People who collect more cars than they’ll ever need in a lifetime live in prison camps of their own design, addicted to crack or heroin or a combination of alcohol and air conditioning that leaves them listless, pale as whale bone, or blacker than highway tar, and trapped in a bleak moonbase of existence that doesn’t strike them as hopeless because there are no harsh winters here to remind them of their situation.
The rest of Phoenix alternates between barrio and suburb and of course completely rich inventions of lush wealthy neighborhoods. The city itself is the definition of sprawl stretching outward and onward for a limited forever looking like an accumulation of factory warehouse storage with pretty vegetation planted around its accumulation of borders. Cushy neighborhoods touch one another and dance around barren zones and are set off by walls, false dead ends guarded by overweight or aged security forces in golf carts who spend most of their days reading the newspaper and dreaming of what they will eat for dinner.
The wealth is stunning as anywhere else and its origin hard to divine especially because there aren’t the expected Victorian style mansions. Money is sunk into new modernistic dwellings that even Braques wouldn’t have dreamed of that are pumped alive by copious amounts of water, exotic plantings, and yard sculpture based on the minimalism that surrounds and is the desert.
Sound of a train wailing.
The city’s center of wealth climbs the base of a gigantic brown sundial that heaves from the dry pan floor: Camelback mountain. It’s name is synonymous with, instead of a middle eastern tangent, large amounts of Republican money.
Strangely and irrationally, the city is blanketed in green that has been engendered by over watering. The air smells florid and its background music is of constant birdsong. Walking its street, there a reminiscence of the east coast or middle west and it makes sense because Phoenix’s artificially watered lands produce a miraculous harvest of produce. More than three hundred sunny days a year. But there’s also a feeling of somewhere different that’s not quite the same as a foreign country or a New Mexico. It is as though we clever humans have created an open air biosphere in the harsh reality of aridity. It’s winsome.
In its vast arrays of pre-fab, mobile home inspired apartment complexes with names like The Hildago, Inglewood Terrace, Cordoba, and Mesa Point, there was one such rental unit, a temporary campground, that was located in an adobe complex itself built upon the border of two of the city’s subcities, an indistinguishable border as it were except for a canal that ran through its western flank. This pinpoint. This place between Mesa and Tempe was a home to a person who did not know who he was.
Not even in any way droll is there not a mesa in the city of Mesa. All that it is is a chunk of Phoenix governed by Mormons and is hence, deeply boring. For fun this is what people do there: drugs. The drug of choice in such a little sunny corner of paradise on earth with its expensive restaurants built on fake islands surrounded by pumped in water that becomes almost immediately rancid is the one that the manager of that said eating establishment snorts everyday while making schedules. It’s the only way he can get anything done. He’d also spliff a bit too on occasion to transform the ducks in the moat into good things rather than the green pooping vermin that they were. Not very appetizing. He’d give the moon crystal a nasal wink so that when the chefs of monotony were preparing the night special, mostly steak and lobster, it would smell as if he were in a Parisian alley and not in the theme park of an eatery whose greatest compliment was yum the food is consistent. He couldn’t deal with any of this, what he was paid to deal with personally, so he white-lined everyday. He did it at work until he saw the golden cuff links and tie pin: tigers with flying fish wings, the restaurant’s logo, mutated into a vision that made pure sense to him. Who he was and what his life had up until that point had meant so conveniently packaged into a skinny golden symbol only he could interpret by ordering heads of iceberg lettuce on time. A lettuce he absolutely despised.
The night a restaurant inspector found, while on his rounds, the mal-formed, undone paper airplane in the garbage can, creases of white flake highlighting a portion of a magazine creased by fingernail, his trouble began. His flight to freedom could be only one way.
The kitchen passed inspection with a score of ninety-two. On the downside, his regional manager was notified and even sent the scandalous piece of paper evidence that had not yet been fingerprint dusted. Still had some dust of it own, lingering. IT was found in a garbage can outside the manager’s office. A hopelessly accurate scene of an obvious crime whose locale couldn’t be rationalized away: no employee would be stupid enough to place evidence for immediate termination so thoughtlessly. The powder was never thought of as an intelligence enhancer.
He received a letter that Thursday in the work mail. It gave him two weeks to get his and the business’s business straight. Such is the treachery of employment in a chain. The heartlessness that comes with stepping out of rank. And he was only snorting to become a more enthusiastic boss. Black tie compliments, faces shining, the receipts adding up, Christmas parties. All gone under a baking Arizona sun. Some places, some people incapable of the natural ability to sparkle.
