It will be our first job in weeks. We spent our last dime to get the trip together, and the two vans full of musical equipment wandering eastward from San Diego are our convoy to Yuma. Not too close but not too far, it seemed the logical way to break into the world of life on the road. More importantly, it was our only alternative to the long hours of rehearsals that had worn us down. We were broke, discouraged, and wary. Even a real live gig we greeted with a wait-and-see attitude.
There was some initial excitement, and it had served to carry us over the mountains and across miles of desert. But there was more desert than imagination. A lifetime growing up in Southern California deserts and a college-philosophy-course understanding of existentialism are no match for towns with names like Plaster City, looking like crash-landed castaways from another time in the middle of the shimmeringly flat land. Gradually, the forced laughter — borne of the need to assert an uncertain superiority — ground to a halt and then died altogether.
Stalled highway funding stopped the freeway at the Yuma city limits, but then, everything stalls in Yuma. Yuma is old people who come to wait it out in the sun. Yuma is migrant farm workers who follow the crops and seasons. Yuma is kids hurrying into adulthood and oblivion as fast as their glands and drugs can carry them. Yuma has the highest per capita VD rate in the United States.
Yuma is a city with no median, no average, no center, more cartography than reality. Tacit admission of this is found in the names of buildings and landmarks. There is the “territorial” this, and the “regional” that. There are “district” offices and “state” buildings. Nothing is “city.” “County” is about as close as anyone admits.
We’d sweated blood to get a booking here.
For us, Yuma is the Black Door. The Black Door is a bar that is one-third of a complex that also houses a country-western bar and a pool room. It is the only place in town to hear live music every night: Top Forty on one side (“Nothing original here, I want you guys to sound like a juke box”), country-western on the other side. Pool tables in between.
By the last night of our two week stand, we are ready to go home. Perhaps ready is not the word. Perhaps there is no word. In two weeks, all we have found out about Yuma is that the traffic lights seem to change at random and that the people come from nowhere to get to Yuma and then simply disappear. Nobody lives in Yuma.
Our lone contact in Yuma is a disc jockey who went to school with a couple of guys in the band. To save money, we have slept on his floor for two weeks. On our last night in Yuma he comes into the Black Door with the members of Dr. Hook’s Medicine Show, in town on a concert tour. He is escorting them around Yuma. The band leaves after a quick look around but he lingers until we finish our next-to-the-last set. He is full of three pieces of information.
First, the Medicine Show left for fear of a mob scene. Second, Ray, the lead singer, is sure that beings from outer space are coming to Earth to teach us the true way, and third, they are preparing for their long trip home to San Francisco tomorrow by partying tonight in a bar in Winterhaven.
Winterhaven is about five miles northwest of Yuma, across the state line and the Colorado River. In California the bars stay open until two, instead of one o’clock as they do in Arizona. This hour, added to the one hour difference between the two time zones, provides more than enough time for a dedicated drinker to find any number of hairy dogs to bite him.
Ennobled by the bestowal of information concerning the whereabouts of certified rock stars, we finish the last set with all the inspiration of toll-booth attendants, and then wait for bouncers to clear out the place so we can be paid. We’ve been at this too long, and the friction among us manifests itself in a debate about who is going to be stuck safe-guarding the money while the others go party. It takes fifteen minutes of acrimonious squabbling to reveal that no one except Dwayne and me has any desire to go anywhere but home. Uncomfortable with their first-name familiarity with boredom, the others need us to be bored, too, to give them confidence in the sagacity of their quiessence. Yuma affects some people like that. For Dwayne and myself, it is a matter of taking a chance while we still have the choice.
The negotiations completed, Dwayne and I start to leave. “I can’t believe nobody around here wants to have any fun,” I say, throwing out a mock challenge to the room at large — expecting nothing in return.
“You didn’t ask me.”
I turn to see who belongs to the quiet voice at my elbow. “Would you like to go to Winterhaven with us,” I ask the last remaining waitress.
Her name is Anne. She looks up at me through large glasses that cover most of a face framed by long, pinned-back brown hair. She is so short that even with her head tilted back I can’t tell what she looks like. Maybe it’s just the darkness.
Dwayne driving, we get half-way to Winterhaven before Anne decides that she really must go home for a minute first. Dwayne turns the van around and we battle the sluggish lights back through town.
