OUT ABOVE FONTANA
by John Brantingham
Harrison is testing the water in Lytle Creek just after a rainstorm when Bridget calls to him. Something’s in her voice, an edge that makes him pop up, makes him think she’s fallen into the swollen creek that almost never runs. After a good rain, it goes from being just a rut in the sand and rocks and scrub into being a torrent, a deadly rush of water that sucks in boulders, snakes, and people. So it’s no surprise that when Bridget calls, “Harrison!” his head floods with emergencies, shocking him out of the meditation he’s been in.
But she’s not hurt, not in danger of falling in. She’s holding something up and waving him over to her. He should probably take the time to pack his test tubes and chemicals and get them into their protective cases, but he’s just going to have to test the water eventually. Besides, Bridget’s face is all electricity and fun, so he trots over to her, winding around the bushes and avoiding getting near the torrent.
“Look,” she says as he gets closer. “Check this out.”
Up close enough so that he can feel her breath on him, it’s a shard of something, a rigid, brown triangle the size of his palm. On one side is a black line, now fading but clearly painted on, long ago.
Harrison lets his eyes ask the question.
“It’s pottery,” she says.
Harrison is by no means a stupid person. His wife is an anthropologist, and finding a shard of pottery in the desert is obviously significant, but there’s more energy here than he might have expected. He’s missing something essential about what’s happening.
“You don’t get it,” she says.
“No, I don’t.”
“They didn’t do this.” She holds up the shard.
Harrison shakes his head.
“The California natives aren’t known for doing this kind of work. They didn’t make this kind of pottery, certainly not around here.”
Harrison nods now. “And you think you might have found a tribe that did?”
“No, I’m sorry, no. No, there might have been someone around here that was trading with tribes in Arizona. There’s a chance,” she cocks her head and looks at the shard, “a really small chance that there was a civilization, maybe even a village or something that was trading with the tribes from Arizona. It would mean finding a settlement that no one’s found yet.”
“Or it might have just been dropped when someone was walking from one place to another.” They’re standing at the bottom point of the Cajon Pass where anyone walking from what is now Arizona to the Pacific would go, but he wishes he hadn’t said that.
Bridget nods considering, and some of the joy leaves her face, being replaced by the hard-nosed skepticism that is vital to the scientist in her. Harrison finds himself lifting his hand to placate her, wishes he hadn’t mentioned the obvious. He prefers the energetic dreamer to the plodding scientist. He always has. He’d follow that dreamer through the desert barefoot if she asked. He’d follow her through this desert up into the mountains to find the source of Lytle Creek in the vain hope of finding an ancient Indian settlement if it meant having that face back, the one that he loves so much.
“And of course,” she says, “I can’t be sure this isn’t just a piece of junk pottery dropped by someone in the 1970s.”
“How would you know?”
“Have to get it tested. I know a guy.” Her face retreats back into the scientist place of plans and consideration.
She sits down on a boulder and watches the shard. Harrison has an idea of what the next hour is going to be, so he might as well get to his work and finish it before she comes back to life.
He leaves her there in her meditation and goes to his testing. The rain hasn’t come back, and he supposes that it might not.
As he does his work on the bank, he glances every now and then to his wife, who is either considering her newfound treasure or staring up into the mountains above them. He knows what she’s thinking, knows how she’s doubting herself, knows the battle inside her that’s waging. It’s a battle between the pixie she was in her youth and the doubts that come to all people as they grow older.
And he wishes he’d gotten to know her better back then, the girl that she must have been, the girl who was all promise and enthusiasm before life taught her better than that. He wishes that he had more than just a glimpse of the woman she was. He wishes that he could have been the voice in her life to tell her that her enthusiasm was all right, that he could have fought against whatever it was that’s turned her into what she is.
Not that he doesn’t love what she is, but he wishes that all her life she could see herself as he sees her now. He wishes that she could see her this way, standing on the edge of a raging desert creek that will likely be dry and gone in three days. Her clothes are snapping in the wind and the clouds have darkened her world, but somehow, and he doesn’t know how, she’s luminescent, starkly shining on a murky day.
He wishes she could see this, but it’s the nature of things that all she can see is what she isn’t. So Harrison calls to her, and he comes over to her, and he asks her where the pottery piece might have come from. Her face lightens, and she smiles at him, wanly now.
“That’s the thing. It’s pretty hard to tell.” She points up into the desert mountains that rise up above them. “I suppose what’s most likely is that it was on the banks of the creek up there.” She points. “But maybe it just washed off the hillside. It might be from anywhere over there.”
The “over there” that she gestures to with a wave of her hand is miles and miles of sometimes vertical desert. It rises up eventually above Los Angeles, eventually up to Mt. Baldy, and there’s something about the sweep of her gesture that suggests hopelessness.
“Where do we start looking?” he asks.
She considers him for a moment the way she did with the shard, and then she smiles and laughs. She shakes her head. “We’re not going to find it,” she says.
And maybe that’s true. Ancient civilizations could easily be lost and never found in those hills, and pottery too. People could be lost up there and never found. Anything might be lost up there, and there would be such a small chance of finding the source of the shard that even trying feels pointless.
Still, Harrison will take her by the hand and try to coax out that part of her that feels most like her. He will try to find the woman inside of her who wants to walk up into the hills where ancient people might have lived. He will follow that woman wherever her dreams take her. He will follow her into the desert in a rainstorm. He will follow her up a mountain. He will follow her into an ancient past that might or might not exist, follow her to that place where there are only her dreams of what the world might once have been, and it doesn’t matter to him whether that place existed or not. It is where the best part of Bridget spends her days, and it is where Harrison wants to spend the rest of his life.
John Brantingham’s books include the short story collection Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods, the crime novel Mann of War, and the poetry collection The Green of Sunset. He has published hundreds of poems in magazines in the United States and England, and his work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.