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Pick any means of transportation, public or private, over land, sea,
or air. No matter which direction you travel, it takes three hours to
get out of L.A. Yeah, I know there are all those folks with a head
start for the Grapevine out in Northridge and Tarzana, but hell, to
those of us in the trenches, the real Angelenos, those places are
only luminescent names on big green signs seemingly suspended in
midair above the 101 Freeway. Yeah, yeah, I know all about the good
citizens of Encino and Toluca Lake who are always bragging about the
convenience of friendly little Burbank Airport, but let's get real --
they're not going anywhere anyway.
I'm talking about the other side of the hill -- Downtown,
Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice, and Silver Lake -- the transient
heart of the city, the L.A. of Raymond Chandler, Chet Baker, and Tom
Waits. A place where folks come to do Great Things -- make movies and
records, write screenplays and novels, which they hope will become
screenplays someday, because that's where the money is. And every-
fucking-body's got a "treatment" that they're working on, including
half of the L.A.P.D. Most of these folks only wind up as minor
characters in the work of the fortunate few. You've seen them --
aging bit players with tough, brown hides, mummified from years of
sitting around motel swimming pools waiting for the phone to ring.
The drug-ravaged former rock stars in raggedy-ass Porches and Saabs
on an unending orbit of the downtown streets. Even the lucky ones
only get as far as the Hollywood Hills or maybeMalibu, where they
live out their lives with their backs to the world's widest and
deepest ocean, waiting for wildfire to rain down from the canyons
above. And should they decide to get out? Well, like I said, it takes
three hours, and most people simply don't have the resolve.
Bobby Charles certainly didn't. He left L.A. in disgrace, low-
riding in the passenger seat of his soon-to-be ex-wife's BMW. Not
that he wanted to go, but this town kicked his ass so thoroughly
there was simply no fight left in him. Kim West (she had never taken
Bobby's last name, for professional reasons) had finally given up on
her talented but troubled husband of five years, and now she just
wanted him out of her town.
When Kim and Bobby met, he was a country-rock singer whose
first marriage had already begun to buckle under the stress of
constant touring, the distance alone taking a considerable toll. His
wife and two kids were back in Nashville, but his real home was a
forty-foot Eagle bus he shared with his band and crew. At age thirty-
five Bobby was somewhat of a cult figure, the kind of recording
artist who, thanks to a loyal following, sold one hundred thousand
records per release, although this was barely enough to recoup his
recording costs. The critics loved his work, however, and he lent a
certain amount of integrity to a record label's roster. Before Kim
came along, he had always considered L.A. a nice place to visit, at
Bobby had always avoided strong women like the plague, but
something about the diminutive, up-and-coming producer fascinated
him. Kim came out from St. Louis to attend the UCLA film school,
switching to a business major midway through her second year. She
went on to an M.B.A. and a job at a major studio. When a mutual
friend introduced the pair at a party after the Grammy Awards, Kim
thought Bobby was cute, in a primitive sort of way, like Crocodile
Dundee or something. She was bored to tears with dating
other "industry" types, who saved all the receipts from dinner and
talked shop in bed. Bobby was a little loud, a little reckless, and
she knew her mother would hate him.
They left the party together in a rented 5.0 Mustang
convertible. They wound up parked somewhere way up Mulholland Drive
with Kim's panties hanging on the rearview mirror, breathlessly
gazing down on all those lights. From that moment, L.A. had Bobby
Charles by the balls.
Bobby didn't discover heroin in L.A. Hell, he grew up in San
Antonio, Texas, 150 miles from the Mexican border. Despite the much
publicized efforts of the U.S. government, brown heroin steadily
seeped across the Rio Grande like tainted blood from a gangrenous
wound. Bobby first tried it at an impromptu party at a friend's house
when he was fourteen. For years he managed to get away with his off-
and-on habit. He always managed to detox in time for this tour or
that record, and even if he was dope-sick he never missed a show. By
the time he met Kim, though, it was starting to catch up with him.
Once Bobby left his family and moved to L.A., cheap, strong dope,
guilt, and a long, nasty divorce combined to provide him with all the
excuse any addict needs to bottom out.
At first it was just a matter of L.A.'s dependable supply of
heroin, but pretty soon Bobby discovered speedballs -- deadly
intravenous cocktails of heroin and cocaine. It wasn't long before he
had two habits to support. In L.A. time passes in its own surreal
fashion -- too subtle to even be detectable to folks who are used to
four seasons. So if you asked Bobby, he couldn't tell you exactly
when his habit got to be too much work. He only knew that at some
point, in what passed for a moment of clarity, he enrolled in a
private methadone program. He woke up early every morning to line up
at the clinic with the other "clients" to take communion at the
little window -- a plastic cup of the bitter powder dissolved in an
orange-flavored liquid, chased by water from the cooler. Bobby was
then "free" from the need to run down to Hoover Street to buy heroin
twice a day. So he took up smoking crack.
