The delivery

This is book one of The Delivery. Use chapters at the top to navigate. Section names can be used as bookmarks.

-- Tom Jennings, copyright 2022


★ LOS ANGELES ★

On the compound

Aaron is sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over his phone, tiny voices and laughter in his cupped hands.

Dan sets his morning coffee on the table, sits. Bright monochrome glow filters through glass doors gray with mist, condensation and algae, morning’s diffuse sun rendered timeless.

“Whatcha watching?” Dan closes his eyes for a moment’s comforting memory-sensation of sleep, shutting out the brightness, warm cup before him.

Without looking up, Aaron mumbles, “Found an episode I didn’t watch yet.”

“Of what.”

A chemically cheery, sing-song rhyme emanates from his phone:

Outhouse fixture, yodel curry passport, Outhouse fixture, yodel curry passport, Outhouse fixture, yodel curry passport, Yeah.

“What the hell is that.”

“Nitwits. You have to watch it to get it.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Is Stacy up?”

“Somewhere. I heard her stomping around.”

Dan leans in conspiratorially, says a little too loudly, “So... the girls out back are getting old. They’re not putting out like they used to. I’m thinking we need some juicy young replacements.”

Aaron quiets his phone, puts it face down on the table, lifts his head, his mass of curly brown hair falls back from his face, “Aww come on… Stacy’s gonna hear you...”

Stacy charges into the kitchen, face scrunched up, straight towards Dan, says “I heard that! Fuck you!”, and swats at his head. Dan ducks out of the way laughing, hat knocked to the floor.

“Sheesh, no sense of humor.”

“That’s not funny”, Stacy says, suppressing her grin. Dan replies, “Then why are you laughing?” causing Stacy to wrinkle her nose as she punches Dan in the shoulder, hard, on her way to the kitchen counter. “OUCH!”

“Hey Stacy, is there water for a shower,” Aaron returns to his phone halfway through the question.

Stacy mumbles from the counter, “Yeah...”

“OK, cool.”

A tinny air-raid siren fills the room. Dan picks his phone off the table.

"Hello Joseph! How are you!"

“Very good, thank you. Am I interrupting you?”

“Not all. What’s up?”

“We are wondering if you could drive out to visit us, in the usual way.”

“Sure! When is good for you?”

“Any time. But before you come, we would like to upgrade the device that is in your car now. Is that a problem for you?”

“Huh, no, no problem at all. Sure. I’m free this week even. And the weather between us is favorable right now.”

“Well that would be fine. We can arrange for someone to come by in the morning to do the work if that is convenient for you.”

Stacy heads for the outside door; Dan delays her with a raised hand and finger. Stacy pauses, midstep, immediately impatient.

“OK great. If it’s done early enough I will leave tomorrow.”

“Very good! And when you get here you can meet our new regional person, Natasha. She moved here from Tokyo to work with us. She is looking forward to meeting you.”

“Wow! That’s a big change. I thought all your people were local.”

“They are. Were. She is our first outside person.”

“I look forward to meeting her too.”

“Very good. I will talk to you soon.”

“Yes, see you soon. Goodbye." He sets the phone on the table. Stacy glares at him impatiently, wiry tattooed arms crossed over her ratty sleeveless antique punk tee, faded black, sun and age just visible on her dark skin, the barest of wrinkles around her eyes the only hint that she is not as young as she appears to be.

“Hey Stacy. I have to make a delivery to Farmington. Road trip. Wanna go?”

Stacy says “Why would I want to go anywhere with you?”

“I might drive past some shit-hole in the desert you may have heard of. Essex.”

Stacy pauses to actually look and listen. “Oh. OK. Sure.” Moment over, inscrutable decision made, she walks past them, slides the door open, steps through, bangs it closed.

Aaron says “What the fuck, over. She’s been bugging you for weeks for a ride there.”

Dan shrugs. “Hey, you’ll be in charge of the water and animals while we’re gone, right? You OK with that? Get the others to help.”

“Yeah same as last time? Oh, and the chicken guy should be down our street next week. I already asked for two.”

“OK cool. If anything breaks call Eduardo.”

“Will do. Oh and hey, I saw one of those new drones today. The hard to see kind.”

“What? Where.”

“Over the old phone poles over the sidewalk.”

“What do you mean, hard to see.”

“Blurry. Loud though, like shhhhhhhhh….”

“No idea what you’re talking about.”

Rain on stucco is a perfect medium for algae. Los Angeles once denied the existence of rain; when water fell, cars crashed, hillsides slumped, traffic stalled, houses leaked, panic ensued. Eventually denial failed; rains cause panic no more. Houses still leak, and now rot, fade, develop shredding blue rectangles on roofs and walls. Mornings bring this new LA, the old one returns at noon as clouds recede, everything greener, wilder, hotter. Shabbier, like an old LA rocker in sweatpants at a laundromat.

Dan is old by anyone’s accounting; tall, rail thin, faded tattoos on hairy arms, indifferent tee, black jeans, sneakers, hair clipped shortest. He moves slower now but has avoided most old-people afflictions, so far.

Breakfast cleanup done, Dan lifts the kitchen scrap bucket and heads to the door. Grabs a few peanuts from the jar on the table, out of habit squeezing sideways through the door open just enough, ritual against mosquitos, momentarily suppressed by rainfall. Representatives of the squirrel clan clamor down in greeting and anticipation. Who knew squirrels had such patience? The old lady and spring’s left-behind runty child with the half-naked tail, here for their morning social interspecies intercourse. Dan stoops down to the ground. The old lady chases the child away, jumps up on Dan’s knee, soaking wet feet on his pants, sniffs Dan’s finger, forces her nose into his closed fist to retrieve a delicious treat. The child repeats the ritual. Both disappear into the wet jungle. Dan gets up to leave before they return for an encore.

“You’re welcome,” mumbles Dan, picking up the scrap bucket. Walks the path to the chicken coop, giant birds of paradise dripping on his neck, to feed them and listen to their complaints. He steals all their eggs on the way out. On his return checks on Stacy, stirring muck in a water trough with a broken hoe.

“Hey, I want to leave as early tomorrow as I can. Right after someone drops off some shit to take. Be ready after breakfast.”

Stacy drops the hoe, reaches down, opens a valve. Lumpy black guck spills out. “Yeah I’m ready now,” picking up the hoe to spread the muck sloughing into the settling pond.

“I assume you’re taking your bike?”

“Yup,” she says, closing the valve as the muck thins to brown water.

“Aaron and the others will take care of things. I asked Eduardo to watch for trouble.”

When Stacy says nothing, Dan adds, “Hey, he says that he saw some quote invisible drones making weird noises. Any idea what he was talking about?“

“Oh yeah, it’s true. Cops, or some corp, have new small blobby ones with some sort of coating that reflects or images or something, the shit around them. And yeah, they hiss, not whir.”

“Great. I thought that shit was outlawed?”

“I dunno. I heard the noise, by the time I got outside they were gone.”

“Assholes. OK talk at you later,” Dan heads back to the kitchen with the eggs and empty bucket.

* * *

Chicken duty complete, Dan walks to the lab building in the far corner of the compound, uneven concrete shiny with rain, slides open the door, screen door closed against mosquitos.

Two walls of dusty books, decades of obscure tech and art covering the walls, order indiscernible to the unfamiliar. On a long table against a wall is a large screen and keyboard that comes alive when poked. Dan sits, dons glasses, logs in.

Unconsciously glancing in the direction of the car outside under its tarp roof, Dan logs into the car’s hotspot, checking health and contents, then realizes the ritual’s futility due to upcoming upgrade. A minute later Dan hears Stacy yell “Hey, give me a hand.”

Stacy, out by the fish tanks near the chickens, has a wheelbarrow stacked to dripping overflow with odiferous muck, the front wheel wedged on a stone step in the walkway.

“Help me lug this shit up to the pile,” Stacy, red-faced, straining at the handles, almost succeeding to bump the wheel over the step, deformed by the inhuman load, her strength and stubbornness finds an occasional limitation.

“Tire’s soft.” From the front of the barrow, Dan says, “Talked to what’s her name in Essex lately?”, reaches to grasp the rolled steel lip with ungloved fingers.

“Ana. Some bullshit going on there, but the job is still open.” Nodding towards the ground, “I can help out with their water and the greenhouse too.” She sets her jaw, muscles reshape her arms. The wheel bumps up the rock step, freed.

“OK great. See ya.”

★ ESSEX ★

Ana

Ana dreams of water, again. Childhood memory of a Florida panhandle beachfront campground, lush growth below a dripping campsite faucet, the surprise of tiny brown toads looking back at her, from their miniature wet universe under the faucet.

She awakens to the telltale hiss of water under pressure escaping through a small orifice. Not loud; scattered energy in the tens of kilohertz: hiss, wired into her brain by repeated exposure, invoking fight-or-flight reflex. Rolls out of bed into the chilly room, pulls on hoodie and pants and flip flops from the pile on the floor. Standing awake, the sound evokes mild panic. Her left hand fumbles the wobbly door knob, something dangling on the knob not quite registering consciously, she steps around the opening door into the creaking abbreviated hallway. Light streams in from her right, strings of lights on the patio past the cafe’s dining room. Her shadow on the rear door to her left jogs her memory of the headlamp hanging on the door knob, she reaches back in for it. Two steps to the back door, from practiced habit she turns the knob with her left, shoulders the sticking door with her right, bursting out to the desert behind the cafe, shocked fully awake by increased hiss volume and desert chill.

Thinks, for the thousandth time, it was a mistake to revive these ancient tanks. Their water system was assembled from found objects made usable by much enthusiasm, moderate skills, and little money. This newer but larger tank was pressed into service when the older but smaller tank developed unrepairable leaks and in the ensuing panic, its remaining water pumped into this one. Half the greenhouse contents failed that crucial first year.

The tank resides on a spindly tower of ancient gray wood a few dozen feet behind the cafe. Strategic patches of yellower plywood brace three sides. Weeds thrive on months of chronic water leaks.

In the moonless night the too-bright sodium light affixed to the CalTrans depot across the highway redraws the tank in geometric shapes, a vertical line of closely spaced rivets casts exaggerated shadows. Fumbles the headlamp onto her head, mumbles “shit” as it tangles in her hair. Fingers the white led on, a round bright disc appears at her feet, brightens without coloring gray dirt and gravel. The world outside the spot disappears in disorienting tunnel vision.

Lifting her head to navigate to the ladder nailed to the tower, she takes two steps forward then blurts out “shit!” again as her flip-flopped foot lands in an inch-deep puddle, in led light, a black oily gloss on hydrophobic desert dust.

One foot on the ladder, beneath the hiss is a chorus of drips and streams, silver reflections moving down tower legs. Sun-bleached wood is dark with wet.

Six steps up the ladder, elbows on the platform, a skilled hand feels water escape past sharp brass threads and teflon tape where valve screws into tank, the sound modulated by her fingertips. Torque applied, it rotates a fraction of a degree, eliciting another expletive, silencing the hiss.

Climbing down, Ana walks to the well, flips a switch to off so that morning sunlight won’t power the vibration-inducing pump. Thinking: not good, but at least I can sleep, deal with this mess when someone besides me is awake.

Back at the door she notices the cold, hands and feet wet. Finesses the ailing back door open, pulls it shut behind her, swept grooves on the wood floor jam it shut. Clothes off, climbs back into bed, curls up to shiver away the cold. Thinks, not for the first time, I am getting tired of doing this, she wills herself back to sleep.

★ LOS ANGELES ★

Breakfast

The next morning Dan is up early, as always. Eggs from the old ladies out in the coop, luxurious coffee on the table. Aaron, his mass of hair obscuring his face, shuffles into the kitchen while Dan, just outside the open door, cajoles reluctant clan members into his lap with a walnut.

“Hey,” Dan wincing as he unfolds and stands up, tosses the walnut onto the wet patio, giving up. He stomps and brushes off beads of water and potential insects. “Have you seen Stacy? She up yet?”.

“Don’t think so. At least I haven’t heard her get up,” he says as Stacy walks into the kitchen, bright and awake.

“Fuck you. I’m up,” as she tosses her bulging messenger bag, covered in patches and stickers so old that most are now gray-black geometric shapes, shiny with dirt as theft deterrent, onto a chair. The bag slides on the floor and hits the glass door with a thud.

“Classy.”

She beams as she says “Hey, you gonna make me some coffee? Or do I have to beat your ass? Again?”, ducks her head into the fridge, smirking.

“Good morning,” Dan says in return. “There’s coffee in the pot.” Dan puts away the remains of breakfast as Stacy makes hers. “Ready to go soon. I have run up to Nadir on the way out, they don’t open until ten AM.”

“Why didn’t you go yesterday?”

“I have to wait for the new thing arriving this morning. We can walk around and look at shit while we wait. Ever been there before?”

“Nope. Is this stuff going to Essex?”

“Hmm... I guess so. I’ve got other stops to make. Don’t worry, you’ll get to Essex today.”

“Not worried. The drive will be cool. I can beat anyone’s ass if they give us any shit,” as she concentrates on dumping granola into a bowl of yogurt and onto the counter.

“I’m sure, but we’ll be OK.”

“Just sayin’”, she says, taking her overflowing bowl and spoon to the table, leaving a trail on the floor for dogs and ants to discover.

“I’ll be in the lab, come and get me when you’re ready. Hey Aaron, if I don’t see you before we go, I’ll see you in a week!”

Aaron uncurls from his phone, brown eyes visible and at least partially awake, stands for a hug and mumbles “Be cool, see ya later!” returns to hunch over his bowl and phone at the table.

* * *

Dan is lost in the big screen when the phone rings, breaking the spell. “OK great, hold on.” Pockets his phone from the table, out the door, to the gate along the side of the lab.

“Hi, how you doing,” to the human-shaped pattern of dots in the perforated steel gate. Unlocks and slides the gate open, then more, room for bicycle and rider to pass through.

Gate closed and locked, Dan turns to watch the rider dismount and lean their bike against the side of the lab. Dan is immediately put off, the rider a member of Dan’s nemesis archetype: the jock/bro. Helmet off, blonde hair cut short, thirtyish, the kind of bland commercially handsome face Dan finds hard to recall later, and a look that assumes that he is well liked by all. Every item of clothing a corporate brand.

The rider says, “Are you Dan?”

“Um, yes.”

“Hi, I’m Mario? I’m here to upgrade the box in your car?” He pulls on a strap across his chest, rotating a messenger-type bag frontward. Unzips, extracts a plastic oblong with two short cables dangling.

Standing behind Dan’s car in the gated driveway, Mario takes a second to focus on it, a look between alarm and disdain, continues, “Is this what you will be driving? Does this work?” pointing now to the ancient automobile in front of them.

“Yes”, pre-annoyed, “it ‘works’ just fine.”

“Umm, sorry, mostly I work on, you know, normal cars. I haven’t seen one like this before. Can you show me where the current box is located?”

“In here.” Dan scowls, unlocks the trunk lid, it rises slowly, clunks on its stops. “The hotspot box is under there”, indicating an inconvenient location reachable only by contortedly climbing into the trunk. Contents emptied onto the driveway, Mario removes his sling bag, his jacket and gloves, and hangs it from the bike’s handlebars. Grunting, he folds into the claustrophobic trunk shoulder first, a headlamp somehow donned in the process.

