A hard sun is in the west behind me, a pound-down, hard sun like the rain gets just before the hailstones come and you do not think about the wet; you just think about the hurt. Shadows in the late afternoon of Phoenix in June are deep and bottomless. Deep and bottomless like the shadows I saw on the moon cast by men when they walked there in 1969 on the television. Yet, I do not see the shadows of saguaro or people or anything when I am in the Phoenix, June, late afternoon, rush hour traffic and when I am stuck. I just see the cars and their tireless brake lights and my own car’s temperature gauge. I hate the traffic. Brake lights, temperature gauge, and I change the radio station. And the announcer talks about the traffic and the heat. I see the freeway overpass two stoplights ahead. The freeway runs north to south along the eastern edge of the city of Scottsdale. I believe the freeway is actually on the reservation property. Maybe that is why the freeway overpasses are painted that southwest color that you see everywhere: in clothing, Indian jewelry, houses, and pottery and sculpture in the expensive Scottsdale shops. I call the color a kind of brownish pink like the soil of the desert if the soil is bulldozed and plowed and worked and all of the cactus plants are gone to make room for more housing tracts. Then the desert soil becomes powdery like bagged mortar mix and makes dust everywhere. One time when my wife was with me she said the freeway overpass color was “salmon.” Then she said, “No, the color is more a rose.” The color is a discussion item when we come by here together. But today I am alone, stuck in traffic. At any rate, this must be the loveliest freeway in the world with the Indian symbols carved in relief in the concrete of the overpasses that are that southwest color. Brake lights, temperature gauge, and I change the radio station. I find a classical music station. I will try to stay with the music to the end of the symphony; I usually do not have the patience in the car stuck in traffic. Just crawl through this last stop light, under the loveliest freeway overpass in the world, and I am there. Only the select few, and I am one, know the secret of the reservation. While everyone else waits to get on the freeway with the loveliest overpasses in the world, I will continue east under the overpass and on to the reservation because I know the secret. There is a way to drive across the reservation and come out on the east side and maneuver around to the north and across the Salt River and stay way north of the rush hour traffic. The traffic spits me out with contempt upon the sudden openness of the reservation. I accelerate away and look up into the mirror and see the billions of cars waiting to get on the salmon, or rose, or brownish pink, or what-ever colored freeway. One lone car follows me. I am suspicious. I exchange a glance with the driver as the car pulls up beside me. The glance says to each of us that we both know the secret route. But, do not reveal the secret to anyone else: not to friends, not to relatives, and not to fellow workers. Reveal the secret to no one. I allow the other car to pass as the road quickly narrows to a single lane each way. The road is rough; the tar is breaking up. The other car accelerates quickly ignoring the thirty-five mile per hour speed limit on the reservation. I drive the limit because I know the reservation police stop speeding interlopers. Some people just cannot stand driving slow with a wide-open road in front of them, I think to myself. Noticing things in traffic is a waste of time. Yet here and free of the traffic, I notice things. Sometimes I turn off the air conditioning and roll down the window and switch off the radio even when the temperature is hot. The reservation is a grid of two lane roads. Some roads are tarred. Some roads are gravel. The grids are one-mile squares. There are stop signs at every intersection. And there are no stop lights, street signs, and traffic. Within the squares made by the roads are fields with each section having one or two little houses. The fields are ready for planting and the soil is that consistency of dry mortar mix and dust is in the air because tractors are working the ground. Most of the houses are very small and some are run down. In the yards little children run and play with mangy looking dogs around one or two old trucks and cars permanently parked amongst tall weeds that cast the only shadows except for an occasional saguaro. And there is always some dust in the air. Concrete irrigation ditches surround all the fields. A curious sight of modern farming that seems out of place upon this landscape. The irrigation ditches are full and the water waits patiently in the pound-down, hard sun to flow over the recently plowed and harrowed, powder dry fields. “They will be