Step 1. Exposure:
My grandma wanted a burial at sea. It sounded like something beautiful—like something worth immortalizing in marble, or on canvas. An oil painting the size of a billboard.
But this place is nothing like an oil painting. Not slick, not exact. Instead, the Salton Sea is like a Seurat painting: beautiful at a distance, the shapes familiar and concrete—until you walk closer, realize the shapes are just suggestions. Realize the painting’s a fucking mess.
I understand what my grandma had meant when she asked me to come here one day, Feel the dead fish between your toes, Amelia, and that’s because the beach is all pulverized fish bones, sun bleached and sun hollowed. No sand, not really. Like with a Seurat, you have to squint.
I readjust my tripod and watch the brown sea shrink to its center through the camera’s viewfinder. Treeless mountains careen in the distance. There’s a lot about this so-called sea that’s striking, but I can’t stop thinking about the fish. Maybe it’s the smell: darkroom sulfur, dirty pennies, sunbaked scales.
According to the guidebook I’d bought before leaving San Francisco, the Mozambique tilapia crossed an ocean, and then an entire continent, to plant roots in this place—this sea below sea level. Then runoff and toxins ate away at the oxygen in the water. The tilapia started to die off fast, their gills split raw. Take the population of the Bay Area, give all those people gills—that many tilapia bloomed on the surface of the lake. Per day. Now, fish flesh silts the seafloor; like little alchemists in their salt circles, bacteria transmute the flesh into corpse wax.
I stop looking through the viewfinder and reach down for the aluminum thermos that contains what’s left of Grandma. Stillwater Road. That’s where she lived, or so she told me when I was eight years old. Back when everything was okay, when Grandma was okay. Before the night of the blizzard, the night she told me stories about the Salton Sea for the first time.
We sat on the floor of her living room, markers and stencils scattered around us. The picture window quivered as snow howled down. She’d mentioned the sea before in passing: it was the place she was from, nothing more.
I thought it was called the Sultan Sea, and that it was someplace beautiful—encrusted with jewels and ringed with gold all the way through. But I’d misheard.
This great flood, a big accident, turned the desert back into a sea, she’d said, speaking into an unlit flashlight as if it were a microphone. The window rattled; icicles loosed.
I twist the lid of her thermos tighter, even though I can’t seal it any further, and then look through my viewfinder again. The tilapia float on almost nothing at all. Click. They were carried across an ocean to snack on mosquitoes. Click, click. But now they’re like bugs themselves: what’s left of the sea is their citronella candle—the wax a sort of amber, and the amber a sort of frame.
I’m really trying to squint.
Before checking into my motel, I stop at one of the only convenience stores for miles. When I think of the person who works there, calling it a convenience sounds almost wrong. I need a snack, or maybe just a bottle of water that doesn’t smell minnow-like, spoiled. Mostly, I need aluminum trays.
The store specializes in groceries and hardware and home goods and greeting cards and fresh vegetables—so fresh they’re wrapped in plastic, these tight second skins. Near the door, there’s a cooler, chunky red and white plastic. I fish out a Coke from the lukewarm water, but one of the bottles has spilt; flies laze around on the chips of floating, yellow ice.
I collect some disposable aluminum trays, a few bottles of water, and a bag of unsalted chips. At the register there’s a small display of greeting cards, weathered by light. Some of them feature cartoon characters who haven’t been in style in years. One has a photograph, from the sixties maybe, of a woman in a straw hat, my grandma or someone like her, testing the water with her big toe. A red convertible gleams in front of a stretch of blue. Families wave from little boats. Birds wing out over the expanse, healthy. Greetings from the Salton Sea! it says.
You taking that, too? the cashier says.
Oh, I’m okay, I say, and then add, I’m a photographer.
He laughs. It’s this sort of plum-pit laugh: beneath the thin skin, there’s a sadness. He punches a button on the register and says, All the photographs of here are just empty now.
There’s not much else, I say. It’s a desert.
That’s a shit thing to say, he says, ‘cause it’s true.
