Table of Contents
Critical Acclaim for
“Goldberg complicates things, in brilliant and moving ways, in stories that live along the border between the mundane and the surreal...Goldberg’s prose is deceptively smooth, like a vanilla milkshake spiked with grain alcohol, and his ideas are always made more complex and engaging by the offbeat angles his stories take.”
“A keen voice, profound insight...Each story excites on its own. Fortunate the writer who discovers his obsessions early, for he’ ll have that much more time to transform them in fiction, to provoke the sources of their fearsome power...
is devilishly entertaining.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Goldberg ’s best stories are told in retrospect, as if the narrators need psychic distance to fashion their memories in the most potent form.”
“Goldberg has thought a lot about the human condition and the way our hearts and minds define us. He is effortlessly brilliant with his pared-down prose and attention to detail. In a society that is disinclined to contemplate our own deaths, Goldberg hits it head-on with no qualms or fluff. His stories will provoke and startle you.”
For Wendy : Someday girl, I don’t know when,
we’re gonna get to that place...
Hold no man responsible for what he says in his grief.
eneath the water, beneath time, beneath yesterday, is the salt.
The paper says that another body has washed up on the north shore of the Salton Sea, its age the provenance of anthropologists. “Washed up” is a misnomer, of course, because nothing is flowing out of the Salton Sea during this winter of interminable heat: it’s January 10, and the temperature hovers near one hundred degrees. The Salton Sea is receding back into memory, revealing with each inch another year, another foundation, another hand that pulls from the sand and grasps at the dead air. Maybe the bodies are from the old Indian cemetery first swallowed by the sea in 1971. Perhaps they are from Tom Sanderson’s family plot. Or maybe it is my sweet Katherine, delivered back to me in rusted bone.
I fold the newspaper and set it down on my lap. Through the living room window I see Kim, my wife of seven months, pruning her roses. They are supposed to be dormant by now, she told me yesterday, and that they are alive and flowering is nothing short of a miracle. Much is miraculous to Kim: we met at the cancer treatment center in Palm Springs a little over a year ago, both of us bald and withered, our lives clinging to a chemical cocktail.
“How long did they give you?” she asked.
“Nothing specific,” I said. The truth was that my doctor told me that I had a year, possibly less, but that at my age—I was seventy-two then—the script was likely to be without too many twists: I’d either live or I wouldn’t. And after spending every afternoon for three months hooked to an IV, I wasn’t sure if that was completely accurate. What kind of life was this that predicated itself on waiting?
“I’m already supposed to be dead,” she said. “How do you like that?”
“You should buy a lottery ticket,” I said.
She rummaged in her purse, pulled out a handful of stubs, and handed them to me. “Pick out one you like and if you win, we’ll split it.”
We live together now behind a gate in Indian Wells, and our backyard abuts a golf course that my knees won’t allow me to play on and that my checkbook can’t afford. My yearly pension from the Sheriff’s Department more suited for the guard gate than the country club. But Kim comes from money, or at least her ex-husband did, and so here we are living out the bonus years together. At least Kim’s hair has grown back.
I pick the newspaper back up and try not to read the stories on the front page, the colored bar-graph that details the Salton Sea’s water levels from 1906 until present day, the old photos of speed boat races, the black bag that holds a human form, the telephone poles jutting out of the placid water, the quotes from environmentalists decrying the ecological disaster of California’s fetid inland sea. I try to read page A-3, where the other big local news stories of the day are housed safely out of sight from passing tourists:
Pipe Closes Ralphs in Palm Springs. Dead Body Found in Joshua Tree Identified as Missing Hiker from Kansas. Free flu shots for Seniors at Eisenhower Medical Center.
“Morris,” Kim says. “Are you feeling all right?”
I see that Kim is standing only a few inches from me, worry etched on her face like sediment. “I’m fine,” I say. “When did you come in?”
“I’ve been standing here talking to you, and you haven’t even looked up from the paper,” she says.
“I didn’t hear you,” I say.
“I know that,” she says. “You were talking to yourself. It would be impossible for you to hear me over the din of your own conversation.” Kim smiles, but I can see that she’s worried. “I’m an old man,” I say.
She leans down then, takes my face in her hands, and runs her thumbs along my eyes. “You’re just a boy,” Kim says, and I realize she’s wiping tears from my face. “Why don’t you ever talk to me about your first wife? It wouldn’t bother me, Morris. It would make me feel closer to you.”
“That was another life,” I say.
“Apparently not,” she says.
“She’s been gone a long time,” I say, “but sometimes it just creeps back on me, and it’s like she’s still alive and in the other room, but I can’t seem to figure out where that room is. And then I look up and my new wife is wiping tears from my face.”
“I’m not your new wife,” Kim says, standing back up. “I’m your last wife.”
“You know what I mean,” I say.
“Of course I do,” Kim says.