A few minutes later Mario unfolds to standing, looking put out, brushing off dust and dirt and spiderwebs accumulated from the nether regions of the ancient compartment.

Dressed and bag over shoulder again, Mario extracts a thin phone, pokes at it intently. Swipes through some sort of response, squeezes the phone width-wise between thumb and forefinger, it disappears back in the bag.

“OK, done. It checks out OK.” Mario’s confidence seems diminished but he manages to force out a brief customer-service smile. Bike swung towards the gate, continues “OK then, you should find your maps updated to current state dee-oh-tee revisions and some new useful overlays.”

Mario is at the gate like a dog at the door needing to pee, now, Dan gestures with key upheld, inserts in lock, opens gate, says “Thank you”, feeling a little shame at making this unassuming kid so uncomfortable.

“You’re welcome. Have a safe trip,” Mario’s voice trails off as they pedal rapidly uphill.

* * *

Back in the lab Dan finds Stacy tipping books down from a shelf, opening some, putting back.

“Sounds like a snob. I knew if I went out there I’d get in his face. What was he doing in the trunk of your car?”

“Replacing, upgrading I guess, the hotspot. I made him do it the hard way.”

“Sounds dubious. What’s his damage? Hey, what's with these books?”

“What do you mean.”

“Why these, here? These are weird books, first off, completely different from each other. But these here,” pointing to the top shelf, “have a lot of tables or something, and this one here”, tips out a thin and crumbling brown book with nearly brown pages, “is... holey fuck! 250 years old!”

“Ha! The top shelf is collective works, the next one down is about collective works.”

“Collective how.”

“Projects that take more than any one person’s lifetime. Mostly science, sort of obviously. This one”, pulling down one of a pair of identical books, heavy enough to require both hands, “three thousand people contributed to this project over the last hundred and fifty years. It’s still going on. This was one of the last print versions. The book cost money but the data is free on the net. I paid two hundred dollars for this, old money. A twenty pound book.”

“Holy shit, why?”

“Because it’s beautiful. Look at it,” Dan opens the book halfway, revealing finely detailed technical line drawings followed by pages of numbers and letters, “it describes, in absurd detail, the decay of every particle in every isotope of every element, and what particles and energy are produced. Millions and millions of measurements. Some took one or a dozen scientists years to do, added one or two marks to a page, and a cryptic note of who and when, immortalized in this book, and that’s all. It’s psychedelically nuts.”

“I don’t understand a bit of that, but man, it is pretty. So how is this one collective?” Stacy pulls down a thin, cheap yellow book of roughly rendered text and old drawings.

Dan laughs, “Oh, this is actually something that was around when we first met -- it’s a kind of zine. It’s about a fake religion called Discordianism that’s got great ideas but is a complete joke. Hundreds of people contributed to it. No one was in charge, everyone was in charge. This is an older copy. I’ve got a page or two in later editions. It’s great, but total bullshit. It’s great. Not really.”

“What? What the fuck does that mean?”

“Exactly.”

“Oh wait...” and extracts a hardcover book, all white, with all white blank pages. Stacy looks inside the front cover for a few seconds, “OK got it. Blank fucking nothing, a whole library burned to the ground in the first Iraq war. Assholes.”

“Of course it’s all silly now, data on paper. They’re just nice things. Anyways. Load up your bike?”

* * *

Outside, Stacy removes bags and panniers, empties the box behind the seat, producing a surprisingly large mound of stuff, tightly rolled up sleeping bag in one arm, her filthy messenger bag stuffed to overflowing in her other.

Dan, sighing at the pile says, “Travel light, huh?”

“What? I need all this shit.”

Dan passively replies “Fine. Should be room in the trunk. Put your sleeping bag in the back seat. Mine’s there. The trunk leaks. Not that it will rain.”

“Let’s get your bike up on the roof,” the ancient roof rack, gray cracked wood with thin stripes of peeling green paint curling away already in place.

“Grab the back wheel,” Dan bends to lift the front as Stacy makes a face and lifts the rear, rotating it to lay flat on the roof, front wheel dangling over the rear window. After many adjustments and a dozen bungie cords, the rooftop bike is deemed secure. A fiber cable-lock, thin enough for the doors to close on, secures bike to car.

“Your bike is too ugly to steal” jokes Dan, shaking it at various points and studying the results. “And we won’t be leaving the car unattended, but never a bad idea to lock it.”

Stacy replies “Haha” as she makes her own inspection, frowning with satisfaction. She opens the passenger door and tosses her bulging bag on the floor. Leaning on the frame of the open door, “I’m ready when you are.”

Dan gets in the drivers’ side, begins the gestural incantation of starting a carbureted car: flap of the gas pedal sets the choke, key turn cranks and starts the engine with a roar, a second tap of the gas pedal drops the choke down a step, reducing engine speed to a less strenuous hum.

Dan hands the gate key to Stacy. In the mirror, she unlocks and pushes the gate open. It bounces on its stop with a loud bang. Dan rolls the car backwards in neutral down the driveway. Stacy closes the gate with a second slam, locks and checks it, returns to the car.

“Don’t slam the car door please,” as she slides in.

“Wasn’t gonna,” hands Dan the key, returns it to its hiding place under the instrument panel.

Theirs is one of the nicest streets in the neighborhood, repaved twenty years ago. Traffic isn’t bad. A break appears and Dan reverses into the street, shifts into first with a grinding noise, moves forward down the hill. Wipers squeegee accumulated water in halting jerks across the glass, rain already subsiding. Body heat under wet clothing, and chronic leaks, mist the windows from the inside, creating a familiar comfy claustrophobia.

Left onto Ploverside, tents and blue residential tarps line the sidewalk on the right, ex-post-modern concrete box condos perched on hillside left, luxury with a freeway view. Right turn at Dick’s Diner, its lot full of piled-high small trucks and shopping carts, quick left onto the I5 North ramp, queue to merge into the five lanes. Jockey with impatient commuters and lumbering autotrucks, maneuver the Rambler into the second-left-most lane, moving at a brisk jog.

Traffic predictably thins past Burbank, as do the heavier clouds.

* * *

White noise of tires on wet asphalt subsides as they decelerate down the Tuxford/Lankershim off-ramp. Right turn before the Russian mafia truck stop, then the brief anonymous road tees into San Fernando Boulevard.

They wait for a pack of ten-wheeled monsters heading north on San Fernando to pass, navy blue with white rectangles outlining civic slogans, filthy robot arms folded to their sides. A gap appears, they turn left, then quick left again into Nadir’s lumpy parking lot.

Dan turns off the car, extracts his phone, pecks a text message. Stares for a whole minute, receives an adequate reply, repockets the phone.

Stacy, observing, says “What’s up?”

“Told ‘em we’re here. Wanted to start loading ASAP so we can get on the road soonest. It’ll start soon.”

“I can help load.”

“Not that kind of loading. Let’s go inside while we wait. Get out, I lock your door from inside.”

“OK.” Stacy exits, slamming the door, window glass rattling in its worn channel. Dan locks hers from inside, gets out, locks his with the skinny metal key, Stacy hesitates.

“Does that actually do anything?” watching Dan finesse the worn key in the ancient lock.

“It’s a belief system. It works OK, but actual thieves would just smash a window open,” pockets the key.

“Oh, don’t worry about your bike. No one touches anything in Nadir’s parking lot. Bad-ass security. No one messes.”

Stacy nods silently, as if she had been bird-watching, or something, and not worrying.

Nadir

The Nadir building corners San Fernando and the anonymous side street, a low concrete-block sprawl, tall iron-bar fence, vast contents hidden behind gray corrugated steel. The side street is lined with vestigial reminders of the region’s aerospace past writ small in crumbling architecture; cheaply-optimistic one-story concrete, aluminum framed windows and doors, windows blocked inside by stacked boxes and debris. Across San Fernando a chain link fence bands a bulging landfill. Vehicles line the side street, coated in wetted dust not quite mud, drying each afternoon.

They march up the concrete steps, the glass door opaque with dirt and faded stickers, it opens with a resonant scrape.

Nadir is a Galapagos of dead technologies. In an age of ubiquitous bar-codes, labels, tracking, tagging, RF and QR and geo-, post-just-in-time infinitesimally accounted-for inventory control, Nadir, possibly the last of its kind in what’s left of the United States, is deeply, fundamentally, analog. As rich and organic as an rainforest, as chaotic and redundant, new growth on top, decay below.

The building and its uncountable contents are an ark of capitalist technological artifacts spanning the decades since the previous global war. The area just inside the door is combination check out counter and retail showroom. Here, Don and his staff display the most seductive and compelling and expensive objects on the top layer of counters, walls, cabinets and shelves. Larger, heavier items serve as tripping hazards on the floor. Actual antique rocket motors stacked with control panels from World War Two aircraft, futuristic technologies of the past, objects in white cermet and gold, like alien jewelry, slippery teflon cables with brutal iridescent ends, unthinkably complex metal constructions sealed inside brittle glass, propellers bent by spent violences. Thousands, possibly a million, truly, small containers of ceramic and brass and bakelite and nickel intricate fabrications, switches, potentiometers, clips, pins, rhodium-plated screws of useless specification. Ancient integrated circuits, single transistors large enough to have writing on them. Over everything is dust and dead moths, crumbled cardboard, peeling labels, the stalactites of archaeological time. The floors and aisles occasionally swept, like raking leaves between trees.

Don and crew tend this forest with a hawk’s eye of commerce; each item, no matter how obscure, substantial or un-, has a price immediately tendered, often proportional to the would-be buyers' perceived desirousness.

Stacy becomes immobile, transfixed, barely ten feet inside the door.

Behind the counter Don, tall in a crisp white tee shirt, mass of curly graying hair and bushy mustache, holds court with a cluster of regulars, his deep resonant voice that of a practiced, successful trader from a successful trading family, audible anywhere in the building. Next to him his nephew serves a customer.

Don makes eye contact with Dan, continues talking for a few seconds, then booms “Hey Dan! It’s been a long time!” towards Dan, dickering completed.

Dan bellows in return, as protocol demands, “Hey Don, great to see you!”

Stacy, mouth open, blank-faced awe, standing behind Dan, mutters “Woah... wow...”. Dan surveys the scene, awaiting Don’s full attention.

Stacy blurts “This place is nuts!”

“Ha, and we’re just standing at the counter. There’s aisles and aisles of stuff. There’s ladders to get to the tops of shelves. Plus the yard out back. Check it out.”

“What? This is crazy. What is all this stuff?” Stacy wanders off, mumbling, swiveling head scanning high shelves, almost trips over stacks of aircraft fuel nozzles and a stack of old-fashioned wire-wound transformers.

“See for yourself. I gotta talk to Don here.”

Stacy shuffles down the first aisle.

* * *

Finally, “Hey Don, what’s up? How’s business?” as Don steps from behind the counter.

“Things are good! How’s the old Rambler running?”

“Pretty good! It’s out in the lot ready to go. Your upstairs folk are loading it now.”

“Oh wait, that’s you?”

Dan restrains himself from reminding Don this happens every couple weeks or months, says only “Yup, a regular run now.”

“Oh yeah, we do well every time. You too I hope.”

“Pays for gas!”

“Hey let me ask you, can you still get the old gas?”

“Yeah, sometimes, but it runs OK on the new gas. Mostly new gas these days.”

“Huh, interesting” not even trying to sound sincere.

They pause as a customer rolls a heavy spool of cable TV fiber towards the door, Don interjecting “Don’t knock those over! Watch it man!” Turns back to Dan shaking his head, tsking.

“Some people. Well, good! Hey this is a big load, isn’t it?”

“Oh, I never know what’s in there. My friend is getting lost in your piles, when she’s back we’ll check progress and take off.”

“Hey it’s great to see you! I gotta go tend bar”, Don shrugs, and is physically off, his attention having left ten seconds before.

* * *

Twenty minutes later, Dan grows impatient, heads out back to find Stacy. Looking into a poorly lit canyon of dirty shelves he is confronted by work boots at eye level. Fist-sized spools of lathe-turned wood, aerospace aluminum, cracked plastic, line the shelves haphazardly, each spool wound with wire in rich translucent greens, reds, browns, perfect symmetries of delicate strands fuzzy with cuts and nicks from decades of clumsy handling, contents mostly impossible to unspool.

Stacy is up a terrifying wood ladder reaching for a spool.

She yells down “Hey look at this shit!”

“I can’t see it. You’re ten feet up. NO! Don’t toss it. Hey we should go.”

Stacy looks down, the motion causing the ladder to wobble. She manages to stabilize and climb down, one-handed.

On the ground, “Look at this shit! I found some wrapped in paper, like new inside. Most of these were ruined by idiots. But look at this shit -- you can’t even see the wire, it’s so thin. It’s crazy.” Hands me one.

An ancient wooden spool cartoonishly squat, the ubiquitous coating of gray dust, on one end a faded donut of paper label, hand inked. Spooled wire protected against damage by a single turn of brown paper tied with string. Beneath the crumbling paper peeks brilliant green enameled wire so fine it looks like a color test gradient on a bright display.

“OK, that is beautiful. What are you gonna do with it?”

“I don’t know. I’ll make something.”

“OK cool. Car’s probably loaded, we oughta get on the road.”

Ten more minutes of shelved distractions they reach the counter to pay. Dan waits by the door as Stacy attempts to negotiate the price. “Twenty bucks!” she exclaims, scowling, as the nephew points to the sign displaying price per pound of metals, placed specifically to head off this sort of non-negotiation. Resentful that her dickering is preempted by a mere sign, she smashes a moist, crumpled twenty american on the counter with a scowl and heads towards the door.

On the way to the car Dan checks his phone, “Damn. Loading not done yet. What you wanna do? We can do more shopping, or go get a taco.”

“That place ain’t cheap. Let’s eat.”

“Yeah, Don knows his business. Let’s go eat.”

★ ESSEX ★

Troubled morning

Ana awakens to brightness, a square of morning bright high on the wall next to the door. Rolling onto her back, she surveys the tiny room housing her personal stuff. Semiotics of the shapes patterning the ancient wallpaper lost to some previous century. A wooden shelf unit dragged in from another ruined building, pink paint chipped, stacked with books and tools. The shelf below is stacked with goggles, stained gloves and sleeves. Stretching in the bed, eyes lifted upward, the odd tiny square window on the east wall behind her head, the sole source of natural light and reliable indicator of planetary order.

Three ritual deep breaths to get centered, she lifts, rotates, sits. Pulls on yesterday’s jeans, shudders as foot feels dampness from the night’s adventure. Off again. Extracts a dry pair from the drawer. Yesterday’s t-shirt, adds a clean, dry hoodie against early morning cold. Stands up, another drawer for the luxury of clean socks, sits again, installs socks and vegan work boots on her feet, becomes upright, breathes once again, opens the door.

She steps into the tiny hallway and pauses, listening: no hiss. Imperceptibly relaxing tension she hadn’t until then noticed, she heads right, through the kitchen and into the cafe.

