#BLauthor4 is fiction writer Erik Hanson.
Hanson is a former Midwesterner, having lived nearly all his life in Iowa before recently marrying and moving to California. At the moment, he lives in a little brown house with a white picket fence and an astroturf lawn, and his days are spent delivering mail and teaching online writing classes, which don't allow nearly as much time for his own writing as he’d like—but he does have a terrific tan. His work has appeared in Alimentum, The North American Review, The Monarch Review, and the Chicago Quarterly Review.
How to Drown in a Desert
We drove west through the desert because Jeff had a dream about crashing into the ocean and won’t fly anymore. I thought about reminding him that he would be over dry land the entire trip but decided it either wouldn’t help or just make matters worse. Jeff is fairly independent—rarely asks for help with anything—so I offered to drive him. Along the way, he told me what he could remember of the dream.
Jeff didn’t recall taking off, or even where the plane was going, but all he could see underneath was water. The view of the horizon was endless and he described the windows as being huge, like one would see on a subway car, lined up and down the entire length of the plane. A slight bump and they were hurtling toward the surface, slipping down into the water without losing any momentum.
“That sounds more like a nightmare,” I said.
“Yeah, you’d think so, but I wasn’t scared at all when I woke up—wasn’t even breathing hard. My eyes just opened and there I was, staring at the ceiling in the dark. As I lay there and thought about it, what really bothered me is that I hadn’t been scared in the dream either.” He paused for a moment. “Everyone around me thrashed and screamed, but I couldn’t hear them, only a faint roar, like after your ears pop. We were surrounded by this big empty blue that gradually grew dark as we sank, and I just sat there with my arms on the armrests. That was it.”
Dunes rolled past us in waves. His fingers played nervously with the vent on the dashboard, the flow of cool air interrupted. Open. Close. Open again.
“Thanks for driving,” Jeff finally said.
We drove west through the desert because Jeff’s cousin was getting married. At the moment, we were missing the bachelor party—they decided to start in a bit early and ended up on the beach where the ceremony would be held, so a couple of the groomsmen called Jeff’s phone to ask why we weren’t there yet in an attempt to hurry us along. Jeff tried to be polite and explain how far away we were, and I could hear them whooping and yelling into the phone as they pressed him, pushing against his patience, but there was nothing we could do. They were drunk and we still had a long way to go.
We were headed for Corona del Mar, and as we crossed through state after state, we watched the display on the dashboard creep from the mid-80s to just under 115 degrees. Running the AC guzzled gas, and every time we opened the door the desert heat would blast in and chase all the cool air away. I gave up figuring my gas mileage and hoped that it wasn’t killing my bank account. Jeff pitched in a few bucks here and there, but he didn’t have much. His family was loaded—he wasn’t. Jeff was too generous.
I met Jeff after taking a job as a line cook at the same restaurant where he worked. He waited tables because he had people skills, while people assumed that, because I often went a little too long without shaving, I apparently had none. One of my first nights after a training shift on the dinner rush, I headed out to the front to sit at the bar and relax with a couple beers while I pondered how badly I needed this job. When I turned the corner, I stopped to pat my pockets, hoping it looked like I was searching for my wallet, a pack of cigarettes, a picture of my cat—anything, as long as it looked convincing. I just needed to get back around the corner so I could sneak a good look at the girl sitting near the cocktail service pickup. I needed to do this now, because there was no doubt in my mind that if I sat down across from her, I’d get caught staring and chase her away. I needed to get used to her and then get her out of my system right away. Instead, I was caught by the closing manager when he came out of the office to do a walkthrough. I asked if he knew who she was.
“Ah, the blonde. That’s Angie, Jeff’s girlfriend. Gorgeous, huh?”
“I suppose they’re engaged or something,” I said, assuming the worst. I didn’t even really know Jeff at that point, but I made the assumption that anyone who managed to snag a girl like that had to hold on with a death grip, and I already felt sorry for him in a way. I could only imagine how every snake that saw her tried to tempt her away. I know I wanted her.
