g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
“Ponchoman give this to you?”
“Yessir. He was waitin’ by my car. You know how he is. Too shy to come in and mess with my breakfast.”
“Not too shy. Sally’d run him out. Made it clear bums aren’t welcome. Not anymore. Not after that last trouble.”
“Yessir. I know. But Ponchoman ain’t really a drifter. He’s been spendin’ a good part of his time right around here lately. Ain’t got a place to call home, but he ain’t one of them wanderin’ types that got no destination at all in mind. He likes it here. Not like that feller who made the scene. He was a stranger. Crazy as batshit. Goin’ on and on how Sally was wastin’ water doin’ dishes and whatnot. Nobody’d seen him before. Claimed he’d seen God in the desert or some bullshit. Ponchoman ain’t like that.”
“What’d he say when he give it to you?”
“Ponchoman? Not a whole lot. But I didn’t press him. Stink he was puttin’ off was makin’ my eyes water. Isn’t there some statute about public decency? I mean maybe we could arrest him for a night and get him cleaned up. Cut them bird bones out of his hair and wash him. Wash that damn wool poncho of his. That’s what stinks. Can’t even tell what color’s supposed to be. Make him presentable. Make him somebody.”
“What did he say, Frank?”
“Like I said , not much. Just that he’d been sleepin’ under the overpass since the monsoons come. That’s where he found it.”
“Highway 180. Where it cuts under the Interstate.”
“What else did he say?”
“Just that he found it tucked in a Ziplock bag at the top, in the space where they like to sleep.”
“Did he know who left it?”
“No clue. Why you figure he ties those bird bones in his hair? Seems like he wants people to think he’s nuts. But he ain’t. He talks real good, holds a clear conversation when he wants. Never seen him drunk or nothin’. ”
“Did he read it?”
“Never thought to ask. Somehow don’t think he knows how to read. You think he does?”
“Did you read it?”
“Some, not all. Once I saw what it was, I hurried it over to you.”
“It’s miserable hot, Frank. Why don’t you go and turn on the swamp cooler. Let me be so’s I can read this. Shouldn’t take long.”
“Swamp cooler ain’t much use with this humidity. You know, I feel for Ponchoman. Sun’s crisped him good. You think he’s white or Mexican? Almost pass for a black, even with them blue eyes of his. Used to have breakfast with him every other Thursday at Sally’s place. Before the trouble. ”
“Go on now, Frank. Leave the papers and give me some peace.”
“Whoever wrote it calls hisself Road Runner. Couldn’t help but flippin’ to the end to see if it was signed.”
“What makes you think it was a he?”
“Well, to start…”
“Nevermind, Frank. Leave me be.”
To Whom It Should Concern:
I flicked the knife open. Her eyes, pale as the cloud vapor veiling the summer sky above, widened, ever so slightly, as the three inch blade clicked into the locked position. Though still early, it was already hot. I placed my free hand on her chest, felt the rise and fall, the rhythm of living. Cassandra my love. Though she had vomited on and off throughout the night, I kissed her on the mouth. The blade slipped between her ribs. Her lips melded to my own, the flesh disintegrating in the dry heat. I pulled away, tasted blood on the tip of my tongue. Air hissed from the wound like a leak in a tire. Punctured lung. Her eyes, I never noticed how pale the blue, a homeopathic dash of color, settled onto my own. She gave the slightest of nods, just a twitch of her angular chin. She wanted me to do it, you see, needed me to do it. The knife slipped once more between the ribs. This time the metal found her heart. I leaned forward. Her last breath, dank as a seabed, smelled of dust. Cassandra. She was my first.
I covered her body with stones. A cowboy grave. The rocks appeared to be basalt from ancient volcanos, but I’m no geologist. Some were sharp and nicked my fingertips, blood rising to the surface of the skin. The landscape wavered as the temperature rose. Brown land, blue sky, pulsing sun. I thought I might evaporate. The idea was to bury Cassandra, to protect her from whatever foulness might try to pick the flesh from her bones: vultures and coyotes, bluebottle flies and beetles. The idea was to preserve her seemliness, to allow her the dignity of decomposing in private. I covered her face with a t-shirt from my daypack. I stacked stones.
I don’t know how long it took. We were at the bottom of a canyon, Canyon del Libre, just north of the Mexican border. The sparse flora—a prickly pear here, an ocotillo there, a scraggly mesquite or creosote bush, Mormon tea—cast only hints of shade. The rocks, too, teased the eye with shadows large enough for a striped lizard or a horned toad seeking reprieve from the light. No more. Flies buzzed lazily, one landing on my brow, another pestering my ears, but even they seemed lethargic.
