Big Country For A Carpetbagger



She wasn’t shy that night in the gallery on the edge of Santa Fe in a room of pictures of the desert and the sky.

The first thing she said after she told me her name was Scarlett was “It’s a big country for a carpetbagger,” and then she started her story about small deaths under the desert sky.

“Dreams die out there under that Goddamn ‘sacred’ sky.” she said, draped languidly against the exhibit room white wall of sandstone and bleached bone. The framed, black and white world at her back. “This stuff is fascinating but it’s just art. It's not real. The deserts not a fairy tale. You can try to make a home there, but it eats at you after a time. Eats at you in ways its hard to understand. You gotta live there to know it. Going through it making pretty pictures doesn’t give you a handle on anything.” She sighed. “It only makes you romantic about what can only kill you in the end.”

“Think about it. Does anybody normal live like this?” The swing of her arm encompassed the room. “ I sure don't. Reality sucks you up and leaves you flat. It’s not a fun country ride. It’s not a side-show. What passes for dignity out there is called desperation anywhere else.

“The best thing I remember”, she said, as she drew a breath, “is dust that filled the sky And that I danced in it.” She Iaughed. “ I have to admit that memory seems so much brighter than real life, but that's all I've got.”

We moved into a rat trap apartment and didn't leave. Scarlett brought a desperation to sex that was stronger than passion. She clung to me as if I was her only salvation from the darkness that threatens to engulf her. She clung to me in moments of passion like the faithful cling to God. In a desperate attempt to escape before life buried us, we decided to leave.

We were headed for San Francisco , It was an inspiration that came to us in a moment of drunken boredom. We flipped a coin, and that's how it happened. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. After a night spent stumbling through the cactus, kicking rocks and howling in blind confusion at the enormous moon rising, round as a silver wheel over the sagebrush. We got a ride on the outskirts of town, and,were on our way.

Somewhere outside of Bullhead City we got picked up by a trucker hauling oil who mumbled and belched and looked longingly at Scarlett's long white legs exposed almost past belief in her new mini-dress as we crossed California in the pre-dawn starkness. He finally let us out somewhere outside Bakersfield where we stood on the curb side for hours in the cold trying to get a ride before crashing in the bushes by the on ramp sign for a few hours of fitful sleep. We dreamed of diesel fumes and burning brakes.

In a, forlorn a little asphalt strip mall truck stop in Salinas, Scarlett flirted with the clerk of an all night store while I ripped off a bottle of Southern Comfort and some candy bars.

"God, are we slick!"

"Yeah...slick." I muttered as we sat on the curb waiting for a ride. Me feeling invisible while Scarlett, as she sat on the curb in her little scrap of cloth skirt, overwhelmed the concrete and barbwire backdrop of the industrial wasteland where we waited with her wild, untamed beauty. Every car that passed slowed down to a crawl to get a look, and then speed up as we raised our thumbs to them like signs advertising our helplessness. Like two derelicts, crouched on the roadside holding up " WILL WORK FOR FOOD" signs. It didn't make sense to be so down and out, but for us, right then, it was an adventure.

Finally we arrived. As we crested the hill the city offered itself, an elusive strip at a time. A hint here, a flash there, brief glimpses, fleshing out the hidden body in my imagination. For me, all of life was lustrous in that moment of new hope, boundless and free, soaring unchained, like the seagulls over the big ships bound for births in Oakland or outbound for Asia. Somewhere, under the ocean of fog that smothered all sign of life was my future. Scarlett slept through those first long moments. I was glad. Poised on the edge of what used to be, ready to dive into the new water, and come up swimming. Big waves roiled the chaos inside. Love, and money, fame, and fortune, the good times yet to come, this mysterious, improbable, woman, in a fog bank bound for glory, on the seat beside me, her minimal dress hiked up over her hips, her legs sprawled open, in her face the innocence of a child's down warm softness corrupted. In the mirror, the driver, a middle aged man whose bald crown shone in the glimmering opalescence of dawn, watched her hungrily in the mirror, as if she was a hot steak. His last words, for Scarlett. He offered her 20 bucks to do him. She just laughed.