Chill Out

Excerpt from a 5,000-word short story. Copyright 2013 Lawrence Hogue. Forthcoming in Desert Trilogy.

“It’s hot,” Amy said.

“It’s the desert,” Brad replied.

The Audi rolled along the highway, Joshua trees slipping past the windows on either side.

“There’s snow up there.” Amy pointed at the mountains to the south.

Brad looked up too. The high ridge barely seemed to move as the car slid along. Down here: all shimmering heat waves rising from asphalt. Up there: all shimmering white above the tree line.

“It’s still May,” he said.

“I want to be up there.”

“Amy, you’re not dressed for it. I’m not even dressed for it.”

He was dressed for a hike in the desert. He felt the slight scratch of his new REI trekking shirt, the clunky feel of his boots on the pedals as he shifted down for a curve.

Amy had dressed for… a lawn party? The beach? She wore a white summer dress, flip-flops, and a hat with a ridiculously broad brim. Brad thought it was something a starlet from the 1950s might wear. It didn’t even have a chin strap to keep it from blowing away in the desert wind.

“It doesn’t look real,” she said, still looking up at the snow.

“It’s not,” he agreed. “I bet it’s a mirage.”

“How can there be snow up there when it’s so hot down here?”

He thought about north-facing slopes, altitudinal temperature differentials – what was it, three degrees per thousand feet?

“Look at that J-tree,” he said, pointing to the left. “Tallest one so far.” The Joshua tree’s many arms twisted this way and that, mostly toward the relentlessly blue sky. He didn’t look to see if she was looking.

They drove in silence, miles of desert gliding past. Inside the car it was quiet, except when a gust of wind hit them, pushing the car sideways. The Audi’s dashboard baked in the sun, but they were comfortable with the AC blowing cold air in their faces.

“Look at that,” Amy said, pointing ahead. “Largest junk pile we’ve seen so far.”

A house had burned to the ground, the forlorn stone chimney the only bit left standing. Around the ruin, heaps of wreckage – bedsprings, a smashed car, too much to consider as they sped past. A plastic bag clung to the wreck’s side-view mirror, flapping in the wind like the flag of a forgotten country.

“We’ll get to the real desert soon,” he said. “You’ll see. It’s amazing.”

Amy could be a bitch when she wanted to. It didn’t happen often, but when it did… It was usually when they’d been arguing over Big Decisions. Like the L.A. or New York decision. That was three years ago. Amy was a writer, so of course she had wanted to move to New York when he finished his MBA. She was one year after graduating with a creative writing degree from UM, and eager to get out of Ann Arbor. If the writing didn’t work out, she said, she could get editing work with a New York publisher. But his six-figure offer from the bank in Los Angeles decided that argument. He never told her about the Wall Street opportunity he passed up.

Then it was the City versus the Valley. Amy wanted to live somewhere “cool” with “life,” like Silverlake or Echo Park – God forbid! – or at the least West Hollywood. But they both wanted kids “someday.” Brad thought they should take this into account in choosing where to live. The schools were better in the valley, the streets were tree-lined like back home in Ann Arbor, and not with palm trees either. The crime statistics, which he passed discreetly to her parents, decided that argument.

More recently it was the Kids Now or Kids Later decision. For Brad, the math major, it was the inexorability of the numbers. They wanted two kids, they wanted them two or three years apart. That already pushed them into their early thirties for their second one. Parenting a teenager when he was 50? Sure, people did it, but to Brad it sounded like a perfect version of hell. “Someday” was now.

Amy wanted more time to establish her career as a writer. She had already published three stories in small journals, she said she was just hitting her stride.

“Domesticity is the death of writing,” she argued.

“What about Alice Munro?” he argued back. It wasn’t as if he didn’t read.

“Bad example. I’m not waiting ’til I’m forty to publish my first collection.”

“Barbara Kingsolver, then.”

“Better. But still.”

Then there was her attitude toward their neighbors, especially the stay-at-home moms. They crowded the sidewalks with their strollers, and on weekends the SUVs were filled with kids going to soccer and T-ball games. He looked forward to all that. She described those moms as if they were the Stepford Wives, with their designer jeans, perfect makeup and hair highlighted to just the right shade – outdoorsy, Californian, but never so bleached that it entered blond-joke territory.

She kept her hair its natural light brown and close tabs on her wheels of Alesse.

They came to a cluster of buildings: a gas station and a few houses, one built like a flying saucer on stilts. A produce market selling date shakes.

“Let’s stop here,” Amy said.

He pulled the car off the road. It wouldn’t hurt to stretch their legs, much as he wanted to get out into the real desert.

The Audi’s thermometer read 95, and it was only ten o’clock. After the air conditioning, the blast of heat hit them like opening an oven door. A gust of wind nearly blew Amy’s inappropriate hat away. They both scurried under the shade of the open-air market’s tin roof.

While Amy browsed a display of Native American and Mexican tchotchkes, Brad looked over the dried fruit. He selected a half-pound package of dried apricots. They might need some fuel if they ever did find a place to hike – or just walk, more likely, what with the heat, and Amy’s sandals. Then he got two bottles of water from the cold case, realizing that the two in the car might not be enough.

Now Amy was looking at a pair of huaraches. At least those might be a bit better than the flip-flops she was wearing.

Cuanto cuesta?” she asked the woman behind the counter, who was Mexican. Or Latino, at least – Latina. Amy was always trying to use her three years of Spanish here, and telling him he should, too. The woman told her the price, in English, and Amy put the sandals back. She went up to the counter. “Quiero un… date shake,” she said. “Brad?”

“Just these,” he said, holding up the fruit and bottles of water.

The car was baking by the time they returned to it. They rode in silence, waiting for the AC to kick in. Brad could feel the sweat evaporating from the back of his neck, underneath the collar of his cotton shirt. Amy offered him a sip of her shake.

Brad and Amy can’t imagine the strange form of “help” they’ll receive in solving their impasse. To find out how that comes about, pre-order Desert Trilogy now. If you’d like to find out when the print version becomes available, sign up for email updates below.

2 replies on “Chill Out”

Glad you liked it, Greg. I’ll let you know when the rest is available.

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