This #5

From an ongoing series of sketches called THIS:

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#5

Coasts beckon. She follows, willingly, with books and notepad in hand. Jennifer goes from retreat to retreat, persuading the owners to offer her a place to finish this life-changing novel, the one we’ve all been waiting for. The second in her short career. That first one though. Who would’ve thought it? That Jen could be so talented? Articulate? Organized? That our sweet shy Jen could actually finish something?
This is more like it. This is the third retreat. She has four more lined up. All on coasts, the next one is in Hawaii. She’ll have to borrow the money to get the flight, but she’s not worried. That’s what Go Fund Me is for, right? To pay the way for the ones in need. And Jennifer tells herself that she needs this, as she pulls out the scissors and lops off another three inches from her long brown, long boring hair.
Turning forty isn’t agreeing with her. Her stomach suddenly bloated. Nothing to do with all the beer she’s tried at the various microbreweries. She notices a few stray hairs under her chin and grabs a razor, a dull one but who cares? No one looks at her anyway. Not now. Jennifer avoids the table with the laptop, notebook, smartphone and pens and picks up her camera instead and scrolls through the photos of the last retreat, of Michael. A big teddy bear of a man, soft spoken, a writer like herself, he’d paid attention, unfazed by her birthday blues. He might even have taken advantage of that strong IPA and the loosey-goosey chatterbox that she became for a night. He’d had green eyes, scruffy hair, and baggy jeans to hide his own beer belly. The selfies they’d taken in the morning though, just before his flight to Florida, they’d made Jennifer smile. For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, why she was here, and where she was going next. And the great novel? Nope, nowhere to be found in this congealing soup of sadness. She picked up the scissors again. Nostalgia gets her every time. Cut the damn hair.

 

 

Living The Dream: 30

As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: SNOW BLIND

I slept deeply, snug in a down comforter and a hairy husky breathing on me, waiting for that moment I opened my eyes. The sun hadn’t yet come up. The house lay silent. The dog panted in my ear. It was another winter’s day with no plans. I was bored. Forget Jerome. Forget exploring new places. I needed to hit the road. I needed to go home.

I let Nelson out to run as I made coffee. The sky slowly lightened but barely. A storm, the first big storm of the season was expected to hit today. Alaska was sending down clouds, wind, freezing temperatures, and snow. Snow in the mountains. Snow in the valleys. I left Nelson happily sniffing around the yard and wandered back into the bedroom. Making the bed, and grabbing the few things I’d brought over the day before, I cleaned up. Cracking open the window slightly, I breathed in the sharp cold air.

Time to go.

I wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table for Angie and Jonnie and snuck out the back door, not wanting to talk to anyone.
With the last of my food tucked carefully back in the cooler, the bedding, and supplies all stacked in the back of the truck, we drove away.

I hit the highway as the sun rose over the San Andres Mountains. With a sleeping dog sprawled on the back seat and a window down for fresh air, it was good to be driving again. Good to be going home. The clouds darkened to the north, a wind buffeted the truck, but the 4Runner drove smoothly, unaffected by the storm. I finished the coffee and threw the paper cup on the floor.
It snowed, hard, and thick with flakes the size of quarters. I stared, mesmerized, at the wipers doing their best against a wicked freeze. The heater cranked effortlessly. The dog slept. I slipped once, when a semi flew past me, kicking up ice and snow and gravel, blinding me. I slipped. The tires slid. Another semi sped past but then braked. The interstate traffic had slowed to twenty miles per hour and I switched into four high finally. The sky was a dark gunmetal gray. I couldn’t see the lanes, mountains, nothing but for the rear lights of tour bus ahead. I slipped again, touching the brakes once too often. I hit black ice.

The truck slipped off the highway quietly, slowly, and painfully.

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER: CRITTERS

 

 

“Are you sure this is the right way, Jennifer?”

A dark heavy cloud shrouded the mountains. Orange and pink stripes shot out from the horizon to the west. Birds talked back to us. Mom wore sensible boots and black jeans and a warm jacket. She’d insisted I do the same. I did as told and was glad for it. The air nipped at my ears and I bundled up in the coat, pulling my hat down. Winter had kicked in that afternoon with a force I’d not expected. Making the chicken coop took less time than planned. We threw the bales together, two on each side and one at the far end. I’d get more at later. Tin and lumber across the top and it was finished. Mom hung a sheet over the front opening, to keep out the wind, she explained.
That afternoon, we played cards in the bus with the stove going and the wind battering and rocking us. Cozy and perfect. Mom made tea every hour or so and had even brought chocolate chip cookies with her.

But now I badly needed to pee. I hid behind a juniper as she carried on, chatting away about this and that. Suddenly I heard a panicked voice calling for me.

“Jennifer. Oh, Jenny. Jenny.” She crashed through the trees calling out for me.
Trying not to laugh, I told her to hang on, that I was watering the plants. Her footsteps headed back my way. I reappeared from visiting the impromptu outhouse, doing up my layers once again. She laughed at herself, holding out her hand to me.

“Don’t do that. I don’t know what I thought, but -”

I zipped up the leather jacket and grinned. “I’m just glad Mark’s bringing us home, aren’t you?” We both giggled in relief.
All around us the trees crowded out any sense of space. The wind shook the branches. The sky was heavy. I set the pace, following a faint path in the dirt across the hillside. Down below us, Cottonwoods and Oaks, their leaves bright against the dark green of the pine trees, flanked a steep valley. Nothing stirred. The path faded out at one point and I stopped. Mom walked straight into me and shrieked.

“Now what? I’m getting all spooked out here, Jenny. Can’t we go back and get the car?”

Suddenly a chorus of dogs barking startled us.

“We’re here. I guess. He said he has a bunch of dogs. Oh god, I hope they’re friendly.”
Mom poked me in the arm, “don’t say that.”
Footsteps headed our way and Mom grabbed me to her. I wanted to laugh or pee, I couldn’t decide which.

“Is that you, Martha? Jen?”

Dieselhead Danny strode up to us, a pack of brown mutts at his heels. He grinned at the sight of us half hidden behind a dead pinion tree.

“Welcome to my place, ladies. Come on, let’s get inside out of this weather, okay? Mark called; he said he’d be here in an hour or so. Come on. Follow me. Don’t mind the dogs.”

He turned abruptly and we struggled to keep up. Giggling as we stumbled and tripped in the twilight, Mom and I held hands. We walked past three or four old trucks up on blocks and wheel-less. A huge, and I mean huge, amount of firewood had been stacked off to the side of his driveway. A school bus overflowed with stuff, I have no idea what. Dogs, cats, chickens, and goats ran around our feet, tripping Mom more than once. In distance, horses called out for hay and a donkey brayed mournfully.

A cobblestone path wound through junipers, grasses, pinions, and fruit trees. Flowerbeds were scattered on each side, abundant even in these fall months of wind and cold. Danny chatted away as he led us up and into a small adobe courtyard.

“In summer, I tend to hang out here, a good book and a drink, out of the wind. I think we should head inside tonight though, don’t you?”
He wore faded blue jeans and a worn denim jacket with a fleece collar turned up high. He’d shaved and I’d not seen him clean up like this before. The gruff hermit of a neighbor turned out to be quite the host. He walked us through a greenhouse and into the kitchen, all one huge south facing room, with plants of all kind: herbs, spider plants, cacti, flowers, and even orchids.

“Did you get those from Anne?”
Danny laughed and nodded. “How did you know? She’s the local orchid pusher that’s for sure. Do you have any yet?”
I shook my head as I took in the twenty or more blooms surrounding us. “This is incredible.”

Mom stood silently, staring around her in awe. “Who would’ve thought you’d live like this? You’re a pleasant surprise, Danny, yes, a definite surprise.”

He blushed and turned away, fiddling with the pots and pans on the stovetop.

“There’s some cabernet in the living room, through there. Can you get the bottle, Jen? It’s the Argentinian not the Californian wine we’re having tonight.”

Mom made herself at home and sat at the kitchen table with a bottle opener and three glasses. She lit a candle. The woodstove roared in the background and she took off her thick jacket with a sigh. The room was cluttered yet organized with shelves, counters, and cupboards everywhere.
“So where did you learn to cook then?”
I passed Mom the bottle and she opened it for us and poured us each a glass. As we toasted each other he told us about being a chef in Northern California after getting out of the army some twenty or more years ago. He’d reached some kind of crisis point and got a medical release. He’d found work at a restaurant shortly after that and loved the pace of it, the creativity, and the challenge of finding the perfect combination for specific tastes.

“But then I decided I wanted a quieter life. I put everything in the truck, one of the ones outside as it happens, and started across the Southwest. This is as far as I got.”
“I can see why,” Mom said softly. “This is a beautiful home, Danny. How did you do it?”
I listened to the grown-ups chatting and sipped my wine. It was a smoky and full red wine without a bitter after taste. I poured another glass as they were talking about finding a place that resonates. Mom described her home in Boise and all that she’d done to the place. Danny sat at the table with us. He gave us crackers and a vintage cheddar and told us that the beef red chile stew would be ready as soon as we were.

“Reds with red, that’s what I was taught and it seems to work, not that I know much about wine, but these days I like a good malbec and most cabernets. What do you both think?”
Mom raised her glass to him. “Thanks, this is perfect, just perfect after a day out at Jenny’s. Did she tell you that we’ve got the coop ready for some hens? That was the afternoon’s project, but I’m not used to the altitude so I’m glad that’s all we did. Aren’t you, Jennifer?”
I sat up and put down the newspaper. “Oh, yeah, it was enough for now. Could I still get a couple from you? Can you spare them?”
Danny laughed out loud. “Well, you saw how chaotic it is outside, didn’t you? I don’t even know how many I have right now. You could take four or five if you like. I’ll find us a box and we can catch them after we eat.”
“How?”
“Chase them down.”
“In the dark?” Mom laughed, reaching for more wine. “Really?”
“Yep, they get all sleepy, shouldn’t be too bad. Don’t worry, I’ll sort them out for you both.” He pulled out a tin and opened it up and rolled a joint in front of my mom. I tried not to blush. He lit it and passed it to mom and she took it. And then she passed it to me. I had to try it, didn’t I? I coughed. They laughed. Then I giggled and drank some more wine.

We chatted about his home, taking the time to build one room at a time, adding hallways and doors, playing with whatever materials came to him, and how it’s made this unbelievably cozy and beautiful eclectic adobe and straw-bale home. I wandered off and found myself opening and closing doors, following a tabby cat. She took me down another hallway and into a laundry room filled with metal cans. The cat meowed and sat on one can. I crouched down and saw that on the shelf next to her was a towel bed with four kittens, staring at me but not one moved. Then I kneeled down and reached out a hand to them. One little ginger kitty scooted closer, purred, and then suddenly lunged and licked my fingertips. I grinned and settled down.

 

“Jennifer? Jennifer?”

“Jenny? Are you okay?”
A male voice echoed my mom’s. They found me in the laundry room with all the kittens on my lap, and the mama cat sitting on the shelf next to me. The room was toasty and I’d taken off my sweater and used it to make a bed for the little ones. Mom laughed and kneeled down next to me and caressed a furry head. Danny leaned against the doorframe and watched us.

“Want one?”

We both looked up at him and back at the kittens. In unison came the reply “yes.”

He laughed and came in closer.

“I’m pretty allergic to cats but I keep them around. The mice, you know? Especially in a rambling mansion like this, I have to have some kind of critter control and I hate poisons. So, seriously do you want one?”
“I’d love one. I love cats, don’t I, Mom?”
“Yes, you do, Jen. She always had cats when she was small. But then we had to move into another place, we weren’t allowed any pets, just plants, and lots of them. You were so gentle with the cats though even when you were only three or four, you knew how to treat them somehow.”
“Can I, Mom, can I have one?” I looked up so earnestly that they both burst out laughing. I stroked the little ginger kitten.

“You might want to talk to Mark first though. What will he say?”
“Oh, there is that. Not much. He thinks we’ve got too many as it is. One dog was about his limit, I think…but Mom.”
“Come on, let’s go eat, okay?” Danny reached down to help us to our feet. “The stews done and that’s exactly what I want right now. I don’t know about you but I’m hungry. Food and wine sound good to you both? Oh, and I’d make you take two cats by the way, one would be lonely on its own.”
I laid the kittens back in their bed, reclaimed my sweater, and followed Mom back to the kitchen table.

 

“Do you have the net?”

“No, I thought you had it.”
“I’ve got it but we have to spot them first. They usually hang out right here, where are they, dammit?”

Danny swore as he tripped over a pile of wood and knocked down some tools from against the tree. He stumbled around in the dark. Mom hung back and watched, trying to keep the flashlight on us both even though we kept wandering in different directions. His dogs crossed paths, back and forth, getting under my feet. The cats watched from the porch.

