Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

A Short Stay in the Valley of the Sun

 

 

 

Paul was going to wear a devil costume for Halloween. He described the black bodysuit, the glow paint, and the mask—lit by a tiny flashlight stitched into the cape. As he spoke, the eyes of my five-year old, Lily, grew wide.

 

“I’m not going to be a sun devil or a dust devil,” he said with a demonic emphasis on all the “d” words. “This Halloween, I’m going to be The Devil himself.”

 

And then to my wife Barbara and me—“and I’m going to raise Hell!”

 

In the heat of Phoenix, The Devil was more than a talking point for Sunday sermons. In fact, preachers notwithstanding, the vast majority of people felt a deep kinship with The Devil, verging on hero worship. There is a fellow who survives in a climate almost as bad as ours—not only survives but prospers! Devils were used for everything from the pitch-fork-wielding mascot of the university basketball team to the fire-engine red logo of a brand of salsa. And the city’s weather reports frequently included reference to at least one other kind of devil, the kind that suddenly twirls a column of sand high into the air, a dust devil.  Sighting these is much better than getting caught in them, especially if you do your own laundry.

 

Paul had stopped over for drinks a few days before Halloween. I poured more gin into his and Barbara’s glasses. As far as ice, tonic, and lime, they could fend for themselves.

 

Paul swore he would wear his costume to work, no matter what his employer, the Presbyterian Church, thought of it. Although not fundamentalists, how would those proper Christians feel about one of their employees representing their institution in the guise of Beelzebub?

 

Paul was a social worker for the church, taking meals to shut-ins, AIDS patients mostly. He had a degree in social work, but that wasn’t the reason he worked at this particular job. He had AIDS too, but unlike his clients, he was not housebound. At least not yet. We knew that time would come, because in those days, AIDS was a death sentence. 

 

Our daughter knew nothing of the disease—or of most of the things we talked about that evening. But Lily’s eyes followed the light in Paul’s face, darting about in total fascination as he demonstrated how The Devil would bring a free meal to a shut-in.

 

“Knock-knock.”

 

“Who’s there?”

 

“The Devil.”

 

“What do you want?”

 

“Your soul for a hot meal!”

 

He would go in, set up a first class meal with candlelight and cloth napkins, and offer another unscripted gesture, a toast of red wine.

 

“And then I’ll tell them I have to leave—and guess what they’ll shout back at me?”

 

“Go to hell!” Barbara and I chimed, in unison.

 

At that point Lily broke in: “I’m going to be the Wicked Witch of The West!”

 

“Let’s hear your wicked laugh,” Paul said.

 

“Heh, heh, heh,” Lily responded. A childlike effort, but her eyes lit up with a devilish light, and her face contorted in a mighty effort to look scary. She and Paul, The Wicked Witch and The Devil, screamed and laughed at each other.

 

We needed a good laugh. I worked in a foundry—in any city, foundry work is a rough way to make a buck. I’d worked in a foundry in Minnesota and had not found the contact with molten metal at 2300 f a relaxing experience, even there. But in that climate, nine months of the year you could go cross-country skiing or ice fishing to get away from the heat.

 

Residents of Phoenix are trapped in the mother of all summers, in the very belly of the heat, and summers last nine months of the year. Retired people used to move to Phoenix looking for a happy, healthy life in the sun. What lies in wait for them, really? They will spend most of their lives huddled indoors in the moist breeze generated by a noisy contraption, the swamp cooler. Outdoor sports like soccer or baseball are very unpopular in Phoenix. Indoor sports like drinking and watching TV, shirt off, are the recreational forms of choice. A foundry worker in Phoenix spends his off-hours prone if not prostrate in front of the swamp cooler.

 

That particular afternoon at the foundry, 500 pounds of steel had fallen on my left foot. I know, I lost my original train of thought, of Lily, The Wicked Witch of the West, and Paul, her sidekick, The Devil. This would seem to merit one of Barbara’s favorite expressions: “Oh, it’s not always about you, Dave.” But not only is it “always about Dave,” this time it’s about Dave’s left foot, his left big toe in particular.

 

I knew as soon as the casting hit that my steel-toed shoes were overmatched, metatarsal guards notwithstanding. Did I mention before that this was a 500-pound slab of steel landing on my foot? Actually, “slab” isn’t an adequate description. It was a pricey segment of steel that had just fallen six or seven feet. The foundry prided itself on these castings, works of art, elaborately fluted—and pointed to induce considerable pain if their descent was interrupted by an unsuspecting size ten and a-half.

