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This is not Sue Mercer, the girl mentioned in the story. This is Maddie, in an awesome reenactment. All photos by Daniel C. Britt.

An impromptu photo shoot spurs a two-day romp that ends in religious transformation.

I MADE FRIENDS at the great American orphanage that is Wells, Nevada, by lending out my gasoline can and my sleeping foam for charcoal and cigarettes. Most of those people, save Kevin and Martin, I never saw again. The chilly permanence of a goodbye never sinks in when you’re in a hurry, stuffing the trunk with your filthy Navajo blankets and water jugs.

Sue Mercer was part of the permanently vanished bunch. She was the red-headed Pentecostal girl from Minnesota living among the drifter-degenerates that squatted about town. She was fascinated by God and the mountains surrounding Wells. She talked about infinite variation in the ridges and individual grains of sand and how there were billions of burning stars no one had ever seen.

“Concentrate on breathing through your nose,” she said, “an hour like this opens the subconscious.”

We were deeply in love, inhaling nasally, for a couple days. It ended as quickly as it began one yellow desert morning. The morning she saw a harbinger of Christ at the Burger King. Harbingers will do that. She turned her chiseled Scandinavian face to mine and said, “He wants us to know He’s here.”

It’s hard to occupy a girl like Jesus can.

Donna's Ranch, a whore house in Wells, Nevada. All photos by Daniel C. Britt.

The first time I stopped in Wells I was out of gas and money. After that, I drove in for days at a time, for a free roof. There are at least 20 abandoned brick-and-particle-board houses along the main drag with a broken window, or a hinge-less pine door you can move to the side. More than half of them have a working sink and toilet. Perfect. There is a bright white Burger King that shines like the Little Taj Mahal against the tan chalky Nevada powder and a whore house called Donna’s Ranch.

Sue and I met in the Donna’s parking lot. I went in to see what the inside of a whore house looked like. There was a laminated ditto on the bar with head shots and descriptions — cheddar-colored, like a menu at Denny’s. Televisions were on in the rooms that lined the long, skinny hallway behind the bar. Girls from the east coast were talking in the rooms and blue light from the televisions flashed out of their doorways, showing how dusty the air was. I bought a warm beer and looked at the ditto. Some of the faces were nice. None were thin. When I came out, Sue was standing on the roof of her Oldsmobile, peering out into the mountains, smashing a pair of binoculars hard against her face.

I asked if it hurt.

“Leaking light is a problem with these,” she said. And we started talking.

I was taking pictures of the run-down houses I slept in — the broken glass on the carpets, the shingle piles; and little tent-city where Kevin Denglo, Martin Penesi, and Kaia lived with their adopted dogs. When that got old, Sue and I mixed Devil’s Springs vodka with Hawaiian Punch and walked to Burger King. I was drunk, photographing my Whopper. Sue was laughing at her fish-wich, drawing pictographs — cat faces or spikey suns — in the condensation on the window.

“Let’s have a model-shoot,” I said.

Sue decoded the Burger King bathroom and sat on the sink, laughing like crazy, breathing through her nose like a yogi.

“Namaste, Daniel-san,” Sue said. She loved that Devil’s Springs and Hawaiian Punch. She wanted a cigarette.

I started taking pictures. I said all the usual things:

“Look right through me, Sue.”

“Be sexy.”

“Can you take your top off?”

“Look at me like you’re looking in the mirror.”

She turned her head over her shoulder toward me and leaned into the mirror. She put her head on the glass for balance. She couldn’t stop laughing.

“God created all this,” she said dumping her drink in the sink, waving her arms.

“Imagine how many photos there are. These are like, 20, in a trillion. We are specks, Daniel-san,” she said.

“Why the hell did you come here, Sue? Why are you so damn hot?”

View from a squatter's den in Wells, Nevada. All photos by Daniel C. Britt.

Of the tent-city crew, Kevin and Kaia belonged to the Rainbow Family of Living Light. Kevin was some kind of potentate within that million-man fuck-up. They were crashing in Wells until the location of the next massive hippie gathering was revealed by the Council of White Witches or whoever did the revealing. Martin, released from his tax job, divorced from his wife, restrained from his son, rode in on a wave of attrition.

When Sue was off somewhere with her binoculars, we’d all speculate on why she came to Wells. The most popular theory, Martin’s theory, was an abortion. He wagered seven Burger King cherry pies — one for each of his fingers (at some point Martin was a journeyman carpenter. The journey ended when his autistic brother pushed him into a band-saw) — that Sue was obsessed with reduction and theorizing about the role of small things in the universe because of the stabbing regret she felt for aborting an ill-wrought zygote.

“She was probably forced to do it herself,” Martin said. “She was probably looking at it for hours. It probably had eyes.”

