Death's pond'rous grinding mill?
Beware, the Sage replied in sooth:
Tis Love, Love is stronger still.
Barbara came up behind me, pressing against my back, her cheek hard against the back of my left shoulder, arms tight around my mid-section. I could feel her smile spread through me but, when I recoiled and turned to face her, the sudden shock of my withdrawal stung her eyes to wetness.
Clumsily, I embraced her, but the light-headedness I felt was not the usual exhilaration of being close to her; it was something else-something born of revulsion. She started to pull away, reacting as I searched for words.
"It's not you, Barbara. Never think that." I kissed her and felt the cold in me dissolve through the heat of her lips. I looked down, and she was still holding the buttery yellow flower in her hand. Her eyes followed mine, questioning. Revulsion at a perfect blossom? I could tell that she sensed an incongruity in me she had not seen before.
Yet, the only reason we were here in this New Mexico field together was because of that flower; otherwise, Barbara would be with her husband in Dallas. In the two days she had spent here, I had delayed telling her the story I knew I had to tell, trying to milk as much joy from our moments as I could. The time had come, though, even as my hands stroked her long brown hair. Here in the bright summer sunshine, I had to sketch the dark.
Barbara looked at the flower again and tossed it away, taking my hand and leading me back to the blanket where we had lunched. She wanted to know the truth and I could not deny it to her.
* * *Herb Delph and I had always been friends, which was surprising since we thought much in common and should have exhausted each other's resources early in life. We had first met in the small New Mexico town of Silver City age nine or ten, and two decades later we were still friends despite taking divergent career paths and in spite of discovering the opposite sex.
We had both fancied ourselves writers and had both failed miserably at it. Herb finally ended up working for the county as a surveyor, and I had spent nearly a decade working for small newspapers in the Midwest.
Two years ago, the cold shower of divorce had driven me back to home ground in southern New Mexico, and now I was employed with the local college, preserving as much free time as possible to become re-acquainted with the New Mexico outdoors.
Herb was not fortunate enough to be divorced, but he lived under its threat. It was his wry comment that community property was the most vicious leghold trap ever devised. He welcomed the chance for us to roam the New Mexico hills again as we had in our miscreant days of youth.
Southern New Mexico has much to attract the person who is uncomfortable with urban culture. There are vast stretches of arid plains, wind-haunted rocky hillsides, and even thick wilderness forest. In the West, towns are booming, comatose, or decaying, with little grace in any of the three conditions. Several of these frontier survivals formed the backdrop for our sojourns.
Herb's sister Barbara was five years younger than me and not much more than a blurred memory of a girl in braces when I had last seen her during my college years. In the interim she had married well, acquiring sophistication and charm as an interior decorator and wife of an oil company executive. I could not have anticipated what would happen between us when circumstances threw us together one afternoon at Herb's house. Barbara had come to visit their parents her re-introduction to me led to surprising consequences. Though it had not passed beyond a kiss, the penetration of her lips had been enough to open my imagination. Suddenly I felt truly alive as only one can when the inner mind is not fettered by its self-imposed limitations. Though I didn't see Barbara again that visit, the brief electric contact plummeted me into a new phase of creativity which was reward in itself. The lady with the hazel eyes surprised me by calling me a week later, and that was the beginning of a correspondence warm and stimulating, untainted by real world limitations. I sensed somehow that the laws of this other world were very different, but as inexorable as gravity.
At first I didn't say anything to Herb of this growing attachment to his sister and, naively, I hoped a discussion would never be necessary. While women take delight in discussing with each other the intimacies of their lives, men traditionally keep such things private unless circumstance gives them no choice. Even the bitter feud that passed for marriage in Herb's life was something I knew little of and would never ask about.
Soon after my discovery of Barbara, Herb had his own collision with enticing fate. The clarity of that rich Saturday in March has remained with me. Herb and I had climbed aboard his 4-wheel drive pickup nicknamed "Old Blue" for a full day's journey over the Black Range and down into the valley of the Rio Grande. After reaching the 10,000-foot level at Emory Pass, Herb guided the truck through switchback curves leading down through the eastern slopes of the range.
Just outside of the town of Hillsboro the right rear tire went flat. Changing the tire was a quick ten-minute job but, lacking a further spare, and having at least another hundred miles on the itinerary, we stopped at the only service station in Hillsboro to get the tire repaired.
Hillsboro is one of those early twentieth century mining towns that almost died and then found a new lease on subsistence through tourism. Substantial stone and stucco buildings shaded by towering cottonwood trees attest to the town's vintage. A few moldering structures stare vacantly, but antique merchants have kept other buildings from suffering a similar fate.
Some prominent buildings present a scalloped effect with multiple arch facades of mock-Spanish architecture while others show large, quartered, rectangular windows common the southwestern storekeepers of the thirties and forties. It was inevitable that the atmosphere of such a place would bring the counter culture people-at least when the weather was warm. At its annual peak, Hillsboro cannot boast more than 176 people, so denizens and visitors alike are all highly visible.
