Live Toy, Dead Toy

Mylène Dressler

Thanksgiving, 2009. My husband and I spend it on the road between Texas and Utah. At noon he guides the dusty brick of our Jeep off the highway to find a restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we eat fish instead of turkey because it’s lighter, quicker. Then back into the truck with the dog. It’s six hours from Albuquerque to Moab, Utah. On the Navajo Reservation, woodsmoke bored thinly through the domes of the hogans, and goats wandered around chill and gray. In Monticello, the farmland and its crops lay sawed flat.

We got to Moab before dusk. Everything at the house looked more or less as it had before we’d abandoned it for Houston and its Medical Center. The grass had been raked. Tumbleweeds piled in stacked cages in a corner of the drive. Only the honeysuckle looked altered, purple. Look, I said, pointing at the bruised vines. There’s been a frost.

Our friend Diane had hired someone to clean the yard, and that was why the mounds of cottonwood leaves sat bagged and plump, why the porch had been swept of mulberry scruff, why everything looked, not sad, not neglected, not vacant but . . . poised. Inside, the house smelled of a kindergarten. A Welcome Home banner made of crepe and construction paper arced over our heads, and Diane had turned the heater on, too, and put milk and ice cream in the fridge. Diane lives alone with three dogs, and is swift and pack-oriented and grasps things before other people do. We go dumb and animal, ducking under her handiwork. We become elephants on the veld, something very old inside us trips and nods, and we put our great, lumbering heads down, grateful.

 

For a quartet of summers before this fall I lived in this house at the edge of the desert in solitude. My husband was still working for his college in Texas then. We’d bought the property out on West Kane Creek for an escape, for an adventure, although the barn of a garage leaked, and the land was teepeed with garbage and broken tools, and dead trees stood out among the living ones, like losers at poker. My husband and I avoid being apart now, but the easiest thing, after we bought that house, was for me to stay behind for three months to get the property in order while he went back to his school and students. I was the writer, after all. I was the one who could do her work anywhere. I watched him drive away into the red-gummed mouth of the desert, under the long shadows of the canyons, and I was nervous—yet exhilarated. We’d met when I was sixteen years old; we’d been living together constantly since I was eighteen; I was now forty-six.

I was supposed to be working on a new book that year, but I don’t remember getting much writing done. I attacked a massive pile of septic rubble instead. The previous owners had freshened the property’s leach field, but the leftover stones, white as pumice, still heaped in a hill at the front of the house. Weeds stippled the top of this mound, and it had sprouted baby cottonwoods; it blocked the view over the empty drywash to the mountains. So every day, getting up early, before the thermometer broke a hundred, I grabbed a shovel and threw my chin against those rocks. My plan was to transform the heap into a border along the drive.

I started by shoveling the stones into a painter’s bucket, and hauling them across. When I got tired of that I dropped the shovelfuls into a rusted wheelbarrow I’d found in the barn—but that only made the job heavier, so I went back to one bucket at a time. Our border collie, Spree, watched from behind the chain-link fence, impatient for me to be done. But I went on and on, Sisyphus without the incline. I didn’t mind. This was something fresh, lifting a weight without any help, my arms coated with dust while the sun rose high and the heat collared my neck.

One day our nearest neighbor came over the wash to introduce himself. He said his name was Thane. He lived in a low-slung ranch house like ours, and he stood squat and low-slung too, his beard stubbled, mirroring his burr haircut. He looked spiky enough to drill with his head. He might, I thought, have been one of those desert miners who used to make up most of the male population of Moab, before the uranium boom went bust and all their cancers started showing up.

“I can help you with that.” He rubbed his stubble and pointed to my mountain of stones. “Have a tractor down there.” He pointed over the drywash. “My Cat will handle that stuff for you in no time, put it wherever you want.”

I didn’t know how to explain. How do you tell a perfectly nice man, to his face, that you want to be left alone, after twenty-five years, please, please?

“I really appreciate it, I do. But no thanks. I sort of need the exercise.”

