A fiction by Kyle Jarrard (reproduced from Eclectica magazine)
I begin writing, for it feels like the beginning of the end.
I have a comfortable old trailer parked right here where they unhooked all those years ago. My job, to the tune of $100 a month, is listed as Gatekeeper 1. I control the lock that opens off the All-American and releases water south into the Coachella for distant orchards and vineyards.
I am told this position is perhaps the lowest in the federal bureaucracy, but I still consider myself lucky. And though I don’t foresee advancement, not even to Gatekeeper 2, which would pay $125 a month, earn me a new, larger trailer and more rations, I don’t care. For the time being I am simply here. It is much better than the razzle-dazzle of the big city.
I had my 50th birthday the other day, on the Ides of July. The name they gave me is Pelton Morny, and I’ve kept it all along except for a few weeks way back in late ‘74 when it was fashionable to carry your wife’s name. So, for a while, I was Pelton Rogers. Then we divorced, for various reasons, one I was a nasty drinker. (Leenda got everything. She relocated to a communal farm in Tennessee, a place that boasted of 41,000 enthusiasts.) Anyway, I made a little flour cake and ate it. But I really don’t give a damn about birthdays.
The century recently turned. I seriously did not think, or hope, that I would make it this far.
Today the gate is open. Depth marker reads 12-foot-8.
Believe it or not, an ocean skipjack occasionally breaks the surface of the All-American. It lifts your heart to see such life, brings back fond memories of drunk-fishing with Dad.
I dug on the All-American from early ‘75 to late ‘81. It stretches all the way from Diego, on the sea, across the old regions of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the Gulf, averaging 15 feet in width and varying in depth from 10-15 feet in summer to deadly heights when it rains. In the past decade, 82 Gatekeepers have drowned. Every year we get a martyrs supplement to stick in our handbook.
Meanwhile, there’s an austerity program on. Big slices across the smorgasbord. They’ve been talking about cutting our pay by seven-eighths, so for all I know, since I don’t hear a thing but once a month when a federal parabody flutes over, I may already be poorer than a Joshua tree. We’ve got a new joker in the White House, Jeremiah Pike. He ran against Billy Butterfield for years, finally succeeding on a chopping block platform. I sometimes get a transcript of one of Pike’s speeches in the dropbag. His big plan is to cut free the nation by scrapping it altogether. None too soon, many say.
I only pray my rations keep coming.
Rations. Fifth of the month. The burlap bundle comes tumbling from the bay of the Jejunum, out of Diego, but lands just about anywhere. Sometimes miles away, or right in my ersatz yard or on the roof, or if I’m very unlucky, kerplop, in the canal. There’s a pound of flour, an ounce of sugar, a bag of ground acorns they call coffee, plenty of potted horsemeat, brown kelp noodles, old airline dealies of sachets of salt and pepper, 31 shrunken Florida oranges, a wheel of greenish cheddar, packets of yellow powder to mix with water that makes a dead beer, three ounces of government mundungus and ample corn papers, a box of matches, a tin of mint snuff and a bottle of codeine syrup.
My mail is tied in a bundle with the gate times. Somehow, nearly three decades after the fact, they’re still forwarding junk from my old Chicago address: ads from the Soy-Lee grocery, announcements of PTA meetings, census forms, tax forms, boxes of douche, deodorant soap and toothpaste (all tampered with), sometimes even a light or phone bill. The only human correspondence I get is from Leenda back in Tennessee, and usually there’s not much to read, just a bunch of tiny Os and Ms arranged to make flowers. That’s the lineup. Until Christmas, which comes months late. I might get a chocolate bar crammed with weevil-infested nuts, an ancient Diego newspaper or a small brown spruce wreath to hang on my door. The final detritus of Butterfield’s your-thoughtful-government campaign back in the early ‘90s. Doubtless Christmas is scheduled to dry up, too, and blow away as a red-green dust of kiddie dreams. On that, I disagree from the bottom of my heart.
As for water, it’s not to be drunk straight out of the ditch. It must be boiled and thrice strained through muslin. Diarrhea haunts, and I suffer through the cramps and chills on my pretty green syrup. Of course when it rains, once in a blue moon, I put all my pots, pans and jars and glasses outside, so that after an average downpour I can drink without fear a week. My health blossoms.
