No. 31 Las Jaras (The Arrows)

“That’ll be four dollars and seventeen cents,” announced Dale, surveying the large raspberry slurpee and trio of go-go taquitos sweating grease and water droplets onto the counter. Belatedly, he recalled that he had not remembered to ask if the customer had found everything he was looking for. Dale considered asking but, seven months into the job, it didn’t seem worthwhile remedying behaviors that had already become habit.

“Thank you for your purchase, and we hope to see you again at Squeegie Weegies,” Dale added some formality to his departing line to compensate for his earlier lapse. Something about this somber professionalism must have struck the customer, because he turned just as his fingers were edging over the door handle.

“Could you tell me, how many more miles to Snowflake?” The driver’s bewildered helplessness was touching to Dale.

“I’m going to guess that you turned onto Highway 77 about an hour and a half ago,” Dale recited, with more gentleness than usual. “Only, you didn’t really turn onto Highway 77. You’re on Turkey Springs Road, which only goes through Turkey Springs. And no one ever really wants to go to Turkey Springs.”

“There was a sign about two hours back. The arrow was pointing down this road, and the sign said Highway 77,” the driver was disoriented, which Dale recognized as the stage just before angry. “I’ve been driving since Indian Wells, and I’m trying to get to Snowflake.”

“Yeah, the sign was turned around. It happens. I mean, it doesn’t happen so much as Rosemary from Turkey Springs turns it around every day. Most mornings Asher or Cyrus head down there and turn the sign in the proper direction. But if they’ve had a busy morning and they don’t get to it, folks sometimes wind up out here.”

Dale was leaning confidingly over the counter, when he was struck by a new idea. “In fact, we probably wouldn’t even have enough customers to do business out here if it weren’t for Rosemary.”

The customer was slowly processing this new and horrible reality, an hour and a half driven in the exact opposite direction, half a tank of gas and a minimum two hours of driving to arrive at a destination he should have been an hour ago. All because an arrow had pointed in the wrong direction.

“You can’t blame Rosemary,” Dale anticipated the stranger’s next line of thought. “She’s just loony as they come. And lonely. Nobody visits her, except to try and prevent her from turning the signs around. Best we can figure she’s trying to trick people into driving down to her spread.”

Still, the customer’s expression remained frozen between confusion and outrage.

“She’s got a pet chicken.” This was usually the end of the conversation. “Henrietta. Wears a bonnet. Kind of silly to me, putting a bonnet on a chicken, but live and let live. That’s what I say.” Sure enough, the man turned and walked back to his car. He couldn’t terrorize a woman with a chicken that wore a bonnet. That seemed plain enough. He would just have to drive the two hours to Snowflake. It could be worse. He could have poultry running around his house in women’s attire.

“And I took the road less traveled,” Dale said softly, philosophically, to the departing stranger’s back. He wondered if it had made any difference.

During dinner that night, an early Thanksgiving meal to celebrate the fact that Dale’s cousin was on break from film school, he recounted the encounter during a lull in conversation. It was always difficult to think what to say to people, between bouts of inhaling cranberries and mashed potatoes, whom you saw only a few times a year. Usually, they recycled the same stories—the time Benny had stuffed beans up his nose as his third grade science experiment, Mary Ann’s remarkable proclivity for long-distance backwards skipping, an ability that earned her lifetime fame and jealousy when a rival challenged her to skip the entire distance from the Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook to the courthouse downtown. Nobody had calculated the exact distance, but Mary Ann heroically skipped without pause, and there was talk of contacting the Guinness Book of World Records.

Rosemary did not belong to Dale’s family in the same manner that Mary Ann and Benny obviously did, but her antics were considered communal property throughout all five living rooms in Turkey Springs. Dale’s re-telling earned a laugh, mostly because everyone at the table had assisted a traveler who had trusted the direction of Rosemary’s arrow instead of consulting a map.  But Ian hadn’t grown up in Turkey Springs, hadn’t even set foot in Arizona since beginning a program in filmmaking at the Art Institute of Colorado two years ago. So, they proudly paraded their Rosemary stories, which acquired a new shine whenever there were fresh ears about.

“Her house looks quite ordinary,” one aunt would begin.

