Gentle, broken-down houses huddled on the edge of the desert.
The sand stretched as far as the eye could see, spreading like a bruise up into the mountain. Even if you knew every rut in the dirt road that led from the town of Sarana to the freeway beyond the mountain, it was easy to convince yourself that it had dissolved into the dust.
There had been two mountains, living up to the name ‘Twin Peaks’, but now only the single, rough hump remained. It was an obstinate old turtle, hunched there on the grit and refusing to move for anything. The other peak, the dead partner of the turtle, had been sharper. The needle of its pinnacle pierced the sun.
Small wonder it was the one chosen to be blown up. Shards of rock still littered the grainy silt. The little boys searched them out to throw at the cows, whooping as they startled off into the horizon.
The explosion was the event of a lifetime. They didn’t get fireworks on the Fourth of July, only saw them on television, so this was years’ worth all in one day. Umbrellas were pushed into the gravel across town from the mountain, plastic-ribbed lawn chairs folded out under them and the grills kept going from noon. Everyone had just about finished eating by five, the scheduled hour.
The entire mountain convulsed as the explosives that had been poured into holes all around the dome detonated. The crust, which the townspeople had thought was as solid as anything, disintegrated into rock and dust. A fine fanning of black soot gave way to erupting clouds of smoke that obscured everything in the sky before eventually dying down.
Vibrations from the mighty blast surged through all. The destroyed mountain had been a humongous creature, and the ground swelled with its demise. Nobody would have been surprised if the earth had split open and blinded everyone with the gleaming secret at its core, but after a while it quieted down.
Eyes turned to Deaf George, crouched among the other children, to see if he had felt the reverberations, and they were satisfied. His hands were flat on the earth, rounding and flattening with the tremors. His intent eyes didn’t move from the sight.
Rubble crashed down at the bottom of the now-lonely turtle of a mountain and surrounded it with stones in ripples and waves.
The children found paths to follow, clinging to the sides of the bigger boulders like barnacles. The game was that if your foot touched the sand of the desert, you would be sucked into quicksand. To stay alive, you had to stay on top of the rocks – the recently scattered intestines of the mountain – and never retrace a step.
More often than not Deaf George was the last one left alive. His eyes, shining like glass, scrutinized the possibilities, making sure there were always two routes or more from the next step and even from the one after that. The other children hopped quickly from one to the other. They were fast caught teetering on an edge before falling down onto the sand and wiggling around on it, pretending to drown.
The game would stop when someone saw one of the company trucks driving down the dirt road. Giant dump trucks that collected the largest boulders for the cement plant, and plain white pickup trucks with workers from Sarana. They hefted the smaller stones onto the conveyor belt that split the desert in half. It was the longest conveyor belt in the world, the people in town told their guests with pride, and it carried the rocks to the cement plant on the other side of the town to be ground down into powder.
The belt droned and whirred like a strange animal. It dazed the cows, which stumbled hastily away when it was turned on in the morning. One or two of the herd, the adventurous or the oblivious, would occasionally roam under it and onto the dirt road or further out into the remote. Then the ranchers had to ride out to try and bring them back.
After the mountain was blown up, cows began wandering off in larger numbers. Some were discovered as bones in the desert, dehydrated and pure. The adults thought that the vultures and coyotes must have become rapacious; the children thought that a man came in the night to steal the cows away.
Some of the children were scared of the conveyor belt, but not Deaf George. He scrambled onto the belt where it started at the foot of the mountain and lay on his back, looking into the untold blue of the sky as the belt moved slowly towards the cement plant. Sometimes he stored up dirt clods in his pockets to throw at the cows, and at any of the kids who tried to drag him off the belt, their hands clawing at the legs of his jeans.
One Saturday morning, Deaf George and the belt were the only things moving in the entire of that immensity. He was alone in it. The sky was cloudless. He rode cross-legged through the still air, his bright eyes examining the rise and fall of the ever-changing curves of the sand. Shimmering layers of light in mysterious colors formed, disappearing as his eyesight shifted slightly.
Deaf George was at rest there on his own. He was accustomed to not understanding what people said, to moving himself to the outskirts of the group and staring off into the wild, where cadences were slow and regular, interrupted by inevitable paroxysms of intensity.
Necessity had become habit and habit became the way Deaf George saw the world. Other than school and his mother, he was never around anyone long. His mother felt more knotty than school. She was harder to ignore.
That morning she scurried around the house, her motions short and abrupt. Lately she had been preoccupied, asking Deaf George if he had eaten the rest of that lime green Jell-O that had been in the refrigerator, or the last of the cornflakes, or if he had stolen the jar of nails that she’d left in the garden shed. Her index finger jabbed at the air accusingly, but he didn’t know where any of these things were and shook his head in response.
