"She will be mine," said Marshall, lighting up and eyeing the hills wistfully. "Someday, she will be mine."
"You say that every time we come here." His wife Emily rubbed sunscreen into her arms.
"And yet, she eludes me," he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
The 'she' in question was a distant house, up in the hills, on a cliff overlooking the desert valley, classic California Mid-Century Modern style, all stern geometry and airy openness. Marshall had spotted it on their first or second trip to 29 Palms, and had been moist for it ever since.
"For all you know it's a dump."
"You've never looked at it up close?" said Ruth, lounging on a deck chair next to her dozing boyfriend, Greg. The foursome sat on a pretty patio of a small rented bungalow, enjoying cocktails, joints, and sunset.
"No. Marshall drove up there one time, but there's a locked gate."
"It could be infested with camel spiders and built on an Indian burial ground and I'd still want it," Marshall sighed. "It could be a Neutra."
"Like our old fireplace could be a Batchelder. At least until you broke a piece off and it was plastic."
"Still. The views from up there are phenomenal, and the pool looks amazing."
"What's wrong with the pool here?"
"It's a glorified kiddie pool and it smells like man-bag." The bungalow they were renting this trip was cozy, and decorated in the distinctive mix of high kitsch and high style endemic to the Keys, the Villages, and the Hollywoods. It was a big step up from the motels they'd stayed in their first few trips, and the crappy cabins with mysterious sounds and odors they were able to afford the next few years. The two couples had been making semiannual trips to the desert, fall and spring, for almost 15 years, and Marshall had been coming even longer. They all had jobs peripheral to, or supportive of, the entertainment industry they had come to L.A. to conquer. Though their dreams hadn't flourished, their careers had (Marshall's craft service company in particular doing well) and they were at that midpoint of their thirties where they could at last take the kind of vacations they were really getting too old to do up properly.
Greg stirred. "That's because the last guests were five gay Czech techno DJs. Check the guest book. They dotted their I's with anarchy symbols. I'd stay out of the pool, Emily, you'll be impregnated and dancing in seconds."
Emily giggled. Marshall knew she had a thing for Greg, which she would never act on. He had a thing for Ruth, which he had acted on, early in their friendships, but Emily either didn't find out or didn't mind. Ruth was half Asian, of some light golden-skinned irresistible variety, and half whatever Scandinavian race places high genealogical value on breasts. Emily probably had a thing for her too. Early on during each trip with Greg and Ruth, Marshall entertained thoughts of partner swapping or even a foursome, but somehow the opportunity never arose. Looking over at Ruth now, he thought "maybe this time..."
"If you want it so bad, why don't you ask?" Ruth stared directly at Marshall, who jolted like he'd been shocked.
"The house. Have you ever made any inquiries? Local realtors?"
"No. I don't think anyone lives there. I've never seen the lights on, and no one ever drives up or down the hill."
Greg sat up and diddled his iPhone. "Let's have a look-see, shall we?" It him took about two minutes of surfing to find out the house wasn't listed for sale. It took about three more minutes to find out it hadn't been bought or sold in years.
"Can't search for an owner without the address. Do you know it?" Greg kept fingering his phone, shaking his head.
"No. Maybe tomorrow I'll go into town and ask an agent about it," Marshall said.
Ruth shrugged, and lay back in her chair, eyes closed. "Go for it," she purred.
Marshall gulped and made sure Emily was looking somewhere else before running his eyes all over Ruth.
The next day, Marshall couldn't drag anyone away from the pool, so he went alone to the real estate office he'd seen on the main highway, in a small white building it shared with a pawnshop and a Radio Shack. He'd picked it because it was a recognizable national chain, but regretted his choice immediately on seeing the agent, a graying hippie-cowboy-healer hybrid. Marshall looked around the office for the requisite dream-catcher and kokopelli.
"I'm not sure of the street name, if it even has a name," Marshall said. "Seems like half the streets around that part of the hill don't."
The agent, Jesse, grunted and brought up Google Maps on his computer. Marshall had already explained that he'd tried Google Maps and couldn't find it, but now he guessed that Jesse had some special chakra or chi add-on for his browser that would enhance the algorithm.
Marshall held his tongue through an annoying 15 minutes before Jesse re-grunted and pulled out a book of old surveyor's maps. Leaning in, Marshall could see countless little roads cut into the hillside, like spider veins circling a gin-blossomed nose, the W.C. Fields of desert foothills.
"I'm sure you know the house," Marshall said. "It's the big Modernist ranch house you can see high up on the hill, right as you come in on the highway? Just past the Marie Callender's?"
"Ah. The Venus Douche Trap."
