I WISHED the vacation was over. Then I could rest. And get back to the grind. My watch buzzed again. I gripped the steering wheel, resisting the urge to tilt my wrist and read the email.
“Driving 90 miles per hour will not make the days go faster, Mr. Jeff Bazoon.” My wife sucked in a breath that could vacuum the dust off I-17.
“Sorry.” I eased off the pedal. “What’s after this Arcosanti stop?”
“An entire week of planning this road trip and you didn’t bother to read the itinerary? I shared it on OneNote.”
Here we go again. My daughters on the back seat stopped singing. The tension in the air was enough to make a crackling noise.
“Could barely get through my work email,” I muttered.
“The merger, the merger. I know.”
“Kate, I sleep five hours a day. Please. It’ll be over soon.”
“I hope, or else—”
“Mom, are you getting a divorce?”
She exhaled. “Annie, not all couples who argue get a divorce.”
“I know. My best friend’s parents didn’t talk to each other for four months and divorced last week.”
I sighed. How did my 12-year-old sound like a grandma overnight? “Annie, I’m just—”
“—stressed to the bones because of work,” my other daughter said. “Aren’t we all? Got my endless homework. We understand, Dad.”
Sarah’s eye-rolling did not escape me from the rearview mirror. “Are you wearing make-up?”
She batted her eyelashes. “Just practicing for the Senior Prom.”
“It’s pretty. You look more like your mother.”
“I don’t wear make-up,” Kate said in a clipped voice.
True. Kate’s porcelain skin required no foundation, nor her lashes needed mascara, whereas Sarah had my darker tone. Her eyeliner created the illusion of slanted eyes, like Kate's but now it drooped and stared out the window. Kate didn’t have to snap at her.
“One mile to the exit for Arcosanti. Keep right.” Kate opened the travel book. “It’s supposed to be some urban lab in the middle of Arizona desert.”
My ears perked up at the word lab. Perhaps I would find the elusive missing link for the prototype that would secure my position at Sparker Biotech and pay off all the hours I spent away from home.
The wheels grated as I exited onto a gravel road.
The Italian cypresses surrounding the contemporary structure looked out of place in the middle of the dry, arid land.
I steered into the parking lot. "Lab in the desert?"
“It’s an experiment on sustainable living.” Kate attached the zoom lens on her Nikon camera while the girls and I stretched out.
I welcomed the cool breeze of spring and donned on my light jacket. We entered a modern hobbit house with circular glass windows and high ceilings. Windbells in greenish hue hung at every corner, the tag prices ranging in the hundreds.
Kate approached the lady at the counter then came back with a frown on her face. "Too bad we missed the tour. They're out for lunch break and won't be back until 1 pm. Let's do a quick walkthrough then hit the road."
Kate gravitated towards the art pieces while I leaned on the bookshelf and checked my phone for emails. Rumors of reorganization filled my inbox. Didn't these people know anyone up in the ranks could view their email accounts?
“Jeff.” Kate sneaked from behind me.
I shoved my phone into my pocket.
“You promised. No work.”
“I—was looking at…” I took out a random book from the shelf, “the price of this on Amazon.” “The Mind Garden: Conversations with Paolo Soleri II by Michel Sarda? Really.” She arched her black brow.
“It’s interesting.” I opened a random page. “Paolo said, `Ego and greed make a great entrance: when I become smart enough to know that I can accumulate three days of food instead of my daily portion, the notion of greed develops rapidly.” The words tasted like sand in my mouth.
“So, is Mr. Soleri’s ghost telling you to stop working while vacationing?”
Crap. I fumbled through the next sentence. “No. I agree with this guy Michel who said, ‘You call it greed, I call it planning. To me, looking for a three-day food supply is not greed, it is just considering the fact that in the next two or three days the weather could be too bad to go hunting or fishing’.”
Kate grabbed the book and quoted Paolo's reply. “With this capability to anticipate comes power, and power makes greed to triumph. Paolo wins. C’mon, let’s go if we want to catch the sunset at the Grand Canyon. We still need to pass by Sedona.” She took a coffee table book from the shelf.
