old man dying

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P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.2 (Spring 2016)

 

Fiction & Poetry

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El Paso del Oeste
J.S. Moseby

An old man dying in a tiny town of the Southwestern desert seems a non-event in the middle of nowhere; yet perhaps, on a given day, it comes closer to the hub of things than any other occurrence on earth.

There had been another life when Dan had worked in the quarry. He could remember it when he had to, but there was seldom any need. They had sent him a pension check every month for five years. Now it was all direct deposit, so he didn’t even have to see the company name embossed on the corner of an envelope. He had made a few good friends in those days, but two had died lately and two now lived somewhere in Las Cruces. When he had still visited them once in a while, all they would talk about was the days back at the quarry. If they had talked about their grandchildren or their gardens or coping after a spouse’s death, he would have liked it better. He could never understand why a man would work so hard for so many years at a job that gave him nothing but a paycheck, then finally be set free, and then spend the few years of freedom left in his time on earth talking about that job. It made him sad. Maybe a little angry, too, as if he himself were the cause of reliving those days instead of talking about grandchildren. He thought he deserved better than that. It didn’t seem like a fair way to treat an old friendship.

And so he got to where he just stayed in his own little town and lived his own new life. It was an old kind of life. Maybe a life he couldn’t have lived without the monthly direct deposit and a few bucks of Social Security. But maybe he could have gotten by on the apricots and figs and cantaloupe he grew with the runoff he collected. Tile pipes projecting from an almost flat adobe roof trickled rare downpours into barrels. That was about all he needed. By the end of the summer, the last ghost of the May rains had pretty much fled the barrels; but the apricot and fig trees were his father’s and had grown to a wide spread in their years, so they managed to fight off the August sun without parching. In their shade, the cantaloupe grew sweet and round. Maybe, then, he would have gotten by just fine. His father had. All the old people had, among his innumerable ancestors.

Things, of course, had once been much simpler. No pension or Social Security… but no gas and electric bills, either. And your horse didn’t need a fill-up and and oil change: he would fill his tank from brown desert grasses. The land had also schooled young people in the distant past, and she didn’t charge tuition. Ben had needed a lot of support in college. Big checks had to be written. These days a kid had to choose between studying, working, and sleeping: one had to go, unless Dad helped out. So Dad had helped out. At least that was over now. Ben had his own family in a posh corner of Santa Fe. Dan wasn’t even sure what he did there, but it seemed to pay well. Between graduation and marriage, Ben had offered him money sometimes. Even after the first child, sometimes. He would write about owing a debt (always writing after his marriage, for the wife didn’t like to make the trip down here “to the middle of nowhere”). It made Dan a little indignant. A son did not owe his father anything for rearing him to fight the world’s wars. And if he did, that was not a debt that any money could ever pay. Dan never answered those letters.

Louise had been gone for lots of years, too. A long time. She had needed medicines that the insurance wouldn’t always cover, and that had set them back. But now Louise was gone, gone for a long time, it seemed. Maybe just a couple of years… but it was hard to believe that the time was not longer.

The Internet connection cost money every month, but it wasn’t worth a dime, and he had unsubscribed. Half the time he couldn’t connect at all: the rainbow wheel just spun and spun. He hadn’t missed the computer so far. He didn’t use it often enough to remember where everything was that needed clicking, and the scraps of paper where he wrote passwords kept disappearing under other scraps of paper. Before he canceled, Liddie Garcia would sometimes come in and help him figure things out when she delivered the mail. Then when he mentioned to her one afternoon that he was done with computers, she said that her smartphone wouldn’t work out here, but that she could help him check his account at the Post Office if he would remember the password and come in once a month. He told her to help him remember “liddie4everfriend”, and her round olive cheeks grew rounder and browner. She said he shouldn’t tell anyone his password, but he said that he had already told her and he wasn’t going to change it—that he would be sure to remember this one. So she told him just to pick one of the words and capitalize all the letters. She said that would be safer.

