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Padgett Powell

Wayne in the Desert

Wayne this morning begins unpacking a box of clay tiles for the HoJo roof in Scottsdale, Arizona he's supposed to repair. The first seven tiles are broken and that is enough. He is last seen leaving the convenience store across the street with a twelve-pack under his arm getting nimbly into his car. The carton of tiles is left open, its four top flaps opening and closing in the variable wind.

Wayne's car leaves a fine invisible trail of rust very near the color of the clay tiles. A bloodhound trained in Detroit could track the car, a 1978 Impala. A crime team could locate hairs matching Wayne's along the trail of rust, blond and about seven inches long and not clean. Dental records, were Wayne found in demise, would be of little use identifying him owing to the extremely rapid rate of deterioration-equivalent to dentonic meltdown-of Wayne's mouth. Wayne looks like he has driven into a swarm of flies as he flies down the highway smiling and drinking and tossing his hair and tossing cans in the desert and forgetting roof tiles and roofs and HoJos except for renting a room in one with a blonde but he saw no blondes when he looked around after opening the carton of broken tiles to see if anyone was sympathetic and saw instead the convenience store and that was enough. Wayne is Wayne and Wayne is gone. Stone.

Wayne, in a mirror of his motel room, the name of which he does not know (the motel), the room number of which he'd have to find the key to know, or open and look at the door, too bright a thing to do, Wayne looks at his teeth. He wishes they were like Legos. He could snap them out and snap in new ones, snugly into tight, clean holes, white and firm and solid. The holes in these he has are black with green or yellow edges and not clean, firm, tight holes like Legos which hold the Legos together snap-like. These teeth are rotten to hell. How they got this way is about how his liver got its way: a thing that mysteriously, suddenly, but not really, hurts. The teeth, the mirror, his right side, changing all the fun things he likes to do or he'll die, is a shame. "It's a shame," he almost says, looking at his teeth and thinking of a cold cold beer, but he doesn't say "It's a shame," he laughs and looks in the cooler at the foot of the bed for that beer. And it's there. He is, after all, the most lucky of men, at 10:30 in the morning in the Arizona desert. The bed, he notices, is not even disturbed; he slept on top of it, like a big cat. The maid will only have to plump it and tuck it a bit. He did not get his money's worth here. But he has a cold Coors and the motel management is not Pakistani so he's not going to get under the covers now just to mess the bed up. He's going to get in his car and get some cigarettes and chips and more beer and drive into the worthless future and enjoy the shit out of it.

The white thighs of his wife, who was not really ugly, white like Boyardee noodles, which he really got off on, occur to him and give him a little momentary woody. That's what cigarettes and more beer are good against, errant and unfair woodies at 10:30 in the morning. Woodies out of the blue with no help in sight. He could wait for the maid . . . right. He could instead fire up the Impala, 357 loud cubic inches, and get the goddamn beer. That is the manly, sane thing to do. Patricia was ugly. So is the desert.

It doesn't have any trees. This cactus shit and mesquite shit is shit. Patricia was shit-for-brains and the desert is shit-for-trees. It does not look like rain, what else is new, in the desert. It doesn't look like anything, in the desert. When things don't look like anything, drive through them. And don't try it alone: have help. Have Coors, Winstons, Doritos, cardboard coasters placed under your icy mug by a woman in tight polyester shorts at happy hour, a woman who will say "Sure, Sugar" when you ask for juke-box change. Apropos of her shorts, you will say, looking now no lower than her forehead, "I'm from Texas." "That right?" "I haven't seen a tree in a month." It's not going well. What else is new. Play the juke box and don't play what you think she'd like. Play what you like, but you won't know anything on it, so play whatever the hell you want to. You are a free man. Play what you don't like, if you like. Go back to the bar and get her to fill your mug, or get her to give you a new icy mug, and say "I played stuff I don't know if I like it. The, you know, they have different songs as far as areas." She takes your money, smiling. "What else is new in the desert," you say to her butt, and she says "What?" stopping and looking at you from the register. "Nothing."

There was a girl he met in the Navy in the Philippines. She looked entirely American but swore, in perfect English, which made it harder to believe, that she was Amerasian, a soldier's bastard. She also swore, when Wayne started trying to eat her, that she'd never had that done before, and when Wayne did it she started shaking and kept shaking until he thought the cot would come apart. She was nearly six feet tall and bucking like a horse, actually like a cowboy on a horse, knees up and down, up and down, one arm flying, one on his head. When he was done she put her face in his neck and held it there for a long time which made him think she was crying and was entirely American. Then she got herself together and got on top of Wayne. Wayne thinks of this now, looking at the woman behind the bar smoking, looking now in virtually any direction but his, who calls him Sugar when making change. The girl got on top, and she was tall, and when she got him up and in her she was like a hand squeezing him and he thought he'd finish the cot off. Like a hand. She was part Asian. A little muscle control, he thinks, would go a long way in the desert. The Navy was a desert but it wasn't like this.

"Have you ever heard of a song," Wayne says to the woman behind the bar, " called 'The Navy was a desert but it wasn't like this'? "

"No," she says.

"Good song."

"I bet, Sugar."

"No you don't," Wayne says under his breath.

"You ready?"

"No," he says, and walks out, anticipating the secure barreling unfrought ease of the heavy Impala on straight road. He hopes for a no-Pakistani motel tonight, but even on that he's wearing down. "No Pakistani ever called me redneck," he says to the rearview mirror, laughing. This gives him the cheering idea of registering in Pakistani motels as Muhammad Ali. That would establish everyone on even footing, somehow. "Mr. Ali will need a bar of soap," he will tell them. "Mr. Ali will need sheets that are white." "Mr. Ali will thank Allah for whiteness and soap." He's lost his mind and he doesn't mind. He hates bathing. There's not a Pakistani in the world dirtier than he is. Some guys in the Navy once had to gang wash him. But still. White is white.

Wayne goes home. California was out. There was, all in all, too much desert between his hangover leave-takings of Pakistani motels and his not altogether enticing visions of California. These were of Beverly Hillsesque inaccessibility and of Venice Beach, where everyone, including the women, had more muscles than Wayne did. All he could see was pink skates and purple Spandex and no pussy at one end of things, and movie-star houses seen through a bus window on the other. So he turned around. There was nothing to go home to but there was nothing to not go home to. He wondered if driving back over the same ground would have the effect of making the desert look different, possibly better (it couldn't get worse). The phenomenon he had in mind was of how carpet sometimes looked different if you looked at it from the other side of the room. He wondered if the desert was like that. He bought five cases of Coors and did not plan to stop at any more motels, Pakistani or not. When he had packed the beer strategically in the trunk and got back in the Impala-he thought of the beer as ammo for a protracted military campaign-there was a bird in it with him. "Stone!" he said to the bird, fired up the car, and planned to have the bird cross the desert backwards with him. About a mile down the road the bird lit on his shoulder, shat on his shirt front, and flew out the driver's window in front of Wayne's face.

That was the desert for you. In the Philippines birds sat around on their own perches and talked to you. How a God-made, natural thing like the desert that was so Santa Fe and all that and Indian holy shit ground and Hopi boogie shit got to be worse off than a man-made piece of shit like the Navy and Subic Bay and two-dollar blow jobs from skinny guys' little sisters was beyond Wayne.

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