“Why don’t you pay for these. No souvenir magnets. Hope you find the time to read that. Looks interesting. Might give you fresher perspectives. Bring you back to us.”
“I’m here, Kate.” What else does she want? I’ve given her five days of paid-time-off that I could not afford. Who knows what’ll happen in the office while I was gone? Everybody was sacking everybody. Even the big bosses were getting chopped off. The company’s getting rid of expensive redundant roles. Was I redundant?
Kate straightened up. “You’re here but never here.” She regarded our older daughter who was tinkling the wind bells. “Sarah’s heading to college soon. This might be our last chance.”
“Nonsense. Of course, we can always do another trip.”
Or maybe not.
College. My stomach churned.
I rubbed my neck. Was I earning enough?
Kate's fingers ran over my forehead. "You're worried again. If you weren't earning more than $125,000, Sarah wouldn't even need to pay tuition at the other schools she applied to, like Stanford. You work too hard!"
“I’m doing it for you, for the girls.” Like she doesn’t know.
“Look, the Lord has provided all these years. Look at the birds, they neither sow nor reap…”
Easy for her to say these things. She doesn't bring home the bread. I bet she won't be as optimistic if her pantry was empty. Her preaching faded into the background as we walked back to the car, the gravel crunching under our feet.
We headed to the next destination while Kate rambled with her Sermon on the Mount. Her words entered my right ear, and skimmed through my brain to exit to the left ear. The birds did not have to go to college, and the flowers did not shed their petals as often as my fashionista daughters shopped for clothes. It was my fault, as Kate would point out. The more I spent time away from them, the more money I splurged on them, as though it would atone for my guilt. But I liked providing for the family. It gave me a sense of worth. Although, lately, the burden had been back breaking.
A cat, chasing after its tail. Me. In a nutshell.
“—cat.” The air-conditioner hummed after Kate’s last word.
“Huh? What were you saying?”
“Not sure when your mind trailed off, so I don't know." Kate studied the mountain ranges and checked on the girls. “Asleep. I’m talking to myself again.”
I grasped her hand and squeezed it.
She smiled with tight lips.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I feel like a priest in a confessional with the sorries I’m getting from you.”
She raised her palm, and I recoiled.
"Why are you so jittery? I'm not gonna hurt you. Golly, if you're that worried about the money, I can go back to work. I've kept my nursing license active. To heck with this dream of becoming a photographer if the single income is driving you nuts."
“No, you deserve it. You’ve given me my chance to pursue my dream. And I failed. Who knows, you may have better luck.”
“It’s not just luck.” She poked a finger at my chest. “You have to believe in the destiny written in your heart.”
“You do it. You, and the girls. It's a luxury I can't afford." I tapped on the steering wheel.
“Sarah is having second thoughts about accepting Harvard’s offer. She wants to wait on Stanford. I have to check their program. Which would best prepare her for medical school.”
“She got accepted?”
“Jeff, she told you last week. That’s why you agreed to take a week off for the spring vacation, remember? Where have you been? Oh, my goose. Are you alright? Should I make an appointment with your doctor? This is crazy.”
Sarah got accepted? How did I miss that news? Wow. I stole a glance at Sarah. She was sleeping, with her face tilted up and her mouth open. Just like when she was nine. Where did the years go? And now, she was heading to college. Harvard. “It must have been that night when the company offered me the package.” I was stomped that day and had driven from work like a zombie.
“Take it. Why are you holding on so tight to this company? This will give you a clean break, start anew. Pursue your dreams—”
“And waste five years of sweat and blood? No way. We're this close," I held my forefinger and thumb together, "to finishing this new prototype. Then I can sit back and relax at Sparker Biotech.”
"You think so? It'll only get worse. That giant, chomping your company and spitting out the bones, they're ruthless. You better jump ship before the acquisition is completed."
“It’s a merger, Kate, not an acquisition.”
"Really?" She took out her phone and sped-typed. "Merger vs. acquisition,” she mumbled. "See? I was right."
Wasn't she always? I bit my tongue from voicing out my thoughts.
"Clearly an acquisition, when one kicks another's behind, a giant rules and dictates on the dwarf, and more heads are rolling off from one company than the other."
