When I heard about the housesitting job in Twentynine Palms I thought it was the perfect opportunity for flight disguised as paying work. The desert was just far enough from L.A. and sufficiently exotic to be the vacation I tried to convince my daughter it would be. Ruby gave me that bottled-under-pressure look of hers when I told her. She said nothing but the holes in the long division worksheet she brought home from school, the spots where she had erased her mistakes clean through the paper, told me enough: she did not want to spend three weeks in a strange house in the Mojave Desert.
I remained stubbornly sanguine about it all, weaving what I hoped were beguiling tales of a place I’d never been before. I told her we could relax, watch movies, play board games, visit places like Joshua Tree and the Mara Oasis. Those were the results when I googled Twentynine Palms attractions, that and pictures of “spas” that looked more like cement bunkers in the mountains of Afghanistan. The house was palatial by local standards, a Spanish-style ranch at the end of a cul-de-sac with a pool and hot tub and high stucco walls punctuated by intricate wrought iron panels which allowed the occupants a view without compromising privacy. I jumped on the whole idea of it like a bird on a worm.
I was between semesters of a PhD program in biomedical physics at UCLA. My dissertation lurked like a mugger around the next corner. Truth told I hadn’t been happy in the program for a while. Every hour I spent in the lab, in my office, sitting with my colleagues reviewing undergrad papers or unwinding over a beer, I wore an inscrutable professional mask. I was just pretending to belong there. In company over the past few months I’d become aware of a tic that bore down on me with the exactitude of God’s accusing finger: a pallid cough just before I spoke about something of which I should have confidence but of which I had absolutely none. And I was coughing constantly. These days every cough felt like the tell of a failing con.
Ruby and I met the homeowners face-to-face for the first time on the day they embarked on their vacation. Trina, my research assistant, had contacted the couple, who were friends of her parents, to vouch for me when I had expressed interest in the job. Up until my knock on their door, communication had been carried out via email with one phone call to deepen the trust factor. Mick and ‘Renda (her real name was Brenda but apparently the effort of pronouncing the blend of b and r had worn her down) were a robust couple devoid of ornamentation. They matched the denuded wisteria vines I had seen above their patio when we approached the house: gnarled and monochromatic.
“Come on in!” Mick said immediately upon opening the door.
He was wearing one of those Mexican wedding shirts with white-on-white embroidery and little peekaboo holes up each side of the buttons to provide decorative ventilation. His skin was tanned and wrinkled and quite slick with moisturizer. ‘Renda was much smaller though sinewy and firmly planted where she stood. I would not have wanted to arm wrestle her, even though I topped her by a good ten inches. She had very blond hair that hung on both sides of her face in a wispy curtain. The initial effect was the equivalent of Mick’s shirt, brown skin against white, a startling contrast.
‘Renda gestured us in. Ruby, who had insisted on wearing her earbuds, even though I had confiscated her music player, preceded me through the door.
“Wow, is that your dog?” my daughter asked.
Mick and ‘Renda and I turned in unison, following Ruby’s gaze to a painting on the opposite wall. It was of a brown Chihuahua with huge eyes sitting on a chair, its head in a quizzical tilt. The popped eyes gazed in sweet bafflement at something unseen. I noticed a tiny dog collar hanging from one corner of the picture frame.
“That” said ‘Renda, “is Habbi, our baby.”
“Where is she? Can I see her?”
“He,” Mick corrected. “He’s gone now. A rattler got him when he was out back of the house just before Christmas. Poor little guy.” Mick looked over at ‘Renda who matched his sad eyes.
“Mom?” Ruby jerked her head toward me, her anxiety immediately communicated to all of us.
“Oh, don’t be afraid of the critters here, little one!” Mick boomed. “Habbi was wandering where he shouldn’t have, out beyond the walls. The worst you’ll see on the patio out back are little brown desert lizards.”
I offered Ruby a reassuring shoulder squeeze though I knew that Mick’s innocent attempt at minimizing the area’s predatory dangers had effectively ensured Ruby would not venture beyond the hacienda’s walls during our stay.