When was the last time he helped a customer? Though, with little competition he could probably say anything that came to mind and still make a killing with yellowed ice and expired donut holes. He has a weathered look about him, like he was chiseled from the slicks of salt and then left to roughen in the wind. If his face is a carving, set and unchanging, then his eyes are like liquid: he’s so used to deflecting the heaviness of this place that his eyes will drink in everything around him, reshape and reflect it back.
He holds out my plastic bag of loot; it smiles a Thank You.
Actually, can you throw the card in? I say. Why not.
He taps the postcard, finger digging into the sea, hard. He says, This country’s more about spaces than places. Deserts, parking lots—and our best landmark is a Big. Fucking. Hole. He punctuates each word by stabbing at the happy postcard with his finger.
Overhead, the fluorescent lights buzz louder than the cooler flies.
After stuffing my change in my jeans pocket, I hold the postcard up to the window. Sunlight spills through the red convertible, through my grandmother and the birds, so that they’re superimposed over the rundown RV, the cracked road, and the other nothingnesses outside. Exposed to just the right amount of light, things shift: the brown sea takes on the blue of the sky—which only appears blue itself because of the sun scattering just so.
Step 2. Developer Bath:
The woman at the front desk of the Whispering Pines Motel looks like someone who might’ve migrated here during the Sea’s heyday, hoping to meet a producer over drinks, only to have watched everything around her dry up. Her eye shadow, all deep blues and purples, is so exaggerated it makes her look flat, almost. There’s just something about her, like she could have walked right off one of those old billboards, or out of my postcard—a woman made of brightly painted cardboard.
Cigarette smoke wreathes the Cardboard Woman’s head. It’s not much, she says, but it’s an American masterpiece.
I can’t help but wonder how the motel affords to stay open. Me aside, who visits this place? Why’s it named after trees, let alone anything that suggests a liveliness?
A masterpiece, I say. It’s difficult to imagine, but my grandma told me stories.
The real estate in Bombay Beach was priceless once, she says, pulling an old-fashioned room key off a peg on the wall. Number two-forty-seven.
Like Palm Springs, I say.
An oceanside Palm Springs, she says, dabbing out her cigarette. Folks would be flown in, from Hollywood, and they’d pick out the houses they wanted from the sky. Wouldn’t set a damn foot on the sand, you know.
I can picture it—polyester and ties and melting makeup. Something glamorous a stone’s throw from L.A. Movie stars would glide over beachfront homes, look down into the blue of the manmade sea, never expecting it to sour.
Well, back when it was sand, she says, counting my cash.
Have you heard of Stillwater Road? I ask.
Stillwater? Maybe it’s in Bombay Beach, she says, tucking the bills into her shirt pocket. All the good places were.
In the bathroom of room two-forty-seven, I set up a makeshift darkroom. I start by unscrewing the decorative casing covering the light fixture, then replace the light bulb with a red one. I unload all of my supplies from the trunk of my car: the jugs of chemicals for the baths; a container of distilled water; the black bag; a box of disposable gloves; and, of course, the aluminum trays I bought in Bombay Beach.
While I’m carrying a few of the jugs in, the Cardboard Woman watches me through her screen door. She realizes I’ve realized her; she ashes her cigarette and disappears from view.
I envy painters: the ease, the non-judgment, the light.
After closing the door to the bathroom, I sit on the toilet seat and stare at the walls until my eyes adjust to the darkness. Once they do, I’m able to spot chinks of setting sun, down by the rotted baseboard, and use some rolled up towels as a means of stoppering the light.
I arrange four of the aluminum trays in the bathtub, all side by side: the tray for the developer; the tray for the stop bath; the one for the fix; and, balanced imperfectly over the drain, a tray for water—for washing the film clean of any fixer. The bathroom fan sputters to life when I flip the switch, sounding as though I’ve forced a fistful of spoons down a garbage disposable. It smells like smoke for a moment.
