“Out on the wastes of the Never Never —
That’s where the dead men lie!
There where the heat waves dance forever —
That’s where the dead men lie!”
— Barcroft Boake
One o’clock two o’clock three o’clock rock, four o’clock, five o’clock …
Right there by the sand dunes past the Hopi reservation is where I give golden girl the money, a handful of crushed notes and coins, gold-flecked and folded over in my moment of earnest experience. I have only twice had a similar sea-of-light epiphany. Once at break of day when my ma left her earthly abode to seek Nirvana, the next with Alice. I can’t believe I’ve done it, but it’s done and I can’t do more. Time is stretching to well past the hour. May have been to do with her name. Ora Golden. I roll it around on my tongue and feel it cleave to the roof of my mouth the way intense sunlight stabs one’s eyes. She shines like gold dressed in a lightweight caftan that I’ve seen women wear in Morocco. It too is breathable gold. The fabric of her exposed skin wears a bright sheen, yet, she looks like she badly needs the money I’ve left her. She looks like she could do with a place to call home, a good night’s sleep and a warm, home-cooked meal.
On that hot day, with the mercury climbing, it’s all I have to give, heading west across the Rockies. I’ve headed west countless times. It’s the pull of the desert. I have no other way to explain why I covet the trip, a series of confounded wanderings, as if my very happiness is in some way tied to the crossing, the way a pilgrim might experience such a one. The hardship, the tedium, the endeavor.
I’ve seen a lot of deserts in my lifetime, some insurmountable, some traipsing into clouds of floating sand, with grit in my mouth and eyes. The girl carries the desert in her. I see it in her carriage, in the way her eyes turn to dark gold when she looks to the sky, the toss of her chestnut mane, as she shrugs me away, the roll of her ample hips when she moves like she has birthed and will bear more. Everything about her is golden. It’s hard not to notice.
Watchful, for she has sensed how my eyes never stray, she folds her arms under her sweaty armpits and stares back at me, “No, No, No.” She is provoked. Big time. Her look of distorted perception says it all. She abruptly pushes my extended hand away, a toss of her wavy hair whipping into my face. Prudence dictates I leave the wretched girl alone. But I can’t resist taking jabs at her defiant composure, the flint in her eyes.
“You’ll be needing the money. Don’t see no vehicle. You trek. It’s a good distance back to where you came from. You said so yourself you want to lose pounds, well here’s your chance. Take it.”
Golden girl doesn’t hear the words or the silence. It is too quiet, pretty striking when you think of the lonely desert stretch of six hours roadway the driver has promised till the rest stop, no more. And we have a “breakdown.”
The bus is not going anywhere. So much for long distance budget bus charters. The coach needs a change at the steering wheel. “Not a breakdown” repeats our burly driver in a sleepy voice for emphasis, to no one in particular, as if to reassure us, as if to prove his point that he is exhausted beyond repair, he simply has to sleep or ignite us into smoke and ashes and that reassurance is all it takes in the world of coach class travelers to pacify irate customers. Explanation provided, our bus, with excessive creaks, groans and putters as only an oft-used public utility vehicle can deliver, rolls to a grinding full stop. That’s where I spot golden girl. She’s alone. Nothing, no one, not a vehicle in sight.
The driver has been driving nonstop for twenty-two hours. He doesn’t deceive anyone on board, dedicated bus travelers that we are, except to reaffirm that the law of truth does not reach out to all, not when one is left stranded in a desert. I have not planned a sojourn in the sands. Not again. I have been burnt more than once, by the sun, by the barrenness, by the way a desert can lay your innermost thoughts bare, by the way bone, skin, feathers and excreta depositing in the sands ad libitum can sap your strength. I think of a downward spiral that has just snapped and is careening out of control. The news he delivers to the lot of us, like it’s an everyday occurrence, that we are marooned in the middle of the mesa, is scary.
The rising babel of voices are playing on the outside of my sleep meridian. I think I hear a loud hum of angry shouts and excitement, brittle sparks flying in a strengthening fire out of control.
“Everyone stay on board. This is not a scheduled stop. Five minutes, no more.”
“What kind of business do you people run?”
“Ma’am, puh-leez be seated, new driver is on the way.”
“Sir, ’xcuse me, SIR, this here ticket I have here is nonstop to Sedona. So what the frigging hell do you mean we gotta wait for a new — ”
“Ma’am, all taken care of, plan is in place — ”
“In the middle of nowhere?”