After Mick and ‘Renda’s taxi fetched them, I went out to grab our suitcases from the car. We weren’t in a neighborhood as much as a settlement on the edge of semi-civilization. There were just four homes around the U of the cul-de-sac with an expanse of scrub and hardpan, the open range as it were, between and beyond them. The architecture had no rhyme or reason in that ad hoc way of places purchased more for the land than for any structure built on it. The landscape was as flat as a cement pad in all directions with the occasional yucca tree and its attendant scrub and sage brush scattered here and there.
As I hefted the bags out of the trunk I noticed someone leaning against the house next door which was nothing more than a ramshackle double-wide mobile home located a hundred feet away. The guy was smoking in the shade of a window awning. He was tall and skeletal, wearing basketball shorts and a tight sleeveless t-shirt. He watched me, one foot hiked up behind him with the heel wedged in an indent in the aluminum siding. I gave him a little wave and smile to be neighborly. He squinted as if the sun had suddenly blinded him. He flicked his cigarette butt into the no-man’s land of scrub and sand between his place and mine. His upraised arm lingered in the air for a moment and he opened his palm in the classic “stop” gesture of a traffic cop. Then he turned and went inside. Odd. Ruby sticking to the compound might not be such a bad thing after all.
Ruby walked onto the patio with one of her jumbo PBJs in hand, sat opposite me on the other chaise lounge, and our ritual began. She pillared her feet on the painted cement, knees slightly apart, and held the sandwich in both hands, bending over it solemnly as if it was a communion wafer.
I observed my eleven-year-old daughter from behind the Ray-Bans I paid too much for, the ones I chose because my eyes were completely obscured. First, the jam overflow was licked from all four sides. Her tongue ran the trough between the bread slices with the industry and vigor of a backhoe. Next came her scan of every corner of the bread before selecting one to bite down upon—even though she bit down on the same corner. Upper right. Always.
The swamp cooler, fighting a battle with the morning heat, rumbled on the roof of what I had taken to calling “our hacienda”. I turned my face away, toward the gentle gurgle of the pool filter, and tried to extricate its sound from the factory churn of the cooler. I looked again at the outdoor thermometer hanging above the potted bougainvillea: 98 degrees Fahrenheit. It was 9:00 am.
When I was a kid my mother kept a wall calendar. She marked it with specific events. Not birthdays or appointments but little house maintenance concerns like the expiration date of the milk and projected to-do’s such as when the toilet paper roll would need replacing. The calendar was her organizational bible, referred to daily, each task lined out as it was completed. But if an event did not occur or was missed—if the toilet paper roll had to be replaced before that date on the calendar—she would have an anxiety implosion. Sometimes it was dramatic and loud. But mostly she’d be quieter, sometimes just sitting alone at the kitchen table muttering things to herself like, “How am I supposed to function like this?” Mom had other triggers, the normal whitewater patches in the currents of life. But when she hit them, they usually pulled her under.
I spent much of my childhood on sentry duty, watching her for signs of an approaching episode. I can’t describe the relief I felt upon realizing I had been spared the mental incarceration my mother suffered all those years. Then I had Ruby. It had not occurred to me that it might simply skip a generation.
Ruby’s initial anxiety at being in a place with such potentially deadly surroundings lasted just a few days. Or it seemed that way to me. As was our custom she was very good at hiding things and I was very good at collusion. But now she had a purpose and was needed. She rose to the occasion. There were some chickens to feed, a couple of Persian cats that hung out indoors but still needed frequent grooming and an ancient yellow Pomeranian named Bear that Ruby took to immediately. Ruby was the zookeeper and dedicated companion for this menagerie and spent long hours each day tending them. The structured days accumulated into a semblance of comfort for her. She would sometimes hum to herself as she went about her work, little tunes I couldn’t quite make out though I tried.
Meanwhile the initial release of escape burned off me imperceptibly like sunscreen until one day I went to bed feeling parenthetical and disconnected and woke up the next with the same condition. And the days lined up in similar fashion after that. The novel and journal articles I had brought languished on the night table. My laptop sat closed in its case unless I zoned out with some TV show. I had a leaden center in me that kept me glued to the chaise on the patio, occasionally moving into the sun and back to the shade again. I watched the middle and far distance of the scrubby, monochromatic desert beyond our walls. It reposed like some mighty personage, surrounding our little compound with unassailable supremacy. You didn’t question; you didn’t push back. And yet it was always out there. You just narrowed your eyes against what was, kept quiet, and laid low.