With the bathroom door open, I sit on the closed toilet seat again. The makeshift darkroom will do for one soak: the chemicals, heavier than the air, will settle over everything like juniper. I stare into the tub, the way the trays are aligned is familiar. They remind of that night, the blizzard. My grandma’s living room. A real nor’easter, the radio had crackled. The picture window, shaking, and—
I can’t look at them, at the trays. I flip the light switch on; everything runs red.
I roll over to check the time on the bedside clock: it flashes 12:00 a.m. The bathroom door’s ajar, so the clotted red of the darkroom lightbulb spills into the bedroom, staining the carpet with light. I am in a motel built on tilapia bones. I am 235 feet below sea level. The rotary phone rings. It’s red as the darkroom; the cord droops and spills and curls endlessly.
When I answer, I know there’s a fish on the other end.
The fish mouths nothing into the receiver, glacier soft. The nearly inaudible flap of his lips and cheeks ripple into the static—wade deeper into a silence. Then the static is dripping out of the little holes in the receiver, but it drips out as snow, not sound.
The snow mixes with the clotted red of the makeshift darkroom. More snow drifts in through the windows, though they remain locked. The fish waits, as if expecting me to speak first. The snow glimmers, undulates.
In the corner, my grandmother digs into a snow drift, cutting through the iciness with ease. The red light makes her look colder. I try to stand, but the snow is heavy. She looks up, mouths something the way the fish mouths something, but there’s no sound. From the hollow, she removes a photograph—half developed, still threaded with crystals, like a popsicle with freezer burn.
We’re not much, just water, the fish says in my grandmother’s voice. But we freeze so easily.
Then the fish has a fish-voice—something high pitched, something that gargles—and it’s making a sound like a low, drawn-out dial tone. And the snow isn’t snow the same way the sand of the Salton Sea isn’t sand.
Step 3. Stop Bath:
When the Ski Inn Diner was built, the name might have referred to waterskiing. Now, with the gravel of the fish bones, the name makes me think of snow. Even the booths, large and leather and lurching like shoulders, belong in a lodge.
I smack the side of the ketchup bottle; a glop of red splashes onto my fries.
More coffee? the waitress asks. A sticker on her blouse reads, Hello, I am Disinterested. She rolls her wrist so that the coffee in the carafe swills around.
Oh, yeah, I say. Thanks.
You a photographer? Disinterested asks.
How could you tell? I gulp some too-hot coffee; it warms a pit in my stomach.
She sits down on the stool, swiveling, and takes my coffee cup as if it’s a cigarette we’re sharing under a spill of desert moon. But it’s coffee under a florescent bleat.
Our knees are close enough to touch.
Everyone’s a photographer these days. Especially when they’re here. Her lipstick stains the mug; her laughter stains the air.
Good point, I say. I’m a photographer for real, but I’m here for my grandmother.
She lives here?
She did, I say. Years ago. But she’s gone.
I’m sorry, she says. That fucking sucks.
Disinterested passes the mug to me, and I take a hit.
So, she says, pouring more coffee, you’re on a pilgrimage.
I poke at my fries, stuff some in my mouth, and just nod.
You ever hear of Salvation Mountain?
Through a swallow I say, The artists’ community?
She grabs a triangle of toast off my plate, peels the crust from its spine. Up in Niland, Leonard built this mountain, this rainbow mountain. Like cotton candy. The good stuff, blue and pink, she says. All made of stuff folks threw away, left behind.
The pyramids of our time, I say.
She laughs and finishes my coffee.
While she shucks more toast, Disinterested explains that folks spend their winters in Niland, in Slab City. All these towns with unusual names. And they stay the season, or maybe just a night, and they make art out of leftovers. It’s kind of like photography—making art out of everything, anything. Just giving it the right context, exposing the right angle.
My favorite piece, the one I tell people to see, is the Sole Tree, she says.
A small desert-dwelling tree with mottled branches, all clotted and leafless. The only tree for miles around. Its roots running deep, deep, deep, to hidden upswells of water. The veins beneath the desert-skin.
