Arthur Penbroke enjoyed a life of semi-reclusion in Joshua Tree where he was employed under the table. He worked with and oversaw the landscaping and maintenance crew at a retreat center on the east end of town. The center hosted various events, mostly, but not entirely restrictive to, spiritual or religious-minded groups. As a legal American he didn’t need to be paid this way, and he knew that this form of pay was illegal. He lived in a cabin that he’d been remodeling over time. His art was writing and he’d been working on a novel: a “desert noir” involving a well-known musician hiding out in a secluded vacation rental recording an album by himself.
One Friday, Arthur was about to leave work when Margaret, the secretary, stopped him.
“Arthur,” she said. “Before you leave Susan wants you in her office.”
Arthur stood in the doorway of the office building and looked back at the plump, middle-aged woman seated at her desk. He was surprised to have heard her. She had a meek voice and may have been embarrassed by it because she rarely spoke up. “You know what for?” he asked.
A year or so before Arthur and Susan had briefly carried on an affair while she was separated from her husband Jim, but they had dissolved the relationship amicably when her marriage soon reconciled. They remained professional in their work environment, although sometimes they’d slipped into flirtatious talk. Often this left Arthur feeling a bit guilty, especially whenever Jim stopped by the office, dropping off supplies from Costco or bringing her something she’d left at their home down in Palm Springs. Arthur was sure that Jim never knew and he couldn’t imagine the shame he’d feel if Jim ever found out.
In the office Arthur usually tried to keep space between him and Susan, which was hard because she was the one who told him what to work on each day. Presently, he was hoping this meeting would be routine and formal. It was Friday and he wanted to grab a beer with Charles after work or something.
Margaret looked back up from her computer screen. “No. She just wanted me to let you know.” She shrugged to him, looked back to her screen, and then pointed behind her. “You can go in now.”
“I’m supposed to give Charles a ride home.”
Again, she shrugged.
“Yeah, alright. Tell him I’m in there when you see him?”
He looked in the office candy jar for a Tootsie-Roll but none were left. Walking toward Susan’s office, he sighed loudly. This could go one of many ways. Susan was unpredictable. Margaret looked up at him, but she didn’t say anything.
Susan’s back was to him when he walked in. Her desk was covered with pens and all sorts of paperwork: stacks of applications; folders filled with files on who-knows-what; a few tattered spiral notebooks; and a single piece of paper, folded as if from an envelope, lying over the face of her computer’s keyboard. There was also a plastic tray with her lunch leftovers (unfinished corncob, beet stains, and a picked-at salad) splayed across it. He looked at her long, curling, black hair. She turned around and met him with a pleasant smile. On some days you could see the forty-plus years in her face, but Arthur found her looking softer, that old tease he knew within her eyes.
“How’d it go today, Art?” She batted her eyes and then motioned with her hands. “Close the door. Sit down.”
“Not a bad week in all, really. We’ve gotten that water leak in Topaz Hall fixed and everything cleaned up from it.” He sat down in a chair before her desk. “Charles trimmed back the trees in front of Emerald and Juan did an insect spray over there—”
“Did Charles check the irrigation in the meditation garden like I asked?”
“I asked him, but I was over near there, and he hadn’t gotten to it yet, so I went ahead and checked it out.”
“Why didn’t he have it done? I swear Art, if they aren’t listening to you—and I know they aren’t listening to me—how are we going to get things done?” Her telephone began to ring, but she ignored it, moving in closer to him. “I’ve got a meeting with the board members next week. They want to see progress before allowing us another loan.” She moved back, again relaxing in her chair.
“Don’t worry. It wasn’t his fault, I happened to beat him to it.” He wiped his brow and pulled on the front of his shirt to cool himself. She kept a candle burning on her desk at all times, and it always smelled like an exotic rainforest. An oscillating fan also stood behind her chair next to the lamp, but he’d never seen it on.
“I’m glad to have you working for us. You know that.” She stood up, leaned toward him. “But you also know I like to have things done my way.” She walked around the desk to the other side of Arthur. He turned his head to face her behind him.
