by Al Billings
Just before dawn, I began to notice the dead porcupines strewn along the highway shoulder. With quills bristling like the raked hair on a Mohawk warrior, each corpse extends a pair of tiny front legs, pointing west, into the heart of my journey. Flattened by hurtling 18-wheelers, and stiff with rigor mortis, they dot the road from Fredericksburg to Fort Stockton. A vulture’s rotted breast juts upward in sharp relief against the West Texas horizon, arching like the overturned bow of a lifeboat, or the ribs of a Gothic cathedral. Here, life is meat and gristle, a bloody guillotine blade swinging rudely above its next sacrifice. The morning sun slumps wearily, burdened with its own task. Like oil slicks, indigo shadows ooze across boulder-studded draws. I step on the accelerator and flip off the headlights.
Bone cancer is quickly consuming my mother, and I’m driving to San Bernardino, where I’ll wheel her aboard an airplane bound for my home in Austin, Texas. She’s 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. Another doctor had informed me confidentially that, as an adolescent, my mother had shot herself in the abdomen with her father’s pistol, a jumbled and unlikely confession of jealous sibling competition that my wife and I had later extracted from her, and a confession that for me, resonates with obfuscation. Now, she has only a few weeks to live, and she’s far too sick to be prodded into revealing murky secrets. Angry, and already tired, I have two days’ drive ahead of me. I’m barreling into the mouth of an event I dread, sucked along a 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 when I remember my father driving us west forty years ago, giddy with excitement over the adventurous move to southern California. But I fold the hand when I recall that, by he leaving Rhode Island, he’d stretched the delicate web of his family ties so thinly that it broke his heart. His bloodshot face whispers hoarsely from the crusty rock formations lumped along the highway.
The same tenuous filaments bind me to my mother, and I can feel her anxiety strung tautly across the Sonoran desert’s ringing valleys, trembling above box canyons and dry riverbeds from here to California. Too much alike, and equally stubborn, we’ve lived far apart for many years. I recall the sudden medical crises I’ve rushed to contain there, the yearly Christmas visits and the endless rounds of complicated errands: the beauty shop appointments, the church breakfasts, and the tangled Medicaid paperwork I never seemed to be able to entirely straighten out. I’m not sure if I’ve 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 mirages of crushed hopes. Sagging barbed wire struggles to contain the degraded, weed-choked desert floor. 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, haunted by the crow’s lunatic cackle. I barely notice them. Instead, I dwell upon my mother’s collapsing life. She can no longer defend the crumbling fortress of her own independence. Soon, her belongings, palpable tokens of a long, variegated life, will turn to rubbish: bibles, salad forks, 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. Deathly mining scars gouge the sere hills west of Balmorea, a chalky avalanche of nameless, grinning minerals. Heart-rending sunlight drenches the worn facades of downtown Van Horn and throws all the buildings into stark relief. Today, only the sun’s clarity makes the town seem real to me; without it, Van Horn could be a series of cardboard walls with holes punched through them for windows. I pull off the interstate and slowly cruise its main street to see if Bob the junk dealer is open for business. Street-wise, and toothless, he presides over a stunning collection of recycled efluvia. Here, surrounded by plywood guitars and broken farm equipment, I’ve watched him buy antique rifles from Mexicans who had ridden over to Van Horn on horseback from the border, and I’ve listened quietly while a paranoid, underpaid city constable in a camouflaged ball cap shared his paranoid ramblings about black helicopters and secret government armies. Today, Bob’s store is vacant, a two-story sandstone hulk surrounded by half-rusted cars. The door swings drunkenly, shutters bang against the walls, and inside, there’s only the dank stench of spilled motor oil on a wet concrete floor. I realize that Bob is 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 barren stretch of interstate 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 listen to them in endless rotation. 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-Exupéry, and for just a moment, I’m riding in the cockpit of his airplane, engines throbbing, lulled by isolation, winging uncertainly toward a vague desert coastline of my own devising. 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.
