CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part I of Charles McLeod’s “Rancho Brava,” published on Web Conjunctions November 19, 2013.
From the man’s flume to either side of his mouth, all the way down to his jawline, the moustache, a bright silver, was two inches thick, the hairs long enough that one couldn’t see the man’s lips—either upper or lower—in the slightest. At exactly those twin points where the moustache passed the edges of the man’s jaw, the silver hairs had been waxed and forced to curl both up and back, toward the stranger’s cheekbones. The man’s chin was short, with a rather pronounced cleft, its anatomical meekness lessened all the more by the profound ornament of facial hair that framed it, so much so that the would-be sheriff’s face seemed merely a host for the organism that was the moustache. Indeed, as the man strode (truly strode, Gloria, leading with his hips, the upper half of his torso [purposefully or not] tilted back behind them) farther into the room, the parts comprising his costume (i.e., the sheriff’s badge, the ten-gallon hat, the tinging, metal spurs, the impossible moustache) superseded all other aspects of his humanity, so much so that the costume he wore became who he was in toto. That is, Gloria, it was truly impossible to imagine the marshal in the vast majority of contemporary settings, say, for instance, sliding down a slide at a water park, or waiting in line to renew his car’s registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Of course, now that I have written what I just have, Gloria, it does become possible to imagine the sheriff in both of the aforementioned settings; the actual difficulty involved with such an imagining is that in either scenario, the sheriff—at least for me—is still wearing portions of his costume. While it makes no legitimate sense for the lawman to remain in his ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots and spurs as he shurshes down a plastic, reinforced slide into a pool filled with screaming children, in my mind, Gloria, he is—he still has the hat on, and the boots, and the spurs, his bright, pale knees and lower thighs in stark contrast to the leather of the footwear and his shorts-length, drawstring swimsuit. [Which, in my imagining, Gloria, is the very same maroon as the swirling cloak encompassing the image of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.])
As the sheriff swaggered closer across the padded cobalt floor, coming farther into the room than either Davy Crockett or the mariachi octet had, I began to perceive the past hour’s major events—the Focus Group about salsa, the costumed strangers, my wife’s hand—as not unrelated points in space, but rather a trio of vertices, the rays adjoining these points uniform in length and comprising, Gloria, an equilateral triangle. Staring blatantly at the man’s massive facial hair (the moustache was like a bug, like a live, furry thing that at any moment might choose an alternate place to rest its wide frame, and rip free from the man’s face, fall to the floor, and scuttle toward one of the banquet room’s corners), I found that I was drawing into myself, and that the room’s minor sounds (the tinging of the spurs, the barely perceptible whine of the paused DVD, the Focus Group’s murmurs) had been all but muted. It was at this time that I began to sketch, at some desk in my mind, something akin to a primitive seesaw. While both ends of the saw’s lever were empty of any sort of physical being, the long, brown board was conceptually inhabited by authenticity and counterfeitness. The fulcrum—a golden triangle—sat underneath, and at each of its corners now appeared a different image: pico de gallo in a crude, three-legged bowl, a gunslinger in chaps holding twin six-shooters, and my wife, standing in our old living room, covering the mouthpiece of her cell phone as she spoke into it. The sheriff took two more steps forward then stopped, setting his legs even farther apart and placing his hands on his hips as he took in the stares of the Focus Group Participants, who by this point, Gloria, I was aware of in only a minor, ethereal way, their heads—turned away from me and toward the man—seeming to float in the air, disembodied.
As I continued to stare at the moustache’s wiry, fibrous hairs (I think I was smiling a tactful, professional smile, Gloria, but I can’t be sure of it) I grew cognizant of the illegitimacy of the device that I had, in my mind, just constructed. Here’s what I mean: The image attached to each of the triangle’s points—the pico de gallo, the chaps-wearing outlaw, and the person to whom I used to be married—could not possibly function as anything fulcrumesque, since at least some approximation of all three of the images my mind had conjured up were currently being weighed for their validity: a salsa’s correct thickness being scrutinized by the members of the FG, the genuineness of my former union by me, and the veritableness of the strangers who entered the Stardust Room being measured, I believe, by all present. If these images, then, were not in balance at all, but rather variables in need of accurate weighing, it drew into question (at least for me) what face, shape, or thing might universally serve as a true midway point for the beam of the seesaw. (And image-based vertices felt vital, Gloria, as without them the fulcrum was a fulcrum by title, and no more, much in the same way that a corrupt or deceitful buyer of gold might rig his or her own scale in order to show a correct balance. [I saw a similar thing occur on an excursion to Taos, where an elderly woman clad in a batik dress of earth tones, while buying a sizable number of pork chops at a butcher’s counter inside a supermarket, calmly slid her trifolded grocery list under the polished silver top of the butcher’s electronic scale while the butcher himself was not looking, the woman effectively rigging the machine in order to make the pork chops’ combined weight, when measured, seem lighter.])
