Fiction by Joel
Van Noord • Photo by Jill Burhans
Could You Please Move
At the edge of a
canyon he sat, solemn; feeling a great void. Faint gun clatter crept
into his consciousness as the distant noise began to ricochet off the
canyon wall behind him, becoming drastically less distant. Upon this
cognizance the steady blasts dominated the empty landscape. Someone was
shooting. No, it was a group of people. Shooting, with many guns, at
the hills and into rocks. It was abstract until he heard an intimate whiiiiiiiz trail
over his head and into the canyon below. He'd ridden
his bike and everything on the landscape was still unnamed. Before
yesterday he had never seen that corner of the country.
the fuck?' Another steady series, one after the other, exacting in
their sound. 'Are they shooting over my head?' he thought and ducked as
another series of shots wasted off. 'What the fuck?' he whined again,
feeling futile; his heart begin to race. He wondered if they were
fucking with him for some odd, sadistic reason, shooting over his head
to terrify him. He scrambled up the incline of dark basalt and
ducked behind an outcropping. He sat on a ledge, 400 feet above the
shaded, winding stream below. He turned and looked down, not able to
see anyone in the expansive, empty valley. The dark sage and scrub
reached together toward the horizon and filled the gaps to form a
uniform blanket, woven with species of pattern. He stood and looked
over the small wall of rock and heard the rattling shots again.
the FUCK!' he ducked and waited, agitated, his face overheating. The
sun was setting behind a dark 8,000 foot peak to his right toward where
the shots originated. To his left was the capped silhouette of Zion. To
north: behind him, an intense row of jagged red cliffs with a dark
foreboding mountain behind. In front of him was the continued gash of
the canyon, opening and spreading into an emptiness backed by conical
peaks. He was surrounded by an imposing and seemingly encroaching
was his second day in town and he knew nothing. He was on BLM land and
this he knew because of his fellow co-workers who'd led him there the
night before. Four days on interstate 80, Pennsylvania into Ohio,
Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, a beautiful autumn Colorado – bright golden
Aspen leaves huddled throughout the indifferent evergreen slopes. Then,
to the southwest corner of Utah where he would start working in three
days. Because of the distance he was starting later than the two
others, who were now safely in their new beds. He had been counting on
them, Wren had; instead he was now cowering under a scramble of rocks.
Denver they'd mentioned they had a place and Wren relaxed. In Nebraska
they told him they had several other good options for places and wanted
to know if they could count on him. Sure. They were cheap, too, only
200 apiece. His phone service gave out over the Rockies and into the
desolation of Utah. Finally, coming out of the high plateaus into the
Valley, he again received coverage and heard a message on how they'd
both found rooms and he was on his own. But, they were camping on this
bluff on BLM land just outside the city.
was deflated after hearing the message; they were in no way responsible
for him, some stranger, and he knew this. Still, the feeling was there.
A worse than normal feeling after the elation he'd had driving through
the majestic national parks: Arches, Capitol Reef, Escalante, Zion.
a dark and busy crossroad with a Maverik gas station he met them. A kid
with a scraggly beard shook his hand loosely and talked in a cool,
casual drawl. They drove away from the lights and onto a series of dark
dirt roads, Wren wondering how they'd managed to find the nameless
roads. His Civic –hugging its axles with the weight of all his
belongings, bike tire swinging into the bumper– dipped and moaned over
the rivets of the road.
came to a bluff, invisible because of the darkness, and stopped on a
sandy round-about. He saw a tent on the ground as he shut off his
engine. 'Why hadn't they waited for him to find a room?' he wanted to
ask but didn't. Someone emerged from a dip in the earth and he shook
the stranger's hand, speaking to him without seeing his face.
made his tent in the darkness as the two sat on the cold sandstone
looking out against the dark silhouette of a mountain, drinking tall
cans of beer. The starry sky overhead held the racing stripe of the
Milky Way and more stars than he'd seen in a long time.
was beautiful then, and calm, comfortable with new friends on a bluff
in southwest Utah. It was good but the next day offered a deep anxiety.
He tried not to think about it but it was so close. The night offered a
forgetful relief. It would be refreshing to sleep in the cool air.