“No, not engaged, but they’ve been together for—hold on,” he said and nodded at Jeff as he came around the corner, rushing past us, still wearing his work uniform and a tired grin while stuffing a wad of bills into his wallet. “Looks like you made some bank, Jeff.”
“Yeah, guess I made ends meet tonight,” Jeff said, and I followed him back out to the front. I sat across from them and ordered beer after beer, trying in the worst way to find fault in him, to see him chew his food with his mouth open, to catch him betraying the slightest disrespect to Angie and prove how unworthy he was. Jeff wasn’t anything special—he didn’t look like he was built, although not skinny, either. Despite the happy grin, he had dark bags under his eyes, but then we did just wrap up a dinner rush and everyone looked like the walking dead. Felt like it, too. Jeff bought a beer and had the bartender set it in front of me, raising his own in a salute as he slipped his arm around her. Some people are nearly impossible to hate.
Six months later, as Jeff and I became good friends, Angie left him. She moved to San Diego, decided to go on with school. Jeff had planned to join her once she was settled, but she called one night and asked what he would do once he got there. He told her that he heard tips were great out on the coast, and she said that he didn’t sound very ambitious. She told him that she didn’t think she loved him anymore. She told him to stay home. After I offered to take him to the wedding, Jeff talked me into driving him the seventy miles south afterward. He wanted to talk to Angie face to face, even if only for one last time.
Jeff and I arrived in the early evening, tired from the road and feeling gritty from all that dry sand. The temperature had dropped slightly after we emerged from the desert, but it was hard to tell the difference aside from the occasional cool breeze. The hotel was only a couple miles from the beach, but with the tangle of intersections, on ramps, and frontage roads between us, it may as well have been on the other side of the state. I noticed the pool as we pulled into our parking space, and I decided that I would dig out a pair of swim trunks and float for what was left of the day. Unfortunately, we arrived in the middle of a catastrophe and Jeff was put right to work on damage control. The bachelor party had ended with second degree burns.
Jeff’s cousin, Cole, graduated from college four years ago and moved to California. In that time, he was able to adapt to the climate on the west coast, especially the relentless sun. Their family is spread out all over the country, but none of them are used to an afternoon on the beach—the reflection off the Pacific intensifies the rays and had roasted all those poor inlanders to a crisp in only two short hours. A few of Jeff’s aunts bustled from door to door with bottles of burn ointment while Cole wandered aimlessly, running his fingers through his hair and mumbling something about how the wedding was ruined, just ruined, so Jeff went to calm him down. One of Jeff’s aunts noticed me standing apart from the scene and turned my way.
“Are you the one who drove Jeff here?” she asked as she neared.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“I can’t tell you how nice that was,” she said. “Gas is expensive out here, you know. Would you take something for bringing him all this way?” Her eyes pleaded with me to accept her offer.
“That’s okay; it’s not a big deal.” I assumed from the way she looked at me that this was the polite first step before she insisted, and then we would play at haggling over an amount that seemed fair. I hated playing the game of acting like I didn’t want money when I actually did.
“Oh, well you really are one of the good ones,” she said. “Jeff’s so lucky to have someone like you as a friend.” She regarded me with a look of satisfaction and a short satisfied nod to herself, then remembered that she was shirking her responsibilities and hurried back to tend to the moans coming from an open door. She disappeared, leaving me to feel stupid and somewhat cheated for not being more direct with her. At least she hadn’t recruited me to help and I was free to hit the pool.
Jeff stood in the hallway, an arm around Cole’s shoulders. His cousin looked a bit more in control of himself than he had been, but he punctuated his motions with frantic hand gestures and was still visibly shaken. I finally got Jeff’s attention and pointed toward the parking lot while pantomiming in swimming motions, my eyes wide and cheeks puffed for emphasis. Jeff acknowledged with an almost imperceptible nod and then turned to focus again on Cole. I left the drama behind and went to find my luggage.
