ON ASHES RAIN DOWN
There is a sense of shared destiny in the mountain community of Sluggards Creek in a future that seems more like a return to the past. Shared crisis creates a tissue of interconnection as characters hang on by a thread: no food in the stores, no electricity, civil disorder. Stories mostly share the same characters and locales, so it is both a story collection and something of a novel. The deaths of loved ones in The Forever War and from disease and natural disaster reverberate in the putative death of the earth. Each story presents some new crisis; collective troubles are reflected in individual troubles as holocaust in the outside world engenders personal holocaust. But, in the end, the stories are about people dealing with personal conflicts and the vagaries of their lives, with the larger environmental issues providing a dramatic backdrop against which those lives play out.
Challenged by unforseen predicaments, characters must rely on their wits and on strengths they didn’t know they had to hold on in the face of disaster–plagues of flies, exotic diseases, fire and wind storms, drought followed by ceaseless rains…the world coming undone. Although there is a sense of impending doom here, there is also much dark humor and a zany spice of grotesque realism.
In the title story, “Ashes Rain Down,” fires burn all sides as Lawr Connery drives the lesbian couple Margie and Carlie to Oregon along nearly impassable highways to bury Carlie’s dead mother and confront family dysfunction and a brother who hates her. To free herself from the past’s conflagrations, Carlie sets the house she has inherited ablaze with her mother’s body inside it. A plague of biting flies brings an infestation of hatred to Sluggard’s Creek in “Fly-bitten.” Living alone in an isolated old farm house in the desert beyond the mountains, Dee has unexpected visitors in “Out There.” A salt pine falls on her house, then a family of drifting marauders invades it, stealing her stash of supplies. She befriends the boy Lester, who is abused by his Charlie Manson look-alike father, Alf. We revisit Lester’s “wanderer” family in “Family Life,” encamped in an abandoned suburban development in Bakersfield next door to his aunt’s house. His father, Alf, takes up with his sister-in-law whose husband has died in The Forever War. When his wife confronts him, Alf attacks her, and Lester defends his mother, incredulous at summoning the courage to stand up to his bullying “pops.”
Praise for Ashes Rain Down:
“While comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s powerful The Road novel seem inevitable, William Luvaas’s brilliant new collection of short stories, Ashes Rain Down: A Story Cycle, is a wildly inventive and epic comedy of prophetic visions, and a masterpiece of fiction for our own modern times….Luvaas manages to weave ten stories into a moving, gripping and often hilarious journey of wily characters—friends, lovers and conflicted family members—attempting to navigate the demands of a crumbling world. In a year of extreme climate disruptions, Luvaas’s stories should be required reading—if only as a reminder of the never-ending quest for food, water, fuel, redemption, understanding, love—and sex—in a world shattered by the ‘forever war,’ unrelenting natural disasters and unleashed civil disorder, and the power of storytelling to bring some sense and laugh-out-loud humor to the pieces.”
– Jeff Biggers, Huffington Post – “Book of the Year”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-biggers/book-of-the-year-ashes-ra_b_4458646.html
“The Style and mixture of voices used throughout these ten tightly linked offerings suggests Flannery O’Connor’s eccentrics channeling the apocalyptic visions of Cormac McCarthy (if McCarthy had a sense of humor) laced with brilliant absurdities that might also be labeled eerie ecstasies, the musings of a gifted ironist, a jubilantly dark comedian, a compelling writer whose mind is filled with prophetic visions about a future entirely possible–credibly even inevitable.”
– Duff Brenna, author of The Law of Falling Bodies
LA Review of Books: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/end-of-days-on-luvaass-ashes-rain-down/
“Ashes Rain Down is holy-smokes brilliant, ten connected stories of the apocalypse that are sharp and filthy and gut-bustingly funny to boot. I’ve been shouting it for years, but now I’ll shout it louder: William Luvaas, my friends, is a wild-eyed genius.”
– Lauren Groff, author of The Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds, and Arcadia
“Ashes Rain Down is a perfect title for this collection, which captures the landscape of this place, where ashes do rain down in a terrible and comical and beautiful way….The people who populate this book are singular, hilarious, melancholy, but always compelling and always right on target. The voices are enjoyable and Mr. Luvaas knows them well.”
– Susan Straight, Author of Between Heaven and Here and Highwire Moon
“I remember where I was when I first read “Ashes Rain Down.” I didn’t hear the car repair people call my name. Luvaas presents us with somewhat bizarre characters in a surreal catastrophe, but when he’s done with us–though he’s made us laugh–we find ourselves in their shoes, their crumbling world, and hoping to be as sturdy.”
– Linda Swanson-Davies, Co-Editor Glimmer Train Stories
“Bill Luvaas’ story Family Life, which won the Ledge 2010 Fiction Award, examines the family dynamic (and all its dysfunction) in remarkably fresh and original fashion with unflinching honesty and brutal detail. His writing is skillful and ambitious, and while quite imaginative in context, Luvaas maintains a level of verisimilitude throughout the story by imbuing his characters with a level of authenticity both rare and revealing. The disenfranchised characters in Family Life belie the wholesome connotation of the story’s title, bickering and brawling over the most essential elements in a story rich with futuristic undertones and an almost post-apocalyptic landscape.
