn’t respond.
I look back at the jug. God, I’m thirsty. I reluctantly take another sip, and
it is just as harsh. I manage to gulp down enough to hold my thirst back a
little.

"Well, I
guess it’s water."

Silence.

"I’m
coming from up North. Never seen heat like this."

This elicits
maybe a grunt.

"Yeah.
Boston, actually. Well, not Boston Boston. A suburb. Actually nearer the Cape.
It’s nice though, I guess; this time of year they say it’s the best weather in
the country. Winters suck, though. Real cold."

"I see."

"Yeah.
Never saw much other than New York, D.C. a couple of times, the rest of New
England. I wanted something different, so I left home."

"Ah,
you’re a traveler."

"Absolutely.
I’m never turning back."

"Have you
found what you’re looking for?"

The sudden
question gives me pause.

"What do
you mean?"

"Every
traveler has a prize and a destination."

"Well I’m
going to L.A., I guess."

"So you
have half of it down."

My eyes drift
to the sea of toneless dunes.

"I guess
so," I say, my tongue sticking to the sandpaper of my still-dry mouth, "I
guess, well, I guess I never really thought about it that way."

"Without a
goal, the quest has no purpose and the journey is meaningless. Remember
that."

"Sure,"
I say, still perplexed by his audacity, "I’ll keep that in mind."

The
conversation closes like a lid. I lapse into silence regretfully. The problem
with silence is that it’s really hard to break afterwards. I stare through the
desert’s rifts and crevices, trying to collect my thoughts as they whirl like
dustdevils through my mind. I’m too drained to concentrate. I resign
contemplation for the moment and suddenly long to hear some music. Anything
but the quiet drone of the engine and A/C fanblades.

"Can I put
on the radio?"

"Why?"

The question
gives me pause.

"Well, you
know, let’s hear some tunes. It makes the time pass faster."

"Ah,
that’s it."

I scratch my
stubbly chin.

"Well can
I?"

"Be my
guest."

I press the
black ridged button in the middle of the bare console. A sizzling fuzz comes
from the speakers. I grimace and start tooling with the knob. At one moment I
think I catch a distant whisper of talk radio, the word "redemption"
and then it’s just dull fuzz again. I deliberately sigh and turn it off.

"Nothing
out here."

"There’s
plenty."

"What?
Cacti and buzzards?"

He only shrugs
now and returns to silence. His crytic statements are starting to rub me the
wrong way.

"Seriously,
what’s out there?"

I start to
think he’s never going to respond. I’m about to turn to the windshield to
stare dazed at vast emptiness when he speaks.

"The
desert speaks quietly. It is a mirror to look at."

"What’s
that supposed to mean?" I ask.

"I’ve told
you enough," he says.

"Fine,"
I spit and lean against the window. There is a silence between the drone of
the engine and the frenzy of my own thoughts. This gibberish is driving me
nuts. I close my eyes and red afterimage soaks into the black behind my eyes.
Who knows where I’ll end up, but fuck it. Maybe I can get some shut-eye.

***

I wake up to
the driver nudging me, his palm open.

"Fifty-cent
toll."

This abrupt
stop doesn’t wake me exactly. The next few moments are a brilliant stupor. A
dream resonates on my memory, though the images begin to evaporate. I remember
walking through the desert, surrounded by pillars of gold, something like El
Dorado. I hold a shell in one hand and a coin in the other, and my feet are
being tugged as if in the ocean. I hear a wolf cry out, and, in that weird
dream way, I guess, the wolf cry turns into wind…

"Well?"

"Yeah,
yeah I got quarters," I say.

I rifle around
in my pockets, yanking out a pile of crumpled receipts, some crushed dollars, a
couple of dimes and nickels, and a scrap of paper with a girl’s number on it
who told me to call her when I got to California. I finally find the quarters.

"Thanks,"
he says as I hand them over.

This is one of
the strangest tolls I’ve ever seen. Then again, I’m really in the west now, so
a lot of things are strange to me. But there’s no teller in the booth; in fact,
the whole setup looks like it’s been abandoned for a very long time. The bridge
is a concrete slab connecting land across this thin but dramatic ravine. I
could just imagine this ravine being a moat for a great kingdom, an island of
land protected by a drop that’d keep out anyone without wings. Now, it’s just
this weird old bridge, with a drop slot for the coins and a plastic gate that
lifts up as the coins rolled down into a metal bucket. He drives across
wordlessly.

