Richard Luftig (fiction)
Off the Grid
Monnell wasn’t sure what state he lived in. It might have been western Utah but it could just as easily been northeastern Nevada. Living off the grid with no utilities, roads or towns had a way of causing geographic vertigo.
It was like this for the last twelve years. Living alone in a sun-baked, wind-whipped, Silverstream trailer slowed down time until he didn’t know if it was Monday or Wednesday. All he knew was when the desert was so hot that he couldn’t breathe without burning his lungs, it was summer, and when the wind blew cold and sand got caught in his teeth and stung his eyes, it was winter. The last few days were telling him that it was time to dig out his propane heater.
Once a month he drove the eighty miles to Lages in his ‘79 truck to pick up his $600 disability check and stock up on coffee, pork and beans, dried milk and potable water. He was lucky enough to have Johnson, an old army buddy, living in town. He let Monnell use his address as a drop for his money. Not having an account, Monnell would sign the check and than wait outside the bank until Johnson cashed it and handed the money over. They would share the same joke about how pissed off the V.A. would be if they knew how “disabled” Monnell was living out in the high desert, chopping wood and hunting. But Monnell wasn’t going to turn down the money and Johnson hated the government so much he’d never tell.
Besides his semi-regular trip to Lages, Monnell had little use for towns or people. Which was why he was surprised to hear tires crunching across the rutted, packed dirt that served as the lane leading up to his trailer. Visitors out here meant a county sheriff determined to run him off the land, the IRS after him for not filing taxes the last fifteen years, or his ex-wife trying to suck whatever she could out of him even after twenty years.
It didn’t matter which. The best way to deal with them was with a load of buckshot. Monnell jumped out of his chair and reached under the bed for his rifle.
He crawled to the kitchen window and moved the curtain slightly with the barrel of his gun. No sense letting whoever it was know he was home, although his truck parked outside was probably a giveaway. Let them bang on the door. If they broke their way in, he’d shoot. If there were more than one though, it might get dicey. He ran a boney hand through his long, steel-gray hair and waited.
He wasn’t prepared for what came next. A young, blond-haired woman, probably no more than twenty–five-it got out of a beat -up Honda. Monnell wasn’t sure, but he thought he recognized her. She turned back and said something through the open car window to someone in the front seat, but Monnell couldn’t see a face. She closed the door and walked toward the trailer.
“That’s far enough,” Monnell shouted. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”
Monnell blinked in disbelief and lowered his gun.
“Peggy? Is that you?”
“Yeah. Except it’s Margaret. No one has called me Peggy since I was twelve.”
Monnell thought for a second. Peggy… Margaret was his daughter, the only good thing that had come out of a lousy marriage. She had been nine when he had left for good.
Still, it could be a trick, some government agent trying to gain access to his trailer. Then she’d slap on the handcuffs and haul him off.
He raised the rifle again. “If you’re my daughter, tell me something only she would know.”
There was a long silence. “When I was seven, you won a large stuffed rabbit for me at the county fair by shooting three bull’s-eyes. I called the rabbit Gunner after your good aim and slept with it on my bed every night.”
He opened the trailer door. “Jesus, it’s really you. Come inside before you get eaten by the wind.”
“Hold on,” Margaret called. “I’ll be right there.”
She walked to the car and opened the passenger door. A boy, Monnell figured he was no older than six, climbed out and shielded his eyes from the blowing sand.
The two made their way into the trailer. The place, barely big enough for Monnell, was as cramped as a metro bus during rush hour.
Margaret walked over and gave her father a hug. Monnell was too bewildered to return the embrace. He looked over her shoulder at the small, frightened boy.
“From the looks of this place it’s not often you get company.” She sat down at the table. The boy stood by the door as if he wanted to make a quick getaway.
Margaret frowned. “You don’t look very happy to see me.”
Monnell sat opposite her. “No, nothing like that. It’s just that I’m… well, shocked is probably the best word. It’s probably been what, ten years?”
“Try thirteen. Last time was when you had the apartment in Fresno. After that, you fell off the map.”
Monnell studied her. Even to a stranger she would have looked terrible. To her father, who remembered her as beautiful, her appearance was shocking. She was pale, no; ashen was a better word, thin, with circles under her hazel eyes. The only color was in her cheeks but even that didn’t look right, more feverish than anything else. Her auburn hair, once so long and beautiful looked like it had been unprofessionally cut short and was in need of being combed.
“How did you find me out here? No one knows where I live.” His eyes narrowed. “Did you mother put you up to his?”
