The Journal of Prevarication
By Jim Cook
Official State Liar of Arizona
Every so often, Miss Ellie asks me to let her know where I want my ashes buried, or scattered.
“Not right away, of course,” she adds kindly.
I told her once that I wanted my remains buried in the rustic cemetery at Burton, Arizona, but my headstone in Wickenburg, as befits a liar. She figured, correctly, that I was kidding.
But the other day, I told her I wanted my ashes buried under our new granite kitchen countertop, and my epitaph carved in its surface:
1935 – 20–
“You just never know.”
Until lately, granite was more often used for headstones than for countertops. Then granite countertops became the new fashion. Lord, they’re everywhere. Ellie is fond of our counters of Formica, the miracle material of the 1950s, now collectible.
She replied, in her most firm-but-reasonable voice: “We won’t have any granite countertops in this house unless I die first.”
I was telling that story down at the cafe where a few of us gather in the mornings to settle the affairs of the town. I wasn’t making any big points with the boys.
A big man was sitting at the next table, listening eagerly to every word. He wore a Stetson and a big belt buckle, and the legs of his Levi’s covered most of yellow, stitched boots of ostrich hide. He laughed at my story, and even in his guffaw, you could hear the accent of a Texan.
Mort, the Idler-in-Chief, asked the Texan if he’d like to join us. The man came to our table, carrying his coffee. He said his name was Cliff.
Willie said, “Cliff, drop over sometime.” Cliff smiled politely, but Mort gave Willie a look.
After the introductions, and talk about the changing weather, Cliff began trying to make conversation.
“Who was Wicken?” he asked.
We all stared at him, uncomprehending. He tried again: “Who was Wickenburg named for?”
Charles started to straighten the stranger out. Mort, seeing a greater opportunity, nudged Charles to keep him quiet.
“Wayne Wicken was the very rich man who started our little town,” Mort said. “He was from Alabama. He was gassed while fighting in World War I.”
We all know that Wickenburg was named for and by Henry Wickenburg, a Bavarian prospector who discovered the nearby Vulture Mine in 1862.
Henry’s bust sits proudly on the lawn of the town hall. A couple of blocks away, a monument repeats the legend of how Wickenburg found the Vulture: He picked up a rock to throw at an unresponsive burro, and noticed that the rock was laced with gold.
If Mort could head Charles off, he was getting into a pretty good whopper. Mort said, “Wayne Wicken held the patent on peanut butter, among other things.”
“Peanut butter?” the Texan asked.
“Peanut butter. He was called The Emporer of Peanut Butter. Can you imagine how much money he made before he let his patent expire? Every peanut butter and jelly sandwich put money in his pocket. His fortunes increased after sliced bread was invented in 1928, because he owned a piece of the slicing machine patent. Consumption of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches increased dramatically.
“But Wayne Wicken was not a healthy man, especially after fighting in the Great War. He developed tuberculosis, and his doctor ordered him to move to a dry climate.”
It’s a familiar story in Arizona lore: The sickly eastern “lunger” who finds health in the dry desert air. Mort continued, “Wayne Wicken came to the banks of the Hassayampa and pitched a tent. He prospected for gold, and fished the waters of the Hassayampa River. Soon, he got well. He bankrolled some of the early dude ranches in town.”
Cliff said, “You say he fished? There doesn’t seem to be much water in that river.”
Mort rared back, as though he was offended.. I thought he was going to reel out the story of the fabled Hassayampa sand trout, which swims through sand like other fish swim through water. Even I don’t tell that story much anymore, and Mort was going in another direction.
“Why, there’s lots of water in that river,” he said. “It’s sometimes known as the Mississippi of the West. It’s just that during the warmer months, the water goes underground, to avoid evaporation.”
“You’re kidding me,” Cliff said. There is no more uncomfortable feeling than looking into the eyes of five liars with the almost-certain knowledge that you’re being had. Cliff asked lamely, “What ever happened to Mister Wicken?”
“As a matter of fact,” Mort said, “he fell into the Hassayampa and drowned. He’s buried on that hillside over there, under a slab of granite no thicker than a countertop.”
Cliff persisted: “You sure there’s water under that river–er, in that river?”
Willie said, “No kidding. If you go lie down in the bed of the Hassayampa and put your ear to the sand, you can hear the water roaring past underground.”
We broke up then, going to check our post office boxes, or home for a nap.
Willie, the sneakiest man I know, told us next day that he kept his eye on the Texan. Cliff walked away from the river, and browsed a couple of gift shops downtown. But eventually, he slipped around and ended up in the sandy bed of the Hassayampa.
Willie said he last saw Cliff stretched out full-length, his Stetson beside him, his right ear in the sand, listening for the roar of the Mississippi of the West.