He nodded and let me get back to work, but looked at me over his shoulder as he crossed the wash, a little confused. As though I’d mistaken the backhoe for sin.

 

I found all kinds of half-broken, half-useful things around that property. An old exercise bicycle missing its seat. Welding equipment in heavy chunks. Flagpoles with no flags. Broken hoes. A throatless sink with a cigarette burn on its lip. Whatever I didn’t want I put into the dust of Kane Creek Drive, and by the next morning, it was gone. People in the desert are like people everywhere: hungry. Piles move stealthily, or openly, from place to place. I did keep the pieces of an old wood-burning stove, and a dried-out horse bridle, and a tarnished silver spoon. I threw out the shower rings that were decorated, unsettlingly, with the smiling faces of beheaded frogs.

I didn’t know what to expect from the desert until I moved into it. I had guessed the land would be red and hot and strange, yes, the rock bare, the juniper trees unshaven and wild, but I didn’t know it would smell sweet, and that the air would be so clean it was like taking a bath just to breathe. I’d been to the Grand Canyon as a kid, but had never gone down and in. Only peered over. I had a few childhood driving vacations out West with family to remember and fall back on, memories of standing on the edges of boiling mud puddles, and of air so dry it made your nose bleed and your heels crack, of forests of petrified, fallen logs, and tiny restaurants, abandoned trailers turning into rookeries along the highways. Jewelry spread out on warped wooden tables with tarps strung over them. Hitchhikers holding out dollar bills. Small, squat adobe towns.

If you come up to Moab from the south, say from Gallup, New Mexico, very quickly the adobe and the tarps fall away and the hands holding out a dollar become fewer and fewer, and the land begins to warp and lift. You drive and drive and drive, like a long knife cutting between pans of baked earth, and the colors and shapes and folds become more and more strange, more and more unlikely. At Shiprock, jagged sails of basalt rise straight out of the ground, a volcano worn down by time and wind, whittled into pitted spars. Throughout the Navajo Reservation towns flash by, square or octagonal houses under red and white mesas, or rectangular houses like bricks dropped in front of huge feet, slowing nothing. Next comes Bluff, a town that has one bend, one school, one cemetery, and the first real flowing water, the San Juan River winding between cliffs. On the other side Mormon country starts, the white picket farm towns of Blanding and Monticello, and for a while the land grows hilly and green, and wait, wait, this isn’t the desert, you think, where has it gone, where am I, what’s interrupted it, did I take a wrong turn? This isn’t what I bargained for. What is this?

 

I gasped the first time we came over the great swell of rock that buttresses the Canyonlands. It’s like falling, but standing still. The land opens, evaporates from under you. The world goes so wide you think you’ve missed it. More buttresses of stone float past—Church Rock, Tuhkinikivats Arch,Wilson Arch—and the earth bubbles into cones, red moguls. The La Sals, a laccolithic mountain range (unburst volcanoes), rise up—a desert requires mountains the way a punch requires a fist—and you rise with them, in their shadow, and then plunge into a salt valley below, under a chiseled fin. This long red fin is the Moab Rim, rising a thousand feet and traveling for miles, a seemingly endless train to the west and south, while the gray and green of the mountains anchor the north and east. Here is not one, but two places. Not one, but two truths. The mountains make the desert, and the desert, ungrateful child, forgets the mountains. Everything is linked, necessary.

“We have to get a house here,” I said.

“As soon as we can,” my husband said.

It took us almost a decade.

 

Left alone in the house that first summer I took Spree for long walks into the backcountry. The road that ran by our front door led straight into nothingness—five hundred square miles of it. I wanted to penetrate that nothingness, that aloneness. I took a half-gallon of water loaded into Nalgene bottles in my backpack, and Spree and I put down tracks in Hidden Valley, Amassa Back, Moonflower Canyon and Hunter Canyon, past Woman Giving Birth Rock. Usually, we saw no one. Occasionally we did, and then I was resentful.

