1. Prologue: St Louis.
I’m calling this weekend the pantechnicon of rain, reminded that vinegar is a useful substance, conjured by God in his first days as a maker. It’s the key to the brand of the brain, it’s the flame that lands like a plane. Closing the loop, the loop is closed, there is no way out nor no way in. Knowing this clangs like cast iron dropped on a sheet-metal floor, machine screws rattling with stress, under duress, in the gloaming.
Begrudgingly, I accept that I am incapable of plot, in my own life, or in the lives I can’t make up, because I can’t explain where I’ve come from and I’m afraid of where I will go. The Prince, the pauper, the man in the middle with a makeup bouquet. A maudlin Mexican mannequin makes magical medicine at midnight. I walk through the rain and get wet, waste bandages and crane my neck to unlock the clock in the gutter.
2. Short Story Titles Worth Reading.
I. The Rock Project.
II. Advances in Stucco.
III. Meet My Friend, The Brown Recluse.
IV. Heated Conversations with Imaginary Persons.
V. The Only Way to Get a Really Good Suntan is to Start With a Really Bad Burn:
3. Permission to speak apolitically, Your Honor.
I disrobe but baseball and lackluster lust keep me coming back. The drain has been swamped with a delirious deluge of Deluxe Drano. In the game Hungry Hungry Hippo one hippo ate all of the marbles and was shot. A dozing director was tried for the crime but skipped town on his bail, took a puddle jumper to some unknown island, got a strange kind of lice and died by a vote of 5-4. I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this. I’m supposed to be bussing the tables of my mind. The sound of silverware hitting against porcelain keeps me awake almost always. I break glass occasionally, christening nothing. There are index cards in my back pocket bearing the most bizarre tattoo sketches. I am not working, I am not working. I am sweating. I am smoking for old time’s sake, old timer. I dream of planes I can’t climb aboard.
“Paging Jack Randall, paging Jack Randall. Mr. Randall, this is a courtesy call. Your flight at gate seven-nine is ready to leave without you, again. I’ve calculated the odds of you leaving here now, arriving there by foot, ever. They’re … not good.”
Despite trusted advice to the contrary I’ve resisted implantation of a news feed directly into the base of my hippocampal cortex. Those who’ve sprung for the procedure speak well of it and can quote excellent prices, on a nearby street, bookings available toward the end of next week. This is what it means to mean everything but I prefer old music and a mishmash of words that might not make sense to anyone. I’d rather not have an opinion.
Asked a question I often reply, “No comment.” I also love answering by saying, “Next question.” And then when I get the next question I say, “No comment.”
I give no reviews. Occasionally I participate in a well-meaning survey. It would be progress if I could keep quiet when I take to the roads, putting my life in the hands of those who have one hand on the wheel, one eye on the road and have their other hand and their other eye on their input device. I drive to do errands at the local food conglometory. Sometimes I drive River to work to save her from parking under signs that say “Falling Trees” or “This building is coming down next!” I drive on a series of interstates, taking Google-frowned routes to avoid local ghettos, to visit my parents on their late-20th century homestead. While there, news of the news crackles and buzzes in my ears like early-onset tinnitus. The market is up, the market has risen, the market will live again.
And tomorrow I will circumautolate another part of the country, virgin to me, assuming I make it onto the plane. We fly to AriZona to visit River’s parents. They say they have enough water but I am afraid they will try to tap into her, claiming genetic rights of appropriation. Gila, Salt, Colorado, her. I imagine large red rock formations, poisonous creatures of sand, water-hoarding cacti, shimmers of heat appearing to rise in the distance off of the road we are traveling. Lizards, near-tropical birds, political animals, billboards, a pool, a cadre of golf courses. I need only the stars, a red light and enough sobriety to make a little sense of a timeless sky. I will not pack any of my meths but I shall be able to get plenty of them there, for paper scratch.
