Day One: Arches
“In America,” Aleksandar tells me, “you have over-the-hill vegetables.”
“What?” I say, shifting down and guiding the tour bus steering wheel toward the entrance gate of Arches National Park. He’s one of seventeen Eastern European tourists we’re driving around on a three-day Arches–Grand Canyon extravaganza. After the Grand Canyon, they’ll fly to la to take on Hollywood, but I’m only on the desert leg.
From the first row Aleksandar is trying hard to catch my eye in the rearview mirror. Gray nose hairs graze his lip, and he’s dressed more for a meeting with the cabinet than with million-year-old rocks. “Your carrots here are so big,” he says, emphasizing the beginnings of nouns, crunching syllables like nuts. “Tomatoes. Watermelons. OR-anges. Giants. Everything you have here is bigger.” He pauses. “Not everything.”
I ignore this. Aleksandar is an old man.
“Is that true?” It’s Josiah, the animator sitting across the aisle.
“U.S. people don’t know when to pick vegetables,” Aleksandar says, pointing a plump finger. “Leave them in the ground too long.”
Josiah raises his eyebrows. He has quick eyes and short black hair that looks like velvet. “I see,” he says, humoring Aleksandar. Some people are bulldozers, and the best thing is to step aside and let them roll through.
“What they don’t seem to know is they’re only good when they’re young,” Aleksandar says. “So full of flavor then. Right, Miss Katherine?”
Aleksandar makes me uncomfortable. I search the rearview for Tabitha, my co-leader—she’s in back with two forty-ish women in turquoise T-shirts and dangling earrings that resemble engine parts.
Aleksandar blows his nose with a rag produced from the [End Page 26] leather bag beside him. “Funny how your culture loves youth so-o-o much,” he says.
“But not when it comes to our vegetables?” I say, maneuvering the wheel. The tollbooth line slows. The Arches people designed the entrance so that visitors have to pay and then climb half a mountain range before seeing anything. Behind us the long highway stretches like a dry river back to Moab.
Aleksandar smiles. “You’re a fast girl.”
“I don’t think fast is the word for it,” Josiah says, eyes bright in the rearview. He draws in a notebook with a blunt pencil, probably sharpened by a bowie knife. Quick strokes. Holding my eye, then looking down again. His wife was taken prisoner and killed five years ago, we learned at our short reception last night. Also, he’s meeting with a Japanese graphic novel publisher in la on account of his portfolio. He has a two-month visa to stay there and work. Eventually he’ll move from Croatia, or he might become a garbage collector instead, he said. His life is a mess like the rest of ours. Which is enough to make Tabitha and me swoon.
Aleksandar says, “I didn’t know you were still listening.”
“I am,” Josiah says, licking his thumb and smoothing lines with it. I’ve seen his sketches only from a distance: robotic men with huge, flat faces staring at the sun. Last night Tabitha and I decided that’s our opening. What better seduction than asking to see his drawings? We said this jokingly since Tabitha has a boyfriend, but I know she’d cheat.
Aleksandar’s relentless. “Have you ever tasted vegetables here? Excuse me,” he coughs. “You won’t taste vegetables here.”
Josiah says, “Maybe they’ve bred away all the goodness from them.”
“That would be sad,” I say.
Josiah glances up at the mirror. “That would be sad.”
Soon the first humped backs of red rocks are visible. The landscape dramatic and primordial, a wide, dry ocean bed with boulders parked like massive ships. The A/C wheeze is no match for the III-degree heat.
Aleksandar shakes his head. “Now you’re talking about killing its soul. That’s not what I’m talking about at all.”
Our first stop’s ahead another mile, and already the lot is clogged with tourist...