Issue 19 / Fall 2019
The jeep bucks against the highs and lows of desert sand. Jake is gripping the wheel and turning into curves only he can sense. The way he would often drive from time to time through their long marriage. Always the one who is carsick, Sally grips the front seat, hoping she won’t vomit. She tightens the belt across her chest while their Arab guide in the passenger seat yells his instructions.
Out of fear, she wonders. But she’s probably the only one who is afraid. The young man, Ahmed, is just twenty, and at that age— Her thoughts change when her husband hits a trough that propels the jeep into the air. They land on the other side with a hard thump.
“Better than snow driving,” he calls out.
“Must watch the tires,” Ahmed tells him.
“Jake,” Sally tries from behind her husband’s ear. “The tires are vulnerable.”
“Nonsense. Made for off-roading just like this!”
Nothing will stop him. She can forget any pleas for common sense. The desert slides by. Hard macadam of limestone now under the jeep. An ancient riverbed, Ahmed instructs. Once filled with so much water and life that fossils, even pieces of whales, can be found sitting right on the surface—waiting for American tourists to declare ownership of this bit of Africa. This part of Morocco at the very end of paved roads and at the beginning of the Sahara. That magic, that myth, that ever-expanding desert.
She’s sixty now, but Jake is only fifty-two, and both of them feel young enough to dismiss that current fad of creating a list before the end of personal time.
“Live until you die,” Jake always says.
When his company offered the trip to the highest producer over the six-month period, Jake had taken on the challenge. “Read up, Sally. We’re going to the Sahara. I’m going to put those plane tickets in your lap.”
After he won, he wouldn’t wait to book the trip. “We’re leaving next week. I got time off and you can make your own schedule. Have someone else show houses for ten days. Who cares what sale you miss?”
He did this often, of course, dismissing real estate as just another thing older married women did when their husbands made more than enough. Those women sold houses simply to keep busy. No need to explain that she was a psychologist to her clients, offering advice on everything from couch placement to their marriages. Or that so many deals fell through, she often felt she was wasting her life like some Sisyphus pushing uphill rocks against faster, prettier, younger agents that worked so diligently because they didn’t have a Jake to pay the bills.
She would sigh often, and wonder what had happened to her ambitious self who once wanted to change the world. Now she sits in the back of that jeep, reminding herself to be grateful like the self-help pundits advised.
“Can we stop, just for a moment?” she asks. “Can we search for fossils?”
Jake brakes too fast. “There’s time, Ahmed? I wanted to be at the camp well before sunset. It might take hours to climb the dunes.” He glances at her in the rear view as if to insist that she would be the one who needs hiking time.
“Madame will enjoy the search,” Ahmed answers.
Only Sally and Ahmed get out of the car. Her husband has decided this is a perfect time to puff on a cigar. All he needs is a Panama hat, Sally thinks, then laughs, wrong country, wrong image. The cigar smoke is out of place here on an ancient riverbed. Better the scent of camel dung.
They bend over and walk slowly, diligent in their search. Ahmed is beautiful in the sunlight. His mother—Arab, he has explained, his father from much farther south, adding darker skin to the mix. His face is sculptural, his lean body dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, his hair locked like some young American’s; he looks cool and hip. Occasionally guiding tourists into the desert toward an upscale Berber-style camp is his only job. He speaks French well, but just a little English. He says all the time, Madame, please teach me your language. But he never asks Jake.
Now his graceful fingers hold out a stone for her. The outside is rough, but somehow the center smooth, cut away by some force as if the ancient animal wanted to be found. A darker smudge of black against the gray stone. Segmented, one-half inch long. Anvil-headed. Three segments, a center line like a backbone.
“Trilobite,” Ahmed says. “Very, very old. One of the first creatures on Earth.”
She rubs her fingers over the raised fossil. What will remain of me? she wonders darkly. Dozens of contracts without her name. Two children, the perfect combination of boy, then girl. No one’s married yet, so she can’t see her eyes on a new child’s face or imagine her genes flowing into the future. And kids marry so late these days. She may never know if grandchildren come.
She senses her husband’s restlessness. Before he starts calling her name, she moves toward the jeep. “Thanks, Ahmed. It’s a treasure.” The young man smiles, perfect white teeth against his dark skin.
The dunes move beneath them. They’ve climbed for two hours, solid ground falling away, replaced by sliding sand that changes with each footstep and each gust of wind.
“No terra firma here,” Jake laughs.
Ahmed grabs her arm as she stumbles trying to reach a peak that only seems constant. He carefully helps her sit down and points west to where the sun threatens to disappear.