The desert is made for solitude. There is no exchange. No conciliating. No compromise. It doesn’t barter. If the desert shows you something beautiful—a slot canyon filled with light as the sun passes over—it isn’t because it cares what you will think of it. It doesn’t woo or spurn, it has no expectations, it shines without being a mirror, it goes deep without meaning anything profound. The blackbrush isn’t hellish, and the rabbitbrush, also known as chamisa, doesn’t care what you call it, and neither does the rabbit you almost never see next to it. The tumbleweed is stubborn but it isn’t going anywhere decided.

I found myself doing things to enhance my aloneness. I refused, for instance, to have either television or an internet connection in the house that first summer. I rode my bicycle to the town’s small library once a week, and reluctantly connected with the world beyond the drywash. That was the summer of Hurricane Katrina, and I listened to the disaster on a radio while I painted the kitchen, the bathrooms, every surface in the house in colors as bright as marmalade, listened to the stories of the masses, the thousands huddled inside the Superdome, the huge tide of water that had pushed them there, the people scrambling up through their houses while the flood climbed into their attics, the lucky ones having an ax to hold onto, to break through the roof. Other than Mr. Thane, I didn’t get to know my neighbors, and didn’t want to. I went in and out of the grocery store and post office as swiftly as I could. At night I called my husband, and we talked, and I said I missed him, said I felt terrible that his job kept him in the rancid air of the city when the sky here was so clean it was like taking a bath just to breathe, and he told me how unhealthy it felt to be sucking in the air of the refineries and that the college’s president was right then doing chemo, walking around in a blond wig, and the dean had to wear a diaper when he worked out in the exercise room.

“Hang in there,” I said. “Houston’s not so far away. And I’m getting the house ready for you.” We kissed and nuzzled over the receiver. Then I hung up, and spread out on the full, magnificent length of the bed, taking all the pillows, even shunting the dog into her kennel beside me, and the feeling of space was so wonderful I might have been a NASA Voyager–I felt no gravity, no pull, except toward the outer.

 

The only friend I allowed myself that summer was Diane. Diane was unmarried, and a dog lover. I’d spotted her house when we’d been shopping for our own, and had noticed the dog agility field in front of it, the equipment set out on the bright grass—jumps and hurdles and tires and tunnels. After I moved in, I remembered that field full of hurdles, that green field in the middle of a desert, while I shoveled stones and cut down trees and Spree lay morose behind the chain-link. Border collies can be patient, but they have a limit. If you don’t give them something to do, if you don’t give them work, to distract themselves with, they go mad. She started gnawing at the fence. So one day I went to the other side of the valley, the mountain side, to introduce myself. Diane’s full name was written on a swinging wooden board outside her house. I hoped to use my standing as a writer (“Hi, I’m an author who’s just moved here . . . “) to ingratiate myself with her. Because in the desert, you have to have something to offer. People aren’t instantly friendly. They’ve come to get away, too. In a desert, everyone is single.

 

I told Diane the trouble I’d had when I first got Spree: how long it had taken her to bond with me, how at first she didn’t even want to lie down anywhere near me, especially on the bed; how when I lay down next to her, she’d simply gotten up and walked away. How, when I had tried to take her to a training class, she’d foamed at the other dogs and gnashed.

Diane thought for a moment, looking down. Diane is tall and severe and gray. When she lowers her chin, she doesn’t lose any height.

“Does your dog know how to tug?”

“Excuse me?”

“Tug. Does your dog know how to. With tug toys.”

“Oh . . . I was told that I shouldn’t do that. That it would make her more aggressive?”

“Wrong. You have to find a way to connect with a dog like this. And one way is tugging. Now pay attention.”

She gave me a demonstration with three braided toys, and then sent me home with orders to buy my own. I should lure Spree to grip one of the braids between her teeth by shaking it wildly in front of her. Then I should drop that toy and reach for another, and shake it until she grabbed it; and so on with the next identical toy; and so on, and so on, back and forth between the three toys, until she learned that the toy itself was nothing, that she didn’t control it, that she didn’t make things happen and it didn’t make things happen, that only the human hand, the bond, the person at the other end of the braided rope, was the source of all movement. That a toy lying by itself was meaningless, “dead.”

