Last Days on Planet Ella
Please note: the following story contains lines that might be construed as offensive to members of some religions.
My notions about a higher power that governs the universe and what that might in the long run mean changed with profound and humbling significance when me and Ella went camping in the desert. Ella’s idea, this trip—she’s from out there. An hour or two from Sante Fe. She considered it a serious hole in my experience to have never been. Guy like me? The “mysteriously handsome” ex-drifter?
We drove nearly straight through, stopping just once, and suddenly, insanely, as if beamed from the mother ship, we were camping out in Ella’s desert. I’m not even sure I could tell you where. Or if I’d want to. I don’t plan to return.
I have to say, though: the night there was gorgeous—that first night? From some other planet. Purer maybe. Wider, deeper. The air itself was from another world. Motionless, dry, nearly solid. Black and smooth and vast and empty. Stars just dazzling. Stunning. Cactuses near, also far, stiff and dark as scarecrows. And the crackling silence through a half-lit blackness, campfire going orange and strong.
Our geodesic pup tent was propped behind us, the mammoth rental asleep at its side. This latter was a massive rooster-red eyesore, a too-proud Sport Utility Vehicle we’d nicknamed Foghorn Leghorn. Ella’s idea here as well. She wanted to pretend we were cheesy Yuppies, even though she pretty much was one already. But she’s not really cheesy, not in that way. Though everyone’s got a side they can’t see that someone else sees clear as day. Over the years, I’ve come to call it your Carbuncle, a kind of supersized, hardshell zit. I got one once, on my back near the shoulder—a real one anyone could see except me—while working on a frame crew in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as good a place as any to have carbuncle surgery on the state’s most generous dime.
And we were laying back like that on a supersoft blanket when I killed the last of the beers. I thought we should go into town for more but knew she’d consider that excessive and needy. This is when I sang to her, as I sometimes do.
I sang “Duncan,” by our friend Paul Simon. Ella loves that song so much. I was once a sort of Lincoln Duncan myself: a drifter fuck-up with no funds. Hitchhiking. Bumming. Getting laid in tents. Which is where, incidentally, the song ends.
Just later, on the very same night / when I crept to her tent with a flashlight
And my long years of innocence ended
It’s a nice moment for Lincoln Duncan. It’s been bleak and unforgiving for the guy and here comes an evening of relief.
She took me to the woods / Sayin’ here comes something and it feels so good
And just like a dog, I was befriended / I was befriended
Ella loves that part especially. I’m quite certain she believed she’d befriended me. And she may have. For a while there, yes.
When I finished the song, I rode the wave of her/my delight toward permission to drive into town for a sixer, if not some whiskey, plus whatever opportunities for purchase rose on the given street.
She said you go, Hero. I’m fine right here. I’d rather stay behind with the fire and the massive black sky. This seemed weird and brave for Ella—or anyone, really. The town was half an album play away, a solid twenty minutes or more. All you could see from our vantage point was that single trailer—a supersized Cougar mobile home—way off a hundred yards or so, where we’d paid a little visit that afternoon after landing and setting up camp. They had a fire going too, this little orange plume in the distance no one appeared to be sitting around.
“It’ll just be you and the L. Ron Hubbards.”
“Don’t mock,” she said. “I thought they were charming.”
“Really?” I said. “Did you?”
Her latest was Scientology. She hadn’t joined, but done a ton of research, which admittedly I’d mocked her for. Someone had to. I believe she thought because certain celebrities were famously involved that somehow it’d turn the tide for her. Like, bring more power and money than she already had, which was in my view plenty.
In her view, however, she had not yet “arrived.” She was merely a pharmaceutical sales rep with a penchant for mysteriously handsome folk singers. She claimed all she wanted was dynamic spiritual growth and Dianetic level advancement, what Scientologists call—at its peak point—going “clear.” But I see clear. I see quite clearly. And what I saw earlier that afternoon was a property rights lawyer fond of weight rooms and grill technology along with his wife of the maybe fake tits discussing their own advancement, spiritual and otherwise, while Ella grew enamored in ways I couldn’t fathom. She’d noticed a well-thumbed copy of Dianetics on the fold-out counter in the mobile home’s kitchen and lit up at once with the inquiry.
They told her: sure, been members a while now. Rising fast.
Ella’s like: wow. What level?
When they said Level Three, Ella nearly spat out her Jack and ginger.
“Damn, guys,” she said, wide-eyed. “Level Three’s when the secret’s revealed!” The air grew a little stiff at that. Not sure they cared for it. Ella kept on. “That’s when you get the origins. How … how the evil despotic god Xenu killed innocent billions. How he exploded H bombs in live volcanoes. He supposedly nuked volcanos!” Ella let out a laugh. “Which lead of course to the melding of all Thetan sou—
“Hey hey hey!” This bronzed Ray, the protein shake attorney, was standing at his seat. “That’s not for you to know!” He went softer, catching himself. “Not yet.”
