This short story appears in the 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.
When I was 19, I got a letter from Klaus Wouters. He worked as a handyman and music teacher at Silver Springs, a school for troubled kids in the San Gabriel Mountains. He knew (or guessed) I was still in Southern California. He wondered how my life was going. He mentioned that a handicapped boy named John Cressey had gone missing. He remembered that John and I had been friends. He suggested we meet for Sunday dinner, but he didn't have access to a car.
I had expected never to hear from Klaus, or from anyone at Silver Springs. The letter brought back memories of having my face smushed into a patch of snot-damp carpet by Rudy the facilitator, his knee pressed into my back, while he whispered in my ear that he loved me, that unless I gave up the ego trip and got into my feelings I was bound to end up dying in a gutter of AIDS.
But Klaus had taken a special interest in me. I had told him shameful and embarrassing things, stuff I would have liked to erase from universal memory, but having him as a confidant had kept me from losing my mind that year. Maybe I felt like I owed him something. He was probably going to be alone for Christmas, as I was. So the next Sunday I borrowed a friend's car and headed up to Little Eagleneck Village.
I pulled off the road at the log-cabin restaurant and spotted Klaus on the porch. He wore a fringed, buff-colored jacket I'd never seen, like a cowboy or Native American jacket, and was staring blankly into the distance. I got a rush of dread, certain I'd made a mistake. I was going to drive away, but Klaus saw me and approached the car.
He made a few quick glances back at the restaurant and up the road, as though he thought someone might see him, opened the door, and got in.
"Let's not go here," he said, thumbing at the log-cabin restaurant. He seemed shorter and thicker than I remembered him.
He wore baggy jeans and a mustard-colored shirt. His cheeks were pink, his hair combed back, clustering in curls at the nape of his neck. I could smell his suede jacket, and another scent that might have been a hair oil.
I asked him where he'd like to go. He said it didn't matter to him, he would eat most things. There was a hamburger restaurant down in the valley that he remembered having enjoyed, though he couldn't recall the name. Pop's, it could have been, or Happy's.
I took a curve too hard and told myself to slow down. A scenic overlook swung past, a glimpse of the endless city spread out in the valley below. Tremendous boulders were strewn along the edge of the road in the shadow of orange cliffs towering on the right.
I popped in a tape. The road descended into the foothills and came to the intersection of old Route 66. The Inland Empire stretched in both directions. "Swing a left here," said Klaus, meaning east toward the desert and beyond. We passed a car dealership decorated with garlands of red, green, and silver tinsel. I began to dread the empty silences lying ahead. Klaus kept glancing in the side-view mirror, and I got the strange idea that he was eyeing a gray minivan that had settled into the lane behind us.
We passed a sign for the city limits of Casterly, which rang a bell with Klaus. He said he remembered a restaurant shaped like a boat. "I always thought it would be interesting," he said, "to eat at a place like that." As the highway came into the center of town, I asked if he knew the name of the restaurant. Klaus shook his head: "You can't miss it," he said, "it's huge and painted blue."
"Turn left up here," he suggested. We drove through a subdivision of wooden bungalows, past plowed-up grove land and a fenced-off industrial zone, always with the mountains behind us, or off to the side, blocking out half the sky, blue and massive and veined with white powder. They had a flattened perspective like paintings on a Hollywood set. We never saw anything like a boat-shaped restaurant. The choice came down to Casa Dinero and a Sizzler in a fake adobe building. Casa Dinero was closed.
We sat opposite each other in the booth. Klaus ordered a shrimp basket while I had a burger and fries. The food was delicious. Klaus dipped his shrimp first in the cocktail sauce and then the tartar sauce, holding his good arm, elbow out, somewhat high above the table, to keep his jacket sleeve from catching in the food. He crunched off each shrimp at the tail stub; his mustache bobbed up and down as he chewed, grunting faintly with contentment. When he'd finished he hailed the waitress and ordered a second basket and asked if I wanted another burger; the entire meal was on him, he said, down to the tip.
"What happened to John Cressey?" I asked.
