Monday, June 11, 2007

13 Days in Roswell

In Honor of Maurice Trout, my grandfather and a hero in his own gentle way.

Granddad is dead, at one hundred years and eight months, he’s gone. In Phoenix, the connecting flight to New Mexico is full, and I learn how rude the people of Arizona can be. “Arid zone,” I think of that every time the name of this state comes to mind. “Phoenix,” should make me think of that bird rising from the ashes, immortal. But I think instead, of a Los Angeles in the desert with no beach, smoggier and hitting the “teens” in the summer, sometimes even hotter. Phoenix, hot enough to scorch and inflict pain, but no flames, no resurrection. It’s just a crowded airport with people behaving badly.

There is no fine art of cutting in line, no slick way to do it. And it’s not just one or two Phoenix people pulling this trick, it’s a hoard. What I love most about observing it, standing in line myself, near the front because I got there early but getting nearer to the back at every moment: is that there is absolutely no reason to cut this line. We are all getting on the plane anyway, guaranteed. The seats, well, they are all the same except for the human factors we have no control over: a crying baby, a person with a bad cough, flatulence, halitosis, there is nothing you can do once you sit down and it doesn’t matter if you sit down first or last.

So I stand back and pretend to placidly observe this human phenomena, but it’s too out of character. I end up thinking to myself, “Enjoy your window seat, cutter. Strep throat for you, you bastard. Your wife will leave you, for me. I am going to outlive you by fifty years like my grandfather outlived most everybody. Go ahead, cut.We are all on the same plane. But as you make your way in front of those who came before you, know this: you are what’s wrong with this world.”And my pretense of being above it all fools no one, not even me. The Roswell insanity has already begun and I’m still in Arizona.

The next plane in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a puddle jumper to Roswell. I have a window seat. Actually, every seat is a window seat, it’s that small. There are no peanuts. The turboprop engine three feet from my head has bondo on it, screws and rivets that don’t match, oil stains on the cowling. It’s only a short hop from Albuquerque to Roswell, but the young crewcut pilots are heroes and they know it. My Aunt will arrive a day after me on the same airline, delayed because this plane will be broken, unsafe to fly. When I leave Roswell in thirteen days this plane will have been swapped out for a loaner with no bondo, no oil stains, matching rivets and pretty purple paint. One bird falls from the sky, another hatches to take it’s place. Circle of life.

There are a lot of flat places here in the desert where the earth is just as big and vague as the helpless sky. Ask Chuck Yeager, he knows. Alamogordo, New Mexico, that's where he broke the sound barrier and he didn’t even have to cut in line to do it. Not far from here, that man cheated death like you wouldn’t believe. Alamogordo is spelled just like it sounds. Albuquerque is not. Try it: Al-bew-quer-q is a far cry from albakerkee. We will land at the old airbase where my grandfather couldn’t cut it. Sending young men off to die was not his thing. He quit. Sold kitchen appliances for the next 30 years and never complained about anything. I suspect that makes him a hero, I really do. But after thirteen days in Roswell, almost anything makes sense if you think about it long enough. And when I get back nearly nothing will have happened, nearly all of it will make sense and I will very nearly be laid-out like airplane parts across three miles of barren sandy plain and not know why.

Mom is looking much like the arid zone she lives in, in a good way though, tanned and timeless as the desert. She hugs me. But the vague flittering of her eyes is a warning: she’s not really here and she won’t be for about eighty-nine percent of my visit. This is nothing new, as she has always lost her mind in Roswell, ever since I was a kid. We always thought it was about her parents, their proximity, and her attempt to transform for the duration of the visit into another person entirely; that famous scientist/concert pianist/too good for whom she actually married whatever person. But that’s not it, the parents are gone now. Here she is: the mouth will keep moving and sounds will come out, emanating from somewhere, but she’ll be gone.

David is here too, my big brother, tall and muscular, a little bit dangerous, he scares people. It’s something about the look in his eye, a deep rage under there. And he can be a really nice guy and most all the time he is, but this time we will get into about ten arguments in the three days he is here. He’d tell you it’s my fault. Who’s to say. I haven’t seen him in a while. My half brother, his kids, my cousin, his family and more, we all converge on the humble empty house of my grandfather.

Coincidentally, The UFO convention is in town this week and Roswell is unusually swollen with visitors. For those who haven’t heard: in 1947, a UFO crashed just outside of town. It was in the papers, somebody wrote a book about it too. Residents were heartbroken to discover that the government will lie to protect it’s own interests and doesn’t care who gets hurt. No kidding, I know it’s a shock, just breathe through it. Some of those people are still alive and swear to what they saw. These aren’t crazy people, people prone to exaggerate, nor did any of them gain financially from telling their stories. In 1947 we put them permanently in a place called Roswell; exiles in the middle of nowhere, quite literally. Forgotten until fifty years later.

