Art by Sendra Uebele

Desert Dog

A fiction piece by Johanna Rose Stone.

It’s 40 minutes to high noon in the Mojave. Sharp sunbeams cut through the December skies and crash sparkling onto the rocks, onto the trees, onto the porch where Kitty and I eat eggs and toast and radishes. We are desert people, and desert people are the only people alive. What do you want to do today?

On the way into town we stop at a strip mall where there are two dispensaries, Green Leaf and Doctor Coughy. We go to Green Leaf to buy weed and Doctor Coughy to inquire about shrooms. The employee at Doctor Coughy, sweet-redheaded-septum-piercing, is on the verge of giving us a phone number when Kitty calls it off. “We’re not trying to go out of our way,” he says. We are living off vibes and vibes alone. In the car, we roll a spliff and smoke it with the sunroof down and the AC blasting. On the third hit it flies out of Kitty’s hand, up through the sunroof and down onto the road behind us. He looks at me in shock and seconds pass like this before the car comes to a halt. We scour the road hopelessly for 15 minutes and then decide we’d better roll another one. The second spliff is a perfect replica of the first and it makes me happier than I’ve ever been. 

On the first night we fall asleep while the sun is setting and don’t wake up until nine pm. We are hungry and all the restaurants in town are closed. In the pantry there is gluten-free pasta, potato chips, frozen peas, more eggs, Ritz crackers, vegan butter, capers, half a jar of marinara, and a tin of sardines. We decide to make gluten-free sardine pasta with frozen peas. Kitty insists on putting in the whole tin of sardines for maximum nutritional value. “They’ll cook down,” he assures us. I don’t know how to cook but the pasta to sardine ratio seems dangerously off. I throw in a few tentative capers for luck. The result is a grainy salty sludge that the spineless gluten free pasta buckles under. We choke it down with hearty smiles. It’s not that bad, we say, and it’s not, it’s nutrient dense, which is what food is really all about. Desert people aren’t complainers. There is a lot of pasta left over. We pack it into a large Tupperware and lay it to rest in the fridge. 

The second day we search for gems in the wash. “The green rocks are jade,” says Kitty, and I say, “No, jade comes from China.” 

“There’s jade all over California,” he says. “Didn’t you know that.” No, I didn’t. “There’s jade beds in Santa Clarita,” he says. “All over.” His foot comes within inches of the dead dog’s head before he jumps back. When I see it I scream, and then all of us are totally still. A compact Rottweiler with a deep black gash across its left cheek, draped across the dirt. Other than the inky wound it is perfect. It doesn’t even smell. “We should bury it,” I say, but neither of us can touch it. 

We move the other way and keep searching for gems, ghost in tow. I resist the urge to look back at the silky corpse until I am almost convinced it has disappeared. Everything here is AI art, the big rocks, the little rocks, the trees, the dog, randomly configured clusters of life and death, spawning all over, drawn from a vast database of other people’s memories and prompted by our intuition. Some part of me has always wanted to see a dead body. 

We have sex on top of a pile of boulders. The whole time I picture a big cat bounding down from the rocky crevices to eat us, but nothing appears. When it’s over we are sunburnt and sweating. We tie our winter jackets around our waists and descend back into the valley.  

The town historical society set up a pop-up exhibition, a tiny concrete room plastered with blown-up black and white photos of the desert people from before. There’s a photo of the Twentynine Palms marching band, a man dressed up as a woman, three boys jumping across a creek, a pleated crowd congregating outside the post office. A prize-winning cowgirl, grinning from ear to ear. 

“Your great grandfather Carl Reimann shot himself in Twentynine Palms,” my mom tells me in between bites of CPK margherita pizza. “I was only one or two years old. He had cancer. Brain tumor.” After that she doesn’t say any more. 

I ask my Uncle Bobby about it. He sighs and says “I just don’t understand why he had to do it in the house, when he had the whole desert.”  After that I stop asking. 

One day there will be a dog skeleton in the wash. “If it had just been a skeleton I would have taken it, I would have given the skull to my mom,” says Kitty. One day the vultures will polish the bones if there are vultures. We haven’t seen a single living creature. At night in the pitch black, you can hear the coyotes howl, but you never catch a glimpse of one. I want to tame a coyote and keep it here as a pet. We could name it Fido. We could sit on the porch with Fido the coyote and feed the fire dry cactus needles and shots of Don Julio forever. We could feed Fido the leftover sardine pasta. He’s no Rottweiler but he’s a damn good boy. We could eat eggs and carve animal figurines out of the rocks to pass the time. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted. 

We do tarot readings for each other with a pack of cards we find in the house. Kitty’s cards speak of wealth, prosperity, and fortune. My cards speak of failure, loss, and death. Kitty keeps drawing more and more cards in an attempt to grant me a happy ending, but they just keep getting worse. We go to bed. 

On the last day we drive into the park to get close to the Joshua trees. They are the desert energy suppliers, naturally-occurring electrical cords plugged into the Western air. We pull up beside a cluster of them as the sun is setting and the air is beginning to freeze. I approach a small tree whose arms are patiently outstretched. We embrace, trying our best to reach one another. I stay like that for a long time, head buried in the tree’s neck while the sun fades.  

After that we drive back to Los Angeles, where the future is emptier than the entire Mojave. I have been in Los Angeles ever since. I don’t want to be here. I wanted to die in the desert. Actually I did, a big cat ate me. 

I Google Carl Reimann. He was a cartoonist who ran a comic strip called Alfred about a man with hilariously debilitating alcoholism. The 1954 Santa Monica city directories lists Reimann as a registered Republican who lived at 1012 2nd Street, apartment 5. The 1958 city directory lists Reimann as a salesman with the Trans-Western Land & Investment Company in Los Angeles. In 1962, Reimann was a Joshua Tree, California resident on Sunny Vista Road. In 1963, he passed away. Cause of death unknown.

I tell my mom about the stuff I found on Google. “Yes,” she says, “he was a cartoonist. He also ran a dog kennel. He would make your Bapa clean the shit out of the dog cages when he was too drunk to do it himself.” I leave him a digital California poppy on his internet gravesite. 

Weeks after our trip, the Airbnb host sends Kitty an email accusing us of breaking her trailer, flooding her bathroom, and melting a candle all over the floor. Only one is definitely true. She doesn’t mention that someone stole one of her rings and one of her hair clips. I draft a response denying all accusations and include that we would love to stay there again. I send it to Kitty, but he never responds to the email. On a sunny spring day, he claims he doesn’t love me anymore. All that stuff sinks back into the Mojave, where pieces of my heart get mixed in with sardines and dog bones and bits of my great-grandfather’s brain.