Meanwhile, as the seesaw I’d constructed clattered apart, the unannounced sheriff took his right hand from his hip and waved in a wide and deliberate manner to his new, sudden audience. The action’s velocity, already theatrically slow, was to my perception further reduced by my own internal postulations, and as the sheriff began speaking, his words arrived at such a diminished rate that they barely seemed to be words at all: something closer, perhaps, to an alien soundscape, each phoneme drawn out to the length of multiple syllables, my mind in some way aware that what the sheriff was saying was the same question that had been asked twice prior that day (specifically, Is This Rancho Brava?), but the query arriving as something closer to:
As I gave my response (It Is Not), the acts of the room returned to a normal pace, the sheriff tipping his hat, whirling around, and striding back out the same door through which he had entered. However, Gloria, with the sheriff’s departure and the wagon wheel’s lights again on, and as I attempted to return to functioning in the manner my title dictated, I noticed that the attitude of the Focus Group Participants had changed in a way that, for the purposes of Global Consumer Distribution SA, was not beneficial. That is, Gloria, while the individuals comprising the Zone 5 FG had been able to see both Crockett and the mariachi band as minor if amusing distractions, the arrival and departure of the sheriff brought about a movement away from the scientific inquiry of my salsa-based questions, the sociointellectual overtones of the FG replaced with discussion of (and something approaching love for) the notion that the sheriff had created his moustache from nothing, eschewing the general facial-hair “rules” of our time that dictated what a moustache should or should not consist of, his folksy, enormous, barbed crescent of hairs elevated to something more important and profound than our shared rationalization of what elements comprise an unassailably authentic snack product.
Furthermore, Gloria, this shared enthusiastic response to the sheriff’s grooming choices (perhaps best and most appropriately summarized by one member of the FG proclaiming, Dude’s Moustache Was the Bomb) also spelled a change in where the Zone 5 FG chose to place its loyalties. If I, as ad hoc (if not contractually obligated) leader of our small group was to this point afforded the authority inherent in such a title, the FG’s sentiments toward the constraints that my quasi-aristocratic role ostensibly placed upon them grew increasingly aggressive as I tried to maintain/exert/reestablish order. Okay, Let’s Focus, I would say to the Group, but the Group, Gloria, would only keep talking, until even that FG Participant with the strongest proclivity for the Christian God snapped her head toward me, her stare meaning revolt, and said, We’re Speakin’ Here, and You Ain’t Even Texan.
This painting of myself as something approaching hegemon or paramount king induced flashpoint in the other members of the Group, and if previously aware of yet indifferent toward the contrast in our respective regions of origin, the FG Participants now seized upon it, asking me a bevy of questions that had nothing to do with my dual, overlapping roles as Global Consumer Distribution SA Representative and Zone 5 Focus Group Leader. For instance, upon learning that I’d grown up in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, one Focus Group member proffered aloud that I worked not for Global Consumer Distribution at all, and instead for the Central Intelligence Agency, the FG itself having nothing to do with the perceived correctness of snack foods and much more to do with an unspecified mode of government spying. Further diminishing my credibility were the facts that: 1) I had never been to a barrel race, 2) I did not know that Angelo light slaughters were trading ten dollars lower, 3) recent advents in baler technology were lost upon me, 4) I couldn’t accurately define asado, and 5) when asked my favorite country song, I could not offer the title of any such warbling ballad, leading one FG Participant to actually snort then conclude that the Feds Trained [Me] Crummy.
With my interrogation complete (there were questions, Gloria, about my hunting rifle of choice, about my theological and sexual orientations, about whether my parents were “Flag-burning Hippy Pigs,” about whether I rooted for or against the Dallas Cowboys when they played on Thanksgiving), the Focus Group, freed from my apparently tyrannical rule and drunk on some primordialist cocktail comprised of equal parts xenophobia and newfound liberation, began to offer up a list of demands, most of which dealt with, in some way, shape, or form, going outside, into Nature. I informed the FG that their requests could not be met, as we still had forty-five more questions about salsa to go (forty-six if one were to include the only partially completed question about Salsa Thickness).
