The Furious Gazelle

Literary as hell.

“Untouchable Face,” a short story by Jennifer Rachel Baumer

There’s a blue neon cactus on the side of the road, almost turquoise, so diffuse the plasma seems to turn the night around the sign the color of a bruise and she can’t be sure if the sign reads Vacancy or No.  Motel is in the middle of nowhere, east-bound strip of I-80 heading toward Utah, and it’s the middle of the week – she thinks it’s unlikely to be full and signals to the empty highway as she slides right, across weeds and rocks and into the gravel parking lot.  The last hour there haven’t even been semis on the highway and it feels later than it is – just past nine with the last of the summer-green twilight just faded and the sky inky black.

Angela’s been driving eleven hours, from Los Angeles to Elko, Nevada, and beyond, no destination in mind, no cash, just credit cards and fury and a hard knot of tears in her throat.  Eleven hours to make it to nowhere,  driving ever since Jim came home this morning smelling of perfume and guilt but apparently past the point where he needed to make up stories for her.

Apparently he was past a lot of points.

She brakes harder than she meant to outside the office and the car dies.  She thinks about trying it again, just to make sure it will start, but she’ll have to start it again once she’s assigned a room and if it doesn’t start then, well, a few minutes will have made no difference and she’ll still have to decide what to do about the consequences.

A light goes on in the office; the gravel parking lot and a straggling bed of marigolds light with artificial daylight.  When she steps out of the Honda the night air is still hot, and she realizes her arms are cold, her body freezing from the AC, cranked ever since she left the Los Angeles valley.

The bell over the door jangles and she can hear a television from beyond an open door.  The motel office is close and hot.  The air smells like salt and processed food.  There’s a bell on the counter – ring for service – but she can already hear someone coming, quick light footsteps.

Whatever she interrupted, it wasn’t sleep.  The manager is tiny, white haired, his blue eyes the same vague color as the neon cactus out front and seeming to spill over their boundaries in  the same blur of uncertainty.

“Cold out tonight, isn’t it?” he asks so deadpan it takes Angela a second.

She gives a startled laugh.  But she must still look grim, because the look in those eyes changes to compassion, and he seems to listen more intently than necessary to the request for a room, and a wake up call, and a recommendation for a restaurant.  

“Jake’s is prolly still open,” the manager says.  “Down the road about point four mile.  First and only right off the highway and you can’t miss it – it’s the only thing there,” and she wonders if it’s a town she’s in or if there’s one nearby or merely this outcropping like a way station for pioneers.

“Jake’s?”   

He shrugs.  “Won’t kill you.”  It seems to be the best recommendation he can give and maybe the only place for food.  She takes the key and directions to her room – round the building, on the side, away from the freeway.

The room is small, neat and clean, and it smells of the ghosts of cigarettes.  There are motel bed covers, motel paintings of oddly exotic settings.  Generic motels never feature paintings of their location.  There’s never a you are here.  Once upon a time she could have done better paintings with her eyes closed, but that’s all in the past.  The bathroom is tiny, chipped and spotless.  Her reflection is tiny and chipped as well, and stained, her mascara edging into crow’s feet.

She douses her face in cold water and blots it on a motel towel.  Her reflection looks tiny and far away, and she reaches toward the mirror but doesn’t connect.  When she makes the mistake of confronting the mirror again, tears threaten to start and she doesn’t wait to see if the rust on her cheek is actually on her cheek or on the mirror.

Jake’s is point four mile further east, first and only right off the highway.

 

The screen door bangs behind her as she enters and the handful of people in Jake’s look up.  Angela startles and her face flames.  She hesitates before she makes her way across the room to the bar.  Long day of this sort of thing, feeling like the quintessential dumped housewife, frumpy and forty and fallen when she’s none of those things – except dumped.

You left him, she reminds herself and slides onto a stool at the bar.  Jake’s is decorated in early Coors and Miller plastic, huge glowing logos and frosty mugs.  There are tables by the front of the place, red and white checked oil-cloth and chairs with the stuffing coming through the plastic seats.  They look like places to be ignored.

The bar takes up one side of the room, windows behind it instead of mirror but it’s too dark to see out and they mirror all the same.  Angela watches herself, still dusty and road-worn, until the bartender comes over.  A woman, for which she is obscurely grateful.  In the back, one of the players brushes a hanging lamp  over the pool table; shadows of players and cues splash off the walls.  The men wear baseball caps and boots; they resume the conversation that lapsed when she entered, a rumble of male counterpoint to the soft country song playing.  The bartender has put a napkin in front of her and says, “What can I get you, honey?”

“Is there a menu?”  She’s always hated places like this – she feels like she should walk in already knowing everything about it just because everyone else does.

The bartender hesitates.  “There’s a menu, but no food.  Jake’s down in Reno today, and he’s the cook.”