It’s called that because of the shoes, she says.
Get it? Disinterested lifts one of her feet, rests it on the opposite knee, jabs at the underbelly of her sneaker. The Sole Tree.
Boots and sneakers swing from its branches, heavy wind chimes, emptied of sound.
I see, I say.
You sound disappointed, she says. It’s living art.
When she shifts her leg again, our knees clatter together. That pit in my stomach, the one the coffee’d warmed, deepens—a shock that runs from my ribs to my legs. Her eyes look smoky, like unpolished crystals, and her lips are chapped with salt and sand; I want them.
So, do I have to pay for the coffee if my waitress drank it all? I ask.
She smiles, soft as snow. I’m off work now.
Would you—do you want to get coffee for real? I ask. Somewhere else.
Disinterested stacks the mug on my plate, passes everything over the counter and out of sight. I want to reach over, brush the lipstick stain from the mug’s rim, let the redness mix into my fingers.
There’s no somewhere else, she says.
On the drive to Whispering Pines, I tell Disinterested about my grandma, about how she wanted a burial at sea. How she’d told me so, vaguely, during that terrible blizzard. In the very least, she’d wanted to revisit the Salton Sea, her childhood home.
Inside every person, there’s a memory of the ocean, Grandma said. A feeling of water—swelling, or being pulled into tides.
She passed away when I was in high school, I explain, and she never made it here.
The dry shores pass by the windows; I drive with one clenched hand. Disinterested touches my other hand, kneads each bone in each finger, as if it’s a secret language we’ve shared for years. Some sort of code she’s passing into my joints.
My aunt broke the news, said Grandma wanted to be cremated then buried at sea, in a manner of speaking, I say.
And there’s something nice about saying it to another person. How it seems comforting, to bury someone at sea. How there’d be no fear of ever missing her too much, because all waterways connect—channels, gulfs, streams, rain, veins. Even the hollows of shells want to capture some echo of water.
This burial at sea entails a bit more desert than the average one, I say.
Grandma rattles around in the cup holder, inches from our hands.
I want to say, even if you return as ashes, why would she want to revisit this place? But I don’t, because we’ve reached Whispering Pines, and I care too much about what Disinterested thinks of me, at least for now.
We leave Grandma in the cup holder. The thermos glints in the sunlight slanting through the windows; I keep mine cracked to give her some air, some rank air. Still, it seems better than sealing her up in a hot car.
You can start by putting the Do Not Disturb sign on the door, Disinterested says.
When I turn around, she’s pulled her shirt over her head. With the blinds drawn, and the lamps off, the quality of the light is strange—like the way light filtering into water becomes more like shadow. Its inverse. The negative of a photograph. A locket hangs from her neck; a heavy catkin bowed into the hollow of her breastbone. What’s inside the locket—is it an urn, too, like the thermos in my car? Or maybe the picture inside is a reminder of someone who’s still alive. Or maybe it’s empty. Just a hollow thing with a beautiful shell.
Her chapped mouth is softer than I expect. We both keep our bras on, half exposed. At first, she straddles me, grinds herself against me, and I close my eyes and sink into the room, sink against her. She stops for a moment, loops the locket through her bra strap so that it doesn’t dangle, or distract. I watch her, lit with shadow, hair loose.
Beyond her, I catch a glimpse of the makeshift darkroom. The red bulb, dark but clotted with light, waiting to spill. That dream—the red snow. All of it spilling out. The fish on the phone line. I can’t concentrate on Disinterested, on her thumbing my clit in slow circles. Circles. That fucking fish speaking underwater, bubbles rippling outward, in circles. The static spilling from the phone—snow spilling from the circles in the receiver.
I close my eyes again, but, every time I get close, I can’t stop looking past her shoulder, into the darkroom, into the dream-fringe. I straddle her instead, turning my back to the darkroom. Messily kiss her shoulders, and the sour metal of the locket, and that frayed mouth.
There’s a knock on the door. The shadow of someone moving around outside.
