Food Water Maps
Heading south along the Mohave Freeway, north of where Yemo Road turns south into Daggett, I saw the hand-painted sign; a weathered sheet of plywood, held high by two creosote-soaked railroad ties, boldly jutting up from the scruff-sandy shoulder of the road. It read FOOD WATER MAPS. The words food and water were crisp, black, block letters above a paintbrush-daubed, scrawled maps — obviously an afterthought - added below the survival essentials in hopes of financial survival.
It's bally was meant for those who found the vast horizon devoid of any comforting waypost or landmarks. and the highway's sprawl a confusing maze under the unrelenting, pounding swelter.
Locals knew every rock, lizard, or scrap hulk, so the late addition to the sign was explainable - excusable.
Of course, the procession of mountains to my right lent some directional assurance that I was headed somewhere… if nowhere other than where the mountaintops eventually stretched south in a staccato parade toward Sheephole Valley and Joshua Tree.
Another, more distant hillside sign announced, Yarrow Ravine Rattlesnake Habitat Area.
Years ago, a rattlesnake bite killed a friend’s Australian Shepherd and I never forgave the viper for this loss. The serpent produces deadly venom and, with some refining at a laboratory, anti-venom. Somehow there’s a divinely ironic joke in that.
So I leaned forward in my seat to let the sweat evaporate from my shirtback, signaled an exit-lane turn to the empty highway behind me, and began to slow down. I opened my window and a blast of searing roadbed air dried my back and drew beads of fresh sweat from my brow.
The exit ramp ended at an oiled dirt road. I turned toward the hills where a small cluster of sun-scorched wooden buildings lay along a central, paved crossroad . Sand, desiccated shrub branches, and leafless weeds strewn across the oil-packed dirt became a turbulent scud as I passed. In my rearview mirror, they rose to join the SUV’s slipstream draft. I knew I was leaving a trail of sorts and it reminded me of the confusion I had left at home; a storm cloud of emotions and unanswered questions, arguments and tears.
Why does the passing of a loved one rob me of my distracted, unexamined life? Why does death prompt ruthless introspection, inevitably becoming The Grand Inquisitor for a heart-heavy survivor? Why do we casually embrace live for today and dismiss memento mori?
Focusing ahead, I saw a thick, black snake; a long coiled helix lying on the road ahead of me. I wrenched the steering wheel to spare it, but my wheels went directly over it with a soft thud. I knew it would be either dead or wounded. Dead would be regrettable. Wounded, it would be in agony and unapproachable. So I continued on, damning my carelessness - nearing a rattlesnake habitat, speeding on a rutted dirt road turn-off, and indulging in my addled, rearview-musing as grief-bathed memories flashed by.
Foolish. Hell, any one of those hazards could be enough to end my wayfaring into the wasteland and hence, my search for answers.
In the rearview I saw the snake roll over and over onto the side of the road – still in its corkscrew-spiral, seemingly undamaged by the impact. I slowed to a crawl.
It took a few moments to see clearly that my “snake” was merely a long shred of a tire tread, probably flung aside by a disintegrating truck tire as the vehicle limped off of the highway. I felt relieved, having not added more death to a place where death and life – in balance - hold authority over, and claim to, every cycle of existence. I felt the flush of autonomic adrenaline.
I let my SUV coast up to the stop sign and sat there a while to take in the layout of the streets.
Ahead, the road ended in a pile of rubbish. Beyond the litter, a simple stone wall encircled by crosses and gravestones. Some had flowers placed on them, brown and brittle. I saw a child’s toy in front of one and a pair of work boots next to another. The ground was covered with dry branches and parchment-curled paper debris. Perhaps this place has been forgotten or maybe there is no one alive to keep it clean.
If I turned left, there was nothing of note, save a few tumbledown, clapboard buildings and the remains of wheel-less, derelict, fire engine on cinderblocks near the center of the street. The hulk had been stripped, shot at, and left to rust. Its dull red paint, given way to scab-brown rust that promised to eventually consume the entire vehicle.
To my right, several plank-sided wooden buildings, one with several vehicles parked in front. There was another Food Water Maps sign nailed to the side of its lapstrake marquee facing my direction – probably to attract other visitors who stopped at the intersection as I had.