Ella looked at me and held back a laugh. “What do you mean not yet?” She shrugged, mouth half open. “You can google ‘Xenu’ in about three seconds! For Christ’s sake, he’s got his own Wiki.”
“Don’t eat that shit online!” Ray paused, again gathering himself. He exchanged a knowing glance with his partner Lola, the buoyantly enhanced, then turned to Ella and said, “You do hope to advance yourself?” And after a moment, added, “That is, should you choose to join.”
Ray asked if he might have a word alone with my wife, an honest mistake at which I laughed too loudly. Your partner then, he said. We’re boyfriend and girlfriend, Ella interjected. Partners are for law firms. Ray in turn laughed a little too loudly at that, as I and his heavily augmented spouse stepped outside for a look at their grill, a maximum capacity travel-safe Weber, built into the Cougar like a hidden limb, steel and clunky and fold-up-able, still greasy with last night’s steak.
I guess I see clearly. I like to think it. All it takes is looking, right? But how could I account for us there? My sunny-natured New Mexican Ella, alone in the motor home with weight room Ray, while I mmmed and aaahed at their capacity to grill flesh—only eight or so feet from the tank! Some, Lola informed me, even grilled while the Cougar was in motion. Nice, I said, and stole a glance at the shadows inside.
Ella and I would normally make vicious fun of such nonsense. And we did, in fact, a little later on, after going into town for firewood and food. But still, she hadn’t given up the cause. I believe her interest was further piqued.
Later, at the campfire, she said to me, Hero, listen. I’ve made a very big decision. A significant decision. It regards our spiritual growth. Ours together.
Well I thought I knew what might be coming and asked if it could wait until we had more beer. She conceded, though not so happily.
Ella’s one of the few who call me ‘Hero.’ Most call me ‘Hieronimo,’ exactly like ‘Geronimo,’ but with an H, like a Mexican J. ‘Hieronimo’ is cut from my full name ‘Hieronymous,’ which comes off, in my view, a bit prissy and ancient. Ella just goes with Hero.
I know she loves me. She’s told me as much. And I’ve tried my best to love her back, and I do—or have. It does not, however, appear to be what you might call all-the-time love, and my declarations to the contrary have begun to stink of deception.
That night, when I drove off alone for more beer—amazed Ella would choose such solitude, what I’m sure got creepy real fast—I saw her lay back and gaze at the stars, perhaps sending up a prayer. To whom I don’t know. The god Xenu was evil. You wouldn’t pray to him. Besides, she’d told me Xenu had long been cornered and trapped inside some mountain by the Scientological forces who’d banded against him.
It really is crazy Marvel Comic book stuff. Early on, we’d made honest fun of it. We both come from religion and consider its mockery a salve to what wounded and confused us. I do at least. Ella’s in and out about it. Scientology was the wildest one yet. I was betting, though, she’d come around to question it. The groundwork for doubt had long been laid.
Ella was raised Seventh Day Adventist. Seventh Day Adventist, Eighth Day Mexican. She’d say this without explaining what it meant or why she thought it was funny. She’s only part Mexican, actually. Her mother’s white as Betty. Her Dad delivered the Mexican in her, but he’s been dead a while now. Unless he’s simply out of the picture. Ella’s non-responsive when I ask her which. I guess he was a real S.O.B. As was my own father—according to my now-dead Mom. Ella knows as much from the parallel source: her Betty White-ish mother, who these days lives in Santa Cruz California with her third husband, the Peruvian dentist.
We visited them out there—Ella for a conference in Sacramento, me to provide company and sample the sun. It’s the one time we pretended in earnest to be married: a ruse for her mother and her fading fundamentalism. We even bought cheap blue rings.
I’d been raised, on the other hand, a Christian Scientist, which relates in no way to Scientology, other than the mutual insistence on calling themselves science, then behaving and thinking in the opposite fashion. They call it Christian Science, but it’s Christian Science Fiction. Though still—and this we all in some way must face—it is deep inside us and will have its say.
That night, as I drove through the desert toward some nameless town, I’ll confess I had returning doubts about the nature of the world. Good Christian Scientists see everything around us as unreal. Material things do not really exist. Crazy literal and void of logic, but sometimes you can stare out a window while traversing a dark desert road and wonder if they might not be on to something.
