It's a 105 degrees but I am not sweaty. I am covered in sand, a buck fifty-seven in pocket, stuck in the desert somewhere southeast of Flagstaff, nowhere near my goal.
I'm trying to pick cactus-spines out of my ass and Kessler offers no help.
And we have no more whiskey, we ran out yesterday. That bastard Kessler, he drinks too much.
No, we have nothing and there is nothing, just the blinding sun, the air like a scratchy, stiff, partially-aflame wool blanket enveloping us.
"I want my blanket, damn it" I say, remembering the goal--nay sangreal--of our journey. I feel no more spines and gingerly sit in the sand to douse my fiery duff.
All I wanted was one of those blankets my ancestors wore. Not because I'm 1/4 Navajo, either, that would be stupid and pointless. I wanted one because they're supposed to keep you warm at night when the desert is cool, but cool in the day, when the desert is hot. And I didn't believe they could do both, but Kessler swore they could, and well, there was no way to settle it. We go back too far, and, he wouldn't let it rest. And I can't stand it when he's right, he always is, though no one can be, so I had to take him down. And you couldn't settle it in Ohio where there's no desert and no Indian blankets. We had to throw down and stake it.
So we did. And so maybe it was stupid, after all. But it was not pointless.
Kessler nods and squints down the road. He has short, dark, curly hair, a strong chin and dark, penetrating eyes.
He looks like a statue I once saw, Aurelius or Octavian or some such. Romanesque--I think but am not sure--is the word. That may be about buildings. In any case, he looks noble, with straight nose, olive skin, and horrendous charisma. He could command legions of humps like me against any foe, and we would fight until the end. Yes, with a toga and a--what was that called?--laurel or some such branch in his hair...
What the hell? The sun must be getting to me. Christ, was I just thinking about how handsome Kessler would be dressed up like a Roman?
Kessler goes over to the cactus he broke with my ass, earlier when I tried to hightail it back to the metallic-blue '74 Maverick and therein back to Ohio, and picks up a piece.
He takes a thoughtful bite, sucks on it, and chews. He starts slowly nodding to himself, and it is never good when Kessler agrees with himself about something.
"What the hell are you doing?" I ask. He shrugs.
"There could be trip in here, and besides, I'm thirsty," he says.
I'm stuck in the desert with $1.57, a sore ass, a possibly hallucinating Romanesque demi-god, and no fucking blanket.
I look past Kessler, toward the car, calculating my odds, adjusting my trajectory around the cacti. Maybe if I kicked sand in his face first, I could make it to the car...
"Mexico," he says, and spits out the cactus. He takes the bottle of codeine out of his pocket, takes a nip, and walks over to me.
"No fucking way," I say. Mexico? He jabs the bottle at me. I tilt it back, and take what ends up being the last nip, and toss it. That bastard drinks too much codeine, too.
"We could exchange our funds for pesos," Kessler says. "The exchange rate is favorable right now, our funds will go farther there," he explains.
I take out the pack of reds, open it, and see two cigarettes.
"Split one?" says Kessler. I shake my head and show him the pack. He takes one and I take one and we hold them up.
"Ching", we say, and tap them together. It's a ritual. Kessler always said it was good juju when I had two smokes left in the pack, one for each of us.
That bastard smokes too much too, and he never buys his own.
We burn 'em, and toward the end of the sweet nicotine calm, the codeine kicks in and cuts down the focal length of my mind's eye.
"We need to hole up," I say. I'm very cool now, my nervous system no longer akimbo, so cool that it doesn't bother me to sound like an extra from Gunsmoke. "Let's roll 'til dark and sleep in the desert." Gunsmoke, Easy Rider, there's no stopping me on opiates.
We drive, Blue Radio on the tape deck, for what seems like hours. The background never changes--the desert's all the same--and the only sign we're moving is the yellow dashes flying by. I remember Dada's song Dim:
Can this car go any faster? 'Cause I can still see where I am...
Suddenly there is a huge thump and the car is skidding. Because I am now super-cool, and my focal-length is proper, I easily drive out of it.
There is no damage to the car, but there is one fucked up armadillo writhing in the road.
I can't move. I can't stand suffering, particularly when I'm the cause. Oh wonderful me...
Kessler walks up and crushes its head under his boot-heel. "Poor bastard," he says.
I drive the car off the road and get out.
"We're down to shit now, no smokes, no juice, no booze," I say. "Where're we gonna crash?"
He looks out to the desert, tilts his head once in an apparently random direction, and says "This way". Lacking other options, I grab our gear from the trunk and follow.
* * *
I follow Kessler blindly for quite awhile. I have no idea where we are heading. I have the full bandwidth of my codeine-shortened focal-length focused on the ground. I'm looking for rattlesnakes and scorpions, as well as the soft divots of Kessler's footprints. I'm quite content, following in his vague footsteps, because he always ends his journeys well, unlike me.
I don't stop until I run smack into Kessler's back.
"We're here", he says, and I knew he would get us there.
