Rodger examined himself in the mirror, turning his head from side to side. He thought his appearance to be quite handsome but, on closer inspection, pushed the mirror aside until all he could see was the black road slithering away behind him.
The desert, he thought. It even looks hot. Rock the color of fire, air melting and dancing like flame, the sky set alight by the waning and waxing sun. He smiled at his poetry and wondered if he would be as brilliant as a song writer.
The highway sank over the crest of a hill and descended towards a tiny white cluster of trailers and buildings in the distance. It was the beginning of Indian lands, the worst part of the drive as far as Rodger was concerned. The derelict remains of a culture ruined by a western way of life they didn’t understand. They’ve given up, thought Rodger. They simply wait in this wretched heat for their turn to sink back into the earth, the mirror reverse of how they believe they were created.
Rodger turned the mirror back to his face. “How,” he greeted himself, waving his right hand in a rigid circle. The sound of his voice made him grin.
“How,” he responded. Quickly, he lost interest and turned his attention, as he frequently did, to his future as a rock and roller. He supposed he’d have to buy an instrument and learn how to play. It’s got to be a guitar, he thought. Girls like a man that can play the guitar. Keyboardists and bass players are pussies.
Rodger glanced down at the needle of his gas gauge and grumbled, flicking it hopelessly with his right index finger. He hated having to stop now. There was little choice, however, as so few pumps dotted the landscape. He hated the reservation with its beggars and feral dogs fighting for scraps in the grocery store parking lot. And he hated the heat.
The first of the trailers zoomed past his windows. Rodger couldn’t imagine living in such conditions. They were so isolated and lonely with miles of white hot desert between them. What did these people have? What did they do? Nothing but the undying heat of the desert and the inexorable reverse of the clock in which their own share of time was sadly fading.
A crude, hand-painted sign caught Robert’s attention as the frequency of the trailers increased. Navajo Pride it declared in red spray paint. Looking around at the assemblage of poverty and despair, Rodger wondered what exactly there was to be proud of. Perhaps the sign was a melancholy declaration, satirically placed. Or maybe it would be better with a question mark at the end.
His destination wasn’t far outside of this little town. Rodger wanted to make sure before going about the business he’d come all this way to go about his gas tank was full. That way tomorrow, when he was done, he could make a quick escape. He wanted to put as many black-topped miles between himself and this forsaken country as possible.
He pulled into the derelict town’s lone gas station; a place where the tumbleweeds were real and skin was reddish-brown. Rodger’s car, the shining black symbol of his success, came to a rest and the fluids settled after so many miles and hours of sloshing back and forth. When he stepped from the car, he was immediately overtaken by the heat. He paused when he reached his full height and brushed sweat from his forehead with the back of his sleeve. The black surface of his car was hot enough to reduce his skin to wrinkled blisters with too prolonged a touch. He cussed under his breath that there was no pay-at-the-pump. Life is primitive in the wasteland. In a place like this, he preferred to do his business anonymously.
Inside, it was clear he was the minority. He did his best to blend in. A rack beside the front counter was loaded with cassette tapes of artists that had gone out of style no fewer than fifteen years earlier. A chubby Navajo behind the counter did not smile at him as he paid for gas as quick as possible. He couldn’t wait to get out of the store and out of town.
Back outside a massive Indian with a lopsided gait circled around his car and stared at it with the same interest that the feral dogs had when spying a piece of meat. Rodger slowed his pace and tried to talk himself out of his irritation. He wasn’t out here to pump up his blood pressure. He was here to find new purpose. He passed the Indian without a word, unlocked the door, and made to enter the driver’s door.
“It’s a nice car,” the man said. Rodger looked at the man with impatience.
“Thanks.” He smiled sarcastically.
“Hey, could you help me out? I just had back surgery and I need some money.”
“I don’t really have anything on me,” Rodger lied, fingering cash subconsciously in his pocket.
“Just a dollar?” the man pleaded.
Rodger started to lower himself into the car to drive away but the Indian stuck his arm through the door to keep Rodger from closing it. “Anything will help.”
Rodger felt a rising panic. His mind was filled suddenly with fears of being drug out of the car and robbed or beaten or, even worse, scalped. He had to get rid of the beggar and fast, so he retrieved his hand from his pocket and handed him the first bill that his fingers had clasped around. “Here,” he spat. He shuddered when saw the numbers printed on the bill’s surface: $100. Judging by his reaction, the Indian was more surprised than Rodger and pulled away from the car to examine the bill and make sure it wasn’t fake. This gave Rodger the chance to slam his door and punch the lock button. Before the door was fully shut, he was in gear and speeding away. The Indian, still entranced by the bill as if it were lost treasure, disappeared in the brown fog Rodger left behind.
The soda bottle he’d earlier discarded was rolling obnoxiously across the floor banging and clamoring against the doors and seats. Allowing an empty coke bottle to roll around on his usually immaculate floor was exactly the sort of change he was trying to make. He was “loosening” up. But the Indian had him rattled. He grabbed the empty bottle and ejected it out his window.
“Fuck it,” he said aloud and felt better.