Because he no longer used needles, Bobby told himself and
anyone who would listen that he was back on track. He'd get smoked up
and rattle on for hours about the "next record." Kim listened
dutifully, but she knew it was only talk. Bobby hadn't written a song
in more than three years. How could he? All of his guitars (along
with a few that didn't belong to him) were in the pawnshop.
Kim knew Bobby was a junkie when she married him. She just
didn't know he was a junkie junkie. At first she saw dope as part of
Bobby's "thing," his mystique. It made him seem more dangerous, and
after all, she was slumming. It stopped being cute when money began
to turn up missing from her account. Or when he called her at work,
whacked out of his skull and thoroughly convinced that their little
craftsman bungalow in Larchmont Village was surrounded by police.
Kim, having little or no experience in such matters, immediately
called her lawyer and rushed home to find Bobby hiding in the hall
closet with a loaded shotgun and a crack pipe. When she opened the
door and stood there in tears, Bobby only stared back indignantly.
That was the day that Kim decided to bail, but she couldn't
bring herself to simply leave. After all, she really loved the guy;
she was just at the end of her rope. She decided that if she could
just get Bobby out of L.A., back to Nashville where his friends were,
or maybe just as far as Texas where his folks lived, maybe -- well,
at least she wouldn't have to watch him die.
So Kim went to Jeff Shapiro, her boss at the studio, and
asked for a leave of absence, which under the circumstances he was
more than willing to grant. Shapiro always considered Bobby a hick
and beneath Kim anyway. So Kim then canceled her subscription to the
Los Angeles Times, notified the home security service that she and
Bobby would be out of town indefinitely, serviced the car, and picked
up some cash at the bank on the way home.
Bobby never knew what hit him. It took Kim less than half an
hour to pack some T-shirts and the few pairs of jeans that still fit
Bobby (he'd lost an alarming amount of weight) and a few changes of
clothes for herself. She told him it would do them both good to get
away for a while. Bobby went through the motions of putting up a
fight, but before he knew it he was in the car headed down Beverly
Boulevard toward the 101.
They didn't get far. Junkies can't go directly from point A
to point B like other people, mainly because another hit always lies
somewhere in between. First they stopped at the methadone clinic on
Beverly and picked up Bobby's daily dose and a week's worth of "take-
homes" for the road. Kim had already called the doctor in advance and
begged for these, because doses "to go" were a privilege and Bobby
hadn't been able to manage a single "clean" urine specimen in six
months on the program.
Between the clinic and the freeway, tucked in between the
innocuous little bungalows, were at least fifty corners where street
kids and soda pop gangsters sold crack cocaine (called "rock" on the
West Coast) to the drive-up trade. Kim and Bobby made it as far as
the left turn onto Vermont Avenue, just before the 101 on-ramp, then
Bobby threatened to get out of the car if Kim didn't drive him to a
nearby spot. Reluctantly, she agreed, telling herself that this would
be the last time.
They headed north on Vermont and took a right into a little
rundown corner of East Hollywood. Two more rights followed by a quick
left brought Bobby and his reluctant chauffeur to a cul-de-sac, cut
off from the rest of the world by the freeway viaduct -- a great
graffiti-covered concrete monstrosity that bore the rest of the world
noisily over the heads of the folks who had to live in this desperate
little neighborhood. It was after dark, so anybody out on the street
was either selling rock or "plugs" -- little pieces of soap carved up
to look like the real thing. Bobby was no stranger to this
neighborhood. He ignored the hucksters and had Kim drag the block
slowly until he spotted Luis.
"There he is."
Bobby rolled down the window and whistled; a skinny kid with
Mayan features -- long, sloping forehead, almond-shaped eyes, and
angular nose -- came running over to the car. He was all of fifteen
"Hey, vato! Where you been, homes?"
Luis wasn't Bobby's only source, merely the nearest to the
"Around. What's up?"
"I got the grandes, homes. The monkey nuts. Check it out."
Luis reached down into his sock and produced a large prescription
medicine bottle, half full of off-white chunks of cooked-up coke,
rattling them around like the pebbles inside a pair of maracas. Bobby
noticed that Luis was acting strange, a little more wary than usual.
He kept glancing nervously, from side to side, over his shoulder as
they talked through the passenger-side window of Kim's BMW.
"What's up, kid? Five-O been through?"
"Naw, just some guys. Don't worry 'bout it, homes. What you
"How much for all of it?"
Luis looked down at the bottle, rattled it some more, as if
he was weighing it and doing the math in his head at a pace that
belied his sixth-grade education.
"How 'bout two yards?"
"Come on with it." Bobby handed Luis a wad of twenties, took
the bottle, and turned to Kim. "Let's roll."
