*Image: “The Land of Rock Towers” by Elise Palmigiani, 19.70″ x 39.50″ Acrylic on Canvas
By Andrew Maynard
I’ve seen tumbleweed before, but never this massive. They look like clumps of wicker, like loosely bundled strands of barbwire, somersaulting viciously across the asphalt and shrinking into the shrub-covered desert. “Goddamn,” my father says, squinting out the passenger window of my truck. “They’re not even this big in Westerns.”
It’s early morning and we’re driving north from Phoenix to the Hopi Reservation to visit a crime scene—a trailer where a man was murdered, allegedly, by my father’s nineteen-year-old client, who we’ll call K. I’m just a few years older than K, and staring ahead at the Arizona desert: mountains thwarting the skyline, thick, uncharacteristically dark-gray clouds looming over the endless base of dirt. The blitzing wind checks the side of the truck, so I tighten my grip on the wheel. And keep it that way.
We’re both on the clock. My dad’s a federally appointed public defender by trade. His qualifications: A law degree and twenty-plus years experience on the job. I’m his videographer/documentary filmmaker. My qualifications: being his son and owning a camera. The plan is to film a few interviews and capture footage of the crime scene to be used as possible evidence in K’s trial.
“We gotta get this tumbleweed on film,” my dad says. “We’ll pull over on the way back.”
“Sounds good,” I say, feeling a swift kick of anxiety at the thought of operating my camera alone.
It’s probably safe to assume that I am here because I recently showed my dad a movie I helped make for a friend’s film school application, which led him to believe I’d be up for this task. Sure, I wrote the script and supplied some poor acting, but I had nothing to do with the technical aspects—the camera work, cinematography, editing. The translatable skills from the film he saw and the work he wants me to do now never belonged to me.
But working for my dad over Christmas break is hardly new territory, though this is probably the last time. I’m just months away from graduating college, and I have a few prospects to work as a script reader in Los Angeles. My dad has often said it’s a shame he doesn’t have a kid who wants to be a lawyer. He’s spent a large chunk of his life building his legal practice, but now he doesn’t have anyone to leave it to. He knows I’ll never be a lawyer, so he’s preparing me for new avenues. If all goes to plan, this will be my last winter in Arizona.
Hints of civilization—trucks, trailers, tan plastered houses—snap me out of my daze and signal that we’re close.
“Is this what you expected?” my dad asks.
“Yeah,” I say, feigning that I’d taken the time to develop expectations. Aspects of the Hopi Reservation resemble South Phoenix, the way the structures are colored like the surrounding land. But South Phoenix is surrounded by Mesa and Tempe. The reservation is surrounded by mesas and unadulterated desert. There are trailer-type homes and those narrow, rectangular houses that take up two lanes as they’re being towed on the highway.
We pull over at the only store in town—a tan general store that looks like it should have gas pumps but doesn’t; the closest gas station is a forty-minute drive away—where my father has arranged to meet K’s brother, Martin, who will act as our tour guide for the day. But we’re an hour early and without cell reception, so we grab two coffees from inside, recline the truck seats, and listen to the rain hit the roof as we wait. The dust on the windshield mixes with the water, turning the color of dried blood as it puddles. I realize that despite being an Arizona native, large chunks of my state have remained hidden from me, or I hidden from them.
Martin is dropped off in a single-cab pickup, wearing jeans and a hoodie. He looks like he thinks he’s being watched, maybe hunted, but when my father hops out of the truck and waves, a wide-stretching grin spreads across Martin’s face that feels like an invitation.
“Welcome,” Martin says.
I pull down the jump seat in back and squeeze in next to the camera. Martin insists that I sit up front—“You got those long legs”—but I refuse, delegating the front seats to those who belong here.
We pull up to an old tan house, surrounded by shrubs, just off the main road. The first thing I notice is the balcony. It’s about four-feet high, no railing, which partially explains why the victim fell to the desert floor when K allegedly shoved him. K’s outburst was a response to finding out that this man had slept with his girlfriend (the owner of the house) during the party she was hosting. The report says that K proceeded to jump off the balcony and, with the help of his cousin who had recently been released from prison, stomp him to death.
“Is anyone living here?” my dad asks.
“Oh no,” Martin says, as if this should have been obvious. “No one has been inside since that night.” Martin explains that the community has abandoned the property—apparently this wasn’t the first incident—and deemed the house the equivalent of haunted.