 

I limped off through the emptiness of the afternoon shift, hoping that the good people in HR had not left for the day, and I was in luck. The top boss was there. After hearing my story, which I abbreviated and punctuated with grimaces and howls, the director responded quite sympathetically:

 

“Let me see if the company van is here. I know you don’t want to hang out in my office any longer than necessary.”

 

By this time, my whole foot was pins and needles, and it was about to be upgraded to something much worse. Funny, how the human body communicates with the brain in the language of weather reports and emergency storm warnings: “A mild and pleasant late afternoon, but an extreme pain advisory is in place due to the delayed effects of 500 pounds of steel landing on a certain foot. Major pain warning in the lower extremities. This would be a good time to stay indoors and become completely unconscious.”

 

I sat down in a chair in the HR office, trying to resist the pain-caster’s warning. As soon as my body hit the chair, a cloud of steel grindings and sand from my coveralls went up in the neat office. Steel and sand for the moulds are the two most important ingredients in a steel foundry, but that doesn’t mean they are viewed fondly by those who wear nice clothes and command the foundry offices. I can’t remember the HR director’s name, but the disappointed look on his face still comes back to me. He had things to do and people to see and didn’t want to deal with the mess created by a steel-and-sand guy this close to quitting time.

 

“Have a seat,” he said, after the fact.

 

The company clinic was almost walking distance, but not for me.

 

“Unfortunately, Lyle Szismanski took the van home for the weekend,” he added. Lyle was the grinding room foreman on dayshift.

 

“Call an ambulance, or use your own damn car,” I grumbled.

 

“Good ideas—but they violate our insurance guidelines.” Then he remembered another option, the maintenance truck. “But I think Paul Davilla took that,” he concluded glumly.

 

I was keeping my mouth shut, imagining that getting angry was not a good strategy for dealing with pain. Of course now I know different. It would have been the ideal time to bring the boss up to speed on my sincere thoughts concerning him and his foundry. What was he going to do, hit my foot with 500 pounds of steel?

 

“Oh, I see that Lyle didn’t take the van, after all,” he continued to mumble to himself, as if I weren’t there. “It looks like the night supervisor, Johnny Rodriguez  has it … Hello, Johnny,” the HR guy spoke into his phone. “How is your shift going today?”

 

That’s all I remember before I passed out. But apparently they located Johnny Rodriguez and the van and got me to the clinic, where they gave me enough Darvon to float me into the arms of the person I’d listed on my employment application in the CALL IN CASE OF EMERGENCY box. That person was Barbara, and I remember a few lines she exchanged with the doctor on duty before she took me home from the company clinic:

 

Cheerful, condescending voice of doctor: “He doesn’t have to go back in to work this shift, lucky man, and I’ve given him a note so he can be on light duty tomorrow. Just remember to only get treatment at a company clinic, never an ER. We don’t want to violate the insurance guidelines…”

 

Insistent voice of Barbara: “What about that puncture wound and the broken bones—you expect me to take care of that? How is he going to work, he won’t even be able to drive?”

 

Cheerful voice of doctor, again: “It should be ok, after it’s drained a little, isn’t that right?” He asked, looking toward me.

 

My voice, somewhat slurry from Darvon: “Yes, should be ok, Doc.”

 

And then she drove me home.

 

***

 

The Darvon began wearing off about the time Paul and Lily were going through their Halloween Devil and Witch routine. Drugs are a great thing, especially those vouchsafed by either a pharmacist and health insurance card or by a liquor store and cash—but they always wear off.

 

We put Lily to bed and sat down for one more round, which I was hoping would make me senseless, if not painless.

 

“I just talked to Caroline,” Paul began quietly. Caroline had been a close friend of Barbara and Paul’s from before I knew either of them. “She won’t let me baby sit for Irene anymore.”

 

“You mean because . . .” Barbara gasped, more in anger than surprise. I might not have gotten it, in my stupor, but I did as a result of Barbara’s tone. And then both of us offered expressions of sympathy to Paul and something else entirely to the absent Caroline. He had HIV at a time when the disease and its effects were understood, but not well understood. If you knew someone who had it and wanted to find out the facts, you could. But many were convinced that the disease was a curse, likely to lap over into the God-fearing community if it had half a chance. It could easily be spread, some thought, from movie seats and hand railings, even beer mugs were suspect. Or by simply allowing the infected sinner to babysit.

