She comes down from her den. Passes through stands of piñon pine, stands of juniper, quartz monzonite a billion years old. It takes her longer to arrive to this plain of lower elevation than it did the year gone, feldspar pebbles rolling loosely underfoot, and by the time she’s here she pants gently, tongue lolling, long snout considering the nose of the desert after rainfall. Before she can give chase, a jackrabbit appears and disappears from beneath a creosote bush. She watches it go until the desire path it followed settles and then inspects where it had been and there are no kits there nor nearby. Goes on, quiet shadow, along a route she will follow home some hours later, dark cutout navigating lesser dark, cool sand, chaparral, yucca brevifolia, cacti serried like coral reefs. At a distance there is a mile’s worth of vehicles en queue, as though stalled traveling up the road’s difficult grade. Soon, familiarly, she trots along the shoulder, sits on her haunches, and lifts her lone front leg, kind, pitiable supplicant of the wild. It isn’t long before a hand lobs food out of a window. And another. Carefully apportioned scraps. If it passes muster, she eats it. If it doesn’t — something in tinfoil (third vehicle), or chocolate (sixth), which had sickened her during the first excursion — she doesn’t.
A tall man opens the passenger-side door of a red hatchback. “Get,” he says, shooing the coyote off the road, “go on,” watching her peer his way from behind a mound of cholla. A few passengers boo. “You can’t feed the animals,” he tells the man in the car ahead. “You can’t feed the animals,” he says, louder, to nearby vehicles.
“Come on,” the man in the car says. “It’s got the one leg.”
“She’s got three,” he says. “You can’t feed the animals. Signs are posted.”
“There’s no harm in it.”
“Get her dependent on us, she’ll die by scarcity or because someone fed her something she shouldn’t eat,” he says, picking up what parcel the man had tossed, handing it back through the window. “She’ll bring her friends here, too, and look there” — pointing across a sloping tract of sand to a few huddles of neighborhoods — “where folks live yearround. You brung these yotes in to hunt pets. There’s plenty harm in it.”
“Okay, guy,” the man in the car says, window whirring up.
“I don’t think I was unpalatable,” he says, returning to the hatchback.
“No,” the woman in the driver’s seat says, “and signs are posted. They posted new ones, too.”
“She’s been out that one leg awhile,” he says. “A leghold trap got her. Unlawful here. That’s some kind of panic. Pain. She chewed through her own leg. Who knows how long that took. Then she survived what she needed to survive, shock, infection. She’s tougher than we are, I’ll say that.”
“She will be okay,” she says.
“No, she’ll be all right.”
“And she is full now, I bet.”
“I know. If the desert changes, the desert dies.”
“Just about,” he says. “Anyway” — putting his seatbelt on — “like I was saying, we never went far east as St Louis traveling in Monuments Pro or Wilderness, either one. Enterprise will be a new arena to me. Capacity’s right at twenty thousand.”
“That is the panic.”
“That’s ten, fifteen stops, back in the day.”
“We had this many or more for the World Championships,” she says. “In Xixón, in Tyrol. In Bern this year, too. Though I did not qualify for Bern. At thirty, I am too old now. The women winning are eighteen years old, maybe twenty. They are like — how do you say? — sherpas, and I am a dead body below the summit.”
“You are not,” he says. “What you are is a born natural. No one’s better matched with what they do. One failure doesn’t change that. Many failures wouldn’t change that.”
“I must consider that this is what I want,” she says. “When I began climbing, I began because it is beautiful and because it is philosophical. It is natural to me, yes. It is natural to you, now, too. But I think: Is spectacle required to be the best? Is it possible to be the best privately?”
“Isn’t that the question?”
“Yes. What is your opinion?”
“We’re not in competition when we climb,” he says. “It isn’t us versus the boulder, it isn’t us versus the fall, it isn’t even us versus ourselves. It’s communion with the challenge. It isn’t trying to beat you.”
“It is just there.”
“I think so.”
“So yes,” he says, “I do find it possible, probable, even, you could be the best privately so long’s you face the challenge as a challenge and not an obstacle. Sorry for cutting you off.” Then: “Plus, World Championships prioritize speed, which is hardly a metric called for. It’s silly bullshit.”
“I think that is right,” she says. “That is what I think.”
“It is not the same for you, is it?”
