I don't want to be married any longer."
"What does that mean?"
"What I said."
"You don't love me."
"I don't love anybody."
"You loved me. Or said
"Nobody's responsible for what they said twenty-five years ago."
"I love you."
"I wish you wouldn't."
"Am I so tough to get along with?"
"I think you are the most boring human being I've known ever, in my
entire life. But that isn't the
reason why I'm going to leave you."
"What is the reason?"
"I don't want to be married any longer."
Two weeks before his
wife announced her intention to sue for divorce and ten days before she moved
out leaving him the furniture, the toy poodle, her wedding dress, and several
pairs of worn-out shoes at the back of the closet, Samuel Adams White, retired
inspector with the United States Customs Bureau, had returned from a trip to
Wyoming where he'd signed the closing papers on a forty-acre ranchette. The
property, a yellow log house built twelve years before from a kit and
surrounded by a buck-and-pole fence enclosing a sagebrush meadow stretching
below stony peaks streaked with snow, was meant to realize a dream conceived by
the inspector as a boy of fourteen when his father had taken him to see The
Virginian at the moving-picture cinema in Spring Valley, in those
days a dusty farm town of a few thousand people drowsing in the California sun
fifteen miles east of San Diego.
After quitting the realtor's office the inspector had walked down the
main street where late-season skiers gawked before the false fronts of the
frame buildings and entered a western-wear store, where he purchased blue
jeans, three candy-striped shirts with yoked shoulders and pearly snap-buttons,
a canvas duster that reached below his ankles when the buttoned hem was dropped,
a pair of tooled boots with undershot heels, and a broad silver-belly hat with
a curled brim and a silver ribbon circling the base of the crown. Next he'd driven in the rental car to
visit the local horse-trader recommended by the realtor, with whom he left a
one-thousand-dollar deposit on two quarter-horses and a pair of well-used roping
saddles the trader happened to have on the place. The inspector was reconciled to writing
off the horses, but hoped to rent out the property for the summer until he could
make up his mind what he wanted to do with it in the long run. Wyoming, the ranch, horses—they
belonged to the dream from which he'd awakened not to reality but into
limbo. Faced by the destruction of
the new life even before it commenced, the inspector had seized on the spectral
form of the old one before it could evanesce. Back in Nogales now, he drifted
like a ghost among scenes familiar to him from nearly thirty years of his
professional and personal life, waiting to assume corporeal form among the
flesh-and-blood shapes that jostled and sweated in the heat of the desert
spring, although six weeks had passed already since his return to Arizona and
Gloria's departure for California.
The turnstile spun silently in
its barred cylinder as pedestrians passed back and forth between two sovereign
nations, staring at the broken concrete pavement as if they'd dropped a dime or
peso there. Once beyond the gate
the Americans walked away briskly in the direction of the agencia
de turista, while the Mexicans, losing their momentum
rapidly, eddied against the high concrete wall where they stood watching their
compatriots follow them through the turnstile. Beyond the auto checkpoint, traffic from
Mexico was backed up under rusty palm trees as far as the bazaars where street
vendors hawked rugs, leather goods, and trinkets in the sour-smelling calles between the drab grey buildings. On the plaza before a small gray church,
two men with machetes on a stepladder hacked branches from a tree above the
head of a Tarahumara woman squatted with her three
children on the pavement as she attempted selling Chiclets to the
tourists. Dirt streets descended
precipitously among barrios strewn with garbage and prickly pear cactus on the
two sides of the cañon forming a vent through which a
southwesterly breeze carried the odor of mesquite fires, blending with a haze
of leaded petrol fumes. Beyond the
narrow pass in which the old town of Nogales, Sonora, stood, a vast metropolis
of plywood and cardboard shacks, populated by several hundred thousand migrants
and refugees arrived from the south in hope of entering the United States,
spread itself over the plain that lay behind the hills. The inspector, after three decades, had
never strayed beyond the twelve-mile limit past which the carta
de turista was required of all foreigners, nor had he
any intention of ever doing so.
