It was a “Say what?” moment if there ever was one, you know one of those moments where the words coming through your ears reach a brain that can only go: “Did I hear what I thought I just heard? Are you kidding me?”
I don’t recall what I was doing when the moment arrived but it was the first “Say what?” moment of my life, but being a six-year-old boy, all boy, as they say, and the year being 1944, I was probably chasing bad guys, ala “Geronimoooo…!” or “Hi-Yo, Silver, Away!” But, in the midst of whatever I was doing I heard my mother say: “We’re moving away.”
I didn’t know what to do with her words; they took my breath away. I was still feeling empty and somewhat alone from losing, Edward, my best friend, to another town the year before. AlI I could say was: “Say what? We’re moving away?”
She gently pulled me to her and in a wavering voice she said: “Yes. I’ve been laid off from my job and we’re going to have to move to Morenci.”
As best as I could I tried to understand. Then my mother, choking back tears, shoulders trembling, continued: “Well, you’re going to Morenci, but I’m going to have to work in another town – but I’ll be able to see you on weekends.”
I felt like I was in the ring with Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, with my guards down. It seemed I could only exhale in a world where there was no air anyway. Gaining my composure I became a questioning machine: “They laid you off? Can’t they lay you back on? Why do you have to have a silly old job anyway? Why can’t we just be rich? Can’t you just pay bills with a check? What do you mean you have to live in another town? And why can’t I live with you? And if I can’t live with you, why can’t you live with me, huh, huh, huh? Why? Why? Why? Why do I have to see you only on weekends? What’s a weekend? What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to us?
“Well, honey,” my mother said as she sat on the edge of my bed in the only bedroom I had ever known. “I’ve found these wonderful people to take care of you and I know you are just going to like them a lot.”
The walls of my already tiny house seemed to narrow even more and like someone suffocating I managed to ask: “Them? Who are they, these them?” Waiting for an answer, I felt like I was sitting naked on an iceberg at the North Pole, yet it was, perhaps, July, in Tucson, Arizona, a town not known for cool summer breezes.
And she described them as very nice people who were well-spoken of as though that somehow would remove them from the “trolls who live under the bridge” category in which I held them in my mind. Meeting them a few weeks later at their place did nothing to allay my fears. Their smiles appeared to me as a seductive ploy fit for the monsters I saw them as. Their hugs felt like vises that would never let go.
I don’t know how all the king’s horses and all the king’s men pried me off my mother, as she said her goodbyes to me and walked away like a ghost fading into the air, this traitor, this woman who says she loves me so. See if I care. And there we stood: Mr. and Mrs. Williams and me.
But what a family! My mother can pick them. They were MacGyver-like people, always banging on something, always nailing something, gluing something, sawing something, sharpening something, oiling something, wiping oil off of something, fixing something or taking something apart that didn’t need to be fixed and then making it better than brand new, certifying their accomplishment with a prideful: “Hah! Now, we got ourselves something.”
I was in awe of them, even at such a young age; they were like an exotic form of superior beings to me. When they walked down the dusty streets of Morenci, people waved and greeted them with the biggest smiles and the Williams would return their hellos in English and Espanol. Along the way Mr. Williams would pull nickels from behind the children’s ears and then make the coins disappear and then they’d try to guess after a flurry of showy prestidigitation which hand the nickel was in. He was the world’s friend.
I never knew what a day would bring living with those folks. One of them would say something like “Let’s go out to eat” and we might end up in some place that couldn’t have possibly been charted by earthlings. And in a cloud of dust we’d hop out of the car, unload tents and poles and guns and fishing tackles and lures and no one knows what else, then one of them would start a fire, while the other went off snatching herbs and spices off bushes and then they would take off after some animal that didn’t have a chance. I mean they would make honking and snorting noises and wildlife would practically show up going: “Hey: What’s happening?” “BLAM!” Curb service. Next moment, pheasant under glass. Frog legs. Turtle soup. Rabbit. Javelina.
Then there came a day when my mother had these words to say: “Baby, our problems are over. I got my job back with the telephone company. We’re going back home.”
“Say what? Why do you have to work at that silly old telephone company anyway? Why can’t we just stay here? You don’t have to have money here. All Mr. and Mrs. Williams have to do is whistle and anything we want to eat will just show up. Why do I have to see them only every year or so? What’s a year or so? Why? Why? Why?”
But, there was no crying and no prying and I will always remember riding in a cab, so baffled by life’s little twists and turns, wondering what “going back home” really meant – and, in the distance, I began to make out something somewhat forgotten, a shabby shotgun duplex I called home. 901 North Tenth Avenue. Tucson, Arizona. The most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
Photo courtesy of Tim Snell on flickr.com