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There are places that are part of you long after you leave them, that live inside you like a certain kind of Friday night. Where the very best part of you dances and jibes, those times you slide all pumped with blood and tongues and twitched alive, you inside this place and it inside you as easy as you breathe. A year goes by, then ten, and still it shimmies inside you like nothing has ever changed, like you've never lived beyond it. Tucson, Arizona is this place for me, a football field ringed by a track, an Eegee's right across the street, a Jiffy Lube practically in the school's back yard, with mountains flanking three sides like a quiet face.
Tucson is a mix of many things, influenced by Mexico, directly south, mythologies of Native Americans and the Old West, and promises of luxury, a better life, that makes it possible to see a street vendor selling tamales on the same corner as a restaurant that sells dinners at a hundred dollars a plate. In 1979, when my family arrived, it was still a quiet town but getting big enough to feel a little bold. It had swollen with an influx of IBMers from Colorado, who came with money and settled the town farther east. Big enough to have an attitude, to mark a place on the map, Tucson was still small enough to have desert spaces where local teenagers could build bonfires in the sand and see possibility for their lives rising up in those flames: the parked stars, the stretching space that for miles and miles was rock and saguaro and sand. For a long time, before it was developed, the best place to go was Rancho Sin Vacas, down Skyline a little farther west. But that was before the security gates, before Skyline Drive was split. Anything could happen here, and did.
In 1979, if you moved to Tucson and had a little money and middle-class leanings and still believed in the American dream and that there was a right place to be and that good people lived in some places and scary people you should avoid lived in others, you moved to the foothills. Somewhere off Skyline Drive, then the farthest artery north, where Swan Road and Campbell deadend roughly three miles apart. At Swan and Skyline the artist DeGrazia, with his modern-art renditions of Native Americans, kept a studio you could tour at your leisure for a five-dollar fee, and from there a few roads wound right to the base of the mountains above it. White and tan houses of adobe and glass lay hushed in the heat, their closed faces looking out onto streets with names like Pontatoc Road and Hacienda del Sol, Calle La Cima and Via Entrada.
River Road, the dividing line, clearly marked the outs from the ins. North, white families with money, little trouble. South, little money, more trouble. At least that's what people always said. If you lived north of River Road, you had a house, not an apartment. A sizable yard, looking up to the mountains, and certainly your own pool.
When we moved to Tucson from Colorado in 1979, my father wasn't with IBM, but we moved to the foothills anyway, 6601 Pontatoc Road. There weren't enough kids for the foothills to have its own high school yet, only a junior high, Orange Grove, off Campbell and Skyline to the west. Without our own high school, foothills kids had a choice: Canyon del Oro, to the north and the west, known for Mormons and high SAT scores; Amphitheater, to the south and slightly west, known for great athletic programs; and Tucson High, farther south and right near the University, known for its gifted-student program and proximity to the barrio and gangs. It wasn't much of a choice for me. By that time I was fifteen, and running was sharp in my life like the best kind of nicotine high, though because I took it so seriously I never smoked. I went to Amphi.
Tucson, unlike Phoenix a hundred miles to the north, is in an intermediate desert zone, which means it misses the radical swings of the high desert. The days of killing frost are few, with a yearly average of twenty-two, and summers tend not to go as high as the high desert averages of 115 degrees. Oleanders flower outside the windows from May to December, and pyracantha bushes grow bright like flames with flowers every few months.
If you've never been there and are used to any landscape that has lots of green, Tucson is frightening and dusty and ugly at first. Saguaros stand like giants, their crooked arms jutted in warning. There isn't even much picturesque sand, red or tan as in some deserts, and on some days, the endless sky won't do anything but make your throat tight. But it grows on you, those tight throats. If you stay there long enough, you will start to notice little things, the way stony apricots become smooth, edible fruit by June, the way the oleanders hold onto their thick shiny leaves all twelve months. That the cactuses will shoot out bright bursts of color that back East you only see in turning leaves, a color that means death back there and months and months of gray. You can count on the landscape of the desert, which stays mostly the same from day to day, month to month. No surprises, little fear. Each time I go back, the light looks exactly the same.
Sometimes it seems as if everything that was important to me happened right in this place: the northwest side of the Amphi High campus, where, the second year I was there, the weight room got moved to the space where it still sits, underneath the eaves of the stadium bleachers. You could drive right up to the door then, turning left from Prince Road through a chain-link gate, and crunch through the gravel a few hundred feet, park under the stadium's shade.
