FOOD WATER MAPS
Heading south along the Mohave Freeway, north of where Yemo Road runs south into Daggett, I saw the hand-painted sign; a weathered sheet of plywood, held high by two creosote-soaked railroad ties 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 — surely an afterthought, added below the survival essentials in hopes of financial survival.
I imagine someone added MAPS after realizing highway voyagers found the vast horizon devoid of any comforting, navigational landmarks and transversing the desert's searing, black roadways a hazardous maze.
Locals knew every rock and lizard, so the late signage addition was explainable and excusable.
Of course, I was driving parallel to a procession of mountaintops to my right that stretched south in their staccato parade toward Sheephole Valley and Joshua Tree.
A more distant hillside sign announced Yarrow Ravine Rattlesnake Habitat Area.
Years ago, a rattlesnake killed a friend's Australian Shepherd, and I have never forgiven Vipers for the loss. Some serpents produce a deadly venom and, after 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 shirt back, signaled a lane change to the empty highway behind me, and coasted to the exit. When I opened my window, 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 earth 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 stormcloud of emotions and unanswered questions, arguments, and tears.
Why does the passing of a loved one rob me of my leisurely, unexamined life? Why does death prompt ruthless introspection, inevitably becoming The Grand Inquisitor for heart-heavy survivors? 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 the viper would be either dead or wounded. Dead would be regrettable. Wounded, it would be in agony and unapproachable. So I continued, damning my carelessness - nearing a rattlesnake habitat, speeding on a rutted, dirt road turn-off, and indulging in my addled, rearview musing as memories flashed by. Foolish. Hell, any of those hazards could be enough to end my wayfaring into the wasteland and hence, my search for answers.
In the rearview mirror, I saw the serpent 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 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. My limbs shook with a flush of adrenaline.
I let the SUV coast up to the stop sign and sat there a while to take in the layout of the streets.
Ahead, the road just ended in a pile of rubbish. Beyond the litter, a simple stone wall encircled crosses and gravestones. Some had flowers placed on them, brown and brittle. I saw a child's toy in front of one marker and a pair of work boots next to another. Dry branches and parchment-curled paper debris littered the ground. Perhaps this place has been forgotten, or no one remains alive to keep it clean.
If I turned left, there was nothing of note save a few tumbledown, clapboard buildings and the remains of a 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 had given way to scab-brown rust that eventually promised to consume the entire vehicle.
To my right were several plank-sided wooden buildings, one of which had a few vehicles parked in front. There was another Food Water Maps sign nailed to the side of its lapstrake marquee that faced my direction 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 lie, merely marking a point in the past before a business perished and its owners left the roadside invitation to succumb to its 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 the pick-up. The faded words, Valley Plumbing – Heating and Cooling, on its door circled a drawing of a brass spigot dripping a single, gleaming drop of water. The sun was directly overhead, so I slid the moonroof cover shut, opened the windows, got out, and stretched.
Every parked vehicle in this environment quickly becomes an oven.
When given a chance to carve its fury into wood, the sun is brutal but yields somewhat to its grain lineaments. After years of exposure to uncompromising desert heat and an infrequent quenching under brief, torrential rain, the grain is drawn out, the pulpwood shrinks back, and paint curls and blows away, leaving the board with deep creases, chines, and cracks. These boards have become tableaus, death masks of mummified lumber.
When I looked through the dozen or so windows that flank the building's weathered door, I saw some shadow motion inside, and silhouettes of a couple at a window table told me the place was open. So, I stepped up to the door.
The 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 silica sand, not unlike the sands that stretched for hundreds of miles around me. So, this was all a sea at one time, and I'm on a beach with no shoreline.
I turned the doorknob and stepped over the threshold to breathe in coffee, bacon, fresh bread, and a faint floral scent. A low murmur of hushed conversation set the moment. The room was entirely wood: walls, floors, and a long counter. Beyond that, a pass-through window framed a glimpse of the kitchen where a grey-haired woman was busy at a griddle. I heard someone else back there humming a mellow tune.
Wooden-topped kitchen stools lined the counter 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. These yard sale orphans probably meant a small operating budget, yet served their utilitarian functions well enough to avoid a costly thematic design. Surprisingly, they were, at once, efficient and charming in a uniquely Mojave roadside café sense.
I sat at the counter. 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 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 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 the waitress, and saw a menu on a nearby table. As I stood to get it, 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 stiff, burgundy sprays crowned the room, each bearing a light shroud of dust and a few tanglements of cobwebs.
The sight transfixed me. I was puzzled about how this peculiar collection came 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.
When I returned to my stool, the grey-haired woman was waiting at the counter, holding a menu. Her weary smile spoke of long days and longer weeks. The lines about her green eyes said 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?"
"Yep, Thank you."
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 nod rather than saying thanks aloud again.
I stared at the menu while wondering what lesson I was receiving. Was this Rose? Were the bouquets given during her 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 seemed unduly burdened as 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 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. Their life follows the seasonal weather and the miracle of germination, growth, flowering, and harvest before it repeats with a new generation – plucked from its regenerative cycle to feed our cycle.
I saw no open/closed times or descriptions between the names and prices on the menu. This was a restaurant of opportunity – whose customers passed its sign 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 love 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, some indication that the bouquets had worked, that she loved or had loved, and if there might be 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 headstones I saw beyond the rubbish heap. My need to fit this piece of desert life and some lesson into my desolation drive became my preoccupation, interrupted only 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 as if I understood.
School, detective, battle - that’s all I got.
“Well, there you go,” I said, using my usual non-response phrase, allowing me to avoid asking for clarification and awkward small talk. I didn’t need my SUV sand-blasted by a windstorm, but I wasn’t up for an extended discussion about local geography and wind warnings. Sandstorms might impart more wisdom at this point than the roses, but I was fixated on presuming the woman’s life.
I closed my eyes and let images flow; 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 walked away before I looked up.
“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: a 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 to free me from the illogical emptiness I had felt since my brother died. Survivor guilt, it’s called – the belief that surviving a traumatic event where others perished. This shame paralyzes 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.
This impairment is a chronic disposition for as long as we live; the bondage of death shame.
Rose was rinsing potatoes at a kitchen sink against the rear wall of the building. Above the water, a double-hung window offered a view of the 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 disorientation, 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 it.
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, my sadness, my skin, I must burn away that which is unnecessary for growth. My uncertain mind had led 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 drink beatific rain when it falls, quenching my crematorium flames only to rise as vapor into the sky once again, reinvigorated, to begin the round once again.
I pray so.
The woman turned to set a washed potato on the drainboard. I could see her silhouette, stance at the sink, and 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 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, kisses, promises, and love to ground her and 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, and 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 I apply it to my grief 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 who 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 elsewhere, and I waited too long before responding.
“Yes. It was perfect.”
She moved the dishtowel to her right hand as she picked up the plate. I stared at her left hand.
No ring. Just a few droplets of sink water left undried on her fingers. I must have seen the window light refracted by a drop of water, glistening like a gem. I looked down at the 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 of my own making.
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 another look at the rosy bower.
My SUV was oven-hot despite having left the windows open, so I opened the door, turned on the engine and airconditioning, and waited a moment.
A workman opened the restaurant’s front door and stepped out, holding a toolbag. The waitress 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 before breakfast.
The highway waited – hot, dry, patient.
- End -
© Martin Higgins, 2023
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