We were on our way from Palm Springs out to Salvation Mountain. We wanted to baptize our one and a half year old son with some of that real American Spirit, that do-it-yourself religion that only the Americans really know how to do. We stopped off at Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, essentially the middle of nowhere, to pick up some more water and some potato chips before heading further into the desert, and further beyond the outskirts of nowhere. At the Bombay Beach Market, a half-gutted, sparsely-stocked convenience store, the older lady was friendly and chatty. She had desert-worn skin and silver hair and wore jeans and a faded t-shirt from the old marina which now sat on dry land. She asked me where we were headed and I explained that we were headed out to the Mountain. She kindly pointed out the right way and circled our turn-offs on a little tourist map of the region. She made sure I had enough gas.
“I used to live out there,” she said. “Out at the City. Before I got out.”
Slab City, she meant, out beyond Salvation Mountain. “Oh yeah?” I replied. “What’d you do out there?”
“Oh you know. Helped out around the place. Assisted the Reverend, for many years.”
“Oh, wow. How was it?”
“Well. It is what it is. There ain’t nothin out there. But the Reverend made it happen. He’s gone now.”
“What do you think of us taking the boy out there? Think it’s alright?” I asked.
“The little guy? He’ll be alright. Just take ye some water. There ain’t nothin out there.”
“Anything to worry about over there? Other than water, I mean?” I could tell that Claudia was a bit nervous.
“You’ll be fine. Just pay attention to where you are. Everybody wants something.”
“Okay, yeah sure. Thanks. But, uh… so you wouldn’t discourage it.”
“Nah. They’re all nice people. But everybody wants something. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” But I didn’t really. “Well thanks for the advice,” I said. “I’m sure you get these questions a thousand times a year.”
“Oh yeah, it’s alright. I’m here. You have a good visit.”
I paid for the water and potato chips and she handed me my change and then suddenly as if she’d forgotten something important she said, “Oh! Wait.” She turned back toward the shelves behind the register. “Here. Something for the little guy.” She handed me a small brown stuffed bear. It looked like a friendly campground bear from a gift shop, or the kind of stuffed animal you might win out of a county fair arcade game, those tall plexiglass cubes where you try to manipulate a mechanical metal grabber to pick up trinkets and toys and send them down the exit chute. The game with the metal grabber is almost impossible, so the few times that I had given one a go I always got a funny feeling that the odd little toys and stuffed animals were going to be in there forever. It was a sensation that made me really nervous as a kid, and still does. My uneasiness with the whole thing was also connected to the uncertainty of where they’d come from to begin with. I couldn’t imagine how they’d gotten inside the cube in the first place. I couldn’t tell whether those trinkets had ever not been inside there, waiting to be grabbed by the mechanical grabber, and It seemed cruel that the machine would invite me to bring one of the toys home to live with me and to be played with, as was their only purpose for all I knew, and that it would never happen.
The odds were plain. A stuffed bear like this one was never getting out of that goddamn cube in the musty tent on the country fairgrounds, and that gave me an acute sense of foreboding which is hard to describe. It caused a panic in me that they were never getting out of there. They were lost in time, piled up just out of reach, right on the other side of the plexiglass. And now here one was, smiling innocuously, as if he had never been wronged. Or if he had, it had left no scar. But the math of it was all off somehow, if there was any. Loopy. Emanating from somewhere within the Deep State of county fair amusement mechanics, if there is such a thing. The little brown campground bear gave me the impression that he was one of thousands, a legion of soft little bears grinning permanently. So it seemed odd that he was out here all by himself, out in the middle of the desert, uniquely exactly like all the others, wherever they were.
“Oh… that’s really sweet of you,” I said. “Thank you so much. He will love it.” I looked out the door toward the car outside where Claudia was waiting with the boy and I saw the heat blasting brightly up off the tar in a yellow array.
“Listen,” she said. She leaned over the counter like a little girl and reached out and pressed the bear’s little round belly. “Listen…” she said again softly and she withdrew gracefully back across the countertop. “Can you hear it?”
The signal is exactly 51 seconds long. At 36 seconds in (32nd second of the actual signal) there is a significant wave modulation that bothers me. I don’t know why it bothers me now. But it does. —J. Wood