This is not the desert. This is not the desert at night. This is a city in the forest at night, 7000 feet above sea level. Winters are cold. Summers are closer to the sun. Long before us, they cleared the trees and made a city here, a concrete well between deserts. This mountain divides them. On the desert they look to this place and see sacred peaks robed in snow. From here, we look to the desert and see sacred plains, riven with canyons.
What they most want to see is somewhere else. They want to see The Canyon but they don’t know how to get there. When they arrive, I warn them: stay here for the night. The road is no place to be at night.
When they leave, I warn them: drive north. Follow the signs. The signs will lead you out of the trees and onto the desert, where The Canyon waits. Keep your heading always north.
It is there. It will find you.
They are drawn to The Canyon. It is why they come. But first, there must be this place. It is a village on the edge of things where they drop their bags for the night, where they rest in tents and barter for camels. They eat from a common bowl. They sleep fitfully on filthy mats.
This is the Motel 6, Lucky Lane, Flagstaff, Arizona, and I am the night auditor.
I am not a good night auditor. I have a fraught relationship with mathematics. The manager is a German woman who lives in an apartment attached to the lobby. We share a common wall. She drinks Schnapps with breakfast and wears glasses that rest on her bosom at the end of a chain. She expects more from me than I am able to deliver. She smells like scented candlewax. I am convinced that, given the right set of circumstances, she would lead me into her apartment for tutoring. I am curious from birth. Mysteries would be solved. I cannot imagine resisting her instruction.
I am occasionally offensive to guests, though it isn’t what I mean.
I relieve Carl at 10pm. I come in early. Carl wears ties with short-sleeved polo shirts. The shirts all have horizontal stripes. I think, but I cannot know, that he tucks his undershirt into his briefs. Carl is from Ohio. Everyone here is from somewhere else. He has bright red hair and listens to Rush. He wears thick glasses. He knows things about the band that no one else knows. I don’t ask where he has learned these secrets.
Because I am early I help Carl with late arrivals. This happens before Carl goes home and I lock the lobby doors for the night. When the doors are locked the lobby is sealed. This is policy, strictly enforced. After 11pm, everything belongs to me. The city is dark. The streets are empty. The lobby is a mud fort on the escarpments of Abyssinia.
The guests come in off Highway 40 in various stages of angst. The drive across New Mexico has done something to them. Their bodies hum from the road. They have sea-legs. Walking on asphalt scrambles their synapses.
Perhaps, earlier, they have been to Meteor Crater, stared long into that enormous hole and heard the whispers rising up from it. The whispers will stay with them. They will carry the crater as if it were a crater forming in their own solar plexus. But they don’t know this yet. There hasn’t been enough time. New things, disturbing things, are coming at them very fast. Perhaps they have been to Page and seen Navajos drinking hairspray behind the pharmacy. Maybe they have seen Navajos passed out on the lawn of the Episcopal Church, buried in a blanket of hamburger wrappers.
It is a long road. Anxieties have surfaced. The light and the space, the asphalt ribbon that runs through it, have changed them. They have seen what the planet is always trying to become. They have felt it aching in the fluid that fills their joints.
They are remote controlled.
They are not desert people. They come here out of the great frozen forests, or the eastern swamps, or the tidy neighborhoods of a fertile glacial plain. They are wandering the Old Silk Road looking for something, or someone, they have lost. They know they must look but they are not sure why. They have no letters of introduction. The guide they were expecting cannot be found. They make inquiries. Their eyes fix on all of the wrong things. When they are not obsessed with survival they appear stranded. Confused. Marooned.
The lobby of the Motel 6 on Lucky Lane is one last primitive injustice, a violation of their expectations, a heresy committed by savages along the trail.
Sometimes, late at night, when I am finished with the ledger, I toggle the No Vacancy switch. I flip it on. It burns brightly into the darkness. I flip it off. I wait for headlights on the frontage road and flip it on again. No Vacancy. They drive away. Sometimes they ignore the sign, or think it is malfunctioning, and pull into the lot to make a slow pass in front of the lobby. It is a kind of display. A mating ritual for landed birds. I see desperate eyeballs pressed against dusty glass. I slouch in my chair, making myself small.
There is a portable tv on my desk. At this hour it plays only horror films. Chucky. I keep the scary clowns on mute. I have a book I don’t read. Netochka Nezvanova. Some part of me is afraid to finish the book. The lobby walls press in. I feel the dull inscrutability of the banker’s safe in the hall closet.
A car rolls up in front of the lobby and parks. A man gets out. He pats his pockets as if he has lost something. He tries the lobby door, which is locked. There is a placard on the door, at eye level, telling him the lobby is locked after 11pm. He doesn’t believe the sign. His mind is full of cholla and rabbitbrush, landscapes filled with colors so subtle he doesn’t have a language to describe them. The light has been too long in his eyes. He has come into this place from Michigan. Ypsilante was a long time ago. In this condition, there are no signs in the village that he can read.
The little sheep’s bell tied to the door doesn’t even jingle.
I wait for the man and I hear the train. It arrives as a low vibration in the walls, a tremor in the windowglass. The train comes out of the desert at night. It climbs up into this forest and passes through while the people are sleeping, or arguing, or reading alone under a lamp. It passes through while a bull elk noses through garbage in the darkness behind Home Depot.
The man comes to the teller’s window on the side of the lobby. He taps the glass with his wedding ring. I am staring at the ledger. My pencil—and I must do the numbers in pencil—is a kukri. It is a symbol of my place in this world of things in-between, my status in this bazaar, where the people gather between deserts. Where they consolidate. I deal in numbers, scratches of graphite on pale green paper. I hold the keys. It is a kind of promotion.