You might say that cocaine is what makes Arizona tick. It has the power to render life bearable under that low slung sun, those all too unreal neighborhoods, that wanna be California mentality. It can make a house payment seem reasonable even though the garage is filled with flying cockroaches that don’t wait until night to make their hunger and curiosity known. It can make the wedding that you have been invited to and must attend at a chapel tucked into the Bee line highway’s burnt hills an event worthy of its supermarket food quality and the over-priced photographer who says to every one “say Cheese Whiz”. A fountain in the man-made pond shooting skyward like one big fat lightning bolt of frigid ice.
A as place to escape from long-lasting memories, the western frontier towns offer up a hodgepodge of drifters, of nobodies so unimportant that they don’t hardly register in the police report of your memory and the amazing part is that you could have murdered or have been murdered by them. Either way, no one loses much.
Say you met her at a party. A party for a couple: one a skinny black-haired (dyed) son of a Jehovah’s witness who had come to the “city” from a mining town birthplace. The woman was, as she called herself, a failed attempt at an abortion, a true story involving a coat hanger and a heart not quite full of the required amount of insane courage to get away with it clean. Instead, muddled and still breathing amniotic fluids. She was a woman condemned to a seat by any restaurant’s bathroom, unfiguratively, an electric wheelchair that hummed her around, from table to table to desk to lowered sink console, a life in traveling in the most obvious and conspicuous of ways: rolling contained. Didn’t stop her mind from thinking and dreaming and wondering nor did it stop her from being an unearthly beautiful person trapped in the body of, as she called herself, a misfit not interesting enough for the circus. She has a name that will never be forgotten. She has a face that will always be seen when the muses of loneliness call.
In her government housing apartment that is a ten minute electrical ride up and over some sidewalks from her job on campus, she crosses streets that will never know what pot holes are, she drives under swaying, dirty-hair palm trees, on her way to prepare for the party she has planned. It’s Friday night. It is a celebration of the new found romance she has discovered a co-worker has been concealing from her. Kyle, the kid with an Elvis hairdo, so black that it’s almost blue, has a thing for her.
There weren’t to be any drugs that night but there were drinks a plenty, we being members of an office– young tutors who served students with physical and learning disabilities. An easy partially funded by the government job that paid well and was boosted by state tax dollars and funds from the university. Office buddies getting to know one another better. No coca cola this time mostly only booze and our youths, naturally fermenting, getting tipsy and weird.
We drank and we drank until it became someone’s idea that I go pick up young Elvis’s sister. She lived in some rancidly cheap apartments none too far from the complex we were now growing slightly bored and edgy in. I volunteered to pilot this new face in the crowd if I could use someone’s car. I was a scooter boy back then. I even promised not to wreck.
Scene shift, blurred memory, to her downstairs apartment. She tells me to come in after I knock twice. There’s clothes everywhere, like in a guy’s room, the Psychedelic Furs on her portable stereo with only one speaker. She tells me her brother had mentioned me before. Hmmm. On the headboard of her waterbed she had anywhere up to six, eight books cracked open and split open upside down to where she had stopped reading, lying like that on their words. She told me that it was how she read: a little at a time, many different things. She didn’t think it strange and she asked me what I was reading. You know what I told her? I told her I couldn’t remember. Impressive stuff. A great answer that made her make a sour mouth. Sit on her bed, and point her naked feet into a one at a time pair of long striped socks.
She had on this lace-like sort of black dress and her hair looked recently henna-ed. She had mascara on and perfect, trimmed, boy-like eyebrows. Her skin was the color of a person who subsisted mainly on vegetables: caramel smooth. There was one and only one thing holding me back from what was pre-ordained to happen. This secretly panned tryst I could sense in the inclination of her eyes when I appeared at her door. She must have practiced opening it. Maybe it was the fact that she looked exactly how Elvis hair had described her as: a female version of himself. And he was a guy I worked with. He was a guy I occasionally pissed next to. He was a guy I watched brush and floss his teeth after lunch and now I was here in a dingy room with him as a female, slightly older, and I could sense that a ride wasn’t all that she would accept from me.
She was ready to go. Just got done putting some lipstick on and spraying herself with something that smelled both moderately expensive and sickeningly sweet. Then she said it. “We don’t have to go to the party. We can have one of our own.” She sat down on the bed, cross-legged.
In pure Casanova style I believe I grabbed at her head, kissed the side of her mouth and stood up straight, boner-less, and said that I had to return because they were waiting for us. She reluctantly agreed. I did take us back there where she poo-pooed my every subsequent advance. It was too late. I had my chance and I blew it because I was afraid. I had tailed between my legs. All through the too late to get any drunker evening, her brother asked me and asked me what I did at her place. Did I do anything to her? She has a lot of boyfriends, you know.
I had noticed that all of her upside down books were folded up and only about one quarter read.
