Global Consumer Distribution SA
Research and Development Division
North American Headquarters
317 Industrial Parkway
Milford, CT 06460
Under cover of this letter please find initial, selected results from GCD’s first Focus Group in Zone 5 (Southwest) for Product 1822J: Authentic Garden-fresh Salsa. Focus Group was prescreened and comprised of qualified members representative of respective geodemographic “groups,” per employment of my firm’s recently devised classification system, PINON (People in Neighborhoods or/and Non-neighborhoods), modeled closely on the UK-based demographics system ACORN. (This is not to be confused with the US’s ACORN, a collective of community-based reform organizations that advocated for medium-and low-income families and was destroyed through a range of controversies, nearly all of which were exacted by rich, white men.)
Focus Group was conducted in Banquet Room #3 (the Stardust Room) of the Lubbock, Texas, Marriott Hotel on March 4, 2012. Of the fourteen scheduled participants, twelve were present. The remaining two would-be participants, each embroiled in a series of events relating to coincidence, tragedy, and pain, indicated in subsequent emails that they would like to be part of another FG in the near or far future. Light refreshments were made available by the hotel itself, and supplemented by my 0.8-mile outing to the Hitchin’ Post, a combination gas station, grocery store, and souvenir shop, and the nearest purveyor of dry, edible goods to the Marriot, where I stayed for two nights in a King Standard.
In an effort of full disclosure, I feel compelled to mention that I am no longer with the firm for which I compiled these data, my intrigue with this part of the country growing so overt following occurrences that transpired during the Focus Group in question that I have chosen to remain here forever. Without any dependents, and following a long and painful divorce from my spouse, one in which my own uxoriousness doomed me to the title of cuckold, I find myself the benefactor of a hefty settlement and owner of a double-wide trailer in Shady Lanes Mobile Court in Levelland, Texas, forty-five minutes from New Mexico’s eastern border.
Having been that sort of workaday suburbanite common to much of late-’90s/early-’00s culture, my desires prosaic, my needs largely met, I’ve found these recent months and weeks to be akin to standing in a large, circular chamber, its single curving wall covered fully in doors. That is, Gloria, I wake in the morning, make eggs in a pan, put on my water-repellant safari hat with adjustable chin strap, and venture out into the world, unsure of both where it is that I’m going, and when I might return. Have you, Gloria, lived days without predestination, alone in the hot wind and staring out at some distant escarpment, your smart phone in a locked drawer four counties south? What I mean to say is that it’s good to feel whole again, and it’s you and Global Consumer Distribution SA and the Focus Group in question (and the acts therein) that I have to thank.
Before proceeding, PINON’s classification system, should you not have a copy nearby. Whereas the UK’s ACORN system accounts for all of the UK as its single, foundational demographic, PINON subdivides the US regionally, prior to classification; that is, the Southwest Model may look little (or almost exactly) like, say, the Northeast:
PINON 2012 Profile Definitions—Zone 5: Southwest*
|PINON Type||PINON Groups|
1.1 Suburbs with Guards and Gates
1.2 Suburbs with Gates
1.3 Suburbs with Implied Gates (e.g., Race, Knowledge of Blue Chips)
2.4 Palatial Livestock Estates
3.5 Bucolic Mountaintop Retreats
|1 Madoff Wannabes, Septuagenarians in Golf Carts |
2 Gun-toting Megaranchers
3 Sangre de Cristo Trust Funders
4.6 Those Houses They Show on HGTV That You Could Never Afford
5.7 Houses That Almost Look Like That
6.8 Houses That Will Look Like That Soon
|4 God-fearing Corner-office Breeders |
5 Ab-crunching, Work-from-home, Pagan Techies
6 Nouveau Riche Construction Moguls
7.9 Hip Parts of Town That Were Once Shitty Parts of Town, Then Gay Neighborhoods, Then Gentrified
8.10 The Student Ghetto
9.11 Innocuous, Curtain-drawn Split-levels
|7. New Wave Hetero Yuppies with Purse Dogs and Spin-class Memberships |
8 See 1–7, 9–18.
9 De Facto Cartel Employees, Undercover Department of Justice Workers
10.12 Outdated Apartment Complexes with Names Like Villa Del Sol and Spanish Fork Arms
11.13 Neighborhoods That Used to Look Good but Now Might Be the Ghetto
|10 Slot-machine Widows, Cactus-league Baseball Players |
11 The Middle Class (Note: Currently Unclear Whether or Not This Group Still Exists)
12.14 Rusting Airstreams
13.15 Crumbling Adobes
14.16 Tar-paper Eyesores
|12 Failed Country Singers |
13 Deprogrammed Ex-cult Members
14 Meth-smoking Oilers with Rap Sheets
|F-The Doomed** |
15.17 The Desert
16.18 Basement Efficiencies
17.19 Abandoned School Buses
18.20 Sewers, Caves
|15. Drug Mules |
17 Section 8 War Veterans
18 Artists, Writers, Intellectuals
*Please note that the Southwest, as a region, remains difficult to classify correctly and universally. Arizona and New Mexico, for instance, are nearly always considered the Southwest. However, Texas and Oklahoma are classified by the United States Census Bureau as the South, and not the Southwest or the West. Furthermore, all the states/regions that at least could be defined as comprising the Southwest—Eastern California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico—and are not already classified as the South (Texas and Oklahoma) are also classified by the Census Bureau as the West, thereby making the Southwest not really a region at all but something closer, perhaps, to a country of lost borders, a realm that by title must indeed be a place but also and very much isn’t.
**Please note that due to the current/ongoing recession, portions of many if not all PINON groups normally/otherwise classified as Type A through Type E may now be Type F, The Doomed.
The Zone 5 Focus Group began on time and in orderly fashion. Save for an outdated and innocuous fire exit in the far southeast corner of the room, the chamber was single entranced, with high twin doors of dark wood along its northern wall. These connected to a wide corridor that led in one direction to the spacious if sterile lobby, where at all hours one could find a single member of a rotating cast of clerks in simple black-and-white vestments common to low-level hospitality-management employees and, in the other direction, to the two other banquet rooms (the Bluebonnet Room and Rancho Brava), followed by the fitness center and separate indoor pool. I did not see the interior of either the Bluebonnet Room or Rancho Brava save for pictures on the Lubbock Marriot’s well-assembled, no-frills website, one that included virtual tours of all three banquet rooms on the hotel property. The Stardust Room was both the smallest and cheapest of the three offerings, and as implementation of the Focus Group required no more than a large table, grounded electrical outlet, and space for an old-model television set on a wheeled, mobile platform, it (the Stardust Room) was the logical and cost-effective choice.
The carpet was a thick, synthetic blend, its primary color cobalt. Strands of reddish brown and bright gray were worked in at regular intervals meant to look random. In providing a type of carpet with this much depth and cushion, I inferred that the room was more often used for social functions than work-related gatherings, as a thinner, more industrial-grade carpet would have sufficed for the latter but not the former. At the same time, the carpet held so much depth that it would be easy for a new bride to take a post-ceremony, alcohol-induced tumble—her champagne flute breaking in her palm, a white heel snapping—and as such acts are things no father (or hotel’s legal representation) wants, ever, to see, I remained in doubt to the chamber’s exact purpose.
Indeed, the Stardust’s Room’s only shortcoming—one that did not manifest as such until after the Zone 5 FG had begun, and could not be righted without me stopping the day’s event in order to locate a grounds manager, who would in turn have had to bring in a second hotel employee to assess and, if possible, repair the problem—was a single, flickering ring of lights on the wooden, oversized fixture closest to the room’s main door. Much like the tufts of ochre and gray in the carpet, these fixtures were spaced around the room in a pattern meant to seem random but in truth governed by precise measurements chosen in order to arrive at a specific desired effect. Totaling nine, each fixture was, by design, a wagon wheel, though it was impossible for me to tell whether or not these wagon wheels were, at one point, just that—spoked, wooden circles that sat astride some Concord’s thoroughbraces, its buggy lurching like a wounded gunfighter through the thick desert dust, toward a Sierra boomtown—and had been repurposed, or, alternately, if these wheels were new, and only designed to look as though they were antique.