Cassandra drank the last swallow of Gatorade the day before. None of that “No, you take it” game when everybody knows there’s more to come, she sucked down the last of it, every last drop, and tossed the plastic bottle to the ground. We were in trouble. And, though we knew it, we dared not say it out loud. I don’t think either of us thought we might die in that goddamn canyon. Not at that moment. Not yet. But the vultures circled. I noticed them above us, outspread wings gliding darkly, animate dashes against a blue backdrop, an ancient language finding voice. If Cassandra noticed them, she didn’t say.
I held the image of a full bottle of Gatorade in my mind’s eye, the thought of the fluorescent green liquid providing just enough gumption for me to stack the stones, one on top of the next. Coyotes were sure to smell decay. I kept piling stones. Poor Cassandra. Unable to bear the weight of living, she had no choice but to carry the weight of the dead.
The vultures circled.
I stood over the mound of rocks reeling, as if balancing on the deck of a boat atop a swelling sea. Nausea. I had no words to say over the grave. Nothing to say. Too far from God, too far from man. I was alone. Betrothed to the great silence that is the desert, a sacred silence, the cursing silence, a quiet so immense that a heartbeat barks like a starting gun, I stood above her grave. The race was over. Tongue thick in my mouth, I tried to say her name, a word to give her memory substance. I could not.
The sun shone down.
My head ached as if spears of sunlight were piercing my skull. I retreated to the only shade available: the tent on the canyon floor. Lying on my back on top of our two sleeping bags, I watched three flies crawl over the nylon ceiling dyed blue. In the night we zipped the sleeping bags together and huddled and did not talk. Cassandra enjoyed resting her head on my chest. She said listening to my heartbeat made her feel easy, like a baby in her father’s arms. By the second day she claimed she heard the silence between the beats, a murmur, an interruption.
We were to be married in the Catholic Church come November and decided on a pre-honeymoon celebration because both of us needed to use or lose the vacation time from our jobs. A cross country drive to the beaches of San Diego. Neither one of us had been to the West coast. Hell, neither of us had been west of the Mississippi. Ahead of schedule, we decided to turn south off I-10 at some little Interstate town. The idea of camping in the Chihuahuan Desert, in the land of Pancho Villa, struck us as romantic. Cholla cactus, prickly pear, ocotillo, soaptree yucca, sotol—we learned the names of the plants at a state park strewn with motorhomes and mesquite trees. The Park Ranger, a slight woman with silver hair and cancerous lesions on her forehead and nose, told us about a secluded getaway near the park but not in it, Canyon del Libre. We wouldn’t have to pay a dime to camp there. She drew a map with a pencil on a sheet of white paper. Looking back, I think she knew what was bound to happen once we were there. She wanted it to happen, hated the very tourists who paid her salary in parking fees.
The map proved easy enough to follow. I drove the gray Mazda 3 south for about ten miles and then turned right onto a dirt road. The afternoon sun slanted through the windshield. Cassandra donned dark glasses that covered half of her face. The light electrified her golden hair and it seemed to sparkle and crack. She looked like a cartoon. It took half an hour to get to the north rim of the canyon. We had two one-liter bottles of water and two unopened bottles of Gatorade. Cassandra suggested that we leave one of the Gatorades in the car. It would lighten the load and refresh us upon our return in the morning. I stuffed a can of creamed corn and some jerky from the backseat into my daypack. The four man tent purchased for the trip had never been used. The prospect of roughing it, or at least pretending to, excited me. Cassandra worried about snakes. She followed me as I balanced the tent, still in the box, on my shoulder. She followed me down.
Shortly after I buried her, a monsoon erupted, just like she said it would, just like they promised, a sudden buildup of clouds, dark and green as deep bruises on the eastern horizon, a single earsplitting crack of thunder, and then a downpour of sweet, cool rain.
By the time we reached the bottom, it must have taken the better part of an hour, the sun dipped below the canyon rim. A residue of crimson light clung to the sheer rock walls. The tent was color-coded as to what poles went where and I had it up in a flash. I gathered a few twigs, mesquite and creosote, and lit a small fire with a book of matches and some wadded up advertisements from a Sunday newspaper. I opened the can of sweet corn with the Swiss Army knife Cassandra had presented to me as a gift the day we set off on our trip. I sat the can of corn at the edge of the fire. Light gave way to darkness. The yap of coyotes drove us inside the tent. We zipped the door shut. We made love. I climbed out of the tent to take a leak. Never had I witnessed so many stars. My own insignificance felt somehow ennobling. Back inside, Cassandra’s little snore, which, once noticed, usually burrowed into my consciousness like a tick attracted to sleep, sleep like blood, failed to annoy. She smelled like overripe fruit.
