FULL MANY A FLOWER IS BORN TO BLUSH UNSEEN AND WASTE ITS SWEETNESS ON THE DESERT AIR
Personal essay, On Marta Becket's Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley
Published in Young Adult, a chapbook produced by Blank Cheque Press, 2017
I seek out the ranger’s station in the last town before Death Valley. Up to this point it’d been hard to camp, everything at capacity. I ask the ranger with a stiff brim hat and a military expression what he knows about site availability in the National Park. With his hand on his hip, he leans back and wheezes in condescension. “Yer lookin’ for a campsite in Death Valley—in August?” I covertly fold a hunter green bandana screen-printed with information about various kinds of desert snakes into my back pocket and get back in the car.
After charging down the main strip and making the turn, I notice a clear fiberglass roof constructed over three colourful information panels. I leave the car running and hop out, suddenly possessed by the feeling that everyone knows something I don’t but too peeved by the ranger’s bafflement to have picked his brain. Air conditioner off when climbing hills. Illegal to hike on all trails after 10 a.m. between May and September. Four litres of water per person per day. Hottest recorded temperature on the planet, at 56.6 ℃ (or 134 ℉), in 1913. “Death Valley got its name because early white settlers had no idea how to live in it,” writes Alex Ross in The New Yorker’s coverage of this year’s freak Super Bloom, whereby hundreds of thousands of long-dormant flowers rose from the valley's floor.
Practically everything about Death Valley is anomalous and you can’t speak about it without superlatives. Lodged between two mountain ranges in the middle of the 3.4 million-acre National Park is a set of “booming dunes” known for the mysterious, resounding ohm they emit in the summer on slopes more than 120 feet tall with inclines steeper than 30 degrees. They play the notes E, F and G. The thicker the sand is, the lower is the note expressed. Death Valley is home to the lowest elevation on the continent at Badwater Basin, 86 metres below sea level. The basin functions as a 200 square mile resting place for tons of salt. Since fifty times more water evaporates from Death Valley each year than falls, this mass of salt rises into elaborate crystal formations, delicate and muddy. The explanation for the absurd negative altitude is that Death Valley is a crack in the earth spreading apart too fast for sediment to fill it in. The peaks on either side of the valley migrate one-fifth of an inch further apart per year and it’s all undergirded by one of the most dangerous bodies of water, a sophisticated matrix of caves. It’s been said that more people have walked on the moon than have occupied this water.
Seventy-two hours later, I am driving 130 kilometres an hour trying to leave the desert. My car feels like a glass carriage. Gingerly I tug and nudge each gear into place, a misplaced tenderness for the machine spurred on by a humility accompanying the onset of climate-related symptoms. I feel a devil at the centre of my forehead, its urine in my veins, a slow poisonous heat, another settler who doesn’t know how to live here. The air conditioner is on high, the temperature outside in the low 40s. My stomach is full of water but my vision is spotted with soft white forms, viscous slime coating the oral passage for vomit.
A slice of devil’s food cake is placed in front of me. I drop two tablets of Alka-Seltzer into my water and the air is so thick it’s all I can do to sink my fork into the black matter. I’m in Amargosa, a small smattering of a place that straddles Death Valley and the Mojave; Nevada and California. It is more commonly referred to as Death Valley Junction these days, following a colonial gesture which erased the reference to the Spanish “amargo,” meaning bitter, as in, the water. More a site than a town, Amargosa is languorous, barely there.
Looking out the windows I realize every other window in sight is boarded up. The baristas act surreally urban. The cafe is located on the southeastern tip of the Amargosa Hotel, a white stucco, single-storey, U-shaped structure designed in the Mexican-Colonial Revival style during the early 1920s. Its age is apparent, though you can’t trust what looks old anymore.
