Sometimes it just hits you, Frank. Not always, just sometimes.
Bishop and Mammoth were nice California towns if you had skis or a tent, but nothing more than dry sticks in the sand otherwise. Danny B had neither of these, just the remnants of his morning routine: an empty Starbucks cup and the crumbs of a chocolate croissant.
Danny B didn’t think about what he would have done if everything was gone as that possibility hadn’t occurred to him. He had driven this road many times and it led him to only one place. Everything of consequence on this journey always remained the same: The mountains, Death Valley, Alabama Hills, and even the lonely beef jerky and pistachio nut stands defied time. If Danny B made the trip on a weekend he would always see a bespectacled old man sitting outside of one of these jerky stands- in a fishing hat and short sleeves- manning a table full of knickknacks. He alone was the entire “Saturday Antique Fair” advertised on billboards for the previous 50 miles. Like the desert cacti and Joshua trees it seemed this antique man had grown roots in the desert sand; never moving, never changing. Life slows in the desert and by the time Danny B drove past Death Valley his own life seemed to have turned and reversed upon itself.
From the highway Danny B could see that everything was just as remembered but now sepia-toned like an old photograph. A month had passed since the funeral and still Peter had not settled Frank’s affairs: Frank’s well-appointed trailer, the wooden tool shed, and the empty flowerboxes. Frank was gone and so was his truck. No one was home.
Hey. I didn’t think you’d open up for me. I brought you some brownie-cupcakes. Remember? Cupcakes? Yeah, Danny thought, That’s what I’ll say.
There were ten chocolate brownies, each bearing a letter sloppily drawn with white icing: I’M SSORRYY. (Extra letters because Danny was extra sorry.) Danny B had played hooky from work that day to deliver these cupcakes. He woke in a blue room. He had woken up early and alone, as always. Murakami was in Chicago or New York or whatever city or college town the band was wandering through that day- Danny B had long lost track. He just got used to waking up early and alone and if he woke in the morning to find her there, well, that was like catching sight of the sunset every once in awhile. He would soak in the hazy colors of her presence, never holding on too tightly, sadly resigned to the slow and inevitable fade.
The drive from Danny B’s condo to Frank’s trailer was a lengthy one. It began in the marine fog of the Costa Mesa morning and ended in the stinging clarity of the California desert. Danny B had a long way to go. The neutral palette of the finish line was so different from the coastal noise of his starting point that when Danny B parked his car in Frank’s lot he had to take a good look around and wonder just how he got there.
Frank was gone and so was his truck. Danny B tried knocking on the trailer door anyway. No one was home. Danny B set his cupcakes on the picnic table, opened up the big picnic umbrella and took a seat on the bench. There was no traffic from the highway, no noise in the desert. He pulled up a Purple Coneflower from the flowerbox and pulled at the petals one-by-one. The sun was creeping to its peak and Danny B waited for Frank and the heat.
“Echinacea tea,” Frank said. “We grow it ourselves.”
Danny B’s eyes had been closed to block out such distractions. Nothing personal, but he was preoccupied with looking at a heavy pink box not much bigger than a preschool cot. Yes, Danny B pretended, Eva’s just going to take an afternoon nap. They then lowered the cotton candy coffin into her grave and Eva was gone forever. This is just where she is, Danny B comforted himself. This is where she eats and sleeps and plays and this is where I will talk to her. Deep in the ground is where she will live from now on. “Maybe we could plant Daisies,” he said to his wife. “Of course,” Sophia replied; it was the easiest thing to do.
But Sophia could not see Daisies. She saw only a place she would never come back to. She had never wanted to come to the cemetery in the first place; Danny B’s wife had wanted to cremate Eva and release her to the air. She wanted her dead little girl to evaporate and burn like photos of an embarrassing ex-boyfriend. This isn’t really happening; none of it, Sophia wanted to say. She never happened to me. Sophia hid these thoughts deep, deep, where Danny B’s love could not find. She came to possess a new kind of love, the normal kind that hides everything shameful and denies every painful truth. I can’t tell him these things, she told herself. Can’t. Can’t handle the pain, can’t cry anymore, can’t forget her…at least, not as long as her husband remained in the picture. Danny B was living proof. Eva’s name, so constantly on his lips, was a heavy weight on Sophia’s tired hands. She wanted it to stop, to get her head above this heavy water and breathe.
Just a pink box underground. And grass. Grass in Las Vegas? Such a thing is naturally impossible. It doesn’t even exist. Therefore this place cannot exist. I was never here. This never happened.
I can just run away from here and him, and that will be enough, she thought.
