February 28, 2017

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Through the Heat

August 24, 2015

Through the Heat

July in Arizona Territory and the yellow sun, ringed with red, was trying relentlessly to set the wooden structures in the settlement of Black Star City ablaze. Summer on the desert floor felt like the underside of a frying pan over hot coals.

There had been only a smattering of silver ore in the mine and when it had played out most of the inhabitants had moved on to cooler climes. Only a few fools stayed on to farm.

The town consisted of one street. There was one saloon, the Double Quick, owned by Parker Crumpnagle. One general store, run by Cuthbert Tregg. One drug store, whose proprietor, Josiah Twyfords, was called “Doc.” He performed all the requisite medical care as though he were a real medical doctor, including tooth extractions and crude embalming for burial. And one church, Latter Day Saints, which sat glowering at the saloon on the other end of the street. There was no railway station; the stagecoach passed through once a week and might stop if the white cloth flag was flying.

Drusilla Gunkle was the widow of the manager of the defunct Consternation mine. She ran a boarding house just outside of town in the mansion her husband had built when times were flush. It served as a makeshift hotel.

Past the gingerbread festooned Gunkle place, a few pine log cabins housed ranch families. There were no fences, branding iron marks separated the cattle one from the other. The cows ranged freely over the low cactus scrub and chaparral. They were usually scrawny and stringy.

The newly formed San Felipe Apache Reservation housed only a few old men with multiple wives and crippled warriors who could no longer hunt. There were few children. The remainder of the tribe, in loosely formed bands, was still living in the wilderness as they always had. Except, now the men had rifles and ammunition, matches to build fires. The women had iron pots and cotton dresses. All wore long hair that had never felt scissors, and all resented the encroachment of the white settlers.

The two skin colors, red and white, hated each other. Tensions, thick as corded sinew, grew tauter and tauter.

On the splintery porch of Tregg’s grocery, a fly landed on Mrs Nell Bucklehorn’s wrist. It didn’t so much gracefully alight but simply fell from the sky. It extended a flat tongue and lapped a bead of sweat. Then, it crossed its front legs and bowed its head as if thanking some housefly god for its good fortune. Mrs Bucklehorn stood with her young son clutched onto her lower skirts. She held in her arms a cloth sack loosely filled with sundry notions: a spool of white thread, a bolt of cloth, some candles, a new wooden spoon. She was in a frugal mood and would not spend money for refined foods like flour or sugar.

“My boy here, has a bad cough. I think he has the croup,” she said to a soldier’s wife, Mrs Demetria Ritson. “Set up all night worryin’ ‘bout him.”

“Ye oughta take him over to Doc Twyfords. He‘s got some black strap molasses mixed with coal tar that’s good fer coughin’”

“Cain’t afford no medicine,” came the response.

Sitting on the floor of the porch, invisible to the white women, was an obese Apache woman named Tsai-shay-ky-naba. The name, unfortunately, translated as “coyote rump,” or more exactly coyote anus, so no one used her English name, but called her ”Naba,” which may have been the very word they were trying to avoid saying. She wore a filthy calico dress buttoned up tight at the neck and wrists. The missionary teachers were most emphatic about that. Previously, in heat like this, her mother probably went bare-chested like the men did. She had developed a poultice from prickly pear roots, which quite effectively drew out cactus spines embedded in the skin. Upon this miracle goo was founded her reputation as a medicine woman.

“I fix him cough,” she said.

The women were astonished she had spoken.

“I cain’t pay ye,” said Mrs Bucklehorn.

“No want money, gimme whiskey bottle.”

Mrs Bucklehorn considered this. She had no idea what a bottle of whiskey cost, but then she realized she wouldn’t have to keep a bargain with a dirty old Indian.

“All right, I reckon, give me something to cure him.”

From some hidden cache deep inside her dress, Naba produced a small buckskin pouch. She suddenly threw bright yellow powder at the boy’s face. Fine as dust and with a few golden flower petals amongst it, it was the pollen of a palo verde tree. It made the boy apoplectic with a sneezing fit. Tears filled his eyes and watered down his cheeks; his nose poured liquid and he began to cough. At first the same harsh, deep cough of the night before but soon the serous liquid lubricated his throat and he spat out huge gobs of phlegm. He began gasping for air His mother ran to him greatly concerned he was choking, but, no, he took a deep breath and looked up, smiling. His lungs were suddenly clear and he could breathe normally for the first time in several days.

“You get whiskey, huh?” asked Naba.

Mrs Bucklehorn was overjoyed with the miraculous change in her sick son. But as a good Morman she had never been in the Double Quick Saloon and was not about to change that pattern to buy whiskey for an Indian. She scooped up the little boy and placed him in the buckboard, turned her back to the squaw woman still sitting on the boards of the General Store and drove off to her cabin beyond town.

Weeks passed and the heat did not abate. The intense heat of summer eventually yielded to the shorter days of winter. Now the white sun gave light but not heat. Soon enough, however, the globe revolved and spring returned with its elevated temperature as if the atmosphere had a fever.

Tsai-shay-ky-naba had not forgotten she did not receive her promised whiskey. She became in the habit of protesting wildly to any white person that she had been cheated. When her antics became intolerable, the commandant of Ft Tarleton dispatched two cavalrymen to the reservation to investigate.

They did not find Naba but instead a young maiden in a long-fringed dress soon attracted probing fingers beneath her skirts. Her hair, silky and black as midnight, soon had the soldiers enthralled. Tribal elders looked on impotently. The pretty, young girl at first thought it was all a pleasant game. She already had a half-breed son, from a separate encounter with the long-knives, clinging to her knees. These particular soldiers were clumsy and crude. The game grew tiresome and she was forced to fend them off with carefully thrown rocks. The horse soldiers slunk off and returned to the fort.

They had been cavalrymen in the late Confederate Army. They were at Wilmington and Petersburg at the end of the war but never fought on the front, only as reserves. When peace came they returned to their homes in Georgia only to find them burned by Sherman’s men, their families murdered. They decided to wreak revenge by joining the Bluebellies Army and were posted in the far West. The revenge they hoped for did not come. There were no battles to sabotage, only a handful of filthy Indians to corral and wipe their noses. They felt the pangs of loneliness though, like a cold stone knife in their loins. When night fell the next day the men rode out to the reservation and found the wickiup of the girl they now called Bird Wing because of her raven feathered hair. An old woman and the boy were inside, a small fire spitting from the middle of the floor, so they dragged her out into the desert. They unfolded a blanket from the mud hut floor and on it spread pretty Bird Wing.

The heat from the day had been stored up in the dust of the ground and permeated through the rough blanket to her back. She showed no emotion as the soldiers performed quickly. She stared blankly up at the stars, the sparkling blue lights like the eyes of her ancestors looking down on her shame. In a short time it was over, but she remained staring upward long after the men left, too humiliated to move. Like all nights, this one ended when the sun peeked one golden ray between the distant peaks. Then the full glory of its light caused the stars to scurry off to their usual hiding places during the day. She wore only her high moccasins, buckskin-made and fringed like her dress. She found her discarded dress and walked the nine miles to Fort Tarleton. The fortified stockade gate was open and she marched in. An officer’s wife noticed her and approached:

“Do you speak English?”

Bird Wing could not comprehend “English,” and stood mute.The white woman spoke again slowly, loudly and deliberately, figuring the savage would understand a carefully enunciated sentence:

“What… do… you… want… here?”

“See long knives chief,” the Indian woman replied.

In Colonel Wigard’s office, Bird Wing glanced around. Her dark skin with its sheen of perspiration matched the polished mahogany of the desk.

“What does she want, Mrs Ritson?” the commandant inquired.

“She is making a complaint that two soldiers raped her, Colonel.”

“Hurrumph,” he patted his brow with a bandana handkerchief. He was unaccustomed to a woman using the word “rape” in polite company.

“Can’t see that that is a legitimate accusation, a native woman against US Army soldiers?”

“She is a woman, Colonel Wigard, Indian or not, a woman wronged and I aim to see justice done. Let her go up and down the ranks when the men are at muster and identify the culprits.”

Once the men were fingered they were placed under house arrest. Not in irons as common criminals but confined to barracks, after all raping an Indian wasn’t much of a crime. Nonetheless the two Rebs were thoroughly disgusted with this Federal Army. Just before first light they simply walked away, quiet as a breeze through the tall grass. Desertion was a serious crime but the men did not contemplate getting caught.

When July came again the persistent warmth had built up enough that all living things were stilled to inertness for fear of increasing body heat. In such circumstances, tempers could flare along with the temperature.

On a day when storm clouds began to congregate on the eastern horizon two men killed a woman of the other race and her son. It was not an accident. Words, more like grunts, had been exchanged and the perceived grievances not resolved as the huge parapet of language and culture could not be breached. The two did not think of themselves as killers, but they thought it best to run nonetheless. They had become drifters of a sort anyway and moving on seemed a wise act to do. They were accustomed to traveling in the wilderness and skilled at eking out an existence off the meager provision the land offered.

The banded rock stood up straight and tall. Some stones balanced precariously on others, like stacked eggs. Occasionally, the intense heat flaked off a chink of rock and sent it pinging down the canyon. The boulders were a color shirt-makers call ecru, a light tan, not quite white. The sky, though, was as white as boiling water. The sun threw down molten-iron rays that seemed to land with a weighty thud. A red-tail hawk, high in the thermals, was scribbling long ovals in the superheated air.

Midday, and the two men kept walking through the palpable heat. The heavy wool shirts they wore were like itchy sweatboxes. The sun had previously toasted their skin brown, but now the angry redness of burn was creeping through. Two men steadily moving along. Though the landscape was strewn with huge boulders, they could make out they were clambering down a long scree slope and ahead of them a vast playa unfolded. Like a true beach it was level and sandy with very little vegetation, a daunting task to cross. Perhaps they could find a resting place beyond; spend the night. They had no provisions: no water, no food, no bedrolls. So, they simply curled up against a boulder in the soft dust and were instantly asleep.

At first light they began again. They were, by now, far from Black Star City, Fort Tarleton, its inhabitants and the only law. Out here, away from civilization they might be safe. They felt they would not be molested now, but where were they going? They had been traveling southward, so Mexico lay somewhere ahead.

“Didn’t you once have a woman with relatives in Mexico?” asked the taller one.

“Yes, but that was so long ago I have forgotten her name.”

“Her name was Yolonda, you called her Londa,”

“Ah. Yes. I was forgetting on purpose. She could be loving one minute; a hateful shrew the next!”

The next night they saw yellow lights in the desert– a group of houses spilling burning-kerosene brightness onto the dust.

“There might be food and at least water there,” the first speaker said.

The shorter man was in agreement again, “Maybe, but should we chance it?”

When they neared the buildings, they dropped to their bellies and slowly crawled the remainder of the distance. They found a horse trough containing water still warm as tea from the broiling sun. It had a welcome wetness, though. The sharp smell of whiskey and beer and an off-key piano indicated a saloon. It was an enticing sweetness, but they steered well clear of that.

They could scour up no food, not even a half-chewed dog bone. They marched onward through the blackness of desert, lit only by the blue light of stars. When they had traveled a reassuring distance from the settlement, they bedded down.