“You don’t mind if we take a look?” my dad asks.
Martin shakes his head: “I’ll go in with you.”
My dad tells me to get capture footage outside to establish a visual of the crime scene, and he and Martin walk up the stairs to the house. I prep the camera—wipe the lens, check the tape, adjust the settings, before noticing that the battery is half-dead. I forgot to turn it off after checking it this morning, but there should still be enough juice to get me through the day. There’s still a light rain, so I grab my dad’s windbreaker and use it as a tarp for the camera.
I start off with some still shots. The house. The neighbors. The road. The idea is to show that this house is not isolated, but rather surrounded. I capture the footage in a clear, plain style, justifying that this is the way it should be rendered—that illusion has no place in the legal system—because I have no idea how to manufacture illusion. I try to use structural objects—the house, the road—to establish perspective, a common reference point, hoping that’s how you do that. Aside from the people at the party, there were no witnesses or complaints of domestic disturbance, so I’m attempting to paint a picture that questions, why? The whole scenario seems too simple to have silenced witnesses or any hint of conspiracy theory, but I assume this is just a matter of being thorough.
Though this house has been vacant for months, there is no evidence of abandonment on the outside. Behind the house are a couple mattresses and pieces of stray furniture, but the garbage bin is still upright and nestled on the side of the balcony. I look inside and, anticlimactically, there is no murder weapon.
I climb the steps to the balcony and inch forward until my toes hang from the edge. I peer down to picture the drop. It’s not that far—you could jump without buckling your knees. But if pushed unexpectedly, it’s easy to imagine this landscape drawing blood.
I walk inside. The mess confirms that this place has indeed been vacant. In a way, “haunted” doesn’t seem like a bad way to describe it. The broken glass and mangled furniture, the plastic plates of spoiled food, the gallon of milk thickening on the kitchen counter point to a troubled past that continues to seep into the present. It’s not hard to imagine a ghost occupying the abandoned space.
“Just film all of it,” my dad says.
I film what’s left of the sofas and the ripped, mismatched curtains that dangle from bars above the windows, angling the outside light at the corners of the living room. Martin and my dad are talking at a table, but I don’t hear what they say. I capture the carpet, cluttered with crumbs. Corroded cushions and stained Tupperware containers. The vacuum cleaner, tucked away in a closet, is covered in a film of dust. The bedrooms have sheets and mattresses blocking the windows, and there are hundreds of coat hangers but no clothes, except a single “Air Jordan” T-shirt hanging in a closet. Did it belong to K? The man he killed? It looks like something I used to wear. Butterflies and birds cut from paper are taped along the wall.
K’s girlfriend inherited the house from her grandmother. How long did it take to transform into a crime scene? There are holes in the wall, some the size of a broom end, some fists. Cracked, upside-down bookshelves strewn about the floor. Everything in this place is at least partially broken. I remember fantasizing as a teenager about a life without structure or barriers. Is this what that looks like?
The entire place is covered in wallpaper, including the bathroom, where a mirror has been shattered and left in the bathtub, which is splotched with dark red stains that look like blood but is probably just rust or something. My father tells me to wrap it up. Martin watches as I film the last of the house. What does he see? I’m wearing jeans and an old, wrinkled flannel. A beanie keeps my shoulder-length blonde hair out of my eyes. I don’t look like anyone who lives here. With the camera hoisted at my shoulder, I’m dressed like the type of person I picture making documentaries. I realize this isn’t an accident.
We decide that we’ll film the interviews later, because Martin and his family are planning a trip to Phoenix. But we came all the way out here, so my father suggests that we knock on some doors and talk to some of the people who were involved. He’s got a private investigator coming out next week, but he’d like to hear their stories himself. He asks Martin if he’d mind showing us around, and Martin says that he’ll tell us where the people live, but he’d rather not involve himself any more than that. It occurs to me that for Martin, this isn’t just about losing his brother to prison. Regardless of the verdict, this crime has tattooed him as an outcast. In a town where everyone knows everyone (both K and the victim), it is nearly impossible to hide, to be rid of this gruesome association.