They made a U-turn in the cul-de-sac and headed back toward
Vermont and the 101. Kim couldn't wait to get out of the
neighborhood, and Bobby had to tell her to slow down a little. About
halfway up the street they met a customized Chevy van rolling toward
the cul-de-sac with its lights off and the sliding cargo door locked
open. Bobby looked in his side mirror just in time to see little Luis
break and run as the van's headlights suddenly came on, freezing Luis
in the middle of the street. Kim jumped as the van came alive with
gunfire, the muzzle flash of at least three weapons visible through
the open door. The last time Bobby saw Luis, he was lying face down
in the street as the van circled like a great, hulking predator over
a fresh kill -- then it sped off, passing Kim and Bobby as if they
weren't even there.
Kim drove on, her heart pounding in her throat while Bobby
"Next right. Now left. OK, one more left and we're out of
Kim turned left back onto Vermont. When she stopped at the
light before the 101 on-ramp, she looked over at Bobby for the first
time during the ordeal. He was cutting up one of the big rocks with
his Buck knife, using the leather-covered console for a cutting
board. His own car had hundreds of tiny slices in the upholstery by
the time the police confiscated it last fall. Kim started to say
something but caught herself. Why bother? This is the last time. I'll
just have it re-covered and it'll be just like new. Jesus fucking
Christ, I just witnessed a murder! A fucking murder! OK, it's over.
She turned left across traffic and onto the 101 headed east.
"Get all the way over to the left lane, unless you want to
end up in Downey or someplace."
She complied, but it irritated her to take directions from
someone who had lived in L.A. all of two years. How does he know
these places? But she knew the answer. Bobby could show locals parts
of this town they never knew existed. Dope does that. It creates its
own parallel geography, dark, scary places hidden from the real world
behind a facade of palm trees and stucco. If you aren't looking, you
won't see it -- and you probably don't need to. Most of the folks on
the freeway that night were simply following well-worn grooves in the
asphalt to and from work or school or wherever. They only knew where
to get on the freeway and where to get off. They had no idea where
they really were, what kind of places and lives they were passing
through or over.
Bobby did. It was an obsession with him. He roamed the
freeways at night, exiting here and there just for the hell of it, to
have a look around. He could tell you about the different styles of
street signs and lights in the old L.A. neighborhoods. Each
neighborhood had its own look -- one for Hollywood, another for the
Crenshaw District, and so on. He even knew a fair amount of L.A.'s
checkered history, the scandals and secrets that had shaped it.
Sometimes Kim was actually jealous, as if the sprawling city was a
great glittering whore with whom Bobby had been unfaithful. It never
pays to know this town too well.
Bobby licked his finger so that one of the pieces of the cut-
up rock would adhere to it, then he stuck it in the end of
his "straight shooter," a glass tube, three inches long with a piece
of copper scouring pad stuffed in one end. Street addicts prefer this
type of pipe for its easy-to-conceal size. Bobby liked it because he
could drive and smoke without being too obvious. He turned up the
flame on his disposable lighter and the rock crackled and sputtered
as it melted into the copper. He inhaled slowly, deeply, and then
expelled the dense white smoke out through his nose in a sort of
visible and audible sigh. Kim fought back a gag, more of a Pavlovian
reaction than anything else, but she just cracked her window and said
nothing. In fact, nobody said anything for what seemed like an
eternity. In real time only about fifteen minutes had elapsed, just
about the time it took to reach the 10, before Kim had to ask, "So
what the fuck was that all about?"
Bobby was suddenly forced to deal with the image of Luis,
lying in the dead-end street. "I don't know. I guess he owed them
money or somethin'."
Bobby's matter-of-factness bothered Kim more than anything
else. His tone suggested he'd seen things like this before, which
made her more than a little uncomfortable.
Bobby put another piece of rock on his pipe and hit it
again. "Drag. He was a good kid. Hey, get off at the next exit. I
need some smokes."
Kim complied, bitching just a little under her breath. This
was their second stop and they weren't even close to being out of
L.A. yet. She pulled into a 7-Eleven. Bobby hopped out, stopping
halfway to the door and coming around to her side of the car.
She shook her head, mildly irritated at the afterthought.
Then again, when she had stopped at the grocery store that afternoon
to buy all the stuff she needed for the road -- gum, cigarettes, and
such -- it never occurred to her to pick up a carton for Bobby. She
watched him through the glass wall of the convenience store, standing
in line with an armload of junk food. It wasn't long ago that she
would have done anything for Bobby. She packed his bags when he went
on the road, shopped for his clothes, even cooked occasionally,
something she'd never done for anyone, including herself. Their house
was filled with gifts she had bought for his birthday, Christmas,
Father's Day, anniversaries, along with some she bought for no
specific occasion. There were maps (one of Bobby's passions before he
lost interest in everything but dope), books, guitars, computers, and
recording equipment -- most of which was in the pawnshop now. Bobby
bought her stuff too -- jewelry, art, even the BMW that now carried
him from town -- but Kim's favorite gifts were the roses.
