I left New York under a cloud, something to do with my mother. Or it was the weather. I think back — but it was only two months ago! — and I see myself scurrying scurrying, holding my backpack over my head as if to protect myself from bullets or rain. I’m very small and the city is very large. I guess that’s the thing about memory, because now I feel very large, like I’m trying to fit into a glass jar, and the world around me is so small its losing dimension; even now I think it’s going to tear.
The night before I left: What were the Barbie dolls doing there, at the bar near Washington Square? Sitting around a funny awkward table: two leaning backward, their long legs extended before them, their gentle hands reaching for another coconut mojito, reaching for a Marlboro Light. One had fallen onto the table; her head was twisted to the side; she stared nowhere. One was collapsed on the floor.
Mini-manicure and mojito night at Breakweather’s. A fast-moving beautician had grabbed my hands and sawed at them with an emery board. She’d fielded a call from the radio station while she sawed, talking at herself; she was an earhead, one of the clip-the-tether-to-my-brain people. She had a boat of color strapped on her belt, and the Barbies all laughed and whooped when I’d chosen purple. Because I had decided to leave New York and take a job in Arizona. I, one of them but never really one of them, would break away, had gone and quit my job at the NYU Bookstore.
I was the Barbie on the floor. And then I wandered home, three mojitos to the wind, and looked at the tips of my fingers, color splashed on, like a tiny girl had used her magic marker there.
Here’s what I had at that point: a family dynamic, a B.A. in art history, and a manicure.
My rejection from MOMA’s curatorial department had been beautiful — stunning, really. It was actually bi-fold, like a little brochure of a closed door. I’d slipped it into the folder with the other, lesser rejection letters. Then I’d gone through all the museums and maybe not all but a fair amount of galleries in Manhattan, and then I went borough by borough. Began with Brooklyn, then Queens, then the Bronx. Spanned out to a couple of places in Connecticut and New Jersey. Basically all these openings were for internships or assistant whatevers; the Museum of the Southwest appealed to me because the job was assistant manager, but also I started to think to myself: Go west, young woman. West! Toward the gold rush. Hollywood. Cowboys/Indians. The place Georgia O’Keefe became America’s first woman artist of any stature!
Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner, but he knew it wouldn’t last…Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged. My parents had performed a finely calibrated dance when I brought up the idea. “This is the premier venue for fine artists in the region,” I’d said. “Apparently the staff is very small, and I’ll be getting a lot of responsibility right away. It’s a really good opportunity for me to use my degree. And to save money, I can take the bus there!”
Dad was standing by the liquor cabinet, not opening it, just making sure it was safe until the time came. Mom was knitting together the entrails of creatures she’d slain.
“So, Jancey,” Dad began. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to leave your perfectly good job with health insurance a wee train ride from your dear Mum and Dad, you’re going to take off to a part of the country where they may well not even have electricity for God’s sake, where the coyotes roam or some such thing — get along little doggies? — probably end up marrying a cowboy and popping out four little ranch hands and then killing yourself at thirty because you’re so damn unhappy, because you’ve left all that’s near and dear to follow some kind of foolish dream?”
“Yes, something like that, Dad.” You just had to ride out the initial screed.
“Ah, good, good. Well, how much is it going to cost me then, this scheme?”
But the real difficulty was gaining strength in the other corner. Mom dropped her needles to her lap, her hands hopeless now and unfocused. Her copper eyes shone with brimming moisture.
“Am I hearing you — is this — are you leaving me?” Her eyes widened then shut, breaking the boundary for splashy tears.
“Not leaving you, no!” I cried, with incredible conviction, with love, with good humor. “It’s just that — a great opportunity!”
“Of course it is, of course,” she said, making a show of wiping her eyes with the back of her hands. She was still wearing her nightgown, a light blue number with small birds, thousands of small birds, pinned to the stripes of the flannel. “I’m really — glad. This is good for you. For your career.”
“Yes,” I said, my breath short. I persevered, blathering on, a blind clown. I could almost hear Brad and Tim listening in from the kitchen, taking a moment from a cereal-bender to speculate on whether I’d be getting any money out of our parents, and if so, what technique had I used, so they could use it in the future.
