THE DESERT SWALLOWS THE RIVER
By Krista Diamond
The waitress at the empty diner in Sanderson had fake nails on her fingers and a gun on her hip. I sat alone and ate a hamburger and when I finished I got back in my car and drove south for another 120 miles.
It was October when I moved to southwest Texas, the edge of Texas so close to Mexico that my friends and I would come to spend our evenings down by the Rio Grande watching Border Patrol agents chase somber-faced men back into their country. Brewster County, the largest county in Texas, more than three times the size of the state of Delaware. Population less than 10,000.
You’ve heard that everything is bigger in Texas but what no one tells you is how small it makes you feel. The wide, pale sky above, the bleached plains stretched out before you, the empty, endless highway. The static as the radio fades from Tejano music to born-again Christians shouting about hellfire to nothing at all. Texas takes up pages in the atlas and once you’re in it—and I mean, really in it—it crushes you.
West Texas is a beautiful, punishing desert landscape and I arrived alone. It was a land of men. Men who knew how to hold their liquor, men who owned trucks, men who watched you from beneath cowboy hats, men who turned to look at you in your green dress because you weren’t just the prettiest girl in the bar, you were the only girl in the bar. Unsmiling men who called you little lady.
When I stepped out of my car and into the trailer park that I would come to call home, I could feel their eyes on me.
The last of the afternoon sun disappeared behind the Chisos Mountains. The desert wind flattened the grass. Everything was quiet.
Why was I there? Why were any of us there?
The desert isn’t a place that everyone agrees is beautiful. It’s not a family vacation. It’s not a relaxing getaway. There are no museums, no shops, no high rise hotels. It doesn’t invite you to play like some sunny beach in California or call to you like the mountains in Colorado. The desert is quick to kill you and slow to reward you. The desert heat can dry you out, leaving you gasping with thirst and shriveled up like a discarded corn husk. The desert can drown you with flash floods that come roaring down canyons like thunder. The desert is not your friend.
I moved to far west Texas for the same reason that a lot of people do. Part of me believed that it was some kind of final frontier, but mostly I was just running away. Running from a string of failed romances, a long trail of drunken nights, violence and sex that had been taking me from place to place for years. The first thing I did when I got to that trailer park in Texas was decide to tell everyone that I had a boyfriend somewhere else. I wasn’t looking for trouble this time.
The desert is a lot of things, but it isn’t some golden dream like New York City that inspires young ingénues to chase their dreams. Everyone has their reasons for being there but you’re better off not asking.
The desert is not the beginning; it’s the end.
Teresa was my first friend in Texas. She wasn’t like the few hard, local women with their rough hands, bright eyes and tales of alcoholic ex-husbands. Teresa was soft, meek, small. She worked at the general store where everyone stopped to buy overpriced beer and salty snacks. She was too quiet to work at the cash register. She winced when the big men with oil money who passed through town shouted and laughed, so she was relegated to stocking the shelves and monitoring the expiration dates on the products. We became friends when she offered me a few boxes of expired Rice-a-Roni.
“They’re still good,” she said. “I’m pretty sure they’re still good.”
We came to pass the time by talking. We sat outside in folding chairs and sipped red wine out of mugs. She nursed hers while I drank quickly, an old habit left over from high school, that tendency to get too drunk too fast.
I’ve always felt nervous around other people, especially women. I find myself suspecting that they hate me the second I introduce myself and after that I usually end up talking too much, drinking too much or not talking enough and standing there like an idiot wondering what I should do with my hands.
Years ago, before she stopped talking to me, I was at a bar in Rhode Island with Caroline when some skinhead looking guy approached us, jerked his thumb towards me and said, “What is wrong with you?”
I was fidgeting, gulping down gin, wishing someone would turn down the music.
“Yeah,” Caroline said to me. “What is wrong with you?”
I was so used to the cycle of latching onto people and pleading for their approval only to be relegated to the bottom of the pack that Teresa’s admiration took me by surprise. She acted like she was lucky to be friends with me. It was a rare situation in which I was the authority, the leader, the alpha. Whatever I said, she agreed with. She treated me like I was some kind of beautiful, vibrant, powerful creature and when I spoke about my life she listened and made me feel like my stories were special and therefore, I in fact, was special. I had never had that before and I was drunk with the feeling.
If only I could have warned her.