Klaus glanced at me with his heavy-lidded eyes and continued to chew for a while. "They've got a shrink up there now," he said, as if it explained something about the unknown fate of Cressey. I knew Klaus hated shrinks and feared them. "I'd like to believe," he said, "that no harm has come to John. Maybe he knew some people who were able to get him out of there." I was struck by that last phrase.
Then he began to recount a story from the papers a few years back. A hiker had found some bones in a ravine out by Lake Elsinore. There was a jawbone with braces still attached. They thought it might have to do with a boy who'd gone missing in the 70s. But when they sent the bones in for testing, it turned out they were the bones of a girl. "Of course," added Klaus, "that wouldn't have anything to do with John."
He ordered a brownie sundae with vanilla ice cream. When he came back from the restroom I noticed he was wearing pointy black boots, that his feet were unusually small, and that he was grinning broadly.
Outside it was cooler in the late-afternoon shadows, and I zipped up my hoodie. Klaus seemed fortified by the meal and invigorated by the atmosphere.
"Casterly," he said. "I remember Casterly. You can feel how close the desert is."
He said we should keep heading east on Route 66; we should go see a little of the desert. I said I thought this basically was the desert.
"No, I mean the real desert." He wanted cactus plants and Joshua trees and lines of tall, thin palms stretching to the white horizon. "The kind of place where you have to knock out your boots for scorpions."
I said we didn't have a map, that maybe we could go another day. He said all we had to do was go east, keeping the mountains on our left. I had never been to the desert either, but, as I told Klaus, the sun was getting low and we would never make it there before dark on the old highway. He agreed that we should take the freeway.
"There is plenty of light left. We'll be there in no time."
Once we were on the freeway, I popped in a Grateful Dead tape, a live recording of a show from the 70s.
"I remember this music," said Klaus. "You could get lost in it."
He was smoothing his shirt down over his belly. Within minutes he asked me to pull the car over.
"Klaus," I said, "what is it?"
"Pain. Bad pain." His face looked a little greenish.
"Where is the pain, Klaus?"
I took the next exit and pulled over onto the shoulder. When I stopped the car he was groaning softly.
"Do you need an ambulance? Should I go get help?"
Klaus shook his head, opening the door. I got out and came around to his side, thinking he was going to vomit. But what he did was get into the back seat. He lay on top of the stray pieces of paper, clothing, cassettes, and CD cases scattered there. He had his knees bent, his small pointy boots up on the seat.
I watched him for a minute.
"You're going to need a doctor, Klaus," I said.
I worried that he might be having an attack of diarrhea. There wasn't much around; down a service road, I could see a low white building that might have been a garage or small warehouse. Behind us the sun sunk toward a hot-pink horizon. Scrub bushes along the side of the road cast spiny shadows on the dry, pebbly dirt. I figured if it were diarrhea, Klaus couldn't play it off; there's no way to dissemble in an emergency like that.
"Keep moving," he said. "Motion is the best thing for it."
When I started the engine I said I was taking him home.
"The desert," Klaus said. "We're going to see the desert. It's OK. I know how this goes."
"We won't get there in time," I said. "We have to go back."
"There's plenty of light," he said.
It had an absurd ring of fatalism, like a final wish, and I suddenly had an apprehension that if Klaus died out here, nobody would come to claim the body. When I steered the car onto the eastbound ramp, I didn't know if what we were doing was right. I drove with the passenger seat empty, Klaus lying back there like a patient. The valley opened out before us. I could see the windmills ranked in the distance, their white sails turning against the darkening sky. I could even see the shadows cast by their towers. The rearview mirror blazed with a golden-pink light. I had turned off the music.
"I remember drives," Klaus said. He explained that he'd grown up in a prairie town, and when the summer heat became uncomfortable, his mother would take him and his sister, Gerthe, on long drives in the loess hills. "All three of us sat up front with room to spare. No one wore seat belts back then." One time, he said, they stopped at a tourist motel that had a swimming pool and a diesel-powered train you could ride along a track that circled the motel. The gift shop, he recalled, sold pelts of small animals, Indian arrowheads, and corked glass vials filled with a mustard-colored powder: the glacial silt that the winds had blown, over millions of years, into fantastical dune-like drifts all along the eastern side of the Missouri River Valley. "That was the summer after I came back from the hospital."
And he added: "It's all just pictures, isn't it?"