This response elicited a long round of moans from the FG Participants, their collective auditory chagrin something akin to the sound one might hear rising out of a pulverized battlefield trench, mustard gas roiling about in the air, the treads of a tank whirring just past the dirt lip of the Focus Group’s battered excavation. Every society, however, is forced to progress, even if they destroy portions of themselves to do it, even if questions of worth and importance (e.g., if the artist’s feelings are his law, was the sheriff’s art [i.e., his moustache] an accurate extension of his own feelings?) go unanswered. That is, Gloria, we persisted. We pressed on. We took those preconceived, established notions of salsa and blew them apart, reconfiguring where salsa should sit on a shelf, and what aisle, in a store, the salsa should be in. We rewrote and reprised. We made salsa new. (Why, for instance, is salsa not in a tube? Why, for instance, can we not make our own salsa fresh in the grocery store?) We flew through questions six and seven, then eight and nine, the Focus Group, experimenting with the relationship of their respective bodies to the room, getting up from the table and walking around, some members leaning up against the room’s walls, some lying down on the plush, cobalt carpet. This reapportioning, in turn, forced the FG Participants to push each other toward new processes and methods, and soon one FGP had taped his Stetson hat to a wall, and soon another had opened up her bag and pretended that it was a bowl of chips at a party. A makeup compact was turned into a salsa jar that was also a jet, the condiment made into flying machine and sent through the aisles of our ad hoc supermarket, a new sudden collage of military-industrial might, cylindrical glass, and rehydrated, imagined tomatoes. Questions ten and eleven were asked and answered, then twelve and thirteen, then fourteen and fifteen and so on, the Participants—evolved now, and believing in their own evolution, and having found individuality in heretofore unheard-of ways (one FG Member turning all his answers into a series of squawks and clucks that the rest of the Group then interpreted)—charged with an industriousness previously unmatched both by themselves and in comparison to any other Focus Group I had ever conducted. But this mechanization had a dark side, Gloria, too, as what was gained in the way of intellectual response and overall efficiency had the countereffect of detachment and isolation, each member now more important than the idea of the Group, until Zone 5 had broken itself up into schools, cliques, and factions. That is, Gloria, if we were once again unified in what the problem was, we had grown all the more divided in regard to how to solve it.
This sectioning off of thought and response also negated any real concern toward the continuing appearances of strangers in costumed garb specific to the region, even while these arrivals loudly deciphered the Stardust Room’s half-locked doors and that the lights nearest said doors flickered on and off whenever one of these strangers entered. Through the arrival of a rider for the Pony Express, then a pair of scantily clad burlesque dancers, then a miner, a Jesse James look-alike, and a coolie, and finally, Gloria, a grizzled prospector with dented tin pan leading a donkey by a length of gnarled, frayed rope, the FG remained so entrenched in their various deconstructivist processes that the high-eared jack or jenny (I did not know its sex) made absolutely no impact on the group whatsoever, save for when the prospector asked aloud—as every single other entrant into the Stardust Room also had—Is This Rancho Brava? The Group bellowed in unison It Is Not, before returning, machinelike, to the questions at hand, Zone 5’s answers to the questions I posed now arriving as a series of drawings, manifestos, and poems.
Lingering in my mind through this Focus Group “era” were thoughts of my ex-wife and our shared experiences: our early courtship through a hot summer in DC, and the noise in the Georgetown bars that we went to; our first apartment, after we were engaged, and the shade of pale mint that we painted our bedroom; our by-bus commute from Wisconsin Ave. to Capitol Hill, where my wife, who temped for a lobbying firm, was told week after week of the beauty that her hands possessed, while she answered phones and passed files over the lip of her receptionist’s desk and typed out responses to numerous emails; and then our decision to leave the East Coast after I was offered a position at the Los Angeles firm that I have since departed, the two of us renting a small cottage in Marina del Rey before buying our now former home in Brentwood. It was at some point shortly after the closing of this house that a talent guy at the premiere West Coast “parts-modeling” agency approached my wife in the Skin Products aisle of an organic grocery, telling the woman I loved how serendipitous it was to have located the talent innate in her limbs amongst the products that she would so soon be selling. Eighteen months later, my wife had been in almost three hundred ads, her hands framing sleek bottles of expensive perfume, her ring finger a backdrop for glittering, diamonded bands that cost as much as a Mercedes. She sold couscous, facial cream, keyboards, and iPods. She sold scarves and fly reels and purses. It was my wife’s hands that appeared in Vogue, Elle, and YM. It was my wife’s hands that “stood in” for numerous celebrities, the woman I married providing, in print ads, surrogate limbs for the likes of Cate Blanchett. It was my wife’s hands that one saw on Vegas billboards, fingers fanned like beams of white sun over the toned, tanned stomach of a dancer for an all-male revue, her pinkies perhaps one inch away from the snap on this man’s skintight black trousers. And it was my wife’s hands that touched much more than that on other men, her palms placed on strangers’ cheeks before sliding downward in secret, in silence.
