American All-Stars
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Wind sweeps across a wide landscape of tumbled sagebrush and dry grass, herds of cumulus blustering in from the west. Mountain peaks, still burdened with snow, loom stark on either side of the flat basin. Salt curls in steaming playas as sheep roam to and fro, wild horses and antelope kicking up dust as they gallop. Up among the tangled ridges of limestone and old quartzite, voices echo on valley walls.

The Taker has seen ghost-towns rise and fall — cholera and malaria killing one boom-town before another takes its place, mines open and shut, people being born and dying — since before the first settlers had even come. Not the colonists who had come in from the east, or the prior peoples that the colonists had driven out and corralled, or those other distal peoples that preceded them, of whom all that remained was sun-eaten ruins — but before even then. Before the first peoples to walk thousands of miles from their land bridges up north, the Taker watched Laurentia turn into North America, watched the world transform itself from the egg, to now. Because there is always a need for things to be harvested. And the Taker knows its role. It is the Watcher, until it is not. It is the Taker, until it gives.

Two silhouettes move on the mountainside, the owners of the voices. The Taker watches them from within the deep stone, soundless.

‘You can see them from here. Do you see? The old beach ridges,’ one voice says. Far below the silhouettes of the two hikers stretches out the ancient carcass of a lake, long dried up. On the ground, in the basin, all that can be seen is salt and grass. But from up above one can see old lines, like rims of some primordial bathtub spilling out onto the plains. 'You can’t see them, below.’

‘Can’t see many things down there. Empty place.’

The wind blows, their only relief in the heat. Below them, the sea of piñon pines crack and shiver. They are waiting for something. Someone.

‘I don’t like it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t like this topography, the basin and range. Where I come from, the mountains just go up and up. They’re… all there. Compact, Tall. They aren’t like this.’

‘Like what? Endless, or…’

‘Yeah. Endless. Liminal. You can go from one valley to the next, and you see the same shit. Plains. Mountains. Plains. Mountains. Even the people, the towns… it’s all stretched out. Thin. There’s something eerie about it, you know? Like it’s a trap. Like it doesn’t want you to leave.’

‘Let’s just keep moving. We have to meet up with the others.’

‘Yeah. Guess you’re right.’

All they can hear is the wind, the bubbling waters of the springs below. They leave.

The Taker takes one last look at them before harnessing the wind and departing from the valley. There is work to be done, after all.

A woman sits in a dingy room, the smell of reservation-bought weed pungent in the air. A drier sort of light filters through the half-shut blinds which, had they been open, would look to the mountains that stand lofty above the dry plain in which her town sprawls languidly. Her mind's fuzzy, but she likes it that way. Keeps her calm. There aren't many opportunities for people like her here. Estranged from whatever was left of her family, three valleys away. A half-Korean girl, here in this town …

Her husband hasn't been back home in several days. He's not really her husband, but she likes to think that he might be, one day. He's a prospector, in days where that profession is deader than Dolly's horse after her rodeo had gone wrong. He's all-American, in ways that are more than just cowboy boots and cigarette smoke and flannel shirts and being able to shoot a gun. He has dreams.

'Those old miners, they knew where to look, see?' he had said in their last conversation. “The red rocks — follow the red rocks. You'll see faults there. And faults, they'll take you to gold. My grandaddy found gold, did I tell you that? He found it but it wasn't ever really his once he found it. Gambled it all away.'

'You didn't tell me that last time.' He had. He always told her this story. Every time he saw her.

'I didn’t? Well, shucks, I'm going to find gold. And I'm not going to waste it like my father did. I got a job, you know? At Old Aspens'. The mine there's booming, but I'll make my mark. Then I can leave this place - maybe go out to Reno. Then California after that. Then maybe…'

He told her of the time when someone he knew went to New York. New Orleans. New Mexico. To everything that was old but had new in its name — and she loved it. He had so many dreams, so many prospects. She supposed it was part of being a prospector, but that name had a sour association nowadays. Her mother, when they still talked to one another, had always gone on about how much she hated prospectors. Newcomers - from Kansas, places like those that had gone up in dust - threw away their entire lives into that business, got nothing. They just took up space, squandered their lives, ruined 'the way of things' with their greed. They had their heads stuffed with too much cotton and no sense, that's what she said.

