By ROBIN MCLEAN
That was Mike hanging in the brass chandelier. He was Tarzan with a crew cut and farm boy grin, swinging upside down. Hilarious. Mel could get Mike to do anything.
The women were laughing their heads off at Mike, mostly South of the Border girls, in their reds, blues, and pinks. They pointed pretty painted fingers up at him. Smiled with big teeth and red lips. The men were laughing their heads off too, clean, starched, tall and white, taller by a head than the local girls. The men were shipped in from their Chicagos, Maines, and Pasadenas to Fort Bliss to be trained up and ready, waiting to ship out.
It was too tight and warm in the Bombardier. The men dabbed their brows with handkerchiefs someone had stitched for them on some back porch. Those who had mislaid their hankies wiped sweat with the back of bare thick arms, or the tail of a damp shirt, or licked the upper lip and swallowed with a chaser. Hot as Hades sure, but if a big black hand had flown in from downtown Hong Kong or Taiwan or Ching Chong to pry at the rafters with black hairy fingers, had pulled off the roof purlin by purlin, had let in some air, then things might have been different.
Mike poured beer on the crowd. The crowd laughed and twirled. Mike twirled his trousers like a lasso. Mel blew a kiss at Mike and handed him up another, which Mike poured on the crowd, which laughed more and leaned, so on. It was a wonderful night. Mike’s chandelier will hang there for three decades more, till the Bombardier burns down. The girls will marry and have children by other men than these, and one of the children’s children will fly to Mars on the first manned mission. At the launch, this grandmother, stone blind by then, in her lilac suit, rose in hair, Bible in hand as the rocket glides out of earshot, will picture this night perfectly. Will sit down on the bleachers and rub her neck.
Mel was from McAllen, so was used to the heat. A boy was walking in the crowd with a pretty pistol on a yellow velvet pillow, and was talking Español. He wore a sombrero. The pistol grip was mother-of-pearl, a beauty, made for a female or a duel, someone said. Mel ended up with the sombrero too.
Someone called, “Enough hanky panky. Let’s get back to Base.”
Someone else yelled, “Reveille’s at six.” One man whistled at his pals and the pals herded up. They laughed at something someone said. Mike swung down with one arm. He scratched his armpit and howled.
“What a card,” someone said as the men moved to the street. They rubbed their arms in the chill. The Border was like that, hot after dark till cold of a sudden. Someone called a cab.
In the street, Mike hopped into his pants. He zipped up, “Where’s my goddamn belt?” but the belt was gone forever, kicked under the bar by a girl’s pink heel, never to be discovered by anyone ever, although a long-handled broom will almost grab it next Easter and the belt will burn up, even the brass buckle, with the rest of the Bombardier in the Heroes Day Fire that will take the whole block to the river.
For now, Mike bunched his pants with one hand. He stood on the curb and cracked the seal of a bottle and drank. The sombrero was huge on Mel’s head and Mike said, “I like that hat. I sure do like it.”
Others agreed, nodded. Time passed, a few minutes, a quarter hour, a cab came and took some men, another cab came, so on.
The sombrero had red balls around the rim like a toy. They swung in unison and glowed when any car drove by.
“Let me try it,” said Mike.
“Get back,” said Mel, and he slapped his friend’s hand, but nice. The sombrero looked like a crown in the headlights. The city was dim and the dwindled crowd smoked on the street. Nearby the river flowed dry and someone said, “Does it ever rain?”
“God forsaken desert,” said someone else.
The rooftops were flat and poor. Flags and clouds strayed in the small breeze, and drooped. The moon was up, but hidden. It haloed the corniced peak of El Banco. The men leaned on brick and saluted with bottles when three jets roared over, banked, then disappeared north, to home and hangar.
“Let me try it on,” said Mike.
“You always want what I got,” said Mel, but he let Mike try the hat. The crowd laughed at Mike. They passed a bottle, then Mike set the hat back on Mel’s head. Happiness is so small a thing, and they had it on the street for a while, just like that, happiness, Mike stumbled into Mel, who had grabbed a girl in an orange dress just come out the door. They all three swayed together for a turn, like waltzing, till Mel shoved the girl to an electric pole for a kiss. Her arms went crazy. She screeched like a cat and the sombrero fell.
“My nose!” said Mel. She’d made a direct hit to the bridge of it. “Son of a bitch!” said Mel with his face to the wall, his hands were up like praying since his nose was bleeding like crazy.
The girl went running and it was Mike who made chase. “I’ll get her,” Mike said, clutching his pants, but she was faster than one might guess. The crowd was excited. Mel watched between bloody fingers and they hooted and whistled at her big bottom swinging. “Will you listen to those shoes,” someone said. “Like hooves clomping, clickity, click clack!” someone said. The girl hurdled a small fallen tree.
When a cab turned the corner, Mel whistled and Mike ran back.
“My dad would have a cow over that tree,” said Mike trotting up.
“I’ll see that cow in the future,” said Mel to the corner where the girl in the orange dress had turned. Mel and Mike slid in the backseat of the cab, Mike behind the cabbie. The nameplate on the dash said “Richard” but with no picture. It was any ordinary cab.
“To Fort Bliss, amigo,” said Mike to the cabbie. “Mucho denaro for you.”
“Don’t you have any heat in this rig?” said Mel. “I’m freezing.” He adjusted the sombrero, which blocked the rear view when he tipped his head. He licked blood from his lip. The nose was turning blue and swelling.
“Heat’s busted,” said the cabbie, then the cab pulled from the curb and sped north.
“My dad will be milking soon,” said Mike. The street was closing up. Men and girls walked in couples and threes. “My mother’s a poor milker.”
“Who’d want to milk a cow?” said Mel.
