The crowd fell thoughtfully silent as Nathan Stanfield finished his tale. What could they say? Then the quiet was violated by a slow, rhythmic sound. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.
It could have been sincere. It could have been sarcastic. There was really no way to tell. There was especially no way to tell when the source of the applause was the infamous and enigmatic Wolfman John. The old rancher (Or was it soldier? Survivalist? Loner? Lunatic?) stood slowly up from the corner of the antique writing desk he’d been sitting on. It had once been the property of the explorer John “The Pathfinder” Freemont, and was a prized possession of the Wanderer’s Club, having belonged to one of America’s greatest wanderers.
Wolfman John should have known better than to use it as a chair. He did know better.
“Well, that was a very interesting story Nathan,” he had an oddly melodious voice for a man seemingly constructed out of leather and facial hair. “And I think we’ve all learned something from it. But let me ask you all this question: does God love tweakers?”
Silence. He sauntered toward the center of the room.
“Oh, come on,” he continued in his Lee Marvin voice, ”you know who I mean. Speed freaks. Meth heads. Crankers. The twitchy fuckers with bad skin. The guys who steal from you. You and I don’t love them. But does God?”
“Well, I don’t really know either,” he continued conversationally, drawing a ragged cigarillo from a pocket hidden inside of his duster. “But I’ve got an idea.”
He struck a match against a nearby bust of Cartaphilus. Puff. Puff. It was a Backwoods Honey Berry, and smelled like burning bear shit wrapped in old socks.
“But I once met this crazy bitch in the Black Rock Desert, and she told me…”
* * *
The whole world is made of dust. The ground is just dust and worm shit held down by gravity. The sky is filled with dust, invisible unless illuminated by whimsical sunlight. The sea is dust suspended, moving in currents of slow motion. It is in our skin. It is our skin. We are dust, animated by the hand of God for a time, and then cast back into the brown firmament from which we arose when time is done with us.
Dust is holy substance: the undivided atom at the core of all mysteries. It is very real: the baseline of substance. The core element. Which is why the Black Rock Desert is so very real and so very holy. It is nothing but dust revealed: on the earth, in the air, and more often than not, covering the sky. It is a place of extremes. Of prophesy. Of death.
None of which the woman known as Shuttup Amy gave a fuck about as she drover her battered Suzuki Samurai hell bent for leather across its khaki heart. She had other concerns, other questions. Big ones. Tough ones. Her emotions were like an over-wound watch waiting to burst out of her chest in a spray of gears and tiny bits of shrapnel at any moment. They were always like that – had always been like that. Tight. Contained. But it had been worse lately. And she had to get away.
He’d proposed. She’d fled.
Maybe being alone would help her. Maybe sleeping beneath the juniper trees would help. Maybe nothing would help. Maybe a mountain lion would eat her. Maybe she would fall over the invisible edge of the world.
Most terrifyingly, maybe afterward nothing would be different at all.
The jeep bucked suddenly, sending the tiny blob of mercury in the Tilt-O-Meter screwed into the dashboard swinging in an arc from “one” to “three” in either direction. Three was bad. Six was worse: horizontal. Crash. Broken bones. Fatality. But Amy didn’t care. She never paid attention to the Tilt-O-Meter. She took pride in it, actually.
Bravado. Machisma. Death wish.
The transition from Playa to rutted and battered jeep trails was jarring. One moment her vehicle was gliding along as if it were on pavement. The next it was bouncing up and down as if it had four flat tires, its tired, two-decade-old suspension actually helping the ruts and rocks toss her around. Not that she slowed down. She almost never slowed down. Instead, Amy pounded down a series of unidentified almost-roads that zigzagged toward the Granite Mountains, goggles dug into her forehead, her hand shifting crazily, and an unlit cigarette clenched between her teeth, the filter nearly bit in two.
It was at that crossing from glass to gravity where she saw the crucified coyote.
* * *
Nothing says “old-school Nevada rancher” like a dead coyote crucified on a barbed wire fence. It sounds cruel to outsiders. It is cruel. But it is also no one’s fault. Its martyrdom is the inevitable result of a collision of opposite natures. The coyote behaves according to its nature. It knows no laws, only opportunities. It will eat anything it can grab: cats, dogs, chickens, and even small children, given the chance. In the spring it attacks newly born calves. Sometimes it works alone. At other times it works in groups of three or four.
