Death Valley



by Kate Petre 


    One night she found herself in Death Valley with a balding man who was singularly forthcoming, both of them using each other for reasons of which they were only vaguely aware. One night, on ineffably white, moonlit sand dunes, she stared at the sky in absent mind while a man she hardly knew wept over his successfully suicidal ex-girlfriend. There on the dunes, he thought about this woman’s suicide and made sure his companion knew all about it. She listened to distract herself.

    She was sitting on those dunes with him because he had walked straight up to her the day before and asked if she wanted a job.

    She was behind the bar at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, listening to the crinkle as her college diploma wilted and fluttered uselessly onto the sidewalk. She worked two days a week and asked for more shifts as the days tick tocked towards the first of the month. The stream of putty-colored cubicles and HR desks with men named Trevor sitting behind them introduced her to department heads, principals, gurus, gods, etc., but left no accepting messages on her voice mail, no paychecks or medical insurance in her name, nothing but a growing mutual hatred. She had already had a putty-colored job where she sat behind a desk waiting for the UPS man to come in every day smelling like sweat and San Diego sun as her fellow secretaries around her talked about their various hair removal appointments. There she worked for a bad, bad man who did bad things and fired her for saying so—not to his face, to a pretty secretary in the front office in a gossipy sort of way. But she didn’t know what else to do but try again, and to try to keep her mouth shut. They don’t teach you balls in school.

    A year earlier she had fallen out of school. Slowly, as she put the glass of cheap jug wine down, cut up her dad’s gas cards and picked herself up, she came to realize how unimpressive society really is and how only raging self-confidence matters. Picking the glass of jug wine back up, she hid behind laziness for lack of her own self-confidence. The reality that shone in the brilliance of the finished product—that glittered on the book shelves, through canvas, on the faces of the people she wanted to be like—began to darken and narrow into a small gray-colored box. This box was the reality of hard, cold discipline and frustration and the inevitability of incredible mediocrity. Maybe her dad was right and she could be whatever she wanted to be, but it wasn’t easy and as it came into form, it wasn’t pretty anymore, either. Reality was so horribly compromising and nothing seemed worth giving the ideal up for. But she was a damned good barista.

    This man anchored himself as a regular at the coffee shop because he was only comfortable where everyone knew who he was. Despite this, or indeed to fortify it, he jabbered and bragged loudly with whomsoever he made eye contact. His attire was always elaborate, a mish-mash of fabric and pattern and a two-tie cravat. His squared forehead shone brilliantly and in soft lights glowed like the melon of a beluga whale. His skin was craterous starting at eye level and hung down to his thin lips and jowls so that he looked as if his successful clowning years were behind him. And yet he was the greatest of clowns because his act was his own life.

    “All my self-deprecating jokes make me the best,” he would say and then those around him were to all whirl in laughter. His punch lines were crafted and intensely complicated so that it was obvious he had prearranged them, yet he would not tolerate less than a quick response, as if the rest of them hadn’t properly memorized the script they were reading from. He had evolved into a sort of overly self-conscious storyteller consistently acting out a life that didn’t really exist.

    But the first time she met him they started to talk about Death Valley, she mostly nodding her head and sighing at the piles of rocks and rivets, bright colored lichen and ancient volcanic oozing that he demonstrated with both the movements of his body and through the pictures he ran and got out of his 1979 gold Mercedes. So they shared in it and he bought a Diet Coke and things continued.

    The following day, he walked straight up to her and asked if she wanted a job. The job was to drive his Suburban around Death Valley while he worked in the back of it, a sort of mobile office. And they continued to joke. He asked her again about Death Valley because he mentioned all of his more singular ideas twice. As was her answer for many things at that time, what the hell else did she have to do? She restocked lids while he wrote her number down in his appointment book. He called her later that evening and she told him to meet her at the 99 Cent Store on Sunset at 7:30 the next morning.