Herb and I left his truck with one of those attendants who promise to get the job done in "five minutes or less" but whose wandering, indefinite gaze and half-open mouth assured at least an hour's wait.
We sauntered across the street in the manner that only westerners wearing jeans can walk. We were looking for homemade apple pie at one of the two local cafes; it was a good bet because apple orchards had long been a part of the Hillsboro economy, culminating each Labor Day in an Apple Festival that multiplied the population by a factor of ten for the long weekend. As we walked, the welcome heat of the sun was punctuated by a light breeze that raised light eddies of dust at the edge of the paving. Several young people were lounging outside one cafe. They wore slouch hats, patched jeans or coveralls; the men's hair was unkempt and their beards were scraggly, while their female companions wore their hair long and untended.
People like this have been described as hobos of the modern age, but most of them fancied themselves artists, frontiersmen, or settlers hearkening back to the 19th century. They sold handcrafted jewelry, pottery, painting and weaving-most of it undistinguished. Herb and I suspected that most of them, regardless of the protestations of independence, were supported by the nation's taxpayers, sustained by the middle class they had abandoned and rejected.
One girl here was an obvious exception. Her jeans were clean and new looking; her print blouse fresh and stylish. She sat on a folding camp stool with a large sketch pad on her lap, making rapid shading strokes with a pencil. Her hair was tied back but lustrous from brushing; its brown color was so light as to be almost blond.
She looked up as we approached the cafe, her blue eyes narrowed against the sun, her pencil hand shading her brow. She smiled, more at Herb than at me; as long as I had known him, such preference seemed inevitable. Herb was impossible to upstage and his rugged looks got him the female attention I had always wanted but seldom got enough of. I sensed that subtle spark of interest in both of them even though Herb never broke stride as we entered the cafe.
The other thing I knew about my friend was that he had a knack for inadvertently finding trouble; while he and the young lady were looking at each other, I was scanning the street. Nobody else seemed to be remotely aware of us or the sketch artist.
The chintzy frame aluminum screen door into the cafe creaked, and we went in to take a table by the wall.
The first thing I saw was the man's eyes. They were dark and glowering, fixed in our direction He was seated alone by the window and I immediately sensed the connection my subconscious had been uncomfortable about. If there could be a stereotype motorcycle club member, this man would be him. He slouched arrogantly in the chair, head slightly tilted, his eyes boring into us. For a shirt, he had only a denim vest with an embroidered Harley-Davidson badge, a line of metal studs and one or two other insignia, one of which was a strange flash that had the meaningless embroidered initials "ITCOB." His sun-darkened skin covered arms formed of muscle and sinew whose contours were mottled with tattoos. He wore tight, grease-spotted jeans, the cuffs fitting tightly over the shanks of scuffed motorcycle boots; his hair was wind-whipped and oily, the browline showing hint that it was receding up the center. The only other sign of his vanity was a carefully waxed handlebar mustache that might have looked pleasant or even comical on a gentler face.
As he stared, more at Herb than myself, the biker picked his strong but stained teeth; one canine booth was broken off close to the gumline, and it called my attention to an obviously recent scar on his left cheek.
For his part, Herb seemed oblivious to the presence of the man. The presidency of Scorpio in him could make of his face an impassive mask, but he seldom missed anything. We ordered pie and coffee, dawdling over it, with no particular schedule to keep. Herb never looked toward the man by the window so I assumed I was the only one with a queasiness in my stomach; malignancy seemed to pour in our direction like a wave of black oil. I avoided looking toward the window until the biker stood up. He easily reached 6'3" and he faced our table momentarily, deliberately, then walked to the door, looking back once before leaving. If ever there was a carrier of misery, we had just seen him.
"You were aware of the prototype Hell's Angel who just scraped the top of the doorway?" Herb just nodded, sipped at his coffee, and looked around the room for the first time.
Out of the sidewalk, the man with the mustache towered over the long-haired artist. His mouth contorted with suppressed rage, and his fists clenched and unclenched, bringing out rope-like tendons in his arms. She looked up and then back to her sketch pad, apparently not frightened or surprised. I felt apprehension for her, but the window glass that kept out the sounds was a motion picture screen into a world I could not alter.
As I stared, the man stooped over as if on the verge of striking the girl, but she did not look up this time. He pivoted and walked across the street to where a swayback, high handlebar motorcycle leaned. Within seconds, man and machine were shooting off to the east along the state highway, the grumble of the motorcycle exhaust loud and lingering in the air.
When we left the cafe, she was still there, sketching in the sunlight as though no cloud had passed. Herb walked up to her with the familiarity of someone who has been a friend for years, "I get the feeling we caused you some grief without really meaning to."
Then she really smiled, wrinkling her eyes in an engaging half-wink. "It's not really a problem.I mean it happens all the time. I guess Turk is a classic case, but he stays around anyway. He'll go off to T or C, get drunk or stoned and come back before tomorrow morning." Her voice was lilting, but the seed of meaning in the words said something else. As the two of them talked, I learned that, true to Character, her boyfriend Turk had found her two months before in Albuquerque and had spent most of his waking time since then trying to control her. Her given name was Feather Symonds, suggesting that her parents must not have been conventional people either.
