“Mayday, it’s Mayday!” mutters Tony to himself, and a crisis is the last thing he wants. His watch reads three o’clock and he looks at the mesa again, a mile away. There are cactus spires all along the skyline but nothing moving. His father is not there. No blue jacket, no tan shirt, no tiny figure in brown pants scrambling up the rocks. Tony watches through the binoculars for fifteen minutes. No George.
Everything starts speeding up. Tony scrambles around the heaps of rock at the diggings, picking up a water bottle, the first aid kit, his wool cap and down vest. Anything for warmth. His father may be hurt so badly it would be crazy to take him out of the desert this late in the day. Better to bed down between sheltering boulders and keep him warm until morning. Bring the dropcloth. That would work as a small blanket. Tony stuffs his blue daypack almost to bursting.
“What the hell,” Tony grouses, “did the old man do?” They are sixty miles from help. Two mountain wise coots and something went wrong. By the time Tony was nine his father had taught him about the desert, but after that he almost stopped talking. And no more trips. Tony carries a picture from those early days: his father with a wry grin on his face, leaning against a Willie’s. The jeep was stuck in sand halfway up the hubcaps. And now, twenty years later, Tony invited his father back to the desert. For Tony this is a caring gesture, but look. George hardly broke his silence in two whole days, and now something has happened. He did not make it to the mesa.
Tony bangs the dust out of his gloves and pulls them on. He takes one final glance around the prospect. Upslope from the dirt piles and boulders a fluorescent pink marker flutters from a mesquite bush. Behind it, in the background, rocky peaks cascade all the way to the horizon. Tony turns away from that glorious view and looks back at the mesa. Its dark mass looms above a stack of granite hills, and there is nothing moving. “Okay, Dad, I’m coming after you.”
George took off on his own at one thirty. The plan was for him to wave his jacket from the flat topped mountain in an hour. Tony had looked him in the eye and said, “If we miss each other at two thirty, let’s try again at three.” The mesa might be more than an hour away, and the old man is not so fast. “Fifty eight,” George had bragged last night, in the middle of a long silence, scrunching his eyes and tipping his bald head back, “and strong as a horse.” But he wasn’t. And if they didn’t make contact at three o’clock? ” I’m coming after you,” Tony had said.
Tony heads out. He clambers up a granite boulder carved by ancient floods into hollows and bumps. He surveys the slope ahead. Nothing. His blood pounds and his belly is sinking. If it’s a sprained ankle, okay, provided he finds George before dark and they make it to camp. A broken leg or worse and they are in trouble. Though he could make a litter out of cardon ribs. Tie a dozen sticks together from one of those dead cactus spires and he would have a platform to put his father on. He could drag him out, all the way back to the truck. Okay, but how to bind the sticks? The nylon cord is back at camp, an hour the other side of the prospect. Maybe he could pull some fibers out of a live cardon. Or use the straps from his daypack. He could even rip up his shirt. Still the truck would be two days away and the going slow. He would have to carry their water. They could both die.
Up a small ridge, down the crest, into a wash and there in the sand are his father’s bootprints. “I’ll trail you!” Tony says, and he is Davy Crockett, eyes squinting and arms akimbo. He scans the whitish gray sand. He can do this. He is in shape and he knows how to breathe. Big breaths in motion, not stopping, and his legs sing power. Power. Sing power even as they tire, more air pumps in more power and keep breathing. Keep moving. His boots crunch in the fine gravel.
He must be catching up. “Mayday, Mayday!” Bring the fellow out to his old stomping grounds and then have to rescue him. What a reversal. Tony will have to show what kind of a man he has become, and do that under pressure. He may have to exhaust himself, perhaps dangerously. He feels a tug along the backs of his legs: hamstrings. He slows a little. For now, find the footprints. Tony rounds the next cardon, this one with thirty foot arms reaching into the sky, but there are no fresh marks in the ground. Then, by a low, prickly cholla cactus, he sees a heel indentation and a toe hole dug deep, squirting sand over the soleprint. George on the move.
Another punched in heel followed by a trail of footprints, one after another and looking strong. What could have happened? The terrain is not difficult. And the mesa looms close ahead. Is his father playing a trick on him? The guy is so hard to talk to. Tony had hoped he could make contact here in the desert, but no. For an hour last night his father had stirred the campfire, muttering to himself, his big wrinkly face glinting dark red. He tinkered with his pack, he fiddled with his sleeping bag, he grumbled when Tony spoke to him. Only when Tony said he looked strong had George responded. “Strong as a horse” and less talkative.