Yes, she was correct. There was just grass for now. But someday Sophia would admit to an unmovable stone with her daughter’s name etched upon it, heavy and sinking, inescapable proof.
Danny B finally opened his eyes. All of his love was gone; his daughter dead, his marriage now divided. That Las Vegas landscape vanished and now he only saw Frank, the pale trailer ceiling and his life as he never expected it.
“What?” Danny B finally responded.
“Tea. It’ll make you feel better after your long drive,” Frank offered.
“Are you sure Tana’s ok with me staying here?” Danny B said. If his own wife didn’t want him around, why would anyone else?
“A million times, Danny, a million times. She likes having you around.”
“Alright, I won’t ask anymore.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be here in the lap of luxury,” Frank waved his hand to indicate this trailer in the middle of the California desert, “Instead of a sleeping bag in an SRO? Alone?”
Danny B forced a smile. “The SRO wasn’t so bad. It was everything else.” He looked at Frank, drank the tea, and he did feel a little better. The innards of the 2-bedroom trailer were more lavish than some houses he’d been in and certainly better than the cold Los Angeles SRO he’d been staying in for the past month. The leather sofa was of questionable taste, considering the amount of sweating one does in the desert, but Frank always figured the air conditioning took care of that. The fact that Danny B was lying on an actual couch now instead of a studio floor was quite an improvement. “Come stay with us,” Frank had phoned. “You don’t have to be alone. I’ll never let you feel alone.”
“Mara’s room is all ready for you. We’ll unload your stuff whenever you’re ready,” Frank peered out of the trailer window. Danny B’s station wagon was a suitcase on wheels; the tangible history of his entire life was crammed inside of those four doors, claustrophobically rolling through the desert. Only the surfboard strapped to the roof was free from excess baggage.
“Are you sure? Mara’s not visiting? If she does, I’ll just sleep on the sofa,” Danny apologized.
“She got a driver’s license and a summer job. I might go down to Riverside and visit her instead. We might hit the beach and go camping there instead of here,” Frank said of his niece. He picked up his own mug of tea and brought it to the kitchen sink. “How ‘bout homemade Margherita pizza for dinner?” Frank yelled from the kitchen.
“I’m sorry! I’ll get up and make dinner!” Danny B replied.
“Stop apologizing before I kick your ass,” Frank threatened emptily. “You sit there and watch some satellite tv.”
Danny B obeyed. According to The Weather Channel it was 101 degrees Fahrenheit in Las Vegas.
Frank swam past the Phyllo sheets in his refrigerator, took a left at the leftover latkes and pure Wasabi paste until he found the cheese: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyere, Cheddar and Fontina. It was a macaroni kind of night, maybe homemade gelato for dessert.
As Frank was cooking he began mentally preparing the fake ingredients for a reasonably acceptable weekend: An activity or hobby that he was interested in, an activity that required him to leave the trailer, crossing something off of a tasklist, possibly some human contact forged over the telephone or in-person, or accomplishing some mundane duty of domesticity.
I went hiking.
I relaxed and watched movies on tv all weekend.
I did laundry.
I went out on the ATV.
I went down to Costa Mesa. Visited a friend. We went surfing.
He would offer up this fake weekend when co-workers tomorrow morning would inevitably ask what he did this weekend. Hopefully his list would be enough to avoid the “you poor, lonely thing” look that some of them were privy to- the nice ones, anyway. The younger ones favored the “loser” look instead.
He’d gotten both of those looks in varying degrees for the past 5 years, since Tana finally left. He had said from the beginning that he didn’t believe he’d ever want to get married. Like many women, it just took Tana awhile for her to accept the truth of what he had been saying all along.
It was Danny B and his year of desert living that did it. She came home every day and asked how his day was, not to discuss it but just to let him talk. When needed she spoke but only in positives, building a ladder for Danny B to climb up and out of his emotional pit. She planned weekend daytrips for all three of them just to get Danny B out of the house. She oversaw Danny B's rebirth and development, not into the man he was before but a new one, battle-scarred but standing firm. It wasn't until her little Danny B left the desert that Tana grew tired. There's something about a silence that simmers too long. There were no more wounds for her to bandage, no more advice to be doled out. Frank didn't need any of these things or anything more. Like children. Tana was gone within the year.
How could Frank explain? It was just the choice between being alone, or alone with everybody.
