Photo by Molly Dumas
She walked into the visitor center this afternoon around a quarter to three. She wore a loose, gray, short sleeved v-neck t-shirt and an olive green visor with blue jeans and dirty white tennis shoes. Her hair was chestnut brown, short and tousled, her skin quite tan for early spring. She had beautiful light brown eyes, framed by blonde-tipped lashes. They flashed with sadness and uncertainty. She was petite, but had strong, bold muscles on her arms and shoulders--like she had spent time lifting weights or boxing. Her sternum was ever so slightly pronounced, her posture perfect.
Unfolding the free park map they’d given her at the entrance, she approached the counter and moved toward me, the bookstore clerk.
“I’ve never been here before,” she offered, and asked what I would suggest she do during her visit.
“Do you have dogs?” I asked. “All by yourself?” Both were somewhat limiting factors in the intense spring heat of the desert.
“No dogs,” she replied. “All by myself, staying until Friday.” Today is Tuesday.
“Is it safe down here?” she asked.
“Perfectly,” I smiled.
Normally these days, I would have passed her onto whichever ranger was working behind the counter with me, but I felt compelled to help her. I told her about the campgrounds in the front country and car camping in the back country. I mentioned my favorite places: Lost Mine Trail, the Langford hot springs, Santa Elena Canyon.
She hadn’t brought anything with her. No backpack, no big hat, no bathing suit, not even anything to eat except water and tangerines! “I drove down here on a whim,” she explained.
Her face told me she thought she probably sounded crazy.
“The hot springs can be European-style after dark and there’s no kids around,” I winked, enticing her to go check it out. “Bring a flashlight.”
Though clearly intelligent, she was totally unprepared for desert hiking and camping and completely out of sorts at this very moment.
“So... it’s so beautiful here, you might want this trail map if you’re going to do any Basin hikes,” I suggested, grabbing the map from the end-cap where all the hiking guides rested in their plastic nests.
“My husband just died a few months ago,” she said, out of nowhere.
I blurted out, “Do you want to stay at my place tonight? I’m having lamb burgers and salad! Come over for dinner, we can go to town tomorrow and get you some camping gear.”
For my register spiel, I told her that I often think about renting out my spare room on Airbnb, but that it’s probably against the park housing rules.
“I’ll give you the camping fee just to park in your driveway,” she offered for her end of the bargain.
“I can’t take your money, but you are welcome to stay at my place as my friend,” I firmly counter-offered.
She now seemed in a hurry. She told me her daughter was eleven and at home. “By herself?” I asked, though I knew she wasn’t. I wondered where “home” was. My visitor mumbled about grabbing a dollar for the trail map from her car and ran out the door. A minute later, she returned and placed a faded, crumpled dollar bill, a grimy nickel, and a couple dull pennies on the counter.
Picking up a little on her frazzled manner, I hastily wrote my address on the yellow post-it note stuck atop the thin stack behind the credit card machine and drew her a simple map. “I get off work at 5:30. Come over. I never invite people to my house,” I added, so that she wouldn’t think I was a weirdo.
She responded, “I never tell people about my husband. I don’t know why I did.”
I knew somehow that she and I were supposed to talk more, about the desert, about loss and grief and love and life, and about letting go and moving on. But I’m socially awkward, and she was rushing to leave--perhaps she was a bit embarrassed. Her grateful eyes searched for my name tag as I told her, “I’m Carmen.”
“I’m Marlene.” She held out her hand for a handshake that would have been solid had we connected palms, but the counter is wide sometimes and it was all fingers grasping.
“If we never see each other again, I hope you have a wonderful visit to Big Bend,” I added with a huge smile--a real one, for her--feeling powerless, but hopeful.
About ten minutes later, after a few more customers, I dashed to the parking lot hoping to see her or what I imagined might be her SUV. But, of course, it was an afterthought--and too late. She had already gone.
The rest of my afternoon shift, I silently kicked myself for not giving her my phone number or for not inviting her over for coffee the next morning. (I make really good coffee, with love. You can taste it.)
Ten minutes before close, a loud, gigantic, deeply sunburned woman loped through the double glass doors, her dyed straw-like yellow hair yanked back into a strained ponytail at her crown, twisting the skin on her face into a freakish glare. Her large pillowy body was stuffed into a yellow, calf-length, terrycloth sundress the same shade as her hair. The back of my neck tingled and my chest turned cold.
“Can I borrow your phone?” she wheezed. “I need to call my lawyer and I’m almost out of minutes. I have a $15,000 check waiting for me and he needs an address to send it to and his office is closing soon... blah blah.” I tuned her out. “Blah blah blah blah....”
“Lucky you,” mumbled Claudia, a front-desk seasoned veteran. “We really don’t loan out the phone.” But we were willing to do just about anything to remove the caustic broad as quickly as possible.
After I got home from my last shift of the week, I didn’t walk my dog, just in case sweet Marlene decided to show up. I didn’t make the lamb burgers, so I’d have something to serve in case she arrived. Eventually, I did eat the rest of the bar of dark chocolate with my bedtime tea (and some guilt), when I realized she wasn’t coming.
I hope she’s okay out here in Big Bend, and that she heals a little, and a little bit more. The driveway is always free.