I would like to go to a town and cash my government checks, buy myself new clothes, some scotch and cigars. The nearest place, though, is a ghost town, Perpette, maybe 30 miles north, if the map is right. There’s an old interstate crossing the Coachella about 5 miles south. I’ve been down there once, looked at the desert growing up in the road for as far as you can see.
No one takes to the roads anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve resolved that I’m not really going anywhere in this life and that when the time has come to check out I’ll dig myself a pit out here and lie down in it. Let the buzzards wing down and pick my flesh, I don ’t care.
Only don’t cover me up. I want to see the sky.
My horsemeat is souring. I wouldn’t feed it to a rat. The oil they pack it in is dark blue, thick. There’s gobs of yellow fat and tiny red things like fish eggs, crunchy and bitter as lemon. Disgusted, I opened the last 115 tins of it this morning and dumped every last one into the canal. A half-hour later, the water was boiled with carp and shovelbill and cat. I threw in a naked hook, on the off-chance. Whatever it was that grabbed on it dove deep and snapped my cane pole. Goddamn fish are too sassy, too fat. I’m going to rig up a gill net and stretch it across there, a trotline, something. They piss me off.
Actually, the day wasn’t so bad. As usual, it started nice and early. There was a little fog on the canal, and I sat there on the bank drinking my fake coffee, taking my time. Yes, the sun came up. I peeled an orange and sucked in vain.
At 0910 I closed the gate, like the chart says. I won’t open it up again for another week. It’s like that sometimes: The little Coachella is left to all but dry up while the All-American flows on. There must be some fierce political squabbling going on. I bet some of those boys down south in the vineyards and whatnot would like to come up here and replace me. In fact, I can’t imagine why they haven’t raided here yet.
If someone were to come and wreck the gate or anything, I have a box of Very lights that I’m supposed to fire off, which someone somewhere is supposed to see. I’m otherwise unarmed.
So if they come, come on. There’s nothing I’d be able to do about it anyway. I’d tell them they can do just whatever they want, take every last blasted drop of this brine and flood every field in creation. A patriot I am not. Nor, for that matter, am I the least bit friendly anymore. When I see a boat and crew on the canal coming my way, I want to run away. As from aliens, horrid creatures from beyond.
The last barge to come through here, months ago, was the Yuma Uno, piloted by a real nasty number who called herself Phil, with a crew of 10. I sighted it about lunch coming up the Coachella, just a spot of black on the horizon that let out a puff of orange steam every hour or so. Braving it, I waited and waited, then it got dark. You could see its lights, but they were still ages away, and so I went to bed.
About 0500 they were shouting at the gate. I went out in my pajamas, immediately shading my eyes. A thousand strings of colored bulbs blazed up and down the vessel. Her engines groaned, shook the ground.
Against all good sense, I climbed aboard. The crew was wild on tequila. One of them played a battered guitar and an old man danced in his sagging birthday suit on the rusted deck.
Phil charged up to me, topless and donning red plastic boots that went up to her crotch. Her wild hug nearly broke me.
“Hey, hey, Pelton, hombre! We 16 days out of Yuma, man. We got big load of crap –, crapto — “
“Kryptocyranium?” I said, shuddering.
Her teeth flashed blue in the moonlight. “You smart, hombre! Come, amigo, we look in the hold. Come.”
She lit a cigarette, handed it to me. “Here. I quit you know. Maintenant, je les allume seulement. You get it?”
Whatever. I thanked her with a nod.
Proud and vain, she clomped over and threw open the hatch to the hold, then shoved me up to the edge.
My first bonafide cigarette in months flipped off my lips into the stuff, which lay down in there like blue scrambled eggs, crackling and sparking.
“Twenty-six tons, hombre. Bring mucho mucho money for me, for the girls. You have a girl, Pelton amigo?”
Wavering there, enjoying the warm glow, I didn’t answer.
Phil got next to me. “Like tesoro, oui friend?”
I nodded dreamily.
“Hey, Pelton. You been O.K.? How the big big U.S. government treating you?”
“Malo, malo. When it going to get off our back?
She passed the tequila.
I had a couple of hits, coughed.
