BETWEEN BAKERSFIELD AND LAS VEGAS
The Old Fan sitting in the chair in front of her gate adoring her from there;
waiting to adore her even more whenever she ventured out behind the tinted glass
of her old
black Fleetwood limousine, he would stand up, waving the brightly crayoned
Martinique says that he never smiles again, has the look sometimes you remark
in the Quintana Roo district of the Yucatánas they walk on
their knees on the stone floor
beflowered Jesus image at the altar of the village church, crumbling to sunblown
flies murmuring in the frond-like shadows of stooped Saints and licking
the bloody spots left on the stones.
The Indians never smiled too.
PENNY, I LOVE YOU.
I followed him home.
Between Bakersfield and Las Vegas , he turned left on a
whose sides were formed with rocks. Joshua trees streaked the plane, prickly
arms up lifted beneath a sky too purely bright
to be blue.
The road seemed to
lead straight through flat land
and low hills, strewn with inky rocks which,
when I drove past, glittered
in the sun rays.
One big anomalous piece of gray granite stood alone.
Our cars - his, an old Dodge station wagon, and mine, one of those Japanese models
with the name
of a god from Persian mythology - spat up two cones of dust out
of the loose road.
It seemed impossible - ridiculous - that he didn't know he was being followed.
Any moment I expected him to stop and question me about my intention, but the
Dodge merely kept
on pressing dust in my eyes.
And the damn sun didn't help any.
Looking behind me I realized that
in fact the
road twisted about in wide
curves often hidden
by the grid of Joshua trees, some
of which were ornamented with turgid yellow flowers,
looking surprisingly ripe and moist in the terrible heat that blew the sweat
out of me.
The air was rock-still, as if solid crystal.
Sometimes I was blinded
by the sharp burst of light reflected
in his rearview mirror,
I saw two or three incandescent afterimages that
interfered with my vision.
I thought I lost him.
I was climbing a hill.
From the crest of it I saw no clone
of dust and I felt some panic because of this insignificant reason.
down. I looked about and saw the car had stopped ahead of me. I drove a little
He was outside with something in his hand, a rectangular object, of metal
because it reflected back to me. He set it on the ground by the rear of the car,
then reached out to the car for a second, lifted the thing
again and put one
side of it to touch the side of the car.
He stood this way for a few minutes
and then put the can in the back of the car.
Obviously it was a can of gasoline.
Not once did he seem to look at me, although I was watching him.
He started up again, this time with more speed and admirable acceleration
my Japanese vehicle could not match.
Obviously he had led me on in the hope
of emptying my gas tank and leaving me stranded in the desert.
gauge read almost empty and the needle trembled left and right.
been in tight situations, fights, and exchanges of gunfire, when my
life balanced on a line,
but in this silent desert, with only the sun
and flowering cactus all around me,
I felt a claustrophobic fear more
when I imagined the stages of a dry, mummifying death.
a suddenness that made me dizzy, I hated him.
The dirt road forked, he turned to the right, probably would have driven off
for a shortcut to wherever he was going but for the huge Joshua trees
blocking his way.
Some stood thirty 30 feet tall,
more like fluted columns of stone
studded with spikes than of vegetable
The Dodge, with its greater horsepower,
left me behind, an alien
on a string road that disappeared at the whim of the hills that constructed
in the otherwise planar land. I had to drive on between the screens
sure only that this towering cacti kept him
on the same road.
had to be before me.
I was alone, lost in a grotesque hall of twisted arms,bizarre
biceps, torsos bristling with injurious down silvery in the obsession
of light that pounded the desert.
Any second I expected to stop, the engine
I no longer saw his dust.
It was lost in the distance,
behind the next
hill, settling on the grizzled shoulders, the turgid yellow flowers, of the
The air I inhaled was fiery.
I remembered that heatstroke could be fatal,
one sign of it
being the anomalous sensation of cold,
as though the sun were
a malarial mosquito.
And in a while I felt a chill in my arms, in the back of
my neck and shoulders.
It was all in my mind, I told myself, while my eyes
kept fixed on the road,
the glinty triangular rock, the low hills,
the cactus, and of course the fierce colorless sky.