Margaret laughed. “No, Dad, she didn’t. Living here in the middle of nowhere has made you paranoid. I came on my own.”
“Being paranoid doesn’t mean that the IRS and your mother aren’t looking for me. So quit stalling. How did you find me?”
Instead of answering, Margaret turned to the small boy still hovering by the door. “Steven, go out to the car and get our bags. And bring in the sack of groceries we bought for our stay.”
Monnell didn’t like the words bags and stay. It implied a visit of indeterminate length. Daughter or no daughter, he didn’t like visitors. It was why he had moved off the grid in the first place, to get away from everyone- family included.
For the first time, Monnell studied the young boy who seemed happy to escape the cramped trailer. He had sandy hair and a ruddy complexion. But the thing that stood out most was that he was thick wearing glasses, something Monnell found odd in a child so young.
When the boy was gone, Monnell turned again to his daughter. “So, how did you find me and who put you up to it?”
“No one put me up to it,” she said. “I did it on my own. And finding you wasn’t that hard. I drove up to Sacramento to the V.A. office that sends out your checks. They told me you had them sent in care of someone named Johnson in Lages.”
“Bullshit,” Monnell barked. “That information is confidential. So how about telling me the truth.”
“It is the truth. I told the guy there I had to find you, that I hadn’t seen you in thirteen years. I told him I had a terminal illness and wanted to see my father one last time. They gave me the address where your checks were being sent. I told your friend Johnson the same thing, and he told me how to find you out here.
Monnell laughed in spite of himself. “Good for you. You always had a way with making up stories, even as a little girl.”
Margaret walked and removed a clean glass from the counter and filled it up from the fifty-gallon water sitting on the kitchen floor.
“It’s not a story, Dad. It’s the truth. I’m dying. I have AIDS.”
Monnell got up and walked to the window. He saw boy getting the bags out of the trunk of the car and struggled to think. Maybe he hadn’t heard his daughter correctly.
“AIDS? How? Who?
“How I got it is the usual way. Who I got it from, I don’t know. Lets just say that my sex life hasn’t been all that conservative or careful.”
There was a long silence. “And the boy?” Monnell said finally.
“The boy is your grandson.”
“My grandson! Is he, does he…?”
“No Dad, he’s fine. I had him before I became infected.”
“How old is he? I pegged him at about six.”
“He’ll be eight two days before Christmas.”
“Eight!” Monnell stammered. That means you had him when–”
“I was seventeen.”
The conversation stopped as the boy came back in carrying an overnight bag and a sack of groceries. Monnell helped put the things on an empty chair.
“Steven,” his mother said, “I want you to say hello to your grandpa. Dad, this is Steven.”
Monnell didn’t know what to do. A hug seemed inappropriate, a nod too impersonal. The boy solved the problem by shyly holding out his hand. Monnell tentatively took it like he was handling an eggshell. The boy seemed fragile. Monnell was afraid that if he shook it too hard, his grandson’s arm might come out of its socket.
“Glad to know you,” Monnell said. He wanted to keep it light. “Your mother letting you play hooky from school?”
From the pained look on the boy’s face, Monnell knew that he had made a mistake.
“I had to pull him out of school, Dad. I lost my job and soon after that, my apartment.”
Monnell looked from his grandson to his daughter. “You mean you’ve been homeless?”
“Sort of. We’ve been staying with different friends in the Salinas area. When we wear out our welcome in one place, we move on to someone e
else. Lately, we’vebeen sleeping in the car. Luckily the weather’s been pretty good all summer.”
“It’s been like camping out,” said Steven, speaking for the first time. “We’ve had campfires and everything.”
“And now you’re here,” Monnell said.
“Yeah,” Margaret said. “For a number of reasons. I thought it was about time that Steven met his grandpa. But mostly it was because we’ve run out of places to stay.”
“And how long you fixing to be here?” He was aware that he had phrased the question harsher than he had intended.
Margaret gave him a hurt look. “Not long. Just time enough to work some things out in my head. Don’t worry, Dad, I have no intention of intruding on your privacy a minute more than is necessary.
Monnell looked around the trailer. With a sudden, trained eye he saw that not only was the place too small to sleep three people, one of the opposite sex, but it was a hovel. He’d gotten used to having clothes strewn over every piece of broken-down furniture, including the two lamps. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and there wasn’t a clean pot in the place.
“Well, no matter how long you’re staying, this is no place for a woman and a kid.”
