That night I walked and walked.
Quail, javelinas and, every now and then, a lone wandering mountain lion strutted through empty cul-de-sacs, in and out of disintegrating houses. I strolled past dusty street signs still holding names like Pequeno, Palo Verde and Little Hatchett Mountain. Weeds and creosote bush pushed through breaks in the asphalt. A layer of dust, like long thin wisps of hair, snaked through roads and, eventually, disappeared into the desert.
I walked and walked in the coolness of the New Mexican night, passed lawns and thickets of prickly pear cactus, passed empty ranch-style homes that sat like tombstones along the way. Many were already half-eaten by sandstorms gnawing at the boot heel of the state for years. Much showed signs of being left too long. I lit a cigarette and inhaled its warmth, then let my eyes loose focus on the endless horizon for just a moment before walking on.
I came to the welcome sign. Playas. Population: 1000. It was an old sign. Now it was the fall of 2004 and we were down to almost nothing.
This has always been a factory town. Back before it was just me and the other forty or so people who stayed this time, it was miners coming to mine the copper. Then it was workers coming to smelt it. Now, if tonight’s news is anything to go by, it’s going to be first responders coming to fight emergencies of their own making.
The government was going to be our cavalry and Homeland Security would be our salvation. After five years of watching the dust settle and coat this town, after watching almost everyone leave when the smelter closed, it was time for Playas to be the target of orchestrated attacks, for it to come alive again. I was ready for the trucks heavy with explosives, for the suicide bombings, for the anthrax poisonings.
I thought of the battles coming and walked deeper into the night.
Hunger finally brought me to the Feelgood Diner, the only place still catering to those of us left to work the skeletal shifts at the plant. I pitched what was left of my cigarette into the dust and pushed open the old glass doors.
I was hopeful when I walked in.
It was the usual dead scene in a ghost town. Ric, from the post office, sat slumped in a back booth. The always swollen knuckles of his hands were interlocked, cupping a cup of coffee. His whole being was fallen, curled toward the table his elbows were on. Under the florescent lights no shadow survived: his lids were half-cast.
“Night,” I tilted my head in his direction.
“Sal,” he nodded once and went back to meditating on the black liquid sitting between his palms.
With just enough of us left to secure the dead plant and keep the town running, we didn’t seem to have enough of us left to keep each other company. I paused the length of a long breath before moving toward the pie counter. The smoke from the last pull on the last cigarette left with when I exhaled. Before it all trailed out of me, my fingers worked to stop from reaching for another.
I didn’t bother to stifle a yawn as I sat down on the round stool closest to the pie carousel. They were the same pies from yesterday and it looked like the day before that. The same slices were missing from the same Dutch Apple pie. The ones that were whole the day before were still untouched.
I thought about the last time I felt this hopeful despite what my eyes were showing me. I thought about graduation when Liz still lived next door. I was good and ready then to be free, to leave. I had done the thing I needed to do and graduated. I’d made it to the end and now I could go. Maybe to some big city where anyone could be anyone and no one would care. Like in the movies. Get enough money together by working a couple of months at the plant and then buy a cheap car or an even cheaper bus ticket and go. Wherever things took me.
I wouldn’t end up staying around and thinking about the girl next door and why I couldn’t be her – or how much I’d wanted her.
Soon enough, Myra pulled herself away from the corner of the counter she was leaning on and from the TV mounted on a shelf over the coffee station. She shuffled over to my perch. I opted for a cup of black coffee, no pie tonight. She pulled the coffee from its seat and poured it, yawning.
The clock on the wall said it was just past ten, less than an hour to clocking in.
She was wearing the pink faded button-front uniform she always wore. The same yellow-white apron was tied around her waist. From the drag of her feet, I was pretty sure she was wearing the same worn down bed slippers she’s been wearing since I noticed her working here ten or so years back. Back then she still looked like she was just hitting her thirties and still had some places to go, people to see. The house slippers seemed more about comfort then than anything else. Now, it seemed as if she was always kind of sleeping and only bothered to move when a customer asked for something. I sighed and lifted the cup to my lips.
None of it was new.
I thought of her again. Of Liz, hair like black oil, spilling over small smooth almond-brown shoulders. Eyes like the polished tamarind seeds I used to hold in my mouth, hours after I’d swallowed the tart flesh. Seeds I’d read belonged in places beyond the place I was in. Sour and hard to resist once I encountered them in the grocery store’s shelf – when the shelves were as populated as the town. They were within easy reach and promised a taste of something else. Liz carried those seeds in her face and I filled my eyes looking at them.
I think about her now and I want to know how she made living as simple as wishing. I see Liz, smiling and talking across from me at the cafeteria table. The only one who would. I see her glowing with dreams of all the places she was going to see when she leaves this “one horse town”, with her already having taken the college entrance exams, saved up some money, did more than let thoughts cross her mind.