Ruby slowly took on my chores without asking. She did them all: the watering, tidying the house, even the food preparation. Anything she prepared, I ate, including PBJs. We sat in silence, side-by-side on the patio like two cruise line passengers who didn’t know each other.
I did venture out the front door to grab mail and the paper. Often the next-door neighbor would be outside in front of his sagging double-wide. Sometimes he’d be sitting on a lawn chair smoking, sometimes monitoring a hose that snaked through his front window and ended in the gutter. He watched me but we never exchanged greetings. One morning he had hooked the hose to the outside water spigot and was holding it high over his head, giving himself a driveway shower, fully dressed. I suspected his mobile home was quite possibly a meth lab.
It was on the day of our Mara Oasis visit that the dog escaped. I was hoping to go early enough so the heat wouldn’t cook us. I got Ruby up and helped her with the animals so we could leave before 9 am. Ruby insisted on bringing the dog along. I couldn’t say no to my daughter after all the work she had shouldered during our stay. Ruby leashed him and headed out before I could grab my purse. Maybe the leash clasp was broken but whatever the cause, the dog shot away from Ruby as soon as he was outside and, in a flash, Ruby was standing on the front stoop alone, the unattached leash still in her hand.
“Mom!” she wailed. “Bear ran away!”
I ran outside and knelt down to face my sobbing daughter. “Calm down, Ruby. Take a breath. Where did he go?”
“Out there!” She gestured wildly. “The snakes’ll get him!”
We ran together toward the perimeter of the property and around the back. There was no sign of the dog.
“Bear! Bear!” Ruby called out. Her nose was running like a spigot. She stumbled against me and coughed on her phlegm. I stopped and caught her by her shoulders, endeavoring to make eye contact with her once more.
“Sweetie, look at me. Please calm down. It will help to find Bear if you can try to be calm.”
Ruby’s face tightened in a tense pucker as she tried to stop crying. I had gone into an automatic state of calm, my demeanor modeling what I wanted to draw out of Ruby. After years of mothering my mom and then Ruby, disengaging from the chaos came easily. Yet I thought how useless it would be to conduct a lost dog search in this place of few telephone poles on which to post flyers. Even then, who was crazy enough to walk the streets here with the daytime temps in the triple digits? And then there was Habbi and what had happened to him. But I pushed those thoughts away.
“I’m going to grab some dog treats from the house and then we’ll hop in the car and look for him, OK?”
Ruby nodded, her eyes moving back and forth across the landscape. “We’ll find him, honey. You just go to the car and wait for me.”
But when I came out a minute later with the bag of doggie bon bons Ruby had disappeared as well. Maybe she had seen the dog and gone after him. I ran around the side yard and the back of the house–nothing but the god-damned desert, empty and endless. Ruby’s panic became my panic, too. What was out there, sleeping in the shade or down a burrow, ready to pounce? And knowing my daughter was somewhere she feared, I could feel my calm disintegrating.
When I came around the front of the house I stopped and viewed the empty street and listened to my panting breath, willing myself to slow my breathing down as I sometimes coached Ruby to do. But there was a dread rising up from my gut, jutting through the adrenalin vibrating through my body.
“Ruby!” My voice wasn’t mine; yet it sounded familiar. It had a keening desperation to it, a head-in-hand powerlessness.
I turned to run back in the house, uncertain what I’d do once I got there, when I saw my daughter emerging from behind the neighbor’s house, the dog in her arms, walking toward me. The neighbor was following her, the leash in his hand.
“Oh my God, Ruby! I was calling you!” I cried as I ran to her.
“The man found Bear. He caught him. We need a new leash, mom.”
Up close, the grey stubble on his chin and cheeks and the creases around his mouth made him look much older than he had seemed from across the way.
“I was telling your little girl I heard the dog snuffling around in the rat food I put out back,” the neighbor said. “I caught him by the collar before he could bolt.”