I squeeze into the backseat, wondering what’s keeping Martin from fleeing the reservation. The rain has picked up and is now pounding down. I check the battery before returning the camera to the case, worried that if I was negligent enough to not turn it off, it is possible that I also forgot to press ‘record.’ When we arrive at Martin’s house, he tells us about next weekend’s ceremony, and how the rain dance will change the course of the weather. There’s a yellow school bus parked in front of his house; maybe driving it is his job. Martin has kids, a wife.
“They miss my brother,” Martin says. “K’s a good uncle. A good brother.”
When Martin chokes up I want to get out of the truck to give them privacy, but it is impossible to open my door without Martin opening his. I want to get out because it is more comfortable worrying about the possibility of technical difficulties than being trapped in a claustrophobic truck with a man whose family is falling apart. Martin leans back into his seat as if he’s situating himself to stay forever.
“I just want K to come back home,” Martin says.
My father nods. I recognize that nod immediately, both attentive and complacent: I’m here, but there’s only so much I can do. It’s a sentiment I’ve never received from him: I’ve never had a problem that he didn’t think we could solve. But Martin wants what my father can’t give him: his old life back, the one in Arizona where he was part of the community now shunning him. I’m looking closely at Martin. I’m basically breathing on the back of his neck, scrunched in the backseat with a camera I barely know how to operate, a camera I wish I could use better, a camera that my father insisted I use to film an unfamiliar part of the state that I am all but primed to leave. I am here not because I am the best man for the job, but because my father has offered me the privilege; he is preparing me to move on. Martin on the other hand has a family to support and a brother in prison whose actions have stained his place on the land he has no intention to leave. Martin and I are both from Arizona, but it might as well be different planets.
Martin continues for several more minutes, while my father sits still, silent, listening. After they shake hands and Martin leaves, I sit back in front next to my father.
“Does that happen often?” I ask.
“Your client’s families wanting to . . . you know, talk about how they’re feeling?”
“Yep,” he says, smiling, in the way he always smiles while explaining to me something that is obvious to him. “When it feels like the world is going after your family, whether they deserve it or not, it’s easy to feel attached to the person defending you.” He waits a moment and then smacks his hand on my shoulder. “One more stop.”
Thirty minutes removed from Martin’s house, my father pulls up to a gift shop near the freeway. He always does this when we go somewhere new. Whether it’s buying us matching hats on road trips, or picking up logo golf balls at every new course we play, he is a sucker for the souvenir.
Inside he walks straight to the T-shirt section while I browse the postcards I have no intention of buying. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to find him holding up a shirt that reads, “Don’t Worry, Be Hopi,” sporting an impossibly large grin.
“How great is this?” he asks.
“You’re such a dork,” I say, startled by his ability to so quickly switch gears from attorney to goofball.
He asks if I want one, and I say, “God no.” Not because I don’t think it’s entertaining, but because at this point in my life, this is the fundamental difference between us: I like shirts that make me look like the person I want to become, and he likes the ones that remind him of where he’s been.
“Your loss,” he says, turning toward the cash register. “Probably looks better on me, anyway.”
Driving back toward Phoenix, I can’t stop looking over at my dad because he’s wearing the shirt. He is again staring out the window at the tumbleweed. We pull up between two barriers where several are trapped, ricocheting back and forth, fighting to regain their wind-steered paths but unable to break through the concrete. I worry for a moment that my camera might be dead. The seemingly nomadic nature of tumbleweed has a particularly alien look if you haven’t been around them much, but here, up close, they appear to be just ordinary plants detached from their roots. Maybe it’s because of the increasingly persistent rain, or maybe he just wants to get home, but my dad doesn’t ask me to film the tumbleweed. I’m relieved to be done using my camera. Also, I don’t see the point of filming a cluster of dead, directionless plants because I don’t actually understand the first thing about them. But years later I’ll wish we’d captured the scene. Years later I’ll know more about tumbleweed, how they’re, well, designed to tumble, not spontaneously uprooted but rather engineered to break free. In fact it’s a necessity: this is how they reproduce, dispersing thousands of seeds across the desert floor as they meander along. Years later I’ll revisit the footage on my computer—the reservation, the house, Martin. I’ll remember just how deep his roots reached into the Arizona soil. I’ll think about the tumbleweeds I never captured on film, and I’ll feel a void. If only I’d known that they tumbled to survive, then maybe I would have taken a moment and shared with my father exactly what we were looking at before I stepped on the accelerator and rolled away.