Beneath the water, beneath time, beneath yesterday, is the salt.
The paper says that another body has washed up on the north shore of the Salton Sea, its age the provenance of anthropologists. “Washed up” is a misnomer, of course, because nothing is flowing out of the Salton Sea, this winter of interminable heat: it’s January 10th and the temperature hovers near one hundred degrees. The Salton Sea is receding back into memory, revealing with each inch another year, another foundation, another hand that pulls from the sand and grasps at the dead air. Maybe the bodies are from the old Indian cemetery first swallowed by the sea in 1971, or perhaps they are from Tom Sanderson’s family plot, or maybe it is my sweet Katherine, delivered back to me in rusted bone.
I fold the newspaper and set it down on my lap. Through the living room window I see Kim, my wife of seven months, pruning her roses. They are supposed to be dormant by now, she told me yesterday, and that they are alive and flowering is nothing short of a miracle. Much is miraculous to Kim: we met at the cancer treatment center in Palm Springs a little over a year ago, both of us bald and withered, our lives clinging to a chemical cocktail.
“How long did they give you?” she asked.
“Nothing specific,” I said. The truth was that my doctor told me that I had a year, possibly less, but that at my age – I was 72 then – the script was likely to be without too many twists: I’d either live or I wouldn’t. And after spending every afternoon for three months hooked to an IV, I wasn’t sure if that was completely accurate. What kind of life was this that predicated itself on waiting?
“I’m already supposed to be dead,” she said. “How do you like that?”
“You should buy a lottery ticket,” I said.
She rummaged in her purse and pulled out a handful of stubs and handed them to me. “Pick out one you like and if you win, we’ll split it.”
We live together now behind a gate in Indian Wells and our backyard abuts a golf course that my knees won’t allow me to play on and that my checkbook can’t afford. My yearly pension from the Sheriff’s Department more suited for the guard gate than the country club. But Kim comes from money, or at least her ex-husband did, and so here we are living out the bonus years together. At least Kim’s hair has grown back.
I pick the newspaper back up and try not to read the stories on the front page, the colored bar-graph that details the Salton Sea’s water levels from 1906 until present day, the old photos of speed boat races, the black bag that holds a human form, the telephone poles jutting out of the placid water, the quotes from environmentalists decrying the ecological disaster of California’s fetid inland sea. I try to read page A-3, where the other big local news stories of the day are housed safely out of sight from passing tourists: A broken water pipe has closed the Ralphs in Palm Springs. A dead body found in Joshua Tree identified as a missing hiker from Kansas. Free flu shots for seniors at Eisenhower Medical Center.
“Morris,” Kim says. “Are you feeling all right?”
I see that Kim is standing only a few inches from me, worry etched on her face like sediment. “I’m fine,” I say. “When did you come in?”
“I’ve been standing here talking to you and you haven’t even looked up from the paper,” she says.
“I didn’t hear you,” I say.
“I know that,” she says. “You were talking to yourself. It would be impossible for you to hear me over the din of your own conversation.” Kim smiles, but I can see that she’s worried.
“I’m an old man,” I say.
She leans down then, takes my face in her hands, and runs her thumbs along my eyes. “You’re just a boy,” Kim says and I realize she’s wiping tears from my face. “Why don’t you ever talk to me about your first wife? It wouldn’t bother me, Morris. It would make me feel closer to you.”
“That was another life,” I say.
“Apparently not,” she says.
“She’s been gone a long time,” I say, “but sometimes it just creeps back on me and it’s like she’s still alive and in the other room, but I can’t seem to figure out where that room is. And then I look up and my new wife is wiping tears from my face.”
“I’m not your new wife,” Kim says, standing back up. “I’m your last wife.”
“You know what I mean,” I say.
“Of course I do,” Kim says.
The fact of the matter, I think after Kim has walked back outside, is that with each passing day I find my mind has begun to recede like the Sea, and each morning I wake up feeling like I’m younger, like time is flowing backwards, that eventually I’ll open my eyes and it will be 1962 again and life will feel filled with possibility. What is obvious to me, and what my neurologist confirmed a few weeks ago, but which I haven’t bothered to share with Kim, is that my brain is shedding space, that soon all that will be left is the past, my consciousness doing its best imitation of liquefaction.
