I step from the car and the heat is cast over me like the molten load from a crucible. “Two minutes,” I shout, “gotta pee.” The tarmac is doing its bit too, radiating its energy upwards; it’s sticky to walk on. There’s a seam of bitumen around a road repair; with the toe of my right deck shoe I smear it—serving some need to leave a mark. The sun’s persistence is a forehead stinger, sheesh it’s sweltering. Fore and aft there’s a haze that’s as illusive as any I’ve seen—many an oasis out there I’ll wager. If this weren’t Arizona I figure there’d be coconuts and camels too. I cannot ponder nor play; my bladder’s needs are pressing and there’s a place, a couple of hours up this road, I need to be.
Given my description above you’d be right in thinking the stage here is empty to each horizon. It is. Save for my travelling buddy in the car over there. Oh, and another character, arms raised, who’s planted in the more immediate landscape. ‘Cactus Jack’ I’ll call him. I’ve never seen a live specimen out in the open and up close before. He’s tanned a deep green with thorns that have a menace I want to address; In my urgency I scurry over and unzip to pee. “You’ll probably enjoy this, won’t you eh Jack?” I say. “A good ol’ drink for you—courtesy of my relief and some minerals to boot!” I’m a bully as, for all ten foot of him, Cactus Jack can’t react.
Eyes shut, I’m in mid-flow, at one with the release—when a faint rustle…or was it a rattle? turns my ear. Peering through but a slit in my left eye, I scan the sand that’s busy soaking up my urine. A rattler with its camouflage being hosed away hisses. Its form and anger become ever clearer with the rinsing of the grains that had once covered it. They say the rattle is a warning to keep away—well tell that to this snake of a snake. It has already coiled and sprung at me. Through the thin armour of my sock two fangs have pierced—I’ve been branded by a tuning fork plucked fresh from the sun. Scrunch goes my face into the tightest grimace, clench goes jaw, crack goes that tooth I was going to get looked at. Not that I want to linger here…yes I do want to linger. I want to rewind a smidge, step outside the self a mo, wax on a bit, and assertively set the scene for you—sat there in your comfort, and impress more deeply the pain I experienced—a trouble shared and all that.
Aye, as the narreditor let me take these moments and play them frame by frame: with a bullet-time pan around, you’ll see a man paying, in slo-mo, for his sin of pissing on a cactus and its lower floor resident-cum bodyguard. For a close shot there’s the peeled back scaly lips of the snake whose gums expose two fangs a-glistening, which through their finest capillary centres, sock and skin, do inject their sacks of venom. Meanwhile by midriff (the man’s midriff), two digits—forefinger and thumb—on a tinkling member do squeeze. There’s pressure enough to stem any remaining flow, and cause him the most unfortunate sensation of thrombosis. A wider shot gives a body doubled over, and a countenance that’d have its owner compete in, and win, an “impersonate a prune” competition. Once fangs are unplucked and time’s tempo is returned to its usual pace, you’ll see him hopping. He hops on his only working leg, unclenches jaw, spits tooth fragment, and howls like a harpy that’s had it’s baby stolen. The fifth bounce in this sequence has him land heel-first on the snake’s rattle; glad of the revenge he’s exacted; but regretful that he’s pissed it off even further when its second strike double-punctures a similar spot on his other ankle.
I fall backwards while the snake slithers off, fearing the boulder I’ve just landed on will be used to bash its little brain in. It needn’t worry, my only concern is me, well more than me I ponder, as my adrenaline gifts me a bit of space through the excruciation. My travelling buddy has seen none of this, he wouldn’t have on account of being blind since the age of three. He’s heard me howling, and is calling my name with reluctant concern, and out of fear. He won’t leave the car to find me—he knows his limitations. He’ll shout and shout some more till he gets someone’s attention. I bite tight again, raise my fly, and draw deep breaths through the grimace that bares freshly ground and much more rounded teeth than those which have just stabbed me. A reluctant ventriloquist with a frozen mandible, I spittle-blurt “Over here Dave—been bitten—a fuckin’ rattleshnake!—I’m shherious—think I’m gonna die.”
So, on elbows and forearms I haul myself towards him; the wake of shifted sand leaves the place resembling a crime scene. A detective, I think, wouldn’t struggle to reconstruct events. I don’t care for this observation though, I’ve now made it to the tarmac, my this hotplate stings—sheesh, I want away from here. Dave consoles me with words, and when he senses I’m near enough he leans his big wrestler of a body out of the car and hoists me up over the sill, the seat, and in. Upside down of course, I shuffle and wriggle what parts of me I can to return my world to its correct orientation. Steering wheel in front of me, seatbelt on, engine’s still running, good, a sigh of relief, feet on pedals. Feet on pedals. FEET! Damn, no amount of concentration will lend them any dexterity—I get all defeatist. “No use Dave, can’t drive, legs are screwed.”
