Friday, March 9, 2012
cover photo: Stickmen of Cochise County - Marcia Ward 1981
In the late spring of 81, after the birth of my first son, I sell my house in Denver and most of my belongings. To kick off my quest to yet again reinvent myself, on a cerulean blue sky afternoon, in my South Pearl Street backyard, - “looking,” one might say, “for magic” - I fill a fifty-five gallon drum full of the paper ephemera of my youth - yearbooks, report cards, collegiate papers, incomplete stories and unfinished poems, squirt charcoal lighter fluid upon the to-be-deleted, and torch my paper trail. Bye-bye prep school, bye-bye teaching career, bye-bye lockets of former girlfriends’ hair. Fire often has a part in ritual - I am reminded of burning poems at my wedding ceremony under the very elm that shades me now- and I am unburdened as the smoke of my youthful dreams disperses upon rising into the unseasonable Chinook that blusters above. Ah, what’s the start of a road trip without smoky endings?
The family - Marcia, me, our infant son Passion, and our more or less bearded collie Dylan Dog (her mother was a pure bred Old English Sheepdog, her father was a rake) – we spend a year traveling and living for varying lengths of time (a week here, a month there, a season or so somewhere else) at places as diverse as a campsite tent along The Blue River in the National Forest outside Arcada in Humboldt County California and a converted “mini-loft-like” garage in Austin Texas. We operate on whim and circumstance for thirteen months as we explore the West in my Dodge Tradesman van, looking for a place superior to Denver in a hipster sort of way, a place, which, by the way, we never do find.
For reasons coincidental and some seven years in the making, Bisbee Arizona becomes home for the fall and the start of winter. Well, to be precise, Easy Acres outside Bisbee becomes home, and the setting for this story. My term of endearment for our new home site is Easy A.
When we arrive in Bisbee after a summer’s meander in California, we wind up – through the machinations of the poetry world – with a September/October house sitting gig in a ramshackle old wooden miner’s kit house high on the cliffs just off of Oak Street. Mornings, over coffee, we look down on the town from our front porch, and I feel lucky and privileged to have such a poetic, cliff-dweller perspective; and when sunlight explodes atop the three metal roofs of the Cooper Queen hotel, I count as blessings the multitude of coincidences that brought me here. Simply said, Bisbee charms me and Marcia, and we embrace its drop-out underground art world, with Marcia scoring at The Barefoot Gallery on Review Alley an exhibition of her silver archival fine art photographs, Artists in Portrait, and me getting to host an ongoing poetry hour for Cochise County Public Access Cable Radio. Because we hope to stay through the winter, in order to land another rent-free, house-sitting gig (as opposed to joining and living like what we call the Stick People, a rag tag assemblage of artists, families and seekers who inhabit, camp-style, the nicer of the many abandoned and one room miner’s shacks that dot the landscape outside town and that date to the Phelps-Dodge boom times), we post a note on the community bulletin board outside the co-operative grocery on Miner’s Alley and wind up with an offer right up our alternative living style alley: free rent in a fairly new two bedroom air-conditioned trailer on Easy Acres - a small enclave of houses and trailers and campers ten miles south of Bisbee - in exchange for some care-taking, as in, watching after an elderly woman, Margaret, while her husband infrequently travels Cochise County on business.
The brainchild of John Bible, a seventy-five year old scripture quoting poet partial to doggerel, the old testament, and iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, and the handiwork of John and his three sons, Easy A is a sixty acre rectangular patch of desert a mile or so off the blacktop on the way to Agua Prieta in Mexico. This high desert development sports two large, quite lovely adobe ranch houses, scores of undeveloped home-site lots, a relatively new double-wide trailer, an early 70s Winnebago, a camper atop the rear bed of an engineless Ford pick-up, possibly the largest empty blue-plastic tarp above ground pool west of the Mississippi, and innumerable yuccas, cholla cacti, prickly pear, tumbleweed, with a stray saguaro here and there, not to mention posses of arachnids and snakes, a javelina or two, and starry night skies so luminous that even Van Gogh could not paint them justly. Mr. Bible, a trader and entrepreneur and real estate speculator for many of his seventy-five years, had envisioned something a little grander when he built the first ranch house, his home, at Easy Acres years before- say: a suburban community of twenty or more homes - but no one (outside of one son) ever invested in his dream of modern living in the high country desert outback. Mark, the oldest of three brothers, who literally built with his own sweat and tons of cement the five bedroom ranch house across the road from his Dad’s house, had, with his wife and four daughters, long since departed Arizona, reducing the reality of John’s real estate scheme to nothing more than a Bible compound. A daughter-in-law, Connie, married to son number two, Matthew, a wanderer of an interstate trucker who spends most of his time on the road, she lives in the Winnebago when not couch-surfing with friends in Douglas where she works part time as a waitress. A third son Luke had not been back to Cochise County since being drafted early on during the Viet Nam War. If truth be told, most men would have a hard time living a Bible quoting father’s desert dream, no matter the love and kinship, and that now it is mostly just John and Margaret at Easy A is understandable.
