I was put on guard when Nita M. told me there was no need to worry, she wouldn't phone too often. I had given the older woman my business card. As the Palms Springs Writers Conference progressed, I learned it was advisable to make sanity checks on anyone you might be speaking to—to test the waters. This town is all about water, or lack of it.
Nita was convinced I had authored a book entitled Mars 2003. "I share your interest in the Red Planet," she warmly confided. We stood near the pool—full of water but no swimmers. I was heading into the conference hotel. I told her I thought maybe there was some confusion—I wasn't sure what book she referred to. She gazed at me, rapt with admiration. "It's amazing. You're such an accomplished young man that you don't even remember writing that book!" In following conversations with Nita, I no longer protested, just smiled and nodded. She thought I was wonderful. "Other people write about what has already happened, but you write about what will happen!"
Dianne is a friend and writer, and her machinations had led me out west to this conference. After a nine-year relationship, she and Charley are getting married. Friday night, we celebrated at an old time Mobster restaurant. It was Frank-Sinatra-style obnoxious, the sort of place that makes delicious red sauce but first you wait forty minutes to be seated even though you have reservations and there are many, many empty tables. Sipping potent vodka gimlets, we sat at the bar. At its end leaned a woozy blond in a red cocktail dress and her gay husband. She was entirely drunk and smoking up a storm. She apologized for the billowing clouds. "Hope it's not batherin' ya."
I told her I liked secondhand smoke, which at that moment I actually did. She couldn't tell if I was kidding. I told her I lived I New York, I loved smog. I told her to smoke two cigarettes at once, I liked it. Finally, she realized I was kidding.
We ate: a fantastical gastronomical orgy of oysters, garlic bread, antipasto, sea bass, tiramisu and of course more vodka gimlets.
The smoking blonde and her guy staggered by a few times. Towards the end of the evening, I went through the bar to the john. When I emerged, she grabbed my arm. "Where you goin'?" asked Little Coquette.
"Back to my hotel. How 'bout you?"
She looked down "Hawm."
"Oh, you live in Palms Springs?"
"Nao," she drawled. It wasn't making sense. She squeezed my arm. Her husband smiled from the bar. It started making sense.
"Yer baad." She wrinkled her nose. She said it again: "Yer baad."
I went back to the table, hoping Charlie and Dianne hadn't heard the whole thing, but they had. For the remainder of the evening, Charlie made blowjob jokes and Dianne kept saying, "Yer baad."
On Sunday morning I needed cash, but none of the ATMs I found would give me any. I roamed closed-down streets. Normally I like church bells, but every half an hour brought the same Muzaked church bell routine.
Walking down the main boulevard at eight a.m., I spied a man staggering up the sidewalk towards me. He looked East Indian, wearing battered leather sandals and clutching around him a single piece of burlap. He moved past like an apparition.
The site of the original springs is Indian land—thus, a casino. No springs to be found; there's a gushing fountain and a historical marker. A woman missing a front tooth rushed by into the casino as I read the stone historical marker, which told me there was additional historical information found inside.
In the casino, I waited to use the ATM behind a crazed couple in their twenties eager to lose more money. At the gaming tables sat more apparitions, shadows of the night before, shuffling cards in front of glazed eyes. The machine yielded my cashola and I was on my way.
After getting some chow, I headed to the Desert Springs Museum, behind which is a trail that goes straight up a mountain. I climbed about two and a half hours before crossing paths with anyone. I wanted to get high enough to see the other side of something. That is, to not see Palm Springs, even though that too looked pretty from each successive perch; its green golf courses and green palm trees and the abrupt line where the city ends and the dusty desert brown begins.
On the mountain, hawks circled alarmingly above me. I yelled a warning and they swerved away over a ridge. Under a hot sun, my voice didn't echo. It entered a void of wind, then disappeared. Lizards scurried across barren rocks. I occasionally explored off-path, conscious of the possibility of lurking snakes.
I got higher. The hawks now circled below. Words painted on a rock told me the next water to be found in that direction was a ten-hour hike away. Getting off the path, I aimed for a rocky outcrop, moving carefully up and down over jagged rocks and boulders. I reached the flat stone jutting out above a shallow, barren valley.
I saw the other side. Far below, the valley was quiet, dusty brown, silent, still; like Mars maybe.