After the drive into town, whichever town was closest, I turned off Bitches Brew—I’d get the rest on the ride back—and parked our Leghorn on the bleak downtown strip housing the available liquor store. There was a near-midnight quiet in the air. Neon lights blinking; a blue-ish haze; dust stirring up when a car passed.
I entered the liquor store.
When I emerged minutes later, bearing a six, a lean brunette in ratty cutoffs and a half-open blouse approached me, holding a pamphlet or tract.
She asked: did I know Jesus?
I said yes I knew Jesus. Did she know anyone who could score me some weed?
She halted, looked me over with mild suspicion, then told me this guy named Larry sold weed out back of the Seven-Eleven, but he was asleep in his apartment now. She had a little herself though.
I asked if Jesus approved of that.
She replied she was sure he did. That’s what’ll suck out your soul, she said, and tapped at my sixpack of Tecates.
This wayward hippy chick for Jesus. Precious. Smelled like Patchouli and Juicy Fruit gum. How do I get tangled in these sorts of sheets?
Well, this may reek of a toxic self-love but also provides part of the answer: I really am, as Ella puts it, “mysteriously handsome.” I have a dusky, wind-scarred look to me—not everything quite in proportion but this fuses into part of the charm. It’s worked in my favor all thirty-nine of my in-and-out years. Just a fact I’m reporting; no boast. Besides, I’ve still got my Carbuncle, the one I can’t see, and I have to guess that’s what pushes them away. That is, among the women who’ve hosted yours truly—none of them the adventure that was Ella.
I won’t go to detail regarding this joyful spontaneity. We’ll just say me and Precious hit it off. After a quick smoke, we were hiking over seats and settling into the backseat’s leather. And in the midst of all this, the thought came over me: this was again like Lincoln Duncan, from Mr. Simon’s song.
Woman in a parking lot / preaching to a crowd
Singing sacred songs and reading from the bible
Precious hadn’t been preaching, but she was selling Jesus, and this seemed close enough.
Well I told her I was lost / And she told me all about the Pentacost
And I seen that girl as the road to my survival
The thought spiked through me: this Precious might be the first stop on the road to my survival. I had no idea, obviously, if we’d ever have the chemistry to endure but look at her: she was my people. A wounded hippy chick lost on the street. She’d understand. She’d never take me to Bed, Bath and Beyond and ask what I thought of the texture of the towels. She wouldn’t leave me home from black tie pharmaceutical events, worried my table manners might not pass muster. And I bet she’d agree that Level III and its comic book ravings were solely for those who could afford the fantasy.
I tried talking about this after, but Precious, no more than twenty two or three, couldn’t follow or didn’t care to. She told me I seemed smart, “a real intellectual.” I told her I’d only had a year and a half of community college, but I always had a book going. Always. She hmmed at that, as young and lost as ever, saying she only had one book going these days, and of course I knew which and stopped listening.
When I dropped her off at her sponsor’s place, where she was staying for now, I told her I’d call, knowing I wouldn’t. The clock built into Foghorn’s dash revealed two hours had passed. In addition, my cell had died and Ella was no doubt terrified.
Speeding down the single lane back to the campsite, it occurred I should troubleshoot the backseat first. Check for any signs of the transgression.
I pulled over in the dark and searched thoroughly, finding only the rumpled inner silver from a stick of gum, perhaps Juicy Fruit. Doubtful it would have raised suspicion but still I was thankful I checked. Back at the wheel, my gratitude evaporated. I turned the ignition to a horrifying chug, then a whinnying. Foghorn Leghorn refused to start.
I got out and stared at the SUV, then swiveled around and took a look. The deep immense darkness plus nothing or anyone near. My cell’s battery was dead and I had no charger and the contemptible Leghorn needed a jump. Nearly 2 a.m., and it seemed I was trapped there, alone on the margins of a single-laner in Somewhere/Nowhere, New Mexico.
At this point your Hero didn’t feel so heroic. I was trapped in indecision—a rare state. I tried waving down a car or two but no one took. I waited. And waited.
I had no idea what to do. Seemed too far to walk either way. And I knew—as I’d known for some time—it was clearly futile to pray. Even though, in a pretty weird way, I thought I saw God. In my mind’s eye, if that’s possible. And this “God” was an indifferent god, a sort of trust fund god, spoiled rotten with power and grace, gorging himself on his divine all-knowingness. A god pretty much just watching. What he’d ostensibly built, if not spat out, on a lark one morning he’d slept in late after tooting one too many God-sized spleefs.
But I’d thought this way a while already. The image was just a little clearer than usual, brought on by the conditions in extremis. The real revelation came later.
