Across the Mojave


The short story, “Across the Mojave” appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Bacon Review.

At the end of the day, riding west with J. Arthur Volkes, Lena Astride still knew little of Christ and the Holy Trinity, but at least she was 100 miles closer to Los Angeles Hollywood.

Earlier, Will White, her husband, had instructed her that an ex con acquaintance, the same J. Arthur Volkes, would be delivering marijuana to the house but under no circumstance was she to invite him in. So when the doorbell rang but once, Lena was certain it couldn’t be the dealer; a criminal would rudely ring and ring and ring.

When she answered, though, the visitor excused himself politely; he was on his way to El Monte, had something for William, and might he please come in to speak with him? Lena thought that jailbird or not, this J. Arthur Volkes showed a civilized demeanor, knew how to act, and was welcome in her home.

How to act. You’d think no one around this barren hole of a Barstow Mojave had ever heard of it. People arrived unannounced, pushed into lines, talked aloud at the movies, and smoked cigarettes constantly and everywhere. No life, but low life, Lena guessed, and that was why lately she’d been thinking of Dakota and its ladies and gentlemen for whom she’d designed wonderful clothing.

Lena Astride had been sewing since she was five and was a natural seamstress. She could tailor a prom outfit or wedding dress or christening gown. She adored the way fabrics felt as they touched her and believed she was meant to stitch splendid things from exotic textiles in Los Angeles Hollywood.

But making that last push to the coast… that was the problem. Lena didn’t drive, and when she’d asked Will, he’d suggested Nevada instead; celebrities practically ran the place; he’d drive her there now… this instant; she’d love it. But Vegas was tacky and second rate; Lena knew it, and she knew that Will was interested in it only for the all night gambling and trouble he could find there. Lena was more and more certain of it… this Will White had been cut from nothing special.

And she was right; Will moved only as the wind blew him. If staying out at the Bar X Rancho Café seemed like a good idea, he’d drink and dope out there all night long. Or if he fancied gambling away his wages from the rare day’s work at the Santa Fe Yards, he’d blow it all on dice or blackjack. Or if a scabby mongrel dog lumbered up, Will might buy the cur a hamburger, bring it home to live, and expect Lena to look after it. Will did just whatever whenever and acted however he wanted.

The very day of J. Arthur’s visit, when Lena’d confronted Will about some of these shortcomings, he’d refused to spend even two minutes thinking about it. Will figured that you do what you like, and that’s bound to make somebody mad, and when somebody’s mad, she’s furious like Lena Astride was most of the time. She wouldn’t speak to him then, or feed the dog, or show him a degree of warmth, none, for icy weeks at a time.

There was no winning with Lena Astride; hell, it was no breaking even, even. Their marriage was just like a jail except that if he were still back in Avenal, no Lena Astride Gustafson would be there telling him what was wrong with him every minute of his life. And now, she’d let that son of a bitch J. Arthur Volkes into the house and sat him right down on the davenport, and before Will could get his weed, he’d have to hear Volkes blabber on about that time with Uncle KoKo and jail and his mission from Jesus Christ and all.

Sitting beside Lena Astride on her couch, J. Arthur Volkes wore a goose down vest with many pockets and under it a wife beater that was very very white against his dark skin. He opened a Ziploc bag of skunky marijuana now and began rummaging through his pockets for rolling papers. Lena watched him squinting and licking his lips, and found herself put out with herself for being fascinated by the dark tattoos on his forearms. Their colors paled as they stretched, then re saturated as they contracted over his heavy prison muscles.

The jailhouse physique… Lena supposed Will White hadn’t come back from Avenal with any such thing precisely because he’d taken no advantage of that correctional institution to better himself in one single way. It still made her mad. Hadn’t she ridden that bus over 200 miles round trip once a month for 18 months to tell him how much she’d love him if he could turn himself around? Of course he hadn’t and wouldn’t. But this J. Arthur Volkes, although rather sawed off and short, really, certainly did present himself in a positive light.

Breaking apart gummy buds with stubby cannabis stained fingers, J. Arthur began rolling a joint and asked how long Will and Mrs. White had been married. Will shot a hard eyeball on Lena Astride, as if to say, too long, but held his tongue instead. After all, it had started well, and Will had to admit that in her cashmere turtleneck, corduroy mini, and cowboy boots, Lena still looked good, really good. With her long legs and black hair, she was still as desirable now as the day he’d met her, when he’d had to have her.

Back then, nine years ago, how he’d acted, how he’d been, were no issues at all. They’d met at a motorcycle rally that passed through Lena’s Dakota town every year. Not a motorcyclist, but with drugs to sell, Will’d latched onto the motorcycle cavalcade and profited as it moved cross-country. He’d won a good set of cowhide leathers in Utah in a craps game. When Lena noticed their full grain and heavy stitching one day as he passed The Fabric of Life Sewing Center, she’d asked where he’d found them. Will had answered, Lenwood, he guessed, but Lena had heard Hollywood.

