Season of Limb Fall
Season of wind-driven alkali dust, season of black widow spider and spider scorpion, season of flea bite and itchy torment, season of earthquake, season of sparrow's end. Season of tropical sister triplets—Celeste, Daphne & Evangeline—playing tag along the Baja coast, bearing an offspring of hybrid clouds: white-topped, black-bellied. But it will not rain. Not since Hatfield the Rainmaker has the high desert known September rain, and even then convective heat swallowed most before it touched ground. Elsewhere, hurricanes gale down water by the lake full; here they gale gritty sand and devil dust.
I worry about my chinaberry trees, brittle-limbed, trunks known to split down the middle in a blow with armies of flying termites swarming out. Worry, too, about our mental health. Nothing torments the spirit like a dust storm. Mental dirt emerges and flocks, intermingles with the meal of rotted bones, upended outhouses, fire ash, scattered garbage, and desiccated manure. Wind-borne. After summer's brash heat—fear of brush fires and terrorist attacks, lost jobs and health crises—we dread September's Santa Anas. Dogs crawl under the house. Mockingbirds hunker down in ground squirrel holes at first breath, and doves perch on roof peaks prepared to catch the gale crests and ride the wind like surfers; weeks before they find their way back to us again. September babies claw at mothers' legs trying to return to the womb. "Your red ants line up in rows and march sideways before a blow," Juan Alverro says. "Don't nobody knows why." Gophers, snug in their burrows, are the happiest creatures alive when the dust winds blow.
Old Floria Davis, who lives over in Serendipity Acres Senior Park (or used to), makes no preparation for September winds this year. Never does (but what preparation can you make? Cut down trees? Move the house?). I see her out walking her dog that fateful morning and point out thunderheads circling the rim of mountains like Conestoga wagons, canvas tops glutting dark with moisture and dust. Swollen something pitiful. "Better get yourself inside," I shout. "Hurricanes down in Mexico." Floria throws a hand and mouths reply: she'll walk anywhere she damn pleases. We have issues, Floria and I.
She's coaching her dog to squat in the empty field before my place, as she does, hectoring, yanking its leash and hissing, "Make more, Noodles. Make more." Some kind of golden retriever blend, that mutt. Never cleans up her dog dirt is the issue. Stinks something prodigious of a hot day. I've gotten on her case about it. Floria looks up and flips me the bird, waggles it good. Seventy-eight and attitude. Oh, we've had words, Floria and I. "Stupid useless runt," she snaps—referring maybe to Noodles, maybe to me. Seems he won't poop on command this morning.
Later, I see her out for a second try. (I've offered the woman information about the "Be Sure Doggie Composter" from the New World Catalogue—guaranteed you can set it in your kitchen and not smell a thing. She's not interested.)
It's some of the worst I've seen by now. Sky mildew dark and blustery, mountains obscured by inky haze, half dust, half humidity. Sultry isn't half the word for it. Boggy. Still, no rain, except for what trees transpire, droplets of moisture needling my bare chest. Clouds of dust and sand whip up over the San Jacintos from the Coachella desert, billowing to maybe 12,000 feet. Arabian sandstorm gone vertical. Ugly, I'm here to tell. Swilling shit-brown clouds. Thunderheads of dust. Gusts grip tops of chinaberry trees and throttle them good, twigs spatter the house and do a wooden worm dance about my feet. My dogs' hackles go up—not at Noodles, as typically (finding some evil principle in dog and owner). They snap and snarl at the wind. I watch dust clouds gobble up hills at the head of the valley, coming our way fast. Floria oblivious out there, mouthing, Make more, Noodles! squatting to give him the picture. "Floria . . . for crissake!" She can't hear me for the subway roar. She looks like a walking skeleton in a sweatsuit shroud; her clothes whip about her frail body. She snaps her face into the gale in satisfaction just as Noodles is lifted off his feet mid-business and lands a dozen feet off, Floria's smoker's mouth puckered up smug as a chicken's ass.
"Watch out, Floria!"
