With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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In the summer of 1973, my father moved us from Reno to Yucca Valley, my brother came home from Vietnam, and Sarah Collins, the Indian girl with the Irish name, was kidnapped from in front of my house by two men in a cherry red El Camino.
I was thirteen that summer, and for many years since then I have thought about how I could have changed things had I only seen them a little more clearly, paid more attention to the small details, or even stepped onto my front porch a few minutes sooner. What I remember most about Sarah Collins is her face pressed up against the back window of the El Camino as the car sped down our street. A big hand was reaching over her forehead, trying to pry her from the glass. On the middle finger was a silver ring that caught a ray of sunlight. I squinted from the glare, and the car was gone.
We’d moved to Yucca Valley because my father was offered a job managing an Indian bingo parlor there. It was no secret that someday gambling was going to be legalized on Indian reservations in California. Already bingo parlors scattered between Upland and Indio were beginning to turn big profits. The Morongo Indians had opened one off Interstate 10 just outside of Palm Springs, and promised my father a percentage of the future take.
“This is a great opportunity for all of us,” he said at the time. “The schools are better, we can have a big house, and I can make some real money.” What he didn’t know was that it would be seventeen years before the Indians would be allowed to put in blackjack tables and slot machines, and that the fortunes would finally be made not by the pit bosses and concessions managers, but by the Indian families who turned their plots of reservation land into gold mines. He also didn’t know that he would die of leukemia before any of this happened.
My brother returned home from Vietnam the week before Sarah Collins was kidnapped. It was early July, a few days after the Fourth, and I rode with my mom out to the base at Thousand Palms to meet him. Kenny was nine years older than me, and had been in the army for four years. In the beginning, he’d sent letters every other day from boot camp, and then from jungle villages whose names I couldn’t pronounce. After his second year, though, the letters had come less and less often, making us worry until, after a while, even Mom had gotten used to his silences.
I sat in the front seat of my mother’s idling Volkswagen, the desert air heavy and dense in the midafternoon sun, and wondered what I would say to this brother whom I really knew nothing about anymore. The only thing I wanted to ask him — no, had to ask him — was how many people he had killed.
“There he is,” my mother said, and jumped out of the car. In the distance, Kenny emerged through the front gate of the base, a knapsack slung over his shoulder. He looked gaunt, his skin hanging like a wet rag over his face. His uniform was plastered to him by sweat, and his eyes were hidden behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. When my mother rushed up to him, he dropped the knapsack and threw his arms around her.
I got out of the car and waited by the front bumper. My mom was holding Kenny’s hand as they walked, swinging it back and forth. In all her life, I don’t think there was a single moment when she looked more beautiful.
When they reached the car, Kenny stood up straight and gave me a salute. My mom giggled like a teenager. “How ya been, chief?” he said, giving my hair a little tousle.
“All right,” I said.
“Do I at least get a hug?” Kenny pulled down his glasses and smiled at me. His eyes were bloodshot and all pupils. “Or isn’t that the cool thing anymore?”
I put my arms around his waist and hugged him. He held me longer than I felt comfortable with, then let me go with a cuff on the back.
On the ride home, Kenny told us how wet and hot Vietnam was, and how the mosquitoes there would tug at your skin until it broke open in raised welts. He leaned into the back seat and pushed up his sleeve to show me the scars. Thin black lines crisscrossed his forearm, disappearing beneath the hair that crawled just above his elbow.
“What about you, Teddy?” he asked. “Tell me what I’ve missed.”
I told him about the A’s winning the World Series and about Jennifer Sedgwick kissing me during a school play, but Kenny wasn’t really listening. He rubbed his left hand over his forearm, sometimes scratching at the scars there. Mom patted his hand gently.
“Sorry,” Kenny said to Mom. “I guess it’s habit. What else, Teddy? There’s gotta be more.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment. We were still only a few miles from the base, and the cars on either side of us all held soldiers coming home. A couple of times Kenny gave mock salutes to guys I assumed he knew. Finally, as we crossed onto the interstate, I said, “How many people did you kill?”
My mother sucked in her breath. “Teddy!”
Kenny didn’t turn around in his seat; he just stared up at the torn cloth lining of the Volkswagen’s ceiling. “How many,” he said quietly, not to me or to my mother, but to the air, or to God, or maybe just to himself.