4. The Unknown Arizona Investor Makes His First Appearance, Sight Unseen.
I quit my corpo job and after two months passed I finally told my few friends about it. Pat said, “At least you are no longer a salesman.” True but we are all salesmen of one stripe and it’s not something any of us will ever be free from. If I am not selling then River must be; and we are then partners, each a share in the River-Rand partnership, she sells I clean. Brochures, stories, pitches for applications and traffic—demand. Build demand and the result is what you live on. Even the professor must sell with print while fronting as a teacher. The publication is the breeding plumage, the academic machismo. The campus buildings proliferate, get modern, induce more research, and the publications puff at the seams with the conclusion that more research is needed. I bite the hand that feeds me, a hypocrite. I need to find a second third career. Who shall I sue next and in what court of law? What does Foghorn Leghorn declare about the rising price of home prices? A local hum-drum property sold at a lark-set asking price to an unknown, sight-unseen Arizona investor. The West is coming back to the Gateway, in search of freshwater. The unguent River des Peres will be the unlikely first midwestern stream to be pipelined to the desert to fill the pool I am about to swim in. When my head drops below the surface the ringing will stop, complete submersion a happy stab at silence.
Later: I am drunk as an astronaut. My mouth tastes like chicken fingers.
5. A little too much of the meths last night.
Bounce out, trash can. My organs are getting less recyclable. Coffee then, black as always and never. We are somewhere over the Great North American desert, cold and metallic like a missile. I attempted to launch seven cyberattacks while I ate a croissan-which at the Burger Chef. The cheese melted my motherboard, all of the attacks failed and I emailed a sheepish septet of shamefaced apologies.
Atavistic arroyos, dry creekbeds, rattling snakes in ancient pottery-sharded caves. Dirt, dust, mud, clay, memory of water. If we had taken the train we would be in Arkansas about now, looking at blurry trees. Both of us coffee then. River boasts a bladder of steel. She speaks both Russian and English. Russian, river, valley. In the distance bosky mountains make a town. We checked one big bag. I carried on my man purse. Some call it a fanny pack. Another plane sings like a drone off our starboard side and low. Pueblos, a village in a cliffside, the village took itself, gone like yesterday’s best-seller.
In the news there is no news. Many migrant mixologists made mummies morosely. River isn’t fond of morbid art, too much hair. El Niño brings flowers and floods her with them. “We’re going to have to take the boy.” The weather-borne Christ-child is delivered. The unchronological condensed version of Jesus’s totally unauthorized autobiography: I died, rose again, hung on a cross, woke up as a tiny baby in a pile of straw, turned water into wine. Joseph said, “I am not your father.” Jesus said, “I can believe that.”
I participate in zero memes. I make short films that go retro-viral. They get negative numbers of clicks and I am deep in the hole with YouTube. We are over the wing, the moon is over my hammy. Buck the moon, buck the trend, truck the bend, end the luck that doesn’t tend. I asked River if once we get to Arizona we should turn into real estate moguls and begin to buy a host of properties sight unseen. She took off her mary jane shoes and threw them out the cockpit window. They parachuted safely to the playa. Due to the drop in cabin pressure our oxygen masks deployed. They clung to our faces like prepubescent squid. Portugese man-o-war have beached themselves in Nantucket. Scientists have raced to tag them, claiming them proof of preeminent theories.
Mesas, plateaus, the makings of a canyon. Pachelbel’s canyon, a popular place for weddings, though the receptions must be dry. Another whizzing zephyr of metal and passengers off the starboard bow—much closer this time. I have the window seat. I have finished my coffee. I am using the $8 in-plane wifi to do a rocket loan application as I line up one, two and three rounds of angel financing for the real estate investment trust I will form when we land. It will invest only in properties I have never seen. It will pay a handsome dividend. Max the Dog is treasurer. Shares are only $20 apiece.
