Volume 31, Number 2

He, In The Desert

Fletcher Bonin

The grass of the golf course, manicured into unnatural carpet-edges, makes him nauseous. It aches his spine to look upon the palm trees’ yielding trunks, their languid fronds held in an eternal shrug. The craggy summits of the San Jacinto mountain range had quit their full-chested display once they’d won his favor. Now they squat heavily upon the horizon they use as a couch. The day-in-day-out cloudless shine of the sun had at some point become a sound, an incessant mechanical hum that whirs at the top of his skull. He used to care about his tan, coating himself in the nougat brown pigment of paradise. Now he rarely moves from his station just behind the sliding glass door.

A laconic fruit fly bobs and plummets in his periphery.

The worst, he decides, are the houses. He stares at the endless neat rows of textureless condos, aligned at perfect intervals like a fresh carton of eggs. One cubic split-level house with sliding glass doors, minimalist patio furniture and oh-so-California Spanish-style red clay roofing after another. Smooth white cement fuses the walls of his unit to the walls of his neighbors. But for the mountains behind them, the cloned ivory squares across the green mirror his own condo block. All the condos face the mountain, like expectant parishioners gathered to an altar. Were his posterior neighbors to stare out from their own sliding glass doors, his unit would appear as yet another of the innumerable bleached squares playing meek foil to the mountains, dignified in their organic barbarity.

He strikes down on the fly, his hand spread wide before clutching in a spasm of fine muscle and bone. Unclenching his fingers, the pink skin of his palm stares up at him, empty. The floating granule reappears just before his face. He feels the imperceptible beat of its wings brush the skin at the tip of his nose. He swats at the fly a second time, misses. His fingers, still held aloft, rummage at a patch of thinning hair on the crown of his head.

Returning his gaze to the burdensome mountains, he imagines his neighbors staring out of their own sliding glass doors. He pictures their leathery skin and dangling turquoise earrings, their rubberized sandals and moisture-wicking golf shirts. Back when he’d gone to the community pool he’d forced some polite, appropriately meaningless conversation. They’d exchange shallow words about where they’d come from and which unit they lived in and how much their grandkids love coming to play in the pool when they’d visit. Just once he’d like for someone to admit they detest it, that they’d been fed up with all of it for years, that they regretted ever setting foot in Palm Spring. Invariably, the conversation would turn to the mountains.

The mountains. Those mountains lure more saps into these numbing condo units than honey ever had flies. He could not understand their sustained, pathetic worship of the mountains. And he hates to think that he, too, had somehow ended up here among them.

Again, he snatches at the fly, sees his hand close around its granular body, no larger than a comma. He opens his hand, expecting a slight dark smear at the edge of his finger. But again, his palm is bare. He lunges to his kitchen counter, examining the grimy fruit fly trap he’s constructed out of a glass jam jar, plastic wrap and a rubber band. Peering close, he smells the sharp, rancid smell of vinegar and wine he’s used as bait. Not a single corpse disturbs the sinister liquid’s placid, oleaginous surface. His feet carry him back to the sliding glass door.

As is often the case in long, committed relationships, everything had felt idyllic in the beginning. He remembers walking out onto the patio that first morning with a big, goofy smile on his face. The just risen sun had limned the mountains in a brilliant nectarine hue. The grapefruit tree had barely resisted when he plucked the pink orb, the branch all but placing the ripe heft in his hands. He’d allowed the grapefruit juice to go sticky on his fingers and chin, marveling at the brilliance of the vista, awash in the permanent smell of fresh cut grass and the occasional, satisfying smack of a club connecting with a golf ball.

He straightens his spine, suddenly aware of the hunch that forms when he isn’t conscious of his posture.

His ex-wife had told him not to move out here, that it was too soon to retire, that he’d get bored. At the time, boring had sounded pretty good. An escape from Manhattan, from his corner-adjacent office on West 39th street. Each day tested him anew. Standing and waiting on the platform in New Canaan numbed hands in the winter and ruined his undershirts in the summer. The cheap black coffee they sold at the train station had given him an ulcer and stained his teeth. Jockeying with stronger, younger men in darker, newer suits for a seat on the 6 AM eastbound MetroNorth train strained his joints. It was a fatigue he’d felt in his heel bones. And it seemed that once he’d finally arrived at the office, the same men with sharp jawlines and thick hair would be drinking energy drinks out of metallic canisters at their desks or installing some new software on his computer, a subtle condescension attending their sips and clicks.