"Why do you look so happy? You think that's good news?," I said. "Merger or not, I’m not about to be kicked out of the race."
“They offered you the severance package. Take it. The trend shows it's the redundant positions that get chopped. You must be redundant. Look for your niche. You may just be someone's shadow right now, the sagging superfluous middle that can be trimmed off."
I flinched. Truth hurts especially coming from a catty wife who would not mince her words. "Whose side are you on, anyway?"
“Yours, of course. But sometimes, disasters are there to reroute you to a better course. That’s what Sam said.”
There she was again, quoting this new friend of hers. If I didn’t know her any better, I’d think she was having an affair with this Samuel guy. But her lofty morals would not stoop to that level. Her weekly meeting with him this past month could be another thing. She'd been spurting weird stuff lately. Was he brainwashing her?
"Why the knot on the forehead? Is this about Sam again? Look, you spend more time with that woman co-worker, whats-her-name—Amanda. Can't I have one friend at least? It's tough having to talk to the dishwasher, washing machine and dryer all week."
“It was your choice. You could work on weekends and have your dose of adult companionship.”
“No, I’m good.”
“And for the record, Amanda knows more about the prototype designs than anyone in the company.” An affair with another woman? I could barely handle all the hormonal drama in my yard. "Besides, she'd be the last person who'd have an affair in the office, the way she and her husband had been inviting us to attend the Renew Your Vows From Your Kitchen Ministry—"
“They invited us?”
I groaned inside. Me and my big mouth. Why did I have to dig my hole, knowing Kate's inclination for the religious? "Why…did you want to go?"
She shook her head so hard, I was afraid she’d break her neck. “That kind of meeting gives me the hives. You don’t want to be absent for fear of being the next topic of gossip. I think they enjoy the wining and dining more than the prayer meeting. Nope. I’m happy with my simple life.”
Did I hear her right? She'd been acting strange lately. Waking up at 4 am. Was it because of this Sam? Perhaps I was missing a lot in the homestead.
“Look at those grazing black cows,” Kate said. “They’re like toy figures.” She snapped a shot from her iPhone.
Grazing. More like lazing under the sun. I envied them for a moment.
“I hate them," Annie said.
"What? Why would you hate the cows?" I said.
"Not the cows. My friends."
"Then quit texting them," Sarah said.
Kate turned towards Annie. "I told you, stop it. You'll only cause more trouble. You're already in trouble, young lady."
"Why? What's going on?" I said.
"Last Friday, didn't I tell you? She punched her classmate on the head."
"You did not!" My voice boomed in the car.
“Yes, she did. Oh— my— gooseneck!" she said in her thick Asian accent. "Jeff, you were right there when she came home ranting, and in tears. You are killing me.”
“I can’t believe I missed all these things.” I walked like a zombie along the paved trail taking little interest at the ancient Indian apartments carved on the giant walls that would have captured me on ordinary days.
“Jeff, stop feeling sorry for yourself or the kids. You’re making it harder. Move on. We are here. Enjoy the trip. If you want to make it up to them, now is the time. Say cheese.” She lifted her camera as I forced to smile.
I wished she didn’t do that, make me do something I didn’t feel like doing. When she turned to the trail signs and took series of photos, I settled to a nearby bench. But she went on and on, snapping photos of one sign after the other.
She usually went for sceneries. Why the sudden interest on the trail signs? “What are you doing?” I asked her when she headed back to me.
“The signs. According to Sam, many signs will appear on your path that will lead you to your destiny, but you must learn to read the signs, filter the distractions and extract the message.”
What gibberish was she talking about? “Those signs of botanical information of foliage inside the park and historical descriptions?”
“Information based on science and history. You’re a physicist. You should know science was founded on discoveries from observing nature. You know… apple falling from the tree. Gravity. And history, well, it provides the building blocks for technology.”
“Says Sam. Here. Look.”
Kate showed me three photos. “You allow these signs to talk to your subconscious. What do you see?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“C’mon. Just give it a try. Then I will interpret for you.”
She showed me three photos.
"What words stand out to you?"
I knew she wouldn't stop until I buckled. Might as well humor her. I blurted the three things that leaped out to my consciousness. “Growing a Livelihood. Cliffs. Lifeline.”