Me, I’m
entranced by the ravine. I try to see the bottom, but I can’t, and I try to
wrap my head around the idea. Is there really water here in the desert? How
far down is it, then? How deep? Where does it go, and why?

"We’re
almost there," he says.

This is a huge
relief. Though it’s not too late for him to pull over and garrote me and throw
me in the trunk with the other three bodies, I get some sense I’ll make it
through this one. I don’t like carrying a knife but you need to if you’re
traveling this country alone. There is madness and violence everywhere. And
weirdos, too, from my experience with this guy.

Five, ten,
whatever minutes later, he slows down in front of a series of large barn-sized
buildings. If we hadn’t slowed down, I don’t think I’d ever notice them. They
blend right into the desert.

"End of
the line."

I look around
skeptically.

"This is
town?"

He just nods,
not giving any sign that he’ll be going any further.

"Jesus
Christ. I can’t get out here."

He’s silent.

"Right,
screw it then. Thank you sir."

I extend my
hand for him to shake, but he ignores it. I just get out of the car and reach
for the rear door handle as he peels away.

"Hey!"
I yell, "HEY!"

Goddamn. He’s
off in the distance and I’m screaming and waving. I guess I look like a
lunatic, but then again I’m losing my mind. I scream my fucking lungs out and
kick and curse the earth. But actually, I’m not alone.

"Ayauk!"
comes a piercing cry from behind me. I spin, suddenly on the defensive.

An elderly
native American, dressed in a Navajo patterned throw, stands twenty feet from
me with dust dancing in his path. Something about his presence suggests he
could vanish into the desert at will. He carries himself with the presence of
an cypress tree and has white locks that could be Spanish Moss. Ageless. I guess
I’d say he looks ageless.

"Young
man, be calm now, you will disturb the spirits," he says, still moving.

He appraises my
awkward ensemble.

"What
troubles you?" he asks.

I’m too
frustrated to make sense. I manage to spit out "my backpack"
"this guy" "drove away" enough times for him to get it.

"Come in,"
he says, "Have a drink; it’ll ease your spirits."

"I don’t
have a dollar to my name," I say, "That’s what I’m talking
about."

"Taps flow
free to weary travelers. Enter, son."

He leads me to
the largest of the series of buildings that look like an abandoned Hollywood Western.
Something between Desperado and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Despite the
heat, there is an eerie cool to this avenue of empty buildings. We approach
the head of this line of buildings, and sure enough, "SALOON" is
readable in all but vanished script. My guide reaches towards the saloon doors
and is met by a series of barks. A huge dog bounds out of the gates to bark
viciously at me. I recoil in fear but my guide silences the dog with a snap of
his fingers.

"Cecil,
mind our guest."

I hesitate to
call this dog a dog, I mean, he’s the size of three pretty big dogs. We’re
talking Cujo here. Even with the native’s blessings, the dog’s lips peel back
a little to bear a row of ivory teeth. The dog’s velvet black coat shimmers in
the twilight sun. Its monotone growl sounds like an engine. I tiptoe around
it and follow the native into the saloon.

Sure enough, it
follows the movie set motif. There’s a scuffed and stained bar, old fashioned
kegs, and a desert mural painted on the ceiling. Card tables populate the area
around the raised dance floor. A player piano sits in the corner. I could
imagine Butch and Sundance swaggering in at any moment. I take a seat at the
empty bar as the Indian man walks around. I eye the bar. Lots of empty musty
bottles everywhere, and a beer tap with a faded label. I suddenly remember how
thirsty I am. I pry my tongue off my cotton mouth.

"Can I get
a glass of water?"

The man smiles.

"Certainly."

He pours a
drink from the tarnished brass tap.

I look at the
murky liquid inside a clouded glass.

"I’m not
sure about that."

"I insist,
friend. One never forgets the taste of River Water. It’ll take all your cares
away."