One hot afternoon, Teresa and I drove 30 miles to Terlingua, an actual ghost town littered with a few bars. We pulled up to a little hovel of a place, a bar that was made out of desert clay and what looked to be sticks. It looked like a cave. A group of men stood outside drinking beers and smoking cigarettes. I could tell when we got out of the car that they had been watching us drive in and wondering about the car that they had never seen before. One of them, a short, sunburned man, looked directly at us and then spit on the ground.
“This place scares me a little,” Teresa said.
We were both in dresses and cowboy boots. We had gotten dressed at her place. I was already a little bit wasted because there were no cops on the roads so I didn’t care about driving drunk.
Something about Teresa’s nervousness brought out a strange false bravado in me.
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Let’s go inside.”
We got out and walked across the parking lot, feeling their gaze on us. The desert light was white, bleaching the parking lot and bleaching their faces, but their eyes were black.
They didn’t say a thing to us as we stepped into the bar, but as soon as we were inside we could hear their laughter.
The bartender turned to us and smiled. He had no teeth and his mouth stretched into a wide, dark gap. His tongue jutted in and out of his lips like it was operating separately from his body, an animal emerging from a hole in the ground. He said nothing, just gestured to the bottles behind him and looked at us, his eyes darting back and forth, waiting.
My trailer was full of spiders. Huge, wolf spiders with convulsing legs and wide, flat bodies. When I opened the cabinet above the sink and saw them for the first time, they didn’t scuttle and fold themselves into cracks in the wall. They looked at me. Wolf spiders have good eyesight. If you shine a flashlight on them at night their eyes glow.
The windows were covered with tin foil. The couch was stained and sticky. Everything smelled like mold and propane. One of the two bedrooms was full of used mattresses. The first time I showered, a lizard crawled up from the drain and looked at me. When I tried to catch him with a cup I sliced his tail off clean and the stub twitched at the bottom of the tub while the dirty water ran over it.
I drove three hours to the nearest Wal-Mart in Fort Stockton, a stark, sun-beaten town on the way to nowhere, and bought all the pesticide they had, which amounted to two rusty cans. Then I drove back to the trailer and killed everything that was living inside of it. When I sprayed the spiders, they were violent, angry, scared and smart. They ran. They moved like they were filled with electricity.
The only way to kill them was to get within an inch of them, unleash a long, steady spray of poison and drown them in it. When I was done, the cabinets were so soaked in pesticide that I knew I could never put my dishes inside of them, which was good because I didn’t have any. They were full of puddles and dead wolf spiders. The whole thing took eight hours. The last one staggered across the floor towards my bedroom. Before realizing that I was barefoot, I stomped it out. It felt brittle and then wet beneath my heel.
I stepped out of the trailer, lit a cigarette and there he was.
“Hi,” he said, smiling. “I’m Mike.”
It seemed like he would just appear.
It would be late and I’d be alone in my trailer and suddenly there’d be this loud knock on the back door, the one no one ever used. Usually when someone came around I’d hear footsteps in the dirt outside but Mike was quiet. He was always just a little bit drunk but never slurred his words or spoke too loud. Mostly we drank beer. Sometimes we drank tequila or moonshine. We sat at my wobbly kitchen table and talked or stood outside and smoked and looked at the stars.
Like with Teresa it was a fast, easy intimacy and I was grateful for it.
Mike was 30 but he had a boyish quality that made him seem much younger. He always wore a baseball cap because he was self-conscious about his receding hairline. He was still handsome, sexy even, especially for west Texas and the trailer park. But he had a nervous way of smiling that betrayed the confidence of a man who had been with a lot of women. He had nice eyes but almost never made eye contact. His laughter always sounded like it was physically being pulled out of his body. It was startling.
The first time I opened the door and saw his shadowed figure and the glow from his cigarette he seemed momentarily sinister, and I had to remind myself that he was a friend.
We talked about sex mostly. Almost exclusively. He believed the boyfriend lie, so I figured it was okay and we were just talking about sex like girlfriends talk about sex. He told me about girls he’d been with, a drunken threesome, how much he loved the taste of pussy.
He couldn’t stop talking about it. I listened.
“There are no girls here,” he said, eyeing me. “No single girls.”
“I know,” I said.
“It’s hard. You have no idea how hard it is.”
“I think I have some idea of how hard it is,” I said. “I haven’t seen my boyfriend in a while.”
Mike shook his head. Even when we were drinking, which was most of the time, when he talked about sex he seemed alert, like it made him sober. His body tensed.
