Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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We had driven halfway across the playa, Tarp and I, one morning when we came across a woman walking our way on the other side of the road.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day,” Tarp said from the passenger seat.

At 8 a.m. the playa was not yet 50 degrees. My first thought—hell, there was no first thought. It was June. Just a few weeks earlier, the mountains on the California side blazed with yellow and purple flowers and smelled like mint. Now everything was brown and dead. A dozen miles across the salt flats rose the faceless grassy mountains of Nevada. Between the two ranges, the last inch of water had finally evaporated, turning the ten-thousand acres of mud into a brick-hard crust.

My car was the only vehicle on the long, straight road. Whenever I drove across the playa, I imagined breaking down. Even fully clothed, it was no place to get stuck. Not without plenty of water, sunscreen, and time.

I slowed down and cranked the window open. The car was prehistoric. Built into the console was an eight-track player that didn’t work and a cigarette lighter that did.

Seeing us, the woman on the side of the road stopped, and I called across the road, “You cold?”

She stood hands on hips, waiting, like she was doing us a courtesy. She was maybe sixty. She had on brown sweat socks and nothing else.

“Yeah. Course.” Her voice was gruff and fatalistic, like she’d been dealt another losing hand at one of the cheap-ass casinos on the Nevada side.

“You need a ride?”

Her reply was a change in location. For a substantial woman, she moved quickly, leaving me no time even to drape a towel over the backseat. Not that I had a towel. But to hell with my car. I’d bought it thinking a cheap Volvo must be a steal. And it was: I’d been stolen from. Everything was always breaking—engine, electrical, you name it. More than once, Tarp suggested we drive my car into the foothills for target practice, but I believed in doing no violence to flesh or aluminum.

“You going to Canton Mills?” I asked.

“Another guy drove me a few miles,” she said. “He kept lecturing me. ‘Shouldn’t be out here like that.’ I told him to go to hell, and I got out.”

“Yeah, but where are you headed?”

“I’m headed the way I’m going,” she said.

“To Canton Mills.” Had to be. The nearest town after that was another thirty miles. The one after that another forty.

Tarp and I, we played those other towns every blue moon. We were a band. Guitar and drums. We didn’t have a name, and we only had the two instruments, but that was enough to meet Maria, who’d been sitting at the bar one night, studying, while we were setting up our gear.

“I already walked twenty miles,” the woman said.

She was currently or recently kite-high, but her face in the rearview looked determined. You’d have to be determined to cross the salt flats naked. If she’d been walking even half the distance she said, it meant she must have started before sunup. Now the temperature was climbing fast. Another hour under that sun and she’d have gone from hypothermia to heat stroke and massive sunburn. Dying out here took no skill or creativity. My old man taught me that after we came here from Michigan. He put up fences. The outdoor season was longer here, was his thinking. More work days per year. Now that he was gone, I repaired the fences he once built, and I made top-rate cheese grits at the café.

“I’m taking you to Canton Mills,” I said, making a U-turn.

“Isn’t any of his business if I’m naked,” she grumbled.

“No, ma’am, it sure isn’t,” Tarp said.

She’d probably driven into the mountains to get high last night. Watch the stars or whatever. I think there might have been a meteor shower. Maybe her vehicle broke down, or maybe she forgot she ever had one. We weren’t so far from Black Rock City, where they hold Burning Man. Wrong time of year, but the ethos stuck around.

When the woman started coughing, I opened the windows, thinking the fresh air might keep her from getting sick in my car.

“You still cold?” Tarp asked.

“Yeah,” she said in a fast, serious exhale, and I stepped harder on the gas.

Tarp cranked the heat, and I knew right away that was a bad idea.

The woman said, “And now I’m gonna throw up.”

“Not in my Volvo!” I stomped the brake and reached over the seat to get her door open. She got out just in time.

While we waited, Tarp said, “Guess you won’t be going to Nevada this morning after all.”

“Guess not,” I said.

“Well, isn’t this mighty convenient?”

I looked over at him. “You think I planned it?”

“Didn’t say that. I only said it was convenient.”

The first time I was about to break up with Maria, I got called into the café last-minute. Saturday mornings were our busiest time, and we didn’t have a deep bench of short-order cooks. The second time, Maria had just received terrible news. It was her score on the LSAT. She was desperate to become a lawyer and help the undocumented people at the Southern border navigate the depravity being forced on them by our elected leaders. This was her second time taking the test, and she’d bombed it worse than the first time. For weeks, anytime she wasn’t answering the phones for her stepfather’s insurance agency, she parked herself in the library with those test prep books and a stack of 3x5 index cards, but all she seemed to learn was that the shit we want and the shit we’re any good at were like two mountain ranges separated by an endless playa.