1997; Another book or two came out, “X-Files” hit prime time and later a series called “Roswell.” The government issued a brand new and highly publicized official batch of implausible BS, and as a direct result, a few thousand tourists converged on Roswell and found; absolutely nothing. It was like opening a jar long empty, full of wind and dust only, a small town in the middle of a desert in Southern New Mexico, that’s all they found. There are no mountains. There is no lake. Nearly everyone who had any possible link to crashed UFO’s, after fifty years, has left the area, or died.

But after a few years of this tourist phenomenon, because it did persist, Roswell caught up to the demand for an attraction. Downtown businesses rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of a long, slow burn.

So today I am at this UFO convention on a break from the empty house of my grandfather. I’ve walked several blocks downtown, directly into the still lingering aroma over the bones of a dead rumor, Roswell. At the old converted movie house where my parents once dated in High School, I meet the two Canadian actresses who played Klingon sisters on the long ago canceled Star Trek TNG series. No, it has nothing to do with Roswell, but they are the featured guests at the Roswell UFO museum and are happy to have the work. This is pretty much the highlight of the festival. Roswell is a place between somewhere and somewhere else, founded when horses were the only way to get anywhere, and sometimes you just had to stop for awhile: Roswell.

The same thing that happened to Roswell, happened to Scotland after the movie “Braveheart.” Suddenly a bunch of Americans are tattooing celtic crosses on their necks, yelling “freedom!” and flying back to the land their ancestors fled, looking for something. But Scotland is a nice place to visit. Roswell is Roswell, it’s the only publicized place we know of with a crash site complete with dead aliens. Some might have survived the crash, cheated death only to be kidnapped by a bunch of pink humans and held in Nevada forever. Roswell.

If you are a Roswell tourist, you will now find little green men painted on the windows of every business downtown, that is a year-round condition. You will find t-shirts and bottled water with aliens on them. I don’t know why you’d want to drink alien water. I didn’t. There are plastic flying saucers crowding out the handmade Indian jewelry, ceramics and blankets. You will find far fewer storefronts boarded up than ever before and you can even have an espresso at the “Not of This World Cafe” which is actually a Christian establishment but hey, a theme is a theme and there is a giant cappuccino outside made of plywood and structural foam. It is one of the most unappetizing things I have ever seen. Of course there is the UFO museum and the greatly expanded Roswell museum. Grandad’s funeral hasn’t happened yet. I’m early.

Drinking my iced double Mocha, I imagine there will be a hoard of tourists at my grandfather’s weathered gravestone in fifty years. They will fill the motels, buy bolo ties, cherry flavored pipe tobacco and pen knives that Maurice was known to favor. They will order a Cappuccino and then ask their friends, loud enough for the barista to hear, “What, are they growing the coffee beans back there? Are they milking the cow? Come on we’re going to miss the “Grandpa Museum” tour, we have to get in line!” They will say that. They will be from Arizona. And nobody will know squat about my real grandpa, not even me. I’ll be nearly as old as he was when he died, remembering little, or I’ll be dead.

But I hope there will be a TV show about grandpa, they can call it “Maurice.” Maurice is worth investigating, he crashed in the desert too. How he ended up there is a bit of a mystery. He could have been a top secret government experiment, think about it. How many people do you know live to be a hundred with little sign of slowing down? Few people witnessed it, and the story you get will depend on who you ask. At this Christian cafe I order the same drink every single day for thirteen days even after the tourists are gone. It tastes different every single time, but I don’t complain. I’m going to live to be a hundred, I’ve decided. How do the owners of this Christian establishment reconcile the double entendre “Out of This World” accompanied by the idolatrous giant capuccino outside? What would Jesus drink? Would he turn plain water into a tall iced mocha? I’d like to think he would. I’d show up for that.

Maurice was a gentle man. He came across like Jimmy Stewart but without the occasional spicy righteous indignation.
“Dehydrating and starving to death can’t be a pleasant way to go.” my mother says to me one night in Roswell, late. “I know.” I answer, “But that’s what hospice does, they help you die.” Maurice, near the end, couldn’t swallow. That is a condition which medical intervention can overcome, if requested. It’s not a miraculous procedure, just a feeding tube. Nobody requested. Grandad was shutting himself down, but slow. Sometimes he remembered what he was doing and sometimes he didn’t. Maurice almost didn’t drink water at all for ten days and didn’t eat either. In my mother’s doublewide, in the Arizona desert, in July, he crashed. Despite all attempts to let him die in his home, in the end he had to be shipped off to Arizona to wait it out.