“What are you doing in Yuma,” I ask by way of conversation. I am conducting an informal poll that so far indicates everybody in Yuma is trying to save enough money to leave.
“Just working. Turn left here.” Anne sighs and adjusts her perch on the make-shift seat atop the engine cover. The dash lights reflect off her glasses. She could be anybody.
“Yeah, but why Yuma?”
“Next street. My ex-husband came out here to buy some heroin to sell back home.” Dwayne darts a meaningful glance in my direction. Anne pauses as we lurch around the corner. “But his habit kept getting bigger and bigger until eventually he used everything he bought. I put all my stuff in storage back in Pennsylvania and brought my daughter out here to try to get him to come back, but he died of an overdose the day before I arrived.”
Dwayne clears his throat. “Which way?”
“Right. I took the job as a waitress because I used to do some of it back home. I had to spend all my money to pay for the funeral, and he owed some people. My parents sent some of my stuff out so I could live until I make enough money to move back.” She leaned forward in her seat. “Park behind that white car there. You guys are from San Diego, right? I might go to San Diego. I know some people there. I don’t know.”
Her place wasn’t too far from the Black Door, and is typical of Yuma: small, a dirt front yard, a beaten down chain-link fence, a nondescript color. Probably yellow, I think to myself in the light of the street lamp at the corner. The driveway and the pavement in front of the house bear the oily hieroglyphic chronicles of those past tenants who worked on their cars — and of those who should have.
Dwayne and I stay in the van while Anne runs in to change clothes and plans with the baby-sitter. Even with the meager late-night fare, some TV is better than none; Connie is happy to get the extra viewing time, and her kid gets along fine with Anne’s so everybody’s happy.
The only place in Winterhaven with anything happening is Red’s Place. I open the side door to let Anne out so she won’t have to climb over the seat. In the dim illumination, it strikes me that she could be somebody entirely different from the person who went into the house. If a switch had been made, I would never detect it.
In the balmy night air with the moon shining down, Red’s Place appears to be an upside-down life boat of immense proportions complete with dangling fish nets and port holes. Inside, there is a woman in the middle of the room who writhes in time to the music of the juke box and strips off the outer layers of her clothes. Dwayne immediately joins the coterie of men around the stage. It is his first experience in a bar as a customer because he is underage. Nobody checks ID this far from civilization, though. His expression suggests he is practicing psychokinesis on the dancer’s bra. The dancer sneers out at the circle of men who are foolish enough to have fallen under her spell; the men are convinced they are having a good time. She puts all her clothes back on at the end of every song with moves that suggest she is bored with their faithful attention, but of course by that time they aren’t looking.
I wander back to the pool table where Ray is holding court. He vaguely remembers me from the Black Door, and we exchange pleasantries until I ruin his game by casually mentioning that a UFO has just landed in Golden Gate Park.
I turn to check Dwayne and find that Anne has returned with two drinks. Embarrassed that she is still playing the waitress in her off time, I reach for my wallet and realize that neither Dwayne nor I got any of the gig money. I pick out a chair in the corner and invite Anne to sit on my lap. When she accepts, I am suffused with relief that she didn’t perceive my invitation as a line and knot it around my neck. The chair is missing one leg but I can just manage to balance on it with Anne on my knee. For the first time I look at Anne in decent light. I’ve been in this fantasy land for two weeks, though, and everything has taken on the appearance of photographs through gauze. She is light — I can barely detect her weight in my lap — her loose-fitting clothing the perfect disguise — but for what? The rest of the details are still blurred. I can’t imagine what she looks like without her glasses.
At two o’clock the bartender calls the drinks in. Anne and I are still talking small talk and marvelling at Dwayne’s attention span. The dancer turns Ray into a hero with the only kiss of the evening. We collect Dwayne, beaten but unbowed, and join the rush to the parking lot.
Anne’s living room contains two kids asleep on the floor with the baby-sitter asleep in a chair, all under the aegis of a TV tuned to a dead channel. Carol informs Anne that they all just felt like sleeping in the living room tonight, and leaves after making arrangements for picking up her daughter in the morning.