“Is Jake your husband?”  It’s a stupid thing to ask, but she wants to cry. She needs to eat, she’s got husbands on the brain, and she can’t think of anything else to say. If she doesn’t say something the bartender will go away.  If the bartender goes away she’ll be alone again and that’s not a good thing.

The bartender runs a hand through cropped, spiked, platinum hair.  “Jake?  Now that’s funny.”  She waves a hand at the players as if she’d caught their attention without meaning to.  “Can I get you a beer?”

The knot in Angela’s throat presses hard.  She swallows and shakes her head.  “Just somewhere I can get something to eat.”  Her stomach complains on cue, and her eyes overflow.

The bartender gives her a sidelong look.  “Nowhere else is open.  Look, if you don’t report me, I’ll see what I can do,” she says and Angela frowns, thinking of health departments or inspectors or maybe there’s some kind of union for cooks, how would she know?

“Report you?”

The blond shrugs.  “SPCA?”  And before Angela can ask, “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adults.  Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Anyone.  Look, don’t cry.  There’s not much I can do to a grilled cheese.”  She pulls a bag of corn chips from a rack behind the bar and slides it to Angela.  “And you probably will want that beer.”

 

The pool players have gone back to their game.  Maybe forty is past interesting, though most of them look like they’re on the same side of that fence.  The bar is late-night quiet  – she hears the hum of AC or the refrigerator, something low and rhythmic.  The players’ conversation is an intermittent rumble, a stream of words she can’t quite make out.  Her ears ring with the loss of road noise, and her hearing seems muted.

If she closed her eyes she could float away to the slow tide of sound.  Almost undoubtedly she’s dreaming.  When the bartender returns she will say nothing if Angela takes the steak knife from the bar and rams it into her own chest, because this is all a dream.  Maybe flowers will sprout from the wound.

“You want anything to drink while I’m doing this?” the blond asks from the edge of the kitchen.

“Coffee?” Angela asks without much hope, but there is coffee, dark and heady and strong.  She over-sugars and wraps her hands around the mug for warmth despite the summer night.  In the window behind the bar she see herself, 40, frumpy, housewife, husbandless.  Ready to pour her heart out to a bartender at a nowhere desert bar.

So how did you come to be here? the blond will ask, sliding over a plate of grilled cheese and pickle and a sliced tomato.  Angela pulls a corn chip from the bag and lets it lie on her tongue and dissolve.  One of those things that always drove Jim crazy.

I’m going to Salt Lake City, she would say, and realize it’s true.  Been true ever since this morning when she left L.A.  Her mother lives there, and now all she can think is she’s running away from home, going back to her mother, the cliché betrayed wife.

No.  Things are bad enough.

So, all right, where are you headed, then?  the bartender asks and slides a plate across the bar to Angela.  Grilled cheese, with Monterey Jack and oregano.  Coleslaw and it has to be at least one day old if Jake’s gone today.  She shouldn’t eat it, but it looks wonderful.

Denver, she says.  She’d thought about it at first.  Last place her best friend had gone to roost and reinvent herself.  But it seemed pathetic to go chasing the ghosts of friendships past, pathetic she hadn’t made new friends since Sam moved, that she hung onto her tiny world, or at least her corner of it.

I am pathetic, she thinks.  Left school for him, left college for him, stopped painting for him because it took time away from Us.  Let him support me and love me and then one day when I wasn’t paying attention it changed to support me and lie to me and love her.

As if they’d already gotten divorced: he got everything.  The house (she left it).  Their life (she wasn’t living it).  Her art (she’d abandoned it).  Their friends (he’d made them all, business friends, and he’d never cared about the difference between business friends and real friends anyway).  She got a husband she could no longer touch.  She’d reach her hand out to touch his face, the way she always had, and he’d turn away.

“Damn you.”

I’m going to see if I can find the girl he used to love, the one with the long auburn hair he loved to run his hands through.  The one who was always going somewhere and doing something.  The one who was still alive.

And the bartender slides over a plate of quiche or caviar or prime rib.  Might as well, it’s all fantasy.  The girl with the long auburn hair is long gone.

The bartender comes out of the kitchen with a plate of grilled cheese, three sandwiches it looks like, a chunk of gingerbread and an apple on a plate.  She shrugs at the food, as if explaining that’s what was in there, refills Angela’s coffee and says, “So, where are you heading?”

Angela swallows.  The grilled cheese is surprisingly good.

“Nowhere.”  She’s had time to think about her answer.

The bartender laughs.  “You’ve found it.”

There’s a sign behind the bar, orange letters bordered in white, set on black.  HELP WANTED.

“So what do you do around here?”

The blond shrugs.  “Take classes.  Community college 20 miles from here.”

