Sunday, February 19, 2017

Memory . . .

Is an odd duck. 

In my 30’s I traveled a great deal, crossing the country numerous times. Always alone or with my shepherd mix Jessethedog, (to distinguish her from Jessie the girl or Jesse the boy, naturally) I drove the back roads, farm roads and ranch roads of America looking for the unusual and the absurd. Sometimes just looking.

To harken back to ducks for a moment, my first car, a red Datsun B-210, had a line of duck decals on the bumper. I placed them there so I could truthfully say that there was one place I had my ducks in a row. That car also had an Anderson for president bumper sticker. But I digress-

One of my early trips involved a southerly route, for no better reason than I wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Monument. A fine reason in and of itself, I felt, and after admiring both the trees and my favorite part, a series of signs at the entrance to the park- YOU ARE NOW ENTERING JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL FOREST, then immediately afterward- JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL FOREST, and literally five feet after that, a large sign with an arrow pointing to the only type of vegetation visible for miles,

Astoundingly enough, that was another digression. You see, the more I type, in an odd duckish way (is duckish a word? And what is an odd duck anyway?) the more I remember other things. But . . .

To get to the point, (Oh, please, Margo, get to the point!) after getting my fill of the wondrous twisted alien creatures that are Joshua trees I decided it only made sense to continue my southerly route by heading towards and through Death Valley.

After all, it was winter, and I had a jug of water. I also had almost bald tires and an odd clattering noise coming from somewhere in the chassis but fortunately that was before cell phones. plus I’d been camping the last few nights so hadn't heard a weather report and had no way of knowing this was a freakishly hot week with strong winds. 

Don’t worry. I did not break down and die a horrible death in the desert. That’s yet another story. Years later.

I was, however, engulfed in clouds of borax whipped from the old mines by sirocco winds, thick dust that rapidly overtaxed my air conditioning filter. A lucky twist of fate as without the need to wait out the blowing clouds it’s unlikely I’d have ventured into the tiny town of Death Valley Junction.

Although once there, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the Amargosa Opera House.  If only because this was a town far too small and quiet to have a movie theater, let alone an Opera House.  Basically pre-Internet, I had no way to Google any information, so had to explore on my own, with my actual feet and my actual eyes.

Thank heaven for clouds of borax. 

There was no performance  at the opera house that day, but the lobby door was open.  I could just glimpse the lavish, faded interior from a bygone era and the mural filled auditorium walls. It looked as if a bizarre, colorful audience had been painted in, patiently waiting for something to happen. I wished I could join them, and almost stayed around. But it was hot, and there was no place to camp. So the dog and I moved on, heading toward the bright lights of Vegas, or at least some place with a Ford dealership.

Several years later I happened upon a documentary about Marta Becket and realized what I'd seen, or almost seen.

I wrote a poem about the experience. I’ve unearthed and present it here. I made some corrections, as it was an early and not very good poem. (It’s still not a very good poem, but it’s better than the original. Trust me.)

         The Diva Of Death Valley Junction

You’re almost embarrassed for her,
this pretend prima in her own ghost town,
until with a grand gesture
she unveils her scrapbooks-

yellowed programs, curling 8x10's
herself,so much younger,
nearly famous.
Not a star, but
if she’d stayed in the City. . .

Look past her mask-like makeup,
flesh out the skeletal body
over which her best costume’s draped, and
you almost feel
you should remember her name.

So you keep watching,
a part of you
dances with her as the camera
follows her down the hall.

Pirouetting around a pile
of fallen plaster,
exposed water pipe for a barre,
she leads her audience
into the ancient, crumbling opera house

A Grand Entrance
onto her personal stage.
Twice daily she'll perform here
for passing tourists or alone,
and you'll think of her

each day at two o'clock,
dancing  for the bright murals
she has painted on three walls.
Her vision of the perfect audience:
nuns, conquistadors, her ex-husband
as the King of Spain.                        

The point of this whole story is that this memory was triggered by a sad news story this week. Marta Becket, the Diva of Death Valley Junction, died last month at the age of 92.
I wish I'd stayed around a day.

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