Race Fever

By AMY BRILL

 

Joseluís is earlier than he needs to be. The Tur Boliviano office is empty and dark, hot and dry, like the streets outside. The hard plastic chairs smell of sweat, dust, spit, the accumulated filth of thousands of backpacks dragged through hundreds of cities and towns, through airports and rail stations and other places he has never seen. Leaning back and closing his eyes, he imagines the dirt of Paris, the scum of Buenos Aires, and smiles to himself. Gracias a Dios, he mutters, repeating the last line of the speech he has memorized, the speech he will deliver later, when he has roared across the finish line. Gracias al GMC. Gracias a ustedes.

 

Sweeping his skinny arm through the dirty air, he mimics the gesture Ricardo Monta, the favorite for this year’s La Paz to Sucre race, always makes. As if he is sweeping the legions of fans who have gathered for the race up and around the blue bowl of the sky and into his leather-clad arm, binding them to God and to himself as they cheer wildly. Joseluís, born nineteen years ago, almost on the same day as Monta, has been among them. On numerous occasions he has cursed his mother’s slowness in pushing his wet and shrieking self out of her, for if he had been born on the same day as Monta, his life would surely have been luckier than this. He spits a stream of coca behind the hard back of the chair, smiling at the thought of its Andean bitterness polluting the dirt of so many cities, and loops back to the starting line. He has practiced before, but today, he knows, is the day en verdad. Today is his day of truth.

 

He pulls his cap low and closes his eyes, reaching out a foot for the clutch that is not there. Putting his hands on the imaginary wheel in the proper position for beginning the race, he is still as a lizard until he can feel the hum of the engine, in his throat and under his thighs, beneath the thin heels of his sneakers. In his vision, the vehicle, which rests quietly now in the parking lot behind the office, waiting for Joseluís and his final group of tourists, has already been painted with the fierce, swift yellow bird by which he plans to be known. All along the route, from Tarabuco to Coroico, he imagines the people lining up with yellow birds—birds on flags, birds on kites, birds drawn crudely by small children in school before their release for race day, even some real yellow canaries purchased at great expense for the sole purpose of bringing them to the side of the road on race day and releasing them to the wind as Joseluís, thepájaro amarillo, roars past.

 

He envisions Monta leaning into his window at the starting line, to compare strategies for the Potosí pass. For me, it is always best to lead, Joseluís mutters, one arm resting casually on the window. Monta nods, impressed. They discuss the engine of the GMC he has managed, against all reason, to steal from his employer and drive across the freezing desert in the middle of the night. Did you fear being caught? Monta asks. I had no fear, Joseluís plans to answer.

 

As for the money he will have to steal as well—money for gasoline, money for the entry fee—of course he will return it. Return it the very next day, when he has won. Manuel, the owner of Tur Boliviano, will be angry, but Joseluís knows that Manuel, too, has race fever, that he keeps a picture of Ricardo Monta on the wall of his office, and he allows himself to imagine Manuel presenting the GMC to him, as a gift, just to make himself a part of it all.

 

When he opens his eyes, people are in the office. Panicked, he bolts upright, 154 but they are not drivers, only tourists. Shifting from one foot to the other at the front desk, he waits for Marisol to finish shuffling her papers and staring at her computer screen, but she ignores him.
 Buenos, he mutters, half to himself. When nothing happens, he tries again:

 

Hola, Marisol. 
. She doesn’t look at him.
 Dame el llave al GMC. The key appears, attached to its red plastic tag. It resembles a wing. He curls his hand around it, and it rests warmly there, but as he reaches the door, Marisol’s harsh voice calls him back. Frozen with dread, he forces himself to turn, moving so slowly that she laughs, as if he is being funny, and shoves the clipboard across the counter.

 

Ah, sí. Sweating beneath his cap, he signs the log with an extra flourish and tries to smile at her, but she snatches her pen back and turns away.

