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  • Writer's picturePaul Cumbo

"Phoenix, Arizona" - A Short Story

This story was originally published in Ten Stories (2014).

IF YOU WEREN’T looking for it, you wouldn’t notice the ring in his pocket. The circular outline is barely visible through the rough fabric of his jeans. He feels it pressed tightly against his thigh, with a distinct, acute pinpoint where the diamond protrudes. It came in a tiny silk-lined box, which he’s kept hidden in his backpack for almost ten days, tucked out of sight across three thousand miles of interstates and county highways. Supposedly, they’re driving across the country to see her brother. Taking the long way out. Seeing the land. Now’s the time to do it, his father had told him. It’s a beautiful country. Take her and go while you’re in your twenties, before you two get married and start having kids. Will had laughed and rolled his eyes. Kids! Let’s focus on one thing at a time, here, Dad. But Dad was right. And now, for Will, this trip is something more than a cross-country ramble. It’s the final chapter in his odyssey of decision. A decision that he knows he’s already made but still needs to act on. He’s unlocked the door and turned the handle. But this is a door which, once opened, is very hard to close. Have to be sure. No more doubts. And now he’s speeding along the open highway, racing westward as if to outrun the stubborn, lingering self-doubt that’s kept him from doing it this long.

Well, he should have outrun anything by now, he figures. After all, he drives fast. He’s a cop.

He wanted to do it at some opportune time in some beautiful place. Oh, there have been plenty of beautiful places. Their circuitous route has taken them across amber waves of grain and through purple mountains’ majesty, across the plains and south along the Rockies. Today, he’d told himself this morning, his jaw set and eyes narrowed with determination as he looked at himself in the rearview mirror. He’d taken the ring out of the box and put it in his pocket as they’d shouldered their backpacks to go hiking in the desert. He’d ask her today, maybe standing on top of one of those sandstone pillars. Red rocks, blue sky, bright sun. Clarity and definition. But he’d hesitated up there on the sandstone pillar in the bright morning, just as he’d hesitated all week. He’d held her hand and kissed her, and together they’d looked out at the vastness before them and felt the sun on their skin. But the ring stayed in his pocket.

Now, hours later, the radio plays softly as if in another room, muffled by the sound of the engine and the fluid rush of air through the open windows. He’s seen photographs of the West his whole life, but he’s never been out here. It’s bigger up close, and he’s taken by the panorama before him. The sky is pale indigo, still retaining a delicate shade of steel gray as stars become faintly visible, luminescent silver specks scattered haphazardly overhead. The sun, a dense wafer of brick-red flame, rests hesitantly on the shoulder of a sandstone mesa far ahead. As if reluctant to surrender to the night, it hangs on for one last, fleeting moment, bestowing a parting pastel kiss on the desert. The asphalt, cooling now and shimmering as it bleeds the heat of day, stretches ahead. A vast landscape of rock and cactus extends for miles, flat and featureless except for the rocky mesas and sandstone giants eroded by centuries. The narrow towers and broad, slanting plateaus burn with a rusty hue in the fading twilight.

The back of the Jeep is strewn with stuff: stuff for traveling and stuff to eat, a big cooler full of the powder-mix diet drink that Colleen insisted on taking with them. There’s a cardboard box full of her neatly folded “city clothes,” (labeled so in her precise, narrow script), which sits safely above the chaos of their week and a half on the road together. Their backpacks, smudged with the clay and dirt of a three-day hike in Wyoming, lie in a crumpled pile toward the hatchback. He could have proposed on that mountain pass, or on the shore of that glacial lake with snowcapped peaks clawing at the sky behind him. There have been so many postcard-perfect spots.

This should be easy out here, he thinks. Out here on the big frontier, it seems the very land is infused with pioneer spirit. The clear, unpolluted air is alive with some tangible sense of newness. It’s in the crisp scent of timber and the melody of cool water flowing over ancient, solid rock. Out here, he’s far from the Massachusetts State Police substation, the cacophony of lines three through nine metering out the chaotic pace of daily life. He’s far from the Lieutenant and the Captain and their secretary, Janine, who sits at her immense desk like an Amazon warrior, Goddess of the Narcotics Intelligence Database, in a red power-dress, tracking inter-agency memos and switching phone lines with cool, mechanical efficiency. He’s far from the constant weight of the gun holster around his torso, the piece digging into his side as he sits hunched over a cluttered desk, rolling his eyes, his ears ringing from the incessant, ignorant babble on the other end of the line. One hand is filing through a Rolodex; the other motions frantically to Janine that he needs a goddamn pen as she flashes him an intense look of utter disdain.

But now he is driving west with Colleen, and the pencil line of Arizona 77 stretches far ahead on a vast plain of twilight desert. The air feels cool and warm at the same time somehow, like lukewarm tap water, and smells vaguely of mesquite and asphalt. Colleen sleeps in the passenger seat to his right. A few stray hairs quiver in the breeze. Her pale blue blouse—the color of the big southwestern sky on a summer afternoon—is wrinkled from hiking in the sun, and her collar is upturned crazily by the seatbelt across her chest. A purple windbreaker, crumpled against the armrest, makes a pillow. Her mouth is open just that little bit like it always is when she sleeps. Under her closed lids, those amber eyes are resting now, perhaps dilated and gently shifting with the rhythm of a peaceful dream.