"Now what message are these signs telling you?"
"Message? Are we reading messages from photos now? Did Sam recruit you in some voodoo cult?"
"Of course, not. The signs are the universe’s way of telling you something about your life. You have to read the signs. Interpret."
"I don't know." I pushed her camera aside.
“Isn't it obvious?" she said. "See here." She pointed back at the photos. "You’ve been so stressed out these days in… growing a livelihood, that you feel you’re on the edge of the… cliffs and you desperately need a… lifeline.”
I stared at the photos. How did she capture my current state of mind? Of course, she would. Anybody living with me these past months would know. “Stop psychoanalyzing me, Kate. I’m not a psycho.”
“Deny what I said is true.”
“You’re just… stringing words. B—S.”
“Will you please stop dumping garbage words in my ears or I’ll bleach your tongue.”
“Learn to read the sign. Perhaps you’ll get an idea for your prototype. The greatest inventions are buried in your unconscious waiting to be excavated.”
“Alright, c’mon. Let’s go." I stood up. "Enough of this crazy talk." Her preaching was one thing, but this nonsense…was…nonsense. "Where are the girls?"
"They said they'd be at the Visitor Center." She walked ahead and I followed.
A bright light caught my eye. What was that? I looked up the mountains. The light glinted again, like a reflection of the sun on a mirror. It came from one of the recessed walls of the castle. I grabbed Kate. “Did you see that?”
“What?” She raised her hand over her eyebrows.
“The flash of light like someone is sending Morse code signals.” I scanned the ragged walls. Nothing.
“I don't see anything.” She gripped my arm. “Be careful. I heard there are restless souls up there.”
“Are you serious?”
Kate crossed her arms. “Do I look like I’m joking? I did some research about this place. They say some souls come back from the dead to warn the living.”
“Quit the BS, Kate.”
She glared at me.
“What?” I feigned innocence. “BS? That stands for Bachelor of Science.”
Her face hardened. “Jeff, I’m not joking. When spirits from the other realm sends you Morse codes, that means your life is in danger. It’s a warning.”
Was she bluffing? She might as well be holding cards, playing poker.
“Let’s go.” I grabbed her arm and pulled her to the exit.
As soon as we moved past the gate, she burst out laughing. “Oh my gosh, it worked.”
“The Power of Suggestion. Sam told me to test it on you. Make the story sound so convincing, and it would change someone’s way of thinking and move that person to action.”
“I didn’t believe you.”
“Then why did you drag me away from the place? It evoked fear. See, your eyes are dilated. Adrenaline rush. You can’t deny it, Jeff. I can read signs.” She laughed harder, and tears streamed down her cheeks. “I can read signs, oh… that was funny. Signs and symptoms of fight-or-flight reaction.”
When I reached the girls who bade the park ranger goodbye, they were also laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I had the feeling the joke was on me.
“I can’t believe she just called that plain lizard a gecko,” Annie said. “Like we don’t have it in our living room.”
“When you want to sound so smart,” Sarah said dramatically flayed her arms. “Hey kids, there’s a snake with legs here.”
Annie burst out laughing and slapped her sister. “And look, the dragon just lost its wings. So pretentious.”
“That’s not funny,” I said.
Kate caught up with me and whispered to me. “I wonder if the snake really had wings and legs at the Garden of Eden before God made it crawl on its belly.” She laughed some more.
I groaned. “You're too literal in your interpretation of the Bible again.”
She widened her eyes. “Isn’t that what you writers usually do? Ask your endless what-ifs and come up with a plausible story?”
“I’m not a writer.” I slid into the driver’s seat and yanked on my seatbelt.
“Ooh. Touchy. I wonder when you’ll touch your pencil again and sharpen it. You left me hanging at Chapter 3 with your manuscript. What happened to your hero?”
“Next topic.” I revved on the pedal, and the passengers screamed. “Sorry,” I said.
Why did she have to bring up that memory of the manuscript that came back bruised and bleeding from the blue edits and red line marks from my critique partner five years ago? Now the ghosts of failure and rejection sat on my shoulders. Of all days, when I couldn’t distract myself with work.