I fumble and find my mobile; two bars on the battery, no bars on the signal. The fuel gauge on the car shows a single notch’s worth before we’re in the red. We could wait here, air-con on, engine ticking over, hazards blinking and hope for rescue. I’m already sweating and fretting in a quarter-paralysed, agony infested, body. I know panic will consume me too if we let this continue. The venom and its weird effects are on a slow creep north up my legs. I’ll say it again—I want out of here, I’ve fought lots of pointless fights, one more won’t hurt. Well it will, but I’m not the type to sit and let a situation like this take me.
My pal’s look of worry now includes a trembly lower lip. I fake optimism, “Dave, Dave!” Then clap my hands once to get his attention. “This is the plan…” He looks as afraid as I feel.
“Don’t make me drive Ray, please,” he says. “I know you’re gonna make me drive.”
“It’ll be alright.” I’m lying. “Shufty over this way, sit yourself here on the centre console.” He does as asked, “okay, now squeeze both your feet into my footwell. Got it? Good. Feel about down there; right foot goes on right pedal; that means GO, left foot on left; that means STOP. Right?”
“Err, got it, right go, left stop.” He knows we have no choice. Pain distracts me once more; my lower limbs are numb on the outside, yet burning on the inside—the battle to stay rational is insane. I give myself over to another grimace, before steeling myself for just a shred of control.
“One more thing, aargh, they’re not sshhwitches thoshe pedalsh. Be gradual when you’re pressh…pressing. Get a feel for them now. NOW, c’mon Dave, get with the URGENCY. Don’t worry we’re not in gear. That’s it, down as far they’ll go, memorise it. You’ll need no more than half of that. Unless I yell stop. If I do so then stamp on the left with all your effort.”
He looks lost. “You’re confusing me—left and right and stop and go and half and all!” The numbness has reached my hips so I ignore him, slip the gearstick into drive and grab the wheel. We’re nudged into being a driving team as the car breaks away at idle speed.
The highway is ours, a road-sign tells me it’s 40 miles to Flagstaff. I calculate we’ll be an hour on this lesser travelled, but gratefully smooth ‘Old Indian Route’. All I have to do is nudge the wheel to keep us on course. “I know I said push the pedal only halfway Dave, but give it a bit more, be gradual and easy like.” The needle on the speedometer arcs to 60. For a moment, a fraction of a moment, I consider the task to be an easy matter. Straight road, zero traffic—dare I have a little hope? On cue comes the leveller: I’m rib deep now in numbness, it’s creeping up me like quicksand. I’m queasy, dewy with sweat and forcing myself to breathe. “A bit more—speed up.” The needle arcs to 80.
Flagstaff only 12 Miles, we’re on a well-travelled route now, having negotiated a loose and lucky off-road right turn. We’ve been steady a while at nearly 100 on this bearing. Dave’s instructions are from hereon obsolete, the pedal is on the metal; a terrifying prospect at any other time but the need to hurtle outranks the risk. My plight’s mollified by the added concentration of pointing us—streaking like a missile, in the right direction—distracted from all but the task. Had I sensed though that my phone had buzzed when it picked up a signal earlier, we’d be stopped now, awaiting anti-venom by way of an air ambulance. As it is, we’re drowned in the drama of speed; hopes hanging on this last hurrah, It’ll be just minutes before we’re presented with civilisation. Being so consumed with this mission, oblivious to Dave’s safety and…
…I spot a change to our situation. With Herculean strength I summon my voice: “Dave!” My shout comes out as a whisper. Or does it come out at all? Glints of sunshine have emerged from where they shouldn’t. The shimmering haze ahead, way off at the road’s pinch point, is offering up something man-made—a man-made angel please! Into focus: a chrome grill, a vertical chrome exhaust pipe, a split glass windscreen. This is the stuff of interstate heavy haulage; an 18 wheeled semi-truck I’d say (if I could), is bolted on the back of its advancing façade. A juggernaut that hogs the entire highway. With the exertion involved in a scream I mumble
“Stop the f…”
“Oh the car.”
