“Jon is gonna be so pissed.”
“Have you tried calling him again?”
“I’m working on that part.”
“I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“I know he will. But he is gonna be pissed at first.”
The new bus had come to Salton City and apparently, it was not going on from there for the next 2 hours.
“Gotta have my scheduled break,” was all the new driver had said. He was a big black man with a left eye that looked like it once had met a boxer’s fist. Ernest H – ‘Your God’ – had gone back to Bakersfield when the new bus came to pick them up at the parking lot outside Palm Springs. All the passengers were weary, but some were not too weary to complain loudly over this new, unexpected stop.
“And I’m due in Mexicali for a meeting,” a pale-looking, freckled woman of about Carrie’s age snorted but didn’t say anymore as if inviting everyone to guess how important the meeting was but not why someone who was due for an important meeting had to go to it in a Greyhound bus.
A fat Texan man in a crisp white shirt and tie argued for a long time with the new driver until he, too, had to give up to the imperatives of regulation.
“Look here,” the driver said with finality, “I’ve been going on for 10 hours until I had to pick up you lot in Palm. Do you want to be in Mexicali 2 hours later, or do you want to be in a ditch somewhere because I fell asleep behind the wheel?”
The fat Texan didn’t answer. He went out of the bus instead, growling to himself.
A dark-haired girl sitting on the first seat, on the right side of the aisle almost next to the driver, looked after the Texan. Then at the driver. She was barely a day over 18 and already visibly pregnant. She started mumbling something about why Ernest couldn’t have stayed, but the black man gave her a hard look and she kept silent.
Then he leaned back in his seat and seemed to fall asleep almost at once. Soon he snored, along with the Chuck Norris-guy from a few seats behind Anne and Carrie. ‘Chuck’ had already been snoring loudly under his cowboy hat before they stopped again. He was seemingly unaware of the new delay.
The bus emptied as people had nothing left to do but go out and wander around a new sunburnt parking lot. Only a few people, like Anne, actually had to get off at Salton City.
Carrie was standing with Anne outside the bus. Anne had no luggage besides her handbag.
“At least we’re not in the middle of the desert, although it sure looks like it,” Carrie sighed and surveyed her surroundings.
“I’m sorry that you have to wait here even longer,” Anne said. “At least I am where I’m supposed to be.”
“Yeah, I seem to get delayed a lot,” Carrie said.
Anne smiled knowingly but said nothing.
“Now that you are here, perhaps you would like to follow me to my ‘motel’. It is just down at the end of that road there, close to the Salton Sea.”
Carrie looked at the lonely, faded sign: ‘Marina Drive’, it said. There were only a few scattered houses along the ‘drive’, they mostly looked abandoned. And then there was just the desert and the small, dried-out bushes and scattered cacti. She couldn’t see any ‘marina’ anywhere, much less water.
“What kind of motel does one stay at in this place?” Carrie asked.
“A private one,” Anne said and smiled. “I have a good, old friend, Mr. Rubensford – Charlie. He moved into part of the old motel down there – back in 1987.”
“Oh … “ Carrie said.
“There’s a Mexican family staying in one of the other rooms,” Anne said. “Apart from that, I think it’s empty. Unless someone new moved in recently.”
“Abandoned … to squatters,” Carrie mumbled to herself. But Anne heard it:
“I would hardly call Mr. Rubensford a ‘squatter’, honey.”
“Sorry. But he is not – I mean is he and you – “
Anne smiled mischievously: “What if we were? Who said that you had to give up the little pleasures in life, just because you are not fifty anymore?”
Carrie felt like the sun had already burned her, although they had only been outside for maybe 5 minutes.
“Maybe I’d better walk you to your motel,” she said.
“May you’d better.” Anne smiled again.
Then began trotting along down the cracked, deserted ‘Marina Drive’. After a little while, Carrie thought she heard something that sounded like surf.
Carrie had barely heard of Salton City. Now she was here. And whatever she had heard, it was very different from what she had imagined.
The town was developed in the 1950s as a resort community on the Salton Sea, Anne explained in her low, soft voice. Yet very little development was achieved due to its isolation and lack of local jobs. In the 1970s, most of the buildings were abandoned.
Carrie and Anne strolled quietly down ‘Marina Drive’, passing scattered husks that had once been houses and where it was far from certain anyone had ever lived. So far Carrie had only seen a few trailers, parked here and there, which seemed to be inhabited.
Suddenly Carrie spotted something else, though.
“Hmm – that place over there looks a bit like a casino,” she said, nodding towards a large, flat-roofed building with several rusting neon signs on the facade. The building seemed to have sunk a few inches down in the sand as every year had worn by since the 1950s.