Then she slammed the hatch, rousing me from my reverie. It occurred to me to make at least a show of politeness. Why invite a confrontation?
“How’s the trip so far, Phil?”
She whistled. “Hey, la merde. You try piss me off?”
I shook my head no. It made me dizzy.
The crew had tied the old man — who, oddly, had been re-dressed in a tattered government jumpsuit so that he looked like me — to one of the crewgirls, face to face, and things were getting way out of hand. Without the slightest hesitation, Phil rushed into the middle of it, evidently eager to get a piece of the action, whatever it might be, and I jumped down to dry land, followed by a lot of high laughter.
Minutes later, I had the gate cranked open. The All-American was theirs, east or west, whatever they wanted.
In the end, the current decided for them while the party raged. By breakfast they were long gone over the Western horizon. And with that cargo, as good as dead. A ghost ship if there ever was one.
Fishing was bad for a week. A turquoise glow haunted the surface at night.
For lunch today I had a bowl of these brown noodles, heavily peppered. Then I stumbled toward my regular nap. The window fan only works as fast as the windmill, and today the blades tinked past at a funereal pace. I took off my clothes and lay on the top sheet, swamped with fatigue as it hit the 100s in there.
You get quite good snore time out here. During the first years of course the subject was sex, not only with Leenda but, one by one, with all the others I ’ve had. I even dreamed up some new ones. One and all, they came to me — Arabelle Annie, Jin Jin, Gypsy Jane, and a redhead who called herself Dixie Dawn.
But I soon wore them out, 1001 and all, and that was that.
There followed a period on food and fine restaurants around the world. I ate moo goo gai pan in Peking, matelote and escargots in Paris, moussaka in Crete, cabrito in Oaxaca. Whenever my rations became too unbearable, I would simply force them down with one of my dreams in mind.
Now I dream miserable tales of deprivation in which the parabody does not come for months, years, decades.
In the end, I slept only a half-hour before the heat drove me outdoors. I bent near the water and washed my face. I look 50, you know. Lots of wrinkles. My nose is too big, lips are dried and cracked, and my eyes are ringed black. There’s a small wart on my left check like a pencil eraser. It doesn’t work, though.
I guessed it was 116, but who knows, it could have been 150. My standard issue thermometer fountained out its stuff my first day out here.
Am I boring you? So what are you doing? Having a coffee break? Picking up the kids at the nursery? Planning a spin past Devil’s Canyon to see the ruins of the nuke that collapsed in the Great ‘97 Quake? Hoping to stand around at the overlook and feed dollars into the telescopes to try and catch a glimpse of the cracked domes and leaking blue power-lava?
Puke on that. Puke on it all. My moods are like this. But just as you cannot change certain things about the great wide world, so are you stuck with your true self, that stupid dog that won’t go away no matter how many rocks you chuck at it …
I went ahead and dug out a packet of beer powder and made up a quart and drank it all down sitting on the little porch. Weak as these suds are, you still get a mini-high for a few minutes, maybe a quarter-hour. Quick and dirty, you rush your reverie.
I had a good friend when I was in the navy back in the mid-80s. We were touring the waters off Nippon, just regular duty, long, boring, insane. Her name was Nole Proper, out of Kansas. She wrote poems in her bunk by flashlight.
I remembered one entitled: “We’re Working on a Map That Will Guide You to the Safest Benches in America.” It went:
I was sitting drawing a map of all the safe benches of America I remembered a very very safe bench somewhere out in the desert near Waldenburg I sat out there three or four days like an alligator on a mudbank not much happened two or three cars passed not much traveling in those days it was ‘62 war occupying their minds I was Miss Natural
Yeah, she had style, and a vision of the past and the future. I thought how much I am like Miss Natural, right now, right here.
Latest flotsam: four empty oil cans (!) and a large wad of toilet paper, somehow coming up the Coachella against the current. How many years had it been since I’d seen an oil can? Thirty? Forty? Last I knew, a single one of those babies could fetch you a fistful of Franklins.
I nibbled on my cheddar wheel but it came back an hour later with the beer. In my delirium I wrote this letter:
Gate 1492 AA
As I sit here my thoughts return to you and our days together in Chi City.
