There’s a man who sells truth out of a hot-dog cart on the side of the road under the flaming sunset most evenings. You probably notice him, but unless you were born to the Arizona dust and sun like I was, you don’t pay enough attention to him. He’s just someone on the side of a road selling hot-dogs, you think.
But when your first breath of air is full of Sonoran dust, the desert out here gets into you. There’s an oldness out here. An oldness that laughs as the snowbirds coo over how beautiful the sky is when the sun bleeds out at the end of the day. It’s out there, and we know it. It’s out there in the heat waves that shimmer off the ground and the ever-present howls of the coyote. We’ve learned how to pay homage to it.
Remember kids, it’s a dry heat.
The desert shows up sometimes in people though, whose smiles know a little too much, whose dark eyes glitter with mischief. It shows up when we travel in places that aren’t Arizona and somehow always find another born Arizonian. It knows we are out there too, and it likes to remind us we can never escape.
There are things better left alone. The Superstitions are one of those things. The desert likes to whisper there, lure you away with promises you know it can’t keep. Accidents happen everywhere all the time. Accidents do not happen on the Superstitions.
There is always a warning before you are claimed.
I know the man with the hot-dog cart is one of those things, but I know the desert out here has a way of claiming all of us anyways. He is not selling hot-dogs, and the last time I saw him on my way home, I caught his gaze and saw him smile directly at me.
I do not know if that was a mistake yet.
The other cars going by on the road don’t seem inclined to slow down. Dust spins up under my tires as I pull over. Even with my windows up and the A/C set to circulate the air inside, I can taste the grittiness of the desert.
The engine dies and for a moment the only thing is the scream of the cicadas. I listen, one hand still gripping the wheel while the man plays with his paper hot-dog holders. He does not acknowledge my presence, not yet.
I don’t leave my car until the cicadas silence themselves as abruptly as they always do. It’s easier to hear warnings when they’re quiet, but I know they won’t be for long.
His eyes are still dark, and his grin is broad. When he grins, it displays his overbite and the aging teeth. His skin is brown like the over-baked land.
“Hello,” he says. “How much do you hunger?”
The agreement is never spoken, but it’s understood. I can only ask him a question if he asks one first. Break that, and the desert will claim me more than it already does.
“How much does it cost?”
“It’s not about the cost. It’s about how much you can handle. You either want all of the truth in general, or you only want to know about a specific truth. Either way it can be unpleasant.”
If I were smart, I would play it safe here. I would only seek information on my father’s death. To know what happened in the Superstitions. I would not request anything more than that.
Being smart is how most of us survive in the desert. Being smart enough to stay safe, to remember that though we are aware of the desert and it’s games we are not immune. The heat is oppressive so it can let other things hunt you while your senses are dulled.
It’s a dry heat, not a bloody one.
And the desert knows that being smart is how we survive. But it has been here longer than any of us, and it laughs at our pitiful attempts. It has had canyons carved to lure more of its prey. It has learned to grow flowers that only bloom every twenty years to lure more of its prey. It learns and adapts, always to lure more of its prey.
And the desert knows that temptation is strong, even for those of us who have its dust in our lungs and its heat in our veins.
“Just the one thanks,” I say.
He grins at me and opens his cart. The dollop of truth plops into the paper tray like soft-serve ice cream. Yet, I know that it will not melt, no matter how long I leave it on the asphalt under the blistering sun.
“Come back any time,” he invites.
I only nod as I walk back to my car with the holder in my hand. For one reason or another, I look up as the nearby light turns red.
The driver in the car at the crosswalk has stopped. Good. Their eyes meet mine.
They know. And I know they know. This is not a hot dog, and that man is not what he first appears. I smile, and get back in my car.
The cicadas start screaming again.
by A.J. Helms