"Back in the '80's my partner called it Yuppie Bait Manor. Then for a while in the '90's we called it Dot-Com Catnip. You're not the first Angelino hipster to wander in here asking about that house."
"Hey, man, I'm no hipster. I just like scarves."
"It's a nice one, kid, I'll give you that." Jesse's finger tapped a tiny squiggle on the map, and then turned the book around to face Marshall.
"Terminus Road?" Marshall read. "Is that it?"
"Built in 1952, back when the only people living out here were miners, moonshiners and mobsters. It's changed hands a few times, but not in about 30 years."
"Do you know who owns it?"
Jesse turned to his computer for a moment. "Looks like it's owned by a consortium called Desert Capital Partners, LLC. Doesn't tell you much, does it? Hell, this office is owned by Oasis Investment Management. It's probably some bigwig's tax dodge, or a pseudocorp set up to filter someone's hard stolen pension skimming, legitimize some nefarious breadstuffs."
Marshall was certain Jesse was stoned, and possibly tripping.
"So what can I do? What did the other dozens of urban posers do?"
"Go to the courthouse. Tax assessor office. Somebody has to pay the property tax, with a physical address. Whoever is managing DCP these days can be the one to decline your offer."
"Is that what they do?"
"Every time, as far as I know. And there's been some serious offers from serious coffers before you. Somebody really doesn't want to sell that place."
"Anyone ever rent it?"
"Nope. I've never seen anyone set foot in it, and I've been here 25 years."
"Now why would that be?" Marshall thought for a minute. He thought about the logistics of going to the courthouse, staying over an extra day or two, finding the owner's address, dropping in or calling unannounced and possible unwelcome. He thought of offers and counter-offers, of all the previous weekenders who might have waved their big-city cash around.
His reverie was interrupted by Jesse making the Theremin noise internationally acknowledged as the 'spooky sound.'
"Who knows? Hey, but I have a bunch of listings you'll dig. Why don't you take a drive with me and check a few out? You like lap pools? How about sweat lodges? I've got a sweet two-bedroom with a sweat lodge that seats nine!"
"I'm guessing at least three bedrooms and maybe four. Plus I bet you could sleep three or four in the living room. And no doubt the view is epic. Both the park and the valley side! No other house around here has that!" Marshall hiked in the lead down the narrow trail, Emily and Greg behind him. Ruth had gone off on her own down another trail, perhaps to be sexy in solitude.
They were in Joshua Tree National Park, just after dawn. The air was still cool enough to enjoy, and the light made the prickly trees and fluid rock formations all the more otherworldly.
"Even if it were for sale, it'd probably be a fortune." Emily found herself suddenly and inexplicably disconcerted at Marshall's enthusiasm for the house.
"I wouldn't be so sure. Property was ass cheap out here to begin with, and the bubble is still bursting." Greg was a failed actor but sought-after location scout. He was 18 months into what was supposed to be a 6-week online real estate course, and the phrase "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" was coined in 1709 in premonition of his birth. "You going to stay till Monday and go to the courthouse?"
"I may just do that, duder. Why don't you guys stay too?"
"Nah, Ruth really needs to get back." Ruth didn't work, inasmuch as the word is understood in our society, but she was busy. Her conceptual art projects were somehow funded and as part of the endowments she received, which included honorariums, rent, and the occasional new car. But Marshall, for the life of him, couldn't explain what the art pieces were, or in what temporal state they occurred, or if they even occurred at all. Ruth said that was the point of them.
"Well, I'm going to do some digging," Marshall said.
"Great." Emily's unease baffled even her. In theory, buying a place made sense. What they'd spent on rentals over the years and would continue to spend in the years to come would make up a decent down payment. But something nagged her, a free-floating anxiety that was as vague as it was unsettling.
They came around a bend, up a cluster of mushroom-shaped boulders, and there, far across the plateau they saw it, alone on the hillside, as if it had heard them talking about it and wanted them to know.
"See? Fate!" Marshall beamed, but Emily's eyes narrowed. "She will be mine!"
"I don't know. Something about it gives me the skeez."
"Skeez. It's just a house."
Late that afternoon, Marshall drove up the winding, unmarked hillside road. He'd made two wrong guesses already, not clearly remembering how he'd found the house the last time. Finally, he rounded a sharp turn and there was the house, the vast valley floor laid out before it like a parish before a preacher.
Marshall parked at the locked gate and got out. He noted the well-kept landscaping, the swept driveway; clearly someone was maintaining the property. But the windows were cloudy with dust, and the paint was faded. The house looked as empty as it was isolated.
