Getting Out the Message To Save Himself

In Don Waters’ short story “Full of Days,” a grieving Las Vegas man uses an anti-abortion billboard to justify his own pained existence.

Don Waters | The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain: Stories | University of Nevada Press | May 2017 | 25 minutes (6954 words)

From altar boys to inmates, ranches to hotels, the characters in Don Waters’ new collection of short fiction struggle with faith and meaning as much as the landscape of the American Southwest. In this story, “Full of Days,” the protagonist’s antiabortion billboard and surrogate daughter force him to reexamine his controlling behavior and own deep loss, in a city known for sin. Our thanks to Waters and University of Nevada Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.

* * *

“So Job died, being old and full of days.”  —Book of Job 42:17

Marc Maldonado sensed the Kingdom of God within him on Sundays, driving sun-scorched trash-scattered freeways to his temple of worship, and he felt the emptiness of his own realm whenever he set the table for one, whenever he aligned his socks in the hollow dresser drawer. In this hot, high-voltage city, with its pulsing neon, with its armies of fingers slamming on video poker buttons, he felt the loving kindness, the light ache of breath in his nostrils, and he knew he was necessary.

On that day Marc drove the freeways, analyzing angles for the best possible exposure. The great desert opened to him as he cruised I-15 North-South, I-515 East-West, changing direction where the freeways intersected and formed a concrete cross.

Summer’s heat was a cruel spirit upon the city. 107 degrees. 111 degrees. Heat leaked through his car window and raked his cheek. On the hood of his Honda lay a pigeon’s droppings baked into the shape of an egg.

For weeks he’d been observing traffic patterns at different times of day. He was after the best coverage over the longest period of time. Vehicles moving at sixty miles-per-hour might only get a two-second glimpse of his billboard. He needed to capture his viewer in that brief flash. This was a twenty-four-hour city, and morning-afternoon congestion didn’t necessarily apply. Las Vegas had its eyes open at all hours.

He disliked dealing with the corporations. One in particular had a near-monopoly over the city. And it was the most difficult company to deal with: sign rates were astronomical, it had restrictive guidelines and, when Marc had emailed the saleswoman the image he intended to use, she never called him back. Then the woman refused to accept his calls at all.

Vegas was a town of signage. Everything was advertisement: cheap buffets, pool parties, golf courses, weddings, concerts, magic shows, conventions, sporting events, discounts, skin. Marc needed a large billboard with enough surrounding space that it wouldn’t be swallowed by the noise. His message had competition. New outdoor digital numbers moved and blinked and altered their commercial announcements depending on the hour.

He wanted others to see. He needed others to see, if only for an instant, the cross he bore. His message was Life. Life itself. Life everlasting. And Death.

Two words, in bold Helvetica type…THINK TWICE…would overlay the image of a second-trimester travesty: a minuscule lopped-off hand, its five tiny fingers digitally embossed upon the face of George Washington on the national quarter. A teensy hand. A significant death. The image woke you up. The image worked. The miasma of gore encircling the hand spoke the truth to him, and he approved of its lesson: All life upon the earth was precious.

* * *

Marc occupied a corner apartment at 2202 Paradise Road. It was an L-shaped, two-story Spanish Colonial Revival building that lay in the afternoon shadow of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino. He’d painted his door yellow to distinguish himself from neighbors.

Two days after he posted a notice in the Review-Journal a man named Cameron Dunlop phoned. Cameron’s speedy, grating voice brought to mind a garbage disposal. “So listen I may have something for you,” he said in a quick burst. Marc listened.

Cameron had inherited a vacant lot, he went on, and the sign that stood there, which was currently unused, brought him extra income. So, yeah, was Marc interested? The billboard was located near the intersection of the Las Vegas Freeway and Sahara Avenue. When Marc heard this, he swallowed hard. He made triple exclamation points on his scratch paper. It was a prime location. Visible, with high traffic volume.

Cameron agreed to meet at 4:00 p.m.

Marc arrived early. The lot was in an industrial area, between a welding shop and scrapyard, and it wasn’t the most beautiful spot of land, but the sign was seeable and, more importantly, rentable. The white signboard rose thirty feet into the sky from behind a chain link fence. Bare, empty, and just waiting for his special hieroglyphics.

Ten minutes past the hour a massive red Ford V-10 jumped the curb and pulled alongside Marc’s Honda. The truck had muddy wheels, and its owner, a hedgehog of a man, short, hairy, stooped, had to shimmy down onto a step bar to reach pavement.