At one point we broke off the conversation in the expectation of continuing our trip but, predictably, the service station attendant had gotten only so far as to dismount the tire. He promised to be done in ten minutes. We understood what that meant.
We spent the lunch hour with Feather Symonds. As well as being physically attractive, she turned out to be an engaging conversationalist. She was one of the rare people who looked intensely at the person she was speaking to and, as well, when that person was speaking. Although Herb did not show it, I knew by the way he had shelved whatever schedule we had that he was more than mildly attracted to this girl.
In the cafe she leaned her sketch pad against the wall and I noticed that the sketch she had been drafting was a neat and detailed view of the Hillsboro street, built up on paper in minute and perfect detail. Sometime during the period we had been talking she had inadvertently smeared it, marring forever its static, unchanging perspective.
Later, when the tire was finally repaired, she accepted Herb's invitation and the three of us drove south from Hillsboro toward the ghost town of Lake Valley. Scarcely a mile out of town, Feather directed Herb to turn onto a dirt road angling to the right and disappearing around a hillside. A weathered sign warned off trespassers and hunters. Around the hill and nestled in the elbow crook of two ridges was a white stucco two-storey ranch house. Herb applied the brakes. "That's it. We'll turn around here. I thought you knew where we were going."
Feather gestured, "Go on. It's abandoned. Really." She looked at Herb, then me.
The truck crawled forward and, as we approached the house, the empty window frames and flaking stucco came into focus, replacing the illusion of occupancy. A windmill in the back yard cycled in metallic creaks as it brought water up into a metal stock tank. As often was the case in New Mexico, the water was more valuable than the house, and there were signs that a local rancher was still using the tank to water his herd while he allowed the house to collapse.
Tumbleweeds had found their way among the sheltering trees and had piled up against the west wall of the former home. The sight impressed me, "It really looked inhabited from the entry road."
Feather was genuinely excited. "Isn't it a great place? I mean, all the privacy you could ever want. I love it! Look, see how the overflow from the stock tank feeds all the wildflowers."
I could see swatches of color against the drab, cattle-trampled earth of the back yard. We got out of the truck and walked around the house, following Feather who ran ahead to look at flowers. At the rear we found a door off its hinges and Herb and I went into the gloomy interior. It might have been a pleasant home once, but now the plaster lay in chunks on the rubble-strewn floors. Names of nothing people, now-forgotten, probably never worth remembering, were carved into woodwork or spray-painted on what plaster remained on the walls. We tested the cluttered stairway and found it firm enough to try.
The second storey was less wasted than the ground floor. One large bedroom was almost clean, the windowpanes intact. The honey varnish of the floors could still be seen under the coating of dirt. There was no furniture, and the air was warm and close.
I heard a noise behind us and turned around with a sharp intake of breath, somehow thinking of Feather's boyfriend Turk.
Feather stood in the doorway to the bedroom. She had untied her hair, and it flowed down past her shoulders; in her hand was a perfect yellow blossom. She ceremoniously gave it to Herb.
"Hmmm, Hibiscus coulteri, unless I miss my guess." As Herb spoke I thought he was letting his degree in Biology get in the way of his practice of the field, but his smile was more expressive than his words. From the look in her hazel eyes I knew she probably would have kissed him had I not been there. The fragrance of the butter-yellow flower was strong perfume in a room whose neutral staleness had lain unaltered for years.
Inexplicably, I was overcome with a sense of melancholy, and I walked across the hollow-sounding floor to the window. In the midst of this came my thoughts of Barbara, and I could feel a warm tide of desire mixing with the other feelings, so filled with images that the here and now seemed to dissolve.
It was only when Herb called my name that I snapped out of the reverie to become aware of him and Feather again; yet, the exquisite bittersweet of my feelings remained with me through the rest of that day and long into the night, a night of fevered longing.
The passage of the rest of the day was touched by those few moments in the room of that abandoned house; Herb and the girl hurtled down a dimensional tunnel, while I travelled in my own reality, parallel to them, but separate. Our spoken words seemed to jump great distances, clear but straining as with short wave radio messages.
The sun was fading in the west behind the looming peaks of the Black Range when we got back to Hillsboro. The sky was bright, but the shadows were deepening; the late afternoon air cooled rapidly. I left them in the truck, talking, because I wanted to be alone for a few minutes to tend the flower of my own imagination. For almost 20 minutes I walked, smelling the spring air, listening to the distant barking of a dog, seeing the details of the buildings around me gradually fade in the growing twilight. As I thought of Barbara, I felt as though I were not alone at all, and it seemed to be more than the strength of my imagination.
I got back to the truck in full dusk; Herb and Feather were two close silhouettes by the front fender. It was time to go, proving that the most magical of days must also pass away.