Inconceivable that he’s playing a joke. Their lives are in the balance. And George never joked around. A couple of guys at school used to talk about their fathers’ pranks. News to Tony. One boy had woken up in the middle of the night with his three pet rabbits out of their cage and in bed with him, chewing on his pajamas. He had laughed and screamed and finally got them back in their cages. His father was watching TV. “They told me you were lonely. They wanted to get in bed with you.” The boy had cried and they had wrestled a while. Then his dad had tucked him back in and made him a cup of hot chocolate. They had dealt with each other. Tony wouldn’t know how.
And Tony would give anything to be back at the prospect. He could be digging out an aquamarine, making a find and sharing it with his father. The next section of vein could be rich. Levered up, it might show rust red clay, outlines of quartz and feldspar crystals in a pocket as big as his hand. Tony would brush with his old whisk broom and scrape with a knife. A clear, sparkling blue beryl would stare through the muck. He is due for a fine crystal. Overdue. But there has been almost nothing, only a few small pieces. The vein may turn out barren after all.
His father had hung around for the morning while Tony dug. Then George got antsy. He took off for the mesa. And now Tony trails him, mesquite rustling as he pushes through, watching the ground for his tracks. Cholla cactus! Look out. Those yard high clusters of spine balls will split apart and stick on the surrounding bushes. The live cactus is bluish green and unmistakable, but the old spine balls weather, turn brown and blend in with the brush. Hard to spot. You could jam your knee into one. They are six inches across. His father pointed out the danger twenty years ago, when Tony was a boy. They were a week in this desert and his Dad was so smart looking, his face leathery against the sky. He could read the plants and the rocks and the weather and animal tracks. Tony had adored his father.
But Tony does not like these bootprints. They are too competent. The prints march out of a shallow canyon, widely spaced and heading straight for the mesa. And brown lava, a broad rocky cap on the mesa, is not far away. Tony cannot imagine why his father was not on the summit by two thirty. Let alone by three o’clock. He must have gone on, thinks Tony, without waiting for a signal from me. Tony shouts up the mountain, “You asshole, old man! Are you worth all this? Do you know what this is like?” But Tony hears his voice echoing. What if his father heard those words? And what if he can’t? He could be down, unconscious, with a broken ankle or gashed shin. Or worse. And yelling is no way to start the long trek out. Two days to the truck, rationing water, doling out aspirin and pulling his father through the brush on a bunch of cactus ribs.
“Okay old man, I’m on my way. Hang on.” Tony booms the words up the slope. But with his next strides he mutters, “I want to be home. Sleeping. Or soaking in the tub. Anything but this.” Suddenly he is striding up the lava cap of the mesa. The tall cardon thin out and small agave thrive, everywhere, yard long sprays of broad, stiff, spine edged leaves in clumps. And the bootprints disappear. Disappear! Tony studies the ground: dark chocolatey rocks, from pebbles to fist sized to skull sized, all jumbled together and no smooth surfaces. No sand. No bootprints and no chance of prints. Tony kicks a rock and goes on.
He had kicked a rock twenty years before, for sure. He and his father had been at an old mine in the mountains and Tony had been walking up the trail playing soccer with stones. One was the size of his eight year old fist. Smoky gray and drab. “That’s not a pretty rock,” he had said aloud and kicked it. But his father had picked it up, turned it in the light, and shown him the six sides. They were dull, it was not a fine crystal, but it had an elegant shape. Quartz. Two inches long with a point on the end. Held at an angle you could see the light glinting through it, a clear, steely gray. That was the beginning of Tony’s passion. That crystal changed how Tony looked at rocks.
His father had picked up an old manzanita root on that trip, too. It was in a gully. How many dozens of years had it washed down the arroyo? It was lumpy and waterworn. To Tony it was a grungy old stick. Until his Dad carried it home, washed it off, oiled it and set it up over the fireplace. Hung it by a fishline. “That’s my objet d’art!” he exclaimed one evening. Tony stared at it, not knowing what the phrase meant. The root did not look like any kind of “dart.” But he stared at it, and all at once he saw it as colors and shapes. It became more than a stick. He became able to see things as shapes and colors.