Somewhere ahead of me was the Dodge, with its trail of dust,
and I imagined
him still glancing
at the rearview mirror, chuckling yet afraid he would see
my car growing in it.
And I had the feeling
that although this was the only
road and he was going in the only direction possible
to him, in fact he was
as lost as I was;
a feeling due perhaps to the circular immensity of the useless
I have no choice but to continue, the Joshuas prevent my leaving the road to
pursue a shortcut
the desert back to the highway to the advertising billboards
that proclaim I am again
in familiar territory.
The cacti bellies, some in the shade, crowd around me.
Their headless torsos and fingerless arms gesticulate frozenly.
In spite of my
beads of sweat, distorting through their lens-like volumes
the rigid stability
of the landscape, everything appears crisp.
The only sound is of my pathetic
breathing and the tires spinning
over the rocks.
The road seems endless.
Is this a dream? Mine? The man whom I am chasing?
Or who he is luring me on?
I climb another hill, higher than the others, which makes the car is sputter.
I attained the crest.
The sky - suddenly besieging me - is like a sheet of lightning to my eyes.
stop and look down.
The desert stretches around me; the cacti, florid scimitars
in it, garnished here and there
with points of color.
And in the distance I note the black lozenge that is his car.
It is stopped
off the road, on the shoulder of a hill next to a cabin with a chimney
at that moment, a plume of smoke was becoming transparent against the
cloudless from horizon to horizon.
The cabin, car, and man, seemed to
ripple in the heat of the air, floating on the boundary
between the monotonous
ground and the sky, like the lingering images of a dream upon waking.
seemed themselves made of air,
fortuitous combinations of currents
at any moment going to dissipate, leaving nothing, no one, on the
Soon, however, they grew solid in my eyes and I could almost believe
that the cabin and the vehicle
were heavy on the earth, that they could crush
The old fellow was carrying his signs and the foldup chair to the cabin.
drove down slowly, careful not
to send up dust to signal him .
I stopped behind
a clump of Joshuas.
I placed my left hand on the door handle and pulled carefully.
I stepped out on the narrow road filled with glinty black bits.
were rolled up to my elbows, several buttons of my shirt front undone,
all the tributaries
of perspiration seemed to converge at the hollow of my
where the collar bones almost meet,
and spread out again over my chest
and ran down my arms, flooded my hairs.
I look down the road, avoiding the
My right foot moved forward,
then my left.
I unsnapped the button on my
I was moving.
A few signs were propped
against the station wagon.
A radio was playing.
It had a brittle sound.
At the back of the cabin I found
a window (the glass pitted by sand) to look in,
while flurries of sand buffeted
my calves and a low whistle chased along with the wind.
A kettle of water was
boiling on the
There was a table by the front window on which lay
some packages, several large envelopes,
writing paper, a peanut butter jar
filled with pens and pencils, two coffee mugs and spoons,
and some books.
curtains on the windows were stitched with flowers, trimmed with lace,
a woman had chosen them.
I could see part of a stuffed sofa and the coffee
Again more books.
On the wall to my left was a large framed picture I could not make out.
glass over it being oily, just the obviously bright colors
red, yellow -
Beneath it, by the wall, a bouquet of flowers in
a bowl rested
on a wood stand, with strings of beads that hung to the bare
The old man set a stick -of incense - amid the yellow flowers and lit
THE BUDDHA AND THE INVISIBLE GUN
He arranged the flowers, then wiped the glass. A line of smoke progressed up
from the stick, was turbulent as it encountered the man's face, whose eyes perused
the image of a man seated on flowers, hands at his knees, his eyes shut, and
about his head a halo; and a smile to his lips as if savoring a delicious sweet.
His eyes turned to mine. He motioned with his hand that I should come in, go
around to the front.
I stared at him, trying to decide,
was he safe?
I touched the pistol,
hidden by my shirt.
He began pouring boiling water
He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt,
the blue is faded,
diapered with pineapples.
He sneers at me, a curse explodes
in his mouth, and his lean frame,
in movement, unexpected,
with the right arm suddenly extending,
something in his fist.