Marc watched Cameron’s chapped middle-aged hands fiddle with a lock on the fence. Then Cameron proudly pushed it open, as though introducing some paradise. The man squinted, staring up at the billboard’s great wide empty surface. “For years we had a blonde on there with the teeniest bikini you ever saw,” Cameron told Marc with a smile, thumb in his Wrangler’s pocket. “You know, an advert for that place with mob ties, Crazy Horse, that titty club? The men around these yards loved it.”

Marc nodded. He told Cameron he was a recent transplant and didn’t know the place. Cameron stated his price, which was a bit steep. Marc hoped to nudge him down.

“Okay. Okay. Let’s think,” Cameron said. “Not like this sign is working for anyone right now anyway. Tell you what. Ink a six-month lease on her and I’ll give you two weeks free. And I’ll knock a buck-twenty off the monthly tab.”

Marc quickly calculated costs. He still needed to pay for the vinyl panels. But this was a good opportunity, the closest he’d gotten. His nose burned under the bright, burnished sky as he thought it over.

“Well?” Cameron finally said, tugging his pocket open.

Marc signed the lease inside Cameron’s truck, with Al Green on the radio, the vents cooling his sweaty upper lip.

* * *

With money from the life insurance policy he’d arrived in the hypergraphic desert to save himself, to follow the righteous path, but there were moments, which dropped on him at night, in fits of sleeplessness, in his airless apartment, when he yearned for the Pacific coastline, the way he once fell hypnotized by the sound of waves.

He thought of the waves often. And he often thought about his last night on El Capitan Beach: his naked toes in cold sand, creeping upon the roiling in all his moonlit glory. He meant to wash himself away with the tide. Waves broke over his head, freezing and continuous, and he shook, from his knees to his lips, he shook, confused by the notion of their disappearance. Even then some dim light refused to turn dark in him, and from memory he recalled the words he was taught in his boyhood church, suddenly reawakened to that everlasting promise, gripping to it. That night Marc lived. He lived but needed to believe they lived on as well, that he would someday join them.

It had been an El Niño winter. Heavy rains, mudslides up and down the PCH. The neighbor’s dog had recently ruined their Persian rug with muddy paws. Driving conditions up the canyon were slow going and treacherous on the turns, especially on that night. Puddles grew to ponds on the road’s swamped shoulder as his wife and seventeen-year-old daughter, Emily, were returning from an art exhibition on Carpinteria Avenue. Marc had been at home, sitting there, had been on his time-beaten leather recliner, he would remember, he would always remember, half-happy on Cabernet, listening to the tapping rain, just sitting there, unaware of how his life would soon change.

Seven months before that night, his daughter had decided to empty a life from her belly by way of vacuum aspiration. It had been her quiet choice, hers and her mother’s. The father was some surf punk freshman from UCSB. Marc’s knee buckled when his wife eventually told him—too late, and without even consulting him. After his wife’s disclosure, he was struck by sudden shame, dull throbs in his throat, sunbursts of confused pain stirred around by the vague teachings of his childhood faith. He’d leaned against the kitchen counter, feeling the cool tile press into his palms, and looked at the wall calendar. Not much time had passed between the act and the hose. There hadn’t been much room for gestation. After, later, his daughter started going everywhere with his wife, a puppy trailing her mother, a young woman shocked awake by life’s new realities.

The police report was short, explicit, and now lived inside one of Marc’s barren utensil drawers. On their return from town the car hydroplaned at fifty miles-per-hour and collided against a steel railing. That was all. That was everything. The impact puckered the car’s hood, spun the vehicle around, and left the car facing the opposite direction, dripping fluids. There were no sparks. There was no explosion. Neither made it to the emergency room alive.

Everything soon went. Marc’s job, desires. Alone, he walked wet beaches. Alone, he returned, from time to time, to the church of his youth. He journeyed east, into the desert, alone.

These days Marc’s grandchild would have been seventeen months old. Probably talking. Perhaps walking. Each night, after dosing himself with ten milligrams of Ambien, he liked to imagine the beautiful round face of a baby girl on his ceiling. He imagined sharp purple veins behind translucent temples. He imagined her curious, unsteady walk. Words would be in her throat, the breath of life in her lungs.

* * *

Danika’s place was near old downtown, a lopsided single-story structure that looked as though it had been airlifted from Beirut, circa 1994, and set down in Las Vegas. It bothered Marc to the nth degree, thinking about her living in a place that brought to mind black mold and carbon monoxide.