“At least it would if it wasn’t painted black,” a cousin would completely spoil the punch line.

“She often wears her hair in two buns on either side of her head, like Princess Leah,” a younger cousin would chime in.

Of course, they saved Henrietta for last. There was a structure to the swift flow of half-told stories, and the entire family was complicit in maintaining that order even as they rushed to top the previously told tale. She sometimes wandered around her property astride a toy stick horse. She was never without a loteria deck on her person and had the unsettling habit of slowly shuffling the cards while she spoke to you. It took two hours to exhaust the subject, but they were still surprised by the level of interest on Ian’s face after they had delineated the minutest of details about the hen’s bonnet.

“I suppose I’ll go see her tomorrow,” he mused, more to himself than his extended family.

“It is about time someone went to talk with her about that sign. She can’t keep misdirecting people. Sooner or later they’re going to blame Turkey Springs for it,” an uncle replied.

“This could be it,” Ian energetically repelled himself away from the table. Nobody knew what the it referred to, but one and all they had exhausted all desire for conversation and, so, nobody bothered to ask.

When Ian left the house the following morning with his suitcase in one hand and a duffel bag of film equipment in the other, his family found it odd. But, again, no one demanded an explanation, which they would later credit to their assumption that someone else had already asked. But, really, they were still sleepy from their turkey repast of the previous evening, and their sleepiness made them lazy.

After a mostly uneventful quarter of an hour drive—when the house came into view Ian made his uncle stop the truck so that he could film their arrival from the bed—Ian found himself looking up at a house that was quite large and, it must be acknowledged, black. But it was somehow less gothic than he had imagined. Mostly, the paint had worn to a kind of gray color that wasn’t really all that strange. And the land looked like everyone else’s. That is to say, it was flat and remote.

While his uncle went about his business of knocking on the door and soliciting Rosemary’s promise that she would leave the arrow pointing in its proper direction, Ian circled the house rummaging his brain for pithy commentary. All he found was a column of rock stacks designed to resemble snowmen and a vase of weeds solemnly looking out from one of the upstairs windows. Then his uncle was beckoning Ian back to his truck.

Instead, he walked to the porch where Rosemary was watching them try to leave.

“I’m going to film school and I only have a few more months left until I graduate. But I have to do this thesis project, a documentary. Because truth is stranger than fiction, right?” She wasn’t responding to the fact that he was talking to her. In fact, her gaze remained on his uncle, standing at the door of his truck. Ian felt his resolve begin to slip away. From the corner of his eye he saw a chicken, wearing a checkered red and white bonnet, cross the living room.

“I was wondering if you’d be interested in letting me stay here and film for a few days. Maybe even a week or two, depending on your schedule,” he finished, with renewed purpose.

After a five-second eternity she nodded. Her hair, Ian noticed, was fashioned into one bun rather than two, but he had already struck a deal. He retrieved his luggage from his uncle’s truck, along with a promise that someone would be along to pick him up in a week’s time.

“Did she agree?” he asked his uncle after he had already started moving towards the house.

“Agree?” His uncle was puzzled.

“To stop turning the sign.”

“Oh. No. She never does.”

There was nothing ominous about the interior of the house either, Ian discovered with a mixture of disappointment and relief. When he finally found Rosemary, after wandering through three rooms, her hair was no longer in one bun, but two. One hand rested in the front pocket of her apron. He knew that she was ready to start filming.

Quietly, quickly, he pulled his handycam out of his duffel bag and scratched a reference point onto a notepad he kept in his breast pocket.

“What’s your name,” he started her off slowly, letting the camera rest on her face for a few seconds.

“Rosemary. Lyon.”

He had her spell her name for him before asking how long she had been living in Turkey Springs.

“Twenty-two years.” The edge of a card appeared over the tip of her pocket, followed by another. Stealthily, his camera followed the movement.

He struggled with convention, 22 years of ingrained social niceties. Art won.

“How old are you?” The cards fluttered between her palms.

“Fifty-seven. Do you paint?” Ian brushed aside his cotton corduroy two-button blazer to examine his paint-splattered t-shirt.

“A little. I took a couple of painting classes in school.” He had taken one, but felt defensive. He asked for a tour of the house to avoid any more direct questions and answers. Suddenly it occurred to him that his family had taken a lot for granted.