Then he fell silent. We passed the exit for Banning. Dusk fell over the landscape. A cluster of phantom mountains rose up on the right, while the range we'd been tracking on our left sank and dissolved; then the mountains on the right also sank and dissolved. I thought Klaus might be asleep. But when he resumed speaking, I realized he was alert.
"I was five years old," he said, "and I thought I would never come home. I was in an iron lung, and they said they might never let me out. They put a little mirror on the front, so you could see behind you. You could see people coming in and out of the room. It was supposed to make it less claustrophobic."
This was in 1952, Klaus explained. I had never heard him talk about his illness. I remembered how, when Klaus played guitar, he held the neck in his good hand, working the frets with blunt, strong fingers, while he strummed with the disabled hand, using the thickened, brownish nails of his thumb and index finger.
He said that his memory of those years was run through and through by the sounds of flood sirens and tornado sirens, and a song called "Young Lovers" spinning over and over on his sister Gerthe's record player.
I had to pee. I saw tiny clusters of lights in the distance and, seemingly closer at hand, on the left side of the freeway, a service island glowing in the surrounding dark. When I took the next exit, I found myself on a one-way road heading away from the island, but continued on in the hope that, being so close to the freeway, we'd soon come to another gas station or a McDonald's.
The road dead-ended at a high chain-link fence. It suggested the perimeter of a small airport or a prison, but I couldn't see any structures, only a dark and evidently vast area of land. I turned left. The road passed through a small neighborhood or town in which nothing was open for business, and then it seemed we were really out in the country. Finally I pulled over and got out to pee in a ditch. Klaus said, "Let's not stop just yet. I need to keep driving for a bit." A bright moon hung in the sky, and in the course of that long pee, as my eyes adjusted to the landscape, I realized I could see twisted black shapes in the moonlight—oddly tufted trees out of The Lorax, which is to say trees like souls, like ancient souls or punished souls out of Dante, frozen at intervals all the way to the edge of visibility, where I could make out the silhouettes of huge rock formations.
"Klaus, you've got to see this," I said back in the car. "I think it's the desert, the real deal."
"Well, now I'm tired," said Klaus from the darkness of the back seat.
"You don't want to see the desert?"
"I'll see it in the morning."
"What do you mean?"
"We must have come halfway across the State of California. We must be about halfway to Phoenix."
It did feel incredibly late, but when I started up the car and pulled back onto the road, the dashboard clock said it was not even ten.
"We won't be making it back tonight," said Klaus, "that's for sure."
"I don't think it'll be a problem. We just need to figure out where the freeway is."
"There's too many cops on the road at this kind of hour. You didn't see them. I did."
Something darted across the headlights, my foot hit the brake, and I swerved into the oncoming lane. I swerved back and knew I had missed the animal, a rabbit or hare, but suddenly saw in the sweep of headlights a boy standing on the gravel shoulder. When I blinked we'd passed him. I slowed the car, convinced I had seen him in that flashbulb instant, shirtless and shoeless, with a blond crew cut and a scar across his chest. I stopped the car and turned to look back. Klaus, too, was sitting up and looking out the rear window. I thought we were looking for the same thing, a boy back there on the shoulder, and was about to speak, when I realized he was looking at a pair of headlights in the distance. It was hard to tell how far behind us they were, but they seemed not to be coming closer, as if they had also stopped.
"Who is that?" I said.
"Them?" Klaus said. "The Grey Family."
I didn't know what he meant, and for a moment I thought I must be going insane—but then Klaus was laughing, hacking and spluttering, and I realized he'd only been kidding.
A business district emerged up ahead, with a Wendy's and a couple of motels. I knew we couldn't be far from the freeway and could ask directions. But Klaus said we should stay in a motel. "I just need to call it a day." He would pay for the room, he said—for two rooms, if need be.
I said, "Don't you have to get back to the school? Don't you have to go to work tomorrow?"
"I might be done with that school," said Klaus after a pause. He added, "They're going to the medical model."
