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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 2, No. 5, 2003

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Robert J. Lewis
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Emanuel Pordes
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Mady Bourdage
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photo by Kirk WalkerAl Billings lives in Austin, Texas. His short story, Far Enough South, was published in Arts & Opinion, Vol 2, No 1, 2003.


Just before dawn, I started noticing the dead porcupines. With quills bristling like the hair on a Mohawk warrior, each extended a pair of tiny legs. Flattened by hurtling trucks, and stiff with rigor mortis, they dotted the highway shoulder from Fredericksburg to Fort Stockton. A vulture's rotted breast jutted upward in sharp relief against the desert sky, arched like the overturned bow of a life boat, or the ribs of a Gothic cathedral. Here, life was meat and gristle, a guillotine swinging rudely above its next sacrifice. The morning sun slumped wearily now, burdened with its own task. Like oil slicks, indigo shadows oozed across boulder-studded draws. I stepped on the accelerator and flipped off the headlights.

Bone cancer is quickly killing my mother, and I'm driving to San Bernardino, where I'll put her on an airplane bound for Texas. She has carefully concealed her disease from me under a dense layer of fear and denial, and I've discovered the truth during a long-distance conversation with her doctor. She has only a few weeks to live. Back in Austin my wife and I have rushed to prepare her death bed. Angry, and already tired, I've got two days' drive ahead of me. I'm barreling into the mouth of an event I dread, sucked along the hypnotic asphalt ribbon. Usually, this journey fills me with pleasure, and even now, I can feel the familiar tug of the highway. But like the buzzard's breast, decay signals its intent at every turn.

I shuffle through a ragged deck of memories and fan a Royal Flush. I remember my father driving us west forty years ago, giddy with excitement over the adventurous move. I fold the hand when I also remember how, when he left Rhode Island, he stretched the delicate web of his family ties so thinly that it broke his heart. His blue, drunken face whispers hoarsely from the crusty rock formations lumped along the highway.

The same kind of tenuous filament binds me to my mother, and I can almost see it, suspended across the Sonoran desert's ringing valleys, trembling above box canyons and dry river beds from here to California. Too much alike, and equally stubborn, we've lived far apart for many years. I begin to recall the sudden medical emergencies I've rushed to contain there, the yearly Christmas visits and the endless rounds of everyday errands that filled my visits, the beauty shop appointments, the church breakfasts and the endlessly-snarled Medicaid paperwork I never seemed to be able to entirely straighten out. I wonder if I have abandoned her, or if we've simply cobbled together a workable relationship out of the distance between us. There isn't much use in worrying about it now; this highway is strewn with the husks of tattered intentions.

I watch for landmarks, but I don't get anxious; they'll come when it's time. As I climb west, each new plateau sparkles with the jittery mirage of crushed hopes. Sagging barbed wire struggles to contain the degraded, weed-choked prairie. Abandoned filling stations droop, and crumble into their own once-bright foundations. Natural gas seeps from the occasional, forlorn oil well. Deer leap the Interstate every few miles, but I barely notice them, and I fail to see the darting lizards, or hear the crow's lunatic cackle. Instead, I think about my mother's collapsing life and how she can no longer defend the crumbling fortress of her own independence Soon, her belongings, visible tokens of a long, variegated life, will turn to rubbish; salad fork, bibles, photo albums and coffee tables will disappear into thrift stores and dumpsters. All she'll need in Texas is a few night gowns and her blue plastic rosary beads.

The abandoned airplane hanger south of Fort Stockton hunches over its own shadows, its concrete walls pocked with shotgun blasts. The deathly mining scars west of Balmorea flash chalky gouts of nameless, grinning minerals. Heart-rending sunlight drenches the worn facades of downtown Van Horn. Stalling for time, I leave the highway and head up Main Street to see If Bob the junk dealer might be in his store. Street-wise, toothless, and brimming with local folklore, he presides over a stunning collection of recycled treasures. Here, surrounded by dusty guitars and broken farm equipment, I've watched him buy antique rifles from Mexicans who have ridden up on horseback from the border, and I've listened quietly while a suspicious, underpaid constable in a camouflaged gimme cap shared his paranoid ramblings about black helicopters and secret government armies.

Today, Bob's store is vacant, a worn, two-story sandstone hulk surrounded by half-rusted cars. The door swings drunkenly, shutters bang against the walls, and inside, there's only a dank stench of motor oil and grease. He's probably dead. I'm filling my car with ghosts.

Out here, radio waves drill themselves into hillsides, waxing and waning every few miles. Only the relentless crackle of fundamentalist preachers and Mexican border stations can penetrate the vast, empty stretches between Fort Stockton and Van Horn, so I submit to a surreal stew of New Testament fury and thumping Conjunto accordion music.