Danny snuck around another pile of wood and whispered that he’d found them. Ten chickens huddled together next to a couple of straw-bales and slept soundly. Mom brought the light and I grabbed the cardboard box. Quietly and surely, Danny grabbed one, two, and three, placing them gently in their travel home. He then asked me to get the last one. I lunged and missed it. She flew up squawking into the tree overhead. Suddenly chaos broke out. Wings flapped. Feathers flew. Cats pounced. Danny tripped over my foot and fell onto a dog. Mom giggled and dropped the flashlight. The dog yelped. More dogs barked. Donkeys brayed. Horses neighed. Hens squawked from inside their box. An owl screeched above me. I screamed and fell over. Then the giggling began. All three of us, sniffling and snorting and I tried not to pee.

Just as I was picking myself up, Mark arrived. I tried to stand up normally without cracking up but Mark walked over looking so serious, clean, and most clearly a fish out of water. I lost it and started giggling and snorting again. Mom helped Danny to his feet and both were laughing so much they hadn’t even noticed the truck arrive. Then she saw Mark standing near me but not talking to me and she poked Danny. She took him back inside after glancing over at us. They shut the door carefully.

Mark still stood silently. He watched me as I set the chicken box upright. All the animals shushed. The dogs backed off. And even the horses and mules shut up. Silence.

“So, how was your day?” I finally asked, brushing off my jeans and jacket.

“Okay.” He looked around the yard, at the firewood, wrecked vehicles, the recycling and building materials. “Jeez. What a mess.”

“You should look around, it’s been great to see his place. Come on, Mark, you should at least check it out, come inside. It’s amazing – I think you’ll get all inspired again and start designing a home for us. Oh, and he saved you some stew.”
Mark shrugged deeper into his coat and didn’t move.

“Let’s go home, Jenny. It’s cold and I’ve had a long day, I don’t think I can hang out with someone I don’t know tonight, okay? Hon, please? I’ll make us a fire, all right? Some wine and go to bed? I’m tired, that’s all.”
And he did look drained; his shoulders were slumped, and just deeply exhausted. I went to him and hugged him and kissed his neck – it’s all I can easily reach at the best of times. He smiled down at me and took the box off the ground and rattled it.

“Our new hens, eh? Okay, how many did you get?”
“Four.”
“I thought we agreed on only two, Jen?”
“I know but Danny insisted on more. We’re lucky it’s been so hard to catch them or we’d have two boxes full by now.”
Mark laughed softly. “So I see, so I see. Okay, I’ll put these away then let’s go say good- bye. I’ve got that whiskey for him. Hey, are we giving your mom a ride back to town?”
I nodded and followed him over. He put the box in the truck-bed but when I frowned, he put them inside the cab. He shook his head. “They’re chickens, you know? Not pets. They are not sleeping in the house, ever.”

He closed the truck door on them, grabbed a brown paper bag, and took my hand. I lead him inside Danny’s incredible home, smiling happily to myself.

 

The fire glowed. The dogs slept. Mark snored. I lay there. I couldn’t sleep. We’d talked for hours with wine in hand, dogs on the bed, and a fire burning off the chill in my heart. I fell asleep briefly. My head woke me up though.

My sensitive boy, Nelson, watched me from his bed in the hallway, eyes concentrating in the morning darkness. Frida curled up on Mark’s pillow and snuffled in time with his grunts. I gently climbed out from the covers and threw on as many layers as I could reach without waking them. Nelson followed me to the woodstove and sighed contentedly when I threw in more logs and left the door open for us to see the flames. Slowly the bus filled with sunshine and the smell of fresh coffee, and juniper logs burning. I sat down in the armchair and Nelson came over and lay his head across my feet. We simply sat and stared at the flames.

Another day, another day, with so many things to take care of. I finally stood and stretched. I filled the stove with more wood and got ready for a day in town. Mom was meeting me at the coffee shop first thing. I threw out the old coffee grinds in the compost and checked on the new chicks. They clucked happily at seeing me. I watered the plants inside. Then it was time to leave for the day.

The sky was clear overhead and reluctantly I closed in Nelson. I heard him whine softly but I held firm and left the homestead after visiting the outhouse with a view.

 

“Latte and breakfast burrito sound good to you, Jennifer? Danny?” Mom looked back and forth at the both of us. She looked tired but flushed. I grinned.

“I’d love some, yeah, thanks. You’re both hungry, huh?”
Danny laughed and scratched his freshly shaved chin. He’d left the moustache to grow back. Mom’s hair looked damp. Mom stood up and walked off, leaving us to make small talk. Danny picked up a newspaper. I still grinned. He fiddled with the silverware.

Lattes in hand, Mom returned. Anne came over to us and handed out plates of food. She sat down facing the front door; she joined us whenever she could. Dishes filled the sink and covered one countertop. A Putumayo music mix played in the background. The sun shone brightly through the broad windows and her plants still thrived, unlike the ones at my place. Mom added some sugar and passed the bowl to Danny. He took two lumps. I added hot sauce to a bacon and egg burrito and waited to see what Mom would say.

She ignored my smirks and explained how work beckoned her back to Boise, her cats too. They chatted easily and I ate. Time drifted by. We drank more, ate more, and talked about the new hens.

“Settling in nicely, I think. But the water bowl was frozen this morning. What am I meant to do? I kicked it but that didn’t break the ice. A rock did but I can’t do that every day, can I?”
Danny put down his mug and smiled. “It’s just part of it. Don’t worry too much, they’re used to it being cold. You saw how they lived at mine. Nothing fancy. Not even the shelter you’ve done, so they’re probably in seventh heaven by now, right?”
Mom piped up that my kittens were out exploring more this morning.

“Oh really?” I grinned. “How do you know?”

Mom blushed, Danny grinned at me sheepishly, and Anne suddenly burst out laughing.

“It’s a small town, Martha. You can’t get away with anything here, can you?”

I grinned until I remembered talking to Mark last night. He said no to the kittens. A Big Fat No. My smile dropped and I looked down at my empty plate. Danny kicked me gently under the table and smiled at me when my head popped up in surprise.

“I can keep the cats for you until you’re ready, okay? You can come and play with them, it’s good to socialize them when they’re little like this.”
“Okay, thanks.” I nodded and finished my drink. I stood up and began to clear our table, telling Anne to relax for a second, literally. “There’s a tour bus just pulling up outside, you’re going to be slammed in a minute.”
“Oh shit. The dishes.”

She panicked and just then the door opened. A troupe of gray-haired Texans poured inside, with accents and cowboy hats placing them in the first sentence. Anne flew to the counter, knocking over a plant. Mom stood too and we all headed behind the counter. Danny cleaned up the soil and placed the orchid out of harms way. Mom did the dishes and I took care of the food orders.

 

“Now what?”
“Well, I have some business to take care of today, but can I meet you later? If you want?” Danny stood with hat in hand. He stood near the table, anxious to get going by the looks of it.

Mom looked up at him and smiled softly. “I’d like that, but let me see what the kids are doing this evening, all right?”
He nodded once and left us alone to deal with the aftermath of a tornado of tourists. Mom played with her phone. Anne and I grinned at each other. We waited until Mom looked up and then all three of us giggled.

“Now what?” She repeated after a moment. “Are you working all day, Anne? You could come with us to town, couldn’t she, Jenny?”

“Sure, that’d be fine with me. It’s going to be boring though, no offence, Mom.”
Anne glanced at me, “I don’t think so, not this time. Thanks for asking though. So what are you up to in Santa Fe then?”
“Errands. I have to buy the last few presents for my friends back in Boise. Something Southwestern, you know how it is. Salsa and chips, Mexican blankets, and posters of cacti and coyotes, that kind of thing. Jennifer, did you say we’re going to the plaza too?”
“Yep, Anne, you mentioned a restaurant there, right? Anyway, I suggested we meet him there after we’re done shopping, it’s not his favorite thing to do at the best of times, but when he’s worried about finding work, I don’t want him to come become more of a grouch. We’re going to meet him around four o’clock for something to eat. How’s that, Mom?”

“Whatever you want, I don’t want to be a bother. I just need to get a few things, that’s all. ”

Mom stood up just as the bell on the door rattled and in came a large family, chattering loudly in German and taking over the place. Anne shrugged and left us to it. Mom picked up her coat.

“Can you drive, Jenny?”

 

Vermont, oh why don’t you have public land?

Oh my, it’s frustrating. I’m spoilt, I know. After decades exploring the West with and without dogs, I’m used to pulling off onto a dirt road, finding a lake or ocean beach, and just walking freely.

Since then, I’ve moved to Vermont and I’m having a hard time. It’s pretty. There are mountains, soft rounded not very tall mountains, and lots and lots of trees. Maple. Red. Syrup. Oak. Pine. Ash. Aspen. Birch. Beech. Blah blah blah…and an understory that would take years to decipher.
I drive around, explore, pull off and park. Then this:

Or this

Or this.

Or this.


It doesn’t stop. Or for me, it doesn’t start. There is no sense of open horizon, public land, or a freedom to just wander around. Private land. Limited access. No camping. No dogs. No swimming. Each place I find has its own rules and regulations.
Most land is privately owned, only the rich or the landed gentry can use this beach, enjoy this view or cross this meadow.


It’s driving me nuts. That’s all. I have no answers. I haven’t done the research on BLM, NF or any other kind of accessible places. I just needed to bitch.

I’m hemmed in. Vermont is pretty but…not for me.

Living The Dream: 29

As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

NOVEMBER: TEAM WORK

Coffee bubbled away. The windstorm had finally disappeared with the sunrise. The dogs played outside and my boyfriend brought me breakfast in bed. It was not a bad start to my day.

“Here you go, Jen, do you want some more cream?”
I shook my head and sat up against the wall, drinking the coffee he passed me. I sighed and he grinned, standing with his back to the mess in the kitchen.

“I thought we could finish the outhouse today, together if you like, Jenny? Or did you want to work on it alone?”
“Together. I have a few ideas I can show you, but basically, it’s going to be kinda open plan with no doors or windows or anything.”
“What about in the snow?”
“You’ll just have to be quick.”

Mark laughed and stole a piece of toast. “Right. Okay, well, it’s your outhouse, we’ll do it your way, okay?”
I couldn’t help myself. “Don’t you have to be at Anne’s today?”
He shook his head and scratched his goatee. His hair had grown in the last month and he looked more and more like a local with his farmer’s tan. Anyway, he flicked some curls out of his eyes and joined me on the bed.

“Not today. Her and Louisa are working on some things together, out at Andrews. I’m glad we went to his party, got to know him some the last few months, aren’t you? I wish though…” and he drifted off.

I poked him with the empty mug. “If you make me more coffee, I’ll do the dishes for once.”
“Deal.” He laughed and stood up, almost knocking over a spider plant but catching it just before I yelled at him. “Time to get up, Jen, time to get up and at it.”
I climbed out of bed and into some jeans and a thick sweatshirt, outdoor clothes. I grabbed my sketches and met him outside on the porch. I heard a donkey bray in the distance again.

“Where’s that coming from?”
He shrugged and looked westwards as Frida ran to the edge of the hillside and barked. A donkey brayed back at her. Nelson joined in. Some random dogs in the valley started up their own chorus. Coyotes yipped. Mark howled and I laughed out loud, a mouthful of coffee splattering the clean jeans.

 

Two-by-fours lay propped against a tree as Mark decided which were too full of dry rot for us. He picked out six of them and stretched them out as directed by me. I looked at the posts and framed in roof, and then at my sketches in hand.

“If we frame in at whatever my knee height is, that can be closed in to make a bench, right? Then all we do is use the planks to side the bench, make steps to cover the hole at our feet, and cut a toilet seat. Yeah, we can use this piece for a back rest and I’ve already found a wooden box with a lid for the paper and sanitizer.”
“What about the wind from the gully? Do you want to put up barriers on the south and west at least?”
I nodded. “If we have enough wood for that , sure but what do you reckon? I’ll start on cutting the frame if you can attach it? Do you need help?”
Mark lifted his suntanned face and grinned. “No, boss, I’m okay. You just tell me what to do and we’ll get this done in no time. Do you want it painted too, right, since we have stuff left over from painting the bus?”

I drank the last of the bottled water, and grabbed a handsaw. Cordless tools would be great, I told him as I sweated and panted over cutting the lumber and carried it over to him, holding each piece up as he hammered them together. The shape slowly came together. The outhouse looked more like a country gazebo than a toilet, and I couldn’t wait to christen it.

The basic framework was done in a couple of hours. Mark solidified my ideas and created a cozy little room with open views at shoulder height. I sat on the bench, jeans at my feet, pretending, you know? I grinned over the walls at Mark as he gathered the scraps for our firewood pile.
“Not bad, my friend, not bad. Want to try it?”
He laughed and dropped the bundle and came up the steps, sitting next to me in his boxers with jeans around his cowboy boots.
“We could make it a two-seater.”