planting cotton or corn or something very soon,” I say to myself. Up ahead by the next stop sign I sometimes see children playing in the irrigation ditches. As I approach the intersection of roads I see an old Chevrolet pickup truck to the right, half on and half off the road. The truck is one of those pick ups from the late 1960s or early 1970s. The truck had once been blue but now looks like one of those local newspapers with the color front pages that had not been noticed behind the cactus in front of your house and had been lying out there a couple of days in the sun. The color now only a suggestion. The Arizona sun does that to everything. Ten feet from the truck and halfway between the road and an irrigation ditch stands one of those portable barbeque pits that you see in the discount department stores — the cheap kind. The top is up and lingering smoke means something is cooking. In the blazing sun stands a round black haired woman in shorts and some type of tank top. She is cooking. She is cooking along the road next to her casually parked, old, pickup truck. Four children are splashing in the irrigation ditch. The woman and the children all carry on as if they are having an evening barbeque next to their own back yard swimming pool in the most exclusive Scottsdale neighborhood. I am completely stopped at the stop sign. And I look both directions down the road I met at the intersection. To my left the road continues, slicing the fields and not a vehicle in sight. Only a lone dog is crossing in the pound-down heat about twenty yards away; his head could not have been hanging any lower. In the offing, ten miles away, and beyond the reservation, the luxury homes of Fountain Hills climb a small mountain. To the right, the faded blue pickup truck is half on and half off the road parked in a nonchalant manner. Then I notice the little boy standing behind and in the shadow of the round woman cooking at the barbeque. The little boy is clinging to the back of the woman’s shorts and peering around her very dark and bare leg. The little boy is about four years of age, bare-chested, and wearing shorts that hang to his knees. He is barefoot in the powder dry desert soil; he seems to be the only one of the crowd to take notice of me in my car at the stop sign. The little boy is looking directly at me. They are having an outing, kids swimming in the irrigation ditch while mother barbecues standing in the desert dust. And they all seem to be having a good time. The mother is smiling and turning to talk to the little boy undoubtedly saying something like: “Go play with your brothers and sisters ‘til supper is ready.” At that moment I think of Meg and what she said to me at a Redlands, California coffee shop about twenty years before. Meg was in her early sixties then and I had met her at meetings in a Redlands church in 1980. There was a meeting every night at the church; I was attending them all. I had been sober about sixty days. The coffee shop was a regular after meeting hang out. Every evening at about nine o’clock a dozen of us would show up. We would drink coffee and some would eat; we all continued to talk about the program. One Friday evening I was sitting with Meg and I was feeling pretty good physically but indulging in self-pity. I was talking about my job and how strange I would feel when I went back. Meg said: “Stop worrying about that. You have no control over what other people think. Besides, they didn’t fire you, did they?” “Well, no.” “But, if you’d have kept on like you were going, they would have fired you. Boy you were a mess.” “But what will they think? What will they say?” “You mean, are they talking about you behind your back?” I said nothing. Meg continued: “Your bosses are happy you’re getting sober. As for the rest of them, believe me, they have long since become bored talking about you. You are old news by now. We think we are so clever hiding our drinking. We are always the last to admit alcohol is a problem with us. Stop whining and consider how lucky you really are. You haven’t lost your precious career, yet. But if you don’t stay sober, you’ll lose that career for sure. You haven’t lost your family. And I don’t know how she put up with you.” Meg took a drink of her coffee and a drag on her cigarette. She looked at me with that look of admonition that I needed. Then she continued: “Just go to meetings everyday and don’t drink between meetings. And for goodness sake, try and be a little grateful for what you’ve got. Your career will take care of itself if you just don’t drink. And just try and be a little grateful for once.” Meg had been saying that often. I sat there drinking my coffee. Meg took another sip of her coffee, then a drag from her cigarette, and exhaled the bluish smoke. She held the cigarette between her index and middle finger. Her wrist was