On the day his ulcer groaned and having suffered through another ex-frat boy’s patronizing Google Slides presentation, he had also been passed over for a promotion that would have given him that corner office he’d been adjacent to for eleven years. That day, grinding chalky Tums capsules with his molars, he’d decided to leave early. He’d picked up a bottle of Scotch—Macallan 85—and opened it on his way home to tell Lynn to pack her bags, that it was finally time to move out to the desert, permanently. No more rushed three-day weekends to the Hamptons or begging off Christmas Eve.

An obese man putters by in a golf cart, the driver side sagging to accommodate his weight and threatening to halt the front left tire completely. They make eye contact briefly through the sliding glass door. The obese man nods and continues to the next hole, picking his teeth with a golf tee.

It had been that day—incidentally his 42nd birthday—that he’d learned Lynn had developed a pattern of her own. He’d punched Nathaniel that afternoon not out of rage but out of obligation. Nathaniel, the young man from the wine shop downtown who often charmed them into buying the slightly more expensive bottles of Chablis, always promising it was worth the markup. An indigo beanie always covered what he assumed to be a luscious head of hair atop Nathaniel’s head. It occurs to him now that he’d never seen him without the beanie. Afterwards he’d cleaned up the shards of glass and mopped up the heady scotch, but he hadn’t returned to work the next day or any day after that. He and Lynn had long talks in the days leading up to his move. He pictures Nathaniel wearing the beanie in bed with Lynn.

He recalls the incident now not with the sustained vitriol that he’d had in the past, but with a kind of numb melancholy. Perhaps all those meditation podcasts are starting to pay off. But, no. He relies on the incident, on Nathaniel, to make him interesting. It grants him a victimhood to treat with booze and gratuitous self-pity, adds texture to his otherwise unremarkable personhood. Nathaniel, he knows, attaches anecdote to his disaffection and separates him from his dull neighbors who’d lived dull lives before their dull retirements.

He wants to thank Nathaniel, make amends, gain closure, move on, namaste and all that. He picks up the phone, scrolling for Lynn’s number. After three rings a man’s voice resounds in his ear.


Is it Nathaniel? He can’t be sure. His mouth goes dry and he can’t maneuver his tongue, which feels numb and overlarge. The voice speaks again.


He hangs up, placing his phone back on the counter. His fingers leave foggy prints on the screen which he scrubs away with a corner of his shirt.

After the mountains’ initial awe had worn off, he drank. A beer around five at first, then a cocktail at four, then two cocktails around noon. Then he’d lost count and walked into his neighbors living room, taking their identical condo unit for his own. It was then that he’d switched to cigars, which he’d seen a man smoking on the 17th hole—the hole his glass door overlooks. He’d decided that there existed some dignity, some character in a cigar. He hadn’t quit the booze; not fully.

But the cigars too he gave up, tired of the filmy gray taste of his mouth and the mid-afternoon headaches. Now he tries to do, or at least pantomimes, all the things that happy, well-adjusted people are supposed to do. He meditates each morning, reads books recommended by the New York Times, goes for runs along the golf cart path, drinks probiotic teas and green juices, calls his brother. He’d even picked up golf for a while but had dropped it when the sunburned men started asking him to join their foursomes. The trouble was that none of it ever seemed to last him past the mid-afternoon.

Then he’d end up back at the sliding glass door. He knows he needs a change, had known for a while. He can’t bring himself to move. He’d invested too much of himself into this place, had willed himself to love it. To leave, at this point, would be to let the condo win, to let the mountain win. If he could not find content here, he fears he might be incapable of ever finding it again.

