June 3, 1998. David Quarry is walking through the streets of Tempe, Arizona, a hackneyed film of sweat across his brow and a growing shadow of moisture on the back of his gray t-shirt, beneath the pack. Absently, he observes a sluggish jet in the constant flight-cycle climb over scorched palm trees. He then pours the final sip of hot tea down his rough throat before dumping the sodden dregs over the sand- flecked pavement; but first, he looks into the paper cup to see that the leaves have settled into the blackish-green shape of a wet horse head. Down the road, frolicking beneath a finger giving saguaro that has daisies for nails, he focuses on a girl of about thirteen who appeared to be at least sixteen from a greater distance. He then thinks of lying in bed earlier that morning, reading Philosophy in the Bedroom and convulsing into twinges of residual bitterness over having done nothing as a child.
"Reading something like that at any age past eighteen can be considered nothing short of sadly unfortunate," he mutters quietly. "Contemplating nature and hypocrisy at my age turns the experience into something that exists on a level that's clearly more damaging and in need of psychological maintenance than the gift of everyday impressionable corruption," he persists while turning his gaze toward a yapping dog that's trying to guilelessly coax a kitten out of a tree. "It really only succeeds in adding open- wounded desperation to the mix of flourishing, defining emotions that lie in the heart of the journeying American psyche that is constantly, and I mean constantly, choking like emphysema on the abundant resource of contradictions that grapple in my brain, I mean our brain. Excuse me. In our brains. Their brains."
Crossing the tracks he stops to watch the slow and distant approach of an old mirage-faced train and wonders if it isn't really a new mirage-faced train. My age perception seems to be a bit off these days, he thinks as he hears the bray of a pet goat, struggling to find a serene groove in its routine spot behind a chain-link fence, under a tree. When I first got here I thought that all of those tan, healthy ass cheeks hanging from the backs of shorts were young, until I got a closer look and noticed that they were wrinkly and melting beneath the sun.
As the beam of the train's lone headlight begins to assert itself amongst the climate's conventional glare, a harsh violation pierces his roving thoughts in the form of a tormented woman behind an open, shady window at the goat's house. Breaking into a mortal cough followed by a generous regurgitation of phlegm, she launches into a foul and well-schooled indictment of Jesus, making Quarry desperately wish that he was elsewhere, far away from the insanity of a lame, defective part in the religious machine.
"Not long ago I would have been frightened by the sight of a train, old or new on the same tracks that I stood, not now though," he admits resolutely while petting the yappy dog that has followed him onto the tracks. Soon the dog's owner, a somewhat pretty, frail woman of slatternly depth who looks like she got bad grades in high school and who, in an everyday quiver of lethargy, lounges on her porch smoking cigarettes, comes to retrieve the wandering mutt by its choke collar. She then scurries off, putting on a phony show of scolding the dog who braids its neck back in misery at Quarry. Quarry doesn't notice this though, because after he decides that the woman's hairstyle is a 1990's version of the beehive, without actually looking like a beehive, he lights a cigarette and easily resumes his isolated study of the approaching train, until he's snapped out of it by Dale.
"Hey, hey buddy! You spare a moment of your time?" He hears desperately shouted behind him as Dale quickly shuffles toward the tracks.
"What?" Quarry asks with irritation and fear. Although he's not sure which his sunglasses covered eyes would betray.
"Uh, listen my man, my name is Dale and I'm a little low on money right now sose I was wonderin' if you could slide me a smoke see, like just one is all I ask, you know a little donation for the terminally ill, terminally broke, and terminally sunburned itchy peeling, peeling mothers of the world?" he stutters and cackles like a gleeful smartass while making a jerking motion with his hand that's supposed to mimic the act of smoking.
"I don't smoke," Quarry coolly replies. Trying to take control of the situation.
"Uh, see here my man, I don't mean to be forward or nothin'!" Dale's voice is rising, betraying his poorly veiled anger. "But I see that you have one freshly lit, hard burning cancer stick resting between your left middle and forefinger as we speak. Now I may be a beggar, but I sure as hell ain't no liar."
"As you speak," corrects Quarry without peeling his eyes from the train.
"Whazzat?" asks Dale.
"I said ‘as you speak.' You said that I was holding a cigarette ‘as we speak.' That's not true, because as far as I could see you had done all of the speaking up to that point."
"Fair ‘nuf," answers Dale without a hint of regret or irritation. "How ‘bout if I start all over again, but this time around I'll insert the ‘you' where I originally inserted the ‘we.' You okay with that?"
