Dateline

El Paso Journal
by Published on
illustration by Mike Krone

I sit in darkness on the back porch. Cars are in the distance and on nearby streets. Yells come from games in the nearby park. There are periodic yaps from neighborhood dogs. Lillie, the cat, is poised by the honeysuckle vine, watching for movements in the grass.

City night has taken over from city day.

A pale-white star shines inside a configuration of small branches and leaves within an almond tree. It is like a display for a school bulletin board: a tree-limb framework 10 yards away that encloses a white dot from millions of light-years ago.

The universe is closer, intimate. Life is on hold.

A breeze comes by, a screen door slams. All is familiar; everything is strange.

The trees, the rock walls, the flower planters hanging from the patio porch, the birdbath, the sides of neighbors’ houses-all seem more solid and enduring, more timeless, here in darkness than during daylight hours, as if they are carved into the night: immobilized by darkness.

At 9 o’clock-Earth-time-a gradually emerging April moon begins to appear over the rooftops in the east. It rises full and yellow: an impossible sight, like eternity materializing slowly out of the El Paso desert wearing a round, yellow face.

*

I would like to be the Dad of a Boy again.

I saw such a dad, with his boy, in an aisle of Albertson’s last night. A smiling boy, 13 or so, in a Packers jacket, he pushed a shopping cart and listened with genuine attention to what his dad was saying. They pushed and they walked, the two of them, past the shelves of crackers and bread. Dad was leaning over, checking the price of Cheez-Its; his son stopped and turned toward him, waiting. At 6:45 on a Tuesday night, the boy was at his dad’s side, attentive to what the tall man with the loose shock of hair was saying about an experience of his in Nicaragua.

They walked on down the aisle, comfortable with each other, the boy slightly turned, still listening closely, the man half-turned, his head lowered to his son, almost touching the boy’s shoulder as he kept on with his tale of military intrigue. Customers passed by, maneuvering their carts around them. The boy and his dad walked on, insulated in their father-son space.

*

Twelve o’clock: resting time has begun. Doves are sitting on the rock wall. A mockingbird has established itself at the top of an Italian cypress and is serenading the neighborhood. The breeze is making its way through the trees, moving the leaves, keeping the afternoon heat away for a while longer.

I stand at the living room screen door, looking out, wondering: Is it to be ­counted as something real, this suspended backyard moment? Is it truly part of nature-so unred in tooth and claw? It is completely out of the flow of everyday human affairs. There is not the slightest indication that it is in the same world as interstates, shopping malls, business deals, traffic, construction. It is its own private island. The words people use to describe life as they know it do not apply to this small place of green and shaded ground. There is no violence here: no war, no horror, no stress or pain; no tragedies, no despair; no tortures, no starvation; no massacres, no devastation.

It is like a noon out of childhood-one of the countless stretches of seemingly endless time: unobtrusive, unremarkable, to be remembered only because nothing in particular happens: just there, a noon hanging forever in summer air.

*

The house in Clint puzzles me.

I have passed by it a number of times, and it always gives me pleasure to look at it. The touch of the countryside is on it-an air of stability and permanence that spans generations. It is the kind of genuine homeplace where children once grew up, then moved away, and over the years kept returning to bring their own children to Grandma’s for the holidays and Sundays. Surely-I think each time I go by-there is an old gray head somewhere inside. But I have never seen a face at a window or a humped figure feeding a cat out the back door.

Three huge arborvitae loom up about the front yard, reaching above the top of the house. The gray-shingled roof slants down past the attic windows to the neat front porch with its slender white columns. Cottonwoods and elms are about, and pampas grass, and roses growing up a trellis. Behind the house-beyond the trumpet vines and purple sage-are the outbuildings and a long back lot where a white horse grazes.

The front yard is always mowed, no litter is about, there is no sign of neglect. The house is perfectly, properly maintained as it sits in its deep setting of green. Everything about it is still in place-ready for grandchildren to run and laugh and roll across the grass while the adults watch indulgently from their wicker chairs on the screened-in side porch.

Yet I never see anyone in the house, or near it.

Doves perch on the telephone wires each afternoon; the roses are still in bloom. Water hydrants are always kept wrapped against winter freezes, and a washtub leans against the back porch bricks.

The house continues to sit there, as if waiting for the day that Life will walk up the front sidewalk again and open the door.

*

I would like a mesquite in the backyard. I would sit under it and look up and be glad to see the fragile, light-green elegance of the leaves. There is space between the branches, allowing the air and sky to be a part of the tree.

Mesquites in summertime are not commanding-not towering or majestic like oaks or pines. They are undramatic, peaceful: trees of light, the sun shining on each of the thin, delicate leaves.

It’s remarkable: Most often they are simply desert-land shrubs, growing in inhospitable soil, needing the barest amount of moisture to survive-yet give them adequate water, and they become trees I would give as gifts.

*

A little girl and her older companion are seated in the swings at the side of the park. They are talking more than swinging. The little girl asks questions, and the older girl gives answers.

The little girl is barefooted. She leans forward from her swing, drags her feet around and around in the dirt, finally brings up a stick with her toes. She removes it, breaks it against the chain of her swing, begins to beat a rhythmless rhythm against the metal seat. Her companion continues to make lazy, going-nowhere half-circles, keeping one foot constantly in the dirt.

The little girl looks over at me as I read on a nearby bench. She beats her stick some more, watches the boys playing soccer across the way, squints up through the elms at the late-morning sun.

Then she looks back at me and calls out, “Why haven’t you left yet?”

*

There are mild afternoons in El Paso filled with pale sunshine. As I look out the window at the sunlight laying its touch on the bare tree limbs and on the brown faces of fallen leaves, I wonder what it would say if it could speak.

Imagine: the everyday afternoon sun bringing us, instead of its usual light, a voice from the far reaches of space. It would give us the daily news of the universe-letting us know that we were not alone, that we were part of the ongoing cosmic conversation.

Each day words would be available in the language of light-a visual braille of sorts, easily decipherable by all who paid close attention, who were quiet enough, receptive enough. In every El Paso backyard one could read, hour after hour, the illumined language of life. n

Elroy Bode is a longtime Observer contributor and the author of, most recently, In a Special Light (Trinity University Press).