Rodger’s destination was a small canyon just ten miles outside of the village. A friend had told him about it. It was a canyon where he could re-connect and re-define. He could brag about it Monday at the office. The secretaries would listen with rapture. Maybe he’d start working out after work or, even better yet, before work. Everyone would notice.
A few miles later, his car rolled to a halt at the parking lot that had been described to him. He looked out tentatively at the enormous bulges of rock and the twisted juniper trees and the ankle high beds of knives and needles that called themselves cacti. The whole idea was dripping with naiveté. It had been foolish of him to come and he knew it.
But it was too late. He had already made up his mind. He couldn’t stand the thought of going back and explaining to everyone back at work why his sojourn—the one he’d made such a deal of explaining Friday—had failed. The trunk popped open and he retrieved the two newest additions to his garage: a bright, Everest-worthy backpack and the stoutest hiking boots the outdoor store had to offer. He laid them both side-by-side in the sand.
“Christ, it’s hot,” he said wiping his forehead again. He stuffed his feet into the new boots, ripping off a tag that was attached to the eyehole of the highest shoelace rung. The stiff shoes felt strange on his feet.
A few minutes later he was moving towards the great swell of orange and white sandstone that arced into the sky in front of him. It was an alluring and threatening place and, for a moment, Rodger’s sense that he was making a mistake became more powerful. He turned back to his black car. Already it was tiny in contrast to the immensity of the desert. But it looked comforting, like sanctuary.
“Christ, it’s hot,” he repeated. He retrieved his water bottle from his backpack and took a long drink. Already he was parched.
Rodger walked through what remained of the day until the sun was set afire and the sky matched the hell-red of the bluffs and mesas. The canyon closed in around him and its shadowy faces were drained of texture as the light waned. Rodger picked a campsite at the foot of the canyon’s walls and pulled his new boots off blistered feet. He took a moment to wiggle his toes and examine the damage he’d done. Though he knew the hike out would be painful the following day, he relished the idea of having a good limp when he returned to work on Monday. A limp is always good for conversation. When people asked how he got it he could sound brave and get sympathy.
Rodger fumbled with his tent until well after dark, muttering curses at increasing volume as he fumbled with the poles and the directions and struggled find a spot without rocks to pound in the stakes. When the tent was finally erected—though it looked somehow lopsided—Rodger was exhausted. Instead of making dinner as planned he threw a few mouthfuls of trail mix down his throat and wiggled into his sleeping bag to sleep.
* * *
The sun had barely begun to rise the following morning when Rodger decided to break camp and flee the forsaken desert. He had slept terribly, as bad as any night in the entirety of his life. He’d spent most of the night awake, listening to the sighs and moans of the desert and expecting at any moment some great, desert beast to take interest in him. By morning, when the sun was touching the tops of the canyon walls, he felt braver and by the time camp was broken, he couldn’t believe his foolishness—his chicken-shitedness, as he’d been calling it—the night before.
It was unbearably hot already by the time he’d started his long retreat on blistered, battered feet. He plodded along occasionally stumbling over protuberant bulges of sandstone and small, sharp-cornered boulders. He couldn’t be sure how far into the canyon he’d walked, but it sure as hell seemed farther on the way out.
At long last the terrain became familiar again and he realized he was looking at the same landscape he’d seen from his car the day before only from the opposite direction. He rounded a final corner and his car was visible as a insignificant, black spot below in the distance. He stood looking down on his vehicle and the road with a certain melancholy, feeling as if he were at the end of some great accomplishment. He beat the sweat off his brow for what he hoped would be the final time.
Just one last pitch of steep rock and I’ll be free, he thought. His energy was perking. He felt as if he’d defeated the canyon and defeated nature. He turned back to the canyon from which he’d emerged and upraised his middle finger in contempt. Satisfied, he began to scramble down the steep, rocky slope in high spirits.
But halfway down, disaster struck. A large rock came loose under his step and his balance was compromised. He tumbled once, rolling sideways and feeling a number of sharp, sandstone teeth biting at various places along his body. He cried out once in pain, but his voice was hollow and unnatural in his head. He dug his blistered feet into the dirt and rocks, trying to arrest his momentum, but it slipped into the crevice between two boulders. Sharp pain shot up his leg and back as his foot settled and refused to move. His body flung forward around the fulcrum of his pinned ankle. He heard the bone in his leg snap and knew without question it was broken.
His body came to rest. Hot tears were already dripping from his eyes. He tried to work his leg free from the boulders that had broken it but it would not budge. It was pain to even try. From his awkward position he tried to tug his legs free with his hands but it didn’t so much as flinch. After an hour he laid back and rested.
Nature, he thought. I hate it. As the heat and dehydration sunk deep tendrils into Rodger’s mind he began to doze off into dreams of rock and roll and groupies.
* * *
A few days later a lone Navajo emerged from the same canyon. In his hand were the leaves and stems of a variety of plants both fragrant and colorful. He came upon the scene of the white man whose leg was splintered and pinned. He reached down and felt the man’s silent neck. There was nothing to do. He whispered a few words in his native tongue and stepped around the dead man in his path. At the road he walked past the man’s black car and turned left towards town.
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