The early light woke them. Even at this hour the sun held a heaviness of unbearable heat. The bolder, short man scampered up a nearby rock, like a ground squirrel, to reconnoiter. Looking back he saw only a vast desert, devoid of most life, only an occasional clump of sacaton grass or greasewood bush. Even the small settlement had dissolved into a wavering mirage. Climbing down, though, he looked ahead and saw a dark smudge on the horizon. They headed toward the shadowy blot, which turned out to be a clump of cottonwood trees of advanced age. These usually grew along a river course. Water, if the riverbed were not dried up.

The cooling shade of the gigantic, stately trees was welcome and the breeze beneath the leaves was cool. A moment before, on the roasting desert floor, that breeze was a singeing hot wind. They found dry fallen branches and with their knives, carried on their belts behind their waists, they shaved off some tinder and built a fire, striking their knife blade with a found flint. With other sticks they dug up riverbank plants and poked the tuberous roots into the coals. A well-thrown rock killed a lazy dove. Their first meal in several days and all the water they needed to rehydrate. It was heavenly. They loitered there until the next morning, luxuriating in their good fortune.

They started off on their trek again, the sun pounding ferociously down upon their heads. High, thin columns of yellow dust swirled into the sky—the rising thermals made visible. Each footlift and footfall was less difficult now, thanks to the brief respite under the cottonwoods. They were spanning many miles from back there. Back there, where they would not be welcome, was becoming more and more remote. They no longer belonged or wanted to belong to that community.

They did not see the two horsemen following them. They did not see the sunlight glint off metal, nor hear the tearing report of the rifles. They did not feel the red-hot bullets enter their backs. They were dead in an instant, falling face down in the desert dust. Ants from a nearby colony crawled into their noses to steal the minute amount of moisture to be found there.

When the riders reached the two dead men they dismounted.

“Damn fool Injuns,” one said, “How far did they think they could get afoot in this desert?”

The second man burst suddenly in tears:

“It don’t seem like no revenge, Zeke,” he said. “Them bastards killed my Nell and my boy! Burned my cabin and my crops and livestock. I thought shootin’ ‘em would make me feel better, but it don’t!”

“It’s allus like that, Algernon,” the first one said.

Why I Don’t Vote

October 22, 2012

(a [fictional] treatise by Osgood Stanch)

My name is Osgood Stanch. I am 73 years old, a widower. I am white, Protestant Christian and live in a park model manufactured home in the Rosy Skies RV Ranch in Surprise, Arizona. I retired in 2004 from the Glendale School System where I was a high school history teacher. I usually don’t tell people that. When asked what I taught I usually reply, “Morons!”

It’s 2012 now and a Presidential election is approaching this November. I’ve decided to put pen to paper and write down my thoughts about the reasons (they are many) why I don’t vote. Obscene sums of money are being spent on ads to convince me that anyone running is either a Neanderthal idiot or a criminally insane outlaw. It is my hope to convince enough citizens to abstain from voting so that four years from now (if I am still alive) there will be no robo-calls in the middle of the night.

1) For whom should I vote? In the 2012 Presidential election it is Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney. (Presidential candidates now don’t even have the decency to use their middle names so that they might be referred to by three initials.) Should I vote for Obama? I have seen the past four years of his administration and am not impressed. Romney? He’s a Morman and consequently believes in using up natural resources and preserving nothing since the end of the world is near. He promises “energy independence” by 2016. This means he would have no compunction drilling on Federal lands, even National Parks to extract oil. If Utah clamors for more water would he dam up the Colorado River and flood Grand Canyon? It would also deny Colorado water to those dirty Mexicans downstream. Romney is also a pompous ass favoring the ultra-rich who seem to be his supporters. No, as in so many elections the choices are between Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dummer. Choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing an evil!

2) Voting only encourages them.  Politicians promise the voters anything to get their votes; then find that Washington insider politics prohibits most really beneficial measures from being implemented. There must be some tremendous benefit in holding public office. So many of those running for office hunger mightily for it.

3) They are all crooks! At least that’s what the myriad political ads tell us. Voting for this guy? No, he once lobbied for the “pay-day loan” industry, encouraged them to charge 180% interest. His opponent? Backs uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. We even have a guy running for U. S. Senate named “Flake!”  As he is a Republican he’ll probably win, too. Just what we need; a senator who is a certified Flake.

4) Registration: in order to vote I’d have to register as either Republican or Democrat. I hate being pigeon-holed. Declare you are a Republican and people roll their eyes in a knowing way as Republicans are all Tea Party members, right? You’re a Democrat? that means Roman Catholic, blue collar union member, right? Sure, I could register as an Independent but then I’d be prohibited from voting in nominating primaries. Is that disenfranchisement? And what if, God forbid, the time came when voters elected a monster of a leader and we held those of a particular party who voted for him responsible for having done it?

5) Does my single vote really count? I can’t see that it does. Numerous times I have voted for candidates who lost. In close elections, such as the 2000 Presidential race, the outcome was decided by a Florida judge not voters. In any Presidential election it is the Electoral College, not the individual people who ultimately chooses the winner. The revered Founding Fathers didn’t trust the average American citizen of 1789. Thought of them as farmer dunderheads. At that time a voter had to be a landowner. Non-squires, women, African-Americans, Native-Americans and those under 21 years of age were excluded. Votes could be bought for a five-cent cigar. I once lived in Louisiana where the Napoleonic Code, not English Common Law prevailed. The symbol of the Democratic Party in Louisiana in 1968 was a rooster. Potential voters may have been illiterate so they were instructed to “stamp the rooster!” In 1968, Hubert Humphrey ran on the Democratic ticket. George Wallace was running as an independent. Wallace was awarded the rooster symbol while Humphrey got the donkey symbol. Wallace carried Louisiana and split the Democrat vote allowing Nixon to win.

6) The republican process is no longer viable. Those “chosen representatives” don’t represent the will of their constituents. They are mightily influenced by lobbyists and special interest groups. Bribery? Gifts? Junket trips? All perks of being part of the exclusive clubs of the Senate and the House. Should we go back to having a King? A benevolent despot isn’t a bad idea. Consider: he needn’t run for office every two or four or six years. He would be beyond corruption and his word would be law. At least some things would get accomplished. Benito Mussolini was a dictator but he forced the railroads to run on time! Railroad unions threaten to go on strike? Off with their heads! The greatest good for the greatest number. Now “political correctness” demands that all be included. Case in point: Are you worried that U.S. schools have a poor standing in the World when compared with education systems of other countries? Do those other systems “mainstream” Down’s syndrome children and others with mental insufficiencies? My daughter attended school with a little girl who was both blind and deaf. She communicated, like Helen Keller, by “signing” into someone’s hand. But she nonetheless won the French pronunciation contest! Really?

7) I stopped voting when I learned that courts use voter registration rolls to select prospective jurors. Civic duty? Lawyers manipulate jury pools to select favorable members sympathetic to their clients. Jury of one’s peers? Ha! And jury duty is long, boring, potentially hazardous and not rewarding remuneratively.

8) Still think America is the greatest country in the world? Still think Democracy is the greatest form of government in the world? I learned those things in fourth grade civics class, too. For me, America lost her innocence in 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated.  The duplicities of Nixon? Water boarding and Abu Ghraib prison? Very public sexual liaisons of Clinton?

These are just a few, bet you have a list of your own

Donut Shop Done-in

October 31, 2011

The prompt: “What kind of a lame-brained excuse is that? The police will be here any minute.”
* * * *

Up the wash and through the tangled mesquite brush came two ATV’s. Onto the pavement of County Road 1297 rode Cobber Jukes and Delmar Cain. They were both sixteen. The macadam led two miles back to the town of Nitro, Arizona or ahead fourteen miles to Dead Bird Creek.

Cobber lived on the Trailing X Ranch, while Delmar was of the K Bar C. They should have been in school this February day, but instead they had stolen the four-wheelers from Juan Escolona’s barn and were just joy-riding.The sky was clear blue and the sun was cold. There was a smidgen of snow on the distant peaks.

“Want to get a doughnut over at Dunkin’ Donuts, yonder?” asked Delmar.

The Doughnut Shop was the last establishment at the edge of town. The counter girl was from the same High School as the boys, but had dropped out some months ago. She had a pimpled face and stringy red hair. There was dirt under her fingernails. The boys ordered two doughnuts and a single coffee. It took all the money they had.

Just then the proprietor, Jindar Pindalfi, came through the door from the back baking area. As he did, the boys glimpsed a rifle hanging on the wall. It was an inexpensive Remington Model 710 bolt action, but it was more rifle than they had. Jindar had bought it for protection. He had wanted a hand gun, but the 9 mm. Glock cost $500 and he got the 710 for $79 at Wal-Mart. He didn’t calculate how unwieldy a rifle might be in a holdup.

Outside, chomping on his doughnut and sharing sips of the steaming coffee, Cobber said:

“I’d like to have me that there Remington 710.”

“Yeah, well, me too, but how we gonna get it?” asked Delmar.

The boys could see themselves on the ATV’s riding to the high country in search of elk, coming home heroes with enough poached meat to last the rest of the winter. But first they had to purloin the Remington.

Then an idea popped into the the minuscule cranium of Cobber Jukes.

“Let’s start us a grass-fire! Then Jindar and the girl will come runnin’ out and we’ll sneak in the front door! But just in case, bring the tire-iron from Escalona’s four-wheeler, if we have to jimmy open the back door.”

As usual, a crack-pot idea sounded logical to Delmar. They took their lighters and set fire to several tufts of cheatgrass near the Doughnut Shop. Then, the two ran around to the side of the store to await the panicked owner to run out.

But Jindar Pindalfi had come all the way from Pakistan to rural Arizona, hoping to establish a profitable business. He didn’t panic easily. Instead he called the county sheriff’s office, who in turn called the US Forestry Service Fire Department. The Forestry Service, suspecting arson, called the one police cruiser in Nitro.

The boys figured on going in the front door because they expected the back door to be locked. But, when the shop employees failed to come out they were forced to break open the back door. In the distance, wailing sirens began to get louder.

“Gimme that there tire-iron,” said Cobber, whacking at the door-handle lock with a large rock he had picked up.

“I couldn’t find no t’ar-aron, Cobber,” said Delmar, bleakly. “I don’t believe Juan ever figured on gettin’ a flat on that ATV.”

“What kind of a lame-brain excuse is that?” said Cobber. “The police will be here any minute!”
* * * *

The Great Desert Healthcare Debate

August 12, 2010

The large red “R” on the sign became the first letter in Rosy Skies RV Ranch. Red paint flakes and red rust chips had accumulated at the base of the sign pole like the talus at the bottom of a bajada. It was here that Osgood Stanch maintained his single bedroom manufactured home in Surprise, Arizona.

Today, sitting around in lawn chairs talking, were Stanch, Delbert Shue and William R. Dangle. Dangle had been state assemblyman to the Arizona legislature, representing the Gilbert district. When the congressman introduced himself as “Will Dangle,” Delbert hooked his index finger over his nose tip, to hide, with his fist, the snicker smile his mouth was betraying.

Osgood Stanch had been a high-school history teacher. He considered history the study of failed political ambitions. Dangle disagreed, as he did with most things enunciated by Stanch. Lively discussions ensued.

Stanch had inherited the face of a pig. His once blond hair was now sparse with only a few wispy strands covering his ample pate. His skin was smooth and pale pink, his ears slightly pointed. He didn’t tan in the Arizona sun. His eyes were unnaturally small, squinted and too close to each other. He wore a constant scowl, and his up-turned nose gave the final touch to the hoggish image.

