The traffic that morning had been nerve-wracking—a long, blue, exhaust-spewing snake winding its way east from Los Angeles into the dilapidated, scrub desert of Riverside County. Farid’s hand rested lightly on the steering wheel, the vents of the air-conditioner all aimed at him so that despite the ninety-degree heat outside, his face was cold and dry as stone. He had just bought the Lexus with a signing bonus from his new engineering job, and had spent the morning under the carport polishing it with a tenderness he had not shown to Caitlin since he returned from his trip. When she asked him to drive her to Scottsdale to visit her parents, he had been displeased, the only saving grace that he could open the car up on the freeway.

       “Why don’t you just fly? I’ll take you to the airport,” he had said.

       “Because they want to meet you.”

       “I’m not ready for that.”

       “But you promised.” Which he hadn’t, but Caitlin was sure that as jetlagged as he’d been since he came back from Palestine, he wouldn’t remember.

       “Some car, huh?” he said, and used the cuff of his shirt to polish a few dust motes off the wood dashboard.

       Caitlin had spent two weeks worth of her minimum wage salary to buy the new yellow summer dress and the high-heeled shoes she was wearing. Her hair had been cut at a fancy salon in the mall, but Farid was blind to all of it, preoccupied as he was by his new car love. Her vision was to arrive at her parents’ duplex, finally an adult, a woman with a boyfriend, but Farid didn’t understand the importance of this trip.



They passed the small towns leading to Palm Springs, the corrosive flat light falling equally on faded billboards, dilapidated casinos and cinderblock motels, swimming pools and McDonalds and semi trucks exhausted along the side of the freeway; the heat sucking the color and shape out of everything, leaving behind only a locusty husk of life.

       “What a dump, huh?” Farid said.

       Only recently did she notice that Farid stuck a huh on pretty much every statement, or more accurately, only now that she felt he no longer loved her did it irritate. When she looked over at him, his face had a still look of concentration, unrelated to the air-conditioning, as if he were trying to eavesdrop on a conversation far away, but she knew better than to ask what he was thinking because that would summon the Smothering Clinging Lecture, how he needed His Space, and she did not have the stomach for that right now.

       “How could anybody live like this?” he continued, because when he got into one of these moods, her participation was not required.

       Caitlin has also noticed that he had become much more picky since he came back from visiting his parents. Nothing was right—not his apartment, not the traffic, not even her, Caitlin suspected. Only the car had his full devotion.

       “You’ve become a real snob lately,” she said.

       “Don’t be like that.”

       “But you have.”

       Caitlin wondered if he would pick apart Scottsdale, too, the streets with hokey names like Paradise Lost and Paradise Found, Happy Daze, Tequila Sunrise. Would Farid look down on the duplex, the neighbors riding around on golf carts, and her plaid and polo-shirt-wearing parents?

       “You’ve changed.” Caitlin sighed dramatically, wanting to be contradicted.

       “We need gas,” Farid answered.

       He pulled into a gas station that fronted a mobile home park. The metal roofs reflected heat like a bunch of parallel-parked barbeques. A fat woman made her slow way across the asphalt parking lot as if wading through a lagoon. She sported a white leather leash, on the end of which pulled a barrel-shaped gray pitbull. The dog walked stiffly, like his owner, legs apart, mallet-shaped head tilted to the ground in search of trouble.

       Farid looked dark and slim and petulant as he leaned over the hood to wash the windshield. His only concession to the heat was to take off his linen jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves. He stared at the fat woman and the pitbull, and then shrugged his shoulders through the glass at Caitlin, as if to say, See!

       Caitlin turned her back on him, kneeled on the seat and rummaged in the backseat for bottled water from the cooler. When Farid got back in, her eyes were damp.

       “You wouldn’t love me if I was that fat, would you?”

       “Why would you ever get that fat, huh?” he said. “You’re dripping on the leather.” He pointed to her perspiring bottle.

