As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks!
JUNE: BACK TO SCHOOL
“In that? You want us to live in that?”
The bus stood in the middle of a circle of Junipers, facing southwest. The tires had sunk into the dirt but still held air, barely. The windows were so dusty and dirty that I couldn’t see much inside, only that there were boxes and furniture by the looks of it. The paint job was, shall we say, of a hippy nature? It was a kid’s idea of a color co-coordinated rainbow, with cartoons of the mountains and sky behind and above us, probably a stoned kid at that. What would my mom think?
I found a picnic bench hidden nearby with flagstones and rocks the size of my head scattered across the ‘yard’. Piles of pallets and empty milk crates lay over to another side. Empty beer bottles hung from branches. It was a mess. I didn’t like it. I was tired after we’d walked the whole landscape for hours looking for the damn thing, only to find it hidden in a small dip in the endless ridges and riverbeds near the driveway’s end. Near our fire-pit, that is. It was not on the far side as the bartender had told Mark. Forty acres are much bigger than you’d imagine, by the way.
I was tired and cranky, or rather potentially cranky if I didn’t get my way, the way back to the kitchen. Mark opened the front door, the passenger door to be technical, and peered inside.
“Phew, it stinks.” He stepped off the steps and pulled me back a few feet. “I’m going in, but if you hear me scream, don’t worry, it’s only the rats. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t go in. Don’t be stupid. I’m hungry. Come eat with me and we can deal with this in the morning, okay?” I whined, I’ll admit it, I whined like a five year old.
“I want to open all the windows, that’s all. Go ahead and I’ll be with you in half an hour at most. I promise.” Mark gave me a kiss and sent me away to eat.
Once back at camp, I pulled out the last of the bread and cheese. I sliced the spring onions and cut the avocados into halves. I poured out more water for us both. I sat on a sandstone boulder shaped like a banana. I ate for ten minutes straight and immediately felt happy again. It was gorgeous here.
We’d created ourselves a home-base in a sweet looking dry river bed, near the only green leafy trees and a couple of wild flowers. Mark had made us an outdoor kitchen area, using the table and chairs from his dad, finding a shaded spot for the cooler and stacking my grandma’s plates and dishes on display across the rocks. He’d put a plank across a couple of branches for the coffee can and kettle. He’d even dug a rather shallow outhouse for in the mornings. I’d have to wait on the dogs, he said, and anything fancier than the pit toilet. One thing at a time, right?
This place, this land of ours was absolutely beyond anything I’d ever imagined. To think we hadn’t even explored the property fully. It was somewhat embarrassing, but oh well, eh? There was so much to do and I didn’t know how.
That first time we’d visited the area, it had snowed so very lightly that the whole world looked fresh and soft, and that was in April. I couldn’t believe it snowed in the desert. Mark and I were visiting New Mexico for my 32nd birthday and we’d heard about this funky artsy town in the hills, and we had to come see for ourselves. We’d parked at the north end of town by the general store and had walked around for an hour or so. It doesn’t take much more than that, however long you look at all the galleries. On the way back to the rental car, I’d spotted the sign: Ocean View Properties.
I’d poked Mark and pointed it out to him. “Well, someone has a sense of humor. Let’s go in, want to?”
The great boyfriend that he is had smiled and opened the door for me. Two hours later, we’d driven up and down the back roads, checking out all the options. We came to one last piece of vacant land. The realtor was about to give up on us, I could tell. After showing us six other places, Doug no longer offered all the gossipy news of each and every home we passed. He drove in silence. I chatted nervously.
We traveled along one winding gently sloping dirt road for miles. On either side, homes were half hidden in the rolling hills and empty valleys. The sun was setting and the sky lit up with such an array of yellows, gold’s, with layers of sienna, burnt ochre and even purple. I was craning my neck out the window to see more when Doug pulled up at a chained driveway. He stopped but left the engine running.
“This is the last property I have for sale,” he’d said, not even bothering to get out the SUV. I flew out and skipped up the dirt path. I stepped around the No Trespassing sign painted on an old truck tire. I did a three hundred and sixty degree once over and decided.