His mother’s rhythms blocked out the desert, and he was glad to be in its reaches alone now. The sand dunes piggybacked each other down the line, smooth as the wings of the hawks hovering above. Both chased the sun into the nowhere. The belt moved slowly under him and Deaf George gazed over the dunes. One faded easily into the next, until his eye reached a dune far to the right of the conveyor belt, where there was a break in the symmetry. The soft sweeps became irregular and jerky. He looked over the other dunes in his range of view; perhaps the ranchers had chased an especially stubborn heifer out there in a truck and marred the surface. But he could find no signs of any reason for the unsettling.
Deaf George leapt off the conveyor belt and crashed onto the packed sand below. He took off running, his feet sinking into the tug of the hot, dry land.
In the cluster of houses far off on the other side of the conveyor belt, kids emerged sleepy-eyed from their front doors and saw Deaf George tramping off in the opposite direction to them. Hey! Hey! they shouted after him at the top of their lungs. Though they knew he would not hear them, they hoped that he would sense their attention and turn back, as he often did. They watched him become smaller against the sand heaps, until they could not see him anymore. Their yells evaporated into the vista. Finally, they turned back to the houses.
The desert encompassed him. Sand and sky drew in opposite directions as he bent down to pick up a handful. The clutter that surrounded his mother left his mind as the grains in his hand fell through his stubby fingers.
Deaf George saw a round lump among the ridges; there was a dark square in the middle of it. At first he thought it was a piece of wood the wind had blown up against the sand, but the hardness gave way to a velvety emptiness. He stepped into it. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a mattress on the dirt floor, an orange and red blanket with a picture of a rearing horse on it, black wires twisting over the bowed ceiling, and low shelves made out of plywood and concrete blocks with cans and a water jug on them. From the back, two marbles flickered out of the shadows, and Deaf George saw that they were set into the face of a crouching man.
The Man stood up into the highest point of the dome. The top of his cowboy hat touched the ceiling, and his silver belt buckle shone like water.
Deaf George did like his mother had taught him. He pointed to his ear and shook his head right away.
Some adults took a while to understand, but not this man. He nodded and beckoned Deaf George back outside and behind the house. There were the ashes of a fire and charred logs, with a pile of old fence posts and sticks next to it. A thin cow was tied up some feet away, and Deaf George saw glossy bones scattered in the sand, still with bits of pink flesh.
The Man picked up a stick and smoothed out the ashes. With the point of the stick, he wrote, ‘You help me? Tomorrow morning?’ in the soot.
Deaf George dipped his head.
The Man pointed to where a watch would have been and held up seven fingers, then pointed to the base of the turtle-mountain, to the place where the conveyor belt started. Deaf George stood up straight, pulled his shoulders back, and saluted. As the man crinkled his mouth in response, Deaf George saw that some teeth were missing. The rest were like corn kernels. The black pupils of the man’s eyes were huge, ringed by watery blue.
He waved to The Man and started back home. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the man retreat into the dune.
His mother’s skinny, white arm – splotched with age spots – made an angular shadow on the kitchen wall when she signed to him during lunch. They ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on soft slices of brown bread. Her eyes looked off into nothing. She never looked directly at him, so he understood only shreds of what she was trying to say.
Deaf George imagined The Man snoring as he slept inside his dune. The Man’s bare chest juddered as it went up and down, and the frothy lather of sound that emerged from the withered mouth rose to the inky sky, where it would meet the howls of the coyotes in the desert. The movements were as mysterious as his mother’s gesticulations to herself.
The next morning, the children watched Deaf George run off into the desert. Again he did not turn back when they held their hands to their mouths and felt their voices come up from their bellies and erupt into the still-cool air.
As the sun mounted the sky and the air became heavy, the children snuck into the side door of the church where the town would congregate later that morning. They stole ice-cold sodas from the fridge. Running off, they dipped one toe at a time into Shit Creek, where filtered water from the sewers of the town flowed freely into the river.
Deaf George staggered into the rocks spewed by the mountain. He almost fell, but did not stop. A jagged rock tore into his callused heel when it came away from his sandal, and he felt the blood go sticky. The town diminished behind him, and the mountain became larger until it was the only thing that he could see. Its skin was as blemished as his mother’s.
Soon the land began to slope upward and he was at the place the man had pointed at the day before. He sat at the foot of the conveyor belt to wait, and felt its low rumble against his back.
Then The Man was in front of him. His bony fingers burrowed deep into his pants and pulled out a small bag. Stuffing the bag into one of Deaf George’s pockets, the man reached back down for a stamped and addressed manila envelope that he put into another of the boy’s pockets.