Kaia said Sue wanted to be a Donna’s whore but didn’t have the guts to bang for money. “I could do it,” Kaia said. “Its a question of will. I have that ability but I also have Kevin and we’re in love.” Kaia could make out with just about anything. She greeted her dogs with prolonged tongue kisses. She was one of those. Sometimes it was both dogs at once. She’d make eye contact with me while her tongue was flicking around with theirs. I tried to run each time, or at least shut my eyes. I couldn’t.

Kevin, of course, said Sue was FBI — “without a doubt.” High-roller bet a bottle of Devil’s Springs on it, a bet that raised eyebrows and got everybody’s wheels turning in his favor. Under-processed vodka was big-time currency around Wells. Kevin arrived months ago, on a tip — the biggest goddamn secret in Nevada — from his meth-mouthed buddy Lyle, the Wells Motel desk clerk. Kevin said Wells was churning out billions in crystal methamphetamine. Billions. Like Kuwaiti oil. Kevin was biding his time, patiently devising a plan to cash in and build his own lab — his own subterranean lab.

“Why do you think all these sinks work? Where did that money come from?” Kevin asked.

+

Three years later, I was staring at Kevin’s rat-face over a six-pack of Coors Light outside the Food Lion in Nagshead. He said he was running weed up and down the Outer Banks in a charter fishing boat.

“NARCS everywhere bro, I’ve been mic-ed,” Kevin said.

“Billions of them, bro, you’re outnumbered,” I said.

I saw Martin again in the 9th Ward shortly after Hurricane Katrina. I had made my way down to New Orleans to photograph what came next. Martin was stuffing his swollen face at a spaghetti dinner on Congress Street, in a volunteer camp erected inside an moldy, abandoned elementary school. I have a picture somewhere of his maimed hand holding a fork with a meatball quivering on the end of it. He’d just had his ass kicked by a group of ghetto kids squatting in puddles in their own collapsed homes. Fuckers took his bike and his shoes.

“Those kids probably had no choice,” he said.

“Your brother soul-fucked you, Marty,” I said.

+

Sue and I started kissing while she modeled for me on the Burger King bathroom sink. We spent the next two days in my sleeping bag. We didn’t eat. We didn’t talk about anything really. We wound together so tight it was hard to sleep. We looked at each other and laughed and drank our bad breath away.

Every so often, I saw Sue sink within herself. I watched this look of distaste cross her face — curl her lip — when we stopped to lie on our backs. With her eyes locked on the rafters, she’d shake her head, rearrange her hair, laugh again and turn to me.

The morning she changed, we got up to eat French toast sticks at Burger King. Sue was pirouetting in the parking lot sun. We looked at the mountains and she told me about her grandparents proselytizing on the Cayman Islands. We could get there. We could work on a cruise ship and ditch; sell my car and her lucky diamond; tear these houses apart for copper.

A pick-up pulled in behind us with the harbinger. This doughy, shadowy kid in a black jersey got out. He approached us in tiny steps, as though his feet had been bound at birth. I swear to God it took him half-an-hour. He had the sleepiest look on his face.

“I killed an elk. My first one,” the kid said. “Want to see the heart?”

“S’all I ever wanted,” I said. We followed him to the pick-up. The elk was strapped to the bed. An old man got out and put his hands on his hips. The kid stuck his arm into the hole he cut in the elk’s ass.

The kid holds his elk's heart in Wells, Nevada. All photos by Daniel C. Britt.

“This guy just turned 13,” the old man said, nodding at the kid, while the kid swished around inside the animal. It took him a while. The heart kept slipping out of his chubby fingers. When it emerged, Sue squeezed my arm. The kid held it like a volleyball and I photographed it.

“He wants us to know He’s here,” Sue said.

“Jesus?”

“Can’t you feel what I’m talking about,” Sue asked.

The old man said the heart was fresh, the elk only a few hours dead. Sue bent down and smelled it. Then she got behind the kid to look at it over his shoulder. She grazed one of the tubes sticking out of the top with her fingers.

“You can’t feel whats going on?”

For the next 36 hours Sue was a live wire. We weren’t sleeping together anymore. We weren’t sleeping at all. We took our four-door sedans mudding, drunk, all day, all night. We siphoned gas from cars parked at the Flying-J. Before she said see-ya-soon, we talked about transformation. Jesus was in the mountains; in the giant, bloody heart; in me and everything she touched. Sue said she’d never be the same, “ever.”

“No one will recognize me. No one knows who I am now. Not even you. Do you understand? Is that OK?” she said.

Sure its OK, Susy. Everything’s OK with the tent-city crew and me. We get by without the magic you see, glowing far away in the ridges. Cataclysms like yours would be welcome. It’s sad, we only change by changing scenery.

Sue was shaking my hand and scraping thank you in giant letters in the sand near Donna’s. She left most of her stuff behind. I held her for a minute, knotted my hand in her hair and watched her drive off.