“Classes?”  She’s down to crust on her first sandwich.  Scary.  People are supposed to lose their appetites along with losing everything else.  She sucks another corn chip.

“Whatever.  It’s not like I’m going to do anything with them.  I’m not going anywhere and there’s nothing much here.”  The blond looks up to catch Angela’s expression.  “It’s not a bad place.  It’s not really a place at all.  I meant I just take classes to do it.”

Angela wants to ask a question.  She wants to ask everything.  Who are you?  What’s your name?  Are you married?  Are you happy?  Can you help me remember what that’s like?  Why don’t you want to be anywhere else?

Would it be prying? Or is she just trying to figure out her own options.   Like, does she have any?

“Hey, Violet!  What does a guy have to do to get a beer around here?”  One of the players in the back, husky, bearded, wearing a t-shirt.

“Ask nice and give me money,” Violet calls back but she’s already rummaging through the ice under the counter.

Of all the names Angela might have imagined for the spiky blond, Violet isn’t among them.

 

“So are you staying at the Cactus?” Violet asks when she returns to the bar.  She wipes her hands on her apron and runs her fingers through her hair.

Angela glances at the motel key on the bar.  Key, not magnetic card, and on an oblong turquoise plastic diamond.  The Cactus sounds wrong and then she remembers the neon cactus sign that lured her off the highway and nods.  “Just overnight,” as if someone has accused her of squatting.  Or as if she really has a destination when she’s already said she’s going nowhere.

The blond tops off her already-full coffee as if looking for something to do.  “Guess I’m asking if you’re okay, honey.”  Sounds like an apology.  It might as well be, because it brings instant tears to Angela’s eyes, just having someone care about her.  The food in her mouth is too hard to swallow.  She coughs and in that instant thinks of her mother, and of Samantha, who has written a couple times, asking her to visit.  Her brother Davy is in Salt Lake City, too.  She has a part-time job and work friends she’s walked away from, women she looked forward to seeing every day.

She’s not alone in the world.  There are people who will worry if Jim calls them, looking for her.

There are people she can call.

I am not going to pour my heart out to a bartender.

“It’s been a bad day.  But I’ll be all right.”  She points at the sign behind the bar.  “Help wanted?”

“Dish washer,” the blond says, flapping her hands at one of the players who grins and meets her behind the bar.  “Take it.  Here.  Shoo!”  Without breaking stride she turns back to Angela.  “You do not want to wash dishes at Jake’s,” she says, and without pause, “Did he hit you?” like a psychic.  

Like a bartender, Angela thinks, and slides off her stool.  “How much do I owe you?”  The three sandwiches are gone, and the corn chips and the coffee and more coffee she ever drinks in one sitting.

Violet waves a hand.  “Nothing.  It wasn’t real food.  It didn’t really happen.  I would never cook for live people.  Oh, all right, $1.50 for the coffee.”  She catches Angela’s hand before she can drop the money and draw away.  “Did he hit you?”

“Once,” Angela says and then she is through the doors and out into the night.

 

The motel room is still midday hot, even after ten p.m.  Angela tries the AC but it only groans and makes a sound like a hamster on a wheel and after a long time coughs out stale cigarette air.  She opens the windows instead, and there isn’t any breeze at all.  The air outside Elko is utterly still and burning hot.  She sits on the edge of the bed between the window by the door and the window in the bathroom and sweat pools between her breasts.

The phone beside her takes on a presence.  By now Jim will have called her mother and maybe even Davy.  Past that she can’t guess.  He doesn’t know her work friends and doesn’t listen when she tells him about the things she’s done with them or the places they’ve gone together.  She can’t imagine him ferreting out their numbers.

Anyone he’s called will be worried by now.

I could call Jim.

She reaches for the phone and stands instead, hands in her back pockets, and paces to the opposite wall and back.  She wanders into the bathroom but even the linoleum floor is hot and sticky under her bare feet.  The room shrinks around her and she crosses to the door, hesitates, one hand on the knob, the other holding the chain.  The desert doesn’t respond with any kind of breeze.

When she opens the door she sees the dark highway beyond, rushing into the vast desert.  It makes her feel insubstantial, a ghost in her own life, or a ghost in whatever is left of that life.  If she is lost – if she were to fade away and never return – people would look for her.  Just not for very long.

Which isn’t fair.  It’s not like she’s left a trail.  Everyone could be looking.  She’s didn’t set out to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.  

They could try harder, she thinks, an irrational thought that makes her feel better.  She looks toward the phone again.  It’s turquoise, she notices, and it doesn’t ring when she looks at it.  No sort of magic there.

And then she laughs at herself and says, “Cell phone,” and reaches for her purse and that’s when she realizes she’s left it in the bar.  Which is – she checks her watch and time has moved forward, it’s very close to midnight finally on a very long day – closed by now.  Along with her purse and wallet. Keys she puts in pockets.  Keys in her purse settle to the bottom, under archeological layers of detritus.