Independent, independent, independent me, that was the song in my head as the bus hurtled forward. I was deluded by Dramamine, for one thing. I kept sinking into a fugue, a blank space between realities, and then I’d lurch back out again and an hour would have passed, or two hours. The man sitting across from me would be gone. Close eyes, open eyes, new man, new town. We lurched onto highways and I drifted off again. When we creaked to a halt, we were near a casino, letting off two women, or passing through a village from a horror movie set, where all the apartment house windows were open, curtains blowing. Then we’d plunge into a rainstorm for eight hours, ten hours, and I’d sink back into nothingness, only to return, to break into feeble consciousness again. Independent me, independent — not lonely.
It was all about words, language. Or was it? Somewhere in my dark dreams, my non-nauseous dreams, I questioned the five hundred dollar money order I had in my wallet, what it meant — and yet it was comforting, this tangible link to my family. Brad and Tim standing on the porch without their sunglasses, squinting into the triumph of my exit. We’d hugged; Tim spilled Kix on the back of my shirt; Brad told me to “party on.” Dad was telling a fistful of jokes, his way of keeping calm. “And do you know the difference between a broker and an agent?” he was asking, but meanwhile my mother, weeping, shone like the bright sun at the center of our world. “Thanks, Mom,” I remembered whispering. Thanks, Mom: a mantra of a kind.
In Oklahoma my tooth started hurting, a molar on the bottom, right hand side. I’d always been a grinder. I tried to ignore it. Westward Ho, remember? The final frontier. This wasn’t pain, it was breaking through to the inner meaning of Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona.
I woke up on Friday, the bus tipping around a corner. I saw a sign for Congress Street, and then the driver was saying something about a dinner break, fajitas were his jokey suggestion (friends had been made, while I was under). We came to a shuddering, squeaky stop. I stood up fast, hit my head on the rack, ducked, gathered my purse and iPod and my plastic bag of leftover pretzels and Twizzlers and made my way to the front of the bus, waited, thought about Crossing America, smiled ruefully — and then the descent.
So, hot. Not just hot, but in-an-oven hot: breathy, combusting. Of course, it was June. The museum guy had told me about this. But surely I, at the moment, was in the line of something, some blast of exhaust, an engine perhaps?
Nihilism! Annihilate! That’s what the kid had scrawled on his T-shirt, the kid who tried to “help me with my bags” and who hadn’t eaten anything for, like, a month.
My taxi sped from traffic light to traffic light, accompanied by what seemed like Christian radio — Dios, gloria, resurreccion — and I took a fool’s look at the passing cityscape. The area around the bus terminal had a few tallish buildings, a convention center of some kind. But soon we’d swung out of that little cluster and hit a long, straight strip of car washes, phone stores, daycare centers, insurance companies, taco stands, and various other small, not particularly thriving, businesses — and if I craned my neck, and looked beyond all that, I could see mountains on either side of me, mouse-gray and corrugated.
There seemed to be — this couldn’t be, could it? — a calm fire burning like a tuft of red hair on one of the mountaintops.
How can a physical, real place seem so much like a dream, a dream you’ve somehow entered unwittingly, a dream with no exit? “There it is!” I shouted, unnecessarily loudly, and the driver muttered in Spanish and pulled into Happy Days Boulevard.
“Hello? Hello?” I called into the darkness. The office was black after the sun-bleached world — my glimpse of the apartment complex registered white stucco walls, a car with a flat tire out front, a row of thirsty bushes — and now, out of the gloom, came a horrible lurching squawk.
I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first, coming from a back room someplace, but then I saw it was a man with a parrot on his shoulder. “What do you want?” said one of them.
“Hi, I’m Jancey Phillips. I’m moving into an apartment here?”
“Move over let me in, move over let me in.” Definitely the parrot.
The man was in his fifties maybe, a wizened beach bum type. He was hunched, as if he’d fallen in on himself after a youth spent singing pop songs. “Ah, shut up, Roger. No one asked you anything. Phillips, Phillips — from back east? Got some kind of job, what is it, clothing store?”
“Not clothing — I’ll be working at the Museum of the Southwest.”
“Name’s Hedge Brahn, I own Happy Days Boulevard,” he said, patting at his desk with both hands. On the parrot’s side, his red T-shirt was covered with thick white drops. He pivoted his head in my direction, found nothing of interest there, and turned back toward the desk, where Hedge continued to rummage. He pecked his owner’s hair.