Doghouse roses, Bobby called them. You know. Those single
roses they sell at the checkout in convenience stores. They come
wrapped in cellophane, with the little plastic bulb of water at the
base of the stem. Men buy them for their significant others when they
stay out too late or forget an anniversary or a birthday. Bobby
bought literally hundreds of them over the years, as he limped home
from one misadventure or another, and Kim had saved every one. They
were all over the house, pressed between the pages of every big book -
- Bibles, atlases, dictionaries. She had often asked herself, Why?
Each rose represented a disappointment, a broken promise, and a
sleepless night. Why commemorate them? The passenger-side door
suddenly opened and Bobby plopped down next to her with a sack full
of provisions. Sticking out of the top, in between a motorcycle
magazine and a Slim Jim, was a yellow rose.
Kim burst into tears. She was still recovering from the
incident in the cul-de-sac, and the very idea of another rose was a
little more than she could take. To make matters worse, Bobby offered
the gift as a child would, trusting the flower to somehow intercede
on his behalf and make everything all right.
And maybe it was a child she saw when she finally reached out
and accepted the rose, wrapping her arms around Bobby and cradling
his head against her breast. Her soft reassuring tone and the words
that came out of her mouth seemed almost comically
mismatched. "Goddamn, baby. We could have been killed back there."
Bobby said nothing. He knew she was right, and he already
felt the familiar first pangs of guilt. It took a lot of dope just to
overcome the ever-increasing weight of the accumulated guilt he
dragged with him through every single day. Guilt had become second
nature to him. He was guilty of leaving his family. He was guilty of
letting down his band and his fans. He was guilty of subjecting Kim
to all of his junkie shit.
But all that would have to wait because right now, being held
close and cursed at in near whispers, like a kid who had just
narrowly escaped being hit by a speeding car, was as good as it got
for Bobby. There was a time when this moment would have ended in the
nearest motel or the back seat of the car, with the smell of sex and
the relief of forgiveness in the air. And for a little while, Bobby
would behave more like an adult and Kim less like a mother, and new
plans and promises were made. Neither Bobby nor Kim minded that most
of these were never kept. It was the illusion of healing that they
lived for, the precious few breathless intervals after they made love
when they weren't at cross-purposes.
No, no, no. Not this time. Kim suddenly summoned up all of
her will and simply stopped crying, dabbing the mascara from her face
and, less successfully, from Bobby's white
T-shirt with tissue from the BMW's convenient dispenser. Bobby,
electing not to push his luck, opened a twenty-ounce Dr. Pepper and
lit a Marlboro. His eyes fixed on a point somewhere beyond the
windshield, visible only from his perspective. His voice cracked a
little as he spoke.
"I love you."
Kim carefully placed the rose on the dashboard, like an
offering to whatever god governed dysfunctional relationships.
"I love you, too."
She backed out of the parking space and headed for the feeder
By now it's after eleven and the traffic is light, by L.A. standards.
It's one of those spooky nights, entirely too quiet for a city of
nine million, when mercury vapor lights throw ghostly shadows on the
ground fog and the car exhaust, creating an eerie yellow glow.
Spectral palm trees, their roots shackled by acres of concrete, seem
to stand on tiptoes straining to keep their heads above the noxious
layer at street level. The names on the big green highway signs
appear suddenly and slightly out of focus -- Covina, Pomona, Ontario,
and on and on, and looking up through the sunroof, there still aren't
any stars. Only a sort of fallout created by man-made light impacting
the opaque canopy above and shattering, diffusing into colors not
found in nature before falling back to earth in defeat. L.A. is one
big motherfucker. Most would-be escapees become overwhelmed with the
immensity of the task and turn around, but not Kim. She just kept
driving on -- past Riverside, past Redlands -- until she could feel
the momentum building, as if they were finally escaping the city's
Kim loved to drive and she loved her car. Bobby had given it
to her for her birthday. After receiving a large advance from his
publisher, he just walked into the BMW dealer and wrote a personal
check for $58,000. Then he parked it in Kim's space at the studio
with a big red bow taped to the grill. The car, bred for the
autobahn, had seldom been turned loose on the highway, and Kim could
feel the powerful engine writhe under the hood when she stepped on
the accelerator. She asked Bobby to light her a cigarette and he did,
firing up another for himself at the same time. For a while she
actually forgot why they were on the road that night. Remembering how
much she loved the car reminded her of how much she had once loved
Bobby, which made her more than a little uncomfortable -- but not for
long. About the time they blew by San Bernardino, Bobby put another
rock up on the pipe, filling the car with thick, white smoke, which
reminded Kim how much she hated cocaine.
