Aaron Bagnell

The Byrd of Orson Wells

The Byrd parked his bike and cut the motor in front of an old wreck of a factory on the outskirts of a little town called Orson Wells, CA, just east of the Salton Sea. The town’s population was 58 and falling. There wasn’t even room for him to stretch his wings anymore, but he stayed there anyway.

The chain-linked fence that defined the property did little to set it apart from the encroaching desert. The steel had rusted to the color of oxidized earth; weeds protruding from the ground wound their way through the links until the two were as good as one; gaps along the fence allowed all forms of sinewy creatures to walk and crawl across the barrier with little hindrance, until the factory remains became no more than another piece of a hardened landscape.

He scanned the warehouses and offices and two pillars that were the old smokestacks. 
Nothing really looked like what it was, but The Byrd had visited this site enough times to know what everything once had been. His father had died in the spring of 1982 working at this factory and The Byrd was drawn every year to the same spot.

It had once been a nitrogen fixation plant, which took the element from the atmosphere to make nitrates both for agriculture and for war. It was funny how a single substance like that could create or destroy depending on whose hands it was put in, like how an accident might result in a place where these highly virulent compounds were synthesized by men who often didn’t even possess formal educations.

Joseph “Jo” T. Byrd was one of half a dozen men killed in an explosion at the plant that occurred in the early morning hours before general operations commenced. And due to the close proximity of the buildings to each other it turned out it would be difficult to determine where the explosion had originated, so the investigation really went no further. The cause was never determined either. Someone had probably been negligent, but it did no good to go sullying his family’s name now.

The Byrd was born Edmund J. Byrd in November of that same year to the recent widow Martha Marie Byrd. His only inheritance was a few pieces of his daddy’s bike that hadn’t been completely blown to bits with the rest. These had served as the basis for the bike The Byrd rode to this day.

Jo Byrd had worked at the plant for twelve years as a foreman who oversaw the deliveries of workplace essentials, like toilet paper and antibacterial soap and copy paper and coffee creamer. His family, like the other families of the victims, received a small pension that provided five hundred dollars a month to the main beneficiary for the rest of his or her life. It was a pittance, but nobody tried to sue for more. Everybody just wanted to forget it, even though they couldn’t, what with the burnt out husk of the factory visible from their backyards.

It never did get rebuilt. The company that owned it allowed itself to be absorbed by a large energy conglomerate to avoid bankruptcy. In less than six months it had been fully liquidated, its assets sold across the border where cheap Mexican labor kept fertilizer manufacturing tantalizingly profitable. The remains of the factory lay undisturbed, dry-rotting in the desert air. To the old they served as a gruesome memorial, but to the young they were no more than an ash and steel playground. Every few years a group of high school kids would get wasted and sneak on out there to look for ghosts, and one or two would always end up seriously injured and have to be taken to a hospital over in Indio or Palm Desert.

The Byrd had a tender recollection of losing his virginity in one of those half collapsed storage buildings splayed out before him, in a room reeking of ammonia, rolling around on a floor littered with debris, with a girl whose name he wanted so badly to say again. Her family sent him letters from time to time, but he never had the nerve to reply. He chose not to remember the sterile lights and smells in the months that followed their first night together, all the hospital visits that ended with him sobbing at her bedside without any idea how to stop. He did remember the shard of glass that he accidentally rolled onto on that particular occasion of love making. To this day part of it remained stuck in his left ass cheek, reminding him with a little sting.

Taking one last look at the rotting desert, The Byrd started the motor of his bike and headed back for town.

***

The bar was empty except for The Byrd, Scarlett and Noela. Scarlett had a rag in her hand that she constantly ran up and down the counter, trying to get a nice shine out of a surface that was nicked and scratched from over a decade of serving patrons with idle hands, jaded men living in a town with no work and no escape, who didn’t mind carving their frustrations into senseless wood so long as Scarlett wasn’t looking.

The Byrd sat at a table against the far wall with Noela, saying nice things about her hair, how it looked like she must have gotten it done, insisting that she must have gotten it done even after she told him several times that she hadn’t, how it made her look like Meryl Streep. He liked making women feel pretty. He thought it was about time they realized that they were.

Noela, giggled at what The Byrd had just said, forgetting for a moment that she was twenty years his senior. Reaching across the table, she grabbed his hand and squeezed. “Byrdie, be my Valentine.”

“I would, but it’s May.” he said.