“It’s more pleasant than you’d think,” said Mike. “Restful and gives you time for thinking.”
“Who’d want to milk a cow?” said Mel. He dabbed his nose on his cuff.
“You ok?” asked the cabbie. “You need a hospital? I can take you there.”
“My friend had a run in with a she-wolf,” said Mike.
“A rabid bovine,” said Mel.
“Looks more like Joe Louis got him,” said the cabbie. “Or my mother-in-law.”
“Ha ha ha, a joker,” said Mike. “Mel, how do you like this guy?” He smacked the cabbie’s shoulder. He drank from the bottle, and drank again.
“Take a left,” Mel said.
The cab swerved round the fallen tree, and turned. A block up, the girl in the orange dress stood under an awning, bent over, hands on her face.
“Slow down,” said Mel, and the cab slowed, and Mike jumped out still rolling. “I’ll take care of this.” The girl sprinted down an alley and Mike did too. They disappeared at the end of it.
The cab waited in the street. The station played a mariachi, which finished with a flourish of trumpets. The announcer said, “Tomorrow will be hot,” and another song started, a waltz. Awnings leaned down over and fire escapes wound up, dark and peaceful. Steps dropped away. Another cab rolled near. The drivers signed to each other and the high beams flashed. The other cab was green, unusual for the area, a new model. The green cab will pass on, will be crushed in a head-on the day Kennedy is shot over in Dallas, so neither the bloody car wreck nor funerals will be much noted in the papers: invisible inconsequential.
The green cab passed on. It was any dark street again.
“Who’s that girl?” said the cabbie. “Why’s he chasing that girl?”
“She’s no one,” said Mel. “Some bitch. Mike takes care of things for me.” Mel drank and blood from his nose smeared on the neck of the bottle. “Maybe I know that girl,” said the cabbie. “We live near here.”
“You don’t know her,” said Mel.
There was a brass frame hanging from the rear view mirror. “These are my kids in here,” said the cabbie and touched the frame. “Richie, Consuelo, Kiki and Gloria, the baby. I tell them stories sometimes to make them sleep. Like King Arthur and Lancelot, or General Grant, Alexander or Abraham Lincoln. Big stories about how they should live in the future.”
“How should they live in the future?” said Mel.
“How to be good men and girls,” said the cabbie.
“Then all your kids will be good little men and girls.”
“I tell them all about the desert sometimes too. I have ten books about this desert and the mountains and caves in it. We have the most stupendous caves out there in our desert.”
“Well fine,” said Mel. He shifted the sombrero and drank.
“I have three books on it in the trunk,” said the cabbie.
“That’s just swell,” said Mel. “A regular rolling library.”
It was a dark street at that hour. The cabbie looked down the alley. “He won’t hurt her,” said the cabbie.
“Only if she deserves it,” said Mel. “Only in that case.” The headlights beamed down the street in two cones of light that flicked from high-beams to low beams with the cabbie’s finger. High low, high low, and the street shifted and moved: the brick walls rose and fell, the trash bins were boulders then sawed down trees, then trash bins, so on. Holes and doorways blinked like hungry things.
“Might as well shut her down,” said Mel. “Cut the lights.” The sombrero dipped down over his face the old fashioned way, like napping at High Noon in some pueblo. But the cabbie did not shut down the engine or lights. The cabbie watched the empty alley. The red balls on the rim were now black. Mel tipped his head, breathed blood back in, and the balls tipped up like the ride at the June fair. The kids would love that ride, the Ferris wheel, wave down from the top. The cabbie twisted the radio dial. The yellow cab hummed. A curtain pulled shut up in a second story window. The shadow of a stray dog darted out and back into shadow. They waited for Mike. A slow song sang with a chocolate voice.
There once lived a cowboy called Jim White. He’s known and famous across the globe as the discoverer of the world’s most colossal, most beautiful, most spectacular, most stupendous, and all around best caves. Now, these caves he found happen to be right here in our very own desert. On a clear day you can look out that window and see the mountains they’re in. The caves are eight hundred feet down, a maze of three hundred caves at least, gigantic bubbles in the solid rock. A few are big enough to fit a town. Jim found the entrance to the caves one day while herding calves: a tunnel two hundred feet down— the blackest hole you ever saw.
What did Jim do when he found the blackest hole you ever saw? Did he say, “I’m tired. I think I’ll go back to the ranch for a nap”? Or, “Well behold, there’s a mighty big and interesting hole in the ground right there, but I have no ladder to reach it with”? Did he say, “Some other man can explore that hole, for I have no expertise?” No, Jim didn’t say any of that. He went and built a ladder two hundred feet tall. Then he climbed right down in the hole on his new ladder, then three miles down the sloping tunnel, like plumbing the belly of an immense stone snake. Sometimes Jim crawled on hands and knees. He had no friend with him and only the small glow of his lamp to see by. His reward was the biggest cave anyone’s ever seen, that’s a man for you. Later, Jim brought a boy with him, a Mexican, a pony-tender and ranch hand, since the other cowboys were too scared to come. But Jim mostly explored the caves alone. He plumbed pits with no bottom and wandered chambers with no ceiling. He saw sights too strange and marvelous to speak of.
That was 1901, more than fifty years ago. Sure, other cowboys had seen the big hole in the ground in their wanderings, but none bothered to look into it further. The Indians of this desert must have known, since they make every root and rock their business. But it is well known that Indians are deadly afraid of the dark. Who else knew the caves? Not the bees nor the birds, though they surely swooped down for a peek at the tunnel’s mouth when the sun angled right. The bats knew, they lived in the caves, of course, as did the fishes swimming down in the cold black pools. But the bats and fishes are pure blind creatures. What does knowing mean for such as them? The bat hears the stone and flies. The fish feels water and swims. It goes to show one thing sure: the greatest grandest things on earth are nothing at all till some man comes along, points it out, and says: “Hey lookie here!”