Marshall checked out the old lock on the gate, the rusty chain. It wasn't much of a gate, waist high and iron, with ornamental work, as though someone had tarted up an old cattle fence. He walked along the length of it, not looking around, casual. When spying or prying, he knew, it was best to act as if you knew what you were doing. Look around, act furtive and you seem like a criminal. Saunter with confidence and you could just be a developer. He didn't think trespassing and peeping was a shootable offence, but he knew people took their privacy seriously in these parts. People come to the desert to lose themselves and not be found, hide out from trouble and curiosity. Plus, long-time residents become strange, something about the relentless sun and inexorable wind carves good citizens into desert rats: wily, wary and wild.
He couldn't see much from outside the gate; a glimpse through the curtain-less front window revealed an empty foyer and a bit of sunken living room. Around the side of the house he could see a piece of the deck overhanging the canyon.
Making a decision using only the soft, mushy, caveman part of his brain, he jumped the gate and made his way up the front yard to the door.
He reached out his hand to try the door, and then stopped.
Gloves? Something to wipe it down with?
He shook his head, grimacing at himself. Too much time watching too many TV shows with the words "law" and/or "order" in the title. He tried the knob, found it locked.
He peered through a dirty window. As he'd thought, the house was empty.
He walked around the side of the house. The ground sloped downward, as the cliff face neared, and the side windows were higher than he could reach. He got to the back of the house, a blank wall, and support beams ending in concrete footers beneath the deck. There was a staircase leading up to the deck and he took it. Each stepped creaked, each creak reverberating off the cliffside.
The view from the deck was just as he'd imagined, but he found it hard to enjoy it. His heart was pounding, his breath shallow and dizzying. There were big bay windows looking into the sunken living room, and the house was laid out before him.
He leaned close to the window. His breath fogged it. Everything seemed too clear, too close, and too loud.
He found the sliding door leading to the living room.
It was unlocked.
He went inside the house.
It's no great revelation that an empty house echoes, but to Marshall it seemed like some kind of funhouse trick, microphones in the floorboards, amplifying his every move. Heart fairly convulsing, he made a quick tour of the house.
The design elements barely registered with him, the post-and-beam construction, the purple stained concrete floor, the skylight atrium, so deep was his distraction.
The bedrooms and bathrooms revealed no flaws, no damage, nothing but the infrequent dust bunny or dead fly. Though everything about the layout and condition of the place was adequate, he inexplicably felt uncomfortable, threatened. Fight-or-flight juices surged through him.
He went into the kitchen, large and spacious. He leaned against the counter, sighing, a hand on his chest.
"This is silly. Relax." His voice hit the empty rooms, ringing like a quarter on a glass table. He was not reassured. "It's just a house. No dead Indian burial ground. No bleeding walls. No Diane Arbus twin girls."
He sighed, trying to calm himself. He took another look around. Just a house. An attractive, bigger-than-average, better-than-average desert modern home. Probably empty for years because the owner wanted more than it was worth, or held it for sentimental reasons. Just a house. Relaxing now, he made his way out to the deck and down the stairs.
He was walking back to his car and thinking of the fantastic parties he could throw here, Playboy Mansion-esque bacchanals and Paris-in-the-20s-salons, when he became utterly and incontrovertibly certain he was being watched.
He involuntarily slowed his gait and shuddered, before reason kicked in and he told himself to act normal, settle down, be confident. He continued walking as nonchalantly as he could muster. He didn't look back until he was at his car with the door open, then, putting on a I'm-normal-and-nonthreatening smile he turned and looked at the house.
Nothing. No shotgun-toting hillbilly homeowner, no locals-only sheriff, no hills-have-eyes mutant.
Marshall sighed and shook his head, getting into the car. He drove off down the hill, and was only a little disgusted at himself for checking the rear view mirror a dozen times on the way.
Tradition dictated they go to the restaurant and bar at the Inn for their last night in town, but Ruth and George suggested a broke-down looking roadhouse they'd always eyed. Called The Rusty Tap, they'd assumed it would to cater to year-rounders and natives, true desert rats with an equal distaste for pretension and hygiene.
But the bar turned out to have just as many Ed Hardy hard-ons as trailer park outcasts, and a good number of young jarheads from the local Marine base thrown in for good measure. Despite the tin Quonset walls, the possibly Mesozoic jar of pickled eggs, and the obligatory stuffed Jackalope it was pretty much like any Melrose Avenue bar.
Marshall got a few drinks in him faster than usual, and guess what he started talking about?
"Jesus, do we have to do this again? Really?" Emily was kidding-disgusted with a healthy dollop of actually-disgusted. "Do you have to run the 'house conversation' applet script over and over?"