“You don’t know.”
I laughed. I got up to refill my drink. I had run out of lime juice and was drinking straight tequila without ice, the clear kind. Someone had told me once that the only difference between gold and silver tequila was the caramel coloring. Either way I didn’t like the taste; I was just used to it.
Even with my back turned, I could feel him studying me. I turned and sat back down. The light in the trailer was yellow and flickering. My one lamp was full of dead bugs.
He told me about a local girl he had tried to sleep with.
“I brought took her to that Italian place in Alpine that has the really good prickly pear margaritas and then I got us a hotel room but she wouldn’t do anything. She was completely weird. I kept trying to kiss her and I don’t know, she wasn’t into it. I was touching her on the bed, you know and just…nothing.”
I already knew the story he was telling because I had heard it from the girl he was talking about. She had described him as “in heat.” She had shuddered, angry and then moved out of town.
He looked down at the table.
“She gave me a hand job like she didn’t even want to.”
I didn’t say anything. At some point I knew he would try to fuck me.
“Let’s go outside and smoke,” I said, standing up.
Mike looked at me hard. At first I thought he was angry but then I realized he was actually scared.
“I need to get laid soon,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if I don’t. I need to get laid.”
He didn’t need to say it. I knew the words that came next:
The Chihuahuan Desert is full of strange creatures. Tarantulas skitter across open roads like detached hands. Coyotes sidle up to parked cars, carefully inspecting what’s inside. Mountain lions hide in the sagebrush beside parking lots studying children.
Sometime in the 80’s, black bears wandered through the Mexican desert, crossed the Rio Grande, traveled through the Chisos Mountains and reintroduced themselves to west Texas.
And so it went with us. Somehow, we were all down there, so we had to become friends. We had to adapt.
Like the black bears, no one really knows how or why.
On the day I finally moved every last thing from the trunk of my car into the trailer, I threw a party.
I was happy, I thought, or maybe just drunk.
“Look at this sweet little thing,” Jessie, the roughneck from the trailer a few blocks over said, throwing his arm around me.
It was a warm night and we were all standing outside on the rough patch of dirt I called my lawn. Someone handed me a beer.
“The fire is great,” I said. “I don’t even know how to build one.”
“Good thing Mike does.”
“Yeah. Where is he, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Jessie said. “He’s been hanging out with Teresa all night.”
I took a swig of the warm beer. Teresa had been the first to arrive, before it was even dark out. I’d been sitting in my yard watching the dust-colored desert bunnies hop around, chain smoking and wondering if anyone would come to the party. Of course she had showed up first.
“Teresa is a virgin,” I said.
The firelight glowed on Jessie’s face and he laughed.
“Yeah, right. I think they went in your trailer.”
The other bedroom. The one with all the gross old mattresses.
“Excuse me,” I said to Jessie and headed for the trailer.
It was empty and quiet when I stepped inside but I could still hear the laughter from the party outside. The kitchen table was sticky with spilled beer and the counters were strewn with half-empty bags of chips. The door to my bedroom was open. The door to the other bedroom was closed like it always was, like it had been since the one time I’d looked in it and seen the filth inside. I knocked. And then I knocked a few more times just to be sure. When I opened it there was only darkness.
There was no response so I turned on the light. Just mattresses and no sign that anyone had been there. I sighed and thought, like they would really have disrespected me by fucking in my trailer. I wanted to go back to the party and forget about it but something wasn’t right.
And then I saw it. The back door to the trailer was hanging open. It faced away from the trailer park and opened up to the desert, rather than to the neighbors. You had to step over sage and rocks to get in and out of it. I didn’t even have a key for it. It wasn’t a practical entrance or exit, just a way to slip into the shadows without being seen. No one ever used it except for the one person who always used it. Mike.
When the cops pulled me out of work the next day I knew for sure.
I went to her house, I went to her work, but the truth is, I never saw Teresa again after that night.
Teresa was a virgin from a very religious family and she went home to them, or she went somewhere anyway. All I know is that a co-worker drove her to Midland-Odessa where she got on a bus or a train and disappeared.
For all I know, what happened fucking killed her.
She had been very drunk by anyone’s standards of whatever it is that constitutes levels of drunkenness. Fall-down drunk. According to everyone in the trailer park, she had been flirting with him all night. No one saw them leave. He brought her back to his place. I imagined him carrying her out that back door across the dirt road to his trailer, setting her down on his bed and taking off her pants.
