The Money Lender (#3)
To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
The Money Lender
by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
If you haven’t read the previous issues:
Part 9 Joshua, Rick, and the Dharma contest
Like Sunday, Tuesday was a “shift day.” Joshua, Tim, and Charlene did hot have to come into the office. The same cashiers who worked on Sundays, two Muslims and a Jew, filled in on those days and also worked as part of the evening, 5 to 9 crew.
Joshua and Rick, spade and pick in hand, dug a new channel for a sprinkler pipe in Rick’s back yard. The heat and the exertion affected Joshua more than it affected his host, and the pitcher of vodka, tonic and lime that sat on a table between two deck chairs, began to speak to him, telling him that if he called for a break, Rick would sit down and launch one of his boring soliloquies until sleep overtook his reveries. Of the two irritants, listening to Rick would normally be the least tolerable; but the day was particularly hot and the ground filled with unyielding hardened caliche. He would simply ask Rick how he became the well-read and insightful philosopher he obviously was. But he would have to be subtle.
Joshua said, “I’m sweating too much. I need a break.” He walked towards the deck chairs. “You said that you didn’t publish under your own name. Are you some sort of ghost writer?”
Rick settled into a chair and drained the drink Joshua handed him. Then he prepared himself for making a revelation by shaking the ice cubes in the glass as though they were dice in a dice cup. He paused, ready now, and rattled the cubes as though they were a drum roll. “Once upon a time I studied philosophy which qualifies a man for nothing. I found a woman who fell in love with me… that’s what she said. She was trying to prove to her family that she wasn’t a lesbian so I was her beard, so to speak. All she wanted was a wedding album and a baby. Proof. She divorced me and richly rewarded me for the privilege of signing away my custodial rights to her. And with my money, no responsibility, and a philosophical background, I got interested in epistemology and especially in nomenclature. The names people give race horses is a fascinating subject. I began to read racing forms. Think about it. Swaps. Seattle Slew? What the hell kind of names are those? I went to Belmont a few times and tried to determine if there was a relationship between the way people picked horses and the horses’ names. I mean, I knew there was a relationship, but I wanted to see how great the influence was. I began to bet. Big mistake. As a habit, I concede that it’s better than drugs, and if you can afford a box, you definitely meet a nicer class of people.
“I met a bishop at the track and he liked me and when he heard about my divorce he assured me I had never really been married. You can’t sanction a fraud. It’s a ‘clean hands’ kind of thing. You can’t lie to a church and then expect them to fix the mess. So as soon as I found myself out of funds, I entered a seminary with his recommendation, of course.
“Anyway, since I already knew philosophy and some latin and a lot of other useless shit, I advanced. I prepared to take holy orders – they were trying to transfer me to a Dominican seminary – and then a few months later, I found myself in a nasty situation. First of all, I didn’t want to be a Dominican. Really! They are just too strict. Rottweilers with robes.
“I really wanted to enter the Order of the Knights of the Blue Cross because that’s where Joe Pulaski went. He was a year ahead of me, but I did his assignments and taught him all the theology he knows or, let’s say, he could absorb. But the thing is… when you join a religious order you pledge your life and fortune to the order. I didn’t have anything, so what did I care? They had these neat robes that one guy sewed – appliqued actually – a blue cross superimposed on a white cross on the front. Snazzy. Joe had been sent to them because, among other things, he had been naughty with the ladies. That, I fear, is an intolerable offense. “I had to help Joe out of a few jams and wrote a few papers in his name which made his Monseigneur quite happy with him. He wrote to the archdiocese, applauding their perspicacious choice. Joe had told me about this stupid little theological contest the Monseigneur was having with his friend, the Zen Abbot and I was happy to help.
“Then, a week or so before I took my final vows, my uncle in Brazil – a man I never even knew existed – died and left me almost three million dollars. I learned about it when the lawyer called me. I thought it was a joke someone was playing. If it were true, however, it presented a problem. What was I supposed to do? Give it to the seminary, the Knights, the Dominicans? I didn’t tell them anything. I just took my vows; but among the many congratulatory cards and letters they received, came the formal notification from my lawyer. Oh, how they rejoiced over my good news! They read my goddamned mail in the front office! So there I was newly ordained and telling them they weren’t getting a cent. Yes, I had signed a contract. No, Brazil wasn’t going to enforce it. So, right after I was ordained, I took my inheritance and blew it on a few luxury items. A trip to Manaus. Beautiful town! And to Rio, naturally. And I bought this house in the desert, a small sailboat for the lake, and spent money on crap tables and more than a few lovers. Ah, craps. You have no idea how many times you can throw snake eyes.”
“And you stayed friends with… what?… Father Pulaski?”
“Joe is a quick study when he’s not concentrating on sin. He knew that the Knights got money from the families of the whacky priests whose families didn’t want them back. These guys are so senile or alcoholic or schizophrenic – they come all ages – they denounce Christ and the Church and, if they were sound of mind, could legitimately be excommunicated and sent home – but who in his right mind would want then home? They’ve already blown their own money. And putting them in a private nuthouse is not the Church’s idea of good press when they start ranting and doing naughty things. The Knights have a doctor on the payroll who says they’re sane and just nasty and disgruntled types. The Knights warehouse them in a “Retreat” for whatever they can get from the families to keep them there, in this honorable conclusion to a Christian life of service.
