As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks!
SEPTEMBER: TURNING SEVENTY-FIVE
Note to self; don’t drive this road in the monsoons.
I held Frida on my lap as we bumped and flew over the rockiest dirt road around. I hit my head on the roof at least once. This was so much worse than Gringo Gulch and that’s saying something. The sun was setting over the Jemez Mountains, giving a streak of golden amber to the three clouds.
Alaska road took numerous forks left and right, up and down, until we were in the middle of nowhere, looking out over the empty land between the highway and interstate some twenty miles away to the west of us. I tried to spot where we were going but couldn’t see any obvious homes, only a few travel trailers and yurts. I took off my sunglasses and squinted again. The hills rose and fell, the trees lived and died. I kept looking anyway.
“There it is.”
Up ahead and to the left was a two story wood sided cabin, with decks and porches and tons of the colorful Tibetan prayer flags strung from tree to tree. The smoke from a campfire lingered overhead. The gate was open and a longhaired teenager welcomed us, showing the best place to park for an easy escape in the dark. Trucks were parked on every free area between all the trees. The place was packed.
“Just remember there’s a tree stump by the passenger door,” the kid reminded us as we walked towards the house.
Mark held my hand and Frida ran with the big dogs. I carried the food and he had the beer and cigarettes. I heard guitars and a mandolin on the other side of the clearing.
The lighting was magical with the weird way the junipers changed color in the dusk, becoming more orange than green. Christmas lights hung in the pinions.
“Welcome. Welcome. You must be Mark and Jenny. I’d been told you were coming tonight.”
A white-haired gangly man shook our hands, chuckling happily as he talked of our escapade with the cops. He wore a tight white shirt and clean black jeans and shiny cowboy boots. His eyes held me captive; they sparkled with a mischief that made us both beam along. His moustache drooped as an old cowboy’s should, and he towered over me at the grand old height of six foot three or more.
“It’s my seventy-fifth birthday and I throw myself a party every five years. You caught us at a good time my friends. The bands are setting up, the brownies are fresh out of the oven, and the dogs roam free. I take it you brought your little terrier with you?”
“How did you know about Frida?” I blurted in surprise.
He smirked. “Louisa is my sister. She likes you two. And no, she’s not coming out tonight. Well. Let me show you around if you like, and here, try some of this brownie. Let’s see…” He tilted my head so he could look into my eyes. He chuckled again. “Perhaps only a very little taste for you, young lady.”
At the back of his home, he’d built a stage big enough for a five-piece band. Speakers ran off a solar system. A great white parachute was stretched out across posts and beams to give everyone shade. A wind barely moved through the mesa. A campfire flared to the south side, with chairs and benches made out of logs and faded old pieces of lumber surrounding the pit. Everyone was strolling around with happy smiles and half drunk bottles of local brews. The outdoor kitchen faced the view to the west of the Jemez Mountains.
Mark wandered off to look at the stage and to chat to the musician with the double bass. I sat. I felt funny, a little lightheaded. I drank a beer slowly and took it all in.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore.” I whispered to myself.
“Hey Jenny. How’s it going out on the land? Did you get the garden in yet?” Anne, from the café, strode towards me in her usual black jeans and white tee shirt, with her hair loose around her shoulders. She sat down next to me and leaned back, sighing happily.
“This is great, isn’t it? Andrew’s one of the town favorites and puts on the best parties.” She glowed, her eyes were wide, and she munched away on a plate of goodies. “Want some?” She placed tortilla chips, guacamole, salsa, cheese slices, and chunks of French bread between us on the bench. I couldn’t resist. We ate in companionable silence, with her greeting various kids by name as they ran by. The night settled in and I hadn’t moved very far. Only to pee in the outhouse and then I came straight back. Anne and I chatted about the projects we all seem to do, those ongoing projects, and the never-ending list of improvements.
“Some days I wake up and wish we didn’t need to do so much, but I take my coffee outside, sit on the deck and that’s all it takes. I can’t wait to get started after that. Does that feeling ever go away?” I asked.
Anne tied her hair back and stretched out her arms to take in the huge view.
“Not for me it hasn’t. My husband and I built our own home in a year and a half, but since then we’ve added tool sheds and gardens and rain catchment. I count my blessings every day for having such a great home and partner. And it’s a wonderful place to be, isn’t it? Oh, I heard about the bust over at your place. What a laugh, eh?” She rested her water bottle on the ground and lit up a smoke. She passed it to me but I told her I’d given up.