The hotel pool was a silent oasis placed dead center in a black slab of concrete parking lot, fenced in and surrounded by palm trees and shrubs made of jagged green blades. The pool was bordered again on three sides of the lot by the hotel building, patio doors and windows facing in as if every guest was expected to do their part in monitoring this precious resource. I took the steps down into the shallow end and imagined a marauding band of desert nomads gathered on the frontage road, plotting at that moment to invade and chase everyone out of the hotel, officially ruining Cole’s wedding. The pool was deserted though, and there was still plenty of daylight left, more than enough to burn me as badly as the groomsmen if not for the shade. The dense growth around the high chain-link fence threw crisscrossing patterns over the surface of the water, and I dove through the pulsating shadows toward the deep end, skimming the bottom with my chest.
When I surfaced, it was apparent that the pool wasn’t as deserted as I thought. I hadn’t noticed that the door to the equipment shed was unlatched, and now there was a thin, olive-skinned man with dark features stepping out. As soon as we made eye contact, he lowered his head into what looked like a humble bow. His sandals scraped lightly as he approached the pool at the shallow end and began scooping out debris floating near the edge.
“Is the pool closed?” I asked. I hadn’t thought to check the hours before coming in.
“No.” He said it quickly with a slight accent and smiled as he bowed his head again. He returned to his scooping, and as he did so, I splashed around for a bit, half-heartedly, feeling the fatigue of the day’s drive catch up with me. Grabbing the rough concrete lip, I brought the soles of my feet up to the smooth wall and launched gently, stretching out into a full-length back float. I let go of my arms and legs and listened to the echoes of heavy traffic vibrate through the water. At times I would look up through the ring of trees at the clear sky, and at others I just closed my eyes and felt the water as it threatened to suck me down one moment, then gently pushed me up the next. Eventually I began to watch the pool attendant.
The attendant was dressed in crisp white cotton pants and a shirt, but there was no logo identifying the hotel. The loose material flapped in the breeze, and he shuffled about sweeping and wiping clear all the surfaces within our little oasis, unhurried and without emotion. I wondered if the attendant had followed someone when he traveled here and if they thought his job was ambitious enough, and then the murmuring water sent me the muffled metallic jangle of someone opening the pool’s front gate.
Jeff was finally able to talk some sense into Cole and break free from his impromptu counseling duties. Once Cole accepted that the wedding would not be a disaster, he still couldn’t get over the idea that it was somehow his fault all his friends would be miserable for the ceremony. Jeff told me that he explained how the wedding was the reason everyone was here—everything else was just a side story that they would all laugh about once it was a memory, and that seemed to make Cole feel better.
“Nice save,” I said, my elbows hooked over the side, legs floating free.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” he said, kicking off his shoes and sitting down next to me, sighing as his feet dipped into the pool, “but it’s still the truth.”
The attendant caught Jeff’s attention as he went about his cleaning. All of us were quiet for a time, listening to the breeze and the water slap through the filters, and Jeff watched the attendant scoop debris. Maybe Jeff was imagining himself in that job. The man noticed Jeff looking at him and smiled again as he lowered his head.
The next afternoon, the ceremony was slightly delayed. The groomsmen anticipated difficulties and got an early start on the day, forming their own support group to make sure that no one was left behind. They offered each other help as needed while they dressed in their tuxedos—the simple act of putting on their jackets nearly impossible for most of them due to their scorched shoulders and backs. One of them tried to make light of the situation and gave his blisters names, anthropomorphizing them, stating that they hadn’t RSVP’d and intended to crash the reception. Another one looked as if he would pass out from the exertion, or maybe the pain, but they all pulled through together. The delay came when the groomsmen butted heads with the rest of the family.
In an effort to prevent the wedding party’s burns from getting any worse, possibly life-threatening, someone had been sent to investigate whether or not the hotel rented beach umbrellas large enough for them to stand underneath. The hotel did not but was able to give a referral to a nearby company that did. While word spread for a volunteer to rush out and find them, cries of protest were raised, one coming from the aunt that I had bonded with the day before.
They complained that the umbrellas would block the view of the ocean and ruin all the wedding photos, that it was an unnecessary expense, or that it wasn’t fair to the other guests who wouldn’t have any shade. Some of the groomsmen were so upset by this that I think a fistfight might have broken out—that is, it might have if any of them could have thrown a punch without passing out from the pain. A band of mediators stepped in, Jeff included, and the groomsmen agreed to suffer for the short, half hour-long ceremony. And they did suffer.
