portion of the artwork for Michelle Ross's stories

Barrel Cactus
Michelle Ross

“You always go for the cactuses,” Jennifer says. “There’s a lot more to the desert, you know.”

I’m digging a hole for my latest purchase—a little barrel cactus plump like Jennifer’s toes, the nails of which are painted coal. She’s standing over me, shading me from the sun. Ten toes lined up like strange hors d’oeuvres.

I suspect Jennifer’s remark is pointed at my mother, who is in the sky right this moment, heading back to Chicago. The entire three days she was here, my mother wouldn’t step outside a building or an automobile long enough to really experience the heat, to let it knead her into submission, but that didn’t stop her from complaining about it. “Susan, how can you stand it here? Everything’s so hostile.” Then yesterday evening at the shops downtown my mother bought everything saguaro she could find. Dishes painted with saguaros. Saguaro-shaped soaps and pens. Lollipops for my brother Charlie’s kids.

Jennifer was polite. She stocked the fridge with those iced teas my mother likes. She tolerated long hours of my mother talking about church and grandchildren. But while my mother shopped, Jennifer sat out on the curb, closed her eyes, and tilted her face toward the sun. Scratched at the pavement with her fingernails.

My mother looked out our sliding glass door this morning and said, “Your yard is unwelcoming. How could you possibly have a barbecue out here?” Before I could respond, Jennifer said, “What do you care? You don’t eat meat.”

My mother winced. Retreated to the guest bedroom. Didn’t come out until it was time for me to return her to the airport.

Jennifer changed into running clothes, didn’t say a word on her way out the door. My mother didn’t mention Jennifer’s absence when she emerged from the bedroom with that a suitcase so huge she could fly home inside it if it weren’t so stuffed with souvenirs.

I picked up the barrel cactus on the way back from dropping my mother off.

Jennifer’s lived in the desert her whole life. She grew up watching her dad impale rattlesnakes in their backyard with a rake. She didn’t care for Chicago when we visited my mother at Thanksgiving. “It’s so crowded and so concrete and so cold.”

I say now, “I like their armor. Their prickliness makes them beautiful.” Like how chainmail is beautiful, and sleek metal helmets that open and close on hinges. When we went to the Art Institute of Chicago during that visit, I spent the entire afternoon in the medieval section.

Jennifer’s expression softens. She weaves her way between chunky saguaros and scarlet-studded nopales to retrieve my gloves. Drops them onto the rocks by my knees.

My cactus-planting gloves are some kind of rigid synthetic that can keep out just about any variety of spine. I learned the hard way not to wear leather gloves. Jennifer was the one to explain it to me when I came into the house with a palm full of “sharps”—what she called those spines. She’s a pediatric nurse. Holds down little kids and pokes needles into their arms. Scarier than the Tooth Fairy, I say about her at parties, while she rolls her eyes.

“Leather is skin,” she said that day I planted my first cactus. “Why would it be any more resistant to being punctured than your own skin?” She tweezed those spines from my gloved hand as casually as she might pluck seeds from a pomegranate.

“I’m going to bartender up something cool and stiff,” she says now. “A Horsefeather maybe. We’ll get tipsy and we’ll hike up to Happy Valley Lookout.”

The first time Jennifer suggested a hike in the sun after cocktails, I thought she was shitting me. All anyone ever talks about around here is water and how much of it you lose without knowing it. Because it’s a dry heat. You can’t feel yourself sweat.

These cactuses are made for this weather, but even they need a good soak from the garden hose once in a while or they shrivel like raisins.

“One more month, and it’ll be too hot to hike in the sun,” I say, wondering if it’s already too hot.

“One more month, and we’d die hiking out there in daylight,” Jennifer says. “Especially after a cocktail. Probably today we’ll survive, though.” She pivots, and I admire the pointy tips of her fibulas, the way they stud her ankles like spurs.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 54 | Fall/Winter 2019