But this sign was newer than the one on the roadside – and the word maps was in bold, black letters that matched food and water. This bode well, since some signs deceive, merely marking a point in the past before a business perished and its owners left the roadside invitation to succumb in its own, lethargic ruination.
In this instance, the sign’s offer looked promising.
I wanted something other than water to drink and a place where I could take a break from the road, so I headed right and parked next to a pick-up. On its door, the faded words: Valley Plumbing – Heating and Cooling. The sun was directly overhead, so I slid the moonroof cover shut, opened the widows a bit, got out, and stretched.
The sun, when it’s given a chance to carve its fury into wood is brutal, but yields somewhat to the growth lineaments created when the board was still within the tree. Once the grain is revealed by the sawyer, these fine lines, smooth and cursive, hint at the complexity of its growth. But, after years of exposure to the unrelenting desert radiation, scorching 120-degree heat, and an infrequent quenching under brief, torrential rains, the paint curls and blows away, the grain is drawn out, the pulpwood shrinks back, and the board is left with deep creases and chines and cracks. These boards have become tableaus; death masks of timbers; mummified lumber.
When I looked through the dozen or so windows that flank the building’s weathered door, I saw some shadow motions inside the building and silhouettes of a couple at a window table
The place was open. So, I stepped up to the door.
A round, stained-glass window - at eye level in the door - was no bigger than a dinner plate and presented a leaded-glass mandala of faceted butterflies encircling a single red rose. The image seemed a bit out of place – bearing the only vibrant colors I could see on the building – but it was a recognizable cosmos representation of harmony, cast in forged silicate, not unlike the sand that stretched for hundreds of miles around me.
This was all a sea, at one time, and I am on the beach with no shoreline.
I turned the doorknob and stepped over the threshold.
Coffee and bacon, fresh bread, a faint floral scent, and the low murmur of hushed conversation set the moment. The room was entirely wood: walls and floors, and a long counter. Beyond that, a pass-through window gave a glimpse of the kitchen where a grey-haired woman was busy at a griddle. I heard someone else back there, but the pass-through window limited my view.
The counter was lined with wooden-top kitchen stools rather than pedestal-mounted cushioned seats usually found in a diner. And the room was a collection of mismatched dining room tables and chairs: straight-backs, cane-bottoms, modern steel, and plastic chairs, tabletops were Formica, enamel, and glass. I imagined these yard sale orphans must have been selected to fit a tiny start-up budget with all serving merely their utilitarian function rather than a costly thematic design. However, they were, at once, efficient and charming in a uniquely Mojave roadside café sense.
Two stools to my right, a tired-looking man in soiled khaki work clothes sipped coffee and pushed his sunnysides to the edge of his plate. He gave me a quick glimpse, set the cup down, forked a yolk onto a toast point and dispatched it with a single bite. He might have been a another traveler of seventy or so, or a desert resident in his fifties.
We all learn that the sun is not partial to working its chiseled art exclusively on wood.
Except for my neighbor’s meal, the counter was clear; no salt, pepper, ketchup or sugar. I glanced around, looking for a waitress and saw a menu on a nearby table. As I turned to stand, I looked back over my shoulder and saw the roses. A shelf ran across the front and side walls a scant foot from the ceiling. In all, it easily totaled eighty or ninety feet long and, lined on it, were bouquets of, dead roses, each laid on its side with blooms facing toward the door. Dozens of the stiff, burgundy sprays crowned the room bearing a light shroud of dust and, a few, some cobwebs. I was transfixed by the sight, puzzled how this studied assemblage could come to be. I only knew rose bouquets as an expression of love and, once dead, sent to the trash.
I picked up the menu and I got my second shock. Its cover bore a drawing of the stained-glass window I had seen at the door, below a calligraphy cadenza that read, ROSE’S.
The grey-haired woman was waiting at the counter, holding a menu, when I returned to my stool. Her weary smile spoke of long days and longer weeks. The lines about her green eyes had been etched by laughter, sadness, pain, and hope. Her hair, pulled back in a severe ponytail, had lost a few wisps that framed her face with a delicate resplendence. I held up my menu and managed a sheepish grin.