The email he wouldn’t miss. Ben had never written emails since their first child was born, and Dan hated emails, anyway. From Ben, he hated the offers of money and the lame cover-ups of his wife’s prejudices—the apologies for not visiting. In his heart, he thanked his son for the money offers… and in his heart, he understood about the missed visits. There was nothing out here to attract a modern young woman who played tennis. But he didn’t know how to write those things. So a paper letter twice a year was better than an email once a day.

And then there were the other offers of money, the ones that always ended up costing you money. He had bought a little silver once to safeguard his savings… and then he never saw the silver. They had it in a safety deposit box somewhere, they said, where they looked at it and polished it once a year and then charged him two hundred dollars. That did it for emails, as far as he was concerned.

For a medicine cabinet, he had the desert all around him. The prickly pear fronds gave him all kinds of good vitamins, better than pills from the drug store, and their red-and-white apples were sweet in the late summer. Aloe vera was everywhere in spotted, barbed daggers. A very small draught of peyote tea could perk him back up if he felt himself spiraling downward. Louise had refused to touch any of it… and look where it got her. All those expensive capsules in bottles, and it only reduced the kind of cross he could afford to put over her.

In the springtime, on his twice-weekly walk to her grave in the cemetery at the edge of town, he would sometimes see doves and track down their nests. He could keep the eggs refrigerated for a while, in case his hens weren’t laying. But he needed electricity for the Frigidaire, so that wasn’t exactly another feather for the old ways. He wasn’t quite ready to give up the TV, either. He didn’t have cable and was largely reduced to the local news (which he ignored), Tom and Jerry in the mornings, and reruns of The Rockford Files and Walker, Texas Ranger in the evenings. He had heard that most of those actors were dead now. Only the cat and the mouse never got old, apparently.

And the mountain. The mountain pass. It never got old, either. The two peaks that sat in his back yard every minute of every day of every year from ten, maybe fifteen miles away. Maybe twenty. It was hard to be sure in the desert. The old folks used to say that those mountain islands were always twice as far away as your best guess. Like huge pink volcanoes rising straight from a sandy ocean, they were there so much that you tried not to mention them. They saw everything you did, just as they had seen everything all of your forefathers ever did. If you faced them, you couldn’t stare them down; and if you turned away from them, you knew they were staring right over your shoulder.   They saw every letter that Liddie Garcia delivered, and every letter that he took out to the box for her, enclosing it carefully under a lifted flag. They saw every client of the Dollar General come and go, and every patron of the tiny library built from a trailor house, and every customer at the Bank of Las Cruces drive-through and the Diary Queen. Nothing happened in Four Trees that they didn’t see. No car came driving along the highway two miles to the north that they couldn’t watch from state line to state line.

Maybe that was partly why nothing happened in Four Trees. Maybe the Pass made every one of its two hundred and thirty-eight official inhabitants nervous about doing anything.

Yet that was a silly thought. If anybody in Four Trees had ever been nervous, it wasn’t because of the Pass. And if it was more likely that nobody in Four Trees had ever been nervous, that was entirely because of the Pass. Not exactly a friend in their perpetual aloofness, the twin peaks were more like a god in their perpetual vision of sameness. With them at your shoulder, you knew that nothing ever really changed. Maybe it did for mountains, in the lifetime of mountains. Dan had heard that the granite island would once have been part of a solid coastline and the desert floor an ocean bed, long before there was any human being to leave a footprint. So this high-horned god was saying, maybe, that he, too, was also a puny little traveler in the great universe. One word of such a god took longer to hear that any man had years to live; but if those were the god’s words, then the puny human ants at his feet teetered on the edge of non-existence.

You needed no clock if you lived in Four Trees. If the sun was out (and it was, for three hundred and fifty days a year), you needed only to look at where the mountain’s shadow fell. It was a great sundial. At nine, in mid-summer, it touched the dirt road that led toward the highway. By noon, it had shrunk far back from the town’s precincts but still pointed visibly toward an abandoned railroad shack (along tracks hidden under sand unless you stood within eight or ten feet of them). By six in the evening, it reached far and thick over his garden and stroked his kitchen window. The positions all shifted slightly with the seasons, of course. The mountain was also a calendar.

