About the Desert Photos
John Mandelberg

7.18.05 23:24:20

Hello Chrissie: are you there?—sorry I know I haven’t called you in a while—I’ve had so much going on and—hello Chrissie?—oh sorry, I thought you were going to pick up.

I wanted to tell you about these desert photos: I don’t know if I told you I was going to the desert—I guess it’s been a while since we spoke and I’m sorry—I think I told you I was going to the desert with Michel.

So I did go to the desert but with Jason: not audio Jason, but Jason, Michel’s friend—I don’t know if you know him—I hardly knew him myself—and it completely shook up my mind—all my thinking about myself shattered and I felt I had a totally different conception of life—everything seemed brilliantly clear but everything completely different in this tremendous deep overpowering light.

Hello?: no anyway—I’m sorry I haven’t called since then—anyway, I realized as we were driving that I hardly knew Jason at all: I didn’t even know his last name or if he’s “Anglo” or “Latino” or maybe Persian?—but it seemed so very right and important that I go to the desert—my mind was overcrowded with thoughts and worries and doubts—really since you and I were last together, and I was really tense at that time—so many back and forths in my mind—wondering where I’m going with my imagination and ambitions—whether I’m just playing a stupid game with this screenwriting over and over and over.

I thought suddenly very strongly: yes—I have to go to the desert I have to—it seemed desperately important to clean my mind to reset all my thoughts—quit doubting this and that and let everything just go—to be totally visual—just to see everything fully and not manipulate anything—I felt a kind of desperation about it.

So I went with Jason to the desert: I took my old film camera—because it was like a test—to test out whether I could go back to my childhood way of seeing the world so intensely and to be so open to it without stupid mediation and to do it in this old way with a still camera—I mean here it is 2005 and maybe it would be the last time I use a film camera—and L.A. seemed so beautiful, the hills on the 5 soft and rounded all plush with green and black velvety oaks and purple and brown bare skin of the mountains—but it made me think of how my so-called art is inadequate—how could you make a film about beauty?—what is there to show?—just scenes of one canyon then another canyon?—is there no true beauty from filmmaking except nature documentaries?

I thought that if we stared at one beautiful natural thing all day we would become repulsed by it: what would it mean—no really what could it ever mean for us?—and so on and so on these useless thoughts stayed in my head and somehow I couldn’t talk to Jason—why does my stupid screenplay need characters, why does it always have to be somebody seeing this or that—why is it always “a guy who” sees and not just what exists what is fully there whether seen by some guy or not?—the answer I told myself in self-defense is because without the guy it would be unwatchable—we would be repulsed in the end—because it would not be human.

I thought I want a sort of inhuman seeing: but you’ll laugh at me, I know I talk too much—I’m trying to tell you all the stupid things clogging up my mind, Chrissie—I should’ve had you there to laugh at me.

But this was the start of the total transformation of my thoughts: then the city finally ran out—the overall L.A. finally dribbled away, those huge slanted peaks rising up in front of blue mountains—the dry flattop hills—like uhh like a titan’s hand pushed from the west and the brittle earth-skin cracked and the pieces shoved against each other at a slant—the pale green high coarse meadows already dried out in June and flocks of dark little birds flashing and twisting in the air—the sunlight strong but gently modulated today so the blue was polished and soft enough to look at fully all open-eyed and in awe.

Then the eerie yellow dunes: high towering swirls of hard yellow sand—then for miles and miles along the mountains and at the edge of the smoky cropland the smells of onions cilantro bitter celery truck exhaust insecticide—dead vineyards with the little grapevines all turned to dead sticks—farm workers in baggy shirts and bandanas half-hidden by the green crops—then the new mountains shaggy brown rock-bound with boulders all stone-scattered.

But then the desert Chrissie: and all this vanished—all this everything—no more “beauty” no more nature no more metaphors—only bare existence and light.

Everything I had been thinking about dissolved into nothing: the people the nature the beauty the urban sprawl society’s growth the flocks of birds—the look of the world on film, the “beauty” I could not capture through any artificial person’s eyes—then there was just a radiant nothing. Bare brown flat dirt for a million miles: a brown flat continent of vacancy. The blazing blue light filling the sky and overflowing to turn the distant diaphanous mountains blue, all blue and brown and emptiness between. I took photos full of intricate detail: but everything was the same everywhere. Endless meaningless variations of the same basic earth-stuff. It was matter, it was elemental brown bones of the world—but the emptiness was so empty it was totally filled with blue light—seamless and contentless light.