She walks to the self-service end of the counter, chooses a favorite vintage cup, pours coffee, only then noticing Maria, setting breakfast plates in front of the cafe’s two leather-clad customers at the counter. Ana raises a few fingers and fakes a smile at Maria, acknowledging her with a glance.

Ana takes her coffee out the front door to the patio, stopping the spring-closer from slamming it behind her with her foot.

The cafe and patio was the first and most successful project when they arrived here a year ago. A year of research before that revealed to them that Essex, in addition to being a ghost town ripe for renewed occupation, was in fact atop the old, legendary, Route 66, of near-fanatical interest to international americana nostalgia tourists, mainly German, French, Chinese, Japanese. None of the current crew had heard of Route 66 before research began, stumbling upon the international-tourist angle on a lifestyle site. But a final revelation sealed the decision: Essex had a working but forgotten water well, possibly two.

The cafe was a straight-up renovation of the previous existing cafe building, in theory. In practice the only usable portions were the floor, four cemented-rock external walls, two lucky unbroken lettered windows and peeling blue door in front, miraculously unsmashed by decades of vandals.

Between road and building is the raised patio, built beneath the ruin of an ancient timber roof, once possibly protecting gasoline motor fuel dispensers. Held overhead by six posts is a skeleton of rafters, its skin and shingles long since fallen away, the sparse lumber implies but does not deliver protection from the sun. Irrigated grape and jasmine now climb each post, trained tendrils beginning the task of in-filling the brutally sunny space. In the meantime a white mesh tarp hangs beneath, and a mist system circles the frame overhead, making the space nicely habitable.

The patio deck was made from random lumber salvaged from various ruins in town, intact but not suitable for bearing loads. The scrounged boards were lined up on-edge for strength, the resulting corduroy of splinters and mismatched heights ground flat by a borrowed machine, followed by many tedious coats of urethane, the resulting beauty unexpected by all.

Ana chooses a thrift-store table for four, her back to the sun, hoping for warmth against dawn’s chill. Soon enough, warm will turn to scorch, displacing body memory of dawn’s cold. In the meantime, coffee, staring at the lonely giant saguaro cactus, 400 miles from home.

Cafe door groans open, boots thud on the patio. The leather-clad customers exiting, tall and short, donning wraparound black sunglasses. Door slams behind them. Their speech identifies them as German, primary consumers of the long-tail of nostalgia most living Americans never knew.

Awakened by coffee, now hunger, Ana stands, says hello out loud to the departing customers, and heads into the cafe as the tourists lift helmets from their shiny but appropriately dusty rented motorcycles parked in the dirt lot. She reenters the cafe, worried, somehow, at how she didn’t see them on her way out.

The door slams behind her, Maria says “I got water, but I don’t hear the pump.”

“Yeah, I turned it off last night. Fixed the tank again last night and I didn’t want it to vibrate and leak when the sun came up.”

“Oh no, again?”

“Yup. This is hurting us. I’ll go turn the pump on now. If it leaks, come get me ASAP.”

“Will do. Want some eggs? Got a delivery of bread today too.”

“Sure, thanks! Whatever you got is fine. Hungry this morning! Thanks. I’ll be back in a few.”

Maria busies herself behind the counter as Ana walks back through the kitchen and out the back door, letting it slam stuck-shut behind her, heading to the tank on its tower. Her frown becomes a scowl as she sees how much soil has been darkened with wet; water lost to the atmosphere and thriving nuisance mustard weeds. Water that will not feed crops or wash dishes. But wet earth is drying, and hearing no sound from the tank, she veers off to the greenhouse.

★ LOS ANGELES ★

San Fernando

They walk up San Fernando towards Lankershim. The lifeless scorched concrete outside Nadir’s parking lot and fence gives way to the benign sort of urban decay Dan is fond of. A gap in traffic leaves a sudden stillness, marred only by the buzzy whine of unseen aerial traffic overhead. Magenta bougainvillea spills over the wall of a repair shop, sheltering the sidewalk, a dark thicket of thorns, small birds or rodents darting within. Twenty steps under this cozy overhang opens to bright sky at the next driveway.

Ahead a small green municipal sign on a stickered metal post flags a small side street. Reaching the sign, the street opens on their left, like a door onto a rollicking party.

Food carts and trailered grills occupy metered parking spots. Grandmothers with thick black hair pressed to their heads by hand-knit hats in fuschias and greens, tough women negotiate cooking, money handling, advice, children under foot. Kerchiefs of print fabric cover the lower half of their face. Barefaced men, nearly invisible behind pungent billowing smoke, turn meat on heavy iron bar grills.

The sidewalk is jammed with people ordering, waiting, paying, eating. Dan and Stacy are stalled by the crowd at the first cart. “I’ll buy.” says Dan, “Asada?” Stacy nods. Dan cranes to read the menu written in spanish on curled once-fluorescent cardboard taped to the wall.

To the ancient woman peering at him expectantly: “cuatro tacos con asada, por favor”, she glares at him for ruining the language. She holds up fingers, indicating money; she hands his money to a child too young to count and turns to the next customer.

Dan continues, “Anyway yeah. The Guatemalan Embassy used to be on the Wilshire strip with other embassies and corporate lawyer towers and private parking buildings. They moved out here so their citizens could actually afford to get here, back in the fascist days. There were lines around the block for passports or whatever, so enterprising citizens started making food from back home. Now it’s the best Guatemalan street food this end of the Valley.”

A few minutes later four tacos on waxed paper and two paper napkins pass over the plastic table. They carry them across the small street, beneath more bougainvillea, red this time, aside the Guatemalan Embassy building, face coverings pushed down to their necks to eat.

“Man this shit is good,” Stacy says between bites.

Dan’s phone beeps; a notification on the lock screen. “OK cool, car’s loaded.”

Paper and napkins in the burn barrel, they walk back to the car. Stacy tosses her bag onto the floor and climbs in, Dan plants his phone in the wobbling bracket suction-cupped to the windshield glass, plugs in a dangling cable. Engine started, the wipers return to their crawl over the glass, smearing the remains of morning condensation.

Getting on the road

Dan backtracks to the freeway, south. Predictable lunchtime 134 traffic, Glendale sprawl. Clouds thinning, windshield condensation glows in intermittent sunlight, humidity dissipates in the buffeting breeze through open windows.

Stacy pulls her bag onto her lap, extracts and restuffs half its contents, a tangled cable remaining in her hand.

Meanwhile Dan dodges vehicles, drivers confronted by strategic decisions, failing to make them. Eventually free of road impediments Dan relaxes back into the seat.

“Where can I plug my phone?”

“In there, push the button, it opens down,” pointing to the worn stainless latch on the faded instrument panel. “Above the blue led. You can get net from it too. From the hotspot. Send it your filters too, it will pull your stuff down and save it. It’s faster than your phone. And better security.”

“Nice. Thanks.”

“Oh there’s a lot of maps and photos. Essex too.”

“Cool.” Stacy extracts small rubbery objects from a pocket, sticks one in an ear, repeats the other side.

Dan presses the top of a small white appliance velcro’d to the threadbare carpet on the hump. Old-fashioned white digits count down, then displays a three-digit number.

“Hey, hand me my dust mask”, waves his hand at the open glove box. Stacy hands it to him, pulls her own from a side pocket of her bag, tattered with broken elastic tied in a knot. “Right.”

“There’s a new one in there.” Dan steers with his knee, putting his mask over his head with one hand.

“Thanks. I use these all the time, I didn’t know you needed them in a car. What’s that.”

“Particulate meter. I got tired of guessing. New cars have sealed cabins and filtration. I like open windows.”

* * *

The 134 approaches laminar flow just before the incoming turbulence of the 210, with its on and off ramps, underpasses, overpasses.

At Old Town Pasadena the roadway broadens into an eight-lane morass of phone-fondling commuters and angry-browed machines making pointless lane changes.

By Azusa local traffic thins, and the more strategic outlook of long-distance drivers begins to dominate. Brief moments of gray rain, dispelled by a few flaps of the wipers, the world incrementally becomes brighter, warmer, turns sauna, the air thick and moist like steam from a bamboo basket of bao. The background soundtrack of white noise becomes a deeper hum of engine and tires on asphalt, occasional hiss of tires over drying puddles.

An hour passes before Dan notices the silence; Stacy has fallen asleep.

* * *

“I gotta pee,” Stacy announces suddenly. She sits up, arches back in the seat, inhales deeply, pulls her mask down, rubs her face, pokes her phone, looks out the side window. Objects plucked from her ears back into pockets.

“Can’t stop here” glancing at Stacy, eyes back on the road, traffic now sparse and orderly, safely within its concrete walls.

The affluence of barricaded suburbs far behind them, the neighborhood beyond the tall freeway containment walls is visible as red clay tile roofs, symmetries ruined by broken and missing. Streets tangent are dotted with abandoned cars, water-starved palms dropping fronds on cars and sidewalks. A broad boulevard runs past a dead mall, traffic lights dark, where black motes stream through their power pole airspace, motion half bird, half smoke, swirl out of sight on the other side of the mall, attending to unseen police business. A totem pole of signs and dead brand insignia looms impotently near the freeway.

After a few minutes she observes, “I bet the rent’s cheap.”

“Excellent availability! There’s a good place to stop not far ahead.”

* * *

The defunct residential build-outs peter out, the I-210 to 15-north off ramp ahead a welcome sight to Dan. Their trickle of traffic merges into the larger flow of the 15 up from the south.

Stacy, in a misplaced need to share, “Man, it’s hot. The breeze in the window burns.” Moisture long gone in the shadowless noon sun, mountains to the left and in front of them.

“Where are we exactly?” Stacy mumbles, pulls up a map on her phone. Outside the windows a parade of tall steel towers carry fat cables over the horizon, marching over hillsides through flammable-looking brush.

Dan sympathetically adjusts his vent window to no real effect. Stacy continues, “Nealey’s Corner, whoever Nealey is. Was. We’re out of LA at least.” Outside the glass, the landscape is more open, appears damaged, or at least spread out. “Ugly drive, so far.”

Dan frowns impatiently, suppresses it, replies “The first day, this kind of driving, yeah not so fun. When I talk about driving and road trips, I think this is what everyone in LA thinks of. Traffic, assholes, boredom, hot, repeat.”

* * *

Minutes pass in silence. Dan announces, “There’s a public campground in a few miles, Glen Hell. There’s toilets.”

Stacy announces “Anywhere’s good.”

“Nahh, I’ll pull into the campground lot, I want to take a break before the pass.”

On the left a mile-long tilt-up slab shipping center is set between highway and foothills, a giant hog with a thousand teats, autotrucks and tractor-trailer combos suckling at each. On the right a new housing development, future blight encoded in its architecture, oblivious to the economic reality a few miles back.

To the phone in its bouncy holder on the windshield, “OK asshole, any problems at Glen Hell Campground?”

/no problems reported at glen helen campground/

The Glen Helen Parkway exit drops them onto a pleasant two-lane road, serene desert of creosote scrub on low hills. That illusion lasts half a minute as the road curves to asphalted San Bernardino county DPW and landfill territory. On a thin pole indicating a street otherwise indistinguishable from the paved lot, a faded metal sign reads “SHERIFF’S RODEO”, beneath it, “CAMPGROUND”. Dan takes the left, up a slight slope, then quick right into the campground.

The campground was likely never attractive, embedded in the tangle of freeways and industrial post-glory. Too close-in to Los Angeles to be of interest to long distance drivers, and useless to locals with two forested mountains close by.

The campground is a dozen sites around an inner ring road, a small concrete blockhouse toilet in the center, enclosed by chain link. Each site is equipped with a sad leafless tree, a table pitted and gouged by decades of pen-knifed names and threats, a massive cooking grate that looks like what a Department of Corrections would make, oversized rebar and concrete, full to the encrusted grill with broken glass and combustion byproducts. Far off in the back of the lot is a dead RV, skin peeling, pink insulation exposed.

Dan steers into the EXIT ONLY lane, tires popping pebbles on broken asphalt. Pulls into a spot three quarters around the ring, facing towards the exit, close but not adjacent to the toilet building, turns off the engine. Pocketing phones, they exit the car, stretching. A bunched up baby diaper with a full load and the characteristic blue and white fuzz of disposable masks become one with the gravel at the base of an overflowing trash can.

“Go ahead, I’ll stay here,” Stacy straight-lines it for the toilet bunker, peers inside, turns abruptly and walks around behind. Dan pees on a sad tree he hopes will appreciate the water.

* * *

Stacy returns, pursed lips pushed to one side, says “Scary in there. Is it cooler here or what? So what’s the plan from here?”

“Yeah, the dry breeze is an improvement, I guess, but the sun is killing me.” Dan steps to the driver’s door, thumbs the chromed handle, opens the door, leaning in butt first, into the hot shade of the car. Stacy does the same from her side. The open doors funnel a faint hot breeze.

“The plan is to drive up the Cajon Pass, then Victorville, Barstow, then Essex. I gotta scout the road before we go though. Maybe you can do some of the logistics.”

“Sure no prob.”

“Barstow is the last real town before Essex. So we’ll eat there and get gas.”

Dan puts his phone in the cradle, unlocks with a finger.

“OK asshole. Navigate to Essex California. Least energy.”

After a brief delay, a colored map appears on the screen followed by /essex is one hundred and sixty seven miles via interstate 15 and intersta --/

“Shut up asshole,” preempting verbosity.

Dan glances at Stacy, “Last minute road check. If there's police trouble in Barstow or whatever we can go south from here and out the 10 then Yucca Valley.”

To the phone, “OK asshole, Ludlow California weather.”

/ludlow california is currently one hundred eleven degrees with three percent humidity with an expected low tonight of forty six degrees/

“OK good. OK asshole, new-gas availability Barstow.”

/dealers choice new formulation is nineteen dollars and no cents per gallon, seventy eight octane new formulation is twenty two dollars and ninety nine and nine tenths cents per gallon new formulation eighty octane gaso --/

“Shut up asshole.”

For Stacy’s benefit, “Hmm, not great, but nothing alarming. We can shop around when we get there. By the way, no matter what anyone tells you, don’t buy that dealer’s choice shit unless you plan on abandoning that engine when the tank runs out.”

“I wouldn’t think of it.”

★ ESSEX ★

The greenhouse

The greenhouse remains an ongoing experiment, results inconclusive, run mostly by what Ana thinks of as The Academics. Initially considered an open-ended experiment, in the year since the greenhouse has expanded in scope, importance, and resource consumption, with water drama the primary source of tension within the group, and the biggest threat to their existence.

Barely visible from the main road, even up close it seems much too small to be anything at all, given that most of its bulk is below ground; the dirt removed, too optimistic to call it soil, has been piled on the north, highway, side as thermal mass. From the highway the greenhouse looks like a mound of trash, as they often do, scattered with the chaotic stuff managing plant growth requires; pots and bins, yard tools, gray lumber and ropes, deceased plants.

The above-ground portion is spindly looking, a surprisingly long sloped wall/window of whitewashed IR-blocking thermopane plastic sheet, the sides stacked concrete block and cheap green tarps, partially shredded by sun and wind.