He pointed to the conveyor belt and to the place in the desert where it ended, then at Deaf George. He pointed to his wrist and held up seven fingers, then scrawled ‘Sunday’ in the sand.
You bag put-in envelope, you envelope put-in mailbox, you come here, me give you money, he gestured to Deaf George.
George watched The Man run off, his angular body scuttling around the side of the mountain, his long, thin arms and legs bristling away from his body like a cockroach. Suddenly The Man seemed another sort of living thing. One that belonged out in the desert, and not in town. George wondered if he was like that, too.
George looked up into the sky. A dull stain leaked from one of the clouds into the blue. It was bitter as the feeling in George’s chest.
His pocket was swollen to bursting. But the load was nothing when he compared it to the heavy rocks that the belt carried to be crushed into powder. He hoisted himself up on the belt with both arms; in the flat sky above him, he saw that the mottle was spreading, as it was within. It collected above the houses and around his heart.
George felt the outside of his pocket, patting and rubbing the bag inside. It was full of stiff paper, cardboard maybe. A stack of small squares. He would take them out once home, but he would have to make sure he put them all back into the bag the exact same way, in the right order, before he put the envelope into the mailbox in Tucson. His mother took him there every Friday after school to visit his grandmother and there was a mailbox on her street.
You never knew, did you? That was what his mother told him repeatedly. You never knew who was taking things; the other day the pastor said the cashbox in the church wasn’t where it should have been. And you can never tell who people really are. That was what his mother always followed up with. Remembering that, the acid behind his ribs didn’t bite as sharply.
The belt moved forward regularly but lackadaisically. Deaf George had never seen a day when it was not working. The motor that ran it must be very strong, he thought. He had never considered the matter before, or where the motor was. He got up to his feet and ran on the belt till he was sweaty. It was just like being a hamster on a wheel in a giant cage, or being on the treadmill that his grandmother’s husband had in front of the television in their living room. He wondered why more people didn’t come out here to run on it. It didn’t cost anything.
The sun was high in the sky now; everyone would be in church.
Deaf George let his wet back collapse onto the rubber of the belt and stayed on it for hours, until he saw the barbed wire at the top of the fence around the cement plant. It bristled out of the brown earth like a huge, metallic wasp nest. As the wire diamonds of the barricade neared, George imagined them pressing into his face, imprinting him. Just before the belt passed through a neatly sealed hole in the fence, he rolled off and began the long walk back to town. If only he could ride the underside of the belt where it looped back into the desert, circling endlessly between chemical and clay.
He thought again of that cockroach of a man. He could be anywhere, watching secretly with his marble eyes.
The kids were back at Shit Creek when he got to town. It was after church and the adults were at their potlucks. The big boys ran up behind the girls, grabbing them and carrying them down to the creek as the girls giggled and pretended to try and break free. The boys lowered them till the tips of their big toes hovered above the sewage runoff before putting them back down on the bank.
George sat down against one of the telephone poles that lined the artificial creek. The boys had been known to toss him in head first, so he carefully removed the bag and envelope from his pocket and put them into a small hole by the post that he covered with a stone.
Sometimes, he wished he knew what people were saying. The resignation which often colored his life as dingily as the smog over the desert had flown away with the arrival of the envelope. It was the easy hazard, the devil-may-care quality of taking it.
In his room that night, Deaf George pulled down the Superman bed-sheet his mother kept tacked to the window and laid down the plastic bag onto the beige carpet. The squares looked like they had been cut from the cardboard roll at the centre of toilet paper or kitchen towels and then flattened. The first square had the word ‘Tunnel’ on it in scratchy writing that George could already recognize as belonging to the man. There was a star in the upper right corner. He put it face down on the carpet and looked at the second. The words on this one were ‘Two weeks’ and the star was in the below left corner. On the third, it was ‘Bananas.’
There were fifteen squares, and between them, the stars went all the way around the edge of the paper. It was never in the same place more than once. The words didn’t come together into anything that Deaf George could understand. He wrote down a list of the original order, and then tried to move them around like Scrabble tiles into something comprehensible, first according to the stars and later into other patterns he thought he could see, but he couldn’t find anything. He felt the threads between the words, but the thing at their centre wasn’t there. Without knowing what it was, he couldn’t tie them all to anything. They floated. No different from his mother’s mutterings or the billboards on the highway, punctuating the unfurling ribbon of road and tumbleweed with the pounding is your pulse – run wild, or here it is, or dare to go beyond beige.
Deaf George used the list to put all the squares back into the bag just so, then put it into the manila envelope and licked it shut. The address was an El Paso one. The home of violent border trafficking. He saw the news reports on TV, with the words ‘El Paso’ in red beneath the images of hard-faced men in handcuffs.