       They drove in silence. The traffic thinned as Farid passed between large trucks heading into the desert, a stoic rumbling convoy that could be going off to war instead of delivering frozen chickens and lawnmowers to the desert, climbing a long scrubby incline along the scorched hills.

       Caitlin wondered if what had once existed between them had vanished or was merely in hiding. They passed the summit that featured a tourist stop with a museum dedicated to some old general and a lounge/restaurant resembling a bunker a few hundred yards further.

       “Let’s stop,” Caitlin begged.

       “This is Hicksville.”

       “There’s nothing else for seventy miles the sign said.”

       The restaurant exterior consisted of dark stained wood with no windows. When they opened the door, a blast of cold, meaty air blasted them. Farid had put back on his jacket, which Caitlin considered entirely too formal, but at least he would probably appreciate the warmth. A long bar covered one wall with a big screen suspended from the ceiling. The men sitting on the barstools all seemed to know each other. They each wore bulky vests over T-shirts despite the heat outside, as if they belonged to the same team of some vague, unspecified sport. Their backsides considerably overlapped the stools they sat on. The whole row made a point of watching Farid and Caitlin enter. They were seated at a booth next to the door, as if for their protection as well as quarantine.

       “Did you crack the windows in the car so it’s not an oven inside?” Caitlin said.

       “If I did that, the alarm system won’t arm. Hope I don’t catch something infectious in there,” Farid said, getting up and taking off his jacket.

       Caitlin smiled up at him sweetly. He stepped toward the restroom without noticing her. When the waitress sidled up to the table and asked her what her poison was, Caitlin blinked and ordered iced tea.

       She tried to think sweet thoughts, considered the laminated pictures of food on the menu, when Farid’s jacket buzzed. She looked towards the dark cavern at the back where the restrooms were and hurriedly dug through his pockets for the phone. Called ID identified it as Kali. After a minute, the buzzing stopped and a text message appeared: Finish your work, love monkey, and hurry home to me. Where are you, huh? Kali.

       When Farid returned, Caitlin was tapping her foot on the metal stand underneath the table. “Kali called. She misses you. Loves you.”

       “Jesus, you’re reading my messages, huh?”

       “Stop it!”

       “What?”

       “Huh!”

       “We need to talk.”

       “Oh, you think so?”

       Their voices were raised, causing the men on the barstools to glare over their shoulders.

       “Let’s go back home. This was a bad idea.”

       Caitlin jumped up, and Farid threw money down on the table. The barstool men smirked. Outside, the heat knocked her back. As predicted, the air in the car was broiling. Farid turned the air-conditioner on, then dumped the melted ice and took the cooler inside the restaurant for more. In Caitlin’s opinion, a bad judgment call—it showed a self-assurance, an ignorance to the ways of the world, that Caitlin felt at pains to prove wrong.

       She watched the battered wood door swing shut and imagined heading back to Los Angeles where Farid would promptly break up with her. Unless he already had, and was just too cowardly to let her know. She slid across the seat, locked the doors, put the car in drive and slammed her foot down on the accelerator. The car bucked forward, gravel screaming out behind the back tires. Farid was right—a great car.

       Caitlin remembered car trips she used to take with her parents, to Sea World or the zoo, apple picking or hiking along the beaches. She felt the same combination of freedom and anticipation now, imagining the expression on Farid’s face when he came out of the honky-tonk diner with his full ice-chest. She laughed out loud, looking at herself in the rearview mirror, her lips drawn back over her teeth in a feral, hyena smile. But then the disturbing thought occurred to her that she was alone in the desert, the temperature gauge reading a hundred and two degrees, driving, technically, a stolen car.

       She decided to call her mother. Promptly, with the sound of the phone ringing, tears filled her eyes, the road ahead a blurry combination of external heat and internal anguish. “Mom,” she wailed, “Farid has left me.”

