Monday, December 31, 2007

In October

A couple of years ago, someone I miss very much asked me to describe autumn in Arizona. I tried to do what he asked, and this is what came out. (All of my original musical references have been linked; with my apologies and appreciation to all of the artists.)
Legal warning: all persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental.

In October

There was a band in the late 1980's who took their name from a US spy plane, and they put out a spare, black & white album with spare, black & white songs full of dust and spindly trees. The sky I'm looking at is a full color version of the album cover, minus the pale, blurred Irish faces. The only blurred face within miles is mine.

I'm getting into a white Datsun hatchback with automatic transmission, which I'm not far from discovering it wasn't meant to have. I'm going off to school, and the music of that Irish band is pouring from my speakers. I'm trying to sing along - I am, after all, a vocal major - but I can't duplicate the delicate pain in that voice. It galls me, because I feel so superior to the androgynous man-boy singing the words. I am so certain I could write that song myself! The jealousy burns in me, and it will be years before I can deal with the fact that it is jealousy. I will never write a song like that. I will barely manage to sing it without my voice cracking.

But I will understand it.

After school, I will head to her house. She is still in high school, but now I am not, which means our relationship is now barely legal. I doubt her parents would tolerate me chasing after their daughter if I hadn't been there almost every day for almost four years. Everyone pretends that we are not lovers. Everyone knows we are.

But this time it's not the same. There has been someone else, and I'm enough of a fool - an honest and honorable one, I think - to tell her. I haven't "done the deed", but at our age, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that she herself was only the third or fourth female to show me any kind of romantic interest, or that I am vulnerable to the very idea that a fifth would come along. How do you explain that, when you are too young to understand it yourself?

So we sit in the Arizona room - a screened in patio area with lurid green astro-turf and wicker furniture - and she smokes cigarettes in defiance of her parents. Her mother sits stoically on the other side of the glass door, watching Oprah, and her father flits about through the kitchen, occasionally pulling out a show tune from the bench of the piano and playing it. He will play a song - "Stranger in Paradise" or "Lara's Theme" - once, and then put it away and go out to his car and leave. Two years later, she will be away at college when her sister finds what is hidden inside the piano.

We don't say much, because we know said sister is listening from her bedroom. She sits behind the screen quietly, with her stereo playing a bizarre mixture of 80's power ballads and this new kind of gritty metal music coming from Seattle. We don't want to corrupt her.

After stilted conversations about schoolwork and making half-hearted plans for the weekend, we get into my car. I have a predictable selection: Paul Simon's "Graceland",Peter Gabriel's "So" and "Us", Harry Connick, Jr.'s "When Harry Met Sally…" soundtrack, and "The Phantom of the Opera". There may be a leftover from summer, like the B-52's, and some Billy Joel, but she's gotten sick of those from driving around with me.

We drive to the new park they built in the canal. It only floods in late August and early September, if it floods at all. It is now October, and everyone feels pretty safe at the playground and on the volleyball court. It is, however, a little chilled, since the sun is blocked early down in the bottom of the canal. People are wearing sweat pants instead of shorts, and the cyclists are wearing thin windbreakers. The usual twenty to thirty degree drop in temperature at this time of year has given all of the children runny noses, and they play listlessly on the shiny new monkey bars, swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds.

We sit on the decorative river rocks that line the steep sides of the canal above the bike path. We are just under the bridge, and the traffic roaring by keeps anyone from eavesdropping. As though anyone would want to hear such whining and pleading. She doesn't. I take her to her house, and take a circuitous route home.

I end up at the park north of where they're going to build the new freeway. It will circle the whole city, they say. I don't believe it. By the time they finish it, the city will have grown around it like the belly of a fat man spilling out of his belt. I've even read articles asking for another loop even further out. You see the pattern, even if you're only a community college music student with no future.

The sun goes down slowly when you sit on top of a mountain. Even a worn and stooped hill like the one I'm on towers over the valley. If I was facing south, I could see all the way to South Mountain, where all of the radio and TV towers are. Facing east, I could see Camelback Mountain, sticking up from where it is pinched between extravagant wealth in Scottsdale and hopeless poverty in Sunnyslope. Driving around that one sorry hill is like driving from "Dallas" to "Sanford & Son" with a commercial break in between.

I am facing west, though. That's the direction I want to go. There is nothing out there, once you get past my house and the city where only the elderly live. Who named it "Youngtown", anyway? I hear that Irish band singing in my head again, and my mouth fills with a gust of dusty wind. Only two weeks ago it would have burned from baking in the harsh sun all day, but now it is slightly damp, and full of spores and pollen. No one could blame me for having to wipe my eyes and nose, and hurrying back to my car.

At home I call my friend, to see what he's up to. He's bored, and wants to go somewhere - how does west sound tonight? I am ready to agree even before he offers gas money, and I grab some supplies on the way out the door. Supplies are two sodas, and a few of mom's cookies.

We head west from his place, taking Bell Road through Sun City - which is Youngtown with a different mayor. We follow it until it becomes a dirt lined track, and then a dead end. We turn south until we find another major road. We are blaring Queen through the town of Buckeye, and stopping at the Circle K for more snacks for us and the car. We decide to head for Wickenburg, in the other direction. We've switched to Pogues, and we spit and curse along with the singer for twenty miles before the tape runs out. In the silence I tell him about her, and what I've done.

"Stop," he says, and I stop. He gets out of the car, in the dark, with the wind whipping across the flat land by the quiet road. He walks back up the road the way we came, and I get out, too. "Stay there," he orders, and I do. The car is off the road on the side, with the lights off, and I walk around it, looking up at the stars through the streaming wind-tears. I find Orion, and the Big Dipper, before I give up on keeping warm in a denim jacket and get back in the car.

When he comes back, I have James Taylor's Greatest Hits in. We ride in melancholy to Wickenburg, which is dark and empty with the hour and the wind. We feel empty, which could be some kind of hunger, and we turn around again, heading home. He wishes for the hundredth time that we were old enough to buy, and I agree. It won't be long.

I drop him off, and head back to my parent's house. It is too late, and there are words when I come in. It starts cordially - no one wants to offend anyone else. But, the words can all mean something else, and all three of us are wondering what I'm going to do, and how I'm going to do it. I can't stay a child forever. But I'm not a child. Which is why I should… But how can I when… I can feel my eyes glazing over, and I have a vision of squares talking in parallel about circles. I laugh. It is misconstrued, and I go off to bed.

I lie staring at the ceiling. The wind is still gusting, but tomorrow there will be more of the endless, cold sun. It loses some of its color along with the heat. The cold is only relative, but I think I can feel it, even though I've never lived through what some would call a "real" winter. Forty degrees is cold enough for me, and that's at least two months and twenty degrees away.

I think about something my friend said, while Shane Macgowan sang about whiskey and gutters. He marveled at my relationship. He said it gave him hope, and he hoped we would last forever. I tried not to tell him, but he could tell from my face. It broke his heart more than it did mine. It was why he had made me stop.

Years go by, with or without those you love. After a while, the songs are all that make sense. Their words aren't forgotten, though your own are. All you have left are images and temperatures, smells and sounds. They mingle with the memories, and the soundtracks take over the dialogue until you almost forget who did what to whom.

At least no matter how cold it gets, there is the sunshine, and the temptation to stay inside and pretend that it's warm.


Since I never mentioned U2's Joshua Tree album by name in the text, I thought I should do here. I resisted linking the line Under the Bridge in the text. You're welcome.

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