Very Large Array
Late December, New Mexico.
“Left turn, Dane.” Cheryl pokes my arm.
“Almost home,” I say.
An empty roadside stand, the word JEWELLERY in red spray paint on plywood. A metal sign which reads: Very Large Array. A space observatory of radio antenna dishes arrayed in the desert halfway between Socorro and the Datil ranch. A neatly dressed teenage girl rearranges a display in a gift shop glass case; her name tag says Katelyn.
“The tour group left already,” she says. “It’s the last one of the day, too. Would you like some coffee? I could make some fresh.”
“We’re fine honey,” says Cheryl. “I’ve been here many times. I wanted to show my friend. It’s always so quiet. Do you like working here?”
“I worked at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Socorro for a while but my mom had to drive me there and it’s really not worth the gas money for a job that pays so little. Then I ran the cash register at The General Store, by then I had my own car, I only drove it to work. I’ve been here since I graduated high school. This place is great; everyone’s so friendly.”
“That’s where I used to buy ammunition. I’m a Datil girl. My name’s Cheryl. You a Datil girl?”
“I’m a Magdalena girl. I grew up on the Hernandez ranch until I was six. It used to be called the Bar S Bar. My dad got a good-paying job driving this big delivery truck for Honeybee Dairy Products and our family moved into town. Are you headed west? It’s going to snow. You’ll be right in the middle of it.”
“Were you born around here?”
“My mom works for Carson Real Estate. She’s the secretary-office lady. It’s only part-time but she likes having a job and all. I have two sisters and two brothers, all older. I’m the baby. She said she already had enough headaches from four kids she might as well trust me. Working with adults, I mean, when I’m only eighteen. They’re all nice to me, though. Go out through those other doors and you can look right down the tracks, see? I have to close up at five.”
“Be right back,” says Cheryl.
I pull colorful brochures from a wire rack. We step outside, the wind cuts.
“Each moveable antenna is over one hundred feet tall,” I say, “and mounted on platforms on a Y shape of train tracks. The tracks bisect the highway and the railroad crossing is like any other, with barricades and flashing lights.”
We walk to the end of the edge of the parking lot. The last tour group is distant dots.
“Should we join them?” I say.
“So different from the northern part of the state,” says Cheryl. “Not as dry as Santa Fe. Annie and I went up there one summer and rented a dinky place and I spent every day painting and drawing outdoors. Amazing. You think about those first artist colonies—did they know how good they had it? Do you mind? I want to talk to that girl alone.”
“She’s young enough to be your daughter.”
“Sue me. Maybe she’s gay and doesn’t know it yet.”
Cheryl returns to the gift shop. I flip up my parka hood and breathe crisp air. The sky is low and gray; sunset turns the white telescopes orange. I count to one billion before rejoining the women.
“—people help each other,” says Cheryl. “I learned that when I was your age. Out here everybody has to get along, otherwise nobody’d survive. Anyway, about my question—”
“I don’t know.” Katelyn twists her hair around a finger. “I never did anything like this before. No one’s ever asked me.” She shifts a tray of key chains with tiny telescopes.
“I could meet you at the café on Main Street in Magdalena,” says Cheryl.
I imagine Cheryl as a teenager with braids and overalls; chasing girls her own age.
Katelyn slides a piece of paper across the glass counter.
“That’s my cell phone number just in case. Is six o’clock okay?”
“Twenty more miles,” says Cheryl.
“I can’t believe you’re taking me to a cheap motel,” I say. “And leaving me there.”
“I need to call my dad. After my mom died he stopped caring about some things. He’s living with a woman now, off and on—Roni—she’s a fantastic jeweler—but they don’t know we’re coming.”
“Do you know what a Fourier transformation is? The antennas pick up the radio waves and use a computer program to resolve the information into images. The array detects things we can’t see. These images are really abstract.”
“After all these years teaching it I still don’t get abstraction. I’ve spent half my life drawing horses, nudes, cactus, and clouds. Rocks, bones, cottonwood trees. Real things.”
“Abstract art is about intangibles. Things we can’t see.”
“It’s better to show effect instead of cause,” she says. “What they do. What we do.”
“Magdalena is a seventy mile round trip,” I say. “She’s eighteen.”
