From this distance, he’s not easy to see. Not with the naked eye. He’s old. I know that’s true. How old, I don’t know. He sits there on a beat-up couch on the porch, a big porch that wraps around part of the house and has screens on the sides to keep the bugs out. But it can’t do that too well if it’s just on the sides. I see him use his hand to swat away the eye gnats. They can be irritating late on a warm desert evening. Over here at my place, I have wood in the firepit, and a fan set up with a long extension cord plugged into the outlet in the garage. I’ve learned the gnats don’t much like a fire or a breeze. Both keep them away. I don’t think the old man knows that.
He sits out there most days. Rarely gets up. When he does, he hobbles and shuffles his way into the house. Usually coming back with what looks like a glass of iced tea. Maybe it’s Kool-Aid or something else. He’s there in the house alone, I think, but people do stop sometimes. Family members, I imagine. I’ve seen two young ladies come by with food wrapped in aluminum foil. They must be his daughters. And from time to time, another older man, one that gets around much better than he, arrives in a blue pickup truck and sits with him for a time on the porch. Maybe an hour, sometimes less. The other man wears a big cowboy hat and never takes it off.
It’s a curious thing that I do, watching this old guy. He must know I’m looking. But he never shows it. Never waves or makes a gesture that he’s aware of me watching. Probably can’t see that far. Bad eyes at his age, I’m sure. Mine aren’t that great either. I’m about 100 yards across the dusty ground from him and sometimes I use binoculars. He surely can’t tell that I’m doing that. Hope he can’t. That would be a little creepy. It’s been over a year of this, my eyes on him. When I retired from the railroad, I thought I’d love not working, new freedoms to do whatever I want. Truth is, that lasted about a month. I can only do so much birding out here, searching the hot sky for eagles. I never was a golfer. Not a hunter. And my wife has been gone for a long while. Ten years now. So, I watch and look.
I’ve been in this place for more than two decades. Wife and I came out here when it started to get too crowded in Phoenix. So much sprawl. Too much traffic. Taxes went up. Can’t remember exactly when he moved in, though. Maybe, what, five years ago? The previous owner died. They found him in his big chair in the living room, TV still on. Just died there. He lived alone, too. Part Native American. Apache, I was told. He used to wear his hair in a ponytail. Thick, black hair. Wasn’t very old, but I didn’t know him much. Just to wave and talk about the heat. He had two big dogs. Don’t know what happened to them. And me? Well, I’ve been living in the desert all my life. My father worked for the railroad, too. I wonder what the old man did when he was younger? And why that particular house way out here? I’ve been asking myself those questions for a long time. Maybe he was tired of Phoenix, too. I’ve never bothered to ask or go over and say hello. I think the old guy might be a little out of it, like dementia or something. But what do I know? Either way, he must like sitting on that porch. That’s pretty much his life.
It’s getting darker now. The sun is hanging on the horizon. And he’s still out there on the couch. I never see him with a book or the newspaper. He just sits. And when the darkness comes, he fades into it. In time, it’s too hard to tell if he’s still there or when he goes inside. But come morning, he’ll be there, again. Sitting. I’ve seen him at sunrise. Sometimes he wears a ball cap. There are some words on the front of it, an emblem or something, but I can’t see it well enough through the binoculars. I can see him reaching for the old cap now. He keeps it right next to him on the couch. He’s putting it on. It’s a bit crooked on his head. I’ll bet it’s one of those military caps, the ones I see the old veterans wear at the Memorial Day parade, caps for the 101st Airborne or the ones that read Proud Vietnam Vet. He’s probably that kind of guy, proud of his service. Proud of his country.
The sun’s down now. I throw more wood on the fire. I’m not ready to go inside yet. It’s a beautiful night, and the desert is beginning to give up its heat. It’s the best time. Stars will be out soon, too. My wife and I used to sit out lots of nights. She’d drink her little pony bottles of Rocking Rock and I’d pour out some tequila into a juice glass. Just enough to settle us in for the evening. A little fire. Now and then a coyote hoot. We’d call the kids out here on the cell phone. We got two. One’s in Atlanta. She’s married. Got a kid. The other’s in Portland. Boy. Been there a few years. We see them once a year, at best. It’s tough to get everyone together. They have their own lives.
There’s Venus. First one. Brightest one. It’s hard to miss it even in the vast desert sky. It stands out in the velvet blue dusk and gets brighter as the sky turns midnight. Big star. But it’s not really a star, of course. It’s a planet. I wonder if he sees it. If he pays attention to the sky much. It’s too dark to tell if he’s still out there. Probably is. I’m listening hard to hear the creak of a screen door or boots on the wooden porch. Sound can carry across the desert like nowhere else. But I don’t hear much of anything, only a distant owl. And now the owl’s quiet, too.
