DAHLIA
The only one awake while driving late at night through the Nevada desert, I was
listening to the radio to stay that way. There was a talk show on, one of those things
with some phony-baloney female psychologist giving free advice to drunks and
insomniacs. I wasn’t really listening, but the rattle of human discourse helped me to
keep my eyelids from drifting closed. I don’t recall now where we were heading, but
wherever it was I was trying to get there very quickly.
     
In those days, if you were flying down the road at 80 miles per hour it wasn’t like sitting
in your living room with the scenery outside drifting slowly by, as it is in cars today. In
those days, when you were flying through the desert at 80 miles per hour, the car was
bouncing erratically, rocking from side to side, the tires on the pavement sounded like
beach pebbles grinding under an incoming tide, and the headwind made continual
efforts, serious efforts, to lift the entire vehicle up by the front bumper and toss it over
backward onto its roof. In those days, if you were flying down the highway at 80 miles
per hour there was no doubt whatsoever that what you were doing was both mindless
and dangerous. In those days, eighty was scary business. In short: you were risking
your goddamned stupid life (not to mention the lives of those sleeping in the back
seat) and you knew it.
     
If you were doing that under the star-filled Nevada sky, on a long flat stretch of
deserted desert highway, with the blue-black mountains ahead receding steadily (no
matter how fast you went) there was a sense of eternity about it. There was also a
peculiar serenity to it. And…the only thing to do was surrender. If this kills me; I’m
dead, and somehow that’s OK. I wonder if this thing’ll do a hundred.
     
That is the state I was in. That is the state in which I found myself. The AM radio
doctor had tired quickly of talking to a regular caller named George, had given him
the bum’s rush, and moved on to the next caller. This new caller, like so many of
these poor desperate people, didn’t seem to understand the very basics of talking to
someone on the radio with a ten second delay. The doctor patiently walked the caller
through all that turn-your-radio-down stuff and through this process it became clear to
the doctor, an intelligent, educated, reasonably perceptive woman now reduced to
talking to idiots and speed-freaks in the middle of the night, that this caller might be
an innocent. The good doctor softened her approach immediately. My ears perked up
too. Innocence has always been charming to me. At that point in my life, though I’d
been devastated by it before, I still had no fear of innocence.

“What’s your name, caller?” asked the doctor in a kindly manner.
“Dahlia,” said a timid voice, “Dahlia _____.” The producer bleeped out the last name.
Such was this woman’s lack of sophistication that she didn’t understand that she could
use a made-up name.
“Is that what you want me to call you, Dahlia?” asked the doctor.
“That’s my name, yes, ma’am.”
“Well…OK, ‘Dahlia’ what can I do for you?” Innocence is a lovely thing. In this world, it
can be heartbreaking.
There was a long silence during which the only sound for me was pavement grinding
away under my tires. I noticed that the doctor was not pushing this caller like she had
previous callers; like she had poor George for example; she was gentle; she was
coaxing.
“Is there something…I can do for you, Dahlia?” she asked encouragingly.
     
I found myself anxious to hear what Dahlia had to say, what she might need. I mean, I
can not explain (although, yes, I know that is my task here) how she had such
immediate impact on me, but, whatever it was, it got to the good ol’ doctor as well. I
think we both detected an uncommon purity in this woman.
“I never called anybody before,” she said painfully, “I mean, it’s hard for me to...” (She
pronounced the word hord…it’s hord for me t’.)
“Well, that’s OK. Take your time; we’ve got the rest of the night ahead of us.” I
glanced at my fuel gauge.
“But, um, well, the other thing is…it’s kinda personal” She whispered the word
personal. “I mean it’s very personal. Um, but I don’t know what to do…elseways. I’m at
the end of my rope.”
     