Jim White never looked for fame and fortune. He appeared any regular man. He was born on a ranch no one’s heard of and was riding the range before he turned eight. His horse was his best pal. He wore a sombrero since it served him best. He was a freckled man since birth, a gringo, but good anyway, his heart was clean. Jim ate rice and beans with any man, and beef when there was some. He liked cattle and cactus, firesides, and tall tales with happy endings. He was poor with writing but managed a letter to Mother once a week her life through. Nor was he one for praying or dreaming up what God might carve if He set His hands to limestone. But once such sights invade a cowboy’s small parched brain, they cannot be rooted out except by death or terrible infirmity.
Sleep now, my darling children.
Another waltz played on the station. A light flickered on in a high window down the street, then off. Mike trotted from down the alley. He slid in the cab, slammed the back door, and smiled. “Drive on, Ricardo.”
“Who’s that girl?” said the cabbie to Mike.
In a few blocks Mike said to Mel, “That nose is a geyser.”
The cab drove past the theater with the marquee lights out. At the cathedral a cat sat at the crack in the big doors. “I got married there,” the cabbie said, and pointed at the doors. “Funerals, baptisms. Everything is there.” The bell tower reached up, but no one looked. “I got married there right before they shipped me to France. My wife, she worries about everything. You boys married?”
“What outfit?” said Mike.
“The 4th infantry,” said the cabbie. “Where you boys from?”
“Omaha Beach?” said Mike.
“Utah Beach my ass,” said Mel. “Damn it’s cold.”
“My dad was in France in the First War,” said Mike. “I’d give my eye teeth for Utah Beach.” The houses were snug on the street like a tribe, low and dark behind stone walls: a pile of rocks, a pile of sand, a pile of tires covered with sand and rocks and glass in splinters and shards. Mike said, “They say the Channel was red a mile out to sea.”
“I couldn’t say the color of the water,” said the cabbie.
“They say it was a bridge of legs and backs,” said Mike. “You a fair swimmer?”
“I swam to shore. I got this scar.” The cabbie showed the side of his neck under the stiff collar. “My wife, she had our first while I was gone.”
“That’s something,” said Mike. “That neck is really something. What I wouldn’t give.”
“My youngest just lost her front tooth. Now my oldest kid’s teeth need fixing. Time flies.” The cabbie rubbed his fingers together like money. Mike and Mel passed the bottle between them. Blood from the neck smeared Mike’s hands and cuffs. Mike offered the bottle to the cabbie, who shook his head, and Mike and Mel drank again. The dash glowed green and the town thinned. The cab rolled up a low hill.
“He could have nicked his neck shaving,” said Mel to Mike. “There’s a thousand ways to nick a neck.” The cab crested the hill. The river lay far below, just a black line.
“Does it ever flood?” said Mike.
“It floods,” said the cabbie. “It runs a thousand miles at least.”
Mountains busted out ragged and parched from place to place and the cab rolled down the north side. Mel looked at the soft place behind the cabbie’s ear, “He could have read up on Utah Beach in any book.”
“You hear that, Ricardo?” said Mike. “Mel says you read up on Utah Beach in a book.”
“Sure. I read it in a book. I was never in Normandy, never saw Paris, my barber nicked my neck a good one, better tell my wife where I was all that time. You boys are smart as whips.”
“Don’t let Mel get your goat,” said Mike.
“Sure,” said the cabbie.
“That nose needs ice.”
“Sure,” said the cabbie.
Mel pressed his collar to the nose and dirtied the dirty collar.
“How many kids you got?” said Mike.
“Two boys and two girls.”
“And some’s got crooked teeth,” said Mel. “A shame.”
“People hate people with crooked teeth,” said Mike. “It’s a sad fact of nature.”
“My girl tripped on the foot of the table, the tooth came right out,” said the cabbie. “Of course there was blood, any girl would have cried. I found the tooth, cleaned it. The roots of a baby’s tooth are exactly like a screw. You know that? I never did. So I set that tooth back in her head like new. Didn’t know if I could, it was just last week.”
Mel said, “Crooked teeth, crooked soul.” He drank.
The land rose again, fell again, rose again. The dogs barked from chain to chain in the yards behind the walls, barked from house to house. Now the last house, the last parked car, the last liquor store with lights out, the sign that said “Come back soon, ya’ll.” The edge of the desert. The sombrero tipped up against the back glass and blotted the town. The music played out strong and joyful till miles of sand killed the trumpets.
Jim White did not just stumble onto his caves by chance. He was invited in. Here’s how:
From a distance he had thought it was a volcanic eruption. Or the end of the world. The calves he’d been driving agreed, fled to high ground at the sight of black swirling spew. Jim’s horse shied and bucked too, refused to go closer. But he was the very best sort of horse, and Jim tied his shirt across the horse’s eyes and roped him to a bush, which soothed him. Jim crawled on hands and knees to the edge of the hole where the cloud poured forth.
Millions and millions of bats. The bats swarmed and banked around him. They fanned his face with ten million soft wings. The bats tipped and turned around the sombrero and the sombrero fell and they banked around it. They squeaked and chattered, the echo doubled them, so pretty a sound it was! They made Jim weak and strong at the exact same time. “There’s no end to these bats,” he thought, but still he waited because there’s an end to all things, a cowboy learns this much. When the bats were done and gone, the hole they left was black as a solid wall. Jim dropped a stone down and listened. Stones and hours dropped and the day passed. The calves, lonely, came back and stood with the horse and they all chewed weeds. Jim built a fire. He flung down a flaming arm of cactus that arced and landed far below. It burned as bright as it could, but in all that dark, could barely make out the width of the bats’ vast doorway. Jim never saw the hat again.
