Jo’s mood lifted as they arrived at Desmonda’s Inn, but that lift didn’t last. She burst into the tiny office, threw her arms around the short, plump woman, and moments later was helping Micah unload the car. They’d be in town only three days so there wasn’t much luggage, but her arms were heavy with the knowledge that she’d be spending the time away from her asthmatic son, and everything they carried took on that weight. When they were done, they stood together on the small porch and looked up the main drag. Arivaca looked like a ghost town, and it was fitting, Jo thought, because she felt haunted not only by her memories of the place, but by what she’d come to do. Five hundred miles away, her son Alex required treatment she couldn’t afford, and though ImPass had offered to pay for it, she was half-certain she’d be unable to accomplish what she’d promised in exchange.
A familiar-looking young man passed by holding brightly colored cards. He looked at Micah, then at Jo, as though considering whether to approach.
“Busk,” he said, shrugging. He moved on.
Did he recognize her? She felt acutely shy, then embarrassed by her shyness, but she let these feelings be instead of fighting them. She’d been humbled by her task here, by the role she’d agreed to play, and she knew to let her system adjust to these new demands—so there was sure to be shame. There was sure to be intense pride and guilt. But it was always like this here, the desert so vast and still that it took your mind and magnified it, then reflected it back to you with an innocent, destructive force. The people who lived here all their lives learned to act with economy and speak with few words, and it wasn’t from arrogance, though there was that too; it was to counter the amplifying effect of the land. In a place where one word can be so forceful, a sentence full of them will reveal far more than the speaker wished, to others, yes, but also to oneself.
Micah stepped down onto the dry, packed dirt and looked up at her. “Well,” he said, “what do you say we get this over with.”
His broad, brown nostrils flared as he breathed in the hot, dry air, and his slightly concave forehead stood watch over his brow. Micah wasn’t a bad person, not really, and it made Jo feel better to remind herself of this. He wasn’t a bad person—he simply had responsibilities, like she did.
Minutes later they were driving down Warsaw Canyon Road, nearing Border Run! It was deep in the middle of the dry season, and everything looked hard and small, a shriveled pit which, if touched by water, would explode in growth. Jo’s stomach turned as the run came into view. She’d worked every bit as hard on it as Jack had, but seeing it now for the first time over five years, she couldn’t feel less ownership. It had changed in her absence, and looked less like Jack’s initial vision than ever: a large billboard by the road bid visitors to come in and “Catch Illegals In The Act!” This wasn’t him; it was what he’d become.
The electric car caused little sound as it moved, and as they turned and drove down the unpaved to the parking lot, the only sound Jo heard was crunching gravel. She peered as best she could into the visitor center as they passed, but Jack was nowhere in sight. She directed Micah to where the path to Jack’s house began, and when they stopped she opened the door. Dust rushed into the car.
“I won’t be long,” she said.
“Remember your training.”
The path to Jack’s place was overgrown, requiring Jo to pull tight around her waist the loose fabric of her wrap to avoid the greedy needles of Cholla cactus to either side. She had always respected the desert’s power—admired it, in fact—and now the wild land welcomed her back in the only way it knew how: like a rough, unruly beast toying with a creature half its weight. She moved carefully, mindfully forward to the place she’d left five years ago, to the man she thought she’d never see again, and imagined herself as an infinitesimally small point on a brilliant white plane.
Jo stood before the small house. It was unchanged except for a few more cracks in the adobe walls, and she pointed at them as though showing someone, tracing with her finger in the air. She breathed deeply. Jack knew her well, and it was going to take tremendous willpower to deceive him. Willpower and luck. Lying was never something she’d been good at, nor had she wanted to be. And now that it came time to actually begin what she’d been rehearsing for weeks to achieve, she felt completely lost. There is no one whose behavior is more difficult to mimic than one’s own. She took one final deep, cleansing breath and forced her hand into a fist, then her fist up and toward the door. She knocked only once, and just before her knuckles met the wood a second time she heard a loud clatter followed by a dull groan from inside. She put her ear against the door.
“Jack,” she called out, “Jack, are you okay?”
After another clatter and a quick scrape, he called back, saying he was fine. A moment later the door opened.
The screen door that had been there five years ago was gone, and there was nothing but the darkness inside to obscure Jack’s raw, delicate beauty—a beauty now possessed her child. Like the house, however, his face was home to a few more lines. He’d tucked in his shirt for her. There was dust smeared across his chest. He stood aside to let her enter.