“Joe made it clear to Monseigneur Garcia that he ‘farmed out’ many of those erudite papers and that his sub-contractor needed to be paid. Garcia was happy to pay. In the old days he had lost face writing laughable comments that his previous assistant had helped him to write. He lost in those days. Nobody laughs anymore. I was worth it. I don’t come cheap.”
“And who helps the Zen Abbot?”
“I told you. His Vice-Abbot, a churlish fellow named Chuan Yi. Stupid, naturally. You know how they say a camel is a horse put together by a committee? Well, he has a clique of morons who think they know something about the Mahayana Scriptures, so they put their pitiable brains together and come up with truly amusing commentary on Zen Buddhism. Sometimes it’s the only entertainment I get. You’ll like the Abbot. He’s sickly but basically intelligent and honest. And he’s as oriental as Abe Lincoln.”
“I’m glad you told me. It’ll help me get through tomorrow’s big day… when Assistant Father Joe calls my boss.”
“Don’t forget to load your hanki with that strong hand lotion I have. It will really irritate your eyes when you rub them. Ah, how the tears will flow.” He chewed the ice that had been in the bottom of the glass. “The mood is on me. Let’s go in and take a nap, darlin’.”
“Any port in a storm,” Joshua said.
Part 10 Josha, Tim, Charlene
The joy that Joshua radiated on Monday vanished on Wednesday when a special messenger delivered a parchment envelope and letter, both of which were impressively embossed with the Knights of the Blue Cross logo. Dave Lonigan tipped the messenger and went into his office and shut the door.
He sat at his desk, read the letter from the Reverend Joseph Pulaski, Assistant to Monseigneur Jaime Garcia and the enclosed photocopy of a letter that he had received from Timothy Murphy. The letter’s body was brief:
I am in receipt of the attached letter sent by a Mr. Timothy Murphy who, I believe, is your employee. Mr. Joshua Mays who is also your employee and one with whom I have enjoyed many conversations regarding his admission to our order, is apparently the subject of suspicion regarding financial matters. I readily admit that we had looked favorably upon his admission but that now, in light of Mr. Murphy’s disturbing communication, we have no alternative but to delay his admission at least until this accusation or insinuation is clarified.
Perhaps it would be to our mutual advantage if you contacted me at my office. If you know any more about the matter, and you care to share that information with me, I would be deeply appreciative.
David Lonigan called Tim Murphy into his office and asked him if he had sent the enclosed letter. Murphy denied it.
“Is this your signature?” Lonigan asked.
Murphy stared at the photocopy. “It certainly looks like it, but I never sent this letter.”
“Well, let’s think about this. You knew Joshua was applying to Saint Steven’s Retreat to join the Order of priests that runs the place.”
“We all did.”
“Tim, we learned about this on Saturday. Until then we thought he was dreaming about surfing in Hawaii. This letter was written this morning. What choice do I have but to believe the evidence right in front of my eyes. You don’t have the right to slander another person’s character. This is sleazy, Tim, sleazy. I don’t want to fire you, but I’ll talk to my superiors. Why did you have to mention FNN in your letter? Well, who knows why people do stupid things. Sorry… but the best I can do right now is to tell you to be prepared to accept dismissal. Send Joshua in here on your way out.”
Joshua, prepared with his lotion-infused handkerchief, smiled broadly as he entered Lonigan’s office. After hearing what his boss had to say, he affected a look of consternation and then horror. “My priesthood is over,” he cried. “After this, no one will accept me.”
“I’m going to talk to Father Pulaski right now. I’m going to tell him that I think it’s the work of a prankster. I’ll also suggest that you call him. Meanwhile, take the rest of the day off. I’m really sorry that this has happened. Don’t worry. I’ll get to the bottom of it. Ask Charlene to come in here.”
Charlene Cottone had been wondering whether something was wrong. Her parents were supposed to return on Wednesday, but instead had come back Monday night. Someone had let them know that she had taken the sloop out with a blonde haired guy her age and had looked very chummy with him. But she did not know this and so she sat in the chair in front of Lonigan’s desk with an imperial air… flaunting her unspoken name, Cottone… which Lonigan respected. He knew that her family was well-connected. There was also a story about her great-grandfather being convicted of Income Tax Invasion but had never given a fact or a name to the Feds not even in exchange for sentence leniency. He belonged to a sacred fraternity and in another time and in another place he would have been canonized. Her grandfather was equally venerated.
He seemed to be almost fawning when he asked, “What do you know about stealing or any financial shenanigans going on in this office?”
“If I knew that something funny was going on, I’d have gone directly to my father or my uncles. Since I didn’t go to anyone, the answer is obvious. I know nothing.”
He thanked her for coming in and said that that was all he wanted to know.
Charlene boldly stopped at Tim’s counter. “Something’s going on. Maybe that’s why my folks came home a day early. I don’t know what it is. I’ll find out and let you know.”
Joshua went directly to Rick’s house. “How much of my money am I going to get to keep?” he asked.
“Since you need to get out of sight while simultaneously maintaining the reputation for being religious, the price tag is still 5K for Abbot Jy Shao; two for Father Joe Pulaski, one for me. That leaves you two thousand. And you’re not out of the woods yet, you greedy boy. If anyone of those cashiers doesn’t identify Tim, you can be considered a suspect. Someone may have reason to suspect you. If you’re in a cloistered order, they’ll be less inclined to consider you. Too much trouble over a mere 30K. Right now I’d suggest that you study as much Zen Buddhism as you possibly can. Joe has heard that the topic of the next commentary chess game is going to be either the Gospel of Thomas, or Nagarjuna’s poem about Nirvana and the Nirvana section of the Lankavatara, or the nature of Absolute Reality. Does any of this ring a bell?”
