Monday, April 17, 2017

Bus Ride in the Rain

Once in a while, prison routine takes a sharp corner into a surprise of suspended expectation. The walls drop away, and the wire loses its confining presence. Often these moments are accompanied by the smell of creosote; they are rinsed by sweet, fresh water. Today is one of those days.
Summer bakes the broad alluvial fan that spreads out from the Santa Rita Mountains in a wide, sloping incline. No floods have run across Wilmot Road for over three months, but the sky to the south today has gone purple with an anvil-headed cumulonimbus. I can see lightning stabbing at the ridges as the storm slides down off the mountain, dragging a dusty veil of wind and rain toward the prison. It’s about twenty miles off when I arrive, go through the search process and questions, pass through the sally port, and stand in a shrinking circle of summer sun. A shadow is taking over the expanse of scrub between the prison and the mountains. A storm has slid off the heights and is careening across the flats. The prison will be hit first, then Tucson, and, then the open fields to the north. There, it will become a dust storm. I am glad to be here and not driving.
The wind whips and scours loose paper as a twisting dervish carries debris six hundred feet above me in a spinning tunnel of particulate and litter. Immediately after, a rush of wet, cool air drops the temperature fifteen degrees in a matter of minutes as I set down the tub, in awe of the swift changes that desert monsoons push ahead of their arrival. In a few more minutes hail could could be hammering the metal roof above me.

Lightning strikes a couple hundred yards away and the peal of thunder is immediate. Rain travels across the bleak yard, coming as a broom sweeping a cloud of haze before it while wind rips and lifts water from the irrigation rivulet that travels dawn the ditches and swales around the trimmed ocotillo and palo verde trees. I would be better served inside but take cover under the overhang as rain blows against in cyclonic gusts under the steel roof. Yard after yard succumbs to the oncoming deluge as the gulleys gather the flood. The visitor bus driver sees me under the awning and veers off the main road and down the drive to the main gate. He speeds through the rising waters and sends a graceful wing of spray out from the keel of the wheels. He is loving it.

I am soaked to the skin immediately as I enter the downpour but walk to meet him, tubs in front me like a cooler to a party. I shiver but feel good to be cold. 

The driver is a young guy with holes on his ear where plugs used to be. No jewelry here. He has cranked up a heavy metal station on the radio, but that cannot compete with the peals of thunder all around us. He smiles. I see he is as wet as I am, his orange shirt clinging to his muscled shoulders and back. 

“Just did shift change,” he says, as a way of explaining why he is wet. His hand is on the lever and he waits until I sit down to swing the door shut. I sit on the plastic tandem seat beneath a blast of A/C. The grinding sameness of prison routine is visited by something rich and novel. The smell of the surrounding desert blankets the prison. A taste of the high mountains, the swirling currents of air in a storm cloud thirty-thousand feet high, and the assault of wintery chill have transformed the moment. Our habits of being and thinking have been suspended and we travel in fragile zone of creative tension. We can make this moment whatever we want because of the ephemeral transition zone between what is familiar and what is moving, in constant flux.

We head over to the maximum security unit where we will pick some other straggling visitors. 

Two older women wait under the overhang. One removes her sandals to cross the flooded gap between the overhang and the bus door. It is up to her ankles, but she does not complain. Instead, she moves like a schoolgirl, soaking in the lusciously warm runoff. The other keeps on her sandals and tiptoes. They climb in with help from the driver. Both of them are smiling like kids carrying Easter baskets. They are glad to be on the bus. Their dark hair, streaked with gray, drips onto their shoulders.

They chat with the driver like we are on holiday with him, our young tour guide. “You got here just in time. We thought we were going to be stuck there – all that lightning!”

“Yeah, when it rains out here, the rivers run deep and fast.  All that water has to go somewhere.” He speaks with the calm authority of the local, the native, the one with the inside scoop. We could be tourists in Greece or Nepal but for the razor wire and sharp division between the free and the imprisoned.  For just a minute our roles evaporate, and we are just people on a bus traveling through the storm.

I decide that we will write about rain today. I will ask them to describe a storm that is the composite of all the storms they have seen or heard of. I will ask them to tell the rain so that someone who wasn’t there might get a taste of the experience, might get a glimpse of what the moment was, in all its frightening mystery, all of its spell of awe and possibility.

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