(During a previous visit to the “ghost town” of Calico, California, I’d realized that the post-ghost development had been overseen by the owner of Knott’s Berry Farm―an amusement park―who’d stepped in with a bunch of money when the demolition of the gold boom town was said to be likely. Having walked up to the small schoolhouse at the top of the town’s lot, I read a didactic panel that disclosed that what I was looking at was a miniature replica schoolhouse, one-third the size of the original. The chalkboard inside looked like it’d been wiped hundreds of times. Historic sites, ruins and other architectural traces of people who’ve come and gone have, so casually, been relegated to film sets. Gold rushes, temporary economies, imaginary economies, a delusional, unfounded nostalgia.)
Amargosa seems a sombre and elegant exception, the overall structure remaining relatively untouched but by the harsh turns of the desert’s weather. I’m warmed by the lack of intervention, the structure’s body just intact enough for its use value as a two-star hotel, with beds starting as low as 75 dollars a night. Considering the unsurprising frequency, if not unanimity, of tacky examples like Calico, I realize how dubious I’ve become that a facade might still echo some aspect of its origins, unadulterated. Amargosa strikes me as eerily self-possessed. I finish my cake with a heavy exhale and a cow bell jangles as the door closes behind me.
Maria Fusco: “Whilst such intimate physical traces of history—breath, perspiration, skin flakes, clothing fibres, and so on—attach to, and often attack, the actual historical fabric of this building, the [place] retaliates by forgetting much that it once knew. This amnesia is entirely necessary for its own survival, for protection from professional conservation: the [place] must not remember too much, for that which is remembered could be extracted by conservation.”
Walking down the colonnade toward the hotel’s entrance, I glance at the bereft central courtyard; a big rusty wheel, weeds, sand. The lobby is dark, with no natural light but what falls in through the heavy front doors. A large black-and-white portrait of a woman sits framed on the mantel. She has the countenance and self-construction of a film noir starlet, her pride and poise implying a fame I don’t know, a crystal tiara on her pressed tresses. She smiles past the head of the studio photographer, gazing with belief into a well-prepared future. Links of fake flowers drool toward the ground.
The reception desk is set back in an arched enclave with cage doors. A spectacled, well-fed middle-aged woman with a perturbed drawl is struggling to understand what a calm, outdoorsy French couple is trying to communicate. She looks down at me over her glasses.
“Down the hall, Room 6, on the left.”
The hallway carpet is forest green, its surface responsive to each step: squishy, unpredictable. The walls are broken up by a coterie of portraits painted directly onto its surface, each face finished with a painted baroque frame. It looks corny. None of the portraits are labelled and each anonymous face seems to hail from a different time period. Room 6’s door is open. The dated grey curtains are drawn but a dull sunlight presses through. It reminds me of opioids and the places people do them, or the blanket that sits on the sky on Sundays. A mattress with old springs that pierce its pink satin enclosure leans against the wall. There are imprints on the carpet where furniture used to be. Full rolls of toilet paper are placed around the room. There’s no door to the bathroom itself and the toilet is very low. Dozens of metal coat hangers sit in the bathtub flanking a frame that is faced down. The faucet is rusted and the sink stained orange, the water doesn’t run. Lots of tiles are pulled from the floor but the remaining ones are ochre, coral, cerulean, ultramarine. The rust on the mirror makes my eyes look blue and I realize I haven’t seen my own face in days.
Just past the portrait, I notice the entrance to a gift shop with barred opaque windows. It’s sparely stocked like nobody counts on it for revenue. I spin a rack of postcards printed with aspirational, hobbyist Renaissance paintings. Ladies in hoop skirt gowns, dogs furry at their feet, dancing jesters, Ionic columns, pearls. Every item in the shop seems to lead back to some woman—the one on the mantel—some legacy that I can’t quite parse, an obsession unknown. Large locked glass cabinets store numerous VHS tapes, some DVDs and hand fans bearing the woman’s face, all sheathed in a quiet coat of dust. I bring a few postcards to the woman at the front desk. The hotel has just converted to touch-screen technology and she presses the screen earnestly, biting her tongue.
“Oh—I don’t know what yer up to or what brings yeh here but I’m doin’ a tour of the Opera House in 5 minutes. Five dollars.”