"Yeah sure, I'm okay with that. Except if you insert ‘you' then you'll still be accusing me of engaging you in conversation. The only difference being that the statement regarding me is now stronger because it only implicates me as the speaker. You're totally left out. All of a sudden I'm feeling like it was me who approached you. Like it's me who owes you something.
"All right, all right. I got your message," answers Dale. "Say mister," he resumes. "Can I please bum one of your sacred cigarettes that were so obviously treated in the holiest of waters that our great God almighty uses to not only brush his teeth, but to also scrub and polish his fancy Cadillac car!?"
"I don't smoke."
"Shit!" What is it with you anyway? All right I see, I see."
"What do you see?" asks Quarry as he steps off the tracks.
"I see that you have one freshly lit, hard burning cancer stick resting between your left middle and forefinger as I! I said I! as I speak! Now I may be a beggar, but I sure as hell ain't no liar."
"You're really proud of yourself for that line, aren't you Dale?" Quarry says with a grin as he looks at him for the first time, moving close to his face and noticing that Dale isn't a beggar at all. To Quarry he's a western retread whose appearance presents a seemingly easy puzzle made up of pieces snatched from Americana's wealthy pool of characters and human generalizations: about twenty- one, maybe less, he has a fresh face under blond locks, whose bracing rawness is mingled with what, true to Dale's word, does appear to be a terminal sunburn. His clothes look like they're carousing clothes -- a wrinkled, untucked, unbuttoned maroon shirt with western patterns and the sleeves rolled up past the elbows, worn, but clean blue jeans held up around his skinny waist by a thick belt and a hard metal buckle with the word Coors emblazoned across it, and of course, a dusty old pair of cowboy boots. The only item out of place is the huge pair of gas station sunglasses with the plastic, orange fluorescent frames.
Without the sunglasses, one could possibly peg Dale for a talented hustler who probably lived a neglectful and boring middle- class childhood somewhere amongst skateboarders and strip-malls. If the shades were in the smug aviator style he would be the very picture of hopeful mid-century Americanism. Cruising down 66 in the driver's seat of a Chevy convertible with one hand wrapped around a clear, long-neck bottle of beer and the other wrapped around the ass of an aging cheerleader with a steadily growing pack a day habit. The latter was likely his parents or grandparents, on their way to the city in the desert with big money American dreams, resting in their brains and including a virtuous son. Quarry takes one look at the glasses and decides that Dale is a bad actor who could be convinced to do anything if he believed that there was a meager payoff involved.
What always lies between the dream and its antithesis is the truth, thinks Quarry as Dale continues to speak.
"So hows-about that smoke?" He asks with more sincerity touched by empathy, momentarily dropping the cheap attempt at a fast-lining con.
"I told you I don't smoke. Now scram."
"All right I tell you what. I can see that you're an honest hard working man who has earned everything he has. So what I'll do is reach into my pocket and pull out my spare change. How much is in there I have no idea, but whatever it is I'll let you have for the price of one, fresh cigarette."
"Shake your pants Dale," Quarry demands sharply, hoping to gauge the weight of Dale's coins.
At this a wild grin tightens across Dale's face and unashamedly, as the train begins to make its chaotic pass, he starts a wild, sexed-up barnyard stomp in the middle of the road. The train effortlessly rattles their bones, screaming by at a distance of five feet, while in obscure harmony Dale's stomp degenerates into a railroad spasm of bulging eyes, brutal whips and contortions, and a razor wail that resembles an animal being murdered to the rusty gray blur of industry chugging by. While waiting for Dale to finish, Quarry crouches slowly to the blistering pavement, opens his bag and pulls out Dale's cigarette, which he cradles like a small bird.
"Thanks much," Dale grins slightly out of breath while the last of the train shuffles by. "Here's your money." He surrenders a chunk of quarters into Quarry's hand that feel as heavy as they sounded in his pocket while he danced his oddball juke. His way of completing the transaction, his countenance, is abruptly honest and satisfied, as if he has, beneath the sun, shape-shifted from a ridiculous caricature, a child, into a full grown man who has just defeated everything about Quarry. BREAK BAR Terra cotta rules Quarry's every perception of reality. This is vividly true as he approaches the main drag and the big pinkish-hued building that looks like a dull concrete flower head rising from the desert. Up a stretch and to his right, resting on the sidewalk and just avoiding the shade of a palm tree, is the same crate with the cardboard box inside that he had moved out of the street last night.