“I’ve never even heard of the Buddhist stuff. Or the Thomas Gospel, either. Matthew, Mark, John and Luke, that’s all I’ve ever heard about.”
“There are controversies about all the selections. I don’t know which one or which side the Zen abbot will take – but you can rest assured that the idiots out there will question you about it. There’s a copy of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi collection on the kitchen table; and the Lankavatara is there, too. Start reading it and then after lunch, call Joe. Maybe he’ll know by then whether the Monseigneur is going to do Thomas, Nagarjuna, or the Lanka.”
“Jesus…” Joshua went into the kitchen, sat down, and began to try to understand what the words meant.
Part 11 Aaron and Stella
If judging the relationship between two people in public depends largely upon their mutual civility and respectfulness, then the comity exhibited between Aaron and Rebecca Weitzman could serve as a model for the American traveler. He placed her carry-on bag in the overhead compartment; he gave her the window seat that she wanted but had been assigned to him; he stood up and moved out into the aisle when she got up to go to the bathroom. She did not have to squeeze by him to get into the aisle or even ask him to guard the pillow she had rented for two dollars until she returned. He automatically put his hand upon the pillow lest someone from the seat before or behind should reach around and grab it, an unfortunate act of theft common among today’s flying public. She said, “Please,” and “Thank you,” whenever such acknowledgements were appropriate and he grunted the obligatory, “My pleasure.” They did not disturb each other for the twenty-five hundred miles they flew west. And their decorous behavior would indeed have been held up as a model of well-bred young Americans were it not for the fact that they were honeymooners who seemed never to have met before.
Their civil silence continued on after they checked into the Mandalay Bay Hotel and were conducted to their rooms. Aaron had brought only one suitcase, but Rebecca had brought three. A bride did have to appear fashionable, even down to poolside fashions that featured shawls and such to hide her burned breasts. Needless to say, she had no intention of going into the water.
Aaron called Arnold Goldman who had thought they’d meet the following day, but when Aaron said that they had nothing planned but brunch and were free for the rest of the day, Arnold agreed to bring Michelle and meet them for brunch at Mandalay Bay.
Michelle proved to be the most solicitous of their health. “You’re doing the smart thing, avoiding the pool on your first day. A bad sunburn can ruin your entire honeymoon.”
Rebecca agreed. “We’d just as soon see your wonderful used car lot,” she said. “Aaron and I are both excited about the prospect. First things first!” She suspected that Aaron would prefer to be with them than be stuck with her alone, and in this suspicion she was not incorrect.
“That’s what I like to hear!” Arnold said as he nodded to the waiter to present the bill to Aaron. “Enthusiasm! That’s what counts!” He stood up, “I’ll tell you what. We’re all the way back in non-valet parking, so why don’t we go get the Lincoln and meet you guys out front?”
“Wonderful,” Rebecca said. “It’ll give me a chance to go to the little girl’s room.”
Arnold drove the Lincoln all the way north on the Strip until they turned off to stop at his house, a split level that had a kidney shaped swimming pool. The furniture was modern and completely lacked a woman’s touch. Rebecca, though having appreciated Michelle’s concern about the ruining effects of sunburn on a honeymooning agenda, immediately made a mental list of her girlfriends who would be interested since obviously Arnold would never marry a shiksa like Michelle. No, he’d want a quality Jewish girl, and Rebecca knew dozens of them.
After viewing the house, they went to see Arnold’s used car lot. His secretary made hazelnut coffee for them, but after praising it, they ran out of things to say. The lack of affection between Aaron and Rebecca contributed to the awkward silences. Finally, Arnold had an idea. “There’s a guy next door that rents off-road vehicles. I’ve got a pickup truck that’ll hold two three-wheelers in the truck bed. We could rent a couple of them and go out to see real desert. I never get past the parts of the city they’re developing.”
The girls would have preferred to go to the Mall, but Rebecca wanted to make amends with Aaron. She also did not want to explain the red mark on her chest that might be noticed if she tried on garments while shopping. “I’d love to learn more about the desert,” she said brightly. “I’ve heard they have a polygamy city not far from here. I’d like to see that, but I understand that they don’t let you get close to it.”
“We could always try our luck at the tables,” Michelle said.
But Aaron had projected the cost of the hotel bills and quickly declined. Arnold Goldman said, “Me, too. I’m game for anything besides those of chance.” He did not add that he had lost a year’s salary at the tables the previous month – a fact not appreciated by his father who was technically his employer. “Why don’t we try those All-Terrain-Vehicles,” he said. “We’ve all got driver’s licenses, haven’t we?” He looked around and everyone nodded affirmatively. “The seat’s for one, but I won’t tell if you won’t tell. Yep. Two explorers on a cycle,” he said, “like a snowmobile without the discomforts of snow.” He looked at Rebecca. “If your bride is comfortable with it?” Rebecca was. She had noticed a subtle change in her husband’s demeanor when they looked at Arnold’s house and the used car lot. She correctly supposed that Aaron would not be particularly inclined to invite her parents to their home, and putting twenty-five hundred miles between households, would certainly offer a natural limit to such unpleasant visits. Yes, distance was written into her formula for happiness. Then, too, shotgun weddings have different names but they all mean the same thing: the groom had to be forced to marry the bride. She didn’t want to face her relatives when the baby was born “early.”
