Work of the Week: Sharon Warner
The Hawk Moth Story
I called ahead. “Caleb? I’m in the neighborhood. If you haven’t had lunch, I can drop off a calzone from Fastino’s.”
The offer of food was an excuse to check on him, something my son well knew, but he tolerated the ruse. After a brief silence, he said, “Sure, Ma. Thanks.”
He was hungry, a good sign. When I asked what he wanted, Caleb said to get whatever was spiciest.
Since being fired from a downtown bar, Caleb had been making do with odd jobs. I had no idea where he slept at night or even if he slept—when he binged, he often stayed up for days. Between binges, he could often be found at José’s house. José is a friend from high school, a good guy who pays Caleb to do odd jobs—paint, clean gutters, rake leaves.
Because Palo Dura Street is only a few blocks north, I arrived at José’s door within fifteen minutes of the call. The houses in this neighborhood were built in the fifties and sixties, dirt-colored boxes with gravel yards, most surrounded with a short chain-link fence, the utility of which I’ve never understood. The fence might keep a Chihuahua in, but it won’t keep a thing in the world out. I am sixty and could climb over it without any trouble.
At my knock, Caleb called out, “Come in!”
He was slouched on an old leather couch in the living room, taking a break, he said, from the task of painting the back porch. He wore his current thrift store uniform: tight black jeans and a threadbare t-shirt. Once upon a time, the T-shirt must have been a bright orange but now had faded to a soft shade of peach. The word STURGIS stood out on his narrow chest.
Caleb peered up at me from beneath the tipped brim of a dirty green ball cap and offered his usual update: “Ma, my throat is killing me.” For weeks, he’d been complaining of a sore throat, but he wasn’t interested in a trip to Urgent Care, the only solution I had to offer.
The words just slipped out: “Snorting cocaine irritates the mucous membranes of the throat.”
“So, you’re a doctor now, Ma?” he snapped back.
I shook my head and dropped the Fastino’s bag on the coffee table between us.
“Just making a delivery, Son.”
“Not a doctor?” he continued irritably. “I didn’t think so. Do me a favor: Don’t lecture this kid about blow.”
“That wasn’t a lecture, and you’re not a kid,” I replied. Then, sounding stupid even to myself, I added, “Actions have consequences.”
The bag was open, and he was unpacking the contents but stopped to peer up at me. “You’re so naïve, Ma. Do you know that about yourself?”
My naiveté is a family joke, something well established. So, I tried to change the subject: “Remember the hawk moths, Son?”
“Of course,” he replied. “What of them?”
“Did you know they live in New Mexico, too?” He and I had spotted our first hawk moth over twenty years earlier when Caleb was ten years old and his preferred outfit was khaki shorts and a striped t-shirt. “Some night we should go out and see them,” I suggested.
Caleb rolled his eyes. “You know better than that. I’m busy at night.”
Awake in the wee hours, I worried over his childhood for maybe the hundredth time. When he was a kid, our family lived in a ranch-style house on the edge of Ames, Iowa. Summer evenings, Caleb and I crouched in the grass and watched these mysterious creatures dart from one petunia to the next. In the dusky light, we strained to make out their muted orange wings beating the air, the proboscis curling and uncurling like a wire.
The size, the humming of the wings, the lengthy proboscis: all of these spelled hummingbird, but the cigar-shaped body, the shape and texture of those wings: these all said moth. In time, I would learn that our evening visitors were hawk moths, a mystery I solved by calling a gardening friend. She laughed loudly into the receiver, the sort of friend who finds almost everything humorous. In this case, she thought it was funny that I had managed to live so long without encountering a hawk moth.
Caleb was twelve when we moved to Breaking Bad Albuquerque. Sometimes, when I’m weary of blaming myself for his problems, I blame Albuquerque. But poisons are available wherever you go. Take our Iowa next-door neighbor, for instance. The guy had it out for dandelions. Clad in bib overalls, he patrolled his property, lugging Roundup in one hand, a spray pump poised and ready in the other.
Here in New Mexico, hawk moths pollinate the white trumpet flower of the sacred Datura plant. In this area, the Datura is most often referred to as jimson weed. Out in the bosque, these sprawling plants grow wild. My stepmother carefully cultivated a Texas specimen she called a moonflower, an apt name for the enormous blooms that open at dusk and glow in the celestial light. In the high desert, where so much of the landscape is tan, brown, and tannish brown, the flowers captivate. Georgia O’Keeffe captured their milky beauty in several of her paintings.
Not many people know that Datura is a known hallucinogen. Even the gray-green leaves are poisonous, lethally so. Hawk moths are mostly immune to the toxin, but botanists have speculated that some unfortunates become “jimson weed junkies.” Observers have described the erratic behavior of intoxicated moths: some will nod off in the blossom and nap for hours. Once they do take to the air, they frequently lose direction or even fall to the ground.
Recently, I read that the larvae of certain hawk moths can tolerate high levels of toxins. The tobacco hornworm, for instance, can rapidly detoxify by excreting nicotine from its tissues. Whereas the nicotine in the tobacco plant leaf is toxic to most insects, the hornworm has evolved a special mechanism for selectively sequestering and secreting nicotine. Different moths metabolize toxins differently. Some cannot withstand what others are unfazed by. It’s a fact of nature.
The weekend Caleb was fired from his bartending job, his dad and I got a call in the dead of night. “Caleb’s in bad shape,” his roommate said. “You might want to come over and check on him.”