Twenty five years old, and at a dead end in Sturges, Lena Astride Gustafson had been looking, looking, looking, for a way out, for some thing or somebody. Famous personalities would not find her in Dakota. But Will was tall and blond, and most importantly, a California man. There might be a life with him… in the West. Two days after they’d met, she picked out an FLH Electra Glide from a row of Harleys parked in front of The Broken Spoke Saloon, and as soon as Will could hot-wire that Police Special, the two of them lit out for California.

For the journey, Lena wore a denim jacket, tight jeans, and her cowboy boots. Will could barely ride a motorbike, so the couple travelled fast but dangerously, south through the Black Hills, Wyoming, and Colorado, to Albuquerque. From there, they followed what was left of Route 66 through Arizona to California and the Mojave.

Lena’d never heard of Barstow, but soon realized it was not Los Angeles Hollywood. In fact, Barstow wasn’t much more than a Santa Fe railway junction. Trains down from San Francisco and the San Joachin met trains headed in from Los Angeles; there they broke up and reformed and switched and headed out to other destinations… Salt Lake, Denver, Chicago even Canada and Old Mexico.

Lena found no one in Barstow who knitted passionately; no one who perfectly matched seams; no one who cared about crisp corners or discussed the intricacies of ribbing stitches for corduroy. She worked retail at the Mojave Mall Britax selling bric-a-brac and Elmer’s glue to snowbirds from Alberta. Although the Mojave grows on some people sometimes, and sometimes some people come to appreciate its barren majesty, Lena Astride considered Barstow the end of the earth.

Sitting by J. Arthur Volkes now, Lena daydreamed of celebrities in tuxedos and Lamborghinis on Highland Avenue Hollywood. When J. Arthur waved his hands before her though, she snapped awake and noticed that in home made gothic script, he’d tattooed J E S U S from the little finger to the thumb of his right hand knuckles and S A V E S on his left hand side. J. Arthur held out his hands, now, palms down and said that Lena probably thought that Jesus was in his hands, but no, no, no; it was he, J. Arthur Volkes, who was in the hands of The Lord.

Now, twisting closed the reefer he’d finally rolled, J. Arthur explained that yes he was delivering a quarter ounce of Mendocino Madness, but that his visit had another purpose. In a dream, the Anointing Light had given him a Holy mission. He said that like Will White, he, J. Arthur Volkes, had once thirsted for salvation in the desert but had finally drunk long from the Lord’s cup of redemption. Then he asked if Will had considered heaven’s grace or studied on deliverance? Did Will know that God’s glorious fists, the Spirit Redeemer and Jesus Christ of Nazareth, were dealing mighty one-two punches to Old Nick every day?

Taking a small matchbox from his pocket now, J. Arthur removed a wooden match and closed the box. He held the matchstick at a 45-degree angle between his right thumb and index finger and wedged the box tight above it with the match head touching the strike plate. Squeezing his finger and thumb together, J. Arthur simultaneously lit the match and propelled its box three feet into the air. Catching the box in his SAVES hand, he used JESUS to light the reefer.

After J. Arthur had offered the joint to Lena, who refused, he inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. Aghhhhh. Did Lena Astride know that Genesis said to behold, that he hath given us every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth and that to us it will be for meat? And that he causeth the grass to grow for the cattle and herb for the service of man… And that in the Psalms somewhere, there’s something or other about making our faces to shineth. He added that if someone asked him, J. Arthur Volkes, how he could be a Christian and a dope dealer too, he would sayeth unto him, to study your Bible and in the Weed, the Dove of God, and Jesus Christ rejoice!

All this match boxing and scripturizing had left Lena Astride awe struck. J. Arthur took another hit, exhaled slowly, coughed and coughed again, and passed the joint to Will who’d been motioning for it. Lena said that Will smoked too much dope, and if he weren’t loaded all the time, he might have a thought in his head about Jesus and the Holy Dove and our faces to shineth and all. That would be the polite way to converse with Mr. Volkes, no?

Will eyeballed Lena coldly and said he’d speak to the fool, J. Arthur Volkes, as he, Will White, pleased. He got up, then, walked to the kitchen, and returned with a six-pack of beer in its plastic rings. J. Arthur asked if Will would please pass him one of those beers please which reminded J. Arthur that his Uncle, KoKo LeBlanc, who’d been waiting out a statute of limitation down in Tecate Baja, had returned to San Bernardino County America; he was staying out at Kimberlina’s, east of Barstow.

Sin and punishment and righteousness! J. Arthur proclaimed from the sofa. He himself, J. Arthur Volkes, and Mr. William White understood a little something about those things, and did Lena know about that windy night in the desert when Satan, the Devil, who sometimes walked the earth, had possessed both Will and KoKo LeBlanc through drink… Will to the point of inebriation and Uncle KoKo to the point of unconscious inebriation? Had she heard how, on that occasion, the Black Angel’s fetid breath had blown through Will White and commanded him to deviltry?