 

He cannot always have the GMC. The cars are first-come, first-served. But he tries—wakes early, counts his steps, watches the sky for good omens and for bad. The truck is fast for her size, and agile. On the rocky paths through the barren landscape, speed is not an option, no matter how impatient the tourists are to reach the flat expanse of an ancient evaporated sea, white as the moon, smooth as glass. The Salar de Uyuni: ten thousand unbroken square kilometers of salt. On every trip, as they bump along, the GMC pretends to be old and rusting, and Joseluís pretends that he doesn’t ache from longing for speed, for wind.

 

As he crosses the cracked tarmac of the parking lot, he thinks of the car he might have built from the rusting and derelict parts he collected for years. Parts that had been left to freeze or melt in the searing desert, left smoking and heaped in ditches, left in a dusty lot near the village of Santa Amara. An ugly metal altar to his dream of speed, rising in the cracked cement of his mother’s courtyard until a few months ago, when his father had forced him out of bed at dawn and led him to its foot, then kicked him in the calf and grunted in the direction of the pile.

 

As Joseluís had carried piece after piece to the corner and abandoned it,
he thought of the baby brother he’d held only once before it died. Its tiny, sad
soul now wandering in limbo for eternity, if he believed the insistent, balding
Father Miguel, or up in the highlands, replete with the food and tiny woven
clothing his mother buried with him, if he believed the yatiri. That baby had
been the last in a series of failed siblings. Maybe if that baby had lived, the
life of Joseluís would be different. If any of his siblings had lived. A feeling of 155 remorse for his unchangeable state as only son, only earner, stayed with him
as he discarded axles, hubcaps, alternators, mufflers, all the way down to the
rotting bucket seat from which spiders had scuttled in panicked flight from
the newly risen sun.

HeatherfromCanada. AdamandRuthfromAmerica. FabriziofromItaly. Three big bags, four small bags, four cameras, four pale faces blinking away sleep and dust and waiting like moons, smiling, turning to each other, excited, Do you have a —? Did you bring the—? Have we got the—? Joseluís says little. They must fear him first, then trust him utterly.

 

¿Como se llama? It is the girl Ruth, standing at his elbow as he secures the lashing over the tarp on the top of the GMC, which bears all the weight of their many possessions. He looks down. Her green eyes are turned up to him, clear as Titicaca.

 

He says his name, and she repeats it to herself, or maybe to him. Her accent is good.

 

Mucho gusto, Joseluís, she says. He nods once, preparing to return to his knots, but she extends her hand upward, straight as an arrow, and waits until he wipes his on his jeans, which are no more clean than his hand, and grasps hers. He is surprised by the strength in her grip, the heat of her palm against his, and he pulls his hand back. Clicking his tongue inside his teeth, he scolds himself without words. There is no liking this girl, or any of them. Liking is not part of the plan. And it is not worthwhile. There are many ways that friendships with turistas can end, and none of them are good. He hops down and throws himself behind the wheel, clapping his hands for their attention. He delivers his usual speech in a slurred yet deliberate monotone:

 

Welcome to Tur Boliviano. We go now directly across the Altiplano to the Laguna Verde. Then we go up in the direction of the north edge of the Salar de Uyuni. He pauses, pulls his cap even lower.

 

Anyone does not speak Spanish? This is the part he has waited for, to see how little talking he will be able to do. Because if they insist, as they usually do, that the tour happen in English, then he can say as little as he wishes, talk nonsense just to see them wonder what he meant. They rarely ask.

 

Preferimos hablar en español, Ruth answers. Por favor.

 

He checks her face in the rearview. Brown hair parted in the middle and pulled into short braids that rest on her shoulders. The clear eyes. Next to her, Adam is already putting together part of a camera, or taking it apart.

 

Joseluís whispers to the GMC in Aymara, his true language, which he has mostly forgotten, and puts her in gear, rolling through the wakening town and bearing down on the gas to swing them onto the road that goes south, away from the city and then up, up to the highest country under God.