Thank the imaginary gods for his pin-sharp hearing. Dave overdoes the braking, panics and overdoes it some more. The uneven strength of the pads on disks has us in a wheel-locked veer, a strung-out screech across the centre-line. Compounding our misfortune Dave’s unseatbelted self flies full body from console to dashboard. He’s slumped, we’ve stopped. Stopped dead in the oncoming traffic lane. Our mercy is passed across to the the mind of approaching truck driver. On goes the horn with its obligatory blare and a free demo of the doppler effect. On go the brakes too. “God help me,” I mouth before I abandon atheism and do what’s easiest of all: close my eyes. That ever-growing glint of the doom that looms is curtained to black, and I join Dave—jealous that his dark world has the bonus of unconsciousness.
I wish I had shutters for my ears too, whatever they’d be called. Geez, what an aggressive noise weight-laden truck wheels make when dragged, locked by air brakes, over sticky tarmac. And by contrast, how puny and effete did our car sound when screeching to its halt? Ahh, the indignity of being trumped by a more hardcore calamity. I cast my mind away to the solace of some recent memories and enjoy their fragmented narrative.
Yeah, I brought Dave out here. I wanted to give my mate a good holiday and some meaning to his existence. A young man cooped up in his home, with a kitten-like clinginess to comfort zones, and of course: his full blindness. His handicap has so far damned him to little company beyond me and his close family. It was only nine days ago I suggested we remedy this, “Burgers Dave, desert sunshine on your skin and—” I tickled his ribs, “The Girls of Golden Gulch!”
That’s how I sold it to him: to sample comforts beyond the familiar, to feel the love and skills of a good woman, and the euphoria thereafter. So I maxed my credit card to make it happen. He’s never had any luck at all—ever. A fair face I’d say, and a strapping body; His eyes though, they’re greyed over, and scarred, they move about of their own accord too. A particularly cruel childhood illness holds account for that. And particular cruelties come out of people when they see the disfigurement. A shame; he’s a great soul. I’ve tried to matchmake for him back home, but girls of all stripes just can’t get past the disability. He’s—
The screeching has stopped. I open my eyes. Dave is neatly folded over, and cradling, the dashboard. Past him, and through glass, there’s a baseball-capped trucker stood eclipsing the chrome grill of the juggernaut that near snookered us, a thousand pieces, into the desert. He’s remonstrating in our general direction. I can’t make out if he’s focussing his anger on me, Dave, or the car. Nor can I shout back the direness of our predicament—too weak. So I look at him and make a wish for telepathy. Beneath his cap he sports glasses—some vision at least—so thick they shrink his eyes to two miniatures. His red chequered shirt is sleeveless and reveals hefty, but out of shape muscles. One arm I spot, is more brown than the other.
“Help us.” I mouth.
“What?!” He squints through his dense lenses, then leans forward in an attempt to fathom why both Dave and I share the same side of the car. What a picture; two men, one behind the other—a face asleep, and a face whose pain I figure he takes to resemble pleasure. With a conclusion warped to fit a prejudice, he shouts through a snarl “You deserve it!”. Eyes closed—I’ve no strength for anything, especially exasperation.
The clunk of a heavy door, revving of a diesel engine, then the biggest air brakes hiss, releasing his rig to negotiate around us and on its journey. One eye open. There he is, alongside and 5ft above us—all lofty and judgemental. That overweight arm flopped over the sill of his window looking like a fat cat on a fireplace.
“Fucking faggots!” he yells. The fucking bigot.
His are neither the last, nor the exact words I wished to hear as I shuffled my coil, but unless Dave miraculously wakes, then I suspect that they’re going to be. The venom’s effects have spread to my neck now. My breathing is not my own doing, it’s slow and intermittent.
Let me take the reigns, the story telling has been passed across to me. I’m Dave in case you are wondering—the blind guy that snake-bitten Ray there prattled on about while he faded from us. He’s motionless; I can’t get a word from him. This hearing I have, which is superbly acute, has picked up that he’s breathing at least. I have to admit though I’m scared sh—, scared witless that my best friend may die. By contrast my condition, in the sense of wellness, is way better; even so I do have the largest bump on my forehead, a free belter of a headache, the sweats, and a severe case of anxiety. I’ll mention that I’ve got a hangover style thirst too. Prognosis then, for the pair of us: somewhat iffy.
With me being, as you know, handicapped and incommunicado, I’m very reluctant to get out of this car. It’s powered up I’ve just discovered, in gear and moving by itself now I’ve dislodged my foot from the brake—thankfully only slowly. By the sound of the trundle I figure we’re running over the baked, crusty skin, of the desert. Either side of suffering that recent knockout, this nervousness has sapped my strength. I’m usually a panicker but I don’t think I’ve quite come round; glad actually that my grogginess is proving to be a natural beta blocker.