He warmed a pot of water on the stove and when the time was right, he put the macaroni in. He turned to the sink and pulled up the venetian blinds over the window that Tana had always hated. The window looked out onto the sand and dirt, then the highway, and then more sand. At the edge of his world, the mountains. It was absolutely silent. He had long given up the half-hearted hope of seeing anything else, or anyone new, out of that window. He began to think of other horizons: a kiss of the sun on the ocean viewed from the mid-section of a floating surfboard, a city skyline through a dirty car windshield stuck in traffic, the lip of a land basin strapped together by buzzing freeways, or a valley of apartment complexes sounding of neighbors arguing over money. Five years in solitary confinement and the silence was about to boil over. Maybe I just need a little bit of noise, he thought to himself.
He flipped on the tv and a human voice filled the room. He darted back to the kitchen; the pot was boiling over. He lowered the stove temperature and picked up his cellphone. It was time, he decided.
"Delaney? Yeah, it's Frank. Hey, I'm sorry for this being last minute and all, but I'm going out of town. Heading down to Costa Mesa so I won't be at work. I don't really know how long I'll be there." Independent wealth was good for spontaneity. He hung up the phone.
He haphazardly began pulling items from dressers and closets, slowly enjoying the wanderings of his imagination: a crowded mall, a noisy movie theater, a neighborhood supermarket. Neighbors. He was thinking long term. He hit his speed dial.
"Hey, Danny," Frank said.
"Frank? What's up?"
Weather, updates, work, weather. Banter, banter banter. Frank felt silly checking off such formalities with Danny B.
"So, Danny, I had to ask...can I come down and stay for awhile?" Frank said.
"It took you that long to ask?" Danny chided. "Of course. When do you want to come down? Next weekend?"
"I was thinking tonight."
"Tonight? For the week?"
"I don't know how long," Frank replied honestly. It wouldn't be a problem.
"Oh...." Danny B hesitated, "I don't know how Murakami will feel about this. Just you, right?"
""Well, yeah. I'm alone. See, that's the thing, Danny..."
"I gotta check with Murakami anyway. She's, y'know, tempermental. Maybe just while she's on tour," Danny said.
I shouldn't be surprised, Frank told himself. But he was. Conventional wisdom would say it was the age difference between Danny B and Murakami that bothered him about their relationship. Danny B and Frank, like cautiously optimistic older men who really should know better, quietly hoped that Murakami would grow up. But time went on and one by one Danny B's passions fell away at her feet. "You look like a geriatric Spiderman in that wetsuit," led to the death of Danny B's surfing habit and the birth of his trips to Crystal Cove to watch younger men ride the waves.
"Y'know I wasn't like this to you. Remember? You needed a place to stay..."
"I didn't ask you to do me any favors. You begged me to stay with you," Danny B retorted. Deterioration followed.
I can't believe you, That's unfair, Don't blame her, The longer you're with her, the less I know you.
Maybe it's better that way, Danny B finally said. I mean it.
Frank hung up the phone. There were no goodbyes. He had always been still water, so he calmly finished preparing his macaroni and plopped on the couch in front of the tv to eat dinner. But he wasn't enough this time. The ocean flooded from his eyes, down his cheeks and into his macaroni bowl.
His sniffles and sobs filled the living room. Louder, the local news reporter interrupted the Sunday evening movie to announce the search for 3 missing hikers.
Danny B looked at his melting chocolate apology. They were cupcakes made with brownie mix, a dessert he was first introduced to many years ago by Frank himself. It was the day Danny B moved into Frank's trailer after a month in that dusty Los Angeles SRO. Frank came out of the trailer and greeted Danny B with a plate of these cupcakes, decorated with frosting. WELCOME HOME, they had said.
Danny B waited for Frank and tried his cellphone numerous times. Frank never came home.
The officials would later find his body behind a shady boulder in the sand, prone and peaceful, as if he had just laid himself down for a nap.
Danny B pulled into the trailer lot and parked behind the trailer, by the kitchen window. He intended to stay awhile and talk to Frank- I’m sure he’ll make his way to me in a breeze or something, I just have to wait, Danny B thought. He made his way around to the picnic table where he always waited for Frank.
Danny B sat down at the picnic table and bent down to grab a Purple Coneflower, as was his habit. He looked down into the flowerbox and was genuinely surprised to find only dust.
Danny B left immediately, promising to never come back again. The mountains, the hills, the sand- None of these bothered to speak of Frank. Only a handful of dust in a busted up flowerbox was so bold to whisper the undeniable truth to Danny B and it wasn’t the message he had come here for.
He realized that he could come here if he wanted to but he would not find any magical message borne on a desert breeze, no forgiveness from beyond the grave.
He thought he could hear actual voices in this place, in this dust, in this flowerbox.
“Death is permanent,” they said, “and you’re not getting off the hook that easily.”