My Johnny walked out of the dust bowl, blown in on a dirty summer wind from the Gulf of Mexico. He shuffled into town after days under a sun that burned him so bad he was crusted for weeks. The sun is full down here, full and strong and savage. You urge it across the meridian, you feel it arc its burn across the sky. You feel it crouch down before dark behind broken cliffs the color of burnt blood: you feel the heat claw for you through all that rock. Johnny stumbled through that fire down to the river, and the muddy water soothed his hurt.
Johnny knew he wanted here since the day he saw those Life Magazine black-and-whites of sandstone towers, knife-edged shrubs, twisted cottonwoods, the sharp light and shade. He left the farm in Oklahoma, left his blank and broken father, walked away from the gray shadow of his mother, came to this clear place. He camped down near old Walters' orchard and fell in love with pecan and peach trees, with cactus, yucca and sage, with the bitterbrush desert, caged by high cliffs of red and yellow sandstone. Hard life, sharp-spined life, life splintered and mean, barely hanging on, and right in the burning heart of it, tall trees rich with food and shade along the muddy water. It was pecan harvest time and old Walters let him keep some for pay.
Johnny lived on fresh milk pecans until he got his job. The Park was blasting a road up the cliffs and ran through the men from Vegas for road crew. Through that, the town got to know him, bit by bit.
He didn't make it easy; My Johnny wouldn't join the church or go to the socials or help with the new building. He wasn't interested in dances or local girls, nice girls. He didn't do time with the volunteer fire department, didn't always keep clean, didn't own enough clothes, didn't talk to nobody unless he needed supplies. Talking to most people wound him tight, jumpy, like a snake scared close to striking. He didn't eat in Verna's cafe, he never bought the Tole paintings and cross-stitch samplers The Ladies made to raise money for charity, didn't make contributions to the Relief Fund, didn't do a darned thing for the community. Didn't spend much of his pay in town.
Johnny washed his old black baseball cap and his socks and his two pair of tan coveralls in the river, stood out there buck-naked while they dried, a willow-whip, until The Ladies complained. His foreman got him to use the laundry in town and gave him a raggedy blue flannel bathrobe to wear while he waited for his clothes.
He'd been here three years working road crew when the big floods came. Mud and water spilled over the town, people trapped in their houses as the water rose.
Johnny was out in the thick of it, sandbagging, digging out, rowing food to people, pulling out the trapped.
The Ladies thought he'd changed and visited his riverside camp a week after the cleanup. They brought a clean suit, jars of peach jam, two cherry pies, a leather-bound Book of Mormon. They were going to help him straighten up his cabin and invite him to church, but he ran them off, swinging a shovel and swearing. Johnny said The Ladies coming to call reminded him of buzzards circling, smelling for weakness.
The flood hit old Walters hard; made him sick, broke and too discouraged to replant. Johnny disappeared then, and some in town hoped they'd got rid of him. But he showed up with a Vegas bank loan in his pocket, and bought out Walters' orchard and all his water rights before anyone knew it was for sale. Johnny sold off the big house by the road and built a cabin down by the river, in among the peach trees. Most of the trees damaged by the flood came back quick in that rich river silt, and in five years Johnny paid off the loan. That made him enough of a big-shot businessman in the eyes of the town that they pestered my Johnny on and off for several years to join the Kiwanis. Civic service, they called it.
That was Johnny's toughest time. The town leaned on him to be responsible, their word for making more money, bringing in more people, putting up more buildings, making bigger tithes. Johnny just raised fruit and sat in the shade of his trees, or wandered out of town and up into the mesas and cliffs that towered above the river.
That's how he first came to meet Ruth.
Ruth lived out on the edge of town, where cottonwoods grow thick along the river and rattlers lie in the sun on the rocks across the water. Ruth wasn't any more popular than Johnny, though she got a lot more visitors than he ever did. Like Johnny, Ruth felt something of the old pull, especially when a man left her cabin under a full moon. Sometimes when her work was done she'd sit by the river with the air quiet and cool, the moon sliding in behind the western cliffs, the east rim starting to glow, and hold the money loose in her hand over the water, thinking if she dropped it, gave it back, her life might follow it downstream, running out on the water down the red canyon, out where the rocks break open to the high plateau.