       She nodded into the cell phone as her mother started on how this was a blessing in disguise. At an off-ramp, Caitlin passed an old beat-up pickup truck on the side of the road. At the gaping hood, a woman—much the worse for wear—stood clutching a small baby in one arm while using her other to hold a newspaper aloft, shielding them both from the sun. As her mother kept talking on the phone, Caitlin wondered what snide remark Farid would have about them.

       “Are you listening to me? Caitlin? You need to come home.”

       And that’s when it became crystal clear that the last thing she wanted to do in her defeat was to be back home on Happy Trails Drive, on a sofa-bed in a duplex that she had never spent any time in. She slammed on the brakes, pulled over to the shoulder, and shifted the car in reverse.

       “Gotta go, mom. Change of plans.”

       Caitlin backed up in front of the distressed pickup and got out of the car. She came up to the woman holding the baby, and they both stared into the inexplicable cavern under the hood.        “Thank god you’re here,” the woman said. “I was about to pass out in this heat.”

       “Need any help?”

       “It’s real hot for the little one.”

       Caitlin agreed. Why did she stop for the woman and her baby? For no more reason than Farid would not.

       “Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve about had it with this old bucket. I think Stan will just have to deal with it.”

       Caitlin nodded. “You already call on your cell?”

       The woman shook her head. “Those things cause brain cancer.”

       “You want a ride back to the summit? To the diner?” Caitlin was getting worried about her bluff with Farid. Exactly how angry would he be? Enough to call the police on her? Did this qualify as a crime of passion, or did that only exist in places like Italy? What was the sentencing for a crime of passion, anyway?

       “There’s a good chance Stan will be stopped in there anyhow,” the woman said. “Name is Marika.” She had dyed red hair and sun-coarsened skin. Her feet in their flip-flops revealed cherry-red toenails and dry, cracked heels.

       She slid into the passenger seat and plopped the baby in her lap. She ran her hand up and down the bucket seat. “Nice.”

       “It’s not mine. My boyfriend’s. Or ex-boyfriend’s. Who I stole it from.” Caitlin felt the obligation of disclosure.

       “Whoa, Sally. Too much information for me,” Marika said. “Stan took my body, my youth, my future, and all I got was that lousy pickup.” She laughed a bitter, slicing kind of laugh that Caitlin figured might be her own in ten years if she played her cards wrong.

       “You have that adorable baby,” Caitlin said, regretting her words even as they came out.

       Because the baby was not attractive, or even cute, or ugly cute, the way babies are supposed to be. Caitlin felt bad about it, but there he was: a big misshapen head, reddish hair that belied his mother’s bottled color, and close-set eyes that portended future criminal intent. You wouldn’t want to run into this baby in a dark alley. There was also the smell, some sour combination of mashed carrots mixed with poop and insecticide.       

       “Yeah, little JZ’s a trip,” Marika said. “If you’ll excuse me.” She hiked up her tight T-shirt and then pushed up one of her bra cups. Little JZ latched on to an engorged nipple. A drugged calm filled the car.

       They drove through the scorching afternoon desert and pulled into the restaurant parking lot. Caitlin expected a commotion, police vehicles and an irate Farid, but all was curiously still. With a rude pluck, Marika detached the baby from her breast and sat him up. He looked dazed and bewildered, ripped away from his source of manna. He had the dreamy, intent look in his eyes of gas coming up, but instead of a burp, a big splash of yellowed liquid spurted out of him and on to the car seat.

       “Shoot,” Marika said. “That was not nice. I’ll go get paper towels.”

       When they entered the restaurant, it looked like the same men, unmoved, occupied the barstools, but no Farid. When the hostess came, Caitlin casually asked her about him.

       “The fellow you came in with earlier?”

       “Yes.”

       “Haven’t seen him.”

       “Two for lunch,” Marika said. “Do you have a high-chair?”

