The Unknown Grave of Ed Abbey

An excerpt from The Red Caddy by Charles Bowden

I had little to do with the dying and most of that little I did not understand at the time. Anyway, it's all drifted into legend now. I think he half-orchestrated it that way—that manic need for control that seems to possess novelists with their made-up worlds, where people say what they tell them to say. Or maybe it was a fool's luck, to cap a fool's progress. Let's go over the schedule. He calls early in the week and says let's go camping Thursday. Then I call Wednesday night and say I can't make it, too much work, I don't feel good. He gently insists I go anyway—he's got a friend down from New Mexico he wants me to meet. Nope, can't do it, Ed. Thursday unbeknownst to me he goes under the knife. Friday, I drop by his house and discover from Clarke he's lying in a hospital bed all cut up. Then it gets blurry for me.

Clarke calls early in the morning and says Ed just died. I ask if she needs help and she says no, it's all being taken care of. I don't inquire about the details because I've got a pretty good idea. I can see in my mind's eye the truck bed, the body wrapped in something, the shovels, the load of ice. The phone starts ringing and for the next few hours I become obituary central, babbling to microphones, firing off copy to various rags. Then I shut it down, walk two blocks, and buy a gallon of red wine. I go out into the yard under the hackberry tree, sit, and drink. The phone keeps ringing but I do not answer it. When the message tape periodically fills, I hit erase and let it start feeding all over again.

None of this is a surprise. I'm just not ready for it. I've done my civic chores—faxed all the publications their red meat and told them to send the check to Earth First! (I still remember with pleasure the pleading voices on the line asking if they had to send the money there.)

Abbey had been dying in his cheerful way for years. I love the story of when he came to from his pancreatic crisis a decade earlier and the doc told him he had maybe six months. He supposedly said, "Well, I guess I don't have to floss anymore." Makes a great story. And then this last project of his, the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, had an admittedly rushed quality about it. Ed had told me he was, alas, going to have to finally really work and I lined up a hideaway for him so he could crank out the pages fast. I'd get notes from him complaining about the unseemly pace and lamenting that he was turning into a dull brute like me. Then one night he called for technical details about the operation of an Uzi, explaining it played a part in the big trial section that wrapped up the novel. Then he finished the book and there was no trial section at all. Sometimes things make one change plans a bit.

He wakes up in the hospital after the operation and the surgeons have not pulled the hat trick. So he unplugs himself from the medicine machine, clambers out of bed, and goes off with Clarke and friends into the desert to die. Naturally, he failed— he was not good at deadlines—and finally the next morning gets the job done on the floor of his writing shack. Then comes the call.

I keep drinking steadily, bestirring myself periodically to erase the phone messages from the twitching ganglia of the national media. Later that day someone penetrates my solitude under the hackberry and drags me off to a saloon where she kindly pours more booze down my throat and speaks in a soft and gentle way. I am not fit company and I know it. I direct her to a supermarket where I purchase another gallon of fuel and a car trails us to my hut. I stumble up the path to the door, carefully avoiding the cactus and the softly swaying branches of the palo verde. I hear footsteps. It is a reporter, the very same one whom years before I'd field marshaled against Ed during his crafty attempt to rezone his land. She says I'll understand because this is just business. She needs to know the real cause of death. Real? What is this shit? His heart stopped beating and then he got cold and became clinically dead. Isn't that enough?

No, no, she says, the public has a right to know. Public? Who the fuck is this public? I've never met the public in all the thousands of people I've bumped up against. Slowly, it dawns on me what this public has a right to know. Ummm, was it AIDS? Perhaps a tasty suicide?

I have had a lot to drink and will have a lot more before my night is finished but I think that has nothing to do with what happens next. I will not blame the bottle. I start pushing her off my tiny patch of the earth and then somehow I have this vague memory of her going kind of airborne over a hedge. And then I am in the street and she is bolting into her car and hitting the door locks with panic in her eyes. I was told later there was talk of a lawsuit by the newspaper. Could be. I'm not proud of my behavior. I hate violence, especially my own.