It could have been one of Salton’s larger hotels, for all Carrie knew, but it was clear that nobody had been living there for decades. The crushed glass in the tall, narrow windows stood out like broken teeth in the gaping maw of a corpse. She couldn’t help staring at them.
“Have you ever been to a casino?” Anne asked and broke Carrie’s reverie.
“Uh, yeah … kind of.”
“Was it exciting?”
Carrie looked down: “I worked in one up in Nevada, near Vegas … kind of a ‘waitress in a cocktail bar’-thing, you know. But not for very long.”
“I wonder if I’d win,” Anne mused. “I have never really felt lucky like that.”
“I don’t believe in luck,” Carrie said. “I always had that feeling that it was just a bad excuse. But I always wanted to believe – that if people made something of something, then it was luck. Crazy huh?”
“A little, yes. Most of the time, when people make something of something it is more work than chance. Except in the casinos, I expect.”
“But then there’s skill …” Carrie knitted her brow, tried to find the right words “ – you can work hard and still don’t make something of anything! Although I’ve heard that some people who are good at counting cards and stuff can do well in a casino … ”
“Perhaps,” Anne reflected. “But it depends on what you want to make. I never made much money in Germany, but I still made something for myself. What is ‘counting cards’?”
“Well, it’s like … some people just have trained themselves to count … cards. So they know exactly where a particular card will be – in whose hand – during the game. A big advantage when you’re to decide if you’re gonna fold or play on.” She ended the explanation in a mutter: “Me, I never learned to count cards …”
Instead of answering Carrie just looks straight ahead, towards the still invisible Salton Sea that is supposed to be at the end of the road:
“God … this place is really empty. – Do you realize there’s so much of America that’s just … empty. Abandoned, like … people just tried to make something of it and then … they gave up?” She could not hold back a small, joyless laugh: “Not the kind of America they advertize, huh?”
“Maybe they didn’t give up,” Anne suggested, in earnest. “Maybe they moved to that other America?”
Carrie stopped: “Other?”
“The one they advertise.”
“Ha-ha,” Carrie said. “ … Where?”
Anne shrugged: “New York. San Francisco. The big city. I have been to New York many times. I like it a lot, but I don’t think I could live there. It is so busy.”
“Yeah, me neither … ” Carrie muttered.
Suddenly she felt like dropping to a hunching position. They had come to another crossing, with only one, lonely wind-worn house at the corner. It had no roof anymore, or the roof had simply collapsed. In front of the house was a big garden of sand, which had been neatly fenced in. The fence was sunburnt white and the paint had fallen off almost everywhere. A few still lay in the sand, looking like big ragged snowflakes
Carrie took up one of the paint flakes, then looked up again, down the road. There was still no sign of the sea and Carrie didn’t think she could hear it anymore:
“Are you ok, honey?” Anne asked slowly.
“Anne … what exactly is it you would like to photograph around here? This place is so full of loneliness.”
Anne said: “If nothing else then I will photograph the loneliness, then. Then I can sell it to people who want a picture of that to look at when they are losing their minds in, say, an apartment in the most crowded part of Manhattan.”
She laughed a little too loud, as she said this, but there was no doubt that she had meant well – if not for the stressed inhabitants of New York, then for Carrie.
Carrie knew this and tried to suppress an involuntary smile.
Anne pulled out a camera from her small, black bag. It was a Polaroid camera that looked several decades old: “ – And I can take a picture of you if you allow?”
“Of me?!” Carrie almost gasped “That’ll be … no, that won’t be any good.”
Anne cast her glance down. “Of course not,” she said quietly.
Carrie bit her lip: “I mean … I don’t exactly look my best now and, you know, out here – in this … ghost of a town. You could not sell that to anyone in New York!”
“Well,” Anne started, taking her time. “I think photos, where people look their best, are redundant. I like people who look like people and places that look like places … Real places.”
Carrie was still weighing the crumpled paint flake in her hand: “I dunno … Maybe … ”
“Are you sure you shouldn’t call Jon, Carrie?” Anne sounded worried now.
Carrie suddenly dropped the ‘snowflake’ and looked right up at Anne:
“Do you really think it would be a good picture?”
Carrie began getting on her feet. “Okay then. Where do you want me?”
“Just sit down again,” Anne said, now with a calm that seemed like it had been honed a thousand times. She readied the camera with her thin, wrinkled hands displaying a surprising nimbleness and firmness at the same time.
“‘kay … ” Carrie said and hunched down again, hesitantly.
There was a click. Just one.
Anne pulled something from the camera, waved it slightly in the warm air, then held it and waited. She looked pleased with the result.
“Crap – I didn’t smile did I?” Carrie blurted.
“You did.” Anne handed Carrie the Polaroid.
“Wow … a real Polaroid,” Carrie said, turning the photo very carefully in her hand. “ – Been ages since I saw one of those.”
