J.T.Q.: couldn’t be anything other than initials, now could it? Especially since the girl had signed the back of the photo with letters of her own. She was S.H, two capitals after a comma, in the shaky bubble writing of a teen. Only from her image on the other side, Cesar could see that she was no kid: S.H. had to have been in her mid-twenties. Life marks all over her face. He could recognize the grooves. He had some himself.
Cesar tried to think of three word acronyms that might end in a Q. Pretty darn quick, that’s all he could come up with. It occurred to him that many more Spanish words began with a Q than English ones did. But although he’d been told his heritage was Mexican, he knew very little Spanish. Queredo, my love, beloved, that he recognized, and if that’s what it was, it didn’t change what the picture signified. And no, it had to be a name; a Mexican name, probably. A beau — somebody with a girlfriend, one kind enough to scribble a message on a keepsake and pass it on.
Only after he’d spent the forty seven dollars and seventy cents did Cesar discover the photo. He bought a large bag of rice — one that ought to last him more than a week — and splurged on a package of gourmet beans. A handful of vegetables with streaks of white where the green should be, paprika, industrial-grade cheddar cheese squashed into a block, laundry detergent. The rest he broke down into change for the washing machines. After unpacking his haul he probed the back flaps of the billfold for any extra money. Nothing came. He pulled the flaps apart and shook. A receipt from a service station fell out. No identification, no credit cards, nothing like that. Cesar wasn’t too surprised. It must have belonged to a very poor person.
S.H. hid in the very last pocket he checked. She peeked out from behind a thin leather flap. Cesar felt caught in the act. Gently he pinched the top corner of the photograph and wiggled it free. There she was: blonde hair cropped short below unadorned earlobes, no smile, lips drawn into a tight, nervous line, eyes fixed on a spot somewhere far over the photographer’s shoulder. She seemed to defy the immediacy that a drugstore photo was designed to provide. The camera asked for something she would not give. He respected that. Stuck flat and forever inside a white frame with no retreat possible, she had to do what she could to keep her balance.
The rice and beans would last a few days. After that he had to believe something would come up. It always did. Pawning the mountain bike: that was no good option. Hadn’t he been ready to do it, just a day ago, until fortune placed the wallet in his way, or, rather, the pair of damp sweatpants with the billfold tucked into the back pocket, right where the bicycle paths open up to the scorched expanse of South Mountain. Cesar hid behind a scrubby tree near the trailhead and waited until he was sure there was no one around. Once he was sure he waited more. But no one came to grab the sweatpants. Businesslike he picked up the bundle and returned to the tree. Cesar extracted the wallet and dashed for home before guilt, or fear, caught up with him.
It bothered him that he had taken a poor man’s wallet. South of the Salt River there were many poor areas, all filled with people like him — people for whom forty seven dollars and seventy cents might be the week’s grocery money. Farther from the trailheads the neighborhoods devolved into shabby tracts of squat bungalows, two front windows peeking, shyly, over the line of dirt. Beyond that was desert. Some of it dotted with cactus, other parts claimed by industrial outfits with their heaps of tires and great black cables in spools. Cesar had worked on a site like that — just a plot of brown earth ringed by a cyclone fence with a man’s name on it, mountains in the distance like the lip of a pot. He’d loaded PVC pipe onto trucks headed for construction projects in North Phoenix. He was weaker and slower than the other men and the foreman let him know. Soon he’d been assigned to rid the lot of blowing litter. Then the conviction came, and there’d been no work of that sort since.
The air had gotten very hot. He’d meant to practice his guitar, as he’d promised Roddy he would always, but his fingers were sweaty. So instead he embarked on the course of visualization exercises that he’d learned from Roddy. Object by object he enchanted the world around him. His chair, for instance, became magic in his eyes, its red wood gleaming with secret properties. It was not a cheap house it sat in, either, but a dome on the surface of Mars. He was a colonist and possessor of a rain stick. When he played his guitar the sky would open and drench the red soil. It was his prerogative as a thunderbird to decide when he’d call the rain. Time would come, not just yet.