– Tim Monaghan, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The Ledge Magazine & Press
“It is one of the best contemporary short stories I have ever read. The voice is extraordinary. I’m not quite sure how you can achieve the rural vernacular through the body of the work and then end with a long passage that is beautifully articulate with a tone and vocabulary that rises into elegance….The plot is complex and evocative. The tone frequently shifts from the truly comic to the hauntingly serious. Few authors can do that. There are echoes of Faulkner here, but the story maintains its literary independence. What a joy to read a story that is such a fresh and inventive use of the form.”
– Stephen Minot, author of Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama and Surviving The Flood (A personal note to the author about “Ashes Rain Down,” the title story)
“Luvaas’s stories suggest that society would be less threatening, less unpredictable, if citizens banded together, and he suggests this by depicting libertarian characters trying to deal with the end of the world while retaining their value systems. Beneath the grotesques, and the gestures toward genre horror, Luvaas has created a deeply thoughtful cycle of stories.”
– Andre van Loon , Review 31: http://review31.co.uk/article/view/112/i-couldn’t-decide-whether-i-done-good-or-bad
“Luvaas leans toward the apocalyptic, but he also comes across as a guardian of folk tales, fairytales, and ghost stories. Time is running out for the characters, yet their stories are not depressing; they are enchanting, touching, amusing, even comical. Underneath runs a current of warning over a sigh of resignation.”
– Karen Dahood, Bookpleasures.com: http://www.bookpleasures.com/websitepublisher/articles/5668/1/Ashes-Rain-Down-A-Story-Cycle-Reviewed-by-Karen-Dahood-of-Bookpleasures.com/page1.html
“The collection is strangely uplifting despite the operatic landscape of desolation that pervades every aspect of these characters’ lives….The writing style is poetic but also refreshingly crisp. Some stories echo elements of magic realism, layering the collection with an unsettling, almost cathartic energy.”
– Shoilee Khan, Foreword Reviews: https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/ashes-rain-down/
“I appreciate the way the stories end, as each day of our lives ends, with some ups, some downs, some hope, some despair. A lot of mourning and craziness. It’s not the kind of harrowing, nearly unrelieved horror of, say, Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. There are a reasonable number of people who still consider themselves part of a community, willing to help each other, at least occasionally. Displaced killer hordes are rumored to be coming from the abandoned cities, but they never show up. A family of trashy wanderers moves in on a lone woman, but they are mostly violent to each other.”
– Meredith Sue Willis, Books For Readers: www.meredithsuewillis.com/bfrarchive_156-160.html #issue159
READ AN EXCERPT FROM ASHES RAIN DOWN
“OUT THERE” excerpt
William Luvaas’s new collection: ASHES RAIN DOWN: A Story Cycle
A Short Story
A loud crack–more of a pop really–woke Dee from the morning sleep that was so delicious to her lately, since she often didn’t nod off until just before dawn. She rushed outside in her gown (no one to see her, after all), knowing what it must be. Another pop as she went out the back door. “Bad,” she cried, “awful bad!” Stumbling backward away from the house in bare feet, she watched one half of the huge salt pine split away from the main trunk and go down atop her roof with a slow groan. “Not the house! My God! Not my house!” Incredibly, the old two story structure held the weight of half that split trunk, thick as a barrel, which lay now across the roof peak, stout branches flopping down either side. It dented the roof and half obscured the south side of the house, left an ugly white scar where it had torn away from the tree. “Poor thing,” Dee whispered, not knowing whether she meant the tree or her house.
A branch snapped in the mesquite thicket. Not a coyote; they moved silently. Just the tree. She knew it unlikely for a person to be way out here this time of night–any time, for that matter–believed she could hear the roof moan in cellulose agony, similar to the agony of the tree. Then, with a great whoosh and splintering of timbers, the tree broke through into the attic. Dee watched dust snake out that hole in her roof, opened her mouth to taste it as it floated down wind toward her, the re-cent past coating her tongue: my fiftieth birthday, my drinking days with Tripp Henry, moving out here to the desert…the Petersons dying here on the place, the time their boy set the house afire…on back before the turn of the century (this one of the oldest homesteads in the Coachella), and eons before that–the taste of time itself, alkaline and chalky, older than God.
“I believe it’s going to hold. I believe the frame is going to hold it. Hah! A tree in your attic, Delores. Can you beat that? What the hell! You’ve lived with worse.” She did a jig around the yard, sat cross-legged in the dirt and plucked puncture weed spurs from pink soles of her feet. Nasty stuff. “You’d best get busy, Delores, and dig it up, after you seal off the attic. Get Lawr out to cut up that tree–if he’ll come. Tripp Henry to fix the damn roof–if he’ll come. Sure he will! Hold a bottle before Tripp’s nose and he’d follow you to hell.” Depressed her to think of having him back on the place. The hard drinking days with Tripp had all but killed her, half-destroyed her liver, left flesh sagging on her bones. The D.T.’s! My God! Scorpions, giant fire ants, and tree rats with phosphorescent yellow eyes invaded her bedroom, psychopathic drifters com- mandeered back rooms of that huge house–she heard them muttering to them- selves through the walls–and still invaded her dreams. No sir, a woman living alone in the desert doesn’t court delirium.