In either case, and as I have mentioned, the lights (twelve in total) on the fixture that hung nearly over the threshold of the entrance to the Stardust Room were faulty, sizzling on and off in a manner akin to poorly functioning neon tubes comprising a sign for any mode of seedy drinking establishment. Spread out over the oval table—the kind found most often in corporate boardrooms, the particleboard under a thick synthetic gloss—were my firm’s preconceived Focus Group packets, which would accompany the interview conducted by myself. Fifteen chairs rung the table: fourteen for the total number of planned participants and one for myself, though I would not sit down over the course of the day. Off-brand bottled water stood next to each packet. As the participants arrived I moved from my spot next to the television set on one side of the table to its other end, introducing myself and extending a hand, palm up, toward the folding table of refreshments on the western side of the room. Included there were two cheese-and-fruit platters (hotel bought), an array of soft drinks and sparkling fruit juices, and more bottled water of the same (non-) brand, in addition to the items I purchased at the aforementioned Hitchin’ Post. These included foil-wrapped plastic sleeves of cream-filled chocolate cookies, two packages of name-brand butter crackers, one bag of bite-sized chocolate candies (assorted), and fifteen strips of what the cylindrical plastic container next to the Hitchin’ Post’s cash register called “boar jerky,” the nomenclature declaring that the rough-hewn strips of preserved meat were indeed dried slabs of wild pig. (Upon closer inspection of the container itself, this turned out, as imagined, to be false, the jerky not that of a dead wild pig at all, but rather the flesh of cattle, the inference being, Gloria, that lies of a certain shape and size are perfectly acceptable in the realm of the marketing of food.)
With small talk accomplished and seats at the table taken, the Focus Group pushed on to the task at hand, namely identifying what they found compelling about the array of salsa products currently on the market, in addition to their broader, respective purviews on salsa itself. At the outset, and per Global Consumer Distribution’s corporate guidelines, I read the Informed Consent Form in its entirety:
Welcome StatementAfter this introductory message and the signing and collecting of consent forms, and per GCD’s FG guidelines, I had each member of the FG state their name and offer whatever brief details about themselves they would like to, in addition to what their favorite type of salsa was. Personal details, in some cases, lasted as much as three minutes, and there was a direct correlation between level of faith in a Christian God and lack of brevity in speaking of one’s self. Favorite salsas ranged from restaurant to homemade to store-bought. At this point, I had FG Participants flip past the cover page of their FG packets and focus on the first question therein:
Welcome! You are here today in order to participate in a discussion about salsa. On behalf of Global Consumer Distribution SA, I would like to thank you for your participation. Everything you say here will be confidential. We will be recording this discussion. If you can take a moment, now, to sign the waiver sheet indicating that executives at Global Consumer Distribution have the right to read this material and make use of it in appropriate, business-driven ways, it would be appreciated. We’ll pause for thirty seconds while you read through the waiver form then sign and print your name, initialing where it is mandated to do so. Your participation in this focus group is entirely voluntary. Your opinions are important to us. You will not be paid.
*This pause, Gloria, was actually much longer than thirty seconds. While I won’t include a copy of the waiver form here, you and I both know that the average individual, and even a high-functioning one, would have trouble reading with clarity and precision a three-page form in ten-point font with anything approaching lucidity in the time allotted, especially when said form is laden with byzantine legalese. Please do not understand my actions as either roguish or attempting to establish ideology dichotomic (i.e., humanism v. corporate fascism) in nature. Rather, it simply seemed to me that in thirty seconds no one was going to get this done.
Question One—On a scale of 1 to 10, how fully do you associate salsa as being that food most emblematic of the southwestern United States, with 1 being not at all and 10 being the most representative of all foods in existence?
Responses—As anticipated by Global Consumer Distribution, responses here were high, with the average being 8.12. The highest response was a 10, and the lowest was a 3, a single member of the Focus Group arguing that salsa actually had nothing to do with the United States, and was Latin in origin, and therefore could not be emblematic of any US region. This led to the first of many tête-à-têtes over the course of the day, with the FG Participant who argued this point initially meeting harsh criticism from a second FG Participant, who contended that by saying salsa was not at all American, the first FG Participant presupposed that Latinos and Latin Americans had nothing to do with American culture. The original FG Participant defended the original point posed, adding that embedded in the retort was an implication of racism, something that the first FG Participant would not stand for. At this point, most of the other Focus Group Participants, unsure of what to think about the points raised and, in a fashion typical of the current era of American social critique and debate, went mute and grew very uncomfortable—there was much shifting in chairs and rearranging of small mounds of snacks on the paper plates in front of members of the group in their attempts to reaffirm that: a) the group has the right to be left out of participating in non-salsa-related discourse; and b) their provisions (i.e., the snack mounds) would not be taken away. For your purposes, though, Gloria, the point is moot, as per GCD’s FG guidelines, lowest and highest scores were tossed out.
Question Two—When thinking about authenticity, and how the term relates to spicy, sometimes tomato-based sauces, what comes to mind?
Responses—As anticipated by GCD, “fresh tomatoes” was the most common response. In other words, the language in the posed question did indeed do its job in functioning as mental suggestion to almost the entire FG. Exceptions to this rule fell well into the realm of logic, and included “salsa that was prepared within hours of eating it” and “salsa without preservatives” and the surprisingly informed “salsa with tomatoes that have not been heat processed,” although in many ways all these responses were an alternate way of saying the most common one. Data collected for Question Two keep in line with data collected from other Question Twos posed in other regions where the phrase “sometimes tomato-based” was substituted for “sometimes chili-based.” That is, Gloria, whatever mode of narrative is established by the perceived authority is the one maintained by the demographic in the perceived subordinate position. Nearly always, we eat what we are fed. It seems, too, that there may not be a need on the part of Global Consumer Distribution SA to include the phrase “Garden Fresh” on the labeling of Product 1822J (i.e., the salsa), as for the majority of FG Participants in Zone 5, “Authentic” seemed to connote “Garden Fresh,” and I am imagining that leaving this phrase out of 1822J’s label has the potential to be, for GCD, cost saving. To say this another way, it seems that for most in Zone 5, for something to be genuine, it must also, interestingly, be new.
Question Three—In keeping on the topic of authenticity, how important is it to you as consumers that your salsa be “authentic,” with a 1 response indicating not important at all and a 10 response indicating that you in all likelihood would not purchase and/or eat the salsa in question, were it not authentic?
Responses—Data were inconclusive, with the mean response being a 5.71. Preemptively, FG Participants began to discuss cost, the theme of the back-and-forth being that one must indeed “shell out more to get the real deal,” while the group’s counterpoint was perhaps best summed up by the phrase “but some of that store-bought shit tastes real enough.” (At this point I was asked by one of the FG Participants with a strong inclination toward the Christian God [and the most long-winded talker of all FG Participants, at the FG’s outset] to maintain linguistic guidelines that would disallow for the use of profanity amongst all FG Participants. The utterer of the profane word in turn issued an apology, and this seemed to set things right.) So, while opinion varied greatly on the importance of authenticity (which one could conclude from Question Two also signifies newness) there did seem to be agreement on the idea that the more genuine and original the product was, the greater the expense incurred by the consumer. One could apply such thinking to a great many number of products offered on the free market—say, for instance, books. One is left to wonder, Gloria, in regard to books, what type of market shift might arise were it epic novels of contemporary literary fiction that were to be placed on the shelves of big box stores and priced competitively, as opposed to bawdy romances and spy thrillers. How would the world change?
Most importantly, and as response discussion of Question Three dwindled, much like the dulling embers of a cowboy’s dying fire as the sun rises over the desert’s red dirt, the first of a series of events (the ones I mentioned prior) introduced itself to the Zone 5 Focus Group and forever and irrevocably altered both the day’s events and my life. What happened precisely, Gloria, was that Davy Crockett walked into the Zone 5 Focus Group.
As one FG participant concluded extolling the virtues of homemade, handcrafted salsa, and a second FG Participant countered that notion, saying that even if the food was indeed homemade and handcrafted, the ingredients used—specifically, the tomatoes, the cilantro, the chilies, the corn, etc.—were in all likelihood GMFs, and therefore grown in labs and/or corporate fields where all manner of man-made chemical was added to the water sprayed onto the already toxin-steeped soil from which the array of vegetables grew, and therefore the “homemade” and “handcrafted” salsa could in no way be seen as authentic because the ingredients comprising the salsa would not be genuine ingredients but ersatz, and would necessarily not taste anything like how salsa tasted, say during the nineteenth entry, pre-GMFs—as this conversation was winding itself down, Gloria, the lights on the wagon-wheel fixture above the door began to buzz and strobe and a younger man of Anglo descent, wearing a suede fringed blouse, ecru leggings, and a coonskin cap with a tail trailing down one side of it, much like the tassel of a hat one wears to receive a degree from an institution of learning, entered the Stardust Room.
The room’s twin doors had levered handles on both their exterior and interior sides, but as is often the case with doors in environments such as banquet rooms (or, say, divorce lawyers’ offices) only one of the two doors actually opened, the nonopening door being both top- and bottom-latched so that the levered handle itself would turn, making one believe that they had made progress in their attempt at entering the room, only to find that the door itself would not budge. This unintentional trick is one that I have always found consternating, Gloria, not only because it mandates that for a few seconds the individual entrant is made to feel embarrassed by the fact that, as a fully grown adult, he/she has yet to master how to enter a room, but also because the exact movement that the combination of the turning handle and nonmoving door puts into play is one that has the potential to be truly injurious. Here’s what I mean: Not knowing that the door won’t move once the levered handle is turned, the average would-be room enterer continues to lean toward the door in question, while at the same time continuing to press down on the levered handle. Were the door indeed to open, or the handle itself to remain in a nonmoving and locked position, the pressure on the wrist and elbow joints of the would-be opener would be alleviated by either/both the swinging motion of the door or the stasis of the handle. However, since there is no way for the door to move, the turner of the handle is forced to continue with the motion of blind depression, forcing his or her body ever closer to the threshold until the handle reaches the limit of its rotation, at which point, often, the individual trying to enter the room has wound up in an extremely awkward and potentially painful position, his or her shoulder jammed up against the abutting doorframe, his or her wrist, turned upward, pinned to a hip.