I guess it
doesn’t take that much convincing. I take a sip, and everything he says is true.
It is the sweetest drink I’ve ever tasted. While my belly warms, the rest of
my body settles into a tranquil chill. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever had
before-it’s not sweetness like I remember it. Drinking it is like drinking the
colors of sunset; first it is amber that deepens into orange, gold and then a
fiery red. The next drink burns and then cools, like a blade removed from a
furnace. Then it settles into violent lavender, murky blues, and then finally,
the last sip is as cool as night in the desert and my mind is just that clear.

"Wow,"
I say.

The Indian
smiles.

"All we
have is time, my friend, and time is for telling stories. So tell me yours."

In this state
of mind I’d tell him everything, and actually, I start doing just that.

"I grew up
disgustingly rich, I had everything. But everything isn’t very interesting. I
was rich and bored. I drifted through college, not even seeing what college is
all about. I had honors and an ‘in’ on Harvard Law. On my 22nd birthday
I got trashed and puked and when I came out of the bathroom, it just wasn’t the
same. I saw all my friends, my girlfriend, even, this hottie who was homecoming
queen. I told them I was going to be sick again but I ran outside. "I
started walking–it was spring then, rain was pouring. I felt like my body was
oil and the rain and I didn’t mix. I wanted to be absorbed. My whole life, it
seemed, was all these dreams I thought I’d never do. Fuck, I’d never even seen
the West Coast. I was just about ready then to either hurl myself off Boston Harbor
or go back and resign myself to that empty existence. But something different
happened. I walked to South Station. I bought a ticket to Memphis and have been
on the road ever since."

He took this
all in solemnly.

"This
place welcomes many a lost traveler."

"I’m not
lost."

"True,
you’re finally somewhere."

Suddenly I
remembered what that meant. Not a coin in my pocket.

"Yeah.
Fuck. I guess I am."

"Your
possessions, my friend. You truly worry about them?"

"Of course
I do! I need my sleeping bag, my tent, a change of clothes, food, everything I
own-"

"Did you
not just say you left that behind you?"

"Yes, yes,
but, you see that’s different. This is just what I need to survive."

"A lot of
something and a little of something are the same thing. I am surprised you do
not understand this."

I pondered this
a moment.

"I don’t
get all that Zen bullshit. Now having a Hummer versus a motorcycle, I see the
difference there. I see the difference between eating till you puke and living
off rice and pasta. But you can’t totally live without bread."

"But of
course you can. The problem is that you are seeing bread the wrong way. You
see possessions as different from you, something you can have dominion over. You
do not see that your essence and the world’s essence are identical. Do not worry
about feeding your body. You must have faith. Faith will feed you."

"I’m not
following you."

"That
drink you had."

"Yes?"

"How did
the drink arrive?"

"You
poured it for me."

"Did you
search for the drink?"

"No?"

"Yet it
arrived nonetheless. That is what I mean."

"That
doesn’t make any sense."

"Of course
it does," he says, wearing a smug grin, "Why aren’t you thirsty right
now?"

I almost say
the same thing I did a moment ago. But then I don’t. A curiosity crosses my
mind.

"I asked
for it."

"There you
go," he says, and now he is smiling.

"Well?"
I ask.

"Well?"
he responds.

"Can I
have another drink?"

"Absolutely,"
he says, and turns to pour it from a rusty tap.

He places the
glass in front of me with more of the murky liquid.

"To health,"
he says.

I eagerly
guzzle down the second drink, hopeful for the same rush of clarity, but none
arrives. The Navajo man looks at me and sighs. He shakes his head.

Then the crowd
bursts through the door.

I sit with a
wide-jaw as the largest group of characters I’ve ever seen rushes in like a
flash-flood. We have stick-tall queens and rotund Italians and debonair men in
black suits and war chiefs and parasol-wielding English royalty. A handful of
the most interesting characters in history turn the quiet, barn-smelling bar
into a romping speakeasy. Agape, I turn to the Indian bartender who is aflight,
serving patrons with fervor and flair. The player-piano is rocketing through
the Maple Leaf Rag at one-and-a-half speed. Coupled with the roar of chitchat, it
feels as if some outrageous squall has swelled underneath my feet, up and into
the room and conquered it, taking me for a ride into some strange and unknown
land. My drink is gone and two burly men in red tights are shouldering me,
trying to make it to the bar. I squeeze out and run to the door.

