The phone conversation went somehow. The only words I remember are, "I can't believe there's cell service out there," and, "This happens to men your age."
And then she was coming. I watched the small plane land on the groove in the desert that wasn't supposed to be there. Helped her unload two bags from the rear of the twin otter. Tossed them into the trunk of the rental. Hopped in wondering how I felt. Everything falling apart around me. It was all bare wire and cracked plaster.
I thought I wanted to do this alone. But I've found in my life that no matter how much solitude I lust for, there are certain women who can fit in without disturbing my state of mind. They're the ones who won't take, "no," for an answer. Some of them learn to do that, thank God.
So now I had Bernie riding shotgun on the 518 out of Agua Piedra, quizzing me as if I was the story and not old Wyatt.
At her first syllable I was ready to jump down her throat for the insensitive probing I knew would come. Instead, she said, "That was a nice eulogy you gave," and I was disarmed. Like a man with a loaded gun and no attacking bear I had to fire off into the distance anyway, just to prove I could.
"Yeah, well. None of you knew him like I did."
And I wanted to eat back the words. They had no effect on her. Like any good journalist, she'd come prepared.
She said, "You must feel terrible. You really looked up to him. He was your mentor -- right?" And she tried to turn sideways under the seatbelt, looking at me the way women think they have to do when they're talking to you.
I heard myself say, "A brilliant synopsis of the blatantly obvious," and hated myself for it. What I really wanted to do was to pull off the road and ask her into the back seat. Just feel someone's breath on my teeth. Just feel the slide of her skin against my chest. Just not think. Maybe that's why I drove down from Truth or Consequences, and not because I thought I needed the company of a colleague to center me.
"You're not going to die," she said.
And I said, "What an idiotic thing to say. We're all dying." What I really wanted was not to have to think.
But she wouldn't stop. And it escalated.
She said, "It's okay to cry."
And finally I was on the side of the road walking away from the idling car engine and Bernice in the shotgun seat, heading toward the horizon, staggering like a drunk, blind with tears, wishing to be anywhere else.
Mortality happens to a lot of men my age. I was so angry she was right I wanted to kneel next to an ocotillo and set myself on fire like the monks in Vietnam.
He'd asked me not to bring her over right away so we went to Santa Fe instead. I knew she'd like the whole artist-commune kitsch of the place. The extra-hot lattes, sidewalk poetry, and crystals hanging from colored yarn.
We checked into separate rooms at the Holiday Inn, and when I led us to the first cafe I could find, she veered off and sat me on a stool in a place called The Second Street Brewery, ordered me a pale ale, and insisted I drink the first one before telling me why she was there.
She knocked back a shot of Herradura Anejo, said, "If you find him, it's a story Bruce is interested in. If you don't find him, it's a story Melissa is interested in. Either way..."
"Either way, you win. What if I don't take you? What if I write it?"
I knew she was going to smirk. I knew she would laugh. When she did I felt no better than anticipating it.
"Oh come on. You decided that when you agreed to pick me up at the plane."
I finished the dregs of my beer. What was on my mind was to say, "Maybe I just wanted to fuck," but all that came out was, "Yeah."
And she said, "Besides. How long we been working together? Almost as long as Wyatt. You think I wouldn't be here to help out a friend in his time of need? So drink up, lightweight. I'm getting ahead of ya."
When we got back to the hotel we walked to the split in the hallway and I fingered the keys in my pocket. I contemplated taking a step with her toward her room. Froze in my tracks. Thought of a thousand excuses. "Forgot the way to my room." Etc.
Like any good mind reader, Bernie said, "I didn't come for that, but if that's what it will take to get back my best friend, then, well, ok." She motioned up the hallway with her chin.
And all of it came down again. Blurred vision. Tightness in my throat.
I think I said, "I'm probably in love with you right now," like it was a disease that would pass.
She slid a hand under my arm. I felt it move to my back. "Oh my Danny boy," she said, barely audible over the hum of the ice machine. "I have been in love with you for twenty years. But it's not the same thing."
When Bernice kissed me a thought ran through my mind that cut past all the sorrow turned to anger and got straight to the middle of me.