After indisputable video evidence had been produced (I had hired a person to install, in the bedroom that I shared with my wife, a trio of hidden cameras, a decision that I still wrestle with today, despite the acts that these cameras caught on tape) and for some time after our divorce, I kept in a pocketed folder that I carried with me at nearly all times my wife’s oeuvre, tearing out pages from those magazines in which my ex-wife had sold some certain product, in addition to creating video stills of the modeling spots that she did on television, and printing out these stills on high-quality photo paper and adding them to the folder. In a moment of utter misery and gloom that arrived out of nowhere roughly one month after all the papers had been signed, and the house had been sold, and I was trying without much success to repair all parts of myself, I spread out these ads and stills on the clean, tan carpet of the Extended Stay suite in which I had been residing, staring at the collage I’d produced in an attempt, I believe, at attaching to it something approaching prescience—that amongst all these images of my wife’s hands, I might be able to locate foreknowledge of her terrible, adulterous happenings. But prescience after the fact serves no one at all, even if one is able to locate it, and later that night, after two scotches in the lobby’s small bar, I repaired the collection of paper to the dumpster behind the hotel, lifting the heavy, ridged top of the bin with one hand and tossing my wife’s ads (and by extension, a portion of myself) into its wide and dark belly.
The alley was well-lit by sodium lights that glowed a white blue and were attached to the wall of the building, and it was late, Gloria, late enough that even sections of the Los Angeles basin were quiet, and after I set the lid of the dumpster back down, the plastic barely making a sound as it met with the metal, I looked down the alley, toward the front of the hotel. The smooth asphalt, light gray and unspoiled by droplets of oil or burnished by the rubber of car tires, matched exactly the color of the alley’s high walls, which in turned matched the color of the underlit clouds that had pushed in from the ocean, the whole world, it seemed, resetting to one single hue, the natural and man-made in that moment merging, history lost in the fog of greater LA or buried under new, antiseptic construction. It suggested the idea—and perhaps the feeling, too—that anything at all was possible, the choices unlimited and nearly brand-new, and of diminishing worth, and spawning only more choices, which in turned spawned more, until it was impossible for anyone to remember what the original choice was, or how it might have ever mattered. Five minutes later, I went back up to my room. The next morning, I received the call from my firm about conducting a Focus Group in West Texas.
Zone 5 finished the packet with ease, returning to the conference table and assembling their things as we prepared our farewells and found our cell phones and car keys. In those moments, though, as a long round of pleasantries was fizzling out like the last batch of fireworks at a July display, our Focus Group received its final visitor, the individual arriving quietly enough that no one in Zone 5 initially noticed. This person’s entrance was lost upon, me, too, as 1) I was turned away from the door ejecting the DVD from its player, my body at perhaps a 140-degree angle in relation to the front of the room and my peripheral vision all but useless, and 2) for the first and only time during the FG, the lights on the wagon wheel nearest the door didn’t flicker as the banquet room’s threshold was crossed. As I had come to rely on this visual cue for the day’s many person-based interruptions, I continued on in my conversation with that Focus Group member who held the most outspoken belief in the Christian God, the two of us discussing an area café that produced an excellent cheeseburger. ’Merican food, the woman said, and then a second Focus Group member tapped me on the shoulder.
While in the parking lot, later, the police would call our last entrant by his proper name, for the purposes of this letter, Gloria, and in an attempt at concealing his identity, I will refer to the man in question as the Very Inebriated Native American, or VINA—nomenclature justified by the Lubbock PD’s on-site Blood Alcohol Reading, the VINA blowing into the hard plastic straw to reveal that he was more than three times over the legal limit. This fact was one that was impossible to know upon the VINA’s arrival, however, as there was nothing in the man’s posture or gait that might have allowed myself or anyone else to infer that the VINA was just that—highly intoxicated. Indeed, as I turned my neck to respond to the tap on the shoulder, and looked past the Focus Group Participant offering the tap, to the man in question, the first thing that raised a proverbial red flag was that unlike the other strangers’ costumes or ware, the VINA’s outfit seemed only partial. While he had on a headdress and moccasin shoes, he was also in cutoff denim shorts and a loose, gray tank-top T-shirt, on the front of which was written, in neon, curling font, SEE THE GRAND CANYON. The words ran diagonally, from the southwest corner of the fabric all the way to the northeast, just above and to the right of the VINA’s left nipple.
