The Sidearm of a Saguaro
For years after the divorce, my mother talks of moving: to Florida, where she has a friend; to Austin, where I’m learning how to be an adult. She’s never lived anywhere but Delaware and imagines what her life might look like in another place. Her childhood was spent in Claymont, growing up in company housing provided by Phoenix Steel, the sometime employer of her alcoholic father. When she marries my father, they buy a modest ranch house close to her parents and later move to the middle-class suburbs of Wilmington, a place with better schools and split-level homes, a mall, a bowling alley, sweet shops selling soft serve ice cream in the summer. A good place to raise a family. I am in college when my parents divorce and sell the home where I grew up, and even if I wanted to return, there is no space for me anymore. My father and his girlfriend move to the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia where farm country is being cleared for houses, strip malls, grocery stores. After living in a series of unfortunate apartments, my mother buys a small condo with views of the Delaware River. The place is decent, and sometimes, during our weekly phone calls, she interrupts herself or me to say, “A big ship is going by.”
I am twelve years old the first time I fly. It is my mother’s first flight as well; years later, she will tell me that, in lieu of vacations, her father loaded the family into their boat of a car and drove fifteen miles north to the Philadelphia International Airport. Inside, she and her brother would press their faces against the glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows, watching planes arrive and depart, wondering about the travelers coming and going. She is nervous for our trip to Phoenix that August but also excited: to see cacti and red rocks and feel the dry heat. Before the plane takes off, she checks my seatbelt and makes me pay attention to the flight attendant’s instructions. My mother spends a good portion of the flight standing in the back, near the closet-sized restrooms, smoking one long, skinny cigarette after another. I drink Coke from a small plastic cup and devour the complimentary honey roasted peanuts, licking the inside of the foil bag once it’s empty. I pass the time by staring out of the window at the cloud world below and reading Bridge to Terabithia, a book that needs to be finished by the first day of sixth grade. When the pilot announces that passengers should prepare for landing, my mother returns to her seat and hands me a piece of gum.
“It will help your ears pop,” she says. I don’t feel any pressure, but I take it anyway.
The Wilmington winters begin to depress her. She asks about the temperature in Austin, and I lie, tired of feeling guilty that I live somewhere with so much sun. I don’t tell her that I miss sweaters and the sensation of a cold nose warming up. I don’t tell her that monotony isn’t limited to gray days; you can tire of anything when you experience it again and again. Tedium: that’s what is getting to her in Wilmington. She made lots of friends after the divorce, other divorcees who liked to drink chilled white wine and attend over-50 singles nights at bars in strip malls. Before I moved to Texas, I joined her for happy hours, open to becoming a daughter who does such things. Together, we drank and smoked, gossiped about what other women were wearing, flirted with bartenders. For a while, her life appeared vibrant, and I understood that she had been missing out on happiness for a long, long time. She even fell in love with a man named Jack who drove a Lexus and drank too much. But the relationship went bad and she began feeling old. Months after I moved, she told me she was too tired to go out, that when she got home from work it was dark and cold and sometimes there was snow that turned to slush or ice, depending on the temperature. She did little more than sit on a couch she bought on store credit, smoking and drinking wine alone, facing the river, watching the water.
It is hotter in Phoenix than we could have imagined, but we don’t mind. On the drive from the airport to the condo in Scottsdale we are sharing with my grandparents, we speak little, fixated on the landscape. Saguaro cacti rise from pink rock and line the highway like statues. In the distance, rust-colored rock outcroppings appear haphazardly, and farther still, larger mountains appear blue and purple from the highway, naked of pine and spruce trees that cover the mountains in Pennsylvania, the only mountains I’ve ever seen. Nothing here is familiar. It looks like the moon, we agree. To myself, I think: it looks like a place where you could become someone wholly and entirely unlike the person you always thought you were.