“No,” he says, “what I did — what I’m doing again, I mean — is driven by spectacle. You should’ve seen what I done to get a rise out of crowds. It didn’t ever work for me. Oil, water, it just didn’t go together. The ceiling for those ideas was always a lot lower than I thought it’d be. Then I put on Grendel’s mask and worked hard for a decade more and watched others head off to better opportunities and I was happy for them. In wrestling, being the best isn’t enough to be the best.”
The car’s engine idles. She puts it in gear and pulls forward, stops. “Do you know what? Coming here today, at this hour, was a mistake. Look at this line.”
“I’ve been looking.”
“And you don’t want to be here now, either.”
“I was never here of my own volition,” he says. “You know what Gaby wants.”
“I know what Gaby wants,” she says. “But” — putting the car in gear again, blinker on, u-turning into the opposite lane — “tomorrow is a weekday, and this traffic will not be here, and the park will be empty. In, out.”
“Triple digits tomorrow.”
“We will find a north-facing route.”
“You got all the answers.”
“I have an idea,” she says. “So we do not disappoint, we can pull off on the way back and snap some stills at the End of the World.”
She turns right at the stoplight at the bottom of Utah Trail, leaving Twentynine Palms, swings left on Godwin Road a few miles later, Amboy Road, and on to Wonder Valley, where the wind, in the same gust, pulls veils of sediment over the highway and sweeps it clean.
At the corner of a ten-acre rectangle stand two squat houses, masonry both, relics of federal homestead acts, the larger one a neat periwinkle, the smaller the color of koi, an orange that vanishes in the sunset so to seem that windows alone hang pendent amid the tessellation of uncultured flora and that the life lived beyond those panes is simultaneously domestic and dimensionless. Here, Gaby Scappatura scans through scores of images in multiple photo-editing programs on a thin desktop monitor, images of Rich Patterson posing in front of, next to, and inside of the End of the World sculpture, each wooden letter fifteen feet tall and painted a glinting silver.
“I apologize for my peevishness earlier,” Scappatura says, swiveling in his chair. “These may not be what I expected — and I still want footage from JTNP — tomorrow, you said” — jotting this down on a yellow legal pad — “but you never disappoint with a camera in your hands, Fernanda Huitzil,” and then to Patterson, sat beside her on a vegan leather sofa: “What do you think, baby?”
“It’s too bad the subject isn’t any better-looking,” he says, “but you can’t pin that on her.”
“That is what he is for,” Fernanda Huitzil says.
“Yeah, I’ll superimpose someone else’s face over this mug.”
“Someone younger,” she says.
“Blonder, too, probably. I have a list.”
“That’ll get you some solid B-roll,” Patterson says.
“Any other notes?”
“I think my driver’s license picture looks good,” he says. “No one else can claim that. That could be an anodyne stopgap while we figure out who I am this time round. All I’m saying is there’s a chance I flame out in St Louis when I get to the ring. Brand management right now feels a little like we put the cart ahead of the horse. We ought to see if we even have a product first.”
“First,” Scappatura says, finger up, “don’t be disgusting. We don’t refer to ourselves as products. We don’t refer to our lives as content. You are a human being, not human capital. Second” — another finger up — “you’re going to go to St Louis, you’re going to get into the ring, and que será será. Win or lose—”
“Win, I think,” Fernanda Huitzil says.
“Win or lose,” Scappatura says, “with the understanding that catastrophic injury precludes the following statement, you are in possession of a legally binding contract with the premier wrestling organization in this country. You will have time to learn who you are this stint. How long did it take to land on Grendel? You didn’t even like him. It might take a minute to strike fire, okay? That’s okay. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“So this is the first time you are Rich Patterson?”
“That could be anybody.”
“That’s my third point,” Scappatura says, a third finger up. “Rich Patterson the person is ornery and set in his ways. Rich Patterson the concept is open to invention and reinvention. Look at these stills” — swiveling back to the monitor — “and, actually, no, these are very Grendel. We’re going to need the stills from tomorrow. This is the end of the world. Gentle apocalypse. Put the Sutton Hoo mask back on and you’re ready for an on-brand promo. ‘Jonathan-Christopher Hall, the crumbs of love that you offer me are the crumbs I’ve left behind.’”
“All right,” Patterson says, “I never shoehorned my theme’s lyrics into promos.”
“You can now,” Scappatura says. “‘Hey, man, I’m gonna fuck this shit up.’”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“The point stands that Rich Patterson is wide-open. There’s nothing he can’t be.”
