It was an Indian summer almost as hot as that record-breaking year when coyotes came out of the wilderness in droves looking for reprieve. The animals went crazy from the heat, and in some cases gnawed their way through screen doors and broke windows to get indoors. Others ran in front of moving cars to end their misery.
Now along the outskirts of Moab, the Canyon Lands in the distance shimmered like a mirage in the scorching heat. The dark reds, yellows and oranges of the surrounding desert merged into a single flame, and Kiran felt like the hot winds were incinerating her spirit. It was a cleansing baptism of fire, turning her insides into dry ash.
Kiran drove along a wide dirt road until she reached the state park entrance. She pulled up to the stationhouse and a stout-bellied ranger walked out.
“How long?” he asked.
“We’ll be camping for two nights.”
“Your pass will be good for a week,” the ranger said as he approached the car.
While Kiran asked him questions about fresh water, bathrooms, and trails to the Arches, Sam and Zadie began to argue.
Zadie yelled at her brother, “Why did you take your shoes off? Your feet stink like a dead animal.”
“Shut up. It’s because these sandals are plastic. It’s not my fault Mom’s so cheap,” Sam responded.
Sam was sprawled out on the backseat, but when the ranger tapped he scooted upright and rolled down the window.
“Looks like you’re the man of this small expedition. You gonna look out for these gals?” the ranger asked as he leaned inside the window.
Sam rubbed his bare knees. The air conditioning was sucked out in an instant, and his legs were already slick from sweat. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Now, I should warn you all, this heat can be dangerous. You have to make sure you have plenty of drinking water—there are faucets located throughout the grounds. I’ve highlighted them on this map. If you go hiking, well heck, I’d just rather you didn’t.”
Zadie put her feet on the dashboard and her long, slender legs scrunched in the tight space. “We came to see the famous Arches. It took us plenty of time to get here,” Zadie said.
“You can drive right up to them. No need to hike the trail—I don’t recommend it in this weather. Even the wildlife tends to get loony when it’s this hot.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be careful,” Kiran interrupted. Kiran was starting to get irritated; she had had enough of controlling men to last a lifetime. “Let’s go, kids,” she said. Kiran slowly pulled out, forcing the ranger to take a few steps back or be dragged away with the car.
“What a jerk,” Zadie said as she twirled her long hair into a bun, looping and tucking the ends tight.
They drove through the grounds, and Zadie began reading from the park guide, “It says here, we can see Devils Garden and Fiery Furnace; and here’s another, Dark Angel. My God, this place is hell.” Zadie laughed nervously.
“I came here with your dad once,” Kiran told her kids as they made their way along the snaking dirt road. Memories of Doug began to spark and flicker like lit candles in the dark. Kiran saw his image illuminated in her mind’s eye.
“But Dad told me he’s never been west of the Mississippi,” Sam corrected her.
“Not John, I mean your real dad.” Kiran was afraid that Sam would forget his father. Sam had been only five years old when Doug crashed his small plane in the middle of an orange grove. She kept photos around the house so the kids would remember his face.
“Daddy was here. When was that?” Zadie asked.
Zadie was a few years older than Sam, so Kiran hoped her daughter could still recall Doug’s boisterous nature, his soft burliness and deep, reassuring voice. “We came here before you were born,” Kiran said.
Now all three were quiet, and the tires crackled over the dry, sunbaked earth. It sounded like the ground was ripping open underneath them, and Kiran imagined falling through a crack of the earth, into a fiery abyss, and she shuddered.
“Here’s a good spot. What do you guys think?” She pulled into a site surrounded by large reddish boulders and a few small trees with dry leaves. It looked tidy and fake, like a campsite at Disney. Kiran began to question why she was there, as she did when arriving at every new destination.
They had just spent a week in Colorado, now Utah, and after that she had thought maybe they would head south to Arizona. So many places, sometimes it felt like they were on the run. In some elusive way they were. The summer had already come to an end, and they hadn’t even reached California yet.
“Yeah, it looks good, Ma,” Sam said in an easygoing manner.
“Wait, how far are the bathrooms? I won’t trek to go pee,” Zadie whined.
“They’re around that bend. The bathrooms are the blue square on the map,” Kiran said as she watched a Jeep pull into the campsite next to them. Three young guys climbed out and began unloading the bags strapped to the roof. Kiran noticed they were good-looking. They had longish hair and scruffy chins.
Zadie stared out the window, then suddenly opened the door and jumped out. This was her opportunity. She walked around the car, so she would be in full view. She stretched forward and backward, touching her toes and leaning back--while her long, tan legs glistened with sweat. Her bun had come undone, so her thick mane of dark hair hung down her back.
