Imperial Valley

by Alexander T. Stadie

 

Friday, 5pm. 30 miles south of Blythe,CA. 94 degrees Fahrenheit. My eleven-years-old GMC-truck is going about ten mph on a desert track somewhere in the middle of nothing. Dry creeks, dry plants, dry rocks. No birds, nothing that moves. Not even clouds. The track vanishing every few minutes between black stones the shape of eggs or in scrubs armed with thorns scraping the sides of the GMC. From time to time, the horizon's gone when I'm passing something that could be a wash - in better times. I have to be careful by passing those dips, the clearance of the GMC not forgiving straight driving. And there we go - I bump my rear axle in a creek - a very unpleasant sound - some stones flying to the side.
I get up the dip - and there they are standing - behind a four feet high bush - two pink buses. Like large dried animals stopped in the middle of the move. Their bodies hanging heavy just above the ground, no air in the tyres for centuries, colours faded away by the sun that burst their windscreens. The chrome-plated foreheads frozen in the search of gasoline smell. Whatever happened here, it happened a long time ago. If there would be wind, it would be groaning and making strange noises as it passes broken windshields and roam the empty seat rows. But - nothing moves. No sound. I get out of my car, walk to the driver's door of the nearest bus, pull the handle - the door opens with a sound of many years' rust in the joints - and I look at the broken controls covered with sand, no more dreaming of the black ribbon leading to the horizon.
What happened? Why are they here? And, after all, who or what left them standing here by their own, unable to move, dissolving of drought in a place nobody can forget because nobody ever remembered it ? Whose desperate mind undertook all this hassle driving them all the way to this place in the desert nobody can survive? I saw this man. He was about thirty-five, five-foot-eight tall, long hair, face small and dry, long nose and small brown eyes hidden from the sun by eyebrows that looked burned like these brushes at the wash. 69', as they send him home from Vietnam, he was OK. Not wounded, not ill. The people in Elgin,IL gave him a job at a grocery store, but it was a lousy job, he switched for a liquor store, then for a garage, but the garage was mainly working for guys in Chicago, whom he never saw, and who were mostly after new ID numbers for their cars, that had to be stamped into the frame and behind the windshield. So he left. There was nothing anybody expected from him and nothing he could do about it.
So he bought the two 58' buses from a Greyhound depot and went to California. The people in Blythe were OK, they said he can go 30 miles south, take the Mill Wash road, and nobody will ever ask. So he did, then got back to Illinois by hitchhiking and drove the second bus and parked it next to the first one. Not that it would be a nice place by any means, but at least, the people in Blythe were right - nobody ever came to ask. So he just sat there and watched his army-bucks going less and less with every bottle of Jim Beam. One evening he decided to call all the guys he's been with in the 173rd Airborne 50 miles up the Mekong River.
They would have a party, all the old guys, all on him. They would sit and watch the sun going down behind the Chocolate Mountains, the sun heading for places like Malibu and Santa Monica, places everybody wants to be in. The next day he went to Palo Verde, called them all and bought twelve sixpacks Bud. The next Friday would be the night.
So he sat and waited. Watched the desert, the ever dusty colours, the brown mountains, the starter of the pink bus. The fuel gauge read zero. He turned the key and no sound came up. The first sixpack was gone. So he got out of the bus and just walked. Nobody stopped him. I looked around and got back to my GMC. I had ways to go, anyway. Looked at the other bus and somehow it seemed to smile. It tried to tell me, maybe there was another story...
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