After almost running it over, he asked his wife to stop so that he could move it onto the sidewalk and out of the way, when the truth was that he just wanted to see what was inside. He wanted to know what Arizonans left in crates in the middle of streets on dark, dry Sunday evenings. When he approached it last night in the darkness, with close by traffic lights offering the only illumination, he felt a chill, isolated in his head, and imagined that he would blindly place his hand inside to find a severed head or a mass of freshly ripped out guts. To him this was as realistic as predicting that another bored drunkard had dumped his empty beer bottles in the middle of the road, waiting for someone who is much like what Quarry's wife thinks he is, to come along and push his mess out of harm's way.
"Uh, excuse me! Sir?" It was Dale again.
"Ya know what?" As I saw you walkin' away right now it occurred to me that you got the best of me back there. Why, there must have been two dollars and fifty cents at the very least in my pocket. The contents of which I just handed you for one cigarette."
"You made the deal."
"I'd like to ask you to give me some of that money back, Mister," Dale says seriously now, getting close, looking like a knife in his pocket might fittingly round out his wardrobe.
"Why did you do it? If you didn't want to? When you pulled the money out you could see that there was enough for you to get your own pack. Why did you finish the deal?
"Because I finish what I start, that's why."
"No, you don't. Because now you're asking to take the deal back and not finish it. So what you really do is finish what you start but then try and undo it when the consequences sink in. Sound familiar?"
"But I'm not finished yet."
"Jesus Christ Dale, you are really hard to talk to, you know that? Get out of my face. Game over."
"At this Dale moves in front of Quarry's path so that over his shoulder the box can be seen. Quarry thinks of what he found inside it last night. How he reached in and at first recoiled at the pleasure of the soft bundle of breathing warmth, only to fearlessly reach back in with adjusted sight and softly squeeze the mass of fresh, sleeping puppy bodies, sweetly breathing in the night. They were so small, must've only been born that day. They're likely dead and rotting by now, thinks Quarry, especially in this desert; with no food, no water, no sympathy, no love. He remembers that one of them licked his hand a few times before he pulled away. When he got back in the car his wife grabbed that hand to hold and asked him what the box contained. "Nothin'," was all he could think of to say.
"I do believe it would benefit the both of us if you'd give it a chance," Dale pushes on while obviously calming himself.
"Out of my way swine."
"Whaddyou say?" Dale asks while coming on foreboding again.
"Look, the sun's beating down on my head, it must be a hundred degrees. I'm trying to be peaceful here, take a goddamn walk. So whadda you do? You see a man. Me. You approach like I'm your brother, walking along not minding my own business at all, oh no, I just look like that, ‘cause what I'm really looking for is a good old- fashioned game of liar's poker. And it never occurs to you that I'm not. So you start a game with me, you deal, and it doesn't matter to you, it never even crosses your mind what might be going through a man's head. When it might be a misery that's real, not that fucking shit that comes from getting what's yours, I mean something that exists outside of your universe."
Suddenly, Quarry pauses and steers his attention toward a strikingly young, barefoot woman in a sun dress with a plastic grocery sack hanging from her handle-bars, sunnily approaching their two- man congregation from the direction of the box. Dale also turns his head and takes a curious glance that deliberately blows the surliness from his face like a slow breeze. Neither one stops to pretend that she's not worthy of the glaring, hidden intentions of his pernicious gaze. When she's about twenty yards away she starts to slow herself down with her feet, then smiles in their direction and asks in a sweet Texas drawl, "Would either of you like to buy a t-shirt?"
"It depends," answers Quarry, noticing that she has the look of something, perhaps optimism and innocence, that he would love to get a hold of.
"Yeah, whaddo they say?" finishes Dale.
"I made them myself, see?" she says, fishing into the plastic bag and pulling out a white t-shirt with black sleeve-ends, a black collar, and cheap emboldened iron-on capital letters across the chest that declare: FEARIZONA.
"Ten dollars okay for an extra large?" asks Quarry as he pulls the money from his bag.
"Sure enough," she smiles while removing the soft bill from his hands. She then warmly looks to Dale, like a flirtatious honey pot, and asks: "What about you cowboy?"
"Well, as much as I'd like to, I think that my closet is about full right now."
"Hmm. With skeletons or clothes?" she asks.
"Ha!" he answers, thrilled at her ability to play his game. "A little bit, no, make that a lot of both, I suppose."
"Okay," she sighs, losing interest. "Your loss. Have a nice day."
"Yeah, you too," returns Quarry.
"Hey, you wanna cigarette? Dale slyly interjects like a smooth, country rogue, trying to reel her back in as she begins to pull away.
"No thank you. I only smoke when I drink tea."
