Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hollow Men

Phoenix, Arizona

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I spent last night in Roswell, New Mexico, a city I'd bypassed on the walk, mostly because going through it would have meant going some miles out of my way. But I was overdue to visit this town of odd repute, and since I'd been to Snyder, Texas earlier in the day and had entered New Mexico at Hobbs again, I figured this would be as good a time as any.

First I must report that the Boys of Snyder are doing fine. At 2:00 p.m. sharp I walked into Jaramillo's Mexican Restaurant and there they were--three of them, anyway--at their regular table. Tommy and Lonnie, the twins, and another guy they said I'd met before but whose name I can't remember now to save my life. George the token Democrat wasn't there due to the fact that he's busy selling off as much of the junk from his barn as he can to raise money, which he needs right now more than the junk. So the four of us had coffee and I talked about the end of the walk to L.A. Tommy said (and here you must imagine the accent and cadences of a thinner version of Slim Pickens), "We was jest talkin' about you the other day. We said we wondered how that walkin' feller was doin'."

At this point I felt, as I generally do, an obligation to regale them with tall tales of the road. Like a Marco Polo or Gulliver, I sorely wished I could speak of strange lands, strange food, strange people, fierce beasts. To tell of a meeting with the Great Khan, or of a sojourn in the land of giants or the world of Lilliputians. But alas my world, there on the long road of the dead land, the cactus land, going round the prickly pear, had revealed not much more to me than what they had been amidst all their lives. The food I loved the most, Tex-Mex, was their daily bread. What beasts I had seen, as fearsome as they might once have been, were flat dead on the roadside, the victims of modern technology. And as for the walking itself, well, even that had once been their lot, not for leisure of course, but yoked to the plow, or following behind the cultivators or pickers or gin trucks, from sunup to sundown, or as they say in the deep south, "from can to can't." What their quotidian lives had lacked in adventure they had more than made up for in the ardent desire for the late afternoon to be over, something I could certainly relate to. Now, like me, they were at rest.

I asked how the weather has been and whether they've got the cotton planted yet. The weather's been dry and unseasonably hot (it was pushing 100 outside as we spoke) and they don't have the cotton in yet. Tommy perked up a bit when talking cotton, just as I would if someone asked me about state sales tax. After that the conversation petered out and we sat there smiling and occasionally clearing our throats and saying things like "Yep" for a bit. Suddenly it seemed like a good time to take my leave, and I got up, promising to show up again some time. They reckoned they'd be there, unless, one of them ruefully added, they'd gone the way of Mr. Gomez. Gone, that is, the way of all flesh. Crossed to the twilight kingdom. I wondered, with Eliot,

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Walking alone....

On through the not-yet-planted fields I drove, the wind in the dry grass up along the dunelike barriers along U.S. 180, closing the window for the occasional dust storm, until I drew at last within the ambit of Roswell. On the way into town I had a flat tire just a few miles east of the city limits. Since the car is loaded to the gills I had to take a shitload of stuff out of the trunk and place it gently in a ditch, then fish out the donut, which was under everything else. But the operation was a success. By then it was too late to worry about getting another tire so I went straight to the motel, first passing the hospital, or the successor to it, where one of my cousins was born.

I have to say here that my interest in anything extraterrestrial is so low that I never seriously thought about visiting the Alien Museum, even for laughs, or doing anything other than to notice the strategic placement, on walls and fences, of those familiar triangular green alien faces with their black almond-shaped eyes that adorn the chamber of commerce and various cheesy businesses. The prototypical alien of the late 40s, born in the popular imagination only a couple of years before I myself arrived on planet earth. Since I'd recently driven through Oklahoma I decided I'd seen about enough of the truly odd and unearthly anyway.

Roswell is and was essentially a cow and oil town. The whole place smells like cow shit. The land east of the city is flat as a pancake and teeming with beeves. Before there were aliens there were cattle. After there were aliens there were cattle. This part of New Mexico is nothing but an extension of the flat wasted west Texas plains, and indeed was once part of Texas all the way west to the Rio Grande, before the Mexican War. So driving down the main street, past the courthouse, I got the sense that I was in just another of those dusty barren Last Picture Show venues. And that, I imagine, was pretty much all there was to it before whatever fancied close encounter occurred to augment the commercial potential of the city beyond the lure of the rodeo and the roundup.

Here's the thing that always gets me about these aliens, as depicted. It's the combination of solemnity and benignity behind their inevitable verdancy. That quintessentially 40s and 50s schlock movie look that says, "We come in peace, Earthlings. Take us to your leader." They're like us, only greener and with fewer digits, and for some reason known only to the creator of us all, bigger eyes. Well, it's becoming a greener world out there and everyone wants to keep their eyes open for ways to cash in on it.

In the end, whatever may have happened near Roswell seems to have done nothing more than to provide some relief for the locals from their lives of heat and dust, superimposing on the all-pervasive cow-plops another kind of bullshit. The arrival of the aliens was kind of like (but in a much more profitable way) my occasional appearances in Snyder, bringing some relief and a chuckle or two to those locals who sit around restaurants reminiscing, idly planning out their all too foreshortened futures.

This morning on the way out of Roswell, tire replaced, I got a last glimpse of what makes the town famous to the outside world, in the form of a large inflated alien atop the front entrance to a car dealership. It was green and serious, wearing a superhero-type cape and waving a hand that, in its obvious superiority, needed fewer fingers than do those of our dull sublunary bodies. Most significantly of all, I thought, the alien was hollow, waving slowly in the breeze that blew from the hilly grey-brown land west of town. It seemed to be saying nothing more or less profound to the passerby than "Howdy folks, come on in and buy a Honda."

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