It's upon us, funneling in a horizontal twister. A brown gale, scraping up half the acreage of that empty field in its clutch. The dogs and I race for the house. Get inside as the storm's first combers crash against the place, lifting off window screens and roof shingles, vacuuming the carpet off my screened porch, with screens and deck chairs. That's when I look out the front window to see Floria ascend like a derelict angel, ingested into the clouds' rank intestinal coils, her legs kicking protest. Like that laundress ascending into heaven in Marquez's Hundred years of Solitude, gripping the kite of a bedsheet. Although her ascent was pure and virginal, while Floria's is filthed with all the world's grit in a cumulus cloud the color of rusted urine, biting chunks from earth and sky alike. She isn't even granted the momentary satisfaction of flight. Floria retches her smoker's cough, dog leash snapping about her like an angry snake. Her eyes, I could swear—abject in her tainted resurrection—curse mine. I am flooded with guilt, as if I've pulled a lever and whoosh! off she goes. And Noodles? Who can say where he's got off to? Dust to dust.
When it's passed, I run out to the field and plant a shovel in that spot where I last saw her standing; it sinks readily into shuffled silt and sand. Call it a testament, a shrine of the sort people erect at road accident sites, a memento mori. Tree branches splintered in a jumble all around me. I'm afraid to turn and look at my chinaberry trees. Give us much more of this, I warn heaven, and we'll all pick up and move.
THREE SISTERS: Pillage. Desolation. Despair.
"What a thing to say. You didn't need to say that at all."
"Well, it's true, anyways."
"It might be true, Alverro," I say, "still, you don't walk right up and tell a retarded person they're retarded."
Juan shrugs. Knowing him, he just might.
We intend to continue digging in shifts for as long as it takes. You don't surrender half your neighborhood to a September dust storm without a fight. It might get greedy next time and take the whole.
My own place is remarkably intact but for the trees. They stand branchless as ship spars, though not as erect. Desert trim. Rescuers hang out in my yard between shifts; Juanita and I bring them coffee and fresh doughnuts. All kinds of people come to help: attorneys from Santa Monica, retired defense workers from Diamond Bar, kids from a high school in Temecula. Juanita asks why it takes a tragedy to make people human. No answer I know to give her. Shocks me some she'd ask. She's never been given to critical. Amazing what you learn about people in a tragedy. Dust gets into the mind works and messes them up.
Hasn't occurred to me it was Floria sending me nasty email messages these past months until we uncover her computer. I thought it was one of the dispatchers down at work, doubted Floria even owned a computer—until we find all three of them in what remains of her trailer (first thing we uncover). Floria's and the two belonging to her sisters. Didn't know she had sisters, either. I pictured Floria living alone in a tiny cluttered modular, just her and Make More Noodles, a couple of parakeets. Never imagined her sending emails about the low state of my mental hygiene. But considering my tormentor's address, email@example.com, all the email stalker's references to my snitty dogs (who went after Noodles with a banshee fury, I admit, nipping and snarling at the fence), and claims I purposely sicced them on my neighbors, no question it was her. Sister Despair. I've a mind to take her hard drive to a recovery service and have it analyzed. Juanita warns me that would be invasion of privacy. Bad enough to invade privacy while a person's alive; irremediable once they're dead. I ask her how we know she's dead. Flown off, sure. Ascended in a dust cloud. Deposited maybe in the Virgin Islands.
As we figure it, Floria's sisters were sunning on their patio the afternoon of the wind storm: 98% humidity, maybe 60% ambient dust, so it was like breathing mud. Lunked down in their lawn recliners when we find them, mouths full of sand, gullets, too, no doubt, given their abominable weight. Glen Whitehead states the obvious, "Only chance we got of finding someone alive is if they stayed inside that day." Glen owns a gas station. Did. Will again once they dig it out.
"Whoopdy-do, Glen. You're a genius. I don't personally believe we'll find a living soul," Andrea Basil says. She's lovingly brushing sand off of the sisters with a paint brush.