I go into the bedroom and change into a pair of khaki pants, a buttoned-down shirt and a ball cap emblazoned with the logo of our country club. In the closet, I take down the shoe box where I keep my gun and ankle holster and for a long time I just look at both of them, wondering what the hell I’m thinking about, what the hell I hope to prove after almost 45 years, what exactly I think I’ll find out there by the shore of that rotting sea but ghosts and sand.
Dead is still dead.
I find Kim in the front yard. She’s chatting with our next door neighbors, Sue and Leon. Last week, Leon wandered out of his house in the night and stood on the 15th fairway shouting obscenities. By the time I was able to coax him into my golf cart he’d stripped off all of his clothes and was masturbating furiously, sadly to no avail. That’s the tragedy of getting old and losing your mind – that switch flips and everything that’s been sitting limply beside you starts perking up again, but you can’t figure out exactly how to work it. Today, he’s smiling and happy and seems to have a general idea about his whereabouts, but seems blissfully unaware of who he is, or who any of us are.
“I can’t thank you enough for the other night,” Sue says when I walk up.
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“He was happy to do it,” Kim says. “Any time you need help, really, we’re just right here.”
“His medication…Well, you know how it is. You have to get it regulated. I wish you’d known him before all of this,” Sue says, waving her hands dismissively, and then, just like that, she’s sobbing. “Oh, it’s silly. We get old, don’t we, Kim? We just get old and next thing you know, you’re gone.”
Leon used to run some Fortune 500 company that made light fixtures for casinos. They called him The King Of Lights, or at least that’s what he told me once in one of his more lucid moments. But today he’s just a dim bulb and I can’t help but think of how soon I’ll be sitting right there next to him at the loony bin, drooling on myself and letting some orderly wipe my ass.
“I have to run out,” I say to Kim once Leon and Sue have made their way back to their condo.
“I could clean up and come with you,” she says. “It would just take a moment.”
“Don’t bother,” I say. “I’m just gonna drive on out to the Salton Sea. See what’s going on down there. Talk a little cop shop.”
“Morris,” she says, “if I go inside and look in the closet, will I find your gun there?”
“I’m afraid not,” I say.
“You’re a fool to be running around with that thing. Do you hear me?”
We stand there staring at each other for a solid minute until Kim shakes her head once, turns heel, and walks inside. She doesn’t bother to slam the front door, which makes it worse.
In the spring of 1962, I took a job working for Claxson Oil and moved, along with my young wife Katherine, to the Salton Sea. Claxson had hired me to be the defacto police for the 500 people they’d shipped into the area in their attempt to find oil beneath the Sea, a venture that would prove fruitless and tragic. At the time, though, Claxson was simply concerned about keeping order: they’d already built an Army style barracks and were busy constructing seafront hacienda homes for the executives who’d oversee the dig and, presumably, the boomtown that would come once the oil came spouting out of the ground. My job was to provide a little bit of law, both with the working men (and families) and the Mexicans and Indians who populated the area. There’d already been three stabbing deaths in the past year – two roughnecks and one Mexican – and it didn’t seem to be getting better.
I was only 28 years old then and had spent the previous three years trying to figure out how to get Korea out of my head. I served two years in Korea during the war and another five trying to conjure a better future for myself by reenlisting until it seemed pointless, before finally returning to Granite City, Washington, where I’d grown up. My father was the sheriff there – as I would later be – so he hired me on to be his deputy. It was reasonable work until a young woman named Gretchen Claxson went missing from the small fishing resort on Granite Lake. I found her body, and the man who’d done unspeakable things to it, a few sleepless weeks later. I’d like to say that I was honest and fair with the killer, a man named Milton Stairs that I’d gone to elementary school with, but the truth is that I nearly killed him: I broke both of his arms and beat him so badly that he ended up losing the ability to speak. I was rewarded with a job offer from Gretchen’s grieving oil baron father and a salary well beyond my comprehension.
A year and a half later, Katherine would be dead from ovarian cancer and I’d be back in Granite City.