“It’s a better time to ask. Before anyone else.”

“There’s no good time.” He pulled his hand away. “I’m no saint and you’re no sick kid.”

“But I’m love sick.” she said.

The Byrd pushed his chair back and rose out of his seat. “Well I’m just sick of this.” He swept his arms around. “All this.”

“Hey, Ed if you don’t like the place you can get out.” Scarlett said as she bustled over to the table to wipe it down.

“Scarlett, you know I like your bar. It’s the only decent thing left here.”

“I wasn’t talking about the bar.” She worked her elbow furiously, trying to polish away years of wear in moments.

“I’ve got nowhere to go.” The Byrd said.

He had everywhere to go. Now that his momma was gone, nothing kept him tied to the town. It was dying anyhow. Give it another decade, wait for all the old timers to pass on, and Orson Wells would cease to exist. It was like the Salton Sea itself, everything that gave it life slowly evaporating away until nothing remained except dust.

Scarlett looked ready to say something as she abandoned her work and threw down her rag, but then the screen door flew in with a clatter, wire mesh fluttering as the door finally caught on the warped wood floor. She sighed and went over to drag it shut.
“It’s getting worse, this wind. I know it, and I’m sure you all can smell it.” The air carried the scent of the Sea, a smell like no other. It wasn’t just the perpetual rot. The Sea smelled like a factory, chemical, industrial, but it was not well ordered, controlled, so maybe it was more like a warfront, mustard gas drifting in every direction, indiscriminately killing. Who knew what long term cancer rates would look like? Asthma already occurred in the town at twice the national rate.

“You know they can smell it in Los Angeles and San Diego now, from time to time I mean.” Noela said, looking through the chicken wire that segmented the front window into a thousand empty stares.

“I don’t smell anything.” The Byrd brushed past Scarlett and pulled back the screen door. Sticking his head through the doorway he surveyed the empty street and all the empty buildings lined along it, waiting for people and things, for motion and light, to fill them. In an hour or so the sun would set and the dark would be absolute. Already the shadows had fully overcome the vacant storefronts. Next would be the bar. The wind threw up dirt, tossed his hair around. He breathed in, heavily. “It’s going to be a good night.”

***

The night settled in quickly. No matter how much light and heat the day brought, the night always stifled these in a jiffy. Without the hot press of living, breathing people, quartered close and snug, just a few feet from each other in their apartments and homes, darkness prevailed in cold, lonely silence.

The Byrd lay on the couch with only the television to light the house. It was a 1987 Higure Brand television with a 17 inch screen. The knob stuck and the clicker was broken so it only came on when he could stand to watch Mexican soap operas. His Spanish was getting pretty good. He understood when Carla called Hector a canalla presumido for cheating on her with their maid, Lucia. Then again, it was pretty clear from the pig noises she made at him.

In one sudden movement The Byrd was sitting up and leaning towards the television screen. Carla had got him thinking about his momma, the way she used to act when she’d walk into a bar filled with at least twenty intoxicated men and be able to handle the situation all right. Nobody ever got fresh with her twice. On the T.V. screen Carla slapped Hector across his face and he fell to his knees in a plea for forgiveness. She slapped him again and then kicked him in his rear as he fled from the room.

When he and his momma received the results of her tests and the doctor told them she had stage four lung cancer she just shrugged and said to him, “There ain’t nothing that ain’t dust or that won’t soon be.”

She died a little over a month later and he buried her using the last five hundred dollar check she ever received.

***

He rode over to Bert’s Place around noon the next day. Bert’s was a store that sold whatever junk you needed, sort of like a general store in the old west. Except the nearly empty shelves never got replenished anymore. Once a thing was gone it was gone for good. So Bert only traded with care. A person had to need something especially bad for Bert to give it away.

The Byrd entered the store without knowing what he needed. He only had this inexact feeling that Bert had something for him. It had occurred to him last night, while thinking about his momma, that the only person he had ever seen her friendly with was this squat old man called Bert. He could only recall a single instance of this happening but it was enough to get him thinking about it since it had happened only a week or so before she died.