It’s the last we hear from him of the new driver. He mumbles a string of expletives, wiping one weary hand, in distress or acute weariness hard to say — over his forehead, beading with droplets like a ripe plum has broken over it. Before a heat-induced drowsy busload can get a hang of their bearings, or protest further, he calmly walks off into the “sunset” desert dunes, like Lee Van Cleef showing off his manly gunslinger stride in Adiós, Sabata, vanishing without a trace.
“We’re stranded!” shrieks someone in a distressed voice. Several others, who until then have their tongues cleaved to their palates are waking up like beaded gila lizards from a state of motionlessness to sluggish movement, spit venom.
The rest of us are left slack-jawed. Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys is singing in metallic screech. Someone has forgotten to turn down their volume booster. It sounds creepy, now that there is a sudden hush. Cars and general traffic should have been whizzing by, but we have heard none. Golden girl, our only witness from the outside, is the first to declare calmly, the first to react to the cold sober truth. To survive a pilgrimage one must overcome fate. It is as if she has seen this happen before, covered in her golden garb from head to toe, punctured by the sun at that very spot. Her antenna comes super unglued in that way, which, as she describes, happens often.
“You pilgrimed down here,” she announces loud enough for all to hear. Looking down the barrel of her words, I see what she means. The desert is a place where you can get caught, crouch like a small owl scorched by the noxious venom of a desert basilisk, shackled to the teeming landscape of tarantulas and blood red scorpions with nowhere to turn, held as we are in a kind of floating limbo. Deserts have that kind of inexplicable novelty, which weaves its own strangulation, however hard the push.
A murmur of voices, the second wave, then a third, some raised in distinct alarm go off. Sleep which has been eluding me, as in dead asleep, given the four days of total lack of recall on account of the run-in with a former cheerleader of Mayburn High, who used to be my classmate in English Comp, later my lady friend, which I distinctly remember, but she has forgotten, or says she has, am doing my utmost to not be further awakened from my death-defying, sleep-filled dreamless state. Alice is her name. Alice! My eyes fly open, then shut again. Never Alice!
Alice was our special name we gave all deserts way back when after wandering lost and alone for days in one, with just the dingo carcasses for company, and the occasional goshawks. We emerged weary, naked, covered in grains of dust, untarnished by our ordeal. Alice had desired to embark on a dangerous journey and emerge safe. Compare this journey to this and this and this, she brooded, stabbing at specks on a large map of the Australian outback, down under. At long last confusion and arguments aside, we passed through a town like Alice. Literally, Alice Springs from A Town Like Alice. Of course that Alice was a Never-Never. Never, wasn’t even in the continent we then occupied, which was our home. But we didn’t care. Didn’t recall. Not then. We emerged safe and sorry.
Deserts have a way of rooting the never-never into hard-boiled resilience, said Alice. It was a place one came home to die, wonderful source, feral and wild, like the victimless dingoes and brambies, wild horses with everywhere to roam and nowhere to stay lost. Sharing our secret jokes into the dry blowing earth, when there were no desert flowers such as Alice in bloom, or even those that were could not hold in the water or the tendrils of the heart when both lived in rain shadow. I put Alice out of my mind. The arid sands of the desert took care of the rest, choked off everything else. It always had.
“Oh-Ho!” goes a very mad-as-a-flying-vampire-bat voice on five-alarm fire. My four days of no-sleep, thank you very much, disintegrates into particles. I shiver involuntarily, my sleep-induced dream state cloaked in the earth’s rust skin. I count multiples of nine — nine cacti. Then switch to joshua trees. Counting frisky gamboling sheep when there are none in this arid terrain, upsets my equilibrium. I give a small cough. It works as a signal, the telltale sign I am awaking. I roll over with a final subdued grunt, to find a comfortable position. Damn the bus driver and the crazy bus and the ride!
“Do something!” shrieks the first real sounds I hear, while someone’s handbag lands on my hairless pate. Sounds register. Followed by a snarky “Did you hear about what I just said?” Odious. Unwelcome and no deliverance. The pilgrims’ push.
One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock! Someone is sure enjoying the desert air, despite the displeasure and cleansing sounds intruding. I awake grumpily, red-eyed from my super affliction of lack of sleep. How I must look has got to be beet red, from my natural complexion which must match the color of my eyeballs, ruddy as the swirling sunset reflecting off the saguaro. I also have the look and inclination of wanting to punch someone full in the face. Golden girl is in my face.
“Wassup?!” I grimace.
“We pilgrimed down!” she whispers.
“STRANDED!!” the vampire bat yells, laying thick the brimstone and fire.
“Deserted, more like it!” roars someone else angrily in my face, making this my fault. For sleeping. The power in the bus has been switched off. The heat is rising in waves.
