Short Fiction by Shanna Streich
Junior stood some distance away from the sweaty real estate kid and looked out over the brown expanse. The hot sky hit the horizon so hard it cut your eyes to see it. But he looked—no sunglasses needed—and could see a stretch of power lines skimming the distance at a diagonal. His son Evan had said those metal towers were like giant spike-shouldered men with wedge feet. All his years as a lineman and his own eyes had never seen that until his little boy described it to him. Instead he held a picture of the system in his mind, how the power spread from the tower chain like vines, extending and thinning out until they were nothing more than wires on a few hinky poles leading down a dirt road to some gun-hoarding outlier’s place—powering a decrepit radio and some old spit and rubber band air conditioner.
“You could do anything out here you wanted,” the kid said. “No one would have anything to say one way or the other.”
He didn’t answer. The kid had been chattering nonstop since he’d picked him up at the home, signing him out like a grubby library book from the pimply girl on the Sunday desk. Have a good day, she said, not saying “Junior”—just, have a good day. The young people hated that, calling an old man Junior. But that’s who he was and that’s who he’d always been, even to Barbara, who’d almost never called him Walter.
He realized he hadn’t left the building for a while. It felt good to get away from that leftover pigs-in-a-blanket cafeteria smell that seemed to steam up every hallway. His nostril hairs needed a good airing out, a nice dose of dry sagebrush to get his brain working like normal. The kid glanced at the plastic grocery bag he carried, but didn’t saying anything about it. He was new to the area, the kid explained. He still only had his city sedan, so he borrowed his colleague’s four-wheel drive truck for the afternoon and drove it like an idiot. He made no comment when the kid turned off the Old Barstow Road, after back-tracking and swearing, having first missed the faint dirt tracks that lead towards the parcel.
“Now, this is an amazing deal. Your heirs will thank you for this.”
With Evan’s three girls, that was a laugh. None of them ever did seem happy to visit. When they were little they whined about there being nothing to do and got sniffly about the prickle plants in the garden. It wasn’t so much different now they were older, except he saw them less. One of them was still doing a whole lot of nothing, farting around with her boyfriend, the other in LA studying some nonsense or another, and the youngest gallivanting around god knows where. But it was what he’d told the real estate kid—that he wanted to make an investment to leave for the grandchildren. He and his wife came after they were married, almost fifty years ago now, so the place meant something. He’d taken what he’d learned in the war and set himself up nicely out there. He and Barb always did talk about getting some land, something beyond the small tract of their house. That’s what he told the kid, who said well that’s wonderful—we’ll fix you right up.
And he smiled, imagining those three coming out after he died, standing there, just them and the spiny creosote bushes, maybe a depressing yucca or two, wondering what the hell their grandfather had been thinking.
The kid had said there was really no need to go to the center of the property, that one square foot looked just like every other square foot—but he understood if he wanted to get the full impression. He’d used his electronic doodad and got them out there, keeping the Sidewinder Mountains at their backs. Plate-sized damp marks had spread beneath the kid’s arms. As always, Junior felt perfectly comfortable, just a little moisture beneath the rim of his billed hat. Some people just can’t do it out there, but he was a true desert man born in the wrong place. Leaving misty San Francisco had felt like a revelation to him. Never was that way for Barb. Her life played out in that low-ceilinged house, and he liked to say that he maintained those lines so she could have a cool home, and she had a cool home just so he could spend his life up a pole. You’re king of the desert rats, she’d say. And you’re the air con queen, Barb. Be glad about that, was what she told him. You could be stuck with someone like Missy next door, out every day without a visor, yelling at the dogs with that leather pouch face. But Barb never minded how the Mojave made him rough to the touch. They had their moments through the years. It didn’t ever die down completely, even after they reached the age that people can’t imagine anything like that going on between a couple. You’d think, for their own sake, people would want to hear about it—how the physical part doesn’t stop, that it just gets different. But don’t try to tell anyone.
Barb was pale and beautiful to the end, her white hair still curling around her face, those hazel eyes clear and cool even when they pulled the final needle from her arm. She’d always had that look, the one that stopped him dead when he first saw her at Harry’s party in the City. She was all wrapped up with Harry, both of them nice and cozy for all to see—especially for the redheaded gal who’d been slithering around Harry for weeks and showed up at the shindig on some poor fool’s arm just to get his goat. Barb caught on to that girl’s game pretty quick. And especially after Harry’s brother died, when things got difficult for him, she held on to him tighter than ever.
It was torture, seeing Barb with his buddy for all those months after the party. Not that he gave up, even bringing along that redheaded girl as his own date whenever he could, putting her and her skintight black skirts right in Harry’s way. On leave he’d learned how his friend had a weakness for women like that, heavy drinkers, dingy under the fingernails, flat out opposite of Barb. But for him, when he saw Barb at the party, that settled it. He knew right away he wanted her, didn’t even mind about her child. He’d already heard the whole story on that from Harry, how sometimes she’d bring the tiny thing on their dinner dates. And it all worked out, with Harry taking the red-haired bait soon enough. Finally, Barb looked his way. And later, it was the right thing to send the boy to his father’s family on the East Coast, better for the child in the end. Barb couldn’t deny that. She’d make a point of saying, when anyone asked, that they had one son but she had two. And he did well for himself, her Gary, better than that boy of theirs.
Sure, he was friendly with their neighbor. Fact was, if Barb hadn’t pointed it out, he wouldn’t have given a thought to Missy’s looks. They’d have a smoke together out back sometimes, early in the mornings, him lighting her up through the chain link fence. The dogs would circle her legs and whimper at the sonic booms. The almost soundless pressure seemed to set off ripples in your bloodstream. It made the hair on his neck stand up in the dawn light—could be anything shooting out of that air base over there.