He and his momma had been sitting in the shade of their front porch on one of those days when it was hot enough to get a person to risk breathing the outside air. Bert had come rolling up to their driveway in his dusty pickup, gotten out without even closing the door of the cab and walked over to the bed of his truck. “I found it,” he said, his voice trembling like a stalk of Burro-Weed. The Byrd’s momma told him to go fetch Bert a drink, which was her way of telling him to get out of their way, so he went inside and watched them from the window, half concealed behind a drape. His momma jogged down the driveway, clutching her chest in the way he had grown accustomed to seeing her do, all the way to where Bert was standing. He patted her on the shoulder with a big, calloused hand that made her withdraw her own hand from her chest for a moment and place it on top of his. Then they moved over to the rear of the truck, where it became difficult for The Byrd to see much of anything, except the bobbing of Bert’s head as he threw down the tailgate. And his momma had appeared a moment later walking back up the driveway with little arroyos winding through the dirt on her cheeks, hands planted square on her waist and a smile threaded on her lips. When she reached the porch she turned and waved as Bert got back into his pickup and drove off.

The inside of Bert’s place was perhaps even dustier than the desert outside. As he walked over to the counter every step The Byrd made left an imprint on the floor clear enough to read his brand of boot. Bert didn’t see him. He was too busy reading a volume on the carburetors of mid-century vehicles. The Byrd got his attention by ringing a bell placed in clear view on the countertop with a sign scrawled in marker taped in front of it that read Ring for Service!

Bert looked up on the second ring. “Sorry, finishing my sentence,” he said and rose to greet The Byrd. “What do you need?”

“Dunno.” The Byrd looked around the shop. “Not much left.”

“Yeah, well.” Bert moved around the counter to get a better look at The Byrd. “I don’t have much time left either.”

The Byrd leaned against the counter and focused his gaze on Bert so that each man saw the other’s face dead on. “You remember me?”

“Naw.”

“It’s been a few years.” The Byrd said, bringing his face a little closer. The lighting was bad, so he thought it might help. “You knew my momma. Mrs. Martha Byrd.”

There was a pause.

“Yeah, I did.” Bert said.

“I came here for something.”

“You haven’t told me what you need yet.” Bert scratched his head. “Feel free to take a look around but I wasn’t really planning on parting with anything today.”

“I want to see whatever you showed my momma.”

“What’s that?”

“That was the first time in a long time I’d seen her smile or cry.” The Byrd said, edging closer. “It was the last too.”

The two men looked at each other unblinking, each waiting for the other to speak. The Byrd’s hands pushed into the edge of the counter as he leaned back against them, trying to focus on this pressure instead of on the one inside him.

“All right.” Bert led The Byrd down an aisle to a door at the back. It was marked with the same sort of sign as the countertop, except this one read Storage. No Peeking! Bert pulled a key from his pocket, jiggled it into the lock and turned it. Behind the door lay a dark gash that healed into dim shapes as Bert flicked on a single light.

The room had very little in it. There was a ladder and a hose, some old paint cans and not much else. Bert moved into the room and The Byrd followed, hesitant to believe that any of these objects could have had an impact on his momma but curious nonetheless.

“I found this when I was out scavenging in the desert.” Bert said, crouching in front of something The Byrd couldn’t identify. “It happens sometimes, where something that we think is lost comes back to us.”

“What?” The Byrd stooped over next to Bert and peered at what could only be described as a hunk of twisted metal.

“Help me get it into the light.”

The two men grabbed the object and carried it beneath the single overhead bulb. “It’s a motorcycle chassis.” The Byrd only realized this because some of the suspension was still intact.

“Found it almost a mile east of the old plant in a big patch of scrub.” Bert wiped his hand across his brow.

“This is what you showed my momma?”

“Yessir.”

“Wait.” The Byrd said. “I know what this is.”

“Took you long enough.”

“I thought it was destroyed.” The Byrd leaned down and touched it, feeling the cold metal as if checking it for a pulse.

“Nope. The thing rode the pressure wave right up into the sky.”

“What do you want for it?” The Byrd rose and dug his hand deep into his front pocket.
Bert looked straight at him and said, “I tried giving it to your momma but she refused. She said it was enough just to see it one last time.”

***

The Byrd stopped at the bar to say goodbye to Scarlett and Noela. Neither woman could believe that he was actually going. Scarlett chuckled and continued to rub down the bar with her rag. Noela straddled her chair and pouted her lips at him. “I really mean it,” he said.

“Really?” Scarlett stopped wiping for a moment. “No shit?”

The Byrd held up his leather knapsack as proof.

“What?” Noela looked ready to faint.

Scarlett moved over to the cabinet behind her and started rummaging around inside. “I know I saw it… here.” She pulled out a bottle of whiskey and thumped it down on the counter. “This is for you. A going away present,” she said. “It’s good stuff, so you better really be going.”