That night, J. Arthur continued, out in the Bar X parking lot, using pliers from the toolbox of KoKo’s Plymouth Neon, and possessed of unholy strength, Will White had yanked out KoKo’s only tooth, a small banana yellow canine, crowned with heavy gold, which had stood ugly and alone in Uncle’s flaccid gums for many years. And that then, grasping it by the bloody root, Will had driven tooth and Uncle to his garage workshop, where after drilling a tiny hole in it, Will had hung the trophy on a thin golden chain around KoKo’ still unconscious neck.

Oh yes, J. Arthur said, and upon awakening the next morning in the backseat of his Plymouth, KoKo, bloody but otherwise fine, found the tooth necklace, rejoiced over the gold chain that had theretofore belonged to you, Miss Lena Astride, and forgave Will White instantly because KoKo perfectly understood how evil could possess a man and what that possession’s fruit might be. The two celebrated with Vicodin KoKo had stolen from his niece, Kimberlina Lee LeBlanc, who suffers from acute and painful angular kyphosis, which is a hunched back.

J. Arthur stopped now to ask Will if all this were not the gospel truth. Will knew it all as fact, but refused to answer. Instead he gulped the last of his first beer and popped the top of his second. He glared at Lena Astride and asked J. Arthur where was that quarter ounce anyway? For her part, Lena could not look away from the visitor; she guessed that staring into J. Arthur’s yellowy gaze was like staring into the eye of the serpent as if this tiny man with outsized head had mesmerized her. Lena wondered if she’d inhaled too much marijuana smoke.

All then was well between KoKo LeBlanc and Will White, J. Arthur continued, but all was not well in the Lord’s domain for His realm is earth as well as heaven and a couple of weeks later, after Will and KoKo had broken into the PayDay Quick Loan to steal cash that was not even on premise, KoKo, afraid he’d shoot himself going over a back lot fence, as he had on another occasion, had handed Will his Phoenix .25, which cheap heater Will had crammed into his waistband.

Well don’t you know, County Deputies took that little gat off Will when they arrested him and KoKo a few minutes later. Now eventually, KoKo beat that wrap on a technicality, but you see, that San Bernardino judge sentenced William to 18 months up in Avenal. In this, however, His bidding had begun, because The Lord God had sent yours truly, J. Arthur Volkes, serving a short possession sentence, to supply Will with prison dope and start his personal ministry of faith.

Will, still silent, flicked marijuana ash from the reefer now and muttered Jesus Christ… Jesus H. Fucking Christ, and J. Arthur replied, Jesus Christ, yes sir, praise be to him, and he told Lena that although Will may have paid his debt to society in the secular world, he hadn’t yet squared himself with the Almighty. But today he, J. Arthur Volkes, was here to deliver God’s wondrous gospel! Might they all pray together now so that The Exalted Majesty could restore their hearts and the Grand Redemption could begin, in His Holy name! J. Arthur reached for Lena’s hand and bowed his head.

Will White neither bowed his head nor grasped J. Arthur and Lena’s hands. Instead, he quickly finished his drink and said he guessed he knew what he had to do, and that by God, it was all right, just all right. J. Arthur looked upon the calmness on Will’s face, a face completely open and smooth now, like a baby’s because something had infused and now possessed Will. J. Arthur guessed he might be witnessing grace, but as tears began to well in J. Arthur’s eyes, Will said he supposed Kimberlina still lived out on that Yermo Road and he’d be heading out that way now.

Lena, confused by Will and the marijuana she’d inhaled, now stood too. A bit wobbly, but steadied by J. Arthur’s hand, which she still held, she said she certainly couldn’t take another minute with somebody who cared nothing at all about how to act. And taking J. Arthur’s other hand, she asked if El Monte were in the direction of the coast and if so, might she impose on J. Arthur for a ride, please? She’d certainly like to know more about this Holy Ghost, especially if that could happen in Los Angeles Hollywood, and would that be possible?

J. Arthur answered that certainly a woman as beautiful as Lena Astride could ride with him anywhere, and if she did, she’d be riding with the Trinity and, of course, with Them, anything was possible. On his feet with the others, J. Arthur hoped that Will would call him when he was ready to ford his dark wilderness. He reached into one of his vest pockets then and handed Will the quarter ounce wrapped tight in a religious tract. That would be two hundred and fifty dollars, please.

Later that evening, J. Arthur Volkes and Lena Astride Gustafson took Interstate 15 south out of Barstow, through the high desert past Lenwood and Hodge towards Victorville, Hesperia, and Muscovy. Lena Astride watched for Hollywood stars in their convertibles until she fell asleep at Rialto, where they turned west.

Meanwhile, out behind the Bar X Rancho Café, closing time had come and gone, and Uncle KoKo LeBlanc and Will White drank long pulls straight from the bottle of Kessler’s they’d lifted from behind the Rancho’s bar.

Having snorted blow and smoked much weed, sometime around 3 AM, they headed north in KoKo’s Plymouth, up the I-15, deeper into the dark and the night, en route to Las Vegas, out across the Mojave.

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