Mr. Bible owns a candy vending machine business with product placements in Tombstone, Sierra Vista, Douglas and Bisbee, and on the occasions when he makes his rounds to collect his coins and re-stock his merchandise, Marcia and I look in on and stay with Margaret, who is dying of cancer. Margaret is cranky – who wouldn’t be – and emotionally troubled. She fixates upon her speculation that when John is tending to his vending machines he is also stepping out on her. All the Bible men, all three of her sons and her husband, she gossips, are philanderers and rakes. Why else would John bother to perfume up before heading out! She has a nose, god damn-it, even if the narcotics she ingests have her eyes closed, dreaming away her pain and remaining time here on earth. She loves all four of the Bible men, but their place in the afterlife is a source of constant worry to her, given their historical lack of commitment to monogamy. These and other concerns (Connie is pilfering her meds, the Border Patrol is shooting javelinas for sport, and that her children will not be home for Thanksgiving) she voices to us whenever she is lucid enough to realize that John is gone and Marcia and I are there.
Mostly Marcia and I keep to ourselves when we are home at Easy Acres, as do the Bibles. The November weather is rather perfect here in the autumn high desert with tolerably warm days and cool evenings. The atmosphere is empty and bright (you can not begin to count the stars at night) unless the wind is blowing north in our direction the noxious gritty dust of the copper smelter outside Agua Prieta. On the rare occasions when Easy A is perfectly downwind, freshly washed and bleached wet cotton diapers drying on a cloths line appear to rust.
At eight months, our son Passion, his charms, and his needs consume our attention, and the bliss of being new parents trumps most of our anxiety about our unknown future. Even though The Great American Poem is not being written and Marcia’s film goes mostly unexposed, we are very busy and exceedingly happy in our parenthood roles. A transistor am radio informs us of the news of the world as well as the opportunity to sing along with the latest Tex-Mex country tunes. Not really accustomed to rural life, more so me than Marcia, trips to town for groceries, cultural events, and human exchange happen almost daily. Our itinerary often includes a draft beer at the bar inside the Copper Queen Hotel where I talk writing with the novelist tending bar there. The back and forth of Bisbee to Easy A in the van lends itself to our son’s napping; nonetheless, the ten mile beeline from our trailer to town is not without its dangers. You can’t imagine how many times, heading north towards Bisbee, we are pulled over, the contents of our vehicle eyeballed without benefit of warrant, and questioned by the State Police or the Border Patrol, as my Dodge Tradesman - with its Colorado license plate and sporting a long-haired driver – fits with the misinformed government profile of drug mule. There is a training school for narcs, federal and state, in Bisbee, and during my time here in Cochise County I’ll cross paths with undercover goons at the strangest of places: at the Food Co-op, in art galleries, at poetry readings. The day that the notice of Marcia’s show at Barefoot Gallery is mentioned in the Bisbee monthly rag, two different narcs, sniffing around for connections, visit while we are hanging our artwork. Both are as undercover as datura amidst red roses. So, outside of the drug snoops and the occasional smelter dust, life at Easy A is, as its name suggests, easy, and familial, albeit, Sam Shepard-ie and Fellini-esque.
Thanksgiving, as it will, arrives. It is an unseasonably warm, summer-like day, windless and still and empty, its mood: like after a wrap on a set. Margaret’s wish that her sons be home for her last holiday meal is granted, a result of Connie’s letter writing and long distance phone call lobbying. Matthew’s big semi rig, a metallic blue cab and a silver trailer scars the high desert view parked as it is at the east end of Easy A. Mark and Matthew after rendezvousing in Tucson have driven the last leg home, together in Matt’s rig. The long lost Luke has driven a rental car from LA after flying from Tiniam in the far South Pacific where he lives with his Vietnamese wife and children. Luke’s rental is parked across the road in the two-car cement driveway of his brother Mark’s locked, shuttered, and drapes-drawn home.