Recalling the day he’d quit—the energy, the agency he’d felt—a restlessness surges up from the floor and swells in his limbs. His feet sweat and he cracks and re-cracks his knuckles. Tearing himself from the sliding glass door, his feet propel him out to the garage with an unfamiliar bounce. He leaves his phone on the counter. Just as he collapses onto the plush leather of his Mercedes, the beige dust cover in the corner catches his eye. He’d bought the motorcycle on an impulse, around the time the cigars’ novelty had worn off. He’d always been too bashful to ride it. The sturdy piping and bulbous curves of the bike’s frame are aquiline suggestions beneath the thin dust cover. Caught up in unfamiliar adrenaline, he leaps from the car and tears the dust cover from the bike. It glimmers even in the musty dimness of the garage.

Gingerly, he clips the helmet over his head. A sense of his own phoniness grows in his chest. It feels like a costume. He walks the bike out into the street and swings his leg over the smooth leather seat. Turning the key, he revs the engine to life. It purrs beneath him, vibrations humming up and down the metal frame.

A neighbor watering his lawn gives him a nod and the same ubiquitous wave that seems to be contracted in with the property around here. He smiles and waves back, feeling more than a little foolish as the man’s eyes linger on the bike. He hides his eyes behind a dark pair of sunglasses.

Wobbling at first, he soon finds his balance and begins easing into turns, watching the ever-smooth California pavement pass beneath the tires. Without direction, he tears off, feeling the breath of the warm afternoon lapping at his throat. The mountains take on a new, dynamic energy as he speeds past. He escapes, finally, their brooding countenance and their sky-blotting taunt. He follows the sun with a renewed sense of his own determination, accelerating against the gentle breeze that sways the palm trees overhead.

He feels the eyes following him as he weaves between cars, happy to disrupt their mellow late afternoon commutes with a loud engine and a burst of sleek black metal. He recalls lusting after the bikers that could weave to the front of standstill traffic. The bike had sat in his garage for over three years, untouched. The iconic yellow arrow of an In-N-Out Burger restaurant whips by in his periphery.

After about an hour on the road a ramshackle dive bar flashes by in a rectangular blur on his right. Slowing, his feet tripping against the pavement, he makes a U-turn and circles back to the squat roadside bar. “Rita’s Tacos and Beer” reads the chipped aquamarine paint on a faded sign above the entrance. A few cars are parked at jarring angles in the unmarked, unfinished parking lot out front. The word “open” flashes in neon orange in the window, the “n” flickering in spasmodic bursts.

Dismounting, his feet carry him into the bar, the hum of the motorcycle leaving a pleasant buzz in his soles. Upon entering, a wall of cigarette smoke accosts his throat. His eyes water and he hacks out a sharp cough. California law had declared it illegal to smoke in public places years ago. He chokes his way to the bar.

After a few minutes, he grows accustomed to the stale smell of cigarette tar and the crisp flakes of ash floating in the pale wash of the bare bulbs hanging over the bartop. The savory aroma of cooked ground beef and cheap taco seasoning mingles with the cigarettes, clinging like dew to his clothes and hair, filling the cramped room with a warm haze. Small chunks of citrus rinds lay scattered across the bar, their tart scent the only thing capable of puncturing the pungent fog.

“That your bike out there?”

The question comes from a short, gruff man who looks like he might be a coal miner with his blackened hands and smoky gray beard. The breast pocket of his coveralls bears a cartoonish truck logo that reveals him to be a mechanic.

“Yeah, yeah it is.” His voice sounds meek and hoarse. He clears his throat.



“What’s the horsepower on that mother?”

“What? Oh, I’m not sure.”

“Beauty,” he says again. And with a subtle flit of his hand another beer appears before him, and he pushes the empty bottle to a growing collection on his left.

“Can I getcha something hon’?”

The bartender wipes a glass with a tattered gray rag, and she speaks in wrenching staccato bursts. She never stops moving, her arms working like dual ratchets, torqueing and jerking as she wipes the same glasses she’d just set down on the stained wooden bartop. Her hair is tied back in a viciously tight bun, though silver wisps escape at her bangs. In concert with her unblinking blue eyes, the thin strands that escape the severe knot give her something of an electrocuted look. A tooth is missing from her bottom row of teeth and her tongue flicks at the gap absentmindedly as her arms ratchet away.

“A beer, please.”

“Well good ‘cause that’s all we got. Corona or Modelo?”

“Corona please. With a lime wedge, if you have one.”

