Sunday, July 27, 2008


Our Arizona odyssey--it began with some confusion. Adam's mom, Donna, and sister Chloe were coming to visit. It's hot here. Donna doesn't sweat. We live in a two-room apartment. Tucson is kinda dead in the summer. Our baby hates the car. Gas prices. We got some food and started driving.

Oracle Road used to be the main route to Phoenix. One day--October 12, 1940--the dashing silent movie star Tom Mix died along this road. His heyday was over. No one talks about why he was bound for Phoenix. I think of him getting into his car, bored and restless, headed for a bar he knew. Maybe play some cards.

In the official version of his death, he gets hit in the head with a suitcase flying out of the back seat of his 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton. Local legend, in the form of our real estate agent Alex, has it that "his spirit left his body," as it says on the memorial marker, while receiving a blow job from a Tucson prostitute. You can have a picnic near the site, out in the middle of a scorched stretch of desert.

In Scottsdale we stopped at the Sugar Bowl for root beer floats and a thing called a Golden Nugget that tasted just like orange sherbet, since orange sherbet was its main ingredient. Shouldn't something called a Golden Nugget be more exciting than that, even though all by itself sherbet suggests to me time travel--travel, to be precise, back to the late 1970s, when my sister and I used to watch "The Brady Bunch," before we became part of a couple of "blended" families ourselves, before all those child actors developed drug problems? It was even hotter in Scottsdale than it was in Tucson.

We sped through traffic and road construction and whatever else lay in our path on our way to Arcosanti, a living experiment north of Phoenix begun by architect Paolo Soleri. He wanted to design a place where ecology and high-concept architecture merged to provide an antidote to the thing Phoenix is, or should be, most known for: sprawl. We stayed in guest cubicles overlooking a peaceful mesa, a group of tiny houses among the trees where a white peacock stalked across garden plots. We vied for vegan brownies with 21st century hippies in the dining hall. Night brought loud opera and interpretive shadow dancing.

Arcosanti supports itself by selling bells made from ceramic and cast bronze. Kind of a jolie-laide thing.

After a night at a motel in Williams, we saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. Actually, that's not true. I've seen it so many times in pictures, it's become impossible to take in the "real" thing. Someone else has theorized this phenomenon, it's not an original thought, but that doesn't make it any easier to get out of my head. I'm standing here, listening to a bunch of European languages, and I just can't see the Grand Canyon, not really. All I can do is fear it.

People do fall in--apparently about six a year. Adam was not one of them.

We all wanted to see Sedona. Chloe told us about the vortexes--vortices--whatever. We went to a Goodwill located in a strip mall beneath a majestic red rock formation. Someone tried to get me to visit a time share at a golf resort. We circumambulated the Amitabha Stupa, offering up prayers for the good of all beings, thereby benefiting ourselves, but I reminded myself that, despite the current strange state of my life, benefiting myself was not the point. Actually, it was pretty uplifting. At the vortex, some life coach was telling a woman she shouldn't feel guilty about how she'd raised her daughter. But we all know how ridiculous that is.

At the cliff dwelling erroneously called Montezuma's Castle, we listened to a pre-recorded voice inviting us to imagine ourselves back in 1300 or so, when the hillside was a warren of human activity. It still was--complete with cheesy voice-over, paved paths, sweaty tourists, and squirrels carrying bubonic plague.

At Taliesin West, we understood why they call Frank Lloyd Wright a genius. "Take care of the luxuries, and let the necessities take care of themselves." Enough said.

Thank you, Donna and Chloe!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Independence Day at the Convention Center

Artlessly we wandered over, found others aimlessly circling. Around back, people had driven up and raised their hoods. Steam-cleaned engines of ordinary cars and cars spouting jets of carburetors, gleaming exhaust pipes examined in passing as the band played--scratchy guitars on "Green River." Security guards with dark glasses askew. Inside the Convention Center: What does it mean to be here now? Bored families eating ice cream and staring out across an expanse of neutral carpeting. It was still early. Money changed hands--fireworks for the kids. Clouds gathered. Soon it would rain, and the lobby would grow crowded with damp patriots. I fell asleep to the sound of the explosions, dreaming of waves against wood, of hands rising and falling.

The Way We Live Now II

New old digs

The shower thing

I hate the car!

Oscar discovers "the truth"

The women burst in, breathing hard. They were covered with sweat and dust billowed around them like a whirlwind had set down in the middle of this forsaken yard in this town in the middle of nowhere. They lunged. Oscar grabbed an aged palm frond and swung. The man in the chair struggled and fell over. He lay squirming weakly like a dying fly.

Oscar suddenly understood. "You killed those people, Lupita!" Though he knew he’d never understand, he shouted, "Why?"