“No. That’s just too weird. What would my mom say?”
He shrugged with a grin, “it’s worth it just to see her face. Don’t you think? Let’s clean up and go see her. Did you make plans for today?”
I shook my head and stood up. “No, I didn’t know if we were going to get firewood or not. I guess not, eh? But I’m not worried because I saw this place in Cedar Crest we can call; they had these mountains of cut wood piled up in a fenced yard. I took down the number somewhere.”
I pulled up my pants. “But first we need to cut a hole for the seat.”
“Oh, right. It’d be pretty messy without. I’ll do that if you go call Martha. See what she’s up to, if we’re going to town or not.”
“Are you sure Anne doesn’t need your help though?”
He shook his head. “No, I told her I wanted a day at home with my girl.”

He reached for me and pulled me close, kissing me deeply. I didn’t complain. We christened the place – but not in the way I’d thought.

 

 

A huge diesel truck pulled up outside and honked. I put down my notes and went out to see. Dieselhead Danny, our monk-like neighbor, leaned out of his window and looked over at the two dogs at my feet. They were quiet for once.

“Friendly are they?”
I petted Nelson’s head and she wagged slowly, bravely. “Yep. What’s up? Want some coffee?”
He shook his head and pointed to the truck bed. “I got some extra firewood here, thought you guys might want some. It’s meant to get down to freezing again this weekend.”

He climbed out. Frida ran up to him and scooted upside down, wagging her tail furiously. Danny laughed, a big deep rumbling scary man laugh, and she peed herself. He crouched down and rubbed her tummy until she bounced onto his lap. She licked him once, on the long white beard, and then ran off.

Nelson and I came down the steps and past the piles of trash I planned to take to the dump later that day.

“How d’you get so much extra? That’s amazing, I’ve got severe firewood envy.”
Danny laughed again and opened the tailgate. Stacked this way and that, the firewood covered every inch of space, all cut to the same lengths, different kinds of wood, and both thick and thin pieces.

“I traded and the guy gave me so much I thought I’d spread the wealth, you know how it is out here. Feels good, doesn’t it?”

He passed me a solid chunk with a shy grin.

“For me? Seriously? I’d love it. I don’t have any cash on me today but I’m going to town so I can pick up some. What do I owe you?” I stroked the wood and picked up a stick and smelled it.

“Nothing, it’s a present, that’s all. Hey, that’s the pinion, from round here. Take a sniff of this; it’s juniper. Great, huh? You’re sticking around for winter is what I hear. That true?”
“Yep, we’re staying, that’s the plan. I don’t know how we’ll do it but well, this is my home now.”
Danny nodded and took out a smoke and lit up. He offered it to me but I shook my head, still holding the firewood. “Did Pete stay out here over winter?”

“Not often, but yeah, he did. A long time ago now I guess. He used to walk over to mine through the snow and hang out at my place when it was really bad. He’d keep the fires going and I’d keep the food coming. I love to cook, you see, not that you’d think so by looking at me.” He held out his wiry arms and his pants almost fell down. A skinny guy for sure. He held his cowboy hat in his hand and shrugged. “I’ve always been able to put it away like crazy, eat four times a day when I can. Yep, I love to cook not that’s there anyone to cook for these days.”
“ Well, you can cook for me sometime. I love being fed home-cooked meals. I don’t seem to eat anything much beyond soups, quesadillas, and breakfasts.”
Danny put his hat back on and started to fill his arms with wood. “Where do you want it?”
I looked around, suddenly embarrassed by our conversation, was I flirting with the old man? I wandered over to the porch. “What do you think about here?”
He shook his head. “Too close, you don’t want to make a home for rats and mice, do you? What about making a pile over by the tools and later on you can stack it to make a windbreak? Got a wheelbarrow?”
“Yep, let me get it.”
We worked together unloading the truck, a big truck, bigger than Mark’s Ford. My phone rang inside the bus but I ignored it and built up a sweat instead. Danny chatted about the weather, what to expect and when. He wasn’t surprised by the light frost the other day and even warned me to expect the first snow sometime soon. He talked up a storm did this hermit-like neighbor, and I listened as I worked near him. He’d fill the wheelbarrow and I dumped it out off to the side of the driveway, fairly near to the recycling and garden area. He checked the homestead out, noticing the porch, gardens, compost pile, and now an orange and green outhouse.

Nodding once he told me, “You’ve done good, young lady. Pete would be happy to see all this, you know? He loved being out here.”

“Hey, have you met my mom yet? She’s staying at the B & B in town for a few days. She likes it out here, not to live, but I think she’s happy I’m here. You’d love her, she’s all about people’s stories.”
“D’you want to bring her over this weekend, well, if you like? I’ll fire up the woodstove and make us some food? A good New Mexican selection for her but I’d leave your dogs at home though; my guys can get a little weird, especially with little ones. See them as snacks, you know?” He passed me the last of the wood and I took the barrow straight to my front door. Danny wiped off his hands on his none-to-clean faded jeans.

“Coffee sounds good right now, don’t you think?”

He nodded, waiting politely as I unloaded the last of the wood. I opened the door to the bus, grinned over at him, and took an armful of wood with me. The dogs ran inside and he followed, leaving his cowboy hat on the door handle.

As the coffee heated up on the stove, Danny offered to make us a fire. So I could smell the difference between the pinion and the juniper, he said. I cleaned off the table and checked my phone. Mom had called once. Louise too. But not Mark. Where was my boyfriend now?
 

 

NOVEMBER: THE GIRLS ARE COMING

 

 

Using my various sketches and notes, it was time to finish up the chicken coop. The run was almost ready but we needed the home for the little feathered critters. A gate needed to be hung before I built a hen house. After coffee, I called Mom and arranged to pick her up on the way to the Feed Store in town. She was easy company, no more stories of cheating husbands thankfully.
I’d found some rusty metal hinges, our cordless drill, and propped the door in place. It came from someone’s home is my guess, with little glass panes and wooden frame, and green paint peeling nicely. I’d be able to see the hens in their run from the kitchen window, and I liked the idea. With only a couple of minutes spent tying the door in place with some twine so it didn’t fall on top of me, I screwed in the three hinges into a thick post and found some wire to make a temporary latch. Pretty solid. I tested it by putting a couple slices of bacon inside. The dogs flung themselves against the wire fencing, dug holes, and even climbed the door but no luck. Definitely puppy proof but coyote proof is another thing.
I finally convinced Nelson and Frida to stay in the bus with another couple pieces of bacon and shut the door on them. I grabbed my phone, shopping list, and wallet. No hat for once, the sky was overcast and Danny had warned me that the weather was changing.

 

“Yep, a house for my chickens. I thought I’d get four straw bales from you and then put some tin roof across the top, what do you think? Will they be warm enough?”

We stood inside a barn whose walls were lined with shelves full of the oddest things: tons of different animal food, leashes and collars, caulking guns, various bags of kibble, horse-tack, ropes, nails, barrels of screws, plumbing pipes, chimney pieces, you name it, they sold it. The dirt floor and open windows made for a chilly set-up, and I shivered in my jacket.
A tall thickset man with a farmer’s weathered face smiled down at me. “You know that spring is the time most folks get chickens, don’t you?”
I nodded seriously. “But you see, we weren’t here then. My neighbor’s got too many and he said I could have four or so for me and my boyfriend.”
“What kind are they?”
“Er, you can get different kinds? I think they’re brown. Does it matter?”
He laughed and walked me over to a notice board covered in business cards, flyers, and information sheets. He pulled one off and gave it to me. The sheet of paper listed out some thirty common breeds of chickens.

“Some lay more than others, that’s one difference, some are bred for eating, others for their eggs. What are you wanting to do with them?”
“Feed them. Oh, and eggs. I love the idea of collecting eggs for breakfast this winter.”
“They don’t like to lay much when it’s that cold, just to let you know.”

“Close your mouth, dear, it’s not attractive,” Mom teased.
“Thanks, Mom. I love you too. Hey, did you know that? About the chickens not laying in winter?”
The man grinned as she nodded.

“Yep, remember where I grew up. Of course I did, sweetie. You can still get set up though, I don’t see why not, do you?”

She turned to the salesman and he shook his head, smiling down at her with a flirtatious glint. She faced me again to say, “you’ll also need a feeder and a water bowl of some kind for them. How many is Danny giving you?”
“He said we could pick some out when we go over. What do I need?”
Mom picked up a book from one of the shelves next to all the chicken supplies. “One of these to start with. Four or five hens will be fine, more than that is just trouble. Unless you’ll feed the dogs some eggs with their kibble?”

The salesman pulled out a forty-pound bag of chicken feed, scratch I guess it’s called, and loaded it into the Subaru.

“How many bales did you want? You can probably fit three inside and we could put some on the roof too, if you like? Do you have any rope?”

 

We ended up with food, containers, and three bales in the backseat with three more strapped down hard on the roof. Filling up at the station near by, we headed home only to have Mark pass us on the long straight stretch before our hill. He did a double take and then burst out laughing, honking his horn and waving at us. Mom opened her window and waved to him to join us. Somehow he understood and turned round and pulled up next to us when we came to Oliver.

Lunchtime.

He met us at the tavern with a huge grin and a hug for my mom and a kiss on the forehead for me. The wind picked up and slammed the door behind us. The tavern was empty but for the usual five locals along the bar watching the sports channel. Mark and I claimed the table next to the fireplace.

“How did it go in town?”

“What’s with the bales?”

Mom sat down next to me and told him that he was about to be a father to four hens. He didn’t hear her though and pulled out his lists and proceeded to tell me in detail about each and every place he stopped at. No more paid work had come out of his efforts and the boy wasn’t happy about it. Those gigs from summer had ended already unfortunately and he was at a loss. Bored, I guess.

“It’s impossible to get work here. I keep trying, online, in person, asking around, showing up at the gigs, and no one’s called me back. Damn, Jenny, this is harder than I thought. Don’t you miss your old job too? I do, that’s for sure. I didn’t realize how good I’d got it playing with the guys. I miss working in the music scene.”
“Maybe you could try Albuquerque? It’s not too far from here, isn’t it?”

He shook his head and put the notebook on the table and his pen back in his pocket, saying, “well, yeah, that’s next on the list. But seriously, don’t you miss the city?”
Mom sat down as the waiter approached and took our orders for beer and burgers as usual. She raised her eyebrows at me when I said that I liked working in the café. I liked having easy work, and teaching was just too much bureaucracy these days. That’s probably not what your mom wants to hear, that you’ve become a slacker by mainstream standards, is it? She didn’t bug me though, just ignored me, and asked Mark to explain.

“I worked hard when I could, teaching guitar to kids after school, recording with whatever band needed more guitars or drums. It wasn’t regular but with all the gigs and side jobs I did okay, you know what I mean, Martha? I miss it, that’s all I’m saying. I miss it.”
The beers arrived and he took a huge gulp before asking about the bales again. Mom laughed and showed him the reference book she’d bought us, nicely changing the subject.

“It’s really easy to raise hens, but Jenny wanted to do it right, so here you are, Mark. I think you’ll like having them around. It makes it feel like a real homestead when you start getting animals.”

Mark picked up the book and flicked through it as Mom carried on.

“Did you think about getting a cat? It’ll keep down the mice this winter if nothing else. He’d keep you warm too.”
He looked over at me before answering with a smile. “No more animals right now. Two chickens and two dogs is more than enough, right, Jen?”
I nodded reluctantly, saying nothing about the donkeys I still dreamed of adopting, or that Danny was giving us five hens. Mom ate her burger and I fiddled with mine. Mark was oblivious to the tension at the table. I didn’t say anything for a while but then remembered Andrew and Louisa.

“When’s the funeral?”
“Oh, right, well, last I heard it’d be in a couple of weeks. They’re cremating him and then taking his ashes to their family ranch in Colorado. Louise wanted to go see their mom who’s in a nursing home near Pagosa Springs while she’s up there.

“Is there anything I can do? How’s Louise doing?”
Mark looked out the window. “Fine, I think. She’s worried about all her dogs when she goes away next weekend hopefully. Other than that, Anne and Graham have taken care of the rest of the details, you know, like death certificate and social security and stuff.”

“I wish I’d get to meet her but not this time, it seems.” Martha pushed her empty plate to the side. “Jenny, what do you think about spending a day in town with me tomorrow or the next day? I need to buy some presents for back home. We could go out to eat afterwards if you’d like to show me around.”

The music kicked in with some country and western tune and the fire blazed suddenly.

“Don’t forget we’re going over to Danny’s for dinner tonight,” Mark reminded me and grinned. “Don’t worry, Jen, I’m not leaving you alone with him. How about you and Martha walk over together and I’ll meet you there as soon as I can? He won’t mind, will he? I want to pick up something for him as a thanks for all the wood.”
“Whiskey. I bet he’s a whiskey drinker. What do you think, Mom? An evening stroll to the neighbors?”
Mom leaned back against the bench seat and smiled at us both. “I’d love to, sweetheart. But first we’ll get the hens set up shall we?”

Mark passed me back the book and laughed at my coop idea. “It’s not quite what I’d imagined but why not? At least we know the ladies will be warm enough even if we freeze in the bus. Maybe I could go sleep with them?” and with that he stood up to order another round of drinks for the table.

 

Living The Dream: 28

As part of the weekly excerpts from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: FIREWOOD

“We thought you might still be here.”