Sarah Collins and her family lived across the street from us in a house exactly like ours. And like the one next to us. And the one behind us. Sarah’s father, a big Morongo Indian named Harley Collins, worked with my dad at the bingo parlor as the chief of security. He had a boxer’s face, nose flattened across his cheeks and hooded eyes heavy with scar tissue. Sarah’s mother had emphysema. She would sit outside some nights and cough and cough until I wondered if she might be trying to tear out her throat.
On July 14, a Thursday, Sarah Collins was sitting on the sidewalk drawing chalk lines on the asphalt for hopscotch. She was eight years old, with a pixie haircut, a blue-striped shirt, red dolphin shorts, and sandals — brown buckled sandals. I was shooting baskets with my brother in our driveway. I was Elvin Hayes hitting perfect fall-away jumpers; he was Lew Alcindor sky-hooking over my head. Kenny would drive on me, his body all sinew and scars beneath a thin veil of sweat, drop a step, then arc the ball into the basket. Once, when the ball got away from us and rolled into the street, Sarah picked it up, bounced it twice using both hands, and heaved it back to me. She was just a little girl.
Kenny beat me, making his shots with intensity, muscling me during nervous collisions. He had a look about him that said, Things are not right with me, chief; better just let me pass. And I did, until point number twenty-one fell through the hoop and I sat down on the grass to catch my breath.
Sarah tossed a rock across the set of stacked squares she had drawn on the street, then hopped, one foot tucked behind her thigh, down the long row and picked up the rock again. It was nearly 110 degrees that day, and watery mirages hung just above the pavement. Sarah hopped again and then tripped, skinning her knee on the hot asphalt. She got up quickly and looked my way, her face tensed up, tears starting to roll down her cheeks.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
Sarah didn’t say anything, just shook her head slowly. I walked over to where she was standing and took a look at her knee. It was bleeding now, a thin trickle running down to her buckled foot.
“If I go inside and get you a popsicle,” I asked, “will you stop crying?”
Sarah nodded yes.
I walked back across the street to my house and was opening the front door when Sarah called out to me.
“My favorite flavor is orange!” she shouted, standing in the middle of the street. Then a red El Camino pulled onto our block, and Sarah stepped back onto the curb, and I went inside.
What happened next I don’t know exactly. Maybe they offered her a piece of candy, or asked if her mommy was home; or maybe they just slowed to a crawl, and the guy with the silver ring jumped out, grabbed her by the hair, and tossed her in.
When I came back out with two orange creamsicles, still wrapped, in my hands, the El Camino was screeching down the street. And there was Sarah Collins in the rear window. And there was that flash of sunlight off that silver ring. And there — standing in the side yard — was Kenny, a joint pressed between his lips, his face drawn and slack.
The police questioned me for more than two hours hoping for a detail that might help them find Sarah Collins. They wanted to show me mug shots, but I hadn’t seen a face. They also questioned Kenny. He told them that he’d walked outside the same moment I had, and that all he’d seen was the car, nothing else. I told them I hadn’t even known Kenny was there.
Afterward, Kenny and I sat in the living room and stared out at the street, where Harley Collins, still in his Tribal Police uniform, was holding his screaming wife, Nora. She was screaming up at the sky, rocking slowly back and forth, begging God, or whomever she prayed to, to bring her daughter back. Kenny was stoned, his eyes half open. Our parents were outside talking with the neighbors. As we sat in the half light of dusk, I found myself staring at my brother.
“Don’t look at me,” he said.
I wasn’t, exactly. I was staring at his arms. There were fresh pinpoint scars just above his wrists. “Why didn’t you tell them what you saw?” I asked.
“I didn’t see a fucking thing,” he said, then pushed me down into the couch, his face inches from mine. His breath, stale from marijuana, was all over me. He put a knee into my sternum, forcing all the air from my lungs. “Not a fucking thing, you hear?”
The front door opened and Kenny hopped off me. Mom and Dad came in and found me on the couch gasping for breath.
“It’s all right, Teddy,” Dad said, thinking I was crying. “There was nothing you could have done.”
I looked up and saw Kenny walking out the door.
A police car rolled up and down our street every hour on the hour, but it was useless. The kidnappers had come and gone, and it stood to reason they weren’t hiding in the bushes with Sarah. A group of about thirty Indian men had gathered in front of the Collins house with flashlights. My dad said they all worked at the parlor. “The Indians,” he said, “take care of their own.”