She had never had a problem coexisting with Bobby's heroin
habit. Smack, by itself, made Bobby relaxed and talkative, not to
mention affectionate. As long as he had heroin, he stayed home, going
out only long enough to cop. Somehow unable to hold her husband
responsible for his actions, Kim blamed cocaine, and she loathed it
with every cell in her body. She wasn't alone. Even the L.A.P.D.
agreed with her. Heroin didn't seem to breed the level of violence
that permeated the more competitive coke trade. Coke addicts were
edgier, more dangerous, and the young criminals that trafficked in it
were colder and harder. Forget about little Luis. He was just a
runner. I'm talking about the cats in the van. Crack, cocaine's
cheap, smokable form, was big business and it was taking the streets
by storm. People were willing to kill or be killed for the right
street corner. The cops were so busy dealing with the new menace that
the older, more levelheaded heroin dealers were enjoying a period of
relative peace. Driving through the heroin spots was almost like a
visit to the corner liquor store. Kim would even ride along
sometimes, making small talk with the spot boss while Bobby
transacted business at the other window.
Then one morning Bobby was at a friend's house getting high
while Kim was at work. Somebody suggested running to a nearby spot
for a rock. Bobby had always turned up his nose at crack, but for
some reason he decided one hit couldn't hurt.
Bobby began staying awake for days at a time, ripping and
running from the bank to the spot, back to the house, to the
pawnshop, and back to the spot again. Kim didn't know the details,
but she knew something was wrong. She began to worry enough to
consult a friend who was in recovery. He suggested an intervention,
but Kim couldn't go through with it. She felt like that would be a
betrayal. Eventually she simply began to shut down. To slowly but
surely stop loving Bobby, in self-defense.
Interstate 10 stretched out in a great black ribbon trimmed in
iridescent white, pulling the BMW along through the night as it
threaded through the hills toward the high desert ahead. The air
began to gradually clear as they climbed, and Kim rolled down the
windows and opened the sunroof, purging the crack smoke from the car.
Just keep driving. The lights of Palm Springs appeared off to their
right, twinkling through the heat waves. The sign
said "banning/morongo indian res. -- next exit." Now we're getting
somewhere. Then Bobby shattered the groove.
"Baby, let's run out to Joshua Tree."
"Goddamn it, Bobby, no. No fucking way. We're almost out of
But she knew that that's exactly where they would go.
Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of downtown L.A.,
794,000 acres straddling the high Mojave and the lower Colorado
deserts. Named for the large multibranched cacti that dominate its
landscape, the park is bordered by Interstate 10 on the southwest,
just as the "southern route" back east makes its last dash for the
Arizona border. The Mojave half of the park, ranging from about 3,000
to 5,200 feet at the top of Quail Mountain, is one of the most
beautiful places on earth by anyone's standards. But to Bobby
Charles, it was sacred.
Not that Bobby was particularly outdoorsy or anything. If
anything he was entirely too comfortable with big cities. When he was
a kid back in Texas, he hunted and fished with his dad. But as soon
as he picked up the guitar, everything else took a back seat. Music
was such a powerful force in his life that even heroin couldn't
compete, at first. Music kept him constantly moving, first to
Houston, and then back and forth across the country, finally landing
him in Nashville three months short of his twentieth birthday.
Bobby's first addiction was motion itself. He fell in love and got
married, but he never settled down, growing more restless with every
day he spent within the confines of Nashville's city limits. "High
Lonesome" he called the affliction, after the heart-rending tenor of
Bill Monroe. Music allowed him to escape to the road, returning to
Nashville only long enough to make records and father children. The
big Eagle bus carried him to places like New York, New Orleans,
Chicago, or back to Texas to show off for the home folks. Bobby would
play poker and watch movies with the band until they drifted, one by
one, off to their bunks. Then he'd ride in the jumpseat, up front
with the driver, watching the Eagle suck asphalt up under its wheels,
spewing it out the back in the form of distance. When the sun came up
he'd retreat to the stateroom in the back and sleep like a baby,
lulled by the low, throaty hum of the big diesel only inches below
his bunk. A growing following overseas allowed him to see London,
Amsterdam, Dublin, even Sydney, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Bobby got to
know some of those cities intimately, but more and more he was most
comfortable in the more ambiguous space between destinations -- the
When Bobby moved to L.A. to live with Kim, he was in love
with a beautiful, fascinating woman as well as infatuated with his
new surroundings and life was good. He spent his days getting high
and exploring, getting the lay of the land. One day he took a ride
out to the desert on his motorcycle while Kim was at work. He was on
a pilgrimage of sorts, in search of the Joshua Tree Inn. The tiny
motel, on Highway 62 along the park's northern border, was a holy
place in country-rock circles because Gram Parsons, credited by many
with founding the movement, died there. The talented singer and
songwriter had used the place as a desert hideout for several years,
even extracting a promise from his road manager to cremate his body
somewhere in the Joshua Tree country when his time came. When Gram
expired in Room 8 from a little too much of everything one cool clear
desert night in 1973, his compatriot kept his promise, stealing
Gram's body from a loading dock at the L.A. airport and spiriting it
away to the desert in a borrowed hearse. He then burned the body, for
which he was later prosecuted and fined. Musicians in Bobby's circles
prized this story, telling and retelling it whenever they met on the
road, weaving it in with the songs Gram left behind and eventually
creating a legend.