The next Friday, he slipped out of his grandmother’s house while his step-grandfather jogged unsteadily on the treadmill in front of The Price Is Right and his mother and grandmother sipped Nescafé on the orange sofa. The mailbox was at the end of the road, past squares of unkempt, brown lawns sprouting prickly bouquets of saguaro cacti. The envelope slid in and Deaf George felt it fall a satisfying distance into the guts of the box. It would wing its way restlessly into someone’s unknown hands. For the moment, the words were free.
Come Sunday, George was back at the foot of the conveyor belt, waiting for The Man and the money he was owed. The sky was crystalline, blue and clear. Soon the raw-boned frame came stealthily around the crag, his leg stretching crookedly out. The enlarged pupils of his eyes landed on George, and the long fingers made a square, then rounded palms moved a small bag into it. A flattened hand entered the slot of the other hand. George nodded; he had done all that The Man described.
He was paid in silver dollars, which pleased him. They were heavy and felt special. There were twenty of them. He had made some serious money.
As he rode back on the conveyor belt, all remained translucent and calm around him. The man had said nothing about meeting again, just shook George’s hand and patted him on the back. George did not think anyone else in town had seen the man, although a few things had gone missing from town. He’d immediately thought of the man’s cockroach-walk when his mother told him about the thefts.
The belt hummed as it cut steadily through the landscape, and it felt more permanent than the hulking turtle-mountain and the rickety houses. Money in pocket and on the move through the open reaches – Deaf George decided that was how he wanted to keep going.
He put the coins in an old jam jar and buried it behind the shed, right at the corner where he could find it again. He liked knowing it was there and thought of it often: when he was in school, staring at the teacher’s biggety mouth or back at his grandma’s house on Fridays after school.
He did not notice his mother’s scuttering any longer. He sat in the house, watching the desert. In the middle of the endless things that she always had to do, she would become exasperated by her son sitting there, silent and motionless by the window and smack his head. Deaf George held up two fingers to his eyes and pointed outside, then made another finger the horizon, but she was unsatisfied by his explanation. She had a short attention span, though, and didn’t persist in her nosiness.
When he was sleeping and once in a while when he was awake, Deaf George saw the words on those squares of cardboard, flapping above the land; he saw his mother’s questions and the kids’ shouts of Hey joining them. Tall men that looked like insects crept out of cracks in the stones and clung to the bottom of the conveyor belt as they metamorphosed into even stranger creatures. The sands parted and came together again, heightening to form castles and sinking into pits, homes for any sort that wished to hide out there.
Every few months the nibbling curiosity became insistent; then he would ride the conveyor belt into the desert and walk out to see that irregularity among the dunes, and go just near enough to see fresh ashes out back, or bones not yet dried by the sun. He did not walk into the dune and the man never came out. Neither was really looking for the other.
One day, a shiny black hearse came into the dusty town. The cowboys stopped brushing their horses out in the rail-fenced pens and the Indians peeped above the concrete-block barricade that divided their reservation from the town. The hearse was so wide that it crushed the black plastic bags of rubbish on either side of the road.
The hearse ploughed its way through the roads, the driver ignoring the people who came out of the houses to peer in curiously. Deaf George’s mother ran out with the others; he had seen the excitement from his window and was right behind her. There was no coffin in back, and it did not pick one up. Nobody had died for a few weeks, and the last person who had was safely in the small graveyard by the church, mourned by all.
It went down the main road and kept going to the very end; at the point where town stopped and desert started, it came to a halt. The driver stared straight ahead as people flocked to look inside at the polished wood and red velvet.
It stayed there for most of the afternoon. Only a few people were still gathered around it, Deaf George among them, when a skinny figure emerged from the dunes. His shadow grew longer and longer behind him as he slogged towards town, the sand reflecting a black daddy long-legs back at him. He was hatless, but the belt buckle shone like water in the sun. As he opened the door and entered the hearse, Deaf George looked straight at his desiccated face. It was The Man, but he did not look back at any of the puzzled eyes examining him.
When the hearse had turned around and went back through town on its way to the freeway, Deaf George looked at the license plate for the first time. El Paso.
Above the license plate, The Man’s pale blue eyes were fixed on Deaf George, becoming smaller until they were gone. The marbles had not swerved from him. Deaf George looked around and saw the entire town was now watching the hearse disappear and they had all noticed where the man had been looking.
Above them all, a sliver of moon came out into the sky, the same color as the man’s eyes, and rested above the pinnacle of the turtle-mountain. The crowd started to disperse. Soon, Deaf George was alone where town became desert. The solitary mountain kept watch over the expanse split by the world’s longest conveyor belt. He felt he would be right there, between the holy mess of the land and the fragility of the man-made, wherever he was. He would take both at face value.
Photograph © jbdodane