“Artifacts,” Part IV

Courtesy of USDA

Courtesy of USDA

Part IV

Police cars from Farmington, New Mexico were patrolling San Luis when I drove into town; otherwise, the place didn’t look much different. I supposed the San Luis cops that weren’t shot up or dead were chasing into the desert, along with an army of 500 or more lawmen from every agency that could get a team into the area. The hotel parking lots were filled with cop cars and SUVs, some marked, some with government tags, some plain. Every so often a military helicopter would buzz over town heading for Utah. The spot where the first cop had been killed was decorated with police tape and flowers and pictures and teddy bears, and commemorations printed on poster board and cardboard boxes. I recognized Dillion in one of the pictures, standing beside his father and holding up a string of brown trout they’d caught somewhere. Dillion looked to be about ten, which was the age I would have known him. Cars slowed when they passed, and as I knelt in the dust of the roadside, I hoped no one would recognize me for Jacob’s brother. I had never known many people from town, and it had been seven years since I left for college at CU. I hadn’t gotten back to San Luis much.

I left the crime scene and drove around, alternately overwhelmed with a nostalgia for what I had once desperately wanted, a hometown with friends and a sense of belonging, and a realization that what I had so desperately wanted was really a dusty town caught between the desert and the mountains, trying to balance ranching and farming with the tourists looking for the Wild West or flocking up Mesa Verde and across Monument Valley, where they rarely even got out of their cars. I had never belonged here. At best I was a farm kid that wandered into town to gawk at all the lights, and at worst, I was one of the crazies that lived in bunkers in the mountains and only came into town to trade for beans, flour, and coffee. Either way I had been laughed at, whenever I did get a chance to come to town.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Jacob. The way he’d gotten pulled over, driving a truck he’d stolen the day before, just didn’t make sense from somebody who didn’t want to attract the attention of the cops. Especially to be driving around with automatic weapons and in full camouflage. What was he thinking? What were my parents thinking, for that matter? What in the hell had happened to them to make them such wounded, dangerous people? And why had they tried to do the same thing to me?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the nine millimeter I’d stashed under the seat, not knowing what else to do with it.

After a while I gave up and drove where I had planned to go all along, Penny’s place. She lived in a run-down trailer park outside of town, a dozen or so worn out house trailers lining a dirt road, the trailers rusted, with missing siding and patched together with blue tarps and tar paper held down by old tires. The trailer lots were loosely defined by falling down barbed wire fences, cactus hedges, and stacked stone walls. The dirt yards were littered with blocked cars, broken bicycles and toys, shabby lawn furniture, clothes on lines flapping in the breeze, decaying cast off furniture, and rusted washing machines and refrigerators. Here and there a little garden plot or some flowers added a splash of color, but not much. I remembered Penny’s trailer, but there was also a hand printed cardboard sign tacked to the mailbox that said “I don’t know anything so go away!” I parked the jeep by the mailbox and got out.

Jacob’s touch was evident in the free-standing ramada built out of mortared rock pillars and topped with pine saplings that shaded the front door and made a well-defined play area littered with plastic toys. He had also walled in a good part of the yard with a freestanding rock fence. If he had learned nothing else from scrambling around all those cliff dwellings, he had learned how to build with rock. Penny’s trailer lacked the tarp and tarpaper covers of the others around it, so apparently Jacob had kept the roof from leaking. I went up to the door and knocked. From inside came the sound of scurrying feet, young voices yelling, and an explosion of barking. The trailer shook. After a couple of minutes I saw a motion at the curtain beside the door. I lifted one hand in a wave. Finally the door opened a crack and I saw part of a face looking at me. The door shook and the muzzle and paw of a large dog tried to pry its way through the door.

“Can’t you read? Go away.”

“I’m Joshua Bohannan.”

The door opened a little wider and the dog was able to wedge its head through. It was a big German Shepherd and its lips were pulled back over its teeth in a snarling whine. The woman behind the door studied me, then tried to pull the dog back. I thought about going back to the jeep for the pistol. After a lot of shuffling and scratching the noise died down, though the trailer still shook and the dog kept barking from somewhere deeper inside the trailer. The door opened and Penny stood looking at me.

