Last summer, two men sat at the counter of a plebian diner somewhere between the sounds of cooking in front of them and the clinking of forks on ceramic plates behind them. Daniel frequently stopped at the diner after work. The cold air calmed his body after a long day landscaping in the sun. Eugene only stopped at the diner before his last night shift of the week at the factory. Both middle-aged men sat at the counter hunched over their own business. Daniel thumbed through his phone and Eugene flipped through a marked up sample ballot wrinkled from being frequently taken in and out of a pocket. The woman working behind the counter brought Daniel a plate with two eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausage links, and hashed browns covered with cheese. Eugene’s eyes dwelled on Daniel’s plate.
“I want good health,” said Daniel out the side of his mouth as he chewed sausage. Eugene snorted when he suppressed a laugh. “Is something funny?” asked Daniel.
“You might want to get your cholesterol checked,” said Eugene.
“I don’t go to doctors,” said Daniel as he cut through the hashed browns and stuck a piece in his mouth. “If I go, they’ll find something wrong with me.” Eugene turned his head, squeezed his eyes shut, and wrinkled his forehead.
The woman behind the counter surveyed her area of responsibility. She tossed a towel she was holding in her hand into a tub that released the smell of bleach into the air. She picked up a remote, aimed it at a television, and turned it on. A politician appeared on the screen speaking angrily and pointing his index finger at a map of Europe that was superimposed on his right. The woman behind the counter listened to the rant for a minute and then flipped through the channels until she found a baseball game. She tossed the remote next to a cash register and looked around.
“We should be polite to our neighbors,” said Eugene aloud to no one in particular.
“We want foreign allies,” said Daniel.
“That’s right,” said Eugene turning to Daniel.
“…so we can’t be polite,” Daniel finished saying. The expression on Eugene’s face conveyed confusion and regret.
“Sorry?” asked Eugene.
“We need to tell them how it is and what we want, or else they won’t work with us,” said Daniel. He finished chewing his bacon and looked at Eugene. “Do you want a world free from terror?”
“Of course,” replied Eugene.
“Then we need to kill all the terrorists,” said Daniel.
“Well; yes – obviously, killing all of them would do it; but…”
“If you’re going to kill all of the terrorists then you must be able to identify all of them,” interrupted Daniel.
“How do you propose that we identify all of the terrorists?” asked Eugene.
“We have to sort out the terrorists from the non-terrorists,” replied Daniel. “Are you a terrorist?”
“No,” replied Eugene.
“See? Like that,” said Daniel. He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, placed his knife and fork parallel on his plate pointing to three o’clock, and called the woman behind the counter. She pulled a bill out of her apron and placed it in front of him along with a red and white mint. He looked at the bill without picking it up. “Food costs more and more every day.”
“The economy will get better,” said Eugene.
“Or worse,” said the woman behind the counter.
“Or both,” said Daniel.
“The economy will certainly not get better, honey,” said the woman behind the counter. “It will get worse.”
“Or both,” repeated Daniel as he placed his money on the bill on the counter. “Have a good one,” he groaned as he spun on his stool, stood up, and walked out.
Eugene watched the woman behind the counter. She pinched and scratched at her crotch. Her eyes met Eugene’s when she looked up to see if anyone noticed. She smiled apologetically and said, “Sorry, hon: I have a rash and the itch is just torture. It just comes on all of a sudden. I’m scratchin’ before I know what I’m doing.”
“Do you think anyone is going to vote for that guy?” asked Eugene.
“Who knows?” replied the woman behind the counter.
“Would you vote for him?” asked Eugene.
“That’s a very personal question, don’t you think?” asked the woman behind the counter with raised eyebrows.
“Sorry,” said Eugene.
“You want some coffee?” asked the woman behind the counter as she scratched her crotch.
“No, thanks: just the check,” said Eugene. The woman behind the counter pulled a bill out of her apron, glanced at it, and placed it in front of Eugene. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the sample ballot. He stared at the page and the candidates he circled until someone new sat next to him and startled him. He shoved the ballot back into his pocket and felt the other pockets for his wallet. The woman behind the counter watched as Eugene left his payment on the counter, got up, and walked out the door. She continued to watch him through the window as he stood in front of the store. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the crumpled sample ballot. He looked down at it, clenched his fists around the edges, bit down on the top of the pages, and whipped his head sideways to tear off the pieces.