On his first trip to the desert, Bobby had hoped to spend the
night in the inn, but by 1990 it had been converted into a home for
autistic children, so he bought camping gear for his more and more
frequent trips to the desert. At first Kim would go with him, and it
became their weekend getaway. They'd ride in the park on Bobby's
bike, Kim in back hanging on for dear life, her arms wrapped tightly
around Bobby's waist. Bobby ran the bike hard because the tighter she
clung to him the better he liked it. When the moon was full, the
desert seemed to emit a light of its own from every rock and plant,
the only dark spots being the man-made surfaces, asphalt and pitch.
They'd ride well past dark. When they finally made camp, they would
lie on their backs on air mattresses for hours and marvel at how
close the stars seemed. Bobby would point out the planets and
constellations and nebulae visible through his binoculars. Sometimes
they made love under all those stars, never even bothering to pitch
the fancy tent strapped to the back of the bike. They'd wake before
sunrise when the desert received its meager ration of moisture in the
form of a heavy dew, leaving their hair damp and driving them,
shivering, deeper into Bobby's sleeping bag. Then the sun would come
up, bounding over the mountains, and they'd wake suddenly to find the
sleeping bag soaked nearly through from the inside out with their own
After a while Kim stopped making the trips out to the desert.
She got busier at the studio making movies, and Bobby got busier on
the streets, slowly killing himself. Once again he set himself in
motion, albeit in circles, breaking out of his rapidly deteriorating
orbit only when High Lonesome caught up with him and drove him east,
into the desert. The Joshua Tree trips became his only respite from
the junkie grind; only now, they were desperate, lonely sojourns.
Eventually he was incapable of riding a motorcycle, or camping for
that matter, so he would drive aimlessly in and around the park,
sleeping in his car by the roadside if at all. Sometimes he would run
out of coke and drive back to L.A. to cop. After purchasing what he
needed, he'd turn around and head right back to the desert, sometimes
passing within a mile of his house on the way to the freeway. On
three occasions he fell asleep at the wheel, totaling three different
vehicles -- two of his own and one rental -- but by some miracle he
walked away from each accident with only cuts and bruises.
Somebody was trying to tell Bobby Charles something, but he
wasn't listening. Friends and family back in Texas and Tennessee had
all but given up on ever reaching him again. They heard the rumors
that filtered back from the coast, and the news was never good.
Bobby's L.A. friends saw him almost as infrequently and usually only
as he passed them going the other direction on a busy Hollywood
street, oblivious to everyone and everything around him.
Only Kim could occasionally penetrate the cone of silence
that surrounded him, and even her voice grew fainter everyday. In
time Kim simply stopped trying, but Bobby didn't notice. By then he
heard only the din of his own spirit dying, slowly and painfully. As
usual, Bobby looked to the desert for answers. Somehow he felt that
something out there could purge him of a life's collection of demons
and leave them exposed and impotent writhing on the sand. Exposed to
the merciless high desert sun and miles from any suitable human host,
the wretched beasts would evaporate once and for all and trouble the
world no more. What's more, he knew there were worse fates. Contrary
to the dogma of faith, however well intended, he knew the spirit
doesn't always outlive the flesh. He saw them every day, broken
bodies with sunken chests rattling around the streets like animated
skeletons. Bobby faced his own worst fears there, dimly reflected in
lifeless eyes. Eventually he stopped going to the desert, or anywhere
else for that matter. He suspended all pretense of taking care of
himself, going for days without showering and living on a steady diet
of ice cream and Dr. Pepper. He only left the house to cop, driving
straight home and sitting in the tiny half bath in the hallway for
hours with his pipe. He refused to answer the telephone or even play
back his messages, and after a while no one called anyway. At the end
of a two-year battle for the soul of one Bobby Charles, desert vs.
city, L.A. had won, hands down.
"Let's run out to Joshua Tree."
At some point during the fight that ended, as usual, when
Kim's will finally conformed to Bobby's, they blew right by Highway
62, their customary route to the park's north entrance at Twentynine
Palms. The southern entrance remained, the back door, about sixty
miles down the interstate. Bobby had never been that way before, but
that sort of thing never bothered him. He sat up straight in his seat
on the passenger side of the Beamer, alert for the first time since
they left Hollywood, again giving Kim directions. Kim fell into step
like a trooper, a veteran of a thousand improvised expeditions into
out-of-the-way places with Bobby at the helm. Once inside the park,
no directions were necessary, for there was only one road that ran
vaguely north and south, jogging to the east and west only as it
wound its way through the western edge of the Eagle Mountains. It was
one of those pristine desert nights that Bobby loved. The moon was
full and he reached across the car to turn off the headlights,
slapping playfully at Kim's hand when she tried to turn them back on.
