By Dee Newman
“Willy Flower, Fourteen”
that’s all the simple wooden cross said,
at least, that’s all it said in words.
He stood there for a long moment,
watching a tumbleweed fight
to free itself from a nearby cross,
turning his head frequently from the wind
to spit away the desert grit.
The winter sun had all but fallen
beneath the floor of the Yuma Desert,
inflaming a once white mass of cumulus clouds.
The chill that had crept across earlier
with the evening shadows had become
more than discomforting, drawing in
his shoulders as it shivered up his spine.
As he turned to head back
the tumbleweed finally broke free
and began to bounce around the cemetery,
scoring off the crosses as if each
were a peg in a pin-ball machine.
That afternoon he had quit school
(just as his brother and sister had done before him),
refusing to accept any longer
the endless jeering insults
of the white kids in Yuma.
“Why, why do they call me those names?”
he thought, as he bent beneath a rugged
Palo Verde limb to gather several
dead branches to take back for the fire.
“I’m not lazy. I don’t drink.”
The horrifying hush, the utter hopelessness
of the desert had all but eaten away his heart.
He felt as if he too were already dead.
Approaching the hut he saw his grandmother
leaning over the fire frying the last
of the government-surplus pinto beans.
He lived there in that ancient mud-twig hut
with his withered grandmother,
his nineteen-year-old sister,
and her two strangely glazed-eyed children.
While his brother was still alive
the six of them were existing on two
eighty-five dollar monthly welfare checks
and the beans and rice from the federal
government’s surplus food program.
Last month his brother’s portion
of their check was deducted.
After dropping the branches and small twigs
he had collected by the fire and ducking
within the door-less opening of their dirt-floor hut,
he lay down on an old cotton mattress
and buried his head in his crossed arms.
In the far corner on a bed of flattened
cardboard boxes his sister sat breastfeeding
both her infant and three-year-old.
Her dark liquid eyes glistened
from the light of the fire
as she watched her grandmother stir
the beans with an old wooden spoon.
Her husband had abandoned her a year ago,
ironically enabling his then pregnant wife
and daughter to draw welfare and survive.
Suddenly, her eyes drop to her daughter.
Pulling back from her mother’s breast,
the three-year-old sniffled, wiping her nose
uselessly with the back of her hand.
Only last week one of Amie Star’s
children died of bronchial pneumonia.
Rolling over on his back he felt something
hard beneath him. It was his brother’s Bible.
“He really believed it,” he thought to himself,
“but why, why had he . . .”
His mind began to race back to that night,
that terrifying night when they found him
still clutching the barrel with his big toe
locked within the trigger-housing
where he had released a load of buckshot
through the roof of his mouth and brain.
His brother had quit school only the day before.
I wrote this in 1970 after working for a five county community action agency in southern Arizona.