“Be wary of a westward
trip, lest you trip over
stones far too hip.”
Remnants of an earlier ice age began filling the squareback’s forward windows, as we pressed westward along I-80, the southernmost of over 2,000 square miles of perhaps the most brackish water on earth. The Great Salt Lake swelled in short order to within inches of the well-leveed roadbed, seasonably vaporizing fresh mountain stream water into a corrosive mineral brine that left its chalky basin ring for miles around. This was all that remained of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, a vast inland sea, which once extended as far as Nevada and Idaho, reduced through post-glacial isolation to some six trillion stagnant tons of sulphur-stinking ice watery salt. These days, it was Deseret’s Riviera.
“Tell you one thing, Moon’s the gutsiest woman I’ve ever known,” I said then, somewhat the personal epiphany—slipping this in, making it plain. “Kindest, too.”
“So put her up for a Medal of Honor, already,” Sydney replied, from the depths of her sleeping bag. “I realize full well Moon’s always been incredible, even with my brother.”
“What?! I hear she was a total wreck with Lester…to the bitter end. She was still an emotional basket case when I met her…”
The lake’s Monte Carlo languished on a distant eastshore salt lick, an abandoned, largely gutted pleasure Palace—once a Coney Island of the West—now teetering on the end of an undulant boardwalk that long ago led to far better times. Casualty of some zealous after-hours hellfire and damnation, it was now beset by rotted, long-listing sailboats that couldn’t have sunk in this water had they been the Bismarck or Andrea Doria. One charred, battered funhouse, ghostly remnants of its roller coaster, and a gaping slat loose pier: Save for patches of roadside service, here was the end of western civilization as Utah construed it for the next hundred miles or more.
“Now, wait a minute. I’m the first to admit Lester’s a jerk-off…I mean, now that he’s beached with my folks in Florida, they’ll probably never get him to leave. He’s even more of a klutz than my ol’ beau, Bernard. But he didn’t do anything to Melissa, OK? I guess, in his own dumb way, he only did what he thought he had to do for himself at the time. Turned out to be the mistake of his life—maybe hers, too. But whatever misery Moon’s suffered since then, she’s heaped totally on herself…”
“That’s not her story. She says she worked her tail off to help build Blintzberg’s. Many’s a night she’s cried how she did all the prep and ordering while he was out schmoozing the parties. Then suddenly, he didn’t have any time for her at all.”
“It’s called networking, flash…the only way anybody makes it in the cut-throat catering business.”
“You make it by making it with the customers?! Sometimes when Moon’s down and moody, she still refers to her nemesis as sweet little Janis with the hot cross buns…”
The windshield began clouding, side windows were already fogged over in the colliding heat and cold. Sydney wiped clean a crescent with her pink angora mitten; straining eyes right to catch specs of movement, any faint traces of wild buffalo and black-bellied plovers on the distant tip of Antelope, Salt Lake’s largest island. She settled for flocking geese, sandpipers and brine flies until I wiped all of that away with broad, mannerless sweeps of a Wylie-monogrammed purple towel.
“Point is, dearest Melissa knew all about Lester when she married him,” Syd bristled at the distraction, more at having to defend her brother. “Besides, he says she drove him to it, kept trying to change him—like that ever works. He says he wanted a marriage and Moon mostly wanted a partnership—probably could plug anybody into that. She was always worried about losing the business or her home; she ended up losing both.”
“Yeah, your brother saw to that when he walked her through the divorce. But selling their business out from under here, and putting the proceeds right down on 20 acres near the Smokies…to this day, she hasn’t gotten over that one.”
“Think he has? Janis deserted him after two months on the farm.”
Outward of Magna, the lake paled to a white on gray on tripe monochrome that defied all dimension and time. Breaking cloud cover was to sandbars as snow banks were to shrimp-pelleted beaches and salt marshes in this rising sun-blanched continuum, which spread far beyond a spinal midlake causeway toward the surrounding Promontory and Hogup Mountains. For Syd’s part, the windows now could have iced up all around. “Anyway, I’ve told poor Moon myself she was nuts to let Lester off so easy. I’d have nailed his skinny little keister to the barn.”
“You know she doesn’t have it in her to do anything like that,” I resented having to rehash her brother, at all. “Lester knew it, too. No wonder she ended up with zilch when he cashed it in…talk about irresponsible.”
“Oy, what about Moon’s responsibility…to herself?! At some point, a person has to look after numero uno in this world. Daddo’s taught us that since we were little kids. Anyway, how do you think they got launched in the first place? My parents did everything they possibly could to help make that marriage work. And they’ve got the cancelled checks to prove it.”
“I wouldn’t know. She just said it was Lester’s money.”