Thoughts of S.H. knocked him out of his reverie; S.H. and J.T.Q. and their union. It occurred to Cesar that the little picture might have been a palliative for the man he’d stolen from. Was this the only memento he’d had from a relationship that he’d lost? Had Cesar pinched something priceless? The money could be earned again; the billfold itself was cheap manufacture. The photograph could be one of a kind. Cesar noticed the insignia embossed on the leather flap: a dancing black figure with five hooked strands of hair attached to his bowed head and a pipe in his hands. Kokopelli, the Hopi spirit of music. That didn’t necessarily mean that J.T.Q. was Hopi or even Native American. Representations of Kokopelli were general throughout the Southwest. But if J.T.Q. was a poor Indian, that made matters worse. Roddy told him: you step in time with the medicine rattle. Whatever they taught you it was wrong. I can see Hopi in your features. That distinctive imprint, that thumb-swirl.
Cesar turned the photograph over and read the note again:
J.T.Q.: You are a dream in the haze, a sorcerer, a flash of heat lightning. When I am with you, barriers dissolve and the land itself comes alive. Remember me always as I always remember you. S.H.
Feeling as if he’d severed a connection, cut in on a slow dance, he placed the picture behind the leather strap, said goodnight to Kokopelli, and clammed the wallet shut.
By the next morning Cesar was determined to reunite the wallet with its original owner. He would tell the man he’d happened upon it by the trailhead. Where the money went he wouldn’t know. But if the man seemed really poor and especially if he was Hopi, Cesar would do whatever he needed to do to get him fifty dollars: what he’d purloined plus interest. It was only fair.
Not knowing what else to do, he waited in the sun by the South Mountain trails. Perhaps J.T.Q. would be there, combing the grass for his sweatpants. Ridiculous, thought Cesar, but there was always a chance. Alone and in pairs cyclists streaked by him to take on the mountain. He could smell the sunscreen on their skin and see the plastic water bottles stashed under the crossbars. For the riders the day would continue to accelerate; by contrast he felt as if he was rooted to the earth. A dirty hillock, a saguaro by the side of the path, or a weathered sign that nobody wanted to stop and read.
At the ranger station Cesar took it delicately. Did they have a lost and found? Had anybody come to the lost and found in search of a billfold? The ranger chose not to give Cesar a direct answer. Instead he looked him over. Son have you got something you want to leave with us. Cesar most certainly did not. He didn’t trust the rangers to take proper care of the woman in the wallet. Even if he did, he felt the need to transfer her to J.T.Q. in person. She was like a genie in a bottle that, if improperly rubbed, would fail to manifest and retreat to the ethereal plane. He tucked the wallet inside the sleeve of his t-shirt and turned to leave.
A middle-aged woman at the front desk had overheard his conversation with the ranger. She pointed to the bulge at his shoulder.
“I know where you get em.”
“Them Kokopelli wallets. That’s what you found there right. They got loads of em at Buckos. Scottsdale Old Town.”
Cesar did not need an address. He knew all about the retailers of Old Town Scottsdale. Tchotchke shops, Wild Western schtick, stained brown wood and rough leather and kachina dolls and mannequins of muchachos on benches for the tourists to sit next to and get their photographs taken. He’d been in the Old Town every evening after work at the yard for a month, begging the store owners to take Roddy’s merchandise on consignment. The nice establishments on Fifth had already chased them away. But in Old Town they’d say yes, Roddy promised, because the shopkeepers were highfalutin by no means. They understood the integrity of Native American craftsmanship. Roddy had retrieved the prayer stones and bead bracelets from Moenkopi Village, the gateway to Hopi Nation. Moenkopi: with its red dirt alleys, flat-topped brick buildings with roofs partially torn off, and tangle of streets ending in the uranium mines. It was up to Cesar to enchant the objects for the storekeepers. He had to make their power manifest. Roddy showed Cesar how to hold them — he modeled the look of reverence, the gentle slip between fingers, the careful positioning of the bead in the center of the palm.