Nights when all there’s to do is chase what you think are UFOs landing in undisclosed desert hangers on the flat flood plain of the Salt River, out where there are Native American tax free tobacco stores and even some vegetable stands. Nights when out of Victorian woman boredom you take dinner at the el cheap-o Chinese restaurant one block from your sadly inexpensive apartment that places you one shaky notch above the distinction of white trash. A Chinese restaurant that serves MSG in an array of creative styles, each a different shape, texture, and form so the fact that you’re eating not so different from each other the same things never even dawns upon your taste buds. A restaurant whose inside is of paneling that neither looks nor feels like wood but does occasionally have thin bamboo leaf-like cockroaches who are drawn by the steamy smells of dinner served. A little Chinese restaurant, one of the millions in this country, locked into the simplicity of a time before they served soft serve ice cream and American cookies. This is back when egg drop soup was considered exotic. This is back when eating with chopsticks was really cool and hard to do. Back when the owner’s daughter sat as placid as Buddha, gazing at the cash register, her face aglow with a thin, sexy film of sweat, her body thin and carved from a mixture of jade and porcelain, fingers as delicate as poured candies of caramel, as you stared and ate and wondered what she’d be like knowing of the sheer impossibility of her even being allowed to go out with you, then the meeting of her parents, understanding them, respecting them, that you order another pot of tea and let your fantasies unwind like the demons of steam that dance above your delicate, handle-less cup.
So you drive. Leaving the Phoenix-Tempe-Scottsdale-Mesa-Tempe-Phoenix area, heading due east is a journey back through time. Past an old downtown (Mesa’s) that is as dead as it is unused or uncared about, although the one store that seems most important must be the cleaning supply/vacuum cleaner parts store. Then it sianaras past more mobile home communities than there ever could be murders in them. Places that keep the art of tattoage a thriving business, past more Circle Ks than should be allowed on any moonbase, towards brown mounds of burnt dead earth that people have aligned white painted rocks upon to spell random letters of the alphabet. In the rearview, a city that was never really there disappears and all that is left are some lights and a palm tree grove like an oasis that has no visible water. Ahead are red skies and a dusky shadow of a world. It is called the Superstition mountains.
They stand as a crashed and eroded alien spacecraft. They stand as Romanesque columns stacked and forgotten. They stand as a metropolis in rock with no need for windows. They govern over foothills of cholla, a type of cactus that looks like a badly crafted balloon sculpture by a seriously disturbed clown, only they have thousands and thousands of spikes. The spikes function as tendrils. At the end of their needles are hair-like extensions. When an animal or human walks close to one of the plants, it seems as if a cholla bud jumps from its stalk and attaches itself to a clump of unlucky flesh.
Like a kamikaze sea urchin the cholla sticks and won’t let go. The victim must tear it from his or her body, pulling the skin up off the bone like super fresh beef jerky, with a gloved hand. When it’s removed it leaves an old fashioned telephone mouthpiece circular dot-to-dot imprint of a painful bruise. Really the dots are needle tips broken off in the flesh. It takes months for them to ever so slightly begin to work their way out and are a painful, colorful reminder that proximity can hurt. This plant is clever and is definitely not the stuff of superstition.
Fields, but they can’t be called that, so acres of saguaros that toothpick into infinity provide the Superstitions with an eternal audience. When the giant trees of cactus depart this earthly realm, their tough green skin decomposes, and they leave behind long white cylindrical sticks of their amazing dirigible frames. These are sacred and should never be profaned as hiking/walking sticks.
Though the desert surrounding is really a forest (Tonto) of plant life that offers little to no shade, and is of a very prickly nature, that discourages exploration due to its throbbing, heat-soaked weirdness, and smells like some kind of entrancing, wicked incense burning out its core, it does invite the curious mind to get lost. More tempting and confusing than a field of summer corn, all sense of direction is lost and becoming lost is only confounded by the white slice of angel food cake sun that is burning off the top of your head, dying your hair back to baby blonde.
Walking its arroyos and otherlands there is only one thing sure to never be found: water. No streams anywhere trickle. It is bone dry. It is a bone dryer.
When it does rain, the desert becomes a muddy floor of water skidaddling like brown quicksilver over all flat surfaces including streets and sidewalks in a rage of flash flood. The water is so un-used to being on the surface that it tries to hide itself in the confines and privacy of the water table as quick as possible and people actually get swept away in the process. Flash flooding maybe should be called obvious downpours. If they’re hiking in the canyonlands, they can easily be flushed through stone like so much unwanted crap.
Nope, no water anywhere, especially not in the Superstitions. No springs, no sudden falls, no chocolate creeks of dust milkshakes running, no pools of turquoise deep enough to dive in, no wetness at all. Except for morning dew and the sweat off your back and brow.