She calls into her voice mail and she has 15 messages.  Angela blinks at the turquoise phone and presses play. Instantly, there’s Jim’s voice, all anger and concern and contrition, all the things a good lawyer can project.  Nine messages, the last less than 30 minutes old, all of them growing angrier across the hours.  Two calls from her mother, the first rushed and confused – did they have a fight?  Was she all right? – but no offer of a place to stay or a shoulder to cry on.  The second is more concerned – 12 hours gone by with no word from Angela, can she call back, let her mother know everything is all right?

Three from her brother, the first that he understands and whatever she’s doing is fine with him but could she just call?  The second that he’s getting worried, it hasn’t been 24 hours yet, and he doesn’t think she’s technically missing but…  Third: He loves her. Does she need a place to stay? His wife will understand, could Angela just call?

The last message is from Samantha, and she sounds upset, talking fast the way she did to get everything out when things were going wrong.  Jim called. Jim scared her. She thinks leaving Jim is the smartest thing Angela has ever done, but could she please call?  Soon?  Or come up to Denver?

The room shrinks again.  I’m being irrational.  But how can she call them?  She can’t talk about it and no matter what any of them say, they’re going to want to talk.  Where are you? Are you all right? “Did he hit you?”

Once.  Only once.  Because she left while he was still standing with his hands out and his mouth open, as shocked as she was, but she’d seen what he hadn’t – his hand had stayed raised, not reaching out but threatening, and his right hand had formed a fist.

She’d gone.  In the bathroom she’d pressed a wet towel against her eye and stared at herself in the mirror until tears blurred everything.  After a few minutes Jim moved away from the door, the smell of the other woman’s perfume drifting with him and when she heard him go she gathered random make up and toothpaste and her toothbrush and birth control pills as if that made any sense.  She heard Jim in the kitchen, and she slipped from the bathroom and threw everything into her purse, gathered up her keys from the table by the front door.  When Jim came into the living room with a kitchen towel full of ice she met his eyes and turned her back and went outside where her car sat in the driveway.

The heat in the motel room burns her arms when she moves, little prickles of heat.  She crosses the room and stares in the mirror and laughs because Violet asked if he hit her and her left eye is black and blue, a thin cut underneath.  She touches the side of her face, surprised somehow when her reflection does the same.

The room moves again, too small.

Outside, overhead, the sky fills with stars.  More stars than she can remember seeing in years.  In Los Angeles it’s possible to believe they’ve all gone away.  Because of the lights, the night sky there is flat and pale.

She stands, head tilted back, watching the stars glitter and trying to guess which were still alive and which had long since guttered and gone out or gone supernova.  Strange to think she could go on watching stars that had died centuries ago.

The air outside is cooling.  Still warm, but she can feel the change in temperature against her arms and legs and the backs of her hands.  She stands with her head thrown back and stares up at the light show until she stumbles, standing but dizzy, and then she leans into the motel room and flicks off the light, leaves the door open and moves to her car, first leaning against it and then climbing onto the hood and leaning back.  She stares at the stars until an attack of giggles comes out of nowhere and races through her, leaving her limp and tired.

They’ll find me in the morning, asleep and grinning on my car, she thinks, and they’ll lock me up and call me crazy and everyone will know everything then.  But everyone and everything is far away, and when she feels drowsy she clamors off the car and closes herself into the motel room and figures out how to call long distance without credit cards or cell phones and wakes Davy.

“Everyone is worried,” he says.

“You were asleep.”  But it’s good to hear his voice, and he’s too sleepy and defenseless to tease.  “Can you call mom?”

Davy hasn’t asked her anything.  Her mother will.  “I’ll call her.”  She hears him yawn and hears his wife say something low and quiet and then Davy is on the line again.  “Sher wants to know if you’re all right – and if you need anything – and if – do you want to talk to her?” he asks, his voice muffled and clearly not to her, and then, “Sher wants me to play translator because clearly you two speak different languages, why else would I have to repeat everything each of you says?  But I told her if you can coordinate long distance collect you’re all right.”  He laughs.  She’d bailed him out enough times when he was in college and had to wait to call her until he was capable of making a collect call.  And then he adds, “You are, aren’t you?”

Angela swallows.  No.  Not even with all the stars.  The peace of the night has faded back into a tiny motel room in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada, and the heat and the fear and whatever lies ahead.

“I don’t even have my toothbrush.”

Everything in her purse.  Her purse at the bar.  She has car keys, because she keeps those in her pockets.  She can’t even pay for the room until she gets her purse back.  A lump of fear rises in her throat.  She won’t get it back.  She’ll end up calling Jim.  Her future will end before it even began.  She pats the pockets of her shorts and comes up with a handful of change and feels tears at the backs of her eyes.  