The young woman was standing beside a retired phone booth absent a receiver, her black hair wrenched into a ponytail. She looked younger than nineteen. His belly spread and aching knees stood in sharp relief against her girl-freckles and bangs. To him, she was the image of a grown child who’d walked straight out of an Iowan cornfield.

“You need a visor if you’re going to stand in the sun like that,” he said, after shimmying open the car door.

“Don’t have a choice,” Danika said. “My roommates argue. And I don’t own a visor.”

Marc had recently begun to understand her sort, the lost lambs: squeezed into this life by irresponsible people and abandoned to its streets to learn from the gutter. It was a damn shame. Sometimes Danika said she was from Idaho. Other times she mentioned Texas. He liked to imagine Iowa. Whatever the case, some wild storm had blown hard enough to push her to this dizzying city. She fraternized with street kids and at one time lived, she’d once confessed, snickering over it, under a teepee constructed from pallets in the storm drains beneath the city.

One of Marc’s THINK TWICE fliers had delivered her to him. He posted bundles of the homemade fliers throughout the valley, held in place by a single brass tack and a file folder with a pocket. He visited youth centers and supermarkets and community health clinics, offering chauffeur services to pregnant teenagers. By now he’d lost count on the number of prank calls.

“I hope you’re taking the folic acid tablets I gave you,” Marc said.

Danika chewed a bit of loose skin from her thumb. “Sometimes. I forget.”

“And you’re okay for food, all that?”

The young woman stared absentmindedly out the car’s window, toward a casino, where scaffolding enfolded a wing. They passed a fenced meadow, barren except for a solo palm tree leaning north. “You ever do anything besides this?” she asked him.

“I enjoy this,” Marc said.

“A real angel,” she said. She sank in the seat, plunking a dirty tennie against the dashboard. “Sure. Helping young girls. Spending time with young girls. I bet you really dig this.”

A tough customer, Danika. Marc braked hard at the next light. Hormones, he told himself. It was the hormones. Her blood was boiling with them.

“I mean, don’t you ever feel like doing something fun?” she asked. “I see signs everywhere. There’s whitewater rafting down the Colorado. Skydiving. Gambling. I mean, from what I’ve heard, things can be great around here.”

“I have plenty of fun,” Marc said.

“Uh huh,” she said.

Marc waited in the hot car while Danika attended her prenatal appointment. She was nearly two months in, and he’d help as long as she needed him. Sometimes he daydreamed about being at the hospital with her, being present. Perhaps he could even hold the newborn.

But Danika was the thorniest girl he’d encountered so far. Others had requested his chauffeur service, of course, and each had come with issues. Like Pam, who was in her early twenties, pain-in-the-ass Pam. She didn’t own a car. She wasn’t really pregnant. She wasn’t even a teenager. She lied to him in order to get rides to her job. And then there was Deb, small, bird-boned, and frantic, who simply stopped showing up at the appointed street corner.

He took out his phone, sun burning his knuckles, and called the printer for an update. He was informed that everything was on schedule. Marc had to approach seven printers before finding PhantaGraphix in North Platte, Nebraska, the only large format printer to agree on producing the weatherproof vinyl billboard panels. The company’s owner, even more, emailed Marc a personal note: “I like your work. God bless.”

Sure, the image was shocking. That was his intention. It was jarring enough as a computerized .JPEG, but it was going to be galactically disturbing when enlarged to fourteen by forty-eight feet. He was told to expect the little dead hand to appear larger than a garage door.

An hour later, Danika returned, and Marc suggested lunch. She buckled her belt without responding and fixed her eyes on the street, away from him. Again. Like a teenager. Like a brat. The girl was almost feral. In need of parents, a father.

“Everything tip-top?” Marc asked.

“Sure, whatever, everything’s fine,” she said. “He wants to see me again. Why so many appointments? I don’t like that doctor.”

What a surprise. Danika didn’t like much. That’s what happened, he supposed, when a girl her age found herself in this predicament, living in this hard bright wildland, her innocence moving further away by the week.

Instead of dropping her on the corner, Marc parked. He directed Danika to the Honda’s trunk, where he had an old piece of luggage for her. And when he unzipped the bag, Danika took a cautious step back. She didn’t understand such kindness, clearly. Danika was Emily’s size, with Emily’s slight figure. He’d kept most of it: T-shirts, jeans, sundresses. Marc remembered his daughter wearing these items, and his dry lips stung as he watched a small nervous smile appear on Danika’s face. She draped an aqua-colored dress against her body. The lines around Danika’s mouth softened. He watched her finger the label. Then she ran her hand over the material. Her other hand, he saw, lay still against her flat belly.