Ana walks to the east-most narrow end, blindly steps down through the maze of curtains that is the airlock. Three steps, from harsh dry Essex air, through dusty blue tarps, shower curtains and old drapes, to the moist hot omnidirectional glow inside, Ana always enjoys the shocking contrasts, tainted only by some of its occupants.

Though only thirty or so feet long inside, it feels much larger, the entire space suffused with an oppressive brightness even this early in the morning. Just beyond the tarps is a tall bookshelf stacked with electronics and gadgets, a tangle of cables to ceiling and floor, colored digits and dots glowing. Knee-high tables line the south side, approximately level with the ground outside; countless small pots, flats, bins, cups, cans, and egg cartons with small to tiny green growth. Against the bermed north wall, a random-seeming collection of tables and boxes stacked with a far smaller number of taller, bushier plants. Ten feet of tomato plants, variously green, red, brown fruits, dominate the area to her right. At the far end are two people, Jose and Mike. She heads down the aisle, staring at the damp packed gravel at her feet, breathing, trying to suppress a scowl, tense at anticipation of the conversation ahead.

* * *

“Hey guys, problem. Tank leaked again. Same problem as before.”

Jose wipes his hands, turns to Ana, “That stupid valve again?” Mike hunches further to the table, trying to look busier, hiding a scowl.

“It’s the tank that’s bad, as me and Lara have been pointing out all along. It’s pitted and worn and won’t stay sealed, and with all of that pressure behind it, it’s gonna keep leaking. And we don’t have another tank to move the water into so that we could look at it. But we knew that tank was shit to begin with.”

Mike mumbles without looking up, “Yeah well Marta says the tank is OK, and it stops leaking after we tighten it.”

“No, not this shit again. That tank was junk when we got here and it was stupid to use it, we should have bought --“

Mike interrupts, angrily, “No, we decided we weren’t gonna spend money on plastic crap, you and Lara said this tank was good --“

“No! I never, we never said it was good we said --“

Jose puts his hands up, says “Wait!” Mike returns to his work on the table, Ana turns away and takes a step. Jose continues, calmly but loudly says “Save this for the next meeting. Ana. Is it leaking now? Can we do anything here?”

“No. Hissing woke me up, I went out and found a puddle, wet wood, and a mist coming out where the valve screws into the tank. Lucky for us, just a twist stopped it, but it’s gonna leak again. I turned the pump off so that it wouldn't vibrate when the sun came up and I could get some sleep. And here I am.”

“I don’t know why you can’t fix a simple leak”, Mike mumbling again, distractedly poking at tiny pots.

“It’s not a simple leak!” Ana turns to advance towards Mike as Jose steps in, facing her, says “Mike! Shut up! Damn,” gently herds her up and out through the rustling plastic airlock, Ana tense with anger.

Once outside Jose walks them towards the cafe, around an old pickup, parked, its engine ticking as it cools. Jose says nothing as Ana says loudly “Fuck! These idiots in denial, their fantasies of using old junk like this. That shit was abandoned for a reason!” Ana, fuming, stomps up the step onto the patio, looks around, and breathes, calming herself to not scare off precious customers.

Jose catches up to her, steps onto the patio, towards the door, asks “Want coffee?”

“No, just finished... Oh OK yeah, thanks. Black.” Jose nods and steps inside, his heel preventing door slam. Ana sits at a table temporarily shaded by an unusually ruly tamarisk.

* * *

A few minutes later Jose returns with two coffees, before Ana can say anything, a flash of his eyes as he ducks back inside. Returns a minute later with a slice of pie and two forks.

“Maria just cut it, made yesterday. Nectarine season in Needles. She'll bring your food in a sec.”

A few calming minutes reduces the pie by half, Ana says, “Those true believers are gonna kill us.”

“I’m starting to agree with you.”

Ana casts a momentary skeptical eye, “Yeah?”

Maria brings Ana’s breakfast, now cold, Ana gives her an earnest guilty look and nod.

“I should have trusted my paranoia back in San Francisco. They think that tech is something you click on. No fucking idea what physics is, or complexity or subtlety. A tank is an idealized tank, a valve a perfect valve that does valve things. Not a clue about dissimilar metals and corrosion.”

Jose glances about before continuing, “I think they were expecting you techies to explain it to them. But mainly just make it work.”

Cup halfway to her lips, “That’s the problem! They don’t even know enough to know that they don’t know! And when they hear me or you or Deidra or whoever say something they don’t like and don’t understand, see it all in terms of politics. It’s fucked. They’re fucked. We’re fucked.” Ana realizes her voice has gone up, looks around and leans back in the creaking chair, cup finally making it to her mouth.

Jose, ever the diplomat, says “Well they are right that we couldn’t afford new tanks.”

“It’s not that simple. Wasn’t that simple a year ago. In the first couple meetings here in Essex we collectively decided to set aside some of our UBI for a new tank, and use those rusty old pieces of shit until we had enough. Diedra explained that all that work we did, all of us did, was a shit kludge and wouldn’t last. Those tanks are iron, they rust, that’s that. That’s physics. The bronze valves cost more, cause dissimilar metal corrosion, all because they quote hate plastic.”

“Yeah you’re right. I’m not arguing with you, but this is better said at the next meeting, in just a couple days. I’m on your side.”

Ana leans forward. “Are you? Sorry, that sounded wrong. I mean, it’s not like I quote love plastic tanks. It’s that I love tanks that won’t leak. It’s that we’re not trillionaires that can afford stainless or whatever exotic not-plastic shit big tanks can be made from. Anyway. We need non-leaking tanks, tanks that let us sleep through the night.”

“Yeah, we have to fix this soon.”

“Yeah, no shit. And Mike and them obsess over leaks leaks leaks. Those tanks could just as easily fail some other way and we’d lose everything. I’m not angry with you, just angry.”

Ana raises her coffee cup. “Hey, sorry, thanks for listening. Don’t worry about the dishes, I’ll take them in.”

“I better get back to work. Now I gotta go listen to Mike whine.” He slides his chair back, stands, tips his hat and bows ironically, “Ta,” steps off the porch into the sun and back down the path to the greenhouse.

The sun cresting the tamarisk now threatens sunburn. Thinking, for an academic, I like Jose. Ana stacks the dishes, wipes crumbs from the table for the ants, heads inside, deposits them in the black tub on the counter.

The bright square lights up her chest as she enters her room, grabs phone and keys, and after a moment’s hesitation, gloves, tool bag, folding green goggles. Maybe, she thinks, if I have them I’ll get to use them, pulls her door closed and locks it, and heads out the back into the hot desert daytime upswing.

★ LOS ANGELES ★

Cajon Pass

“Ready?” Dan looks at Stacy, intently plugging her phone in. Dan starts the car, grinds first gear. Gravel crunches beneath tires. Back to the Parkway, then left, continuing east. Motion-induced breeze lessens broiling in the metal can in the sun. Left turn onto an old two lane highway, passing through a concrete-pillared maze-like passageway formed by curving overhead freeways.

Poking at her phone intently, furrowed brow, Stacy says “We just went under the Interstate.” Rotates her head, eyes following the concrete ribbons overhead.

“We’ll hook up with it in a couple of miles. Saves a bit of fuel. This is old route 66 by the way.”

“Ooh ooh! Get some kicks!” Stacy does a little dance, pointing fingers in the air, exaggerated smirk on her face.

“Ugh, I hate that song.”

Stacy bunches up her face in mock anger and swats Dan’s shoulder.

Deadpanned, “Ouch.” Quick glances as they settle back into road routine, Stacy back at her phone.

The old roadway winds up the pass. Far downslope on their left rail containers move north, bright graffiti over oxidized brown, the syncopated rumble up the grade is drowned out by wind roar from the open windows. Further up the pass, on the right, the tops of big rigs heading east on the Interstate. The pass between mountain ranges widens here, beyond human scale; the paved road achieving a sort of permanence, the second of three human interventions spanning three centuries.

“How can there be a traffic jam here”, Stacy observes, consternated. The sparse road suddenly a crawling line of motley contraptions, mostly human driven, mostly commercial, winding under the aerial Interstate.

“We’re not stuck in traffic. We are traffic. Won’t take long.” The jam-up is brief, a dozen sluggish vehicles on the steep grade. Fifteen minutes later Dan negotiates a free slot in the line of plodding autotrucks occupying the right lane, nose to tail. Tense minutes spent balancing the mechanical need to keep the ancient engine in its second-gear power band against not being driven off the road by the wall of robot trucks, Dan negotiates through the herd into the next lane over.

This lane, to the left of the slow trucks, moves along at a strenuous but not unpleasant 45. Further left is a mix of faster cars and pickups lane-changing to no discernable advantage.

* * *

At Cajon Junction the fault widens and curves gently to the right, east, straight into the sun. Highway 138 departs westward below, following the river, towards Wrightwood. Just as it begins to seem like a straightforward climb, the road steepens into the grinding grade for which the jockeying pro drivers had been preparing for. Five capacious lanes of 20th century freeway turn claustrophobic as zooming idiots swerve around panicking compatriots in a fool’s quest to preserve momentum, a flurry of panic braking. The sluggish-seeming rightmost lanes they occupy have closed ranks, proceeding smoothly up the grade.

Stacy smugly observes “Idiots.”

The sun now streams into their eyes as they round a bend, emphasizing the temperature increase, sun rising faster than altitude. The sign for Cajon Summit, altitude 3700, is almost anticlimactic, preceded by a slight decrease in grade. Holding steady throttle, the car accelerates, Dan backs off to a steady 60 as they cruise into Hesperia.

“Damn.” Stacy relaxes her grip on her phone. Realizes it’s not plugged in, does so. Returns to poking on it with a finger.

“I can never decide if it’s worth it, taking 66 to Cleghorn like we just did, or getting on the 15 earlier. That onramp sucks, but we miss the circus of fools before that.”

Shifting about on the worn seat for a better spot, Dan says “Hey see what you can find for gas. Three stars or better. More than 100 reviews. And read the bad ones. I’d rather pay a little more than get shit gas and be stuck on 40.”

“Here? Or in Barstow?”

“Barstow. There’s Lenwood Road, or old 58, or downtown. Lenwood’s all charging stations now I think. Busy is fine; too quiet is suspicious. You know the drill. Nothing too far off 40. Food too. Lots of Mexican food here.”

“Will do. How much time we got?”

“About an hour.”

* * *

The Hesperia/Victorville/Apple Valley sprawl fills the southern end of the ancient seabed, dominated by off-limits military space infrastructure to the north. Altitude slightly offsets the heat, dry air scooped by the vent windows marginally cooling at highway speeds. A flurry of local traffic through Victorville ends as they descend to the Mojave River Valley. The river briefly contains actual water, before disappearing into the earth and under the San Bernardino Mountains to the south.

Failing restaurants, motels, and fueling stations line each side of the freeway past the river. The UEEN MOTE currently hosts amateur chemists, judging by the whiff in the windows, trash spilling off tiny river-view wrought-iron balconies.

Up on the plain the vista broadens: islets of bushes ringed with tire tracks dominate hillsides. Along a ridge, rooster tails of dust reveal humans recreating in OHVs. Cement plants, the bulldozed trapezoidal ziggurats of commercial landfills, creeping earthmovers dwarfed to ant-like scale, all coated in churned beige desert soil. Signs restricting or permitting off-highway vehicular usage seems the main concern, signposts here the upright analogs of foliage.

“Holy shit, this is ugly! What is wrong with people?”

“I think of this as the sacrifice area. The earth given over to humans’ worst impulses. At least it’s all in one spot. Except for all the other spots, I guess. Half an hour to Barstow. Beyond that is the real, actual desert.”

“I fucking hope so. I hate people.”

“Eat here and get gas?”

“Huh?”

“Find us some gas stations?”

“Oh yeah. Not many. Fuel stops are not my thing, took a while to figure out how to pull up review sites but I think I got it figured out. Also I made some scripts to do it, saved them for you. A new map layer. Here...” Stacy pokes Dan’s phone producing a map with pocked with red circles, a number in each. “Higher numbers are better.”

“Hey thanks! Fucking excellent.”

Dan thinks, this must be everyone’s default nightmare vision of the so-called desert; asphalt, dust, and speeding assholes. People drive so fast that speeding assholes have assholes speeding past them. Minivans of sullen workers in cheap polos, suburbanites rushing to lose money in Vegas, aggressive men in cheap dysfunctional camo, their trucks brandishing percussive brand names and lurid logos, weaving in and out of lumbering trucks, auto and manual.

The appearance of the derelict outlet mall is somehow a relief, signaling the outer limits of the Barstow sprawl. Lenwood follows, the old truck stops on the west side of the freeway now bubbled over charging stations, white bright and clean, the east side the old mix of haphazard patchwork architecture of old-world retail food.

Dan asks “Where to?”

“L Street. Left then right. There’s an old truck stop, second-cheapest but a thousand feedbacks, nothing scary. Want this thing on?” Stacy gestures with a finger towards Dan’s phone, implying navigation.

“Nahh, I think I know where it is. That’s the main street. Huge truck parking lot or something out back?”

“Yup.”

Barstow

The freeway rises past Lenwood Road then falls away revealing a thin latticework of human handiwork along the river’s edge, the vast sprawl of Mojave Desert to the east.

Barstow is a place of roads astride a once-damp spot on the ancient Mojave River. A shallow valley meanders east, route obvious before the satellite era, path of least resistance followed by the Old National Trail, the revered Route 66, BNSF intermodal rail, and the western terminus of the 40 Interstate. I15 heads northeast to Las Vegas through a similar gap. Highway 58 leads to deserts west, 247 to deserts south, to the San Bernardinos.

Its proximate remoteness makes Barstow a handy location for the casual deployment of messy technologies; hexavalent chromium water wells of adjacent Hinkley, filtered through dairy cows for consumption by the region’s residents, various military installations, mines, processing plants. Barstow has its charms however, and in any case, it’s the last chance for provisioning, desert-bound.

* * *

The hot roar from the wing windows subsides as they coast down the exit ramp to L Street. The stark and lifeless L Street/I40 interchange is an outstanding feat of county highway fund allocation. Freshly rolled black asphalt, sharply striped in white and yellow, various demarcations anticipating restrictions on pedestrians’ passage should the opportunity ever arise. The earth to each side already bulldozed glass-flat and devoid of the smallest living thing, a miniature sanitary sacrifice zone.

Right onto Main Street, old 66, modernized where it interfaces with L Street, immediately reverts to the old desert town habits of Barstow: courtyard motels, First Name’s Auto Service, Pizza Palaces, storage units, equipment rental, vacant lots between.

One block ahead, a tandem trailer rig momentarily blocks the road as it pulls into Main Street headed west, exiting their destination.

Dan pulls into an open row, shaded by a huge patio roof, adjacent to one of the ancient fuel dispensers, dirty, stickered, graffiti’d. They pluck phones, exit, stretch. Dan walks to the rear of the car, waves his phone over the dispenser in increasingly insistent circles. Muttering a curse he exchanges phone for wallet, extracts a rectangle of scratched plastic, finds an appropriate slot, inserts it. The second of four possible permutations elicits a whirring response. Cups his hands around an inscrutable rectangle of greenish plastic, abandons that, forensically examines small rectangles along its left edge, choosing the one with the least amount of plastic remaining, hoping that it means “yes”. Activity sounds emerge. Makes a mental note to wash his hands, after.

