Note: This story strays from a lot of themes that Objectivist find appealing, so I understand if people do not agree with the theme of what I wrote. This work was more of a personal exercise critiquing a contradiction I observed in society.
I had always been amazed by how quickly the temperature changed in an arid climate from making-me-sweat to freezing-my-balls-off. Back home, my Cavalier King Charles was probably still lounging lazily outside on the wicker sofa, a pant emanating from his smile every minute or so. But not here—not in Shafter. An unincorporated community with a meager population—depending upon who was “goin’ to town”—of 12 lonely souls, it had once been a prosperous silver-mining community back in the days when people still never knew that there were mountains in Texas. Now, it was a curious relic for those artsy types who go on hajj to Marfa. The drive is not bad if barrenness arouses you; something about the isolation made me feel as if the sum of my life’s work could be accomplished in a few hours’ excursion into non-civilization.
Into the void of an endless, cloudless horizon; a violent struggle between turquoise, violet, and darkness. Sparse vegetation dotted the rumples, clinging desperately to the parched soil, begging for an inkling of hydration as they fought off all contenders for their currency. A dirt which itself, like a black hole, consumed the water, stealing it away from my aching jaw. The earth I was eating because an apparition was before me, bruising my athletic figure which had sustained already the shock of the unknown. With the very strength of my being, I hurled myself into remembering, into gazing back and remembering…
Yes, I sat seriously staring at a map, sipping coffee in a cheap motel room in Marfa, wondering if the mining ruins would be preserved enough to capture the sense of decay I was attempting to photograph. Assuming my goal would be guaranteed after checking online (they had filmed The Andromeda Strain there, supposedly), I grabbed my camera bag and flew out the paint-chipped door. The sun shone down on my pasty white face, causing me to squint in the direction of the main office even though my wavy auburn bangs did their best to lend a helping hand. I needed to ask them to leave more towels when housekeeping came by—they always shorted you on the towels, something about going green and saving the environment.
The attendant had the redundant look of damnable apathy, though I found it hard to imagine what a thirty year old in Marfa would have to zone out on. Some 57 miles from the border—definitely low-grade Mexican brick. It was no wonder, then, that he couldn’t remember my name out of three other visitors. An aged local, sipping coffee and watching the television in the make-shift common area/continental breakfast nook, peered over at me when I asked if Shafter had a gas station.
“That old ghost town?”, his chuckle interrupted by the phlegm clinging desperately to his throat, hallmark Marlboro Man. “You best get what you need here and come back quick.”
“And if I were looking for spirits?”
“Then it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet with no doggy bags.” The seriousness in his eyes was matched by the carelessness of his lips, which dripped words out like a mouthful of dip with no spittin’ cup. All of these blind-seers in stereotypical settings had cliché cautions to dole out. Who was he, anyway?
There is a craziness, like a parasitic worm burrowing into your head and directing your actions—unbeknownst to you—which comes from being so detached from civilization and the environment that festers and ferments in the bowels of this nation. But don’t forget that you can shit out your mouth, so who knows where the bowels are.
My blue 2007 Honda Accord got 27 mpg, with a swanky (except for the occasional dog hair which, no matter how hard I tried to clean, kept mysteriously placing itself in the most obvious location) crème leather interior. Not to brag, of course (am I?), but this was the first vehicle that I had purchased myself. Who wouldn’t take pride in their first true major possession? I hadn’t busted my ass for years doing odd jobs for no-name newspapers as a photojournalist before a chance picture of two elk battling it out at night during a satin-soaked lightning storm got me a gig at Newsweek. How can you spend $45,000 a year? I’ll tell you how. A blue 2007 Honda Accord that gets 27 mpg.
It was 6:14 p.m. in New York right now. Erin had probably just sat the kids down for a bowl of homemade chili; simple to prep the night before, throw in a Crock Pot in the morning, and aromatize the house by dinner time. Michael had begun kindergarten and would be voraciously explicating how Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero, his golden curls bobbing from side to side as he talked. Across from him, looking out the window, was Nancy. My dear, sweet Nancy. We had saved her from her biological parents: meth-heads who would forget to change her diaper for days. She was the brightest child with the most tender smile—not a quick, boisterous grin, but a patient, angelic beam which melted your heart with the potential of the future. I grabbed the phone and called home.
My mouth curled upwards before the first syllable. “Hey beautiful.”
Enthusiasm effervesced through the phone line. “Hey hon! How’s it going?” I heard Michael and Nancy in the background both unanimously scream out “Daddy!”. I heard Erin’s childhood friend, Stacy (she had come in for the week to help out while I was away), call out “Hey Blue-Eyes!” from the far side of the table. And then my high school sweetheart, the first and only true love of my life: “It’s starting to get pretty chilly up here; hard to sleep, really, without your firm arms around me.”