 

You could subscribe to this message, which was trumpeted from many pulpits, or you could find out the facts, which some most certainly did. 

 

Like: A co-worker of mine, after a long absence from work, had marched back into the control room for midnight shift and announced: “You guys have helped to train me and keep me alive. I owe my life to you and wouldn’t keep anything from you. The truth is I have AIDS . . .”

 

After a few very quiet moments he continued: “If it’s okay with you guys, I’m going to keep this job as long as I can. If you don’t want to work with me, say the word. I understand . . . ”

 

“We’ve trained you, buddy,”  is the way his crew responded. “It would take us too long to train someone new.” That was the nonchalant response from the spokesman for the crew, who quickly changed the topic: “Watch out for Mac [the midnight foreman] sneaking around. He fired Lopez for sleeping.”

 

Of course, who knows how long the crew had debated and researched the situation in the absence of the infected man and discussed it and boiled the situation down to those few casual words. Caroline’s words were probably weightier and more apologetic. No doubt it pained her greatly to take the step these factory guys refused to take.

 

To be a simple co-worker to guys like that is a better thing than being a dear friend to some other people. When Caroline looked at Paul, he was no longer a friend—he was a disease.

 

The conversation in our living room drifted back to more cheerful topics, like Paul’s Halloween scenario. Barbara and I were almost as enthusiastic as Lily about his plans to be The Devil. Then I remember Paul leaving, and I was limping after him to say good night.

 

“Keep feeling good, old man,” I said.

 

“Hey, you feel good, too. If that foot is a problem, let me know. I’ll bring a hot meal by for free. Well, almost free—The Devil’s usual price.”

 

***

 

At the end of October, there’s sometimes a trace of coolness to the Phoenix evenings, a promise that the temperature may drop below boiling, at least sometime before dawn. Perched on my one good foot, gazing into the night as Paul disappeared, I felt that promise, the first cool breeze.

 

There was something novel and auspicious in this, I thought, trying to sugarcoat things to myself.

 

By this time, it was past midnight.

“Go to bed—if I get good and tired, I’ll fall asleep,” I told Barbara, who had to be up for dayshift. I didn’t have to be up until afternoon shift, and then I would be on light duty. Piece of cake, I thought.

 

So I prepared to stay up with our one video, a Charlie Chaplin tape. As the little tramp was just beginning one of his many jobs, helper for the burly mechanic, I was trying to forget about my job. But every time an image from my afternoon shift came back to me, the disturbing numbness began to mix with a stomach-turning pain, and the pins and needles jabbed deeper into my foot.

The accident occurred at the beginning of the three-to-eleven shift JAB OF NEEDLES

    and all the day-shift workers had already trooped out JAB OF PINS    

    showered NEEDLES

    and left PINS

    leaving my section of the shop PINS AND NEEDLES

    a haunted house PINS AND NEEDLES— NEEDLES AND PINS

 

I stared through the huge open panorama of the foundry at a line of palm trees on the horizon, on University Avenue to be exact. Now the pins and needles were constant, and I was trying to remember things about the accident to divert my mind. Some people are built tough, can enjoy a good joke or some other diversion in the face of great pain. But my mind isn’t so easy to divert—from some things, maybe, but not from the steadfast contemplation of whatever type of pain I’m in.

 

At the very instant the casting fell, my foot became a balloon. I hobbled slowly, my eyes on the palm trees on University Avenue: good foot—balloon foot— good foot—balloon foot. With each step, my body wavered back and forth like the palms in my line of vision.

 

And then an insistent sound pierced my reverie, perhaps a horn warning me that I was about to wander into the oncoming traffic of University Avenue? No, it was Barbara screaming from the bedroom: “Would you quit pounding!”

 

Yanked back into semi-consciousness, I realized that indeed I was stamping my good foot on the floor. Unusual thing to do. Meanwhile, on the tape, Charlie was dancing from machine to machine with an oilcan, grinning absurdly as he put a drop of oil on every tooth of every gear. Surely everything would be all right. Charlie was there, maintaining the equipment. As he danced from platform to platform, his faun-like eyes stared deeply into mine.

 

“Wait here for the company van,” Charlie tells me. Yes, the little tramp was actually in my living room in Phoenix. And there was a terrible pounding going on.

 

“No, take the maintenance truck,” the HR guy says.

 

“Take the van,” says Charlie.

 

“Take the truck”—HR.

 

“No, take the van,” says Johnny Rodriguez.

