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"Lemon Mist"
by Daniel Friedman

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Catherine Segurson
Catamaran Literary Reader Founding Editor

Torch

I don’t know where we are but neither did Francisco Coronado when he set out to discover the Seven Cities of Gold in this place.  The gilded cities turned out to be simple Zuni Pueblos glittering in the sun from the reflective mica in the clay. Avis didn’t know where these sand dunes led either, but that didn’t stop him from acting like he was leading an expedition.  We could be anywhere, we could be lost in time, I thought basking under the stars on the Winnebago rooftop.
            I screamed when a hairy mass the size of my hand climbed onto my toe.  I kicked it off and stood up.  My eyes were still adjusting to the dark on the roof, but I could swear I saw it jump at me.  It did it again.  It leaped.  I screamed and backed up and it jumped for me again.  It had me cornered, trapped against the silver railing which lined the metal roof.  As a cloud shifted away from the moon and a new pall of light was cast on the aluminum that’s when I noticed the other ones scattered about like dark holes in the mirrored reflections of dizzying desert starlight. It was an army.  My commotion made the others start to jump, one at a time, like popcorn heating up.
            “Avis,” I screeched.  “Avis help!  Alvis get me out of here!” 
My screams made things worse because the spiders became agitated, twinkling and twitching like the stars.  I yelled for Avis again, but the wind kicked up and my shouts disappeared into a hiss of sand.  A tumbleweed careened into the camper made it a shrieking noise as it scraped the metal side. I hate metal scraping sounds and I screamed louder for anyone, anyone to help me.  It didn’t do any good because there wasn’t anyone out there, there were no cars or lonely policemen or tour buses for miles and miles probably. My husband Avis had suggested I go up to the roof of the camper and look for the sights, because at that point he was bored with my complaining about the lack of sightseeing on our trip, I was bored with his bragging about this juvenile off-road tour. He implied that I didn’t appreciate pure nature as a sight in itself. Now I was in the middle of a frenzied swarm of tarantulas on a lonely roof in the middle of the desert, a sight of pure nature for sure, and he couldn’t even hear me scream in appreciation, or at least he refused to hear from the vantage of his comfy captain’s chair inside the Winnegabo.
            “Don’t scare ‘em lady,” said a voice from somewhere in the heart of dark desert.  The voice sounded tuned to the night.  It didn’t fit without the sound of a car or the lights of a house or a city glow.  I looked in the direction of the voice and saw only another rolling tumbleweed.  Quietly, the graceful ball of wiry hair came coursing toward the camper.   With an absentminded whisk it rolled onto the windshield and over the Winnebago roof.  It sounded like a possessed demon scratching it’s way over the silver dome.  I screamed and ducked.  The spiders scattered.  Everything was quiet again and still Avis didn’t bother to come out and see what was wrong with me.  I looked around the roof.  The spiders had cleared the area.  I looked into the black desert for the source of that voice but all was still again except for the lonely suffering whine of hot midnight wind.
            Meanwhile, Avis was probably reading a magazine, all alone and cozy just him and his Car and Driver. We were supposed to have left all possessions behind and retire to the open road, finally, after 20 years of slaving away in office parks, scrimping for our big break.  He insisted on bringing giant stacks of his precious magazines. I pried open the latch on the little skylight and found I could poke my head inside.
            “Avis, oh my God, there’s an army of massive spiders attacking me, there’s spiders out here everywhere, all over the roof and I can’t get down, you have to come out and help me get down.  I’m afraid, Avis oh my God.”
            The captain’s chair swiveled around lazily. 
            “What?”
            Avis squinted at my upside down head.  He’d been asleep and his magazine was in his lap.
            “I heard a voice out here, and there’s a lot of tarantulas, a lot of them, huge ones… they were on the roof, but now they’re probably all down around the door so go out and scare them away or something so I can come back inside…please?  Will you?  Will you get up at least and help me?”
            “Why don’t you smash it with your shoe or something Megan?  Jesus
Christ, I’m sleeping now.”
            “I can’t they’re not up here now they’re running down the sides toward you, you have to.”
            “Oh give me a break you can’t kick a spider or smash it yourself?
            “Avis please!”
