Screened – One Day In Tucson

I would like to attribute the following misadventure to my catlike reflexes, but the reality is that inertia and poor balance get the credit for what my body accomplished in Arizona during our Spring Break.

Long ago I searched for and decided to “Take it Easy” by actually standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona. In 1976 it was a fundamentally boring location but it remains my favorite song. My music-loving daughter wood-burned the title on a plaque for me. But if you’ve never been to a city built in the middle of the desert allow me to enlighten you.

The phrase “death’s door” brings a number of images to mind and resulted in towns named Tombstone, Nothing and El Mirage in Arizona. You can also pass through death’s door in nearby Needles, California or by way of Death Valley, location of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. There are any number of ways to unwittingly slip into the afterlife, several of them being in a place where plants grow for hundreds of years without much more than an occasional sip of water. The competition for Earth’s most abundant resource in this locale is so fierce that the plants grow dagger-like spines to protect their water-retaining innards. It is a beautiful, tranquil and most inhospitable place. Scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes call it home. Do you really hate winter enough to go there?

A couple of brief examples from our trip demonstrate what living in five percent relative humidity demands of the human body. We went for a walk one morning. I have never been a lean person, and as a result tend to perspire like a spring shower at the mention of exercise. But a half-hour into our gradual uphill stroll I noticed that I felt cool and dry despite the warm temperature and glaring sun. I was being evaporatively cooled! By the end of the walk I was quite thirsty and developed a headache.

It was an eventful day. The beautiful weather enticed us to take advantage of the home’s patio for lunch al fresco. We assembled lovely sandwiches in the kitchen and brought them out to the shaded table behind the house. We ate overlooking a picturesque hillside of sand, scrub brush, stones of many sizes, cacti and I assume, scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes. By the time we took the first bite of our lunch the bread had the crunch and crispness of toast. Oh well, I sometimes like toast. We immediately brought four bottles of water outside and decided to keep them nearby at all times. I was thirsty and close to rekindling my headache.

There were no takers for a trip to the local Biosphere exhibit that afternoon so I went by myself. I found fascinating the idea of an experimental self-sustaining environment in which scientists sequestered themselves for extended research. It was a project intended to test the limits of human endurance in a Mars-like colony sealed off from the world except for communication. The experiment was supposed to last nine months, but for “certain reasons” was halted after six. If that conjures up images of crazed PhDs cannibalizing each other, I’m suggesting nothing of the kind. I think I stumbled onto a cause far more insidious.

I joined a group of perhaps thirty elderly tourists for a trip through the gleaming white geodesic domes and greenhouses of Biosphere 2, now managed by the University of Arizona. They were a slow moving bunch, and it pained me to see my future self illustrated so vividly. But I appreciated their curiosity and active lifestyle until we had to climb several long flights of stairs. I politely took a respectful position at the back of the crowd, the “no, after you” spot where I could be available to call for paramedics or perhaps prevent someone from tumbling backward down the concrete steps.

In arrears was also the unfortunate vantage point from which I looked up at their rears, a quivering walk of shame from which ripping and tooting uncontrolled flatulence began echoing on the acoustically conducive surfaces all around us. It wasn’t one person or seven, but seemed that the entire entourage had dined at the same Mexican restaurant as part of a group package that I had missed. As the herd ascended like waddling penguins, the occurrences grew more frequent and varied in pitch and duration. It was simply musical, percussive and, due to exemplary air handling, inoffensive. But the flapping dance of buttocks, as an adjunct to the droning umpteenth discourse by a clearly bored grad student was more than I could handle. Rather than burst into teary-eyed, doubled-over laughter I left the tour early and no doubt missed some of their best refrains.

I returned home just before dinner. It had been decided that I would grill hamburgers out in our mid-day desiccation chamber. Now, I haven’t described the house we occupied during this trip. A friend rented it as a favor to trustworthy folks like us at an extremely discounted rate. It was considered their winter retreat. It was a 3000 square foot “cottage” with twelve foot ceilings, spectacular views, an open floor plan with four bedrooms and a “casita” up front which I suspect was used for counting money and dabbling in watercolors. The same couple later built a home in the hills that wound up being featured in Architectural Digest. So we were shocked, pleased and inordinately careful about taking off our shoes and other such good behavior while in the house.