The desert. Cholla cactus has yellow flowers. Prickly pear has red. Diamondback rattlesnakes bite to kill. Scorpions are the big ones that make you wish you were someone else for an hour or two but are not considered poisonous. Blackwidow spiders are notorious for biting people on the bare behind in outhouses. The spiders for some reason favor the underside of the seat. They too, will make a person regret that one particular bowel movement for years to come, but they are not considered life threatening.
Aaron and Rebecca Blumenthal Weitzman had approximately the same degree of knowledge of the desert as Arnold and Michelle had, which is to say none. No sane person would go into the desert in July unless he absolutely had to. There was no GPS indicator in the old pickup and they had to receive directions from an old map. Evidently there was a secret race track, the Gatlingsburg Track, that Nellis airmen used for sport… a family track which ATVs – the three-wheeled off-road vehicles – shared days of the week with their four-wheeled counterparts. Tuesday was a 3-wheeler day. Going n orth would take them towards Utah on one side and Area 51 on the other. This was particularly tempting. They headed North and got lost in Lincoln County.
They parked the pickup on one of the dirt roads they had taken on whims, as if trying to follow half-eaten Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs. They did not realize that the desert, for all its seemingly unique features, was as confusingly same as an islandless ocean. Arnold was driving. “We turned left and then at the first left we turned on it,” he said defensively, “and then at the next intersection we turned right and then every time we came to a road of any kind we turned left and we should have gotten to the Gatlingsburg Track.” He checked the gas gauge. “This is crazy. Desert is desert. We’re probably right around the corner from it and we’ll find it as we drive. Sorry, guys. But we need to conserve gas. Let’s get the ATVs out now and ride around to see what we can find.”
They parked and the two men lowered the tarp-covered 3-wheeled all-terrain vehicles from the truck bed. It had taken longer to get to where they thought they were than they had figured, and they had only brought (despite the pointed suggestion of the rental agent that they take a few gallons of water each) a single 2 liter jug of water that they could hook onto a belt-loop. They did have extra fluids… orangeade and two six packs of beer. Michelle drank beer with them. Rebecca drank orange juice. She put her wallet into her shoulder bag; but because of the tightness of his jeans and the awkward position of the water jug, Aaron left his wallet in the truck’s locked glove compartment.
“Desert is desert” they all agreed, without knowing any desert upon which they could form such an observation. They drove in different directions looking for the Gatlingsburg Track – which was no where near them. Arnold wanted more beer and Michelle, bored and uncomfortable on the seat behind him, wanted more beer, too. Aaron began to laugh at some of the mistakes he made, and Rebecca, truly happy with the sudden detente, joined him in the good fun of bumps and ups and downs and arounds, stalling out and the relief of starting again. The thought occurred to her that it no longer really mattered if the bumpy ride caused a miscarriage. It might, in fact, save her considerable embarrassment. She acted as a cheerleader at a pep rally and urged Aaron to go even faster.
Arnold and Michelle sat in the truck and each drank two beers. Time was passing. For the first thirty minutes they ran the air conditioning on and off; but then as they drank more and got sexually involved, they started the engine and let the air conditioning run full blast. Now, in their second hour of waiting they lowered the air but left the motor running. With the windows up and the air on, they put a Stones’ CD in the player and sang along with Mick.
An Indian woman stood statuesquely on a bluff, looking like the subject of a romanticized artwork that people would admiringly observe in a gallery; but out there in the real sun, wind, and dust, nobody was looking at her. She had crossed the top of the bluff from the side her trailer was on to the noisy side of the truck and the buzzing ATVs. Intently, she watched Aaron and Rebecca recklessly ride through the desert. She had also watched Arnold and Michelle when they, too, rode similarly through the brush; but they had driven back to a pickup truck parked on the road and had loaded their ATV in the truck bed. They were sitting in the cab with the windows up. When they lowered a window to toss a cigarette butt out onto the dirt road she could faintly hear the music they were listening to.
She watched and heard Aaron and Rebecca buzzing and bouncing, and then turn out of sight. She neither saw them again nor heard the buzzing of their ATV. All was quiet for about forty-five minutes, and then the pickup truck drove away. It probably meant that the young man and woman on the ATV had deliberately gone out of sight for personal reasons and that the two in the pickup and gone for food or drink and would be back. The nearest town, Kiddally, was a small cluster of houses, a gas station, a general store, and one restaurant cantina. Most people drove farther into populated Ely; but no matter where the pickup truck had driven, she should have been able to see its returning dust trail; and after another half hour there was no indication at all that they were returning.
The Indian woman knew the area, and she knew that wherever the two on the ATV were, they were alone. An hour was just too long to be left alone in the desert especially if they had encountered trouble. She had seen all four of them at the start and it was evident that they were friends. It made no sense at all to suppose that the pickup truck had abandoned the two on the ATV. And yet, the truck’s absence made her uncomfortable. She decided to descend the hill and take a look around the curve that the ATV had taken. She knew that there was a dry wash around that curve and they might have had an accident driving into it.
