Closing the seventies, south of Tucson. The desert luminous,
desolate. Billboards of glamour girls making shade, where the sharecroppers
rest. My heart in mothballs. It's monotony, scything the sage and mesquite
out of the arroyos. They wear the long sleeves, even in summer. I was
twenty-eight, squiring the first of my children.
We bought, my family did, surplus potatoes from those farmers,
the misshapen ones gone unsold at market. We would haul them to the airfield
-- the strip Dad and his brothers, reckless Air Corps aces, purchased after
the war -- where we flattened and let them dry, until the feed man came by
to negotiate. It all took about six weeks. By then I was clamoring again for
California, where a neighbor girl was looking after my Goldens, feeding them
twice daily, playing fetch.
We employed five men who could have done the job by proxy,
unsupervised. I didn't socialize with them, I couldn't tell you their names
or recreations. They were all roughly the same size and height. I know only
what wages we paid them. Occasionally we would distribute among them a
portion of the profits.
It was in those late Julys and Augusts as "foreman" or "overseer"
-- cordial euphemisms for "the boss' son"-- that I began to age, the years
showing on my face and not conventionally, either. I kept a bottle under the
bed, bottles: bootleg whiskey, mescal tequila, brandy. My shoesoles were
caked. I had no help or solace. I was siblingless. My hair was thinning. I
threw my spent cigarettes in the flowerpots. Dad had purchased an old Army
Jeep, its fuselage a drab olive, so I could survey the premises.
My first glimpse of Joanne was at the wire-mesh fence dividing
the airstrip from the highway. (Dad christened it Fiscalini Field, after the
only collegiate ballpark he homered in.) She was holding her husband's
lunch. They shared one vehicle, a battered green Ford. It was a turbulent
ride, always breaking down. I presumed they had grown up together in
provincial Mexico -- Michoachan, I want to say. His shift finished, he would
walk the two miles or so to the cheap lunch counter in town, where she
waitressed, and again she would feed him. On her weekday off she walked to
the market and laundromat, the shoulders unpaved, her shoelaces dangling.
Customarily -- heredity, the origin of my bravado -- I kicked open the
passenger door and offered her a ride. The first time, she reached in her
pocket to pay a little for the fuel. Instead I poked at my cheek. She
hastened to kiss it, then relented.
Ought I to have feigned disinterest, close as I was to thirty?
She had never seen the ocean. She hadn't any children. I had
supposed it was a question of means. What else. She wore her hair in braids.
She was bronzed to the bottoms of her feet. Always she withdrew from me to
undress. I marvel when she emerges, her breasts bobbing slightly with each
step -- her mouth agape, I compel her into agonizing rapture -- these words,
I now realize, connotate love, our equal footing emotionally. She came and
went as she liked. Afterward, her brow and legs moist, she might turn her
head and, looking out my trailer window, watch her husband, no more than a
hundred yards away, a kerchief tied around his neck, shoveling the crushed
tubers into twenty-gallon drums.
His proximity only emboldened us. Doubtless he was good to her,
tender. He had quite a few outstanding debts, I came to learn. Her want for
him, quantifiable by lust, was negligible. She was reconsidering her
allegiance and vows. Her faultless Catholic marriage, the austerity of it,
was a formality she could no longer sustain. And the visibility of our
affair, its flagrance the very essence of indiscretion, her laying flat in
my backseat ... I wouldn't say she resurrected me, I wouldn't go so far as
that. Only I was reaching under the bed less and less.
It was a principle of mine, longstanding, never to eat greens or
buy a woman flowers. Yet I began to ornament my room with the regional flora
that flourished in the underbrush. To my walls I tacked lithographs of
Remington, Piazzoni. I began smoking cigars, reading tabloids. I even worked
to improve my posture and stamina with exercises illustrated in Dad's flying
manuals strewn about the trailer.
I envied my dapper old man, west-coast aristocratic, besieging
the Capitol in his long Lincoln, lunching with the Governor's secretaries.
He would make me earn my inheritance, cut my teeth in the frontier alone.
'I'm not even thirty, goddamn it,' I said to him over the phone.
'I won't exile myself here every summer for the rest of my life.'
'For the rest of my life, you won't have a choice,' he replied.
I could hear, in the background, the hum of his Dictaphone.
Solitary heir: why, then, the deficiency of confidence? Why were
all my lunges at life foreshortened by cowardice? I didn't enlist after
graduating, I couldn't articulate why, and Dad, figuring my age or the
fearsome prospect of outliving his son, voted reluctantly in the primary for
McCarthy -- an unutterable impulse, tantamount to love.
His parents lived an hour away, in Tumacacori, close to a
monastery. Even then they'd drive across the border for their medication. I
worried about them walking the alleys of Nogales alone, and volunteered
Joanne one day to accompany them.
It was customary for the men, when they had a question or needed
direction, to shout Boss or else rap on my window. So I wasn't surprised
that day he stopped by. Confrontation was inevitable. Slowly I buttoned up
my shirt, expecting to be knifed or, at the very least, flailed at.
He asked through the door to come inside briefly. I assented and
unfastened the latch on the screen.
'You understand what a nuisance the flies are,' I said.
'Yes, we've lived here for some time.'
'I see the work is progressing nicely.' He nodded. 'Any
trouble?' I asked benignly.
'My wife, she's pregnant.'
We had taken no precautions.
There passed between us an interminable period of hostile quiet.
'It's undoubtably yours,' I said.
His eyes gave it away, and I knew it must be so: his sterility,
the second opinions he sought, a chronology he carefully explained, all the
while holding his hat in his hands, out of habit, out of comfort.
'She's always wanted children,' he said.
As he was the only one who could operate the forklift, I
reckoned him indispensable until the feed man arrived.
'Let us attribute it, shall we, to the will of God. Also,' I
said, 'I'll be distributing your bonuses this week. Yours first. You'll
kindly not mention it to the other men.'
He understood, though my staccato Spanish, the coming windfall.
'You ought to get back out there," I said, motioning to the
strip, 'or what'll the other men think.'
'Congratulations,' I said to him on his way out.
I left for California shortly thereafter, once the prices were
settled and airfield scraped clean, the gauges on the Jeep rising, falling,
a dozen empty bottles of beer clanking in the backseat.
I have spent the ensuing years deftly avoiding disaster. It's
unsettling to think of my wife and girls one day finding out. On occasion
I'll lose sleep pondering the fallout. Dad, he's retired now, adores the
kids, Delia, Sophie. They're his favorite pastime. On the weekends I take
them over to visit. He won't let them call him Grandpa. The girls jump and
hug him goodbye in his favorite leather chair, 'Love you Alec,' and he'll
say, 'Good riddance,' tucking ten dollars into their overalls.
I pray Joanne's was a boy and that he was submerged in the
Zachary Amendt is 23 & new to Brooklyn, a native of Southern California. After
baptismal water by both heels, to incarnate Achilles. Invulnerability is
what I wish for him. For when we leave the earth the same harsh sunlight
will burn on our children, unabated. And where will they find shelter, if
not in themselves, shelter from the light lines of shade.
college (University of California, Davis), he worked as a bureau chief for City News
Service, Inc., the nation's largest regional news wire service. Last year
he authored a short novel, Onset of Trembling, which is awaiting publication
in the bottom shelf of his writing desk.