The Mausoleum, Part 2

Cassie sat still in the living room of Sam’s house, trying not to be a bother while he freshened up and while his mother got Rebbekah tidied up for the trip to the mausoleum.  Sam’s mother was pretty and harried, and Cassie thought this elemental state perhaps made her all the more lovely.  Sam’s father had died many years ago; Cassie didn’t remember ever meeting him, and she knew that looking after both Sam and Rebbekah must be time consuming.  She admired Sam’s mom, and tried to help out whenever she could, even coming over to help Sam babysit his younger sister, who admitted herself that she could be quite a handful.

The small family came into the room, Rebbekah in a fresh dress, with her hair tied back, and Sam in slacks and a button-down shirt.  Cassie felt suddenly self-conscious about her own clothes.

“Mrs. Jacobsen, I’m sorry…” she trailed off, looking down at her overalls.

“Don’t you worry about it, Cassandra, I wouldn’t change you for all the tea in China,” she said, with a reassuring smile.

The Mausoleum was a short drive from Sam’s house, in the civic complex downtown.  It was a large rectangle, faced in black glass, and looked anachronistic nestled between the library and the courthouse.  The technology the Mausoleums used was relatively new, but over the last decade they had been going in all over the country, first in smaller towns, where it was less expensive to build them, but also in larger cities.  The bigger cities usually needed several, just like old fashioned graveyards.

Cassie had never been to the Mausoleum before, and she found the sleek facade intimidating.  She held back behind Sam and his mom, holding Rebbekah’s hand as much for her own comfort as for the child’s. She couldn’t turn back now, though… to do so would be to allow her fear to limit her curiosity. She had a burning need to know, to understand, a need that would smolder in the back of her brain until she satisfied it.  Such curiosities sometimes kept her up nights, lying in bed in her dark bedroom, turning things over in her head again and again.

The doors were near-silent as they opened to admit the family and their hanger-on, and Sam’s mother checked them in at the front counter.  Inside the lobby it was much brighter than Cassie had expected, given the dark color of the glass from the outside.  It was a peaceful place, with comfortable chairs for waiting in, a discrete fountain burbling in the corner, and potted plants growing in any unobtrusive spot.  Everything was decorated in dark neutral tones, and the lobby had a complete lack of electronic screens.  There were signs on the wall every so often reminding visitors to be respectful of those who were there to see dead loved ones.

They all had visitor badges pinned neatly to their clothes, even tiny Rebbekah, and they were escorted back.  The staff member guided them to a screen labeled “231,” and told them to wait.  Cassie could see that the wall hosted similar screens all down the length of the visitor’s hall, some dark, and some casting their blue glow over the faces of attendant family and friends.  They sat in the provided chairs and waited.  It was only a few minutes before the screen brightened.

The image resolved into an image of Sam’s father.  It was a face she’d seen in family photos. She thought the image was moving, and as she watched she was proven correct.  The eyebrows, the eyes themselves quivered in the way that living things do, never still, always moving.

“Hello, Jim,” Sam’s mom said, with an expression on her face that spoke of both sadness and happiness.

The lips on the screen moved, but there was no sound, and Cassie couldn’t interpret the movements into anything sensible.  The entire visitor’s hall was strangely quiet… there was the occasional hiss of a whisper, and somewhere the soft clatter of something accidentally falling to the floor.

Cassie quietly got up and slipped away from the family.  She walked back out to the lobby and up to the desk.

“Excuse me,” she said politely to the woman at the desk, standing on her toes in an effort to seem older than she was, “I have some questions about the Mausoleum.”

The woman smiled.  “Yes, of course.  We have an informational pamphlet here, and I can also have a guide show you around.”

Cassie reached out and took the pamphlet.  The woman had bright red nails.  “I think I’d like a guide as well, please.”

“If you’ll have a seat for just a moment, I’ll have someone right out for you.”

Cassie took her pamphlet and sat in one of the chairs in the lobby.  The copy filling the glossy pages was intended for mourning families, and took pains to emphasize that the services offered by the Mausoleum were “tasteful” and “respectful.”  The photos that accompanied the copy were of beautiful model families, a husband and wife and two kids, a boy and a girl, all neatly dressed and all smiling, but not smiling too much; no distasteful displays of happiness to disturb grieving clients.