Waking from the tent to see what could not be seen in the darkness
offered something to look forward to. It would be good to sleep but
dreadful to wake.
slept and woke. Rolled up his tent as Jeff, the one who'd met him at
the gas station, stood by his truck. Wren watched him eat cereal out of
a blue and white speckled tin bowl as they raised their eyes at each
other. Wren opened his car and looked at the floor of the passenger
seat, a few granola bars and an apple poked their way through trash and
accumulated maps. He ate the granola and walked along the rim, chomping
the apple to the core, which he threw it overhead into the canyon.
was in Utah, very close to Nevada and only six miles from Arizona. It
was the mesh between the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the
Great Basin, he learned through Pennsylvanian internet searches. This
land was empty, beautifully barren, it was yet hard to wrap his head
around. There was still emptiness. Something he was positive was false
while living under a kink of the Appalachians. With this new knowledge
he began to doubt. It was easy to doubt when you were nothing but
yourself and the things in your car –which was now, incidentally, a
small dot obscured in the endless landscape.
the high canyon wall he spotted petroglyphs. To his surprise. White
engravings on a dark slap of rock. One was a spiral and another a
spit his toothpaste out on the sandy ground and left. Drove back across
the dirt road, seeing now in the desert sun the road he would not have
taken if it'd been light. He went to a coffee shop and sat with the
classifieds, ordered a coffee and perused the housing options, escaped
to the bathroom, then went to his car and rummaged through a few bags
until he found the charger to his dying cell phone. Back to the table
and he sat waiting. People came in and out and looked at him. His hair
greasy and on angles. Black edges on his fingernails from camping.
NFL game was on a big screen in the corner of the coffee shop. It
seemed strange. It was near 80 in an intense desert sun. No sign of a
typical fall while New England played Chicago.
was little in the paper and he couldn't afford what he wanted. After
calls he was driving to see a place, a bedroom in a house. Wren walked
in and the place was odd, there was a cluttered and eclectic bookshelf
full of dragons and oriental keepsakes. The walls were full of what
looked like a hodgepodge of hotel art. The owner was a late
twenty-something with shaved head and a long, but sparse, beard. They
hands and the owner, Jason, talked like he hadn't seen anyone in weeks.
He told sprawling stories that had little to do with the room or the
house. Finally they viewed the rooms, the first: almost too small to
put in a queen-sized bed; the second: high ceilings with a queen. They
went back downstairs.
talked about guitars, having that in common. Then Jason mentioned that
brother, who actually owned the house, was in Iraq. Not fighting but
working, rebuilding pipelines and engineering the infrastructure.
"Yeah, his wife left him and he kind of had a crisis, then went over,
he's making a couple hundred thousand a year, without a college
sat while Jason kept talking. He didn't get up even though he wanted
to. He sat and listened, far from fascinated, he wished the man would
shut up. But he didn't. He went on and on and Wren stayed because he
had no where else to go, his mind drifted while Jason talked about
being in the downtown –he couldn't really figure out a point of the
story besides that. Jason just talked and talked and Wren waited. If he
left he would drive to the top of the bluff again, either that or find
another coffee shop. But he had little money. He'd maxed out his credit
was nice, perhaps a little juvenile, near gigantic in stature. His feet
looked to be at least size thirteen and he seemed well up to six-four.
looked around at the room again. They were horrible decorations. Almost
a fetish, the amount of Japanese-type dragon / Samurai gear.
feel before we go any further I should tell you I'm a recovering
addict," Jason said and Wren was taken aback. It was a conclusion he
would have never reached on his own. Most of the previous conversation
had been about not having a lot of 'traffic' in the house and no
heavy drinking. If anything, Wren thought the house would be LDS
standard. A slogan he was warned about and becoming familiar with.
asked him what he was addicted to and the owner went on and on about
smoking and selling a lot of pot… pounds. Wren thought about his own
past and was ready to tell him you can't be addicted to pot, but the
owner went on to describe various forms of oxycodone along with a few
other pharmaceutical-sounding names. "Three months ago I got off
Methadone," The owner said.
it up and snorting it. The owner had no reservations, in fact he was
eager, about telling the stranger his extensive knowledge of drugs. It
was basically heroin, the owner said. Wren was dubious. The tall,
gentle giant did not seem like an addict. He talked on and on.
deciding to choose life instead of death. How he left the Mormon church
for a southern Baptist congregation and how he was now, and had been
for a long period, unemployed; because, Jason said, of back, knee, and
a litany of other excuses. He was financed from the brother in Iraq.
left at three, after two and a half hours. Jason was disorganized, the
previous tenant still had a tv and random clothes and pieces of
electronics in the room. "It would take a day or two to get the lease
together," Wren was told. Jason didn't want him to move in before that.
a restaurant Wren sat down by the window, there were vacationing
couples inside and the building had a golf theme. Something the arid
red desert was adorned with a superfluous amount of. The waitresses,
seemed to only be passing through. He ordered, ate, then left, walked
and found a hiking store and perused through books. Then left and drove
and found a park and tried to read a 500 page book he was 400 pages
through. It was useless as he couldn't concentrate, so he watched
volleyball players and large Mexican families picnic. He would start
work in two more days. This would make more sense then. After he met
people who lived there, or here. He should now call it since he
ostensibly belonged. Even if it was at the top of a bluff in a tent,
shitting on the ground and covering it with a stone.
began to grow on the surrounding mountains and he drove back to the BLM
land and sat at the now empty site, void of the other tent and the
truck of his new co-workers.
needed to do something, he realized. Idleness leads to madness.
