The plain adobe casita out on the mesa was an island—the structure strong as a steady four walls and roof. Sometimes the wind blew all day. Sometimes the wind blew and rusted pieces of metal and stiff plastic bottles from yards down the trail blew into the fence around the casita. I became convinced that the wind was the ghost of the land pre-desert, when the land was ancient sea. The wind took on a peculiar sound: whale-like, as it navigated around the rectangle hunk of metal.
It’s from my safe place that I watch the hypnotic day night day night cycle from the unobstructed large sliding-glass doors that opened to the fenced-in yard full of thick Mojave gravelly sand. It made me feel like the last woman on Earth, like I was in a secret place, hidden away, at sea, where I pass time walking around in boots and underwear and leaving my doors unlocked. There were several other casitas within view, but I hadn’t in two months I’d been there seen anyone walking around. Who else was out there? Why didn’t I ever see them?
I learned that in the Mojave, the landscape hid things, but humanscape stuck out like jagged rocks. Pockets of civilization in crude, plain sight. I was still part of it. Every Saturday, I went to town to do laundry, which equalled a half-hour drive to the nearest laundrymat in the next town, Joshua Tree, and two hours at the there. Weekenders from Los Angeles and Japan shopping at the farmers’ market clogged Joshua Tree’s downtown area. The tiny town was in full bustling mode. I avoided everyone. It felt strange to be out of the casita. The current of people—different people, different looking people, strung out people, touristy people, artsy people—was strong. It threatened to take me farther out, past the safe shores of something, somehow, from what, I didn’t know.
I pulled my long F-150 truck through the drive through of the Taco-bell-esque (but actual food and actually good) restaurant named Casteneda’s. I ordered my regular (chilaquiles, unsweetened iced tea, a couple of things of the green spicy salsa). I was happy for the single drive-thru in town; I needed it. I took in my food and inched the truck down the driveway, carefully navigating past two tweakers sitting on the curb at the end.
I turned right and started back to my compound on the mesa, passing the full parking lot of Joshua Tree Saloon (converted school buses and vans and two beat up trucks). A sculpture made of glass and mirror reflected the sun.
I looked at it twice and swore to myself, immediately convinced that was the desert winking at me. How could I believe that?
The mirages, which happen as shimmers and wisps and notes of strange sound, don’t happen on the land. I learned that in places like here, the Mojave, the mirages happen in the mind. Images police themselves. They appear, then disappear, and stay hidden. The desert is a terrifyingly irregular place because there’s nothing there to define things, and while land is empty, the mind is full.
I arrived home and parked. I looked at the casita, took the dog, laundry, and food in each hand, and struggled my way out of the truck. Except–
I saw a pair of boot treads in the gravel.
It struck me as odd that I didn’t know what the bottom of my boots looked like. Is that it? Why have I never seen prints like that? Is that what the desert has led me to? Question my footprint?
And then I decided it the prints were mine, so I struggled into the casita, put everything down, ate, did housekeeping. I said a prayer of gratitude for little routines like that.
Two days later, when I was watching, and then I realized I had twenty minutes before the sun started kissing the tops of the mountain peaks. That meant twenty minutes before the coyotes come out. That meant twenty minutes to walk my dog on the meager gravelly trail that was the road in front of the compound. So I quickly went outside witht the dog. I walked fast. The gritty gravel under my boots made a monotonous crunch. The sound blurred other sounds. I didn’t hear the truck until the dog stopped to smell a piece of dead cholla. I stopped and heard a soft rumble.
A beat up green Dodge slowed to a stop next to me. A man with really bad skin and teeth leaned out. A woman sat in his passenger seat, and I couldn’t see her face well but I noticed straw-dry locks of hair twisting irregularly on her shoulder.
“I’m your neighbor. I live over the hill that way,” and then he pointed. He asked: “You had any problems lately?”
I couldn’t answer immediately. I don’t know if I was frozen from fear or just struck dumb. Neighbor?
“No, I haven’t,” I answered with trepidation.
“Well,” he continued, “I’m tracking the asshole.”
“The old man next to you—his house got robbed. I followed the tracks right past your camper and down the mesa to some crackhead’s house.” He paused, then added: “Out here, it’s vigilante justice. You sure you ain’t missing anything?”
The rumble of his truck filled the silence before my answer. I was grateful for that because I suddenly felt the breath leave my belly—to have thought the boot treads were mine! How could I have tricked myself like that? It was an honest but awful mistake. I thought to my essentials—laptop, passport—that I had left by the unlocked glass doors. They were there.
“Wow, that’s terrible. When do you think this happened?”
“Saturday sometime. I seen you were out that day, too.”
“Oh, right,” I said, blushing. “Laundry and errands in town. Takes forever.”
The man started to talk about something else as my knees went weak. I excused myself to finish walking the dog, walk through the sudden shitstorm of thoughts—Had there been someone in my space? How did I not realize? And, why didn’t anything of mine get stolen? Where was my mind? I turned my head to see the truck turning and pulling next to a casita a way out, but it didn’t pass the other side. I reasoned there must be a driveway on the opposite side of the house, one that was obscured in my plain view.
This place didn’t make sense.
I heard a gust of wind. I decided it was safer in my casita, watching the empty horizon from behind the glass doors, watching for things to come out of my mind.