Her mother isn't Korean. Her hair's the color of straw, and she once had eyes that were cornflower blue, and made all the other girls jealous. Now they're dull. Her dad is Korean, or was. Whatever culture he'd had, he'd worked hard to fully erase and utterly extricate from his person. He was American. An American all-star. His accent trained down to nothing, his posture, his mannerisms - everything conformed behind a mask. She never learned her roots from him, and he didn't tell her how or why he landed up where he did, why he married her mother, why they never spoke to one another or hugged eachother or even kissed for their daughter's entire childhood. He didn't tell her anything, but she loved him anyway. Of her parents, he was the one who cared. He hugged her even when his arms were stained with soot. He always made time to hear the little daydreams she'd make up.

Then her dad had to get himself a job at the railways. And he was gone, gone with the rails and the soot and the blood-on-the-tracks and the ledgers wrought of prayers and immigrants and dreams, so many dreams, so many nightmares. Of course, her mother blamed her for it. Then she was on a train, not caring where it took her. She just wanted to leave. Then she was on the streets.

Then she found a job. Then she met her prospector, her maybe-husband, her one great love.

The first time he had visited the aptly named 'Asian Massage Parlour', she was sixteen, he was twenty-five, and looked nothing like her usual clientele.

The Taker walks on, on, on. Snows sweep across forlorn lands, now shrouded in tattered clouds blotting out the sun. Summer storms, winter storms, these lands were no stranger to, and neither was the Taker. It rode the storms, after all. Their harness in its left hand, broken dreams in its right.

Away, far up in the clouds, the angels are not done singing.

A boy lay dying.

Not yet, of course. He's not dead yet. Their makeshift shelter covers him from some of the worst of the wind. His mother hugs him, whispers to him that everything will be alright - that it'll pass soon. Her sister - the boy's aunt - is out collecting more firewood, not like it'll burn in this weather anyway. His mother's hands caress him, dig into his side, but the boy only feels confused. He's supposed to love his mother. That's what his family's told him his whole life. That's what the helpers say - said - at Sunday School, back when they used to go. He's supposed to love her, but he hates himself that he doesn't.

She took him from his friends, from his other family, took him with his auntie and they went out into the woods alone. It'd be an adventure, they had told him when he asked, when he cried and screamed. They told him to be quiet, and be a good little boy. A good little boy who listens to things and loves his elders for their shepherding and love.

He listened, but not in the way they wanted him to. At night, back when it was still summer and the only storms they had to worry about were those that rained, he heard Mom and Auntie slur to one another around the campfire at night while drinking the last of their whiskey, about how the world had gone insane. That the end was coming. How the quarantine would only be the start of things, and how polite society was being eroded at the seams.

So they'd built their shelter, their home away from home. It wasn't much. It was barely anything, really. Two tents with fallen trees piled up above them. They'd helped for shade and rain, but they had forgotten about winter, and the cold nights - when the snows would descend upon the high desert, and smother it whole.

They were encamped in an aspen forest. Though all the leaves had long fallen away, the trunks remained. Thousands of eyes watching them at all times, sometimes with words etched into their skin. The names of previous souls who had wandered the land: prospectors, miners, hunters looking for elk sheds, herders. Everyone wanted to leave a mark on those trees. The dying boy even thought to leave his name there, even though his Auntie had stopped him when he asked. That way he could be the watcher, and not the watched. That way he wouldn't have to be afraid.

But winter had come anyway. And even though the cold was freezing and everything hurt, he is supposed to love his mother for trying to keep him warm.

Instead he feels nothing. Nothing but the gaze of the eyes on the trees, the cold snow cutting at his cheek, and the breath of a winter that had come far too soon.

Red lights flicker on the sign of an old multistory casino, leaning unsteadily over the street below. Muffled laughter mingled with coughing is faintly audible from inside, the pungent smell of cigarettes wavering in the desert wind. It's been here for what feels like forever for most inhabitants of the town, but to the Taker, it feels like the blink of an eye.