Angie strode across the sand and greeted Nelson with a good deep scratching along his back. He wriggled in delight and rolled over in the sand, belly up for his friend.

Jonnie walked up, holding a couple mugs of steaming coffee and paper bag. He passed me one cup and offered a homemade breakfast burrito.

“The eggs came from our chickens, not that like to lay in winter but they surprised me this morning with enough for all of us. How are you doing, Jenny? Don’t you love it here? Much warmer than Albuquerque right now, that’s for sure.”

He sat on a rock near the campfire and sipped at his coffee. Angie stole it from him and grinned.
“We’d heard you were still staying at the cabin. It’s a small community and apparently Nelson’s been quite the star, a well-behaved boy is what our source told us.”

Nelson sat down next to me, sniffing at the burrito in my hand before lying down within reach. Just in case.

“It’s been great. We walk in the mornings and evenings and then spend most of our time sitting by fires, inside or out, daydreaming and reading and writing. It’s been perfect, a real break. We went for a drive the other day and almost got stuck on a dirt road up in the hills but I got us out okay. Then a tire blew on us. I had a moment’s panic to be honest but I’m pretty pleased with myself, first time I changed a tire on my own. And I’m in love with the 4Runner – it gets us in and out of any situation. It’s much better than the new Subaru I had for a while there. I can’t believe Louisa gave me her brother’s truck when he died. It’s been the best gift ever. What’s been going on with you? Work or school-wise?”

Angie described finishing up the term papers before coming home as Jonnie prodded at the fading fire and threw in his empty paper cup. “Talking of work, do you want to earn a little cash today? We could do with your help, that’s partly why we came down here, to offer some work followed by dinner at our home? Are you interested?”
“Well, I don’t know how I can help but sure. What are you up to?”
Angie grinned and stood up. “Firewood. We need to cut a truckload of firewood before the snow really comes to town, if the forecast is right. What do you think?”
“Firewood? Okay, but I’ve never cut any. I have no idea what help I’d be, but sure. A neighbor gave me some and then Mom ended up buying me, I mean us, a cord before she left in November. I’ve just been using that and picking up kindling from the property on my walks with the dogs.”
“Well, it’s about time you learned then, right? I’ll teach you, don’t worry Jen. It’s easy enough if you take it carefully. Come on, we’ll start with a chainsaw lesson.”

 

I followed in my truck with Nelson and Angie sharing the front seat. He pressed against her legs with his head on her lap, staring up, crushed out on her.
“Right up here a half a mile. Yeah, that one.”
A national forest sign pointed off to the west and I turned in slowly. I put the truck into high four-wheel drive and turned off the radio. Angie chatted about her plans for Christmas but carefully avoided asking me mine. They usually had neighbors over for a late lunch eaten on their deck with a chiminea’s fire going in the background. Their place overlooked the reservoirs and mountains, and it all sounded beautiful.
Jonnie slowed to a crawl and pulled off down a rough track. He parked and waved for me to park next to him. I pulled up and turned off the engine. Angie opened the door and let out a cramped but happy dog, who ran and marked the nearest trees before following his new girlfriend.
I pulled on a woolen hat and an insulated vest. Angie passed me a spare pair of work gloves. Jonnie opened up the back of this truck and pulled out the tools of the trade. The quiet was suddenly broken by the roar of the chainsaw and Nelson jumped back into the 4Runner. He peeked out a window and lay down out of sight. Jonnie grinned, and turned off the little gas engine. He checked the fluids, the chain itself, and then beckoned me closer.

“The main thing you need to remember is safety. Think about where your body is in relation to the chainsaw so if anything slips down suddenly or kicks back towards you, the chain can’t reach anything.”

He held it out to his right side and walked me through the steps, the safety features, and then passed it over to me.

“Okay, let’s see you start her up.”

 

“Break time.”

Angie motioned towards the truck, where she’d set out a thermos, some bottles of water, and sandwiches. I nodded but carried on, chopping another branch into 18-inch lengths, until a dead pinion lay in a pile at my feet. I turned off the engine and removed the ear protection with a sigh. I grinned and turned around. Jonnie had just sat on the tailgate with a sandwich in hand. He waved me over. The silence grew as we sat together, ate, and drank. A huge wilderness, dark with ponderosas, pines, valleys, mountains, and creeks, stood before us. Speechless, I stared at the Gila National Forest.

Nelson joined us, begging at my feet. I passed him a corner of bread.

 

“Do you want us to unload your truck now?”

I stood in their driveway pulling on my gloves, ready to finish up before the afternoon sun left us.

“No, I can do that in the morning. I’ve done enough for one day. I’m an old man remember? I can’t keep up with you kids.”
“Yeah, right, what, you’re maybe fifteen years older, that’s all. Are you sure, I can keep going for a little longer if you want?”
Angie reached for the gloves, “I don’t think so, and we’ve all done more than enough for one day. Here’s your pay and now go inside and clean up. Go on, Jonnie will clean up the chainsaw and then we’re all going to relax on the deck. Any complaints, anyone?”
Jonnie and I shook our heads and I pocketed the envelope of cash.

“Thanks.”
“Of course, and now go inside and claim the bathroom. I’ll keep an eye on Nelson. Go on. Get in there before Jonnie uses all the hot water.”
“It’s heated on demand, Angie,” he laughed. “You know that.”
“I know, but Jenny didn’t,” Angie smiled at me as I walked inside with Nelson at my heels.

Living The Dream: 27

As part of the weekly excerpt from the novel LIVING THE DREAM: 

 

NOVEMBER: MOM

Friday morning, I woke up alone again. I found a note on the table next to a mug of cold coffee. Mark had gone to Louisa’s without me. With Anne.

I rang my mom at the bed and breakfast in Oliver.

 

An hour later I packed the car with two dogs, a bottle of water, my straw-hat, and layers of warm clothes. The first frost of the year had hit overnight and the water bowls had ice in them. I needed Mom. I found her at the coffee shop with a latte in hand and breakfast burritos on their way. Two. She’d ordered for me.

“I hope you like Christmas.”
What? It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.”

“Your chile, you silly. I didn’t know which to get, red or green, so I asked for both. They call it Christmas.” She stood up and hugged me tightly. “Oh, sweetheart, it’s good to see you. I’m so glad I found a flight. And as to that other stuff that’s going on? Well, it will be okay, it will be okay.”

With that reassurance, I fell apart. The conversations in the café continued, unfazed by my outbreak. One of those days, I guess. Mom held on to me then got me to breath again before forcing me to drink my latte and talk to her. The food came and I picked away at it, telling her of all that’s been going on, the stupid little details I’d been ignoring. Until the morning’s note. Casual. Distant. Unthinking.

I ate my bacon pieces one at a time, my vegetarian ideals put aside in New Mexico apparently. All the tables in the café were full of locals, some teary-eyed, some telling stories and laughing out loud, others simply sitting quietly. I told Mom that a local, a friend, called Andrew had died. She nodded. She’d heard. Did I want to go see Louisa and the dogs? She asked as she finished her breakfast. I shook my head.

“I’d like to go for a walk with you. I doubt we’re going to collect firewood today, doesn’t seem right, you know, Mom? To carry on as if nothing’s happened. And anyway, Mark’s off with Anne and her damn practical skills.”
“Now, now, Jenny, don’t jump to conclusions. But yes, let’s go walking with Frida and Nelson. Any ideas as to where you want to take me? It’s all so gorgeous, I’ll be happy wherever we go.”
“Let’s get out of town, okay? Do you want to drive a little ways and go hike in the mountains? There are these trails in the foothills of the ski basin; we could go there. It’ll be empty today, or it usually is, what do you think?”
“Is there a restaurant near there for lunch?” She stood up, holding out her mug and mine. “First though, let’s enjoy some more procrastination, all right? I want to talk to you a moment.”
She sat back down with the lattes and sat back. She looked round the café and the colorful shelves of knick-knacks, books, and local crafts. The locals had mostly gone by now and only a few tourists hung out, reading newspapers and writing postcards. Mom leaned in closer.

“Do you really think Mark’s likely to wander? With this new friend of yours?”
I nodded and my eyes began to water. I opened my mouth to speak but Mom shushed me and carried on.

“Well, I don’t. I know him; I’ve seen you together for what, two or three years now? He might have a crush on Anne but I think he’s pretty damn committed to you. To this dream of yours.”
“Ours.”
“Yours. To be honest sweetheart, this is your dream not his. He likes it, yes, I can see that, but he’s a city boy, isn’t he? And you, you still think of Grandma and Grandpa’s place out in the plains, don’t you? The stories they told you about the animals and goats and fruit trees and all the struggles they had to endure. Well, I lived it. It’s not easy. It can be beautiful, but it’s not easy. And it’s not for everyone.” She sat back and sipped her latte before continuing. “Now I’m not saying this to be mean, but I want you to just think about it. If you want to keep Mark at your side, you might need to move back west. With winter coming, and living through these next few cold months, you’ll know for sure. And he will too.”
“But Mom, I love it here.”

She reached over the table to take my hand in hers. “I know, Jennifer, I know.”

 

Mark had been and gone again by the time I dropped off Mom at the bed and breakfast. Another note sat waiting for me, as did another evening alone with the pups, although to be honest, they weren’t much fun; both had crashed out on my bed after finishing their bowls of kibble in record time.

I sat at the table and picked up the notes from the day before. Yes, Mark, I am researching this homesteading stuff. Why not, eh? I pulled out a half bottle of merlot and poured myself an usually generous glassful. I set the woodstove going with some kindling and wandered outside to fetch more wood. A shooting start lit up the sky above and I made a wish. I smiled at myself and took an armful of branches back inside. I lit a couple of candles and settled in.

It took me a moment to collect my thoughts together but I started by searching for images of outhouses to see how others had done this. Incredibly beautiful were some, others were more funky, fallen down and old-timey but then I came across the most basic functional designs. I backtracked to some brightly painted and oddly shaped ones, and sketched out a couple of ideas for myself. Yep, I could do this. It’s not as difficult as I thought. Mom had inspired me, but not in the way she’d probably thought.

I wrote out some ideas and stored the websites to the menu bar. Next project was to look up the solar stuff. I checked on the history tab. Lots of pages visited in the last week, mostly about setting up tours for his new band by the look of it, although I noticed a lot of Google searches too. I clicked on one of them to see what he’d found out.
Anne’s name. Her full name and address. Her personal website?

He’d been looking for Anne online? What else had he been up to? Wow. He even had a Facebook page that I never knew about. I tried guessing the password but failed with my name and then the dogs’ names. Nothing. I gave up and sipped my wine thoughtfully.

Back to the solar information then, I paged back and forth, taking notes on styles, costs, designs, and sermons on the numerous reasons we should all use solar power. Well, no, I didn’t take notes about that, pointless for me, I was going to do it despite what anyone preached.

I picked up the laptop and checked on the back, looking for something to tell me how much power it took. Nothing there so I did another Google search and found out. Starting my list of power needs with the most obvious electrical things I owned, the computer, the phone charger, and a couple of lights. That’d be enough for me to start with. Enough power to charge up Mark’s cordless drills and maybe we could get a skill-saw? I did the math. For what I use, I could set up a small system with two panels, four batteries, and an inverter. Under a $1000 if I get some used panels. $1500 would be the most by the looks of it. Now why didn’t Mark mention that we could do this so cheaply? Had he done the research?
I sat back, thrilled with my finds, well, some of them that is. I worked out a budget and decided that if I didn’t go stay in motels in Santa Fe for the next month and worked another couple of shifts at the café, I’d afford to have power set up for winter. I saw myself, I mean, I saw us reading in the evenings, playing on the computer, and being all cozy and comfortable with the fire going strong and dinner bubbling away on top of the woodstove. I packed away the computer and finished my wine. The dogs snored from Mark’s side of the bed.

His truck pulled up outside.

 

“How’s Anne?”

The first words out of my mouth stopped him in his tracks.

“Shouldn’t you ask how your friend Louisa is?”

He closed the door gently behind him and took off his boots with a sigh. He lay his hat and leather jacket on the kitchen chair and came back to the almost bedroom. He sat on the end of my bed, our bed, and looked at me sadly. He brushed his hair out of his eyes and petted the dog closest to him, Frida that is. I said nothing. He said nothing. Nelson yawned.

“Want to tell me how you spent your evening then?”
He shrugged and stood up. He started to get undressed as he talked of the wake at Louisa’s house, an impromptu gathering of Andrew’s closest friends.

“And you.”
“Yes, and me. Anyway, Louisa made some green chile stew and opened a few bottles of cabernet for us. We made a campfire and sat around as they all remembered different stories from knowing him, like when he was a rancher in Idaho, to his time in the Marines in his twenties, and all the years he spent on the road in his thirties. I wish I’d known him. It was weird, Louisa didn’t speak once, she kept quiet, and listened. She cried a bit, but not as much as I’d have expected, you know? She’s at peace with this somehow.”
He climbed in to bed and lay down near me with his hands behind his head. I turned on my side to look at him. He glanced over at me and then carried on describing the day and night, how special it was to be there with them all.

