By Chris Simunek
THE MAN IN THE MAZE
It’s an early wake-up call in the barrio as James Fendenheim, my entrÃ©e into all things Tucson, AZ, picks me up in his grumbling Chevy Blazer sometime around 7 a.m. He’s limping a bit, the result of a car accident a few months before. James tells me he’s waiting on some insurance money he hopes will buy him one of those hot little Japanese mini-trucks, but in the meantime, to get us to the rez, we have his temperamental Chevy with its bloodred interior, its chrome-dragon foot pedals, its back window that won’t close, its front door that won’t open, its silver-cobra-headed tire valves, its bestial General Motors engine, its guardian angel at the local Exxon station who will pass any vehicle for inspection for a half ounce, and its “For Sale” sign in the window that reads: 1975 cheyenne blazer, $7,000. The high sticker price attests to James’ attraction to the thing. It’s powerful, it’s cranky, it usually works, but sometimes it just sits there doing nothing, pissing everyone off—in short, this truck is James’ automotive doppelgÃ¤nger.
But James is an artist—a good one at that—so we forgive him. His latest thing is to take the old dried-up husks of saguaro cacti and form them into crucifixes. They hang on the wall of his studio—big, bulbous monuments to the Nazarene. Mostly, though, he’s a silversmith, creating Indian-themed jewelry, including several variations on the “Man in the Maze,” the foremost symbol of the Tohono O’odham nation.
The meaning of the Man in the Maze symbol differs depending upon whom you talk to, but at its most simplistic it represents the process of life, the blind turns one has to navigate, those sharp 45-degree angles that can lead you to either a dead end or to the next stage of your existence. Standing at the top of the maze is I’itoi, the creator of the Tohono O’odham. (I’itoi is said to live today at the jagged peak of Baboquivari Mountain.) At the end of the maze awaits death, followed by eternal life.
One more thing about the Blazer: At one point, James had the exhaust system fixed on the cheap, and whoever did the job rerouted the pipes in such a way that they now blow directly into the vehicle through the floor, so that while you’re driving, the thing is constantly filling up with fumes—a smell that James masks with the sweet smell of Mexican-marijuana smoke.
So that’s what we’re doing as we cruise past the Homeland Security checkpoint on I-19 at the entrance of the Tohono O’odham reservation. Not that the Feds really care about James and his pale-faced friend, as I-19 is the region’s No. 1 contraband thoroughfare, through which a constant river of dope and skins (illegal aliens) from the Mexican border pours into Tucson and is dispersed throughout the continental United States.
James tells me how the Tohono O’odham used to be known as the Papago, a name that had been given to them by the Spanish that they’d always resented because it translates into “the bean eaters.” Tohono O’odham means “the desert people.”
“You don’t call it a tribe—it’s a nation,” he continues. “And you don’t call them the Tohono. If you want to shorten it, you say ‘the O’odham.’ If you want to sound hip, just say ‘T.O.’ ”
It’s the day before All Saints’ Day, and we’re going to visit James’ 91-year-old grandmother, Frances Manuel, who’s been cooking up two gigantic cauldrons of menudo for the occasion. Later on, the graves in the local cemetery will be cleaned and food will be left overnight for the dead.
“Man, I tell you, for Indians, menudo is like currency,” James tells me. “When the word gets around that you’re cooking menudo, people you haven’t seen in months appear at your doorstep.”
As we turn into San Pedro, James’ village, a couple of desert dogs run out to greet the truck. James points to a neighbor’s house, in front of which are a half-dozen parked trucks in various stages of disrepair. “That guy makes his whole living towing vehicles from the desert that have been abandoned by smugglers, fixing them up and selling them.”
Deep in the Sonoran desert lies the front line of America’s two ongoing domestic wars, those on terror and drugs. Sandwiched between ruthless Mexican drug lords and the ever-growing armies of Homeland Security, the Tohono O’odham are a peaceful people living in a very violent world.