When I drive by fifteen years later, that gate has become part of a wall. Like a fortress, you can't get to it from that side or any other. So I drive to the entrance off Oracle Road, and, when that entrance ends at a padlocked gate, I park in the alley next to an air conditioning repair shop and a car painter's.
I can't get to the track by foot either. I don't know what I plan to do if I can -- lie on my back in the grass on the football field, where I had spent so many hours stretching? Take a few laps for posterity's sake? Sit in the bleachers, watching the ghost of myself fifteen years earlier float her legs around the turns, not a body near her? Listen to the echoes of the crowd's shouts? My coaches' voices?
August: it's hot, the northwest sky threatening rain. The kind of gathered heat I remember well, pressing down around you like walls closing in. Behind the alley there is a patch of dirt, some straggling weeds. Most of the fence -- ten-foot chain link -- has plastic strips woven into it so you can't see inside. But there is an empty patch over on the southernmost wing, a gap of just a few feet. My fingers on the wire, I look in.
The football field and track are deserted, but other than that they are just as I remember them, sitting solid in the jumped-up sun, AMPHI PANTHERS in thick white letters across the building, now used for storage, on the stadium's south side. School started this week. To the right side of me, on the football practice fields, making me afraid I will be spotted, Vern Friedli and his boys are hard at work, exactly the same as they have been every August day for the last twenty-two years. "Set...hut!" rings out in timely intervals, and you can hear shoulder pads crash in the sweaty heat. Vern and two other coaches are there, same as they were in 1980, '81, and '82, the years I shared the heat and wet with just these sounds, meeting for cross-country practice on the same fields with football players who looked an awful lot like these. But fifteen years ago there would have been one other coach. This is what makes me nervous, for the fact that he isn't there has more than a little to do with me.
He used to coach the JV football team and the guy sprinters in track. He didn't usually coach girls. For years after I ran with him, I would see men like him in other places, a certain look in their eyes that can stop you in your tracks. Physically he looked like Anthony Geary, who played Luke Spencer on General Hospital, but his attitude was more like Marlon Brando's in Apocalypse Now: Colonel Kurtz informing us the world's a petty place. Kurtz with the whisper of a maudlin twist.
He had his own way of doing things, of getting teams to win. It was the way he stood, the way he looked at you as if he could, with a wave of his hand or a single word, decide whether you were worth taking up the space in front of him. He gave his words only to the ones he thought deserved them. If you weren't on top of your game at all times -- on top as he defined it -- that was it.
A single dismissive look from him could send an athlete out to no man's land, a place where you were beneath consideration or even speech. Years later, reading an essay on Mexican culture by Octavio Paz, I read what seemed an exact description of what Coach Luke did: When we say 'Vete a la chingada,' we send a person to a distant place. Distant, vague, and indeterminate. To the country of broken and worn-out things. To the country of broken and worn-out things. If anyone could send you there, it was Coach Luke.
These looks -- and athletes' fears of them -- made his teams click. He was known as much for his ability to get his guys to perform as for his ready temper, and he was thin like a wire stretched tight. His most familiar expression was a lip twisted a little bit up to the right, as if he was always getting ready to say something sarcastic and laugh at you. The other coaches, the school administration, were careful not to cross him. His athletes worked like dogs for him. To them, every word he said seemed an insight into the secrets of things behind the daily burning of the sun. It was the tone in his voice, the ready sarcasm on his lips that made Coach Luke seem as if he were on the other side of the sun itself, that he had walked right on through and survived it and was challenging you to buck up enough guts to do the same. His athletes gave everything to him and tried. A lot of the sprinters played football, too, and trained with Coach Luke all the way from their freshman through their senior years.
Did the football coaches, barking out their drills across the street, still talk about him? Question his methods? Would they remember my face or the rumors attached to it? Just wondering makes me nervous and shy. I feel heat in my cheeks and imagine all sorts of eyes on me, like I've been caught doing something. They are about 300 yards away and busy, and I am alone in an alley, my fingers hooked to a chain-link fence. Probably they won't remember, or my face has changed too much to be recognizable as that girl, remember, that one? I've got a few deep lines on my forehead now, and back then, though I was muscular for a runner and Vern watched me lift many a weight, my biceps and shoulders were not built up like they are now. The football coaches stand shoulder to shoulder, and their bodies, along with the players waiting on the side, form a closed line. They don't seem to miss him.
I stand at the fence outside the track for a long time. The guys on the football team continue to smack up against each other in the sweaty heat, and not one of the coaches seems to notice me. There aren't many people left around here who would remember, but three who would are standing 300 yards away, yelling out censures and encouragements.
Copyright © 1998 by Leslie Heywood