Driving back from the courthouse in her 1966 Falcon, Lisa Liang listened carefully for the ping of the engine. The car was fifteen years old and might overheat on the two-hour drive back to Oro Grande. But at least things were settled with the quartz mine. She owned it completely, and Gustavo had given up his share.
She neared the Mojave Freeway that would lead her over the mountains and into the High Desert. When her great-grandfather had come over from southern China to work in the Borrego Gold Quartz Mine, he had labored with a pickaxe and a hand drill. He had died a poor man, but the family over time had prospered, first in a succession of small restaurants and gift stores, later in the electronics business. Lisa would do something with the mine because it was her heritage, and the people in her family had always taken risks.
She felt the steering wheel shudder in her hands as she accelerated. The freeway ran straight uphill through a canyon of boulders, then snaked through a series of winding turns. Semis and tractor-trailers were passing her. She pulled even with a flatbed truck hauling hoists and steel cable, then fell back. Her father, an engineer, had bought the abandoned quartz mine on a whim and had left it to her as his favorite. The gold was all gone, but the new market for semi-precious stone meant that it was now worth something. She’d be able to borrow against it–a cause for a celebration and a new car.
And she was free of Gustavo, she thought. She hadn’t seen him in eight months, and in all that time he hadn’t challenged the arrangements. Her car chugged past a sign that read “Summit – 3,817 feet,” then leveled and started to head on a long glide past juniper trees kept stubby by the winds. She could see the valley ahead of her like a single sheet of corrugated cardboard, brown and smooth and flat until it buckled at the far end into another range of mountains.
Descending into the Victor Valley, her car picked up speed. She kept pace with a freight train in the distance, then overtook it car by car until the tracks jerked south, and she shot east to watch the pearls of silver boxcars disappear. She felt exhilarated, worry free for the first time in months. If she got back early, she could celebrate with a Mai Tai. She wasn’t due at work until six p.m. It would take the edge off the heat and calm her nerves.
Lisa exited on Elysian and turned down a street of sagging wood-roofed homes, of squawking children playing in a dirt lot near the wrecking yard, and drove toward the railroad ties that blocked off the street. There wasn’t a whole lot she could say for the duplex she rented except it came cheap.
In front of the house, parked at an angle on the dirt sidewalk, was Gustavo’s tangerine-striped, brand new 1981 Mustang Cobra. It looked completely out of place in her neighborhood. Gustavo was the kind of guy who would do anything for money except hang onto it; she figured it was only a matter of time before he’d lose that orange and red-striped Cobra he’d bought at the sheriff’s auction.
“Hi,” he said.
She stared at him. It was more than half a year since she’d seen him, and he still looked the same. His dark hair was combed back making him look severe but the mournful brown eyes and half smile compensated. It was the same Gustavo, the one who leaned with an air of nonchalance against the muscle car.
“Avoiding me, Lisa?” he smiled.
She used to admire Gustavo, when they were a few years younger, and he was in film school. Now, for whatever reason, he delivered appliances in the High Desert.
She shook her head, waited for her pulse to calm, then got out of her car. She headed up the wooden steps to her front door and tugged open the screen. She was about to insert the key into the brass knob when she heard him say:
“Lisa, we lived together. We were a number for a long time. We’re still married, for Christ’s sake. Aren’t you at least going to invite me in, or what?”
She unlocked the door and opened it.
“I keep a clean house, Gustavo. Wipe your feet first.”
“Yeah, I get it. Your father was a big shot university graduate, and I’m Juan Valdez.”
Lisa moved back into the rental unit with her husband following her. She felt like she was in a stage play, blocking out a scene, mouthing the stilted dialogue that Gustavo had written for her.
“Don’t bring him into this. He never would have approved of me marrying a gwailo.”
“And my old man never would have accepted my marrying outside la raza. But a lot’s changed, Lisa.”
There was always something theatrical in their relationship, maybe because Lisa had placed no conditions on her love, had given herself to him completely, and so felt doubly betrayed. She tried not to think of the lies and machinations, his one-week “business trips” to Ensenada or Rosarito Beach.
She relented. “I guess I should be grateful,” she started to say. She was only nineteen when she married Gustavo. When she first met him, he was still in film school and was working on his junior project, a twelve-minute narrative shot “wild” on 16 mm black and white stock. Sound would be added later, mostly music and effects, with very little dialogue because it would have to be lip-synched.
She moved into the narrow kitchen and jiggled the faucet to let the water run. Her fingers seemed knotted on the handle.
