“Look at this one, Peg.” Charles didn’t bother looking up from the postcard carousel. It was the first day of their honeymoon and she had ignored him since morning. Outside the afternoon had turned over, and yellow drained from the sky. In the past her cold spells had lasted weeks.
He took the postcard he’d noticed and held it close to his glasses. His prescription was too weak to correct his awful vision, which was one more thing to rectify once the honeymoon was over and he was again an organ of the working world, but nothing to concern himself with at this very instant. He had been in the habit of lecturing himself since he was a schoolboy, and now these little sermons punctuated his everyday experiences like faces partially glimpsed in passing.
The postcard depicted the national monument at sunset, a view from piney cliffs that overlooked a vista of long-cooled lava flows. The sunset had turned the black surface a striking orange, and the sturdy plants sprouting from its cracks glowed radioactive green. It was like swimming to the floor of a clear-watered quarry and finding an alien world there.
This natural paradox, the fragile beauty of rugged things, was what he wanted to show Peggy, why they had camped at the very feet of the same pictured cliffs, if only for three hours. They’d come back from a light climb to vultures feeding in their overturned cooler. Big as gargoyles, the birds hunched over with their hooked boney heads and yellow eyes regarding the two of them with alien menace. He and Peg backed off, canteens dangling from their hands. The buzzards had flown in from nowhere, out of some nearby, unseen portal to an underworld. They knew how to blind you. Or that’s what Peg said, or rather shouted, in the car as they raced away. They’d abandoned the Coleman, three bottles of white Burgundy, and the best rare roast beef Charles had tasted. Why had he brought her to the desert anyway? She demanded an answer, leaning across the console with her seatbelt unfastened, her hysterics not helping the situation one bit, as they drove out of the canyon with the air conditioning on full blow.
This postcard would have come in handy then. He could have simply held it up, and said, “This is why I brought you here.”
“Hey honey,” he said, testing her patience. “Darling.”
She hated what she called bullshit nicknames, and he was still in part the unpopular boy who took revenge on the world by making the prettiest girl cry. An aisle away, Peg ignored him, browsing the available health bars. Not for the first time he noticed that their looks were out of proportion, that she was too pretty for him, finely featured where he was tall, crude, and bulgy. It was another way he had of inflicting himself on her, imagining himself a monster who possessed her, especially during sex, when she was so small and lovely, and he so awful and big.
“Hey, dumpling,” he called, loud enough that the old woman with bobbed gray hair glanced up from the cash register. “This sunset is why I brought you out here. See any scavengers in this picture?”
Peg behaved as though nothing had been said and grabbed a health bar with a more scientific-looking wrapper. She had almost completed her repudiation of him when the door dinged open, and she was cut off at counter by three young hippies with long hair and knit ponchos. They walked too closely together, twitchy, vigilant neurotics with their hands buried in kangaroo pouches. While one ordered three packs of cigarettes and directed the old woman to various bottles of liquor on the wall behind her, another stared at Peg’s chest so intently that she turned to face Charles, her cheeks bright red under the stylishly tousled blonde hair.
He brought the postcard over to her, as if to block out the hippies with his presence. “Look.” He held the card up, feeling protective now with this new audience. “This is what we left behind.”
She took the postcard in both hands. Her nails, painted crimson, were badly chipped. “Who took this picture?” she asked. “The vultures?”
When they were driving on the highway again she began to complain about the hippies in the gas station. “There’s no escape. None. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give for a discreet ogle.” She was entering her vaguely British snob mode. Before their wedding she had enjoyed the attention she got from strangers, a former club kid who wore a bikini top and painted her skin with glow-paint. She had a harder time acting like an adult. She worried she had used up the brain chemicals she needed to be happy. She had depressive spells, there were prescription drugs, days she did nothing but cry.
“Those guys were obviously stoned,” he told Peg, hoping she would forget the hippies, who were, as far he was concerned, dirty and feral. He wore Oakley sunglasses that he felt made him look like an extraterrestrial. His posture was unnaturally rigid, and it was clear that he was unaccustomed to driving rentals. “How can you expect them to look straight with you in there?”