She said, “Do you need a minute?”
My eyes were still on her face as she turned to fill a cup and set it in front of me. She noticed my interest and, I managed an embarrassed head bow rather than saying thanks aloud.
The words on the menu were lost to me as my mind entertained thought after thought. Was she Rose? Were the roses given during courtship? Did they belong to her daughter? Why would a person keep so many expressions of affection on display? And, who was the other person with her in the kitchen?
I looked up and saw her standing at the kitchen refrigerator. Her shoulders were burdened and she shuffled to a prep table with a container of vegetables. I was captivated by her – not sexually, but in a desire to know her story, what had caused her pain, what life path she had chosen to overcome it, how she managed to smile, although weakly, and what lesson I might learn from her about grief.
We all have grief. I was lost in grief. We all go to pieces. I was fragmented.
Rose’s menu was bare-bones breakfast with a smattering of Tex-Mex burritos, enchiladas, huevos, chorizo and salsas. I figured this was a nod to the under-population that journeys north and south, matching the predictable maturation of field and orchard crops. A life of following the weather and the miracle of germination, growth, and flowering that is plucked before it begins anew – removed from its cycle to feed another’s cycle.
I saw no open/closed times on the menu or descriptions between the names and prices. This was a restaurant of opportunity – whose customers passed its exit at the right time on the right day or drove on to the next road sign. I had no questions about the bill `o fare and returned to looking at the bouquets.
When I turned back to the counter, the grey-haired woman returned, wiping her hands on a towel. No pad, No pencil. No need.
I looked up at her wide-eyed and innocent.
“Two, over easy, hash, and wheat toast.”
The old guy to my right looked over, recognizing I had ordered the same as he had and grunted in approval. The woman glanced down at my coffee.
“You good here?”
“I’d like a hotten-up.”
She tipped the carafe to top off my cup. The towel was covering her left hand. I wanted to see if there was a ring – any ring – some indication that the bouquets had worked, that she had love or loved, and that there was some joy behind her less than joyful smile. Perhaps her love was her unseen kitchen companion. Perhaps her love was marked by one of the stones I saw beyond the rubbish heap. My need to fit this piece of desert life, and some lesson, into my desolation drive became a pre-occupation, interrupted by the old man clearing his throat.
He said, “Going north?”
“Nope, just going around… just around.”
“Wind’s picking up by Harvard, Mannix, Midway.”
The names he spoke bought up images far removed from his badlands map weather advice, so I nodded knowingly as if I understood. School, detective, battle - that’s all I got.
“Well, there you go.” I said, using my usual non-response phrase that allows me to avoid asking for clarification and encouraging a chat. I don’t need my SUV sand-blasted, but I sure didn’t need an extended discussion about local geography and wind warnings. A sandstorm might hold more wisdom at this point than the roses, but I was pre-occupied with the woman’s story.
I closed my eyes and let images flow and they coalesced in my imagination. I saw the bouquets fresh in vases; bright and dappled with dew upon a Formica dining room table. I saw the woman younger and beaming, tears of happiness pooled in her eyes. A faceless suitor, stood before her, shy and scuffing the wood floor with the toe of his unpolished cowboy boot. I was creating a scenario out of my selfless hopes.
My plate hit the counter and she was walking away before I turned.
“Thanks!” I called after her.
She waved the towel in response, one quick flick and she was gone.
I took stock of where I was and what I had experienced on the road so far: the desert is a sacred place, the wasteland wastes nothing, we are surrounded by danger, movement means survival, and love and life are inseparable – without either there can only be emptiness. People live here despite the hardships.
For all of my enlightenment, I still craved a word or thought that would free me from the illogical emptiness I felt in my life since my brother was killed. Survivor guilt, it’s called; the belief that surviving a traumatic event where others did not paralyzed the survivor. Psychologists have decided it’s not a diagnosis of mental impairment. It’s a significant component of PTSD.
Great. I’m piecing together the same shattered-spirit I brought home from the jungle long ago. I was sure I had compartmentalized those doldrums into an occasional bout of the Blues or a subdued afternoon of thumbing through old, faded photos and crying.
