This place used to be the sea. I sit on a high cliff, overlook the town. Below me the red desert bows under the weight of a lonely city, a copper-stain cluster that huddles against pecan orchards and watches the sky. Twin scars of highway and dry Rio Grande split the downtown buildings. I trace those scars gently with my eyes, following them South to where the land rises up and is returned to the desert.
These cliffs are the highest place I could get to, but over this emptiness you can never see any further. Certainly not to El Paso, where the ground holds saltwater aquifers. This desert is endless rolling seafloor, broken only by ridges that pierce up through cracked dirt like stalagmites. As if brackish water has leeched upwards from the earth. The sky is agoraphobic in its expanse – stare too long and it pins your chest.
A great-tailed grackle leaps out above me, splays iridescent tailfeathers and drafts away from here, stretching toward the sun before flapping twice and twisting to the city below. It will perch on a dive bar, or maybe a limb over the turtle pond on the college campus. Each hexagon of floating turtle shell emerging from the surface will break independently from the surface and then disappear.
There is a remote chance – the hot wind presses the back of my neck – there is a chance my great-tailed grackle will coast low along Valleyview Drive and come to rest on Solitare’s neon road sign. That’s where I work. I sell prefab houses. I am late, but that doesn’t matter anymore.
Solitare’s break room is in the back bedroom of a model home, a one-story ranch which acts as our main office. In the break bedroom, I sit on the starched sheets of an unused bed and listen as my coworker Arturo runs cold water from the bathroom sink tap. We do not have a water cooler.
Arturo returns from the bathroom with his water bottle and asks, what’s wrong with you. I don’t answer. I hold my conical paper cup. We got those. I’m hungover. He knows that. About the money, he knows nothing.
Arturo won’t give up asking about my life. He wants to know about my family, and what family, I ask back. He then says he knows about my family; I already told him when we were drunk and he’s just wondering how they are feeling.
How are they feeling, Arturo? How would I know? Didn’t I already tell you that we don’t talk at all? I hope that’s what I said.
Arturo rolls his eyes. Then how are you feeling? Arturo won’t stop with the questions. I say I’m feeling nothing, he doesn’t really want to know, and instead I ask him about his own family. They’re here and there, he says, one side and the other. Mostly on the other side. I’d like to know which border he’s referring to. He tells me about plastic toys, wax candles and hospital beds.
But I know you’re in trouble, Arturo presses, when we drink enough you start muttering about something you’ve lost and you won’t stop.
What I’ve lost… friends, purpose? I do not say I lost drugs. A lot of them, and not mine, I was buying on the margin to get out. If I am killed for it, they will destroy anybody who might know why. So I don’t say nothing to anybody. I’m already trapped. I don’t even talk to my sister or my mother… although that was a long time ago I decided that. Not like now – now we couldn’t talk even if I tried.
I didn’t think Arturo would ever attempt to be my friend. I offer him some water from my paper cup. I say it’s frigid. I know he likes the word.
Whatever, Arturo says, that shit is room temperature, and he goes.
That evening, after work, Arturo and I are getting drunk way in the back of the Solitare’s lot, sitting on the dirt behind a hideous mint green home with off-white trim. Nobody will ever buy this house. We lean against the fence, sitting in an empty backyard, and point a flashlight under the house to search for scorpions. The late summer sky is cold and clear above us and the nighttime desert is growing colder. We mostly do this on Tuesdays and Fridays, and Wednesdays, but it’s a special Monday occasion because Arturo just had a baby.
He says, you know, it felt like I was giving birth, nods like I must know and I really don’t.
I ask him if it hurt and he snorts, but I’m not joking. Maybe family only hurts later for some people, for us. Arturo is my only friend. I think he knows about the money and the rest. Although he has stopped his prying since this morning.
This morning, we were standing at the counter in the living room, we watched leased vehicles with heavy window tint roll past. When he asked me for the third time since they took my family, what is happening, I tell him that what is happening to me could happen to him. That shuts him up. I tilt the flashlight toward white picket fences and the tall chain-links that loom behind.
He doesn’t say anything except that our commission sucks at Solitare’s. I have to leave before I get too slammed and he gets out of me what I was hinting the other night, what I want to say about the money. He almost gets it out of me, that truth. They’ll kill for the truth – the money. With luck they’ll kill him first and not ask any questions, in that way that they ask. So I leave without saying more and drive home, collapse and cry on my buckling pleather couch.
The next day I call off work to take a trip. I want to go to the ancient dwellings at Gila National Forest; I want to see more cliffs, have some sort of esoteric and rejuvenating experience. I only recover from the hangover around noon and I don’t have time, really, but I leave anyways.
Before I even get out of town, around 4:30 in the afternoon, I arrive at a bridge across the Rio Grande by Arturo’s house. The river below is dry and the mud is cracked like a calloused heel. I spot a couple of O’Keeffe’s flowers growing pure-white and lovely in the center, and drop down to look. In the center of it all, a cracked skull of a bull. I want to raise it to the sky. I am expecting the head to smell like dust and nostalgia. But when I do, it doesn’t smell at all. And I am a lonely man in a ditch holding bones to the sky.
I decide to take tomorrow off as well, plot a different route to fulfillment. I still have time. I’ll sleep early and drive straight to the highway.
I mean to sleep and not drink. I can’t sleep, so I drink heavily and then drive through a hazy predawn morning headed for White Sands. The highway crests over the sharp bluffs of the Organ Mountains, my cliff among them, down through lush desert meadows, and is then straight and flat and dead the whole way. “LOAN FULFILLMENT”, an old billboard screams from the highway’s edge. It’s the first sign I’ve seen for miles. Chunks have peeled away from the frame, left the phone number incomplete.
