Nighttime In The Devil’s Garden

by Jami Attenberg


It was early fall 2005 and I was driving cross-country in a station wagon I had impulsively bought from a woman in a department store parking lot in downtown Seattle. (What? She had the paperwork. It was fine.) I had given her most of my savings, so I decided, when possible, to car camp my way back home to New York City. In Moab, Utah, at dusty, red Arches National Park, I found a campground by the Colorado River. I would sleep in the shadow of the Fiery Furnaces, and I had even seen signs for something called the Devil’s Garden. I hadn’t meant to get Biblical. I just wanted to save some money.

It was right before sunset, and I parked my car and walked down to the river while there was still light. There were two golden, smiling children there, dipping their hands in the water; a long-haired girl in a cotton dress and a boy in a tidy t-shirt and shorts. Although they were quiet children, they seemed excited to see me, and, without saying very much at all they invited me to their camp. I followed them because those were the days I followed people without asking too many questions.

There I met the rest of the family — seven silent, dreamy children in total and their mother, also silent, and slender and weathered, and their father, a tall man in his fifties with long, gray hair. He was mostly toothless. He welcomed me, and motioned to a picnic table. It seemed impolite to say no. There was a mother and a father and seven beautiful children spending their time by the Colorado River. Why shouldn’t they be there? Why shouldn’t we all be there together?

All of the children had Biblical names. Their father told me that he had delivered them himself, without the help of doctors or hospitals or drugs because “you have to go through the pain to get to the beauty.” They moved around all year, living out of a blue van. The children were homeschooled. Whatever little money they made was through his preaching, which was done mainly on street corners, though he alluded to people who supported them in different cities.

Now it was night, and it was time for the family to eat. His wife, still silent, set the table around us. All of the food was soft in nature. (A nod to his toothlessness, I thought.) He offered me some of their dinner: tuna fish from a Tupperware container. Even if I bought cars in department store parking lots, and even if I followed small children down wooded paths, I still knew better than to accept tuna fish from strangers in national parks.

Soon it was bedtime, and the children disappeared and then rejoined us. They all clutched toothbrushes with great seriousness. I received a hug from each, and then they left with their mother. Then I listened to the man talk about God for a while. I like it when people talk about their faith with passion, even (or especially) if it has nothing to do with my own beliefs. I always learn something, even if it doesn’t turn out to be true or correct.

Finally, in the still air, with the river rushing next to us, he began to read his poetry to me. Much of it was about the end of the world, which was coming, very soon. An additional theme was how Colin Powell was the antichrist. Not metaphorically, but quite literally. When he was done reading his final poem he reiterated this fact, just to make sure I understood: Colin Powell was the antichrist. As I excused myself to my car I thought: At least these children will grow up with strong teeth.

That night, underneath a million gorgeous stars, I locked myself in my car. Just wait till the first crack of sunlight, I told myself, and then you drive. The morning licked at the night sky, and I woke. I crawled out of the trunk, squatted, and peed quietly in the parking lot. Then I got back in the car and started it. When I turned on the lights I looked up and my heart jolted: there was the preacher’s wife and six of their children, standing on the edge of the parking lot. In unison they all waved goodbye. I waved back, but I didn’t roll down my window, I didn’t stop to say goodbye, I just drove. The next night I slept in a hotel and charged it to my credit card.

Jami Attenberg is the author of four books of fiction, including ‘The Middlesteins.’ Her next book, ‘Saint Mazie,’ will be published in June 2015.