Mama put a hand to her wide hip, plucked the cigarette from her mouth, and took a long look at Cliff. Pulled her eyeglasses halfway down her nose and said, “No you didn’t.”
“Mama, be nice,” I said. It had taken five years and three days for me to build the courage to bring him home.
Cliff wore ironed khakis that fell an inch above the ground, brown loafers with bow-tied laces, and a blue and white checkered shirt, the cuffs rolled twice.
“Ma’am,” he said, his forehead perspiring. “Wonderful to meet you.”
“Clifford,” Papa gushed, walking in from the back door and through the kitchen, past the table piled with unwashed plates. “Clifford.” He took up both of Cliff’s pale pink hands in his. “How wonderful to have another man in the house.”
The house. Bags of torn clothes, cigarette stubs collecting on piles of books, a child with a finger in her mouth, pots of flowers, healthy enough and blooming, but dirt overflowing onto the hardwood.
“Name me a president,” Mama barked.
“Kennedy,” Cliff shot back.
“Name me a homeless shelter.”
Cliff’s cheeks flushed and he glanced at Papa.
“Always pay attention to the little people, son,” Mama said. “If you’re going to be who you’re going to be.”
“Mama!” I moaned.
“What’s gotten into you?” Mama said and turned her wide hips to face me, looked me up and down. “You knew how this was going to be. You with your fancy-toed shoes and your fancy education. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you!”
“Who’s this?” Cliff interjected, pointing to the child.
“That’s Bella,” Papa said. He sat on a three-foot high stack of records and pulled the girl onto his lap. “She won the school spelling bee today.”
Cliff dropped to his knee and smiled. “Can you spell school?” he asked.
“Can you spell patriarchy?” Mama said, and sat down in a chair.
The girl pulled the finger from her mouth. “P-A-T-R-I-A-R-C-H-Y.”
“Very good,” Mama said. She drew a sugar cookie out from the folds of her shirt and threw it at the girl.
At once, it seemed, the house became a jungle: myriad cats stalked out from behind chairs and boxes and stacks of books. A dog ran in from the back door. A lizard scurried across the ceiling. A raven landed on the windowsill, black eyes blinking. The girl stood from Papa’s lap and held the cookie in her hands. The animals watched. We watched. The girl held all the power in the world and all of us, even Mama, could not stop looking at her. Bella brushed dark hair from her forehead with one hand.
I saw her twenty years later, sipping wine at a café along the river. She wore a white wide-brimmed hat and told a handsome Italian about her crazy Aunt Gloria and the animals, slanting light falling across her gorgeous collarbone.
Now she crumbled the cookie in her hand and scattered the crumbs on the floor. “A little for everyone,” she said. The cats pounced on the crumbs and disappeared. The girl walked out the front door into the blinding sun.
“That used to be you,” Mama said, and extinguished her cigarette on an old hardcover book. “But then you became a capitalist.”
“Who is she?” I asked.
“My cousin’s cousin-in-law’s niece,” Papa said. He stood and stretched his hands to the ceiling, belly a mess of black hairs.
“So. When you get into the office are you going to take care of the brown people? The immigrants?”
“Gloria!” Papa grumbled, and let his hands fall to his sides. “Leave the boy alone.”
“What office?” Cliff asked. His hands searched for his pockets.
“You don’t know it yet, son, but you’re headed for high ground.”
“Cliff,” I said, and touched his elbow. “We can go.”
Beneath his shirt, the skin of Cliff’s arm puckered into ridges and canyons. During the war, a car bomb had exploded on the side of the road. He had been the only one in his Humvee to survive. Most of the time, he could not feel my touch beneath his latticework of melted skin.
“What do you mean, high ground?” Cliff asked.
“Have you ever stood on top of a mesa when the clouds buckle and every drainage flash floods?”
“No, Ma’am. I’ve never been to land like the land you live in here.” Cliff had his hands free of his pockets now and his middle finger twitched like it did when he felt unsteady.
Mama leaned towards him, elbows on her knees. “When you do—when you get out there—remember not every night is the same. Sometimes there’s a moon. Sometimes there’s stars. Sometimes there’s light from the cities.”
Mama stood up and put her hands on Cliff’s arms, just above his elbows. I wondered if she could feel his scars beneath the shirt.
The dog suddenly stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, transfixed by Mama on her feet.
“In the fourth grade you owned baseball cards that went missing one day and you always thought it was Herman who took them but it wasn’t—it was your sister who stole them for her boyfriend but don’t get too mad at her, she tried to get them back, tried and tried, but he had already left her for another seventh-grader and then he switched schools.”
Cliff shuddered. For a moment, he furrowed his eyebrows and his shoulders caved. But then he recovered and pulled his shoulders back up. He looked as he always looked—happy.