Ruby had been out of my sight with the neighbor for just a minute or two but the neighbor went from rescuer to suspect in my mind. I looked for signs of anything out of the ordinary. Ruby seemed fine though her cheeks were flushed and she had a bit of a fevered glint in her eye, the kind she got when she was starting to get overwhelmed. I just wanted to get her out of the heat and settled down.
“Mom, he has a bunch of rock piles in his yard. They’re really cool!”
“Oh?” I put my hand protectively on her head and she shook me off. “Mom, can we stay home and swim instead of going out? Bear’s thirsty and it’s hot.”
“Sure. Can you take the dog inside and give him some water? I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Thanks for catching him,” I said to the neighbor when Ruby had gone inside. “I don’t know how we could have found him if he’d gotten any farther.”
“I’m not surprised he made a run for it when he got the first chance. They never take that dog out. And this leash is shot.” He held it up. His arms were bruised and discolored as if he had been in a bar fight—or maybe he was shooting up the stuff he manufactured. But there was something else in him now that I was standing feet from him; he had a shyness that was almost childlike. His head tilted quizzically and his eyes had a guileless, soft earnestness that struck me as more wistful than threatening.
Despite my protestations he insisted it would just take a couple of minutes to fix the leash.
“It would be good to take that dog out for a proper walk.”
I followed him to the toolshed behind his place. His yard was strewn with an array of junk–broken clay and plastic pots, old machinery, a rusting bicycle. Yet here and there amongst the discards were the rock piles that Ruby had mentioned, extraordinary sculpture-like pillars of stone–one precariously balanced upon another–in uncanny and seemingly impossibly haphazard configurations. Some piles were a foot or so high, others taller than Ruby. Rocks that were no bigger than a marble held ones that were as large as watermelons. The variety of shapes at crazy angles, all reaching up tenuously yet holding fast had the overall effect of a playful and fantastical stone garden. I thought of the illustrations of enchanted woods in a fairy tale book I had pored over for hours on end as a child. Logic said they should topple rather than stand. Yet there they stood. The overall effect was a place that contained erratic, hopeful magic and rusting detritus.
“Those rock piles—are they glued together?”
“But how can you do that? They can’t stay that way for long.”
“They actually want to balance, stones do. But that don’t mean they can’t fall. They do–all the time. Like this.”
He pushed the nearest pile over with a flick of his wrist, hitting a smaller stone that had been anchoring a number of larger ones above it. The entire tower crashed to the ground, joining the rest of the clutter strewn around. I couldn’t help gasping at the suddenness of the destruction of something so whimsical, so hopeful somehow. I looked at him to see what was in his face, destroying something like that. He was peering up and squinting into the sun then he turned to me. He was smiling.
“It’s kinda like karma; you just start all over again.”
My mother took me to a therapist when I was thirteen. She said she was worried about me, that I seemed depressed and angry. Even at that age I knew there was nothing wrong with me that getting through to the other side of puberty wouldn’t cure. But when mom insisted on the visit to Dr. Trefeldt’s office, I was terrified that I might have contracted what my mother suffered from. Everything my mother did was excruciatingly shameful to me and had been for a while. She was certifiably crazy, as far as I was concerned. The irony that she wanted me to see a shrink was not lost on me.
Dr. Trefeldt was a middle-aged woman in an oversized sweater and peasant skirt. She invited me to sit in an armchair. As she positioned herself in a loveseat opposite me her skirt billowed like a picture book shepherdess. There were dolls and stuffed animals on a play table and a sand tray with plastic shovels and cups and funnels. I wondered if she saw grown-ups and if they played with the toys. I spent the session, the only one I ever had with her, pouring sand from one cup to another, answering questions like did I ever want to hurt myself. My mother told me later that Dr. Trefeldt informed her I was a normal adolescent with, if anything, a heightened sense of anxiety. “There’s no reason for that,” my mother said to me. “You’re a kid. Be a kid.”
When I got pregnant at eighteen, I succeeded in my plan to escape my mother and what I believed by then was the toxic pull of her. Ruby’s father and I were married and moved into our own place. But my rage didn’t end until Ruby was born and I saw in her the child that I had been. I vowed to be someone my daughter wouldn’t be repelled by. But then the marriage went sour. I felt, after my divorce, that my life had come full circle: I was a single mom barely getting by, in a low-grade state of fear over whether we would be OK.
