but it’s really obvious now.
The Labor Day event unfolds beneath a storm that we overtook on the way up from Phoenix, driving into and out of a curtain of northwest moving rain, which has now caught up with us in the hills north of Prescott. Sections of the valley are obscured and revealed in turn as the rain sweeps through on strong winds that snap and lift a large blue plastic tarp that is inadequately anchored to a few thin poles. The edges rip a bit more each time the wind reduces the pressure above and the tarp rises like a graceful wing. A group of well-meaning men gathers to pull the poles back to earth, holding on as if they can outwait the storm, as if in a few moments the conditions will change, as if the sun is merely tardy and we will need the tarp’s shade soon, as if it will not have been ripped from its flimsy attachments and be carried into the sky by then. The rest of us sit beneath the sorry tarp awaiting the result of their efforts, until someone finally suggests that they should take the thing down. It takes a few more passes of the wind before the men acquiesce to common sense and begin cutting the flimsy tie-downs with pocketknives. Within moments the tarp has been cleared away, and we who have been standing by on the downwind side of the food stand reclaim our tables with jackets, cups of beer and soft drinks, purses and plates of cold food.
Like many holiday get-togethers, this one is essentially a non-event, except that the Volunteer Fire Department will benefit from the proceeds of beer sales, which have been brisk since before breakfast. Most of the raffle tickets – first prize a dune buggy, have been pre-sold to people in the community who will not attend the picnic and to two non-exclusive groups who are present: horseshoe pitchers and pitcher drinkers. A debate arises over the size of the ranch that fills the valley (and most of the land from here to Nevada if the tossed-about estimates are to be believed.) The number of acres to a section has been correctly established as 640. A man who purports to have the information directly from the land owner sets the number of sections at 380. The necessary multiplication becomes a matter of much mumbling and the discussion is abandoned when everyone realizes they have no way of grasping the magnitude of the number anyway.
I try to pick up a conversation with a dark-haired cube of a woman who sits across the table from me. She cuddles a baby girl against her chest while eyeing her three year old son as he continually pesters her for food. She and her husband are moving to Tennessee, and this event is their last stop before leaving tomorrow for their new life. Her name is Daisy and she is a nurse. He is a sometime pool cleaner and full-time house husband. Although a stranger, she lets me know their circumstances immediately.
“My parents didn’t want me to marry Bill. They didn’t think he was stable. They don’t talk to us; don’t see their grandchildren. Yesterday was the first time they saw the baby.” She shifts the little bundle and takes a sip of her beer.
“My sisters sided with my parents, so, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t have family here anymore. This is it. The kids and Bill. And I have a friend in Tennessee. She’s my help. Bill will find that out. We’ll see how he likes it. I’ve supported us for five years and I’m sick of it.”
“Well, families are different now. Partners often trade off working and staying home.” Even as I make this idiotic comment, which is meant to comfort the woman, I squirm. I want to help her to save face, to hide her misfortune. Her man is a dud, and worse, her parents told her so.
The wind is calmer now as we watch the backside of the storm cross the valley. I came up here from Phoenix with a new friend, a man I met at a bar in town. A day in the country sounded fine, but when I picked him up at 6 a.m. he already held an open beer and was stuffing two more into a daypack. He alternated beer with black coffee on the drive up, whether to handle a hangover or because it is his usual habit, I did not know.
I sit across from the woman and let the weather calm my irritation. I try not to judge the party-hearty types, who at 10 a.m. are killing a headache while creating another. I’m having more trouble with the disappearance of my new friend, who left with the husband of the woman who sits across from me, supposedly to retrieve a bottle of baby formula from the car. He’s hit the keg steadily since our arrival, and it is now clear that we came here today so that he can say farewell to Bill in true alcoholic style. The two quickly vanished into that enclosed and numbing isolation so infuriating to the bystander; a state in which all is devalued in relation to access to alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, assorted pills, and the camaraderie of the afflicted.
“It’s about time,” Daisy snaps when Bill and Kelly reappear. “It doesn’t take an hour to go to the car from here.”
Bill hands her the baby bottle and his excuses. “Lou and Florence were up there and invited us into the house for a minute. We just got to talking.”
Kelly pecks me on the cheek and says he’s sorry for being gone so long. The acrid smell of dope explains the delay. He quickly changes the subject. “Hey. Bill says there’s petroglyphs across the road. You know, Indian writing. Right, Bill? Somewhere up the wash?”
There is a Western irony that goes like this: The people who seem most intent on escaping to the country, who glorify its beauty and the freedom they find there, are often so confined by their addictions and personal failures, and so limited by chemical ingestion, that nature can be nothing more than a convenient disguise for what is missing in their lives. Kelly takes my hand and grips a cup of beer in the other. He thinks he’s being charming when he asks me to take care of him.
“I’m getting pretty screwed-up,” he says, rattling on about the beauty of the river bed and the charm of the little symbols pecked out by native people as we try to locate them.
Local metamorphic rock has been worn to a beautiful texture by the intermittent floods that wash down a cut in the hill that we are descending. Scouring has highlighted the folds and the differential hardness of thin beds in the original mudstone. Crisscrossing ribbons of white quartzite that are wet from the continuing drizzle gleam against the dark schist. If I want an American man I’ll have to settle for a boy. Kelly, his buddy, almost every man I’ve ever met, is a boy, and proud of it, and has no intention of becoming more. Winning indulgence from a woman is the goal, and she had better be a handy Mommy ready to clean up the mess, to boot.
The day wears on with only minor incident until it is decided that we ought to remove the party to Lou and Florence’s house. The boys have volunteered to watch the kids (and keep that buzz going) while we girls drive into town to buy groceries for dinner. I have spent the day with strangers, watched them drink, listened to life stories of consummate pointlessness and I’m ready to leave, not engage in more.
“I’m tired of watching a bunch of drunks pop pills: I’ve put up with it because I know you’re saying good-bye to Bill and Daisy,” I told my soon to be ex-friend.
“Are you pissed about going shopping? Bill and I’ll go then, won’t we Bill?” Though he tries hard to look serious, Kelly’s face dissolves into a tipsy smile. “C’mon, please?”
It’s a question without a satisfactory answer. Can I abandon someone 110 miles from home because he’s a bore? “You and Bill can go shopping, but we’re leaving right after dinner.” He smiles and sways a bit. Damn the Irish. Damn my drunken grandpa.