by Deb Jannerson
They met when a mutual ex-lover pushed Gail’s semi-conscious body into the backseat of Harvey’s cab.
“Whoa, is she--I mean, is everything--” Harvey fell silent when her eyes met the harried brunette’s.
“Oh. Hi,” Harvey offered weakly. “Anna, right?” As if she could forget.
“Um, yeah. And this is Gail.” Anna gave a cursory nod at the young woman now sliding down the taxi’s leather interior. “She passed out. Some diabetes thing, I guess. Take her to the ER.” The passenger’s head lolled as Anna slammed the car door.
“Wait. Aren’t you coming with her?” But Anna was already hurrying back down the Joshua Tree Trail. Heat shimmered off the blacktop lot between them. Harvey’s chest filled with a sudden rage, surprising in its weight. “I’m not an AMBULANCE!” she yelled, struggling to lean out the passenger’s side window, but Anna was gone.
Harvey passed the groggy girl a water bottle from her cup holder. It seemed like the right thing to do, the move a normal person would make. She just hoped Gail wouldn’t notice the seal was broken already. The girl stirred, reached, and took a long pull. Maybe she doesn’t care about germs. She’s in a cab.
“Hey… Gail,” Harvey attempted weakly, adjusting her name tag. “Can you hear me?”
“Do you want to go to the ER?”
“Ugh.” Gail rubbed her temples. “I guess I should. Right? I bet it was just the heat, though.”
Harvey turned the key and plugged the hospital’s address into her tracker. “Your, ah, friend said--”
“I know what she said. I wish I didn’t.” Growing more alert, Gail dug through her bulky leather purse. “I’ve been type one diabetic for fifteen years and never passed out. It’s not about that.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“On a hike?” Gail sounded torn between a laugh and a yell.
“Hey, sorry. I’ve got to ask.” Harvey lifted her hands briefly in a gesture of surrender. “Most of the time, when people are sick in my cab…”
“Sure, I get it. No, I am not drinking alcohol at 2 PM in the damn desert. Put it on the record.”
Harvey signaled to turn back onto the main highway, such as it was. The Yucca Gas sign was deteriorating at the edges, but its surface shown, freshly wiped. “So how did you meet Anna?”
“We have classes together.”
Harvey hadn’t known Anna was a student. They had never gotten that far. “Where at?”
It took Harvey a second to digest that her passenger wasn’t just describing the landscape. “That’s a school?” she asked, eying the blood orange-colored hills in the distance.
“It’s a community college. We’re both studying computer science. Actually, I’ve been in the business for years. But, you know, gotta get that degree.” Gail fished in her bag some more and came up with a red phone. She looked at the screen, searching for something that wasn’t there, and dropped it back in. “I can’t believe she just left.”
Harvey ducked outside of the rear view mirror’s frame, just in case Gail looked up and caught her cringing. “That might have been because of me.”
Now she did look up. Harvey resisted the urge to turn on the radio, to escape the silence. It was too obvious. “Oh,” Gail said finally. “I understand.” She shifted until her eyes could meet Harvey’s in the mirror again. “Anna and I have only gone out a few times all year. It’s not like I don’t know she’s got a life.” Gail shrugged, tired. “So where did you meet her?”
“At the dyke bar.”
“Down in Palm Springs?”
“Is there another?”
Gail smiled and looked out the window. “Not that I know of.”
They passed another long stretch of concrete. Jagged patches of weeds that had thrived in the spring now hung dry and lifeless among crumbles of cement.
“Here we are. Want me to walk you inside?”
“No.” Gail clicked open her seat belt. When had she even fastened it? “I feel fine now. But thoroughness demands that I go give them more money.”
“Right. Speaking of…” Harvey coughed and looked at the ticker, which read $13.49.
Gail blinked, gave a short sigh, and put both hands in her huge purse. “Of course. I’m paying. I guess that’s why she didn’t call an Uber.”
Harvey clicked her tongue. “Don’t speak the name of the beast.”
Gail rolled her eyes, but the corner of her mouth turned up involuntarily. Handing Harvey a folded twenty, she raised her eyebrows in farewell and hopped out.
Harvey watched the girl stroll through the sliding doors with surprising grace. It was a weirdly generous tip for an unplanned ride.
Putting the cab back in Drive, she scanned the sprawl ahead of her, looking for a place to idle until headquarters called her with another assignment. She would be perfectly fine in this tiny room, with her glove compartment of snacks and magazines, making small talk with the rare person who still patronized taxis. Until her double shift was over. Until she had to go home.
Before she had officially been dismissed from law school, Harvey had been called into an ovular room to explain why attending lectures had suddenly become impossible. Harvey’s body reacted the way it had for the previous month, with a locked throat, spinning head, and tear glands that seemed independent from her eyes. The campus psychologist had pushed up her glasses and declared depression and fear of open spaces.
