The eye of the camera panned across a desert landscape, slowly, right to left. A sweeping blue and bone white world lit up by the moon, desolate, a graveyard with no graves. I panned across the desert landscape spotted with black and gray patches of desert flora like the hair on a sleeping giant’s back, waiting for ashen figures to emerge dreamlike from the darkness. The breeze whispered across everything and there were no other sounds save for the occasional slow moan as a lone cloud acned with star clusters sliced across the moon. In the angle of the lens everything seemed primordial. I might have been filming the desert a million years ago and everything would have been the same. Nothing ever changes, really. I stopped filming and put the camera back in its case.
Everything makes sense here, I thought. In a place where the landscape is stripped almost bare, where there are no men or women or machines, no towers or wires or even trees. No noise. Everything makes sense when the mind is submerged in solitude, in unencumbered reflection. The words purity and chaos are spelled in those stars like frozen atoms, I thought. They’re encoded in the warm breeze that ruffles the hair and carries its millions of secrets, bitter on the tongue. The desert is a simulacrum of nothing, and yet there is so much to take in, so much to hold deep in the self and examine, a step backward in confrontation with the primitive self.
Sitting in the back of the Jeep with Harvey, staring into the desert wide open and stark in its command, I had never felt more understanding of Earth, of life and its skeletal message. Something stuck me in the back of the neck and my first instinct was to reach back and smack what was there, kill it, smash it in a bloody slap, but instead I let it sit there and suck my blood, my offering to the desert ghosts and goddess of night. I brushed it away softly with the back of my hand. With my brain lens I panned across the desert landscape again, my mind one continuous electric current pulled taut across miles, across years, across millennia and across death into life just as film into history.
That night I slept in the Jeep beneath the stars and the moon watched my face scanning across the desert for coyotes or wolves or any moving shadows, furtive bodies with eyes glowing white or red out there in the cold. Harvey snored in the back atop his blankets and I felt very happy. Everything is an eye, I thought. Everything is looking, always watching. How uncomfortable it makes us feel, knowing we’re being watched.
When I finally fell asleep I dreamed my father had walked across the desert through the day and night, through the emptiness, the unforgiving heat. He walked toward me and even though I was asleep I watched as he approached in the darkness, first just a small speck on the horizon, hardly noticeable, and then a larger spot, a moving shadow growing into the figure of a man or woman, a man that looks very much like my father from a distance, and then he was there, walking up to my driver’s side window, staring wide-eyed and breathless at my sleeping face, and with one bony finger my father reached up and tapped my window, jarring me awake as dawn broke. I looked to the window at my left and of course there was no one there. I said aloud: I need coffee.
I stopped at a cheap motel to shave and shower and then I gave Harvey a bath and left a hairy mess in the bathroom before hitting the road again.
I-80 was a graveyard. Or maybe I was one of the dead. There didn’t seem to be many cars on the road and my mind’s eye didn’t have much to scan. I was well into Nevada by the time I jerked out of my reverie or descent into nothingness and realized I hadn’t had the radio on all day. I had planned to drive all the way into Reno but I was tired, I felt lost. I decided to take the Elko exit and rest for the night.
I drove around the town a bit, looking for a decent place to get a room on the cheap. Just driving through I had the odd sensation of eyes watching me, plotting. I immediately felt like the entire town was complicit in some kind of scheme against the visitors and passers-through, a conspiracy anchored by the second-rate casinos dressed up in their finest Sunday suits, the restaurants devoid of their former cowboy charms and painted up in grease, laden with gambling debts of their own, and the cheap motels nestled back from the road and bathed in shadow like dirty secrets.
It was into one of those nondescript motel parking lots where I parked my Jeep and stretched the road out of my bones. I walked up to the office and past a sheriff or deputy or other law enforcement officer on his way out into the night. He touched the brim of his hat as he looked at me and got into an unmarked red sedan in the lot.