“Really? That makes the story even better.”
I whistled for Frida. She ran over with a buddy, this big lump of a Rottweiler mutt, he slobbered all over my knees before I thought to push him off. Anne drifted over to the band and I followed a few minutes later with both dogs at my heels bumping into me whenever they got too excited. It made for a tricky walk in the dark. I had my headlamp in the backpack wherever that was. I couldn’t remember. Mark wandered up to me and gave me a great big bear hug that made me squeak.
He had a sandwich in hand and guitar in the other. “I just played with those folks, they told me the basic chords and let me play along. Not a bad start to finding gigs here, although I’d been thinking more of a crowded nightclub, but this was great.”
He babbled away, telling what songs they’d played and how he’d been invited to join their band for practice the following week. I didn’t really listen. I was starving again.
“Frida, are you hungry yet?” Her little golden wiry face looked up at me, and she wagged her tail knocking over some toddler. He giggled and stood back up, trying to catch the older kids. “Because I am. Show me where the food is, girl.”
Frida ran off and I left Mark to it. I kept up with my pup but for stopping to say hello to a couple of familiar faces. I caught up with her at the BBQ, just as she stole a pork rib off a plate left on the dirt. I picked up a different plate for myself and wandered closer.
“Howdy. Want some of my famous ribs? Or is a hamburger more your style?”
Graham from the fire department stood over the grill with a light green apron and a spatula in his right hand. He offered me corn on the cob to start with. He had barbeque sauce on his moustache. It was quite the color combination.
“I can’t believe how famished I am, so yes, hmm, a hamburger and some corn would be perfect. And your buns, I’d like to try your buns.”
Graham smirked for a second and waved me to the table behind us. I found salad, tomatoes, onions, and the various squirt bottles of red and white condiments. I took a little of everything and went to find a corner to sit.
“How are you doing out here in the wastelands?”
Graham sat down under the pinion tree, facing the same direction as me. I looked over as I wiped off the mayo from my chin. He was in his navy blue Fire Department shirt with the logo written huge across the shoulders.
“This tastes so good.” I dove back in and munched on the corn, dripping butter down onto the ground between my knees. Frida watched me patiently. Graham waited until I finished eating before asking me anything else. It took a while, I’ll be honest.
“Have you thought about joining the fire department?”
“Nope, not at all. To be honest, I can’t see myself doing anything to do with blood or fires or car wrecks. Mark might be interested, but not me.”
“But there’s so many ways you could help out, not just on scene. And I have to say, it’d be great to have another woman involved.”
“Who else is a volunteer there?”
“Anne, you’ve met her, right? She’s been a medic but is taking a break for a few months.”
“Burnt out with the drama?”
“You could say that.”
He wiped off the dirt from his jeans and looked me in the eyes, trying to gauge something. I had just finished licking my plate clean. Frida hated me right then. She wandered back to the grill. I wanted to join her but it seemed rude to leave Graham. He looked out of place here even though everyone said hello to him as they walked past. He ignored the interruptions, chatting to me about his home on the far side of town, and how he’d built it in eighteen months, brick by brick. The latest projects included gardens and sheds and workshops. The views from up there were amazing, he told me. “You should come up some time.”
“We’d love to. Mark’s all about learning how others do this.”
“Right, well, you can come out whenever you like, with or without your boyfriend. Is it an open relationship by the way?”
I drank some beer and looked around for Mark. Anne came over to us and said hi again. She stood near by, half dancing to the bluegrass music carrying across the clearing. She drank a beer and passed me a sip. Graham sat quietly, listening in as we chatted about the food. Anne gave him a grin and turned to me.
“I see you’ve met my husband. He’s pretty quiet with most women, but I’d told him about those gardening ideas we’d been talking about. Is that what you too were chatting about?”
I looked at Graham, and he smiled sheepishly at me and back to Anne.
“I was trying to get her to join the department,” he admitted, “but she’s not interested.” He stood up and wiped off his jeans again before heading off to man the grill. Anne held out her hand and pulled me upright.
“Are you okay tonight, Jen? You’re kinda quiet today.”
“I am? Oh, I thought…” I drifted off and she laughed out loud.
“Did Andrew give you a brownie when you got here?”
I nodded. She held out her hand and took mine. “Let’s find Mark, shall we?”
I followed her, whining the whole time, “but I’m still hungry.”