Austin is not my first stop in Texas. For four years, I teach English at a struggling Houston high school. My college friends tell me not to go, that Texas is all about cowboys and big trucks and big hair, but like me, they don’t know anything. I drive for three days in my light blue Sundance America hatchback, starting my new life with little more than a suitcase of cheap clothes and a box of books. After eight hours on the road, I call my mother from a pay phone in Louisville. I don’t tell her I am scared because I know then she will be scared, too. Instead, I tell her about the sky, how I’ve never seen a red sun slip behind the trees. She says that means the next day will be hot, and I recognize this as her kind of folk wisdom, like when she points out cows lying in a pasture and declares that rain is imminent. She believes in such tales more than she believes in God or weathermen, and I wait expectantly in the phone booth, desperate for the next thing she’ll say, wanting it to be the words that will help make sense of what I’m doing. Several silent moments pass, and she tells me to find a hotel and call her in the morning. I do what she says and wish I could feel some enthusiasm for the Super 8, some thrill about my autonomy and independence. I struggle to sleep. I call my mother early the next morning, and the phone rings and rings. She had gone out to get the Sunday paper, so I drive and drive and when I cross the state line from Louisiana to Texas, radio DJs caution asthmatics and the elderly to stay inside. The air conditioning in my car does not work, and I drive for six hours with my left leg hanging out of the window. Near Beaumont, brush fires burn lazily alongside the highway. No matter how much water I drink, I don’t have to stop and pee. I remember what a dry heat feels like. This is not it.
My mother was told that people with bad allergies moved to Arizona, so she does not pack the little red pills that for years I’ve taken daily. Within a couple days of our vacation, I become terribly ill. Locals tell us it is the ash and mesquite, and though my head feels pressed in a vice, I like imagining myself as the victim of an exotic plague. One day we travel four hours north to see the Grand Canyon, driving through Sedona and then Flagstaff, and I begin what will become a lifelong habit of deciding I will live in every place I visit. Over the years, those places include London and Scotland, a small town in Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle. And before we even reach the Grand Canyon I am gone, mentally moving my life far, far away from Delaware. During sunset on the South Rim, I see my mother cry for the first time. I don’t yet know the word surreal, but in time I will understand that it describes what I saw that day, the blues and pinks and yellows and oranges melting together for spectacle. Years later, during a study abroad in London, I will stand in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and cry for what I imagine was the same reason for my mother’s tears: not only for the beauty of what I see but for the unbelievable fact that I am there. From my mother, I inherit an idea that certain behaviors and experiences are meant for other people—exercise, dinner parties, choosing the most expensive dish on a menu—and so we both delight in what we determine are incongruous moments, like seeing the Grand Canyon at sunset or viewing iconic art. Can you believe it, we might think, a person like me in a place like this?
When she calls to tell me she purchased a plane ticket and is going to meet with a realtor in Phoenix, I have just fallen in love with Michael, the man I will marry. He and I are on summer break from the graduate program where we met, and we spend our days reading books together and writing terrible drafts of our first novels and swimming in cold rivers and temperate pools. Every day feels like vacation, and at a time when my mother is looking to disrupt her life with a geographical shift, I am getting comfortable. After seven years of looking for ways to get out of Texas, I consider the importance of people over place. For once, I am not unsure or lonely or searching.
In quick succession, my mother buys a house, quits her job, sells some things. She pretends not to be terrified and I play along, understanding we can’t know what is or isn’t a mistake. I fly back east to help tie up loose ends: shredding bank statements from the mid 90s, giving her condo a final cleaning, saying good-bye. Once she moves, I will have no reason to return. A decade has passed since I left Wilmington for good, and a person can feel ambivalent about their hometown but still mourn not having one. Her leaving feels like a part of my life is being severed; with her not there to occupy some space, it seems like my own impression on that place and the impression it made on me will dissipate like cigarette smoke in a spring breeze. She sees me tear up as we leave the realtor’s office where she signed the seller’s documents for the condo, and says, abruptly, “This is not a sad day.” She drives us to one of the bars she used to frequent and orders two glasses of the house white wine. “Cheers,” she says, not smiling, raising her glass slightly before taking a long swallow. “Good riddance to this place.”
I remind her of the time I took a road trip with some friends, how we drove through Phoenix on our way to the Grand Canyon. I tell her it’s not like we remembered, or thought we remembered, because Phoenix isn’t Scottsdale. Scottsdale is a city for vacations and golf and probably has one perfect swimming pool for every ten residents. Our ideas about Phoenix are wrapped up in that one week we spent in a town built for the white, the rich, the vacationing set. But when I drove through Phoenix, I was taken aback by how big it was, how many highways there were, so much concrete. By then, I had been places. I had smelled the orange blossoms in Seville, Spain, walked on the cool smooth sand along the rugged Oregon coast, drank cold beer in a small Mexican village across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. Passing through Phoenix made me worry about all the trips I’d ever taken; I wondered how to manage my recollections if the memory of a place does not synch up with the impressions from a return visit.
