Monsoon season in a mystical latitude at the border of Sonora. The sky all grey with sideways rain. They huddle under eaves, on covered balconies, on the street, bottles of tequila toasting violent wind, the joyous celebrants of a harvest ritual. Women in ponchos thread their way through sheets of rain as all the unseen chimes of porches strike up a clangorous chorus.
All the houses are built into hillsides, stacked on top of each other, so if you wanted to you could spit on the roof of your neighbor, and the roofs are of various material, concrete, copper, terracotta, tin, near or far they comprise a pleasant mosaic of provincial life, haphazard and pretty with wild angles everywhere you turn, narrow streets on savage slopes with 100-step staircases.
Watching these things occurring in an otherwise static afternoon is a man before a sodden soiled mattress. He stands with arms crossed watching each raindrop like a tiny knife that rips the ticking of his heart, his face wrinkled as though he’s witnessing the slow and public death of a secret lover.
He wants to avoid another night in the Dynasty, dull plum, bad struts, windows won’t roll up, so perhaps he's due for a stretch on this feral mattress, floating in the shadow of a ruined concrete house.
Suddenly the downpour stops as though a hand shut off the source. Sunlight shines on windshields in the RV park atop the mine across the highway. Tamale carts roll up. Birds talk and sing and some career tweaker queues up Foreigner from his busted Cutlass. The rain imagery in the jukebox-heroic couplets is completely lost on the man.
No shortage of American beaters here, they’re everywhere in elegant redundance like deposed royalty. Turn a corner, scale a hill, and there will be the busted Cutlass, the shitty DeVille, the unseated Regal, the discrowned Vic, all abject like a colony of disgraced and dying kings.
What they call avenues are alleyways, thin passages that one car can barely fit in even though they're two-way streets. The posted speed is 15 but no one goes over 5, creeping up or down a blind curve, the dashboard dancer or the dice asway, so slow as though the driver's asleep or drunk or both.
The man wrings rain from his hat and walks away from the mattress, beginning a slow trudge up a long steep staircase. Walking in the shadow of the hilltop, the sunlit strip of land ahead, where the shadow breaks and the earth is light, it isn't much warmer. Halfway up he stops and sits and remains there until dusk.
Two pairs of headlights wind down the gulch, drifting down in harmony like fireflies in love.
I heard vagrant raindrops splashing on gutters, or was it the ticking chassis of a freshly parked car.
I rose before dawn and watched it creep over the mountains, stands of cypress in full silhouette like the spires of a sacred place before a city of blue and gold, an inverted flame that over the course of a half hour would increase its air supply and burn pure blue.
Other times I didn't, and I slept.
And then I'd rise and dress. One morning I said okay, I said it's fine, aloud, alone, and I unplugged a cheap alarm clock I kept by the sink, whose mechanical resonance had a tendency to drive me crazy if I wasn’t careful. There were moments when I stood over the sink for minutes at a time, the clock against my ear like a conch echoing the celestial rites of meaninglessness, sometimes three minutes standing over the crippled and groaning plumbing, whose ancient pipes ticked like a coded curse from a phantom plumber. So I stopped the clock, sat down, and wept at my reflection in a spoon I was idly twirling.
I engaged in self-deceptions of a kind, daily betrayals and falsehoods I thought I needed to go on. I told myself I was answering to something sacred, even if I didn’t understand it, which is the basis for most people’s non-secular relationships. I could’ve been damned but I didn’t want to know.
My business involved little more than dry, fruitless walks up and down the hills and canyons. I donned a straw hat and a sweat-stiff tartan shirt and old black denim. Wild fennel, inflorescent with little yellow umbrellas, scented my walks through the gulch, a fragrance that made me feel less alone, like chancing upon a friend, their tall and glaucous stalks leaning into me, as though it was my smell they wished to catch, and I'd gather a bouquet and chew the pollen to freshen my breath and enliven the fading taste of the strega I slipped in my coffee.
I was losing my emotional depth perception. I was blundering into things I had no business touching. I believed I possessed a silent grace, but all I was doing was grinding my teeth down bit by bit. It was the saddest time of my life, and also the best.
So I'd placed the spoon on the table without a sound, and thereupon I looked at the great indigenous opera of the small border town. A click beetle crawled across a pool of rainswept blood. A menacing chorus of Harleys wound around the avenues. Every creeping thing sang arias from mountaintops. An errant nut hit a flagpole and sounded like an elevator bell, as if to say: Here we are now, the next level.
