In the Desert

by James Pate


Here is how my wife came to loathe me.
One Friday night, as me and Ruthie were drinking whiskey on our back porch, I heard the phone start to ring in the house. I went in and immediately knew the voice. It was the voice of my friend Johnny. The summer after our high school graduation he had gone out west in a car he had stolen from his step-father. We had exchanged a few letters after that but eventually those stopped, and I had not heard from him in years. He told me he was in Memphis for a few days - his mother had been sick and didn't have much longer - and he wanted to come by and catch up on things. We decided on the next evening, and I went back out on the porch and told Ruthie we were going have a guest for dinner on Saturday night.
This was in early summer.
"Is he one of your old high school friends?" she asked. "He's not going to ask you to wrestle, is he?"
"There's a strong chance he might," I said. "I doubt the desert changed him much."
"Well, just remember you broke your arm last time you wrestled, all right?"
I looked at the arm that had been broken. "You don't have to worry about that." I could still remember the sound of the crunch I heard as I fell toward the ground with my arm out. And the sound of Ruthie screaming. And then the sound of everyone else rushing up around me. We'd been at a backyard BBQ with some old high school friends of mine and some of us had started wrestling around as we used to do ten years back. I left that BBQ in an ambulance with part of my bone sticking out from my flesh, and I still had no taste for grilled meat.
Ruthie poured herself another cup full. "This is the friend who stole that car and went out to Tucson?" she asked.
"It was his daddy's car. His daddy was a real piece of shit. Johnny did steal it, but he had a right to it in a way."
"That's what Johnny said?"
"No. It's a personal theory."
The next afternoon, I started cooking. I had been laid off from the Catholic high school where I'd been teaching music for spitting in the face of one of the richboy students after he had made a snide remark about my weight in the school parking lot. Since then, I was the one who cleaned and cooked and did the shopping. I didn't mind - cooking had been a big thing with me since I was a kid, when my mom had taught me the recipes she remembered from growing up in South Carolina - but it was starting to get irritating when Ruthie came home. She would be all awake and talkative from working at the cafe she was part owner of in the Pinch District. I'd listen and get jealous. I could go a week without shaving and nobody would care.
Saturdays Ruthie had off, though, and as I was in the kitchen she read the newspaper in a lawnchair in the backyard, her feet in our plastic wading pool. I went out carrying a chunk of the catfish I was cooking on a napkin. I handed it to her. I had been wanting to ask her a question for several hours and I could no longer hold myself back. I asked, "Where were you at this morning?" I tried to sound as casual as I could. I dipped my foot into the pool, splashed some water around.
"Mama's place," she said. "She wanted to show me some pictures from vacation."
"A guy named Wallace called this morning." I allowed that to sink in. Then I added, "He said your appointment is still on for next week."
"That's good. I'd been wondering about that."
I looked up at our backyard. It wasn't a big one, and the large shed by the back fence made it smaller. "And Wallace is?" I asked, turning to her.
"Can I just tell you it's work related? Or should I write you a short essay about it?"
"I was wandering who the guy is. What's wrong with that?"
"If I was cheating on you don't you think I'd be smart enough to tell the guy not to call here? Give me some fucking credit."
"Maybe he's trying to cross some line."
She peered at me from over the top of the rims of her sunglasses. "Like you're crossing the line right now?"
"You never did answer," I said.
"He's with the fucking bank, okay? Shit. You really need to see a shrink. You're going to start hearing voices soon." She took a bite from the catfish and chewed. She lifted her feet from the water and stretched her legs and then sunk her feet back in. She told me, "Eddie, this catfish is good. You put some extra spices in the flour, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I did. Some crushed red pepper." I wiped my foot on the grass and walked back inside. I knew I wasn't being fair, but I could not help it, and that only made me feel nastier. It was like digging a hole and not being able to stop even after your arms and back were sore. After your fingernails had turned dirty, caked with mud.

* * *

At exactly five o'clock the front bell rang in our house.