Arab children join them and take turns rolling down the dunes. Their laughter reminds Sally of her own children on sleds when they would find a snowfall one great adventure. Jake stands beside her and calls to the sun.
“I’m the king of the world.” He laughs as if he’s the first to piggyback that particular joke. “Find me here,” he yells and thrusts his arms overhead, summoning any gods that might be listening. “I’m more than I seem,” he calls.
“Jake, sit down,” she tries, “or you’ll be rolling like those kids.”
“You think I can’t handle myself,” he challenges. His voice is brittle and hard.
“Madame is only concerned,” Ahmed says.
“Don’t need you or anyone to tell me,” Jake replies.
Sally and Ahmed are silent. She watches the sun disappear behind those sand ridges. Listens to the children play. Sees their father come to collect them. Ahmed motions that it’s time to descend. Already the air is colder; the sand that hits her legs releases the heat that seemed baked in. Already she longs for the tent and the pile of quilts that wait. Ahmed has promised to check for scorpions that might have climbed in before her.
“You go ahead,” Jake insists. “I may wait here for the sun.”
She wants to convince her husband to come down, but Ahmed takes her arm again. They descend without Jake, silently kicking up sand. Jake is still standing when she looks back. A small black mark against the darkening sky. In the darkness, only Ahmed’s breathing reminds her that there is someone else alive in the world.
Alone in her bed, she reflects. All day there’d been a new Jake. At an oasis where they’d stopped, he was almost cruel to the young girl who had appeared. They were studying a basin filled with two feet of water—that miracle here in the continuous desert. It was the only water visible, but all around, palm trees grew strong and green, their fronds providing shade over the tadpoles that skimmed the water beneath. A man was building a hut from mud bricks that had baked for days in the sun. He and his son drank sweet tea and ate dates throughout the day. It must have been his daughter who appeared. Perhaps six years old, with a dirty skirt falling to the ground and a torn headscarf tied under her chin. In her hands, beaded necklaces. One a lizard dangled in blue, black, and red. Sally pressed five euros into the girl’s hand.
“You don’t need that junk,” her husband insisted. “And you don’t need to pay for it. They’re just waiting for the tourists.”
“And this tourist wishes to purchase this lovely lizard.”
The little girl smiled, showing the gaps waiting for adult teeth.
“Stupid woman,” Jake insisted, walking away.
Her lips formed his name. To chastise, to plead. But he had turned his body from her, considering some anger that filled him.
Now alone in the tent, Sally wonders. Three signs, she tells herself. The impatience, the anger, then the real hostility. Something is changing. She feels tears behind her lids as her breathing quickens. Something is happening. But there is no answer before she sleeps, and none in the morning when Jake appears at the bottom of the dune, his hair filled with sand, his lips crusted with thirst, his eyes religious.
“Just found the truth,” he mutters, taking out the jeep keys and settling into the driver’s seat. “You ready?” he asks and turns over the engine.
They left Ahmed in M’Hamid, and took the highway to the airport. The young man had taken her hand. “I hope to see you again, madame,” he said. Then, “I will pray for you.” His eyes glanced at Jake for a moment and then turned back toward the desert.
In the back are the purchases they made when Jake was still smiling at her: a handmade rug and a small table, painted the intense Majorelle blue. It is the color of her eyes, he laughed only two weeks ago, when he kissed her softly.
“Nonsense,” she insisted. “Mine are only gray.”
“That’s how I see them,” he repeated, somehow hurt that she hadn’t believed the compliment.
“I think the rug will fit in my checked bag,” she offers now as Jake looks for the car rental office. “But the table might be a problem.”
“Why do you always talk about problems?”
They drop off the car, easily find the check-in, and make their way to airport screening. The table has been padded in bubble plastic and taped beyond recognition. Underneath exists a lost moment of pleasure.
But it slides through the screener easily enough.
“Will this be all right to take on the plane?” she asks. Jake has accused her of being too careful, too needy of approval. Too unable to break any rules.
“Of course,” Jake answers for the official. She watches him slyly pass a twenty-euro note across the scanner.
“Of course,” the man answers.
And, of course, the table isn’t all right on the plane. Jake tries the overhead bin, swearing that Moroccan planes are deficient. He tries under the seat in front of them. None of the seats are assigned, and the handful of passengers are boarded purposely through the rear of the plane. Attendants insist they all sit in the back, instead of scattering throughout.
Jake has already buckled the table into the seat next to him. His eyes are defiant.