I get to the park entrance and pay, drive some more until I reach the end of the road and a picnic parking area where I step out. The trail is marked by concrete bollards in the dunes. How do they stand straight among all this softness? Curious, I follow them, and the tiny obelisks lead me several miles out into the low, clean, sparkling white dunes.
I dig my fingers into the hot surface. Just below, the sand is cool and moist. A beach with my sister, tall castles in the sand. I consider digging down for water, to see if I might find some. After a long time searching, the sun comes down again. I hike out and drive back to the mountains and Las Cruces, checking all around for headlights on the dark surface of the empty desert.
The next morning, again on my high perch, the sun is high. In patches below, that brown desert is shimmering. This money that I owe, it’s riding around in a car that the driver can’t afford. Or it’s in somebody’s hands, and they’ll spend it once I’m gone. And keep my family. Take Arturo, too. But make no mistake about money, here. It is the only thing that travels with impunity.
So I stand up and look over the cliff’s edge. Far enough down. I could go that way. But this is a religious transaction. The money doesn’t stop with me. Some kid will be in a new sports car that he can suddenly afford and driving down Picacho Ave, looking for me, and I’ll be way down there among the red rocks and scrub brush. He won’t be able to find me. And then he’ll pay my price, too. So maybe I can’t fall far enough down from this place. I look up again. No more blackbirds.
I can still squint out that thin dirt road winding just past where my body would land. It curves left and reappears further down, cresting a low hill before disappearing. On that road I see a glinting dot. Not what I pictured. Not here, and yet here they come.
Only one person has found me up here before, my sister. They are coming to take me back to her. I look once more for a grackle and find only heavy black rainclouds on the horizon. Virga thickens below, curls like steam. My ears are plugged and the cliff starts to lean one way and the other, and there’s no wind. On the road below, I hear my car is coming. I take one last look at that brutal speck beneath towering, rain-swollen horizon.
He said he was happy, I think. I hope I forget about him… Everything could be forgotten when you look out on this scale, desert, sky, clouds, on and forever. I wait beneath the lingering sun, sit down on the edge of the cliff and scoot forward. I am ready for the blasting rain to fill every empty space, and for the murderers in the SUV. It is large now, an aging black Suburban, yes. Wind presses on my back and I move forward a little more, my tailbone pressing against the edge.
The car drives past. But this feeling, now, death is coming as sure and heavy as the downpour. It will feed the dirt, turn the riverbed to mud and nourish the lost cattle bones I found. A car disappears where highway bridges empty riverbed. I know what I’m doing when I get down from the rock.
Arturo’s house is about fifteen minutes away, on the other side of the river. Entering the neighborhoods at the edge of the city, I crank my radio and refuse to look at a mural’s cement fence, blue and yellow and screaming at me to turn around. At a stoplight, I open the glovebox. Of course there is a gun there, a cheap glock.
As I draw closer to Arturo’s house, down on Valleyview, my car passes a large neon sign advertising ATVs and quality firearms. But I don’t need a good one. I got mine for cheap at the recent gun show, at the convention center beside the pond and its turtles.
The rain is coming down hard enough that I stop in a couple places, wondering if the road is overflowing, if it might carry me away. That would be for the best. I consider using the shoulder, must be muddy. Losing control would mean worse for him and his family. The asphalt saves me, bald front tires pulling the back ones free.
Arturo’s house has a literal white picket fence, and I step out of my car and step over the gate. Face up, I clean the tears and sweat from my lips. How can I knock and tell him about the riverbed, those things that may grow after we walk away. Arturo saves me the trouble.
He walks out from his porch with an umbrella, splashes across his muddy lawn and hugs me and as his stubble touches my earlobe, I tell him I want to tell him about what’s happening. And neither of us are crying, his eyes are empty like he knows what I want to do. He doesn’t say anything, just nods, and we walk together. His fingertips touch the cold car door handle, but I splash ahead through the mud.
He follows me and opens the umbrella. The smell of rain and manure is thick in my nose, almost overpowering, so I start to jog towards the river. Arturo drags behind, stepping around one puddle and into another, his tennis shoes must be soaked and so are mine.
We come to the nearest bridge across the river. Water rushes over, around it. You can feel concrete shift beneath your feet. I turn and wait for my friend to catch up. Heavy in my pocket, the gun writhes like a pinned coralsnake, and my mouth is opening wide to shout.
Arturo walks up calmly and tells me that he can’t understand what I’m saying but he already knows, about everything, my family and what happened to them. He’s sorry, he wants to help. Below our feet, the river writhes and rushes, swollen with the power of heavy rain.
What I did, what did I do! What did I do, Arturo, you’re speaking in the past tense and I’m standing right here with this gun.
I take three steps back, pull it and point and Arturo doesn’t run. I don’t yet shoot. Neither of us speaks. If I could see his hazel eyes through the rain, maybe that would change things, remind me of something I’ve forgotten. I desperately want to remember… but no, this is the best thing. It only gets worse.
Again Arturo screams, Maybe they will come back, They will let them come back.
I aim badly and shoot him in the lower part of his face. He falls over, wet hair slack over his forehead, the lower half of his face dangling as he falls and slapping the water as he lands. Rain is pounding down and the wind whips in an awful way so I take two steps forward and shoot him many more times. The wind seems to stop. My teeth begin to chatter.
Up and down, things come and go, shadows of rain like vapor rising, or the sky like the roof of a cave. This world is a paradox, horribly vast and each person trapped in their own cold crevice thousands of feet down. And the cold water rushes on around us.
I haul Arturo’s corpse onto the bridge railing and embrace him. We roll over the side together, we make our escape from the cartel. We are stark flowers among the desiccation cracks by the time they find us, far down the riverbed.
Jake Stimmel is an educator and writer in Minneapolis. He is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. He is online at jakestimmel.com or, in real life, feeding the cat.