The choice was between the Desert Palms Motel and the Desert Oasis Motel. Those might not have been the names, but they were something like that, and the one I chose (the Desert Palms) had a blue neon sign with a trim of yellow bulbs. I parked under the portico and saw the gas needle was on empty. When I got out and Klaus didn't follow, I went into the lobby without him. I already had an idea of what was going to happen. The clerk, an older woman with garish makeup, looked straight out of central casting for a scary nurse in a comedy or horror. I paid for the room with cash. Filling out the registration card, I didn't know the license-plate number, so I went back out to look. Klaus was sitting upright in the backseat. When he saw me he waved through the window.
We drove around the side of the motel and parked in front of our room. There were only two or three other cars in the lot.
"At least we got some place to lay our heads," said Klaus when I unlocked the door. He spoke as if we were hobos or bone-weary pilgrims. The room was a smoking room and smelled like one. There were two beds. I flipped on the light, then turned the knob on the A/C unit to "fan"; the machine clattered to life and exhaled a sigh of musty air. Klaus sat on the bed closest to the window. He patted the comforter, plumped the pillows. He slid out the bedside drawer and removed the Gideon Bible, inspecting the front and back covers, as though he'd never seen one before. I lay on the other bed in my shoes, watching as Klaus removed his Native American jacket and hung it up, fastidiously, in the closet, which was a narrow recess in the wall. My apartment, I thought, couldn't be more than a couple of hours back west. I could easily be there, in my own bed, by midnight. I wasn't sleepy in the least. But Klaus, for his part, seemed happy to be here. I still didn't know where he normally lived.
"No toothbrushes," he said, emerging from the bathroom. "They used to give you those little toothbrushes." He wondered aloud if there was any place such items could be had.
I offered to go find us some toiletry products. "Ah, who cares," he said. Then he reversed himself and said it was a good idea. He pulled out a fat brown wallet. He peered inside, seeming to poke around in it. Then he produced a limp bill and handed it to me gravely. It was a ten. When I left the room, Klaus was removing his pants. I hoped he was going to go to the bathroom.
Outside in the night I saw a mini-mart a little ways down and decided to walk. I got the toothbrushes, a travel-size tube of toothpaste, and a small blue bottle of Scope. I also picked out some jerky, a bag of peanuts, and a small bottle of orange juice. Then I thought of Klaus and went back and got a second of each. Standing at the checkout counter, I noticed a pair of unusual men emerge from the back of the store and make their way slowly toward the exit. They wore dark suits and had long reddish beards and skullcaps. The shorter man was blind, feeling at the floor with his white cane, while the taller man escorted him by the elbow. I wondered if there were colonies of Amish in the desert.
I sat on a bench near the lobby, eating the jerky and peanuts, then smoked a cigarette, watching an occasional car pass. When I came back to the room, I looked through the gap in the curtain. I could see Klaus in bed. Television light flickered over his face and his arms—he had the covers pulled up to his chest. I tried to open the door quietly. The room smelled steamy, and an MTV veejay was yammering. A bath towel hung on the back of the chair. Klaus's clothes were stacked neatly on the round table. I set my items on the bureau and stole a glance back at Klaus, watching his eyelids. I couldn't tell whether he was asleep or pretending. I took off my shoes, turned back the covers, and lay down in my clothes. I watched MTV for a while and must have drifted off, because I found myself in a troubling phone conversation with the front-desk clerk, who was trying to explain that something was wrong with the bathroom, that I shouldn't go in there. My bathroom? What's wrong with it? I demanded. It's handicapped, said the clerk, and I didn't know whether she meant the bathroom was reserved for the use of the handicapped or the bathroom itself was handicapped. Then I realized I was controlling both sides of this conversation, that I had been dreaming but now wasn't. The TV was playing a Cranberries video. I glanced at Klaus: He was flopped on his stomach, his head turned to the window. I got up and turned off the TV, then tried to go back to sleep—but I knew this disjointed feeling, and I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep. So I tiptoed out of the room, trying not to make the latch click too harshly. Out in the night it felt better. I took huge breaths of the desert air, then lit a cigarette and wandered through the breezeway into the pool area. The pool was illuminated and, when I dipped my hand in, pleasantly warm. The moon had disappeared; the black sky was filled with stars. Aside from the little accent lights in the cactus garden, everything else was dark. All at once I felt urgently horny—or maybe it was just giddiness—but I stubbed out my cigarette, stripped naked, and slipped into the water. I let my air out gradually, sinking till I was crouched on the bottom. Then I pushed off and burst up through the surface, shaking my hair and squeezing the chlorine water from my eyes. I frog-kicked up and down the length of the pool, stopping to hold my head back and gape at the unthinkable, fragile mass of stars. Is it sad that this was one of the most genuinely erotic experiences of my life?—not just up to that point, but ever? No one in the world knew where I was at that moment, except for Klaus.