Dangle was new to the resort. He had had to use the restroom on his RV and pulled over to do so, only to find out his black-water waste tank was full. He pulled off at the first opportunity to empty it. Rosy Skies charged $12 for an overnight hook-up. Dangle was determined to get every nickel’s worth out of the stay. While the tank emptied, he drew up a lawn chair. He had a broad face with a hooked nose which was the only distraction from an otherwise handsome face. He had a frothy mane of white hair upturned into a pompadour, with plenty of hairspray to give it a plastic consistency. It was a face made to smile congenially out of a re-election for State Senate poster.

Delbert Shue had been a draftsman at a boiler factory in Perdue, Indiana. He had an elongated face with still-black hair, and a prominent Adam’s-apple. His glasses, he kept perched on the end of his nose. He tried to avoid having opinions. His wife’s name was Suzanne—Suzy Shue, whom everyone naturally called SuzyQ. They lived in the commodious fifth-wheel, with slide-outs, three spaces down from Stanch. Their pickup, with the attachment “wheel” in the bed, was long ago sold, and the RV’s front rested on a permanent tripod. They got about town in a Toyota Prius.

Now, Osgood Stanch had seen a news program on CNN, called the Jack Cafferty File. People e-mailed the jacket-less Cafferty with plaints of all sorts and he read them on air with his mellifluous voice.

The one that had Osgood Stanch in such a tizzy was from a female engineering student at M.I.T. It read:
“No one should die because they can’t afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick.”

“Think that’s true?” said Osgood, beginning a sure argument.

“Got to consider the source,” said Delbert Shue. “Just a poor little girl with no medical experience. Her heart’s in the right place.”

“Hmm, people do die with all the money in the world. Take, for instance, Teddy Kennedy, from her own state. He had that brain tumor, and the gilt-edged health insurance congressmen enjoy, plus an unlimited family fortune, but he still died.”

“Nobody lives forever. Besides, when did medical treatment become a right instead of a privilege?”

“Believe Ted Kennedy, himself, declared that.”

“Go back fifty years to 1959; going to the doctor had to cost something. Docs were paid with goods during the depression: a sack of pecans or a chicken for Sunday dinner. Didn’t see any impoverished doctors, either.

Then some smart union man got the idea that his workmen would be better off if they paid the doctor with before-tax money. Now that was a genius idea in some ways. The union, instead of asking the company for a couple of cents raise for their membership, decided to put those pennies in a ‘pot,’ and from that withdraw funds to pay medical bills. The union members didn’t suffer, even though they were not receiving a pay-raise in their Friday evening check. They had an important bill paid for them. The management didn’t mind, they were prepared to give a certain amount for the annual request for a raise, anyway. And it seemed like a good cause. Instead of a shop-worker spending the raise on alcohol or cigarettes, he got a medical ‘benefit.’”

“What ever happened to that idea?” asked Delbert Shue.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” said Osgood Stanch. He always liked to preface some statement with “I’ll tell you . . .”
“The unions were corrupt. The money poured into a bank account the union had set up: a few cents per hour, per employee. At the end of the first week it wasn’t much, but neither were there many withdrawals. People weren’t used to having somebody else paying their bills. In a few months, there was a substantial amount in the fund. Then, the bills from MD’s came due. It soon overwhelmed the union’s secretary, so they hired a few more gals to do the disbursements. They had to be paid a salary, of course, but there was plenty in the account. So much in fact, that in a little while, union officials who had access to writing checks began to issue them to travel agents for trips to the Bahamas and such. Somebody, a government overseer of union doings maybe, found out.
They had to put a stop to this and searched around to find a suitable replacement for the secretaries and somebody trustworthy to write the checks to the docs. Of all the industries, it was the insurance companies which stepped forward. They had clerks who were used to writing checks; they could collect the ‘cents per hour-per employee’ and call it a ‘premium.’ They could also take that big wad of money that was accumulating in the union coffers and put it out for interest. Most insurance companies operate ‘for profit,’ after all. So the Medical Insurance Company was born.”

“And God-help-us after that!”

“At first, the medical insurance companies were looked on as inanimate objects—institutions, without a soul. It became OK to cheat an insurance company. If a patient went to the doctor and he charged fifty dollars, it was supposed to be that the patient paid that first fifty bucks. This was the ‘deductible.’ Patient, however, was under the impression that he got ‘free’ medical care and was reluctant to pay. Doc comes up with the solution: he bills the medical insurance company 100 dollars. They subtract the deductible and send him a check for the remaining fifty. Doc is happy, he got his fifty; patient has paid nothing so he’s happy. Only the insurance company is out fifty dollars, but they don’t know it. . .yet.
The insurance companies caught on quick. They begin to institute ‘procedure codes.’ Every ailment has a diagnosis code and a treatment code. Then the company only pays so much for each code. Doc can charge whatever he pleases, but the insurance company is only going to pay so much and nothing more. This turns out to be very advantageous for the insurer. The company is not willing to upgrade payouts any time too soon. Then they institute percentages they will pay for certain treatments. One hundred percent for preventive stuff. These don’t cost much anyway, and it appears that the company is doing something altruistic. Then only 80% for more routine things, and those ‘elective surgeries?’ Only 50%.”

“How’d they get away with all that?”

“Lobbies, mostly,” said Will Dangle. “Go to any city and the newest, fanciest skyscrapers are owned by Aetna, Cigna, Prudential and Blue Cross. They’ve got plenty of money and that means power.”

“Yeah, but then something else hit the medical profession: litigation. Doctors were being sued—not for ‘malpractice,’ but for ‘mal-occurrence.’ Malpractice insurance premiums soared and docs learned ‘defensive medicine.’ They began running routine tests on everybody. They ordered x-rays and cat-scans and MRIs for everything, in order to document their actions. Insurances paid for these basic procedures, and so docs made some money to pay those insurance premiums. This is how medical costs began to sky-rocket.”

“OK, so this is when our MIT student says: ‘. . . nobody should go broke when they get sick.’ Think she was referring to government-run health care as being ‘free?’”

“Suppose we did have congress pass some health-care bill. Doubt if it would work,” said Will Dangle. “Take as a metaphor, transportation.”

Here a prolonged digression began:
“Our society is pretty much dependent on the automobile, right? Roads and highways for cars are the infrastructure that propels all commerce. Everybody, except the remotest farmer on an unpaved lane, lives on a street somewhere. What if a senator suddenly declared car ownership a right? Then the government becomes responsible to provide everyone with an automobile. What kind do you think you’d get? A Mercedes? A Cadillac Escalade?” Will Dangle was being intentionally facetious, much to the chagrin of his listeners who had lost his train-of-thought.
“We’d be lucky if we got a golf cart. Say, that’s not a half-bad idea! They wouldn’t cost much each. It would solve the oil crisis, and our dependence on Middle East crude. There wouldn’t be as many fatal accidents with vehicles that only travel fifteen miles-per-hour.”

Delbert Shue took off his shoe and threw it at Dangle. “Git back on the health care subject,” he said.

“My point is that government-controlled anything means inferior quality.” This was a very broad statement, indeed.
“The insurance companies invented a term for themselves: ‘Third Party.’ There was the employer, who paid premiums, and the employee, who received the benefits, and the insurer—three parties. But they forgot about the medical professionals, what they call the ‘providers.’ If medical care is reduced to the bare bones, cost-wise, who’s going to provide? Already talented young men and women are shying away from attending Medical School. Too long, too costly, not enough rewards for all that. If the government takes over and institutes a system like civil-service ranks, who decides when the doctor gets a raise? I’d be afraid the good quality care you assume will happen, ‘cause the government is paying for it, will never materialize.”

Unseen by the three men, the sun had been rolling around in the sky, like a number 7 Slazenger circling the lip of the cup, but not falling in. Then it took a dive for the jagged mountains in the west and the sky took on a yellow hue.

“Other countries have socialized medicine and they have good doctors.”

“Hmmm, not sure about that,” said Dangle. “Scandinavian countries have that cradle-to-grave government benefits system, but they also have income taxes of 110%. How does a person pay more than he earns, in taxes?”

“Great Britain has had socialized medicine since right after the War,” said Stanch. He said it in such a way that the other two realized it was a capital ‘W,’ and referred to the Second World War. “There’s a class system in England. No matter how hard a person tries; it is very difficult to break into a different echelon in society. If your father was a shopkeeper, you will be in the merchant class. Nothing you can do about it. Some of the laziest, stupidest people are born to the noble class and enjoy all them privileges, but never earned a one. The only class that can be attained on your own merit is the medical profession. Gain a seat at medical school, and there is a special place in the doctor class. People don’t so much become doctors for the salary, but for the prestige.”

Now it was getting truly dark. The saffron sky had diminished to aubergine.

Delbert Shue got up and stretched. “Time for my dinner,” he said.

The discussion had not reached any conclusions. A wheel-barrowful of explanations had been thrown about, but nothing substantive. Tomorrow the sun would come up as usual, unobstructed by clouds. They could continue then, after all they were retired. The three slumped off to their own RVs, tailbones sore from prolonged sitting. It was, simply, another day closer to a congressional vote to decide the future of health care in America. Another day when uncertainty remained in the forefront of so many discussions.

Nothing Changes

July 16, 2010

Part I

Hody crept out down back through the window to the tenement fire-escape. The pale November sunlight extended its fingers between buildings as downtown Detroit dawn awoke. When Hody hit the ground, he stepped into an inky shadow and vanished.

Seven weeks later, Belen Palariet, puzzling over the nausea she felt each morning, realized she hadn’t had her period in some time. A few months later, May 14, 1940, she gave birth to a boy. She named him Harold Ickes Palariet, after his father and the Secretary of the Interior, a name she had heard repeatedly on the radio. She thought of abandoning the baby and sneaking out of the maternity clinic. But when she stood she found legs made of butter. The attending OB told her this baby had torn her womb and there would be no more.

Harold progressed like a sidewalk weed; the stench-filled winds blowing him this way and that. Winters brought deep but filthy snows with grit and soot embedded in the ice crystals. Summers were heavy, humid heat stifling to breathe. The smelly, squalid streets of the city were hard taskmasters for young Harold.

He gravitated toward the contemptible gangs of inner city Detroit, along with other fatherless boys. Harold was fine-featured, like his father, and attractive to girls. He had a cocky devil-may-care attitude that enticed easily-persuaded maidens. He lost his virginity at age thirteen to Tawdree Gibson, a twenty-year old professional associate of his mother. The result was an over-inflated ego and boldness beyond his station.

Belen found she had difficulty disciplining her son.  She had been raised in the Deep South where girls mattered little except for their abilities in bed. It was the only skill Belen had mastered. She had left the emptiness of Dixie behind to seek her fortune with Hody in the Big City. But girls who eked out an existence lying on their backs were much too numerous.  The Michigan State Department of Public Welfare paid for groceries and the occasional reefer, though.

“You go to school today, li’l Hody?” Harold hated that name.

“No, Ma, why I want to go to school?”

“To get a education so’s yo’ c’n git somewheres.”

“Shoot! I’ll git somewheres my ownself.”

“I thought that once but look at me. I ain’t got nothing!”

“Yo’ got about a hun’erd boyfriends. Someday I gonna have me a hun’erd girlfriends!”

“Make sure yo’ charges ‘em enough! Haw haw!”

In the August when Harold was fifteen, Belen decided to visit her mother in Louisiana. She reasoned it could not be hotter than Detroit, but she was wrong. A three-day, stifling bus ride later they arrived in Scraggsboro, Louisiana. The tiny shotgun house in Darktown had once housed twelve children, but then, the girls didn’t count. With sweat drooling off her, Grandma Chlorindy Palariet resembled a badly tarnished, burnished brass Buddha.

