by Sandra Florence
Night 1 At the corner of 4th and 22nd men and women push shopping carts across the street in heat and clouds tangling around the streetlight. These men and women are shadows under trees, and in the grass, their stark bodies fold and bend, mostly hiding. When I enter the Quik Mart, an Indian boy asks if I can buy him food, and I tell him to pick out what he wants. Packages of chips and cookies, beef jerky, candy bars, soda, nuts. I let him have what he wants until the grocery clerk says, no more. It wasn’t much and later on the Tohono O’odham rez, Lynn and I drove past the high school and into desolations, shacks, dogs, broken machinery old tires, weeds, broken toys, and then we turned and headed toward the mountains. It was hard to think about living out here and yet when the clouds passed across the sun, when rain spilled from the sky, when the sky was blue green, it was breathtaking. I thought about the air, pulling it in and Lynn told me how the Tohono people were a tribe, they did not have a village where all their people lived together. They settled in the sand earth, they did not have a tradition of fighting for themselves or any one. She told me how she fell in love with Joe, a Tohono man, as soon as she saw him. But in the dream, he was shouting, he wore no socks, his shoes were falling off his feet. Lynn and I were having lunch at what used to be called the Papago Café. Joe was banging on the windows. Night 2 On another street, Bob Kaufman. I had to see him once more, the loneliness crowded with solitudes and solitudes of indifferent songs that told people who they were, the stories. Bob was a poet in the oral tradition. They put him in jail for walking on the grass. He was beaten for voicing his poems and songs in the street, he was young and beautiful. His poems were songs. I travelled the roads he travelled but never saw him; he hid. He became silent; he became Buddhist. His poems became shadows in moments of rare beauty. Coming out of the silence. I keep seeing him on street corners, I hear the streets of laughter and danger, and hunger in voices. Night 3 I had this rage when I set out on the journey, the shadows were all around but not on me. Although I carried my own as everyone does, I didn’t let it overtake me, or consume me. The shadows are inside us of course. Night 4 Nuns climbed on the bus in front of their convent, Little Sisters of Perpetual Poverty. Sometimes the nuns go to restaurants and bake bread or they go to car dealerships to purchase a new car. The transactions are kept quiet. No one wants to see Nuns buying cars. It doesn’t look right, as they slip under the wheel of a car and examine its interiors. Open the glove box. People think they are thieves, are getting a special deal they are not entitled to or that they are using the pope’s money. I watched Nuns travel back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge for years always in giant cars that carried six people. The nun who drove, drove very fast, no one looked up or smiled. No one waved. I imagined they were reading, the bible or The Story of a Soul, or Confessions. Night 5 Where were they going on these trips across the bridge? Where had they come from? All cars moved out of the way for the nuns’ cars and often there was a caravan of at least four cars. Four big cars full of women in black racing through the Rainbow Tunnel heading to San Francisco. When they passed I did see them occasionally raising a finger, pointing it heavenward, or at least pointing it upward. One day I crossed the bridge and tried to follow but I never could keep up and soon the car or cars disappeared into the tangled, hilly streets of the city. All I knew of them were the stained glass windows, the incense, their continuous position of hands folded in prayer, tightening into ropes. Night 6 Dad, can I join the Catholic Church. You may not. Why not? Grandma is Catholic. She just rubs the beads. Aunt Valentine is Catholic. She has to be because she married an alcoholic. Night 7 Where was I going? Where had they been? No nuns allowed out of their hideouts. A Priest did come to some of our family gatherings. He stood in the back yard drinking cocktails with my uncles. My mother and father were contemptuous of these men. My mother because she was a Baptist attending the Methodist Church and my father because he was agnostic. The priest seemed strangely chaste for an old man, neatly turned out, well-spoken. I wondered along the sidewalk in the backyard trying to hear what might be said, but it began to rain and there were bells ringing, drowning out voices. Night 8 Bells drowning out voices of poets, midwives, atheists, piano players, children, and flower thieves. Drowning out the voices of nuns who weren’t allowed out of their hidey holes, but somehow had found a way to purchase big cars and drive places. Bells kept ringing as though they were chasing the nuns. Night 9 I was only interested in their strange nature, in their devotion to silence and shadows. I was interested in girls who loved other girls and divulged their secrets to the priest who said, “If you don’t stop that you will be queer.” It was okay for a while but it had to stop eventually and your love had to be renounced. Yes of course, if you practiced loving another girl you would be queer. You would be perplexing; you would be found out immediately. You would walk and talk differently, your clothes would be unfashionable and insane. You would deliberately wear those clothes in order to be seen or not seen, whatever the case might be. But your face would become peachy, soft, and your eyes would brighten with a capriciousness unseen before. Night 10 Weren’t sure when you danced in the little room with mirrors. You were five. You were afraid. The upside down faces as you cartwheeled began to look like zoo animals, their eyes like marbles on fire. Parents’ hysteria filled the air, wanting their children to be the best. There was a sweet smell of cake and coffee, gum drops, and sugared orange slices. There were cars abandoned in fields, and flowers grew up inside them, lilies and sun flowers and homeless dogs found a place of rest. The teacher’s amethyst hair was bliss but her pockets were empty. No one realized she would leave soon and run off with the money that hard-working small town people had saved because they wanted their kids to all be special. But right then everyone gorged on cake and drank coffee, and kids in the grass waited for stars to fall. No one saw her get in her