Marooned on the concrete island between opposing traffic flows, he held
the poodle on a tight leash as a southbound station wagon, crowded with college
students on spring break from the university in Tucson, eased by him. For thirty years the inspector had
listened to the tales told by tourists returning ashen-faced from Mexico:
hair-raising stories of ambushes by armed bandits, pursuing lorries filled with
men in anonymous fatigues and wielding automatic rifles, minor auto accidents
resulting in the arrest of American citizens who were promptly thrown into
prison and never heard from by their families again. He'd never been able to comprehend what
reason or business Americans had to go traveling abroad in foreign countries,
where history clung with pervasive tendrils like some poisonous tropical vine
and where the God of nations still refused to show His face.
The dog strained forward from his knee, and the inspector stepped
off the island and crossed among the cars halted in the southbound lane toward
the loitering Mexicans who, as it seemed to him, gauged his approach with feral
eyes. Familiarity had left him
mostly indifferent to the Mexican people, but indifference in his case was not
exactly neutrality. For the first
time in many weeks the inspector was aware of himself as an object of human
attention. Approaching the sidewalk
he drew the poodle against his leg and for the next several blocks held her
tight above the collar as they passed by the Mayoreo
y Menudeo stores with their trays of cheap
goods—flip-flops and tennis shoes and cowboy shirts and
hats—obtruding onto the sidewalk to be picked over by Mexican nationals
carrying stuffed shopping bags through a blare of Latin music. He took close hold again a block farther
on as, beneath a retaining wall rising to the tall stuccoed
church on the hill above the street, an Hispanic woman came toward them guided
by a German shepherd in a leather harness.
At the precise moment that she passed before the stone steps going up to
the church the woman crossed herself, proceeding past the inspector with the
blank, oblivious, otherworldly stare of the totally blind. As far as the end of the block he
wondered how she'd known with such accuracy when she reached the church steps.
The walk was part of a daily routine by which he expected to
reenter the familiar rut that would guide him unswervingly for the rest of his
life, though at present, rather than walking, he felt himself to be floating
above it all like a moonwalker.
Around a curve in the street the inspector caught sight of the hotel, a
wide building of white painted brick surrounded by palm trees and fronted by an
expanse of tarmac crowded with expensive cars. Here tourists and retirees from the north
joined the prosperous local businessmen of the city who lunched daily in the
restaurant and the lovely, leisured Latin women lingering in the cocktail
lounge adjoining it. It was the
inspector's custom to buy the morning paper in the lobby and read the news over
breakfast in the air-conditioned dining room where, in spite of the many years
he'd lived in Nogales, he knew hardly anyone to speak to beyond the retired
import man who would repeat over and over the history of the produce business
in Sonora and whose name the inspector was usually unable to recall.
After breakfast and the paper, the inspector returned to the rented
bungalow (his house, already on the market, was confidently expected by the real-estate
broker to sell within weeks) where he worked crossword puzzles and read until
noon, when he took the dog for a briefer walk in the midday heat. He read the works of Zane Grey, Jack
Schaefer, and Walter van Tilburn Clark, but Louis L'Amour's were his particular favorites. In these books the inspector recognized
the America his father, a San Diego police officer, had taught him in his
boyhood and in which he'd lost neither faith nor belief since: an America that
won its battles, solved its problems, brought enlightenment and progress to the
world, and had God on its side. By
one o'clock the house, thick-walled and shaded by palm trees but equipped only
with a swamp cooler, had become unpleasantly warm, and the inspector drove to a
truck stop on the edge of town for lunch.
Because Mexican or any kind of spicy food hurt his stomach, he
invariably ordered a cheeseburger, french-fried potatoes, and a milkshake. After leaving the restaurant the inspector
stopped by the supermarket for the few things he needed for his supper and a
can of horse meat for the dog, and by three he was home again rereading Louis L'Amour, who being deceased was no longer writing
books. At five he mixed and drank
two gin and tonics, put a frozen dinner in the microwave oven, and ate his supper
in the kitchen while doves called softly from the rooftops and wide Mexican
women perambulated with their broods along the narrow sidewalk.