I don’t think I am trying to change her mind but want to offer fair warning. My mother does not care. She cannot afford Scottsdale and buys a house in Sun City, a 55-and-older community full of retired people who drive golf carts and play bridge. She celebrates her 55th birthday just before moving. Eventually she finds a job and divides her time off among various activities: sunning at the community pool, buying tchotchkes at one of a million thrift stores in a five-mile radius, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes on her back patio, looking out over a backyard where bougainvillea grows like dandelions, where a saguaro cactus, which my mother has named Gumby, stands tall enough that one of its arms grazes a powerline.
She does not make friends or quit smoking or lose weight or find someone new to love, all things she was seeking. A cautionary tale is forming, I think, and tell my soon-to-be husband, “You can’t just change your zip code.” I discovered this on my own, when I left Wilmington for State College and then Houston and San Marcos and Austin. With time, I imagine she might find it out for herself.
After three years of living in Sun City, she calls to tell me there is a spot on her lung. I can tell she is smoking cigarette after cigarette, can picture her lighting one with the butt of another, talking a lot as a way to avoid questions. She tells me there’s something called Valley Fever that some people contract after moving to the Phoenix area.
“It’s a fungus that gets in your lungs,” she says. And we both know this is bullshit, that though this disease is real, it’s not her problem. The trouble comes from the two packs of cigarettes she has smoked for over 40 years. A biopsy will tell us this is the case, but at the time, she is working on convincing herself that this is not true. When I get off the phone, I tell Michael she will die soon and that I am okay with that. The former is true; the latter, not at all. But I intuit the short time she has left and make a deal with myself to be whatever she needs, to become the friend she’ll have to have. I’ve shape-shifted before and it seems like the least I can do, to push down my thoughts and fears of living a motherless life, a deep well that won’t be tapped for years, not until I become a mother.
After she is officially diagnosed in May, Michael and I make a trip to see her. The three of us ride a bus to Laughlin, Nevada, a town along the Colorado River that is home to casinos and an outlet mall. She’s made this trip alone, many times, and wants to share it with us. The bus isn’t even half full; it’s just us and a group of eight or nine women slightly older than my mother, wearing capri pants and sleeveless pastel shells. They are travelling together; they are here to have fun. The bus driver stops at a McDonald’s in Wickenberg, and my mother asks that I get her a coffee. She is the only one to stay on the bus, and I notice but try not to worry that her color is gray. The women in capri pants crack jokes in line; they are excited about the empanadas, a limited time menu feature. I walk behind them as we get back on the bus, and one lady with rust colored hair exclaims, right as she’s passing the row where my mother sits, “Might as well slap these empanadas right on my ass, that’s where they’re going anyway.” I laugh; my husband laughs; my mother does not. Her eyes are closed and I touch her shoulder lightly, give her the coffee. As the bus winds through mountains the color of rouge, the group of women chat and giggle nonstop, and I think, here’s what her life might have become. Eventually, she might have retired and found friends and taken this trip weekly, if she wanted, or joined any of the tours that leave from Sun City: to San Diego or Las Vegas or Sedona. It might have become the thing we did together when I’d come visit.
Though I am aware of how fixed her income is, she booked a separate room for me and Michael. After we check in, the three of us feed slot machines with pennies, lulled by the clink of the coins and the whirr of the lever that, once pulled, spins numbers and cherries and holds secrets. My mother tires quickly and heads to her room. I realize, with great clarity, how unwell she is, and Michael and I find doors that lead to a sidewalk running along the Colorado River. Speed boats pull water skiers across the surface, and we watch as a mom and dad drop quarters into a machine filled with fish food while their son cups his hand under the dispenser, waiting to catch the small brown pellets.
“Catfish,” Michael says. A fish of his youth, one found in muddy lakes and farm ponds. I don’t know anything about the natural habitats for different types of fish, but I am surprised to see them here, in this river. I watch as they slip and slide over each other, mouths opening and closing, hoping to catch a bit of food.