She stopped cold. Told Tripp, “I want you out! I don’t want you back. About time, too. My kids wanted me to stop drinking years ago.” Tripp sped away in his old jeep, missed a turn in his pisshead fury and crashed the jeep in a dry wash. Thrown clear of the wreckage, he broke his collarbone and both legs, lay for two days in the summer heat at the mercy of biting flies and feasting ants before she found him, his lips so swollen she could barely dribble water through them. She fashioned a rough travois of a blanket and mesquite limbs and pulled him to her pickup, got all two-hundred-twenty pounds of him up into it, took him to the hospital in Indian Springs. They saved the old bastard’s life. His jeep remained in that wash as a symbol of self-destructive bullheadedness.
Those months following were a hell of cold sweats and stomach cramps, peculiar jabbing headaches that tingled around her cranium, desolation of mind and soul. Walking out in the heat of the day into a bleak landscape of scrub chaparral and mesquite trees half-buried in sand, she could not imagine what she was doing living alone out here, no other human soul within miles. No sense that there was an outside world at all. It couldn’t be good for you.
Then she got busy: repaired the old wind mill and chicken coops, bought hens, grew a garden in thin, scrappy soil, scavenging whatever sad vegetables she could from gophers and ground squirrels, made herself a pleasant little nest one side of the house. One-hundred-ten degree heat connected her to the desertscape, fused her with it, as did the night sky with its multitude of chorusing stars. She sat out in a lawn chair nights and conversed with them. Maybe she lacked human companionship, but she had the cosmos.
And painting. Taking up where she’d left off years ago in San Francisco, painting thinly, since (given the troubles) there would be no more oil paint and brushes when her supply ran out. She fashioned pigments of red mudstone and dark silt from the wash, alkali white, palmetto extract and a pale yellow-green tincture from ground up yucca fruit, pink from the parasitic worms that invaded their seeds; she extracted a pithy turpentine from creosote bush; she made do. Painted her own “Starry Night”–pasting zucchini seeds to the canvas for stars. Walls of the house chockablock with her works.
She had saved a bottle of vodka for medical emergency (several, truth to tell), stashed away a little of everything–gasoline, kerosene for her lamps, the larder full of bagged lentils, rice, flour and such, the big tank brimful of water. If vagrants, who occasionally wandered past, knew what all she hoarded there would be trouble. But the old Victorian looked derelict, sand-blasted to bare gray wood by Santa Ana winds, windows boarded up. The trailer house parked beside it, where the previous owner had lived, in better condition, but Dee liked a house. The south gable forfeited now to half a tamarisk pine–about all that grew out here, with mesquite and squaw bush, cholla cactus, and damnable puncture weed, a few stately Washingtonia palms.
A sharp limb had broken through the ceiling of the parlor south side of the house, bringing splintered rafters and shattered plaster down over furniture and bookshelves, finally wedging between two floor joists that held up the whole she-bang. She closed the door between it and the back half of the house. Done. Upstairs, she sealed off the hallway with plastic sheeting to keep birds and lizards out of her living quarters–could make out long scaly tamarisk needles hanging down in whiskbroom bundles through the barrier. Cozy. However, it occurred to her it might be dangerous to live in a house that had half a tree resting atop it. The carcass gave off an occasional pop, and once the house shifted under her feet as in an earthquake. One such rifle crack woke her after dawn one morning. Dee expected the house to collapse like a deck of cards: south side going down in a detonation of rubble, pulling the north half over atop it. Her inside. She heard voices downstairs in the kitchen. What in the holy hell! That you, Tripp? She just stopped herself from calling out. Marauders, no doubt–bands of itinerant gypsies that went from place to place scavenging and killing at will. She seized the twelve gauge from the bedroom corner, broke it across her knee, rammed shells home, and cocked it with a gratifying clunk. Tiptoed down the back stairs in her nightgown and flip-flops towards a man’s hoarse, oddly-recognizable voice in the kitchen.
“Don’t nobody lives here no more, I don’t guess. She must of moved to the trailer.”
“Looks like it is, Pop,” a boy answered in a high-pitched girl’s voice.
“You bet there is.” She kicked open the door and stepped off the bottom step, gun barrel raised. “Y’r trespassing.”
The man threw up his hands histrionically and backed away. “Take it easy there, lady! How we s’posed to know it’s occupied? You got you a tree through your house.” Grinning.
“We thought it was vacant,” the boy insisted. “We wouldn’t never of come inside a occupied house, ma’am, I swear it. Right, Pop? We saw the tree and we got curious.”
“Never,” the man agreed. “We don’t got much, but we got our principles.”
“I wonder you do. First among them is eating. I don’t have booze if that’s what you want. I can spare you some food. I expect it’s you two stealing my chickens; it’s you I heard in the mesquite the night my tree fell. I believed I had a fox until I saw the chicken wire slit. A fox works its nose through a weak spot, a coon gets hold of a hen leg from below and drags it down through the slats, eats it alive, a human reaches in a hand and grabs its neck. That would be you two!”
“Like I say, we got our principles. Right, Lester?”
“Yessir. My mom’s sick, she needed chicken soup real bad. Pop said you had you a lots of chickens anyhow.”
