I went to the poppy preserve with the barista on the way to Nevada. It was right there in Lancaster, out past 140th Street, the street with the name that makes perfect sense and no sense at all. Perfect because there’s nothing on this road, not even a mailbox, it’s just a post with a number stabbed into the dust way out in the desert so it might as well be comically high—when I think of numbered streets over a hundred, I think of taking Western Avenue from my house the thirty miles to Long Beach, past numbers so high you can’t believe LA is still going. But nonsensical also because, to get from 1st Street to 140th Street, you’ve got to think that something’s going to happen in between. Like, if you’re driving along, and you pass 1st Street, and then you pass 2nd Street, and then you pass all the rest and you get to 140th and you’ve passed nothing but tumbleweed, then you feel cheated.
Did I feel cheated going to the poppy preserve with the barista? I did, Jake. I felt cheated twice-over.
You’ll recall from my last few letters that the barista and I were trying to drive to Nevada. You’ll recall that Nevada is a metaphor for gambling and true love. You’ll recall that it’s an especially good metaphor for true love because there are no trees in Nevada and hence no shadows, and without shadows, women and men are free to forge interpersonal and sexual breakthroughs without encountering static. But maybe you’ll infer that Nevada is an especially good metaphor for true love also because Nevada’s nickname is The State of Depravity, so it’s got that too, meaning the kind of purity we’re talking about here isn’t the precious kind, the Vermont kind, that busted and terrible snowy-in-winter, all-green-in-summer kind, in which sex is a pleasant rubbing of bodies, after tea, before crackers with upscale cheese, in which children grow up to believe that they’re moral though they’ve never borne witness to sin, in which comedy is toilet humor masquerading as something else, meaning, the people in Vermont think that humor in its most evolved form is animals acting silly. Why is this toilet humor, Jake? Because underneath silliness is always the hope that the animal, be it sheep or dog, will begin to fart, shit, piss, and jizz uncontrollably.
Jake, Nevada’s purity is not like this. Nevada’s purity allows for honesty. Nevada’s purity doesn’t need animals shitting. Nevada’s purity is at one with the human body, the kind like you and I have, the kind that wades through days without denying the existence of its own erections. That’s the Vermont way, Jake—denial of sexual arousal. And when you do that, you get children who stand by fields waiting for animals to pee and poo. That’s their pastime. They don’t even have professional sports. And that’s not something I want in my life, Jake. I am one-third brain, one-third heart, and one-third sexuality. To deny any of those three wouldn’t be right. That’s why I like Nevada. That’s why I like the barista. That’s why we’re on our way to Nevada—so we can sit cross-legged across from each other on a synthetic bedspread and figure everything out.
Am I deviating Jake? Weren’t we at the poppy preserve? Isn’t it true that we have yet to cross over state lines? Don’t you want to know about poppies? Have you inferred that I would’ve rather been in a motel with the barista, smoking inside, strategizing about how to play roulette so that I might conquer chance and like so win her heart? Isn’t that where you would’ve rather I been? But no. Not yet, Jake. Now, we’re still in California, the state of pavement and obfuscation, the state of light so hazy it obscures your view, the state where the weather is masked, realized only in the form of the particulate that we inhale. When we got to Lancaster the air got clean Jake. Lancaster is like pre-Nevada—topographically similar but forbidding towards prostitution and dice. But it looked good. I had a clear view. Under the blue sky I could see how the hills, so treeless, so windswept and even, I’d venture, sunswept, looking as if they were melting, looking as if, in their supplication to the sky, the heavens, the gods that most of us have forgotten, they’d been humbled and resigned themselves to melting back into sand. Will the world eventually become flat again, Jake? Will we return to folly? Have we already? Did we ever grow beyond it? Are most mountains going up or down? In Lancaster, I venture down. That’s what I saw with my own eyes. The barista and I parked on the hot black asphalt. I opened the truck door and the heat rose and caught me on the chin. “Fuck me,” I said, reeling back, “that heat rose fast.”
The barista was more stoic than I. We both sensed it though. There weren’t any other cars in the lot. There was no attendant at the state park booth. There was no gate. Just a black asphalt lot in the desert, just past 140th Street, ten miles north of Lancaster, CA, where nothing happens and no one lives. The hills there were nubby. We were too close for them to look like they were melting. We were close enough to see the vegetation. In this case the vegetation was dry-dead grass. It was everywhere. Also patches of sage. Actually frankly Jake there was far more in that dry-dead grass than I implied a sentence ago—there were these little ground-hugging little plant things that grew out along the rocks and dust horizontally. Obviously I’m not a scientist. But I saw it all with my own eyes. Perhaps you’ll note that I have yet to refer to poppies. Perhaps you could’ve wagered on the poppies given the intelligence that the parking lot had only one vehicle—mine. Perhaps you are smarter than I. Perhaps I am but two-ninths brain instead of one-third. Perhaps then I am four-ninths sexuality. I hope so and I don’t Jake. Let me just say I don’t have a problem with facts though. If I am to be four-ninths sexuality, then I am to be four-ninths sexuality. If there’s one thing I don’t believe in it’s denial, and I’ll make no exception here when it comes to my organs and math.
I said to the barista, “I’m beginning to fear that you brought me to a poppy preserve without poppies in a state without gambling in order to neutralize my sexual potency.”
“Poppies must be seasonal,” she said wistfully. “I’m from Wisconsin. Poppies aren’t the main kind of flower I know about.”
“I don’t see any flowers at all. I know those things when I see them. They’ve got colors and pistils. What are you looking at?”
“Hills without flowers aren’t half bad,” she said, dipping her toes off the asphalt, onto the dusty path. “Hills without flowers are pretty good for faraway looks,” she said. “And I think I’ll do one of those now.”
“There is a gulf between us the size of China.”
She let out a loud silence.
“You mix metaphors,” she said. “That’s your problem. Perhaps there’s a gulf between us the size of the Gulf of Mexico, or a landmass between us the size of China, or better still, a desert between us the size of the Gobi. But it’s obscure to say there’s a gulf between us the size of China.”
“You and I have fundamentally different approaches to personality. I only hope we can overcome them,” I said, and then I did a faraway look too.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.