Dustbowl in Arizona

(I live in a dusty room.)

Dustbowl in Arizona

Thirty pieces of silver filled the jar Norbert Z Coleridge had sent to his grandmother in Pawtucket; a jar of silver so fine that men and women would look at it and instantly fall high from carousels and coaches and crash thuddingly into the mud of Ghostly, Arizona. Silver was an attractive metaphor for mythmakery back then, and it was the 19th century but so what. Arizona was brimming with hope and opportunity but all went dark with despair. A dustbowl was coming that would rip through all happinesses like a bold stripe of red paint on a canvass of milky innocence.

Centuries had rolled by like fresh licksome waves crashing the hull of a barge on the Colorado river or possibly the Rio Grande; it was an age of loving and liking, with passionate protagonists eating the fruit of the decades and digesting them slowly through the perspectives of history books, smashing lives together and sucking the marrow out of existence like Robin Williams’ Dead Poets, except in Arizona. A fire was in the earth and the citizens were glowing inside with the potentiality of pioneer love. It was pure fictive essence and not a small amount of dreamery. And Arizona was the cradle of it all.

Enter Norbert Coleridge, an ant who had climbed to the top of his particular pile, a Grumio who saw beyond the dark caves of oppression and misery and sought out the higher wheat that spread beyond the chaff. Coleridge was more than a man, he was a massive mountaineering megaman. He could lift a barrel of cider straight over his head, and that was not all – he had the love of the townsfolk, the esteem of the natives, and the ancient leather holster of one Billie the Kid. Coleridge was the best marksman is six counties and he never let any of the local toughs cross his path without zinging hot lead just a sweet deadly whisper from their earlobes, to remind them of his alpha status. So this then was a walking legend, a tall tommy in tough jerkin robes and a massive 10-gallon hat. Coleridge brooked no umbrage and overturned all stones on his way to Arizona-based fulfilment. He carried on this way for 40-some-odd years, until a dustbowl so severe blew through Arizona and devastated all the soybean in the land, and Coleridge’s vast empire crumbled like so many gnarled flakes of lettuce.

A wind whipped through Ghostly Arizona for 7 out of 10 years; a wind that cracked and burned the land, and dried up all hope along with the soil, a wind that warped the senses of the citizens and drove the natives first to ruin, as they picked up their wigwams and headed for wider rivers, bigger pastures, and herds uninfected with nature’s madness. It was surely a bad omen for the white men. For white men could live on unholy ground, remarked the chief of the Local Choctaw, Asingaramawi known as Squats with Purpose; white man could live there without the natives' pipe-smoking symbiosis, but a colony left to its gold-prospecting devices would surely succumb to squandery. A hefty and hard burden had befallen the chief, to evacuate his people and send them to a more hospitable steppe: of horses there were few, and the women were querulous and unattractive and the children of course not much use to anyone. It was the end of the 19th century, and a crisis indeed had taken hold that would shake Arizona to its rural stubs. But the natives turned out ok, as we shall see.

Norbert Coleridge usually smoked four cigars a day, but during the dustbowl he was nervous and smoking even more. He had seen his colony decimated by dust and was near mad with despair. It was the 19th century and irrigation methods were primitive, resistance methods still in the incubation stages, and other strategems generally in the lack. It was the kind of situation that had a very difficult solution, and Coleridge’s abilities were tested like a fish that must learn to walk in a very hot and dry desert – for evolution, it seemed, was functioning at a crawl. Coleridge would light his cigars and puff vainly for an answer. He wished he were less of a legend and more of a thinking man, a man who could figure out the missing squiggles in the extreme equation, a man just like Phineas DoLittle.

Phineas Favulus DoLittle was a merchant’s son who ran the abacus service in Ghostly, Arizona; he was a spindly splinter of a stickman who never met a problem head-on but tackled it from the sides, like a tenacious sand crab restricted to unidirectional sideways locomotion. DoLittle had a sandcrab's knack for tactics and a genius eye for strategic brilliance. He respected his enigmas but worked with an unaccustomed insolence, singing bawdy sea-chanties and forcibly slapping his abacus like a naughty man in a great hurry might milk a sleepy heifer. DoLittle might have been called ‘DoMuch’, for his prowess was unimpeachable; he was second only to Norbert Coleridge in the town’s generally-accepted hierarchy of fame. DoLittle had huge brown eyes and sharp teeth – which were also brown – and had the lantern profile of a Kentucky coal miner – yet for all his trashy countenance he was a loyal accountant and a bulwark against the blight that would come.

In year two of the great dustbowl (known by the local heraldry board’s flowery supernomen as The Massive Perturbance of the Agricultural Status Quo, or the Years of Woe and Grit) Phineas DoLittle petitioned Norbert Coleridge to call a meeting of elders, to gather together over a deliciously steaming vegetable stew at the local tavern and ‘sup’ upon the problem of the town, ie the dust plague, a problem that was threatening to buckle Arizona under the weight of its swirling annoyance. Coleridge agreed and hastily sent out a pageboy to distribute the pertinent leaflets. The meeting was called for a Sunday evening at O’Malley’s Saloon; it was October 15, 1876, and the attendance would be standing room only.

