Dead Land and Memory

In this excerpt from Las Vegas novelist H. Lee Barnes’ latest work, Car Tag, an off-duty cop drives deep into the Nevada desert to confront the legacy of a brother gone bad

Most days the sun’s unremitting glare turns the sage and sand flats between Beatty and Daylight Pass into a mirage, a shimmering sea that drifts before the eye. But today a bulwark of clouds looms over the plateau, rendering it featureless as bog. Save for the thrumming of the engine and whistling of tires on pavement, the desert is as silent as the stories it keeps. Drew swallows the last of the water, screws the cap on the bottle, then sets it aside as the final mining operation fades in the rearview mirror. A mile beyond Rhyolite he presses the accelerator. Ahead the highway lies straight as a draftsman’s line.

When the speedometer settles at just under 80, he eases back on the gas pedal, rests his arm on the consol, and steadies the steering wheel with one hand. The hard-crust tableland east of the Grapevines appears as it has for millennia, land born of volcanic upheaval, shaped by glacial floes, land given to extremes in climate punctuated by unrelenting seasonal winds, chilling storms, and searing heat. In the wettest years the hard pack yields a scattering of stubble grass and spring bloom that withers by April. Year to year, even the native sage and cactus exist tenuously, as do lizards and snakes and coyote.

The scarred foothills underline a century of human excavation. Those first drawn here, sourdoughs, no more than gamblers with calloused palms and determined hands, banked their chances on dynamite and pick and shovel. They blunted their tools and broke their backs working the granite hillsides. Hope swallowed its share. Some who were lucky enough to stumble upon gold, left with hard-won fortunes. The less fortunate were many, and the least fortunate lie buried beneath the tumbleweed and cactus.

The stretch is so familiar to Drew that on moonless nights he’s reached his destination as if his genes had hardwired him to find it. He’s come when the desert was so still the sound of a car carried for three miles. He’s come when the sun was a knife on the back of his neck. He’s come when winter winds gusting at 50 and sometimes 60 howled across the flats and sand swirled up in a mass that whipped around him like a swarm of bees. That night he came hoping he might find some small detail he’d missed in daylight, or if nothing else, that he might see events precisely as Billy had on the night of his own wind storm. The minute grains chafed his throat and cheeks and in the weeks following his skin bore traces and Megan asked repeatedly when it would end, if ever, this obsession of his.

He eases off the accelerator and brings the Malibu to a stop at the roadside. His hand limp on the steering wheel, he sits a moment summoning resolve before setting the emergency brake. Then he reaches over the seat and gathers a bouquet of carnations from the back floorboard. He leaves the door open, and, removing his sunglasses, stands on the shoulder of the highway. The flowers dangling at his side, he slowly scans the rocky cliffs and the stark horizon, imagining as he takes it all in, the multitude of failures the mute land has born witness to. The sight stirs up reflection about the futility of man’s efforts, especially his own.

He studies the roadside, prospecting for material more elusive than gold and more valuable to him–if it exists at all. A piece of evidence. What he sees instead is evidence of human carelessness–a plastic bottle, a weathered paper plate, shards of a Dr Pepper bottle, the Dr portion of its label intact.

In haste to build a case, could those who conducted the search for evidence have erred? Did their concern to wrap it up impair their search for exculpatory evidence? On occasion cops have ignored evidence that favored a suspect. Some, though rarely, have destroyed evidence to poison the case. Drew doesn’t want to think that happened here. But the one criminal cops detest more than a child molester is a cop killer.

One cop. One truck. A drunk sleeping it off. Wind whipping over the flats.

Drew walks to where the Highway Patrol cruiser pulled to a stop. The moon was in the first quarter, the sky overcast. Was the engine running? Was the door ajar? What did Riggs see when he locked his spotlight on the back window and watched for movement? How prepared was he? Despite crosswinds, a 16-wheeler barreled east at 20 miles an hour over the limit and for an instant Riggs stood silhouetted in the glare of headlights. The driver, the last person other than Billy to see Riggs alive, testified to his seeing the emergency lights and the cop. Did Riggs hesitate for an instant and think about pursuing the trucker? Records indicate Riggs called to the dispatcher radioing in the license plate and describing the vehicle. Then what?

On a rise a few yards to the north a stone pile supports a wooden cross, in appearance like countless others scattered along isolated stretches of highways in the West, memorials to fatal auto accidents, pitiable efforts to give higher purpose to loss. This one observes an accident in the sense that two lives intersecting and creating tragedy can also constitute an accident.

Drew turns to the east, the direction Riggs approached from that night, a young cop driving solo. Drew pictures him behind the steering wheel, on the seat beside him a toy fire engine neatly wrapped in gold paper for his 3-year-old son, a toy impounded into evidence for three years as the case was adjudicated. In the penalty stage of the trial, as the widow sat on the witness stand sobbing, the prosecutor unwrapped it before the jury and introduced it into evidence. Two women jurors openly cried, as did a man 71, a hardened veteran of Iwo Jima. The boy received the toy on his sixth birthday, a gift from the grave, a grim metaphor for the whole mess.

Drew approaches the monument and rips the wrapper from the bouquet. He props the flowers he purchased for $3.97 at a 24-hour grocery against the base of the cross. It’s habit now for him to groom the spot, so he gathers up a bundle of desiccated flowers, tosses them aside and frees a strip of plastic from a bag hooked on an arm of the cross. He performs each task mechanically with no sign of reverence, separating two stones at the base to better secure the stems. The flowers will wilt within hours, spring westerlies will invariably blow them into the desert and by week’s end only the dead petals and stems will remain, but for now they’re damp and smell fresh. He likes the odor they leave on his hands. He can’t explain with confidence why he brings them. It’s something he feels he must do, requital. Something like that. He is not alone in this habit. Once he found a handmade garland of wild flowers lying at the base of the cross. One spring someone planted a rosebush here, a thorny, flowerless twig sprouting out of bone-dry earth with no hope of surviving.

From Car Tag, published by Virginia Avenue Press, 2012. Author Lee Barnes teaches creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada.

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