“Do you remember that film we made–you made–and cast me in it?”
Gustavo had told her she was perfect for the film. He wanted to make a short movie about the “authentic West,” the West of ethnic minorities, and wanted to cast her as the original “Cantonese Cowgirl.” She had never been to the High Desert, but he said it was the best location because the “big gaffer in the sky” would take care of the lighting. Gustavo was also from there–his father owned a resale shop in Barstow–and Gustavo’s film school buddy would run the camera while he would write, direct, edit, and play opposite her as the “bandit general” she falls in love with.
“How can I forget?” he said. She was dying for a glass of cold water. She filled two tall glasses, pressed the faucet handle shut and handed him a glass. Her hands were shaking on the glass. She remembered the first day’s shoot. He had posed her against a split rail fence. Wearing chaps, a tight fringe jacket and leather cowboy hat, she’d felt free and a long way from L.A.’s “North Chinatown.” The slagheap mountains behind her and the dry wind that blew across the sparse expanse of land made her feel as if she had escaped the confines of narrow streets and multi-storied apartment buildings, shophouses and dim sum with the relatives every Sunday in Monterey Park.
“I never figured out why you dropped out of film school and took a job up here.”
Gustavo set the water glass on the counter and thumbed through a home décor magazine he had picked up from the kitchen stool. She realized she was talking without meaning, talking because she was nervous and didn’t want him to know she was trembling inside. Her spine felt as if someone were rubbing a knuckle across it.
“Maybe it was quick and easy,” she said. “An excuse when your dad died.”
“Look, when we got married, I didn’t plan on installing washers and dryers all my life.” He folded the magazine carefully, set it to one side. “I took a job up here because I knew I could get one. And we’d just gotten married.”
Lisa looked away. She knew her eyes were jittery. She drank the cold water, drained the glass. She sensed that Gustavo was watching her and looked out the window at the wrecking yard. Cars embraced in rusted, naked strands. Her lips felt as rusty; she flicked a dry tongue across them. Yes, she had gotten married, then dropped out of college as well; her parents weren’t around to object.
Lisa thought of her mother, who’d died of cancer when Lisa was fourteen. Though second generation, her mother had never gotten beyond the old country ways and spoke Cantonese all her life. She never would have approved of Gustavo. He had no ambition, only dreams, she came to realize.
“Why are you even here, Gustavo? What do you want from me?”
She knew why he’d come back–because the gemstone mine had been appraised as valuable. With the right investment, it could provide $15,000 every year for the next twenty-five years–a decent income and more than enough to live on. Maybe over time it would bring in even more. She had already talked to her uncle. He was an engineer like her father but with a background in mines. It figured that Gustavo would come out, like a prickly pear as soon as there’s a bit of water.
She stared at him, tapped her finger on the empty glass, waited for his answer.
“It’s my day off. I thought I’d see how you’re getting on.”
Something caught at her throat. She gasped out, almost voicelessly, “I don’t want you here. I want you to leave.”
Gustavo sunk his hands in his pockets, tried to feign nonchalance. That was always his way, to try to act as if he didn’t care about anything. But his voice turned pleading and soft, a voice from the time before they were married.
“I’ve always been square with you,” he said. “I know I have. And I’ve had lots of time to think things over … darling.” He used the word hesitatingly. It seemed foreign on his lips. “All these months, living away from you. I’ve been thinking the same thing over and over again–that I want you back.”
Her heart seemed to fail, and she paused.
“I should have listened to my family.”
“What family? When was the last time you ever saw any of your brothers and sisters?” Gustavo said, his jaw tightening. “I’ve got a half-brother who lives in Nevada somewhere. I’m lucky if I see my stepmom once a year.” He hesitated, took a step toward Lisa. “We’re it, babe. Two peas in a pod. Two drifters on a raft.”
He could be very convincing, his voice almost crooning the platitudes, but her hands had grown steady. Outside, she could see the wreckage of cars piled high upon each other in an abandoned pyramid of rusted steel. Driving to the quartz mine and lying just inside, with their bodies smooth and blue in the moonlight, the rush of pleasure from the marijuana that they shared, it had all seemed so reassuring until dreams vanished as readily as roads that disappear in a sandstorm.
* * *
Gustavo didn’t want to frighten her by driving too fast, so he maintained a steady speed just under the limit. He’d finally been able to persuade her to get in the car and drive up to the mine. He could hear the rumble of the Mustang Cobra’s engine and the drone of tires on the road. He had a lot he wanted to tell her; he was willing to reform if she was too, and he watched the white lane markers disappear beneath the wheels while the horizon stayed the same: a line of black rock mountains and a sky so blue it was almost white.