As intimidating or haunting as the Pass could sometimes be, Dan would have described it as the main reason he didn’t leave Four Trees, if he had been any good at describing things. Louise was buried here, yes; but the Pass was her real headstone, and not that frail cross that had cleaned out the checking account. It was his father’s marker, too—and that of all his ancestors. A marker of their lives as well as their deaths: a token of what had survived throughout their infinitesimal struggles, and of what lived on after their deaths. It was their common soul, like a breath that was never exhaled. It gave an almost human face to their entire race; or it showed the face, maybe, that the race’s people copied or echoed or remembered, like something in the DNA. As much as he might avoid them at times, he must have spent a combined hour every day (five minutes here, ten there) studying the pink granite cliffs. From the low, prickly blur of desert rose two gray hills, or what seemed mere hills from fifteen miles away. Rolling like a sleeper’s shoulders, the hills were scoured bare of all except a few wisps of blue-gray grass and a few bolders that had toppled down just a century or two earlier. Then the cliffs shot up, straight and fluted and pink. Not a tuft of vegetation showed anywhere on them. Their lines reminded him of a church organ’s pipes, standing forever expressionless yet releasing a deep-throated chord of music without stop that told you everything. If only you, too, could stand still and listen for a century, it would tell you everything.

As a boy, Dan had sometimes pleaded with his father for them to take a hike up the mountain. His father would always smile a sad smile without answering. Once or twice as a teenager, Dan had renewed the proposal with more seriousness, and with a plan. He would take a backpack, and he would pack enough for two or three days, if need be. He would go alone. He pretended that he was just airing out the plan, hoping that his father would volunteer to come along. Now there was no sad smile, but something more like quiet disapproval. Still his father would say nothing; but Dan would clearly get the feeling that the journey’s difficulty was the least of reasons for not taking it. His father made him feel like he had insulted the Virgin Mother, but that he had grown too old to smack. The plan remained only a plan, or a daydream—for the real plan had always been that his father would come, too.

After he had found work in the quarry and moved away, he visited his aging parents perhaps twice a year. Sitting in the kitchen and looking out the window that framed the garden but also captured the Pass beyond and above the apricot leaves, he would think idly from time to time about packing a knapsack and taking that journey. If he could have slipped out with young Ben and not betrayed any of his secret to the old man, he might just have done it, in those days—during one of those days. But maybe not. Even then, something unspeakable had bound his feet down.

Still later, after his father and mother had died and Ben had gone off to college, he and Louise would visit here regularly. (It was painful to think that he came more often once the house sat empty. There were good reasons for that… but the thought was still painful.) After cleaning up the little lot and caring for the trees during one day of his weekend, he would often spend the other straying farther out into the desert than he had ever gone. Taking Louise was out of the question by this time. She was already moving a little slowly, though nobody could yet figure out why. Because of her condition, there was also no question of his truly taking off for a mountain climb. But in four or five hours of walking one way, picking a path that led far beyond the railroad shack and into that one-time ocean bed where no footfall made a sound, he would get notably closer. As soon as he had slid and scrambled across a deep barranca hidden in the scrub, he would begin to see lineaments in the cliff faces that he had never known before. When he would stop for a lunch of bread and cheese before heading back, he would study ramps and fissures that had appeared in the pink granite facades, now looming over him like snoozing giants over a kitchen mouse; and chewing slowly, he would map out possible ways to make it far, far up the sheer walls. And it was on these excursions that he first made out—faintly crowning the more southerly summit—a mesquite tree that must have seen everything from Chihuahua to Cloudcroft.

Over the many years since Louise had gone (the two years that seemed many), the Pass had moved from the back of Dan’s thoughts to the fore, where it stayed even in his sleep. As if it had pulled itself up by the roots and walked, like the shadow of some sundial that tracked shifting realities, its image was there inside his lids when he closed his eyes. Over and over, he would pace in his mind the steps from the garden’s back gate to the railroad shack, and then to the barranca and across, and then to the flat rock where he had more than once eaten bread and cheese. Sometimes the journey was in his conscious mind, as he sat looking at a blank TV screen, undecided about watching another Rockford rerun. But sometimes it came of its own accord, in his sleep; and at those times, he could see the ramps and fissures in the granite much more clearly than he ever had with a waking eye. In two miles, maybe three, he would reach them.