“Sis?”

“Yeah.”  She clears her throat.  “No, Davy, I’m okay.  Just – not quite, y’know?”

“Yeah, I know.  I think.  Listen, Angie, do you want me to call Jim?”

Outside on the highway a semi downshifts and moves into the night.  The crickets pause, as if sensing danger, then pick up rhythm again.  Her ears still ring from road noise and changes in altitude.

Her eye hurts.

“No,” she says quietly, and then, “I don’t care.  If you want to.  But I really don’t care.”

* * *

Dawn woke her.  The motel room faced east for all it was worth.  The sun came through the shades and curtains and burned holes in her eyelids until she opened them.

At first she couldn’t remember where she was, or why.  For a while she had traveled with a very boring job and she had a groggy moment of panic that she’d slipped back in time to that particular life.  She jolted and tried to look at her watch.  Her right hand smoothed her hair out of her eyes, and when she brushed her left eye it instantly began to throb and everything fell into place.

She lay back against the headboard and stared at the room, the water-stained ceiling, the flat green carpet, the featureless tables and chairs.  The dresser with nothing of hers in it because the only thing she’d brought with her she’d left at Jake’s Bar & Grill.

It wasn’t really dawn.  The clock radio in the room said by now, if she were at home, she’d have showered, eaten, left for her part-time job.

Eaten.  She was ravenous.  As if somehow for the last several years of her marriage she’d been fasting and now the fast was broken and she just wanted to keep eating.

“There has to be somewhere other than Jake’s,” she said and rose and padded to the bathroom.  But it didn’t really matter since Jake’s was where her purse was.

She ran her tongue over her teeth.  They seemed to be wearing individual sweaters.  

She eyed the phone when she stepped out of the bathroom and thought about checking her messages again, but she could hear bird song and the sun was strong, but the air still felt cool, and she went out, instead, and stood dazzled in the desert morning.

Somewhere a meadow lark called and a blue jay scolded and overhead a crow circled like a black dot against the sky. She could hear them all as if they were just beside her.  Trucks thundered on the highway but those sounded distant.

When she stepped away from the door a small blue lizard broke his stillness and ran.

The air on her arms was cool but the sunlight warmed her hair and sank into her shoulders.  Angela squinted against it.

She could smell sage and dirt and blacktop and the diesel smell of big trucks but mostly the clean fresh silver-green smell of sage.  She pressed her hand against her face, wishing she could stop her eye from throbbing, and brushed away tears.

Someone at Jake’s answered on the first ring.  Just after seven but the room was heating up and she wanted food and she needed coffee.  And her purse.

“You’re open, then,” she said, making sure, and the gruff voice on the phone agreed.

“Truckers hit the road at dawn.”  As if that were some kind of answer.

“I left my purse there last night,” Angela said, feeling stupid again, and the man on the phone said, “You must be Angelina.”

“Angela,” she said, and wondered if that were a test.  She didn’t ask about food – if they didn’t have any she’d collapse at the feet of the man she’d been talking to and whimper until he fed her anyway.

The thought made her really smile for the first time since she’d left L.A.

Smiling made her eye hurt.

#

Her stomach grumbled, but she didn’t get in the car right away.  From beyond the motel she could hear an impatient chittering that sounded like squirrels, and meadow lark song was coming from that direction as well.  Angela stuffed her hands in her back pockets and strolled up the length of the closed motel room doors until she stood at the back of the Cactus, staring out.

The back area was a mess of crumbling asphalt and a couple service vehicles, a van with “Cactus” on the side, a series of big green dumpsters.  When she glanced behind her there was an employee’s entrance and a laundry and the doorway to some kind of maintenance area.

By the chain link fence the hard dirt broke free of concrete and asphalt.  As far as she could see there was unbroken desert, sage and scrub and rolling brown hills and that wide, wide sky over it, so different from L.A.  She tilted her head back as far as she could and scanned the sky but there were no clouds, just vast blue.  Despite the heat the day before, the morning was fresh and new. She imagined waking here, every day, to this peace and silence, knowing she had a job, in a little place, someplace like Jake’s maybe, nothing big, nothing she had to worry about, but something that meant she had a place in the scheme of things.

On the other side of the fence trails threaded through the sage, dirt tracks that ran nowhere and an abandoned Quonset hut next to a battered metal shed perched on cinder blocks.  Mostly the trails just seemed to peter out, and at the end of them all was a stand of cottonwoods looking stately and wise.  Crows called again and Angela turned to watch them but her stomach protested, loud as the birds, and she turned back and walked past the empty rooms again to where she’d left her car.

Which started, jolted halfway across the parking lot, and died.