The Pacific Coast Borax Mining Company moved into Amargosa in the early 1920s, when they commissioned the construction of what is now the hotel. Starting in 1907, well before the building was designed and erected, the town had been host to a tent city for temporary mine workers. The only businesses in town were a brothel and a saloon. There were old shacks for sleeping but they were so dilapidated and bug-infested that most everyone preferred to sleep outside. Men came alone, without families or lovers. Much to the embarrassment of the mining, Zane Grey, an ex-dentist-cum-popular-writer-of-Western-fiction, published a piece about Death Valley in Harper’s Magazine in May of 1920 which brought to attention the difficult realities of living there, writing that Death Valley would “never be popular with men,” and was “fatal for women.” At its busiest, three hundred and fifty people lived here.
There are twenty-four hotel rooms, although Room 24 is mostly left vacant as innumerable visitors over the years have asked to switch rooms because of the ghost baby that cries ceaselessly into the night. The two parallel arms of the building were previously occupied as a bank, a barber shop, a parlour, a hospital, a doctor’s office and a morgue. In a different section of the property, referred to now as Sleepy Hollow, are thirty rooms previously designated as miner’s quarters, each sleeping up to four to a room. These rooms are not publicly accessible, although a reporter from an LA-based site that posts on “pop culture, horror, haunt, fantasy, comic, paranormal and sci-fi related happenings, events and entertainment” posted photo documentation of these spaces in its reportage into the purported hauntings of the Amargosa Hotel, listed on the site as one of the “Top 10 Haunted Hotels in the USA”. The photos show large empty cement rooms; cracked, dusty, starkly illuminated by the photographer’s flash, with no indication that human life had ever been carried out there.
Maria Fusco: “Trying to listen to what the [place] wants to tell me, I’m sure most of it I can’t understand, or maybe I understand in my own way, perhaps succeeding only in getting it wrong. Complete accuracy in listening is not possible yet essential, making the effort after all is respectful towards the person, or thing, trying to tell you something.”
We turn from the central colonnade toward the Opera House. The receptionist-cum-tour-guide says plainly that in its original form, it was called Corkhill Hall and was used, “for weddings and funerals.”
One evening, the sun was setting behind the mountains of the Panamint Range. It was drizzling and the valley was cast in gold. A couple was making their way West from New York in an Econoline van. Marta was a professional dancer with some Broadway accolades and had long dreamed of setting out on a cross-country, one-woman tour. She was performing a bit called Turkish Fairytale at the time. On the side of their van, her husband Tom had printed “Marta Becket, Dance Mime.” In her memoirs, she writes of their early days together: "His interest in my work spurred me onto something more than just infatuation. There was stability in him. I sensed that he not only loved me, but wanted to help me fulfill my dreams. I called him my 'big tree.'” Marta lost her virginity at age thirty-four and lived with her mother until she was thirty-five, when she moved in with Tom. He made calls across the country, trying to book her at universities, grade schools and community centres. He muscled the freeways and sometimes she read aloud to him.
They’d been holding their breath for miles looking for gas, the isolation of the desert setting in. Two donkeys stood in the din of a fill station. Sitting up straight in her seat with her seatbelt still on, her eyes wandered as Tom shot the shit with the aging attendant. He pulled the door open, playfully hopped back into the driver’s seat, put the key in the ignition and looked over to her just before he turned it. Her face had changed. He chuckled like he’d missed something and waited for her to speak.
"I want to come back here someday and stay for a long time."
The engine sounded, the wheels crunched the gravel. As the tour wore on it became increasingly stressful for her to imagine being back in New York, with her clingy, stock-market-gambling mother and long lulls that had recently been falling between performance opportunities. She wasn't a spring chicken anymore. They trucked her paintings along with them and hung them in lobby after lobby of each auditorium.
A year before they left for that trip, Marta had mounted an exhibition of new paintings at a small gallery. Always figurative and in a classical 16th-century style, she oscillated between earnest renderings of subjects from that era (noblemen and women, cherubs, cellists, doves) and aspects of her autobiography transposed into cryptic mythological scenes using kid-friendly signifiers (marionnettes, chains, wild horses). Just hours before the opening, Kennedy was assassinated and the gallery called off the party.
