In the lobby of the Elephant Butte Lodge, Richard pretends he can’t see the turtle shape in Turtleback Mountain.
“I don’t see it,” Richard says. He pinches Trish and laughs.
“Me either.” Trish pinches him back. Harder.
They’ve dated for a month, they laugh a lot. Richard sees the possibility of a future together but knows it depends on Kevin, Trish’s son.
Kevin wears boots and baggy green army clothes and a red wool beanie down over his eyes. He raises his fist. “A turtle. Open your fucking eyes. Head, neck, shell.”
Trish tolerates the profanity. During the flight to Albuquerque, Kevin’s cassette tape Walkman blasted into his headset. Kevin doesn’t simply ignore Richard. Rather, it’s as if Richard doesn’t exist. Trish waves away any worries. Teenagers.
Richard scans the New Mexico desert. In the distance, dirt roads are scars folded into a blistered horizon. To the north lies Turtleback Mountain; to the south, Elephant Butte Reservoir. So much crystal blue water seems improbable in such vast dryness. In the middle of the reservoir, the Elephant Butte is ancient, rusty-colored rock.
“The elephant’s more obvious,” Richard says. He saunters across the lobby, Trish following on tiptoe.
The desert has left its impression indoors. Wind and time have worn the low-back chairs. Sun has bleached the mauve and turquoise rugs. In the center of the lobby stands a twelve-foot wooden statue of Geronimo; a cement deck abandoned to the elements spans the lobby. Sliding doors don’t invite egress; rather, a desert heat invades the lobby.
Trish cuddles up behind Richard. He likes how she skims along the tops of things, no drama. Their two-day vacation was spur-of-the-moment. When Trish asked him to come to the cosmetics seminar in Truth or Consequences, Richard said yes—maybe too excitedly. Of course, the trip means a day alone with Kevin, but other than that, the getaway is the perfect opportunity to test how he and Trish mix in close quarters, where he can weigh the prospects of something deeper.
Trish works for Beauty Within, a network of door-to-door beauty and color consultants. During the two-hour drive from Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences, she quoted from her handbook, “Always tell the naysayer that it’s a woman’s business to cover up the flaws and turn them into assets. We transform the outside into what’s colorful.” That last part was her favorite, she said. It touched her.
Across the lobby, Kevin, lying on his back on the floor now, props his feet on one of the low, turquoise chairs. Richard courts inadequacies he hasn’t felt since his divorce, as if Kevin were a stand-in opportunity for Richard to relive his abysmal communication skills, social miscues, and personal misunderstandings. This time with a teenager instead of a wife. Seventeen-year-olds are gangly, but Kevin is acutely thin. His gauntness stressed by high cheekbones seems to harbor secrets, as if he’s aged too fast.
In their room—an Elephant View Deluxe—Trish makes calls on the hotel phone. Richard trails his thumb along a chair back. He’s seen plenty of these tri-colored chairs in waiting rooms—Richard is in sales, he promotes prescription drugs to doctors. He wanted to be a doctor himself but couldn’t withstand the rigors of medical school. Peddling prescription drugs for Keywell seemed a way to stay close to the field. He reads medical journals, magazines, a lot of articles and pictures, and follows the news on the AIDS crisis, monopolizing the prescription drug business. He suspects the disease will keep him busy with new Keywell drugs, even though his regional sales are flatlined and his sales pitch leaves him feeling he’s abandoned reality for a fantasy world.
Richard met Trish in a film class after a buddy told Richard if he wanted to meet intelligent women, a university extension course might be the ticket. When Trish stumbled into the classroom, her purse fell sprawling onto the floor. She didn’t flinch. Richard found her clumsiness attractive. Her blue eyes and crooked smile promised something a little more jaded underneath the surface, someone not averse to secrets or tricks or pranks.
Trish laughed and looked directly at Richard. “Hi,” she said. “My name’s graceful.”
He’d laughed too, and helped her collect the spilled contents. That night, they went out for a drink and then to his place, and the next night, and then again, the following week. Their attraction and rapport were instantaneous. Richard enjoyed how light he felt with Trish. Compared to the women he’d known, she was uncomplicated.