Then I saw there were only two things: existence and emptiness—my whole mind

seemed different or seemed transparent—I wasn’t using my human mind anymore to see but was seeing right through it—I realized that all my ideas all my life had been wrong—that I should’ve been seeing seeing seeing—seeing through people through cities through blabbering ideas talk yammering noise—that my true art should be transforming myself—becoming only a spark inside my own eyes—this is what I thought at that point.

I realized not that I was alive: there was nothing important in being alive—but I existed and I was allied with the earth in that way—but I also had this vibrating hollowness in my mind and that put me on the side of the emptiness of the light and air–– there was an indescribable serene tension between the two immensities—so we drove on and on and hardly spoke—I did not know Jason or who he was or why I was there—he has one of those new cell phones with the keyboard where you can text but it didn’t function out there—I took photos of the far distant blue mountains—so saturated with blue light they looked transparent—I took photos of the earth the space the flatness the intensity of sunlight.

But then: what I’m trying to say here Chrissie—everything changed again.

First we came to a place where there was a lookout point over a white salt slick—there was a parking lot and a little shack with a solar panel and a parked car—we stared intently at the parked car as if it was the most amazing thing on earth—who was there who who?—was there a person there?—but we didn’t see anybody there, we stared at the white salt slick and then got back in the car and drove on and on and on and on—vast brown dead gleaming earth and endless sparkling nothingness blue light.

Then I took photos urgently: I was still awed and shaken but now thinking ahead—I thought the images would bring it all back to me so later I could savor and decode the mind-rattling intensity—I clung frantically to my camera till I used up all my old film.

Then I sat back exhausted and frightened and Jason talked: he talked to me about his ex-girlfriend and how he met Michel—he talked about Michel and illuminated his character deeply but I couldn’t remember anything he said later except that Michel goes on wild eating binges when he’ll go to restaurants three or four times a day—but all this about Michel and Jason’s ex-girlfriend and Jason’s childhood that at first seemed so far away became an interesting series of little stories that somebody could make into movies—but how could you make a movie about the horrible overpowering vision of the desert—about the real transparent substance of our underlying lives—about the thinness of beauty and the golden calm of existence—I felt elated and miserably frustrated—all I’d ever done was useless useless.

So then we came back: the next day I took my film to a little photo shop—it’s in the shopping mall on M—Avenue and B—Boulevard the one with the Vons supermarket and the Long’s Drug—I slept heavily the night we came back and with my brain flushed out by sleep and directed back into familiar patterns of thought; I couldn’t grapple with my visions of the desert—so I thought I’d wait to get the photos back before trying to write down my thoughts.

The parking lot was jammed around the bank and the coffee shop, but I found a place to park: I hurried in and gave my rolls of film to the young guy there—he was busy and on the phone but he took my little rolls of film and waved and nodded—I knew the shop was run by a skinny energetic middle-aged Chinese guy who mostly does digital printing nowadays—but I wasn’t sure if the young guy was Asian too—I only glanced at him for an instant and got a vague impression of thick dark hair bunched behind his head maybe Latino or Samoan or Filipino—I had to call my work about my previous paycheck because I’m still working nights at the bankruptcy division and the section supervisor isn’t there when I’m there—then I was rushing around and trying to buy toilet paper and cat food for my cat—I was thrown back into my pre-desert life though I mentally rejected it—I thought when I get the photos back I will study them and recapture the violent revelation I had and reshape my whole ambition and “artistic” life.

Also I was going to call you that day, Chrissie: but then I was so pressured—I didn’t have time to redirect my thoughts—if I’d had time I would have called you but I had to save my timeless thoughts for later when I had time—I know it’s been too long now—I know I’ve taken too long.

So I worked that night and by the time I got off: no wait a minute—that was the night I noticed my car was leaking—I got off work at midnight and I see this slimy slick in the parking structure—I thought it was just oil but then it looked like transmission fluid and I was worried but drove home—then I slept badly and got up about ten o’clock: I brought the car in all nervous—wondering about the hundreds and thousands of dollars it might cost—all this shit all this stupid human shit that destroys us that devours our time and our perceptions.