When the radio runs thick with static, I alternate two cassettes: "Sketches Of Spain," Miles Davis's deep, brooding masterpiece, and Hamza El Din's "The Wish." I play them over and over; Miles' dark, wet trumpet and Hamza's Oud both ground and free me now. Each of these men was born with the voice of the dispossessed. Their dramatic pauses and spare, elegant lines glow with a charged, potent authority. These are the songs of deepest loss, graceful, knife-edged elegies that tear at the heart and spin the wheels of memory, the perfect accompaniment to my funereal journey.

Another, softer beat clicks just below my pulse, and I give it my attention now. This is the rhythm of the self-contained, the traveler wrapped in a metal womb. I think of Saint Exupery, and for a moment, I'm in the cockpit of his plane, engines throbbing, lulled by isolation, flying uncertainly toward a desert coast, and wondering if I'll over-fly the warning beacons. I need this drive, and the distance it puts between me and my destination. Road maps and funeral notices tumble and whirl across ecstatic skies. Everything is of equal value, suspended by the journey's thrust, and I feast on the speed, the rhythm and the wind.

Death chafes, and I seethe with half-buried appetites and fantasies. Maybe this time, when I'm close to San Bernardino, I'll stop and see a friend whose young daughter has always compelled my furtive attention. I'll make a play for her. The last time I saw her, she was strutting around the house in bright crimson pants tight as banana peels, wiggling like a silk worm on a hot sidewalk Her thick hair, a mountain of teased, fussy gold, spilled across her creamy shoulders. Sixteen, seductively aloof, she stuck her tongue out at me like a kitten lapping at a saucer of milk. Her coy, sideways glances, and her lower lip, with its little-girl pouty droop, said "Kiss me." Death is making me horny, and nasty, and I construct a fantasy of motel rooms and sweet young flesh, as if tasting her could defeat the burning complexities of my own life. Like a yard dog beaten with a willow switch, I skulk off into the shadows of my dank libido. I roll the window down and light a cigarette.

El Paso sprawls over the next rise, El Paso Del Norte De Rio Grande, to Mexicans, the Rio Bravo, "The place up north where you cross the wild river." To my left, Juarez swallows its boundaries and fades into the horizon, a glittering hell-hole bursting with cheap labor and misery. I slide between deadly, monolithic walls of warehouses and strip malls, the city's architectural gift to the twenty-first century. Discount gas stations and pawn shops clog the access roads, and dull, beige condominiums smother sandy hillsides. This town is shitting all over itself as fast as it can, and despite its angry vigor, a kind of death is near. I watch for the monumental smokestacks of El Paso Power and Light, where Mexico crowds and embarrasses the most, because they signal that Las Cruces, and open space, are just moments away. Across the river, aqua shacks hunker in random, tilted clusters. Behind them, smoldering garbage dumps choke the river bottom with corrosive, eye-watering ash.

Just east of Santa Teresa, I head south a few miles, and coast along a rutted, twisting path I discovered long ago. It goes to Mexico, and for a few miles, so do I. There are no signs, no border patrolmen, no customs offices. Here, narcotrafficantes dump mutilated corpses into dry wells and shallow graves. This borderland is hot, dry, evil and empty. It is governed by hissing snakes. Wealth and poverty grind against each other like titty dancers hungry for tips, and a raw, timeless horror infests this sand.

I picture my mother in her spotless, cramped apartment. A mild, persistent wind flutters curtains and newspapers, the kind of lethal Southern California breeze that sweeps bingo games and funerals with the same deceptive insouciance. I see her the way she looked a year ago when I'd gone there to help her through an illness, shrunk petite by age, dreamy with morphine, her lips taut over cheap dentures, curled fetal under her favorite pink quilt, her tightly-permed blue-white hair thinning to splotchy baldness and revealing the ghostly outline of her father's knobbed, stubborn forehead. Although she improved, I realized even then how quickly her life was evaporating.

But I linger. I live in a world of artificial tensions and polite, numbing civility. Here, greed and fear claw through my open car window. I caress them gently, and welcome their raw, grasping pungency. I should leave now. After sunset, I could be beaten senseless by roving Mexican car thieves, but I stall for time, savoring the death and the dry air.

Enveloped in my own forward thrust, I stop watching the speedometer, forget to count the miles, and set my focus on some middle distance. Like a thick ball of wet twine, my memories resist unraveling until I finally loosen a strand, and I recall an amusement park on a Rhode Island beach where my mother tripped and fell on our picnic lunch, ruining it. Crying softly, she picked dirt from the food. Suddenly, this minor tragedy waxes monumental; I want to hurtle backward through time, and be six years old again so I can save the sandwiches before they hit the ground. I realize now that for forty five years, I've wanted to rescue that food.

