Saturday, November 24, 2012

Two skies, one in Heaven and one on Earth

Manuel Javier Olivarez stepped out of his house on a Sunday at nine in the morning. The sun shines on Colito, Arizona, where Manuel lives, 364 days a year, and today was not the cloudy one. The girls at the hair salon told him that he was a handsome old man. When he looked in the mirror, he would have to say that he agreed. At 74, he had a full head of black hair that parted to one side in front. He was trim but not gaunt and sinewy like other old men. He had dreamy black eyes with long lashes and read Pablo Neruda; Manuel liked to think he had the eyes of a poet. He went by the nickname Manny.

Colito is small, but there are many towns in the Southwest that are much smaller. Manny's house is on what is best described as a suburban street. The houses are nearly identical and not far apart. Although there are houses and cars and people there, the desert reminds you that it was here first. In Manny's neighborhood, there are no yards, just fenced-in squares of sand to the back and front of each house. Some of the women have found scorpions in their ovens. Children playing in the fenced-in squares of sand that they call back yards have encountered several kinds of snakes: boas, colubrids, coral snakes, rattlesnakes, threadsnakes, vipers.

On this morning, Manny encountered a black rattlesnake. He had stepped outside his door, pondered for a moment about which direction to go, chose right for no particular reason, and headed down the sidewalk. There is a cactus forest on a mountain behind Colito. It is the only thing around for miles that is not flat. On the 364 days a year that the sun shines on Colito, it is so flat that drivers see heat shimmers at the far end of the road they are driving on. Today, Manny thought he might try to discover a shortcut to the cactus forest through the yard of a neighbor that had no fence. He got as far as the clothesline when he heard the rattle and saw the snake rear up at him.

Today was not the day to find the shortcut. He turned and headed for town instead.

* * *

The part of Colito that people call "town" is clustered around the on- and off-ramps leading to and from the Interstate. There is a 24-hour gas station, a convenience store, and a truck stop. There is a billboard that you see if you are driving toward Colito from the east: "Live White Tiger! Next Exit. Colito." But there is no live white tiger in Colito. Tourists, especially families with fussy children on long road trips, are disappointed about Colito's lack of a live white tiger. There was a live white tiger once, or so people said, although no one knows how the family got it. The story goes that the father of the family was entrepreneurial, and he had worked in a circus and somehow came to acquire the tiger via his circus connections. He purchased advertising space on the billboard and hand-painted the picture of his tiger onto it, not understanding the usual way that advertisements are put onto billboards, or wanting to use his own, more artistic method instead. The tiger died two weeks later in the dry, shade-less desert heat. The sign is still there because no one else in Colito has wanted to purchase advertising space. It is a laid-back sort of town -- the tourists will stop for gas and a sandwich whether the businesses in Colito advertise or not. The tourists will stop in Colito but they will not stay there.

All of the businesses in town are built to look like they are made out of adobe. They are matte, shineless rust-brown with dark-orange tiles for roofs: the bank, the library, the shopping center that contains the hair salon. This morning, Manny walked into the hair salon in the shopping center that looks like it is made out of adobe. Luz is the owner, and she is always there. She is there more days out of the year than the sun shines on Colito. She has teased blond hair and thick black eyeliner. Her lips are outlined in brick-red lip pencil; she draws peaks on her upper lip to make a Cupid's-bow shape. Her hair is not naturally blond, and her lips are not naturally Cupid's-bow-shaped.