The past few days, I’d made myself hard to reach. I was laying the groundwork. Real busy with fences, I’d texted.

The woman in my car eased herself back and cleared her throat.

“You feeling better now?” I asked.

The heat was off. Windows wide open. My car, my rules.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Hey, what’s your name?” Tarp asked.

She took a moment remembering or making something up. “Bess.”

“I’m Tarp,” he said. “He’s Chip. We’re like your knights in shining armor, aren’t we?”

She didn’t have anything to say to that other than clearing her throat several times.

I asked, “You gonna be OK if I start driving again?”

“Just don’t start lecturing me,” she said. “That other guy, he kept lecturing me. Isn’t any of his damn business what I do.”

“OK,” I said. “But if you feel sick again, give me plenty of warning.”

“This piece-of-shit car is Chip’s pride and joy,” Tarp said once we got moving. “Chip is never gonna part with it.”

“One day I will,” I said.

“Chip can’t part with anything,” he went on. “This girl he’s seeing—”

“Shut the fuck up,” I said, and Tarp laughed.

That’s why we’d been crossing the playa. So I could tell Maria, face to face, that our being together was a wrong thing. It needed to happen. There were small things, like the fact that I smoked, or how whenever she laughed, which wasn’t often, she looked guilty afterwards. And there were bigger things, like her desperation to move away from all this nothing and, her words, start her life. But I didn’t mind it here. The way I saw it, there was no bigger threat to the world than an ambitious man, and I was doing my small part to remedy that.

After two failed attempts to cut Maria loose, Tarp didn’t trust me to go through with it alone. But now I had this other thing to do, and it wasn’t unpleasant to know that the next fifteen minutes would be filled with purpose. Follow the road back to town, deliver this woman to safety. She’d been in real danger from the elements, despite being too high to know it.

“You know anyone in Canton Mills?” I asked the woman, Bess. When she didn’t answer, I looked in the rearview. Her head tilted to the side. Fast asleep.

“Let me guess,” Tarp said. “You’re gonna wait for some other day to break up with Maria. Maybe next never?”

“What do you care? This came up.”

“Wasn’t this, it’d be something else.”

Tarp was recently done with the marriage that had started when he was barely out of high school. Now he was like the guy who discovers a new hot sauce and wants everyone to try it.

“Just text her, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “That’s how everyone breaks up now.”

“Nah, I have to do it right,” I explained. “Maria deserves that, at least.”

“Bullshit. She’s irresponsible.”

This again? “It’s not her fault your damn snare drum got stolen.”

Then Tarp reminded me that she’d promised to watch his gear while I was getting our car and he went off to piss, and I reminded him that she was only away from his drums for a minute to get a glass of water from the bar.

The theft put our band on hiatus. With only two instruments, you really need them both.

“She still feels bad about it,” I told him.

“Not bad enough to buy me a new snare drum.”

“She would if she could afford it,” I said. “Man, we’ve been through this.”

Bess snored the last few miles to Canton Mills. In the medical clinic parking lot, I left the engine running and went inside. Gave the woman at the counter a quick rundown of events.

“Well, that’s a new one,” she said. Which I was sort of glad to hear. She was about forty, and if she’d worked in this clinic a long time, she must have seen just about everything. But apparently not this. “Did she happen to say what happened?”

I looked for a name tag but didn’t see one. For a woman who worked the front desk of a run-down clinic, she had an unguarded, interested face. Like an aunt you could confide in, knowing she wouldn’t shatter hearing the truth. I took her question to be sincere, not some sly way of asking if maybe I was the cause of Bess’s current condition. I didn’t look especially upstanding at the moment—you don’t dress fancy to break up with your girlfriend—but the clinic was cheap wood-panel walls and stained carpeting and didn’t strike me as a place for bullshit and nicety.

“Nah, she didn’t say,” I told the woman. “Just that her car broke down. Do you maybe have a blanket or sheet or something you could come outside with?”

She told me to hang on and went down the hallway and into a room. When I went outside again, Bess was awake and had left the parking lot for the main road through town. A car honked. So did another.

Tarp was in the parking lot leaning against my car.

“Why’d you let her out?” I said.

“What was I gonna do?”

“Hey!” I called after her. “Bess! You should come back here.”

Nobody was coming out of the clinic, and now the woman was half a block gone. So I called 911 and gave the dispatcher the same rundown I’d given the woman in the clinic. Older woman, naked in the playa, high or coming down. I told the dispatcher I’d driven her to the clinic in Canton Mills, but she wouldn’t go in. “She’s walking down the middle of the road,” I said.

The dispatcher said, “Can you describe her?”