"Big Eddie, how the hell are you?" Johnny asked, standing on the porch in a checkered shirt that reminded me of the tablecloths in old-fashioned Italian restaurants . He had a thick beard and his face had turned rough and leathery. "Just fine," I told him. "Just fine." I held the door open and he stepped in cautiously, as if he still wasn't sure he was at the right place even though I'd been the one to answer the door.
Ruthie came over and introduced herself and politely shook his hand. "I can tell when Ed's talking to an old friend," she said. "Not too many people call him Big Eddie anymore."
"People might not call him Big Eddie anymore," he said, "but I bet I know what they're thinking."
"Johnny," I said, "I've lost a good five pounds since the last time you saw me." I had actually gained about twenty since high school.
"I keep on putting him on a diet," said Ruthie, "and he keeps taking himself off of it."
We laughed, a little self-consciously. Johnny handed Ruthie the box of sangria he was carrying. "Here's a house warming gift for yall," he told us
"Thank you, Johnny. That sure is kind. I haven't had box wine in awhile."
Johnny grinned wide and said, "If I remember right this fat bastard can go through a box in a couple of minutes. He's like a pig at the trough."
"You remember right," I said, "but I can't do that anymore. I'm all out of practice. I don't drink the way I used to. I can still pack away the food, but I can't quite drink the drink."
Johnny nodded and seemed disappointed. He was expecting the Bid Ed he used to know. But in college I'd calmed down. I no longer drank until I passed out in someone's yard, and I didn't speed on the highways around the city, weaving between the big trucks. There had been philosophy and music classes that had gotten me to consider things in slower terms. And one snowy morning, in a near-empty diner by campus, I had seen Ruthie.
To cheer Johnny up I told my wife, "I can't wait to have you see this guy eat. You'd think he was a fucking cannibal."
"Maybe I should get the tape recorder out so we can record it," Ruthie suggested.
"No need for that," he said. "I did learn a few manners out west. I even worked on a few movie crews."
"Really? And here I was thinking you were probably eating rattlesnakes all this time."
"I'm not an animal, Eddie. Goddamn."
Ruthie raised up the box of sangria and said, "Guess I'll go break open this spigot," and she went off toward the kitchen door.
Johnny leaned his head to my ear. "She's really pretty, man," he whispered. "She's way too good for you."
"That's a horrible thing to say," I told him.
"I mean it as a compliment."
"It sure doesn't sound like one."
He was right though. When she sang along with whatever I was playing on the piano, her voice would sound like little pieces of light hovering in the air. Pieces of light I sometimes felt I could almost touch.

* * *

We drank some sangria and talked about how shitty it was, growing older, even though none of us had quite reached thirty. Then, Ruthie started getting out the silverware her mother had given to us as a wedding gift, and I lit the candelabrum in the center of the table and brought out the pot of spaghetti puttanesca and the plate of fried catfish and the salad. We gathered around the table and began eating. In the street outside we could hear the neighborhood kids play football even though the windows were closed and the airconditioners were on. They were probably the same kids who'd broken into my truck the week before and stolen some of my tapes. We did not live in a safe neighborhood.
"I tell you, living in the desert does some funny things to you," Johnny said, swirling some pasta around his fork. "I had a place way off from town. It'd been a trailer, but the owner before me had put a wood porch on it and taken off the wheels. The nearest other house was a forty minute walk and you couldn't see it from my place - not even when it was bright outside. So at night, it'd really start to feel like you were the last person on earth. I think if I'd been living alone out there the entire time, I'd have gone crazy. The loneliness of it would've torn me to shreds."
"You weren't alone?" I asked. I couldn't imagine a woman taking up with him.
"I had a girlfriend and a son. Not at first, but later on."
"How'd you lure them in?" I asked.
"Ed, I might be ugly, but I'm not hopeless."
"I shouldn't be talking. I'm about as thin as you are handsome."
"Don't talk like that to a guest," Ruthie said.
"This is how we talk," I said.