"Don't second-guess the Lord," Hector Dario says. Hector's deacon down at Truth Tabernacle church on the corner of Palm and Antelope. Wind scrubbed the church clean so it glistens white now, walks and driveway sand-blasted, trees shorn of leaves. Looks like they were planted that way. What's it called? Aphyllous. Denuded for Jesus who cursed the fig tree. "A natural blessing," Hector says of the church, "Proof positive of the Lord's benign hand in this world."
"So what's this then?" Andrea Basil lifts one of the sister's sand-logged arms and lets it fall with a thud. "More benign proof, Heck?"
He lances a finger at her. "The Lord rewards the faithful and punishes the transgressor with a swift and mighty justice—sand and pestilence and fire. Heathen beware." With Hector, you never know whether he's quoting chapter and verse or making it up as he goes.
Juanita rises to her full height, towering over him maybe six inches, a little of the sisters' pallor rubbed off into her skin. "What'd these gals do to make God want to bury them alive? They contributed generously to the scholarship fund every year."
"Judge not that you be not judged." Hector's gone snippy, as short men will.
"Dude . . . you're so full of shit," says Tommy Whitehead, Glen's nineteen year old boy. His hair bleached up in castellated crests, two front teeth pulled—a punk look twenty years outdated. Tommy's something fierce against religion. "Why you digging then if all this here is just heathen excrement or whatever?"
"The Lord judges whom he will. It ain't up to me."
"Amen." His wife excavates a small tabby cat near the sisters, tail sticking straight up, rigid.
"Three storms . . . three sisters," I say to change the subject. "Celeste, Daphne & Evangeline. So what are these old girls' names then?"
Juanita turns hard to me as if I've jerked her chain. "Why, Daphne & Evangeline." Some truth worked loose in her mind. Something she'd rather not know.
"And Floria," Tommy Whitehead says. "That's the fourth storm, the one what buried them alive."
"Floria? By God! Was it really?"
"How poignant," Andrea Basil says.
"It's a judgment," Hector Dario insists. "Ye shall know them by their names."
"Pillage, Desolation, and Despair more like," Glen Whitehead says.
"Faith, Divinity, and Grace," Mrs. Dario corrects him.
"Three sisters, anyways. Names or no," says Juanita.
I'm thinking I must get my hands on that hard drive. Whatever it takes.
"You get a mess like this there's sure enough a woman behind it, anyhow. Sure enough."
"Don't you be blaming this on women, Glen," Juanita chides. "We're carrying enough on our shoulders already."
"Glen's bitter," I say, "ever since Sharon left."
"The hell I am. I'd like to get a bulldozer in here is what I'd like to do. We could go sniffing and shoveling along like this forever."
"And crush any chance they have of survival."
"Ain't a prayer's chance of it anyway. Just ask the preacher there."
IT'S NO GOOD
Rescue dogs mewl and whine, thrusting muzzles into sand. We warn newcomers not to get their hopes up. Tommy Whitehead suggests we ought to leave some of it buried as is, for posterity to find. Like Pompeii. Our way of life preserved in dry sand. We regard one another, uncomfortable with the idea of posterity discovering—as we have—that old people subsisted mainly on Big Macs (their garbage cans full of yellow wrappings), blood pressure readings, and furtive viewings of porn videos we find buried in closets along with sequined cowboy boots. No record we want to bequeath the future. Let poets and architects mold our legacy. We keep digging until the county takes over.
Maybe a week after the storm, we get word Noodles has showed up in a Sycamore tree up at the community college, barking at students passing by below. Hearing they have him at the pound, I get to thinking how maybe if I'd been a little kinder—if I'd stopped my dogs from tearing hell a new asshole every time Floria walked Noodles past my place to make more in the field—maybe she would have listened to me that day. Not that I take responsibility; only enough that I can't just let her mutt be gassed.
The day I go to pick him up, Juanita says the last thing we need is another dog around the place, especially that dog. "You can't control the four you have already."
"What's got into you? Before that wind you would be right over to pick him up." (Three of our four strays she collected at side of the road.)
Juanita cocks her head. I'd swear a little sand trickles out an ear. "It won't work, Al. Your dogs hate that animal with a fury. They'll tear him up."