The man gave the boy a sharp look. “That’s a deadly weapon there, lady.” He studied the shotgun. She thought him ugly: whip snake lean, beard black and scraggly, fierce, hungry little eyes set deep in sockets, his red lips, plump and concupiscent, contrasting cheeks that were hard high lumps, hair caught back in a ponytail. In some men this would be an affectation; in him it was a provocation. The boy his physical opposite: corners softened, hair a tangled nest; Dee had an urge to brush it out. Their skin never saw soap. The man stepped abruptly forward, seized the gun barrel in a fist and snatched it away from her. God help me now.
“That would’a blowed up in your face you pulled that trigger, ma’am.” Pointing out to her how the barrel was clogged with rust and gunk. “Once in a while, lady, you got to clean a firearm.”
“I believed I did pull it,” she muttered. “Where are you from?” she asked the boy.
“Missouri…once upon. Most everywhere between. We been staying up the road in that mesquite canyon.”
His father gave him another angry look. “We’re traveling…when we can score gas. Camped up the road a few days until my wife is fit to move on.”
Wasn’t likely to impress them that they were trespassing. They’d been spying on her for days, she realized, sizing her up–glimpses of movement she’d seen in chaparral, a creepy-crawly feeling at back of her neck. “I don’t doubt you’ve been filling your water jugs at my pump?”
“She wouldn’t of shot, d’ya think?” the boy asked his father.
“I believe she would of.” The man spit some bit of gristle from his mouth.
She sent them outside and went furtively into the larder to scoop cornmeal and pinto beans into paper bags for them, knowing they could take it all if they wished. When she went out, the boy was making his way up the tree trunk, sure-footed as a monkey, bare feet clinging to rough bark. Dee afraid it would give way beneath him and he go down with it into the rubble, but the boy stood on the tree trunk, shifting his weight foot to foot, declaring it solid as a rock. The man, gone Solomonic, marveled that she should still be living in the house. Dee made them a breakfast of eggs and cornbread. The boy licked his plate clean of crumbs and egg yolk, declaring it the best damn breakfast he’d eaten since leaving home. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll wash dishes.” Dee felt she had formed an unspoken pact with him. But hoped they would be gone at the cost of two chickens, breakfast, and a little food and water, knowing damn well they wouldn’t.
“My boy and me can buck up that tree and get it off y’r roof for you, ma’am. Pay you back for the chickens,” the man proposed. “We got a bow saw back at camp.”
“Yeah,” the boy cried.
She agreed, knowing it could be months before Lawr got out this way with his chainsaw.
Dee walked down the road to the intruders’ camp with a pan of biscuits. Makeshift tents and canopies of black plastic sheeting cluttered about an old Dodge van tucked into a canyon behind a fringe of scrappy mesquite, two skinned rabbit carcasses dried in the sun, flies sizzling over them. A spit–for broiling chickens?–suspended over the fire ring. She had smelled their wood smoke but dismissed it for smoke drifting east from wildfires in the San Jacintos. Seeing a figure dodge around a corner of the house one moonlit night, she had decided it was ancestral spook spirits, vestiges of the old ones. You saw them out here. Could not be frightened of such and live in the desert. Coyotes either. She threw rocks at them when they came too close. The desert more alive with beings, living and dead, than most imagined.
As the wan, skinny mother and a daughter who might’ve been the boy’s twin–except her hair shorn in a buzzcut, eyes dodgy, mistrustful little rodents–approached her, Dee had the distinct impression that they knew her face, while she had never seen them before. Spooky. The woman looked like a Dorothea Lange photo of gaunt dust-bowl women, pale and sickly, so that the courage nearly failed Dee to say what she’d come to say. The boy put on the enamelware kettle for tea, turning on her that complicitous grin. “Nothing against you people,” she began, “but I moved out here to be on my own. I dislike neighbors. Solitude is more precious to me than gold.”
“I’d think you got lonely,” the woman said. “I can’t be alone five minutes without I do.”
Dee regarded her thin lips and sand-dry hair. “It’s other people make me lonely. I was never so lonely in my life as when I was a wife and mother. Other people existed but I didn’t. Out here I cast a healthy shadow.”
“She’s weird.” The girl frowned. The children, it seemed to Dee, tokened a family schizophrenia. Altogether unsettling.
“The fellahs say you hired them to cut up a tree. We sure do appreciate the work.”
“I didn’t hire them,” Dee snapped, “they volunteered. I’d like you gone once they finish.”
“Not much generous, are you?” the woman said.
“She’s weird,” the girl decided again.
The men started work in the cool of the next morning and progressed slowly, complaining of the hardness of the wood, how they must crawl along the main trunk on hands and knees to cut limbs with the bow saw. At noon Dee invited them in for a bowl of bean soup and biscuits.
“You sure do like biscuits, ma’am,” the boy said. “Me, too!”
The father gripped a flat biscuit between thumb and forefinger. “Kinda paltry.”
“No milk to mix in the batter,” she said. “I make do.”