But today I’m standing on the other side of a stretch of yellow caution tape, though this isn’t a crime scene, watching as a rental security officer stands guard over a patch of dirt while two young women and a man wearing one of those safari vests brush rocks and debris away from a depression in the earth. The Salton Sea laps at the edge of the sand, the stench rising from it as thick as mustard gas. The two women and the man are all wearing masks, but the security guard just keeps a handkerchief to his face while in the other hand he clutches a clipboard. It’s not the body that smells – it’s the sea, rotting with dead fish, sewage runoff and the aroma of red tide algae.
Forty years ago, this was roughly where Bonnie Livingston had her little bar and café. At night during the week, the working men would sit at the bar drinking the stink out of their skin, but on the weekends the LA people would drive in with their boats and water skiis and, eventually, speedboats, and would come into Bonnie’s looking for authenticity. More often than not, they’d leave without a few teeth and, on occasion, without their girlfriends, wives or daughters. They thought the Salt would be like an inland Riviera. They thought we’d find oil and prosperity and that a city would rise from the fetid desert floor.
Thirty eight years ago, Bonnie’s bar slipped into the sea. Thirty-five years ago, Bonnie’s home followed suit. Shortly thereafter Bonnie followed her bar and house, simply walking into the water with a bottle of wine in her hand, drinking big gulps all along the way. They never did find her body, but that was okay: her entire family watched her walk into the sea, bricks tied around her ankles. It wasn’t a suicide, her son wrote to tell me, because she’d been dead for at least three years, but more a celebration of the Salt. All things return to it.
At some point, however, memory becomes insufficient in the face of commerce and space. These bodies that keep pulling themselves from the sea are a hindrance to something larger and more important than an old man’s past: Real estate. The Chuyalla Indians intend to put a 26 floor hotel and casino here and then, in five years, one hundred condos. They intend to fund a project that will eradicate the dead – both the people and the lingering fumes of a sea that was never meant to be – and once again tempt the folly of beachside living in the middle of the desert.
I’ll be dead by then myself. Or at least without the ability to know the difference.
The security guard finally notices me and ambles over, his gait slow and deliberate, as if traversing the twenty feet from the body to the tape was the most difficult task of his life. “Can I help you?” he asks, not bothering to remove the handkerchief from his face. I’d guess that he’s just a shade under sixty himself, too old for real police work, which probably makes this the perfect job for him.
“Just came down to see the excitement,” I say. I open my wallet and show him my retired Sheriff’s card. He looks at it once, nods, and then from out of his back pocket he fishes out his own wallet and shows me his retirement card from the Yuma, Arizona PD. His name is Ted Farmer, he tells me and then explains, as former cops are apt to do, the exact path he took from being a real cop to a rental cop. When he runs out of story, he turns his attention back to the body in the sand.
“Yep,” he says, motioning his head in the direction of the grave. “Lotta fireworks. My opinion? They should just leave the bodies where they are. No sake digging them up just to move them somewhere else.” One of the female anthropologists carries a hand and wrist over to a white plastic sheet and sets them down across from another hand and wrist. “That first hand? Still had rings on it. That sorta things messes with your head. It’s dumb, I know. Lady’s probably been dead 50, 100 years, more fertilizer than person. But still.”
About 200 yards from the shore a small aluminum boat with a screaming outboard motor trolls back and forth. I can just make out the outline of a shirtless man sitting at one end, a little boy at the other, a long fishing pole bent between them. When she was at her sickest, when it was apparent that the only salve for her illness was the belief that tomorrow could only be better, when we’d begun to live in increments, separating the positives into single grains of sand, Katherine was certain that when she was well (never if) that we’d have a houseboat on this inland sea, that our lives would be lived rarely touching land, that each morning we’d pick up anchor and find another destination, another view of the sun-charred Chocolate Mountains.
When she passed, I gave her that.
I look now at the bones being sluiced from the ground and know, of course, that it’s not Katherine. Oh, but she is here, holding my hand as we walk from Bonnie’s and dip our toes into the water, the air alive with laughter behind us, music wafting through the thick summer air, Chuck Berry singing “Johnny B. Good” into eternity. Her hair is pulled back from her face and she’s wearing a v-neck white t-shirt, her tanned skin darkening the fabric just slightly, a scent of vanilla lifting from her skin. It’s 1962. It’s 1963. It’s today or it’s yesterday or it’s tomorrow.