"Well, I hope I'll be seeing you again soon." Feather addressed the comment to me, and the sincerity with which she said it told me more than the words. Herb and Feather said their good-byes and we were again in the truck heading back over the mountains toward home.
Herb was silent for a long time before he put it into words. "Nossir, love and marriage and not necessarily the same animal."
"Not always." The two sentence exchange was the full extent of full male disclosure and discussion of feelings.
"I'm not used to things happening that suddenly." I could tell from his words that things had gone out of his control in his feelings for the lady with the sketch pad.
I stared out of Old Blue's cracked passenger side window at the trees rushing by in the darkness. "Maybe it's for the best that it happens all at once, because that guy Turk would probably massage your skull with his knuckles before you have the chance to enjoy yourself."
Herb squinted through the windshield, "Yeah, that guy's the ultimate loser. I think she's had more trouble in the last two months around him than most people get in a lifetime. Old Turk is one of those people who decide what they want and other people's choices don't really count. I think we call them sociopaths-no inner voice. Feather said she feels like she's a prisoner, and she didn't want to tell me about some of the things that happened to her in the past eight weeks." Maybe Herb felt they were alike, knowing that if they jumped overboard, a weight tied around their ankles could take them right to the bottom.
He didn't have to explain the strange manner in which his own marriage had devolved into one in which his wife now sought and extracted the maximum punishment form him for wrongs real and imagined; meting out revenge for the absences in his character that she had expected to fill in 11 years of domestic training. The lawyer she had retained for discussion of separation and divorce was, unfortunately, one of Herb's high school enemies. From what Herb had told me, though, his wife's greatest pleasure was in staying married so that each evening could provide the opportunity for an inquisition.
"At least murder is only painful for an instant, but marital discord is like Chinese water torture." I felt I knew that from experience.
His grin was sardonic. "Give me the dripping water on the forehead any day. Besides, this was just a nice daydream we just went through." His voice lacked conviction, but it was something he had to say nonetheless. After we reached the top of the mountain range and started down the other side, we remained silent, lost in our private thoughts.
The following week I received an unexpected letter from Barbara, a letter I had not expected and certainly not one with the feelings she now put into words. It brought back all the emotional force of the weekend, and I knew I had to see her again, even against my better judgement.
The following Saturday was a day of mistakes. Overwhelmed by my own imagination, I made a telephone call to Dallas and, heedless of the popular axiom, I did not hang up when a man answered. I knew that Barbara would face repercussions for that call. Fresh from that uncomfortable experience, I called Herb. His wife explained that he had gone on an excursion-with me. Hastily, I claimed that I was calling to see when he would pick me up; she then informed me that Herb had left several hours before, and I suspected that any further protestations I offered would just make things worse, if that was possible.
Wherever Herb was, and I was certain where that would be, he would come back to a well-laid ambush. I rationalized that Herb was tough and that he must have considered the risk worth the punishment-the only way to live.
Herb's wife and her lawyer picked the following Monday for what Herb would refer to as "the raid." Knowing that Herb would not put up much of a fight, she packed off most of the household goods while Herb was at work, emptied the checking and savings accounts, slapped a lien on Herb's truck, and left him with their house which was carrying only a few thousand worth of equity and monthly payments of $600.
I had to hand it to him, though; when he came over to tell me the news, his face was frosted with impassivity. If it bothered him, he did not show it directly. His major gripe was that the sheriff's department had come to repossess his truck; it was unfortunate that his wife had put up the downpayment from her account three years before. Herb knew he would get it back as soon as he paid her for that lump sum.
Herb threw up his hands, "My God, she even took the food from the refrigerator and cupboards. All that's left is a half quart of milk, some longhorn cheese and a can of kippered herring." A short silence. "I hate fish." He sat there with an expression of mock perplexity on his face, and then we began to laugh.
The serious possibilities in the moment were gone, and I half-regretted it because I almost wanted to mention my feelings for his sister and the haunting passion without respite. Maybe he would advise me as to whether there was a chance for Barbara and me.but men didn't discuss things like that.
"I assume you went to Hillsboro Saturday?" It was more statement than question, and it was answered by the slight raising of an eyebrow.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do about the slug on the modified tricycle-his insecurity probably started when somebody stole his training wheels. He pushed her around some since last week. She can do without him. Maybe he should go back to California, where most maladjusted garbage comes from these days." His words were light but he meant all of it.
"That's okay; now that your truck has been snatched, you're not going anywhere, anyhow." It wasn't unusual for Herb to find himself in some kind of trouble but, as his friend, my subtle suggestion that he give up his infatuation probably would not be heeded.
"That's just what I wanted to talk to you about."
I prepared myself, "And here comes the hook, right?"
"Right. I'm sure you feel like taking a drive this weekend, and since we used my vehicle last time, it seems only fair."
"Of course, he said, against all notions of common sense." It was hard to pretend that I wasn't concerned about his safety. If we both went, I was concerned about our safety. Yet I knew I wouldn't refuse him, because there was something in his situation that was my own.