They spent the next day bucking up limbs cut from the trunk; the boy stacked pieces in a neat row to one side of the house. That night was unseasonably cold for early May; father and son returned next morning, looking ragged and chilled to the bone. “My wife is got her cough back bad,” the man said, as they sat drinking tea by the firepit. “That box canyon is a Frigidaire. I bet you’re toasty warm in the house. Not a care in the world.” His quick eyes coming to rest on the trailer. “You got you a stove in that trailer, too, I bet? And nobody living there.”
“I prefer a house,” she said.
“There’s people got no place to sleep but the bare ground–two kids and a sick wife. Here you got you two houses for one person. That don’t seem right. Does it, boy?”
The boy ducked his head and murmured, “No, sir. Mom’s cough is got real bad again.”
“It’s a long walk from camp, besides. Can’t get her done as quick.”
“My dad’s knee is acting up again, ma’am.”
Dee looked back and forth between them. Working like team ropers, those two. “You’re saying you want to stay in my trailer? Is that what it is?”
“We wouldn’t ask, ma’am. But might take you up on it if you’re offering. Get the boy’s mother up offn the cold ground.”
Dee scandalized at what she was tacitly offering–if she was. She’d known their kind in San Francisco, passive aggressive sorts who never asked for a thing but morally bullied you into offering. “I’ve lived fifteen years out here without neighbors,” she said, her voice thin and defeated.
“We’d be thankful.” The man worked a horny thumbnail into a gap between his front teeth; no doubt this nail-gouging helped to wedge them apart. Now and again he spat something indeterminate in the dirt. Somehow he reminded her of Charlie Manson. “Just till we get her bucked up, ma’am.” Smiling at her, those obscene red lips.
They took the morning off work to move in–rusting van, dried rabbits and all. Dee overheard the wife telling her husband it was the least the “old witch” could do, “given all the work you done around her place for her.” She had a mind to turn them out…if they’d go!
The fellows started bucking up the main trunk that afternoon: great thuds shook the house as heavy rounds crashed into the attic, and Dee feared they would break through into the room below. That evening the woman knocked on her back door to borrow some flour. She smiled ingratiatingly, while her dark green eyes roamed the kitchen, taking inventory–“emerald green,” some would say; “devious green,” Dee thought. “The children like their rabbit breaded,” she said. “Actually, ma’am, they prefer cornmeal–if it wouldn’t be no trouble.”
“You people all set in the trailer then?”
“Jus’ like back home. Surprises me you don’t live there yourself, nice as it is.” She studied a painting Dee had done of a red scorpion, its tail raised to strike, her cheeks in sucked.
“I prefer a house. I’m glad you’re comfortable. Still, as I say, once they finish the job, I’d like my privacy back…please!”
“I was hoping I might bother you for a shower tonight, ma’am. I kinda…y’know–” raising her elbow to mock sniff an armpit.
Dee waved a hand. “There’s a tank with a spigot in back: cold water, but I’m used to it. We’ll have to share the privy.”
The woman regarded her with that bloodless, thin-lipped gaze. “A woman your age living on her own out here, could be dangerous, what with desperados and such like wandering about anymore.” Her eyes, the green of glass seen from an opaque edge, revealed nothing.
“Desperados? You mean vagabonds like you folks? What age do you take me for?”
By way of answer, the woman rose to examine one of Dee’s paintings on the kitchen wall: a coyote skull with datura leaves garlanded over it, moved on to a “Starry Sky” festooned with pumpkinseeds, her filthy fingers traipsing over the surface so that Dee feared she would scrape them off…into the living room uninvited to examine other canvases hung studio style, covering nearly the total wall space, recent works done on boards and window panes, since she’d run out of canvas. Fog paintings: vague faces and quixotic ancestral beings suspended in obtuse surreality, floating by with bulging eyes–whether in San Francisco or here in the desert on rare misty nights, Dee couldn’t say. Her “Out There” series: cholla cactuses sprouted from the gaping maws of rotted car tires, carcasses of huge black dung beetles on their backs, antennae legs stuck in the air, insect skeletons ensnared in orb spider webs strung between bleached, skeletal tree snags. Tahquitz, of course, who preyed on desert souls, striding along at dusk like a roadrunner on jointed stick legs. The woman couldn’t keep her hands off–like a child who must palpate the work to see it; her lips moved as if she were discussing the work with herself. Dee disliked grubby hands on her work, but the woman’s childish need to experience her paintings tactilely warmed Dee to her.
“I see you been busy,” she said. “Alf told me you was an artist.”
“I wouldn’t call myself an ‘artist.’ I enjoy painting.”
“It’s the most depressing paintings I ever seen. I wonder you don’t sit here and cry.”
Dee smiled. “Melancholy, maybe…the sadness of being alive.”
“It’s all and everything dead in them.”
“Well, y’r never very far from death in the desert. Truly, they make me happy.”
The woman regarded her as her daughter might, head cocked to one side. “Half flour, half cornmeal, if you don’t mind,” she said, as if making Dee an offer.
