The Temptation of Saint Anthony – Part Three

desert-dogA ginger-and-white dog has started following Gray around the grounds of the motel. It drinks water outside the office, hunched over a white Pyrex bowl illustrated with blockish turquoise flowers. It is a sad thing, skinny and weak, obviously not conditioned to survive the conditions in which it has made its home. Gray can imagine it: brought out from a different climate as part of the whim of its owner, suffering under obedience the way that most dogs will. And then one day, it will react. A mad episode, a mauled child.

One evening, Gray heads into the town. The dog follows down the forecourt, although it eventually gives up, standing stolid and panting when Gray glances back towards it, too tired to continue, too tired to return. It occurs to Gray that the dog might actually die, and he imagines the comedy of informing the owner about this, of being somehow blamed. As he walks away, he checks his shoulder now and then to see it, standing stoic and mournful. Waiting. Watching.

A shoal of young people upon bikes pass him by, the bright chrome glittering under the vast desert sky, so many steely fish awash over this sinuous tarmac of a sullen and subdued blue. The voices of the riders high piercing, and threatening, of course. Everything is threatening to Gray in this community, the rituals of normality are only the diversion for an atmosphere of malice. Why is he here? No one he encounters seems to find his presence in this town at all incongruous, so it us up to Gray to provide the answer to this question. Before he left, he had wanted to see the desert; now he is here, he wonders why he would base a trip around such an obscure, abstract impulse. It never occurred to him to rent a car, or travel wider than this town. He had thought that the trip would provide its own answers. If one travels to a coastal town, one spends time near the sea; the sea is its own reason. But the desert, that inverse, seems, for Gray at least, to stubbornly refuse to offer a sense of purpose. He has sweated through his shirt, the light material like a blister upon his skin.

He wanders up and down the main street. The children who passed him on their bikes have gathered in a vacant lot beside a convenience store. The outline of building remains upon the ground, the rectangles of rooms overgrown with weeds. Most of the children are smoking. They seem too old to be riding bikes, but evidently too young to drive. Gray walks the full length of the main street, out past where the buildings recede like teeth along the length of the jaw. The desert waits for him here too, but it lacks the grandeur of the area over the road from his motel, it seems only empty. He returns along the main street, past the children who are now circling around and around upon their bikes. He has reached the bar, and debates whether he has the courage to step inside, when he notices the squat one storey building across the street. It is the art gallery he noticed on his first walk through the town, the place which filled him with such a sense of hope about his journey. The lights still shine inside.

On the pavement beside the doorway, an old man in jeans and a checked shirt is seated upon a wooden chair. ‘Ten dollars,’ he says, when Gray asks him about the price. His voice is husky, as though he hasn’t spoken for some time, and indeed he picks up a Snapple from the pavement beside it, drinking from it while Gray retrieve his wallet. He takes the bill— his fingers feeling like blocks of sanded balsa wood to Gray’s touch, the dryness, the grain— and folds it neatly into the top pocket of his blue and white checked shirt. He waves Gray inside with both of his palms. ‘The art don’t pay for itself.’ He laughs and continues talking even after Gray has walked past him into the building, his arms pushed stiff and solid against his knees, like A-joints of carpentry. ‘The art. Well, it should be free for everyone. But art don’t pay.’

© Daniel Bennett

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