bent with palm facing up toward the ceiling; she rested her elbow on the table. Meg held and smoked her cigarette in the style made famous by 1940s movie starlets. Meg was a tiny woman with a big heart and an erstwhile thirst for Gordon's London Dry Gin. Meg had said that her first taste of alcohol was bathtub Gin. Her father had been a prominent Chicago merchant, drove big black cars, and was known to occasionally associate with bootleggers when Meg was a child. However, Meg had passed a number of years “one day at a time” and “without having to take a drink today,” as she would say in meetings. And Meg was giving me hell, just what I needed. Meg was barely over five feet tall. She had blue eyes like the song and wore make up everyday upon her tiny, round, motherly looking face. Her hair was always tightly curled and short in the style of a by-gone era. Meg was a stickler about her appearance. She always “dressed-up” when out in public. Meg always wore a couple of bracelets and a ring or two on each hand. The bracelets made a continual tinkling sound as she was always moving one of her hands to either drink her coffee or smoke her cigarette. Though a senior citizen then by most standards, her supply of high energy was far from depleted. The little lady was always in motion. Meg liked working with the newcomers. I believe I reminded her of her son she hadn’t seen in many years. After another moment, Meg said to me, “I want you to turn around and look at that couple with the two little children.” I turned around in the booth and looked in the direction that Meg had been looking. I saw a young man about my own age in a booth against the wall of the cafe. He was dressed in an open collar, short-sleeved shirt that was well worn yet clean. He was clean-shaven with hair that was collar length. His facial features were plain and not unpleasant. He had that weathered look of a man who worked outside all day. I knew Meg would have some-thing to say about his hair. Meg did not like long hair; she believed all men should look like they stepped out of a 1940s movie. Across from the young man sat a woman about the same age. She had light brown hair that was pulled back and pinned and hung down to her shoulders. She was wearing a floral print summer dress that looked like something handed down from her mother. She wore no makeup but was not unattractive and she was smoking a cigarette. Their two children, a boy and girl about two and three years of age respectively, were seated one with each of the parents, inside against the wall of the booth. The children chattered incessantly, talking about hamburgers and fries and chocolate shakes. “They come in here every Friday night,” Meg said, “I’ve watched them for months. Those children are adorable. Their father needs a haircut though. And their mother shouldn’t be smoking around those children.” I looked at Meg’s cigarette and she knew what I was thinking. “I never, ever, smoked around my children when they were little,” Meg said, “So don’t get smart.” Meg continued, “I can tell this is their one night out, their one night a week out. I’ve seen them get out of an old pickup truck. The kids are always excited and happy. I’ll bet they haven’t got a pot to you know what in. Yet they are a happy family. I can tell.” Meg always noticed such things, “Those kids are not dressed up in the latest styles, but they are clean and healthy looking. You can see how little they’ve got yet I’ll bet they are happy. And the children will grow up with fond memories of their parents. Yes, this is their big night out every week, here at this greasy little coffee shop. I’ll bet they went shopping at one of the discount stores, then here for hamburgers. Yet they are grateful for what they’ve got. And I’ll bet they take those children to church every Sunday.” Meg could make a story and an example out of just about everything. Her meaning for the story was not lost on me. And I knew more was coming. Meg continued: “And I’ll bet they are grateful for the very little they have in life. You have your beautiful family; you still have your career that you are so worried about; and you still have that ridiculous little car.” Meg did not like my sports car. “How anyone can ride in that thing, your rear end must be dragging on the pavement.” I make a mental note to call Meg in California. The little boy, standing behind his mother, waves to me, giggles, and runs toward the irrigation ditch to join his brothers and sisters. I accelerate away from the stop sign as I wave back to the little boy.
The Sins & Redemption of Janice ‘T’
Copyright © 2005 by W.M. Kornovich. All rights reserved.
Copyright registered at United States Copyright Office, Library of Congress,
101 Independence Avenue Southeast, Washington, D.C. 20559-6000.
to read the short story "Irrigation Ditch" from the book.