Years ago, after her kids were grown, Dee left her husband, George, and moved to San Francisco, excited about her new life as an artist. She spent a miserable year living in a close studio apartment, working as a temp, hating the pointless hustle-bustle of making plans and making money, making whoopee–when you could get it, usually regretting it when you did. Never actually making anything at all. Except sad colorless little still lifes. She felt like she was living inside a glass bubble that wasn’t glass at all, nor even tissuey cellophane, not filled with air but toxic fumes–half car exhaust, half urban malevolence. Not that people were unkind or unfriendly; it was society itself that seemed hostile. Sure, there were blessed times when salt fog rolled in from the bay and coated streets and houses in a thick gouache of moisture. Noises were muffled, you could open your senses and taste the ocean. She took long night walks in Golden Gate Park, oblivious to danger. Some would have invited the kids down to fill the hole in their lives, but Dee needed to do this on her own. Besides, they had always disapproved of her drinking, would disapprove all the more now she was drinking alone. She sent them postcards with no return address. She would reunite with the children once she was established. She felt called to the desert–open space uninhabited by humans. Odd that San Francisco fog and damp should spark in her a desire for arid emptiness. Loneliness, yes, for the fog enclosed you in a bubble of self.
Someone once said that self is a small package and that we can only find happiness by transcending self through involvement with others. Whoever said it didn’t know the desert. The isolated self, combined with huge empty space, all that night sky, becomes a great cathedral, the mind a yawning cosmos. Dee was never unhappy; she only felt lonely when other people came around.
She sat out beyond the garden in the sagebrush that evening to watch the sky, heedless of red ants and scorpions detouring around her sandaled feet, could hear the alien sound of a harmonica and a woman singing near the house–sixties songs: Me and Bobby McGhee and Mr. Tambourine Man. Appropriate to have that heady, volatile time roll around again. Back then, people had spun idle fantasies about how dire things would be in the future, but they had no idea…none at all! They could carry a tune, anyway, but Dee preferred the music of silence. Not that I dislike people, but they almost always disappoint me…and me them! Even my own kids. When I finally got around to sending them a return address, they never got around to replying. People are disappointing. Besides, people mean booze. Vi and Ernie back home each evening at four p.m.:“Cocktail time!” We drank for hours, while stuffed-shirt George rattled his newspaper in the family room and fumed about dinner. “We’re starving, Dee, for crissakes.” One advantage to drinking alone is you don’t have to cook meals for people. No one to stop you from falling in the bottle and drowning either. Tripp dove in with me.
They didn’t dare cut more of that tree, the man said, given the steep angle at which it lay against the house. “We need a winch or block and tackle. Maybe I’ll come up with something.” A week later they were still in the trailer. Mom and daughter alternated borrowing food, the girl thrusting out an importunate bowl, “Mom needs some beans…please.”
“I gave you beans yesterday.”
They soon discovered that she preferred the boy’s requests. He ferried her shy, apologetic glances and asked what he could do for her in return, helped her repair the chicken coop and expand the garden. They sat at kitchen table and talked of desert wonders: how you can tell time by how fast a lizard does push-ups and see the earth’s slow spinning in the stars’ movement across the sky. She told him of monsters she’d seen: giant desert roaches and devil Tahquitz who ate men’s souls.
“You seen him with y’r own two eyes?”
“I did. He passed back and forth before the house like a vulture, waiting for me to weaken, taller than any man and stick thin, with hyena’s teeth and yellow eyes. Well, I had withdrawal sickness bad from kicking the booze, but I wasn’t that sick for him to take me.”
“He’d eat y’r soul? Wow! What else you seen?”
“I saw Willy Boy one evening, a renegade Indian who killed and raped for the fun of it.”
“I’d ’a blowed his head off with y’r shotgun.”
“You can’t very well kill him if he’s already dead, now can you?”
He considered this. “My mom seen stuff. When she’s bad sick enough, she seen stuff. I’m glad I don’t.”
She might have told him that she had often heard his father’s hoarse, unmistakable voice through thin walls of her house back in drinking days–one of those vagabond spooks squatting in front rooms of her house–knew that voice when she heard him downstairs in the kitchen that first morning, become corpor- eal. Since then she’d heard him shouting at the boy, heard the boy’s protests and the sound of blows. “Tell me, Lester, does your father hit you?”
“He wouldn’t never, ma’am. I promise he wouldn’t. Pop gets pissed off if I mess up is all.”
“Will you come to me if he does?”
“Yes, ma’am. But he wouldn’t.”
Next morning, the man flew into a rage when the axe handle split while the boy was cutting wood. He spun the axe around his head, so that Dee, watching from the garden, feared he would plant it in his son’s skull. Instead, he flung it into the thicket of dense mesquite, shouting, “Now see what you made me do, you little bastard. We’ll never find the gawddamn thing.” He hopped from foot to foot in his rage, tears streaming down his cheeks as Dee approached.
“You’ll give yourself a heart attack, Alf. Don’t worry, we’ll find your axe head; I’m sure I have an extra handle about the place.”
“Mind your own damn business, you old cunt.” He seized the boy’s arm and led him off into chaparral, and Dee feared she had only stoked his rage through her meddling. Mind your own damn business! Well, isn’t it…here on my own place? Isn’t it?
After a time the man reappeared without the boy. Had he beaten him bloody and left him lying out there under the hot sun? Dee ready to go looking for him when the mother emerged from the mesquite thicket with an arm about her son–filthy, his clothes sweat-soaked, face and arms scratched and bloody, whether from mesquite thorns or a beating or both Dee couldn’t say. He could barely stand up. He had not found the axe head. Mom went into the outdoor shower with him, clothes and all, and washed his wounds. This softened Dee towards the woman. But Lester did not return to borrow food or visit her again.
