In the fall, I resumed teaching freshman composition, this time at El Paso Community College, located in a complex of old buildings near the city’s downtown. Spanish was the dominant language heard in the college’s hallways. Latinos comprised about 70% of my students, and I suspected English was the second language of nearly all of them. Thus, this posed an even greater challenge than what I faced teaching in Santa Fe. Once again, I taught “rhetorical approaches” to composition, using a textbook that demonstrated those approaches. And, once again, it was a challenge to get my students to discuss on even a rudimentary level the essays they had been assigned. For whatever reason, the students were better behaved―that is, there was far less talking among them on subjects clearly unrelated to rhetoric while I lectured―than my charges in Santa Fe. I still dreaded reading a stack of student papers. Yet the tranquility of the fields, ditches, desert, and mountains beyond the window of my little study, plus the soothing presence of Buddy, curled like a generous loaf of peasant bread at my feet, meant there were far fewer instances of an airborne dictionary.
Meanwhile, fall in the Mesilla Valley meant the golden flowering of broomweed and rabbitbrush, and purple bouquets of asters and slender stalks of wild sunflowers by the roadsides. In the velvety desert night, our house glowed like a jack-o-lantern.
Ready for harvesting, the cotton plants were three feet tall, devoid of leaves, brown, crackling, and laden with glowing white bolls like dollops of wet snow. However, unlike the events in Mose Allison’s Mississippi-set, blues/jazz song “Parchman Farm,” there were no “11-foot sacks” and “12-gauge shotguns” for this harvest. Instead, John Deere cotton harvesters―massive machines that seemed to my inexperienced eyes comically disproportionate for the simple and delicate task at hand―combed through the crisp fields. The gleaned cotton was then loaded into equally huge wagons and hauled away to where I had no idea, perhaps a gin on the outskirts of El Paso. Meanwhile, the bolls that had escaped the harvesters and wagons invariably found their way to the valley’s roadsides, where they remained for a spell like snow tossed by a plow after a light early-fall accumulation in anywhere else but the arid Southwest.
One fall night, Buddy returned from the vicinity of our garbage barrel, his usual self but redolent of skunk. Neighbors warned us about and prepared us for this, and so we immediately, on the patio, worked five 6-ounce cans of tomato juice into his hide―tomato juice, we were told, being a neutralizer of the sulfur compounds of skunk spray. (I have since been led to believe this is not true.) I then joined him in the shower stall where I got a good rinse and he got a thorough oatmeal shampoo. He emerged from the shower smelling―between the tomatoes, oatmeal, and fundamental canine essence―like a weird rural Southern breakfast.
Never had I so welcomed November, which in the Mesilla Valley meant the beginning of cool days and chilly nights. With the cotton now harvested, a different variety of John Deere heavy equipment leveled the plants and plowed the fields. The leaves of the cottonwoods, willows, Lombardy poplars, salt cedar, and pecan tress yellowed.