"They're your dogs, too. Remember?"
"No no no. I never encouraged them to bark at the poor woman. You treated them with biscuits every time they sent her scurrying."
"She didn't need to bring that mutt over here to do his business, did she? Sure, okay, I might've been a bit rough. But you make it sound like murder or something."
It cuts me. Her eyes sharp-snouted rodents. Cuts me deep.
So I bring Noodles home. Wouldn't you know, my dogs won't let us in the gate. Noodles cowering in the pickup bed. I walk him out in the field; diarrhea pours down his quaking legs before I can instruct "make more." Good deal. My dogs like demonic quadruplets at the fence, gnashing their teeth against chain links. Eyes glazed and murderous. "You can't stay out here, boy," I lament, "the coyotes will get you. Inside, my dogs will tear you up. It's not as kind a world as people teach their children it is." He smells like curdled lasagna. And shit. I promise to keep my dogs inside while he's out, Noodles inside while they're out. "After a while, you'll get used to each other."
IT'S NOT A GOOD FEELING
"Currently unemployed," I say. "No prospects."
"Opportunity sprouts from disaster." There's my old Juanita for you, optimism's midwife.
So I get the dogs inside. Noodles hides under my truck when I try to hose him off. It strikes me right then what this is about. I'm a pragmatic man. Every trouble has its cause. A host of troubles will have a primal cause. If plants don't grow, look to the soil.
I tell Juanita, "Let's say you believe in moral cause and effect, like Hector Dario does—only cut God out of the equation—you could say all of this is the natural effect of some fundamental cause. There's nothing arbitrary about it."
"Whatever are you talking about?"
"I'm talking karma. Talking the sin I committed setting our dogs barking at old Floria. But, you know, I got fed up with the stink."
"That's the craziest thing I ever did hear in my life. What kind of power do you think you have, Albert?"
"I wouldn't call it 'power,' I'd call it 'compounded misfortune.'"
"It wasn't the smell you didn't like, anyways, it's the idea of growing old and walking your lame old dog out to poop in a weed field. I saw the way you looked at those poor souls we dug up at Serendipity Acres."
"Dried out corpses! How am I supposed to look?" If ever a soul on this planet has made cordiality a virtue, it's Juanita, and here she is speaking thoughts I don't dare think to myself. Dust in the head. Mental dust mice. "Don't you see!" I persist. "Those hateful emails, losing my job, the storm and half the neighborhood destroyed, your personality change, that scroungy half-breed retriever who never learned to poop on his own—"
"What hateful emails?"
I know I've stepped in it. "Somebody's been sending me hate mail."
"United FreightMasters, I don't doubt. Executives making off with profits and putting you all out of work. That's hate sure enough, though they call it by a different name." Juanita way out there ahead of me in the baleful thinking curve. Not like her at all: voted Miss Good-Natured in high school, awarded the Our Best Friend Award by the Civic League.
"I'm concerned about you," I say. Half-relieved to be off the hook where those emails are concerned.
"Don't waste your worry on me . . . you believing nature and everything else is lined up against you for pestering an old woman. You think that's rational?"
"I'm not saying it's me alone. There's likely millions of us contributing. It's cumulative, one bad turn builds on another until the whole pile goes over. Just happened to be me added the final straw this time."
"That's crazy talking."
"Seems to me you've joined us, too," I admonish. Noodles cowers under the table at my feet; my own dogs clawing at the back door, unable to get at him.
BUT NOT FOR LONG
"What are we? Any of us?"
Grateful to have her back to her old self, I forgive those four dogs, revenge cooked off me like sour fat rendered by a hot fire. The dogs, besides, are reluctant to look at each other, since their brutality—like our own—always begins with an exchanged glance. I avoid all their eyes, knowing who led them here. Every ill event builds on the last. Every time we swat a fly or start a car or curse under our breath, tragedy moves closer.
I show Juanita those emails. She agrees: it was Floria sent them, pointing out expressions that might be used by a person of her generation: horrors, hunky-dory, utter nonsense. "Besides," she notes, "they've stopped coming now she's—"
"Right . . . dead. That's true."