“She’s an adult.”
“And if you bring her back to the motel—”
“You said maybe she was gay?”
“It’ll be more like a date. She lives with her parents. What would she tell her father?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I’m youngish and foolish and single-ish for a few days. Just a date. And what about you? Running off without even telling your partner?”
“Janis is gone,” I say. “She moved to Fort Collins, a dinky house with a futon and the loom. I think I’m still in love with her. I don’t know what to do.”
“Getting away like this will be good for you.”
“Is that what this trip’s about?”
“Annie and I are a legally married couple,” she says. “I deserve a break now and then.”
I let it wash over me. It doesn’t matter like it used to.
The Western Motel, real wood paneling. I’m alone on a queen-size bed. I try contacting Janis; my calls go to voice mail. Fully clothed I squirm under the blankets.
I wake to Cheryl gargling in the bathroom, a single curse, the sound of a thin drinking glass breaking in the sink. The toilet flushing. She stands in the doorway with the light behind her.
“Did I wake you up?” she says. “Sorry.”
She’s down to a t-shirt and panties.
“Holy shit,” I say. “You can’t get in bed dressed like that. I mean—”
“Keep your hands to yourself cowboy. I mean it. We’re friends but so help me if you try anything I will slug you good and hard.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Live long enough and weird stuff’s bound to cross your path.” Bathroom light off, she maneuvers in the dark; stubs her toe, curses.
“I’m wearing all my clothes, anyway.”
“I have to pee again.”
She’s in the bathroom. Two minutes go by. Five minutes.
She’s sitting on the edge of the tub.
“Where I grew up everybody knew everybody. Back then I had more knowledge than experience. When I came out boys who were once friends treated me like a piece of shit. I love my father—for whatever reason he defended me. I crossed out days on a calendar—end of high school, acceptance at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, an associate professor job at the University of Colorado. I dreamed of becoming a great artist or writer. You once asked why I hate art critiques. Because that’s what I grew up with. Criticism.”
She turns her head. The skin around her right eye is starting to bruise.
I leave the room; get ice from a machine on the front patio.
“Here. No, like this. Wrap it in the towel. What happened?”
“We met in Magdalena, ate dinner and talked nonstop. People in New Mexico tend to mind their own business. Two couples followed us to the parking lot. Perhaps I look like a dyke. Two young ladies made comments. I made comments back. Their boyfriends got involved. Undergrad college kids, definitely drunk; possible on drugs. One guy was wearing an NMSU hoodie. He grabbed my tits. I cold-cocked him. Laid him out. The other jerk hit me in the face so I let him have it too. Gave him a bloody nose. He fell on his ass and started crying. The girlfriends were screaming. The police department is right across the highway; witnesses swore one guy molested me and the other punched me in the face. The cop was smart. Told me and Katelyn to leave first. Made the college shits wait a half hour so they couldn’t follow us.”
“Walked her to her car and she kissed me on the mouth. Told me I was brave. Reminded me I had her phone number. I’m getting too old for this.”
We get back in bed. I turn off the light. She curls in next to me.
“You’re a sweetheart,” she says.
“So are you.” I hold her. She wriggles closer.
“Let’s sleep in tomorrow. We’re on vacation, yeah?”
Juniper wood smoke curls through a light snowfall.
Daughter and father bump in and out of a quick hug. Johnny touches her bruised eye and smiles. Wiry and wrinkled from wind and sun; but spry for fifty-nine. He stares right into my eyes; looks me up and down, twice. Cheryl and Roni embrace and kiss.
The long one story clapboard house might have been yellow once; now faded to gray. A roofed-over porch wraps around two sides. The inside is neat and tidy, like motel rooms. Roni and I sit at the kitchen table. She’s wearing turquoise and silver at her throat and wrists, a pair of Kokopelli earrings. Johnny makes coffee, Cheryl inspects cupboards.
“We stopped at the Observatory,” I say. “Ever been there?”
“That’s our jewelry stand on the highway,” she says, “But I never did the tour.”
“The Array picks up radio waves from outer space and computers resolve the information into images of things we can’t see. Supernova Factory in Arp 299. Galactic Building Blocks Around Andromeda. Tidal Interactions in M81 Group.”
“Very colorful, but what does it mean?”