“Lester’s money,” Sydney scoffed. “They’ve always adored her, like another me—if not more. The whole thing tears them up to this day. And it does Moon, too. I don’t care what she tells you. Given all that’s happened over the years, we’re still the only real family she’s ever had.”
“Yeah, well, it makes me no never mind. I just know when my marriage bombed, the last people I wanted to see were her folks.”
Steam rose from the dead, shallow water like window voile, swirling with drifted snow to further peroxide the low background hills. Claw tracks along Salt Lake’s thin shoreline mudflats seemed magnified in their unchallenged isolation, as if this were one last province where the Pleistocene reigned.
“But that’s pretty sure not to happen in this case,” I continued, overshooting a rusted fastback Marlin. “Moon thinks you and your parents are the greatest, too.”
“Uh-huh, but her man always comes first. Like with this trip—I know she wants it to be for your sake as much as mine—maybe open you some new doors. Is that your thinking?”
“My thinking? Damned if I know,” I drifted. “Especially after the ol’ Sosh faculty squeeze play—and then talking to Lawson…”
A Triassic mood-set was soon dispelled by the sobering Lakeside Mountain range and dull roar from a Wyoming-bound ore train slicing Salt Lake along the Lucin-Ogden causeway. These dismal wind-worn hills sponged in the lake’s southwestern reaches, shadowing mixed shoals of terns, herons and cormorants growing fat on a diet of brine shrimp and grub flies—the only life worth living in waters bordering on double-digit sodium chloride.
“What about him?”
“He thinks I should be up building on a piece of land or something, instead of wasting my time doing…this…”
“Oh, like just subdivide off brain-dead onto some quarter acre to breed.”
“Huh? No, he just meant, you know, settle down…”
“In good old lilywhite Boulder…”
Beyond the otherwise dead interior sea, Utah’s greatness turned to dust. If nothing else, the steamy farina water masked the desert’s barren floor, hinting like a fan dancer that there at least might have been something more fruitful just below. The Lakeside Range demonstrated with the bluntness of a vice raid that this bleakness knew no bounds.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, no-thing,” she sighed. “Maybe you just need a little more cultural diversity, that’s all.”
“Hey, I’m as diverse and liberal as the next guy. I’m a sosh major, OK?”
“Yeesh, I can’t believe you’re still thinking like such a…student.”
Interstate 80’s unwavering westward lanes seemed to hit bottom just outside Low, a sandblown pit stop that looked out on this vast parsley sprigged chalk garden barely cloaked in a fresh skin of snow, which the salt was largely eating away upon contact. Rimming the flat, glossy sand was an acne-scarred ridge of mountains, rotting tyrannosaurus teeth, casting a Plutonic pellicle over a firing range landscape long frozen in natural neglect. More mesmerizing yet were the closer distractions, as in counting the telegraph poles and barbed wire fence stakes hugging the shoulders. Then came the deep, desperate skid marks, slicing and angling into bloody, feathered decay—picked over by crows big as dromedaries—my forehead soon dropping to within several oily hairs of the Volks’s steering wheel.
As we approached the Salt Flats themselves, Syd found me dozing off altogether, to where she couldn’t tell whether the squareback was balking again or my foot was slipping off the gas. “Hey, pull over,” she said, “this is something we’ve just got to do.”
She shed the sleeping bag like so much snakeskin, rolling out the car door before I could slide to a full halt along the breakdown lane. Head falling to horn ring, I glimpsed her bounding out onto the hoary Bonneville lakebed as if Aldrin or Armstrong on Apollo 11, her disco boots going anti-gravity as she beckoned me. “Come on,” she shouted, “you can’t see anything in there!”
The periwinkle sun now lit up this crusty sand like Zambonied stadium ice—steaming snow patches, shadowing craters, weed pods and wheel ruts into an abraded span of wasted terrain—which only riveted drive-by attention to the rocks. Abhorring nature’s vacuum, sensory starved interstate travelers had long taken to rearranging clumped rubble and sediment into a few choice words, creating a debris-mail message center that spoke volumes about the boredom logged on this long psychological toll road. I followed her, between conscious lapses, out the corner of my eye. Blond waves flouncing, red ski jacket flapping in the winter wind: She scurried from note to note, pilfering gitrock letters from ‘Busting Butt for Bakersfield’, heisting sandstone serifs from ‘Vicky Vagina from North Carolina’, barely denting the literal acres of stone drivel that defaced western Utah like graffiti in fresh cement.
“What’s to see,” I grabbed my sheepskin jacket, spun out the driver’s door into the teeth of an onrushing mail truck. Righting myself, I tread lightly onto the chalkboard, its half-frozen sand crunching like Styrofoam beneath my frigid hiking boots.