I set my bag on the floor of the room and washed my face, studying my reflection in the glass. I looked like someone else. Harvey came in to sniff around. The bed seemed clean and I sat on the edge of it, listening. I got up and looked in the bathroom and underneath the bed. I looked in the closet. I closed the shades on the window and played with the air conditioning system. I was certain I was being watched, there was camera hidden somewhere in the walls, the dusty bureau, the digital clock on the nightstand showing the wrong time in big red numbers.
It was dark by the time I left the room. I walked toward the casino through the parking lot and down a pitch black back street, feeling pairs of eyes crawling all over me. I shouldn’t have come this way, I whispered, and I could smell the desert out there in the dark, endless, spectral. There was no moon watching. An older model sedan pulled out of the motel lot behind me with its lights off and crawled up the road like a wounded animal. Shit, I said, quickening my pace. No one will ever find me. I wonder if anyone will even know to look. The sedan crept up closer and then it was right beside me. I took one step away from the road and stopped, turning around to see the face of my executioner gleaming like a pale skull through the windshield, but all the windows were tinted black and the sedan kept creeping past me toward the frontage road where it turned right and sped out of sight with its lights on.
At the casino I got the buffet special and everything tasted like wood. I went to the bar and ordered a red beer and watched a spring training baseball game on one of the TVs when a stranger walked up and sat at the stool next to me and said, You’re staying at the Ruby Inn, right?
He had a faded Red Sox cap on and he was dressed in all denim—a blue denim jacket faded and worn, matching blue jeans, white denim Converse shoes, and I said: What, man?
The motel down the street, he said. You’re staying there tonight, aren’t you?
I wanted to say, Leave me alone, asshole, I’m not in the mood, I don’t want to talk to you or anyone else, I don’t want to hear about your travels, your life, your troubles, but instead I just said: Yeah.
Name’s Dan, he said, and gave me his hand to shake. I looked at it and thought about it before shaking it. It was warm and moist.
Look, man, I said. I don’t mean any disrespect or anything. But I kind of just want to be left alone tonight.
It’s cool, man, he said. It’s cool. I’m sorry to have bothered you. He stood to leave and then said, I just wanted to tell you that little lady over there wants to buy you a drink.
He pointed behind me to a tall blonde standing between a row of electric slot machines and a fake palm tree. Dan walked away and I looked at the woman and half smiled. She came up and sat next to me at the bar, wearing jeans and heels and a silky looking black tank top.
Hi, she said. Sorry about that. I’m Jade. The bartender came over to us, as if on cue.
The lighting was good on her. She may have been a little bit older, but you definitely had to try and find it. She smelled like baby powder and perfumed lotion and I wanted to rub my head all over her.
I’ll take a red beer, sir, and whatever she’s having, I said.
My mother used to drink those, Jade said, looking at my beer. She had one with her toast every morning.
Sounds like a decent lady, I said, and immediately I felt like an idiot. I was very tired.
The bartender poured our drinks and went back to his corner, eyeing me. Jade looked up at the TV and so did I and both of us tapped a finger on the bar and then looked at each other, smiling awkwardly.
It’s a hot night, she said.
Yeah, I said. There were electronic gambling machines beeping and buzzing everywhere and from a speaker somewhere in the room a Johnny Cash song played quietly, listless, as if he had written and performed it in his sleep.
Listen, she said, leaning toward my face, her lips at my ear. You want some pussy tonight or what?
I coughed. I spilled a little bit of my drink and tried to wipe it up. I’m sorry, I said. Jade smiled.
Okay, she said. It’s okay. The bartender stayed in his corner, watching, like a spider.
You know, you’re a very attractive woman and everything, I said. But I just want to be alone tonight. I’m sorry.
It’s okay, she said, smiling. Suit yourself, cowboy. But I was gonna give you the pretty boy discount. She got up from her stool and walked away, and it wasn’t until I saw her in motion from behind that I began to regret my decision. I ordered a cheeseburger to go for Harvey and finished my drink, walking the long way back to my room and thinking that Elko, Nevada was the type of place where nothing good ever happens, where beasts feed upon other beats, gristle flapping in their gums. It’s the type of place where a man could lose his mind and his money in the same place and then find himself dumped in a shallow grave just outside of town.
To read this chapter in its entirety, read the novel once it’s published.