"What, like you guys are any different? Should we revisit the 'Burning Man isn't as good as it used to be' topic?"
"Or the 'how long the line was at the bacon-wrapped matzoh ball truck outside the Knitting Factory' motif?"
"Whevs. Can't we forget the house for fifteen minutes?" Emily had hoped seeing it up close would reveal some massive defect or drawback that would quench his obsession over the place; instead he'd returned from his reconnaissance with renewed fervor, an acolyte back from a pilgrimage.
Marshall wouldn't be deterred. He would buy this house, he thought. He deserved it. It would be his.
Greg said "Marshall, you have to admit that there's probably a very good reason the house isn't for sale and isn't being used. Either it has some serious structural problem, it's tied up in some endless estate dispute, or somebody committed some horrific crime and it's cursed."
"Or it's a meth lab," said Ruth.
"Don't meth labs tend to be heavily guarded or booby-trapped?" Marshall said.
"Not out here. They're too common. It'd be like booby-trapping your tomato plant."
"Well, I didn't see any equipment in it. I'm telling you, this is the place for us. It was made for us."
Emily looked over at Marshall. "Don't get your hopes up. That agent said the owners have never sold, right? Besides, there will be other places, if you're really so hot to buy out here."
"I don't want to buy any old place," Marshall said, getting up to get another round. "I want to be in the Sunday Times Houses to Make Everyone Jealous section."
It was well after last call as Marshall drove them up the narrow curves of Terminus Road. Back in the bar, they had continued to try to dissuade Marshall. What if there really was some major drawback to the place, some massive fundamental flaw with the place, a cracked foundation, toxic mold, track lighting? Marshall decided the only way to convince them of the house's appeal, the only way to persuade them that the house was their destiny, their future, was to take them to see it themselves.
They came upon the house, looking perfectly cinematic in the moonlight. Marshall's longing for it was palpable, a physical pull in his chest, a thing not of his making but real, and potent.
They didn't have a flashlight, but the moon was bright enough as they walked over to the locked gate. This time Marshall didn't hesitate, hopping over it with ease. That feeling of being watched was nowhere in him, but that might have been because there wasn't room for it with all the scotch sloshing around.
He took them up the back steps to the deck, and they gazed out over the eerie moonlit valley.
"Oh, my. Just—my." Ruth was dazzled.
"I told you," Marshall whispered.
Marshall led them inside. The girls were hushed and nervous at first, clinging to each other even as they admired the house's rooms. Greg's location-trained eye picked up on outlet placement and sight lines.
Marshall leaned against the living room wall, already feeling at home. He would convince his wife and his friends. The house would be his. It would be the site of leisurely Saturday swims with pomegranate granita cocktails. It would host simple but sumptuous dinners of braised pork belly and salt-seared Alaskan Char. There would be pairings; there would be bongs. There would be late nights and passionate conversation and creative, vibrant people and their hot wives.
"Marshall, look at the size of this kitchen!" Emily called.
"I know. With actual cabinets, instead of Ikea shelving." He wandered into the kitchen where Emily was standing, starting into an open cupboard.
"What's this?" Emily's voice had gone dry and cold.
Marshall looked in the cupboard. It was deep, made for big pots or pans.
But it was filled with 25-lb bags of quicklime.
Marshall stared. His blood roared in his ears. He opened the next cupboard.
It held ten large bottles of industrial hydrofluoric acid.
The cupboard next to that had extra large heavy-duty plastic bags.
From the hall, Greg called "Hey, did you know this closet has massive rolls of plastic tarp?"
"Marshall?" Ruth came into the kitchen holding a meat hook. Marshall went past her to the bedroom where he found in the closet a gleaming display of surgical saws, cleavers, knives, and hooks.
Marshall was staring vaguely at what looked like a bolt cutter when headlights lit up the room.
Hummingbird heart in his throat and eyes like cue balls, Marshall went to the window.
Outside, a dark, windowless van pulled up alongside Marshall's car, its side painted with the letters "DCP" and no other markings. The van stopped and two men got out.
Marshall's mind processed several thoughts at once as he watched the men, clad in disposable Tyvek coveralls, open the rear of the van and take a hooded and hogtied man out of the back. He thought about the stairway on the deck, he wondered why it was he couldn't remember if the stairway was visible from the front gate, he remembered how steep the cliff dropped off beneath the deck, he thought about fight-or-flight juice, and he thought about Emily. He thought about dreams and destiny, and about the trivial choices we make that in an instant transform our lives from the comforting embrace of the routine into the galvanizing insanity of peril.
"Marshall?" Emily let out a wet sob of fear while Marshall backed away from the window, and the men outside carried their captive up the path to the front door.