“Well, we run a tight ship here. We’ve got a lot of good long-term residents at Happy Days and I like to keep it that way. Don’t let the riffraff in, you understand?”
“Eat out of my hand? Eat out of my hand.”
We walked through the courtyard on the way to my apartment. I’d glimpsed a bit of pool-blue from the parking lot, but after Hedge kicked open the gate to the courtyard, I saw that the pool featured in the realty company’s brochure was not, actually, filled with water.
“Oh,” I said, inadvertently stopping.
“Ah yes, the piece de resistance,” said Hedge, the parrot rearranging himself irritably on his shoulder. “Pool was a pain in the ass, figured I’d drain it after the accident, so now what we’ve got is Tucson’s prettiest sunken courtyard. A piece of work, isn’t she?”
Hedge smiled for the first time.
It was a bright blue bowl furnished with lawn chairs and a couple of upended milk crates serving as tables. A large metal ring — a kind of garden perimeter, I thought — held a cluster of colorful balls, some bowling balls, a couple of plastic ones. A plant stand of variously colored bottles stood at the bottom of the deep end, like an altar. A few plants were interspersed with the bottles (some kind of cactuses, probably, though I was no expert in these things), stuffed into coffee cans.
“Piece of ass, piece of ass. Arkghgh, piece of ass,” said the bird, evacuating himself once more on the man.
After a quick glimpse around my apartment, which had all the elements that had been described to me, but all diminished, smaller, or more worn than I’d imagined, I lay under the fan on my single bed. The bedspread was a puffy polyester pseudo patchwork in shades of pink and blue. I lay on top of it, hands held over my stomach, and watched the fan lurch sideways every 1.5 seconds. I listened to cars accelerating and braking, a snatch of conversation between two women on the walkway outside my door, a shout from the street.
Unfortunately, since I’d just slept for 52 hours, I was not really tired at all.
In my mind’s eye I could picture these things: the purse on the table, now void of the familial five hundred dollars; the second chair posed across from the first chair, where a ghost could sit if I were to play cards with a ghost, or where a Jehovah’s Witness could sit if I were to accept his invitation to conversation, or where I myself could sit every other day just to break things up. Maybe I could mark days X or O on my calendar. I could get one of those vitamin dispensers with days of the week marked on it, too, and really keep things in order.
Ah, but I did have my job, which would keep me buzzing with necessity. Surely this would be the case. I had my job, a managerial position in the arts. And I had to remember — if I felt overwhelmed by the watery weakness of my self, except for the bright crimson throb in my tooth, that even Annie Oakley felt tired sometimes, and couldn’t, at those moments, lift her sharp-shooting gun.
Mainly I tried to hold down the feeling that all this had been a mistake.
Day 2: Palm Trees.
I did like the palm trees. Who knew they had palm trees in the desert? I thought it was more of a Florida thing. And there were cactuses everywhere, of course — but so many kinds! Some were tight and round, like finials, and some were like explosions, fronds thin and numerous. A yellow, low-lying flowering bush seemed popular, and then there were also these awesome orange flowers that looked like I didn’t know what, some sort of tropical insect. But most of all what I saw on my walk to the grocery store was a bunch of one-story and two-story brown buildings, and a whole shitload of sand.
At Rincon Market, a group of policemen were sitting around a little table in the café section, laughing. I bought an iced tea and sat down in a nook by the chips and tortillas. I began to hazard a guess that life itself was not exactly a fraud, but a weird show with an unsentimental audience, a thing that could be turned on and off. Other than my tooth and my stinging red hands, what was real here? Blink, and all this would be gone.
I drudged myself up with the thick net of memory. Good old Brad and Tim. The way Brad pulled his sweat socks up to his knees when he was in the house, and every time he farted he lifted one white-socked limb and made a glorying aah sound. The way I heard him lie to his supposed girlfriend on the phone, his voice throaty and not-seductive, chin to his crimson, glossy chest; and then the huck of the looey afterward. The way Tim was always carrying his cereal bowl, the way he smelled of milk, the way he turned on the TV and gave me a sweet, Count-Chocula smile after Mom and Dad had brought him to the psychiatrist to see if he was certifiable…
And then, of course, Mom and Dad. If this was the product of romantic love, why not off myself now, really? Not that I didn’t think skin-on-skin was a nice feeling. For a while there, with Thom, I thought things were going to work out (it’s so unfortunate that he had an h in his name). We shared interests, as well as a kind of sensibility. We both liked to wear sweatshirts and bowling shoes. He too was an art history major. We liked Green Day, some rap, old Alanis Morissette, Tony Bennett, and early Gang of Four. Over the course of our year and a half together — up until last month — we’d spent one out of every four nights watching DVDs of “Firefly,” the TV show directed by Joss Whedon, tragically cancelled after only fourteen episodes.
