Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fiction: Approximating Desired Fervency {serialized: Part 2 of 2}

Approximating Desired Fervency {Part 2 of 2}
{Read Part 1, posted August 24, 2010, by clicking HERE.}

". . .Dave nodded as her day’s drama was sifted through her enthusiasm. “Pretty weird.”. . ."

“Georgia O’Keeffe painted those crosses.” Dave handed her a glass of herbal iced tea. “And those cow bones. They’re an entry to another world, a threshold, like you look through the cow pelvis and you’re inside a whole new vision.”

“Well I don’t know what the crosses mean, I mean to me here and now.” Estie toyed with possibilities. Crosses were big stuff. Cow bones, hey, an entry, whatever, but crosses? “They’re an ancient symbol.” She knocked herself out.

“Jung believed in poltergeists and in each person’s connection to tribal times.”

“Like Joseph Campbell.”

“Watered down, Campbell is Jung watered-down.” He reached over to squirt lemon in her tea. “For Freud, the tribe served as a metaphor for aspects and parts of the mind. Our fathers are brothers, but they come from different tribes, don’t you think?”

“I think they date back to a tribe that foraged for nuts and truth.”

Dave dropped the lemon in her glass; a drop splashed on her cheek and he dabbed at it. “Do you think there’s a connection between Dostoyevsky’s compulsive gambling and casinos bringing in money for reservations?” Dave frowned. “See, I don’t know about you as a programmer. How fulfilling can that be?” He wasn’t the first to doubt the satisfactions technology did and didn’t offer. She felt challenged, but decided to wait and see how things turned out before reacting.

The next morning at breakfast Estie said a new direction was needed for the day’s drive. “Oh? Hey, no problem.” Dave balanced a hard-boiled egg on a spoon. It fell on the comforter. He lifted it and started peeling, taking care the shell fell to the cup. Estie took care with her two eggs and two pieces of toast with Knott’s strawberry jam she’d brought from L.A. “Take the road to Madrid.” Dave’s pronunciation of the town’s name was Anglo, Estie told him a bit tersely. “That’s how it’s said: Maa-drid.” Dave defended himself. “Craftspeople live there. They took over a ghost town.”

She tried it. The drive out of Santa Fe took her east and south. She was still in New Mexico: The sky was all over, but the views were less vivid. Madrid was tiny. There was an eerie feel, as if the ghosts wouldn’t leave. Why would they want to? Live people paid good money to live in northern New Mexico. Estie watched a long-hair stain glass, bought a leaded sun in two shades of yellow for Dave to hang in his window. The long-hair escorted her back to the car.

“Those hills are sacred to the Indians.” He pointed to the patches of mountains she’d have on her right driving back to Santa Fe. He was a stoic fellow, maybe a white guy who beat a drum; clearly one who listened to a different drummer. She smiled at his battered VW van: peace symbols, feathers dangling from the rear view mirror and a bumper sticker for the Dead.

“Just keep trucking, man, that’s all you can do.”

He wasn’t wrong. Estie drove back to Santa Fe slowly, noticing now and then an abandoned shack. At least fifty years ago there’d been working mines along this road. A long time before that there were no whites, only Natives. She spotted an entrance to an old mine, a waiting egress to the mountain, and needed to take a look. She didn’t know why she was being so bold, but she remembered yesterday’s quest and defeat.

Walking up the slight grade, Estie reached the blank hole surrounded by decaying scaffolding. She was transfixed; the cave before her was a mystery, and maybe even holy. Holy? Estie thought, “This is a holy mystery, and I don’t even know what that means.” Worried her presence would be construed as a violation, she moved quickly. Had this been a movie, she would have been the first to yell for the heroine to ‘Stop! It doesn’t matter: your mother, your honor, your fiancé—forsake them all. Nothing could be worth the risk.’ But this was her life.

She stepped into the mountain, paused, stepped, paused. This worked seven more times and only that much because her solitary procession became rhythmic. She was deep in the cave. Wherever she looked she saw nothing, the absence of light, and what she felt was the absence of warmth. The air was clammy. Her skin was stuck to its own sweat. Estie stopped being plucky. She swirled, as scared cattle stampede, instinctively. Surrounding her was black: cold, dull, black. Mystery excited fear. She closed her eyes. “What the hell am I doing?” She was alone on the earth. “Bullshit.” Then Estie heard a faint noise, stinging as a bat’s bite. “Yes?” No answer. She couldn’t think of a better question and figured she’d better get moving, and directed herself. “Run.” Estie scraped her arm on deep-freeze stone.