“Hello, miss?”

She looked up from the pamphlet to see a young man in well tailored slacks and a button down shirt.

“Oh hello,” she said.

“I understand that you requested a guide,” he said with a smile.  “My name’s Cody, and I’d be happy to show you around.”

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Cattail Cove.

“Are you sure?” Phil asked.

“Yeah, Lake Havasu is a big outdoor recreation spot.  There’ll be a campsite there.  Just look for a sign.”

I think it was around five in the evening, and we were becoming increasingly desperate for a home for the night.

“Oh there!” I said, pointing.

“What?”

“A camping sign!  Take the next left.”

We pulled off the highway and drove down a winding road set in between banks of bare red stone.  At the bottom of the slope was a booth.  The ranger inside told us that there were plenty of campsites still available for tonight, and took out a map.

“I assume you want to be close to the water,” he said.

“Uh, yeah!” I said.  I still wasn’t a hundred percent sure where we were, but I was delighted to hear that there was water that someone might want to be closer to.  If nothing else, maybe it would make the breeze cooler.

The ranger circled five or six of what he said were the best available campsites.  We drove out through the campground until we found the one closest to the water.  It was hot, still in the nineties.  I hopped out of the car to make sure nobody else took the site, and Phil drove back up to pay the fee for the site.  It was about thirty feet from the beach, and it was an honest to god beach, with a gentle slope and sand and everything.  The campsite had a water spigot and electrical, presumably for RVs, but the electrical also had plugs for our electronics.  It looked as though we would have shade during sunset and shade in the early morning, and there was plenty of space for both tents.  We were at Cattail Cove, on Lake Havasu in Arizona.  The water was calm and beautiful, a small portion of what was a very large reservoir, a portion of the Colorado River restrained by the Parker Dam.

Upon Phil’s return, we set up the tents.  The weather was beautiful and sunny, and I decided that I would leave the rain fly off the tent.  The ranger drove by in his little golf cart, and I waved at him.

“Hey, do you think it’s going to rain tonight?”

“It might, but if it does it’ll blow through in twenty or thirty minutes.”

We made coffee and sat in the heat, figuring out what to do next.  It was about a twenty minute drive into Lake Havasu City, and Phil said he’d like to try running into town for supplies.

The ligpht dimmed, and I looked up.  Monstrous grey stormclouds had billowed up in the east.  I scrambled to get the rain fly over my tent.

Within twenty minutes, the storm had gathered its breath.  The sun was starting to set, and winds buffeted the palm trees between us and the shore.  The first crack of thunder echoed through the valley.

By the time I got the rain fly on, the storm had spread its great hands over us and had started spitting rain.  Lightning flashed to the north, south, and east, with its accompanying thunder.  The wind picked up to fifty miles an hour, to the point that I was holding on to the front gable on my tent because I was worried it would escape its stakes and roll into the lake.  The setting sun lit the clouds with pinks and reds and oranges; it looked hellish.

Once the wind died down, and I was sure none of my things would blow away, Phil and I decided to head north into Lake Havasu City.

Heading north, we actually caught up with the storm that had just passed us to the east.  The rain poured, and though Phil said he could see, I couldn’t understand how.  I certainly couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of the car.  It was a harrowing twenty minute drive, and though the rain was starting to let up by the time we got into town, there was another problem.

Flooding.  Even in the short time that the storm had been raging here, already small streams with new beds of rocks and earth and branches crossed the highway as it entered town.  Phil had to ease the Chrysler over a series of these obstacles, but thankfully we found a grocery store right off the main road.

We would see Lake Havasu City tomorrow in all its daylight dreariness.  After acquiring provisions, a pizza, some beer, and some more granola bars, we drove back to the campsite.  The highway was much less hostile on the way back, the rain had all but stopped.  We split a hot pizza and a six pack of beers back at the campsite, and went down to the lake.

Even after dark, the water was as warm as a bath.  I waited for Phil to strip, as neither of us had brought bathing suits, and then waded in as far as my shorts would let me.  Stars were peeking between the retreating clouds, and all around us, bats skimmed the surface of the lake for insects.  Crickets chirped as the land started to drain dry.  It was the most beautiful evening swim I had ever seen.

The Bastard Sea.