The Tohono O’odham nation is the second-largest reservation in the country, with a population of around 22,000. Nearly 2,000 tribal members live south of the border, in Mexico, as they have for thousands of years, long before someone thought to draw an imaginary line across the land. Fifty percent still live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate on the rez is about 40 percent.
There’s no part of T.O. life that the smuggling trade—or “hauling,” as everyone calls it here—doesn’t influence. To get a sense of its scale, one has only to walk 20 feet into the desert and start counting discarded backpacks, water bottles, underwear, wads of toilet paper and dirty diapers. These items are spread across the reservation with a startling ubiquity—to the point where cows eating dirty diapers has become a serious issue for local ranchers. Mostly, the Indians are middlemen, picking up loads after they’ve crossed the border and taking them to their final destination.
As we enter James’ grandmother’s adobe home, she’s watching a John Wayne movie on television. I find it a bit curious, as she’s an elder spokesperson for the nation, famous for her traditional basket-weaving and her book Desert Indian Woman: Stories and Dreams. As far as I know, John Wayne did more to glamorize the lives of Indian-killers than George Custer, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone combined.
“She likes the horses, the ranches, the farms,” James explains, as he examines the giant pots on the stove. “It reminds her of the old days.”
Pictures of Jesus decorate the walls. On the television, I hear John Wayne proclaim, “The one thing I’ve learned about Indians is, you don’t fight ’em at night.”
James laughs as he heats a tortilla over the stove. “It’s true.”
COWBOYS AND INDIANS
This isn’t my first trip to the reservation. About 10 months ago, I rang in the New Year with my girlfriend here in San Pedro, at a small celebration centered on a dancehall outside the church, with a band playing Mexican favorites in the dark Sonoran desert. The night ended with our car getting pulled over by the T.O. police, who luckily didn’t ask us too many questions, as we had with us a young T.O. man named Jason, who was wanted on a federal warrant for some infraction having to do with 100 pounds of marijuana. He’d already done five years for a previous bust, and I don’t believe he was any older than 25.
On the rez, 100 pounds is an average load. Picking it up at a predetermined spot in the desert and hauling it to Tucson pays around $5,000. If you get caught, it’s about three years federal (as everything on the rez falls under federal jurisdiction), but it’s not so much the cops people worry about as the Mexicans. Losing a load is a death sentence. The only reprieve is a newspaper article pertaining to your bust or court papers proving you were arrested. There’s a story I heard from more than one source about a hauler who managed to escape a bust as it was going down. According to the people I spoke to, the Feds kept the bust from hitting the papers to put pressure on the missing party, knowing full well what the repercussions would be on the other side. The Mexicans wound up kidnapping two teenage members of this guy’s family, bringing them back to Mexico and torturing them until he produced the dope or the court papers. The guy wound up confessing to the Feds in order to get the necessary papers to save his relations.
What a wonderful war we’ve got going, eh?
So now, with our guts full of menudo, James and I decide to pay Jason a visit. His federal warrant has been dismissed, so we drive to his house in Sells, the capital city of the T.O. reservation and the beating heart of the hauling industry.
Simply put, Sells is the poorest city I have ever seen in America. Parts are built up and resemble any Southwest town, but on the outskirts you see adobe homes that are literally crumbling around their inhabitants. Others are abandoned, covered with garbage and graffiti.
We roll up to Jason’s house in the Blazer and he comes out to greet us, along with his wife, his brother and several dogs. Surrounding us are a few cars whose tires haven’t seen a paved road since the Bill Clinton years, children’s toys and a whole lot of saguaro cacti with their prickly green arms raised toward heaven as if in surrender.
Smiling, curious, Jason shakes my hand, remembering me from New Year’s, then takes a step back. I want to hear hauling stories—such is the nature of my business. He understands without me having to say a word.