Anne walks Carol out to the car, giving me five minutes to convince Dwayne that he really should go home and get some sleep for the upcoming drive home. He takes the hint and exits so gracefully that I silently promise to buy him dinner when we get back.
Anne restlessly fixes bacon, eggs, and toast to dilute the whiskey downed earlier on an empty stomach. Afterwards, she stands in the doorway, looking at the sleeping children in the living room. Then she turns to regard me as I start running the water to do the dishes.
“Shhh. You’ll wake the girls.” She runs her hand along the painted wood of the door jamb and looks at the floor. “I want to show you something.” She melts into the darkness beyond the light thrown by the bulb above the sink. I start to stack the dishes for the morning, wondering what Anne is getting.
“Come here, silly,” she calls in a stage whisper. I follow her voice to the living room, but stop when I can see nothing in the darkness. Off to the right, a crack of light appears and Anne’s head pokes out of a doorway.
“Turn out the light when you come,” she says, and holds the door open, waiting. I grope my way through the furniture in the living room towards the light in the hall. Anne closes the door behind me, and I find myself in her bedroom. She motions me to sit on the bed, and I see she is holding a photo album. She opens it for me in her lap, her expression betraying no information.
The photos are good. Even though I am not a photographer, the composition, the lighting, everything seems just right. They seem to have been shot using the same gauze through which I have been seeing Anne, and would have made perfect travel pictures, except for one thing. They are all pictures of nude women.
They are women unlike any I have ever seen. They are almost child-like in the tenuousness of their bodies, but mature in their poise. The poses are not deliberately erotic, and the excitement I feel is that of falling towards an inevitable impact. After a few pages, with strained comments on the technical aspects of the photos, the women start to take on a sameness about them. The figures and faces blur, and I realize I could be looking at many facets of a single woman. I try desperately to concentrate on one of the profiles, with the long hair framing a perfect face. Instinct keeps me from asking who the model is, but Anne answers anyway. Taking off her glasses and letting down her hair, she becomes the woman in the album. She is the woman with the perfect skin stretched over the impossibly slender silly putty form; boneless and flawless, the elbows and knees sculpted without regard to the exigencies of physical laws. The details of the room become suddenly clear, so I look at the dresser and try to concentrate my focus on a known quantity.
Anne reclines on the bed. “Will you be staying here tonight?”
“It’s a long walk home.”
She sits up and nods, and without a word gets up to turn out the light. I watch her undress in the dim light that filters in through a window curtained with a lacy layer of dirt before I undress on the other side of the bed. As we meet in the middle, I find myself touching a woman I am not even sure I could describe. The blurred images in my mind’s eye make the perfect passport photos for the journey to this surreal encounter. Every point of contact between our bodies supplies new confusion to my already overloaded senses. I make love with her more in a state of shock than of lust. Her soundless labors fall into an easy synchronization with the lover I wish I was.
As we lie together in one of those uncomfortable positions that unaccustomed lovers find themselves, Anne talks to me of her daughter. We slip into a silence that is not broken when we again make love. I wonder if she is satisfied, but bite my tongue and keep my doubts to myself. No answer could allay the disappointment I feel. Anne lays her head on my shoulder and falls asleep in my embrace.
In the depletion of my body, in the confusion of my emotions, in the exhaustion of my spirit, the disorientation of having this woman — this succubus — by my side becomes my only comfort. I wonder whether I will find her still here in morning when I awaken. The loudness of the amplifiers has left a ringing in my ears that is now giving way to the jarring dissonance of an internal carillon gone berserk. Asleep, I dream the same dream over and over: falling asleep at the wheel of a speeding car. In my dream, I always awake at the last moment and regain control, but the adrenaline taste on the back of my tongue is very real.
I waken to sunlight three hours later, remembering the plan to meet at the Black Door at 9:00 to load the equipment for the trip back. Anne and I have rolled apart in the night. I look at her sleeping form as I leave, then dress silently. Finding a scrap of paper, I leave a note so lame that moments later I can’t remember what it says. I close with a feeble plea for her to join me in San Diego and put my address at the bottom. I kiss her lightly on the forehead and whisper good-bye as I let myself out of the house, tiptoing past the two girls still asleep in the living room.
The sun burns my useless eyes into embers as I turn east to walk the four blocks to meet the boys for our trip back across the border.