No luck. This is a chronic disposition as long as we live; the bondage of death shame.
The woman was rinsing off potatoes at a kitchen sink against the rear wall of the building. Above the water, a double-hung window offered a view of highway, shimmering in the distance, hovering above an undulating mirage pond.
When the sun tires of blistering the body, it devils the mind with illusions and disorientations; loosing familiar strictures of perception and logic. Reality blends with delirium until the simplest choices become disordered. Wanderers stray into crucial situations, with no guide other than their mounting uncertainty and fear. They reach for imaginary waters, shed the sun-shielding protection of clothing, dehydrate quickly, and buckle under mind-numbing exhaustion. Claimed by the wasteland, they find the sand cool to the touch and some attempt to drink the sand; the brain becomes incapable of recognizing madness.
There must be a way to move through sorrow and emerge, if only by changing. Once past the loss, life will be different. I will be too. If I am to shed my tears, shed my sadness, shed my skin… I must burn away that which is unnecessary for growth. My uncertain mind had lead me to this Hell-hot venture, where I dared to confront my disconsolate spirit on burning ground, sear away the unwanted hopelessness, temper my will, dry my tears and, in a merciful world, drink beatific rain that falls to quench my crematorium flames - to rise again, reinvigorated, to begin once again. I pray so…
The woman turned to set a washed potato on drain board. I could see her silhouette, her stance at the sink, and her casual grace while doing such a mundane job. She held her head high, and split her attention between rinsing the potatoes and the window view. Her left hand pushed back a wisp of undone hair and I saw something odd. Squinting hard to see the contour of her hand in front of the windows noon light, I see, on her finger, a sparkle; a jewel’s glimmer backlit by the Mojave’s overwhelming glare.
A story unfolds In my mind. She is Rose, the recipient of the roses. Romance found her and someone – perhaps the other person in the kitchen – joined her in creating this oasis in the hinterland. She may have endured pain, perhaps even soul-deep loss, but she has had a time of flowers and kisses and promises and love to ground her, to secure her. Isn’t that enough for one to keep a bit of happiness tucked away for intimate moments with a lover, neighborly greetings to strangers, wistful smiles while pouring coffee? Could it be enough to restore one’s yearning to live one’s life unencumbered by regret and continued lamentation? I see it now, and may have learned a small lesson. Could apply it to my bereavement and walk out of the desert renewed and refreshed?
The plate on the counter no longer interested me. I was searching for a path home, where my life waited, while I searched for myself. I turned to see the old man, but he had left, leaving an unobstructed view of a tall wire rack holding an assortment of sagging maps.
The woman returned.
“All done?” She asked, looking at my half-eaten breakfast.
I took the opportunity to look into her eyes. Her thoughts were somewhere else and I waited a bit too long before responding.
“Yes. It was very good.”
She held the dish towel in her right hand as she picked up the plate and I looked at her left hand.
No ring. Just a few droplets of water, left undried on her fingers. I must have seen the window light refracted by the droplets of water. I looked down at the wood grain of the countertop. My story disappeared. My assumptions were my fears re-cast as another’s success. My lesson was clear.
We dream away our problems, expecting a magical cure. There is no timeline, no elixir, no remedy for one’s re-integration into the world they left. I had swallowed a placebo I created.
I left more than enough cash on the counter to cover the food, a good-sized tip, and the hope that the woman had a good life. My eagerness to graduate from this self-imposed learning had caused me to dream that a drop of water was a reason to live.
“Good morning!” I called out. “Have a good day!”
“Mornin’…” she said, and returned to her work.
The dining room was empty as I left, taking one more look at the rosy bower.
I can do nothing here. The die is cast.
My SUV was oven-hot despite having left the windows open, so I opened the door and waited a moment for its blast furnace interior to cool.
A man opened the front door and stepped out, holding a toolbag. The woman stood behind him in the doorway and gave him a smile and a hug. He nodded as she thanked him and walked to his pick-up truck.
I waited until they were both out of sight, feeling depleted and lonelier than I had before breakfast.
The highway waited – hot, thirsty, deadly, and patient.
- End -
© Martin Higgins, 2018
all rights reserved
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