It is very smart, even tactical in how it behaves. For example, six coyote approach a ranch. There are the usual dangers. Dogs. Guns. Traps. Three approach from one side, making as much noise as possible, drawing danger toward them. Meanwhile three come in silently from the other side, like Indians in an old John Wayne movie. They grab what they can get.
And the next night everyone switches places. Coyote. Rancher. Everyone.
Or two coyote wait behind a ridge near a ranch. The third – a big male or a bitch in heat – comes into the ranch, looking for its fertile opposite. It looks like a dog, smells like a dog, behaves like a dog. It flirts. It licks backs. It sniffs butts. But it is not a dog. It lures its prey out into the brush with promises of pleasure. Then the coyote kill it and eat it. Because they are not dogs and this is there nature.
A Nevada rancher is much like the coyote. He also behaves according to his nature. For much of his life he knows no laws but his own. He knows even fewer opportunities. He is lord of dogs and sheep and cows and dirt and dung. Sometimes he works alone. He likes working alone. At other times he works with small, taciturn men from Mexico and Peru. He is very tough, and very careful.
He is very smart, even tactical in how he behaves. He guards his water rights with the fervor of a mountain lion protecting her cubs. His water is his life. In a very real way it is life. For without water there can be no cattle, no sheep. So he donates to local politicians. He attends long and boring Bureau of Land Management Sub Rack meetings 100 miles away. He makes friends in the county building department so that he will know when other ranchers are filing water rights. He watches his neighbors and the BLM closely, very closely.
He is serious about this. He is serious about what is his. He will kill over it.
There can be little quarter between the coyote in the rancher. Each exists to bring death what the other holds dear. One day the coyote will win: the desert will be devoid of men and sheep and cattle, but he will remain, living off rabbits, mice, and kit fox cubs. Until then the rancher will win, and to win he must set examples. Other coyote must see clearly what happens when the invisible line between nature and civilization is crossed. More importantly than seeing it, he must smell it. The rotten warning. The head on a stake. The decaying bandit hung from a tree branch. Infelix lignum.
Most ranchers are content to crucify a single coyote somewhere. Others get all “I Love You Spartacus” and make their own Appian Way somewhere out in the light and stone and sagebrush. Others are whimsical in a Tertullian kind of way. They crucify coyote upside down, like Saint Peter. But the results are always the same. The lesson teaches what it needs to teach: coyote stays away. For a time.
* * *
Amy stopped her jeep. She stood there, all nipple rings and sunburn and dirt and frustration, staring at the dog messiah. It didn’t mean anything, really. There were probably a dozen coyotes dead and creatively mutilated in the Black Rock at any given time. She peered at the thing. Flies buzzed around the empty sockets of its eyes. The rotting remnants of a tongue hung loosely between its leering, monster teeth. It reeked of death. It was death, manifest into our world through the apotheosis of an angry rancher with a rifle.
Was she like it? Like the corpse-god-dog-thing? Joseph Fucking H Campbell Shuttup Amy was not. What she new about mythological symbols you could fit into a dime bag and still have room for your cheap, Mexican dope. Yet she felt an odd kinship with it. The crucified coyote was like Shuttup Amy herself: a poorly understood conundrum. A broken patchwork of opposites left to its fate in an unlikely land. Dead/Alive. Victim/Victimizer. Man/Animal. Free/Prisoner. She supposed the list was endless. She also imagined that she should get back to the task at hand.
But she couldn’t. Or at least she couldn’t yet.
Was it was a warning? It was obviously not intended as a warning for her. Or was it? Was God warning her? Did God warn people anymore? She didn’t know. She had a hard time imagining that He could care about her, though. Had He warned her before at some point in her miserable, confused, meth-addled wreck of a life? No. Maybe. If so, why didn’t she listen? Was it not loud enough? Or did she simply ignore even the tiniest whisper of divine advice?
He’d proposed. She’d fled.
After a time her shoulders slumped, and she returned resignedly to her jeep. It was too big for her. There were no easy answers here. Maybe there were no easy answers anywhere.