I scream - no, I blink.
He is smiling. He is
wearing a Hawaiian shirt, diapered with orange pineapples.
I hear the hiss of
the kettle, the steam spraying into the light from the window through which I
see the glinty, uneven hide of the desert. Motionless, torpid in the sun. The
old man motions me in.
I accept the tea he pours.
Thomas, he introduces himself.
I saw you at Penny Gale's estate. You made it alright.
I was worried you might
run out of gas. I did. You must've seen me.
You're not the police? Of course not. A reporter, then? Ah. You want to
know about Penny?
We set down by the window, at the table with a boxes and letters,
the pencils in a glass jar.
The tea was too hot. I sat back on the uncomfortable
chair, the door beside me, the heat boring
through the old timbers of the cabin.
TEA AND THE PROOF OF WORDS
The old fan sipped his tea, his mouth steaming. I notice his eyes
are like the sky, a bleached blue.
In spite of the gray hair, and the wrinkles
around the eyes and mouth,
he looks young, strong,
his features determinate
I think further, numbed by energy.
Behind him on the wall are a rifle
and a cavalry saber.
The desert light pervades
The shadow behind the stove has a smoldering grayness, firm with a degree
of the luminous.
This quality is so insistent that it seems to reside within,
a white presence that stares out of things.
He is smiling and he talks.
slowly and very clearly,
each word that he used was precisely
that you should mistake it
for another word or expression.
sentence had a precise beginning and again a precise end,
and the next sentence,
and the next, all connecting with one another in a kind of continuous syllogism,
which was the old man's obviously very conscious effort to be clear, to be perfectly
and also to phrase things so that the objections that naturally come
up in the listener's thoughts
are cared for, predetermined, and dismissed in
the sentence then being aired or certainly in the next,
so that I had the sense
of listening to a kind of mathematical proof expressed in a soft and flowing
language that left no room for doubt, in expressions that were banal yet held
together like steel the lazy certainty
of his voice.
THE LOVE AFFAIR
It was a strange way in
which to tell of a love affair.
For in the saloon of the hotel she had come in
with no attention to the eyes that stared
or the usual whispers of her name,
into the dense blue of the fluorescence
that weighed on the rare woods
steel of the decor
and deep quiet because of the lateness of the hour.
directly to the bar
and with one foot pushing down
eased herself onto the soft
of a swiveling chair, breathing deeply,
she closed her eyes and two beads
of salinity grew out of the
of her eyelids, to tumble down her cheeks.
Soon the two tracks dried.
was a prickling of tightness left on the skin. She did not bother to dab her
The moisture must have reminded her of some memory of piquant quality
- of a day long past -
or of a recent scene too bittersweet to relinquish immediately
- a lover's abandonment; or, perhaps,
it was just the pathological condition
of a gland, unconnected with any emotion, that produced the meaningless tears,
now she opens her eyes
but of course does not look around,
not directly, at someone
if there is someone, instead consigning to him the time to ogle her, to
drink in the unsettling vapor
of her fame,
a moment for his awkward glands and
for a sigh, then time for the silence of his own
to thicken yet more,
impressed by the shimmer of ghostly applause encircling the young woman
the star-bulbs of the ceiling flooding with blue the bar, the glass displays,
even her hand
about to fly to gesture.
It is late and she is bored, the reason does not matter.
She sits like a mannequin,
with unpredictable movements of a right hand at the end of an arm and body
enticing proportions pampered
by the oils and suns of fame.
The animation of
her fingers random
tapping glides up, stops at her lips,
then drops down again,
skips to the half-empty martini with the toothpick
inclined like a dart of arrested
In spite of the look of fatigue
that has dried upon her beautiful face,
caused by a love
that was to last the time
of that sentiment named Forever, or caused by overwork, for fame
has no price
but sweat applauded, her eyes are live, Iris-blue.
She peers down at her hand,
seemingly far below her, with its fingers carved like a doll's.