I have to fight
the crowd to squeeze through the double-doors, at last hurling my body weight
into it and careening into the street.

Immediate
disorientation.

The vacant
street and wide-open desert is now a bustling old west town, with broad black
strokes indicating the town’s service buildings: BANK, PHARMACY, MARKET. The
word "SALOON" now shines like a lantern across the bustling avenue.

Smaller tents
with Indian patterns clutter the mall between the row of buildings. In each of
the tents are vendors with a myriad of wares for sale, from jewelry to
flatbread to bone-carved weapons. A swell of people, of the same exotic mix as
the saloon, pass from vendor to vendor and up and down the street.

It is late
dusk. Each second that passes seems to verify this reality stronger in my mind.
I’m not sure how long I stand here stunned, but I am thrown back into my senses
as a carriage rolls through town. Three black horses snort and lumber by,
directed by a man in a black tophat and a long black coat.

The guy with
the license plate "CHARON."

"Hey!"
I yell, "Hey!"

My words don’t
seem to do much so I run up to the carriage, which isn’t moving all that fast.
I grab onto the side footstep and spring up, hauling myself to my feet by
grabbing the door handle. I shimmy over to the front seat.

"Where the
hell is my rucksack, man?"

He ignores me
for so long that I ask him the same question twice. He reluctantly turns to
look at me.

"You’re on
a one-way trip. What else do you wish you’d taken with you?"

His question is
cryptic and sensible all at the same time. I begin to ask another question, but
suddenly can’t remember what or why I was going to ask. I don’t even know who
I am anymore. I slump to a sitting position beside him as he leads the
formidable horses.

He decides to
give me a tour.

"This is a
rather nice place," he says, "You’ll be glad you made it. There are artists
and writers of all sorts, such as the Watsons and the Bakers."

He indicates a
group of white bohemians in a flurry of exotic colors. He goes on to point out
more strange groups of people.

"The
musicians are mostly locals, and play things like the sitar and smoke the peace
pipe. They also employ a large group of dancers, who will take you to bed if you
tell them the secrets of the stars. What else? The playwrights, and even lately
the movie stars, though there really isn’t much place for movies, we don’t even
have a theater. In fact, we don’t have much of anything. There’s no day around
here, really. So don’t bother the bank and the market. They’re just there for
the tourists’ benefits. You’ve been to the saloon, right? That’s the only place
to go during this long night."

Strange thing
is, I start to accept these things. I make a rather obvious observation.

"It’s still
dusk."

"For you
it is, son. Don’t fret it. You won’t be up before midnight again."

"But all
these people?"

"Mostly
newcomers. And the welcoming committee." He smiles. "The night hasn’t
even begun yet."

A cold feeling
overcomes me.

"I think I
need to get off."

"Of
course!" he laughs, "Of course! How far do you think I was going to
take you? I run the same route all night. In I come with new visitors, but
never out."

I roll off and
hit the ground hard. But not hard enough to keep me from scrambling to my feet
and running back towards town. Though the town is a circus, a strange land I
doubt I can make sense of, it’s better than the desert. The desert’s just
mirages and long stretches of painted sand. The last purple ray of sun has hit
the edge of the dunes. It’s gone from twilight to gloaming.

As I barrel
into town, an assortment of bizarre faces evaluate me. I nearly rush into a
cockeyed Spanish swordfighter. I spin, then leap over a little tent with a
young Indian woman selling shells, scattering her goods as I fly past. My
momentum throws me against the wall of the bank. I stop a moment to catch my
breath, hoping to become invisible, but I’m apparently quite an attraction. A
whole swell of people in the tide of the market comes to a halt to stare at me.

What am I going
to say?

My chance is
stolen by the barking of a dog.

I swing around
to see Cecil snarling behind me. He’s crouched so he’s nearly standing upright.
I swing around, turning my back on the crowd.

"Easy now,
pup, just chillll."

I guess this means
gibberish in dogspeak because he suddenly lunges for me and I roll to my left
and start running again, ever to the amusement of the crowd. I tear ass
through town, hopping lines of the market tents and slamming against the door
of the saloon. As I fly in, I realize the door swings both ways.