The processional was the most awkward part of the ceremony—each bridesmaid appeared too scared to touch her partner as each pair hobbled barefoot over the sand to take their places near the makeshift altar. By the time the minister made the usual announcement of why we were all gathered here today, the necks and faces above each tuxedo glistened with sweat, the black material absorbing heat from the sun overhead and delivering it directly to sunburned skin underneath. Each one of them smiled, but they didn’t look happy.
I looked back over my shoulder and happened to make eye contact with the same aunt who had helped lobby against the umbrellas. She raised her eyebrows and smiled, waving at me like an old friend with the church program now utilized as a fan. I smiled at her and turned to face the front. Jeff leaned over to me and whispered.
“Doesn’t it seem ridiculous to spend so much time and money on something, only to obsess about how it’s going to be ruined?” he said.
“Yeah.” I looked at the collection of strangers who had wandered over from the crowded area of the beach to stand behind the wedding party, some with mouths hanging open and brows furrowed, studying the bride and groom as if they had never seen a wedding before. Not exactly the desert nomads I’d imagined—much worse in a way. “But at least there are no expensive umbrellas to ruin all those scenic wedding photos,” I said as I motioned with a tilt of my head toward the uninvited onlookers.
Jeff snorted, and I stared past all the gaping strangers to watch the waves roll in and break as foam on the shore for the rest of the ceremony.
Almost two hours of the reception crawled by while I nursed a beer and wandered among groups of Jeff’s relatives—old and new. They huddled together, speaking in hushed tones that grew a shade louder with each round of drinks, and shared their secrets with those who were fortunate enough to be listening. I heard a few hushed investment tips, but more often they were conversations about where to find the best deals—such as who pumped the cheapest gasoline or which stores offered rebates on bulk quantities of laundry detergent and shampoo. Watching these people act so conspiratorial over information that would save them a few cents on the dollar made me realize why they were so well off. I fought the urge to toss a dime on the floor and see if anyone would fight over it.
Eventually I found Jeff sitting in one of the circles and made my way over. One of his uncles was in the process of trying to hock his four-year-old home theater system. I saw this same uncle not long ago in another group discussing how a newer system had caught his eye and made his own ridiculously obsolete, but for the moment he was praising the quality of the one he wanted to unload. Jeff stood up unnoticed and walked over.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” I said.
“I know what you mean,” he replied, setting his unfinished beer down on a nearby table. “I’m ready when you are.”
I followed Jeff as he offered congratulations and then apologies on both our parts for having to leave so early. Jeff was pulled into a few last-minute conversations with beverage-wielding relatives as I waited, but these were cut short as he stressed to them how much driving we had ahead of us. I considered trying to talk him into a quick swim but noticed that he was becoming withdrawn and even a little fidgety, like someone who doesn’t know what to do with their hands, so we packed up and hit the road. I had a feeling that Jeff’s thoughts were already in San Diego.
Along the way, we stopped to fill the tank. Jeff didn’t have a cell phone, so he went inside to call ahead on the pay phone and let Angie know that we were on our way. He hadn’t told her we were coming, and I was afraid we would miss her, or that she would simply refuse to see him unannounced. He said not to worry and showed me the small piece of paper with her phone number and an address underneath that had obviously been scribbled hastily against a rough wall. I paid for the gas and bought a couple Cokes and a pack of chewing gum to cover our breath.
We wove through the crowded neighborhoods of San Diego’s backstreets. Finding her campus felt promising because Jeff thought she lived somewhere close, but we drove further, watching the buildings get closer and closer together, the lawns gradually turning brown until they became gritty patches. Jeff looked once more at his piece of paper as the buildings turned into houses that turned into buildings crammed even closer together, and in the middle of one of these blocks was Angie’s place. We turned into the parking lot.