The house was fractured adobe covered by a tin roof on which the
palm fronds clashed restlessly, fronted by a porch of warped planks at a second
remove from the street above a concrete retaining wall surmounted by an iron
fence and located in an old and seedy neighborhood inhabited mostly by Mexican
and American hippies. In the second
week of his occupancy the inspector had discovered a five-ounce packet of
marijuana when he tripped and almost fell over a loose board in the hallway,
but the deputy sent by the sheriff's department to take possession of the
packet seemed unimpressed. The
previous tenants, he explained, had been suspected of receiving smuggled
drugs. However, the county lacked
sufficient evidence on which to arrest them. The property was run-down and dirty
enough that the inspector felt no shame for the lax housekeeping standards he'd
allowed to replace a lifelong standard of cleanliness
and military order.
Every evening after supper the inspector put the dog in the car and
drove north on the interstate to an exit leading into a two-lane road that
shortly became a dirt track climbing west into hills covered by Johnsongrass, live oak, and yucca and surmounted by red
battlements of volcanic rock mottled with green lichen. Some miles beyond the pavement's end he
stopped the car, let the dog out, and threw sticks for her to retrieve while he
walked slowly in his new cowboy clothes over the thin grass growing among the cholla, watching the sun drop toward the steep black
canyons cutting up from Mexico.
They returned to the bungalow before dark, and the inspector, after
locking the doors, securing the window fastenings, and changing into his
dressing gown, worked another crossword and was in bed by ten o'clock. Since he'd neglected to have a telephone
installed in the house, he was never disturbed by callers.
from the hills somewhat later than usual one evening, the inspector spied
through the dusk an indistinct figure on the sidewalk beside the iron gate,
which he saw had been pushed partway open.
He parked the car against the curb and stepped out, shutting the door
against the dog who sat up on the front seat growling
and showing her teeth through the windshield. The woman was small and dark, with a
wide Mexican face. She wore a pale
blue dress with a colorful Indian shawl over it.
"You are Señor Wilson?"
"No I'm not."
"You live here?"
Pinned by the car lights like a butterfly on velvet, she seemed
confused. "Will the dog bite?" the
"Not if I don't let her out of the car."
"I come twice now," she
explained, "looking for Señor Wilson."
"He used to live here?"
"Then my guess is he's probably in jail." Watching her closely, the inspector
thought he observed her mouth tighten at the corners as he spoke. "You had business with this fellow Wilson?"
"I am a fortune-teller," the woman said, and he could see her mind
working rapidly behind her eyes.
"For Señor Wilson only five dollar. For you also, five dollar."
"I don't believe in superstition."
"For the alcalde in Nogales, twenty-five
dollar. I have many wealthy clients
"You have much business on the American side also?"
The inspector reluctantly extended his hand. "All right then."
The woman glanced nervously at the car, from which snarling sounds
continued to come. "What about the
dog?" she asked.
"She'll be okay until we're through."
"She is your special friend—yes?"
"I suppose she is."
"I will hurry," the woman promised, "so she will not be left alone
for very long."
As she bent above his palm, the inspector looked over her head and
up the street for the car he expected to see waiting in the darkness. "The lifeline is good," she said
approvingly, "very deep and long.
You have had a happy life already?"
"Average, I'd say."
"Your wife is no longer with you."
"We split the sheets last month."
"I do not understand."
"We were divorced in March."
"I am very sorry."
"Perhaps you will meet somebody new in your travels."
"I don't like to travel."
He wondered if she would suspect his motive if he suggested they continue
the reading in the house.
"But you enjoy to travel in México, yes?"
"I've never been down there."
"Ah Señor, but you will go. Soon!"
"I doubt it."
"I see a trip," the woman insisted. "I see a long trip. México is very nice place for the
Americans, señor. I am sure you will enjoy very, very
much. There is very much to see in
"I don't have money to pay for a trip now."
"Is very cheap for the Americans to live in México—almost
like you are our guest. Give your
hand again, please, the reading is not over yet."
The inspector considered as she continued to pore over his hand,
reciting her grave nonsense.
Supposing that he found a pretext to detain her, on what ground would he
be justified in summoning a law officer?
Anyway he had no telephone.
Though a pretty woman still, she had the worn look common to poor Mexican
women past the age of twenty-five.
He imagined her living in a shack of cardboard or sheet iron, warming herself and a large family at a mesquite fire and sleeping
in a plastic bag on a hard dirt floor.