Inside, the
party’s really picked up.

Belly-dancers
are on some of the tables and others are lap-dancing the hi-rolling winners.
The player piano is at an even more frenzied pace, now playing some out of
control jazz tune. The Navajo bartender is moving so fast that he almost seems
a blur, a shadow, a ghost. I push through the crowd and force my way to the
bar, upsetting a bearded man trying to get with a ballerina. I start shouting
for the Navajo man.

He hesitates a
moment and I try to get some sort of answer from him.

"What’s
going on?" I scream to him.

"You still
have not learned, have you?" he yells back, "You are still trying to make
sense and are not simply being."

That’s all he
has to offer? In a blur he dashes to my left again, bringing drinks up and down
the time-stained bar. The only straight thing I get from him is another drink,
and I take it eagerly and start slowly, unsure when I’ll be able to get another
one.

I’m enjoying
the first fluid colors of the River Water even without the initial mind-altering
rush. With music joining the exotic taste, reality still seems to twist and
turn. I start to lose myself in the reckless jazz, start mumbling "bee-wees"
and "doo-wops" to myself. I am somewhere else.

"You’re
finally feeling it, honey, good."

I glance over,
disoriented and self conscious. It’s the ballerina. Apparently I disrupted the
attempts of the dwarf-man earlier. She edges closer to me.

"What’s
that?" I say.

She smiles, a
broad, toothy smile. She has ruby lipstick and a matching leotard. Glitter
brings out her round smile and broad bust. She has her hair up in a bun behind
two cat ears.

"You’re
feeling it baby, all through you. You’ve got the music. You’ve got the groove.
I was worrying about you, seeing you run right out that door like a scared
mouse earlier. Tisk tisk. But ohhh yeah you got it now, and momma loves to see
it."

Now I really
don’t know what to make of this, save to indulge. I nod to her, slowly, because
I’m inarticulate. I start to dance a little to the jazz. She slinks over and
matches my ill-matched steps. I kill my drink and then we take off together.

Going not by
notions or rules so much as intuition, guided by the music, I start to jiggle
and twist across to the dance floor of the speakeasy. She’s right behind me the
whole time, getting more into it the crazier I get.

I let out a
catcall and she lets out a purr. We spin around and stare into one another’s
eyes. There is no place for words anymore. The only way we can speak is this
confused, intoxicated motion. I start to connect with the universe, imploding
in upon itself and then blowing out, only to connect again, swirl around, and
continue its path of rebirth in chaos.

"Ohhh
yeah," she whispers in my ear, licking gently as her lips part away.

This is too
much to take. I burrow into her, grab her, pull her tight to me, start to spin
around with her grinding against me. She recoils suddenly, grabs at my back and
digs in with savage claws. I lose my footing, sprawl sideways, roll onto a table
of card sharks and then slide, spilling drinks and the cards fly like a scattered
group of pigeons. I slam against the floor and do my best recovery, which is
slow and graceless.

"Mannie!
Maneeeee!" the ballerina cries, and another huge form appears in front of
me. This guy is almost an ape, all hair and muscle, black slacks and tight white
shirt.

"What
seems to be the problem?" he asks.

"Ohhh
Mannie it was tragic," she cries, "He, I almost thought he had it but
then he? oh, he got, he got so rancid!"

"Poor
form," he snarls, then appraises me. "You lookin’ for a
beating?"

"Me?"
I yelp. "No no no, course not."

"Well that
stinks," he says, "Because you’re sure as hell gettin’ one."

I scramble back
but whoever is behind me shoves me forward and Mannie snatches me around the
throat and hoists me up and I’m left staring into his way-less-than-pleased
eyes. I grit my teeth, ready for impact.

Thank God, it
never comes. The Navajo man sticks an arm between us and Mannie promptly drops
me to the ground.

"Back off,
M, he’s new. I have great hopes for him, he just hasn’t let go yet. He’s still
attached to what he thinks he knows."

Mannie steps
down.

"I guess
that’s why you’re still here, pal, huh?" he laughs. "Get him another drink!
Let the night roll on!"

"I think
I’ve had enough" I spurt out and head for the door.