* * *

Back in the car, Dan turns to Stacy asks, “What about food?”

“Two mexican places look good, Plato’s up ahead on the left. Small, maybe too small to sit inside. Then a big-ass place, Rosalita’s.”

Extracting the nozzle from the pump, Dan unlocks the gas cap on the car with another metal key, stoops down to get intimate with the lower center section of the car. Dan grunts a distracted “OK.”

“What are you doing?” Stacy removes her ever-present hat, wipes her shaved head front to back.

“This car was made long before vapor recovery nozzles existed. They don’t get along too well, every fillup is a pain in the ass.” Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, then the hiss hum and fragrance of liquid freedoms. At the pump, the last digit of the top number a blur, the lower counter counting like seconds. “Once it gets going I have to listen for full.”

After a few minutes the sound of liquid on the ground, “Shit!” from Dan, then a hot wave of complex hydrocarbons assault eyes and noses. Stacy recoils, walks to the front of the car.

“Oh well. It’s hard to get right.” A few ritualized taps of the nozzle, click of the gas cap pressed back into place.

“Four point eight gallons, not bad,” Dan unpockets his phone, a flurry of poking the screen, “Twenty three point five miles per gallon”, pocketing his phone.

“Is that good? Doesn’t sound good to me. That’s what... almost a hundred bucks to get to Barstow? Man. Aaron’s shitty moped runs for a week on one gallon.”

“As good as it gets for me. My customers pay for it, no way I could do this otherwise.”

“Then why don’t you get a newer car?”

“Because this car has one thing no new car has.”

What?”

“Invisibility. Besides, I just like it.”

“Whatever.”

* * *

Back in the car, on the road. Barely out of second gear, across the road appears a white and orange concrete block building with wood-framed glass door and windows, large dirt lot to one side.

“That’s Plato’s,” anticipating Dan’s question.

“Looks OK, but personally, I’d rather sit my ass in a big booth and have a long lunch before we drive out 40. Decent looking place. Maybe next time.”

“Yeah, me too. Rosalita’s then.”

Accelerating up the road, a train switching yard passes on the left, then a mound of soil and rubble topped with bulldozers. Past sun-faded mini-malls, sparse motels, street corners dotted with folk seeking a reason to walk to somewhere in particular. Rosalita’s appears on the right, as big as an old bowling alley, in the middle of a black asphalt sea, the air wavy. The lot is surrounded by an unnecessarily robust chain link fence, nearly empty in this hour before lunch rush.

The building, beige-painted concrete block, a red stripe and name with a rose in front, dwarfs the few doors on its face. Dan parks under the rose, hoping to catch a sliver of shade. They disappear loose objects in the car, pocket phones. Stacy grabs her bag, Dan locks the car. After a minute’s confusion they find the entrance around the side.

Rosalita’s is a welcoming womb of dark wood, lit by dim yellow-orange hanging globes and sunlight leaking around heavy curtains. Dark wood-like walls, dark wood-like booths and tables, red and black patterned carpeting. The padded interior absorbs all sound, like a catholic church confessional; road-hummed ears get a break from the drone of long-haul travel.

An elderly waitress on obsequious but earnest autopilot guides them to a booth on the far side of the vast room. Dan and Stacy adhere to the shiny red sparkly vinyl, extract phones, place them on the table, look down at them. The waitress hands them fat padded brown menus and mumbles familiar words regarding the sequence of events to unfold. They order combination plates and ice tea. Not a minute later ice tea arrives in bumpy yellow plastic sweating tumblers, guaranteed to induce a pee stop 15 minutes out of town.

Stacy sighs, “I fucken love this place,” looking around as her eyes adjust to the dark; an orange-red glow from the curtained windows like light leaking from a raging wood stove.

Thump of heavy white oval ceramic plates jars them to attention. A pastel palette of beige refritos, orangy rice, red-brown sauce over pink enchiladas thin as grade-school hot dogs, white dots of queso, all settled level to the edges. Stacy exclaims “Ouch!” as the waitress intones “Be careful, plates are hot.”

Plates shoveled clean, tea refills refused a second time, Dan says “OK let’s go.” They stand up, stretch as if after a nap. Dan pays for lunch at the cashier near the door as Stacy heads to the bathroom. Dan does the same, Stacy waits for his return, they push through the door, are immediately blinded, recoiling against the heat and the frying sun. “Damn!” from Stacy. They stand a few seconds in the roofed entrance before walking back to the car.

“Need anything before we take off?”

“Nahh.”

Dan unlocks and opens the passenger door wide, releasing a furnace wave of heat, returns to the driver's side and does the same. Doors close, windows down, engine starts, Dan pulls onto Main Street heading east.

★ ESSEX ★

Mike and Jose

Pushing through the airlock, Jose thinks, I’m tired of being stuck in the middle, dreading Mike’s anger, feeling guilty about seeing my own crew in an unflattering light. He fears, knows, now, that Ana is right. He wonders how long he can last here.

“Who’s she blaming this time? Lee? Marta? Because we know she’s got nothing to do with it!” Mike roughly, violently, breaks up clumped soil in an instrumented tray, readying it for new test growth, scraping the clumps, dried, dead roots, onto the dirt floor.

“I don’t know. No one in particular.” Jose tensely busies himself sweeping up the loose soil on the floor.

“I don’t believe you. What’s up with you?”

“Look, I came here to do the hydro grow stuff we talked about back in SF. Not this mundane greenhouse shit.”

Mike pounds the table with the handle of his trowel; a brown cloud rises, and falls. “Who’s fault is that?!”

“At this point I honestly don’t know.”

“Bullshit. You’re lying.” Mike, fuming, swaps his emptied tray with another, violently jabbing the soil onto the floor with the trowel, hits his thumb, he yells “SHIT!”, drops everything to the table and storms off.

Jose, heart pounding with anxious anger, fear and even sadness, from the breakdown of their camaraderie, stands still until Mike is out of ear shot, pushes his way back out the airlock into the assault of sunlight.

* * *

Standing in the Essex sun compels Jose to move; on impulse he heads to the big house to talk to Lee. Not certain what he wants to say, or to hear, but things cannot go on as they are now.

He takes the well-worn path they all use, a shortcut through the tire shop’s giant dirt arc, around a cluster of tamarisks in front of the house thriving on household waste water and night time pee. He pauses at the front door; this early the tamarisks still provide shade, allowing him a moment of calm.

Jose opens the unlocked door, steps into the front room, an ugly fireplace to his left with a corroded Mister heater within. The ambiguous sounds of habitation, usually comforting, now increase anxiety.

In the kitchen Lee and Marta prepare breakfast, boiling eggs, a plastic bag of bread on a green cutting board on the old formica counter. They are both wearing hoodies, underwear and high tops without socks, looking like they just rolled out of bed.

“We just got up. There’s coffee there.”

“No thanks. Just came back from the cafe. Had coffee with Ana.”

“Oh?”

Lee and Marta pointedly do not look at each other. Jose watches the mushroom cloud of steam arise in the sink as Lee drains the pan of boiled eggs. Marta stands with two thick slices of bread, awaiting access to a stovetop burner to toast them over the flame.

Jose decides, fuck it, “Hey, we have to talk about this. We’re not doing any hydro. I didn’t come here to be a gardener. What are we gonna do?”

Lee assumes this is addressed to him; Jose watches him take on his professorial aspect, which once commanded attention from a newbie grad student, but now recognizes as a defense mechanism. Lee stiffens but continues his measured moves, cools the eggs with cold water, drains it, takes the pot to the table. Lee and Marta sit, Jose remains standing near the entrance from the living room.

“Well the Essex crew has got to find a reliable water solution for us. We can’t do hydro without water. This isn’t the first time this has come up.”

“I know that. I think Ana is right. Every time the tank gets fixed it leaks again. The first tank split open. This one could too.”

“Before we came, they told us they had infrastructure for us. It wasn’t true. They continue to make excuses and even blame us.”

“I dunno... We should have bought that plastic tank that guy had in Needles.”

“Plastic tanks are no good. We went over this. They leach bisphenol into the water.”

“Well, I did some searching, and water tanks haven’t been made with bisphenol in twenty years.”

Marta, having finished one egg, takes a sip of coffee, continues the conversation. Lee adjusts his chair noisily and begins to eat.

“We don’t know that. And plastics contain other chemicals that are toxic. They could harm new growth in ways we couldn’t detect.”

“What do you mean we couldn’t detect.”

“You don’t understand the chemistry. We can’t use plastic tanks here.”

“But those metal tanks are old and corroded, who knows what’s in there?”

“We’ve tested the water, we compensate for their mineral content. Metal is fine, plastic is bad.”

“Why can’t we simply test the water from a plastic tank?”

“Who’s side are you on here? We need to work together as a team.”

Jose pauses, seeking another in, realizes he is clenching his jaw and chest, exhales. Outright sadness replaces anger, as if something has died.

“OK fine, I’m gonna go see ... I’ll talk to you later.” Jose turns around, blocking conversation, heads back out the front door.

He blurts out “Shit!”, glances at the door just closed and heads back the way he came. Maybe I’ll drop in on Bruce.

★ LOS ANGELES ★

Beautiful downtown Barstow

They pass through old town Barstow, devoid of aesthetic decisions since 1970’s western stucco. Storefronts with painted-on lettered signs, business names occupying a semiotic space enclosed by cute, clever, cloying, cheap.

The road curves and drops, lined each side with one-story sun-scorched old-fashioned commerce, red and green traffic lights blurring into white-gray wavering heat haze and dust. At the limits of vision, maybe ten blocks, bright blue and red lights flash, triggering alarm, delayed by their post-lunch stupor. As they take this in black specks, like ashes falling in reverse, arise from a handful of comm towers along the roa. Granular streams disperse upward and forward, a perverse flock of motes zeroing in on the blue flashes.

“Oh fuck,” Dan emits involuntarily, visceral reaction to the alien organicness of law enforcement drones flocking to a scene.

“Double fuck, behind us!” Stacy yells, swiveling in place, seat belt taut. In the mirror Dan sees buses rounding the curve, headlights white bright in full sun, a block behind, in no great hurry, silent.

Dan abruptly takes the next right turn into a residential neighborhood of double-wides, neat gravel front yards with scattered kids toys, older vehicles parked along the street.

“Damn. Looks like la migra, but they might get sniffy, I don’t want my electronics in their vicinity. I’m supposed to be invisible but rather not test it.”

“Yeah no shit. I got a quote your online activities are being audited message last year. All sorts of shit I posted got delayed. Just from riding my bike a block away from some protest downtown! I didn’t even know it was going on!”

“Bicycling while brown.”

“So what’s this invisible business?”

“The car has a hotspot, a registered business. Bookmobile. So it doesn’t get swept up like people’s phones do. But the GPS is broken, sort of on purpose.”

“And what’s invisible mean?”

“Well... I’ll tell you later sometime.”

* * *

Dan slows, pulls the right tires into roadside gravel and stops in front of an old but neat single-wide, an ocotillo orange and green out front, a kid’s bicycle in the driveway. “I think this crosses under I15... yeah OK we’re fine,” paranoid glance around, pulls back onto the road. Ten minutes negotiating another similar neighborhood brings them to an I40 East onramp.

Remaining tension falls away as the commercial fringes of Barstow fall away (Boat storage? In the desert?). Dan notes, “Someone stole the sign again.”

“What sign?”

“The one that says ‘Wilmington SC, 2554 miles’.”

“Oh. Yeah I’d steal that.”

★ ESSEX ★

Dozen suns

Ana walks straight back to the rough dirt road behind all of their buildings and infrastructure, deliberately avoiding the water tank and especially the greenhouse, wanting no interaction whatsoever with its crew. Past the fenced-in cluster of residences, past the clusterfuck of old vehicles, barrels, random materials and construction debris behind the old tire shop.

At the sight of shiny new chain link fence surrounding the glassworks lot Ana begins to relax. Here is her reason for putting up with all the shit, why she came to Essex in the first place. From this oblique angle the heliostat farm looks like frivolous art school sculpture, rows of silvery balloon-things, starkly non-organic in this all too organic desert.

An arc of the earth immediately behind the hut, set at the far end of the fence, is lit up brighter than a dozen suns, even here on a clear Mojave desert morning, the result of the spillage of a small fraction of the light from the home-made heliostats. Ana walks close to the fence to get the maximum cheering effect it has on her, and dons her green goggles.

Her vision goes black as she reaches the back wall of the corrugated hut, pushing her goggles onto her forehead. The hut encloses the back of the squat concrete block of the furnaces, currently being warmed by the full output of the heliostat farm. Rough, medieval-looking tables and tools, black iron and soot, line three walls.

“How’s it going?” Ana says to Diedre, sitting with plate and cup from breakfast on a pocked iron table along the back wall.

“Meh, but that’s OK. We’re gonna try to reheat the shit we made yesterday, but I’m not hopeful.” Diedra sips her cold coffee.

Ana asks, “Sorry I couldn’t be here yesterday. Is this the silica from that old mine?”

“Yup. About fifty fifty with some of that random clear glass from the cleanup. It turned foamy green. Lots of trash in it. I doubt it’s gonna get better, but what the hell we’ll see what it does. We dipped out a piece there,” and points to what looks like a dirty broken plate.

Examining a cookie-sized amorphous triangle of the stuff, “Cool, sorta”, Ana says, “Looks like trinitite.”

“What’s that?”

“From the first nuclear explosion test a hundred years ago. New Mexico somewhere. I have a handful, looks like this only with sand stuck on it like dropped candy.”

“Isn’t that stuff hot?”

“Not bad. Less than what you’d get driving past Houston. Cesium. Just don’t lick it.”

“Very funny. Tonight we’ll move this into the annealer, for the hell of it, but we’ll probably just dump it out back later, there’s not much we can do with it. Then we’ll get back to real work. I think some of yours is next.”

“OK great, I’ll be back after dinner, assuming I don’t get sucked into more stupidity.”

“Uh-oh. What happened? Water again?”

“Surprise. Tank leaked again. Same shit as before. Fucking true believers. Pisses me off to talk about it.”

“No problem. Got it. Damn.” Diedra pauses, continues, “Sun’s good today so I am guessing we’ll crank the propane up around three. We should be ready to go after dinner. Hope you can make it.”

“Yeah, me too.”

★ LOS ANGELES ★

Amboy, Bagdad, Cadiz, Danby

They pass parking lots scraped into the desert surface filled with rusting heavy equipment, one-story military barracks, empty, dozens of rows of dun-colored military vehicles.

White mobile home roofs and dots of green tree foliage at Daggett, Daggett airport, then more of the new desert crop, silver slabs of shiny silicon aimed at the sun. Dan wonders how they stay so clean.

Bursts of lumbering autotrucks merge into the right lane from the bypass, spaced out to accommodate human traffic. Dan moves to the left lane, the ancient car moving at a brisk clip compared to the automatic travelers.