I want to go to that sea at the end of the world

To press my cheek against that fishbone beach

To feel the heat on my back like a lead vest

To breathe in the smells of salt and slime and death

Amid the ruins at the Salton Sea.

We moved on from Bombay Beach and visited North Shore, California.  Here we visited a gutted bait shop left from the days when the Salton Sea was still a sports fishing destination.  We saw birds on the shore; the sea remains an active stopover for migratory birds, and despite the environmental ruin that has occurred, graceful waterfowl still frequent it in tremendous numbers.  This is sometimes to their detriment, as some of the kinds of bacteria that thrive in the polluted sea are deadly to them.  Phil had found the skeletonized carcass of a pelican back at Bombay Beach, its bones still lined up so cleanly that you could see how it lay with its wings flopped open, and its head reared back on its neck… the remains not thrown into disarray by scavengers.

We hopped down on to the beach.  I can tell you that the first thing I thought was that the ground felt weird.  When you look at the beach closely, you can see that it’s made of bones; fish bones, dry scales, and even the bones of birds.  When you’re walking on earth made from bones, the ground feel softer, but dry… like you’re walking on tiny styrofoam pellets.  We saw a few dead fish in advanced states of decay on the beach, with whatever skin was left on them shrunk tight over the bones by the sun.

We also visited Desert Shores, California… this was when the sun was already sinking below the horizon.  The flooded portions of Desert Shores were behind locked chain link fences.  The fence had a gate in it, with a sign that said that the gate was provided for our convenience.  The gate was chained and padlocked shut.

Desert Shores was an amazing place.  It was a bustling little town when we got there.  With the sun now below the horizon and the temperature now around a hundred, people came out of their homes and jogged and walked in the relative cool.  The shore birds made soft whoop whoop noises as they settled in for the night.  The town was mostly latino, and there was the noise of people conversing in Spanish and english all around us.

We saw a row of small houses, sheds, and trailers that looked for all the world like a photo from National Geographic of the slums of Brazil.  On the other side of the street were a few large houses with walled yards.  News of the events in Syria had just begun to filter through to us.  We stood there, on the edge of a dying sea, in the shadow of crushing poverty, in a world on the brink of war.  It truly felt as though the Salton Sea was a place where the end of the world had already begun… as though we were looking at a reflection of the real world in a broken mirror.  Everything seemed recognizable, but somehow strangely wrong, out of step.

Phil scampered down the five foot incline to the shore of the sea to photograph some old pier pilings.  When he climbed back up, he said that fresh fish were washing up on the shore that night.  In the distance, on the southern shore, orange and white flashes of lightning brightened the clouds.

This place was beautiful. It was deceptively peaceful.  It could’ve been a paradise.

We started the drive back to Salton City and the hotel.  On the way, we stopped for some fast food sandwiches, purchased at a casino.  Here it seems that roadside casinos provide dozens of services to travelers; they are here what truck stops are for the rest of the country.

We drove back to the hotel and parked the Chrysler next to a ruined RV with a sticker on the back that read “The Salton Sea, The Place To Be!” In the walled parking lot, near the narrow entrance, a barrel flickered with flames.  Once inside, we reviewed the day’s work, and drank some nice cold beers.  The stench of the sea was lodged in my head, and it spoiled the taste of the sandwich… it felt like sand in my mouth, but it was food and without it, I would go to bed hungry.  The beer tasted off, too, but I was grateful for the cold drink, and for the alcohol that it provided.

I went back to my room, and locked all of the locks that I could.  Outside, below the hotel room window, stood a laughing buddha, his grin that of a demented and mentally challenged man.  The statue was stained with a stripe of black mildew that ran over his crazed mouth like slobber.  I took another sickly warm shower, and washed my bra in the hotel sink with the tiny bar of soap.  I left the curtains closed; the only view was a chain link fence and a huge billboard.  As I crawled into bed, I turned on the tiny television.  A news channel was on, and with the television remote also missing from the room, I couldn’t change it.  I left it on for the sound of voices.

We had originally planned to camp up at the campground at Mecca, and we would be if it hadn’t been for the equipment trouble. I will say that I was glad to be in the hotel for that night; more than the bed, more than even the air conditioning, I was glad to have a set of walls between myself and this place… this sea at the end of the world.