“Stick to Santa Fe tomorrow.” Dave pressed his fingers methodically on the back of her hand that night. “You’re being pursued.”

Her head hurt. “I repudiate that.”

“Could be something in you, could be something beyond you.”

She looked to the ceiling and taunted, “Hello, God, this is Estie. Could you speak up?” Her voice was charged which kept her anxiety at bay. Dave had assumed his ha-ha-big-joke expression.

“God?” Dave abandoned her hand. “My cousin is talking about God? Did you find God in a programming algorithm or in that cave today? I found God in the Moscow train station where Anna Karenina threw herself on the tracks.” Dave’s arms stretched out as if he were Icarus about to take flight. “Nabakov spent an entire class session diagramming the scene.”

“Would he have been scared in the cave?”

“Nabakov could walk in and out of the cave whenever he wanted.” Dave’s arms had humbly lowered. “You’re the one who’s having these experiences, Estie.”

“Yea, but...” But why?

“Yea, but yourself. You’re lucky you know. All this in three days?” He fussed with a julep with fresh mint and rose petals. Dave was more concerned with the accouterment to a drink than the drink itself. “Let a person get in a word edgewise. Let a person have their own thoughts.” He was tired.

“I mean, sure, spooky things are happening, and I know there are big-time powers in the world.” Her learned cousin made Estie feel guilty.

“You say that, but you’re really a cynic. You say your heart stopped? Think about that. When they call New Mexico the land of enchantment, they don’t mean evil.” Dave tapped her third eye; something he’d first done in Tomorrowland when Estie’d asked how Walt Disney thought he could know the future. “At least not the tourist industry. I think something amazing is happening to you.”


“What causes a heart to stop?”

What came to mind was sadness and lack of purpose. Estie who could program her way through a computer’s complications was watching another Estie searching for answers without solving anything. “Hey, Dave, bud, you don’t have to tell me something’s happening.”

Dave looked away as was his custom when his feelings were hurt. Then they were eye-to-eye. “You have a romantic soul, her dear, so do I. Hang in. You’ll be back in at your computer soon, if that’s what you want, but you’ll be thinking about northern New Mexico, trust me.”

“I wouldn’t mind getting laid,” she blurted, deciding she didn’t like lectures at all.

“Segue into the cosmos!”

“Maybe I’m at the merging of sex and religion.”

“So spend your days in bars. Give me a break, Estie, that’s not you.”

Single people with decent jobs, bank accounts, VCRs, reach for the stars for ways to make their lives more complete. They brainstorm, couch hidden desires. Dave knew that. But he asked for his car keys back and went to bed without finishing his julep.

On her last full day in Santa Fe, Estie stayed in sight of civilization. She strolled the plaza, visited a museum and window shopped. She ate a tasty green chile enchilada, had two desserts, flan and chocolate torte with raspberry essence, and trekked up to Canyon Road to see more art galleries and shops. Stumbling on the threshold of a small shop with santos, carved saints, Estie remembered the Miraculous Staircase. Dave had sent her a post card. It was in the oldest church in the U.S.A., next to which had been built a hotel, L.A.-style. The church cost only a quarter to visit. For that price Estie heard a recorded voice boom out the story of the mysterious carpenter who had journeyed to the Southwest and built the stairway. From what she’d seen on the postcard, the circular stair was the kind of curve an engineer would understand, but it amazed the sisters of old. She tried to envision the scene, this stranger appearing as needed, proof positive for the sisters of their good faith.

The recorded, loud narration continued. She half-listened, readying herself to see the stairway. The narrator stopped and Estie enjoyed, in the silence, anticipation of wonder.

“And then the music came over the speaker. It was the ‘Theme from Exodus.’ Sorry, Cousin, but I laughed.” Estie poured herself a margarita from Dave’s Mexican blue glass pitcher and set it back on the floor. “I mean, there I was, ready to believe, and on comes this hokey music. I saw the Israelites trudging up the stairs, all twelve tribes humming ‘this land is yours, God gave this land to yo-o-o-o-u.’”

Dave didn’t join in with her laughter. “What is it you want?”

“Sex, drugs and rock and roll?” Noting Dave’s drawn lips, she quickly added, “Maybe to live in the Middle Ages.”

“See?” He was triumphant. “There was faith in the Middle Ages. The Grail, the Crusades.”

“There was death, the flip-side. Plague. And 100,000 Jews killed as the knights marched through Europe on their way to the Holy Lands.”

Dave brushed his fingers across his wild grass crew cut. “Shit...”