"This is how we talk when there's a lady around," Johnny said. "When we're alone, the gloves really come off."
We laughed. Ruthie didn't.
Johnny went on. "Anyway, my girlfriend - I met her one day in Phoenix. She worked at this dirty little hippie cafe. We started hanging out, and before you know there were three of us."
"Where is she now?" Ruthie asked. Somehow she made the question sound accusatory, as if Johnny might have killed mother and child and stuffed them under the floorboards.
"I don't know where she is. I woke up one night, around the time Simon was a year old, and she was gone. She left a note saying she was going, but it didn't say where."
"What about the kid?" I asked.
"Ed, you know what a fuckup I am. No way could a guy like me could be a decent father. I hated to do it, but I gave him over to some friends of mine in San Antonio who really wanted a kid. I did make an effort to raise him. I had him for about two years. But it was too much. You might not believe this, but the child couldn't stand me. It was like the way some dogs don't take to each other. He cried when I was around, and when he wasn't crying he was always doing shit like hitting me in the back of the head. What kind of child hits its father in the back of the head? Repeatedly?"
"With you as a father, a smart one."
"Ed, you aren't being funny," Ruthie snapped.
Johnny didn't glance her way. He stared at the half-eaten catfish on his plate. He looked like he wished he hadn't told us as much as he had. He said, "It was soon after handing the kid over that I sold my trailer and went off to live in L.A. That's where I started working in the movies. It's behind the scenes work - holding microphones and shit like that - but it's fun."
"Anything we would've heard of?" Ruthie asked.
"The most recent one was called Disobedience. And the one right before that was Money Shot 3000. That was sort of a sci-fi thing."
Ruthie titled her head slightly. "They're porn movies?"
"In a sense. I mean, they have storylines and all. They're not like some of the low class crap you see out there."
I chewed and looked at Johnny. It would not have been bad, getting paid to stand around with a microphone as beautiful women had sex in front of you. I would've paid money from my own pocket to do something like that for a day. And it was certainly better than staying around the house, waiting for a phone call with a possible job offer after having gone out on this or that job interview. A call I'd been waiting for since the later part of winter.
"You keep in touch with the kid?" I asked Johnny. I needed to change the subject.
"You won't believe how much I keep in touch with him. He still doesn't like me much, but I visit a good three or four times a year. I'm going win him over one of these days."
"We don't have kids ourselves," I said. "We've thought about it. We've thought about it a lot. But that's about all we've done so far."
The room turned quiet. Those kids were really playing hard outside. Ruthie poured some more wine for herself. She gave me a bold, forceful look over, as if I were a dirty glass she was trying to stare through, and told Johnny, "Ed just wants to have kids soon because he has it in his head that I'm itching to run away. He thinks if we have a kid, I'll feel more stuck with him. Now to me, that's a completely wrong reason to bring a child into this world. I don't know about your parents, Johnny, but mine loved each other when they had me. They didn't have me to throw up a bunch of prison bars around themselves."
I said to Johnny, "Ruthie has an amazing voice. You should hear her sing sometime."
Ruthie continued, "Once he followed me over to West Memphis when I went there to see an aunt of mine. He called in sick to work that day and followed me."
"I called in sick all the time. The school was used to it."
"Sometimes I'm tempted to cheat on him just to prove him right."
"Johnny doesn't want to hear all this, do you Johnny?"
He dabbed his lips with the napkin. "I don't know. It's kind of interesting."
I raised my hands and gestured to them in a way that said I'm-done-for-now. I took my wine glass and went from the table over to the piano in the corner - our place was small, and the dinning-room and living-room were really the same room - and started playing an old jazz piece. Though I was playing loud, I would hear them talking real low behind my back. So I started playing louder, faster. The song started to melt apart in my fingers.
Johnny came over and sat on the couch. Ruthie lit a cigarette and stared out the window.