“I have reservations—”
“Noted,” Scappatura says. “‘Cowboy’ Rich Patterson. ‘Roughrider.’”
“‘El Terrible,’” Fernanda Huitzil says.
“‘El Terrible.’ ‘Ingobernable.’”
“There’s already one of those, basically.”
“Who were you when you competed?”
“Italo Romagnoli,” Scappatura says. “Generic European anarchist. If it existed, I was against it. In another life I assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.”
“None of these—”
“‘Coyote’ Patterson,” she says. “We saw the coyote earlier.”
“I’m not howling—”
“Look,” he says, “these are all bad — arguably — but illustrate what I said. Even if you decide on nothing, plain, old Rich Patterson, the man I love, that will work. The cart is behind you. That’s why we’re doing this. That’s why Fernanda Huitzil is taking press-worthy shots of you. That’s why she’s training with you. That’s why Quagga, that dopy asshole, is meal-planning with you. That’s why I’m your digital manager. That’s why you have the support you have.”
Come nightfall, Fernanda Huitzil having left for her own home several miles closer to town, the two sit down to eat in the kitchen of the periwinkle house, Patterson a confit chicken thigh and root vegetables that Emil Quagga had prepared, Scappatura takeout from the Thai café, pad see ew with roasted green onions and bean sprouts.
“I dream about that three-leg yote time to time,” Patterson says.
“The one we saw today,” he says, “the one comes up to cars lined up on Utah on the weekend to be hand-fed.”
“Oh, that’s right. ‘Coyote’ Patterson.”
“That’s not going to stick.”
“Don’t rule it out. That’s going to get that pup killed, though.”
“People feed her because they feel bad about her.”
“That’s the root of most charity.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Scappatura says. “You need to get out of your head. PRIME is not hand-feeding an animal it pities in you.”
“My thinking is,” Patterson says, “would I have been brought on if the HQ wasn’t in Las Vegas. In New England. In Florida. Would I have been brought on if Diamonds didn’t live the next state over? or Pontiff the next town over? I’ve been picking at it.”
Scappatura puts down his utensils. “That doesn’t matter.”
“How doesn’t it?”
“If you had been discovered ten years ago,” he says, “would it have bothered you that it was because they saw you perform in some rinky-dink convention center near Moab? The circumstances literally do not matter here. It is fortunate that they reached out, but not unmerited, and I checked the fine print for ulterior motives. PRIME is a business. It might even be a good one. Businesses don’t do charity unless they need to buy cover for some atrocity they committed. If they needed fodder they’d have found some. They wouldn’t have offered it what you were offered and they wouldn’t have put it in a tournament they hold in high esteem.”
“No, you’re right.”
“I know,” he says. “The only charitable thing they’re doing is pitting you against a wrestler who can’t wrestle.”
“You said he had a winning record.”
“Yeah, fucking inexplicably.”
“He’s green, but green—”
“He’s green, but green—”
“If he showed up solo, it’d be a walk,” Scappatura says, getting up to clear dishes from the table, “but he’s not going to. His girlfriend’ll be there. I don’t know what it is about her. She’s got born-again vibes and the dead-eyed gaze of a shooter in a tower. I’d bring kevlar.”
He turns the spigot on the kitchen sink.
“Maybe I’m underestimating him—”
“That seems so.”
“Well,” he says, scrubbing a plate, “I’m not underestimating her, or them as a unit. In fair circumstances, though, you’re walking away a winner.”
“I think that’s a good thought. Can I help out here?”
“It’s under control.”
Patterson kisses Scappatura on the shoulder. “Thank you, Gaby.”
Fernanda Huitzil picks him up the following evening and they drive back to Twentynine Palms along Highway 62, climb the long grade of Utah Trail, a vehicle or two sharing the road and none more, present an annual interagency pass at the entrance station, and pass the threshold of the national monument. They park and collect the camera equipment, crashpads, ropes, carabiners, shoes, chalkbags, and canteens of cold water, and begin trekking along the path, crush of sand light underfoot, quilt of cinchweed and its attendant yellow petals, wild agave, lichen clinging to stone. In a short arroyo, they stop, two jackrabbit kits scuttling through underbrush and up a crest. By the time they arrive to a plain of higher elevation, past stands of piñon pine, stands of juniper, quartz monzonite a billion years old, beyond the watch of a pair of golden eyes, they’re panting gently, thirsty, heads filling with the oily succulence of the desert after rainfall.