And so Cesar did, toting the goods in a smelly cloth sack, extracting them with care, and vanishing into the crowds of Old Town when chased away from the shops. Soon they hated the sight of him, but he persisted, right up until the evening when they raided Roddy’s garage. The stones were not from Moenkopi Village after all. They’d come from Roddy’s backyard. He’d bought the bracelets in a ninety-nine cent store in Glendale and applied a coating of enamel to the beads. Both the counterfeiter and his sales assistant were charged with fraud. Cesar got probation and was let go from the work site. Roddy had priors and was jailed. Cesar had not seen him since. He missed him.
Cesar took a bus to the Old Town that afternoon. No one recognized him. Maybe the shop owners had turned over. The woman at the ranger station had been right. Billfolds identical to the one in his pocket piled on a corner table, each adorned with the image of Kokopelli on the back. Kokopelli on mugs, on cheap ocarinas, dangling from a string between wind chimes, busy with direct but empty signification like the outline of the state of Arizona stamped on a cutting board made of acacia. Indian crafts in glass cases, these certified authentic by the dealer. Cesar wandered around the store. What was he even doing back at Buckos? Twice — then three times — he was asked by the anxious shop assistant if he was here to buy. He took the hint and got lost. I’d make the world’s worst detective, he concluded, I have no idea what a clue looks like.
Instead of practicing, he propped up the photo of S.H. on the table, its inscribed back resting on a salt shaker, and studied the expression. Yes, he admired her defiance. Trapped as she was in two unforgiving dimensions, she had no opportunity to swing her fists against the white frame, or even turn her head. So she used what she had. She would break the connection with the camera and direct her eyes to a secret spot. It was an act of liberation, really; a leap over a tall wall. She refused the pair bond between the photographer and his subject. S.H.was a free radical in search of a place to attach herself. And Cesar had to admit that the frame helped her a bit. It was ragged on the right side, torn away, as if it had been attached to a strip of images. It underscored the feeling of incompleteness and longing that S.H. must have wanted to communicate. Was J.T.Q. missing a piece too? It seemed he must be.
Cesar had had a girlfriend once. She’d been a little whisper. Let’s hop the fence and head up the mountain by the army base, she said. Let’s see what the whole town looks like from the top. Cesar refused to do it. There were scorpions. If one bit her ankle he wouldn’t know what to do. He saw her in the sun, with scorpions at her heel, her trespasser’s footfall on a loose rock, shaking the mountain down. Her head dashed open in the ravine, surrounded by white stones. Soon she was going with another man. Did they hop the fence? He doubted they did. The fancy had been specific to their relationship. She was trying to tease something out of Cesar that wouldn’t come.
He spent the next two afternoons in the public library, scrolling through directories of Phoenix residents and jotting down possible addresses. There were far more J.Q. and T.Q. names than he thought there would be. He looked for matches near the airport and on the far side of South Mountain, since he believed, with no real basis, that these would be neighborhoods full of Hopi. He kept the photograph of S.H. face up by the reference books to spur him on. She didn’t accuse him, she just looked past him. Soon I will reunite you, thought Cesar, I’ll figure out where you go and put you back. By what right does any man put up a fence in the desert. By the end of the second day he’d filled three pages of yellow lined paper in his notebook with names and addresses, and he hadn’t begun to exhaust the resources of the library. Where would he start and how would he approach this? Maybe it would have been better to have left the wallet with the rangers. Overwhelmed, Cesar pedaled for home.
The rice and beans had gone faster than he’d thought they would. There was now very little left in the satchel. It would either be the guitar or the bike, thought Cesar, nothing else I own will fetch anything. Pity J.T.Q., who may have faced a similar choice to this one earlier than he’d expected. He may have had to sell something off before he was prepared to let it go. He thought he’d had forty seven dollars and seventy cents, and then he had zero. He’d thought he’d had a picture of a woman who called him lightning over the chaparral. Then he did not. Cesar pinched the money and the woman. But his borrowed time was almost up.