       “This is a bar and restaurant,” the hostess said. “As you can probably see, this is a not a family establishment.”

       “That’s good,” Marika said. “Chucky Cheese makes me want to put a bullet in my brain.”

       The hostess frowned and studied her seating chart even though all the tables were empty. She then led them to the same booth by the front door. “This must be my lucky seat,” Caitlin said, and the girl cracked a tired, thin smile and walked away.

       Caitlin had not intended to eat, but now that she was there she was ravenous, and the greasy menu sounded just right. She had simply been in the wrong mood earlier. She would fill her belly, and her next move would come to her. “I’ll have a chicken salad sandwich and an ice-tea.”

       “Give me the steak sandwich, a shrimp cocktail, an order of buffalo wings for us to share, and what do you have on tap?”

       When the waitress left, Caitlin asked, “Should you be drinking while you nurse?”

       “The hops are good for milk supply. Remember that.”

       Little JZ, ignored by his mother, had plopped belly-down on the cherry leatherette, poked a thumb in his mouth, and fallen asleep.      

       Once Caitlin’s hunger was satisfied, her anxiety returned. Where in the world had Farid gone, and what should she do? Dump the car at his apartment and hope the police weren’t looking for her? Drive to Phoenix? Neither option appealed to her.

       The bill landed on the middle of the table, free of human contact.

       “So where is Stan?” Caitlin ventured her hand out slowly towards the bill in hopes of being stopped.

       “Thank you so much for lunch,” Marika said, settling the issue. “I guess he went on home.”

       Caitlin nodded at the justness of this. “I better be on my way, too.”

       “We live out toward Joshua Tree. It’s not far. A beautiful place, all desert and stars. You’re welcome to stay the night. I insist. I hate hitching at night with JZ.”

       “Why don’t you just call Stan?”

       Marika tried flagging the waitress. “Oh, he’ll never pick up. He might have disconnected the phone by now. He hates the interruption to his work.”

       “What does he do?”

       “Works in a hardware store.” The waitress arrived. “We changed our mind on the dessert.”



It was past six o’clock and still over a hundred degrees when they pulled off the rutted two-way highway to where Marika said they lived. On a dirt road they crested one rise after another until Caitlin lost count and worried how she would ever find her way back. The GPS system blanked, probably fried, as they made their way through a canyon of rocks without encountering another car.

       “Are you sure this is the right way?” Caitlin asked.

       “I think I know where I live,” Marika snapped.

       Caitlin realized the irony of the situation, how she was being more patient with this stranger than she was with her own parents. But if she dumped Marika and Little JZ off on the side of the road then Farid would have won.

       Just as the sky was turning to purple dusk, Marika pointed to a dirt driveway snaking off into a ravine. At the end of it was tethered an old grayed trailer, complete with cinderblock stairs and a faded blue awning. The down-and-outness of the place was completed by a dirt-colored dog chained to a tree that snapped and jumped at them, only to be savagely yanked back by the end of his tether. Maybe next, Caitlin could rescue the dog.

       “Is this it?” she said, as if it might be a mistake, but Marika was fixated on a pearlescent Chevy parked under a carport, a single bare light bulb illuminating it.

       “Son of a bitching liar,” Marika said. “Stop the car. Look after JZ.”

       “Are you sure you want to do this?” A pain at her temples threatened to become a full-blown migraine. No doubt about it, she had picked up a lunatic.

       “Aren’t you my friend?” Marika asked. Her eyes were desperate. They had only shared lunch.

       “Go on,” Caitlin said.

       Little JZ had rolled onto the floorboards and was crawling his way to the brake pedal when Caitlin swept him up onto her lap. His body was heavier than she would have thought, and hot, like a little coal burning on her thighs. He immediately began jerking his arms, straining away from her, whimpering, as if he found her lacking, and she figured that was all she needed—a screaming baby to draw attention to her and the car.