“Angel saw you,” he said as she passed.
If seeing Jack had shocked her out of the anxiety she felt on the way here, his first words brought it right back. What had Angel seen her doing? She turned and tried to smile.
“I almost didn’t believe him,” Jack said, reaching out and taking a strand of her hair.
“But who else could it be?”
Jo looked at the living room, the piles of books. She spotted her beaten up copy of 1919 splayed out face down at the top of a stack near the sofa.
“I know,” Jack said, “I’ve let the place go a little.”
“Is that my Dos Passos?”
“I suppose so.”
Jo pulled a chair out from the small kitchen table and sat. She didn’t trust her legs. Jack asked if she wanted a glass of water, and before she could answer blew into two mugs and filled them at a clay jug perched at the edge of the counter by the sink. Jo tried to focus on what she had to say. She wanted the conversation to flow naturally, but toward the invitation she’d been directed to give. It hadn’t seemed like a difficult task during rehearsal, but now it felt impossible. Jack was inscrutable as ever, and though the sense that he knew something was wrong had subsided, she was worried by her inability to read him, and this concern itself seemed to feed back upon her attempt to judge the three sentences he’d spoken, to judge his careful, almost dainty movements through the small, cramped room.
“So,” he said, and sat.
“How are you?”
He shrugged. “Why does it always seem like I can’t possibly answer that question correctly?”
Jo sipped the cool, hard water. “There’s no wrong answer, Jack.”
“You say that now, but the minute I answer, your next question will be ‘Yes, but how are you really?’”
“I promise I won’t.”
Jack picked something invisible off the sleeve of his shirt and flicked it to the floor beside them.
“I’m doing pretty well,” he said. “Business is good.”
Jo grinned, unable to hide the fact that Jack had been right.
“See?” Jack said. He smiled too.
But this time she wouldn’t ask for clarification. Or the truth. She felt it would be unfair. “The show does look good,” she said instead. “New sign out front, I saw.”
“New sign, yeah.” Jack looked at her sideways. “C’mon, Jo. I know you hate the sign.”
Jo shook her head in protest. “I like anything,” she lied, “that brings some basic services to this impoverished place.”
“Huh,” Jack said, “okay. Well, it’s just to get folks excited about it, you know. Involved in history.”
Jo took another mouthful of water. It had always seemed to her that Jack treated world events as so much nebulous energy randomly accruing enough density to matter, but as quickly dissipating, disappearing before blame could be assigned.
“Wouldn’t want anyone to repeat themselves,” she said.
“What are you doing here, Jo?”
She shifted her blue shawl to give her left arm more movement, which she brought from her lap to the table top, showing her hand as though she had nothing to hide.
“What are you doing tonight?”
Jack nodded to the living room. “I’ve got a date with a minister, a Jew, a poet and a naïve girl from Texas,” he said, referring to the characters from 1919.
“Dos Passos was a turncoat.”
“Really? And all this time I thought he was just open-minded.”
Jo felt the tension beginning to grow, and regretted her remark.
“There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Jack finished his water, got up and put his mug by the sink. He turned around and leaned against the counter, crossing his arms and giving Jo his profile.
“Well, I think the poet and the Jew will be okay with that,” he said. “It’s the minister and the girl I’m going to have to work on. They can be needy.”
Jack became sarcastic when he felt like he was under attack, and Jo took his joke as a sign that she should wrap things up. Micah had told her to leave if she felt it was going poorly, to cut the meeting short rather than damage their chances of success in the future. She stood.
“I’m sorry, Jack. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.”
“Uh-huh. Who’s this person you want me to meet?”
“He’s a good man. He’s… he’s a friend.”
“Friends are important. So this friend of yours, you want us to meet why?” Jack was now looking at her, his eyes dark and steady.
“He thinks, we think… We think you might be able to help him. Us.”
After a moment of silence, Jo moved toward the door and opened it, stirring up dust on the terracotta floor. “We’re staying in town,” she said. “In separate beds. Please, come by tonight and talk to him. He’s Seminole, Jack.”
Jack seemed to frown, but the light in the kitchen was low; she couldn’t be sure. She stepped through the door, and began to close it before putting her head back into the house and trying to smile. “It’s good to see you,” she said. It felt good to say something true.