Palm Springs is a pastel city. Everything in it has a tint of gray, its buildings, its furniture, the clothes worn by its people, and most of all, in their sexual proclivities-ambiguity. So, when they found Stoddard Wells dead, splayed out in a sterile alley near a large potted plant, in his only suit, wearing a white blouse laced with wavy fringe along the button line, it was no surprise to hear his sometime boyfriend, Phil Gaines say,” Oh dear, Stod? Yeah, I knew him. He was a bitch, and I loved him.”
Everything the city has to offer lay on the spine of their main road, Palm Canyon Boulevard. The sweep of bearded palms line the thruway reaching into the clouds. Wavy green fronds, happy fronds, welcome everyone who cruise the boulevard. Their solid trunks burst out of the ground, rusty barrels. Vehicles line the street like stopped rush hour traffic. There’s never a place to park.
Palm Springs never washes itself of sin daily, a dusting of the conscience like most cities. Its churches are hidden between the Bismark Palms and Bougainvillea and Bird of Paradise. Its green grass seldom feels the sole of a shoe. Everything newly renovated is filled with the welt of green and the splash of color. It likes it’s sin hot and black without cream, pure and undiluted, a steaming cup of coffee. When it rains, the city wears the humidity that drips from the air like a gift. It gives the place sheen.
Abstract symbols litter business walls: nouveau arts, California artiste, and umbrellas with colors like ripe fruit tuck in the corners along the main drag. Love stuff and red shoes. Date shakes. Manicured golf courses trimmed to perfection. Clay tiled roofs and wrought iron balconies fuse with mid-century modern architecture to connect each city block like a train of progressivism. It’s a place where the desert and the tropics come together with Spanish gardens. The clean lines of E. Stewart Williams’s inventions become expensive shuffled-into-the-side-street apartments. People do not die in Palms Springs. They live to their fullest material potential. They float like clouds.
When Stoddard came to Palm Springs he floated from promise to bed, from bed to promise. If he wasn’t connected, he was looking to get connected. All his relationships were happy encounters. He smiled his way from table to table at each bar he frequented. He said he was an artist, though no one could ever recall seeing one of his works. He said, he was always pushing forward and up, though he never defined what forward and up was. I am kinetic, he jested. I like to move. Catch me, ohh, please, catch me! Everyone laughed.
He liked to sit on a bench downtown at night and look up the dress of the 26-foot Marilyn Monroe, her demurred-figure shooting up through the dim light, not that there was anything to see, only the dreams in his head and the peeled white paint between her legs. He embraced one of her legs and felt the cold plaster kiss the side of his face. He never had much money in his pockets except for the few dollars a lover gave him the night before. He never had enough to escape, just enough to stay, just enough to prolong the romance.
Everyone knew Stoddard, but the only ones who kept his acquaintance were those who burned with the same dirty adventure only he could provide. I’ll give Stoddard one thing, Phil Gaines chuckled, he was a very creative partner. He didn’t know how to fuck. But then, who really does. He knew how to absorb his partner. He knew how to make you feel wanted, important. I’ll miss him. But that’s how things go, right?
He spent many nights at the Tonga Hut soliciting free drinks and making promises he would never remember. There were Pineapple Coladas and Mai Tais. It was always dark, the shadow of carved kahunas sculpted into the walls. Island abstractions. People squeezed into small circles, around small tables that made familiarity immediate. Each face blurred in the dark. The outrageous lies that people told each other could barely be heard through the backdrop of eclectic music: the theme from Peter Gunn and 007—and other TV theme music, beach music and Classical Gas. I remember you. You had your hand between my legs while we talked about how disgusting it was that our government allowed people to suffer in canvas camps along the Mexican border. People just don’t care like they used to. That’s what you said. You teased me. It tickled. I remember that it was a hot night. The air-conditioning was broken. The bartender put an old metal fan at the corner of the bar. It scraped with a hideous sound that blended with the music. It ripened the room. It was good to know you. It was fun. Call me sometime. We’ll have some laughs.
Stoddard was found in an alley off Palm Canyon Boulevard by a tourist, who was looking for one of the smoke shops hidden at the back of the main drag. He told the police he was looking for a new vape pen. When he happened upon Stoddard, he was looking blankly into the blue, cloud-filled sky, a bullet hole in the middle of his head, a small stream of dried blood pasted across his cheek. The sky was so far above the city–a lure. It was distant heaven. He looked happy, like he’d finally found his home.
Palm Springs is too complex to allow the death of a single person to linger too long in their thinking. They roll past it. They express polite outrage, and then, they quickly blend into the tapestry of their daily landscape. They embrace the airy thinness of the hot sky above them and the toxic whiff of money. Downtown smells like Mediterranean food and tastes like cotton candy appetizers. They wear the dead on their lapels in small quilted squares, the hint of a memory seldom discussed, unless it’s a passing thought, oh well, shit happens. We move on. America, huh? For the most part, in Palm Springs, you let the dead bury the dead.
Highway 111 comes out of Palm Springs and tapers; burnt palm trunks grip the desert dust, cremated bones of the past. Ocular windmills watch over the desert, their massive arms sweeping up the dry air, and the blood-stained asphalt trickles across the yellow no-passing line heading toward interstate 10. The paradise thins as the city of Cabazon looms, home of Hadley dates. There is a happy reminder at the edge of town, at the side of the road, rusted and bold, inviting people to come again.
About the author:
Michael L. Woodruff is a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While at the Workshop he received the Reikes Scholarship for Writing.
His stories have appeared in Summerset Review and the Main Street Rag.
He is a 2019 Nominee for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
He was born in Los Angeles, California, and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition to writing and reading, he spends his time hiking the deserts of New Mexico.