The following is the first chapter of my draft novel about a man, an obsession for making trouble, and the joys of running for the legislature…. Feedback would be quite welcome. Steve Meissner
Long Mountain, Long Story
A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying … something?
Chapter 1. Mean Streets
“Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”
— RUDYARD KIPLING
Several inches of greenish-brown water shimmered in a birdbath, a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing just above the greasy surface. A mangy looking dog crouched in the driveway under the thin shade of a junked car. His bluish tongue hung nearly down to the dirt, while his yellow-brown eyes followed my invasion. He delivered a low growl from the back of his throat. I ignored the unfriendly greeting and knocked on the door.
Why in the hell am I doing this?
I knocked again. As I stood there I listened to the futilely clacking whir of an Arizona “swamp cooler.” They work cheaply April through June, when the air is dry. But in August, a swamp box is useful as a fur coat in Phoenix.
I ignored the clacking sound and knocked a third time.
I impatiently banged a fourth time, a loud, staccato demand. This was the tenth straight house where I could hear or see someone inside. I wasn’t going to leave until someone – ANYONE – acknowledged my presence.
Finally, a rusty bolt screeched in protest as it was pushed out of the way. The warped wooden door added its own complaint. A short, unshaven guy peered from the fetid darkness. He wore a soiled sleeveless t-shirt and shorts that could only cling to the bottom of a large, round belly. He scratched at his scraggly folds. I could smell stale, unwashed sweat. His reddened face fixed me with the same stare I’d received from his junkyard pooch.
“Cain I help yew?” he drawled.
“Hi!” I said in a salesman’s voice. “I’m sorry to intrude, but I’m Bill Leña, and I’m running for the Legislature in this district.”
The guy rubbed at an orange-yellow stain on his shirt, then looked at me.
“So?” he said. “Howzzat sumthin’ I give a shit ‘bout?”
“Well, sir, I just wanted to introduce myself, leave you some information, and see if you have any questions. I was also hoping you’d sign my nominating petition. Are you a registered voter?” I held out a piece of paper folded into three parts.
His eyes grew large. Then he snarled and knocked my campaign propaganda to the ground. He raised one thin, sagging arm, and pointed a yellow fingernail toward the street.
“Git,” he said. “Crazy fukin’ asshole! Go on! Git! If you ain’t the hell off my property in the next minute, I’m a-callin’ the cops!” He slammed the door. The bolt screeched again as it was thrown back in place.
The pooch apparently enjoyed my humiliation. He sat under the junked car and seemed to laugh as I beat a retreat.
Yeah. That went well. Why in the hell was I doing this? Rudyard Kipling probably was right about rabid pooches and crazy Englishmen. Who else would be out in this heat?
Me? I guess I qualify as crazy. I was running for the Legislature, a job with lousy pay and as much bullshit as a feedlot. And to do it, I was walking through a baking oven where I apparently wasn’t welcome.
Tucson in mid-August. How hot does it get? Unless you live through it you can’t imagine. Temperatures climb past the 100-degree mark just about every day. Sometimes it will reach 110 or more. On rare occasions, some clouds that gathered over the Gulf of California will crawl up from the south, dropping the thermometer into the 90s – but only for a day or two.
Late summer in Tucson is also known as the season of monsoons, chubasco, and haboobs. All three terms are used pretty much interchangeably, though, in fact they refer to different things:
Monsoons make things stickier than honey-coated fry bread. Triple-digit temperatures draw humidity up from the Gulf of Mexico, creating purple-blue clouds. Sometimes heavy rain falls for several minutes, followed by a sodden stillness.
Chubasco occur if the monsoons turn into prolonged rainfall, setting off flash floods. Violent plumes swirl through desert washes and urban floodways, dragging along debris, dead animals and the occasional rusted car skeleton.
Haboob is a word borrowed from the Arabs. If the skies darken with threat, but only deliver a monsoon-interruptus, that’s a haboob. Absent the rain, they deliver a mile-high pillar of throat-choking dust. These are far more common in Phoenix than in Tucson, which shows that there really is some justice in this world.
As for this day’s steamy purgatory, I decided haboob was an accurate descriptor. If you were out and about in this heat, you had to be some kind of boob.
But duty calls. If you’re running for the Legislature you must venture into this desert hell to knock on doors. I was a streetwalker plying my trade. I was banging on doors and making a nuisance of myself … a typical politician.
The heat. My rubber-soled shoes were sticking to the damn pavement. The sun grabbed any exposed skin and relentlessly sucked out the moisture. I pulled out a water bottle and realized it was empty. Three bottles in just two hours. Nothing could quench this merciless thirst. My throat felt like sandpaper. My eyes were crusty creases of salt. I could feel the pebbles of grit driven between my teeth by the hot, triple-digit breeze.
My sweat-soaked body was braised to medium-rare. Sunscreen applied only an hour ago had already melted away. My large-brimmed hat was collecting salty sweat. That might have offered some cooling relief – IF IT WASN’T SO GODDAMNED HUMID! My arms were red, peeling and blistered. My knuckles were raw from all my fruitless knocking. The only sounds – besides the futile clacking of the swamp boxes – were the buzzing of cicadas, the cooing of mourning doves, and the occasional whistling sound of a dove taking to the air.
Traffic was light. If you didn’t have to go out, you found a cool place to hide. Virtually every car that did pass had its windows rolled up, A/C cranked to full on.
An occasional SUV or oversized truck would slowly drive by with open windows to release a taunting hint of coolness, along with thumping bass and the tinkling sounds of Mexican music. The drivers, wearing sweat-soaked do-rags, hurled accusatory stares at this guero cabron* who was invading their neighborhood.
I intruded through another dusty front yard and knocked on the door. Once again I got no response. I found myself asking that small remnant of sanity that lurked within: Why on Arizona’s brown earth are you enduring this? Why are you working so hard to return to the Legislature, a place that you hated, and a place that hated you back?
Heh-heh. Funny story there…
Remind me to tell you all about it…
When it ain’t so soul-sucking HOT!
That should occur sometime in … late October.
For more than three decades, Steve Meissner has watched the Arizona political scene as a journalist, lobbyist, bureaucrat, and even as a legislative staff member. For nearly 20 years he was a reporter, editor and columnist for several publications, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Most of his newspaper career was spent at the Arizona Daily Star, where he was a reporter, editor and columnist, and taught journalism for more than a decade as an adjunct at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. He is the author of Cactus Caucus, a novel about Arizona’s legislative politics, which is available in Kindle format. He is currently working on a second novel about Arizona politics.