Living with Aunt Christine would provide a change of scenery, may even provide some insight into how Harvey could pick up the pieces and keep marching. There had been a year in Christine’s own twenties, one the family never discussed anymore, that had been filled with whispers of sanatoriums and nervous breakdowns.
Now, Christine was a model in chipper contentedness. She had teased Harvey mercilessly since the night she had brought Anna home, the only night all year she had brought anyone home. Where ya goin’, Harvey? Off to see Anna? This was a wacky aunt’s way of showing support for the young queer. But since Harvey was never off to see anyone, the routine was more sad than sweet.
California. Harvey had brandished the news as failure’s ultimate silver lining, a Golden State. And it had worked. To her Midwestern law school cronies, California was a summerland of beach parties, Gay Pride, and frothy teenage dramas starring actors in their thirties.
No one knew enough to ask where Yucca Valley was, exactly. No one considered that half of southern California was more cactus than palm tree. The flat vastness of the terrain made her feel, at once, exposed and insignificant. Mountains bordered the landscape in every direction, just far enough away to not look real, just far enough away to not matter. Local government appeared to stave off existential crises with endless developments of strip malls.
There was a time when Harvey would have enjoyed making fun of this place.
Throughout the long night, Harvey’s thoughts returned to graceful Gail. She considered searching for her on Facebook, just out of concern, of course. But that wasn’t what cab drivers did. From a normal person’s point of view, that would probably be creepy.
Harvey idled in front of a ramshackle house late in the evening. She squinted at the tracker as her passenger opened the back door. “So you’re going to… Pioneertown?”
“Yeah.” The woman’s high voice was poised on the edge of a laugh. “It’s this old--oh. It’s you.”
Harvey spun around. Her heart was beating faster, though she didn’t know why.
Gail situated herself in the bucket seat, balancing her oversized bag on her lap. Even in the dark, she looked much livelier than the last time they had met.
“Hey.” It came out with a croaking edge. Harvey considered asking after Gail’s health, but the girl seemed obviously fine. Is it ruder to ask, or not to?
Defaulting to silence, Harvey ignored the air between them as she turned the cab onto an especially narrow road. Sulfur lamps made yellow halos on the empty roads. Within minutes, they were bordered by unmanicured sand, dotted with greenery that wasn’t fighting through concrete.
“So, um. Pioneertown?” Harvey’s tracker said they were a mere quarter of the way there, but she already didn’t recognize their surroundings. Sickly streetlamps installed by the half-mile were swarming with mosquitoes, the only sign of life.
“Right. It’s an old outdoor movie set.”
Harvey forgot her shyness and spun around. “Out here? Wait, this isn’t an urban legend, is it? Are you following a treasure map?”
“No, it exists. Big Roadside America favorite, a wooden ghost town. I thought it’d be my secret spot when I decided to go to school out here. Now I’m three weeks from graduation, and I still haven’t seen it.”
“And you’re going alone?”
“I couldn’t interest my housemates.”
Harvey considered this. “Are you still seeing Anna?” She had to ask.
Gail scoffed. “Pretty sure you witnessed the end of that.”
They drove under a wide, wooden sign. PIONEERTOWN, it announced in crooked hand-painted letters. Two curves more, and suddenly, there were buildings.
Harvey put the cab in Park on a packed dirt lot in front of Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. The storage sheds and powerlines informed them that this was a functional abode, at least for daytime tourists. At this hour, though, it was as abandoned as the two rows of sheds stretching beyond it. Moonlight glazed the boxy wood. “What are you gonna do when you’re done?”
Gail shrugged and looked away, the restaurant porch lights moving over her irises. “Call another cab, I guess. I got paid today.”
Harvey couldn’t shake the feeling that there must have been an easier way for Gail to make this trek. Did the younger woman’s eyes hold an invitation, or was Harvey just lonely?
Did it matter anymore?
“How about I just stick around?” Gail looked back at her but said nothing, waiting for more. “I mean, I’m allowed half-hour breaks. I usually skip them. But if I stay here, I can drive you home before I take another customer.”
Gail narrowed her eyes and smirked. “I hope you’re not an axe murderer.”
“I hope you’re not.”
For the first time all evening, Harvey turned the cab off.
The first set house had a façade reading JAIL, in the same uneven white lettering. Peeking into warped windows, they could make out a rusty-looking floor-to-ceiling cage and the standing cloth figure of a prisoner. “Creepy,” Gail whispered, but she sounded thrilled. Harvey smiled to herself in the dark.
She tried to get a good look at Gail’s face as they walked on. “Hope you brought water.”
“Ha-ha. I brought sugary snacks, too, if you were wondering.” Hardness crept into Gail’s voice.