Highway markers disappear in the rearview mirror as the sun gives up, and the desert night descends. The Dipper appears, low in the sky for this time of year, it seems. He remembers that Friday night in Colleen’s college dorm outside of Boston two years ago, her last year in college and his first on the force. He lay on the floor with her head on his chest, listening to Coldplay and staring out the window at the Dipper. He awoke at eight the next morning and she was gone already, out running, pushing the cause, making it happen, making the grade, mile after mile. He remembers standing under her showerhead, his forehead resting against the mint-green tile wall with his eyes closed, knowing in that morning-after sort of way that maybe he’d never really catch her, hard as he tried. She’d always somehow be a step ahead. But he didn’t care. He smiled anyway, got dressed, and met her for coffee and bagels at the café on the corner.

Now they are just fifty miles from the little town outside Tucson where her twin brother Sean lives. He’s a brand new Customs Inspector and was assigned here earlier this year, and they haven’t had a chance to see him since he moved from Boston in April. It’s been a full day’s drive from their last stop in Santa Fe. Breakfast in a little diner with an old woman who made them corn tortillas by hand, and then an hour after lunch hiking in the Petrified Forests, something to get off the road for a while. Colleen took his picture next to an antique gas-pump at ALL STAR LARRY’S TEXACO AND FRESH-CUT FRIES, grinning with that little smirk she makes when she knows he feels foolish. She insisted that he wear the souvenir T-shirt, red with white printing encircling a large Texaco star on the back: ALL STAR LARRY’S – SANTA FE, N.M. She had laughed, and like always, the musical notes reminded him of the wind chimes his grandmother keeps hanging outside her back door. He’s still wearing the ridiculous T-shirt, and it sticks to his back after the hours in the Jeep.

He taps the brake pedal, slowing down momentarily as a desert fox scampers across the road. Its narrow eyes glow for an instant before it disappears into the roadside brush. The jolt causes her to stir, and she shifts her weight, leaning across the armrest now, her head coming to rest on his shoulder as she mumbles something in her half-sleep. Her hair retains the faintest hint of the lilac shampoo from the motel in Santa Fe, mixed with the healthy, energetic smell of skin that’s been in the sun, tanned and toned to an exuberant bronze. He absently touches her cheek with his fingers, brushing hair out of her eyes. Her skin is smooth like the wax of a new candle against the roughness of his hands. His are tanned and callused from sanding and staining her tiny back deck. She’d sat for hours, reading some forgettable romance novel, sipping lemonade and watching him from behind ridiculous yellow sunglasses. She’d worn a loose white blouse that looked so good against her tanned skin. She’d laughed at him, her love-slave, laboring for hours under the hot New England sun, the humidity making him sweat and swear, but the anger quickly faded to laughter whenever he saw the sunglasses. She still hasn’t forgiven him for spraying her with the garden hose. It was worth it, even though he had to re-finish the deck because the stain hadn’t dried.

He smiles now, wondering if the trucker that just passed by with a rumbling whoosh in the other direction has anyone to lean on his shoulder on this dark highway in the desert. Anyone to make him feel warm and luminescent even though the breeze is getting cooler as the heat rises into the canopy of black overhead. The truck’s taillights glow red, receding to tiny specks in the mirror as the night again becomes silent. But then, it’s not silence, is it? The engine rumbles on and the tires tread their way along the miles. But the sound is a drone, a monotone that blends with the night and becomes a sort of silence on its own.

Just a few miles to go.


Then there’s a late dinner at her brother’s place, a few drinks among the three of them, and some stories. Colleen fades fast and goes to bed reluctantly. She pleads with him to come with her but she’s happy that Will and her brother are bonding, maybe even having a “guy talk,” as she likes to call them.

After she goes inside, he has a few more beers with Sean and trades thoughts about the future, comparing notes about Sean’s life in Customs and his with the State Police. They chat about sports and women and politics and share some laughs about funny moments on the job. They talk about Colleen, and Sean tells Will about the time when Colleen knocked three of his teeth out with a Louisville Slugger. They were in second grade, fighting about who was going to pitch first in a neighborhood game of ball. And the story of when Sean had beaten up the boy that ditched Colleen outside his car after the junior prom because she wouldn’t do the things he wanted. He’d had every intention of using the same Louisville Slugger that night, but Colleen had wrestled it from his drunken grip. Probably good, he tells Will, or he wouldn’t be working for the government today.