That night at the bunkhouse, Jim talked of cows and branding and listenedto cowboy jokes. He let his horse lick the plate clean, as always, then bunked in. But how could he sleep? Next day, Jim gathered an ax, some wire, and a bit of rope. He filled the kerosene lamp to overflowing, packed his kit and departed on his horse, looking out for likely trees along the way. He’d need many to build his ladder.
Once, later on, when he’d been up and down the ladder so many times that the bats were pals to him, Jim found a dead man in the caves. A skeleton sleeping in a crotch of rock. The size of him was twice as big as any man Jim had ever seen, though the skull was exactly normal. At first sight, Jim thought he’d found some breed of giants, Red Men from the Plain who lived in the caves, then died. But when Jim touched the big man’s arm, every bone crumbled to dust. Every bone but the skull. Scientists later explained the chemistry: limestone and water dripping, bloating the bones.
Jim carried the skull out the cave like a treasure. He lent it to a doctor in Carlsbad, who lent it to a doctor in Cloudcroft, who lent it to a doctor in Weed. In this way, the skull was lost. That skull would have been the prize of Jim’s famous cave museum.
The road outside town was a two-lane and smooth. It was built for buggies with spokes and horses, long before Fort Bliss, then improved. The road aimed at the spot where three searchlights swiveled together, green red and green. Dizzy and earnest. The cab buzzed north between the spines of mountains. Birds blew up across the headlights from time to time, but ten thousand others crouched in weeds. Dust devils eddied, spun up, and disappeared unseen. A snake S’d off the concrete at the cab’s first vibrations, and was long gone before the cab whizzed past, disappearing with her fifty thousand twins. The sand spat at the glass, a trillion trillion grains per fistful, blinding the cab and shoving it across the road. The moon slit the sky, it silvered the mountains and cactus which stood in disordered salute of the road.
Mel said, “I’m not tired in the least. I could drive out all night.”
The framed picture swung from the rear view mirror, smooth like a pendulum. The cabbie’s finger stilled the frame: Kiki in front, holding Gloria in his lap, they grinned out at their father with Connie behind, the tall sister turned to Richie, who was taller, she was saying something to him just as the shutter opened. The cabbie let the frame swing free. He tried the radio again but the static sounded like sand and he twisted it off. He rolled down the window, sand blew in, and he rolled the window up.
“They’d string us up as AWOL if we drove out all night,” said Mike. “I can take or leave desert.”
The cab flew on like a bee.
“Reveille’s at six,” said Mike. He leaned up. “It must be coming on four. I want some shuteye. What time is it?” If there was a clock on the front dash it was dead. The dials greened the cabbie’s face. The needle shivered over 65 miles per hour. The gas was below half, plenty for an up and back to Base. The box for heat was at the cabbie’s brown creased knee and cold. Mike sang:
Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do.
I’m half crazy over the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage. I can’t afford a carriage.
But you’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two.
“Shut that clap trap,” said Mel.
“You shut it, Mel, I like that tune. What time is it?” He drank. “Reveille’s at six.”
“Sing it on your wedding day,” said Mel. “You like that song, Ricardo?’
“This desert, way back, was an inland sea,” said the cabbie. “Was once completely under water. I know all about this desert.”
“Open your eyes,” said Mel, who licked his lips. His nose was dry but the smell of blood had lingered for miles. “Open your god damned eyes.”
“Those mountains behind Base, they’re old coral reefs built up by clams, urchins and such. Think of how many urchins. There’s caves in the ground famous the world over. Big enough to fit a town.” The cabbie’s fingers found the switch for heat and he flicked it on and off. The needle hovered over 68 miles per hour.
“Last month I found a starfish by the latrine,” said Mike. “I sent it home to my folks.”
“They’re the most beautiful caves you ever saw, gold and pearl swirled in the rock. They were made after the sea dried up. I tell my kids, ‘Squint your eyes. A giant squid is at our heels! Whales and sharks are winding round like one of Ike’s submarines, peaceful like lambs, eels and fishes missiling around, jelly fish, pink, orange, and green, waving their arms and legs, that would be fine.’ I say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fine?’”
“You got kids?” said Mike. “I’d like some kids.”
“Give me that bottle,” said Mel. He pressed his swollen cheek against the cold window. The sombrero flattened by the glass. The glass smeared, pink and sweat.
“I got four kids,” said the cabbie. “I know all the cave stories by heart. They say, ‘Papa, tell again about the caves and the bats and the big man!’ and I say, ‘Alright then, I’ll tell it again when your heads are on the pillows.’”
“I don’t care for caves,” said Mel and looked at his watch, which was too dark to see. “It’s cold. Let’s get some heat.” The cabbie flicked the switch on and off.
“This certainly explains the starfish,” said Mike.
“Your starfish makes a hill of beans,” said Mel and drank. “What does he know? Nothing.” A mile passed. The Base was a halo sprawled low behind the searchlights. “I could use some heat.”
“The heat’s been busted for a week,” said the cabbie. A mile passed. The needle stood over 72 then 75 miles per hour. “Was that girl ok?” said the cabbie. “I’ve got two little girls myself.”
“It’s a simple question of justice,” said Mike. “Try the heat again,”
“God damn it,” said Mel. “There’s no heat. Ricardo already said.”
The cabbie tried the switch again and the heat came on, blasted warm for a mile, then shut off again. “God damn it,” said Mel.
“What’s eating you?” said Mike. Another mile passed by, cactus waved in the cool wet blue. “My dad lost a finger in France. I do also know that. There’s many things I know.”
