I live with a roommate, her three kids, and their two dogs. One pooch is a shy husky and the other is a squirrely black pit bull mix. Both of them are sweethearts. The kids are in their teens. Two dudes, one chick. Total count: Five human beings and two dogs. It’s a full-house. I’ve never lived with this many people. I maxed out at four people back when I lived at home. Being an extremely private person this has taken some getting used to. Bodies thumping down the hallway. Voices laughing and arguing. Doors opening and shutting.

I hole myself up in my room, open up a book, and dive in between the pages. Or I’ll flick on the TV and watch A&E, the History Channel, ESPN. Tune in the Travel Channel for a sarcastic dose of Anthony Bourdain; the Biography Channel to look into the mad life of Ted Kaczynski. Or I’ll attempt to write something, push out a poem; take on a snappy bout with some flash fiction. Take out my guitar and see if she wants to play with me.

I was watching The Darjeeling Limited when my phone rang. It was Kim my roommate.

“Don’t be mad at me,” she said, in a gentle voice.

“What is it?”

“I’m bringing home two puppies. They’re cute, Reno. Are you mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” I said, my mind seeing cluttered images and calculating the math. Five human beings and four dogs. Nine beasts total. “Hey, no problem.”

And it wasn’t a problem. The puppies weren’t mine. They were gifts for the two oldest kids. The dogs were their responsibility. They were the ones who had to deal with the ups and downs of puppy rearing. All I knew is those little fuckers wouldn’t be pissing and shitting in my room. This I knew. Around ten minutes later Kim pulled up. I heard the puppies running around the house. Immediately after, I heard the typical demands that comes with bringing puppies into your life. Through the walls I found out their names.

“Hey! No! Stop that! Charlie!”

“Ziggy! No! Come lay down, baby! Ziggy!”

Damn, I thought. Here we go.

Then I heard shuffling and sniffing at my door. It was the husky and the pit bull. Chance and Tazz. They wanted nothing to do with the puppies and wanted in. I opened the door and they took their respective spots with agitated looks on their faces.

“What happened, fellas? Yeah, I know. This is how it works, brothers. Out with the old and in with the new. Hear me out now. I’m giving you pearls.”

Chance is as soft as they come. All he wants is pets, gourmet meals, and to sleep on the biggest fluffiest bed in the house. He’s a husky, but could give a damn about snow, the outdoors, Siberia. He has no interest in such things. He likes watching TV and staring at the refrigerator. Tazz, on the other hand, is nuts. I love his energy. He huffs and puffs, chases squirrels and lizards, makes wild sounds when he yawns and is always looking to mix it up. There’s a goat that lives behind us and Tazz is all up in its business. When I let him out he bolts to the fence and gawks at it, his amber eyes ablaze with animal desire.

“You wanna poke that goat, huh?” I asked him when we were alone. “I see that. Well, don’t worry, bro, I ain’t saying shit. Your secrets are safe with me.”

He looked at me with yes and thank you all over his mug.

After a week into the puppies keeping their owners up all night and dropping turds and leaving puddles of piss in their rooms the honeymoon was all but over. Reality set in.

“Charlie! No! You can’t have that! Charlie!

“Oh, no, Ziggy! I just took you outside! Really?”

I told Kim that we might have to call the Dog Whisperer. Give that oddball (I actually think he’s pretty cool) a ring and have him do his magic. I told Kim our conversation would go something like this:

“Hi, my name is Cesar…”

“Yeah, I know who you are. See those two babies, Millan? Good. Fix them. Their owners can’t handle them. They bark, sniff, fart, play grabass. You’ve heard this story before. OK, so I’m gonna go to the bar and get my drink on if you know what I mean. So do your thing. There’s wine and frozen taquitos in the fridge. Help yourself. You have my cell number. Call me when they’re cured.”

Kim was rolling.

“You crazy ass.”

My father always brought animals home. Be it a neurotic cat, a blind dog, or a chicken that had no visible legs. One day he brought a chicken home. He named her Henny. I called her Linda No Legs. He found her on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. She was just sitting in the sand and watching the traffic pass by. My father saw her, threw a U-turn, and brought her home.

Linda No Legs was injured and couldn’t stand, her legs tucked into her belly. He would pick her up and place her wherever he saw fit. Sometimes she’d be in the living room relaxing in a milk crate. Other times when he felt she could use some fresh air he’d put her in the backyard. She was like a duffel bag. Our two dogs were in utter confusion. They didn’t know what the fuck to think looking at a chicken sitting in front of a bowl of feed and a bowl of water. They were mystified.

I don’t know how long the picking up and laying down of Linda No legs lasted, but one day we looked out in the backyard and there she was strolling around pecking at the dirt and stretching out her wings. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was a miracle! The dogs were in a complete state of shock. Not only was Linda No Legs walking, but her newfound mobility cranked up her confidence and she immediately took charge of the backyard. It was hers and she let it be known. She scratched the ground with gumption, walked in and out of the dogs’ house, jumped on top of it, flexed her wings, sprinted across the yard like Carl Lewis, and corralled the dogs to the corner of the yard. It was crazy.

