Issue 22, Autumn-Winter 1959-1960
The signs out front faced down the highway, lettered on both sides so they could be read from either direction, east or west. WESTERN CURIOS—INDIAN JEWELRY—GOOD GRADE GAS—CLEAN REST ROOMS—ICE WATER—FREE ZOO. One, confronting only the west-bound cars, warned LAST CHANCE. Across the roof, the name of the place in individual wooden letters, some of which the wind had knocked down to lie bleaching on the shingles. What was left read B F ALO R NCH.
The building, a long flat-roofed adobe structure, was flanked on the east by the Clean Rest Rooms and a tire rack, though the tires. New and Used, stood in precarious piles on the ground, and on the west by the buffalo pen, a solid fence of upended poles which, along with the slits for viewing, suggested that the two dusty and ancient fleabitten cows, whatever their appearance, were really dangerous. Out front, two gasoline pumps like armless Indians guarded the stuffed grizzly and the pinto pony humped in the shape of its own rebellion and caught forever, like the mastodon in ice, before which tourists could have their pictures taken. To the north, at some distance across the desert, the mountains rose, first the yellow hills and, behind them, peaks blue in their own shadow.
The dark low-raftered interior, lined with Indian rugs and blankets imported from a factory in up-state New York, offered careless counters of turquoise or polished stone or petrified wood in silver—rings, buckles, bracelets, necklaces —a shelf of cochina dolls and felt moccasins, untidy stacks of “western” shirts and skirts, denim levis, cowboy hats, a row of Coca Cola machine, cigarette machine, chewing gum balls and peanut dispensers, pinon nuts, and peanut butter or cheese in stale cracker sandwiches—four to a cellophane pack, one nickle. Through the curtained door, the Free Zoo— a gila monster and a rattler in separate aquariums, one ragged cayote in a wire cage, an eagle and a road runner, both of these stuffed and dusty, with little agate eyes. In the three back rooms Jimmy lived with her husband, Burt the Trader, who was at this moment out behind the kitchen concentrating upon the lettering of two new signs, the tip of his tongue showing like a little pink bullet between his Ups. He had already finished one of the signs and stood it up to dry against the adobe wall, where each letter was slowly developing a stinger. It read DON’T MISS THE ATOM BOMB. The other one, the one he labored over, said BIG BLAST SEE IT HERE.
In the morning, fresh from a night in some ranch-type motel, tourists stopped from both directions. They bought postcards and scribbled on them, and put them into purses where they would forget to mail them, bought turquoise rings and silver buckles, took their children through the Zoo, snapped pictures of each other fighting the grizzly or of Junior riding the bucking bronco, peered in at the languishing buffalos, and sampled pinon nuts while spreading maps on fenders, though the road was there, visible for miles in either direction, plainly offering but one choice, unless they wanted to go back where they came from.
But in the afternoon, the cars that stopped in their hurry toward some less lonesome spot before night, stopped only for gasoline if they were heading east, or for nose bags for their radiators if they were heading west into the desert.
Now it was almost night.
Jimmy was standing in the kitchen door, watching her husband work on the signs. She had long ago decided he was mad and the only thing to do was humor him.
She was twenty-two years old and looked to be fifteen, with an undersized body that was all bone. She had on one of her husband’s shirts and a pair of pants stitched up the sides and around the pockets with thread that had once been white. Her yellow straw hair hung straight with an open-end square cut out of it for her face, long and sharp and green-eyed. Her name was really Jimel, after her father and mother, Jim and Elda, back in East Tennessee.
She had been seventeen years old when she married him. He’d told her he was going overseas and was sure to be killed. And then, he said, she would be rich. But she hadn’t married him because of the insurance, though she did not at the time doubt that he would be killed if he said so. She had married him because he promised to take her to Florida on their honeymoon. She’d been a little disappointed in everything but the ocean.
In less than a year, he was back, but put in an army hospital. He wrote letters saying he’d got a spotty lung and would probably die. But again he didn’t. When they released him, they said he would stay cured so long as he lived in some desert. So he’d left the hospital and got on a bus and headed west to find himself a desert, and he’d found The Buffalo Ranch and sent for her. By then, she couldn’t remember exactly what he looked like.
When she got off the bus, she was looking for a short, pale-haired fellow in a damp uniform. But it was a little man in cowboy boots and hat, wearing levis and a bright fuchsia corrugated nylon shirt, that grabbed her, kissing. He’d worn the cowboy hat indoors and out, even while he stepped out of his pants at night to go to bed. But she soon discovered anyway that, except for the fringe around the edges and a soft yellow down on top, he’d turned bald as an infant.
For awhile he entertained her with stories about his experiences in the armed forces. He told her about going out on patrols in no-man’s land, and about the stink of dead bodies, and about a crazy Chinese radio that blared out propaganda to them at night and played American jazz music on what sounded like kitchen utensils. And he told her about Japanese women when he was on leave, making out that he’d been quite a heller. But then she was wakened one night by his sobs and he confessed that he’d never seen a Chinese soldier, never been on patrol, that the only stink he’d come in contact with was in the latrines. He’d spent his months in Korea with a reserve battalion near a place he called Sayool, and that was where they discovered his spotty lung. From then on he’d been in the hospital. The two letters he’d written to her were full of nothing but lies.