“He could have lost it chopping cabbage,” said Mel.
“But he didn’t lose it chopping cabbage,” said Mike.
“What do you know about chopped off fingers?” said Mel. “Were you there when he chopped off his god damn finger? Did you see the blood? What do you know? What do I know, what does he know about anything: seas, deserts, girls or mermaids. Hills of beans, mountains of beans, that’s all.”
Mike drank, Mel drank. The bottle sloshed. A mile passed. The searchlights fanned the stars. The brown mountains to the north disappeared behind the growing searchlights. A jet could spot Base from one hundred miles with those searchlights waving and dancing, green red green: “come here, this way, come here to land.” The needle swung right, 84, 85 miles per hour, leaned into 86 and quivered there.
“Faster,” said Mike.
“It’s fast,” said the cabbie and Mike kicked the seat and the cabbie jumped.
“Faster,” said Mike.
The foot quivered on the pedal. The legs in regular brown pants quivered. Fear enters through the ears, eyes, and nose, any orifice, but accumulates and settles itself in the limbs and extremities: 87 miles per hour can seem slow to some. Consider the jet that will fly over soon and land without incident on the runway beyond the gatehouse. The pilot who will sleep all morning. Will take a shower at noon and lose his father’s wristwatch in the mess. He will ship out without finding it. They will crash on the transport to the Theater: over the Pole, a goose in the engine and a glacier receding at one inch a year.
“I know I was born too,” said Mike. “I know plenty. I was born. Here I am. You were born. And he was born.” Mike pointed the bottle at the cabbie. “There’s a moon up there, I can see it, way out far. Someone will fly there sometime, pitch a tent, and eat cheese.”
“Ha ha ha,” laughed Mel.
Forty-four seconds passed, a fast mile, the needle at 89. The cabbie’s knuckles and wrists were green.
“Sure you were born, yes, but who’s your daddy?” said Mel, sitting up like he was having fun.
“You need religion thinking that,” said Mike.
“Luckily, you and your friend Ricardo here are in the exact same boat,” said Mel. “You can grieve your women troubles together.”
“He’s not my friend,” said Mike.
“Your pop was a long time in France. Ricardo was a long time away at Utah Beach,” said Mel. “Things can get very lonely back at the casa?”
“Utah Beach is something else altogether,” said Mike.
“Women are frail,” said Mel.
“I’m the spitting image of my pop,” said Mike. “I got that picture by my bunk.”
“You got an uncle?” said Mel. “I bet you’re the spitting image of your uncle too.”
“My uncle lives in Milwaukee,” said Mike.
“So many cows to be milked,” said Mel. “The truck needs tending. A man is needed for many things.”
“Why you son of a bitch!” yelled Mike, and in the backseat arms and legs kicked and swung and thumped the doors and seat. The grunting and groaning was in earnest at first, then Mel yelled, “God damn lighten up!” When the pistol flashed and cracked, the laughing got only louder, “Crazy son of a bitch, ha ha ha!” A new wind screamed through the fresh hole in the roof.
The cab slowed to 22, tried to sway to the shoulder, but Mel said, “Keep going” and the cab drove on. His son Richie had black hair and black eyes. Consuelo, black hair black eyes, Kiki, black black same. Gloria, round and brown and a new front tooth, Gloria Gloria, the children often lifted their heads in the night, turned their pillows without waking at all, a miracle of unconsciousness.
“We could be dead in a month anyway,” Mel said. “Face down in tree roots we can’t even pronounce the name of, Ping Pong Bing Bong, eh, Ricardo? We ship out in a week.”
“You’re a sour puss sometimes,” said Mike. “You can really ruin my fun.”
“We’ll be laying there in the mud. A pack of squint-eyed little yellow men will sneak up quiet behind, quick and nimble through the jungle leaves, and put a pistol to your soft baby temple. Right there.” Mel tapped the cabbie’s temple with his pinky finger. The cabbie jerked his head away. The needle got blurry at 91. The sand was blue, the black sky was getting blue in the east.
“I heard that’s so, quick little squint-eyed yellow men by the millions,” Mike said and drank. “I’d like to shoot something tonight.”
Mel said, “If he doesn’t shoot you on the spot in the mud, he’ll take you back to his hole in the ground and tie your hands. Bind your eyes. Spin you round and laugh his yellow head off before he shoots you, or guts you, or worse.”
“What could be worse than gutting?”
“There’s plenty worse. These squint-eyes have been at it five thousand years. It’s an art form they practice.”
“I wouldn’t let him,” said Mike. “I’d kill him first.”
“How’d you kill him first?” said Mel. “He’s got you at gun point.”
“I’d have my knife. It’s tucked in my boot and I’ll slit his yellow belly up the middle like a calf.”
“That might do it,” said Mel. “Now you’re thinking.”
“Pull his insides out and leave them for the dogs,” said Mike.
“And the birds,” Mel said. “Picking each last bit of him. Swallowing some and bring the rest home to the hungry mouths at the nest.”
“I hate him, that’s what,” said Mike. Five deer in a set leapt all together along the right shoulder, dashed across in the headlights, and stopped in a set on the left shoulder. “Quick give me that pistol,” and Mike. “I’ll get some practice right now.” He rolled down the window and shot three times.
“Don’t use them up!” said Mel. “We might need them.” He tried to snatch the pistol, but Mike held it up and away for himself. “Suit yourself,” said Mel.
“I think I got one,” said Mike.
“Those deer will live to be sixty-two,” said Mel. “You’ve gotten nothing tonight.”
