I would like to believe it. I would like to believe that I live in a house without shackles, without the need to barricade myself from intruders, a thousand eyes from private nightmares. Or whispers in the dark. No. It is a house in the desert, a house cursed with sticking windows and torn shutters, creaking floors, peeling walls - always more work, work, work.
And in the distance, beyond the baby cactus, the tips of serrated mountains pierce orange mushroom clouds. Before the sun sinks, I watch those clouds dissolve, hear them exhale. Vapor is what I'm always left with.
No. Few people drive by here.
Now, I have this secret. I know somewhere near is a site the military uses to test swift and invisible bombs, so nerve-racking that my house of splinters and rotten wood shakes, vibrations loosening the frames and the joists and the rafters. Oh, my mattress is a poor buffer. Don't get much sleep. Night is what I dread most.
Those planes overhead.
Cataplexy, narcolepsy, sleep deprivation. Which do I have? Need to do more research.
I get this crazy notion from time to time that one night I will sleepwalk out my front door, walk for miles, through valleys and dried ravines. And my body, as if in cruise control, will wander into a target area, prohibited to civilians, alert or not. I will keep walking until some recruit, green and trigger happy, fires warning shots, a volley of them, until he screams.
And I am hit.
The sensation of air rushing through my organs - the heat of so many back drafts. (And will I keep walking as insubstantial as a phantom? Will I slip through the holes of that fence the recruit is so diligently guarding?)
For thirty years, I have supported my daytime life with a circus line-up of jobs. Drove a truck. Repaired jeeps. Pumped gas. Was your anonymous maintenance man tightening leaky pipes, or your plastic smiling bank teller until fired for handing an incorrect withdrawal to a supervisor impersonating a customer. (To this day, I still curse the slick-oiled son of a bitch.)
But my favorite job is still the all-night diner, a truck stop for bleary-eyed bastards like me. I always think of it as a clean well-lighted fallout shelter from nuclear nightmares of your skin burning, eroding - the radiation from so many fire fights. No, that diner affords me the luxury of sleeping during the day.
Oh, we daytime zombies. Few people know about us. Or what we think about at night. Do we howl with the hyenas? Share dreams with the wombats? Slither with the lizards. The shadow of the gecko hovers in our palms.
My small income is supplemented by government checks. My eyes, growing bat-blind with age, can barely make out the fine print on the stubs. Shrinking, shrinking, each month.
During the war, the Army handed me Order 19, to kill a snitch. Stationed me with a girl, with a special radio to decipher enemy broadcasts. In a remote village hut, not so remote from purple jacket corpses, we drew maps of secret tunnels and supply routes like squiggly lines. I was a trained cartographer and had volunteered for special assignment.
Her name, she said, was Chez, pronounced the way the French would say it, but HQ pronounced it with a Z. A girl with so many cats, to chase so many rats. In her hut of bamboo and noni pulp, we played Texas poker into the middle of the night, until I lost my shirt, or she hers. "Next time," she said, sitting in lotus position, "you will let me win because I have no money. Food is not cheap. Pigs are getting scarce. Fish die from contamination. I wish to live long enough to take care of my mother. What is your mother like, Private?"
She was about my age, twenty or slightly older, and claimed she was taught the game by an American intelligence officer. She said she was schooled by French missionaries, that she had once wanted to teach English, and expounded nothing more about her past.
We became each other's snug fever tree, arms entwined, bruised vines, clinging in the thick of night. This shaky thing called love or something like it. Ask the crickets rubbing their legs under the stars. What else does one have against a squad of leeches, armed with pins and needles, or sucking blood in the quick of a heartbeat. You don't know your lover's real name.
"Ever been to France, soldier?" she asked. "So lovey dovey.'' She applied mud, from a river of copper and red to her face twice a week. "Like the American girls do," she said. "Don't they?"
She was tall and sleek, pigeon-toed, a face delicate as my sister's glass snapdragons back home. That is how I recall her through the lens of a backward green thought.
Each morning, she rode her bicycle up north to her job at the pawn shop, which sold hot radios, transmitters, procured from the bodies of dead grunts. Chao ban, Chao ban, I heard her say to the old village women as her bicycle became a black blur upon the path leading to a rainforest.
She worked for a Chinaman. In the backroom, I imagine static and a hot busted radio, with signals the VC could jam. In that backroom, I imagined this dirty, old man groping for her, or her screeching to stop, stop, stop, in the scratchy voice of a Transistor Sister or a Laryngitis Lil.
One day, any day, a day like today, we stood in a pine forest, in a prism of sunbeams dancing over our faces. She tripped over a pile of stones and twigs, shaped like a triangle, or planchette.
She dropped her straw basket, where she would hide decoded messages and secret maps of VC ammo dumps. And when I stooped to retrieve it, she brushed me away, and planted herself against the trunk of a palmyra tree, its branches slightly drooping with the weight of yellow fruits.
With eyes dizzy and laughing, she took several coquettish steps towards me. My handsome soldier, she said, take me back to America, when your tour of duty is over. We'll have three kids and a backyard of pigs or chickens.
And yes, cats too, she said. Why not? Our babies will have shining eyes of onyx or sapphire. They will have bubbly sweet faces the world will never disown. Like us at the edge of the world. Would we really need maps? Someday, we will burn all maps. Citizens of Nowhere.
She dipped her head towards her chest and peered, smirked at me like a bashful but mischievous child. Her eyes grew large. I thought of coins that could magnetize and what their going price would be on the black market. Her voice grew quiet and somber.
