JUNE: MEETING THE NEIGHBORS
“Maybe walking to town wasn’t such a great idea.”
We huddled in the shade of a half dead tree. Mark’s nose was lobster red. My tongue stuck to my lips. The heat was relentless. I’d not slept well. Mark had a hangover. What a perfect first day in New Mexico, eh?
We’d spent the morning making plans, what to buy, what we needed, where to set up the tent – that kind of thing. Oh, and ice, we needed ice. I’d suggested walking to Oliver.
It hadn’t seemed that far in the truck, going as slow and steady as we’d driven, I’d figured a few miles at most. Now though was a whole different perspective.
We passed the dead dog again. For some reason, we both walked up close and examined the body closely.
“A boy,” said Mark with authority. He poked the body with a stick of dried cactus. I’d kept back in case it stank. It didn’t. My curiosity drove me nearer. I noticed the tuxedo style of white chest and black body. White paws on three feet. Thick dense fur and a long scrawny tail, the dog was pretty odd looking I have to say. I nodded wisely.
“Yep, a boy.”
We carried on walking for another ten minutes before taking a break. The water bottle was empty by then. I noticed that Mark’s navy blue shirt had large wet rings under his armpits. Mark looked at me strangely when he noticed me staring. “I hear something.”
“Uh huh.” I rolled my eyes.
“No, seriously. I can hear a car or a truck or something. Come on.” He stepped back out into the full day sun. June at midday was not going to be my favorite time of year, I decided. I followed my boyfriend and we started walking once more. The thought of a beer at the tavern kept me going, sort of. The trees no longer seemed as dead and useless as yesterday, I saw them as potential time-outs and craved sitting under each and every one. I noticed the range of colors but had no words to describe them. I’d need to get a thesaurus for the eighteen shades of brown.
A beat up old diesel truck pulled up behind us but I stayed under a juniper tree. Mark chatted away and within minutes I found myself sitting between him and the driver. Danny. Danny the Dieselhead, he told us to call him.
“So you two bought old Pete’s place, did you?”
He took me by surprise. “Yeah, how did you know?”
“Well, you’re not locals for one. Why else would someone be stupid enough to walk down here in the middle of the day? It’s fucking hot out there.” Danny laughed harshly and spat out of his window. “Smoke anyone?” He offered a roll-up.
I shook my head. I’d stopped smoking tobacco eight months and three weeks ago. Mark’s hand shot out and took it from him with a thanks. He lit it. It didn’t smell like tobacco to me. I sat back to get out of the way of the smoke. My boyfriend was getting high with someone we’d just met and I wasn’t too happy about this. I kept my mouth shut though. For now.
They started talking about Oliver. Danny drove slowly, swerving this way and that to miss the rocks and boulders that we’d simply driven over the day before. He told us that even though Oliver, NM claims only three hundred residents, there are some four hundred locals in the hills and valleys surrounding the place.
“Like us.” I piped up.
Danny stopped talking. He looked over at me in my jean shorts and new red tee shirt with the Zia symbol. My sunglasses were high on my forehead and my short bleached blond hair stuck to my ears.
“Yep, like you, right.” He turned back to Mark. “Do you have any guns?”
Mark hiccupped, “Yes.”
“No.” I said just as quickly.
Danny looked between us, raising his glasses. “You might want to say yes, if any one else asks you. It keeps the riff raff away.”
I coughed. Mark knew what that meant; Danny was not exactly an emblem of the thriving middle class by any means. Bailing wire and duct tape held the truck together. The seats were worn through and covered by old blankets, themselves held together by dog fur. Dog fur.
“Are you missing a dog?”
“You mean that black and white boy back there?”
“Yep, that was mine. He never did listen. The coyotes got him last week.”
“How?” I couldn’t help but ask. He seemed so nonchalant about it all.
“Well, every night they’d come a calling, howling in the arroyos and picking off the hares and the critters near by. Old dumb dog of mine wanted to run with them for the last three years, but I’d get him in the kennel by nightfall. Until last week. I was in the city. Santa, that is. I got home late. The damn dog was gone. Poor bastard never learned, did he?”
I stared out the window. Note to self: keep dogs in at night.
Mark asked where Danny lived, was it nearby? Danny slowed down to a crawl even my Grandma could have kept up with and he pointed out behind us. Into the barren blank land that I was to call home.
“Yep, there, there she is. My home. Built it myself I did. Took me some twenty years, but she’s done now. Well, not quite but almost. Brick by brick, I made them myself.”
It took him that long? Not us, Mark wasn’t going to be some slacker. A year at most, that’s what I figured. I looked hard, I did, but I didn’t see a home out there. Mark kept trying to find it, is that it? Is that it? Danny finally stopped the truck and made us get out. He stood on a rock and pointed back towards our place.
“There. See that twisted juniper tree, hugging a pinion, with a huge boulder to the right?”
He waited patiently as we stared and stared, as if I could make out which tree but then Mark found it. He described it to me, “Straight ahead, thirty degrees north, down four inches, there is dark grey rectangle. See it? That’s the roof, I think.”
Danny slapped him on the back. “Well done. Not bad for a tourist.”
“We’re neighbors,” I exclaimed excitedly.
Danny sighed. “Yeah, but don’t come over asking for a cup of sugar. I’m not that kind of neighbor. I don’t like visitors, not generally. The dogs don’t like it neither.”
“Dogs? You’ve got more?”
“Oh yeah, they keep on having pups, you know how it is.”
I bit my tongue. Danny was our new neighbor. Anyway, we needed the ride to town. Damned if I was walking any more today.
Danny dropped us off at my Subaru in the parking lot of the general store. Mark wanted to get the shopping done, coffee, bacon and eggs, two bags of ice and all of that. I pointed out that it’d all go off by the time we got home.
“Oh, right. So beer first and after that shopping?”
I gave him a hug; he was so smart sometimes. I opened up the car and sat down. Then back up. Fast. The seat burnt my thighs. The water bottle on the back shelf had drooped. The M&M’s were slime. We cranked open all four windows and stood back.
“Walk to the tavern?” Mark suggested.
“Yep, let’s leave it like this. Oh, and add it to the list that we need the window shades.”
Mark took out his notebook and wrote it on page three of the things we needed. I took my bag and off we walked. It’s a half-mile from one end of town to the other. The sun shone. Tourists passed us and smiled. Kids biked down the road with dogs chasing at full speed.
Life was great but for these facts: My head hurt. My skin burnt. My knees wobbled. My new Nikes pinched my feet. I needed a cold drink, preferably alcoholic.
On either side of the two-lane highway were small old wooden houses made into galleries and stores. A thrift store. Rugs. Art. Art. Art. More art. Cowboy boots. Art. Stone work. Art. And one coffee shop. I craved beer not coffee after our little adventure. We kept on walking.
“How’s the hangover?”
Mark laughed easily. “Not bad actually. I don’t know why I felt so crap. I used drink much more than three glasses of wine in Washington. It must be because I was tired from driving or something. How are you feeling today?”
“Apart from hot and tired? Pretty good. I can’t wait to sit down with the locals and talk to them about living out here. I wonder if anyone knows we’re new here?”
Mark shook his head. “Well, I don’t reckon they’ll take to us that quickly, you know. They don’t know us from Adam, or the rest of the tourists. Hey, isn’t it July the Fourth next weekend? I wonder what they do to celebrate here.”
We crossed the road with two yellow and orange local mutts and followed them up the steps and into the tavern. Yes, the dogs went inside too.