The thing, though, will not die. Years later a friend tells me that a reporter interviewed him and asked why he didn't tell the real truth about Abbey, that he had committed suicide. My friend was stunned, and said because that is not true. But the reporter knew better and scoffed at this tame answer.

I think I know why there is this need for a certain death. He can't be allowed to have gotten away with it. He must get his comeuppance for all that hard talk of his.

Well, I'm sorry. I don't think Ed was happy to die but I think he died happy, or as happy as Ed could be. After all, he always had a lot on his mind...

I'm cruising the Colorado plateau in a truck at about ninety. It is late afternoon and Gallup is coming up alarmingly fast. The red caddy is often moored there—whatever that may mean, since it often seems to slip its anchor. I've grown used to its belligerent and ill-mannered appearance. It passed me a while ago just as I came up on a wire-caged walkway over the interstate. A drunken Indian was standing atop the cage and tottering over four lanes of intercontinental traffic while a young woman reached up to him with a pleading look in her eyes and brushed her fingers against the stiff wire on which he stood. Outside of Gallup, I follow a stream of exiting cars to some kind of amphitheater lodged in a red rock wall. The parking lot is full and as I walk toward the main event I see the caddy left all akimbo on a sidewalk. I waltz through the gate and notice a herd or two of menacing cops complete with dope dogs and loaded batons.

Down in the pit some heavy metal band is thrashing out harmonics and a small mob of kids is slam dancing in the afternoon sun. Young women walk past with blank eyes, tattoos, large breasts and a perfume that kills hope with one whiff. The young men shuffle past with homicide eyes. I am staring into the triumph of the industrial revolution, complete with cleavage. Here are all the people no factory whistle calls.

I lean against a railing and then walk on, eyeing a couple of tough mommas with death-rock makeup, pins through their noses, and bodies that stretch their clothes beyond the normal tensile limits of fabrics. Suddenly some asshole walks into me and as I reel and regain my balance I see some gray bearded old fart with a dipshit sports hat disappearing into the mob. I'm outta here.

Roar north past Shiprock, hang a left into the Diné heart and put the pedal down. Hello cock's comb, cluck under the chin for baby rocks, skip the lethal Navajo tacos of Kayenta. I'm impressed by what sheep can do to good ole Mom Earth—nobody has to worry about mowing the weeds here. Crack another bottle and turn off on a dirt track, carefully skirting the hogans. Park, stagger out, piss, now up the sandy hill. The old building stands roofless with soldier graffiti cut in the walls from the mid-nineteenth century. Everybody seemed to miss their girl. I sit down and gaze at the abandoned village site below. The highway is a two-lane ribbon in the middle distance said to be lined with Navajo ghosts, the spirits of dead drunks who were heading toward one more off-reservation bottle. They say at night they'll beckon you and you'll go flying off the road to your death.

I see a red streak slash down the highway and then hear the distant sound of an obscene cackle. Well, fuck you, asshole.

I stumble down the hill slippin'-and-a-slidin' and hit the cut of a hungry arroyo. I bumble down it until I come to a cut bank with bones sticking out. Old ones sleep here. Sure enough, two grave sites are being excavated by the rains, Anasazi skeletons that have been snoring the best part of this millennium. Should be a nice valuable pot under the skull of each one of these stiffs. Collectors pay a small fortune for these babies. When the next rain comes the waters will lift them from their resting place and the old pots will bob on the waves and then smash against things and break into fragments. In time they'll be nothing at all but little fragments and then the fragments will be ground down into dust. Sounds fine to me.

I leave them. I'm not cut out to be a grave robber. Besides, the idea of the grave and the tenderness of pots as an offering are what count with me.