I thought I could walk back to my apartment and still do some writing but decided to go pick up my desert photos: the photo shop is in the other direction though—but I walked over there, past the supermarket and the greeting card store, the sporting goods store the pharmacy coffee place ATM: I came up to the photo shop and saw a sign—“back in five minutes”—I stood to wait, I checked the time on my cell phone and stood with my back to the locked glass door—I looked at the people and wondered, who was coming to unlock the door for me and give me my precious photos?: I saw a thin Asian-American man with glasses and thought it might be him, but it wasn’t—people came toward the shop, and I looked at each one expectantly but nobody was the one.

I rattled the door to make sure it was really locked and that I hadn’t been deluded—a short cute plump woman came up to the door and I said “there’s nobody there I’ve been waiting twenty minutes” and she said “oh” but had to shake the door herself before she walked away because she couldn’t believe me—five more minutes and five more minutes: I should’ve left—I was seething, I had wasted my precious so precious time—finally in excruciating frustration I left: I could not get my photos, I had lost my time to work on my screenplay—I would have to go get my car and pay all my savings—miserable stupid useless.

I walked away and toward the supermarket sullen and furious: then in the crowd I saw a young man with dark hair maybe Latino or Samoan or Asian carrying a bag from the Chinese takeout—I thought, is that the photo guy? I had only seen him for an instant before: I couldn’t even say why I thought this might be him—some human instinct in me had snagged at his image—I could not say why.

I stopped in confusion and then I followed him: I held back because what if it wasn’t him?—he stopped to look at a display in the greeting card store window and I stopped too and read the headlines in the newspaper rack—war killings bombs Iraq and everywhere—horrible bombs in crowds killed scores of people and blew them apart—is this all that human beings can do?—I couldn’t follow him too closely in case it wasn’t him—but then I couldn’t call out “hey do you work at the photo store” because he was already far ahead of me—but I kept following him.

Was it him?: some prehistoric hunter-gatherer power in me of which I’d been completely unaware made me think it was him—but I didn’t want to seem to be following him—finally he stopped at the photo shop and put his food down on the concrete walkway and opened the door with his key—then I came up and went in and he nodded and gave me the desert photos: I said “I was waiting for you but you didn’t come back”—he said “yeah sorry I just went out for my takeout order but they had lost it and I had to wait—sorry about that.”

Then I walked home with my priceless photos: but I was amazed at my ability to recognize that guy—what was it about him?—did I remember his eyes or face?—I had only seen him for a second and I had not seen him walking before so I couldn’t recognize his gait—so how did I know it was him? I thought there is something human in me, in us: something human that strangely links us to each other—it is not that we see ourselves in others—it is that we see each other—we see with our limited human powers the things which our limited powers can see.

I walked home through the warm lazy side streets: under the trees and in and out of their deep fragrant comforting shade—I thought strangely and happily of vivid dramas, I felt broken chunks of anecdotes in my heads and heard people’s agitated lying voices—then when I opened the envelope of the photos I was disappointed and deflated: they were just tiny squares of flat color—little paper squares with little patches of brown and yellowish-brown—tiny little drawings of little blue mountains—trivial and silly—forgotten postcards with no writing on the back.

I was just looking at them again and I wished I could have uhh:—why did I have those vast desert revelations only to lose them?—I don’t really know where I’m going –why should we be limited to humanity?—and yet I guess we are limited to humanity—anyway I should’ve called you before.

Chrissie: I must’ve talked too long for your machine but I didn’t hear a click—good thing you don’t have voicemail or they would’ve shut me off—hey give me a call or email me, I really want to talk to you—I think the time that I’ve been apart from you is almost wasted—like something has been cut out of me that I shouldn’t have let uhh—I feel that I just have been—oh hello?—hello Chrissie are you there?—sorry I thought I heard you pick up.

7.18.05 23:56:31

John Mandelberg’s stories have appeared most recently in Beloit Fiction Journal, Santa Monica Review, Pif, and Prick of the Spindle. He lives in Los Angeles and works in retail.