Going to Arizona, Deacon had seen something of the wonderful and mysterious world that lay beyond the hayfields of Georgia. He had taken a bus out, and after they had gotten out of Texas, he had actually ridden in the front seat, looking out at the road right over the driver’s shoulder. When he saw the miles and miles of desert and painted buttes, he nearly cried out. So much of a world, so big and empty and lovely, and he was pinned down in Georgia.
John Robert had died of tuberculosis before Deacon arrived. The army was already shipping the body back home so there was nothing for him to do. First Mildred, his wife, had died—suddenly, from a bad heart, and now John Robert, his son. He had taken a walk around the sanatorium. Walking, he watched the young men resting in beds pushed onto the patios. They talked quietly and laughed. There was coughing, too. He walked all the way around the hospital, around the colored section, around the white section, and he thought about the blue sky of Arizona, the red desert, the saw-tooth ranges, the strange flat-topped hills and those telephone pole-like cactuses—instead of trees—cactuses, so serene and out of this world. He thought how much Arizona looked like the moon. How much the Earth was just a moon. A planet, and then, God almighty! Things were too big for him to care much about John Robert. John Robert was up there, up there among the slow clouds that flattened out on the horizon. John Robert was on the moon, free.
On the way back, when he crossed from Alabama into Georgia, he lost his breath—it came back. He was in the next to the last seat. He tried to sleep. He felt ashamed. His face and hands burned. He had seen the desert, and now he was back in Georgia, and his son was dead. One wonder. One misery. One mystery. Nothing he could do about any of it. In a month, he received John Robert’s coffin. After that, whenever Deacon talked of John Robert, he talked about his trip to the desert.
Anthony Grooms is the author of Bombingham, a novel, and Trouble No More, a collection of stories. Both works are set during the time of the civil rights struggles in the American south, and are winners of the Lillian Smith Prize for writing about social issues. Grooms was a 2006 Fulbright Fellow to Sweden where he lectured at Södertörns Högskola. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Among other projects, he is writing a novel about American expatriates in Sweden.