Harold was fond of wearing a brown derby hat jauntily slouched over his left eye. He affected a red silk shirt and a purple sport jacket. Dark tan, saddle-stitched, pegged-pants and patent leather boots completed the outfit, but marked him as an inveterate city slicker. The other boys, shirtless and in tattered denim overalls regarded him curiously. Another Yankee thinks he’s hot, they thought. Worse, his grandmother Chlorindy could not stand his looks and attitude. She expected men to be hardworking and honest. This boy was not maturing to her satisfaction. He reeked of the men who had corrupted her daughter. She blamed Belen for that. Chlorindy barely tolerated Harold’s presence, a judgment which made Harold ever-more rebellious and belligerent.

“What’s dis chickendung boy? He old enough to hold a job? He don’t look like much in that fancypants get-up. Humph!” Chlorindy played the matriarch and as such was accustomed to giving orders. “Fetch us some kindlin’ fo’ da’ cookstove, boy.”

Harold knew not “kindlin,’” but when he found out it was located in the woodpile where dog-sized spiders lurked, he refused. His grandmother whacked him on the side of his head with a piece of the wood. It sent his hat sprawling.

“Tomorrow we gonna set yo’ up choppin’ cotton. Git some good L’uzee-anna red clay under them sissify nails. I hopes yo’ brought workin’ clothes. Now gits the table set for the noon meal.” Harold sat with arms folded across his chest, his protruding lower lip pursed into a pout.

“Take off that dam’ hat and sit up whiles yo’ eats yo’ dinner!”

Marinated crab claws, fatback, collards and crawfish pie in the middle of the day were not Harold’s idea of scrumptious, comfortable cuisine. Defiantly, he spat out the latest mouthful onto Chlorindy’s spotless table cloth. That elicited an explosive outpouring of vitriol from his grandmother.

“Wha’ the. . .Belen! Discipline that brat of your’n!”

Harold pretended not to notice. But he understood her stature in this neighborhood, something his mother lacked.

“You ain’t but a good-for-nothing priss. Spittin’ out good food I done slaved for? I never seed such a useless pile of horse-crap! If’n yo’ was my boy I’d have had yo’ straight by now. Go set in a corner som’eres til yo’ c’n be tol’ated by polite c’mp’ny. Shuh, no account sumbitch.”

Stung by the scalding scolding, Harold stormed out. The screen door, held to shut on its own by a skinny, shiny, black spring, was pushed wide open. By the time the door slammed closed, Harold was halfway to town, the brown derby hat propelling him along like a topgallant sail. The palpable humidity formed a living, gray mist that moved menacingly across the sun; atop the moisture sat great glowering cloud clods.

Scraggsboro had an elevated splintery-board sidewalk. The purpose was to keep its citizens from slogging ankle-deep in a river of mud that the dirt road turned into during the frequent, violent, torrential rain-and-thunder-storms. In a dark, petulant mood, angry at his mother and grandmother, Harold walked without seeing, his derby hat and his sullenness interfering with sight.

An aristocratic woman, hair the color of spun glass, came toward him. As she went past, the toe of Harold’s boot caught the tip of her cane and she nearly fell. She swung around and began a vehement, vituperative tirade. She went on with this castigating denunciation for an entire five minutes.

“Shut up, you nasty old whore!” Harold finally spat out. He swung an open hand at her, but she was deft with her walking stick. She blocked his threat, but the crook of the cane caught her crimson crepe-de-Chine blouse and ripped it down the front.

“Rape!”

Harold stood aghast. He hadn’t really touched her.

“Rape!” she cried again. “Help! Rape!!”

A crowd had begun to assemble. Harold Palariet was noticed and identified as a stranger. He bolted like a field pea flung from a fork. But a breach of etiquette was inexcusable. Eyes watched when Harold ran home to Chlorindy’s house.

After midnight, men wrapped in bed-sheet robes broke through the screen door leaving the skinny black spring sprung. They found Harold’s bed and two strong men lifted him by the arms beneath his shoulders and carried Harold Palariet into the woods. They knew nothing about him except the color of his skin.

Part II

Chick Awp chose to live in Poison Spider Gulch, Arizona because it was seventy miles from the nearest person of dark-hued African heritage. The Gulch was a settlement of thirty unpainted, disheveled, splintery-wood plank buildings nestled in the desert undulations. The searing white-hot sun sent exploring fingers between rocky columns to sprawl dark shadows on the ground.

Chick’s wife, Peetra, had given birth to a son she named Christian, on May 14, 1940. Chick ‘n’ Peet, as the couple were gender-ambiguously known, had no other children.

“Miz Awp! Miz Awp!” It was Skipper Phenol, aged five. “C’n I see your rooster?”

“What rooster are you talking about, Skipper?”

“You know, everyone says go on over to the Awps and see ‘Chicken Pete!’”

“Christian! Come play with Skipper.”

Streaked with high thin clouds the sky was the color of boiling water. Stones, rocks and giant boulders were reduced to shimmering Jell-O sculptures. Twelve year-old Christian searched for shiny black beetles which he placed in a mayonnaise jar, much to the delight of Skipper. Then dust-devils began to appear; yellow columns of swirling sand, they coalesced into a rolling mass of dust-cloud and obliterated the sun for a few seconds like a malevolent, living being.

“Christian!” It was Chick Awp this time. “Why do you have that boy out in the wilderness when a storm comes up?”

Rushing into the house for protection, Christian received a stinging swat from his father’s belt.

“I swear, boy, you ain’t got the sense of a road runner! Now clean up that child and throw out them bugs! I catch you out in storms ag’in, I’ll make it worth your while!”

Chick Awp and the desert were hard taskmasters for young Christian. There were no other boys his age in Poison Spider Gulch and few girls. A loner, Christian Awp retreated into books from the County Library. He often became so engrossed; he was unaware of the stifling heat, sometimes reading for hours with perspiration dribbling from the tip of his nose.

On Christian’s fifteenth birthday, his father said:

“You’ll come to the mine with me this summer.”

Chick Awp worked in the Cardinal Copper Mine outside of Paramount, Arizona. The work was hard and dusty with the heat unbearable. Christian came home one blistering evening head-to-toe in dust. The only girl worth looking at in the Gulch was Desiree Harple. She laughed when she saw him, hard enough to throw herself into a choking spell. Chick Awp laughed, too.

“Good thing it ain’t coal mining, haw haw, or wouldn’t you look like somethin’?”

But weeks later he said:

“You ought to quit that school and come work for Cardinal with me. The pay is good and we could sure use the money. I’ll sign papers to git you out of that high school, you being fifteen and all. You’d like that wouldn’t you, boy? Ninth grade is more’n I went.”

“I can’t work in that mine, Daddy. I want to go to college and study to be somebody.”

“College! Hell if I’ll pay for no college!” A stick of wood was by Chick’s elbow. He picked it up and began wailing into Christian. “You’ll do as I say and like it!”

That August, 1955, Chick Awp had found a two-week old Phoenix newspaper with a front-page story of a lynching in small-town Louisiana. After reading the account, Chick bought several bottles of whiskey and went on a two-week celebratory bender.

The discarded paper was blown by the scorching Arizona wind to behind the barn where Christian found it. The lurid account was accompanied by a photograph showing a burned and unrecognizable figure suspended by the neck from a tree. An unscathed derby hat had been placed jauntily on the seared skull. Pointy headed men in white were holding old-fashioned home-made torches of torn rags soaked in kerosene and wrapped around tall sticks. The tongues of flame threw gruesome shadows on the charred body, delineating the desecration of a boy the same age as himself. Christian, consequently, vomited; partly from the ghastly scene and partly from the first cigarette he was trying.

Christian Awp, with his reading background, developed into a good student with a bent toward writing. After graduation from Cholla County Consolidated High School, he managed to gain entrance to Arizona State University, where he studied Journalism.

In the summers, he was reluctant to return to depressing Poison Spider Gulch and instead traveled to sweltry Mississippi and Alabama to join other students protesting civil rights abuses. He earnestly wanted to aid the downtrodden, but there was also a rebellious streak in him to oppose anything his father espoused. He marched, arms intertwined, with Roy Wilkins and Julian Bond.  He sang spirituals while listening to the strident voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. He became a Freedom Rider in 1960 and joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.

In the summer of 2010, Bond organized a fiftieth-year reunion of SNCC and Freedom Riders to be held in New York City. Hotels in the City were too expensive, so Christian Awp stayed across the river in Northern New Jersey. On Tuesday, he walked from his motel to a nearby McDonald’s for lunch. The fast-food establishment was mobbed with students from the local high school. Christian ordered his meal and meekly took his paper cup to the fountain to get his drink.

A fifteen-year old girl, her hair done up in narrow corn rows that led to braids weighted down with colorful beads was talking on her cell phone and not paying attention to any other thing. She appeared to be undecided as to which soft drink to select. After a few minutes, Christian tried to move past her to the cola vending machine. In the crush of the crowd, the tip of Christian’s boot accidently raked across the naked back of the sandaled heel of the girl. She wheeled on Christian and began a violent, vituperative tirade. She went on with this castigating denunciation for an entire five minutes.

“Quiet, you stupid girl!”

“Who yo’ calling ‘stupid?’ Huhn?”

Christian raised his hand in defense, but it accidently brushed her breast.

“Rape!” the teen yelled. “This pervert is trying to rape me!”

The large group of students became silent. Christian Awp was noticed and identified as a stranger, but a breach of etiquette was inexcusable. Eyes watched as Christian returned to his motel.

After midnight, boys from the Tombz gang coerced the night maid to surrender her pass-key card. Dressed in the white bandana head-wraps signifying their turf, they entered into the room of seventy-year-old, professor emeritus of Sociological Journalism, Dr. Christian Awp. Strong hands lifted him by the arms beneath the shoulders and carried him out. They knew nothing about him except the color of his skin. . .

Jonquil in Spring

October 12, 2009

            His mother, her brain slightly addled by the incessant West Texas wind, was overly fond of flowers. When she first glimpsed the tiny face of her new-born son with its delicate creases, it reminded her of daffodil petals. So she named him “Jonquil.” His father did not object to this sissified name because he did not know what a jonquil was. Besides, he left all such matters up to his wife.

His grandfather was Lt. J. B. Stallings, CSA, aide-de-camp to General John Bell Hood. At the battle for Fredericksburg, his staff around him, Hood was singled out by a Yankee sniper. Lt. Stallings flung himself in front of his general and the ball passed clean through his side. All in attendance declared that it was a supreme act of bravery. Lt. Stallings was granted a medical discharge. He returned to a grateful state of Texas, whose legislature awarded him a huge piece of property. The South was winning the War and could afford to be generous. This parcel was not measured in acres but in square miles; being only slightly shy of the size of Delaware. Lt. Stallings called his ranch “Delaware” and adopted the “Diamond D” brand.

                       *           *           *

             Now, Jonquil Stallings, bachelor, ran 2,000 head of Black Angus with the help of twenty ranch hands. The ramrod was a man named Martin Holyhill, whom everyone called “Mart” to his face and “holy Hell” behind his back. He ran the ranch in 1985 the same way it was done in 1885—riders on horseback were able to traverse the crumpled landscape far easier than mechanized vehicles.

