There was no furniture, other than a wooden table made of rough-sawn pieces of packing crate lumber. It leaned to one side on a short leg, offering an inclined top that matched the unconventional geometry of the walls. More a grotto than a room; it seemed a cavern with shelves and storage space carved into its soft grey walls. One large hollow might have been a place to sleep; others – small and at waist-level – probably provided space for storage. Just below the beginning of the vaulted ceiling, I saw a long gouge, only a few inches high. In it I found a small stack of hand-drawn playing cards on scrap cardboard; crudely sketched diamonds and spades clubs and hearts. A couple dozen examples of poverty, isolation, boredom, and the need to pass time with diversion.
It was not a full deck, a couple dozen at most and I thumbed through them in mild amusement at the child-like, inelegant representations.
Until I saw the face cards.
The Queen was drawn with marked skill – clearly rendered and precise. Her face bore the same, hardship-enduring grace that shines forth from black and white photos of dustbowl mothers, burden with the weight of deprivation and labor, but unbeaten by life’s dance with death. The Jack was a vulpine knave, eye’s squinting under hooded lids, smile twisted in a sardonic scowl that suggested cunning and immorality. When fanned out the rest of the thin deck to find the King, when I saw him I stopped, transfixed. I might as well have been holding a mirror.
Beneath a branch-entangled simple crown was the face of a man lost in thought. His eyes set on some distant perimeter, not of this land, some future that was less barren and ephemeral than this talc palace; some other kingdom where men don’t live in caves and scratch out cards on scraps of paper. Where the Queen doesn’t wither and fade, crushed by misfortune and ravaged by despair. He longs for a rightful fief where the Jack meets his better and is reformed by a stronger will; disciplined into lawfulness, and reconciled to be trustworthy.
The King was looking into the distance to find himself. His; his countenance burdened by the thorny brambles that snake through his royal gardens and the climbing ivy endlessly pulling down the walls of his citadel – sucking away tiny footholds of stone – dispassionate in its destruction.
The cows gave sour milk. The mares birth monsters. The people lose their minds and their spoons.
I know this man. I know his tribulations, his heartache, his distress as his kingdom turns to dust.
But by choosing to visit the desolate horizon he gazes toward, I commit to enter the cauldron. I willingly risk everything to gamble on rejuvenation after such deep bereavement.
I looked down at the floor and toed the pearly dust. This is not my fate. This is not my kingdom.
So I carefully shuffled the cards and placed them back on the high shelf.
An archway lead into a smaller room devoid of niches and hollows in its walls. Here the walls well less smooth, scalloped by an adze or a similar improvised tool and left unfinished. Very little light entered the room, but I could see that the floor was littered with papers and several rusted tin cans. One large can held a ragged scrap of its yellowed label. “Monarch Pork & B” it read, with just enough of the attending image visible to see the beans it once contained.
Who lived here? Who endured the inexorable heat? Who breathed in and coughed out dust? Who made the dark, cave dwelling and supped on cold bean meals?
I walked out the doorway and turned to regard what I had just seen. On the door, the word CANCER in faded, peeled paint enthralled me. Someone had flagged the place with a warning; named it a disease. A realization shook me. Was I looking at the entrance to a crypt? A sepulcher with playing cards and tin cans?
I breathed out a prayer – requiescat in pace – to no one in particular.
Some ingrained sense of responsibility took over and, out of an obligation to propriety, I secured the door as I would my own home door. I turned to leave the… Dare I call it a home? A cave? Shelter?
The main road, crazed with tarred cracks took me north, as I looked for clues along the way. Perhaps a slapdash sign, or a ramshackle landmark that hinted at some piece of the myth I was assembling. Even a forsaken cemetery with tombstones from the years when brief descriptions were added to the names and dates might add a new inclusion… “Remember man as you go by, as you are, once was I. As I am now, so shall you be, prepare yourself to follow me” or “Beloved husband, lost to affliction.” There is no formal methodology to my search, just a willingness to breath it all in and let it settle inside my mind. Grains of sand from an endless beach.
Many miles up the road there was a caboose, landlocked and conjoined with a long, tin-roofed cabin. Atop the caboose was a single word, formed of welded, scrap metal. “SPIRITS”
I parked at the caboose climbed metal stairs to the planked platform that served as a front entrance porch. Inside, it was a bare-bones liquor store with no one at the counter. I saw guide books on a wall rack and looked for anything that might be specific to local history. Most were geared to visiting popular desert attractions. The door swung open and a gruff-looking man stepped in.
“Sorry!” he said, striding to the counter. “Bar’s full”
I perked up. Bar? Maybe a cold beer?
I said, “Bar?”
“Yeah. Can’t serve and sell off-premises in the same building. Bar’s next door.”
“Let’s do that.” I said. “Hate to drink alone.”
An hour later I let go of my story about the talc cave and knew the truth.
The cabin contained a long bar