When Marta was young, her mother had owned a curiosities shop, selling imitation Renaissance artworks, among other things. They’d go to the ballet together; they listened exclusively to classical music at home. Marta received technical training as a painter, pianist and ballerina, but was never schooled in art history. She had essentially no ties to the world beyond the rehearsal room, so art-making for Marta would always be linked to the classics.
A year after they returned from their cross-country road trip, Marta stood in the South Park Gallery in Carnegie Hall before the opening reception for an exhibition of new paintings she’d made in her time off between dance contracts. She and the gallerist traipsed around with the first flutes of the night in their pale hands, lackadaisically vocalizing final changes to the technicians. Suddenly, the overhead fluorescents went out, then the street lamps, and then the street lamps down the road for as far as they could see. It was The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, where over 30 million people lost power for more than twelve hours in the northeastern USA and southeast of Canada. Marta walked home by the light of a small paraffin emergency candle which burned quickly, with a long, lean flame. She tried to ward off the defeat of this coincidence but couldn’t help but see it as connected to a bigger picture, a set of signs. The moon shone down the East-West corridor and she finally arrived to their loft at 40th Street and 9th Avenue, peeling off her pantyhose and landing on the carpet to knead a new pain in her left calf. Tom came home hours later, never much interested in her painting. Debussy was audible from the staircase and when he flung open the door, her pallid face was invisible, her eyes wide open.
The injury, which turned out to be a pulled plantarus, had worsened for her failure to stay off it despite doctor’s recommendations. She scoffed as she left Dr. Fleisher’s office, in a classic dispute between those who rely on their bodies for work and those whose work it is to heal them. She was into her late thirties by now and her nerves were worsening. She daydreamed of her decline and the women who’d quietly begun to replace her, compounded with happenings that together seemed to signal a dead environment for her creative output. She writes: "It was getting harder and harder to sell a soloist. The colleges and universities were booking big rock bands and large groups. The doors which had opened to me in 1955 were closing."
She convinced Tom to buy a trailer so they could get on the road again and travel the country with minimal accommodation expenses. She would perform Comeback Vaudeville, portraying five different characters as they auditioned for an imaginary showman determined to bring back the spirit of vaudeville. On the evening of their departure, Marta’s friend Dorothy threw them a going away gathering at Rommey’s house—a psychic in a long black dress with pale skin and black hair, curled up at the ends.
Rommey: “You will be moving to a very rural place, far away from here. I see a large letter ‘A’. You will be doing the most satisfying work of your life in this place.”
The tour guide’s voice carries an echo. We stand in the arched entrance to the Amargosa Opera House.
Tour Guide: “Marta peeked in the back doors of this [signalling to the closed doors with one thumb] and seen that it was somewhat of a theatre. Her and her husband found the town man and made a deal to lease this for forty-five dollars a month and they were liable for all repairs.”
The large bar on the doors is slid across its casing. The doors open.
Tour Guide: “This place in here sat empty for twenty-five years. Floors were like [makes a chaotic gesture with both hands], the roof was almost gone. So they repaired it.”
Marta and Tom spent a night in Furnace Creek. In the morning, a flat tire. They inquired where to get it fixed and were directed to Amargosa. They lumbered down the crackling freeway and Marta wandered around while Tom dealt with it. It dawned on her that once, she’d found herself somewhere in the desert that had called her and... here she was. The ecstasy of the connection possessed her, the wind whipping sand against her naked legs, tiny hurricanes spinning across the arid cut. Her eye followed the white stucco line to the largest aspect of the single-storey adobe structure—the town hall, “weddings and funerals,” which vaguely resembled a theatre: a big box with grand doors. Her step lost its grace for speed, fearing that what she thought she saw might slip, might prove to be something else. The doors were locked, so she wandered around back. Saltcedar trees, a back door, a stage door, a hole in the door, a stage, "faded calico curtains hanging from a track," Marta writes.
An upright piano stood directly under a hole in the rafters. Rain water and sunlight had spilled onto the old keyboard, causing the ivories to fall and expose the wood underneath. The keyboard was a smiling mouth with missing teeth, a grimace against the elements.