“Those things creep me out. You can’t tell which way they're supposed to be pointing. Can’t they paint faces on them or something?”

“Oh, you have to get used to it.”

When a billboard issues a warning of the last exit for Indian food at a Newberry Springs truck stop, Dan says “OK now we’re in the desert. Barstow is the edge of the world.” The road becomes the cliche of converging white-edged black lines; mountains ring the horizons, cirrus clouds dwarfed by the monstrous blue sky. Hot air pummels them through the open windows, overhead sun reminding them of their insignificant and momentary status on the earth. The car itself becomes suddenly precarious.

“Damn, is this a good idea? What are we doing here?” Stacy suddenly squirms in her seat as if seeking escape.

“No, of course not. No one sensible drives out here. Oh, I usually ditch the mask here. PM is low, it’s just dust.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep mine on.”

Half an hour of laser-straight freeway, through broiling black lava frozen mid-roil, a further reminder of mortality, the Ludlow exit arrives and disappears.

“I thought Ludlow was a town.”

“It was a town, I think. There was a restaurant once, a cool old A-frame. I ate a tuna sandwich at the restaurant, with coffee. It wasn’t any good. A grim motel, and an overpriced minimart with overpriced gasoline, the old stuff. No charging station so no tourists or business folk. Now just expensive new gas and the world’s most expensive tow truck. Not sure if anyone lives there, maybe they commute from Barstow.”

Pointing out the window, Stacy says “Don’t you have to get off here? Essex is on that road.”

“I wish. That’s the old road. 66. It’s been closed for years.”

“WHAT? What the hell?”

“We’ll take the Essex Road exit off 40. None of the old road is open. Last time I drove it from Ludlow to Mountain Springs was the early oughts, 2005 or something. The road was awful, almost lost a wheel in a huge chuck hole.”

Scowling, “That’s what I get for looking at maps. There’s a lot of pages about 66, and tourists are a big deal at the cafe. How could I know it’s closed? Shit.”

“That’s the net for you. I’ve got ancient paper maps at home. We’ll be there in an hour or two.”

Past Ludlow the freeway winds around weathered rock mounds, geological-scale pyramids the size of a Los Angeles neighborhood, casting long shadows of momentary shade over the freeway. Every other one has a crown of spindly communication gear and corresponding thin beige line of an access road winding from base to apex. Further south a line of rail parallels the highway, the flat, featureless desert between an ocean of knee-high creosote bushes, looking exactly like a scale model train set.

Cresting the shaded side of a mound, the sign for Essex Road appears on the right. Dan parallels a sluggish robot in the right lane, turns on his directionals. A gap appears in the robot cohort, Dan pulls into it, and when the exit appears, turns into it and lets off the gas pedal.

* * *

Decelerating down the narrow rough road, six miles to the old highway along the valley floor, the falling note of the engine signals the end of the trip.

Idling at the stop sign, Dan and Stacy vibrate from the sudden end of two hours of motion and sound.

The town of Essex, orderly and meaningful on a screen, is nearly invisible here, rendered in actual matter. The two buildings Stacy feels most familiar with, the cold house and the cafe, are tiny, insubstantial.

“Damn. This is harsh. I knew it was like this, but being here is something else.”

“Yeah the desert affords one no slack.”

“I mean, I’ve lived in backwater shitholes, the women’s land in Oregon, digging holes to shit in and sanitation with lime and buckets of bleach water. But yeah, shit grows there, it rounds off the sharp edges, or something.”

“Things grow here, but they have no use for humans.”

“And no water.”

“And no water.”

Dan crawls the car onto the empty disused highway, right, then left into the uneven dirt between the stone buildings, in the shade of the largest, greenest, tamarisk Dan’s ever seen.

Dan turns the key to off, they listen to heat ticking from the cooling engine. “Hey, roll your window up, but leave it open an inch. I’m not locking.” Dan does this, exits the car, followed by Stacy.

Stomping of feet and stretching, calm walk hurried by scorching sun, they step up onto the patio, slight squeak of old wood partially lost in the hiss of the water mist falling from the patio roof.

“Ahhh, nice!” Stacy pauses, eyes closed, openly grinning. “Let’s get something to eat! Im starving!”

★ ESSEX ★

The cafe

The cafe patio is smaller than Stacy imagined it. Patrons lean into cramped tables as they navigate the crowded space to the cafe door. Wood framed, flaking green paint, dust-clogged screen, bouncing open a few inches, an old spring groans when Stacy pulls it open, is greeted by an unexpected rush of damp air on her face. Inside, the blast shifts from horizontal to vertical, looking up into the large dark hole of the roaring swamp cooler above. The door behind them slams, returns to bouncing on the belching cushion of air.

A stout young woman behind the counter somehow clearly not from a city says “Welcome. You guys sit wherever you like, counter or table. Coffee’s there, self serve. I’ll be right with you.”

Stacy drops her bag on the floor beside a rickety green table, kicks it under, sits on an equally rickety chair, Dan across from her. Stacy turns her chair to examine her new surroundings, the sparse dining area is in a cozy state of arrested decay, narrow shelves stacked with locally found-objects, cleaned up, some painted in neo-kitsch. A collection of palm-sized glass cylinders, elaborate dull gray constructions inside, pin-thin stripes of red, black, white, painted on them in angular abstracts, evoking hallucinatory faces.

“Hey Dan, you have some of those, right? But not painted.”

It takes a second for Dan to find the objects of Stacy’s focus. A moment of internal annoyance appears as a frown, he catches himself, conjures a more generous response, then “Yeah. Those are nice. From an old radio or TV, pin striped.”

“You could make those.”

“Probably.”

Stacy gets up, says “Coffee?”

“Sure.”

Stacy returns with two mugs of black coffee just as the waitress arrives bearing menus.

“Hi I’m Maria. We got pies not on the menu, nectarine and peach, come up to the counter to take a look if you want. I’ll be back to take your orders. Take your time no hurry.”

Maria turns to leave when Stacy interrupts her, “Hey, is Ana here?”

Maria pauses mid-step and replies, “She was here this morning, so she’s around somewhere.” Maria smiles at Stacy and returns to her work.

“I thought you texted her when we pulled up?”

“Yeah...”

Grinning, Dan mumbles, “Ahh... OK...”, cuts her off with “Let’s eat before we go looking.” After a moment Stacy leans back in her chair.

“Damn, I want a hamburger.”

“Haha, very funny.”

Maria returns, they order chicken sandwiches and grilled potatoes.

“I’m tired of chicken.”

“There’s always eggs.”

“So what’s your plan? You gonna head out tonight?”

“Rather not, I hate driving at night. I’m hoping I can crash here, leave in the morning.”

* * *

Hunched over lunch, the patio door bangs behind them.

Dan thinks she could almost be Stacy’s older sister. Taller, stronger, browned skin, wrinkles at the eyes from squinting, or maybe smiling. Squinting, Dan decides. Sleeveless black T-shirt faded, worn through. Faded black tattoos of an obsolete sort. Once-black jeans equally old. Mil surplus pouch belt jammed with worn metal tools. Dan recognizes the dull chrome of a Starrett six-inch rule. Scratchy-looking mesh FLYING TAO truck stop hat restraining unruly black hair. Dark sunglasses in hand, she spots them, a brief glance at Dan, piercing stare then smile for Stacy.

“Stacy? Ana. Nice to finally meet you.”

Stacy shoots out of her chair, says “Hey, yeah, sorry it took so long to get here.”

“That’s fine, glad to have you.”

Ana, hiding mild disdain reasonably well, says to Dan, “Hi, I’m Ana.”

“Dan,” holds out his hand, gets an earnest handshake in return. “Nice to meet you.”

“If you guys are done eating I can show you around.”

“Pretty much, let me pay and --”

Ana makes a small wave, “Nahh...,” then to Maria, “Hey, these two are with me.”

Maria calls out from behind the counter, “Got it. Welcome you guys.”

“Hey thanks! I appreciate it,” Dan tucks folded paper under his coffee cup.

* * *

They follow Ana out the door, across the crowded patio, dirt path worn between atypically lush tamarisks and ancient mis-placed saguaro. She stops at the highway edge, facing them like a tour guide.

“This is it,” left arm pointing east, right arm west, “The cafe is sort of the center of town, as most people see it. That stone building was built 100 years ago as a cold house. Then it was the US Postal Service. Now it’s a cold house again. Ceiling is two foot thick concrete. This other one is the store.”

Stacy asks, “Cold house?”

Two dusty ruts join the highway, between the two stone buildings, dirt tracked onto the highway by vehicle tires. “That’s Sunflower Springs Road. The old road south. Goes down to Vidal Junction, nowhere. Lots of old mines and a few rock houses.”

“Me, Diedre and the rest were looking through lists of abandoned towns and found this place. We came out to check it out and this old lady and her dogs were loading up their truck, next door, over there. They’d been trying to sell the town for years, gave up, and were moving to Arizona.”

Ana leads them up the dirt road, away from the highway, past the cold house. On the other side of Sunflower sits a dilapidated trailer slumping to the earth, then by a small sad house clad in streaked brown lumber, its concrete chimney dotted with stones on the highway side. Land not occupied by buildings is littered with the remains of knocked-down buildings, sorted half-heartedly and long ago.

“Everything we know about this place, which is not much, we got from her. Her great grandmother told them that the cold house was stocked with ice and meat delivered by train. The tracks are up ahead. State might start trains again I hear, that would put us literally on the map. Oh by the way, her great grandmother planted that saguaro, back in the 1930’s. It’s from the Sonora Desert.”

Behind the cold house a large metal tank looms from a platform a dozen feet high, wooden, gray with age and sun. Glancing up, “This piece of shit is our water supply.” At their feet is a slab of concrete with a metal box. An iron pipe, at shin-banging height, runs to the platform. “The well is that thing. State lets us use it even though it’s too close to buildings, because it’s very old and very deep. Without that we wouldn’t be here. We still might not, if we don’t get our shit together here.”

“What? Is that the bullshit you were hinting at last week?”

“Yeah, I’ll tell you later.”

* * *

They walk straight back, away from the cafe. What was once open desert is now debris field. Broken glass, rusting metal, sun-rotting plastic, household trash dis-integrating into its molecular components, neo-natural grit dot the beige gravelly soil. Ankle-height gray plants lodge stabby seeds in their pant legs. Two residential trailers designed to last a decade, maybe, skins peeling exposing shoddy innards to sun and wind and small animals, slumping to the earth, unrepairable, unusable, immovable.

“The whole town is a pile of trash. Every human establishment out here is a fucking trash pile. People think the desert is a good place to dump used razor blades. Instead of fixing their shitty buildings they build a new one and let the old one fall down. Very twentieth century. We thought we could reuse materials but, as you can see, most of it was junk in the first place.”

They stop at a broad dirt path beside the old rail, parallel to the highway. Except for the trash and their scattered cluster of buildings, the land between railroad and highway is a waist-high forest of silver-gray rectangles, tilted.

“We got that array used, from some mining project back in San Bernardino. Hundred K watts. One of the shit jobs here is cleaning them every morning. It’s not hard, just tedious and cold,” Ana looks at Stacy as she says this last. Stacy shrugs.

“On the highway side of these panels is the house and old tire shop. I’ll show you later. The room for you is filled with construction crap! Haha. Worry about it tomorrow. The guest house is open though. I’ll show you.”

* * *

They follow Ana across Sunflower to the streaked-clad ruin Dan had assumed was abandoned. Ana rummages a pocket, hands Stacy a flat brass key. “Here, make sure this works,” stepping aside for Stacy to occupy the tiny slab landing. The outer aluminum screen door with the broken latch held open with her shoulder, she works the key in the loose doorknob, it opens inward.

The room is bright and clean, pristine decay frozen in time, silent; latent echoes awaiting sound. An ancient vision of homeliness persists in wallpaper pastels gray and stained, peels suggest mountain ranges. Overhead, cloud shapes of lath exposed by spalled plaster. The floor is rolled-out vinyl of recent Home Despot vintage, embossed yellowish beige, clean and bright in light from two small windows. Gray plastic chinese fold-out work table under the front window wall. An electric teapot and a toaster-oven plugged into an orange multi-outlet orange cord running out a hole in the wall, sealed with pink foam. A table top dispenser with five-gallon jug perched on the edge, a dog bowl on the floor below, dry, ringed with white mineral deposits.

One wall is dominated by a stone hearth, the pride of the house. A Mr. Heater on a five-gallon propane jug sits in the flagstoned fireplace.

“It’s better than it looks”, Ana says from the center of the room, “The ceiling is insulated, at least. We pulled new plumbing. That’s the power, for now”, pointing to the orange strip. As Ana opens a second window, a cross-breeze is welcoming. “Close these once it cools off.”

“So, umm, Dan, what’s your plan?”

Stacy answers for him, “I hope it’s OK if he stays the night.”

Dan adds, “Leave in the morning, I gotta be in New Mexico tomorrow night. I have a cot and sleeping bag. Would be nice to not drive at night.”

“Of course, no problem. Oh right, Stacy, there’s a bed in the room there. We can scare up some sheets and a blanket. It gets cold. You got the key now, load your shit any time. Come on, I’ll show you the greenhouse. Then I have to go help Diedre.”

Dan tilts a forced cheery nod to Stacy, who returns one of her inscrutable brief smiles. They follow Ana out the door.

“No real need to lock stuff around here, except maybe in front of the cafe. Outsiders.”

* * *

In the shadow of the looming tank behind the cafe, the soil is darker. “I smell water,” Stacy says, and scowls. Tall spindly mustard weeds lean out seeking sun, half a year out of season.

Standing in the tank shadow, the smell of cooking wafts out the back door of the cafe, carried on swamp cooler breeze.

“Yeah, we’re having trouble with the goddamned tank. Speaking of which... I’ll show you the greenhouse now.” Ana gestures to the cafe back door without looking, “My room’s in there to the right. OK, let’s get this over with.”

* * *

On the far, west, side of the cafe a deceased truck minus fenders and engine slowly sinks into the ground, its bed stacked to overflowing with the ubiquitous weathered debris. Beyond the truck is a building-like construct, but too short. They approach it anyway, follow Ana down steps carved into the earth, to an entrance hung with manifold curtains.

Pushing blindly through three feet of blue plastic tarp airlock, like a miniature car wash, they find themselves in unbearable humidity, bright, disorienting, quiet. Narrow, long, and low, an oven of oppression like a weight on the body. Above white, below green, and brown.

Ana calls out too loudly to people unseen, “Hey, giving a tour. Stacy. She’s here to work with us.” Ana pauses, allowing for response. Dan sees a head turn their way, then back to whatever they were doing.

“Whatever.” Ana turns to Stacy, “They’re busy... and we’re having ... issues. Anyway we’re supposed to be growing vegetables here for the cafe and for sale, but so far, not much. It’s one of the things we could use your help with. A lot of water is used here, and not much to show for it. And the water system is basically fucked. Wanna look around?”

The tension around them as thick as the humidity, Stacy forces out “Nahh, I’m cool. Later is fine.” An inscrutable look towards Dan, her tight mouth obvious to him. She shrugs, looks at them both, nods twice, presses back through the airlock.