       The windows of the trailer were all lit, but curtains blocked the view inside. Each window was a different color and design, like a patchwork quilt. Either Marika had been indecisive about which pattern to finally choose, or hers had been the kind of life where she had to make due with scraps. Now Caitlin could hear voices raised through the thin metal walls, and she admitted that she probably would have driven away, except for JZ, who she now cradled against her chest and rocked gently, humming a tune she remembered from her own childhood.

       She longed to be comforted for the disastrous turn her life had taken. Little JZ groped at her dress as he turned his head into Caitlin’s chest, little lips sucking away on nothing. Caitlin felt bad that she didn’t have a bottle or even a pacifier; she wondered for the umpteenth time exactly how long Marika was going to be. As Caitlin finally in desperation gave JZ the tip of her pinkie to nibble on, the trailer door banged open, light shattered like buckshot, and Marika stomped down the cinderblock stairs with a big duffel bag on her back, followed by a big burly man clad only in jeans, excessive chest hair, and tattoos (so this was Stan?), followed shortly after by a skinny blonde in short-shorts and a hot-pink pushup bra. Caitlin could just hear what Farid would have to say about this.

       “You’ve got to listen,” Stan yelled.

       “In our matrimonial bed.”

       “We aren’t married,” he said.

       “Oh, that’s a good one. Why don’t you tell your son that?” Marika threw her duffel into the backseat of the car, and that was when everyone noticed Caitlin.

       “Hi,” she said.

       “What is that woman doing with my boy?”

       “You’ve got to be kidding.”

       Up close, Caitlin could see that Stan’s tattoo spelled his name, S-T-A-N, and wondered both about the necessity and wisdom of this.

       “Marika,” the blonde said, the first words she had spoken. Her voice was more cultured than one would have expected, definitely too cultured to be shacking up with Stan in a trailer in the middle of nowhere.

       “Don’t even talk to me. My best friend,” Marika said.

       “Get the kid,” Stan said, and the blonde now veered to the driver’s side of the car.

       “Leave us alone,” Caitlin said, but the blonde yanked the door open, little JZ squinting into the overhead light as the ignition buzzer went off.

       “Back away, Sondra,” Marika said.

       Caitlin was surprised that the blonde and Stan did indeed back away. She was impressed until she looked over the car hood and saw Marika aiming a gun at them.

       “Now you two crawl back into your den of sin,” Marika said.

       “Not going to happen,” Stan said, and as he stepped towards her, Marika pulled the trigger. The noise was stunningly loud, searing Caitlin’s eardrum, echoing out into the desert. The blonde and little JZ screamed. Blood started to spurt from Stan’s foot.

       “I warned you,” Marika said. She got into the car.

       “I’m calling the police,” Stan announced.

       “You do that, and I’ll tell Burt every bit of money you took out of the register, the hours you lied about. I could go on.” Marika calmly took the screaming JZ into her lap where he immediately quieted. “Caitlin, sweetie, I think it’s time to move on.”

       As Caitlin turned the ignition with shaky hands and put the car into reverse, Stan limped over to a junk pile and fished out a baseball bat. As the car rolled forward, he hobbled in front of it and brought the bat down full force on the hood, leaving a neat, forty-five degree trench across the hood.

       “Nice,” Marika said, leaning out the window. “Make sure he doesn’t bleed to death.”

       With that, they were back on the road.

       Caitlin’s hands were trembling on the wheel. “You were… magnificent.”

       Marika looked down, shy but pleased. “You just got to tell a man where you stand.”

       “Where to now?” Because the truth was that Caitlin was beyond exhaustion and feared that Marika’s brand of crazy would eventually be turned on her. Still, she wanted to drop the two at a safe place. Closure.

       “My momma lives down by the Salton Sea. We could drive through the park, sleep at her place. She makes the world’s best apple pancakes.”

       Caitlin worried that this, too, was another sell job, that the reality would fall considerably short, but what choice did she have but to give one last push?