I am feeling better and better about this. River is going to handle the advertising. We will run ads during ballgames next to the Geico commercials and the Dairy Queen spots. I am circulating prospecti to other seasoned barons, mavens and horse traders. You know why Nature’s carpets are dirty? Because Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s vacuous down below. Evacuated, if ever it wasn’t vacant. The Maker made a little bit of this earth without water just to see if it could be done. Yeah, it’s possible but preferred by few. Denizens dutifully designate desired destinations. What we’re above right now is not one of them. Don’t worry, my real estate investment trust will not be investing down there, I can assure you all of that. I am not authoring a book titled Coyote Investing: Making Money with Wild Dogs. I have several other titles in mind, however. One is: How I Made Millions Buying Small Houses Built in the Shadows of Aging Airports. There would be any number of chapters: LaGuardia, Logan, Kennedy, Reagan, Lambert, Midway.
Now we are circling the airport. “Why are we circling the airport?” we all cry out. The captain comes over the radio, laughing. “I want y’all to guess!” he says. Someone says, “Someone’s on a cell phone and you can’t contact the tower.” The captain plays the wrong answer sound but suggests it was a good guess. River tries an answer: “The runway has melted because it’s so freaking hot down there!” Wrong answer sound again. Then I look down toward my lap and realize, Duh!, I’ve still got my tray table down because I’m writing on it. I put it in its upright and locked position, apologize to my fellow passengers, and immediately I can feel the plane begin its gradual descent. Ailerons, aft shutters, port fins, porto fino. We have landed.
6. Bird Interlude I.
I saw a cactus wren, confirmed, a large wren in a desert setting, white eyebrows, heavy chest streaking. Other confirmed sightings are common birds: house finch, house sparrow, cardinal.
It’s the day after the Fourth of July. It is also a Wednesday, the most recent of memory, the first of many to follow. I set this work in motion using a voice that was a bit of a stretch. But I was excited about it because it was inorganic, not me—invented. It was an acerbic voice. Mordant. Caustic because I’m down on society. My job lost me then I lost my dog. Driving drives me nuts. We’re all on our cell phones-soon-to-be-input-devices.
Yet, I had something wonderful happen to me yesterday
Dateline Catelina, Arizona at one of the rare remaining McDonald’s restaurants that has not recently been renovated. You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into a McDonald’s. I’m not talking about the food—I’m talking about the staff, the vibe of the place, its cleanliness, the patrons.
Inside, this Catalina McDonald’s struck me right away as something of a freak show. As I entered I passed a gang of day laborers who probably had worked an early shift but were now just hanging out at the local McDonald’s wearing safety-colored neon shirts, camouflage pants and paint-spattered boots. There was no one in line, and for a moment there was no one behind the counter.
Quickly up sauntered … a guy, or a girl? … makeup … a thin person … forearm tattoos … a piercing in his upper cheek … who am I looking at?
I ordered three Filet-o-Fish and a large fry. I then headed for the bathroom. As I did so, a couple walked in, the man with one prosthetic leg, the kind that has the calf part looking like real skin but culminates in metal, with one of his shoes attached. I was thinking, Eat and get the hell out of here.
I had ordered the food to go. River had been outside trying to get a hold of her mom but couldn’t. She came inside and we agreed to go ahead and eat in the restaurant. We stood for a minute a little ways away from the counter. The employee who took my order appeared with our bag, smiled, said, “Here you go.” The one-legged man had ordered but was lingering near the counter, counting his change. He made to grab the bag.
“No, we’re not that fast,” said the counter employee. There were a couple of polite laughs. I took the bag and we went to sit and eat.
If I have one complaint it is that this McDonald’s put only half a slice of cheese on its Filet-o-Fish. At first I thought there was none at all and my mind was going to places such as, Worst McDonald’s ever. Still, the fries were good and hot. I hadn’t asked for a cup for water because I was a little afraid of the counter employee. I was wishing for that water now. B asked if she should go get us a cup for water and I said, “Yeah, sure.”