Now, in the hotel room, Trish sings marching orders into the phone. The door-to-door makeup business is evidently cutthroat. Trish is in charge, makes a lot of money, and mentions both facts often. She’s all about closing the sale. Close a win before they know what they’ve bought. She’s graceful and cool, a master of illusion. Her cover face—the face and disposition every salesperson uses to cover the weakness in a product—is likely irresistible. Maybe he’ll see hers one day: Trish’s cover face—the consummate salesperson in action.
Richard showers and dons a red Izod shirt, blue denim Calvin shorts, and a pair of Topsiders. He’s well built though his battle against love handles has lost ground. While most of his buddies date girls twenty years their junior, Trish is forty to Richard’s forty-four. After telling his buddy about Trish and her son, his buddy said, “Watch out. She’s looking for someone to take care of the kid.”
“The kid’s never around,” Richard said. “He takes care of himself.”
Trish appeals to Richard’s need for someone independent and self-assured. She has her priorities straight, with no excess emotional baggage, someone he might easily fall in love with. Richard can see Trish has flaws. Could be Trish drinks too much, and he suspects she is a closet smoker. Could be she’s self-centered. She dismisses others as if they were expendable, but who wouldn’t be dismissive after a string of rotten boyfriends and a messy divorce? Richard is hopeful he can handle whatever surprises are in store.
For several months after his divorce, Richard stayed isolated, then dove heedlessly into sex and nightlife. Eventually, too much of the neon acrobat set drained his motivations. The efforts to find common ground with women twenty years his junior held little room for him being his genuine self. The parade of vacuous date nights left him afraid he couldn’t connect on a deeper level. With Trish, he’s hoping he can prove his fears wrong.
Of course, Richard knows he’s no prize. He’s opinionated, and a couch potato on weekends who watches too much NFL football. His forties haven’t been easy. He’s not sure of himself. He should be more sensitive, more attuned to the shadings of feelings. But there’s a hardness inside him leftover from the great severance (which is how he thinks of his divorce). He would never admit it to Trish, but he sometimes searches through the boxes of belongings his ex-wife abandoned when she moved out. Looking through the boxes evokes a white burn, a feeling he’s able to name, abandonment. The flush of it assures him he has some depth.
On the hotel bed, Richard kisses Trish and smells vanilla. He nuzzles his head against her neck.
“I’ll bring food back from the seminar,” she says. “They always have too much. We’ll have a picnic at the reservoir at sunset.”
Richard slides his hand under her pink blouse and up her creamy back. She giggles and pulls him down onto the mauve bedspread on top of her. Richard unbuttons her silver buttons.
“Would you do me a favor?” Trish asks. “Do something with Kevin today. Rent a boat or something.”
Richard concedes. The thought of time alone with Kevin makes him nervous, but maybe they can find common ground. He buries his face in Trish’s vanilla.
“Honey,” Trish says. “I’ll miss my color workshop.” She pushes Richard and breezes out of bed. Before she slices out the door, she points at Richard. “Call Kevin and set up a meet. Don’t tell him I said anything. You’re doing this all on your own.”
“That seems like a pitch.”
“That is a pitch. You’re deeply interested in him.”
Richard bristles at her unexpected coldness. The day will be a long one.
After Trish leaves, Richard calls Kevin’s room.
“Meet me in the lobby,” he says. “In front of Geronimo.”
“Geronimo. The statue in the lobby. Meet me there in fifteen minutes.”
In the lobby, Richard finds Kevin leaning against Geronimo’s pedestal; the statue diminishes his thin frame, and his face is ashen beneath his beanie. Trish has said that Kevin spends his days alone, that he sometimes stays out past midnight, sometimes later. He never talks to Trish about friends or girls. And of course, he’s mentioned none of these things to Richard in the short time Richard’s been dating Trish. At the statue’s base, a slab of petrified wood reads, Between raids, Geronimo stopped here to use the natural hot springs famous for their curative qualities. Richard taps Kevin’s shoulder, and Kevin jerks away, yanking his earphones off.
“First thing,” Kevin says. “Never touch me.”
Richard tries to ease the tension without giving ground. “I didn’t mean to invade your space.”
“What did Trish tell us to do?” Kevin asks. “Rent a boat?”