We keep walking and see workmen assembling scaffolding, a stage, bleacher seating. A poster advertises Michael McDonald as the evening’s musical guest; it seems fortuitous, as he is a favorite of my mother’s. After the divorce but before I was old enough to drink in bars, we’d drink and smoke and listen to music in any one of her rundown apartments, playing DJ for each other, shuffling through her vast CD collection: the Indigo Girls, Aretha Franklin, Harry Chapin, Laura Nyro, Bon Jovi. If she was feeling down, I’d put on “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers and just like that she’d start bobbing her head, singing along: I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland pretty mama gonna take me by the hand. For a moment, I am excited and tell Michael we should call her, see if she wants to go. I didn’t know then but do now: I was trying to find a way to make the trip matter, to make it special, to give us, me, a memory on which I could look back on and think, yes, we did that. We found some joy in Laughlin.
I dial her room and listen as the phone rings and rings and rings and rings. Seven, eight, ten times and she’s not picking up. I can’t help but wonder if she is dead, that this is now a reasonable assumption given her condition. Michael assures me she is not and knows I don’t fully believe him. He convinces me that we can try again in a half hour, and we go and check out the rooftop pool, packed with bodies, loud with laughter and squeals. We are not in our swim suits but sit at the pool’s edge and dip our feet into lukewarm water. We are surrounded by families, mother and fathers and their children and then grandparents. Grandmothers in swim dresses who wear their glasses in the pool hold the hands of their grandchildren, swirling them around in the water. The grandmothers are old but look like dying is the last thing on their minds.
We return to our room, call her again, and she answers.
“I was so tired,” she says and asks if we are ready for dinner. It is not yet five o’clock, but she assures me it will get busy soon. We meet in the lobby and I try to tell myself she looks better. She is wearing a long, flowing sundress, the color of sapphires. It may have once been her size but now hangs loosely, and the thin spaghetti straps keep slipping off her bony shoulders. The enormous dining room is nearly empty, and we choose a table closest to the buffet. Michael piles his plate high with foods that normally don’t share space at a meal: fried chicken, prime rib, macaroni salad, a crispy beef taco. My mother picks at a sad piece of salmon and drinks several glasses of Inglenook wine, poured from a carafe set up near the drink station. She is 58 years old. We don’t know this yet, but she has 201 days left to live. Here we are, on one of those days, in Laughlin, Nevada, surrounded by cheap food and cheap wine and even a cheap view—here, the river is just a ditch. If she weren’t dying we’d be having a hell of a time; we’d have eaten empanadas and bought tickets for Michael McDonald and drank glass after glass of Inglenook. I’d have pointed out men who seem eligible and we’d gossip about what the women were wearing. We’d talk about making this a yearly trip. But after dinner she can hardly keep her eyes open and tells us she’ll see us in the morning. Michael and I spend hours drinking weak whiskey and Cokes while sitting at the $2 blackjack table, making friends with other players, getting drunk, losing most of our cash. I am drunk and wobbly and try to convince Michael that I can win it all back, just one more hand, wanting so badly for the night to have a different ending. Instead, we use our last two dollars to buy a double cheeseburger that we share.
The next day, we have some hours to kill before getting on the bus. My mother insists we go to the outlet mall across the street from our hotel, and in spite of my raging headache and desire to stay in bed until it’s time to leave, I remember what I am here for. Watching her walk pains me; she moves slowly and with great effort though we aren’t going far. She tells me and Michael to go in while she finishes her cigarette. He and I hold hands and lean into each other, vowing to never gamble again, feeling embarrassed by our indulgence. The mall smells like cherry air freshener and French fries, and we weave around kiosks selling socks and crosses and novelty T-shirts that say things like “Straight Outta Laughlin.” My mother comes up behind us and says to follow her, she knows where the good stores are. Around the corner is a Gap outlet, a huge space with just a dozen racks. My mother shows Michael where the men’s clothes are, and she and I rummage through too big shirts and too small shorts. Eventually she pulls a sun dress from the rack; it is white linen with blue flowers. She holds it up to me and suddenly I am 10 and we are in the House of Bargains on Kirkwood Highway, just south of Wilmington, our destination for back-to-school shopping. We’d spend hours there, her never looking at anything for herself but filling a cart with more clothes than I could try on at one time. She often chose things that I would overlook, but once I tried them on, somehow they’d be just the thing. On this day, in this strange outlet mall in Laughlin, Nevada, this white linen dress with blue flowers is just the thing, and it’s ten dollars, and even though I told myself that after last night’s recklessness I’d not spend a dime for a while, I buy it. To please her, to have a souvenir.
Not long after we return to Sun City, Michael and I are waiting for the airport shuttle. My mother pulls me aside.
“You know the outfit you were wearing, on the way to Laughlin?”