Night does not help. I'm still drinking. That does not help either. Outside, the trees stir faintly, the desert breathes, sighs, gurgles and now and then belches. It has no manners. I know where the burial site is and I used to go there a lot. So did he. Kind of a home base before the leap into the great beyond. I've never returned since he was planted. Maybe I hate littering. I'd tell you more about it except for the long-distance calls late at night from people I don't know. The voices are real friendly and they sound like likable folks. They've read his stuff it turns out and they have questions. Like where is he buried?

I never tell them. Not that it matters, I figure it'll get out, probably already has from what I can gather. It is a human question and I do not mean to mock. But still it repels me. What does the grave matter except to the occupant? And I'm not real sure he's around there much anyway. He's off being that bullshit vulture he always wanted to be. Or maybe that prankster that he always was, diving on my bird feeder as a peregrine. I don't have time for this mumbo-jumbo. Got a world to save, miles to go, hello Miss, and what is your name? Besides I want to learn Thai cooking, start a private nature park, and win the lottery. No time. What do you mean, asshole, by "that silly magazine"?

Missed the big requiem in Arches too. Not good at schedules. Once in a while I have a beer with people who knew him—not often—and after a few cold ones we shyly admit to this preposterous feeling that he is not dead, that we've caught sight of him in some crowd, a brief glimpse from the corner of our eyes. And then we always laugh and ridicule ourselves. Damn foolishness. Look, I know he's deader than a doornail because I liked him, and I've never been fond of leaders or gurus, much less gods. So he is dead. Or I am a damn poor judge of character. Still, there is this strange sense that he is not done, that he is still out and about. Maybe that is what the boom in the sale of his books is about. Like Elvis, Ed made a great career move.

Ah, he's safe now. In fact, he is government approved. I'll tell you a true story. There is a cabinet member who agrees to do a thirty-minute interview with a reporter friend of mine. The member's office is very grand—it is famous for its size and splendor even in the world of cabinet members. My friend is struck that the man's press secretary is not in attendance. This has never happened before and indicates possibly a very serious discussion or an honor of unprecedented scale. The officer has indicated no calls are to be put through while he is talking, except of course that one from Nelson Mandela. But when it finally comes, even that one is relatively brief. And the half hour spills out into an hour, and the hour into two hours, and then they are in their third hour. The talk is very good, my friend's tape machine is whirring. He is getting his story, that inside stuff we all crave. And then finally, the phone rings— what? Hasn't this been forbidden?—and it is the member's secretary reminding him of his appointment with his barber. Ah, they must all go, my friend the reporter, the cabinet member, the bodyguards, the driver, must go right now. A haircut. But the talk continues and now the man is sitting in a barber's chair and his mind is floating free, his thoughts are leaping like gazelles. Suddenly, he starts talking about Abbey's death and how Ed's friends took the body out into the desert and threw it into a hole, just like that. No big deal. That's the point the cabinet member wants to make. Do you know, he asks, that formaldehyde is incredibly toxic? And one chemical company has a lock on its manufacture. So what then are cemeteries? Toxic waste dumps, land consumers, places of poison. And these environmentalists, these radical-holier-than-thou types, do they ever mention this? No! Never! We all need to be cremated, the cabinet officer concludes. Or at least buried like Abbey, quickly and without a massive infusion of poisonous embalming fluid.

Abbey dead now lives in the very seat of government. He is leading a crusade against embalmers, he is an advocate of cremation. He is safe. That's the nice thing about being dead. People can finally talk about you. And he is famous. I'll tell you just how famous: the reporter interviewing the cabinet member is the very same reporter with whom I once had the preposterous conversation in which I went on forever about Edward Abbey and he thought I meant Abbie Hoffman. But now he has heard of Edward Abbey and he can follow the busy mind of a cabinet officer when the man uses him as a basic reference point in sorting out the toxic waste dump implications of our burying grounds. Fame, I tell you.

Excerpted with permission from The Red Caddy: Into the Unknown with Ed Abbey. Copyright © 2018 by the Charles Clyde Bowden Literary Trust. All rights reserved.