“I’m sorry. There was faith.”

“I think the point of it is to look for the silver lining. It may not be much, but it’s something. You’re looking for something.” Dave’s eyes narrowed to slits. “What are you looking for?”

The liquor felt warm and encouraging; she said, “Drama. Rebirth. A new cast to my life. The kind of thing that happens to characters in novels.”

“Yes!” Dave looked proud as a parent.

“Okay, I don’t understand, but I feel intense here, kind of Celtic, and I want to do it, feel it, rise out of my own ashes. I can’t do this stuff in L.A.” She believed a buff body was the city’s only redemption.

“And,” Dave demanded, “have you sufficiently approximated your desired fervency?”

Estie sipped the margarita deliberately, tongued the salt, stalled for time, made a mental macro of Dave’s words, beginning with sufficiently and ending with fervency, let it repeat until she felt confident she’d gotten the gist, then plunked down her glass next to the pitcher and demanded, “Are you kidding? With a Hollywood soundtrack as spiritual advisor?” She snorted. “Are you crazy?”

“When I don’t take you seriously, I’m crazy. When I’m serious, I’m crazy. When I’m supportive, I’m crazy. Guess I’m crazy.” Dave shrugged.

God-damned back-and-forth me, she thought. “Let’s take a walk,” she repentantly offered. “We can see one of those sunsets you keep writing me about.”

She believed her cousin Dave to be one of the most easy-going and forgiving humans on earth and she wasn’t wrong; he hugged her and handed her Aunt Jeanette’s throw against the possibility of chill night air, or maybe for comfort. They walked up Camino Cruz Blanca. Estie watched the dust rise as she sloughed along in her sandals; it blanketed her toes. She felt like a kid. “Am I frustrating?”

“Well.” Dave chose his words. “You’ve always been this way. You say you want something, then you push it away when it gets close.”

“I know.”


His voice brought her up, caused her to raise her head. The mountains behind them, the Sangre de Cristos, were bathed in red spun from the sun. Layers of color from an endlessly roiling sun hung over the valley and the mountains to the west. They were in an amphitheater, a vast radiant glen.

“That’s why I left L.A.,” he said. “I was looking for something, not just a career, something.”

“And have you found it?”

“That’s what living in Santa Fe is all about. This place is it. How can you not be spiritual when you have all this to look at?”

“Should I move here?”

“What are you looking for?”

“To wake up feeling happy.”

“Well.” Dave placed his hands on his hips, bent forward slightly and slowly rolled and twisted his trunk to the left. “There are no guarantees for that, ever, that I know. I settle for going to bed happy. I have some power over my attitude.”

“And your dreams can stir up whatever they want to?”

He rolled to the right. “I want them to stir me up.”

“Dave.” She put her hands on her hips. In her case it was arms akimbo rather than Hatha Yoga. “I want to go back to the cross or the cave or the staircase. Would you come with me?”

Dave straightened up. “Estie, it’s not necessarily safe to go places in the back country at night. The old Spanish don’t really want us messing things up.”

“They won’t mess up anything, we’ll just look. Come on, it’s such a beautiful night. And you want me to have an experience. Please.”

“Forget the cave—brrrrr. And the staircase is locked at night. The countryside, north, a cross. A quick look, we’re back here.” Dave capitulated and led the way down Cruz Blanca to his car. Moonlight cloaked the countryside as, an hour later—they agreed they needed more than lime and tequila in their stomachs and heated blue corn tamales—they sped along the back road in Dave’s car, Dave at the wheel. “Keep your eyes open,.” he suggested. “I don’t exactly have cross sites mapped in my mind.”

After winding roads and great silence, in the moonlight, Estie saw one on a rise in the distance. It was short, maybe two feet tall, made of wood as weathered as an abandoned shack, unembellished, a symbol that went beyond the meaning assigned to it. Estie wasn’t Christian-Christian, but she’d studied classical art and listened to classical music, and had a love of faith—not the content but the activity—through the art. “It’s a person, you know, before they used crosses to kill and scare people, it was a person, I’m sure of it, a basic representation of the human, arms outstretched, legs straight. They intersect each other as all things so, eventually. Ah. It means life, not death. But what do I know, I’m just going on my feelings.”

Dave’d stopped the car, and Estie urged him towards the wooden cross; she couldn’t stop talking. “We’re not alone, not anywhere. That’s what scared me about the cave, was that I wasn’t alone, but then ironically, I wanted to be alone at the staircase, but it was all wrong, with the music and what not. I mean, you never have to be alone in L.A. because of the millions of people, literally millions of people, but it’s hard at times, you know. You remember.”