When he’d first met her in a social dance class at UCLA, she was studying Asian literature. They shared a fondness for Asian food, and he used to tell her that Kimchi stew is like menudo. She didn’t drink much in those days, but that was before they were married.
Gustavo gradually increased his speed. The land lay open, with lava stone peppering the terrain like beard stubble. He tried to tell himself he had no regrets. He had gotten her that job at the “Smile Awhile” and even if she put away a few too many most nights after work, she owed him something. He had taught her everything. When he had directed her in “The Chinese Gold Rush,” he had told her exactly what to do, how to walk, turn her chin, even kiss for the lovemaking scenes. And if she taught him a few things too, they were silly things–that the Chinese takeaway they ordered late at night wasn’t really Cantonese food, not like her grandmother used to make.
Gustavo checked the rearview mirror. There was no one out there. Not even a car following or one ahead. He ran his hands through his hair and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His good looks came from his father, an old rascal who was crazy about motorcycles, so long as they were second-hand and made somewhere other than the U.S.A. His favorite was his Carabela Centauro 450, the pride of Mexico. He owned as many as four motorbikes at one time and seldom drove the family car. But three of the bikes always seemed to be in parts, cut cables hanging from the handlebars like antennae.
Gus could see him now, in the garage listening to norteños on the radio or sputtering about the gabachos being no damn good. But Gus felt he could make things different with Lisa. They were a different generation with new ideas, and he married her soon after the old man died. There was no reason to be trapped by the past.
He drove past an abandoned gas station, the hulk of a burnt-out bus, a motel with the windows broken out.
He glanced at Lisa. She sat with her hands folded and her eyes closed. They’d been good together once; they’d been tight, and at the beginning it had given him a thrill to be with someone of a different race. He remembered taking her to Venice Beach, renting a rowboat and plying the canals. It must have been their first or second date. He’d been to Venice on his own sometimes. He loved speed, and when he’d gone there by himself, he’d propelled the wooden boat like a single shell. At full speed, he could flick the oars in and out of the water like propeller blades: stroke, lift, feather, dip, stroke–feathering across the water.
But with Lisa in the stern, sitting with her legs folded to one side, he rowed more gently. She looked very Chinese that day, with her hair pinned up and wearing a sleeveless cotton dress. She let her free hand drag in the water and sang the one Mandarin song she knew–“Memories,” a song she said was made famous by the singer Wang Xi in the movie “Floating River, Floating Dreams.”
But they’d only lived together as a married couple for eighteen months, and he’d itched to get away sometimes, to have some variety in his life. Still, he had to admit that at times he missed her too, and he reached over and placed a hand gently on her knee. She seemed to flinch, sat straight up, but her eyes remained closed.
“I’m not going to get in a shouting match, Lisa,” he said. He moved his hand back to the steering wheel, stared straight ahead. “There’s no point in that.” His voice rang hollow in his ears, like an empty tin cup falling to the ground. “You’re not sober. And I mean that in more ways than one. You’re upset, stressed out. And I don’t see any point in piling up a lot of things we’ll be sorry we said.”
She was always blaming him for dropping out of film school. He’d loved the art form–every aspect of it including editing and cutting negative. He’d work late at night in the Moviola “barn” on campus, wearing white gloves to snip the print and hang takes on carefully numbered hooks, then run the rough-cut through the flatbed editing console. The Moviola chattered like an industrial sewing machine. He loved the sound; loved everything about making student films. But he’d had to face facts. His scholarship was running out, and he told himself he was needed at home. He was married by then. He didn’t want to rehash old accusations and kept quiet as he drove.
They reached a higher elevation, and Gustavo recognized the turn-off, with the dirt road to the right snaking to the old quartz mine. He knew it was a mistake to give up his share when they separated. Okay, he had said some things he didn’t mean when he called the mine worthless. Her dream was to run it with her uncle and make it work. His dream was to get away for a while but to have her back whenever he wanted. And the mine was worth something now.
He slowed the car as he approached the exit.
“Just turn right,” she said.
“I know how to get there.”