Outside, they shudder from the brief chill of evaporating moisture from their few minutes inside. “Wow, cold and hot at the same time!”

They wait for Ana in the shadow of the dead truck, who says “OK I gotta go help Diedre for a while. Feel free to move your shit in the house, walk around, say hi. The only thing off limits for now is peoples’ rooms. I’ll be back at the cafe for dinner, we can make a clean start in the morning. Maria can answer questions or whatever. You guys OK?”

Dan and Stacy assent, Ana leaves them, heading west.

* * *

Watching Ana walk in the direction of the tire shop, Dan breaks the silence with “Let’s get your shit out of the car.” Stacy follows Dan silently.

Trunk lid open, Dan slings clothing bag and sleeping bag, Stacy lugs a bike box of valuables, her bag already in the house. “I’ll come back for my cot and your bike.” Lid slammed shut, they walk in silence to the Sunflower guest house.

They set their loads onto the floor, Stacy with a loud thump. Dan says, “What’s up?”

“Bad scene. Don’t like it.”

“Yeah, Ana seems pissed, the greenhouse folk didn’t even say hi. Not good. What you wanna do?”

“Dunno. Probably nothing.” Stacy picks up her bag, looks around, heads into the bedroom, tosses it in, turns on her heel, says “OK let’s finish.”

The car unloaded, Stacy says “Think I’ll go take a walk. Wanna come?”

“Nahh... I think I’m gonna take a nap here. Come get me for dinner.”

Stacy, preoccupied, replies “OK,” heads for the door.

* * *

Standing on the slab Stacy pulls the door shut, ritually checks for the key in her pocket, survey cut short by the scorching sun. Indecisive, she walks automatically towards the largest nearby object for shade.

A chair of aluminum tubing and frayed woven strips is tucked close to the tank tower, strands audibly pop as she sits. Next to the chair, an impromptu table, green plastic milk carton, one side bleached white from the sun, hand-roll roaches dot the ground. This is someone’s power spot, she thinks, a whiff of damp mustiness from the tower. She stands, abruptly.

Moving a few steps away then squatting in the shade reveals a miniature forest of wrongness hiding in the damp shade of the tower walls; sprouts of ancient seeds deep in the soil, what looks like moss but is probably algae on newly rotting old wood, fungus, probably a bacterial, microbial rot from within.

“Not good,” Stacy mumbles as she walks back to Sunflower and the highway, the sun’s heat preferable to the unhealthy neglect enveloping the tank.

She walks along the highway, west, the dirt parking lot now occupied by a clean white CalTrans manual truck, a pair of identical shiny rental Harleys, Dan’s old Rambler.

Stacy consciously slows, breathes, wills herself to observe. It appears that the entire town is on the cafe side of the road. The CalTrans yard, its shiny metal fence and black hot-top occupy the opposite side.

Beside the cafe the ruined face of the truck corpse beckons to the highway. Past the truck, open space and the undersides of the panel forest. Past the PV array, a momentary urge to go back for her bike, she arrives at the sprawl of the old tire shop/residence, huge half-circle of dirt driveway in front.

Stacy tentatively walks into the driveway, consciously choosing to stay away from the buildings for fear of looking like a trespasser, forcing herself to be ready for the sort of social openness she will require if she spots someone.

The driveway sprawls, arcing in from the highway. In the middle of the arc is the garage, building and land to each side and behind enclosed in rusty chain link. Long-dead liquid-fuel vehicles crowd the fence like zoo animals.

A huge overhang shades two huge garage doors. Sufficient for most of an old tractor-trailer combo, the grubby port de cochere is crowded with vehicles less obviously or more recently deceased, surrounded by bins and barrels and stacks of brown and black encrusted iron, shiny aluminum alloy.

The closest garage door is open, the interior un-seeable because the garage door has a mate, open to the rear sunlit lot, the contrast too much for the eye to handle.

A human-shaped occlusion in the bright square appears to have

spotted Stacy’s arrival. Stacy walks towards it preparing to converse.

* * *

Stacy walks up to the terminator, sideways, shielding her eyes, peering in, disoriented, feeling exposed and vulnerable. The human shape sidles out to face her crosswise.

“Yeah, the light’s a bitch here. How can I help you?”

Stacy rotates slightly, looks up and sees a very tall thin man, in herringbone blue coveralls many sizes too large. His blonde-gray beard reaches his chest, his eyes blue and squint narrowly at Stacy, but his mouth is friendly. His hands are black with dirt and grease.

“Hi. Just arrived from LA. I know Ana. Sort of. I’m here to work on water stuff. I think,” gesturing in the general direction of the cafe as she talks.

“Oh, right, I heard you were coming. Welcome! I’m Bruce.” He wipes his hand on his leg, looks at it, chuckles as he looks at Stacy, and shrugs.

“Stacy,” reaching out to shake his hand, to Bruce’s approval.

“Well you’ve come at an odd time,” looking further into the garage, “Things are kind of fucked up. We’re doing OK here though,” as another, shorter, shape appears from the bowels of the garage.

“This is Joy. She’s a gardener.”

Joy is as short as Bruce is tall. It is clear that she lacks genes for any kind of fashion sense, and has given up trying. She wears a box-store gimme T-shirt, a large orange corporate brand lost in the folds, frayed fluorescent polyester shorts, equally huge, scratchy and staticky-looking, refugee-issue flip flops on her feet, dusty. The pair of them look like a heap of rags, aligned in utter indifference to self-image.

Stacy is thinking that she looks like a rural chinese farmer when Joy says with a loud Texas twang, “I ain’t a fucking gardener, you goddamn car mechanic!” gives Bruce a shove, laughing. “Get yourself in out of the doorway, come on inside,” still smiling, she waves Stacy in.

A steady if warm breeze flows in from the back door, taking some edge off the day’s heat. Stacy’s eyes adjust in the shade of the garage.

It still looks like a truck tire shop. Dusty tires stacked along walls, and in rows higher up. The wall to the left, a door to the disused office, stacked with debris in boxes, walls plastered with printed paper, dust caked on wrinkles. High above twisted black noodles, preformed hoses, hang on hooks, a hundred or more.

“Bruce is a fabricator, part time mechanic, and builds pretty much anything. He’s been here the whole time, like Ana. I came to this revolving shit show a month ago. Almost a degree in drought ag.”

★ FARMINGTON ★

Anomaly

Monique and her crew recently moved to this new building weeks ago, and her feelings about it are not fully rational, torn between the comfort and familiarity of the old American Furniture building back in town, and the sterility of this new clean space; the frustrations of inadequate resources and the pleasure of modern gear and facilities that just work.

Monique is at her new but cheaply made desk in timeless commercial beige. The room and workshop furniture still emits complex organic molecules from its manufacture on the other side of the earth. I never thought I'd miss the old place. I miss walking to Bernice's for lunch.

She checks the Comms group chat for emergencies, part of her job as group head, then scans the regional mobile agent map out of habit. The California agent is under way as expected, but ETA estimates are off, delayed; a touch of the screen shows the agent’s phone to be in the eastern desert fringe of California. Curious, she zooms the map to see a dot, and the single word, ESSEX. It's been there a dozen hours, a tiny zigzag on the map. No big deal, agents have loose or no schedules. She creates a reminder to check in the morning, gets up to go home for the evening.

★ ESSEX ★

Frenemies

Joy continues, “So hon, what’s your story?”

“I live in a compound in LA. I mostly run our water, chickens, stuff like that. Low-tech but good sensors and shit. I was a computer programmer for a long time. Decent there but not a lot else going on unless you’re rich, and we’re not.”

Openly skeptical, Joy says “LA compound sounds nice.”

“Yeah, it is nice. Dan, the guy who gave me a ride, lived there before the crash. We’re weirdos surrounded by money. He and I go way back, San Francisco before that crash.”

“Ride? He’s got a car that goes this far?” Joy’s skepticism turns cynical, crosses her arms.

Stacy, defiant, “Yeah, an antique gas car, why don’t you go ask him about it,” she pauses, wondering if she should just bail on the whole idea of Essex. Considers that since she’s out here, no harm in making the effort, takes a breath and continues. “Look I hear what you’re doing, but you’re wrong. He does some sort of delivery between LA and ... Farmington? He’s not, we’re not, rich. He’s just very old and we’re sort of under siege back there. I don’t need it here, too,” this last said in a sudden, unwanted burst of anger that made Joy and Bruce both stand up straighter.

“Sorry,” Joy looks at Bruce then “I didn’t mean to be an asshole. We’ve been under some stress here, you’ll probably hear about it later. You stayin’ for dinner? Let me show you around.”

“I guess. Dan’s leaving in the morning. I’m staying,” said with more confidence than she feels.

“OK. Let me start over. Bruce is too modest by a long shot so I’ll show you what he’s working on, he can fill in details, it’s all over my head.”

In the other half of the garage, front and rear doors closed, are a half dozen of what were once automobiles, old, but not ancient. Stacy knows this from the four wheels and general arrangement, as there is not much left to them other than fractally complex electronic and electromechanical components laid bare.

“Bruce makes these out of old Toyucca Prions, old hybrid automobile tech. They’re for energy storage. Mobile too. The batteries are old, meaning low capacity because they’re worn out. But they’re easy to get.”

Bruce interjects, “The hard part is power management, charge and load both. We put them into clusters, one’s not enough for much. So load sharing and all that is tough. We thought we could repurpose the ECUs but their code is all shit, so we ended up making our own. I write the code but I’m not a programmer. Maybe you could look at it?”

“By ‘we’ he means he. He’s too modest.”

“Umm, sure.”

* * *

Stacy pushes back and says, “So Joy, what’s your story?”

“I was attending university in Houston when shit hit fan. No one believes the official story, and I know radiological gear when I see it. I got the fuck outa there early. I was one semester away from my grad degree, then me and a million people instantly homeless. I got to San Antonio real quick so I didn’t get sick. But there wasn’t much there besides dust and Border Patrol.”

“How’d you end up here then?”

“Since undergrad I was on this experimental ag forum, so I knew some of the folks here. It sounded sketchy, but interesting, you know? San An was wrung out, you know? Housing, but no jobs. So I wrangled an invite, which got me through the California border. Here I am.”

“What forum?”

“Dry Ag. On the big punk federation.”

“No! Wait. Are you JoylessInTexas?”

“Yes?”

“Fuck! Fuck you! I’m SQL7 there! I fucken know you!”

“No shit! Well small fucking world!” Joy and Stacy embrace, pound each others backs, withdraw.

“Holy shit. Oh yeah, I know you too. Yeah, you run that tiny high output recovery shit, fishes and everything. Been following you. That’s nice work. You’re as bad as Bruce!”

“Yeah, I picked some new sensors after reading your paper. Not that I understood the paper, much.”

“Seriously?! Well shit honey.”

Bruce had wandered off, picking up tools, putting them into a large bin on a cart between two flayed, roofless Prions. Detecting a wrap-up of their conversation he asks, “Dinner time?”

Joy briefly consults a phone from a pocket, drops it back. “Soon.”

* * *

Stacy gently shakes Joy’s shoulder before saying “OK then, tell me what the fuck is going on here. What’s this greenhouse water bullshit? I was thinking of bailing, it sounds like a shit show. Don’t fucken lie to me!”

“OK here’s what I know. Ana, Diedre, Bruce, couple others scouted this place, it had that well, turns out all it needed was a new pump, the two stone buildings and all that. Their plan was, pool their UBIs, reopen the cafe. There’s euro and asian americana tourists and not a place to eat until Needles. The well is the secret weapon.”

“Yeah, I know that much from Ana.”

“OK so from the Dry Ag forum they found a group up in San Francisco who had ideas on how to semi-hyponically grow shit that would work here. They invited them down. Big mistake, turns out, as they ended up being a bunch of dilettantes who had no desert experience at all.”

“Woah. So Ana invited them?”

“Ana and Diedre. The thing is, the SF folk lied. Their tech is shit, doesn’t work when it’s quote too hot. Fucken duh. That’s why the half-underground thing. Bruce’s crew dug that. Didn’t help.”

“Oh man.”

“That’s only half of it. Their tech and the greenhouse hole and all that sucked up cash, then to quote save money, they talked us into reusing some rotten old water tank. Duh number two. Surprise! It leaks. And it’s iron-y.”

Bruce, listening, arms folded, interjects, “Yeah, but we agreed to all of it, don’t forget,” nodding his head.

Joy scowls as Stacy continues, “So what’s the plan then? Is there one?”

“Umm, no. Deadlocked. The San Fran crew were basically faking it, I’m convinced, and thought they’d work it out on the ground. Fucken academics. They’ve produced almost zero.”

“What were they supposed to be growing?”

“First, just tomatoes and some exotics that don’t transport well. For the cafe. Then later some new psychedelics but we’re not even close to that now.”

“So what the fuck am I doing here?”

“I have no idea.”

“So... what the fuck are you doing here?”

“Hanging out with Bruce.”

* * *

“What the fuck!” In his dream his truck crashed, jarred awake to avoid dream-death. Dan’s head leaps off the cot, instantly awake, face pounding, a full second to recognize the slam of the ruined aluminum door, its spring unrestrained.

“Hey! Time to eat!” Stacy marches into the front room where Dan is autonomically self-examining for damage, his back hurting from the spasm.

“Dammit Stacy did you have to do that? What the hell?”

“OK I got some lowdown on what’s going on. Someone from one of my forums is here. You can meet them at the dinner.”

Dan, sitting, reaches for his shoes, stretching. “What’s got you all revved up? Good news?”

“No... I dunno. It’s not that good,” Stacy looks pensive for a second, fills one of the coffee cups with water from the jug, downs it. “I dunno, nothing. I guess I’m glad there’s some people I know and respect here. Besides Ana. That part is good. The rest still sucks I guess.” Stacy has pulled out a chair from the gray plastic table, turned it to sit astraddle, watching Dan put on his shoes.

“OK...,” Dan stands. “Gotta pee, hold on,” walks to the toilet, kicks the door mostly closed.

“OK, what dinner. At the cafe?”

“I guess so. Seems like a regular thing. We’re invited.”

“Good, I’m hungry.”

Out the door, Stacy lets the screen door slam itself, again, all of its joints loose from age, a piercing metallic symphony. “Seriously Stacy, what the fuck.”

* * *

The air is cooling, passing through dusk ideal on its way to night chill. The door faces the falling sun, blinding them. Debris and tank make long shadows over Sunflower and the lovely orange cast to the light; Stacy’s favorite time of day.

Rounding the tamarisk at the corner of the cold house, gusts kick up backlit dust in the empty parking lot as solar energy exits the vicinity. Near the highway stands a repurposed orange plastic DPW sawhorse, CLOSED, draped in multicolor xmas lights, flashing. Despite the lack of commerce the patio emits sounds of socializing.

The patio is full, some sitting on plastic cartons. Chatter dips momentarily as Dan, then Stacy, step onto the patio, eyes on the newcomers, some nods, clipped smiles, a few open scowls and backs turned. Neither of them recognize a face.

Inside is oppressive from the day’s stored heat and the grille, and bodies, the swamp cooler overhead straining much to accomplish little. The door closes quietly behind them. Dan observes with some slight annoyance that Stacy has not allowed it to slam.

