by Rachel Julia Engler
BWR 47.2 Fiction Contest winner
When I first moved there, I got involved with a group of trepanners. If you felt any stress, any sadness, you’d get to drilling. Let some air in, and out. It was a bloody business.
Eventually, I drifted away from that crowd. I wanted to find other methods, my own, more discrete. I tried gambling for a few months. I was bad at it, and I didn’t like the people. I got into drugs a little. Ate out at the casinos. Tried crab at the Nugget Buffet. Dated a mean guy. Lick some salt, the guy said one time while we were driving across the flats, get out, go lick some salt, you dumb animal, and I said why don’t you go lick some salt, fucker, and that was that.
Lonely days at home. At my place I have those tinny slats blinds. Metal strips that hang down, cut the light. Nowhere else but to put the sofa right up against them. Same scene in the bedroom. Blegh. Inevitably the air conditioner would have to be blasting. All very resonant, sonically.
Damn there’s not a thing to do in West Wendover, or, worse still, Wendover. Boring places, nothing to do.
I’d think of my old scene time and again, picture Helena’s kitchen, the dim lighting, remember the sound of the drill and the trickle of blood down a new friend’s face. Community. I was sorry to have lost it.
One day I was at the grocery store palpating cheeses when I saw someone I knew across the way. It was Christa—a most devoted practitioner—and she was linked arm in arm with a big man I didn’t know. I watched them stroll down the cereal aisle, and cut them off by the freezers. My god, Christa, I said, look at you! And Christa, good woman, looked down at herself, at her shirt. What, she said, what should I look at?
I looked hard at her myself. Mostly the same as before. I could see her little shaved patch, the hairs growing in around the wound. Flesh oasis in a little bristly forest. And Christa’s heart beating through at its center. Who’s this, I asked at the big man.
Christa called a few days later. Hey, she said, Derek’s gone for work next weekend. Do you want to get lunch?
A lot of petroleum geologists at the Burger King that day. Hardhats on at the vinyl table. A fly would come in, act loud. It’d land on a table and sit there black and oily.
We got our food. You know how the fries will spill out onto the tray sometimes? This is a bit surprising, because she’s so soft spoken, but it turns out that Christa’s the kind who goes further, dumps them all out straight onto the paper so she can get better ketchup coverage.
So what’re you up to, Christa, I said after we’d tucked in, and she said since she’s been with Derek that things feel different, she hasn’t needed to drill, he’s not into it and she’s busier, you know, with the house and stuff.
I’ve been with guys before. Like I said. And before Nevada, I was married. In case you don’t know this from experience: when a person watches movies all day and all night she’s essentially saying she’s given up on a marriage. Anyway, what Christa was saying wasn’t convincing me. Not in the very least.
Christa, girl, I said, we need to hang more.
After lunch I drove around, looked out the window. I saw the fancy sign of the good casino and the horrible bright colors of the bad casino. Yep, you’re here, you can gamble, you really can. Order a drink, a big meal, and gamble for days.
My head was throbbing a bit. My sister in Elko had a baby one time and she said afterward even when the baby’s big your boobs still feel funny. Especially when a baby’s around. Doesn’t matter which baby. I think it’s like that with trepanning, too. Hung out with Christa and now I’m feeling it. The tug of a former habit.
You should know, about trepanning, that it is quite new here in Nevada. I’m not saying we were innovative. I mean just to explain. There was a scene in Europe some time ago, very druggy, fancy, philosophical. This was not that. Nobody I knew talked about the science of it, or about consciousness. We were all just looking for a little relief and knew a thing or two about power tools and letting off steam. So.
But let me give you some sense of what it’s all about. Informally. It’s like this. Have you ever really looked at a child? Next time you see one, really look. Look at the way the eyes will be open, front to back, the curtain pulled. Best-case scenario is that doesn’t go away with age. It’s not a question of youth at all. Neither is it a question of staying curious, or keeping fit. It’s a question of space and air. One needs them on the brain. Breeze upon the brain. You know how you feel better after you do a little cleaning? It’s like that. You just feel better. A clean room feels a little bigger. What’s not to like? Everyone likes to feel better than how they felt before. It’s all relative like that.