I played slower. I turned that song into a dirge. Then into a few steps struggling in quicksand. Soon, I wasn't playing at all. There was nothing to do but turn around and try to act casual again. I shifted around on the piano bench. "I sure am glad to see you," I told Johnny.
"I sure am glad to see you too again, man. I really missed my old friends out there."
"You certainly left in a cloak of mystery though. You and that stolen car."
"It wasn't even all that stolen. Just borrowed for a long time." He looked at Ruthie. "My dad wasn't a very generous man."
"Really?" she said. She could not have looked less interested. She took another drag from her cigarette and turned her eyes on me. She gave me a questioning look. It felt like she was wondering how I had become the man sitting on that bench, full of mean speculations and uncertainty. She held that look for only a moment, but it would be the image I would remember most about those weeks before I moved out, away from her and Memphis and everyone I had known. Then she looked back out the window.

* * *

The evening wore on. The street turned quiet except for a few firecrackers that would go off every one in awhile. Ruthie got out the hookah pipe and I brought in the coffee canister where we kept our bags of pot. We all relaxed and started making dumb jokes and me and Johnny talked about our high school days and me and Ruthie told Johnny how we met and got married. Sun Ra played from the massive speakers flanking the bay windows. A layer of shifting yellowish smoke hung around the Japanese lantern hanging from the ceiling. I took off one of my sandals. Johnny asked, "So when we going wrestle?"
"No wrestling," said Ruthie.
I nodded to her. "No wrestling, Johnny. Not anymore. A few years ago we were at Steve Lamberts place and some of us started wrestling around in the backyard. I wound up breaking my goddamn arm. I couldn't believe it. I didn't even fall that hard. But it was the way I fell. That did it."
"That's a real sad story," said Johnny.
"Sad isn't the word," Ruthie chided. She was smiling though. At some point during the night - probably when Johnny had started talking about missing his son - Ruthie decided she didn't hate my old friend. I'd noticed her voice had turned softer when speaking to him. But we were also all thoroughly stoned. She might have been smiling just because she was high.
"Did Ed ever tell you we used to have our own wrestling team?" Johnny asked Ruthie. "It wasn't through the school or nothing. It was just a bunch of us who decided to form teams and wrestle in our parent's backyards. We even had uniforms. Ed here was glorious."
"I was the biggest, craziest virgin in the world," I said.
"I've seen the photos," Ruthie said. "I don't know if T-shirts and overalls qualify as costumes."
Johnny took a hit from the bong and blew the smoke out toward the ceiling. He looked much older than his twenty-nine years. There were white streaks in his beard. "It was a hell of a lot of fun though," he told her. "Nobody ever got hurt, and I guess it was pretty good exercise, all things considered."
Ruthie took the bong next. She inhaled, exhaled, and sat there thinking for a moment. Then she said, "Maybe you should wrestle, Ed," Ruthie said. "Far be it from me to keep you from glory. And what are the chances of you breaking your arm again?"
But I didn't feel like wrestling. The pain I'd felt at the BBQ was like a ghost that sometimes gently rose up in my arm and reminded me how awful it had been. I felt that ghost in my arm now, and said, "Even if it's one in a million I still wouldn't want to do it."
I took the bong from her. "This son you've got, he look like you?" I asked.
"Yeah. He does unfortunately."
"Ugly children grow up okay sometimes," Ruthie said. "I was homely as they come, but I turned out all right."
Which was less than true. Her black eyes could mess you up. In a room of all right, she was the knife with the diamond handle.
"Ruthie," Johnny said, his eyes going soft, "that child could've looked like a goat, and he could've hit me in the back of the head every day until he was full grown, but I still wouldn't have loved him any less. It's a dangerous thing when you realize you can love like that. It makes you want to puke, knowing you can let yourself get that weak."
"Don't get all mushy," I said, handing him the bong.
"Them sound like fighting words to me."
"Johnny, what good is a piano player with a broken arm?"
Ruthie was staring at the smoke floating over our heads. "You could arm wrestle," she suggested. "That wouldn't be that dangerous. You could have a taste of your former glory."