* * *

He disliked the slogans from both camps. He didn’t ascribe to the competing bumper sticker philosophies. He didn’t feel the need.

PLANNED MURDER, NOT PARENTHOOD

PRO WOMAN, PRO CHOICE

AMERICA’S HOLOCAUST!

KNOWLEDGE + CHOICE = POWER

His was a singular quest to make others see—actually see—the startling image of a life taken. That one stolen life could affect another’s. That life was dear. That he was here. Here he was, struggling not to plummet into a well of bitterness. That everything was grabbed from him. That he was here, laying down his footprint. That he was here, walking the earth like you and you and you and you.

Some who knew Marc thought him “off.” Oh, sure, he knew people whispered, but at least he had ideas in this confusing world. As the founder of THINK TWICE, Marc was president, treasurer, and secretary. The city’s denizens, anyway, needed voices like his. People needed reminders of what could be lost amid all these shiny promises of what could be gained.

He shut down the online message board on his computer. He felt irritation pouring into him. They were loonies, each one of them. He only ever visited the message board to see what people were saying. But, oh. With their anonymous handles, their annoying posts. Just faceless people screaming about which clinics to target, what state laws needed changing, the horror of allowing women The Choice. He’d come to a conclusion that rose above platitudes. Show them. Let them decide. But show them.

In this one life you needed conviction. And in this one life you needed action.

So Marc snatched his car keys off the end table and, like every lonely Saturday evening, he prowled the freeways.

He drove on and off The Strip. For hours he searched for wheels crossing white lines. He looked for spastic brake lights. He looked for fast drivers, slow drivers, and drivers gently drifting back and forth, technically within the lines but outside the rule of law.

At last, at 1:14 a.m., he spotted a vehicle, at Eastern and Harmon. Its left front wheel tagged a median and then overcorrected. It was quick. The vehicle was an early model blue Suzuki SUV. Marc maneuvered behind but kept his distance. A bumper sticker on the SUV said, Lighten UP! Oh, sure. Sure, sure, sure. Lighten up.

Marc followed the Suzuki to another stoplight. He rapidly scribbled the time and the license plate number on an old receipt. He trailed, watching the SUV almost merge into another car. He hadn’t seen one in weeks. Now it was his. The Suzuki turned again. Marc felt his heart thumping. His palms went clammy. He had 911 on speed dial, but he paused.

The two cars moved northeast through the warm night streets. Marc wondered where the driver was leading him, but his question was answered when the Suzuki eased into a turn lane, aiming at a satellite casino on the edge of town. Marc waited through a full stoplight cycle, but for some reason the Suzuki didn’t budge. Another green flashed and disappeared into yellow. Both cars sat idling.

Marc approached the SUV’s side window with care. Through the shadows he saw an elderly man asleep behind the wheel. The man’s mouth was ajar, his head tipped forward into a messy beard. Marc opened the door and an alcoholic breeze swept out. Quickly he extracted the keys from the ignition. The dispatch operator answered after two rings.

* * *

The phone woke him at dawn. Marc pulverized his pinkie toe on the refrigerator on his search for the cordless telephone. It was Cameron. Cameron said he needed to meet. At the lot. At the sign. “Immediately,” Cameron said.

Marc dragged a razor over his stubble as the sun illuminated the steamy window above the shower. He took his time. A man couldn’t just call another man and make sudden demands like that. Before leaving, he sipped a cup of weak coffee in the wood-paneled living room. His furniture was mostly second-hand. The room, behind thick curtains, was silent and dark most of the time. This was his chosen life now, this shell. He’d sold the house and most everything inside it, and his wife and daughter, those sutures on his heart, would be stunned to see him living like this.

Cameron was behind the wheel of his Ford V-10. Marc heard Barry White’s baritone coming from the truck’s speaker system. Cameron climbed down off his red beast, and the first thing he said was, “The hell you think you’re doing? I didn’t approve this.”

Cameron was pointing at the image on the billboard. His face was red, furious.

It was up there now, above them, available for anyone with eyes, Marc’s image blazing under the cheap Vegas sun. Marc was annoyed to see yellow paint splotches on the left quadrant, from those damned pneumatic guns, from some damned teenage delinquents, probably.

“It gets the message across,” Marc said, prepping for confrontation. “People need to think about life.”

“And looking at death will make them do that?” Cameron asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You know the kind of phone calls I’m going to field for this stunt? We don’t even know if this is legal. Take it down.”