The Denny's on its lowermost floor is the biggest draw of this place for tourists. But the Taker remembers when it had been an old multigenerational family establishment, with its own foods, its own traditions, their numerous elk sheds lining the walls like the branches of trees. They had their own blood on their hands, but they had built something for themselves, carved some sort of roots in a soil that did not want them, but stayed regardless. Like a parasite, or an ill dream.

Now they were gone. Old folks complained, maybe - regulars who had been to the casino for years upon years, and had some sort of special tie to the place, and the old restaurant and whatever character it might have been purported to have had. But now that was gone, and no one new who came there would know otherwise, or care.

Someone screams profanities at someone else inside, the recipient of such things only smirking and counting their winnings.

The Taker keeps moving.

'So what was it like?'

'What was what like?'

'You know. Meeting him. '

She laughs. 'I dunno, what's it like meeting anybody? He was a person, you know. A client. He was like everyone else that comes to the parlour.'

'You just said he was different.'

'My mom wouldn't have liked him.'

'Is that what made him different?'

'No. My mom doesn't like anybody.'

'So you've finally come for me.' The question is phrased more like a statement. An acceptance, or more likely a vague submission. The person opposite to him wears the face of a young man, but when he smiles, the Taker is behind his eyes. 'My brother told me about you.'

'My buddy and I needed fresh water for our kids at the summer camp. We met your brother at the supermarket.'

'Don't buy seafood there. It's not fresh.'

'Wouldn't dream of it.'

Sam looks at the young man, placing a cube of black lead into his beer , swishing it around. At the other man's incredulous look, he snorted. 'Keeps it cold.'


'I'll die anyway, sometime. It's how my pops did it. How I'll do it.' And the statement is final in the absence of its subject.

The old house stretches languidly with all its imperfections, a lone isle of light in the valley as night quickly cloaks around them. The peaks still faintly glow with the light of a sun that's already died, but everything else is shadowed, drenched in a purple haze. Sam looks over what's his, but isn't. He's known this place since he was a boy. Back when his family was larger, and he still talked to all his brothers, back when it wasn't only the two of them left. Well, one of them. He still lives in the ranching home. His brother lives out in the town, though they still have beers at Shooters' every Sunday.

'It'll take a while for the water to pump into that tank of yours. Here, grab a beer.'

'Thanks, man.'


They slip into an easy conversation full of jokes and profanity and warm comradery like an old friend, though there's some forty or fifty years between them and they've just met. Sam's old, that Sam knows. Back when he was this man's age, he was still trying his luck out in Reno making counters for casino fronts. He'd left these parts to get away from it all, the family drama and all that. Even then, things had been brewing.

Besides, he was good with his hands. Before arthritis had crept in, he still used to whittle away at wood, here and there. His carvings decorate the walls of the house like skulls and masks and elk sheds do in others. These are the silent witnesses to his mundanity, to how now he just sits there smoking and drinking, watching the mountains and the grass, tending to his family home as best as he can manage.

The longer he talks to the man, the more he relishes the humanity in the conversation. And when it's over, and the man drives off with his truck and his tank, Sam stands on the porch and smokes for a while, looking up at the stars playing with nothings in his head. His pops had always told him he dreamed too much as a kid. That nothing was more important than the family business.

Now his pops is dead like any man. He'd been in Reno while his other brothers tore the family apart over inheritance. There'd been big wigs out from the east who needed land to ranch their cattle, and Sam's family had it. The old way of a family ranch was dying, had been dead for years. Another dream fed to the Taker.

'Don't even know how to ranch fuckin' cattle, that's for sure', he'd told the young man when they'd talked earlier. 'You're supposed to drive them up the valleys, not keep them clogging the neck of the pass. What does he expect to happen? The cows to grow wings?'

Sam is old. Sam still remembers when pops would take him out on the back of his truck, and they put Shirlie the horse in back because a true four-wheel drive was too expensive. He still remembers his mom's cooking.

Because their land was now leased out to someone else, the cows on the property weren't theirs either. In the end of everything, the community he grew up with is gone, but he remains. He's lived his life, but he ultimately accepts his place as a footnote in his family's story.

The black silhouettes of the mountains remain as he does, old friends blotting out the stars. A cold wind blusters through the plains. He goes to sleep that night the same as always: alone, but content.

'What you think?'

'Think? About what?'

'You know. Death. The end of all things.'