+

Sue’s got a picture of me floating around somewhere. There’s a camera around my neck. The sun’s in my face. Wells’ shit-box houses line the horizon. I must look dumbfounded. Sue stood behind the kid, with the heart’s blood dripping on her sandals. She took out the point-and-shoot drugstore camera she always left behind because she’d rather use binoculars. With her arm around the kid’s head, she wound the spring and photographed me.

“Why the hell did you come here, Daniel-san?”

Narrative


 

About The Author

Daniel C. Britt

Daniel C. Britt spent most of 2009 living hand-to-mouth on the ground in Iraq during the U.S. withdrawal from cities. In 2010 his travels took him on an overland zigzag from Baghdad, through Iran to Bagram, Afghanistan. He has chronicled the experience in a series of vignettes, photographs and a short documentary film scheduled for independent release in 2013.

  • Pat

    That might be the best story I’ve ever read

  • http://www.luxuryaccommodationsblog.com/ Luxury Accommodations Blog

    Great story!

  • Kate_Sedgwick

    I love this story, Daniel.

  • Zanzabar1113

    Wow, Daniel. There’s something about it that shows you’ve been deeply affected by your adventures. I feel like going cross country now, if for no other reason than to tell a story like this years from now.

  • Gary

    No idea you were a writer Britt. Solid stuff here. 

  • Guest

    When I read the tittle of your piece I thought, “Oh God, really?” but I was pleasantly surprised and moved by its depth.  It reminded me that some of the most liberating moments in my life have been on the road when social norms are stripped away, petty concerns dissipate and you realize that you can be happy without the normal comforts of life.  I’m not glamorizing poverty.  Being broke sucks.  But something about being on the road when the fate of your next meal is dependent on the connections you make with the strangers you encounter forces you to live in the present and appreciate what stands right in front of you.  You open yourself to the possibility that you can learn something from every stranger, renegade, outcast, and outlaw you encounter.  You can be moved in ways you never imagined you could be, and be lifted to the greatest heights and depths of human emotion.  Most importantly you feel alive  and maybe that’s what people mean when they say you feel closer to God?

  • Kiyoko McCrae

    When I read the tittle of your piece I thought, “Oh God, really?” but I was pleasantly surprised and moved by its depth.  It reminded me that some of the most liberating moments in my life have been on the road when social norms are stripped away, petty concerns dissipate and you realize that you can be happy without the normal comforts of life.  I’m not glamorizing poverty.  Being broke sucks.  But something about being on the road when the fate of your next meal is dependent on the connections you make with the strangers you encounter forces you to live in the present and appreciate what stands right in front of you.  You open yourself to the possibility that you can learn something from every stranger, renegade, outcast, and outlaw you encounter.  The possibilities of experiences and connections with others feels limitless.  You can be moved in ways you never imagined you could be, and be lifted to the greatest heights and depths of human emotion.  Its a cliché but for a lack of better words… you feel alive. And maybe that’s what people mean when they say you feel closer to God?

  • Mary S.

    You can mother-fucking write, pal.  I got a question:  Have you always in all your adventures, had a fall-back?  The more I read about renegades on the road, I think about the brutal risk of some grandma raising her kids on social security and food stamps because her cracked-out kid has disappeared.  I know that woman and she’s got no fall-back.  There ain’t no big epiphany awaiting her.
    Is that door marked Exit always on the horizon for you?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1181723202 Lauren Quinn

    Love the confidence of the voice in this one. Well done dood!

  • Megan Kimble

    “It’s hard to occupy a girl like Jesus can.” Why words go well with photos. Nice play on both. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503342306 Abby Charlotte Guthrie

    You put your gaze (which is unflinching) on a characteristic of America I’ve never thought to look at before.

  • http://incessantexperiences.com/ Jared Krauss

    Fuckin’ good.  (pun intended)

  • guest

    i really like this piece, your writing flows so well, it doesnt reveal too much, makes me as a reader keep wanting more.  thanks for sharing.

  • John

    Nothing like this ever happened to me in a Burger King Bathroom!

  • Terrence

    This story does inspire a leave it all behind road trip. It would be interesting to see where one ends up, and what one discovers about ones self along the way.  By the way, I enjoyed the part about drinking away the bad breath!

  • Ryan

    My roommates have this story pinned to our bulletin board.We attend a Christian college and this story has been used as a trope for discussion in and out of the classroom. I finally sat down and read the whole thing last night and I have never felt so connected to the people in my life with little or lesser faith. People that don’t understand religion should read this. As should anyone who does not believe that life is journey of discovery.    

  • Jennifer Lectar

    Wow. I was drawn into this and utterly surprised. It was moving. Where are you going next?

  • Valorie Clark

    “It’s hard to occupy a girl like Jesus can.” Shit, that’s good. Don’t stop writing, Daniel.

  • Paul Thegardener

    Nice piece of writing.

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