“Six month lease,” Marc said, reminding Cameron of their shared document, and then he added, “Paid in full. Up front.”

“Fine. I’ll remove it myself.”

“Breach,” Marc said.

Cameron sighed and shoved a letter at him. It was from the city. The letter, addressed to Mr. Dunlop, spoke of ordinances, proper street signage, and asked the owner of the billboard to call the following number to discuss the matter. “And you look like such a decent guy,” Cameron said. “That sign is going to nuke me here.”

* * *

At St. Mary of the Valley Marc sat on a cold hard pew and remembered them. He did not pray. He rarely prayed. Prayer for him was in remembrance. Some lady, a church worker in a floral dress, was moving cardboard boxes from the altar to the sacristy. Before him, on the cross, Jesus was bloody, the bloody version—the drama of thorns, of nails.

Without meaning to, Cameron had put it succinctly: to think of death was to think of life. Across the empty nave was a small village of votive candles, lit by the living to remember their dead.

This parish priest said nothing of abortion. These days, among many church communities, the subject was becoming a topic only discussed in confidence. The church didn’t want to upset anyone. The church needed to retain its dwindling membership. So the man’s sermons were lessons about community, love, and forgiveness.

Marc’s parents were taken by age. His sister went at thirty-six, from stage four breast cancer. Then his wife, his daughter. His family had exploded before him into molecules. Yet his feet were still part of this earth. Marc walked alone, cursed and bearing it, continuing on in the direction of another month, another year, his life a series of days.

Marc spent his days driving, hunting for another available sign, another opportunity.

He spent his days tacking fliers to community corkboards.

He spent his days with the breath of life inside him, the burden of life on him, with his hazard lights flashing, safely pulled to the freeway’s shoulder, gazing up at his billboard.

He retrieved Danika from her bomb-shelter apartment and drove her through the dusty streets to the clinic. She smelled oddly feminine, which was unlike her, a faint whiff of citrus drifting through the car. He remembered how, not long ago, Emily would steal spritzes from his wife’s stash. Danika was also wearing Emily’s white and purple dress, and she looked good in it, but her whole clean look was spoiled by what was on her lip. There was an ugly red gash on it. A cut. Marc hoped someone hadn’t hit her. Marc asked about it, but Danika didn’t want to talk, until she finally said, “We saw your billboard last night. A bunch of us were out driving. Totally gruesome.”

“How so?”

How so? Fuck, you are funny.”

Danika tromped inside the clinic and Marc settled into a thick paperback thriller. He adjusted the sun visor, keeping the heat off his neck. Not fifteen pages in, the young woman returned to the car, earlier than expected.

“That’s it with him,” she said. She slammed the car door. “I’ll be seeing a different doctor now, thank you very much. I told you I didn’t like him. He asked about my lip.”

“And what happened to your lip?”

“You too?” she said. Her eyes were wide. “You too?”

Danika drew her knees to her chest. The young woman looked as though she had an uneven staircase inside her. Her collarbone protruded sharply from her chest, like an instrument beneath the skin. She turned and put her cold hand on his forearm. It was the first time Marc had been touched in a long while. “I just don’t know how to do this,” she said to him.

He made the decision. He took her to a diner with an Australian Outback theme. Painted boomerangs decorated the walls. He ordered enough food for four, but Danika only ate three bites, not even half her plate, and not even enough nourishment for one.

* * *

He’d acquired the high-res images from an Eastern European anti-abortion coalition for a fee. Somehow the group had access to mid- and late-term aborted fetuses inside a hospital setting. Somehow the pictures were captured. Marc didn’t ask questions. The coalition hosted an online library that accepted credit cards. Initially it was difficult to look at the crushed skulls and blendered body parts, all of it backdropped by a red placental sheen.

On first arriving in Vegas, he gambled. Anger was his guide—anger, anger from loss, and the kind of survivor’s guilt that required steady supplies of antacid. He threw money away on slots, on craps, on blackjack, but mostly blackjack, since that game had the best odds for a reduced man. He was nothing but a vaporous presence in the checkout line, just another dumbstruck face among the heavy-lidded eyes on downtown sidewalks. Eventually he floated, in his confusion, toward the last available light, a man broken, in need, walking the earth with little in his mind but expectancy. He returned to what he knew, to bedrock solid enough to hold his burdens. The Church, no matter where he wandered, was there.

His first act of defiance was to duct-tape photocopies of dismembered fetuses to his car doors. People looked, yes. People looked at him. Some even yelled. All this sin and vice, and people were aiming their sharp words at him? That was okay: as long as they looked and saw. And then, one night, he forgot to peel the photocopies off his car. That was it. By the next morning both sideview mirrors were disassembled.