She remains in this pose, her back straight, head bent, her breathing imperceptible,
and in the field
of her vision just the surface of the bar, seemingly mahogany,
on which her arm lies, very still, wrists limp, like a limb detached from the
rest of the body and forgotten; she began to feel a childish tenderness
the hand, toward all the abandoned; but, on the bar, another hand appeared on
whose back skin
the shadows of hairs were lengthening in her direction, an unexplainable
detail since the atmosphere's shapeless luminosity seemed incapable of casting
shadows, only a homogeneous light, washing around cylinders, pressing on planes,
tincturing the mahogany and her skin, and eventually him when her eyes
to sweep the blue zone between them; both of them clad in this flash of frozen
she slowly looks up.
Her body does not move, her arms remain fixed,
only her head turns.
He is standing beside her, his torso is inclined toward
her, one hand on the edge of the bar,
the other unseen, his head bent slightly.
Over his chin a smile breaks, further above it are his moist eyes.
She leans away from him, focusing on his whole face. He is good-looking.
"Miss Gales ... "
"I recognized you, you don't mind . .?"
"I've seen all your pictures."
He gushed out the titles of them.
"How supreme your artistry is in each!"
"And your face!"
"My face .. .?"
He recited his sudden words, as though reading from memory; summarized the
stories of some films,
and lauded her performance, which in its excellence was just a
mystery. His look took on an expression
of astonished reverence.
silently, sipped at the martini, and tapped her chin; suddenly, with a toss of
the weightless curls of her hair dazzled strange gold. She chuckled.
What he said was funny.
Called her a goddess - a real one!
He is serious.
"Not the Virgin Mary," she says, smiling.
"You are an avatar," he insists,"The Divine come to Earth. Like
Krishna , or the dread Kali."
He is interesting, she thinks.
The bartender brings him a drink, by a subtle
He pays - "Not necessary, Sir."
As if it were a sacrament he raises it by the stem in two fingers, then almost
fearfully, savors it.
His Adam's Apple struggles up, slides down. His lower jaw seems to tremble.
his eyes flutter open..
"Thank you," he says.
And he begins to talk about himself.
He is a chemist, loves to travel,
the Orient, India ;
sublime is Ankor Wat in moon light,
second the Taj Mahal.
Meekly, humbly, he says, "I am just an ordinary man."
And she feels reassured, in familiar territory.
Then, without warning, he proclaims, "You are a goddess."
in the blue air of the room the two personages seem frozen in their respective
she sitting, he standing, his head bowed, his left hand raise somewhat in a gesture
Then , as though awakening, he starts into shyness.
His knuckles curl and brush
at his forehead,
returning to the bar.
Something - the lateness of the hour, perhaps - drives her to situate her fingers
on the pulse
of his upturned wrist. To accomplish this she raises her hand, must
glide through an arc
with perfect control of direction;
in space, she must unerringly find and alight on that regular beating
The act seems a mutation,
an offspring of will and boredom that can mean nothing.
Her unbendable mind -
fabricating dreams and scenes of passion - will not bother to deny
of the moment, does not condescend now to imagine love.
She squeezes his wrist.
And Thomas chokes, and shivers, which she feels through
Confusedly, he smiles at her.
Though they are face to face, his eyes seem
to struggle to focus on something distant behind her.
He mutters words.
are almost touching.
Yes, it is the goddess.
But her fingertip grazes his knee.
She sends out her tongue a little bit, twisting
it through lips barely parted,
which he observes dumbfoundedly, with fright at
its sensuous wetness, at its bewildering attraction.
He esteemed with undeflectable
reverence the immaculate countenance of his goddess - but this tongue!
Those lips gripped his groin.
And he turned pale beneath the fluorescence on
What could he do?
To escape, to run out, to find safety - the calm of his room, with his books
his solitary poems - he wanted to, with all his heart beating fast.
Will he faint, will he die now?
His brain must shatter into atoms - fission!
Why doesn't it?
Because - this knowledge comes before his eyes become ash in
his skull - what does a man know
of what a goddess does?
So he cannot go. His
hand has not moved, is on the edge of the bar, as difficultly, reluctantly,
turns to her.