Roddy had believed that they were privy to a kind of earth magic that obviated logic. Sit back, open yourself up, and allow the problem to riddle itself out. It seemed promising. But Cesar was forced to conclude that it had never quite worked out for Roddy — or for him — the way it was supposed to. Answers were never on the breeze. Maybe this time would be different, though. Cesar opened the window and settled into a chair, and tried to rid his mind of complications. Nothing mystical happened to Cesar there. He simply remembered something that a better sleuth would have covered days ago. But in fairness to Roddy, the solution came together so quickly that there might have been a spiritual tailwind blowing through the bleak subdivision.
It was the receipt he remembered, and it took a search to recover it from the mess of the floor. Cesar biked straight to the service station in Encanto, a green and pleasant neighborhood tucked into a gap between dirt and great buildings. The mechanic didn’t even consult a computer. J.T.Q., he said, that’s probably Ted Quester. He’s here all the time with that piece of shit car of his. Good on you for returning Ted’s wallet or trying to. He’ll appreciate it.
The mechanic directed him to the far side of the mountain. Although Cesar had spent his life in Phoenix, he’d never realized there was even a neighborhood that far south. The city was like that: steep red hills and passes in the desert and hidden villages behind every teetering pile of rocks. But how the builders had managed to wedge houses on that narrow stretch of sand was beyond his understanding. If the mountain had been transparent, Cesar might have been able to see Ted Quester’s house from his own.
Well, he hadn’t sold the bicycle yet. He’d never tried to go straight across South Mountain before, but he knew it was more than possible — it was probably just what J.T.Q. had done when he’d deposited his sweatpants in the scrub. He’d left the wallet at the trailhead on Cesar’s side; it was only right that Cesar should carry it back to the opposite end of the trail. It would save him a long trip around the east end of the mountain, too. That settled it: he’d get a good night’s rest and then tackle the Corona de Loma first thing in the morning, before the sun got too too hot.
That night, Cesar dreamt of the photo. The picture of the woman kept transforming — first into a great black bird, and then into Kokopelli, hunched over and blowing up a storm. But no matter how much the image shifted, it was always S.H.; S.H. as Cesar had come to know her, or felt he did, the recalcitrant, the uncooperative, the searching stare. Then he discovered he was off his feet, leaping high, up over the fence and toward the mountain by the army base, levitating high over the peak, then dropping down, toward the dust, the wobbly stones, and the scorpions in the cracks.
He’d overslept. No time to waste. By the time Cesar filled himself with tap water and hit the trail, it was already ten thirty and the sun was speaking. Before he’d even arrived at the trailhead, his forehead was already beaded with sweat. Nevertheless, everything about the morning felt sweet. The smell of the dirt and the cactus flowers, the tallness of the sky, the great sleeping hump of the mountain in the sun: all reminders that he was lucky to live in a painted city. It was tough to get completely lost in Phoenix. Traces of the road were always visible in the wilderness. His tires began to pop and bump over the jagged rocks that pitched him upward in his seat, and he began his climb.
From the narrow ledge he could see the expanse of the city — the dry flats of the Salt River and the big buildings Downtown, the interstates to Scottsdale tied up with cars and the wide roads emptying traffic into Encanto, planes in and out of Sky Harbor, the rumpled green bedspread of the Northern mountains in the distance. Cesar felt strong as he pulled up on the handlebars, pumped the pedals, and climbed. At times the trail was the narrowest thread through the chaparral, but his wheels always found it. Other bikers had worn a groove into the mountain. He just had to follow it.
But now the sun had begun shouting in earnest. It felt like it was inches from his face: a great angry ball that lived on the mountain and didn’t care for visitors. Cesar wiped his brow with the sleeve of his t-shirt until it was soaked and could absorb nothing more. The ascent was not a steady thing — at times the trail plunged into gullies, or swerved, and threw Cesar into tight switchbacks that felt as if they’d pitch him from his seat. Fifteen minutes into the ride, he’d been nervous. Twenty in, and he was terrified.