Judging by the route they took, Rosemary was accustomed to giving tours of her home. She stopped to show him a wall dominated with photos of accordions. She had never played, she said, without any prompting. Her living room had no couch, but several swings suspended from the ceiling provided ample seating. And Ian suspected that the rocking chair situated in front of a window in view of the road was her customary seat.

She had a television, and several shelves filled with seasons of TV on DVD, arranged alphabetically. Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, Weeds. And she was watching him, whenever the camera drifted away from her. She was distant, almost absent, when the camera found her again.

Ian didn’t ask about the arrow. Her expression was guileless, and her face retained a smoothness that was perpetually youthful and innocent. But he didn’t think she would answer honestly, if she gave any answer at all. He stopped recording abruptly, before she could introduce him to her band of hybrid rock snow people.

When he did eventually ask he considered couching it as a suggestion that Rosemary was secretly on the Turkey Springs Tourism Board. But the statement would either bewilder or insult her, and nothing clever could come from that.

After the interview was over Rosemary left the room silently. It wasn’t that she was angry about the direction of Ian’s film, or suspicious. The woman simply wasn’t used to having guests for more than a few minutes. She reminded Ian of a monk or nun, a recluse by choice driven by some noble purpose or aim. In lieu of a sword and steed, fate had armed her with an apron and chicken. He’d probably have to more fully develop the metaphor before he proposed it in his film.

In a room littered with rolls of Christmas paper and vases half-filled with sandy seashells, Ian unpacked his suitcase. There was a certain temptation to keep all of his things compact should he need to depart quickly. But if Rosemary regarded him as a temporary guest she would regard his camera, also, as temporary. And he wanted her to become very comfortable in front of his camera. He paused every couple of minutes to scribble a question or potential plot development. But found that it was much harder to ask questions of someone he knew nothing about than the classmates and friends he had featured in his past student works.

Why the double bun hairstyle? Is she a Star Wars fan? Why the chicken? More importantly, why did the chicken wear a bonnet? Who painted the house black? Why did she constantly carry a loteria deck?

Scribbled together in a single line in his notepad, the evidence of her eccentricity was starting to look a little flimsy. He had seen girls in Colorado wearing a bun on either side of their head. They weren’t 57-year-old women, but it was a little fascist to insist that women of a certain age wear their hair a certain way. The chicken wasn’t the sort of thing you lock a person up for either. People kept cats and dogs and ferrets, and sometimes even screechy birds. There was no getting around the bonnet. It was odd. But, again, people put clothing on their dogs. Sometimes they even painted their toenails, which scored a lot higher on the batshit crazy Richter scale than a measly bonnet.

Really, the only powerful material he had was her daily trip down to Highway 77 to spin the sign around, and he wasn’t even certain how he was going to handle that when the time came. At sunset he went outside to film the rock people, bathed in golden light and casting off shadows from their stick arms. He was reminded of Lavinia, spinning, spinning.

The howl of a teakettle awoke Ian while the sky was still dark. But the tableaux from his window was somewhat lightened at the sky’s hem revealing that morning was on its way. It was impossible to fathom why a person with no schedule, no appointments and no responsibilities would vacate their bed before 6 a.m. but Ian dutifully arose, counting on the early hour to inspire some strange behavior. At the very least he could secure a mug of coffee. There wasn’t much hope of an americano, or even a latte in god-forsaken Turkey Springs. But his sleepy taste buds should be capable of enduring a cup of Folgers.

By the time he had pulled yet another paint-striped shirt over his head, the kitchen was silent. There was nothing to indicate that tea or coffee had been made, no reviving scents. In the entryway Rosemary was lacing up a pair of running shoes beneath her skirt. In horror, Ian raced back up the stairs for his camera. She was gone when he returned, walking briskly in the direction of the rising sun. Ian hadn’t packed clothing that would be considered hiking-appropriate, and even if he had the frame he slid into the clothes could only have carried him up the smallest of mountains. He followed her anyway. An orange mountain bike reclined against the porch but the driveway was absent of any motored vehicles.

“How far are we going?” The camera was rolling, but Ian suspected that he was making future audiences seasick with his efforts to catch up with Rosemary.