He thought for a while. “All right, here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll make you a deal. You clean out a pot or two and make the three of us some dinner, and I’ll see what I can do about finding you two some temporary living arrangements. I know someone who lives in a mobile home a few miles down the road. Her name’s Tina. I’m not exactly on her Christmas list, but I think she’ll let you and Steven stay there for a bit.”
He thought it best to include his grandson in the conversation. “That okay with you, Steven?” The boy nodded but Monnell thought he didn’t look happy.
Monnell grabbed his keys from the table. “Okay, so that’s our plan. I’ll probably be an hour or so. If it takes longer than that, start eating without me ‘cause I’ve probably been shot.”
He got in his truck and drove the ten miles to Tina’s. The unspoken rule of squatter etiquette was that ten miles was about as close as two neighbors could be. In the case of Tina, Monnell wished it were farther.
The truck bounced over the bone-shaking miles, but Monnell was used to it. When he arrived, he smiled at the two junk cars out front and the three llamas fenced in the yard. Some things never change, he thought.
He got out of his truck, walked up and rapped loudly on the door. There was no answer. He wondered if Tina had seen him from the window and was ignoring him. It would be her way, but he also knew he deserved it.
Finally, the door opened. Facing him was a woman of indiscriminate age, maybe forty, maybe twenty years older. Living off the grid had a way of doing that to a person, especially a woman. She was thinner than Monnell remembered. But the transparent, blue eyes, almost hidden in the late afternoon light, were exactly the same.
She swung the door open. The look on her face indicated she wasn’t pleased. “Well, look who decided to end up on my doorstep again. Monnell, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Hello, Tina. Might I come in?”
“For what, another quickie? The last thing I saw of you was your ass getting into your truck. That was five years ago. Some dinners, a few nights together, and you disappear until today. What do you want?”
“Please, I need to talk to you. Believe me, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”
“What can be more important than me shooting out your truck tires which is exactly what I’m going to do if you’re not off my property in ten seconds.
Monnell wondered if she was serious about blowing out his tires. He decided that given how mad she was at him, she probably was. Still, he remembered his daughter and grandson back in his trailer and decided to try one last time.
“I know how you feel about me walking out. So go ahead and shoot out my tires. But all that means is I’m going to be at your place longer than you like so why not just hear me out.”
She opened the door and let him step inside. “All right but make it quick before I change my mind. I could lie and tell you I’m in the middle of something but the truth is I just don’t feel much like talking to you.”
Monnell stepped inside out of the wind. “Thanks,” he said. He ran his hand through his hair. “I need a favor.”
Tina blinked in disbelief. “You got to be kidding. After how you treated me? One thing I’ll say, you got nerve.”
“Please,” Monnell said. “Hear me out. Can I sit down?”
“Hell, no,” she said. “Anything you have to say to me doesn’t require you staying long enough to make yourself comfortable.”
“Fair enough. The long and short of it is my daughter is here.”
“Wait, you have a daughter? You never told me. I mean I know we weren’t sleeping together that long but isn’t that something you might have shared?”
Monnell didn’t like the way the conversation was going. He wanted to steer Tina away from their past toward the present.
“Maybe. I guess so. And I’m sorry for that. Actually, I ‘m sorry for everything that happened between us. I know I screwed up. But right now I need your help.”
“So, you have a daughter. So what?”
“She’s here with the grandson I didn’t know I had.”
Tina shook her head. “Damn, talk about an interesting day. But how does any of this involve me?”
“They need a place to stay.”
“Not on your life, Monnell. Do I look like the Motel 6?”
Monnell looked down at his shoes. How much should he tell this woman who believed that he used and abandoned five years ago?
“We’re all dying, Monnell. What’s that to me? Besides, knowing you, you’re lying though your teeth just so I’ll give them a place to stay.”
“It’s the truth Tina, I swear it. She has AIDS.
Tina moved from the hallway where she was blocking the door into the living room. Monnell accepted it as an invitation to sit down in an empty chair.
“Christ, Monnell, you may be the world’s biggest heel, but nobody deserves that kind of news. And she came back to tell you?”
“I guess so. To tell you the truth, we haven’t got that far. I don’t know how much time she has left. They’re at my place making dinner. I left them and came straight here.
“Look I didn’t know who else to turn to. I know I treated you like crap, dropping you without a word of apology, but I don’t have anywhere else to go. I pretty much cut my ties with the entire world, including my family, a very long time ago.”
He hesitated and looked at the woman. “If you know anything about me, you’d realize it’s not easy for me to come here begging.”
Tina sat town in the chair opposite Monnell, lit up a cigarette and took a long drag.