“But why you?”
I didn’t know how to be subtle here, but why him and not me? I thought Louisa was my friend, not his. Mark turned on his side and faced me, almost nose to nose.

“I don’t know if I’m meant to say anything but it’s Anne and Graham…”
“They’re separating, yes, Graham told me.”
“When?”

“Yesterday, he came by, remember? So, Anne told you today?”
“Yes, I think she wants to keep it quiet until he moves out, but what with all the legal details and all the bureaucracy from Andrew’s death, she needed someone with her today. To deal with it all. And she really didn’t want to ask Graham. So she asked me. I said you’d understand. You had your mom here and all. Well, you do, don’t you?”
I reached over and stroked his goatee, then pulled on it. Hard. “Next time, leave me a damn note then. I’ve been freaked out all day. Mom said you wouldn’t cheat on me but…”

“You told your mom?”
“Well, yes, she made me. She met me for breakfast and I had to tell her I didn’t know where you and Anne were and she talked to me about cheating and stuff and got me all nervous. Actually she thought you wouldn’t but just the idea of it freaked me out. So we went for a hike in the Sandias to clear out my head and show her around. I’m glad she’s here for a while so we do more day trips like that. I’ll have to take you there too, it was all pretty incredible, and we found a restaurant at the top of the mountain that you get to by the ski lifts or keep driving up the road. So we parked in the shade, left the dogs in the car, and then took a ride up there in a lift. There were these amazing views of the national forest and even Albuquerque. You’d love it, we could go sometime.”

Mark curled around me and held me close as I told him about how exhausting it was to spend a whole day with Mom, just the two of us, especially now she’s been going to yoga every day and is all fit and righteous about being healthy. He laughed and held me tight.

“You can tell me about your day too, you know,” I whispered.
He sighed and snuggled in closer. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow. I’m tired, Jen, I just want to lie here and listen to you ramble.”

“I don’t ramble.”

He snorted in my ear and I giggled. The dogs yawned again.

Down East in Maine: back after 28 years

Down East #1

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Mid-summer in Maine and the campground is empty but for three other sites, although the tall fat fella in the white van with a hound dog drove out this morning. Perhaps he’s moving on? Another couple in the big sand colored tent drove by shortly after and it’s not even 8.30. Maybe I’m alone then? Is anyone else around? Time to explore, well, after the morning coffee on the rocks. Rocks on the coast, solid sit-upon boulders, smooth under bum, and slippery under paws (Harold’s).

I’ve been up for hours, the light wakes us around 5am, the lobster trawlers thunder by, deep and low in the water as I sit on those rocks with a plain coffee. The fog is so thick this morning that the boats are invisible even though voices talk back and forth over the rumble of engine and waves, tides and eddies.

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McClellan Park campground is a little known hideaway right on the ocean with ten sites for campers and tents. The road down is winding and narrow through dense woodland but easy on the vehicle, just tight, there’d be no room for anything bigger than a Sprinter. We pull off to let a sedan pass on the way up, and the couple tells me to claim number twelve.

“It’s open, a nice little bit of meadow, and just the other side of the trees is the shore.” She’s missing a tooth up front in that cheery smile of hers, and her husband says something unintelligable. They wave me off. My new neighbors.

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We camped in number twelve as directed with a hundred feet of mown grass, a ring of birch trees and the sound of the incoming tides on the rocks. The fire kept us warm although the wood Dennis, the caretaker, sold ended up being damp and green. That couple I’d mentioned though, they brought me some dry wood one morning.

“I was worried you’d be cold, that other stuff doesn’t put out much heat, does it? Here you go, your cat came by this morning. I saw him in the trees, shy isn’t he? Yes, I told Jerry we needed to bring you some wood, get you warm. It’s chilly today. They say it’ll rain tonight so cover up your stuff, won’t you?”

She’s in striped loose pajama pants, a pink checkered long sleeved shirt, and another purple layer over her shoulders, quite a colorful thick-set woman in her sixites. Her frizzled hair is held back by bright red plastic clips. Jerry wears work boots, pressed blue jeans, and a sweatshirt with Vietnam Veteran in bold white letters. His front teeth are missing, his tongue swallows his words, and his grin is like a ten-yer-old boys, all mischief and innocence. He’s about the same size too, wiry, compact, small as a pre-teen.

“You have to visit Jonesport, it’s pretty. My sister lives in Millbridge, that’s why we come here. We only live an hour away but love camping here each summer. Columbia Falls too, that’s a stop if you’re heading to Eastport. South of here, go see the ferris wheels on the beach. Jerry here was on stage for July 4th. He’s an Elvis impersonator.”

Millbridge is an odd little town in US 1, with very little by way of tourism, just a couple of stores, a diner and a mexican take-out, just what we want on the ocean, mexican food, right? I don’t find anywhere to get clam chowder, a sudden craving on these grey days. There’s a laundromat, library, bank, and a couple of churches, but no cafes or brew pubs that I can see. Bummer. I’ll not be staying here too long then. The supermarket undercharges me for the beer and I say nothing but feel guilty for a moment, and again as I write this. Oh well. I have worse regrets.

The shore is rough with a deep sudden drop from brown-stained rocks into swilling waves below. My brain imagines Harold slipping in and that fear that comes, knowing I’d jump in to save him. Probably kill us both. But I’d have to. It’s Harold. Fuck. “Get away from there!” I startle us both, he slips but not into the Atlantic.

We walk in the mornings, early, mid, late. We walk in the afternoons, every hour or so I jump up from book or laptop, “let’s go, guys.” All three pets bounce up, two dogs and a cat, and off through the trees we go, over the rocks, I sit on the grass to the east of this path and lean back. I can spend hours staring out over the ocean. This calm rejuvinates me, brings me back to myself, and reminds me of the Gower Coast in Wales. The grey skies with occassional bursts of sunshine. The salt on my skin. The damp air curling my hair. I wish there was a way to live on the coast like this, wake up each morning to stare out over the horizon and daydream in the cool breeze off the ocean. Can I? Make this a goal of mine? Why not? Or perhaps just drive along coastlines for the rest of my life? I could do that.

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My brain ticks over, the lists, the stressors, all that needs to be taken care of in the next few weeks. Instead of tackling any of this increasing number of projects and the relevant details, I make another cuppa. This is the week before I move in finally to a rental apartment in Montpelier, start work, and then college. This is problably the last break for a while. It’s time to explore then, isn’t it? So we do. We do. Gratefully.

Mosquitos follow my everywhere but the DEET works well, not that I’d want to live with it on me year in, year out. But who cares about a few weeks here and there? Toxic crap I know but it works. When I go pee though, that was a problem.

McClellan campground costs only ten dollars per site and another five for a generous bundle of (green) firewood. There’s a shower, potable water, trash cans, and a friendly host who lives near by. Yes, come here. Yes, stay a while. Millbridge is within reach of a bunch of interesting smaller villages, one’s you wouldn’t normally come across on you trip across US 1. The camping has been here since 1946, Dennis tells me, but the State only just realized it, so came a knocking over winter, demanding a licence fee, a few changes, and less sites. Dennis just took down a couple of numbers but left the picnic tables and still mows the grass in those numberless places.

“There, done.” He grins, his eyes wrinkle in mischief, “And they left. Not so bad after all. It might help that the Chief of Police runs this place and threatened the guy, but what do I care? Oh, if this fog eases up, tonight we’re meant to be able to see the Northern Lights!”

The fog only thickened though so I went to bed by nine, curled up in the camper with Harold on the front seat, Rosie in her crate (door open) and Stevie the cat at my feet, looking out the sliding window, gazing upon squirrels. We sleep deeply.

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Such utter calm and peace here, looking out over the Altlantic, I’m dreaming of a retreat, a time in a cabin on the waterfront, a deck, some shade, a place to swim, to walk the dogs, and days of peace to read, write, and create more. Yes. I’ll get right on it. Right after I finish my three years of the MFA.

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Next though, it’s Down East/ Up North. Time to find the eastern most town on the United State’s coastline. There’s a brewery there.

Living The Dream: 26

As part of the ongoing series, here is your weekly edition of Living The Dream. Also available on Createspace and Amazon!

DECEMBER: STUCK

I shouldn’t have taken this dirt road. We were stuck. Nelson slept in the passenger seat. I fumed, angry with myself. Now what? Shit. I craved a cigarette but we were in the middle of nowhere, no corner store to pop into. I opened the window and turned off the engine. The silence woke up my fearless friend and he whimpered as he looked out the windows. I scratched his back and he yawned once.
I picked up my map again, trying to make sense of where we were before I tackled the how do I get out of this mess question. I followed the route with my finger, flipping the edge to see the area to the east of Elephant Butte. I’d gone past Engle on graded road and now hit this, a dead end. White Sands Missile Range. It didn’t sound like a place we wanted to explore, did it? I gave up with finding another route out. We’d have to back track. If I could.

The road, narrow and steep, had climbed into the San Andres Mountains, a beautiful and barely touched landscape, one I’d hoped to hike with Nelson off leash. Why not walk anyway? We could leave the Toyota here, but then I saw all the warnings and no trespassing signs, I couldn’t risk it. They meant business.

Opening the door, Nelson jumped out and sniffed around, barely walking out of sight. I stretched out my back and touched my toes a couple of times with a groan. The winter afternoon warmed me with the windless and fading sunlight. It was time to hit the road back, somehow.

I climbed back and whistled for the pup. He jumped over my lap, with a stick in this mouth and he laid it on his seat carefully before sticking his head out the window. I took a sip of water and started up, shifting into low four-wheel drive. The 4Runner inched slowly backwards until a gap in the trees beckoned. I climbed out to find a ditch cutting me off from the turn-around.

Stumped for a moment, I cursed my luck. No one was going to rescue me though, I had to buck up and take care of things myself. Under the trees, I picked up rocks and small branches to fill in the hole. Ten or so minutes later, I bounced on the ditch and didn’t fall in luckily. Nelson had watched from the driver’s seat. I pushed him over and backed up. The truck sank and I held my breath. The rocks held as I backed up, turned 180 degrees, and headed downhill, sighing in relief.
I did it. On my own, I did it. It felt good. I drove down the rough road picking up speed on the corners until suddenly the steering wobbled and I lost control. A flat tire. I stopped the engine with a sigh. It had been just too easy, hadn’t it?

 

 

 

 

OCTOBER: OUTHOUSE NEWS
I decided to do some research of my own.

I made a cup of tea, pulled out a plate of shortbread cookies and my laptop. Mark was off looking for work or something, and the dogs had worn themselves out and were crashed out asleep on the porch.

I sat at the kitchen table and stared out the window at the distant cloudy mountains. The sky bore down bright overhead but I could see a storm brewing and it made me nervous. We needed to get some kind of permanent toilet set up, or really dig a deep pit and build an outhouse for winter. Digging a hole every few days wouldn’t cut it for much longer. Everyone told me to get ready for winter; this was our last call for warm days. I sipped the tea and waited. Old computers do it slowly, wake up that is. The cookies were almost gone by the time the Internet kicked in and I thanked my lucky stars for having a geek for a boyfriend who’d at least set that up right.

I logged on to our account and went surfing. Compost. Types of toilets. Off-grid plumbing. You name it – I looked for it. The result? Ten pages of notes on all my choices, from one page on how to dig in caliche soil – you need a digging bar in case you’re interested. Option two suggested spending fifteen hundred dollars on a plastic trendy pre-made composting toilet that you hand mix and turn every week. They need electricity too by the looks of it. So that’s not happening, for now anyways. The outhouse seemed better and better to be honest.

I sat back and put my feet on the other chair. An outhouse it is then. I finished my tea and put the mug in the sink. With Mark off on some adventure, I had to do this one on my own for once. I’d work it out.

 

Outside was getting chilly and so I gathered some firewood and loaded up the campfire. It took me three attempts to light, and I stood over the flames and assessed the stuff we had lying around. The shovel was off to the side, looking a little worse for wear after our attempts at digging a veggie garden, but still, it was just what I needed. Off behind the bus lay a stack of lumber, some more suitable for firewood than building. I grabbed another armful of logs and branches and threw them near the fire. The sun shone and dogs panted. I filled the water buckets for them. Where to build the outhouse then? I walked around the bus and parking area we’d created. Two juniper trees had been trimmed back to give a shaded bedding area for the pups. A couple of tin trashcans were tied to a pinion near the driveway, with three crates full of recycling. My firewood stack was pretty meager but the next day had been set-aside for the big firewood collection day. Talking of which, I needed to make some sandwiches and butternut squash soup to take with us. Anne, Graham, Mark and I were heading into Rowe Mesa with the trucks.

I wandered up our driveway and looked for a spot pretty hidden from the road, not that we had much traffic passing by, but it’d be just my luck to be in midstream when we had visitors. I walked back to the bus and in the other direction.