“It should be right over there—yup, third one in,” Jeff said, pointing. “She said to just take her spot. She doesn’t have a car.” The curtain rustled in the window when we pulled in and Jeff climbed out as her door opened. Angie was peering out from behind it as though she wasn’t sure it was us. “I won’t be too long.” He glanced at me and, whether or not he had intended it, I knew it was a lie.
“Go on,” I said. She held her hand up in a motionless wave and Jeff stepped in. The door swung back but didn’t latch. I cut the engine.
Angie’s building looked as if it had been constructed with the intention of being a budget motel, all the windows and doors opening to a pitted parking lot that would be worn down from the original concrete back into coarse gravel before long. A metal railing along the second floor was rusted and broken completely free of its mounting bolts in places. The neighborhood itself was fairly quiet, radiating a sense that everyone living there was either afraid of something or keeping a secret. Across from the grubby lot was a frontage road leading to a few liquor stores and fast food shacks nearby—as opposed to the department stores and sit-down restaurants we had driven past only minutes earlier.
I scanned through radio stations, flipped through some CDs, and tried to find something to occupy myself with so that I wouldn’t do something so stupid as to knock on Angie’s door. I waited and the sun dipped down behind the dead gray of the neighborhood, turning parts of the horizon orange, and threw a long shadow over the parking lot. I wondered how the sunset lit up the beach in Corona del Mar and realized that we couldn’t be more than five miles away from the coast. I wondered if Angie was able to make it to the beach once in a while without a car, or if she was stuck in this shithole all the time. I wondered what was taking Jeff so long.
The door opened and Jeff stepped out, backing his way into the lot. He hunched forward and one of Angie’s arms wrapped over his shoulder, the other came up under his arm, his shirt bunched up in her fists. I turned the ignition and felt a sickening rush when the starter faltered for a moment, but then broke free to spin the motor to life as I flipped on the headlights. Jeff turned aside, took a couple steps and then went back, gave Angie a small kiss, his index finger curled under her chin. It was a goodbye kiss.
As he walked to the car, his back to her now, she stood half in her apartment, half in the doorway. One of her legs was visible, but bent at the knee, her weight on the one out of sight. Her arm was tight against the wall, hugging it as if she needed to hold herself up, her head tilted against the doorframe. In the glare of the headlights I could see that her cheeks were wet. Jeff got in, his face expressionless except for the patch of her tears smeared just over his left cheek. He fastened his seatbelt, and I put the transmission in reverse. Angie stood like that until after we pulled away. She never waved. Jeff never looked at her. I watched her disappear in the rearview.
“Can we turn the radio off?” he asked. “I just want a few miles of peace and quiet.”
I nodded as we pulled off of a frontage road and turned east, the lights of the windowed storefronts burned white hot. Jeff pushed a button, cutting the song in mid-lyric and the faceplate light went dark, replaced by the default digital clock. There was something in his hand, a piece of paper, the note with the scribbled address, and he slowly crumpled it into a ball and rolled it in his fingertips. He settled in for the trip, put his arm down on the armrests, and gazed out the window as I watched the rolled up wad of paper fall out of his hand to the floor. It settled in the clutter near his feet. The rippling murmurs of the city we left behind gave way to the sounds of the AC and muffled drone of the tires. We sat in silence and the big empty blue gradually grew dark. We still had a long way to go.
Co-editor Tiffany Grayson on Erik's piece:
For me, I need a good opener. I don't need a hook, it doesn't have to be an explosion or a dramatic scene or even the promise of one, but it the beginning of a story needs to demonstrate to me that continuing to read will be worth it. It demonstrates confidence, and a bit of the necessary confident swagger of a talented writer to begin with an opening subtle enough but intelligent enough to entertain and entice at the same time. Illustrating their talent for language and promising more if you would only keep reading is the alchemy of excellent writing.
Erik's piece brought an opener that kept me reading, wondering, and curious throughout the story. Just when I felt like I knew who Jeff was or maybe understood him, a new level was revealed. Erik's confident opener and methodical reveal of the relationship between Jeff and the narrator, and Jeff's story itself did more than keep my interest. Erik's balanced tone and thoughtful language made this a piece I couldn't wait to publish.