"Por qué?" she spat. "You think I did? Hijo de la chingada. Should I even pretend to think you could understand? Fine. He came here—everyone could tell he was on the run. He hid out at Maria’s parents’ house. They were kind—Maria had taken to him, for her sake they welcomed him. He was a gringo—a gringo husband, something you don’t get a chance at everyday in our little corner of Mexico. He had parents from Spain, he was an Americano. But his Spanish—what a shame, they never taught him their own mother tongue. De todos modos he was handsome, elegant—she cackled. Look at him now! Carolina was my cousin’s daughter. You should have seen her, how long her legs and how smooth her skin, and her eyes were the color of water hyacinths. We all knew it, he had something valuable. He didn’t take too much trouble to deny that. Pride. He wasn’t careful. Rey güero, güero canelo more like it. Just ordinary hospitality for us—plus a little extra, he was a man, he was a gringo, they wanted him in the family. Went straight to his head. Soon he and Carolina married, Maria was born, and Xaviercito. No one had forgotten he was hiding something. There were stories, whispers when he passed, looking as tall as God. Last thing I heard he had brought a chest of diamonds from the Sierra Madre and he kept it hidden in a cave out by the swimming hole. Then Felix’s son—always in trouble. Had these big ideas that never worked out. He went to Mexico DF for awhile and when he came home he had a couple of friends with him. I think they were drinking, smoking, cocaina. Felix’s son and two of his friends. They took Carolina and little Xavier and tied them up como rehénes. I heard this all later. I knew it was true. And while they had his wife and his son he did nothing. He went up into the hills. He was afraid. He deserted them. When he tried to leave town that was when I got him for myself. I have made him my slave, though he deserved much worse. I have tried to make his life a hell. You think I eat these tamales? I smile, I promise piña and puerco, and back here he’s working, sweating, doing what I tell him." She glared at the man with her dark bird's eyes, her face twisted.

"Lupita," the man cried, "I know how bad my Spanish but I try to say you are wrong. I know, was wrong to come here. Wrong to have a family." She stared at him blankly. "But I try to defend my family. Pablo and the other—other—I don't have the word—run into the hills, I try to find them but you bring me here before I can—and what I can not fight is these rumors and lies.

"Maria had gone with wife’s father to Guadalajara that day"—he stammered in English, looking up at Oscar—"the only reason she was spared, until—until—she—and—it has been—it is impossible—she wouldn’t let me die. She forced me to eat the tamales. I’ve tried to leave this world. After I saw what they did there was nothing more for me. There is nothing more for me."

"But what happened to my Maria?" Oscar burst out. "Why is she dead? Did she know where those boys went? Was she going to make them pay?"

They looked at each other. Felix? Or did she fall?

Oscar took Maria’s father back to the Hotel Santana. He could hardly walk. He leaned on Oscar’s arm, limping down main street. It was siesta. A few children were leaping from a barbed wire fence into a pile of gravel in the shade. The woman who did laundry looked up from folding sheets with mild curiosity. Long ago she had ceased to be surprised by things the gringos did.

They couldn’t stay in the hotel. Oscar packed his suitcase with economy and they left only a faint smell of aftershave. Sitting on the bus, feeling the hot wind from the open windows. They got off a few miles away and walked back among avocado trees to a cinderblock room with palm fronds for a roof. He hoped they would be safe here.

The next day, Oscar walked out to the road again and waited. He got off the bus in the next town over, walking slowly, the sun like warm hands held close against his face. In the calle principal, women sold sliced cucumber, beets, and jicama, hunks of melting papaya, tiny green mangoes. Men with their carts offering raspados and a pale coffee-colored drink he’d never learned the name of. Doorways opened onto billiard halls, a child playing with a litter of kittens on a dirt floor, a ragged dog burying its face to sleep, the smell of new tires and bags of feed. He found the young man hunched over a book. He looked up, startled at the knock against the doorframe. His hair was golden and he had light brown eyes with green flames around the pupil. Adelante. "You are—? I am—" Oscar looked for a place to sit and found only the edge of the bed. "I’ve come to talk about your father," he began awkwardly. "I don’t know my father," the man responded abruptly. He turned his head and stared out at a purple vine climbing a wall made of rusting box springs. "I do," said Oscar. "I've spent these past weeks searching for him—well, not for him, but for a trace, his essence—something that would allow me to understand things—and then I found him behind the tamale lady’s shop, in a corrugated hut—"

"Oh, I know the tamale lady," said the blond man. "Good tamales."

"I thought he was dying," Oscar continued—"but he’s up and around now, you know, he’s—"

"I came here to find him too," the blond man said at last. "I came a long way. My grandmother heard he was here in Jalisco. I didn’t know what it would be like to have a father. So I came looking for him. I listened to what people believed. What they wanted me to believe. I followed innuendos and lies here to Cihuatlán." Hummingbirds hung on the air outside the window and Oscar could hear a horse whinny in the neighboring yard. "Eventually I heard that a gringo had come, and somehow I knew it was him—you know, when pieces connect, you don’t have any more questions. And by then I had realized that it was too late to find out. I didn’t care so much. But I had come this far, and I stayed. I study chess. I help the veterinario down the street with his animals. I don’t think too much about some things."

Oscar left Maria’s father hiding in the shack under the avocado trees. He left the abundant mangoes and the dusty streets, the crashing waves, the fishermen casting their nets into the surf. He left the mountains that conserved their secret history beneath canopies of mahogany trees and falling yellow blossoms. He boarded another bus. The town closed like an oyster shell behind him, an irritated grain thickening, iridescent in the darkness.

In our next episode, Oscar visits a dude ranch in Tucson...