It has been a year of waiting for the fire. You scrape the pine needles from the floor of our yard. You capture the rain in barrels, water the yarrow from the bowels of the gutter-catch. Our son, Max, stands on the cedar play set. His hands move as if he’s chiming in the percussion instruments, cuing the strings. He conducts the clouds. You can’t hear from where you perch, summoning droplets from the spigot, that I ask him, “Did you make it rain?”
“No. Not yet. I can’t make it rain. I can only make the clouds move.”
“Maybe tomorrow?” I ask him.
I sit on the porch, sip my wine, watch you take a bucketful of last month’s collected rain to water the flax. I try to visualize rain. I sort of remember what it looks like. I get distracted by my iPhone. There’s an update on the wildfire. I stare at the sky. Mind of matter. Try to summon clouds. Like Max, I fail to orchestrate the rain. Our daughter Zoe asks me, “Did you see that?”
“The hummingbird. It tried to drink out of my ear.”
I missed it. I was thinking about fire.
I should pay attention but the air zaps around me. The static distracts me like an iPhone. I miss my kids saying what they’re saying. I miss the way you rake. By wanting something more, I am missing something all the time. The lack of rain makes me think I’m doing everything wrong.
Just June ago, I looked at the sky and said, “Come.” The sky didn’t listen and I knew the words of my prayers were wrong.
I cannot order the clouds any more than I can order the gods I believe in to have mercy on my soul.
The bossiness of prayer does not become me.
Begging repulses rain.
Rain makes me think about loss and the loss of rain. I can’t always remember Portland. I moved to Flagstaff for a reason. It is beautiful here. Within reach of nine national parks, including the Grand Canyon. The top tier of nine descending life zones. Close to Salt Lake where your mother lives. It is not Oregon and Oregon’s perpetual sustainability but you chose this place. It is dry here but, so far, there is plenty of water to drink.
Rain should make me think about weight. Heavy land. Soaked clothes. Do you remember the time we went running in the rain? That was Utah and right after you made me believe we would return to Portland. We didn’t. Instead we ate Portland at the lunch truck like Pok Pok, but not, sesame beef in a taco and then we drove further south. The dirt turned sandy and you said, “You can see the whole world in a grain of sand” so I rubbed it into my eye. The doctor said the cornea scratched but that was just a record on a record player we played only twice. Talking Heads. Dire Straits. Johnny Cash. Now you, me, and sand. Nothing between us. As one. Pure metaphor but I can feel the sand in my hair, and the sand in you. Together. Forever?
It was only two Junes ago that we faked a Portland and went to the coast but without tacos from the food trucks. We knew we were only posers. Water tourists. It rained but I was mad as a crow. How could it rain in June? I remember Portland in June and a flat creek outside of town, Crow Creek or Eagle Creek, and we (not you we, another we, a we that’s mostly the same as us although she was thinner than me, thin as you) lay on our stomachs and crawled up the river, holding rock by rock as if the river were strong enough to push us down to the Willamette out to the Columbia and off to sea. We’d turn over and sit on our butts and eat blackberries that grew right over the stream. It was hot in June and sunny and Portland was best not because it didn’t rain, the rain is great, but Portland is particularly great when it doesn’t rain in June.
When we visited Portland for the first time since Zoe was born, it rained in June.
But it does not in rain in June in Salt Lake City, Utah and certainly not here in Flagstaff, Arizona. The clouds congregate. They congress. They parliament like owls. But for all that swooping and hoo hooing and mak mak making they sit in the sky like asphalt. They give nothing. Don’t even bother asking.
The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest in the world, runs through eight of the United States—Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming—and it is shrinking. It is being depleted at record rates which so everything-is disappearing-at-record-rates—we are the fastest on the planet, faster than cheetahs, fast to prayer, fast to begging, faster than a fasting monk thanks to MSN.com which brings us the news faster but rarely news of climate change because why brook that controversy. Brook trout instead! But the water, finite, is going fast. Dinosaur pee. Drink it while it lasts. Going out of business sale! In 1960 the Ogallala aquifer had been depleted by 3 percent. By 2010, 30 percent. Mainly drawn upon to irrigate agricultural fields where they usually grow corn to feed either cows or cars or occasionally crows, by 2060, 69 percent of the aquifer will be depleted of water if used at current rates. That’s too bad, they say. They say, no wait. It’s not so bad. There is a man on the field who is receptive to new agricultural practices. His name is Charlie and he is interested in the future. His great-grandfather inhaled the dust storm. Charlie wants to be the one that blows that dust out of his nose, back into the field, nutrition, not nitrogen oxide, which is it is toxic to everything in Lake Erie except the algae which it instead makes bloom.