“You know I know you do.” He paused, wetting his lips. Then he quickly realized she may have misread this gesture as a flirt. “Look, it’s not like these guys are doing bad work. Everyone gets a little lazy after a long day. They’re working a small under-the-table job and I’m not sure they take most of our clientele seriously.”
“Perfect. Why you’re here. We got a letter today about undocumented workers. Basically we’ve got to tighten ship and legally account for all workers.” Slightly snickering, she turned his head forward and began rubbing his shoulders with her small, yet strong, hands. It felt great, he had no idea where this was going and wasn’t sure he was up to finding out. His entire body quickly tensed up under her fingers. He jerked his body away from her hands and turned back to face her.
“What’s with you?” asked Susan. She was frowning, and it was pouty. It made Arthur worried that she had some sort of intentions he wasn’t grasping. “Something’s up.”
“It’s nothing,” he said. “What do you mean by ‘tighten ship’?”
“I mean that I need you and your crew to have legal documentation, social security, what-have-you, to Amanda. Fill out your W-2’s. All within two weeks at the latest.” Her face was red, but she couldn’t hold her smile back when she tried to be serious. Her eyes glowed. “We could get in big trouble here. I cannot lose our non-profit status.” She returned to her chair and picked at the papers on the desk.
“I’m not even sure how many of our guys are legal.” He looked down to the floor and ran his hands up and down his face. “Where else are they going to be able to find work? Those guys are assets to this place. They work hard—”
“You just got done telling me that they’re lazy. I don’t want to have to tolerate that. If they aren’t legal, then I’ve been doing them a huge favor and, sadly for them, the favors run out.”
He tried to speak up but was interrupted before he could start.
“Here are the W-2’s you need to disperse to the men. Don’t forget one for you,” she said, handing him a manila folder filled with papers.
“I didn’t mean to be so off-putting. I’m sorry.” He flashed a smile meant to be coy; a calm look filled her face. “Is there some way you can move these guys around this paper trail?”
“You’re my most important man,” she said. The red in her face was a blush now. She hesitated, as if considering what to say next. “I can try to make something work—for you—but if I can’t, I’m going to have to let those guys go. In the instance that this does work, it’ll only be a few. One or two.”
“I understand.” He began to stand up, brushing his left hand through his short, brown hair, but Susan leaned toward him, forcing him back down.
“Now of course, I mean that in all aspects, ‘my most important man’” she said. “Jim’s in L.A. and I’m staying on site this weekend. You’re not on call.” She reached to touch his shoulder once more.
“If you have any trouble you can call anyway,” Arthur said, rising from the chair. He was ready to make his exit. “Nothing much planned this weekend. Reading. Maybe go for a hike.”
“What about this evening?” She seemed to be beckoning him to stay in the office.
He looked at the clock on the wall. It read 5:26. “I told Charles I’d give him a ride home. He’s waiting out there. I’ll call you later this evening. We can talk more. But not here, you know that.” He turned to leave, but then looked back to her once more. “I feel guilty enough.”
“You’re right. You’re right. Drive safe.”
He walked out of the office and into the retreat center’s bookstore. Charles was sitting on the bench outside the French doors of the entrance, tearing the rubber away from the sole of his shoes. Arthur opened the door. He could smell the scent of wet creosote bushes. “C’mon, let’s get out of here,” he said.
Before moving to the desert Arthur spent a few years in Los Angeles. He had meant to begin a burgeoning singer/songwriter career, but he ended up waiting tables and playing a few open mics to near-empty rooms. The whole thing ended up being more stressful than he was willing to risk. The city life was overbearing on his nerves, and he could never attain a grasp on its pace and energy. After many sleepless nights trying to juggle everything the idea of fame grew weak-willed and he turned to writing fiction at home.
Some friends from L.A. who were into rock climbing had taken him out to Joshua Tree on one of their trips, and soon after he was making solo camping trips, getting better acquainted with the area and some of the community, which he found rich and thriving. He loved the openness, the vastness, the feeling of nature confronting you one on one. At night the sun would set into the San Bernardino Mountains, blending deep reds and purples across the entire sky. He listened as silence blanketed the night like the stars above. His writing, at the same time, had begun to make new turns; he felt that the desert had helped him reach a clarity.