“We don’t. Want an orange slice?”

“Sure. Thank you.”

She nods, and in two twists of her ratchet arms a foggy glass brimming with beer appears before him. In another crank of elbows and wrists a messy orange wedge plops into the glass. It splatters pulp and beer foam onto the bar top, which she quickly mops up with the rag before returning to the glasses.

A few sips of beer mellow him, and he steals furtive glances at the hunched figures planted on sagging booth seats or leaning against rickety stools. There is a gritty, alive, authentic dignity to them, he feels. But he stops himself, aware of the poetic simplicity he is projecting onto them, scooping them up into the romantic gusto that had propelled him onto the motorcycle in the first place. Still, he can’t help but feel that this crowd is fundamentally different from the visor-wearing residents of the condos.

Hearing the satisfying clack of a billiards table, he allows his feet to pilot him toward the sound. He sips at his beer in a way that he hopes appears casual as he meanders to the back room.

“Wanna play?”

At first, he doesn’t think she’s addressing him, that she’d been talking to someone behind him, over his shoulder. Turning, he sees no one.

“Whaddya say, Tiger, you wanna play?”

Tiger? He basks in the bestowal of the nickname, a pseudonym befitting his costumed identity.


She is spectacular in a way he’s never before encountered. It isn’t that she is attractive, but that indeed she may be ugly in such a perfectly callous, rapturous way that he feels himself enthralled. She moves like a vulture, shuffling from foot to foot, sacrificing a more dignified perch for some worthwhile earthbound venture. Her black shirt has faded to a dull gray and through its worn fibers he sees the bony ridges of her elbows and the sharp protrusions of her shoulder blades.

“I’ll break,” she says.

He nods and watches her work the pool cue deftly in her pale, spindled fingers. Her age is impossible to guess. Small but definite wrinkles crease her face in places, and her thick hair is dyed an inky blue-black, falling to the middle of her trim waist. With a single, fluid movement the triangle breaks apart, sending balls careening in every direction. Two solids roll into a corner pocket.

“You’re stripes,” she says, not looking at him as she continues to work around the table.

One after another she nets every solid on the table save for the 8-ball, which rattles in the corner several times before settling on the pocket’s edge. A strong breath would send it over the lip.

“Looks like you’ll get a chance to play, stripes.”

“I haven’t played in a long time.”

“Well then I guess I’ll be winning soon.”

He can see she’s smiling, amused at his hokey, nice guy, obvious-out-of-towner innocence. His limbs feel gawky as he lines up a shot. The pool cue glances weakly against the side of the cue ball, sending it into a pathetic, tottering orbit. She chortles in two soft grunts that come from the back of her throat.

“Here I go,” she croaks.

In one rhythmic movement of her skeletal arms she sinks the 8-ball with a satisfying clunk.
“Good game.” She holds up a Corona for him to cheers.

“Yeah, good for you,” he replies, meeting her glass and taking a swig.

The orange peel bumps against his upper lip, spilling a dribble of foam down his chin.

“I like to be good at something is all,” she says.

He envies the comfort with which she stands, one sharp hip cocked to the side and a pool cue leaning in the crook of her arm as she sips her Corona. When she brings the beer to her lips, her sleeve rides up a few inches, exposing a small tattoo on the inside of her wrist. After the third or fourth sip he can see its a name. Chris, it says, in loopy Gothic lettering. Like her shirt, the once-dark ink has faded to a navy blue and skin creases wrinkle the tattoo. He finishes his beer and swills the sodden orange slice at the bottom of the glass in small circles.

“Who’s Chris?” he asks, using his glass to gesture in the direction of the tattoo.

She follows his eyes down to her wrist and brings it up to her eye as though seeing it for the first time.

“That,” she says, “is none of your business.”

He feels the blood rush into his cheeks and looks down at his shoes, making apologetic noises. His free hand frets at the sparse hair at the crown of his skull.

“Ah hell, I’m messing with you! Geez. Lighten up, wouldja?”

When he looks back up a subtle, crooked smile is stitched above her pointed chin, sending heretofore unseen rivulets of creases and wrinkles across her face. He doesn’t respond but offers a meek smile in return, focusing his gaze on the orange peel settled at the bottom of his glass.

