A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Soon Gene and I will have been here 20 years. When we came, the electricity failed regularly during the monsoon season, irregularly at other times; thus there would be no water, heat or cooling; you never knew when the loss would happen or how long it would last. The first family into our small, sparsely populated locality, carved away from the uniform monotony of brushland, lives up the hill from us. Leslie and her husband arrived at least five years earlier than we. At that earlier time there was only a party line for telephone; that inconvenience had ended before we arrived. All roads in our area are user maintained. For shared roads, one’s natural tendency is to accept the potholes and wait for another person to blink first. Garbage pickup was not available here until 15 years ago, so some burning went on, which is dangerous.
Downhill from others, with an increasingly sharper slope, our land is the most extensive, and our view is unimpeded. The slope is so steep below us that the property, although owned by someone, is unlikely to be developed unless she, herself, has some personal wish to live there. Some might find our view to be extraordinary. Right now I glance out and see a wide sky filled with fluffy white clouds below and long, gray-blue, almost flat clouds above, which are slowly and independently proceeding north. At the level of earth, a very large mesquite tree has grown where the water drains from the house. A trio of Arizona cypress behind the mesquite, an Italian cypress and an Italian stone pine, along with some pink blooming Texas ranger, block some of the view, but there are openings where the far-downhill cottonwoods of the San Pedro, the gold and green patchwork of the foothills, with scattered, Lego-sized houses, and the higher, soft purple, folded solidities of the Huachucha Mountains are appreciated.
We built the house far back on the nine acre lot and left the other, minimally sized four as a bulwark, for reasons of drainage as well as esthetics. Along with the two earlier, original neighbors, we own our own water well. The eight lots that were wildcatted have only one well for all. Two of those lots have not been developed. One of those has an Airstream slowly deteriorating on it, the other has nothing but the dreary invasive brush, caused by years of roaming, voraciously hungry cattle, heads down, grazing grass to the nub, the same type, uniformly level landscape that lies outside our outside fence. For several years after our arrival you had to watch for the black cattle out on Hereford Road; if you hit one, it was your fault; you paid the bill for your vehicle, and if the cattle owner knew who you were, he or she could demand payment for the loss.
The short share-well tale that follows was recounted to me by Alice Christiansen, who lived in the corner house near the main road. Don and Alice long ago moved back to Washington state, since Alice missed her family. As for the name of anyone living here now, I use a pseudonym. The story begins at a time before our house was started.
The man and young woman next to Don and Alice’s house, who at that time were in a ramshackle old single-wide they dragged in, were pretty wild. There was a share-well fund, and the four families who used the well contributed. I suppose the fund was some sort of checking account, and they rotated responsibility. It was under the control of the young third or fourth wife of Bob Potter. Alice said that Bob had married five times in all. Bob had three children, and one boy had serious kidney problems, and later Bob donated a kidney. Bob’s wife at the time of the well story had run away from him and left their young daughter, taking with her all the cash she could get her hands on, which included the well-share money. I’m pretty sure that by the time the law caught up with her she had spent it all, and the well fund had to start again from scratch. When we arrived, Bob had obtained the divorce and had immediately married the children’s 15 year old baby-sitter. He also had had a vasectomy. Don Christiansen was an ex-Washington detective, and he always maintained that Bob was not a bad fellow. Gene and I thought him somewhat dim; however, the vasectomy obviously was not stupid. Once I had a very short conversation with Bob. He was quiet, and he told me he liked birds. Leslie thought him nefarious and probably still does. She is a dogged complainer to the correct authorities if people do not uphold reasonable standards, and I take her point. She’s the one who put in the road in the first place, which had attracted the at best inferior and at worst slap-dash and tumble-down housing. I think that still makes her angry.
Gene and I still were relatively new to the area when a disreputable looking RV appeared on Bob’s four. Leslie said that the occupant was the new wife’s brother, who had a petty criminal record. The loud rumble of motorcycles began to be heard late at night. The teen aged bride’s parents also were hanging around. I never glimpsed the father of the bride, but I heard his nickname was “Smokey”. At least I assume it was a nickname. The family was known around the nearby town for not paying rent and squatting. The mother was heavy and did not seem to have many front teeth. We went to town and got as close as we could to one of the properties from which they laborously had been extracted, as our imitation of an inspection, but no outside traces of damage were seen. We did find out that Smokey had been eyeing the four behind his son-in-law’s place, which belonged to Don and Alice. They were out of town. We e-mailed them about Smokey’s intentions, and when they returned, they were prepared to turn him down unless he could come up with the entire price they required in cash. Smokey approached them immediately and was quickly rebuffed. This was at the time Don and Alice had decided to return to Washington, and when they sold their house, they let us know the buyer was a border patrol supervisor. Just before that family’s arrival, the word must have reached Smokey, because he and his wife suddenly disappeared, as did the son’s old RV. They obviously had the routine of a quick exit down pat.
Over time, things have quieted down with Bob. He has replaced the ramshackle house with an inexpensive but decent looking one, and as befits the employee of a well regarded local heating and cooling company, he maintains it pretty well. From the absence of his company truck during the day, he seems to go to work regularly. He used to garden a lot, clad only in short pants and shoes, his long hair hanging free, but now gardening must be in the dead of night. Also that must be when he does all the watering, because share-well owners are annoyed by too abundant water use by one of their numbers. Once a few years ago I saw him staggering about on the road in front of the house, red-faced, seeming to be under the influence of something. Other than having no storage outbuildings, while possessing several junky cars and quite a bit of miscellaneous machinery including hand propelled lawn mowers, as well as various outdoor furniture, a bird bath, and an iron bird cage, there is really little of interest to see at Bob’s. We don’t wave as we drive past, and he no longer looks up to see who is going by. Some time ago he put up a high chain-link fence. Any fence other than the usual rural wire fence raises one’s taxes. We assumed it was because of the javelina, or as a later thought, because of goats. For as long as we can remember, he has had an overgrown area with several large trees in the back, where no-one can see in. Such density so quickly must have required a flood of water.
Continuing downhill from the Potters, the decline becomes close to precipitous. There is a very small, site-built, masonry house with an outbuilding near the bottom. It is gradually coming apart. The heavy clay soil requires reinforcing construction techniques, but this house must have been built quickly and cheaply. It sits at a low point, where the water drains, so over the years, the land has eroded considerably. The house had been built before we came by someone who either died or abandoned the property. Don and Alice’s daughter and her husband lived in that house for a while. She worked as the local animal control officer, and her husband walked a gas line looking for leaks. His back gave out, and he did not find another job. Debbie, who was quite energetic, functioned as the main breadwinner. They left the area when Don and Alice did.
A while later, a young couple who had goats and chickens moved in, and occasionally the goats made their way into our property’s back area, where I was working on growing trees. They were sweet and docile animals, but I could not have ruminants eat what I had so carefully planted and cared for. On a visit to the family, I found the husband, who had answered the door, defiant about the property rights of the goats. There was a little girl; she came and stood by her father, looked me directly in the eye, and asked me why I wanted to take their house. I explained that I did not want their house, that I already had one. I pointed in its direction. She seemed satisfied with that and went to tell her mother. Her mother came to the door. She said they could not keep the goats. She said her husband was the way he was because he was from California and did not understand how things went here. The family remained for awhile; the father grew a bushy beard and had a strange look on his face. As time went by, I would see the mother sitting with her daughter waiting for the school bus in the morning; she seemed sad and close to tears. The situation did not last long, and soon I saw them no more.
Copyright 2016 Ruth Clark.
Ruth Clark writes and gardens in Hereford, Arizona.