"Now that's a good idea there," said Johnny.
I was getting tired of the whole night. I'd eaten too much and the pot had given me a dry throat and I didn't want to think about days of yore anymore. Beating Johnny would be a good way to bring things to a close. I said, "All right. What the hell. Let's arm wrestle. Outside though."
Johnny did a sort of whooping war call, raising his fist in the air, and I put back on my sandal.
The three of us went out on to the back porch. There was a small, bright moon out, and the light from a nearby streetlamp threw the shadow of the chainlink fence down across the grass around it. And there was no wind at all. The leaves on our backyard dogwood did not rustle. I said, "There's going be one round and that's it. I won't be able to stand another."
"Hell, when I'm done with you, I know you won't," Johnny warned. He gave the air in front of him a playful punch.
We walked out into the yard. Ruthie sat on the stool we kept on the porch. "Johnny, you can do it!" she yelled out, clapping. "He's big, but he's weak."
We both swiveled our shoulders and stretched and rolled our heads on our necks. The night was so quiet I could hear the cat next door drinking its milk on the patio. Johnny took a step toward me and asked, "Ready, Big Ed?"
"Good to go, motherfucker."
We brought our hands together, placed our feet side by side. In high school, Johnny had been scrawny but relentless. I'd win, but I'd be quiet and exhausted afterwards.
With the count of three, which we did together, it started.
I imagined his arm as a steel lever attached to a machine. It was my job to pull down that lever to turn off that machine. I pushed and squeezed my jaw tight and pushed harder. Johnny was working too.
A solid minute passed. The pain started ebbing in and I didn't like it. I started talking the shit we would talk in high school. "Bet that child's not even yours," I said through my clenched teeth. "Bet she got laid by some greasy sweaty truck driver... decided to give it away... to the dumbest guy she could think of."
He grunted. He swore. He asked, "You remember... Sonya?"
I didn't answer. In high school she'd been the head cheerleader and later on she moved to New York to become a model.
"I gave her head all afternoon once... I had a reputation...This long tongue of mine... She wanted me to try it out on her to see...what it was like."
"Lying bullshiter."
He flicked his tongue out and did another war cry.
I felt his arm harden and start to move forward. He picked up some extra strength, or maybe I had just lost mine. Slowly my arm started to bend. But I tried to hold myself down, and I stiffened my legs and placed all my weight into my shoulder. There was a sudden shudder in my body, though, as if a crack had broken out right through the middle of my torso, and my entire balance tilted. The earth slid out from under my feet. Grass rose up to my cheek, weeds pressed against my ear. Then a pain grabbed hold of my leg like a gnarled talon from the night sky. I was in too much shock to scream. I clenched handfuls of grass and tore them out from the roots.
Ruthie ran over from the back porch. She asked, "What the hell happened? Where does it hurt?"
I pointed to my ankle. Ruthie crouched down and examined it. Johnny was standing with his hands to his sides, a shy boy all the sudden. "I didn't mean to hurt him," he said. "I had no idea he'd fall like that."
"Johnny, it's all right," I said, huffing with the pain. "It's the big dumb guy's fault for agreeing to this to begin with." Then to Ruthie I said, "Just help me inside. My ankle is going kill me if I don't get ice on it."
"Want me to call a doctor?" Ruthie asked.
"Let's get inside and have a look first. I don't want to call a doctor if I can help it."
I hobbled up. I wrapped one arm around my wife and the other around Johnny. I took jumpy little steps on the good foot. Once I was inside, on the couch, I lifted my leg with my hand and placed it on the arm. Ruthie raised the pant leg. "It's swollen," she said.
"I figured that, dear. What I need is some ice."
She shot her middle finger at me and went off to the kitchen. As I heard her twisting the ice tray I turned to Johnny and saw that he looked stricken with a severe pain of his own. He was staring at my ankle as if he were mesmerized. "What's wrong with you?" I asked. "You got a twisted ankle also?"
