The Church Invisible (4 of 4)

A spring day in Tucson: the sun beats down, already, the heat magnified or diminished by the absence of humidity, I can never figure out which. On a mid-morning  run with a friend and the air hangs heavy, with heat, with smells of a morning-after detoxification, with my own history.  Biennial trips to this town are conducive to foolish sentimentalism, particularly if one already tends that direction, and much of me is here in Tucson.  Almost all of me is of the desert.[1]  Here for, some would say, an overdue wedding (though nothing good in the desert happens quickly), we run on a Mesquite and Willow Acacia-lined path along the Rillito, a sanded wash that lately, due to groundwater pumping and population and a depleted Tucson Basin aquifer, only very occasionally answers to River; scattering in front of us Harris’s Antelope squirrels and Lesser Earless lizards, brave until we are right on top them and then sprinting away, blindingly quick and beautiful in a devilish sort of way.  The desert, it seems to me, despite its desolation and acerbity and extortive leanings, is accommodative and prone to potential.

Example: the wash.  Heavily vegetated and waiting for liquid fulfillment, patiently, it bides its time as a temporary reprieve for anything with legs, or wings, non-discriminatory; and there, on the banks, the presently vacant City of Fun, Inc. carnival, octopus arms and mallet-ended fulcrums and tea-cupped turntables dormant but for one man hosing down a tractor-trailer; fleeting, precarious joy in abeyance only until the sun goes down when it will then come to life, iridescent with light, and the momentary absence of worry; with the sparkled pubescent longing to steal a moment alone, if for only a flash, at the top of the Ferris wheel or in the darkened back corner of the House of Horrors; here, continuing on the path, the Cactus Wrens and Vireos and Abert’s Towhees calling safely from the spiked confines of the ocotillo and acacia.  They can leave – they do have wings – but they do not.  Something keeps them here, something in this non-judgmental desert that lets you, if you can stand it, be who you are and stay as long as you want; it is addictive, it becomes home in a way that is either incapable of or beyond description – that somethingness Edward Abbey reduced to, well, “something”: there is something there which the mountains, no matter how grand and how beautiful, lack; which the sea, no matter how shining and vast and old, does not have.[2]

The desert, though it can be a trap, an inert ambush lying passively in wait, where it will, if you let it, consume you, leaving you parched and cracked-lipped if you are lucky, starched-white boned if you are not; is also a preservative, sanguinity and resilience rewarded by people or things (a fifty-year old truck) from the past, the discovery striking in you a flint of something, nostalgia or love or a rumination on destiny, if such a thing exists.  Surely this truck doesn’t have one, it has neither destiny nor free will, it has no choice in its fate but there is something, a sum of parts or energy or personality or history.  The arid, high desert has preserved the truck, and memory may preserve emotions, but there is always something more, something frequently both frustratingly and gloriously invisible and unexplainable in its potential.

This church invisible has converted me, and I have self-imposed a deadline of the first week of July to finish the truck.  I work relentlessly.  I have done all I can do with it in my own garage, and for the last several weeks it has occupied a spot in Anthony’s workshop, where I can use both his tools and his expertise.  I go there on weekends, a coffee in one hand and an offering in the other, a twelve-pack of lemonade or a bottle of Fast Orange hand cleaner, something to karmically defray both the kindness Anthony has shown me and the experience I am taking.  Today we remove the bed, crisscrossing nylon webbing from alternate corners of the truck and then raising it using Anthony’s homemade hydraulic lift, setting it back down on a wheeled-cart where Anthony will tend to it later. We set to work, Anthony surgeon to my lumberjack, he cuts, removes, copies, welds, grinds and paints the multiple rusted-out spots on the truck, leaving not a trace of his graft and simultaneously allowing me to keep my grandfather’s truck almost entirely in the original.[3]

I, alternatively, am the antithesis, methodically breaking rusty bolts, crudely spray painting smaller parts, oafishly grinding away at the frame with a steel wire wheel.  It is here, I decide, my grandfather’s truck becomes mine, decades of Nevada dirt and rust and mouse turds and Cottonwood leaves falling from places that haven’t seen the light of day in almost fifty years, my grandfather no doubt wondering what in the world it is I am doing expending so much time and energy scrubbing half-century old leaf springs.  He was a man who spent a life time making something, using his hands, concluding each day with a visual confirmation that his toil had amounted to something identifiable, even if it were grading a stretch of road or irrigating an alfalfa field or shoeing a horse or front-end loading buckets of dirt from one place to another, and I wonder if perhaps he, over his lifetime, had become desensitized to the emphatic corporeal nature of what I feel only after working on my truck; this thing I encounter after seeing my reflection in a hand-shined stainless steel grill, or in grinding away the rust from the frame to reveal a stamped FORD emblem, unchanged over the lifetime of the company; or in hearing the basso, diaphragmatic WHUMP of the laden door closing soundly against the metal cab.