With night
firmly set in, the personality of the street has changed yet again. A line for
the saloon runs along the mall. Most of the vendors have wrapped up their goods
to head home or to stand in line with the hundreds in front of the saloon. As I
stagger out, I notice that the bouncer is actually the dwarf who was with the
ballerina earlier. We exchange awkward looks before he calls out

"NEXT!"

I wander
towards the remaining vendors and glance at what goods they have with an aloof
eye. The jewelry and pottery is well-crafted and attractive, but it’s nothing I
want to burden myself with. Actually, I begin to notice that physical goods in
general can hardly hold my interest. I only stop when I see a young woman with
braided black hair and a sea-blue dress. She’s the one selling shells, the one
I nearly trampled earlier. I figure this is as good a conversation starter as
any.

"Sorry
about that," I say.

She continues
to look down.

"Running
past you," I continue, "I must have upset your whole booth."

"Oh,"
she whispers, at last, "I guess I didn’t notice."

She’s still not
looking up, so I crouch down.

"These are
very beautiful," I say, picking up a shell, "Where did you get them?"

"I found
them," she says.

"In the
desert?"

She giggles,
and finally looks up.

"Silly."

"What do
you mean, ‘silly’?"

"The
desert or the sea, what does it matter? I wanted shells, so I found shells."

If I didn’t
adore her gentle and innocent face so much, I would march right off in a huff.

"What do
you mean, you ‘found’ shells? They had to come from somewhere."

"I went
for a walk one day, thinking of shells. It was dead night, and the wind arose
and a storm was brewing. When it finally unleashed, I sat down and prayed. When
it was all gone, I had shells. Does that make sense to you?"

No, not really.

"You’re
selling them, these things you found on this… walk of yours?"

She giggles
again.

"Sell? Of
course not. They’re for the taking."

"Taking?
You mean I can just have one?"

She covers her
face with a delicate hand.

"You’re
just flirting with me."

I look at the
miniature conk shell and let it rest in my palm; I adore its pure white, its
cotton softness.

"I would
like this one," I say.

She smiles.

"By all
means."

I pocket it,
then glance to the distant desert as a crisp breeze scatters sand from the
distant dunes. My heart seems tugged in that direction.

"You just
found these," I muse, "Walking in the desert?"

She nods, as if
to say "you’re still not getting it, huh?"

"I think I
might just go myself," I say.

She leaps up on
her haunches.

"Oh no,
you’re too new, you can’t do that."

"Why
not?"

"The
desert is not a place for the lost to wander. All the things you carry with you
are burdens once you enter the desert."

"I get the
feeling that’s the case already."

"Please,"
she says, reaching forward, almost touching me, then pulling her hand back
abashed.

"I can’t
explain it," I say, "I feel as if the desert is calling me, pulling
me towards it."

At last she
understands. She lifts her eyes to me, deep, serene, sapphire eyes.

"Then
follow its call. Those are the things you believe, whispers of nature, not
screams of men."

I stand, and
the wind continues to pull, singing louder and louder.

"Thank you
for the–advice," I say, "And the shell. Especially the shell."

Without another
word I part with a smile along the course the wind tugs me across the cool
desert night.

***

It takes at
least two hours after the fact for me to admit it to myself. I am lost. Not
disoriented, not off course, but wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am (don’t-know-how-I-got
-here) lost. I tried to keep attention, to keep my mind alert, but the desert
has a way of singing you lullabies. A sudden chill wind bites into my bones and
I fall to my knees on a sand dune, desperation clawing at my throat, burning
out my eyes. The wind dies again and the landscape is silent.

I fall to my
knees in the absolute darkness. There is a place here where the soul knows no
comfort. It is an ember against this curtain of darkness. Still, I breathe deeply,
as if it rouse the quiet coal. The darkness soaks through my skin and with
patient breathing, I wait out this darkest hour of night. Time stands still
for a long, long moment. I open my eyes again.

Now I can see
everything. The moon sits atop the dunes, snaking ever upward by the moment.

The sands,
fully soaked in white, suddenly enchant, rather than intimidate.

I find beauty
in the painted dunes. The hills and valleys and plains are roads, not walls.
And somehow, the desert smells like jasmine.

A forlorn cry
echoes across the landscape.