He had been that close already, many times—and now there was no Louise to worry over. He could fill a big canteen and pack a light sleeping bag, and he could peel and munch a nopal or two along the way, if needed. It was just a matter of going. He wasn’t young any more: he should have gone when he was younger. But he wasn’t the decrepit old man, either, that he would be in another few years, perhaps another one or two. It would be good to go soon.

How much of this resolve formed in his daydreams and how much in his sleeping dreams, Dan couldn’t have said. But in his sleep, very recently, he would be on the granite, caressing its flat surfaces for a hold as he had when roaming about the quarry long ago. Then, as he topped a comfortable ledge, there would be Louise. Or maybe his father. And once it had been a man who looked like his father, but taller and thinner. And they were real, so real that he could have described their features to a sketch artist right down to the last mole and crease. Louise seemed younger, and much healthier. And his father, too. It seemed as though the Pass was a good place to be.

If Dan walked to the graveyard only twice a week now, it was because he had taken to walking out past the railroad tracks at least three times a week. He was like an athlete in training. And he realized, sadly but excitedly, that he felt closer to Louise out beneath the Pass than in the graveyard. The walk to the graveyard had become a waste of time.

He wrote a letter to Ben in which he very vaguely mentioned the dreams. He almost didn’t send it. If he hadn’t been sitting on his porch, and if Liddie Garcia hadn’t driven up in her cart at just that moment, he would have hidden it in a drawer somewhere. But Liddie saw him from her seat in front of his mailbox, and she asked him if the letter were ready.

“I don’t have a stamp,” he said. “I’ll have to go inside to look for one. Maybe tomorrow you can have it.”

“Bring it here,” she said. “I’ll stamp it at the station. For Ben?”

“Yes,” he said. “For Ben. I don’t suppose you have anything from him?”

“I’m sorry, Dan,” she said. “He’s overdue, isn’t he? He always writes before the kids are on summer break, doesn’t he? Maybe he’s going to send you a postcard from the beach this year!”

“It’s not his fault,” said Dan. “The kids are beginning to get demanding, and Ben is a good father.”

“Yeah,” she said. “All those softball games… it takes time.”

“He’s a good son, too, Liddie,” said Dan. “A man don’t bring up his son to waste his time in a place like this. I’m proud of Ben. He done his old man proud.”

By the time those words ceased echoing in his ears, he was already at the railroad shack, and it was dusk. He was a little surprised. He had not expected to start the journey in mid-afternoon, but early the next morning. After the letter, though, he had grabbed up his backpack almost without knowing what he was doing. Or perhaps what he had known was that the only sleep he could ever possibly get this night would be in the shack, not in his father’s bed.

He made a fire from brush and some of the old boards. In its light, and with an ember, he checked under the shack for rattlers, then spread his bedroll inside. He kept the fire several feet away outside in case it attracted snakes and scorpions.

Now the early morning’s coolness would be spent crossing the barranca and then, soon after, beginning a steady ascent. It was well that he had jumped the gun yesterday, because by noon he was only to the base of the gray foothills, and they themselves were more mountain than hill. The old folks were right: take your best guess, and double it.

He found a long, withered stick that looked like driftwood washed up by the ancient sea (or by that sea where Ben’s family would be vacationing; it was hard now to believe that he had spoken to Liddie only yesterday). The stick’s six-foot shaft made a perfect hiking cane. He needed it to hike up the hills, for their gray dirt proved to be slippery gravel. The going was so tough that, by the second dusk, he was only at the base of the cathedral’s granite organ pipes. They had no more shape. They were mere size: they were half the sky. Behind him, and beneath the sky’s other half, sat squared liitle outcrops of rock in the scrubby cactus that must have been the houses of Four Trees. He tried to find his own, but couldn’t be sure. He thought he could make out the apricot trees. The highway’s thin white scar, though farther, was much easier to see.

