June in the desert.
Albuquerque had accustomed me to temperatures in the hundreds, although not as early as the first week of June, as was the case in Anthony. By two p.m., when the cottonwood leaves seemed to sparkle as they trembled in a slight breeze, when every point in space was afire, and when the songs and chattering of the swallows, doves, grackles, sparrows, finches, and kingbirds, so prevalent in the morning, were hushed, the mercury held at 106 in the shade, the aridity furiously wicking all moisture. Then, it seemed only two wild birds continued to make their presence known. The mockingbirds continued their deranged monologues; indeed, one regularly broadcast from our roof’s TV antenna, which must have been nearly as hot as a branding iron. And the furtive Gambel’s quail periodically cried in the usual vague distance.
Throughout the day, Buddy, who’d yet to have indoor privileges although always access to shade and water, would follow me around our yard, and I’d study his reaction to the inferno. At 105 degrees, I estimated he delivered 250 ppm’s, or pants-per-minute. I determined his tongue extended an additional three-quarters of an inch for every ten degrees above a temperature of 80. Yet, like the mockingbirds, he managed in the blaze, as did I.
In fact, I reveled in it, challenged it to deplete me as I worked outdoors, emptying the little storage shed of useless items left by the previous owners; sectioning the trunk of a dead yucca for disposal; uprooting dead ocotillos; and treating our house’s vigas, customarily protruding a foot or two beyond the outside walls, with a mixture of mineral spirits and linseed oil, the parched wood absorbing the liquid as fast as I could pour it.
At five p.m., quitting time, the temperature was 100, and the day’s cumulative heat covered me like freshly-spread asphalt. Yet I was still alive, marveling at my body’s cooling systems, feeling cleansed, purged. With the relatively low humidity (soon to be challenged by the flood irrigation of the surrounding fields and the advent of the summer monsoons), the crackling heat was tolerable. Of course, my peace of mind was maintained as well by the knowledge that at any point in the day I could retreat to the inside of the house, where an evaporative cooler provided a constant and comfortable temperature of 78 degrees (although the increasing humidity would eventually challenge the cooler’s effectiveness).
One morning, I engaged a man, an Anglo, who stood at the edge of the cotton field immediately behind our house. He told me he farmed the field. Playing dumb―that is, without mentioning the irrigation of our property that apparently regularly occurred with the previous owners of our house―I asked the man if, for compensation, he would be willing to channel some water onto our property when he irrigated his field. To my surprise, he refused, explaining he needed every drop of his allotment and, further, fearing a lawsuit should his water damage the foundation of our house. I wasn’t about to challenge the man’s reasoning regarding his need for water, and explaining to him that our house, on its slightly elevated foundation, would be safe from any flood irrigation now struck me as a waste of time. So I merely smiled and bid the farmer adieu.
In the days that followed, I had minimal concern about a lush lawn―this was the desert, after all. Meanwhile, I had faith in the plentitude of the summer rains soon to come. But then, on a hot afternoon two weeks later, Linda and I returned home from a weekend in Albuquerque to discover that a good deal of our property was flooded. After splashing barefoot through a couple inches of the broth in our backyard, I came upon a 15-foot-long and one-foot-wide channel that had been dug between the cotton field and the little grassy ditch that marked our property’s edges―for the obvious purpose of quenching our various vegetation. Where the water had entered our property, there was a fixed raft of hundreds of six-inch-long cotton stems―debris from the previous fall’s harvest. Meanwhile, to facilitate the movement of floodwater onto our front lawn, someone had scraped a crude channel across our graveled driveway. I was moved by this obvious, if mysterious, thoughtfulness. Clearly, there was a second posture in addition to the farmer’s regarding irrigation water in our Anthony neighborhood, and the ditch rider―or perhaps common field worker―responsible for the consideration shown us was either ignorant of or deliberately ignoring the farmer’s position.
In any case, the event fascinated me, as I thought it would: the wild, icy blood of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains was now warm and rank and covering our property at a standstill, a final resting place. Within a day, our property had absorbed most of the water. And in the days that followed, with a twenty-dollar bill at the ready, I took to regularly scanning the cotton field. Memory told me to be on the lookout for a Latino wearing knee-high rubber boots and a straw hat. Yet I saw no one.