Las Vegas Metro knew Marc Maldonado well. One afternoon, he stopped by headquarters on Sunrise. At the reception desk he asked for Sergeant Olsen. The Sergeant had called him in for an additional statement. The sleeping man in the SUV was Marc’s third drunk driver.

Sergeant Olsen, a bald man, and apparently happy to be strong, leaned back in a squeaky metal chair, paperwork spread across his desk. “Isn’t there something else you’d rather be doing?” the Sergeant asked Marc.

“Well, if you’re not doing it,” Marc said.

Olsen shook his shiny head. “We are doing it. The best way we know how.”

It was a ridiculous conversation, and Marc, bouncing on his heels, urged the officer to speed things along. Yes, Marc had seen the vehicle moving unpredictably. Yes, he’d followed the driver. Yes, he’d removed the man’s keys from the ignition. Yes, he’d called the police.

Sergeant Olsen made Marc sign a form.

Marc cracked his knuckle as he pushed through the exit. The sun came down like a hammer. He cracked another knuckle in the Honda, regurgitating bits of the conversation. Marc thought of himself as protector, an Army of One, putting the streets right, doing what needed to be done. Why did it bother others when he put his foot forward?

Later, after driving around town without a destination, he stopped by the Stratosphere’s concierge desk. He was powered by irritation, he was powered by faith, and to his surprise he purchased two tickets for a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon’s southern rim. Also promised in the package were views of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and an extinct volcano. The promotional bundle put him back a grand. So there: that would be fun. So there: it was done. He’d have some fun. There. He’d done it, made time for him, for fun, but then, shoving the receipt into the glove compartment, he reconsidered. What if some horrible hand plucked them from the sky? Young pregnant women should be resting among pillows, not whizzing through cloudwork, not blazing over desert hardpan in a glass-bubbled aircraft. Young pregnant women needed tending to by others, and young pregnant women definitely didn’t need to be smoking.

“You know better than that,” he said to Danika when she got in the car. She reeked. Her clothes, his daughter’s clothes, threw off hints of half a pack—at least. The smell of cigarette smoke surrounded her like some force field. He summoned the tone he once used on Emily. “You have to start thinking about another person’s life,” he said.

Danika’s eyes shot up, in that teenage way. “And when are you ever going to start thinking about your own life?” she said. “This? This is what you do with your time?”

He ignored her and put the car in drive.

She gave him a different address. Danika’s new OB/GYN was just blocks from the hospital. He liked that. It was within the radius of safety. The office, like the last, catered to the underclass. He managed to thumb through forty-eight pages of his courtroom thriller before Danika returned to the car. She plopped her feet against the dashboard again. She was holding an appointment card.

“So, this doctor is okay? You like him?” he asked.

“Her,” Danika said.

He nodded. “Okeydokey. Too late for lunch,” Marc said. “An early dinner, maybe?”

Marc deduced from the way Danika held her fork that she came from an unprivileged background. A home without motivation. An old house, he imagined, with weeds spotting the yard. He sometimes wondered how such pitiful situations could produce daughters with such fierce, pretty eyes.

“I’ve been meaning to ask. There’s this place I hit on Sundays,” he said when her fettuccine arrived.

“It’s called church and, no, I’m not interested,” she said. “I can read you from a mile away.”

“It might give you some direction. It’s a community, Danika. New mothers need support. And a baby needs that too.”

Danika slammed her hand on the Formica tabletop. His spoon jumped. Other patrons turned. “I am more than a baby incubator,” she said firmly. “I’d rather talk about something else.”

Marc’s thoughts drifted to the fresh receipt in his glove compartment. He wouldn’t mention it. His cheeks burned with disappointment. He considered getting a refund, scrapping the whole deal. Danika was acting like a shit. And when his own daughter would act like a shit, he’d put her to work, funnel her behavior into something constructive. But this one, this one wasn’t his. This one had her own hot blood, her own way of moving in the world.

Why did He take her from him?

* * *

Cameron and his phone calls. One voice mail, followed by another. Marc agreed to meet Cameron at the lot again. And when Cameron arrived, late, he orbited Marc’s Honda several times before jerking to a stop. The guy’s mud flaps were tinted in fine red dust.

“Okay, this really has to go,” Cameron said.

Marc was saddened to witness it. Some joker vandal in the night had jumped the chain link fence, scaled the billboard’s spine, and spray-painted a fairly decent rendition of Mickey Mouse on his billboard sign. Now the dead fetus’s hand looked like it was shaking Mickey’s. The sight of it nauseated him.

