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Know the West

Raquel Gutiérrez feels shades of desperate

The author of ‘Brown Neon’ on queer fatherhood and being broke down in the desert.

I swore I would never break down in Blythe again. This time I wasn’t alone. It was the last day of a hot July summer, and I was speeding through the desert of the Palo Verde Valley that tethers California to Arizona. I raced the morning sun before it settled into its noontime post in the sky. I was desperate to miss the 106 degrees that had started to overheat my rental mini-SUV. I had Toby, my 12-year-old pit bull mix in the back, wrapped in a diaper and seemingly desiccating in the back seat, his protruding ribcage a reminder of our numbered days together.

I stopped in Blythe to fill up where gas was cheaper than in the sparser town of Quartzsite, 20 minutes east on the interstate. The car suddenly refused to accelerate past 30 mph. Unbeknownst to me, the car had gone into the terribly termed “limp mode.” It jerked forward when I floored the gas pedal. I drove it down Lovekin Boulevard to the town’s main artery, hoping to regain speed before getting back on I-10. Not again, I begged silently.

 

The first time I broke down in Blythe, California, I had driven the car straight into its 175,000-mile misery. I had left Tucson, Arizona, for Los Angeles, managing the thrum of a road trip in motion with the anxieties of new love. This summer of 2015 was lit up by a kind of love that would challenge my preconceived notions of what I held sacred under my queer sun — from class warfare to radical kinship, sex and the modern butch projections I had failed at becoming. At the time, I was on my way to see my queer butch father in Jeanne Córdova, the now late activist and chronicler of Southern California lesbian life, whose cancer diagnosis made it clear that our days together would be numbered, too.

Portrait of Jeanne Córdova.
Jeanne Córdova Collection, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives

Jeanne’s influence on me extended into landscape. She spoke of her time in Gamma Gulch, a swath of land in Yucca Valley that she and her partner, Lynn, called home in the mid-1990s.  She spoke of meditation and road trips. I saw photographs of her dashing butch being draped in corduroy and sherpa, a sharp cowboy hat atop her fine coiffed head, overlooking the canyons as the twilight sparkled in the background. Nothing was going to stop me from being at Jeanne’s bedside. After getting towed to the local mechanic in town, I drove the mid-’90s Toyota rental they had for me to the local chain hotel with the word “comfort” in its title. I remember the pillows having discernible notes of blood splatter. I was too tired to do anything but flip them over and fall asleep.

I pledged I would never break down in the desert again.

But pledges break all the time, and this time I had to look out for a helpless creature that had easily coaxed a love I didn’t know I was capable of offering. Certainly not for anything or anyone else. Toby was my child. I was middle-aged and queer, with my employability waning — of course, this rescue pit bull mix was possibly more than my child. He was the love of my life. He accepted my queerness as if it were a bowl of chicken; he took it ravenously and offered sweet succor each time love would leave my life. We made family from the rubble of broken hearts in our decade together. And I was watching him struggle against the cancer metastasizing through his body. The last time we had come through this desert, a few years back, it was wintertime, and I had sneaked Toby onto the dog-forbidden trails of Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree. I snapped photos of him in front of Skull Rock, his short-furred coat blending right into the creamy browns of the famed park’s fields and valleys of sediment, succulents and boulder.

The author's dog, Toby, in Joshua Tree National Park in 2017.
Raquel Gutiérrez

I stopped at two chain auto stores, and the last one led me to the domestic car dealership as the possible knot to the end of my rope. Each stop in these places included men of all ages mooning over Toby’s sweet baby eyes and happy-wagging helicopter tail. It was Toby who inspired these dudes to point us in the direction of real help.

Now, at the dealership, I was met by Jason, a large and affable guy with a chin-strap beard. As the head mechanic on site at the dealership, he brought out his code-reader, only to tell me the codes were blocked to his device by the manufacturer. I considered my options and tried to discern what shade of desperate colored the conundrum we were in that day. I took my chances on the hot concrete and walked Toby across the street for a quick pee before heading back to talk to Jason. Nearing his end, Toby panted in that heat — a sound I won’t soon forget.

Jeanne’s huge presence modeled a powerful butch sensibility that I hoped I could continue exalting in my own way.

I thought of Jeanne’s little dogs: the late cream-colored terrier, Chispa, plucked from the streets of Todos Santos in Baja California, and the new min-pin, Ito, the consentido, the spoiled puppy living in the lap of LA lesbian luxury. Ito is a new acquisition meant to ease Jeanne’s fears of death and disintegration as she rides out the latest (and last) cancer diagnosis. These little dogs enjoyed their lives with cats, too, and I remember that’s why I never took Toby to meet them all. I was anxious that Toby would soil an antique rug or knock some expensive bric-a-brac off a shelf. Or bite Chispa or Ito, since, let’s be honest, dogs do bite. I had to neglect him some to be able to tend to Jeanne in the last chapters of her life, like a dutiful son. Jeanne’s huge presence modeled a powerful butch sensibility that I hoped I could continue exalting in my own way. But whereas Jeanne enjoyed the finer things, I was rougher in my edges, struggling to finally shed desires for the lower vibrational.

