Sons & Other Strangers

tucson shuttle, 6:08 a.m.

I’m a creature of the water, the man from Colorado says. His two front teeth are broken like upside down pyramids. His beard is white and patchy.

I’m someone who needs somewhere to throw in the line. Headed to Billings, population forty thousand, for a month. A guy taught me how to fly fish, how to throw your bug right on top of the water, still waters, just sorta swirling around. A guy taught me. You can catch some big ones. Oh, it’s going to be something.

He points out the window while he’s talking and interrupts himself.

That’s a ’63, bout a ’64 Chevy, he says without pause. Nothing rusts out here.

What about people, I say, but he doesn’t laugh. I wonder what he thinks about at night because I can’t help myself.

I ain’t so computer literate, he says, so I had my sister print the tickets for me. And he shows me his receipt, unfolds the email with his tickets. He’s so proud. He can’t wait to be in Billings.

I’ve been here since 1960 and my only complaint is you got to go 200 miles to get to any real water. When I was young I worked on an oil rig in North Dakota. It was twenty below all winter long. They invented the cold out there, when I was young.


what boris remembers

At seven the brewer from Flagstaff with the beard comes to change out his kegs. He drinks two glasses of water and a pint of his own beer and suddenly he’s giving me his phone number.

My Russian scientist is the last customer before closing. He orders espresso with whipped cream. Today he wears a baseball cap and a dark suit.

Bella, he says with his heavy accent that makes me think of home. There are so few of those kinds of voices in the desert.

You look like a ballerina today, he says. If only I still had more hair. The ballerinas, ah! There are no women quite like them. With their long backs, just like you. When I live in the apartment on a hundred eighty six street, we used to take the ballerinas out dancing around Columbus Circle.

His eyes twinkle beneath thick black eyebrows as though he should be smoking a cigar. He refolds his newspaper under this arm and stirs the espresso with a spoon before going outside to watch the trains.

The dancers were always the most beautiful, he says. Up and down Lincoln Square.



Just before the lunch rush a teenaged girl wearing three shades of black comes in and asks for an application. Her eyes are rimmed in black and she is very pale.

Does Xander still work here, she asks.


Xander? A little dishwasher, she says, and she holds her hand up near her chin to show just how little he was. But no one named Xander has every worked here, as far as I know, and I tell her.

Well anyway, she says, I really need a new job ’cause Walmart is killing me and I really wanna go back to college.

That sounds like a good idea, I say. I stop folding napkins and hand her the form.

I’m working nights, she says. Do you know what that’s like? In the morning I feel like my face is going to fall off. Have you ever wanted to rip your face off?

And she laughs and laughs, slow and guttural, like that’s hard too, smearing her hand on the glass door on her way out.


the boy who left

When I first moved out to the desert I kept thinking about a boy I knew briefly who was born here, in this town. He changed his name to Ryder when he got to New York, so that’s what I called him. That’s how he was listed in my phone. He was a model slash comedian. His jokes were so bad. Offensive, but also just not funny. I granted him sleepy-eyed laughter when he read his tweets aloud to me in a Thai restaurant — stuff about Mexicans and periods, mostly. Later when he went to the bathroom I took two shots of whiskey. His face was probably the most symmetrical thing I’d ever touched. He talked a lot about the four-hour work week. He didn’t eat bread or dairy. He lived with two strange men in a railroad apartment above 186th street to save money while he worked nights in the Meatpacking, manning the doors at a couple clubs with long lines. That’s how I met him — cutting one of those lines.

The kitchen in the apartment where he lived was filled with ancient containers of spices that didn’t belong to him. The growth of green potted plants filled the windows. The whole place felt yellow and brown. Maybe that’s what he liked about it; how it reminded him of home.

Once I lay in his bed for a full day waiting for him to touch me again. I’ll never know what that day was like because there were no windows.


june eleventh

Two girls stand in line at the coffee shop wearing prairie sundresses and red lipstick, trying to remember the lyrics to a song. They put on British accents and shout the words in bursts until they are laughing.

I wait for a long time, almost three hours, but no one touches the piano.

Instead, two men are planning an excursion.

One says, Elevation will be about a six or a seven, six or seven thousand foot. Five days there, hike in, up to Machu Pichu, photos, spiritual stuff. You know. What everybody wants.


the last safe place off the parkway

At dinner a friend tells me about the wash. A place of firsts. Drugs and blowjobs; pink lightning. The oily, creosote-laced heat before a monsoon.

In the wash, she kept saying, in the wash, down in the dust where the rivers never run.

I love this, I said, the wash!

I drank my wine and thought of where I used to go to fuck in the town where I grew up. The town where I turned 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and several other years even before those. No dust, no hot wind. No lights from the cars on the overpass. Instead we had the shadows of freshly paved cul-de-sacs, the mazes of empty corporate parks.

Desert kids, I imagined. Jerking each other off after sunset, passing blunts and little packets of dirty coke and bottles of Southern Comfort beneath the eaves of concrete bridges, sneakers sinking into cooling mounds of sand. Let’s meet in the wash and spill our sins down the ditch behind a saguaro. Meet me by the mesquite tree where the parking lot ends at the dried up riverbed. Like we’re the first.

We were not as hidden as we thought, my friend said.

My own town still had some wilder parts, where white-tailed deer slept if they weren’t chomping the blooms off day lilies and rose bushes. You could still find trails that switch-backed up mountains, above the wide, steely blue river with its bridge and the city on the other side. Kids parked cars there too, at the head of trails like those — turned off the engines, opened windows, emptied smoke into the cold night.