In fact when we made love I would often be thinking of Captain Mal. Captain Mal’s stalwart gaze. Captain Mal’s small, unsmiling mouth. Captain Mal’s high-waisted pants.
L.A. was in the West, I thought to myself wanly. L.A. was where Joss Whedon and Captain Mal lived.
My first day on the job, Doug introduced me to the receptionist, Maura, who smiled as terrifically and teemily as a middle-aged person can muster, and then there was Trix, the intern, who seemed to be about twelve and shadowed Erica — also, Doug said without blinking, an assistant manager.
Two assistant managers? Two thousand five hundred miles reeled themselves back in my head like fishing line, sharp and thin and whining. But no, there was a third assistant manager as well; she mostly worked weekends. Did it matter? Doug seemed to think it did not.
“It’s wonderful to have you here, Jancey. A girl of such learning — an NYU graduate! I hope you’ll help us find some real vision here. Give us your insights, won’t you? Give us the benefit of your learning.”
Doug was tall and thin, about thirty years old, handlebar moustache, prematurely gray hair. He was much more — oh, I don’t know how to put it quite, faded aristocratic? House-arrest pedophile? — than I’d thought by hearing his voice over the phone. He instructed me to get my bearings, just get comfortable with the place, and then he took off for the day — leaving me standing by the sculpture in the front hall, an “End of the Trail” sort of thing, only in this rendition, the Indian was more pissed off than anything else. Through the glass window to the gallery proper I could see what looked like huge monochrome faux-primitives of cactuses and flowers.
“Hey, Jancey, check out these cowboy buns — ouch, sizzling,” called my doppelganger from over in the museum shop.
Erica and Trix were stocking new merchandise — the 2006 calendars were in. “What do you think? I’d have to say yes to that, right?” Erica flipped through the rodeo shots too fast for me to get a good look — but I wasn’t really a backside kind of person, anyway.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Damn right,” Erica said, throwing the calendar back into the box.
She was about my age, but thinner — tenser. Her hands were stained with paint or dye or ink, and the little bells stitched to the edge of her skirt jangled as she shuffled and moved calendars, little lashed up cloth dolls, metal lizards, and woven spider web things (“dream catchers,” they told me later). Her cowboy boots were cool, super pointy and made of tooled turquoise and cream leather.
“So, Jancey, how long have you been in Tucson?”
“Such a newbie! Have you gotten out to Sabino Canyon yet? Or Mount Lemmon?”
“I’ve pretty much hung around near my apartment — on Alvernon?”
“Well, that’s just fucking nuts. This time of year, you’ve got to get out of town, okay? You’ve got to see the mountains, my friend.”
“Yes, the mountains,” I repeated. A fog had rolled into my head, like a lawn, a lawn with lawn furniture and lawn mowers and lawn jockeys. In fact, I was already half planning to get out of town – maybe I’d renew my job search that very afternoon. “So, what do I do with these — these little coyote things?” I asked, holding up a carved ornament.
“Those are not coyotes, hello? Those are Mexican wolves? Part of each sale goes to save the wilderness?” Erica explained, and then she excused herself for the bathroom.
Maura told me later that Erica had a little tiny drug problem.
“Chickee!” Dad shouted into the phone; some quick math and I realized that it was Happy Hour back in Happyhazyville, New York. “Now don’t be alarmed, DON’T FREAK OUT!”
I had been shaking an herb mixture called Fisherman’s Friend on some cottage cheese when he’d called. “Makes Everything Great!” the label proclaimed. So far I’d tried it on cottage cheese, tomato soup, and a corn muffin.
I asked Dad what was wrong.
He paused ominously. Ice tinkling? No, not even that. “It’s your mother,” he intoned.