I mention this action in the detail that I do as Davy Crockett himself was involved in it, prior to his appearance under the flickering ring of lights very near to the Stardust Room’s entrance. The locked door’s handle turned, then turned again, and then, after a beat of one-two, Davy Crockett tried and succeeded at opening the door that would open. Crockett took three steps into the banquet room and stopped, looking around, a grin on his face, this facial expression then changing, in the proceeding seconds, to a look of confusion and minor bereavement—Crockett’s eyes pulled down, and he swung his head side to side, the tail of the coonskin cap swinging to-and-fro as though the animal for which the hat had been named had reanimated, and found the moment to be one of pronounced excitement. Suffice it to say, Gloria, that all talk of authenticity and newness in relation to salsa ceased as our group stared at the long-dead American frontiersman.
As Focus Group Leader and temporary, ad hoc GCD representative, responsibility fell upon myself to make sure that the day’s overarching event would not be interrupted to the extent that the FG Participants misremembered why it was that they were there in the first place. That is, after Crockett failed to turn around and leave the room on his own, so that we as a group might return to our discussion of authentic, southwestern salsas, I offered up a very polite and tactful May I Help You. Crockett, staring at the partially consumed spread of food along the western wall, then looked at me, asking, Is This Rancho Brava? At this juncture, many of the FG Participants turned their heads from Crockett toward me, seemingly unsure of the correct answer. I informed Crockett (and, by extension, those members of the group) that it was not, at which juncture Crockett raised a hand in apology, spun around on one foot, and exited the Stardust Room forever.
While on the surface seemingly intrusive, the arrival and departure of Davy Crockett from the Focus Group did, in the short term, wind up being advantageous, as the pioneer’s cameo translated ultimately to a moment of bonding amongst the FG Participants. Having collectively witnessed an event that none of the group imagined having any possibility of witnessing, a friendly camaraderie washed over the recent strangers, so much so that even a light spell of chuckling made its way around our oval table. Soon after this, the light fixture’s wiring righted itself, and the bulbs above the door stopped their flickering. I did my best to let the moment’s minor joy play itself out as fully as it could, then directed GCD’s FG Participants back to 1822J’s discussion packet.
Question Four—Turning our focus, now, to the packaging of salsa products, and specifically the sort of packaging that you, as consumers, perceive as being visually representative of “an authentic, garden-fresh, southwestern salsa,” I’d like to direct your attention to the television next to me, asking that you pay close attention to the three different salsa labels shown on the video. As you look at these three different labels, I would like you to keep mental notes of those images or portions of images that reveal themselves to you as authentic and/or garden fresh and/or southwestern. If you would like to take notes on scratch paper, please raise your hand now.
Ten of the twelve FG Participants raised their hands, and I made my way around our table with two boxes, one containing pieces of blank, loose-leaf paper (cut in half by a paper cutter that sat, somewhat surprisingly, on a low table directly behind the Marriot’s front desk) and another, smaller box containing well-sharpened, half-length, eraserless pencils. With these implements administered, I returned to my spot next to my unused seat and, per GCD’s guidelines, verbally indicated that I would now turn on the television (though in truth the act itself would seem to indicate such just as effectively). With this announcement, a certain bristling of anticipation—one truly palpable—arose from the majority of the FG Participants, and there was much repositioning of bodies in chairs and rustling of papers and tapping of pencils against the synthetically glossed table. That is, Gloria, I had the sense that the FG Participants believed themselves, as the saying goes, in for a real treat, even though the extent of what we would be doing involved no more than staring at three twenty-second videos of salsa jars. As I type this letter, I have not truly sat down and taken in television programming for over three months, so much so that when I happen upon a television, in a restaurant/bar or department store or other establishment, I find myself, compared to my former TV-watching days, both far more repulsed and intrigued by the technology and its programs. It seems to me that not having such a machine in one’s home makes said machine seem out of place truly everywhere, and consistently I find myself perplexed by yet nonetheless drawn to the set in the aforementioned public places, though this psychological reaction may be no different, in truth, than a moth drawn to a blinking and sound-producing bug light whose singular purpose is ultimately to kill those attracted to it.
The Stardust Room’s grounded outlet was in perfect working order, and prior to the arrival of the FG Participants, I had cued the tape to the appropriate beginning moment of the video. The first salsa jar on display was Label Model 3B: Cowboy on Horse at Sunset. To remind you, this is the same front image as Label Models 3A, 3C, and 3D, with time of day the single variable. (3A being Cowboy on Horse at Sunrise, 3C being Cowboy on Horse in Nighttime, and 3D being CoH at High Noon.) All FG Participants were attentive and respectful of the attentiveness of others in the opening moments of the video but then, Gloria, at 3B’s halfway point, an AP (Anticipated Problem) arose. The AP in question dealt with the woman’s hand descending into the shot of the salsa jar, and turning said jar so that FG Participants could view the rear “half” (in quotation marks as the jar is circular) of the label.
As the FG Participants took notes (some copious) on their pieces of scratch paper with their uncomfortable miniature pencils, looking from the screen to their papers and back to the screen again, the AP (the woman’s hand) descended, interrupting the pristine white background in front of which the jar of salsa sat. Her skin pale, her nails unpainted, her fingers lithe if not truly graceful, the hand moved at a consistent rate, from the northwest corner of the shot to only, barely, the top edges of 1822J, never once pausing, even after contact with the lid had been made, even after the motion of turning the jar had begun, even after the hand had completed turning the jar and raised itself away from the product, lifting out of the shot at that same constant motion. It was a rate of sincere professionalism, one not fast but also not slow, a rate that understood the task at hand and also its place in the moment’s larger context.
I hadn’t seen my wife’s hand in so long, Gloria (roughly six months), and to witness it, then, as the FG Participants cooed at its arrival, was as if my own thoughts had been transferred into the mouths of the others in the room, their small sounds of wonder not unlike the murmurs of awe that escaped my former betrothed’s lips while we stood gazing up at the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on our honeymoon. That the AP (my wife’s hand) descended into the video of the salsa at roughly the same angle that Adam holds his hand in the creation scene on that famous, frescoed ceiling in order to attain his Breath of Life from Michelangelo’s God was a truth that had not struck me prior to that moment in the Stardust Room, and while the FG Participants scribbled and buzzed, I was forced to consider, again, my past failures at love, shortcomings earned by my former self via placing belief in the dual (and sometimes overlapping) concepts of faith and union, even when such placing of belief overrode logic. That is, Gloria, I really did convince myself that my wife was fixing a male friend’s boots, when I found said footwear in her closet one summer evening, and I really did convince myself that my wife, feeling suffocated by our shared domesticity, needed “more nights out with the girls,” and I really did convince myself, Gloria, I really, really did, that upon finding condoms in the drawer of my wife’s nightstand one Sunday afternoon, while cleaning the upstairs of our mortgaged American Colonial, that there was a well-intentioned reason for the sheath of contraceptives, so much so that the thing to do, as opposed to asking my wife about them, was simply to remove the chain of condoms to the trash and never once, ever, mention either their presence or absence.
Gloria, are you familiar with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam? On that part of the chapel’s ceiling, behind the image of God, is an open, swirling cloak, painted maroon. It was noted by a doctor in the American Midwest, some years ago, that this cloak, billowing and packed full of human figures and other shapes, is an anatomically correct picture of the human brain, with the figures and shapes serving as visual representations of all manner of lobes and glands and sulci, and the cloak itself providing the outline of the nervous system’s most vital organ. One could infer from such a notation that behind even a premiere personification of faith and belief, there must be logic, Gloria—that to wish blindly is no more than folly or curse, and to pray without thinking is the work—in the Christian tradition—of the Devil.
The Focus Group carried on without such thoughts in their heads, invested as they were in the colors of Label 3B, and the attractiveness of the shadow of a cowboy and horse, alone in the desert at sunset. After this shot ended, the next one began, my wife’s hand descending to the lid of Label 5B (Coyote Baying at Moon) and Label 6A (Prospector Crouched Next to River), the FG Participants making their notes, a single member of the group speculating aloud, I Wonder How Much They Pay the Hand to Do That. This was met by a chuckle then a shushing, I, all the while, dying inside, and then, Gloria, for the second time that day, the lights on the wagon wheel nearest the door began to flicker.