So, Trish has put Kevin up to this, too. The afternoon spreads out before him, a yellowing horizon distorted by a mirage.
“Right, a boat,” Richard says.
Outside, the angular slope of Turtleback Mountain spans the horizon. The desert sun is too bright. Richard and Kevin come to a sign that reads Reservoir. Beneath the sign, a blue arrow points the way. The steep pathway, riddled with orange rocks, imitates wilderness, with Yucca trees planted in rows, unforgiving cacti tucked between. A wasp lands on a thorn. A brown lizard disappears against an orange rock.
At the bottom of the path, the water quashes any sense of wilderness. A long walkway painted brown to resemble petrified wood stretches left and right. Ahead of them, stacked four high in rusty iron racks, neon-colored boats shout the promise of speed—not the sorts of boats Richard can pilot. The white shame of inadequacy gnaws at him. No matter his efforts, the day seems to conspire against him, at cross purposes with his future.
“Maybe we can find other boats,” Richard suggests. “Something less bright.”
“Whatever,” Kevin says. “Who the fuck cares?”
Richard stops in the path, turns to Kevin. “Look. Can’t this be easier?”
“Why the fuck are you even here, dude?”
“Does every word have to be fuck?”
The boy seems happy—his eyes wide open and sparkling with mischief. “Afraid so, Dick.” He laughs.
“All right,” Richard says. “Let’s just walk. Let’s find a fucking boat.”
“Gee, Dick. Does every word have to be fuck?” He laughs again.
At the end of the boardwalk, they come to “Last Chance Boats,” a battered shack atop a riddled pier that extends into the reservoir. Plastic paddle boats float in the water, rafted together. For a moment, Richard and Kevin gape, as if confused. Beyond the boardwalk, a naked desert meets a turquoise shoreline. Richard shells out two bucks and they climb onto a yellow boat, pedal their way out onto the reservoir.
“You know,” Kevin says. “My mom asked me to do all of this.”
“I know. She asked me, too.”
“I’m doing all of this for her.”
“So am I,” Richard says.
“No, you’re not. Jeez! Why do old people lie?”
They stop pedaling. Trish has said Kevin sees a doctor every week, and whenever Richard asks why, Trish is dismissive, “Teenager things.” Of course, Richard sees through her casual rejoinders. Kevin’s ashen color, his green eyes too large, as if he’s perpetually scared. Richard suspects the boy is anemic.
“You want the truth?” Richard says. “My ex-wife says I have no feelings, that I’m one color. She hitchhiked to Puerto Vallarta with a painter she says is alive, whose palette is brimming. I’m uncertain if I believe in anything anymore. People can see that. When I’m hawking prescriptions, they see right through my cover. I feel like a liar. My sales are shit. For a long time, I haven’t been happy. I want to get my life going again—with your mom. I like her. She makes me feel I can do this. Whatever. Commit. Be in love.”
“Really? Are you?” Kevin asks.
Richard looks Kevin in the eyes. “I want to be.”
The boy shifts, staring out at the water as if in the distance something were taking place. “Do you think you could be, no matter what?”
“What do you mean, no matter what?”
“Nothing. Nevermind. Trish told me to—”
“You mean. You?”
“Yeah. No. Nothin’. Nevermind.”
“I’m in a paddleboat, aren’t I? Obviously, I’m trying.”
Ahead of them, a blue boat floats with two young women inside it. One wears a lime green bikini, the other wears strawberry pink.
“They’re waving at us,” Richard says, and waves back.
“Who cares? Let’s leave.”
“Come on.” Richard nudges Kevin’s elbow. “Let’s pedal. They’re cute. They need a hand.”
With Richard pedaling, in moments, they reach the blue boat.
The young woman in the strawberry stands up. “Hey, you got a bottle opener? For a beer.”
Richard grins at them and then ruffles Kevin’s hair, trying to bring the boy into the foursome. “Sorry. Us fellas don’t have an opener.”
Kevin jerks away, kicks the boat pedals, and mutters under his breath. “You love my mom. Right. You don’t even know her.”
Richard, swept up in a familiar brogue confidence, reaches out and says to the woman in lime green, “Here, give me the beer.”
She hands him the bottle.