There is no reason I should not want to help this man. But I admit to conflict. I think of the German woman asleep behind the wall. For no reason at all I think of other Germans on the desert. Rommel in North Africa. General Liman among the Turks at Gallipoli. But this is not the desert. This is something else. This is where Burkhardt waits two years for his caravan to Timbuktu. Where he writes secret letters home, filling them with desert marvels only he has seen, sketches of Petra, of statues buried in the Nile sand. He sends them away into the void. He can never know if they are finally delivered.
This is where he waits, and dreams of places he will never see again.
Tap. Tap. Tap. I carry my pencil to the window. The man stands in blue light. It is cold outside. The vending machine behind him is freshly stuffed with M&Ms and Peanut Butter Cups. Bags of Cheetohs. The machine has recently been fixed. It glows. He is going to ask me if I have a room.
But that isn’t what he says. His eyes tremble with nystagmus but he is not a drinker. He is trying to find a way. He wears one earing. There is a shock of gray chest hair, like a mouse’s nest, emerging from the V of his collar. His jacket is thin and small and wrong in this place. And it isn’t Ypsilante, after all. It’s Oklahoma City. Maybe. Or Memphis. His tribe’s territory is a suburb of someplace more important. He lives in a vassal state of trim lawns, fire ants, and red brick. Kudzu crawling in the ditches.
Instead, he says: “Do you have room?” There is a difference. If there is an accent it cannot penetrate the dirty glass between us. The world turns on a single word left out of the phrase. Something in me slides downward. I can feel it draining out of my feet, as though I am a stick of butter on a hot tin plate. I was expecting something else.
I am a complicated host. I stand behind bulletproof glass, surrounded by brochures for promising adventure in Old Tombstone, Wupatki, Sedona, Canyon de Chelly. Desert places. There is a glossy flyer for the waterpark in Phoenix. I am burdened. I am cagey because of what I know. I know the Navajo girls who clean the rooms each morning trade in stolen artifacts. They deliver them to a white man in a black Stetson and leather suitjacket. He wears a turquoise bolo tie. He drives a Cadillac.
It happens in the parking lot. One of the girls stands near the lobby as a lookout. She pretends to fold towels on her service cart. Cars rush by on the interstate, making an aluminum wind. I don’t know what she is looking out for. The other one carries something to the car wrapped in plastic. I’ve seen them do it. “There are caves,” they tell me. “On the Rez. They are full of this old shit.”
Once, the Navajo girls discovered a body. Room 214. They opened the door with their master key. They went in to change the sheets. Stock the towels. They had been doing this for a while when they found her. A naked woman. Under the bed. It was late summer. The sun was just rising above the railyard when the cops arrived. Shadows from the railyard stretched over the fence into the parking lot.
The cops rolled in to the lot with their lights on, but no sirens.
Do I have room?
By 4am the light has changed. The moon has moved over in the sky. Different shapes are suggested in the parking lot. A skein of frost grows in the corners of the lobby windows. One guest has left. I heard keys rattling in the plastic bucket. I did not look. I did not see them go. I don’t know where they went, only that they have gone.
I too, am drawn to The Canyon. At 4am I can feel its pull. There is a kind of tide in my bloodstream. I am like everyone else. I am not here because of The Canyon but without The Canyon I would not be here. It is a jigsaw puzzle I am forever putting together in my mind. But there is no conclusion. The desert is no place to draw conclusions. The pieces will never fit together to form the picture on the box.
There is nothing I can do about it. Nothing I would do.
At 430am the pounding begins. I am nearly asleep. My arms are folded across my chest. The tv is off. The book, as yet, unfinished. I am facing the wall. Sleep, a cousin to gravity, is pulling me toward the center of the earth. I am done with the numbers, the ledger closed. There are still some questions. But I have counted the money and tallied receipts and bagged it all. I have spun the tumbler and turned the wheel and placed the bag like an offering in the dark maw of the safe. But I cannot go to sleep. It is not a sleep I would easily wake from.
I know what the pounding is because I’ve heard it before.
Moses went up the mountain, a desert mountain, yearning for conclusions. He came down with ten but they didn’t work. The people wouldn’t listen.
I rise and walk to the window. I look outside. It is Memphis. He is rocking the vending machine back and forth. He is wearing flip-flops and pajama bottoms. One of the flip-flops has broken and has turned sideways under his foot. He does not see me watching. The vending machine is bladed now, from the rocking, and stands askance like a fighter. Memphis telegraphs a roundhouse punch into the machine’s side but the machine outweighs him. The blow has no effect. The machine is full of everything that Memphis wants. I step back away from the glass, into shadow, amongst the brochures where children scream in ecstasy on their long slide into chlorinated waters. This is the moment when I feel it happen. This is the moment when night tips over, when it loses balance, like a drunk man falling toward sunrise.
When he comes to the window—they always come to the window—Memphis uses his ring again to tap the glass. The glass is colder now. It makes a different sound. I step forward from the shadows. I am already there. He is surprised. He is coming to the window from a faraway place. The machine is still bladed behind him. I cannot imagine the depths of his fatigue.
He will find nothing in The Canyon. No cure awaits him there. He will come to the edge and look down into the cleft and that will be all. He will stand among the rocks and twisted juniper in a fugue. He will not understand the colors, the space, the changing winds. His lungs will fill with something cold. He will see it all much smaller than it is. He will feel the kudzu crawling through his veins.
His hair is matted to one side. His neck glistens. There is steam rising from his ears into the night. His mouth is open, his eyebrows arched. He is looking to me but I am not his guide. He’s stifling a question. Perhaps he is not sure what the question is, exactly, or how to form it, how to propose it. He is not sure I am the person to ask. Through the glass, I can see all of this very clearly. I am someone in this village he does not, at this moment, understand.
It is very early. He is not sure of the time. He struggles with the question until it disintegrates in his mouth.