“Here, I want to have a word with you,” she beamed, side kicking surplus dolomite, directing me through dense scrawls of lewd limericks and senseless shorthand.
“Dyb,” I scraped sand out of my eyes. “What’s this?”
“It’s, like, Yiddish,” she took pride in authorship, quickly composing more letters of piecemeal breccia and adamant. “And you’ll want to follow along, flash.· People say I’m damn near psychic about these things.”
“Really…well. I got my fill of that nonsense over Thanksgiving.”
“So I’ve heard,” she smirked, “I want to hear all about that…”
“Oh, it was nothing, totally absurd,” I spilled unexpectedly with little prior restraint, sidearm skimming excess verbiage. “Blew Boulder for the long weekend to clear my head, took 80 west all the way to Frisco, winding up on Broadway near those old beatnik places. Soon as I parked, this guy stuck a flyer for some nearby astrology center under my windshield wiper. It started raining like crazy, so I ducked upstairs.”
“You mean North Beach…” Syd scurried about for formative stones, slapping my hand as I cocked to throw away more.
“I guess. Anyway, the rest was too bizarre to go into here…
(KNOW MORE/KNOW LESS: Here, Return to the Homepage
for the Saturn ‘Session’ in full, or simply read on…)
“Sure, Pattern on the Trestleboard.” She stooped to round off a descender on the word she was fashioning in stones. “A sociologist should know these things.”
“Yeah, gotcha,” I spelled and counted letters under my breath. “Anyway, right then a rocksalt voice thunders out from behind two Malaysian screens about this Richard guy’s straying from his lesson plan. I peek around the black screens, and there’s this shriveled old woman perched atop a winged wicker throne, with twisting prisms, crystals and rainbow arches overhead. Her unraveled wig kept creeping up her forehead as she frowned, exposing her own matted hair. She had these wire-rimmed bifocals dangling off her right ear, and her bright red lipstick smeared to the left. I swear, the whole cubicle smelled of leftover giblets and gravy, but when she started talking, I sat down on her lumpy ottoman and listened up…”
“That so,” Syd final kerned her word, which gradually took on the heavy dullness of lunar basalts as the sun ducked behind fleeting mélanges of blue-gray clouds. “Listened, to what?”
“Some happy horseshit about Saturn, this whole spiel about how it’s the second largest planet in the solar system, and that Galileo first discovered it has four icy rings, the two big outer ones split by a 2,200 mile gap called Cassini’s Division. She rattled on that Saturn makes one complete revolution around the sun every 29.458 years—that’s only three times in a person’s life, if you’re luckier than I’ll probably be. She said it also takes that long to pass through all the signs of the Zodiac. Which means it takes 29 years or so to return to exactly where it was the moment you were born. After a nasty coughing jag, she warned that Saturn Return can end up good or bad, depending on whether a person’s prepared to pass from childhood to adulthood—like in my case, whether I was ready to become a man at 29.”
“Well,” Sydney mocked, “are you?”
“Give me a break…anyway, I’m laughing that off when she grabs my knee and says I’d better pay heed, because my first bout with the ringed one was layin’ for me around the bend. That it happens to everybody, and most people don’t have a clue what hit them. And how some horrible things can happen when you get to 29, not to mention 58, or god forbid, 87—just follow the news. She carries on about how Saturn forces you to reflect and challenges all your assumptions. Then she has the gall to soak me $20. I go, what kind of scam is this?! The whole deal weirded me out, so I paid up and got my ass right the hell back on the road home.”
“There, that about does it,” Sydney kicked an errant comma across some free verse from Thoreau. “Check that out…”
“Dybbuk, what the hell’s de-book?”
“You could look it up sometime” she proofread carefully. “It’s a term I heard my bubbie say once, about Lester—comes to mind for some reason when I think of you.”
“Uh, right. Now, what say we just go…” Cloud cover thickened, the chilling westerlies picked up and eraser dusted the Flats. “This stoneyard is giving me eyestrain.”
“OK—but I can’t believe you didn’t stop here before,” she shivered, walking me back toward the car, stepping gingerly between multi-color rock gardens of tired Lightfoot lyrics and biblical notations, into the second and third stanzas of ‘Ode To The End Of The Earth’.
“Drove through at night, that’s why…all blurred out on Mountain Dew.” I looked back at a sand devil swirling like a dark wooden top over her creation, until she tugged at my jacket to reclimb the shoulder toward the car. “Question is, how did you see it…don’t tell me you rode a Greyhound…”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, hair brushing the rose in her cheeks, gesturing for me to open her door. “Daddo drove…”
Care for more?
Chapter 10. Breakdowns in
communication mean dealing with
some brash bucking of the odds…