He thought that she wasn’t going to answer him, but suddenly she took pity on him.

“Four and a half miles.”

“And another four and a half miles home?”

She nodded.

“Do you walk this far every day?”

“Most days.”

She was wearing Reeboks and an oversized knitted sweater. She seemed to favor long, white skirts which seemed an odd choice in a dust-ridden environment. Now that he knew that they were walking to turn the sign around, Ian was resigned to the lengthy hike. It was necessary footage. But he might as well use the interim walking time to glean more useful information.

“How long have you had Henrietta?”

She stopped walking and turned to answer.

“Have you ever lived with a hen,” she asked. They both knew that she could already predict how he would answer. He shook his head, forgetting to keep the camera still.

“They’re good companions. Henrietta appeared on my doorstep one morning. Coincidentally that same day was Melissa Trayborg’s father’s butcher day. She’d been raising a fuss for weeks because he intended to kill her pet hen. She’d raised it from the time it was a chick. It would follow her around, cluck. She was heartbroken but her father’s a farmer and there’s no sense telling a farmer that a chicken is a pet.”

“So, Henrietta’s a refugee?” Ian couldn’t keep the laughter from his voice.

“I’m not arguing that the two are connected. I’m simply relating everything that happened, or was supposed to happen the day that Henrietta arrived at my door. That was more than five years ago and I doubt that even Melissa remembers her pet chicken.”

“But why did she bring it to you?”

“Everybody in town knows that I’m a vegetarian. If she’d brought that chicken anywhere else it would have found its way to the dinner table within a day or two.”

“What about the bonnet?”

“When Mr. Trayborg got wind of the fact that I had a new pet he came to pay me a visit. I was going to hide Henrietta but he had already heard her clucking from the living room so I grabbed bonnet out of my sewing basket and crammed it on her head. When I carried her out wearing that bonnet, Mr. Trayborg didn’t want her anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Same reason nobody wants a pet pig when the swine flu is going around. He suspected that by coming into contact with me Henrietta had been infected with some sort of mental defect. And he didn’t want to eat a mentally diseased bird for fear he’d go insane as well.”

“But if that happened five years ago, why didn’t you take the bonnet off? Were you afraid Trayborg would come back?”

“When he told people that I had a chicken running around with a cap, everyone had to see it for themselves. They took pictures. Children sent fan mail. Someone even set up a MySpace account for Henrietta. She has 387 friends.”

Ian was quiet for a while, disconcerted by the fact that there was such an easy explanation for a pet chicken that wore a bonnet. Worse still, he was ashamed that a chicken from Turkey Springs had more MySpace friends than he did. Currently, he had 214 friends, with two requests pending. It wasn’t a competition. Technically, outside of organized sports, nothing was a competition. But, we-are-the-world philosophies aside, wasn’t everything? The program at Colorado Film School was small. And he hadn’t had a lot of time to socialize outside of classes. That would probably all change after graduation.

At some point during Ian’s silent pep talk, a road had come into view in the distance. A highway. Rosemary had maintained a brisk pace throughout their walk, pausing only once when she began to talk about Henrietta. Most of Ian’s video footage from the past hour was of her back, and he suddenly wanted to see her expression as she approached the road.

The sign wasn’t as large as Ian had expected. “Highway 77” it said succinctly, with an arrow pointing toward Holbrook and, eventually Snowflake. Ian suddenly realized that Rosemary wasn’t carrying any tools. She had a thin stick that she had picked up a quarter of a mile back, but he couldn’t see that it would aid her all that much.

Without any fanfare, Rosemary crouched at the base of the sign and etched some space between the post and the dirt that closed in around it. She stood, dusted her hands against her skirt and grasped the post with both signs. Ian was enthralled. Rosemary had the appearance of a madman throttling a thick-throated victim incapable of fighting back. She twisted her hands, pivoted her entire body, and the sign twisted with her. Ian realized that the sign was double-sided. The arrow on the side facing the road pointed in the correct direction. The arrow on the back did not.

“If the sign gets damaged, this way they have an extra one on hand,” Rosemary read his thoughts.