Her name was Stella Buchanan, a Shoshone woman, and she had been asked to “step outside” the house trailer she lived in while the trailer’s owner and a friend of his – and an old admirer of Stella’s – discussed business. She then had climbed the bluff from the western side. At the top she had only to walk a few meters to see the ATV’s riding around the eastern side. Back at the trailer there was a large covered water trough that previously had been filled every two weeks by a water tanker. The trough and seven new and clean galvanized trash cans Stella used for water storage would also be filled. But the last delivery had not been made and Brant Chastain, the man she lived with, had brought her some water from town. She had learned a few months’ before that she was pregnant and the irritation he showed when being forced to deliver water to her, was writ large across the page of her expectations. With premeditated gentleness he had advised her to get an abortion since they could no longer live in the Airstream parked outside of town. He promised her that he’d be coming into money and that after they had the fresh start – which meant minus the baby – they could find a regular house in Ely.
At twenty-eight she thought she could see through any lie or any man’s manipulation to get her to do what he wanted; but this time, she felt anxious. Yes, the baby was his. She had had an amniocentesis test. Surely he wouldn’t trick her into destroying his own baby boy. When she was asked to leave the trailer so that he could talk with his friend and occasional business partner Paul Oteiza, she hoped that at least part of the business they were discussing had to do with real estate – any available homes that Paul knew about. And then she heard the sound of racing motorcycles and had climbed the bluff to see who was foolish enough to be riding around the desert in the middle of a July day.
She watched Aaron and Rebecca scurry around on the ATV and she saw Arnold and Michelle return to the pickup. “Greenhorns,” she said aloud, expecting that the truck’s engine would overheat and that the two on the ATV would have an accident. She repeatedly looked down at the one-room house trailer she lived in, looking for a sign that the business talk had concluded so that she could return. It was getting too hot to remain up on the bluff, even if it was cooler there than it was down in the canyons. But the talk inside the trailer continued.
Stella, at twenty-eight, had not lived a quiet Indian maiden’s life. At fourteen, she had given birth to twin boys, both of whom died within days of their delivery. From that point on, the Indian curse of “twoness” followed her and she was considered a bad omen by the members of her Indian community. The clinic nurse gave her shots every three months that kept her infertile, but did not protect her from the attempted sexual molestations of local men and boys. She gained a reputation for being nasty. She had wanted to become an educated woman, and since she scored well in an IQ test, she was taken into the home of one of the tribal council elders to keep house, babysit, and take a rudimentary nursing course. When she finished the course, the chief’s children had started school, and she parted amicably from the family. But the nursing job she got required her to visit elderly patients at their homes, and all too often, randy male relatives of the patients would be waiting to let her into the house. She refused to go into the homes of half a dozen clients. The council investigated her allegations and found them baseless. Life in her community had suddenly become intolerable, and she moved on.
Without nursing references, she was able only to obtain work as a bartender at a cowboy’s saloon in Ely, and after a few uneventful years behind the bar, she met Brant Chastain and fell in love with him. He said he loved her and let her live outside town in a small Airstream trailer he owned in Lincoln County. She had to quit her job and for a few months he stayed with her regularly, but then his visits became less frequent and now he was discussing a new life – minus the baby – a new and better place to live. When she climbed the bluff to let the men talk in private, she was also whispering prayers to old Indian gods to help her to choose the right path and to walk beside her when she took it. She learned the breathing techniques of a medieval Jewish mystic, and every few feet up the hill, she paused to inhale and slowly recite the proper prayers. The few months she had lived in Brant Chastain’s little house trailer were the happiest she had ever known in her life. She was used to adversity.
Coming down the steep hill required total concentration and she did not pray. She considered that she might be walking in on two people who were making love. Maybe they had packed an awning of some kind. Well, then, she’d apologize and return to the trailer. It was much too hot to continue to stay outside.
Aaron had been driving fast, too fast for conditions, conditions that he did not know. He turned a corner without knowing that a dry wash had disfigured the land, scarring it by a meter’s deep gouge. On foot, they could have jumped down onto the narrow sandy bed. But they were not on foot, and to people speeding on an off-road vehicle, the plunge had the force of ten storeys. Down they were flung… momentum… gravity… centrifugal force… The front wheel of the vehicle hit the sandy flat of the dry wash and dug in, but the vehicle’s rear kept going… making an arc fron which Rebecca was flung over Aaron’s head. She landed face-first on a rock on the other side of the narrow wash. Her broken teeth scattered like so much confetti over a group of barrel cactuses. Her death was as instantaneous as a broken neck’s could be. Aaron was flung too. And as he tried to brace himself as he landed, he broke his right arm and wrist as they twisted in the vehicle’s handle bar, and had a left hand and the left side of his face punctured with cholla spines. His sunglasses had fortunately protected his eyes.
He tried to get up, but something – he did not know what – had also been broken in his ankle. He also could not lean on his left hand to push himself up. He therefore put his left hand up to his mouth and tried to remove the cholla barbs from his hand. Six bloody marks remained as though he had removed six fishing hooks from his hand. But he could use his hand. Unfortunately, the broken ankle was on the same side as the broken arm and if he had been able to use a crutch… well, that was wishful thinking.
He tried to crawl to Rebecca, pushing his way across the sand towards her. He had never seen a dead person before… not up close with her teeth and lips smashed and her jaw distorted by the fracture. He reached up and grabbed her sleeve and pulled on it, and her head fell back and then rolled around to the side, facing him, upside down. Her bloody, mangled lower face was grotesque; yet, under the confusing influence of his own head injury, he thought it odd that her head was like a hoola hoop… or something that was attached to her body by a rubber band. He got out his cellphone, but there was no signal. He unzipped her little shoulder bag purse and tried her cell. Nothing. He was sure she was dead but maybe he was wrong. “I’ve got to get her to a doctor,” he thought. A doctor would know. In the noon day sun she did not turn cold since the ambient temperature was higher than normal body temperature. With his good or at least usable hand he was able to grab a piece of the rear-view mirror that had broken off. He held it under her nose and could see no sign of life. Oddly, he did not feel pain in his right arm and for a long moment did not notice that his arm was broken and that under the mangled muscle, skin, and torn shirt, white bone showed. He thought he could use the mirror to signal someone. He flashed the mirror a few times in the sunlight, but there was no one to signal. Where were Arnold and Michelle? Were they looking for them?