“Radio wave signals from outer space. They don’t mean anything. They just are.”
She gets up, reaches into a cupboard, whispers something to Cheryl. The women bump hips. Johnny sets a cup before me, sits at the table.
I slide the brochures back in my bag. “I’m not your daughter’s boyfriend.”
“You’re both teaching at the university in Colorado,” says Johnny. “I never finished high school, myself. You’re more than welcome, but don’t you have a home to go to for the holidays? A family of your own?”
“My parents live in Minnesota. My dad’s Swedish-American and my mother is Norwegian-American. Most of the older people in their families are gone now. Can’t stand the snow and the cold. Been here seven years now.”
“Even this desert gets cold sometimes.”
“I worked on farms when I was a teenager. Plowing, disking, planting. Herding cows and baling hay. Fence repair.”
“Fences always need fixing.”
“This oatmeal has bugs.” Cheryl bumps hips with Roni and tosses the container in a trash bag. “And this bag of rice. What are these corn husks for? You making tamales?”
Johnny walks me outside. Two horses in the barn, Rocket and Cholla.
“Why Cholla?” I say.
“Because he was a prickly son-of-a-bitch. Now, not so much.”
“She’s a beautiful woman.”
“Young enough to be my daughter. Imagine that.”
Distant gunshots startle me.
“Poachers and vandals,” he says. “Pronghorns, javalina, rattlesnakes—anything that moves. The land is half-dead and each year the towns get emptier.”
Cheryl and Roni join us, whispering and laughing.
Father and daughter saddle up and ride into the desert. Roni and I stay in the house.
“The Western Motel is a nice place,” she says. “What were you two doing last night?” “Not what you think,” I say.
“I can feel your anger. But, why? We don’t even know each other.”
“I’ve got my own problems.”
“Don’t dump your shit on me. I have problems, too.”
“You look happy.”
“My being here means everyone gets what they want. How can that be bad?”
We discuss art: my academic training and her natural apprenticeships. Underneath, we’re too similar. My anger dissolves into friendly confusion and uncertainty.
Father and daughter return. Unspoken truces hover.
Greasy ground beef, refried beans, corn tortillas; frozen vegetables; cans of soda pop. Steam condenses on kitchen windows, a mystery makes itself known.
“We need to catch up,” says Cheryl. “Girl talk.”
Roni leans over and embraces Johnny. His shoulders relax.
After the women leave I volunteer to cook the meals. Two days pass.
We saddle the horses and ride out into the desert so we can talk or be silent.
“You know part of it,” says Johnny. “I found them together last summer. I never hit a woman in my life. Instead I called them every name in the book. The funny thing when I was doing that yelling? I still wanted her. But it was like I didn’t matter. No, that’s not it. I guess I don’t know, even now. I’ve had my share of women in this life, and a good wife who died too young—but when your own child betrays you—”
“I don’t even know how to answer that.”
“You’re young, so maybe that’s just words to you. She needed something; I needed something. Am I in love with her? I’m used to her; she’s part of my life. I want to fix it, but I don’t exactly know what’s broken—or even where to start. But I do know we’ll need more supplies for the next few days.”
“I have money.”
“Put away your wallet, son; I’ve got millions.”
The General Store is groceries, ammunition, liquor, saddles, tools, hardware. Johnny grabs two mismatched carts.
“There’re four of us, and I haven’t forgotten Christmas. I’ll pay for all of it.”
We meet at the cash register, my cart half full, his overflowing. One dozen packages of vanilla wafers and four twelve packs of soda pop. Single serving frozen dinners, a twenty-five pound sack of potatoes, a twenty pound bag of white rice. Two packages of Top Tobacco and a box of .22 longs. Corn husks. Chorizo.
My cart is beef, mutton, chicken; bread, pasta, tortillas. Green vegetables. Apples and oranges.
“What the hell is that?” he says.
“Kale. Very nutritious.”
The woman at the counter raises a penciled eyebrow. “That’s a lot of cookies and pop.” She looks me over. “Who’re you?”
“I’m Dane, Cheryl’s friend. We teach at the university in Colorado.”
“Oh, well then, that’s okay. I’m Donna.” We shake hands.
“Donna knows everything that goes on around here,” says Johnny. “Isn’t that so?”