            The blood rushed to my head and he gave me an annoyed look, sighed, and lifted the lid of his stainless steel mini-refrigerator.  He opened a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale using the opener on the side of the fridge, and leaned back proving some dumb point about being able to relax or something.  Put his hands in the little pockets of the Harley vest he ordered from the catalog, but as usual the vest didn’t match anything else he wore, his khaki Gap shorts, his white Reeboks, his Norman the Shark golf shirt with the collar.
            ”Did I or did I not just drive for ten hours straight?  Can’t a guy get a break, do a little reading, do a little relaxing?  I’m off the clock right now for your information, and after that I’m planning where to go on my map, and after that I’m driving again.  Right now I just want to be right here in this chair, right here in the middle of pure terrain.”
            “I refuse to come down there.”
            “Fine by me.”
            With a slam of the skylight bubble, I sit back up and cross my legs to protect my bare feet from the spiders.  For the last ten hours we’d heard nothing but howling wind, and the occasional rush of sand smattering the metallic sides of our vessel and scratching our nerves.  I’d been pestering Avis to go somewhere fun, Grand Canyon or something, and he’d been getting annoyed.  He told me he hadn’t waited twenty years to retire from Sync  & Sim just to schlep me to the Grand Canyon.  I guess I underestimated his anticipation for the open road thing, but come to think of it maybe he’d been festering. It started with the Harley Davidson bike ten years ago, and then the convertible MG named Ava, the one he had to polish, wax, repair and tinker with on practically every weekend and evening just to enter it in one of those stuffy car shows.
            One thing didn’t make sense, that voice from nowhere in the Desert.  I tried to listen for it, but now I heard only the faint cry of a lonesome coyote. I stayed frozen. After howling at random in the dark, the coyote seemed to finally find another one of its kind, and a new cry echoed back. That’s why I climbed to the roof in the first place, to cry at my lonesomeness.  Not that I’ve ever been physically lonely or anything.  I’ve always had Avis, and we were all dream-eyed to do everything our own parents never did. Our parents on both sides would in these days be considered criminals.  So me 'n Avis rebelled against that life by becoming stable.  We succeeded with his work as an engineer and mine as a contract recruiter in the creation of a nice safe home in a simple tract called Salt Lake Acres outside Salt Lake City Utah which we achieved by disciplining ourselves. 
            The desert sky couldn’t have mocked me worse, all those thrashing stars, not the ones in the fairy tales, the twinkle twinkle kind, but here with no lights, they careened the sky.  Stars are explosions, furious and violent, I was thinking as the coyotes grew louder, prowled closer, joined forces with the stars to mock my bland life.  Maybe it wouldn’t have been so boring if I had chosen amusements we could share together.  He chose vehicles.  I picked book group and quilting circle, which I guess didn’t exactly include him either, but he didn’t have to drive so far off the road like this.  Maybe he was trying to save our love, start it all over with nothing, and even my desire to go sightseeing was a thing to interfere with our being alone together again, and made him take off in an irrational frenzy.  He’d been waiting for that too maybe, a chance to be irrational, a little thoughtless, but not this suicidal drive off a cliff thing.  Avis and me, I ruminated, Avis and me alone in the desert, shipwrecked in our silver bullet…the desert…Avis…two lonely sand dune surfers…
            “You’ve gotta jump girl,” the steel voice in the dark said coolly. “They’ll get you.”
            “The Tarantulas?” I asked blindly.
“They aren’t tarantulas, they are scorpions, so you have to jump.”
            “I can’t, I can’t see down, I don’t have shoes.”
            “Over this way I’ll catch you,” and I heard boots scrape the sand.  I looked over my left shoulder and there was someone right below me, a man wearing black clothes with a red bandana on his head.  I jumped off the roof with abandonment.  I landed on him and we both toppled over into the sand.  He scooped me out of the sand into a sour smell of whisky and sweat.
            “Watch it, watch it, don’t step down there without boots, there could be more scorpions over there,” he said.  “Hang on to me and I’ll get you to the door,” he ordered and squeezed me into his waist.  I wrapped my arms around the shoulders of his crusty leather jacket.
            As we rounded the dark corner of the motor home towards the moon, I caught a look at his face.  His forehead was leathery and his jaw was covered with an uneven beard as if he cut it with a knife.  His mouth was set in a half frown, which would’ve seemed scary except for his eyes which were set close together with long eyelashes and a peaceful gaze that seemed to see over the horizon.
            “How did you get here?”  I asked.
            “I hitchhiked,” he answered.
            “When?”  I asked.  I hadn’t seen a single car in ten hours. 