But Tony is not thinking about art now. He is scared. Words start in his gut and push up his throat. He starts singing, “It’s just another day in Paradise.” He wills his father to have made it to the top, down the far side and around to camp. He hopes George is building a fire now, chuckling. He’s like some of Tony’s friends. People who disappear. Tony has been chasing after people like that for years. And he feels nasty. Why had his father stopped talking when Tony was a kid? He does not know. And he doesn’t know how to find out. “It’s just another day,” he sings. He has to keep moving. He is the rescuer, and he’s crying. He wipes tears across his cheeks and they dry instantly in the wind.
Hard wind blows across the escarpment and still there are no footprints. Tony yells at the top of his lungs, “Yo, Dad! Where are you? Make a noise!” He continues up the slope, and when he can no longer see the spot where he last yelled from, Tony shouts again. “Hey, Dad! Tape yourself!” His father has the marking tape. Why is there no fifty foot streamer, fluorescent pink, streaming in the wind? He must be out of sight and out cold. Unconscious. Tony feels crazy. He booms his voice, prolongs the name, “Hey, Dad!” hits the “oo” sound in ” Where are you?” and then trounces the last word, “Make a noise!”
The sun is sinking. Three forty five, three fifty, closing on four o’clock. And Tony is near the top. He stops, takes great gulps of water and pulls his down vest out of the pack. He’s been sweating right through his clothes and wind turns the moisture icy. He’s freezing. On with the vest and he starts again, pushing off a rock and his ankle begins to turn. Tony falls quickly. Deliberately. He goes down before the ligament can stretch and clunk! he hugs a boulder. With his chest. He is shaken but not bruised. And the ankle is not hurt. Back up, he starts for the summit again. This had better be worth it. Wherever you are, Dad, did you see that? I am your competent son. Reflexes, body awareness, the rescuer survives. He chants under his breath, “The rescuer survives!”
He is on top. Abruptly. The cacti shrink down to small sizes, in a few yards the boulders give way to soft red earth and the ground is flat. Flat for a half mile. Tony scans the horizon. No George. And no bootprints nearby. What now, look for him over the mesa’s edge? To the left and right, among the tumbled boulders? Yes, a dangerous possibility. First, mark the spot where Tony came up. He finds a dried agave flower spike, six feet long, and leans it into a diminutive cardon. It’s as obvious as a flag. But wind blows the stick right down. Tony crams it between the trunk of the cardon and its fat, upthrust arm, and now it stays. The father of the eight year old would approve.
Tony sets off to the north, rushing, watching for bootprints. The boulders are scary, huge, and he has to climb down until the lower slope is in view. Then yell. The rocks are steady and they do not tip. Good. The rescuer survives. But it is dicey, scrambling over the boulders, yelling, then back up the escarpment. Across another hundred feet and over the cliff again. Cannonball the words. Then back up and down again. Tony has no time. Wind in his face, bright sun at a slant and panic closing on his heart. Camp is an hour from the prospect. From here maybe an hour and a half. Down the mountain and cross country, through a torturous route of boulders and gullies and cacti. He has to leave in a few minutes, at five. With or without his father. Dark at six thirty and he can do the last fifteen minutes in twilight. Leave at five, that’s the limit. And if there is no George by then, big trouble.
Tony hikes back to the agave marker. A hundred feet past it he starts on the southerly cliffs. The sun is two fingers’ width above the horizon and he needs to get out alive. He is singing again, “It’s just another day in Paradise” and he’s disgusted. Some present for his father. Bring him back and he gets lost in the desert. But Tony keeps going. Wind pushes wet tears around his face. He clambers over the mesa’s edge and booms out the words. “Yo Dad! Where are you? Make a noise!” And there is an answer. An answer!
From the camp? His father’s down in the valley! Tony scrambles over the next hump in the escarpment, his heart racing. He perches on a boulder the size of a small truck. His eyes jump around. “Hey Dad!” More boulders, cacti and mesquite but no blue jacket and no pink tape. Nothing visible. “I hear you but I don’t see you!”
A murmur floats up.
Louder. “Yo Dad! Where are you?” Louder yet. “Make a noise!” Tony turns his head sideways, fixing from an angle. Some other sounds drift up. Three distinct syllables, were they “Yo! Yo! Yo!”?