May I Help You, I said to the man, fully expecting him to answer my question with a question, specifically, Is This Rancho Brava? When no verbal response was offered at all, I asked the question again, as many of the FGPs were still talking among themselves, and I was a sizable distance (ten yards? fifteen?) from the VINA. However, when I received no reply from the man for a second time, I admit that I began scrutinize him. A number of aesthetic details stood out: the rattiness of the VINA’s denim shorts, the stains (beef broth? dried blood?) near the bottom hem of the man’s tank top, the tomahawk tattoo across the man’s left shin, and the small leather scabbard clipped to a belt loop of the VINA’s cutoffs, some feet above the tattoo of the tomahawk. From afar, the hunting knife’s blade looked at least an inch wide, and the light from the wagon-wheel fixture overhead shone off the visible portion of the blade (just above the hilt) in a way that made me absolutely sure the weapon was metal. The headdress’s plumes—naturally white, with sections of them dyed red and black—swung up and curved back from the man’s forehead, a single feather dangling from each side of the cap at the temples, trailing over the VINA’s exposed, narrow shoulders. And while the juxtaposition, Gloria, of the VINA’s culture-specific garb and more status quo clothing choices, along with the knife, the tattoo, and the ongoing lack of anything approaching verbal recognition of my twice-asked question, were all causing in me very real concern, I remained unsure of whether or not there was a need to take action, my indecision extending out of a trio of ideas counter to the notion that the VINA was unwell and/or dangerous. The first of these ideas can be titled Clothing Trends, an aspect of society, Gloria, that I know little about, especially in regard to what may or may not be à la mode in any given year or season. That is, it seemed possible to me that some if not all components of the VINA’s outfit were self-aware or even postmodern choices, ones that championed above all else ironic detachment. In the same way that some youthful portions of contemporary America wear clothes from a different decade (I am thinking here, Gloria, of ’60s wide-bottomed jeans, or ’70s leather jackets) it seemed well within the realm of possibility that the headdress, the moccasins, and perhaps even the knife were having their original purpose or place in the spectrum of fashion reimagined, if not reconstructed, and the VINA’s ethnic background was purely coincidental, as opposed to being the driving force behind his clothing choices; i.e., even if there is a certain sardonic aspect to a Native American hipster sporting a headdress and moccasins, cynical derision is common in youth, and the VINA himself, only twenty-two, certainly fit into such a post-teen, angst-ridden demographic (one I might add, Gloria, that has the potential most consistently to feel the need to “fit in” by making all manner of social choice they might not otherwise make, were it not for the need to norm themselves by rebelling in prescribed and established ways, ones that often linger only through youth and remain at a literal and/or figurative surface level).
The second idea that kept me from action ran converse to the thinking supporting Clothing Trends, and can be titled Sociocultural Differences. That is, if the “Clothing Trends” theory dealt largely with the obliteration of a substantive interpretation of the real, the “Sociocultural Differences” idea upheld it, the validity of such a posit grounded in the stark reality of day-to-day to life for the majority of Native Americans: that they (Native Americans, or American Indians, Gloria, if you prefer) live in abject poverty on some of the blankest, barest lands America has to offer; that their communities are riddled by alcohol, drug, and physical abuse; that these communities harbor the highest rates of suicide and mental disorders of any communities on the continent of North America; that the startling dearth of employment opportunities only exacerbates the aforementioned truths; and that they (Native Americans/American Indians) arrive at this collective societal malaise due to their deceitful and abhorrent treatment at the hands of the American Anglo’s westward expansion. That is, Gloria, when I stared at the VINA, I stared also at my own doings, as my ancestors arrived to the east coast very early on, and these ancestors did at the very least accept if not participate in the massacring of Native American populations, after which, from what I was told by my own parents (now deceased), these ancestors went south, where they owned a cotton plantation, which meant the people who eventually, and by extension, spawned me, also enslaved African Americans.
But I’m getting away from my point, Gloria. Guilt can do that. Guilt can fracture the light of truth the way funhouse mirrors can bend one’s reflection. It was like that for me, pouring through hours of digital video of my wife’s dalliances, a lamb at the altar of grief, sure that my union’s shortcomings were my own fault, and not my spouse’s. Here’s what I mean: The VINA was no hipster at all, and the costume, while partial, was the best that he could manage, given the startling disenfranchisement the VINA had almost certainly endured for the whole of his short existence, a life of constraints that defied mitigation, one governed most often by madness and doom, and whose only certain trait was uncertainty. That is, the VINA was bringing to the table the very best that he could, given his subjective, adverse circumstances. To bring to light his costume’s deficiencies (and assuming indeed that his vestments were costume) would show me as just another unsympathetic white man of the kind that the VINA and his family before him had endured, Gloria, for centuries.