            “About fifteen years ago,” he said.  “I live right over there,” he said pointing an elbow toward the sea of dark dunes punctuated with the black mannequins of Saguaro cactus.  He held me gently like I was a kitten.
            “Nice subdivision.”
            “You bet it is.  It’s the best hideout in the region, you couldn’t find this place on a map, and that’s why we outliers hideout here girl.”
            “Outliers? Is that like a, a gang? ” I liked when he called me girl. 
            “Wanted,” he said.  “As in Most Wanted, as in FBI Most Wanted.”          
            I let out a nervous laugh. Mr. Outlier ducked his head into my chest as we passed the windshield, and almost dropped me.  Did he really mean FBI Most Wanted?  His hair reeked of whiskey.
            He looked suspiciously at the light on in the cabin and quietly dropped me at the metal door step attached to the camper.  I clutched the door handle and he flattened himself against the Winnebago side. I looked at him.  He  looked down and put his hands in his pockets fumbling for something. I didn’t want to go inside because I was still mad at Avis.  Avis and his monotonous routines, his ‘Car and Driver’ magazines, his forever tinkering with those damn vehicles, his complete obsession with his car shows and his boredom with everything I had to say. 
            “How about you show me your hideout Mr. Outlier? ”
            The Outlier ignored me and shuffled quietly into the dark.  The night became heavy just then.  The sky flexed its black muscle, and the whole arc of the universe went concave for a moment as he disappeared into the void he’d pointed at with his elbow. Avis opened the camper door and flooded me with light so I couldn’t see. There was a crack and Avis cried out.  He tumbled down the camper stoop like he had no muscles.  Avis started moaning like an abandoned goat.
            “What did you do?”  I screamed in the vicinity of the Outlier.
            “You know what I did,” he said calm as a sand dune. He was beside me against the Winnebago.  The coyotes howled like children in return to Avis’ cries.
            In two seconds the Outlier had roped my hands together behind my back. 
            “Avis” I screamed in a panic as The Outlier slung me over his back, the eerie lights of the lone camper in the desert spinning upside down as the blood rushed to my head.
            “Vamos a mi casa,” the Outlier screamed wildly over the goat moans and the lonesome howls.
            A mule appeared from the shadows.  He mounted the mule with me on his back. He kicked the mule once in the ribs.     
            “Avis I’ll be right back!”
            The Outlier halted the mule.  He slid me down off his shoulders.  He helped me turn around so I faced forward.  He wrapped his sweaty rolled up bandana around my head for a blindfold..  He ordered me to keep quiet until we made it to the hideout. The mule rocked us back and forth for awhile and then he took off the blindfold so I could climb a ladder into a deep hole underground The place reeked of whisky.  After he lit three oil lamps  I could see what he looked like.  His hair was carrot colored and stuck straight up probably because he washed in whisky – there were bottles all around.  He had changed into an Indian poncho and a pair of worn down Calvin Klein jeans from the eighties that fit him very tightly.  His jeans were tucked into a pair of knee-high policeman boots.  In the light I could see his teeth were rotten and his lips were parched, but his skin was a glowing bronze.  Behind him, in the shadows of the wicker lamps, I could see light reddish patterns etched in the dark rocks.  Whorls were sprinkled with stick figures that looked like The Outlier, with the serape and spiky hair, doing things, wrestling snakes, dancing a in a pow-wow, riding a bronco in a rodeo, and murdering other stick men with blood spurting out their stick necks.  He sat hunched forward on a rug-covered boulder staring at me like he was looking down an empty highway.
            “Welcome to mi casa.”
            “Do you think my husband’s dead?” 
            “No. He’s just stuck as a barbwire fence.”
The  petroglyphs were luminated so eerily in the cave and I must admit I was fascinated. I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty enjoying them now with Avis sprawled alone in the Mojave Desert.
             “You shot my husband.”
            I should go back to help Avis.  I should have loved Avis more.
            “That I did.  I could not risk that man knowing about my tribe. That man did not want to rescue you, and that man will never do you any good.”  He paused here to stare me into validating this opinion. Seeing he didn’t get a rise, he continued on.
            “I did what needed to be done.  We can stay here until the tribe comes.   They’ll take care of him .”
            “What tribe?  I thought you were an Outlier.”
            “I am an Outlier but I am linked with the Navajo Nation as a translation and barter envoy.”
            “Can’t you go back and check on Avis?  He won’t fight you, he’s weak.”
            “Not now.”