“We can go,” I said again.
“Ok,” he said, and turned away from Mama’s arms.
Outside, the sun blinded us. When our eyes adjusted to the fence, to the garden of red rocks and wilting globe mallow, trimmed scrub oak and tall cacti, we saw the little girl. She bent above a prickly pear and cut off a lobe of the small cactus with a knife, her little fingers trying to avoid pricks from the needles.
“Here,” Cliff said, and stepped towards her. “Let me help you.”
“No,” she said. “I can do it on my own.”
In the car, Cliff rubbed his forehead with his fingers. “Jesus,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“How did she know that about my sister?”
“She knows things,” I said, not sure how else to explain. “You OK?”
“Sort of,” Cliff said. “That was pretty weird.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I only felt partially sorry. “She’s crazy,” I said. “She is.”
He ran his hand along the dashboard of the car, swiping at a layer of red dust. “Do you know things?” he asked.
I looked out the window. Knotted sagebrush and clumps of brown grass dotted the flat earth to where it dropped a thousand feet into a canyon. I could see across the canyon to its far wall, streaked in black stains from thousands of years of water runoff. I knew my first pet, a guinea pig, was going to run away. I knew the coal plant was going to close one year before it did. I knew that Cliff lied to me about his infertility.
“I used to know what everyone in my class had for breakfast,” I said. I shut off the air conditioning and rolled down my window. The smell of sage flooded the car. “It was a game we played. Guess the Breakfast. But when I moved to the city and went to school, all the new things I was learning and hearing and seeing seemed to drown out everything from before.”
Cliff sat still for a long time and looked across the desert. “Once in Iraq,” he said, “I was lying on my cot and suddenly the world got really quiet. Not even humming from the generators.” He rolled down his window too. “I felt, or maybe I saw, this huge mortar blast and my guys strewn about the yard. I told myself I was being ridiculous. All night I couldn’t sleep. The next day we got shelled. My guys were everywhere just like I knew they would be.”
Cliff never talked about Iraq. Over the four years we had dated, and the one year and three days we had been married, I had heard Cliff talk about Iraq three times. Whenever I had asked, he left the room, squinted out a window, turned up the radio. So I knew he needed to talk right then, in the car, I knew he needed me to ask. But I no longer had it in me.
We were the only car, on the only road, bumping over embedded sandstone boulders and tiny road ravines where unleashed water had sunken the soil. The flat red rock desert rolled up into hills dotted with sagebrush and green grasses. It was like driving between waves of a green ocean, except it had not rained in thirty-one days.
After a while, he said, “What a view,” and smiled wide. His middle finger twitched violently.
Near town we hit pavement, ate dinner at a bar. We fell asleep in our motel, with space big enough for a small body between us.
When I woke up, Cliff was gone. Light filtered in through the curtains. I got up and looked out, thinking he might be at the car in the lot. Dark water hung low and heavy in the clouds. In the distance, a sliver of lightning cracked across the mesa.
He was not there. I pulled on my jeans and grabbed my keys. When I opened the door, the smell of wet sage, dank and spicy, overwhelmed me. I had become used to the smell of San Francisco—of seawater blown into wind, of banana peels browning on the sidewalk. I closed the door and leaned my head against the wood. What was happening to us?
I drove through town, and checked the faces of men clumped against the drizzle, peered into the half-lit bars. No sign of him. I sped toward the crossroads. When the road hit dirt I cracked the windows. Tiny rivers broke the edges of the road and spread like ponds over the surface. I rolled through, careful not to hit hidden rocks with too much speed. Dark clouds unleashed sheets of rain and moved across the mesa towards me, until I was enveloped in the torrents. I could no longer see. I stopped and waited.
When it let up, I crawled onwards across the mud. He could have been picked up by the water, thrown against moving boulders, crushed at the bottom of a canyon. He had no idea what it was like out here, how dangerous water and earth could be. When I pulled up in front of Mama’s and let go of the steering wheel, I shook my hand. I had been gripping so hard all the blood had drained away, and I could no longer feel anything through my skin.
“What do you mean you don’t know where he is?” I yelled at Mama, who sat on her stool and hardly moved at the sight of me rushing in with my hands on my head, as if they would protect my hair from the rain. Mama lit her cigarette from a match. “What use is it if it doesn’t work?” I said. Mama looked at me coolly. “Why won’t you answer me?” I screamed. “He’s drowning somewhere!”
“You need an answer for everything, don’t you?”
The little girl walked into the room. Parakeets on the windowsill looked down at her. “I think I know where he is,” she said. The room seemed to grow quieter, as if all the animals around had stopped breathing. She brushed her hair out of her eyes. She looked at Mama, then at me. “Should we go?”
