Without a Map
By Sheila Wilensky
I took a left on 5th Street and stumbled into the past. Another left onto 4th Avenue, strolling back through the years, I noticed that nearly every business had a closed sign in front. The buildings were constructed of wood -- not of bricks or concrete -- like today. No shiny Priuses, no yellow streetcars, or steel tracks could be seen in the center of the street. In fact, there was no asphalt street. Antigone Books and multiple purveyors of tchotchkes didn’t exist either.
Ha, I knew Tucson so well. I didn’t think I needed a map. I was wrong.
The typical University of Arizona coeds, their asses hanging out of their miniscule denim shorts, had transported themselves home for early spring vacation after congregating on Florida beaches. Any clinging coronavirus droplets traveled with them. Perhaps that explained why I didn’t see any of them.
Instead, I see a curly-haired young woman in leather britches tying the horse she rode in on to a hitching post. No way was she a UA undergrad. Her checkered red and white shirt tucked into her Levis, spurs jingle from the backs of her worn cowgirl boots.
“Ma’am,” she says, tipping her rust-colored gabardine hat toward my stunned face, frozen in Southwestern days of old.
Had I not wanted to be a cowgirl as a back-east Connecticut pipsqueak? How many times had I asked my father if those distant scrubby hills were Texas, as we drove closer and closer to them in our 1955 Pontiac station wagon that I had named Apache?
Was this cowgirl me in another life?
“The Co-op is closed,” I tell her, figuring that she had come into town to buy needed groceries. “In fact it hasn’t opened yet. Come back in 100 years to stock up on kale.”
She smiles an awkward smile, staring at me.
“You know, I’m from the future,” I blurt.
“Yeah right,” she replies, imagining, I guess, that I’m a crazy but intriguing old lady with purple streaked gray hair.
The Surly Wench is open for business. “I’ll treat you to a beer,” I tell the caramel-haired Annie Oakley lookalike. She follows me into the saloon. I avoid glancing at her holster, knowing that a Colt Peacemaker would disturb my twenty-first century post-hippy, radical feminist, love-one-another sensibility.
We take our places sitting on high stools at the bar. It feels good to not measure the space between us. Anything goes.
“What do you want to know about our virus-ridden planet, Hitler-loving conman president, super wealthy CEOs who for the most part don’t give a shit about the poor? Or would you like to know about Tucson’s future ethnic restaurants that host bagels and blues brunches?
“Just buy me a beer,” says faux Annie. I slap a one-dollar Susan B. Anthony coin on the thick oak bar. She sighs.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I reckon you can answer one question,” she says. “Men are all cowpokes around here. No one wants to settle down. I’d like to have a little one or two. Got any advice from the future?”
Would it be fair to explain that on the other side of 5th Street lies the future? If she really wants to find a guy to screw or simply procure his semen to have babies, poof, it’s done in a flash. But I hush up.
“Does your family have a ranch that you’ll inherit someday?” I ask.
“Sure do. We raise chickens for Friday night dinner and pigs for our family Easter feast. We got acres of desert running up to the Rincons where we hunt bison and javelina every fall. We got sweet multicolored birds singing ‘pretty, pretty, pretty’ all day long.”
“Have you hiked up Three Tank Trail to where that waterfall runs over centuries of boulders? Have you picnicked up there, relaxing by the trickling water, melting snow from Wild Horse Canyon?”
“Yes, I love it up there,” she says. “It’s peaceful, alright. My father tells tales of trekking to the top of that mountain but I’ve never been. He says it’s too difficult for a young girl.”
We have something in common across the centuries: mountains, geology, a waterfall.
“Let’s see. One of those random do-nothing presidents must be hanging out in Washington these days: Cleveland, Harrison, or Garfield? I’d take one of them over what we’ve got in my time.”
My companion stares at me. At least she hasn’t run screaming onto the dusty street or hightailed it out of town on her steady steed.
“We pay the president no mind. He’s so far away in that big fancy city with the white buildings. We’ll never see it, don’t plan to anyway,” she replies.
“Maybe you want to stay on your ranch, where nature is queen and life is as pure as a clear sparkling stream.” My advice resonates for 2021, during this time of social distancing, keeping away from densely populated cities.
My nature-girl, small-town sensibility stirs my imagination: family dinners finishing with homemade peach pie, riding a pinto through swaying tall grass, shelling peas on a sturdy porch rocking chair watching the sun set.
“My, my, you are old. I wanna start my own family on my own ranch. Hell, I’m nearly twenty. How long can I wait?”
“Let’s have another beer,” I tell her. Neither of us is in a hurry. What’s that saying I love, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
“As long as you’re dishing up the coins,” she says, laughing. “I don’t need to be anywhere. I’ve herded the horses to the drinking hole, lay straw by the cattle for supper, and checked all the fences I’ll fix next week.”
“I’ve got nowhere to go, nothing to do,” I tell her. There’s no point getting into Netflix or the Internet.
Staggering out the door after two beers, I watch my new/old friend hop on her horse. We share an awkward hug. “You take care,” she calls to me, turning full circle kicking up dust, swirling her switch back and forth like I’ve seen in old westerns.
She’s heading to her ranch, to her young life. “Come back and see me again.” I smile, doubting we’ll ever lay eyes on each other again.
History melds our past and future lives. For some journeys, no map exists.