I squeezed out my hair, dried off with my boxer shorts, then put on my jeans and shirt, my hoodie, socks, and shoes. I lay on a plastic chaise and smoked a cigarette. When I got back to the room door I realized I didn't have my key.
Through the gap in the curtain I could hardly make out anything. I rapped lightly on the window.
I waited, listening. I didn't want Klaus to wake up, but I rapped again anyway. Then I checked all my pockets and discovered the key in my hoodie.
When I let myself in, the TV was playing an Alanis Morissette video on low volume. "I wish I could get them to play that one over and over," Klaus said. He was stretched out in his underwear, the oblong sack of peanuts on his furry chest, squinching his toes in sync with the beat. "The music now is better than it used to be. In a way. The production values are better."
"Aren't you tired, Klaus?" I said. "Don't you want to go back to sleep?" I got up and closed the curtain and came back to bed.
He shook some peanuts into his palm, cupped them to his mouth, chewed, and shrugged.
"We could go back," he said. "I know you're probably eager to get back."
"You mean now?"
He shrugged again. He said that he felt refreshed. He'd just needed to clear his head. He clamped the bottle of juice in his armpit and cranked off the top with his good hand. He said he felt fine, that he could drive the car if I wanted.
"Do you have a license?"
"It's OK," he said. "I'm a pretty good driver."
"Klaus," I said. "What are you going to do? If you don't go back to the school?"
He was thinking, he said, of getting back into the Movement. There were some people he thought he could reconnect with.
"People from San Francisco?"
He didn't reply. Then he said, "I heard there's a lot going on in Germany. After the Iron Curtain. Europe is where things are going to be happening. A lot of people are going to need help." He asked if I had ever been to Europe. I could come with him, he said. We would have to go soon. Everything was opening up.
"Klaus," I said. "Do you remember the time you played 'Puff, the Magic Dragon'?"
"In the rap," I said.
At the school there was a circular pit in the fireplace room, with two steps down, like an orange-carpeted amphitheater. We sat in a circle for group therapy sessions called raps, in which we had to recount our troubled pasts in graphic detail. We had to scream and cry theatrically, get in each other's faces, call each other out. Rudy, the facilitator, would invoke our childhood selves; he would disclose information he said he'd obtained from our parents.
In the rap you were supposed to find out your lie. It had to be something juicy and repressed, a bona fide trauma. Everyone had to do it. The most dangerous thing you could say at Silver Springs was that you didn't understand why you were there. So one time I went on a rant about an older cousin, a Halloween party. I invented details about a Dracula cape and glitter on his skin and the plastic fangs he took out of his mouth. I used the name of a real cousin—Jamie—and said that for days and even weeks afterward, I kept discovering little bits of glitter in my bedding. I invented the part where Jamie coached me to say, and believe, that this hadn't happened. I was ashamed to have given Jamie's name and thought how I would never again be able to look my cousin in the eye.
Klaus shook his head. "Not in the raps," he said.
"Yes, you did. You were there on the edge of the pit. With your guitar. I remember."
He was smiling. "I remember that number. I sang it sometimes. But not in the raps."
A gray light was seeping into the room, from around the edges of the window curtain. I looked at Klaus's little feet, at his brawny white thighs and stout torso, at his arms, one strong and one stunted, at his lips and heavy-lidded eyes.
"But why," I said, "did you ever want to work at a place like that?"
He thought for a minute. "I guess I wanted to be on the side of the underdog, on the side of the person who is in trouble."
"But Klaus," I said, "the school was the trouble. It was a joke. A horrible charade. A nightmare. They taught me not to trust anybody. They taught me not to trust my own mind."
"They said you kids had been on a fear trip. Up on the mountain we were running a love trip."