That November, 1985, the weather suddenly turned bitterly cold. The oldest hand was called Sam Rockitt. He had iron-gray hair and a pure white mustache, neither of which had been trimmed in decades. He also had a gravelly deep voice which lent him an air of authority.

“I seen this afore,” he declared, “sometimes when cold weather comes this early it means the rest of the winter will be mild. Kinda like Mother Nature was apologizin’ for trickin’ us thataway.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Breezy Lawnton, “I’ll be lookin’ fo’ard to a mild winter.”

But Sam Rockitt was wrong. The freezing weather persisted deep into December with the temperature hovering around zero degrees. Maybe four above to four below, but then nobody had a thermometer. The constant wind, usually out of the West turned to come out of the Arctic North—a “blue Norther.” Then it began to snow—sideways. It was something of a mystery how snowflakes traveling in a horizontal direction parallel to the ground could accumulate; but they did. At first only two inches or so, but enough to hide the grasses and forbs the cattle ate. When the snow reached six inches with the cows hungry, Jon Stallings summoned Mart Holyhill.

“Time to distribute the Alfalfa grass in Barn No. 2,” was all he said.

Mart assigned the task of hitching the mules to the hay wagon to Sam Rockitt and Breezy Lawnton. The mules had not worked since September and were reluctant to start. They stomped their hooves and kicked up their heels. They clacked their teeth, snorted and brayed. But the two cowboys, only slightly more intelligent than the two jackasses, prevailed. Soon, the mules were in their traces standing before the loaded wagon. Breezy Lawnton threw wide the double doors of the barn. An icy wind from Saskatchewan hit the mules square in the face and froze them. Their eyes became as wide as milk-jug lids; they locked their knees and stiffened their flanks. They wouldn’t budge outside into this weather. Breezy Lawnton pulled on the reins in front; Sam Rockitt had found a flat board and was whacking their rumps from behind.

Cap Hall, admiring the cussing, came into the barn bundled up against the cold. He had a heavy woolen muffler around the lower half of his face. It extended up over his ears and tucked into his hat which was drawn low over his eyes. He wore a dark green blanket coat and fur-lined leather mittens. He was not recognizable as a human being to the mules.

He slowly approached the front of the right side mule, gently grabbed the reins beneath the animal’s chin and exerted slight backward pressure. The bit prodded in the corners of the mule’s mouth; a signal that meant “Stop.” With his other hand, Cap began to stroke the velvety hairs on the beast’s nose, all the while quietly cooing sweet-nothing words. It took a full twenty minutes, but the mule’s laid-back ears came forward, its eyes fluttered and blinked, the muscles relaxed. Cap then pulled forward on the reins meaning “Go.” The mule took several tentative steps forward, its mate, attached by the tree, followed. Soon the entire wagon was outside the barn. In the twenty minutes Cap spent in persuasive distraction the temperature inside the barn had fallen to zero and it was no longer a shock to the mules to be outside. They resigned themselves to resume work.

Sam Rockitt climbed onto the seat and Cap Hall and Breezy Lawnton swung into the bed. Sam drove out five miles and then turned left. This was the prompt for Cap and Breezy to begin hurling armfuls of hay out either side of the wagon. By the time the wagon was empty, they had laid down a double swath of hay in a semicircle. The following day they completed the circle. The next day Sam drove out from Barn No. 2 ten miles before turning. It took four days to complete this circle. But now there were two concentric circles of hay. The farthest ring extended a full twenty miles wide in every direction; enough to encompass almost the entire ranch. Any cows beyond could easily walk to the hay circle.

Coming back to Barn No. 2 on the last day, Sam Rockitt noticed a heifer lying on her side. He jumped down to investigate. Breezy Lawnton did not like sick cows; they kicked and bit cowboys who were only trying to help.

“Careful thar, Sam,” he warned, “she mighta been bit by a coyote and has the rabies.”

But Sam Rockitt knew the cow was not rabid. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth; her eyes rolled erratically. She was having difficulty breathing. When he lifted her head, she let go a colossal hiccup. The air was drenched with the odor of sour whiskey. Sam Rockitt stood up, arms akimbo.

“Damn me,” he swore, “this cow is drunk!”

But Sam Rockitt was wrong. The cow was not drunk and in two hours she was dead. The next day Sam rode out to check on the heifer. He found her frozen solid.

When Sam Rockitt returned to the bunkhouse he learned he was not the first to report a dead steer. Several cowboys were standing around Mart Holyhill detailing their sightings of carcasses. But Sam was the only one who had seen a cow sick.

“She were drunk,” Sam Rockitt declared. “I seen this afore. Seen Injuns get drunk, stumble in the snow and lay down to go to sleep then wake up dead. The elerments gits to ‘em. The cold seeps in and freezes their innards. Kills them. As long as them bossies are standing on their stony hooves the elerments caint touch ‘em. But loaded and tired. . .well. . . ”

“Drunk?” Mart Holyhill broke in, “How’s a cow get drunk?”

“Fermented hay, I reckon,” Sam Rockitt reasoned, authoritatively. “It seems to be just after we put down the hay that the dyin’ started.”

“Takes wet hay to ferment,” said Mart. “We better check the store, don’t want no rotten hay.”

But Sam Rockitt was wrong. Fermentation is indeed a phase of the process of decomposition the boys called “rot.” But this process requires bacterial activity and bacteria require warmth. The temperature inside Barn No.2 was not zero but was below freezing and too low for bacterial growth even if the hay were sodden. The boozy breath Sam detected on the dead heifer came from gastric gases. In her stomach was warmth and moisture and the bacteria present were helping her digest the hay plant fibers, converting them to alcohol along the way.

Mart Holyhill enlisted the help of three more cowboys and the five men spent the better part of two hours sifting through the hay stored in Barn No.2. They could find no moisture. When they sniffed it, the hay smelled fresh and sweet, appealing to a cow. There was no musty smell of decomposition and certainly no odor of alcohol.

“Better let the boss know,” said Mart Holyhill.

He was in the Big House standing before the door to Jon Stallings’s office ready to knock when he figured he’d better brush off his coat. Jon Stallings opened the door just at that moment, on his way to the privy, and was greeted by a cloud of hay dust in his face.

“Er, sorry there, boss,” Mart said, meekly.

“’At’s all right, Holyhill, what’s up?”

“Bad news, cap’n, the cattle is dying right quick.”

Jon Stallings blanched. A certain amount of death in a cold winter could be expected but he saw by Holyhill’s demeanor that this was out of the ordinary. At $200 a head his herd was worth $400,000, a small fortune. The loss of one or two here or there, was bearable but. . .

“How many do you mean?”

“’Bout fifty or sixty or so,” Mart responded, indefinitely. “Sam Rockitt thinks the cows were drunk from fermented hay.”

“You mean to tell me you put away wet hay, Holyhill?”

Stallings wagged a finger just under Mart’s chin. It was hard for Jon Stallings not to call him “holy Hell.” His pallor had turned to choleric red. It felt natural to blame someone else for his trouble and Holyhill was conveniently handy.

“No, sir, a’course not. We was just checkin’ the hay and its dusty dry as you saw. I reckon the moisture mighta come from snowmelt.”

“Snowmelt?” Jon Stallings roared. “In this weather? Not likely. I want an accurate count of the dead ones. Send out all the boys and tell ‘em to count exact. Have ‘em write down the number right there on a slip of paper. I don’t want no relyin’ on memory.”

In two days, Jon Stallings had a six-inch high stack of fluttering toilet tissue squares; it being the only paper the boys were familiar with. It took him a slap hour to total up the numbers. He calculated and re-calculated until he was sure he had a reliable figure: 438. A disaster! He suddenly became aware of one of the most violently severe headaches he had ever known. Too much dust, worry and arithmetickin’, he thought. Spring can’t come soon enough.

Spring did come, in the usual West Texas way. Overnight the temperature rose thirty degrees. When the sun came out it rose another thirty. The wind shifted around back toward the East and blew the stench of rotting cows into the settlement. County Sheriff Prescott Eagan was summoned to investigate. He simply followed his nose to the Diamond D Ranch.

There he was astonished to find hundreds of dead cattle strewn across the prairie. He stopped at one cluster of a dozen and kicked the corpses. Some were firm while others were squishy inside from internal decomposition. He reasoned the firm ones were recently dead and the squishy, old and rotting. He had it backwards, though. The firm flesh had been dead the longest. Frozen solid, it took a long time for 1800 pounds of beef to defrost. That warmth the bacteria responsible for decomposition demanded was not yet available. On the other hand recently dead cows provided body heat and the Spring sun did the rest.

Sheriff Eagan remounted and took out a large bandana, scented with his wife’s perfume, which he had brought along specifically for this purpose. He wrapped it around his nose and mouth and rode off like a bandit toward the Big House. He had to recalculate his earlier count. There were not hundreds of dead cows but thousands!

He tied his horse to the porch railing and knocked long and hard at the front door. No answer. The door was unlocked. Prescott Eagan had never been in the Stallings mansion. A series of closed doors led off the foyer. Some hid rooms that had not been used in years.

Eventually, he opened the door to Jon Stallings’s office. There he found the owner slumped over his desk, his head resting on folded arms. Prescott Eagan instinctively reached out to prod the man awake when he saw by the ghostly gray of his face that Jon Stallings was dead.

Prescott Eagan bolted out of the house leaving the front door open. He ran past his horse; sprinted the two hundred yards past Barn No.2 to the bunkhouse. There he found the twenty cowboys all deceased. Some in their bunks, others slumped in chairs and many lying on the floor. He did not kick these corpses. Sam Rockitt was reclined on the dining table; face up, his hands gently clasped across his waist, clad only in red longjohns.

Back at his office Prescott Eagan did his best to write up a report:

“This morning, I uncovered the inhabitants of the Diamond D Ranch both four-legged and two, succumbed to the terrible cold weather we have been having this past winter.”

It only briefly crossed his mind how odd it was that twenty-one fully clothed men in separate heated buildings had been killed by the cold. But strange weather phenomena were typical in West Texas. Perhaps the temperature had dropped suddenly to, say, one hundred degrees below zero, just in a pocket of air above the Diamond D Ranch. He hadn’t a better explanation.

        *           *           *

            In 1993, a Native American residing at Zuñi Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico died suddenly and mysteriously. His name was Porfirio Ketasikibatiwa. The Medical Examiner in Gallup performed an autopsy expecting to find cirrhosis of the liver or coronary infarction. Instead he found the Indian’s lungs had turned to mush. He scooped up a sample and sent it to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He reasoned that Indians were wards of the Federal Government, somehow, and maybe Walter Reed would send back the pathology report for free, saving the county $27. The victim’s name was too long to fit in the block marked “Name” on the vial label, so the M. E.’s secretary left it blank.

The pathologist assigned to the sample was able to isolate from it a new and strange virus which belonged to the family of Hantaviruses. Searching for a name for this new bug, he noticed the empty entry under victim’s name. So, rather facetiously, he called the new virus “Sin Nombre,” literally “without name.” Assuming also that New Mexicans must all speak Spanish.

When laboratory rats were exposed to the new virus they universally died! This was one nasty pathogen; second only to the Ebola virus of Africa. Later that year it was determined that the transmission vector for Sin Nombre was dried mouse droppings, inhaled by the victims as dust.

       *           *           *

             This revelation came too late for “the inhabitants of the Diamond D Ranch both four-legged and two.” Barn No.2 at the spread was infested with mice which had come from all over to get in out of the cold and feast on the Alfalfa seeds.

