Monsoon Sadness

Lamenting the loss of our rainy season.

I turn in my columns more than a week before they're published, so by the time you read this, Tucson may be awash. Such is my dearest desire.

But as I write, on the afternoon of Aug. 12, it's still a goddamn desert here on East Sixth.

Last week, a therapist friend of mine observed that, based on the people who'd been walking into his office, all Tucson is in mourning--mostly over Mount Lemmon and Iraq, both of which now seem to be sinking in, he thinks. In my astute psychological opinion, they're also grieving over the monsoon.

It's been the worst sort of monsoon: a pretend one. The rains have been teasing midtown since the one good storm mid-July that dropped maybe half an inch in a few minutes, breaking good-sized hunks off the Aleppo pine, snapping off palo verdes in the medians and basically doing what a summer storm should. Arcadia Wash ran knee deep that night, and what's left of nature in the big dirt lot behind Target visibly relaxed. The giant tree prickly pears that had been drooping like Dali watches along the alleys began developing some turgor pressure, and all the little jaybirds were flitting around and going tweet tweet tweet. The dead-campfire smell of the mountain drifted by on the wind, but so did the heady, green stink of wet creosote.

That rain was late coming, but we assumed it was the beginning of weeks of storms--big, messy, blowsy monsters that feed on the steam from the rain the day before, and build up suddenly up midafternoon, threatening to let loose the wrath of God--and occasionally following through. In short, we expected the kind of rains we used to have, just a few years back.

But, no. We've had a couple spatterings since, and lots of empty pageantry: tremendous cloud parades and winds, far-off lightning shows, big darknesses to the southeast. But day after day, they haven't delivered, and we're sick of it: We want the steak, not the chromatic Arizona Highways sizzle. Ed and I have dutifully unplugged the computers at the first rumble every day, then crawled back under later to hook them up again, feeling like total fools. And over the weeks, Ed has gradually escalated from just swearing viciously at the TV weather to actually screaming at Jimmy Stewart: "Doppler images of Northeastern Cochise county--stuff 'em, Fatboy! Is it, or is it not, going to rain in Tucson?!" (I won't attempt to describe his reactions to the just-in-from-Tampa weekend cast: "Not only are we battling record temperatures, but now storms are threatening, too!" And they wonder why people don't watch the news.)

It's turning out to be, as a friend of mine said, a pretend monsoon--except, apparently, in Green Valley and Sahuarita. (Maybe God likes golf courses and artificial lakes.) At any rate, it's hard to grudge any rain that falls on the dying Santa Cruz River valley. South of Tubac, the mesquites are going bonsai as far as the eye can see. The water has been pulled out from under them, and they're simply shutting down as the table drops. You don't need a hydrology degree to see that aquifer drying up.

But I digress. Sunday, Aug. 10, was the day we decided to stop tormenting ourselves by hoping any more. One-hundred-eleven degrees Fahrenheit, 25 percent humidity, not a breath of air moving, and not one drop of rain. That afternoon, we found the big cichlid floating belly up--while we were preoccupied with sweating and complaining, the temperature in the tank had crept up beyond what even a mean East African fish could stand. And the great banks of cumulo-nimbus kept drifting mockingly around the horizon as usual, setting up a John Wayne, sunset but not deigning to come in and let loose anywhere near central Tucson.

Of course, monsoons always tantalize some--that's their nature. When he used to live on 25th Street, my husband's older son claimed that he fully expected to read in the paper one morning that it had rained everywhere the night before--except on 25th Street.

But the monsoon used to deliver, too. I remember dripping through a summer school class after getting caught in a cloudburst on my bike. Another time, also on campus, the wind blew so hard through a downpour that the lee sides of the palm trunks on University Boulevard stayed dry. I got behind one and stood there, making myself narrow, until it slacked off. And there was the unforgettable occasion when, driving east on Second Street during the big, special-effects opening of a serious storm, lightning hit a palm 50 yards away, exploding the top (which I actually didn't see because I was ducking) and leaving it swaying wildly with the impact. A sheet of icy rain put the fire out two seconds later. I could only imagine what the half-drowned biker riding just ahead of me was thinking.

Thunder, lightning, cars floating down Tanque Verde Wash. Oh, where are the rains of yesteryear?

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