It didn’t take long for the guys to nod and smile at each other like they had just spotted a rare species in the wild. Maybe they had; Zadie was that beautiful and she knew it. There was a time when Kiran got the same reaction from men. Now Kiran admired her daughter.
Sam got out of the car and moaned, “My God, this really is hell. I can’t even breathe, it’s so hot.” His t-shirt was soaked in the armpits, and it clung to his scrawny frame. Kiran worried that the heat would make Sam’s acne worse.
Kiran felt the heat singe her own skin. Sweat dripped down her back, a slow trickle that caressed her spine and almost titillated. It had been that long, so long ago that a drop of water mimicked a human fingertip, a human stroke. She glanced at one of the young men as he strolled across the dirt road, checking out the area. The camper noticed Kiran watching him.
“Hey there, neighbors. Looks like we’re the only ones braving this heat wave,” he said.
“We must be crazy,” Kiran replied as she began to help Sam unload.
“Where you guys from?” the young man asked as he took a few steps closer. Kiran rapidly assessed that he was well built, with reddish hair and blue eyes.
Zadie jumped into the conversation. “We’re from Orlando, Florida,” she said.
“Orlando? You mean Walt Disney’s home-turf? Do people actually live there?”
“Of course people live there. It’s a real city, you know,” Zadie replied. She had heard this reaction often while driving across the country, usually from waitresses in small town diners and clerks in run-down souvenir shops. Many of the families they chatted with at motel pools had been to Magic Kingdom but didn’t notice the suburban sprawl beyond the gates.
“What are you doing all the way out here in the Wild West?” he asked, walking right up to their car and leaning on it.
“Hey, Jim, get over here and help with the tent,” one of his buddies called, jogging over. “Sorry to interrupt, ladies, but this is a classic Jim move, checking out the hot chicks while I do all the work.” The friend noticed Sam for the first time. “Oh hey, sorry dude. I didn’t see you.”
Sam muttered under his breath, “That’s okay.” His acne was inflamed bright red and his stringy hair was plastered to his forehead.
“You can’t blame me; I’d be an idiot to ignore these beautiful ladies,” Jim said while looking directly at Kiran.
Kiran was single now, but she had no confidence flirting. Maybe if she were ten years younger, she would have enjoyed the banter. John, her second husband, took off with a woman ten years younger than her. Kiran caught him and the woman, a teller, holding hands and kissing in the parking lot of the bank where she worked. She wasn’t even that surprised.
Kiran felt a rush of adrenaline as she locked eyes with Jim. She felt nervous, yet excited at being watched by him. Zadie flipped her hair indifferently; she was used to the attention. Then Kiran noticed Sam struggle, trying to be cool while suppressing the discomfort of strangers in a desolate area hitting on his mother and sister.
“We’ll catch you later. Maybe we could have a beer,” Jim said as he walked away.
Kiran wondered if it was a real invitation.
The three worked to pitch the tent and set up the sleeping bags and stove. Kiran rummaged through the ice chest. She took a piece of ice and let it melt on her forehead. She felt slightly nauseous, but soon they were sitting at the picnic table, eating pasta and tuna doused with salad dressing. It was too hot to build a campfire, so after they ate Sam and Zadie played backgammon while Kiran pretended to read a book.
She worked to collect her thoughts, review her plan. Here they were in the middle of nowhere, a beautiful yet broiling middle of nowhere; a nowhere with Arches formed of sandstone, wondrous pieces of God’s handiwork plopped down straight from heaven; a nowhere with an expanse of canyons so impressive Kiran had cried the first time she saw them. Doug had stood at her side, wrapped his arms around her and cried too.
The memory flickered.
She had been able to convince the kids that a cross-country drive for the summer would be a decent family vacation, camping in state parks, visiting such Americana marvels as Graceland and Dodge City. What else could she have done with their real father dead and their stepfather having run out on them for another woman? It was the only thing Kiran could think to do, run away and leave it all behind. She had taken a leave of absence from the bank and locked up the house, the same house where she and Doug had planned to raise a family. She now remembered the nights when she had reached across the bed to caress Doug, only to wake-up and find John there instead.
Kiran hadn’t calculated the time it would take to drive home. She didn’t want to go back to a place tainted with so many memories, and she wanted a fresh start. Whenever the kids brought up the fact that school had already started weeks ago, Kiran drifted further into dreams of making it to California, a place where anything was possible.