Ruth took to Johnny, as I thought she would. He was polite and didn't talk much, like you'd expect for a man without trouble at home. It was a relief to her. After a while, she started refusing his money, so he brought fruit instead. That pleased them both.
He visited late and afterwards they sometimes shared the dawn down by the river. Johnny asked her once, as they stared across the muddy water, why she didn't leave, head to Vegas and make big money or get out of the business altogether. Ruth shook her head and pointed to the cliffs, up canyon where the walls narrowed and sandstone towers climbed to the stars.
Ruth was enough company for him, and he never got close to anyone in town, except for Clyde, his downstream neighbor. Clyde tithed, most of the time, but they knew in town that he also rolled down the highway from time to time to the Hole-in-the-Wall Saloon to have a beer. "Just for contrast," Clyde would say. "Helps me appreciate what we got here all the more," he'd tell his Bishop.
It was coyotes and a full moon that brought them together. Johnny come upon Clyde up on the mesa, sitting on a rock listening to them howl and then howling back. It was Johnny's listening rock. After pondering a bit, he decided he could share the rock with Clyde. Clyde turned red when Johnny walked up, hopped off the rock and edged away. But then he saw who it was and grinned. Johnny grinned back and motioned Clyde to sit down. After a bit of whiskey they got over their shys and began to harmonize. The coyotes were pleased.
They took to talking over the fence between their properties, mostly when Clyde got in the mood to hit the Hole-in-the-Wall. Even talked Johnny in to getting a beer once in a while. Clyde's wife saw that and blew, telling folks he was a bad influence on her husband. Clyde had to ease off. He still slipped up the mesa at full moon, though.
The years passed, decades of heat and river. My Johnny slowly took on the look of the trunks of his pecan trees. The world outside grew faster and faster, but Johnny didn't notice, not until the cities started spilling over their banks and spreading into the desert.
Verna's cafe folded, replaced by a fancy French restaurant. The townsfolk even allowed a tourist lounge to open up in town. Clyde tried it once, then went back to the Hole-in-the-Wall. By the third new motel, Johnny knew big trouble was here.
Then they dammed the river upstream of the Park. Johnny made the construction crew nervous, watching day after day from the cliffs above the canyon. They caught him on his knees at the base of the dam one night, trembling and muttering. They tried to talk to him but he wouldn't answer. They finally had to drag him away. He hadn't damaged anything. But they posted signs and hired a guard and my Johnny stuck to the cliffs after that, watching month after month until the water flowed iron-cold and clear from the dam's outlet.
With plenty of water for swimming pools and fountains and even a golf course, more and more people moved to town, bringing their wet lives with them. The desert greened around them, and they found it beautiful. Not Johnny. Not that he minded the way the town looked, which was right enough for where he came from, but he couldn't see a stretch of lawn without seeing all the desert creatures that depended on the dammed river water for their mean and spiny lives. The new people didn't see that, but how could they? They hid from the sun in their humidified houses. Their skin never cracked and blistered, never peeled and toughened. They liked the desert but they didn't really feel it.
At the Park, they scurried from their air-conditioned cars and campers, dragging their young across the visitor center parking lot and inside, running from the sun to watch slide shows about life in the desert. The tough ones stood out on the patio in the shade, looking up the towers and cliffs or talking about what caliber gun they'd use on the deer across the road if the Park would just let you hunt. This place draws people: despite their softness, they want to stand at the edge of the desert and feel what it's like, in a place with no shades of gray, no ambiguities, and no second chances. Thrills them, to be that close, but safe. But then they want to make it safer, grab the scant water and force their own soft, green lives on the reluctant desert. But there's only so much water to go around, and one day, inevitably, some people showed up that wanted to take away Johnny's.
Clyde tipped him off about the meeting with the Vegas developers. They'd showed up at the Kiwanis Club with color drawings of palm trees and condos around a golf course. It would help the tax base. The developers showed the Kiwanis how they could bond and build a new school right away, plus have enough left over to boost up the fire department and improve the town park besides. It would be good for the kids. Too bad the best site was Johnny's stretch of riverside.