I recall so very well our little rent house with all those tall clean windows
that you never wanted to curtain, the weed-choked lawn, Swain on his chain, his
rotten doghouse, his semicircular path.
I was sacking at the Soy-Lee and you were working at the front desk at the
White Cloud Diaper Service.
We didn’t have a lot of money, nobody did, but it was O.K. to eat cold
two-bean salad off plastic plates on the floor by the light of war candles.
We splurged on a jellybed, broke it. This was a major event.
Did I tell you about Captain Phil? She speaks French, too, just like you.
She comes ploughing through here once every few months and I take one look
at her and think: This is not like Leenda. Leenda was a lady.
Maybe you don’t want to hear all this.
So how are things in Zenland, Ten? Are you alive?
I dispatched it before I had time to consider its total insincerity, meekness, uselessness and so forth in a glass bottle. I later realized that by luck (unconscious will?) I’d thrown it into the Coachella on which it has no way of every reaching her back in the heartland. Days or years hence some soul will pick it up (maybe even Phil!), read it and understand or not understand. It is better this way. Hell, even Zen may be dead now.
For a long time, I sat swinging the binoculars around, wondering who’d been messing with their car and whatnot under this awful sun. Depending on the cast of the light and the thickness of the vapors, I could just make out the highway blacktop to the south. No car.
I watched a herd of big hares a while. There were maybe a hundred of them all bunched up together at the edge of the canal, dipping to drink. They defy all traps.
You can blind yourself trying to follow the buzzards when they keep sailing right into the sun as if on purpose.
And you can bore yourself right off your twat if you keep all this up too long.
I boiled up some dumplings and so far they have stayed down, heavy and low. Lassay lay bonetomps roolay, they say down in Nawlins.
Leenda used to like my poor French.
I don’t know, my attitude’s down. A whirlwind has been churning in place over there for hours, raising a tall fat column of this white dust, breaking up cactus, chucking it all around. It’s this heat. It brings destruction. And when I see destruction, I often want to go ahead and hurt myself, too. I want to … what? What could I possibly do to myself that time and circumstance have not already wrought?
I’ll review the options. I could go over there and lift up that rock and let all those rattlers wriggle out and bite me again and again. I could even grab hold of one and place its fangs selectively, to the neck, stomach, arm pits, groin, face. Then the buzzards, damn them, could finish me off.
I could go over there and fling myself into this trench and swim down to the bottom and hold myself there. I could go climb my windmill and let the blades knock me in the head, or jump, just jump. Break my legs and neck and back and lay there until the scorpions start slapping their stingers on my body. The ants would go for the eyes and I’ve got lots of ants out here — big red ones, half as long as your pinky, with what you might call fur.
Short of such inanities, there was only one thing for me to do: clean up the trailer. I’ve got three “rooms.” Up by the engine and the driver’s bucket is the kitchen. While I’m cooking, when I do, I can look right over the methane stove out the windshield. I’m messy and grease splatters on the glass and dash and floor. So I began there, scrubbed everything top to bottom with the last verdigris-caked copper pad. Then took all my dishes, pots and pans down to the canal and rinsed them one and all. A school of mooneyes rose and pecked at the debris and I managed to dip up one of the tagalong red minnows and swallowed it whole. Blessedly, it had no taste.
Then I straightened up the middle room, my parlor. The main door, on the west, has a small window covered with tinfoil against the afternoon sun. In the east window sits my box fan. I took the straw rug outside, beat it with a broom, killed a couple of scorpions and left it out to air. The furniture comprises a sofa, corduroy stretched over straw packed in a flimsy wire frame, two aluminum chairs whose fraying plastic mesh plays havoc with your buttocks like a wire cheese-cutter, and a full spool of cable TV wire for a coffee table. There’s also a dusty bookcase, crammed with government works on a tremendous variety of useless subjects, from the first patent on fish hooks, the librations of the moon, recipes for reindeer moss, how to play the tabor, how to spot seasonal changes in the Heaviside layer, and so forth.