The desire to protect this woman welled up warmly inside me while she gathered her
thoughts. I don’t know about the good doctor, but I had practically stopped breathing
while awaiting her next words. My ears were working to pick up every nuance, every
variant in her tone; I thought I could detect a fluctuation in her breathing. Had Dahlia
been crying? Was she crying? About to cry? To me, flying down the highway with the
dark and empty universe rolling slowly overhead, it sounded like maybe she had
been. I was convinced of it. The most artless being who had ever called in to a radio
talk-show had been harmed by someone. OK, which one of you big stupid bastards
has hurt Dahlia?

“Take your time.”
     
The doctor and I both agreed, there was nothing more important than this. Dahlia
sounded skittish when she spoke next. She whispered, “I can’t talk to anyone about
this… it’s ver-very personal.”
“You can talk to me, that’s why I’m here,” whispered the doctor.
“True…I don’t know what to do elseways. I’m really very sorry,” she whispered. “I
heard you talkin’ an’ helpin’ the others and I thought might you could help me.”
“I’ll do my best for you.”
“Still, now I’m not so sure I can. I mean, ‘haps I shou’n’t, Fact is, I prolly shou’n’t.”
“You sound like you want to talk to somebody.”
“Oh, I do. I do. I really need to. I just think that ‘haps I shou’n’t…you know? There’s
others involved.”
“I understand. But, you can talk to me, Dahlia, OK? That’s what I’m here for.”
“Well…”
The world waited. And, eventually, the combination of patience and gentle
encouragement paid off.
“It’s my husband…”

In our hearts we urged her on.
“Since I had m’last baby, my husband doesn’t want to…be near me. He just doesn’t
seem…interested, since I had m’last baby.”
“How many children do you and your husband have, Dahlia?”
“Four.”
“And did he react this way after you’d given birth previously?”
“No, ma’am.”
“And when did you have your baby?”
“It’s been more than a year…fourteen months.”
“I see. You know, sometimes a husband needs a little time.”
“He’s always been interested in me before. Times, he could hardly wait to get at me
again,” she pleaded. “I guess there’s proof enough of that,” she said almost to herself.
Advocates of Dahlia everywhere laughed a little bittersweet laugh. Then we waited
respectfully, in silence, for her to continue. Throughout the dark starlit broadcast area
I imagined hundreds of us tuned in, leaning into our radios; the more dedicated
among us brushing aside our own loved ones, shushing them or running them out of
the room—“Can’t you please shut those goddamned kids up, I’m trying to listen to the
radio!”--waiting, fretting, wringing our bony hands out of concern; heartsick for poor
Dahlia. What after all could be more important? (Nothing.)

“He never turned his back on me before.”
“Well, have you tried to talk to him about this?”
“He won’t talk.”
“Have you tried to talk to him?”
“He won’t talk.” Dahlia began to sob. “When I go to talk to him, he gets up and walks
out the door.” Dahlia seemed to gather herself, to steel herself; this was the part that
really hurt. It came out in spurts. “He acts like…he finds me… disgusting.”
     
By this time my jaded heart had become fully engaged. Maybe it was the lack of sleep.
Maybe it was the cold expanse of night sky engulfing me, but, I could no longer deny
my perfect love for Dahlia. I loved this woman. I loved her purely. There was nothing
but purity in it. Go ahead, search the corners. Purity. Nothin’ but. “Mom, Dad, this is
Dahlia. Oh, and these are her four kids.” The guy out there squealin’ his tires and
driving wildly around the block with his horn blaring—that’s her husband. But, he don’t
want her no more, so you can just ignore him. He’ll soon tire of such antics and go
back to the desert.”
     
Suddenly, as the little kids say with wide eyes, I was filled with the desire to find Dahlia
wherever she was; driven to find her, as it were, and take her in my arms and comfort
her. I wanted to tell her, “It’s OK, forget about that big stupid bastard moron husband
of yours.”

