The End of the Road
After sundown, after the dishes have been stowed away and they are getting Hannah ready for bed, a small man wearing a cowboy hat knocks on the aluminum screen door of their travel trailer. The fellow wears a faded canvas jacket over a soiled plaid shirt. His pants are caked with barnyard dust and have deep creases behind the knees. He smells of manure. A horse, vague in the darkness beyond the illumination of the trailer’s interior lights, stands loosely tethered to a mesquite bush.
The trailer the Bermans live in is a box with seats that convert to beds, a mini-kitchen, and a panel door that conceals a toilet and a sink. For the past few months, when they have not been together inside the trailer, the Bermans have been inside their car traveling to the next campsite. Now, on a November evening in 1973, the car and trailer are parked on beaten earth behind an enormous sand dune that rises several feet above the trailer roof. The dune faces the Sea of Cortez on the West coast of Mexico.
The man in the cowboy hat has bad news for them – they can’t camp here. “Aqui campimento es no permisso,” he says.
Michael does not want to hitch up and journey back to the main highway on a twisting dirt road after dark. Then where would they go? The daylong drive through the Sonora Desert had been made slowly, without air conditioning, requiring vigilant attention to the dashboard thermometer. Four-year old Hannah had been red-eyed and cranky by the time they finally got here. His wife, Karen, who had endured the ride in tight-lipped anticipation of an imminent breakdown, is in no mood for eviction.
Michael knows some Spanish vocabulary and remembers a few conversational phrases from his school days. Perhaps he’ll be able to negotiate a deal, perhaps the fellow will take money and allow them to spend the night. “Quien usted?” he asks.
“Yo soy el guardián rancho. Campimento es no permisso.”
“Por que no?”
“Por que es la regla, y yo soy el guardián de la finca.” Because it’s the rule, and he is watchman of the estate.
Michael opens the door, steps outside, and invites the man to enter with a welcoming sweep of his arm.
“No. No me,” says the guy, waving his hands down his front, gesturing at his clothes. “Yo soy muy sucia.” True enough, he’s dirty.
“Would you like una cerveza?” Michael pops the cap of an imaginary beer bottle. He is certain of the word for beer because of the billboards.
The man looks toward Hannah and Karen standing in the doorway and touches the brim of his once-white hat. “Buenas,” he says politely.
“Si, si,” says the watchman, smiling, showing a gap where he’s lost a tooth.
Good, the man is willing to negotiate. Now the challenge will be to arrange a deal in a language he barely understands. He gets the bottles from the little refrigerator and carries them outside. He sits on the ground and gestures to a spot nearby, suggesting that the fellow ought to join him on the dirt so that they might discuss the matter at hand as equals. The man shrugs and folds to the ground.
“Mi nombre es Michael… Miguel. Y usted?”
“Mi nombre es Fernando,”
Michael offers his hand. Fernando takes it, “Mucho gusto… Miguel,” he says.
“Mucho gusto, Fernando,” Michael responds.
He inquires about the horse, remembering the word ‘caballo.’ Fernando says it is the horse he prefers, a good horse, though quite small as horses go.
Little Hannah leaves the confinement of the trailer and approaches the tired, head-low nag. This is as close as she has ever been to a horse and she is fascinated. Karen comes to sit by Michael’s side, wrapping the long skirt around her shins.
Fernando says that yes, he lives at the ranchero called Los Algodones, also called Catch Veintidos, pronouncing ‘Catch’ in a Spanish way, as ‘Kati-jé.’ He accepts a cigarette, makes himself comfortable, extends his legs, crossing them at the ankles. They agree that the beach and the sea and the mountains are beautiful at the ranch called Los Algodones, named after a few cottonwood trees struggling against the onslaughts of mesquite and cactus on the narrow plain between the sea and rugged hills.
The Bermans had not known about this place when they’d crossed the border at Tijuana two days ago. They’d learned about it from a French hippie at a campground a hundred miles South of the border. The Frenchman told them of a special, wild place, only a day’s drive farther South, where the movie of Catch-22 had been filmed, and where there were good campsites by the sea. He had drawn them a map, warning that there were no road signs pointing to Catch-22 from the highway, that the place was hard to find, but well worth the effort.
Three years before, in 1970, a movie company had fabricated an imitation of a World War Two airfield by putting down an asphalt airstrip and building sets imitating bomb-damaged Italian houses. Driving past the sets on the way in from the highway, the structures had seemed to Michael to be the way they had looked in the movie. If he can persuade Fernando to let them stay, he would examine them tomorrow.
As Fernando drains the bottle, Michael asks, “Mañana? Es mañana okay?”
“Si. Mañana es okay,” answers the ranch hand, reasonably, as if to say that he is not the sort to displace a nice family at night.
The trailer interior is almost a cube. In the back, under a wide window, is a bench sofa. In the front, there is a drop-down table flanked by dining benches. At night, they lower the table, open the bench cushions, and form their bed. Hannah sleeps above them, on cushions laid across a pull-down shelf with a little railing that keeps her from tumbling out. The aluminum door to the outside is on the right side as they face the front of the trailer. The sink, stove, refrigerator, and oven are on the same side as the door. Opposite, across a patch of vinyl floor, is the panel door to the toilet. They shower at commercial campgrounds.
Michael and Karen believe that sex is proof of their love, and it is hard for them to discern the difference. Tonight, after they are certain that Hannah is asleep, they perform quiet sex.
Although they don’t talk about it, Michael and Karen feel as if they have missed the boat, that they have been cheated. They are Elvis-era puritans who’d gotten married in 1967, before the Summer of Love. When they’d wed, their marital illusions conjured Doris Day, Jimmy Stewart, and schmaltzy violins. They don’t hear the violins anymore. Rifts are opening in the culture, widening along the fault lines of war, birth control, LSD, and media politics. Now there is free love – so say all the magazines and Sunday newspapers. Now, women are entitled to orgasms, don’t wear bras, and do not demand marriage for sex.