Now it was dusk, and the light was pink and golden. Everything appeared to glow, but the heat was still thick and syrupy, as if Kiran had to swim through the air every time she moved. She looked up to see Jim standing in front of them. He had approached stealthily. Kiran was startled.
Lit by the glow of the sunset, his reddish hair now looked vibrant orange. His face and arms were covered in dark freckles, and when he smiled his teeth were unnaturally white. Kiran didn’t find him as attractive as she had just an hour before.
“Hey there. You guys about ready for that beer?” Jim lifted a bottle of Heineken, dripping with condensation. “Come on, I won’t bite.”
Zadie jumped to her feet and began to bounce around Jim. “And your friends? Where are they?”
“We drove a straight forty-six hours to get here, they’re wiped. They crashed out a few minutes ago.” Jim flashed a neon-white smile.
Zadie slouched her shoulders and moped back to the picnic table, disappointed that the cute one wouldn’t be stopping by. Sam awaited her next move.
“Well then, how about you, Mom?” Jim handed the beer to Kiran. She took it reluctantly, but then lifted the bottle to her lips. The beer was warm and bitter. By the time she finished it off, Jim had settled in and was telling stories about surfing in Hawaii and Baja.
His stories were stirring memories, and Kiran sighed as she thought about the days she spent hitchhiking through California with her friends. She had been so young and reckless, and unimaginably free. Later she met Doug there and fell madly in love.
Kiran thought she might be able to recapture her spirit, if she could just make it there in time.
“Hey, shouldn’t you guys be in school?” Jim asked curiously.
Sam began to fidget. Every day he reminded his mom that truancy was breaking the law–and he believed they were going to be busted at any moment. “Yeah, we should. Ask my mom why I’m not enrolled in the eighth grade.”
Kiran’s throat tightened because she knew Sam was right, not because she could hardly breathe in the stifling heat. “Well, I had this plan to get us to California. I really wanted Sam and Zadie to see it,” she tried to explain, knowing how foolish she must sound to Jim and her kids.
It wasn’t really California she wanted them to know and see—she wanted them to know Doug, as well as the person she used to be. But now the absurdity of her plan weighed on her, and Kiran needed to be alone to collect her thoughts. She suddenly rose and walked away, toward a dark path just beyond their campsite.
“Hey, wait up.” Jim had to trot to catch up because of her long, quick strides. “You’re not bandits on the run, are you? Did you rob a bank or something?” Jim called out jokingly.
“I worked in a bank. I should have thought of that,” Kiran replied. She was reminded of John and the bank teller leaning up against a car with their arms wrapped around each other.
Kiran walked with her eyes on the moon. It wasn’t full and spectacular, just lopsided and hazy, yet it lit the path so that she could dodge rocks and sticks. Although it was still hot and muggy, she felt less claustrophobic, like the world had expanded slightly. She could sense Jim behind her.
“You didn’t need to come,” she called back to Jim. Then she remembered what the ranger had said about the wildlife getting loony from the heat. Maybe it was better he was there.
“I wouldn’t want you to get lost,” Jim said. “It’s better to hike in pairs. Anyway, I’d be an idiot to leave a lovely lady all alone out here.”
Kiran couldn’t think of a clever comeback. She wondered where his eyes rested: on the path, the sky, or on her. She hadn’t felt desirable to a man in a long time.
Doug had made her feel beautiful every day, until the day he crashed his plane. John was the kind of man who stared at other women in her presence and was quick to notice when she gained a couple pounds. She knew he was good to the kids though.
Kiran was sweaty and breathing hard. She became more determined to reach the trail’s end as the sky cleared and stars glimmered overhead. Jim had been quiet, but now he said, “I guess you have your mind set on seeing the Delicate Arch tonight.”
Kiran kept walking until she finally came onto a clearing. She held her breath when she saw it. Under the lopsided moon it looked immense yet worn, sublime and flawed at the same time. Over the eons, the arch had eroded and morphed into a blazing, drastic structure, teetering between omnipotence and destruction.
“I didn’t think we’d make it,” Jim stood with his hands on his hips, panting and then bending backward to let out a bellowing yelp. He mimicked the coyotes howling in the distance. Kiran stood motionless while Jim began to explore, walking over the sandstone plateau in large circles around her.
“I thought if I got to California, my kids might know their father better. They were so young when he died,” Kiran said suddenly. “But now I’ve run out of time.”
Jim stopped roaming and approached her.
“I met Doug at a Grateful Dead concert. Jerry was still alive then,” Kiran continued to explain in a low voice.