The cabbie took the brass picture frame from the mirror and slid it in his pocket. His hand stayed in the pocket for a mile, then two miles. The searchlight swung greater and greater, taking everything up, taking the whole sky. The gatehouse to Fort Bliss shone as a small gold gleam on a hill. Miles passed quickly. The gatehouse grew bigger and brighter, a yellow seed, a kernel. “I love this night,” said Mel. “I vote for driving out as far as we can go.”
“Tarred and feathered,” said Mike, and yawned. He rolled down the window, spit, rolled up, yawned again. He sniffed the barrel of the pistol. “Solitary confinement. Scrubbing the latrine for AWOL. I’m tired.”
“We can hunt down some dolphins and squid. Mark down every variety of sand. I say let’s drive out.”
“Reveille’s at six. We can’t god damn drive out.”
“Of course we can drive out,” said Mel. “Ricardo will drive us out. We are free men, aren’t we?”
The cabbie sweated in the chill. His hands on the wheel were slender hands, like a piano player’s hands or a girl’s. 95 miles per hour bent the needle into copper green . . . 96 . . . 97 . . . 98.6 . . . a brain will cook at 108, but this chassis was built for speed: 180 miles per hour at the end of the green dial where the needle could lie down and rest some.
“My dad’s into the chickens by now. Chickens were always my job. I bet the tractor’s cranky.” Mike yawned again.
“He’ll hire a hand,” said Mel.
“A hand’s not the same,” said Mike. “He’s old.”
The cab rocketed toward Base. The gatehouse gleam grew on a hill, south east west of it was nothing but sand.
Across those mountains there is no dirt or clay in the ground, no forest, no fields. The earth is a ball of sand to the middle, and heavy. There are no cities with cobblestone or brick or cement cracking. There is no rain, since the sky is sand, no pond or puddle, sand cliffs drop to sand seas. This is no lake with vines and fishes, no river with trees on the banks that from time to time plunge into the stream to be washed down three thousand miles till snagged on the bottom, the roots looped in the roots of some other tree that fell fifty or five hundred years before. The two will never harpoon the bellies of small frail crafts, never tangled and linked in mud, never rotting as one, since there is no such thing as mud. Nor is there a boat in the desert, of course. No oak anywhere to build one, iron for an anchor. No house with a sink and soap, no bed with a wife who wakes at the sniffle leaning in the doorway. Here are only lizards and beetles, sand and aboriginal thinking.
The cabbie wiped his brow on his sleeve.
“I love this night,” said Mel. “It’s our desert tonight.”
The gatehouse still two miles ahead is an A-frame. The A-frame has a black and white gate next to it. The black and white gate swings up and down by way of a crank. A man stands by the crank. The cab will turn slow to the gatehouse, like a Sunday drive. The blinker ticking right, right, right.
“I was born for this desert,” said Mel. “I vote for driving out.”
“My wife’ll be worried if I don’t get back,” said the cabbie. “Be calling everyone looking for me, like all get out.”
“My mother’s a real worrier too,” said Mike. “I vote for turning in.”
The cab hugged the right shoulder, Our Father who art in Heaven. One mile yet to the gatehouse and the gleam of that gatehouse was strong, come this way. Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done, the cab sped on. The cactus everywhere were the low, many-armed breed with spiked hands. They did not tremble.
An A-frame, a good solid A-frame. The soldier at the gatehouse will lean at the window, while the searchlights wave behind him like wings. He’ll say, “I hope you boys had a fine time so late. You’ll suffer for it come Reveille.” He’ll smile as he says it, a kind man, a forgiving man, deliver us, please deliver us, just a boy really, his cheeks pink from sunburn and coldburn, any trace of pigment in this Viking soldier’s skin was from some slave girl from Greenland or Nova Scotia, some kind of trespass in the belly of the ship. The ship had floated east and procreated. The soldier at the gatehouse will crank up the gate and the gate will rise. It will rise up and the cab will roll on, deliver them through.
The caves are a constant 52 degrees. Jim’s mother never saw his caves, since she was not one for the underground. She lived her whole life on floorboards. When Jim’s mother lay dying, Jim left the caves to see her off. “Jim, my dear son,” she’d said, “I want to look fine for My Maker, but this hair of mine is a real shame.” The very next day Jim loaded his mother in his cart. He hitched his horse and toted her across the river to a beauty parlor of repute. She prayed on the way, out loud so passers could hear it. They bowed their heads too, the gravity of it. People stepped clear as he carried her in. Jim lay her head in the sink and the cowboy washed the hair now grey forever and ever, Amen. Once Jim wrote of the caves, “Mother, the columns hoist the ceiling like Hercules! They are twisted and vined like a giant’s arm, so big as to make the tallest redwood look puny! As for bats, it’s true their faces are ugly to look at, but the bats do keep your son from lonely. I wish you could see them fly like angels through my silver stone forest, for surely it is the nearest to Heaven on Earth, Glory be! Gloria Gloria and Halleluiah too!”
“She’ll be waking soon,” said the cabbie. “My wife will send men looking.”
“A worrier wears a man down, don’t she just?” said Mike. “With my mother, it’s chickens first and foremost. Then what’s leached in the well: arsenic, lead, polio, scarlet fever. Lice and the sheets need changing and if the cans in the cellar went bad.”
The cab slowed.
“She’s a good woman,” said the cabbie. “A good wife. The best wife.”
“It’s always in the water,” said Mel. “This sickness, the fever.”
“I don’t have a wife at all,” said Mike.
“Shut up,” said Mel, “I want some quiet to cool my head.” The land was perfectly flat. It tilted hard up and ramped toward the mountains and up at the sky, except there’s no such thing as sky, it’s only a word. The cab rolled on between sand and sky. Slow, slow, careful. The cab blinked red, metal striking metal, right right right at the A-frame half a mile ahead.