Holmesbury O’Malley, bartender and spitsman in charge of the town roast, provided free ale for the aldermen, and rustled up enough vegetable stew to clot a leaky dam. It was 8 pm and he was on top of the meeting like a pirate captain administering seaside justice on a scorched Carribean beach. O’Malley was an alemaster and sage of the hopps, a guru with a kind ear who distributed his simple Irish wisdom via bawdy maxims such as ‘So as ye drink, so shall ye puke’ and ‘Lend a dying fellow your dungarees, and he will shit in your pants.’ It was tough time for Ghostly but there were always mouths to fill with ale, always empty bellies to satiate whether with feast-food or famine-fare. O’Malley was like the only man on a sinking ship who knew how to swim; the luck of the Irish had him thriving while all around was noxious particulate matter. So he was quiet but grinning inside like a Cheshire catfish who feared not the ocean waves.

The meeting about the dust began: the first item on the agenda was the Choctaw Indians and whether they were to blame for most if not everything that was bad. A few people suggested they were, and wanted to confiscate some of their many acres, but cooler heads prevailed and the Choctaw avoided censure in absentia. Gimli Goodings, a pipe-necked blacksmith known for his extreme bigotry, led the allegations against the tribe, calling the Choctaw ‘loutish horsebuggerers and freakpeople’, but everyone knew of the anvilman's limited intelligence and dismissed his diatribe as transparent blamery. The next item discussed was all the wind and particulate matter and especially the dust and what methods could be used to wipe it away: rags were suggested but rags were also in scarcity, so the discussion turned to what could be traded in exchange for rags. One enterprising whelp named Chester Crockslot suggested a Sandle-Castle Building Contest, where the entry fee would be 5 bolts of rags, a way to make something useful from all the dust and at the same time acquire the desired cleaning stuffs. Sadly this idea did not survive the first coffee break, and after 15 minutes' loitering outside the saloon the meeting resumed with still no solutions at all. It was depressing, but the tapsman O’Malley was as grinning as ever because many had commented favourably on the stew.

The discussion resumed and was much inflamed, lit up as it was by dozens of lanterns, as it was past dark; the meeting plunged lustily into nightfall, and the moon rose up like the Grand Meeting Secretary of the Sky, taking mysterious minutes from a haughty remoteness while guarding closely its forboding lunar agenda. Several menfolk growled above at its rocky surface and exclaimed it was an ominous eclipse of the moon that had dashed their consensus in taverna, but the allegation was quelled by rational souls and no one thought of the inconquerable moon for the rest of the meeting. Dust was dust, one pioneer noted, and moonbeams could not ensnare the earthbound man. So arguments parried back and forth, and dust was in everyone’s brains and nostrils; it was a great example of vibrant local democracy. The dust-talk blanketed the tavern like a humongous quilt blankets a meadow, and even though the dust was not defeated that night, many of the menfolk exited the tavern with a new resolve to make their lives liveable, dusty or not.

As the last souls were exiting the taven, Phineas the accountant approached Coleridge and asked whether he wanted his tax forms filled out for the next day as had been discussed at a prior meeting. Coleridge look outside at the worsening dark swirl and nodded absentmindedly – his mind was on the blight, not on quarterly taxes. He groaned softly as a glass shattered in the tavern. O’Malley apologized for the noise. Coleridge said to Phineas "When men like you and I get stuck in a duststorm, there’s no hope even for the geese and the chickens.” Phinease clucked his tongue in agreement, clasped Coleridge on the shoulders and said his goodnights. Coleridge stared out at that dust for another five or ten minutes, and then walked home. Holmesbury O’Malley was tickering up the cash receipts – he secretly wished there was a store in Ghostly that sold boots, for he had the cash to act up and dress like an Arizona cowboy.

The week after the great meeting, there arrived in town a band of players, including the Traveling Showman’s Orchestra Winds, a band of clarinets, flutes and saxophones who lived it up and made love to the town and made smiles more common in a quaking breezy colony that had known seven years of hardship. The players performed Rodelina and Wagner, and also Schumann, a composer known for seriousness but still fun enough for Arizona, the land of Dust. It was a welcome diversion, a pleasant moment of music and lightness in an existence that was choked in defiance of nature’s dry wrath.

The head of the Players was Herbert Hemingway, a slapdash midget with theatrics oozing from his dwarfish limbs like a thespian ant. Hemingway would sit outside the saloon and crow for the strongest ales, the bawdiest women, the crookedest gamblers. He caroused and made merry; it was a sight to behold this extroverted dwarfman drinking like a fish and calling down the invectives of the devil and extracting from all a begrudged smile. But the townsfolk were either surly or drunk, and each nightfall Hemingway was met with the a peculiar coldness. O’Malley asked the actors to move off every nightfall from the saloons, and the players' mirth could not make a permanent dent in the harsh swirling reality.

Phineas DoLittle was one to make merry with the players however, and was especially attracted to the lyre player, a certain Desmonda Granici, a half-Italian, half-Rumanian gypsy wench whose musical strumming did soothe the hearts of many a lonely cowpolk. Desmonda was hounded on all sides by suitors, and the meek and meagre Phineas was reduced to leaving notes stuck to his abacus and offering it to her in the mail.

[unfinished of course]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

borders between the inane and the sublime