“Next destination, the Chapel of the Holy Cross.” Kate pointed at the itinerary.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I thought this was a road trip. You’re making it into a pilgrimage again.” I cringed at the memory of the European vacation we recently had. All we did was enter one church after another that in the end, I had architectural indigestion.
“Mother Goose! It’s a must-see tourist spot according to this book.” She waved the travelogue like it was the Bible and shoved it in her bag.
I flickered a glance at her. She was browsing through the book I bought at Arcosanti. “I think the universe is conspiring in your favor.”
What now? Her quoting my favorite line from The Alchemist could only mean she was up to something. Soon, she’d be ranting about my Personal Legend, my calling in life. “Maybe against me,” I said.
“Why are you so pessimistic? Oh, look!” She pointed at the strip mall to her right. “There’s Panda Express! Remember those days, girls, when we thrived on that on road trips, splitting one order to feed four?”
“Survived was more like it,” I muttered.
She groaned at my comment. “Think positive! It’s easier to say the glass is half full than half empty. Two syllables vs. three. That’s a no-brainer, Jeff.”
I turned my attention to the endless highway, leaving behind fields of desert cactus. I prefer practical than positive. No matter how much one pretended that the plate was more than enough for four, the fact that I had to drink five glasses of water to fill the empty pockets of my gut proved it was never enough. Glad we didn’t have to do that anymore. And no way was I going back to that miserable life. This company merger hanging like an ax over my neck threatened all I had worked for all these years.
I pushed the radio button on, but Kate turned it off at the first blasting sound.
“Listen to what this Michel guy is saying,” she said. “`My definition of a dream resides in the capability to make happen what was first perceived as impossible. This is the way I experienced it myself when I moved here, changing career, writing books, commissioning music. In many ways, my dream came true— and probably yours, too, Paolo… don’t you think that, should you have stayed in Italy, what you have accomplished here would have never been possible?'”
“Good for them,” I said. Kate’s voice faded in the rampaging desert wind as I gripped the steering wheel. The American Dream. So these guys in the book were also immigrants like Kate and me.
It was true. America was the land of opportunities. But some opportunities were too steep to climb and too dry like this desert to venture on.
Along the way, you had to compromise and settle for the good or better. The best was not for everyone otherwise the best would lose its meaning.
Kate gasped and fumbled for her camera.
“What?” My heart picked up a beat from her agitation.
“The mountains.” She zoomed and clicked. “It’s right in front of you, and you could not see it? In what galaxy did your brain fly?”
I followed her focus and whistled. The mountains stood like ridged red bricks, with their creases flowing down the valley of trees. My lungs expanded at the display.
“This must be the Red Rock Scenic Byway,” she said. “Kids, put down your gadgets. Goodness, gracious. You’re missing this grand parade.”
“Turn off the hotspot,” I said.
“No, that’s not fair.” Annie blasted on my right ear. “Sarah has a line!”
“Duh, you’ll have one when you’re thirteen.”
“And who said you could use the cellular data? We’re down to 10%. Turn that off, Sarah,” I said. Annie slumped behind as more groans bellowed from the backseat.
“I’m not paying for this road trip just so the two of you could stare at your phones. Watch me throw those in the desert.”
Phones rustled into bags. Good. “I left my work laptop and iPad behind. You better do your share of sacrifice.” I still resented how Kate manipulated me to leave my work devices. I hope nothing would come up in the company that would make us both regret it.
“This town reminds me of the movie, Cars, with the red mountain at the backdrop, those yellow, orange, green and blue shops. It’s so cute,” Sarah said. “I can take a picture, right?” A series of shutter clicks followed.
“3:30 already?” The dashboard clock was small. “No wonder I’m lightheaded. Anything to eat back there?”
Kate rummaged through the bag. “Annie! One Clif bar? I bought a bagful of snacks."
“What’s up with her?” I said.
“She’s been binge-eating this past week, Dad,” Sarah said.
“It’s just growth spurt.” Kate lifted her sunglasses and glared at Sarah.
“Growth spurt?” Sarah said. “She literally wiped out the pantry, and even ate a whole bowl of confectioner’s sugar, Mom.”