The mariachi octet that entered the room, accidentally serenading the FG Participants and myself, was an outfit named Mariachi Errante. I’ve seen them twice since the day at the hotel, running into the band, completely coincidentally, at a street festival in Santa Fe and later at a trilevel parking garage in El Paso. At the second of these locations, Errante’s van had broken down, though the problem was actually nothing more than a corroded distributor cap, and easily remediable. As I worked, the vihuela player and I talked a bit, conversing in that manner frequent to male strangers with little in common between them. For instance, Luis (the vihuela player) asked me if I was married, and I told him that I once was. He asked me if I had children, and I told him that I didn’t. With these questions asked (and there is a certain bravery in the asking, Gloria, a certain putting out there of one’s self in a way that appears casual but is actually suffused with risk, much in the way that a professional poker player slides his or her full stack forward, across the table’s green felt, lips set, hands calm, insides screaming from the madness of the gambit while knowing, also, that it’s the way that the game must be played) and answered, I countervolleyed, asking the identical questions of Luis, who had very different answers than my own, combining the two responses into a single, longer one that spanned the rest of my switching out of the corroded distributor cap and involved a soccer match, a long-standing family feud, a child’s finger lost to a scorpion sting, the Department of Homeland Security, a stolen trumpet, the smell of dried chilies ground with a mortar and pestle, wet sand under bare feet that the warm surf washed across in a calming, rhythmic way, coyotes of the human kind, coyotes of the nonhuman kind, a Zeta-owned cantina in Douglas, Arizona, an outmoded six-shooter that went off in someone’s hand, and a choice, made outside a supermarket in St. George, that would haunt Luis and the rest of the mariachi band forever. Wiping at my oil-striped hands with a rag that one of Errante’s violin players produced, I told Luis that was quite a story, a statement that made Luis shrug and say, It is only how life can be, Roberto.
I of course knew none of this that day at the Marriott, the octet, one by one, entering through the single opening door of the Stardust Room (an act that with eight people really took some time, though the band began playing and singing as soon as their first member crossed the room’s threshold), and instead could only listen, as the other FG Participants did, to the cloyingly joyful yet melodramatically bittersweet sentiments of the song sung by the group, a number that they played the entirety of, and that elicited genuine applause from the FG Participants, some of whom then looked to me, assuming that I had planned the intermission. This wrong hypothesis was understood in full once the octet had restored their instruments to nonplaying positions, Luis (the unspoken but clear leader of the band) asking, Is This Rancho Brava? I informed Mariachi Errante that it was not, and in uniform motion the eight men then bowed, walking out of the Stardust Room and leaving myself and the FG Participants in a silence so complete it was as though we had just sat through an earthquake. Luis, the last band member to exit the room, turned around to face us as he closed the door, nodding his head in departure and apology. Three seconds later, the lights on the wagon-wheel fixture stopped their flickering.
The Zone 5 Focus Group was, much to their credit, Gloria, able to regain focus after this unexpected interlude, and return once more to the task at hand, mentally filing away both the mariachi band and Davy Crockett. Cowboy on Horse at Sunset scored the highest of the three labels shown, with Prospector Crouched Next to River edging out Coyote Baying at Moon, the inference being, perhaps, that people are more attracted to images of people than images of animals but most appreciate images that contain both people and animals functioning in tandem. Alternately, Gloria, the case could be made that the FG’s choosing of the Cowboy on Horse at Sunset label had actually nothing to do with the cowboy or the horse at all, only with the sunset, that time of day when people are often the most contemplative; and, being thrust into an environment of forced contemplation (i.e., the Focus Group), the Participants were greatly affected by their immediate confines in their decision-making processes. However, if we look at current trends in other industries—say, for instance, the publishing industry—we see a clear and strong movement toward the placing of a person or people on book covers, especially in cases of bawdy romances and young-adult crossover fiction, those industry areas with some of the largest market share. Indeed, even in industry areas with very low sales, so much so that these areas are largely financially worthless (for instance, literary fiction), one can see a trend toward the placing of people on covers, perhaps in the attempt to have the design of the book lure people into buying it through something akin to empathy, the unstated belief being, on the part of the industry’s respective marketing departments, that a more figurative and perhaps “artistic” design—say, for instance, an empty banquet room, with only a TV, some chairs, and a table beneath wagon-wheel light fixtures—would be too sterile and too dissociative to hold the hypothetical consumer’s attention for long enough for said consumer to pick the book up off the big box store’s shelf, look at the cover, flip the book over to its back cover (where another human-based image would be) and decide, all in a span of five seconds, to place the book in their oversized cart, along with their food products, their toiletry items, and those products that serve no purpose at all past entertainment and whimsy. As stated prior, Gloria, we eat what we’re fed, and those items that we choose to eat are, for the most part, marketed directly toward short-term gratification, despite being in direct, ironic opposition to the indefatigable truth that if all one consumes is snack cakes, frozen pizza, and sugary, carbonated beverages, the marketer will be unable, long-term, to market toward that consumer, because, Gloria, that consumer will be dead, due in large part to the prior successes of the marketer. But the notion of the sustainable consumer, as we both know, is folly, as that consumer necessarily ages and dies, in the meantime copulating and reproducing and ultimately spawning offspring that can replace them. Therefore, the idea, on the marketer’s end, of long-term betterment of the consumer can only be a fool’s game. How do you make broccoli sexy, Gloria? You do not. There is no way on earth to make broccoli sexy.
Gloria, here is the section of the text where I would list Question Five, that question dealing with the perceived correct viscosity of authentic, garden-fresh salsa—should it be thick? Should it be runny? How much xantham gum and sodium alginate should be injected into the vat of vegetable slurry and stirred by factory machines, in order to provide an authentic, garden-fresh salsa experience, one that will be able to be enjoyed repeatedly, even after the consumer has picked up and set down the salsa a half dozen times from a white, barred shelf of their refrigerator? An important concern, to be sure, but one, too, that was overridden by the continuing, escalating series of events that had already been set in motion prior to the FG’s consideration of how thick or not thick a salsa’s “body” should be, in order to be authentic. (Gloria, as I write this a Gila monster has perched itself on a rock, just past my double-wide’s west-facing window. It’s striped pink and brown and is nearly two feet in length and its body looks like some bit of bright, banded reef removed from the sea and set next to my trailer. I have seen, too, a horned frog shoot blood from its eyes. I have seen also a dust storm black out the noon sun, turning the world to nothing but grit, sound, and darkness.)
As the Group centered its attention on the correct thickness of 1822J, and truly no more than seconds after I had asked the question out loud to the Zone 5 FG Participants, the lights on the wagon wheel flickered again, and the door of the Stardust Room opened. Initially, all that appeared in the threshold was a foot—more specifically, a brown and white cowboy boot with a spur attached to it. The spur—replete with rowels, chap guards, and metal buttons for straps—tinkled lightly against the Stardust Room’s synthetic carpet, the dual noises of the door opening and the bright ting of the boot’s accessory enough to steal away the attention of the FG Participants. The owner of the boot/spur, who followed his footwear into the room some theatrically long seconds after, was a narrow-hipped, Caucasian man in a tan ten-gallon hat and tan vest worn over a white, long-sleeved shirt with a banded, buttoned collar. His tan jeans were tight on his thin legs, and attached to the lapel of his vest was a large, gold badge comprised of a star with a circle around it. The man was in his late fifties, perhaps, with small, dark eyes under wide salt-and-pepper eyebrows. His most striking feature, though, Gloria, by far, was his enormous moustache.
From the man’s flume to either side of his mouth, all the way down to his jawline, the moustache, a bright silver, was two inches thick, the hairs long enough that one couldn’t see the man’s lips—either upper or lower—in the slightest. At exactly those twin points where the moustache passed the edges of the man’s jaw, the silver hairs had been waxed and forced to curl both up and back, toward the stranger’s cheekbones. The man’s chin was short, with a rather pronounced cleft, its anatomical meekness lessened all the more by the profound ornament of facial hair that framed it, so much so that the would-be sheriff’s face seemed merely a host for the organism that was the moustache. Indeed, as the man strode (truly strode, Gloria, leading with his hips, the upper half of his torso [purposefully or not] tilted back behind them) farther into the room, the parts comprising his costume (i.e., the sheriff’s badge, the ten-gallon hat, the tinging, metal spurs, the impossible moustache) superseded all other aspects of his humanity, so much so that the costume he wore became who he was in toto. That is, Gloria, it was truly impossible to imagine the marshal in the vast majority of contemporary settings, say, for instance, sliding down a slide at a water park, or waiting in line to renew his car’s registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles. (Of course, now that I have written what I just have, Gloria, it does become possible to imagine the sheriff in both of the aforementioned settings; the actual difficulty involved with such an imagining is that in either scenario, the sheriff—at least for me—is still wearing portions of his costume. While it makes no legitimate sense for the lawman to remain in his ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots and spurs as he shurshes down a plastic, reinforced slide into a pool filled with screaming children, in my mind, Gloria, he is—he still has the hat on, and the boots, and the spurs, his bright, pale knees and lower thighs in stark contrast to the leather of the footwear and his shorts-length, drawstring swimsuit. [Which, in my imagining, Gloria, is the very same maroon as the swirling cloak encompassing the image of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.])