After that, she got to know him better because he talked about what was really on his mind. He talked about his death. His death was like a ribbon-tied box he kept in front of him all the time. He didn’t know what was in it for him and he wouldn’t have dared to touch the ribbon. But nevertheless he kept it always before him, at arm’s length, where he could look at it and talk about it and be reminded by it that he was set apart from other men. It was his obsession, that and making money. He said he hadn’t long to live and he wanted to make a lot of money before he died.
Squatting before his sign, Burt asked, “What do you think? Is two enough”
Jimmy didn’t answer. She was thinking about the ocean. Though she had seen it only on that one occasion in her life, she found it was a good deal more real to her than anything she remembered from East Tennessee. (Mountains made her car sick.) She had found that looking at the desert made it easier for her to conjure up the ocean, a thing she was likely to do in time of stress. She thought it helped to look at the desert because it was just so much nothing and didn’t intrude upon her mind. So, standing there at the back door, she looked out across the arroyo and the sand flats to the mesa and, beyond, the mountains, and the ocean suddenly loomed up, blue with white sand beaches, seeming to rise toward the distances, so big it was like something you try to get your hands on in a dream. Her eyes glazed over with the look of one hypnotized, or dead. It made her feel the way she had upon inhaling her first cigarette as a child, full and lightheaded and gone from this world.
It lasted only an instant, and afterwards there was only the arroyo where rested the wind-sanded, rusting-out carcass of the old wreck Burt had pushed down there with his jeep, and clumps of mesquite, and a distant butte that looked like a man buried in sand up to his neck, and the desert itself that remained to mock her, a gross personal insult.
She turned her eyes back upon her husband. “Sometimes I think you hadn’t got a lick of sense,” she said.
He smiled up at her and went on with his work. He had finished both signs and now was getting ready to nail them onto posts. “You want to help me with this now” he asked. “I got to get busy on them sun glasses. There’s a world of things to be done yet.”
He stood up and took off his hat and fanned himself. She slammed out into the yard and took hold of one of the sign posts. She looked at his bald head. She hadn’t often an opportunity to see it. The ridge the hat made cut across his forehead like a scar. Above it his head was unnaturally white, while below, his nose and cheeks were peeling and red and his eyebrows and lashes were bleached. His taking off his hat was a testimonial to his excitement.
“What are you going to do with the sun glasses?” she asked, still studying the scar the hat made. He’d come home that morning from a quick trip up the highway and into the nearest town, loaded down with cardboard boxes stuffed full of 29¢ and 59¢ and 69¢sun glasses. He’d bought out every drugstore and dime store and trading post for twenty miles to the east.
“I aim to put a $1 in front of each and every one of those prices” he said.
“They probly won’t even need them to see it,” she said.
“Well, they won’t know that till it’s all over,” he said.
“By then I’ll have made a fortune.” He picked up his hammer and began to drive the nails while she braced her shoulder against the back of the post. He’d made lots of fortunes before. Once he’d made Julia Crow, their Indian help, take him out into the desert. He’d taken hundreds of color slides of buttes and cactus and one old Indian ruin. He’d sold one of the pictures to a postcard company. And once he’d bought six burros, planning to take pack trips out toward the mountains, charging tourists some outrageous price. He never could make a go of that though, and he blamed it on the fact they didn’t have a motel where tourists could stay and get an early start in the mornings. So he’d built a ring and hired out the burros for kiddy rides until they all got choked one spring in a sand storm.
Every blow of the hammer knocked her teeth together. “Hurry up, will you please,” she said. “It’ll be here by the time you get these things up.”
“Hold your horses. I’m almost through.”
Whack, and she felt a crick coming in her neck. But he’d finished.
He picked up his mallet and leaned on it to survey his handiwork. “In the morning,” he said, “I expect to see cars lining as far as you can see on both sides of the highway.”
“How do you know so sure you’ll even be able to see it from here?” she asked. But he ignored her.
“Dropped two on Japan and they flattened a city apiece.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that.” Now he had stuck the handle of the mallet into the sand and was sitting on its head, rolling a smoke.
He started to go on, but his eyes shifted and he looked down at what he was doing. She saw that he’d been about to describe the cities as if he’d seen both of them. She knew that frequently he could have kicked himself for confessing to her about his war experiences that night he woke up dreaming about his birthday box of death.
He went on, “Millions of ’em, dead before they knew what hit um, cinders in a second.” He stuck the cigarette between his Ups and searched his pockets for a match to light it. “You take, most of them, why they’d never even thought about it.” Snap. “Out like a light. None of your little crossroads bus stops either, big cities the size of L.A.” Snap.
Jimmy balanced the sign and tried to wipe a smear of paint off her temple.