Six months after Sheriff Prescott Eagan had “uncovered” the grisly tragedy at the Diamond D, a stone marker was erected at the Brewster County Cemetery. It read simply,

“Here Lies

Jonquil Stallings

born Oct 3, 1924,

found dead April 18, 1986

R.I.P.”

            The incessant West Texas wind swirled a handful of red dust past the gray granite.  It was too late then for anybody to be interested in reading the unusual name on the inscription. Besides, nobody in West Texas knew what a jonquil was.

 

 

 

 

Jonquil in Spring©

Encounters of the Javelina

October 1, 2009

Encounters of the Javelina

In the desert southwest, there is a burly quadruped called a collared peccary. While it looks like a pig, it does not belong in the swine family.  Most natives in the area call it (no, not “peckered collery’) javelina from the Portuguese, javali, (Spanish, jabali),  for “spear” or “javelin;” a reference to its speed across open country and the large cuspid tusks.

Javelina travel in small groups led by a dominant male, who has the only reproductive privileges. This group was led by a large male, named Javier; his mate, Serafina and their offspring: Jake, Rosario and Elise. There were three lesser males that trailed along after them. It was always a question whether Javier was the real father of any of the juveniles, as javelina females are notoriously promiscuous. Serafina’s pheromones were particularly strong. This made her incredibly attractive to other males. She had a squinty-eyed face with a twisted and yellow lower left tusk, which didn’t make her attractive in the usual sense. But boars mounted her from the rear, and never noticed her appearance, only that enticing fragrance from her anal glands.

Her youngest daughter, Elise, had inherited her mother’s glandular superiority and had already, precociously, attracted the attention of Ludwig, one of the young males. Ludwig realized he need not challenge the alpha male, Javier, for Elise’s favors.

Ludwig’s family had traveled all the way across Mexico from Guatemala. When they reached the US-Mexico border they were confronted by a large security fence. The javelinas simply dug a deep pit, wallowed in the cool soil for several hours, then proceeded to tunnel under the fence and onto US land. This set off several motion-detector alarms in Border Patrol vehicles. The javelinas were not arrested, nor returned to Mexican soil, but neither was the tunnel filled in, and several hundred illegal immigrants used the javelina-built tunnel for entry into the US. Some even dressed as peccaries.

The javelina did not like humans, called them gella-bana, which is javelina for “non-peccary.” Serafina’s aunt, Josefina Javelina, had an encounter with some humans. Her son, Jose, only six inches tall, charged toward the men, and gored one on the ankle.

“How’d he taste?” asked Josefina.

“Terrible! Like dirty socks!”

It was decided, then, to scratch gella-bana off the list of eligible prey. No matter, the list of other edible things remained long.

The band, of which Javier was head, preferred to dwell in a dry wash, in south-east Arizona, near the Aravaipa Creek, a reliable source of water year-round. In summer, in the daytime, they lolled in the shade beneath some mesquite trees and foraged for food by moonlight.

They were munching on some prickly pear pads one evening when they smelled the awful stench of gella-bana. It was difficult to tell if the gella-bana were male or female as they hid their bodies beneath cloth. Some of the larger ones, presumably male, sprouted black bristles from their nose. They were fond of carrying things: bags of other cloths; bags of white powder; short, black sticks that seemingly had no purpose.

“Keep away from them,” said Javier. “They can be very dangerous if aroused. And above all do not feed them.”

“What would we feed them anyhow, Papa?” asked Rosario.

“They like prickly pear pads,” said Javier, his mouth half-full of prickly pear pads. “Call them nopales, and they dig those tubers out of the ground and eat them.”

“They have that shimmering, orange light that shines in the night. They put their food in there to make it warm,” said Jake.

“Just stay away from them,” said Javier again, his mouth still full of a nopal. “If they get too close, turn and kick dirt at them with your hind feet. All the while grunting as loud and ferociously as possible. If that doesn’t scare them off, charge at them, squealing, and showing your spear teeth.”

“Don’t let your father frighten you, children,” said Serafina. “They are basically stupid. They have good eyesight, but a poor sense of smell. They wouldn’t dare try to eat us, as we are too big for their puny mouths. Keep your distance, and there will be nothing to worry about.”

Serafina, intentionally, did not tell the children about the long sticks the gella-bana sometimes carried. These had fire at the tips and somehow killed javelina, which the men carried away for some unknown purpose.

In the Aravaipa Canyon there lived a mountain lion, named Keith.   Puma could kill a javelina if given the chance, but Keith conserved his energy wisely. He knew that the group would attack him with their razor-sharp canines if he jumped on a juvenile’s back. He looked for sick or crippled individuals, who had wandered or lagged far from the troop.  This was a rare occurrence, and so there existed a certain truce between the two species. Keith’s odor preceded him so there was no chance for surprise.

There also existed a bobcat named Rolbeto, who could take a very young javelina. It wasn’t worth tangling with an angry javelina mother to try. Rolbeto never spoke to Keith, but if Keith killed a deer, Rolbeto would be glad to feast on the leavings.

On the summer day, when Javier was lecturing his children on the dangers of gella-bana, Keith came into the dry-wash from the east, while Rolbeto came in from the north.

“Hello, Javier,” said Keith.

“Hello, Keith,” said Javier.

Javier, who always kept his head down and his nostrils in the dust, lifted his snout as far as he could. This allowed him to keep a weak eye on the predator.

“I was just wondering if you had seen any deer or. . .”

Just then, Rolbeto appeared from beneath the mesquite brush. On seeing Keith, he arched his back and made the hairs along his spine stand straight up. The two felines eyed each other from this near distance. They probably had seen each other from canyon rim to canyon floor, but never this close. Rolbeto’s scent was lost in the prevailing wind blowing northward up the arroyo. The bobcat tucked his tail and scuttled off through the underbrush.

“Well, that was strange,” said Keith. “I can’t stand that guy, usually.”

“Competition, eh?” said Javier.

“It’s not that so much. . .” Keith trailed off.

“Have you seen the gella-bana camped over on the flat?” Javier asked.

Gella-bana?” asked Keith. He did not know this word of javelina.

“The two-legged ones who wear clothes.”

“I smelled them,” said Keith. “Smelled their fire and their excrement. They can be dangerous. And, there are so many of them. I don’t like them, either”

This remark made Keith seem grumpy and bad-tempered. He was really only solitary, and preferred his own company to that of others. When he came upon another species he usually killed it. He never conversed with the jack-rabbits or desert big-horn sheep he ate, such a thing would be rude and appetite-stifling. There was a certain mutual respect between Keith and Javier.  Keith’s presence and scent made the young javelina produce large amounts of adrenaline in their blood

“I wish we could do something to scare the gella-bana away,” said Javier.

“I could roar very loudly,” offered Keith. “But, I’ve tried that before, and they had these noisemakers that contained bees in them, and I was more scared than they were.”

“Noisemakers with bees?” asked Javier, totally confused by Keith’s explanation. Only Serafina had any experience with the sticks that bloomed fire and spat whizzing bees.

“Maybe we should move away from this canyon,” Javier continued.

“And abandon the water in this creek?” said Keith. The water attracted all sorts of game from birds to mule deer. Javier only understood the water for drinking.

“Besides, I think they are only here temporarily. Men usually build stone dens when they intend to stay.”

Javier had never paid that much attention to the animals Keith called “men.” It made more sense that they traveled in bands like javelina did. He had not noticed that the stone structures Keith called “dens,” were the living quarters of gella-bana.

“Let’s go over and take a look at them,” offered Keith.

“Now? In the sun? I. . .I couldn’t,” said Javier.

Javier had no sweat glands to cool him in the middle of the day. Additionally, he could not leave his band unprotected.

“Go ahead, sweetie,” said Serafina, reading his mind. “After all, you will be with our most dreaded predator.”

“What about Rolbeto?” proffered Javier.

“He’s probably miles away by now. The young boars and I can take care of him, anyway.”

Serafina was thinking of how she and the young boars could take care of other things as well. So confident was Javier of his reproductive competence, that infidelity never entered his paltry mind.

If a biologist could have observed the pair, she would have been astonished at the sight of a male mountain lion accompanying a male collared peccary through the cottonwoods along the bottomlands of Aravaipa Creek. They came up out of the canyon well downwind of the human campground and stayed hidden among the scrub pines. This was a mistake, for the humans had a poor sense of smell and would not have detected them upwind. Instead, the animals’ sensitive olfactory sense had to endure the overwhelming smell of the humans.

The Mexican illegal-immigrants numbered in the eighties. They had spread blankets on the ground for warmth and sleeping. There were discarded food wrappers and plastic water bottles strewn about. Each family group had its own latrine area, with little privacy. They were awaiting a “coyote” to escort them to a safe pickup locality where they would be transported to metropolitan areas for work opportunities.

Unexpectedly, instead of the white fifteen-passenger vans of the coyote, a series of green-and-white SUVs and pick-up trucks appeared. Some Mexicans went toward the vehicles thinking it was their transport. The majority, though, scattered. A large number fled toward the pine-scrub where Keith and Javier were hiding.

The animals emerged forward into the sunlight. Keith growling and screaming; Javier grunting and baring his lethal tusks. The immigrants skidded to a halt, then turned on their heels and ran back into the waiting arms of the Border Patrol Agents.

A reporter, who had been embedded with the agents, had a camera and took a quick photograph of the animals at the height of their fury. The picture made the front page of Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, along with the story. The photograph became so popular; the newspaper inaugurated a contest to name the animals. The winning entries were: “Keith” for the puma, and “Javier” for the peccary.

After the melee was over, a peace settled over the filthy encampment. It was too hot for Javier, but he smelled the food leavings and came out of the shade to wander amongst the ruins. He had never before tasted cooked chicken, and the hot chiles burned his tongue. Keith disdained scavenging. If his prey didn’t move and he hadn’t killed it himself, it was not appetizing. They didn’t stay long, but on leaving Keith lifted his hind leg and urinated on a blanket. Javier defecated on some paper debris.

Without a word they turned in unison and descended the bank into the canyon. At the stream, they bade good-bye, and departed in different directions. In ten minutes, Keith was well up the valley. He stumbled upon some feathers and bird bones. Rolbeto had caught a Gambel’s quail in midflight, and devoured it here. It was not a chance discovery. Keith had followed Rolbeto’s scent. When he was content that his cousin, the bobcat, was satiated, and no longer a rival, he moved on deep into the wilderness.

Javier returned to the dry wash. There he found his band sprawled on the soft dirt in various positions of repose. There was no indication of the copulation that had occurred an hour before. Ludwig had taken Elise’s virginity and one of the stronger boars had taken Serafina.

The sun cascaded the last of its rays through the pine trees on the lip of the canyon. Then it disappeared beyond the rim, and the arroyo was drenched with darkness. The javelina rose up together, and ambled off in search of succulent prickly pears.

With Gardenias in Her Hair

September 15, 2009

 

Osgood Stanch lived at the Rosy Skies RV Ranch in Surprise, Arizona. He owned a pinkish one-bedroom park model, but never spent any time in it. Instead, like so many claustrophobic RV owners, he sat in a once white, molded-plastic lawn chair and conversed with his neighbors. Many were transients, except for Delbert Shue who owned a fifth-wheel, three spaces down.

Osgood had been a high-school history teacher, and he loved to pontificate on various subjects to his listeners. Today, a cloudless, birdless, crystal blue sky winter day, Delbert Shue was the only listener handy.