The Byrd took the bottle and nodded at her.

“Goodbye, Noela.” he called as he walked out the door.

“Byrdie?”

The Byrd walked over to his bike and looked it up and down. He’d asked Bert to bury his daddy’s chassis where he’d found it and Bert had agreed. There would be no marker, no trace. It had gone back to the dust. Now The Byrd only had to put the whiskey in his knapsack and ride off into the desert.

Aaron Bagnell is the son of a librarian who spent his childhood rambling around San Diego, CA. He currently studies Earth Science and Creative Writing at University of California, Berkeley.

Rayme Waters

The Friendship According to Ruth

     We lived in the desert, Naomi and me. My abuelita cleaned her grandmother’s house. My parents died crossing the border when I was two and Naomi’s grandmother said Naomi’s parents were children themselves, which I used to think meant they were just our size and living in a colony, somewhere, with other small adults, but actually they had left baby Naomi with her grandmother for a weekend ten years ago and never came back.

     Although Mrs. Foxworthy never encouraged our friendship, Naomi was entertained when I was around. For that bit of peace her grandmother let me come over anytime and took a distant, polite interest in my welfare.

     “How is school?” she’d ask, lifting my chin, so my eyes met hers.

     I was in fifth grade at Indio Elementary, where even in 1985, our year ended early because the school lacked air conditioning and the windows were rusted shut.

     “Oh, Mrs. Foxworthy, Rutie get all the A’s,” my abulita called from the kitchen.

     “Is that so?”

     “Ruth,” Naomi motioned to me from the door of her room, a board game tucked under her arm.

     I pulled my chin from Mrs. Foxworthy’s grasp and turned toward my best friend. We looked nothing alike: she was tall, I was short, she was blonde, I was dark, but the more we talked and let our insides jumble out we were the same. If I liked a book, Naomi had to read it. If she played a game I wanted to learn. Before school had started, we’d nicked our palms with a knife from the kitchen and pressed our blood together. We were sisters, we swore, now and forever. When she outgrew her clothes, they became mine.

     “Wanna play Life?” Naomi asked. In the beginning, she won every time. But Naomi competition didn’t matter to her and now I’d figured out the tricks and I was starting to beat her.

     “Sure,” I said.

     My abuelita and I lived in a sandlot trailer out by the I-10. Sometimes Mrs. Foxworthy let Naomi sleep over.

     Naomi loved the desert. Her imagination roared alive in the dunes around my house.

     “Look,” she cried pointing toward the horizon—we’d spent the afternoon outside unearthing sun bleached pop-tops and sandblasted bits of plastic, jewelry of our ancestors Naomi insisted— “Do you see the guide who’ll show us the way?”

     “Our way to where?”

     “Where they wait.”

     Did she mean our parents? I squinted, but I couldn’t see what she pointed at. Blowing sand bit at my arms and tumbleweeds bounced across the I-10. It was getting hotter and darker. I took Naomi’s hand and pulled her toward the trailer. The Santana was coming.

     A dozen times between October and March, scorched air from the Great Basin howled through the Coachella Valley, shearing palm trees and upending anything not fastened down on its way to the Pacific. Like a sand blizzard, the Santana could disorient, suffocate and bury you. Naomi loved the storms, but I feared them.

     That night, the trailer’s awning groaned like the hold of a rusty ark. Loose palm fronds hit as hard as torpedoes. Naomi and I zipped our sleeping bags together on the floor.

     “What would happen if I went outside right now?” Naomi whispered, her eyes reflecting light from the veladora my grandma burned during storms.

     “Once the Mexicans ruled California, but they went out in a Santana and it blew them away,” I said, repeating the story my grandma told me.

     “What if I held one end of a rope and you held the other?” Naomi asked, her voice breathy, halfway to a dream.

     In the clear still of morning, it took all our strength to push away a sand drift blocking the door. All of the freeway litter had vanished, and outside was a pristine field of white. Naomi and I lay down, watching the pacific sky, and moved our arms to make angels.

     During the next Santana, Naomi called me wanting to know how long it took for the winds that shook me to shake her. Like counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, I’d tell her when a gust hit the trailer and we’d wait to see if the wind cut a straight path from my house to hers.

     “I can’t tell,” she said, disappointed in the solidness of her house. “I’d have to be outside to really feel it.”