She made a light jog across the road, back to Tom, where, amid a hot collage of expressions, he came to understand. They drove to Las Vegas the following day for mail pick-up and couldn’t stop yammering about the theatre. A letter from Marta’s mother informed them that New York’s Metropolitan Opera House had been slated for demolition. Marta felt a choke in her throat and this, too, became a superstition for her consumption, an uncanny detail to put in line with all the others, telling her to leave and stay gone. The next day, they found the town manager, Ariel, who made a deal for $45/month on the condition the couple would be liable for all repairs. They made a downpayment with a dollar bill and slept in their trailer.
Tom secured a job as a bartender at the Ash Meadows Sky Ranch, a brothel on the hill. Active from the 1950s through the 70s, it was given its name for its “fairly secluded location in the high desert,” at over 3300 metres above sea level. There were three things there: a motel, a brothel, a dirt airstrip. The areas flanking Amargosa were host to alfalfa farms and ostriches, but also, so many brothels: Desert Dollhouse, Mona Lisa Ranch, Weeping Willow, Shady Lady Ranch, Mound House, etc.
Tom and Marta renovated together. He built the stage out another fifteen feet, painted a new sign and made stage lights out of cheap halogens and empty coffee tins. Marta spent weeks painting the walls white, working on the floor and sewing red corduroy curtains. They discarded the splintering benches that the place came with and, with the blue chips the townspeople contributed in lieu of admission, acquired chairs from an old theatre in Nevada.
Tour Guide: “Marta put on her first performance in February of 1968. Few people came. Couple months later, the town flooded, sixteen inches of mud and water in here. It took her a week to clean it out and it was while she was cleaning it out that she thought, Y’know, if I can’t get people to come see me, I should create my own audience. And that’s what she did.”
Though her monumental move took place in the late 1960s, Marta never connected her actions to a politic. The artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s story provides an interesting parallel. A France-raised American expatriate, de Saint Phalle spent the second half of her life and $5 million constructing a massive sculpture garden with eighteen forms, one for each card in the Tarot deck, in a rural seaside region of Tuscany. Her kitchen was located in one big breast of a four-storey, Willendorfesque female form and her bedroom in its other. De Saint Phalle employed most of the small village, transforming modest farmworkers into highly skilled craftspeople. After a short stint in an asylum where she learned how to paint, she chose to abandon her children and husband to pursue the project after a noblewoman friend connected her with the willing owners of the vast property, eighteen acres of which her project would come to occupy. De Saint Phalle was embittered that childcare responsibilities had been falling disproportionately more on her than her husband, and about her departure she made no apologies, writing in a letter to a friend, “Men’s roles seem to give them a great deal more freedom… and I WAS RESOLVED THAT FREEDOM WOULD BE MINE.” While Marta’s moves were not necessarily driven by radicalism as such, she and de Saint Phalle were making similar moves and abided under a common spell, a sense of fatedness.
Niki de Saint Phalle: “I’m following a course that was chosen for me, following a pressing need to show that a woman can work on a monumental scale.”
While Marta never expressly implicated herself with second wave feminist prerogatives or women performance artists who spent overlapping years wagering damage on emblems of patriarchy and the limitations imposed on the Second Sex, her memoirs demonstrate her suffering under those regimes and her reliance on her art practice as a sole repose. Her uniform was a pair of Levi’s, a cotton T-shirt, tube socks and sensible Mary-Janes, her long dark hair in a braid with a short, shaggy fringe. She painted precisely during the hours Tom worked, perched on scaffolding for six long, detailed years, first starting with the back wall. In light of the Mexican-Colonial architecture of the town and in a twisted interpretation of its significance, she painted Spanish royalty on the highest balcony with ladies and gentlemen of the court and clerics in the background. On the lower level is a bull-fighting family absorbed in drinking wine, eating mangoes and laughing among themselves. Just beyond them, a man passes a love note to a woman and, with the other hand, a rose to a different woman.