“You look … grown up,” Anne commented. “That is good.”
“’Grown up?’ Ha-ha, I was on my knees … but maybe that’s how most grown-ups live?” Carrie said, not caring to hide the bitterness she suddenly felt welling up inside.
“Look at the little lines around your eyes,” Anne continued, unperturbed. “You look like you are thinking, I think.”
“I was … yeah I was … ” Suddenly Carrie felt the tears. She wiped them angrily away. “Maybe we should get going? There’s the bus and … it’s awfully hot out here … Awfully hot … ”
“Well, there is no negative,” Anne said softly. “So if you don’t like it you can throw it out and no one will know.”
Carrie turned the photo again, looking at it very closely. There were furrows all over her brow now. At last, she said:
“Don’t … throw it out – but don’t give it to anyone neither, just … keep it.”
Anne didn’t say any more. She just handed Carrie the plastic water bottle. Carrie suddenly remembered that she was very thirsty and drank hard. The water was, predictably, very luke-warm, though, but she drank a lot of it, still. Finally, she wiped her mouth, came to her feet.
“I think you should keep the picture,” Anne said.
“But – ”
“It is only about 1 dollar,” Anne said before Carrie could protest – “ so don’t get too excited.”
Carrie smiled slightly: “Seriously,” she then said, “ – I’m not a good motif for any picture, Anne. It’s just … just … I should’ve gone much farther.”
“What are you talking about?” Anne asked gently.
Carrie shrugged and began walking again as if she felt uncomfortable standing in the crossing. Anne followed, at her side.
Carrie tried to collect the right words, but it was difficult. It was difficult because he had never really tried before. Finally, they came, though. Not the right words, she felt, but just the words that she needed:
“After college – I mean after I dropped out – I did some pretty idiotic things. Drugs, actually. A little … and there were those men … and a lot of … a lot of drifting. I could’ve gone on to draw like a pro, like my brother-in-law. I could’ve stayed in law school. I could’ve done a zillion things.”
“But you didn’t,” Anne said.
Carrie breathed deeply. The desert air was dry and awfully warm:
“No, I did not. I just went down the drain … and wasted time. And time is precious. I know it sounds ridiculous to someone like you, Anne, because … you probably expect me to have lots of time. But what if I don’t?”
“What if you do? That is almost worse.”
“Then it’s still wasted … ” Carrie said harshly as if this was a conclusion she had long since come to. “ – Ten years that’ll never come back. How do I make up for that?”
“You don’t,” Anne said. “But I am not sure they are wasted. How did you meet Jon? Why are you on this bus? Why do you help those immigrants? Are those things not to be counted, too, when you look back upon those ten years?”
“They are … I guess …”
“So it is not all bad,” Anne concluded. “Apart from the awful bus, I mean.”
“Yeah …” Carrie smiled weakly. Then she suddenly stopped again:
“Oh – ”
Carrie and Anne had come to an empty parking lot, just before the motel.
Here Marina Drive ended, and indeed there was a marina. It had fallen into decay years ago, but it was clear what the builders had intended. Before them was the Salton Sea, shimmering in the sunlight. Carrie had not even noticed it, so busy had she been following the lines in the cracked, scorched pavement while thinking hard about what to say.
At the far end of the marina, there was the old motel. Its walls were burnt pale, too, after decades of sun and no paint or maintenance, but there were whole windows in the part of the building that loomed closest to the water. It was possible to sit in that room and look out onto the marina, and once, there had been many boats to look at.
“So this is your ‘hotel’?” Carrie said.
“Do you think Charles is home?”
“It doesn’t look like he is here right now,” Anne said and narrowed her eyes a little as if she tried to see from where they stood if there was anyone inside. “Anyway, he knows I’m coming, so I’ll just wait. He’ll come back.”
Carrie wasn’t really listening. She looked out over the lonely Salton Sea that had just seemed to come up in front of them, to relieve the sight of the endless desert and the abandoned houses.
“You know,” Carrie mused “ … that’s got to be the only big body of water in this desert. And yes, because it is here, it is not really a desert. At least not the way I think of deserts. Hey, do you think it’d make a good photo?”
“Possibly,” Anne said. “Depends on your eye.” She took the camera and placed it in Carrie’s hand.
Carrie held the camera a bit. It felt big and slightly awkward compared to her slim digital camera. Or at least how she remembered its feeling. The digital camera – a birthday present from Jon’s brother – was in a drawer somewhere back in Yuma.
“So?” Anne asked cautiously. “Do you want to?”
Carrie nodded: “Yeah … just gotta … just gotta find the right focus.”
She turned the old camera in her hands, then held it up.
Then she pressed her finger, slowly, down on the photo button.