I’d worn a long black sundress with wide straps, and I’d fashioned a bright orange scarf into a sort of headband. I nodded.
She squeezes my hand, smiles. “That’s just the kind of thing I would wear.”
On our flight to Austin, Michael falls asleep and I turn toward the window, studying the clouds, missing trees, thinking about all the ways I could become like my mother in the coming years, and all that she will not witness.
The Palm Valley Funeral home is wedged between a Bank of America and Filiberto’s Taco House on Grand Avenue in Sun City, Arizona. There is nothing grand about this avenue and the funeral home looks like it used to be a pawn shop. There’s a banner hanging on one side that informs anyone driving by, say, to grab a taco or make a deposit that there, you can get a direct cremation for $545. My mother loves a bargain, which is probably why she picks this place.
When my mother and I discuss what to do with her when she dies, we are drinking. Heavily. The only light in in backyard comes from the glowing ends of our cigarettes. I tell Michael when this is all over, I will quit, I’m done. But smoking and drinking gives us something to do, my mother and I, and there isn’t much time left. It is November, and entering the conversation about the end of her life is not awkward. I know she wants to be cremated.
“Puerto Vallarta,” she says, exhaling a long steady stream of smoke. “Take my ashes there.” It is a favorite place of hers, the second place she’d ever flown to. I understood; I’d seen the movies. Ashes are to be spread in places fit for a postcard—on top of mountains or carried away by big blue waves. Mexico makes sense. But after another glass of wine, I start wondering aloud about logistics, musing about any laws there might be in taking ashes to another country. I try to convince her that I can make this work, but she throws up her hands, ashes from her cigarette flying. She isn’t mad or disappointed, just exhausted.
“Leave me here,” she says. “But make sure I’m with my cactus.”
A month later, I sit with her for a long while in the hospice care facility, a beautiful place for such a dreadful happening. Her room has a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto a garden filled with pink oleander and spiky ocotillo and a Madagascan palm. For days she’s been agitated, and here she rests more comfortably. The nurses encourage her to keep on the oxygen mask, but she doesn’t like it. For a time, when it’s off, I talk to her.
“You can go,” I say. “You’ve lived an incredible life. You raised two daughters; you went to Paris. You moved here, all by yourself.” These are all truths: incredible and also impossible to believe. Like standing in front of the Grand Canyon or Sunflowers or leaving the only place you’ve ever known, at age 55, to move 2400 miles west. Whether she was fulfilled by this place, I’ll never know. I have my doubts. Still, she discovered something essential in the desert, that a person can leave their place of origin and make a go of it. If she’d had more time, maybe she would have taken up bike riding like she thought she would; maybe she would have quit smoking. I doubt these things, too. But she died someplace far from where she was born, and that may have been the triumph she was after.
I ask her if she’s scared. “No,” she tells me, her last spoken word.
I return to Sun City, months after she dies, to spread her ashes. I am still concerned about what is legal and wait until it is dark. A friend tells me to be prepared, that there will be shards of bone, which makes sense but is nothing I have considered. My mother’s cactus may not be long for this world; the same realtor who helped her buy this house is helping me to sell it, and she says the electric company will remove it, eventually. I am glad that my mother won’t witness this, and as I sprinkle what is left of her, at the base of its thorny trunk, I am glad, too, that part of her will stay right here, mixed in with the pea gravel, an inextricable part of her chosen place. Some of her will get picked up by a breeze, and then there’s no telling where she might end up.
On my 24rd birthday, my mother flies to Houston to celebrate me. I am proud to show her the life I’ve built here, and she loves the things that I love: the small porch on the little house I am renting, all on my own; the black and white honeycomb tile in the bathroom, the palm tree in my backyard. I take her to an Italian restaurant that has become a favorite, and while we wait for our table we sit at the bar, talking with one of my students who busses tables. She and I talk about my move here, how miserable and uncertain I was on my drive, and she confesses that had she answered the phone when I called from the Super 8, she would have told me to turn around and come home. I tell her I would have listened. We shake our heads and raise a glass because, thanks to time passing, we understand that would have been a mistake, that I had to keep driving toward a place unfamiliar.
About the Author
Stephanie Noll is a writer and teacher living in Austin, TX. Her work has appeared in MODERN LOSS, MOTHERWELL, and THE OCOTILLO REVIEW. She received her MFA in fiction from Texas State University, where she currently teaches.