“Chris was my fault, if you wanna know. He was just a kid. And we met here, playing pool, actually. I beat him, too. But he just had this wildness to him. I can hardly explain it. He could barely hold the cue steady he was so full of beans.”

She pauses to take another sip of her beer, wiping foam from her lip with her sleeve.

“Anyway, he went the same way as the rest of them. Found some younger thing with shiny hair. Someone with energy to match his, I’ll bet. Course nobody could match his. It was like he always had fire ants scrambling around on his skin or something, if you can believe that. My fault though, I suppose. I’m old enough to know.”

He’d been so transfixed by her words, her hoarse voice and her unhurried pace, that it takes him a moment to fill the pregnant pause that follows her story. When he does, the words burst out of his gut and stumble past his teeth before his lips can yank them back by the collar.

“Yeah, yeah my ex… Well she cheated on me, too, actually, so…”

He trails off, aware of how uninteresting his story sounds after hers, the meekness of his voice.

“Well, you oughta get her name tattooed bud. Get it out from inside you and stick it somewhere outside.”

“You think?” He looks back up at her face, which she holds in an expression of sincere concern before the mask shatters into another wrinkled guffaw.

“Hello no pal! You serious? I regret tattooing that dummy’s name on my skin nearly every day. Especially when folks ask about it. Jesus, you really gotta lighten up, you know that?”

“Yeah, sorry,” he mumbles, looking back toward the bar where three men have begun playing a card game he doesn’t recognize. They slap cards down on the grimy surface and when they lift their hands to see the numbers and suits they groan loudly or else bellow approvingly.

Removing a cigarette from behind her ear, she brushes past him.

“You smoke?” she asks, still not meeting his eyeline.

“No.” He follows her outside anyway.

“I’m going home. Have a good night, Rita,” she calls to the bartender. Her arms are still ratcheting away behind the bar.

“Night hon’,” she says, adding a piston-like wave.

The mechanic is gone, a honeycomb of wet rings left where his bottles had been.

Outside the desert night has turned cool as it often does in late-autumn.

“You walk here?” she asks, taking long drags on her cigarette.

“No, I rode my motorcycle.”

“Huh” she intones, nodding slowly, “where’s it at?”

“It’s…” He lifts a finger to point but it’s gone. Nothing but the empty, cracked pavement marks the space where he’d parked.

“Uh oh.” Her voice is flat. She stamps out her cigarette with the rubberized toe of her boot.

He runs around behind the bar, but it isn’t there. He plunges back into the bar, the smoky haze enveloping him and clogging his throat.

“Hey, Rita? Did you see anyone take off on my motorcycle?”

Rita stares back at him a moment, her arms pausing their endless sequence. She looks small all of a sudden, frail. But then she starts right back up, wiping glasses and setting them back down.

“Sorry hon’. No, I didn’t see anything.”

He stares at her a moment longer then rushes back outside. The vulture woman has lit another cigarette. Its orange ember illuminates the sharp creases in her pinched mouth.

“Was it in the bathroom?”

He glowers at her through the increasing darkness before returning to his futile scanning of the parking lot.

“Sorry,” she says, shrugging, “I bet I know where it is.”

He whips his stare back on her.


“Well, could be too late.” Another shrug. Her voice is hollow.

He stares at her, expecting her to say more. But she continues to stare out into the inky night. Smoke seeps from her nostrils now and then.

“Is it close to here?” he finally ventures, unable to stand the silence another moment. Anxiety rises in his chest. He straightens his spine.

“Bout an hour east I’m thinking,” she replies, “You’ll be wanting a ride, right Tiger?”

He pauses, catching himself grinding his molars. The novelty of the afternoon evaporates, leaving him feeling clammy and uncertain. She picks at something under her finger nail.

“Sure, thank you. I’d appreciate that, really.”

She nods and begins walking toward a rusty gray station wagon. Shrouded in darkness, it looks to him like a hearse.

The car rattles to life, and she drives slowly out of the parking lot. Mugs with dark coffee stains and cigarette butts fill every available cupholder and still more rest near his feet. She lights another cigarette as she drives, steering briefly with her knees.

The smoke trails out of the open window on her side, letting in cool air.