The fact of the matter, I think after Kim has walked back outside, is that with each passing day I find my mind has begun to recede like the sea, and each morning I wake up feeling like I’m younger, like time is flowing backward, that eventually I’ll open my eyes and it will be 1962 again and life will feel filled with possibility. What is obvious to me, and what my neurologist confirmed a few weeks ago, but which I haven’t bothered to share with Kim, is that my brain is shedding space; that soon all that will be left is the past, my consciousness doing its best imitation of liquefaction.
I go into the bedroom and change into a pair of khaki pants, a button-down shirt, and a ball cap emblazoned with the logo of our country club. In the closet, I take down the shoe box where I keep my gun and ankle holster, and for a long time I just look at both of them, wondering what the hell I’m thinking about, what the hell I hope to prove after almost forty-five years, what exactly I think I’ ll find out there by the shore of that rotting sea but ghosts and sand.
Dead is still dead.
I find Kim in the front yard. She’s chatting with our next-door neighbors, Sue and Leon. Last week, Leon wandered out of his house in the night and stood on the fifteenth fairway shouting obscenities. By the time I was able to coax him into my golf cart he’d stripped off all his clothes and was masturbating furiously, sadly to no avail. That’s the tragedy of getting old and losing your mind—that switch flips, and everything that’s been sitting limply beside you starts perking up again, but you can’t figure out exactly how to work it. Today, he’s smiling and happy and has a general idea about his whereabouts, but he
seems blissfully unaware of who he is, or who any of us are.
“I can’t thank you enough for the other night,” Sue says when I walk up.
“It’s nothing,” I say.
“He was happy to do it, ” Kim says. “Any time you need help, really, we’re just right here.”
“His medication . . . Well, you know how it is. You have to get it regulated. I wish you’d known him before all of this,” Sue says, waving her hands dismissively, and then, just like that, she’s sobbing. “Oh, it’s silly. We get old, don’t we, Kim? We just get old, and next thing you know, you’re gone.”
Leon used to run some Fortune 500 company that made light fixtures for casinos. They called him The King of Lights, or at least that’s what he told me once in one of his more lucid moments. But today he’s just a dim bulb, and I can’t help but think of how soon I’ll be sitting right there next to him at the loony bin, drooling on myself and letting some orderly wipe my ass.
“I have to run out,” I say to Kim, once Leon and Sue have made their way back to their condo.
“I could clean up and come with you,” she says. “It would just take a moment.”
“Don’t bother,” I say. “I’m just gonna drive on out to the Salton Sea. See what’s going on down there. Talk a little cop shop.”
“Morris,” she says. “If I go inside and look in the closet, will I find your gun there?”
“I’m afraid not,” I say.
“You’re a fool to be running around with that thing. Do you hear me?”
We stand there staring at each other for a solid minute until Kim shakes her head once, turns heel, and walks inside. She doesn’t bother to slam the front door, which makes it worse.
In the spring of 1962, I took a job working for Claxson Oil and moved, along with my young wife Katherine, to the Salton Sea. Claxson had hired me to be the de facto police for the five hundred people they’d shipped into the area in their attempt to find oil beneath the sea, a venture that would prove fruitless and tragic. At the time, though, Claxson was simply concerned about keeping order: they’d already built an army-style barracks and were busy constructing seafront hacienda homes for the executives who’d oversee the dig and, presumably, the boomtown that would come once the oil came spouting out of the ground. My job was to provide a little bit of law, both with the working men (and families) and the Mexicans and Indians who populated the area. There’d already been three stabbing deaths in the past year—two roughnecks and one Mexican—and it didn’t seem to be getting better.
I was only twenty-eight years old then and had spent the previous three years trying to figure out how to get Korea out of my head. I served two years in Korea during the war and another five trying to conjure a better future for myself by reenlisting until it seemed pointless, before finally returning to Granite City, Washington, where I’d grown up. My father was the sheriff there—as I would later be—so he hired me on to be his deputy. It was reasonable work until a young woman named Gretchen Claxson went missing from the small fishing resort on Granite Lake. I found her body, and the man who’d done unspeakable things to it, a few sleepless weeks later. I’d like
to say that I was honest and fair with the killer, a man named Milton Stairs who I’d gone to elementary school with, but the truth is that I nearly killed him: I broke both of his arms and beat him so badly that he ended up losing the ability to speak. I was rewarded with a job offer from Gretchen’s grieving oil baron father and a salary well beyond my comprehension.
A year and a half later, Katherine would be dead from ovarian cancer and I’d be back in Granite City.
But today I’m standing on the other side of a stretch of yellow caution tape, though this isn’t a crime scene, watching as a rental security officer stands guard over a patch of dirt while two young women and a man wearing one of those safari vests brush rocks and debris away from a depression in the earth. The Salton Sea laps at the edge of the sand, the stench rising from it as thick as mustard gas. The two women and the man are all wearing masks, but the security guard just keeps a handkerchief to his face while in the other hand he clutches a clipboard. It’s not the body that smells—it’s the sea, rotting with dead fish, sewage runoff, and the aroma of red tide algae.