“I’d like a house with red curtains,” said Mike.
“Dengue fever and hemorrhagic fever,” said Mel, “They’re the very same thing when you get them.”
Mike said, “I’m tired of this night.”
“Bleed out your ass, then die,” said Mel.
The road made an X in the desert with gatehouse, and here was the gatehouse with gate and a soldier. “We’re not turning in,” said Mel. “Tell him. We’re not turning in just yet.”
“Things aren’t so foolish as you think,” said the cabbie. The cab coasted and slowed to near stopping. The sky hovered as usual. “Lock his door,” said Mel, Mike slapped down the knob, the cab rolled slow into the X.
The soldier stationed at the gate had seen the headlights coming for miles. Flat has new meaning in the desert. He’d thought Duluth was flat, Minnesota was flat, but no flat is flat till you’ve stood in the desert at night and seen headlights at fifteen miles. His mother had sewn his name in the back of his shorts. He had rubbed his backside and had watched the headlights come.
He had tucked his clipboard under his arm. He had slipped his pen in his shorts to warm the ink. He’d snugged on his helmet. He’d stepped into the cold and stamped his feet. He’d go far in the service. His mother said his father had said that. He would ship in three weeks with two thousand souls and some other boy would stand graveyard at the gatehouse. Once, long ago, the soldier had sat by a tree. He’d watched a squirrel on a branch and also a large bird, which flew and hovered. It was after that squirrel. The bird had swooped and pecked and the squirrel had parried and slashed. There must have been something in the nest. The afternoon had passed that way: the soldier picked his teeth with a twig, the sun dropped down, and when the soldier’s hand found a stone of handy size, he’d flung it, “Quit that squabble, my darlings!” and the squirrel ducked and the bird flew up and away. They were back at it before long. The soldier took a nap in the roots of the tree. His helmet hid his face.
It was four miles per hour at the X but the needle dropped below 0 and sat there quiet.
“Tell him,” said Mel. “Tell him before he turns.” The cab stopped in the X. The soldier at the gatehouse saluted the cab and waved it in.
“Keep driving,” said Mike. “We’ll stick together.” Mike held the pistol at the cabbie’s neck, a silver pistol with a big black hole for a mouth.
“Like he said,” said Mike, “We’re driving out.”
The cab revved through the X. Ran through north. The soldier at the gatehouse stepped back, tucked his clipboard and watched it go. The soldier at the gatehouse will make Major after two tours. He will marry a girl from Roswell who will lose her liver to a virus, a cure found the year after she died.
The cab rolled on the narrow rough road beyond Base. A car had not passed that way for 36 hours and fox and deer scattered in surprise from mile to mile. The mountains loomed. Mike held the pistol close to the cabbie’s temple when the cab slowed or weaved to the shoulder. “Steady on, Ricardo. Steady on.”
“I’ll have a pack of kids someday,” said Mike after a mile.
“Sure,” said Mel. “You’ll take them on fieldtrips to visit those caves.”
“I don’t care for caves either,” said Mike. The cab rolled north and north. “He’s never going to like you,” said Mike to the cabbie. “He just can’t.”
The soldier at the gatehouse watched the taillights a long while. The right blinked right for miles after he walked back to the A-frame, which was warm and bright. A mouse ran across the floorboards at 04:00. He might bring the General’s cat. The moon made a new cloud silver and the soldier took a paper and wrote a letter that mentioned the cloud. The taillights rose and fell ten miles out, crested again in twenty, he yawned at one hundred miles, right right right, a jet floated down, the landing gear was tinted green red green. In a hole, some tail covered its nose at the jet sound. A lizard licked her tongue with the air.
There was no turn at mile 109, but the tracks in the sand started there. The tracks cut east, fishtailed through succulents and creeping vines. Wound round the cactus. The tracks were plain as day in the last of moonlight till the wind ate them.
“My dad’s in the field by now. He’s fighting with that plow.”
“He’ll get a dog.”
“What good’s a dog?”
“Dogs are fine.”
Mike drank the last of the bottle and threw it out to the sand.
“A nice home for some bug or mouse,” Mike said.
“They’ll cook in that bottle by noon,” said Mel. “Some friend you are.”
“Jungle men cook bugs and mice from the mud in a bottle,” said Mike.
The cactus gave way to the tires and grill. The cab lunged and weaved through sand.
Once, Jim White kicked over his lamp by a pool. That was darkness! The useless lamp rolled to the edge and rocked there on the lip. Jim dropped to his knees, if there were such things as knees. He groped in his kit. The bats screeched in their usual way. Jim’s fingers fumbled, the box burst open, and the matches chimed to China.
Way back, this desert was an inland sea. Those mountains were coral reefs, with caves big enough to fit a town. The reef hugged the eastern shore, eel and sharks, the sponges and urchin had children who grew up and had children who died on the reef and it rose up fine and tall with all their corpses. Fifty million years, lava spit and lava cooled, great lizards slept on islands. One day, the sea dried up. The land filled with sand in a blink. The reef was gone. Then two hundred million years. Jim rubbed his leg in the dark, the real dark, and a real leg with a real boot on the end of it. This desert was once an inland sea and Gloria tripped on the foot of the table. Just a little sprite. Of course there was blood, the girl had cried, any girl would have cried, but Jim had groped the ground and found her tooth by the hoof. Time passed, ten million years. Jim dipped the tooth in the pail till clean, the roots of the tooth were exactly like a screw. He held her head between his knees, the small glorious head, one million years passed, and the reef busted out lean and sharp, those mountains there, brown and pretty, a girl’s round belly, round as a melon on account of breakfast, and screwed that tooth back in her head. An inland sea: where the deer and mice ate the grass, grew fat and died, a tree grew from the guts, then the wind smoothed down the ridges and ribs and knocked over the tree. A mountain soaked in acid bath hollows at the roots like Swiss cheese, it all makes sense. Jim was hungry by the pool in the dark. He ate a leg of roasted chicken from his kit. His stomach growled. It unsettled the bats.