The plane taxies to the runway when the attendant sees the table. “No, sir,” he says. “That must go in luggage.”
“Too late,” Jake answers. “It’s flying right here, next to me.”
“I will turn the plane around and put it out the door,” the attendant insists.
The passengers watch her husband. No one seems relaxed, squeezed in the rear of the plane and forced to witness this escalating fight.
“Jake,” Sally tries. “He’s in charge. Maybe he can find a spot for the table. Oh, I don’t care,” she says now. “I just want to get home.”
“We paid for this,” Jake says, standing. “We paid to have it wrapped. Security passed it. The whole plane is empty—so find a place for it.” His voice is louder than she has ever heard. Louder than when he might lose his temper and yell at an employee. Or at someone stupid over the phone. Louder than when his father was ill, and the doctor couldn’t offer a solution to the problem of death.
“You will move up here, sir,” the attendant insists.
“And I’m taking my table,” Jake shouts to the almost empty plane.
Sally watches her husband move forward, fuss with the table, and place himself heavily in his seat. As soon as allowed, he pushes back on his seat to lie back, thinks for a moment, and adjusts the other seat for the table.
What are the rules in this new world? She’s surprised they haven’t taxied back to the gate to dump both the table and her husband on the ground. Haven’t people been dragged off planes for less? But the plane glides easily now.
She asks the attendant: “Can I move forward, please? To sit with my husband?”
Once Sally sits beside him, Jake is busy with his cell phone. “You see what idiots they are? Who’s the customer, anyway? And they think they’ll get my business again. I’m going to write letters of complaint. More than one, I tell you. You’ll see.”
“It’s a long flight,” she tries. “Maybe we should try to sleep.” If he sleeps, she tells herself, he’ll be quiet. Maybe we’ll get off this plane without any more trouble.
But Jake is too busy to sleep. He films the back of the plane. “See how they’ve stuffed the passengers like this.” He takes pictures of a bottle of liquid soap he’s carried with him—much larger than the required one ounce. “See what they let me carry? Security should have found this.” And when the steward moves forward with a young blonde woman, Jake immediately films the couple walking toward the cockpit.
He whispers, “She’s going to the pilot. Watch this.” He zooms past the rows of empty seats to focus on the locked door, which opens to admit the woman. The steward closes the door quickly and returns to the cabin.
Jake almost trips him as he passes. “I’ve got it,” he says, loud again. “He’s got a woman in there with him. Maybe she’s servicing all the crew. Who’s flying the plane? That’s what I want to know.”
“You are not allowed to film in flight,” the attendant says, indignant.
Down the row, the other passengers have added their voices. They yell: Quiet and Shut him up already! And, He’s dangerous!
“If you will not be quiet and follow the rules,” the steward threatens, “I will call the others to help tie you to the chair. Do you understand?”
On the loudspeaker, the pilot welcomes his passengers. He lists the cruising speed and estimated time of arrival; the weather, he insists, will be clear all the way to New York.
Suddenly, her husband is quiet. Like the stone Sally carries in her pocket. He is unmoving. Almost static, frozen. Only his breathing reveals that he is still alive.
She wants to sleep but won’t. Six hours to review, to consider. She will text his doctor. And her best friend. Better not to tell the children until Jake has been seen.
But she knows. Maybe an ambulance will be called when they reach the airport. Maybe even the police. What had she missed in the days before the trip? Was there a break somewhere in the thread that kept them whole? How has she failed her husband?
In the days to come, there will be tests and exams, imaging and discussions. Then at some moment, there will be understanding. An awareness of what has changed and what those changes will mean. The children will come home. The friends will call. She will organize and delegate, discuss and handle—though this is not another house to sell, another client to pacify.
And in the end, she will think of Ahmed and his dunes. Of the little girl with her beaded necklaces. She might even go back so she can again watch the sun disappear and reappear with the certainty she will have lost. Perhaps she will search for another fossil. Perhaps the desert will cocoon her once again in that perfect silence.
Phyllis Carol Agins has long found inspiration in Philadelphia, PA. Two novels, a children’s book, and an architectural study of synagogues and churches were all published during her years there. Recent short fiction has appeared in over forty publications including Art Times, Eclipse, Lilith Magazine, The Minetta Review, Soundings East, Pennsylvania English, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Verdad, Westview, and Women Arts Quarterly Journal. She now divides her time between Philly and Nice, France, adding the Mediterranean rhythms to her sources of inspiration. She has just finished Finding Maurice, a novel about Algeria and France during the 1960’s. Please follow her career on her website.