The Bible Thanksgiving, naturally, is a mixed bag of emotions - Margaret’s suffering diminishes any joy at long separated brothers reuniting – and the rendezvous is as sedate as John Bible’s No-alcohol-rule is strict, holding, as it does, even for holidays and family reunions although I’d wager there could be found some demon rum (most likely Mescal) if one were to snoop around Connie and Matt’s Winnebago, as I’d partied on a few occasions with Connie at the Copper Queen and had seen her swallow the worm more than once. Generally, we have little interchange with John and Margaret, unless John comes by to request a favor of us.
This holiday morning, there is a note affixed to our front screen door inviting us for breakfast with the Bible clan. “Please, break your fast with the Bibles/ Grace at 8,” it reads.
When we enter the Bible home, we meet Matthew, Mark and Luke for the first time. All three men are handsome and stud-ly, big like their father. Luke closely resembles his Dad in many respects. He is tall and broad and thick-haired, quarterback material, whereas Mark and Matthew are bald, stout and muscled, line-man material. When she comes in from the kitchen to greet us, Connie appears to have been crying – mascara doesn’t lie – but seems over her trouble now, as we bow our heads for John’s ritualistic saying of grace. It’s a ten minute thanks peppered with out of context Bible wisdoms and a few of John’s own, for instance: every six pack of beer purchased is a bag of cement not bought, a stern indictment in the form of an eye, a nod, to the houses Luke and Matthew have not built at Easy Acres. Because Margaret falls asleep during John’s rambling testified grace, Connie wheels her into the west bedroom. With Margaret out of sight I expect the mood to lighten slightly as I assume the brothers have a lot to tell each other about the last decade. I’m curious as hell as to the story of the shuttered mini-mansion across the road that Mark built and hope to shift the mood of things by bringing it up in conversation. Immediately, upon inquiry about the closed up ranch house, I am aware of an elephant in the room in the shape of Mark’s absent wife and children, when the senior Bible tells me, “The house is Mark’s but the contents belong to his ex-wife. And actually, Eddie, I have a favor to ask. Mark’s ex is on her way here, today, to move the furnishings from Mark’s house to her home in Las Vegas. She’s driving a U-Haul and she’s going to need help with moving her furniture and belongings. That’s where you come in. None of my sons will be lifting a finger to help that divorcee move. Not a hand or even a hello. We have shunned O’Shea for divorcing Mark. None of us will even speak to her when she arrives. I will pay you a hundred dollars to help her load the contents of the house into her truck."
Well, I can hardly say “No” given the conditions of my rent-free arrangement with Mr. Bible. To share my good fortune and to secure an able hand to assist, I drive to the desert just north of what is affectionately referred to by locals as the Time Tunnel where I find a Stickman acquaintance by the name of Magic who agrees to help with the task for forty dollars. Magic, his wife and four year old daughter pile into my van and we drive back to await the arrival of John Bible’s former daughter-in-law on this great American holiday.
At noon the largest U-haul that Douglas Arizona had to offer pulls up and parks in front of Mark’s house. O’Shea and all of her four daughters exit the cab and head straight for the Bible compound. Like O’Shea all four daughters are tall for their ages, self-assured, thin and blonde, five different takes on the same set of dominant genes. All have hair piled and pinned on the top of their heads and walk their western outfits like practiced runway models. A mother duck and ducklings come to mind as they cross the road. But as O’Shea gets close to the threshold of the Bible home, she is stopped short by Connie who comes out the front door to greet and deflect her. Connie leads O’Shea and her brood to the shade of the awning affixed to her Winnebago where the sisters-in-law engage in animated conversation. Connie appears sad and dramatically apologetic as she opens her hands in a gesture of I’m-sorry.-What-can-I-do? while O’Shea looks proud and unfazed by whatever it is that Connie is telling her. After their little confab has ended, Connie disappears into her trailer and O’Shea marches herself and her daughters in the direction of Magic and me. They troop and sashay past the Bible window through which can be seen all four Bible men whose prides have shunned O’Shea and her daughters. She stops, removes her oversized sunglasses, hanging them on her rhinestone necklace, plants her hands on her hips, and stares at the men - right through the men, if you will - before she and her daughters blow kisses at the Bibles.