As the sheriff swaggered closer across the padded cobalt floor, coming farther into the room than either Davy Crockett or the mariachi octet had, I began to perceive the past hour’s major events—the Focus Group about salsa, the costumed strangers, my wife’s hand—as not unrelated points in space, but rather a trio of vertices, the rays adjoining these points uniform in length and comprising, Gloria, an equilateral triangle. Staring blatantly at the man’s massive facial hair (the moustache was like a bug, like a live, furry thing that at any moment might choose an alternate place to rest its wide frame, and rip free from the man’s face, fall to the floor, and scuttle toward one of the banquet room’s corners), I found that I was drawing into myself, and that the room’s minor sounds (the tinging of the spurs, the barely perceptible whine of the paused DVD, the Focus Group’s murmurs) had been all but muted. It was at this time that I began to sketch, at some desk in my mind, something akin to a primitive seesaw. While both ends of the saw’s lever were empty of any sort of physical being, the long, brown board was conceptually inhabited by authenticity and counterfeitness. The fulcrum—a golden triangle—sat underneath, and at each of its corners now appeared a different image: pico de gallo in a crude, three-legged bowl, a gunslinger in chaps holding twin six-shooters, and my wife, standing in our old living room, covering the mouthpiece of her cell phone as she spoke into it. The sheriff took two more steps forward then stopped, setting his legs even farther apart and placing his hands on his hips as he took in the stares of the Focus Group Participants, who by this point, Gloria, I was aware of in only a minor, ethereal way, their heads—turned away from me and toward the man—seeming to float in the air, disembodied.
As I continued to stare at the moustache’s wiry, fibrous hairs (I think I was smiling a tactful, professional smile, Gloria, but I can’t be sure of it) I grew cognizant of the illegitimacy of the device that I had, in my mind, just constructed. Here’s what I mean: The image attached to each of the triangle’s points—the pico de gallo, the chaps-wearing outlaw, and the person to whom I used to be married—could not possibly function as anything fulcrumesque, since at least some approximation of all three of the images my mind had conjured up were currently being weighed for their validity: a salsa’s correct thickness being scrutinized by the members of the FG, the genuineness of my former union by me, and the veritableness of the strangers who entered the Stardust Room being measured, I believe, by all present. If these images, then, were not in balance at all, but rather variables in need of accurate weighing, it drew into question (at least for me) what face, shape, or thing might universally serve as a true midway point for the beam of the seesaw. (And image-based vertices felt vital, Gloria, as without them the fulcrum was a fulcrum by title, and no more, much in the same way that a corrupt or deceitful buyer of gold might rig his or her own scale in order to show a correct balance. [I saw a similar thing occur on an excursion to Taos, where an elderly woman clad in a batik dress of earth tones, while buying a sizable number of pork chops at a butcher’s counter inside a supermarket, calmly slid her trifolded grocery list under the polished silver top of the butcher’s electronic scale while the butcher himself was not looking, the woman effectively rigging the machine in order to make the pork chops’ combined weight, when measured, seem lighter.])
Meanwhile, as the seesaw I’d constructed clattered apart, the unannounced sheriff took his right hand from his hip and waved in a wide and deliberate manner to his new, sudden audience. The action’s velocity, already theatrically slow, was to my perception further reduced by my own internal postulations, and as the sheriff began speaking, his words arrived at such a diminished rate that they barely seemed to be words at all: something closer, perhaps, to an alien soundscape, each phoneme drawn out to the length of multiple syllables, my mind in some way aware that what the sheriff was saying was the same question that had been asked twice prior that day (specifically, Is This Rancho Brava?), but the query arriving as something closer to:
As I gave my response (It Is Not), the acts of the room returned to a normal pace, the sheriff tipping his hat, whirling around, and striding back out the same door through which he had entered. However, Gloria, with the sheriff’s departure and the wagon wheel’s lights again on, and as I attempted to return to functioning in the manner my title dictated, I noticed that the attitude of the Focus Group Participants had changed in a way that, for the purposes of Global Consumer Distribution SA, was not beneficial. That is, Gloria, while the individuals comprising the Zone 5 FG had been able to see both Crockett and the mariachi band as minor if amusing distractions, the arrival and departure of the sheriff brought about a movement away from the scientific inquiry of my salsa-based questions, the sociointellectual overtones of the FG replaced with discussion of (and something approaching love for) the notion that the sheriff had created his moustache from nothing, eschewing the general facial-hair “rules” of our time that dictated what a moustache should or should not consist of, his folksy, enormous, barbed crescent of hairs elevated to something more important and profound than our shared rationalization of what elements comprise an unassailably authentic snack product.
Furthermore, Gloria, this shared enthusiastic response to the sheriff’s grooming choices (perhaps best and most appropriately summarized by one member of the FG proclaiming, Dude’s Moustache Was the Bomb) also spelled a change in where the Zone 5 FG chose to place its loyalties. If I, as ad hoc (if not contractually obligated) leader of our small group was to this point afforded the authority inherent in such a title, the FG’s sentiments toward the constraints that my quasi-aristocratic role ostensibly placed upon them grew increasingly aggressive as I tried to maintain/exert/reestablish order. Okay, Let’s Focus, I would say to the Group, but the Group, Gloria, would only keep talking, until even that FG Participant with the strongest proclivity for the Christian God snapped her head toward me, her stare meaning revolt, and said, We’re Speakin’ Here, and You Ain’t Even Texan.
This painting of myself as something approaching hegemon or paramount king induced flashpoint in the other members of the Group, and if previously aware of yet indifferent toward the contrast in our respective regions of origin, the FG Participants now seized upon it, asking me a bevy of questions that had nothing to do with my dual, overlapping roles as Global Consumer Distribution SA Representative and Zone 5 Focus Group Leader. For instance, upon learning that I’d grown up in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, one Focus Group member proffered aloud that I worked not for Global Consumer Distribution at all, and instead for the Central Intelligence Agency, the FG itself having nothing to do with the perceived correctness of snack foods and much more to do with an unspecified mode of government spying. Further diminishing my credibility were the facts that: 1) I had never been to a barrel race, 2) I did not know that Angelo light slaughters were trading ten dollars lower, 3) recent advents in baler technology were lost upon me, 4) I couldn’t accurately define asado, and 5) when asked my favorite country song, I could not offer the title of any such warbling ballad, leading one FG Participant to actually snort then conclude that the Feds Trained [Me] Crummy.
With my interrogation complete (there were questions, Gloria, about my hunting rifle of choice, about my theological and sexual orientations, about whether my parents were “Flag-burning Hippy Pigs,” about whether I rooted for or against the Dallas Cowboys when they played on Thanksgiving), the Focus Group, freed from my apparently tyrannical rule and drunk on some primordialist cocktail comprised of equal parts xenophobia and newfound liberation, began to offer up a list of demands, most of which dealt with, in some way, shape, or form, going outside, into Nature. I informed the FG that their requests could not be met, as we still had forty-five more questions about salsa to go (forty-six if one were to include the only partially completed question about Salsa Thickness).
This response elicited a long round of moans from the FG Participants, their collective auditory chagrin something akin to the sound one might hear rising out of a pulverized battlefield trench, mustard gas roiling about in the air, the treads of a tank whirring just past the dirt lip of the Focus Group’s battered excavation. Every society, however, is forced to progress, even if they destroy portions of themselves to do it, even if questions of worth and importance (e.g., if the artist’s feelings are his law, was the sheriff’s art [i.e., his moustache] an accurate extension of his own feelings?) go unanswered. That is, Gloria, we persisted. We pressed on. We took those preconceived, established notions of salsa and blew them apart, reconfiguring where salsa should sit on a shelf, and what aisle, in a store, the salsa should be in. We rewrote and reprised. We made salsa new. (Why, for instance, is salsa not in a tube? Why, for instance, can we not make our own salsa fresh in the grocery store?) We flew through questions six and seven, then eight and nine, the Focus Group, experimenting with the relationship of their respective bodies to the room, getting up from the table and walking around, some members leaning up against the room’s walls, some lying down on the plush, cobalt carpet. This reapportioning, in turn, forced the FG Participants to push each other toward new processes and methods, and soon one FGP had taped his Stetson hat to a wall, and soon another had opened up her bag and pretended that it was a bowl of chips at a party. A makeup compact was turned into a salsa jar that was also a jet, the condiment made into flying machine and sent through the aisles of our ad hoc supermarket, a new sudden collage of military-industrial might, cylindrical glass, and rehydrated, imagined tomatoes. Questions ten and eleven were asked and answered, then twelve and thirteen, then fourteen and fifteen and so on, the Participants—evolved now, and believing in their own evolution, and having found individuality in heretofore unheard-of ways (one FG Member turning all his answers into a series of squawks and clucks that the rest of the Group then interpreted)—charged with an industriousness previously unmatched both by themselves and in comparison to any other Focus Group I had ever conducted. But this mechanization had a dark side, Gloria, too, as what was gained in the way of intellectual response and overall efficiency had the countereffect of detachment and isolation, each member now more important than the idea of the Group, until Zone 5 had broken itself up into schools, cliques, and factions. That is, Gloria, if we were once again unified in what the problem was, we had grown all the more divided in regard to how to solve it.