“Oh my god, my god,” Tony whispers and he is swimming in a thin, warm breeze. “He’s okay. Maybe he’s okay. Maybe he thought I gave a sign and he went on.” But Tony hadn’t given a sign. He had held his arms rigidly down. He hadn’t even twitched at that two thirty contact, when he scanned the mesa with his eyes from far away. Tony feels tricked. He twists his face into a mean scowl. What a wretch. Then relief floods back. Everything is changed, it’s all right! George is okay. George is safe. Maybe.
He starts down, straight for the main wash hazy in the distance. The shallow ravine turns through low ridges that angle past the camp. But a rock twists underfoot and he goes down again. Sideways. It happens too quickly for him to avoid being hurt. He grabs a prickly bush. “God damn fucker!” He feels pain stab at his ankle. He would damn well smash a rock into his father’s skull. Blood and gray matter would pulse out.
But Tony is all right. In a few moments the funny bone jangling in his foot subsides. He flexes it and the ankle seems okay. He negotiates the next boulders slowly, carefully. The rescuer survives. But if he doesn’t pay attention, especially now, he may not make it back to camp. A broken leg here and he would have to drag himself out with his elbows. George would have no clue where to find him. You are right, Dad, wherever you are. Even when the emergency is over, you still have to think. Tony imagines the lecture on survival, his father to the little boy. Or is this a real memory? The leathery skin on his father’s balding head and a demanding glint in his eye. Think! George would have said, think! And Tony has risen to the task. But his father may not comprehend how hard it’s been. This rugged mesa and a missed signal.
Tony is worn out, and the light is fading. Down the wash, across a talus slope and then pick up the trail from camp. It looks easy, but the top slopes of the badlands are all he can see. When you get into that country it gets complicated. The steep, pretzel like ups and downs and sideways are hidden. Still, all Tony has to do is keep his balance. And keep breathing. A steady stride. No surprises.
Tony tries to guess what his father will say. He might think nothing has happened, at least nothing that was a problem. Or he will make Tony the problem. But Tony will say how difficult the afternoon has been. Close to disastrous. And if Tony sticks to his guns, his father may walk away without talking. And in the morning his father might apologize. For being cranky. But cranky is to that silence what an ant is to a molehill. Or to the mesa where Tony was scrambling his heart out. Or to this steep, screwy wash. He has to be careful. He keeps grabbing the mesquite for balance, and it is prickly. The main branches are nearly smooth, but the thin ends have thorns sticking out at angles. They snag his skin right through the gloves.
He and George are two people in the desert and they must take care of each other. But has George ever taken care of him, since he was nine? No. Not once. Then Tony does remember one time, much later. He had dropped out of school. He did not want to be a student. He hung around the house for a while. His father wasn’t talking to him then, either. Not to his teenage son. But one afternoon he took him out for a ride. “Get in,” and that was all he said. He had a sporty car, a Ford coupe, old but still fast, and he headed for the mountains and turned onto a side road. Dirt. It twisted and turned, going up steeply. His father took the corners fast, sliding and recovering. Controlled skids, or semi controlled. He would go with the changing angle of the slide, aiming the wheels at the next corner. Clouds of dust billowed behind them. The whole while his father had said nothing.
At the time Tony could make nothing of it, but now it looks sort of caring. His father was paying attention to him. Maybe he valued Tony’s company after all. And Tony felt okay. He feels okay now, too. He is off the mesa, the wash has flattened out and he’s making good time across the talus slope. He finds the trail to camp, no problem. An easy mile and the tent should be in sight.
But when Tony spots the camp’s marker, thirty feet of pink tape draped on a cardon, he gets anxious. As if decades, not hours, have passed since losing sight of his father. And whatever George says may be a surprise. Any sort of prickly stuff could be scraping around his mind. That could be him by the trail, too, that gray area more solid than the feathery bushes. Tony strides up and it’s George all right. Standing in the twilight, bare-headed, erect and feisty.
Oh man!” Tony takes off his hat and gloves, and slaps them on his thigh. A cloud of fine mesquite leaves, pollen, and dust rises in the dim light. “Am I glad you’re here!” Tony has made his supreme effort and there’ll be no desperate measures. No hauling an injured man out through the forest. “And you’re all right, aren’t you?”
The old man has a small fire burning in the clearing behind him. His faces scrunches up. He turns a long stick around and around in his hands. “I heard you calling and calling,” he accuses, ” way off somewhere.” The stick is laced with diamond-shaped holes. A cardon rib, twisted and battered by the elements. “What did you think you were doing?” He bangs the stick into the ground.