“Very smooth,” said Peg. “The only thing that isn’t straight is your defense of them.”
“Right,” said Charles, sick of this line of her thinking. “I’m a big fag, that’s why I married you.”
“You’re all fags,” said Peg. “That’s why we marry you.” She looked through her purse for something, her lips small and somehow signifying the room she made in this world for him. He felt the stupid urge to slap her, registered this with minor alarm, and let out a long sigh.
“You having fun on your honeymoon, honey?”
“Can we just shut up for a while?”
Behind his smile his tongue was wrapped over his front teeth. He did not look at her. The road wiggled up through the mountain forest. They were climbing fast enough, he thought, to be into camp before things between them got too tense. They needed to fuck out all of the cruel thoughts and words, neighboring campsites be damned. He could smell her, both her perfume and the odors it was now failing to conceal. To reach out and touch her hand, the thought of which aroused him, would only raise the stakes, and they would be too worked up by the time of their arrival to properly pitch the dome tent. His need grew urgent when they fought, and this was one place where they had an understanding. Both of them needed to lose their clothes and dig into each other until they found the sensations that smoothed them over, making them sweet with each other again. He didn’t buy into the ideas, popular today, about equilibrating one’s romance with talk of feelings. They preferred to different people and disagree. This was one of the fundamental premises on which he lived.
Things were just heating up in the tent when Peg put her hand on his forehead and said, “Wait. Did you hear something?”
“Nothing,” said Charles. Then he listened, and the antennae of his paranoia picked up the possibility that there was someone outside. He heard a male voice, distant, and then laughter. There was only one other tent pitched at this site area, and they had not seen its owners all evening. Beneath him, Peg was frozen in concentration. Charles felt himself going limp.
“Maybe our neighbors are back,” he muttered, climbing out of the bag.
He unzipped the door to the cold night. Dark figures were moving over by the other tent, across the campground.
“Wait, listen,” said a young guy. “Are they still doing it?”
He felt Peg just behind him, and said, loudly “No, now we’re doing this.”
A few young men burst into laughter. One of them was smoking. Another held a flaming lighter near the earth, illuminating twists of newspaper and a small hut of brush housing a few pieces of cordwood. The flame climbed through the pine brush, releasing sparks into the air and bringing up a steady orange glow to the faces of the boys from the gas station. They moved in on the gathering fire with doped-up solemnity. One of them had removed his shirt, despite the chill, and when he rubbed his hands near the fire, Charles noticed Peg looking at his large biceps and forearms.
“It’s those assholes,” he whispered. He withdrew into the tent and sat on the sleeping bag, feeling the cleared hard earth under his butt through various layers of fabric. “The ones from the store.”
“Oh, it’s just them.” Peg was quiet a moment, as if ascertaining their identities. She zipped up the tent door, and crawled over to him, dragging her breasts up along his torso, until her mouth found his. She put her arms around him tightly.
He kissed her back, then said, “What are you doing?”
“Who cares about those guys?” she asked. “Come on.” Her hand was inside his pajama trousers.
“Uh-oh,” she said.
“Wait,” he said. He stomach was sick, his nerves an extension of that illness. His penis had retracted and shriveled and felt cold. He could see the young men in the store earlier that day, and feel them now, three fire-lighted heads hovering over their tent. Usually there was no problem when he and Peg were, as he sometimes thought of it, getting down to business. But sometimes he went on for too long, was out of rhythm or, worse, an unbridgeable spiritual space would open between them, making it seem as if they were two people who had coincidentally decided to get off together, and nothing more. When this occurred they didn’t even kiss, and afterward, no matter what Peg said to reassure him, he could not believe that she’d enjoyed herself. At such times Charles feared he had been transformed into a sexual parasite, a subterranean, troll-like figure existing only to discharge seminal fluid into preoccupied females. Redemption began with seeing Peg nonchalant, but he could not face failure in the vicinity of hippies he considered lesser people.
He stopped Peg from kissing his neck. She let go of his useless cock.