My father went outside and talked with them. He wasn’t real friendly with most of the workers. The Indians didn’t like having people from outside the tribe working in the parlor, especially someone who was hoping to cash in on their future. But Harley and my dad were friends, and Dad wanted to help with the search.
My mother was standing on the front porch smoking a cigarette. I came out and sat down on one of the steps.
“Your father is going out to hunt for Sarah,” she said, smoke twisting out of her nose. It was close to ten at night, but the thermometer was still hovering near a hundred degrees. “What do you think about that?”
“Seems like a waste of time,” I said.
My mother sat down next to me and put her arm over my shoulder. It was hot and sweaty. “Don’t know what good these men can do,” she said, “except get that poor girl killed if they stumble on her.”
Two big flatbed trucks pulled up, and everyone piled in. My father gave us a little wave as they departed.
“Let’s move back to Reno,” I said. “I don’t like it here.”
My mother pulled me to her and kissed me on the forehead. “Things will get better,” she said. “You’ll start school in a couple of months, and all of this will seem like ancient history.”
So, on a smoldering night in the low desert, as the wind picked up and the sand foxes howled their low whines, I lay sleepless on the bottom bunk of the bed I shared with Kenny. He was writhing above me, shouting to some battalion that had walked across his dreams. Sarah Collins was gone, and I’d never even known her. In the final moments, had she spotted Kenny standing there, watching her being abducted? Had she cried out to him for help?
For two weeks, Sarah Collins was on the front page of the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the Palm Springs Desert Sun. Then she was on page three. After a month, she would be moved to the local-news section. By September, Sarah Collins would be gone.
At night Harley Collins sat out on his front porch with a flashlight, the beam scanning every bush, stopping on anything that moved in its sweeping arc. Nora Collins rarely set foot outside the house, but when she did, she would stare right through you, her face bloodless and long.
As the summer drifted away, Kenny began to disappear for hours at a time, reappearing shirtless and sunburned. Once, late at night, I saw him climb out our bedroom window naked and slip into the street. Crouching, he grabbed a handful of rocks and rubbed them across his body until his stomach and arms were covered in red marks. I closed our window and latched it firmly, then locked our bedroom door. When I awoke the next morning, I found him asleep on the couch under an old afghan.
Since the day Sarah had been kidnapped, I had tried to take note of the smallest details of Kenny’s behavior. I didn’t exactly blame him, but I was afraid of him. I knew that his threat to me was real enough, and that there were things about Kenny I would never understand.
One day, underneath his mattress, I found two long needles, their tips brown and sharp, and a picture of Sarah clipped from the newspaper. In the article, both Sarah’s name and mine were underlined with thin blue pen, but Kenny’s was not. There was also a small gun dug into his mattress.
My father got Kenny a job parking cars at the bingo parlor, but Kenny was asked to quit after a hundred dollars came up missing during his shift twice in the same week. He blamed the Indians. “They have it in for me, Dad,” he said as we sat at the table eating dinner. My dad just nodded and continued to read the paper. “It’s all because of that dumb little girl. They think because I look different I had something to do with it.”
“Did you?” I said.
My mother told me to stop acting like a child, then shook her head back and forth. “That’s just ludicrous,” she said.
“Tell Dad that,” Kenny said.
“No, it’s ludicrous that you are blaming this all on Sarah,” my mom said. “Really, Kenny, have some compassion.”
Kenny glared at her. He had a patchy beard now, and his hair, uncut since he’d come home, was tied into a little ponytail. He turned his head and gave me an uneven smile. “You wanna shoot some hoops, Teddy?” he asked.
We hadn’t played basketball since that day, July 14, 1973. A Thursday.
“That’s a good idea,” my dad said suddenly. “Why don’t you two go outside; I want to talk to your mother.”
The sun had just set behind the San Jacinto Mountains, and already Harley was out on his porch with his flashlight. I was sitting across the street from him, lacing up my shoes, when he trained the light on my face. Kenny was still inside changing clothes. Harley let the light search my entire body — from my face down to my throat, across my chest and arms, and finally over my legs and feet. I stood up and walked to the edge of our grass.
“How are you, Mr. Collins?” I called to him.
He had followed me with the light all the way to where I stood. He didn’t answer me for a long time.