Nice try, thinks Tony. Is that his plan, a good defense is a strong offense? Tony glowers down at his father’s wrinkled pate and waves at the ragged skyline. “I was looking for you. All over those cliffs.” His sleeve drags through the air like a tattered flag. The fabric is punched and ripped by thorns. He looks like a veteran of the desert war.
“No!” George bangs the cardon rib into the ground again. His eyes are popping and he looks away. “I went right where I said I was going.”
Sure, says Tony, and how was he to know? But his father stands there banging the stick and glaring at the ground. Tony sighs. His old man is angry, and why? Tony tries slipping off the daypack, but it’s stuck to his back with sweat and dirt. He sits down on a low boulder by the fire and pulls at the straps. He bends forward, tugging and twisting. If he pulls any harder his body will split down the middle. Goddamn pack. Finally one strap slides off, then the other. He groans.
His father is still banging the stick. Like a defiant kid, thinks Tony, for Christ’s sake. The old man is as guilty as sin, and he’s not even looking at Tony. This guy has been practicing for twenty years how not to talk. Better shove at him, thinks Tony. Even if he’s a solid wall. Otherwise he is going to ask me what’s for dinner. “I didn’t see you signal.”
His father flexes the cardon rib with his hands. “Didn’t see me signal?”
“No,” Tony fixes him with his eye. “I spent the last three hours scrambling over those cliffs. Looking for you.” The stick breaks and his father throws it on the fire. Tony flinches. “I thought you had busted an ankle.”
“That’s ridiculous.” His father angles another stick between a rock and the ground. He lifts his leg, jams the stick with his boot and it snaps.
“What was I supposed to think? I didn’t see you.”
“You must have seen me.” George throws the two pieces on the fire. Bang. Sparks slither up into the air and go out. “I waved up there. Big sweeps of my jacket. ”
“Two thirty.” He glares at Tony and then turns back to the fire. He speaks distinctly, “You could not have missed it. ”
“Did you see me wave back?”
Whap. Another stick broken. “You went back to digging.”
“You didn’t see me wave back!”
“I didn’t have to!” Another stick goes on the fire. Bang. More sparks slither up and go out.
“The deal was, if I didn’t wave, I didn’t see you.” Why the hell doesn’t the old man get it? “So I thought you had gotten hurt.” Did Tony put himself at risk, up and down the mesa, just because his father thought he didn’t need a return signal?
But George’s voice rumbles, “That’s not true.” The words are barely distinct and he moves to the other side of the fire. Tony can no longer see him. Whap and more sparks.
“That’s all you’re going to say?” Pause. “It’s not true? ”
“Talk to me, you asshole.”
Tony groans. If the old man doesn’t want to talk, what more can Tony do? Murder him? He leans his arms on his knees. His legs feel like lead. He feels like lead all over. And he still has to eat. He will not sleep on an empty stomach. Not with this sour, aching feeling.
His father is a faint outline the other side of the fire. Tony asks the darkness, “I suppose you’re hungry?” I suppose, he thinks, you’ll answer that question.
No, the gravelly voice answers back, he ate sandwiches. The fire roars.
Tony lifts his hand to his head. He watches it come up slow motion. That’s it, he thinks. No more talk. I get to zombie walk through the evening by myself, cook up some noodles and chicken oregano sauce. Push the spoon into my mouth. Chew and swallow. Again and again, and then clean the pot. Take off my boots and pull myself into the sleeping bag. Forget everything.
In the morning his father will reappear and say something conciliatory. He might ask if Tony found any good beryl crystals. Or maybe, “Too bad you made that long hike.” At most. As if it would make up for his wild scramble up the mesa and all that yelling. As if it would change those years of silence. Or George might say nothing.
Tony pushes himself into his mummy bag, shivering. His belly is warm though, he’ll be comfortable in a minute. And the stars are beginning to brighten overhead. Maybe there’ll be some meteors tonight. There’s the Dog Star, surrounded by filaments of almost black space, and the Archer is coming up over the mesa. Yeah, yeah, his father taught him about the stars, too. Tony’s young mind had marvelled how they seem to work together, vast, complicated, responsive.
And distant, Tony thinks, fucking distant. Next time, he thinks, if there is a next time, I won’t even try to talk. So forget about why he won’t deal with me. I’ll drop a boulder on the old man.