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  • Imperial Valley squatter camp, January 2009.

    He tells me to call him Doc, but in truth, he says, I’m not really a fully licensed medical doctor. He’s more of a medic, he tells me, or at least he’s served as one in a number of situations. Doc doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and definitely doesn’t tweak or shoot up, as far as I can tell. He keeps his salt and pepper beard trimmed and his hair slicked against his curiously large cranium. Doc has a car that runs and a speaker system that pumps psychedelic rock across the desert. Doc has two plastic lawn chairs that he keeps nice and clean.

    Doc wants to talk to me. He needs to talk to me. I reach into my bag to get my digital recorder and shotgun mic, but he says Nah man, none of that stuff. I can’t have my voice on machines. I’m sure your intentions are pure, but these days shit gets around in all kinds of ways. You know, the internet. So I take notes. Doc talks about Asia. You know I was in Vietnam? At the end of the war? You know I was in charge of setting up refugee camps in Cambodia? Big camps, too. You know I was in charge of thousands of people? Doc wants to go back to Asia. It’s beautiful there, and the women, Christ, the women. But he’d need a security detail of a hundred men. He’d need a bulletproof vest. He’d need helicopters. He’d need to have the U.S. government on board with the whole thing. I stop taking notes. Doc is talking too fast, giving too many details to keep up. He almost never breaks eye contact. Like some heavyset ballerino, he uses the full extension of his arms when he gestures. Midway through Doc’s story about hiding from guerrillas in the jungle, I realize that this is the reason I have come to the desert. Here is someone who’s lived.

    My job is to ask Doc how he makes money, how he survives out here. Shit, I took care of that years ago. I made my money in Seattle, in the independent publishing boom up there in the 80s. Then I came down to California and got into computers. Doc is a millionaire; he has a ranch in New Mexico with a staff of thirty, but he doesn’t go there much. He likes it in the desert. It’s peaceful. As the sun charts its arc across the unbroken sky, the animals of nightfall slide from their holes. We watch rabbits skip around the tires of Doc’s car. In pursuit of gnats, a nighthawk makes hard left turns. Doc speeds up, his stories taking geographic leaps. I find him in Prague, making love to a painter, a woman to whom he was married for the better part of a year, before she succumbed to tuberculosis. At the same time he is Maine, pushing a case on Penobscot land rights through the state supreme court. He is simultaneously in China and in Guatemala, making things better for people, never taking credit.

    Doc speaks eight languages, most of them indigenous. He knows where to find gold – and plenty of it – in the mountains of Baja, but his code of ethics prevents him from mining it. He is responsible for the rise of The Doors and The Clash and The White Stripes. Doc once restarted a man’s heart with jumper cables and a car battery.

    Doc pauses after he imparts this last fact. It’s totally dark now. All I can see of Doc is the whites of his eyes and the slight gleam on his beard. So what do you think? he says. When I don’t answer right away, he repeats the question. What do you think? I glance at the ground. Well I, I say haltingly, that’s some story. Doc’s jaw appears to clench. His brow stiffens. Story? he says. I mean, well, wow. I can feel my voice falling to its lowest volume. I need to head out. Gotta take my nighttime medication, I lie. Doc stands up. His eyes remain hard, but he extends his hand. Thanks so much for your time, I say, taking it. Come back soon, he says. I try not to walk away too quickly.

    When I reach the road, I look back to see that Doc is still standing in the same place, a faint, unmoving silhouette in the moonlight. Later, when I tell the story at parties, I will add that he chases me through the desert. As I run, I glance over my shoulder to see that he has tripped over a mesquite bush. He becomes ensnared in its spiny whips. Flailing his arms, he calls my name over and over again.
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