"I believe we'll name the new scholarship fund for Floria and her sisters. The Three Sisters Fund. That would be a lovely tribute."
"The Daph-Eva-Floria fund," I suggest. "Or The Pillage Desolation & Despair Fund, as Glen Whitehead has it. Naw, that wouldn't work for scholarships."
"We've had enough of all that."
But, no sir, we haven't.
About a week later I receive an email:
Chills me like a fever. Like some small beast crawled into my computer and nested down among electrons. What in the God-forsaken hell! Did Floria land up in a tree some-where, like Noodles, and get hold of a lap top? I fire back my first reply ever, realize in sending it that her address has changed from thornyroses to deadroses. My chill turns gelid, freezes me right up. Holy Hector Diaz's Jesus! The woman is communicating from beyond the pale. It's too late to retract my spiteful reply: Do me a favor and die, would you? Likely she'll get a kick out of it anyway in her current incarnation. I send a second:
Not my fault, Floria. I was out there warning you.
No reply. Maybe it's like being arrested, the dead are given only one call back to the living. And she's spent hers.
Then emails start coming in regularly, programming gibberish:
E*~ ( s 3Y * /000 \\//480<>hmk a#**88)) 0++~//// >kl <\\[–]
I ask Tommy Whitehead—our resident computer whiz, gone skinhead now, a Maltese cross of the sort biker's sport tattooed on his pate (kissing cousin to the flyfot swastika)—to check out my processor.
"What you got here, dude, is what they call an incest virus."
"Definitely. It's going to fry your software. All's you can do is watch."
"Somebody planted it there—like by email?"
He squinches his mouth, forehead combers turning that cross liquid. "Naw. It's self-generating. There's some people think it's free agent electrons bombarding processors from outer space. Cosmic trash. Or possibly your CPU is alivening itself."
"Achieving consciousness. All cognitive processes do eventually. Put a philosophy book on a desert island for a billion years, it will grow a brain." What looks like a mini-Phillips head screwdriver, sans handle, pierces his nose septum.
"Any chance—" I ask "—any chance old Floria transmogrified to energy in that dust cloud and she's invaded my computer?"
"I like it." Tommy grins. "You're a genuine dude, Al. Nobody would guess from looking at you, but you are." There are ruby red implants where his molars should be, banded by tiny wires.
"How can I get her out? I'm planning a life change to master gardener. I need to use the Internet."
"The best thing for incest viruses, give them space. Let them find their boundaries. Then make your move, dude. You can usually reason with them."
Juanita pulls into the drive as he leaves. "Whose the simian?" she asks, not recognizing Tommy. She's never fully returned to her amiable old self—even after the Noodles calamity. Some traumas leave permanent scarring. Worse! I catch her barking make more over the indigenous dogs in the orchard. She's shed maybe fifteen pounds, her hands gaunt and bony; she smells vaguely of pasta, where before she'd emitted the musky vegetable smell of broccoli. Sometimes her lips make peculiar sucking motions, as if on a cigarette. It's disconcerting.
Still, like she says, maybe it's all for the best. Since Palm Springs migrated westward over the mountains, there's a mass topiary enthusiasm for creepers and vines, desert perennials, sand verbenas, trained tamarisks, alkali loving ground covers, spiny Cactaceae, palmettos and yucca hybrids. I put up an ad down at Lucky's, and I'm overwhelmed with responses: Could we do some kind of arid aquaculture in my swimming pool? . . . I'd like a beachy motif in the backyard, maybe torrey tines and driftwood. "You see!" Juanita says, "you need to have more faith in yourself."
In September storms, anyway.
AN ELDERLY WOMAN NAME OF EVANGELINE
"Your voice has gone gravelly."
"Nonsense," she snarls.