I can hardly
believe my eyes. Cecil, the lurching, red-eyed dog, bounds up the dune and
snarls before me, spraying ugly white drool on the painted sand. Did he follow
me? Have I been leading him, or he leading me?

"Ssh? pup,"
I whisper, "Calm now, there is no reason for you to cry?"

Again, the dog
has no sense of my words. He claws the ground and paces, sizes me up.

"Ssh?
don’t cry?"

Cecil lunges
then, and I attempt to sidestep him, but his deft jaws close around my calf and
hurl me to the ground. I twist on my way down, and try to right myself as
Cecil’s firm jaws hold me in a vice. I kick in vain, only rooting his teeth
deeper into my muscle.

This is it, I
think. The dog has me now.

At least, until
I grope in my pockets and snake my fingers around the shell. Without thinking,
I place the shell against my ear and hear the ocean. All those miles away, I
can still hear it smashing, rolling, smashing again. I know it’s an illusion, a
trick of the way wind moves, but suddenly the anomaly seems perfect, whole,
complete. The ocean in the desert. I pull the shell, this wild, precious,
miraculously unbroken thing, and place it to my lips.

I fight with
the dog to keep it steady. My first timid blows barely honk. The dog lurches
back, starting to drag me, and I repress this fountain of pain to blow with all
my heart. The cry of the conkshell resonates like an earthquake in the moonlit
desert.

I continue to
blow, and the wind appears as rapidly as did the spirits in the saloon. I continue
to blow and the dog’s grip loosens, and I stare Cecil dead in the eyes.

In the dog’s
eyes I see the eyes of those who lent me advice during this strange journey. It
all pours into me: the arrows of insight from five faces: the ferryman, the
native, the ballerina, the girl, and now the dog… All reflections of the same
face, the same lesson, the same river of meaning that now courses through my
body. An oasis in the desert.

This is my
gold, my El Dorado.

I continue to
blow the conkshell’s glorious cry across the moonlit dunes until the wind
furiously throws it from my mouth. I stretch my arms out and let the gust take
me.

***

A burst of icy
water pours down on me from above. My arms are outstretched and I let the
water run down my face. I manage to mutter a "thanks" to the source
of the blessing.

"Oh thank
god," says a man’s voice, above me, "I thought you were gone."

I peel my eyes
open a little. The figure above me is silhoetted against the backdrop of
glaring noon in the desert. I close my eyes again, my mind reeling from a
paralyzing headache and dehydration. My other senses are keen. I can hear the
subtle buzz of desert motion and a car-engine a little ways off. I at first
think that even this stranger is an illusion, but he pours more water upon me.
No, I’m definitely somewhere real. Still, I don’t recall water ever tasting
this crisp, the desert smelling this fresh, or the small hum of sound so
stirring.

I open and
close my eyes until they adjust. The stranger is a middle-aged man with a
bright face, dark pants, white shirt with sweat stains at the armpits. Despite
the darkness of his form, I can see his eyes clearly. There is a wealth of
humanity within. There comes a formidable sense of deja vu.

"Not quite
gone," I manage at last.

"You need
a ride somewhere?"

"I don’t
have anywhere to go."

"Well I’m
not going to leave you in the desert."

"No?"
I say. "Where are you headed?"

"L.A.,"
he says, and then, as if he needs an excuse, "For business."

"Funny
thing," I say, struggling to my feet. I pitch back and he grabs me by the
arm.

I finally
stand, suddenly as sturdy as a tree trunk.

I take another
look around at this stretch of painted desert. Just any stretch of highway down
any stretch of desert in the southwest. I suppose it could be any stretch of
desert with a highway everywhere. But this place, with the subtle brushes of
pink across empty dunes and hums of life that are patient, not lush, strikes me
as a wealth of experience that I could spend a lifetime understanding. Still,
I’ve made it to the next stage of the journey. I ponder the stranger’s
destination.

"I swear,
we’re headed just the same direction."

He smiles wide.

"Great,
you got your gear?"

I feel around
in my pockets. All I can find is a gold half-dollar. I laugh.

"Fifty-cents,"
I say, "Fifty-cents get me much in L.A?"

"It’ll get
you going," he says, as if we share some secret understanding, before
turning and heading towards his idling indigo sedan.