He began to count a head-on collision with a saguaro among the better outcomes. He’d be jabbed with pins, but at least something with large, embracing arms would cushion his fall. Only a thin scree of red stones divided his wheels from the steep edge of the trail and a fall that would surely rip him to tatters. So much sweat poured down his arms that his handlebars had become slick. He took a deep breath and guided the bicycle through a tight corridor of boulders.
A dip, a bump, a shake, another shake, another dip, a jostle, a stomach-turning lurch, a small bump, a bump so rough and raw he thought he’d felt his tires burst. And it was spoke-melting heat, vision-distorting heat, from the sun that turned the vegetation black. He couldn’t look at it; the salt from the sweat stung at his eyeballs, but he had to keep his lids open a slit to maintain what bearings he still had. Rocks rolled away in either direction as he charged through the dirt. If he lost his seat, if he caught a flat or if his brittle old chain snapped, he’d be roasted on these rocks. He’d made a mistake coming this way. The mountain that had looked benign and abstract in the distance was, up close, a fearsome barrier.
The ground before him looked swollen and for a moment, Cesar believed he was falling. Then he realized he was only faint. Without even knowing what he was doing, he began to pray — first, the old Catholic catechism he’d been taught as a boy, and then, rejecting that as inapplicable to the present predicament, he turned to the magical thinking that Roddy had always recommended. But that had all been manufactured by Roddy, far from the Moenkopi Village. Cesar attempted to enchant the bicycle, make it an adamantine rocket, impermeable to dust and desert vegetation, but the moment was slippery and the spell did not catch.
He tried another visualization: the sun as a friend with a too-firm handshake, a wrestling partner that played it a bit too rough, but still a dependable guide. That didn’t work either. And then all at once Cesar realized he was praying to S.H., worshipping the idol of her image, asking her to intervene on his behalf against the heat, the vertigo, the drop, gravity itself. S.H. please save me, bring me in, put my wheels on level ground, deliver me so I may deliver you to your beloved. As he neared the summit he saw her staring eyes everywhere — at the tops of the saguaros and on the dots of scrub vegetation in the hills and the cracks in the earth and the loose bone-white stones and the barrel cactuses that poked through the earth and leaned at crazy angles over the trail. Everywhere he was observed. Then he vaulted over the crest and began going down.
The world accelerated. The trail slanted so fast and so hard that his brakes were useless. Any temptation he had to drag his feet on the ground was tempered by reason: his limbs would be shorn off by the rocks. Cesar fought off the blackout. When mercy arrived, it was unexpected. He was suddenly engulfed by shade. The top of the mountain was behind him now, and the path was so steep that the sun couldn’t quite catch him. Cesar opened his eyes wide to see the onrush of the bushes and brambles, the earth below him, the giant stacks of stones and the trail as it twisted away from view. He threw his weight left, and then right, and then right again as the switchbacks nearly bucked him from his seat. To his amazement and wonder he realized that he had very little control over the bicycle. He trusted the wheels to find the imprint of those who’d gone over the mountain before he had. He was at the mercy of forces far bigger than he was — gravity and geometry and physics and the relationship between rubber tires and ancient rock.
Cesar concentrated and became a marble, tucked into a chute, cradled by its curved edges, small and hard and fast, rolling fiercely to the flat plane below. Nothing could harm a marble. Its perfect roundness enabled it to bounce off of all obstacles. A marble was smooth, inoffensive, and hard to shatter. And so Cesar tumbled, a perfect sphere, thinking marble thoughts, casting marble enchantments, marble heart fluttering through momentary skips and jumps and threatened spin-outs, always landing and rolling on, safe on the bicycle somehow, until the wheels met the opposite trailhead and the sweet macadam on the far side of the mountain.