There are new technologies for crops. “Things are getting better,” Charlie says. “Water use efficiencies have increased by about 2 percent a year in Kansas, which means that every year we’re growing about 2 percent more crop for each unit of water.” But this is bad too. Less water means more salt left on the fields, fields soon to be better known as sand, salted sand, of which each grain holds whole worlds. Think how much water each grain needs. Most people say, “Drink up while it’s here. Drink a whole unit.” We are only a blink of the eye in the history of the earth. It is hard to conceive beyond my children’s birth, let alone their death. I am thirsty now. I probably shouldn’t have eaten that pretzel. Everything has a consequence which makes the world, and the rain, seem so heavy.
The earth doesn’t mind the way we redistribute her salt or her water but Charlie has a few more years to reorganize his dirt. He would like to leave his dirt to his children. To his great-grandchildren. He would like the dirt to be good and useful. We keep having children because we believe that dirt can be made good. I had my children because I keep believing, contrary to my iPhone research, that the world is getting better. Perhaps we will find an antidote to salt. A recent report suggests that too little culinary salt is as dangerous in your diet as too much. So many reports. I hand the man on the field some of my Benicar for my altitude-induced high blood pressure. When I tell people about my high blood pressure, because I’m a confessor and a deflector of blame, I always say “altitude-induced” to remind the people who look concerned at me that it’s not my fault I have high blood pressure. To let them know I’m not that old. That I’m only dying because I got a job in a high-altitude town, not because I ate too much steak with salt on it. All confessions require some self-deception.
Charlie is saving whole units of water. If only a unit of water was all we needed. Look at those clouds. They won’t even give up a single one. My neighbor is in the front yard watering what appears to be his ladder. I do not think this bodes well for our aquifer, Ogallala or not.
Random House Kemmerman Webster’s Dictionary has my favorite definition of aquifer: aq•ui•fer (ˈæk wə fər) n. a geological formation of permeable rock, gravel, or sand containing or conducting groundwater, esp. one that supplies the water for wells, springs, etc.
[1900–05; probably < French aquifère (adj.); see aqui-, -fer]
At least this is French I can speak. The abundance of etc. What else is there? Wells. Springs. The under burbles up. You can try to keep the water in the ground but it will find its way out of the center of the earth, into your bathtub. It will find its way to the ocean where like Charilie’s fields, it will become salty too. Clouds are only savior, desalinators, separators. Knowers of the heaviness of sodium and chloride. Knowers of the lightness of hydrogen and oxygen.
You tell me about a sinkhole half a mile from our house. It’s one of the deepest and largest in the world. Geologists say the stream disappears into a limestone cavern and is not known to appear again. To you, this is wondrous. Where does all that water go? How deep can it be? You like to measure. To me, this is practical news. If we can get in there, we can get all that water out. Flagstaff, and therefore, our children, will not die of thirst.
Hydrologist Don Bills notes in a PowerPoint presentation that up until 1930, the sinkhole was a tourist attraction. In 1991, four boys explore, two become stuck. Fire Department Rescue, along with the City of Flagstaff, attempt to fill with concrete and debris (source: The Arizona Daily Sun and Oral communication, Lorri Hull, mother of one of the boys) but the fill just keeps disapearing. Later, cavers explored to depths of 1,000 ft. and horizontally for about a mile, never finding the bottom. The sinkhole appears to be gradually expanding.
Geologists still wonder, where does the water go? Zoe has a baseball game tonight. The sinkhole is not 50 yards from her field. I want to look into all that possibility but when I get there, it seems to have been filled in, which they said was impossible, which makes me want for something yet again I do not have—infinity and accurate new reporting. I want both an abyss and I want a water source.
We named our son Max before we knew the name had anything to do with water. Maxwell, get it? Of course you do. I did not. A very large well of a son. Now he comes to us in his Batman shirt, asking us, “Isn’t it great? I have to tuck it in because it’s cute. Isn’t it cute?”
You and I, we both fall in to the cavern of adorability. The questions of a three year old are their own sinkholes. I could live inside them and never have to think about sand or rain or crows who look at me greedily, patiently. You will go, too, eventually, the crow caw at me.
At night Max says, “I love you taco.” At night he staves off birds with his batman shirt and his great skills at tucking.
“I love you burrito,” I say back.
You, my love, who I love more now that I found that French aquifer apply to you. You who love sinkholes and aquifers. You who tell me that on this peak above that abyss of Kaibab and Sandstone sits the world’s largest aquifer, underneath 300 feet of volcanic rock. Impenetrable as you must sometimes think of me. Who can get to this water? No one no one no one but at least you know the water is there just like I know Portland is there. It doesn’t wait for me any more than the aquifer waits for you. At least you have your belief in sinkholes. Infinities.
I’m still the one standing on the front porch trying to talk to the rain. Aquifer. Sinkhole. Spring. Well. I quiver.