"No, no. It was just - I was remembering when something real bad that happened to me. When I twisted my ankle out in the desert one night."
Ruthie came in holding a towel and a bowl of ice. "Hold this," she told Johnny, and she gave him the bowl. She took some ice cubes from it, placed them in the towel, and held the towel to my ankle. It smarted, but she held my leg still.
I said to Johnny, "So what happen to your ankle?"
Johnny looked away from where the swelling was. "It was right after I gave Simon to my parents. That March. I was trying to go to sleep when I heard this crying. It sounded like a baby. Or maybe a little older than a baby. But still, a real young child."
Ruthie placed another ice cube into the bunched towel. "Was it a nightmare?" she asked.
"I thought it must've been. But I kept listening and hearing it. I even pinched myself on the neck, to make sure I was awake."
Ruthie moved my foot without warning me. I called out, "Hey," but the pain wasn't all that bad. No worse than the sharp ache of my ankle just lying still. She placed the ice on it from a different angle. "Go on," she told Johnny.
He went on. "I finally couldn't take it anymore. I was too curious. I got my gun - you never know what you'll find out there - and went out. I started walking in the direction where it'd been coming from."
"Were you drunk?" I asked.
"I wasn't even high, Ed. And the further out I walked, the further that crying sound seemed to get."
He nodded as if he disgusted himself.
"Eventually I stepped the wrong way on a stone. I twisted my ankle and tumbled down the side of this rocky hill. My ankle, it swelled just like your ankle is now. I couldn't get up and walk on it. It was cold too. I didn't have my coat on. So pretty soon, once I wasn't walking anymore, I started shivering."
"My foot look too white to you?" I asked Ruthie.
"It's the ice making it cold," she said. She pressed the ice harder. To Johnny she said, "Go on. What happened next?" For the first time all evening she sounded intrigued by what he had to say.
"I tried to get on my knees and crawl, but every time I moved that one leg my ankle would hurt so bad I'd start gagging. So I sat still for awhile and tried to think. And of course I'm freezing at this point, and it's so dark that after awhile you don't know where you end and everything else begins. And I'm getting closer and closer to giving up. Going to sleep and hoping I'd wake up again. Well, that was when I heard this wild barking."
It was getting on my nerves, how interested Ruthie looked. Her eyes were too wide and alert. She no longer looked stoned in the least. "This isn't going to be some I-killed-a-wild-beast-and-ate-it story is it?" I asked. "I sure am tired of those."
"Nothing like that. The dog was my neighbor's. He had a trailer and a whole bunch of crazy dogs on the property."
"The neighbor found you?" Ruthie asked.
"Eventually he did. When he heard me shoot my gun." Johnny looked at my foot. He said in a hoarse murmur, "You guys want to see something kind of gruesome?"
"Who wouldn't?" I said.
"How gruesome?" Ruthie asked. She loved going to horror movies, but wound up watching them through her fingers.
"I wouldn't offer to show it if we hadn't eaten a long time ago," he told us.
Ruthie looked him up and down. She seemed to take a quick inventory of possible missing parts. "You mean to say you let that dog attack you before you shot it?" she asked.
"I hate killing things," he said. "Especially dogs. It's just their nature, telling them things. They can't help what they do." He bent down, placed the bowl on the floor, and raised the leg of his jeans to the knee. The sight of the scar was worse than gruesome. I had seen meat rotting in the summer sun which looked better.
Ruthie turned her head away after looking for a few seconds. "Put it back down," she said, and he did. She looked strangely moved by the sight of the chewed-on leg.
"That's an incredibly stupid thing to do," I said. "Hell, I'd shoot my own grandmother if I thought she was going to start gnawing on my leg. I really would. I'd even shoot Ruthie here if she did the same. Swear to God I would."
Ruthie looked up at me, surprised. Then she didn't look surprised at all. She glanced at my foot. It had turned white as bone. If you held it up against a bank of snow, it would've vanished altogether.
She looked at that foot. Then she looked at me again.
That was when I lost her.