The drive from Marfa to Shafter is 39.9 miles. That gave me roughly 30 minutes to banter about my day, about the sights I had seen and the images I had captured; to hear in on the lives of my children and spouse, their triumphs and tribulations. It surprises a man how much he can miss his family after just a few days. But that’s all you have in this world, really: your family. I mean sure there are friends and associates, money and property, gizmos and gadgets—but in the end, the only thing still there when everything goes out is your family. The mammalian way. It’s the circle of life, you know? Hakuna Matata.
The call was coming to an end and I knew that Erin’s chili would have to withstand a few minutes in the microwave. “But soon I’ll be back, and things will settle down again. Don’t worry about it—it’s just stress. Go take a nice, hot bath and relax.”
“Okay Dave. Well, I love you. Be safe the rest of your trip, and call me tonight before you go to sleep.” Of course that meant I had to, but who could resist phone-pillow talk? I said my goodbyes and hung up just as a sign announced my arrival to the ghost-town. The sun would set in an hour and a half or so, which was perfect for me; I loved the shadows of dusk, their vibrantly still hues staining the landscape.
My goal was twofold: find an abandoned house (to symbolize the decay of living standards, from civilized to natural) and an abandoned mine (to symbolize the disintegration of material standards, from industrial/commercial to just another pile of atoms). A photo essay, The Recession of Time, was to be featured in the January edition, four months from now, and I had travelled to a few remote areas across the nation in order to find the places where a once bright future became a dim past. The collection I had amassed was large, too large; I had four months to edit. But one piece was missing, that one critical picture which makes you eligible for a Pulitzer and could possibly make it as the cover image. That, I hoped, I would find in Shafter.
But I didn’t. For a small town, you wouldn’t think the monuments would be so commercialized. No, that’s not the right word-there was no commerce here. Form-fitting, stereotypical, like every…other…monument you ever see? I was disappointed to say the least. Sure, there were a few good shots in there, but nothing cover-worthy. I know all the artsy people tell you to not care about advancement, to follow your own dreams and be a free artist-but damn it, I had kids to feed and bills to pay. And I wanted a Pulitzer.
I walked back through the expansive, urban, downtown area towards my car, bummed and exhausted. Taking pictures does not sound tiring, but you try trekking through inhospitable terrain for hours upon hours in the heat, standing still at times for 15, 20, minutes—even longer sometimes—just to capture the perfect shot. It’ll take the zest out of you, for sure. The cool air was, of course, surprising, but I welcomed the change from the heat just moments before.
It was a full moon tonight, and I was in a ghost-town…but I had not seen any ghosts. Too bad, because that sure as hell would have won a Pulitzer. Driving back down the long, lonely roadway that is Highway 67 (thank god—I heard the Devil got his killing done on Highway 61) I expected a wolf to appear over the horizon on one of the splotchy hills, howling head-up at the moon. But Hollywood never conforms to reality. All I saw was blackness, stars, and a road sign.
A road sign? I don’t remember a turn-off here before. It might not seem strange on a normal road, where there are fifty turn-offs per mile, but out here where the grass don’t grow and tan becomes monotonous, another road would be memorable. Even then, I wouldn’t have cared had the sign not been hanging on its side, obviously indicating that either nobody lived there or those who did cared little for the outside world. The lustrous silver rays of the moon revealed a dirt road winding around a nearby hill, a rusty barbed-wire fence lining it. The metallic specs amongst the red oxidation of the wire reflected the moon like a disco ball, calling me forward.
I drove slowly down the road and rounded the hill, the yellow haze of my headlights mixing with the lustrous glare of the moon upon a wooden shack, ripped straight out of a Hollywood set from a John Wayne movie but real, genuine, historical. It lacked a marker of authenticity, a placard of social acceptance—but I could smell it in the wood as I got out of the car, that scent where wood and dirt begin to blend into one musk. This place was old and had not felt the touch of a man in quite some time. The moon flickered in the clouds over the hill, causing the contrasts of bright silver and subdued charcoal to dance and move across the aged timber.
And finally, I got it—the perfect shot. The most exquisite combination of colors and patterns blending into:
“Hey-what are you doing around here?” the voice was harsh and tinged with a Mexican accent. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from-somewhere near the house, but strangely enough I couldn’t see anyone. Then, from behind, I felt the cold, hard point of a gun.
“Don’t move,” said another voice, deeper and more ominous. My thoughts raced; was I really getting robbed right outside of a town of 12? Who was the thief, the mayor or the rancher?