Then they were walking back to her house and she was pointing out the various species of cactus and birds enjoying the early morning desert air. Ian was suddenly exhausted. Suppose a film couldn’t capture a person’s entire personality? Suppose there was some texture it wasn’t equipped for? Suppose his film did her a disservice?

“Your hair? Why do you wear that hairstyle,” he asked when they finally reached the porch.

“I love Star Wars and a friend once told me that I have a face like Carrie Fishers.”

“Another one bites the dust,” he said softly, regretfully, and returned to his room to sleep until 1 p.m. He dreamed about one of his professors, who had repeatedly lectured, “there comes a point in every project when moving forward and quitting are equally difficult. Not all ideas were meant to be made into films. You need to be able to decide when to quit.” He’d spout off the names of a dozen hackneyed Hollywood productions to prove his point. “But,” he always added, “every movie is hard to make. You can’t mistake a difficult project for a bad one, or you’ll never make anything at all.” Ian woke up longing for the safety net of a script. Then he remembered that half his friends from school were spending their Thanksgiving vacation desperately canvassing relatives for the funds to make their senior project. One was trying to build a replica of Noah’s ark. Ian suspected the film would never get off the ground. He already had about four hours of raw footage and he hadn’t paid a dime.

He found Rosemary sitting on the porch. “What are your plans for the day,” he asked.

“I think I’ll make another snow person,” she announced and gestured towards the kitchen where a bowl of soup was waiting on the counter.

“Why?”

“Because they’re free, and a natural resource. And because they’re beautiful.” He wouldn’t have agreed with her when he first arrived, but thinking back to yesterday’s sunset and the light shooting through and around the forms, Ian was more disposed to understand.

“Didn’t you ever sculpt anything,” she asked. He admitted that he had not. He had never had an affinity for clay. And stacking rocks seemed rather limited. Rosemary was constrained by the shapes the rocks had already taken.

This time she had tools, an entire belt of them strapped to her waist. She wore gloves as well, and her Reeboks had been replaced with boots.

As Ian’s camera rolled, Rosemary arranged the rocks, not by size or shape. Ian couldn’t divine any order or process to her work. She spent more than an hour, and when she finished she was flushed with sweat and sun. Her knees were dusty. She seemed to have lost 20 years.

Then came her chisel and hammer; she wielded both confidently. When her arm swung resolutely back, muscles pronounced under the weight of the hammer, Ian had the distinct impression that she was not subtracting rock from the equation, so much as refining and infusing with vision.

It was a long time before she began hefting rocks one on top of another, and the balance struck by the first pairing reminded Ian of a woman with her hip thrust to the side. Some stones didn’t suit, but Rosemary was patient, certain in her belief that each belonged to another. She simply had to strike the proper equation.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It seemed a shame to compete with the natural landscape, but I just had to build something. I figure this is a compromise between me and the land. We both have our say.”

Some of her figures did not resemble people in the least. They had an attitude, a sense of motion, or an interesting proportion but it was difficult to identify a body. But Ian was fascinated.

“What will you do when you run out of space?”

“Let them wander away, I suppose.” Her tone had a reminiscent quality that distracted from the present, shifted tenses and times.

“Rosemary, you know I have to ask, why do you turn that sign around every day. You might not get into trouble but it’s a nine-hour hike. It seems like a rather large commitment.”

Her expression sparked at the word commitment. He expected an honest answer, which was why he was disappointed by her response.

“You never asked me about the loteria deck.”

“No, but I planned to get to that. The sign seemed more important. It’s the reason I’m here.”

Rosemary nodded. She was used to people coming on account of the sign.

“Before I lived here, I lived in California, by the ocean. It was a beautiful place, the kind of place where people put those bumper stickers on their cars, saying ‘I live where you vacation.’ It was true in a way. It wasn’t exactly Hawaii but a lot of people thought it was very beautiful.”

Rosemary hadn’t stopped working but she continued grinding into one of the rocks from a position of recline, planted in the dirt, legs on either side of the rock.

“One day I realized that I had spent an entire decade there and I wasn’t really sure what had happened during the decade. I knew that I went to work and ate dinner, bought clothes, but nothing really stood out. Then my friends went through a rash of divorces. It’s like vegetables you know, they all seem to settle down at the same time and then they all wind up uprooted around the same time too. We talked about moving to some other town together, but couldn’t really decide where we wanted to go. None of us had a great deal of money.”