Mama drove the old Chevy that she had bought ten years ago across the border. It rode so low I thought we would get stuck. The little girl sat between us in the single long seat and hummed Mexican polka tunes, the only thing that came through on the radio out here.
Out the window, the sky rolled with dark gray clouds, light gray clouds, white clouds, all fading in and out of one another, mixing together like God was stirring the sky with a spoon.
“Please dear God,” I whispered.
“What was that?” Mama said.
“Go there,” the little girl said, pointing down a wash.
Mama turned in between two walls of dirt and rocks, each taller than the truck, where floods had carved out a winding lane just wide enough for the Chevy. Water ran underneath our tires. I knew that if the clouds let loose uphill all the rain would drain into this wash, gather speed and debris, and crash into our truck.
“Isn’t this dangerous?” I said.
Neither Mama nor Bella responded. I tapped my foot against the plastic mat on the floor.
“Stop that,” Mama said.
“I don’t think we should be in here,” I said.
“Do you want to find him or not?” Mama said.
I thought of what I had seen when I was Bella’s age. Mama and I had gone to the top of the mesa to watch the flash floods. The storm was peaceful enough, at first. But then, all around, lightning started striking greasewood bushes, lit them in flames. “Get down!” Mama shouted, and we made ourselves small. A bush fifty feet away exploded. The rain extinguished the fires quick enough, and the lightning passed. But then we heard it—a rumbling—and when we turned we watched a wall of water rush the canyon, carrying boulders the size of cars and full, uprooted trees. We were safe, up high on the mesa, but I swore then that I would never be caught in a canyon in a storm. I thought now of those boulders and trees crushing the Chevy and our bodies. The water spreading our bones across drying earth, bones cracking like soil in the sun.
Ravens began to circle overhead. The little girl looked up at them through the windshield. Her eyelids fluttered. “Um,” she said. She twisted her hair, gripped the edge of the seat.
“What is it?” I said.
Right then the canyon widened and the walls became gentle slopes that rose to meet the mesa.
“Pull off!” Bella screamed.
Mama made a hard left and gunned it up the slope. Behind us, rumbling and cracking grew louder until it roared. Bella grabbed my hand. Just as we crested onto the mesa, we turned and saw the barreling water below slam against the walls of the canyon, rip off slabs of sand and buried rocks and carry it all downstream. At once, the canyon was a dirty, wild river.
The three of us climbed out of the truck and stood on the mesa. We watched the river beneath us. Over the girl’s head, Mama looked at me wild-eyed. Bella started to cry. “I’m sorry,” she wailed.
I picked her up, cradled her against my hip.
“I didn’t know,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Mama came over and stroked the little girl’s dark hair with one hand. She kissed her on her forehead. She kissed me on my forehead. “I need a cigarette,” she said, and went back to the truck.
I held Bella a long time. We watched the river sink low and die to a trickle. I held her little body. Cliff said it was the blast that had made him infertile. But he was lying. It was the war, I thought. He didn’t want to be responsible for another life.
“Girls,” Mama called from where she sat on the front hood of the Chevy. “I think I see him.”
I carried Bella to the truck and put her down. The three of us squinted across the sagebrush flats into the distance.
“Do you see that little white speck?” Mama said.
“No,” Bella and I said.
Mama dragged on her cigarette. “See where the land out there slopes up just a little? There are two juniper trees. Right next to those trees is a white speck.”
“I see it,” Bella said. “I see it.”
“I think it’s moving,” Mama said.
“I can’t see it,” I said.
“It’s right there,” Mama said, and pointed across the desert.
I shaded my eyes with one hand. I saw red land, shining wet plants, clouds of all shades, but no white speck.
“It’s right in front of your face!” Mama cried. “Just look right there!”
“It’s moving,” Bella said.
Mama jumped off the hood. “Let’s go,” she said. Mama walked around me and opened the driver’s door. She helped Bella up into the truck.
I stood still.
“Get in the damn car,” Mama said.
We drove over the mesa but mud slowed us down. Mama swerved the truck around clumps of cholla, whose needles would puncture our tires. I looked for the white speck in the distance but I saw hundreds of white specks: the flowers of cactus, blooming in the rain.
“It’s him,” Bella said, shading her eyes with one hand.
Suddenly, I could see him. White polo shirt, khaki pants. “It’s him,” I said.
Cliff stood beside a juniper tree and watched our truck.
I rolled down the window and stuck my head out. Pellets of rain sliced my cheeks.
He didn’t move. I saw a look I had never seen on his face—his nose and mouth twisted up like gnarled roots, an upswell of dirty emotions ripped across his skin. And then the expression disappeared, replaced by a smile.