“You got that right. Everybody passes through this place sooner or later and I mean everybody.” He ignores her and paws over a pile of holiday decorations. She rings up our purchase. When his back is turned she slides a folded slip of paper across the counter. The note says: We’ll be home for Xmas. Cheryl. She motions for me to hide the note.
Johnny gathers a plastic tree, round glass ornaments, and candy canes.
“These trees are thirty-nine ninety-five,” says Donna, “marked down from seventy-nine ninety-five. Pretty good deal. I bought two, one for me one for my daughter and her kids. Good timing, too, because I’m closing up after you leave. That’s a grand total of three hundred and nine dollars and sixty-two cents, gentlemen.”
Johnny peels four one hundred dollar bills from a roll.
“That’s a lot of money.” Donna swipes the bills with a detection pen. “You smuggling cocaine or illegal aliens?”
We pack the bags in the back of his truck.
“I guess she doesn’t know everything,” I say. “Like where you got that money.”
“I haven’t decided what to do with it yet. Two hundred and fifteen thousand dollars. The Bureau of Land Management got a great deal. The ranch is worth more, and the bank gets most of that.” He shakes out a cigarette and lights it. “But the important thing is, the money will last longer than me.”
Two days later Johnny and I load tools and a roll of barb wire in the pick-up truck. The thin layer of snow is gone, the land damp. Cheryl’s car blows a plume of exhaust into the still-dark morning. A somber Roni hauls out four plastic grocery bags stuffed with clothing and shoes. Cheryl takes two scratched suitcases from the car.
“Safe and sound,” says Cheryl. “You two need to have a little heart-to-heart.”
“What could you possibly have to say?” he says.
“That I’m sorry and I want you to forgive me.” Roni is full face frontal, honest. “Christine and Sara moved to Tucson—we don’t have the apartment anymore.”
“Where were you headed?” says Cheryl.
“Dead Horse Wash. Where the fence crosses.” Johnny hands her a set of keys.
I look back as we drive away. Roni holding plastic bags of shoes, Johnny with empty hands. Suitcases on the ground between them. The sky shifts from grainy gray to palest blue.
“He sold the ranch,” I say.
“I know,” says Cheryl. “Now he can invest the money and not worry about the future. He’s staying on as caretaker. This way he gets the money for the land and he still gets to live here, and he gets paid for the caretaker job, too. Where we’re going now is up against the old BLM land. People sneak into that area to hunt.”
The wire is torn where it crosses the wash. The posts are scrap: rusted metal poles, slender tree branches, old 4 x 4s, a greasy railroad tie. Coat hangers and nails hold the wires in place.
I slip on leather gloves, poke around for the end of the roll of wire.
“I think he’s in love with her,” I say.
“And I know she’s not in love with him. Roni and I have a good time, we have fun. What do you want me to do?”
We shove a metal pipe through the roll of wire and walk it along the fence line. It unravels in twisted curls.
“Stop screwing your dad’s girlfriend.”
“What do you think they’re doing right now?”
“What about your partner? Your wife? A woman cheating on a woman. Everybody’s fucking everybody else. Don’t you feel guilty?”
“Guilty? Cheating? It’s just sex. Annie and I are not at all like you and Janis.” I cut the wire and it springs back to our starting point. “Well that was dumb.”
We nail plastic, fluorescent pink NO TRESPASSING signs on our new posts.
“Is she really coming back to live with him?” I say.
“She’ll be there on and off, but she won’t settle down with him. Freedom is more important than security.”
Suitcases inside the front door. Half-empty coffee cups and one open package of vanilla wafers on the kitchen table. Distant laughter. Cheryl shushes me and we spend the afternoon in the barn, forking hay, brushing Rocket and Cholla, waiting for her father and her girlfriend to finish fucking.
I microwave frozen turkey dinners.
Johnny and I put together the plastic Christmas tree. Cheryl digs in a closet and pulls out three tangled strings of lights. Roni slits open the ornament boxes.
Cheryl gives her dad his present. We stare transfixed at a framed realistic drawing of a naked Roni.
“Hang it in the bedroom,” says Cheryl.