“It’s just too hot,” he says. “I’m not doing anything right now except looking for a job.” In fact, as we speak, there’s a plane flying through the desert, lower than the mountaintops, systematically crossing the land as though it existed on a grid.
We pass a joint around, admiring the sleek metallic body of the aircraft and its ability to make 45-degree turns in midair. “When they’re hauling and they hear helicopters overhead, they throw the bales into the trees, then cling to each other so they look like cows on the infrared.”
Joy, his wife, tells me about finding an illegal alien digging through their garbage one morning. “He was crying, but he was so dehydrated that he had no tears. He lost his group, his family; he didn’t speak English and had been eating cactus pulp to survive.”
Jason tells me about a skeleton he’d found in the desert not too long ago, sitting on the ground, reclining against a tree. “When a person dies like that, of starvation, they dig their feet into the dirt, half burying themselves.”
There’s not much else to say. We offer him a beer but he declines. I can tell that my presence is making his wife uncomfortable. James and I split.
Early the next morning, we have a chance run-in with two East LA gangster types that James knows. Their SUV is stalled on the side of the road, and they ask us if we can give them a lift to the nearest gas station. One of them carries a black duffel bag. In the Chevy, he opens it and shows us two brand-new pistols. Cheap crap, made in China.
“Do you know a place where we can try them out?” one of them asks.
James, being an agreeable sort for the most part, says, “Sure.”
So now we detour down a long dirt road, and one of the gangsters fires up a spliff.
“Chris here works for HIGH TIMES,” James tells them.
“I should send you my CD,” one of them responds. “I’m a record producer.”
Yeah, just your friendly neighborhood record producer with a bagful of guns.
We drive into the desert for 20 minutes and pull over. Our new friends remove their handguns from their cardboard-and-Styrofoam boxes and start filling their clips. Once the guns are loaded, the two take off running, firing away at saguaro that have been standing in the same place, quietly minding their own business, since the Dillinger bust at the Hotel Congress was still the talk of the town.
“Don’t shoot the cactus,” James pleads, but they’re already out of earshot. “Jesus, what a bunch of idiots.”
I am unarmed, and the scene is making me nervous. We’re 20 miles into the heart of nowhere—what’s to stop these record producers from shooting holes in our heads and making off with our $7,000 Blazer?
Pop! Pop! Pop! Guns speak a language all their own. I’itoi stares down at us from his home on top of Baboquivari Mountain, asking, “What do ya want from me?”
The mania comes to a conclusion pretty fast. The gangsters run out of ammunition, the cacti nurse their wounds beneath the bright, disinterested sun, and Goodyear tires spew dirt on the whole affair like a just-crapped dog trying to hide its shame.
DEMONS AND SHADOWS
Back in his barrio studio, James is crouched like an alchemist at his jeweler’s bench, a pair of binoculars strapped to his head as he cuts a Man in the Maze symbol into a flat piece of silver with a saw. The room is dark and James’ shadow towers over him on the adobe wall, five times his size from the light that illuminates his work.
I’m sitting with Betty and her friend, sharing a little atchoo (a phonetic spelling of Indian slang for something I prefer not to elaborate on), drinking beer and laughing.
Betty’s laugh: what a beautiful, guttural thing. The cackle of Macbeth’s harpies. She finds humor in the most hideous injustices—some born into, others deserved and even courted by their chosen hosts.
She talks of the hauling life, which she entered sometime back in the ’70s and did her time both in and out of prison for, then tells of her son, who is now doing a few years for a similar infraction. She regales us with stories about cops getting busted for hauling, how the T.O. chairwoman’s son was caught with a load.
Then there are the Shadow Wolves, an elite squad of Native American members of the law-enforcement community, as familiar with the land as the haulers, but who use the same ancient knowledge to try and stop them. They do pretty well—so well, in fact, Betty tells me, that the Mexicans have put bounties on their heads and on the heads of their families.