Her eyes adjusted and she found, to her surprise, that she had no
trouble driving without them. The desert unfolded around them in
unearthly detail, and it seemed to lift Bobby out of his fog a
little. He even forgot about the pipe for a while.
"Darlin', why don't you let me drive?"
What the hell. I lost control as soon as I left the
interstate. She stopped the car in the middle of the narrow blacktop
road, not even bothering to pull over onto the shoulder. As she
walked around to the passenger side, she brushed by Bobby going the
other way, but they didn't stop or speak. They were both overcome by
the profound stillness. Absolute quiet. There wasn't a car in sight
in either direction. As a matter of fact, nothing was moving.
Bobby knew the desert well enough to know that there was life
all around them, and that the cool of the nighttime was when they
issued from their hiding places where they lay all day long
conserving moisture and energy. Bobby had spent a hundred nights
lying on his side in a sleeping bag, propped up on one elbow,
watching Lilliputian armies of tarantulas, hundreds of them in a
group, passing noiselessly in eerie procession, an arachnophobe's
worst nightmare. There were scorpions hunting by the light of the
outsized desert moon, hurrying here and there, desperate to find a
meal before the unforgiving Mojave drove them back to lightless
asylum beneath a rock or the roots of a creosote bush. Sometimes the
larger creatures, the bobcat, coyote, and kit fox, seemed just as out
of place as the humans who visited, transient somehow, preying mostly
on the lowly kangaroo rat who seemed to be food for everyone above
his station, including the owls who were masters of the dry night air.
Tonight, however, was different. It was as if the desert
itself was sizing up the intruders, weighing their intentions before
giving the all clear to the myriad of creatures and elements under
Bobby slid behind the wheel and fumbled around until he found
the lever, releasing the seat to travel backward on its track as far
as it would go. Leaving the lights off, he set the car in motion down
the black asphalt, deeper into the desert, further out of control.
Kim was starting to relax a little. She had always depended on Bobby
to bring her to the desert or any other out-of-the-way place, and she
was conditioned to surrender control in such situations. It simply
wasn't in her nature to stray from the beaten path on her own.
Bobby was dependent on Kim as well. He needed her approval.
He genuinely didn't give a damn what the rest of the world thought,
but Kim was his weakness. He wanted desperately to please her, even
impress her, but he could not endure her disapproval. Ironically,
Bobby's couldn't-give-a-fuck swagger was the first thing that
attracted Kim to him, and now that he depended on her for anything,
she disrespected him for it. But she couldn't stop taking care of
him, cleaning up after him, and bailing him out.
Suddenly Bobby saw a sign on the left, the small, rustic type favored
by the National Park Service. It said key's view 15. He took the
left, two wheels crunching on the gravel shoulder, and headed west so
the moon was behind him now and dominating his mirrors, white and
almost blinding. The road gradually traversed the length of a long
ridge, eventually carrying them to the highest point in the park,
where the road dead-ended in a cul-de-sac.
Kim started laughing out loud. "This must be my night for
Bobby wasn't listening. He threw open the car door and
climbed out, slipping a little on the loose gravel. He staggered
slightly as he made his way to the overlook. The desert stretched out
before him like a diorama in a museum. The moon behind him provided
the light, but it appeared to emanate from below, from the desert
itself. The lights of Palm Springs backlit the Santa Rosa Mountains
to his left. Suddenly Bobby threw his head back until it rested
between his shoulder blades; his arms stretched wide, his silhouette
wraithlike against the sky. From where she sat in the car, Kim
thought he was looking up at the sky, drinking in the moonlight and
all those stars. It wasn't until she opened her door that she
realized he was crying, almost keening like some mythic death
messenger, the wails punctuated by deep, gasping body-wrenching sobs.
Kim didn't hesitate. She went to him straight away, stopping
only to grab a blanket from the back seat. She draped it over his
shoulders, pulling him closer as he collapsed to his knees, burying
his face at her waist as she wrapped the blanket around them both and
held him until the last sob subsided. She knew what was next. She
knew as soon as she had opened the door and heard Bobby crying. No
amount of will could stop it. They made love with only the blanket
between them and the cold, hard ground, and it was exquisitely
painful like scratching a wound that hasn't quite healed. They even
slept for a while, Kim pulling one corner of the blanket up over
Bobby's shoulder as the desert went about its business around them. A
kit fox passed by paying them little notice. A coyote approached
cautiously, turning away once the human smell awakened some
primordial memory. There were literally hundreds of smaller creatures
through the makeshift campsite that night, some navigating around the
unfamiliar obstacle, some simply scurrying up and over the pair as
As always, the intimacy created a kind of emotional amnesia.