All I could do was hold it in, not say how much she made me want to tear myself apart and build myself anew. I chewed enough gum to heal all the cracks in every busted home in this town. And shined enough tamarind seeds to create a galaxy.
And said nothing.
I looked up from my reverie and caught my reflection in the mirror across from the Feelgood’s counter. I looked almost ten years more than my 28. It was the deep crease between my eyes and the lines like brackets around my lips. It was also the darkness around my eyes. And the fact that I grayed early, kept my hair easy-short, smoked too much and had skin as dry as volcano ash to prove it. Still I could tell by the look I sometimes saw dawn on Myra’s, and the few other regulars I came across more than so, that my eyes where still surprisingly clear and brown, that they were still a fresh 18 while the rest of me hurtled toward an early old-age. Even I sometimes found myself looking into them in the bathroom mirror, marveling that they were there, still in me.
I swallowed the bitter heat of the coffee and tried to put a smile on my face. Myra leaned one arm onto the counter and topped up the coffee in my desert-yellow once-white cup. As it joined the previous pool, I remembered that it was almost time to change the oil in my ’88 Cherokee. I looked up, still pushing the corners of my lips into the best smile I could make happen that night and croaked “Thanks”.
She nodded at me and winked before going back to the TV and coffee at the other end of the counter. On the screen the future was pooling like molten metal and reshaping itself into just the thing to kill the present and change everything that will happen next. I’d seen it before and decided not to watch it all again. The sound of my sips, followed by the cup’s clinks against its saucer, along with the sound of the TV’s rapid gunfire and crashing machines, filled the diner’s air with no-end-in-sight.
And just like so the fear came over me. I should have left with her. I should have followed her anywhere. But I watched her clear out of Playas, one day at a time for a year. And I sat stone silent when she knocked on the door the day she left, holding my breadth in the dark until I heard her walk away, heard her start up her car and go.
I swallowed and felt it grabbing at my throat, felt the air refusing to come in, the world spinning like a tilt-a-whirl, everything around me an inescapable eternity, a mess of forever.
I told myself I could undo this time like a knot tight around me; I could make this like…. This never happened.
I swallowed hard.
I needed a cigarette.
I’d stayed. Others too. Stayed and worked the plant. Stayed and bought homes. Settled into a space that didn’t seem so bad when you thought about it. Didn’t seem that bad unless you thought too much about it. And what was out there would always be there. Just out there. Still.
And time coated my life day after day.
I needed a cigarette but I sipped the coffee and fiddled with the cup. I thought about the day I’d had.
I’d gone to the plant as usual, 11 at night to 7 in the morning. And, as usual, I did my watch at the guard gate. I watched the time, followed the moon’s move across the sky.
I whiled away my hours imagining the border patrols cutting through the sand, their tire tracks drawing lines at the border, only forty miles behind the plant. I imagine them guarding against the border-crossers who use the factory’s tower lights as “La Estrella del Norte” to guide their way across the desert. I sometimes imagine who might be apart of those nightly patrols. I imagine them cutting parallel tire marks into the land, small miles from Mexico. I envision them circling back and forth on their watch for crossers, their eyes always searching the edge where both countries meet and are marked apart.
Lately, I also like to imagine that I am that close to being in another country, that I can straddle borders in no time.
After work, the laundry. It wasn’t a full load, but it was something. I waited for the wash and then watched the tumbling inside the dryer. All the time thinking. Watching red shirt turning with yellow towels turning with blue jeans turning with white bra turning, turning….
After packing the clothes away, I spent the afternoon fidgeting around the house and checking Internet bookstores for used romance novels or Louis L'Amour or Robert Ludlum or anything.
In time, I pulled the curtains against the noon’s sun and fell into my usual dead sleep. There was no dream that I am her or that she is with me. I do not conjure her. I do not fall into an imagining that is good enough to call home. I do not watch her dark hair hang over her bare shoulders, heavy and thick. I do not hear her brown skin speaking to me and feel every thing inside me listen.
I woke as the sun set. Felt the day dim and hungered for anything easy to make and eat. I settled on what was already there, a cold beef sandwich and a beer.
The early evening news took me an hour closer to nightfall. The newscaster reported on the same old stories: the war in Iraq: more hidden bombs, more casualties; the 2004 Presidential elections: Kerry and Bush set to debate; the election’s issues: a big increase of new voters in swing states; new Medicare rules have set off a battle on drug choices. It was all like it had been, until I heard her call our name: “the Department of Homeland Security … to buy the entire town of Playas… turn the town into location for anti-terrorism training… ground zero for the training of emergency response personnel.” The news shook me hard. I turned off the TV and sat in the dark for a while.