El Paso sprawls over the next rise. 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 drive 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 in San Bernardino. A mild, persistent wind flutters the curtains, that lethal afternoon breeze that feathers in from the coast and sweeps the town with deceptive insouciance. The year before, I’d gone there to help her through an illness and found her huddled on her bed, curled fetal under her favorite pink quilt, shrunk petite by age, her lips pulled taut over cheap dentures and her tightly-permed hair thinning to splotchy baldness, revealing the ghostly outline of her father’s knobbed, stubborn forehead. Although she improved, I realized even then how quickly her life was evaporating. 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 the sun sets, I could be beaten senseless by roving Mexican car thieves, but I stall for time, savoring the death and the dry air.
I hunch over a cremated hamburger in a roadside cafe in Benson, Arizona. A flirtatious young blonde, slender and gap-toothed, takes my order and chatters on about a weekend trip to Tucson. An erotic jolt enlivens our conversation, and I bask in her youthful and radiant attention. But when I look more closely into her eyes, her pupils reduce to pin dots, and her teeth reveal the beginning ravages of methamphetamine’s shivering grip, one way to relieve the numbing boredom that suffuses Benson, and a thousand other half-dead desert towns trapped between the jaws of Walmart and welfare. I could have taken her to a motel room and had my way with her, but I could just as easily have driven an empty bus along I-10 from El Paso to Blythe and filled it with teenaged girls buried alive in fried chicken tenders and backseat blow jobs. Like a yard dog beaten with a willow switch, I skulk off into the shadows of my dank libido, roll the window down and light a another cigarette.
Enveloped within my own forward thrust, I ignore the speedometer 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 remember an amusement park on a Rhode Island beach where my mother tripped and fell on our picnic lunch. Crying softly, she plucked dirt and grass from the sandwiches. Suddenly, this minor tragedy waxes monumental; I want to hurtle backward through time, and be six years old again so I can rescue the sandwiches before they touch the ground. I realize now that for forty-five years, I’ve wanted to rescue that food.
My sentiments conceal memories suddenly stronger and more compelling. There isn’t time left to close the open wounds of the tough childhood years following my father’s early death, or to tend reddened scars left by a spoiled, insecure stepfather who invaded my adolescence with harsh, needless humiliations. There’s no point in wishing for warm afternoons, hunched together over photo albums, lifting chunks of our past from faded Kodachromes. Most of all, I struggle with the improbable image of a young girl driven to suicide by familial jealousy. I roar through Tucson’s garish gas station row, and west of Picacho, I head south and glide down along the aluvial fan that drains into to Gila Bend.
The Jesuit Kino established this town three hundred years ago and planted its cotton fields. 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 motel room, directly under the gigantic sheet-metal flying saucer bolted to the coffee shop roof. For a few hours, I share the sidewalks with hat-tipping cowboys, and I’m besotted with the saturated cerulean blues seeping through 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 an A & W root beer stand a small group of O’odham Indians glare solely at me, mute 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 its sweeping horizons. I feel as though I could stay here for the rest of my life, but this journey and this story are about endings. In the morning, I head west under a sheet 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 cost-effective remodeling. The rest is a jumble of linen postcard motels, thrift stores and karate schools. Foolishly, I imagine that these desert towns will die along with my mother, that when she’s gone, they’ll all be sucked down a hole along with the Johnson grass that lines 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 low expectations. Border patrol checkpoints and Dhumbo-butted hay trucks clog the highway in front of me. Fatigue erodes my defenses, and I struggle again to understand why jealousy would force my mother to grab her father’s pistol and blow a hole in her own abdomen. I picture her, deathly white, rivulets of arterial blood pumping from her self-inflicted wound, my grandfather’s nervous head twitching like a tomcat’s tail, his glass eye crazily tilted in its socket, lifting her dress and slipping into her, whispering, stroking and grunting.
For a moment, my mother’s life bursts into three-dimensional clarity. I wonder now if that’s why she moved so far away from her family, or why, when backed into a corner, she could dangle her outrage like a scorpion’s raised tail. I never understood the epic battles she waged with her husbands, or the way she lashed out at them if any of them tried to finger the bruised, bleeding tissues of her bottomless fear. There’s no one left to ask, and all I possess is a clutter of suspicions soon to fill a freshly dug grave.
I follow an old state highway that skirts the Salton Sea past sugar beat refineries and vacant roadside cafes. 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. The winding, uphill road through the pass behind Indio seems 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 rip cabbages from the moist, sandy fields. I’m driving as fast as I can.