Of de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Ariel Levy wrote that the project could be seen as “dazzling or deranged, transcendent or tawdry.” The Amargosa Opera House rides this exact line and garnered the wide-eyed bewilderment that always accompanies projects so grandiose, singular and isolated―not to mention the endless speculations (or, more negatively, assumptions) made about the inner lives of the women who endeavoured them. Marta’s memoirs frequently detail the townspeople’s outward confusion about her, a force which only slightly lessened following attention from beyond town limits.
“These visions, they seem to pile up. I’m compelled to see them through. They are dependent on my ability to render them. I love what I do. My talents are my children,” Marta said in an interview.
Dodie Bellamy: “We should all produce work with the urgency of outsider artists, panting and jerking off to our kinky private obsessions.”
Tom would return from work at 4 a.m. each night to Marta’s resting form, in a "mood to make love, or sex as he called it now," Marta writes. She was never very interested in the sexual aspect of their relationship, which started the moment he realized he’d taken her virginity (by the ensuing material proof) and thus became obsessed with the idea of marrying her. Despite these starry-eyed intentions, the decision to be married was eventually made out of convenience, as Marta could no longer bear living with her mother and they were being evicted. Marta reflects on the wedding day this way: "Neither Tom nor I seemed excited about the big day… I didn’t buy a wedding dress. I chose a red calico I already owned… I loved Tom, but I really didn’t feel that I knew him. He was a man of many moods, and I hoped that after a while these would go away. Now I wasn’t so sure of him, because he seemed unsure."
The intensity of her art practice was not conducive to feeling sexual but she’d offer her body anyway, vaguely understanding its necessity in intimate relationships according to basic social mores. Tom was beginning to express signs of irritation about Marta’s art practice and wifehood, these aspects of her coming ever more sharply into contrast. He started to spend time with the so-called flower children, a few young people who’d moved to town and opened a boutique selling candles and long, colourful dresses. Word was that they had friends associated with the Manson family, whose final hideout after their Los Angeles murder spree was at Barker Ranch, located in the Inyo County region of the park, where Charles was inevitably found in the vanity under the bathroom sink.
When Marta completed the back wall of the Opera House, she almost immediately started on the two side walls. The more obsessed she became, the more annoyed Tom grew. "Faces began to pour out of my imagination, the concern for what was going on around me, or behind my back, seemed less important," she wrote.
The side walls are each divided into three rows. Along the bottom rows on both sides are Native Americans, painted not in groups but as individuals, dancing on solo stages with spotlights. Clad in traditional attire, they juggle, blow fire, throw swords, all activities which may or may not pertain to actual traditions of the Timbisha people who have inhabited Death Valley for hundreds of years, or the Zuni and Navajo tribes she encountered in her previous travels in adjacent regions. She painted the Native Americans with the thought that "they’d keep visitors entertained in the event [she] wasn’t there to do it [her]self."
Tom would visit her in the theatre, standing on the floor staring up at her on the scaffolding, overwhelmed. The press was developing interest, with coverage from LIFE, National Geographic and many local-ish rags. Audiences grew. Tom was often addressed by audience members as Mr. Becket, which was Marta’s last name, not his. It was all very hard for his ego.
On the top row of the West wall are two viewing boxes, side-by-side. Closer to the stage, so-called “gypsies,” with turbans, crystal balls and various pagan effects: a tribute to Rommey. Just to the left, further from the stage, is a box populated by sex workers, styled in Renaissance garb.
Tour Guide: “You notice the gypsies at the top chit-chattin’, peekin’ ‘round the corner at the maidens at the top. Them are a remembrance of six miles down the road, Ash Meadows, there was a brothel and the Madam used to bring these ladies here for culture. They’d be wearin’ their finest dresses and smellin’ all pretty but they’d sit by theirself because people liked to talk about ‘em. And Marta felt for ‘em; was used to being talked about because she was the centre of a lot of gossip around here for being the crazy ballerina from New York. Ain’t seen nobody painting the walls of whole buildings.”