On a bulletin board outside a coffee shop he found an ad for the small cabin for rent-to-own on the north side of town. Like a studio apartment, the cabin itself consisted of just one large room. There was an attached bathroom just outside the back door. It sat near the center of a five-acre lot on the north side of town. The nearest neighbor was nearly half a mile down the dirt road. Soon he had gotten the job at the retreat center and had made new friends like Charles.
Charles was in his mid-twenties, a few years younger than Arthur. He lived with his girlfriend and their infant daughter at his parents’ house on the south side of town, not far from the entrance to the national park. Charles had been hired about a year before, around the time Arthur had been promoted to head of the crew. He was the first man that Arthur got to really work hands-on with in the training. Every once and a while they’d go on weekend excursions with a couple other guys, camping and climbing. Charles’ car was in the shop, so Arthur was taking his friend back and forth to work. They lived on the opposite sides of town, but he didn’t mind. He was more worried for Charles’ job.
Arthur knew that Charles’ family had emigrated from Mexico when he was just a child, and they’d never gained legal status in the country. Somehow his parents had been able to get him into public schools, but since high school he’d been relying on under-the-table jobs like this one.
They got in Arthur’s old diesel Volvo and headed down the highway. The sun was glaring in the sky behind them as they rolled past the light into downtown Joshua Tree. The air conditioning didn’t work too well, so they had their windows down; the breeze of the desert air cooled them as it filled the entire car. “You want to grab a beer at the Saloon?” asked Arthur over the sound of the wind.
“I’ve got get home. The old man is cooking up a storm tonight. Eat with us if you don’t have anything going on.”
“Nothing planned so far.” Arthur remembered his boss. “Susan wants me to call her to discuss . . . things. I may go home and try to settle that out.”
Abruptly, Charles turned to face him. “Shit. Is that back on? She leave her husband again?”
“I don’t know what’s going on.” Arthur maintained his focus on the long, winding road that took them closer to the park. “Look,” he started. He explained to Charles not only about the W-2 forms for Amanda and how the payment at work was going to change, but how he was trying to work with Susan to get around it.
“Who’s Amanda?” Charles asked.
“She’s the accountant,” said Arthur. “Maybe you shouldn’t tell Becky about this yet.”
“I don’t know man, she’s the mother of my child. If I lose this job, it’s going to be hard as hell for me to find something else.”
Arthur could hear the anxiety in his voice.
“I gotta tell her something.”
“I’ll figure out something,” Arthur said. He was trying to calm his friend, but he wasn’t really sure if he could fix this. He wasn’t an accountant, and he didn’t know if he could bring it to himself to use Susan. Of course she’d come on to him, but it wasn’t right to sleep with her, especially with her marriage back together. What a mess.
“I don’t want to tell you to do anything you might regret later,” said Charles.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Arthur. He let up his focus and looked over to his friend. “Who said anything about regret anyway?” Arthur tried to force a smile, though he felt that his attempt was read as half-hearted.
Charles’ road was rocky, and if you drove too fast down it you left a long trail of trail of dust in your wake. Arthur turned onto it, but crawled the car toward the house as to not piss off the neighbors.
They bounced down the bumpy dirt road listening to the local rock radio station. It was a mile or so before they got up to Charles’ family’s property. The driveway was marked with a handmade sign reading Juarez. The house was in the center of the yard and had many multi-colored additions that had been added throughout the years. The sides of the house consisted of scattered chicken coops, rusting children’s bicycles and old tires, random sheets of metal and pieces of rotting lumber. A low wooden fence, which met with a boulder-covered hill back behind the house, surrounded the perimeter of the yard. A few old cars, none of which appeared to be operational, dotted the yard. There was smoke rising from the backyard, and it smelled like barbeque pork.
Charles and Becky lived in the back of the house, so Arthur drove around there. “Sure smells good,” he said as he put the car into park.
Charles got out of the car and leaned through the open window. “Are you sure that you don’t want to stay? There’s more than enough to eat.”