Spiders often nest between the volumes. One time, behind a booklet entitled Epimetheus II, I startled a tarantula that could have measured six inches across (if you had cared to measure it), a black-red-yellow bastard that leaped out as I withdrew the book. It, of course, landed on my shoulder and was about to sink its hairy fangs through my cotton shirt when I slapped it away. The foul thing hit the coffee table, fell off and shot out the front door. When I went out to finish it off, it sprang from its new perch on the roof and landed atop my head. That was the one and only time I did the unthinkable — jumped into the canal. Needless to say, my little buddy was instantly fried. Me, I went through hell and back for several weeks, not only from the spider bite, which to this day has left a black knob on my bald spot that I believe can send and transmit signals of some benign sort, but from a full-body molt and what had to be the longest bout of the hiccups in history.
I put out some fresh candles, then adjusted the tilt of a few pictures on the walls, mostly magazine cutouts crudely framed without glass, of the dinosaur age, cave men at a fire, Indian slaughters, ex-President Butterfield shaking hands with the chief of canal operations, and the one and only snapshot of me and Leenda in downtown Chi City the one Christmas we spent together way back when.
Over the middle of the parlor is a trap door, and using a folding ladder I can climb on the roof, sometimes to eat if it’s cool enough, otherwise to sit and watch the stars reel past or the moon bulge up.
I suppose if ever I have guests they’ll be comfortable enough.
I oiled the fan.
The bedroom is on the south end, in the tail. Beating the cornhusk mattress hard outside takes care of some of my aggressivity and scatters fleas and ticks. The blanket is wool and makes me sneeze, yet nights are near freezing and I have no choice but to keep wrapping up in it. The trick is learning to sneeze and not wake up. My pillow is hard and lumpy, and the bed is a creaky iron thing.
Laundry. I washed all my filthy jumpsuits in the canal and hung them over the gate to dry. With the frying action of the sunlight, they get stiff and crusty. The zippers, which run from crotch to neck, stuck long ago, but somehow I’ve learned to sew on buttons to keep my gut and other particulars from hanging out.
I gave my pair of cheap cotton tennis shoes a stiff brushing.
My desk is the worst mess in the house. Cigarette ashes everywhere, empty pen cartridges, wadded paper, spilled coffee, spent matches, mounds of dried snuff, hard handkerchiefs, tattered notebooks, dirty forks and spoons. With one swipe, I cleared its surface, and swept everything out. Out.
Home Sweet Home.
Surprises are everything here. When I looked into the Coachella this morning, one hell of a lot more toilet paper floated past, big wads of it wavering just under the surface like veils. There also was a tangle of sticks and strings in which was caught a bloated hare — a crude trap? — a square of blue carpet, like a floormat, and a considerable number of cigarette butts.
There is somebody down there. I’m really beginning to feel it, as if, over all this open space, our atoms were mixing and our souls visiting. I wonder who it is. It feels like a woman, but then maybe I’m dreaming. Frankly, I cannot tell when I am and when I am not dreaming. It’s all the same now. Why hasn’t she come over? Certainly she’s seen my trailer reflecting in the sun. And there’s definitely no reason to be shy out here. Find another human being and you’d best stick near is what I always say, though I’m not sure I fully believe it. Whatever.
Car trouble and she’s stuck? Maybe that’s it. I have tools. Why doesn’t she come and ask me for help? Maybe I ought to light a fire or something, send smoke signals. I could shoot off a Very at midnight.
Nah, to hell with her if she wants to brave it on her own. I never did like courageous people. They make themselves heroes. Heroes make for patriots.
Patriots make for nation-building. Nation-building makes for war. And war makes for …
But what if she’s sick or hurt?
I don’t see any buzzards yet.
For all I know somebody stopped down there on the bridge, did their business and sped off. People do do that, you know.
I slapped myself a good one.
You have to do that now and then.
You can give in to all sorts of things out here.
You must not give in.
You change tracks.
You know, for all the crap there is in this canal, it is really a blessing to have, to be able to watch. Somehow it counters the heat, and it’s something to keep your mind on, looking forward to. At midday it shines like a ribbonfish, glitters and looks as solid as silver. Lining the edges are saguaros and sagebrush, and over there, next to the gate, is a foot-high orange tree I planted a year ago last spring. I think of its millions of cousins south of here drinking the jillions of gallons of water I allow through. It could almost make you feel proud. But that’s not my style. Rather, I find myself addressing a far more interesting question: Could the citrus groves and me also be in touch in some way? Could I not be controlling them and they me?