There is a small, squat adobe building, about 20' by 20'.
"This should do," says Kessler.
We enter what was presumably once a jail. There is a long front room with a lone desk and nothing else. The rest of the room has cells, each with a bunk, divided by bars.
"You are rock," I say.
"Total rock," says Kessler. It is another ritual. The foreign coeds we tutor back in Ohio, all of which seemingly love Kessler, always say "You guys totally rock!" after we get done revising their papers for them. Kessler always disdained the term. Rock, as a verb, meant to waiver, to flop back and forth against the tides of existence in an otherwise aimless dance of mere survival. Rock, as a noun, meant something that stands strong against those same tides, never waivers, and is always pointful.
We pitch camp, each to his own cell, the lantern hanging between. Kessler takes out his notebook, as do I.
* * *
The noises of Kessler's pen spewing his soul out on his page annoy me. My page is tauntingly white. Eventually, he stops. Dear God I hope the crazy bastard is asleep.
I resist the temptation to sneak over and read what he has written. He is a beautiful, depraved, and prolific writer. He makes it look easy. I wanted to write as well, but I cannot. I have whiskey-dick of the soul. I can help coeds write papers, but I can't voice myself. I call myself a writer, and fancy myself a Native-American Faulkner, but 'stares at blank pages' is my only Indian nom-de-plume.
I hear Kessler start to snore, and somehow the knowledge that he may be sleeping frees me a bit. I lie back, and try to absorb things.
In a broken-down adobe jail, in the desert on an idiot's quest to disprove a gambit about a magic blanket, shouldn't one be able to write? And if one can't write, shouldn't one sleep? But I can't sleep, all I can think of is Faulkner:
In a dark room you must empty yourself for sleep: I don't know who I am...
Thanks, drunk-ass Bill, for summing it up so cleanly.
* * *
The clicking of claws stirs me from the mesmerizing whiteness of my page and the mesmerizing darkness of Faulkner. I look over, and see the coyote. He sniffs over toward Kessler, and over toward me. After a good snortful, he wanders into my cell, twirls some pointless circles, and finally curls up.
I don't blame him for picking me, Kessler stinks outright. I only wish the dog would share this wisdom with the coeds.
I look at the stars through the broken hole in the ceiling, but the moonlight is too bright and all I can spot is Orion. Oh mighty hunter, why can't I write like Kessler?
I am stuck in the desert with $1.57, a sore-ass, a somnolent roman demigod who every coed loves, no magic fucking blanket, and a wild coyote in my cell. And still I can't write. I ain't empty, but apparently I know all too well what I'm full of.
All at once, as I'm staring at the blank page that I refuse to defile with my half-formed thoughts, the dog starts baying.
Loud and proud, he sings his sorrowful song to the moon. I see Kessler's face, pressed up against the bars, smiling his magnanimous, co-ed slaying, i'm-just-a-Roman-demigod-amongst-you-mortels smile. He starts howling as well. The dog gets fired up, and turns it up a notch. Before long, they are both howling their souls out, no canvas, no page, a couple of singin' dogs against the vastness of the night.
I join in. There was nothing else to do.
Between howls, I look over at Kessler, smiling and yelping it up. I wonder if he'd ever write about me. I wonder what he'll write about if not.
I never learned, but the memory of his smiling, beatific face against the prison bars of that adobe jail cell lets me know one thing: Poem, song, or novel, or a dog's discordant wail against the night, he has written, and he has been heard.
Written in memory of John Kessler. Shine on you crazy diamond!
Maybe it's you, maybe it's Dan. Things aren't quite the way they should be. And now it seems Dan's peace of mind has come up for the bidding, and those that he respects and trusts must all have been just kidding. Dan's little world has lost control, but still it keeps on spinnin'...
ABOUT DAN GONZALEZ
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4.14.04 @ 12:18a
Wow...great piece!! What wonderful work, the dedication to your friend's memory at the end was touching. Your writing reminded me a bit of Kerouac at times...aimless wandering (only with a coyote's howl instead of jazz music) entertaining, fresh, lively,
although to be true Kerouac style it would have to be more stream of consciousness
and less chronological story telling...for this story I love the way you told it, couldn't be better if Kerouac had written it himself
also I relate to the part when you said "I have whiskey-dick of the soul" I have never personally had whiskey dick (being female) but have had "experiences" with it, and that is exactly how my writing is sometimes...:)
4.19.04 @ 3:32p
Thanks very much.
John loved Kerouac, so that is a high compliment to us both. I included the dedication because this is publishing of a sort, and it was due.
I do struggle in the voice area. I lack your poetics and Rachel's strength of narrative. I always suspect myself of unconscious plagiarism, but never seem to catch myself in the act. :-)
8.8.05 @ 6:01p
Hey there Dan - I read it while driving back to my office. It made me smile. Kessler would love it. And if you're still struggling with the unconscious plagiarism - it's okay. Those of us on the Fiesta Deck will let it pass...it happens. Thanks for hooking me up with the site.