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.
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.
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.
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.