The tables around us were either currently occupied or someone had been sitting at them for most of the time we were in the restaurant. We were at a hightop and I had carried my fanny pack inside the restaurant because I thought it would be safer with me. It was mostly older folks sitting around us, man and woman alike wearing Arizona Diamondbacks gear, which I found endearing. There had been a retired couple at a table near us reading various sections of the paper. The woman had an exclamatory cough that sounded at first like a laugh mixed with an a-ha moment. She was probably a smoker. When she and her husband left the restaurant she left the paper atop the counter running alongside our table.
Ten minutes later a 70-something lady, alone with a takeout order, took the paper.
“Whose paper is this? Is this your paper?”
She directed the question to the one-legged man.
“No, that’s for anybody,” he said. He seemed to be in a pretty good mood.
An older sun-worn Hispanic man, who looked to be right for a role as a stand-in for any movie that might be filmed at this McDonald’s, took the retired couple’s table when they left. He had a dirty hat on and took up conversation with an older fella at a nearby table. (Not the older fella with the “Hunting Rules” t-shirt but another one.) We were just about done eating at this point. B said she would drive the rest of the way. I wanted more water and went and filled our cup.
I had some gastro distress building in me. I was stiff from sitting at the hightop and I might’ve been a little dazed by the heat and the foreign lunar-cacti landscape of southeastern Arizona. There were a couple of energy bar wrappers in the little cubby along the passenger door. I debated walking these over to the trash can outside the restaurant but laziness overwhelmed me.
River backed the car out and proceeded slowly to go out the wrong way. Then stopped. Something, some commotion had caught her eye, it didn’t register with me. I was thinking, What now? Is someone really about to come out of the McDonald’s and tell us we are exiting the parking lot the wrong way? Then it hit me—
My bag! That’s my bag!
The counter employee was standing there holding my bag in a winning manner, his tattooed arm with the bag stretched straight into the sky, like he was displaying an Oscar award or a prized fish. The Hispanic man with the dirty hat was standing there with him, grinning from ear to ear, giggling almost, like he had been in on a practical joke and this was the moment of reveal.
I was sweating chagrin and feeling generally like life had just slapped me in the face for the best possible reason. I got out and retrieved my bag, offered thanks and tipped my hat. I had an iPod, this journal, my driver’s license and over $400 cash in that fanny pack. It was all accounted for, amen.
8. A new pen to start a new chapter.
This is the dead of day in Tucson. The temperature here is an even 100 degrees. The mercury doesn’t lie and only time’ll bring it down.
The washes here are all dry. I saw water from the plane in the form of the Salt River but since then we’ve crossed creeks, washes, streets named after rivers and numerous artificial holds of water—retention ponds, pools, fountains, sprinkler washes—but nothing has run of its own volition. I don’t know when the rainy season begins here in Tucson but as of July 5 in the Year 2017 it hasn’t started yet.
I wish I’d jotted down the names of all the washes we’ve crossed, all of them rock hard, bone dry, wet as dust, windy as a furnace. A few of the names were Bogard, Tom Mix, Tanque Verde…. Tanque Verde … great name for a beer, a salsa, a cocktail, or a racehorse.
River drove us out to Seguaro National Park. It was upper nineties, with hot gusts of wind, bright as a naked lightbulb. There was a forest of cactus and an ample sampling of birds, so we liked it. I’ve got enough confidence to add these birds to my trip list: curve-billed thrasher and rufous-winged sparrow.
River’s father has expressed interest in having me compile a list of the birds I have seen in Tucson. In addition to the curve-billed thrasher and the rufous-winged sparrow, I am confident I have seen: cardinal, phainopepla, California towhee, house finch, cactus wren, white-winged dove, turkey vulture, vermillion flycatcher, greater roadrunner and Gambel’s quail. I am less confident about having seen: western kingbird, mockingbird, red-tailed hawk, verdin and nighthawk.