 

At first no one talks. Then, twenty minutes later, the sullen streets of Uyuni dissolving behind them, as if they have passed an invisible barrier of silence, they all begin talking at once. Their English whizzes by him like a flock of hummingbirds; he catches only fragments. Injavawesaw… patagoniaisnothinglike…soanywayhewas…inchichenitzawe… onthekhaosanroadwe… colcacanyonwasoutrageous. Hours pass in this way, and then they reach a tiny pueblo, and someone asks him if they can stop. It is her again.

 

Él quiere foto, she says, nodding at Adam, rolling her eyes a little as if to share with Joseluís a secret joke. He pulls the GMC to the curb and nods. Adam is first out the door, and the rest follow, mimicking him as he photographs a filthy little girl sitting in the dust with a basket of puffed wheat. They photograph the girl. They photograph the dust. When Joseluís whistles, they turn, obedient, and trot back to the GMC.

 

¿Qué hace la gente aquí? Ruth asks when they are settled again.
La sal. He looks up at her in the mirror again. She is expectant, perplexed. But how do they make salt? How do they do it?
Now they’re all looking, and so he must explain.
A man will go and take the salt from the Salar, he begins.
They just take it out of the Salar? Just like that?
He nods. A big piece, like this. Joseluís stretches his hands wide to indicate the size of the block. He take it to his home and cook it with the right amount of iodine. Then he puts it in bags. One kilo of salt in each bag. Fifty kilos for one load. Then he wait.

 

He pauses until one of them asks, For what?
Joseluís nods wisely. For the man with the truck to come and take it to Uyuni. So how much do they get for it? Adam asks. He is still taking photographs out of the window. Joseluís knows from his accent that he is English, not 157 American like Ruth, and is glad. He likes the idea of robbing an English. Robinhood, he thinks.

 

The man with the truck get fifty bolivianos a kilo.

 

And how much does the salt man get? HeatherfromCanada wants to know. She leans forward a little from the back seat, questioning, her face half-hidden by the hood of her jacket.

 

The man get six bolivianos a kilo. Silence. Adam lets out a low whistle, calculating.

 

That’s, like, fifty cents, he says. Holy cow. He laughs. Why doesn’t the guy get a truck of his own? That’s highway robbery. No pun.

 

The Italian turns from the front seat and says, I think it is expensive, the truck, no? He looks at Joseluís for confirmation, but before he can explain the impossibility of such a purchase, Adam has jumped back in.

 

Good investment for the guy with the truck, though. And anyway, no surprise that the market for salt isn’t very lucrative—I mean, come on. There’s literally an ocean of salt down the road—I mean, anybody with a knife and a fire pit can get in on the action, right? Supply, demand… When he laughs again, Heather giggles, and the Italian shrugs and turns his attention back to the landscape, already losing interest. Ruth does not laugh. In her eyes Joseluís sees contempt for the man beside her. When she catches him looking at her in the mirror, she turns her face toward the window. But her cheeks are pink, maybe from the light in this red-brown dusty town.

 

They go up. Soon they are bumping through the eastern edge of the Altiplano, one rocky, windswept kilometer after the last. The road winds through dry beds and abstract rock formations, its apparent flatness masking their ascent. When they reach the small laguna, sometime around two o’clock, Joseluís pulls the GMC to a stop beside the fantastic blue-green water, cuts the engine, and gets out. The air is clear and thin, the wind constant though still warmed by the sun; at night the temperature will drop to thirty degrees below zero.

 

Rummaging in the back for the sandwiches and bananas, Joseluís examines his group. The Italian is the oldest, twice Joseluís’s age probably, and has not said much. He only carries a small pack and wears a winter parka with no special properties. The camera he carries is a simple one, not even digital, and Joseluís figures he is not so rich—or at least he is very careful with money.

 

Heather, the Canadian girl, remains hooded, a ski mask protecting her face from the sharp, bitter wind. She is invisible: she could be a student, a teacher, or a businessman’s rich daughter. Ruth and Adam are the obvious ones. He carries not one but two cameras, one digital and one video, and his pockets are filled with pieces of them. Both wear the type of jacket Joseluís expects—thin and light but powerful enough to block the winds of the Altiplano. Gorr-teck, Polar-teck, he says, enjoying the clack of syllables like marbles on his tongue. He can say anything; the wind is against him, and his words are blown back into his throat. AdamRuth. RuthAdam. He pulls the bananas from the truck.