We rolled out of bed and dressed quickly. Within a few minutes, we were in the car and headed downtown. The streets were dark and quiet. But here and there, we spotted sleeping bodies wrapped in thin blankets—large, lumpy chrysalises wedged in doorways and along the edges of alleys. Albuquerque has a large homeless population.
On any given day, 4,000 or more of our citizens are living on the streets.
Caleb and Rafe were renting a third-floor apartment in a remodeled office building at the corner of 6th Street and Central. From there, it’s an easy walk to work at Anodyne and Sister, two of the more popular bars in downtown Albuquerque. Caleb’s problems with cocaine and alcohol began when he started as a bouncer at Anodyne.
On any given night, even before the last customers stumble out onto the sidewalks along Central, bartenders gather in green rooms. They pull out razor blades and rolled dollar bills, drinking straws and dirty mirrors. They snort “blow,” and when the high wears off, they slug alcohol. The cocaine/alcohol cocktail swirls in their bloodstreams and creates a new toxin, cocaethylene, which is stored in the liver. According to online sources, cardiac arrest is twenty-five times more likely for those who use both substances than for those who use cocaine alone.
We parked and headed for the building, only to find that the glass doors were locked, and no one answered our buzz. For maybe ten minutes, my husband and I banged on the door and tried various cell numbers. Just when we were beginning to panic, Rafe lopped around the corner of the building, a plastic bag swinging from one hand. He’d made a trip to an all-night corner store to get Gatorade for Caleb.
Rafe could be the son Jimi Hendrix never had, tall and lanky with facial features that resemble those of the rock and roll giant. He has hair like Hendrix’s too, but he doesn’t play the guitar. Rafe is a visual artist and a bartender, a smart guy for whom ambition comes in fits and starts. He paints, and then he doesn’t. Moves away from Albuquerque for good then reappears. He and Caleb have been friends since middle school, but before fall arrived, Rafe would get fed up with our freeloading son and kick him out.
On this night, we found Caleb curled on a pallet on the floor, shivering and vomiting, so weak and debilitated that he hardly noticed our entrance. A weekend of coke and vodka had left him enervated, indifferent to the world around him. Standing over him, we took in the mingled smells of dirty feet, unwashed clothes, and the sour remains of vomit. My husband asked our son whether he wanted to go to the hospital.
Caleb shook his head no.
Rafe offered the Gatorade, which Caleb refused as well. “You sure, man?” Rafe asked. He unscrewed the lid and took a long swig himself. Waving the bottle in Caleb’s direction, he explained, “I deal with it differently.”
“What?” I asked stupidly. “What do you deal with differently?”
“Blow.” Rafe shrugged his bony shoulders. “I don’t metabolize it the same way Caleb does. I shit it out.”
For someone who has spent a lifetime writing stories and teaching others to write them, I don’t tell many of my own. One I do share is the story of the hawk moths. I’ve told it on any number of occasions, most often to illustrate my son’s sensitive nature. I remind myself of the story as well, whenever I am tempted to take the easy way out where weeds are concerned—or ants in cracker boxes—or black widow spiders on the porch stoop. Over the years, I have resisted using herbicides and pesticides on any number of occasions, and all by remembering our Iowa neighbor, Denny.
Our backyard in Ames, Iowa, abutted a cornfield, and the view from our living room picture window might have been painted by Grant Wood, all greens and waving stalks of corn in summer, and in winter, every shade of gold and snowy white. We lived in that house for seven years, the whole time Caleb was in elementary school. From this vantage point, his childhood looks idyllic, but I know there are darker hues to the painting.
Our Midwestern neighbors were a mirror-image of our family except that they had two daughters, whereas we had two sons. Denny was vigilant when it came to mowing, trimming, and edging his yard. If he wasn’t carrying his two-gallon jug of Roundup, he was lugging a can of paint, a small brush tucked in his bib pocket. Now, I realize he must have been a little OCD, though no one used the term back then. Once a month, Denny would take the little brush and touch up the trim around his windows, around his door, around the garage. Robin’s egg blue was the color, if I remember correctly.
Then one day, for no reason, Denny turned his Roundup sprayer on a privacy hedge that separated our backyards. The hedge was picture perfect, carefully sculpted, and green as green could be. Still, something needed to be sprayed, and on that day, it was the hedge. Within a few minutes, the hawk moths began flying out to die. Surely, Denny didn’t realize they had made their home inside the hedge, but neither did he notice the small catastrophe he caused.
Caleb and I had never seen the moths in the light of day. Turned out, their wings were not orange at all. A closer look revealed pale grey and reddish-brown upper wings; and, near the hindwings, a blue eye spot shone against a pink background. One at a time, my son gathered the moths from the grass and carried them into the garage. He bathed their motionless bodies in a saucer of water before laying them out on paper towels to dry. For maybe an hour, Caleb worked quietly to cleanse them of the poison. Then, he stood over them, hands on his hips, and hoped for the best.
Back then, we were both naïve. I remember how I leaned against the doorsill and watched him go about the task. At the time, we both hoped he would save at least one. Me, I’m still hoping.
Sharon Oard Warner is the author of two novels, a short story collection, and an edited anthology of stories on AIDS. Her craft book, Writing the Novella, was published in March of 2021. Warner’s essays and articles have appeared in The AWP Chronicle, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Studies in Short Fiction, Studies in the Novel and others. She is Professor Emerita of English Language & Literature at the University of New Mexico and Co-Chair for the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives. She lives with her husband in Austin, Texas, where she is working on a book about Texas sculptress, Elisabet Ney.