For ten days his legs were shaky but his grip was still strong. He still planned to help plant watermelons in the garden. He forgot how miserable his life had become, forgot how long it was since he ate or drank anything, he almost forgot to die. He kept getting up, getting up, getting up every day. His optimism was astounding at times, even miraculous, but his family couldn’t stand to see him suffer indefinitely and his own body seemed to be saying to him, “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m checking out. See ya.”

I wasn’t there. The night that he died, I prayed that the Angel of Death would come and visit him, in case he forgot; Azriel, with his thousand eyes and a pen that never stops moving, recording every detail of every life. Maybe Azriel did forget Maurice; lost him between Snowflake and Show Low, Arizona. Too many people crowding ahead to get on that plane and Maurice is always polite, always. My mom flew his body back to Roswell.

I am walking in Roswell and there is a sandstorm blowing up through town from the west. I bend directly into it, struggling to walk. Overhead there are clouds, and it is raining, but the drops can’t reach the ground. The clouds above are a beautiful smear of unfulfilled intention. Ninety-nine degrees of hot wind sandblast, plus rain, and amidst all this somehow the sun is still beating directly down on me. The fine New Mexico dust coats my arms, and at that point the rain manages to reach me-- barely, not enough to wash me clean, just warm drops like salty tears, drying instantly. When I reach Maurice’s empty house, my eyes are stung with dust, there are circular patterns where fat raindrops bled upon my skin. I am sweating profusely on my face and neck and into my eyes. This kind of thing does not happen in California. It’s a different world where the weather obligingly rains, or is windy, or is hot, but never all at once. California is like a TV show with the crew off camera pointing fans, shining lights and always getting it just right, an illusion. The New Mexico desert has never decided that it wants people there, and even aliens can’t fly over it safely.

Mom is out running errands, and I thank God that she isn’t talking at me again. The estate is bankrupt and the house is still filled with a thousand tiny belongings which I thought I would help my mother to deal with. I have accomplished nearly nothing during my stay and have taken to long daily walks just to get out of the house.

At the funeral, our hired minister points to the open grave, at the space between the poised casket and the gaping hole, and claims that Satan is the responsible party for my grandfather’s death. I find it a hard thing for me to forget. Granddad was a hundred years old. A slight nudge should have dropped him to the ground but Maurice was far from fragile. If Satan is good for the push, Ok then, nudge, nudge harder you son of a bitch, is that all you got? But no, you can’t trust that guy with anything. Satan.

There was no gentle nudge into death, just a long, slow decline that seemed to get slower and more agonizing the closer Maurice came to leaving this place. The house he had worked so hard to pay for defaulted back to the bank. 100 years of collected small treasures disposed of in a few days. That our foolish minister would talk about Satan. Talk about the wooden toys Maurice made. Talk about his garden. Talk about anything but that.

Several years back, granddad bumped his car into something. He got out to see what was wrong, but the car was still in gear. It spun around and knocked him down, continued in a circle and did it again, and again, just as Maurice was trying to get up. . . Bam! It knocked him down again.

Eventually a bystander managed to jump into the car and stop it. It made the Roswell paper. Maurice had broken bones, then he got pneumonia, but he recovered. If he hadn’t: “Oldsmobile Kills Grandpa” could have been the headline, but Satan had nothing to do with it. When you’re ninety five years old, keep moving, but do stop driving. Because when your own car starts playing “whack a mole” with you and wins: that’s a hint, give up the keys. Better to leave this world alone.

In the very end Maurice couldn’t swallow anymore. Time swallowed Maurice, and we let it happen because we had to, it was time. We figured he’d be happier dead, and I hope he is. It’s not a sad thing, death, just a nudge. But now Roswell is swallowing me, and I have to get out of here. 100 years and thirteen days happens to be enough. Then you politely get in line, get on the plane, and go home. There’s no rush.


Anonymous said...


you captured that well and took us there to be with your memories and experience

thank you for this sharing


Bunnyslippers said...

Paul, I'm blown away by this piece. It is absolutely publishable as-is in any of a dozen literary magazines. Your writing has matured so much and found its voice, and yet I still can hear—and still very much appreciate—that sardonic tone that's uniquely yours. As I read the words, in my head I hear you saying them. Even the short, ironic chuckles. This was a complete pleasure to read. I tripped over nothing. The timing was perfect. You moved seamlessly between past and the present at just the right moments, so everything just flowed. I liked the sensory details as well as the universal themes. This story had it all. Bravo!

Jason Simmons said...

Really, really nice. You've got the knack for words, Paul.

I don't think I will be able to think "Roswell" from now on without your colors bleeding in to it.