short story    


No birds lived there. Every clump of sage hid rattlesnakes, cacti offered their spines, and lizards shot by with the speed of hallucinations. I sought towns deserted recently enough that I might find the ghosts of those still alive--that was how my logic was working. Armed only with my camera and a tape recorder, I walked across the desert, leaving my truck parked beside the highway. In the middle of Nevada, I avoided those desolate beauties of the nineteenth century, Searchlight and the rest of those towns south of Vegas.

I had just been in Vegas, but couldn't yet think about it. I enjoyed the sobriety that only three straight days of drinking can bring you; the alcohol was slow and clear, cold in my veins as I walked, thinking of Wendover, where I had been four days before.

There, on the Utah/Nevada border, I had driven my truck right under the sixty-four-foot metal cowboy, Wendover Will. A plaque said he was the world's largest mechanical man. I climbed out, stood on the hood of my truck. Above, his huge arm creaked as if it might fall off and crush me. He pointed to the Stateline casino; the sign under him once said THIS IS THE PLACE, though no one would tell me when that had been changed, or if it was no longer true.

When I leapt, struggling for a handhold, a couple of the letters--black, on clear squares of plastic--fell from the new sign. I pulled myself up, my body pressed against the word IMPERSONATORS, cars slowing as they passed beneath me. Dark tubes of neon, waiting for the sun to go away, lined the tall cowboy's boots; seams held lines of rust, where sheet metal had been folded fifty years before. Above, the arm kept jerking, pointing. I knew if I could scale his leg I would be able to touch the gigantic holster, the handle of his gun.

I did not know whether to try an explanation or an escape when the policewoman began calling to me. Transfixed, I began thinking of a time when my father had an operation on his arm, how I'd brought him home and how, over a bowl of chili, he began to speak very slowly, his words so drawn out they were incomprehensible, as if he was slowly losing power; he lay his head down next to his bowl and I sat frozen across the table, just watching him die. My mother called the hospital and they said he shouldn't eat, not on that medication. We got him up and into bed, and he slept until the next afternoon.

No climbing, the policewoman said, and I was once again able to move.

Four days later I walked into the ghost town. Whether they sought shelter or borax or uranium out there, I don't know. Fifteen or twenty buildings, all abandoned, made up the town, and I circled it, backing up and trying to enter from every angle. It looked contrived, the way sagebrush collected along the walls, held itself fast in doorways and windows.

I took off my clothes and stood naked in the sun, trying to see how long I could stand the heat--instead, I shivered; I rolled a circle with my body, my feet its center, trying to scar the sand; I snapped triangles of glass from windows and stabbed the shards into the ground, making shiny mandalas, figure-eights, sharp traps for angels. I did these things, and all around walls were blasted smooth by sandstorms, wood free of splinters, shingles taken long before. Sometimes, Ella, I feel my edges going, as if my body cannot contain me.

Like in Wendover, at night, when I tried to get a feel for the town, wandering back and forth, around behind the casinos. Mexican boys came from nowhere, walking sideways, alongside me.

Drugs? they said.

You following me? I said.

Looked like you were looking for something, they said. That's all.

They were right. Later, in the Stateline, I watched a blackjack dealer. Close, I ran my fingers across the green felt, trying to get it well enough to remember.

Stay on that side of the table, the dealer said. Either you're playing or you're not.

Yeah, a player said.

I smiled at the dealer. What's it like to be you? That's what I wanted to say, but I couldn't say it.

Don't feel the felt, he said. I can call security.

Outside the casino, I watched buses arrive from Salt Lake City. People riding those bet on the air valves of the tires, at what o'clock they'll be when the bus stops in Wendover. They circled the bus, checking each tire, as I watched the neon snap on along the metal limbs of the giant cowboy. Across the street, at a pay phone, the Mexican boys gathered, watching me. The police car passed again and again, suspicious. Wendover Will's lights gave no heat; they only seemed to encourage the cold wind.

Four days later I walked through every building of the ghost town, found rusted cans, calendars with dates faded away, pieces of mousetraps or something close. The sky startled me, jagged through holes in ceilings; dark rooms felt like snakes; narrow alleys collapsed into triangular tunnels.

Then I entered a room where a frame backpack rested in a corner. A cot with a wool blanket, two pairs of shoes. It shocked me, though the whole time I knew someone had been watching me. On a shelf, four sharp pencils pointed at me, their shavings on the floor. I felt like I'd awakened in an unfamiliar home. I saw the notebook--a diary, perhaps but I didn't touch it. It would be invaluable now, but then I feared it was rigged up, that a knife might cut across the room and stick my hand to the wall if I tried to see the pages, that a coyote trap might swing out behind me, take the tendons from the backs of my legs.

That notebook held words, I knew, and I ran from that room, half-choking, revolving slowly, anxious not to turn my back on any one building for too long. Alcohol evaporated sharp from my pores, collected hot in the ridges of my ears as I went, as I crested a low rise and saw my truck below, a figure moving around behind it. At that distance, the person moved like no one so much as my father.

I looked quickly around my truck, then climbed in, the strap from my camera strangling me, and started the engine. Soon I was doing eighty-five, checking my rear-view mirror; my truck has a cap over the bed and it's sometimes hard to see back there. I wondered if I had missed someone, if I could have, if a person was hiding close against the front of the bed, separated from me by a half-inch of metal. I could not see over the edge.

I pulled over and opened the back. Out there in Nevada, I could see ten miles in every direction and I was all the way alone.
author's page
Bold Type
    Photo Credit: Peter Rock  
Copyright © 1997 Peter Rock.