“You okay, pal?” Farmer says. I look down and see that he’s got a hand on my chest, steadying me. “Drifting a bit to stern there.”
“Not used to the heat anymore,” I say, though the truth is that I feel fine. Though my perception is dipping sideways, it does not bother me. Seeing the past like a ghost is a welcome part of my new condition and if it brings with it a few disorienting side-effects, I suppose I’m willing to make the trade. Farmer fetches me an unused bucket from aside the dig, turns it over, and directs me to sit. After the horizon has straightened out, I say, “I used to be the law out here, if you can believe that.”
“When was that?”
“About a million years ago,” I say. “Or it could have been fifteen minutes ago.”
Farmer winces noticeably, like he knows what I mean. We watch the anthropologists going about their work in silence. It becomes clear after a while that the two young women are actually students – graduate students, most likely – and that the man in the funny vest is the professor. Every few minutes he gathers their attention and explains something pertaining to what they’ve found. At one point, he goes back to the white plastic sheet and lifts up a leg they’ve pried from the earth and makes sure his students have made note of an abnormality in the femur; a dent of some kind.
“You know what I think?” Farmer says. “Guys like us, we’ve seen too much crazy shit, our brains don’t have enough room to keep it all. Pretty soon it just starts leaking out.”
“You’re probably right,” I say.
“I guess I’ve seen over a hundred dead bodies,” he says. “Not like this here, but like people who were alive ten minutes before I got to them. Traffic accidents and such, sometimes I’d get called out on a murder, but I was mostly a low-hanging fruit cop, if you know what I mean. I tell you, there’s something about the energy surrounding a dead body, you know? Like a dog, it can just walk by, take a sniff and keep going. Us, we got all that empathy. What I wouldn’t give to lack empathy.”
The two women lift the trunk of the body up out of the dirt. There’s still bits of fabric stuck to the ribcage and my first thought is of those old pirate books I used to read as a kid, where the hero would find himself on a deserted island with just the clothed skeletons of previous plunderers lining the beach. How old was I when I read those books? Eight? Nine? I can still see my father sitting on the edge of my bed while I read aloud to him, how the dim light on my bedside table would cast a slicing shadow across his face, so that all I could make out was his profile. He was already a Sheriff then himself, already knew about empathy, had spent a few sleepless nights on the beginnings and endings of people he’d never know, though he was only 28 or 29 himself. Thirty-five years he’s been gone. You never stop being somebody’s child, even when you can see the end of the long thread yourself. Maybe that’s really what Kim finds absent; it’s not simply Katherine that calls to me in the night, even when the night is as bright as day, it’s all that I’ve lost: my father, my mother, my brother Jack, who passed before I was even born, but whose presence I was always aware of, as if I lived a life for him, too. My second wife, Margaret, and the children we never managed to have before she, too, passed. How many friends of mine are gone? All of them, even if they are still alive. And here, in the winter soil of the Salton Sea, the air buttressed by an ungodly heat, I remember the ghosts of another life, still. These bodies that keep appearing could be mine; if not my responsibility, my knowledge, my own real estate.
I tell myself it’s just land. My mind has ascribed emotion to a mere parcel of a planet. It’s the very duplicity of existence that plays with an old man’s mind, particularly when you can see regret in a tangible form alongside the spectral one which visits periodically.
“They bother looking for kin?” I ask.
“Oh, sure,” Farmer says. He waves his clipboard and for the first time I notice that it’s lined with names and dates and addresses. “We got some old records from back when Claxson was out here detailing where a few family plots are and such. Claxson kept pretty good record of who came and went, but this place has flooded and receded so many times, you can’t be sure where these bodies are from. Back then, people died they just dug a hole and slid them in, seems like.”
“That’s about right,” I say.
“Anyway, we get a couple visitors a week, like yourself.”
“I’m just out for a drive,” I say.
“What did you say your name was?”