Ack. I am tired. How about some night writing? I used to be quite the poet in bed, lights off, nearing sleep. What has changed from then to now?
There are properties here for sale. Why would the Arizona investor pass up buying something nearby, in this growing and exotic desert, opting instead for a ho-hum bungalow ranch in St John, Missouri? Unless that investor wasn’t interested in making money but was instead interested in … losing money.
Goodnight forks, but seriously. Headlamp off. Oh, headlamp.
9. Bird Interlude II.
It is now the sixth of July, a Thursday. River and her mother went to breakfast. They were then planning to run errands. I have been watching birds in the backyard for a couple of hours. I have focused on the hummingbirds. There are at least a couple of kinds: the broad-billed hummingbird and the black-chinned hummingbird.
The broad-billed hummers have some orange on their beak and make more noise. The males have more color than the females but are at a distance somehow all black in appearance. I’m not certain I’ve seen any males of the black-chinned hummers, only the females, which are mostly white below.
It’s also possible there are some of the Costa’s hummingbird here. I saw one hummer with a ruby-colored throat, matching the description of a female Costa’s.
The curve-billed thrashers are present in the backyard here as they were in Saguaro National Park. Additional birds to add to my list are: a gnatcatcher (blue gray or black-capped), Bell’s vireo and the ash-throated flycatcher.
I have only a couple of trees to describe. There are palo verde here. Their limbs are smooth and green, their foliage wispy, they bear bean-like seedpods. There are also mesquite trees, which look like burning. In other words, the bark of the mesquite appears recently to have been aflame, except that the leafy green foliage looks perfectly unscathed. Mesquite leaves are compound with little water bug-sized leaflets, reminiscent of the way honey locust leaves are arranged.
There is one un-armed saguaro back here and one big barrel cactus tucked in behind the wall. There is ample prickly pear cactus and plenty of some type of cholla cactus.
At 10:11 mountain standard time it is 90° here in the shade. There are Gambel’s quail out in the thicket past the wrought-iron fence, scavenging along the ground. I realize now that it is these quail making the bizarre child- or coyote-like laughing uproarious sounds from time to time.
10. Possible sighting: brown creeper.
I saw what I think was a brown creeper climbing along the woodwork of the veranda—or is it a pergola, or an awning? The temperature has climbed to 102°. Maybe 103°. Even looking from inside at the way the light hits a rock makes me feel the furnace that is out there. The towhees and the cardinals and the thrasher are drinking from the bath. I saw a dove visit there, for the nonce. It was a white-winged dove.
I find the towhees a bit goofy. They are large and bouncy. They will walk along the rail of the fence, as if they are walking a fine line, a la Foghorn Leghorn. This towhee is a plain-looking bird with a cardinalesque beak and orange rust on its rump, nearly hidden.
We have hit a wall here in Tucson. It is not possible to be active outside without taking the heat-hammer to the face. Perhaps the Arizona real estate investor is fleeing the heat, racing toward the water, pure and simple. We will try to run again tomorrow morning. We did some laundry and set our dryer-phobic clothes outside to dry on the little deck off the back bedroom; the clothes were dry in about ninety minutes. A cloud passes overhead and for a moment, shade!
I have seen at least two different lizards, one I believe to be an actual gecko. There are almost always house finches at the feeder. From time to time I sneeze, perhaps allergic to pollen of the mesquite. I was going to tell you about the golden paper wasps landing on but not breaking the surface of the pool but I went and cracked a beer. It will be a struggle to keep from becoming a dilapidated, dehydrated mess of a man tomorrow. River’s father and I climbed an old ladder and walked on the flat roof of the house this morning. From the ground we could see that there was a paper wasp nest up there, hanging from a garrett, but it was defunct. I was wearing a flimsy windbreaker for protection but there were no wasps up there at all. I think they’re nested under the downturned and browned but not-yet-fallen palm fronds. The cactus wrens might be holed up in similar fashion. During the day the wasps make endless trips to the pool, taking the water back to their nest to cool it down.