The last idea that kept me from taking action of any sort was Rancho Brava. Even as the VINA’s actions began to escalate, the young man now approaching Focus Group Participants individually, breaching each FGP’s personal space and getting so close to them that the two parties were almost touching noses, I still wasn’t sure, Gloria, that this wasn’t part of an act that perhaps served as warm-up for that other banquet room’s almost certainly spirited happenings. Tied into this was the VINA saying aloud the phrase from his shirt to each FG Participant he approached. See the Grand Canyon, the VINA would say, and one of the Zone 5 FGPs would counter with Get Away from Me, or You Smell Like a Booze Factory. When the VINA received a response, he would move on, repeating the phrase—See the Grand Canyon—from person to person to person, each FG Participant startled and confused, until the VINA approached the FG with that strongest proclivity for the Christian God, and removed his knife from its scabbard.
It would be unfair, though, Gloria, to say that even this brandishing of a weapon was enough to cause true alarm, as the VINA was by no means the first stranger of southwestern personage to arrive to the Stardust Room armed. Davy Crockett had stood a musket up by the door, and one of the members of Mariachi Errante had a small can of mace attached to his key chain. Furthermore, the sheriff had twin holstered guns, as did both the Pony Express rider and the Jesse James look-alike. Abstracted, one could also contend that the prospector had a weapon in the form of his burro. (I was surprised, Gloria, that the Marriott chain of hotels allowed pack animals on its premises, regardless of the events in its banquet rooms. Such animals are highly unpredictable, and the possibility for injury from trampling or a bite would seem to increase almost exponentially in confined quarters, as would the possibility for litigation on the part of any person injured by an incensed, panicked donkey.) That is, Gloria, the FG Participants, much like myself, were struggling with understanding the VINA’s true intentions, as the VINA’s context could not be concretely defined, given that the reasons for the VINA’s repeated phrase and brandishing of his short knife were mutable—was the VINA making fun of our assumed perception of him, and was that perception, Gloria, true? Or, alternately, did the FG Participants and myself want so badly to have our assumed perception not be true that we were ignoring very obvious warning signals? Or, thirdly, did the VINA believe, as others had, that he might actually be in Rancho Brava at present, and had simply begun an act that made sense there but not here, in the confines of the Stardust Room?
These variables bounced up and disappeared at a rate similar to those plastic creatures inhabiting the Whac-a-Mole game common to many family-fun establishments, and I found myself, Gloria, even as the VINA pulled out his knife, took the Very Christian FGP by the back of her hair, and said, It Is Now My Duty to Scalp You, so overwhelmed by the rapidity of choice that I could only stand there, figurative mallet in hand, and do nothing. In hindsight, I believe my inertia to have been caused by the notion that the entities seeking out Rancho Brava were all individuals representative of regional clichés, those parts of society that through their very nature cannot evolve or progress in the slightest. That is, Gloria, it seemed somehow impossible to me that an entity as antiquated and provincial as a “drunk Indian” might actually be able to assert itself on twenty-first-century globalized culture (i.e., myself and the Zone 5 Focus Group Participants). Have we not, as a society, transcended role-based, regional expressions because they have lost all ingenuity? And if so, Gloria, then why do they remain? Why is it that one does go and see the Grand Canyon?
The Very Christian FGP, her eyes now wide with horror, the top half of her body pulled back over her hips as though she were balancing precariously on the lip of a cliff and trying desperately not to fall off it, stared at the VINA as the man raised his knife, her arms flapping wildly, the oversized silver cross at the vertex of her necklace emerging from under the chest of her blouse and swinging back and forth ever so slightly. The VINA, meanwhile, who up to this point had maintained a visage of utter calm, so much so that he looked virtually bored by what he was doing, turned his head to the ceiling of the Stardust Room and held the knife up even higher, gaining more leverage in preparation for plunging down the weapon. These dual actions forced a range of small sounds from the other Focus Group Participants, the most common being a sort of breathless, visceral ah, as though those FGPs making the sound had touched a hand to something unexpectedly hot, and wounded themselves in the process. (Other responses included No, Stop, Holy Shit, and Oh Fuck, though as stated these were outnumbered by the ahs, which arrived en masse and as a sort of unintended chorus.)
At that moment, Gloria, all concern vanished from my mind, as I prepared to witness a human death for the very first time. I forgot about my wife, our turmoil and joy. I forgot about salsa and the Focus Group Packets. I forgot my profession, my name, and my sex. I existed only as matter that emitted no light, about to expand and become my own horizon. What stopped this from occurring was a former All Big-12 Oklahoma State University linebacker. Darby “Bull” Dozer, born nearby, in New Deal, Texas, was a four-year starter for his alma mater Cowboys, a fact that he mentioned at the Focus Group’s outset and one that only returned to me as he blindsided the VINA, tackling the very drunk young man to the carpeted floor with such force that the would-be assailant was forced to let go of his weapon, the knife twirling as it dropped, landing inches from the left tennis shoe of the woman who was to receive the scalping. The former linebacker wrestled in high school, too, and choked out the VINA with a “sleeper hold” in a matter of seconds, the other FG Participants issuing cheers that Dozer would have been proud to receive during his varsity days in Stillwater.