I thought I already had. “She’s wearing brown socks,” I said.

Bess had stopped walking and stood in the middle of the street looking straight up at the sky while cars curved slowly around her. Finally, the woman from behind the counter came out of the clinic carrying a folded-up sheet. On her heels came another woman and a man, both in medical scrubs. “Hang on a sec,” I told the dispatcher while the first woman trotted over to Bess, who shook her head and kept looking up at the morning sky. There was nothing to see. It was the high desert, and the sky was exactly blue and nothing else. Then they seemed to have a short conversation, which ended with Bess letting the woman wrap the sheet around her. “I think we might be OK,” I said to the dispatcher. “I think we’ve got this under control.”

The dispatcher seemed fine with that.

The four of them walked right past me and went inside. I stood on the sidewalk at the edge of the clinic parking lot and looked around at the ordinary street. Some cars went past. A few pedestrians stood on the sidewalk, one of them bent over a newspaper vending machine. This was as busy as Canton Mills ever got. Tarp was still leaning against my car, looking down at his phone again, seeing if anything anywhere was any different from the last time he checked.

“I can’t believe they didn’t want our names,” I said.


“The clinic people.”

“Why would they want that?” he said without looking up from his phone.

I wasn’t sure exactly. But letting us leave without getting our names felt incomplete.

I went back into the clinic. The woman at the counter seemed surprised to see me again.

“I thought you might want our names or something,” I told her.

She said, “I mean, sure, you can leave them,” and handed me a sheet of paper and a pen. While I wrote, she said, “Want to guess why she was standing in the road?”

“Why’s that?”

“She said she was stargazing.”

“Ha,” I said, because we’d been through something together and I could tell she wanted me to have this with her, this small shared laugh. Though it wasn’t as if the stars vamoosed in the daytime, and I always kind of liked knowing that just behind all that blue shone every fireball in the heavens.

I added Tarp’s name and phone number to the sheet of paper. “I’m Chip,” I said. “You can call if you need anything. I’ve always got my phone with me.” It was true. My old man’s fences held up remarkably well, but when there’s a problem and your animals are getting loose, it’s always an emergency.

“Well, thank you, Chip, for doing what you did. It was very kind of you,” the woman said, and smiled, and I knew no one was going to call. After Bess sobered up, she’d have a place to go or she wouldn’t. Either way, my part in this was over. Nobody would want anything from us. I thought about Maria, wanting so badly to help strangers in need that she’d move anywhere and go into debt if only some crappy law school would let her in.

“No it wasn’t,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

I looked at the woman. “What, exactly, was kind of us? Not leaving her for dead? Not assaulting her?”

“What? No. Why would you . . . ”

Driving to the clinic, Tarp had told Bess we were her knights in shining armor. I’d felt it, too. A couple of heroes. Which meant my view of myself was no better than this woman’s.

“You’re thanking me for literally the lowest standard you can hold a person to.”

Her body stiffened. Her smile was gone. She didn’t like me any longer. “Not everyone would have done it, is all.”

“Yeah. Well. Take it up with them.”


“You’re gonna have to get your car detailed,” Tarp said as we pulled out of the clinic lot.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Thirty minutes earlier, the day had felt electric and full of purpose, but now all that was gone.

“You couldn’t pay me a million bucks to sit back there,” Tarp said.

At which point I kicked Tarp out of my car. We weren’t more than a mile from his apartment. He’d survive.

I lit a cigarette and headed solo to Nevada. The real trouble with Maria wasn’t her laugh or my smoking or any of that. It was that I believed in her. That was the heart of it. Through sheer force of will, she was going to become a lawyer. Maybe not soon, but eventually. And where would that leave me? I’d never been a big disappointment to anyone and wasn’t about to start now.

On the drive, in the middle of the playa, about where we’d stopped for Bess, I pulled my car to the side of the road and stepped into the beaming sun. Nothing but rock-hard crust stretched for miles. Now that she was out of my car, I couldn’t help admiring the woman. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to bare myself and just go—to say to myself, fuck the odds—and it occurred to me there was only one way to know.

I drove the rest of the way across the playa and stopped at the Walgreens for more cigarettes before heading to Maria’s apartment. I hadn’t called first, and Maria answered her door in sweatpants and an oversized flannel shirt.

“I know for a fact,” I told her, offering the packet of index cards I’d bought along with the cigarettes, “the third time is the damn charm.”

She stood in the doorway looking bedraggled and resigned and absurdly pretty. “I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said.

I shrugged. “Me being sure has nothing to do with it. A fact’s a fact.”

She didn’t smile. Didn’t say another word. But she took the packet of index cards from me. I followed her inside and shut the door.  

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