“You’re Josh?”

“Yeah. It’s been a few years.” I hadn’t seen her more than once or twice since I left for college, and that was only in slow drives down her road on my rare trips home, but I remembered her well from when I was sixteen, the time Jacob took me on a backpacking trip with her into the Mancos River Canyon south of San Luis. Then she had been twenty-two or twenty-three years old, with long dark hair and playful laughter. She wore long flowing skirts even when backpacking, leather sandals, tight-fitting tank tops under a flannel shirt. No bra. She was casual about dress on that trip, and when the days warmed she didn’t mind shucking her clothes in front of me for a swim in the river, teasing me to join her. I remembered her framed against the white bark and golden leaves of aspens in the fall, and she had set a near-impossible bar for all other women when I left for college.

“I thought you was the cops.” She stepped out of the door and closed it behind her. “I got a dog in there will kill you if it gets the chance.” She walked over to the edge of the ramada and looked up and down the road.

She had grown skinnier and coarser over the years. She still favored the tank top and flannel shirt, but her jeans were dirty and faded and the knees were worn out. Her hair was thinner and her bangs fell into her eyes. Her face bore the lines of hard living under the sun and wind and maybe some heroin or meth. Something. It probably didn’t help that she was raising small children mostly alone. She caught me staring at her and I looked away.

“Little Josh, all grown up.”

“It happens.”

“The cops haven’t given me a minute’s peace since this all started,” she said. She took out a pack of cigarettes and her hand shook out two matches before she got it lit. She offered me the pack but I shook my head. I remembered her teaching me how to smoke a joint, one time, but I didn’t like it.

“It’s nice to get out of the house,” she said. She smoked for a minute, then gasped and ran at me, her eyes wide. “Is he dead? Did you come to tell me he’s dead?”

“I don’t know anything” I said, holding out my hands. “There’s been nothing on the news.”

“What are you doing here then?”

“I don’t know.” I wondered how much money I had. Not much. “I thought you might need some help.” I pulled out my wallet.
She took this in, her hand still shaking as she worked her cigarette. She scanned the lengths of the trailer park again and shaded her eyes and looked up at the sky.

“They’re trying to drag me into this,” she said. “Trying to make me out an accomplice. I told them I just slept with him. That don’t mean he told me anything. He never told me about his business.” This last sounded more hurt than she probably wanted to let on.

“I hear that,” I said.

“I just wish I knew something. I wish I knew he was okay.”

“He can take care of himself.”

She sighed and relaxed a little. “Maybe I just needed to hear somebody say that,” she said, and looked at me. She ground out the cigarette on a post and worked another out of the pack.

“You’re all grown up, now. I heard you was like a professor, but you don’t look like one.” Her eyes sparked some of the playfulness I’d gotten used to whenever she tried to tease me into swimming with her.

“I’m a graduate student. I just teach some basic history classes. One called Cultures of the American West.”

“Well, you still look like a desert rat. Just like Jacob.” She gave me a long look, like she was deciding on a dessert. “They don’t make you wear a tie or cut your hair?”

“No.”

“Good,” she nodded.

“You still look good.”

“You’re full of it,” She laughed. “You lie just as good as him.” She tugged at the hem of her flannel shirt, though, and ran a hand through her hair. “Thanks, though.”

“I don’t know why I’m here,” I said. “I just am.”

Penny leaned against the stone pillar and stared toward the west. “I thought you might still be in love with me.”

I smiled. “I think about the Mancos a lot.”

I couldn’t tell if she heard me. She got another cigarette lit and took a long drag. I guess she noticed me looking, because she said, “I can’t smoke inside with the boys.”

I nodded.