When she could not make up her mind about a thing, Dee went to the canvas. Before going on the wagon, she did a painting of a human skull on the desert floor with a broken vodka bottle stuck through it. Now she began a painting of a Charlie Manson look-alike beside an agave with an axe raised over his head, her sketchy Victorian in the background, split in two by a tree, but could not finish the picture, not knowing how it would end. She felt sorry for the boy and his mother, but how could she help them? They were not her family, she wasn’t responsible for them, she hadn’t wanted them here in the first place, hadn’t invited them to stay. Besides, didn’t the daughter tell a different story, one of familial complicity? One day, she quickly sketched in the remainder: the wife cowering on the ground before her husband, hands shielding her head, Lester to one side like the renegade Willy Boy, bowstring drawn, aiming an arrow at his father.
Dee cleaned and oiled the old shotgun and determined she would not permit the man to beat his son again. Such an irony that at a time when few could have children (the planet gripped by Depressed Fertility Syndrome) people like this should be blessed with them. Humans had collectively, if unconsciously, decided the earth was too hostile an environment to bring children into; sperm and ovum shriveled up in the reproductive organs as if exposed to intense heat. Itinerants like these, anneal-ed as they were by tensions of the road perhaps, were more fertile than most.
Weeding in the garden one evening, Dee was tallying up the toll her “neighbors” had taken on tomatoes and zucchini, when Lester hissed at her from behind yucca spikes outside the fence. “My dad would get after me good if he saw we was talking,” he whispered. “I know it’s wrong to go against my dad, but it’s wrong if I don’t say nothing either. My Dad says we ain’t going to cut up that tree no more and ain’t going to leave, neither one. If you don’t like it, he says he intends to run you off the place. It don’t seem right.”
“Is that what he says? What about you? Are you all right?” she whispered back.
“Don’t worry none about me, ma’am. He gets at me too bad, I’ll run off. Mom knows.”
“Listen, Lester,” she said, for a plan had hatched in her mind fully-formed, as they will at moments of extreme stress, “you tell your mother I need to talk to her. She’s superstitious, you say?”
“Terrible superstitious, ma’am. She seen spooks herself. She got a gift that way.”
Dee built a fire that evening in the ring behind the house, which she rarely did, fearing embers might reach the mesquite forest; all combustible things out here forever on the verge of igniting spontaneously. The woman joined her, pink-cheeked in firelight; settling down suited her. So Dee felt half guilty for what she was about to do. “Listen, dear, I’ve seen Tahquitz again, sniffing like a coyote at your back door. I believe he wants your children. He always did covet the tender spirits.”
“What’s Tahquitz?” the woman asked. “Some kind of a animal?”
“The Cahuillas believe he lives in a mountain cave and comes down below to feed on human souls. I’ve seen him roaming the desert, grunting and half-mad from hunger and loneliness. He looks like a human hyena covered in spots, gaunt and hideous ugly. I about jumped out of my skin the first time I saw him.”
“Now there’s a load of horseshit.” The man approached from the trailer in the semi-dark. “If he’s so damn hungry, why don’t he eat you then?”
“I suppose he dislikes the taste of old women. He wants the young. I warn you, dear, you best keep your children inside after dark. I’d leave here at once if I were you.”
“Well, you ain’t!” The man’s spittle hit the fire with a hiss. But Mom’s eyes were huge and watery in the firelight, her slack countenance suddenly infused with energy. “I heard rustling right outside our door last night. Didn’t I do, Alf? I told him it’s not fit for children here, much as I like the trailer. But he don’t never listen to me.”
“I’ll tell you what, everyone goes lunatic out here. She’s always dreaming up something or other.” Winding a finger around an ear.
“I seen a woman walking through the sagebrush calling on her babies. Nobody heard her but me. He said it’s you, but I know it ain’t. D’you suppose this Tawk-witch ate her babies?”
“I’m sure of it,” Dee said. “I’ve seen her, too. You know, I wanted you people off the place, but I’ve become fond of your son; I might even tolerate him for a neighbor. Tolerating him, I’ve learned to tolerate the rest of you.”
The man stabbed viciously at the gap between his front incisors with a thumbnail. “I told that little bastard to stay clear of you. I warned him!”
“No, no, now, I’ve missed him these past weeks.” Dee recalling how husband and wife had argued half violently after the axe incident, and she’d feared he would beat her, too. “What I’m saying is I’ve grown accustomed to you. Still, I think you should go for the children’s sake. Kids disappear from our desert communities all the time. Sometimes they find their skeletons–always missing the skulls.”
“He eats their heads offn them?”
“Besides which,” the man said, “we haven’t finished cutting up your tree. I haven’t figured how to do her yet. Haven’t found my axe head neither. We got our principles.”
“Don’t you worry about the tree. I can live with it.”
“She still owes us for a week’s work,” the woman said, alarm supplanted by mercenary resolve. Turning to Dee: “We could take it in gas and food.”