Other parties that populate the painted viewing boxes include judges, pages and jurors, businessmen and others. In an interview, Marta discloses that since they were broke for such a long time, she was buying whatever casein paint was discounted, which tended to be earth tones: brown, burnt embers, yellow ochres, raw embers. She refers to it as her “ochre period” and the mural reflects this in its uniform darkness.
Each week Marta and Tom would go to Las Vegas for various administrative things and to visit Marta’s begrudgingly transplanted New York mother. One of the flower children, Diane, at some point started going along for the ride. Tom and Diane would drop Marta off in the driveway of her aging mother’s house and return hours later. Eventually, Tom and Diane began to go to Las Vegas on their own. On the evening of Tom and Marta’s 10th wedding anniversary, some townspeople set up a special dinner. "The evening played out like a smooth performance of a play that has lost its heart," Marta wrote. The ride home was silent.
Tom emerged from the bathroom of their small trailer, looked up from the belt he was buckling back up and announced that he was leaving Marta for Diane: “You have your art, she needs me and we are in love.” He was still sitting at the edge of the bed in the morning when she woke in her white organdy dress. With his brow furrowed, he stared down and uttered, “I just want someone ordinary. I can’t cope with this anymore.”
She contemplated suicide while glaring at a lake, which no longer exists, outside her window and removed her dress.
In the evening he returned from Diane’s shop, saying he’d called it off.
“Why,” she responded, distantly.
“I told Diane that you would fall apart if we went through with the divorce, I can’t let that happen,” he replied, adding “The Opera House would fall apart too.”
“Why should that matter?”
“The Opera House is more important than any of us,” Tom replied, having realized that despite his hostility for her commitment, Marta’s project—her lifework in Amargosa—and by proxy, the technical contributions he made, would be the extent of any legacy he might leave, too.
He tried to take up hobbies of his own. They put out a call for a grand piano and a man in Spokane, Washington wrote to say that he’d send a nine-foot concert grand Mehlin. Two weeks later, the whole town gathered around as it was unloaded. A voice yelled for someone to play something. Marta was trained in sight reading as a child but her eyesight was bad and her ear excellent, so she’d taken to composing very early, always in the minor key. She improvised in a Chopinesque style and when she slid off the bench and stood up, everyone clapped except Tom. She noticed, nodded, smiled and glanced at different parts of the ground until the applause ended.
She crafted new choreography, danced every day, painted backdrops, sewed costumes, built face masks and more. By the time they’d been there nearly fifteen years, Marta was in significant psychological despair. Her mural was finished and she had consistent crowds, followers who came from Pahrump, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, but Tom’s behaviour had only worsened. He ended up moving a young woman named Jody into town and parading her around as his mistress, even standing at the doors of the theatre with her to introduce her strangers as such before introducing his wife’s show. One day, Marta discovered a cassette tape on their kitchen table and played it only to realize that it was a recorded session of Jody and Tom visiting a psychic, speaking of her in the most disparaging way. When a friend visited from out of town and drove her to a marriage counsellor, Tom found out and entered a black rage. He threw things, like he always had. He threatened to burn the piano. He told her that he hated her.
"Does being an artist mean I’m carrying a disease that makes me unlovable?" she contemplates in her memoirs.
Marta had always begged Tom to teach her to drive, a skill she never needed in New York. He said no again and again, holding it over her head, relishing the only remaining control he had. One day an artist named Dan passed through town. He and Marta became quick friends and he taught her how to drive. As a gift of thanks, she painted a large canvas which depicted a dancing marionette surrounded by her husband, her parents, and others, all pulling at her strings…[and] in the distance...a car, ready to drive her away from slavery and into freedom, titling it “Self Portrait”. Tom dragged her into her studio, screaming for her to explain its meaning. She slashed it with a machete and burned it. The next day, she drove to Las Vegas and caught a bus to Los Angeles to file for divorce.
Marta stopped performing a couple of years ago but, at the time of this writing, is currently one of three permanent residents in Amargosa.
Tour Guide: “We have a small herd of wild mustangs and they’ve been around for years and Marta names every one of ‘em, blah blah blah, and there’s a space way out there where they go to die and Marta says that’s where she’d like to be buried.”