There was a beeping horn on his cycle. He’d try to use it. He tried to get to the left hand controls of the vehicle to find the horn button. It was useless. The horn did not work. He could barely touch the handle bar. The sun, in just a few minutes, had already heated the metal. He looked around for shade of any kind. But there was no shade. He drank the water that remained in his jug and he drank Rebecca’s water too. He did not realize the extent of his right arm’s injury until he felt the wetness of blood. Suddenly he saw that he was losing blood and he had no way to stop it. He needed to make a tourniquet. He didn’t wear a belt… maybe Rebecca’s shoulder bag’s strap. He pulled the bag away from her and then to pull the bag’s looping strap around his arm and raise it to his upper arm. Then he began to turn the bag over and over, effecting the strap’s twisting. It finally became tight at a point in his upper arm just above the break to squeeze off the blood flow. He lay his body on the bag to maintain the twist’s tension. Satisfied that he had made a suitable tourniquet, he studiously looked at the protruding white bone and was, for a reason he did not understand, fascinated by it. His fascination continued. He spoke to himself and felt cold. “You are getting light-headed… probably from loss of blood. Maybe this is what they call ‘going into shock.’ Aaron, will you lose your arm? God knows what you did to your insides. Where is Arnold?” He had not taken notice of the time that they got on the three-wheeler. He looked at his smashed watch and licked blood from its cracked glass face so that he could read it. The hands were twisted into uselessness. Where was Arnold? Was it possible that he had just left them there?
Aaron listened but could hear no motorcycle motor or the pickup truck’s engine, either. He looked up at the glare that was the sky. Little by little his eyes closed. He remembered his mother saying that Rebecca had deliberately gotten pregnant to entrap him. He had responded simply, “We’re all in God’s hands.” It surprised him that he had so quickly gotten used to the baby. Yes, he’d like having a baby. Rebecca would have been different away from her family. She was a good kid, he thought. A person can’t blame another person for loving him. He suddenly realized that he couldn’t remember what she had looked like in her white bridal gown. And she was dead. And then an ugly thought occurred to him. I’m dying and nobody gives a shit. A bitter realism suffused his thoughts. All they were interested in was using me. Can I speak Spanish? Sure… so I could work my ass off outdoors in 112 degree heat. They’ll never get a dealership. Who are they kidding? If it had been such a great job Arnold wouldn’t have flown all the way east to offer a job to an inexperienced idiot like me. There’d have been a line of applicants. Rebecca wanted to move there because she was pregnant and she wanted to see the shows and have her own swimming pool. Arnold had one. He lived in a nice house. Uncle Benny said that Armold’s father actually owned the house. Arnold hadn’t told them that. Where was Arnold? Where was he? Where was… Where… He thought he heard someone coming and tried to raise himself to look. As he did, he released the tension on the twisted tourniquet strap. He groaned. He could see nothing but glare. Nobody was there. His last coherent thought was, “I’m dying… and it’s all my fault. God help me. God help… God…”
As Stella descended the bluff, Paul Oteiza had concluded the meeting and had gone outside the trailer. Seeing Paul, she waved to him, signaling him to come over. He walked nearly a quarter mile through the sage and yucca and met her just as she approached the accident scene. “She’s a goner,” Stella Buchanan called, pointing at Rebecca. “I can see from here her neck’s broken.”
She approached Aaron. “He looks dead, too. Hey Buddy!” She tapped Aaron’s face. “You still in there? Jesus, look at this blood.” She touched Aaron’s throat. “I don’t think he’s got a pulse.” She held up her hand to indicate that Paul shouldn’t move. “No. I think I feel a weak pulse.” She carefully lifted his head so that he could drink some water from the canteen she had carried on her hip. His lips seemed to be glued shut with dried saliva. “Come on,” she coaxed Aaron, using the canteen’s lip to pry his lips apart. “Come on. Drink a little.” She poured some water against his teeth. He opened his mouth enough to take several sips. She lay his head down and removed her scarf and rolled it tightly and then tied it around his upper right arm to make a tourniquet.
Paul Oteiza got out his cell phone and got no signal. “Hold his head up so he don’t choke,” he unnecessarily warned Stella. “and give him more water. Can’t pour water in the mouth of a prostrate man. You’ll choke him.” He pulled her aside and lowered his voice, “Make sure you keep him alive… you know how they hate it when you ask them to save a dead man.” He stood up and held the cellphone above his head. “No signal. I’ll go back to the trailer and use my CB radio or Brant’s satellite phone. Keep workin’ on him. I’ll drive the truck here as far back as I can.” He could see Brant’s truck leave a dust trail on the road. “Brant’s gone,” he said, “and he’d have taken his sat phone with him.” He turned to jog back to his truck. She called after him, “It wouldn’t hurt to bring that cattle syringe Brant keeps in the cabinet. I’m O positive.”
Paul Oteiza shouted back, “I’m B. See if you can find out what type he is.”