I felt like I was kissing my brother, and I couldn't stop the giggle that burst from between my lips.
"This is a different thing, isn't it?" I said.
"Very," she said. And she took a step backward. "Now if you'll indulge me not to say anything about that--"
"Oh no," I said, shaking my head. Holding up my hands. "That never happened."
"I mean, twenty years working together," she said. "No one would believe it never happened before."
"Everyone thinks it does all the time. Even our spouses suspect..."
"But it doesn't."
"Nope," I said. "But I've thought--."
"Let's just keep it there, then," she tapped my forehead. "Let's promise each other--it never happens again. Would wreck a great partnership."
I made to cross my heart with the tip of a finger, but I stopped, leaned into her and kissed her good night. Then I stepped back and finished the gesture. Said, "That was the last time. Never again," but in my mind I was still thinking it felt like kissing my brother.
The next morning, despite my doubts, the sun rose for its own reasons. The people came out and began the execution of their lives.
In such idyllic or remote places I wondered what people did every day. It eluded me how people existed far from infrastructure. Why they would do it. Coming up the ranks I worked the city desk. Those years contributed to my myopia. I learned how city folks thought. Learned to time the crimes by the phase of the moon. How to bribe the clerks in the morgue. How to get a bartender to tell you what he really saw.
Later I followed a couple FBI agents across state lines in pursuit of a narco ring leader. And I saw people living in places the bartenders and morgue techs would find incomprehensible. Tiny towns on plains of corn so vast and flat you could believe the ocean had turned to green husks. Tiny hamlets sandwiched between Rocky Mountain peaks, reachable only via roads that cross the tree line and the Continental Divide. The isolated half-tundra of the Canadian Maritimes and the permafrost of the North Slope. People want to be in these places, and they just are.
They just live, wherever they happen to be.
That's the way I said it to Bernice on the way to Robert Grayroad's place. They just live.
"It's not all about death," she said to me without once glancing away from the road.
"Then what is it about? From the moment of conception there is an endpoint."
"You're upset so all you can think about is death. You're an obsessive person, Danny-O. Remember the trip to D.C. to cover the freedom march? How you spent hours lecturing me on the morality of impartiality. How we couldn't just stand back and report? The Fenstermaker murders? Getting into the killer's mindset so it could be undone. You care about things. Maybe too much, sometimes."
"And you don't?" I said.
"Oh no," she shook her head. "Oh no. I'm just like you. Exactly like you."
"Really? And what are you ever obsessive about?"
With those words I felt something leaking over to me from the driver's seat. Something warm and soft, as if the air was filling with pillow fluff.
She almost missed the turn. I had to interrupt her train of thought to get her to see the markings on the otherwise homogeneous plain.
Bernie turned us off the pavement and onto the dirt road. She said, "I can't believe people live out here."
I told her they did. I told her, "They just live," and didn't bother saying the rest.
Robert Grayroad didn't remember Wyatt. He didn't know how old he was or where he was born, and he was most certainly sick and tired of the unannounced visitors -- the steady stream of new-age zealots, the documentary makers, and yes, journalists, that found him no matter how far into the desert he lodged himself.
He was not a guru or a yogi or a shaman. He was just a misunderstood son of a Pueblo farmer who wasn't interested in answering the same questions over and over. The best thing for everyone was if we'd just leave him be. My friend Wyatt knew that.
"You remember him," I said, catching his gaffe and realizing it sounded more like an accusation than a question.
The old man took off his hat and ran his hand over his scalp. His fingers seemed made of jerked beef. His bronzed face was creased in deep folds like over worn leather. He replaced his hat and leaned backward in his rocking chair. A dirty bottle of vodka sat on the ground at his left. He reached for it, took a swig, offered it to both of us, and then put it back on the ground when we declined.
The desert sent a dry breeze over us. It picked up bits of dust that tapped against the adobe hut behind him.
"Sorry your friend is dead. He talked about me often, then?" he asked me.
"Nah. In fact, in all the years I knew him he only mentioned you once. I don't even know why I remember it or what made me decide to come out here and find you. I should get out of here. Sorry for wasting your time. Thanks anyway." I started away and noticed after two steps that Bernie wasn't following. Of course not. I'd led her to the story.
