Raindrops as plump as chandelier crystals rapped the limo and stymied the windshield wipers until Mrs. Fischer turned them up to their highest speed. Soon the droplets diminished to the size of pearls, but the fireworks continued for several minutes and with uncommon violence.
When at last the heavens went dark and quiet, when the storm seemed content now with merely trying to drown us, Mrs. Fischer said, “Quite a display. I hope it didn’t mean anything.”
I half knew what she intended to convey with those words. “I hope it didn’t mean anything, either, ma’am.”
“You still have a fix on him, Oddie?”
“The cowboy. Yes, ma’am. He’s out there. We’ll find him.”
The lightning and thunder had rattled us back into the bleak mood into which we had fallen while speaking with Sandy and Chet at the cash register in Ernestine’s. We rode in silence, brooding.
Mr. Hitchcock kept making cameo appearances in my tangled skeins of thought, the way that he had slyly inserted himself into one scene in each of his movies. I returned, as well, to consideration of rats and coyotes, and to those lines from Eliot. Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past. I had read the poet’s Four Quartets at least a hundred times, and I understood them in spite of their demanding language and concepts. But I suspected that these lines kept running through my mind not because of what they meant within the poem, but because they expressed, with power, a warning about some threat that I intuited but could not consciously define.
Strange how the deepest part of us isn’t able to speak more clearly to the part of us that lives only here in the shallows of the world. The body is entirely physical, the mind partly so and partly not, being both the dense computer circuitry of brain tissue and the ghostly software running in it. But the deepest part of us, the soul, is not physical to any extent whatsoever. Yet the material body and the immaterial soul are inextricably linked this side of death and, so theologians tell us, on the Other Side, as well. On the Other Side, body and soul are supposed to function in perfect harmony. So I guess the problem on this side of death is that when we fell from grace back in the day, the body and soul became like two neighboring countries, still connected by highways and bridges and rivers, but each now speaking a different language from the other. To get through life successfully, body and soul must translate each other correctly more often than not. But in the limo, leaving Barstow, I couldn’t quite interpret that warning from the deepest part of me.
As we rocketed along the rainswept interstate, miraculously not hydroplaning off the pavement and into a stand of cactuses as the laws of physics would seem to have required, Mrs. Fischer said, “Wherever it is these child-stealers are holed up, you can’t go in after them with just that pistol or either of the other two I have with me. You’ve got to weaponize yourself better than that.”
“I don’t much like guns, ma’am.”
“Does it matter whether you like them or not?”
“I guess it doesn’t.”
“You do what you have to do. That’s who you seem to be to me, anyway. You’re one who does what he has to do.”
“Maybe that’s not always what I should do.”
“Don’t double-think yourself so much, child. You had a good dinner of properly fried food, and if you want to live long enough to have another one, you’ve got to weaponize properly.”
The rain fell so hard that, in the headlights, the entire world seemed to be melting. The vaguely phosphorescent landscape shimmered as though every acre of it must be liquefied and in motion, seeking a drain into which to pour itself.
“Ma’am, the closest town of any size where they might sell guns is back in Barstow. And they don’t just let you put your money down and walk out ten minutes later with a bazooka or whatever it is you think I need. There are waiting periods, police checks, all that.”
“That’s certainly true in Barstow and in Vegas, but there’s a lot of territory between the two.”
“A lot of mostly really empty territory.”
“Not as empty as you think, sweetie. And some places out there, nobody bothers much with waiting periods and the like. What we need to do at this particular time in this particular place is take a side trip to Mazie’s and get what you need.”
“Mazie’s? What is Mazie’s?” I asked with some doubt and a little suspicion.
“It’s not a whorehouse, though it might sound like one,” Mrs. Fischer said. “Mazie and her sons, Tracker and Leander, do a bit of this and that, and they do it all well.”
“How long a side trip?”
“Not long at all. Once we leave the interstate, the first road is paved but the second is just gravel, and the third is all natural shale. But none of it’s bad road, and it all leads up into the hills, not into the flats, so the chances we’ll be caught by a flash flood are so small they don’t worry me at all.”