Why humans go there, parking at the Peralta trail head and walking the well over a mile to the roof of a cathedral made of ground is not a total mystery. First there’s the legend of the Lost Dutchman mine. It is rumored that an explorer found a deep vein of gold and marked its existence either by a landmark or a hidden map or some cryptic accumulation of stones just before he ran out of water and went sun drunk mad. His find awaits rediscovery and there have been many who have looked.
Or they go to see what the human brain cannot register: the view from the many pinnacled top. Visions of raw, gut-colored earth exposed, bent, folded into aligned and eroded shark’s teeth of amalgamated layers, putrefied fruit pies of not as yet sand dunes in the process of oldifiying. Among the dinosaur ridges, the impossible to connect boulder citadels, the painting of a nothingness that isn’t and is, there rises like a prehistoric syringe tip Weaver’s Needle– a spire that marks a beginning of a place so vast and beyond that those who enter its maze of canyons and dead end walls can at least from ridge top see it and what it stands for: a most beautiful and anonymous funerary monolith.
From the balcony of the Superstitions, Weaver’s Needle looks pagan and fin-like, a massive temple of sculpture. From its base it rises straight up and looks death-defying in its angularity, seemingly it whispers “climb me and you will never climb again”. It slices the sky exposing at least one Christ-like rib. It is its own shiprock that most people in the world will never see.
Take plenty of water. Bring a good map. Think before you journey. Make decisions before your brainpan is heated by the trickster sun. Do not believe the distances your eyes will measure in the clear air/light. Approach the desert with respect and humility because it excels in taking walking monkeys down. The only superstitions the Superstitions contain is that they aren’t there to take a bite out of your hide.
Nights under Arizona lightning skies and palm tree swoons, monsoon borne and bred to make street signs sway under traffic slowly crawling along dangerously wet because now all the oil in them is activated by rain so cars go one way with no intention of going back and the radio in that one lovely bar you inhabit, a bar called Uncle Monkey’s that itself is one item in a strip mall of other businesses you haven’t even bothered to notice is playing pop songs remembered from high school and the men surrounding the bar pretty much all have tattooed arms and the few women in there wear tube tops and short skirts of not exactly enough fabric and you can smell their perfume from your table tucked snugly in the corner of the joint and it smell more like hairspray gone sour and this is enchanting.
Somewhere along the way, it becomes your realization that wherever you might be in the valley of the sun, if its to splash your feet in the public library’s fountain and wet the back of your neck in the afternoon brightness near a garden asleep with transients with skin quickly matching the color of asphalt, or be it at Mike’s hot dog house where there’s a taste of Chicago Vienna beef in the air and autographed Harry Caray photos on the wall alongside stains of dried mustard and ketchup, or be it in a parking lot halo-ed by halogen light chain link fence glorification at the foot of a mini- devil’s tower called T butte that’s a spooky silhouette darkened by a wanna be invisible city twinkling beyond as you sit on the top of the tiny mountain or at any of these theres and know for the first time in any random series of lives that you are here only for a moment and these Hopper-villes that you inhabit will never cease to go away because it’s a rest stop existence and out there, be it space or a desert, it can kill you and it’s California or bust or if you dare, New Mexico, and if you double dare, Mexico, but none of it matters because you are stuck wherever you take a few seconds to landscape perceive it all.
As the problem is everywhere in the way out west, no where to end up. The prime option being a six hour drive though basins hotter than our conceptions of hell towards the reward of Southern California and its grand miniature tropical golf course of neighborhoods, a million places to shop if not more, an ocean regularly too cold to swim in yet one that churns up waves that roll and break on forever beaches as pleasant as background music for infomercials.
So strange passing the Chocolate mountains that are gravity-ified chunks of brown earth ever so slowly eroding into smaller and smaller morsels, to begin to see barren, dry, barriers of landforms that have a stubble of thin green beards. The air too gums up with humidity that forms halos over the San Berdoo range that has become a second story to reality unconnected to ground. Wafting inland is the scent of the ocean characterizing So Cali as a place that continually promises the sea replete with cardboard cut-outs of the Catalina islands tempting us to take a long swim that might just offer salvation from the Babylon bride of Hollywood.
At any time in your brief tenure of Arizona residency, or just passing through, you might find yourself on just such a journey, in the passenger’s seat of a Toyota station wagon drinking vodka and soda pop just for the heck of it, just to pass the time the trip takes and all those split pea soup restaurants that need to be passed and not thought about with their parking lots full and bubbling over and the radio playing the Doors as the moving room with a view shows you what the lizard king must have seen on these selfsame highways and maybe even once he went on his way to a place called Morro Bay where all there’s to do involves sea shell sculpture and watching a big rock that floats in a puddle of placidity. How it becomes the sea and the seals calling in from the unseen distance of fog enshrouded inlets that really probably aren’t there.
Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. He is the author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France and a short story collection titled “Now Leaving Nowheresville.”