They drove through the silent desert, the black outline of scrub and low hills visible against the forgiving dark blue of the night sky. Marika was silent, baby JZ napping in her arms. Despite everything, Caitlin felt happy. They were okay, only the car worse for wear, although Farid certainly wouldn’t see it that way. She hadn’t taken a shower or eaten, an eternity since she had picked Marika up at the side of the road, scarcely credible that only that morning she had been Farid’s prim, hopeful girlfriend.

       The phone signal had grown weaker, but still she checked her missed calls and counted thirty-two from him. How sad that the only time he really tried to reach out to her was when she had stolen his car.

       Marika fell asleep. Caitlin pulled over at a truck stop, filled the tank and bought a syrofoam cup of hot coffee and a stale donut. And then an orange juice and a pint of milk for Marika, although she guessed she would prefer a Coke. She nodded at the man behind the counter and returned to the velvety night, feeling like an outlaw.

       Marika, awake in the car, took the drinks. “He’s not really so bad,” she said. “But I want little JZ to grow up and know how to treat a woman right. It all comes down to the mothers.”

       “Not so bad?”

       “Stan had a real hard life. It shows up.”

       “I’ll say.” Caitlin felt scandalized by Marika’s forgiveness. She glared through the windshield, unable to see the deep gouge in the hood that Stan had caused.

       “When he was just a boy his mother died. His dad decided to take it out on the kids. He didn’t lay a hand on his daughter, ignored her, but he used poor Stan like a punching bag. Beat him a couple times a week, especially on Friday nights because that was when he was loneliest. It also gave Stan time to heal up before school on Monday.

       As soon as they were old enough, the kids left. Sister never looked back. Stan gets a call now and then from Washington state where she ended up. But when the old man came down with cancer, Stan went home to care for him. Saddest thing you ever saw. Meaner than a hornet still, cursed and called him names, yet Stan took it all and served him. Washed and wiped and cooked and fed him like he was an infant, till he died. How can you explain a thing like that?”

       The story made Caitlin nauseous, tears welling up behind her face for no reason she could name, except that the world was a stranger place than she had ever bargained for. Finally she said, “I can’t.”

       Her thoughts swirled for many miles, but when she was finally ready for words, she looked over and saw that Marika had dozed off again.



The tires thumped on the rutted dirt road of the Salton Sea. It was one of those places Caitlin always meant to visit. A burn of orange on the horizon, and for a moment she thought it was still sunset, still early evening, although that had been hours ago. No, it was simply the afterburn of the great, careless cities to the west. The empty desert was trapped, an onlooker, held at arm’s length in a perpetual false dusk.

       Caitlin let herself out of the car and stood at the inland sea’s edge. Eerie, still, nothing like the restless thrash of the ocean, and yet the silence allowed one to hear the flutterings of thousands of birds out in the darkness, roosting for the night. From school she knew that the Salton did not have an outlet, that the water coming in from runoff was making it saltier by the year, turning toxic for both the fish and the birds that migrated. Yet they were habit bound, and until the situation became untenable, they would continue coming, flying their long, unthinkable distances, and land to rest, despite the sea’s deep resistance to satisfaction. The ground around her feet was littered with shell casings. Further on, in the muddy bank, trash and cigarette butts. Bobbing in the shallow water she barely made out a white, feathered body. As she turned away, she saw the ink of the night sky to the east, the relief of a whole desert of uncontaminated space.









Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Her bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, winner of the James Tait Black Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book, and finalist for the LA Times Book Award, among other honors. Her stories have appeared in Zyzzyva, Boulevard, The Sun, StoryQuarterly, Confrontation, Gulf Coast, Other Voices, Third Coast, and North Dakota Quarterly. Her work has been twice listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories section of Best American Short Stories. She lives with her husband in Southern California.


Back to Freight Stories No. 8

 

Tatjana Soli

Love Monkey