 

The author with Jeanne Córdova in 2014.
Raquel Gutiérrez

Jason brought out a water bowl for Toby. I was so grateful for the way the world opened up to a dog whose early life was spent limping in a Los Angeles dog pound. Toby came from a rescue, sprung from the notorious Northeast Los Angeles animal shelter on the very day he was supposed to be euthanized. Back then, Toby was a 10-month-old gangly fawn-beast with a white blaze down his snout and chest. I was smitten. My 70-something mother loved him. He stood vigil by my father’s bedside until the day the old man was carted off to die at the Kaiser in Downey. The only person Toby ever bit (hard, on the hand) was my older brother when he was garbed in full sheriff’s deputy uniform. Maybe, in another life, Toby might be a true riot dog like, El Negro Matapacos of Chile or Kanellos, a big mutt who protected protesters in Greece.

In Afterglow, Eileen Myles writes a fabulist elegy to Rosie, their beloved pitbull of 16 years, claiming that Rosie is the reincarnation of their long-dead dad, Terrence. Actually, Myles claims, Rosie’s been a whole slew of creatures, both canine and human. The lives of Toby and my own dads — both blood and chosen — generously overlapped. If Toby had ever been reincarnated, it certainly was not from the souls of anyone in my patriarchal ancestral line. Toby would always be home when I craved consistency, providing me with warm-chested intimacy that soothed my anxiety like the master cuddler that he was. My father couldn’t always deliver those things. Yet my dad’s spirit was definitely in the ether of that day’s mind-melting desert heat.

The author with their father in San Francisco, California.
Raquel Gutiérrez

I tugged on the tote bag full of jerky treats and dog diapers, purred some baby talk into Toby’s silk-soft ear and remembered that it’s not just me I need to protect. And I thought: I am doing a fair enough job in this protector role.

And I remembered another time of breaking down in the desert.

It’s 1982, the summer I turned 6, and my parents have spent the last few days gambling, sense-numbing and sight-seeing on the edges of Lake Havasu. We are returning home to Southeast Los Angeles in their early ’80s-model Ford Econoline van, decked out in cobalt blue carpet and cloth bench seats where my little sister and I nap until our little sweat-drenched bodies signal that the air conditioner is no longer working. The car began overheating near a rest area not very close at all to Needles, California. At least we’re safe, but it is hot, and we don’t have much in the way of water or food. I peek over the dashboard to see my dad removing his aviator-style bifocals and wiping sweat from his furrowed brow. His black and bushy eyebrows crinkle like caterpillars. He is not a handyman; he never learned his way under the hood of a car. We don’t even have a gas can in the van. I love my dad, but this is one of the many instances of his unpredictable parenting. I realize he must have been nursing a raging hangover in the hot, hot heat of the unforgiving Mojave. It’s getting dark, and I show my mom the change in my Little Twin Stars coin purse and ask if we can get Doritos at the vending machine. It’s what we have for dinner as we watch my dad talk to two white biker guys who look straight out of central casting — handlebar mustaches, longish dark hair, leather cutoffs and dusty denim shirts and jeans.

I love my dad, but this is one of the many instances of his unpredictable parenting.

What’s happening? I ask my mom in Spanish, who replies, steely-eyed, that those bikers are offering to fix the van for us. I was scared, because it was just these two men and my dad. And us. In the wilds of the desert. We could all have disappeared, and no one would be the wiser. But these biker men were talking to my dad like he was an actual person, someone with a small wad of casino winnings. Maybe they wouldn’t hurt him? I knelt next to my mom, sitting in the passenger seat, watching my dad gesture to us that he was going with the bikers. My mom and I watched him swing his leg over the seat, sidling up on the high chrome back rest of this strange man’s motorcycle. They roared off into the dark mouth of the freeway, and we were left alone for a short eternity. If my mother was afraid, she never let me know it.

And my dad did return, and maybe it was not a miracle that he paid those bikers to fix the radiator and that we were able to travel back in silence to our Southeast Los Angeles home. He put us at risk, and then he solved the problem. This memory rings out with new conversations I have had as an adult about this desert. I think of the poet whose father owned an auto-parts store in Needles for much of the late-20th century, complete with a phone number available for unlucky travelers, who, like my dad, could call and receive after-hours service. Maybe these kinds of interactions — born of both kindness and transaction — were as common between strangers in the desert as sunburn.

We are very lucky, I tell Toby as I reach for a wet wipe to clean his sweet face.

Interstate 10, driving east towards Blythe, California.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Raquel Gutiérrez is a writer, critic and educator whose first book of essays, Brown Neon (Coffee House Press), was just published. They are a 2021 recipient of the Rabkin Prize in Arts Journalism, as well as a 2017 recipient of the The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. Gutiérrez teaches in the Oregon State University-Cascades Low Residency Creative Writing MFA Program. They call Tucson home.