I put the sign out, I say.
Just ignore it, she says, and arches closer to me.
A few more knocks. A shuffling. Another solid knock.
We’ll just be quiet, she says, really fucking—shit. She presses her mouth to my neck, moans against the hollow of my throat, and I can feel each of her teeth, pressed there, like cold chips of ice.
Is this a smoking room? she asks.
I have no idea, I say.
I don’t see any smoke detectors.
They’ll probably start banging at the door, I say.
Or calling, she says, and picks the phone off the cradle. The dial tone groans into the walls, the fraying paper, the sand-threaded carpet.
I can’t believe they have rotary phones here, I say.
She hangs up, tongues a cigarette, but doesn’t light it. She says, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a rotary phone in person.
I saw one at a museum once, I say. It was in the middle of a gallery. It rang and rang, but the cord wasn’t plugged into anything.
If you picked up that impossible phone, who’d be on the other side? she asks.
I want to say, A fucking fish, but, instead, I cup my hands behind my head and say, My grandma, I guess, but it would be her from a specific time.
What do you mean? Like before she died.
Sort of, I say. There was this night, during a rough blizzard. That was the night everything got fucked up. I would want to talk to her before that happened. Right before.
You fucked something up? she asks. Like you feel like you failed?
No, it was what I didn’t do, after that night. That was the fuck up.
She pretends to take a drag, blow invisible smoke into my ear. You know, sometimes people aren’t around long enough for us to fuck things up.
It was a real nor’easter, I say, closing my eyes.
A real nor’easter. I can hear the crackling static, sifting in through Grandma’s radio. Propped up on the wood-burning stove, which had never worked. It’d felt exciting—this real blizzard. A thing we could tell stories about later, maybe.
I remember dragging milk crates full of art supplies out from the spare bedroom: I poured their contents all over the living room floor.
The computer paper I’d snatched was whiter than outside, and better than colorful construction paper because it really was a blank canvas: no yellow tint, which always compelled me to draw a sun, and no blue tint, which always compelled me to draw an ocean.
Have you seen the batteries, Amelia? my grandmother asked again.
No, I said, but I didn’t get up from the carpet to search with her.
She drifted from room to room, again-again-again.
I was annoyed; leave me alone, stop pacing, let me color. Night stretched on, and icicles grew along the top of the picture window, so that it looked like we were staring out from the mouth of some animal.
I don’t know where they could be, she said, again-again-again.
Grandma lit candles, all vanilla scented. Even so, she carried her sunless flashlight around in the crook of her arm, ever searching for the stupid batteries.
At the bottom of a milk crate, I found some old stencils we used to play with together, back when Grandma didn’t mind stretching out on the carpet. Her favorite stencil was the Christmas candles—three tapered candlesticks nestled in a tuft of holly, berries coiling around them. Simple, but elegant.
My favorite was the lion stencil, and I dug through the milk crate, scattering the bone-white stencils all over the carpet, until I found it. I held the stencil up in front of my face like a mask, so that my view of the living room morphed into a lion-shaped one. Everything fit within its body and its mane and its tail and its gnashing icicle teeth.
Grandma, I called. Look what I found!
But there was a scraping sound coming from the kitchen.
I told them we didn’t need any more, she said, voice strained and loud.
The picture window shook-shook-shook with a particularly strong howl. The glass vibrated. As if someone was trying to break it from the inside—
My bladder’s killing me, Disinterested says.
I open my eyes and she drops her unused cigarette on my stomach. Her feet are soundless on the carpet. The makeshift darkroom—the crust of the red bulb, beating. For some reason, it feels wrong for her to see it.
Wait, I say. Let’s get breakfast.
I can do both, she says. The sea has all the time in the world.
She doesn’t turn on the light, just keeps the door open, which feels unbearably intimate, so I roll over, my back to her, and watch a fly thread itself into the window screen. She runs the faucet. I’m thankful she didn’t want to wash her hair; I can’t shake the image of her in the shower, naked except the locket, like a jewel of blood on her throat, the water running red on her cheek hollows, red through her hair.