My sentiment conceals something stronger and more compelling now: there isn't time left to close the open wounds of my tough childhood years and my father's early death, or to tend reddened scars left by a spoiled, insecure stepfather who invaded my adolescence with harsh, needless humiliations. It's too late to tell her how I hauled my drunkenness to the edge of sobriety's clear pond, tossed it in, and watched it sink. And there's no point in wishing for warm afternoons, hunched together over photo albums, lifting chunks of my future from blurry Kodachromes. I won't be learning much more about her disappointing husbands, or why she chose them. I roar through Benson, Arizona and Tucson's garish neon blaze. West of Picacho, I glide down along the desert's floor.

Gila Bend sinks below its cotton fields. The Jesuit Kino established them three hundred years ago, and they continue to thrive, verdant crazy quilts bursting their rectilinear boundaries. Half Indian village, half assistencia, and subdivided by freeways, Gila Bend is kept alive by gas stations and convenience stores. I take a room in the Satellite Motel, directly under the gigantic sheet metal flying saucer bolted to the coffee shop roof. For a few hours, I walk the streets, besotted with the rich, transparent sky. There is no dusk light more potent anywhere in America, and for the moment, I shove death aside. In front of the A & W root beer stand a small group of O'odham Indians glare mutely at me, regal as Toltec sculptures, until I complain loudly about the heat. Then shyness and gravity give way to ripe, ironic humor. I love this town deeply, viscerally, for its spare, stucco buildings and it's flat, sweeping horizons. I Have no friends here, no apparent connection to the town, yet I've always believed that I would live here, and I want this now more than ever. But this drive is about endings. In the morning, I leave in a blanket of humid, late-spring monsoon air seeping in off the Sea of Cortez.

In a few hours, I turn north, through El Centro. Incinerating heat bakes the surrounding sand dunes and washes the once-grand, abandoned hotels with a light as harsh as an overexposed photograph. Art-deco pharmacies and coffee shops charm the eye, mute reminders of a pleasing aesthetic long-abandoned to the vagaries of time. The rest is a jumble of linen postcard motels, thrift stores, karate schools and recycling centers.

Foolishly, I imagine that these desert towns might die along my mother, that when she's gone, they'll be sucked down a hole along with the bamboo and Johnson grass that line the highway. I linger, savoring rough, edgy textures compelling as a woman's tongue-slashing kisses. Like a tumbleweed, I stick to everything I pass.

From El Centro to Brawley, alfalfa fields dot the tired, once-fertile farmland ruined long ago by greedy, near-sighted corporate farmers who flooded it with high-saline Colorado River water. This is a wrenching landscape, overflowing with poverty and loneliness. Irritated by Border patrol checkpoints, and hypnotized by the lumbering, fat-butted waltz of the hay trucks in front of me, fatigue erodes my defenses, and I finally begin to unravel the meaning of a story my mother had tearfully blurted out a few months before. Fourteen years old, and angry that her sisters got all the attention from her father, she'd grabbed her father's pistol and blown a hole in her abdomen. I see her, deathly white, rivulets of arterial blood pumping from her stomach. I picture my grandfather's nervous head twitching like a tomcat's tail, his glass eye tilted in its socket.

My mother's life now bursts into three-dimensional clarity. Backed into a corner, dangling her anger and fear like a scorpion's raised tail, I realize that there wasn't much she wouldn't do to survive. I never understood the epic battles she waged with her husbands, her younger brother Joe's sad whiskey smile and anxious, hunted eyes, or why he hovered over her when we visited Rhode Island. Now, I do. I see that I had possessed only the vaguest sense of the half-cocked, gun-waving anger she could wield, or the degree to which she might lash out at anyone who fingered the bruised, bleeding tissues of her bottomless fear.

I follow an old state highway that skirts the Salton Sea. Later, it bisects vast date groves and lettuce fields. I don't care about ecological problems here: this is as close to driving through a book of the Old Testament as I'm likely to experience, a new Magreb. Arabs on horseback should appear at each turn in the highway. For me, this is the only part of California that has ever felt life-giving. Sugar beet refineries and the winding, uphill road through the pass behind Indio seem to straddle the buried spinal chord of a sleeping fertility goddess. The moist fields refresh me, and my journey is almost over.

There's nothing left along this road to catch my attention, and I've run out of excuses for dawdling, so I float down through Beaumont, Banning, and Redlands. Close to San Bernardino, I jerk my car off the Interstate and onto a crooked, half-hidden road that snakes through the last few isolated tracts of palm-lined farm land along the Santa Ana river bottom. I cruise quietly, taking my time, watching Mexicans pull cabbage from the red, sandy fields. I'm driving as fast as I can.

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