When Brian was a kid, he placed in a bucket the most interesting looking rocks he could find in his back yard. His back yard was only an eighth of an acre, but his parents landscaped it elaborately and he found beautiful rocks among the mulch. As he searched, he felt a drop of water on his face. He looked up at the sky and then heard his mother shout from the doorway that he must go inside their house. The boy placed his bucket on the ground and ran through the door only seconds before a heavy rain fell. He looked out of a window and watched his bucket fill with water. He then went to his room, found something else to do, and forgot about his bucket and collection of rocks.
When the rain stopped, a mosquito found Brian’s bucket of water. It landed on the surface of the standing water and laid eggs. The mosquito’s eggs floated on the surface of the water for two days. After those two days, the eggs hatched.
One larva among the larvae was extraordinary. Its cognitive abilities were humanlike. If Brian had the same qualities, he would have been called a prodigy. The larva did not know it was extraordinary. No one told it. The larva spent its time like the other larva: swimming in the bucket, feeding, shedding its skin, and visiting the surface to take a breath of air through its siphon tube.
The larva changed into a pupa during its fourth molt. Its time being a pupa was a time of rest. It was a time of reflection. It was a time for the pupa very unlike its larval days when it hungered constantly for microorganisms. It did not continuously crave and consume organic matter. It had time to think. As the pupa flipped around the water, it noticed other pupae. It saw the number of them. It noted they had everything in common. It wondered how, among so many, it could feel so alone.
Two days later, its pupal skin split. The mosquito stood on the surface of the water waiting to dry. Its body hardened. The mosquito saw its own legs. They meant to it greater access to the world. It saw a new world that was beyond the bucket of water. The mosquito felt its wings on its back. It wondered how life could be so wonderful to give him legs one minute and wings the next. When its wings dried, it flew. He could go where he wished: the deck, a flower, a leaf on a tree. It was more freedom than it ever believed it would have.
The mosquito was determined not to lead a solitary life only dedicated to meeting its own basic needs. It would use its intelligence to live a life of greater purpose. It would use its mobility to reach other mosquitos. It observed wasps and thought it would form social groups as they did. It would lead other mosquitos to less risky sources of protein than blood. It would teach them to lay eggs in locations offering higher survivability than puddles. This is the meaning the mosquito wanted for its life.
The mosquito observed a songbird flying in the backyard. This songbird, like other songbirds, was intelligent and had extraordinary vocal learning capabilities. The bird was able to name its children, and its children remembered their names their entire lives. It was a bird who ate mosquitos. It was a bird who may have eaten the mosquito if Brian had not been there. Brian, who left the bucket out where the mosquito was born and developed into an adult, clapped his hands once and killed it.
When I was ten years old, my mother left me in Mexico with an uncle. He had a family and a farm. Where my uncle lived, the land and buildings were apart from each other. The land for crops ran along the largest river in the region. The buildings where people and their animals lived were together in the town. The town was small enough for everyone to know everyone else’s name and business. I remember walking from one end of the town to the other in a couple of hours.
My uncle’s adobe home was attached to other homes on the same block. The house was arranged in three columns perpendicular to the dirt street in front of it. The first column was made up of three rooms: two bedrooms at each end and an open patio between them where my grandfather took naps on the floor. The second column was a roofless walkway with a wooden front gate at one end and, at the other end, a gate to the huge corral that was behind his home. My uncle walked his donkeys and cows through this hall twice every day: once on his way out to the field and a second time when he returned home in the evening. The third column was made up of four rooms: a living room where most of the family slept, an empty bedroom, a kitchen, and bathroom.
I don’t think I have ever been as free as I was that summer. There was no alarm clock to wake me in the morning. I maintained my hygiene at my own discretion. Mealtimes where when someone gave me food. I devised projects for myself to kill time. Many of these projects got me into trouble. When it was so dark I feared being eaten by stray dogs, I ran back to my uncle’s home. I slept wherever I believed I’d be safest from mosquitoes, but they always found me and bragged about it in my ear.
I don’t know what inspired my aunt to plant a seed in my mind one day. I can only guess she was unaware or dissatisfied by the dangers to which I exposed myself. She told me of a secret oasis called La Guaje located somewhere within the vast desert that surrounded the town. She said there were waterfalls in it which made possible the growth of beautiful plants and a variety of delicious fruit. She said most people knew about it, but did not know its location and could not tell me exactly where it was.
To appreciate the allure of La Guaje, one must know that food was scarce. Most people ate a modest meal once or twice a day. People only fed me because I was a novelty, and the missing filter between my brain and mouth made me an unwitting entertainer. Fruit was such a commodity that street venders sold it as a treat. Days before, an older cousin chased me around the neighborhood attempting to whip me with his belt for eating a watermelon out of his garden. Fruit was just not easy to get. The thought of a fruit feeding frenzy alone in some secret paradise was tantalizing.