"Yes, babies," she said. "So lovey dovey - and you know what? Do you know you talk in your sleep?"
"How would I know,'' I said. I slung the carbine from one tired and sore shoulder.
She shook a finger and paced in front of me.
"You keep telling me to take a different path. You know that? Ha Ha. You do. The one I take is dangerous and full of landmines. Snipers in the mist. It is what you say.''
She smiled queerly and rolled her eyes upward. Her voice took on a musical tone.
"Told me everything in your sleep. How you've followed me to the shop, and through your wires and decoders have listened to me give the Chinaman your real name. I begged him to spare you. In exchange for a dragon girl's dark-eyed swamp and the taste of salt from her alligator tears, I had him spare you."
The flesh around my right cheek began to tighten and knot; I could feel a twitch and a pulsing around my temples.
She stood still before me, arms at her sides. The ends of her lips pinched inwards, then, the chin quivering, the eyes, indigo-dark and straining, turning somewhat misty. But no, a smile spread like a stretch of daybreak.
"Yes. In your sleep, you keep saying my real name. Would you really kill this humble village girl? Your soul butterfly? Cut her heart like slicing a teabag? Would you?''
Her face shook and tilted.
"Am I nothing more than a cheap transistor?"
I turned my eyes from her black gaze and focused them towards the middle of her forehead.
For some reason, I thought of the passing of childhood, the drone of so many hot days and lazy summers. I remembered the feeling of butterscotch taffy, Mary Janes, melting in my hand, on the way home from school. The melting candy was my lifeline. I grew sentimental over this lost childhood, perhaps corrupted by memory.
Then, I slowly raised my carbine to my right cheek and squinted at her dandelion smile, her baby moon of a belly. My hands shook. I imagined the Chinaman's hands never shook.
"I am a silly girl, but not afraid. You worry too much for a soldier. Too much at night. Somebody is always listening. You talk in your sleep.''
"Chez, I love you.''
"Huh? You love me?"
"Yes? You piece of shit!"
I shot her.
The desert, like war, sometimes produces fruits.
Got a lady friend, named Kia, a plump woman with long straight hair and dark, gleaming eyes, black planets nestled within fluted eye folds. I love her honeydew smile, her skin, her cheeks, the texture of ripe fruit in the sun, as I only could imagine it from a distance, and with the sun in my eyes. I gave her a ride to town once; I couldn't see her walking miles in bare feet and under that bleaching sun. And those feet! So toughened, the wrinkles turning to strings of muscles, the soles to sandpaper. Real sandpiper she is. I invited her over one afternoon. My house now has become her second home. So much time on her hands, she says, since her husband died.
In my living room, I draw sketches of her. Circles and polygons that overlap. She laughs. Too thin, she says, too young. Not me. Ha Ha. I wish. But the eyes - yes! The eyes maybe.
In return, she knits me blankets, designs of horses, women carrying jugs, bare breasted Zuni food gatherers. Promises they will keep me from having bad dreams.
And after dinner, I sometimes play for her scratched records, Dorsey, Sinatra, my old man's swing collection, or some old Presley: Blue Hawaii, Love Me Tender. Under the living room light, unsheathed and flickering, we do a simple two-step. If only my feet could move the way they once did. Dinosaur feet. Arthritic phalanges. Troglodyte joints.
Plant dynamite under my ass!
This bad habit, like stealing someone's cookies, I can never forgive myself for. While she knits materials for a new dress or lampshade, sitting poised in my cushioned arm chair, I fall asleep.
Her quizzical smile greets me when I awake. She is looking straight into my face. So remorselessly into it. Like a mother you told your bad dream to while you dreamt it. "I'm sorry,'' I say, "didn't mean to be rude. Dinner makes me nod out.''
"Did anyone ever tell you,"she asks,'' that you talk in your sleep?''
No, I tell her.
"Well, you keep going on how I must be careful not to walk the same route, because of the soldiers. You know I've never seen these soldiers you talk about. Or these airplanes you hear. The air bases? There are none around. Do you know what your problem is? Do you? You need a good night's sleep.''
A good night's sleep.
Through the fogginess of my unfocused eyes, eyes that are crusty dream-catchers, or dream-losers, I can no longer tell if it is day or night, my house a hut, or a sanctuary in a desert or rain forest. I watch her slow dandelion smile spread and that glint in her eyes that I remembered from so many years ago. She slides to the edge of the couch.
"We haven't aged too badly, have we, Private?''
My lips begin to quiver, to press against each other, as if by their own volition, as if to utter the name of some rare, exotic jackfruit I had tasted so long ago. My mouth can form no sound.
I imagine a gaping hole somewhere in her chest, a sucking wound under her blouse that allows the air to seep and rush through. That is her secret. She will show no stranger, no friend, except me, someday. Perhaps after a slow dance. Perhaps after I whisper in her ear that we will never betray each other again on a slow afternoon of sunbeams and sun-halos that make you drunk and trigger-happy/sad.
She rises, walks away, then, at a good distance from the house, she turns, squinting with the drowsy sun in her eyes, and waves good bye.
I watch her saunter into the distance until she is a thought fading or floating away. And nothing more. I listen to the gap between my breaths, how it measures and echoes the memory of desert, this desert, land shifts, the depth and stretch of canyons, their winding and vacuous grin. I know that I will never feel the need for sleep again.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Kyle Hemmings. All rights reserved.