Too Hot for Touching

by Andrea Danowski

Fifty miles from Mexico things start to green, the grids of crops vibrant liars, acting like things can thrive here. We stop for gas and cold water and cups of ice that will melt as soon as we step out from the safety of air conditioning. A shirtless tweaker paces outside. He rushes everyone who enters the store, pleading for a dollar.

Hil pays for her water while I contemplate the frozen confections, debate the temporary relief of ice cream versus chocolate on the upholstery. Bearded and wearing aviator glasses, the guy behind the counter asks, “You girls headed up to Salvation Mountain?”

“No,” Hil says, unscrewing the cap from the bottle and taking a long gulp. She sighs, water dripping from her chin. “No. Mud volcanoes.”

When we left the hotel that morning, the water bottles in the backseat had been cool, fresh from the fridge. We drove past the dinosaurs, the windmills, the date trees. Then there was only desert, a train to the left, a lake somewhere to the right beyond the brown. Even with the A/C cranked to level five, warm air blew from the vents.
Hil removed her flipflops, fanned herself with one. Rested her feet on the dash and fanned under her dress. Picked at something near her painted toenail.

The lake is fifty miles north to south, fifteen across, though it has no outlet, nowhere for water to go. We caught sight of it, in a flash, impossible to miss. Like an oasis, the blue, a reflection of the sky, stretched for miles against mountains. The birds, huge and white, skimmed the surface, the water real but inhospitable. I wanted to tell the birds, tell Hil: the water’s toxic, it’s polluted.

Everything floats.

We drove through Bombay Beach, the deserted desert beach town. The burned out frames of buildings stood on lots not yet razed. Dogs barked behind bent chain link. A speedboat, chipped and listing, sat abandoned blocks from the water’s edge. Graffiti dripped down a solitary stucco wall: an angel, an alien, the words Everything Ends Here. The asphalt was cracked and bleached the same shade as dust. Hil wanted to get out, to take the photo of a man dressed only in plaid shorts reclining in the shade of his beige doublewide. I said, “It’s too hot.”

Her feet fell to the floor, she leaned towards me. “But, baby, it’s okay,” she said. She lifted her sunglasses, smiled. She said, “I don’t care how hot it is.” She put her hand on my thigh, the extra heat, even her heat, too much. I pushed her hand away, I kept driving. She sat back. “Take me to volcanoes,” she said.

We finally find the road—not clearly marked—that takes us through fields, beside dry canals. The slow pace of dirt road, the spit of gravel, makes the last mile seem like hours.

Until finally the road ends at a levee and the fields clear. The brown is marked with towers and mounds of gray, like giant anthills. I park on the flat-packed mud. Hil grins. All she can say is, “Holy shit,” pulling on her flipflops, grabbing her floppy straw hat.

The wind is hot on limbs and face, carrying aroma from the lake: salted fish carcasses rotting in sun, boiling bacteria. Hil runs, holding her hat to her head, exploring each mud mountain. They sing a chorus of plops and plunks, hissing gas and burps. The curvature of cave, the thickness of mud cause variations in tone and note. Some are frantic. Some percolate. One spurts gray goop a foot above its cone.

Hil is listening too. She waves, “Come see this one.” The wind waves her hat as well. I crunch across the gray to where she stands by a large domed cave. The gas bubbles inside are communicating. She smiles. It is too hot for touching, but she takes my hand. Sweat dampens our palms. The mudseeps that oozed from the ground days, hours ago, dry, crack and crumble. We’re standing on the edge of a fault line.

After the lake disappears behind us, the sky orange and purple, Hil’s the first to notice the drifting column of dark; she points, sits up. “Someone burning tires,” I say, but I know there’s nothing around, no one with anything to burn. I sit up, tug at a seatbelt suddenly too tight at my neck.

It had seemed far away, but soon we’re there: a pickup, flipped and ablaze. I slow and pull over, stare. Hil is out of the car before I can react, before I can shift into park. She runs to the shoeless woman standing next to the truck, who pounds a fist against her hip, her other arm hanging limp. Her shirt is torn, her face is torn and drips red. Through the door Hil left open, the dusty evening heat is hard to breathe. Hil moves the woman away from the truck, helps her to the ground, puts a hand to her head. Hil calls for me. She yells. I need you. The truck sparks and blossoms flame that balloons into black black smoke. I hear Hil swear.

And I see it. An arm in the dirt flails and waves. Someone else is inside, upside-down, crushed, on fire. She calls to me again. I need you. I need you. I pick up my phone to dial something, hand shaking and useless.

I can hear the woman wail.

We leave after the flashing lights arrive. The truck nothing but smolder. Hil curls into her sweater, leans against the window. At night the desert comes alive, the stars pollute the sky, the sky devours the headlights. I reach for Hil, I try to find her hand, but my fingers find only cotton, find wool. “Just, don’t,” she says. All I can do is drive.

The dust and dried sweat showered away, I try not to look at the lump of her concealed under the sheet. I turn the knob on the bedside lamp three times before it clicks off. I try to steady my breath. I close my eyes and count each inhale—one—and exhale—two. We don’t touch, but I can feel the heat of her close, under the sheet. The air conditioner shuts off, its sound a phantom in my ears, and I hear Hil sniffle. I feel her shift and stir. “Are you awake?” I ask, voice not loud enough to keep from cracking. She doesn’t answer, but I hear a staccato intake of breath.

I want to act without thinking, like Hil jumping out of the car. I want to jump, to comfort her, to do the right thing. Gravity, gutlessness hold me to the mattress. A TV on the other side of the wall shuts off. Headlights glow under the hem of drapes, then fade. I count each inhale—one—and exhale—two. I will move on five. On six. On seven.

She sniffles again, I shift closer, not knowing if my touch is wanted. I peel the sheet from her face. There is just enough light to see her eyes, shiny and wide. I reach for her, smooth her hair behind her ear. Hil closes her eyes, her body falls into silent steady shudder.

I find feeling in my fingers, find her face, draw her in. She shares her lips and tongue and teeth, offers her neck, her breasts, encourages undress. She seeks something: a reason, an apology, a simmering, a reason to float. We dishevel each other, find a cadence in our breath, fingers slick with searching. Then a tremor, a quake—the heated release of friction between our faults, the unbalance in aftershock.

She sleeps before I do, but the touch of her skin wrapped in mine won’t let me rest. The air conditioner kicks on, hums a color I can’t name. Maybe it is orange, red, gray. (I can feel the sweat drip in the cracks between us.) Every time I close my eyes, I see the flames (I kick the sheet away), I hear the woman weep.

Andrea Danowski holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Oregon. Her work has appeared in NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Juked, and Monkeybicycle, among others.