“I’m sorry, Dahlia, but we’re going to have to take a break for a couple minutes right
here. But, will you stay on the line? We’ll talk a little during the break, off the air.
“I don’t think I should be talkin’ at all…’bout this. ‘Haps I shou’n’t. ‘Haps this is a
mistake…”
“Dahlia, please, promise me you’ll stay on the line so we can talk. I want to speak with
you a bit off-air. Ok?”
“I will.”
During the commercials I was thinking about how to go about finding her. Maybe the
radio station would give me her number. If I could talk to her a bit over the phone, that
would be a good beginning. Then, I’d drive up to her trailer; I’d knock on that hollow-
core tin door; she’d open it slowly, in tears, shaken. I’d say, “I heard what you were
saying on the radio, my poor dear darlin’ lady, and now I’m here to rescue you.”
Naturally she’d just collapse into my arms. Enfold is a nice word. I’d enfold her in my
arms. Caress is a nice word. I’d caress her. She’d sob a bit and I’d cradle her head
and hold her tightly until she stopped shaking. I’d comfort her meanwhile by saying,
“There-there.” Or, maybe, “Now-now.” I couldn’t decide which. “Now-now, Dahlia, now-
now.” Dear, sweet, lovely, Dahlia. “I know it’s hord.”
     
Flying through the desert, in the middle of the night, now with tears in my eyes (that
always helps), I was busy composing my introduction. Keep it simple, I instructed
myself. I’d announce, “Don’t worry, Dahlia. I’ll take you away from here; I’ll take care of
you! No one will ever harm you again.” I thought that would be a good beginning. At
that moment, rolling along blindly headlong into the endless western expanse, I was
willing, eager, anxious, maybe even a little desperate to make this meeting happen.
But, if it was to happen at all, it had to happen soon, while I was still awash in human
compassion. The time was right, Dahlia was in touch with her need, I was in touch with
Fate itself.
     
Heroically, I’d scrap all my selfish little schemes (of which I had none at the time, that I
can recall), my dopey dreams (of which I had many), in order to first find and then
comfort my dear Dahlia. This was the opportunity I’d been yearning for; the chance for
which I’d been aching, the reason for my being here on this big dumb clumsy planet. I
didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I had a feeling that it was Destiny itself
speaking to me through that radio, and I was all ears and, due to a good upbringing,
honor-bound. There may have been some hormones involved. “There-there, Dahlia;
forget him. Forget that bastard. He comes back here again, I’ll kick his ass.” This is
what I was thinking while the radio was hawking Babbo cleanser.
     
After the commercial break, when the doctor returned, my heart raced/leapt, cavorted
in joyful anticipation. I could not wait to hear Dahlia’s lovely voice again. I’d missed
her. Then, it turned terrible. It took a terrible turn. There’s no way to put it without
employing that word. There may be better ways to phrase it--I’m sure there are
dozens--but, really, there is no better word for it. Terrible. It was just plain boot in the
crotch terrible, judo chop to the larynx, bite your own tongue off terrible.
     
“Our last caller, Dahlia, had to go, so, we’ll be taking another caller now,” the doctor
said, and my heart sank. I felt sick to my stomach. I gasped. I was wounded. This can’t
be. This ain’t right. I’d been betrayed. We’d all been betrayed. How could you do this
to us? How could you have let her go, you idiot? You goddamned idiot! It was so
completely unfair. I had plans. Big plans. Important plans. WE had plans; Me and
Dahlia; Dahlia and me; kids, goats, gold flecked, turquoise counter tops, linoleum
floor, cold beer. I probably could have learned to enjoy pro wrestling! I could have
developed a fondness for rodeo. I could take up smoking. I could drive a Ford pick-
up. Whatever it might take to make it work, I was willing. Cowboy boots.
     