Ah, perfect. Close enough to run to in a snowstorm, yet out of the usual hangout areas and protected by a few good-sized trees. Yep, I’d found the perfect spot. My only question is this, where’s Mark when I need him? We’ve talked about digging the outhouse for ages but had he done anything about it?

I collected my tools together and a bottle of water. I wore my favorite straw-hat and set to work. I swung the axe and hit a rock. The axe flew out of my hands and landed in the tree next to me. I swore but then laughed. No one saw me, so who cared? I checked around to make sure the dogs were safe then I tried again. I swung the axe and chunk, it split the dirt. Yes. I did it again and again, getting on my hands and knees to pull out some head sized rocks. Swing. Dig. Swing. Dig. Over and over, I worked hard and loved every minute of it. Kneeling down to pull out a thick juniper root, Frida nudged me from behind and knocked me over. I shook some dirt at her, pretending to growl at her and instantly my pup grabbed those roots and dirt and threw it over her head with a shake. She stuck her nose in the hole and sniffed deeply. Then she started to dig. Twigs, stones, dirt, pine needles, dead grass, she flung it all. Nelson bounded up ever curious and dug from the other side. I sat back on my haunches and watched. Frida looked up at me but didn’t stop. Down they went until both hit some thing that frustrated their efforts. I sighed and reached in. Nope, not something I could move either. I stood up and grabbed the shovel. I had to force it underneath and wriggle it back and forth. Loose enough? I reached back inside the hole and found my grip and yanked it out. A huge boulder with the shape of a bowl in the middle of one side. A perfect birdbath. Struggling under the weight, I carried it over to near the bus and dropped it under a tree, filling it with water. The dogs drank deeply and assumed the position, asleep that is.

I sat on the steps and took a moment to stretch out.

Where was Mark? It was very strange of him not to leave me a note or anything. I sighed and stood up, stretching backwards with a pop. Ouch. Not good. But I needed to get this hole dug today, at least three feet by three feet deep. It was doable, that was my goal, and I’d do it. On my own, I’d do this one small project. As to the building part? I’d wait for Mark to finish that up, I’ve never built even a shelf.

I looked up at the sun overhead and grinned. This is the life, the good life: I work outside. I live in a sweet little community. Two dogs have adopted me. I live in a school bus. And I have a great boyfriend. Yep, this is the life for me.

 

I swung the axe but it’d hit the sides of the hole. Useless. So, I grabbed the shovel again and slowly but surely dug deeper, making nice straight walls and clean edges. I jumped in to measure the depth. If I’m 5’5”, then digging down to the height of my hips should be more than enough for the outhouse, right? There were only two of us pooping in here. I knelt down and flung out the last few piles of loose dirt behind me. Done. I did it. Scrambling back out, I admired my work. The dogs watched me sleepily as I told them how great a job they did, helping me out like that. Nelson fell asleep mid-flattery.

I didn’t want to stop, not yet. I’d make the soup later. Back by the bus, I gathered up more lumber, some thick posts, four of them. I’d start with that. Did I have a design? Nope, I didn’t, not really. I’d just get creative with whatever I found lying around. That was the plan. An improvisational method.

 

I drank some water and stood next to the fire and warmed my hands. Clouds were creeping closer as the day went by. Next to the hole, I stacked lumber, posts, a can of screws and nails, and some tin roofing. Didn’t I help Mark build the porch? Yeah, so why not build an outhouse the same way? More or less, that is?

I lay out the wood, putting the posts in the four corners, about two feet away from the loose dirt. I began to dig, this time only a foot and a half and stuck in the first post. I held it upright and scooped the dirt back in and trod it down, forcing it back in the hole and making sure it’d hold on its own. I stood back. Ah, right, I needed a level, where would that be? I searched the bus and around the porch but never found the damn thing. I stood back from the post then adjusted it, stood back off to the other side and tried again. It took a few attempts and by the time I was done, it looked pretty damn good to me. I worked on the other posts but ran out of steam on the third one. Too hungry to function, I left the tools ready for the last corner and wandered back to the bus. The fire outside kept going with a low deep red bed of smoldering logs.

 

Inside, I fixed up tortillas with melted cheese and opened a bag of chips with a jar of salsa. I ate on my bed, leaning back against the pillow. I checked my phone but no messages from anyone. I finished the last crumbs myself even though the pups watched me, shaking from hunger and neglect. I ignored them both and fell asleep.

 

The dogs barked and barked, slamming themselves against the door. I woke up, sat up, and hit my head. I yelped. A truck drove up to the front steps and honked its horn. The dogs went crazy. I didn’t know what to do. I let them out and shut the door.

I peaked out the window. Graham sat in his Chevy truck, his windows open, as he talked to the dogs but made no move to climb out. I dodged back into the bedroom and found a fresh pair of jeans and sweatshirt.

“Hang on.” I yelled out the window. I brushed my hair back and retied it. Stumbling out the door, I almost fell down the steps but just caught myself on a post and stood up straight.

“Hey, Graham. It’s okay. They’re friendly. Nelson, Frida, come here, will you?”

I strode over to them, calling the dogs to my side. Nelson, the biggest, ran up and wagged happily before lying down again with a sigh. Frida, ever neurotic, would not shut up though so I had to grab her and throw her over my shoulder before she shushed enough for us to chat.

Graham leaned out the window to stroke her and for once she didn’t growl at him. Progress of sorts. I put the dog down as soon as I could.

“This is a nice surprise, what are you up to?”

“Just in the area, you know.” He grabbed his hat and pager then joined me on the porch. “I was out for a medical call but it got cancelled before I got there. Just a couple miles down further from here. I thought I’d stop over and say hello, see how it’s going out here. Oh, and is your woodstove chimney safe? It’s time to get ready for winter, you know.”

I laughed. “Well, Mark installed it last month so we should be good. Want to check? I’m going to put the kettle on, want something to drink?”

Frida ran off towards the bus. Graham followed me inside; the first time he’d seen our place up close. I focused on making some herbal tea and getting out the rest of the cookies. I gave the pups a treat each and they wandered off to their beds with rawhide in mouths. Graham sat at the table. I moved the laptop out the way for him. The teakettle whistled and I poured out water for us then sat down opposite.

“How’s it going?” It seemed a pretty good vague question to start with. I pushed my notes on humanure off to the side. My arms were sunburnt again and hands grimy from digging. Graham didn’t comment. Not about that anyway.

“I saw Anne and Mark driving into Santa Fe when I came down to the fire station. Are they getting more stuff for the dog sanctuary?”
“No idea. Milk? Sugar? Did you talk to them?” I kept my hands busy.
Graham shook his head and picked up two cookies and ate them fast. He looked around, smiling as he pulled down books off the shelf next to him. All about homesteading and living off-grid, there was nothing too revealing, thankfully. I sipped my tea, not sure what to make of this visit. Graham’s an odd bird at the best of times.
As usual he wore his uniform, all pressed and clean. He’d shaved thoroughly and his hair still seemed damp from a shower. The pager beeped every so often but he turned it down. He put back the books and sipped his tea and ate another cookie. I waited. Actually, I wanted to go back outside and finish the posts for the outhouse.

“Anne wants me to move out, for sure now. She’s wanting us to separate officially, working out the legal stuff too.”
“Oh. I thought it was just an idea, not really that likely from what you said at the party.”
He shook his head sadly. “I know. I know. I was wrong apparently.” He smiled up at me, and tucked in his blue shirt, looking at his clean fingertips for a second more than needed. He picked up the mug once again before talking about the place he’d found in town, and how he’s got a new phone number.

“That’s partly why I came by, to give you my number. In case you want to hang out sometime. Or have questions about this stuff?” He held up one of the books on building and I laughed.

“Wasn’t Anne the driving force at your place?” I teased.

He grinned at being busted and then laughed with me. “Well, I helped. Honest.” He leaned back in the chair and stared out my window. “What are you working on out there?” He nodded in the direction of the new outhouse. I told him how much I’d done.

“Do you want some help finishing up? It’s easier if I hold the beams when you screw them in.”
“I’m not done with the posts yet,” I admitted.

“But you’re close right? Come on, I’d like to help.”

Graham stood up and held out a hand for me. I took it and he lead me out onto the porch, letting me go after a moment standing with his face to the sun. “We only have a couple of hours left, so what’s your plan?”
“No plan, just posts with wood across the top for now. I’d not really thought it through much more than that. Any ideas? I’ve not done something like this before.”
We headed over towards the project, picking up the shovel and post when we got there. Graham dug right in and finished that last posthole as I collected the lumber together, and I even found a small handsaw. He held the post in place as I tamped down the earth and made it pretty solid. Still no level but with the two of us we got it set straight first time round.

The dogs watched from the trees and I heard a donkey bray in the distance.

“Now what?” He stood back with his hands on his hips, somehow he was still looking clean and ready to go. The mud in my hair kept it out of the way if nothing else. I picked up the tape measure and suggested we find out the spacing.

“You mean you didn’t measure anything yet?”
I grinned, “no, was I meant to?”

I passed him one end and found out that within a few inches, the posts were pretty evenly spaced out, six feet by four feet more or less. I checked out the pile of wood and we started cutting and laying up the crossbeams. Graham held the lumber and I had the satisfaction of tying it all together. Within an hour, the basic framing was done. We worked quietly and comfortably.

“Not bad, Jen, not bad.” Graham held the ladder as I climbed back down with tools in hand.

“Sweet. Mark will be so proud of me.”

I put the tools on the steps of the ladder and stood back to admire our work. A little wonky but damn fine for a first attempt. Graham’s pager beeped. He grabbed it and turned up the volume. I had no clue as to what they were saying but after a couple of minutes he passed me the rest of the tools. He looked sad. He wiped his hands on his jeans and reached out to shake mine goodbye. I hugged him, suddenly afraid but I had to ask.

“Are you okay? Is it anyone you know?”

He nodded and held on briefly. “I’ve got to go. One of our locals just died. A friend. I’ve got to be there.”

He walked off fast with me at his heels. He turned back to say something and I walked smack into him and we crashed to the ground. He laughed out loud and picked us both up, dusting off the twigs and dirt. He picked out some cholla cactus from his palm with a smile. He climbed into his truck, turned on the flashing lights, and backed out. He stopped up the road and shouted back to me,

“Looks good by the way, the outhouse, it looks good. You could paint it, you know. But I wanted to ask you this, where are you going to sit?”

Oh, there is that.

 

I came back from walking the pups to find Mark in the bus, making a fire, and heating up some soup. It smelled great. I gave him a big hug but he didn’t do anything but grunt at me. He turned around to face me and his eyes were sad, shut down.

“What? What’s happened?”
He took my hands in his and searched them for a second then looked down into my eyes.

“It’s Andrew. Louise’s brother died last night. They just found him.”

I didn’t know what to say so I sat down, fast. The kettle boiled in the background but Mark turned it off and pulled out a bottle of red wine. He opened it in silence.

“Graham told me a local had died. I didn’t think it’d be someone we knew.”
“Yeah, I know. This sucks. Here, drink this.” He sat down opposite me and flicked through my pile of notes. He put them aside.

“How did you find out?” I asked, gulping back half the wine. I’ve not lost anyone before. Mark pulled out his cigarettes but put them back in his pocket.

“I was out with Anne in Santa Fe when she got the call from Graham. We came right back. I dropped her off at the tavern. Everyone’s there. It’s packed. I wanted to come tell you though.” He drifted off.

I put the glass down. “But what were you doing in town? You never left me a note and I got kinda worried.”

He shrugged. “Anne texted me, asked if I wanted to pick up the supplies for the chainsaw for tomorrow, not that we’re going now. She’ll need to stay with Louisa, I guess. Shopping, we were shopping when Andrew was lying dead at home. He could’ve been there for ages before anyone found him. How horrible is that? God, we’re all so vulnerable out here. I don’t know if I can live with that.”

I reached and took his hand in mine and stroked his fingers slowly. Mark shook his head and continued to tell me how the neighbors had come over with some harvest for Andrew and how the dogs were all freaked out, jumping on the truck and barking up a storm. They’d found him in bed with a book half-read and a mug of cold coffee.

“Not a bad way to go, eh?” He tried to smile. He looked around and saw my notes again. “You doing research now, hon?”
I nodded and leaned back in my chair. I described what I’d done, and how close I’d come to finishing with Graham’s help. Mark peered out the window but it was already getting dark and he couldn’t see anything but silhouettes of the junipers.

“Did Graham put the tools away?”

 

Living The Dream: 25

OCTOBER: A LONG NIGHT

“Seriously? You should’ve talked to me first.”

Mark slumped inside his new truck and stared at me in disbelief. My hands shook as I opened the door and climbed down and away from him. I let Nelson out to stretch his legs but he ran over to the trees, watching us both carefully with his tail tucked far underneath. I called him back closer and he came reluctantly.

“You know how sensitive he is, don’t raise your voice at me like that. You scared him.” I crouched down and buried my face in his furry neck and burst out crying.

“Oh Jenny, now what?”