“Morris Drew,” I say.
Farmer flips a few pages, running his finger down the lines of names, and then pauses. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly.
“So am I,” I say.
I drive south along the beaten access road that used to run behind the marina but now is covered in ruts and divots, the pavement long since cracked and weathered away, plant life and shrubs growing between bits of blacktop. Back when Claxson Oil still believed life could take place here, they built the infrastructure to sustain a population of 100,000, so beneath the desert floor there’s plumbing and power lines waiting to be used, a city of coils and pipes to carry subsistence to a casino, one hundred condominiums, tourists from Japan. They’ll bring in alien vegetation to gussy up the desert, just as they have outside my home on the 12th hole, they’ll install sprinklers to wash away the detritus of fifty years of emptiness. There are maybe 600 people living permanently around the Salton Sea, Ted Farmer told me, more if you count the meth addicts and Vietnam and Gulf War vets out in Slab City, the former Air Force base that became a squatter’s paradise.
I stop my car when I see the shell of the old Claxson barracks rising up a few hundred yards in the distance. To the east, a flock of egrets have landed on the sea, their slim bodies undulating in the water just beyond the shoreline. They’ve flown south for the winter but probably didn’t realize they’d land in the summer. I can make out the noise from the lone boat on the water.
The barracks themselves are a swiss-cheese of mortar and drywall, to the point that even from this distance I can see the sparse traffic on Highway 80 through its walls, as if a newsreel from the future has been projected onto the past. Farmer warned me not to go into the old building, that transients, drug addicts and illegals frequently use it for scavenging and business purposes.
It’s not the barracks that I’m interested in; they merely provide a map for my memory, a placeholder for a vision that blinds me with its radiance. It’s 1962 and I’m parked in my new Corvair, Katherine by my side, and we’re scanning the scrub for the view she wants. It’s not the topography that she cares about; it’s the angle of the sun. She tells me that anyone can have a view of the mountains, anyone can have a view of the sea, but after living in the Pacific Northwest her entire life, she desired a view of the sun. She wanted a morning room that would be flooded in natural light at dawn, that would be dappled in long shadows in the afternoon, that at night would glow white from the moon. All my life I’ve lived in clouds, she said, I think I deserve a view of the sun. She got out of the Corvair right about here, I think, and she walked out into the desert, striding through the tangles of brush and sand while I watched her from the front seat. She was so terribly young, just 23, but I know she felt like she’d already lived a good portion of her life out, that she needed to be a woman and not the girl she was. She always told me that she envied the experiences I’d had already in life, that she wished she could see Asia as I had, wished that she knew what it felt like to hold a gun with malice, because to her that was the thing about me that was most unknowable.
Late at night, she’d wake me and ask me what it felt like to kill someone, to know that there was another family, somewhere in North Korea, who didn’t have a father. She didn’t ask this in anger, she said, only that it was the sort of thing that kept her awake at night, knowing that the man sleeping beside her, the man she loved, had killed before. I’d see Katherine get old before time had found its bearing with her, long before she was done being a girl. I would see her bald and shapeless, her bones the density of straw. I would hear her beg for me to use my gun without malice, to save her from the suffering of her very body, to relieve the pressure that boiled through her skin, the slow withering of her veins, the viscous loss of self that would turn her into something foreign and angry, her voice the consistency of withered crab grass, begging me, begging me, pleading for a mechanical end to an unnatural death sentence. I would see her in the moonlit glow of the Salton Sea, her body slipping between my hands into the deep, murky waters.
I step out of the car and see Katherine, her face turned to the sun, motioning for me to join her, to see what she sees. She calls out for me to hurry, to join her there in the spot that will be our home. Did this happen? I’m not sure anymore, but at this moment it is true. Surrounding me are nearly a dozen old foundations, this tract of desert bifurcated by the phantom remains of paved roads and cul-de-sacs. From above, I imagine the land surrounding the old barracks must look like a petroglyph left by an ancient civilization.
