Mar 5, 2010 | Truth or Consequences, NM
Mar 5, 2010

"I don't know much about fetishes," said the woman in the jewelry shop in Madrid. "I was born and raised here, but I'm just starting to learn about fetishes, and they're far more complicated than I ever imagined."

She was talking about Zuni fetishes, the small stone sculptures of animals that are said to embody the spiritual qualities of the creature they represent, but she could have been talking about something else.

Amanda and I were headed to Truth or Consequences, a town and an ultimatum 200 miles south of Santa Fe, and a place that knows a lot about fetishes. It was where the sadomasochistic serial killer David Ray Parker kidnapped 12-60 women (depending who you ask) over 40 years, locked them in his "toy box" trailer, sexually tortured them for about a week each, and then killed them and dumped their bodies in the local lake, all while his girlfriend watched. The first body floated up after a while, so he learned he had to cut open the stomachs before putting them into the water, which he did from then on. They caught him in 1999 and gave him 224 years in jail. At the trial Bertha Vigil, the grandmother of one of the victims, said to Parker: "Satan has a place for you. I hope you burn in hell forever." In 2002 he died in jail, so maybe Bertha got her wish. Either way, now it's back to truth.

But we were still half a day from all of that, and Amanda didn't want to hear about it anyway.

We were coming down from Santa Fe, and the roads were fast, the air was warm, and the signs were good, so we took a 50-mile detour to see the Very Large Array, a phalanx of 27 massive satellites on train tracks in the middle of nowhere, splayed out across the desert in three 13-mile-long lines and pointed to space.

They built the Very Large Array in the 1970s to try to understand the universe. Scientists are always trying to understand the universe, and I hope that one day they will, because that would just be great, don't you think?

Someone had pulled off the coat hook from the bathroom stall door, and the holes it left behind looked like an alien, and I thought how the VLA workers probably had the same idea every time they took a shit.

The Very Large Array picks up radio signals from outer space — mostly background radiation from the Big Bang, which they say holds all kinds of secrets, if you know how to look, though we certainly didn't.

But we thought that David Bowie might know how to look, so we got back in the car and put on Space Oddity. The radio waves from the 27 satellites did crazy things to the iPod, and distorted Bowie's voice completely, making it sound faraway and tinny, then squeaky and feminine, then suddenly strong and loud, like it really was coming from Mars. As we drove away in the dust, we thought how that was the proper way to listen to Bowie, mixed up with the invisible energy of the Very Large Array.

We got to Truth or Consequences after dark, and went to the River Bend hot springs to soak in the tubs. In one of the tubs was a tattooed man with a white ponytail, sitting with a short-haired suntanned woman, propped on the ledge. They were talking about healthcare, personal injury, and falling short of your potential.

A few years earlier, the man had developed a chemical reaction that could color steel without using paint or plastic, and he was about to take it public. He was writing an addendum to the business plan and riding his motorbike to deliver the draft, when he was crashed into by an ambulance, which was on its way to rescue a suicide victim. He broke his back, and hasn't been able to focus on work ever since, so he spends a lot of time soaking in hot springs.

"You ever try the springs out east?" he said to the woman.

"I always go west," said the woman. "I never go east."

"Well, I guess everybody has rules," said the man.

"Oh, I don't have a rule," said the woman. "There's nothing for me out there is all."

They were quiet for a minute, and swished around in the water.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever meet her," said the man.

"Who?" said the woman.

"The suicide victim," said the man, and he looked up at the stars, which were very bright overhead. The woman looked up at them too.

Then he lowered himself down until the water covered his chin, and his long hair stayed on the surface, floating like kelp.

"But I don't think I ever will."