“Thanks, I guess. Thanks for seeing me as a person and not just a walking, talking disease. It’s pretty rare, you know. Sometimes even rarer than I realize.” Harvey stayed quiet, unsure how to back away from this tender nerve. It had been so long since she had socialized, she had nearly forgotten that normal people had sensitive spots, too. She regretted her silence when Gail switched tactics. “So what do you do, besides drive people around?”
Nothing. “Well. Last year, I was in law school.”
Gail stopped short in the crunchy sand. “Really? Around here?”
“No. At Northwestern.”
“No shit. Why did you leave?”
“I remembered some things.” If this had been a line in an opposing testimony, Harvey would have described it as comically inadequate.
They had reached the end of the row. The last building was a storefront for a post office, though she only knew it from the sign. There was nothing still ahead of Harvey but an endless landscape of sand and cacti, the ultimate open space. To their right, visitors had installed a giant piece of collaborative junk art on the bare ground. Bottles, figurines, and plastic bric-a-brac had been gathered into a ring six feet wide, with a rock at the center reading BETTER TO GIVE THAN TO TAKE FROM THE CIRCLE.
The distracting tableau made words easier. “Some things happened in my past,” Harvey continued. “When I was little. And once I remembered them, life felt… hard.”
Gail glanced at Harvey, looked quickly away, and gestured at the post office’s porch. She took a seat and pulled two water bottles out of her bag. She stared at the whirligig, not seeming to see it, as Harvey joined her.
“My parents sent me to ex-gay camp,” Gail said suddenly. “I’m sorry, that’s--I’m not trying to compete. I swear I’m not. It’s just… I get it. Bad shit happened, I left, and soon, I’ll go somewhere else. And so will you.”
They sipped in silence. For a moment Harvey imagined that the pair of them belonged to this town, like two lonely cowboys sharing a liquored tête-à-tête.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Harvey said at last. “I’m not sure there’s a reason to do anything.”
“There will be.”
“You’re quite the optimist.”
“No, I’m totally not. I’m a realist. There will be a reason, because there always is.”
They stared at the whirligig in the dark. A tiny dog collar stitched with a ribbon candy pattern hung off a stone rabbit’s ear. Two combination locks latched together hugged the perimeter of a candle. Gail’s eyes traveled from the stone circle to the smooth wood of the porch to her.
Harvey couldn’t quite remember how to be. With her flannel on, her chest became lined with sweat; without it, the wind would bite at her collarbone.
Gail’s eyes were right there, reflecting stars that had been hidden four miles downhill. More importantly, her mouth was there too. In the middle of Harvey’s most desolate stretch, a scarred, honest girl offered some sort of promise. All Harvey had to do was keep looking, and leaning…
She couldn’t do it. Eyes went to toes. “Don’t you have class tomorrow?”
Released into the air, the question was dismissive, not casual.
“Yeah.” Gail got up so fast that she kicked a spray of sand over Harvey’s jeans. “Let’s go.”
Gail barely spoke on the return ride. She fixed her eyes determinedly out the window, staring at nothing as they re-transitioned from sand to suburbs. Harvey forced herself not to speed back to the little house Gail shared, because Yellow Jacket tracked such things. Her mind felt muddy and panicked. She was desperate to be alone.
As a rule, the drive back always felt shorter. It could never have been short enough. It was over too quickly.
This time, at least, the house held other signs of life. Two collegiate boys sipped Coors in the back of an old pickup truck with four flat tires, permanently resting in the gravel driveway. Gail’s housemates greeted her enthusiastically but did not spare a look for Harvey; a cab driver was invisible, inconsequential. The taller boy offered Gail a can and gestured for her to join them in the flatbed. She accepted the drink but carried it into the house with her, not looking back.
Harvey didn’t notice the card until the end-of-shift clean. She nearly tossed it as she gathered debris: a Geek Squad card with G.B. Mower, Computer Repair in a handsome typeface, followed by a phone number.
She couldn’t write it off as an accident, couldn’t cling to it as a harbinger of hope. What happened next would be up to her.
Deb Jannerson is the author of the acclaimed poetry collections Rabbit Rabbit (Finishing Line Press, 2016) and Thanks for Nothing (Finishing Line Press, 2018), available wherever books are sold. Her debut YA novel, The Women of Dauphine, is forthcoming from NineStar Press in June 2019. Jannerson won the 2017 So to Speak Nonfiction Award for her short memoir about queer intimacy and PTSD, the 2018 Flexible Persona Editors’ Prize for a piece of flash fiction about gruesome work injuries, and the Two Sisters February Contest for a story about switching bodies with her cat. Other honors for which she has placed include the Pushcart Prize, the Pen2Paper Award, and the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition. More than one hundred of her pieces have been featured in anthologies and magazines, including viral articles for Bitch.