“We’ll take it.”
Mark climbed out at that and looked at me, “are you sure, honey? Shouldn’t we look around at least?”
“Nope, we’ll take it, as it is. How much is it?”
Footsteps suddenly loud in the silence woke me. I squeaked in surprise. Mark washed his hands in the bucket of water and put the cold wet fingertips on my neck with a grin. I squealed in delight this time.
Later on that evening, as Mark smoked and smiled contentedly, I made us a plate of cheese and bread, a collection of all our picnic foods. I sat on one boulder, him on another. Stars and planets peeked out from a slight cloud cover. I sighed and lay back, staring overhead.
“Have you ever seen so many stars?” I asked quietly. I put on a green fleece jacket.
“No, not even when I visited Canada with Mom. It rained where we were in Ontario. This is incredible. I wish I could take a photo of it and send it to her.”
“There’s postcards for that, you know?” Mark passed me the water bottle after taking a swig for himself.
The silence grew. Mark had fallen asleep again. I stumbled across the hundred feet to the campsite and found the flashlight. I picked up the sleeping bags and came back down into the creek bed, the sandy dried up, never seen water in the last century, creek bed. I covered Sleeping Beauty with the bag and sat back. I opened another bottle of wine. The nights were too good to miss.
I planned my new home. A stone house, built like a tower perhaps? We could use the sandstone and flagstone from on the land. Or a yurt, like in the Steppes of Russia, or wherever they came from? I wonder how much they cost. No, a wooden cabin, that would look great. We could also use straw to build, that’s the in-thing these days, to build a good “Green” and sustainable home, we could use straw. Do they grow it in New Mexico? Adobe, of course, that’s a good local building material and we do want to do it right. I’d like us to fit in.
Mark could make the bricks for us. Yeah, I like that idea, Mark’s homemade adobe bricks.
“Rake and shovel?”
“Dustpan and brush?”
“Bleach and a bucket of water?”
“Okay, open the door.”
Mark walked in slowly. He motioned for me to follow. Neither of us spoke for a good five minutes as we took it all in. The bus was indeed a home. Or rather – it had been a home. The first few feet were taken up with an old faded plaid sofa and a small shelf unit. After that, there was a sink, and then a small fridge, a little two-ring gas burner, and even a handful of brightly painted wooden cupboards. I pushed aside some of the boxes and crates and kept on exploring in silence. On the right, a small room opened up into a shower stall and place for a compost toilet. The last ten feet was a bed frame with a moldy mattress. Under the platform there were more cupboards for storage. I was duly impressed.
“Not bad,” I muttered.
Mark came up behind me and put his arms around me. “What do you think? It’s worth fixing up, isn’t it?”
I looked back along the thirty-something feet of this school bus. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. He made it into a real home, didn’t he?”
Mark nodded. He pointed out the woodstove tucked away near where the driver’s seat used to be.
“Central heating,” he laughed. He walked back to the front door. “Ready?”
“Yep.” I straightened my shoulders and stood tall. “Let’s do it. Let’s get this place cleaned up.”
I set to work. I started from the driver’s end of things and Mark worked on the ‘bedroom’, pulling out the mattress through the rather small emergency exit door. I focused on one square foot at a time. I swept up around the wood stove and scraped off the old ashes and sticky rat poop. Scraped. It doesn’t come up easily; it takes muscles to clean up that shit, so to speak. I knelt down on clean newspaper and slowly but surely got rid of each pellet. I filled one trash bag before I even got to the sofa. Under the cushions I found coins, a pipe, some papers, an old Santa Fe Reporter from the Nineties, oh, and a hairbrush. Pete had gray hair apparently. All went into the trash. I brushed the sofa down and washed it with bleach water. Not bad, I’d use it after another such wash or two. The stains had wiped away and the rose color shone more brightly. I sat on it before I remembered it was wet. When I moved the couch away from the walls, I didn’t find the horrendous piles I’d expected. Only a few more newspapers and a six-pack (empty) were lying there. I swept more. I moved down into the kitchen area. I opened the fridge and wished I hadn’t. It stank. I took a moment and tried again.