We build a fire out behind the house and sit around it on metal folding chairs stenciled Rio Salado Community Church. Blankets and boots keep us warm. We smoke cigarettes, pass a bottle of whiskey and a bag of candy canes. Nobody says much. A comment on the colors of the sunset, ephemeral meteors, the simple and eternally beautiful New Mexican night. Sparks that fly upward into the midnight heavens and vanish.
Johnny and Roni scrunch together. Cheryl doubles up the blankets around both of us.
“My butt is freezing,” she says.
“Keep your hands to yourself cowgirl. We’re friends but if you try anything I will slug you good and hard.”
“Living in the city I forget to remember this crazy stuff.”
“That’s why it’s always nice to come home. But there’s always the memory of false faces left behind, because this is who we really are.”
“Everyone’ll be in town tonight,” says Cheryl. “We’ll go ahead; you guys follow us. Whoever’s sober can drive us all back.”
“How will we find you?” I say.
“It’s the Palace. Tourists and locals. Impossible to miss.”
“We’re in the middle of the desert—”
“It’s in Magdalena.”
Constellations illuminate a narrow world: hidden causes, unpredictable effects, cleansing silences. I wonder what the scientists at the Observatory are seeing right at this moment. Do they see more or just see differently? People think up all kinds of ways to explain what they can’t see or understand.
The main barroom is packed: cowboys and cowgirls, hippies, ranchers, forest service workers, bikers, tourists, astronomers and technicians from the VLA. Husbands and wives glare across tables, dare each other to cheat. Christmas decorations on the mirror behind the bar, the colored paper kind that fold out to make a three dimensional tree or an ornament. A skinny Santa Claus wanders from table to table, telling everyone that his sleigh is double parked and can they buy him a drink. Johnny disappears into the crowd.
In another big room local musicians play country-western to a packed dance floor. The music gives me a headache. I hold my back to the wall and watch the parade without being obvious or making any eye contact. Cheryl and Roni dance close; no one seems to notice or care. Time slips away, the music ends, lights illuminate reality.
Johnny weaves around the floor. Roni steps forward and he waves her away. “I’m goddamn drunk and fuck you!” he shouts.
I grab his torn sleeve. His hand is bleeding.
“How did you get shit-faced in one hour?” I say.
“Hey, buddy! Where you been?”
“Got the keys, Johnny? It’s time to go.”
“Hell, I can drive.” He pushes me aside. The women lean into each other, drunk and radiant. “Don’t feel so good, buddy.”
“Let’s get outside then. Come on.” Two ranch hands—a couple of boys—laugh at us staggering to the swinging doors. “Fuck you,” I shout, “you fucking assholes!” That makes them laugh louder.
Outside Johnny vomits on a cracked sidewalk. “There’s a bottle under the seat,” he says. “For emergencies.”
I drive cautiously, slow down to read mailboxes along the highway. Everything looks the same in the dark. Johnny’s asleep when we get home. I park behind the house, lay him out on the bench seat of the truck. Tuck a couple horse blankets around him. Pick glass shards from his hand and swab it with whisky, wrap a clean t-shirt and electrical tape around the wound.
Wood underneath a plastic tarp, I coax our fire back to life. Wrap myself in four blankets and finally stop shivering.
Random shooting stars, awkward constellations, distant galaxies slip beneath the horizon. A coyote lopes past near enough I can hear its breath. Not another thing happens until there is light in the east. I watch the sky go from opaque black to translucent grainy gray; from gray to red-streaked pale blue: the assurance of another day arriving. Possibilities beckon, flare up like brush fires, spill across the land and array themselves inside of me.
Robert Kostuck is an M.Ed. graduate from Northern Arizona University. Recently published fiction, essays, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in the anthologies Everywhere Stories, Vols. II and III, Manifest West, Vol. VI, and DoveTales Vols. IV—VII; and many print and online journals including Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Southwest Review, Louisiana Literature, Free State Review, Zone 3, Saint Ann’s Review, Bryant Literary Review, Concho River Review, Flyway: A Literary Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Silk Road, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Crab Creek Review, Takahē Magazine, Roanoke Review, EVENT, and Tiferet. He is currently working on short stories, essays, and novels. He lives near an ocean; his heart belongs to the Chihuahua and Sonora deserts, and certain parts of Nova Scotia.
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