To gather thoughts and consider the options from hereon. Well they hold small promise. I could stretch a foot back over and press the brake pedal, maybe fumble in dying Ray’s pocket—I’m sure he’d love that—and fetch his mobile phone, or I could just slip into the comfort and lure of the passenger seat and give over to the sleep this grogginess is inviting. Fear not, I shan’t get out and walk the desert, I’d be a fool; buzzards’d have have my dried eyeballs as hors d’oeuvres the moment I drop. Hmmm, they’ll serve a greater purpose than their current ones at least. About the incommunicado: Ray’s mobile phone, it’s one of those flush-faced smart ones; no tactile feedback so its useless to me.
So it’s the sit here option—and I’m glad of it. Rest in this passenger seat. Yes, to blindly go…
Only I know we’re not straying by way of a straight line, there’s this warmth that wipes over my face every minute or so—I have an acute sense of touch and I’ll bet my life it’s the sun. The car is running in large circles on the desert floor I conclude. Or ‘wonkily winding’ could be a more apt way to phrase it. Upshot is: it’ll see us loop out and be lost to the landscape I’m sure. But I’m going to wait events out, be convected in this soup of self-pity, guilt, grief and grogginess. I suppose I have time to tell you why we’re out here—the purpose of our journey.
We’d won in Vegas, Ray had been presumptuous of my nature and treated me to one of the Girls of Golden Gulch. Oh how I protested. Mandy was her name, she was a showgirl if I’m to be lyrical…
…she had a side business that swelled her purse…
…with the Mandy experience passed, what was in Vegas for me? The hustle, the drowning cacophony of themed slot machines with their whoops, gurgles and their nudges? Exactly—no chance. A sweeter sound was the random jingle of winnings cascading into collection trays—all too rare. The atmosphere was proving overwhelming; the third night I broke and suggested we give the gambling a miss and…
…Ray didn’t need asking twice, he was equally bored and suggested we give the remainder of our stay there a miss and head out adventuring. To my great surprise we were up a couple of hundred dollars, even after Mandy’s ‘extra’ fee. So we hired this Chrysler—Road Trip! Road Trip! was our sober chant. To the Big Crater, to the Hoover Dam and to the Grand Canyon. Sure only half of us would be seeing the sights, but you can’t underestimate the pleasure I take in witnessing the differing ambiences. I’d be mighty proud as well to have such stamps in my life’s passport. Ray, for his inner complexity, connected well with me. Did I just switch to past tense? Ray for his complexity connects well with me, I must keep the faith that he’ll make it through this ordeal. The length and strength of our friendship enables him to read me well, he protects me from my clumsy self, from others’ taunts, and is a ‘dab hand’ at explaining surroundings whenever we stray from my comfort zones.
Smooth! The car’s running over something smooth. I’ve been keeping a measure and I’m convinced the circle destiny is prescribing us now contains tarmac. Rumble over gravel, a bump, cool on face, warm on face, rumble over gravel, brief flash of cool on face then smooth. I can confirm it. Every 40 seconds the cycle repeats. There’s solace in this; someone will be along soon. I’m tired, going to have a nap in the knowledge it won’t be long now.
I’m Penny by the way; don’t be thinking I’m a girl. Penny is the moniker lain upon me for my manner back in Vegas. A local boy who walked ‘The Strip’ see, nipping in and out of casinos—polystyrene cup in hand. Had the look of a penny arcade gambler… and that’s the look I wanted. Never played the machines see, just appeared to. No, my way was just to scan and scour the cash trays, you know, at the bottom of the bandits. Given enough of them, I always turned up a dime or a nickel—or two. So why didn’t they call me Nick, or Dime? Well if I’m to explain see, I’d be keeping my findings and not spending them, being thrifty. And so it should come to ya, ‘Penny Pincher’—been called this so long, sure I’ve forgotten my birth name. Anyways, I’m here out in the desert most days pinching rocks off Mama Earth. Nah, legal really; county folks have given me a permit since I asked nice and handed over 200 bucks. A worthwhile investment, see the casinos and the arcades, they banned me and all my disguises! I thriftily see out my time searching the desert floor for stones of a particular make. This’ll pull us back to nickels—stick with me. See the stones me, my trusted detector and my tool here are trowelling up are nickel-iron. Stones from the sky. Nice to meteor! Made from stars they are. I get a better buzz from a find nowadays than from any one-armed bandit I did in them days. Mind ya, if the weather’s bad, I get back in there and fill my cup.