This sectioning off of thought and response also negated any real concern toward the continuing appearances of strangers in costumed garb specific to the region, even while these arrivals loudly deciphered the Stardust Room’s half-locked doors and that the lights nearest said doors flickered on and off whenever one of these strangers entered. Through the arrival of a rider for the Pony Express, then a pair of scantily clad burlesque dancers, then a miner, a Jesse James look-alike, and a coolie, and finally, Gloria, a grizzled prospector with dented tin pan leading a donkey by a length of gnarled, frayed rope, the FG remained so entrenched in their various deconstructivist processes that the high-eared jack or jenny (I did not know its sex) made absolutely no impact on the group whatsoever, save for when the prospector asked aloud—as every single other entrant into the Stardust Room also had—Is This Rancho Brava? The Group bellowed in unison It Is Not, before returning, machinelike, to the questions at hand, Zone 5’s answers to the questions I posed now arriving as a series of drawings, manifestos, and poems.
Lingering in my mind through this Focus Group “era” were thoughts of my ex-wife and our shared experiences: our early courtship through a hot summer in DC, and the noise in the Georgetown bars that we went to; our first apartment, after we were engaged, and the shade of pale mint that we painted our bedroom; our by-bus commute from Wisconsin Ave. to Capitol Hill, where my wife, who temped for a lobbying firm, was told week after week of the beauty that her hands possessed, while she answered phones and passed files over the lip of her receptionist’s desk and typed out responses to numerous emails; and then our decision to leave the East Coast after I was offered a position at the Los Angeles firm that I have since departed, the two of us renting a small cottage in Marina del Rey before buying our now former home in Brentwood. It was at some point shortly after the closing of this house that a talent guy at the premiere West Coast “parts-modeling” agency approached my wife in the Skin Products aisle of an organic grocery, telling the woman I loved how serendipitous it was to have located the talent innate in her limbs amongst the products that she would so soon be selling. Eighteen months later, my wife had been in almost three hundred ads, her hands framing sleek bottles of expensive perfume, her ring finger a backdrop for glittering, diamonded bands that cost as much as a Mercedes. She sold couscous, facial cream, keyboards, and iPods. She sold scarves and fly reels and purses. It was my wife’s hands that appeared in Vogue, Elle, and YM. It was my wife’s hands that “stood in” for numerous celebrities, the woman I married providing, in print ads, surrogate limbs for the likes of Cate Blanchett. It was my wife’s hands that one saw on Vegas billboards, fingers fanned like beams of white sun over the toned, tanned stomach of a dancer for an all-male revue, her pinkies perhaps one inch away from the snap on this man’s skintight black trousers. And it was my wife’s hands that touched much more than that on other men, her palms placed on strangers’ cheeks before sliding downward in secret, in silence.
After indisputable video evidence had been produced (I had hired a person to install, in the bedroom that I shared with my wife, a trio of hidden cameras, a decision that I still wrestle with today, despite the acts that these cameras caught on tape) and for some time after our divorce, I kept in a pocketed folder that I carried with me at nearly all times my wife’s oeuvre, tearing out pages from those magazines in which my ex-wife had sold some certain product, in addition to creating video stills of the modeling spots that she did on television, and printing out these stills on high-quality photo paper and adding them to the folder. In a moment of utter misery and gloom that arrived out of nowhere roughly one month after all the papers had been signed, and the house had been sold, and I was trying without much success to repair all parts of myself, I spread out these ads and stills on the clean, tan carpet of the Extended Stay suite in which I had been residing, staring at the collage I’d produced in an attempt, I believe, at attaching to it something approaching prescience—that amongst all these images of my wife’s hands, I might be able to locate foreknowledge of her terrible, adulterous happenings. But prescience after the fact serves no one at all, even if one is able to locate it, and later that night, after two scotches in the lobby’s small bar, I repaired the collection of paper to the dumpster behind the hotel, lifting the heavy, ridged top of the bin with one hand and tossing my wife’s ads (and by extension, a portion of myself) into its wide and dark belly.
The alley was well-lit by sodium lights that glowed a white blue and were attached to the wall of the building, and it was late, Gloria, late enough that even sections of the Los Angeles basin were quiet, and after I set the lid of the dumpster back down, the plastic barely making a sound as it met with the metal, I looked down the alley, toward the front of the hotel. The smooth asphalt, light gray and unspoiled by droplets of oil or burnished by the rubber of car tires, matched exactly the color of the alley’s high walls, which in turned matched the color of the underlit clouds that had pushed in from the ocean, the whole world, it seemed, resetting to one single hue, the natural and man-made in that moment merging, history lost in the fog of greater LA or buried under new, antiseptic construction. It suggested the idea—and perhaps the feeling, too—that anything at all was possible, the choices unlimited and nearly brand-new, and of diminishing worth, and spawning only more choices, which in turned spawned more, until it was impossible for anyone to remember what the original choice was, or how it might have ever mattered. Five minutes later, I went back up to my room. The next morning, I received the call from my firm about conducting a Focus Group in West Texas.
Zone 5 finished the packet with ease, returning to the conference table and assembling their things as we prepared our farewells and found our cell phones and car keys. In those moments, though, as a long round of pleasantries was fizzling out like the last batch of fireworks at a July display, our Focus Group received its final visitor, the individual arriving quietly enough that no one in Zone 5 initially noticed. This person’s entrance was lost upon, me, too, as 1) I was turned away from the door ejecting the DVD from its player, my body at perhaps a 140-degree angle in relation to the front of the room and my peripheral vision all but useless, and 2) for the first and only time during the FG, the lights on the wagon wheel nearest the door didn’t flicker as the banquet room’s threshold was crossed. As I had come to rely on this visual cue for the day’s many person-based interruptions, I continued on in my conversation with that Focus Group member who held the most outspoken belief in the Christian God, the two of us discussing an area café that produced an excellent cheeseburger. ’Merican food, the woman said, and then a second Focus Group member tapped me on the shoulder.
While in the parking lot, later, the police would call our last entrant by his proper name, for the purposes of this letter, Gloria, and in an attempt at concealing his identity, I will refer to the man in question as the Very Inebriated Native American, or VINA—nomenclature justified by the Lubbock PD’s on-site Blood Alcohol Reading, the VINA blowing into the hard plastic straw to reveal that he was more than three times over the legal limit. This fact was one that was impossible to know upon the VINA’s arrival, however, as there was nothing in the man’s posture or gait that might have allowed myself or anyone else to infer that the VINA was just that—highly intoxicated. Indeed, as I turned my neck to respond to the tap on the shoulder, and looked past the Focus Group Participant offering the tap, to the man in question, the first thing that raised a proverbial red flag was that unlike the other strangers’ costumes or ware, the VINA’s outfit seemed only partial. While he had on a headdress and moccasin shoes, he was also in cutoff denim shorts and a loose, gray tank-top T-shirt, on the front of which was written, in neon, curling font, SEE THE GRAND CANYON. The words ran diagonally, from the southwest corner of the fabric all the way to the northeast, just above and to the right of the VINA’s left nipple.