“Monell, if you’re lying to me about any of this, I’ll kill you.”
“I swear, it’s the truth.”
Tina nodded. “All right, they can stay. But just for a day or two. And you have to pay for their food and any other expenses. I’m not the Salvation Army.”
Monnell sighed with relief. “No problem. I’ll bring them down after supper. I think they have sleeping bags and pillows. They’ve been crashing at people’s apartments so I assume they have their own stuff.”
He got up and even though he knew he was taking his life in his hands, gave Tina a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Tina. I owe you.”
“Damn right. Bring them but not too late. I need my beauty sleep.”
After supper, Margaret and Steven followed Monnell in their car to Tina’s. He wanted to pile them into his truck, but his daughter refused. She pointed out that there was no phone service off the grid, and Monnell wouldn’t know when to pick them up. This way they could drive back to his place when they were ready. Monnell agreed, proudly remembering that even as a kid his daughter had always been logical.
They arrived at Tina’s and got settled in. “We need to talk,” Monnell said to Margaret after they had gotten Steven bedded down.
He turned to Tina. “Would you mind keeping an eye on Steven for a little bit? I promise, we won’t be long.”
They got into his truck and drove off, saying nothing. Monnell made his way up a series of steep hills until they got to the top of a tall mesa.
He shut off the motor and headlights. Even with the windows closed, the constant wind moaned like a saddened bird.
“God, it’s beautiful out here,” Margaret said. “You can see every star in the sky so clearly.”
“Monnell looked up through the windshield. “That’s because there aren’t all of those city lights polluting the night sky. Life can be tough out here, sometimes lonely, but there’s a beauty you don’t get anywhere else.”
He paused. “Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed so long.”
There was an awkward silence. Margaret continued to look at the stars.
“So how bad is it?” he asked.
Tina hesitated. “Bad enough, although the doctors can never be one hundred percent sure. They know that the HIV has progressed to AIDS but they can’t tell the stage. I may have six months; I may have a few years. They’re making research progress all the time.”
“Well, at least that’s a glimmer of good news,” Monnell said. He wanted to be hopeful but he wasn’t sure if it was for her or him.
“Yes and no,” Margaret said. “I don’t have health insurance so the hospitals don’t want to treat me.
“Yeah, that’s why I have to go back to Mom’s. I’ll use her place as a residence and then apply for Medi-Cal. Only trouble is, with all the bureaucracy, it could be months, maybe longer before I get the insurance. I could be beyond hope by then.”
Monnell opened his side window. It was cold, but the wind felt good, like it could blow out all the bad news that was being stored up in the truck’s front seat.”
“Does your mother know?’ he said, finally.
“No, not yet. I mean, she knows about Steven, has even met him a few times, but not about my illness.”
She took a slow breath. “I was hoping you’d drive to California with me to be there when I tell her”
Monnell turned and stared at his daughter.
“Are you nuts? I haven’t seen your mother in twenty years. She’s the reason I’m out here in the first place. Is this why you came all this way to find me? If it is, I’m sorry, but you wasted your time.”
Margaret choked back her sobs. “Please, Dad, I know how you feel about Mom but I can’t do this alone. She’s either going to be screaming mad or break down into a jelly-pile of anxiety and neurosis to where I have to take care of her instead of the other way around. Either way, I’m done in.”
Monnell rubbed his chin. “And what makes you think I can be of any help? Could be that as soon as I walk through the door she sets off on me.”
“Well, at least that would make my life easier.”
Monnell laughed. “Thanks for nothing.”
He took his daughter’s hand. “Look honey, I’m sorry. About being a lousy father, about you being stuck as a single mother, especially about your illness. But I can’t go back there. That life in California was toxic. I had to get away to survive. If I go back there, it w ill kill me for sure.
Plus, I’m pretty sure that your mother seeing me would only make matters worse. For all of us.”
Margaret looked out again at the stars. “Maybe you’re right. It was unfair to surprise and spring all of this on you. I’m sorry.”
“Couldn’t you and Steven stay here with me?”
“Face it Dad, you’re only saying that because you feel guilty. But you came out here because you need space. Believe me, in two weeks we’d be at each other’s throats.”
“I could adjust,” Monnell said.
“Maybe. But what about Steven? He has to go to school somewhere. Who would take care of him after I’m gone? And what about me? What type of medical treatment am I going to get out here off the grid?
“No, I need to go home and face Mom, however difficult as it is. Right now, she’s my one best hope.”
“I’m sorry,” Monnell said again. “I really am.”
