No Wonder You Hated Arizona

I pulled the postcard from a junk store shoebox. It cost a dollar, and I bought it for the picture, a glossy black and white of two barrel cacti in a desert. They’re impressive specimens, rain-swollen and crowned with dark flowers. “BARREL CACTUS—ARIZ.” reads the caption, in blocky, workmanlike print. Barrel cacti tend to grow toward the south—one of their common names is “compass cactus”—and, true to form, these two list a little to one side. If you’re thirsty enough, you can slice off the barrel’s top, mash its pulpy flesh, and drink the fluid stored there.

I’d had the card for awhile before I turned it over and discovered the note. Mailed to an address in Urbana, Illinois, its San Francisco postmark dated July 15, 1949. In a tight scrawl, it read:

Dear Blanche,

I should have written long ago to thank you for the birthday gift but was very busy at the timeThen thought we’d come by on our way out here but changed route. No wonder you hated Arizona. Will write later. T.

And here I part ways with T., despiser of Arizona, presumably because of its extravagant cactus population. I love cacti and always have. The only one native to my part of the country is the prickly pear, the Opuntia family thriving here as it does all over the continent, in areas dry or wet, southern or western, from Florida to California, Mexico to (practically) the Arctic Circle. One of the family’s most northerly reaching species, the Hunger Cactus, or Starvation, may be my favorite: its stems, wrinkled and pitted and thirsty-looking; its roots holding down sand that would otherwise blow away.

What strikes me about T.’s note is the way in which guilt and obligation rise off its few sentences. She (?) doesn’t really thank Blanche for the birthday gift, whatever it was, and she couples her half-hearted apologies with reasons and equivocation. Did she honestly consider stopping by Urbana on her way west? Somehow, I don’t think so, and the boilerplate “Will write later” reads like an empty promise. The penultimate sentence—“No wonder you hated Arizona”—is the only true thing on the card, a human emotion shared.

How did this card, dashed off in a moment of obligation, survive so long? How did it make it from Illinois to a little mountain town in North Carolina? What was the relationship between writer and recipient—former neighbors, old school chums still going through the motions, sisters? All forgotten, and all I have is this, evidence of a line crossed off a To Do list.

But I have to be honest. How many of my “sorry” letters have fallen short; how many are still unwritten? I did recognize you that day. You were far from home, and I pretended not to see you. Or this: I could have visited at what I realize now was the end.

In 1950, the year after T. wrote her postcard, the census bureau noted that Urbana’s population had increased 62 percent over 1940. In the same decade, San Francisco’s population rose 22 percent. More recently, barrel cacti, along with many other species, have been bulldozed from Arizona deserts to make room for a booming population. But prickly pear still thrives. As I read in Del Weniger’s wonderful Cacti of Texas and Neighboring States: “The student of the Opuntias can take heart in knowing that, tough as these plants are, they will be among the last wild plants to go.”

And after all, there’s something about T. I admire. She’ll bend, but not break; even if she’s in the wrong, she hates to let on. Holds tight to her mistakes, clenched in a fist; the most she’ll do is tilt a little to one side. Lives her life in her new city, sloughing off the past like a debt ignored, and when she follows the social proprieties, it’s to the letter, never the spirit. What she holds could save your life, if only she’d let you have it. She husbands her reserves for herself.