Especially when the basic needs of survival are not met. They were, but
his body and mind were not used to what feeling comfortable in the wild
would entail. In Pennsylvania he dreamed of being able to. But now that
it was in his face he didn't know. He doubted. He lost convictions. How
could he have any in the abandoned and marginal state he felt
he unlatched his bike and headed up on a trail toward a high point on
the bluff. That's when he first heard the faint gun clatter. A series
of echoing blasts. As if a line of shooters stood shoulder to shoulder
and let loose their clips. He heard the whiiiiiz over his head and
ducked and scurried low to the rocks. To the summit of the rim. He
waited. Watching the sun setting and casting dark purple hues on the
desert landscape. He was a dot on the landscape like the sage. He
looked back to his car and had trouble finding it. It blended in with
the desert dots. When his eyes finally found it the car looked
comically small. Everything was so large. No subdivisions to swallow
the landscape. No roads or boulevards to divide and interpret it. There
was only what had been there for the past thousands of years. There was
only the work of the river. Until the river cut its permanent path deep
into the canyon it continues to erode today, leaving the rest to the
sun and wind. Another shot and he ducked behind the rocks.
felt genuinely worried. He tried to peer over and there was another
rapid succession of shots. They could be shooting over the canyon. They
could be shooting into the hill. He was several hundred feet above the
shooting. He waited, figuring they'd leave the valley as the sun set.
watching the sun as it dipped behind the mountain range and turned the
jagged line a dark red then purple. In the vestigial light he decided
to head back to his car. He carefully walked down, his back arched, and
couldn't find his bike. He left it on a large slab of black rock and
couldn't find that, there were dozens of large black slabs. Everything
was lost in the seemingly infinite swatch of black dots. Eventually he
found it and rode down the steep gradient of stepping rocks. As he
approached his car, a truck was tumbling down a connecting road that
reached his cul-de-sac. Dust rose and hung in the empty air behind the
vehicle. A child was in the bed of the truck holding the collar of a
shaggy sheep-dog. Wren could seen the elbow of the passenger rise and
jerk with the dips and cobbles in the road. They turned toward Wren and
his car, and Wren waited. Watching.
truck came to a stop and rolled back. A door opened and Wren watched as
a white man with a white beard and a generic-mesh baseball cap walked
out and stopped. A younger man, shirtless and hairy, came out of the
passenger seat as the child ran around to the front, holding a
sawed-off shotgun. To Wren it looked like three generations.
stopped and stood shoulder to shoulder, several feet from him, who,
confused, stoically watched. He wiped his nose with his hand. The dry
desert was filling his nose with hard, crusty debris. The trio said
nothing and the grandfather leaned forward to look at the child to nod.
The middle-aged man stood and stared at Wren, unblinking. Paying no
attention to his father or son. Neither of the three seemed to say
anything with their blank facial expressions. Then the child raised his
gun and Darren took a half step back but there was a blast that knocked
him back the full step. He was shocked by the violent jerk to the
ground. His back wrenched over a pointed rock and he moaned. His
stomach felt warm and he reached his hand to it and it was wet. The
three now stood above him. The grandfather had emotionless, crystal
blue eyes. The child raised the gun again.
maybe that's not how it ended. Maybe that was only how it felt. Perhaps
the truck simply passed by without turning an indifferent eye to the
edge of the bluff where they'd laid out round after round of
recreational shells, which now littered the desert like clam shells on
a sandy Atlantic beach. Maybe he simply crunched a few of these spent
shells against the rocks and watched the dust settle before he searched
his car for rations: Ramen Noodles. Life was too simple, he thought.
All the extravagations he'd established in Pennsylvania were gone for
this animal simplicity. He was, after all, an animal. Why was it so
strange? Living in cities with modified atmospheres and an
overabundance of amenities... An arid desert with less than seven
of rain… Adorned with neon green golf courses and swimming pools,
bright lights and shopping malls.
nothing else happened that night outside his head. Maybe he sat in his
car reading by the dome light, listening to the wind howling across the
valley and to the edge of the bluff. Seeing distant lighting over what
he'd learn to call the Beaver Dam Mountains. Maybe he read line after
line and remembered nothing. Perhaps he sat there in his car, waiting
to set up his tent with only the idea of two feelings in his head. That
of being scared and alone. Overwhelmed and forgotten to everything else
but feelings of fright and isolation.