After that Christa and I started to see each other. Like most days we hung out. She was working one night a week and I was in a quiet period, myself. We weren’t trepanning, not at all, she said she was done, done, final, not going back. But she reminded me of that time, which I liked. You know—like how you stay friends with someone you hate from a period of your life you miss just because they knew you when? You ever done that? Like staying friends with someone shitty you knew when you were a kid? Anyway, it was like that with Christa. She sucked, but I missed the scene.
She wanted to do healthy things together. Like taking walks. She heard somewhere that walks were a good way to be healthy. There’s actually nowhere to take walks here. I’m not exaggerating. We’d go around the fenced periphery of a self-storage complex. Plus there’s nothing to talk about on a walk together with Christa. But she had this dog, Randy, and she liked walking Randy around and I’d come too, to have something to do. Picture Christa scraping hot Randy shit off the hot desert sidewalk. That’s what we were working with.
On our walks, Christa liked telling me about Derek, her man, and what all he knew about. Derek worked at a bank, which was a big deal to Christa. He was, roughly, an assistant mortgage person. He had learned a lot in this role. About property, money. In his spare time Derek was into fitness and Second Amendment stuff, bearing arms, but also really into, like, proper tactical training, being responsible about it.
I’m sorry he’s telling you to stop drilling into your own skull when he thinks it’s a good idea to have a gun? Ever heard of hypocrisy? What’s the calculus there?
Sometimes, on weekends, he’d be around her place when we were there together. Pumping iron in the driveway. Eating turkey slices near the fridge. Stuff like that.
Even with my limited exposure there were so many things about the man I realized I couldn’t stand. To share a bed with him? I gagged to think what such an encounter would reveal. At the very least some things I wouldn’t want to smell, let alone taste or see.
One afternoon, something happened that pushed me over the edge. Christa was washing dishes and putting them on the rack to dry. And she was putting them up without rinsing them thoroughly. The plates on the rack were covered in a soapy froth.
Christa, I said, there’s still soap on the dishes.
Oh, Christa said, saves time. Derek taught me that. He said if it wasn’t okay to eat they wouldn’t make it for dishwashing. They have to make it safe.
I don’t think that’s true, Christa, I said.
Dunno, that’s what Derek told me, Christa said.
I looked down at my coffee mug with renewed disgust—in life, in the coffee, in Christa, in Derek above all.
Seems like Derek’s been telling you a lot of things, huh, Christa, I said.
He’s a very intelligent man, Christa said. He’s always reading history books.
Uh huh, I said.
I’m sorry to say that Christa herself was absolutely not worth the effort that followed.
In any case, I couldn’t have anticipated that. So I did what I saw fit. I bided my time. A.k.a., I waited. For the first fight!
Christa came sniffing over one night, as I knew would happen eventually. She was out on the front step in her sweats. Hard to understand what she was choking out at me but it sounded like she felt bad. It sounded, also, like this was my opportunity. I took her to Luann’s for a drink. Nobody really in there except some geologists, who were playing pool, like they always seem to be doing in the evening. Whenever I’m at Luann’s they’re always there banging balls around.
We sat at the bar. Luann herself saw Christa and said whatever she got it was on the house. She cut that kind of sorry figure.
We drank our drinks and Christa said stuff I didn’t even need to hear. I kind of just tuned out and sucked from my straw and listened to the music that was playing. I already knew my angle. Yes, you could say Christa was low-hanging fruit.
You know those things where people say people would appreciate them more if they were gone? Or those things where people say wait ‘til I’m gone, then you’ll be sorry. And, finally, where people say, I wish I could see my own funeral?
In sum, I said: let’s have you write him a suicide note. And in it let’s leave some hints. And then let’s go dig a hole for you, Christa, at the foot of the mountains.
No, I wasn’t suggesting she should kill herself. Just that she pretend so that she could make that hamhead cry for her.
How does it go down? Derek calls me—first time for everything— and says, very somber, I found a note. What kind of note, Derek, I say, cool. He’s always reminding us about how he works in financial services. Derek, I coo, a promissory note?
Derek led Randy in front of us, Randy pulling at the leash, looking for her mistress, sniffing the dry ground. She pulled us over some gravel patches, then up across 80, over the damn state line. Sort of aimless. I led, though, secretly, because I knew where to lead. Did a good job pretending, I think, not to lead. Wander to the left, let Randy do the walking, wander, oh, look, looks like there’s something over here maybe. I long ago mastered the appearances of: confusion, surprise, grief.