When I picked up Herb the next Saturday around 1 p.m., I could see the strain of his domestic problems in the set of his mouth and the bleariness of his eyes; underlying this was an eagerness I could understand. Without it, he would have no support for his ego. Whatever the risks, it was worth it to him, and that was enough for me.
Once more we went over the mountains and down toward Hillsboro. Herb told me of Feather's frequent but hurried collect calls and how they arranged their meetings. So, we went into Hillsboro, turned south on that same road I remembered from weeks before, and we looked for her.
Just before the turnoff to the abandoned house, I saw Feather walking alongside the road; her hair was almost golden in the sunlight, and it fell evenly down onto her shoulders. Her figure was smooth and supple as she walked, the ever-present sketch pad under one arm.
I stopped beside her, and she came over tot he car in a bouncing run, smiling broadly, her eyes bright. As she got into the car, she handed Herb another of the butter yellow flowers she had picked somewhere along the road, and then we went the rest of the distance to the house; as we had planned, I left them there, promising to pick Herb up just after dark. The sight of the house infected me with the powerful swell of emotion I had felt the first time in its upstairs. I wondered, if I ever saw Barbara again, if I would bring her here. Just the idea of being with her, anywhere, was a fiery hunger lurking beneath the seat of consciousness, rising undiminished at almost any hour of day or night. From Barbara's letter I felt she must know the same inexplicable emotion.
I passed the afternoon hiking and taking photographs, glad to be alone with my thoughts in the New Mexico outdoors. There was no special thought of Herb and Feather, but I did think of the empty white house and wonder why it was a catalyst for such powerful contemplation.
At dusk I was back at the turnoff, motor silent, waiting for them, but it was fully dark when I heard their voices preceding them down the dirt track. The happiness of Feather's laugh made me smile in the darkness of the car interior, and I realized that I had been uneasy about them being discovered. My nervousness had been groundless, and I knew Herb hadn't worried about it.
I got the idea that this rendezvous was something very careful worked out, to be repeated as often as Feather could manage it. In an oblique discussion of the dangers involved, Feather smiled and passed it off, "If I ever fail to show up, then you'll know something has happened. Otherwise, don't worry. He couldn't do anything that would keep me away permanently."
Herb looked at me with mock smugness, "See I told you she had spirit."
Somehow that was the right word, and I didn't say anything further.
We left Feather at the edge of Hillsboro as she requested, and we were once more off into the mountains of the night. It was late when we arrived back in Silver City, and we decided to stretch the evening over an order of Mexican food in a small local restaurant that stayed open past midnight on weekends.
Against a jukebox background of mixed country and Tejano music, we attacked plates of enchilada smothered in blood red chilli sauce so hot that it brought perspiration to the brow and made the eyes and nose run regardless of the quantities of soft drinks we imbibed with it. Herb said only, "I'd rather have a beer."
There was something in the ambiance of the night that made us both less-guarded; perhaps it was in doing thing that had only been possible long ago before the responsibilities of life and work had revoked our freedom license.
The sound of plates being stacked and the aroma of salsa and frying corn tortillas kept our senses alive, and I once again let fall the hint of what was going on long distance between Herb's sister and me. No details needed to be filled in, just as he had little need to tell me of his own involvements. Yet, in those few words, we shared the confidences, stripped of normal posturing.
Outside, the midnight air was brisk, a natural factor of 6,250 feet of altitude that even made summer nights a relief. Hillsboro nights would also feel this cool. A passing parade of adolescents in their vehicles crawled down Bullard Street, the main drag. "Things don't seem to change much here." I was trying to be incisive, but failed miserably.
Herb reflected a moment, "Nothing ever dies unless we let it. It's simple."
That didn't sound like a profound statement but, later that night I tossed in bed with my thoughts, and the comment grew larger, applying to levels far deeper than the physical. Perhaps it was the axis upon whose pivot the great levers of all ideas survived. But then, in the darkest part of the night, ideas have far more substance than the objects surrounding us in the daylight. Many times I wished I could dwell in the world of ideas and feelings exclusively.
While Herb and his wife's lawyer battled head-to-head over the beloved blue pickup truck, it fell my lot to either drive Herb to his assignations or lend him my vehicle; it was a good excuse for me to get out of town. Herb and his artist love became a fixture in my activities for the next few weeks, their reflected happiness brining joy to my own secret life.
It was almost with Herb's emotions that my breath quickened when we caught sight of Feather walking alongside that dirt road south of Hillsboro, or when she was just sitting, waiting for him to appear. The empathy I felt for their situation was unique in my life.
Feather was always exuberant and her beauty radiant, something she could not help infecting others with. She never failed to bring Herb her gift of the yellow-petaled flower, the fragrance of that single bloom always filling the car. While Herb made light of the gift, it was plain that he expected such small things as a part of the one good thing happening in his life. In contrast to other members of her generation, Feather impressed me as a parson who kept appointments and promises. Over the mountains from Hillsboro was wrath, enmity, and prolonged mental agony; on this side of the peaks were sweet smells, trusting embraces, and a peacefulness that could make one forget the foolishly imagined dangers of a jealous boyfriend. Never did I see Turk's motorcycle when we passed through Hillsboro, nor did Feather mention his name.