At the base of the granite was a litter of huge bolders that he had never suspected from below. He made himself a warm spot among them for his bedroll. There was nothing but dust for firewood, and nothing but dust for water. His canteen, he realized, was empty.

On the third day, he remembered no morning or noon or evening. He forgot to pause and admire the view. There was nothing around him, all day, but huge granite sheets and plates and shelves that spun and spun as he worked his stick but never really seemed to move up or down. He must have spent another night among them, because he remembered a long darkness; but he could not remember making a warm spot to sleep, or spreading his bedroll, or getting cold or falling asleep. For all he could remember, he might have climbed throughout the night. Maybe he had climbed by seeing with his hands; for the feel of the smooth granite, fighting him in a glacially paced wrestling match, was more real than any sight.

In the morning, Louise pointed him up a steep channel that became a cave for a hundred steps of its staircase. He had turned back to nod to her after sizing it up, but she was already gone. After that, he was almost at the top, and he did not figure that he had taken so long on the scramble. But as he straightened his knee out over the final granite stair and saw his father under the mesquite tree, he realized that the sun was now low in the west, facing him eye to eye. Between its golden gaze and his was half a continent, rumpled and shrunken yet passionate blue in the evening shadows. Behind him, invisible, was Four Trees and the rest of the world, the world he had known; but it was all too far down to see now, and too far behind to need seeing.

He felt young again, as he had never felt even in his prime. Neither thirsty nor hungry nor tired, he let his cane fall softly on the southerly crown’s surface, just where the waters of May lay pooled in a mirror of the stars.

“Shucks,” he sighed. “I knew I’d never get up this mountain alive.”

***

Where the dirt road from Four Trees met the highway heading west, a single van had pulled over. It might as well have stopped dead in the highway’s wrong lane. The next vehicle headed toward it had scarcely crossed the state line.

Yet the man with the backpack was not consuming anyone’s valuable time in exiting from the passenger side. The three steps he took up the dirt road lifted to a higher pitch the voice of the woman behind the wheel. He paused and his head turned back, though not his feet.

They appeared almost to quarrel over how much one of them wanted to do things for the other. The woman wanted to drive the man all the way (all two miles) into Four Trees, even though the dirt road wouldn’t do the tires any good. The man wanted her to spare her time, her gas, and the tires (as much as a four-mile excursion would have cost in any coin). The woman warned that he had not applied sunscreen. The man warned that the AC unit might overheat if she didn’t close her window. The woman wanted to know how he would pass a night with no more clothes than what was in his backpack. The man reminded her that the exit for the Courtyard Marriott was B and not A. They were a youngish man and woman, measuring zero on the “gray hair” scale. Around their words steamed a chrome silver Lexus minivan, an empty highway’s tarmac, and twin granite peaks that neither of them seemed to have noticed. Yet the peaks heard every word.

“So do you want to be picked up here, too? Or in the… in the town?”

“Either way. I can walk back up, if you’re afraid for the tires.”

“I’m not afraid for the tires. That’s not what I said. And when? When? Tomorrow? When tomorrow?”

“Better make it the next day. Give me two days.”

“They do have land lines here, just no reception,” said a child’s voice from the back seat. “He can call you. You can call her.”

“That’s right. You can just call me. Whenever you get ready.”

“That’s what I’ll do, then. I’ll call you.”

“ I could drive you down, you know. It’s almost noon. Or it will be by the time you get there.”

“It doesn’t take two hours to walk two miles.”

“And that’s not what I meant about the tires.”

“I’d better get going, before it really is noon.”

“Can we just go, Mom?”

“Yes. Just go.”

“The children want to go. So I guess I’ll go on.”

“Yes. Just go on.”

“I’ll go on, then.”

And the woman shifted the van’s gears and veered across two empty lanes without looking, her eyes dead ahead where no mountain islands shone in semi-mirage and no sign indicated any destination.

The child’s voice from the rear said, “Mom, how long till we get to a place where I have signal bars again?”

“J.S. Moseby” is the nom de plume of one of our steadiest contributors over the years, a semi-retired academic living in North Georgia who confides that he has grown thoroughly dismayed with the state of “creative writing” on college campuses.