"There's nothing here," I called back to her, and Robert smiled as he rocked.
"Your wife doesn't seem interested in you anymore," he said. "They all get this way when they meet me in the flesh. Lose interest in the men folk. "
"She's not my wife," I said, and I went back and touched her arm. Said, "Let's get out of here," but she pulled away.
"She's not going with you, brother. Come back in three days, pick her up. I'll be done with her by then."
"Bernie?" I said to her. But she wasn't listening. She wasn't talking, either. "Bernice. Let's roll."
"She's not going," Robert said. "Not until I give her what she wants."
"There's nothing a hundred-year old alcoholic can give her she doesn't already have."
Robert went on smirking. Said, "If I had a nickel for every time I heard that..." and then took another swig from his vodka bottle.
"That's not liquor," Bernice said, as if having to crash through a pane of glass to be heard.
"Right," Robert replied. Then, "You win the prize. Three wishes. Fire away."
"I don't have anything," Bernice said. Then she motioned to me, "He's got the questions. Answer him."
"K. That's one," he said. "Fire away, chief."
"It's true, then, what Wyatt saw," I said without thinking.
"Yes, two," Robert replied. Bernie looked at me like I was wasting Aladdin's wishes on beer and hookers. Why wouldn't she snap out of it. This was an interview. We were in control.
"Then show me. Show me you can't be killed."
He smiled, held his arms out wide as if crucified, then laughed. "I'm here, aren't I? That's three. Now get off my property before I call in a lightning storm and hit you with a couple bolts."
I was disgusted with myself. What the hell was I doing in the middle of the desert when there was plenty of work to do back home? Now Bernie was using up her vacation time on a whim. Find the mentor's mentor. Shangri-la. Baba-ji. What a waste.
I looked at Bernie, trying to get her attention so she'd follow me back to the car, but she was staring out over the desert at a couple of purple-blue mountains in the distance.
Robert said, "Having a life full of mysteries is so much better than knowing everything, don't you think?"
I told him I didn't know what the difference was. "In the end we just die. Where'd it get Wyatt?"
"He really was a good writer, then. He wasn't lying to an old man?"
"He was great. The best," I told him, but Bernie's lethargy was worrying me. "Hey Bern--we should hit the road--"
Robert said, "Everyone's got their biggest mystery, my friend. You know what hers is?"
"No," I said to him as I moved next to Bernie. I whispered to her, "Let's go," but she acted as if she didn't hear me. A tear rolled from the corner of one of her eyes.
"And you won't even guess," he said. "How bout you? You know what yours is? You don't believe--anything."
"Let's go, honey," I said to her, thinking the term of endearment would snap her out of it, meaning it half way. Maybe all the way. "Please. Come on. What's wrong?"
"How about me?" Robert said. "You know what my biggest mystery is? It's why come people like you come all the way out here to find out nothing. Back fifty years ago, they'd come with guns and challenge me like life was a sort of movie you could live out by script. But I survived them like I'll survive you. Because I don't know how to shoot or write an interesting story. I just know the one thing that makes every second of being here worth living. What your friend Wyatt found out, and what you'll know when you leave here that won't make a damned bit of difference to you. Who knows how many people I've spoken to. I tell them all the same thing, and they keep coming, and they keep dying even though I don't."
The tension inside Bernice pulled apart the calm smooth fibers of her mind and left behind torn purple sinew and jagged fur. Red faced, tears streaming down her cheeks she screamed at Robert like he was a child in which she'd become sorely disappointed.
"Just fucking tell us and we'll get out of here. Tell him so we can go back."
Robert flicked a thumb at her and said to me as if she wasn't there, "See? See what you've done? Work together for twenty years and miss everything. Like it's not happening. Probably the story of your life. Do you realize, that long strings of very bad luck are exactly the same as miraculous providence? Good and evil. Light and dark. You and your woman. It's a bet you wouldn't take if you had all the money in the world and nothing but time at the tables."
I put my arm around Bernie and pulled her gently toward the car. She complied.
I apologized to Robert again and led Bernice away.