There is a place that is as stubborn as those clouds of Flagstaffian June, the ones parked on the peaks, the ones you could drive your car upon they’re so black-asphalt and so unforgiving. This place sends me notes every time it rejects me which is every time and every time it’s the same note:
Dear Nicole Walker,
Thank you for your unwavering patience in receiving a response from The Believer. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to take “Fiction is just nonfiction that hasn’t happened yet” for the magazine; however, we wish you luck placing it with another publication.
Thank you for thinking of us!
Best regards, The Believer
I think, what do they know about my patience? Maybe it’s been wavering all along. Perhaps though they mean it in the long sense—like, we will always send you this note forever and forever. It is something to rely on, even if it’s as comforting as a sinkhole. I hope they know I believe.
Now listen to me. This is a love letter. This is a combination of lyric essay and research about sustainability and abundance and scarcity. This is writing whose wage no one wants to pay. I get that. You don’t have to read it. But listen. Even though you didn’t take me to Portland, it did start to rain.
At first it rained like this:
I love tacos. Let’s have turkey tacos and save all those calories that would be in the beef. Turkey tacos, never mind the crows.
And then it rained.
A taco is a taco, we may as well eat the shell. Who can afford the tortillas? I can I can I can, say the crows.
And then it rained like this every day.
Taco taco taco with sour cream and cheese. Taco with salsa. Taco with guac. Taco with pork belly. Taco with fried pickles. Taco with fried chicken and fried fish. Taco two ways. Taco three ways. Tacos up the yin yang. Tacos up the butt. I knew you found me attractive, still.
And then Portland came to me, food truck and all. It came in colors that washed away the red. It came in curtains pulling Tennessee Williams. It came in locomotive trains, five engines deep. It came in Council Crest and West Hills. It came in La Cruda and Dots. It came in Hawthorne and Front Avenue. It came in Alber’s Mill and Pearl District and La Brasserie. It came in Forest Park and Mt. Tabor Park. It came in Chanterelle and it came in Bolete. It came in St. John’s Bridge and We’ll Have a Very Nice Time on the Ross Island Bridge. It came in 20s and reeds. It came in Mistied and Racheled. It came in Oaks Park and possum and one time otter in another river almost as shallow as Eagle Creek where someone left a diaper on the further shore. What are otters supposed to do with a used human diaper? Oh how we give and give. Only the crows say thanks but that’s the kind of abundance maybe we are looking for. Maybe with rain and otters come diapers and plastic. Perhaps that’s what we can do with the sinkhole. You say they poured green dye into and the green-dyed water never came back out. A worm hole is a sinkhole into which our excesses may slide.
I cried excessively when you left me.
I cried even though you came back.
I think sometimes you blame me for all this rain. I think sometimes I blame you for its lack.
I met another man once, no, not in that way, just a guy, who could observe the pattern of bird hop from stone to stone. It’s only by looking at the bird tracks from every angle that we will begin to understand stones. He noted the bird’s envy. He noted the stone’s. I see the envy. The clouds envy the sky for all its absence. It’s a burden to carry everyone’s blessing around. The clouds do it heavily. They do it stingily. They do it meteorologically. They do it bumper-stickingly. They do it sexily. They do it heartily. They do it sinkholely. They do it like a taco and they do it like a crow. They do it fancifully. They do it aquiferily. They do it in eight states and my state and the state that I have turned into an emblem of you—even though you won’t take me there. We can be stone. We can be bird. It’s hard to be both but it’s good to try to be one and then the other. Like the song I just taught Zoe, who is eight so will still sing with me, to sing, Baby you can’t love one. Baby you can’t love one. You can’t love one and have any fun oh baby, you can’t love one. Baby you can’t love two. Baby you can’t love two. You can’t love two and still be true, oh baby you can’t love two. And so on. Baby we can’t live in Flagstaff and live in Portland and still be we.
Maybe it’s just a matter of name. I’ll call the bird, stone. You call the stone, bird, and in so doing, it will start to rain.
I am grateful for this Flagstaff you have turned into Portland. Nouns are often interchangeable. Even better, this Portland comes with lightning. This Portland comes with thunder. This Portland comes with tacos made in Mexico. This Portland comes with calories. This Portland comes with ravens instead of crows and built-in water efficiencies. I will miss this Portland when it’s gone but all Portlands must go sometime. Portland falls apart just like a storm in the desert. It falls apart like love and Batman and The Believer and otters and bird’s nests. It falls apart like prayer and god. Portland dries up just like everything, particularly in June when it rains even though it is not supposed to rain.
Are we going to make it? Is anything sustainable? Is love? Does love always come back? I am trying to see things your way but my own eyes get in the way.
I know I wrote this wrong but it was the only way I could write it when I heard the thunder.