Morning light permeated the tent. Cassandra had the chills so we bunched together. Flies hummed between the rainfly and the roof of the tent. The sound of desert birds were loud in the rising light. Soon enough it was warm and then hot.
The can of sweet corn had been upset in the night, the golden kernels strewn about in the dust, the water they had been packed in gone, soaked into the parched earth. Cassandra produced a red bandana from somewhere and used it as a washcloth. She stripped off her shirt and bra and stood on a flat stone and washed. She looked like an overexposed photograph so bright was the light. She washed her face and underarms with the last of the water. She had swallowed the last of my water the previous night before turning her back to me and drifting to sleep. I packed up the tent and daypack and we prepared to climb out of the canyon. It wouldn’t be easy. The rock walls, reddish in the weird light, loomed vertical in the snapping brightness.
Cassandra, empty water bottle in hand, said, “May as well finish off the Gatorade. No need to carry the extra weight up the hill.”
I said, “Go ahead.”
She didn’t argue.
We failed to find anything resembling a trail. It all looked the same. Dirt and rocks punctuated by spiny plants and striped lizards doing pushups on sundrenched stones. On three separate occasions, roadrunners, spooked by our approach, trucked into the desert—the dark feathers of their crowns erect as mohawks—vanished in the distance like a thought forgotten between one moment and the next.
Using a t-shirt from the daypack as a makeshift glove, Cassandra gathered green fruits from prickly pear. I learned later, in a public library in a small desert town, that they are called tunas and you are not to eat them unless they are pink ripe. I didn’t like the taste. Cassandra did. Harvesting the fruit kept her mind off our plight. We didn’t talk, the silence between us serving as a kind of tranquilizer to keep us from buckling under the steadily increasing weight of fear.
Somewhere in the afternoon we came upon a creosote bush large enough to cast a thin sheet of shade. We crawled under the branches to outwait the heat. Cassandra, lying on her back, the sunglasses hiding half of her face, stretched out and looked at the sky through the meager leaves of the bush. She said, “They pick out your eyes. Before you’re dead.” I looked up and saw the vultures circling. Six or eight of the damn things. I could no longer count.
I don’t know when I set up the tent. Time unfurled slow, the heat unrelenting, the sun an internecine eye. We crawled in the tent to rid ourselves of the bedeviling ants that had found our position under the bush. We didn’t talk and didn’t touch but I could hear Cassandra breathing. My tongue felt thick, tasted metallic. I wanted to apologize to Cassandra, tell her I was sorry, but, when I tried to speak, she shushed me by placing a finger on my lips.
“No,” she whispered.
She smelled of gardenias, sickening-sweet.
She started puking as the sun dipped behind the rim of the canyon. Bile and then dry heaves. She couldn’t stand up. I rubbed her back and hummed a tune. The Streets of Laredo was the only song I could remember, but it worked and she soon fell asleep.
Morning turned once more, another tick in the rhythm that is the world. I didn’t trust myself alone with Cassandra, not with the whispering women cajoling at the borders of consciousness: the thrill of their touch, deep and hot and terrible, a feeling of belonging I had never experienced before. I whispered to Cassandra to wait for me, that I’d be back with water and help, that everything would be fine. She just needed to hang on. My voice scraped my throat. She told me to go, to hurry. I went. But I didn’t make it far. I tried three different routes out of the canyon and each of them ended in a cul-de-sac with walls too steep to climb. Desert thorns slashed my hands and cheeks. Prickly pear and cholla, it seemed that everywhere I turned I was greeted by sharpness. The desert is sharp: sharp light, sharp mountains, sharp spines, sharp pains, sharp beauty. My stomach cramped. I thought I heard a trickle of water moving down an arroyo. I made my way to the sound and found only a single green-backed beetle scuttling across the desert floor. I heard the buzz of a rattlesnake, or thought I did. I couldn’t be sure. Heat rose serpentine from scorched earth. Thoughts disintegrated before they could form. I remember standing on the foundation of an abandoned house, slabs of sandstone scattered here and there, tiny pyramids of broken glass flashing crazy in the sun. And then: I found myself back at the tent.
I don’t remember much more. Only that Cassandra started talking about death somewhere in the night. Nobody was coming to get us. Nobody was looking for us. It might be years before anyone came across our bleached bones. Better to do it ourselves, she said, than let the vultures have their way. I kept my mouth shut, listened to the hoot of an owl, crawled out of the tent and looked at the billions of stars above, the radiant smear of the Milky Way. For a moment I felt peace. There was no danger. Nothing to fear.
She begged me. Told me that if I loved her I would kill her. That she was doing it for me. That she knew. I flicked the knife open. Her eyes, pale as the cloud vapor veiling the summer sky above, widened as the blade clicked into the locked position. I placed my free hand on her chest, felt the rise and fall, the rhythm of living. She attempted to smile. I kissed her as the blade slipped between her ribs.