Disinterested has toast and cigarettes for breakfast. The butter thickens her smoke.
I can’t imagine ordering eggs here, I say, folding her crusts over, eating them.
Did you hafta get special paperwork? she asks. For your grandma.
Normally you do, I say. But . . . no one knows about this bit of her, except my aunt. And I drove down here, so no one needed to know.
A burial at sea is poetic, she says.
And, for a moment, I believe her—that hopeful glassiness that fills her once-smokey eyes, like fish scales tangled with sun. That look that believes this place, this home of hers, is more than a junkyard of sour fish and salt.
Do you know where you’ll do it?
She left the name of a road behind, I say. Where her family lived. Stillwater. Have you heard of it? I couldn’t find it on the roadmaps.
Disinterested ashes her cigarette into my coffee mug. Sounds like Niland, she says. Their sense of humor and all, but I can’t be sure.
Does it matter if I find it? I say, sighing. Everything’s fish-graveyard adjacent anyway.
Of course it matters, she says, gathering our plates and mugs into a pile. My shift starts in ten, but can I call you when I get off in the morning?
Sure, I say, knowing I’ll never see her again.
Step 4. Fixer Bath:
The egg timer click-click-clicks on the edge of the sink while I move the film from the fixer bath tray to the tray of distilled water. The overlarge disposable gloves make my hands feel like slippery tilapia.
I doubt Grandma remembered the bad things about this place. Maybe she confused it with the Cape, somewhere nice with beaches made of actual rock. I knew the Salton Sea by name only; Grandma was from there, but it wasn’t a place she gave life to. There weren’t any stories about it, just stories about her, or stories about places she’d lived since, so when she brought it up while we colored in stencils—Salton, Amelia. Not Sultan—I really listened.
Everything was the deepest shade of blue, she said, coloring lightly with her red marker. Being there felt like being at the center of the world, Amelia. It was an impossible place, and that made all of us so proud.
The stencils channeled the positive space into canals—some the green of holly, others the carmine of wax drips, not unlike a viewfinder. Which makes me think Grandma could’ve been an artist if she’d been given the right tools. No one in my family is an artist, and maybe you don’t need to trace your own inclinations back to another person, but I’ve always felt her secret artistry, and assumed I’d inherited my eye from her.
As I wash the pocks of fixer away, I wonder, what’s it like to let passion go untapped? What’s it like to think, geez, if I’d stepped inside a darkroom, or stood in front of an easel, or wound up center stage, unmoored, then I’d have made something beautiful? Had she ever thought that when we colored the stencil drawings? And, if she had felt passion slip away, did it feel like this—like being in the wet darkness of a dried-up place?
I stop washing and stare at the trays.
The aluminum trays. The freezer. Being nine years old during a blizzard. The picture window shaking—the icicles shaking, too.
I told them we didn’t need any more, she said.
Grandma? I said, standing in the kitchen doorway. I couldn’t do anything but stare up at her: the side door was wide open, and snow was blowing inside. Grandma swatted at the snow with a broom. The hard straw scrape-scrape-scraped.
Amelia, she said. Amelia, I don’t know how to make it stop.
The drifts made shapes on the tiles. I walked into the kitchen. Flakes collected in the grout and melted into my socks. With a little strain, I shut the door.
Oh, Grandma said. Oh, of course. I meant to do that.
I held onto the doorknob like it was her hand. I wanted to hold her hand too, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch her.
She started sweeping the remaining snow into a little mound on the tile floor. It was the wet, packable kind of snow, so I knelt down and pressed it into a tight, lumpy snowball. She swept at the droplets on the tile, and laughed in that plum-pit way.
Let’s put that in the freezer—see if it lasts until morning, she said. Like we used to when you were younger, remember?