“We have an agreement,” Marc said to Cameron.

“Agreement? Just look at that!” Cameron screamed. “Mickey Mouse on top of an abortion! Jesus. I never agreed to this.”

Cameron opened the fence and they stood beneath the monstrosity. Neither man had words. But Cameron was right. With the flow of moving cars filling their ears, people were definitely seeing this, and it had to be cleaned.

First they tried the hose. Its weak spray only wet the bottom portion of the vinyl. Cameron swore and kicked at a wood pallet. At last Cameron fetched soap and a bucket from a nearby auto shop. Marc climbed the metal ladder to the narrow platform, raising the bucket with rope. Up above, he had views to the south, of Circus Circus, of the Mirage and Venetian. Distant mountains were red, white, with rocky eroded tips. Everything else was dry desert basin, a city on top of it, a spot, perhaps, where no life should exist.

“And make sure you get all of Mickey,” Cameron yelled up at him. “Jesus Christ on a stick. My granddaughter might see that.”

* * *

Weeks later Danika wasn’t waiting for him on the sidewalk. And her shifty roommates didn’t know where she’d gone. The pair stood side-by-side, framed by darkness, as though purposely blocking the mess behind them, the beer bottles and potato chip bags and one solitary mattress, which lay like a corpse on the floor. The boy, who ascribed to some tribal philosophy of rings and tattoos and indigent clothing, said to Marc, “You can try back later. I don’t know where she went.”

Danika had never missed an appointment.

That night he stayed up late, worrying over her wellbeing. That split-lip, her sleazy dwelling, the tattoo on that kid’s neck that looked like a lit fuse. Marc couldn’t sleep. So he grabbed his keys and waited on the street outside her building, trying to isolate her silhouette behind the thin blinds. For days afterward he wondered if he should contact her doctor. But, of course, no: that relationship was privileged.

He focused on the streets, driving at night, hunting for drunk drivers. His concerns segued to landing another rentable billboard. Cameron was constantly bothering him. Always calling, begging him to take down the sign. A refund, Cameron said, a full refund: he’d give Marc his money back. No questions!

At last Marc located an empty billboard on the desert highway leading into the city. Of course: it was ideal. Visitors arriving from Los Angeles would pass it when driving into town. The opportunity lay on ranchland, private property, and he wouldn’t have to worry over city ordinances. A person would need to leap a ten-foot tensile fence to get anywhere near the sign.

This sign looked like the better option, especially when it became clear that Cameron was not abiding by their agreement, which Marc saw for himself not long after. He was driving the freeway, heading toward the sign one day, in order to check on further defacement, when from the freeway he saw something off.

Up in the air, inside an industrial bucket lift, was the short man himself, dangling high above a big white truck. The stout little bastard was at the billboard, Marc’s billboard, attempting to peel away the vinyl panels with some kind of tool.

Marc accelerated down the off ramp, pulled several illegal turns, and skidded to a stop outside the fence.

“Breach!” Marc yelled up at Cameron. He ran underneath the bucket. “Breach!”

“It’s what’s right!” Cameron yelled. Marc saw the man working faster. A slight breeze carried Marc’s thrown bottle cap eastward. He searched the sunbaked lot for something else to throw. He spotted the desiccated husk of a red brick. He did not want to harm Cameron. He just wanted to stop him. Cameron kept glancing over his shoulder as he worked. And soon, to Marc’s horror, Cameron gained purchase on an edge, yanking the panel. Part of Marc’s sign drooped.

“I want a refund!” Marc yelled.

“Too late!”

The door of the white truck was unlocked, the keys stupidly in the ignition. Marc hopped inside, put it in reverse, and began backing the vehicle away. Cameron stooped inside the bucket, his hands visible around the lip. What angered Marc more, after Cameron threw the utility knife at him, then his cowboy boot, was the belt. Cameron actually threw his belt, which bounced off the windshield as Marc reversed the vehicle, easing it forward and onto the street, sailing the lift, with Cameron inside it, through the ovenlike air.

The following afternoon a phone call roused him from a nap. Marc’s mouth tasted metallic and he didn’t recognize the incoming number. He thought it might be a lawyer. He’d phoned several to inquire about his breached contract.

“Mr. Maldonado?” asked a woman.

Marc said, who wanted to know?

“I’m calling on behalf of Danika Hooper,” she began.

