The Reddest Flag

A scary story that is kind of true.

I wouldn’t lie to you, not even on April Fools’ Day!

I walk in the desert on a clear March Morning. I go slow, and don’t stray far from the dirt road. I don’t want to trample any of the fragile plants I am photographing.

A man in a silver truck pulls up next to me. He rolls down his window and smiles “Good morning! Are you hiking?”

Polite. Sunbaked. My dad’s age. I assume all California ranchers look like this.

I stop walking to scan his face. I can’t get a read on his eyes to tell if he is kind. Two black blanks squint back, unwavering.

Red flag.

He asks where I’m from so I answer. He seems genuinely perplexed, or maybe he’s just messing with me. “Ohio? How did you get all the way out here?” He might be wasted at 8AM.

Redder flag.

He introduces himself – Jim. An honest single-syllable name like a rancher should have. I extend my hand out to him as a greeting.

His massive hand envelopes mine, sandpaper rough. His dark eyes never drop their gaze.

The handshake stalls.

We are two strangers holding hands in the desert.

I notice the skin on his hands is deeply scarred by labor, etched by time and sunlight. Purple channels that cut deep like washed-out sandstone valleys. A couple fingers have been broken a few times.

I am aware of how small I am. How thin and unaccustomed to the punishing sun or manual work. The scars on my own hands shine white and superficial.

He smiles again, but doesn’t let go. I can’t get a read on him. I’ve lost all concept of time, all instincts of self-preservation. My mind wanders.

When was the last time someone new held your hand? When was the last comforting touch against your skin as you told about your scars?

I remember all of that. Ohio feels like a lifetime ago. Just a story about a stranger that I’m hearing secondhand.

I try to recall what I am doing here, since Jim is waiting for me to speak.

“I’m from Cleveland, I just wanted to see the desert, because I never have.” I leave out details. Where I’ve been or where I’m going. He doesn’t want to know, anyway.

“I should go”, I offer. It seems that we’ve said all we needed.

Jim holds on to me for a bit too long. It makes me uncomfortable, but not yet in a way that I fear him. He replies, “You are so cold! If you want to come back to my place, I have hogs!”

The reddest flag.

“No, Thanks!”

I’ve read this horror story before. I slide myself free and say goodbye. I back away and watch him drive off. We go in opposite directions, forever.

Farewell, my desert valley.

Goodbye, Jim!