Stella cradled Aaron’s head in her arm and gently held the water to his lips. “Come on,” she said, “You can do it. Open your mouth and drink a little more.” She kept looking towards the trailer hoping to see Paul Oteiza’s truck wind its way through the brush.
The largest population of Basques outside of Spain live in Nevada, and Paul Oteiza was a descendant of one of the first families who had settled there. At seventy, he was no longer as strong or as quick as he once had been, but he did no less work than he had always done. And he felt no less attracted to Stella than he had when he first met her when he was sixty.
Paul got through to the sheriff’s department in Las Vegas.
“You’re in Lincoln County,” the voice slowly responded.
“I think I know where I am,” Paul said, irritated by the lack of urgency. “Get an ambulance up to the county line. We’ll meet you there.”
“That’s a big county line and a distance of… sat… 150 miles,” the voice replied. “It’s gonna take a few hours.”
“At 93, Goddamit, at 93 and the county line! It’s gonna take us some time to get him there. He’s got some major injuries. Major! If he’s taken into Ely he’ll only have to be transported down to you. So let’s skip the middleman. You come and send your best paramedics. There’s another one, a woman, who’s dead. But the living one is gonna need specialized care. Send a helicopter if you can. We’re about ten miles north of the line, at Brant Chastain’s Airstream. Just be quick!”
He went into the trailer, picked up the syringe, a bottle of alcohol, a dog’s leather leash to use as a tourniquet, and a couple of towels and tossed them into his truck and drove back to the accident scene. Stella was still giving Aaron sips of water. She held her left arm out to Paul and continued to try to give Aaron water.
Paul looked at Aaron. “Ain’t nothin’ but a miracle gonna save this boy.” He spoke gently to Aaron as he tightened the dog leash around her upper arm and then, finding a likely vein to use, inserted the 16 gauge needle into her elbow pit and slowly began to fill the 60cc syringe. “Now son, I don’t know who you are and I’m not even sure you’re alive, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.” He looked at Stella. “It’s been years since I did this in Nam, but I think I remember enough.” Turning again to Aaron, he asked, “Do you renounce Satan and his minions? Do you repent all your sins? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God? If you repent your sins give me a sign.”
Aaron heard the voice but he did not understand the words. Do you something… And can you tell… Aaron’s eyes fluttered.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked.
Aaron tried to speak. “Ar… o…” He closed his eyes and turned his head.
“He’s likely to say something crazy,” she said.
Paul tied the leather leash around Aaron’s upper left arm and tapped for a vein. Finding one he inserted the needle and loosened the leash. “Son,” he said, “this lovely lady has O positive blood and that’s the universal doner. I’ve got B and if you’ve got B and can give me a sign, you can have some of my blood, too.” As Stella continued to give Aaron water, Paul injected the blood into his arm.
Stella spoke with the medical authority of her old nursing training. “You’ll need seven more to make a pint. My antecubital area is going to look like a pin cushion.” She rolled a rock under Aaron’s head to act as a pillow and again held out her arm so that Paul could repeat the blood withdrawal while she continued to give Aaron water. She found it necessary to coax him. “Take a sip! Please… try to take a drink! Thirst isn’t like it is in the movies. Thirst makes a man crazy. Stay with us. Drink!”
Aaron felt the water run over his swollen tongue. Vaguely he wondered why his tongue should swell when it was dehydrating. He took another swallow and then another.
“You say your name is Aro like in Harold?” Paul withdrew the syringe from Stella’s arm and while she tightened the leash on Aaron’s upper arm, Paul tapped for a vein and finding one, he inserted the second 60 cc’s of blood into the crook of his arm and released the tourniquet. “All right, Harold,.” he said,. “We’re using a veterinary syringe we use for shooting steers with hormones.” He tried to humor him as he finished injecting the blood and turned to apply the dog-leash tourniquet to Stella’s arm. “But don’t worry. We won’t inject you with ’em.”
Aaron had a momentary flash of consciousness. Arnold had probably gotten help.
Paul again asked as he cleaned a place on Aaron’s left arm, “Do you repent your sins and reject Satan and all his minions?”
“Ye… yea,” Aaron said, slipping in and out of consciousness.
Paul Oteiza poured a little water from his canteen on Aaron’s head. “I baptize thee, Harold, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” He spoke nervously to Stella. “Name’s Harold. Hold him up.”
He turned again to Aaron and repeated, “Now Harold, if you can still hear me, Stella here’s got O positive blood and that’s the universal donor. So I’m trying to help you with her blood.” He repeated, “I know I got B blood and if you got B blood, you can get some from me too. So if you can, please, please try to tell me what type you have.”
Nothing. Stella lifted Aaron’s head again and held out her arm.
“Ain’t much for sterile technique around here,” Paul said, slowly emptying the syringe into Aaron’s left arm. “Hope our cows ain’t got the anthrax.” This was said as a joke but Aaron did not understand what was being said to him.
Paul loosened the tourniquet Stella had applied to his right arm. “I gotta let some blood get down to your right hand. I’ll tighten it in another minute.” He waited, and then he completed the total of eight 60cc syringes of blood taken from Stella and injected into Aaron.
Stella held his head and gave him more water. “Stay with us, Harold. I know you’re hurtin’ but we’re a very long way from help. Keep trying to drink.”
The water felt strange in his mouth. He swallowed. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but white glare. He heard Paul say, “We gave you blood the hard way.” He did not know what that meant.
