It’s been a very dry season here. Not enough rain. And the sun’s beginning to feel closer. Which, of course, explains why this is called the desert. Why the kinds of plants that do well enough in the region–creosote, mesquite, ocotillo, yucca–aren’t what you’d consider lush, tropical blooms. All that’s obvious, right? To you, I’m sure, it’s obvious, and to me it is, too, but not to my landlady. My landlady doesn’t think of this rock house I rent in central El Paso as being in the desert. To her, it’s the big city. She’s from the country, from a ranch probably just like the one she now calls home, a few miles up the paved highway in Chaparral, New Mexico, where the roads are graded dirt. She must still see the house as she did when she lived here as a young wife and mother, as part of the city’s peaceful suburbs, which it certainly was thirty years ago.
She probably planted the shrubs and evergreens that snuggle the walls of the house now, probably seeded the back- and front-yard grass herself. And she wants those Yankee plants and that imported grass to continue to thrive as they would in all other American, nondesert neighborhoods, even if these West Texas suburbs moved on to the east and west many years ago, even if the population has quadrupled and water is more scarce, and expensive, than back then.
So I go ahead and drag around a green hose despite my perception that gold, colorless and liquid, is pouring out onto this desert, an offering as unquenchable and ruthless as to any Aztec deity (don’t water a couple of days and watch how fast it dries away). Superstitions, if you don’t mind my calling them that, die hard, and property values are dependent on shared impressions. I’m not ready to rent and load another U-Haul truck.
With my thumb over the brass fitting and squeezed against the water, I use the digits on my other hand to pluck up loose garbage. You’ve heard, maybe, of West Texas wind. That explains why so much of it lands here on my front yard, but also a high school is my backyard: the school’s rear exit is only a dirt alley and fence away from my garage, and teenagers pass by in the morning, during lunch, and when school lets out. I find the latest Salsa Rio brand of Doritos, Big Gulp Grande cups, paper (or plastic or both) bowls with the slimy remains of what goes for cheese on nachos from the smiley-faced Good Time Store two blocks away, used napkins, orange burger pouches, the new glossy-clean plastic soda containers, waxy candy wrappers from Mounds and Mars and Milky Way. Also beer cans and bottles, grocery-store bags both plastic and paper, and fragments from everything else (believe me) possible.
I’m betting you think I’m not too happy about accumulating such evidence. You’re right. But I’m not mentioning it to complain. I want the image of all the trash, as well as the one of me spraying precious water onto this dusty alkaline soil, to get your attention. Because both stand for the odd way we live and think out here, a few hundred miles (at least) from everyplace else in the United States.
My green grass in the desert, for instance. My landlady wants thick, luxuriant grass because that’s the way of this side of the border, and this side is undeniably better, whatever misconception of place and history and natural resources the desire for that image depends on. It’s not just her, and it’s not just lawns. Take another example: a year ago about this time, police cars squealed onto the asphalt handball and basketball courts on the other side of the school fence to regain control of a hundred or so students lumped around a fight, most of them watching, some swinging baseball bats. What happened? According to the local newspaper, the fight broke out between a group of black students, all of them dependents of Fort Bliss military personnel (as their jargon has it), and a group of Hispanic students. “Hispanic” is the current media term for those of descent from South of the Border. Even around here. Which is the point: that even in this town–the other side of the concrete river considered the official land of Spanish-language history and culture–the latest minority-language terminology is used to describe its historic, multigenerational majority population. With the exception of one high school on the more affluent west side of town, Anglos are the overwhelming minority; at the high school behind my backyard the ratio must be ten to one. Though Mexico has been the mother of this region, and remains so, it’s the language and understanding of The North that labels the account of the school incident: “Hispanic” students, black dependents of GIs.
If green grass is the aspiration, the realization of an American fantasy, then the trash is from the past, the husks of a frontier mentality that it took to be here, and stay, in the first place. Trash blowing by, snared by limbs and curbs and fences, is a display of what was the attitude of the West. The endlessness of its range. The ultimate principle of every man, woman, animal, and thing for itself. The meanness required to survive. The wild joy that could abandon rules. The immediacy of life. Or the stupidity of the non-Indian hunter eating one meal, then leaving behind the carcass. Except that vultures and coyotes and finally ants used to clean that mess up. The remains of the modernized hunt don’t balance well in nature or its hybrid shrubs, do not biodegrade. And there are a lot more hunters than before.
Trash contradicts the well-tended lawn. And in my neighborhood, not all is Saint Augustine or Bermuda. Hardy weeds sprout and grow tall everywhere, gray-green century plants shoot stalks beside many homes. El Paso is still crossing cultures and times, the wind blows often, particularly this time of year, the sun will be getting bigger, but the pretty nights cool things off here on the desert. Let me admit this: I’d like it if grass grew well in my backyard. What I’ve got is patchy at best, and neglected, the brown dirt is a stronger color than the green. So the other day, I soaked that hard soil, dug it up, threw seed grown and packaged in Missouri, covered it with peat humus from Menard, Texas, and I’m waiting.
©2003 by Dagoberto Gilb. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.