The goofy bird is not a California Towhee, it is Albert’s Towhee. The California towhee is not in this particular geography. They are quite similar looking, apparently, except that Albert’s has black face masking around the beak, like a cardinal. Albert’s note is a ‘peek’ whereas the California’s is a metallic ‘chink’. In any event I filled up a small plastic dish that once held flowers or maybe served only to collect run-through. It drips but the towhee and the others found it. The towhee jumped in, a real sight for sore eyes wet, a lot of black from underneath showing through and a very rumpled appearance overall. It is at 16:50 or so that these birds start going nuts for the water.
For the list, I have one new ‘addition with confidence’. It is the blue-gray gnatcatcher. A small “mite of a bird” that cocks its black tail like a wren, flits about and seems to be feeding on the plants just beyond the wall. It has a white eye ring and its coloration is blue/black/white, the blue a dark or steel blue. Payne’s Gray. Either way, if your name is Payne Gray or Gray Payne you’re in for it.
It’s either, “Don’t be such a pain, Gray.” Or, “Why so gray, Payne?”
The quail are on the wall. Only at this time of the day. Why? They walk back and forth, appraising, apprising, checking and chucking. It could be the same mama and papa with the five or six whelps we scattered out front much earlier in the day.
12. Javelinas and Woodpeckers.
Seven July, mid-morning. We walked quite a ways back from River’s cousin’s vivienda last night. We held a confrontation with a pack of javelina. Even seen a pack of a dozen javelina lit only by the moon? We walked slowly and one by one they continued on, roving porcine boulders, moving shadows, ghost pigs.
I added three more birds to the list: gila woodpecker, ladder-backed woodpecker and pyrrhuloxia. We are parked at Sabino Canyon.
13. Infinity, end.
My mind is a noodle for a wet compost heap. We saw water in a river, the Gila. We did the Casa Grande, fashioned from caliche, kind of like stucco. Ducco, bucco, lucco, trucco. It was 116°. I got mad at the chef because he lost my order and wouldn’t admit it. Sam at Hertz says we were supposed to log some sort of written record about a small dent in the car before we left with it. Because of course we put the dent in the door. Hoops, songs and dances, games. We are progressing backward. I’m done with this company, I’m done with that company, boycott them all! But we can’t travel on Etsy can we?
The heat wore on me. Family wore on me. My sense of humor is like the wood pencil that’s got so little left to it that it won’t fit into the pencil sharpener without disappearing completely. The birds and the cacti. The eighty-five degree jogs. River. This plane aloft, speeding home. Landing not so far from that in-demand sight-unseen new purchase in St John.
I palmed a couple of vodkas while standing in wait to board the plane. I got texts from Roy. River and I listened to baseball on satellite radio driving to the airport from Tucson. We heard John Stirling call Clint FraZier’s walk-off home run, “Down…town goes FraZier!”
I get so buried in what doesn’t work that I can’t see or feel or think anything else. Can I blame the heat? Can I say, “I’d love to chit-chat but my system is down.” The weather, the pleather sofa I fall onto, sticking. There was a bobcat on the deck, right outside the sliding door, stark as hierophany, looking at me with both curiosity and assertion, its den perhaps below the deck, dung piled visibly under there, my repeated foot traffic today setting out clothes to dry a step too far. I looked at the bobcat until it went away, and then I looked some more.
Saguaro, sahuaro. Teddy bear cholla, chain fruit cholla, agave, aloe, palo verde, mesquite. Mormon tea, Mormon temple. A national park, a national forest, a national monument. U.S. Fee Area. The tram to the dregs of the canyon. Forman Wash, Oro Valley, Coolidge, Chandler and Mesa. An old windmill too rusted to express the wind anymore. P.O. Box Zero, middle of nowhere, hot as hell, Arizona.