That’s not what happened, everyone said.
She had sex with him and then regretted it, everyone said.
His bed was creaking so that meant she was into it, his roommate said.
He’s too good looking to have to rape anyone, the guy at the gas station said.
You’re just jealous that he didn’t rape you, my boss said.
And then everyone found out what I had told the cops.
The man with the silver mustache who drank cheap beer in his trailer all day came out and looked at me. He shook his head.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, licking his lips, “I sure wouldn’t want to be a lady down here.”
I said nothing.
“And I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be liar down here either.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on girlie. Everybody knows you don’t have a man.”
He put his head down, chuckled and went back inside.
I found out later that Teresa had woken up that morning and gone straight to the cops who had driven her to Alpine for a rape kit.
When she didn’t come to the door I sat down and wrote her a note telling her that I was on her side. I slid it underneath, wondering if she was tucked in her bed, crying. I hoped that she would see the piece of paper and know that someone, even if it was only one person, believed her. I imagined her picking it up and feeling some sense of relief.
But what I didn’t know was that she was already gone.
That night I lay in bed and listened to the party outside of Mike’s trailer. They were all laughing, drunk. These were my friends. Chanting his name. They were celebrating the fact that they had run her out of Texas.
Things had changed quickly.
I kept hearing my own name followed by laughter. That night no one knocked on my door, but I could hear them outside.
At 3am my phone rang and no one was on the other end. Again at 4am. I didn’t know the number. I could hear breathing. The party was still going strong.
“Teresa?” I whispered.
She hung up.
In the morning I saw Mike through the open door of his trailer, lying on the couch staring up at the ceiling. He sat up, met my eyes, extended his hand and pointed right at me.
He mouthed the words, “Stupid bitch.”
One by one, the few women who lived in the trailer park left until it was only me. I stopped going to work. I locked my doors and stayed inside. It rained and the water on the roof of the trailer sounded like fingers drumming on a countertop. The spiders found their way back inside. At night, I could hear footsteps in the dirt outside.
I packed fast, faster than I ever have.
I tore apart my trailer and threw all my shit into my car. I knew that they were watching me from their windows.
I could feel his eyes on me. I could hear that laugh, punctuating the air.
I had a hammer in the back pocket of my jeans the whole time, just in case anyone wanted to fuck with me.
I left Texas in a fever.
Somewhere on I-10 on that stretch of desolate highway before the desert meets the hill country my phone lit up. Somewhere amongst the patches of no cell service and shitty cell service I’d missed a call from that same number that had rang me twice the night of the party.
I pulled over to listen.
The voicemail from Teresa was brief. She was beyond crying. She was in that space that an animal is in when it’s been attacked.
One summer night as a kid I’d woken up to the scream of an animal in the woods, killing something or being killed by something. I couldn’t tell the difference.
Her voice was like that.
She told me that she knew that I knew how drunk she had been. She knew that I knew her. Really knew her. She knew that I was running away. She thought I was on his side. She asked how I could have let this happen.
Her last words: “This was your fault.”
On the side of the highway there was a sign advertising the Caverns of Sonora. I tried to focus on that, tried to think of all the people in the darkness under the ground holding hands together. It was big and it was scary but they were safe.
I opened the door of my car and vomited.
And then I got out and took off.
I ran. My feet pounded the earth and my fingers brushed the tall Chihuahuan Desert grass that I didn’t know the name of. I ran until the burning sun sank beneath the horizon and the ground turned from green to brown to black.
I ran until I had no idea where I was. I ran until I collapsed.
I could barely make out the lights of the highway in the distance. I could hear the snorts of javelinas around me. I could smell them. You can always smell them. They look like dark, angry pigs and they smell like skunks. At night I used to hear them beneath my trailer, scratching at the floor and trying to get in. They travel in packs like men circling parking lots at night beneath a stagnant gas station light, men on streets leaning against brick walls searching the sidewalks for lone figures, men in the shadows of basement house parties who smirk as girls are dragged up to silent bedrooms, men who prey, fuck, escape and repeat.
The javelinas pawed the ground and between their snorts and shrieks I could hear something—someone—breathing.
I couldn’t see them, but they were all around me.
About the Author:
Krista Diamond is a serial vagabond who graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English. Her work has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal. In addition to writing fiction, she also writes about the Mojave Desert for various web publications. She currently resides in Las Vegas with her fiancé and her dog, Presley.