The following essay was shortlisted for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. It follows the publication of the winning entry, by Tara Isabella Burton, and the runner-up, by Steven McGregor. The remaining shortlist entries will appear on the website in the coming days.
I knew next to nothing about the desert – nothing about its geology, its geography, the kind of people who lived here. We’d stretched out in bed in Glasgow and you’d said what about the desert and we were here now. You’d said what about the Grand Canyon? That was somewhere around here – that pink and purple vein – and so was the Joshua Tree – that old thing that looked like a pile of hair blowing in the wind. We’d stretched out in bed and you said you wanted to go to Death Canyon – you thought the name was ironic – to keep the tourists away. We drove through the no man’s land, the Mojave Desert, and I knew that name wasn’t ironic. Death Canyon was the opposite of a lush green hill – walking up it, with a picnic. Some egg sandwiches, a nice view – a quick-pick posy of flowers for Aunt Mabel down below watching the bulkier items – the padded cagoules and the flasks – it was none of all that. Death Canyon was the opposite of a lush green hill that moved up gradually with sheep walking up it on their way to heaven.
We could see nothing from our shack – I walked twenty paces and then twenty more. I used my hands as a visor; I used the binoculars. There was nothing: just stuff like salt pressed flat till it looked like a mirror – white salt; pink salt – the sun bounced off it and I lowered my hands. The horizon looked like someone had sprayed mist along it – blue mist – white mist – a mist of tiny salt particles – dust – hanging in the air. Then there was more salt. I walked twenty paces back towards the house. You’d pointed to a spot on the map: let’s go there, you’d said. We were here now… Trying to sharpen cutlery and lift grubs off the carpet with a knife. I tried to remember if sand was really salt – I couldn’t remember. The more I looked at the nothing the more it emptied out my head – scrubbing my memories and filling the space with pink sand – white salt – pink salt – just nothing from here…
On the way here the landlord had nearly choked himself telling us all the good things he had to say about this place: Whelp; population 79 – ‘if you want peace you’ll get peace – you’ll get that here, we can give you that…’ He kept up his enthusiastic talk the whole journey: he changed the air pressure inside the car with it. His big cowboy hat slid around on his head while he steered us through a no man’s land. He was still keeping the talk up when he threw our cases into the dust. Then he drove off. He was like a cheetah then – getting up to about seventy miles per hour in six seconds. We hadn’t even gone four steps up the path – the trail of dirt towards the front door: he was clear out of sight.
Our shack looked like a pile of sticks ready to be set alight – a November bonfire. The outside of the house was five star compared to what was waiting for us on the inside, though. The snake that flew out the fridge wasn’t the biggest surprise next to the beetles that had made a nest – the miniature brown turban that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum for African art. Whelp – what did we know? What kind of people lived here? We had our bonfire and then half a mile up the road there was another one. Then five miles after that there was the living breathing centre of the place called Whelp.
I remembered reading that Robert Duvall lived out here somewhere. A lot of the big actors came out here to get away; they hid behind large sunglasses and cowboy hats and sometimes put on accents – pretended they were from Germany and writing a book – or Scandinavia. They became masseuses; nail therapists; they were ranchers; they were seers. The accents got better – they were perfected. They blended in – they became anything they wanted: the man who raced snails and beetles on a fold down table top, a plumber. Those actors were out here – getting away – escaping. I thought about it – it was possible. That woman the colour of shit and driving the one car that passed us on the way here; that man serving the dismal coffee in Cinderella’s Café on the one toilet stop, his skin falling away in sheets – Woody Harrelson; Rebecca De Mornay.