“In the desert, we know what we’re working with,” she says. “If the electricity goes out, we know what to do. As a nation, we will survive, because we have everything we need out there. When the illegals come through, we feed them; it’s our tradition. I make them give me some weed, though: ‘I know what you have in that knapsack’—ha ha ha!”
What a person to meet in the desert when you’re thirsty and starving. No one can exploit you quite like someone who was once where you are now.
“Does anyone get rich?” I ask.
“They’re rich for a day. Then they go to the casino, the topless bar....”
The very concept of the border makes her laugh hardest of all. “In my aunt’s house—literally—you have to cross the border to go to the bathroom. On the rez, everybody knows everybody, and everyone is related. It’s destroying our people, all this shit. The stories get old; you don’t even want to listen to them. ‘See you in five years—”you know.”
James stares down at his maze through his stereo binoculars, filing its walls, making sure there are no jagged edges behind which demons could hide—wary of every deviation that a jerk of the hand might make, casting shadows upon the path towards I’itoi’s eternal embrace.
EVEN COWBOYS GET THE BLUES
James has gone missing for the day, so I’m sitting in the Buffet Bar, one of downtown Tucson’s sleazier establishments, having a long, drunken conversation with an Apache whose name escapes me now and an older gent in a cowboy hat named Cleveland. Tobacco smoke hangs heavy in the air. I remember hearing Guns N’ Roses and a few godawful Foreigner tunes spewing from the jukebox as we sit around the horseshoe-shaped wooden bar.
I tell the Apache I’m writing something about the hauling industry.
“You better not let the coyotes know about it,” he laughs. “They’ll kill you without a second thought.”
The coyotes he speaks of are not the four-legged creatures you see by the side of the road, but the Mexicans who lead the expeditions.
There were a few whiskey shots involved, so I don’t recall most of the conversation. In my notes, I scribbled three things that Cleveland said, context unknown:
Smoking tobacco through a filter is like eating pussy through underwear.
I heard Elvis used to sniff the seat after his moms was done sitting on it.
So I told the guy, “I’m fucking this poodle; all I ask is that you hold its hand.”
Conversation turns to war, the one in Gulf. Cleveland works himself into a state of severe agitation, talking about how stupid it is for young Americans to die for puddles of dinosaur piss. It turns out his son was killed by friendly fire in the first Iraq war. Cursing uncontrollably, he upends his hat on the bar and throws his wallet inside of it, ripping out his driver’s license and credit cards, shouting, “Fuck you all! Here you go!” as if daring the world to take one more damn thing from him. Cleveland leaves the bar with tears bursting out of his red eyes. I sit there stunned for a moment, then go outside to see if he just went to get some air, but he’s gone.
Another man in a maze, running left because whatever he’d encountered on the right nearly bit him in half. I watch his valuables for another hour and a half before handing them over to the bartender. She assures me they’ll be all right, that this isn’t the first time he’s done this.
I finally connect with James again, and we head out to the rez as the sun sinks in bars of red and orange, its gilded arms reaching down to touch the mountains while the cacti stare in silent approval. James’ Blazer bounces over a pitted road. “This is where you can see what this truck can do. Those Ford pickups? You see them stranded out here. I put the four-wheel on and I can drive over anything.”
We’ve got two open 12-packs in the backseat, Budweiser for James and Pacifico for me.
“Man, did I ever tell you I used to be in the movies?” he asks. “Yeah, man, I was in a lot of ’em. I remember the last one, too. It was some B-movie starring Clark Gable’s son. The lady tells me to get dressed, that my scene is coming up, and she hands me this loincloth. The thing is like a thong or a G-string. Man, I put it on, looked in the mirror and went home. That was the end of my movie career.”
We drive a few miles into the desert, then pull over next to a small pond surrounded by mesquite trees, a wire fence and the feces of various animals. Laughing, James guns the truck up the steep dirt embankment until we’re at a 45-degree angle, looking straight up at the sky. “Show me a Ford that can do that,” he brags, then shifts into reverse.