Nalgene, Evian, cup-of-ice, Camel-bak, Elkay bottle-fillin’ station. Three-bin compost system so there’s always room to turn the leavings over. Wire-mesh compost bin, very basic, open to the air, maybe I’d put some lawn scraps in there, maybe coffee grounds. I tried a hard plastic composter once, one shaped somewhat like an egg. It took rain, got wet, attracted mosquitoes and rats.
The chickens are asleep. The retirees are cuddling with their dogs. The pool is blooming. The hummingbirds are whirring, the roadrunners are bothering the cactus wrens, again. The lizards are minding their own business, trying to stay out of the next insurance commercial. One cigarette, no grass, neon urine. Birds of the West, binoculars, fresh water in the bird bath. Bats when the wasps go away; wasps when the bats cease flying. Bird seed, nectar, native plants. Legumes fixing the soil—but the soil wasn’t broken. Ahhhh—but to the legumes it was! The Palo Verde drops its leaves only to fall back on its bark: green and capable of photosynthesis.
Some turbulence, no drink service yet, coughing passenger, sneezing passenger, laughing passenger, crying passenger. I won’t do this again anytime soon. I’ll drive. Then I drive and it takes forever and I say, I won’t do that again any time soon, I’ll fly. Like seasons, spin turn, turn around, dry out, get wet, do it all over again until—Until one day you’re there cursing the dry-ass river, the river that ain’t a river, but—
A thunderstorm up in the mountains, sunk back there in the canyon, the eventual wash washes you out completely. It wasn’t the thyroid that got you, or the smoking. Baby, you were out of time, all there was to it. Your one-bedroom in St John, Missouri appreciated sevenfold, the line of upstanding, solvent, prospective renters stretched to Overland, but— Coda. Finis. Ballgame over. Thuuuuhhhh Yankeeeees winnnnn, but you lose.
Missile tensions, side sessions, energy plays. Someone’s gotta keep the hot hot houses cool in the desert sun when the door’s left open so the crooked-walking puppy can do her business! Who’s gonna keep the air on? Who’s gonna keep the water running? You want to leave it up to Etsy or let Buffett handle it?
A candle burns, its wax melts. The overhead light is on so I can write this, on a plane. Willow, early bird, Valencia. Back in time, twist of lime, find a dime, how many minutes does it buy? At Poco and Mom’s the waitress refills your water glass and says, “A little more vodka tonic to help you with your hangover?”
“Huh?” I say, so witty. I should have said, “How did you know?!”
“It’s my shtick,” she says, not to me, but to another patron; me the frozen fish her act is lost upon. Oh, but it isn’t, I get it, I liked, I just … can’t … play along. Why do I make this harder than it has to be, harder than hard enough already?
I have ordered a gin and tonic, on this plane, with a drink coupon, how-do-ya-like-that? River had them. She gave one to me and said, “Live a little.” OK, then, I will. River runs when my dam is all stuffed up, she is two hands on the wheel, right at the limit. She is the wash that never runs dry. River road, Rillito River, “Not much of a river.” The really bad burn she got on her legs six weeks ago is looking good and tan, like something she intended from the start.
I read nothing on this trip. I read about birds in the field guide descriptions. I read informational plaques. I read a couple of paragraphs from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at River’s cousin’s place. I read none of my J. F. Powers. My reading muscle is torn. It needs rehab. I chanced a few lines from a Wallace Stegner short story. Ah, well, there’s time for reading any time. Like now. Or later. Gator.
We had a nasty, nasty spider in the bedroom last night. We had been sitting there talking, aimlessly. Then we saw it. We thought it was probably the same sort of spider that had clung to the screen door outside our room earlier. River looked it up. It was a crab spider. Not poisonous but definitely creepy. It was tucked into a fold of the cloth blind. We could see some of half its legs. I did not want to kill it. I killed that poor wolf spider at Meramec State Park in June 2016—out of ignorance!—and I still regret it. In this event I was equipped with a copy of Tucson Lifestyle and a trashcan.