            “What is a translation and barter envoy?  Are the Navahos your tribe?"
            The Outlier paused to gaze at a desert moth circling an oil lamp. He picked up the oil lamp and walked to the corner with it.  He lit a cigarette, holding the cigarette by a small hole in the wall.  The smoke did not fill the cave, but went through the hole instead. He watched the moth shimmy his lamp.  I watched the hole inhale his smoke.
            “The Outliers are my tribe.  I’ve spent fifteen years living in the Outlier cave circle where agents will never find us.  We’re linked by the underground Tohono genius of an aqueduct, and there’s only eight true outliers. There’s the teenage Navaho boys, who come for barter or to train with us, and sometimes illegals from Mexico come and hideout, but they don’t count.  None of them are ever women, not one, and now after fifteen years there is you.”
            He paced across the Navaho carpets and gathered an armful of tumbleweed branches and put them in a hole.  He lit them on fire and the place glowed.  The smoke did not enter the room.  In the dead of winter the desert was cold at night.  I joined him in front of the fire and sat on a stack of tires.
            “These eight all live underground like you?”
            “In the ground. Connected.”
            I actually liked his casa.  It felt like a sanctuary.  You could stand up in the center, but you had to duck to be by fireplace.  The Navajo rugs covered the damp floor with playful zig zags in auburn, grey, white, and persimmon.  He had coyote furs sewn together with leather twine draped over tires and rock piles.  He had created a mobile from pottery shards and playing cards and it fluttered fluidly over a breezy tunnel opening in the back. To the side of the fireplace was an eight-foot trough made from a dried cactus trunk and it caught the clear water trickling down from a vent. He caught me looking at it.
            “That is connected to an ancient underground aqueduct.  Do you want to wash your hands with me?” 
            The trough was divided in half, and cups made from gourds lined one side, and stone bowls of aloe balanced on the other. Cool air blew in through the aqueduct and an old ranch thermometer near the opening read a perfect seventy-two degrees.  Kneeling side by side, we washed our hands with aloe over the trough and he filled a gourd with fresh water to use for rinsing.  He filled two tin miner’s cups with whiskey for us.  I gulped mine down. He scooped dried fruit from a basket and mixed it up with some dried meat  he peeled from a stake, which he explained was coyote meat dried in the sun.  He sprinkled sap or honey or something  on top and he handed it to me on an aloe leaf.  He moved gracefully around the bends in the cave like a cat.
            “Can’t we just go check on Avis now?  He won’t hurt you.”
            “What will you give me to go check on Avis?”
            “I don’t have anything to give you to check on Avis.
            “Yes you do.”
            When the Outlier returned after checking on Avis he told me the camper was empty and Avis was gone so the Navahos must have taken him to their village for help. This made me relieved.  This made me furious.  How could Avis have left me out here without trying to find me.  How completely selfish.  How cowardly.  He only wanted to save himself.
            We sat there in an eye to eye for a while, sipping whisky, each one waiting for the other to make the first move. Am I as strange to him as he is strange to me?
            “You be the first,” he says.
             “Can’t you just take me to a gas station on your mule and drop me off?  You can blindfold me, I’ll never say anything.”
            “Nope, no deal.  You were sent to me, sent by spirits out from past worlds, we‘re meant Spiderella, meant to be. You, me, meant for finding one another Spiderella, mind if I call you Spiderella?
            “No, what is your name?”
            “My name’s Torch because of my hair and because I’m like that comic book hero The Human Torch”
            “You kind of saved my life from the scorpions like a comic book hero.”
            “Yes I did. That was a shitload of spiders you attracted.”
            “Not scorpions?”
            “I just wanted to scare you into jumping.  They were just a bunch of harmless spiders. One of the Outliers' harvest spiders, and he trains them to climb in groups when they hear a signal.  They’re all poisonless. I didn’t  really save your life.”
            Unlike Avis, nothing he said was ever boring.
            “Maybe you actually saved my life by gunning Avis down.”
            He  escorted me by the arrm to his etchings on the other cave wall with the swagger of an archeologist about to give a tour of Lascaux.  Avis never took me by the arm with such tenderness or such a piercing gleam in his eye.  I was the only woman on earth to this man; no other woman could compare to me, he’d not even seen another woman for fifteen years and I could do no wrong.  I could be a Goddess.  Even if it was for just for this fleeting hour right before I was about to die. 