“This is not happening,” Angela said out loud but the Honda didn’t agree with her version of reality.  She dropped her hands from the steering wheel and sat back, trying to remember everything she knew about cars.  Turn on.  Turn off.   They had batteries.  Wiper fluid.  Oil.

Gas.

She turned the key and read the display.  The seat rocked as she shoved herself back against it.

Idiot.  Damn idiot.

She could have been stranded, could have found herself on foot on the side of the highway, hoping for a lift from a friendly but not too friendly trucker and convinced she could hear an audience whispering, “Don’t get in the truck!  Is she crazy?  Why do they always get in the truck?  Oh, I can’t watch!”

“There’s gas at Jake’s,” she said aloud.  Jake’s is point four mile down the road, first and only right off the highway and you can’t miss it.  She’d found it the night before.

She cast the display a baleful look in case it changed its mind, but at least out of gas was something she could solve.

“Straight ahead, down the highway, straight on till morning.”  She squinted at the sun and felt the dull ache of her black eye and locked the car and made sure she had her car keys and motel room key.  She wished she had her sunglasses.  She walked.

 

No one stopped to offer her a ride.  She didn’t want them to.  And maybe the absence of a broken-down car some miles behind her was enough to convince passing drivers she was just going from here to there.  There was probably some kind of law against walking along the edge of an interstate but she didn’t know the area or any little back roads, and as long as she didn’t run into any cops, she didn’t care. Or, what the hell – maybe if she did run into one, he could give her a ride: protect and serve, right?

The sun was already halfway up and when she checked her watch it was well after eight.  Hot today; the blacktop already gave off heat.  She watched the air shimmer as she walked toward an unreachable vanishing point.  She passed a car leaning into the scree and underbrush, mostly off the road, its hood open and a white note on the antenna.  Maybe they’d run out of gas, too.

Or out of water.  And she panicked because she was out alone in the desert in the heat without water, and what if there were snakes?  And then she remembered Jake’s was less than half a mile away, a straight shot down the highway she was on and one turn and she’d be there.

Her steps crunched loose dirt and stones and twigs.  She imagined words to her steps – what areyou do-ing?  What areyou do-ing? – and her thoughts fell away from the morning and her hunger and where she was.  Jim was there, in her mind, funny and handsome and already getting rich, a young attorney who courted her as if she were a case he was determined to win.  And Samantha was there.  They’d met in self-defense class, partnered up for two-woman exercises, stayed in touch after and worked their way up to best friends.  Angela was there for Sam as her boyfriends came and went, and Sam was there for Angela at her wedding, her smile overlaid on top of the way she really felt about Jim.  Angela could see it in her eyes.  Not fear, just wariness.  Sam didn’t trust Jim with her best friend, and Jim didn’t seem to like Samantha at all, and it wasn’t long after the wedding that things started to change.

Nothing tremendous.  Nothing huge.  Just a winnowing, a waning, a waxing away of Angela’s old life.  Jim’s personality filled the silences, his presence filled any holes where he’d excised her past.  They were newlyweds – they were supposed to spend all their time together, weren’t they?  She should be flattered he loved her so much, wanted to be with her all the time.  Casual friends fell away, work friendships became strained because she was always running off to meet Jim and she missed the walks at lunch, the drinks after work, crazy plans of yoga before office hours.  Her own interests got swallowed up by his.  Jim liked photography and didn’t understand painting, and she didn’t want to shut him out of part of her life and besides, the classes were too far away after they moved.  They moved, and moved again.  Jim made senior partner, and they moved again.  The walls of her life came together.

Angela stopped walking and looked around.  The highway spread in either direction.  Interstate80.  Practically infinite.  Up from the highway the sky was high, pulled away from the earth instead of pressing down like in L.A., high and blue and aching with light.  If she stood and watched she’d see crows and seagulls and hawks.  Out here there were no boundaries.

Angela took a breath, and felt as if she’d been holding it for a hundred years.  She gulped air and laughed up at the sky and spread her arms wide and shut her eyes tight and stood with her face up to the sun, gathering light.

What would it be like to live here?  To step out of her apartment every morning and look out at a vista of sage, cottonwood, poplar?  To do nothing more than wash dishes at Jake’s and go home every night to a tiny place that was neat,  clean and white-washed, with green carpet and a water stain on the ceiling, where a cat waited for her and the air smelled clean and full of sage.

Eyes still closed, face still skyward, she took a long, deep breath.  The constriction from the night before eased; her ribs expanded.  The sun fell warm across her face.  She heard crow song and cars on the other side of the divided highway.  Her arms flung wide and she breathed, as if she hadn’t taken a breath in years.

I probably look like a crazy woman.

I probably don’t care.

She stood moment longer, until her stomach protested and everything around her was empty – no highway noise, empty sky when she opened her eyes, empty mind with no thoughts left.