O’Shea introduces her self, and I note that she no longer uses Bible as her surname. “O’Shea Sullivan”, she says as she shakes my hand and flashes a Vegas showgirl smile in my direction. She has an Amazonian presence and physique. Her wow factor is off the charts. All four daughters have first and middle names as feisty and alluring as their mother’s: Cheyenne Sage, Carly Sue, Rosie Robin and Betty Anne.
When I enter the house Mark built for the first time I am humored by the faux glitz and incongruous artworks of this high desert home. The furniture inside and the environment outside are an oxymoron. I mean, there are Remington sculpture knockoffs, Andy Wharhol lithographs, perhaps an unfinished O’Keefe and a Blumenshein Pueblo Taos oil amongst a half-dozen velvet Elis Preseleys, and dazzling chandeliers that look like they came out of a hotel, a suspicion that O’Shea confirms when she asks me to disconnect them from the ceiling and pack them. I also disconnect the fancy water fixtures (gold plated swan hot and cold faucets aside burnished copper mermaid spigots) in the kitchen and three bathrooms. There’s marble enough in the form of tables and pedestals to open a new gallery in Bisbee. There are five beds complete with canopies and netting. A total of six very large couches, a half dozen Lazyboy recliners, a slate dinning room table with enough chairs for the Last Supper, antique glass cabinets packed with Apple Blossom china, iron cooking ware, the largest refrigerator and freezer south of Tucson, and enough interior decorator accessories to fill completely the trailer of the U-Haul, a back-breaking task – no matter the ramp and hand truck – that takes Magic and I most of the afternoon. All this work we do as the Bibles go about their Thanksgiving feast pretending that O’Shea and her kids and Magic and I are not here across the road from them, working our asses off.
When we finally empty the house of its belongings and lock the trailer door shut, I am exhausted, sore and hurting. Many of the items we moved were huge, cumbersome and heavy. When O’Shea tips both Magic and I with a hundred-dollar bill each, we are appreciative and thankful. Marcia, Magic’s wife and the kids join us and both Magic and I inhale the cold beer Marcia has brought. As we clang our empty bottles together in a belated toast to “All our hard work,” O’Shea announces that we missed something, for aside the east side of the house sits a rather un-artistic life size stone and faux stone bear and a large concrete birdbath. I cringe at the thought of trying to move this final quarter ton of marriage-gone-bust ephemera and take heart in my announcement that neither item can possibly fit in the U-haul, jammed full as it is.
“That’s true, Eddie. But please, give me an hour and I’ll be back with the means to take them. I’ll be damned if those Bibles will take ownership of anything I bought during my marriage to that cheating son of a bitch.” And an hour later after a round trip run to Douglas, O’Shea is back and she’s towing a second small open U-haul that is attached to the rear of the main trailer. She also has a rolling dolly and two rectangular sections of ply wood which we use to move the bear and the birdbath, four feet at a time, from the yard to the road and into the second trailer. After we close the trailer gate on the bear and the birdbath, the five Sullivans parade the property in search of anything else they might have left behind. Satisfied they have it all, O’Shea removes, from under the front seat of the U-Haul, a large white dress, a wedding dress, complete with veil and train. She hangs it from the thorn of a large cactus, and in plain view of the Bible men who stand gawking from the safety of their compound, she removes a crumpled parchment – the ten year old marriage license of Mark Bible and O’Shea Sullivan. She un-crumbles and holds up the certificate before she sets fire to it with a match she lights with the strike of her thumbnail, a one handed action, more powerful than a middle finger. With the flaming parchment she sets ablaze her wedding gown. Its smoke rises languidly into the empty sky as the five look-a-like Sullivans climb into the cab of the U-haul and head northward to Las Vegas. The smiling bear looks happy as it shrinks in my vision, as if it were glad to be leaving Bible land. Unlike the Chinook buffeted smoke of the bonfire that commenced my wanderings, this white cloud hangs in view of the Bible men un-dispersed in the air for a good half hour, a smoky beginning to O’Shea’s new life.