“Sorry,” he said.
She pulled on a sweatshirt, then gathered her shoes from the corner of the tent.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“I’m not tired,” she said. She spoke at her usual volume, embarrassing him. By now those guys must have known what had happened, and were probably all smiling, anticipating the moment when they got to gang-bang his wife. Just wait, he imagined the shirtless one saying. He wondered how often they did this, as he watched Peg leave the tent, and go over to the fire, where she introduced herself in the friendly manner she had with strangers when she wanted to exclude him. As he heard them speak he wished he had gone with her, but felt now that it was too late, that he would only disgrace himself with a show of sexual poverty, to chase his new wife out to some hippies’ campfire. She had done something similar once, at a Braves game, racing beers with wasted fans who waved foam hatchets, while he sat beside her with his arms folded, moping.
He zipped up the screen door and arranged the sleeping bag so that he could watch them talk in low voices and share a joint with Peg. After some time had passed, he could not separate his fantasies from his fears.
When she came back, he pretended to be asleep. By then he had a fearsome erection, and hoped she would notice, and try to wake him. But she slipped fluently into the double sleeping bag and fell asleep without touching him.
In the morning he felt unslept, crouching dry-eyed over a small fire he was using to make coffee in a lightweight kettle. He told himself that he would not bring Peg camping again. Across the campground, the young men were already up, which surprised him. They loaded cans of beer into a styrofoam cooler and appeared to be preparing for some kind of hike. He was glad that he and Peg would have a morning of solitude to make up. Thus far the honeymoon was a bust. That they could let this happen was stupid, but when one started to screw up it was easy to keep going than to reverse things. He decided he liked the campground. Ponderosa pines grew solidly out of needle-and-cone-strewn grass, and a wide, cold stream where the brave could wash ran beside the sites. Not far from here were the hot springs he hoped to show her.
As a boy he had come up here with his father, on a trip intended to bring them closer together after his parents’ divorce. Most of the time his father hit on waitresses or drank beer at nearby campsites, but the vacation was made worthwhile the moment Charles laid eyes on the pools that overflowed and spilled all the way down the steep face of the mountain. In his enthusiasm he ran ahead of his father. At the top, where the water rushed out of a massive pipe built into the rock, he startled a naked couple. It was the first time he had seen an adult man in the state of full arousal, but he had overlooked that traumatizing spectacle to catch sight of the woman clambering out of the pool to get at her piled clothes. He would never forget her long articulate back and muscular thighs, or the way she calmed down once she’d pulled her shorts on, brushed her wet hair out of her face, and turned to regard him with amusement, giving him a good look at her round, white breasts before she pulled on her T-shirt. At age nine he was familiar with his erection, but he had never before equated it with such breathtaking pleasure. All through his adolescence he’d dreamed of bringing a girl here, and though he’d forgotten the fantasy when he was in college, the notion had recurred to him one day when Peg was complaining that she’d been all over Europe and to various tropics, and wanted to go someplace novel on their honeymoon. As the idea occurred to him, he saw Peg climbing the mountain in his head, adoring what she saw, growing enchanted by the sight of the springs. He had mentioned them to her but neglected to say how beautiful they were. He wanted it to be a surprise.
Peg climbed out of the tent with a weed hangover, eyes wrinkled and sleepy. Her hair stood in many directions as she stretched in her loose-fitting pajamas. “Give me some of that,” she said, staring at the coffee in the pot he held. She looked up and saw that the young men at the next campsite were awake. She smiled and waved exuberantly at them. “You guys are almost ready,” she called, evidently impressed.
“Ready for what?” grumbled Charles. “A bath?”
She folded her arms and pressed her lips into a thin smile. “We’re going to some hot springs this morning,” she said. “That guy Trey says he knows where some are.” She was unmoved by the anger he knew she recognized in his face. “You said something about them on the plane, so I invited us along.”
“It’s all I’ve been talking about,” said Charles, in a controlled rage.
Peg shrugged. “Well, you don’t have to come with if you don’t want to.”
