Thoughts of Dust
I drive into New Mexico.
In the summer heat I walk down a roadside in the Gila River Valley beside dry horehound and roadside greases. I hear unseen insects clicking like miniature sawmills within the weeds and roosters crowing from nearby farms. Yellow leaves of walnut trees drift along in the acequia running beside the road. I stop at a fence that stretches beside a pasture and feel, with pleasure, the smooth, twisted wire. The solid corner fencepost, with its weathered wood, shines in the sun like gray gunmetal.
The valley of the Gila is, to me, a perfect place.
A brood of quail, following their leader into the road, peer about before they disappear again into the nearby weeds. In an alfalfa field, cows eat white-blossomed prickly poppies. A hawk sits on the top branch of a juniper tree: unmoving, uninvolved.
I keep watching the sky. At four o’clock, it is still clear and bright toward the west, but above the eastern mountains thunder has begun to rumble and clouds are darkening in swatches of purplish rain. Roadside flies fuss about in the quiet and heat, and along the Gila the cottonwoods, their leaves looking like green explosions in the air, are beginning to move about lazily in the breeze of the approaching rain.
The first drops are falling when I return to my car. Within minutes, the rain is pouring down and hard claps of thunder roll overhead. I sit in the car and read, eat an apple, look around from time to time at the heavy sheets of water coming down.
After a while the rain passes on, and I stand outside by my car watching the junipers drip and smelling the wet fields. The sky has turned a wintry gray, and a cool aftermath remains. The hawk still sits in his tree.
Standing there, I have no answers to any of my basic questions. All I know is that I am very lucky. I continue to have the land in my life—to walk on, to be next to. The Gila is not an answer, but it is the next best thing.
A memory: Mother, a smiling, big-boned rancher’s daughter who loved to read. In her younger years, she rode her horse Dolly through the live oaks and cedars of my grandparents’ hill country ranch to the Klein Branch Community School, then later graduated from Harper High up the road from Kerrville. Grandpa sent her 70 miles away to Thomas School for Girls in San Antonio (Katherine Anne Porter went there too, I learned recently), but ran short of money after her first year there, and that was that for Mother’s higher education.
But she was a genuine reader. I remember summer afternoons on Gilmer Street when she had finished cleaning the house, and it was the slow stretch of time between three o’clock and five-thirty. She would take off her shoes and pull the oscillating fan up close and she would lie on the front room sofa and read. Sometimes it was the Ladies’ Home Journal or Good Housekeeping, but more frequently it was a book from the Book of the Month Club or from the downtown Kerrville library or maybe a book that Miss Mitchell—the high school math teacher next door— had brought over and recommended.
She read Thurber and Louis Bromfield and Winston Churchill and Pearl Buck and Somerset Maugham. Kipling and The Red Pony. Herman Wouk. Although I never paid much attention to when she started or finished a book, I believe she was a fast reader, probably even a remarkably fast one because she read constantly, and she read a lot. Across the years she read her way out of the frustrations of her marriage—not a particularly fulfilling one—and beyond the confines of her small-town Kerrville life. She read Dag Hammerskjöld and Norman Vincent Peale and Hemingway and J. Frank Dobie. She read Fred Gipson and Thomas Mann.
She was also a clipper of quotes, an underliner of wise or pithy sayings, a collector of newspaper columns and articles. After I went off to college there was usually a bonus of some kind in each of her weekly letters to me: a ringing proclamation by General Douglas MacArthur, some piece of wit by Dorothy Parker, part of a speech given by Adlai Stevenson—she was a fan of “ol’ Adlai,” as she called him.
I’m not sure when the bulletin board went up in the bathroom. (Actually, it was just a piece of cardboard with clippings stuck on it with straight pins.) I think it first appeared during my senior year in college. I remember I had come home for the Christmas holidays and gone into the bathroom. Ours was notably small and constricting. As I stood, ready to begin taking a leak, there at eye level was the Nobel Prize speech by William Faulkner, cut out from an old Life magazine; an even older wartime column by Ernie Pyle; and a bit of current inspiration from Billy Graham.
For years afterward we family—and guests—bathroom users were my mother’s captive audience: mainly the males, of course, because what choice did we have? We stood, somewhat at attention, and we read. A number of times I vowed I would resist. I went in, flipped up the lid, and proceeded to take a leak with my eyes closed. But usually I weakened and sneaked a glance or two before I left—perhaps a quick read of an Art Buchwald interview, a quote from Shakespeare.
The bulletin board was probably my Mother’s way of passing the reader’s torch—of contributing her modest bit to the uplift of others, particularly her family. She was not “preachy”; she was simply a wide-ranging reader who wanted to share the fruits of her casual harvesting—feeling, I guess, it was the least a mother could do.
In New Mexico, summertime: One night, as I took a long walk outside Glenwood, I got to thinking, “I am not really walking along a quiet highway that leads in and out of a small New Mexico town. On this summer night I am walking along the curve of the earth under a dark sky loaded with stars, and I have no idea what I am doing—here or anywhere.”
The following day at three o’clock, I stood open-mouthed in the Mogollon Mountains. I was among 70-foot pine trees: a Gulliver among giants. A decaying pine—cinnamon brown—lay in front of me like a forgotten sculpture. Experimentally I said words aloud, but they did not fit properly in such a place. They were disturbing, wrong: words did not belong with the moss on the ground, the rotting wood smells, the crows overhead, the sun slanting on fields of apple trees and unpaved mountain roads.
It was quiet, but I could imagine a deeper quiet when the snows came, bringing deeper afternoon shadows.
I was gazing skyward, transfixed by the silence, when a small bird, high in a tree (alone in its own orbit, knowing its own needs better than I knew my own), dropped a sizeable splat of chalk on my glasses and blurred—finished—my mountainside reverie.
Our old cat Blotchett, who has been living the past year in the garage, has finally died.
I put her in a cardboard box, get a shovel, and with Blotchett and the shovel in the trunk of my car, I drive to the edge of town along Interstate 10. I turn off onto a deserted sandy area of low mesquites, huisache bushes, cacti and greasewood.
I take the box and the shovel out among the mesquites and dig a hole about a foot-and-a-half deep. I put Blotchett into the hole, on her side, and then refill it. I shape the sand on top into a mound, break off a piece of yucca stalk and plant it at the foot of the grave. I find a reddish, granite-looking rock about the size of a bowling ball in a nearby wash and place it on top as a headstone.
A grave for a cat.
I stand for a while, looking at the mountains that lie in a morning haze far to the south in Mexico. I listen to the faint hum of the I-10 traffic. Small black ants are busy in the shade of a nearby broomweed.
I start thinking about my own funeral that one day will have to be dealt with, that family members will have to endure: a typical human funeral with all its sadness and pain.
I have no idea where I should ask to be buried. I have not pushed that far ahead, do not really care. Ground is ground, death is death.
If I had my way about it, I think—picking up the box and the shovel—right here next to Blotchett, next to the ants and broomweed and mesquite, with mountains nearby, would be just fine.
Elroy Bode is a longtime Observer contributor and the author of, most recently, In a Special Light (Trinity University Press).