"Manny! Cómo estás?" Manny and Luz speak in a combination of Spanish and English, and they both think in Spanish. Manny mostly used English when dealing with gringos before he retired from his job as a real-estate agent selling ranch properties in other counties. For poetry he uses only Spanish, always. For talking to his friends, he uses something in between.
Luz was behind the counter where you sign in with your name and the time of your appointment. Manny found her a bit garish, but he flirted with her anyway. It was in his nature to flirt.
Luz said, "Where is Julio? Did he drop you off and leave? I don't see his car."
Manny made his eyes twinkle, or so he imagined, and he smiled. His real teeth had been crooked, but his dentures were straight and white and perfect, which he knew made him even more handsome than before.
Manny said, "I don't need Julio to drop me off. I walked here myself."
Luz made a skeptical face, and Manny worried that she might call Julio, so Manny did what he had to do. He recited some lines from a love poem by Pablo Neruda, and he kissed her hand. The poem was one that Manny used to recite for his late wife. If you could have seen Luz blush through her sun-coarsened, makeup-spackled complexion, you would have. She laughed and told him that he was a charmer. Then she looked at him with playful doubt.
"You don't have an appointment," she said.
"I did not come to get my hair cut," Manny said. "I came to brighten your day."
He winked and walked out of the hair salon. He did not have to turn around, because he knew without looking that she was swooning.

Manny walked to the bus station. Buses did not leave and arrive every day, and Manny did not know the schedule. He wondered how much folding money he had in his billfold. He did not plan to take a trip, but he would have liked to figure out how far he could go with what he had on him, just in case. The station was empty inside except for an attendant sitting by a phone, and a blind bum with a dog. The attendant was new; Manny had not seen her before. The bum sat at the far end of the station and stared ahead at nothing. Manny walked to a wooden cubby filled with brochures for local attractions: the cactus forest, the small Catholic mission on an Indian reservation. The live white tiger was not among them, of course. It occurred to Manny that maybe the billboard had always been a sham, that maybe it was merely a ruse to get motorists to stop at Colito instead of the small towns at the exits before and after it along the Interstate.

Three large vans pulled into the parking lot, and a middle-aged woman helped several dozen old people get out. These were mostly women, and maybe two or three men. The men were of the gaunt, sinewy variety to which Manny felt himself aesthetically superior. Manny was glad he had worn his best-fitting pair of pants today. As the old people bustled into the station, Manny strolled over to stand closer to them. He pretended to examine the cities and dates listed above the attendant's head, but really he was reveling in the attention from the women. He could feel their eyes on him, and he knew that these older women were probably starved for specimens of male beauty.
"OK, people. Our bus is here."
The middle-aged woman was a blond-haired gringa with a shrill voice and a harried, put-upon manner. She was flustered, so she did not notice when she herded Manny onto the bus along with the rest of them.
She did a head count on the bus, and then she said to the bus driver: "Yes, 36. We're all here."
As the bus pulled out, Manny heard one of the old men say, "Where's Marco?"

* * *

The bus jostled over a dusty road. Manny watched his hometown streets turn into expanses of parched, clotty desert shrubs and pitchfork cactuses. He did not know where he was going. He was perfectly relaxed.

Where he was going turned out to be the Catholic mission on the Indian reservation, the same as the one in the brochures he had been looking at in the bus station. Manny had never been there, but he was not impressed; he had hoped for a longer bus ride. When they got to the Indian reservation, the bus rolled down a road flanked by tiny crosses and vibrant bunches of flowers. A cemetery. A hush fell over the bus, and the man who had wondered about Marco woke from his doze as if he were psychic. It was a bummer, Manny thought, to bring a bus of old people through a cemetery. At the little white mission church, the gringa shepherded everyone out and split them into groups of six. Tour guides chaperoned five groups, and the gringa took charge of the sixth. Manny made sure to be in one of the other five groups so that the gringa would not discover this interloper on her field trip.

The tour guide for Manny's group was a teenage Latina with a perky ponytail and a crisp uniform. As she led them through the church, she gave her talk first in Spanish and then in English. Afterward, she invited those in her group to take a look around the church and buy candles for $1 apiece to light at the altar. Manny had been scoping out the females, and he took this opportunity to make a move.