She opened the freezer door for me. I reached up on my tiptoes and put the snowball deep-deep-deep inside the freezer. I saw the ice trays then, and how each compartment in the trays were iceless, but not empty. Instead of cubes, batteries filled the trays. Grandma saw the batteries, too, but she wasn’t relieved. She looked angry almost, and dumped them onto the ground, so that they clattered and rolled beneath the table, the stove, the refrigerator.
I can see those batteries now, laced with flecks of cold, much the way silver laces film as it develops.
I leave the darkroom for fresh air. Well, air that’s not tainted by the chemicals. Once I step outside, my nose remembers to really smell the rotting tilapia, which is worse than the baths.
It’s dawn. Rose light collects in the scales of the beach, and spreads to the bones.
Despite the stillness of the Sea, I can hear the picture window shaking-shaking-shaking. I name the objects I see around me, my mind reaching for an anchor: fish, car, fish, Coke bottle, fucking fish. But there the picture window remains—shaking—and so does the fucking snow in the kitchen and Grandma laughing it off—laughing it off until we open the fucking refrigerator and see every battery she’s ever owned packed tight into the ice trays.
I want to breathe deep, but the chemicals are heavier than the oxygen, and my lungs can’t quite grasp it, so I’m just taking short-short-short gulps of air until I feel hollow, like I’m watching myself struggling to breathe, and there’s just this very thin, spindly tether connecting my brain and my body.
A loud groaning sound startles me; I’m thrown back into my body. The picture window looms behind me—well, I half expect it to, but when I turn around it’s just the ice machine, whirring in the dark alcove between motel rooms. It spits out several cubes of ice, then a whole stream. The cubes clatter onto the concrete, like the batteries. Ice shaped like batteries rolls beneath kitchen cabinets, under tables, and is pressed, hurriedly, into flashlights like ammunition. A few more chunks of ice dislodge from the machine’s innards, missing the catch tray.
It’s time to go.
I replace the standard lightbulb and wrap the red one in a paper towel; I pull the towels from baseboard and toss them under the sink; I carry all of the trays and jugs of chemicals to my car. I secure the darkroom in my trunk, then leave the key and too much cash on the nightstand for the Cardboard Woman to find later.
On the way to my car, I step on the spilt ice, just to hear it snap from the inside out.
Step 5. Washing & Drying:
Grandma died eight years ago. I didn’t care enough when it happened, because it felt like the person I knew had started disintegrating, bit by bit, the night of the blizzard. After we found the batteries, I’d led my grandma to the living room and we colored in our stencil drawings—like we had when I was younger than nine—and she told me about the Salton Sea, said she’d like to revisit it.
I always thought she’d protected me during the blizzard, but maybe not. Maybe we’d protected each other. But after that night, I stopped, too scared and unwilling, because I was a kid and my grandma was changing, leaving. No one protected her. Who could’ve?
When she passed away eight years ago, I was in high school. I told myself I could’ve done more: what if I brought her crossword puzzles, or showed her photographs of places she had once traveled, or recited the names of friends and family members to her? But I hadn’t done any of those things. Even holding a phone conversation for a few minutes had been too uncomfortable for me. I hadn’t even thought enough about her.
My aunt told me at the funeral that Grandma wanted that burial at sea—to be spread back home, in a California desert. For eight years I didn’t collect the ashes from my aunt, who insisted Grandma wanted me to take her to the Sea. For eight years, I didn’t even imagine spreading her ashes. I didn’t look at flights to L.A., or roadmaps leading south. I couldn’t.
After twenty minutes on the road, I see three figures lit with the rosy dawn. Three figures with fishing poles. Which is crazy. Even if the fish were spry enough to chase a lure, surely they’d be inedible. And they’re half dead a minute after they’re born, so where’s the sport in that? What’s the point? I pull over, and leave Grandma in the cup holder.
Hi, I say. I’m a little lost.
Happens in the desert, the father says. What’re you lookin’ for?
A road called Stillwater, I say. My grandma lived there once.
He nods, slow and thoughtful. Ya know, I’m not familiar with that name. But if it’s anywhere out this way, it’d probably be up near Slab City. Sounds like their sense of humor.
