I get a strange impression on entering the Kitchen this noon and cast about the ten tables of fifty patrons- homeless, unwaged, retired, crazies, welfare cases, stew bums, beggars, the hungry, transients, or others just searching for a cup of comfort- for a focus. The place jumps, almost explodes out the door. I step back and hear a scream.
‘Bo! Where have you been… In my prayers…The animals need water… A French flourish… and a Spanish epitaph!’ Every neck twists to me as the room changes to an oil painting- one calm instant in the next whirling hour at the Blythe, Ca. Kitchen- and I glimpse the source Alba the Carmelite.
Then the patrons spin back to her. Alba sits like a shrunken prune in a pale blue skirt and white sweatshirt embossed with a sunflower. ‘Did you bring the rattlesnake?’ inquires someone and she sasses, ‘In my purse with the scorpions.’ She wipes a chair with doubled mittens that I gave her four years ago and tells me to sit in the 95-degree Kitchen. A cane rests next to her chair, an icebreaker, and I ask my 70-year-old Sand Valley neighbor, ‘What’s up with it?’
‘I couldn’t get a ride from home to get the dogs water and walked 20 miles to Palo Verde where a kind Sheriff gave me a lift to Blythe. I’ll stick it back in a dumpster in a couple days after my ankles goes down. Now sit and meet my new friend.’
I’m, uh, I’m…‘ struggles a thin man with a one-week beard.
‘He’s insane,’ she snaps, and thrusts her gentle face into his honest one to add, ‘and I don’t like it!’ A haunt flies out his eyes and he starts afresh, ‘Yes, I’m hitchhiking from Detroit where there’s a warrant for an uncommitted deed to San Francisco where my sister has a job for me stocking at a grocery store. My head sometimes spins, and I hear voices.’
I look up around the hot room where every soul is animated and periodically glances at us. A shaggy ex-boxer who ran the local porn cinema until he got punchy shadowboxes behind Alba repeating a mantra, ‘Yabadabado!’ Alba gets slowly to her feet and taps his sternum with an index finger, ‘Get out of here, Fred, before I clobber you with coffee.’
The next in line, a stocky, grinning man with bear eyes, begins hopefully, ‘Ma’am, Remember me?’ He tips a cap to reveal a long scar where my neighbor once beat him with a tire iron for abetting another out the Valley pursued by helicopters, dogs and the law for shooting a finger off the Sheriff for taking his environmentally illegal tire collection. ‘Howie!’ shouts Alba, hugging him close. ‘Those were the days!’ Howie replies shyly, ‘I’d like you to meet my Ma.’
Ma, larger than her son with the same brown eyes, nudges him aside to reach down and politely shake Alba’s hand but abruptly pulls back and mutters, ‘Don’t mind me, I just need some air.’ Yet I watch her troubled toddle from the door and fall heavily into the register sign-in chair at the head of the buffet. I follow to check and for seconds of potatoes saying my number ‘154’ thinking that she may be helping the short staff. She stares vacantly, hyperventilates and slowly goes ashen as the son rushes to hold her hand for the moment.
I return to the table for but a tick when Alba intones, ‘Bo, there’s a big cop in black behind you.’ ‘Sure,’ I say spooning potatoes and feel the chair back rise as the 6’3’’ bowling ball officer roars, ‘Clear the way for the gurney!’ and two starch-shirt paramedics storm the door and wheel the contraption along the buffet to poor Ma who looks up once, pulls troubled wind, and drops a double-chin to her bosom. They buckle tight and strap on oxygen as snorts of vapor clouds follow the speeding gurney out the door.
We rise to leave the ghastly scene, but first Alba extracts a manila envelope from her oversized black purse to make room for meat scraps and lays it on the table. I note an October 10 postmark (a month ago) and Speclister Ken Smith’s return address. ‘Alba!’ I exclaim, ‘open it!’ ‘OK,’ she grins sourly, ‘but I was going to wait for Halloween.’ Smith visited her in Sand Valley last year while I watched them dance around a Maypole of dog feces chatting philosophically about things that were way above my head. She circumspectly peels the flap back and pulls a thin booklet titled ‘Carmelites’ and clutches it to her chest.
‘Ordo fratrum Beatæ Virginis Mariæ de monte Carmelo,’ murmurs Alba in Latin, and translates for us, ‘The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, my inspiration to move to the desert after being rejected by convents in three countries. But why didn’t Ken send a postcard of Seattle?’
I have no defense, so she totes the purse and cane over her shoulder outside to a waiting shopping cart with a mongrel pup inside. The trailing Michigander peeks back through the door and asks, ‘Is it always that crazy in there?’
I chuckle not, ‘Only when Alba the marionette comes to town!’ I hand over $5, a princely sum for a man finding his mind along the road, and he ambles merrily a hundred yards to an onramp for I-10 West, waves at us and fishes a thumb.
Alba turns to smile at me, tosses a headful of curls and god knows what else from the desert, pulls up wool socks, down a black stocking cap, and leans heavily into the cart with the drooling pup at the scraps and using the cane wheels toward a big orange ball in the sky. ‘Christ,’ she warbles to anyone listening, ‘I’m sleeping nights on the cement pad behind the Phillips 66 until someone hauls water to Sand Valley.’
I’d say to send Alba money but she avows a lovely life in a trailer cramped by cats and dogs on forty acres in the hot Sonora a day’s walk from me. Unlike the other eight Sand Valleyites, she has no propane for cooking and heat, no solar for electricity, reads by candlelight, and cooks outside by placing Cup-of-Soup on the ground next to a 2’-diameter thermometer that I’ve watched twirl past 140-degrees F. Rattlers, scorpions and rodents ply a dozen neatly raked pillars of animal excrement that Alba slaloms nonchalantly in garlic anklets to prevent being bitten, though she’s stung yearly by killer bee swarms. She lives alone with no running vehicle but every three months takes the epic walk to town to beg a truckload of water. When I sub-taught in Blythe a favorite story told the ‘Toughest in the Valley’- a Vietnam POW for two years in a tiger cage, or feral boy Quick who captures birds and scorpions by hand, Bomb Mary who shook off a misdirected backyard bomb, Korean War vet walking circles on a wooden leg, or Big Jake who wore an old south school dunce cap before working for NASA and retiring on SSI for dyslexia- but the toughest in the Valley is the Carmelite.
I’d say that except that I once thumbed Alba’s 1956 Penn State yearbook where she’s splashed cover to cover as the Latin club president, favorite school clown, and scoring for girls’ basketball(!). I saw her dog-eared Nicaraguan passport portraying a classic Spanish beauty with visa stamps from around the globe. I sorted a box of a hundred yellowing photographs of ten-year-old Alba in a tutu, the family’s thirteen hardware stores, cattle ranch, ocean front cotton farm, photos of her from the Bahamas to Europe wearing bikinis to mink stoles, San Francisco CPA business license and ledgers with inserts of her since pulled teeth and cut nails, and heard her take a rain check as sole heiress to the family millions.
You may drop Alba a postcard and in trade for the stamp ask, Why?
Be aware, it always starts with Alba.