Kim woke up when she missed Bobby's warmth against her. She wrapped
the blanket around herself as she sat up and called his name. When he
didn't answer, she quickly dressed and walked back up the trail to
the car, still under the spell of the "old Bobby" and telling herself
things like Maybe if I just hang in there a little longer.
When she got back to the car the enchantment evaporated.
Bobby sat straight up behind the wheel of the car. She called his
name but he didn't answer. Her heart stopped. Kim called again.
Nothing. She screamed his name at the top of her lungs,
simultaneously breaking into a run, losing the struggle for traction
on the loose gravel and falling badly, skinning her knee then quickly
regaining her feet. Her mind raced. Don't you die on me, Bobby
Charles! Not now! Not here! Goddamn it, Bobby you sonofabitch! Just
like you to pussy out on me just when things were looking good!
Looking good? Where did that come from? Just like you to die out here
in the middle of nowhere just like your goddamn junkie hero Gram
By the time Kim reached the car she was a mess. Her hair hung
limp in her eyes, which were swollen from crying. Her sundress was
covered with sand, and blood ran in two tiny streams from the scrape
on her knee. Bobby still wasn't answering. He remained motionless,
his mannequinlike eyes fixed on the horizon. She tried to open the
door but it was locked. She pounded on the window. No response. She
pounded on the roof of the car with both fists, creating a drumlike
rumble and screaming Bobby's name. She was about to look for a rock
to smash the glass when the power window suddenly came to life,
releasing a cloud of smoke thicker than midsummer L.A. smog. Bobby
said nothing, but the look on his face told Kim that he was hearing
her voice for the first time. She looked down in Bobby's lap and
there, cradled almost lovingly in his right hand, was the pipe.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. They got a room in Barstow,
where Kim showered and slept a few hours while Bobby smoked and
stared at the TV. About dark she settled behind the wheel with a
resolve she'd never known in her life. Kim pushed the BMW hard, the
radar detector warning her where to take it easy, averaging ninety
miles per hour for the whole trip. At a checkpoint just west of El
Paso the border patrol took one look at Bobby and put a dog in the
car, but the dope had run out somewhere in Arizona. By late the next
night they were in Houston, having covered fourteen hundred miles in
the same time it had taken them to get out of California.
Bobby's folks were glad to see him, although they were
surprised that he hadn't called and concerned about his weight loss.
Both Kim and Bobby put up a good front through dinner, after which
Bobby asked for the car keys. Kim knew he wanted to go downtown and
cop, so she made the excuse that she had to have the car serviced so
they could get an early start for Tennessee in the morning. Rather
than provoking a fight in his parents' home, Bobby asked his dad for
his keys, saying he needed cigarettes. As soon as he was out the
door, Kim excused herself and went to the guestroom and packed,
leaving Bobby's things behind. When Bobby's folks asked where she was
going, she said nothing, just walked faster, not stopping until she
was behind the wheel and headed for the interstate. When Bobby
returned (three hours later), his parents were at a loss for an
explanation. On the dresser in the guestroom was a motel stationery
envelope and one red doghouse rose. Inside the envelope were twenty-
five twenty-dollar bills and a note that said:
I'm going away for a while and when I get back, I'm going to file for
a divorce. Please, don't try to find me. I can't do this anymore. My
attorney will contact you.
Not "Love, Kim" or "Fuck You" or anything, just "Kim."
So Bobby Charles completed his trip to Tennessee alone. He
hung around Houston until he wore out his welcome. Then he had his
publisher wire him some cash and prepay a plane ticket to Nashville,
where Bobby continued to do all the right things to kill himself for
three more years. Before it was over, he had nothing. No money. No
car. No place to live. But the worst was yet to come. Without the
insulation money and connections afforded, Bobby eventually piled up
enough drug charges to draw a little jail time. After a few weeks
involuntarily clean in jail, the fog cleared just a little and
somehow something happened to Bobby. He decided he wanted to live. It
was years later, after some clean time under his belt, before he
realized that by leaving him in Houston and refusing to participate
in his habit anymore, Kim had probably saved his life.
By the time he was released from jail, Bobby was writing
songs again. He began to perform once in a while, taking it easy at
first, until finally he resumed making critically acclaimed,
moderately successful records as if nothing ever happened.
Well, almost as if nothing ever happened. Kim was all over
most of his songs. At first they were bitter and angry songs designed
to wreak vengeance over the airwaves, but after a few albums venom
gave way to melancholy and resignation. He never came back to L.A.
again without his manager or another suitable chaperone, and he
always left as soon as his business was concluded. Sometimes Bobby
and Kim would run into each other when he was in town, but they never
spoke, preferring to make each other uncomfortable from across the
room. He never went to the desert again. Any desert. Period. And he
never bought anyone roses, ever again.
Copyright © 2001 by Steve Earle