He’d be getting ready to pick up his crewmate; Missy would be up because she said she rarely did sleep much, and it was her only break from her sons. She’d have one story or another to tell him about their mischief and it would keep him chuckling to himself throughout the day. She’d tell it just right, acting out their teenage boy expressions with her mouth open, eyes wide and empty, as if their crashing, fighting, passed out drunk in the classroom was all a misunderstanding.
She didn’t talk about her husband, but there really wasn’t much to say. He had known Roger for years, but they never did get close. He was no Harry. Other than his dealership, wasn’t much he did but drive out to the old lines whenever he could, kicking the dirt around defunct poles and bringing back craploads of those damn glass insulators. It’s true he’d take a few home himself once in a while. His boy had loved the aqua blue and pale green ones, setting them to catch the light on his bedroom windowsill. Some of them, with their knobbed shape, looked like…well, he’d never have said that to his son. But it was a strange occupation for a grown man, is what he’d tell Barb, and it was a shame Roger spent his off hours searching for those things, or arranging them on the lit shelves in his garage instead of smoking and laughing with his wife in the backyard. But who was he to say—it didn’t seem to be a problem, and Barb said don’t go bothering yourself about other people’s relationships.
By the time he’d retired, those two were long gone. You make your life choices and that’s what you get, Barb said. She thought he’d quit and didn’t find out he’d been chipping away at the smokes for years.
It was about that time that she hardly left the house except to drive to the shops and back. A few of the crews’ wives still came over for lunches, but mostly Barb started in talking about how, wasn’t it sad the way you just lose track of people. They feel like the most important friends in your life, and then you wake up one day and realize you haven’t spoken to them in decades. Maybe they’re dying or dead right at that moment and you don’t even know it. He told her she was giving herself the blues for no reason and should get out of the house more.
That’s what he did, planting curves of succulents along gravel paths in their yard, growing wildflowers, grasses, and patterns of cacti. One day, when she stayed away most of the afternoon at the salon, he pulled up the bricks of the small half-moon back patio and reset them into a spiraling walkway with a border of desert paintbrush, the blooms red, white, and pink. There was no reason they couldn’t move the barbeque to the front porch, he said, when Barb came home and saw what he had done. It took a while for that fuss to die down. Daily he raked the gravel into neat swirls around the woolly daisy, the winterfat, his old friend bastard toadflax. She watched from the kitchen window, and when he came in would say, “If I don’t look too closely I can almost believe it’s one of those cottagey English gardens.” I don’t know why you’d want to go and do that, he’d tell her.
“So, you ready to head back? We can stop by the office to look over the papers before I drop you off,” the kid said, his face now blotchy red. “Or if you don’t mind stopping I could use one of those iced lattes right about now.”
“Give me a minute,” he said. “I want to go over there a ways and discuss all this with Barbara.”
That shut his trap. There was nothing like mention of a deceased wife to do the trick. He walked as far as he could before his breathing came up short, and then half crouched behind a creosote shrub. It took a minute to get one knee down on the ground. He looked over his shoulder and the kid turned quickly away toward the mountains. He wasn’t going to rush—he’d waited a long time to do this, putting his son off about it until he finally stopped asking. Of course the people at the home thought it was sweet, how he wouldn’t let her go. And what he wanted to say back to them was, okay, let’s be honest, you wanted me to die right after her. Now that would have made for a sweet story, something to put in your assisted living pitch to guilt-ridden grown children, how you made sure we shared a room to the end, even after Barb started to fade. You all wanted me to follow close behind, dying of a broken heart. You wanted me to die holding her hand, taking my last rotten breath alongside her like I was supposed to, and I let you down—admit it. Maybe I let my family down, too. And here I am, still hanging on more than two years later. But you’ll take what you can get, so isn’t it darling how he still keeps her near, and how cute that we can still hear him talking to her at night. But they couldn’t begin to guess at what he said. It sickened him. Their words sickened him—cute, the young caretakers were always saying, oh how cute.
He reached into the bag and took out the black plastic canister. He opened it and emptied the ashes over the cracked soil. With the palms of his hands he spread the pile out, working it between the gravels. There were some larger chunks, the size of his pinky nail. Could be that someday a person might stumble by and see these, think they’d found something ancient. She would hate that, with her no bed no nothing before Pond’s night cream.
It couldn’t be said that he was leaving her stranded without supplies—a pile of rusted metal scraps and cans lay a few feet away, lids cut jagged with knives or punctured with church-keys. He looked further and saw an old fancy radiator like a decorated metal accordion, shot through with bullet holes, and glints of broken glass beyond the cans. Hard to believe any kind of life had ever happened out there, but here was proof. Maybe a truck came out seventy odd years ago and just dumped the local trash, and a few lifetimes after that a couple of shit-for-brains came out drunk and played a little target practice. Though, sometimes you might find more, a cement-capped well pipe, cracked foundations where a flimsy house once stood, giving a story to the broken milk bottles and rusted bedsprings scattered in the weeds. Nearby you might find an old bathtub, a lone wreck on a sea of desert and wonder at the places people land themselves.
Reddened rocks were clustered beneath the shrub, and he took these and laid them over the ashes. No sense in having them all blow away with the first wind at sunset.
He walked back, carrying the now empty box in the plastic bag. The kid was sitting in the truck with the ac on.
“Sorry,” the kid said. “I just can’t handle it out here, you know?”