“Maybe in a bit,” said Arthur. “Gonna go home and clean up. I’ll grab some beer on the way back.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” They shook hands. Charles turned and walked to the house and Arthur drove off.
On the ride home, Arthur remembered how Susan had once told him that she’d hired Charles knowing that he had a pregnant girlfriend and wanted to give the young family a chance. Arthur hoped he could convince her again, although he didn’t feel great about what he’d be doing to get that help.
Sometimes he felt Susan used her sexuality and their past over him. While they had cordially agreed to move on, she never really turned down the flirting. Maybe it was a part of her personality, but she seemed to enjoy making Arthur feel excessively awkward in the presence of Jim. Once Jim had stopped Arthur in the office and made small talk with him about sports, stock portfolios, golf tips, things Arthur had no interest in. It seemed to go on forever. In the background, Susan, noticing Arthur stuck in the loathsome loop, began to lick her lips and touch over her body, teasing him right behind her own husband’s back. Arthur feigned having to use the restroom to escape the situation. He had waited in the men’s room until he no longer heard Jim’s voice and promptly exited the building.
It had been well over a year since they had ended the affair. He had to admit to himself that he was still attracted to her. Besides the sex, she was actually someone he could talk to, a rarity. They used to watch sunsets, talking about literature and art. She’d helped him a lot with his book. Arthur didn’t really like to talk about his work with many people, but Susan was someone he trusted. She had good feedback and encouraged him to make the leaps that he’d felt he’d made in his writing since he’d come to Joshua Tree. She understood his sense of satire, and he was able to learn things he’d never imagined, not just sexually. Still, he hated the thought of ruining a marriage, and he liked Jim. The guy might have been dull and, most likely, a hardcore conservative, but he didn’t want to break his heart.
As Arthur entered his home a rush of warm air pushed him back. He’d forgotten to leave a window cracked. Leaving the front door open, he quickly moved about pulling up blinds and unlatching windows.
A short dresser nearly six feet long stood near the entrance. There was an old record player, a pair of speakers in wooden cabinets, and a row of lined up record’s on top of it. Arthur’s bed, on the opposite side of the room, was covered with climbing gear and his folded laundry. He flipped through the LPs and pulled out Mingus Ah Um. After looking over the back cover for a minute or so he placed the vinyl down on the turntable.
Music filled the room, and he moved to the kitchen area. There were a few worn, wooden cabinets, a sink, and an old, small white stove next to its matching refrigerator. From the fridge he retrieved a bottle of Tanqueray, a two-liter bottle of store-brand tonic water, and some ice from its upper compartment. He cut up a small lime that had been lying on the counter. Grabbing the cordless from the wall, he went back out to his front porch, which was shrouded in the shade of the structure.
He sat in the comfy reclining chair he’d bought at a thrift store down in town. The tag in the store read twenty-five dollars, which was fine with Arthur, but when the guy at the counter rang him up, he was informed that there was a sale going on and it was only ten. Arthur felt bad getting the chair for cheaper, because he knew the money from the store went to different charities, and insisted that he pay the full, marked price.
He set his drink on the table beside him and decided to give Susan a call. When she didn’t answer he figured she was probably still in the office. So he called Charles.
When Charles answered he sounded like he’d already had a few drinks himself. “Becky says you can’t come back over unless you bang Susan for my job.” He laughed loudly into the phone.
“I told you not to tell her.”
“It’s cool. She’s just fucking around. What are you doing? Come over.”
“I’m having a drink on the porch.” He grabbed the glass and took a sip. “Tried to call Susan. No Answer.” He fixed the phone between his head and shoulder, stood up, and fluffed the cushion of the chair out. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know if she’s so shallow that she’ll trade sex for this. I almost hope not, in a way.”
“Shit.” Charles’ voice rose through the phone, creating static in the line as he spoke, but it was a voice full of anxiety, not anger. “You made it seem like she’s just dangling it in front of you.”
“What would that make me for taking it?” Arthur walked out into the fleeting evening sunlight, looked up at the sky. A few light clouds hung to the south. He tilted the glass back to his mouth until there were only cubes. “She’s fickle.”