“Jesus,” I told my mom. “I’ve seen it all now.”

My father also brought home a blind poodle which cottoned to my mom, relieving him of the responsibilities of dealing with a dog with a major handicap.

He did pawn off two animals on me because over time he found them to be his nemeses. One was a chihuahua named Buster. I called him Boohea. He was a good-looking dog with a barrel chest and big brown eyes. But Boohea had a problem: he was a sex addict and was always sucking himself off or fucking our labrador. He’d blow himself into a frenzy and his crayon would scream out of his body throbbing under the hot desert sun. It was foul. It disgusted the whole household. And when he wasn’t in the mood to give himself a hummer he’d nip at Jet’s hind legs until he would lay down. Boohea would then mount one of his hind legs and do his thing. This also disgusted the whole household. No matter how many times we yelled and pleaded with Boohea to stop sucking his dick or to quit banging Jet he wouldn’t.

He needed therapy.

He was sick.

And he was mine.

This went on for years.

Then there was a neurotic cat named Maxine. I called her Muga. Or Muga the Sooka. My father brought Muga home for my sister who was a little girl at the time. He got her from his sister who was a crazy pill-popping, beer drinking bitch that had three equally jacked up kids. They all lived under the same roof. Muga was screwed from day one. Anybody or anything living in the droopy frazzled shadow of my aunt was doomed to a life of substance abuse, paranoia, and full-blown depression. I can’t say Muga swallowed benzos or reds or licked booze on the quiet, but she had a thing for rubber dishwashing gloves. After the first taste she was hooked and was always pawing at the cupboards for another fix.

“Why does she eat my gloves?” my mom inquired, examining some gloves that had the fingers ripped off of them.

“She was born into a dysfunctional home, mom, and there’s not a damn thing we can do,” I said reflectively. “We just have to ride it out.”

But Muga soon became my cat when she started shitting in the living room. She was particularly fond of dropping a deuce behind my father’s beloved La-Z-Boy chair. I don’t know what got into her. We always kept her crapper clean. We never neglected her. She all of a sudden went through these spurts when laying down a few dumps around the house was the thing to do. It was like a hobby of sorts. At the time my father was working graveyard and I’d hear him get up (he always woke up pissed off), thud around the house sniffing deeply, trying to locate Muga’s latest steamer. He always announced his discoveries and ended his rants by calling out my name so I could get Muga before he ended her life right then and there.

“Shit! Son of a bitch! Fuckin’, Muga! Shitass cat! Reno! Reno! Come and get your damn cat before I kill her!”

She, too, needed therapy.

She, too, was sick.

And like Boohea she was also mine.

This also went on for years.

I hope that neither Charlie nor Ziggy have a thing for their own peckers or rubber dishwashing gloves. Or acquire any hang-up for that matter. I wish for them to grow up as normal as possible. There’s a touch of craziness rattling through this house and I hope they look beyond this and move into the future with ease. I also hope that none of them gets a wild hair up their ass and think they can nip at Tazz and mount one of his legs. He already told me that he won’t play that shit.

I got onto the hood of our car and stared up at the milky stars. Eric’s yellow school bus was parked right behind us. Desert shrubs looked eerie in the moonlight. Olaf grabbed a blanket and walked off into the desert while I found myself dreaming about the past and the walking stick in the trunk and the mysterious man we had stumbled upon in the middle of the Ohio woods many days before.

Then I listened for snakes. I remembered what my parents had told me about the time they broke down in their old Volkswagen Beetle in the desert in the 1960s. My mother saw dozens of rattlesnakes when she took my sister for a pee by some shrubs. The way I remember my pop telling the story, there were snakes in the road, snakes winding past shrubs, snakes tangled, slithering, everywhere. It was like one of those classic old desert-set 1950s horror movies.

That story had given me an irrational fear of the desert. I figured the snakes would come and get me even if I were locked in a car. Now I lay back on the warm hood, smiling nervously, because I knew I couldn’t do what Olaf was doing. He wasn’t afraid. He’d come from Norway on an adventure to drive his son, Eric, from South Dakota to Arizona in a big yellow school bus. Eric was an air ambulance pilot. He flew medicine onto Indian reservations.

It had been a long trip across some of America: the green Midwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois; and into the South—Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas; and then into the Southwest—New Mexico and Arizona. We were dirty and alive. I looked forward to Eric’s shower. We had slept in the car for seven days now, save the one night in Eric’s bus. And we had grown oddly used to it. We had become ragged Americans, odd travelers staring into the burnt open face of our land. It was still a sonnenreise. I thought, in zigzag fashion, about the things we had seen and about all the places full of bushy trees and green grass and tall red brick buildings, and the many cluttered downtowns. How the St. Louis Arch had seemed stuck to the earth like a giant magnet near the Mississippi River’s edge. I thought about Jordan running up to the steely arch, hugging it and wanting to take the elevator to the top; and about wandering along the Missouri streets and staring at a decrepit fountain spewing blue-dyed water; about driving our dirty car through Indianapolis, where we had felt small and our car had looked tiny against the monstrous skyscrapers, the churches and malls; and then tearing through the countrysides and Oklahoma—passing countless cicada-filled trees, buzzing in the darkness. How our headlights had failed at a gas station and three UPS workers fumbled with wires under the hood before finding the right ones to twist together. And then on to Oklahoma City and thinking about all the people madly connected to the bombing; and then back to Missouri and the bathroom off the freeway with a sign inside reading “No Niggers Allowed” in handwriting that matched a sign by the front counter where a quiet white man stood and took our money; and near Amarillo where we spent the night parked at a motel and my girlfriend and I did it because we felt lonely and tired and had nothing else to do while Jordan slept; and in Texas where we ate at a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, mountains of pancakes with syrup, and stared out the windows into the green countryside, rain clouds rumbling; and in New Mexico and all that happened in Santa Rosa: the Blue Hole oasis, Olaf cooking hot dogs at Park Lake, our car dying as the rain fell against the scorched earth.