I buried the body. Exhausted, I crawled inside the tent and fell asleep. The rains came. I drank, hunted down pools of water in depressions of stone and filled the plastic bottles. Walked away. You can’t imagine it. What it is like to kill your love to open the way to something larger. You don’t want to know. She begged me to do it. She did it for me. Bless her soul, wherever it may be.
Taking another person’s life, even if they ask you to, beg you to, is against the law. But I committed no crime. Cassandra was destined to die. We all are. But death, I have learned, is not a kind of parole from the prison of living. For that one must make sacrifice. I did. I am no longer the man I used to be. That man died in the canyon with Cassandra; the two are married in death. Whatever was left walked away, followed the canyon until it opened up into a wide, hot plain.
You have my confession.
I am free.
“You decide what we’re gonna do, Sherriff?”
“About the confession. The one Ponchoman turned in.”
“What? Why not?”
“I’m going across the street to get some of Sally’s eggs. You comin’? Breakfast rush will be over.”
“Already ate. Remember? You think this Road Runner fella’s for real?”
“Hold on, Sheriff. Clear up the confusion. Sally can wait a minute.”
“That letter seemed legit. We ought to at least check it out, don’t you think?”
“Listen, Frank, I’m powerful hungry. So here’s the short version: you ever hear of a Canyon del Libre?”
“No. Not around here leastways.”
“Where are we supposed to look? Texas? Arizona? Everywhere in between? Desert’s too big. Too much room.”
“Maybe you could put it on the wire. Get some help.”
“No way. Not from my office.”
“There’s nothing there, Frank. No last name of the victim. No physical evidence. It’s just words on paper. It isn’t real. Just another rumor. A legend. This desert’s full of them, Frank, always has been. This place breeds ghosts like maggots on road kill. The whole fuckin’ place is full of ghosts. ”
“You could send it to the lab and have ‘em look for prints or dead skin.”
“Why? Do you think Ponchoman wrote this? That’s the only prints they’d be liable to find. Along with yours and mine.”
“Don’t think Ponchoman can write. You think that’s his real name, Ponchoman?”
“I don’t know, Frank. Why don’t you go and ask him?”
“So we ain’t gonna do nothin’?”
“Tell you what, Frank, why don’t you cruise the desert until you find a Canyon del Libre. Then, when you find human remains, we’ll blow this case wide open. We need proof. You game?”
“Not really. Getting near time to take Crystal down to Rocky Point for vacation.”
“That sounds fun, Frank. That sounds like real fun. But haven’t you heard? Nobody’s takin’ vacation, not in this economy. Fact is they’re thinking about takin’ the word vacation out of the dictionary. There’s more and more drifters and fewer and fewer of us and the county isn’t hiring. You take vacation you’re liable to come back to bunkin’ with Ponchoman.”
“That’s why we go down to Mexico. It’s cheap. We’ve been plannin’ on it for a while.”
“It’s okay, Frank. You take that vacation when the time comes. Quit worryin’ bout this Road Runner. I got the feeling that somebody wants us chasin’ after demons they made for themselves. That’s all. Some damaged soul’s fantasy. Anyway, even if it was for real, the poor bastard doesn’t have a name, not anymore. He doesn’t exist. He isn’t real. Isn’t that punishment enough?”
“Kind of like Ponchoman. Wouldn’t want to be him. He ain’t batshit crazy, though. Not like that feller rantin’ about wastin’ water. How he was visited by God or some shit. Remember him hurlin’ that plate of red chile and beans at old Felipe? How it splashed all over his white apron? Hell, I figured it was blood when I first came barrelin’ through the door. Ponchoman ain’t crazy like that. Sally ought to let him in for coffee and eggs every now and then like she used to. It ain’t fair.”
“Listen, I’m gonna die if I don’t eat, Frank. Got to get somethin’ in my belly. I’ll talk to Sally about Ponchoman. ”
“Yeah, Frank, what is it?”
“It ain’t food you’re hungry for.”
“You’d have to be blind not to see it. The way you took after that sumbitch for messin’ with Sally. I thought you might kill him. ”
“We’re all hungry for something, Frank. The condition of living.”
“Damn straight. Think I’ll drive over by the old airport. See if I can’t catch me some of them meth boys.”
“Good. You do that. Meth makes them into zombies, but at least they’re real, somethin’ you can put cuffs on. ”
“Sure enough. A real problem. Sherriff?”
“For talkin’ to Sally about Ponchoman. It ain’t right he can’t get coffee and eggs no more. He never was no trouble.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Can I go now?”
“Enjoy it, now.”