“Hey! Welcome!” “Hi again.” Ana at the counter talking to someone behind the counter. Joy is sitting at a table, Stacy nervously nods and waves, hesitates, then approaches Ana. Dan keeps a distance, minding his interloper status, knows he will be forgotten in the morning. He nods politely, introduces himself to people he is about to bump into.

“How’d your day go? I hear you ran into Joy. Small world.”

“Yeah, I know her work, her writing,” looking around, “She’s good. Knows her stuff.”

“Yes she does... I assume you’re hungry. At half past dark we close the cafe to outsiders and get together for dinner. Everyone gets this and breakfast as part of the deal. We’ve got enough slack to cover you guys, don’t worry about it.”

“Thanks!” from both of them, Ana continues, “Just line up. No tips, we’re all crew here. Ask for what you need, no one goes hungry.”

Stacy lines up behind Dan, himself behind a scraggly white kid with the ravaged look of meth, in oversize graying white tee and huge cutoff levis, one hand on the waistband, nodding as he takes his plate of food with “Thank you m’am” in incongruously perfect northeast middle class diction.

The woman behind the counter, not Maria, asks “Hungry?” Dan replies, “Fairly.” With a smile she chooses what he thinks is intended to be a larger piece of chicken, plops it on his plate, adds two large spoonfuls of what looks like fried rice with assorted vegetables. “Come back if you want more.” “Thank you, looks great,” Dan steps aside, scans for a table while he awaits Stacy.

Two people with Ana get up to make room for the newcomers, smile and say “Hey, welcome, here, sit with Ana, we got shit to do anyway. Cya,” Dan says “Thanks,” glances at Stacy as he sits near the wall, leaving the chair closest to Ana for Stacy.

“You guys get to look around?” Ana says mostly to Stacy.

“Yeah... met Joy and Bruce, a couple others over at the tire shop. Went back and got my bike, checked out the town from the highway. Talked to some big anglo guy at the CalTrans shop. They seem OK over there.”

“Yeah, I assume they joke about us but it’s lonely out here and they like the cafe so mostly they behave. They let us use their old-fashioned wifi when we first got here.”

“You?” to Dan.

“Oh, I took a nap. Walked around Sunflower Road a bit, looked at the ruins. These old stone buildings are beautiful.”

“Yeah, they are. Literally our foundation, plus the well. Two wells.”

Stacy states, as fact, “That water tank is leaking.”

Ana sits up. She is sitting facing the counter, away from the patio, probably not unconsciously; glancing in that direction says “Yeah no shit. It’s like there’s more growing under the tank than in the greenhouse.”

Slouching a bit, she continues, “There’s chickens on the far side of the tire shop, we get enough eggs for here. But we’re still buying chickens to eat from Needles. Another casualty of ... whatever.”

Dan knows Stacy enough to read the tension in her body, and her poker-face, wonders if Ana sees it; with her head partly lowered her eyes interrogate Dan in a way that reveals his concern. Something in Ana’s face relaxes, some assessment of Dan upgrades, slightly.

“Well I hope you still want to stay. We’re about to make some big changes and we could use your help getting our shit together. I really want you to be here, I know Joy does. Bruce likes you, he’s competent as hell. A couple of folks you talked to you went out of their way to ask me about this new person they’d met.”

Stacy forces a smile and nods, “Yeah, I’m in,” giving Dan a look that seems forced, but Dan manages to be cheerful. “Seems like a good crew here, and interesting work,” to Ana.

Ana looks relieved, leans back, straightens again after a pause, “Great! Tomorrow we can deal with your room. Tonight it’s just hanging out. Not exactly a lot of nightlife here, I’ll probably crash by 10. Up at dawn-ish. My room’s back there,” furrowed brow and a nod to the back of the cafe.

“Tomorrow I’ll introduce you around sort of officially. Um...”

Stacy interrupts, “Are those greenhouse peeps, out on the patio? They didn’t seem happy to see me somehow.”

Ana sighs, “Yeah... things are not great. Tomorrow night is our monthly get-together, dinner then a town meeting. You can hang out and listen, or not. We’re supposed to make some decisions on how to go forward. In the meantime I’m just trying to not engage until the meeting.”

Stacy looks at Dan, who shrugs, then “OK,” as Ana is distracted by someone on her way to the counter for seconds, then stands up.

“Hey I gotta go talk to someone. Take your time here, have more if you want, don’t go hungry. Come find me in the morning,” and to Dan, “hope to see you before you leave,” gives him a warm smile and walks off.

* * *

“What you thinking?” Dan says.

Stacy turned 90 degrees, listening to something. Returning to the moment, “Dunno. Guess I’ll stay. Rougher than I expected, I mean the drama. But there’s some solid people here.”

“OK cool. Well I’m with Ana, up at dawn. I’ll probably go crash now. Try not to slam the damn door. Cya,” gets up slowly, an opportunity for Stacy to respond with “Cya,” Dan rises and heads back out the patio door.

Stacy moves to Dan’s seat for a better view, and passing introductions to folks in the room, mostly welcoming.

Stacy takes their plates, scrapes off the crumbs into a pail marked CHICKENS, stacks the plates and heads outside, ignored by the patio crew.

* * *

Standing in the parking lot, beyond the spill of light from the cafe, Stacy looks up, in awe. Stars! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen stars like this, holy shit, she thinks. The Milky Way she remembers from camping trips, formidable every time. Slow shooting stars, low satellites glowing from sunlight below the horizon, for another half hour, until the planet rotates too far. Man-made awe this time, without much downside here on the ground. Momentarily forgetting the day’s drama, a rush of joy at the open sky and road open above. The moment passes, memory returns, juxtaposed against place and tenuous future.

Her neck now sore, she walks back to the guest house, and too early for sleep, still on LA time, she quietly rolls her bike outside for a night time ride on the deserted, silent highway.

* * *

Stacy awakes to directionless yelling, rises on her elbows, listening. A flash memory of the car accident outside the compound a few years back, but that yelling had been preceded by the sort of accident you hear coming, howling rubber on asphalt, the actual crash mere punctuation.

Now awake, realizing that kind of crash is not possible on dusty Sunflower Springs Road, but like the other crash, that the audible conflict is in the gathering crowd.

Quickly pulling on clothes, freezing feet hints at outside cold, boots 1ithout socks, she is up and out in tens of seconds. At the door she retreats, reaches her right hand into the front room and slap-pounds the wall over Dan’s cocooned form.

“WHAT! Hey...”

“Sorry, but wake up, some bad shit’s going on outside. I’m going out now,” Stacy continues to the door, opens both, the aluminum door’s clatter lost in the tumult across the street.

She steps into muddy water, a second step before realizing what she’s done, stops, looks down then up:

A crowd at the tank tower, cacophony, loud. Simple geometric space between here and there, a field of flashing ribbons from hand held light and multi-colored string lights behind the cafe building, reflecting in the new body of water where dusty ruts ought to be.

Water fills Sunflower to the highway, spilling into the cafe parking lot, reflections of a CalTrans sodium light and colored confetti from the cafe patio around the corner. Now, in her boots.

Stacy slowly advances towards the crowd, carefully, high-stepping cartoonishly to not lose her untied boots in the novel muck, her feet soaked and cold, muttering curses.

She stops across the road, an inch or two up the berm, out of the water, twenty feet from the tower, the tank a hideous teapot, a garden hose stream arcing to the mud below. Ten thousand drips from the tower, disconcertingly like the sound of a mountain stream in a nature propaganda video.

A full minute of taking this in before she notices Dan next to her, shivering. Seeing her see him, he says “Holy shit, what a shit show.” Stacy says nothing.

“... always gonna fail,” Ana, loudly, over tense murmurs and water sounds.

Before Ana can finish her utterance, Marta goes on the offensive. “Maybe you don’t know as much as you think you do!”

Diedre physically steps ahead of Ana with a glance, one hand blocking Ana, the other pointing at Marta, “Stop it. She pointed out to you, all of us, the specific problems with that old tank last year. None of you have any experience,” a flash of her own anger arises, looking directly at Lee, standing defensively just out of range, “All theory no practice! None of you have any experience outside of a... school for fuck’s sake!”

Lee strikes back impulsively, “I should have known better than work with a bunch of loser deadbeats. I’m out of here. Fuck you all.” Lee kicks a tower leg and storms off in the direction of the house.

With their leader gone, Mike yells, “You should have welded that seam shut, it might have leaked but it wouldn’t have burst like that.”

With that remark Bruce, arms folded, standing in the periphery as usual, takes a step forward, and with uncharacteristic anger points at Mike, “You do not know what you are talking about. You can’t weld rust. And it’s full of water, was full of water. You are an idiot.” The shock of Bruce’s uncharacteristic outburst causes a pause in the arguing. Bruce settles back on his feet, recrosses his arms, says calmly, “Nothing we can do now. I’m going back to bed,” turns and walks away.

Ana, furious but suddenly exhausted, cold, feet wet, sweeps her hand in an arc, encompassing what she thinks of as the academic camp, addresses them with “You all refused to listen to anyone but yourselves. You never even tried to adapt to what was out here. You opposed buying a plastic tank for bullshit reasons. Your ideological purity ruined your, our, project. Fuck you, follow your fearless leader back home. We don’t want you here.”

Mike begins “Who the fuck are you to say --” but Ana, then Diedre, and Lara and Jude, who had arrived late and were standing under the light on the cafe back porch, turn and leave.

Dan gently touches Stacy’s shoulder, says, “Let’s go back,” and turns go go. “In a minute.” Dan pauses, nods, heads back to the uneasy shelter of the guest house.

Stacy stands alone, shivering, hugging herself in the cold. Unsure if anyone even knew she was there until Mike glared at her before walking off. The teapot pour over, the tank now a mere thousand drips, behind that silence, and the distant hum of autotrucks on the interstate. She focuses on that sound as it recedes westward, then heads back to the guest house, every step a painful cold chill.

Damp morning

Dan wakes first. Peering out of the warm sleeping bag, dawn’s light reveals the wallpaper’s green and pink pastel past. His head out, turtle-like, the room is silent and cold.

His reluctance to transition from warmth to cold room overcome by bladder pressure, he pulls on clothes already with him in the bag, pants on, manages to don his hoodie as an awkward scarf. In one move unzips, rotates upright, issues curses against the chill, arms and chest installed, puts on socks and sneakers while balancing on his butt to keep his clean socks off the cold dusty floor.

Gentle tap-tap on aluminum door, Dan shuffles over, sneakers untied, opens the wood door, peers out into the cold brightness. Ana same as last night, her standard drag with studiously indifferent hoodie against morning chill.

“Hey.”

“Stacy up?”

“Probably.”

Something in Ana shifts, “If you want breakfast, now’s the time. Gonna close soon, emergency menu.”

“Was just heading over there,” a second to assess the situation, “Should I order for Stacy?”

“Probably a good idea,” Ana flashes a brief smile, “I wanna check in with her. I’ll bring her over in a few minutes.”

* * *

Dan steps off the porch slab to the right, avoiding the muddy road, evading debris in the uneven lot between house and highway, thinking: sand in shoes territory.

From the highway, he approaches the cafe patio like a tourist. Two heavy-set men in overalls, orange vests and yellow hardhats head sitting in the patio cold, their backs to the warming sun. Dan pulls the door open, slam behind him, swamp cooler not yet running.

Standing in the middle of the dining room, Dan scouts seating, a practiced smile to a few seated guests. He chooses a rickety stool at the counter, as far from the door as possible. A few minutes later a tall scrawny kid appears, maskless, says, “Hey. What’s up.”

“Umm, coffee. Got a menu?”

“Sorry. Coffee’s self-serve, right there. So we had this big problem last night? All we have are pastries and pies there and boiled eggs. Toast and bacon.”

“Yeah, I was here last night. The road out back is flooded.”

“Bad shit, man. We got water in the cafe. I mean, in the back door. I’m filling in here until we run out of dishes. We got no way to wash them.”

“Yeah not good. I’ll take two eggs, some toast. Hey, double that, I mean a second order the same. My friend will be here soon.”

“Will do,” the kid busies himself at the grill.

On his second coffee, reading the news, Stacy leans in to interrupt, sits next to him. Close behind, Ana makes an awkward expression, says “Be right there,” heads past them, into the back of the kitchen.

“I ordered you food, they’re about to close up.”

“Shit. Is there coffee?”

The dining room is quiet and tense, regulars relying on the cafe for breakfast disappointed but sympathetic at the cafe’s plight, tourists less accommodating, every third visibly unhappy, muttering.

Looking as distraught as Dan has seen her, she says “What the fuck am I gonna do.” Stacy eats in grim silence. Dan knows enough to say nothing. A minute later his own needs compels, “I gotta leave fairly soon. Got to be in Farmington tonight. You OK?”

“How would I know?”

“Look, sorry, I just feel bad leaving you here in the middle of this shit.” Dan knows better than most Stacy’s complicated needs for autonomy and support, impossibly entwined.

After a moment Dan chances, “After Farmington I usually make a loop through some remote towns then home. You could come with,” gambling that if he crosses some line, he will be on the road soon enough.

Dan is surprised when Stacy says, calmly, “Maybe.”

Ana returns, pulls up a stool behind them, forming a triangle with them, out from the counter.

“We have a shitstorm brewing, I can’t talk long. Stacy, we truly want you to stay but no hard feelings if you split. We look like flakes here and I’m sorry I dragged you out here for this.”

When Stacy says nothing, Ana continues, glancing around, “Yeah, this was a shitty job interview. But you and Joy, Diedre, me, Jude, Bruce, would make a great team.”

“Yeah, no, it’s exactly what I want, but this drama bullshit is too much. I can’t go there.”

Ana glances at Dan, studying him intently, thinking maybe she had written him off prematurely.

“I’ll put you on our team chat if you like, unfiltered, no bullshit. When the shitstorm is resolved and we have a plan forward. Decide later. The job offer will stand, I promise.”

“OK fine. Yeah, keep me in the loop.”

Ana settles back, assessing, correctly, this as good as this situation will get. Inhales, purses her lips, stands, opens her arms. Stacy rises for a brief but distant hug.

“I’m so sorry for this. What are you gonna do next? Do you want me to find you a ride back to LA?”

“Nah. I’m riding with Dan. Yeah, let me know what happens. I like it here, other than... You have enough power and water to get shit done. Oh here,” Stacy extracts the worn key, hands it to Ana.

Ana nods, looks Dan straight in the face, “Dan, you are welcome here any time, seriously.” Handshake, then a hug.

“Hey, thanks, and good luck.”

Ana says “OK gotta run, I’ll talk to you later,” pushes out the patio door and is gone.

To Stacy, “You ready?” Dan scans the graphic on the counter to leave some corporate money as a tip, with good luck and thanks to the cafe kid, they head outside.

Exit

Car packed and bike on the roof, Dan returns from making a final pass through the guest house. Stacy is sitting in the car, door open, feet on the ground, poking at her phone.

Dan gets in, starts the car, idling it warm.

“Ready? Any second thoughts?”

“Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

*** end book1