“Just look at this,” said Osgood, holding up the newspaper. “Them Iraqis are calling us Crusaders.”

Indeed, an insurgent group, taking responsibility for a car bombing, had denounced American troops as “Crusaders.”

“I’ll tell you about Crusaders,” said Osgood Stanch.

When Osgood Stanch said he’d tell you about something, it was the cue for Delbert Shue to take a nap.

“They did something horrible, that  no American soldier would ever think ‘a doing. In about 1200 A. D., French and Spanish courtiers, returning from the Crusades, invented the concept of ‘romantic love.’”

Osgood Stanch’s genial wife, Helen, had died three years ago, and he hadn’t missed her, yet.

“Aw, granted, it’s a silly notion based on physical beauty and exaggerated courtly behavior, but most women believe it. True, women’s libbers, from the ‘80s onward, have tried to annihilate male chauvinism and defeat the precepts of chivalry. But still, no one in the West marries to consolidate a fortune or increase a family’s land-holdings or form a defense alliance. It’s all done for ‘love.’

“Now, the English language is noticeably deficient in describing ‘love.’ The Greek is better:

“There’s agape: the love a mother has for her child. It is unrequited; the baby has no faculty for returning this love, and cain’t possibly earn the parent’s affection; it is all instinctive intuition.”

At this point, Delbert Shue gave out a snuffling snore, but Osgood took no notice.

“There’s philos: brotherly love.” Osgood continued. “This is love, er, perhaps better, ‘respect’ for one’s fellow man.

“Then, there’s eros: the love of a man for a woman. This is the basis for romantic love, and invariably involves sexual intercourse. Sure, love leads to marriage and the sex which produces children, copulation, is ritualized with weddin’ vows to protect the vulnerable mother and unborn children. Thus is established the institution ‘family.’ However, if it’s only sex, in the immortal words of Tina Turner: ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’”

Delbert Shue remained curled in a fetal position in his plastic chair, blissfully asleep. But another listener had taken Osgood’s declamation all in.  It was Hortencia Tijeras-Villalon, who was staying in the little drive-it-yourself RV next to Stanch.  Her knitting was boring her, but overhearing Osgood’s harangue reminded her of her aunt’s story. When she was a little girl, there was great alarm in the family because Aunt Pérdita had fallen in love.

*       *      *       *       *       *       *

The crystal blue sky was pale and cold; the brilliant sun gave light, but no warmth. The Northern Sonoran Desert was freezing in the winter, but that allowed a long walk to be a bit easier.

Pérdita Tijeras crossed from Mexico to Arizona in January 1942, when she was eight years old. With her, came her parents and siblings, her aunts and uncles and cousins, all seeking work in American war-effort factories in Phoenix.

When Pérdita applied for school, the teacher gave her an examination. She held up a card with a picture of a cat and the letters: C-A-T.

El gato!” said Pérdita enthusiastically.

“No!” said the teacher sternly. “What is this one?”

It was a picture of a house, but Pérdita instinctively knew not to say “la casa.” Perhaps, it was a trick question. She puzzled and puzzled over the letters:  H-O-U-S-E. Then it came to her:

José!” she answered, brightly.

“No!” the teacher said again.

        Mamacita did not speak English any better than Pérdita but she understood “No!” was a rejection. She took Pérdita back home and taught her to cook and raise plants, to take care of an H-O-U-S-E and how to make a man happy.

At sixteen, Pérdita  married Rodrigo Jarales, pig farmer. They moved to the Guadalupe neighborhood of Mesa, east of Phoenix. Rodrigo was a good man, if not handsome, and seemed to love his pigs above all else. He often slept in the pig shed rather than in his own bed. This left Pérdita alone all day to tend to her garden. She raised jalapeños and tomatoes, squash and beans, onions and flowers. Among her favorite flowers, was a bush which produced gardenias almost year-round.

At twenty-two, having been in a loveless marriage for six years, Pérdita began looking for adventure. There was a small burning sensation in her lower abdomen, something like a glow and something like a thrill which beckoned to be satisfied. She had heard, from some friends, of the bus that ran along Highway 60 to the city of Globe. Saving money she earned from selling eggs, she soon had enough for the bus fare. On one hot, summer day, she walked the mile and a half to the highway and flagged down the bus.  She had never imagined the beauty of the scenery along the Apache Trail Highway, past Superior and then along the steep and rugged Queen Creek Gorge walls.

Globe was a busy copper-mining town in 1956. The Mexican community was all abustle. Pérdita found a Mercado and a cantina. She browsed the marketplace by day, but secretly kept the idea of exploring the cantina by night. She would be far from the eyes of her neighbors, and the thrill of a clandestine tryst nearly overwhelmed her.

It was not until September of that year, that Pérdita could act upon her fantasy. On Saturdays in the fall, Rodrigo drove his spring piglets, fattened up for six months, to the market. He then bought cerveza and proceeded to get drunk.

One Saturday night, she bathed, but had no perfume. She oiled her hair and pulled it back severely into a bun at the nape of her neck. She left two tendrils of ebony hair curl in front of each ear. From the farmyard she chose two gardenia blooms and placed one behind each ear. This would be her most enticing fragrance. She left the farm and Rodrigo sleeping, and boarded the bus for Globe. The rugged canyon vistas were not visible in the dark, which only added to the intrigue. This was no sight-seeing tour.

Paquito’s Cantina was ablaze with light and accordion music and laughter when she walked in. The air was smoky. She was the best dressed woman in the place, with her spotless white blouse and flowing, full skirt.

She approached the bar, afraid to take a table, and ordered the only alcoholic beverage she knew: tequila. The bartender looked at her sidewise with suspicion, but produced a tiny glass. Into it he poured a vile-looking, yellowish-brown liquid to the very brim. Before she could lift the glass, a firm, warm hand took hers, and when she turned, a handsome man shook his index finger in a negative gesture.

The stranger was dressed all in black, with silver collar tips and a large silver belt-buckle shaped like a horse-shoe. There were four rows of silver studs running down the outer seams of his tight-fitting trousers; silver, filigree embroideries on his shirt. He had a friendly smile, showing one, incongruously gleaming, gold tooth. He produced a salt cellar from nowhere and sprinkled some on the back of his hand, between forefinger and thumb. He licked the salt off his hand, lasciviously, and downed the shot of tequila in one gulp then bit into a lime quarter from a bowl of slices on the bar.

“That is how one drinks tequila,” he instructed. “But a lady should drink a new mixture called a ‘Margarita.’”

He escorted her with an exaggerated, courtly manner to a nearby table, occupied by two dirty, sleeping miners. He ordered the drink over his shoulder.

“Get away from this refined civilization, you lazy borrachos.”

         He said his name was Juanito, which startled Pérdita who was about to use the alias ‘Juanita,’ herself. She wondered if this stranger had had the same idea! He asked hers, and she fumbled a bit, but came up with ‘Rosarita.’ He asked where she was from, as he didn’t recognize her.

She said “Mesa.” He was taken aback.

“You come from a city called ‘Table?’” he asked.

She smiled, and explained that the Anglos called low, flat-topped mountains ‘mesas’ and that was the origin of the name:

“A mountain not a table.”

He said he was from Guadalajara, where he had once been a bullfighter. It was a lie of course; he was a guitarist with a mariachi band. There were other similarly-dressed band members, with their instruments leaning against the wall. They played for a nearby Mexican cocina restaurant that catered to the white miners and tourists. But they didn’t play at Paquito’s, they were here to relax.

The sweet-tasting drink trickled down to Pérdita’s inner glow, and set it ablaze. It made her speech come smooth and frequent. Juanito was easy to talk to, and they laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. No one else in the bar paid them any attention. They, too, were enjoying themselves. It was Saturday night, after all. The little itch in her abdomen grew with each laugh they shared.

When the hour grew late, Juanito graciously accompanied Pérdita to the bus stop, and the evening was ended. She rode alone, her head resting tiredly on the window. She had a smile on her face the entire time. Was it induced by the effect of the alcohol? Perhaps, but happiness was hers, nonetheless.

All that week Pérdita fretted about what to do next. Rodrigo would never know– his brain was too weak. But there was guilt. Should she follow her inner urges and return to Paquito’s on Saturday? Would Juanito even be there? And if she did not return, would he be looking for her and eventually give up? Would he start seeking the company of another fair maiden?

The sex drive—what the biologists call “the reproductive imperative,” is very strong. It is, perhaps, the single most demanding life force, connected as it is with the perpetuation of the species and controlled, not by will, but by hormonal chemicals, Osgood Stanch might say.

Pérdita determined to return to Globe the following Saturday. She could not help herself. Once she had decided, waves of hot blood seemed to pulse through her veins. This feeling did not subside the next Saturday, or on subsequent Saturdays when she returned, each time to Juanito’s friendly conversation, each time with gardenias in her hair.

It was inevitable, of course, but one Saturday toward the end of October when Juanito was accompanying her to the bus stop, he suddenly grabbed her by the waist and kissed her. His pencil-thin mustache tickled and his tongue flicked seductively on her lips. Now Pérdita was more than smitten– she was in love.

It was already predestined. The next time they met Pérdita would give herself completely to Juanito. As he held her chair at the table, she whispered into his ear:

“Tonight, I am yours, entirely.”

Juanito, el catrin, (the ‘dancer’) had made yet another conquest. He knew this simple girl would respond eventually, if he proceeded slowly and carefully.

After one drink, he suggested they stroll in the moonlight. He took her some distance from Paquito’s, where the light and the musica falling out of the cantina windows were dim. There, in a bare patch of the desert, he took his broad sombrero and brushed away small rocks, cactus spines and thorns. He took her mantilla and spread it on the ground for her to sit. Soon, at the height of their embrace, Juanito reached beneath the folds of her skirt, and she moaned. Quicker than Pérdita thought possible, he was out of his tight pants and on top of her. But in their ardor, Pérdita’s naked lower half had slid off the small shawl and was resting on the desert soil. As Juanito porpoised over her, the sand and dust became intermingled and ensnarled in their mechanism of love-making. His cog in her sprocket became more and more painful. Juanito was determined to finish and did. But, Pérdita was, by this time, rubbed raw in the most intimate part of her anatomy. She began to cry, softly. Juanito, disgusted and disappointed, mumbled curses as he redressed. He left her; flinging a gesture of resignation behind his back.

Pérdita readjusted her clothing, and began the long walk to the bus stop, alone and frightened. The last bus left at midnight, and she hoped she had not missed it. Her hair was disheveled and the gardenias, bruised and forgotten, were left to mark the site of their intimacy, like a shrine to the dead.

Throughout the long ride back to Guadalupe, Pérdita wept and wept from the pain between her thighs, which was a constant reminder of her lost fantasy. There remained the long walk from Highway 60 to her home. Each step became more agonizing then the last, as the folds of her vagina were rubbed and scratched from dust and sand. She bathed her red and swollen lips, then took a kitchen knife and cut off a leaf of aloe vera plant and applied the soothing juice. It took six leaves before she felt any relief.

All that week, Pérdita mourned her lost love and nursed her vulva back to health. A double humiliation. Perhaps God had seen her sin and this was her penance. But, in her simplicity, Pérdita could not have been more wrong. God had much more punishment to mete out, if, indeed, it was God’s doing.

The Mexican community of the 1950s had a strong sense of unity, born out of enduring prejudice.  The grapevine of gossip was its most deadly tool. It did not take long before Pérdita’s indiscretion in Globe was made known throughout Guadalupe. Her neighbors, her parents, her aunts, all were appalled at her behavior. Had she no regard for the honor of the community?