“I don’t want to kill you, I don’t want to kill you,” I said. After a few nudges it was into the can but it was crawling! I held the magazine over the can, River slid the door open. Can, magazine, spider tossed into the desert night. I never saw the spider again, assuming it had not returned in the form of the bobcat.
14. Epilogue: Little ole lady in an exit row.
We lose the two hours we gained on the way out west. From central daylight to mountain standard and back again. From the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi to the Sonoran desert and its arid washes in the final days before the monsoon season begins.
Canals, aqueducts and driplines. Reclamation. It might not be potable but that doesn’t mean it isn’t water. Golf balls and bull pizzles. Hole 4, a par 4. Cart path, sprinklers, zoysia. Mexican blue oak, Arizona sycamore. That drink you ordered has been remembered in the dream of the passenger seated in 16A. The little old lady tried to break the glass and open the exit door but she was too frail. The couple seated next to me were cracking up and taking sly photos, they couldn’t get enough.
The old lady lied when she said she was capable of opening the exit row door. She retraced her steps to the moment of her breakout but she broke down instead.
“Move over princess, the Queen has arrived!”
It’s rare to go on a trip and not see a single boat. I saw pump stations and power lines. Barbed wire. Feedlots outside Coolidge. Sheep in the green-up near Chandler. No fish. There was a rumor of grilled salmon but even River couldn’t get her sweet hands on any of it. No pigeons? A couple of cemeteries.
An air force base. We saw a large, double-rotary chopper but it wasn’t military. It was, thought River, related to putting out a wildfire in one of the adjacent canyons.
“Don’t even try to light a cigarette out here,” warned our tram driver, whom I should’ve tipped liberally. I didn’t approach him because I didn’t want to get into a conversation.
Do I dislike myself that much? We weren’t even in any kind of hurry, though it was hot. What is hard about this heat is that, sure, you can carry water, plenty of water, more than you will need. But after a half an hour you are carrying 100° water—that’s hot enough to shower in most months of the year.
B59 but first to finish my gin and tonic. The stewardess frowned when I ordered it but she brought it all the same. River ordered one too, a few rows behind me. Gneiss, the metamorphic rock comprising Sabino Canyon. Hohokham, builders of Casa Grande, participants in and spectators of the ballgame that drew hundreds of fans.
Then the weather got natty. We’re talking 1200 A.D. here. Their canal system was rocked by flood and ravaged by drought. The city they set up didn’t work no more. Their gods told them it was all their fault. Feeling guilty, they split up, they went their separate ways, like the four best of friends at the end of Stand By Me, passing each other in the hall without even saying hello. They became the Hopi, or the Yuma, or the O’odham. They ground their cornmeal in solace. I loved the pictogram of the desert fauna and the explanation of how the Hohokham used it. Prickly pear—food. Saguaro—food. Chain fruit cholla—food. Eat that cactus, Jack!
I did eat some prickly pear once in Texas, I’m not sure why. I did not adequately remove the spines. I felt one or two in my tongue for weeks afterward. While in Tucson, River ordered one prickly pear margarita. I myself did not consume any cactus. The closest I got were those paragraphs of Hunter S Thompson’s, them entering the casino, the narrator damning the mescaline.
Broad-billed, black-chinned, Costa’s.
Staghorn, totem pole, old man.
Leaping, fishhook, Mexican fire.
Eggs, bacon, sourdough toast.
Berries. Figs from right outside. A grapefruit tree at the botanical garden. The broken mesquite branch we happened to sit under while there. The garden crew came along, asked us if we knew we were sitting under a branch that was about to fall. Had no idea, mesmerized by the inner wood the break revealed, it looked quite good, as is its repute.
—University City, MO / Tucson, AZ