And that, Gloria, was largely that—the police were called, the VINA taken in, the Focus Group Participants and myself all departing the Stardust Room and preparing to return to our respective lives. There was no exchanging of phone numbers, Twitter handles, email addresses, or Facebook account information. Some of us followed the police as they took the VINA outside, where we watched the Lubbock PD issue a Breathalyzer Test then guide the VINA’s body into the back of the squad car. The hotel manager issued a public apology at the end of this scene, saying how sorry he was that we were forced to endure such acts of intimidation and violence on hotel grounds and offering up coupons for a free night’s stay at any Marriott hotel in the continental United States, before walking stiffly and quickly back through the tinted, automatic front doors of the establishment. I stood in the parking lot, the sun hot on my face, the wind carrying on it the soft, rich scent of smoke from a distant wildfire. Some FGPs waved at me as they drove off in their pickups, minivans, or compacts. I followed the hotel manager back inside, reentering the Stardust Room, Gloria, but only barely, as a foot ahead of me, on the cobalt-colored carpet, was the wagon-wheel chandelier that had been blinking on and off for the full of the day—its chain had snapped, and the fixture was now lying on the floor in three pieces.
I let the door shut behind me and walked around the wrecked wheel, staring at the smattering of glass from the cracked bulbs and the fixture’s exposed, curling wiring. Up close, it was easy to tell that the wheel was indeed real wood, with chips and splinters from which one at least could infer that the item had been part of a long journey west, away from the dense forests of Vermont or Virginia, trundling sturdily through the Midwest before traversing, somehow, the long seams of the Rockies, its trip likely ending somewhere after that, the wood pulled apart by the dry desert wind, the disc left to rot next to a creosote-tinged slab of fluorite. But it didn’t rot, Gloria. It made it here, to the ceiling then the floor of the Stardust Room, the wheel important enough, in some manner or way, to not be left to decay at the base of a bluff, near a den of sidewinders. Instead, it was adapted for a different sort of use, rethought and reused, exactly the same yet very much different.
It wasn’t until I had unplugged the TV and was wheeling the device on its rickety stand back toward the room’s doors that I realized that the VINA had in all likelihood saved at least one Focus Group Member from death, even while attempting to take the life of another, as were it not for the VINA’s entrée and his subsequent actions, it seemed likely to me that one FGP would have been walking under the chandelier as it loosed and fell, maiming badly if not taking the life of that person. I stood there, palms on the TV stand like I was pushing a cart, and thought about what such a chain of events could mean—that the VINA’s detainment equated to the preservation of life for a Focus Group Member—then gave up trying to ascertain a solution, returning the TV to the hotel’s front desk and that night eating at the establishment recommended by the Very Christian Focus Group Participant (the burger’s meat, Gloria, was full of fat, and its flavors were far too aggressive).
When I returned to the hotel, all the parking spaces near the lobby doors were full. I guided my sedan around the side of the building, parking in a free space in front of a thin, gnarled cottonwood tree trapped in a floral version of coma—while not truly dead, it seemed less than alive, never again to produce new buds, instead spending the rest of its existence in some form of suspended animation. Yards away from the tree was one of the hotel’s side entrances, and after two tries I was able to get my key card to work in its security system. Feet ahead of me, on the left side of the corridor, was the entrance to Rancho Brava. I looked down the hall, toward the front desk, and seeing no sign of human life, walked to the twin mahogany doors, lightly trying first one and then the other handle. Neither would depress. I set my shoulder bag down, looking back at the front desk one more time. Turning my torso to one side, I pressed my left ear to the laminated wood, blinking my eyes as I listened for any sounds coming from inside the room, any clue that might explain the day’s actions. I stood there ten seconds, awkwardly crouched, the cartilage around my ear canal beginning to throb from pressure. I readjusted, then put a finger in my free ear, shutting my eyes and standing perfectly still and letting my body, as best as it could, give itself wholly over to the act of aural surveillance. At one point, I thought that I heard a Yeeee-Whoooo, and at a second, I thought that I could discern the clinking of glasses, two crystal vessels meeting with force, their collision a jubilant salute to the West’s past and its cultures and customs. But I know that I did not hear these things—that the boomtown yawp and the sound of the glasses meeting in toast existed only in my imagination. As I drew back from the door, though, Gloria, the most impossible of things happened.