And after I got Bernice in the passenger seat I waved once to Robert before I opened the car door.
He said, "The odds are beyond terrible. That's it, really. It's not supposed to happen, but it does. Every day." Then he waved back, picked up his vodka bottle, and took a swig.
The next morning the sun rose for a different reason. And people went about their lives as they always do.
I met Bernie in the hotel restaurant for waffles and coffee. Whatever was bugging her, she'd slept most of it off. Mostly she was back to normal. Except her appetite was gone and she kept staring out the windows at the mountains as if she'd lost something there and sooner or later she'd see it catch the sun and sparkle to her.
It felt like I was talking to someone in a coma. You know it's worthwhile and they probably hear you at some level, but for all the sensory feedback you might as well be casting pennies into a cement swimming pool for wishes.
I told her, "So Wyatt's story was that when Robert lived in Truth or Consequences, there were all sorts of weird phenomena out there. Lights in the sky and ghosts and people levitating -- sort of thing. Freaked everyone out. Eventually, they went after him with shotguns and pitchforks. Said he was in league with the dark forces. Agent of Satan. Hypnotizing the town's virgins and bringing them out to his house for sex and human sacrifice. Blah blah. Drove him way out into the desert because their bullets wouldn't come out of their guns. They couldn't kill him, see? And Wyatt heard about it through a friend who'd met Robert on the way to Taos and bought him dinner. Said he was a shaman holding the universal truth. Leonard was EiC in those days before Bruce, and he agreed to let Wyatt go out and get the story. So Wyatt interviewed him and came back with the story, but Leonard wouldn't run it. Wyatt shelved it. But he used to take it out to show us tyros when he was teaching us the ropes. It was the "how not to make an impression as a reporter" lesson. Showed all of us once, and then dropped it."
"It's all so unlikely," Bernie said, looking toward the mountains. Then she turned to me, her eyes bright with light and those tears she couldn't seem to shake. She reached past my half-eaten waffles and maple syrup and curled her fingers around mine.
I didn't pull them away. If it was going to get me back my best friend, then so be it.
I said, "I know. Mass hysteria."
"Not that," she said. "Didn't you hear him?"
"Yeah. He said it was improbable."
I tried to smile, "Bullets come out of guns when the triggers are pulled, usually. Unless there's a misfire. Dirty actions. Happens all the time on the battlefield--"
"Oh God. Oh shit," she said, and pulled her hands away. Then she wiped at her eyes with her crumpled up napkin.
"What?" I asked her, in freefall as the bottom of my seat fell through the floor to the center of the earth. "Tell me what I said..."
"What are the odds, that you and I would be sitting here right now talking about this?"
I shrugged. "Pretty good considering you flew out here to come with me."
"You're so dense. He's right. It happens every day. Like a miracle we totally ignore."
"What the hell are you talking about? Please."
She wiped at her eyes, but didn't stop crying. And now I knew she would say something and leave and I couldn't stop her. Didn't know if I wanted to.
She made a tisking sound with her tongue. Her words stilted by lack of breath through her nose she said, "When people have sex, there are millions of sperm but only one fertilizes the egg. What are the odds of you happening? Exactly -- you -- out of all the possibilities? Millions to one. Right? And each of us has parents and grandparents who are born with the same odds. And you multiply them all out, millions to one times millions to one to get to what it took to make you sitting here with that annoying look on your face -- and it gets to be the size of the universe against one that any of us is here to do anything--unless..."
"Unless what?" I said, pleading. I wanted to know.
But you get to that point with women where you can't help but to make them angrier. It's like it's going to happen no matter what, and so no matter what you say it's just going to get worse.
"What's the difference? You don't believe in anything," she said.
When she got up I said, "Please don't let's be in love," because there was nothing else between us that morning. "We're both -- we can't be in love."
And I knew it was too late. And I knew she would say it. Finally -- why Wyatt didn't burn his manuscript. Why he taught it to us as the essence of the mistake. The brilliant core of truth that we need to know and forget so we don't focus on it and lose sight of the bigger mysteries we all need. It's the reason the wise men live on mountain tops and in deserts and are best left there.
I knew she would say it.
And I knew that whole part of my life was over.