My landlord is in love with me. Since moving into this pink casita of his off Canyon Road he’s called me every day, at first to see how I was doing, but then, more and more, just to talk. He is a frank, scarecrow-ish old man, all sinew and grin, who can say without sarcasm that he believes in the old ways of the Indians in their pueblos, in the healing properties of crystals, and has been looking into Reiki but doesn’t know what he thinks just yet. I have in turn told him of my travels, the road rushing by beneath you like dark water, the red rocks and the stone arches and the salt flats, the giant iron sentinels of the VLA and the endless dunes of gypsum at White Sands. I have shaped myself in his eyes as an adventurer, an old soul, a deep and interesting person. The more we talk the more I find myself embellishing, adding details and events and leaving out all the dark and awful parts, until I’m not even sure who it is I’m describing.
For the last two weeks I’ve humored him in these long conversations because I’m lonely, and because he reminds me of my father. But lately he’s been talking about me in the third person, saying that he loves me—or, not me, but a young woman who looks and acts just like me—and I’m beginning to worry that I’m leading him on.
I’m in the kitchen on a Tuesday, cell phone pressed between my shoulder and ear as I hunt something to eat. “She’s much younger than me,” he’s saying. “She has brown hair, and such a kind heart. She’s actually a tenant of mine.”
“But do you think she’s interested?” I say, pouring cereal into a bowl. I open the fridge: no milk.
“I don’t know,” he says. “She seems troubled. To be honest, I’m worried about her.”
“Worried?” I say, opening the cupboard to one box of instant rice and a can of lentil soup, dusty refugees from the previous tenant.
“Yes—because she’s always on the move. One place after another. Don’t you think something’s wrong, when someone can’t settle like that?”
“I think she’s OK,” I say, turning the soup can around for an expiration date. “And besides, she’s probably not interested in you anyway.”
“Oh, but I think she might be. We talk on the phone all the time, you know.”
And that’s when I get off. Because how far can you go, really, with pretending you don’t understand someone?
Though I do enjoy being described like that, as if I am someone else. I sound so concrete in his estimation, so real, when usually I feel as changeable as the weather. In the last five months I’ve lived in seven cities in six different states, and I believe, I hope and pray, that my wanderlust has finally subsided. Maybe next week I’ll get itchy feet and begin scouring Wikipedia pages for Boulder, or Olympia, or Portland, Mass., but for now I’m content to talk to the old man. If nothing else, the conversations provide good stories.
I’ve been collecting stories while I travel. The true ones are what I’m after. Like the man in Abilene, Texas, whose uncle poisoned his own well because his neighbor was stealing water. Like the one-eyed madam who ran things at El Farol, a bar in a cavernous, wood-floored adobe building toward the end of Canyon Road, which used to be a whorehouse. The madam with the eye patch, an old German lady, helped the Mexicans in 1846 by sending out her sickest girls to infect the U.S. soldiers.
“Lucy, she had syphilis,” the bartender tells me later that day. “She was the finest, smallest thing, delicate as a bluebell, but the disease was eating on her brain. She spread it all through that soldier’s camp.” He glances up from a glass he’s been working at with a rag, a smile in his shiny eyes. “If you stayed here late enough,” he says, “you’d hear her moaning.” He winks at me.
“I’m sure I would,” I say, and look pointedly at my book.
It’s midday, and I’ve been eating tapas at a table near the bar. The wooden floor slants away toward the opposite wall, the boards uneven, small dark hills and valleys of wood, the foundation having settled significantly since the 1800s, worn down by stomping boots, dainty heels. I wonder how small Lucy’s feet were. If she did it for the money, or to fill up that emptiness we all can feel, that deep and choking loneliness. And if it was for the emptiness, I wonder if it worked.
“Would you like a drink?” the bartender says. “On the house.”
He holds a bottle in one hand, two glasses in the other, and I feel an immense thirst rise in me, the exact feeling that has made me flee so many other bars, so many other cities. Because it starts with one drink, and then another comes, and then before I know it I’ve found somewhere to score and I am waking in some strange house two or three days later, in some part of the city I do not know, wondering when I last ate, wondering if I should go to a hospital, wondering if I will ever shake this. The thirst rises up as he holds that bottle in the air, smiling so innocently, and it is my other self that I am wrestling, fighting so fiercely that my hand shakes as I look at the bottle, saliva flowing in my mouth, my other self trying to grab my body and sit me down at that bar, trying to move my lips and say yes, please. Yes, I’d love a drink.
It takes all my strength to remember, to know in my blood, that it’s not just the one drink I’m saying no to but the filthy living room three days later, the bearded man with hooded eyes laughing from the shadows, the strange detritus on the floor—moving boxes that never got unpacked and discarded children’s toys, broken bottles and rusty cans—dingy windows whose sills are littered with dead flies, black stains on yellow linoleum, gaps in my memory, and choking, endless hopelessness as I grope about in the dark for a doorknob.
With a shaking hand I place a twenty beside my plate, leave without answering the bartender. Out on the street, out in the warmth of the sunshine, I jot down Lucy’s story. Collecting stories is one thing I’ve done to distract myself. Another thing is moving. Before I took off on the road I had one last scene with my father. Don’t waste your life, he kept saying. Don’t waste your life. He placed nine one hundred dollar bills in my hand. That’s all I have, he said. He grabbed my hand, and I had to look at him.