Impatience and gentleness competed in his voice. I cried. His footsteps brought him close but I didn’t look up. He knelt down next to me and pulled us both onto his lap under the midnight sky. I curled up tight and Nelson whimpered. Mark stroked us both, whispering softly about the stars above. I relaxed. Nelson wriggled and I let him go. Mark sat and waited.

I sighed once more and leaned into him. He spoke up.

“Do you think he wants to drive with you or with me in the new truck?”
I punched him lightly, “me of course. You’re the big mean stranger who made me cry.”
He laughed out loud and it echoed down the highway. I sat back and stared at him for a second.

“I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. One woman wanted to take him as a guard dog and leave him alone outside. Another man wanted his hyper little kids to chase him around all day. I couldn’t do it.” I tried not to cry again.

“But why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“You were too busy on stage. And I thought you’d be mad and make Louisa take him back,” I told him.

“But why?”
I couldn’t explain, not even to myself, so I shrugged and stood up. I held out my hand to him and pulled him close.

“Let’s go home, okay? We can talk about all this in the morning, just not now. I’m too exhausted, Mark. I’m just exhausted.”
“Okay, it’s been a long night. What do you think Frida will do?”

“Play, I hope.”

He nodded as he closed the car door for me and walked away, watching me drive off ahead.

We made coffee and sat outside, all four of us. It had been a long night. Frida had been none too happy to share the bus and it took a while to settle everyone down. Nelson knew he wasn’t wanted and avoided Mark as much as possible. He sat near me, practically on me, and I thought of using his broad head as a coffee table. The ears would’ve kept the mug from falling off.
Mark toasted me with a smile, tired but soft. I said little. We’d not chatted about the truck or the dog. Neither of us wanted to spoil the mood, I guess. The sky stretched cloudless as usual, and the ground beneath the trees had cracked and split once again. The rains had come and gone. The water buckets sat empty. The tomatoes had been eaten. Life was good.

Nelson stretched out his nose and sniffed at Mark’s bare feet, tail wagging, and oh-so-gently, he took a lick. He didn’t curl up and die, instead, he inched forward and we all watched, even Frida. Nelson wriggled close and poked his left foot with a paw. Frida stood up and came over, sniffing the new dog curiously. She sighed her puppy sigh and wandered off to water a pinion. Nelson followed cautiously. They circled each other twice. Nelson bowed once and the games began. Running full-pelt back behind and around the bus, over and over again, they charged across the yard, under trees, over buckets, and I got dizzy trying to watch them both. Mark cheered them on, making bets as to who would come out first on each lap. Frida, no Nelson, no, back to Frida.
The sun beat down and I grabbed my straw-hat, and sat with my back to the bright light.
Mark offered me a cookie and poured out more coffee for the both of us. The breeze tickled the dried grasses in the yard. The prayer flags rustled and I said a quiet thanks.

“We should get some firewood soon, don’t you think, Jenny?”
I nodded, “Can we get a huge pile? I don’t want to freeze this winter. Do you think the bus will be okay though? Not there’s much we can do, is there? I can start collecting the kindling whenever I take the dogs out walking.”

The land was full of dead and down pinion trees, and I pictured breaking off the branches and carrying them back one by one. Maybe not. Mark had heard of someone with firewood stacks some twenty feet high – he had firewood envy. But he’d talked to one of the men and was quoted a decent price for a truckload.

“It’s very doable, especially if we load up ourselves, and now we have the Ford…”
“Yeah, we have the Ford. How much did it cost, you never said?”
He gave me the best widest smile that morning. “You’ll never guess.”
“Go on, tell me,” I pouted.

“No, you’ve got to guess at least once first, come on, be a good sport.”
I stood and walked over to it. The paint was flaking off in places and pale rose-colored rust peaked through. The tires had a deep tread. The engine hadn’t leaked oil over night. The front end was dented. The interior was a wreck. I had no idea, and I told him so.

“Five hundred. Only five hundred, not bad, eh? For a working reliable vehicle.”
It was a wreck, but not that bad, you know? “Good job, Mark. Yeah, okay, I approve, but only if I get to drive it too.”
He laughed and threw me the keys. “Let’s go then, shall we?”
“What? Now?”
“Why not?” he grinned wickedly, challenging me.
“I have a hangover and we have two dogs, where are they meant to go?”
“In the front seat with us,” he said as he stood up, grabbing the thermos and his bandana and sunglasses. “Let’s go explore. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
What could I say? I whistled to the dogs and they came up, panting and drooling. I opened the driver’s door and in they jumped, no questioning looks given. I claimed my seat quickly. Mark was left to fight for a space as I gunned the engine by accident. I grinned sheepishly.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize it would be that sensitive. Everyone tucked in?”
With nods and smiles all around, windows open, radio tuned to a country western station, we drove away.

I took a right turn and headed away from the highway. The sun bore down on me and I reached for Mark’s sunglasses. He changed the radio station to Oldies in revenge. The dogs leaned against us both, tails intertwined and wagging comfortably, the stress of the night before apparently forgotten. The road was graveled and rocky in parts, smooth going in others, the valley opened to the west of us, and I glanced over at my boyfriend. He was frowning as he smoked but I didn’t ask. I drove slowly to start but soon found my confidence and picked it up. We passed a few more private driveways after a couple of miles, leading to half hidden homes with tall windmills sticking out into the bright blue sky. Horses grazed in the arroyos. A coyote ran over the rise in front of us, chasing a roadrunner by the looks of it.

My phone rang. I passed it to Mark.

“Hello?” He grimaced. “Yes, Martha, she’s right here, but we’re driving and she can’t really pull over.”
The road ahead and behind was empty and I tried not to giggle or cough too loudly. He carried on, politely asking about the weather, her cats, and if she had any plans to visit. I slapped him and he put the phone out of reach, humming and hawing. The dogs panted. I pulled over onto a sandy spot on the next straight stretch. I grabbed the phone from him.

“Hello, Mom. You did what? When? Oh…for a couple of weeks?”

Mark let the dogs out and joined them in their watering program. He wandered out of sight with the two following his heels closely as he scrambled up a small ridge and waved. I climbed out and sat on the tailgate, listening to Mom’s plans. I drank some cool coffee. The plans? Well, she was arriving next week. On Thursday, at four.

The road dropped off into a wash, the rocks lined the path, and the gravel had run off in the last rains. It was great. Actually it wasn’t, we were stuck in sand. Mom was coming to visit next week. The dogs were thirsty. I was still hung-over and Mark was loving every minute of it. He pulled out a shovel from the bed, and he dug out the one rear wheel, by sticking branches and rocks to give us some traction. He turned a nozzle on each of the front wheels, climbed back in, and gave me the thumbs up as the engine started back up first time. The Ford slowly but surely climbed out of the rut, an inch at a time, the truck made it.

“Gotta love four wheeling. Can I drive the rest of the way?” He beamed at me.
Ahead of us, the road rose up towards the mountains and ridges, a narrow one-lane track with barely a sign that anyone lived back there. He stayed in the front seat and I shoved the dogs into the middle and I claimed the window seat.

“When’s she coming? We’d better get the outhouse finished. Okay, onwards and upwards, my friends, onwards and yes, most surely, upwards.”

He gunned it and we shot up the mountain road with a scream.

Living The Dream: 24

OCTOBER: BRINGING IT HOME

“Ready?”
“Yep, let’s do it.”
Mark gave an easy grin and closed the door behind him. I stood at the bottom of the steps and picked at my new tee shirt and slightly worn-out denim skirt. It wasn’t quite right.

“How do I look?”

“Perfect. Don’t worry, it’ll be fun.”
He wore a white shirt tucked in to his pale blue jeans, and he’d even shaved smooth around the goatee. His hair was tied back into an inch-long ponytail. His eyes sparkled as he walked over to her. “It’ll be fun, remember? Don’t worry. Let’s just go and play, shall we?”

“Hang on, I’ve got to change. I can’t do this. I need jeans and boots.” I shrugged. “I think it’s time to retire the skirt. It doesn’t work any more.”

Mark shrugged, he didn’t care either way.
He drove the long way into Oliver, taking it slow. I wished I still smoked because I was nervous as hell. Instead I sipped on my coffee and looked out the car window.
“Do you think Frida will be okay on her own?” I worried.
He nodded and glanced over at me. “It would’ve been too much for us to bring her, you agree, right? She’d hate being in the crowds, and what’s worse; someone might have wanted to adopt her. You couldn’t put her through that. At least this way, she’s home safe and sound, and you can focus on the other dogs up for adoption and not worry about our girl.”
He was right. I stared at the Ortiz Mountains. “Can we hike up there some day?”
“Sure, Jenny, sure.”
The road drifted up and down small rises, into dried up/ fried up valleys, and finally hit the highway. He turned right after the three or four cars passed us heading into town. I sighed.

“Nervous?”
“Yep.”
“Well, all you really need to do is to take care of the dogs, and try to find them good local families, forever homes for them.”
“I know.”
He took the curves faster than usual, and I grabbed the door handle. I wanted to bitch at him, but I didn’t. I finished the coffee as we pulled into town. The galleries were staying open later than usual and had advertised the big event: Rose’s Rescue was in town. Oliver was busier than usual after two radio stations and the local newspapers had interviewed her. Louisa had come through and each story showed both her compassion and drive to rescue these dogs the best she could. We parked on the left, out of the way. Mark stopped the engine. We sat there in the quiet. I turned to Mark and realized he wasn’t his usual easy-going self.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about me. It’s new, that’s all. I’ll be okay, will you?”

I reached over and grabbed his hand and kissed it.

“Yes,” I took a deep breath, “let’s go.”

“Louisa, how can I help?”
The parking lot was cordoned off with tape and tables. In the shade sat five scared dogs. I veered towards them and sat near by, talking softly to each one, calling their names, and letting them come to me. Within a few minutes, I had all of them leaning on me and licking whatever limb they could reach. I laughed and relaxed.
Louisa sat on top of the table nearest me, Buddha-like, and watched us. “That’s what they all needed – a familiar friendly face. It’ll be easier now. Thanks for coming to do this, Jenny. It’ll help out a lot.”
I shrugged and sat back with Nelson lying across my lap. “What’s the plan, then?”
Louisa wore clean tidy black jeans and a faded green shirt. Her hair had been recently buzzed, and I noticed that her fingernails were clean for once. I wanted to tease her but that’s not how we were together; I smiled to myself anyway. I looked around the parking lot. Luckily, Louisa had claimed the one and only shady spot in front of the cars parked off the highway. We had some hundred by ten feet rectangle of dirt to call our own. Mark unpacked the Subaru and brought over the posters he’d made, images and cartoons of dogs were painted onto the plywood scraps from home. He propped one against the table near me, and tacked another to the tree behind. He took one over to the tavern. He leaned it against their sandwich board. He went inside.

Louisa looked at her notepad and talked about the different dogs she’d brought. I knew them all, but some better than others.

“We have some volunteers coming out here to help, so we could to wait for them, I guess, but maybe not, if Anne and Graham get here soon. We’ll see. My thought was that we’d each take a dog and stay with him or her until they find a family or we get tired and pack up to go home. I’m not staying for the whole night, that’s a promise.”

She stood up with a grin and checked on her dogs. Their files were still in the truck and she went to get them as I held five leashes and prayed no one tried to escape.

Anne arrived and went straight inside. She spoke to Mark on the doorsteps, about the music probably, and Mark glanced my way, said something else, and then went back into the tavern. Anne came over.

“No Graham today?” I asked.
“He’ll be here later. They had a call out, a medical one; it didn’t sound too serious, but he’ll be gone for an hour or more. What do you need me to do?”
Louisa came over and gave us each our folders with the dogs’ medical histories, rabies certificates, and a donation/ adoption form. I checked that everything was there. I was to take care of Nelson again. I also held onto a female older pit-bull, white but for a pink nose and brown ears, who was incredibly gentle and a sweetheart. Louisa took on the two five year old Labs and Anne kept an eye on the absolute New Mexico mutt that we had no idea what he was. Cute, short brown fur, odd colored eyes, and four legs. That’s all I could really say about him. Oh, and he had a curly tail and was short like a corgi.
The afternoon slowly ticked by, cars came and went, and the tavern filled up. One by one, the tourists left town. One by one, the locals came over to hang out with the dogs.

“I’d like her. The husky.”
I looked up to see an older woman in her fifties or so pointing at Nelson. She didn’t approach us, but stared at my dog. “Yeah, she’ll do. It is a girl, isn’t it?”
I petted his head and stood up. “No, this is Nelson, he’s young neutered husky mix and he’s still a bit skittish after being a stray for too long. That’s what Louisa thinks anyway.” I remembered my lines and asked about the home situation and what was she looking for in a dog. I wanted to make a good match.

“I need a guard dog for out where I live.”
“Okay, where’s that?”
She pointed up into the mountains behind us. “The Ortiz. There are too many damn coyotes for my liking. I need to keep them away since I don’t want to shoot every last one of them. I need a guard dog.”
She was serious too.

“What does that mean to you?” I had to ask.