I tried to imagine the change coming. I thought about what this town used to be before Dodge left. I also thought about the last time something this big promised to happen here.
I was 19 then, in the spring of 95, and remember hearing the news about the Oklahoma City bombing. Liz was already gone. I was still working the plant and thinking about getting a car and getting to somewhere that had something more. But then there was the bombing and the local mining college got money to train personnel to respond to underground bombings. And there was the possibility that something more was coming to where I already was.
I stuck around hoping. And my days piled up like bricks, built a wall between where I was and I’d thought I might be, eventually. Some day.
A couple of hours before my shift would start again, I walked into the promised of that night.
I walked and tried to get past thinking about back then. I lit new cigarettes off the embers of the old ones.
I thought about Trinity Site, just down the road a bit. It’s on the White Sands Missile Range and isn’t doing too bad for a small town. Its only claim to anything is as the place where the first atomic bomb was detonated in ’45. Nothing new has happened there since, but it’s as alive as ever. I thought about Trinity Site and I thought about how you never really know what will give a place a pulse.
I walked and walked. Eventually I moved toward the Feelgood.
I’d imagined this time more would be there.
I’d see her as soon as I entered. I’d follow her star. It would be just a few steps from where I’d be, at the door, to the where she’d be, at the counter.
As soon as I sit down, I would be served.
“Coffee?” Myra would poise the carafe of coffee over the empty cup in front of me.
I’d nod and she’d fill it up. She’d throw in a smile and a glance at both of us before sauntering away with the carafe.
I’d turn to the vision beside me. And even this close, especially this close, I wouldn’t believe my eyes.
I’d say something like, “I think I know you.” I would be sincere.
She’d turn toward me and I’d get my first clear look at her face. She’d be nothing like anything left around here. Her lips would be the color of roasted almonds and shaped a little like a heart. She would be enough to make me wipe my hands on my jeans and blush. I’d instantly be back to how I was with her. For only Liz… I’d hanker for a cigarette, something to fill my mouth and give my hands something to hold, even for a little while. I’d turn away from her and reach for my coffee. I would be nervous and afraid that this was all a dream, like it’s been for so long.
She’d say something like, “I know you” and “I’m so glad we’re here now.” Her voice would be low and travel quietly. It would feel like a whisper reaching for me from across the dessert.
Her voice would rescue me.
Myra was still watching the old future battle the new.
“Heard the news?” I was trying for something.
“Yup.” She brought the pot to my seat.
I watched new coffee pool into the cup and sighed: “Can’t wait for them to start hiring people and getting this place going again.”
I looked up from the filled cup to see Myra’s tired expression. She chewed her gum a couple of times more, all the while looking as if she were on automatic pilot.
“You?” She barely stifled a yawn.
“Yeah. It’s been too many years. I’m ready for something else…”
“You said that before. Thought you’d have gone by now.” She leaned against the counter.
“You so ready, what’s keeping you?”
“This time is different. It’s gonna be what it was once.”
“This is the ticket.”
“Uh-huh.” She yawned and pushed away from the counter. “See you still playing it safe here. Can’t be the one to say it ain’t the way to go.”
I turned my gaze to the coffee and listened to her shuffle back. Through the corner of my eyes I saw her resume her place by the coffee carafes and the TV. The futures were really going at it. One of them would have to die.
I stood up and stretched. Then left two crumpled dollars on the counter beside the untouched cup and said a goodnight over my shoulder as I headed out the door.
Once outside, I patted my breast pocket for my cigarettes and pulled one from the pack. I held it to my mouth long enough to light and breathe it in as deeply as I could. As I breathed out, I tugged my old bomber jacket close across my chest.
I was ready for everything to be blown apart. I was ready for all the rehearsed rescues.
“Terror Attacks: A Love Story” came out of a news article about the town of Playas, New Mexico. It also sprang from my immediate desire to write about what it means to be so bored and so entrenched in a passive way of being that you wish for any shake-up in the scheme of things. I began with that desire and the story worked its way to another kind of paralysis, another source of enchantment: a dwelling fear, the kind that just seems to be there for no good reason, the kind for which there may never be a “good reason,” and the kind that cuffs you to a life in which you take no chances and, instead, rely on how the wind blows for any change in your circumstances. Intangible terror is the source of the protagonist’s stagnation and terror attacks becomes the possible solution.
Racquel Simone (Goodison) was born and grew up in Kingston 20, Jamaica. She now lives in Brooklyn, NY and holds a doctorate in English from Binghamton University. She is currently an assistant professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the City University of New York. Her stories can be found in such literary journals as the Black Arts Quarterly, Proud Flesh Journal, and Drunken Boat.