“I’m at the dead end of life,” he said finally. “Tell me, was she happy before they came?”
“Yes, sir, she was,” I lied. I didn’t want to tell him about her knee being split open, and the blood staining her little sandal. I didn’t want to tell this man, who drove a van with a scenic tableau of the Old West painted on one side, that I thought his little girl was buried somewhere beneath the scorching desert floor.
Harley clicked his flashlight off, and I thought I heard him cough. “One day your life just melts away,” he said, “and terror moves in.”
Behind me, I heard Kenny walking down the driveway bouncing the basketball. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I wish I could remember more about the car, or about the men, or about anything. It just happened so fast —”
Harley put his hand up to stop me. “There is a story in our tribe,” he said, “about an old man who welcomes a traveler named Death to his fire. The old man is not afraid. He seems to know Death is a life-giver as well as a death-dealer. He is certain Death is the cause of all tears and of all laughter.
“The old man welcomes Death to his hearth and tells Death he has loved him through all his crops bursting and all his crops failing, through all his children being born and all his children dying. He tells Death that he knows him and is his friend.” Harley stood up and set his flashlight down on his chair. “Thou hast caused me great weeping and dancing, Death, so call out the rounds! I know the steps!”
Kenny stood beside me now, his hand pressed between my shoulders, and giggled under his breath as Harley slipped quietly inside his house. “Crazy fucking Indian,” Kenny said.
I wanted to grab my brother by the throat and twist the hate out of him, squeeze whatever was lurking just below his skin to the surface, force him to the ground and let the bugs take him apart piece by piece. Our eyes met, as they had that July day, and Kenny held my gaze until I shivered.
We played twenty-one again that night, Kenny moving like a hunted animal. He would lean against me when I had the ball, his body low to the ground as though he might pounce. Whenever he went up for a jump shot, he’d let out a little hiss from his nose. Before the final point, Kenny pulled off his shirt; raised welts covered his back and chest. There were new scratches and deep gashes in his forearms, as if he’d been clawed.
Kenny stood at the top of the key, his chest heaving, his skin flushed with abrasions. With a swivel step he crossed his dribble over and came into the lane. I stepped in front of him, hoping he would stop and pull up a jumper so that I could go inside, wash his sweat off my body, and try to avoid him. Instead, he lowered his shoulder and plowed into me, sending me skidding across the blacktop. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he laid the ball in to defeat me.
The ball rolled down the driveway, bumped over the hard asphalt where Sarah Collins had skinned her knee, and came to rest against the sidewalk in front of the Collins home. Kenny stood above me, his breath slowing. He frowned at me lying there on the ground, and shook his head slightly. “Good game, Teddy,” he said, and walked into the house.
Later that night, as I sat on the front porch listening to a Dodger game on my red transistor radio, my dad came out and sat down next to me. He was already fifty years old, and gray hair flecked the stubble that grew on his chin. We sat together for a long while, not speaking, just listening to Vin Scully call the balls and strikes. In Reno, before Kenny went away, the three of us had often gone to see the local minor-league team play. My father liked to watch the players — some just old enough to vote — sign autographs and live out their country-boy dreams. Once, when the Oakland A’s played an exhibition game against the Seattle Pilots there, Dad pulled some strings at the casino and we got to meet a few of the players. Billy North, Joe Rudi, and Vida Blue all signed a ball for me, while Dad cornered a young Reggie Jackson and told him he would be better than Roberto Clemente. Kenny had Catfish Hunter sign nearly every article of clothing he had on.
“Your mom and I thought a camping trip might be good for all of us,” my dad said now, during a break in the game. “Maybe go up to Julian or Joshua Tree. What do you say?”
“Sounds OK,” I said.
Dad was staring down at his feet. He had gathered a pile of pebbles and was tapping them back and forth. “Then, after we get back, we’ll see if we can’t get Kenny some help.”
I’d been afraid my parents hadn’t noticed anything, and was relieved to find out I’d been wrong.
“Maybe some time away,” Dad said. “You know, to get his head straightened out.”
Vin started up again, and my dad stopped talking. If I’d known then that in ten years I’d be watching him slowly wither away until I wished he would die, and then be standing at his grave watching dirt fall over his casket, I might have told him right there that I loved him, that children are never done growing up, and that his elder boy might be OK again someday.