Mark was whistling to himself at the far end.
Old milk, eggs, some dried up bacon and what I presume was bread all flew into the trash. I fetched the bucket of bleach water and spent a good half hour scrubbing off the mold and leaving the fridge open to air out. I tipped out the drawers without even needing to look first. The cupboards were the same, open, scrape, trash, and then bleach. One by one. Mark started to sing some county ballads. Not a bad voice, I’d not noticed that before. I attacked the cook stove next. The grease had been burnt on so long ago that I got Mark’s pocketknife and simply scraped what I could.
“I think we’ll need to soak this somehow. Any ideas?”
Mark wandered over to see what I was up to. “Hmm, that’s pretty nasty. What do you think about tossing it and getting something new? I don’t think those cost that much.”
“Really? Under a hundred?”
“Yep, more like fifty.”
I grinned in relief. “Want to help me unhook it?”
Mark went and got his new wrench set and we got the damn thing out and into the trash pile. A two-ring burner doesn’t weigh much; it’s an awkward shape in a plastic bag. The stack of full bags was piling up into quite a heap.
“Yep, that sounds good.” He jumped out the back door and I met him under the canopy of trees. We sat quietly in the shade for a moment. I watched my friend lie down on the sandy ground with a huge smile on his face. He closed his eyes for a minute. He laughed softly.
“What would our friends think of this? Funny eh? I can’t imagine James or even Michael getting dirty like we are. They’d wait for us at a motel and order pizza.”
“Yep, they probably would. Although that sounds kind of good right now.”
Mark looked over at me lazily, “really? You’d rather be at a motel than here?”
I shook my head. “No, but the idea of going and getting clean and watching bad TV later this week sure does sound appealing. Can we? Make a date for once this is all done?”
“And go stay in town for a night? Okay, I think we can afford that. You ready for more?” He asked, half propped up on his elbows.
I stood up and reached out my hands and pulled him upright. His shirt was stained with god knows what, and his curly hair stuck out in all directions.
“Time to scrape more shit, my dear?” and he gave me a sweet gentle kiss before grabbing his gloves and the broom. He grinned widely at me as he stepped inside the bus.
I’d never loved him as much.
“Shall we paint it?”
I passed him a beer and nodded. “That’d make it all seem super fresh, wouldn’t it? Yeah, when we’re in town tomorrow let’s pick up some paint and brushes. What colors do you want?”
Mark sipped and looked over at the empty shelves and cupboards. He shrugged. “Since the outside is so crazy looking, can we pick one or two colors for inside and keep it at that? Maybe even just paint the outside a pale gray or green or something?”
The wind picked up and a few clouds were forming in the distance. The sky became ominously dark all of a sudden. I took a sip, ate some chips, and pretended I hadn’t noticed the storm coming in.
“Gold or light yellow with a white trim inside? To make the place seem bigger than it is? It’s only what eight feet wide and thirty feet long. That’s not a big home for two of us, is it?”
He motioned to the valleys and mountains around us. “This is our home. The bus is where we sleep and store our stuff, that’s all. I’d like to set up a better kind of outdoor kitchen. One that really works, you know, not that there’s anything wrong with our temporary one, but make it really nice, you know? A roof and tables and chairs and cupboards and all of it but without any walls. What do you think, Jenny? It wouldn’t be hard to do.”
“Sure, I’d like to sit outside for coffee in the mornings like we did today. That was incredible. The silence was almost disturbing, wasn’t it?”
Mark relaxed for a second before jumping to his feet. “I have something for you. I got it in town the other day. Now where did I put it?” He wandered over to the Subaru and rummaged around in the back seat. He came back with this hands hidden. He told me to close his eyes and put out my hands. I did.
“What is it?”
Scratchy six inches long dried sticks? What the hell? I opened my eyes. “What is it?”
“Sage. A sage stick for you. I was told you light the end with some matches or something, it gets real smoky, and you wave it around to clear bad energy or something. I thought you could do that to the bus for us. Go clean it up with your magical self.”
I looked up at Mark in surprise. “But you don’t believe in that stuff.”
“I know, but you do.”
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