Bit tomato moon in the east at sundown. If I could build a rocket I’d fly up there and tramp around. But then, when you think of it, there’s no reason to go to the moon. I mean, you have all you’d want in a moon right here in River City. Your dust, your blistering days, frigid nights, and as far as weak gravity is concerned I feel light enough, thank you very much.
I’m going over there tomorrow and find out if someone is or has been on the bridge. I can’t stand waiting like this. Why do these idiots come and upset my rhythm? Why can’t they leave me alone?
Boy, is it spooky under this moon. You see things moving around that don’t normally move around. Boulders rise and float. Cactus march on patrol. The canal swishes its tail in the distance. The earth swells up and drops, like something in her was waking up to come out and do a lot of no good.
I peed quick and got in bed.
The storm came out of nowhere with the violence of an explosion.
Defenseless, really, you sat perfectly still on your cheap couch and waited it out with your eyes firmly shut. There was no question of venturing forth. Two nights and a day.
She must be dead now. If not, she is definitely suffering.
Fine, blue dust hangs in the air. I wear a gauze patch over my mouth and nose.
Seventy-three hours later than the prescribed time, I opened the gate to the Coachella. In no time, though, the water backed up and began to flow in reverse, as though some huge plug blocked the way. For a moment, I was more than ready to lose my temper, again. But then I remembered: These things happen, and you know very well to simply wait it out. Strain and you can die.
Yes, it was a doozy-doodle storm. I don’t even recognize many of the rocks around here now. Then there’s the trash, blown in from hell knows where: next week’s TV guide, a metal shopping cart (!), one rubber thong (toehold busted), 103 pine cones, the back half of a pig, a straw hat, a boy’s wool shirt, a red bra, and, mirabile visu, a crystal wineglass, unchipped. Not a bad take.
I swept and swept that trailer, but it was like trying to move a beach with a broom. Everything had to be cleaned again, and then there was the damage report to do. One fan, sand in armature and bearings, ruined. Trapdoor in ceiling sealed shut. Aluminum storm door hopelessly bent out of shape. One orange tree, snapped. Three dish rags torn off line, now hundreds of miles east. One windmill blade gone.
I got off easy this time.
I thumbed through the TV guide, but soon became utterly lost in the hopeless hash of thousands of stations. A veritable Babel that made me woozy.
I plan to make a hare trap out of the shopping cart, bait it with the rotten pig. Who knows? Things out here will eat anything.
I threw away the thong.
I put the pine cones in bowls and set them around for scent.
I wear the straw hat, which fits perfectly, and gives me a stylish look out here in front of nobody.
I washed the wool shirt and bra and put them away. Again, you never know.
I drank some water out of the miracle wineglass and then carefully wiped it and set it on the bookshelf to look at. I pledge to use it only on special occasions.
Then I remembered: She must be dead now.
Whatever was plugging the Coachella has now passed and the flow is back on its normal north-to-south course. It is often like that: a temporary, unexplained stoppage and release. It is seldom one has to investigate matters beyond the perimeter of one’s humble camp.
No new signs of the mystery woman. I thought I would go down there and look around, but I can’t get my bones moving. I keep drinking this government coffee to perk me up, yet still I linger for hours sitting perfectly still, my thoughts drifting between many private worlds.
Dead and gone, the poor soul. I wonder what she was doing, what she wanted. It occurs to me that I’m a heel for not running to her aid, that I’m somewhat responsible for her demise.
No, wait. I wasn’t the one who elected to tool all the way out here. If she ran out of gas, that’s no fault of mine, either. If she was too proud to come to me for help, then happy death. I am crude and 50.
Something told me I needed a bath.
I toted buckets of canal water and dumped them in my tin basin, picked out the odd trash and a couple of dead mosquito fish, dug a pit, fired up a mound of brush and set the tub over it on iron bars. In a half-hour the water steamed. I squeezed in some dish soap and stirred with a stick. I propped up the umbrella nearby and tilted it just so. Then disrobed.
I went walking, over to the canal, back and forth across the footbridge, down to the water’s edge, back up again, into the trailer, through the rooms, out to the windmill, back again.
Better. One foot in, then the other. The water was pink.
Was anyone watching? I looked around: Just dead space and a cactus army.