“Hell man, you’ll figure it out. Why don’t you come on over? There’s still plenty of food, plenty of drinks.”
“I might do that.”
Arthur hung up the phone and made another drink. The side of the record had ended, but instead of flipping it over, he pulled out another one and put its side-B on. While he made himself the drink he laughed about Becky’s supposed suggestion to “bang Susan”. Sitting down with his drink at his small kitchen table, he tried to remember the last time he’d had sex and he remembered Jessie.
Arthur had met Jessie down at the Joshua Tree Saloon, not long after the tryst with Susan had ended. Jessie was twenty-one versus Arthur’s thirty, an age difference that was of concern to him at the time. He must have been suppressing the fact there was a wider gap between Susan and himself. The sex was alright and she was as stunning as any guy would hope for in a girl her age, but, looking back, it was too soon after Susan. Susan was better for him in so many ways. Jessie couldn’t stimulate him intellectually. He never even told her he was a writer for fear of what mass marketed trash she’d come to associate him with just out of pure ignorance. She only seemed concerned with text message conversations and gossip-talk about people he didn’t know. Not long after the last time they’d had sex, Arthur came to sort of realization of how inexperienced she was for him, and, over her sobbing, that’s how he had, maturely, tried to explain it to her. He hadn’t slept with anyone since.
Arthur heard the phone ringing outside the door. He turned down the stereo and went to answer.
“I saw that you called.” It was Susan. She sounded as bubbly as ever. “Called you back as soon as I noticed. Didn’t want to miss you.”
He imagined her on the other end, twirling her hair around her finger like a high school girl. “I told you I’d call.” The gin had lightened him up. “What are you up to?”
“I finally got out of the office. Just got to my room.”
He heard her sigh. She sounded as if the phone was against her lips. He sat down into the soft chair on the porch, sinking into it. “Working late on a Friday? Don’t you ever quit early?”
“I had a meeting with Amanda. Trying to figure things out for you.”
He sat up straight. “What do you mean?”
“Your little fit this afternoon. I told you I could try to fudge it. How many of these guys are illegal anyway?”
“I—I don’t know. What are you thinking?”
“Amanda figures if we declare most of the workers, especially including you since you’re presiding over them, that we could still hide a few on the side. We can bring some money over from the bookstore to make things appear clean.”
“Isn’t that a risk though?” Arthur was looking down at the ground, holding the phone with his right hand; his left hand rubbed the top of his head.
“I figure I owe you one,” she said. “The thing is, though, we can probably only save one guy. Maybe two, but I wouldn’t count on it the way the bookstore sells.”
“Thank you for even trying.” Arthur stood up and let out a big breath of air. He told her that he knew that Charles didn’t have documentation and that if he had any choice in the decision, he wanted Charles to keep his job. He reminded her about Becky and their child he was trying to support. She agreed to keep Charles for as long as she could keep up the ruse. The board could never know anything about it, and if anything came up he’d have to go. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything, though,” he said.
“I suppose you’re busy for the night?” asked Susan.
“Just been enjoying the evening, having a drink on the porch. It’s beautiful out. The sunset is probably going to be great.”
“It’s lovely over here too. Maybe I’ll watch it from the meditation garden.” There was a hesitation in her voice.
“Why don’t you come over here. Watch it with me. I’ll make you a drink.”
“Are—are you sure? I know that sometimes I can be a bit—”
“Don’t worry about. I want you here. I’m already making your drink.” He shook his own drink for her to hear the ice clinking. “If you’re not here soon enough, I’m going to have to drink it myself.”
They ended the conversation. She was on her way.
Arthur called Charles to let him know that his job was probably safe for now. “I won’t make it over, but save me some food,” he said.
Charles laughed at him. “Don’t be coming to me with your guilt tomorrow.”
“No guilt. It is what it is.”
Arthur walked back inside. He cleared his laundry off of the bed, putting it all where it belonged. Then he made the bed. He cleaned some dishes that had been left in the sink and prepared the drink he’d claimed to already be making, along with another for himself. After closing the blinds throughout the house, he lit a few candles on the dresser and walked back outside with both drinks and waited for Susan to come.