A few of the women were very old, too old for him. They had cotton-white hair and were bent over even when they were standing straight. One of the women had eyes that were the color of green olives. Manny's late wife's eyes had been that color. In the tiny mission church, as clumps of old people whispered in corners or sat thoughtfully in pews, brilliant jewel-colored light fell on Manny through the stained-glass windows. He felt a tightening in his chest. It was not something to worry about, he knew; he was in excellent physical health for his age, in addition to being remarkably handsome. It was just what happened when he thought of Sylvia. He took a dollar from his billfold and bought a white votive candle. He lit it and placed it among the many that were already at the altar. He closed his eyes and said a prayer. It included lines from a love poem by Pablo Neruda, even though Neruda himself had not been a praying sort. For this, Manny thought, Neruda would allow an exception.

Manny was still praying when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He opened one eye. It was one of the younger old women from another group. Her face glowed in the candlelight. She winked at him.
"I know your secret," she said. "I could tell on you."
Manny pretended to be shocked, but in a playful manner. "If you don't mind--you are interrupting my prayer. I'm trying to have a very serious moment, and here you are flirting with me."

But he was grateful for the levity. He wanted to sneak into her tour group, and so before her group left for the cemetery, Manny and the woman, whose name was Marina, arranged an exchange: Manny swapped places with the man who had expressed mild concern for Marco. Manny and the man were both happy with the deal, which allowed each of them more overall exposure to the pool of females.

At the gift shop, Manny bought a souvenir keychain for Marina. When no one was looking, he took a plastic carnation from one of the graves and gave it to Marina. On the bus ride home, Manny and Marina held hands. The sun was setting. At the bus station, Manny kissed Marina's hand before she boarded one of the vans. She waved at him from the other side of a tinted window as he stood on the curb.

The bus-station attendant guided an old man to the vans and explained something to the shrill gringa, who then said: "I'm sorry, Marco! I must have miscounted!"

Manny watched Marina's face slide from view as her van pulled away. He felt a wistfulness spreading in him like a bruise.

* * *

The bus-station attendant stood next to Manny.
She said, "Weren't you supposed to go with them?" She seemed like a suspicious type, and Manny worried that she might call someone and tell on him.
Manny thought quickly and said, "No. I'm here to pick up my uncle."
They both looked at the blind bum with the dog, both of whom were sleeping at the far end of the station.
The bus-station attendant looked skeptical.
Manny said, "You have the most beautiful eyes. Has anyone ever told you that you look like Ava Gardner? Oh, you're too young to know who that is. She was a beautiful movie star, and she looked just like you!" Manny had a few lines like this up his sleeve in case of emergencies.
The girl looked at the ground and smiled. She said, "That guy's your uncle? He's here like every day. Where have you been?"
Manny thought quickly again. "He just likes to get out of the house once in a while."

* * *

The girl reluctantly returned to her post, beside the telephone that wasn't ringing and beneath a list of cities and dates, but Manny could feel her eyes on him. He did not want to give her a reason for suspicion. He crept up to the bum. The bum was somewhat well-known around town; everyone had seen him at least once, and he could in fact be found sleeping at the bus station almost as many days out of the year that the sun shines on Colito. Manny shook the bum's shoulder gently. The dog lifted its head, and then the bum lifted his head.
"Excuse me, sir. Would you like to go for a walk with me?"
The bum was wearing dark glasses. That's how everyone knew he was blind.
"Do you have forty cents?" the bum said.
"Yes," Manny said, truthfully. There was a pause.
"Well?" the bum said, expectant.
"Come with me," Manny said, "and I will do better than give you forty cents. I will take you to the bar, and I will buy you a drink."
The bum roused himself and his dog without further hesitation.
"Adios, Ava," Manny called out to the bus-station attendant. She blushed and waved.

In Colito, there is only one bar. In Colito, there is only one of just about everything. The bar in Colito stays open late, even on a Sunday. Manny and the dog guided the bum, whose name was Al, inside the bar.
Al found his own way to a barstool, and Manny asked him, "What will it be?"
"Tequila!" Al shouted. Al's posture was very straight now, and he banged his fist on the bar once to punctuate his order, as if that were the Morse code for tequila.
Manny and Al raised their shot glasses.
"What'll we drink to?" asked Al.
"To women!" said Manny, before amending the toast. "No. To love!"
Al laughed, as if it were a private joke, although the two were still virtual strangers.
Al ordered another shot of tequila, and another, and then Manny said, "Come on. We are going to the canyon."