Listening to her bike rattle over the tracks with Dale watching her over his shoulder, Quarry lightens his tone out of the necessity of losing momentum, he looks at nothing in the distance, tries to re-ignite himself and eventually sighs with hopeless resignation: "What I mean is something that's between himself and the world, the entire span of it, and maybe it has something to do with liar's poker or maybe it has to do with something else."
Before he can finish Dale squints his eyes, rebuffing the attempt at lightening the mood and reaches into his back pocket, giving the episode a sudden taste of malignancy. Quarry then thinks of his own pockets, recalling that they contain exactly three things: a lighter, Dale's change, and the small green velvet-lined wood box, clutching a fancy pair of bone-sharp dice that his wife once gave him as an anniversary present. The words snake eyes then slither through his head; strangely, comically, and sinisterly off the tongue of an old, pock-marked, drug-addled cross-dresser, and Dale asks: "Whaddyou call me?"
"You thought I'd never take all that money didn't you? You thought that once I saw what a sweet desperate fool you were giving up ten times the money for one smoke, you probably figured that I'd give you the whole goddamn pack plus all the money in my wallet. It don't work for you Dale, you are what you are, through and through."
"I'm just trying to survive here buddy. Nothing's wrong with trying to do that. I think you have me confused with someone else."
"No, I don't think so," answers Quarry.
The pair then remain standing in a rare silence where the dogs and cats and cars and jets and trains all seem to jointly suspended their absurd, desperate lives in deference to the heat. Once again Quarry takes a look at the box, setting off a slow but smooth meltdown of total proportions that cleanly douses his blistering vortex.
"You know I was seriously thinking about assaulting you for a minute back there, but then I more seriously considered that gun in your bag and decided it wouldn't be so wise," Dale says, interrupting the silence and baring his white teeth to smile friendly and vividly expose a yellow jagged crack down the middle of his left tooth.
"What? Huh? What are you saying? How did you know about that?" Quarry asks with searching paranoia.
"Don't worry about it," Dale laughs. The handle stuck out when you were getting that girl her money. It's a big one, ain't it?"
"Uh, yeah, it sure is. Look, I'm gonna get the fuck out of here right now. I suggest you do the same," Quarry says as Dale once again impishly peers over his shoulder.
"I'll be damned."
"What? Why will you be damned?" asks Quarry, afraid to look.
"Whaddayou know, here comes the pohlice right now. They might like to take a look inside of that bag. What say we flag ‘em down?"
As Dale's threat sinks in, Quarry turns to the sound of engines purring behind his back and recognizes, through a roasting mirage, four motorcycle cops in a rectangular formation with the sun mindlessly shimmering off the tops of their helmets, slowly cruising their way. Barry Goldwater just died. He also begins to recognize the cooling and beautiful presence of an apocalyptically coal-black and sun-seared storm cloud; rolling mercilessly over the desert from the east. Then, in a moment of soul weary submission to the insidious fray, he conjures the simple dreams and methods of an entire civilization and allows them, like the storm cloud, to pass over his face; maliciously, horribly, scavenger-like: "Okay, then I'll demand that your jack-booted storm troopers, in all fairness to our lustrous legal system, strip and bugger you in a search for depraved contraband that's likely to turn up a not so well concealed weapon. That way we can spend more time together waiting to be freed on bail. That is if you make bail, or are even granted it."
"I was bluffing about that, and my bluffs are over now. Get me my cigarettes in a fair deal or I wave ‘em over. Don't take your time."
"Okay, I'll take your deal," Quarry quickly consents with defeated pride as the cops begin to ride by and out of sight without a glance. "But, you have to do me one small favor first."
"And what would that be?"
"You see that crate over there?" he asks, tilting his head back and pointing his chin westward.
"Go to it and tell me what's inside."
"What? That's it? Why?"
"Call it a token service rendered for all my time you've wasted. Besides, you never know, there might be something worth keeping," says Quarry as he reaches for the contents of his bag at the instigating force of the cloud.
"Gotcha, and we'll split whatever's inside, huh
chief?" Dale says with a knowing wink and grin, moving
backwards, spinning on his heels to expose his back and coolly walk
as fast as his legs will carry him, toward the crate.
© 2001 Eric Uys, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
Both this story and "Holler" [also published in the Spring 2001 update] revolve around my existence in and out of Youngstown, Ohio, and the south side of Chicago -- two of America's hardest- bitten, rust-belt sections. My entire life amongst and away from these beautiful and horrifying places has left me confounded every morning as to whether I should puke or do cart-wheels. A dilemma from which I have always failed to escape.