The entire busload make their way out of the bus, standing by the wayside in dismal groups of twos and threes. Other clusters have restlessly taken to the road. A few braver souls have actually wandered into the stark loneliness of the sand dunes, as if the answers lie there. The entire landscape looks vast and unpeopled. Not a soul in sight, except us. Not even an approaching vehicle. To be a grain of sand in the oldest living space in the world, with nothing to see except endless vistas of sand.
I shudder visibly. For a desert on a hot day the air feels suddenly cold. I check my cell for signal, but it is unresponsive.
“Do we even know where we are?” I ask golden girl standing a few feet away. She is gazing into the far distance where the line of road segues into a blurred line of blue-gray sagebrush. It could even be a foliage of mesquite. Hard to tell from a distance. She has a faraway dreamy look in her eyes, her pupils two tiny pinpoints of spilling light like she has just gained entry into the Milky Way. All she has been living off are cans of coke and the occasional breadstick I soon learn. For me, the transition from the out east big-city gateway of Phoenix is unbelievable.
“What time do you have?” I ask her.
“Same as you,” she snaps back in quick retort, wiping the sweat beading her smooth forehead on the sleeve of her dress. “5:30.”
“What time do you have?” I go down the line. By the time I am done I collect forty-four different replies, all different. My own cell shows a time of 11:52. That makes it midnight by my clock. But the sun is still setting in a fiery blaze. Such distortion of accuracy. None of us deserves this. I can see the fear clawing its way through everyone’s eyes.
Over the rippling dunes a man is seen approaching. He wears the same chocolate brown uniform with a badge and a khaki cap that the previous driver wore. Voices are raised. The new driver — for that is who we think he must be — doesn’t offer a word of explanation, hustling everyone back on board.
The bus is unbearably hot. Voices again rise in protest. The driver is circling the bus tapping here and there in fits and spasms like a mountain lion circling its prey, approaching and retreating, prepping for the kill. The minutes stretch into eternity, we have not moved, we have grown silent, till, unable to bear the poor quality of air circulating, all disembark, yelling another round of deadly expletives at the driver, who is not to be seen.
The man in chocolate brown is under the bus. He has shed his uniform and donned a greasy yellow shirt in exchange. He reappears, poking his head and half torso out from beneath the body of the bus to tell everyone he is trying to locate the power switch so we can be on our way.
“What kind of driver are you that you don’t know the power switch?” snaps a quick chorus of angry voices, before the remaining others bawl a heap of similar sounding queries, expletives, kicking the bus in frustration.
“Can you drive?”
“Why would the power switch be under the bus?”
I have moved away from the crowd, standing a safe distance away, tapping furiously at my cell, hoping to get it to work. Golden girl follows me. Somehow she seems to know more than she’s letting on.
“What did you mean when you said we were pilgrimed down?” I ask
“The desert is not home,” she replies. It is one of her longest speeches. “It is a place of endless sleep. One can roam and keep roaming and still not find what one seeks, like a journey to a sacred place, you travel a long distance. “
In the hostile silence, I feel a wayfarer, a wanderer. Like I’d felt in Alice. With Alice. I had moved home gazillion times, if my studio apartments and tenement rooms are anything to go by and could be called home, and here I was again heading west, a homeless wandering-addict, hopeless and alone. Not even Alice by my side. The isolation I feel is absolutely gob-smacking. I don’t know if I understand all of golden girl’s words. She sounds like an ancient descendent from another planet, a druid, an old shaman, the guardian spirit, bound to the desolation. There are more deserts in this world than I can explore. But right now I am stuck in this one, the Sonoran. To give such serious thought to the others is sacrilege, but exhilarating. One day maybe I’ll reach them all.
“ … And when our bones shatter to dust, we are free,” she is saying in a honeyed tone so unabashedly treacly it sinks in a brown saccharine stain on the parched desert floor. I see it vanish, without a trace. A coppery kestrel fans from beyond the rocky outcrop of granulated hills taking a leap of faith and is lost to sight.
The sky is now the same shade of fiery orange as the sand. Maybe the time has come for me to stop wandering. Maybe the time is now. Maybe to flirt any longer with my urges is fading. Maybe to be pilgrimed down releases the distresses and guilt that has built for so long after Alice. So many maybes. There is no flower, no golden poppies or leaf to press into the pages of a book, to take away as souvenirs from the deep desert. There are only the dust grains of sand. I hold mine close, the handful golden girl presses into my hands as she flees into the rocky hills, the last of my money clutched tightly in her fist, her footprints in the sand obliterating before my eyes even as she makes them running.
That’s what Alice liked about the desert. It never said goodbye.
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