“What about her?” My body instantly tensed up, my tooth’s ache renewing.
“Well, honey pie sweetie, now don’t you worry your little head about this, you being so far away and all, but your mom has to get some tests on her colon. Turns out she’s got a little bleeding going on. And of course you know your Grandpa Brawner died of colon cancer two years ago. But she told me, when I talked to you, to tell you specifically not to worry, honey, about anything!”
I bent over. Memory was like a little hand mirror trying to catch my eye. See me! I’m your mother! I’m your mother as you board the bus! I’m your mother as you leave, as you leave me, as you go away away away from us!”
“Oh,” I said, “Oh no.”
“Just routine, just routine of course,” he said then. Some drunks had only one personality, but he had two, like a puppeteer. One, the provocateur; the other his rational twin.
Fisherman’s Friend, indeed! I loved the little yellow powder, but it was too much like me, not really a thing in itself — not eggs, or a soul, or a body — but just a mood, an accessory.
One bright moment in those first days was my trip to the dentist. He was recommended by clever cavalier Doug, the man who’d developed a system of having three assistant managers at the museum. Luring East Coast would-be art critics like me, and sucking the life out of their bodies. The dentist had set up shop in one of the smaller decrepit shopping centers, but when I opened the door to the waiting room, it was clean and sort of cheerful. I had to fill out a form with a pictorial chart to mark my mood at the time of the visit. There was a terrified grimace, a queasy look, a benign look, and a gloriously happy look. I drew arrows between queasy and benign, feeling satisfied at my precision.
Flung back in the plastic chair, bright light on, the man in the massive blue goggles and facemask told me that I needed a filling replaced. The mask’s cloth puffed in and sucked out as he spoke. And then his assistant hooked up the nitrous oxide and told me to breathe deep.
Drugs! Drugs were fun! I remembered this from college, back a scant few months, when Thom and I would smoke a joint before watching the ship Serenity hurtle through space and Captain Mal make pithy, manly remarks that no one would buy; especially not his lieutenant, Zoe, a gorgeous warrior in dreadlocks and lip gloss. Oh, they were witty in that show, the way they talked a bit rough and cowboy, but always came together again at the end, as a family … and as the drug permeated my brain more completely, I began to feel that my mother would be okay, that life itself had a plan and that plan involved mortality, the mortal coil, and even (breathe in, breathe out) it was right and smart for young women to leave home, to venture forth on their own and be their own people, and as the drill wound up into a high pitched scream, I closed my eyes, and began to think once again, more deliberately this time, of the wild west, of the theme song from “Firefly,” and of the exploration of outer space. The black forever, the beauty.
Week Three: Developing a Routine
It was routine, the test on my mother, but then there was a second test to be had, and then there was, again, a clean bill of health, but that, somehow, didn’t seem to change anything. On my lunch hours, I went to the public library and waited for a homeless person to topple off one of the chairs in front of the computers, and then I’d troll through the Internet for jobs back east. I had developed, in my head, a crowded gallery of portraiture, a rogue’s gallery of pilgrims and kings, all the staid black-clad people who’d made the east great. Somehow the European tradition had gotten mixed up with all that, as well — to coalesce into a mecca of all the reasons I shouldn’t have left.
All I had here, I sometimes thought, was Fisherman’s Friend, a zany coworker or two, and a drained pool sculpture garden. Though this last, I’d discovered, was an okay place to sit at night — when it had finally cooled off. If I got restless after my cottage cheese with herbs repast and I saw no one around, I’d go down there and sit on one of the lawn chairs. Walking the four steps in was always bizarre, like entering your own grave. But then, once you got used to it, things became dreamy in a nice way. The bowling balls gleamed, the bottles were filled with magic ointments, and if I looked up and squinted, the place between the palm trees spread like a purple hand of stars.
One morning Maura at reception seemed more worried than usual — she had a fevered look to her broad, all-forgiving smile. I looked over to the shop, saw Erica on a very tall ladder, little Trix holding the bottom for her. Erica was all in turquoise, a majestic bird deity, her hair bright red against the blue. She was apparently dusting the “native” masks that were hung up in a row over the merchandise. She had told me previously that these masks weren’t exactly native to here, they were merely native to somewhere. Now her arm was stretched out to the nose of a blue-feathered warrior and she was making a whoaWHOAwhoaWHOA sound, like a broken hot water heater.
