Offramp

This is a fairy tale about Southern California

Kelly walked out on a hot day. At the end of the road there was a house being rebuilt. Its driveway was turned up into corners of big gray stones. On the sidewalk out front lay two construction workers. Kelly crossed the street to give them space. One of the men lay in total sleep. He was stretched like a rabbit in a Dutch painting, with his feet long and his neck entirely extended. The other man was awake on his side, an arm triangulated for support, and he watched the screen of his phone, which was propped on its little snail-foot on the concrete. Kelly could see the blue pool through the house’s living room.

As Kelly rose slowly in the sun, past homes and their flowers, she heard a muted drumming. Down a street of houses, with horselike speed, there was a galloping animal. Its four feet curled off the road as it came. It was a coyote. Kelly paused. Its coat was Bowie-colored, burnished, clean and high. Its ears went straight up. Its mouth was open, like a human pressing its tongue to its side teeth. It swerved like a cyclist when it came near Kelly. Its head looked at her as it passed. She understood that it was afraid and that it was suffering.

The coyote moved up the hill which Kelly had meant to take. She did not want to make the coyote feel as if it was being pursued. She took the long way to the underpass.

The heat increased its pressure. Kelly stood at the light beside the offramp, waiting for the walk sign to show. The cars from the highway came down brightly. A boy’s voice called out, and when Kelly turned she saw that it was the coyote, approaching from the underpass. It looked at her like a runner with sweat in his eyes. “You were kind to me,” said the coyote. “I’m going to reward you because you were kind and didn’t chase me. If you’ll find something for me, I’ll give you a treasure.”

The coyote waited. Kelly thought, It looks exhausted. She had the sense that the coyote wanted to sound as if it were doing her a favor, but that it needed her help. It had gone up the hill, considered, and had come back for her.

“Let’s go,” said the coyote.

“You can’t cross yet,” said Kelly.

They waited for the walk sign to appear. They crossed the offramp together.

“A witch stole my face from me,” said the coyote. “I need you to get it back from her. She’s near here. Can you get it?”

“I don’t know,” said Kelly.

“You could just go in and get it. It wouldn’t be hard to find. God, it’s hot.”

“She lives nearby?” asked Kelly.

“Very close,” said the coyote. They walked along the busy street. “You’re going to get it for me, right?”

“I have no idea,” said Kelly.

“It’s my face,” said the coyote, but it was as if it was talking to itself. “I need it.”

They came to the end of the block and the coyote said they should go around the corner, behind the liquor store. On the back of the liquor store there was a big yellow banner: PSYCHIC HEALING. There was a set of stairs to a door on the second floor.

The psychic’s apartment was dim and gray and mostly empty. The psychic stood before Kelly like the blood in her body had not distributed itself yet. Her eyes were squinting. She told Kelly that she read fortunes and did energy healing and then she listed prices. There was a table and a couch and a tv on the wall. There was a galley kitchen and a blender and a microwave. There was a shut door with one sound of shifting behind it. There was a set of low shelves: a little pyramid in jelly rainbow layers, diminished by matter like dust; long smashed paper boxes of incense sticks; a Guadalupe candle; a closed drawer. The psychic saw Kelly looking at the shelves and she reached out and lifted a box of incense. “I also have things for sale,” she said.

“Do you have candles?” asked Kelly.

“Yeah,” said the psychic. She pointed at the Guadalupe candle.

“Do you have Lazarus?”

The psychic looked at the Guadalupe candle like maybe she had misread it. “Yeah,” said the psychic again, unsure.

Kelly asked if the psychic could check for a Lazarus candle. Okay, the psychic said. Also cash only, the psychic said. The psychic opened the closed door and Kelly saw a red plush blanket over the lump of a person, turning on a mattress. The psychic went into this room and closed the door and began to move things.