     “Don’t,” I begged, but she went. I held the line, nibbling on the edges of my fingers, wanting to hang up, call for help. Then I heard a door shut, quiet, a thrill in her nighttime whisper “In the Santana, I’m alive.”

     At the end of eighth grade, I was offered a scholarship to Valley Day. I started high school with the children of the podiatrists and country club developers and Naomi. At Day, Naomi and I were an odd couple—brown kids and white kids segregated themselves despite the best effort of the staff—but she never gave me up: her elbow linked through mine in the halls so the other girls didn’t push me into the garbage cans, sharing my locker so no one dared scrawl beaner or wetback on it. My friend grew taller and thinner, her skin tan, her hair like August wheat.  When you looked at Naomi, you thought: California. I grew to the height of my stooped abuelita and had a pretty smile, but rarely showed it. I was invisible to the boys at school. The other Mexican girls, those who should have had my back, instead called me Tonto. To say tonta, stupid, would have been an outright insult, but by labeling me a sidekick, a sellout, they were going at me just as hard. In the World Book, it said Tonto had saved The Lone Ranger’s life when they were kids, and the Lone Ranger had sworn enduring loyalty. Tonto was intelligent, brave and didn’t waste a lot of time talking. Most important, Tonto was a friend to someone who was otherwise alone.

     “Tonto, Tonto,” they whispered at me in the halls.

     I shrugged them off. As far as I was concerned their nickname was a compliment and they were too ignorant to know it.

     As I climbed up the class ranking, Naomi slid. I was smug in my ability to knock snobby white girls off their perch, but I saw my friend doing more than failing tests. She’d always been a daydreamer, often had the blank look of someone who was elsewhere. Naomi gave up on life not in the sullen way that a teenager might, but in an ethereal way that made me wonder, as she stared out the window sitting next to me in homeroom, if I put my hand out would it pass right through her? As girls in our class got more concerned about their hair, their clothes, beautiful Naomi cared less. If I didn’t urge her to eat, she could sit the whole lunch period, her plaid skirt overlapping mine on the cafeteria bench, not touching her food.

     At sixteen, she got recruited at the mall to do makeovers at the Robinson’s Clinique counter. Without working too hard, she sold thousands of dollars of pale powder and pink smear to women who looked like me but wanted to look like her.

     “Maybe you could be a Hollywood make-up artist?” I said as she painted my lips with something that made my skin glow, my eyes shine.

     Naomi shrugged, putting her chin on my shoulder and smiling into the mirror. “Maybe,” she said.

     Our senior year, the college counselor pushed me to go east.

     “Your parents were migrant workers?” she’d said barely restraining her glee. “Write your own ticket.”

     But, I wasn’t ready to leave. My abuelita’s kidneys were failing. Redlands had an honors program and was close.
     “You can do better,” the counselor said, pushing a brochure from Dartmouth, all green grass and leafy trees, across her desk.

     I got into UCLA and Berkeley, but chose LA because I could get home faster.

     While I helped Naomi get ready for the senior prom I wouldn’t be attending, her grandmother told me what I already knew: Naomi would be lucky to make it to College of the Desert in the fall.

     “I suppose you got in on that affirmative action thing,” Mrs. Foxworthy said, leaning against the doorjamb, third drink of the night in her hand, watching me curl Naomi’s hair in the mirror.

     “It’s a Regents’ scholarship,” I said. “It’s awarded on merit.”

     Mrs. Foxworthy was quiet, then, “Why can’t Naomi be more like you?”

     Any answer would be disloyal. I said nothing.

     I tried to meet my friend’s eyes in the mirror, but Naomi only looked down. For just a second I saw the Naomi Mrs. Foxworthy saw: vacant, lazy good-for-nothing. I shook my head, less in disagreement than in an effort to wipe clean what I didn’t want to see.

     Mrs. Foxworthy left to pour herself another drink. I tried to be angry with her, but I couldn’t. I was worried about Naomi’s future, too.

     Releasing the last curl, I let my friend’s golden hair float around her shoulders.

     “In every way that matters,” I whispered in her ear, “we’re alike.”

     Naomi got caught smoking pot in the janitor’s closet two weeks before graduation and never walked the stage. The heat of her grandmother’s disapproval was scorching and Naomi wisped away further. She quit her mall job and hitched out of town with a guy she met the week after I left for college.