There is a shameless self-satisfaction I find at the end of these days, a mute self-aggrandizing I proudly display in the grease and paint on my one pair of Carhartts; the dirt in my fingernails an unmistakable sign that I worked, the progress on the truck visible to anyone who looked at it in the morning and then again in the late afternoon.  I become obsessive, my need for organization and aggregation and order manifesting in the urge to remove one more bolt, or clean one more part, or paint one more piece, and I find myself unable to distinguish between a need to finish the truck or to extend my time restoring it.  The truck, the desert, the end of my time in Tennessee, the preparation for yet another move, this reconnection, albeit temporary, have all made me pensive and introspective.

But now the truck is finished, and it is beautiful.  The oxidized powder-blue has been replaced by the original, Baffin Blue, contrasted by a two-tone of Corinthian white on the hood, a band along the top of the bed, and in the interior.  All the rubber is new, the clouded stainless steel burnished, the bench seat reupholstered, gearshifts and heater box painted.  Anthony has patched the floor pans and corrected all the imperfections accumulated over a lifetime of camping, deer hunting, and pulling horse trailers through creosoted, dusty roads at the whims of a transplanted New Jersey Irishman and his brood.

Anthony assures me there is no other truck in existence like this one, and my instinct is to respond of course there isn’t, but then I realize he is speaking about its appearance, the fact it is four-wheel drive and has the original tailgate and an aftermarket diamond plate rear bumper and brush guard attached to the frame through a customized grill.  Because this thinly veiled posit that a 1962 Ford F100 is somehow metaphorical, well.  That’s just silly.


[1]Sand gets everywhere, even in veins.  Another blood line: Nicola Hage, a blue-eyed five foot ten inch Syrian, left modern-day Lebanon sometime in the early 1900’s with fifty dollars in his pocket, in search of a brother and the idea of America on his brain.  He made his way first to Turkey and then to Le Havre, France, where on November 12th 1910 the twenty-one year old paid second-class stowage on the S.S. Chicago to New York City, watched his name entered into the Ellis Island registry ten days later, and then headed west, eventually finding himself in el Triunfo, Baja California Sur, a silver mining boomtown 3,500 miles from New York and 9,000 from his home. What drives a man to go to such trouble, such great lengths, passing by so much opportunity and wonder and novelty existing between there and here? What continued to push him west? Was it a condemnation; a serial reminder of repeated failures, of loves lost or stabbing epithets or miscommunications? Was it simply a thirst for adventure? A woman? Or was it a collective; the potential only men like him could see in the precious metal nimbus setting daily behind mountains that seemed to only get bigger as he headed west, a beckoning Tantalus drawing in a man who chose only to follow the sun. I want my great-grandfather to have found his brother and whatever else he was looking for. I want to picture him in el Triunfo with silver in his pockets, a Mexican woman on his arm so achingly beautiful it made his heart clench, the grainy dirt under his leather boots familiar, assuaging whatever homesickness he had for the deserts of his middle-east, a nirvanic look on his face when he learned enough Spanish to translate the name of his new town, his face turning up to the warming sun as the word slipped quietly from his lips: “Triumph. Goddam right.”

[2] Or, “what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Eh? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not?” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968)

[3] Though I purchased a used hood and two fenders from a tooth-deficient man in southern Tennessee, Anthony used them only to patch the original parts, and the truck remains essentially 100% in the original.

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  1. Pam Gill

    Jay – one of your best – might be biased on my part, but that truck has so many memories. Grandpa is ecstatic

  2. Erin Wilson

    First… yes, that truck of yours is gorgeous! And well worth the time and energy it took to make it fully your own.

    And… you write with the kinds of details that bring scenes (and people…) to life. Your description of the carnival is stellar. And I must admit that this might be the very first piece I’ve ever read where I enjoyed the footnotes as much as the main piece.

  3. Samantha Hage

    That person that you mentioned above (Nicola Hage) is my great grandfather. I would like to know more of how we are related.

Jay Morse

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