* * *
The Granites. They were one of those places that everyone could see (you could hardly miss them), but few knew how to get up into. Maps did you little good, and GPS was worse than useless. The Granites weren’t so much a series of mountains as a thousand contrary hills leaning uncomfortably together: a vertical maze of brown, green, and steepness threaded by almost forgotten roads. There was more than a little risk in visiting it alone. There was more than a little risk visiting anything in the Black Rock alone.
So much the better, thought Amy, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. Her jeep was a testament to how much punishment an inexpensive Japanese car could take and still function. Its taillights were patchworks of transparent red tape. Its paint, which had been a bright teal at some point in the 80s, had faded down to a sort of dull gray flecked with rust. It had no un-cracked windows. The bulb at the end of its stick shift had been replaced with the wooden top of a corkscrew. It had no second gear. It was a bucket.
The drive gave Shuttup Amy – once, though less accurately, known as Shasta Amy O’Hanlan – a rare moment to reflect. Or, perhaps more accurately, it forced her to reflect. She wasn’t a naturally introspective person. If she had been, the brutal tragedy that was her life might have played out differently. Be she wasn’t, and it hadn’t.
She knew that introspection was the enemy. It assaulted her with a kaleidoscope of “self” in the past tense. All her “was” kept bubbling up to the surfaced of her “is” in a mélange of memory. A dirty little girl with a black eye sitting in the dust near a singlewide in Bakersfield. A terrified teenager sitting in an LA abortion clinic where everyone else spoke Spanish. Arguing her way into a club in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Working as a bike messenger deep in the cement canyons of the city, alternately dodging and screaming at cars. Cooking meth in a warehouse in San Leandro. Doing meth until the normally hard lines between real and unreal, possible and impossible, and good and bad became blurry and hard to recognize. The arrest. Bending over a metal laundry table for a fat, sweating guard in Chowchilla. Waiting tables at a rundown restaurant in the no-man’s-land between Berkeley and Oakland, the days turning into months as she waited for… for what?
For her messiah. For her religion. For Oberon.
* * *
Harlan "Oberon" O'Brien was a frequent customer at the café Amy worked at. One of his several homes was located within walking distance of the establishment and, when he wasn’t speaking at the Commonwealth Club, giving seminars on the Gift Economy online, or performing some other such Oberonish function, the founder of Burning Man liked to hang with the California hoi polloi. A first she’d ignored him: an old, bearded white man in a dashiki wearing a fanny pack. In other words: another Berkeley freak. Then she began to notice things. Laughing young hipster girls coming in with him in the morning. Middle aged hippies asking for his autograph. The $120-a-pair Birkenstock mocha suede sandals on his manicured feet.
The old man was someone. Some kind of Timothy Leary or something. And she was no one – less than no one. A damaged negative zero. If she could get close… Shasta Amy O’Hanlan didn’t remember what her reasoning was, exactly. Some security? A chance to be close to meaning in the hope that some would rub off? A way to remove the negative before the zero? She started talking to the old man. He talked about Burning Man. He talked about community. He talked about fire. He talked about death.
Before too long Amy was the laughing hipster girl coming in with him in the morning. Only not so young.
* * *
Old broads don’t get to hang onto the arms of Christ for very long. Virgin mothers? Naturally. Hot, reformed ex-prostitutes? Absolutely. But not the used bitches. Amy’s time spent blowing the Mohammed of the Black Rock Desert was necessarily brief. She knew from the beginning it would be. But for all of his decadence and delusion, Oberon wasn’t actually a false messiah. He performed his miracles. For example, he administered the rite of rebirth. A new name. A purpose. A place. A holy land. The cleansing act of burning. A movement and a rest.
And then there was the festival itself: an annual overload of everything. Lights. Art. Dust. Drugs. Booze. Tits. Explosions. Cars. Music. Dancing. Costumes. Fire. Fire. Fire.
And so she found herself a resident of that burning land: a holy inhabitant of Mecca rather than a pilgrim, charged with handing out seven stones to toss at the Devil. Well, in charge of stones in any case: she’d ended up as Burning Man’s Nevada property manager. Which mostly meant host sand, rocks, sagebrush, and special use permits.
And Lupe Maldonado.
