"Isn't that what matters?"
The rest of what she had to say was drowned out by the falls.
We gathered our equipment and began the hike back down to the trailhead.
But yes, I thought. It is what matters.
And also, that was the last time we or anyone else saw her.
Spem in alium. Did you hear? The hidden choir, singing "Be mindful of our lowliness" in a dead language?
Christmas Day. We found our way back into town and heard George Michael died. No one cried about it until later; one of those slow-burn things. Somewhere along the timescale we lost our freedom and our faith, and we never fully pieced those two together until now.
Here in the bar, we drank to all the people we lost in this terrible, abominable 2016. Someone suggested karaoke, and to our eternal shame most of us cheered encouragement, when we really ought to have left that dire year to its abject misery. To dissolve in its own toxic juices. Not even sang about it.
To me was allotted "Rebel Rebel," and however hard I tried, profusely cognizant some boy might be a girl, some mother was in a whirl, I could never do it justice, whoever tore their goddamn dress, even if I were telling this story from a fictional land. A story board. Some tawdry vision.
The thing is, we still had the mud and water from those canyon trails sluicing from our hiking boots. Our dreams were still unfolding. I recall watching Michael Stipe on some talk show, withdrawn into his guru beard, his pain at the outcome of the world so plain and so wretched I could feel my actual heart shrink within the cavern of my chest and quietly crumple. This isn't what we envisaged in 1991. Or 1999. At what point did the dream end?
If I could say anything, I would say this: stop being afraid. Stop being fearful. And quit blame. Reject potato peelings. Spurn astroturf. Reduce dead fledglings to tiny rubber dinosaurs. Fucking stop it, you weak-kneed, spineless fucks. Taste the dirt. Either we're right, or we die. Don't pretend. Take a stand.
Anger and graciousness. You don't deserve us, and vice versa. Cardboard signs at four-way intersections kitty-cornered by Target and Kmart, Costco and Walmart. Vast static confluences of concrete-and-asphalt rivers occupied by grubby penitents holding Sharpied cardboard pleas, each one more desperate—Need work. Please help. Will work for food. Will work for weed. Will work for sex. Homeless, anything helps. I used to be your neighbor. Please help me I have nothing. God bless—people staying, people moving on, not so permanent markers. Impregnable suburban tanks gliding by. Such rootlessness in a land of generic signs, identical to the next town and the next, long as they're on an interstate. Less so off the beaten path.
But then the shocking moments of beauty, the dream blue of the sky with fantasy clouds scudding above a smoky mauve-into-cerulean range of distant peaks. A hawk spit-crying and spinning slo-mo in the afternoon thermals. A coyote loping quick-step anxious in scrubland. Mile-long trains blaring like lonesome creatures seeking their lost herd. Made antlike by tawny distance. Rare punctuation in the endless sentence of a narrative yet to be fully told.
"What's that movie? You know the one."
"With that actor, you know? She was in that other show, yeah? One with the trailer in the desert."
"I sure don't have a single idea what you're talking about."
"Aw, fuck, you ain't one bit helpful."
It don't have to be some big drama. We can just get away. Leave while the pulse of a hip-hop beat makes of the walls a drumskin. While the smell of fried food coats the air and clogs our sinuses right after we free the blockhead dogs to piss in the overgrown weeds out back.
I don't know anymore what's good or not. Or I think I know. I just ain't sure. My fingers look like they belong to someone twice my age. Daren't even look at my face no more.
My mama come from Lisbon and my daddy mighta been Moroccan or Malian or something, Mama's story always changed, but I'm an American girl, bathed in American light. That was a joke. The only light I mostly ever knowed was held under a spoon so the drugs would cook. Somewheres between the two half-jokes lies my real tale.
We are what's known as itinerant, living in the places in between the other places, Red Bull our fuel and Mark One vodka our lube, refusing to dream, middle-fingering all a y'all. Dancehall and trap, sometimes even cowpoke. Metro Boomin. Vybz Kartel. Lady Antebellum. The world is made of gauze and crepe, draped over syncopated yelps of nothin' much, dissolved by the sound of a thousand funnel storms harsh-disciplining flat annihilated land.
"I ain't interested in where you come from, I'm interested in where y'are now."
"I mean no disrespect, but your story's like a million other stories. I only wanna know if you can help me now, this moment. Don't mean I ain't interested in you."
"Right. I understand. You know how people chase twisters?"
"Yeah, I seen that on YouTube."
"Well, I can get behind anything, you know?"
"I know it."
"Did we hurt someone back there? Back in Sioux Falls?"
"Best not talk about that."
"A'ight. You know it."
We did, though. Things got accidental. I hope someone didn't die. Afraid they mighta.
We'll return to those falls one day. Some requiem playing in our earbuds. Under a grey dystopian sky. We'll carry our hope by the shoulder straps and look for signs of her, not find them, our faces wet in the relentless spray. We'll listen for her echo in the tumult, and we'll hear nothing. Gone as if she hadn't lived. The script of her life part written. A dull place in all our hearts that sometimes still aches on certain calendar dates. Earlier I said, "That was the last time we or anyone else saw her." But how can I be so sure of that? Melodrama's never a complete truth. What did she meet that day that quietly and effectively and manifestly obliterated her? I could keep on dissembling, but fact is, truth is, we won't ever know, and given the times we've turned our stricken faces toward the abyss, why on God's dark and gleaming earth should we?