Anyways, to here and now, my find today is a mighty strange one: a white Chrysler Neon—driver’s passed out. Auto’s butted up against a cactus, looks like the slowest crash ever. No damage. No, wait, the driver’s worse than passed out—his skin is all ‘rashy’ and his legs, eurgh, swollen up like big purple wieners. Man, this guy needs help. But I got my compulsion see, still an hour’s sun left for me to hunt rocks. Rocks rawk, yeah, compulsion yeah. Compulsion to them is strong in this one. Lost most of my buddies ‘cause of it. Besides, passenger door’s open, maybe someone’s nearby—yeah, that’s it, someone will be coming back to sort stuff out. Only they won’t will they, will they Penny? That’s my inner voice by the way, pulls me from the brink of badness, tells me to find rather than steal, to help more than hurt. Shrink says I have to listen to it. I’ll help then—I’ll give up my hour, maybe I’ll be offered up some pennies. Ha, pennies for Penny’s troubles once he’s mended.
Okay, I’ve shoved driver to passenger seat (not a pretty sight, skin of his leg grazed gearshifter as I yanked him across, tore easy). Damn, won’t start. Needle’s on less than no gas, shoot. Ah his phone, one bar signal and one bar for battery, here goes:
“Hi, 911 person, this is Penny. I know, I know, I AM a guy but my story is this…
…anyways, what am I like jibber-jabbering, I got a nearly dead man here on highway. Dunno number, the big one into Flagstaff, nearest point to Gunter’s Ravine. Better get yourselves over and fetch him, fast, got legs as fat as hippos now. Bitten I guess—by a Diamondback. I’d bring him in but auto’s out of gas. Hey, if you send the chopper out can I ride it home? It’s only 8 miles or so, if you could offer up a seat, you know, for saving this guy, I’d sure appreciate the gesture.”
I’ll take it from here, Dave, or ‘Dave Anew’, at least in I’m some part, the most part, of Dave I believe. ‘I believe’ is a very apt phrase now as where I’m reporting from can only be the afterlife. I couldn’t continue in the car; when I awoke it had bumped into something. I kept the engine on for the air-con which ran the fuel down to vapours. The car then heated up, Ray’s breathing stopped, started, then stopped again—then started—unlike the engine: that just stopped altogether.
Being hot, thirsty, wretched and helpless, forced me to gamble one last time. I welched with my resolve and decided on walking to the road which I was sure was nearby. And yes, saying you’re sure when professing a gamble is the stuff of folly. ’Sure’ was right in one sense, because I sure was wrong. I was lost within minutes, distressed for a few thereafter. Then I put the sun to my face and walked for many more, hoping to chance across a town or something—anything that contained people. Ray had repeatedly advised, in life, to ‘Pick a path and stick to it’. So now I was. The town I hoped to chance on was a ravine. I tumbled into it.
I’m a…wish I could say a living, breathing example of someone who’s ‘hit every branch’ on the way down to something. I’ve got to report though that a rock to my head has knocked the breathing part from that statement. I’m free food for the buzzards and coyotes. Eyes have gone already—those hors d’oeuvres I mentioned—picked out, pecked up and sucked up in a snap. The four-legged scavengers though have yet to get to gnaw the marrow from my bones. But, it’s a kind of blessing that they will. Whoever shall find me will be presented with a bleached out skellybob. I’ve been told that a decaying body is a less agreeable thing to observe—it certainly is to smell. By the grace of some divinity I have sight, and if this miracle allows, I plan to cast my new vision over every picture possible—agreeable or not. My spirit now soars and I’m energised in a way I never have been. Nearby is my first ever view of a red-beaked buzzard, freshly fed, it’s enjoying the thermals. And in the distance the chatter of a chopper accompanies a switch from silhouette to detail—an air ambulance.
I stay a while, glimpsing, glancing, scoping from up here, doing eye stuff and reacquainting myself with this newfound faculty. Taking in the vibrance of the blue sky, the thinnest wisps of cloud from below; the speckled green sand, the crevices and crags from above—fitting them all to the basic images stored in so dunkel a vault since my infancy. Then to trace the symbols ‘Bell 407’ emblazoned and sharp on the helicopter’s side. The euphoria of being able to see again, vanquished pain, feeling safe; If I’d known my afterlife had such benefits, I’d have leapt from a high building the day after going blind. Just think of that, the world’s youngest suicidester! The warmth here, the setting sun is way more comfortable than it’s midday incarnation. There’s warmth too in knowing Ray is being rescued. Yes, he’s made it. In my spirit form I share the sky with him as he’s being air-lifted away, I catch his face behind an oxygen mask—he winked at me, I’m convinced.
Thank you for bringing me here Ray.