Diane knows animals. She knows species. When I first met her, she hadn’t retired yet from her work as a park ranger at nearby Arches National Park, where she was “Chief of Interpretation.” She oversaw films and dioramas that illuminated all the flora and fauna in the park. She also lit the way for humans, leading tours through the Fiery Furnace, a maze of spears and fins that swallows you unless you have someone to guide you out. When I hiked, I carried water and snacks and first aid. When Diane hiked, she carried an ax and a shovel and a rope.

She didn’t worry about dying alone in the desert; in fact she planned on it, more or less. She’d drawn up her will, specifying where her dogs should go. She made jokes about not needing a husband or partner, but the truth was she didn’t. She lived for her dogs: two border collies and a border collie mix. Much later, after my husband’s diagnosis, when we came back to Moab in that twilight season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 2009, Diane had not only filled the house for us with food and crepe-paper banners but left dog treats, too. And what she told me about dogs was this: You must understand that you want them to care about nothing so much in the world as you. But don’t think any creature on earth knows how to do this automatically. They don’t. They have to be taught. Pick up the toy. Drop the toy. Live toy. Dead toy.

 

After I met Diane I started training the dog in earnest. Spree learned very quickly how to tug with me, and drop. We looked each other keenly in the eye as we wrestled over the pieces of knotted flannel. This was important, because the game wasn’t really about the tugging, Diane said. It was about the seeing. Understanding the connection. The tension. Desert and mountain.

By the end of July I was growing tired though, and lethargy came over me. It hit me when I picked up a paintbrush, anything—a braid, a pen. A feeling that I could do no more, with land, with dog, with plot. I wasn’t writing well. I called my husband and told him I was missing him, and meant it. I’d planted some honeysuckle, I said, but was having to water the vines every day, and one plant had already died. The dead willow trees were more than I could saw down on my own. They leaned like a pair of drunks who wouldn’t leave. Then the first fierce dust storm of the season blew in and kept me inside: a red darkness, then a short, smacking rain falling through the grit, enough so that everything, the house, the fence, the metal barn of the garage, stood coated in what looked like spattered blood.

“So how are things out in Houston?”

“Boring.”

“When are you coming?”

“As soon as I can.”

 

By the middle of August the weather pattern the locals call the Monsoon had arrived. It strikes the high desert late in summer, when moisture comes up from the south, from Mexico and Arizona, and fierce storms, thunderous, eerily tropical, maneuver in. The air grows humid; the air conditioning no longer works; I lay in bed sweating and still as the wind gathered, moaning over the roof, siphoning its way across the Moab Rim and then gusting down, but at a different pitch than I had grown used to, not with a combing rasp but with a deep, dark rumbling, as if the cliff above were getting ready to fall on top of my head.

Then came rain on top of wind, true, hard rain, pounding my low-slung roof. I curled under the sheets alone, and wondered if this metal-sided nothing of a house, this painted shoebox at the edge of a wilderness, had its feet tied down properly. If its windows were going to burst. If this was why the ancestors of the Navajo at Shiprock had long ago climbed up the side of that masted mountain, and held their children, and their breath.

Spree was so nervous I opened up her kennel and let her get on the bed with me and together we huddled and tucked. Then a wall of sound came down on us, and panicking, I couldn’t duck any longer, I called to her “Let’s go!” and grabbed a flashlight and we ran out of the house and into the streaming darkness, and as I waved the gnat of the light all around in the howling rain I saw the thing that had come down to us, the unleashed water, the force of it, the bed of the drywash suddenly filled with surging foam, and I backed away and shined my puny light on the cliff above but couldn’t see it, only hear the water pouring off in a thousand-thousand streams, and I wasn’t lethargic anymore, but giddy, shrieking because I was alone and awake and alive and feeling something no one else was in all that howling, soaking world, not even the barking dog. Because a storm, if it doesn’t drown you, dances you like a kite in the shape of a tiger.