“How small?” I asked.
The desert doesn’t get much annual rainfall, but what it does receive tends to come all at once. A lot of terrific Japanese poets have written uncountable haiku about the silvery delicacy of the rain and about how it vanishes so elegantly into the moonlit river or the silver lake or the trembling pond, rain like a maiden’s tears, but not a line of any of them was appropriate to this insane storm. This was more of a Russian rain, in particular a mean Soviet rain, coming down like ten thousand hammers on ten thousand anvils in the People’s Foundry of the Revolution.
Mrs. Fischer said, “Mazie’s exit is about two miles ahead.”
When we got there, the highway sign didn’t say anything about Mazie. Instead, it warned ABANDONED ROADWAY / NO OUTLET.
When I noted this discrepancy between what Mrs. Fischer had promised and what the reality proved to be, she reached out to pat my shoulder with her right hand, driving only with her left, though in her defense, I must admit that she had slowed to sixty for the exit.
The two-lane paved road had been built in an age when we were still going to war with European nations, and it consisted of more potholes than blacktop. Fortunately, it didn’t go far before it gave way to the gravel road, which was more accommodating, although the deluge was so intense that I had to lean forward and squint to see the track, which seemed always about to wither away into sand and sage.
After we had gone no more than a quarter of a mile on the gravel, the headlights flared off a sign with reflective yellow letters that announced DANGER / STAY OUT / ARTILLERY RANGE / MILITARY VEHICLES ONLY.
When I questioned the wisdom of ignoring such a warning, Mrs. Fischer said, “Oh, that’s nothing, dear.”
“It seems like something,” I disagreed.
“It’s not official. Mazie and Tracker put that up themselves, years ago, to scare people off.”
“What kind of people would want to come out to this godforsaken place anyway?”
“The kind you want to scare off.”
By the angle of our ascent, I knew we were driving into low hills, although in this darkness and downpour, I couldn’t see well enough to confirm what I felt. Mrs. Fischer told me when the gravel gave way to a trail of broken shale, though I couldn’t feel any difference in the ride.
Shale is brittle and over the millennia is laid down in thin strata, so the fragments can be sharp, which is why I said, “Hope we don’t have a flat tire out here.”
“It isn’t possible, child.”
“No disrespect, ma’am, but of course it’s possible. Why wouldn’t it be possible?”
She glanced at me and winked. “One-Ear Bob.”
“What—you have some kind of armored tires or something?”
“Some kind of something,” Mrs. Fischer confirmed.
Before I could press for details, we had to stop because of all the snakes.
IF YOU ARE FOND OF TARANTULAS AND RATTLESNAKES, this desert will delight you no less than the Metropolitan Opera enchants lovers of Puccini, Donizetti, and Verdi. It is a veritable festival of spiders, a jubilee of snakes with ten times more fangs per square mile than in Transylvania, and with more forked tongues than you would find even in the halls of Congress.
Mrs. Fischer was quicker than I to recognize what surged across the broken-shale track, illuminated by the headlights, and she braked to a full stop before driving over them. I leaned forward, fascinated by the creepy spectacle of at least a double score of six-foot-long rattlesnakes seething through the storm, some of them slithering flat to the ground, others with their heads raised, all moving south to north, as though they were livestock driven by herdsmen. Their sinuous bodies glistened in the rain, wet dark scales reflecting the halogen beams as if some magical energy shimmered through their muscular, continuously flexing bodies.
Perhaps their subterranean nests had flooded, forcing them out into the downpour, but that seemed unlikely because their instinct, which was really something more like a program, compelled them to choose their lairs with entrances shaped to direct water safely away. Besides, rattlers hunt singly, not in packs, and they don’t pursue prey at speed, but for the most part lie in wait. These snakes seemed unnaturally compelled, neither escaping from flooded dens nor driven by a need for food, but harried to some mysterious purpose.
I thought of the rats earlier in the day, of the yellow-eyed coyotes in Magic Beach more than a month previously, and I expected these serpents to turn their flat, wicked-looking heads toward us and reveal, by their interest, that what they sought was us. But they glided across the road without seeming to be aware of the limousine.