He did not slow down much. Accustomed to speed as he now was, and subject to the laws of velocity as they apply to marbles, Cesar continued to streak around in a circular blur. He passed house after house, hiding from the road behind high soundwalls. Each was identical: the same light brown front and white-doored garage, the same roof of curved red ceramic tiles, similar cacti growing in rock gardens in the front yards. A school looked so similar to the surrounding homes that Cesar could only identify it by the packs of children, many identically dressed, filing into its wide doors. A crossing guard waved them on. Only after Cesar had crashed over the crosswalk and ignored the whistle and outstretched hand of the guard and gone another quarter mile at top speed did the face of the man in uniform register on him. It had been Roddy.
Or perhaps he was sun-struck and hallucinating? He had never known Roddy to wear a uniform. Had his fevered mind superimposed Roddy’s face on a crossing guard? It didn’t seem plausible that Roddy would find himself here, in a neat, high-hedged, heat-pressed neighborhood, or that a school district would have allowed him near children. No way he would subject himself to such an orderly place. Halt, he had said, and that was not Roddy’s language. And yet it had looked like him, it had been him. Unless it hadn’t been. But Cesar didn’t swing around to check. He was tired of investigation.
Five minutes later he rolled to a stop outside the home of Ted Quester. The car that the mechanic had maligned: it turned out to be an old model BMW with chipped paint. Cesar couldn’t imagine what the problem was. One of the front parlor windows had a diagonal crack in it. Besides that the house was identical to the others on the block. No sign of activity anywhere, inside or outside. Had a wallet really brought him here? As Cesar knocked on the front door, he felt the futility of his entire journey. J.T.Q. must earn a living elsewhere in the city. There was no way that Ted Quester would be home right now, would he be, on a weekday, in the middle of the day, on a block designed to accommodate the lifestyle of earners, one with neighborhood watch signs and long hedges and surveillance cameras fixed to the tops of the lightpoles.
But he was home. Mere seconds after Cesar rang the buzzer, a man answered the door. He was about Cesar’s age, and wore glasses and a loose fitting buttoned-down shirt. At the sight of Cesar he pulled his coffee cup closer to his chest.
“I have something that belongs to you.”
“Sorry, sorry. Not interested today.”
Cesar was suddenly conscious of how he must have looked: hair scrambled and plastered to his forehead in thick strands, shirt soaked through, shorts covered with powdered dirt and bicycle grease on his sneakers. He reached for the billfold. But by the time he pulled it out, Quester had shut the door. Behind the barrier he heard a deadbolt lock into place. I have something for you, Cesar shouted. Something you lost. Something I found. With both palms he pounded on the door. No answer. Cesar became conscious of movement to his left. He turned his head to meet the face of a phone, attached to an arm, held aloft over the top of the hedge, capturing him on film.
“I have something important for him,” Cesar said to the neighbor.
The phone disappeared.
Someone is calling the cops, Cesar knew. Someone is phoning the police and reporting a disturbance. Soon a squad car would roar around the corner and pull into the cul-de-sac to investigate. He had only moments to come up with something. Cesar knew now that it wasn’t the man’s main wallet at all: it was an auxiliary billfold, something he’d tucked in the back pocket of his sweatpants when he’d gone running on the mountain. The forty seven dollars and seventy cents must have meant nothing to him.
But he’d managed to save S.H. Taking care not to smudge the ink, Cesar extracted the photograph from the leather pouch and dropped the wallet in the rock garden. Then he walked to the cracked panel window, rapped on the pane, pressed his fingertips and nose against the glass, and held up the face of S.H. for the man in the parlor to see.
From the gloom of the house Mr. Ted Quester saw two faces. One male, ethnic, worn and pleading, the other, female, much smaller, just below his sweating chin. A crack ran right down the middle of both. Sunlight shone through the pharmacy photograph, straight through the glass and the cheap paper, and he could see the handwriting, words scribbled backward, on the cheeks of S.H. In the parlor J.T.Q. began to melt. Cesar heard a click, and a creak, and the front door opened.