Four years in Arizona yielded many gems,
including Fool’s Gold and Apache Tears.
I met Tina Blackhorse in very intense Southwestern circumstances. Her story reveals layers of Arizona drama, like the eroded arroyos and canyons of Gila County that surrounded my dwelling in the copper town of Globe. I lived there for four years, after having fallen in love with the place while on a hitchhike through the Western U.S. It is a town of steep hills cut by deep gorges near the San Carlos Apache reservation. Working night-shift at a Circle K convenience store there, I got to know many of the locals by name and by face. A young man named Calvin Blackhorse used to come into the store early most mornings to fill up on gas and get coffee. He may have worked at the copper mine, I’m not sure. He was always polite and reserved. I learned his name from asking to see his license on the few rare occasions he bought some whiskey. I then realized he lived in an apartment several doors down from mine, on the same ridge overlooking rocky riverbeds with a view of the Pinal Mountains beyond the cypress-studded cemetery. Globe, AZ is a town that maintains traces of its wild-west character, lurking just below the dusty surface. Anglo, Mexican and Apache inhabitants live together and mix in the round of daily American life, yet maintain distinct cultures, customs and physiognomies. I learned to love them all—and they haunt me still.
Raven hair and ruby lips, sparks fly from her finger tips
Echoed voices in the night / She’s a restless spirit on an endless flight
The night I met her, I thought she was a manifestation of La llorona, wailing ghost of an Indian woman searching for her lost children who inhabits the realms of legend from the American West all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The same mists which shroud the origins of la llorona filled the streets that night. Having ended my day-shift in the store at 10 p.m, I returned to my apartment alone. I had listened to the radio until almost midnight. Glancing outside I noticed a mist beginning to blanket the streets, and I was struck by a sense of silence and isolation. It was weird, in the dry desert-foothills climate of that Arizona town, such a thick vapor obscuring the night streets. It was eerie. I decided to turn in for the night. As I extinguished the lights, I thought I heard a sound from somewhere down the street. The glow of the streetlamps was diffused by the fog when I opened the window to take a look outside. I still thought I was hearing things, but there was no mistaking it: a sorrowful sobbing wail was coming from the apartment row down the street. I stepped out the apartment door. Fright raised hackles on my neck as the wailing drew nearer:
My baby . . . he took my baby—
This was interspersed with desperate sobbing. A figure began to materialize from the mist in the dim yellow penumbra of the nearest streetlamp. There was no one else anywhere; as if the world had died. It was just me and this wailing apparition in the misty night. She was leaning against the stucco wall, coming my direction: a slender young woman with long black hair. She was beautiful in a drunken chaotic way, but full of crisis.
He took my baby away, I want my baby . . .
I recalled legends of the Indian woman eternally searching nocturnal riverbeds for the souls of her murdered children . . . but this was a real person, no ghost. I had to get a grip on my terrified mind. I walked closer to her and saw she was staggering and supporting herself on the wall. I asked: Are you OK ? Can I help you?
Help me, help me, he took my baby . . .
Who took your baby? I responded, but she stopped making sense and hesitated. I inquired if she lived nearby and she said yes, indicating a few rows of houses away. I suggested we return there and asked if she needed me to call the police for her.
Yes, call the police for me I want my baby back, she murmured.
We entered in the door of the apartment. The small dining table was full of empty Boone’s Farm wine bottles, maybe four or five. There were some baby supplies scattered around. I was realizing I had walked into a volatile situation trying to help this ghostly woman. I asked who had taken the child and she sobbed out: Calvin Blackhorse, his father. I recognized this as the name of the young man who regularly stopped by the convenience store on his way to work. I made the call to Globe police and described the situation with the distraught young mother whose name I still had not learned. While on the phone to the police station they inquired who she was. By now she was slouched on the sofa, but conscious enough to answer me with her name: Celestina Blackhorse. They asked me what had occurred and said they would be over soon.
I was afraid her husband/baby’s father might walk in at any moment and wonder what I was doing in his apartment with his intoxicated young wife. We waited a few seconds when suddenly, silently, Calvin appeared at the door. I sensed the night could go very wrong from here. He did not seem angry however, but calm.
He looked at me and asked: Did you call the police?
Yes, I stuttered, but she asked me to . . . I was at home and I heard her crying in the street—
It’s OK, he said. She’s been drinking a lot tonight.
He stepped out and returned instantly with a sleeping infant strapped into a car-seat. He carefully placed the child in the center of the small living room and slipped out into the night. I heard a car start and leave. After another few minutes the police cruiser pulled up. They asked for my version of events and whether I wanted to sign a statement, but since I declined they said I could go home so I departed.