Mama stopped the truck. The desert was quiet but we could hear the sound of our feet in wet sand, like paper on wood.
“Not even within a single night is the night the same!” Cliff cried. “Rain, then the bright moon, then the city lights. Then rain! Thunder and lightning and rain.”
“Take it easy, son,” Mama said. His polo shirt had short sleeves and she saw, for the first time, his mangled skin. She didn’t look long. She just reached out and touched him.
“The earth was dry,” Cliff said. “Dead. And then the rain—all this rain—moved the rocks and—look! Look! That cactus is blooming. That red flower is standing up now.”
It’s true, the desert looked lush. Tall straight green grasses, shining dark juniper boughs, prickly pear blooming white flowers.
“For a while there was nothing to see or hear,” Cliff said. “I just smelled plants. This one—what’s this one?”
“Ephedra,” Bella said, and told him he could boil it and drink the water for energy. She showed him the stiff stalks of Horse’s Tail, told him of its ancientness. He bent to them, shook his head.
Bella walked to a shrub that bloomed little white flowers. “Smell this one,” she said.
Cliff bent and smelled. “Yes!” he said. “This is what I smelled. It smells like the tea Iraqis make for a cold.”
Just as he reached out to touch a flower, a jackrabbit exploded from the bush like a gunshot. Mama and I jumped, and Cliff hit the ground, facedown, and covered his head with his hands.
He looked up. “What was that?”
The jackrabbit stopped. Its huge black ears turned toward us like satellite dishes. It eyed Bella and sniffed the air. Bella took four steps to the animal. We watched, transfixed. She reached out; her fingertips brushed its grey back. Very still, its black eyes pulsed, its nose twitched. For a moment, Bella looked just like any other little girl with a bunny. The jackrabbit hopped away.
Cliff stood up. “What was that?” he said again.
“Jackrabbit,” Bella said.
Cliff stared after the wild bunny longingly. He had never wanted us to find him, I thought. An upswell of emotion again ripped across his face. “Once,” he said. “A man was walking across the yard into his home and I shot him. Brains exploded everywhere. Then his wife ran out of their house. Then two tiny children. They didn’t think of their own safety. They just wanted to touch him as he died.”
Bella walked over and put her hand in his hand. He looked down at her. His face melted back into calm.
“I made nests,” he said. “Look.” Two juniper trees had been stripped of bark, which can be pulled off like sheets of paper. Cliff had wrapped the bark into tiny nests, placed them in the branches.
“For who?” Bella asked.
“I saw birds,” Cliff said.
Bella looked pleased.
“He died five feet from home,” Cliff said.
Mama walked to him and put her hands on his arm.
Mama was touching him. Bella was touching him. Still, to this day, I wish I had reached out and touched him. Years later, he would win a seat in the House. I would look up interviews to hear his voice. I would record the television to study his face. I would call and call.
I knew this.
But still I didn’t move.
“The air was very clear,” he said. “No radio waves. No pheromones. Not even light rays, or sound waves, until the light changed.”
He looked at Mama. “It was very clean,” he said. “I feel very clean.”
Mama and Bella nodded.
“Son,” Mama said. “I think it’s time we go home.”
For the first time, Cliff looked at me. “I don’t know if I want to go home.”
“You can’t stay out here forever,” Mama said.
He looked at me with big wet eyes, but still, I didn’t go to him. Many years behind us by then, and never once had he asked me what I wanted. I should have let it go, I should have told him we would survive. I should have at least touched him. But he was not reaching for me either, and I wanted, like him, to suddenly find myself in a flooded desert, after a lighted night, with a hand inside my hand. I wanted to be the kind of person who could risk it all to touch love as it died. But I didn’t have that kind of bravery.
I stood there, very still.
Later, I would listen to him. He wouldn’t talk about the changing light, or the smell of Ephedra and Horse’s Tail, or cleansing space. He wouldn’t talk about the juniper that grew bark like hair, or stripping it, wrapping it into a nest, leaving it in a tree for a bird and her eggs. Nor would he talk about the crazy woman he met who could see through time, or the father ready to bite his own hand, or the little girl who took his breath away. He would talk about the drought in the West. He would talk about drilling. About cattle and wolves. About emissions. About erosion. And he would talk about Iraq.
Mama watched us. “It’s time we go,” she said.
“One more minute,” Cliff said. He pulled off his white shirt. The scars of his skin puckered into mottled ridges, thick rips across his chest.
He lay down on his chest in the mud. For a long time, he lay still. When he stood up, earth filled in the dents of his skin and smoothed it all over.
“Okay,” he said. “We can go.” He followed Mama and Bella past me to the truck and climbed onto the seat. The mud dripped all over, into every crevice of the fabric. The mud dried there and later it turned to dust.