“Jesus,” I said, looking up.
“She’s on a cleaning streak,” said Trix, with admiration, unsteady herself on marshmallow platforms.
“Is Doug around?”
“Doug?” said Erica, from on high. “Ha ha ha! He’s up in the Foothills, giving some kind of spiel at La Encantada — the Southwest and all its glories, et cetera, et cetera. weep the rich ladies off their feet, and maybe get a date for Friday night — asshole! Oh–SHIT!” She veered a little too far left and then came back center. “So–” she said, looking down at me, “how’s the Tucson hater this morning?”
“I told you. I like Tucson. Really.”
“Well, I’ve got a surprise for you, little Miss Lyingpants. We’re going hiking on Saturday.”
“You heard me! You haven’t been out yet, yet – two weeks later! — so I’ve got to take matters into my own hands. We’re going to Mount Lemmon.”
I craned my head, staring at the turquoise bird-god on the ladder. No, she did not seem like she would survive the day. But I was too — too — too what, weak? apathetic? passive? — to resist.
What was place, really? What did it matter?
Place was where Tim and Brad smelled each other’s farts, where they ate our mother’s cooking. Where my father spent day after day at a job he’d become molecularly attached to in some way. He was no longer the man who sat on a swiveling office chair in the second to front office: he actually was part brown leather, part chrome wheels, part black plastic. He had become, other than when he was drinking, an office chair.
I kept forgetting that my mother was, from a medical perspective, better. But even so the specter of illness had become a third party — a familiar, now more visible, organizer. She, with her tears … like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float, the float of a mother…
“Hello,” she’d say when I called, her voice a metallic drum in a wide canyon at nightfall.
Erica’s truck was an old, jiggling thing, and every time she shifted it lurched back and seized forward — and it was with this kind of push-pull motion that I first made my way beyond the Route 11/Route 8 city-bus grid. We passed a slew of big box stores — the places you see everywhere. We passed a local coffee shop with a patio overlooking the parking lot, a makeshift trailer selling metal burros and suns, a high school marquee that said “C U in the all,” and then we took a left toward the mountains.
Erica was somewhat prettied up in a vintage A-line skirt in a horse pattern fabric, cordovan cowboy boots, and a black T-shirt — though it seemed she’d thrown everything on after working in the studio. Her hair was half up, half down, her arms were dotted with paint, and her fingernails, tapping feverishly on the steering wheel, were blackened. We were heading up now, and all around us were the quintessential cactuses I recognized from The Road Runner. (“Saguaros, honey–man, you really are an Easterner.”) She was ranting about her boyfriend — ex-boyfriend, as of a week before.
The saguaros were like an army of green men, holding their arms up in surrender.
“Fuck!” Erica said, interrupting herself. “Goddamned out-of-towners!” A burgundy Taurus had appeared in our path, going a staid twenty miles an hour. The switchbacks were getting more intense. I was fingering the top of my water bottle –I ‘d discovered that you really did need to carry water with you here or you could expire –truly expire! Erica shifted between a loose third and a whining second, lurching to the left, gunning it, and then lurching back in. Boyfriends, boyfriends — thing of the past, I was thinking, vaguely nauseous.
We came to a bunch of tumbled pale rocks, and then some blackened bushes — blackened, because they were made that way? Blackened from fire? I remembered the comb of fire on top of the mountain the first day I’d gotten here.
“Aw, Jesus, here we go again,” Erica said. She lunged sideways to see around a new slow car. “At this rate, we’ll never fucking get there. So, the thing is, Jancey, I realized that he was just not really into it, just not into it, and I couldn’t handle that. I mean, he always said he’d be there for me — as an artist — but I began to feel like this was just a line, something he told me — and himself, by the way — and that really he was hellbent on sabotaging my work.”
The temperature had been 108 the day before and it was supposed to get that high again by afternoon. I experienced a kind of thrill at the high numbers, repeated them into the voice mails of my friends back home. (Time zone problems, probably — or the “Jancey” alert on their message screens didn’t appeal anymore.) I’d suggested to Erica that we wait until it cooled down and she said she didn’t have “until November.”