BLINKING EYES SMOKY GLASS LIGHTNING
And blinking my eyes once or twice, I opened them slowly, being in no hurry to
see my room,
the ceiling, the lucent wall of smoky glass in the afternoon light;
and through the window, the sidewalk
across the street and a side of the
building, and the telephone pole that was almost hit by lightning.
That must have been just before I fell asleep.
There is something hypnotic
and bright afternoons.
Then, sleep presses behind the eyes.
let go a little, allow yourself to give in to that wisdom of lethargy - that
is going to happen, even if there were such things as important things
- why then you would be asleep
just like that, naturally.
Besides, the flash
of lightning forced me to shut my eyes and I suppose that's when it happened.
I didn't bother to open them again, so I was asleep just like that.
I snap my
THE SUMMUM BONUM
That's the way it started, the old man says.
But she got real mad, because, well,
she was very special to me, you understand.
I wasn't interested in her if she
was only a woman.
So I wouldn't make love to her - didn't want to.
go to church and make love to the God that you worship?
a lot of indifferent people in this crazy world, but I'm not one of those that
To me she was more than a very beautiful woman. She was the flesh of a symbol
that stands for the Best, the Summum Bonum.
I saw in her the physical manifestation of Spiritual Bliss. She enabled me to
rise beyond myself,
to know and actually to see the Divine.
And he stopped talking.
He was ablaze, almost panting with excitement at the
memory in him that conjured up her image.
But she was only a film star, I say.
And he answers sadly,
you poor common fool,
haven't you heard me?
I have given you freely my revelations concerning this goddess and you answer
as if you have not heard
a word. Isn't the depth of my feeling enough, though
you have no mind to fathom it, to show respect
for her in my house?
I said .
. . ., I started to explain.
But he screams violently, you said ONLY a film star!
And then quietly, Have you no discrimination?
His scream angered me. The muscle
in my right shoulder tensed.
I drew my arm back slightly, balling my fist, wanting
to feel its impact on his presumptuous face.
It took will, letting my fist sag.
I left my arm dangling at my side, until I
jerked it up when a cat, nondescript as one of the gray boulders outside, started
rasping my fingers with its tongue.
THE SUGAR SMILING GURU
The old man, obviously disdainful of me, poured more tea into my mug.
arc of the hot liquid the steam ascended gently up. It scattered into a wedge
that forced through the sand-scrubbed window glass.
Outside, the jagged
slope of the hill was smeared under the abrasive sun.
I noticed another scent in the room, beside that of the tea, and as the old idiot
replaced the kettle
on the wood stove with his back turned to me, the cloth of
his shirt gray with sweat, I turned about
the room and found the other plume
from the incense stick stuck
in with the flowers
under the portrait
behind an oily glass.
of our respective angles,
made it possible for the light
to cut through the dirty glass
could study clearly the person
depicted in the brush strokes
of the painting, like something found rolled up
sticking out of a trash bin
with cans and crumpled newspapers.
It was of a man, naked but for a loincloth,
sitting lotus position on a surface of flowers,
with his hands on the tops of
his knees, thumb and forefinger touching and forming a circle
or rather circumscribing
a coin of empty space.
His torso was erect and the body lean and vaguely muscular, nothing really obvious,
cleaved of the usual fat of old men, for the stomach sucked in displayed the
of the rectus abominis and the bell-shaped line of the
rib cage from the sternum to the sides.
His shoulders were relaxed, his eyes
were closed but it would be staring straight out if open,
that is, if the lids
were drawn up and folded beneath the graying eyebrows beneath the halo
hair and the clumsily scumbled halo of glory around that.
The nose seemed to
be aquiline, nostrils dilated.
And, finally, on the lips there reposed what I
can see only as a disgustingly sweet smile:
a pastry chef's flourish of sugar
that pushed the two cheeks up, I suppose to represent
a cook's conception of
The face is familiar, and I recognize that it is the old
Except for the nakedness it is exactly him. Even that meringue-like smile
on his face I observed
when I first entered the room and when he poured the tea,
and before that when I was outside
watching him, while he stood rapt on the painting
whose identity was veiled to me by the angles
involved and by the nuisance
I made my living as a chemist, he says,
turning to me.
through which I spied on him
were shelves of books
their irregular bindings standing along the wall, with titles blackened or
here and there
that broke the monotony of those jailed coffins of words.
arm was up, bent at the elbow, with his hand limp from the wrist and the forefinger
It moved in a horizontal plane first left then right, then in a vertical plane
bisecting the first first down
I looked at him, I thought
he would be smiling, but it is sadness that is there.