“Stop picking on me! Everyone’s picking on me! Leave me alone.” Annie’s shriek made me swerve to the center of the highway.
“Quit that, Annie,” I shouted and steered the car back to the line.
The car on the left swerved to the opposite shoulder and got back with a blaring sound of the horn. The driver shouted the F word.
I raised my left hand with the middle finger on the rise when Kate slapped me on the shoulder. My index finger joined the rising middle. “Peace, okay?”
“Whatever. You’re only fooling yourself, Jeff,” she said. “See that sign? Chapel of the Holy Cross. Take a right turn. I read that there are more parking spaces as you get to the top.” She pointed to the uphill snaking road.
“But we can park right here.” Cars flanked the sides, and people hopped off their cars to walk.
“Look, I did my research. Keep on going.”
What was the use of arguing? She’d win anyway. I continued to drive up the winding road while she closed her eyes and her lips moved in silence. Praying for a miracle again. Why couldn’t she be more practical? She was wasting heaven’s minuscule supply of miracle on something so trivial as a parking space.
As we neared the top, a car backed up and rolled down the road.
“Thank you, Lord, for the parking spot. As always, You never fail.”
I shook my head as I maneuvered to park. “You were just lucky.”
“No. I am a favored child, and you could be too, if you allow Him.”
“Just got lucky,” I sang to annoy her. “Just got lucky.” It pissed her off whenever I made fun of her miracles. I didn't buy it. Miracles happen to those who work hard. That was the story of my life. I didn’t care for her plot twists. The only Bible verse I could relate to was, ‘What you sow is what you reap. Sow sparingly and you shall reap sparingly.’
I locked the car and followed the crowd heading to the top.
The chapel sat nestled between two boulders of red rocks. Its floor to ceiling glass window faced the surrounding mountain range and the blue sky, looking like a giant face of a God gazing down at the people laboring their way uphill. A God who was high up the hill, aloof, aloft, unreachable. Climb miserable creature so you will reach Me, your Mighty Creator, ruler of the universe, the face seemed to say. And we climbed and climbed.
And I was panting.
I needed to workout.
When I found the time.
If I had the time.
At the bend, the path opened to a vast entrance door into the chapel, where people milled in and out. A group of tourist left the area and gave more room for me to breathe.
Kate pulled me inside. “I’ll check for a souvenir magnet at the gift shop downstairs. Let’s join the girls for photos later.” She disappeared and left me standing by the votive candles.
I gazed at the heavily-tinted glass windows and slumped on one of the benches.
Somebody left a small prayer book on the bench in front of me. The bold white letters on the cover tugged at my sagging spirit.
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. - Matthew 11:28
The words echoed in my heart.
Strange. It hummed in the hollow recesses of my emptiness, shouting in the four chambers of my cold, weary heart like a voice in the wilderness saying, “Is anybody in there?” Repeatedly shouting to the point of hoarseness, and still, nobody answered.
The voice croaked. “Is anybody out there?” Still, no one heard.
And the voice whispered, “Is anybody here?”
I stared at the giant cross, which supported the whole glass structure, looking sturdy and robust. It made me look weak and small.
And in my weariness, it seemed to speak. Not to my ears.
But to my senses.
It seemed to say, ”I AM here.
In your labor. I AM here.
In your burden. I AM here.
In your rest. I AM here.”
I sat stupefied, with my eyes transfixed on the cross.
I heaved a deep sigh and allowed the words to settle as I closed my eyes.
Random images hovered in my tortuous mind.
Background noise hummed as I drifted in and out of wakefulness.
And then a pencil appeared flying around and landed inside a sharpener top side down.
“Come, Jeff.” A hand tugged my shirt.
I jerked to consciousness.
“Did you just fall asleep?” Kate helped me up.
“Power nap, my greatest talent, which reminds me to fuel up.”
“Already? Didn’t we leave with a full tank?”
“Not the car. Me. Starbucks for my fifth cup.” I noted the bench in front. The prayer book was gone. How long have I slept?
I raised my arm. My watch showed not the time, but throngs of email notifications, like the world was ending tomorrow.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Cloud, a conspiracy was brewing... as I would later discover.