One morning, I asked my grandfather if I could borrow his donkey. I preferred my uncle’s donkey because my grandfather’s beast was stubborn and bit. However, my uncle worked every day. Being over seventy years old, my grandfather only worked when he wanted to. On that particular morning, he planned to hang out all day with other ancient ones along a wall by the church. I took whatever guttural sound he made as an approval of my request. I saddled up the uncooperative donkey, filled a canteen, and headed into the desert to find La Guaje.
I had no idea where I was going. I went in the direction I though my aunt pointed. Perhaps she only gestured in a general direction. I may not have been paying attention. I rode my grandfather’s donkey on the dusty road past homes that had been brightly painted once a long time ago. The steel bars on the windows were decorative trying to hide their true purpose. Heavy steel front doors were already left open for the day so people, flies, and chickens could wander in and out freely.
Eventually, I reached the only paved road in town and crossed it. The last and only sign of civilization on the other side was an abandoned school building. Hills scattered about in front of me obstructed my view of the desert. When I got around them and saw the vast brown earth and brush that extended until the base of some gray mountains far off in the distance, I considered whether I should be heading out alone.
I rode the donkey most of the morning. He was used to a short trip to the fields in the morning; a day of leisure, food, and drink; and then a short trip home bearing a heavy load. He stubbornly wanted to take the same route on the trip to the fields and on the way back. It got boring not having to figure out the way; but sometimes we were attacked by dogs on the route.
Near noon, the donkey decided he’d carried me far enough to nowhere. He wouldn’t continue unless I walked and pulled him along. So, I walked on the mix of powdery sand and gravel. The short plants capable of living in the desert soil were rude to my exposed skin, so I avoided touching them.
The sun burned the back of my neck as I continued to walk toward the gray mountains in the distance. I was sure I would find La Guaje in those mountains. I couldn’t imagine waterfalls in a flat desert. I finished my water by mid-afternoon, but didn’t worry about it because I didn’t know better. I wondered if the donkey was thirsty. I looked back at him to assess his face. He gave me such a look of bitter indignation that I had to look away immediately. I was hungry too, but glad for it because there would be plenty of room for fruit.
As our shadows grew longer and the ground beneath me cooled, I began to worry that I might not reach the mountains. Then, the sun set. I realized the trip back to my uncle’s home would take as long as it took to me to arrive wherever it is I was. My plan for getting back to my uncle’s house was simple: walk away from the gray mountains. I regret I did not anticipate the day would end and I would be unable to see the mountains or anything around me.
My mind went wild in the dark. At any second, scorpions were going to run up my legs and into my pants. They would sting my butt cheeks or more sensitive targets. Rattlesnakes were going to sink their fangs into my calves. I was going to be devoured alive by coyotes. I would cry as they nibbled on my arm and the donkey would look away ashamed.
I mounted the donkey for safety. He bucked once in protest, but I held on. He turned back and bit my leg. I deserved it for the trouble I had gotten us into and forgave him. The night sky was crowded with stars flaunting beauty I could not appreciate. The desert at night was loud and terrifying. In the middle of this enormous dark world we stood: a couple of jackasses. I don’t know how long fear kept me awake, but fatigue won in the end and I fell asleep on the donkey’s back.
The next morning, I fell off the donkey when it lowered its head to drink water from a public water trough by a street near my uncle’s home. Two women, one who swept the sidewalk and another who sprayed the dirt road with water to keep the dust down, stared at me. Stupidity so early in the morning must have been prohibited, so I waved at them apologetically from the ground. I got up, grabbed the reigns, and led the donkey to my uncle’s home. I was enormously relieved the donkey had walked back to town as I slept.
My aunt saw me walking through the front gate. She asked me if I’d had breakfast. I didn’t answer and looked at her face waiting for her to ask me why I hadn’t come home last night. Instead, she told me to take the saddle off the donkey and put him in the corral. She told me to go eat breakfast at another aunt’s house and to avoid my grandfather for a few days. I had worried him so much he had become angry about his missing donkey.
Years later, when I was an adult, I remembered La Guaje for no reason in particular. I was sure if I tried again, I’d be able to find it. I wondered whether the word guaje meant oasis, so I looked it up. Oasis translated from English to Spanish is oasis. I thought guaje might instead be a Native American word, so I looked up the word specifically. I found that guaje means sucker. My aunt sent me on a snipe hunt.