He goes forward a few steps
( I see he is in his bare feet ) , motioning for me to follow him.
I push out
of my chair.
His back is turned to me. He scratches his neck, at the thing crawling
When his hand comes away, there is a stain, and twitching remains.
beside him, a short man. Again, his eyes seem lost.
And I remember what he said,
that it happened with her 20 years ago.
It's like yesterday to me and she - the woman - never forgave me for not having
sex with her.
But the goddess understands, his voice is firm, with a tone of
All of the books were of chemistry
but at the upper corner
were three different,
by authors I didn't know.
The Goddess , The Bagavad-Gita.
And one in a foreign language.
That's in Sanskrit,
says, and points to the shelf at a heavy dictionary of English-Sanskrit.
learning it. It's slow going, but I'm making progress. It's a very old language
that is dead now.
Between those covers is all that's left of it. No one really
knows how it sounds.
But I know it sounded beautiful.
Listen, he picks up the
and starts reading it, or making it up,
because it sounds like gibberish
reminding me of word salad
I have heard in mental wards and the jazz talk
of the drugged things in human masquerade
on city streets who at this very moment
probably are echoing the baby guttural phrases
and rhythms that this old fan
is making with his wet tongue in his damp mouth.
He is spitting with his words.
He puts the dictionary back in its place.
That one, he points, is about the secret of immortality.
When I finish reading
it the secret will be mine and I'll never die.
Most people think immortality
would be hell, but I don't.
That's why I'm going to finish it, and when Penny
returns to Earth in her next transformation
I'll be there to hail her.
Wouldn't she be surprised? he asked me.
Wouldn't she be surprised? he insisted.
Yes, I say.
I reached out and touched the mug,
as he talked, and put my finger
ample hole in the handle .
He went on talking, telling his story, and I raised the mug.
It was in the air
for a moment, as he talked, neither going further up or down
toward the bare
top of the table.
I set it carefully against the bottom of my lips, careful that
it may be too hot,
but it was not, and I opened my mouth, while the smell in
its steam rose into my nostrils,
sweet and open-aired as the effluvium of wild
grass in high hills.
I drank the overflowing, turbulent tea, with a taste much different from its
and he went on as though nothing had happened, now and then staring out
at the broken,
gapped topology of hills, matter missing here and there as though it had never
slices of nothing in the landscape.
The tea had a misleading taste,
like the edge of a knife of high-carbon steel.
The chemistry books had technical titles, some were journals of specialized societies,
for advanced research into this or that, the bonding of molecules in the synaptic
gap of primates,
the role of amino acids in cerebral dysfunction, strings of
letters, numbers and the designations
of compounds, formulas in words actually.
Inside the books were esoteric diagrams representing the composition and orientation
in a three-dimensional space, the organic compounds of lifelike
conjunctions of matter;
but I noted two books in the unreadable, abstract jungle
of this close language of science,
one with the faded title,
Chemistry of Happiness,
a very thin book,
with a worn edges,
and the second was simply
I searched for others odd, out of place in this collection.
When I found none
I took the first from its place and realized, with some suddenness,
I thought torn, bruised with use or age, and faded into ashy grayness, was sumptuous
to the touch, with its texture like running my fingers over a full and voluptuous
screen of rinsed grass,
its blade points alive and tingling under the curves
of my palm;
and the color of all these, not gray as I had seemed to see it,
but made me stare,
was like cracked ivory suffused with the hued variations
of the open sea and its clouds.
I opened the book, with the edges of its pages
riffling through my fingers,
the solid bar of the closed book splintering into
the precise pagination of its constituents,
of each numbered rectangle of paper
in which again there appeared formulas
between black tracts of the prose like
the treads of an
avoiding on the white page the bizarre skeletons of a too abstracted