May I Help You, I said to the man, fully expecting him to answer my question with a question, specifically, Is This Rancho Brava? When no verbal response was offered at all, I asked the question again, as many of the FGPs were still talking among themselves, and I was a sizable distance (ten yards? fifteen?) from the VINA. However, when I received no reply from the man for a second time, I admit that I began scrutinize him. A number of aesthetic details stood out: the rattiness of the VINA’s denim shorts, the stains (beef broth? dried blood?) near the bottom hem of the man’s tank top, the tomahawk tattoo across the man’s left shin, and the small leather scabbard clipped to a belt loop of the VINA’s cutoffs, some feet above the tattoo of the tomahawk. From afar, the hunting knife’s blade looked at least an inch wide, and the light from the wagon-wheel fixture overhead shone off the visible portion of the blade (just above the hilt) in a way that made me absolutely sure the weapon was metal. The headdress’s plumes—naturally white, with sections of them dyed red and black—swung up and curved back from the man’s forehead, a single feather dangling from each side of the cap at the temples, trailing over the VINA’s exposed, narrow shoulders. And while the juxtaposition, Gloria, of the VINA’s culture-specific garb and more status quo clothing choices, along with the knife, the tattoo, and the ongoing lack of anything approaching verbal recognition of my twice-asked question, were all causing in me very real concern, I remained unsure of whether or not there was a need to take action, my indecision extending out of a trio of ideas counter to the notion that the VINA was unwell and/or dangerous. The first of these ideas can be titled Clothing Trends, an aspect of society, Gloria, that I know little about, especially in regard to what may or may not be à la mode in any given year or season. That is, it seemed possible to me that some if not all components of the VINA’s outfit were self-aware or even postmodern choices, ones that championed above all else ironic detachment. In the same way that some youthful portions of contemporary America wear clothes from a different decade (I am thinking here, Gloria, of ’60s wide-bottomed jeans, or ’70s leather jackets) it seemed well within the realm of possibility that the headdress, the moccasins, and perhaps even the knife were having their original purpose or place in the spectrum of fashion reimagined, if not reconstructed, and the VINA’s ethnic background was purely coincidental, as opposed to being the driving force behind his clothing choices; i.e., even if there is a certain sardonic aspect to a Native American hipster sporting a headdress and moccasins, cynical derision is common in youth, and the VINA himself, only twenty-two, certainly fit into such a post-teen, angst-ridden demographic (one I might add, Gloria, that has the potential most consistently to feel the need to “fit in” by making all manner of social choice they might not otherwise make, were it not for the need to norm themselves by rebelling in prescribed and established ways, ones that often linger only through youth and remain at a literal and/or figurative surface level).
The second idea that kept me from action ran converse to the thinking supporting Clothing Trends, and can be titled Sociocultural Differences. That is, if the “Clothing Trends” theory dealt largely with the obliteration of a substantive interpretation of the real, the “Sociocultural Differences” idea upheld it, the validity of such a posit grounded in the stark reality of day-to-day to life for the majority of Native Americans: that they (Native Americans, or American Indians, Gloria, if you prefer) live in abject poverty on some of the blankest, barest lands America has to offer; that their communities are riddled by alcohol, drug, and physical abuse; that these communities harbor the highest rates of suicide and mental disorders of any communities on the continent of North America; that the startling dearth of employment opportunities only exacerbates the aforementioned truths; and that they (Native Americans/American Indians) arrive at this collective societal malaise due to their deceitful and abhorrent treatment at the hands of the American Anglo’s westward expansion. That is, Gloria, when I stared at the VINA, I stared also at my own doings, as my ancestors arrived to the east coast very early on, and these ancestors did at the very least accept if not participate in the massacring of Native American populations, after which, from what I was told by my own parents (now deceased), these ancestors went south, where they owned a cotton plantation, which meant the people who eventually, and by extension, spawned me, also enslaved African Americans.
But I’m getting away from my point, Gloria. Guilt can do that. Guilt can fracture the light of truth the way funhouse mirrors can bend one’s reflection. It was like that for me, pouring through hours of digital video of my wife’s dalliances, a lamb at the altar of grief, sure that my union’s shortcomings were my own fault, and not my spouse’s. Here’s what I mean: The VINA was no hipster at all, and the costume, while partial, was the best that he could manage, given the startling disenfranchisement the VINA had almost certainly endured for the whole of his short existence, a life of constraints that defied mitigation, one governed most often by madness and doom, and whose only certain trait was uncertainty. That is, the VINA was bringing to the table the very best that he could, given his subjective, adverse circumstances. To bring to light his costume’s deficiencies (and assuming indeed that his vestments were costume) would show me as just another unsympathetic white man of the kind that the VINA and his family before him had endured, Gloria, for centuries.
The last idea that kept me from taking action of any sort was Rancho Brava. Even as the VINA’s actions began to escalate, the young man now approaching Focus Group Participants individually, breaching each FGP’s personal space and getting so close to them that the two parties were almost touching noses, I still wasn’t sure, Gloria, that this wasn’t part of an act that perhaps served as warm-up for that other banquet room’s almost certainly spirited happenings. Tied into this was the VINA saying aloud the phrase from his shirt to each FG Participant he approached. See the Grand Canyon, the VINA would say, and one of the Zone 5 FGPs would counter with Get Away from Me, or You Smell Like a Booze Factory. When the VINA received a response, he would move on, repeating the phrase—See the Grand Canyon—from person to person to person, each FG Participant startled and confused, until the VINA approached the FG with that strongest proclivity for the Christian God, and removed his knife from its scabbard.
It would be unfair, though, Gloria, to say that even this brandishing of a weapon was enough to cause true alarm, as the VINA was by no means the first stranger of southwestern personage to arrive to the Stardust Room armed. Davy Crockett had stood a musket up by the door, and one of the members of Mariachi Errante had a small can of mace attached to his key chain. Furthermore, the sheriff had twin holstered guns, as did both the Pony Express rider and the Jesse James look-alike. Abstracted, one could also contend that the prospector had a weapon in the form of his burro. (I was surprised, Gloria, that the Marriott chain of hotels allowed pack animals on its premises, regardless of the events in its banquet rooms. Such animals are highly unpredictable, and the possibility for injury from trampling or a bite would seem to increase almost exponentially in confined quarters, as would the possibility for litigation on the part of any person injured by an incensed, panicked donkey.) That is, Gloria, the FG Participants, much like myself, were struggling with understanding the VINA’s true intentions, as the VINA’s context could not be concretely defined, given that the reasons for the VINA’s repeated phrase and brandishing of his short knife were mutable—was the VINA making fun of our assumed perception of him, and was that perception, Gloria, true? Or, alternately, did the FG Participants and myself want so badly to have our assumed perception not be true that we were ignoring very obvious warning signals? Or, thirdly, did the VINA believe, as others had, that he might actually be in Rancho Brava at present, and had simply begun an act that made sense there but not here, in the confines of the Stardust Room?
These variables bounced up and disappeared at a rate similar to those plastic creatures inhabiting the Whac-a-Mole game common to many family-fun establishments, and I found myself, Gloria, even as the VINA pulled out his knife, took the Very Christian FGP by the back of her hair, and said, It Is Now My Duty to Scalp You, so overwhelmed by the rapidity of choice that I could only stand there, figurative mallet in hand, and do nothing. In hindsight, I believe my inertia to have been caused by the notion that the entities seeking out Rancho Brava were all individuals representative of regional clichés, those parts of society that through their very nature cannot evolve or progress in the slightest. That is, Gloria, it seemed somehow impossible to me that an entity as antiquated and provincial as a “drunk Indian” might actually be able to assert itself on twenty-first-century globalized culture (i.e., myself and the Zone 5 Focus Group Participants). Have we not, as a society, transcended role-based, regional expressions because they have lost all ingenuity? And if so, Gloria, then why do they remain? Why is it that one does go and see the Grand Canyon?
The Very Christian FGP, her eyes now wide with horror, the top half of her body pulled back over her hips as though she were balancing precariously on the lip of a cliff and trying desperately not to fall off it, stared at the VINA as the man raised his knife, her arms flapping wildly, the oversized silver cross at the vertex of her necklace emerging from under the chest of her blouse and swinging back and forth ever so slightly. The VINA, meanwhile, who up to this point had maintained a visage of utter calm, so much so that he looked virtually bored by what he was doing, turned his head to the ceiling of the Stardust Room and held the knife up even higher, gaining more leverage in preparation for plunging down the weapon. These dual actions forced a range of small sounds from the other Focus Group Participants, the most common being a sort of breathless, visceral ah, as though those FGPs making the sound had touched a hand to something unexpectedly hot, and wounded themselves in the process. (Other responses included No, Stop, Holy Shit, and Oh Fuck, though as stated these were outnumbered by the ahs, which arrived en masse and as a sort of unintended chorus.)
At that moment, Gloria, all concern vanished from my mind, as I prepared to witness a human death for the very first time. I forgot about my wife, our turmoil and joy. I forgot about salsa and the Focus Group Packets. I forgot my profession, my name, and my sex. I existed only as matter that emitted no light, about to expand and become my own horizon. What stopped this from occurring was a former All Big-12 Oklahoma State University linebacker. Darby “Bull” Dozer, born nearby, in New Deal, Texas, was a four-year starter for his alma mater Cowboys, a fact that he mentioned at the Focus Group’s outset and one that only returned to me as he blindsided the VINA, tackling the very drunk young man to the carpeted floor with such force that the would-be assailant was forced to let go of his weapon, the knife twirling as it dropped, landing inches from the left tennis shoe of the woman who was to receive the scalping. The former linebacker wrestled in high school, too, and choked out the VINA with a “sleeper hold” in a matter of seconds, the other FG Participants issuing cheers that Dozer would have been proud to receive during his varsity days in Stillwater.