So we came upon the hole she dug. Plus a bunch of empty pill bottles, random shit, a CD, a few knives, two fake flowers I recognized from their living room—very nice touch, Christa. A bunch of clues that symbolized death but happened to add up to nothing.
But that’s fine. Derek’s not a big thinker.
So there we were, all three of her slightest admirers, standing over what was allegedly her empty grave.
Derek looked at me, hard. Did she tell you anything about this? Was she unhappy? Does this have something to do with you all’s crazy thing you used to do? That brain drilling thing? Is this part of that?
No, I said to all the questions, and shook my head, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all.
By all counts of decency it wasn’t right, to Derek, what we did. It turns out he really loved her a lot. He stood there a while looking down at the shallow ditch—Christa wasn’t forceful, even in preparation for her own staged death—and then he gasped into a sob. Took me in his big arms and cried. Big heavy crying and me in the middle of it. It wasn’t at all wonderful. First time, though, I’d been held in months, so I tried to focus just on enjoying the intimacy.
As we were standing there, Randy bolted. Not sure what got her—maybe she caught a scent of Christa, maybe she was bored of Derek, maybe there was a squirrel, though I’ve never seen squirrels or anything like squirrels around here. As I’ve said, the unprecedented will happen, now and again.
Poor Derek, Randy to him the only last link to his beautiful girlfriend, followed in pursuit. Ciao, Derek. Lucky if the dog makes it across the interstate in one piece.
I walked back down the hill by myself, looking over my shoulder now and again, back at the ditch, up at the red cliffs. Whole lotta nothing. I was beat. It got choking hot out there sometimes.
I was relieved to be in my car again until I remembered Christa was there too. She poked her head up from the back bench. She was teary. Crying for her own pretend death. Crazy lady. How’d he take it, she asked. Who, I asked, though I knew very well. Derek, she cried, Derek. How’d he take it?
I took a deep breath in. Fuck if I did all this just for that kind of thing. Boring and annoying. Oh my god. Basically suddenly I just wanted to get an iced coffee, do you know what I mean? But I couldn’t! Christa was there, crying.
I started driving. I drove east toward all that weird military land. Sun was beating down. Christa was shaking her lungs. So I said, what do you care, Christa? He’s not your problem anymore. You’re better than that, I said, practicing the feminism I’d learned from my real life. But Christa kept on crying. Sniffing and whimpering, moaning that she already missed him. The car was feeling increasingly claustrophobic. My head was throbbing. Christa, I said, you need to stop. You need to stop right now.
And she just did not stop! She would not stop!
There are a few roads off the interstate out there. They go nowhere good. Nobody out there. Had to think relatively on my feet. And then I saw a sign. Skull Valley Road. Literally, skull valley. Too good to be true, considering all else.
And so, at the desolate end of a road named just right for us, I said, get out of the car. Christa, get out of the car, I said. And Christa did. Ultimately she was a very obedient person. She got out and she stood there. There she was. Not a thing around for miles. Just Christa’s body and the earth and, probably, underneath it, some salt. And then I drove away. I watched in the mirror as her form became smaller and then started to shimmer in the hot distance.
Back in town, everyone was out calling for the dog. Randy, Randyyyy, the syllables stretching out. She was seen out by the Sinclair, cowering between two propane tanks. And then by the old school, pissing behind a car. Derek and his guys finally found her near Eli’s Meat, backing down the hot road, hairs bristling. The men positioned themselves very deliberately. Trent on the Pueblo Village side. Casey from the left. And Derek, Derek would do the deed.
That was the last thing I saw as I pulled out of Wendover for good. Derek, hands up, ready, coming in toward the dog.
I was watching this show the other day on television. The rule of the show is people let the kids make all the rules for one month. The house gets really messy and everyone eats candy. There’s no bedtime. Everyone ends up feeling really tired. Seriously. That’s the show. It will not serve you to underestimate the pain of men and women in this place, and in other places. It’s very dark inside for many people. It would be disadvantageous to look the other way. Look, even now—so many dark rooms are growing darker as the sun sets.
Rachel Julia Engler lives in Oklahoma with her family. She recently completed her first collection of stories, titled Holy Meadows. She works as a lecturer in architectural history at Rice University.