The stark cross loomed before them, oblivious, dark, loaded with love and fears, and wisely, perversely, content to be a source for both. Estie reached out her hand.

“Estie,” Dave whispered, “you don’t touch a cross.”

“How do you know, they sent you to Unitarian Sunday School for a year?”

“They thought I should learn something about world religions.”

“I’m going to touch it, touch it, just...” She touched the cross. Her index finger pressed against the weathered, splintered, gray wood, she had to lean over to do so. There was no Hollywood magic, nor was there any religious anointing. She began debating herself: I’m getting a vision, no I’m not, yes I am, well, maybe I’m getting something, no, yes, and, why did I come here anyway: why come to Santa Fe, to Dave, to the cross. She said: “I did it, Dave, I touched it, I touched the cross.”

His eyes widened and he looked around to see if they were being watched “How does it feel?”

“It’s not a feeling, it’s an action.” Estie reached up and placed her index finger on his third eye, pushing him back towards the car. “Let’s go.”

Then a gunshot. They’d heard gunshots in L.A. They froze, grabbed each other and crouched. They tried to see into the night.

“Do we run, do we stay, and who the hell is shooting at us?” Dave’s voice crouched in his throat.

“I think running is the best choice.” It might not have been but they did it, hustled their way to the car. When they were close, Dave grabbed Estie and shoved her in, then raced around to the driver’s side and threw himself in.

“Start the car.” Estie was pounding on his arm. Dave tried, and of course the engine didn’t turn over, and the engine flooded. All the while, their hearts were racing. The lives of Dostoyevsky, Jung, Georgia O’Keeffe flashed before Dave’s learned eyes. For a brief moment, Estie thought the end of the world had come, that maybe the earth’s fate had been hinging on her, on her believing in something, and here, finally, she’d reached out to faith, and signaled to all the horsepeople of the Apocalypse so they could gallop by. Her brain turned over this way and that. So did the car’s engine. They were back on the road to Santa Fe.

“You know.” Through the window, Estie watched shrubs rush by. “If anyone had wanted to hurt us, they could have.”

Dave gripped the wheel.

“So they just don’t want us back. I shouldn’t have touched the cross.”

Dave rubbed his forehead where Estie’d touched him. “No, they don’t want us here.”

“You’re probably right.” She was from L.A., the center of the world, and assumed she belonged everywhere. “But that’s too bad, because this is the first time I felt, I don’t know, connected. A Native American wouldn’t have shot, we weren’t on their land.”

Dave looked down at her. “Oh?”

“We weren’t on a reservation. You think an Indian shot at us?” Estie squinted at the countryside.

“I, I don’t think an Indian shot at us, I think it could have been anyone, I think it could have been someone with Spanish blood, a penitente, that sort.”

“White people have been known to pack guns. Maybe it was a realtor. Now I can see why people find this place so spiritual.”

“Because of the danger?” Dave glanced to the rear view mirror. “Sometimes I think there’s a knife over this city. There’s a racial divide.”

Her adrenaline kept pumping, and it took a while to calm down. Once home, Dave made her a cup of Sleepytime tea and asked if she minded him turning on his tiny TV. It sounded good to her; artificial colors and foolish laughter were just what she needed. They laughed at the stupidity of their hometown, at sit-coms, and serialized movies about stressed-out Americans. Finally, they felt revived and safe. Dave turned off the set. They were tucked in. Dave asked how she was doing.

“Good, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

“What’s that?”

“Following through.”

“Not letting yourself stay so sarcastic you keep yourself outside of everything.” He asked if she thought she’d get religion.

“Not like some people,” she replied. “I’m not meaning to be sarcastic,” she hurriedly added.

“We need something, we’re not above it.” He giggled. “The problem is where to get it.”

“Uh...” Estie fell asleep before she could complete her thought. In the morning, she wasn’t necessarily happy, so much as crammed full of conjecture. There actually was more to life than what she’d been living, but of course, she knew that when she left L.A. She’d known that for years. She wasn’t sure what to do about it, but, as she looked down at the Southwest on her flight home, she scribbled on a postcard to mail to Dave from LAX, using a pen she found at the bottom of her pack. The pen was stamped with her employer’s logo. Estie clicked it a few times, then, quickly, without thinking, scrawled, “Beauty and mystery are entering my life.”

"Approximating Desired Fervency" by Sarah Sarai was published in South Dakota Review in 2003.
Artwork from

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