The real mystery of her dark homeland was the ability of the human
spirit to survive there at all—insofar as it did survive, he
thought. The inspector felt relief
as she finished the reading. He was
retired now. What came and went
across the border was no longer any business of his. He took five dollars from his
wallet. The woman folded the bill
into a tiny square and deposited it in a change purse she took from under her
Wilson was your friend?" she inquired.
"He was not."
"So interested in the occult.
A good customer of mine, very."
"I wouldn't be surprised if he was." The thought occurred to him that Wilson
might have been purchasing something in addition to marijuana and fortune-telling.
She was just pretty enough, and apparently competitive in her pricing.
"So many customers to see tonight," the woman told him, replacing
the purse under her shawl. "Your
friend, she cry for you. Muchas
His interest dwindled with her receding figure as it blurred into
darkness beyond the headlights' reach, but he watched it out of sight before
returning to the car where he released the panting, yapping dog, which leaped
from the seat and ran its leash out, jumping and twisting like a fish on the
line. "Shut up, Darlene," the
inspector said, and gave the chain a hard tug. "She isn't your worry, or mine either."
At age fifty-three the inspector was beginning to understand that what
people call life is actually a sequence of lives, each separated by a small
death after which the soul exists for a time in limbo before moving into and
taking up the new life. How long
this limbo lasted he had no idea.
While hoping that it might end soon, he was unable to imagine the
contours of the life to follow, as he felt incapable of summoning the energy to
embrace it when it finally arrived.
For the present lassitude wrapped him like a shroud in which, though
hating it, he was nevertheless content to lie.
The heat was partly responsible, he believed. He'd never given a thought to
temperature before, driving to work and back in an air-conditioned car, sitting
all day in the manufactured blast of the cooling outlets. Now, though it was
only the beginning of April, he was continuously aware of the white caloric
glare of the sun emanating from a galvanized sky. When the swamp cooler broke down and the
landlord was unable to get a repairman to fix it immediately, he began waking
at five to read in the cool of the pre-dawn morning, napping through the
midday, and lying awake until nearly midnight with the front door ajar on the
latch and the windows open to thresh the cooling air passing stealthily in the
darkness out of Mexico. Although he
considered taking the house off the market and moving into it again, he gave up
the idea for good after driving past the place one evening with the dog. The
sight of the home he'd shared with his wife for thirty years gave him an
appalling sensation of viewing his own mausoleum.
As the spring days lengthened in the premature heat, the inspector
took to whistling up the dog at the conclusion of his siesta and heading
immediately into the hills where he remained until evening and returned after
dark, navigating the narrow trail with headlights set at high beam through
clouds of flitting insects while the dog snapped at moths crawling on the
inside of the car windows. Although
more people were arriving to camp on the live-oak ridges and in the canopied
creek bottoms, the little traffic on the road was mostly pickup trucks
trailering bulls and saddle horses, ancient Mexican sedans bottoming out in the
washes, and the pale-green four-wheel-drive vehicles of the Border Patrol
looking to intercept mules backpacking their contraband through the steep
canyons cutting north from Mexico.
The patrol agents, well acquainted with the inspector, saluted him as
they passed and often stopped to ask whether he had noticed anything suspicious
along the road.
Headed for the freeway one afternoon the inspector stopped at the
supermarket where, along with horsemeat, he bought a can of corned-beef hash, a
loaf of bread, a pint bottle of whiskey, and matches. He hadn't camped since his days as a Boy
Scout from which he'd learned little about the out-of-doors and forgotten most
of that little, but this day the insufferable closeness of the adobe house
spurred him to something like adventure.
As a substitute for a tent and sleeping bag he carried an Army blanket
to spread on the back seat of the car, and he recalled having seen much dry
wood lying about under the live oaks.
Somewhat intimidated by his own boldness, the inspector assured himself
that if the night air grew intolerably chill he could be back safe in town
again within the hour. And he had
Darlene for protection.