If you were familiar with me, you’d know of my propensity for setting fires. Please rest assured that I did not burn down our vacation home. That’s not where this is headed. I know how to use a gas grill. The bungee cords that secured its black canvas protection were carelessly splayed out on the ground but the cover was in place and it didn’t seem a likely place for scorpions, tarantulas or rattlesnakes. Or was it perfect for them?

It was dark by the time I was ready to cook, burgers at the ready, plates on the granite countertop just inside the nine-foot tall screened patio door. The dining room table to the left was one of those plate glass numbers that top a massive lacquered tree trunk with branching supports. You know the type. If not, pick up a copy of Architectural Digest. Six chrome and leather bar stools stood like attentive soldiers to the right, a great place for a casual breakfast or for having drinks while the hostess directs caterers around the kitchen.

Anyway, dinner was delicious and a great success. The kids were relaxing, each with their own TV and remote in adjacent rooms. My wife was tidying up the kitchen while I made sure the patio was as we had found it. And that’s when the snake took me by surprise.

A SNAKE! A slithering coiled monster. It was an Anaconda by the feel of it against the tender bottom of my bare and vulnerable foot. But not an Anaconda. No, that didn’t make sense. This was a Diamondback rattler, denizen of the dark, cold-blooded visitor in the night, emerging to seek warmth near the recently heated grill. It need not rattle a warning, my foot planted on its lengthy spine. I could almost feel the piercing fangs as they prepared to inject a load of venom into my leg and sense its paralytic grip coursing through my arteries as it sought out my heart, my lungs, my nerves. All that happened in the first tenth of a second.

Of course it wasn’t a snake, but I had been thinking about them for several days, especially since we drove around a sunbathing giant while out on an otherwise super fun ATV ride. But you wouldn’t believe how much a carelessly placed bungee cord feels like a snake on the bottom of a bare foot.

I performed what can be characterized as a full body clench, a futile attempt to prevent gravity from grasping my mass and pulling it Earthward. There’s no stopping a front leg in motion when said leg is the body’s sole support, back leg having left the ground in what is essentially a controlled forward fall. The first sensation of a round, rubbery object underfoot caused a reflexive desire to avoid landing with my full weight, for fear of hurting either the object or my foot.

What resulted was an unstoppable forward fall, into and through the very tall and expensive screen door. The slow motion liquid that we call time lifted me like an undertow, lofting my entire weight in a crashing wave against comparatively fragile metal fabric, taut within its slender aluminum frame. To say that I broke the screen or pushed it inward is an injustice to the physics of my fall. The screen never ripped. It folded, collapsed, engulfed me like a cocoon, a wire-framed toga, cradling and turning me as I continued my journey through the door’s opening. The next casualty was the drapery that was seldom if ever closed, a decorative tapestry hung some ten feet overhead, ripping asunder like temple cloth during the crucifixion. It is important to note that my wife and kids were watching this happen.

I now faced left, viewing the perilously close plateglass plateau, inches away. But the row of bar stools behind me were impacted next, like so many dominoes toppling one after the other in a crash, crash, crash that was not only a marvelous noise generator but quite a dramatic continuation of the wave metaphor, spilling onto the sandy beach that was the plush tan living room carpet.

Eventually I came to rest, as all great objects must. I was gratefully unhurt but trapped in a brown metal sarcophagus that no longer resembled a barrier against an evening breeze. It was ruined. The drapes were torn. The table was spared and the bar stools were only knocked over. As I began to laugh, harder and longer than possibly at any time in my life, I drew the ire of my nearby wife, mortified at what I had just accomplished in a few seconds of our cautious existence within this marvelous house. The kids also exploded in giggling, amazed amusement despite fiery looks from Mom, and are laughing to this day, also I assume in relief because Dad was apparently ok, but also because the show he had just completed was a memorable and spectacular performance, unexpected and never to be equaled.

When emotions settled down and with no small effort I was unpackaged. We dragged the remnants of the screen door into the garage and attempted to straighten and hammer out the creases that aluminum produces when treated like cardboard. It was hopeless. We called the owners to explain the new door they’d eventually notice. They were gracious. We just assumed we’d never be invited back. Other destinations awaited.

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