“Oh, could you? Listen, I will keep a fire burning and sit watch for him.”
On nights following, Dee sat cross-legged before the fire, feeding it datura leaves and sage, which filled the air with thick, skunkish smoke, her face painted in mud that dried and cracked and pulled at her skin, hawk feathers in her hair. She cut quite a figure, chanting incantations and waggling fingers in the air. She heard them arguing inside: father and daughter insisting she was a nutjob, mother and son intrigued.
Dee rode her bike to Tripp Henry’s early one morning, not imagining what condition she would find him in. Tripp’s old Airstream a relic from another time, as were the Corvettes and Mustangs he’d once lovingly restored, tires rotting under them, paint fading. The place a desert junkyard: motor blocks slung from hoists, eviscerated flatbeds and car chassis, a hippy schoolbus with remnants of a teepee frame inexplicably perched atop it (had been for years), tar paper peeled off the shack that was once his shop. Date palms alone looked healthy. Tripp came stumbling outside when Dee called to him, looking like death warmed over, taller even than she remembered.
“Why, you old bastard, I’d think it would of killed you to quit drinking.”
“Who quit?” Tripp worked a thumb in his ear and hawked to one side. “It’s yucca root beer mostly anymore. Gawdamned awful stuff going down. Still, y’r welcome to join me.”
“I’m not about to start again; about killed me to quit the first time. I’ve got a bottle of vodka for you, Tripp. I wanted you to repair my roof, but it will have to wait.” She explained the scheme to him and said there would be a second bottle when he finished. Tripp whooped laughter.
“Driving off neighbors…Oh yeah, I’m good at that.”
Tahquitz hobbled through chaparral in the moonlight, firelight dancing over his pot-bellied body–thin and tall, stooped as he naturally was, bare chest and legs glazed with red clay, polka-dotted with white splotches, his bald head skull white, as were his ribs, coated in flour paste, eye sockets black. He cursed and slashed at the air with a machete. Dee fled the fireside and pounded on the trailer door, shrieking for them to let her in. The woman wouldn’t open. Finally the man did, standing in the open doorway, looking out at the demon, dodging from shadow to firelight, hopping like a lame, demented rabbit and grunting.
“What the hell’s that?”
“It’s him,” Dee said. “Tahquitz!” fearing the canny fellow might see through the ruse or, worse, attack Tripp. The mother had squeezed back in a corner of the tiny living room, hugging the kids to her, near hysteria, begging them, please, to close the door. Perhaps Tripp overdid it: he leapt over the fire and nearly fell back into it, approached the trailer, slashing the air with one hand, rubbing his belly with the other, and groaning. Vodka drunk and fearless. The man slammed the door on him and threw the deadbolt. “Whoever the hell he is, I don’t want him in here, scaring hell out of my wife and kids. You got you a lot of maniacs out here.”
“I’ve never seen him so hungry.”
“Big dude like that, why don’t he knock down the door and come right in?”
“He won’t enter a dwelling…never. It’s ancient tradition. Anyone outside is fair game.”
“She says we’re safe in here, Starr,” he told his wife, who wept inconsolably and painted her children’s faces with kisses. “We’re all right now.”
Next morning they packed to go, and Dee let them fill the van with gas from the tank–precious little as there was left–and packed them a bag of dried food and garden produce. The man had suspicions about Tahquitz, but the woman wouldn’t stay another day. While his parents packed, Dee told Les, “You’ll always be welcome here–if you ever do decide to run away.”
“I like it here a whole lots, except for your cannibal.”
At that moment, Tripp stumbled down the back steps of the house in his boxer shorts, muttering. Flour paste peeling off his skull made him look leprous. Dee had been afraid of this. Last night, the old lech tried to get into bed with her, but finally gave up and settled for the couch.
“Tawk-witch?” the boy asked, wide-eyed.
Dee shrugged. “He’s an old wino friend of mine. Guess we got caught!”
Lester held a finger to his lips and grinned; both waved Tripp back inside just as his parents emerged from the trailer. “Remember what I told you,” Dee said. “I enjoy having you about the place. Never thought I’d hear myself say that.”
Tripp emerged again while alkali dust still hung in the air from their departing van–the taste of time or melancholy or blessed isolation. “I better hang around a few days in case they come back,” he grumbled.
“Oh no you don’t, Tripp Henry. You’re after more of my vodka.”
“The hell! I’m soberer than a teatotaler this morning. Just looking out for you is all.”
“I appreciate it, Tripp. But if they wanted to clean me out, they would have done it. I’m looking forward to being alone again.”
“Gawdamned parasites,” he said.
She sat out that night under a sky so lucid, so star-blessed that the mes- quite trees and squaw bush cast shadows, the milky way a swash of painted light; how often she’d tried–how often failed–to capture that sky in her paintings. The house’s silhouette seemed out of place: crushed in one side, remnants of that salt pine leaning toward it. “We are never safe,” she spoke aloud, “never beyond surprise. Any moment things can change entirely. Any moment we may change our minds.” Speaking as if the boy lay beside her on the sandy earth, arms folded behind his head, gazing up at the stars. D’you s’pose they see us back, ma’am? she heard him ask. D’you s’pose there’s someplace out there where it all works out the way it’s s’posed to?