I plopped onto my rear.
Cleaning my rolls and folds, the old dishrag disintegrated like paper. I dipped my head, scrubbed my scalp, dipped again. A dozen nervous critters floated on the surface.
A few quick finishing splashes and the monthly duty was done.
You dry off naturally out here. Feel your skin tighten under a fine layer of salt, pesticides and city poop.
Late this afternoon, a ship’s horn sounded. A big one, she was coming in from the west on the All-American. I found a clean jumpsuit, got into it and went out, strapping on my new straw hat.
She rode low, forcing water up and out on both sides. Doughnuts of black smoke rose from her stacks. I ran and fetched the binoculars: Canelle. Her radar tree turned slowly.
As ever, I quickly reviewed what I had in store to trade: five oranges, a sack of fed coffee, the little wool shirt, maybe the bra. In exchange I hoped for 3 good cigarettes.
Then I could make out a girl, maybe 10 years old, sitting up in a wire bulb at the bow manning a sizable gun.
Somebody at the helm flashed me a few times with some mirrors, but I don’t know that language and just sat there.
The waters surged, making the gate shudder.
Then she stopped. No smoke, no engines, nothing. About a mile off. Her sides were jammed against the banks, dislodging huge lumps of land, cactus, sagebrush and all. Was I about to be shelled?
No sooner did I think this than the gunner chased a hare at the side of the canal with a string of bullets that exploded on contact and sent up red puffs.
I stayed put. Maybe they were just hunting. Maybe they weren’t going to hunt me, too.
More mirror flashes came, then a pair of honks.
Not me, ace. You want to see me you come over here, I thought outloud.
What could she be carrying? She was no ordinary fruit boat. No, this was a big foreign thing. Maybe the captainette was drunk and thought this was Panama. There are, indeed, many high-seas fools.
In any case, facts were facts, and this baby wasn’t going to squeeze through no matter how long she sat there weighing the geometry.
An hour or two later, the engines groaned to life and sparks spewed from the stacks. The captain held on to the horn cord in her anger and backed her out of there with enough noise to wake the entire countryside. For good measure, the gunner downed a few buzzards. Bless her, I thought. But then thought better: I needed those buzzards. I needed those buzzards bad. Who was she to be shooting my hares and buzzards?
By sunset she sat like a pillbox on the horizon. It was so pretty, in fact, that I settled down and did a crayola of her on a paper bag in the failing light, then blew it up and, in schoolboy fashion, popped it. Loud and clear. When it was dark, I loaded my methane lamp with some canal crap and hiked over there. The bank was loose and dangerous. I held the lamp over the edge, peered down at the water.
There floated a little white car, like an egg, tires to the sky, both doors wide open. I couldn’t figure out how she had not sunk, until I squatted down and peered inside. Then I saw what floated.
She was long dead. The fattest girl in America in the smallest make. Picked up in that storm and tossed into the foul sluiceway. I didn’t know what to think, and walked away.
The smell of cinnamon hung in the air.
Why did I not feel bad?
The month turns at last.
At high noon, two parabodies crossed the sky heading south. From the belly of one hung bright silvery dugs. Loaded with water, these are opened over the vineyards and orchards, unleashing a pleasant night rain. Each time I see them I cringe, for it doesn’t take much of a mind to imagine the day they’ll cement over this canal and do all the watering with parabodies. With these soft, floating tits.
As ever, heat drafts made things ethereal. The watering parabody had gone on, but the other, a tattered junk, was faltering, riding dangerously low.
All at once I saw her tail rise up, then fall, then rise again so that she hung like a sausage.
I have a government radio on my desk that will receive and transmit rather well up to 5 miles. Sure they needed some assistance, I quickly flicked the switches and twirled the dials.
“This is Pelton Morny, gatekeeper, U.S. service. Do you read me? Over?”
It came right back. “Zrrr … zzit! Tampa here.”
“Report your sitch. Over?”
“Nary a notion, mate. Just trying to deliver a bunch of empties down to Gallers, see? Suddenly I ain’t got no controls on nada. Looks like the rudder’s split. Ballast out of balance. But what the hell do they expect for 75 chits a month? My sitch? Bitch. What the hell they pay you, Pleton Morning?”