James reaches through the clutter in the glove compartment and removes a pair of binoculars. They don’t really work; when you look through them, you see two of everything, only closer.
James turns off the ignition and the truck sputters to a temporary death. We walk out into the dirt and take in the surroundings. Here, you confront your maze head-on, with no distractions.
So I stare at Baboquivari Mountain, I’itoi’s earthly residence, and say, “Go ahead, lay it on me, creator. What does it all mean?”
The response is devastating in its finality.
It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced true silence—no hum of traffic or generators, no buzz of electric light. The unconditional silence of the desert is something you can’t understand unless you have experienced it firsthand. Even if you plug your ears with your fingers, your quiet is still plagued by the thundering sound of blood pumping through your eardrums. I’m talking absolute phonic zero—no crickets, flies, frogs, dogs, no running water, no voices, planes, helicopters. You need a cow’s brain to comprehend such space. You suddenly realize how much effort it takes to unconsciously tell your heart to keep beating every second of the day.
A crescent moon rises on the horizon, I’itoi’s final decree. In my mind, it goes something like this:
White boy, take a good look into the vast emptiness of my half-closed eye. You’re lucky I don’t step on your balls.
James sparks one up, hands me the joint and asks, “You hear something?”
There’s a familiar clopping sound that I can’t place. At first I think it’s some kind of Chevrolet rigor mortis. As I pass the joint back to James, we see them: a group of five wild horses (one white, one gray and three brown), kicking up a small cloud of dust as they make their way to the watering hole.
“Don’t let them see you,” James instructs me as we duck behind some bushes, watching through the leaves. The herd pauses by the entrance, spooked.
“Fuck!” James whispers. “I should have parked down the road.” The herd keeps staring at the Chevy, itself emblazoned with a little chrome horse on its side. “Just be very quiet,” he says, handing back the joint. They wait with equine patience. A few grunts, a head bob or two and one of the brown ones decides to go for it. Up and over the embankment it goes, then dips its tongue in the brown water. James and I do our best to maintain the silent code of the desert. The gray one follows in the muddy baptism.
“I feel like Montgomery Clift in The Misfits,” I say a little too loudly, and the brown one looks up from the water and stares straight at us through the bushes.
“Fuck! They see us!” James whispers. The other one looks too. Now we’re standing still, trying not to breathe. They take a few last gulps, then hop back over the hill, and the other three take their place, vaulting over the embankment in a gigantic display of muscle.
I take James’ binoculars, hold them to my eyes and see two sunsets and 10 horses, only closer. I feel like a hunter, crouched in the bush, looking at the animals through the crosshairs of my mind. I admire their body mass. How difficult it must be to walk through the world with such gigantic faces.
“I love the rez,” James says. “I just wish there were more girls out here. The Apaches have some fine women on their rez. The T.O. girls, they’re pretty big, most of them. They’re great to talk to. I want to move back, but I don’t know. I’d like to build a mansion out here. Someday, when my ship comes in.”
We exit the bush and the horses stare straight at us as if to say, “What are you gonna do, eat us?”
Something else moves, a big brown-and-white cow stumbling over for a drink. The horses clock its movements.
“I wonder if they’re gonna fight,” I say to James.
“No fight. The horses are lookin’ at the cow like, ‘We know you’re the one who’s been shitting in the pond.’ We’ll get out of here,” James announces, “give these guys a chance to drink.”
The road out of San Pedro is dark, save for the headlights of the cars coming in the opposite direction and the lights of Three Points, the last town on the rez. I’itoi watches us from his mountain hideaway. At night the Homeland Security checkpoint shines a gigantic spotlight down on the road, which we pass through without incident. As far as anyone is concerned, the two of us are clean.
“You wanna check out the titty bar?” James asks.
“I’m pretty broke, man. Do the girls take change?”
“I know a guy who actually tried that—stuck a quarter in a girl’s G-string. What an idiot.”