 

“I’m taking you in my goddamn car to the hospital !” Barbara tells me. And Barbara—unlike Charlie, the HR guy, Johnny Rodriguez, or the doctor who forbade us to go to the ER—Barbara meant business.

 

The Emergency Room doctor brushed aside my concerns that we weren’t following the insurance guidelines. “You have a crushed foot and a high risk of infection from that puncture wound. I’m admitting you for a week—if anybody challenges it, I’ll see them in court.”

 

Those were the days of bold doctors, not afraid of the courts, ready to practice their oath, insurance guidelines be damned! Such doctors, along with honest politicians and good cops, are now found only in myth. I wish I could remember that doctor’s name. Skeptics often challenge this part of the story. A name—something beyond “Emergency Room Doctor”— would lend greater credibility.

 

The recuperation involved several months, the amputation of my big toe, and a rather awkward shape to the rest of my foot. But my losses weren’t for naught. I won an $8,000 workers’ comp award, thanks to a table that lists body parts and what they’re worth, a sort of blue book for the Arizona Industrial Commission. We used this small fortune to plan, pack up, and make our escape from the Valley of the Sun sometime in March.

 

While Barbara continued to work, I took care of important logistics. For example, I kept a close watch on the yard for roadrunners. This is a bird native to Arizona that looks and acts exactly like the cartoon character.

 

It also fell to me to keep an eye on the laundry Barbara put out on the line to dry. The homeless men who trooped past our backyard were frequently unable to resist a new pair of jeans, and in their size!

 

I gave notice to the landlord, the utility companies, and watched for Lily coming home from kindergarten in the afternoon. Sandy blond hair and a grin so wide I thought it would bust her face. She invariably held out a piece of construction paper with colored patches glued on. “See, it’s a horsy.”

 

I was always glad she told me what it was and never asked me to guess. She still has that happy desire to present, not marred by the Socratic method, by the sick inclination to question your fellow humans, to put them on the spot.

 

I often thought about Paul but had a lot of other things on my mind. Or rather, I had a great need not to have anything on my mind.

 

Those last weeks in Phoenix, I drank coffee in the late morning, watched a cactus grow, and mused over the last few months, my job especially. It had not been all occupational pain and suffering. I remembered how, after midnight shift in the early morning, a group of us would get a twelve-pack from a nearby convenience store. We’d go to a park near the foundry and drink beer beside a duck pond with paddle boats. We’d sit on the grass, gossiping about the plant and the rotten bosses. Across the duck pond, on the other side of a tall hedge, the foundry smoked and shrieked.

 

It was a tough place to work. Most people quit in the first few weeks. If you were tough enough to stick it out, you’d get laid off. That’s what we used to say, but I didn’t make it that far.

 

After the accident, my work-place friends called to see how I was. Then we lost touch. Friendship in an unfriendly environment. Intense but not lasting. A beer after work, after an inhuman shift, to prove to ourselves we were human.

 

Finally, as the time got closer, I went through the rolodex, contacting our friends about our change of address, making sure to go in order and not to skip around, favorite friends first.

 

When I got to Paul’s phone number, there was a no-longer in-service message, so I called the Presbyterian Church.

 

“I’m sorry, Paul passed in March,” came the voice of the church receptionist. I could tell she was beginning to choke up. Paul had gently mocked her—I’m sure to her face as well as to us—for her starched manner. To this day, she is probably still scandalized when she remembers Paul’s devilry—and misses it more than words can say.

 

Should we tell Lily? She was looking forward to her sixth birthday and the beginning of a year of real school in a new home. Why not spare her this first death? We couldn’t have predicted that a far more difficult death would come her way soon enough. That’s the way with raising a child. We agonized about sheltering her from something she could handle. But the death of her best childhood friend, an event we were powerless to keep from her, would happen within a year.

 

In the end, we did tell her about Paul. A veil of sadness passed over her face, and then she grinned and laughed, “Heh, heh, heh,” remembering the role she played opposite Paul. He was the Bad One. He was not a dust devil or a sun devil, he was The Devil himself, a young man who lit up the Valley of the Sun with his devilish ways and was mourned by a fine group of friends, some shut-ins who were rapidly dying off, a starched old lady at the Presbyterian Church, and in her own fashion, the Wicked Witch of the West.

 

 

 

 

David Salner worked as an iron ore miner, furnace tender, and machinist. His collection Working Here was awarded first place in the Rooster Hill poetry competition and will be published later this year. New work appears in The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, and The Georgia Review.