Words slowly began to form in my mouth; remaining calm, still, and cautious, I said, “I meant no harm—I am a photographer for…”
“Man, I don’t care what the fuck you do, I asked why you were here.” I remained still, knowing that I had to maintain strength in the situation in order to survive, not only for myself, but for my family. My dear, sweet Nancy and her smiling face; my jovial Michael, his locks a-bobbin’; and my beautiful, compassionate Erin—the one person in life who filled me with such a sense that everything was okay in the world, that order and justice reigned, that good was good and bad was destined for failure.
“What do you want?” I asserted, remaining calm and tensing my muscles like a cat that puffs its fur at the first sign of a threat.
“We want your worth in cash man.” It suddenly clicked in my head: drug cartels, drug wars, drug czars, unstable borders, killings, kidnappings, trafficking, violence. I was one of those anonymous figures in an anonymous war.
“Look, you can take my cash, but I am no threat to you, and you will get nothing for my ransom.” Be brave, be strong—be assertive, be calm, I repeated over and over. Most situations like these depended upon the mental strength of the victim; the criminal is obviously unstable, but like a pack of dogs, the weakest victim goes first. This is the wild. This is nature.
The one behind me put a hand on my shoulder, the gun remaining glued to the middle of my back, and pushed me forward towards the shack. I finally saw the first voice, appearing from behind and leading the way. Scrawny with long hair and tattoos, almost too faded to make out, he obviously was the leader of this shindig. In his hand was a shotgun, the end of any opportunity I had to get out of here. Now I just had to reason with them. As I told my daughter, use your grown-up words.
“How do you plan on contacting any authority about me without letting on where you are?”
This didn’t work. “Man, shut the fuck up,” said the guy behind me, and instantly he smacked me across the back of the head with the butt of his gun. The pain was immense, my breath flew out towards the glistening moon, and my eyes saw drunker than I had ever been. I started to stagger when the guy in the front yelled out at his comrade:
“Man, what the fuck are you trying to do? You want to kill our money, eh? You want to piss off the man, eh?” Though woozy, I gained hope. This was always the part of the story where the heroic victim breaks free and escapes while the captors are bickering. My keys were still in my pocket; if I could throw the guy behind me into the guy in front of me, I could knock the two over and dash off to my car before they stabilized and peel out, safe from harm.
But this didn’t happen. As if sensing my attempt, the guy behind me threw me to the ground and slammed his foot on my back, causing my mouth to rear open and a fistful of dirt to fly into my mouth. I couldn’t tell which was worse: the boot grinding into my back from who must have been a 250 pound man, or the ground mixing with my spit and sticking to the back of my throat, causing me to cough up balls of mud which did nothing but get more solidified and fly back further in my throat. I knew it—I was going to die out here. They didn’t care about ransom money; they were probably too high on crack to know what the hell was going on.
My sight began to dim when I heard a gunshot. With the eye that wasn’t forced into a patch of grass, I looked up and saw blood dripping down the head of the skinny one. Immediately, the pressure from my back let up before I heard a second gun shot. I froze, only to feel the thunderous collapse of 250 pounds upon the earth’s surface. They were both dead, and standing there, gleaming in the moonlight, was a knight in shining armor; his spurs glistening, his pressed jeans reflecting an absolute meticulous care for order, his shirt doing its best to hide 30 years of heavy manual labor, and his face…ah, his face—the leathered, worn skin reflected the aged wisdom of one who had travelled the depths of the world in his own backyard.
I pressed my knees into the soil and forced myself to look up at him. “Thank you-truly, deeply-thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said like a Spartan; long speech was wasted on the weak. “Their type are getting thick around here. Gotta clear it out. You okay?” He dismounted and walked over, offering me a hand.
“Yes, yes I am. Damn bastards.” I grabbed his admirable, veiny hand, staring up at the man who had saved my life. Yet the force of his pull, the strength of his experience, swung me up more than my weakness could afford, and I stumbled forward again, only to be caught in his burly arms.
“Watch out there. Let me take you back and get you some help. Oh…you dropped your wallet.” He bent down and picked up my wallet, smeared in dirt and open on the unforgiving ground. Picking it up, my wedding picture met his face. He stared down at it, down at Erin and me on one of the happiest days of my life. He stared long and hard, his face slowly turning from stoic to stoic-consternated, and he looked at me straight in the eyes, the clarity of the hazel peering straight to the roots of my soul. “You’re one of those fags, aren’t you?”
And the last thing I remember was the nozzle of his gun and the fleeting seconds of a whole life’s experience flashing before one’s eyes.