car and drive away. Night 11 The diving board won in the summer, you stood on its rough sand paper surface working up the courage to run and do a flip off the end. The leafy green trees and grass lined the pool area. Diving into the shadows that etched the water. Forgetting about nuns in the summer time because it was too hot to imagine wearing a black robe and swinging medallions. Your body was free to move without the binding effects of religion or the clothing that went with it. Night 12 A non-Catholic childhood and still there were teachers who were cruel, unkind. Hair pulling and cane poking. There’s always one in the bunch who spoils it for the rest. My hands smell like blood, I can’t get rid of the smell, dark acrid, I wash and wash my hands and dive into the pool. Try to stay under for as long as I can, dance and turn in circles in the water then get out and lie on the hot concrete, feeling my skin burn. I can’t dance in the rooms anymore and my mother won’t give me a good reason. Why can’t we dance? I am going to find out. How? I have my ways. Night 13 She lashed her money to the front of the car and sped down to the church, where in our town, all things social and creative happened. She brought donuts, she looked in the phonebook for motels where the woman with amethyst hair might have gone to hide. She and my aunt used each summer afternoon this way, thinking they could find the dance teacher somewhere in a local motel; they were masters of disguise as they drove around the county asking strangers if they had seen her. Sometimes they dressed up as church ladies in Sunday best, jersey dresses with flowers and rhinestone pins. Sometimes they dressed as cafeteria ladies in white aprons and their hair in hairnets. My mother especially liked the femme fatale disguise. It was her favorite. My aunt’s, too. Two pretty white women wearing sexy dresses and lots of lipstick, accosting gas station attendants, hardware store clerks, young men who they could keep talking for hours. They investigated cafés, motels, and hair salons, leaving a trail of perfume, My Sin by Lanvin. No one had seen the woman with amethyst hair. They were crest fallen. They returned home, but they had spent most of the summer on their road trip which had failed to produce the lady and the stolen money. They were different for a while, touched by grief. My mother looked at my father and said, “It’s my money and I’ll spend it how I want to. She looked at me and said, “You will have to swim more.” Night 14 You wondered about the nuns swimming. Were they allowed such pleasures? Probably not. You couldn’t imagine a life without swimming, without the encompassing cooling liquid and that night you saw it. A dark cloak lying on the water, the edge of a white cap at the edge of the water, the restless water coming in ripples toward the shore, the white and dark moving forward and then the gulps of air, the splash again which felt like a beginning. That part of you woke up, but another part did not. It clung to the little fortress of dream that is tucked inside you, folded into perfect portions for safe keeping. Night 15 My friend Jean from school is wearing a long white dress with puffy sleeves. The whole dress is made of cake and covered in white icing. She comes and sits on my lap for a while complaining about her boyfriend. Boys gather at the edges of the dance floor. They appear like slugs leaving tiny shiny trails as they move slowly toward us, inching closer. She gets up and begins to move around the room and as she does, I follow close behind bites out of the cake dress. Night 16 I am driving a big car up and down unpaved roads to get to a room. I can barely see over the hood of the car. This is not like the big cars the nuns drove. This is a muscle car with a huge engine and fat wide front end. The front end is huge and it frightens me. The engine rumbles and grinds, and the road turns and winds sharply. By the time I arrive, Lynn has died, but now she is free to waltz in the room. We dance for hours. At first it is awkward but then we develop an rhythm, and I can tell she is happy. As we dance, there are children everywhere, playing with toys that find their way under our feet. Plastic cars, wooden dolls, Lego people, fidget spinners, miniature metal trains, Mochi pets, calico critters, squishy unicorns and puddles of homemade slime. Night 17 Right now out there, at the corner of Park and 22nd there are at least three women taking shelter under the Crepe Myrtle. There is a curved brick bench with ornate carvings that represents the beauty of the Southwest. The women all have their own shopping cart and piles of bags and blankets. They are white women but their skin is very dark from so much time in the sun. Their shadows keep them safe most of the time. They have moved farther into the shadows away from The Hurricane Car Wash where they once lived. Now they are directly across the street from Sister Jose’s Shelter for Women. Another woman with three carts in a row has a sign that reads, Quit Violating Me. Someone has left a large bakery cake on the sidewalk next to her. Night 18 The sky is apricot. It could be plum, it could be rhubarb; the sweet juice of it runs down my arms. Any color will do as long as I can ride my bicycle in the rain, through the fruit orchards, into the smell of tears. Under the overpass through concrete tunnels and the smell of wet pavement that smells like tears. There are no birds eating the fruit and yet at home the birds have taken over the trees, have swallowed the branches with their beaks, wings, fluttery bluebird eyes. They have taken over the backyard where they peck all day in the mesquite blossom and swing on the very tips of branches. The small Macaw that appeared last night watches from my shoulder.
Sandra Florence has been writing and teaching in Tucson, Arizona for the last forty years. She taught at the University of Arizona and in community education settings working with refugees, the homeless, adolescent parents, women in recovery and juveniles at risk. She is the recipient of two NEH grants, The National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity, and the second in 2015 entitled Border Culture in the Classroom and in the Public Square. She has published scholarly articles on writing and healing and writing as a tool for public dialogue. She published a book of poems, entitled, The Radiant City, in 2015. In 2021, Midway Journal nominated Sandra for the Pushcart Prize for her short story “Café Metropole”.