Empty gas tank.  Empty stomach.

She should be coming up on the right hand turn onto the tiny access road that ran parallel to I-80 and straight to Jake’s.  She wanted it to feel familiar already but she didn’t really remember it from the night before.  Then it had been dark and she had been driving.  Trucks thundered by her, backlash of their passage rocking the Honda.  

Today, on foot, the trucks passed too close. They raised dust in their wake, stones and tumbleweeds flew up around her and Angela batted at them, closed her eyes and held her breath again.  Dust devil, she thought.  She’d seen them on her drive, spinning across the desert like miniature tornados.  Now one caught her, driving pebbles and sand against her legs and she squinted hard, following the turn that surely would take her to Jake’s.  

When she blinked her eyes open again she was on a small road off the main highway.

Jake’s was nowhere in sight.

 

“This is absurd.”  She’d walked for hours.  The sun had hit zenith and seemed stuck there.  Sunburn had worked its way across her scalp and face and all exposed flesh.  Terror had caught up with her hours ago, and she’d run toward the sun, maybe she’d only stumbled over a low ridge while thinking of something else and the highway had to be just over there.  But when she climbed the highest of the rolling foothills there was nothing in any direction, just sun and sage and the desert rolling away from her.

She had sucked on pebbles, had cried, pleaded and protested.  She’d run in fear and found herself rooted to the spot, too afraid to move.  A dozen times she’d heard the swish of cars on the highway and headed that way, relieved, only to find instead a stand of trees whispering drily, or nothing at all.  There was a sound out in the desert, coming from so far away it was hard to tell if it was music or the wind or a drum beat that mocked her heartbeat as she kept moving.  She reached repeatedly for her phone, but of course that was at Jake’s, which she couldn’t miss, and she clung to her keys, car key in one hand, motel room key in the other, as if they were talismans that would keep her safe.  Sometimes she tried to imagine what she would do after she got to Jake’s – after eating and drinking like a feasting Roman – but she was too afraid there was no Jake’s and would be no future, and she walked what she thought was east while the sun moved from in front of her to behind.

When the sun unstuck from zenith it made its descent with undo speed.  As she walked, a chorus sounded in her mind – Samantha, warning her, This is a mistake, I love you, but this is a mistake. Davy, always a little cold and reserved around Jim. After awhile he didn’t have to be, because Jim Took Her Away from All of That, moved her where her family wasn’t likely to follow.  Her mother, in Salt Lake City, uncertain but keeping her own counsel.

Perhaps she should have said something.

I wouldn’t have listened.

She wanted to blame Jim for everything. She wouldn’t be out here lost in the desert with the sun sinking awfully fast and nothing anywhere in sight if he hadn’t hit me, cheated on me, done what he did.

I’m lost.

I could die out here.

She stopped walking. Her steps had become trudging. Now they stopped. She stood staring at the sea of sage around her.  Nothing had changed in all the hours she walked.  A vast horizon surrounded her, infinite possibilities that dwindled down to shreds of twilight. Already the moon was coming up, fat and round like a fulfilled promise.  Angela stood unmoving.  She could hear the sound of small creatures in the bush, the swish and sway of trucks and family cars on the invisible highway.  Sounds she’d heard for hours, and with every rustle of sage, every sudden movement she went still in terror. The desert bred rattlesnakes. Sometimes she was too afraid to move.

Thirst lived in her.  Hunger had given way to it.  Her skin ached, raw and burning.  When she touched her face her cracked lips bled.  The tissue around her eye was bleeding also.

I could die out here.

She rocked with it.  Ached with loss.  Jim loved her.  He wasn’t a horrible man.  He’d just seen what he wanted and gone after it and then held it close, so close, so tight, that every time she struggled for air he held her tighter, afraid she’d get away.  Afraid she’d leave him.  Until at last there was no one left to leave him, no one left to love, and he went looking for someone new.

“Do you forgive him, then?”

The voice was silvery and pleasant enough.  Angela didn’t question its being there.

“Of course not.  There’s no reason for this.  No excuse.”  She touched her face and felt the blood had thickened on her cheek.  She was bleeding harder.  She tried to swallow but her throat splintered, dry, and she coughed.

“Do you hate him?”

Angela squinted, but all she could see was moonlight.  The day had gone.  She was lost.

“I don’t know.”  She wanted to drop, just sit where she was.  Everything ached.  She had blisters from walking and blisters from sunburn and likely blisters from thinking.

“Do you love him?”

She considered.  “No.”  Her legs gave and she sat in the dirt.

Get up.

The voice was inside.

“Are you giving up?” the silver voice asked.  “Are you quitting?”

“I don’t know!” Angela shouted.  “I don’t know anything anymore!  I don’t know how I got lost on a straight line with one stupid turn between point A and point B.  I’m scared, and I’m alone, and I thought I could love it here but I just want to go home.”