Much later, a little after dawn, after having walked back into town—what took far too long and creeped me to the marrow—I rode shotgun in a giant Triple A pickup back toward where I’d left the rental. I’d called for service from an old school landline in a trucker’s diner. I’d also called Ella, but it went straight to voicemail, where I delivered an excessive and desperate apology. When we found the SUV, the driver put in a new battery, then jumped the engine, charging it all to Ella’s Visa.
Back behind the wheel, I made a beeline for the campsite, which I sensed at once was empty. I got out and had a look. Just the pup tent and two foldable chairs; a well-worn hibachi, the cumbersome cooler, an ashwhite pile where the fire had been. No Ella. No Ella’s bags. No one. The mobile home in the distance was gone gone gone. Just me and the a.m. desert.
Here’s where the notions were challenged. Here. For it all seemed done by design. Fate or kismet or whatever you call it. Some gigantic gentle finger and thumb, flicking us away like lint on a shirtsleeve. Not punishment either. Mostly reward. This thing between us needed to end. We both knew it. The evening’s events only hurried it along. Ella, I knew, was off in the Cougar mobile, on a first bold step toward Level III. God bless her—and more power to her (more power and money than anyone needs).
This was in fact a kind of End Times. The Seventh or Eighth Day of something.
She’d left me the rental and the extra credit card, which she’d allow me the run of for five solid days, persuaded to pity, I’d guess, by my voicemail. I drove nonstop to California, where I thought I might find work on a crew (carpentry, drywall, what have you). It could have been anywhere, actually, but this seemed the proper End Times goodbye.
California had been the last—and only other—vacation I took with Ella. We went to Santa Cruz to visit her mother, who is in spirit and vitality the twin of Betty White. This spry attractive woman of nearly seventy had shown real interest in me. However remember: she thought I was her son-in-law. And for a while there, I really kind of was. She’s far more sophisticated than Ella allows, and had long before cast aside the narrow pinch of her religion. I doubt she’d have cared if we were married or not. I think Ella just wanted to play the role.
Her mother discovered (as we’d long understood) that Ella and I had similar histories. Both our fathers had flown the coop. I’d never seen mine. He’d been a fuck-up painter, an aspiring artist of oil and canvas who mostly drank and lost jobs (carpentry, drywall, etc). He’d charmed my own mother, the wayward Christian Scientist, and insisted they name me Hieronymous, after Mr. Bosch, one of his favorites.
Well, Ella’s mother, when she heard this, asked if I’d ever seen my namesake’s work? I told her I’d seen a few of my father’s as a kid, and his were said to resemble this Bosch, but otherwise, not really. I’d checked him out online once or twice, but whatever. They were like my Dad’s. Weird visions from weapons grade fever dreams, odd but powerful. A giant baby head that was also a boat. A duck impaled on a gleaming knife held by a vaguely malevolent priest.
Ella’s mother stood before her bookshelf, her back to us, me Ella and the silent dentist sitting on the giant cream white sofa. Well her mother thought she saw it and slid out a brick, this mammoth book of paintings. Then she held it before her, glanced back at the shelf, and shrugged at us, seeming surprised.
“Well, I guess I don’t have Bosch,” she said, in her perky Betty White-ish way. “What I have is Bruegel.” And she swiveled the cover toward us.
I sat in their den in Santa Cruz and took in page after page after page. This Bruegel. It floored me. The enormity and chaos and overwrought detail; the people depicted like small helpless animals, inconsequential and adrift in the dark sea of time. We had a simpatico, I think. Mr. Pieter Bruegel understood quite clearly what Hero McBride had only guessed at.
The memory of Ella’s mother and that book of paintings took me back to my true way of thinking. I drove into California on this confirming wave. Though it sure had been nice for a day or two. To think of some old timey eye of design, watching us, keeping tabs, this finger flicking us forward or back.
I allowed the comfort of this thought one last time at an outdoor cafe in Bakersfield, where I’d stopped for refreshment on Ella’s dime. A bountiful brunette pulled up in a purple version of Foghorn Leghorn and parked right next to mine (i.e. – Ella’s). I told her nice ride; she asked was the red one mine? I confirmed as much and she gave me the smile I’ve received for no reason for decades now.
I recognize sunshine that weighs in my favor. I’ve also seen wind and cold sharp rain. The material world is real and hard and persistently unforgiving. But at times we find sympathy and chemical draw and the luck seems sent from a force above. As it seemed to me when this woman, my SUV colleague, re-emerged on the outdoor patio with a steaming latte and that familiar smile. It’d be ages until anyone here saw my Carbuncle. Or I in turn saw theirs. This was the best time, the time to savor, and I thought, as I’d thought in Chicago with Ella, that Bakersfield just might be the place to go ahead and pitch my tent.