We stood by the grey patch behind the house. The plan was we would stay in the desert for six months to a year. You thought that maybe we should grow something – onions and cabbages – things we could make soup with, and stews; things that would make us strong and keep us healthy. We stood by the grey patch and weighed up the options: long ragged sweet peas held up by canes; big green cabbage heads and carrots. We looked at the grey flat patch at the back of the shack – the small grey rocks scattered around. I’d read about a man in France who grew the stuff he used to make his champagne in the same row as his soup produce – those big leafy greens and the beans. It was all so good, he said, that sometimes he wasn’t sure if he was drinking a glass of champagne or biting down into a round soft peach. We looked at the grey flat patch behind out shack – weighing up the possibilities – its limitations. It certainly wasn’t your Papa’s ‘tree full of smoke’ – the silver birch with its leaves all off – and his garden with ten types of exotic plant. He was really into the outdoor world, and that stash of books in his front room proved the point even more. I’d picked one up – The Outdoor Plant Expert – I flicked through it. There was a lot to take in: pest damage; well-developed root systems; partial shade. There were tiny diagrams with details of how it’s done. There was layering – protecting – lifting. There was a lot of work involved. We stood back and looked at the grey patch and the scattering of rocks. It was like the moon’s surface. And it wasn’t just the back of our house – the moon’s surface travelled on and on as far as we could see, even with the binoculars. There was no work to do here because there was nothing that could be done – to this patch or any patch. You said, ‘maybe we should grow something?’ but we both knew what you really meant.
The one bus a day took about two hours to travel twenty kilometres; every time it’d started up and got going it stopped again. That one bus: the Magnum ice cream advertisement up as a sun visor and the red faux velvet panelled driver’s cabin and the ruby red rosary beads and the naked woman voodoo doll thing all tangled up. It took us along the one straight road and we could see that there were others living like us – in houses that looked like ice cream parlours or piles of sticks in the middle of nowhere. The bus picked up a little speed then stopped and another old woman wearing a pair of torn canvas shoes shuffled out to meet us, or young men who looked like they were running away from something, every one of them with a tiny rucksack bobbing about on their back like they had a head in it.
We stopped in front of one house that looked like it could be folded away and stored under an aeroplane seat: a house made of flimsy scrap metal – like a cheap ashtray or a soft drink’s can; a box to keep fishing tackle in, or tobacco, or half a chewed cigar. A woman stood outside it wearing a T-shirt that read Electro-Magnet Hair Removal Service. She wasn’t modelling – she had enough hair on her for five people.
The bus’s engine churned horribly as we got started again only to stop about four hundred feet up the road. The engine churned and the driver sat in his seat like there was a rod up the back of him and he held on to the steering wheel which was more like a ball of burst leather. An old woman wearing a pair of crusty sandshoes appeared out of nowhere it seemed, carrying a bag with the world’s oldest leek in it. An orange heap that was a million miles away from the muscle cars I’d heard the desert was full of pushed past us – that family with their bowl-cuts and their hymn bumper stickers and doing forty; ‘praise the Lord,’ they said in unison while they wafted past us.
Whelp came into view like a load of ancient wooden car garages scattered about by a storm. Here was the hub – the miniscule A and P supermarket with its advertisements for twenty kinds of chutney and the Taser gun.
I walked through a dead pigeon or maybe old noodles. I got up to the Hombre café – the French toast slid on to the plate like bread in egg not cooked. There were six other people in there – nearly ten per cent of the population – all eating quietly, dragging spoons. The banana shortbread that came pre-wrapped – put together in a factory far away – had the consistency of a nail disorder. I fingered some powder out and put it on the table. The man two tables away introduced himself as Old Fang Tooth; he said he was going to build an Olympic-sized stadium out here in the middle of the desert. It’d have all the regular stuff plus a track for dirt bike racing and maybe a pool tagged on at the side. He’d been talking with a lawyer already – drawing up the plans – big extensive things that filled the whole table. He’s ambitious – that’s clear – taking on so much at once, and we quietly assumed all this would start only after he’d learned how to change his underpants more than once a month, and bathe.
You flipped over your napkin and there was a big penis drawn on it in red felt pen. We started looking round for culprits. Who could it be: the old woman with the hunchback; the boy with the mange doing the dishes; the old couple eating the pretend sea bream; the man in the T-shirt that read Lost Cause? It could have been any one of them – all of them neatly avoiding your gaze, all of them loving it. I saw peach melba on the menu and imagined what it could be…
Las Vegas was in the north east… Two hundred miles – maybe three – maybe more. It may as well have been forty thousand. That mecca – that tower of lights in the desert. It was approached by car or bus – no trains – no walking; a ring of deadly snakes swarmed in the outskirts of the place attracted by the heat from the lights. If it was the pumping heart of the desert then Whelp was a blotch of blood on an old napkin. The strip – all the light bulbs making it a hundred and twenty degrees even at four in the morning; tutus and headgear; carnival time all year round. The big hotel was called the Mirage.