“I don’t care what anybody says about Jacob. He’s a good man. He’d come by a couple times a month, always had something for the boys. An eagle feather. Pretty rocks and animal skulls. He give them that dog. Gentle as a lamb with them two. He made them some bows and arrows but I had to take them away cause they was shooting each other. He’d bring in some game. If he’d sold a nice pot he might give me money. We’d slip into the back room if I could get him away from the kids. They love him to death, though, so it was hard to get ‘em apart when he did come by.”

Her face changed while she talked, and she lost some of the wear and tear. I could see the pretty in her again. It came out because she was still in love with him. I had fallen in love with her on the Mancos and all the other times Jacob would flash her at me, like a trophy set of antlers he kept on his wall, or a perfect pot that he planned to sell, knowing it would piss me off because it would sit on some millionaire’s mantle somewhere, some Eastern jackass who didn’t know anything about living in the desert or freezing through a long winter or watching his children starve during a drought that withered the beans and corn and drove the game away, someone who had never felt want or fear or the wonder of shaping clay into something beautiful and essential with your bare hands. I had lain awake so many times, in a dorm room or a tent or my bedroom at the house, imagining a life with Penny. As a kid it was always a fantasy, some end-of- the-world scenario inspired by my father’s paranoia, where society collapsed and just Penny and me had been forced to escape into the mountains and live together. We lived just like Jeremiah Johnson and his Flathead bride, hunting and laughing together, trapping game and making love. Later, even though I was still a virgin and most of what I knew about sex came from sneaking out to the drive-in theatre in town, I couldn’t get over her. I’d tell my parents I was going camping, and then, because I was embarrassed to be seen sitting in a jeep by myself at the drive-in, I’d park and climb some rocks behind the projection hut and hope for something with some skin. Mostly it was old seventies westerns or car chase movies, but whenever there was a girl on screen, I’d imagine being with Penny. I imagined the feel of her breast in one hand and the way she would move slowly over me, her hair falling around her face and brushing my face. I imagined the taste of her lips. I imagined our hands grasped together, fingers interlaced. When I looked at her face as she talked about Jacob, it made me mad that he could have treated her like he did.

“I’m glad he got on with your kids,” I said, just to have something to say. I was beginning to regret looking Penny up. It would have been better to remember her the way I remembered her; not like this.

“He was teaching them to shoot. Just a twenty-two, but they loved to make tin cans fly.”

“Sounds like a good memory for them.”

Her face tightened up. “There’ll be more memories,” she said, an edge to her voice. “Once all this blows over, he’ll send for me. I don’t care how many cops they got looking for him. Nobody knows that country like him. I’ll bet these San Luis cops and Washington FBI are scared crapless out in that country. Think a mountain lion or a snake’s going to bite them.”

“He’ll make it alright,” I said.

She stepped close and reached out and brushed my shirt sleeve with her fingers, still holding the cigarette. “Hey,” she said, “Everbody and their mother’s been out here grilling me. I been down to the police station five times.”

“That’s alright.”

“Did he ever let you shoot that fifty caliber of his. That thing beat hell out of me, but it was better than sex.” She winked, but she smelled like cigarettes and dust. “Well, almost better.”

“He had a fifty caliber?”

“He said he wanted to be able to take down a helicopter.”

“A helicopter?”

“They started the war,” Penny said. “Jacob didn’t bring any of this on himself.”

She wanted it to be true, or was afraid for it not to be true. She said it like a kid will say he still believes in Santa Claus, just to be safe, even though he knows the truth.

I stepped back a little, looked at my jeep. I my wallet and took out all the money I had. Not much. “I guess I’d better let you get back to the kids.”

She dropped the cigarette and took the money with one hand and grabbed my hand with the other. “Hey. You remember that time on the Mancos. You and me would go skinny dipping while Jacob went out on one of his patrols?”

“Yeah,” I said, wishing it had been true. “That was a long time ago.”

“The boys are going down for a nap in a little while. You should stay for a while. I’ve got some crank. I can get some pot, now,” she said, looking at the money.

“Maybe some other time,” I said, and I walked back to my jeep. I cranked up and gave her a little wave, but she just looked at me with one hand shading her eyes. No expression.

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