“They can’t do what they’re doing on a night like this,” Mrs. Fischer said.
“You mean the rain?”
“No. The chill. They’re cold-blooded.”
Of course. Unlike mammals, reptiles don’t maintain an optimal body temperature, and their blood warms and cools according to the temperature of their environment. They hunt when the desert, having banked the heat of the day, pays it out to the night. In weather as chilly as this, they should be coiled harmlessly in their nests, lethargic, dreaming the dreams of predators, if they dreamed at all.
Had the double score of snakes become hundreds, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Logic argued that such a strange scene might easily get even stranger.
Instead, the last of them slithered off the shale and among ragged clumps of mesquite, and Mrs. Fischer said, “All that lightning a while back … I think it meant something.”
“What do you think it meant?”
She took her foot off the brake pedal, and the limousine eased forward.
To my right, at the periphery of vision, a flicker of movement caught my attention, and as I turned my head, an open-mouthed rattler slammed against the window in the passenger door, making a sound like bare sweaty fists smacking hard into a punching bag in a gym, and fell away at once. Two more erupted through the night, whiplike, eyes aglitter, fangs bared, drops of milky venom spattering the glass on impact and diluted at once by the sluicing rain. A coiled snake can strike at prey exactly as far away as the snake is long, maybe more than six feet in this case, because these were big suckers, unusually big, well fed on tortoise eggs, mice, kangaroo rats, grasshoppers, lizards, tarantulas, and a variety of other treats that you won’t find in your favorite all-you-can-eat buffet.
Mrs. Fischer said, “Goodness gracious,” alerting me to the fact that not all the thudding of snake flesh against limo was on my side of the vehicle.
Undulant serpents seemed almost to swim through the dense wind-driven rain, and collided with the driver-door window, four in quick succession.
“Well, I never,” Mrs. Fischer declared, sounding displeased with Mother Nature for this rude assault.
As she tramped on the accelerator, a rattler came over the port fender, snout-first into the windshield, where its hypodermic fangs hooked around a wiper blade, squirting venom. The wiper stuttered before lifting, almost broke, but then flicked the lashing reptile into the night before slapping back onto the windshield to resume rhythmically clearing away the rain.
“Good glass,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed.
We left the snakes behind.
Mrs. Fischer eased up on the accelerator.
I said, “You ever heard of snakes attacking a car?”
“Me neither. I wonder why they would.”
“I wonder, too. And I don’t believe a snake can spring that far.”
“The length of its body, ma’am.”
“These came farther than that.”
“I sort of thought so, too.”
Bullets of rain broke against the armored glass.
“Have you ever eaten rattlesnake, dear?”
“It tastes good if you prepare it right.”
“I’m a little bit of a finicky eater.”
“I sympathize. The taste of lamb makes me gag.”
“Lambs are too cute to eat,” I said.
“Exactly. You can’t eat too-cute animals. Like kittens.”
“Or dogs. Cows are nice, but they’re not cute.”
“They’re not,” she agreed. “Neither are chickens.”
“Pigs are a little bit cute.”
Mrs. Fischer disagreed. “Only in some movies like Babe and Charlotte’s Web. Those are fairy-tale pigs, not real pigs.”
Neither of us spoke for a minute, listening to the rain drumming on the limousine, seeming to float through the night, and finally I said, “So when we finish whatever business we’re doing at Mazie’s, is there another route out or do we have to come back along this track?”
“There’s just this one. But not to worry, child. I don’t believe snakes have the capacity to strategize. Anyhow, doing what you have to do, always and without complaint—that’s the way.”
“That’s the way, huh?”
“That’s the way,” she confirmed.
A pair of thirty-foot Joshua trees appeared on each side of the road, eerie figures in the storm, less suggestive of trees than of blind creatures that might prowl the floor of an ocean, ceaselessly combing scents and tastes and, ultimately, small fish from the deep cold currents. They had been named by Mormon settlers, who thought these strange giants appeared to be warriorlike but also to be raising their arms beseechingly to Heaven, just as Joshua did at the battle of Jericho.
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