Kelly opened the drawer on the set of dark shelves. The handle of the drawer was soft with dust. The drawer was full. A great buttery smell of coconut. A postcard of a lucky Buddha. Kelly put her fingers into the pile of things to page through them: immediately beneath the postcard she touched hair like a horse’s neck, and although she felt horror she lifted the lucky Buddha and she saw the coyote’s face. It was small as a mask and its eyes were empty. White water line, black hard nose. It was flat.

The door opened. “What are you doing?” said the psychic.

“I’m sorry,” said Kelly. She pulled out the coyote’s face clumsily. “He needs it.”

“What?” The psychic was still holding the box of incense. She had a candle in the same hand as the doorknob. She looked confused from a great distance, like a dissatisfied person on a hill.

“I’m sorry,” said Kelly. “Sorry.”

Kelly left while the psychic said Hey. Kelly hurried down the steps, which made a lot of noise.

The coyote told Kelly where to drive. It sat on the passenger seat, so Kelly had to buckle the belt behind it to stop the safety bell. It held its face flat against the seat of the chair with its front foot. Kelly drove for a long time. The coyote explained how to get the treasure. “I’ll take you to a red cave. You’ll find a silver chain on the cave floor. Lay the chain on the table nearby and your treasure will appear.” The last town came to a gradual end.

It was late afternoon when they arrived. It was a nature preserve. There was a water bottle filling station beside the parking lot. Kelly put her head under the tap and got water on her nose as she drank.

“I can’t go the whole way with you,” said the coyote. It took its face in its mouth and walked some minutes with her into the nature preserve. The ground was wavy. There were very high stones, nubbled pillars in tall shallow alcoves. They seemed like sections of cave excerpted from the indoors and brought out for display. They arrived at a very short ridge, only the height of a step: an edge of land scalloped by water in the winter, and a wide white arroyo where the water had been.

The coyote put its face down. “Keep walking until the rocks change shape. Look for the cave in a red rock. It’s not really a cave. It doesn’t go back very far. You’ll see it. That’s where it is.”

“How long do I need to walk?” asked Kelly.

“Not long,” said the coyote. “The sun will still be out. You probably should have brought water.”

The coyote took up its face and left, a hill of animal hurrying away from Kelly. It went up a rise, into a thatch of creosote, the pebbles of its coat color rolling behind the creosote’s arms, and it swept behind a set of stones and was gone.

Kelly crossed the arroyo. The stones changed. They reached and leaned in eccentric boxes and elephant shapes. Kelly did not think she would find the cave or that it was real. High above, the pillars reappeared, grew massive, then diminished into shelves of mushroom-hatted stones. Down a slope, in a wall that was red like sauce on a chicken leg, Kelly saw the half-planet impression of a cave.

It was cool in the shadow of the cave, but it was not dark. This place was not wide, and it was clean. There was the silver chain. It was bright as if it had been polished. The walls of the cave were pocked with wind marks or snake holes. Kelly felt as if someone dear were there. There was also a cool terrible loss.

The silver chain had the look of a bracelet, fat flat links, but overbig. A link was the size of her palm. It was very nice to touch. Unwieldy, but not too heavy to lift. There was a red promontory in a shape like an ironing board. She laid the chain there. She tried to pour it down in a smooth and doubled line but it juddered, blocked in her hand and then falling in too quick a series. It hit the stone with a big soft jangle. It was like preparing the bed for a sick child. Kelly looked at the floor when she moved back because she was afraid she would stagger on a rock. Her heels along the ground made brushing noises.

The light did not change but it was as if on the ironing board a form became apparent out of some total darkness. It was a form where everything had seemed to be one shape. Then it was a form different from its table. Kelly experienced a grief in reverse, an amazing grief at the return of someone who had been lost. Its arrival was the completion of its having been away. The form became its own before the strange light which was a light in her mind distinguished its portions. At an imprecise moment, before the shoulders were articulated, before its knees or exactly its head, Kelly saw and understood the body of a man asleep.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s