'You're so dramatic. Come on-'

'You didn't answer my question.'

'I dunno. What am I supposed to think?'

'Everyone here has some kind of philosophical mumbo jumbo to explain it. Thought you might, too.'



'Philo-whatever, I don't care about any of that crap. I'm dumb. That's what everyone's told me my whole life. Now listen, can we go back to just smokin'? Or am I going to have to be the one to leave. And listen - I never leave things. You are driving me-'

'Just - It's a hypothetical. it's just a question. I'm high. You're high. We're talking about death. Not real death. You know, fake death.'

'Fake death? What- you're so silly.'


'Look, I dunno. We're here one day, then we're not. It's like, magic. God. The Devil. Death. Sometimes when I close my eyes, real hard, I think something's watching me. But it's nothing.'

'I feel that too.'

'You do?'


'Well, it's all bullshit at the end of the day. Whatever put us here on this earth will take us away. What's that thing they say about the Day of Judgement. 'No man shall know the hour?' Well I'm not a man, but, you want my philosophy? It's that. Death isn't anything good or bad. It's just an exit. An exit from this nothing town with its nothing people who are all just, doing the same thing over and over and over. And I'm- I'm one of them.'

'Did you know?'

'Did I know what.'

'He died. A mining accident. Did you know?'

The Taker watches the family freeze, in ways that it's watched countless others that have passed through the region. The aspen trees were its sentinels, and it was through their eyes that it watched, it whispered. The winds are strong enough that the shelter will not last.

The Taker was there when Auntie proposed to her sister that they accept the reality of their conditions, and that her boy would not survive. A solution proposed, pragmatic according to circumstance.

Later, when the bodies will be found by a hunter tracking elk, the hole in the boy's head and its missing contents will be omitted from the story, because it is too gruesome for public or private discourse, especially at the dinner table. In the end, even that sacrifice was for nothing. The mother, the sister. They die of exposure anyway.

When the snowstorm sweeps the mountain valleys, their shelter is covered completely. It's like they had never even been there.

Everything in the town that sits in the valley beneath two ranges exists in a paradigm of retrospect, of eternal hindsight. Everything is glamorous in the moment, tinted in optimism and faith in the shadow of nostalgia. Everything that is painful, is purposeful. Everything that ever hurt her in her life, it's for a reason. He was for a reason.

The prospector was so smart. Sounded like it anyway. His friend had taken him to the place to get him laid, but he didn't do anything with her. The first time they met, he just talked: about his dreams, his struggles, what took him to this town. He talked about everything and nothing at all, and simply paid her because she was an ear open to listen to him.

In her eyes, the equation was simple. He foremost was a dreamer, one of those great men you read about in history books. She was nothing. But for some reason, he saw something in her, and the contradiction in that nearly tore her in two.

They don't meet often. Once a year, if at all. When she's eighteen, he starts using her services as provided. But every year, the same conversations play on, the same ones that they had when they met. His dreams, his desires, his hopes to one day leave this town with something of himself.

He never once asked what hers were, a simple fact that served to remind her the true nature of their relationship. But in the end, her dreams had been nothing complicated.

Take me with you.

She rolls up another joint. The Taker is hiding in the curtains. She lights a match, and the fantasy turns to ash.

The Taker ascends the mountains, even as the hikers wander below. At last, it comes to a lonely peak.

A conch shell, something from a place where the sea met the land, lies on the rocks beneath. The Taker draws it in, its stories, its dreams. It had seen countless different lands: redwood forests, wide marshes, open flatlands, basins and ranges like these. In a way, it was as tied to the land now as the Taker is. For a brief, infinitesimal moment, the Taker has a dream.

In days of yore, this peak had been a sacred place - a holy site, for the peoples that lived there, that had called this land home long before any newcomers or settlers. They had traded with other families out in the pass below. And those peoples had traded in other basins, other ranges, other coastlines even. And so it is here that the Taker's journey ends.

It gingerly removes the tattered dreams it found that day. The boy on his deathbed. The rancher who is last in his family. The girl, desperate for escape. The town, trapped in perpetuity. All of them so fresh, so raw. It buries them slowly, with aging hands. In the distance, light filters through the rain-curtains that drift through the valley.

The Taker almost sheds a tear.

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