            “Here I’ve created a mural of the most important moments of my life.”
 I acted amazed at the way he had scraped at the blue-black iron oxide that had leached out of the rocks for centuries until the light rock underneath was exposed.  The drawings told the story of his life in the desert and his interactions with the Navajos, Mexicans, Outliers, and Cowboys.  He’d killed five men altogether which was nothing, he said, compared to what the average Spaniard would’ve killed to settle here originally.  I acted impressed with his killing, which he appreciated.  I hardly believed any of it, but the tale was fun to imagine.  
            “To Spiderella, my queen,” he said raising his tin cup.
            “To you, Torch, and to life,” I said raising mine.
            He told me he was in the whiskey trade.  He was like the wholesaler between the mafia and the Navajos, and said I could have as much whiskey as I wanted, which I gladly did.  He played me a song on a little banjo he’d made with a hubcap, tumbleweed branches and strings of finely braded snakeskin. He sang a song he wrote about being lonesome by a cactus.  I swayed, drunk.  I rose to dance and got off balance and leaned against the wall right by the wanted list, the eight names carved in rock.  I turned to read it; under the names, the crimes.  I asked him which one he was.  I wanted to know what he did, what he was hiding for.  He pointed to his real name.  It read murder and racketeering, and said he killed three federal agents in a bombing. He pulled me away.
            We tumbled onto the Navajo rugs and dust flew up around us. 
I fell asleep staring at spiky-haired stick men murdering each other along the spiral of a red galaxy sailing in the veneer of a blue-black night lulled by an outlaw’s rhythmic breath on my shoulder. 
            When I woke up I was circled in Yucca flowers but the Outlier was gone.  They smelled like pine and cinnamon. I climbed up the ladder to see where he was, and as I lifted the heavy limestone door the heat swallowed me like a phoenix, I climbed out and found his place was marked by a giant Saguaro cactus that must have stood twenty feet high.  I sat down alone in the sand under the towering three-pronged tree and scanned the horizon for him.
            “I’ve secured the territory, we can go back to the camper now if you want,” he said from behind the cactus.
            He put a sombrero on my head and propped me up on the mule. I circled my arms around his firm stomach.  I lay my head on his back and breathed in his sweaty male musk.
            I looked at the camper.  I remembered when we were so proud to own it, park it along the side of the house, have our very own symbol of life on the open road, the treasures of every national or state park at our fingertips anytime we wanted.  Now it looked to me like a phony battleaxe, feeble against the vast majesty of the open Mojave, and the thousand hidden treasures of the unspoiled desert.  I looked at the Outlier, man against the world.
            “I made you something,” he said and opened the other saddlebag.  He pulled out a small wreath of yucca flowers.  “I spent all night fighting off the cactus moths and scorpions to get these while you slept, but it was nothing…I wanted to make a crown for my queen,” he said handing it to me.
            I put it on my head and the smell of pine and cinnamon peppered the air and soothed my heat delirium.
            I watched as he assembled the pipe bomb.   He formed bottle rockets from Whiskey, Saguaro rinds, and rattle skins.
            He rode me to a safe distance on the mule and set me down behind a creosote bush and stroked my hair.  He lit the fuse.  He ran with it.  He tossed it fifty feet with the accuracy of a star quarterback and it burst straight into a window.  He came leaping back and landed on top of me as shrapnel and glass sprayed into the hot sky like fireworks.  My ears were still ringing as we rode back to the hideout together, me holding his waist, and the mule rocking us gently back and forth under the red desert sky. 

Catherine Segurson is the founding editor of Catamaran Literary Reader and has worked at two major literary magazines, Zoetrope All-Story, and ZYZZVA. She has worked as a visual artist exhibiting and selling her paintings in galleries in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. She has worked as a professional videographer for 6 years, covering fashion for agencies GettyImages, Wire Image, and FashionStock.  She worked as AVP, financial analyst in Corporate Treasury and Merchant Services for Bank of America for 7 years. Her writing has appeared in Coastal Living Magazine, Slow Trains, Taj Mahal Review, Monterey Poetry Review and others. She has an MFA from California College of the Arts in Creative Writing and a BA in Economics from UC Davis.

Fiction
Mary Allen
Elizabeth McKenzie
Catherine Segurson
Eric Weinblatt

Poetry
Candace Calsoyas
Molly Doyle
Zack Rogow

Nonfiction
Andrew Beierle
Tom Christensen
Alyson Lie

Artwork
Daniel S. Friedman

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