PART 2: Months after the apparition of La llorona in the mist, my manager at Circle K store #884 introduced us to a new worker. I was told that I would do several afternoon swing shifts with her as she learned the duties of the job. My new co-worker was Tina Blackhorse. She was neither wailing nor intoxicated. She was now my coworker. I had the chance to get to know her better during several 8-hour shifts. She liked old-school reggae as I did, and I lent her some of my cassettes. She told me about her baby boy, her pride and joy, and I realized this was the infant deposited on the living-room floor in his car-seat many months before on that crazy night. She was lively and quick-minded, but there was also a nervous energy about her. She could verge on being controlling in conversations. She seemed distracted or tuned into some strange frequency. I felt that she would not let me know her beyond a certain point.
On a certain day I was alone during an afternoon shift and there was a sudden rush of customers lined up to cash out. One goes into a sort of trance in such moments, and I was on automatic pilot as I rung up transaction after transaction waiting for the line to diminish. In the midst of the crowd of customers, Tina entered the store, together with a younger guy who looked Apache. She began to chat with me and joke around near the register as I rung up customers. During a momentary lull, she suddenly said Come back here I want to give you the tape you lent me. Do you have any more ? As she said this she was half-pushing me behind the partition that separated the manager’s desk and staff area from the cashiers’ counter. I was a bit off put by her strange smile and restlessness. Suddenly she put her arms around me and smiling said Give me a hug. There were people lining up again just beyond my register. The whole scene was so bizarre. I wriggled out of her clinging arms as I told her: hey Tina I’m not comfortable with this and I have to get back to the customers but thanks for the returning the music tape. Something was off but I could not be sure what. I had to return to the register to keep ringing up customers.
After the customer rush died down, an older lady who had just paid said to me:
That young Apache woman talking to you at the register— did you know she was signaling with her hands to that guy she was with and he walked right out the door with two cases of beer while you were ringing up customers?
No I was was not aware of it, I answered. She is actually a co-worker at this store but she was acting a bit strange . . .
Well, he walked out the door with the beer after she signaled to him like this: (the woman gestured, pointing frenetically behind her back).
I thanked her and decided to tell the manager who recommended I contact the police. When Officer J. arrived, he asked how it had happened. He told me the cops knew who she was from previous dramas. He asked to see the security footage—so I showed him the monitor camera control panel. He came back to the register a few minutes later saying: Come take a look at this. It’s all on the video.
The angle of the camera was perfect. Due to the protective barrier between the cash register and the counter, I had not been able to see from Tina’s chest down, only her shoulders and face as she chatted with me during the customer cash-out line. But on the film she could be seen pointing furiously below her waist toward the door. Her companion sauntered through the camera frame not once, but twice, each time with a 24-back of Budweiser. The theft of the beer happened just before she detained me briefly behind the staff area partition.
Officer J. told me: I know exactly where she and her friends party. I’ll be there in 15 minutes to question her.
The next time I saw Tina she was in the back of a police car in the Circle K parking area. Through the dark glass I could see a pained expression on her face.
PART 3: Tina, needless to say, did not resume her job at the convenience store and I lost touch with her. I decided to enroll in a computer class at the local community college. The small campus was built right next to the ruins of a Salado Indian town from the 1300s, partially restored, with walls and several large houses built of stone visible from the windows of the classroom. It is a beautiful jewel of a campus with fish pools and Southwest flora adorning the lawns.
One day, several months later, finishing an assignment at the computer lab after class, I saw Tina in the hallway. I greeted her. I told her I had missed her and had wondered what happened after her criminal misadventure at the store. She was candid with me:
I was really out of control then, to be honest, I was doing a lot of cocaine and partying too much. But Calvin and I are doing marriage counseling and I want to get back to the Christian life . . . we are going to church, trying to live for God. I am a different person than I was then. I was really making a lot of bad decisions and messing up my life for a while there . . .
I told her she looked good, a lot calmer, that I was glad for her. I invited her to visit my church and she invited me to hers. I went. This story has a happy ending. But it gets better. Remember, this is a real tale of the American West; the only thing I have altered are the names of the protagonists.
While writing this, I tracked her down on Social Media and found out she is now an avid runner. She trains and runs in road-races in and around Arizona. She looks as lovely as always. She has a beautiful family. Her son, the one placed on the floor the night of La Llorona, is now a strong young man in his twenties, quite a bit taller than his mother.
I look forward to catching up on life that day in Heaven when I find Celestina Blackhorse again. I can never forget her name. She is my sister in Christ.