Gray reaches his desert town forty eight hours after he first lands in America. There are stories to relate, but none of them really significant. His conversation with two salesman in a bar in Chicago O’Hare airport about tractor parts. The young girl on the flight who offered him a stick of gum. Their discussion about the European girl who visited her class during high school, how she struggled to remember the girl’s nationality. The bus journey: the fading of its initial romance and sense of consensual event into tedium and discomfort. When he arrived at the motel, an aged man with a stiff hip registered him, unable to totally remove his attention from a laughter-filled TV show, which Gray did not recognise. A minor problem arose with the reservation, and even though he was tired, and irritated, Gray made a joke of things. His manner supercilious, eccentric. He can see himself, and his mannerisms border upon caricature. The Englishman abroad.
The first morning, Gray spends a long time preparing himself for his walk. He showers. He dresses but then decides to change out of jeans and a polo shirt. He glances at himself in the mirror and the clothes seem to hang despairingly from his frame; he feels reduced, sickly, ancient. His skin is pale, unused to the heat outside. He pinches the loose skin around his neck, loathing this sign of decline. In the end, he opts for a pair of chinos and a T shirt. He locks his passport in the flimsy safe in his room. His first instinct is to leave his wallet, but in the end he removes his credit cards, the picture of his daughter, in fact everything but two thin new and sleek twenty dollar bills. Best to have something to give.
As Gray steps out of the door of his room, it finally strikes him: he has reached the desert. The land stretches out from over the stretch of highway, the dry and harsh gorse giving way to earth. The plain rises into towers of prehistoric rock, in some places worn into islands by an ocean which has vanished. The inconceivable passage of time overtakes Gray for a moment and he searches for a feeling of triumph. That he has reached the point of his expedition, that he has succeeded in escaping. A car passes, unzipping the air in front of him. The colours: burgundy and cinnamon in the shade, caramel and taupe in the light. In the distance, the rock looks more gently layered, like fine material settled over a solid armature. He is here.
He is here, but it suddenly occurs to him that he is unsure what he wants to do. He thinks about walking across that stretch of earth, but the heat is already heavy upon him, sweat has gathered in the tight folds of his shirt. His dream had been to be in the desert; he never thought of having to face it. He has brought no suitable clothing, or water bottles, he is totally unprepared to accept the desert on its own terms. Instead he walks into the town. He tells himself: he needs to get an idea of the facilities and conveniences, he is also intrigued about the lives of people who have made the desert their home. But failure already exists within him, like a mould which will spread to rot.
He finds himself upon a street of prefabricated bungalows, the porches, the white structures resembling bland unsmiling faces. A woman stands upon the oblong lawn in front of the screen door eyeing Gray with an unblinking gaze. Gray smiles at her, and speaks a few words of greetings. The walk had pushed him outside of himself. He has recovered the generous confidence of his arrival.
‘Did you hear that?’ she asks.
‘I thought you must have heard the shouting.’
Gray shrugs. The woman surveys him for a moment or two. The sun has coloured her skin, although the network of red veins that has risen around the crevices surrounding each of her nostrils gives her skin a wasted appearance. She licks her lips constantly as she speaks; the skin of her mouth is pale and pinched.
‘Those people. Always arguing. The man beats her. I can hear them. Beats her so that it won’t show on her face. But I know.’
She explains how one time the sound from next door was so bad, she called the police. Officers interviewed the couple for an hour, but left without charging the husband. The next time she saw them in their front yard, the wife spat on the ground at the woman’s feet.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Gray says.
‘I’m sorry to hear it too,’ the woman replies. She wears no bra, and the weak flesh of her breasts makes sad patterns against the clinging nylon of her shirt. ‘I lived with an abuser myself. He was…’ Her mouth freezes as she forms the words, like she is gagging upon the sentiment. ‘A hateful man.’
‘Well…’ Gray begins, but he cannot think of a way to finish his sentence and all he can offer is a smile. But the woman offers nothing further, only returns to her porch, muttering briefly as she goes.
Gray walks quickly along the remainder of the residential area until finds the main street of the town. It is a relief to take in the signs of the business centre: the diner, liquor store, a shop selling sundry items. A gun shop, the appearance of which he finds particularly rewarding. There had to be a gun shop. He can imagine writing this on the postcard he will send to his workplace. And maybe she will read this, the woman and colleague on whom he has expended this episode of his life, the latest manifestation of his desire to destroy himself. He takes a picture of the gun shop on his phone. He takes a number of pictures until he realises that this display might be inappropriate, the insulting anthropology of a tourist. On his way out of town, he see an art gallery, the words written in red paint on the side of a whitewashed building. This too consoles him. Rather than ending up in a backwater, he has found himself in some distant outpost of culture.
Later that night, lying in his bed, Gray watches TV. He is mildly drunk, after picking up beers from the steakhouse along the highway where he ate his evening meal. On a film channel, he comes across an adaptation of a Graham Greene novel, The End of The Affair. It is a film that Gray has already seen. He and his ex-wife had started visiting the cinema during the end of their relationship, the dark cave and flickering light meant to reinvigorate a previous stage of their life together. Now and then, under the protection of the dark, they would hold hands but their touch lacked pressure, their interest in each other had drifted, sometimes, one or the other of them would fall asleep. He watches the film until the end, strangely affected by the fact that much as his life has changed, the film has remained constant, an, innocuous, insentient refrain. A line in the voiceover stays with him: during a scene where the narrator is crossing Clapham Common. ‘And this, this too, is the desert.’
© Daniel Bennett