“That pint ain’t enough blood,” Paul said to Stella, “but it’ll have to do. Let’s get him to the county line.” He took off his shirt and tossed it to her. “See of you can made a sling for his arm.”
Aaron’s eyes opened but he said nothing. Stella spoke softly to him, “Don’t worry about your lady friend. We’ll send the state police out here to get her.” She wanted to keep him conscious. “You’re lucky we found you. Lucky, too, that you’re not one of them BLM thugs. Damned if any of us would give you a single cc of our blood then.” As she put the sling around his neck and arm she noticed Rebecca’s jewelry. She lowered Aaron and turned to pull the rings off Rebecca’s finger and put them inside the bloody purse, zipping it closed. “Her rings are in her bag. I’ll bring them along.”
“Let’s get him into the truck. She tied the corners of the towels together to make a long hammock-like sling, and they slowly picked up Aaron and lay him on the towels. Then they carried him to the truck and Paul got into the truck and lifted him into the passenger’s seat which he had reclined as far as it would go. Stella got into the truck and squatted on the floor between the dashboard and Aaron’s feet. They proceeded over the bumpy desert until they came to the road and then continued on to the county line.
Aaron again opened eyes and looked around but saw nothing. Stella tried again to say something funny about the BLM. to keep him awake. Aaron still did not know what BLM meant; but he smiled a little in acknowledgement. “Michelle and Arnold?” he whispered.
“I think they’re safe, Harold,” Stella said. “You and your lady Rebecca were out there alone… and I for one don’t know why you were there alone. Save your strength.” She continued to talk, trying to keep Aaron conscious since the paramedics would have questions that needed to be answered. When Aaron didn’t respond, Paul tried.
“I’m an old Viet Nam vet. But that was before your time. I was lookin for strays and dropped in to talk to an old friend, and God and this beautiful Gal led me to you… like you was on a battlefield… and we were the medics trying to get you into heaven instead of the hell we was all headin’ for in that god-awful place. I’m a desert rat. I won’t even go to Florida. The sight of palm trees sickens me,” he rambled on. “I like the ones at Furnace Creek and Scotty’s Castle… but the rest of them can fall off the face of the earth.” He could hear the ambulance’s siren in the distance. Aaron heard it, too; and he sighed, relieved to slip into unconsciousness.
Stella told the medic what they had done and that she’d notify the state police about where the dead woman was. “What’s his religion?” the medic asked. “He looks bad. Any I.D.?”
“No… nothin.” Stella answered. ‘The woman’s name is Rebecca Blumenthal. Sorry we couldn’t bring her body back. I’ll show the coroner where it is… or the buzzards will.” She handed the medic the purse. “Her wallet’s in it and so are her diamond rings so be careful with the stuff.”
The medic quickly looked to verify the presence of the wallet and rings.
Paul Oteiza helped to transfer Aaron onto the ambulance’s collapsible gurney. “Maybe you can find out who he is through her family. He’s Roman Catholic. Harold something. No I.D. or jewelry on hin. A smashed watch that we left at the scene. But I saw that the ATV was rented in North Las Vegas.”
“He’s gonna need an orthopod,” the medic said, closing the doors. Aaron was listening, but he understood nothing. He wondered what an orthopod was. He opened his eyes for a moment. He had been loaded into an ambulance and people were sticking needles in him. Nothing else registered.
Part 12: Aaron
“Paul Oteiza brought you in,” said the nurse. “He’s one of those renegade Basque shepherds who raise cattle.” She was trying to be light hearted in a gossipy way. He did not understand what she was saying. “You’ve been through a lot. Father Salazar was in to see you. He prayed over you for a couple of hours last night. Night before was Sister Mary Isabel. We didn’t know who you were until your wife’s body was recovered yesterday afternoon and we notified her parents in Philadelphia. The delay was due to being in another county and the need to match her with the description in the purse. Paper work. Her driver’s license listed her maiden name. I can tell you that she died instantly. We are so sorry for your loss.”
Aaron tried to put the words together, but the drugs he had been given refused to let him think. The syllables he heard did not form words much less intelligible sentences. “Rebecca. Yes, my wife.” Where is she? he wondered.
The nurse continued. “Your parents are on their way… well, they’ll be here tomorrow. Philadelphia time is three hours ahead of us and it was pretty late yesterday for them when we finally got to talk to them. Her parents too will be here to identify her body. It’s in the morgue. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Aaron looked at his left hand and saw a rosary dangling over white bandages. He saw that at the end of the string of beads there was a Crucifix. The nurse saw him looking at it. As if to answer his unspoken question, she said, “Sister Mary Isabel left it for you when you were brought in on Tuesday; She sat up with you all Tuesday night in the ICU. Praying. I can tell you, it didn’t hurt. We had to move you out of the ICU this morning. We needed the room and you needed more surgery anyway. There was a real bad accident on I15.” She finished her examination. “So Harold, you did well in surgery and your vital signs are provin’ it.” She checked the bandages that held the needles in the veins on top of his left hand. “You were one busted up guy! We thought we’d surely lose you.” She assumed a conspiratorial air and said jokingly. “I think the Devil himself wanted to take you with him Tuesday night, but Sister Mary Isabel’s prayers drove him away. Whew! That woman can pray up a tornado!”
Aaron slid in and out of thought. What day is it? Wednesday? Thursday? I had the accident on Tuesday. Aaron picked us up at the Mandalay right after we got here. Rebecca is dead. How did I get in here? What day is it? Monday?