The cab cut east some miles. The moon set. The searchlights lay down. The cab halted nose up on a dune that looked exactly like a cresting wave. Mel got out and kicked the tires. Mike sang a marching tune, the stars faded to a slice of sun.
“Get out and dance,” Mel said. “You’re a happy man.”
“Something with local flavor,” said Mike, and clapped the drums. The cabbie stood by the dune.
“Like a wedding!” said Mel.
“He’s stubborn,” said Mike.
“Make him spin.” Soon after, Mike spun the cabbie.
“Tie his hands.” Soon thereafter, Mike tore his shirt, wrapped the head in the right sleeve and the wrists with the left.
“Now, give him a kiss goodbye. We best get walking.”
“I’ll not,” said Mike, but he touched the soft temple above the sleeve. “Sayonara amigo,” he said.
“On your knees,” said Mel. Mike pushed the cabbie down.
Way back, this desert lay at the bottom of the sea, ten million years, or some time, the reef rose and fell, the acid bath receded, and there in the end were caves! Rain and snow dripped and prettied them up: columns form where drippings meet; the gypsum chandeliers are unsurpassed. When Jim’s fingers found a match by his toe and struck light, Jim kissed his own hand. The fishes in the pools thought it was the moon. The caves are grander than the pyramids on the Nile, more lavish than a cathedral in Rome. These caves are so big as to fit ten cities, with balconies and bridges of gold and pearl. The caves’ ceilings, too, are something to look at. See there, fanged and curtained, towered and peacock-tailed, pocked, razored, fancied and filigreed over every silken wall. See here: every inch is buzzing nectar back to the loaves in leaven. There, the apple-pears bangle from a marble girl’s arms. Behold and wonder: the stone bear licks great stone paws! There, the winged snails sleep in lace forever in mother’s kitchen garden. Ten-foot turtles stampede, off to war, and with what speed, while their golden riders squint and aim for the spleen and pit of the tall sweet terrible sad. The world is full of beauty! The world is full of beauty! I am down on my knees to tell you!
They spent one bullet on the cabbie. They spent one match and the rest of the shirt on the cab. The fire was pale and disappointing at the beginning of day. They emptied their boots and retied the laces. Mel licked his nose, which was blue and smeared and sore. They warmed their hands as the frost dripped off every thorn and made a damp place in the sand that a flea will drink up in a week. In one hundred years it will be a puddle of respectable size, in ten thousand years, a pool with a fish. In seven hundred thousand a modest lake, ten million and fifty-two, a smallish sea and the caves drowned.
“I wish I had my belt,” said Mike. The boys got walking south. They would have followed the sun but some clouds had come in. They turned their backs to the mountains and followed some animal’s trail. They looked for up for jets.
“They must have been grounded.”
“Maybe they’ll send dogs.”
“We’d hear if they sent dogs.”
The cactus pointed the way. It was far to walk and they tired. Some bats flew up from nowhere, as if the bats could stand it no longer in nowhere. They turned east, maybe they were birds, they turned west. Far away a thing cried out. Sand beat on their faces. They turned north, then east again, behind a still ridge of rock. They walked south since the sun was high, the ridge rolled over and settled back down. They took turns with the sombrero. The red balls on the rim glowed in the sun, joyful and good.
Up north, a farmer planted his field seed by seed in black dirt. He saw no mountains at all. The tractor coughed and the farmer stopped on the third pass to lift the hood: the boy ought to have changed the oil. The black fly buzzed his ear as he tinkered. The farmer waved with his hat and slapped at his neck and when the tractor turned the fourth row, a rocket ship flew over. The black fly crawled to his nest, happy, with the lump of farmer’s neck in his thorax.
“Good morning,” said the man in the trail. The man was neat and trim, but tall as two men with hands big as plates. His trumpet was gold and tied by rope to his belt. His skin was red, but by nature or by sun, it was impossible to say.
“You better come with me,” the big man said. “You boys look lost!”
“We have to get back. Can you help us home?”
“Of course, I’ll lead you,” said the big man. “But first, come to see a wondrous sight!” He lifted the trumpet and played.
They turned with the big man toward the mountains. He told all about his life: his gal back home who was fine; his last best meal which was sausage and beans stirred in one pot. He told about his late great horse and many other stories. “Such successes form a man’s soul,” he said. The stories did lighten the mood.
The boys walked on and on. They tired and rested sometimes. In this way, the day passed. A gull flew over. They looked back from time to time and smoke curled up from their abandoned fire, as if they’d not walked a mile.
They suffered and shivered, but the big man did not break a sweat. Once, he offered a canteen and something that looked like bread. They did not sleep at night, but walked. Another day came and went, seeing double, like crabs, and a third day and a fourth. On the fifth day, the big man whistled in a pair of seahorses from the green pasture yonder: twelve feet at the shoulder, one dappled, one bay. They’d been nibbling clams. They were less than keen on the bridle, pawing the grass and tossing their heads. These were no gentle steeds! But the man was firm and they came to him. He called them deary and sweetheart, and my-precious-little-one to the bay. He petted their thick rough muzzles. He fed them sugar from his palm, which they licked clean with foot long tongues that curled and forked and roved his enormous forearm. In this way, the beasts were made tame for the journey.
Robin McLean was a lawyer, then potter, in Sutton, Alaska, for fifteen years before attending the MFA program at UMass-Amherst in Massachusetts.