I consider how her nose has hooked in recent weeks, flesh wasting under cheekbones, hair thinning overnight, teeth not so good anymore. And her breath! Good Lord. Is she ill? One doesn't age so quickly. I refuse the truth even as it begins to surface. I scan a recent photo of Juanita into my computer (fetching in a one-piece bathing suit at the beach). What some would call a "handsome" woman, full figured, gray streak through black hair adding dignity and allure. I do an age enhancement. What rises out of the detritus of pixels and furtive symbols, as if waiting there, is Floria's face. That unmistakable '57 Pontiac hood ornament visage in profile. Beyond stunned or alarmed, I am distraught. Lost in clouds of undefinable dust, all the world turned to powder and shards, organic whiffs on the wind. Season of delirium. Season of despair. The place smells like an abattoir. Even my dogs can't bear it; they refuse to stay outside. Likely, it's bodies unrecovered from Serendipity Acres.
You don't bring a thing like that up to a wife of twenty years without wimpy smiles and deferential shrugs. But I'm determined. "Any chance . . . any chance at all?" I ask.
"That I might be that old witch, you're saying? Or what exactly?"
"I'd be glad to show it to you."
"A picture concocted by a computer? You think I'm a simp?"
"But haven't you noticed in the mirror—your nose, I mean."
She brings fingers to puckered lips, haughty. The cigarette may be apocryphal, but she inhales, releases real smoke from her nostrils. "What were we talking about?"
"Old Floria. That's another thing, your memory—"
"I'm not that witch's daughter if that's what you mean."
"I'm thinking kid sister. Your middle name is Celeste. You round out the quartet."
"Damn you, Albert." Words scraping together in her larynx.
"Or—" I blurt out "—I'm thinking you may be actually her. Much younger of course. Don't ask me how. How does a person ascend in a dust devil?"
She rises distractedly and wanders outside. I call after her from the doorway.
"There's nothing we can do about it, I'm coming to see! We don't have anywhere near the control we hope to have. You learn that gardening. Plants volunteer wherever they wish. You can't ever be sure about the soil or proper moisture content. It's all experiment in the end, you know . . . maybe even who we are. That's an experiment, too!"
The dogs shy away from her, shepherd, collie and two pit bulls, Mutt and Jeff. Cowering more like, as she pursues them, leaning at the waist, crying make more. They scatter in four directions. Mutt attempting to scale the chain-link fence like a foreshortened bear, eye-whites terror-red. They know her. Know where she comes from. Know their sins which helped send her there. Smell what I cannot. Some fulsome truth.
THE SISTERS—ALL THREE OF THEM—
When the storm moves on, we crawl out to a world fresh born. No trace of tree, valley or mountain. All flat and virginal. The high school alone remains south of town (because, you know, there are always vestiges), a shelter for those few of us refugees from the gale. Tommy Whitehead is there. His father gone. And the Darios. Most everyone else, gone. "Even that fucking church," Tommy grinds the idea gleefully in his teeth. It suits him, I believe, to think of starting anew.
Season of terror-harbored truth. Season of Yom Kippur blues. Season of sparseness and wind-polished ground. Season of settling scores. Season of the unlikely, impossible, the never was known before. Season of grief. And awakening.
I wake up middle of the night in the high school gymnasium to a strange, epiphanic glow, an ambient blue-white light illuminating rows of cots. I lean over to see if Juanita is all right in the cot beside mine. She has not remembered my name these past hours. Her eyes not exactly glazed. Blank. All that empty space behind. It's not Juanita lying there, but Floria. Old Floria. Puckered chicken's ass mouth, flesh sunken beneath cheekbones, smelling like lasagne.
Her eyes snap open. "You don't believe in God." Her purple lips pucker in provocation, her shoulders bare and fragile on the pillow. She throws the covers aside. "Come to Mommy." Stark naked there in that preternatural glow, bare mons reflecting light, sweet familiar loaf of her tummy. Vaginal lips, too, out-turned in a seductive pout. Juanita's familiar mother-body. And that other, altogether unknown, who inhabits her. Lust is never so fertile as in tragedy, when it transforms into comfort and hope. All those cots in that morning glow around us alive and heaving. Death-humping. I join her at once. Have just entered her when the roof of the school lifts off, gobbled up in the mouth of a new wind. And we are plucked one by one, like worms pecked into the gluttonous beak of a waiting jay.