The woman took off her sunglasses and checked me out, slowly, up and down. “Do you live round here?”
I nodded but said nothing else. The contrast between us couldn’t have been stronger. I was the new kid on the block and she knew it.

“Hmm. Well, as you should know, it’s not safe out here. A woman alone needs a dog in the yard, especially at night. He’ll have his own doghouse; so don’t worry. But his job is to protect me.”

She took a few steps towards us and Nelson gave out a low deep growl. The woman ignored it and came closer, reaching out to pet the dog on the head. Nelson flinched and tried to back out the way but the woman closed the gap and tried again. I heard the growl forming in the back of Nelson’s throat and I stepped in between the two of them.

“Did you say you’ll be leaving him outside at night? On his own?”
The woman wore a dark green baseball cap, big boots despite the heat, and a full set of army fatigues. She stared at me as if I were an idiot. “That’s what guard dogs do, they guard you.”
I didn’t know what came over me but I pushed her away from Nelson.

“Really? Well, this isn’t a guard dog, not for you anyway. Nellie is a sweet sensitive boy and he needs to sleep inside, ride inside, be treated gently, he’s a companion dog, not some kind of cheap alarm system.”

My voice squeaked the last words and I took a breath. I stepped back from her. I looked around in panic. Louisa came over and started talking to the woman, “Dana, I think you’d be better off taking a different kind of puppy from the shelter, one that doesn’t have the issues that these dogs do…”
I tuned them both out and sat down with Nelson in the shade and hugged him to me. I whispered, “she wasn’t good enough, she wasn’t good enough.” Nelson licked my tears away and leaned against me. His tail thumped against me. His odd colored eyes didn’t leave mine. I stroked his thick neck and shoulders.

Louisa sat down near us both and watched the traffic go by before asking if I was okay.
“I didn’t like her.”
She nodded. “But you do know that a lot of these people are terrible with other people but great with dogs? Just because you didn’t like the woman, didn’t mean she’d be a bad home.”
“But it would be the worst thing for Nelson, stuck in a yard on his own. How would he get any confidence? Who’d play with him and hug him and love him?”
Louisa smiled softly. “Not all dogs are treated like that, Jen. We can’t be too picky, that’s all I’m saying. The focus is to find these dogs home, they might not be perfect, but they’re better off in their own homes. Think about it.”

She stood up and whistled to herself. All the dogs watched her closely. I stayed in the shade with Nelson.
Anne was chatting to a family with some young kids, and within minutes the two labs were playing and bouncing and licking those two boys upside down. The mom burst out laughing at one point and the dad pulled out his camera. Anne took him to the table and talked to him about the sanctuary and I heard him say that they’d come out just for the fundraiser, hoping to find a new pup.

“Or two.” He watched his kids rolling in the dirt and he turned back to Anne and her folder. “What do I need to do?”
She’d smiled easily and described the dogs in detail, talking about their medical histories, and the way they’d ended up at the sanctuary after being found wandering the highway some five months previous.

“Drop-offs we reckon. It happens a lot, people drive out and see the loose dogs here and leave theirs. Deliberately. Crazy, isn’t it?”
“Hell yeah, so no one came to claim them?”
“No, we put the info out through the local email groups, told the shelter, and even made a few flyers. Nothing came back. Louisa wanted to fatten them both up first. They were pretty malnourished. Anyway, they both have a clean bill of health, still energetic and playful as you see. We don’t have set fees but if you can make a donation towards her costs?”
“Absolutely, we want to help set her up. I gave one of my paintings for the auction and we’d thought we’d stay for that part of the night, but I think we’ll just take the kids and the dogs back home and settle everyone in. I might drop by later, but I’m not sure.”

He filled in the paperwork and handed over a check for a hundred dollars. Anne shook his hand and passed over two leashes. Louisa appeared and crouched down next to the dogs and the two young boys. She spoke quietly to all four of them. They listened carefully. Each boy took a leash and petted the dog closest to him slowly and gently. She talked some more and the boys nodded seriously. She stood up and walked back to her truck without looking back.

 

“Good job,” I couldn’t help but say.

Anne drank her water and offered me a protein bar from her bag. The other three dogs lay in the sunshine and our volunteers relaxed in the foldout chairs, chatting to each other and talking to folks as they came over. Anne knelt next to me. We watched but said little. Her face was more tense than usual but I didn’t ask. Mark popped his head out of the tavern and saw us. He waved and headed back in. Anne stood.

“I’d better check on the bands. Isn’t Mark playing with the Thrashers tonight?” She saw my expression and carried on quickly as she walked away, “Are you going to be okay out here?”
“Sure. We’re fine.”
She checked in with Louisa, who looked at her phone, and nodded once.
A young man came over and sat down facing Nelson, asking, “Would he be good with kids?”
“What age?”
“Well, I have a toddler and a four year old, crazy little guys, always into mischief. I tell the wife we should send them to school and get them socialized but no, she wants the home schooling thing. I love them to death, but they don’t stop running around.” he smiled a lopsided grin, and pulled out a pouch. “Smoke? It’s homegrown.”
I shook my head and looked to see if anyone was listening.

“No, he’s unpredictable with kids. He might bite. He might hurt them. He’s a guard dog, you see. Best left alone outside. That kind of thing.”
“That’s a shame. He looks sweet.”
I stood up, and held onto Nelson’s leash tightly as if I might lose him. I nodded seriously.

“Looks are deceiving. You’d do better with that pit-bull over there. Angel, she’s great with kids. Very sweet and loyal. Older too, less likely to be wound up by their playing.”
“Thanks,” he held out his hand and shook mine. “I appreciate your honesty. I’ll check her out, yeah, that sounds good.” He stood up and went over to meet the other dogs.
“How did it go?”
“Great.” I took a big gulp from his beer. “Great.”
“Did you adopt out any?”
I nodded and took another gulp. “Yeah, all of them. Even the funny short little mutt found a home in Cordova with this older couple who live near a creek or river or something.”
“That’s great. Well done, Jen. Where did Nelson end up going? Anyone we know?”
“Yeah, good people, just a couple with a dog.”

Mark ordered another round for us all. “Did you like them?”
I nodded again and looked around the tavern. “Yeah, they’re not bad.”

The room was packed, completely and fully packed, with all the tables and chairs taken, kids and dogs running between and through us, and a reggae band made talking hard. I focused on watching everyone hopping from group to group, stopping here and there, shaking hands, hugging, and laughing easily. I wandered over to the bathrooms and washed my hands and face. It was only six o’clock and I was exhausted.

 

The drummer from the Woodman Thrashers joined us at the table, Dave that is, the young kid who’d called Mark a narc all those months ago. He’d cleaned up in a grunge band kind of a way, with a different tee shirt that although was black and torn, somehow looked new on him. He’d spiked his hair up and off his face and looked ready for fame and fortune.

“Are you ready, Mark? We’ll be playing those five songs we gave you so no surprises for your first time on stage here. Come on; let’s go set you up, okay? We’ll be on after the next group’s done.”
Mark grinned widely until he saw my surprised look. “I meant to tell you, but you’ve been so busy.” He scratched as his goatee and shrugged sheepishly. “I wanted you to just look up and see me on stage. I’ll be back later, save me some food if you get any, okay?”

The tavern filled up around me as Mark wandered off with Dave, Andrew, and Jimmy, heading out onto the crowded porch. Frank and Debbie came up and asked about how the monsoons treated us in the end.

“We had ten full buckets of water for a moment there. Of course, most of it’s been used up already. The tomatoes take a gallon each, I’d had no idea that they’d be so thirsty.”
Frank pulled up a chair and set his pint on the table. He leaned forward. “It was good to see you at the fire department the other day, but you’ve not been back? Oh and I heard the cops came around, is that right?”
“Yeah, it was a bust.”
“That’s too bad. Did they fine you or what?”
“No, it was a bust; they didn’t find anything, that’s what I meant. We don’t have anything.”
He sat back, disappointed. “They came up to our gate but the kids ran down and spoke to them, babbling away. The cops asked a bunch of questions and the kids just chatted away so innocently that they all drove off back towards town. I watched it all from the house. The kids were so excited by being interrogated. They ended up playing cops and growers all afternoon.”
Debbie laughed at the image and started to ask more about our homestead. I described the bus and the porch we’d made, the chicken run without any chickens, the waterless storage buckets, and the compost that didn’t compost.

“All in all, I think we’re doing great. Mark loves being out on the land, and the dogs, I mean, the dog loves following him around as he fixes up the place. What about you? What are you doing these days?”
She talked, in detail, of the hot water system that they’d installed, the size piping, the kind of pump, the water flow per minutes from the water storage tanks. People round here don’t mess around with small talk. She talked. I listened.

Mark wandered over to the stage with Drummer Dave and talked about setting up after the next band. He walked out to the car to grab his guitar. Anne stood and went out to the porch, talking to Louisa who wanted to go home, please. Anne wouldn’t let her until the auction had run its course. They went back and forth about what Louisa needed to do.

I didn’t listen as my cheese and chicken enchiladas had to be eaten. I ignored the world as I tucked right in. The level of activity, noise, and all the random conversations here, there, and everywhere, was deafening, and well, it was all a bit too much for me yet I didn’t want to leave and miss out. I ate the plate clean and even licked it when no one was looking. I leaned back against the wall and drank some water sensibly.

A family took to the stage among much good-natured catcalling and yelling. Their eight-year-old girl waved at us all and claimed a microphone. She spoke softly. The tavern dropped silent fast.

“I’d like to say thank you to Louisa. She gave me a dog two years ago when I was a kid.”
Everyone laughed. She smiled and brushed the dreadlocks off her face and smiled at us confidently.

“Geraldine is the best dog ever. She’s black and white, and she comes with me everywhere. I love her. Thank you, Louisa. I hope you can keep the rescue running. This song is for you.”
She turned and nodded at her dad who started playing his guitar. Her mom stepped forward and gave her a quick hug, and set in with her mandolin. The tavern listened in silence as the youngster held on to the mic and began to sing. A song of hope and compassion, a song of love and family, the words fell off her tongue and kept us focused in awe.

She stopped and the whole tavern erupted, a standing ovation from us all, and with loud cheers and clapping of hands and stomping feet, they began again, a faster uplifting tune that had the front tables pushed aside and five or more couples danced and swung each other around, laughingly bumping into each other over and over.
I beamed. I listened and beamed, my feet tapping under the table.

“Would you do me the honor?” Mark held out his hand and bowed ridiculously low and wobbly. I stood with a curtsy, and he followed me up to dance. We didn’t have a clue and that was perfect too.

 

The Thrashers took to the stage just as most of the tourists left, which was probably a good thing. 1980s punk covers didn’t really fit the crowd at that point but suddenly a group from out of town showed up, all in their early twenties, all carded carefully, and ready for a good night in town. The volume cranked up. I waved at Mark but he didn’t notice, he was busy drinking and playing with the band. I snuck out onto the porch and found a quiet corner to myself. I sat down and watched my boyfriend through the window.

 

“You did what?”
“I bid on something in the auction.” Mark told me, as we were getting ready to leave, many hours later. I drank back a full glass of water before asking, “what exactly?”

He grinned sheepishly. “Something we need.”
“Oh really? Like what?”
He shrugged, “it’s outside, want to see?”
The tavern had emptied out but for a few hard-core partiers such as ourselves. Dieselhead Danny had shown up at eleven with a gang of friends from Albuquerque. Anne and Louisa left at some reasonable hour but I couldn’t tell you when. Graham hadn’t shown up at all.

I paid the tab and we wandered outside, hand in hand. The street was empty but for a handful of cars and trucks. There were no such things as street lamps and it was pitch black outside. Mark walked ahead of me and past the Subaru and towards an old Ford pick-up truck. I caught up with him, pulling him back with me, the drunken fool. He turned me back around and pointed at a pale rusty red truck with blue doors and a black bumper tied on with wire.

“This, I won this.”
He opened the door proudly and climbed inside. “Come on up, honey, and keep this old cowboy warm.”
“You didn’t? My God, Mark…how much? You should’ve talked to me first.”

Again the sheepish look as he told me that he couldn’t resist, “it’s perfect for us. This old bench seat means you can sit right next to me as we cruise Oliver on a Friday night. Frida can have the window seat. It’s got a V8 engine, new brakes, and the tires are pretty good. It runs; that’s the best part. It’s old and funky and it runs, slowly…but it’ll get me around when you’re at work, or when I need to go to Louisa’s.” He babbled away nervously and showed me the lights and the radio and the cassette player and the duct-tape and the baling wire in the glove locker. “It’s so New Mexican.”
I turned on the radio and a country western song burst out full volume, startling us both, and I laughed out loud.
“Okay, okay, you can keep it. And, er, I got something today as well.”
“You did?” He looked relieved. “Did you bid on something too? What did you get?”
I cranked open the window and whistled.

A shadowy triangular silhouette appeared in our car window, with the horizontal shape of a Flying Nun, his ears flapped in sleepy confusion.

“Nelson, I got Nelson.”