You wanted a haircut so your hair wasn’t lying across your neck and making you sweat more than you needed to; we couldn’t find a hairdresser but we found a bar. The wicked witch was up at the mirror pushing something against her poisoned warts. It was actually just the barmaid looking at her face for the tenth time that minute – checking she really was as glamorous and good looking as her mother kept telling her; a hunch that mothers were just being mothers, but then again… Those cheekbones… She pronounced them cheekbaones… The man at the end of the bar couldn’t be wrong – he wouldn’t say it as much – all the stuff about her being so gorgeous – modelesque – first rate. Even though he was just a pile of greasy hair – to tell her she was that good looking so many times – it surely wasn’t all lies. Her face worked through a hundred shapes, none of them good ones, wondering…
The barmaid’s brother wasn’t the most handsome man but there was no doubt he was entertaining. He told us he’d never left Whelp even once but it didn’t matter. His eyes were so crossed he looked like he was always staring at a spot on his nose. His talk was good though, and he got us two big margaritas for free. He hadn’t left Whelp, he said, because he looked after his grandmother. She was ancient now – he couldn’t say the exact age – maybe 102 – and she was hanging on and hanging on like a vine tight around a rock. Not much grew out here, he said, but the stuff that did… He looked after her and he didn’t mind because it wasn’t the hardest thing in the world. They had a good relationship, and an understanding. Often he rolled her out to the front of her house where the wind came in the keenest; he’d leave her out there for half an afternoon so that the wind could blow all the old dead skin away. It did a good job of it; by the time he went to get her there was a baby blush to her – that kind of new skin on a baby’s backside and arms and everything else and then he rolled her in for pap out a bowl for lunch stroke dinner and then a fresh drink for himself. It was an easy kind of life; he realised it wasn’t for everyone, but it was an easy kind of life.
When we left that bar it was pitch dark and I worried about seeing the bus – searching out for its lights. It was dark now, and we could see nothing, but I knew that all we were missing was a flat line of salt-sand-mist, a tree that looked like a drawing of a tree and a town that looked like a few boxes hurled about.
That one towel the landlord had left us was nearly in three bits – a bunch of threads held together by germs. You hung it out to get some air through it. It dangled on the line and all the flies jumped around it like it was party time.
Those woodworms who shared the house with us could make pretty patterns. For weeks I thought the beams above the kitchen were meant to be like that – the ten hundred thousand tiny holes – it was decorative; pretty; a feature of the kind of wood it was… It was the sound that got me wondering first, though: like an old man dying on the couch but trying to chew meat. It was day and night too. It was often the first sound I’d hear when I woke up – long before the desert lifting up half its sand and throwing it at our door.
Two cyclists passed by – like two piles of sticks balanced on top of four wheels. I’d watched them approaching from miles away – their wheels wobbling and veering to the side because of tiredness. They saw us and tried to pull the bikes off the road. Their skin was so burned it nearly slipped off them like paper. Out of nowhere a big surge of energy came up in one of them; ‘help us!’ and, ‘please…’ and we grabbed out like we were pulling children from sharky water. They sat at our kitchen table eating the last of our eggs and saying nothing. They didn’t miss a crumb of that egg – piling it into their mouths – working their fingers around the plates like blotters. We balanced them up again – like putting the last sticks on a bonfire – and they pedalled till they were far away in the distance like two red metallic dots and then it was as if the bonfires had gone up and thirty minutes later it was as if they’d never been here at all.
It was four in the morning but someone was knocking at our door. It was Dave – that man we’d met a week before who lived in a house that looked more like an ice cream parlour. He’d walked for most of the night so he could tell us his pumpkin wine was ready. He’d brought some along – it was in his dirty yellow knapsack – it was ready to go – proof unknown. It was four in the morning and it was still dark. Whelp was miles away – all the upturned boxes quiet and still in the dark. The round mirror in our hall looked like a ghost. In it I looked a bit like Elvis – my hair puffed up and quiffed. I thought about Elvis. He’d been out here no doubt – in the desert – in a mad phase – chasing UFOs in a sand buggy. I thought about him sitting in one of those things – skittering across a soft collapsing hill – even in the desert his hair rich and dark. Elvis was like a lot of people that way – travelling out to the desert to get away; to let off steam; get space. He was like us, or we were like him. Dave was standing at the door. His pumpkin wine was ready.