I brought Ruby occasionally to visit her grandmother but I wouldn’t let the two of them be alone together for any length of time. I was sentry still, protecting my daughter from the unpredictable behavior I had experienced in my mother. One evening while we were visiting her sad apartment, I walked into the kitchen and there was mom, sitting on the kitchen chair, slumping forward with her chin in her hand. Ruby, six years old, was standing behind her on tiptoe crooning a nonsense song while she braided my mother’s hair. I could never recall being that loving with my mother when I was a girl and I watched with some envy as my little daughter cosseted my mother. They looked so serene, like nothing bad had ever happened or ever would. Maybe there had been times like that between my mother and me but I just didn’t have a memory of it. The memories, bad and good, had been blown away in the backdraft of my flight from home, all of it caught up and dispersed like the smoke of a snuffed candle. A year later my mother was dead of a stroke and I was able to fund a house for us and my education with her life insurance. My sense of new possibilities burgeoned into an industriousness and productivity, a careening energy that swept Ruby and me into our new life. Yet not long after that Ruby began insisting that the doors be left open at a certain tilt and that the chair in her room face a particular direction or she couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I wondered if her grandmother’s very embrace had had contagion in it.
The last full day at our hacienda dawned like all the ones before it, hot and dry and dull. But there was something else, a faint scorched scent to the still air. A plume of mud-colored smoke lifted from the horizon. There was a fire somewhere. In spite of the blasted environment of the Mojave there apparently was still just enough vegetation to combust. Ruby had fed the animals, brushed both cats and played a game of catch with Bear but she was anxious, I could tell. I watched from my place on the chaise while she watered the container plants. Ruby went to the gate and stretched up on her toes, looking at the smoke as if its origin could be seen as easily as an errant cup might be fetched from the back of a cupboard.
“How far away do you think that fire is from us, mom?”
“Don’t know. Check the TV.” Ruby’s question resonated with one that bubbled up from the mush of my thoughts. I had a sudden need to know, too, where before I hadn’t cared.
“Would you do that, sweetie? Check the TV and find out?”
While Ruby was inside the house I got up and walked to the gate where my daughter had stood to scan the horizon. God, the desert was ugly. I took off my sunglasses and squinted out at the unobstructed view, the open expanse of sand and tumbleweed and the occasional lonely fence. With all that space and nothing in it, why a fence? To keep in, to keep out, what? It seemed so pointless.
I looked at the smoke column. I could not see it move at all if I looked very, very hard at it. But if I turned away from it and looked back, there it was, changed. The smoke on the horizon was flattening and broadening into a mushroom top and the cloudy folds of it were smudging to a brown fog.
When I retreated inside the house I saw Ruby sitting on the floor before the TV. Bear lounged on her lap, panting as he got his ears scratched. On the screen a reporter in a windbreaker finished his news report from the field, projecting an expression of concerned professional detachment. The camera cut to a couple of firefighters in yellow suits and helmets, spraying an outbuilding. The news anchor appeared on the screen and announced a quick break in the report but assured that they were keeping an eye on the developing situation. He advised to stay tuned. Ruby turned and looked up at me. The dog’s little rib cage heaved rhythmically, a contented bellows under her caresses.
“Mom? We’re going to be OK, aren’t we . . .”
I heard something in Ruby’s voice for the first time. It was not fear. And it hit me that she wasn’t asking me a question. She was speaking something that didn’t as much need to be reaffirmed as declared. It was like her quiet, self-contained songs, the ones she sang to herself when I wondered where she was in her head, songs that I tried so hard to identify. What I heard from Ruby sitting in this house of strangers surrounded by so much that was unknown, was certainty—a limitless faith—in all the good that was bound to come.
Dana Jacoby grew up in Orange County. Her father was a steel salesman whose territory included the Inland Empire. She will always associate Twenty-Nine Palms with the garnet jars of prickly pear jelly he brought home from his sales trips. A life and executive coach and organization development consultant, she has an MA in Psychology from Sonoma State University. Sonoma County Wine Country has been home since 1975. Her work has appeared in ByLine.