No. 39 El Nopal (The Cactus)

The movie industry came calling on a Tuesday, a fact that meant nothing at all to Jody. It brought with it a fat man in a strange suit. The fat also signified nothing, and the suit very little. But the man ensconced in layers of lipids and duvetyn would come to mean everything to Jody.

There wasn’t a single thing in the world Jody wanted as much as a job in the movie industry. He didn’t watch movies, lacking both the requisite attention span and spare change. A quarter could launch him into new worlds, for an hour, he reasoned. But once he had returned, feet firmly planted on the ground, his quarter was gone, and in a day almost all recollection of the film as well.

What he couldn’t escape was the impulse to imprint himself on the world, an idea that he could not have articulated any more than he could outsize the moon by running rapidly in the opposite direction of its ascent. (He did this sometimes, and almost always believed in the science behind his motion) Movies were something to be a part of, with their nonchalant method of slicing through silence and anticipation. Quiet pervaded the panhandle and sometimes Jody wanted desperately to break it. Life shouldn’t always be so still, his blood hummed every so often.

Jody’s days weren’t much to speak of. Dust often gathered in his nostrils, which he occasionally exhaled in a black gummy wad. It made no sense to him, the country’s obsession with westerns. On a single day’s wandering he had counted three coyotes and nine jackrabbits. For every hoodoo that rose toward the sky there was a formation-spawned daydream to indulge. But even on the rare occasion when they gathered like chess pieces mounting an assault, Jody could not envision a battle of the scale and fury that encompassed the silver screen.

The day the MGM representative strolled into town there was no horse or train or stagecoach in sight—just a plum velvet jacket that briefly made Jody yearn for the circuses he had seen only in movies. Jody would learn, much later, that the man had ridden into town on an alpaca but had been ensnared in a cactus grove a mere quarter mile outside town, and so, had walked the remainder of the trip.

“Township,” he had announced grandly, “your star has risen. Your era of anonymity has come to a sudden and glorious end.”

Jody would have passed by, like all the rest. He had spotted an ostrich feather signaling from the brim of a hat and wanted to investigate. But—

“The picture industry needs you.” The man, who Jody now noticed had a pocket watch painted onto the breast pocket of his coat was uttering the single phrase that could stop Jody in his tracks. Sometimes, he had mouthed the words to himself, pretending to be someone else. Someone with the power to make a declaration of such commanding eloquence.

Jody grasped the man’s hand, softer than he had anticipated–yet another curiosity he would have to put off investigating—and confirmed that he was the townsman destined to fulfill the task, not yet stated.

The studio had been successfully importing tumbleweed from Oklahoma for several years, the scout divulged. It was true, they could have harvested their own tumbleweed in their all-purpose studio lot in Los Angeles, but the talent liked the authenticity of the real thing. A gen-u-WINE Oklahoma tumbleweed had been places stirred by the wind to stretches of road and corners of desert movie audiences could only imagine. The audiences knew the difference between a city-made tumbleweed and one that had battled unrelenting desert storms. And they appreciated that authenticity, the movie man reckoned.

Which brought him to the township. If the audiences were capable of discerning sincere honest-to-god tumbleweed, then what would stop them from discriminating against a film with big city cactus? The entire genre of westerns was at stake. Which meant, also, that American identity was under threat. Jody could see, with very little effort, how all of these things were true.

That very night be began his new career, growing and harvesting authentic panhandle cactus. The movie man was gone. Every three months he would send a caravan to collect Jody’s cactus. And for each plant that was actually used in a movie, Jody was to receive a commission.

His spindly legs, for the first time, seemed completely right for a task. Legs that could crouch over or around a threatening outcropping of thistle or dance out of reach of an agitated rattlesnake. His fingers were exactly suited to their new purpose. Long and sensitive enough that many times Jody had jestingly been compared to a pianist. Jody, the maestro of nothing. But his gentle fingers scrambled into the dusty earth, claiming root systems. Calico hearts fell to his wiles, saguaro, and silver torch. He jealously guarded the prickly pear from the many hands eager to harvest its fruit. Selfish hands, Jody worked himself into a rare fit of anger, serving mouths that would deprive the entire country of its identity.

On the thirty-ninth day, exhausted from his one-man vigil over the cactus, Jody devised an ingenious solution. He conjured a circle in the dirt, 40 feet in diameter, and divided the circle into three parts. Beginning with the exterior layer, he arranged the hardier and less desirable specimens of cacti into a wall. Yucca palms and saguaro outlined the sanctuary. Their spines would serve as protection for the more delicate chollainbloom which, without its yellow blooms, reminded Jody eerily of the hairy appendages of a spider. A poisonous one, he decided. Blue-green agave circles pushed in against the chollainbloom. Perhaps the two would co-exist these next 53 days. Then came the echinocereus, vibrant pink and red flowers perilously attached to stout bodies.

There was no method to it, their shapes and colors, the length and prick of their thistles. But to exclude a single species was death to the integrity of the project. Red flowers for passion. A movie must never be without violent passion, the factor of romance that makes a man crush a woman to his chest. The sagauro would set the scene. It was a no-frills kind of plant, like the desert that bore it. Audiences must understand that. Pediocactus for humor. What was a movie without laughter? The leading man must commit some forgivable gaffe and grin boyishly. But where did that leave the prickly pear? Viznega de lima was the supporting character, colorful and funny, in an unimposing way. Viznega de lima could make you laugh, but it didn’t make you cry when it died. Opuntia polycantha was unquestionably Jody’s leading lady when in full bloom, and so occupied the innermost circle. It was sweet and vibrant, but tidy and unrelenting.

But his leading man remained elusive. He left his circle, penetrable only by one familiar with its design and possessed of slight but long legs and gentle fingers to brush away the thorns, only to scout for his leading man—strong, wise, perhaps a little bit cocky. God bless America, its tendrils must say, with sharpened spines eager to protect and serve.

The searches stretched longer and farther, until one day the hoodoos in the distance were strangers to him. His township had given way to another, the sun to the moon, which he longed to approach rather than outsize. But the moon knew Jody’s past arrogance and kept him at bay. He returned to his circle, wretched, having failed for the first time in his 20 years at the only charge of any importance that had ever been given to him.

When the caravan finally came, consisting only of a stooped old man driving an empty carriage, Jody remained quietly in his circle, a mile from town and not at all tempted to explain his failings to the driver. The movie man would understand. If he had not wanted his audience to suffer the embarrassment of an inauthentic cactus, he would be no less understanding on the point of presenting a complete cast.

The movie man accepted the return of the empty carriage without astonishment, or any concern at all, really. Perhaps the Texan had realized that there was no money in harvesting cactus. Word had spread from disgruntled tumbleweed harvesters in Oklahoma that they had never been paid for their labor. Or a prairie dog had eaten him (the man in the velvet blazer and phony pocket watch knew very little about the desert). MGM continued making westerns for another decade before fast horses were replaced with fast cars. Jody never noticed the transition, never going to the movies in the first place.

The township reacted to Jody’s defection not at all, suspecting that dealings with greedy city people never prospered, and resenting Jody for the disappearance of the delectable prickly pear fruit from the mesa.

Al nopal lo van a ver, nomas cuando tiene tunas,” said a few.

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