Back in the desert, I was shaken awake. Eric’s face hung above mine looking bluer than ever. It’s the starlight, I thought. His normally strong face looked frail in the faint glow and his eyes were cold like two black holes in the heavens. I got up. Already Eric had moved away and disappeared into his bus. And Olaf, back from the desert and amazingly alive, was waiting for me to rejoin the caravan.

I climbed into the car, where my girlfriend lay, asleep. I started the motor, and it shook her awake. “You okay?” she asked, her voice cracking. I said yes and pulled out to follow the demon red lights of the bus.

After a while, the fatigue set in and the white lines blurred together and didn’t seem so broken, but were instead almost snake-like, as if an albino serpent had uncoiled itself across the vast desert expanse. Its head was just around the next turn. Then those Ohio woods again rushed back into my mind. I saw myself with Jordan and my girlfriend as we went searching for Buttermilk Falls. I saw us rounding a corner and finding the man there. He was leaning on a log, carving a head into a staff. He looked like a killer, the way he sat there silently with his knife. He handed over the carved stick and mumbled a few words. Jordan held onto it like a shaman child. His face was filled with what appeared to be instant wisdom.


(Jordan Belardes at left holds the old man walking stick. Circa 1996)

Back in the desert again. Five in the morning. The road. The lines. The mountains just outside of Flagstaff. Huge green meadows, some rung with high wooden fences. Pine trees and valley peaks rising on either side, cradling our entry.

Eric was at the wheel of the bus, exhausted. He swerved out onto the shoulder as the first dim haze of day broke along the horizon. Dirt flew up in a cloud as he wheeled back onto the highway and nearly sideswiped a pick-up truck in passing. I felt lucky to be behind him. I hit the brakes and flashed my lights, hoping Eric would see me. Finally, after many minutes of tired swerving, he managed to steady himself, bringing the bus back between the broken serpent lines and finding an equilibrium.

“Oh good,” my girlfriend said, “he’s awake now.”

As awake as the sun that was lifting its head above the bright Arizona morning.

Nearly one thousand miles from home, it was just us and the two Norwegians in their blue pick-up. We took a road out of Santa Rosa that headed away from the red-banded hills near town and into the Chihuahua Desert. I felt a sense of wonder and satisfaction as the truck flew down the highway on what seemed an adventure never before undertaken—deeper into the New Mexican desert than anyone could ever venture. Not even Coronado’s tears could penetrate this place. Far away we drove to a moonscape, a desertscape, under a red glow of sun and blue wisp of desert day.

Eric had been to the airstrip before. He was hiding memories. Tragic and sad-looking, he sat behind the wheel with his sandy hair flipping happily in the wind. But then he was suddenly joyous as he yelled through the back window at us in the cab: “Jordan?!”

“What?”

“Do you love airplanes?”

“Yeah.”

“Wanna go to an airport?”

“Yeah!” Jordan looked at me, his six-year-old eyes as wide as the desert. “Dad, wanna go to an airport?”

“Sure, Jordy. Sounds fun. Let’s do it.”

Eric’s father, Olaf smiled. He stuck his arms straight out and puckered his lips. Strings of hair on his balding head flopped as Autumn, Jordan and I laughed each time he tilted side to side, leaned out the window and waved his arms. “Zoooom!” he yelled.

Autumn and I sat close to each other. We’d gone days without showering, our car dead in the desert in a town miles away. She put her dirty hand on mine and I smiled as her long brown hair flipped in the wind.

Soon we pulled onto a dirt road which took us to the tiny Santa Rosa airport. From there we could see a few buildings—converted mobile homes at best, little tin shacks. We parked and Jordan ran onto the asphalt airstrip. He didn’t seem to look for any planes. He waved his arms and stared at the ground. Then he went hopping and looked into the air like he was about to take off into the clear sky. He ran at full speed—which for him was scooting at best.

I jumped out of the truck too and ran after him, shouting, “Here I come! We’re gonna dive bomb this place!”

“Let’s take off and land, dad,” he yelled. And we did. We both went buzzing like airplanes. We ran side-by-side and waved at Autumn. She walked with Eric along the side of the sad cracked strip. They both looked magical there—her towering over him the way she did me. The sun hit their golden bodies with beautiful beams of light.