She almost always brought her sketch pad to show us, but the tenor of her drawing was changing; now, most of them seemed to be in motion, with sculpted clouds, blowing grasses forming the background for racing horses or human faces alive in detail and expression. She seemed prolific at all she did.
I became more and more familiar with the abandoned house too, until my eyes had restored the fallen stucco, had erased the piled up tumbleweeds, and I wondered how far the mind could go in altering the reality of environment and how Herb and Feather had peopled that empty upstairs bedroom with the furnishing of their imaginations. In those idyllic hours we all found happiness in a very real sense that made the mere physical world but an excrescence to be cosmetically hidden.
Then came that ninth day in May, a Saturday. Just the night before, I had talked on the telephone with Barbara, and both Herb and I were in a particularly ebullient mood. He had come up with the ransom his estranged wife was demanding, and he would have Old Blue returned to him on the following Monday. Things were going right. Even the long drive over the mountains seemed brief in the current of the brilliant day whose dry heat was tempered by a gusting breeze. This was the strong sun that brought us all back from where we had wandered to feel the pleasant harshness of the air, the food, and the people.
It was still early afternoon when we reached Hillsboro and the wind had increased. The empty main street, which is also the highway, was scoured by swirls of dust. Nobody was in sight. We turned south as always, expecting every moment to see Feather's trim figure by the roadside. we drove to the turnoff and back to town three times in the face of wind and blowing dust.
"Did you confirm this appointment?" My comment was probably unnecessary considering the agitation that showed in Herb's tight-set mouth.
"She called me last night. Everything was fine." His eyes remained fixed on the road.
Finally we drove in to the abandoned house; while Herb went inside, I stayed out front listening to the wind rustle through the tree limbs. After all these weeks I had suppressed all sense of foreboding concerning Herb and Feather, but now it came back with a familiar queasiness seething in my stomach. Herb emerged from the house as though it were his own. He got into my car and sat there, staring straight ahead.
My unease became a wave of panic as I thought of the girl lying in the house, a victim in my worst imaginings.
Herb slapped the dashboard suddenly. "She's not there. Time to go to town."
The next hour was spent walking the street in Hillsboro-the bar, the gasoline station, the cafes, antique stores, grocery store. Nothing. It struck me that neither of us knew where she had been staying. Finally, one young long hair said he thought he heard Turk's motorcycle roar through town before dawn; he had gone to the window, but it was too dark to see anything but a dark mass shooting through the town, blue flame coming from the header stacks of the machine's exhaust.
My thought itself was sarcastic. Maybe Turk had left for good so everybody could live happily ever after.
By the time darkness came it seemed that we had talked to most of the town's denizens to no avail. The heat of the day was dissipating quickly and with it came a fatigue that could only be generated by despair. My mouth tasted of dust and I didn't argue when Herb suggested we go back to Silver City.
Herb's personality was always an object of study to me; he was able to act quickly in emergency situations or when physical force was required, but his face could remain a stone mask, and he was imperturbable in most social situations. As we wound along the so-familiar mountain road, I felt, for the first time since I had known him, that he was crumbling at the edges like an ancient granite obelisk.
When I called him the following evening Herb had still not heard form Feather, and the level quality of his speech could not conceal his depression. He did say that he was due to get his truck back the next day and that he was going to be taking a few days off from work. I didn't have to ask what he was going to do with the time, and I knew he wanted to be by himself.
For myself, the following weeks demands took my mind off the whereabouts of Feather Symonds. The deceit of appearances was an old nemesis, and I knew how possible it was that she had turned her life around and decided to make the best of it with her other boyfriend.
Barbara and I talked long distance four times that week. I knew that I loved her despite the limited time we had spent together. The softness of her voice and its promises were like nothing I had experienced; the way she could make me feel, too, was a blazing jewel in the everyday pewter setting of my life. We never discussed the future or social arrangements because we understood how unlikely it was that we would ever reach that stage. When I thought of marriage and physical permanence I could not help but think of my own and Herb's experiences, but there was something in this ethereal contact that colored the thoughts of my days, the dreams of my nights, with the white stain of indelibility.
Several times I picked up the telephone and punched in Herb's number, but he was never home. It was two weeks later that I met him at a local self-serve gas station. Was it my imagination? His face seemed strained-his normally intense eyes red-rimmed and almost glazed with fatigue. Never before I had I seen such an accentuation of the lines in his face, which normally carried only the squint lines common to those who worked outdoors in this country of intense sun.
"Where you been, Guy?" I called about nine times in the last week."
Herb shrugged characteristically, "Told you-I was taking some time off. Guess I haven't been at the house much."
I pressed him, "Come on, what's the news? I've been wondering."