So when he showed up at that meeting, first town meeting he'd ever been to, the townsfolk were feeling a little guilty, though most thought he was wasting the town's potential, just sitting on that land. The Park campgrounds overflowed half the year now, and more and more folks were showing up and complaining about the lack of comfortable accommodations. And you can't charge pecan trees an accommodations tax.
Clyde and Johnny were the only two who spoke against it, though the hearts of some of the older folks were troubled. Clyde got up first and laid into them, as much as he could. Talked about how the golf course would cut everybody off from the river, which was the natural heart of town. That Johnny's pecans and peaches were worth more than the money of strangers. He got some people thinking, but then Johnny stood up and wrecked his own case.
No one expected he'd roll over and play dead. No one thought he'd be happy about the new Redevelopment Agency condemning his land. But he would be well-compensated and he was old enough to retire anyway. He didn't have to embarrass the whole town in front of the Vegas developers and their lawyers. You could see them holding in their laughter, twisting their pencils and trying not to stare at Johnny as he fumed and quivered at the front of the room.
Damn old fool. Raving about retribution and Indian spirits and how the land would rise up and swallow their abominations and the earth was going to get her revenge and his stretch along the river was a rare gift from the waters of her belly and meant for growing food for the people but the people weren't worthy any more and they would have only themselves to blame if she took it all back. He got to rambling and repeating himself.
It was more than anybody had ever heard him say at once so they just sat there in a daze until he finally ran down. They all sat there in silence, staring at Johnny, who stood trembling and staring right back. Finally, Clyde shook himself, got up and led Johnny outside.
Then the nervous chuckling started. The head developer went blood-red in the face, like he was having some kind of attack. His lawyer got him some water to drink and he snapped out of it. He was very gracious about Johnny's interruption, expressed his sympathy for the townspeople and for Johnny's problem. He offered to pay for professional help and to make sure there was a good court-appointed guardian.
At least they had the decency to appoint Clyde. It all happened so fast that Clyde didn't have a chance to talk to Johnny about it. He tried, but for days Johnny wasn't home and nobody knew where he'd gone. The date for the competency hearing was set and the papers served. Johnny didn't show. When he did come back to town weeks later, dirty and wild-eyed, he refused to leave his shack. By the next Spring the developers started cutting and bulldozing his trees. Clyde made them promise Johnny wouldn't come to harm. They said don't worry, they'd build right over top of him if they had to.
When the bulldozers took the last of his trees, Johnny disappeared again. This time, Clyde saw him go in the moonlight and followed him. They walked past Ruth's place, where she stood with her arms folded, old and tired, shaking her head at Johnny as he passed. Clyde tried to get Johnny to talk, hiking behind him for ten miles upriver, through the Park and towards the dam. But he finally gave up at dusk, wheezing, when Johnny showed no signs of stopping or wanting to talk. He watched Johnny disappear as the red canyon darkened into black, then turned for home.
The earthquake hit three days later and broke the dam. Water once again tore through town, damaging the motels and washing out all the pretty landscaping. Mud and silt buried the condo site and held up construction for six months.
For years after, Clyde would sit in the Hole-in-the-Wall and tell the story to anyone who would listen: "I can't forget the way he looked when I took him outside after the town meeting. He was like a retarded kid or something, all spent and empty and peaceful. I couldn't make sense of it, or get anything out of him, and just minutes before he'd been raving like a TV preacher. I walked him all the way back to his cabin, holding his arm the whole way. Here he was, this man who had just shamed the town, and I felt so good hanging on to him that I didn't want to let go. I felt like crying when we reached his place and he left me on the front step. It was like being sent back to hell when I let go."
And me? On the day the dam broke, I carried my Johnny down the river, through all the miles of burnt-blood canyons, to just beyond his shattered trees. And there I buried him deep in silt, high up on the bend of the river across from Clyde's place, where rattlers lie in the sun on the rocks across the water. Ruth knew where. Until she got too old, she would wade the river by full moonlight to lay a Sego lily on his grave. And there he'll stay, until the day when the land gives up and the water fails and the people pass on. And their dams will break again, the muddy water will roar down to scour the riverside clean of all their building and irrigated green. Then I'll wash him out again, so he can see what I have done. And on that day I know my Johnny will be pleased.
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