They’re on the front porch. There’s no screen, and the bug-light buzzes steadily in the far corner, casting a yellowish glow over the whitewashed deck. The two of them sit on the steps, elbows resting on their knees and dangling the bottles of beer between their legs. The way guys sit. Will toys with the label on his bottle. Sean is taller, but more boyish, with short buzzed hair. It’s the same dirty blond as Colleen’s. After a long silence, Will decides it’s time to tell him his intentions. Probably about time, but it won’t come as any surprise. He’s been with Colleen for three years now steady, gone to the family stuff, gotten drunk with Sean before, even cried with him at their dad’s funeral. So Will turns and looks him in the eyes—eyes very much like hers—and tells him that he wants to marry his sister. That he has the ring in his pocket and it’s been there all day. Will tells him this, or maybe he asks him this, searching for the vaguest sign of disapproval, feeling in his gut that since her father died, Sean was the one he had to ask. Of course there is no disapproval. Only a smile, a nod, and a hug.

And now he realizes that this is why he’d hesitated all along. Of course he needed this approval, this affirmation of his rightness for her. Not from some antiquated notion of propriety or chivalry—no, she’d certainly scoff at that. This was about himself. About knowing he was good enough for her. He needed someone else—not just anyone, but her brother, the person closest to her—to say it to him. To make it true. To erase the doubt.

Upstairs, the white sheets are mother-of-pearl in the moonlight. Colleen is awake enough to know he’s there. He gets undressed, and he can’t help but chuckle again at the stupid red t-shirt crumpled on the floor. When she hears him, she sits up with a pillow in her lap. Her palms cup her face as she rests her chin in her hands. She smiles at him and whispers hello, whatcha-doin, how was your talk with Sean? He lies next to her, staring at a crack in the ceiling, his hands folded behind his neck, clutching the ring back there where she can’t see it. She traces a hand lightly on his chest. He tries to think of something eloquent to say but ends up just turning to face her, resting on his elbow and cupping her hands with his as he places the ring in her palm.

This time there isn’t any doubt, and it becomes clearer then than it ever was before that this is right. That he is right; they are right. She smiles, holding him close to her.


The wedding is the following spring at their church in Boston. The sun is radiant, and they take pictures in the park. Her skin remains tan even after the New England winter, and her dress sparkles. They dance after dinner, and Sean offers the toast, telling pleasant lies about them. He calls Will his brother. The honeymoon is in Barbados, and they stay on the coast. They ride horses on the beach. At one point they make love in the sand dunes at sunrise, and he tastes the salt of the ocean when he kisses her.


July. Will is back at his office. He holds the phone with his shoulder, head cocked to listen to the Lieutenant, both hands busy paging through a seizure manifest from last night’s drug bust outside of Worchester. Suddenly Janine comes striding in and looms over his desk, both arms straight and her wedding ring (my god, who would marry her, he wonders) tapping rhythmically on his desk. She is staring down at him, her eyebrows raised and her breasts straining against her black low-cut. Yes, she has a new look lately, gleaned from the pages of Vogue in the midst of her latest menopausal crisis. Will hangs up with the boss and meets her unblinking gaze, raising his own eyebrows to say, yes? You have a phone call, she says. Family. Personal. Something important. It’s your wife. Line four. She does an about face, leaving the room at double time, her heels clacking and the air crackling with the static energy of her latest perfume, aptly named INTENSITY FOR HER.

Colleen’s voice on the line is hollow. There was an incident in Nogales and Sean has been airlifted to the ICU in Phoenix. Bullet-wound to the thoracic spine, with internal fragmentary lacerations. Or something like that.

Janine manages to give Will a sympathetic look when he leaves the office, keys to an unmarked cruiser in hand and his face pale. He speeds home and picks up Colleen at the apartment. Her mother is waiting with her; they’ve packed already. He uses the dash lights to bust through airport traffic. The engine screams as he does ninety to catch the next flight. Colleen rides leaning forward, her palms cupping her face and her shoulders tensed. He parks in short-term without taking a ticket, flashing his badge to the parking attendant and fixing him with a silencing glare.


The funeral is hot. Bagpipes seem strange in Phoenix. Will is part of the honor guard, carrying the casket. He cries when they play Amazing Grace. He doesn’t usually cry at funerals. But this time a picture of Sean, with his arm around Colleen’s shoulders, stares out at him from a table by the altar, along with the young man’s service badge and the Arizona state flag.

Afterward, at the reception, Colleen sits with her hands folded across her chest, holding a glass of water and staring absently at a spot on the carpet. Her mom is nearby with some other officers in Sean’s unit. Will stands in the corner on the phone with Boston, telling Janine that yes, he does in fact need two more days, the cruiser is at the airport, and that the Captain will just have to deal with it. For once, her voice is soft as she tells him not to worry about it. Humanity in the face of turmoil, he thinks.

Later that night Will is on the porch with Colleen at Sean’s place, where they’d sat just under a year ago and talked. It’s a cool evening, and she leans on his shoulder and shivers. The bug light flips on automatically, but the buzzing is quieter than he remembers it. Maybe Sean had replaced the bulb.

She gazes out at the desert for a long time. I’ve been thinking, she says. Let’s have a baby. If it’s a boy we could name him Sean. Her voice is quiet, but full of expectation, and Will nods. She leads him upstairs and they undress. Afterward he holds her closely until midnight when she falls asleep. He lies unmoving next to her, watching a square of moonlight move slowly across the wall for what seems like hours.


Enjoy this story? Check out the full collection, Ten Stories.


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