Herb re-hung the gasoline filler nozzle on the big, chrome-trimmed self-serve pump. "I was a little concerned, but nothing's changed. Just a mix-up last trip." He rubbed his hands together and his eyes seemed fixed on a distant point down the street behind my shoulder. I noticed that his hands were dry and cracked, the fingernails grown long and untended. In the two weeks since I had last seen him, Herb had also begun to grow a beard, as yet it was uneven and disreputable looking.
"She's fine.okay. Nothing's changed."
With the mystery cleared up, I felt awkward now, and our conversation dwindled into a receding spiral of banality. Herb still had other things on his mind.
A day later he called me, asking if I would drive him to Hillsboro yet one more time. This time it was later afternoon when he wanted to be picked up and dark by the time we reached our destination. Herb indeed seemed changed; he was taciturn, but his eyes were eager, his face strained with exhaustion. Most of my questions were answered in bluff monosyllables. Perhaps it was his impatience or the tension in the air, but the whole trip seemed only half real.
Finding the road to the empty house required much more concentration this night, and Herb instructed me to stop at the turnoff. He got out of the car and walked through the pale shafts of the headlights into the moonless dark. In the glow from the headlights I could just perceive Feather running down the road to meet Herb, her pale clothing sketching the flimsiest of outlines to her figure. Then they were gone into the night.
As requested, I came back two hours later and waited in the darkness, listening to a distant radio station while I waited for Herb to return. This time Feather didn't ride back to Hillsboro with us, and she didn't even come down to the car before we left.
In the days following I called him several times but only received an answer once, at a time when Herb should have been at work. He said he'd been sick and was slow getting back on his feet; his voice sounded febrile, his breathing forced. Once again our conversation was superficial, leaving me feeling like an intruder.
May became midsummer too soon, the early July heat wave broken by occasional afternoon clouds that would become the annual monsoon flow. The phone call was from Herb's wife of late; she was looking for him and I had to admit that it had been at least two weeks since I had even talked with him. I queried her, but she had already called the Grant County offices and found that Herb had never returned to work after his vacation, a vacation that had ended two weeks before.
The uncomfortably recurrent stomach shifting was back again. I drove to Herb's place, but his truck wasn't there. There was an aura of disuse about the house-scraps of paper, an unlatched gate, certainly little things that Herb was meticulous about. Yellowing rolled-up newspapers were scattered on the front walk.
I made my own round of phone calls, but nobody had seen Herb more recently than I had. My next impulse was to call the sheriff, but Hillsboro was in the next county.
Next morning as I headed out of town, I thought of the seven times I had made this journey so far this year, and I wondered how many times Herb had gone over the mountains to see Feather in the weeks I had heard so little from him.
The 60-mile trip was interminable this time and, when I coasted to a stop in Hillsboro, it was just past noon. The day was hot and bright, but a wall of stately white cumulus clouds with darkened hearts were building up to the east, moving west as the usually did this time of year. I went into the cafe where I remembered it all starting. The pie was as good as I remembered, and I asked the waitress if she recalled recently seeing anyone answering to Herb's or Feather's description.
As I described Feather the waitress shifted her gum to the other side of her mouth and shook her head, but a slim man with hair tied back in a ponytail turned around in his chair across the room. "You know her, Man?"
I nodded. "Just looking for a friend of mine.thought she could help."
"You haven't heard?"
"Heard what?" The pie tilted in my stomach.
"Bad scene.really bad scene." He was shaking his head as she ambled over to my table. "Fine lady, artist and all."
He pulled out the chair opposite me and sat down, unbidden; the sour odor of a man too long without bathing made me lose interest in finishing my food.
"We just heard about it a week ago. She had this motorcycle guy she couldn't get rid of. He was weird, really weird. They got him in jail up in Albuquerque."
"What about her?" What happened to Turk was not the first line item in my ledger of human concern.
"He wasted her; beat her to death with a tire tool or something and dumped her body in an arroyo between here and Socorro, just off I-25."
The blood was racing through me; my head was giddy with pressure, and I sat there silently, images of Feather and Barbara juxtaposing as a rapid montage in my mind. She was dead? I remembered the last time I had seen her, running down that dirt road in the late May night to meet Herb, just barely visible in the peripheral glow from my headlights. Hard to believe that is was little more than a month ago, just before the end of May.
The young man across the table seemed oblivious to my rising anger. "I talked to one of the people who found her; they said her body was almost unrecognizable for the blood and the dirt and."
I shoved my chair back, nauseated, and headed for the door, leaving two dollars on the glass top counter by the register. Then I had an afterthought, turning back toward the table I had just vacated. "You say it happened last week?"
He spoke through a mouthful of the pie I had left, "No, Man, I said they arrested that biker guy Turk last week. He killed her fore, way before that."
My insides were gripped by a relentless iron chain. "When was she killed?"
"must have been, let's see.two, three weeks, Saturday before that, well, it was May. Oh yeah, I remember, because it was my second day here in town. It was May ninth exactly. I remember because."
He was still talking as I bulled through the doorway, my vision swimming. The images came faster now. I hadn't realized how closely I had compared Feather and Barbara, almost as though they were the same. I could not help but think of the sound of a metal bar striking Feather, and the end of a life as perfect as the flowers she bestowed upon her love.
