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Tucson Salvage 

Ghosts of drunks and suicides, mothers and sons

click to enlarge This abandoned gas station at Pima and Alvernon feels haunted by a suicide mother.

Brian Smith

This abandoned gas station at Pima and Alvernon feels haunted by a suicide mother.

Alcoholic ghosts with suffering faces—ruddy with busted capillaries—circulate the dirty corners and bus stops at the intersection of Alvernon Way and Grant Road, and I step around them on long nighttime walks of the city. I could've been, or maybe should be, one of them. Frightened into menace and floating around Circle K's coffee kiosk, guzzling the stuff by the gallon to ease the meth crashes, and counting out dimes at the Dollar Store for some sad shelf trinket to brighten a stalled, dreamless world that exists blocks away between ugly cinderblock walls and bedsheet-covered windows. I could wind up in that place again one day, still, searching insanely in the wrong direction for the shiny and the new.

Whores move up Alvernon toward Pima Road and bicker fanatically to themselves. They shout made-up names at me like, "Mister Rock 'n' Roll, whoa!" or, "Hey, Yip Yaw, woo-hooooooo," before, I swear, they can even see me. They can sense men before they see them. It's a gift. Their entire beings fade or lift in direct proportion to the level of crystal meth in their systems, and I see that for certain because I lived that agony. In unflattering clothes they're nearly translucent in the watery streetlight—their roadside sashays and occasional hip-grinds seem weightless—but they're living and breathing, pulling unseen weight and unimaginable loss in the ghosts of the lives from which they wandered. Do they still feel their children and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters? Yearnings attach themselves to me when I see them. Unexplainable yearnings that I later live over and over when I'm in fearful solitude inside my pretty little house over off Tucson Boulevard. I count tombstones.

I think of the young mother who I once lived next door to years ago, the last time I'd lived in Tucson. How she committed suicide at the now-abandoned filling station at Pima and Alvernon. How she pumped gasoline over herself and sparked a lighter. How she left behind two little daughters. How before she died, I'd read to her girls out in the sun in my front yard, and they'd stare back at me with eyes that were all big and curious, faces candy-sticky. Sometimes the littler one would climb onto to my back and yank pieces of my hair.

I think of my brilliant running bud Doug Hopkins and how he'd visit us at that bungalow house on Camilla Street. He'd come down from Phoenix, and we'd kill nights in Tucson, and even in Nogales, like we did when I lived in Phoenix. I wanted to die when he committed suicide. I feel his big-footed, see-beauty-in-everything self stumbling all over this low, dusty town, and hear his songs on the radio, still.

And my own mother, born on Halloween, died too young not long ago, and she wasn't ready to go. She circulates. From the downtown Lawyer's Title building to old midtown bars to eastside card-game tables. I see her still in her green damask apron, in a depressing stream of dusty sunlight in our old kitchen on Kenyon Drive. She's looking straight down into my four-year-old eyes, her hand on my cheek, giving me access to the one world that's warm and soft and dreamy, and I'm trying to articulate a sensation that I was way too young to grasp, a dull, brassy feeling of absolute melancholy. I swear she sometimes brushes hair off my forehead when I sleep, her hand smelling of rose water and cigarettes.

There's the ghost of my father, who two years ago died from cancer. He's everywhere. I'll hear his tenor sax ostinatos and gentle guitar runs, like he's next to me playing with a passion that only he could get lost in. He could never be disconnected in that place, and I learned that kind of musical transcendence from watching and listening to him. I think of the gigs he did when I was a little boy, from the old Pioneer Hotel to the Westward Look Resort. This is my Missouri-born father who, long before I was born (the fourth of five), brought television to Tucson at KOLD-TV, literally: He was Tucson's first TV cameraman, and he helped bring the nighttime sparkle and shimmer to those towers atop Mount Bigelow, and I feel him when I look up there, 8,000 feet up along the high ridge of the Catalina Mountains. He turned down job offers in bigger TV markets because Tucson was in his blood, and because he was always searching for a kind of peacefulness, which he found. This was his Tucson.

But I was no fan of my dad when I was kid, and I left home at a tender age. I later learned, of course, that he suffered (quietly) as much as anyone, if not more. After my parents divorced he found and married a woman who believed in him, saw the beauty in him, and there was a shift. He died a soldier of the gentle class with a heart brimming of love. Through long conversations in the months and years leading up to his death, I got a grasp of his fierce intelligence and his empathy for the world around him, which inspired and awed me. He'd answer incredibly personal questions, which could never be asked before, and I confessed things that were far too shameful to otherwise admit to him, or anyone. Yeah, he became my favorite human being. I did not want him to go.

Sometimes I spot him watering plants in front of the house where he lived in with his wife, and where he died, just around the corner from where I now live.

This city is crammed full of memories and nostalgias that are my own and not my own. I returned here from Detroit — itself a busted, haunted city if ever there was one — because my heart was shattered. (I suddenly was unable to give her anything, much less receive it. But I began to believe that all I had in life to show her was the worst that my world had to offer, until we were living in a house built on sadnesses and sorrows. She didn't deserve that. I guess I didn't either.) The heart was already in state of untenable brokenness after my father died, a death that slowly became so cataclysmic it divided my history into the before and the after.

And it was like there was nothing else in the world for me to do, and nowhere to go, except, maybe, to Tucson, the one place I swore I'd never return. It's an inviting town when you're broken, can feel hallowed and womb-like, just like anything informed by potent boyhood memories and distance. I was born here and there's family, friends, and all those strange chemistries beyond DNA and bloodlines. It's where childhood's end came too soon. So I split Detroit in early summer.

I live in a beautifully ragged neighborhood in the middle of town. It's full of chain-link and yucca fenced front yards of gravel and dirt and decorated with home-crafted sun gods or sun-rotted swings or Egyptian-looking cacti. The shut-in next door keeps abandoned pick-up trucks under a magnificent pine tree. I wanted in to this milieu, among the ghosts of hard-working family men who built lives on a seemingly futile kind of struggle. Like how my dad did. There's beauty in that. It inspires me more than any gentrified barrio or artist's enclave or some block teeming with moneyed beardos riding fixed gears. And Tucson's dusty mesquite, and walled-in mountain beauty—where overhead jets pierce the quietness, where stupid saguaros wave like they're always happy—reveals a place that will always be always lost and found and haunted. The very first thing I remembered upon arriving here again was how the heavy scents after monsoon desert rains can heal. Now it's autumn and despite zero color change, it's still so well done because the burning light has softened, the shadows are taller, harsh edges gone. That's huge. Makes things right, ready for new.

More by Brian Smith

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