    And there she was sitting on a concrete curb with a knife in her purse just in case. And there he was pulling into the parking lot with two coffees in a huge Suburban. She climbed in after lying that she had driven a big truck like that before and cocked the gearshift into drive. There was an anticipation in the air, both of them waiting for the other to call the whole thing crazy, to laugh awkwardly and say, “I thought you were just kidding!” But it never happened. They stopped twice for coffee and a greasy gyro at the Mad Greek in Baker. He worked legitimately in the back of the truck, which had been cleared of seats and refilled with boxes of files. She enjoyed driving into the flatness all around and smiled at the harmonica romanticism of dirty yellow freight trains.

    Once they reached Death Valley he took a break and sat in the passenger seat to tell her stories of his foibles in some San Francisco underground club where he entertained the high brow and somewhat panderly performance artists and their girls and boys. He had made up a string of questions that don’t have answers: “What is a question that doesn’t have an answer?” or simply the act of writing a question illegibly on a piece of paper. Everywhere he went he had created a brilliant show with him as the brightest and only star.

    She glanced at his craterous face only to assure him of her moderately interested skepticism. His world and many doings made him the worst kind of enviable, especially because she was unsure whether any of it was true. After an initial disgust with what she saw as a pathetically aging trickster that was well past his prime, she found herself genuinely laughing at the beat and rumble of an exaggerated man. She began to talk about the soothing qualities of South African red teas and they debated about the impact of Jimmy Carter on U.S. foreign policy. He regularized himself and bowed his head to her, sending the crackerjack box and costumed monkey away for a while. She tried to find ways to join his stream of verbiage so that she too could have a life that was lived extravagantly and correctly and began to tell him things she had done in her own right that became funny tales he’d never heard, but told without his care and sweet consciousness of a good story. They laughed loosely but not entirely without reserve. They were trying each other out in the great mockery of humanity, pretending they were more exciting, more demanding of themselves than others, when in fact they were just two fuck-ups trying to be loved and accepted but unable to drop the bullshit. “It’s all an illusion,” he said to her once, though she wasn’t sure if he meant life in general or the pile of two-dollar bills he perpetually conjured from the droopy pockets of the riding britches he wore.

    All around them a concentrated heaviness inched with the patient rocks as a still wind marked the odd tick of time.

    After she had driven around Death Valley for several hours they stopped at Bad Water where the only water in several hundred miles pools at the edge of salt flats, a great white, flat field of smoothness running for miles against a wall of distant peaks. The flatness and bigness of it all disorients: things look both far and near, dangerously conquerable and consolingly vast. They looked in the pools of salty bad water where salt crystals twirled and fractaled upon each other in the stillness like tiny snow topped mountain ranges in a reflecting lake. He was silent. She was silent.

    Then she shivered from the soon setting sun and the still desert cold and he suggested they head toward a motel.

    The Furnace Creek motel was next to sand dunes and they went to them after a quiet dinner when the moon’s mostly fullness was bright and it was yet to be too cold. And he wept and she mustered up some sort of serious silence and they connected awkwardly and without wanting to.

    “When can a person gain the right to take their own life?” is what this ex-girlfriend of his had written.

    Regardless, her rights had ended quite suddenly and all that was left was the smudge of her life. And there was a man to dwell and fuss on this smudge, with this stranger as his unwitting, awkwardly present companion.

    Yet they were both there, suddenly and separately in the cold moonlight in the middle of a desert and there seemed to be nothing but this smudge and the great dark world that was too goddamned big and blank so that a smudge was the one thing they could really hold onto, like a pool of water in the desert. He fell silent and they looked out to nowhere in different directions and continued to say nothing and listen to the vacuum of a windless night, needing one another just to have someone to turn to when it was time to leave. As they walked back to the car they saw a lone man walking out in to the dunes where they had just come.

    They slept at the motel and she drove back to L.A. early in the morning while he worked more in the back. They were tired and drained of any sort of excuses. 

___________ right