That’s what my friend said, I tell him.
The fisherman gives me more precise directions—landmark-oriented directions, not street names—while we watch his kids fish.
His daughter recasts her line, and the lure plops into the crusted water. His son turns some stones over on the shore, watching his motionless line out of the corner of his eye. After a few minutes, the daughter reels in her limp line and removes a glop of tilapia from the lure, annoyed. The chemicals pooling on the surface of what’s left of this spit of sea look like the pooling of soap, iridescent, even pretty—glimmering so many colors, all rainbow-rainbow-rainbow, and—
I have to go, I say.
Good luck, he says.
We never take any home, he says, but he casts his line in a perfect arc.
According to Disinterested, folks take trips all the time from L.A. or Palm Springs to visit Salvation Mountain in Niland. Most pilgrims turn around after walking the yellow brick roads. A few make it to Slab City, or East Jesus.
Niland is mostly emptiness, and the blackened frames of homes that’ve been burnt down, but I slow on the dirt road when I pass Salvation Mountain. I’m determined to not lose momentum, to make it to Slab City, and further, so I press on. The mountain looks about three stories tall, all layers and layers of thick paint, and what I’d guess to be recycled tires and scrap metal. Disinterested was right: it’s a piece of living art—a collage that seems to undulate with the color of breath in the desert heat.
A hillock of empty paint cans teeters at the foot of the mountain.
After a few miles, I see a concrete structure, like a tollbooth, on the side of the road. It marks the entrance to Slab City, laced in graffiti.
Even though it’s winter in the desert, there aren’t too many people up and about yet, all still hunkered down in their trailers or around the last wisps of a bonfire, poking at embers. I drive and drive, and people stare out from their parked cars and tents.
I see none of them, but I feel them.
Even the art stares: a mammoth made of tires rears up from the sand, and looks as if it’s melting into a pit of tar; buses, half sunk into the ground and shellacked with scrap metal and shards of glass, gleam in the sunlight; and a plaster Virgin Mary idles in a trench, hands raised, while empty wine and beer bottles pour nothing into her shrine.
There’s even a wall made of televisions, all bricked together, and each carrying a different message in red paint: You Need More Stuff; Standard Of Beauty; Results May Vary; TURN ME ON.
But there’s no Stillwater Road. There aren’t really any roads at all, just dirt paths all packed down. On the outskirts of East Jesus, there’s a house that hasn’t been burnt to a black frame. Sand swathes it, much like a snowbank. But the picture window is what really draws me to the house.
I take Grandma inside, through the door-less doorway.
The carpet is an oatmeal color. Water stains watch me from the ceiling, and bloom like tree rings, reaching out-out-out to touch every bit of the house. Powdered foods, canned goods—all of these things clutter the kitchen counters, the cabinets, the floors. Furniture has been dragged around and graffitied; a toilet seat with a red peace sign hangs from the neck of the kitchen faucet. In the living room, the refrigerator lies sideways in front of the picture window. A crack cuts a diagonal in the window, but there isn’t any glass on the carpet; the cleft in the pane bloomed inside it, and the fracture is the smallest hint of this expansion—of a growing distance.
The crack catches the sunlight, makes it gleam, so that I squint and look down at the refrigerator. A drawing of a dog is taped to the brown paneling. The drawing reminds me of the lion stencil, which reminds me of sitting on the floor with Grandma. I doubt we’d sit on this carpet—even if it meant she could draw her candles again—but I kneel down in the mucky oatmeal anyway, and wrench open the freezer door, which moves stiffly across the thick carpet. Inside, there’s nothing at all. But if I put her deep-deep-deep enough into the core of the freezer, she can be preserved until morning—and longer.
Kate Bove is a graduate of the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program and a recipient of the university’s Zivic Fellowship. In 2018, she was named a Lambda Literary Fellow. Her work has appeared in journals such as Exposition Review, Emerson Review, Concrete Literary, plain china, and Lambda Literary’s Fellows Anthology, among others.