I had just grabbed the strap of my shoulder bag and was getting ready to walk toward the elevators when one and then both of Rancho Brava’s door handles started jiggling, the chrome-finished levers flipping up and down a half inch with startling rapidity. Someone was in there, Gloria, and trying to get out, the two handles making clicking sounds as a person or persons madly shook them. I backed away from the entrance, unsure of what to do, my heart beating faster and my mouth going wet as I looked down the Marriott’s hall, toward the lobby. Again, however, no patron or employee could be seen, and as I was trying to make the decision whether to call out, go for help, or simply leave, the handles began to shake even faster on their circular mounts until the two pieces of metal turned red and popped free from the doors, falling to the carpeted floor in front of me.
Amazed, my mind flipping through answers like files in a drawer, I bent down and touched one of the levers with a finger. It was still hot and as I drew my hand away, I looked toward the freshly made holes in the entrance to Rancho Brava, now being at eye level with them. If lights were on in the room, something or someone stood in the way of their illumination, as when I pressed my face to first the left hole, then the right, all that I saw was blackness, the sort of all-consuming blackness one can sometimes stand in, Gloria, on lightless nights in the middle of the desert, the stars and the moon blocked out by clouds, the contours of the world having vanished.
I waited five minutes, my eye still pressed to the door, moving back and forth to look through one hole and then the other, hoping that whatever barrier stood in the way might remove itself but also not being so brave as to insert a digit and try to touch the impediment, if such a blockade were indeed in place, since it seemed just as possible that the reason I couldn’t view the interior of the room was that all the lights in Rancho Brava were off. Either way, Gloria, enough time had passed that I had come back into possession of my self-awareness, cognizant of the fact that while an act that I still can’t explain had just occurred, I was also crouched in front of a hotel banquet-room door like a criminal or idiot. I stood to leave, swinging my shoulder bag’s strap over my body, then noticing my shoe was untied, and just as I was about to bend back down and tie it, an item was loosed through the space of the door, falling to the floor inches in front of me.
Gloria, today I turned thirty-nine. The second act of my play is one year away, and even now the house lights have begun their dimming. I have no spouse, no children, no mortgage. I do not own a pet and I harbor no debt. I’ve donated my loafers and dress shirts and neckties. The ghosts of my past inhabit faraway lands and while some mean me harm, they won’t ever find me. If this next decade, for most, is one of profession and family, and the settling in for the trip down that (perhaps pleasant) road of subscribing and ascribing, I find myself on a different sort of path, one largely unpaved and set back from Life’s highway, the dust my tires bring up something near to a shield, the miles ahead of me absent of traffic. Another way, perhaps, of saying this, Gloria, is that while I never saw who was in Rancho Brava that day, I know their identity, because I was. A version of me shook the room’s door handles to hot, and once those implements fell to the floor, I was given a gift that only I could give me. What this item is doesn’t matter at all. Its worth lies only in its continued importance.
Shady Lanes Trailer Court is managed by Ken Nakahara, a Vietnam vet and retired park ranger. I’m in his double-wide now, my laptop attached by a cord to his printer. Once this letter’s done, we’ll sit in Shady Lane’s “park,” a two-plot swath of lawn abutting Ken’s home that harbors good shade from a trio of mesquites, under which is a single wooden picnic table. Ken’s worked in Black Canyon and Capitol Reef and he spent his last years at Red Rock, in Nevada. His knowledge is vast, and his ministrations of it tactical and humble. In my acceptance of him as a steward of the land, he has found in me his final student. We sit often to sundown, drinking iced instant coffee, Ken recounting his years in the forest and deserts. We’ll never travel together—this seems understood. Instead, his wisdom is a baton handed off, my neighbor’s length of the race having come to an end as my portion of the relay is beginning. Tomorrow, I may drive southwest, toward Juarez. Tomorrow, I may take I-40 and then 25 toward Trinidad, Colorado. If neither of these, I will wind up somewhere in between: Albuquerque or Flagstaff or Durango. In the meantime, I’ve not checked my email for months. I have only a vague notion of my checking account balance. I own one pair of footwear—my hiking boots. They’ve not even begun to truly break in. They will last for me decades. They may outlast me.
Gloria, I hope that this letter helps you, and that all is well in Milford, Connecticut. I imagine come fall that the trees will turn red. I imagine, next to them, a Protestant church’s bone-white spire, slimming as it ascends toward thick moody clouds whose voyage will shortly become transatlantic. I don’t think that I’ll see the east coast again. A boundary was lowered and I chose to step past it, and now that I have, there’s no way to go back. Instead, I rocket outward over alien lands. Instead, I search for chuckwalla basking on dolostone slabs, in the pulsing dusk light of my low, endless desert.
Charles McLeod is the author of a novel, American Weather, and a collection of stories, National Treasures. His third book, a hybrid titled Ascoliasm, Zemblanity, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.