Long after the game had ended, Dad and I sat there and listened to an AM station broadcasting out of Mexico. The desert air was filled with the smell of the coming fall, the wind dense with pollen. While my father and I listened to the distant cackle of the radio, I saw Harley Collins pull back his blinds and peek out at us. My dad gave him a brusque wave, and Harley clicked off the lights in his living room.
“Do you think they’ll ever find Sarah?” I asked.
My dad tilted his head back toward the stars and rubbed his eyes. “No,” he said. “I really don’t.”
That following weekend — the weekend before I’d start high school — we packed up the truck and headed north on Highway 315 to Joshua Tree National Monument. There, we pitched our two tents in a valley surrounded by low brush and six-foot Joshua trees. After we unpacked, my mother and I went looking for kindling while Kenny and my dad dug a fire pit.
The sun was beginning to set, and a cool mountain breeze was blowing from the north as my mother and I climbed a ridge just above the valley floor. She still looked young then, with her sandy blond hair tied back into a ponytail. She was young, really — only forty, having married my dad when she was nineteen.
In the distance, I could see my brother and father shoveling dirt and sand. My mother stopped to watch, too. “Your brother looks just like your father from here,” she said, stuffing a handful of twigs into my backpack. “Not the hair, of course, but his body and the way he walks.” It was true; they both had a loose, athletic shuffle and rounded shoulders that made them look hunched over. “But you,” she continued, “you’ve got the good looks from the other side of the family.” She smiled and brushed the bangs from my eyes. I walked on up the path, but my mom stood there awhile with her hands on her hips, biting her bottom lip, watching my brother and father.
For dinner we roasted hot dogs over the fire and drank strawberry Shasta. The moon was only a sliver that night, and the sky glittered with a million silver bulbs. Dad told ghost stories until Mom got frightened and made him stop. In the quiet between stories, I looked across the licking flames of our campfire and saw Kenny smiling, and next to him my mother and father holding hands and giggling. For an instant, I thought maybe things were going to turn out all right. We spent the rest of the evening telling stories and eating s’mores, talking about everything except Sarah Collins and Kenny. As the fire cooled, my parents came to Kenny and me and kissed us gently on our heads and told us good night. It was a moment of simple perfection that has remained forever frozen in my mind.
I had been asleep for hours, my dreams troubled by visions of that cherry red El Camino, when I was awakened by the roar of the wind. Turning over, I saw Kenny’s sleeping bag was empty. As the wind whipped at our tent, slapping the nylon door against the frame, I saw Kenny sitting by the fire, his naked back covered in dark, burnt slashes that bled in thin trails. I watched him reach into the dead fire again and again, pull out still-hot cinders, and press them into his back, his skin sizzling. He made no noise as his flesh burned, only jerked his back inward, then repeated the process.
I was scared then — not for myself, but for Kenny. Scared that Kenny might turn and find me watching him, and then hurl himself into the pit, twisting his body in mad circles until all that remained was ash. He did turn and see me there in the entrance to our tent, and I let out a little scream through my clenched teeth. He stood up and faced me, and as he approached, I saw his chest was a charred map of welts and deep, bleeding burns. I slid back into the tent and pulled my sleeping bag up over my body. Kenny crawled in and lay down beside me. The tent filled with the acrid smell of his burning flesh and hair. He lay there naked and stared up into nothing, his breath beating out of him in staccato bursts.
“It is good to have someone to talk to, isn’t it?” he said to me in a husky rasp.
I didn’t respond. I was trying to locate a different place in my mind, a place far away from the tent and my smoldering brother. A place where I might find Sarah. I flew over the Joshua trees, down an endless desert plain, across the Whitewater River that ran through the open dunes. And I found her, skin bleached albino white by the sun, her perfect features washed out, her tiny nipples flat against the hollow of her chest. She was dead, the little girl who was one step below the angels to the Indian with cowboys painted on his van — the Indian who would never get to stare down the boys who came to court his little girl, never get to make them feel like fools, because he knew every evil thing they had in mind for his sweet, innocent child. Harley Collins, that Indian, would never get the chance to personally twist their manhood into knots if they ever tried to lay a finger on either her perfect little body or the sweetness of her soul. As my brother mumbled and his charred body began to vibrate next to me in our tent, I discovered an even scarier place, the place where that little girl’s life had come full circle, and Death had stopped long enough to dance by the hearth and take her pain away and leave me here alone, with another dying child.