* * *
In the end it all boiled down to a question of identity: her identity. Shasta O’Hanlan hadn’t had one. Less than one, if it was possible to have your sense of identity scoured out by life while still remaining above ground. Shuttup Amy did. It wasn’t much of an identity: an aging loudmouth tweaker tasked with monitoring empty fields of sagebrush and crumbling buildings on a dying main street. A late, satisfying adolescence defined by minimal pay and maximum debauchery, all performed in front of a Greek chorus of dust, fire, and desolation.
It wasn’t much to ask out of life. It wasn’t even much of a life. But Lupe was threatening even that, with his offer of yet another identity. Lupe Fucking Maldonado. Loopy Lupe: her Mexican cowboyfriend. Short. Dark. Handsome. Strong. Insanely virile. Beautifully non-English speaking. For that matter non too talky even in Spanish. Liked to listen to Punk, even though he couldn’t understand the words. Oddly gentle. Generous. A tough, little exclamation point of a man, noteworthy even in a place known for its noteworthy characters.
He’d proposed. She’d fled.
He only wanted the things that any good man wanted. In her heart she knew that. A wife. Children. His own ranch. His own life, really. It wasn’t unreasonable. But could she even do those things? Be a mother? It was biologically possible, though she doubled her ability to actually mother with a capital M. Wife? That implied loyalty and monogamy – or at least not sleeping with other men – and she wasn’t particularly good at those, either. Or at keeping a house that didn’t look like a pit. Or at cooking. Or…
Was it another chance at redemption? (How many chances did one get, anyhow?) Or was it a temptation to regress, to loose what she had become and revert to less than zero once again? An opportunity to become a normal person (whatever and whomever that might be), or an opportunity to loose the tiny, painful handholds that she’d clawed out for herself over a lifetime?
She shivered in the 90-degree heat. She almost went off the road.
* * *
Amy knew that scaling a mountain to confront your problems was a quintessentially male thing to do: the hero-with-a-thousand-faces lone quest for meaning and all that masculine crap. If she’s been a normal woman – hell, if she’d been anything even resembling a normal woman – she’d be talking it over with her friends while drinking herbal tea, or tearfully calling her mother for hours at a time. Or maybe driving a convertible off of a cliff with Susan Sarandon.
I should be more reasonable, she thought as she brought the Samurai too quickly around a sharp turn, ignoring the Tilt-O-Meter. A shower of small pebbles cascaded down the mountain nearby. But she was not reasonable. Could not be reasonable. Years of tweaking had left the line between real and unreal permanently blurred. Amy knew this intellectually, but that knowledge did her little good. Gack had permanently modified her. Even though she didn’t do it anymore, it didn’t matter. She was already permafried. Now all Amy could do was hold on for the ride.
She didn’t like being assaulted by visions of her past selves, either. They were unwelcome strangers intruding into the protective layer of fire and bullshit she’d spent years building around her soul. Those women were not her. They were ghosts, banshees exiled to the basement of her Celtic memory. She did not want to confront them. She did not want to absorb her shadow self. She did not want to come to terms. She was not a fucking Ursula Le Guinn character. She did not want to heal and forgive and be a natural woman and be made whole. She was fractured; but she held onto her crazed, splintered self because it was that all she had. All she could do was hold on.
Maybe I’ll fight a lion at the top of the mountain, she thought, like in a movie. What other standard did she have, really? Nothing really dramatic happens in books. The mountain was steep at this point, the road almost non-existent. Amy deliberately didn’t look behind her, didn’t look back at the brown depths falling away, leading downward, downward to the valley below. She would go out to gather wood or some shit and it would attack her. Wounded, she’d make a spear and fight it in some climactic battle near a cave. Or maybe an old Paiute medicine man lived in a cabin in some hidden valley nearby. She’d sprain her ankle hiking and he would rescue her. Unable to drive back down with her injury, she would spend weeks taking peyote and learning the secrets of the wilderness. Or maybe she’d be stalked by an axe-wielding, serial killing maniac straight out of a Tobe Hooper film. He’d chase her around the mountains in a series of tense cutaway scenes, until finally Lupe showed up. Then they’d kill the maniac by tricking him into running off a cliff, or…
Back to Lupe. Tears weld up in her eyes. He’d proposed. She’d fled. More tears. She’d behaved according to her nature, just like a crucified coyote.
And she didn’t pay attention to the Tilt-O-Meter.
And she didn’t pay attention to the Tilt-O-Meter.
And she didn’t pay attention to the Tilt-O-Meter.