At that moment, I really thought it could work. I believed I was being, actually, sorta
reasonably realistic about things. There was more to life than college…which was
where I was headin’, where I’d end up…if Dahlia and I didn’t hit it off.  Picture us sitting
under the striped awning of our new-to-us Airstream trailer, sipping something cold
and soothing with the goddamned endless, dry, useless desert all around, just sand
and hopelessly withered greyish vegetation as far as the weary dust-filled eye could
squint. Are those crickets I hear, or something very much like crickets; the desert
version of crickets? It’s not anything dangerous is it? Let’s not get picky. Let’s not get
too hung up on detail. Dahlia and me, that’s what I’m getting at. “Dahlia, please please
please let me buy you some new house slippers…you can’t keep shufflin’ around here
in those old worn out pink mules; think of the kids.”
     
But she wasn’t coming back to me. I’d been cut off, cast out, alone. And, without
Dahlia, I needed to face certain undeniable facts. I had to face the callous indifference
of Life (that’s one); the crushing impassivity that surrounds me (which is sorta like one
as well), surrounds us all (still kinda one-ish, I admit), and the deep emptiness within
(that’s two). There’s always that. Weep with me here, if but briefly. Concentrate on
that deep emptiness within thing. I’d like to stick the word ‘hollow’ in there somewhere
too, but it doesn’t want to go. That aside, I felt helpless; I felt lost, I felt staggered. Too
repetitive perhaps, but good lord, I was tired. Realizing that I could do nothing
whatsoever to help that good woman, I turned off the radio. It was over. I’d have to
return to RPI after all. Still, it had been kind of a nice dream, Dahlia and me, sittin’ in a
tree, somethin’ somethin’ I. N. G. For now I need a M. O. T. E. L. L. E.

Just one more thing and then, no more Dahlia, I promise. You’ll find this revealing
though. That night, I did finally find a cheap motel for us to sleep in. Something with a
huge green neon cactus flickering out front. Nothing says “Come on in. Get a good
night’s sleep!” like a big prickly saguaro. There were cheaply framed pictures of
cowboys on horseback hanging precariously on the pine-paneled walls, and, for some
reason I could not fathom then and can not even now, cheap plastic long horns stuck
out above the bathroom doorway. I slept like a baby though. Those long horns didn’t
worry me.

When I woke up the next day, I had been refreshed. I felt unusually pleased with
everything and I had the energy of a tiger. It was a remarkable feeling. I SPRANG out
of bed and stretched like the young animal I was. I went outside hungry for life and
took in a bushel of air. The air was sharp and cool and clean, the perfect environment
for the way I was feeling. I shielded my eyes from the afternoon sun, and nodded
appreciatively at the blue mountains all around. So that’s what you guys look like.
They were as far away as they’d been three hundred miles ago, and every bit as
smug. While waiting for Rick and Ginger to gather all their stuff, I tossed my bag with
alacrity into the back seat and  discovered that the car had a flat tire (driver’s side,
rear). So, naturally, all that tiger energy, the joy, the hunger for life, all that crap just
drained right out of me. As it soured I reverted to my normal sniveling self. I stomped
around to the trunk to find a jack. For god’s sake, did I really think I could replace
Dahlia’s salt-of-the-earth husband? Was I going to drag my weary ass out of bed
each morning at dawn and drive my rattling old pick-up truck 37 bumpy miles to the
shop and spend 10 hours on my back dismantling transmissions and welding broken
rear spring plates?
     
What a farce! I probably couldn’t make it through one miserable grease monkey
minute let alone a lifetime with a perpetually pregnant, wonderful as she might be, wife.

I wasn’t fooling anyone, Dahlia deserved better than me. I cringed at the thought of
her seeing me stomping around in that motel parking lot, cussing and slamming car
doors. I was very much in the moment, as they say, and the moment was a pain in the
ass. This is what happens when you’re brought up to believe the world is your oyster.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ginger asked as I struck out wildly at the fender of the car
with the tire iron.

It took two good, solid whacks for me to vent my ire.

So that you might continue to believe there is some justice in this world, I offer you this
token:I bruised the palm of my hand during my childish fit.
For a couple of days I thought I’d actually broken my little finger.