What would happen if I took a walk over there? Maybe I should do it in the morning, when it’s light, when I won’t frighten or worry him. Maybe I should just go ahead and go anyhow. Now or never, you know? I’ve had my eye on him for so long now and it just seems stranger and stranger not to go up and say something, introduce myself. Why it’s taken me so long, I don’t know.
Funny how soles on the desert ground seem so loud in the night, like little firecrackers going off at each step. Seems like it’s the only thing making noise out here now. It’s dark on his porch. So little light drifts out from the big, tall lamps of that truck stop three miles away near the highway. There is a tiny sliver of light along the side window of the house. I see it now that I’m closer. Didn’t see it before. Maybe he’s still on the porch. My eyes are weary, and I’m squinting now. Too murky to see much even at thirty yards or so. Hello? I kind of whisper, so I say it a little louder. Hello? There’s no one there. I can see better now at about ten yards away. My eyes adjusting to the night. When did he go inside? He was awful quiet about it. These steps need some repair, and the railing is rickety. Hello? The screen door is shut, but the bigger door is open. Wait. Is that him talking? Mumbling? Is that a cry? Hello?
Jesus. Oh, Jesus.
He’s in an old rocker, a long gun behind his knees, the barrel at his mouth. He’s slumped into it, shaking with tears. One hand on the barrel the other on the trigger. Both are trembling.
I’ve got the rifle now. He lets me take it without resisting. His hands have fallen to his sides. His eyes are closed. He’s crying, silent but harder. I study the long gun. The chamber is empty. I’m trembling now, my palms sweaty. I lean the rifle against a small dining table where newspapers are stacked next to dirty dishes with hardened egg yolk. There’s a framed photo on the wall, hanging crooked, people dressed in suits, looking at the camera. I put a hand on the man’s back, and it rises and falls with his body.
He says he screwed up. Says it’s just too much. Says he can’t even kill himself right. He’s no longer crying. His eyes are open, blank, dead eyes.
For a long time, I sit with him. He’s a big man. Broad shoulders. His hair is nearly white and still thick, showing only a slightly balding crown. His eyebrows unruly. There’s a tattoo of some type on his forearm. His shirt hides most of it. I can see the word peace and a pedal of a flower in the ink. His knuckles are knobby and his nails yellow. There’s hair in his ears. I sit and sit. And sit.
I hear the owl again, his night song muted inside the old house. But it’s there. It’s unmistakable.
I’ve made a friend with a mule deer. She comes down from the foothills in the morning and evenings most days. I throw scraps of cooked vegetables and some oatmeal out to the desert, and each time I’ve left it closer to the house and each time the deer comes nearer. She’s no longer scared of me. I can almost walk right up to her now. I talk to her, too. We have conversations. She makes little noises, snorts, and I just talk. About the weather, about the javelinas that run through here, and how they stink, stink like rotten meat. Even when they’re many yards away, the scent rolls in like smoke. I ask her about her family, if she has fawns, and when I do, I think about my own, my kids. It’s been a long time now. I ask her, too, if she remembers the old man. Gone now many months.
The house has been empty. Curtains pulled. No one has come by since the man in the blue pickup showed up with another man a few days after that night. The other had a clipboard in his hand, and he wore those blue scrubs that nurses wear. Together they took the old man out in a wheelchair and rolled him up the road to where the pickup and the other man’s car were parked. They lifted him into the truck’s passenger side and strapped the chair in the bed. The desert dust followed them up to the highway, both the car and the pickup disappearing into the shadows of dusk. I guess the house is going to be for sale at some point, but there’s no sign. Not yet. And no one has come by since then. Maybe they’ve abandoned it. Sometimes I want to go over there, take a look around. But I never do.
I like it out here the same as I always have. I still look out across the desert with my binoculars. I still search for the eagles. The old guy was not well, but he was always there. That was nice, knowing he was there. But I can’t think of that now. It’s better to think about what remains, like these God-given evenings in the desert. The kind that’s coming now. Such a beautiful time. The land settles into stillness that you just can’t find anywhere else. It’s like heaven, I guess. Whatever that is. It’s why I stay out here with my little fire and my friend, the deer. Look at the sun falling now, that gorgeous orange melting into the blue sky, cobalt blue. The world is magic in the last light out here. And there it goes. The sun. Gone now. It happens just like that. And then the blue, the deep blue, little by little, turning to violet.
Oh, and look, it’s Venus. The first. The brightest.