Every day the same men were kicked out of the same bars, the sons of night and darkness. Every night a local woman howled at the moon, though it was less a howl than a call to joyful lunacy, a song of a pneumatic siren from the times of war.
It was like that. Abandoned lives are aromatic. The higher the heat, the greater the stress, the more remarkable is the survival, all vivid and delicious, indicative of the triumph of life over lack.
Once I drove to the laundromat called Snow White. It was empty but there were several dryers working and I experienced the familiar frisson of watching the synchronized rhythmic tumbling of colorful loads, and a solitary woman folding clothes in her laundry-day uniform, running shorts and a sherpa sweater and caterpillar boots, nothing matched and everything was gorgeous, it was an Experience, it was like seeing a sculpture of the assumption in a secret cathedral.
Outside pigeons hovered midair, the primaries of their underwings aglow with fading light. Mexico just a few miles away, Huachucas black against the blue and gold, a serrated void, something ripped or bit from the sky. Erratic cooing with the rhythm of an irregular heart. It’s only when the sun sank to a certain depth that the void revealed its features, lilac annexing black, foothills with their jagged angles. Just minutes ago the parking lot was suffused with gold, now a muted lilac. The birds began to spar midair, bits of down floating in slow motion like drops of blood from a boxer’s jaw.
As I drove back I looked at distant peaks and tried to guess the infinite secrets they held, keepers of an eternal password I’d never crack, with security questions in a language I didn’t know. Sometimes in the car I’m driven towards either ecstasy or suicide, depending on the way a certain range looks at a certain time of day. It’s the shadows and the contours and the feeling of wanting to be folded into something like a missing ingredient, to be held and to be gone at once, dispersed yet incorporated into the whole.
Desert dusk is a mood, a sensation, like someone draping their coat on your shoulders, a voluptuous envelopedness, which also lends itself to sensory highs, a feeling of fading ecstasy no less diminished by the coming darkness. Where the dawn was a flame this was something else, but it’d be ludicrous to call it anything but sunset, blue on peach on pink on plum. I tried to explain the feeling once and someone said, It sounds like a hug you’ve always needed.
The man with the dull plum Dynasty was one of the most sorrow-prone people I’ve known, touched with an inward misery and afflicted with the knowledge that he is someone he is not supposed to be. There he’d be in a shifty group of men, gathered around an old Eighty-Eight, drinking Schmidts and cracking open glowsticks to ingest the luminescent chemicals. Legal highs for when the source dries.
“What the hell are you eating?”
“Glowstick. It’s not very good. It’s like eating a highlighter.”
He would freak at the sudden appearance of the sky in his cup of polar pop, the flash of familiar light, as though a bulb switched on or a window thrown open, a light that dictates Time and Place, in particular Always and The Parking Lot of Circle K, where clouds nestled in the pure blue cubes melting into his Mountain Dew. A man barked three short barks in a manner meant to convey his feelings for the other man’s feelings about his cup of Polar Pop. Another man spun in circles honing a butterknife on the pavement. Another hitched a ride half a mile into the middle of nowhere and then hitched back.
The guys who lived to die in states of various local tragedy, always too soon but never too hot to talk about.
I read about snakes on speed and other addicted reptiles seized during raids, who were then rehabilitated over months of mania and erratic behavior, and I thought, How wonderful, how lifelike, they're just like us.
The man with the dull plum Dynasty was said to've been seen heading north to try his sorrows there, in a place where it gets darker faster. Sometimes I wish I'd hopped along, but then I'd miss the light.
The clock chimed six and then the light was already gone, the coat was on my shoulders, as lilac spread across the sky like drops of ink in water.
By 6:18, a depthless blue, the blue of the abyssal plain, but I could still make out the angles of the foothills.
A lone bird sang like a harp strung with hair, high-pitched and taut and soft and tonic.
By 6:30 there was nothing to see but darkness. It seemed pretty fast to me, but then I’d never watched nightfall through a rush.
I looked through the open blinds at the dark. When they were shut I could maintain composure. It was when the blinds were open that I began to experience a feeling of void, an immense loss, like that of a dead parent or a pair of sunglasses lost at random. I’ll find you when I’m not looking.
The desert here was once a sea in late cretaceous time, a sea that lapped across terrain deformed by folds and faults.
And then thermal disturbance made it rift and collapse, among broader tectonic problems.
And so it'll be a sea again, long after the engines of our Dynasties die, while we were on our way to darker places, not finding, but looking.
Derick Dupré lives in southern Arizona and is working on a book of fiction.