She squeezed his hand. “I know. I’m not blaming you. Each of us made our choices and has to play out our hands. It’s nobody’s fault.”
Margaret shivered in the cold. “We better get back. I need to make sure Steven’s all right. He’s been moved around a lot lately. Sometimes he wakes up with nightmares and without his glasses, his eyesight is really bad. I don’t want him to find me gone and panic”
They drove back to Tina’s in silence. Monnell pulled into the front yard. Margaret reached across the seat and gave her father a kiss on the cheek.
“It’s okay, Dad. It really is. I know you want the best for us. Some things just aren’t meant to happen, at least not in this lifetime. Just remember, I love you. I always will.”
She got out of the truck and disappeared into the trailer. Monnell made his way home and tried, to little avail, to get some sleep.
He was awakened by pounding. At first he couldn’t tell if it was coming from the door or from behind his eyelids, but the sound of Tina screaming told him he was awake.
“Monnell, you moron. Get out of bed and answer the door!”
He was too bleary- eyed to care that he was still in his underwear. Besides, Tina had seen him under worse conditions.
He unlatched the door, and Tina busted in without an invitation.
“When did you start locking your door? Don’t you know that anybody who’d steal something out of this place during the night would bring it back for a refund once they were sober in the morning?”
“Started locking it when I heard you got yourself a rifle,” he said, stalling for time while trying to clear his head. “What the hell do you want this time of the…. What time is it anyway?”
“Seven A.M.” She entered the kitchen. “I suppose you don’t have any coffee made. Best I can remember you never did.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “What’s so urgent?”
Then he remembered about his daughter and grandson. Her illness, her need to go back to California and his refusal to go home with her came rushing back.
“Margaret, Steven. Are they …?”
“How the hell should I know? They’re gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean gone?”
“Jesus, you really are a horse’s ass,” Tina said. “Gone. As in no longer at my house. As in they left me a note and drove off before I got up. You know, they were here, and now they’re not here anymore. That’s usually the definition of ‘gone.’
“Gone?” he repeated.
“Yeah, she left me a note and ten dollars for putting her and the kid up. Said that this was no place to raise a child and she was going to move on and try something different. That maybe her luck would change somewhere else.”
“Is that it? Did she say anything else?”
“Not a word,” Tina said “I heard her sobbing in the bedroom but I didn’t want to stick my nose where it didn’t belong. What happened between the two of you last night?”
“Nothing. We just talked for a while, and then she needed to look in on Steven.”
“You’re a terrible liar. If it wasn’t something you said, knowing you, it was something you didn’t say. That’s more your style.”
Monnell chose to ignore the insult. It was too early, and besides, he was more worried about Margaret than engaging in an argument.
Tina sat down on a broken down kitchen chair. “Look, for once in your life you have a chance to make things right, at least some of it. Do you have any idea where she might be heading?”
Monnell tried to recall their conversation of last night. “Yeah, I do. But I really don’t know if I can be any use to her.”
Tina’s voice softened. “Why don’t you let her be the judge of that? From the way I see things, she really needs her father. Daughters always do.”
Monnell wished he had some coffee to make him think clearer. He wished he still smoked. Margaret made all the effort to find him way the hell off the grid. She had lied to the government, lied to Johnson and drove out to this hellhole in the middle of the desert because he was her last hope. And he had sent her away. He cursed his stupidity. He cursed the fact that he might never see his daughter, his grandson again. Most of all, he cursed his selfishness.
He didn’t know if he could overtake her in that beater of a pickup truck he had. Hell, he wasn’t even sure if he knew where she was headed. But he had a pretty good idea.
He threw on a pair of pants and a sweatshirt. “Can you look after the place for me? I’m not exactly sure how long I’ll be. It might be a while.”
“Go! I’ll even make the supreme sacrifice and do the dishes.”
Monnell took the trailer key off the ring and gave it to her. He walked outside and climbed into the truck. It was freezing, the never-ending wind blowing grit and sand everywhere. Winter couldn’t be more than a week or two away.
He opened the glove compartment, took everything out, and laid the contents on the seat next to him. A couple of D size batteries. A flashlight
he hoped was in working condition. A sandwich wrapper from the drive -through in Dages. His divorce papers. He wondered how long he had been toting those around?
He started the truck and drove off in the direction of Lages. He’d been there only a week ago. Usually, he went once a month. Folks would think he had a woman there on the side.
He didn’t care. He made to make sure that Johnson would forward his checks to his ex-wife’s place. And that his friend had a good road map of California.
by Richard Luftig