At the hot springs, when the hippies announced that they were going to take off their pants, Charles felt justified in drawing the line. So far he had been a good sport, carrying the cooler full of beer, and saying nothing when Peg got into a mud-slinging fight with the guys. He had corrected their poor memories about the distance to the springs, urging them on when they felt lost in a talus of mossy boulders and wanted to turn back. He had said nothing to Peg when she began to bum cigarettes from them, even though she had given it up and only smoked when she wanted to piss him off because she knew how much he hated that smell and taste on her. He told the young men the jokes Peg asked him to, about the bewildering sexual practices of nonexistent Amazon tribes and aliens who visited the planet to discover that human males were sexually inadequate. She was doing this to get even, humiliating him in the presence of guys she found inferior, and before long she would be bored with them, and they would be alone again. Yet even as he reassured himself of thism the doubt that echoed his thoughts grew louder and louder, until he was simply terrified. He said nothing when Peg stripped to her panties and bra and slipped into the warm water, which made visible the sweet brown outlines of her nipples. He did not suggest that she take a break after she’d finished her fourth beer, although they were several thousand feet above sea level.
But then Trey announced that he was going to take off his shorts, and he stood up with the water dripping from them. Charles’s muscles tightened and his mind became clear and cold when Peg’s eyes flickered over Trey’s lumpy crotch.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Charles asked. He stood up, annoyed that age didn’t guarantee him any physical advantage over younger guys. “You guys have got the wrong fucking idea. There’s one woman here.”
“So what?” said Trey, whose level of fitness Charles regarded as cosmically unmerciful. “She doesn’t care.”
“Yes she does,” said Charles.
“No,” said Peg. “I don’t mind a bit.” She put her beer aside and reached back to unhook her bra. “In fact I could go for a little nakedness myself.”
Charles stood in disbelief and shame as the people around him discarded their clothes. The young men were hairy and hung in proportion to their bodies. They gazed at Peg’s toned white stomach and upturned nipples and grinned with at Charles. There was nothing he could do to stop any of this. He watched as the hippies gathered on the boulder above the pool and sunned their nasty units. Peg stretched out on the bench built into the spring, until over her face was above the water. She avoided his stare until, at last, he climbed out of the water and started down the mountain. One last look revealed the young hippies watching him go, and Peg staring into the faint blue New Mexico sky. He didn’t care anymore if she fucked them, or if they raped her, or if some crazy mountain jack came out of the pines and fucked them all. When she came back to camp she would find him gone, along with the rental car and the tent, though he would leave her things on the deserted site. Their marriage was over, and he didn’t care whether she made the flight home. He hoped he could get back ahead of her, so he could lock her things outside his door, and make her homeless, bitch whore sucker of filthy hippie schlang. He was glad she was fucked in the head, he should have known she would do this to him. It was the same lesson he had learned over and over since he was a child, that people were nice until they got tired of you. He walked along a ridge above a very stream, which was the same one that ran narrowly by his camp. Here it looked like a river. Alone now, Charles cried freely. If he had to lose his wife, couldn’t the tent be a little closer?
He followed the path to an old forestry cabin. In the shade beside it lay a sheet of filthy old snow, which he had noticed on the way up, but had been too irritated to point out. It was preserved by shade and perhaps some cold evening wind. Unsatisfied by these explanations, he sat on a rock in the sun, felt himself warm up, and wondered why it could not penetrate the coolness a few feet away. He picked up a handful, it was wet and heavy, like slush.
He was seeing now it was a mistake to marry Peg, that neither of them had known it, that he was the one responsible. He couldn’t blame her because she was the head-case, the one who needed taking care of. How could he have predicted such a change in her? On second thought, how could he fail to? He sat concentrating on his memories of her ups and downs, how she frightened him when she danced like a maniac in clubs, striking people in the crowd around her with elbows and heels, oblivious to their aggravated glances. Now and then he stood up to hurl rock or a heavy stick down the stony hill into the stream that ran past below it, unable to pinpoint exactly what it was in Peg’s nature that made her so volatile.