“Home?”

“Oh, don’t,” she said, but something in the bushes moved, the sage shifted as if there were a wind, and a small, thin white snake slid out onto the dirt just past Angela’s feet.

She no longer felt terror.  She was past that.  She stared at the snake and dropped her hands to the dirt as if she meant to push herself up.  “I don’t know where I am,” she said.  

It was the snake she addressed.  That didn’t seem weird.

“What do you want?” the snake asked.

Angela looked up at the sky where the stars shone hot and bright.  “I want to go home,” she said and didn’t know if she meant L.A. or Denver or Utah or something inside herself.

She saw herself, all 40 years of her, and she saw others connected to her but a long way off.  Jim stood far away from her and after a minute Angela moved beside him and kissed his cheek and moved away again.  She turned her back on him and faced herself like a mirror.

Her vision splintered.  She saw shards and fragments, like reflections in broken glass.  Some were dark and empty, others glowed cold with moonlight.  In one she saw a workshop full of paintings, stacked against walls, pulled together, tacked up, sketches and paints everywhere.  In another she saw a thin withered hand holding a cigarette, in another the entrance to her own house in Los Angeles.  Desert and city tumbled over each other.  Samantha came and went.  Everything within the shards was fluid and running, possibilities overlapping.  Jim stood with his hands out to her, inviting her in.  Welcoming her back.  She stood with her back to him.

The fragments sped up, images shifting.  Angela reached for them, then turned away.  She saw the desert rolling away beyond a window that hemmed her in and when she looked down her hands were sunk to forearm in hot water and soap suds.

In the shatter of glass she saw herself in every glimmer, just turning away, always in motion, her back to herself, the back of her head, her hair swinging to cover her face.  She reached out but the images moved away and she pulled back, aware again, desert night sounds rushing in at her.

There was nothing but desert stretching in every direction. The fear returned, high in her throat like the taste of pennies.  Moonlight glinted like a searchlight and made her squint.

“This is no place for the weak,” the snake said.  “There is no place to hide.”  Its scales were platinum in the moonlight, and they looked spiky.  “If you’ve decided you’re going to keep going, you’ll have to go.”

Angela used her arms to leverage herself up.  There was blood in her shoes.  Her entire body ached.  The desert had closed in on her like everything else kept doing.  She brushed dirt and stones from her hands.  “I’m going,” she said.  “I’ve got things to do.”  She could already imagine the colors she’d use for “Sage in the Moonlight.”

She shook her head.  The title sucked.

“Spirit in Moonlight.”

No.

“Desert Dreams.”

That sounded like a particularly bad romance novel.  She had time to work on the title; she had to do the painting first.  “I have to get out of the damned desert first,” she said and looked up toward the moon and shied away.  Sunlight baked her skin, her hair felt like fire and she was already starting to turn red just point four miles down the road.

It was going to be a damn hot day.  She was grateful she’d be moving on.

The screen door into Jake’s banged behind her.  One of the pool players gave her a half wave and Angela nodded.  The blond was behind the bar again, this time with a burly man wearing a baseball cap over mostly gray hair. He sported a thick black moustache.  Jake, she guessed.

Violet grinned at her.  “Couldn’t stay away from my famous grilled cheese?” she asked, and the man next to her looked appalled.

“You didn’t cook, did you?”

Violet made a face at him and Angela said, “Yes, please,” as if she’d been placing an order.  “And coffee, and water.  Please.”

Violet nodded I told you so at Jake and headed for the kitchen. Jake shrugged and poured water and coffee.  

“You didn’t really come back for the food, did you?” he asked when Violet returned bearing three sandwiches, corn chips and a pickle.

Angela laughed, sounding rusty.  “Well, that and I seem to have left pieces of myself scattered here and there.”

Violet nodded and handed Angela her purse from behind the counter.  Her hair was the color of moonlight.  Of scales.  “Maybe you should stop doing that,” she said, and Angela grinned around the grilled cheese.  Her eye only twinged.

“Maybe I should.”  She glanced behind the bar.  The orange and black Help Wanted sign was still on the window but it looked faded.

“So you headed out?” Violet asked.

Angela nodded and drank coffee.

“Where are you headed?”

Was she prying or just making conversation?

Or just making sure, Angela thought.

 


Jennifer Rachel Baumer makes Reno’s North Valleys home with her husband and felines, and the rabbits, coyotes and assorted critters in her rural backyard. She runs, writes, bakes and procrastinates, and is probably behind on all of those. Her work can be found in Cosmos, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, in Flame Tree Publishing’s Alien Invasion anthology, and other speculative fiction magazines.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful story that vividly evokes place and mood. Beautiful prose. I was sorry to see it end!

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