I triangulate myself with the sea, the mountain and the barracks and then close my eyes and walk forward, allowing my sense memory to guide me, to find the cement that was my home. But it’s useless: I trip over a tumble weed and nearly fall face first into the ground. Sweet Christ, I think, it’s lucky I didn’t break my hip! How long would it be before anyone found me? With the heat as it is, I’d die from exposure before Kim even noticed that we’d missed the early bird at Sherman’s Deli. So instead I walk from foundation to foundation, hoping that the layout of the Claxson Oil Executive Housing Unit makes itself clear. I picture the payroll manager, Gifford Lewis, and his wife Lois sitting on their patio drinking lemonade, their baby frolicking between them in a playpen. I picture Jeff Morton, sitting in his backyard, strumming a guitar he didn’t know how to play. I picture Sassy, the Jefferies’ cocker spaniel, running across the street to our scratch of grass, her tail wagging in a furious motion. I picture myself leaning down to pet Sassy and the way the dog would lick up the length of my arm, her tongue rough and dry from the heat and how I would step inside and get a water bowl for the dog, and that the dog would sit and wait patiently for my return and then would lap up the water in a fuss, drops of water flying from the bowl and catching hits of sun so that each drop glimmered a brilliant white.
I try to see the world as it was and as it is now, try to find what used to be my home, what used to be my life, try to locate the Fourth Estate of my memory: a dry reporting of fact. You lived here. You slept there. You made love and you witnessed death and you mourned and you buried your wife in the simple plot Claxson provided and allowed behind your home and you carried your wife’s corpse – because that’s what it was, it wasn’t a body anymore, not with the dirt and the sand and absence of any kind of reality, any kind of relevance beyond what you’d emotionally ascribed to it – to the sea, because that was what she asked of you, not to allow her to rot in the desert, but to give her a perpetual view of the sun and the water, to let her float free of the pain, because that’s what she wanted you to give her. That is across the way. And you see the end of your own life, don’t you? You feel the creeping dread that you’ve beaten that same slow poison yourself but have found another, more insidious invader. And what will you do about it, Morris Drew? Why did you bring that gun with you?
When I get back home, I find Kim sitting on our back patio; her eyes buried in a magazine, golf carts moving in a steady stream past her as dusk has begun to fall. She doesn’t see me, so for a time I just stare at her. I imagine what she might look like with the fine lines around her eyes smooth, her gray hair blond, her skin thick and healthy instead of thin and stretched like parchment. The trauma of memory is that it never forgives you for aging. What would Katherine look like to me today? Would she be an old woman or would she be young in my eyes, perpetually 23 years old? The other trauma of memory is that it can absolve you of reality if you let it, and the reality is that I’ve come to love other women, finally, a fact I’m not ashamed of.
“I’m home,” I say.
“I know,” Kim says, not looking up.
“I didn’t know if you heard me come in,” I say.
“Morris,” she says, turning pages, “your footfalls have the delicacy of a jackhammer. There are no secrets between tile floors and you.”
I sit down beside Kim and put my arm around her and pull her close. I see the young woman she must have been. I’ve seen photos, of course, but you never truly see someone in a photo. You see what they looked liked, but not who they were. Fear shows you all the colors in a person’s skin.
I reach down and lift up my pant leg and show her my empty holster. “I almost killed myself today. I’m not proud of that, but I wanted you to know that it won’t happen again.”
“Jesus, Morris,” she says.
“I threw that gun into the Salton Sea,” I say, “even said some prayers over it. I’m not gonna let it take me from you.”
I know that if I look down I’ll find Kim crying, so I stare instead at the long shadows crawling into the bunkers on either side of the 12th hole, at the last glimmers of sunlight that eek over the rim of the San Jacinto Mountains, at the green shards of grass that grow just beyond our patio. I watch as lights flicker on inside the condos across the fairway from us and I think that where I am now, at this very moment, with my wife beside me, with a hint of cool in the breeze that has swept by me, the smell of jasmine light on its trail, this is the memory I want to live out the rest of my years with. A moment of silent perfection when I knew, finally knew, that I’d found a kind of contentment with who I was, who I’d been, and what I’d tried so desperately to forget. I am not surprised, then, when a strong gust of wind picks up from the east and I make out the faint scent of the Salton Sea, pungent and lost and so far, far away.