A woman’s voice. Somehow, I was cheered. “Not enough, not enough. Over?”
“Zzzit! Zoooop … Well, I guess we get what we deserve in this life. Entretemps, lots of stuff is breaking in the hold. Listen!”
You could hear it: untold hundreds of bottles crashing as onto a distant cement shore.
“Listen, Morning, if I drop my bag out here, you come help me, you hear?” “Of course. A government employee always — “
“Yeah, yeah. You know what? They’re going to rake my ass when I get to Gallers, if I do. Every stinking bottle’ll be bust. They won’t pay. Won’t gas. My bag’ll just sit there, empty. What’ll I do?”
“You’ll tell them what happened? Over?”
“What? How long have you been down there in that stinking dust bowl, Mawning? You gone soft or something? Be a man!”
“It’s been years. Over?”
“I think I’ll put down.”
“Put down? Over?”
“Yeah, stop right here. Get off the merry-go-round. Step out. You know, kiss a frog, whatever … zoooooop!”
My heart raced. A visitor? A woman visitor?
“But you might not get her up again. Then you’d be stuck out here like me. Over?”
“So? You got a problem with that, Marnin?”
“No, but you must think of your job. Over?”
“Job schmob. You mean to tell me you wouldn’t just walk away from that sewerage job you got down there at the drop of a hat? You mean to lie to me, Marn?”
“No ma’am. Over?”
She was more like Mother now, and I began to fear a prolonged stay. I glanced around fearfully, wondering just where I would put her, what she would eat, how she would bathe. There was just no way …
“What now? Over?”
“Belly up. Christ, Christ!”
“Is there anything I can do? Over?”
“Zrrrrr. Zaaaak. Zeeeee … “
“Hello? Hello? This is Pelton Morny, gatekeeper, U.S. service. Over?”
“Zoooo … “
The radio had heated up, ruining the reception. I cut her off.
Then went out. Now the nose was up, tail down. I could see a fine shower of glass falling way out there like confetti.
After a long while, the parabody started to rise, unexplainably. When it finally reached its normal cruising altitude, I felt mildly cheered, though she still hung nose up.
But she kept rising and rising.
By sundown she was a speck, thousands of feet above regulation.
I felt sick all evening, skipped dinner and went to bed early, only to be awakened at 3 A.M. by a distant boom. I knew what it was. Genuine tears came to my eyes as I lay there listening to broken glass tinkling on the roof. Relief or pain? I could never decide.
I woke depressed and wiped the yellow cake from the corners of my tired eyes, stretched and looked out. It was overcast, but even that did not cheer me: Everyone was dying on me. I could only resolve that my time was surely coming. All the wasted days behind me suddenly tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Get up. Do something. Make a move.” I sat there.
By midafternoon it began to pour rain. There was no thunder, no lightning, only the falling rain. I listened, walked around in the trailer some, dozed on the couch, cut on the radio and cursed the static, trimmed my ugly toenails with a kitchen knife, smoked some mundungus and paced.
Then, like that, it stopped, the clouds broke open and sailed north, and the sun lay near the horizon, a red eye. I put on my tennis shoes and glomped down through the mud to the canal. She was deep and ripping along. Branches and trash, motes of grass-topped earth, a large bent sheet of corrugated iron, dozens of wine bottles, the nose cone of a parabody, a good black leather Mexican saddle and some disks that looked like records sucked and smacked past in some final release of all Mankind’s sewage.
I stayed back from the edge, wary of the loose, soaked ground, and watched until it was dark.
An icy breeze moaned across the desert, chilling me, and without rhyme, without reason, I undressed. I approached the canal again and thought I heard its waters laughing, laughing the heavy, tired laugh of the crew of the Yuma Uno ghost ship, of the big dead lady in the little car, of the dead lady in the Tampa, of all my dead paraladies. And I shouted to them to shut up and everything laughed together and the old gray man in the moon and I looked at each other a long time, a very long time, until he made me feel like a fool who meets himself coming the other way out of a road in the middle of nowhere, nowhere at all. “Put your clothes back on, boy,” I could hear him bellow. You obey the general.
I have elected to get drunk now and sleep. Tomorrow, as promised, I’ll dig my own pit and lie in it. It is time.