He shook his head, smiling a little. “You couldn’t of paid me to been in one of them.”
“When I die I want it to be quick,” she said.
“Take I read where they dropped one of them on this island. They were just trying it out. Put all these sheep and goats in crates and left um there to see what effect it would have. Why, baby, when it was all over, know what? There wasn’t even an island. That’s wat effect it had.” He laughed.
“Sometimes they don’t get it set just like they want it.”
Julia Crow waddled around the end of the buffalo pen to see what they were doing. Julia Crow came once a week, bringing moccasins and cochina dolls off the reservation. And she stayed the day to clean up and cook supper for them. For this, Burt paid her two dollars over the price of her wares, most of which he shipped east at a 500 % profit to his brother who ran a trading post in the Smoky Mountains, where the “Navaho Handicraft” was re-labeled “Cherokee Curios” and sold along with chenille bedspreads. She was a fat dark Indian woman with little eyes like raisins in a burnt roll, and she had come that morning waddling out of the desert with two sacks of souvenirs tied into the ends of her shawl and slung forward over her shoulders to form a pair of breasts in no way out of proportion to the rest of her. In the course of the morning, posed between the stuffed grizzly and the pinto pony, she had contrived to have her picture taken many times. She always posed with arms crossed under her shawl, grim faced, her large lips stretched to cover her larger teeth, but she broke into helpless giggles afterwards, holding out her palm. At this, the tourists were likely to look hurt or to doubt Julia’s authenticity. Half of the tourists came determined to believe everything. The other half were just as determined to believe nothing and they picked over the items for sale, murmuring “Made in Japan.”
Burt had talked Julia Crow into staying and helping out with the mob he expected to converge upon The Buffalo Ranch before dawn. Now as she waddled up to them, he let the cigarette dangle from the comer of his lips and trail a thread of smoke that made his right eye water. The sight of Julia Crow had somewhat the same settling effect on him that the vision of the ocean had on his wife. He studied her with a fixed and distant look, for she was the one Indian they had gotten on terms with and he felt that there was something to be done with her, if he could just think what. The fact that she was alive increased her value, but at the same time made her uses difficult to settle on. But far from being frustrated by the challenge she represented, each time he looked at her he was kindled to dreams out of all proportion to the Free Zoo and the buffalo pen. Some day it would come to him. In the meantime, he encouraged her visits and treated her with deference.
“Whadaya think, Julia?” he asked. “Whadaya think will happen when the bomb goes off?” Her silence fascinated him and led him to believe that if he could but get her to talk the revelation he was after might spring balloon-shaped from her lips. So he was forever asking her foolish questions.
“Make a boom-boom,” she said, with a grin that squeezed the raisin-eyes almost out of sight.
He gazed at her, letting the words settle like rolling dice so he could read them and sift their meaning.
“What do you think is going to happen?” Jimmy asked, a suspicion worrying gnat-like at her consciousness.
He laughed. “I think we going to make us a killing.”
Julia Crow chuckled and Burt’s eyes jumped to her face. “Ain’t that right, Julia.”
“Big killing,” she agreed.
“You think,” Jimmy said, speaking as she might have, hypnotized, “you think maybe they won’t get it set just right in the morning, don’t you. You think we might all of us get blown sky-high. You plan on selling all those sun glasses at 300% profit to a bunch of people without long on this earth, don’t you. And that’s how come you’re laughing under your hat, idn’t it.”
He chuckled. “Whadaya think, Julia? We going to get blown up or what?”
Julia Crow raised her arms slowly into a circle and pursed her lips. “Posh!” she said.
Burt was visibly shaken. The cigarette trembled in his lips and he didn’t take his eyes off her.
Jimmy let go the sign and it arked over to slap the ground and send up a little spurt of alkali. “Listen. If there’s a chance in a million that’ll happen I’m high-tailing it out of here.”
“Now cahm down,” Burt said. “Just cahm down. I’m going to need me all the help I can get here in the morning. Anyway,” he dropped the cigarette and put his foot on it, “they know what they’re doing.”
“They blew up that island without meaning to.”
“They had more experience at it now.”
Julia Crow giggled, looking from one of them to the other, folding her arms underneath her shawl.
Burt rolled another cigarette, licked it sealed with a flamboyant swipe of his tongue, stuck it in his mouth and searched his pockets again for a match. “What if they did?” he said.
“And we got buried in the sand from it and they dug us up two thou’d’n years from now. Take they found this place just like it is tonight and you and me and Julia,” he turned his mystical white gaze upon the Indian, “you and me and Julia all mummified to a fare-you-well.”
“You said they went up in cinders,” Jimmy said.
He shrugged, lighting his match, “Happens all kind of ways.”
“Shoot,” Jimmy said, “If you thought that was what was going to happen you’d hitch a ride out of here on a motorcycle and we’d of seen the last of you.”
“Whadaya think, Julia?” he asked.
Julia Crow shook like Santy Claus, chuckling silently in her wisdom.