He’s in familiar territory, pleased with the attention of a younger woman. His anger at Kevin slips away.
Kevin goes on, so only Richard hears, “Making me hide it so I don’t screw you and her up!”
And here Richard performs one of his nightlife tricks. In one practiced motion, he removes the bottle cap with his teeth. The young women squeal. Using his tongue, Richard slips the cap between his lips and pops it into the air. As it falls, he catches it in his free hand, and they laugh.
But then they fall silent, in shock.
Richard turns and sees Kevin has taken off his shirt. He’s stretching his arms in the air, a grin on his face, his chin raised, defiant. His transparent skin seems stretched to the point of splitting over his frame. Multiple scarlet lesions cut across his chest and stomach, erupted from beneath the skin. What looks like an older trail of lesions along his clavicle is scabbed purple and hardened. Richard has seen lesions like this in the medical journals; he’s read the articles about AIDS; he recognizes Kaposi’s sarcoma.
“Jesus.” Richard falls into his seat. A recent article haunts him: Lesions that manifest on the torso spread to the lungs, ravaging the tissues, leaving a patient to suffocate.
Kevin puts his shirt back on, apparently satisfied with the effect, but Richard can’t stop seeing the lesions, and barely notices the women in the blue boat have raced away.
Time stalls, stretched into a distorted distance. The sheer magnitude of the Elephant Butte, an ancient rock sculpted by water and wind over eons of time into the improbable shape of an elephant, dwarfs Richard and Kevin. They paddle back to the boathouse.
At the pier, Kevin climbs out and offers to help Richard up, the only courtesy Kevin has ever shown—but somehow the victor sparing the defeated. Richard grabs Kevin’s outstretched hand and steps up.
“I’m sorry,” Richard says. “It was just flirting.”
“It wasn’t only that. Whatever.”
At sunset, Trish, wearing low heels, a short black skirt and low-cut blouse, leads them to a picnic table on the shoreline. Houseboats sit on the water. The Elephant Butte looms a hundred yards from shore. In the distance, Turtleback Mountain awaits the sun’s last kick.
She seats Richard and pretends to be a French waitress, wiggling her butt and flashing her cleavage, setting out gourmet leftovers from her cosmetics seminar. Jesus. The more he knows Trish, the less he wants her. The entire confidence act, the sexy clothes, the French accent, the hypnotic smile: it’s her cover face. It’s perfect, but pitiful.
Kevin sits at the far end of the table, looking toward the hills. “I’m not hungry,” he says. “I feel sick.”
Before Richard can ask, Trish chimes in. “Ooh, zee boy haz zee upset tummy?” Trish covers Kevin’s cheeks with pinches. “Because of something zee boy ate?” She ruffles his hair.
“Knock off the act, Mom. You know I’m sick.” He nudges Trish away.
Trish sharpens and points a finger. She whispers, but Richard still hears. “Look, little man. You’re not sick, remember? We promised. You’re fine!”
“Whatever you say, mademoiselle. All of this to for a fucking boyfriend.” Kevin gets up and retreats to the edge of the water.
Trish softens, French again. “Bon! The boy will mope, we will feast.” She cozies up next to Richard, pours white wine, and hands him a full glass. She smiles–a saleswoman’s smile. “Cheers.”
It’s a late harvest wine, impossibly sweet, and Richard barely holds down his first swallow. She’s trying to hide what she thinks is the weakest part of her deal—reducing her son’s disease to a blemish. How long could she keep this going? Kudos to Kevin. He revealed her motives when he removed his shirt. Surely she knows her boy will die, or maybe she doesn’t, or maybe she knows but can’t accept what will happen. Richard can’t fathom a mother’s heart. He can’t speak. He hides inside a familiar feeling. He’ll always be alone. The sunset shifts, trailing yellow and red. Outlines blur. The houseboats seem to list. Kevin is diminished. The last of the daylight, melting, cascades like fire across the shell of the turtle on the mountain.
John Zic’s fiction has appeared in the museum of americana (Issue 6) and The Fabulist Words & Art. His poetry has appeared in Fierce Hunger, an anthology from Writing Ourselves Whole. John holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. He also builds and authors WordPress websites at johnzic.com.