     Next I heard from her, she was in Bombay Beach, a huddle of cinderblock shacks and rusted trailers on the edge of the Salton Sea. Naomi’s guy’s name was Tumble, a twenty-something Gulf War vet living on disability. Tumble had a permanent sunburn and a hillbilly accent, but was gentle to Naomi, polite to me and slept out in the hammock when I came to visit, leaving us to whisper ourselves to sleep.

     When Naomi saw my Impala coming on Friday afternoons, she’d give Tumble a kiss, then run for a hairbrush, not getting out her snarls but fanning a gossamer layer over the rat’s nest beneath. When she was done, she sat next to me on the square of industrial carpet that served as their front porch, and held my hand while I told her about school. Time in the sun and the desert dust colored her white skin cocoa and made it indistinguishable from mine.

     My dulce abuelita died that fall. Under the bell jar of grief—and as invisible at college as I had been at Valley Day—I found it difficult to make friends. But right after Christmas, I met Jorge. He was a junior and the president of MeChA. He gave speeches. He was the defacto leader of us, those he called the people of color, at the university.

     “We were once driven out, but our time to reclaim Aztlan comes,” he said during a speech in front of Ackerman Union. His voice broke with emotion that stoked a cheer from the crowd. I went to the library and looked up Aztlan, because I had no idea what he was talking about.

     Saturday, he found me after Spanish mass on my knees saying the rosary.

     “Who for?” he mouthed.

     “Mi abeulita,” I whispered and before I could tell him I was saying a second for my friend Naomi, he knelt down beside me and bowed his head.

     A few weeks after we started seeing each other, Jorge knocked on my door and handed me a package wrapped in campus newspaper. “I hate the preppy clothes you wear,” he said. Inside was a Guatemalan-print top. After I insisted, he turned his back as I took off Naomi’s soft oxford and pulled his gift over my skin.

     “Now you look more authentic,” he said, pulling me close.

     Once I was with Jorge, I didn’t have time to drive out to Bombay Beach. And, the longer I was with him, the more of Naomi’s hand-me-downs went to the back of my closet. The more he lectured me about my natural beauty, the less Clinque I wore. I was afraid he’d disapprove of how close I’d been with a rich white girl, so I played down Naomi’s friendship. I felt guilty—Naomi had told me that Tumble was getting sicker, his muscles and nerves withering from an illness the VA said was in his head—but I was irritated by my guilt. I was finally finding out who I was, and wanted to be with my own kind. Finally a boy liked me. How important was some loser friend anyway?

     Even during Spring break, when Jorge went on a march in Sacramento and didn’t ask me to come, I didn’t go see her. Instead, I wandered around the empty campus, lay on my bed looking at my roommate’s New Order poster. After four days alone, I thought about driving out, stopping in Indio to put fresh flowers on my grandma’s grave. But I made excuses: the Impala was sputtering on the freeway; Jorge might call, Tumble didn’t have a phone. But the car had made the same noises for years, Jorge hadn’t called all week and Naomi was always at home, sitting out in front of Tumble’s Airstream, just like I had left her.

     When Jorge got back from Sacramento, he had a new girlfriend. Some grandniece of Cesar Chavez. Más auténtica than me, I suppose. And the group that had encircled me like family now cast me out and called me psycho when I left tearful messages on Jorge’s machine. That I had deserted Naomi for this added to my heartache. In the weeks that followed, it was hard to even get out of bed. As the dining hall was too far a distance to go, the Salton Sea seemed impossible.

     The Santana blew without mercy that spring, starting fires in Riverside and the LA canyons. Smoke hung over Westwood, making my eyes water. After my last final, I packed up and drove into the Mojave, wanting to apologize to Naomi, wanting to let her know that I would never again let go of my end of the rope.

     The winds from the storms had blown lake water up to Tumble’s Airstream, sealing the door with a layer of mud as hard as cement. I balanced on a sun-bleached milk crate and peered in the window. Clean dishes were in the drainer. A board game was laid out on the dinette. I turned around and a bare-chested old man stood on the gravel behind me. I startled, nearly falling. He had a long white beard stained sulfur under his mouth and a Great Dane on a short leash.

     “Nobody’s seen ‘em,” he said before I asked. “She and Tumble went off in that last Santa Ana. The VA said there was nothing more they could do. But the girl had it in her head that the storm would cure him.”

     The dog considered me, lowered his head and began to nibble his paw.

     “That girl had some nice ideas,” the man said, “but they ain’t gonna work in real life.”