The air left his lungs. Marc listened. To tamp the heat inside his chest, to control his fury, he scribbled zeros on a piece of scratch paper, listening to the nurse, writing down her major points, namely one word. Procedure, she kept saying, Danika’s procedure.

Marc already knew the address, and when he hung up he hurled the phone against the wall. His elderly neighbor, Mr. Timmerman, would ask about that. He didn’t care. He considered leaving her there, abandoning her to wallow in after-sedation. And then he thought of leaving this forsaken place, with its endless strip malls and promises of instant wealth and carnal release.

In the car he grabbed the wheel and shook it with all the violence he could summon. His jaw ached. Why was he so cursed, why so many curses on one man? Marc Maldonado was a man alone, and the world around him kept departing.

It was a standard office, tight-woven wall-to-wall carpet with women’s magazines beside houseplants. Air-conditioning bit into his sinuses.

The nurse, a woman younger than her phone voice, was expecting him. “She’s been here for hours,” the woman said. “Office policy is to bring your own ride. She lied. She told us you were outside.”

Farther in, through the door, the office was more hospitalized: steel trays and shiny instruments and glass containers with cotton balls. He wondered where they’d taken what was left, wondered if there had been a prayer over it.

Danika was in a mechanical bed at the end of the hall, wearing Emily’s dress from Sausalito, that foggy weekend, clams for dinner, a day’s hike down Mount Tam. Sunlight dropped through the blinds and painted her young face in stripes.

The sight of her in bed turned his lungs cold, but the hardness usually in her eyes had vanished. She looked exactly like what she was, a lost young woman. He went to her. When she reached for his arm his legs nearly gave.

“Sorry your billboard didn’t work on me,” she said.

The nurse stood in the doorway, pursing her lips in a tight smile, holding her hands in a bunch.

Marc escorted the girl from the room, down a stairwell, into the car. Danika told him she felt wobbly, but, really, okay. It was not what she’d expected. “In fact I don’t even feel—”

“Let’s not talk about it, Danika. Please.”

There was nowhere decent for her in this town. Her apartment was not safe for a young woman in recovery. That was nowhere for anyone. It hurt him that there was nowhere she could convalesce, including his own dark pathetic two-bedroom. This was no place to live. As far as he was concerned, every grain of desert sand could liquefy and swallow the whole business.

A worry gained hold inside him. When he was gone, when he was absorbed into creation’s great energy, who would step forward to act as redeemer? He grew furious at Cameron, at the all-around street signage. Nothing spoke of the proper messages. On busses, taxis, walls, on kiosks and as vehicle wraps, not one of them calling for compassion, not one of them recognizing his great, ongoing grief.

He struck his fist on the dashboard. Danika jumped. She looked at him with a lifetime in her eyes. He caught himself turning where he should have kept driving. Then he accelerated, crossing two lanes at a time.

“What are you doing?” Danika asked.

The father in him, after such prolonged silence, struggled to reappear, and he knew he could no longer have his feet on this earth, on this hot concrete, not at this time.

“Marc? Where are you taking me?”

He drove south on Las Vegas Boulevard, past tourists parading in drunken groups and New York, New York and Mandalay Bay and that black freak-show pyramid. He wanted his one life to mean something. And if he couldn’t find answers for himself, he hoped he could help Danika find hers. And he needed, he needed, he suddenly understood, he needed an animal, a companion, yes: a cat.

He stopped beside the airport’s executive terminals. The sign on the building was far more professional than his rinky-dink attempt at signage. Two other cars occupied the lot.

“You’re serious?” Danika said.

“If you’re game,” he said. “Check the glove compartment.”

Danika removed the folded receipt.

“Depends if they have room for two more,” he said.

The helicopter was climate controlled and allowed passengers 180-degree views. Donning a big black headset, Danika looked tiny, tiny but well and embodying this one decisive day. Soon the rotors began and Marc felt his heart shake as the steel beast hummed to life. Adrenaline flooded into him. And they lifted, smoothly. The pilot pulled away from the earth. Marc clenched onto a handle, momentarily disoriented. The city’s ugliness diminished as they ascended, their perception of the world sliding into a new kind of knowing. The Strip, and its ridiculous buildings, soon looked like mere child’s toys. They climbed upward, thousands of feet in the air, and he watched Danika’s mouth play into a smile and disappear. She would love, and be loved, and she would one day come to understand the magnitude of her verdict. Marc released his grip on the handle, urging himself to let go, and they went, momentarily untethered from the world and into the day’s pale light.

* * *

From The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain by Don Waters. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of University of Nevada Press.