The date.the unwashed fellow in the cafe had to be wrong because I had seen her after that, and Herb had seen her many more times. The man had to be wrong, but he seemed so definite. I sat behind the wheel of my car on the main street of Hillsboro, seeing it now as a silent canyon of malevolence. What is Turk had found Herb too? No, the biker would have had a much harder time dealing with someone closer to his own size.
Then I thought of the house, the one place I hadn't considered, the only place the three of us had shared. I started the engine and drove south, aware that the heavy afternoon clouds were now touching the sun. By the time I reached the seldom-used turnoff, the sky was gray.
I stopped in front of the house, taking in its outline. It seemed more dilapidated than when I first saw it. Window caverns gaped, front door panels were splintered, rubble choked the front porch, and tumbleweeds rose up like lapping waves against hits walls. On impulse I walked toward the gradually collapsing outbuildings north of the house. I saw a swatch of blue through gaps in the planking.
Herb's pickup had been backed into what had been a garage, but of late seemed to be serving as a small hay storage barn. Herb's truck was lightly covered in a film of dust and the doors were locked. I looked from the truck toward the house, now ominous in the cloud-covered gray. My feelings cycled from sorrow at what I had heard today through unreasoning fear of being alone.
As I approached the rear of the house, the fear eclipsed anything else I felt. With no sun outside, the inside of the house was dark and forbidding. I made myself go in by virtue of the momentum I had built up all day. Nothing had changed since the first time I had been inside. Debris assumed Rorschach shapes in the dimness.
I looked up the stairway and started to climb when I noticed something at its foot. It was a sketch pad, sprawled wantonly on the floor and leaning against the first step. I didn't have to guess whose it was, and I went back to the outside door with it so I could see better. A sprinkling rain had started and I could hear a drip coming through the roof of the house to drum slowly on some part of the floor upstairs-the only sound in this silent world.
The sketches in this pad were different, chilling to me as though they portrayed some alien landscape. The shading was dark, the detail gone; in the place of form was a web of shapelessness that spoke not to the conscious mind. It was Feather's work, but different from anything else of hers that I had seen. Somehow the drawings evoked in me the feelings I had first known in this house, but everything was overlaid with fear.
I put the sketch pad down by the door and began to ascend the stairs, the only sound other than the protesting of the creaking stairs was the plunking sound where the water was finding its way into the house.
My footsteps were loud and clumsy as I reached the second storey. I went nine hollow-sounding paces to the doorway and reached for the knob to the bedroom door I remembered so clearly, the fear becoming a physical force inside of me, trying to operate my muscles against my will. I gripped the metal know, twisted and pushed; at first it would yield. That was strange because that room had been empty. I took a deep breath, pushing my shoulder against the panel. The door came lose from the jamb and swung inward with a dry, rustling sound. Almost carried by the sudden freeing oft he door, I blundered into the room then. Just as suddenly I stumbled out. Leaning against the corridor wall, I lost control of my stomach, retching helplessly in the gloom.
I told myself it was the abominable stench of death that had gripped me, but it was far more than that. I knew without examining Herb that he had not died at the hands of Turk. He had been dead at least a week and now lay on the floor of that vacant room, eyes sunken, his lips shrinking to reveal the rictus of that most final grin.
Leaning against that upstairs wall, being supported by that wall, I knew there was little I could tell anyone. The body of my friend, now desiccating in the foul, dry air, was not the person I knew; but, there was something I knew that I could never tell another person save Barbara-an awful truth that required no explanation.
That empty room, the only room in the house still safe from the elements, that room which I had first seen with a bare floor, was ankle deep in dry, dead flowers, each as though they had been picked and dropped there as at a shrine. And, in the right hand of the corpse, resting on that nest of dead, shrivelled flowers, was a wilting blossom of most perfect yell; its stem was still green, its petals just now losing their fullness. As I stumbled down the stairs in the dimness, over the debris below and past the abandoned sketch pad, I realized that the ghastly perfect flower in Herb's dead hand could not have been more than 24 hours old.
* * *
Barbara had come to New Mexico for Herb's funeral and to see me. All the feelings returned to me: the longing, the fear, the horror as I told her the story. She remained silent, lying quietly beside where I sat. "Remember what Herb said about nothing ever dying unless we let it?"
Her smile was distant and enigmatic, her eyes half-closed against the brightness of the sky. Her fingers were at the buttons of her blouse and she whispered, soft as the air, "Come to me."
I was in her arms, feeling the heat of her body against mine, the perfume of her long brown hair an aura about me, her lips feeding an aching hunger. As we absorbed each other's passion, I could no end to what we had begun, and only late in the day, as we were lying side by side, half-sleeping, did I see, from a corner of my vision, the fresh-picked but now discarded yellow flower, lying vivid on the ground. Then I turned on my side, looked into those hazel eyes and felt the desperate need begin inside. I reached for her again.