Worse, was Rodrigo’s reaction. Rodrigo, who had never cared for anything but some filthy hogs, was aghast because his wife had been unfaithful to him. That was hardest for Pérdita to understand. Padré Arturo from the Church had no sympathy, only more guilt.

One day, when the sky was crystal blue, and the sun gave off light but no warmth, Pérdita Jarales-Tijeras was found dead. She had taken a length of rope far into the desert and threw it over the arm of a tall saguaro, and hung herself. Her private parts had not yet healed from the chafing.

*       *       *       *       *       *

Hortencia Tijeras-Villalon remembered this story of so many years ago. She had to agree with Osgood Stanch. Some idiotic rules, advanced nearly 800 years before, had led Pérdita to seek romantic “love.” Those same rules had led Rodrigo Jarales to believe he had the “love” of his wife because of a ceremony in Church one day. Neither was true. The intimate love Rodrigo withheld from her, led Pérdita to seek it from Juanito. But that sex was not at all satisfying for either. And now, after so much had been lost, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”

End

copyright 2009 Wesley E. Swaincott

My Name is Aurania Granville

September 15, 2009

My Name is Aurania Granville

            Aurania Granville had a natural flair for languages. She understood linguistics and, like a little parrot, was able to uncannily mimic any accent or vowel sound. She could, for example, when she was little, exactly reproduce the Boston accent of “Click and Clack the Tapper Brothers” of NPR’s “Car Talk,” including their web address at “Cah Tahlk daught cawm.”

            She attended private school all her life and beginning in the first grade was exposed to French, as it was the lingua franca, considered de rigueur, for educated people. Even though the French teacher, in the elementary levels, repeated the same curriculum, year after year: numbers, colors, articles of clothing, she managed to have a firm grasp of the language. Her senior high French teacher was a gem, and Aurania decided she would pursue a career as a High School French Teacher.

            At sixteen, her father enabled her to be an exchange student in France for two weeks. She lived with a family in the village of Chantilly, of lace fame. Every day Aurania Granville and her host family’s eighteen year-old daughter would ride the Metro into Paris. One day she found a ring she particularly admired at a flea market. She knew enough about French culture to be aware she would be expected to haggle for this ring. In the course of negotiations, the street-side vendor mentioned a word that was unfamiliar to Aurania and she told him as much:

            “You are offering me a pittance as though this valuable ring was a mere bagatelle!” the proprietor said.

            “I’m not familiar with the word bagatelle,” sixteen year-old Aurania Granville said.

            “Of course you are! You are French, are you not?”

            “No,” replied Aurania Granville. “I am an American.”

            The man was flabbergasted. His stereotype of Americans was that they were so egotistical that they could not conceive of any other language but English. Even those who tried to speak French were so awkward, that they were not comprehensible.

            When Aurania Granville reached college she devoured every French course the curriculum offered in only two years. Her faculty advisor informed her that the University could not grant her a degree at the end of only two years. Instead, she suggested Aurania Granville take a second language: Spanish. Spanish was much more marketable, as the Hispanic population in the United States was growing. Besides there were many similarities between the two Romance Languages. In the end, Aurania Granville would be awarded a double degree in French and Spanish with a minor in Education.

            However, Aurania Granville did not feel at ease with Spanish. She began her studies at age 20 when her brain felt more ossified than it had at age 6, when it was like a blank slate ready to be filled with the French language. Consequently, she spent a full year in Mexico City, living with a family that spoke no English, and thus, “immersing” herself in Spanish. As a treat, her host family took her on vacation to Acapulco. There, similar to her experience in Paris, a shop-girl said:

            “I know where you are from!”

            Aurania Granville assumed she would say “The United States.”

            But instead she said, “You are from the Capitol, el D.F. I can tell by your accent!”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Now, Aurania Granville had been teaching High School Spanish in a private academy for nine years.   A downturn in the economy forced the school administrator to reconsider elective subjects like art, music and foreign language, so Aurania Granville was let go. She scoured the want ads and found the perfect job. A nearby, newly-constructed public high school was looking specifically for someone with a degree in both French and Spanish to teach entry level students. When she interviewed, she was hired on the spot, as she was exactly suited for the job. In fact the principal was unsure whether anyone held such a double degree, but was delighted with Aurania Granville’s background and demeanor.

But, employment by the seventh largest school district in the country had its own unique quirks. The district encompassed the same boundaries as the county. A county that included two major metropolitan areas; the one city was large enough to host a major league baseball team and an NFL football team. There were twenty-some high schools, each supplied by at least five junior highs which in turn were supplied by multiple elementary schools. The number of teachers approached ten thousand!

Aurania Granville, being a brand-new teacher, received a thick packet of forms in the mail. It instructed her to fill out the applications and read the directions carefully. The first form seemed simple enough: it asked for name, address and zip code, telephone number and area code, cell phone and area code, e-mail address, social security number, teacher I.D. number, mother’s maiden name and disposition of first-born son. There was an F.B. I. fingerprint form which would be sent to all local police departments as a background check to see if Aurania Granville was a child-molester or had outstanding warrants against her. There was a nominal fee for fingerprinting—$8. But the district could not accept cash, checks, credit cards or debit cards; only a money order would do. Other forms enrolled her in the teachers’ labor union and offered an account at the teachers’ credit union. There were insurance forms to fill out: health, dental, vision, auto and homeowners’ if she cared to. There were forms she needed to bring: transcripts and diplomas from high school and college, references from previous employers, three friends who knew her well, etc.

Aurania Granville had an appointment at the Enrollment Center for Tuesday at nine o’clock. This district was so large it had an entire building dedicated to nothing but processing new employees. She had made application late in the school year, as she did not find out her previous academy would not be renewing her contract until after school had been out for summer vacation a full week. As a consequence, hers was the only car in the parking lot at the Enrollment Center.

On entering the building, she was greeted by banks of computer stations. A sign indicated she should select a carrel and follow the on-screen instructions. After pushing “enter” another form popped up which she could fill out electronically. It asked her name, address with zip code, telephone number with area code, cell phone number with area code, e-mail address and mother’s maiden name. When she finished, the computer printed out a name tag which she was instructed to wear for the rest of the day. It was the largest name tag Aurania Granville had ever seen:

Aurania Granville

 

 After she peeled off the paper to expose the adhesive, it stretched from shoulder to shoulder across the front of her blouse. The letters were one inch high and could be read for three blocks around. She then proceeded through the front door to be greeted by a human receptionist.

“Good morning!” the woman said pleasantly. “And what is your name?”

Aurania Granville had always been a bit self-conscious about the unusual nature of her name and hoped the name tag might obviate that. But she answered anyway:

“Aurania Granville.”

The receptionist was already rifling through Aurania’s packet of forms.

“I see you are missing your state teacher’s certification,” she said.

“No, I’m sure it’s in there,” said Aurania, “I checked and double checked this morning.”

“Ah, yes, here it is. O.K., you may go along to door number one.”

Though the receptionist had asked her name, and it was clearly written across her chest, never once did she address her as “Aurania” or “Miss Granville.”

Aurania Granville went to the first door and entered. Another clerk was there and her first question was,

“What is your name?”

Aurania Granville looked down at her bosom to check whether the name tag had fallen off or was affixed upside-down.

“Aurania Granville,” she answered.

This clerk took the first application form Aurania had filled out at home, which was identical to the form she filled out electronically on the computer. The clerk made a photo-copy and handed the form back to Aurania Granville without another word. It seemed odd to Aurania that she should want her own personal information back.

Aurania Granville proceeded to the second door. The clerk was different but the question was the same:

“What is your name?”

“Still Aurania Granville,” sassed Aurania.

This clerk took the W-4 Form, photo-copied it and handed it back to Aurania.

“Do you still want the same number of deductions you indicated on this form?” the clerk asked.

“Yes, I suppose so,” was Aurania’s reply.

Now she was at the third door and another different clerk.

“What is your name?” asked this one, not unsurprisingly.

“Aurania Granville,” said Aurania Granville, tiredly.

This clerk made photo-copies of the photo-copied transcripts Aurania had brought and gave them back to her.

At last, she arrived at the Fingerprinting Lab.  Instead of a person, she was greeted by a machine on a short pole in the shape of a bright red, plastic wheel; not unlike those used in delicatessens for lunch orders. “Take a number” the sign read, so she did. In accordance with her luck that day it was number thirteen. She went past the machine into a large waiting room full of stackable chairs. She chose one on the front row and sat down. Across the aisle there was a window in the front wall and behind it sat a man. He peered out at Aurania, waited a few moments then opened his door.

“NUMBER 13?” he cried in a loud, stentorian voice. Aurania Granville was the only person in the room; indeed she was the only person in the building, other than the employees. The need to take a number seemed ridiculous.

But, after looking around sarcastically, as if there might be another invisible person also holding the number 13, “That would be me!” she said, holding up her ticket.

He led her into the room, took her packet and indicated a chair she should sit in.

The inevitable, “What is your name?” followed.

“Aurania Granville,” she answered for the umpteenth time.

“I see you haven’t yet paid for the fingerprinting. There is a fee, you know. Take this down to the cashier at the end of the hall, and then come back.”

Aurania Granville did as instructed. She found the cashier at the end of the hall.

“What is your name?” the cashier asked. But then surprised Aurania by asking “And how do you intend to pay for this fee?”

“Aurania Granville and I was under the impression that you only accept money orders, so that’s what I brought.”

“Good,” said the cashier. She stamped some papers authoritatively and handed them back to Aurania.

Aurania Granville then went back to the Fingerprinting Lab where she was greeted by the same, red plastic, take-a-number machine. Now she was number fourteen. She took the same seat on the front row she had previously chosen, facing the window with the man eyeing her suspiciously. After a few minutes he got up and opened the door.

“NUMBER 14!” he announced loudly.

“Still me,” said Aurania, the ticket aloft.

He led her to the same chair and asked the same question:

“What is your name?”

“Aurania Granville,” said Aurania Granville.

He took her fingerprints in silence, very businesslike.

She then proceeded to the insurance clerk.

“What is your name?” the clerk asked

By this time, Aurania Granville was more than a little annoyed and decided to stir up some trouble.

“Gertrude Strumpf,” she answered. The clerk seemed unaffected.

“Will you be including other members of your family on your policies?” she asked.

It was strange how every clerk asked her name but never used it. Even when she gave a fictitious name it didn’t seem to matter. Each clerk had a predetermined next question and the exclusion of an applicant’s name would have thrown everything off balance.

When the next clerk asked:

“What is your name?” Aurania Granville tried a masculine name to see if she were paying attention.

“Alphonse Clunkmeyer,” she replied. It didn’t seem to matter.

The next clerk made photo-copies of the photo-copied state teaching certificate. But only after asking:

“What is your name?”

Aurania Granville mumbled: “shrmblfft  trbdgttle.” It didn’t seem to faze the clerk who handed back the oxymoronic original photo-copies without another word.

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It is assumed, but not certain, that Aurania Granville eventually got through the Enrollment Center and is now happily teaching French I and Spanish I at the new high school. Perhaps she still has the name tag with “Aurania Granville” emblazoned across her chest, but then, perhaps, people are still asking for her name anyway.  It would be a shame if a frustrated Aurania Granville had resigned before she started, because Aurania Granville had a natural flair for languages.