And that, Gloria, was largely that—the police were called, the VINA taken in, the Focus Group Participants and myself all departing the Stardust Room and preparing to return to our respective lives. There was no exchanging of phone numbers, Twitter handles, email addresses, or Facebook account information. Some of us followed the police as they took the VINA outside, where we watched the Lubbock PD issue a Breathalyzer Test then guide the VINA’s body into the back of the squad car. The hotel manager issued a public apology at the end of this scene, saying how sorry he was that we were forced to endure such acts of intimidation and violence on hotel grounds and offering up coupons for a free night’s stay at any Marriott hotel in the continental United States, before walking stiffly and quickly back through the tinted, automatic front doors of the establishment. I stood in the parking lot, the sun hot on my face, the wind carrying on it the soft, rich scent of smoke from a distant wildfire. Some FGPs waved at me as they drove off in their pickups, minivans, or compacts. I followed the hotel manager back inside, reentering the Stardust Room, Gloria, but only barely, as a foot ahead of me, on the cobalt-colored carpet, was the wagon-wheel chandelier that had been blinking on and off for the full of the day—its chain had snapped, and the fixture was now lying on the floor in three pieces.
I let the door shut behind me and walked around the wrecked wheel, staring at the smattering of glass from the cracked bulbs and the fixture’s exposed, curling wiring. Up close, it was easy to tell that the wheel was indeed real wood, with chips and splinters from which one at least could infer that the item had been part of a long journey west, away from the dense forests of Vermont or Virginia, trundling sturdily through the Midwest before traversing, somehow, the long seams of the Rockies, its trip likely ending somewhere after that, the wood pulled apart by the dry desert wind, the disc left to rot next to a creosote-tinged slab of fluorite. But it didn’t rot, Gloria. It made it here, to the ceiling then the floor of the Stardust Room, the wheel important enough, in some manner or way, to not be left to decay at the base of a bluff, near a den of sidewinders. Instead, it was adapted for a different sort of use, rethought and reused, exactly the same yet very much different.
It wasn’t until I had unplugged the TV and was wheeling the device on its rickety stand back toward the room’s doors that I realized that the VINA had in all likelihood saved at least one Focus Group Member from death, even while attempting to take the life of another, as were it not for the VINA’s entrée and his subsequent actions, it seemed likely to me that one FGP would have been walking under the chandelier as it loosed and fell, maiming badly if not taking the life of that person. I stood there, palms on the TV stand like I was pushing a cart, and thought about what such a chain of events could mean—that the VINA’s detainment equated to the preservation of life for a Focus Group Member—then gave up trying to ascertain a solution, returning the TV to the hotel’s front desk and that night eating at the establishment recommended by the Very Christian Focus Group Participant (the burger’s meat, Gloria, was full of fat, and its flavors were far too aggressive).
When I returned to the hotel, all the parking spaces near the lobby doors were full. I guided my sedan around the side of the building, parking in a free space in front of a thin, gnarled cottonwood tree trapped in a floral version of coma—while not truly dead, it seemed less than alive, never again to produce new buds, instead spending the rest of its existence in some form of suspended animation. Yards away from the tree was one of the hotel’s side entrances, and after two tries I was able to get my key card to work in its security system. Feet ahead of me, on the left side of the corridor, was the entrance to Rancho Brava. I looked down the hall, toward the front desk, and seeing no sign of human life, walked to the twin mahogany doors, lightly trying first one and then the other handle. Neither would depress. I set my shoulder bag down, looking back at the front desk one more time. Turning my torso to one side, I pressed my left ear to the laminated wood, blinking my eyes as I listened for any sounds coming from inside the room, any clue that might explain the day’s actions. I stood there ten seconds, awkwardly crouched, the cartilage around my ear canal beginning to throb from pressure. I readjusted, then put a finger in my free ear, shutting my eyes and standing perfectly still and letting my body, as best as it could, give itself wholly over to the act of aural surveillance. At one point, I thought that I heard a Yeeee-Whoooo, and at a second, I thought that I could discern the clinking of glasses, two crystal vessels meeting with force, their collision a jubilant salute to the West’s past and its cultures and customs. But I know that I did not hear these things—that the boomtown yawp and the sound of the glasses meeting in toast existed only in my imagination. As I drew back from the door, though, Gloria, the most impossible of things happened.
I had just grabbed the strap of my shoulder bag and was getting ready to walk toward the elevators when one and then both of Rancho Brava’s door handles started jiggling, the chrome-finished levers flipping up and down a half inch with startling rapidity. Someone was in there, Gloria, and trying to get out, the two handles making clicking sounds as a person or persons madly shook them. I backed away from the entrance, unsure of what to do, my heart beating faster and my mouth going wet as I looked down the Marriott’s hall, toward the lobby. Again, however, no patron or employee could be seen, and as I was trying to make the decision whether to call out, go for help, or simply leave, the handles began to shake even faster on their circular mounts until the two pieces of metal turned red and popped free from the doors, falling to the carpeted floor in front of me.
Amazed, my mind flipping through answers like files in a drawer, I bent down and touched one of the levers with a finger. It was still hot and as I drew my hand away, I looked toward the freshly made holes in the entrance to Rancho Brava, now being at eye level with them. If lights were on in the room, something or someone stood in the way of their illumination, as when I pressed my face to first the left hole, then the right, all that I saw was blackness, the sort of all-consuming blackness one can sometimes stand in, Gloria, on lightless nights in the middle of the desert, the stars and the moon blocked out by clouds, the contours of the world having vanished.
I waited five minutes, my eye still pressed to the door, moving back and forth to look through one hole and then the other, hoping that whatever barrier stood in the way might remove itself but also not being so brave as to insert a digit and try to touch the impediment, if such a blockade were indeed in place, since it seemed just as possible that the reason I couldn’t view the interior of the room was that all the lights in Rancho Brava were off. Either way, Gloria, enough time had passed that I had come back into possession of my self-awareness, cognizant of the fact that while an act that I still can’t explain had just occurred, I was also crouched in front of a hotel banquet-room door like a criminal or idiot. I stood to leave, swinging my shoulder bag’s strap over my body, then noticing my shoe was untied, and just as I was about to bend back down and tie it, an item was loosed through the space of the door, falling to the floor inches in front of me.
Gloria, today I turned thirty-nine. The second act of my play is one year away, and even now the house lights have begun their dimming. I have no spouse, no children, no mortgage. I do not own a pet and I harbor no debt. I’ve donated my loafers and dress shirts and neckties. The ghosts of my past inhabit faraway lands and while some mean me harm, they won’t ever find me. If this next decade, for most, is one of profession and family, and the settling in for the trip down that (perhaps pleasant) road of subscribing and ascribing, I find myself on a different sort of path, one largely unpaved and set back from Life’s highway, the dust my tires bring up something near to a shield, the miles ahead of me absent of traffic. Another way, perhaps, of saying this, Gloria, is that while I never saw who was in Rancho Brava that day, I know their identity, because I was. A version of me shook the room’s door handles to hot, and once those implements fell to the floor, I was given a gift that only I could give me. What this item is doesn’t matter at all. Its worth lies only in its continued importance.
Shady Lanes Trailer Court is managed by Ken Nakahara, a Vietnam vet and retired park ranger. I’m in his double-wide now, my laptop attached by a cord to his printer. Once this letter’s done, we’ll sit in Shady Lane’s “park,” a two-plot swath of lawn abutting Ken’s home that harbors good shade from a trio of mesquites, under which is a single wooden picnic table. Ken’s worked in Black Canyon and Capitol Reef and he spent his last years at Red Rock, in Nevada. His knowledge is vast, and his ministrations of it tactical and humble. In my acceptance of him as a steward of the land, he has found in me his final student. We sit often to sundown, drinking iced instant coffee, Ken recounting his years in the forest and deserts. We’ll never travel together—this seems understood. Instead, his wisdom is a baton handed off, my neighbor’s length of the race having come to an end as my portion of the relay is beginning. Tomorrow, I may drive southwest, toward Juarez. Tomorrow, I may take I-40 and then 25 toward Trinidad, Colorado. If neither of these, I will wind up somewhere in between: Albuquerque or Flagstaff or Durango. In the meantime, I’ve not checked my email for months. I have only a vague notion of my checking account balance. I own one pair of footwear—my hiking boots. They’ve not even begun to truly break in. They will last for me decades. They may outlast me.
Gloria, I hope that this letter helps you, and that all is well in Milford, Connecticut. I imagine come fall that the trees will turn red. I imagine, next to them, a Protestant church’s bone-white spire, slimming as it ascends toward thick moody clouds whose voyage will shortly become transatlantic. I don’t think that I’ll see the east coast again. A boundary was lowered and I chose to step past it, and now that I have, there’s no way to go back. Instead, I rocket outward over alien lands. Instead, I search for chuckwalla basking on dolostone slabs, in the pulsing dusk light of my low, endless desert.