The boyfriend. One of those thin boys I saw from the bus on my way home from work, hanging around in front of the Circle K’s and Seven-11′s, drinking Red Bulls, sporting long black T-shirts and freshly made crucifix scars? Or maybe something I’d not seen before coming here — a socks-with-sandals wearer?
“When you say ‘sabotaging your work’, what do you mean exactly?” I, the extreme expert on human affairs, queried of her.
“Breaking me down, taking away my focus, taking away the nut of who I am.”
“No, not taking away the nut of who I am.” She laughed manically and at the same time found an opening around this new pathetic car. She gunned the truck along the ripe edge of the corner.
“By the way,” I said, my head heavy as a bowling ball, “what’s going on with the forest fires? They’ve pretty much taken care of them, by now?”
“Oh, I think they’ve got them under control. I read about one in Oracle. But we don’t have anything to worry about-Mount Lemmon is like, Tucson’s home mountain and all. It’s the heart of Tucson, Jancey — and now you’ll finally get there.”
She looked over at me, her stained hands gripping the shaking wheel.
It was cooler when we got out of the truck, and I stood with my hands in my shorts pockets and took a 360-degree view of the place while Erica rummaged around her purple backpack, getting the extra water and energy bars and I don’t know what all else. We were in a place you could identify as a forest, identify as normal — we’d gone up to eight thousand feet, something like that, and so the sorts of trees I knew from my past — and the grasses — were back, albeit a fairly faint profusion. Lean trees stood like birthday candles on an old, not-wise person’s cake; scattered tufts of green lay low far underneath. I peered in the direction of the trail; it seemed to hug the edge of a cliff, then disappear around a corner.
I was always more into the abstract, or the impressionist, than this.
“Okay,” said Erica, doing a knee bend, and then swinging her arms around from side to side. “Let’s march!”
So march we did, me trailing behind her a bit. She was giving a presentation on the wonders of the desert, but I could only hear it in snatches, when she turned her head. A kind of woe had filled me.
“Hey, Erica,” I said, jogging up close.
“Yeah?” Her eyes were trained forward.
“I was just wondering. As an artist — don’t you miss all the museums — all the galleries — in places like New York City? I mean, like you were saying, with David — maybe people don’t always understand… How do you get inspired? Who can you talk to — about things that matter?”
Erica gave me a muted look. “Well, I talk to you, don’t I? Anyway, where the hell do we work, Jancey? A gas station? In case you hadn’t noticed, we work in an art museum.”
“I know, but, you know, it’s kind of — regional art.”
“Regional? Isn’t everywhere regional?”
Paris in the 1860s — that wasn’t regional. New York in the fifties — not regional.
“I guess, but some places are more — regional — than others.”
“So narrow minded!” she cried. “So provincial!”
I would have protested — had we been in a darkened bar, halfway through a pitcher of beer, flush with undergraduate learning — but Erica had wrapped her body in her arms and was now standing stock still, her face squeezed, like she was resisting a sneeze or anticipating a blow.
She pulled away from my hand, turned from me.
I said, “I’m sorry, Erica. You’re right. That was narrow-minded of me.”
The last crying woman I’d been with had been my mother, she of the shining tears. And I’d left her to those inscrutable tears. Yes, mothers were always crying when their kids left town: but these tears had been different. They were jewels, liquid jewels that she stored up, a miracle of emotion, like a weeping Virgin. If you touched her, then, you would be healed.
“It’s not you,” said Erica, facing the thin treetop now, the not-quite-so-gorgeous spot we were in.
“What is it?” I queried gently, an obedient forest friend.
Tears streamed down her face, black mascara and eyeliner running down like paint in turpentine. “Why did he get like that — like you — all assholey about art. I should have seen it coming. And then last night he said — he said he was moving to Phoenix! Fucking Phoenix! Talk about a city with no soul. It has nothing going for it, except IKEA maybe. He said he likes the fucking airport!”
“The airport? Really?”
“It’s a terrible airport,” she wept.
“I’m sure it is.” I put my arm around her shoulders. Her skin was tacky to the touch, even the tattoos seemed lifeless to me.
“C’mon, let’s go,” she said, and started walking.
The path was dusty, ground-up world — like Fisherman’s Friend, only tan — and here and there we passed a tree spray-painted with an X for no discernable reason.
“What’s that smell?” I said. We were walking slower at this point, not a march but a single-file pondering of some kind.