They drive in silence. He raises a hand to the car’s stereo only to realize it’s missing, a gaping rectangular void where it ought to be like a freshly lost tooth.

“What happened to your radio?”

“Junkies.” Her flat tone indicates no malice.

He nods and looks out the window. The streets are empty and the starless night passes in a dark blur save for the occasional cactus.

“How do you know where it is?”

“I don’t.” She never takes her eyes from the road.

Her aloofness begins to bother him. The cryptic responses feel purposeful, designed to frustrate him. Feeling an outburst coming on, he pushes the thoughts away. This is the first time he’d been in a car that was not his own since moving to Palm Springs.

“Did you grow up around here?”

She nods slowly, “yep.”

“I just moved out here a few years ago.”


This gives him pause, though he doesn’t push her for more.

“Why do you think you know who took my bike?”

“Just a hunch.”

The next twenty minutes pass in silence.

“What do you think of the mountains?”

“They’re all right.”

* * *

They pass a sign for an In-N-Out burger, and he turns his head back towards the departing retro lettering. It’s the same one he’d passed earlier. As they turn a corner, he realizes they are only a few blocks from his own home.

“Hey…” He shifts in his seat, whipping his head over his shoulder and back to the windshield, “how’d you know where I live?”

She looks up, meeting his eyes for the first time.

“I don’t, Tiger.”

He stares back out the window as they drive past his street and the next street. But at the following street, the wagon putters into the turn. His fingers dance at the top of his head. Everything—the woman next to him, the ratchet-armed barkeep, the motorcycle—washes over him in a surreal wave. He feels ill. Tepid sweat forms under his arms and the beer sloshes in his stomach.

“Here.” She slows to a stop in front of a nondescript one-story condo unit.

With sweaty palms and numb legs, he opens his car door and follows her up to the house. It looks exactly like all the other units lining the manicured street. And like his own condo, too.

She walks right up to the garage. Banging twice with her fist, she calls,

“Open up Ralph, it’s me.”

Thirty seconds of silence pass before the garage door begins to groan and lurch its way up. Apprehension creeps up his spine in rhythm with the garage door’s steady climb. The door halts, silence flooding back out into the driveway with its own deafening torrent. They stand in the pale wash of light emanating from the garage.

A grubby man with a ratty beard appears, wiping his oil-blackened hands on an old rag.

“You take this guy’s bike, Ralph?” Her voice carries a hint of exasperation, like a mother chiding a mischievous child.

He recognizes this man, Ralph, from the bar, the mechanic with the truck stitched over his breast pocket. At the same instant the man freezes, recognizing him. But then Ralph breaks eye contact, shrugging and continuing to rub his fingers one at a time with the rag, though it removes none of the grease.

“Course not.”

“C’mon, Ralph,” she says.

Behind him several motorcycles in various stages of disrepair lean up against each other. Some look old but complete while others are new but stripped down to their shining, skeletal frames.

Finally, withering under her cold gray stare, he sighs. His hands fall to his sides, the rag hanging limp at his knee.

“You’re too late,” he says, adding, “Sorry,” with a quick, almost apologetic glance in his direction.

The woman nods.

“He already sold it, Tiger, too late.”

He feels frozen, dumbfounded by the blunt injustice. He almost laughs out loud but it comes out as a sigh.

“You want a ride home?” she asks.

He stares at her, then at the garage door as it crawls and moans back to a close, hiding Ralph and his stolen bikes.

“No, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.”

He watches her bony frame fold back into the station wagon and rattle off into the night. He watches until she disappears past the gated entrance of the condo village.

He feels winded, numb. Walking the two blocks to his home, wondering at each house he passes, he wishes he could see through their walls. The mountains are little more than masses of dark unknowing in the background. When he gets home, he doesn’t go to bed or brush his teeth or even wash his hands. He sits on the wire patio chair until dew coats the grass and pale sunlight sends long shadows off the palm trees. On stiff legs he walks around to the side of his house where the grapefruit tree grows and pulls off the first pink bulb his hand touches. He collapses back onto the patio chair and neatly peels back its thick white husk, bitter peel dust erupting into the still morning air, and eats its bursting, ruby segments.