“Hey Rick,” I say, “Remember Jessica Martin, on that dig in Nevada?”
“Sure I do,” says Rick. “Nevada. What was that, seven years ago?”
“Ten,” I say.
Rick sips his beer and shakes his head. “Ten fucking years. Time goes by, doesn’t it? I wonder what she’s up to now.”
“Married,” I say. “Two kids, minivan, big house in Orange County. She found me on Facebook a couple years back.”
Rick doesn’t do Facebook, of course. He’s almost as analog as he was ten years ago when we worked archaeology digs together. He does have an internet connection in this house, but as far as I can tell he only uses it for work. “Remember we were all going to get a house together in Costa Rica,” says Rick. “In the off-season.”
I remember. When the weather cooled in October in Nevada and the snow was getting ready to fly, we made this plan. It was one of a hundred plans we made during days spent digging square holes. We’d go in together on a house on the beach in Costa Rica. We’d live on coconuts and rum until North America thawed and we could get work on the next dig. Didn’t happen. None of those plans ever actually happened.
“You’re dry,” says Rick. He grabs the empty bottle out of my hand. We’re drinking Rainier pounders. I never drink beer this cheap and shitty anymore, but it’s all we ever drank in the field. In hotel rooms, around campfires, in a pickup truck on the interstate, burning from Salt Lake down to St. George.
For about a year, back around the turn of the century, Rick and I jumped from dig to dig together. Field archaeology was a world of ephemeral little tribes that formed around a dig site, then blew apart with the winter winds. It was good to have a buddy to travel with while moving from tribe to tribe.
Rick’s house on the outskirts of Cortez is nice. Nicer than I expected. I remember a letter he sent me when he bought it, maybe five years back. That letter was still in my files back home in Seattle. It’s how I found my way out here when work brought me down to Cortez for a few days. Big windows face Mesa Verde, to the Southeast. A thousand years ago that was ground zero for the Anasazi culture. The mesa top would sparkle with cooking fires, hundreds of stone chimneys smudging the sky. The plains below the mesa, where we now sit, would have been a patchwork of dark fields, corn and squash and a web-work of irrigation channels.
It’s all desert now. Late August, the land fried beige, creosote spidering over the rocky parts where forage won’t grow. The land looks empty, the mesa like a rusted anvil with thunderheads rolling over it. The nearest house is more than two miles away.
Rick comes back from the kitchen, hands me a beer and says, “Hey, I want introduce you to the neighbors.”
We carry our beers across a field of burnt-out switchgrass and gravel, toward a dense stand of juniper trees. The ground slopes gently. I smell the cooler air that sifts out between those juniper trees. I remember this from the archaeology days, the land sending signals so loud it’s almost like a shout: somebody must have lived here.
The Anasazi house amounts to this: a heap of earth in a clearing, stone jutting out of the sand. Rick and I start working the site. It’s still instinctive, after all these years.
I was always better at survey than excavation. I liked working a dig because I got to dig, which was cathartic. But walking the land, picking out clues was what I loved to do. Within a minute I find a flake of blood-red chert and a hard, thin shard of pottery.
There is no white whale in archaeology, no ruby-eyed golden idol to snatch out from under the noses of the Nazis. This is what you get: the shrapnel of history. That flake of chert conjures a thousand-year old hand working stone. The pottery shard, finely etched with a snakeskin pattern, suggests the curving body of a clay bottle, sloshing full of water.
Rick grins, holding up a chunk of groundstone. Most people would never see it as an artifact, the face smoothed to a shine by endless hours of grinding corn, means nothing if you don’t know how to read it. The smile spreading on Rick’s face shows the lines I missed before, crows’ feet like drought-cracks in a desert wash.
The breeze off the mountains has picked up, making the junipers moan. We chuck the artifacts back on the pile and head for the shelter of Rick’s house.
“Hey, maybe we should send Jessica a message on that Facebook thing,” Rick said. “See if she remembers about Costa Rica.”
I want to tell him how it was with Facebook. All those half-familiar faces smiling off the computer screen, little fragments of information arranged just so, to suggest a certain, perfect life.
Part of the reason Costa Rica never happened was we were both a little bit in love with Jessica. The three of us formed one of those doomed triangles that have to eventually collapse, crushing friendships. When the snow flew in Nevada, Rick went off to a dig he had an inside line on in Hawaii. I went back to Seattle, crossed that bridge out of archaeology and burned it behind me. Jessica headed toward that minivan: two kids in the back seat, a ‘Support Our Troops’ sticker magnetized to the bumper.
I bet she conjures the archaeology life to amaze the ladies in her Pilates class. She’ll bring up just the bits and pieces to make it all sound heroic, and just a touch dangerous.
Imagine a message from me and Rick surfacing in her inbox now: a voice from a part of the past that doesn’t fit anymore. It’s been ten years but it might as well have been a thousand.