As he stood, wondering where the stream would take the sticks and why he was such a dweeb, he heard voices approach from the pine-treed path to the springs. He recognized the wavering, idiot tone of the chubbiest of the hippies who had hijacked his wife. He ran to the snow, picked up a large chunk with a dirty bottom, and hurried around to the backside of the log cabin. There he knelt and hastily fashioned a small pile of slushballs.
He waited for them to come into view. He planned to break three hippie noses, though he lacked confidence in his aim. He could hear Peg talking. She was drunk, bitching about him. “He’s been going steadily psycho since the wedding,” she said. “That’s what you get when you marry someone as self-absorbed as you are.”
“It’s a bummer,” said Trey with gallant equanimity. “But you can kind of tell he’s not a cool guy.” The four of them came walked out of the trees, wearing wet clothes, smoking cigarettes. The cooler was empty, swinging in the hand of the rounder hippie.
Charles stepped out from behind the corner. They stopped on the path and looked at him, faces rich with confusion. He felt strangely calm despite the effort it would take to carry him past sadness and the danger of collapse, into the kind of blind fury he needed to chase off these modern barbarians. He wound up and threw a slushball at Trey. It flew in an arc past his surprised face, and smashed wetly against a boulder.
“Hey,” said Trey. Peg stared, almost smiling.
His right hand was already numb from holding the snow. He threw another slushball, catching the round hippy on his shoulder. The young man cried out and ran for cover wearing the grin of a child. Space, things, and time took on an unreal quality, the speed of things too slow, demanding more from Charles if he were going to carry the moment on his own. The three guys looked unsure, almost entertained, though their eyes were touched with anger. They were waiting for him to commit to either fight or play. They hadn’t yet decided what to do, because they still wanted him to become like them. If it turned into a game, went their way, he felt, he would have become too desperate to deserve Peg’s respect. He came forward at Trey, until he was only a few feet away, and Trey dropped his guard a little.
“Whoa, man,” said Trey.
Charles smacked him on the face with a slushball, and knew when the younger man went down to a knee that he had hurt him a little.
“Oh,” said Trey. “You fucker.” He looked up, holding his mouth and nose, and wiped away grains of ice. He spat. “God, dude! Asshole!” He stood and walked over to his friends holding his face. He peered back over his shoulder, sneering. His muscular back trembled like an earthquake as he blew air through his nostrils with great force. Charles understood that Trey was resisting the compulsion to beat him bloody, there on the ground. When the younger man wheeled around he backed away a few steps.
“We didn’t even do anything,” groused Trey. “We’re all just trying to have a good time. We should kick your crazy ass, you fucker. You’re lucky I’m a pacifist, dude. Later, Peg.” He walked away and up the trail, in the direction of the campground, his friends jogging after him. Charles watched in surprise, a feeling of guilt and relief creeping over him like a sickness. He turned and faced his wife.
Peg stood still, her eyes wide. Charles thought she looked impressed and a little afraid. “You’re a goddamn psycho,” she said.
“You’re a bitch,” he said. He walked up to her and crushed a slushball against her face. She gasped at the touch of the cold, and a shiver chased down her spine. She pushed him away, and wiped her face clear.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m a bitch. But I don’t think I want to be married to you.”
He leaned in, took her face in both hands, and kissed her, hoping for receptivity, forgiveness, the lifting of a curse. He found her mouth passive instead, as he had sensed he would, despite the fantasy that recklessness gave way to grace. He backed away, afraid of what he might see.
She glared at him, angry, disappointed, hurt again. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she said. “Either you love me, or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways, Chucky.”
For a second he stood looking down at her, a mirror to her anger, and he did not love her. He imagined her days without him, waging a solo war against traffic and dead city air, alone in her dark apartment when the spells of sadness returned. He imagined her sorry that she’d met him, telling their story to some son of a bitch who only half-listened to her. And Charles would be moping around the city they both called home, stalking her in places he knew she liked, trying to formulate an apology he would never deliver, searching for the words to describe this ineffable force that moved him, made him want to preserve her forever, something so heavy and thorough it made him feel like part of the mountain itself.