In the morning, when I came out after the flash flood, I saw Mr. Thane walking around, brooding on the other side of the empty but now widened wash. And I saw why. The flood had taken a gaping chunk out of his land before making its way down to the creek. His tractor hung over the lip of a fresh chasm, yellow backhoe clawing over a crater. I waved, but he didn’t see me. He went on staring down into the hole, wondering, perhaps, what to fill it with.

 

I don’t know how many married people hunger to be alone. I suspect a few do.

Imagine: no more having to explain, or conceal or deny. No more secrets. No more guilt.

“I wish you could have seen the storm,” I apologized without him knowing it.

“It sounds amazing.”

“It was. It really was.”

When we had first seen the house on West Kane Creek, on one of our short vacations to the desert, he hadn’t even wanted to go in. Imagine that. He’d said it was covered in trash, and it looked like way too much work.

“But I think it could work,” I argued. “And it’s cheap. I want a realtor to show it to us.”

“I’m not interested. I want something nicer.” His standards were always too high. Life was so short, he said. Why settle?

“But we can’t afford anything nicer. And we’ve been trying to buy here forever. Maybe it’s a mess, but it’s a great location. Right at the edge of the backcountry.”

“You can go look at it yourself, then.”

“Well I guess I will.”

At the last minute he’d changed his mind and agreed to come and look with me. And the property was a shambles, true, you could hardly walk around the inside of the house, or parts of the trashy acre—but it had potential. We just have to try to use our imaginations. We ended up going home to Texas and buying it long distance. We closed the deal without ever having seen the place again. When we came back, the first night we spent in the house we couldn’t sleep, we were so shocked by the wreck of it, by what we had together done. But the next morning we ripped out the carpet and said, It will be OK, look where it is, look where we are, you’ll get started, OK, I will, yes, and I’ll help you when you get back, OK, yes, I will.

 

Four years later we came back to prepare the house for those long winter months we would be away while my husband completed his radiation treatments. Diane had agreed she would watch over things while we were gone. I wondered if, unmarried, with no one beside her, she’d ever known the feeling of helplessness.

We covered the air conditioning unit with canvas. We shut the irrigation system off. My husband used compressed air to blow water out of all the plumbing. We poured anti-freeze into the toilets. The desert in December is unpredictable. We had to get back to Houston before Christmas. The doctors were going to insert a golden pellet into my husband’s body, a star that would guide their work, focusing them.

I lay in bed beside him and I no longer wanted to be alone. How could this body next to me in the dark not be here? Why, why did it feel like it was already gone, like what lay next to me was blackness pumped with air, a leaky shadow? What mirage, what lunacy, what tricks had I played on myself, out here in the middle of nowhere? There are games you play when you know they are only games.

I lay in a sweat and remembered how he had come back to me, that first summer, the summer of the septic stones and training the dog and Katrina and axes and cutting down trees, how the dog and I had waited at the chain-link fence for him, how we’d seen his Jeep inching along the canyon’s shadow, under the red rim, how Spree had jumped for joy when he pulled in and how I had thrown my arms around him and dragged him all over the property, showing off what I had done, I, alone.

“You wouldn’t believe how hard this tree was to cut. I did it with a handsaw. Diane had a chainsaw but I didn’t know how—I didn’t want to use it. And look how I did the border of stones for us.”

“Wow. I can’t believe it. Thank you for all this.”

And then that night—how could it have been this way? But it was—I was resentful, crowded in the bed beside him, claustrophobic, every ripple of that great sleeping body I’d been married to for how many years threatening to drown me, to suffocate me, so much so that I’d gotten up, choking, and gone quickly to the spare room with a blanket and pillow and curled up on the futon, and slept, relieved, free.

In the morning I had to apologize to his wounded, stubbled face.

I’m sorry. It’s just going to take me a little while to learn again.

The dog blinked at us with her herding-breed stare. She doesn’t like it when our voices rise. She tried to distract us. She looked down at the toy. Pick it up, she glared at it. Pick it up.

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