Gustavo shifted into low and let the wheels of the Cobra crunch across gravel, then skid onto dirt. He kept his eyes on the narrow line of road, on the ridge, as broken chunks of slate skittered from beneath the wheels. Growing up in the High Desert, Gustavo had learned to drive on rough ground. The family car was a ’47 Plymouth, ten years out of date when they bought it and with another fourteen on top of that when it became his first car. The Cobra’s engine was a 4.2 liter V8; the car was a beast–or at least looked the part–and he loved the way it cornered and accelerated from zero to sixty in just under twelve seconds. He told himself he was done driving heaps. Sooner or later he’d find a way to cash in.
If the quartz mine paid out the way he thought it would, maybe she could stake him for a movie project. He could make an independent film–he had written a script–it was sitting in a drawer–a science fiction thriller set in the Old West. If the movie was a success, he would trade in the Cobra for a five-speed.
He twisted the steering wheel and rounded a pile of spent shotgun shells and a rusty shopping cart, then crested the peak. Stretched out before him was more of the same undulating desert; a buckled tableland of long, rolling hills covered in scrub brush. There wasn’t much else except the entrance to the mine.
Gustavo halted the car on the side of the road, and Lisa exited slowly, treading toward the mouth of the cave. He stepped out and closed the car door, kept behind Lisa by a few feet. He remembered coming up to the local foothills with his grandfather, collecting scrap metal to sell at the yard in Fontana. He never wanted to be that poor again. In the old days, this would have been paydirt. Old mining debris lay scattered near the entrance of the mine; a rusted pump, so old that it had turned the color of chocolate; an ox yoke that had faded to a shade of grey steel. He looked at her white blouse and tight skirt–something she would have worn for a trip into town. At the duplex, she had changed her black leather pumps for sneakers, but she seemed to stumble near the entrance to the mine.
When she started to descend, he followed her, and the rock floor angled steeply. The light from the entrance grew dimmer, and he felt his way down the tunnel until the floor leveled and he stepped gingerly into a more open area. There was a bright patch of light, and he could feel cooler air. He realized they had reached the hub of a crosscut tunnel where air coursed through from several directions. His eyes adjusted to the light.
He looked at her. She was standing perfectly still, as if mesmerized. They were in a sort of rotunda carved out years ago, probably with hand tools, dynamite and air compressor drills. Air shafts opened above to daylight and a harsh golden beam shone against the loose soil. She swayed slightly. Perhaps she was thinking about her ancestors who had worked this mine. Then, she said:
“Gus, it wasn’t just that one time. You know that. And you weren’t in T.J. on business for a week.”
His skin felt clammy, and there was a slight ringing in his ears.
“Okay, so I was playing the ponies.”
“You weren’t at the race track.”
He was worried now, not just because the recriminations were more pointed but because Lisa was starting to shake. He watched her chest heave and her shoulders hunch together. For a moment he thought she was going to lunge at him or plunge deeper into the mine. But then she said something very softly; he wasn’t even certain if he’d heard her or could follow her meaning or could follow her further into the mine, but it rattled him like ore toppling from a chute.
“You weren’t at the dog track or playing the ponies–unless the pony you were riding walks on two legs.”
She couldn’t possibly have any proof. She was just trying to wound him. Maybe he shouldn’t worry after all, but a sick feeling washed over him.
“I guess I never should have brought you here. To the High Desert, I mean.” He swallowed hard. “It was all my fault.”
She stared at him, but he thought she might have started to soften, maybe feel the old things for him again. He decided to press on, make a play for it.
“You look terrible, Lisa,” he said. “It breaks my heart to see you looking so messed up. You should check into rehab. You have the money now.”
He took a step toward her, held his palms out, tried to plead with his eyes. He’d never wanted anyone or anything so much, and he told her so.
“Money. How much to get rid of you?”
“No, honey. It’s not like that.”
“Twenty-five hundred? Three?”
He could feel moisture forming on his upper lip and tried not to let her see his mouth quiver.
“How can you say that? I just want you to come back. We can move down the hill, if that’s where you want to go.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
He struggled with what to say, pushed the toe of his boot into the soil. “Five thousand, and it’s a deal.”
She shook her head.
The light fell from above as if from a spotlight. Small chips glistened in the soil. For a moment, he thought they might be silver. No doubt, they were tiny bits of glass.
Carlos Ramet is a professor of English/Creative Writing at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He has published two books on the popular novelist Ken Follett and is the author of numerous short stories; his most recent published short story, “Trifecta” (Red Earth Review, July 2020) was also set in the Inland Empire. Prior to moving to Michigan, Ramet taught writing at Victor Valley College in San Bernardino County.