Manny had only thought of going to the canyon at that moment. Something in the tequila had made him think of it. The canyon was in the cactus forest on the mountain behind Colito, and if you walked up a particular dirt road, you came to a cliff looking deep down into it. It was one of Manny's favorite places, and he wanted the bum to see it. Of course, the bum could not have seen it, not with his eyes. But Manny wanted to describe it to him. His poet's soul made him want to paint the scene with his words for this poor bum who would never really see the canyon in all its splendor.
Al drained the last drops of tequila from his shot glass, and they left the bar. Manny did not have to tell the bartender to put the drinks on Julio's tab.

* * *

Only locals know about the overlook because it is not on a brochure that you can find at the bus station. Manny, Al, and the dog walked up the road through the cactus forest to the overlook. Manny used to walk there with Sylvia. It took about 45 minutes to get there if you walked, and it took an hour and seventeen minutes if you walked with a blind bum and his dog. As they got higher, Manny made sure that Al was walking on the mountain side of the steep drive. No cars passed. The dog whimpered. They took it slowly, and they made it to the overlook without incident.

Manny led Al to a low boulder, which was a good place to sit, as if nature had carved them a bench. Al complained that he was having no fun, that he wanted to go back to the bar.
"We'll leave in just a minute," Manny said. "But first, I want you to try to imagine what this looks like. Were you born blind?"
"No," Al said, and left it at that.
Manny said, "Good, then maybe you will remember what I'm talking about when I tell you about the colors and shapes of everything."
Al was quiet.

Manny supposed he should begin with some general information, like a tour guide.
"We are sitting at an altitude of 2,600 feet above the level of the sea."
Manny was not so sure about that, but he did not think that Al would research it and correct him later.
"Eons ago, a fierce river cut straight through the land and carved the deep cleft of the canyon. Then the mighty river left, leaving only dry rock behind. If you were to look down, just a few steps from where you are sitting, you would see a steep drop that would kill you if you stumbled. It is dry here, and there are snakes lurking in the rocks. If you fell, there is a chance that your fall would be broken by a cactus, if you were lucky -- but the cactus would prick you so badly that you would probably wish you had just fallen to the bottom without interruption. There is no water anywhere, not as far as the eye can see."
The fact that there was no water seemed to sadden Al.
It was not cheering Manny up either, so he said, "But there are trillions of stars in the black sky. Because Colito is so small, and because the towns around us are so small, our sky is full of diamonds. We can even see the Milky Way, a great lashing dragon's tail of starlight. And after it rains one day out of the year in Colito, the canyon is filled with water like a lake. Then we have two skies, one in Heaven and one on Earth, the one on Earth reflecting the night sky like a lake filled with stars."
Al looked hopeful.
"Is it like that now?" Al asked, although surely he had to know that it had not rained in Colito for a long time.
Manny looked down at the bone-dry canyon bed.
"Yes, it is," Manny said.

* * *

Manny took Al back to the bar for one last drink--"A nightcap," Al had called it while pleading all the long way back down the mountain--before escorting Al and his dog back to the bus station.

At the bus station, Manny found Julio talking to the girl behind the counter. Julio was Manny's daughter's husband; the two had moved in with Manny last year. This was after Manny had taken a spur-of-the-moment bus trip to the Grand Canyon. Manny had been on milk cartons in 7-Elevens and grocery stores in Colito and neighboring counties after he was reported missing. The day after he came home in a police car, Manny had proudly bought a carton of milk with his picture on it, used the milk on his cereal for a week, then threw the carton away. He had gotten a kick out of the whole ordeal for a while, but then he had wanted life to return to normal.

"Manny, where on Earth have you been?" Julio asked.
"Nowhere," Manny replied. On a bench at the back of the station, a blind bum lay down on a bench and dreamed about a lake filled with stars.

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