“You saw Jerry Garcia? I would die to have seen him play. I have some of my dad’s old bootlegs. They’re so awesome. Space was psychedelic!” Jim was laughing and whooping.
“Your dad’s bootlegs?” Kiran looked at him mockingly. “You’re just a kid, aren’t you?” She calculated that she was nearly twice his age.
“I guess to you and my parents, I am,” Jim said. He had lost his playful tone.
Kiran suddenly felt angry. She was annoyed with this cocky kid, but really she was angry with John. Kiran gradually came to realize during the cross-country trip that she never even loved John; she had just been lonely and scared.
Doug was the love of her life, and he died. How could he leave her and the kids like that? Kiran felt her insides constrict and ache.
“Why did you follow me?” Kiran asked. She now regretted being so far away from camp with Jim.
“Follow you? Come on, Mom, I thought I was keeping you company. I thought we might have something going.”
It got darker as a cloud rolled over the moon. Kiran could see Jim’s silhouette, as if he were only a dark spirit with no substance. Kiran’s heart beat fiercely in her chest. She was frightened by his shadow. “I want to be alone. Maybe you should leave.”
“Leave to where? You’re crazy, lady.”
Kiran knew she was crazy. What kind of mother keeps her kids out of school to chase some dream of California? Zadie should be going to Homecoming, taking her SATs and applying to colleges. But Kiran couldn’t bring herself to turn the car around and go home. She would have to face friends and coworkers and explain John’s decision to leave with the young bank teller.
Sam had needed a father so desperately, and he looked up to John. Now she would have to watch her kids be fatherless once again. She stood near the Arch and her body shook.
“Listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Jim tried to approach her with concern.
“Stay away.” Kiran glared at him.
“Okay, just stay calm. I can’t let you walk back by yourself.” Jim rubbed his elbows nervously. “Let’s just head back. I’m sure your kids are worried about you.”
“My kids? What do you know about my kids?” Kiran saw Jim’s face more clearly as the moon reappeared, brighter and larger than before. She couldn’t stand the thought of this young person judging her. He didn’t even know her name. “I told you I want to be alone.”
“Oh man, lady. I thought you were cool.” Jim paced and clenched his fists. “You start back, and I’ll stay here and wait. Is that okay with you?”
Without answering, Kiran walked to the trail and once there she moved briskly despite the weight of the heat clinging to her back, which made her hunch slightly. Her legs felt swollen and thick, but she nearly trotted to get back to the campsite. After a few minutes, she sensed Jim behind her. His steps made a scratching sound against the dry, rocky trail. As the moon hid and it darkened around her once again, she quickened her pace even more. She remembered the coyotes in the distance and felt real fear.
Suddenly, she lost her balance. She tried to catch herself, but the crack of her ankle resounded in her ears. She didn’t let out a scream, just a quiet whimper. Then she was seated on the ground, her chest heaving with tearless cries. Jim halted his steps and whispered curses, which sounded to Kiran like some kind of incantation. She moaned.
“Just leave me alone.” She looked down and the ankle was swelling.
Jim stood over her and said, “Listen, I don’t know how this happened, but you’ve got me all wrong. I’m not a bad guy, lady. And listen, I can help. You just have to trust me.”
Kiran imagined coyotes circling in on them, going mad from the heat. She knew she couldn’t make it back by herself; she had no choice. She lifted her arms and Jim gently pulled her up, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. She clung to him as they made their way along the trail, her leg lifted behind her. The ankle throbbed and a sharp, hot pain ran up her leg.
As they walked together, Jim began, “My mom had this friend. I was in high school, and, man, I fantasized about that woman. Ann was her name. I can’t tell you how many times alone in my bed… you can use your imagination. She was older, but very beautiful and kind of mysterious. Anyway, you remind me of her.”
Jim was speaking so close that Kiran could feel his warm breath brush against her cheek. He held onto her, nearly carrying her along the trail.
Kiran had thought she wanted to be desirable to a man who wouldn’t die on her, to a man who wouldn’t cheat. Instead, she began to imagine her life without a man in it. She felt tired, tired to the bone, and the pain in her ankle made her want to be home.
They neared the campsite, and as Kiran listened to Jim’s fantasies about a woman named Ann, she thought how pathetic it all had been. She began to calculate the trip back. Her ankle hurt, but she could suddenly breathe easier, deep into her belly, which felt soothing. She realized it would take less than a week if they made a straight shot for it. Kiran decided she was ready to let go of memories and make a new home for Zadie and Sam.