She pulled out a feather duster and began daintily brushing away stray rock crumbs.

“One evening, over dinner, a friend pulled out a deck of loteria cards. Her grandmother used to play and had passed the deck along. Sylvia was saying how nice it would be if we could all just pull a card out of the deck and know our life’s purpose, or even get a little hint as to what we ought to do. It’s a hard thing walking away from your entire life, even if it isn’t particularly thrilling or fulfilling. A divine sign would be helpful. At least it would make the process less scary.”

Ian began to picture his parents in an air-conditioned home in Flagstaff. They worked hard for their home, but he could imagine their dazzling youthful dreams, as well. Perhaps they had wanted to make films, as Ian was so desperate to do. Or travel down the Nile in a boat. Maybe they had dreamed of documenting famine and war atrocities for the rest of the world. Every young person was visited by the same dreams.

He had stopped listening to Rosemary and had to force himself back into her monologue.

“We each agreed to draw a card. Whatever we drew would determine our future course. We also agreed that greater cosmic forces were directing the outcome. Of course, we were drunk. Sylvia drew number 37, el mundo. She joined the Peace Corps. Myam got number two, el diablito. She went back to school and became an investment banker. Diane drew number 39, el nopal. She and her second husband started a nursery.”

Ian could see by Rosemary’s expression that the pieces were supposed to have fallen into place, just like one of her rock statues. But he was still waiting.

“What did you draw?”

Las jaras…the arrows.”

He suddenly felt the satisfaction and relief that he used to experience as a kid when the perfect Tetris piece suddenly descended from the sky. He closed his eyes and pictured an entire wall of colorful, confusing bricks crash down and poof into nothingness.

“So, from that, you decided to move to Arizona, live in the desert and flip around a highway sign?”

She looked disappointed. The sweat and dust on her face had dried into a mud mask. He wondered if it was the secret behind her youthful complexion.

“It’s not that I had to do this, exactly. I began to contemplate direction. You can lose it. You can never have had it. And once you have it, and you’re following it faithfully, you lose out on a lot. Every other direction. People who aren’t on the same path.”

“So you just kind of substituted bingo cards for a life coach.”

“That’s what happens when you get drunk with a pack of recent divorcees.”

That night, after the rock people had been put to bed, Ian called his uncle. He only needed another two days to gather the raw footage. Technically, he had acquired all the necessary information, answered his questions but it seemed too easy. On his second full day with Rosemary Cyrus arrived to “have a chat” with Rosemary. The chat turned out to be a five-minute monologue about the importance of proper signage, especially on the highways.

“Now I’m sure you have no part in that business with the Highway 77 sign,” he concluded genially, “but it sure would be nice if I didn’t have to drive down there every day to turn it around proper.” The highway patrolman tipped his hat, a gesture that had always struck Ian as disingenuous in anyone who didn’t own livestock, and departed.

The third day Rosemary discussed why she had selected accordions as the subject of her photo wall. Otherwise the day was without major incident.

Ian didn’t feel the expected rush of relief when he spotted his uncle’s truck winding towards Rosemary’s home. His stomach felt hollow. Their goodbye was brief. He was, after all, a 22-year-old man bidding a 57-year-old woman goodbye. The experience would be tinged with sweetness, but mostly it was destined to be awkward and brief.

Ian had already turned his back on the house, woman, and poultry when he remembered something.

“Rosemary! Would you mind if I drew a card?” Her hands were already in her apron pocket, shuffling. She removed the deck, spread unevenly in her two hands. Ian’s hand darted and retreated towards one at the edge of the line, then another hidden behind the others. Finally he regained control of his arm and grasped a single card between three fingers. He flipped it slowly and was confronted by pink flowers of an indiscriminate genus and species.

“The flowerpot? What the hell am I supposed to do with the flowerpot?” Rosemary smiled serenely and ushered Henrietta into the house.

Ian turned once again towards his uncle’s truck and contemplated the task stretched out before him. He could complete his film by spring, and graduate in May. Las Jaras would debut in the student film festival in April. His date, Fleur, was a fellow film student who supplied his entire film class with pot.

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