 

He offers them sandwiches, and they eat. All except Ruth. She sits on the bumper of the GMC, and Adam kneels next to her for a moment before shrugging and coming to get a sandwich for himself. Joseluís risks looking at him.

 

She doesn’t feel so good, Adam says in slow English. Enferma. Altitude maybe, or who knows what. Girls, right? He claps Joseluís on the shoulder and struts away.

 

Joseluís nods at his back. One or two sicken on each trip, sometimes all of them at once, the dizzying lack of oxygen tipping their balance, slowing them down. Sometimes they recover quickly, sometimes not. He takes a few steps in her direction, then stops. She will probably be fine. He hovers anyway. At first, she doesn’t see him: her head is down, and he wonders if she is going to be sick. Craning his neck, he sees that she has a square notebook in her lap. She is working a pencil across the page in short, fine bursts. Joseluís steps closer. The dull grey rock, the volcán directly opposite, and the deep blue-green of the laguna are as alive on her page as they are before him, even though her lines are incomplete, ragged in places. He can almost see the ripples on the water, a shiver across the flat page.

 

Hola. She has seen him, and her green eyes, turned up, take on the bluish glow of the lake. He wonders if she knows the source of this otherworldly color, the heavy metals from the earth for which he does not know the English. Cobre. Plomo. Arsénico.

 

Is nice, he stutters, tossing his head in the direction of the page.
She nods, slowly.
Mira, she says. And turns the page. Here is a sketch of the GMC, drawn quickly, lines barely joined at their edges, the illusion of motion. And next to
her he sees himself, from the back, cap jammed on his head, shoulders hunched,
hands in pockets, elbows poking out into two triangles. His jacket billowing 159 like he will take flight, right off the page.

 

He ducks his chin farther into his jacket, embarrassed.
¿Te sientas mal? he asks.
She shakes her head and says, Está bien. Cansada. Necesito descansar un poco. And she motions sleep with her palms pressed together beside her cheek. Joseluís touches the moist wad of coca leaf in his pocket but does not offer it, though it would ease her discomfort and fatigue, along with many other familiar things—headaches, hunger, cold. He stopped sharing it with the tourists long ago. Inevitably they do not like the taste, or they are afraid, thinking of powder-snorting movies or friends. They don’t understand that the leaf and the land, the people and the leaf, are bound together, sacred—Jesús y la hostia.

 

He nods and turns away.

 

¡Joseluís!

 

When he turns back, she is waving a white piece of paper in the air. Or maybe she is holding still and the wind is making it flap. Either way, the image is moving too fast to be seen, but he knows what it is. He wants to say no, but to decline a gift is to invite bad luck. So he takes it, pushing back the idea that now he owes her, then points his body toward the rest of the group, who are wandering like turtles about the edge of the laguna.

 

We go soon to the refugio, he announces, clapping his hands for their attention. We rest there.

 

No one moves. ¡Vamos! he calls, and they slowly collect their cameras and sunglasses and climb back in.

 

The race begins at six a.m. Monday, so he figures he should be there by five. It will take fifteen hours at least in the GMC, including two stops for gas, no sleep. He has been sleeping his whole life and is sure he will never sleep again, so alive does he feel as he navigates the final kilometers before the refugio, the sun already beginning to drop. But there is work he must do under the hood, to prepare, and he must still track through the entire route in his head the way Ricardo Monta always does, envisioning each leg of the race before he begins. This means he must be gone by five a.m. Sunday, tomorrow. It will still be dark. The group will be asleep. It is perfect.

 

The refugio is a dark, hard thing against the deepening sky. Excuse me, Joseluís says, and they stir. His heart beats faster. We come now to the shelter. Please to leave all your valuable things inside here. It is safer. Okay. You take your bags from the top. We lock everything else inside.