The produce sheds at the north end of the city were silent,
awaiting the midnight arrival of fruits and vegetables from Sonora in transit
to the greengrocer markets of Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff. Off in the hills feathered with mesquite
and on the graveled alluvial fans spreading out from the mountains, vacation
homes for snowbirds escaping the snows of Kansas City and Minneapolis were
going up beside ranchettes owned by locals fleeing
the crime and congestion of a Mexican-American border town. The inspector also felt the need to
escape. He left the freeway and
continued west through the low steepsided hills
gripped by single-story ranch houses surrounded by satellite dishes, horse
corrals, and power boats berthed on tow trailers and covered by a patina of the
red desert soil. Shortly before the
pavement ended he passed a turnoff to the man-made lake that, in thirty years,
he'd never once visited, nor thought to.
The inspector drove for twenty minutes against the steep beneath
the sandstone battlements before he reached the familiar meadow, where he
steered the car across hummocks of salt-grass and
prickly pear to the edge of a live-oak stand. He let the dog out to run in circles
with her nose to the ground and trailing her leash and brought out the supper
things, which he placed carefully under the trees on a patch of bare
ground. The afternoon heat had
subsided, and already a light breeze flowed down from the broken pinnacles of
rock. Keeping a close eye on the
dog, the inspector gathered chunks of sandstone lying scattered around and
placed them in a fire ring. Only
after he'd begun to sweat from the effort did he realize he'd neglected to
bring water and an ice cooler from town.
Yucca bloomed on the steep slopes, the pale clustered flowers
exuding a sweet perfume from the tips of graceful stalks the height of a man,
and higher. The inspector walked
among them, dislodging rocks from the pressed beds that exactly fitted them and
brushing the ants and cocoons from the undersides. When he'd gathered nearly enough rocks,
he was out of breath and his hands were chafed and sore. Returning to a rock pile he had
discovered, he bent and lifted a red flat slab. The deadly buzzing commenced as he began
to raise the rock, and before his brain could signal his hands to drop it he'd
uncovered the whole of the coiled snake colored a motley brownish color, with a
forked black tongue and diamond yellow eyes. The inspector staggered backward clawing
behind himself, tripped over another rock, and turned a reverse somersault in
the grass. He felt himself already
up and running as he untangled his limbs, looking back over his shoulder as if
he feared the snake were pursuing him.
He kept running, and Darlene came gamboling from another direction and
followed him back to camp with the leg of a Coues deer in her mouth for him to
They ate, he and the dog, as the sun, a fire encased in a globe of
red glass, sank through the evening haze among the sinister bergs of Mexico and
brightened the fortress of sandstone above them to the redness of blood. The inspector sat on the backseat of the
car with the door open and his feet in the grass to eat while Darlene, tied to
the trunk of a live oak, bolted horsemeat from the flat rock he'd set out for
her for a plate. With the suddenness
of a wall switch the sun shut off the lingering warmth and the desert cold
struck, causing the inspector to reach for his jacket and pour himself a second
drink. Perhaps, he thought, the
blanket would not after all be sufficient until morning.
Night followed quickly.
In the darkness the inspector could find nothing further to do. He satisfied himself that the fire was
out, untied the dog, and signaled her onto the front seat. Under the dome light, he read Louis L'Amour until he developed a crick in his neck. Then he closed the book and went and
urinated at a short distance from the car.
Since before supper no traffic had passed on the road, and the stony
wilderness around him was sunk in a profound gloom unrelieved by any human
Somewhere an owl called and was answered by another and from the
opposite side of the canyon a pack of coyotes broke into an insane cacophony of
whoops and barks, causing the inspector to shiver beneath the thin blanket
before, all at once, he fell asleep.
He awakened instantly and completely, almost in
anticipation of the dog whose frantic barking he confused at first with that of
the coyotes. The inspector threw
off the blanket and lunged across the seat back for the glove compartment
before recalling that he'd taken the pistol into the house to clean it several
evenings ago, and forgotten to put it back. Now faces pressed dimly behind the
window glass. They came at him from
both sides of the car, and from the corner of his eye he saw the dog snatched
up and her neck wrung like a chicken's.
The blanket he had tossed away came back at him and slapped him across
the face, wet and laden with a sweet overpowering smell that watered his eyes
and agonized his nose and throat.
For several moments he continued to struggle against the smell. Then, satisfied that danger had passed,
he relaxed and succumbed gratefully to sleep again.
END OF EXCERPT