“That smell of fire?”
“Oh, I doubt it’s much. Probably someone barbequing.”
She probably couldn’t smell anything, her nose all clogged up from crying. And I supposed, for one brief moment, that what I now smelled keenly was simply a brief illusion from time gone by. Family picnics, Brad and Tim and Mom and Dad, by the lake, making hamburgers, spooning out potato salad, laughing gaily on our way to play badminton.
But then we rounded a corner and I saw, in the distance, a little bit of true actual unmade up fire.
“Holy shit,” I said, stopping. “Erica.”
But she was already staring. It could have been beautiful, the hazy green in the quiet light of the forest, then puffs, like bunnies, of bright orange.
“What do we do?”
“Jesus. Fuck,” she murmured.
Part of me was giddy with anxiety, the other part transfixed. The burning bunny-bushes were so quiet and docile, so willing, and now I saw the extra pieces of fire here and there, like tossed socks, on the forest floor. How odd, how quiet it was! But that was because my ears were filled with their own roar.
Now Erica was hyperventilating and saying something about fainting. I took a slow look around me, to the sides, to where we had come from — no fire there. “C’mon, Erica,” I said slowly, eyes fixed back on the breaking forest. As I spoke, one tall tree began a tentative descent. It fell gracefully, as if the tree, not Erica, were passing out, giving up. “Let’s get back to the truck.”
“Wait–,” she said. “Wait.” She heaved off her backpack and then leaned over it, scrambling for something inside.
“What the hell are you doing?”
She flung out a drawing pad and continued rummaging. Pulled out a plastic box and, her hands trembling, opened it with difficulty; got some kind of pencil, a charcoal pencil. She sat down, flipping open the pad, leaning over the white paper.
At that moment I thought to myself. Mental illness: it’s not cute, it’s not fun! I’d been glossing over the ramifications for much, much too long.
“Erica,” I said, in a calm voice, “we need to go, get back to the truck. Away from the forest fire?”
“They don’t move that quickly.” Her voice was breathless, shallow. “Just a sketch, to get the essence.”
The tree that had fallen had gotten held up on something, another branch perhaps, but now that impediment gave way and the tree heaved down the last few feet, making a bright straight trail through the burning town. But where would the animals go? In “Bambi,” all the chipmunks hopped to safety and all the bluebirds and robins knew what was going down. Of course, the mother dies in that fire, she dies! It’s implied, strongly! And then little twig-legged Bambi has to go get a life of his own.
I blinked, tears coming to my eyes — heat, smoke? “I see more fire now,” I said, a bit whispery. “Erica, I think we should go.”
No answer; her head was bent down over the pad, her arm moving viciously. I remembered “Peter and the Wolf” — yes, my life was flashing before my eyes. Childhood entirely. Another animal story, another conflagration.
I started jogging in place — like a moron, a crazy person! I needed to keep warm somehow; I rubbed at my arms, fast like her drawing. “Erica! Erica!” — I can hear myself, even now, in the distance. But then, right then, I was completely preoccupied, lashed to this person. Her page was filled with crazy black scribbles. She wasn’t even looking at the fire. Her knees were raised, bent under the pad, her arm cradled around. She flipped the page and started another drawing.
I felt heavy, like a rock that can’t burn. The fire had taken on a new aspect. It burned in steady rows, as if it knew what it was doing, as if it would just gobble up the entire forest. Kill the old growth. That’s what they called it, right? And then all the little light green things would grow in the spring, all the pretty spring flowers, and then would come back the bluebirds. But now, now what was this coming through me, coming out of me? Some kind of terrible blank new sound.
Erica finally quit; she packed up and we made it back to the truck, made it down the mountain. I remember the way she looked as she jogged toward me on the trail, her face glad and shining — an artist who’s had a good morning. It might have been then — might have been — or it might have been after I’d gotten my DVD hooked up and watched a few episodes of “Firefly” one more time, alone, watched the cowgirl in her britches with her machine gun; or it might have been when I called home and told Tim and Brad about the fire and they asked if I’d gotten on TV and I could hear my mother in the background, keening; or it was the next time I sat at the bottom of the emptied-out pool and watched the sky, a frond of stars — that I decided I’d stick around, for a while anyway, in Tucson.