 

They move like sloths. It is good; it is easy. Their heads are heavy and confused. He forgot it would be easy. Pulling the GMC up outside the hut, he sees Luisa dart inside to begin preparing their meal. Adam is first on top, unlashing the packs, dropping them down. Now the Italian, who helps HeatherfromCanada. He reminds them again:Leave the valuable in the car, please. Safer here.

 

He busies himself with vouchers in his pockets. Click, snap, click, snap, they unlock and unwind themselves from their dollars and euros, tossing their pouches into the backseat and trudging slowly toward the room he has indicated, keeping close against the rising wind. The sun is almost gone, the sky the color of the deepest sea he can imagine.

 

At supper there is no Ruth.

 

Enferma, Adam says, stuffing his mouth with mountains of spaghetti. She feels bad.

 

Joseluís prepares mate de coca, a mild tea, and gives it to Adam to give to the girl. Sitting outside, smoking a cigarette, he pulls his jacket close around him and looks at the stars. So much money. He could drive to the border, cross to Peru. Or go to La Paz and find work in a garage, never return to his tin oven house or his father’s contempt. He could go to Quito and live by the ocean he has never seen. He could go to America. California. Ciudad de los angeles.

 

Such ideas make him shiver. Stubbing out the cigarette on the ground, he goes back inside to sit in the corner and listen to Luisa and Amalia chatter as they tend the fire and serve the group. They bring him a bowl of soup, and he eats it slowly, feeling like a prince about to inherit a kingdom.

He is not sure what is happening.
Banging next to his ear. He sits up straight, hitting his knee painfully on the steering column.

 

¿Quién es?
It’s me. Adam.
Squinting at the window next to his head, Joseluís makes out a pale face against the glass, and behind it the dormitory room, lit. They are awake.¿Que pasó? he asks, opening the door of the GMC, letting in a freezing blast of wind.

 

Ruth’s really sick. We don’t know what to do.

 

Blinking, Joseluís picks up his cap from the seat and jams it back on his head. Opening the door, squinting against the teeth of the wind, and crossing his arms over his chest to keep his jacket from filling like a balloon, he crosses the courtyard after Adam. The moon is high, and the roof is coated with silver light. It must be about three o’clock in the morning. Joseluís tries to think, kicks a rock in his path. Two hours from now, he must be on his way. He shuffles his feet on the mat before entering the room.

 

Three of them are gathered around a single bed in the corner, which is piled high with blankets of many colors, like the ones the women used to weave before the patterns were lost to collectors and to memory. These are cheap, machine-made ones from the market in La Paz. The room smells like fear, and sickness. A wastebasket sits near the head of the bed. From the pale face upon the pillow, the slow and wheezing breath, Joseluís knows it is the altitud, squeezing oxygen from Ruth’s lungs like a greedy animal. Each breath is slow as birth.

 

A curse escapes him, just one word, but it comes with the force of a gunshot, and they all jump and stare. Dropping his head so they will not see, he feels his face contort like a furious infant’s. She has to go down. When a body is this troubled, descent is the only miracle. A thousand meters the difference between death and life. At night, getting to the refugio near the edge of the Salar will take two and a half hours at least. If he drives her, he won’t make the starting line on time.

 

Ruth’s eyes flutter open, and Joseluís feels it from across the room. She sees him, sees what is in his thoughts. A cramp in his stomach nearly doubles him over. Maybe she is a witch, watching his thoughts the entire time. He drops to his knees and bows his head, mutters what he remembers of the prayer for travelers. Many of his prayers are incomplete. Some are even for show.

 

Lo siento, mi padre, he whispers, hoping for swift absolution for the false piety that increases tips. Lo siento que mentí. Por favor Santo Andreo, guárdala. He crosses himself again.

 

What? What are you saying? Adam’s voice is sharp, angry. Joseluís looks up. All of them look confused, frightened. HeatherfromCanada is crying openly. Ruth’s eyes are closed. Had he been speaking? Joseluís and Adam stare at each other.

 

Heather cries out, her voice a storm of needles. Aren’t you going to do something? Oh my God… Oh my God… Is she going to die? Are you fucking kidding me? Adam detaches himself from where he has been frozen and strides to her.