But most of what was left of the untidy and the unkempt, the aging or the disappointing, had been doomed to unholy grooming — grassy lots marked for development with the wooden bones of large new homes. Even the briny old boatyard wasn’t safe from somebody who decided it
needed to shine with fresh paint, a nautical blue shellacked sign, an electric fence to keep the riffraff out.

Old Mountain Road cut across town from north to south, ascending, peaking dropping back down on the other side. Up there it was different. Yards brimmed with peeling pickup trucks the color of old fruit. Tousled fences, rusted swing sets. Things like that. A feeling of surrender. And it was there this boy found the driveway, invisible unless you knew where to look. Hunks of thick asphalt littered what was left of the path, and the car’s headlights bounced like tiny ghosts as we slunk in.

At the end of the driveway was an overgrown clearing surrounded by pines. A single yellow porch light burned from somewhere beyond them. If it rained we sat in the humidity we’d made and listened to the downpour, the frothy weight of the sound nearly sending my eyes into the back of my head with pleasure. We could steam up the windows and lie there for hours talking about what he might do once I left that place, as I was preparing to do. As people do.

But not him. He was older, and his version of the years I was about to embark on had already passed, looking something like this: me stoned and thirsty in the passenger seat and him digging around for loose change in the grime of the cup holder. He was sort of dangerous because he seemed to be afraid of nothing. Up close though he was helpless and apathetic, which is usually what being afraid of nothing means when you are stuck in a small town with your father’s Jeep and a forgotten clearing.

I never asked him how he found it, how he knew where to slow down and turn off. I must have wanted to give him his secrets.

Outside, the grass was tall and always wet, or else it was covered in snow. I ventured into it, up to my thighs, standing with my dress pulled to the side to pee. Or I sank down with my face near the soaked, bent stalks when they were frozen, when it was too cold for dresses. I looked for Orion, watched my breath as it spilled out of me. It was often quiet enough that I could hear the boy light a cigarette, take the first quick puff and the next long drag. Nearly buried, the boy and the car looked as though they had been left there with the land a long time ago.



Last night I watched that movie where Billy Bob Thorton comes home after spending his whole life locked up in a mental hospital for hacking his mom to death and then befriends a little boy and saves him by committing another murder. I cried so much because I’m not kind enough. Sometimes I listen to this podcast and it says: see a stranger, imagine their suffering, wish them love. Then do it with someone you don’t like. Then do it with yourself.



These days he drives a silver Kia minivan. He’s driven most kinds of vehicles in and around Kansas City. When I get into his cab he says he’s been telling the same jokes for thirty years and they never fail.

Do you always buy one shoe at a time, he asks me.

I tell him of course I usually buy two together.

Then why did you only buy one coffee, where’s mine?

We laugh.

He says, A woman once told me it was her or the truck. I should have picked the truck.


the potter

On a Monday night the brewer from Flagstaff calls and I tell him to meet me at the beer garden.

I can’t go there, he says. I just broke up with my girlfriend and they all know us.

Ok, how about the Dublin?

He says that sounds good, since he’s never been. So we each get a couple cans of Tecate and sit outside on an empty, leafy patio. It’s dark and so hot I’m sticking to my jean shorts, yanking on the crotch to keep them from bunching up. He tells me the truth: I’m actually a potter.

I know, I say. I looked you up.

I’ve been trying to leave that woman for a long time, he says.

He won’t stop touching his beard.

It’s late but we keep talking until I feel fuzzy in the face, and then we walk the quiet streets to the dive bar with the jukebox where we play darts.

I’m going away, he says.

He’s very serious but he does this dance when he gets a bulls eye, which makes him confusing and silly and too vulnerable — vulnerable enough that I’m suddenly exhausted.

I have to move all her stuff back to Flagstaff, he tells me by my front door. Can I see you when I get back?

Maybe it’s the white dust under his nails but I keep thinking about him even though there’s nothing I really want.

Three days later he comes by my apartment with three bottles of wine from his ex-girlfriend’s label and a ceramic mug of his own creation. It’s nice, glazed in green and blue. But it’s too much.

I want you to have this, he says. I put some pens in it show him I’m grateful.

We drink two of the bottles before he touches me, comes up behind me and puts his big arms around my waist. Ah. We kiss. It’s pretty bad. So I try to get on top of him, but that’s worse.

He keeps apologizing.

I really want this, I really want this, he keeps saying. It’s just all this stuff. Everything just happened.

I don’t care, I say. Whatever you want.

Which is true. I’m not even sure how he got in here, how I had this much wine.

Things used to be so easy. My body was once on its own, running the show. Making decisions and showing people a good time. Things are different. Lately my body just stands around and watches while I think.

We lie on the rug in our clothes and talk about his girlfriend some more. How she pushed him around. How he lost himself. I really listen. I make the room safe with my listening.

I’m going home to Ojai for a while, he tells me, like he’s reassuring himself, repacking his things in his mind.

We stand on my bed in our bare feet and cover the wall with glow-in-the-dark star stickers until the real sun starts to come up from behind the Catalina mountains. We make a tiny galaxy, switch off the light and watch it grow.

Put them wherever you want, I tell him. This is me being kind.

But it’s your wall, he says, like he really is concerned. How do you want it to go?

Small Paradises

“She was constantly surprised at herself in a way that, it seemed to you, was lucky.”