 

Shut up, he hisses, shaking her once, hard. Shut the fuck up.

 

Joseluís prepares himself to issue orders: pack, walk, get into the GMC. But he cannot bring himself to unleash the words. Then Adam moves toward him, stopping only a foot away, his hands curling and uncurling. Joseluís watches the hands, counts the curls.

 

Go get a fucking doctor, man, he snaps. What are you doing? Go. ¡Va! ¡Va!

 

One of Adam’s hands rises, sweeps the air in the direction of the door, close enough to Joseluís’s face that he cringes. In his pocket, he wraps his fingers around his pocketknife and squeezes tightly. He meets Adam’s eyes and sees only disgust. Slowly, he turns and crosses the room, goes out the door into the frigid night. He crosses the courtyard and climbs into the GMC, panting. When he slams the door, the GMC shudders as if she, too, cannot believe what is happening to them.

 

He puts his head down on the steering wheel and then slams his forehead on it. The horn bleats sadly. He turns the key. He can still make it to La Paz by daybreak. He can call the office tomorrow. He can tell Marisol that she must send a doctor. He can, he can. He shifts the GMC to reverse but cannot move his foot from the clutch.

 

Fuckfuckfuck, he mutters between his teeth. The way he was told to go, like
a fool, like a dog. Fuckfuckfuck. He takes his foot off the clutch, jerks the wheel,
and slams the gas. The wheels spin and scream. Turning roughly, he peels out
of the courtyard and into the night. Rocks ping the chassis. The outline of the
refugio dissolves behind him, and he looks in the mirror hoping it is gone. But
he can still see the wavering light in the dark.

 

He knows the route to the nearest pueblo, though he does not often take it. He will stop there, bring the doctor to Ruth, then leave for La Paz. The road is poorly marked, pitted with yawning holes. He is going too fast, but anger burns through his knees and pushes his foot down on the gas like an unseen devil. The vehicle screams through the night, and he hits another depression in the desert floor, and then he is airborne, still at the wheel. The whole GMC is in the air for what feels like a minute, and Joseluís jerks the wheel, his stomach lurching. They hit the ground like thunder, his head snapping back, then forward, his body a bag of bones shaken by a giant. The car is still moving at great speed, and his hands are still on the wheel, the headlights tossing white streaks like useless lassos into the dark. He catches the outline of something enormous— a wall, a stone, a house—directly ahead. The driver in him snaps to attention and slams on the brake, downshifts, bile rising in his throat.

 

A terrible, high-pitched squealing, the wheels spinning under him, an awful grinding: then, finally, slowing, stillness. His heart may explode between his ribs. One shaky breath, then another; a silky tickle on his chin. When he swipes with his shoulder, he tastes blood.

 

Sitting absolutely still, he squints into the pool of light ahead, dust swirling in the frigid air, the outline of a boulder the size of a guanaco less than two meters away.Gracias a Dios, he mutters, making the sign of the cross, and then, panting, hitches himself painfully from the seat so he can squint into the rearview mirror. He sees nothing but the outline of his features, but he can feel that his lip is split, on the bottom right side. It is of no matter. His body is intact: gut, bone, skin. But the GMC. He sits back down, stills his breath and listens to the engine, an odd hiss under the low, heavy hum he loves like a lullaby, a crooning promise. In his head he runs through the trouble that could bring this sound. A cracked radiator, maybe. He has water in the back, a lot of water. Probably duct tape. Enough to get back to therefugio, at least. If it is something that will kill the engine, though, the cold will kill him by morning. And Ruth will be dead too.

 

He rummages through the glove compartment, under the seats, and in his own torn and greasy satchel before finding a working headlamp in FabriziofromItaly’s pack. Joseluís’s right knee is weak under him when he steps into the cold air, his lip tender. The light from the lamp shakes when he shines it on the engine block, holding his breath.

 

It is the radiator. But the crack is small; he is lucky. He has found the tape, and there is water. His relief is so warm and powerful, he almost pisses himself. But the moment of joy is brief. Of all his mother’s children, only Joseluís had lived. And for this gift, of life, he had intended to return some great triumph to his family, to his dry and tiny town. But he had done nothing, become nothing.

 

Shivering in the dark desert, Joseluís screams a string of curses and kicks the bumper of the GMC as hard as he can, and then howls at the pain that shoots through his knee. The GMC does not answer. The moon drops lower. His tears freeze on his cheek. Shoving his cold hands back in his pocket, his fingers close around a square of paper, and he pulls Ruth’s drawing out. He will shred it into one hundred pieces. He will owe her nothing.

 

But in the bright light of the headlamp, the vehicle on the page seems so fragile, like it might float away if he looks long enough. His figure, too, looks like a wisp of smoke, his elbows like wings. When Joseluís squints at the drawing, the wind at the edge of the laguna almost lifts him away. She’s given him wings. His vision is blurry with frozen tears he cannot blink away. When his teeth begin to chatter, he folds up the paper and puts it back in his pocket. Then he closes the hood, climbs into the driver’s seat, and starts the engine.

Vamos, Joseluís says, clapping his hands with authority as he reenters the room where they hover, helpless as newborns. We go down now. He watches them as they exchange glances with one another as if to confirm that they will obey, but none of them speak. ¡Vamos! He claps again, then points at Ruth, who is looking only at him.

 

She go down, she feel better, he explains, like he is speaking to children. HeatherfromCanada moves first, and then urgently, suddenly: they whirl through a shared orbit of now and this and here and put and take.

 

Satisfied, he goes back to the GMC, readies the tarp, eyes the untouched 165 money in the backseat. Under his hands, the hard, smooth wheel is a salve. The
window clouds with his breath. Soon they come, toting blankets and sleeping
bags, making for Ruth a warm nest. Adam comes last, carrying her as if she is no heavier than a baby goat. When she is tucked in between Adam and Heather, Joseluís adjusts his mirror so that he can see her face just by glancing up, vigilant for signs of illness that will be impossible to right.

 

¿Listos? Four heads nod their readiness. Joseluís pauses only once to pat the dashboard and whisper, this time silently, his desire to the GMC. Then he drives.

 

The dark desert is a half-lit world, the road a trail of smoke disappearing, at times, for tens of kilometers, winding around rocks and outcroppings before reappearing suddenly, marked by stones set this way or that by someone who knew. He knows the road to the Salar well, but when he is unsure, the GMC helps, pulls him in one direction or another like a horse or compass. Heather hums a song and then stops. Someone offers Joseluís a bottle of water, which he accepts but does not drink. A puma crosses a high pass, a dark shadow fast as wind, but he keeps the moment to himself. The stars move above them, insensible. Slowly, they descend, until the moon has crossed over into the invisible side of day, and in the distance, the square outline of a rough shelter forms itself out of the darkness.

 

But he keeps going. Ruth’s breath has eased—he can hear it—and he can see that she is asleep, at peace. He hears them murmuring in the back, wondering,wasntthattheplace and arewestopping and canwetrust. To the east, at the horizon, a filament of palest blue is visible. Joseluís drives lightly, cleanly, swerving gracefully, now a straightaway, now a turn. He wonders if they will make it to the Isla in time. It is the only place from which they can watch the sun rise over the salt, the only rise in this flat world. Already, a line of pink is joining the blue at the edge of the world. The commingled breaths of five bodies sweeten and sour the air around him. The rocky terrain begins to harden, to flatten, goes from brown to grey, then lighter, lighter, lighter.

 

The GMC glides onto the salt flat, dazzling, as wide as the ocean it once was, ranging as far as the farthest mountains. As the sun begins its break over the horizon, the white world that was silver in the dark tips toward blue, then pink, orange, yellow, gold. The GMC flies over the brilliant, glassy surface of what was once alive with currents, with kayaks, with tiny silver fish, and Joseluís smiles, imagining himself above it, soaring. Closing his eyes, he still sees light.

 

 

Amy Brill is the author of articles, essays, and stories that have appeared in Salon, Guernica, Redbook, and Time Out New York.

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